⭐️Long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize 2017 ⭐️
— 379 AD —
‘Ouch. Careful. Give me that here.’ I snatch the hand mirror from the poor wretch who has the misfortune of being my cabin slave. Let’s inspect my shave.
‘You’ve cut me, you little shit.’ The dab of bright red on my throat’s making me woozy. I detest the sight of blood, especially my own. More importantly what’s happened to my eyebrows? ‘By Bacchus, I look like I’ve just witnessed my own death! Off with the kohl. This simply will not do. Quick, quick, wipe it off.’ At least he’s plucked them clean, but with all this swaying about it’s impossible to paint them on with any precision; I’ll have to look surprised for the remainder of the voyage.
In the hand-mirror I watch the boy duck behind the chair. Clever lad: put some distance between us. Ha! I don’t have the energy to strike you, dear, but it’s amusing watching you jump. Lovely-looking boy. Earthy pink-brown skin’s rather fetching: rustic, but healthy. His eyes, shadowed by thick lashes, resemble a deer. Apollinos chose well. The boy’s been a diversion.
‘Where were you born, dear?’
He shrugs his shoulders and laughs at my question – at the idea of having parents perhaps?
‘You very handsome, master.’
‘Piss off.’ He’s not admiring me. They once had, when my hair was black, and not creeping away from my brow like a thief in the night.
‘Fill my glass, boy.’
What a drag. Avoid the pirates, Damasus had said. I could strangle him. Who’d have thought I’d be cast off to the East? I must be the only cinaedus exiled in the history of the Roman Empire. Exile’s a punishment reserved for senators and poets. Legally it’s a valid sentence for my kind, but no judge would bother … unless bribed by Damasus, the Arch-bloody-bishop of Rome. Curse you, Damasus. I’ll fleece you for this.
A worthy task, Rufius; Imperial business, Rufius. An honour, Rufius. The thought of Damasus in Rome, and my assets left unguarded, was a concern. He’ll be livid when he discovers I paid some of his thugs twice as much as he does to protect my estates, and ensure the wine and olive oil gets to market.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty. Maker of all things … and here’s the bit those crackpot bishops quibble over, whether the son was human or not: And in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, that is of the substance of the father, bla-bla, true God of true God …
Damasus’ sibilant mutterings of the Nicene Creed’s been going round and round in my head the whole way from Rome. The prayer hisses in the night as I lay in my bed. True god indeed! When did Olympus become so bloody exclusive? I should have held my pagan tongue. It’s getting mixed up in Damasus’ battle for the papal throne that sent me off to Alexandria. And now I’m sucked into his treachery. He murders men and women for being heretics, but he’ll gladly sell their sacred books to the highest bidder.
‘By Bacchus, the hypocrisy!’
Take that, Damasus! My beaker flies at the cabin wall and bounces onto the floor.
‘Sorry, master.’ Poor boy, cowering as he crouches to mop up the wine.
‘Bah! Curse that Archbishop and his double chins – at least he has a few more than me.’ Men are tortured and beheaded without a trial for being in possession of heretical books. Exile and in league with that scoundrel! But what choice did I have when he waved the law at me … and the Emperor Gratian wrapped around his fat finger … need I remind you of the punishment for being a cinaedus, Rufius? I recall the smell of the roses in the Lateran Basilica that day. Yellow rose petals, crushed in Damasus’ hand, fluttered through his fingers as he spat out the word cinaedus. His laughter at having me cornered still makes me shiver with rage. I’ll fleece him for this. If he thinks he’s getting fifty percent of the profits he’s misjudged me. The best way to hurt Damasus is in his precious purse.
‘Pharos,’ shouts a deck hand. ‘Lighthouse. Starboard.’
‘Shut him up will you, dear.’ I reach out to stroke the slave’s hair. ‘I can’t tip you, but I can give you a kiss.’ He lets me pet him, ready to jump away at the slightest angry twitch. He’ll receive a decent tip for putting up with my ill temper. Simple joys, like surprising slaves with the odd forbidden possession, are what keep my pulse throbbing these days.
‘Wonder of the World. Starboard.’
Footsteps hurry on deck above us: bloody tourists. Such a fuss for a Lighthouse! I blame the artists. There are some fine paintings, but artists are prone to exaggeration. It’s bound to be an anti-climax.
