At the top, Helena pulled a tinder-box from under her cloak. Desperation gave me a firm hand, so I soon struck a spark and even managed to light a taper before the spark died. On my doorpost the faded tile still announced that M. Didius Falco practised his trade here as a private informer. After a short, hot quarrel while I tried to remember where I had stowed my latch-lifter and failed to find it, I borrowed a dress pin from Helena, tied it to a piece of braid ripped from my own tunic, dropped the pin down the hole and waggled.
For once the trick worked. (Normally you just break the pin, earn a swipe from the girl and still have to borrow a ladder to climb in.) This time there was a reason for my success: the latch was broken. Dreading the outcome, I pushed open the door, held up my taper and surveyed my home.
Places always look smaller and scruffier than you remember them. Not normally this bad, though.
Leaving home had carried some risks. But the Fates, who love picking on a loser, had thrown every lousy trick at me. The first invaders had probably been insects and mice, but they had been followed by a particularly filthy set of nesting doves who must have pecked their way in through the roof. Their excrement spattered the floorboards, but it was nothing to the filth of the vile human scavengers who must have replaced the doves. Blatant clues, some several months old, told me none of the people to whom I had been giving houseroom had been nicely brought up citizens.
'Oh my poor Marcus!' Helena exclaimed in shock. She might be tired and annoyed, but faced with a man in complete despair she was a charitable girl.
I handed back her pin with a formal gesture. I gave her the taper to hold. Then I strode in and kicked the nearest bucket right across the room.
The bucket was empty. Whoever had broken in here had sometimes made an effort to throw their rubbish into the container I had provided, but they had had no aim; besides, sometimes they hadn't even tried. The rubbish that missed had stayed on the floor until decay welded it to the boards.
'Hush, lass. Just don't speak to me until I've got used to it!'
I passed through the outer room, which had once served as my office. Beyond, in what was left of my bedroom, I found more evidence of the human trespassers. They must have fled only today when the old hole in the roof broke open anew to let in a spectacular deluge of pantiles and rainwater, most of which was still soaking my bed. A further inflow of dirty drips was joining the party. My poor old bed was beyond all help.
Helena came up behind me. 'Well!' I made a grim attempt to sound bright. 'I can sue the landlord if I want to give myself a really bad headache!'
I felt Helena's hand entwine in mine. 'Is anything stolen?'
I never leave pickings for thieves. 'All my movables were stowed with my relatives, so if anything's missing I know it's gone to family.'
'Such a comfort!' she agreed.
I loved that girl. She was inspecting the wreckage with her most refined distaste, yet her gravity was meant to make me burst into desperate laughter. She had a dry sense of humour that I found irresistible. I threw my arms around her and clung on to her for sanity.
She kissed me. She was looking rueful, but her kiss was full of tenderness. 'Welcome home, Marcus.' The first time I ever kissed Helena she had had a cold face and wet eyelashes, and then, too, it had been like waking from a deeply troubled sleep to find somebody feeding you honey cakes.
I sighed. Alone, I might just have cleared a space and curled up exhausted in the filth. But I knew I had to find a better roost. We would have to impose ourselves on relatives. Helena's parents' comfortable house lay on the other side of the Aventine-too far and much too risky. After dark Rome is a heartless, unethical city. That left either divine aid from Olympus-or my own family. Jupiter and all his associates were steadfastly chomping ambrosia in some other fellow's apartment; they ignored my pleas for help. We were stuck with my lot.
Somehow I chivvied everyone downstairs again. At least the night was so terrible the usual thieves had missed their chance; our horse and carriage still stood forlornly in Fountain Court.
We passed the shadow of the Emporium, which was bolted up but even on a night like this exuded a faint whiff of exotic imported timbers, hides, cured meats and spices. We reached another apartment block with fewer stairs and a less bleak exterior, but still one I could call home. Already encouraged by the expectation of hot food and dry beds, we scrambled up to the familiar brick-red door. It was never locked; no Aventine burglar was brave enough to invade this dwelling.
The rest were keen to be first inside, but I pushed ahead of them. I had territorial rights. I was a boy coming home to the place where he grew up. I was coming home-with an inevitable feeling of guilt-to the house where my little old mother lived.
The door opened straight into her kitchen. To my surprise an oil-lamp stood lit; Ma's habits were normally more frugal. Perhaps she had sensed we were coming. It was quite likely. I braced myself for her greeting, but she wasn't there.
I stepped inside, then stopped dead in astonishment.
A complete stranger was taking his ease with his boots up on the table. No one was allowed that luxury if my mother was in the vicinity. He eyed me blearily for a moment, then let out a deep and purposely offensive belch.
Like any self-respecting mother, mine had made her kitchen the command post from which she aimed to supervise her children's lives. We had other ideas. That turned Ma's kitchen into a lively arena for people to eat themselves sick while complaining about one another loudly in the vain hope of sidetracking Ma.
Some things here were fairly normal. There was a stone cooking bench partly set into the outside wall with a view to spreading the weight; in front of it the floor bowed disastrously. Ma lived three floors up and her apartment had an attic, but my sisters used to sleep up there as children, so by tradition the cooking smoke was fanned out of a window downstairs by anybody who was hanging about; the fan hung on a shutter catch.
Above the bench gleamed a row of copper pans, paterae and frying skillets, some second-hand and bearing several lifetimes' knocks. On one shelf stood bowls, beakers, pitchers, pestles, and a motley batch of spoons in a cracked vase. Nails that would hang half an ox carcass held ladles, graters, strainers and meat mallets. A cranky row of hooks supported a set of giant cooking knives; they had evil iron blades bound on to cracked bone hafts and each was scratched with Ma's initials: JT for Junilla Tacita.
The highest shelf held four of those special pots for cooking dormice. Don't misunderstand that: Ma says dormice are nasty things with no meat on them, only fit for snobs with poor taste and silly habits. But when it's Saturnalia, you are already half an hour late for the family party and are desperately buying your mother a present to excuse the last twelve months of neglecting her, those dormice coddlers always look exactly what she needs. Ma accepted each graciously from whichever offspring had fallen for the sales pitch this time, then let her unused collection grow reproachfully.
Bunches of dried herbs scented the room. Baskets of eggs and flat platters heaped with pulses filled any empty space. An abundance of besoms and buckets announced what kind of spotless, scandal-free kitchen-and family-my mother wished spectators to believe she ran.
The effect was being spoiled tonight by the ill-mannered lout who had belched at me. I stared at him. Bushes of wiry grey hair sprang out either side of his head. Like his uncompromising face, the bald dome above was tanned to a deep mahogany gleam. He had the look of a man who had been in the Eastern desert; I had a nasty feeling I knew which bit of boiling desert it must have been. His bare arms and legs had the permanent leathery musculature that comes from long years of hard physical activity rather than the fake results of a training programme at the gymnasium.