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The Golden Apple

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I knew myself the apple of my mother’s eye before ever I’d seen an apple tree. Her love spilled out in honey cakes and honeyed words, and I grew into a plump child, content and carefree. In my earliest memories I’m learning to wind a length of blanket about me and tuck it just so, till the wash-softened folds fall like the marble ones in the frieze at the forum. My toga, she called it, pinching my cheek and telling me how proud my father would be of his proper little Roman man when he came for us. She spent hours each day with her pins and her pots and her mirror, coiling her bright hair, painting her face white as a statue and arranging her bracelets on her arms. Her arms were exquisite, truly exquisite, and her skin smelled as sweet as her cakes. Today was always the day he would come.

I met my father only once.

My mother died of the flux in my fourth year, and I passed from aunt to aunt till I wondered that Juno had blessed my mother’s family with so many girls. None of them gave me honey cakes, nor dressed me in anything finer than a baggy tunic with the stink of the dozen boys who’d had it before me and had never seen a bath-house from the inside. I waited for my father with the thoughtless patience of a child who’d never been denied. But when my fifth birthday came and went without anyone marking it, it dawned on me that Deva was a great big place. Perhaps my father didn’t know the street where all my aunts lived? Perhaps he didn’t even know my mother was dead?

I couldn’t wear the soiled tunic my aunts had given me, not to go up to the great stone fortress that loomed over the port town, squeezing all its shops and quays and warehouses into the sweaty space in the crook of the river’s arm—not to meet my father the centurion, who must surely command the entire Twentieth Legion! My aunts’ blankets were scratchy and stiff and garish, all wrong for my toga, and soldiers never wore the things anyway. My mother had another special dress for me, made by her friend Med the leatherworker, a helmet and breastplate and studded boots fashioned out of leather and tin, just like a legionary’s armour! It was brilliant! Senna, my first aunt, had left it behind when she took me. It was just like Gleva to take useless rubbish in payment, she said.

No one paid me much heed in the morning, so I crept out soon after first light. The sky was the colour of buttermilk, the flagstones still shiny dark with the night’s rain, the spring air damp with a taste of leaves and earth over the estuary salt. I slipped round the corner to Med’s workshop on Short Street. We’d roomed at the back, and I was gulping up the old smell of the oiled calfskins with the tang of dung and a hint of sour cherry still clinging from the tannery when Med caught sight of me.

He was a big man, well fleshed and ruddy faced, what you could see of it for his ruddy beard that glinted gold in the lamplight. ‘Bel!’ he cried. That was the name my aunts called me. They said they couldn’t get their tongues round my proper name. He put down the harness he was stitching and ruffled my hair. ‘Didn’t expect to see you here, and so early! Come to your old man for a job, have you?’

‘No,’ I said as politely as I could, for I hated it when he treated me as if he were my father. ‘I want you to make me some armour, like you did for mama. I can pay you,’ I added proudly, though I didn’t have the first notion how.

‘I can do better than that. Sit yourself down.’ He clumped up and down the backstairs and thrust a bundle wrapped in offcuts into my arms. My armour! ‘Think it’ll still fit, you’ve hardly grown at all. They not been feeding you right, the… er, girls? I’ve no honey cake now your ma’s… but there’s bread? Raisins?’ I shook my head. ‘Go on, try it.’ I shook my head again. ‘The armour, you chucklehead!’

Med was right, it was looser than I remembered, loose enough to go over the horrible thick tunic and cover up most of the stains, though not the stink. I could still smell that even over all the tannery smells.

‘Good work, this.’ Med tightened up the straps at the back. ‘Couldn’t do finer if it were for the Commander of the Twentieth himself.’

I waved my arms up and down. ‘How much?’

‘Your ma paid me for it. It’s yours, I was just keeping it for you. Speaking of that…’ Med clumped upstairs again. This time he put a copper bracelet into my hand and closed my fingers tight over it. It was heavy and cold with a great round knob in the middle. My fingertips thought it might have something engraved, a pattern of stars or flowers maybe, but my eyes couldn’t make it out in the workshop’s morning gloom. Med always used to complain that he could only do fine work in the little courtyard out the back where my mother grew her herbs and aired her linens when the wind wasn’t blowing in from the tanneries or the fish market. ‘I was keeping this for you too,’ said Med. His voice sounded a bit funny, like a fishbone had scratched his throat. ‘I think that fancy soldier Gleva called your da might have given it to her. The girls’d only have sold it, and I’d not trust any of them to put the money aside for your apprentice bond. You’d never have seen so much as a quarter! Now, keep it out of sight or someone’ll have it off you.’ He strung it on a thong, knotted it tightly, and we hid the thing under the folds of my tunic.

