This short story was begun as long ago as 1998 and has since been through many revisions, rejections and further revisions, including changing its name three times. Apart from a quick run through before publishing it here, this draft dates from around July 2011. I’m unlikely to work on it again and don’t believe in it strongly enough to continue submitting it, plus, it rather fits the bill of tragicomedy, so here it is!
For the Love of Seneca
“I have a bath again now,” said Oliver, sitting in his mother’s kitchen on a grey Sunday afternoon.
“Well, you know what I’ve always said?”
“Yes, I know. And if you say it again, I’ll come round next time you’re in the bath and throw the bloody hairdryer in.”
Oliver’s mother, Janet was making pastry for a peach pie.
“It’s true,” she said. “Hot baths are very good for you.”
“I know, I know.”
“So how is Rachel?”
“She’s fine I guess.”
“Don’t you know? The last time I saw her she complained she never sees you.”
Oliver sipped from his cup of tea.
“I’m busy, mum. Anyway, she’s just being melodramatic. She’s got a thesis to write and if she made better use of the time I give her then she wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”
“You give her!”
“Well, whatever. I just don’t see why she can’t amuse herself.”
“Don’t you want to see her?”
“She’s hard to entertain. I’m tired of going out. The only thing I like is the cinema.”
“Haven’t you got anything in common any more?”
Oliver shrugged. He was tired and wanted to get home to indulge his lethargy.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“You seem to know about everything else. I hope you’re not misleading her. After four years, I’d like to think she could expect some honesty.”
Oliver shrugged again. Janet’s eyes widened.
“You little rat.”
When Oliver arrived home that evening there was a message from Rachel on his answering machine. The daily phone-call; it was as ubiquitous as it was dreary. Did she really need to hear his voice?
He sighed and phoned her nonetheless. She was in a good mood and he hoped it wasn’t his fault. It seemed so simplistic, this happiness she got from him. She wanted him to do Latin American dancing with her.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said.
“But you said you’d take dancing lessons with me.”
“I said I was willing to do ballroom dancing, not Latin American dancing. Anyway, I don’t have the right sort of shoes.”
“What sort of shoes?”
“Plus I haven’t got the right clothes. Whatever the case, I can’t go tonight. I’ve got half a book to read.”
“But you promised you’d go with me. Who cares about the shoes or clothes? Just wear anything. And this is ballroom dancing. I don’t see what the difference is.”
“There’s a big difference. Anyway, I couldn’t stand all that fickle, jaunty music. You know I only promised after you hassled me about it, and to tell the truth I’m annoyed with myself for showing such a complete lack of spine.”
“Don’t be so full of shit, Oliver. It’s not fair. You said you would go. Emily’s going and Johannes is going and I said I’d go and now I don’t have a partner.”
“You’re an attractive girl. I don’t think you’ll be a wallflower for long.”
“God, you can be a real prick. If you’re not coming just say so without being nasty.”
“I’ve already said I’m not coming. How many times do you want me to say it? I can’t tonight, I’ve got stuff lined up.”
“Well you obviously don’t need a girlfriend then do you?”
“If it’s a choice between sanity and Latin dancing, then you’re probably right.”
Oliver worked weekends and his Monday mornings were the height of liberty. It was then that he could shine and feel the world to be wide and glorious. This Monday morning was no exception. With so much possible he could afford a brief rest and chose to lie in bed with his face in the sunlight. He imagined basking in a rowboat, drifting from a bank of arching reeds. Further up the idling river he conjured another such boat carrying another such sunlit dreamer. There she lay, drifting towards him, a living Ophelia or Lady of Shallot, soft and quenching as a Waterhouse. If only their hulls might collide.
When he opened his eyes he was back in his room with its brown carpet and walls stained by the rotting wood of the window pane. Still there was every reason for hope, for today was all his and he might just run into her.
It had, after all, happened before; this longed-for extra-curricular encounter with Lucinda. Exactly a week ago, after a class, he had found her in the library, full of speculation. In her merry, assured voice, with its strong hint of English aristocracy, she explained how Walter Scott was to blame for the American Civil War; that Emma Bovary deserved respect for striving for titillation amidst a sea of mediocrities; how Levin in Anna Karenina was merely a self-portrait of Leo Tolstoy, and finally about St Anselm’s spurious proof of the existence of God. If Oliver had been in deep before, last Monday was the final straw.
