Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Interlude

‘Senodo, darling,’ the young woman poked her head around the canvas door of the big man’s workshop and brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes,’ have you seen your daughter?’
Senodo looked up from the table leg he was working on with a lathe.
‘No. I thought Arduinna was with you. She is probably playing down by the river. Or she may even be fishing. When we invoked the Huntress at her naming we were more right than perhaps we knew. ’
‘I thought you were going to start teaching her how to carve today,’ Messalina continued, coming over to stand by her husband,’ she was very enthusiastic about it last night.’
Senodo shrugged.
‘I was. But the day is fine and warm. This place is dusty and boring on a day like today. Let her play, I’ll have plenty of time to teach her when it rains.’
‘You don’t think it is strange, my love, do you?’ Messalina laid a hand on her husband’s arm. Senodo stopped his work and kissed her.
‘What is strange?’ He asked.
‘Teaching your twelve year old daughter to work wood… After all, it is a man’s job,’ Messalina frowned,’ and Arduinna spends too much time acting like a boy as it is.’
Senodo laughed.
‘She’s my daughter. The carpentry is in her blood, my love. And she is only twelve. I am sure that she will be a fine woman like her mother when she comes of age.’
‘You wanted a son, I think,’ his wife chided.
‘Yes, of course I did. But I love my wife and daughter. They are everything to me,’ Senodo took his wife in his big arms and held her tightly to him,’ and there is always the chance that a boy might come along, if we keep trying.’
Messalina ran her hand tenderly tracing the contours of a huge bicep and looked up at her husband, whose eyes had begun to twinkle cheekily.
‘Well, I guess that if our daughter is currently entertaining herself, and I have already interrupted you from your work, we could always have a go at giving her a brother now…’
Then Senodo heard screams and could smell burning, and he realised that his strong arms were empty, and would always be that way.
Senodo sat in the empty bar and wiped the tears from his eyes.
It was almost ten years now. He gripped the end of the table so hard that he thought his fingers would tear through it. Then he let go and sighed.
‘They’re gone, you old fool,’ he told himself,’ you didn’t fall on your sword then, why do it now?’
Senodo got up and went back into the cellar area. He had already stripped the house of any valuables that could be reasonably carried, mostly tools and the bronze household gods. Exuperatus had vanished with most of the money hours ago, making excuses about needing to buy supplies. Assuming they did get out alive they would have to be in hiding for some time.
Senodo had known Exuperatus for a long time now but still was unsure that he could really trust his partner. Like him the other Gaul was too scarred by his own experience to be idealistic about life in the way that younger people were and thus was less drawn to the conventions of friendship and honour.
Senodo listened carefully. The noise of battle was increasing all the time.
They had agreed that Calgacus would try and rescue Vita and meet him and Exuperatus back here at the bar, and then they would make straight for the bath house. That was the plan and Senodo hoped that they would get a move on.
There was a muffled thumping at the door and Senodo sighed again, this time with relief. He went over an opened the door.
He immediately recoiled as an axe struck out towards him, missing him by inches. Senodo continued to stagger back as the Iceni warrior entered the bar with a cry, with others behind him, some carrying an assortment of weapons, others were carrying torches.
The Iceni brought the axe around for another strike.
Senodo felt behind him for a weapon and felt the leg of a stool he had lovingly crafted.
He was thinking of his Messalina and Arduinna as he smashed it against the warrior’s head.

