This tale unfolds in AD 108-9, when the Roman Empire was at almost its fullest extent and its army numbered not far short of half a million men.
A few geographical explanations. Crocodilo, whose walls stand man-high to this day, lies in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, which is one of the hottest places on earth. Daytime temperatures rise in summer to the top 50s Celsius or, for those still stuck on Fahrenheit, the high 130s. The sun-baked sand can reach 80ºC or nearly 180ºF. If night and winter are less scorching, it is not by much. Apart from the exceedingly rare and unpredictable cloudburst there is no rain at all. Never, ever, is it a nice place to be. Details of military life here, including the obsession with time-keeping, are culled from a fascinating archive, excavated in 1997, of ostraca — that is, of day-to-day records written on broken potsherds and discarded when out of date, much as these days we delete old emails.
The island of Devade, now called Farasan, lies in the Red Sea off the present-day border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and it was the most south-easterly outpost of the Roman Empire. Lossio was a Briton from the place we know as Ilkley in Yorkshire, virtually as far to the north-west as Roman sway extended and a good 3,500 miles from Farasan. Deva, now Chester, to which Lossio expected to be sent, is also in Britain. Cassius and Valerius hailed from Sicily, roughly halfway between these two extremes. Lossio’s father was a native of Thrace, which was in modern Bulgaria. Dacia corresponded more or less to Romania. Ozalces came from Tripolitania or, as it is now, Libya. Men like these illustrate the cosmopolitan make-up of the Roman army.
A work of fiction revolves around its characters — what they say, what they do, what makes them tick. In this story, clocks are almost characters in their own right. But they have no voice, and some readers will want to know how they ticked — although that is the wrong word because Roman clocks did not tick. For the benefit of enquiring minds, therefore, there follows an explanatory note. But be warned: you may find it hard going. If you are faint-hearted about technicalities, skip it.
My usual thanks to Ben, Pryderi and Jonathan, and especially for tolerating my whimsy of someone talking Latin with a Yorkshire accent.
The Romans were not the inveterate clock-watchers that we are today, nor were their clocks like ours. Their smallest normal unit of time was the hour and, except among astronomers, there was no concept of minutes and seconds. Their hour, moreover, was not our constant twenty-fourth part of the day, but a twelfth part of the time between sunrise and sunset or between sunset and sunrise. It therefore varied in length according to the season and the latitude, so that daylight hours in summer were longer than night-time hours, and vice versa in winter; and summer daylight hours were longer in the north than in the tropics.
Thus every timepiece had to be designed for the place where it was going to be used. Sundials were widespread, but worked only when the sun shone. Simple water clocks that involved only the dripping of water into or out of a container had severe limitations. But the anaphoric clock, a Greek invention of the second century BC, was a different matter. In mimicking the passage of the sun through the heavens, the principle involved was highly sophisticated. Yet the device itself, once designed for the location in question, was relatively easy to make, and it had the crowning virtue that it told the time accurately by day and night alike.
Such a clock is powered not by what we call clockwork (which was a medieval invention) but by water. It drips from a header tank into a regulator tank that ensures a constant head, and thence into a receiver where it lifts a float. This, by means of a counterweight and a cord round a drum, rotates a display disc (blue in the title picture) precisely once a day.
The markings on this disc represent the heavens. They are the same for any clock, anywhere, and are laid out by projecting stereographically the three-dimensional heavens onto a two-dimensional surface. In the diagram below, the side view at the top shows the main celestial parallels or latitudes, namely the equator and the tropics of Cancer (where the sun is vertically overhead at noon on the summer solstice) and of Capricorn (where it is overhead at the winter solstice). From the equator, verticals are dropped to project these parallels in plan as circles. The ecliptic is the path of the sun through the heavens, and because the earth’s axis is inclined relative to the axis of its orbit, the ecliptic is eccentric to the other circles, touching the two tropics. Because the earth’s axis very slowly wobbles, the tropics are not static. In the second century AD they were at latitude 23.7º, which was generally taken as 24º.
On the disc, the bronze ecliptic ring (yellow in the title picture) is inscribed with month-names and pierced by 182 or 183 close-set holes. It simulates the annual path of the sun, and every other day a button (red) that represents the sun has to be moved one hole forward by hand. If the disc is big enough there can be 365 holes, one for every day. Thus the sun-button performs its annual circuit as it is moved forward, and performs its daily circuit as the disc rotates. Its position behind a stationary grid of curved wires shows the time.
This grid represents the earth, and is specific to a particular latitude. It is created by stereographic projection in the same way as the disc, but instead of the ecliptic it takes into account the terrestrial latitude of the place for which the clock is required. Suppose this lies at 40º N. On the side view at the top of the diagram below, a diameter is drawn at 40º, not from the equator but, counter-intuitively, from the North Pole. From intersections on this diameter, verticals are dropped to the plan, where the intersections A, B and C with the meridian (i.e. midday) and with Capricorn define an all-important curve. This is the horizon relevant to the place in question, and is marked on the grid by the thick wire which runs in the title picture from the black XII to the white XII. The sun, moving clockwise, rises from it on the left and sets into it on the right. Above it is day, below it is night. The intermediate thin wires mark the intermediate hours.
The clock in the title picture is set for 14 February and shows the sixth daytime hour, namely midday. The whole thing is reconstructed, with total certainty, from a single small fragment of bronze (dark green) found on Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. It was designed for that latitude, and if transported to Crocodilo, say, the only times it would show correctly are midday and midnight. All others would be wrong.
The anaphoric clock evolved as a spin-off from astronomy and geography, which already measured angles in degrees of 1/360 of a circle. But no other science did so, not even geometry or surveying. The ordinary man in the street, while he accepted that the earth is a sphere, had no concept of what degrees meant, any more than he had of minutes of time. Moreover, one has to bear in mind that trigonometry was then in its earliest infancy. The only mathematical aids available were very simple chord tables which indirectly gave what we call sines. From these, other functions could be worked out by way of Pythagoras; but there was not yet any use for them.
This note and this story show, I hope, how sophisticated ideas can be realised with a minimum of equipment, so long as plenty of ingenuity is applied.
Crocodilo, the arse of the earth. The absolute, rock-bottom, arse. What else can one call it? Much of my time there I spent cursing myself as an idiot for following Valerius to such a hell-hole. Only with the clarity of hindsight did I realise that the horrors had been worth enduring in order to achieve the paradise beyond.
My name is Cassius Gemellus. I was born and grew up in Sicily, on the fertile slopes of Mount Etna where my family were unpretentious farmers. But for a century and more they had been Roman citizens, and they were prosperous enough to send me, their only son, to school. Like many in Sicily, we were bilingual in Latin — our normal tongue — and in Greek, and we could read and write them both.
The Capito family, who had the farm next door, were very similar to us. Their son Valerius was a startlingly handsome lad, intelligent, ambitious and easy to get on with. He was also my best friend. As it proved, he remained a stalwart friend throughout, and I owe him more than I could ever repay. While he was the older by three years, the difference mattered little. Of the boys in the immediate area we were the two closest in age and, because we found each other’s company congenial, we spent much time together. I looked up to him as the elder brother I did not have, and he saw me as his younger brother. I admit I lusted for his body, but had long known that he was not available. He, in his turn, was perfectly well aware of my taste and did nothing whatever to discourage it. Indeed, as my proxy elder brother, he saw to aspects of my education that my teachers and my parents had wholly ignored.
Thus, one day in the summer of the eighth year of our emperor Trajan, when I was fourteen, he arranged a day off for a little holiday in Catania, which was our nearest town. Valerius considered me old enough to sample its delights; but not, this time, the pallid delights normally thought suitable for a youngster, with which I was all too familiar. Rather, he introduced me to the grown-up world by taking me on my first visit to a brothel. It offered boys on its menu as well as girls, and it was far from the sleazy den of my imaginings but a clean and clearly respectable establishment. He had his standards, did Valerius, and he wanted me to learn them. Not for him, he insisted, furtive liaisons with honest folk’s daughters, let alone with their wives, nor yet cheap and sordid back-street copulations. Short of life-long love and partnership, he said, the only real solution for a man’s needs was unashamed commercial transactions, provided the wares being bought were of good quality. As with everything else, he admitted, quality cost money; but it was worth it. And, from that very first lesson, I took his point.
For me, the experience was not only educational but ecstatic; until, that is, it came to an abruptly premature end. It was while I was deep in a peach of a boy, and Valerius was deep in his girl, that Etna, with a furore of noise and flame, erupted.
The mountain was not far away, and there was no mistaking the sound or, when we looked, the smoke. Etna suffers from chronic indigestion. Its innards are constantly grumbling and belching, but usually to little effect. Never in my lifetime had it caused serious damage. Yet volcanoes are volcanoes, and not to be trusted an inch.
Abandoning our pleasures in, so to speak, mid-thrust, and without paying because the proprietor was in too great a tizzy to charge, we hurried home. The closer we came, the deeper the foreboding, until the full and awful extent of the disaster dawned. Both of our properties had been engulfed by the lava-flow: not only the vineyards and the orchards, but the houses too, and with them all our families and workforce. There was nobody and nothing to rescue, and no point even in searching. Sick at heart, we crouched as near as we dared to the smoking rivers of ash, and there we wept.
All our possessions were gone; and, worse, all our inheritance. Yet we were not wholly without support. People in Sicily, or most of them, help each other, and our fathers had made a number of loans to friends and neighbours. Although our own records were no more, word went round, and the debtors — every one of them, as far as we could tell — were honest and repaid the money owed. A few boosted it with outright gifts. This gave us enough to survive for a while. But the great bulk of our wealth was beyond recall. From now on we would have to earn our own living. We held a council of war. Valerius wanted to make a new start by enlisting in the legions, which at seventeen he was old enough to do. A relative of his had served in Egypt, and that was where he wanted to head. But at fourteen I was too young to join up, and he was worried about leaving me alone. Despite my private wish that he should stay, I could not think of holding up his career, and by promising faithfully to follow him in a few years’ time, I persuaded him to go. Off he went by himself, with many a hug and tear.
Reluctant to return to vineyards and agriculture, I found — through the good offices of a family friend — a job in a clockmaker’s workshop at Syracuse nearby, a city that has not forgotten the inventive genius of Archimedes, its greatest son. The work, though relatively menial, was interesting and old Cleon, my master, encouraged me. At the end of two years I had absorbed a good deal of the theory of clocks, and had learnt to design them. Although I never acquired the technical skills needed to construct them, that brief job proved my passport to all that followed. And while my formal education was over, whenever I could afford it I continued my private education at a respectable brothel. Everyone, after all, has his needs; and especially at that age. My favourite boy there was called Timotheus, a year or two younger than me but an inspired teacher. We were not in love — I doubt that is possible between prostitute and client — but we were certainly friends. Thus I grew in stature and maturity and experience.
* * *
Valerius and I kept in touch by occasional letters. He enlisted in the Third Cyrenaican Legion at Alexandria, its main base, and from there was moved to its secondary base at Coptos, some fair way up the Nile. His enthusiastic reports culminated after two years with the news that he had already been promoted: not yet, of course, to the high and mighty rank of centurion, but the first step along the way. This gave him some minor strings to pull. Make my own way to Alexandria, he told me, enrol in the Third Cyrenaican, and I would be forwarded first to Coptos and then to his new command where — he added cryptically — my recently-learned skills would come into play. Without hesitation I obeyed. Packing my few belongings I took ship, and all went according to plan. After a year’s rigorous training at Coptos, during which I found that I could hold my own alongside my fellows, I was herded away on the final leg of my odyssey. By now it was the eleventh year of Trajan, and I was seventeen.
In Sicily the summer climate is pleasantly warm. The valley of the Nile — where I had gawped at the sights like the rustic I am — is sweltering. To the east, as our bunch of recruits discovered while slogging up to the plateau, the heat becomes nothing short of scorching. Never had I been so hot since I wept beside the glowing lava-flow of Etna. The Nile, at the great bend past Coptos, is a good hundred miles from the port of Myos Hormos on the Arabian Gulf, and we were following the road that runs between the two. Not being surfaced in any way, it is a road in name only, but it is an important one. Much of the high-value import trade from India and from the Spice Coast in Arabia comes into Myos Hormos and passes overland along it for transfer down the Nile to the whole of the empire. A similar branch road runs from Coptos to Berenice, another port further down the Gulf.
In come spices, incense, drugs and aromatics; ivory, pearls, tortoise shell and precious stones; silk and cotton; and exotic birds and animals. Much less goes out, and of lower value: metals and metal-ware, glassware and wine. But plenty of gold and silver bullion goes out too, to pay for the imbalance in trade. All of this travels by caravan, mostly on camels but some on donkeys, and timber for shipbuilding at Myos Hormos is carried by wagon. In the desert, horses are a luxury because of the difficulty of feeding them and, apart from commanders of the forts and high-ranking officials, are used only by military couriers. Traffic from India is heaviest in late winter and spring when the wind blows westwards across the ocean, but much is warehoused at Myos Hormos to be transported later in the year. The road passes through an utterly barren world of sand and naked mountains where nothing worth speaking of can grow; and because the sparse local population consists of desperately impoverished nomads with an eye to the main chance, the traffic needs military protection. That was the only reason we were there.