Dared by her intellectual openness, he had mentioned his love of Seneca, unveiling his innermost vice. What raptures had filled him with her wide-eyed response.
“Oh I love Seneca,” she had said in his wake. “He’s such a tragic figure and so marvellously brave. There was such nobility in the way he took his own life. I do so admire the Stoics.”
Was it to be believed, that he should meet a woman, indeed a girl, so fond of someone as crustily wonderful as Seneca? He had to face the facts; he was hopelessly in love with Lucinda and he came away waving his arms close to his chest. These restrained gesticulations accompanied a revisitation of her words, for he smarted long after with her brilliance and reworked his way through her expositions. How she outshone everyone and everything that had existed anywhere – ever!
So it was that a week later, after a morning of writing and study, Oliver set off with a will to be lucky. On campus anything could happen; he would patrol the library and the cafés and hope that he might intercept her. If he could not find her on campus, then perhaps he might see her on the streets of Glebe. After all, she only lived a few blocks away and so long as he was out of doors and in their locale, there was a chance he and she might meet.
Once in the library, having collected a pile of books, he photocopied with vigour. He thought he looked very strong in a tee-shirt and positioned himself to be seen in profile by any who should enter the copy room. She did not come. Later, he wandered through all the levels of the library tower, walking up and down the aisles and formulating excuses for being where he did not need to be. Much to his disappointment, however, these jovial musings were never required to be uttered.
After two coffees at the one café she had told him she frequented, he resigned himself to defeat and set off to dawdle home. Along Glebe Point Road his eyes were hawkish and he ventured into all the book shops, yet failed to catch a glimpse of her.
As his door closed behind him and all possibility died, his mood sank quickly and he walked to his bed for a mope.
“You’re not seeing someone else are you?”
“No, mum, I’m not seeing someone else. What makes you think that?”
“Well, I suppose, technically speaking, I have seen someone else.”
“Bloody men.” She looked at him fiercely. “I hope you were discrete this time.”
“I haven’t done anything! I’ve just had my eye on someone. A girl from my history class. Nothing’s happened and it probably never will.”
“Why won’t anything happen?”
“I don’t know. It’s like she’s out of my league. I’ve never met anyone so interesting or intelligent, and we’ve got so much in common, down to the most trivial things. Though, with her, nothing seems trivial.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Probably nothing. I’m too much of a coward to corner her.”
“Well if you really think she’s so special, why not ask her out? And while you’re at it, why keep Rachel hanging on? You’re hedging your bets. If Rachel finds out you’ve got a crush on another girl it’ll be awful for her.”
Oliver shook his head. Why did Sunday dinner so often turn into an interrogation? It was his business after all.
“I’m too jealous to break up with Rachel. She’s so attractive, she’ll find some other bloke in no time. That would be a real blow.”
“God, Oliver, you’re as self-centred as your father. And what about this other girl?”
“If you really have everything in common, then she must know it as well.”
“Maybe she sees things differently.”
“Well, why don’t you find out? If it’s over with Rachel then end it and ask this girl out.”
“It’s not that simple, mum. If she’s not interested, then it’ll be bloody embarrassing being in the same classroom. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”
“Maybe you need to think about being fair to Rachel first. Why not take a long hot bath, and think about what’s right, hmmm?”
Oliver worked hard over the next few weeks during which time he found little solace. Though he visited the library daily and patrolled the locale in spare moments, his hopes of running into Lucinda proved fruitless. When he did see her in class on Wednesdays he lacked the nerve to attempt to command her attention. This was usually directed to another chap called Cain with whom she already had a strong rapport. Oliver did not feel comfortable trying to insinuate himself into their chats and could barely find the courage even to hover by the notice board after class in the hope of being addressed. He would, more often than not, slink off with a honking, nasal farewell. The bravado that had netted him indiscretions in the past was merely the drunken scion of intense shyness.