The boy’s jigging about; he wants to see it. A rare inquisitive notion motivates me to throw myself up the narrow wooden stairs. ‘Let’s see what all the fuss is about shall we, dear? Lead the way.’
I’m more interested in the Serapeum – my new battleground.
The boat dips forward. I lunge with the sudden motion and grab the slave’s shoulder for support. Dear Bacchus, these old knees are not seafaring. The boy’s skinny legs hold my weight.
My hand clenches the side of the boat. Spray from the waves splashing against the hull will make me stink like a fisherman.
Alexander’s city planners were organised, I’ll give them that: wide avenues, row upon row of polished marble, some blocks nine stories high. A well-planned city, but boring. Rome’s messy streets and alleys disguise hidden thrills to satisfy the most rampant hedonist. My cabin slave points and grins like an imbecile. ‘Look how wide the roads are, and so white, and the towers are so high, and gardens on rooftops, and the Serapeum, master, look …’
The boy’s jabbering. That’s more than he’s said the whole voyage. But why? Alright, the harbour’s large, but ‘Great Harbour’ is arrogant. The long walkway clad in white marble that joins Pharos Island to the mainland is a tad unusual, granted. True, the gardens, leading up to the island, are immaculate. So Alexandrian gardeners can root out a weed from a rose: big deal!
The colossal pink eyesore at the top of the only hill must be the Temple of Serapis – The Temple, some writers call it. Nothing in Rome, Athens, Carthage or even Constantinople comes close in size. How vulgar!
The Serapeum dominates the skyline, at the top of two hundred steps behind high pink walls. Famous as the most magnificent temple in the Empire and home to half of the Great Library’s collection. Part temple, part fortress, part library. Like its god and everything else in Alexandria, the Serapeum is a Greek-Eygptian hybrid.
The Serapeum is the hub of Egypt’s wealth. Serapis is responsible for the Nile’s annual flood and Egypt’s grain keeps the Empire fed on bread, pastries and cakes. But it’s the Nilometers, which measure the water levels and enable the gold-diademed Priests of Serapis to set taxes, that give this god his real power. Ha! Money, as ever, is at the root of divinity. Local bishops must be itching to get their greedy paws on it.
‘So that will be my new arena,’ I mutter.
‘Look, master, Lighthouse …’
‘As I thought, the Pharos is an anti-climax.’
The Lighthouse dominates Pharos Island – I squint and shield my eyes with my hand – its polished bulk reflects the intense sunlight. The last thing I need is a tan. My crows’ feet will grow whiter than they already are. Ghastly! Poseidon stands on top of three hulking sections of white marble. Hoards of tourists hang over balconies eating some rubbish they’ve bought from the stalls below; the fools must have queued all morning judging by the length of the line waiting to enter. A mirror winks at its apex. ‘That is where they light the fire at night.’ I point. That irritating paternal feeling comes over me, as it often does in the presence of a young mind I can feed some worthless fact. The boy’s face is a picture. If only I were so easily pleased. ‘And those four statues at each corner are Triton.’
He looks at me blankly. Bacchus only knows what minor desert deities he worships.
‘Triton, king of the seas. He calms the waves with a blow of his conch-shell.’ I wag my finger and bellow above the roar of the waves pelting salt into my clean-shaven face – ouch, my cut’s stinging. ‘Wretched boats!’
The slave turns and grins at me. No doubt about it, I want to hit him. It’s not this gormless boy’s fault I’m disappointed. Those hyperbolic artists have ruined it. Oh, is there anything new for me to experience in this world? A sigh farts from my lips. I might as well go back downstairs. The Pharos has failed to charm me – profound reflection is best reserved for boys and wine.
The Alexandrian Library is delighted, Rufius – a great scholar from Rome. Damasus was being sarcastic. But there were those lectures on The Phaedrus in the forties. I must have written something important since then. Oh, the poems of the fifties are still in circulation among the few discerning readers left in the Empire.
I’m going to puke. The land in the distance swerves, tips the white city forty-five degrees south. My stomach churns.
Here comes the retch. Red wine splats the deck. What was that I ate for lunch? Cod. Its white flesh now pink lumps of vomit.
‘Oh, my whole life’s a disappointment!’ Where’s Apollinos when I need him? I’ve hardly seen him the whole voyage.
The cabin slave scrambles after me. I slam the cabin door behind me loud enough for him to think it is his fault. Let him gawp at the view all he pleases. It will fuel stories for his grandchildren: the day he sailed into Alexandria and beheld the Seventh Wonder of the World.
