Perhaps, an introduction to my new book is not strictly necessary: those who feel like reading it will do so. Yet, I would like to say a few words first.
Although the main story takes place in Ancient Rome, it is by no means a historical fiction. (Even though I made use of several historical figures - Caligula, his sisters, a few senators and … well, Caligula’s horse - the rest of personages, such as the three time travellers, for example – are products of my imagination).
By choosing a historical setting for a fantastic novel, I wished to try out an idea of mine – a conception of ‘vulgar history,’ - which, in a plain language, means a story full of anachronisms. I have no idea if the ancient world would have felt drastically different from the one I am familiar with; all I wanted to achieve was to picture the past as a humorous antithesis to the huge bulk of already written historical fictions with the Imperial Rome as their main topic.
I know (or rather suspect, for there is no historical proof way or the other) that pizza parlors, hostels, private investigators, coffee houses and rebellious street youth did not exist back then. I am also well aware that ‘lictors’ were not a police force, although it is possible that Caligula could have indulged himself in getting high on unnamed ‘substances’ (his famous dilated pupils, tendency to hallucinate and to behave erratically are the historical facts).
Therefore, I limited my true historical references to only two books: Svetonius Tranquillus’ ‘Live of 12 Caesars’ and Petronius Arbitrus’ ‘Satiricon’ (I borrowed some details from the latter).
Finally, I would like to present my apologies:
To those, who might find some scenes and innuendos unduly racy – after all, I cannot be hold responsible for the morals and attitudes of the decaying Imperial Rome.
To those, who will find my writing somewhat ‘unbaked’ – yes, I realize that my book needs thorough cleaning by a professional editor but… such an opportunity is still out of my reach.
And to those, who might get confused by the author’s double name. Dale Radwin is my pen name (now I have blown it!). It is just I did not see much sense to put my book on Ovi under an alias’ name.
I will greatly appreciate all responses, including even the harshest critique! And…thanks!
* * * * * * * * * *
It was believed in antiquity that one of the lesser-known philosophers had once presented his pupil with a valuable advice. It sounded approximately like ‘Travel as much as you want! Travel widens your horizon but please, man! Travel light.’
History never revealed what happened to the abovementioned pupil after receiving this gift. However, this is a different story.
It was an ordinary afternoon, when a solitary young man hailed a simple merchant cart, crawling along the Apian road towards the great city of Rome, and inquired about an available passenger’s seat. He was a tall youth in his twenties, with a short, chubby nose, a languid constitution, large front teeth, and a few freckles. He wore a cheap traveling garb with little fashionable pretence, which indicated that he was one of those countless provincial dreamers who always tried to edge, slip or push their way into the Great City, until the City pushed them back.
And yet… And yet, there was something peculiar in his otherwise unremarkable appearance. He spoke clearly but it was impossible to place his accent. He was polite but his face bore a vacant expression of sleepwalker, a madman or a closeted radical thinker, which spelled more trouble than his company was worth. The cart driver was about to wave him off but the odd guy quickly produced hard cash. A brief bargain ensued, after which the cart driver grudgingly agreed to take him along.
It was sometime later when the driver, who had tried to occupy his time between chewing a straw and whistling a dreary tune, suddenly heard a stifled cry. The cry originated directly behind his back. He turned around and grunted. The youth he had picked up earlier was now lying on his side in a fetal position and moaning. It was especially strange since the day was hot, the landscape boring, and the ride lacked the minute element of an adventure. Yet, the youth looked as if he was scared out of his wits. The sight was so bizarre that the driver blinked a few times, wishing to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming, then, when he arrived to the conclusion that he was not, he coughed loudly and said,
The youth stopped moaning, raised his head and enquired in a hoarse whisper.
- Where am I?
- You are here, - Replied the cart driver, a genuine matter-of-fact fellow.
- Where is ‘here’?
- On this cart, surely. Or you’d rather walk?
- No. Yes. I mean, where are we going?
- Up this road.
- I know but… the final destination… What is the final destination?
- Well, funny you’ve forgot, - Shrugged the driver, - I thought you’d asked me to take you to Rome, no? You even paid for the ride. Remember?
- Most people would remember parting with their money. What is your name, lad? Do you remember your name?
- Eh... It is ... eh ... Cumulus.
- Cumulus, huh? That’s a hell of a strange name and no mistake but I guess it takes all kinds. Are you ill or something?
- Hey, if it is a maybe, then you are fine. People always damn well know when they are ill. Take it from me, friend.
The youth stared at him in confusion, swallowed and said,
- You what?
- I seem to have lost my memory.
- Oh, yeah? Was it a long one?
- Your memory?
- I dunno…
- Then maybe it was not. On the other hand, how can you tell now if you forgot? Hmm… Maybe it is for the better, you know. Maybe you had nothing worth remembering anyway. What are you gonna do in Rome, lad?