One day, as he was playing tennis, Oliver saw Lucinda walking up the hill towards the library, bustling with her usual energy. He was turning to collect a ball by the wire fence and was so shocked to see her that he almost did something daring and cried out. Having intercepted his first would-be shout, he began to consider his appearance, which, sweaty and unsophisticated, lacked the stage management that went into his classroom attendances. Before long she had turned the corner and vanished from reasonable earshot. Her admirer remained staring a while, gripping his racquet impotently tight, ready to serve a fiery fault.
Oliver felt this missed opportunity to be a terrible blow and it sank his spirits further. His growing determination to pursue Lucinda added a marked surliness in his dealings with Rachel and he saw her even less than before. It would be just his luck that Lucinda should see him on the street with his girlfriend and that would be the end of that. The difficulties were great enough as it was, but to be revealed as a dud option was out of the question.
All the same, his surliness did not emerge free of guilt. Often he found his own obstinacy to be unpleasant and was afraid that he had hardened his heart too much. It was the sound of his own voice that most disturbed him. He found it difficult to like himself when he spoke to Rachel, but something inexorable prevented him from behaving charitably. He feared that he was really punishing himself and his regret stemmed not so much from an unrealised desire to please Rachel, but rather from the suspicion that a more active social life and less time in “the monastery” might be invigorating.
He had long ago identified the real problem in his attitude to Rachel. It lay in his resentment of her happiness, and that principally because he was the source of it. It struck him as pathetic how happy his mere presence could make her and insulting to him that she expected him to derive the same pleasure from her. No one should be entirely responsible for someone’s happiness, he mused. It was an unreasonable burden, an impossible burden and he wanted none of it.
What he resented most of all was that he had spent so long searching for “the formula” and he feared that Rachel had found it. Well, if she believed him to be the answer, then he would have no choice but to prove how flawed this idea of hers was.
“Why is she not plagued by philosophical questions day and night?” he asked himself. “Why does she not sweat as I do over the insoluble? How can anyone rightly be comfortable in this world?”
Despite being aware of the pretentiousness of his angst, he indulged in it, all the while telling himself that he longed to be more like Seneca; dour and joyous in his sobriety, heroically useful in his reasoned application. As yet, the only thing he had managed to put aside was his lust and physical passion, but he could not achieve a level temperament. He was all angles and jarrings, the mere elbows and knees of a personality. At best he was awkward and stiff, while at worst he was cranky and mean spirited. He felt at times that his selfishness knew no bounds. Worst of all, however, at the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy, was Oliver’s fear that he too had found the formula, only for him, the answer was the unattainable Lucinda.
Rachel continued to phone him every day to see how he was, understanding his outward moroseness to be the result of plunging himself into so much work. She was upset and worried at the absence of his old optimism. He was more ambition now than hope, and the one was a good deal more curt than the other. He was thirsty and faithless and sought too many memories to whisper subversively about the stale present. When the sun set, he fell into his soul and he saw the heavens and the claws. The morning would return to give him the confidence to forfeit his life to work and an uncertain chance. It was a hollow security, staid and forced; with little chance for air.
“I’ve half a mind to tell her what you think myself,” said Oliver’s mother one evening. “I just don’t understand why you refuse to do the decent thing. I thought all these philosophers you’re so fond of wrote about ethics and morality and personal decency. Hasn’t any of that rubbed off?”
“I’ve adopted the work ethic…”
“Well, that’s a start.”
“I can’t help myself, mum. I’m completely hooked. I don’t know what to do, but I feel I have to do something.”
“You can’t just keep Rachel hanging on. She’s going to find out the hard way and you’ll be in a right pickle when she decides to leave you for neglecting her.”
“Oh, she won’t leave me. I know that for certain. She loves me far too much.”
“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”
“She’s told me so herself. She couldn’t leave if she tried. It would break her heart. Irreparably.”
One Wednesday afternoon Oliver arrived at class to find no one present. He sat in a chair in the vestibule where he often sat when he was early. It must be a coincidence, he thought, that everyone is late this week. A further five minutes went by, the clock passed two and still no one arrived at the classroom. Then he remembered and leapt from the chair.
