14 February 2012
Squat down, pulling the back of my head onto his bare chest, Erasmus has pushed his left leg between mine. The inside of his thigh is touching the back of my balls. My sturdy left leg knots around his sturdier right.
He has a victorious look in his eyes. I attempt to gouge out his left one but my finger reaches only his cheek. I press down and this forces his face into a grin.
The Master stands over us, birch forever aloft, ready to strike us for any foul: should my finger get any closer to Erasmus’ eye or Erasmus decide to bite.
Erasmus appears to be on top but, as he readies himself for a right hook, he is starting to look unbalanced. I am hopeful my shoulder barging into his sweating armpit will eventually tip him off his precarious ankle perch. Perhaps optimistically, I sense that the tables are about to turn.
A guided group of schoolboys taunt the Caryatid, at her visible nipples showing through her drapes. Armless, she hovers above: the Queen of Room 15. Erasmus says that she would look down her nose at us had it not fallen off.
Alerted by the placard of the Olympic rings recently placed beside us, the boys’ eyes now peer in: some bored; some beady. They are uniformly fat and ugly. Vying for the best view, they place sticky hands on the glass. The guide talks; the boys do not listen. He shies away from his preferred explanation of our ‘visceral naked embrace’.
One boy spots the satyr opposite boldly balancing a goblet on his erect manhood. He mutters darkly but the boy next to him hoots. As one, the boys grapple amongst themselves to see. Erasmus complains that they’ve no respect and asks for what must be the fifteenth time this morning how long the youngsters of today would have lasted at the champion’s Academy.
The guide moves the boys on, choosing to miss out Achilles, next along, preparing to slaughter Hector at Troy to avenge the death of his beloved Patrolcus.
Tonight, the Young Researcher will come here again. In white gloves, he’ll click the glass door open and slide it back: blue eyes flicking back and forth between me and Erasmus and the Master. Short, dark, thick hair, pale skin, unkempt eyebrows and a few protruding nose-hairs.
The Professor passed through last night, trailed by his footsteps on the stone floor: a podgy face; a spotted bow tie. In his ever-mocking tone: “provenance”, he goaded the Young Researcher.
“It’s astonishing. Just handed in. It’s all so unanswered.”
“Well, this is the year. No point in telling me all about it next year. No good after the greatest show on earth.”
“It’s all guesswork anyway.”.
“Maybe, but the reward when you work it out… its surely close to immortality”. To which, the Professor laughed first and loudest. The Young Researcher looked up to him before he followed.
“Posterity, perhaps” said the Young Researcher.
“It’s less expensive than having kids, I hear; but research is just as pain staking. Don’t stay up too late”. The Professor placed his hand on the Young Researcher’s shoulder, and paused there for a moment. Then he left, footsteps fading. The Young Researcher looked after him with a smile and then his eyes fixed back onto us.
Erasmus is sure that this is our one-hundredth anniversary. A century since we were lifted out of the Libyan soil, feathered back to life with a fine horse hair brush, and looked on with boyish relish by the Viscount.
We were placed on top of a large carved Chinese bureau which tended to take the eye of the more fashionable of the Viscount’s visitors to Lennox Gardens. Opposite, guarding the mirror and marble mantle, two black and gold Anubis sat up and begged, one jauntily sporting a fez placed on its jackal head by someone from the artistic crowd. Women luxuriated on the wide white sofas, taking tea on carved French rosewood tables under the arabesque chandelier which would clink daintily whenever there was a draft. The powerful men who met in clouds of cigar smoke tended to admire the paintings: quintessentially English landscapes, still lifes or, Erasmus’ favorite, hunting scenes.
We were more the centre of attention at the Viscount’s all male gatherings. Held aloft, he would lasciviously explain: “Pankration was the noblest of all ancient sports. It was inspired by the techniques of hand to hand combat perfected by the Greek army in battle. Debated by the greatest thinkers, from Aristotle to Plato to Pliny. Men against men; boys against boys: naked and oiled!”
