long grubby tunic. He looked unwashed and seedy, all starvation and beard-shadow. As ever, he seemed both sinister and desperate. Grinning, he wiped the blood off my knife on to his tunic, then offered it back to me, handle first.

Katutis!’ I gave him a good long stare, then took the knife. I could not manage Egyptian so I spoke to him in Greek. ‘You saved my life. Thank you.’

‘At the Pharos too!’ he told me, sounding excited. ’I saw you going. I ran to the Palace. Sent soldiers over to help you!’Well, that explained how they arrived so quickly. So much for military signalling. Amazing.

‘Very well, Katutis, I give up. Don’t mess about; you have your chance at last: just tell me what you want.’

‘Work!’ he pleaded. He said it in Latin. His accent was awful, but then so was mine to anyone not from the Aventine. At least he had spoken clearly, without muttering or cursing. ‘I need work, legate.’

‘I live in Rome. I am going back to Rome.’

‘Rome!’ enthused Katutis. His eyes shone with eagerness. Great city. Rome - yes!’

Why does it happen to me? This was not what I had expected yet I recognised its ring of doom. ’What can you do?’ I ventured despondently.

‘Perfect secretarial Greek, my legate. I read, I write. Every letter fully formed, all the lines straight -’ He knew I had no need of him, but his need of me would beat me down. As I sat helpless, he hit his stride and sang out joyously, ‘Good copies, Phalko - I can copy many scrolls tor you!’



A month later we were home. I had soaked in enough old-world Eastern luxury. Here in the modern thriving West, the sun was clear, the skies were blue, the Forum reeked satisfactorily; it reeked of lassitude, fraud, rumour, corruption and depravity. There was nothing exotic about it; this was our own home filth. Now I was happy.

About another month passed before we had a letter from Uncle Fulvius. In fact it was written by Cassius. He and Helena had struck up one of those friendships in which news is passed to and fro with delightful flippancy. Fulvius and Cassius were still at Alexandria, though my father was said to be now on his way home to us.

‘Oh how can we wait? - Read out the rest, Helena, if it won’t upset me.’

Helena and I were relaxing under our own rose-clad pergola in our rooftop garden. She was ready to produce, so I spent a great deal of time close by, ready for the domestic crisis. My cautious support seemed to amuse her; it also helped fend off my hysteria.

‘I could call your secretary to read this to you.’ Helena Justina teased me without mercy.

We had cleaned him up, but it would take much more than hot water and a new tunic before Katutis matched the suave factotums other men employed. I growled that Helena was prettier and had a better voice; besides, I claimed, Katutis was busy co-ordinating my memoirs. ‘I have put him to flattening papyrus, which you do - any stationer will tell you - by sitting on it . . .’

‘Oh hush, Marcus! This is important - Cassius has sent us the list of appointments at the Museion!’

I was picking my teeth with a twig, which generally superseded most things, but I sat up. Then Helena read out the news to me: ‘Here is the first announcement. The Librarian of the Great Library is to be - Philadelphion.’

I tossed my twig. I folded my hands and put myself into full assessment mode. ‘Lucid, steady, good with staff, popular with students - on the surface an all-round decent candidate. Since all the Library readers are men, his belief in his good looks and his womanising will not be relevant. Unfortunately, academically he only cares about experimental science. His understanding of a great collection of written literature, much of it philosophical, may be inadequate . . . He was the only man to come out and tell me that he did not want the job.’

‘The natural choice,’ Helena cynically said.

‘This is the dark side of public appointments.’

‘Those who chose him may feel that any man who wants the post too much is bound to bungle it. This could be a sophisticated way around that.’

‘Or a complete rat’s arse.’

‘Well, you know how everything works, Marcus. It’s not choosing the best candidate, but avoiding the worst. It cannot have been easy, picking through the idiots and incompetents, not to mention one candidate who escaped execution for murder only because he was already dead.’

‘I left behind a very clear briefing note. I don’t know how palace secretariats justify their salaries . . .Who is next?’

Cassius must have a wandering style. Helena searched before she said, ‘Additions to the Academic Board, promotions to fill vacancies. Two new faces. Aedemon, our medical friend, which we already knew, plus Aeacidas, the historian.’

‘Could be worse.’

‘Oh here is another. Nicanor is made head of the Daughter Library at the Serapeion.’

I groaned. ‘Cobnuts! Nicanor? A bent lawyer - if that isn’t a tautology. This is useless. All flash and pyrotechnics. What does Nicanor know about sanctuary libraries? He will just regard it as a sinecure, a useful step to worm his way into more senior positions. I see it all. He will never take decisions, so he never does anything for which he can be criticised. The Serapeion is well run and flourishing; from now on it will deteriorate. Everything will just stagnate.’

Helena gave me a look, then unravelled more of the letter from Cassius. ‘He is, however, to have our friend Pastous as a special assistant.’

‘Promotion on merit - an innovative concept, my dear, but it could just work! Whenever Nicanor is away, playing about with Roxana or defending some utter crook in court for an exorbitant fee, the excellent Pastous can fix up all that needs doing. Just let’s hope his dire position never wears him down. Or perhaps Pastous can somehow organise a fatal accident for Nicanor; he will be well placed to take over . . .’

‘Nothing for Zenon. Cassius says, Zenon’s fate is to be a permanently disappointed man. Still, he will have foreseen that, if he is any good at star-gazing.’

‘Old joke! The kind I like, however.’

‘He should have spoken up.’

‘Man of few words. They are always shoved aside.’

There was a small silence. Helena gave a woeful sigh. ‘Brace yourself, darling. Here we have it: the new Director of the Museion. Ugh. I dread what you will think about this, Marcus.’

‘What could be more horrible than we have heard already? Tell me the worst.’

She laid the scroll in her lap. ‘Apollophanes.’

‘Well, there you are.’ Sadly, I applied my characteristic phlegm. ‘There is no justice. That must be absolutely the worst, most depressing solution any bunch of ludicrous, remote, ignorant officials could possibly dream up. I assume they decided this nonsense when they had all just reeled back from a five-hour drinking bout, all paid for by luxury goods importers who want the Prefect to do them favours.’

Helena drew upon her natural fairness. ‘Let us try to be optimistic, Marcus. Perhaps Apollophanes will rise to it. There are men, men with limitations at the outset, who nonetheless defy opinion and grow into a new position.’

I said nothing. I would not argue with my wife, lest it brought on premature birth-pangs and our mothers laid the blame on me.

Besides, she was right. The new Director was a creep but a serious scholar. He might come good. In the terrible satire that is public life, you have to have some hope.

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