When Jason pocketed two marble chips lying on the Palatine Hill, Anna grew worried and said: ‘Should you really be doing that, Jason love? Didn’t you read about that Canadian woman who took some pottery shards from Pompeii, and then returned them because they had negative energy and brought her bad luck? Had major financial problems and breast cancer, twice, ended up with a double mastectomy.’
Jason wrinkled his nose and drawled: ‘Canadians – pooh! Decaffeinated Americans. How can you take seriously a nation which calls one of its towns Kamloops – which sounds like a breakfast cereal? And calls another one Dildo – and that’s true, honest. No, my breasts are quite safe…But your beautiful breasts aren’t. Not safe from me. How’s about a bit of how’s your father when we get back to the hotel? Come on, Anna, we’ve still got time for a quick game of hide the sausage, hmm?’
She melted, and whispered: ‘You’re insatiable, Jason, you really are. More like a teenager than a man of mature years.’
Raising an arch eyebrow, he murmured: ‘So, will Lady Puss-puss be ready to receive my man Roger when we get back?’
When Anna giggled, primped her hair and nodded, Jason said: ‘Great.’ Then he added: ‘Don’t be mad with me, Anna. I just had to pinch those little bits of history. This is where Augustus’ palace stood, so they must come from that. The poet will have come here, to this very spot, to recite his poems to the emperor, we’re walking in his footsteps. I just wanted to have a bit of Ovid’s world in my life. And also a reminder of a wonderful long weekend here with you, love.’
Anna thought how lucky she was to have such a civilized lover. Jason sensed this, and was really glad that she liked him so much. On her profile she described herself as cultured, but it had soon become clear to him that this was something she would like to be, rather than actually was, and in particular she didn’t know much about literature. Hoping to make himself more appealing to her, he became a lover of poetry overnight, and joked: ‘I can’t tell you how passionate about poetry I am, Anna…which is a great pity, because now you’ll never know.’
He had been skimming an anthology and Wikipedia, so he could say intelligent things about verse. This weekend he tried to impress her by speaking about the nineteenth century Decadents (‘all crimson sins and slim gilt souls’) and especially Ovid and a long poem of his called the Metamorphoses (‘a series of really charming myths connected with change, all put together in a massive, intricate structure – what you might call the literary equivalent of St Pancras Station’).
He pointed to a pool of rainwater nearby. ‘You must know the story of Narcissus? The beautiful but very naïve young man who leaned over a pool to drink, saw an image of himself in it without realizing what it was, and decided on reflection that he really rather liked what he saw? Then he promptly fell in love with it, and pined away there, because he couldn’t make contact with his beautiful beloved, eventually turning into the flower named after him.’
As Anna nodded, he said: ‘Ovid tells that story in the Metamorphoses, with an imaginative addition all of his own. He depicts the soul of Narcissus after his death being conveyed across the river Styx to the Underworld in Charon’s boat, gazing over the side into the water, absolutely fascinated by his own reflection there.’
She smiled. Encouraged by that, he went on: ‘Oscar Wilde, one of my Decadents, took the story a stage further and topped that. He said that when Narcissus died, the local nymphs were distraught at the loss of such beauty and wept for days and days. Eventually they ran out of tears, but they still wanted to cry for him, so they went to the pool and asked if they could have some of its water to use for tears. But the pool refused to give them a single drop. When they asked why, it said: “I need all my water for my own tears, so I can keep on weeping for him. I miss him so much I can hardly bear it. For when he leaned over me, looking at his reflection in my water, I could see in his eyes a beautiful reflection of myself.”’
When she laughed and clapped her hands, he grinned with pleasure and said: ‘Yes, typical Oscar – all very clever and witty, actually out-Ovids Ovid…Right, should we go back to the hotel? Just time for some lunch and a quick spot of robust rumpy-pumpy. Come on, Anna, I can hardly wait.’
On the flight back to London he tried to impress his lady with some verse of his own. He suddenly stroked his chin, narrowed his eyes and pretended to compose there and then a haiku, which actually he’d put together earlier. He wrote it on the back of the menu card and handed it to her. She read:
Moon-kissed marble sins
At swim in the amethyst
Of this Anna’s eyes.
