'Victorina's gone?' I could hardly take it in.
'You could have written.'
'What would that have achieved?'
I dropped my spoon on to the table and sat cradling my bowl, taking comfort from the warmth that remained in the pottery. 'This is unbelievable…'
Wrong. Victorina had had an internal problem, which some quack Alexandrian doctor who specialised in prodding the female anatomy had convinced her was operable; his diagnosis must have been false, or more likely he bungled the surgery. It happens all the time. I had no business to be sitting there, feeling so surprised that she had died.
Victorina was the eldest in our family, tyrannising the other six of us who had somehow struggled alive through infancy. I had always stayed fairly remote from her, a matter of choice since I hated being bruised and terrorised. She was in her teens when I was born, and even then had a terrible reputation: an eye for the boys, a saucy green parasol, and the side-seams of her tunic always revealingly unstitched. When she visited the Circus, the men who held her parasol for her were always repugnant types. In the end she picked up a plasterer called Mico and married him. I finally stopped speaking to her at that point.
They had five surviving children. The baby must be not yet two. Still, childhood being what it was, he could well be joining his lost mother before he was three.
Helena was missing this conversation. She had fallen asleep, crushed against my shoulder. I half turned, easing her into a kinder position; one where I could gaze down at her. I needed to see her, to remind myself the Fates could spin a sound thread when they chose to. She was completely at rest. No one ever slept so deeply as Helena with my arm around her. At least I was some use to somebody.
Ma draped a blanket over both of us. 'So she's still with you?' Despite her contempt for my previous girlfriends, Ma reckoned Helena Justina was much too good for me. Most people thought that. Helena's own relatives were first in the queue. Perhaps they were right. Even in Rome, with its snobbery and tawdry values, she could certainly have done better for herself.
'Seems like it.' I caressed the soft hollow of Helena's right temple with my thumb. Utterly relaxed, she looked all sweetness and gentleness. I didn't fool myself that was her true nature, but it was a part of her-even if that part only showed when she was sleeping in my arms.
'I heard some tale she had run away.'
'She's here. So the tale's obviously wrong.'
Ma intended to find out the whole story. 'Was she trying to get away from you, or did you scram and she had to chase after you?' She had a good grasp of how we ran our lives. I ignored the question, so she launched off another: 'Are you any nearer settling things?'
Probably neither of us could answer that. Our relationship had its volatile moments. The fact that Helena Justina was the daughter of a millionaire senator while I was an impoverished informer did not improve our chances. I could never tell whether every day that I managed to hold on to her took us one step nearer our inevitable parting-or whether the time I was keeping us together would make us impossible to separate.
'I heard Titus Caesar had his eye on her,' Ma continued inexorably. That was best left unanswered too. Titus could pose a tough challenge. Helena maintained she had rebuffed his overtures. But who could really tell? She might privately welcome our return to Rome and the chance to impress further the Emperor's son. She would be a fool if she didn't. I should have kept her in the provinces.
To claim my fee for what I had done in Germany, I had had to come back and report to the Emperor; Helena had come with me. Life must go on. Titus was a risk I had to face. If he wanted trouble, I was prepared to put up a fight. 'Everyone says you'll let her down,' my mother assured me happily.
'I've avoided it so far!'
'There's no need to get snappy,' commented Ma.
It was late. Ma's apartment block hit one of the rare occasions when all its tenants had fallen quiet at once. In the silence she fiddled with the wick of the pottery oil-lamp, scowling at the crude bedroom scene embossed on the redware-one of my brother's joking household contributions. Being a present from Festus meant the item was impossible to throw out now. Besides, the lamp had a clean, steady burn despite the pornography.
The loss of my sister, even the one I had had least time for, brought my brother's absence to the surface again too.
'What was all that with the legionary, Ma? Plenty of people knew Festus, but not many of them turn up on the doorstep nowadays.'
'I can't be rude to your brother's friends.' No need, when she had me to do it for her. 'Maybe you shouldn't have evicted him like that, Marcus.'
My turning out Censorinus was what she had plainly intended from the moment I arrived; yet I was getting blamed for it. After knowing my mother for thirty years the contradiction was predictable. 'Why didn't you give him the twiggy end of a besom yourself?'
'I'm afraid he'll bear a grudge against you,' murmured Ma.
'I can handle that.' The silence carried ominous overtones. 'Is there a particular reason why he might?' My mother remained mute. 'There is!'
'It's nothing.' So it was serious.
'You'd better tell me.'
'Oh… there seems to be some trouble over something Festus is supposed to have done.'
All my life I had been hearing those fatal words. 'Oh here we go again. Stop being coy, Ma. I know Festus, I can recognise one of his disasters from a hippodrome's length away.'
'You're tired, son. I'll talk to you in the morning.'
I was so weary my head was still singing the rhythms of travelling, but with some doom-laden fraternal mystery hanging in the air there was little hope of sleep until I discovered what I had come home to-and probably no sleep then.
'Oh cobnuts, I'm tired all right. I'm tired of people dodging the issue. Talk to me now, Mother!'
Festus was three years in the tomb. The writs had mainly dried up, but promissory notes from debtors and hopeful letters from abandoned women still trickled back to Rome from time to time. And now we had a military interest; that might prove harder to deflect.
'I don't expect he did anything,' Ma comforted herself.
'Oh he did it,' I assured her. 'Whatever it is! I can guarantee our Festus was right in there, beaming cheerfully as usual. Ma, the only question is, what am I going to have to do-or more likely, how much will it cost me-to get us all out of whatever trouble he's caused this time?' Ma managed to find a look that implied I was insulting her beloved boy. 'Tell me the truth. Why did you want me to kick out Censorinus the minute I came home?'
'He had started asking awkward questions.'
'According to him, some soldiers in your brother's legion once put money into a venture which Festus organised. Censorinus has come to Rome to reclaim their cash.'
'There is no cash. ' As my brother's executor I could vouch for it. When he died I received a letter from the will clerk in his legion that confirmed everything I could have guessed anyway: after paying his local debts and providing a funeral there was nothing for them to send home to me but the comfort of knowing I would have been his heir, had our hero been able to keep any cash in his arm-purse for more than two days. Festus had always spent his quarterly pay in advance. He had left nothing in Judaea. I could find nothing in Rome either, despite the labyrinthine complexity of his business schemes. He ran his life on a marvellous talent for bluff. I thought I knew him as closely as anyone, but even I had been deluded when he chose.
I sighed. 'Give me the full story. What was this sticky venture?'
'Some scheme to make a lot of money, apparently.' Just like my brother, always thinking he'd hit upon a fabulous idea to make his fortune. Just like him to involve everyone else who had ever shared his tent. Festus could charm investments from a dedicated miser whom he'd only met that morning; his own trusting pals had stood no chance.