* * *
Who’s this ugly fellow? ‘Tickets for a tour of the Serapeum, sir?’ How do I say piss-off in Greek? Oh yes, I remember.
The Egyptian looks suitably shocked and scuttles off to find another mug to prey on. Where, in Bacchus’ name, is Apollinos? I’ll tan his leathery hide for abandoning me here with this rabble.
‘Whooa!’ I must sit down. It still feels like I’m on that bloody boat the way the ground’s swaying about. This bench will do.
Some urchin will fleece me sitting here. We need transport. I’ve a good mind to sell Apollinos.
‘Hello, hello, sir. I help you find chariot? You very proper Roman man. No good you sit here alone.’
Too eager. I hate it when they suck up. His complexion’s yellow. I’ve seen every skin colour imaginable and heard at least twenty different languages – Alexandria’s more cosmopolitan than Rome and Constantinople put together.
‘Piss off, dear.’ No need to look so shocked. ‘I said, piss off. Your ugly head’s blocking my view.’ Just pretend you’re sightseeing, Rufius, and this rat of a foreigner will get the hint.
That must be the Museum’s gold roof. Its white marble columns stretch high above the surrounding buildings. The ancient institution houses the bulk of the Great Library, the Serapeum has the rest of the books. Why do Alexandrians have to describe everything as great?
At least we’re in a Greek city. There are probably more eunuchs in Alexandria than in the whole Empire. No Alexandrian will turn their noses up at kohl eyebrows. Bugger it! That cabin slave let me disembark without my eyebrows. By Rome’s standards, I’m practically ordinary. Look at the strange black lines painted on that man’s face … or is it a woman? Oh, I feel quite at home!
Let’s try walking again.
No good: I’m still swaying … as if the invisible strings that hold us to the surface of the planet have slackened … what did Archimedes call the phenomenon? Oh memory, memory. Who cares? I need a stiff drink, a good scrub and a blowjob.
Where is my welcome party? Surely the Library’s sent some skinny Egyptian slaves to distinguish me from the disembarking rabble of Roman tourists and businessmen.
There’s Apollinos. His eyesight must be failing him. ‘Apollinos.’ I wave. The tall Greek rushes over, all fuss and apology.
‘I’ve a good mind to flog you, Apollinos.’
‘Yes, master.’ He clicks his fingers. Three slaves run over with a cold cloth, a jug of wine and a glass cup. That’s better. ‘I trust you had a pleasant voyage, master?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Apollinos. Where’s my ride?’
Why’s Apollinos trying to direct me towards a row of desks in front of the storehouses that run parallel to the docks? The Greek sign says ‘Library Customs’. Am I in charge of that as well as the Scriptorium?
The commotion and crowds, combined with me ignoring him, makes the veins bulge on Apollinos’ neck.
‘The Museum sent these slaves, master.’
I won’t be keeping any of those ugly creatures.
A scrawny-looking slave addresses me. ‘Is that your book chest, master?’
‘What of it?’
‘Every book needs to be registered at the harbour office for copying.’
‘Apollinos here will deliver my books and manuscripts to my Museum office tomorrow.’ I don’t want my library getting mixed up with the thousands of manuscripts taken for copying from every bloody boat docked in the harbour.
‘But policy …’
‘Bugger policy, dear. I am the new Director of the Scriptorium. Argue with me and you’ll be back in the gutter.’ Oh, my Greek’s all coming back to me. Marvellous.
‘Your Greek’s fluent, master.’
‘Don’t sound so surprised, Apollinos. Now toddle off and deal with the harbour officials for me, dear. You have the Archbishop’s letters?
‘Yes, master, but …’
‘Shoo.’ That will tie-up Apollinos for the rest of the day. I’ll rescue him later. Let him sweat for a bit as revenge for neglecting me.
‘And don’t take all day, Apollinos. We have slave shopping to do later … and lighten up, or I’ll replace you with a younger version.’
‘Yes, master.’ He knows I’m just tired and crotchety.
‘Now hail me a ride. Those gorgeous boys carrying that sedan chair will do.’
Shopping can wait. First I intend to orientate myself. There is one place I’ve heard talk of that mildly sparked my interest.
Apollinos frowns but runs over and points in my direction. Here they trot. Lovely movement. Four galloping beauties.
‘Where are you going, master?’
The two at the front giggle. How sweet!