- I dunno…
- Well, friend, if you have nothing to do, find yourself a job. That is the best option. You will like it there! As I said, there is no need to fret.
In truth, the young man had all the reasons to fret. It happened shortly after they had passed some particularly dusty bend of the road when he realized that his mind had been swept clean of the most vital information. He was holding a small bag, which presumably contained his worldly possessions. He also had a purse that held a small amount of cash. What he lacked completely was the memory of how the hell he ended up sitting in this cart. In fact, he remembered nothing or almost nothing, except his name. In a sense, he was traveling light indeed.
- Everything will be fine, lad, - Repeated the driver and returned to his straw and to his endless tune. .
Cumulus nodded and stared at the distant horizon. He kept sighing, rubbing his temples while swimming through an abyss of dark thoughts but eventually, stupefied by a sheer monotony of the road, he leaned against a stack of some sacks, piled up on the cart and dozed off. When he woke up, they were already passing Porta Capena or, in plainer language, one of the gates of Rome. While he yawned and massaged his knees and elbows, the cart reached a huge market square, shook for the last time and stopped.
- Well, Cumulus, here we are. Good luck to you then, - Said the driver, winking at his strange passenger for the last time.
The young man jumped over a creaky board, landing on flagstones of the uneven pavement and stretched his legs. A nap calmed him down sufficiently to start planning his nearest future. Since it was already an evening, the future apparently held nothing more exciting than searching for accommodations for the night.
He pondered on it for a while then picked up his belongings, walked over to a row of vegetable stalls and addressed the least aggressively looking seller.
- Excuse me?
- Do you know by any chance where I can find some hostel around here?
- Don’ know ‘bout no hostel, buddy, - The seller shrugged uninterestedly and spitted on the ground, conveying a simple message that his knowledge of the city did not go further than a road between the city gates and the market square, and that in any case, he preferred to sleep outdoors.
The young man backed away and pushed along the first street that struck his fancy.
He passed a few blocks, filled with sordid looking buildings when he spotted a sign of some resting establishment. The sign, nailed above the low entrance said ‘Smart Traveler’s Heaven Hostel’. The thing was executed in big, sloppy letters, with an additional picture of the smart traveler himself, floating among the clouds. Cumulus marveled at the advertising creation for some time then readjusted his clothes and pushed the creaky door. It led him to a musty hall, furnished with a front desk and a huge sheet of parchment that bore ‘Guests’ rules of conduct’, attached to the one of the dirty walls. The man manning the desk, was deeply engrossed in licking his fingers, which he frequently dipped into a placed nearby soup bowl. As soon as Cumulus crossed threshold, he tore his eyes from his fingers, glared at the newcomer, belched and said somewhat enigmatically,
- Communal rooms only. A single bed. You want it or not?
- All right. Good. How much?
The grim hotelier named the price. The young man rummaged in his purse, paid for two nights in advance and headed upstairs towards his prospective lodgings.
The place looked seedy but at least, judging by the fetid smell lingering in the air, there were some sort of communal conveniences available at the end of a long corridor. The room itself contained three narrow beds and a tiny altar of some unknown Deity, covered with obscene graffiti and dust. Judging by a post - hurricane state of one of the three beds, there was someone already staying in the room. The young traveler threw his stuff on the next unoccupied bed, approached the window and stared at a couple of scruffy street dogs, barking on a street below. The dogs were fighting over something that had been possibly alive at one time.
Cumulus sighed and rubbed his forehead. It crossed his mind that due to the sorry state of his memory he would better remain in the room. On the other hand, he began to feel pangs of hunger of such multitude that it seemed unlikely that he could stand it much longer, the loss of memory or not. He paced the space between the beds then counted his money, brushed dust from his garb and, after taking a deep breath, ventured outside.
The city’s nightlife was slowly emerging from its holes and crannies in a variety of shabby characters in which drunken beggars, food peddlers, disheveled women, dirty children and guffawing soldiers constituted the majority. This section of the city appeared to house more drinking establishments than it seemed possible to fill up, yet most of them looked busy. The air, soaked in vapors of fried meat, rotting fruits, olives and onions, was oppressively hot and hummed with a clamor of various street activities. The young man slowed down and trembled with fascination. He was gawking at passers-by with such absorption, that two or three times, he bumped into someone and was sworn at but hardly noticed the calamity, engrossed in a spectacle of the Roman citizens having their evening fun.
A bit later, he noticed a less decrepit looking tavern and decided to try it. The place advertised cheap food and claimed to be the gathering place of local poets. He walked in, sat down at a sticky table and without further ado asked the waiter for cheap house wine, cheese and bread. He had no idea why he asked for that except for some reason it seemed to be the appropriate choice. As soon as the food and the drink arrived, he downed his wine in one go, coughed and began chewing on the stale cheese, while peeking over his shoulder. Soon his eyes fell on a burly, middle-aged guy who was sitting at the nearest table and who was observing him with open interest. The stranger was clearly drunk but kept straight posture of an athlete, or perhaps, a soldier. He had muscular arms and a huge scar, running across his extremely tanned face. They exchanged friendly glances then the man winked, got up and began dragging his chair over to the young man’s table.