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Being Human

Still on my travelling adventures this last week and I have been exposed to a much greater number of members of my own species than normal. It reminded time and again of what an interesting bunch we are.
Every so often there are times when I do wonder if the best thing to do is to develop a passion for bananas and climb back into the tree, but as we have managed to cut most of that habitat down maybe my second career as an Orang-utan is a bit of a non starter although my general physical form combined with some ginger hair dye might at least achieve the look.
But generally I felt positive towards the human race this week. Or found enough people to make me smile rather than make me frown.
Three different groups of people made me smile this week.
First off were the lovely people at Cincinnati zoo, where we were having a series of business meetings. Now, as a middle age man it is not difficult to be charmed by a bunch of young women with cute animals, but really they seemed to have found what makes people sweet and bright (I guess by genetic sequencing, pretty much every other living thing has had its genome determined as far as I can tell) and then bred a whole set of people who were more than happy to smile and chat about immature flamingos, giant tortoises or the habits of pygmy pigs.
Indeed I strongly suspect that there is indeed a captive breeding programme at the zoo that they are not telling us about, alongside the ostentatious ones such as the newly arrived Black Rhino. In fact this breeding programme might well be more important to the world than the aforementioned rhino, so I rather wish them well with it.
Up next are small children. I always wanted to be a dad, although that was not to be. So I guess I am a bit of a sucker in having my heart melted by small kids on a regular basis (and I admit, I don’t have to deal with all the difficult stuff being able to hand them back just as they go off on one.)
But what I love is the joy that small children express and the innocence and generosity in which they express it. Wave at a two year old and he or she will wave back, even though they have never seen you before and probably will never see you again.
Up until the age of six, generally you seem to skip to places rather than walk. I personally think it is a shame that we don’t skip more often as adults (it is an effective way of covering ground quickly).
We were at Osborne house on the Isle of Wight this weekend and were treated to a Punch and Judy show which again showed the ability we have when we are small to just get wrapped up in things without the barriers of cynicism. One little boy in particular was fully into assisting the policeman in the apprehension of the wayward Mr Punch, shouting at the police puppet to turn around ‘very quickly and you might just get him!’ and then lamenting sadly at yet another missed opportunity by the short felt arm of the law to catch the miscreant – ‘oh, it didn’t work this time!’
(as an aside, a policeman friend of mine who was also watching noted that it was interesting to see how few of the adult audience seemed prepared to shop Mr Punch to the forces of the law, despite him having just thrown the baby put of the window and beaten his wife to death and buried her in the cellar.)
Finally the smile from the baby being carried off the plane at Heathrow on Friday as she looked back and saw my floppy (and therefore quit silly) summer hat was huge and honest and utterly adorable. Again, as adults we lose the ability to show our joy n this way, even replacing that smile with a guarded and measured display which – while perfectly fine – lacks the vitality of such a wild grin.
So that deals with the kids. The last group of people are the other end of the spectrum. I was getting off a different plane earlier in the week behind a Chinese-American family of three generations. The tiny wizened grandmother with her leopard skin top and wild white hair had been sat next to her sunglasses wearing, gum chewing granddaughter. Typically the girl didn’t look up from her phone the whole trip, leaving her grandmother to sit in silence staring off into who know where.
As they got up to leave the plane, however, and as I let the older lady out into the aisle, she suddenly grinned at me wickedly, pointed at her younger relative and made hand gestures behind the girl’s back mimicking frantic thumb action. This was followed by an “eyes cast upwards in despair” look that almost had me in hysterics. And then she was off.
A priceless moment of humorous non verbal communication between complete strangers, and something I will treasure. Never trust the really old folks. They’re the naughtiest of the lot – and they are not worried about petty things such as embarrassment any more.
So, I’m still happy with being human (and to be honest, I’m not the greatest fan of climbing trees or bananas)