‘I’m going up to the fortress to tell my father where I am,’ I said. I hadn’t thought to tell Med my business but now I could show my father the bracelet and he’d know I was truly his son.

‘Oh, Bel,’ said Med. He sounded sad. ‘They’re queer folk up there, all rules and angles. Not like us. You take care of yourself.’

‘I’ve got to find my father,’ I said.

It sounded simple but as I climbed from the great town-bridge down by the harbour up up up towards the Praetorian Gate, I felt jittery and sick in my belly as if I’d eaten too many honey cakes. My nailed boots clacked on the flags. My leather skirts slapped on my thighs. My mother’s bracelet bumped against my breast, thump thump thump like a second heartbeat. My father’s bracelet. I hadn’t even looked at it properly yet. I ducked into one of the narrow back-alleys serving the smart shops and taverns lining Watling Street, the town’s proudest thoroughfare. Why it marched south all the way to Londinium! Maybe my father would take me there one day! I fumbled out the bracelet and gasped. It wasn’t a lot lighter than at Med’s, but even in the shadow it was obvious the thing was a bright shiny gold, not a dull coppery brown. The knob turned out to be a big smooth oval stone, deep green, and there were three stars, or suns perhaps, engraved on the band on either side. No smell of copper. No smell at all, I thought, though with yesterday’s slops underfoot it was hard to be sure. The aunts kept a lot of jewellery and liked nothing better than to show it off. This was finer than anything of theirs. I thought it might be worth more than everything in Med’s workshop put together.

‘Oi!’ A man loomed at the mouth of the alley. ‘What’re you doing there, boy?’

I stuffed the bracelet back under my tunic as fast as I could, but he was starting to come down the alley towards me. I got out my willy and managed to pee a great big splash on the wall. My mother hated it when I had to go like that, but it was the only thing I could think of. The man turned away. I felt a lot less sick afterwards so maybe I really had needed to go.

‘I’ve got to find my father,’ I said. I took a deep breath and strode up the street to the gate.

Up close, the wall looked as if it could only have been built by the gods, the stone blocks were so huge and fit together so snugly. The twin watchtowers were so tall they seemed to scrape the very heavens. Between them yawned not one gate but two, and they must have been built for giants. In the middle stood a statue of a giant man in armour, as if the gods had left behind a guardian to step down from his pillar and smite anyone unworthy who tried to enter. At first he scared me most of all, but he didn’t stir a hair as I sidled closer. When I dared to look him in the eye, there was a seagull doing its business on his helmet! Then an ox-cart piled high with barrels – salted meat by the smell – groaned to a halt at the top of the hill, and I saw what the giant gates must be for. Lots of flesh-and-blood guards sprang out of their hiding places and helped the driver to line up with one of the great arches. They seemed friendly enough, which was lucky because one of them noticed me.

‘The little chap with you, is he?’ he asked the driver.

The driver looked around. ‘Never seen him before in my life,’ he said. ‘And believe me I’d remember if I had.’

‘Taking recruits a bit young now, aren’t you?’ said a man holding a wax tablet who’d had been arguing with one of the other guards.

All four men turned to me. ‘You got business here, little sir?’ asked the first guard. He was tall and thin as a poplar.

There was no hiding now. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to find my father.’

Somehow I expected that when I said the words at the fortress gate my father would just appear, like the statue coming to life. But all that happened was the other guard asked, ‘Work here, does he?’

‘Yes, sir.’ I’d remembered my manners now. ‘He’s a centurion, sir.’

‘Got a name for him, have you?’ asked the second guard. He was tall, too, but as solid as one of the barrels on the cart. ‘We’ve got quite a few of them hanging about. And don’t say Lucius because I’d swear half of them are called Lucius.’

‘Not Lucius. Paulinus. Centurion Paulinus, sir.’

