ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
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A HISTORY OF THE EMPIRE THE IMPERIAL FAMILY MAP NEWS SOPHIA MCDOUGALL ORION
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ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall

Romanitas
Volume 1

[ii] GREEN THAMES

 

Even Una saw a little of the funeral. A giant longvision screen had been fixed below the portico of the basilica in Julian Square, and Una stopped and arched back her neck like everyone else. The boy, Leo’s son, Marcus Novius, huge and tenuously composed of freckles of light, looked down unseeingly at her and said, ‘My father loved three things more than his own life: my mother, myself, and above all his country.’

For a moment every muscle in Una’s body seemed ready to crack with contempt. There was no more sentimental and repulsive way of talking in the world. She hated the boy and everyone gawping at him so much that she felt her bones were going to break. London felt soft and clammy with unreal grief, people walked around exhaling damp gusts of feeling like marsh-gas that she had to walk through. She had a brief fantasy about cleanly killing them all, but she checked it, she imagined whiteness until she didn’t feel any of it any more and her face was blank. She examined the people around her to see if anyone had noticed anything strange in her expression, but no one had.

A woman beside Una said, ‘He’s so good looking. It’s the length of bone.’ Una looked critically at Marcus. Under his heavy lids his eyes were some indeterminate pale colour – one couldn’t tell from the screen. His hair was the woodish colour that only a few years before would have been bright, childish blond. She thought he looked tired and slightly bored. ‘Yes,’ she said. She decided it was broadly true, although Marcus still had a blurred, raw, adolescent look, as if his real face were underwater and only half-visible. She believed that she observed all this as coldly as if she were thirty years older than her real age, which was fifteen.

Because she knew it was more or less what the woman was thinking, she added, ‘I hope he’s the heir. We need a handsome emperor.’

The woman grinned and said, ‘I shouldn’t be thinking this way, should I? It’s all right for you. I’d be cradle-snatching.’

Una gave her a sweet false smile, and saw that she had done it badly and that the woman was beginning to think she was odd. Una went away before the woman began to wonder what she was doing alone and why she was clutching a shopping bag on a day when everything was shut, or guessed from her crumpled clothes and unbrushed hair that she had not been under a roof that night. She did not see the little scuffle by the bier or Marcus’ tears.

Afterwards, as she hurried towards London Bridge, she wondered why she had stopped. Of course, there was the need to be inconspicu-ous, but she could have crossed the square quietly, that was not much of a risk. Why hadn’t she done so? She clenched her teeth with sudden self-disgust. She was the last person who ought to be susceptible to Novian glamour.

There was hardly anyone on the bridge. The shops lining it were shut, which was supposed to show respect and meant that the shop-keepers could go and lay flowers on the steps of the temple of Dea Roma. And what good, thought Una acidly, was that going to do anyone? Would it console Leo and his wife for being dead? She indulged herself in scorn so as to get across the bridge; she needed it because with each step she became more giddy with panic, and the near-impossibility of what she meant to do came closer to choking her. She had hated the people in Julian Square, but now she longed for a crowd to hide in. She felt huge and obvious as the boy on the screen had been.

She scowled at herself. No one was particularly looking at her, and there was every reason to hope no one was after her yet: her little bedroom in the house in the Lupanarian District betrayed no signs of any intention. She had taken nothing with her, not even a coat, not even the handful of coins doled out to her two days before. It was all the money she was supposed to have.

As for the difficulty of what she was going to do next, and the appal-ling consequences of likely failure, they were now irrelevant. There was no possibility of changing her mind.

She didn’t look back until she got to the other side of the bridge. Then she turned once and let herself see the steel crosses ranked along the banks of the Thames. They were empty, as she had known they would be, that was supposed to be a mark of respect too. Their reflect-ions shivered blackly in the rain.

She imagined whiteness. It began as a single bright speck in her head, and spread until it bleached her out. It went on spreading until it bleached out everything.