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Chest

Vita sat down on the bed and shivered in the thin white tunic she had been forced to wear. She looked around at the scented furnishings and drapes of the cubiculum. This place had been in her nightmares since she had escaped. Both the place and the slimy feel of Miletus himself as he touched her.
Unfortunately she was not dreaming this time.
Miletus had not beaten her badly yet. He wanted his fun with her first before breaking her bones or covering her in bruises. When he was done, then he would start to torture her. Hence he had gotten the other slaves to bathe and perfume her; and put her in this little silk shift. Vita admitted to herself that it felt wonderful against her skin; but only as a piece of underwear.
The man’s lust however was keeping her alive, and it gave her moments like this where she could look for evidence against him that she might be able to get to Aquila. Vita did not trust his lackey, but the Investigator himself seemed at heart a good man. Like Calgacus.
Her poor innocent, loyal Calgacus… Vita missed him, and she knew that he would be desperate to get her back. She was certain she would need his intervention to get out of this mess. Miletus would not let her get away a second time.
She wondered how her friends were doing. She was sure that the attack on the city had started by now. Miletus and his household were intending to leave soon by the East Gate; Vita was unsure if he meant to take her with him, or just strangle her and leave her corpse to adorn his town house as the Iceni presumably burnt it to the ground.
The room was much the same as the day she had made her initial escape.
The strong box was in the same place, although this time it was firmly shut and locked. Vita looked around for something to attack the lock with. On the dressing table she saw a number of bronze tools, part of a toilet set. Discarding the nail cleaner and the ear scoop, she settled on the pair of tweezers and padded lightly back to the box. She began to work the arms of the tweezers back and forth to see if she could dislodge the lock.
To her surprise and delight Vita felt the barrel move. Carefully she tested the lid and opened it up.
The box contained a number of folded scrolls and documents, and a number of bags that Vita guess contained money. She picked up one of the bags and opened it.
To her surprise, it contained a shining gold torc. She marvelled at how beautiful it was, fashioned from multiple strands of gold wrapped together like several snakes entwined. There was something familiar about it, but Vita could not remember where she might have seen it before.
Maybe as part of a wall plaster mural, she thought, and reluctantly put it back in the bag, but placing it next to the box rather than in it. She could not leave something like that with a man like Miletus. Vita then began to sort through the documents.
Most of them were accounts. She could read them but they made little sense to her. But she was sure that Castor would find what he was looking for in them. As far as Vita could tell Miletus was ambitious and would happily do anything he could to further his desire for wealth and power.
Vita started to make a pile of the most interesting looking documents. In doing so, she noticed one next to the torc that looked different, was made form a different quality of paper. She reached out for it, curious.
A moment later, the fist that had caught her on the side of the head deposited Vita a full foot away from the chest.
Framed in her blurred vision she saw Miletus standing over her his face scarlet with rage.

Getting things in proportion

On Sunday I was on a plane when a group of Amazons boarded.
I was quite surprised. At first I thought that recently writing a short story set in ancient Greece had created a rip in the space/time continuum through which the Amazons had fallen through, all of them young, fit (in the we work out sense) and over six foot. However, their identical blue track suits betrayed the fact that they were in fact not a mythological group of all female warriors but the University of Dayton women’s basketball team. Apparently on the way home from a successful tour of Italy (well done them). I know that because the pilot made sure everyone knew (cue applause). I love this about the US. If this had been a UK flight you might possibly have had a slight ripple of clapping; but the poor girls would have shrunk, embarrassed into their seats. The Dayton Flyers took it in their long strides.
And why shouldn’t they? After all, the one thing they couldn’t do was to try and hide in their seats.
Because the bottom line is that they poor girls could hardly fit in the Delta economy seats. Some of them could fold themselves up a little better than others but some of them looked dreadfully uncomfortable.
For not the first time in my life I was happy to be average/below average height. I felt sorry for the girls in this situation; I do not like to see anybody being uncomfortable.
I know a lot of people – mostly women – who wish they were taller. I have never really understood this. As a man I would like to have grown a bit more (up, rather than out which is unfortunately more the case) but airplane seats, being able to drive sports cars, and not braining myself on low doorways have suggested that there is nothing bad about being average to short in stature. But I do understand that the image we have thrown at us does suggest a norm that in reality is not the case.
However, I also felt quite proud of these Amazons. Because at their height they possess one of the natural gifts for something like basket ball, and I think it is a fundamental to our happiness to come to terms with our limitations and embrace our strengths. I would never be – before we even talk about my fitness I am just too short. If anything, I’m a rugby build (but lack the aggression and commitment). But we all have talents.
Those can be physical or academic or something in between; let’s call that one attitude and outlook. One of the things that I have had a huge amount of satisfaction from in recent years is finding a role in life related to the encouragement of others.
I am never going to be an outstanding sportsman. I am quite useless when presented with a musical instrument. I have managed to get by in academic studies but lack the application even there to perhaps do as well as I could have. However, if feedback is to be believed, I am pretty good at boosting others..
I am utterly convinced that everyone, everyone, has real skills and talents and with some development can excel and feel good about themselves. The problem is finding those talents. For some it is route one, and I know a lot of really bright, talented, skilful people where some of their abilities, at least, are blatantly obvious. For these people it is more are they making the most of those gifts rather than finding out what they are.
For the others it is harder. At this time of exam results it is very easy to think of yourself as a failure if you’ve missed the target and while obviously it is disappointments if that happens but you just have to get over it and move on. Because somewhere there is something better waiting… But you have to find it. It isn’t a case of one door closes, another opens. You have to go and keep trying the doors (and giving them a good shoulder charge as well, as sometimes they may be unlocked but need a little encouragement to actually open.)
Anybody not happy with the current situation should be encouraged to try new things and take risks. To put aside the Plan A that seems to be the path everyone is encouraged to go down regardless and wander down another track instead. Be creative if Plan A isn’t working. If you don’t think you are creative – find someone who is to help and let them throw ideas at you and catch them with an open but discerning mind.
And my role in this is to wipe the brow, hand you a gourmet sandwich and then give an almighty shove down the path you have found, while trundling along behind in the support van (just in case).