‘Centurion Paulinus, eh,’ said the guard who looked like a barrel. ‘Well now, we’ve only got one of those, and I didn’t know he was married.’

The first guard, the thin one, grabbed me by the shoulder and steered me through the rightmost gate. It was more like a tunnel than a gate, the wall was so thick. ‘Wait here, lad,’ he said. ‘I’ll check the duty roster.’

I was inside the fortress! The light was so much brighter here, out of the shade of the watchtowers, and the air tasted of coal and iron and cold stone. I blinked. It seemed a different world. The place was like a whole town on its own, only neater than the one outside the walls, with straight streets rather than ones that curved with the river. My mother had told me all about the fortress buildings, so I knew the big square one belching smoke right by the gate must be the bath-house. There were lots of soldiers, some in armour, some just in tunics, hanging around by its entrance. I wondered if one of them was my father.

‘Where are you from then?’ asked the barrel-guard. I decided I didn’t like him as much as the thin one.

‘Deva, sir,’ I said.

‘We’ve got a right joker here! First he says he’s looking for his father, then he says his father’s Centurion Paulinus! And now this!’ He was speaking so loudly that several of the soldiers standing by the bath-house started to drift closer. ‘What street in Deva?’

‘I used to live on Short Street, sir. But now I live on Silver Street.’

‘Hear that, lads? He says his father’s Centurion Paulinus and he lives on Silver Street!’

Some of the soldiers laughed. ‘Give over, Gallus,’ said one of the ones who hadn’t. ‘The boy can’t be more than three.’

‘I’m five, sir,’ I said.

The soldiers were all around me now, like a knot in a rope, tightening, tightening, and their words came so fast I couldn’t take them in. Come to join up, have you?—I’d pay good money to see the centurion’s face—With recruits like you the barbarians are going to take a beating—Quick, someone, let’s open a pool on what he’ll say—

And then the thin guard, the kind one, came back out. He sliced his way through the soldiers. ‘Forgotten you’re on duty, Gallus, have you?’ he said, and the barrel-guard hawked and spat on the ground before sauntering off. The knot loosened a bit. The thin guard waited till the one called Gallus had gone back through the gate. Then he folded himself up like a heron landing a fish, and said right by my ear, ‘Well, you’re in luck, little sir. If you can call it luck.’ He sounded a bit like Med had done. ‘Centurion Paulinus is on duty. He’s down as in the arena, rehearsing a sword-fighting display with his team. Are you sure you want to see him? Wouldn’t you rather come back with your ma?’

‘My mama’s dead, sir,’ I explained. ‘That’s why I’ve got to find my father.’

‘I see,’ he said gravely. He didn’t say all that stuff about the Elysian Fields my aunts kept repeating, he just straightened up and looked about him. ‘Felix, if you’re off duty, could you do me a favour and take this young man up to the little arena? I’d take him myself, but the carts’ll be starting to back up out there, and I’ll get no end of grief from old Maximus if Watling Street gets blocked.’

‘Of course, Rufus.’ It was the man who hadn’t laughed earlier, the one who’d thought I was only three. ‘Wouldn’t want our esteemed Camp Prefect to tear any more of his hair out.’ He turned to me. ‘My pleasure, young sir,’ he said. ‘Optio Felix at your service.’ He wasn’t short but he looked squat beside the tall thin guard, and he had a beard, the first legionary I’d seen up close with one. It was short and black and gleamed, and I could smell the almonds of the oil he used on it. I wondered how he could bear to walk around all day with the sickly stuff right under his nose. ‘Have you visited our fair fortress before?’ I admitted I hadn’t. ‘Well, that’s the baths on the right, as you can tell from the crowd of clean-looking legionaries outside. You won’t see too many of those anywhere else! Those boring buildings on the left are our granaries, or some of them anyway. Can’t have too many granaries, I say. The loaf makes the legionary, you know. Now, we go straight ahead here...’ And we set off down the main street towards headquarters, with half the men who’d been loitering outside the bath-house trailing after us as if it were a street parade. ‘Never mind them,’ said Felix, ‘they’re just here for my guided tour. I’m famous for it.’