“Fuck, shit, shit,” he spat, marching to the notice board. He scanned and flipped the hanging sheets, but he could not see what he was looking for. He pulled his course outline from his bag. It confirmed his worst suspicions. Their trip to St Mary’s Cathedral for a lecture on the Gothic architectural style was this week, not next week as he had somehow mistakenly recalled. How on earth could he have made such a monumental error?
He pictured his fellow students, joyous and smiling and Lucinda most of all, delighting in the upper galleries. They were probably touring the vault first, damn them – and he would miss the chance to see her moist with excitement and to charm her with his remarks, delivered on foot with a chance for theatre. The knowledge, the experience, the bonding would all be missed, and the week following he would seem out of touch; an outsider, and the rest all just a little closer.
He cursed again and moved to the stairs. If he took the bus and ran across town he would be almost forty minutes late. He would have to take a taxi and even then he would be at least twenty minutes late, probably twenty-five. But what if the tour was for one hour only? He would arrive flustered, be forced to talk to priests and be led like a lost lamb to his tutorial group, out of sorts and bumbling excuses. He would look a desperate fool, and his every effort would be sunk. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had decided that it was already too late. He marched off in the direction of his flat; frowning, sulkily barbaric.
Once at home, Oliver paced up and down his flat, regretting his decision not to go. Eventually he took himself to his desk to try to write, but he found it impossible to concentrate and decided to take a walk instead. He had a shower first, changed his clothes and set off for the park at Glebe Point with his camera, a blanket and a book. If he could not write, then so be it, but were he to take a good photograph, the afternoon would not feel so lost.
The sun was warm and a light wind flecked the water with a broken glare. The air was touched with damp scents from the fig trees. The grass was springy and welcomingly soft.
Oliver lay his blanket down and rested on an elbow. He lay like this for an hour, reading about the fall of Berlin, then sank on his back and placed the book over his eyes. He dozed off quickly with his camera stuck in his armpit. Over the next hour he drifted in and out of sleep. He felt serene lying as he was and for a time he lost his tension as the world retreated behind a few snap dreams.
It was five o’clock when he sat up in the lower sunlight. Straight ahead, across the water, stood two old power station chimneys. Before them was docked a jumble of half-scrapped ships. The fading green and yellow paint of an old harbour ferry had blistered with rust like red moss.
Across the face of this setting stepped Lucinda and Cain, strolling slowly beside the water. Oliver’s breath caught as he heard the sound of her voice.
“Oh and I just love what Suger has to say about vaulting. Isn’t it splendid that such books exist?”
Oliver did not move a muscle. Even when Cain, nodding, touched her upper fore-arm and directed her gaze to the boats opposite, he remained perfectly still. The moment their backs were turned he rubbed his eyes and adjusted his hair, then straightened up his clothes. His mouth opened and closed as the decision to speak was revoked. He could not be seen like this. His eyes were too puffy and his face un-alert from sleep. His throat needed clearing and the salt of dried sweat to be washed from his park-lawn limbs. He watched with horror and fascination as Cain and Lucinda stood pointing across the water.
“Look,” she said, “they’ve started removing the panels from the hull.”
“Yes, I saw that yesterday,” said Cain. “My favourite thing is that crane over there,” and he pointed to the horizon.
“Yes,” said Lucinda, “it’s a splendid crane.”
Then, as Cain stood admiring the scene, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Cain looked surprised.
“I thought you said not in public.”
“Well,” said Lucinda, “mostly. Just not on campus, that’s for sure.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, and kissed her back.
Oliver lay straight back down on the grass. He picked up his book and held it in front of himself, blocking the view of his face with its open cover; ruins and a Russian tank.
Oliver lay in the bath, steaming. It was pleasant enough in itself to give him second thoughts, but on this matter he was quite resolved. Things had really taken a turn for the worse in the last three months. The decisions he made had left him disgusted with himself and there was little of which to be proud. Pulling out of his thesis was a tragic error, but when Rachel left him for Johannes, the floor had fallen rapidly away.