Between Coptos and Myos Hormos there are no civilian settlements at all, but strung out along the road are five little forts that the army calls praesidia. Their names are Phoenicon, Crocodilo, Persou, Maximianon and Simiou, and they are spaced at intervals which take two or three hours by horse but a whole day on foot or by camel. Each praesidium holds a small garrison of about twelve infantry and three mounted couriers, all under the command of a very junior warrant officer on the first step of promotion from the ranks, who is known as the curator.
Our first day out from Coptos, though long, was not too demanding, and we over-nighted in tents outside Phoenicon. It was the second day that introduced us to the real heat and the cruel emptiness of the land. At the end of that march we reached Crocodilo. The name came, someone told me, not from real crocodiles — I had seen plenty of the nasty creatures in the Nile and knew that they never stray far from water — but from a nearby rock with a silhouette which rather resembled one. The rest of my group, who were destined for more distant praesidia, camped outside. But for me Crocodilo’s gates were open, and waiting to greet me with the warmest of welcomes was its curator Valerius. It was wonderful to see him again, still the same Valerius, if a man by now rather than the growing lad of three years ago, and still very clearly the best of friends.
He gave me a conducted tour, which did not take long because Crocodilo was small. Its dry-stone walls surrounded a tight-packed cluster of barracks, kitchen, stable and stores. Raised watch-towers stood at the corners. The men’s duties were various. Ordinary squaddies — the majority — kept guard over the premises, and served in rotation as cook or miller or water-lifter. One or two at a time escorted caravans in one direction or the other. Everyone available escorted the pack-trains of bullion for export. The couriers, who were cavalrymen, carried dispatches to the next praesidium to east or west, by day or night as required. The message delivered, they did not wait for a return message but came back home at once, with a turn-round time of half an hour at the most. And along the road, caravans and couriers alike brought the gossip which, other than meagre information released by the military, supplied the only news from the outside world.
Everyone spoke Greek, the basic language of the military in Egypt. But some spoke Latin too, especially if it was their mother tongue as it was for Valerius and myself, who used Latin when we talked privately. Many of the squaddies were Egyptian by birth, even if they had assumed Roman names in place of their unpronounceable native ones, and conversed among themselves in Egyptian. Most of the couriers were Dacian, who gabbled to each other in their own lingo. We were a motley bunch.
To enforce rigid discipline on a small group who willy-nilly live cheek by jowl in an inhospitable desert is simply silly. One or two of the praesidia, as I came to learn, were commanded by martinets, and were not happy places. Valerius knew better. At Crocodilo, while discipline was not tightly imposed from above, it was acknowledged from below. We might, in army terms, be unorthodox, but we were not slovenly. Valerius was informal, not aloof. He was friendly with everyone. Although marginally higher in rank, he was younger than all except me. He ate with us and chatted with us, and was different only in having his own room. He was therefore liked and trusted and obeyed. He and I spent much of our off-duty time together, which might have given me a bad name as his favourite. But nobody resented it, because it was well known that in an earlier life we had been neighbours and good friends. Only right and proper, the opinion was, that we should remain good friends.
Everyone grumbled, of course. What soldier doesn’t? But we grumbled about the place, and the climate, and the lack of consideration from our distant lords and masters living a life of ease in Coptos. We did not grumble about each other. Nor did we grumble about our curator, who grumbled as much as anyone and in much the same vein. Your average squaddie is a good judge of who should or should not be blamed for shortcomings, just as he is a good judge of a leader. In the circumstances, in short, we were as comradely a band as could be hoped for.
My own duties set me apart from the rest. I was here as the clerk responsible for keeping the records. If you wonder why so small a unit of men needed a clerk for the purpose, you do not know the army. Bureaucracy runs riot. The smallest detail has to be recorded in duplicate. The master copies of our daybook, written on military-issue papyrus, went at regular intervals to HQ in Coptos. But the army, beset by perennial penny-pinching, did not supply papyrus for the back-up copies it required us to keep. These were written on ostraca that we had to collect ourselves, the largest and most useful sherds being those from amphorae for wine or oil. But whereas sheets of papyrus are easily and neatly filed, potsherds are not. They have to be tied with string into ungainly bundles, which threatened to overwhelm my shelves.
Every single movement of personnel had to be recorded; every fiddling circular from HQ about new regulations; every report advising of clashes with nomad raiding parties on the Berenice road or reprimands for petty misdemeanours at Simiou; every message addressed to our own curator, as well as any reply; every request from Crocodilo for supplies, whether to a neighbouring praesidium for water or to HQ for a new spindle for our broken hand-mill without which we would starve. Above all, there was an obsession with the time that everything took place. From our records, HQ could tell at precisely what time of day or night, to the nearest half hour, a particular dispatch had arrived at Crocodilo from Phoenicon, and the name of the Phoenicon courier who brought it, and the name of the Crocodilo courier who carried it on to Persou. Likewise it knew the times of the coming and going of every caravan and the names of its escorts.
To supply these times, Coptos and Myos Hormos and all five of the praesidia in between had clocks. It was of course because of my knowledge of the things that Valerius had requested my services. They were not sundials which work only by day, but full-blown if cheap and basic clocks which work equally well by night. Call me romantic, but to me every clock has its own character. Some have a willing and cheerful air to them. Mine seemed to live in a mood of permanently morose resentfulness.
The job had its downside. The worst — apart from being at Crocodilo at all — was that I had to be available at any hour, literally round the clock, to record times and names. Caravans were easy, for they always arrived in the evening and left in the morning. But the movement of couriers was wholly random. It was not often that I could sleep the night through, and had to make up for it with cat-naps by day. Yet the advantages of my job — apart from being with Valerius — were considerable. My specialist knowledge and the unpredictability of my lifestyle gave me the privileges of an immunis, exempted from such chores as watch-keeping, escort duty, cooking and water-lifting. Rarely did I have to venture any distance outside the walls, and thus I avoided the worst of the sun’s heat. But the biggest blessing was that my all-important clock lived in its own little room, perched on top of Valerius’ quarters and reached by an external ladder, which gave a good view outside. And because I had to be in constant communion with my clock, I lived with it, my bed tucked into a corner of the room. Thus I was insulated from the incessant snores and farts that disturb one’s slumbers in communal barracks, and from most human stenches other than my own.
* * *
That brings us to the perennial and overriding problem with Crocodilo. At the best of times its well was unreliable, and we were often hard-pressed for water. It was strictly rationed, and water for drinking (especially by the horses, whose thirst was prodigious) had to be the first priority. Never was there enough for proper washing of ourselves or our clothes. We therefore lived in a perpetual stink. However sweaty, a wipe-down with a damp cloth was the best we could hope for, and nobody shaved; in any case my beard was still at the wispy stage. If we were in desperate need we could ask Phoenicon and Persou, which had much better wells, for goatskins of water carried by camel; but that cost the army money, and was frowned upon. Likewise, whereas our neighbours had enough water to offer to caravans and to keep a few pack camels themselves, Crocodilo did not. Our supply was reserved strictly for us and for any military personnel passing through. Whether its bitter taste was preferable to the rancid flavour of goatskin in the imported water, I never could decide.
Summer was much the worst. Heat, heat, endless heat. Blinding sun relentlessly beating down. Body crying out for the cool and the wet. Although in most respects the army was guilty of a pettifogging obsession with detail, in some it took a sensibly pragmatic line. In the matter of clothing, for example. Expose sheet metal such as armour to the midday desert sun, and in a very short time it is hot enough to fry an egg on — literally, always assuming you have an egg to fry. Expose bare skin for too long, other perhaps than the hands, and it puts you out of commission, painfully and in the worst case forever. So, taking the hint from the nomads who wore long loose garments, the army allowed — indeed encouraged — us to dress similarly. The motive, I am sure, was not humanitarian but economic: soldiers cost money to train, and are therefore not to be wasted. The only occasion when armour might be of use was while escorting caravans with the possibility of greedy nomads in the offing.
So our usual garb was high boots (for open sandals do not go well with scorching sand); a light tunic, drawers and socks; on top, a calf-length woollen cloak to protect the skin and slow down evaporation of sweat; and a long head-cloth wound round the neck and face and hair, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Neglect such precautions, and the heat overpowers you. If you begin to stagger, if you see things that are not really there, if your piss turns dark brown, you are in trouble. Out in the desert, you can hardly even rest. Sit down on the sand, and you risk your buttocks coming up in blisters.
Supplies were delivered by camel. For the horses, fodder. For us, a dreary round of dried meat, lentils and beans, of grain (ground in our own querns, baked in our own oven), of oil and wine, of dried dates, occasionally of dried sardines from the Gulf. We might buy camel milk from a caravan. It rapidly went sour, but no matter. Fresh fruit and vegetables were a rarity. Phoenicon and Persou did grow some, and from time to time they might pass on a surplus to us.
Another difficulty was fuel for cooking. Apart from a few rather stunted palms at Phoenicon and Persou there was not a single tree along the whole road. Never once, for a year on end, did I see a hint of greenery, unless you count the odd wilting cabbage from Persou. In the desert, in any case, you do not cut down a tree. Kill it, and you will never get a replacement to grow. There were occasional spindly and leafless thorn bushes, but they supplied the only food for camels beyond what a caravan might bring with it, and they too were off-limits to man. The only available fuel, then, was dried camel dung. It burnt well enough, but left a thick deposit of soot on the cooking pot. And it had to be collected. One of the duties of every squaddie who trudged the road — not the mounted couriers, who were too superior and too hurried — was to pick up camel turds and put them into a shoulder bag to carry home. For home was what we called it; cheerless though it might be, it was the only home we had.
Even this soot from turds had its value. After a time, the supply of ink left by my predecessor ran low. By way of Valerius, I requested more from HQ at Coptos, who bleated that they had none to spare. I did not believe that for a moment — they must have had barrels full of the stuff. A repeat request pointed out that if they wanted their bloody records kept, they should bloody well provide the ink to write them with; not of course framed in quite those words, but that was the import. This time there was no reply. So I had to make my own ink by scraping soot from the cooking pots and mixing it with a little gum; but it still needed diluting. At that time our well was virtually dry, and I would rather have any extra driblets of water down my throat than in my inkwell. I found that urine would do instead, and the resulting blend of residual camel shit and thick stale human piss added yet another stink to the assortment we already enjoyed.
* * *
My clock at first gave me some trouble. A decent clock ought to be straightforward to manage. Every other day you have to move the sun-button forward by one hole. Every day you have to reset the works by lifting out the float, recycling the water by pouring it from the lowest tank into the highest one, and replacing the float. It is the work of a moment. Because some water always overflows from the middle tank and more evaporates in the heat, I was given a modest extra allowance to keep the thing going.
But, as I have said, clocks, like people, have idiosyncrasies. Mine was distinctly elderly and showing its age. Who knew how many times the sun-button had been stuck into and taken out of the holes on the bronze ecliptic ring? As a result its shank had worn thin, and it frequently fell out of its hole. That was easily remedied, provided you remembered what the date was and put the button back in the right hole. It was remedied in the longer term by whittling a new one from a scrap of wood and driving a pin through it. But what threw me for a while was the Egyptian calendar. I knew as well as you do, having absorbed it almost with my mother’s milk, that the sequence of months runs March, April, May and so forth. But that applies only in Latin- and Greek-speaking parts of the world. Don’t ask me why, but in Egypt, although the Romans rule the place, some old-fangled ways still persist, such as drachmas as currency rather than our denarii. Nor are Roman months in use, not even by the military. Instead of March, April, May, they have Phanemoth, Pharmouthi, Pachon and so on, and even those do not coincide exactly with ours.
So the names and order of Egyptian months were simply not in my head; and although I had already spent a year in the country, a rookie under intensive training takes little interest in what the date is. Thus I arrived at Crocodilo as something of an expert with clocks but as a novice in the local calendar. And once, very early on, when the sun-button fell out, I put it back in the wrong hole. The day was right — I knew it was the 16th — but the month was wrong. The names on the circle were not very clearly inscribed, and I muddled up Phanemoth and Pharmouthi. The times that I read off and entered in the daybook were therefore wrong as well. It would not have mattered if some wretched clerk at HQ, fixated as usual on detail, had not taken it into his head to check the returns we all sent in. Finding an inconsistency, he reported it to his superior, who sent an icy complaint to Valerius that a dispatch had apparently arrived at Crocodilo before it left Persou: how and why had this happened? Valerius kindly covered up for me, but it made me more careful.
It also made me check the accuracy of the clock, which I suspected was running slow. Close inspection showed that the hole through which water dripped into the receiver was partly clogged with fine dirt. A little work with a needle cured that. Nor was I convinced that midday by the clock agreed with midday by the sun. The only way to confirm it was the time-honoured one of setting up a vertical rod within sight of my window and, with much trial and error, placing another marker where the shadow it cast was at its shortest. These two points gave a south-north line, and when the shadow coincided with it, it was midday. My clock could be adjusted accordingly, and somehow it gave the impression that it was saying ‘And high time too.’ There was another thing amiss with it, though, more fundamental and beyond my ability to correct; but explanations will have to wait until later in my story.
* * *
Life at Crocodilo, then, was humdrum and repetitive. It would be unfair to say that excitements never happened. But they did not happen very often and, even when they did, rarely were they really exciting.
