Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Motivation

‘Well,’ said Exuperatus,’ I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but we may just pull this one off.’
It had been a whole two weeks since the complication called Vita had arrived, and it looked as though the chase had been abandoned.
‘Of course, the fact that we are potentially facing a full scale assault by the Iceni in the next few days may have distracted the Roman authorities just a little,’ Senodo commented mildly.
‘I was trying not to think about that,’ the smaller man muttered,’ surely they’ll be stopped before they get here? What happened to the mighty Roman army?’
‘It went to Cambria,’ Senodo cleaned a beaker with a damp rag,’ and looking at the faces of the soldiers in the streets here, the main army won’t be back in time, no matter how fast they march.’
‘So we have to put our faith in the idiots that run the city? You’ve completely destroyed my nascent good mood, Senodo.’
‘Sorry, my friend… I’m just trying to be honest about this. A lot of people are pretending that disaster isn’t coming. I disagree. I think we should leave, and leave soon. This rebellion isn’t about pushing the Roman’s out.’
‘Then what is it about?’ Vita, who had brought and empty tray back to the bar, looked at Senodo with some curiosity,’ and how do you know anyway?’
Senodo smiled.
‘I know, little one, because I listen well to our dear customers and their gossip. It is particularly interesting after a few cups of wine. The Iceni king was murdered and his queen and daughters raped. This uprising is not a political thing, it’s about revenge. The motivation will be bloody revenge, pure and simple, and we’re unfortunately in the way.’
‘Londinium…’ Exuperatus started.
‘Will be burning now,’ Senodo said sadly,’ The Governor is an experienced general so I hear – but those he has left behind, well, I don’t hear confidence in our customers voices, and I think they continue to underestimate what they are facing. I know what it is like when you are possessed by the spirit of vengeance. That anger burns bright and will torch everything in its path until it is completely extinguished.’
The other two looked at him in some surprise at the intensity.
‘I never asked you why you shared my hatred of the Roman authorities,’ Exuperatus said quietly.
‘No,’ Senodo sighed, ‘and I did not ask you about why you are so cagey with them either. That’s been fine up to now I guess. But if I am going to die I might as well get it off my chest.’
Senodo sat down heavily and put his head in his hands for a moment, collecting his thoughts. After a minute he raised his head
‘I was a carpenter and farmer. That was until I came home from the fields one day to find my wife and child abused and murdered. It was done by three legionnaires having a little fun in their rest period. My daughter was twelve.’
Vita looked away.
‘What did you do?’ Exuperatus asked.
‘I killed them, of course,’ Senodo said simply,’ the red mist came down and Nemesis took control of me. That’s how I know how the Iceni queen feels. I’ve been there too.’
‘Did you run?’ Vita asked, finally
‘No. I sat down with my bloodied sword and waited for them to come and arrest me. But after a day, no one came. Maybe the cohort was wiped out by the Gaul rebels; maybe everyone was just glad these particular men had vanished. But eventually I realised that for some reason the gods wanted me to live. So I buried my family and walked to the coast in search of passage out of Gaul.’
‘And it was in the port where we met… Yes, I remember,’ Exuperatus laughed lightly, as if that would help the mood,’ I believe that I would have come off worse in that fight if you had not broke it up.’
‘I wanted a quiet drink, my friend, and your argument over the gaming table was disturbing that.’
‘I wasn’t cheating you know,’ Exuperatus protested.
Both Vita and Senodo gave the older man looks that were steeped in cynicism.
‘I’m scared now,’ said Vita.
‘Good. You should be. It makes you run faster.’

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I’ll be there for you, probably…