Despite what he had witnessed between her and Cain, Oliver’s desire for Lucinda would not let him rest. He stepped up his efforts, trying to drive himself like a wedge between the two of them. Oddly, like a man engaging in an undeclared duel, he targeted Cain. He played Cain at tennis and lost. He played him at chess and lost. He played him at Trivial Pursuit and lost as well. Nor could he equal him in a philosophical discourse; the way he was shown up for a fraud on Aristotle was quite the final straw. Lucinda still shone like a beacon, but Lucinda was gone; taken in hand by a lover with glowing credentials. Perhaps, had he not left his trying so late, he might have stolen a march. How different things might have been had he not hedged his bets! Compromise had stifled him and Stoicism had failed him, but this time, he would not fail Stoicism.
“No one else shall have the choice to kill me nor spare me.”
He wanted to laugh at himself for speaking such portentous mimicry, but he had lost his humour a month ago.
“Fortitude, constancy and self-reliance, versus avarice, greed and time-wasting. Bugger.”
With the weighty results of his disappointment, his fortitude was failing. His constancy was long since tried and proven to be hollow. His self-reliance was exhausted if unflinching, yet he was tired of having to do everything for himself. Avarice, yes, in the desires of the heart; Greed yes, in the form of his lust; and time-wasting in the drinking brought on by his depression.
It is a terrible thing to forget to be nice to the right people.
He took the razor and held it to his left wrist.
In the pointed style, but again he was too heavy to find it amusing.
He squinted and clenched and drew it towards him, running smoothly with a bitter sting.
The red line rising in the wake of its passage took its time to flourish, yet from this deceptive innocence a gushing flow soon sprang.
Oliver blanched at the sight of his own blood and closed his eyes in horror.
“What have I done?”
He felt sick enough to vomit, though he merely gagged and tautened. He peered through his lashes and felt a strange tickle, but could not bear the sight of his wound. There was so much blood! When Seneca took his life he’d had to cut his wrists, then ankles, then the backs of his knees and he still did not bleed fast enough. Indeed from here, in what had been such an apposite and inspirational gesture for Oliver, Seneca was then thrust into a warm bath to accelerate the flow after a walloping dose of Hemlock. Yet, neither poison nor the hot waters were sufficient to break his constitution, so he was finally rendered unto Caesar via a suffocating steam bath. Such heroic misery was not forecast by Oliver and, in his case, as he now acknowledged with his slitted, frightened eyes, the hot bath was working all too well.
He took another look at his wrist; all scarlet and curlicued on the drop-studded armrest; it was scathing beauty, so perfectly bright. The wound pulsed and surged and he flinched from its slow throb. He turned it upside down then thrust it away from himself.
“Holy fuck, holy shit,” there was panic upon him, but with his eyes locked shut and his stinging wrist resting now cold and downturned on the bathside, he felt a certain calm regained through the warmth and faintness prevailing.
He sunk his head back and tried to think clearly, for he had indeed predicted that the action itself would unseat him. He inhaled deeply and felt his shoulders bristle with cooling sweat. He slid down further so the bath might cover him and turned his head upward so that when he opened his eyes, they would not behold a vision of horror.
There was no hope now of going through with his other wrist, for he could not look down at all. Surely it would not be necessary. If he lay still enough he would drift into cloudiness, then fade away for good. He had to overcome the immediate panic and consider his decision with the reasoning that had led him to this bath. And what was that reason, he asked of himself – an absence of hope?
The sting was growing and brought its own inevitable caveat. Yet, just as he had predicted, once the first step was taken, the consequences of living with the psychological ripples from a failed attempt would make his life all the more unbearable in any possible aftermath.
With his eyes still closed and the back of his head tingling with watery nerves, he forced himself instead to think of his philosopher heroes. When Thrasea took his life his friends gathered round as they had with Socrates, to watch and assist in ending his days. Likewise with Seneca. And these were the most educated men of their times. Even if branded traitors and told that they ought to kill themselves, or, like Socrates, sentenced unfairly to death, still they went ahead with it, with friends about and in good humour. And still, such a thing was acceptable, even honourable, even for young men.