A man who deeply unpopular along the length of the road was the highest and mightiest in the whole land. The Prefect of Egypt liked, we gathered, to be referred to as His Excellency. Between ourselves, everyone called him, in a tone of scorn, His Nibs. Never, of course (and thank goodness), did he come to see us, but as he toured his province he would stay for a month at a time at Coptos, living off the fat of the land. And that did involve us, because he liked fish. River fish from the Nile not being good enough for His Nibs, he demanded sea fish from the Arabian Gulf. The difficulty is that, in this climate, fish tend to go bad rather quickly. So they had to be carried at speed from Myos Hormos by relays of couriers, with as much as possible of the journey undertaken by night. If the Prefect was entertaining guests, as he often was, the fish relay might be required every night for many days on end. He was therefore unpopular with the couriers, he was unpopular with me because I had to get up in the dark to time them in and out, and he was unpopular with Valerius for reasons that will emerge in due course.
One morning a courier of ours returned home, a dour Dacian named Didas, in a dourer mood even than usual. He had arrived at Phoenicon from Crocodilo at dawn, he told Valerius (with me listening in), only to find that one of the parcels of fish was missing from his saddle bags. It must have fallen out. To lose a dispatch was a punishable offence. But one of the first things a rookie learns on enlisting is to pass the buck. So, to the Phoenicon courier who was carrying the bags on the next and final stage of their journey, Didas had told a different story: that he had realised from the smell that the fish had gone off, and that rather than carry a useless load he had thrown it away as unfit for His Nibs’s table. That tale, which the Phoenicon courier, to save his own skin, assuredly passed on, would have reached His Nibs’s ears. On his way back, Didas had kept his eyes open, and quite close to Crocodilo had found the missing parcel, whose contents by now, after several hours in the sun, really were off. But it had put an idea into his head and, rather than leave the fish where it was, he had brought it home.
Possibly Valerius was the only curator along the road to whom an underling would confess such a misdemeanour, and the only one who would fall in with the plot that ensued. For the rest of the day, mentally holding our noses, we kept the offending parcel in the deepest shade; and on the fish-run that night, as soon as the previous courier from Persou had left for home, we removed from the new consignment a parcel of reasonably fresh fish and replaced it with the stinking one. Didas rode off with it to Phoenicon, and when he delivered it there he told them that one of tonight’s parcels had also gone off, but that this time he had brought it along to avoid being suspected of theft.
We had a very good dinner that day, and we heard nothing more. His Nibs must have swallowed the story, just as he swallowed his fish. I only hoped he would choke on a bone.
* * *
One of the countless miseries of Crocodilo was that, when off duty, there was precious little to do. Conversation was unrewarding if your comrades had no Latin and only shaky Greek. You might while away the hours with merels or knucklebones. You might drink too much wine, which in that heat is silly. But here too the army was sensible and supplied what the men really needed. It laid on whores. A pimp would lease the rights to a given fort, and the rent he paid went to the government. In our case I knew, having seen the messages, that the right at Crocodilo was let out for sixty drachmas a month. Our resident whore, whose name was Ptolema, had her own little room within the walls. She charged a drachma a go, so that a legionary, if he really wanted to and if he spent his pay on nothing else, could shag her three or four times a day. Some of her takings she surely kept for herself, but her pimp must still have made a thumping profit, and so must the government. She was an out-and-out slut, yet she had no shortage of customers among those who were not too fussy. The more discerning never patronised her at all. These included me, for obvious reasons; and, with his high standards, Valerius.
“Are you glad you came here?” he asked idly once when we were trying to relax in the twilight that was slightly cooler than day.
“Glad to be with you,” I replied with perfect truth. “But far from glad to be at Crocodilo.”
“If you were,” he agreed, “you’d be out of your mind. What do you miss most?”
“A decent climate,” I said straight off. “And baths.”
“Well yes, of course.”
At Coptos, if you had any energy left after training, there had been plenty of brothels, some of them of quite decent quality, which had boys on offer; and occasionally I had been with young fellow-recruits. But at Crocodilo there was nobody (Ptolema and the inaccessible Valerius apart) except mature soldiers, all older than me, hairy, stinking, faces weathered till they resembled tanned leather, uninterested in what interested me. Or else there was my own hand, which was a poor substitute for the real thing. True, heat does tend to dampen desire. But yes, of course I missed boys. Desperately.
“Haven’t you tried a camel-boy?” Valerius asked.
I had. He was passing through with a caravan and propositioned me. Three drachmas, he demanded, which was bare-faced, or bare-arsed, robbery. He was scrofulous, shifty and smelly, yet I succumbed. And soon wished I hadn’t.
“Yes, I did once. But never again. And you must miss girls just as much.”
“Ohhh,” he groaned. “I’d put girls at the very top of my list. Higher even than coolness. Higher even than baths. You’ve got the chance of bumping into a passable camel-boy one day; it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. But I’ll never find a reasonable girl, will I? Not here. Not any nearer than Coptos.”
None the less he did. Just once.
A caravan came through from the east. As usual, it stopped overnight. It would get no water from us, but our presence did offer a degree of protection against night-time robbers. As usual, I noted the time and went out to learn, for the record, which escort was coming off duty, and to hear the latest gossip. One of the camels had saddle cloths and harness that were markedly more sumptuous than the scruffy and workaday norm; and perched on it was a swathed figure which lifted its veil to look around. It was a girl, quite young; and beside the camel was an old man with few teeth in his head and a rusty sword on his belt. An aged retainer, presumably, acting as her bodyguard, though surely ineffectual should anyone be intent on ravishing her. Her eyes lit on me. She said something to the old man, uncovered her whole head, and smiled invitingly. I am really no judge of feminine beauty, but even to me she did seem attractive. I suppose my looks are not against me, and I deduced that I was being propositioned again, just as I had been by that camel-boy.
The retainer spoke, in halting Greek. His lady, he said, came from the other side of the Gulf and was making her way to Coptos to join the staff of a very desirable establishment. It turned out, in fact, to be Thaïs’ house, of which even I had heard as the most up-market and pricey brothel in the town. This voluptuous young lady was travelling with her father’s — his master’s — full approval. True to type, I thought: Arabians had the reputation of being mercenary to the tune of happily selling off their daughters. And until she joined her new establishment, the retainer went on, she was her own mistress. Her fee was a mere two drachmas.
Only twice what Ptolema charged! True, Thaïs would probably charge customers thirty drachmas for the services of this girl, who would be lucky to retain two after the madam had taken her rake-off. At all events, Valerius must be told. Whatever my own attractions, his vastly outshone them, and he was in need. I asked them to wait, dashed inside as fast as one can dash in that heat, and yelled for him. He emerged in a flurry, thinking it was an emergency; which in a sense it was.
“A lovely girl for you at last,” I gasped. “Arabian. High-class. On her way to Thaïs’ house. And only two drachmas.”
“Gods! Where? Lead me to her! No, wait. Give me a moment for a wipe-down and a change of clothes.”
He took her to his quarters, and squeals and groans of passion wafted up through the floorboards to my clock-room above. Next morning, when the girl and the caravan had gone their way, Valerius was quite touchingly grateful; and I was left nursing my own unfulfilled need.
* * *
His Nibs also gave rise to what could have had a very nasty outcome. A caravan stopped at Crocodilo to spend the night. Valerius and I went out to it. A dark-skinned man with the look of an Indian was unloading wicker cages from a camel, and seeing our curiosity he proudly pulled off the covering cloths for us to admire the contents. There were a number of brilliant red parakeets and a single large green parrot. They were destined, the Indian told us in dodgy Greek and with soapy reverence, for His Excellency the Prefect of Egypt, that most gracious and generous of men.
“Gracious? Generous?” snorted Valerius, who today was more disgruntled with officialdom than usual. “Bollocks! His Excellency is a stingy old pederast!”
“Bollocks! His Excellency is a stingy old pederast!” repeated the parrot, very clearly.
The Indian probably did not understand, but when we were out of earshot I asked Valerius why he had said that.
“Because it’s true. I found out myself, the hard way. I haven’t told you before because for some reason I’m ashamed of it. But when I arrived at Coptos as a rookie, His Nibs was there, and he spotted me and had me dragged to his bed. Not pleasant, and the last thing I wanted. Don’t take that the wrong way, Cassius, I’m not getting at you. I’ve no objection to it at all, as you very well know, so long as it’s between the right people. But between an obese and geriatric Prefect and a boy who isn’t in any position to say no, it’s simply evil. It adds up to rape.”
I agreed wholeheartedly.
”And he didn’t even,” Valerius added, shaking a puzzled head, “give me anything by way of payment.”
We moved on. But unlike the episode of the fish, this one had repercussions. A few days later a small party was seen approaching Crocodilo from the west, most unusually consisting of three horsemen. The unwritten but established etiquette along the road is that official travellers, when nearing a praesidium, send a man ahead to give advance warning, so that the curator has time to spruce himself up to receive them and, if appropriate, to call out a guard of honour. In this case, the advance notice told us, the visitor was no less than the Prefect’s aide-de-camp from Coptos, wishing to speak to Valerius. But Valerius, as luck would have it, was away, conferring with the curator of Didymoi, the first praesidium down the branch road to Berenice. It was therefore his deputy Alexander who received the guest and took him inside for refreshment. Waiting outside, I asked the escorting cavalrymen if they knew what this was about.
“And how!” one of them chuckled. “We were there on duty. His Nibs has just bought some parrots, and he was showing them off to a crowd of bigwigs he was entertaining. And when some smarmy guest addressed him as His Excellency, it set this bloody parrot going. ‘Bollocks!’ it squawked. ‘His Excellency is a stingy old pederast!’ It said it over and over, and everyone heard. It’s true, of course. But it isn’t every day you hear a parrot saying it. Let alone in public.”
I laughed, but did some quick thinking. His Nibs would know the parrot must have come from Myos Hormos and must therefore have learnt the words from some soldier along the road. He could easily discover not only the dates in question, but the names of all the resident troops who might be guilty. Among those names would be Valerius Capito, curator at Crocodilo. If he recognised it as that of a boy he had ravished, the Prefect’s suspicions would be heightened. The saving grace was that Alexander knew nothing about the parrot, for we had not passed our story on. So I worked out a plan, and hung around. Sure enough, after a short time, Alexander came out calling for me, and I was taken into the presence.
“Ah,” said the aide. “You’re Cassius Gemellus, who keeps the records here?”
“I see from your daybook that on the 21st of Mecheir, at the tenth hour and a half, a caravan stopped here. Did you go out to meet it?”
“I must have done, sir. I always do, to get the name of the escort who brought it from Persou.”
“Do you remember anything special about this one? About the goods it was carrying?”
I pretended to think back. “The 21st of Mecheir, sir? That’ll be five days ago. Yes sir. I do remember that caravan. But the goods ... special in what way, sir?”
“Well, were there any birds, let us say?”
“Oh yes, sir! The merchant showed them to me. An Indian, I think he was. He had parakeets and a parrot, wonderful gaudy things. And one of them was actually talking.”
“Ah! Saying what?”
“Well, um, er, opprobrious words, sir.”
“Go on, man! What words, exactly?”
I leant forward and lowered my voice, feigning reluctance. “It said, er, ‘Bollocks! His Excellency is a stingy old pederast!’ I’m sorry, sir, but that’s what it said.”
The gleam of triumph was in his eyes. “And when was this? In the morning when the caravan was about to leave?”
“Oh no, sir. In the evening, as it arrived. The merchant was just unloading the cages off the camel.” That was the almost literal truth.
“So the bird knew the words already?”
At this point, nothing like passing the buck. “Yes, sir. It must have picked them up at Persou. Or anywhere east of that.”
Disappointment was written all over his face. “All right. That is all.”
Outside again, I had a word with the cavalrymen. “About what that parrot said. Tell them at Persou to swear it was already saying it when it arrived there. And tell them at Maximianon and Simiou to swear the same.”
Ordinary soldiers have a loyalty to each other, and they are united against the top brass, civilian or military. These two would play the game.
The aide and his escort went on their way. Valerius, when I welcomed him back and filled him in, was touchingly grateful again. The aide, returning three days later, did not even call at Crocodilo but rode straight through with a face like thunder. Presumably the buck had been passed as far as the Gulf, where it had stopped. The parrot, he knew, would hardly have learnt those words at home in India. But given the sizeable population of Myos Hormos, there was no hope of tracking down any miscreant there.
* * *
To return to my clock. I was the only one at Crocodilo who understood it. Even Valerius, while he could read the time from it, knew nothing about how and why it worked.
“Thank the gods,” he said, “I won’t be in this dump forever. Nor will you, Cassius. But the place will always need a clock-keeper. When you’ve got a bit of time to spare — and I know you don’t get much — why not give one of our brighter squaddies some lessons on how the thing’s designed and operated?”
I had no objection, and we decided on a man named Maximus, who was younger and brighter than most. He was not a bad pupil, capable of asking intelligent questions which demanded a fair amount of background explanation to answer. One evening we were sitting in front of the clock and I was trying to put across the concept of parallels or, as some call them, latitudes.
“They’re imaginary lines on the earth’s surface,” I expounded. “Starting with the equator which is the largest circumference, then lesser circumferences parallel to it which get shorter as you go north, until at the pole there’s just a single point. And one special parallel is the Tropic of Cancer, which is where the sun is directly overhead at noon at midsummer.”
