Marcus the Medicus

Vindolanda SVindolanda was not exactly a cushy posting. It was on the edge of nowhere, days away from any vestige of civilisation, in the middle of the bleakest landscape he had met anywhere on his travels with the army. When it was not freezing it was raining and the locals spoke Latin with such a thick accent that no one at the fort could understand one word in three.

“We require four dozen eggs and two freshly slaughtered pigs, my good lady.”

“Weyeye hinny.” What sort of reply was that? ‘Certainly sir, right away sir’ or ‘up yours’? It could mean anything.

Marcus had picked up some medical knowledge from a Greek doctor when he was a lowly footslogger on a posting in the South of France. Later he had helped treat horrendous gaping head wounds in the Dacian wars, inflicted by the barbarians’ dreadful war-sickle. The falx was curved, heavy and could punch a hole through shield or helmet to reach the soldier behind. He still wore the reinforcing bands across the top of his galea that the armourers out there had improvised as a form of defence. If he must die, it would not be with that pleading, hopeless stare in his eyes and his brains dribbling out between his ears. In Egypt most of his patients had bellyaches and diarrhoea, though he had learned to cure infections with the mouldy-bread poultice favoured by the natives. Here, close to The Wall, the commonest complaint was chilblains.

Being a medical orderly did not protect him from being hacked at and skewered whilst he defended the Pax Romana against the tattooed and moustachioed barbarian, but in more peaceful times it did excuse him from endless drilling and cleaning. At Vindolanda he had felt he was working the system quite well. Then a troop of Germans passed through his region and he was transferred. They were short of a doctor. He was an indifferent soldier and an average health-carer. His unit decided they could spare him.

The Germans were blonde giants with no sense of humour. He was two foot shorter than any of them. They did not need a medical orderly. What they needed was a vet. They cauterised wounds that would kill a normal human being, with a red-hot gladius, and treated most ailments with an alcoholic drink that gave you the squits for a week. It seemed to work though, if you survived the cure.

Vindolanda fort had not been a cushy posting, but much of it was stone built and it was well supplied. Marcus had left it at dawn, accompanied by a detachment of some seventy men who did not respect him, and was charged with ensuring they all arrived at a camp he had never heard of, a day’s march along the shoddiest road the Empire had ever been responsible for, through the dreariest landscape this island could devise. They were, his charges, singing loud, ugly drinking songs.

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The Way We Lied

Her free hand indicated sweeping arcs and David could almost see the picture coming alive in the air that hung before him. Everyone else he knew talked about policies, monetary values and mortgages but through her eyes he saw shafts of sunlight, deep shade and marble skin.
Mary lifted the crisp bacon onto warmed plates. “One egg or two?”
He hesitated for a moment. Caroline was always trying to make him eat muesli and prunes and only allowed him an egg once a week. But Caroline was not here and Mary was.
“Two please. Can I do anything to help?”
“You can make some more toast if you’re really hungry. I’m sure we’ll wolf it all down between us. I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday afternoon, so I’m starving.”
David moved to her side, cutting more bread to brown unevenly under the grill and buttering the slices that were ready. Mary broke two eggs into the pan and bacon fat splattered angrily as the whites spread.
“Here, take over for a minute,” she said suddenly. “I’m getting really hot.” She handed him the spatula then pulled her thick Aran sweater over her head, revealing a thin T shirt over unsupported breasts.
David tipped the pan and splashed the fat over the yolks till they were opaque. “You’re quite good at this, aren’t you,” she said. “ You can come here again.”
He looked at her with hunger in his eyes as well as his stomach.
“Can I really?”
He found himself urgently needing confirmation that this was not one of the many idle invitations issued so easily like ‘let’s have lunch sometime’ or ‘we must have a drink next time you’re in town’. Suddenly it was vitally important to him. More important than his meetings tomorrow, more important than the many issues his constituents and his party were insisting he should resolve. He desperately felt he needed this comforting refuge, away from those who expected him to live up to their expectations and demanded so much more of him than expertly cooked eggs.
“Sure, whenever you want,” she said, taking the spatula from his hand and pulling out a chair for him at the plain wooden kitchen table. She brushed away the breadcrumbs scattered across the table’s top then she put a plate of food in front of him and gestured for him to start.
“Don’t you know, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” And she began laughing as she broke more eggs into the pan and threw the shells across the kitchen into an overflowing bin.

