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Fresco from the House of the Cryptoporticus, Pompeii. 40-20BC
Currently exhibited in the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibtion, British Museum

graffiti from the House of the Cryptoporticus

It were only because we were bored.

The baby was teenyweeny then, and Ma was like a big old sleepy old cow plopped on the couch all day with him snuffling away at her boob. Even when he were sleeping she wouldn’t put him down for fear of waking him: she got Lydia sent in to read to her. Me and Titus sat on the floor outside her room. When we couldn’t hear any crying or reading we sneaked in to see her. It was dark and stuffy – all bed-smelling – and she were lying down fanning herself with her hands.

‘No,’ she said before we even could open our mouths. ‘Not now. I’m so tired. If you want something, ask your father.’

But he were in his office. We poked our heads out the front door and there was a queue of his clients slumped on the bench mopping sweat off their hairy necks. So we knew Pa would be busy all morning.

‘Let’s play with the mice,’ I said.

So we goed to the kitchen. Barates was there, having a piss. He splooshed a basin of vegetable water down the drain after it.

‘get the mice down,’ said Titus, because they had put the jar high up on a shelf. Dormice are good: fat and snoozy, you can hold one in your hand and it won’t care, you can feel its heart twitching and its bones are like a soft little bag of beads. It’s like Ma says: ‘he’s just so precious when he’s asleep.’

‘No,’ said Barates. ‘You get em all worked up. Go and play in the garden.’

We tried, but it was, ohhh, too hot. Also, there was loads of flies out there because the fountain had got bunged up. ‘Pfeh!’ we said. ‘Ugh!’. The water was stinky and full of wigglers.

You know where we went then? We went into the Good Room with the yellow walls. It is always the least hot place in the whole house but nobody was there. Our uncle’s house has really good murals: stories we like – when Icarus falled in the sea! – and all pictures of lovely fruit and bread. Our house has boring yellow I-don’t-know-what, with no story.

‘Stupid yellow,’ Titus said, slapping his hand on it.

Slap slap, we went, and we pretended our hands were animals in the yellow arena, and we made them fight. The yellow wall was cool and soft, and smelt like undergound water.

Then Titus got out his stylus his tutor given him. ‘I’m going to do an animal,’ he says.

‘No,’ I say, ‘you mustn’t.’

But he does. He has to scratch hard, and his fingers press til they go white. Dust comes off and floats to the floor, very soft. I were going to go and tell somebody, but they would just say to me, ‘go away’. So I kneel and watch, and he does a goat with curly horns. Titus is good at drawing.

‘Now a deer,’ I say. And he does.

‘This is the deer’s antlers,’ he says, ‘and this is the man, see, I’ll do a man.’

And he tells me each thing he is drawing. ‘Here is a bird,’ he says, ‘looking for something to peck’, and the animals creep out and out across the stupid yellow wall. A bristly boar is jumping at the man.

A quiet voice in a stuffy room is a nice thing. Soon Titus is not telling any sort of story at all, he just drones ‘and the boars and the boars and the boars’ – until he got no air left, has to take a great big breath – ‘andtheboarsandtheboarsandtheboars’.

‘And the boars and the boars and the boars,’ I whisper. I lean with my cheek against the plaster so my eye is a bit shut, and I watch him, I do.

I just watch him.