Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Contingency

‘There is something about that man that gave me the creeps,’ said Exuperatus. He popped a piece of sausage in his mouth and chewed furiously, as though it would make him think clearer.
‘The old scholar, the one who like your sausages quite so much?’ Vita asked, ‘I thought he was sweet.’
They sat together in the now empty Taverna.
Senodo said nothing but quietly continued to clean tables. It had been a good night for business. This however meant a lot of clearing up and the big man whistled cheerfully as he did so, to his partner’s stressed annoyance.
‘What you made you think that he was a scholar?’ Exuperatus gave up on chewing and washed the gristle down with some wine,’ to me he looks like that rare thing – an old street rat. The very fact he’s a stranger and looks like the type who should have been dead in a gutter with a knife in his back when he was twenty makes me very suspicious.’
‘His hands are covered with ink stains,’ Vita replied smugly,’ so that means a scholar or a scribe. Maybe like you, he started bad and made good?’
‘That makes me more worried as I know me too well. I don’t want to be looked at by me as he was looking at me.’
Vita just looked confused at that and shrugged.
‘I don’t think he saw through my disguise. I know who he was talking to though.’
‘Yes,’ said Senodo from the other side of the room,’ I know him too, at least by reputation. Cunomoltus, I think his name is. Local trouble maker, thief and thug for hire. ‘
‘Not the kind of person a scholar would obviously spend time with, then,’ Exuperatus said triumphantly, fixing Vita with a glare.
‘Do you think he is the Imperial spy?’ Senodo mused.
‘No. He’s definitely low born and Investigators tend to be aristocracy. But he could be one of his lackeys.’
There was a knock at the door. The two men looked at each other suspiciously as Vita walked over to it.
‘Who is there? We’re closed,’ she said through the keyhole.
‘It’s me, Calgacus,’ was the whispered reply.
Vita opened the door. The young man came in. He then gasped as Vita, having shut the door and locked it again, and hugged him tightly around the middle.
‘Well?’ sighed Exuperatus,’ what do you want?’
‘Escape route,’ said Calgacus simply,’ I’ve got one. But it is not easy.’
‘They rarely are. Well?’
‘The new bath house we are building. The outflow pipes go down through the wall of the city and into the river. That’s my construction area. I’ve left some loose bricks down near to that point under the hypocaust. With a little effort we can push them aside, and crawl out and into the river.’
‘Just as well none of us are scared of small places,’ said Exuperatus.
Senodo had gone quite pale.
Exuperatus saw the reaction and groaned.
‘It’ll be alright,’ said Vita to the big man, ’I’ll help you.’
‘Just so it’s clear,’ Exuperatus said,’ I go first. Sorry old friend, but if I am going to crawl through a dark and hot hypocaust I don’t want you freezing up in front of me.’
‘Hopefully we won’t need to use it at all,’ said Calgacus.
Exuperatus shook his head.
‘We think they are sniffing around us already. We had all better start packing as we’ll have only a few minutes warning – at best – when the soldiers come for us.’


Looking back, over my shoulder

Note: the following is purely my personal view and should not be taken as any kind of official policy or attitude of organisations mentioned…

