JUST STORIES

[THIS IS A STICKY POST DATED EARLY 2012. IF YOU LOOK AT THE POSTS BELOW YOU'LL SEE THE BLOG IS UPDATED REGULARLY WITH NEW STORIES.]

A collection of short fiction by me, some of it published elsewhere, nothing under anyone else’s copyright, except for one or two pieces (uncertain).

This is an amateur’s shot at reviving short fiction as pure yarn. Much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect an artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I try to incorporate a twist, through sheer stubbornness or bad taste.

I try not to treat characters as furniture or mere plot pivots, but they are sketched, rather than painted. I’m not afraid of using the now unfashionable adverb or other descriptive flourish – but let’s move that story along!

Lit-fic and creative writing may be fine things, but there is none of that to be had here. My prose will rarely be sinewy, luminous, supple, lucid, muscular, spare or taut. I won’t use the word “arc” at all, unless the topic is geometry. Things will merely drop, fall or tumble, they will not arc. I’ve got it in for “arc”.

In most of my gloomy stories, I contrive happy or uplifting endings, even when such seem impossible. That’s just to cheer everybody up, myself included. In accounts of villainy, bad guys won’t always get their comeuppance, but if if you wait till that last paragraph…maybe!

For those who find this undertaking to be dated and lacking a worthy purpose, you are probably right. If you find some of the stories downright pulpy, you are certainly right.

As a mercy to those who prefer more substance, even in their lighter reading, my intention is to stop after fifty entries, though that is an intention, not, as they say in Australian politics, a core commitment. [Note: began publishing more stories August 2013. See? Told you it was just an intention.]

***

In the historical category, two views of the French Revolution, by two if its shapers. Meet the Great Survivors…

THE PEACE OF CAREME

THE VERY DEVIL

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A chain letter down the centuries…

HELOISE TO UNKNOWN

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Overlapping our fantasy category, a venerable Jewish doctor admits his age…

WANDERER

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A sleepy queen entertains…

THE PLAY

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An unlikely encounter in post-war Rome, over bad carbonara.

THE GOLDWYN CODE

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Romane memento!

ALTOGETHER ELSEWHERE

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The Middle East, and all that.

WATER

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Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.

LOCUSTA 1

LOCUSTA 2

LOCUSTA 3

LOCUSTA 4

LOCUSTA 5

LOCUSTA 6

LOCUSTA 7

LOCUSTA 8

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It’s never over till…

THE LONG GAME

***

In the category of crime and detection, an insurance expert has trouble unwinding on holidays, relates some favourite cases…

A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

AN ADEQUATE MURDER

CHILD’S PLAY

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A master criminal roams the bush, visits the city. We don’t approve of him at all, however…

QUINLIVIN I

QUINLIVIN II

QUINLIVIN III

QUINLIVIN IV

QUINLIVIN V

QUINLIVIN VI

QUINLIVIN VII

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Maigret comes to Australia. Really!

MAIGRET’S LONG REACH

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Evil is not an Ikea purchase. My best opening sentence?

BITS OF BAD

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Are you insured?

PURGATORY HILL

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You will pay if you skip this one:

EVERYBODY PAYS

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A twisty track:

THE GORGE

***

In the category of fantasy and the improbable, some ghosts…

QUO VADIS

THE MOTHER

CEMETERY LOOP

THE WEEPER

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Strange entities…

DON’T SAY YOWIES

THE OLD F-S SCALE

FOAM OF THE SEA

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Bent fairy tales…

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE I

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE II

THE LOST CITY

TARQUIN’S TRAVELS

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Guardian angels: not the glamour job you’d think.

THE SECRET OF 63

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That little opinion of yours…

QUALITY OPINION SUPPLIES

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There’s even a time travel yarn. An easy, pulpy read. You won’t know where the minutes went…

SHE SLIPPED

*

God knows what this is about…

ME

-

***

Australian interest, bush first…

A BUSH ANSWER

DRAGON

CHASE

THE .22 CLUB

WOY WOY

TRIVIAL TALE

THE NAME OF THE BEAST

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Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…

UNIQUE

EVEN IN ARCADY

ANGELS RUSH IN

EAST SYDNEY: A MEMOIR

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Sydney in that Decade of Greed, and whatever you call the nineties…

DECADE OF GREED I

DECADE OF GREED II

MADE IN FRANCE

AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST SALESPERSON

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Sports fans!

AUSTRALIAN PIETAS

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Getting that perfect balance between no-life and no-work…

ESCAPE FROM KRYPTON

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***

Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…

THE COCK AND HEN

ANOTHER PILGRIM TALE

THE CATS OF LA ROMIEU

GLOBAL INGRATITUDE

NOT IN MY CONTRADA

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

TRUFFLES AND DEMONS

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Novella length.  Come on, they can’t all be short…

THE THIEF OF SAINT FAITH

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***

A miscellany of pulp: a bit silly, most with strong final twists, what you want…

THE WAY THESE PEOPLE THINK

THE RETURN OF THE SON OF REHASH

A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER

REMNANT

FOR THE BIG ROUND THING

THE MEDIOCRE SAMARITAN

MEETING IN FRANCE

LONG TIME LISTENER, FIRST TIME CALLER

FAUX-PAS

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THE LONG GAME

A bald man, stubby and well muscled, stepped into the inn. He looked about, in search of something or someone.

At last another man, lean with very long hair half-eclipsing his face, looked up from where he sat alone and gestured to him.

“Over here friend.”

The long haired man kicked a stool forward from under the table as the other came toward him.

“Have a seat.”

“Thanks.”

“I know you must be hungry so I’ve ordered food and drink for us. Best to do business with a full stomach.”

“Sounds good.”

“You like eastern style food? They’ve got lamb boiled up with wheat and those sour berries…”

“Sounds good.”

“But before anything I want to show you this ring I got for the wife in the local market. I hear you know about this sort of thing…Lean forward, the light’s better in the middle of the table.”

When the new arrival’s head was close to that of the other, the long haired man dropped his voice, while continuing to turn the ring about.

“Have you ever seen anything like it?”

“I have, in fact. Bit of a coincidence. Let me show you.”

The bald man pulled a ring from his sleeve and showed it to the other, who nodded then spoke even more quietly, but without changing his casual expression.

“You’re a professional, same as me. I don’t need to tell you to act naturally. As far as anyone is concerned, we’re two commercial types, here to do business.”

“Understood. I’ll keep my voice low and make faces like I’m talking business. In a seaport like this I assume everyone talks everyone’s language.”

“It’s a good bet. Can’t be too careful. We’re not dealing with a fool. They’re used to me in this place now. I’ve been eating here nightly the last week, so I’m starting to blend with the furniture.”

“I know the drill.”

“You’ve received the same orders as me with regard to discretion?”

“Yes, no fuss, no witnesses if possible. I’ve done political jobs before, and on foreign soil.”

“You know why you needed to be with me on this…this contract?”

“It’s pretty obvious. Your people and my people don’t like one another but they both want the same problem dealt with. Neither side will take the word of the other that the job’s been done, hence the double contract. I take it you’re considered trustworthy by your people.”

“I have that reputation. I deserve it. And you?”

“The same. If I tell my people the job’s done they’ll know it’s done. Only…”

“What?”

“It’s pretty obvious why we’d want the old man dead. But your people…I mean to say…”

“Reasons of money, politics. Nothing new about any of that.”

“Of course. But the old man was like…like your…”

“Forget it. He was what he was once. After tonight he’s a memory. I don’t like being the one to push him off the twig, but my loyalty is to my people, not to an old man I don’t even know. In the normal course of things my job would be to dispose of you. You’d be expected to do the same with me. We may very well need to deal with one another one day. But that’s not tonight’s job, is it?”