He didn’t smile but he must have been joking because most of what he told me even a girl would know. But he explained the meanings of all the different legionary standards as we passed the shrine where they were displayed. It was fascinating, so fascinating I was almost disappointed when he said, ‘and the arena’s in this peculiar building here. Don’t ask me why it’s that shape, I couldn’t tell you. I served in Germania and Hispania and Numidia – where the men are black as night and carry their heads under their arms – before I was posted here, and I’ve never seen anything like it.’ I wanted to ask if he was joking again about the Numidians but I never got the chance, for a man in the crowd that was still following us broke in.

‘If you ask me,’ the man said, ‘the architect was too drunk to measure right.’

‘Nobody asked you, Salvius,’ said Felix. ‘Nobody ever asks you, except when the key to the wine cellar’s gone missing. Though it’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.’

I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The building looked perfectly normal to me, just a great stone block with marble colonnades on either side of the entrance, no different from the town forum. ‘I see what you’re thinking, young sir,’ said Felix, ‘but just wait till you step inside.’ We all tiptoed down a corridor where he said the Legate and his senior staff had offices – ‘the Legate’s a decent enough stick but believe me you don’t want to wake up old Maximus!’ – and came out beside an arena open to the sky. It wasn’t like the amphitheatre, which I’d stolen into once when the town held games for Emperor Postumus’s birthday. There didn’t seem to be any seats. Men were strolling around the shady colonnades that circled it, or leaning against the balustrades to watch. Felix was explaining how the arena was shaped like an egg for no reason anyone could fathom but I scarcely heard a word over the roaring in my ears.

My father was one of the legionaries practising there!

Men were dotted all over the arena duelling in pairs, one in legionary armour just like mine, the other in fantastic costume. Here there was a bear, there a shaggy yellow head I thought might be a lion, here a man painted black all over, there a man dressed in skins with long flowing yellow hair. Any other day I could have watched till someone thought to kick me out. But today was the day I was going to meet my father.

Which one was he? I looked from man to man but couldn’t make up my mind. Perhaps he was even one of the ones wearing animal masks? I couldn’t bear it a moment longer. ‘So, please, which one is Centurion Paulinus?’

‘He’s the one fighting the man dressed as a Parthian warrior, with the big long spear,’ explained Felix. ‘They’re practising for a show next week in front of the Governor.’

‘Over there, see?’ The man called Salvius pointed. ‘The tall one with all the centurion medallions and the red crest.’

I didn’t have a clue what a Parthian warrior looked like. But there was only one legionary with a red crest in all the arena.

My mother always said my father was the handsomest man in all the Empire, and the bravest too. As I grew older I wondered if she might not be telling the truth, or not entirely. But it was so. He was tall and lean, but you could tell he was strong. You could see the muscles play in his arm when he swung his great sword even from here. His skin was bronze, and a few curls of hair black as coal escaped from beneath his helmet.

It was as if a statue had indeed come to life.

‘Impressive, eh?’ said Salvius. ‘He’s the best man with a sword in the legion.’

‘Which makes him best in the Province, of course!’ said another.

‘It’s not the only sword he’s good with!’ said a third.

‘Now, now, lads,’ said Felix. ‘We mustn’t flatter the centurion too much, it’ll go to his head.’

My father’s bout had stopped while they’d been talking. One of the soldiers, Salvius maybe, waved and shouted. ‘Over here, Paulinus!’

The statue strode towards us.

Salvius suddenly plucked me up by my armpits as if I were a dog, lifted me straight over the balustrade and dropped me in the arena. I landed with a bump but – Jupiter be praised – kept my balance.

And I was face to face with my father.

The world narrowed. It didn’t matter that Felix and Salvius and ten others were right behind us. It didn’t matter that there were ten times ten more men in the arena. It was just the two of us. Father! I wanted to shout but my tongue clung tight to the roof of my mouth.

‘Come to challenge me, boy?’ he said, smiling broadly. ‘Don’t be shy! I’m sure we can dig you out a wooden foil from somewhere.’ He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and drops of sweat pattered onto the sand. It smelled like crushed nettles.

Someone called out from behind us, ‘The little lad only claims you’re his father!’ There was a great roar of laughter.

My father didn’t laugh. He looked puzzled. ‘What’s your name, boy? Where do you live?’