Last week we went to see the current West End production of “Merrily we roll along” at the Harold Pinter theatre in London, and very good it was too (catch it if you can).
We even had the amusement of seeing a completely dolled up Dame Barbara Windsor in the foyer surrounded by a rabble of hangers on – surprisingly perhaps, mostly young women. We carefully walked by. By all accounts she might have played the dreadfully clichéd big busted blonde airhead for most of her career but she is not someone to be taken lightly, and certainly she was projecting the “I’m smiling because I’m the boss here” aura quite markedly.
The show both she and us had come to see is a Sondheim musical that had us talking a lot afterwards both in terms of how good it was – and it is very good, and in a small theatre like this one, also quite an intense experience – but also about the recurring themes in it.
It is quite a small story really about three friends who, at the beginning of the show you see have lost each other; and then the show goes backwards, showing how they got to that point.
As you might expect, there is a sense of melancholy undercutting the whole play, but at the same time it is fascinating to see that what finally happens is inevitable due to the attitudes, dreams and ambitions of all three of the main characters, and that no one person is to blame.
For me, one of the themes about this piece is friendship and what that means – and how it goes wrong. Usually there is a lot of fluff around about friendship, and it feels to me that it is often portrayed as the safe relationship zone. Your family you are stuck with, you choose your friends. Romantic relationships on the other hand are seen as being the intense emotional minefield – but if they go wrong, well, at least you still have you friends don’t you?
But I think this denigrates the importance of friendships and how hard they are to maintain. No matter how close we are to another person, we still have to remember they are a different individual with a different set of ambitions, dreams and values. They are on a different journey from us even if we can walk with them on the journey for stretches. In “Merrily” the issue is that the three friends are unable to recognise that.
One recurring concept is that of “growing up” – but when characters do “grow up” they of course change. Suddenly, the others don’t want that anymore, they want to be back “the way it was”. But the reality is that it can never be like that again. I was reminded again of that watching The Great Gatsby at the cinema this week – the attempt to recapture the past is doomed to failure.
I had a whale of a time at University and I have great friends forged in that time, but it will always be different now, twenty or so years later. We are all so different. When you go back to reunions, some people you thought were friends will blank you, others you hardly spoke too suddenly have a lot more in common and are more on the wavelength you are on now, at this different point in your life.
Only the friends you’ve seen on a regular basis seem similar but you’ve changed with them (rather than there have been no changes).
You have to grow up and change with your friendships, grow together or accept that you will grow apart.
In the play, fractures appear, widen and then shatter the relationship, and for two of them at least, in a way that has made them terribly unhappy. It happens a lot in real life too and of course it’s also a major factor in divorce. But my point is that it applies to friendships as well as between lovers.
So I feel the need to examine those friendships that matter most to me. There are some people who I would be left totally bereft if they were not in my life in some capacity or other. Have I been irritated or upset recently by something they have done/not done? Instead of letting that feeling persist, can I see if that is because, fundamentally, something has changed for them in their lives?
If so, I then need to think about how I relate to that, because actually there might be an exciting springboard there to another “good time” in that relationship rather than a widening crack.
And you know what – it is harder than it sounds. Think about it. If you struggle with the answer, phone a friend.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Miletus

The Chief Magistrate was not happy. The young man in front of him, however, was making no move to appease him.
‘You were wrong to try and impose your will on an investigator, Gaius, they are proud people. Useful in their ways… And everyone has a use,’ Miletus ran a perfectly manicured hand through his raven black hair and put on an entirely charming smile.
Gaius had to admit to himself that he hated the man. Hated his habits, hated that someone of only twenty five already had so much power when he himself had been made to work for forty years to get to where he was now, and hated he fact that he couldn’t touch him for what he knew were illegal dealings. Just because he had high ranking relatives, damn him.
‘Do you mean like young girls, Miletus? Do they have their uses?’ Gaius spat, knowing as he did so that he’d lost this discussion going for the cheap shot.
Worse, Miletus knew it too.
‘My sexual interested are my own. As are my business dealings,’ Miletus grinned,’ and you’re so one track Gaius, that’s your problem. People have multiple skills, my friend, and so they also can have multiple uses. You need to think flexibly.’
Miletus got off the garden bench and pretended to look at a flower hanging off the arbour that shaded them. He reached out and gratuitously snapped it off, held it to his noise briefly and the dropped it onto the cobbled garden walkway.
‘I want the girl found alive, Gaius. She is of no use to me – in any way – dead. Is that clear? Or there will be consequences.’
Miletus stepped on the flower and rubbed it into the ground with his sandal.
‘It is all becoming increasing clear,’ said a new voice.
Aquila stepped from where he had been concealed behind a pillar and tried not to smile at the effect of his entrance. Both magistrates looked as though Medusa herself had come upon them with their faces frozen forever in mixture of surprise and nascent outrage.
‘How dare you…’ Spluttered Gaius eventually,’ what gives you the right to eavesdrop on a private conversation?’
‘Gaius calm yourself,’ said Miletus quickly, recovering his composure,’ our friend here dares because it is his job to investigate, by any means necessary. Is that not so?’
Aquila inclined his head, but said nothing. He kept his expression deliberately neutral. He ignored the chief magistrate and concentrated on Miletus.
Miletus looked back with similar interest and open curiosity.
‘You’re supposed to be looking for the damn girl, ‘Gaius said finally,’ do you expect to find her here?’
‘I suspect he was looking for me, Gaius. I am sure he would like me to, let us see, how would you say it?’ Miletus proffered a questioning hand at the Investigator.
‘Help me with my enquiries?’ Aquila proposed.
‘Quite. What would you like to know, Investigator?’
‘Where did you acquire the girl?’
Miletus looked puzzled for a moment. That had not been the question he had expected.
‘I didn’t really. She was a bonus, you might say. I acquired her mother on a visit north. A gift, although not a great one considering she promptly died on me.’
‘And the child Vita, she became a target of you affections?’
‘Ah, subtly put,’ Miletus smiled,’ yes, Investigator, I was good to her, looked after her…’
‘Groomed her,’ Aquila said in a level voice.
‘If you like,’ Miletus’ smile faded,’ look Investigator. My interests in that area are not against the law. I looked after the girl and she betrayed me. You are supposed to uphold the laws of the Empire, no? You know that if one runaway slave is shown a lenient hand then others will think they too can disrespect us. That is not acceptable. She is my property and I want her back.’
‘And that is all she is? We have all this fuss just to uphold the rule of law? ’
‘Is there anything more important?’ Miletus said quietly.
Aquila kept his face set and said nothing.
The man was too calm and too in control and was definitely hiding something. Maybe if Castor could get his hands on the girl she would turn out to be more helpful. Or at least prove a tool to smoke Miletus out of the well constructed dark hole he was lurking in.
‘Good day,’ Aquila said,’ I am sure we will have more to talk about later.’
The Investigator did not wait for a reply but instead walked briskly out of the garden.
Castor was waiting for him outside. His face was grim.
‘You were almost right about the Iceni, sir,’ he said simply,’ except it is far, far worse.’