How different the world was today, in which so few respected the decision to end one’s life! Certainly Oliver respected it – at least for himself – though perhaps not for everyone.
“And how might that be justified?” he asked, trying to regain some mental equilibrium. “If such a course is suitable for me, surely it is suitable for everyone. But what of those who are not ready? Perhaps they should only allow suicide for those who have a thorough philosophical education.”
He became quite resolved on this point and, momentarily, cheered by it. It would have been splendid if someone were sitting next to him and he could have sought a second opinion. Oddly enough, the most appropriate candidate was Cain – quite the sharpest mind he knew when it came to philosophical dialogues. And Lucinda, of course. She might have smoothed his brow with a cool washer and, if she were made of sterner stuff than he, which he didn’t doubt for a moment, then perhaps she could have assisted him by slashing his other wrist.
He liked this way of thinking, as the steam and heat began to ripple his skin. Lucinda would at least understand the bravery in all this. And she loved Tacitus as well, and Tacitus, after all, had told the best stories about suicides ever recounted. At least in ancient literature, and there wasn’t too much to be had from the moderns on the topic. Or so Oliver thought, for whom such certitude from a position of relative ignorance was not atypical.
Oliver was still too terrified to look to his wrist. He had not moved it since he had lain it along the bath’s edge, cut facing downwards. From those opened veins he could feel a vibrant pulse. His life! The blackness was still at a significant remove. There was as yet little of the static with which his eyes were flooded when he had fainted in the past. Perhaps because he was reclining, perhaps because his head was supported against the back of the tub – either way, he was not dizzy. Indeed, he felt particularly energetic, something he had not felt for some time. There had been the throes of bingeing to carry him briefly, but on the whole his spirit had been lacklustre and weighty.
Unsurprising that it should come back to him now, but he recalled a conversation in which he denounced suicide as pathetic; a spineless, selfish course of action. Had he not once declared that before taking such a measure one should try every chance at happiness? Had he not then said that should the sorrows grow so great, he would rob a bank, fly to Venezuela and burn his passport? Anything, however extreme – a chance must surely be better than no chance. He felt himself to be, to some degree, a hypocrite.
He had been right, he decided, but the words were spoken with energy and passion and not from a body that had become lethargic and moribund. He lacked the energy to rob a bank. Indeed, it was precisely that sort of effort that shamed him now. If he had the urge to get up and get on with things, then he would not have taken this course in the first place.
Oliver edged himself up in the bath with his feet. Perhaps he was now feeling dizzy. The corners of his vision were tingling with flickers of black, creeping like noise into a photograph. He was on the brink of wondering where he stood on all these matters, but a mild panic now arrested him. He felt too hot and prickled and, not wanting to fade in discomfort, he reached out carefully, without catching sight of his bleeding arm, to turn on the cold tap.
He had had something to say about suicide.
“Tell me then, Socrates,” said Cebes, “what are your grounds for saying that suicide is not legitimate?”
“No doubt you will feel it strange,” said Socrates, after a fashion, “that this should be the one question that has an unqualified answer.”
Oliver had been reading the Phaedo only that afternoon and found himself questioning the merits of the dialogues.
Socrates said: “I want to explain to you how it seems natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished.”
“But you weren’t an atheist!”, Oliver protested. “For all your quarrelsomeness, you thought you were going somewhere better. And if you weren’t, then hell, you were an old man. You had lived!”
Oliver took his hand from the cold tap and shook it in the ugly, leering face of Socrates.
“You claimed that a philosopher spends his life preparing for death, denying the visceral in favour of the intellectual and spiritual.”
The static was building behind his eyelids, accompanied by a mild and sweet nausea. The water was cooling quickly and his body temperature was spiking between heat and chills.
“You spent your life trying to divorce your soul from your body,” continued Oliver, reassuring himself not with his words, but the sound of his voice, “but I’ve spent my life improving myself for this world, not the next. As an atheist, how can I even fathom the end of myself, let alone sanction it?”
The cold flow was snaking across the surface water.