I brushed my hand over my breast where the bracelet lay, warm and safe. ‘My name’s Paulinus, sir,’ I said. I remembered how the soldiers had laughed when I’d said I lived at Silver Street, and anyway my father didn’t know about my aunts. ‘I used to live with my mother at Short Street. My mother’s Gleva, sir.’

‘Gleva,’ he said, slowly. ‘Gleva of Short Street. Had a room behind the leather workshop. Place always stank of the stuff they use on those skins. Gleva! She was a real beauty, plump as a peach!’ He looked at me, looked properly, like I was a harness he was thinking of buying. He wasn’t smiling now, not a bit. ‘I’d forgotten there was a child.’

There was a thump and a jingle behind us, and then a man was standing beside my father. It was Felix. Go away! I wanted to yell, this is between me and my father! but the words stuck fast in my throat.

‘The boy told Rufus on the gate his mother’s dead,’ said Felix. ‘He seems to have been living at the Silver Street establishment, you know the one I mean, I’m sure, sir. Shall I take him away – down to the mess hall, maybe, introduce him to their notion of stew – then send him round to your quarters in, say, an hour or two, when you’re off duty?’

‘Wants money, does he?’ said my father. ‘Don’t they all! I’m sorry his mother’s dead, but I’m no more responsible for some whore’s get than you are! If you’re so interested in the boy, optio, you pay him off! I’m not his father.’ He started to turn away.

And now Felix was wrecking everything! ‘I don’t want money, sir! You are my father, sir! You are! You are!’ I worked the bracelet out from under my tunic, but the thong had caught in the straps of my armour. ‘Look!’ I said, holding it up as best I could. ‘You gave my mother this!’ The pattern of stars on the bracelet matched the pattern on my father’s bronze greaves. He had to understand now!

Salvius was leaning right over the balustrade. He whistled. ‘If whores can afford to wear stuff like that, they ought to be paying us!’

‘Keep your nose out of it, Salvius,’ said Felix. ‘Looks a lot like your family sigils, sir.’

‘How did you come by a thing like that?’ My father bent down and tugged sharply on the bracelet, so sharply the knot slipped. I gave a little cry, more of surprise than pain.

‘Easy there!’ said Felix. ‘You’re hurting the boy.’

If only they’d all just leave us alone so I could make him understand! ‘I told you, you gave it to my mother!’

My father was staring at the bracelet in his hand. He recognised it, I could see. This was the moment I’d waited for all my five years. I didn’t know what to expect. My mother hugged me to her soft sweet breast. But fathers must do something different.

‘She must have stolen it,’ he said.

It was like being run through the chest from behind. I took a long dull moment to notice. Then it robbed me of breath.

‘What’s going on here?’ A new voice boomed out across the arena. ‘Why is everyone standing around? Get back to your duties, legionaries!’

Salvius and the others were gone. A single legionary stood beneath the colonnade. I hadn’t seen him before. He was a short stocky man, quite old, wearing shiny gold armour that made his paunch look big and round and shiny. But he stood as if he were posing for a sculptor.

‘Jove save us!’ said Felix under his breath. ‘And if he’s tied up, we’re for it. No one else is up to our esteemed Camp Prefect.’

‘Now, will someone explain to me, who has stolen what?’ the officer in the shiny gold armour asked. This was in a quieter voice than the big booming one, but still the kind that made everyone who heard it scurry to do its bidding. ‘Centurion? Optio?’

‘Just a little misunderstanding, sir,’ said Felix, standing as stiff and straight as if he were posing for a sculptor too. ‘We’re clearing it up nicely, sir.’

‘For Jupiter’s sake, must the entire fortress know my business?’ My father tossed the bracelet at my feet. ‘Take the cursed thing, and if I never see you again it’ll be too soon.’ And he strode off across the arena without a backward glance.

I didn’t wait for the officer to accuse me of theft in his big booming voice. I bolted.