Rude Awakenings

When I was eight or nine I remember a ghost coming to see me as I was lying in bed. It had a great booming voice and it whisked me out of bed on a terrifying aerial journey. It was a bit like in the Snowman but not as nice and without the involvement of choir boys warbling in the background. Then the ghost dumped me back in the bed, and I remember sitting up straight sweating. I may or may not have been wailing, I cannot remember now.
Of course there was no ghost and it was all in my unconscious imagination. But it was particularly intense and stressful because what was happening to me was a case of sleep paralysis something which I suffer from occasionally. The ghost flight is the earliest time I remember it happening.
If you watch a dog or cat sleeping you can often see the muscles twitching away but the animal doesn’t move. We are the same. When we dream it would not be good if we tried to act out our dreams so effectively the muscle actions are overridden and we are largely paralysed. Normally we do not notice, but for some people like me every so often it goes a bit wrong.
Basically we start waking up and we are still paralysed. It is only for a tiny period of time, but enough to cause us to panic. For me this always takes the form of some kind of nightmare. In particular a nightmare where there is a feeling of oppression, of someone or something leaning over me or approaching me. Of course I am unable to move/push it away/get away and that adds to the fear and panic. When I wake up I am perfectly fine – a bit stressed maybe! – But those few moments are some of the most unpleasant I have had to go through.
I remember reading about this some years ago and one of the theories for people who believed they had been abducted by aliens – and then returned to their beds – was that this was a way of explaining cases of sleep paralysis. I can certainly vouch that the combination of the physical feeling and your imagination can conjure such a scenario quite easily. Also, apparently it can happen regularly or maybe only once in a lifetime so the latter case could well feel more of an event. Considering I had two incidences in the same night recently I must be very popular among abducting aliens.
Actually the last time I was trying to fight off a homicidal stuffed fox in my dream so maybe my Close Encounters of the Third Kind days are behind me. Maybe raving about the Natural History Museum at Tring last week had caused some unwanted connections in my subconscious.
Still, it could be worse. I would rather have this than sleep walk for instance.
My lovely wife – who is incredibly supportive of me when this happens of course – has noted to me that sometimes I try and climb into the wardrobe in the middle of the night before realising that while it may be an entrance into Narnia, it is not the bathroom. But that is the effect of alcohol, unfamiliar surroundings and being half asleep, rather than fully asleep. That I would struggle with I think, unless somehow it could be put to good use – I hate ironing so maybe that could be the nocturnal activity.
Would that make them night shirts?