“You’re right…I’m guessing he’s not here yet?”

“Not yet. There’s a table in the corner that’s always left vacant for him. Everyone seems to know it’s his table…which is a bit of a problem for us.”

“Yes. It means he has friends, maybe has the respect of the locals. He has a reputation for getting cooperation from people wherever he goes.”

“He’s known for that. So we need to be doubly careful. I’ve made sure to sit in full view of him, and not to exploit the fact he’s only got one eye. If we sit where it’s hard for him to see us that’s suspicious, straight away. He’ll be facing me, so the only look you’ll get at him is when he walks past us on the way in. You’ll know him by the slow shuffle and slight limp. Not that I’d believe he’s as lame as he makes out. Maybe he is…”

“And maybe he isn’t. I like your thoroughness. So how do we get to him. Do we follow him when he leaves? That could be tricky. A very smart man who’s been on the run for all these years won’t want to be followed out of here by two strangers.”

“That’s why I’ve been resisting the temptation to try tailing him at all. I have another idea. He’s like all old men. He pisses a lot and takes his time to do it. They have a hole in floor in the store room out the back. I suggest we wait for to him go in there, then follow him after a few minutes. If we keep things casual, act a little drunk and merry…”

“Seems like the best plan…Look, our dinner. Oh, I need this!”

The two men sat back as a waitress placed two steaming bowls in front of them. The long haired man put his arm round her haunch and drew her toward him. Looking bored but not annoyed by the attention, the girl let him fondle her. He spoke a little more loudly, so as to perhaps be heard by others in the room:

“I’ve been telling my friend about your house wine. I hope you’ve got a fresh jug or two for us…unwatered.”

“We always draw it fresh, sir. And there’s no water in it, ever…”

“Good, because once I’ve told this gentleman how much he is actually going to get for his shipment – as compared to what he expects to get – he’s going to need a big drink.”

There was some laughter from the nearby tables as the girl walked off to fetch the wine.

*

After they had eaten and were enjoying their wine a figure shuffled past them. Neither turned his head, but the man with long hair briefly lowered his lids as a signal. All the bald man saw was a lame and ragged figure, obviously old, heading toward the corner table left vacant.

Both men resisted the temptation change their manner in any way. When the new arrival was out of earshot the long haired man spoke, his manner not matching his words:

“So, that’s him. Once about as famous as a man can be. His face plastered all over the world.”

“It feels strange to be this close to him. I can’t match…you know…his name to the poor wretch who just limped by.”

“Well, live long enough and we’re all poor wretches.”

“So now we wait.”

“He’ll drink for a bit, maybe amuse himself with a chat, some reading, some drawing…”

“Mind still active, eh?”

“Maybe more than we realise. Anyway, after half an hour he’ll head for the piss hole out back. That’s our chance, but we’ll need to play it well.”

“I suppose we may as well drink a bit ourselves, or it’ll look suspicious.”

“Sure. Let’s have a drink and relax for real. That’s the best way…So, where are you from? The big city?”

“I was born in Sicily. Lost my accent…but I’m a Sicilian.”

“Really? So am I. Not that your people would ever let me go back there.”

“I suppose not.”

The two men drank on, speaking in cordial murmurs.

Some noise from the other end of the room.

“What’s he doing now?”

“Oh, he’s drawn something on a piece of old linen by the look of it. Now he’s showing it to the owner of the inn. They’re chatting about it. Now the young waitress is taking a look…He often draws things with a piece of charcoal.”

“Maybe memories?”

“Maybe. He’d have plenty of those.”

They waited another twenty minutes.

“This is it. He’s getting up to piss. I suggest we now act a little drunk, then follow him after maybe five minutes.”

“That’s a long piddle.”

“Well, make it four minutes. But we can’t give the impression of following him in.”

They drank on and spoke a bit more loudly. At last, they got up together, looking well pleased with their meal but a touch unsteady. The long haired man spoke to his companion for others to hear.

“I’m bursting. Think I need to strain the turnips.”

“Me too. Do they have a pot in this place?”

“Better! A hole in the ground. Follow me down that corridor in back…”

When they reached the corridor which led to the store room and piss hole, two tubby men, dicing on the floor, were blocking their way. Neither looked sober.

“Excuse us, friends. We have an irresistible urge.”

“Certainly, certainly. That’s why we spend our time here near the piss hole. My friend has a bladder that leaks like his boat. And nobody can tell his boat from his fish trap…”

“Now you’re too fat and slow to dive for urchins you’d be glad enough to own a boat like mine…But let these gentlemen pass, or they may do their business on your skull…”

“Certainly, certainly. Excuse us gentlemen, if we don’t stand. Just step round us, if you will…Ah, here comes old One Eye! That was a quick one…by his standards.”

The old man, wiping his hands on his ragged clothes, was coming toward them. The bald man and the long haired man froze in indecision, if only momentarily. Then, after a lightning exchange of glances, they knew what to do. They would finish the business now.

Suddenly a light went out, and the corridor was completely dark.

Just at that moment, one of the tubby drunks groaned as he started to rise to his feet:

“Why does everyone have to piss at once? Now One Eye’s bumped the lamp again. I can see we’ll have to move from here…”

As he stood he fell into the arms of the bald man, almost sending him to the floor.

“Oh, please excuse me, sir. Once I was as lithe as a reed, could gather twenty urchins in a dive…”

His friend draped himself round the long haired man’s shoulders and began to slur:

“Now I ask you sir, do you believe this tub of tallow could ever have been much of a diver? I ask you to be my witness that he is is more the type to burgle other men’s craypots. I mean, just look at the sorry sack of guts…”

The old man walked right past them as they tried to wriggle free of the drunks. They could see the deep creases of the famous face, the scars, the bandage round the dead eye…This was him!

They were just about to follow when one of the tubby drunks grabbed at both their legs.

“You’re going the wrong way, sirs. You must be drunker than me. The piss hole is this way…”

They kicked the drunk away, but in the few extra seconds of distraction the old man had passed right by them. A moment later he was obscured by a supporting pillar and some piled casks.

There was a slam. By the time his two pursuers had blundered back into the dining room, the door to the outside was wide open. They dashed on to the street.

“Quickly, you run left and I’ll run right. He can’t get far.”

Each man chased in his appointed direction. After a few minutes they came back together in front of the inn, panting.

“He can’t have outrun us. There are no side alleys in these eastern towns, just house on house.”

“Maybe he ran into a house…but there was no time…and in this dock neighbourhood they keep their doors bolted…unless…”

“Unless he never left the inn!”

They turned to rush back inside, only to find the door not only closed but bolted. They began to hammer on it as loudly as they could. Eventually a head peeped from the window above. It was the young waitress.

“Sirs! Are you all right?”

“Of course we are. Just open the door!”

“We bolted it because we thought something had happened. In this neighbourhood, what with Greeks, Lebanese…Not that some of them aren’t nice people but…”

“Yes, yes…just open the door!”

“Perhaps if you went home now, sirs. You’ve had a lot to drink and…”

“Open up! You don’t know who we are and you don’t want to find out. Open! There’ll be some money in it for you. And for your boss. But open now or you won’t have a door!”

After a long wait – far too long – the door was opened. The bald man grabbed the waitress around her neck.

“Now, I want you to tell me where he is. Right now. No games.”

“Who sir? Where who is?”

“The old man. One Eye. Where is he?”

“Oh…I know who you mean! He’s got that rag round his head to cover his dead eye, and likes to do drawings…”

“Where is he? Do I have to shake the life out of you, girl?”

“Didn’t he leave before you?”

“No games, I said. Where is One Eye? Or do I have to tear this place apart?”