to be continued January 4, 2016

Powerless – The Year The Lights Went Out

Wednesday, October 23

Today started chilly, but as the sun came through it became quite warm and we all worked outside without coats. After picking the last of the apples, which we’ll lay out on trays in a cool, dry place, I decided I simply had to tidy the flower garden. I know it is vitally important for us to grow our own food at this time, but I cannot bear to see my once flourishing garden deteriorate. The lawns are still growing and we cannot spare the petrol to mow the grass, so I must accept that they will be shaggy carpets from now on, but I can at least weed the beds and mulch and rake up leaves. The cosmos and michaelmas are still flowering and looked so lovely in the sun I felt quite cheerful.
Martin and Stephen heaved barrow loads of compost from the heap to dig into the new vegetable beds, then decided to clean out the hen shed and add the poultry manure to the heap. They think it would be a good idea to collect some of the sheep and pig manure as well, but this too will have to be mixed and allowed to break down before it can be used. In the past we’ve usually had composted manure delivered by the sackful, but we can make our own just as well for now.
As it was so fine today, we had our main meal in the middle of the day and were able to cook outside on the barbecue. It was hardly the kind of food we used to have before this all happened and we did find ourselves reminiscing about steaks and pieces of chicken, but we enjoyed our bacon, eggs and mushrooms very much. And as we have so many apples, we had some stewed with raisins and honey.
All the hens laid well today and I collected six eggs.

Powerless will resume January 4, 2016

The Way We Lied

At last he quietened and began to laugh. When he finally stopped he heard a noise a little way off through the trees. He sat up and looked around, brushing his coat clear of crushed leaves, hoping no one had seen his foolish display of abandonment. He heard a whistle and then a small chestnut spaniel with drooping silky ears trotted into the clearing. It stopped and looked at him, then turned and ran off. David stood up and just caught a glimpse of a woman in a pale blue coat catching hold of the spaniel’s lead and walking away. But before she disappeared from sight, she glanced back over her shoulder in his direction.
She looked slightly familiar. He was sure he had seen her before. But where? He had often come out walking at this time, but he did not think he had seen her here in the woods before, like some of the regular dog walkers he encountered later in the day. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly 8.15. Caroline would be waking and wondering where he was. But instead of turning and going back the way he came, David started walking in the direction of the woman with the dog. He didn’t hurry. He was sure he would not lose her as he could hear her calling and whistling every now and then.
After ten minutes or so the whistling stopped and just as he began to think she must have returned to her car, he came across a cottage in a clearing. He had not been there before, but he remembered hearing somewhere that there was a house at this end of the woods. A thin stream of smoke was blowing from the chimney, leaving a sweet oaky scent in the air. Evenly cut stacks of logs were piled in the porch and he could see more wood in an open barn to the side.
While he was wondering who lived here, the woman he had seen earlier emerged from an outhouse with a bundle of kindling in her arms. She stopped and stared at him and he realised that it was the woman who had come to the constituency surgery. It was Mary Reid.
“Sorry if I startled you. I’ve just been out walking. I didn’t realise you lived here.”
“I thought you might turn up,” she said, still gazing at him with calm blue eyes. “Come inside and have some breakfast.”
He followed her to the open kitchen door, aware of her confident stride and her tight jeans. She dropped the wood into a basket beside the stove, then washed her hands in cold water in a cracked belfast sink. He stood in the doorway, waiting while she dried herself on a grey towel.
“You can keep your shoes on. Hang your coat up there,” she said, waving at a row of pegs by the door. “Eggs and bacon alright with you?”
David suddenly realised he was very hungry. “Great, thanks. The fresh air’s given me quite an appetite.”
She cut thick slices of crusty white bread on an old carved bread board on the kitchen table. “I love it out there early in the morning. At this time of year there’s never anyone around . You could take all your clothes off and roll in the leaves completely naked and no one would ever know.”
David knew she must have seen him in his moment of abandon and her words instantly transmitted an image of a dark triangle framed by white thighs and he felt an unsettling quiver. But Mary’s face was impassive as she laid the bread under the grill to toast and poured tea. He cleared his throat, then was startled by a black cat rubbing against his leg.
“Do you often walk your dog this early?”
“Generally. Even earlier in summer. I love the way the light changes.” She stood by the stove, gazing into wooded visions, the spatula idle in her hand. “The trees make wonderful shapes and shadows. Sometimes I have to just start drawing them as the sun comes up. They make such strong lines with charcoal.”

to be continued December 28

The Last Song – chapter six

“Katarina, will you listen to me, please!” It was the third time that evening her mother had had to speak to her like this.

“Will you get along to the shop for the bread and the milk!” her mother said. “I’ve had enough of you mooning around with your head in the clouds! I don’t know what’s got into you.” Her mother looked tired, dark circles under her eyes as if she wasn’t sleeping.

“Yes, mother.” Katarina got up from the table. She scooped up the money her father had counted out for the groceries and tucked it in her pocket before leaving the house for the short walk to Corner Shop Five.

“Hello Miss Katarina.” Mr Ballard, the shop-worker smiled down at her. “What can I get for you?”