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Fatherhood

‘I’m starting to think that we’ll never get that reward, Calgacus,’ Antonius moaned.
Calgacus just grunted and slapped lime mortar on the previous brick course.
‘I mean, it’s been several days now. Little bitch is probably dead.’
‘Probably,’ said Calgacus,’ yes, she’s probably dead, so no reward for us or anyone else. So we can stop talking about it and get on with the work that we are being paid for.’
‘You’re in a mood today. Got turned down by the Vicus trash again?’
Calgacus thought for a moment. Antonius was an idiot and a gossip. And that was possibly just what he needed to spread lies indiscriminately around the town.
‘Antonius,’ he sighed,’ can I let you in on a secret?’
‘Of course, you know I won’t say a thing to anyone.’
Calgacus wondered if the other man really believed that was true. Probably he did. We cannot often see our own faults, Calgacus reflected before taking a deliberately dramatic deep breath.
‘I have just found out I have a son.’
‘What!’ Antonius’ eyes were wide. Calgacus had to make an effort not to laugh.
‘Yes, it’s true. Some prostitute I went with… Years ago when I was a boy… Seems she got pregnant and hid the child from me. Well, then she found out that she’d caught something and was dying of it, so she was desperate to find someone to look after the kid – he’s only about nine, you see.’
‘And?’
‘Well, she found me!’ Calgacus exclaimed,’ my bad luck again. Then she promptly fell into Hades.’
‘So what are you going to do,’ Antonius said, half checking the plans for the next wall, but clearly more interested in the unfolding domestic drama.
‘What can I do? I have to look after the kid.’
‘That’s awful. What’s he like?’
‘Oh, he’s OK. Nice lad, a bit, a bit…’ Calgacus suppressed a grin,’ a bit of a girl, if you see what I mean. Not very manly…’
‘Yeah, they often are at that age,’ Antonius laughed,’ he’ll grow out of it.’
‘Um, maybe…’
‘So where is he?’
‘Working – found a job for him at the Disconsolate Hyena.’
‘That’s the Gaul place, down near the North Gate?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Good sausages, I hear.’
‘Apparently,’ said Calgacus. His fish was hooked.
‘Well, um, congratulations, I guess,’ Antonius said after a few moments hard thinking.
‘For?’
‘Well, for being a dad and all that,’ Antonius replied,’ Mariana and I have been trying for years for one, and you get a little boy fully formed from nowhere. I guess the gods must like you for some reason.’
Calgacus suddenly felt terribly guilty for reasons he did not quite understand.
‘Thank you Antonius.’
‘No problem.’
There was a difficult silence.
‘Is it just me, or are there a lot of soldiers about today?’ Calgacus said, really for a way of changing the subject. Although the more he looked the more it was clear that there were indeed a lot more legionnaires running around, and most of them looked stressed.
‘No, you’re right. Maybe they are having an exercise this week.’
‘Maybe,’ Calgacus said doubtfully.
‘Well, we can always ask… Look, that’s Sextus just there, I run into him at the theatre sometimes, decent enough bloke, for someone from Hispania. Sextus!’
Antonius left his charts and ran over to the soldier who smiled in recognition, but only briefly. A short conversation ensued which ended with Sextus running off towards the Forum.
Antonius walked back slowly, a grim look on his face.
‘Not good news my friend,’ Antonius said,’ you’d better look to that young boy of yours.’
‘Why?’
‘A rebellion is started. The Iceni have burned Camulodunum. Killed pretty much everyone, and now they are apparently marching on Londinium.’
‘And if they aren’t stopped there…’ Calgacus felt himself cold.
Hiding Vita was suddenly exposed as the small game it was in comparison to this calamity.
‘Then we’re next,’ moaned Antonius.

Stuffed with interesting things. In Tring.