She said: ‘I didn’t know you wrote poetry yourself, Jason.’ She read it again, touched by the reference to herself. Then she asked him, rather nervously, what the lines actually meant.
Flustered, he muttered: ‘Ah well, erm, it’s poetry, Anna: it doesn’t have to mean anything. You can ponder it later – think Narcissus. For now just, er, just enjoy the music of it. It’s a haiku which really sings, thanks to you.’
In the taxi he easily persuaded her to stay over at his place so their long weekend together could last a little longer. That night, as Anna lay beside him in post-coital sleep, he gazed at her, thinking how she was just his type – an ageing, lonely widow with lots of lovely loot. After a bit more in bard mode and another week of tactical tupping he’d move on to the end game and ask for the first ‘loan’. She was so needy, so smitten with her handsome, virile poet, that he’d strip the stupid bitch of thousands and thousands of pounds before she suspected a thing.
He gave her two fingers. Then with a smug smile he hugged himself, closed his eyes and went to sleep.
A few hours later Jason’s eyes opened. He could hear something. Panting. Inside the house. Downstairs. And words. A woman’s voice sang out: ‘Bonk me, baby!’ Actually it sounded like Anna’s voice.
He turned quickly to her, to see if she’d got out of bed. But she hadn’t. Her face was on the pillow next to him. Then he heard moaning and: ‘Come on, big boy, pound my pussy raw!’ What the bloody hell was going on? Intruders?
After another glance at Anna, to make sure that she was actually in his bed, he crept out of the bedroom and down the stairs. The moans were coming from the kitchen. He paused with his hand on the doorknob, uncertain what he would find in there. From inside Anna’s voice shouted: ‘Oh do come in, if you’re coming in, Jason, you timorous little tiddlywink!’
He opened the door and switched on the light. There was nobody there.
As he scanned the room to make sure it was empty, abruptly it was no longer his kitchen. It was a place of smoke, shadows and swirling dark drapery. A few feet away from him a little old man in a purple toga was reclining on a couch with his back to Jason. He was talking to a four year old boy with a grotesquely small head. ‘Now then, my little chickpea, can you guess why I’ve appointed Mettius Rufus Prefect of Gaul?’
Jason blinked and shook his head to clear it. But the same weird scene was still before his eyes.
The child was lisping a reply when the old man caught sight of Jason’s reflection in the highly polished plaques of moonstone on the wall in front of him. Without turning round, he dismissed the boy and called out to Jason: ‘Ave, fur, atque in perpetuum vale.’
Jason frowned in puzzlement. The old man turned to him and added: ‘Je suis l’empire…I am the empire at the end of its decadence, and you must be one of the passing white barbarians.’
Jason looked blank. The old man picked up a large emerald from the table in front of him and viewed Jason through it. He gave a high-pitched giggle and remarked: ‘You look strange – green. Why are you green? How very perverse of you.’
Still off-balance, Jason couldn’t think of an answer. The old man enquired: ‘Are you green with fear perhaps, fear of me?’
‘What – you?’
He put the emerald down. ‘Well, you should be, sunshine. I am Augustus, emperor of Rome, the most powerful man on earth.’
‘Ha! Augustus my arse,’ muttered Jason.
‘I frighten myself sometimes. When I’m practising ferocious faces in front of the mirror. I like playacting. And I love actors. Unlike flies.’
As he said that, the emperor lunged and caught a passing fly in mid-air, stunning it. He flung it down on the table and stabbed it with a pen of gold. It wriggled briefly at the end of the pen, and then was still. Augustus shed hot tears. Then he grinned and said: ‘Of course, we’re flies ourselves, or even less than flies. If you weren’t a fly, which creature would you rather be? Come on, Jason, what do you think?’
Jason blustered: ‘I think you’re a crazy old coot. That’s what I think.’
The emperor murmured confidentially: ‘The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad… Just deranged. I quite fancy becoming an arapaima. That’s a fish that’s as big as a horse. With a beard. Do you fancy that?’
‘No I bloody don’t,’ replied Jason, looking around and still trying to work out what on earth was going on.
‘You disappoint me, you beige bodger, you grey little grimble,’ hissed Augustus. Then he beamed and said: ‘Actually I think I’d really rather be a candirus.’
‘OK, what’s a candirus?’