I ran and ran that day. Down the hill to the bridge then right beside the estuary to the docks. Perching on the harbour wall watching the fat-bellied ships from every corner of the Empire come and go was always one of my favourite things to do. But now my father would never take me on one. I ran on, past warehouses and boatsheds and the big cemetery till the town ran dry and there was nothing but the sea, and still I ran till the great fortress on the hill would be no bigger than a black beetle I could crush beneath my heel. I didn’t look back. There was nothing but sea and mudflats, the green-grey flats of the salt marshes, the crunch of my boots on the narrow stripe of pebble between, the stink of salt and seaweed, the peep-peep-peep-peep of the sandpiper, the wail of the curlew, and the heavy sky over all, dull as lead. If I ignored the ships slipping out on the tide I could make believe the Romans had never come to Britain.

It was a long dreary walk back to town when I got hungry. The fortress grew bigger with each step. The spring days dragged and the sun was still high when I slunk into Silver Street with sore feet, splashed from head to toe with the black estuary mud, thinking to steal in through the kitchen. The cook often gave me tidbits from whatever she was cooking. The place was like an ants’ nest with a dozen doors on both sides of the street, but there was one main entrance visitors mostly used, and there were two men standing by it, even though it wasn’t yet the hour most people came. One, I saw, was just Med—but the other was in legionary armour. My father! The man Felix had spoiled everything up at the fortress this morning, but my father had come to put all right! I sprang forward with a cry. But something was off. The soldier was shorter than Med. Felix then, come with a message! But his armour was the wrong colour, shiny gold not dull grey. I stopped dead but Med had spotted me.

‘Bel!’ he cried. ‘Where in heaven have you been? You look like a pup that’s been digging out frogs on the mudflats!’

I was too tired to run and there was nowhere to hide. My mother was dead. My father had washed his hands of me. What did it matter if this officer slung me into prison? I tried to pull myself up straight and take whatever was coming as a man, not a child.

‘I didn’t steal it, sir,’ I said.

‘I don’t know what in Jupiter’s going on,’ said Med. ‘But the lad’s no thief, I swear.’

‘If by “it” you mean a gold bracelet with a malachite boss,’ said the officer, very calmly, ‘then most certainly you did not steal it.’ He spoke to me, not Med. ‘I have it safe here.’ He tapped his breast. ‘I also have an aversion to doing business on the public highway. Shall we go in?’ He didn’t wait for an answer but rapped sharply on the door.

The slave who was minding the entrance had probably never seen gilt armour before, but he seemed to know what it meant. He got Velua and Velua got Cunovinna and Cunovinna got Ria and Ria got Senna, and by the time she swept into the hall the word was the Legate of the Twentieth himself had come calling! It was like that with my aunts. They were like sparrows when you brush the crumbs out of the window, where there was one there were forty, and where there were forty you’d swear there were a hundred and forty for all the silly chatter they made.

Senna wasn’t like a sparrow. She was more like a seagull. She was so thin and bony the muscles stuck out on her arms like a sailor’s, and her eyes were beady and hard. She looked at people as if she wanted to gobble them up. She took one hard look at Med and the officer and me still in my armour streaked with mud, and she shooed all the others away. Then she ushered us into her private quarters. I’d never poked my nose beyond the door-curtain before, not wanting to have it snapped off. The walls were painted like a sunset, and the room smelled strongly of roses, so strongly it was hard to think.

‘I am Camp Prefect Valerius Maximus,’ said the officer. He didn’t sit down and he didn’t touch the tray of sweetmeats the slave brought. He did take his helmet off, and held it under his arm. It left a dent around his brow. The skin beneath was paler than his face, which was brown as undyed hide. His hair, what little there was of it, was grizzled like an old hound. ‘You are the madam here, I take it?’

‘I am Senna. I keep this place. I don’t give myself fancy titles.’

‘I’ve come about the boy, Paulinus.’

‘Bel,’ said Senna.

‘My name is Paulinus,’ I said, as clearly as I could. I didn’t usually bother to correct people any more, but I wanted this important man from the fortress to know the truth. My belly ached so much I longed to snatch a handful of nuts and raisins from the tray, but I saw this was a test, like in the old tales. If I didn’t set so much as a toe wrong, perhaps—I didn’t think beyond perhaps, but I knew if I touched Senna’s sweetmeats everything would fall apart.

‘Paulinus, known as Bel,’ said the officer. And though his voice was grave as ever I knew somehow that if this was a test, this man wanted me to pass. He turned to Med, who’d come in with us for some reason. ‘And you are...?’