Right, back at Wrest Park again this week in Blog land, and just wallowing in a bit of nostalgia… Well I’m not, but a lot of people do come to the gardens and allow the memories to flood back.
What I think is different about Wrest Park, compared to a lot of historic sites is that people have been working here for all of the life of the place in some capacity or another and it has never stood empty. After it stopped being a family home at the outbreak of the Second World War it was the wartime HQ for the Sun Insurance Company and then the Silsoe Agricultural Institute. Between former employees of the Insurance firm and the students and staff of the institute a lot of people have lived and worked at Wrest.
So every time I do a stint, I can be pretty sure that someone I will meet will have memories of the place, or have visited many times before. They are often some of the most fun visitors too, both because they often are amazed and delighted at the state of the place now, and also the stories that they have to tell (given half a chance).
Sometimes it is the practical stuff of people who worked or studied here. We had the man who claimed to have put in the boiler that heated the place forty years ago – we could not check if it was still the same one, but according to him the chimney looked the same. There was the former student, who commented how weird it was when he was studying here to be sat at functional institutionalised plastic chairs and tables only to glance up at a gloriously decorated high ceilings and grand portraits high on the walls.
Then there are the childhood memories. Last week we had a man whose father used to be a handyman for John George Murray, the industrialist that owned the house between the wars. Apparently, his father had less happy memories of the place, because he was once badly savaged by one of the three massive dogs that lived in the Lodge house. Not surprisingly, after the initial incident his father never lingered much in that area and would hurry past as soon as the barking began.
More fun though were the couple in the nineties who were on what they called their farewell tour. They’d both lived in the south of England as when younger and they were now were resident in Scotland.
They had hatched on a rather sweet plan of touring all the nostalgic places they remembered from that time while they were still fit enough to do so, and were clearly having a whale of a time. For the lady, Wrest Park was special because when Sun Insurance had been there the caretaker’s family and her family had been friends and they had often come to stay in the house with them.
If you are a volunteer at Wrest you will know that down below there are two parallel tunnels complete with cellar rooms that open off them at intervals. These tunnels run the length of the main house and connect to the service wing, where the kitchens and other utilities were, and have intermittent staircases to allow for the servants to access the main house discretely as needed.
I get a thrill walking through those tunnels every time although now they are clinical and brightly lit. When this lady used to visit, at the age of about twelve, she told me that she and the caretaker’s kids used to have free run of the tunnels and cellars. Typically that meant running round in the pitch black, screaming their little heads off and being simultaneously terrified and delighted in the way that only children can manage to achieve.
Honestly, her eyes were alive at that point. She was delighted to be back and it was clear that all the happy memories were back to for that afternoon. I got to share them, which was something very precious.
I cannot say I’ve run along the tunnels screaming yet, but I cannot help imagine the kids doing that now as I walk among them (and the kids that visit today would pay extra for that privilege I am guessing. OK, get their parents to pay extra. Maybe I should suggest it to the site supervisor…).
Is nostalgia a good thing? I think people have a tendency to attach the concept of “wallowing” to it too much – as though you have to keep looking forward and to look back will result in you turning into a pillar of salt. However I think that nostalgia is just reconnecting with things from our past. It is part of what we are; why shouldn’t we look back and enjoy those memories again?
Then we can smile and get on with making new ones.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Magistrate

