Wednesday, November 27, 2013

He was a cobbler because that's what his dad did. And his dad's dad. And his dad's dad's dad, for that matter. The tools skipped a generation - as the owner usually lived long enough to pass them on to whichever grandchild showed enough of a shred of aptitude.

He liked to keep his head down as a rule. His grandad always used to joke that a good cobbler would not only fix your shoe soles; he'd fix your soul too. And he was constantly surprised by the stories he was told in the name of doing his job. Wedding shoes that needed fixing second time round. Job interview shoes that were guaranteed to bring luck. Children's shoes that needed adapted when the oldest died suddenly and the shoes had to be commandeered for younger siblings. He was amazed always at how much of life - how many hopes, fears and crazy optimistic dreams - could be contained in a shoe. 

But as to whether a cobbler could mend souls? He wasn't sure.

In his experience, souls were flimsy things that needed a sort of spiritual nourishment that his life didn't leave much space for. Up before dawn, likely no breakfast as they gave most of what they had to the kids, trudge to his tiny stand at a muddy corner of the street, spend a day, often in the rain, trying to waylay people with perfectly adequate shoes and persuade them that they would really benefit from a new pair of heels, quick pint down the pub with his mates at lunchtime if he was lucky, an afternoon of the same till long after dark and then a boisterous, under-nourished meal with the wife and kids before an early bed to conserve oil for their exceedingly smoky lamp.

He knew of men that read books and Thought Things and spent time in church beseeching Himself for grace and favours. But he had no faith in Himself. Little enough faith in Caesar who sat up in the old crumbling Senate building pronouncing on things that would - supposedly - make people's lives better. 

The only thing he really believed in, if he were brutally honest, was his leather apron and his rule. They would never let him down. His dog, Doug, would be faithful to him till the day he died. That went without saying. His wife meant well but things got a bit deceitful with the housekeeping budget whenever she decided she needed a new dress for some feast day or other. And he would swim the Tiber any day if it put more food on the table for his kids. But that aside, he didn't believe in much.

Claudius said he needed a hero. He would retort that she'd spent too much time reading Salve, that trashy magazine that covered the latest exploits of the senators or the petty civil servants to fill up the back pages. He became his own hero when he'd had a few beers and a nip - or five - of whisky of a night. And his kids were still at that age where they believed he could do anything.

But by and large, he kept his head down. He was no hero. He was a regular cobbler who could fix plenty of soles but had nothing to offer as far as souls were concerned. And that suited him down to the ground. 

Feet on the ground. Head on when he could next get himself nicely drunk. And right now, that was the feast of Lupercal. Forced to close their businesses, to "celebrate and honour" Caesar, he was meeting Claudius in the city square, hip flask at the ready, looking forward to another spine-tingling show from
The Sunshine Band. 

Holiday!

4 Comments:

Blogger fazeel baig said...

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1:55 pm  
Blogger Dan Sutton said...

It took him a little longer each time to climb the hill. A lifetime of marching, counter-marching, evolutions and finely timed manoeuvres had given him the knack of knowing how long it took a man to march up a hill. A lifetime in the services, a second lifetime at least. He could feel himself slowing down a little each year he carried his old knapsack up the path from the farmhouse to meet his friend for the usual vigil. A few hours walk away from the growing collection of grandchildren and daughters-in-law. A few hours on his own to think, to turn things over in his mind and to reflect on a past he hadn’t really expected to live through. Or just to enjoy the early evening breeze scuttle through the vines, groves and fields of the farm. His farm. Next to her farm.

A long way from an Aventine slum and a tiny booth shop by way of Philippi and back.

This evening he was in a contemplative mood, turning over the past like a piece of leather to be softened then worked into a more useful shape. The ghosts had come to him again. They never spoke. Not to him. They never asked him any questions. They would just stand at the end of his bed in silence. They never asked him any questions but they seemed to wonder if he had asked any questions of himself in all the years since Philippi.

He stopped for a moment and turned to look back down the hill towards the farmhouse. More a villa now. A reward for a lifetime, a second lifetime of faithful diligent service. “Fellow,” he’d said, “wilt thou dispose thy time with me?” Overcome with grief, barely sensible of what he was doing he had nodded. Switched sides. Turned his coat. Ending more than one life there on the Philippi field and beginning a new life for himself. What else could he do? He was no hero. He’d borrowed his heroism from Him and had scrabbled to pay it back at the last. Choice wasn’t for the likes of him. He had no choices. No options in his own life. No option to end his own life. No option to risk having his life ended. Not in a lost cause. If he had said “No,” there would have been no grandchildren – with no one to provide for his children they would have slowly starved to death in some slum back home. He had been too poor to be proud, so he had said “Yes,” striped the blood soaked uniform from his body, shaved his face, cut his hair and emerged, reborn as the new First Spear centurion of the Legio II Augustus. A new hero in a new cut uniform for a new age.