‘The candirus is a very thin little fish. Found in rivers in South America. If it catches a man in its river, it swims right up the aperture at the end of his willy (ooh!), gets well inside the urethra, and then anchors itself there permanently by sticking out backward-pointing spikes. It’s a real cutie. All the poor man can do is run to a doctor and beg him to cut his mickey off, before the little fishy dies and starts to rot inside it. Hee hee hee! Isn’t nature wonderful? Wouldn’t that be a delightfully droll thing to do? Especially if you could choose your victim. Hee hee hee! Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, brings me rather neatly to the despoliation of my palace.’
‘What? What the hell are you on about now?’
‘The rape of its marble. Your theft. One of the looted little bits of history came from my palace. And I regret to inform you that the font of my compassion does not flow fresh.’
Jason was getting angry. ‘What is up with you? Are you some sort of cretin?’
‘No, I just like having fun, playing…Now, your punishment. Let me see, let me see. Hmm…I could have you sawn in half. Even though you’re not a lady. You’re not a lady, are you?’
‘No I’m not,’ snapped Jason.
‘Thought so. But that’s been done before…I know, how about – here in Rome we punish parricides by beating them savagely with blood-red sticks, sewing them up in a sack with a rooster, a dog, a monkey and a snake, and then throwing them into the sea. I could do that for you. Great fun. A squirmy sack experience.’
‘I’m not a bloody parricide.’
‘Well, I suppose not technically, but I could bend the rules a bit in your case. Hmm?’
Jason snorted. ‘I’ve had just about enough of this shit, you –‘
‘Oh well, how about being thrown to the beasts in the arena? Here, you haven’t by any chance taken a thorn out of a lion’s foot recently, have you?’
‘What? No I haven’t.’
Augustus pursed his lips. ‘Hmm. Can I believe you? Somehow you don’t strike me as entirely trustworthy. I tell you what. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll use my troupe of pet lions. They’re really rather amusing, they perform the most singular tricks – dancing, walking the tightrope and writing obscenities in the dust with their tails, in Greek. I’m sure I could get them to sit on you or strangle you or something. How does that grab you?’
‘Oh go piss up a rope!’
‘I’m taking that as a No. Well, in that case, I suppose I could get Agrippa to behead you. With a gladius. That’s a legionary’s sword, you know. A thrusting rather than a cutting weapon. So he does have to persevere with it, keep on battering and hacking away. With his last victim it took twenty-three blows to sever the head, and the poor chappie was still conscious on receipt of the twentieth blow. So, fancy that?’
‘No, ‘ growled Jason. ‘Of course not.’
‘Oh lord, there’s no pleasing some people. What’s wrong with you? You’re so negative. Come on, don’t be so precious. A quick beheading – well, relatively quick – just for me. Please? Pretty please?’
‘Look, I’ve had just about enough of you, you crazy bastard,’ shouted Jason.
The emperor shrugged. ‘Very well. I wash my hands of you. You’re going to regret rejecting those punishment options. There’s somebody else who wants a word with you. Somebody just a tad miffed. Because the other marble chip that you stole was from a temple I built to him near my palace. Not to mention your crass exploitation of his favourite poet – Ovid – someone whom he reveres deeply. Things just got much more serious for you. Here he comes now.’
Jason looked all round, but couldn’t see anyone. Augustus stood up, produced a small wand, waved it jerkily and chanted: ‘Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy.’
First Jason became aware of a pair of ice-blue eyes gleaming a few feet above Augustus’ head. Next the air rippled and shimmered. Then in place of the old man a youthful, beautiful god stood there, with golden hair flowing down to his shoulders, and a golden lyre grasped in his hand. He was wearing a star-bright tunic. His flesh was radiant, and flared fitfully.
He looked down at the stunned human and spoke with a velvet voice. ‘Ah, Jason, there you are. No Argonauts with you? No matter, it was you I wanted to see, heartface. Oh, but where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself: Apollo, god of poetry and music, at your service.’
Jason managed a snort of disbelief.
‘So how are you, my dear? Committed any more acts of sacrilege recently? Pillaged any more antiquities? Desecrated any more poets?’
As Jason flushed, Apollo went on: ‘Oh, don’t worry, nothing bad is going to happen to you. I’m a great admirer of your passion for poetry, and of your own verse…Of course, I’m lying. You remember lies, don’t you, Jason?’