To illustrate this, I was sketching a diagram on a sherd when someone came into the room. While we deplore almost all our senior officers, and especially those who waste our time by descending on us for ridiculous inspections, this one was the exception. He was our most frequent visitor and the least unwelcome, not only because he came without the usual vast entourage of minions, but because he was human. He did not look at us down a long and disapproving nose, but seemed to understand and appreciate what we were doing. Which was encouraging, since he had immediate charge of us. His name was Artorius Priscillus and he was Prefect of the Desert, who commanded all the legionary detachments stationed in the wilderness east of the Nile, from the quarries of Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites in the north down to Berenice which lies way south on the Gulf.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said as we stood up. “But your curator suggested I drop in. Carry on and don’t mind me. I’ll just listen.”
There being only two stools, he leant against the wall, and I carried on as told. I still had to explain to Maximus how parallels are labelled.
“Have you heard of degrees?” I asked him.
“No. What are they?”
“Divisions of a circle. Ninety degrees to a right angle.”
“Oh. Why not a hundred?”
“Ask the Chaldeans. I think we borrowed the system from them. Anyway, the parallels are numbered from the equator northwards. Nought degrees at the equator up to 90 at the pole. About 24 at the Tropic of Cancer.” I wrote figures on my diagram. “They tell us exactly where we are on the earth. In the north-south direction, that is. East-west is another matter, but we’re not bothered with that right now, thank goodness.”
“But why do we need to know exactly where we are?”
“Because pinpointing places on the earth is the whole basis of making maps. And it’s crucial for making clocks. If they aren’t designed for the right parallel, they tell the wrong time. Like this one here. Right now it says the sun’s actually hitting the horizon, doesn’t it?” I flicked the thick wire. “But in actual fact — look out of the window — the sun’s still well short of setting. This clock can’t possibly be meant for Crocodilo. Most likely it was designed for Alexandria and made there.” The poor old thing looked sulky. “I think I’m right in saying that Alexandria’s on the 31st parallel. Now I don’t know for sure what parallel we’re on here ...”
It occurred to me that Priscillus, as Prefect of the Desert, might have a working knowledge of maps.
“Do you know, sir?” I asked him.
“Not the foggiest, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I reckon,” I went on, “that we must be on something like the 26th parallel. Let’s say five degrees south of Alexandria. That’s only a guess, but I’m certain that’s why this thing has the sun setting at the wrong time.”
“But otherwise the clock’s working all right?” Priscillus interrupted.
“Oh yes, sir. It’s right at midday and midnight. It’s the intermediate times that are wrong. If you looked in the morning, for instance, you’d find the sun rising earlier than the clock says.”
“That’s bad. Can it be corrected?”
“Only by making a new grid, sir.” I pointed to the wires. “One that’s correct for this parallel.”
“Could you do that?”
“Not personally, sir. It needs a good metal-worker, which I’m not, and there aren’t the facilities here anyway. But I could design one, if only I knew our parallel.”
“How would you find that out?”
“I could have a shot myself, sir, by measuring the height of the midday sun at midsummer. I’ve done it elsewhere, and it would give the information. But I don’t see that it matters that this clock is wrong. Do you happen to know, sir, if all the clocks along the road were installed at the same time?”
“I imagine they were, when these praesidia were set up forty years ago, though that was long before my time. But I don’t understand why it doesn’t matter if this one’s wrong.”
“Because everywhere from Coptos to Myos Hormos is on pretty well the same parallel, sir. So if all these clocks are the same, they’re all equally wrong. But the point is, they’re all telling the same time as each other. And that’s what matters here, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes. I see what you mean. Where did you learn about these things?”
“Oh, I spent a couple of years apprenticed to a clockmaker at Syracuse, sir.”
“Did you now? Well, to go back to the wire grid. Once you know the parallel, what do you do next?”
“Draw a diagram, sir. With compasses and protractor. Something like this” — I sketched on my sherd — “but full-size, for the man who makes the grid to copy.”
Ransacking my memories of Syracuse, I did my best, trying to explain it all in simple terms. But it is not simple, nor is it easy to draw miniature diagrams on the rough surface of a curving piece of pot.
“Are you with me, sir?” I asked when I had done, but without much hope.
“No, I’m afraid not. I think I see the principle, but the details are above my head, as they must be to pretty well everyone. Never mind, though, because you’ve given me a great deal of food for thought. Thank you very much.”
Off he went, leaving me to pick up the remains of Maximus’ lesson. Later, Valerius told me I had made a deep impression on the Prefect of the Desert. And the clock, I felt obscurely, was smirking at me.
Such, then, was our life at Crocodilo. My second summer there was already getting under way when one evening, having just timed in a courier arriving from Persou and timed out another departing for Phoenicon, I was sitting moodily in my eyrie. The cruel mountains and the endless sands were baking motionless behind the usual shimmering haze of heat. But as far as I was concerned they might not have been there. I was in a daydream, wafted back in memory to an autumn in Sicily, green, shade-dappled, not hot but soothingly warm. At first, my mind’s eye watched a young Valerius and myself giggling in guilty companionship as we gorged ourselves on grapes filched from the vines and apples from the trees. But before long the scene shifted, as it so often did, to a naked Timotheus in the brothel in Syracuse, where his gentle hands were stroking my bare body along the first steps of its path to ecstasy. He had brought me to the brink of that mounting frenzy that can end in only one way, when a change to the static landscape outside penetrated my awareness and startled me from my reverie.
A cloud of dust was moving towards us from the west. It might be anything, but it was big. Resentful at the interruption to my dream, I thumped on the floor to alert Valerius in his quarters below. Soon a soldier emerged from the cloud, outpacing it. He would be bringing the usual advance notice. I went down, meeting Valerius on the way. It was a troop, the soldier told us, of thirty men and ten camels under an optio— a deputy centurion — en route from Coptos to Myos Hormos to take ship for Devade. Ten donkey carts were behind it and, being slower, would arrive rather later. That was an unusually large number of men and an exceptionally large supply train. Anything out of the ordinary being of interest at Crocodilo, I banished my dream to the back of my mind and went outside the walls.
I thought I could guess what this was all about. For a year and more the grapevine along the road, highly unofficial but remarkably well-informed, had been busy. Our emperor, it said, having added Dacia to the empire, was turning his eyes eastwards. A year or so ago he had taken over the kingdom of Nabataea at the root of the Arabian peninsula, and currently he was clearing out the old silted-up canal from the Nile to Clysma at the head of the Gulf. Now he was looking yet further afield. Having concluded a treaty with the Himyarites, he was going to establish a military-cum-naval base on the island of Devade near the mouth of the Gulf, to protect the flow of high-value trade coming in from India and the Spice Coast, and in particular to discourage the pirates who haunted those waters. It sounded as if our visitors might be the advance party to set the new base up.
There being no room inside the praesidium for so many extra troops, they would as usual camp outside. They would as usual have brought their own food with them. But they would as usual expect us to give them water. That was not good at all. Already our well was almost dry and we were tightly rationed. Now, everyone would be more tightly rationed still. I knew, having dutifully recorded it, that yesterday Valerius had sent an urgent plea to Persou for as many camel-loads of water-skins as possible, but they had not yet arrived. At least, we gathered, the donkeys were bringing their own water.
The column approached and came to a halt. The optio greeted Valerius warmly. His name was Fronto, and it turned out that they had met years ago at Coptos. His men began to unload bales from the camels ready to pitch their tents. But lagging far behind hobbled a large and swarthy man who was being helped along, his arms heavily over their shoulders, by a soldier on either side. One of them was sturdy, the other slight: too slight, I felt, to be burdened with such a task. Perhaps he was just taking his turn.
“How are you doing, Ozalces?” Fronto asked in Latin when they finally caught up.
The large man stood on one leg, gazing with approval at the bleak surroundings. “Glad to stop, sir,” he said in a rather thick accent. “And specially in so fine a place.”
I thought he was being sarcastic, but Fronto smiled understandingly. “Well, everyone to his taste. Sit him down, lads. Aurelius, you lend a hand with putting up his tent and then get him to lie down. Lossio, evening off. You’ll be knackered after lugging his weight so far. Thanks for volunteering.”
They lowered Ozalces onto a bale, and the sturdy one turned his attention to the tent. The slight one, therefore, must be Lossio; and I was wrong — he had not been ordered to take his turn but had offered, presumably out of generosity, to help. As he stretched an obviously weary back I inspected him. All I could tell was that he was short and slender. He wore his head-cloth, as most of us did when outside for long, wound round his hair and face and neck. No more than his eyes were visible, blue eyes, which looked young. And as they encountered mine they widened. No doubt my own widened too, for my mind was in a whirl. It was already reminded of that interrupted vision of Timotheus in the brothel.
“What’s the matter with Ozalces?” I asked him, scrabbling for safe ground.
“Tenged ba scorpion,” was the soft answer in very odd Latin.
Stung by a scorpion, he must mean. Such stings can be excruciatingly painful, sometimes swell up, and have no known remedy. But usually they sort themselves out after a few days.
“Poor man,” I sympathised, lamely.
Lossio too seemed disconcerted. His eyes wandered away and lit on Ozalces’ feet.
“Aye,” he muttered, as near as I can reproduce it. “Poor man. But a reet daft booger too.”
The sun was sinking low and had lost the worst of its power. He unwound the head-cloth to reveal his face. He was young. Very young. Nose slightly turned up, lips full, velvet cheeks that had never known a razor, skin reddened rather than tanned, in feature not unlike Timotheus but without his air of competent professionalism. The overall aura was of innocence. This boy was surely not a day over fifteen. Which meant, with a year’s training behind him, that he must have enlisted at fourteen, even though the minimum age was sixteen. That was extraordinary. But the sight was yet more extraordinary still, and beautiful, and alluring. I stared transfixed, far beyond the limit of politeness. As Lossio saw.
“No boots,” he explained, as if trying to prevent the conversation from becoming too personal too fast. I cast a quick glance at Ozalces’ feet. True, he had open sandals on, though heavy ones. Foolish things to wear when scorpions are around — scorching sand is not the only reason for boots. But my mind being on something closer and much more interesting, I turned back to it.
Lossio, seeing me staring again, again looked away. Self-consciously he resumed unwinding his head-cloth to reveal his hair. It was literally his crowning glory. I have met countless black-haired people like myself, a few fair ones, and plenty with in-between shades of brown. But never before had I seen such hair as this. It was like a ripe and newly-exposed chestnut, but brighter; like the gaudiest marigolds that bedeck our Sicilian fields, but darker. I stared yet more. This time the boy smiled slightly, as if accustomed to such a reaction, but still said nothing. It could only be dyed, I concluded, and peered closer. He gazed at me in return as if sizing me up, and seemed to come to a decision. Surrendering to my curiosity, he obligingly bent his head forward to within inches of mine and lifted a long lock of hair. It was the same colour all the way to the roots. It must be natural after all.
And at this short range I could pick up his scent. Not surprisingly he smelt of sweat, but not of the rank miasma emitted by everyone else at Crocodilo which assailed your nose from many paces away. His was discreet and young and pleasant, almost like a perfume of Arabia. But as he stepped back he swayed on his feet.
“He’s dead-beat, Cassius,” muttered a voice in my ear. “Get him to your room. Give him food and water. Take care of him. I’ll square it with his optio. And with the kitchen.”
I turned in surprise. Valerius’ expression was amused and encouraging, and I understood. Good friend that he was, he was repaying the debts he owed me for the high-class whore and the parrot. Take care of this new arrival, eh? It was in bed that he was expecting me to take care of him. Part of me was already screaming to do exactly that. But part of me was hesitant. Valerius’ high-class whore had brazenly advertised herself for sale. Lossio had not, and his air of innocence was powerful. Still, a commanding officer’s orders were to be obeyed. I did so, more readily than ever, because before doing anything irrevocable I needed to know this boy better. After all, there were ways and ways of taking care.
“Come along then, Lossio,” I said. “Put your feet up and get something inside you. My name’s Cassius Gemellus.”
He gave me another long and appraising look before he finally nodded. I steered him to my room. There, because darkness falls quickly at Crocodilo, I lit the lamp that stayed on all night to light my record-keeping. He removed his cloak and sat down heavily on my bed. I knelt to pull off his boots. Stretching out his legs — smooth legs, boy’s legs — he relaxed with a sigh of relief. I told him to wait while I went to the kitchen to collect two rations of water which Valerius, efficient man, had already authorised. When I came back and gave Lossio his, with the warning that there would be no more today, he drank moderately and sighed again.
“Ta. Tha’s be’er,” he muttered, which I interpreted as ‘Thanks. That’s better.’
“Not a hope of a bath, I’m afraid,” I said. “But would you like a wipe-down?”
Wipe-downs can be surprisingly refreshing, with your overheated body revelling in the cool relief of moisture evaporating from your skin. He looked dubiously at my ration of water and the remaining half of his.
“Better drunk,” was his verdict; or, more accurately, ‘Be’er droonk.’ A lad of few words, it seemed.
“Agreed. But don’t worry. I’ve got some we can use.”
I brought out the jug of spare water for the clock that I kept hidden from the envious eyes of my mates.
