This fortnight, instead of doing a shallow dive into Roman history, I thought I'd actually post the opening of Sub Rosa. I really do have a lot of love for Valerius. He's a mess in his opening scene. We've all been there, right? Enjoy!
Meanwhile, here's a picture of Bacchus; the cause of, and solution to, all of Valerius's problems.
If I’d expected the women of my household to greet me at the door with a cup of Falernian, a dish of nuts and a cloth with which to mop my troubled brow, I was out of luck. As it was it took an age to rouse the door porter, and at least twice as long for Juba and him to pour me out of the litter and drag me inside on my toga. There was an art to it I was mostly unaware of—I was trying to unlace my sandals.
“Yes, sir?” Juba was a big solid lump of Aethiopian with muscles that could crack walnuts and a talent for languages that was wasted on me.
“There’s this girl from Campania, and she goes up to her father, and, I can’t get this strap undone, you know, and anyway, she goes up to her father and says, ‘Papa, I’m pregnant!’ Can you just help me get this sandal off, please?”
Hursa the door porter knelt down to lend a hand. Hursa was a prime example of why you should never buy sight unseen and, more importantly, why you should never buy off relatives. The word was out that I needed a new door porter. The old one was as deaf as a post, as blind as a bat, and as incontinent as only a blind, deaf old man can be. I’d pensioned him off to my estate in Corduba where I’m sure he had rediscovered the vigour of his youth and would spend his final years impregnating farm girls, brawling with their oily boyfriends, and living it up at my expense.
Ta-da. Mad Uncle Maro to the rescue. As soon as he heard I was after a door porter, he had just the one. An eighteen-year-old German, guaranteed to scare away burglars, door-to-door salesmen and friends I owed money. Sturdy and strapping? Hardly. Skinny and spotty, and as German as my right foot. His golden locks were less convincing than Aunt Marcia’s. Alright, there was German somewhere in his genealogy, but if Hursa so much as glimpsed a bearded barbarian in full-throated war cry, he’d faint like a girl. But he did like a good joke.
“She went to see her father, sir,” he reminded me, slipping my sandals off.
“Yes, and she says to her father, ‘Papa, I’m pregnant.’ Well, the old man is deeply shocked. Deeply!”
Juba hauled me to my bare feet, holding me up by the tunic seams. “I think it’s past your bedtime, sir.”
“Yes, I was just telling Hursa my new joke,” I told him.
Hursa began gathering the heavy folds of my toga into his arms. His watery eyes were bleary with sleep and his hair was sticking out at odd angles from his head, like uneven bits of straw. It was time he found a good barber. Well, any barber.
“I know a good man in Fish Alley,” I confided. “Cheap, but good.”
Hursa frowned. “I don’t get it,” he said unhappily.
“No, that’s not the joke.” All the wine I’d drunk at dinner was starting to move around in my stomach like it was searching for an exit. I swayed against Juba. “But he is shocked, deeply shocked. Deeply, deeply shocked. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?”
I was losing my audience. Hursa only had two or three brain cells, and my free ranging conversation had tied them in knots already. And Juba had no discernible sense of humour.
“Bedtime, sir,” he said, looking dark and inscrutable. “Mind your step.”
“The night is young,” I said, but you don’t argue too much with someone who could snap your neck between his thumb and forefinger. Juba tucked me under his arm. Squashed by his massive biceps, my toes dragging on the tiles, I was struck by a sudden strange and unrelated thought. “Juba, did I really bet Strachus Calpurnius I could make wine come out my nose?”
“So I heard, sir,” Juba rumbled, and began manoeuvring me towards my bedroom while Hursa fluttered in front with a lamp. “And congratulations on your win.”
Bacchus, Bacchus, why? Tonight’s meeting of the who’s who of the water board was shaping up to be something I’d never hear the end of, if any of them ever spoke to me again. As long as I hadn’t told the joke about the Vestal and the donkey. A very funny joke, I’m told, in its proper place. If I’d known what its proper place was a month ago at the censor’s dinner party, I could have been gainfully employed by now. Still, it was all part of the parry and thrust of job hunting in the big city. My options were currently open, and I still had my head above the poverty line. Way above, if I was honest with myself.
“Thank you, Juba.” I was speaking into his ribcage while my legs were trying unsuccessfully to keep pace on the stairs.
There was a comfortable reading couch in my bedroom. Carved legs, polished back, plenty of nicely squashed cushions. A jar of wine hiding in the shadows underneath, that I couldn’t bear think about at that moment. Juba piled all of my limbs onto the couch.
“Oooh.” The sudden shift to the horizontal unsettled my stomach again. I could feel tonight’s stuffed eggs and assorted bits of wildlife bobbing in a sea of exotic sauces and wine. There had been five courses, all punctuated by a different wine. Marcellus Naso had been out to impress. Some senator or another, I think. A short fellow, pasty skin, with a squint, and some type of sexual dysfunction if the graffiti in my gymnasium could be believed. The look on his face when I’d asked if it was true, you’d think I’d suggested he’d murdered his whole family and done unspeakable things with their corpses.
“Are you alright, sir?” Juba asked with a malevolent gleam in his eye.
“Mmm. Get me a jug of water.” Not only was Marcellus Naso never going to speak to me again for insulting the senator and blowing wine out of my nose, I’d be lucky if he didn’t send some bullyboys after me to break both my legs.
Juba murmured something I didn’t catch, and made himself scarce.
“And some more cushions!” I yelled after him. I sighed. “You know, Hursa, it took two months to get an invitation to the house of the eminent Marcellus Naso. Pretentious bastard.”
Hursa was a very sympathetic person—his whole life was such a disaster he related well to failure. He found a sort of solidarity in the misery of others. “I heard Marcellus Naso’s wife is screwing a gladiator, sir,” he lied winningly.
“Thanks, Hursa,” I said with a sigh, “but he’s not actually married.”
“Possibly because he prefers to sleep with farmyard animals,” Hursa said, with more speed than I would have credited his little brain. “How about telling me the rest of your joke, sir?”
Hursa had loved the joke about the Vestal and the donkey. He had been retelling it for days to the rest of the household until Damos the temperamental cook hit him over the head with a roasting pan.
“So this girl goes to her father, we did this bit, right?”
“And she says, ‘Papa, I’m pregnant’, and the old man is shocked!”
“Shocked,” Hursa echoed, his eyes as round as saucers.
“And so he says to her—”
My door swung open, a figure in a diaphanous dressing gown floated through, and a voice finished for me, “‘Are you sure it’s yours?’”
At last, the womenfolk. One of them, anyway. The most important one. She must have waylaid Juba somewhere downstairs, because she came bearing a jug of water and a cup. No cushions however.
“Hello,” I said. “Did I wake you?”
“Hello, Quintus,” she replied, and her gaze travelled the length of my stained and crumpled figure. “You look a bit under the weather. Tell me, are you going to be up bright and early inspecting aqueducts and bossing engineers around?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think Naso liked me.”
“Oh dear.” Fulvia poured me a cup of water. “There you are. Hursa?”
Hursa was still ruminating, as slowly and carefully as a cow chews cud. Are you sure it’s yours, he mouthed to himself. I could almost see his brain cells buzzing like drowsy wasps inside his empty head. “Ooh!” he whispered at last.
Hursa blinked owlishly. “Mistress?”
“Back to bed. I can look after the master now.”
“Yes, mistress,” Hursa said, and trailed away.
“I think he likes my new joke,” I said.
“That joke’s so old it’s found on Etruscan tombs.”