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Assault

When Calgacus finally got to the area of the West gate it was obvious that even with no military training, he could see that they were losing.
The attackers had broken through the gate and were now being held back by a few disciplined but increasingly outnumbered legionnaires and a rabble of townspeople carrying a miscellany of weapons. Roman tactics, so effective out in the open were not proving effective in the brutal dirty fighting of the town streets.
Calgacus looked for somewhere he could make a difference.
Scanning, he caught the eye of a middle aged Roman in what was once a smart tunic but was now splattered with gore. From the effective way he was laying into the enemy with his sword the blood was mostly from his vanquished opponents. However, this champion had begun to be separated from the rest of the Roman force as a number of Iceni had found a weak point in the defensive rabble.
Calgacus made for the man and his remaining defenders and reached them just as one of the two remaining bodyguards went down, his throat slashed by a scythe. A spear came in towards the man in a tunic and Calgacus batted it aside with his stolen weapon and, with the ferocity born of desperation, he ran the attacker through before he could react.
The Roman looked at him and smiled grimly and briefly.
‘Thank you for that,’ he said simply, before addressing both the Briton and the remaining soldier,’ now by the authority of Emperor, I command you two to get me a horse.’
‘This way, sir, quickly,’ said the soldier, who Calgacus could see was little more than a boy. He was a Hispanic like many of the Ninth, maybe only seventeen or eighteen, and had probably seen as much actual combat as he, Calgacus guessed.
The three of them disengaged from the combat and turned to run through the streets to where the cavalry were stabled. When they got there they found that most of the stalls were empty.
‘I need a horse,’ the tall Roman demanded of a terrified groom who he had grabbed by the arm,’ a good one.’
‘The best horse left would be the Commander’s sir, but –‘
‘That will do. This is my seal,’ the Roman pulled out the mark of office from a pouch and waved it at the confused boy,’ I am Marcus Flavius Aquila of the Imperial service and I am requisitioning this animal.’
The groom handed him the reigns. That was enough for him. He was more frightened of the attackers outside and this man whose grip held him firm inside, than any possible later repercussions.
‘He’s a bit sprightly, sir,’ the groom warned.
‘Good.’
Aquila turned to the stunned Calgacus who had just realised whose life he had just saved.
‘Thank you again. I must ride to make contact with the Governor and his forces. Maybe I can persuade him to change his mind and relieve the town. Until then,’ he clasped the shoulders of Calgacus and the remaining soldier,’ you two will remain especially in my debt. May Fortuna be with us all.’
Aquila leapt onto the horse and taking it in hand galloped out into the street and promptly disappeared around a corner.
A moment later, a horde of Iceni came hurtling back around the same road junction and started to batter down the now barred stable doors.
The few horses left began to rear in panic.
Calgacus looked at the young soldier, who seemed confused as to what to do now that he was separated from his fellows.
‘Come on, man. Let’s get out the back, while we can,’ Calgacus said.
The two men ran for the rear and the possibility of escape, with the splintering noise that accompanied the demise of the main door behind them provided significant impetus to their flight.