It was a well-rehearsed speech. The night he first saw Charlie, the Viscount delivered it to him alone amongst all the other men. Barely twenty, a blonde bantamweight who was less than half the Viscount’s age: steely blue eyes that didn’t miss a trick; a button nosed face with thick lips holding a slightly sour expression; one ear perfect and the other mildly cauliflowered.
They drew lots from the silver urn in homage to the pankratiasts’ tournament draw. Alpha was soon heading upstairs with alpha; beta with beta: the cat-calls and applause sounding them away. The Viscount beamed and blushed when, holding gamma, Charlie drew the match.
Charlie soon became a regular weekly visitor on his own. At the gatherings, the Viscount would fix his pairing so he never had to share out what he called Charlie’s perfect classical form. A flick of red paint on one gamma lot and the other held up the Viscount’s sleeve guaranteed an improbable run of matches that did not go uncommented on.
At Charlie’s last visit, the draw was halfway done when the gathered lads and gentlemen heard shouts of “police!” The gentlemen fell into an all-in tussle to regain their clothes and their composure. The lads re-clothed with professional efficiency as they huddled in a pack towards the back door.
Charlie, half-naked, checked he was unseen by the others, and stared at us, lifting up his arm to feel only a few bank notes inside. He swiped us away, fast to the door, shirt pulled back on, then through a hallway back window, up, across and then down the other side of a wall into a narrow alley and out with a silent stumble onto a damp, dark, cold, foggy Belgravia back street, where police enquiries could be heard on the other side of the garden wall.
Erasmus could never bring himself to utter a favourable word about Charlie whilst he was alive, permanently put out up by our transfer from Lennox Gardens nobility to a third floor room on the Queenstown Road.
Three strides across and four along, the room did not take long to search. He was thicker set than Charlie: rounder and older. The cupboard, wardrobe and bedside table, each in unmatched wood, were opened up first. He left the few neatly pressed clothes undisturbed. Next the desk, each drawer opened and each found empty. He looked at the cigarette cards of boxers and racehorses slowly marching in meticulous order across the wall nearest the bed. Judged worthless, they too were left.
He knelt down on the worn rug next to the single bed that Charlie slept in barely half the time. He felt around underneath and pulled out a small wooden box. He opened it on the bed. A signet ring was immediately popped in his top pocket. A roll of bank notes were counted and then pocketed. One look at the postcards of flexing nude men and they were tossed back into the box. He then put the box in the litter basket under the desk.
Finally, he stared at us standing on the desk. He shook his head slightly, looked down at the wooden box and decided to leave us where we were.
A voice interrupted from behind the door. It was the landlady Marie and her eyes were red, handkerchief ready.
“Please take the clothes and anything else in here – or let the Salvation Army have them”. He looked out of the small window watching the smog rise from the faint outlines of chimneys. The same spot where Charlie would exercise. Stretching and toning the “tools of his trade”, as Erasmus called them: preserving his perfect classical form.
“I was wondering: has Mr. Stevenson been informed?”
“Stevenson? Yes. I telephoned him two days ago.”
“That’s a relief. He’d want to know, I’m sure of it. He was the only visitor your cousin ever had here. Did you know Mr. Stevenson?”
“Only that he is Charlie’s executor.”
“Charlie had a will?”
“When you sign up, the War Office make you to write one”.
“He’d be very upset. He begged Charlie not to go. Said he could do his duty another way. He said he could pull strings, get him a safer posting. Quite beside himself was Mr. Stevenson.”
And now he understood the long pause and the broken voice when he’d telephoned Stevenson. He hadn’t sounded as if he was simply a solicitor, or just someone the War Office suggested. He now understood that it had been fear, not just loss, in Stevenson’s voice.
“He may have lived a scoundrel; but he died a soldier”, was Erasmus’ grudging tribute.
Lionel placed us on a large oak desk. A black leather couch stood in the centre of the office. Nets obscured the view through the three-quarter length windows. Certificates dressed one wall and another was filled with books.
“It is just to say thank you Doctor Euston”, left leg bouncing and eyes moving between us, the Doctor and the window.
“It belonged to my Aunt. She always said it had belonged to a soldier who died in the war and he had left it with her for safe keeping before he’d gone. She said I was like him. But I don’t think I’ve lived up to that particular tall tale. And, I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing I should keep”.
