Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Calgacus

Calgacus sat at the table in the corner and looked at the girl. The girl sat on the other side of the table and looked at him. There was a gentle silence. Calgacus gave in first.
‘Why me?’ he asked Vita.
The Taverna was now closed for the night. Exuperatus had gone out on an errand. Every so often the noise of Senodo falling over something echoed up from the cellar behind the bar, followed by a muffled exclamation that could have been either swearing, or possibly an apology.
‘I don’t know,’ Vita admitted as she quickly inspected the state of the floor,’ I just knew I was not going to outrun the soldiers and needed somewhere to hide. And you’re not a Roman. You just have a face I thought I could trust.’
‘Which I find odd as I’m a local here, Catuvellauni blood for generations – and you’re clearly not, little one. Do you know where your mother hailed from? From the North perhaps, considering that distinctive eyes and hair combination.’
Vita ran her fingers through her short hair. Calgacus realised then she was still upset at its loss.
‘Sorry Vita, I didn’t think.’
‘That’s alright. I need to get over it anyway. Mother, I think, was one of the Brigantes. She followed a soldier down from the Northern Frontier. He would have been my father, probably.’
‘You aren’t curious?’
‘No. I don’t really miss my mother either. Sorry to shock you, but I was a complication she could have done without as well and told me so frequently,’ the girl paused, ’that seems to be all I am. An annoying complication in people’s lives…’
Calgacus looked at the girl and didn’t know what to say. Maybe honesty was the best policy even if it made him uncomfortable.
‘I don’t mind you complicating my life, Vita.’
The girl looked up.
‘You’re just saying that.’
‘No. I mean it,’ now it was out he laughed in relief,’ I’ve led the most boring existence you can imagine. I get up, I do simple heavy work building the Empire, I eat, I drink too much and I go to the toilet. That’s about it.’
‘You don’t have a wife?’
Calgacus shook his head.
‘Never met anyone who didn’t drive me mad after a few hours, and if I’m going to let someone run my life they had better be something special. I’ve spent time with the Vicus girls of course, who hasn’t, but…’ He blushed as he realised what he was saying to a young girl. Vita just laughed.
‘I’m the least innocent person here, Cal. I do know what happens between men and women.’
‘Sorry. Anyway, I don’t see myself marrying. I like to make my own decisions.’
‘Then you don’t want me complicating things. I’m a woman. Well, under this boy’s tunic.’
Vita jokingly looked down her front to emphasise the point.
Calgacus laughed.
‘Not yet you’re not. Maybe I’ll put up with you for a while and finally turn you out when you can’t hide as a boy anymore because you actually are a woman. Do we have a deal?’
Vita got off the stool and solemnly kissed Calgacus on the cheek.
‘That’s says we have a deal,’ she added.
Calgacus kissed her back, also on the cheek. It seemed the right thing to do.
‘And now you need to go home and get some rest,’ said Vita,’ you’ve had enough wine for tonight.’
Calgacus looked at her perfectly serious face and realised that he was not going to be able to argue with her.
He had a nagging feeling that something had just changed beyond his control. But tonight at least he would stay in denial.