“Look. There’s enough here for a wipe-down for both of us. Shall we strip off?”
As I stripped myself without waiting for an answer, he watched with interest and, it seemed, approval. With a little intake of breath as if taking another plunge, he followed suit. What a sight was revealed! A pendant on a leather thong round his neck. Skin astonishingly pale. Freckles spreading from his face to his shoulders and upper chest. Body young, though well-muscled as a legionary’s has to be. A fairly modest endowment. But, other than a cute little bush of the same marigold hue, not a hair in sight. If he was typical of where he came from — wherever that was — boys there bloomed later than in Sicily.
I wetted a rag and offered it to him. “Or would you rather I wipe you?”
Another long hesitation, and “Aye. Tha do it,” he said.
He lay on his back on the bed and I got to work, starting with his face, wiping and rinsing until the water began to grow turbid. By the time I had reached half-way down his body he was heavily aroused. So too was I. But because I was kneeling, my nether regions were out of his sight.
“Never mind,” I said, fighting down my urges. “It happens.”
“Aye.” He sounded scared, and looked it too.
I carried on wiping, carefully avoiding his genitals. I lent him the cloth to do them himself, then got him to turn over to give me access to his back. Finally, his feet done, I stood up, and he could see the state I was in.
“Seems to be catching, doesn’t it?” I said lightly.
“Aye,” he said again, still frightened.
“But I’m not suggesting I should help you out. Or you me.”
No reply. But I could swear he was now relieved.
“Does that feel better?” I asked.
“Aye. Ta.” His voice was still small.
I set about wiping myself, even though the rinse water was now thick.
“Ah!” I said when I finished. “Now I feel better too.”
So I did, apart from my suppressed urges. He was no Timotheus who earned a living by selling his body and his skills. He was very clearly unwilling, and to force myself on him was wholly unthinkable. To show that the episode was over, I slipped on my tunic, and he slipped on his. I went back to the kitchen to collect two of the usual nondescript meals. As we ate them, washing them down with a little wine and the rest of our water, he thanked me artlessly.
“Ta, Cassius. Tha’s kind.”
Kind in what way? That I had wiped him down? That I had fed him? No, surely he meant that I had refrained from seducing him. Although uncertain what the outcome might be and fearing the worst, he had gritted his teeth and put me to the test. And I had passed it. Yet, even if he was not at the moment willing to be seduced, I had the strong feeling that he might become willing, did we but know one another better. But that, regrettably, was pie in the sky.
“Not kind,” I protested. “Just a friend. I only wish we could stay friends.”
“Why can’t we?”
“Well, you’re off in the morning. We’ll probably never meet again.”
“Aye,” he replied sadly. “Aye.”
There was a tap on the door. Lossio started guiltily. But I knew who it was. Everyone else barged in without knocking. Only one man tapped and waited, and this evening he had no doubt deduced, wrongly, that I was engaged in private business.
“It’s all right,” I reassured the boy. “It’s only the curator.” And I opened the door.
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Valerius as he came in. There was a distinct twinkle in the eye that he cast at us. I could see he was still making assumptions, forgetful of his own philosophy that commercial transactions, though often the best solution available, are not the highest possible ideal for a man’s needs.
“Is Cassius taking good care of you?” he asked Lossio, who managed a pallid smile.
“Aye. Reet good care.”
“Excellent. I wouldn’t have disturbed you if I hadn’t been having a chat with your optio. And a suggestion has come up which Cassius needs to consider. You’ll know that Fronto’s troop is the advance party to set up the new base at Devade?”
We both nodded.
“Well, Ozalces is in no fit state to march, what with his scorpion sting, and there isn’t a camel for him to ride because they’re all loaded with stores. What’s more, he comes from the Garamantes, who’re an inland people in Tripolitania. He comes from the desert, and he’s wedded to the desert. It’s in his blood. A man like that should never have been picked to serve on an island in the middle of the sea, and Fronto doesn’t want unwilling men. But you, Cassius, you’d be much happier on an island than in the desert, wouldn’t you? So what we suggest is that you and Ozalces change places. Fronto is sure that Ozalces would jump at it. And he’s sure it can be squared with the Prefect of the Desert, who as we all know is a reasonable man. You’d still be under Priscillus anyway, because he’s in overall charge of Devade too — it may be a heck of a long way away, but it’s his command that’s nearest to it. How do you feel about that?”
Gods above, what a generous offer! Valerius had surely engineered it for my sake. Lossio’s expression was hopeful. But I had a qualm or two.
“What about the clock?”
“Maximus can take it over. He’s learnt enough from you by now.”
“Then I’d leave Crocodilo like a shot ... if only it weren’t for you.”
“Thank you for that, Cassius. But very soon I’ll be leaving myself. I’ve been here longer than usual already, and Fronto’s just told me I’m being moved on, though he’s no idea where to. So whatever happens, we’re going to be separated. But our paths are bound to cross again. Especially if I’m posted anywhere that has a clock.” He winked at me.
My face must have fallen. And Lossio, mouth agape, looked as if he was putting two and two together and making five. Valerius did not fail to notice.
“Don’t worry, Lossio,” he said cheerfully. “Cassius and I are very good friends, and we have been since we were infants. But believe me, we’re not that sort of friends. You’ve got no competition.”
Lossio blushed at the implication, but at the same time he looked pleased. And I had to be satisfied too. In sorrow but at the same time in delight, I nodded.
“Thanks, Valerius. It’s going to be a mighty wrench to leave you. But without you here, it would need shackles to keep me put.”
“Excellent!” said Valerius again. “I’ll tell Maximus he’s taking over, then. And now I’ll leave you alone. Lossio, another hour and you’ll have to be back in your camp. Cassius, let’s postpone our own farewells until the morning.”
He went. We sat on without words, absorbing the wholly unexpected prospect of being together after all. For me, it gave almost unlimited time to win him round. Lossio was well aware, I sensed, that it gave him time to be won round. We still had to travel a long way with each other, literally and metaphorically, before we arrived anywhere, and we both knew it. But there was a future now where there had been none before. Light-hearted, we grinned at each other. We were brought down to earth by the arrival outside of a train of camels with a cargo of water skins. The hour was unusually late, but they were Persou’s response to our urgent plea. At least that crisis had now been eased. I read the time and recorded it in my daybook.
“So yon’s t’ clock tha’s on about?” Lossio asked.
I showed it to him and explained, very briefly, what it did. He had clearly met nothing like it before, and by the feeble light of the lamp he examined it critically: bronze tanks and ecliptic circle and wooden disc and wire grid and all.
“Did tha make it thissen?”
“Oh no. Beyond me. I can’t make clocks. Only design them. Why?”
“Botch-oop job, this.”
He was right. It was shoddily constructed and poorly finished, the product of some inferior maker under contract to supply the army at the lowest of prices. Compared to old Cleon’s high-quality products, it always had a dowdy air, and now it looked positively downcast.
“Do be’er missen,” Lossio added disparagingly.
I looked at him in surprise. If he could do better himself, he must be quite a craftsman. I would never have guessed it. But I knew absolutely nothing about him or his past, not even where he and his flaming hair came from. Nor did he know anything about me. It would take days of talking to fill in the two pictures. You already know mine, and the first instalment of his emerged that evening.
Lossio, as I had surmised, was fifteen. He had been born in the north of far-off Britain, the son of an auxiliary soldier stationed at a fort called Olicanum. Military wives — or women — and their children do not live with the serving men inside a fort, but in a vicus or civilian township outside, along with the shopkeepers and craftsmen and pawnbrokers and prostitutes that any settlement attracts. Young Lossio had some schooling, enough to read and write if not with ease, but found that his talent lay in his hands. For four years he had been employed in a workshop that specialised in repairing armour — not making it, which was done by the army — and in fabricating bronze and iron into products like horse gear, buckles, brooches and pans. At the same time he had also learnt woodworking and especially furniture-making. Hence his claim that he could build a better clock than mine, provided he was given the specifications.
By way of illustration, he took the pendant from round his neck and showed it to me. He had made it himself, he said. It was a flat bronze disc a bare two fingers across, its surface covered with a filigree of fine silver wires curving in interlocked patterns of tiny swirling leaves, all soldered in place. Although I knew nothing about such things, even I could tell that it was a work of exquisite craftsmanship and indeed of artistry. Yes, someone who could create a jewel like that could surely create a clock.
That saw us through the rest of our time. I saw him back to his camp, assembled my kit ready for the morning, tied up the last few days’ bundle of sherds with string, and went to bed. As I drifted off, I thought about Lossio and what I dreamed might come to pass.
Short of life-long love and partnership, Valerius had said, the only real solution for a man’s needs was unashamed commercial transactions, provided the wares being bought were of good quality. In this case, beyond argument, the quality was the highest, and the transaction would be wholly unashamed. But it would not, and could not, be commercial. It would be a far cry from what was offered by even the best boy in the best brothel. There, the customer called the tune. There, he paid for his lust to be assuaged in whatever way he wanted, not in the way the boy might want. There, love was not on the menu, not even with Timotheus. Here, with Lossio, it very well could be. Here, we could be equals, equally giving, equally taking, no buying and selling involved. For the first time I felt the stirrings of love. And of hope that it might be life-long.
For the last time I was woken by the watch reporting that a courier had come in, and for the last time read my clock — the eighth hour and a half — and wrote my last entry in my daybook. At sunrise, a quick breakfast, a squat over the stinking latrines, and a farewell pat for the clock. I had developed, I found, a curious last-minute affection for it. There was a sad and heartfelt leave-taking with Valerius, a civil welcome from Fronto my new superior, and a strange welcome from Lossio who came up with a smile and an “Ey-oop!” Would I ever fully understand him?
His camp had been struck. Out in the early sun, there were the usual roarings and gurglings from the camels who always resent being roused for loading, there were the usual angry yells from the drivers to their reluctant donkeys, there was a bark of ‘March!’, and, with Lossio alongside me, we were off. I never saw Crocodilo again. I hope I never will.
Persou, Maximianon, Simiou, Myos Hormos. Four days of marching side by side. But marching is the wrong word. In the desert, keeping in step and staying neatly aligned by the front and the side is another practice that is simply silly. Fronto was from the same mould as Valerius, impatient of excessive discipline. As did Valerius, he clearly respected his men, and they respected him. So we walked at ease, orderly but not in strict order. There was nothing against talking, and talk we did, mumbling through our head-cloths. If my journey to Crocodilo had been interminably tedious, our journey away from it slipped by surprisingly fast.
My first question to Lossio was a personal one. Before he cocooned his head and fell into line, I had seen him smearing ointment round his eyes and on the back of his hands. Why?
“Me red hair, see?” he said. “And fair skin. Can’t take too mooch soon.”
I worked that out. Too much sun.
“At yam, no great shakes. Not mooch soon there. Need plenty of clouts — t’ keep t’ cold out, not t’ soon. Boot here! Blebs all over if Ah don’t take care.”
At home, clothes, yes. But blebs?
He searched for the proper word. “Blisters. Medic in t’ Legion, he gave me ointment to keep t’ soon off.”
“Oh. What’s it made of?”
“Cadmia, medic said. Bit of helichrysum and camomile. Works gradely. Loads be’er nor nowt.”
“But if your skin can’t take too much sun, why come to Egypt?”
“Nowt of me doing. They browt ma here, see.”
The full story slowly emerged. Lossio’s Dad hailed from Thrace, where red hair was common. Enlisting in the First Thracian Cohort, he was posted to Olicanum in Britain. There, in the fullness of time, he teamed up with Mam — I did not grasp whether they actually married — who was a native and, like many a Briton, also red-haired. Lossio learnt British from her. He learnt Greek from Dad, whose second language it was. He learnt Latin as a matter of course, in the dialect of the region round Olicanum. But only with difficulty could he read or write. Dad, when discharged after his statutory twenty-five years’ service with the cohort, was as usual enfranchised as a citizen, and his son automatically became a citizen too and thereby eligible to join the legions. But soon after retiring, Dad died of sheer boredom. Mam shortly followed with some unknown disease. Lossio, alone and almost destitute, waited for the next visit of the legionary recruiting officer, and demanded to sign up.
“Why not join the auxiliaries?”
“Huh! Seen enoogh of them,” he said dismissively. “Legion’s a coot aboove t’ auxiliaries. And mooch be’er pay.”
“But in any case,” I pointed out, “you weren’t old enough for either.”
“Didn’t the officer turn you away?”
“Oh aye. Tried to. While Ah bribed him.”
What on earth? Oh, in his speech, did while mean until? That would make sense.
“But how? You didn’t have any money.”
“Nay. Gave him what Ah did have. Gave him me ass.”
I was dumbfounded. Could that be why he had fought shy last night?
“Gods above! Had you, um, given it to anyone before?”
Oh aye, he said carelessly. Boys in the vicus were always experimenting with each other, as well as with girls, and Lossio, as he belatedly grew up, was no exception. That was how he found he preferred boys.
So he did have experience, then. And time was, a year and more ago, when he had been willing enough.
“But that officer! It was pretty risky for you to offer a bribe. And risky for him to accept it.”
“And he knew it. Packed me off dooble quick. If Ah’d split on him, he’d a’ been for it.”