- Hello there, pal. New in town, huh? – He said, seating himself down and instantly filling the air around him with a sour smell of hangover.
- A student, huh?
- No. Not really. I’m… an artisan.
- Oh yeah? An artisan? Cool. Mabbe an artist, more like? – The stranger grinned and scratched his round, greasy head.
- So that makes two of us, I reckon, - He concluded.
- Are you an artisan as well? –Inquired Cumulus.
- Me? Nah. I was meaning to say I am not from here either.
- Yeah. Came over yesterday. Great place, great place! Been to Rome before?
- Me neither. Great city, pal. Helluva expensive, too.
- So I have noticed.
- Hey, where are you from, buddy? You’ve got a funny pronunciation, ‘scuse me for tellin’ you.
- Umm… From up north…
- Hah, so I figured… I’m from Brindisium myself. Professional gladiator, at your service. Freelancer, no slave, mind. Been doing it off and on for Gods only know how long. Been retired lately but then I said to myself ‘What the Hell! You’re not that old yet, buddy! Mebbe it’s too soon to bury your talents, you know.’ So now I’m, how they say? Ready to reenter a lab…labbor market. Yeah. That’s it! Labbor market. And you?
-Well…I am looking for a job too.
-What kinda job?
-I don’t know… Artisan’s apprentice, sales… Whatever.
-Yeah. I’ve heard it’s tough to find a job aroun’ here, pal. Lotsa com…comp-petition. Not that it’s a problem for me. I’ve signed a contract with them guys from gladiatorial firm over there, - He nodded vaguely in the direction of some unknown part of the city.
- Oh yeah?
-Sure, pal. Yesterday, it was. By the way, where are you stayin’?
The young man named the hostel. A gladiator opened his eyes wide and laughed.
-That’s the place I’m stayin’ too, pal! What a coin…coincidence, huh? In what room?
The young man told him the room number. The gladiator started to laugh harder.
-That’s it, man! That’s exactly the room I’m stayin’ in. Hey, so we’re neighbors, huh?
-Listen, brother! What’s your name?
- A weird name but never you mind, pal! Am Cletius. Nice to meet you, bro. Listen, let’s hit some pizza place, how ‘bout it? Of course, I’m payin’, being in luck, huh? This junk you’re eating… I dunno… Doesn’t look wholesome to me.
-Well what? Let’s go, man. Don’t be shy. I’ve seen some nice pizzeria aroun’ the corner.
They dropped a few coins on the table, got up and filed outside. The pizza joint was indeed around the corner. Its front bore a jolly sign ‘Welcome! Try our authentic pizzas! The best Etruscan cousin in town!’
- See? – Cletius pointed to the board and grinned, - Etruscan cousin, huh! Cousin! And that’s not a name of a relative, mind! It’s name for a fancy kind of food! That’s city for you, pal! Lotsa culture.
They pushed the door open and strolled inside. The place had been decorated with crudely executed interior mural, the remains of which were still visible here and there, barely discernible through the layers of grime and the later pranksters’ additions. It seemed that the mural depicted the life of Heracles but for some unknown reason the Great Hero possessed a strangely feminine, heavily made-up face with bright red, sensuous lips and suggestive clothing.
Cumulus and his new friend were met by a swaggering waiter, wrapped in a filthy apron, who, after appraising the new customers with an insolent smile seated them at a ’rustic’ table in a far corner, then made a show of brushing crumbs and wiping off sticky wine rings from the table top with an evil smelling rag.
- Something to drink, gentlemen?
- Of course, friend! Of course! Jug of your good house wine for two and then…lemme see…- Cletius lowered himself on a chair and looked searchingly around.
-Here’s a menu, - Said the waiter, pointing at something lying on the table, smirked one more time and wandered off.
The gladiator squirmed at a thin wooden tablet with tiny writing on both sides and started to read, moving his lips as he went on.
- Lemme see here… Quattro formaggi, Fruits of the sea… Chef’s special… Aha! How ‘bout chef’s special? With extra deli…delicious sauce? Man, the only thing that troubles me aroun’ here is that you’ve got to use so many damn clever new words, you know what I’m sayin’?
- Yes, chef’s special is fine, - Cumulus said.
- Good. Hey, buddy! – Cletius turned around and boomed across the room to the waiter, - Chef’s special, with extra sauce, all right?
A few customers shot him annoyed looks. Somebody whispered loudly ‘Look at the damn bumpkin over there!’ But Cletius did not seem to hear. Soon the waiter arrived with the wine and two mugs and placed them on the table.