‘Med the leatherworker, sir,’ he said in the voice he brought out for important customers. ‘I make harnesses for Gaius the horsemaster. He’ll vouch for me.’

‘And your business in this matter is...?’

‘I speak for Gleva, his ma.’

‘By right of kin, or marriage?’

‘We were... er, close.’

‘Med was our neighbour,’ I explained.

‘I’d have married her in a flash but she’d not have such as me. Fancy ways she had. Caught them off him she named as his da. She’d never have wanted Bel brought up here.’

‘This is no place for a young boy,’ said the officer. Med nodded. He looked grim. He probably didn’t like the smell either.

‘I keep a clean house,’ said Senna. ‘Girls are my business. They’re all free, they’re all of age, they’re all here by their own will, and they all get paid for their work, and paid well when your men are lounging around the town with naught to do but get their appetites up. There’s no funny foreign stuff here.’

‘Then what are you keeping the boy for?’

‘There’s more to running a place like this than just pretty girls. Floors to be swept, coals to be hauled, goods to be bought, meals to be cooked. Slaves can only do so much. The boy’s quick and willing. He likes his food, I thought he might make a cook. Velua says he can tell the quality of the olive oil at the market by the smell alone.’

It was true, I could. The good stuff smelled green like meadow grass right after a rain shower. The bad stuff smelled ochre yellow, like bare soil when it hadn’t rained for weeks. But cooking was a slave’s job. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a cook.

The officer took my mother’s bracelet out of his pouch, and placed it carefully on the small bronze table beside the tray of sweetmeats. There was a little clunk. Senna’s eyes stuck fast to it, and I saw him mark the fact.

So it was a test—but not just of me!

‘My fa—’ I stopped. I had to get this right. ‘Centurion Paulinus said my mother stole the bracelet. If that’s true I don’t want it.’

‘Gleva was no more a thief than the lad is,’ said Med.

‘My girls don’t steal from clients,’ said Senna. ‘I told you, I keep a clean house.’

‘If Gleva had truly stolen such a valuable bracelet from such a man as Centurion Paulinus, would he not have noticed? Would he not have accused her at the time? I have found no record of that. I cannot now examine Gleva, but I judge that Centurion Paulinus lies. And in any case, the centurion gave the bracelet to the boy in front of fifty witnesses, myself included.’ The officer looked straight at me, and I could swear there was a gleam of laughter in his eyes. ‘So, if all agree, let us set the bracelet as the boy’s apprentice bond.’

‘I agree,’ said Senna, swift as a seagull swooping.

‘That was my thought,’ said Med.

The officer looked at me. There was no laughter there now. If my father didn’t want me, his bracelet was just a lump of metal. I nodded.

‘So, am I to understand that you, Senna, are offering to apprentice the boy as a cook?’

‘I am. The house cook does for clients as well as me and all the girls...’ She went on and on but I wasn’t listening. She didn’t look at me once. Her eyes were still stuck to the bracelet. The day just kept getting worse. I didn’t want to be a cook!

Med coughed. ‘I had thought, when the lad was older...’

‘Are you also offering to take him as an apprentice, Med of Short Street?’

‘I don’t care a patch for the bracelet, save she wore it sometimes. But if Bel fancies my trade I think he might do well at it. He has a love for the leather, that’s a fair start. And his fingers’ll get more nimble as he grows, no doubt. He’s a bit young, and I’m a man alone, but old Ma Vatta who keeps the bakery would look out for him, for sure. And I’d do it formal like.’ Med looked at me with something fierce in his face. ‘It isn’t as if I didn’t already think of him as a son. Even if the gods should bless me with sons of my own getting, I’d give him a son’s portion when I go. I can’t say truly Gleva would’ve given her blessing. She never wanted me when she was alive. But she’d never have wanted him here. It isn’t natural.’

It might be better than being a cook. I’d hated it when Med treated me like a father before. But now... I tried to put his big body and red face and rough brown beard in the place my father had sat. But it was like those men in the arena in the bear and lion masks. It just looked wrong.

‘And now,’ said the officer, ‘I have a modest proposition of my own...’

~*~

To Paulinus, son of Gleva, greetings!