“Just a loaf of bread and two bottles of milk, please.” Katarina smiled back. She liked Mr Ballard’s shop with its shelves stacked with tins and packets, its baskets of fruit and vegetables. Her mother had told her that this was the sort of shop that her great-grandmother would have visited but that they had all but disappeared for decades. The Government of National Renewal had brought them back and now they could get all that they needed here and at the other small shops along The High Street. Each Borough had them – greengrocers; butchers; bakers; ironmongers piled high with nails, brooms, hammers, bits of wood, the sort of things that her father would buy in the hope of carrying out a little ‘home improvement’. He never managed it.

“All well down your road Miss?” asked Mr Ballard.

Katarina started. “Er, yes, er, thank you.” She frowned as she counted out the money. Of course nothing was well down her road. Had he not heard about Mrs Malcolm? Or was this a test?

She gave him a quick smile and accepted her shopping bag. He did not smile back but held her gaze until she felt uncomfortable and looked away.

“Take care, miss,” he said as she left.

It was on her way back that she heard a cat. She was passing Mrs Malcolm’s boarded up house when she heard a miaow. Was Ditto inside? If so, how would he hunt for food? She started towards the front door then halted. It was blocked up and, in any case, what if someone saw her?

Instead she veered to the left towards her own house and crashed in through the door, straight to the back room, ready to pour out her worries to her mother. She stopped. Her parents were perched on the edge of the cushioned chairs in front of the television, listening intently to a news programme. Her father held his finger to his lips. She tiptoed forward to stand next to them and placed her purchases on the table.

The news was the normal round of ‘Production is up, crime is down, the Government of National Renewal has the best interests of the people at heart’. Nothing new, apart from a small item at the end: ‘A woman has been charged with possessing subversive material. Greta Malcolm, believed to be the leader of a group of anti-government insurgents, was arrested two nights ago and was charged in court this morning. She pleaded not guilty but police say the evidence of her dangerous activities is compelling. The President praised the security forces for their swift and effective action in this case.’ Accompanying the bulletin was a picture of a woman with fair hair. It could have been Mrs Malcolm 20 years ago.

“They always do that,” spat Katarina’s father. “Dredge up some old picture which doesn’t look anything like them now. I think they change them too, make them look all shifty. They don’t want us feeling any sympathy.”

“Shh!” said her mother, taking her husband’s hand in one of her own, and Katarina’s in the other. She shut her eyes and her lips moved silently. Then she turned to her daughter. “Now Katarina, what’s that bread and milk doing in here? We must have something to eat.”

“Will Mrs Malcolm be alright?” whispered Katarina.

“Now that’s not something for you to worry about,” said her mother, her voice high and so bright it seemed it might crack.

“You are not to speak of her,” added her father then leant over and did something that he rarely did these days. He kissed her on the top of the head. “Now eat and homework!” he declared. “And then bed!” Katarina could do nothing but obey. At least, she thought, she could listen to the shell in bed.

And when she finally did, among the swelling, heart-wringing notes that poured out of the shell deep into her, she thought she could hear a cat crying. She tiptoed across the room. Ditto was under her window gazing up at her with eyes that seemed to look inside her. She gave him a small wave and padded back to bed.

Powerless – The Year The Lights Went Out

Tuesday, October 22

We all walked to the surgery in the village today, leaving Joe working on one of the dead trees. He’s not registered with our doctor so he said he will take his chances. When we got there, the queue stretched back almost to the green, but it was good natured, with people talking about how resourceful they were being and showing concern for their neighbours. It must be our isolation that makes us so resilient as many people remember the long power cuts of the eighties and have coped with heavy snowfalls in recent years. Everyone seemed to think the power must come back on again very soon.
When it was our turn for the jabs, Martin and I were accepted, because of our age, but the girls and Stephen were told they were not considered to be a priority. Two of our regular doctors and the nurse were on duty, all administering the vaccine quickly and efficiently and also answering our concerns for staying healthy at this time. As I thought, we are being advised to boil the water from the well and to continue washing as much as possible.
After we left, we called at the village shop, which is also working restricted hours these days. It has little edible stock left now, unless you count cake decorations like hundreds and thousands and baking powder. But I thought it would be sensible to pick up more cooking oil, toilet paper, soap and washing up liquid, all of which are being rationed by Ken, the manager. He said he wishes he’d got more stock, but there is no way he can get any supplies. The last normal delivery was the day after the power went down and he daren’t drive to the nearest cash and carry as that is nearly 20 miles away and he could be risking his vehicle and his life, only to find an empty warehouse.
It was sunny this afternoon, so the boys finished raking and clearing the vegetable bed, while the girls collected more acorns to dry. I filled some seed trays in the greenhouse and sowed more winter lettuce.