The remaining customers and the owner of the inn had been watching on impassively. At this last threat, the owner spoke:

“Didn’t I see him go upstairs? I wouldn’t have thought he could handle the climb, but I thought I saw him going up the steps.”

The long haired man tugged the bald man away.

“Of course! The roof. All these houses have flat roofs…”

“And all connected to each other!”

A few minutes later they had pushed through the trap and were standing on the roof of the inn. Before them, in the darkness, a sea of roofs, each with a trap down into a dwelling. Beyond the roofs to the west, a sea full of boats and ships. To the east, mountains and then Asia. The bald man shook his head. The other asked:

“What do you want to do?”

“Nothing. We’d need an army, and even then…”

“What gave us away? We did nothing to indicate what we were.”

“We convinced ourselves and most others. The problem was to convince him. All we can do is learn for next time, if there is a next time.”

“So the whole long process just starts again? We wait for him to get settled somewhere, probably in the east, hope for luck and good informers?”

“What else can we do? He won’t surface here now. We’ve played our hand. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to try again.”

“But we had him, cold. I could have stuck a knife in his throat or gizzards easily. God, if it weren’t for the orders about discretion I could have just walked up to him at his table and opened him up. I just needed a few seconds. Instead, he won a few seconds with stupid distraction. Just a few seconds when we were off balance, hesitating…All he needed.”

“It’s all he’s ever needed. The stupider the distraction the more effective. When will we learn? When will the world learn?”

*

The two men were sulking at the table where the old man had been sitting. The innkeeper brought them a large jug and some cups. As he was leaning to serve them the long haired man gripped his arm hard. It was a murderous grip like only some can apply, and it said as much as his words:

“In the normal run of things I’d find a way to torture every one of you till you squealed what you know. Then you’d be put to eternal silence…”

“But sir…”

“Just listen to me. I know the man we were after is long gone, and nothing you can tell us will help find him. All we want now is discretion. I am about to put a large sum of money down on this table. Make sure that money gets spread around so everything which happened here tonight remains secret. If you try to involve the local authorities you may find you embarrass them and yourself far more than us. Actually, you won’t be embarrassed. You’ll be too dead to be embarrassed.”

The long haired man emptied a purse on to the table. The innkeeper gasped at the sum.

“Pick it up, keep some of it, then spread the rest around to buy complete silence. Understood?”

The two men began to drink sullenly. The bald one began to inspect a piece of old linen left on the table. He let out a sigh.

“What is it?”

“This drawing the old man did. What do you make of it?”

The other inspected the rag smeared with charcoal lines and figures.

“It looks like a plan of an old battle. Pretty weird battle, though. No attack. Stationary elephants blocking and unblocking a blind pass. A breakout then feigned flight down a valley…the main body of the army retreating along ridges…Maybe something he was just doodling…Maybe a memory of a battle long ago…”

“Or maybe the plan of an action which occurred less than an hour ago? A plan passed on to confederates?”

The long haired man winced and could say nothing for a moment. At last the other asked:

“What will you do next?”

“I’ll have to tell certain Numidians to whisper to certain senators of Carthage that their inconvenient hero is still on the loose. And you?”

“Certain of  the Senate and the Roman People will have to be told the thing they least like hearing in all this world: namely, that Hannibal Barca has won yet again.”

 

Posted in CRIME/DETECTION, HISTORICAL | 20 Comments

LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 8

Locusta had been able to walk to the small baths at the end of the road for her ablutions; yet she remained mostly house bound, since any sudden or irregular movement still caused shooting pain.

While not able to sit, she could stand and perform simple tasks for her host, whose name was Actis.

She was peeling and scrubbing gentian root as the old pharmacist was consulted by a soldier with severe nasal congestion. From gestures and the bits of conversation which were in Gallic she was able to gather that the soldier had long term problems with breathing and wakefulness in the night due to the congestion.

Though Locusta made no comment, Actis, from the corner of his eye, had noted her interest by the aleady familiar furrowing on her high brow. Her turned to her.

“Young lady, do you have any ideas on this man’s condition?”

“I have only made out certain words…and observed the man.”

“Well?”

“My experience of such things is narrow.”

“Never mind that. I know you like to be direct. Tell me directly what you think.”

“Well, have you examined his discharge and maybe even his sputum?”

“Yes, on a a previous visit. His nasal discharge is very solid and yellowish, sometimes even a grey-green, when it not not too thin and watery. What else might one observe?”

“Does it float?”

“Float? How should I know or care if the muck floats?”

“Well, I’ve noted that unhealthy sputum or mucus sometimes resembles the active leaven of bread. If you place it in water it floats and has tiny bubbles about it.”

“I see. And what do you conclude from that?”

“Sir, I seldom conclude. But I have given thought to cleansing the nasal passages with dilute sulphurous liquid or any mild substance known to slow the leavening of bread…onion juice, garlic juice. Perhaps there is a sort of leavening going inside the nose, expanding or increasing the mucus? In any case, it is something I have thought about trying. It’s just that treatment of such a stubborn condition might still take months, even years, so it would be hard to measure success till much time should elapse.”

Actis was now stroking his chin.

“Indeed, indeed…Now that you mention it I have seen nasal muck float in a spit bowl, while at other times it sinks. Hmm…”

*

The two were drinking wine later in the day, Actis sitting, Locusta standing.

“So, you don’t mind dealing with the various bodily discharges. It is not common in young women to observe and discuss such things.”

Locusta was genuinely surprised.

“Me? Mind? But through my whole life I have examined them. Why to smell a patient’s urine especially, or taste one’s own…”

Actis spat his wine and had a short laughing fit.

“Enough, girl! Enough! Let me drink my wine without such thoughts.”

“But…”

“Enough! What have I brought into my shop? Now tell me, do you not have any understanding of classical medicine? One does not touch let alone smell and taste bodily discharges.”

“Of course not. Except urine.”

“How ‘except’? How can you know such a thing?”

“From accident. Then observation.”

“And what of ancient prescription? Even in the forest these crones who…well, I mean no insult, but…”

“Ancient prescription is nothing to me, in or out of the forest. Nothing in itself, that is. If something has no effect after much trial I discard it. I don’t care how sacred or for how long it has been used. I’m too busy, too many families to tend. In one day I may rush between twenty homes, with the Morgarita wolves stalking me as I go. How should I spend even an hour on empty spells and useless cures?”

“Girl, that’s all very well for the forest, but there have been physicians and scholars whose work has been known for centuries and discussed across empires. Greeks, Egyptians, even Romans. Men whose thoughts have soared to the stars and plumbed the ocean depths. Do you really think your judgement – or mine, for that matter – can take precedence over theirs?”

“Observation and trial take precedence over all. One must not be hasty to discard, but once observation and trial have been done, then one should discard whatever fails their test. Whatever.”

Actis was shaking his head, frustrated but strangely not displeased by this precocious adolescent who towered above him like a statue of Diana or Athena. He muttered:

“Never…Never in my life…A child dragged from the forest…Never in all my life…”

There was silence as they drank, then Actis looked up.

“And yet you believe in forces no other can experience. Your voices, for example…”

“If one person experiences something that person should give credit to the experience. If other do not go through the experience they need give it no credit.”

Locusta paused, the brow furrowing. Then:

“What of the power you and I observe which is invisible to most?”

“What power?”

“The power of herb and mineral. The power, saving or destructive, of poisons. We might kill a legion with a sufficiently large infusion of wolf’s bane root. Or we might stop a fever raging through the region with that same infusion. Yet we see nothing, we merely observe an effect.”