The recruiting officer had been cunning, and had compounded his felony. Within the hour Lossio was marched off from Olicanum. He had asked to join the Twentieth Victorious Legion at Deva, seventy miles away. Being naïve and not well up in geography, it was only when he was bundled onto a ship that he discovered from his documentation that he was being sent not to Deva but to Devade at the other end of the world, of which he had never heard. Transporting solitary soldiers to distant legions was surely wildly wasteful of money, and surely highly irregular. But by then it was too late. He was in the grip of the army machine, and willy-nilly he ended up, incongruously, at Alexandria and in the Third Cyrenaican.
In the legion, he went on, his fellow recruits picked on him for his youthfulness and small size, for his strange hair colour and for his strange accent. One of them, a young Greek named Bion, did take him under his wing and succeeded in deflecting the bullies, for which Lossio was duly grateful. But it came at a price. Bion expected repayment in the shape of free access to Lossio’s body. It was on-going, one-sided, and utterly degrading. Bion did not ask, but demanded. He took, but gave nothing. In short, he was not a friend but another bully, if of a different kind. He was only prised off Lossio’s back — almost literally — when their training was over and their ways parted, one to the garrison at the granite quarries, the other towards Devade.
Thus Lossio, when his path crossed mine, had been truly on his own for only the two days out of Coptos. He thought he still needed a protector and he knew he wanted a friend. As he sized me up outside Crocodilo and then in my room, he felt that I might be what was required. I seemed the complete opposite of Bion, he said, most notably in not demanding any sexual favours. But our paths, having briefly crossed, were doomed to instantly diverge again; until, out of the blue, Valerius and Fronto made them merge again. All of this he said freely, in his homely speech, but without giving any sign that he might now be open to advances. That made me sure of what so far I had only surmised: I was on probation.
Blushing under cover of my head-cloth, I assured him that he was another gift from the gods who matched my requirements as well. Like him, I said nothing of my current desires. That could wait — and had to wait — because camping in communal tents forbids intimacies. But it led me to tell him of my background, and how Valerius came into the picture, and about the clocks; at all of which, except for the disaster of the eruption, he was envious.
“Eh,” he said. “Tha loocky tyke!”
He thought he still needed a protector. I doubted it. His woes had arisen from his fellow recruits who were mostly thoughtless and young, if not as young as he. But the Devade detachment was composed largely of mature, even grizzled, soldiers who regarded him with tolerant and even affectionate eyes. They would be unlikely to bully. But he was still lonely. He did need a friend. As I did too. Among the garrison at Crocodilo, Valerius apart, I had had no real friend. Youth, after all, prefers youth for its companions, if of the right sort.
I threw a sideways look at the boy. No more than his eyes could be seen behind his head-cloth. Because he was still young, he was small and seemed defenceless, yet he was striding out sturdily with the best. He had survived a rough journey, all that long way from Britain. I felt both pity and admiration, and delight on my own account as well. He was a wonderfully refreshing person to be with, naturally quiet yet down to earth; gentle but forceful when need be; generous with most, if not yet all, of what he had to give; creative in mind and hands; and needless to say, at least in my sight, heart-stoppingly beautiful. He would have been a howling success in any brothel that catered for discerning clients, had he not been far too good for the role. He was a Ganymede fit for the gods, except that I doubt Ganymede had red hair.
* * *
We came down to the Arabian Gulf and camped just outside Myos Hormos. Here were trees and grazing for the animals and no shortage of sweet water for drinking and washing. The heat was already less intense than in the desert, so that some discarded their cloaks; but Lossio retained his, and his head-cloth. Fronto announced that we would not be sailing immediately, for another troop and more supplies were due to join us the following day and everything had then to be stowed on board. Priscillus himself was expected to see us off. He duly arrived, along with the new troop and its supply train, and gave us all a pep talk.
With the growth of trade in the Gulf, he said, the pirates were becoming ever bolder. Devade was therefore intended as a new outpost of empire, a harbour and naval base with a permanent allocation of three fast ships from the new Gulf fleet to discourage the pirates, and another constantly plying to and from Myos Hormos, the best part of a thousand miles away, to maintain communications. The two ships that would transport us were already manned with their sailors. The troops now assembled here from the Third Cyrenaican were mainly specialist pioneers, masons, builders and carpenters whose job it was to create the harbour and its guardian fort, plus a substantial number of ordinary soldiers to protect them and to act as unskilled labourers. These, I deduced, included Lossio and me. The necessary equipment and materials had all been delivered, and loading the ships would begin next morning. Fronto was in command, and Priscillus himself would make occasional visits to Devade to inspect progress. Once the building work was completed, the permanent garrison would take over.
With that, he dismissed us, adding that he now wanted a word with Cassius Gemellus. Why me? My conscience was as clear as a legionary’s ever is. With an anxious look, Lossio filed away with the rest, leaving me alone with the Prefect of the Desert and with Fronto. Both of them, at least, were kindly officers who treated their men as human beings and not as the scum of the earth. We adjourned to Fronto’s tent.
“I’m sorry you’ve been dragged all this way for nothing,” Priscillus told me. “But I’m sending you back to HQ at Coptos.”
I was aghast. Was I to be torn away from Lossio so abruptly and so soon?
“When I passed through Crocodilo the other day,” he went on, “I was disconcerted to hear that you’d been switched to the Devade detachment. No blame to Fronto or your curator — they didn’t know what I had in mind. But you have a rare skill that I don’t want to waste. I’ve asked around, and there seems to be nobody else in the Third Cyrenaican who can design clocks, nor yet in the Twenty-second Deiotarian, and no civilian either, even in Alexandria. There must have been once, but there aren’t now.
“Yet the army in the east needs clocks, to the tune of at least a hundred. There’s a plan afoot to equip a number of lines of frontier forts with them, much as the Myos Hormos road is now, but I hope with better ones. There’s the Berenice road. There’s the Limes Tripolitanus. There’s the Limes Arabicus which is five hundred miles long. There are several frontier lines in Dacia too, not to mention more in the west — in Pannonia, Noricum, Germany, Britain — though they’re too far away for us to handle.
“So what we’re proposing is a specialist unit of clockmakers at Alexandria, as part of the main legionary workshops, to supply the eastern provinces and to train clock-keepers. And I would like you to be involved. But I can’t recommend you blind, without hard evidence of your abilities. So that’s why you’re going to Coptos, to design a clock for that parallel, and the craftsmen there will make it under your direction. If you do a good job, there’ll be a big promotion for you and a responsible post at Alexandria. All right?”
It was a high compliment. Had it come before I met Lossio, I would have jumped at it. But hardly now. Yet, I thought ... yet ... could I wangle it to take him with me? Or — yes, better still — could I wangle it to stay with him at Devade? Soldiers are supposed to obey orders without question, but desperation lent me boldness and eloquence.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “But when we last spoke I had nobody who could build a clock to my design. Now I have. He’s here in the Devade detachment. He can make almost anything you care to name. Look, sir. You want to test me, and I’m glad to be tested. But wouldn’t it be the best test of all if between us we made a clock at Devade? It’s so far to the south that it must be way beyond the Tropic of Cancer, where at midsummer the sun will be in the north, not the south. Nobody’s ever made one for anywhere like that far south, I’m sure of it. And if we can make one that works there, we can make one for anywhere.”
“Hmm. That’s a fair point. And, you’re right, a challenge too. But what makes you think this wonder-worker of yours can build a good clock?”
“Let him show you a sample of his work, sir, right now. His name’s Lossio, from Britain.”
“Britain? What on earth is he doing in the Third Cyrenaican?”
Luckily he did not pursue that tack, but told Fronto to send for this Lossio. When he arrived, bewildered, in cloak but without head-cloth, Priscillus blinked at his hair.
“Gemellus tells me you’re clever with your hands,” he said. “Could you build a good clock?”
“Aye, sir. At least t’ wood and metal. Soomun else’d have to draw them curvy lines”
“Very good, sir. Good as this.” Lossio took off his pendant and handed it over. “Made it missen.”
The Prefect gave it one look, and his eyebrows rose. “Fine work indeed,” he agreed. “But it isn’t a clock. Clocks are a lot bigger than this.”
“Bigger’s easier, sir, oop to a point. Mooch easier. Mooch less fiddly.”
“Understood. But that’s the metalwork. What about the woodwork?”
“Easier still, sir.” He wagged a disapproving finger at the folding chair Priscillus was occupying. “Yon chair, sir. Joints loose.” Indeed they were, I saw, and gaping. “Could make a mooch be’er yan missen. Warrant t’ joints wouldn’t spring. Or sound off like they was farting.”
Not quite the normal language to use to a very senior officer, and Fronto pursed his lips. But as the Prefect twisted to look down at his chair, it wobbled and creaked. Proving once again that he was indeed a reasonable man, he barked with laughter.
“All right, both of you. You’ve made your point. Off to Devade with you. Build me a clock there. I’ll be with you in a few months, and if it’s up to scratch there’ll be jobs at Alexandria for the pair of you. Fronto, make sure they have all the facilities and materials and tools they need. No other work for them. None at all.”
We retreated with thanks, and in a daze. At least I was. Lossio being largely in the dark, I filled him in, at which he blew out his cheeks in wonder. We spent the next hour or so compiling a frantic list of what was wanted, and were as ready as could be when Fronto sent us into the town with the quartermaster who had charge of the detachment’s building equipment. A thoroughly practical man, he was intrigued at our task, and helpful. He already had, he told us, hammers and saws and chisels and bow-drills and clamps, all fairly heavy-duty as befitted building work, and plenty of timber. He also had glue and paint and whetstones, and promised to supply us with papyrus.
For our finer work, Myos Hormos, being a port and a ship-building centre, should be able to supply most of what we needed. For once in a way it seemed that money was no object. We went the rounds of the chandlers and bought — or rather the quartermaster did — bronze sheets for the ecliptic circle and water tanks, and solder to fabricate the tanks. We bought a light hammer and punches and files and shears and pins and drill bits as small as we could find, and bits of metal to turn into the axle and its bearings, and dividers and compasses and set square and rulers and a measuring stick. We bought wire for the grid, though only one gauge was available.
“Never mind,” I said. “If the horizon wire can’t be thicker, we can paint it red.”
Another difficulty was something to smooth the woodwork with. At home, Lossio had used sandstone. Old Cleon at Syracuse had used emery or pumice, which are finer-grained. None were on sale here.
“Use a plane,” advised the quartermaster, and we added one to our pile. “And for a final finish rub it with shark skin,” which was a novelty to both of us. “You’ll get that at Devade.”
Three items we wholly failed to find. One was cork for the float. Cleon had used cork from Spain, which was not so far from Sicily, but the Arabian Gulf seemed to be outside its range.
“Never mind,” said Lossio. “Wood’ll do. Or Ah’ll knock yan oop out of bronze sheet.”
Nor, as expected, could Myos Hormos run to a protractor or chord tables. Probably there were none nearer than Alexandria. At least I could make a protractor myself.
Lossio also bought a goodly quantity of ointment against the sun, and our purchases went on board along with the other supplies, bypassing the busybodies in customs who prey on lesser and unofficial mortals. And next day we ourselves embarked.
* * *
The voyage down the Gulf took many days, putting in to shore each evening because the reefs made night-sailing dangerous. Even when close to land there was little to see except dreary landscapes with scrubby undergrowth and a few palms at best, and meagre fishing settlements and the occasional scruffy small town, but no shortage of ships and boats of all sizes. Life on board, with thirty men crammed into the deckhouse, was even less private than under canvas. One or two couples, we heard, found space, uncomfortable but enough for intimacies, down below among the cargo, but we had not yet graduated to such delights. What might await us in this department at Devade remained to be seen.
The deck, despite the sun, was the only sensible place to spend the day. At one point, without Lossio or me noticing, his head-cloth slipped. That evening there was an angry red stripe with incipient blisters on his cheek, which would have proved even more painful had he shaved.
“Not t’ first time,” he said. “Like this all over till Ah learnt to coover oop. Well, not all over. Never got blisters on ma pillock or ma boom.”
Perish that thought. His ointment helped his skin recover, but I could now comprehend even better the handicap he laboured under.
Most of our time, however, we spent on planning our clock. So that Lossio could better understand what he was going to make, I put him through an intensive course on the heavens and the earth as far as they concerned us, and how their three-dimensional complexities were transferred to a flat sheet. He was an apt pupil, apter than Maximus. While he had no grounding whatever in geometry or mathematics, he did have common sense aplenty. But, in the absence of teaching aids or anything to serve as models, it was not easy. In this sense, if in no other, I yearned for Crocodilo and its perverse old clock. Trying to explain the complications to Priscillus had been one thing, for it would hardly have mattered if I had got it wrong. Now, it was crucial to get everything right. I spent long hours with my head in my hands, trying to remember back to Syracuse and old Cleon. Lossio pondered how he was going to make the various parts, and in what order. We conferred on how to collaborate over our respective tasks without holding each other up.
We had agreed, back at Myos Hormos, that our clock could not be too fancy.