I confess that I am an addicted to Springwatch.
I only knew this on Sunday evening, as we had been catching up with the instalments we recorded during the week in an intensive festival of baby bird drama. Now, I know that I could watch the cameras online, but it is not the same without the quirky commentary, especially from Chris Packham who is delightfully weird. Now there is a man enjoying his job.
But we were left bereft. I guess part of it is my largely latent zoologist tendencies, which were further reconnected by a weekend visit to the marvellous Natural History Museum outpost at Tring (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/tring/ ).
It is an amazing place, always full of small children gasping at the size of a stuffed polar bear. I have been many times now and still find what is basically a massive collection of largely Victorian stuffed animals fascinating – not at all what you would expect. But the fact is that there are some aspects that make this collection unique.
First there is the odd stuff, the rare things. The extinct animals like the passenger pigeon and a personal favourite (can you have a favourite extinct animal? I guess so) the Thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger)… the oddities such as some rare crossbreed animals and then the famous ones – you have to pay your respects to Mick The Miller, who for a stuffed champion Greyhound is not looking as, ahem, dog eared as some of his compatriots. Does anyone else remember him turning up in gloriously static form on “They Think It’s All Over” in the Feel the Sportsman round (and amazingly David Gower guessing his identity correctly)? Oh dear, it is just me again.
Anyway, you can’t mock a dog that won as many races as he did in his short career.
With my zoologist hat on however, the real joy of this collection is scale. Not only getting close to some massive creatures – I am very happy the collection’s polar bear is very dead. But being able to get close means you can see just how big a fully grown tiger is; or how small a hummingbird can be, which I don’t believe you can when you see it on screen, no matter how good the BBC are at bring Nature’s wonders into the living room.
Also, they have nicely grouped the displays so creatures from the same group are displayed close together. So you can compare the size of an adult lion and its various big feline relatives in a way you never could in a life situation. One of the best cases has the various British birds of prey. A lot of people see buzzards and are impressed by their size (and sometimes in an over excited moment think they are seeing an eagle) but once you have seen a buzzard next a golden eagle, as you can in Tring, you realise that you would know if you had really seen an eagle – the golden eagle is about four times bigger and frankly, very scary. There are times you are glad you are not a rabbit.
But I cannot talk about getting enthusiastic. When you look out in the garden and see a bird of prey – exciting enough – you would rather it was a Goshawk or maybe a Merlin rather than a Sparrow hawk. Chances are it is really a pigeon. But there is also a lot of amusement to be gotten out of pigeons, especially as the attempt to try and get food off our birdfeeder in increasingly desperate ways.
On the train down from St Albans today I swore I saw an egret at the side of the rails just outside West Hampstead. Of course, on a second glance, it was just a white plastic bag caught on some long grass and fluttering in the wind.
Maybe I should not watch next week? Not a chance. I’m happy to see any number of false alarms or disappointments because if you keep your eyes open long enough sooner or later I’ll look out the window and the waxwings will be occupying our apple tree.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Reports

‘So Castor – what have you got for me?’
It was morning, and the sun was bright.
Aquila blinked at that brightness in some annoyance. He had not slept well. He had drunk too much wine and had dream constantly, mostly of Roman blood flowing, war chariots and too much screaming.
But, apart from that, he felt quite cheerful for reasons he was not really clear on.
‘Nothing specifically on the girl, yet sir,’ Castor admitted,’ some interesting people who might be worth more investigation, but my contacts here have drawn a blank. She’s either dead, or good at hiding – and in the latter case she is probably being helped.’
Aquila looked thoughtful.
‘First, concentrate on the girl. She is all that matters. I appreciate that there may be other people with things to hide here, but we don’t have the time. So – if something you uncover is not directly relevant or a threat to the Empire, just leave it – for now at least.’
Castor nodded, although he was clearly unhappy at the restriction.
‘Second. I really would like now to have the girl alive. What little I was able to glean seems to suggest there is something in her former master’s deals that might be outside Roman law. It could be minor corruption – Jupiter knows, that’s rife – but it could be something more. If she knows anything, I want to know it too.’
‘I understood… Do you want me to sniff around this Miletus and his household?’
‘Yes. Try and do it discretely, of course, but find out what you can.’
Castor smiled. This was more like it. And he would keep his own investigations running whatever the Boss said. There were such things as bounties to claim for those fleeing Roman justice, and he could smell fugitives were lurking in this place.
He just had to work out where they were. Those two Gauls would be a place to start, and those sausages had actually been rather good.
‘And thirdly… Send for news to Camulodunum. I want the latest update on what is going on. I want to know if there is any change at all in the situation. I like to see fear or respect in the eyes of tribal leaders, and I saw only hatred and cunning in the Iceni.’
‘And if there is a change for the worse?’
‘Then we tell the Magistrate the girl is dead and pay someone to testify, because we’ll have far more important things to worry about.’
Castor looked at his Boss in amazement.
‘Really sir..? That’s not at all like you. You must be very worried.’
‘I am. Very worried indeed… Castor, I advise you to keep your bag packed and ready. I want to be able to move quickly. I feel a storm coming and I if I cannot stop it, well, I don’t want to be caught up in it.’
Castor nodded.
‘I understand. Anything else you want me to do?’
Aquila picked up his own Gladius and hefted the short sword. It had been a while since he had used it in action. But he could remember how and the weight was reassuring in his hand.
‘Keep your sword sharp and handy, Castor. Keep it close to you. You may need it.’
‘I’m a knife man, myself, ‘Castor replied looking fixedly at the weapon,’ but I do see your point.’