- Artisan, huh? – Cletius filled their mugs and took a good hit.
- I like them artists, you know. Too bad never had talents, myself. I’m a simple gladiator, take it or leave it.
-Have you always been a gladiator? – Cumulus asked.
-Pretty much all my life, yeah. Been doing a bit of soldiering before… Too bad freelancers like me ain’t always qualified for health insurance, you know. It’s a damned shame, if you ask me. I mean, the job is dangerous! O’ course, it’s not like you’re a slave or anything… Less chances to get killed but still…
- Aren’t gladiators dying all the time?
-Huh? Dying? All the time? Bullshit, buddy! Who the Hell is gonna fight then if they were dying? Nah… Not much dying nowadays anymore in our line of job, man. Too damn expensive! I mean, it costs you to replace people all the time, you know. All these gladiatorial entrepreneurs, nowadays they are after big shows and expense cuts! Damn tight-fisted bastards, the whole lot of them! Fooling good public with fake blood and whatnot! Well… It’s lotsa politics nowadays, political pro…propaganda and whatnot, if you ask me. I mean, all this sorry lot, they make a good buck but then, they even ask for whassaname? Aha! Government grants for entertainmen’ indisry! Can you imagine, man? I mean, ain’t they rich enough, bloodsuckers? But no! Getting all the dough they could lay their fucking paws on! It’s called business, see? Me, I’m juss’ a working man, you know. Been kicking asses on that fucking arena all my damned life and now what? Can’t even afford to live on my pension. Had to reenter their fucking labbor market, man! Gray labbor market, they call it. Ain’t got a single gray hair on my head. See? Lotsa disc…discrimination in my line of business. All because of age. But you are still young. Shouldn’t concern you yet.
Arrival of their pizza diverted Cletius from sad thoughts. The pizza was paper thin with a thick layer of red goo, chunks of cheese, onion and something that looked like burned pieces of sausage, glued to the top. Cumulus bit into his slice and cringed from the sour taste. Cletius shoveled one slice after another into his huge mouth and kept talking ceaselessly.
- Well, don’t listen to me, pal! I mean, I seem to crit...crit…criticize a lot but never you mind ‘cause I’m a patriot, man. Rome is my home! I’ll die for Rome and won’t ask for nothing in return. ‘Cause I’m a patriot and not some kind of money grabbing leech.
- But you said you’re from Brindisium.
- Never mind fucking Brindisium, man! Even if I’m from Gods forsaken Brindisium, I’m still a patriot. They might say I’m a bumpkin but I’m a true patriot.
- All right.
- Yeah, man. See? We are like older brothers to all nations. Everybody looks up at us, man. We are an example to the whole damned world, pal! Everybody learn from us! See? ‘Cause we’re le…leadin’ nation! Remember that!
- I will.
- I hate those punks, you know, who badmouth Rome, babbling on about corruption, wars, lack of liberties and so on. Lemme tell you juss’ one thing. You must be a true Patriot to your country, man! That’s what I always say!
- All right then. You agree. Good! Let’s drink!
Cletius was slurring and nearly dropping off his chair.
- Let’s get the Hell out of here, - He croaked, belching loudly and trying to locate his purse within the folds of his frayed tunica. After good twenty or so minutes, they managed to attract the waiter’s wavering attention, paid and headed back to the hostel.
Cletius started mumbling about dropping into some ‘nice and neighborly-like lupanarium I spotted yesterday’ but Cumulus pointed out that it was too late and both of them needed a good night sleep.
- Ain’t no need fucking night sleep! – Cletius growled, tumbling on his bed and starting to snore instantly.
Cumulus lay down, sighed and stared broodingly into darkness.
* * * *
Early in the morning, Cumulus learned that the price of his bed included a free breakfast. Although the breakfast consisted of nothing more glorious than greasy pancakes, stone cold, and a mug of milk, gone bad, he picked up the hostel’s modest offering and trotted into the ground floor mess room.
The first thing he saw was the bulky back of Cletius, who was sitting at a common table, apparently trying to force breakfast down his throat. He waived to Cumulus weakly then, once the young man sat down beside him, groaned,
- Damn the booze, mate! Or maybe it’s all that fucking extra del’cious sauce of theirs I went on swallowing yesterday like a damned fool. Gave me hell of heartburn right this morning, it did. Feels like my guts are all on fire now, not to mention my head. And how are you pal, this unholy mornin’?
- I am all right, I guess.
They picked their pancakes and chewed in silence for a while.
- Mebbe am a fool all right. So much for bein’ a damned Patriot, - continued Cletius darkly, - Stay with your boss, keep the line, work hard and then what? All reward you get is heartburn and shits all morning. Hmm…It’s not a proper life, pal. Not a kinda life I’ve always wanted. I used to take some classes back there in Brindisium, you know.
- What classes?