Heroes. His oldest, best friend had always thought he needed a hero. They had found one by accident. Blundering around in the dark on the road south from the city. Refugees from a riot he’d been part of until… Until things had gotten out of hand. A chance meeting and a chance to, of all things, fix a pair of shoes. The young girl, the singer, had broken a sole and he had fixed it. With a tradesman’s favour to a Consul he had become part of His band. A band of heroes. Perhaps. Perhaps a little of His heroism and honour had rubbed off on him. Lots of things had rubbed off on him. A bit of song. A bit of poetry. A little bit of learning. He’d certainly found politics. Found it in questions he couldn’t understand at first. Found it in the books he’d borrowed once the girl had taught him to read. Found it in the arguments his boss had had. Mainly, he’d found it in the bottom of countless bowls of wine he’d shared on dark nights with Him and Claudius and the girl.

He’d found politics. Some reason beyond payment to join up and fight alongside the Liberators and he’d certainly found heroes. Heroes by the brimful legion. So many heroes ready to end their lives on the business end of a sharp blade. No shortage of heroes keen to hurl themselves on some too keen blade. Usually someone else’s blade but all too often on the end of their own. How many heroes on both sides had he helped to an early, honourable death? Too many. He could still name most of them. All of the ones who had mattered. All of the ones who still hurt. All of the ghosts.

5:11 pm  
Blogger Dan Sutton said...

He shifted the weight of the knapsack and carried on up the hill. He’d made it himself. Cobbled together from bits of spare leather and left over ingenuity. It contained a little ham, a little cheese, some olive and apples, a sharp knife, two flasks of wine and, to keep the cold out if the night’s watch turned chill, a small flask of something with some heart to it. Something to share with an old friend. The way they’d always shared a sly pull on the flask when The Man wasn’t watching. It was a different flask now than the one they’d started out sharing. He’d lost that one in the shambles at Methone. Agrippa, over eager, snatching at a victory already won. May the Gods protect old soldiers from over eager generals. Aye, and young generals from over eager troops.

“Wilt thou dispose thy time with me?” Such an unexpected length of time. His first job, the day after Philippi, dressed and pressed in his new uniform had been to talk to the remnants of his former army. Go round the tents and the little huddles of angry men with swords and grudges. Crack a few jokes, a few of his famously awl-ful puns. Tell them that the game was up. The old boss was dead but the new boss was alright, really. Not so bad when you spoke to him. Better than Mark Antony. Then convey Octavian’s “donation to old soldiers” to each centurion, to every several man, seventy-five drachma. His reward for a job well done? A double helping of drachma, for him and for Claudius He’d marched away from Philippi behind his new boss and stayed with him all through the revolts and rounds and rounds of civil wars until they had ended, stood over the body of another dead consul. It appeared his fate was to meet the foremost men of Rome and help them kill themselves. Well better they die and he and Claudius survive he supposed. If only he could make the ghosts understand.

He’d become the Emperor’s left hand man. Or his left hand. His knife hand. Faithful Varro. Octavian would plot and scheme and twist and turn and every so often he would arrange for someone to receive “a little visit from our good Varro and Claudius.” And the outcome, always more peace, less strife, fewer choiceless men and women driven from their homes, their lives in tatters or plucked up in to the legions to butcher other choiceless men in different uniforms. Until peace came.

With peace came plenty. Rewards and contacts and opportunities. Bribes had come unasked for too. Men keen to do him favours. Men keen to have favours done for them. But he had some smatch of honour in his life and some choices now. He could turn away the base bribes. He had not done what he had done for trash. To be honest, he didn’t need the money. His loyalty and his utility brought him money and honours enough from his new boss. His new found contacts helped him to make the most of all this new found wealth. Drachmas, farms, vineyards, ships, grain and pottery.

Every day for twenty years he’d stood within a knife blade’s reach of the once young God-Emperor. No one closer. No one better placed to turn aside an envious dagger from a madman or a malcontent or, some misguided fool who couldn’t tell when a cause was lost. There were no heroes left any more. He’d stood behind the Emperor watching for them. His eyes scanning the ever present crowd for the flash of a blade or some shift of balance before a strike or just some change in the pattern of the crowd that could indicate trouble. He’d stood behind the Emperor with his hand always on the hilt of his own blade. The only man in all the empire allowed close enough to actually slay Octavian. He’d known so many heroes all too ready to stab one another for freedom, for envy, for enfranchisement, for money, for honour, for the Republic. He was no hero. Perhaps it took an ordinary man to stand behind Octavian and make the choice to not draw his knife.

5:11 pm  
Blogger Claire said...

Too many months later, I've happened to spot this and read it. Quite quite wonderful, Dan / Varro.

Thanks!

10:08 pm  

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