Don’t stop moving

I enjoyed seeing the ruins of Old Gorhambury House ( in the snow on Sunday.
I was (as usual) thrilled to see the red kite swooping low over the Hemel Hempstead road and was pleasantly surprised by the wheatears I saw in the hedgerows, that’s not a normal St Alban’s bird watching highlight for me.
I was even fairly pleased to find out that the Donna Summer song “On the Radio” is actually a happy song of lost love re-found thanks to the titular entertainment device and not a song of publicly aired despair. Amazing what you learn by listening more closely to the lyrics on my generic mp3 playing device in order to try and block out the pain.
I could definitely have done without the twenty miles slog through circling snow and freezing winds that caused it in the first place.
I hate long training runs. It is not the actual physical horror of them, although that is bad enough. It is a combination of the physical effort and the psychological blow of knowing you have so far still to go – with no one to cheer you on or share the load with.
Until I started this marathon training programme I think I had not fully understood what people meant when they talked about the loneliness of the long distance runner. In April, during the London Marathon itself the physical challenge will be much the same but there will be thousands of other people going through the same thing at the same time. Many of them will be worse off than I will be.
There will be people lining the streets shouting my name (as they are now handily printed on the number – probably more to help stop people running under another person’s number really but spectators do read them and call out which is rather sweet). There will be nice people to hand out drinks and energy gels. At the end, there will be medals and stuff and cheering and a feeling of achievement.
On Sunday however, I just felt rubbish as I jogged along painfully those last five miles way. In the end I was just relieved to get home without an apparent injury and felt very little in the way of achievement.
All I could think of is that I have to do that again next week, except adding a bit more, and trying to do it a bit quicker.
I wouldn’t be so bad if people walking the streets of St Albans knew you were on a big boring run. Instead they just see you puffing along and think you’ve just come around the corner and should be heading straight for casualty looking like that.
I’m so glad I don’t have to do this for a living or regularly train for this distance. There is definitely some kind of sport mentality that comes with the very strongest proponents of some sports. Imagination seems to be a drawback to effective training, or at least what would be good is to be able to switch it off so you don’t imagine the rest of your route stretching endlessly out before you.
I remember friends at school on the rugby field who seemed to be able to switch off the higher centres of their brains and not worry about the pain as they charged headlong into a ruck or maul. By the time I had puffed up to the action – my teenage condition being heavily overweight and under exercised – all my brain was doing was to scream at the rest of me “keep away, you’ll get hurt!”
You can probably guess I wasn’t really very good at rugby. It was fun until I was thirteen as I grew early and so towered over most of my peers allowing me to literally trundle over them on the field. Unfortunately a couple of years later and they caught up with me. It all became a little too serious at that point. I once made it to the heights of reserve for the second team (they were desperate). Thank goodness I never got on the field, they would have eaten me alive (this being against Ampleforth College, possible literally).
So the serious point for me now is that with the running I am worried me that I have the same reluctance to push myself to the limit. It is too easy for me to run within my ability and that is never quite satisfying. I keep doing though because in this I’m a coward.
I’m going to have to tackle that in the next month if I want to make a good show on April 21st.

If you want to encourage me:

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Senodo

Senodo wiped the bar once more and admired the grain of the wood.
He had made the bar and all the rest of the furniture here with his own hands. It was a something he still wished he was using day in day out. Helping run the bar was fun at times, but lacked the creative satisfaction of seeing raw wood transformed into something useful and beautiful.
It was a legacy of a former and a simpler life that he missed badly. Senodo sighed. Just as he still missed Messalina. No amount of time could heal that wound.
‘You look sad,’ Vita said as she placed a tray on the counter. Both the jug and serving dish were empty
’We’ve an order for same again – for the two poets over there – although how they can afford it is beyond me.’
Senodo picked up the jug and filled it from the amphora he had just opened. He took a swig from the jug just to check it was still barely acceptable and put it back down. It was a bit rough but the boys drinking it had no idea what to look for and probably didn’t care providing it got them drunk.
‘They’re just kids from rich families,’ Senodo looked across at the giggling louts with something that might have approached sympathy,’ they’re not even real Romans, just locals that have embraced the life,’ he handed the tray over,’ Parents probably own some villa out there with a few head of cattle or sheep; they’ve sent their kids here to get them out of their hair and learn the “Roman Way”. So they come here and drink, and carouse and supposedly compose poetry.’
‘Sounds alright to me,’ said Vita, ‘at least better than being a slave.’
‘I call it mind numbing boredom. Why do you think they come here first thing in the morning and stay for several jugs? They’ve nothing else to do. They are not really enjoying themselves, they are just wasting time. They should learn a trade really, like I did.’
Vita shrugged. The poet’s life still sounded a good deal to her.
‘We’re out of sausages by the way, until Exuperatus gets back from the market,’ Senodo warned.
The girl nodded and took the wine over to the poets.
On the way back they slapped her bottom playfully. Senodo grimaced at the sight.
‘Would you like me to throw them out?’ he asked Vita.
‘No, it is fine, I’ve had worse. I’m just amused that they presumably think I’m a boy. They must be more than just friends, those two.’
Senodo laughed.
‘Well spotted.’
‘Why did you come to Britannia? You’re from Gaul, aren’t you?’
Senodo’s smile faded.
‘You ask a lot of questions, Vita… Vitus – I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Let’s just say you’re not the only person who is running away from things.’
Vita nodded and put her small hand on the big man’s ruddy fist and patted it gently. She said nothing though. She went back to serving.
The next time the poets made a pass at the “serving boy” Senodo threw them out.
‘They act like they’re Romans,’ he explained to her, ’and that they have become civilised and educated. But we’re still the same savages just under the veneer.’
Senodo patted her on the head affectionately, but his face was grim.
‘You see, it just takes them to get drunk or angry and all the lust and violence comes out. The Empire is fragile façade, girl. We might all be wearing nice tunics and togas now but we’re still only a moment away from picking up our swords again.’
Vita looked at the look in Senodo’s eyes and shivered.
‘Do you have a sword?’
‘I did once. I threw it away though,’ Senodo said, his face set and unreadable,’ too many bad memories.’