Jason gave a sullen nod and muttered: ‘Yes.’
‘Ah, it speaks. Have you been lost in a subtle dream of subtler thought perhaps, my Adonis made out of ivory and rose leaves? Is that why you’ve been silent?’
‘Do you hold the future in your memory? Are malignant flowers of verse swelling forth in your heart?’
‘What? What are you on about?’
‘Right. So much for your expertise in connection with the Decadents. And I know all about your absolutely unlimited knowledge of ancient poets. Why, just last week you were dribbling on and on about those pastoral poems by Virgil called the Bucolics, and told Anna you were a great admirer of Virgil’s Bolics.’
‘How the bloody hell did you know –‘
‘No matter. As for your own highly musical versicle, well, Jason, all I can say is: that is the type of thing that should not be lightly tossed aside; it should be hurled, with great force.’
‘Hey! Up yours.’
Apollo shook his head. Do you know, you really shouldn’t talk to a god like that. It’s hubris – getting above yourself. Which does tend to incur nemesis – retribution.’
‘Oh piss off.’
‘Thank you, Patience Strong. Now then, my dear freebooter, let’s move on from your highly offensive poetic pretensions to the recent act of vandalism and sacrilege on –‘
‘You what? What are you on about now? Soft twat.’
‘I don’t suppose by any chance you’d care to repent, or apologize, for stealing sacred marble? Last chance.’
‘No, I bloody wouldn’t. That was nothing, only –‘
‘Oh no, it was something. Just imagine what ancient sites would be like if everybody took bits home. That’s why it’s illegal, you preposterous predacious person.’
Apollo sighed. ‘So, the small matter of your just deserts. As a fan of the Metamorphoses I’m sure you’d relish being metamorphosed yourself. And that way you’d get still more of Ovid’s world into your life, the world of his Metamorphoses. Which is in fact a dark and darkly humorous world. Well, I’m delighted to say that I can help you there. It’s great fun being a god. One can do all kinds of improbable things…So what shall I turn you into, hmm? A weasel? A tea service? A handbaaaaag? No, I know: something variously appropriate.’
Jason blustered. ‘Oh aye, more stupid magic tricks? I don’t know how you just did that last one, dickhead, but –‘
‘Oh do be quiet, you ghastly little man. Now, what do you know about Satyrs, hmm? Highly-sexed, unreliable, inhuman bounders. Sound familiar? And there was one in particular. A cove called Marsyas, a thoroughly bad egg. You must have read about him in the course of your extensive study of the Metamorphoses. Had artistic pretensions? Bragged about his musicality? Does that sound familiar?’
When Jason shook his head, Apollo tutted, and then said: ‘Oh dear. Well, don’t worry, poseur. I’m going to fill that lamentable gap in your education right now.’
Jason’s clothes vanished. His ears became long and pointed; his legs were suddenly goat’s legs, with hooves; and he grew a tail.
The god smiled and purred: ‘So, how was it for you, darling? All perfectly painless? Yes, I told you I wasn’t going to hurt you, didn’t I, my little cabbage?’
Jason looked at himself in amazement, then recovered enough to say: ‘Is this it, then? The punishment?’
‘Yes,’ said Apollo with a firm nod.
‘Huh, that’s nothing,’ said Jason, smirking.
Then, waggling his hand to denote approximation, Apollo added: ‘Well, almost it. There was just that business of you arrogantly getting above yourself and entering into a musical contest with me, Marsyas. Who’s a silly Satyr then?’
‘Look, you stupid bastard, I’m not a frigging Satyr.’
The god pointed at Jason’s new form, cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. ‘A contest which you lost. After first agreeing – rather rashly in my opinion – that the victor could subject the loser to any punishment that he liked.’
‘Are you fucking mad. I didn’t –‘
‘Oh but you did, Marsyas. If you don’t believe me, look at book six of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s all down there in black and white – the ill-advised contest and the rather unfortunate aftermath. Which, I’m sorry to say, involves flaying alive…Yes, I’m going to tear a strip off you. Several strips, in fact. I’m going to really take you out of yourself. You’ll become a new person. And actually I do believe that I might even out-Ovid Ovid, as I know how much you love that.’