Now she followed the magnetway line pushing through London for the south and Dubris. She crossed an abandoned car park, struggled over a crumbling metal fence, and fell among nettles and blackening buddleias in a patch of waste ground under the magnetway viaduct. She did not stop. She stooped under a buddleia’s drooping stems and clawed determinedly at the place where the bricks had been loosened by the roots of weeds. She worked methodically to dispel the irrational cer-tainty that what she was looking for would no longer be there.

But it was. She drew it out slowly: a dusty bundle of plastic, folded over and tied and retied on itself with paranoid care. Una sat down suddenly, holding it loosely with gentle, unbelieving fingers. She was limp with relief and more than relief; a sudden excess of happiness. It was ridiculous because she had scarcely done anything yet, but still, things were going as well as she could have hoped. This was almost the last of her hiding places. As soon as she had begun to find ways of getting money of her own, she had seen that there would be less chance of losing all of it if she divided it into widely separate troves. All that morning she had been touring these places: the holes she had dug under a bench by the statue of Hadrian in Paullinus’ Park and in the over-grown forecourt of a derelict wrestling school; the space behind the cracked tiles of an abandoned bath-house. She was astonished that none of her stashes had been disturbed. In fact they had been hidden so carefully in places picked with such obsessive caution, that the only risk would have been if anyone had seen her burying the money, and she had been very sure that no one had.

A slick train shot cleanly overhead. Una laughed weakly. There were hundreds of people just above her, and they didn’t know she was there. She could feel the dim chaotic hum of thought and feeling and mem-ory, speeding unknowingly away from her. She lay back against the brick and looked up at the damp buddleia leaves. She remembered how painfully sweet the scent of the purple flowers had been in the early summer, when she had first hidden the pack of sesterces, how helpless the brown and red butterflies had been to free themselves from it. She had the idle thought that she would like to live there forever.

She was very tired. There were hours before she could do much more and it would have been safe, indeed wise, to sleep through some of them. But she didn’t sleep, and it was not only that her clothes were still damp and she was cold. She had subdued the terrible vertigo she had felt on London Bridge, but it was not gone altogether.

At last she stood up stiffly and found herself sad at the thought of leaving this invisible place, and at the fact that all the hiding places scattered over London whose preciousness had sustained her for years would soon mean nothing to her. She dropped the packet into her shopping bag with the others. She did not unpick it; she knew what was inside and she was still afraid of attracting the attention of thieves between here and the last cache. There she was going to have to break her habit and hide everything together for a little while. It had to be ready to collect quickly after she found Sulien; if she found him; if there was an after.

She went east towards the Thames again. The funeral was over and a few shops and eating houses had begun to light up. Una ordered herself into one of them, bought lamb stew in a plastic bowl and made herself eat it. She was too possessed by anxiety and determination to feel hungry, but she knew that her stupid body was beginning to weaken, and it mustn’t.

The pale London sky was darkening as she followed the long curve of the river towards the docks. She followed a concrete walkway along the water, marching briskly into the wet, dirty little wind, her arms tightly folded. She saw a cormorant plunge suddenly from its nest on a moor-ing post into the dark green water. She found she was thinking about the house in the Lupanarian District again. They would know she was missing by now, but perhaps they would think she had had an accident or been murdered. It sometimes happened. Maybe they had already given up on finding her.

She passed docks fat with spices, tea and oil. A siren blared some-where up ahead: they were still unloading the ships. But the sunlight was getting very weak now and she was no longer afraid of being noticed. She pushed her thin body between the loose panels of a rusting mesh fence and stood for a moment looking out at the river. This was a dilapidated wharf, scattered with misshapen crates and empty barrels. The black husk of a warehouse squatted beside her. She crossed the yard and with some difficulty, hauled open the rotting door of a forlorn outbuilding. Inside it was crammed with rubbish; heaps of old rope, long coils of plastic tubing and sheeting, dried-up cans of paint and, for some reason, a bent door resting at an awkward slant on top of every-thing. She struggled through it all, finding her way by touch and the dim glow from ships on the river. There was a damp, mouldering smell and she heard a sudden skitter of claws behind her on the invisible concrete floor. This was her last and most recent hiding place, furthest from the Lupanarian District and established at the greatest risk. She’d had to be away from the house far longer than was allowed. The lies she’d had to tell that time had felt thin and fragile, and though they’d seemed to believe her she’d been knocked about all the same. But she felt no pleasure at reaching the shed. She pulled a heap of litter away from the cheap black travelling bag she had hidden at the back and stared blankly at it. She wondered how long it would be before anyone found it, and what they would think, if she did not come back.