Oh no, not… The Machine!

I spent a substantial part of last Friday attached to a machine as it whirred and vibrated angrily at me. Out of my own choice I have to say. I have become to be a platelet donor and I now have an awful lot more sympathy for those that have to go through dialysis as it is much the same type of machine.
Platelets are what your blood needs to clot, and there are plenty of people that low platelet counts due to inherent or developed conditions. They are in serious danger from excessive bleeding. You can get platelets from donated blood but it is more efficient to take them directly from a donor. I was told that another key reason for taking them directly is so the eventual recipient is exposed to fluid from one other individual rather than several, as in the case of platelets from donated blood.
I’ve given blood since university and kept it up because I found out that my blood – I’m a universal donor, O Negative – tended to go for emergency cases and babies. So I was unsure about giving that up when they asked me to be tested to see if I was suitable. You cannot do both blood donation and platelets. Well, I was tested. Apparently my platelet level is high enough and I have “adequate” veins. The last bit might seem odd but you need to have veins that are easy to find and big enough to allow the machine to suck blood out and put most of it back in on a cycle.
So I braved Luton to go and be attached to a machine for an hour and a half. The needle goes in and the blood goes out and is centrifuged to remove the platelets that collect in a bag. The rest of your blood is mixed with an anticoagulant and pumped back in. And repeat. If the pressure goes too low the machine buzzes angrily at you to get pumping with whatever soft item you have in your hand to get the pressure back up.
The machine itself is delightfully macabre. It seems to have more tubes and holding areas for liquid than what seems absolutely necessary, with blood, clear and yellow liquids flowing through them. For the record a bag of platelets looks a little like a bag of thick orange squash.
Together with the angry buzzing and flashy lights it has a bit of a nightmare quality and I did feel a little as though I was in a late 1970s science fiction movie, something like Demon Seed or Phase IV.
It was not painful – as such – although moving my arm afterwards was excruciating. Having held it still for so long it was determined to protest violently.
So why bother? I mean it hurt and it took hours out of my day.
Well, first the tea was good and the nurses talk to you all the time to stop you getting bored, and I came away with a bag containing sandwiches, two Jacobs Club biscuits and some prawn cocktail crisps.
More seriously, I have been trying to understand if I do this out of duty (read: guilt) or because I actually want to. I think it is a bit of both, but the driving principle for me is this. In the end the cost to me is tiny. A little bit of time and discomfort but not even the light headedness you sometimes get with blood donation. The people who will get the platelets need them to stay alive. I find it difficult to say no to that equation, especially as it seems that in this case I am in a minority in being able to give at all.
I personally see it as my responsibility to make use of this gift, as with any other I might possess (the others are well hidden by the way, but I keep looking). So if my contributions are up to scratch, then I’ll continue to submit to the needle.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Hair