“Yes, but your voices…”

“Are intimate, I know. I alone hear them. But what if they are produced by the same force as produces the effects of wolf’s bane root? When a sickening man is made nauseous by the thought of honey but craves the bitterness of that gentian I was peeling earlier, isn’t that a voice of sorts? What speaks to him? What if everything is connected and in movement, intelligent in some way, or part of an intelligence?”

“Now you are being too original all together. There are Greeks – Plato and Democritus – who might vaguely agree with half of what you expound, but neither would agree with the same half. Just what are you trying to say? Or is my wine too strong?”

“I mean…that it is impossible to believe in gods who brawl and fool about like men…but that…on the other hand…Oh, I don’t have the words. Maybe if I had the Greek language! I don’t have the words!”

“Never mind, child. Time is on your side. Perhaps the after-effects of the beating, and all the drugs, have made your mind a little feverish. We should suspend the drugs now. For the moment, just finish your wine then lie down on your stomach again.”

“Perhaps…perhaps I should stay quiet…And yet…”

“And yet what?”

“You spoke to me about the Jews, and how they have but one god. Do they recognise the gods of others, or do they believe their one god is all there is.”

“Therein lies their problem. Some Jews believe there are demons whom others worship as gods, but all Jews believe there is but one true god anywhere.”

“And where do they think this one true god dwells?”

“Oh, they see him as dwelling in certain places and objects, but they also believe he is everywhere. He’s quite a god, the god of Israel. You think he’d get lazy or bored or lonely, without competition, without company…But why do you find the subject so interesting? Is it somehow related to your notions of movement and intelligence in rocks and so forth?”

“Oh, I don’t know…it’s just that…One god. It would explain some things…”

“Child, you have only one body, last time I counted. It is time to look after it. Rest now. I will bring you some supper later.”

“Oh, I can fetch it for us.”

“You can, but you won’t. Rest. Rest both body and brain. I have some papers to read in my room and then…”

“Oh, if I could only read I…”

“Rest!”

*

A sudden bustle in the shop woke Locusta.

Turning to one side she saw a flustered Actis bowing deeply and speaking Latin. When she turned the other way Locusta saw the reason for the fuss.

Inside the doorway stood the Lady Agrippina with an infant in her arms and a boy of some five years by her side. Surprisingly, she seemed to have no servants with her. She was about to speak when the infant began to bawl ferociously.

As the mother soothed the infant, Locusta kept her eye on the boy, whom she had seen pinch the baby very deftly. The boy returned Locusta’s gaze, with a furtive grin. His expression was conspiratorial, even seductive.

There was conversation which Locusta could not understand. Agrippina spoke in a loud, commanding tone, almost jabbering. Like her pointy, prying nose, the great lady’s speech subtracted from her beauty.

All then looked toward Locusta as she propped herself on her wrists with the intention of rising, albeit with care. Then Actis:

“Stay as you are, Locusta. The Lady Agrippina does not stand on formalities, she merely wishes to inquire after your health.”

“Please tell the lady that I am recovering well and thank her for her concern. As I thank her for her kind offer to…enter her service.”

The response was translated, then:

“The Lady Agrippina wishes to give you an emolument in silver to help with your recovery and return home.”

“Please tell the lady her kindness is appreciated but I can take no money without working or serving in some way. As for returning home, the bandits of the forest will never permit it. I should not be surprised if my home is now in ashes…”

“Locusta, all the more reason to accept…”

“I cannot. Please tell the lady.”

After this exchange was translated, Agrippina began to make affectionate noises at the baby, calling it Agrippinilla. It seemed to Locusta that the abrupt shift was a way of saving face. Clearly, few ever refused the Lady Agrippina anything.

The lady next began to speak in her loud, snapping way to Actis about her baby’s colic. Locusta could tell this was the topic because of gestures and some references to herbs in Gallic.

While this interview proceeded, Locusta watched from the corner of her eye as the boy slid up to the side of the table on which she lay. Next he began to caress her hair and neck. Locusta permitted it. The boy then drew down the light sheet which covered her back. Rather than cause embarrassment to her host she decided to allow the impertinence. Locusta was no prude and there might well be limits to the overbearing mother’s magnanimity toward lowly Gallic subjects of Rome.

Suddenly the boy’s hand smacked down on the sorest part of her back. She cried out, the boy did a giggling retreat to his mother, who pretended not to have noticed what happened. Actis shot a quick glance of concern toward Locusta, who lowered her eyelids and nodded once to indicate that all was well.

In fact, the boy had chosen the sorest, blackest part of her back and Locusta was in severe pain again.

He fixed Locusta with his seductive grin as he huddled into his mother’s skirts. Locusta stared back with a cold curiosity, as if this boy was somehow a discovery.

Some minutes later the Lady Agrippina was about to leave the shop, only directing a curt nod at Locusta.

Domina!”

It was one of the few Latin words Locusta knew, the expression a slave uses to a mistress.

Agrippina stopped, not a little surprised. All turned toward Locusta.

“Actis, will you tell the Lady Agrippina that I am able to accept silver from her son? In fact, I should be very grateful to receive the emolument from his hand.”

“What? I cannot say such a thing to the lady!”

“Do so, please.”

When Actis had translated the request, Agrippina showed her anger only briefly, then made an expression of indifference by pulling down the sides of her mouth. She thrust a little purse at the boy who looked bewildered. After prompting, he walked toward Locusta, fearing some trick, some punishment. He held the purse toward her with his arm completely extended to maintain a distance. Locusta merely received the purse and said in Gallic:

“Thank you, young gentleman. I am now in your debt.”

The odd situation was ended by Agrippina turning abruptly and heading out the door, almost with a military strut. She snapped back at the boy, who was still staring at Locusta, amused and bewildered:

Veni, Caligula!”

 

Posted in HISTORICAL | 8 Comments

LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 7

“Ffff!”

Locusta woke to scorching and little stings down the back of her body, adding to the steady throb and causing her to cry out at last, though it was a muffled cry. She went to raise herself from her stomach.

“Stay, young woman, stay. You are merely being cared for.” A soothing older male voice, with an unfamiliar accent.

“What…where am I?”

“You are in my shop, in the town by the castrum. I hope you don’t mind if an old man sees your nakedness. There is a midwife in the town, if you prefer…”

“No…no…”

Locusta sank gently back down, sniffed the air.

“Vinegar…with a little willow bark mash…”

“Indeed, that’s what I just applied to your skin…But how did you detect willow bark?”

“I can smell it. And it has a feeling on the skin…But why am I so drowsy?” She clicked her tongue and licked her lips. “I remember I was given a drink…Henbane? With mandrake? And some other nightshade?”

Her interlocutor seemed to pause. Then:

“Young lady, I have not spoken anything out loud. Even in your sleep you could not know…”

“Am I right?”

“In fact…yes. Give or take a few ingredients. Quite dangerous stuff, especially the moonflower on an empty stomach, if one doesn’t know the dosage.”

“Oh…yes, moonflower. And one plant can be much more toxic than an identical one growing a few feet away. I examine to see if it has seeded…”

“Hmm, are you then one of these…Druid women of the Morgarita, who deal in charms and spells?”

“No…no. Oh, absolutely no! Don’t think me one of them.”

“Sleep again, in any case. We’ll talk more later. It seems I must ask you more than you can ask me.”

“But how…”

“When you collapsed inside the gate you were brought here by locals whose admiration you seem to have won. A well fed soldier might be able to resist such a beating and return to duties, but an exhausted and underfed child – you seem very young for all your height – could easily die from such treatment. I though it best to sedate you.”

“Of course…but I cannot pay…”

“The locals have paid, and well.”

“No! I must work…”

“Young lady, what you must do is sleep. When you are well, I’ll give you a job shredding willow bark. No more hateful task than that. Should teach you not to make Romans angry, if a lashing with vine branches hasn’t already.”