“At Syracuse,” I said, “we were asked for all sorts. Posh places wanted large and ornamental ones for their town halls, with discs four feet or more across, made of solid bronze and sometimes supported by statues. Astrologers wanted bronze discs engraved with a map of the stars and the signs of the zodiac. Rich men wanted clocks to display in their dining rooms, with little puppets automatically hitting gongs or whatever, worked by the float in the receiver. But for us, none of those are on. We don’t have the materials or the skill, and anyway Priscillus would never allow the cost. Ours has got to be small and basic, let’s say two feet across, with everything in wood except the tanks and bearings and ecliptic ring and grid. Like at Crocodilo, but better made and better finished.”
“Aye. Sounds reet.”
We agreed on the ecliptic ring. Cleon’s clocks were all labelled with Roman months. To satisfy the military, ours, though written in Greek script, had to be in the Egyptian calendar. This consists of twelve months each of thirty days, plus five extra intercalary days (or six every four years) added on after Mesore, which is the end of their year. That was easy, being merely a matter of labelling. And the holes, at the scale we were using, had to be every-other-day ones. But 365 can’t be neatly divided in two. Should there be 183 holes, leaving the sun-button on the sixth intercalary day for only one day (except in leap years when you left it for two)? Or 182 holes, leaving the button on the fifth intercalary day for three days (except in leap years when you left it for four)? We plumped for the former as the less inaccurate.
And how to set out the holes? Dividing 360 degrees into 183 equal angles of nearly but not quite two degrees apiece would be a pain. At Cleon’s workshop there had been templates — someone had already done the hard work, and more accurately than I could. But with us, no home-made protractor could be perfect. I decided the best method was to draw a circle of the right diameter and divide its circumference into 183 equal lengths, to be marked out by walking dividers around it; a lot of trial and error, but surely better than trying to measure tiny angles.
But I still needed a protractor for other purposes. So I drew one, a quarter circle, on papyrus; and likewise with dividers and trial and error I marked out thirds of the circumference, and thirds of the thirds, and halves of those. The resulting units of five degrees I subdivided into fifths by divider and eye.
I was eager to know if Devade really lay well south of the Tropic of Cancer, as I had predicted to Priscillus. We rigged up a post on deck as near to the vertical as we could judge, and every day, around noon, we watched its shadow. Surprisingly soon it dwindled to nothing. On the rolling deck of a ship one cannot be precise but, if our post was anywhere near the vertical, and since we were still short of midsummer, it ought to mean that we were beyond the Tropic of Cancer. Fronto found us at it, and enquired. He was interested, and we pointed out that, once at Devade, finding the sun height had to be our first and crucial job. If we missed the chance, there would not be another until the winter solstice. A kindly man in his thirties who was taking an almost paternal interest in us, he promised to give us all the help he could.
“And at least,” he said, “you’ll find it cooler than at Coptos or Myos Hormos. And much cooler,” he added with a glance at me, “than at Crocodilo. The sun’s less fierce. It’s because of your skin, Lossio, that you were put on this detachment. Didn’t you know?”
No, he didn’t. It was a kindly act of humanity, but typical of the army to keep men in the dark. None the less Lossio was grateful, and said so.
Following on from that first experiment, we debated how best to measure the sun’s height at the solstice, which was not far ahead. Because everything depended on being at Devade in time, we were keeping a careful count of the days.
“When’s midsoommer exactly?” asked Lossio.
“Can be either the 20th or 21st of June. I think it the 20th this year, but I’m not sure. That’s, um,” I worked it out on my fingers, “either the 26th or 27th of Payni.”
“And how do we do it?”
“It would be easiest if we had a dioptra, but that’s a specialist instrument, and I’ve never even seen one. All we can do is set up a vertical post like this,” I nodded at ours on deck, “and look at the shadow it casts. When it’s shortest, it’ll be midsummer, and we’ll measure that length. And its proportion to the height of the post will give us the sun’s height.”
“Er,” said Lossio hesitantly.
“I’ve done it before,” I ploughed on impatiently. “Most of old Cleon’s clocks were for places in Sicily, and he always used the parallel of Syracuse, which is 37 degrees. All right, the northern and southern tips of Sicily are a degree south and a degree north of that, but one degree either way doesn’t make much difference. But once he was asked for a clock for Velia, which is way up on the mainland, and he took me with him to work out how far north it is. And this was the method we used — shadow shortest at midsummer. We found the parallel was 40 degrees, three more than Syracuse, which is enough to matter. So that’s how we’ve got to do it too. To be on the safe side, let’s observe from the 25th of Payni to the 28th, and each day mark the length of the shadow. When it’s shortest, it’ll be midsummer.”
“Er,” said Lossio again. “Hang on ...” He scratched his marigold head. “Nay. Not shortest. Longest. Oop where we coom from, t’ soon’s always in t’ south, isn’t it? So t’ shadow goes north. And it’s shortest at midsoommer when t’ soon’s highest. Reet? ”
“Boot down here, t’ soon’s in t’ north at noon, so t’ shadow goes south. Longer every day. So when it stops getting longer and starts getting shorter again, it’s midsoommer, isn’t it? We got to measure that shadow when it’s longest. Not t’ longest shadow in t’ day , mind — that’s at sunrise or sunset. But t’ longest at noon. Reet?”
I gaped at him, and my head went back into my hands. Yes, I realised after a bit. For all my supposed expertise, I had got it completely wrong. For all his lack of expertise, his common sense had kept him right.
“Gods, Lossio!” I burst out. “I love you!”
I’m not at all sure why I said that, or in quite what sense I meant it. But he read it his way, and smiled a sly little smile. Was I nearing the end of my probation?
“But it means more work,” I added, coming back to earth. “First we’ve got to find the north-south line, so we can measure the shadow at the right time.”
Such and suchlike kept us occupied until at last we arrived.
* * *
Picking their way through an archipelago of islands, our ships made for the largest, where they anchored in a cove beside a promontory. Devade, Fronto had told us, lay about thirty miles off the mainland and was thirty miles long, with a scanty population of a few hundred. It was low-lying, a mixture of rock and sand, but with stands of palms and thickets of shrubs. Sometimes, he said, it even rained, so there was plenty of fresh water too. We only hoped there would be no rain clouds on midsummer’s day.
In the absence, as yet, of a jetty or harbour wall to tie up at, the ships had to be laboriously unloaded by boat. A camp of tents was set up close to the intended site of the fort, and also close to a well. To our delight, Fronto, who was taking Priscillus’ orders very seriously, told Lossio and me that we were immunes with no duties whatever — not even joining the morning and evening parades — beyond building our clock. He gave us a tent for our exclusive use, and suggested we put it up wherever seemed best for our purposes, but away from the rest. We chose a site with a flat stretch of sand for measuring our shadow and with a wide view of the sea on either hand. While the rest of the detachment brought the supplies and equipment ashore before starting in on the hard labour of hacking out a harbour and quarrying stone for building, we began to tackle our lighter if more cerebral task. In the shade of our tent, with the ends open to allow the breeze to waft through, we could work without cloak or head-cloth, and rarely did we even wear drawers.
Lossio set about creating a sturdy workbench with timber begged from the stockpile. Meanwhile, with a simple level formed of a bowl of water filled to the brim and sitting on a plank, I checked that our flat stretch of sand really was flat. Into it I hammered a straight and narrow pole, carefully checking it for verticality with plumb bob and line, until the top stood exactly eight feet high, which ought to aid my calculations. At a short distance around it, to prevent curious feet from trampling our precious sand, I planted a circle of stakes as a low fence. With Lossio’s help, at the moment when the horizon bisected the setting sun, I drove in a marker on the direct line between it and my pole. The date was already the 24th of Payni, and tomorrow our observations must begin. We had arrived only just in time.
With sunset, work stopped. Everyone, other than us, paraded, and when they fell out, every man jack of them, apart from the cooks sweating over their fires, stripped off to bathe. At Catania I had quite often been in the sea. Olicanum being far inland, Lossio never had, and had swum only in the local river. No doubt self-conscious about his boy’s body, he waited until the others were in before stripping off too. After so long without a proper wash, the water felt marvellous. The only dangers to look out for, we were warned, were sharks and jellyfish. But the meal was soon ready, and we came back to the beach and threw on our cloaks. The others ate outside, chattering about visiting a nearby village and fraternising with the local girls. But we could not join in such a conversation. Collecting our food and a large jug of water, we retired to our tent. It had no furniture yet, and we sat facing each other on the sand with our bowls between our outstretched legs.
During the march and during the voyage we had grown closer. In our planning for the clock we had worked in harmony. Except in one single respect, we had grown very close indeed. But now at last we had ourselves to ourselves. Our cloaks had fallen open in front. By the lingering light of the dying day Lossio’s nakedness was exposed in all its allure, and I could see his eyes fixed on mine. As one, we responded in the way you might expect. Yes, it was just as I had hoped. He did not need to say so, but I knew my probation was over.
I was screaming silently with desire, and his expression was lustful. There could be no doubt. We wanted it, both wanted it. Without words we stood up, closed the tent flaps, and threw off our cloaks. We took each other in our arms. Grinding together, we kissed, deeply and hungrily. His mouth tasted sweet, as sweet as the nectar of the gods. With one hand I stroked his back and buttocks, with the other I reached down in front and fondled.
“You first,” I said. “How?”
“Gob,” he replied instantly. “Ah mean, mouth. It’s how Ah like it best.”
We spread out our cloaks and lay down on them; and there, as Valerius had ordered me to a month ago, I took care of him, very good care. Soon he began to moan with little keening noises. Before long he cried from his depths and climaxed. More nectar. Tears of release trickled down his face, and I cuddled him until he recovered.
“Ta,” he said in a wobbly voice. “Ta very mooch. Been waiting for that for a year.” From the intensity of his reaction, I could well believe it. “And a half,” he added.
“Reet,” he went on after a pause, and more decisively. “Now thee. How?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at me. “Me ass?”
“Are you sure?” Even knowing all that I knew, he looked almost too delicate.
“Aye. Go on.”
I could wish for nothing better. He lay on his back and raised his legs. Entering without difficulty — for this threshold had been crossed many a time before — I bent to kiss him and began to pump. Immediately he gave a whimper of surprise and wonder and gripped me tight. Raising my head and looking down, I saw he was aroused again, already; and it was not long before, with another cry, he climaxed a second time. That pushed me over the top as well, leaving me feeling much as Zeus must have felt when he had finished — or rather started — with Ganymede.
“Gods!” I murmured as we both wound down, panting and fulfilled. For me, it had been infinitely better than with the camel-boy, better by far than with anyone at Coptos, and better even than with Timotheus in the brothel at Syracuse. “You’re good!”
“Tha too,” he said, clinging to me and quaking silently. “How did tha do it? Get me to coom twice?”
By aiming for his sweet spot, I explained. He had never even heard of it. But my education from Timotheus had been extensive, and ever since then I have always tried to make use of the technique, even if it does not work every time. My policy, picked up from Valerius, is that if you take pleasure from someone, it is only right to try to give it back.
We were still lying nestled tight together, his flaming hair tickling the straggly black wisps of my attempt at a beard.
“Think we belong yan to tother,” he muttered.
That hit the nail on the head. We did indeed belong one to the other. I did not merely think so. I knew it, by means of that strange alchemy which operates, as I had heard, in the realms of love. For the first time I was experiencing it in the flesh. Not lust, with which I was very familiar, but love. And not just in theory now, but in hard fact.
We dropped off to sleep, naked in each other’s arms and happy in the aftermath of bliss and the prospect of unlimited bliss to come.
* * *
Next day was the 25th of Payni. We had to be up early to position another marker, at the same distance from the pole as last night’s sunset one, but this time aligned with the sunrise. Yet a third marker went in, precisely halfway between those two. This, together with the pole, gave us a north-south alignment. As noon approached we were outside again, squatting beside our new line and watching the tip of the pole’s shadow creeping frustrating slowness across the sand. I squinted from the south marker to the pole, and when the shadow was in line with them called “Now!” Lossio drove in a long nail at the shadow’s end. Almost certainly we were a day or two early, but better safe than sorry.
On the 26th we repeated the exercise. Yes, the midday shadow was marginally longer, and Lossio replaced the nail in the new position. On the 27th the shadow was exactly the same length as the day before. On the 28th it was a trifle shorter again. The solstice had come and gone, and mercifully no clouds had obscured the sun.
The length of the longest shadow proved to be precisely one foot. So neat a measurement was of course the purest of coincidences, but it made my calculations very much easier. The eight-foot pole and its one-foot shadow made two sides of a right-angled triangle, and the angle at the top of it equalled the angular distance of the sun from the zenith. With the utmost care I drew that triangle in small scale, with sides of eight and one inches, on a large sheet of papyrus, and with my home-made protractor measured the acute angle. I made it 7 degrees. To check, I drew a series of contiguous triangles of the same dimensions, in a circle, their points together at the centre. It took almost exactly fifty triangles to complete the circle. 360 divided by 50 was 7 degrees and two tenths. Yes, that was the angle we were after.
Now for our parallel at Devade. When I was at Velia with Cleon, I recalled, the midday sun had been 16 degrees south of the zenith. Add 24 degrees, which is the angle of the ecliptic, to 16, and the latitude there was 40 degrees. Apply that principle here: 24 degrees plus a bit over 7 gave our parallel as 31. No, hang on, that couldn’t be right — 31 was the parallel of Alexandria. I wrestled with it. Ah, fool that I was! At Velia the sun was south of the zenith. Here it was north. It should be 24 degrees minus a bit over 7. So Devade was just south of the 17th parallel. We had got it at last, and had established that we really were well south of the tropic. But the information would not be needed until the time came to design the grid.
