A bowl of food appeared before me. Ma ruffled my hair. She knew I hated that, but she did it anyway. 'Is it all sorted out?' This was a purely rhetorical question, meant to soothe me by pretending to show an interest.
I took a stand. 'All except the knife!'
'Eat your dinner,' said my mother.
Helena muttered to Ma apologetically, 'I'm afraid Marcus has a fixation with tracing your old cooking knife-'
'Oh really!' snapped my mother. 'I don't see the problem.'
'I think Pa took it.'
'Of course he did.' She was perfectly calm.
I choked. 'You could have said that in the first place!'
'Oh I thought I did…' I would get nowhere trying to pin her down. Now everything was my fault. 'What are you making so much fuss for?'
I must have been exhausted, because I came straight out with the question everyone had been too sensitive to pose to her: 'If Pa pinched the knife when he left home, how did it reach the caupona?'
My mother appeared to be offended she had reared such a fool. 'Surely it's obvious! It was a good knife; you wouldn't throw it out. But that woman of his wouldn't want someone else's equipment in amongst her own kitchen tools. First chance she got, she gave it a decent home somewhere else. I would have done the same,' said Ma, without vindictiveness.
Helena Justina looked as if she were trying not to laugh.
After a silence it was Helena who risked an even braver question: 'Junilla Tacita, what went wrong between you and Geminus, all those years ago?'
'Favonius,' replied my mother, rather shirtily. 'His name was Favonius!' She had always said that changing his name and pretending to become someone else was ridiculous. My father (said my mother) would never change.
'What was the reason he left?'
Helena was right. My mother was tough. There was no real need to tiptoe around these dainty issues which she must have faced squarely in her time. Mother answered Helena quite freely: 'No special reason. Too many people crammed in too small a space. Too many quarrels and too many mouths to feed. Then people give up on each other sometimes.'
I said, 'I never heard you tell anyone that before!'
'You never asked.' I had never dared.
I ate my dinner, keeping my head down. Coping with family, a man needs to build up his strength.
Helena Justina was seizing her chance to explore. She should have been an informer; she had no inhibitions about asking tactless questions. 'So what made you marry him? I imagine he must have been very good-looking in his younger days.'
'He thought so!' Ma chuckled, implying otherwise. 'Since you ask, he seemed like a good prospect, with his own business and no hangers-on. He ate well; I liked the way he cleaned up a dinner-bowl.' A rare nostalgic haze came over her. 'He had a smile that could crack nuts.'
'What does that mean?' I scowled.
'I know!' Helena Justina was laughing, probably at me.
'Well, he must have caught me in a weak moment,' decided Ma.
I did tell her what the prisoners had said about her famous son. She listened, but what she thought or whether she was pleased to know it was impossible to tell.
She must have had another weak moment after that, because she suddenly exclaimed, 'Did you leave him at the Saepta then?'
'Somebody ought to get him out of there.' I felt the familiar formidable sense of pressure as once again my mother was planning an unwelcome job for me. 'He shouldn't be left there all on his own, brooding and getting drunk. It's Tuesday!' Ma informed me. 'He'll have nobody at his place.' Quite right. Pa had told me his red-headed fancy piece, Flora, would be over at the caupona, on her weekly visit, going through the accounts. 'There's a new waiter at that food stall; she'll be wanting to supervise.'
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. In connection with the family, my mother knew everything. You could never escape it; not even if you left home for twenty years.
'I'm not going to be responsible-' I mumbled weakly.
Then, needless to say, I left for the Saepta Julia.
The Saepta was supposed to close in the evening, but rarely did. Jewellery stalls do most of their trade at night. I always enjoyed the atmosphere after dinner. Streamers of small lamps were lit around the porticoes. People relaxed. There were faint odours of spiced meat and fried fish from itinerants selling hot food from trays. The small shops looked like glittering caverns of treasure as the lights gleamed off the metalware and gems. Trash you would never look at by day turned into highly desirable curios.
My father's office had lost its Egyptian furniture but had gained, courtesy of a forthcoming sale, an elephant's foot, some African war gear with a funny smell, a stone throne that could convert into a personal lavatory, two copper cauldrons, three tall stools, a small obelisk (suitable for a garden ornament) and a rather nice set of glass jugs.
'I see you're back on target to make a fortune out of junk! The mulberry glass could turn into a real sale.'
'Right. You should come into partnership; you could be good at this.' My father appeared to be sober: quite a surprise.
'No thanks.' We stared at each other, each thinking over the failed statue scam. The mood between us prickled savagely. 'I've done my best, Pa. I went to the Carus house tonight and planted the thought that they bought a fake. They may have the Phidias, but they'll never enjoy it.'
'This is really good!' rasped my father sarcastically. 'Some people convince the customers that fakes are real. We have to live the hard way-we pretend that the genuine article is a fraud!' He launched into the normal family flattery: 'This is your fault!'
'I admit it. End of subject.'
'I left you in charge,' he roared at me bitterly.
'Orontes was your contact! I'll trace him, don't worry,' I threatened, enjoying the prospect of knocking out the sculptor's brains.
'No point. He'll be miles away with that frowsty whore Rubinia.' My father was as angry as I was. 'I've not been idle either; I've been to see Varga and Manlius. He's left Rome all right.'
'I'll get him back!' I insisted. 'We still have four blocks of good Parian marble-'
'It won't work,' Pa answered rebelliously. 'You cannot force an artist to produce on command. We'd risk him splitting the stone or turning it into some crass cupid with a dimpled bum that you wouldn't stick on a bird-bath. Or a boudoir nymph!' (His worst insult.) 'Leave it with me. I'll find someone.'
'Oh that's rich. One of your hacks, I suppose. We're back in the world of putting false noses on damaged busts, distressing brand-new carpentry, adding Greek handles to Etruscan urns-'
'I'll find somebody else, I said! Someone who can do us a decent copy.'
'Nice Lysippus?' I sneered.
'A nice Lysippus,' my father agreed, not turning a hair. 'Better still, four of them. Wrestlers would be popular.'
'I've lost interest,' I complained bitterly. 'I'm not cut out for this. I know nothing about sculpture. I can never remember whether the canon of perfect proportion is supposed to be illustrated by the Spear Carrier of Polyclitus and the Discus Thrower of Lysippus-'
'Wrong way round,' said my father. Actually I knew I had it right. He was trying to unnerve me. 'And it's the Scraper, not the Discobolos, who illuminates the rule.'
'Four wrestlers then.' Defeated by his tireless villainy, I calmed down. A new sculptor would have to be paid his commission, but four good copies of fashionable originals would still bring us in a birthday present and a half.
'You want to learn how to stay peaceful,' advised Pa. 'You'll do yourself damage blowing off like that every time the Fates hand you a small reverse.' He was the world's most blatant hypocrite.
I noticed we both had our arms folded as we both seethed. With the same wild hair and our chests thrust out, we must have looked like a pair of antique warriors squaring up under the beaded rim of a cinerary vase. He remembered to ask what I had come for.