“You are a pharmacist?”

“Mmm, I am whatever the army surgeons are not. Dentist, vendor of cosmetics, dealer in coloured Morgarita stones…and, yes, a pharmacist. Now sleep.”

*

A light nudge of her uninjured front shoulder awakened her.

She could smell the food before her eyes opened.  A wide stool had been placed just in front of her head, where she could easily reach her dinner without having to do more than raise the front of her body. Seated on a chair behind the stool was an old man, dressed much like a Roman civilian but with darker skin and eyes. His hair and beard were white but, like his skin, showed a healthy gloss. Locusta was trained to look for the health of bodily extremities, even for the pink beneath fingernails: this man was indeed old, but in full vigor.

“Young lady, I’ve been asking about you. It seems you enjoy a good Roman porridge with garum, herbs and hard cheese, so I’ve obtained some from the caterer up the street. He does a good job, even grinding the grain fresh and boiling it up in goat stock. You’ll note he fries a little garlic and adds it at the last.”

“Thank you. If it tastes half as good as it smells…”

“I’ve added fennel to your wine, I’m sure you know why.”

“Yes, of course. A very mild sedative.”

“The less medication the better. But we won’t tell our customers that, eh? For I understand that you are yourself a pharmacist.”

“Yes. But I never over-medicate…”

“Just a joke, lady, just a joke. I’m half Jew and half Greek, so I can’t help joking and twisting ideas. Now, while I go to finish a prescription and then to fetch some wine for myself I’ll let you eat. Then we may talk some, if you feel disposed to talk.”

*

When the old man returned with his cup of wine Locusta had finished her bowl of farrum, not leaving even a smear in the bowl.

“A healthy appetite! I’ll have you drudging hard for your porridge within days.”

“Tomorrow, surely.”

“Patience, young woman. Just sip on your wine. Perhaps we can talk? I’m curious to know how someone of your age can be so educated in drugs and other medical matters.”

“Well, I think I am eighteen or so. I began toiling for my mistress at age three, maybe before.”

“Three! What kind of mistress finds employment for a babe?”

“She wanted fine fingers for picking and emptying all the seed pods of the heath, especially the broom. As you know, great quantities are required and the seeds are so small. Also, my eyes were sharp for finding minor herbs and insects for drying. When I showed aptitude for one thing, she gave me more to do. And so it went. Work is all I have known.”

“But play, affection…all the things a child must experience. You must have been held, embraced.”

Locusta fell silent, dropping her eyes. At last:

“I have never been embraced, unless by parents I cannot remember. My life has been work, and responsibility for many families of the Morgarita. I am respected, I am sure of that, but there is something about me…something forbidding perhaps…”

“I can assure you there is nothing forbidding about you. You are aware of your degree of beauty: all women are. Certainly…there is a great gravity about you, something Roman even. Indeed, you could be a model for the mother of the Gracchi or some such…”

Locusta reared a little.

“I hate Rome!”

The old man’s reaction was unexpected. He chuckled.

“Who doesn’t hate Rome? Still, what would we do without those straight roads, now that we have grown so used to them. No. young lady, we all hate Rome. But I fear we would miss Rome if Greeks and Jews and Gauls were left to each other’s mercies. Or to the mercies of Germans. In any case, there are many fine Roman individuals, among them some of the soldiers you have already met.”

“I hate no person. I don’t hate Romans. I hate Rome.”

“Indeed, indeed. But be careful, young woman. There is a touch of Rome in you. You can believe me. I am very old and very travelled. I know Rome and its empire, I know that mix of staunchness and vision, of wild ambition and hard, solid practicality. I see that in you.”

Locusta, still a girl and ill equipped for such abstractions, did not respond, but fell into intense thought. Then:

“Sir, you said you were a Greek and a Jew. I have heard a little of Greeks, almost nothing of Jews. Excuse my curiosity, but how did you come to be here, of all places?”

“Me? In a little town attached to a castrum which no longer houses a legion? Why am I not residing in Lugdunum, so close and the greatest city of the west? The answer is pretty simple: there are any number of Alexandrian Greeks and Jews who want to kill me. They won’t bother if I remain obscure, but if I win back a little of the fame I once enjoyed they will kill me. No doubt. And this is in spite of the fact that I hold Roman citizenship.”

“But would not Roman authority protect you?”

“Nothing protects from religious zealots. You see, young lady, I am primarily a philosopher, a philosopher of a school which denies the existence of gods. Now, no Greek believes in the gods, not really, but you would be surprised how eagerly they defend those gods. You may worship other gods, you may live as if there were no gods…but you may never deny the existence of gods. However, I did just that.”

“And Jews?”

“I was raised a Jew. Now there is a people which believes – but in just one god, strictly one!”

“Just one god? That is the strangest thing I have ever heard.”

“Strange to outsiders, but we Jews are imbued with the notion of a single god from birth. It is not a strange belief to us. It is the only belief possible, and nothing must be allowed to run counter to it. A Jew will not try to persuade you to share his belief…but put a sculpture of a Roman god or of the Divine Augustus in one of their temples and you will have to kill all the Jews in the town to keep it there. Which rather defeats the purpose of imposing it in the first place.”

“One god…so strange…But why do the Jews want to kill you?”

“Well, some would be happy to see me as some sort of Greek or Roman who denies the existence of their single god. But enough of a certain extreme sect of Jews know that I am truly Jewish and that I have denied their god. I hope you don’t find me rude, young lady. It is not my wish to insult you or the many gods of Gaul. I was merely explaining…”

“Oh, no…You are right. There are no gods, no demons. Nothing like that.”

“Really? You are so sure? But what of witchery and Druid practises? A herbalist of the forest must surely…”

“Spells are nothing. Empty words. You are right. No gods. There is nothing beyond nature…but so much within nature, so much that is strange and rich. And yet…”

“And yet what, lady?”

“One god…just one god…I have never heard such a thing…”

“It does seem odd. But he’s all for the Jews. Only one, and you can’t have any…Sorry, I’m being flippant. Really, lady, I hope you keep your godlessness to yourself. Take my advice and agree with anybody’s and everybody’s religion. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist or even if men are sure you are an atheist. What you must never do is say there are no gods. It is altogether too disrespectful. You put people on the spot when you say that. In Alexandria, where I lived, there are always mobs to tear one apart for less. For atheism they’d tear you apart slowly.”

“I’m still so sleepy. So much to think about, but I can’t think now. Let me ask one last thing, may I? A sort of medical question?”

“By all means. But then sleep.”

“When one hears voices, but there are no mouths to speak the words…what would you call that condition?”

“Who knows? Results of a bump on the head…taking no alcohol after taking much alcohol…simple lunacy…”

“But if the voices are clear? If the person is capable, and functioning as a person should in all other respects?”

“Really, I cannot say. There are Greeks of various schools who would offer an answer or explanation. The followers of Pythagoras would no doubt be ready with a theory, something or other to do with music or mathematics, depending on which sect of Pythagoreans. But as a simple philosopher and healer I can tell you nothing. If the sufferer were not having fits or in a fever I would try mild sedation, immersion in cold water, brisk exercise…but I have never encountered such a thing in sane, healthy people. Drunkards, lunatics, fever patients, people subject to severe fits…but never sane people.”

“I see. Thank you.”

“Young lady, you mean that you…?”

Locusta nodded gravely.

“Voices. Clear and definite, as your voice just now. Sometimes they don’t utter words, but rather form ideas. But the ideas are as clear as spoken words. They come from without, not from distempered imagination such as through fever. It’s not easy to describe…”

“And what do these voices tell you?”