Marcus Aquila had sat through the Magistrate’s briefing with a patience he was impressed to find he still possessed.
He hated his dealings with these jumped up provincial officials. It astounded him that they could spend so long talking about something of such little importance.
‘So you see, Miletus – terribly nice chap, good breeding you know – tells me that this little brat tried to steal from him and then made off; well that would be just a normal situation for some of these slaves brought from the North – they’re all barbarians up there you know – but in trying to get at his possessions she may have seen some documents that included, well should we say, some family business dealings. Miletus did not give any details and I’m not going to pry.’
‘Surely she cannot read, this “barbarian” child?’
The Magistrate shifted on the stone bench.
Aquila was not sure if he was uncomfortable about his answer or just lacking in the cushions he normally required.
Sometimes Aquila really missed Castor’s ability to read people. But the old dog was more use to him out sniffing around among the detritus.
‘I don’t think he wants to take the risk. I mean the Governor’s name is apparently mentioned…’
‘And the dealings might be considered, by those of a cruel disposition, to be not entirely legal?’ It’s the old story, Aquila thought. Give men power, and they’ll just line their pockets at the first opportunity.
‘I am sure everything is above board,’ the Magistrate admonished.
‘Oh, I’m sure,’ Marcus said calmly,’ but it is amazing how you can misinterpret the most innocent of phrases if you are so inclined, is that not so, Magistrate? And why is this Miletus not here in person?’
‘He is attending to his duties, like any loyal official,’ the Magistrate said dismissively as though this somehow answered the question adequately, ‘ and so you will find the slave?’
‘Yes. I will find her – if she is still alive of course.’
‘Good,’ said the Magistrate as he got off from the bench, rubbing his backside.
Aquila smiled. Ah, it was cushions rather than conscience then, as he’d suspected.
‘You will give me nightly reports of your progress.’
‘No. I don’t think I will, Magistrate.’
The Magistrate looked at Aquila in the same way you might look at a cooked chicken that was in the process of crawling off the dinner table.
‘Pardon me?’
‘I said no, honoured Magistrate,’ Aquila sighed,’ look, let me be straight with you. I will remind you that I am an Imperial Investigator and I report to the Imperial staff and their appointments. Here in Britannia that means the Governor. I will report to him and to him alone… Not to this Miletus, not to you, and not the idiots commanding the Ninth Legion stationed here. If you want to see me, you can make an appointment to meet me in the Mansio.’
Aquila got up, trying hard not to suppress a feral grin. Finally he was starting to enjoy himself.
‘Goodnight. I must go and rest now, considering the important work I have defending the Empire in the days ahead. And I want to meet this Miletus myself. Make it happen tomorrow.’
He walked out of the Basilica without looking back at the Magistrate.
Mainly this was because Aquila was frightened of bursting into laughter at the man’s expression of open mouthed shock.
He was making enemies here but he didn’t care. If they made things difficult for him he would bring them down. They all had secrets to expose.
Aquila’s nightmares were not filled with the wrath of minor officials wrapped up in their own little games and perversions.
What did worry him were sword wielding natives he saw around every corner, pretending to be Romanised but just waiting for something to help unleash their anger against their still so recent conquerors.
He would send to Colchester for news of the Iceni. As long as Suetonius Paulinus was on the other side of the country with the bulk of the Imperial forces, new cities such as this one were terribly vulnerable.
He just hoped he was wrong about what might be coming. Or at least that he could be out of the province when the disaster finally came.
‘Damn it child,’ he said to himself as he drank one of several cups of wine back at his lodgings,’ give yourself up quickly, for all our sakes!’

Let the children run free?

Note: the following is purely my personal view and should not be taken as any kind of official policy or attitude of organisations mentioned…