In truth, he wanted rid of any further reminder of Aunt Marie. He had recently, finally cleared the sacred replica he had kept of her Queenstown Road drawing room. Annie had declared it to be “positively gothic” and had chirruped about a walk-in-wardrobe.
Lionel had convinced himself that the room served only to take him back to confused times surrounded by his Aunt’s gowns, her trinkets, her theatre programmes and cheap costume jewellery; believing her predictions of his own stardom – through force of will and talent, where she had been cruelly denied. Now, he neared the big time with an act, in part, crudely mocking stagey female would-never-be’s like Aunt Marie. High camp for low laughs, it seemed unfair to keep the room, as if he was rubbing her nose in it. And, of course, there was Annie’s walk-in-wardrobe to think of.
“Lead me not into temptation”, he whispered when he spied on our nudity for one last time and packed us away, trying to dissolve memories of his own wrestling career of a quite different kind. He must protect himself. The papers must never know.
“If he can’t cope with us…” queried Erasmus.
The Doctor weighed us up, as if we posed a problem for which a solution was not that easy to fathom.
“There is really no need for gifts.”
“Well. I know that keeping things under wraps and so on…”
“I’ve explained before: everything here remains confidential. I’ve treated plenty of other people in the public eye. You will never hear about any of them. And no one will hear about you. Just concentrate on the techniques. This Annie you’ve told me about sounds very promising. Stay healthy. Stay on the straight and narrow.”
And that concluded the six sessions.
“I think he is now best known as the man who treated Lionel Quarry”.
The Clerk of Acquisitions’ sparrow eyes looked blank.
“The television personality.”
The Clerk dimly remembered a shiny suit, a white bouffant, permatan and recent confessional headlines.
“Oh dear. Perhaps he didn’t have much of a chance with Lionel Quarry.”
“No. Not with any of them, really. ” The Clerk nodded.
We had been placed on a table in a functional room in the basement of the British Museum.
“And, Mr. Euston, your father never realised.”
“About this? Or Lionel Quarry?” The Clerk nervously laughed.
“He had no interest in Ancient Greece?”
“I rather suspect he would have been against it. I’m afraid he was something of an activist.”
The Clerk had already guided Euston through the difficulties of preservation, of sunlight, of damp, of cleaning, of insurance values and inheritance tax, of loans to the institute and gifts to the nation: slowly and surely pecking away. But Mr. Euston was willing prey.
“We could arrange for a named donation – in your father’s name.”
“I’d prefer anonymity. It might stir things up again. No mention of him. Or of me, please.”
The Young Researcher’s blue eyes beg us for a final time.
“Ask us! Ask us!” Erasmus and I shout.
He looks back at his laptop screen from where his paper on the provenance glows.
“Ask us!” Erasmus continues, unable to see he has turned away. But the Young Researcher looks sharply back at Erasmus, as if he has in fact heard him. Of course, he has not; he cannot. Revered or mocked, studied or misunderstood, we are here to be observed. And all we can do is look back: seeing only what is in front of us, only what is real: its beauty only in its truth.
The screensaver has turned itself on. The Young Researcher and a blonde-haired man sit smiling arm-in-arm on a wall with an Aegean sunset behind them. His guesswork is nearly complete and he starts to type the final lines.
• Considering red-figured cup, Greek, likely c.500-475 B.C. (GR 1850.3-2.2; Diameter 30.500 cm);
• Noting decoration and clay type: suggests made in Athens, Greece;
• Noting similarity to items found at Teucheira, Cyrenaica (modern Libya) - possibly part of Viscount Lewes collection in area c.1910-12;
• Noting pankratiast figures (with referee): likely that cup was Athenian games trophy;
• Exploring possible origins: per similar trophies believed to have been won by champion Dioxippus and discovered in possessions of Philip, Governor of Cyrenaica (once a favourite pupil at Dioxippus’ academy);
• Recounting theories that Philip was left Dioxippus’ trophies after his death – in recognition of their long-term apparently romantic relationship.