He put down his lyre and produced from nowhere a knife with a fine-honed sliver of a blade. It glinted menace as he brandished it. Jason recoiled, then tried to run. Apollo murmured: ‘Don’t pop off just yet, my poppet,’ and Jason couldn’t run, or move at all.
Apollo said: ‘What do you think of that as a punishment? Pretty good? Terribly painful, of course, and it will go on and on, last for ages. But, do you see there’s a certain symmetry in stripping you. No? Think denuding holy shrines of marble (not to mention stripping vulnerable widows of their fortunes). Yes, you predator. Neat, isn’t it? I impress myself sometimes. I think it’s a simply splendid idea. Don’t you agree, Marsyas?’
Jason didn’t look as if he did agree. He looked sick.
‘I’m going to do the flaying myself. I could delegate, but I do so want to be personally involved. And, don’t worry, I’ll be meticulous, take off every inch of skin…Now, do you want me to start with the face and work down? Or start with your feet and work up? It’s entirely up to you. Whichever you would prefer. The least I can do for you, you loveable little muppet.’
Jason didn’t voice a preference. He just glared, trying to conceal his unease.
After several seconds Apollo sighed, pursed his lips and said: ‘Oh my dear, must you be so churlish? Very well, I’ll decide myself…Do you know, I believe I’ll start with the feet. That way I can keep on seeing the look on your face as the operation proceeds. You do have a splendidly expressive face. The way you convey sullenness and surliness is particularly fine.’
Jason whined as the god applied the knife to his right foot. But instead of piercing him Apollo grazed the sole with it, trilling: ‘Tickle, tickle, tickle.’
When Jason did not laugh, Apollo said: ‘Why, Marsyas, aren’t you ticklish? Or are you deliberately holding the laughter in? I believe you are, you self-centred spoilsport. Well, if you’re going to take that attitude, spoiling it for others, you’ve brought this on yourself. I really don’t want to do this, it’s going to hurt me more than it hurts you. Honestly.’
He slit the skin along the sole from heel to toes and pulled it apart, bit by bit. As Jason let out girlish shrieks, he praised him for having a very musical voice even when in pain. Then, little by little, he skinned the other foot. He paused to admire the effect, muttering: ‘So far so good.’
After a few minutes he moved on from the feet. Up he went (slice, slice, tug, tug), up the hairy legs to the knees, gradually. Jason screeched again, and Apollo said: ‘Does that sting a bit, old scream? So sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you.’
He inched up the thighs. Then he went on to the groin, the stomach and the chest, with infinite slowness, exposing all the nerves. While Jason blubbered and oozed mucus, he said: ‘Aren’t you enjoying this? You seem rather cut up.’
After that he laid bare the hands, arms, shoulders and neck. Then he halted to inspect his handiwork. Just as in Ovid, he could see the bared sinews, the throbbing veins and the palpitating entrails. He murmured: ‘Do you know, I find this quite fascinating. I’m also the god of medicine, so I take a professional interest in such matters. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be a while, because I want to have a close look at the innards. Good of you to volunteer for this little experiment, in the interests of medical science. Stout fellow!’
After several minutes the god decided to add a refinement of his own. Initially he thought of rubbing salt in the wounds, but on reflection thought that would be cruel. Instead he peeled Jason’s face off. He cut across the top of the forehead, then down past the ears to the jaws. He took hold of the loose skin at the top and pulled down. The face made a sucking sound as it came off. It had a miserable expression, which prompted Apollo to enquire: ‘Why so glum, chum?’ Then he added: ‘No sense of humour, these Satyrs.’
As he dropped the flayed skin on to the ground next to the bleeding body, he remarked brightly: ‘There. I bet you’re glad that’s over. Yes, I can tell you are: you’re beside yourself with joy, aren’t you?’
Jason’s eyes closed, as he was finally allowed to pass out.
Jason’s eyes opened. He tried to make sense of things. No pain. No Apollo. He was in his bedroom. In bed. With Anna beside him. It was just a dream, a silly dream. Obviously caused by the stupid bitch’s warning about the marble chips.
He felt enormous relief. Jason yawned and smiled. He turned to Anna, to tell her about the nightmare and tick her off for causing it. But the face on the pillow next to him wasn’t Anna’s. It was his own.