Once a month I try and fit into that hectic thing called life a volunteer session at Wrest Park Gardens in Bedfordshire, an English Heritage property. Please visit it sometime if you’re nearby.
Typically for me, on a site that is rightly famous for its gardens – the tulips were magnificent at the weekend – I like being in the mansion, a marvellous confection that looks like an Eighteenth century French chateau but was actually designed and built by Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey between 1834 and 1839. It is largely unfurnished due to the family having sold it in 1917 and spending most of the last century as Silsoe Agricultural Institute who moved out eventually in 2007. Since them EH have progressively been turning the site into one of their most major properties in the South and it looks much the better for it.
I love room guiding, but I appreciate it is something that suits people who like talking and don’t mind repeating yourself constantly and answering all the same questions. “Is it the Earl Grey who invented the tea?” Is my favourite one at the moment (it is not the same – the tea man was former Prime Minister the 2nd Earl Grey, and he lived up in the North east of England. He invented the tea because the hard water up there made the normal stuff taste so dreadful). But it’s a great question and it warms my heart because people are showing interest.
What also can amuse me are some fundamental aspects of human nature that come across a lot. The big one is curiosity. We are an infinitely curious species. If there is a shut door people want to be on the other side. I recognise this in several people I know well to whom a shut door is not enough unless it is actually locked. People always want to know why they cannot go upstairs in the house. In fact there is nothing really to see (bar two examples of wonderful original wallpaper that are so fragile they can only be viewed on monthly tours) as years as a business and then a college means the bedrooms are offices and most features there may have been are long gone, but people still can often react as though you’ve cheated them somehow when you tell them that. In the end we are lucky to have the house at all to enjoy. The fact most of the rooms you can access are unfurnished also gets commented on. I don’t know what the official reason for not trying to reinstate interiors actually is (well, apart from the fact that the gardens are more important nationally than the house so that is where the money goes) but from an entirely personal point of view to fill these huge rooms with knick knacks would (1) cost a fortune (2) detract from the magnificent architecture – and decoration and most importantly for me – stop the kids from being able to run around the rooms like mad things filling them with the far more impressive room contents generated in their imaginations.
That said, the Staircase hall at Wrest is stunning; something that still makes me smile was watching a girl of five or six looking up at the ceiling of the hall, many feet above her and just uttering a simple, quiet, “wow”.
Or another little girl who was over the moon to find that one of the previous owners of the house was, like her, called Jemima (and a fine lady she was too, the 2nd Marchioness Grey was a supporter of the great David Garrick and a lady of letters and must have been quite an unusual lady for her time).
These are the kind of moments that make a 3-4 hour shift fly by.
Like the evocative ruins that decorate out countryside so wonderfully it really is sometimes better to have less than more when you are a child, and it is the children who will hopefully remember the day spent cavorting through grand rooms and running amok through the magic gardens far more than their parents probably will – and hopefully those children will bring their own offspring in time.
It’s a balancing act of course to manage any historic site, but as someone who was a fan of places like this throughout my childhood this is the side of the fence I prefer to land on.
And as I sometimes tell them, I’m not a guard; rather I’m a guide (together with a host of other wonderful, enthusiastic volunteers). I want to tell them the stories I’ve learned, and show them the cleverness of the design so that they can see the place in a different light, and connect with it better. So they can get all nostalgic.
Ah, the nostalgia revellers. Now that’s an entire different class of wonderful visitor at Wrest Park, but a topic for another day.
The house has just closed you see… Yes, you were told it closed at five, sir.
I’m terribly sorry, do come again and next time I’ll show you the drama I believe is played out in the decoration of the Countess’ sitting room… Don’t worry – it has a happy ending…