“Many things. Principally, that I must seek out a means, begin a process, which will put an end to all this.”

“To all what?”

“To Rome.”

The old man had stopped smiling and was looking at Locusta almost with alarm.

“Young lady, I think we had agreed you were to sleep. So finish your wine and sleep.”

 

Posted in HISTORICAL | 4 Comments

THE NAME OF THE BEAST

Something unwholesome is alive in deserted Phosphate House, and I can give it a name.

*

The old building and its extensive shedding and loading areas have been abandoned for some years now. Half of the businesses in our industrial estate have also been abandoned but none show their abandonment like Phosphate House.

*

It was always an oddity in an industrial estate of small factories, gravel piles, storage sheds: a three story office building in the honey-coloured brick popular in the 1950s, or whenever in the mid-century they stopped using that dark liver-brick. It had a smidgin of pomp in the squashed-in portico with the name “Phosphate House” carved across the top. There was something permanent about it, something that put you in mind of Elders and BHP and Movietone News, something for keeps.

I remember it from my childhood in its first life as a superphosphate depot. Here the second most Australian need after water was stored and distributed: the mineral lacked by our soils. The head of Phosphate House wore a bulky double breasted suit like Sir Robert Menzies, and people spoke of Mr. Stringer or just Stringer as if he were someone who could make or break anyone in our country town. Probably he could. His secretary, Miss Crawley, was Valme, never Val. Apart from a ponderous broach, she was dressed plainly but perfectly, reserving decoration for her cosmetic-caked face topped by a soaring and stiff beehive. People whispered the usual things about Valme Crawley and her married boss, but the main thing you knew about her was her gatekeeper’s power. She could let you see Mr Stringer – or not. And he could fertilise your prospects in the town – or not.

This account is more about an invisible beast than about individuals who frequented Phosphate House over the decades. But you have to imagine the place as it was back in its first heyday: it was a great hub near rail and highway where the trucks continually came and went, where men in blue singlets yelled and sweated, where the sacks thudded and slid all day and even into the night, where the air was always piqued by that same acid aroma.

Somewhere, as we were taught in primary school with a certain reverence, islands were being gouged of bird dung; and the inhabitants of those islands were born wealthy because they lived where birds had thronged through millennia. This was the miraculous remote origin of the local miracle which was Phosphate House…

Then it stopped.

A government few in our town would admit voting for made it all stop. Superphosphate was no longer the Great National Substance. Farmers and gardeners simply bought it from produce stores in the same way they bought other fertilisers and chemicals.

The truck traffic to Phosphate House slowed and slowed, the freight train schedules changed.

Phosphate House became a dock for sacks of other things beside superphosphate.

We were told there was less world-wide of the white, acid-smelling substance which gave its aroma to my childhood. What there was of it became more expensive. The people of the Somewhere Islands were now said to be Australian dependents, paupers even.

In the meantime, a scandal burst. Valme Crawley did run off with a Stringer – but it was with the very stern, prim and angular Mrs. Hazel Stringer.

Sometime in the 1970s Phosphate House closed. You could climb a fence and walk around its docks, if you really wanted to. There was just the white dust inside and, in exposed areas, the greying sludge left over from decades of bursting or leaking sacks.

If you sniffed attentively in a corner you could still pick up that bracing acid smell. Your childhood came back, in a trickle and just for a moment.

*

For a long time nobody wanted Phosphate House. It was too odd: a three storey building out of town with enormous open shedding and docks. A government thought about it for a postal depot, but then decided on a modern, purpose built depot, to be established nearby.

Next it was considered for a text book depot. Then somebody decided on a proper shed with all the right shelving and forklift arrangements, to be built nearby.

At last, whoever ended up owning Phosphate House dropped the price on rental and it became offices and a seldom visited brick and paver display area for a nearby quarry. Later the quarry was acquired by some huge corporation (those ’80s!) which preferred another site nearby, purpose built, of course.

And so things went for Phosphate House. Nobody dreamed that a bodiless beast had come to live in its very interstices, and it would find ways to emerge.

*

One day some large turquoise and gold lettering, just legible in swirly po-mo style,  was fixed above the portico. It read, appropriately: Portico Transport Services. A funkified logo of the sun dawning between Greek pillars hung just beneath.

Two local buslines had merged, with their government and other contracts, and decided to make Phosphate House their headquarters. There was plenty of parking and easy access, after all. Why had nobody thought of it before? Perhaps because local buslines had always been small affairs tucked away behind high, overgrown fences near highways.

Portico would be different, and it showed immediately.

The two heads of the pre-merger businesses were locals and cousins: Kelvin Toukley and Brian Kelvin. Their respective families had been part of the one service in old merger days, before split-up days, before new merger days. Kelvin and Brian, both in their early forties, old rugby mates who were considered “lads” in the town, soon came to be known as the Portico boys, or just the Porticos.

The office staff and on-board staff began to appear around town in uniforms inspired by Virgin Airlines. One noted that the more attractive and groomed of local youth found it easy to secure employment at Portico – and blonde was certainly preferred.

New buses of European marques like Mercedes and Renault were parked all about the Phosphate House yarding. Some even left the enclosure to take some schoolchildren to home or school, or do the airport run to Port Tench. When there was a train breakdown, a Portico bus might do the transfer. But there appeared to be no increase in bus traffic along our part of the coast, and the usual long-haul companies still handled the Sydney and interstate routes.

In short, nobody knew what Portico was actually doing with its attractive staff and European buses. Some suggested that a huge coup was coming…but none could say exactly what so many new buses could do, beyond what buses had always done in our region.

Other questions were raised. Who was funding and why? Was it the Arabs or the Triads washing money? The Chinese government…

That was it! The choicest minds of the Mulloway Hotel’s Angler’s Bar finally worked it out. Nobody would spend so much, obviously all borrowed, unless there were plans for an entire new city, most likely a Chinese-funded “technopolis”. Word of the new city spread quickly, but no confirmations were forthcoming.

Because the Portico boys and their accountant, Grayson Donovan, were great motoring enthusiasts, most of the company’s lavish sponsorships went to motorsports. (In our town, you don’t go far socially or any other way by joining the Linux Users Group or the Chess Club.) Grayson Donovan always seemed to be wearing a racing jacket or driver’s suit as he dashed about town after hours and on weekends. The local tuning specialist became something of a celebrity. When you walked past his shop you could often see the Porticos and their accountant, together with any number of short, overweight men, sitting in a circle contemplating a computer readout or peering into the motor of a racing buggy or touring car. It was even announced by Grayson Donovan that he had found a shopfront in an obscure part of Sydney where a sort-of-a-division of Portico could sell motorsport merchandise. Mercedes and the French would want in. It was about “cracking the big smoke”, explained Grayson.

Then it stopped.

Just like the phosphate. It all just stopped.

What happened?

Well, Kelvin Toukley, international traveller and business dynamo whose name was being mentioned in Sydney boardrooms and newspapers, had an affair. He did not have an affair with a London call-girl or with an attractive blonde assistant (his cousin did that) but with the receptionist at the local funeral parlour, a freckly country girl called Kylie Gawler. Kelvin’s country girl wife learned of the association (with a Gawler!) and decided to inform the entire world that Portico was a complete confection. A certain major Australian bank had been persuaded by a moving of decimal points or by rumours of future government contracts or by sheer wizardry that it should pour millions into a simple rural busline. Grayson Donovan’s creative structuring of Portico did the rest.

All Portico had ever done was drive a few local kids to and from school, service the airport run…and process millions of dollars borrowed from the most respectable of Australian institutions.