- Huh! Flower arrangement classes… Thought I was gonna live quietly on my retirement, become a nice person, have some good, solid neighborly fun. Mebbe start growing flowers, open a boutique shop, you know how it is. And here I am… Talk about rotten luck, huh? And how am suppose to attend those fucking training sessions this very afternoon, may I ask?
- You’ve got to attend training sessions? - Cumulus failed to hide his astonishment. Cletius grinned humorlessly and said,
- O’ course! What do you think, mate? That they’d let you waive your weapon in public, and ‘specially in Rome, any old how? Nowadays, it’s all ‘bout show, you know. They even give you a script: who to hit and how, when to fall, what to yell and so on… Fucking bloodsuckers... It’s all cooked up beforehand. And how’s your job search going?
- Well…I am going to start it pretty soon.
- Better not waste your time then.
- I suppose…
- See ya later then.
Cumulus disposed quietly of his milk by pouring it on the floor, got up and headed outside into a busy street.
It was relatively early but the city that presumably never slept, was bustling with morning life. Cumulus was walking past shops, ethnic restaurants and squalid tenement buildings, with a distinctive feeling of doom that, since yesterday afternoon, engulfed him completely. He had no idea where and how one was supposed to look for a job here. The place was simply a maze of nameless streets, dirty corners, largely occupied by beggars and peddlers of ‘crafts’, temples and somber looking official buildings. He knew that for one thing he was not properly dressed: even beggars, who hustled nearly everyone in sight, largely ignored him. On the other hand, he felt as in a dream although, as he was progressing further down the road, he managed to collect so many knocks from hurrying passers-by that his dream started to look more like a reality. Once he passed an establishment that advertised itself as ‘Tourists and Visitors’ Information Center.’ Several scrawny, bored looking men were sitting near the entrance, spitting on the ground next to beaten up litter, on top of which was mounted a sign: ‘Two-hour tour through the city center!’
Finally, he halted in front of what appeared to be an art gallery and stepped inside. It remained unknown what made him do that. Perhaps, he had reached such level of desperation that even employment in an art gallery did not seem such a bad option. He barely crossed the threshold when he was greeted by a bald, stick-thin man, dressed in a plain, second hand chiton, arranged with certain flair. The man was standing in the middle of the exhibition room, surrounded by an array of large and small marble sculptures. The gallery walls were adorned with colorful paintings, depicting swollen flowers, misty landscapes, mothers and babies taking stroll along a beach or playing in a garden, streets in rain, and ocean waves, colored by dramatic sunsets.
-Hi, there! How can I help you? - cried the bald man with an unnatural enthusiasm of a sales force veteran, producing a crazy smile, although, once he stepped closer and gave Cumulus an appraising look, his face molded back into a mask of indifference.
-Yes? – He asked again, this time in a rather matter of fact manner.
- Hmm…. Hi, - Cumulus stared into the man’s cold eyes; then shivered, as if he had recalled something, and said:
- Nice gallery.
- I mean, you’ve got a nice collection here. Beautiful art.
- I am…
- Are you an artist? – The keeper’s voice rang with a clear disgust now.
-No, but I was wondering…
- …if you need any help?
-Help? What kind of help? Are you looking for work?
- Yes, sir.
- All right. No. Yes. We need a part-time salesperson. Do you have any experience?
- Actually, hmm… yes. Sure, I have experience.
- What’s your name?
-You speak with an accent. Where are you from?
-Um… From up north…
-Up where north?
-Never mind! What is your name again?
-All right! Well, - The man shrugged and walked to a small table, littered with scrolls and hand painted brochures.
- Fill up an application, please, - He said, handing Cumulus a piece of parchment.
- I am sorry, I don’t have a …- Cumulus patted his sides helplessly.
- A stelos?
- Yes, sir.
- Ah, sit here at the table over here. Here’s a stelos.
Cumulus sat down and began to write.
* * * *
- So? Found a job?
Cumulus nodded and shouted to Cletius across a table:
-And how was your training?
- Eh… What?
-I said how was your training?
-OK. The overseer is an asshole but other than that, it’s fine.
They were sitting in a small tavern, cramped with late night customers. It had been a busy day and both of them were tired. In addition to the feeling of near - exhaustion, Cumulus was preoccupied with the thoughts of his new job. He didn’t notice Cletius opening his mouth and shouting something to him a few times. He came to his senses only when the gladiator moved closer and patted Cumulus on a shoulder.
- What’s the matter with you, pal? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or your grandma died.
- No, I’m OK.
- The Hell you’re OK. Is it your new job? By the way, what kinda job you’ve got?
- Umh, it’s sales.
- Sales? Like vegetable sales or…
- No, it’s art sales. In an art gallery…
- I see. Well, I dunno much ‘bout art sales. Sounds like not too dirty a job to me. But anyway, what’s the matter with you today? Are you ill or something?