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Castor

‘So you are sure you have not seen this girl? You are really sure?’ Castor asked the man at the table.
Castor sipped his wine. He had drunk worse. At least the sausages were good at this bar. He could do with some more.
‘Boy, come here.’
A young blonde boy with delicate features came over and stood attentively. He was a pretty boy too. As it happens Castor wasn’t interested in such things and the child was too young anyway, but he had come across plenty who did.
‘More sausages boy, and, yes, more wine I think.’
‘Yes sir,’ said the boy as he took the coin and ran over to large, big nosed man who seemed to be one of the owners. He looks like a Gaul, Castor thought, rather than a local man, which was a little odd. His partner, who busied around the bar like a mother hen and could not seem to stand still for a minute, also had a foreign look for these parts.
Unlike the man sat at the table with him, who had that ingrained stupid look that most of the British tribes seemed to possess.
‘No. Not yet, we are still out looking for her,’ the thug said,’ most of my – well shall we call them associates?’ He leered, ’have been quite enthusiastic considering the side of the reward. But no dice, to my mind she’s either hiding or dead.’
Castor looked at the man in front of him and successfully hid his disdain.
The man was a criminal, a thief and probably a murderer too. But his sort knew the underworld of the city better than anyone, and Castor was sure that if the brat was still alive that would be the pit in which she would be hiding. So it meant dealing with people like this.
People like he had been before he had taken his chance and pulled himself out of the gutter.
‘Well, you can add another ten denarii as a finder’s fee in addition if you make sure that the news gets to me first. Double it if you can bring the girl to me. She doesn’t have to be alive, but you’ll only get the reward for a corpse if you can really prove it is her.’
‘So you do mean you want her alive then?’
Oh, he was not quite as stupid as he looked. Castor had no doubt that this man would happily kill another innocent and try and pass the body off for this level of reward. Or even for much less, he sadly reflected. He just nodded.
‘Do I bring her to the Mansio?’
‘No, but you can contact me there. We’d do the exchange somewhere else. Somewhere like this place for example. I’m sure the owners would take a private booking for a small fee.’
‘You mean Exuperatus and Senodo? Probably, though my sort don’t come here much,’ the man said glancing over at the bar,’ I don’t think they like trouble.’
‘None of us like trouble. Although I thought it came with bar trade. Oh, thank you.’
The boy had returned with the food and drink.
‘Good lad. I don’t suppose you’ve seen the little girl everyone is looking for.’
The boy looked away as though the question had surprised him.
That’s a little strange, Castor thought. Was that just shyness or was there something else?
‘Uh… No sir. I’d be after the reward myself, sir,’ said the boy, still not making eye contact. He scurried away before Castor could ask another question.
‘How long has that boy been working here?’
‘What? Oh that lad. Don’t know really. Not long though. Does it matter?’
Castor shrugged.
‘Probably not… Now, leave me to my wine.’
The man left. Castor stared over at the bar and watched the boy talking to the smaller man. He guessed that was probably the one called Exuperatus. People tended to fit their names, Castor had found, and Senodo fitted the big nosed man much better. Either way the little man seemed to have become quite agitated. He kept glancing over towards where Castor was sitting.
‘Interesting…’ Castor said into his wine,’ I think I will find out a little more about this place and these two Gauls.’
And that boy, he thought. Catch a thief with a thief, catch a child with a child, perhaps?
He downed his wine. It was time to go and meet the Boss at the bath house.
He certainly felt he needed a bath after spending time with the city scum. And no matter how urgent the investigation, there was always time for a nice hot bath.

Good Moaning?

As the wind whistled around our bare knees this Sunday I found little reason to complain. After all, it had been purely my decision to suggest we go for a walk (a good decision) and to go in a T shirt in shorts on the basis there had been blue sky earlier in the day (not so good decision). I cannot help it if sometimes I get a little over enthusiastic. As my wife pointed out legs dry pretty well. The rain had started to come down at that point so this was a positive development.
You can’t really complain. Although a lot of people seem to have nothing but complaints at the moment.
Am I the only person who finds this incredibly wearisome when it is constant? (Rhetorical question, as I heard someone said as much at the weekend and I heartily agree.)
Being able to complain is a privilege, it is a release and something that makes us feel better. But like chocolate, too much just makes me feel a bit sick (I appreciate that some of my closest friends and family would disagree with the analogy, but I’m talking about myself here). Sometimes I feel I should stop moaning and start looking for the positives in things. Not always obvious and sometimes things are so honestly bad it might be impossible for you to see the silver lining, but so many times there is something delightful to be found in the mud. The more I look at things this way, the more I find to take pleasure in and to realise that actually it was good to miss that train, or to be ill on holiday or to be caught in the rain.
Take Sunday. We normally are pretty good at following walk instructions and don’t tend to get lost too much. But on Sunday we managed to go astray twice. The first time we ended up next to a pond, and as we tried to work out where we had gone wrong, a male Mandarin duck (one of our favourite birds) sailed gloriously into sight. A little later, we managed to find ourselves down the wrong path, together with a rather surprised dog fox. Two mistakes, two lovely wildlife moments that we would not have enjoyed if we had not gone wrong. In that context it really is hard to get upset as you retrace your steps.
Back in 2000, I spent some time in Japan and briefly travelled with an ex girlfriend (complicated). She wanted to climb Mount Fuji, although it was out of season (and therefore not really a good idea). But she would not be swayed, I wanted her back, and so we gave it a go. We got almost to the top but lack of preparedness both for the ice and snow and the altitude sickness meant we had to turn back. When we got to the back to the bus stop (halfway up the mountain) everyone had gone home and we were stranded with just a drinks machine for company. Cue a momentary panic.
Then I pulled myself together. I had a map (in Japanese) and it was clear there was a footpath down through the woods to the base of the base of the mountain where people actually lived. We took a risk on what looked like the path on the map and followed it down through the no night time woods. I’ve never been so glad to see a Torii (the gate to a Shinto shrine) as this was the one that marked the shrine at the base of the mountain. We quickly stumbled onto the Japanese equivalent of a Little Chef and with the help of the youngest member of staff (always the best bet for an English speaker) managed to get a taxi to our hotel, bed and a bath. The point of the story is how you look at it afterwards. What could have been a disaster becomes an exciting adventure. I learnt a lot about myself and what found I could be calm in adversity. I learnt that holiday as well that no matter how much you might be attracted to someone they may well be the worst possible thing for you to be with, but that is a lesson some of us have to learn too.
So I’m going to make a conscious effort to see the positives. But I do reserve the right to a little whine and a moan (do quote Lilly Allen) sometimes (I’m only human).