I, Lucius Valerius Maximus, write this for you to read when you are older. Our time is short and there is much that you should know that cannot be said to so young a child, nor before other ears. Show it to none but Nestor whom I trust. You must know that I am not your father. You are too innocent now to have considered the possibility, but others, my family amongst them, will consider it for you. Know that it is not true. When you were conceived I was serving with the Traiana Fortis at the other end of the Empire in Alexandria. On the day I set foot in Britannia after my appointment to the Valeria Victrix you had already taken your first steps. These things are a matter of public record. What is not a matter of record is that I never met Gleva your mother. There you will have to take my word. If it should ever serve your purposes to state otherwise I shall not contradict you.

You did not ask why I did not feel able to adopt you. By the time you read this you will know that my second wife is young, and has not given up hope for a son to add to our three daughters. I cannot in truth tell you that, were this otherwise, matters would be different. My family is an old and proud one and dislikes being the subject of idle talk. Why, then, did I take this step? It is hard to set down in words – and how my men would laugh to see me admit that – but I will make the attempt.

We in the Empire have sailed in stormy seas these fifty years at least. Emperor Postumus has tried to salvage a few spars from the wreck, but I am under no illusions – his enemies are too numerous and too powerful for his reign to long endure. What is needed is for men of all births everywhere to embrace the values of the old Empire. Not just its baths, aqueducts and straight streets – though should you choose to follow me into the Legions you will come to value them most when they are far distant – those are just her cloak. The body is the notion that a man is responsible first for the truth of his words and the consequences of his actions; second for all those under his command or influence; and third for all his kindred mankind, most particularly those who are weaker than himself by birth or situation. If enough men live by those rules Civilization will stride down the ages, whatever name men know her by. And so I hope to reap a double harvest by my labour today, in you and in me.

You also did not ask after Centurion Paulinus. In view of his conspicuous valour, I have prevailed upon my friend the Legate to promote him to the Third Century of the Fifth Cohort, which is posted to Banna on the Wall. If ever you are fortunate enough to visit Banna you will understand my reasoning. Know too that I have examined your mother’s gold bracelet and it is of the type that is a family heirloom. No man would give such a thing away lightly, nor risk it where it might be lost. Centurion Paulinus must once have cared deeply for your mother.

In lieu of the son’s inheritance that Med of Short Street would have given you, I give you my property in Portus Adurni by the theatre, which came to me from my mother’s family. Nestor has the papers. I hope that you might in time come to share my love for the theatre. I can wish you no greater blessing.

~*~

When I became a man I wondered if I’d made the right choice. That is in the nature of becoming a man. Perhaps it was like asking young Paris to choose between Juno, Venus and Minerva, all choices would go awry. It is a pity the theatre is closed, it makes such a fine play. Though ‘Helen’ is finer, I think. Euripides, my young friend, Euripides! One day I’ll coax you into trying him. To get back to my far less – ahem – heroic story – I’m certainly no Paris, far too fat even then for a start – in all my travels around the Empire I never returned to Deva, and I never saw any of the three again after that day. Med, I came to realise, had loved my mother very dearly. He must be poor Juno, doomed to love where he was not loved. When I understood he took that bracelet not for its gold but as a keepsake, I sent it to him by a route I trusted, but got no word back. I suppose he never learned to write. Let that be a lesson to you! Senna must, I suppose, be Venus’s bountiful – ahem – sensuality, despite her age. That choice I never regretted. Roses have – ahem – never appealed. And Valerius Maximus, why he was made for Minerva. Wisdom and skill in war, yes, that was him. Not that it availed him in the end. He was killed only a few years later, quelling the unrest after Postumus was murdered. O history, how dost thou repeat thyself! But truly, I never regretted giving the golden apple to Valerius. I always regarded him as my father. I always remembered his wise words.

And so, my young friend, that is how the offspring of a Roman centurion and a lady of – ahem – uncertain virtue came to be raised by the Greek freedman of one of the most influential Roman families in the Province. An unlikely tale, perhaps, but every word true, I assure you.

And when I felt your fingers on my purse, I remembered Valerius’s example and knew just what I must do. And here we two are, sitting beneath the finest little apple tree in the Empire, talking of apples. Well, I am talking, and you are – ahem – snoring. I must have overworked you. Perhaps if I were to get up very carefully, like so, we might find an apple that’s been overlooked. Ah yes, here we are...

9 June 2014