‘There are ways of learning that too,’ commented Exuperatus,’ and quite a lot of boys could do with lessons come to think of it considering the mess they make. But let’s restrict ourselves to one thing at a time, shall we?’
The small man pointed to the cellar.
‘Girl, get down there now. I’ll be with you in moment. You,’ he pointed at Calgacus,’ go buy a boy’s tunic… come to think of it, make that two tunics and a pair of sandals. Simple, hard wearing stuff, cheap as possible.’
Calgacus nodded and then he frowned.
‘Someone might think it odd if I am buying children’s clothes, since they all know I am unmarried.’
Exuperatus cast his eyes to the ceiling as if to berate the Gods.
‘Oh for goodness sake,’ he said, grabbing Calgacus by the shoulders and pushing him towards the door,’ make something up, I always find imaginary nieces and nephews make great excuses. Now go.’
‘And what should I do?’ Senodo asked.
‘Oh – let’s see. How about minding the bar, serving drinks etc? We are still a business, even if it is starting to feel like an orphanage.’
Exuperatus picked up a large knife and turned to go down into the cellar. He called back over his shoulder as he descended.
‘I saw that look, Calgacus. I’m not going to slit her pretty little throat. It is not my style.’
‘He would probably poison her,’ added Senodo helpfully.
Down in the cellar, Exuperatus lit several candles to give himself light to work with.
‘Sit on the stool girl. I need to cut your hair.’
Vita sat on the stool, shaking slightly as the strong thin fingers took hold of a length of blonde tress. She felt the cold edge of the knife against the side of her head.
Then with a swift jerk of the blade a handful of hair fell to the ground. Vita began to cry.
‘You like your hair don’t you?’ Exuperatus said in a quiet voice. The girl nodded, sobbing, as the man continued to cut it away in large handfuls.
‘It is very pretty hair. I’m sorry we have to do this, but it will grow back, prettier than ever, when things have quieted down and we can end the act. You just have to be patient.’
Vita stopped crying. She had not expected sympathy.
‘Do you hate me?’ She asked.
‘Not at all,’ said Exuperatus,’ but you are just a complication in my life I could do without.’
He paused in his cutting and stood back.
‘I’m making a good job of this, you know. It has been a while too.’
‘You have cut hair before?’
‘I’ve done a lot of things, girl, most of which I didn’t want to do.’
Exuperatus put down the knife and knelt down so he was at her level.
‘Let me show you something Vita.’
Exuperatus pulled up his sleeve to reveal a large scar. Vita could make out a letter and a number.
‘My master had this quaint idea of marking his property,’ Exuperatus paused, ’do you now understand a little better my attitude towards you, little Stolen Goods?’
Vita nodded.
‘Excellent. Then we’ll get on famously,’ he got up, ‘you’ll have to be “Boy” or “Vitus” by the way. Get used to answering to those.’
‘Did you poison the man who branded you?’ Vita asked cautiously.
Exuperatus stood up so his face was hidden in the shadows. He turned and climbed out of the cellar.
‘I’ll send Senodo down with some water for you to wash and your new clothes. We’ll burn the rest.’
‘I understand.’
A little later, a boy emerged from the cellar.
Almost immediately he was called over to a table to serve. Laughing, one of the men shouted over  as the boy returned to the bar with the order.
‘That’s a pretty boy you have there, Exuperatus! There’s some I know who that would pay a lot for his services, if you take my meaning.’
Exuperatus looked straight into Vita’s intense blue eyes.
‘He is not for sale,’ said Exuperatus calmly,’ for any price. Would you like some sausages instead?’

Eyes left! And right… And up…

This week while continuing to get my marathon training schedule back on track I’ve been fighting the urge to be intolerant.
Particularly on the roads where my normal manners seem to disintegrate into shouting “you muppet!” at people when they act like total idiots.
Of course… I’m totally oblivious to my own faults, but that’s the marvellous level of hypocrisy that we all seem to possess. (I just though I’d get that issue out of the way before I enter into a full on rant.)
There are some things on the roads that do worry me a little more than people being in the wrong lane or trying to drive up my exhaust pipe.
Zebra crossings for instance… There seems to be some collective amnesia related to that part of the Highway Code which is sweeping Hertfordshire at the moment. Maybe something has changed when I wasn’t looking but drivers are supposed to stop and let pedestrians cross.
Instead I’ve seen and – on training runs even when I have stopped patiently – been on the receiving end of rather too many near misses recently and while pedestrians can make it difficult by dithering at the side of the road, a lot of people seem afflicted by what I’m going to call fixed stare syndrome.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the late Douglas Adams introduces, among many other wonderful things, the Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses. These turn opaque when danger approaches so that you don’t get stressed by your impending doom and therefore develop a relaxed attitude to danger.
Something similar seems to happen to a lot of drivers approaching crossings, or coming up to roundabouts.
The reasoning seems to go like this: If I don’t see the pedestrian or the car that actually has right of way coming on the roundabout, then they don’t exist.
So, to maintain this blissful sense of ignorance I will stare straight out the front of my car as though locked in some kind of neck brace. I’m sure one or two probably are so afflicted, and I hope they get well soon. But on no account must I look left or right, or in my mirrors.
I suspect the majority just have a belief that the (non-existent of course, as we have established due to some kind of Uncertainty Principle) car or pedestrian will actually manage the situation for them allowing Mr or Miss Fixed Stare to blithely float on towards their destination.
It’s utterly terrifying.
I’ve even seen a lady driver nearly hit a police car (I mean a proper police car all bright colours with “POLICE” emblazoned on it) going onto a mini roundabout because she just wasn’t looking; thankfully the police booked her for it.
Maybe she’ll learn from it now before she kills someone.
It is part of a sad trend in that people are driving and walking around with their eyes firmly shut. This is a shame. There are so many wonderful things to see if you just look beyond some fixed point a few feet in front of you.
In older cities at least, looking up is a revelation, seeing past the bright high street facia and signs to see the architecture and features that are often above and that someone took masses of care and attention with.
The natural world is full of interest, again even in towns. My wife and I spotted a kingfisher in our local park recently and stood and watched it in the act of successfully fishing for a magical fifteen minutes, while any number of people walked past, oblivious of the PWM going on for free in front of them.
I suppose they could always go and watch something on Youtube rather than see it unfold uniquely in front of them.
I guess you could say “good for you, shame for them”, but on this at least I am not so selfish. I want to share the experience.
Please, open your eyes next time. You – and the small child on that Zebra crossing – will really appreciate it.
And I’ll try really hard to practice what I preach.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Vita