Oops… I did it again

We all make mistakes.
Some years ago when I started to work for my current company I had a internal role clearing TV advertising for the UK market. Adverts on UK TV have to be worked in the context of the codes issued by the Advertising Standards Authority (www.asa.org.uk ). The ASA is a self regulatory body set up and paid for by the advertising industry but with an independent remit; a glance at their website of their weekly adjudications – issued on Wednesdays, any advertising related stories always come out in the press on Wednesdays, in poor news weeks, just as science stories come out Thursday, coinciding with the publication of New Scientist, which always amuses me – will tell you they can be quite aggressive in their adjudications (and rightly so).
One part of their code relates to my product category at the time which was hair. According to the ASA CAP code you cannot have a cosmetic product that claims to improve the health of hair. Healthy looking is OK, as this refers to the real effects of conditioners – smoothness, softness, shine, protection from damage – which are the marks of what we believe hair in good condition should look and feel like. Anyway, healthy hair is out. Looking is in.
So it is late on a Friday and on of the marketing people come past with a storyboard for approval.
‘It’s the same one you looked at earlier in the week. Just a few changes – ‘and he points to the changes. I look at changes. They are not important from my point of view, so I approve it and take a copy for the files.
Come Monday morning and I happen to glance at the storyboard before putting it away and forgetting about it. Of course, as well as the changes he had brought to my attention he had also deleted all the references to “looking”.
My heart sinks. It was my error – he might have deliberately deceived me (OK, most people I know in marketing are better than this, but there are idiots as well as there are in any profession) but it was my mistake not to check properly.
Now this was a relatively minor mistake, but it dominated my life for several days as I bothered, shouted at and cajoled people to get it fixed – they had of course filmed and recorded the advert over the weekend so to make changes means substantial additional costs.
More than having to fix it though was the personal shame of having made such an obvious and avoidable mistake and the worry about what it might mean for future employment prospects.
Of course in this case it meant nothing at all. As it happens, I was able to get it fixed, but even if it hadn’t these things are transitory and soon forgotten in most cases. But I was made to think of this again this weekend after a conversation about a similar minor error that was causing an undue amount of stress to a friend.
None of us like to make mistakes but we all do, and all the time. A lot of the time we never even realise – I am sure I made a host of minor driving errors coming to work this morning. I sometimes overcook the vegetables. I say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. My issue is that I stress and worry about these as though they are of equal importance, when they are not. But I’m confronted every day by a culture that appears not to tolerate mistakes and I get caught up in that panic whenever something goes wrong.
There are activities of key importance where mistakes need to be avoided if at all possible. If I’m a doctor, or a pilot or a firearms policeman I have to take special care of those professional parts of my life where a mistake can have terrible consequences – and you can add your own examples to that list. There are elements of my life that I can see, when I look at them dispassionately (on that rare occasion I can get enough control to do that!) where I can see I have to take more care than others. I’m not talking about those.
But I’d like us to calm down about the common little stuff. You cannot change the mistake, and yes you are responsible for it (goodness knows I’m not advocating the trend of not taking responsibility for anything, that I see in too many people these days already) but you can deal with the result better.
If you are lucky enough that you can fix the mistake without public embarrassment, then good for you. Don’t do it again. If you cannot, then take the hit and own up, and be positive in trying to resolve it. The one thing more likely to make things worse is to appear blasé or to be caught hiding an error. A surprising number of people react positively to a confession – because they have probably made similar (or worse) mistakes before themselves.
I have also found that your reputation is an important thing to develop. If you are right 95% of the time, the people who matter will probably allow you some slack over the remaining 5% where things go a little pear shaped.
Sooner or later any shouting and annoyance will subside, and generally will not comeback – unless you make the same mistake again.
Of course this is me being positive, and there are plenty of people out there who would take the opportunity of your little mistake to further their own agendas, or just to bring you down because they are just feeling plain mean. But in that case, what is the real mistake? The error you have made – or being involved in any capacity with such people in the first place?