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Solidarity

‘I suppose killing the investigator would not get us very far,’ said Exuperatus seriously, ’ I know bribery normally doesn’t work, but out here, this far from Rome it might be an option. Most of the magistrates take backhanders all the time.’
Senodo shook his head.
‘Not an Imperial Investigator. That’s the whole point, my friend, and they’re picked because of their tenacity and their integrity.’
‘They say everyone has a price,’ Exuperatus protested.
‘Maybe that is so, maybe not. But I am fairly certain that if he can be bought, we cannot afford the price tag.’
Exuperatus sat down heavily with a sigh and looked at Vita.
‘Any bright ideas from you?’ he demanded,’ beyond the act of fortuitously drowning yourself in the river of course? I assume that is not still an option?’
Calgacus looked confused ‘Look I’m sorry. I’m partly responsible for this but did not think hiding her here would threaten you. If the investigator does see through her disguise then surely we can convince him that you were just fooled? That you were innocent of intent?’
‘I’m not worried about being caught hiding her! True, it is against the law to harbour a runaway slave,’ Exuperatus explained,’ but as I have told the girl Senodo and I have, well history, shall we say with Roman law. I don’t want our past being investigated.’
‘Are we talking really serious stuff?’ Calgacus asked.
‘I wasn’t joking when I mentioned killing the Investigator. Does that answer the question?’
‘We would both be put to death,’ Senodo said sadly,’ Exuperatus, we cannot keep running. We have a home here, good reputations, something to defend. It is worth the risk.’
‘I can keep running longer than they can pursue me,’ Exuperatus said,’ just try me.’
‘Friends,’ interrupted Calgacus,’ this is my land here, my people. If things go wrong then I do know places to hide you. The old town to the east where my people used to live before the Romans came, for example… It’s a bunch of ruins but it also has lots of places to hole up for a while. We’d have to move onto somewhere else eventually, but I was resigned to that anyway.’
‘You talk of being effected by all this’ Senodo asked quietly,’ Calgacus, in the end what has this to do with you, really? No one is looking for you. You could just walk away.’
Calgacus nodded towards the girl.
‘I feel our destinies are linked. If she has to leave – I go with her. Anyway, ‘Calgacus tried to laugh,’ this is all assuming a lot. Maybe this man is not as good as his reputation – or at least not as thorough and curious as you fear.’
The other three looked at him with expressions of sympathy.
‘You poor boy,’ Exuperatus said eventually, ‘you really have not lived enough have you yet? Have you not realised that the gods take amusement in making the unlikely happen? That given a chance to drop us mortals into the cess pit, they can hardly contain their glee?’
The other two nodded agreement.
Calgacus sighed.
‘I guess I’d better work out some kind of an escape route – for all of us – then,’ he said.