Portico’s disgrace had elements of the fall of the Marcos’. Instead of a shoe collection, however, the most shaming and envied of Kelvin’s ill-gotten luxuries was an enormous stainless steel barbecue acquired for a price so stupendous that the locals had trouble believing it. “It just…gleams like a thousand suns!” said one eyewitness in the Angler’s Bar.

Within months, Phosphate House was deserted. For a couple of years it remained so.

When I say deserted, I mean deserted of humans.

*

Green jobs, green tech, green initiatives, green armies, green whatever…

A new government had caught the mood of the times, and thinking laterally (but forward) had decided to avert a financial crisis and conserve expensive energy by unleashing rashly improvised hordes of ceiling insulation installers. All over Australia, and all at the same time.

An average full install was free, so there were a great many takers in a great hurry. If there were not that many installers and not that many insulation batts, something called job creation could produce the former, a place called China the latter.

A large insulation business covering a region needed both storage and offices, not to mention parking. So Insulpower, a business which had not existed some months before, quickly had their hoarding up on Phosphate House, right where the lettering “Portico Transport Services” had been bolted into the brick some years before.

Insulpower’s representatives drove around in little Toyota hatchbacks painted in the company colours of “cerise and cerulean”. You could not miss them coming.

Those of us who had reason to pass often through the industrial estate got used to the sight of yellow insulation fluff littering the streets and even catching in the branches of the bottlebrush which are the favoured landscaping tree of the town. In fact, Insulpower’s Toyota Dyna trucks did not leave any part of the town without a bit of yellow fluff, but few questioned the quality of the batts when the actual price of the free insulation was quoted at thirteen hundred dollars by Insulpower’s representatives. One prominent councillor and business person of the town was particularly effusive in his praise of Insulpower’s “super high-qual, ultra new-tech” batts from China’s “Three Gorges sustainability powerhouse”: Warwick Gawler, the Toyota dealer.

When questions were raised about the tendency of Insulpower’s batts to disintegrate and blow about the streets, it was explained that the batts had their special way of trapping air which made them movement-sensitive in transport but “like a shower of finest goosedown” in your ceiling. With the price set at zero, people were willing to believe.

What created more uncertainty were the installers, mostly young men who had the look of being previously unemployed, or even incarcerated. There were accusations of theft, of installations only half done or done very strangely. One angry youth piddled and defecated in the ceiling of his former headmaster. There was a rape allegation. There was a fire in a ceiling.

Then it all stopped.

Just like the phosphate and the buses. It just stopped.

After fires and electrocutions across Australia, the insulation schemes came to a halt. In such a saturated market, even the old and bona fide insulation companies folded.

At Phosphate House, the trucks, the hatchbacks and the piles of yellow insulation batts were all gone. The sign remained, and, if you looked closely, you could still see the bleached outline in brick of the lettering from Portico days. Might you have also seen dust or hardened sludge from the superphosphate days if you peered hard in corners? I never peered.

*

Certain things look their worst in greyish morning light.

I was walking through our industrial estate around daybreak, just weeks after the closure of Insulpower.

The yellow fluff was everywhere. It was trembling and shuffling in the firsts gusts of morning, a bit like tumbleweeds in an old western.

I looked at the empty building and yarding of Phosphate House. Nothing had stirred there for weeks, and nothing would stir for a good while. Not every enterprise wanted such a home, only certain ones.

Then I realised about the beast.

People say that Phosphate House is deserted now forever. But I know it will operate again, and again be headquarters for more illusion and plunder and waste. Perhaps because it has the ideal shape and nature: a somewhat pompous office building just out of town with easy access and with masses of shedding and parking. But also because a beast has come to live there.

This calls for wit and understanding.

An invisible beast has come to inhabit Phosphate House, a beast which has a name.

And the name of the beast is SUBSIDY.

 

 

Posted in INTRIGUING, ON THE COMICAL SIDE | Tagged | 4 Comments

LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 6

Locusta had been taken into a stone shed, one half of which was barred cell. She was locked in behind the bars without explanation. She suspected there was nothing yet determined as to her fate. Saving face while holding to their laws and balancing the politics…Somewhere Romans were conferring about Locusta, and it would be complicated for them.

The cell had an earthen floor with a scant layer of well trodden straw. There was a water jug and a curious funnel shaped hole in the floor with an open clay pipe buried at its base.

Shortly before dark the officer who had been in charge of her capture came into the shed carrying the old cloak and another bowl of steaming farrum, this time with a wooden spoon protruding from its rim. For a moment he seemed about to speak, then to change his mind. He unlocked the door, placed bowl and cloak inside, then locked up again.

He was about to leave when Locusta spoke.

“Thank you. I hope you are not compromised by helping me.”

“No. This is regular treatment.”

He went to go, then paused.

“I…added some extra garum – since you like it – and some dried pimbo herb with crumbs of hard cheese. The way to eat it is to stir in part to flavour the porridge, and leave a little floating as sauce.”

“I’ll do that.”

“You know what that hole is for?”

“Is it for pissing in?”

Locusta’s bluntness took him back a moment.

“That…and the other. If you do the other we can flush it out through the pipes with a bucket of water.”

“It’s a very good arrangement.”

The Roman began to recover some confidence.

“The dung is led to a sort of underground fermenting tank. It can be used later as fertiliser, though not for root crops.”

Locusta was genuinely interested, leaning over the latrine and inspecting hard, sniffing.

“There’s no smell.”

“If you do it right, there’s only smell for a few days after the cell’s been used. We sweeten the tank and pipes with lime.”

“Is this usual?”

“Not in a prison cell. But we have much time on our hands here after such a long peace. Soldiers are given all kinds of tasks in the Provincia. That’s why a man can be flogged for a smear on his armour. Without constant occupation and strict standards a Roman soldier reverts to barbarism. The longer the peace and the closer to Rome, the worse the abandon.”

“Then what of Rome itself?”

“There are no armies in Rome, just a guard for the emperor and special detachments to keep order. To bring an army into Rome is seen as a great violation….But eat your porridge while it’s hot.”

“I will. Thank you again.”

Again the officer made to leave, again he paused.

“Girl…Lady…”

“Yes?”

“Have a care, lady. You may yet live. But have a care.”

*

After dark another visitor entered the stone shed. He was carrying a lamp, and Locusta could see in its flicker that he was the young man who had acted as interpreter for Germanicus that morning. He looked Gallic by his hair and apparel but his face was darker and finer than a Gaul’s.

“General Germanicus and the Lady Agrippina send you greetings.”

“I…return their courteous greetings. That is, if a prisoner may do as much.”

“Certainly you may.”

“And you are the general’s secretary?”

“I am his interpreter, first and foremost. I am able to assist him with the languages of Gaul and Germany, and I write suitable Greek. They call me Tyricus.”

“You are a Gaul by birth?”

“Well, in a way, lady. I was born and raised in Lausonna, far to the north of here, close to Germany. My mother was of the Helvetian tribe. My father, however, was a Phoenician.”

“Phoenician! I know so little of the wider world, but aren’t they the people who trade on the eastern seas?”

“It would seem they traded everywhere, at least till recently. My father was born Phoenician yet at the other end of the world to Phoenicia, in a trading settlement on the western side of Hibernia, an island beyond Britain. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Spain on the way to buy wool there.”

Locusta stared at the exotic young man, fascinated and perhaps even attracted.

“He was saved by the same Asturians who had previously sold him wool, but, being traders in their very marrow, they sold him off into slavery in Gaul. I was born a slave to a slave woman of the tribe of the Helvetii…but I must talk less of myself…”

“No, the wider world is of interest to me. I notice that you are somewhat darker, your features are different…”

“That’s from my father. And I’m guessing the ability with language is something I inherit from my trading forbears. But on to business…

“The general has sent me here with a proposition. It seems that there is one law you have definitely broken, in spite of extenuating circumstances…”

“Killing a huge rapist when he was on top of me? Ending the sufferings of a fellow Gaul when I had been given permission to hit anybody who was not Roman? I can be fussy over legal niceties too.”