Wincing now against sharpening discomfort, he thought more on the matter. For all his qualities as a disputant, Socrates’ arguments seemed poorly structured and full of non sequiturs. He was like a television journalist who loves tearing people apart but never really asks the right questions.
“You were surrounded by sycophants! All your bum-chums loved rolling over and pissing on their bellies. They loved wriggling around in your spurious horseshit.”
Oliver began to giggle at the vehemence of these words. This was a man he had always admired! He was being so unfair that he was sure he must be getting delirious. Often, when overtired he found himself able to laugh or cry at the drop of a pin and just now he was shaking his head.
This was a time both for laughing and crying.
He was getting off track too, thinking about anything and everything. He needed to bring it on home.
“What would Thrasea have to say and do?” he asked. “Old Thrasea just went right on and topped himself. It was like he couldn’t wait, like he’d been itching all along to have a slash at his veins.”
Thrasea had gathered his friends around and called on the sharpness of a philosopher friend in the form of Demetrius, yet no one knows what the two men said. Unbelievably, in perhaps the greatest cliff-hanger in the entire history of western literature, the manuscript of Tacitus breaks off with the line: “then, as his lingering death was very painful, he turned to Demetrius…”
“What did he say?” asked Oliver.
Oliver had a friend called Demitri, perhaps he should call him up and say nothing? But seriously, what might Thrasea have said? Probably something dull, but profound. Then again, knowing Tacitus, some immensely subtle and scathing indictment of the emperor that would only stink of dissidence to those who could do cryptic crosswords.
Oliver’s wrist was killing him now. The sting was sickening and a dull ache had spread all the way up his arm and into his biceps, through his shoulder and along into his neck. This secondary agony, this sympathetic warning…
Christ, he thought. If I was Thrasea, I would have hot-footed it out of there. Perhaps what he really said was “get me the hell out of here. Bind my wrists, grab me a toga, get me some wine, roll me up in a carpet and smuggle me the fuck to Egypt, you doddering homo!”
Oliver laughed again, this time in a hiss of piping giggles. He hadn’t felt such levity in months! He lifted his head forward from the back of the bath and felt its weight on his neck; it lolled and his eyes rolled and he put it straight back down; fearful now of losing consciousness. He was closing in on dissent against himself and could not afford to lose the chance.
The more he thought about it, the more Demitri seemed an ideal candidate for someone to have by his side. Demitri always cut through his pretensions like a knife. Whenever Oliver got worked up about something, Demitri would call him “poofter”. It had been going on since high school and perversely, it gave him great pleasure. Indeed, so run of the mill had it become that whenever he phoned Demitri now, Demitri would answer “is that you, poof?”
How he relished it! Maybe he wasn’t a poof, but a fool, yes, indeed – for why was he now thinking he wanted Demitri beside him? To cut through what? His other wrist, or his immense stupidity? Had he not told himself that his sentencing must be carried out beyond the shadow of a doubt? There could be no doubt at all, either reasonable or unreasonable, and from the moment his wrist had begun to spill he had questioned both his motive and goal. He couldn’t even hold a decent philosophical discourse with himself without piddling about in childish tangents.
He reached out and placed his hand under the cold tap which was still running. He cupped the cold and threw water across his eyes. He repeated this several times before reaching for a face washer lying on the bath’s edge. Folding it into a triangle with one hand, he raised his bleeding arm and shook with the image it brought him. He did not hesitate and nor did he flinch as he slapped the washer hard against it, wrapping it tight and binding it into a knot with his teeth. The water in the bath was colder now and he was starting to shiver. His eyes were holding out just fine, but he was fighting strong against the swoon.
With his foot he worked out the plug. He heard the lurching gurgle as the pipes took the flood, then reached for his mobile phone. He had left it on the bath-side stand and knew exactly what had to be done. It was there should he need it and he had hoped he would not, only why was it there were it not for his habitual failure of nerve? Bah! he was no Stoic, he was all cry for help.
Then, as he lingered in the bath with the water draining about him and his body growing heavier each moment, he hit Demitri’s number.
“Is that you, poof?” asked Demitri.
Oliver did not laugh this time, but rather, he explained himself by saying the following…
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