- No, it’s…
- Oh, come on! Tell me, pal or I’ll worry. It’s not healthy to keep it inside of your head, you know. Go on, tell me.
- Well, it’s just that I don’t seem to remember much.
- Whaddaya mean, don’t seem to remember much? You forgot your name or what?
- Oh, I know my name all right but beyond that…
- You don’t remember the name of your mother?
- I seem to… Well, I mainly don’t remember anything prior the moment I arrived to Rome. Do you see what I mean?
- Hmm… Sounds crazy to me but oh well, psy…psychology isn’t my strong point, pal so never you mind how it sounds to me anyway. I believe it is called Am…Amnesia. Yeah. But what happened? I mean, well, in my line of work, if some bastard bumps you on your head, you might, how it called, to lose something you remembered. I mean, it might be temporary and so on, but in art sales, well…I didn’t know art sales could be that dangerous. On the other hand, if you forgot something, oh well, how do you know it was worth remembering anyway? You’re still a capable guy, no? You found yourself a job and so on. Maybe your memories will come back someday, who knows. But ya know what? I think what you might do is this: have you got any of your stuff with you? I recon you’ve got a bag or something…
- Well, then, sometimes it helps to remember things if you have a look at your possessions, you know. Maybe you’ve got a letter from your mother, or some souvenir from home, an amulet that helps you with erection, good luck charms or I dunno what. It might knock your memories back into shape. It helped me a few times, that much I know. This is why I always carry with me this, how you call it, m… me … memorabilia.
Cletius grinned encouragingly and started rummaging in his pockets.
- Ah! Here it is! – He exclaimed at last and handed Cumulus a folded scroll with dog-eared edges.
- Go on, look!
Cumulus unfolded the scroll and looked. It contained an extremely crude drawing made with what resembled colored pencils. The drawing depicted a young woman with an asymmetrical and somewhat silly face.
- She was my school sweetheart, - Cletius said proudly, - Ran away with some guy from Alexandria but never mind that. I’ve been carrying this picture with me since. Always helpful when there‘s something wrong with my head. Maybe you’ve got something along this line in your bag, huh?
Cumulus very much doubted that he carried in his traveling bag any pictures but he said aloud:
- Maybe. I’ll have a look this very evening.
- All right, you do that, pal. And stop fretting, for Gods’ sake! It hurts just to look at you.
When they returned to their room, Cletius said,
- You go ahead and peek into your belongings. I’ll go and take a leak in their damn facilities. Nearly fell down the hole yesterday.
- All right.
Once the gladiator left the room, Cumulus yanked his bag from under the bed and stared at it dully. Suddenly he realized that he did not really know what was in his bag and he felt strangely reluctant to untie the cord and inspect the contents. Finally, he took a deep breath, untied the knot and thrust his shaking hand inside. The bag seemed to contain nothing more dangerous than a bungle of crumpled clothes. He was exploring his stuff for some time when his fingers touched a piece of parchment, hidden on the very bottom.
What’s that? A picture of my school sweetheart? No, it can’t be, - He mumbled then picked up the mysterious object, took a good look and knitted his brows.
- What is this?
It resembled a book page, printed in some incomprehensible foreign language. Cumulus bored at the strange, almost Latin letters. Yet the thing looked… familiar. He furrowed his brows and leaned closer when a sharp pain shot through his left temple. He dropped the page on the floor and closed his eyes.
- Am I getting crazy? What’s this shit anyway? – He groaned, fighting nausea and trying to regain his senses when he heard heavy steps approaching. He trembled, shoved the page into the bag and kicked the bag under his bed.
- So? Did you find anything interesting? – Boomed Cletius, entering the room.
- Well, kind of…
- What do you mean, kind of?
- Actually, there are only clothes but it seems to me now that I began to remember something… - Lied Cumulus.
- See? What did I tell you? Even clothes might help sometimes!
- Yes, it’s simply a miracle. Works wonders.
- Hah! Miracle, my ass! It’s pure psychology, that’s what it is. Well buddy, I’m gonna hit the sack. How ‘bout you? Early start tomorrow.
- Yes, I’ll do the same, I guess.
- Good night to you then.
- Good night.
* * * *
- Well, young man, let’s see what you really know about art sales! By the way, what was your name again?
- It’s Cumulus, sir.
-Ah, yes! All right, Cambulus! Let’s get down to it then. Normally, I do not provide my new employees with additional training. Normally, I would hire solid professional but this time... Well, let’s say I’m making an exception so... Hmm, hmm… Let’s see… First, I want to see how well you can handle your sales presentation. You do know how to make a good sales presentation, right?
- Let us begin then. Step over here, please and tell me about this picture. Forget for a moment that I am your boss. Imagine that I am your customer. I have expressed an interest in this picture. Now you go ahead and sell it to me.