“No, in fact, none of that. You agree that you threatened Virio with your sling. He says so, and you say so.”

“Indeed.”

“There is your offence. No evidence was adduced that you were defending yourself…”

“It stands to reason!”

“Lady, the soldier Virio did no more than approach you – or rather the body of his comrade. All may assume he was a threat to you, but the law is not concerned with assumption. You threatened an unarmed Roman soldier with a weapon, forcing him to abandon his fallen comrade, whether alive or dead. There is no way around this.”

“Is it Germanicus who wants me prosecuted? Why has he sent you here?”

“Lady, the commander and the soldiery of the garrison are concerned – rightly, I would think – that their dangerous work will be made more dangerous if any such open affront to their authority is allowed to pass. You might also want to consider that without Rome the Gallic tribes, even if they survived one another’s violence, would certainly be the victims of German invasion. You Arverni owe your continued existence to Rome.”

“I seldom get to think about these matters. I hear a little in the many homes I attend, but my life is taken up with work. I am not interested in who rules Gaul, I am interested in defending myself against Morgarita wolves and their human counterparts. Common sense comes into it here. If I had not defended myself against the rat-faced soldier I would not now be alive, so I can hardly be expected to regret my actions.”

“Indeed, the general and, more particularly, the Lady Agrippina are aware of your situation. Like most of us they were impressed by your actions today and wish to, as it were, find a way forward through this difficult business. They want to advance a solution which satisfies the garrison, the Gallic chiefs, and the requirements of law.”

“Your general and his lady seem very intent on satisfying.”

“Girl! They are offering you your life!”

“Tell me, Tyricus the interpreter, why does the general take the slow way back to Rome?”

“Wh…why? How should I know? He is a man who enjoys travel, and feels an attachment to Roman soldiery in all corners of the empire.”

“Is it the emperor who wants him to proceed in this way?”

“What a question! Why do you ask?”

“It occurs to me that General Germanicus is being kept away from the legions…as if he might be too popular with them. So he travels where peace is old and ripe, and there are no great armies to meet him. Just fat towns and lazy garrisons – and even in these places he makes himself loved.”

“You are sharp, young lady, too sharp. Perhaps you don’t want to hear what Rome’s most distinguished couple have to offer?”

“On the contrary, I am very interested in surviving and lessening all possible suffering. Please, let me hear these propositions.”

“One way out of this affair is for you to become the property of the Lady Agrippina.”

“Slavery!”

“Yes, if you will, slavery. But you would be a slave as I am a slave. You could occupy a responsible position and be well treated. Mark you, there can be no deception, and Lady Agrippina insists that there must be consent on your part, as you are to become a legal debtor then a legal slave to absolve your debt.”

“How a debtor?”

“A massive fine will be imposed on you, one which will enrich the garrison. The Lady Agrippina will pay it for you and you will then become her slave. She wishes to make it clear that she will not have this seen as any evasion of law. You will be truly her slave. She cannot and will not merely buy you out of a problem.”

Locusta went quiet, contemplated.

“And if I say no?”

“Don’t say no.”

“Why? Would I be executed?”

“No, but…please take my advice. I know the course these things take.”

“Tell me, Tyricus. Tell me the course they take.”

“You will be flogged before the entire garrison. It will be severe. The Romans do not play at these things.”

“I see. And how will they flog me?’

“Oh, why even consider…?”

“How will they flog me, Tyricus?”

“The general thinks, or hopes, he can persuade them to use vine branches. They are a common means of hurting without killing in the army. A fit centurion can make strong soldiers scream and cry, yet there is little loss of blood. But, really, the general’s first hope is that take the chance to enter the Lady Agrippina’s service. Slavery in such circumstances can offer more than freedom.”

“I see…vine branches…little loss of blood…”

“But there is no limit in the way of time or number of blows. And there is the sheer humiliation.”

“Humiliation? That’s nothing to me. But if there is only pain with little blood loss…”

*

When they cut Locusta down from the stump she slumped to her knees but avoided falling further. The different posture caused new waves of pain all down her back and legs. It was like being on fire.

At the start of the punishment there had been the expected hoots and leering at her nakedness.

After some ten minutes, Locusta, breathing deliberately with eyes closed, had done nothing but soak up each strike of the whistling vine branches as if her body were a heavy, inert dough. Not one sound did she emit.

The crowd had grown subdued. Then completely quiet.

The relieved commander, sensing the general mood, had called an end to the punishment.

And now Locusta was forcing herself to stand, dragging up the smock which had been torn and pulled down to her ankles. Again, a new wave of pain.

She knew where to go. In the wall of the castrum there was a guarded exit into the adjacent town. She took one step, then another, in that direction. Then she stumbled.

A powerful arm raised her from one side.

“To the town, lady?”

It was the voice of the officer who had brought her the cloak and food. Unable to speak she managed a nod and a pant of consent.

Someone else then supported her on the other side, though she could not look to see who it was. Slowly they were able to advance across the open ground while the crowd also dispersed to the fringes of the huge castrum where most of the buildings were now located.

Every movement was like a scalding all down the back of her body, though Locusta was relieved to see no blood dribbling to the ground at her feet. All she could do was to concentrate on her breathing and her assisted slow shuffle.

At last they reached the gate out of the castrum and into the town.

“This is as far as we can go during duty hours. I must leave you here, lady. If I can assist you later…”

“Thank you. You’ve done enough already. I’m alive…and free.”

“Tend your sores. Your back looked…well, not good. Come Virio, we must leave the lady to make her own way.”

At the mention of the name Locusta turned to her left, showing more emotion than during the whole course of the beating. He stood there, the small, rat-faced soldier, author of all her trouble and pain. There was a stab of revulsion at the sight of him. She was about to consign him once again to oblivion after a cold stare…then Locusta observed his expression.

Virio was red-faced and his eyes glistened. The man was close to tears.

“I…” He fell speechless.

And then it happened, as it had happened before. The whisper of those voices, then the insight, as if a curtain had been pulled back.

In spite of the fire down half her body, she saw into the man facing her. She saw the generations before, thrusting into life to make his life, a desperate urge, carrying along countless flaws and burrs in the rush to find shape. She could almost hear the rush of life within him, coursing through that intricate web, hungry for further being – a furious, clashing universe, all bundled into this small, uncertain, unhappy man.

How could Locusta perceive all this, at such a moment, as in a dream? Was she, in fact, mad?

At last Virio found his voice. The words came in a broken croak.

“Lady, I wish I could make it better. I can only say…that I regret…”

Locusta was able to lay her hand limply on his forearm. She found she could speak.

“No, I’m the one who must say sorry.”

“Oh no, lady. You are the true Roman. What you did was…”

“What I did was to make nothing of you. In that, perhaps, I was far too much of a Roman. But you are something. You are much more than anyone can fathom. The greater offense was mine. I ignored the life in you…the life…

“But now I need to find lodging in the town.”

“I have money, lady, and I know people in the town, I can…”

“No, no. I will find some work here. These last two days are the only ones in my life when I haven’t worked. It feels very odd. Money without working? I couldn’t accept it. It would be just too strange. It’s best I find some work in the town, and soon.”

“But you have been beaten so badly. Tomorrow your back will be black and so tender you won’t be able to move. Moreover the only work for any young woman here…”

“Oh, don’t worry about my virtue, Virio. I will certainly find useful work and an honest income…

“I am a pharmacist!”

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