The Terror of Constantinople
Monday, 16 April 686
‘Why are you crying, Master?’ Bede asked me this morning. Though knocking as usual, he’d brought in the hot water before I could sit up properly in bed and compose my features.
‘A complaint of age, my child,’ I replied with a weak stab at the enigmatic. The absence of light coming through the shutters confirmed it was raining again. That’s all it ever seems to do in Northumbria. It falls in a gentle mist that blurs the landscape and soaks you before you can notice. I can hardly remember when I last spent a whole day reading in the sun.
In silence, I washed my hands and face, and stood shivering as Bede stretched up and rubbed at my frail, withered body. Time was – and not too long ago – when that would have banished all misery. Nowadays, the most solitary pleasures often evade my grasp.
‘I’ve missed morning prayers again,’ I said, to break the silence.
‘My Lord Abbot said to leave you sleeping. He told me you were late to bed.’
So Benedict had noticed that jug of beer I’d grabbed off the dinner table. I grunted and held my arms apart so Bede could start dressing me.
‘There is fresh bread today, Master,’ he added. ‘Even so, I made sure to steep it well in the milk.’
‘I thank you, my child,’ I said. I ran my tongue over sore gums and wondered how long before I was entirely confined to curds and stewed fruit. When you reach ninety-five, there are very few teeth you haven’t outlived. ‘But I’ll eat shortly. For the moment, let us proceed with your lesson.’
I thought briefly, then recited a passage from Cicero at his most rhetorically florid. I paused at every natural break in the flow, letting Bede keep up with me as, eyes squeezed shut, he committed the text to his own memory. This done, I let him continue in the time-honoured manner – parsing and analysis of grammar, rare or difficult words explained, their etymology given, and so forth. Whenever he stumbled, I intervened with just enough explanation to set him right again. My interventions grew decreasingly frequent, and then only on points that would tax a much older student than Bede.
He’s a bright lad. He reminds me of myself. If he lives, he’ll be the glory of his age.
As the lesson moved smoothly on like a carriage in the grooves of a much-travelled road, I began to feel better. I hadn’t at first been able to remember why, but I had woken crying. It was the dreams, you see. They’d been in sharper colours and more painful since I arrived here. Memory isn’t like a religious text, where passages are separated into chapters and sections. You can’t have one memory called to the front of your mind and expect all the others to remain buried in the oblivion of time.
I looked up again. Bede had mistaken two words close to the end of a sentence. There was an arguable ambiguity about this particular clausula, but I took the opportunity to remind him about quantitative prose rhythms that we moderns don’t always hear.
‘It is as you say, Master,’ said Bede with downcast eyes. ‘Forgive my slip.’
‘It is a pardonable error, my child,’ I said. ‘You will be aware that words are important – their choice and meaning can turn the world from its expected course. Pray continue, however, with explaining the double accusative construction.’
Bede was still looking down. ‘Is it true, Master,’ he asked, lapsing into English, ‘that you will be leaving us?’
For the first time, I smiled. I’d seen him yesterday with the other boys and the monks, looking anxiously in through the open doors and windows of the great hall. As discussions had been in Greek, no one could have known about the Emperor’s pardon – witnessed by the Patriarch himself – or about the restoration of my property and status. But the shortest overland distance from Constantinople to Jarrow is two thousand five hundred miles. You don’t have two senators and a bishop turn up with Easter greetings.
They had arrived the day before yesterday. They’d outrun the message of warning Bishop Theodore had sent out from Canterbury, and had caught me as I was finishing Advanced Theology with the novices. No journey is kind on the baggage, and the finery they had taken care to put on before knocking at the gate would have raised eyebrows anywhere east of Ravenna. But in Jarrow it had set the whole monastery and school afire with wonder and with concern.
‘What do you suppose I shall do?’ I asked Bede in Latin.
‘I suppose, Master,’ he replied in a small voice, ‘that you will return to the Great City at the end of the world.’
End of the world! That isn’t how they’d see it back in Constantinople. But I let that pass.
‘Bede,’ I said, still smiling, ‘for all that I have lived in the Empire, and become great in its councils, I was born like you in this land of England. And it is to England that I have returned at the end of my life.’
That’s the truth so far as it goes. I wasn’t going to admit that nothing but extreme necessity could have parted me from my snug palace and the company of my books.
I got up and pulled one of the shutters open. It was still raining, but the sky was growing brighter.
I turned back to the boy.
‘What would you have me do?’ I asked. ‘I can see the Lord Bishop Alexius lurking under cover in the yard. He’ll be on me the moment I step out. Speak openly, my child – what would you have me do?’
‘I would stay, Master,’ Bede straight away replied, now fierce and looking up at me. ‘I’d stay among my own, and be looked after and always revered.’
That was all this morning. It’s now much later in the day. I’m back here alone in my room to gather my thoughts and set them down in the privacy of Greek. I know I should begin with Alexius and the exact nature of his promises. But those words of Bede keep coming back into my mind: ‘ I’d stay among my own.’
Well, who are ‘my own’? Is it these monks and semi-barbarians in the rain-soaked wilds of northern England? Or is it a pack of shifty Greeks who only want me back because the Saracens are on the march again?
Age hasn’t answered the question for me. Alexius may be telling the truth for the first time in his career when he talks about the state of the roads to Marseilles, and the comforts of the armed convoy riding there at anchor to take me ‘home’. Even so, I’m barely worse for travel now than when, two years ago, I hobbled here alone through the ruin and desolation of the West.
So do I stay among those who love me? Or do I go back to a world I thought I had lost for ever?
What was it I said to Bede earlier? ‘ Words are important – their choice and meaning can turn the world from its expected course .’
God, how right I was.
I first saw Constantinople on Monday, 6 July 610. I was twenty at the time. We’d set out from Rome by barge, changed to a ship at Ostia, and then to a larger ship at Naples. We’d stopped for supplies at Palermo and again at Corinth, where the ship had been dragged across the narrow spit of land. I’d fancied a further stop at Athens but the Captain was muttering something about prevailing winds and his ‘instructions’.
Most likely, I’d said to Martin, he was scared of putting in anywhere north of Corinth. The Slavs were now raiding at so many points that almost nowhere could be counted safe. Every night, after we’d passed Corinth, the sky was lit up by the fires of captured cities.
Once, sailing north along that silent coast, we’d come upon a whole band of Slavs together with their booty and their captives. They’d raised their spears at us and shouted something incomprehensible. We’d tried to shoot at