Saturday, November 16, 2013

People often mistook him for sullen when he was growing up. He had one of those faces that appears to be set in a permanent frown. And with dark hair and dark eyes and a naturally down-turned mouth, it was an easy mistake to make. 

When in actual fact, he was just listening. For two reasons. He liked to know how things worked. And things for him encompassed the stars in the sky, the way some plants grew up where others drooped down, the way some dogs permanently panted and the way some clocks ticked where others only ever tocked. Some people somehow knew about that kind of stuff, he discovered. So that was the first reason to listen.

The second, he found harder to articulate. He noticed it first in his Latin teacher. He observed that she would sometimes smile at the class, when she wished them good morning for example, and her face would look happy but her eyes would look sad. And other times, like when he brought her extra homework he'd done to try and make her smile, she'd look at him crossly - " now now, you're not to neglect your other subjects just because you like this one, you know" - but her eyes would have something in them that sparkled. So he realised eventually that you have to listen extra hard because people don't always say what they mean. 

Beyond clocking that he was either sullen or in a sulk, people didn't pay much attention to him when he was growing up. If they did try to speak to him, he frowned even more and replied so sulkily that they presumed he wasn't interested in conversation. And with a reaction like that, nor were they particularly. A pity really, as in his bedroom, he would read and read and read. So he could have told people a whole lot about how things worked. And how people worked. If anyone had ever asked. 

He'd have talked his way into the officer training college, irrespective of his exam results. Which were incidentally flawless. The handy consequence of not knowing very many people. His time was entirely his own. So he flung himself into his studies. 

His interview was a revelation to him. The panel asked him a whole bunch of questions and - for once - he got to talk about everything he knew about. Clearly, with a heavy sway towards the nature of power, governance and the role of the army in a healthy more or less democratic society. He realised suddenly that this was why he gravitated towards reading so many of the philosophers. He was fascinated by the nature of power. Of authority. Of honour. And how to enforce obedience. 

The generals looked at each other when he left the room. "That one will go far. If he doesn't become a megalomaniac."

He noticed her on the first day of term. She lurked on the edges, watching everyone as carefully as he did. He kept watching her as term unfolded. She avoided the boys. Rubbed along with the few girls in their year group with the boisterous camaraderie that the military seemed to demand. But she had a look of suspicion in her eyes. The look of someone who has been let down by the world. 

He bumped into her in the kitchen one 3am. She was making hot chocolate. He'd been looking for something to do to distract him from not sleeping again. She offered him a digestive biscuit. (All this food and she was such a skinny looking thing!) And they only stopped talking when they went their respective sleep-starved ways to shower before morning drill. And that was it. Friends for life.

He credited her - and her alone - with getting him through military college. He'd presumed he'd float to the top almost instantly. His family background - high-flyers in government, albeit emotionally stunted ones - surely guaranteed it. But plenty of other people were taller, had more muscles, were quicker at the physical or practical tasks than he was. And the army, for all he privately derided them, seemed to have a knack for picking out the all-round good eggs. 

"You don't have to be faster and stronger," Cassius would insist, "you just need to outthink them". She was always the smart one. He'd nod vigorously and level some petulant insult at Mark, the golden boy. But inside, a secret sulking bit of him grew defiant. And wished that he had the wit to scheme like she did. 

She would laugh it off. "It's not about what you look like," she'd say. "Or how drunk you get the night before. How many girls you sleep with. None of that. That's a distraction. It's about being in the right place at the right time. That's all. You wait."

So he resolved that he would. He put his faith in his skinny little friend. And waited and hoped and willed it to happen that one day, he, Brutus, would be in the right place. 

At just the right time. 


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