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Homecoming?

‘Is this the house of Julius Suetonius Miletus?’
‘Yes. Who should I say is calling, sir?’
‘My name is Castor, aide to Marcus Flavius Aquila of the Imperial service. Tell your master that we have property to return.’
The slave, an old man, who to Castor’s eyes looked somewhat undernourished, looked at the three men with what appeared to be a child with a blanket over its head and quickly nodded.
‘Please come in and wait here in the vestibulum, the master I am sure will be with you in but a few moments.’
Castor sighed and pushed Vita ahead of him over the mosaic floor.
‘Sit down girl,’ he said,’ and prepare yourself. I suspect the next few hours are going to get distinctly unpleasant.’
The slave returned.
‘The master will see you in the atrium, sir.’
Castor pulled off the blanket and handed it to one of the soldiers. As he revealed her he noticed the look of sympathy on the face of the older slave. Castor shrugged. It served no purpose of his to get soft now. He turned to his escort.
‘You two may go. From the noise out there the attack is started. You are needed more urgently elsewhere.’
The soldiers saluted and left.
‘I’ve no idea why they gave me soldiers anyway,’ Castor mused, turning to look at Miletus, who had appeared smiling at the inner doorway to the atrium.
The bearded man beckoned them in. He was staring intensely at Vita, who sensibly was keeping her gaze firmly on the floor.
‘They might have been expecting trouble,’ Miletus said mildly, still staring,’ she has caused me enough, after all. Sit down, Castor, wasn’t it?’ his voice hardened,’ you can get on your knees girl. Get used to that posture.’
Vita said nothing and lowered her bare knees to the stone floor. The older slave had returned with two cups of wine and some dates.
Goodness knows where this man had gotten dates in this godforsaken corner of the Empire, Castor thought, as he politely refused both.
Miletus took a cup and a handful of fruit.
‘Leave us, Sextus. Go back to the packing. We leave tonight,’ Miletus said to the slave and took a drink. He turned back to Castor.
‘I have to say I am surprised and delighted to get my property back,’ he began,’ I’d like to know how you found her.’
‘I have my methods. Observation mostly,’ Castor admitted,’ and a bit of luck never fails to come in handy.’
‘Tell me where she was hiding,’ Miletus asked.
‘I would rather not,’ Castor returned in a similarly mild tone and was amused to see the furrow of annoyance in the magistrate’s brow.
‘I want you to tell me where she was hiding. I am a magistrate of this city, and you will tell me.’
To the obvious surprise of Miletus, Castor just laughed.
‘First, Magistrate, I’m bond to the Imperial service on special licence and totally outside your jurisdiction,’ Castor got up from the bench,’ secondly, while I often deal with people I don’t like it is always in the service of the Empire. I don’t think that loyalty to the Empire comes anywhere near what you may call a heart, from your obvious plans to leave here.’
Castor thought of the scum he usually dealt with and realised that they were better than this moan. They were poor, had little opportunity. This man was rich, well connected and still chose to be wallow in the dark.
‘You, sir, should be out there with a sword in your hand as any honourable Roman would be, not sitting on your backside and eating dates. So I don’t feel inclined to assist you further in any way. I’ll show myself out.’
Castor glanced once more at the little girl shifting uncomfortably on the cold floor and felt one final twinge of conscience.
He didn’t really expect her to come up with anything. He had his own contingency plans. But it was a shame. She was brave and clever and girls often made such good agents. Castor shook his head and walked out, while the magistrate sat speechless with fury at being insulted so badly in his own home.
After Castor had gone, Vita kept her eyes firmly downward, but Miletus hit her anyway.
It was not a hard blow but it still knocked her flying. She looked up at the man with a look of fear that did not need to be faked.
‘I want to know everything you have been up to, and what you have told them about me.’
‘Nothing, sir, I know nothing!’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Miletus said,’ and I’m going to get the truth out of you one way or another,’ he ran his hand down over her short hair and let it continue down the length of her body, ignoring how Vita cringed at his touch, ‘and what’s more girl, I’m going to enjoy doing it.’