She put her head on her knees and perhaps this time she did sleep for a while; at any rate it was with a shock that she became aware again of the dark shapes around her and the odd sour smell.

It was raining again when much later that night she darted busily along a little road, trying to look as if she were hurrying somewhere else, never turning her head right or left. She had doubled back on herself and walked a mile or so west. Here the buildings rose right on the edge of the Thames, forcing the thin street around them and away from the water. The river military station was a brown dumpy little building perched with seeming precariousness on the embankment, its rump hanging out over the river. Una only lifted her eyes once towards the building: enough to take in the square, shut doors and the camera roosting above them. She kept straight ahead until she judged she was out of the invisible circle it cast into the street.

Beyond the station the street was open to the river again. She turned towards it, sticking close to the station’s blank west wall, and peered back over the water. She saw that from the back of the building a long steel walkway led down to a broad landing stage, dimly lit, where snub patrol boats and long blunt custodial ferries were huddled. There were no cameras that she could see on the quay, which was not so very strange – the only obvious way to the boats was through the military station. Unless perhaps there was a camera on the back wall of the station? She couldn’t tell at this angle. She took a breath and held it for a while. From this point on her plan had had to deal with unfamiliar things, it had had to become less precise exactly as it became more dangerous. She did not know which boat was the one she needed, or how to get on board without being caught.

But there was something she could do which gave her a few more chances than she would otherwise have had. Inside the building the men must know which boat was scheduled to collect prisoners from the ship in the Thames estuary: if they knew it, so could she. She could filter through their thoughts and carry out the things she needed. What she was going to do was far more difficult than offering the woman in Julian Square back her own opinions – those scraps of nonsense about Marcus had lain so flimsily on the surface that almost anyone could have picked them up – but it was the same.

Sometimes a stranger’s thought would fly at her, fully formed and as bright and sharp as a fierce bird.

More usually it was like a long, soft buzz, a half-meaningless mutter endlessly falling apart and reforming, shot through with sharp threads of intention. That was tolerable and if she tried she could shut it out (but that was something she had not dared to do that day). But behind it always there were louder, more brutal noises: yelps and roars that belonged to pictures, lurid and ugly and bulging dangerously against the shame that contained them. She guessed these things were some-how necessary, or at least could not be helped; she knew, though she hated the thought of it, that her own wintry sharpness was shored up on the same squalor. This made it no easier to quell a disgust that was sometimes almost overpowering. If she wanted to, and often when she didn’t, she could know people better than they could bear to know themselves.

People were like clumps of brambles rustling in a high wind, in-distinct and making a faint continuous noise and painful to touch. Sometimes – but it was so difficult and so horrible – she could nudge the wind one way or another, turn a leaf over, separate the thorned branches so their shape became clear.

This was what she did now. She stood and pressed her cold cheek against the wall of the station and pretended her skin was growing into it. Her eyelids fell, so that she saw the flaws in the brick softened and doubled through the film of her own wet lashes. Odd points of mood snagged her already from inside. There was someone . . . yes, there was a man trying to remember the words of a song and wanting to go home. He couldn’t remember if the next word was ‘regret’ or ‘forget’ and without that he couldn’t get onto the next line at all, and though he kept trying not to think about it, the broken song kept rising up in his mind and humming itself over and over, like an insect.

So Una half-shut her eyes and dropped invisibly through him like cold water into warm. She let herself spread out slowly, hesitantly, smoothing away her own shiver, until she as good as owned him. She was through and through him, and could see him as clear as if every piece of him were an eye of hers.

The boats, she whispered outside, pressed against the damp wall, not knowing she was moving her lips. The crosses. The morning.