Cumulus transferred his attention from face of his boss to a painting he was standing next to, and opened his mouth.
-Wait a minute, Cumunlus! Where are your hands? – The boss screamed.
- I asked where are your hands?
- I can see they are here but why do you keep them behind your back? It seems like you’re hiding something. Your normal working posture should be friendly, easy and open. You must radiate confidence! Yes! Keep them visible! And smile! SMILE! Yes, just like that! – The boss gathered the whole of his face into a silly expression of an imaginary art lover and stared at the picture. Cumulus coughed into his fist and began.
- This painting is a wonderful example of…
The boss jumped up and stared at his new employee with a snarl.
- Stop! Just what the heck are you doing?
- Excuse me?
- Why are you lapsing into a lecture, may I ask? What are you - a schoolteacher?
- Forget about style, man! Who gives a damn about any style? Talk about dreams!
- My dreams?
- Who cares about your dreams, bonehead? I mean – tell me about my dreams! I am a customer. Remember? Inspire my interest! Talk about something that interests me! Make me desire to buy this picture! Make me wish to buy this picture right this moment! A short prayer to Goddess AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) sometimes also helps.
- All right. Well…
- And drop this stupid ‘weeeeell’ once and for all, for Gods’ sake! It sounds dull witted! You must exhibit enthusiasm and sparkling energy!
- All right.
- You must talk as if you’re possessed! Fire! Energy! You’re in love with this picture! You love selling fine art! You love your customers! Well?
- This picture is your perfect dream, sir! – yelled Cumulus, - Yes! Do you see? It crossed my mind as soon as I saw you! It is a perfect picture for you! You do not need to look any further, sir! It costs…
- Wait a minute here! Um… Gubulus, is it?
- Yes, sir.
- Are you crazy, Gubulus? What sort of insane rubbish are you talking about? You’ve told me that you have an experience but now I must admit that you sound and behave like you’ve never worked in art sales.
- I am sorry. I am just a bit nervous, that’s all.
- And so it makes you talk some insane rubbish then? Try again!
Cumulus filled his lungs with air, but at that moment, somebody stepped into the gallery.
- A customer! – Hissed the boss, - I’ll go and talk to him and you! Watch me and listen! I will give you two days. In two days, you must know sales techniques by heart!
- Yes sir.
Meanwhile a solitary customer stopped next to a large painting of what appeared to be a depiction of happy motherhood, and stared at it with disapproval. It was not clear what exactly he disapproved of - the painting or motherhood. He was a short, completely bald man with a heavy paunch and a whole accordion of jowls. He was clad in a pinstripe business toga and wore a dozen of massive golden rings on his fat, hairy fingers.
- Good morning, my good sir and welcome to my little gallery! – sang the boss gliding across the floor with a demented smile.
- Been looking for a wonderful present for your significant other? Or are you an art collector? Don’t tell me you’re not an art collector. I can spot a collector the minute he crosses the threshold of this place! And what a sense of good taste! You’ve spotted the best picture from my collection right away, sir!
- Aha! So it’s you who runs this crook’s shithole! – Growled the fat man, narrowing his eyes and boring at the gallery owner, - Art collector, my ass! Can you spot a lawyer just as easily? ‘Cause I’m going to file a law suit against you pal, and I’m going to do it right this very afternoon!
- Wha..? What?
- Don’t look so overwhelmed, man! You knew what you were doing! And stop gaping at me like that!
- But what…? I don’t understand…
- What is it you don’t understand? It was just the last week when you, or someone who works for you, someone just like this punk, who stands over there right now, sold me a picture exactly like this one. And he swore on his deceased whore of the mother’s memory that it was the original!
- But…but this is a limited edition print. It is nearly as valuable as the original. Just have a look! It even has the artist’s signature, right over here, in this corner and…
- And how many these so called limited edition prints you’ve got, buddy? I’ve learned only yesterday that there’s a whole slave factory in Pompeii district that fabricates this shit at the rate of hundreds a day!
- It must be some mistake, sir. I’ve never heard of any such factory.
- All right then! You’ll hear from the court, and you’ll hear from it soon enough!
- Please wait a minute, sir! Why don’t you bring this picture of yours back over here and we’ll talk over these sad matters.
- You mean, you’ll return my money?
- Now, speaking of returning…
- So you refuse to return my money, is that right?
- I didn’t say that but we don’t normally have a refund policy… But perhaps we can find something more suitable for you and speaking of refinancing…
- Gods damn you and your refinancing! I’m not buying any more crap from this place!
- All right, fine! Just bring back the picture and we will arrange everything to your entire satisfaction. I assure you!
- Well, OK. Lemme bring it back then but do not attempt to run away, mind! I am a well-known lawyer. Better not play games with me, do you understand? I will find you anywhere! I have good connections all over this city and no mistake!
- All right! I understand! Let us meet and talk tomorrow then.