‘Have they gone?’ Senodo asked from the cellar.
‘Yes,’ said Calgacus,’ you can bring her up now. Thank you.’
‘No, wait,’ cautioned Exuperatus,’ give them a few more minutes. Sometimes they come back in just to see if they can catch people out. I know these authority types.’
‘Come on, you must be kidding,’ laughed Calgacus,’ surely that is only in the plays.’
The legionnaire stuck his head back around the door at that point,
Calgacus spilt his wine over his tunic.
‘Sorry,’ said the soldier, seeing the accident,’ but just one more thing. The owner of the slave is one of the junior magistrates and he’s offering a considerable reward. I just thought you should know that.’
‘Thank you,’ said Exuperatus sweetly as he wiped the rest of the spilt wine off the counter,’ I’m sure we will be right over to collect it the moment we find the little miscreant.’
‘Good to hear. Good day to you both.’
Having first checked that he had really gone this time, Calgacus looked at Exuperatus with new eyes.
‘Don’t ask,’ the smaller man said,’ and do you want some more wine or have you had enough? I know I’ve just about had enough of this disruption.’
Exuperatus turned to the cellar opening,’ Senodo, get the brat up here now.’
The bigger man lifted the little girl out gently. She looked at Exuperatus warily and he glared back. She switched her attention to Calgacus and switched on the winning smile.
‘Your name is Vita?’ Calgacus asked.
‘And you’re a runaway slave. Why?’
‘Mother died three weeks ago so I got sold on. The master bought me because he wanted me to share his bed.’
Calgacus swore.
‘That’s disgusting.’
‘Fairly normal,’ remarked Exuperatus calmly as he cleaned a cup and put it on the shelf next to the bar.
‘But she’s only a child!’
Exuperatus sighed.
‘Do we have to go over this again? She’s his property, Calgacus. He’s a magistrate. He can do what he likes with her, when he likes. For the record, I agree it’s disgusting, but you need to face reality. Either she lives as a fugitive or she goes back and learns to survive, no matter how unpleasant it is,’ the thin man shrugged his bony shoulders,’ If she’s lucky and pleases him enough, she may even earn her freedom when she becomes too old to be of interest to him, say when she’s thirteen or fourteen.’
‘I’m not going back,’ said Vita boldly,’ I’ll die first.’
‘Quite possibly,’ Exuperatus sighed,’ look, we can’t keep her here. Why would we have a girl about the place? This is a men’s drinking establishment. Someone would report it and they’d be on to us in a matter of days, especially if there is a decent reward.’
‘Well I cannot keep her with me. My tent is in the middle of the Vicus. I can’t see any way I could hide her from the other men, and they all know I do not have a daughter.’
Senodo squinted at the Vita and then he began to smile.
‘We can’t have a serving girl here without attracting suspicion, it’s true, but it would not be odd to have a serving boy around the place.’
Exuperatus stopped cleaning and looked thoughtfully at Vita. The girl looked nervously back.
‘I see what you mean. Cut her hair and there is not much difference physically at her age.’
Exuperatus grabbed Vita and pushed his face into hers until his hooked nose was almost touching hers.
‘OK Stolen Goods. Do you think you can play a boy? I am not sticking my neck out for an amateur performer. I see enough bad acting at the theatre.’
Vita seemed to recover her composure. She grinned.
‘Other than the peeing standing up thing, which I may struggle with, I can be the best boy you could ever employ, sir.’