For a few days, while I was occupied with the markers and calculations, Lossio was completing his workbench and making a simple pole lathe for turning the axle and the bearings and the drum.
“Dunno how big t’ droom should be,” he said. “Try this for starters.”
Thus began our long idyll, two whole months and more. To Lossio’s relief and mine, the force of the sun, high summer though it was, was very much less than at Crocodilo. It was still hot, markedly hotter than Sicily, but some wind was usually blowing. Around sunset, when Lossio’s skin was not at risk, we would bathe with the others. With the others we would then collect our food and listen to them boasting of their conquests of the local ladies; for Devade had as yet no army-issue whore, who in any case would doubtless have been much inferior. Work progressed on the harbour-making and building, and the men, intrigued by what we were up to, would often pop their heads into our tent as they passed. So too did Fronto, at least once every day. He told us that Priscillus was expected on his first visit of inspection early in Thoth, two months ahead. It was useful to have a deadline, and challenging.
Idyll though it was, we worked hard. Most of the time we spent in our tent, Lossio fabricating, me drawing or calculating or acting as his willing dogsbody, for his contribution was inevitably more time-consuming than mine. We would often continue even after darkness fell, the tent flaps closed to keep out flies attracted by the lamp. Every night, when we finally knocked off and made for our bed — constructed by Lossio as a concession to creature comforts — our love-making continued. We could not get enough of it, and sometimes we could not wait. I might look up from my work to find him standing naked in front of me, his member hovering near my nose and begging for attention as it stuck up from its marigold nest like the pointer of a sundial. Or he might be bending seductively over his bench, almost inviting me to lift his tunic and to take him from behind. Immediate needs satisfied, in either case, it was straight back to our current tasks.
If I dwell too long on the detail of those tasks, the reader will soon lose interest. There was the framing for the whole clock: a timber skeleton with crossbars to carry the bearings for the axle and with shelves behind to stand the tanks on. It was not crudely knocked up as at Crocodilo but a work of art in its own right, its joints intricate and tight-fitting and backed by little bronze plates to prevent distortion. As I painted it, I began to appreciate how meticulous a workman Lossio was.
There was the display disc. We had no planks two feet wide, so he made it from two, side by side, firmly linked by crossbars behind, sawn into a circle, and smoothed meticulously around the edge with dried shark skin bought from a fisherman. He planed its surface, finished it with shark skin again, and I gave it two coats of paint. Onto it, when it was dry, I scribed with dividers and set square and protractor the celestial markings: the solstice and equinox diameters which I picked out with ink, and the ecliptic circle ready for the bronze sheets to be applied. We put the disc and drum on the axle, and they rotated smoothly in the bearings.
“Grand!” said Lossio. “Think it’s tekken a liking to oos!”
I saw what he meant. The clock did seem very cooperative in being put together. True, we encountered a problem when we fed the cord from the float over the drum to a counterweight. Having no cork for the float, we first tried the inner core of palm tree, which felt light in weight. But it proved too porous and became waterlogged, so we had to use ordinary wood.
And adjusting the water tanks proved the most prolonged task. Lossio made them surprisingly quickly, shearing the bronze sheets to size and applying the solder with an iron heated in a little brazier. What took far longer was ensuring that the water, dripping from the regulator tank into the receiver, raised the float enough to rotate the disc precisely once in a day as measured by our shadow outside the tent. We knew the outlet hole had to be small. But how small?
“Start with t’ smallest drill we got,” said Lossio. “Easy to make holes bigger. Nigh impossible to make smaller.”
Even so, the float rose too fast.
“Um,” he said, regarding it with head on one side. “Be’er make a bigger droom.”
He turned another and fitted it. Too slow now, so he shaved a little off on the lathe. And so by gradual stages the rotation of the disc was made exactly right; but each test took a whole day.
Next, the ecliptic ring. Lossio sheared bronze sheet into curved segments and pinned them to the disc. Onto them I scribed the ecliptic circle and, with dividers and much trial and error, the positions of the 183 sun-button holes. We marked each of them with a centre-punch and drilled them, he holding the tool, me endlessly sawing away with the bow. That finally done, he left me to scratch the month-names and, every six days, the date, for my writing was much neater than his. Following my scratches, he made each letter permanent by defining it with a fine punch.
At long last, just into the intercalary days between Mesore and Thoth, we were ready to tackle the grid. I had already drawn it out, full-size, on papyrus, which we fixed to the bench. By hand, Lossio bent wire into the right curvature for each piece, which was held in place on the drawing by light pins driven diagonally into the underlying wood: three complete circles, one horizon, and twenty-two hour wires, an exceedingly fiddly job. The next stage was yet fiddlier, with Lossio soldering all seventy-two intersections. Then he freed the grid from its holding-down pins and filed away irregularities in the soldering. It was late when it was done, but we painted it black before collapsing into bed.
In the morning the paint was dry enough, and the grid was springy enough to clip into place in the frame. I painted the horizon wire and the sun-button red, and in my best handwriting added the hour-times round the edge. The clock was finished.
At noon, by the shadow on our north-south line, we set it going. There was nothing now left to do but bite our nails until sunset. That would be the moment of truth. Yet I was quietly confident.
“There was a philosopher fifty years ago,” I said, “called Seneca. He wrote a skit on the death of the emperor, called the Apocolocyntosis of Claudius.”
“A word he made up. It means pumpkinification, modelled on apotheosis, deification, because Claudius was promptly deified when he died. But the point is, Cleon used to quote a bit from it. Seneca said he wasn’t sure exactly what time the old boy had popped it ‘because it’s easier to find agreement between philosophers than between clocks.’ That made Cleon hopping mad. ‘Were their clocks in the imperial palace as bad as that?’ he’d ask. ‘If they were, they should have had mine.’ And he was absolutely right. His clocks were always good. All right, out loud he’d point out imperfections in ours. That’s the sort of man he is. But secretly he’d be impressed. I’m quite sure this one’s as good as his.”
“Eh,” said Lossio, laughing. “Cross fingers!”
We crossed them. And lo and behold! As the sun was finally bisected by the horizon outside, the sun-button on the ecliptic circle was bisected by the horizon wire. Uttering whoops of triumph, we fell into each other’s arms. If the poor old clock at Crocodilo had always been morose, this one exuded happiness from the start, and I could swear it shared our delight. Fronto, investigating the noise, congratulated us. So did everyone else who, as they returned from bathing, heard the news and came to admire our handiwork. Over the meal Fronto presented us with a flagon of wine. If we drank too much, it did not interfere with our love-making. The date was the 2nd of Thoth or, as you and I know it, the 30th of August.
Next day we relaxed, sitting outside the tent for once and watching the waves lap gently on the reef. Far off to one side a white sail was creeping almost imperceptibly over the blue. Far off to the other was the loom of the mainland. Distant hammerings and occasional grunts and thuds drifted across from the fort-builders. But overall it was very peaceful, and after our hectic few months we were at peace together. The sun, though, was beating down, by no means at Crocodilo intensity but strongly enough. While I was bare-headed, Lossio was back in head-cloth and cloak for the occasion.
“Soomtimes wish,” he said wistfully, “Ah could be cold again. Not frizzing. Just cool. Tha ever been cold, Cassius?”
“Oh yes. Not often. But in winter there’s snow on Etna. And once I remember water freezing in the pond.”
“Only woonce? At Olicanum, snow every winter, weeks on end.”
“But you said it’s in a valley. Does the snow reach that far down?”
“Oh aye. Deep too, often. And cold. Weeks on end, t’ smithy bosh friz solid. And t’ wa’er-jar at yam friz too. Reet inside t’ house.”
“Gods! It makes me shiver just to think of it. I wonder what parallel you were on there. Any idea what proportion of the whole day it was between sunrise and sunset at midsummer?”
Lossio hummed and hawed before suggesting that daylight might last twice as long as night-time. I did some deep mental calculations.
“I’d guess that puts it somewhere about the 50th parallel. That’s 33 degrees north of here. At least it’s still a long way south of the Arctic Circle.”
“Arctic Circle? What’s that?”
A fair enough question. My tuition had not taken him so far north, because it had not needed to.
“A parallel rather like the Tropic, but 24 degrees from the North Pole rather than from the Equator. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets at midsummer, and never rises at midwinter.”
Lossio looked at me in blank amazement. “How do tha know?”
“I’ve never been there,” I admitted. “Nobody has. Not even Pytheas, who went as far as anyone. But if you think about it, that’s how it must be. Look.”
I traced diagrams in the sand to illustrate.
“Oh ah. Reet. Ah’m with tha,” he said. “Moost be bloody cold oop yon. Have to wear even more clouts than at yam to keep out t’ cold. Seems daft to wear lots o’ clouts here to keep out t’ soon instead.”
“Well, Sicily’s halfway between, and there you don’t have to wear very much at all. Because the pattern is, the further north you go, the colder it gets. On the whole, that is. I think it depends on the sea, and where the winds come from. That must be why it’s not as hot here as at Crocodilo, even though we’re further south. And if our clock gets us to Alexandria, we’ll find it’s cooler there than here. That’s what I remember. It’s further north and it’s also on the sea. But I very much doubt they have frost there. Not that we want it, what with our water tanks.”
On the day after that, the 4th of Thoth, the Prefect of the Desert sailed in. His main purpose, of course, was to inspect progress on the harbour wall ― now completed ― and on the fort ― well under way. The presence of our ships was already proving its worth. They had caught a number of pirates and chastised them, although we landlubbers had not set eyes on a single one. But Priscillus spent some hours with us, and was in time, that evening, to watch the sun set both on the clock and for real. Next morning, likewise, he saw the sun rise. He witnessed noon by shadow and by sun-button.
“Spot on,” he said,” he said, running appreciative fingers over Lossio’s craftsmanship. “Well done, lads. The job’s yours. I’m going back to Alexandria now, not Coptos, for a conference of top brass. Come with me, and they’ll get you set up in the workshops.”
Thus, all too soon, our idyll came to an end. We bade farewell to the detachment, and to Fronto, and to Devade which was now the proud owner of a fine clock that nobody had ever needed and nobody would ever use; a clock, moreover, that would be accurate nowhere else in the civilised world.
The idyll was not quite ended, though, in the sense that there was still the voyage up the Gulf; and rather than slog the scorching Myos Hormos road past Crocodilo to Coptos and swelter down the Nile, we glided painlessly with Priscillus along the newly-reopened canal from Clysma and thence to Alexandria.
* * *
We have been here now for a year, training legionary clock-designers and clockmakers and clock-keepers, and streamlining the production line. The city is huge ― the next largest in the world, they say, after Rome itself ― and hugely cultured. Everything goes on. We see a lot of Valerius, too, who has been transferred back to the legion’s main base. And I was right that the climate is better than in the Gulf, being much the same as in my native Sicily. Although Lossio still has to take care, the sun is nothing like so dangerous to him here. He is still growing, taller and broader now and not quite so smooth of skin, but just as distinctive and just as delectable as ever. While our level of privacy is not as complete as at Devade, with our increasing seniority we encounter few difficulties. We certainly have no cause for complaint.
The military workshops are a far cry from our makeshift bench in a distant island tent, and even from Lossio’s provincial stamping ground in the vicus at Olicanum. We are part of a community of professionals, with men working under us. The premises resound with the musical clang of smiths’ hammers and the strident screech of files and the snoring rhythm of the pit-saws. Here, Lossio is in his element. So too, in another sense, am I, returning in memory to old Cleon’s workshop and its drawing boards. What is more, there lives at Alexandria a geographer named Marinus who is compiling a gazetteer of the known world, complete with latitudes and longitudes. In return for our information about Devade, he gave me his figures for the parallels of other places that interest us; for the Limes Tripolitanus, for instance, which runs east-west along almost the same parallel, and for Coptos and Berenice from which I could estimate the parallels of the intermediate praesidia. But for the Limes Arabicus, which runs north-south from Syria to Arabia Petraea, we have had to do our own groundwork, with a concerted campaign at each of the forts by a whole bevy of our apprentices measuring the sun shadows simultaneously at noon on the solstice.
Soon the need for new clocks in the eastern provinces will have been filled, and the need for maintenance will begin. But the army recognises our role. Word has just come through that we are going to be seconded to the Thirteenth Gemina at Apulum in Dacia, once again to train clockmakers and clock-keepers for the frontier lines there. That means that Lossio is working his way back closer to home, for Dacia lies next door to Thrace which gave birth to his father and his red hair; and the climate, from all we hear, is very similar to Britain’s, with regular frost and snow in winter.
“Eh ba goom!” says Lossio. “Grand!”
After that, who knows? Most likely we will be moved again, maybe as far even as Britain itself. Clocks in chilly Britain? Now there’s an interesting thought — as far removed in miles from Devade as you can get without venturing into barbarian lands, and as far removed in temperature. But even if I should show signs of freezing, Lossio will thrive. He will always keep me warm, not only in body but in heart. As I remarked at the outset, Crocodilo is beyond all argument the arse of the earth. Devade and Alexandria, by contrast — and anywhere else that we may share a future bed — can only be called (if I dare put it so crudely) the arse of heaven.