The half-remembered song flickered away for a moment as the boats at the mooring stage rose suddenly in the man’s mind, but at once the thought veered off – he remembered a boat his family had owned when he was a child, and then a bad picnic they’d had on a cold beach when they’d all argued horribly, and then a kind of cake they’d eaten – could you still get it? – and then what food he had in the cupboards at home, and then how he wished he was in his kitchen, about to go to bed.

Una waited patiently, letting the thread of thought spin itself out, hearing the song come back, and then she tried again. The boats. The executions.

This time he followed the thought readily, away from the nag of the song. The executions. Una was startled and unnerved by a shaft of pity for the prisoners. She did not want to see such things, so she pushed it aside and pressed imperceptibly: Which boat, she insisted. Which boat was going? And there she saw what she thought she needed: he hovered between two numbers: three and four; and there was a name: ‘Nausi-caa’. As soon as it formed the word fragmented and began to circle and reassemble itself meaninglessly: causi-naa, au-cis-san, cause, nausea.

She did not wait to see where the pieces settled. She rushed back to herself, sighing and scrubbing her face with her hands, trying to shake the man’s personality off like dirty water. She felt soiled and sick. She hated doing what she had done, she hated the dilution of her own self, the residue of other people that clung to her, above all she hated the vile things which were always there and which she always saw. Uncon-sciously, she made a little raw noise in her throat like a sob and ran.

But even the throbbing revulsion driving her forward was not enough to shake her merciless grip on her purpose. So she stopped suddenly, clasping hold of the railing holding her back from the river, anchoring herself on the wet metal under her palms. It was just as well to be some distance away from the military station. She looked down at the dark water glittering below her and before she had time to think she swung herself over the barrier. But then she did hesitate for a moment, with only her heels on the concrete and her grasp on the railing holding her upright. Already her body was battered and worn out; if she went into the water now she would have to spend what was left of the night soaked in water fouled with chemicals and effluence.

Though her flesh recoiled from what was to be done, she did not seriously consider that there was any choice: giving up was unimagin-able. She thought of the cormorant dropping from the mooring post – the river had to be clean enough to keep fish alive. She kept the thought of the bird diving safely after its prey to nerve herself. So Una turned, adjusted her grip on the railing, and lowered herself softly into the Thames.

She was already drenched from the rain, so the river wasn’t as cold on her skin as she’d feared. Worse was the thick velvetiness of the floating sludge billowing against her, and the stench that bloomed off the water; a fresher, more vivid version of the smell in the wharfside shed. She swam slowly, just a gathering of black in the black water, letting her limbs hang under the surface so as not to break it.

When she reached the station she swam further out into the river, so that the landing stage was between her and the building. She reached up and hooked her fingertips over the edge of the platform and lifted her head and shoulders out of the water: from here the station looked huge and top-heavy, the walkway a strange thick arm pointing. As she had feared, there was a camera fixed over the station’s back door, but she thought she might be safe if she kept to the shadows of the boats: there was so little light.

She let herself down into the water again and swam to the row of custodial ferries, pressing as close to them as she could to read the names and numbers painted on their sides. She hung for a while be-tween two boats: yes, the boat numbered four had the name ‘Nausicaa’, but the man in the station had thought of the number three, too – perhaps it was the number that was important and the name had come up clinging to it like seaweed on a fishing line. She could do no better than guess, so she stretched up to catch hold of the gunwale, and hauled herself up onto the deck of the boat called Nausicaa, on the side furthest from the station and its camera. Without much hope she tried the door that led down to the cells. It was locked, as she’d ex-pected. Keeping low against the bridge, she crept round to the stern of the boat. She sighed and closed her eyes for a second. She had expected no better, but the deck was stark and bare of places to hide. There was nothing except a large metal box about four feet high, built into the deck, which held gas cylinders and some low plastic tubs whose purpose she couldn’t guess.

At last she ducked forward and wedged herself between the box and the bridge and sat there, coiled in an awkward knot, trying to still her shuddering body. The rain was easing, but now the air snatched the warmth off her wet skin.

As a place to hide it was pitiful; all she could do was trust in her ability to flick aside filaments of attention as they settled on her. But already she was almost sick with cold and weariness, soaked through with the man’s thoughts and the green Thames.

 
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