A lawyer snorted angrily and marched back onto the street. The art dealer seemed to have fallen into a stupor but it had been rather brief. He shook his head and glanced at Cumulus.
-I’ll have to let you go.
* * * *
There was a flash. There was a sensation of a great fall. Finally, there was silence.
A young woman and a gray haired man landed on the ground and became still. A few minutes passed. Then a few more… The woman came to her senses first. She looked… Well… Some people defy all attempts to describe them. You have long hair, you have a pale skin, you have a large nose and a rather big mouth yet the portrait is not there.
She seemed to be that kind of girl. Yet she radiated something. Perhaps it was a sense of foreignness. Perhaps it was something else. In any case, even unconscious, she did not look like an ordinary girl. Unfortunately, the same thing could not be said about her companion. Of course, he was an elderly man but that was not the point. For instance, it was easy to guess his profession. It was just too obvious.
* * * *
‘Professor! Are you all right?’
‘Well, my girl…’
‘I thought you were dead. Oh my gosh!’
‘Tss! Stop fussing and mind your speech now. And help me up, please. Good. By the way, where are we?’
The girl looked around and shrugged.
‘Here’s some road…’
‘Have you got your map?’
‘No sir, I…’
‘And stop calling me ‘sir’, for God’s sake! I am a teacher, alright? You’d better remember that now.’
‘I cannot even start to fathom what the heck has happened! How’s your memory?’
‘Are your memory functions all right? What’s your name?’
‘Why it’s Jo…’
‘No! I mean your traveling name.’
‘Oh, OK. It’s Ze...Zenaya?’
‘So you do remember it then. Good. Seems like, except for a loss of the map, no great damage has been otherwise produced. Well, now we’d have to find our way around.’
‘Yes eh… teacher.’
‘Let us go then. It’s nearly dark. Oh, this damn headache! Let’s move on, quickly now!’
‘But can you stand?’
‘What am I doing right now?’
‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’
They brushed the dust and dry grass from their garbs and headed toward the road.
* * * *
A few people were sitting in a semicircle and watching, as a bulky figure of a man, who had introduces himself earlier as a restaurant manager, was shooting saliva and shaking with a good-natured rage.
‘This is a totally new conception of customer service then! Wise and knowledgeable people made this marketing research and what did they find?’
He made a dramatic pause during which everyone’s face froze in the middle of either yawn or a nail chewing activity.
‘Well? No one knows then?’
‘No, sir,’ – Retorted some honest individual.
‘Aha! Do you know at least what a marketing research is?’
There came another pause, during which everybody stared at the floor then a solitary arm rose into the air.
‘Aha! Cumulus, right? Do you know what a marketing research is then?’
‘I believe I do, sir. It is a ….’
‘All right, all right, wise ass! When you are a manager, you can go ahead and tell us all about marketing research but now shut up and pay attention, OK?’
‘All right then! I know that all of you people are lacking the essential experience in what laymen call bussing restaurant tables but then we do not want to deal with people who already know, or think that they know how to do it right. Are you with me so far? Right! All of you are grown up men therefore, you all know about restaurant chains. OK. Ours is a chain but here’s a major difference. What do we do differently from the other restaurants? Huh? I’ll tell you then. We provide a unique customer service. And what makes our customer service so unique? Here it goes. We care. Our customer service was fine-tuned by those wise marketing guys whom we hired especially for that. And what did they find? Keep your customer as long as you can, do you understand?’
The manager laughed and shook his fists in the air.
-Yes, folks! You keep your precious customer nailed to the chair as long as it takes! You don’t under any circumstances approach him randomly but you do approach him at certain periods that we indicate to you. And, if your customer tries to get your attention in between those times, what shall you do then?
- Um… Ignore them?
-Damn right, Cumulus! Just ignore them!
-But why? – Asked some particularly dim witted soul. A face of the manager became distorted.
- Because, stupid, while your customer sits there and waits while you find time to bring him the bill, he or, for that matter, she might decide to order something else, just to kill the time, see? That’s how we make money here! Do you see it now?
- Yes, sir, - Intoned a chorus of several people.
-Good. That’s pretty much it. It’s not that important how you are going to bus the tables. It is not important how you act. It is important to learn how to ignore your customer correctly. See? Here in Rome, there are plenty of eateries to choose from which means an ordinary man hardly cares where to eat his lunch. You can eat here or you can go some place else. Of course, here in this city there are great many places to eat. Some people prefer Nubian or Greek cousin, and some would rather go for something more or less fancy. Our place is for an everyday man, who does not want anything fancy. Our man cherishes solid, home made, authentic Roman fast food cooking. Your duty however is not to let your customer walk away from you easily! Did you get what I have said? Yes? Good! Now, since I have spelled out to you all the basics, let us move on to a more practical stuff. Come on, folks, up you go and step into the kitchen.
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