Chapter 4 [Part 2]

Satisfied for the moment with this line of reasoning, he stretched arms and legs cat-like, bathing himself luxuriously in the balmy afternoon air, and yawned leisurely, exposing unrepentantly wine-stained teeth. As he did so his nose began to twitch at the unlooked-for arrival of a new scent; his eyes, half-lidded and drowsy opened a little wider and his casually searching glance lazily comprehended the table. The same white marble top as before, but now magically bereft of his dinner plate, cutlery, wine glass and decanter, and boasting instead a clean glass and a new ceramic jug filled with … his nose told him before his eyes … aromatic pepper and honey, the long-awaited post-prandial liquid refreshment. A glazed bowl, too, brimful of shining dates stuffed with … sniff, sniff … crushed almonds, the slightly bitter ones, all the better to offset the sweetness of the fruit.

  A movement over there across the patio, a door closing silently, the slim silhouette of the dark-haired girl disappearing into the tenebrous interior. Of course. His nose now recognised another lingering scent: lavender-soap. The smell of her hair, the smell of sunshine and smiles blossoming in the garden. She had been and gone without him noticing. Clever thing. Her name was … it began with H … not Helena, no, something a bit more exotic, a bit more eastern, Hecuba, Haifa … or was it Helena after all? His wife had brought her home last week. There had been a sale on at the market – buy one get one half price – and so they now had a new cook and a new kitchen maid. A real bargain, apparently, or so his better and more commercially astute half had assured him. For his part he had nodded absently, intent on a peculiarly intransigent line that obstinately refused to scan. Dactyls and spondees, horribly narrow limits for a poet of his wide, positively cosmic vision sometimes. Agonising to crush his thoughts into mere hexameters. That particular day, long and late in the afternoon, he had produced three lines of which he still felt rather proud. And with some justification:

quod si quis vera vitam ratione gubernet,

divitiae grandes homini sunt vivere parce

aequo animo: neque enim est umquam penuria parvi.

   Which, howsoever prosaically rendered into modern English, is to say: ‘Whoever lives a life guided by reason will find wealth in modest means enjoyed with a tranquil mind – after all, there’s never a shortage of very little.’ That just about sums it all up, he had thought at the time, the gentle Epicurean message in three elegant though hard-won lines.

   Ironically, this very poem was the one thing above all others responsible for destroying his own tranquillity, as the bags under his eyes and the ashen cast of his face attested. The intellectual strain only increased as he neared the conclusion, and in proportion his equanimity decreased. Not Epicurean at all. And so it fell out that he hadn’t taken much notice of the new staff. It wasn’t deliberate, he had just been preoccupied with his work. Normally he was good with names. Quite good anyway. Sometimes. (Hama? Hester?).

   Was it a sign of recent intellectual over-exertion that she had managed to evade his notice, had cleared away his lunch and brought his digestivo without him even being aware? Was it another sign that the great ship had lumbered out of view without him noticing that either, carrying its load of human misery to who knows where, to the pirates perhaps, or insurgent natives in some distant land, but more likely to hapless fellow citizens who had supported the wrong side? We Romans are world experts at civil war nowadays, it seems, he considered ruefully. All very well to gaze out to sea and contemplate the afflictions of others from the safety of shore; but when those afflictions strike haphazardly at one’s own people how much harder it is to bear the sufferings of others with detachment. Here in his fortified citadel of philosophy he could pretend to be immune, but when the threat of war daily intruded itself into the bay beneath his own windows he could scarcely hold himself aloof. Battling armies and storm-tossed sailors might make great poetical metaphors, but their ugly reality necessarily disturbs tranquillity.

   Necessity and tranquillity, two interrelated ideas. Which brought him back to his pondering. Things necessary for tranquillity and things sufficient. Knotted strands that need untangling A minimum of knowledge is sufficient – just enough to understand that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else; no divine agency, no supernatural causes, a sufficient condition for tranquillity. But like the sudden appearance of the warship, or of the slave-girl, unknown and unexpected events ever threaten to disturb tranquil waters. To know that thunderstorms do not signal the wrath of the gods is sufficient; but to know that storms are caused by moist warm air rising into a much cooler region, so that condensing water droplets in the clouds form ice crystals and the friction of those crystals rubbing against each other creates an imbalance of positive and negative electric charge, which is then released in the form of lightning, which in turn rapidly heats and expands the air around the discharge creating a sound wave that we call thunder – such detailed knowledge will necessarily drive out fear and anxiety. Not that our philosophical poet actually possessed this precise morsel of knowledge, of course, it being quite a way ahead of his own time. But you get the idea. One may legitimately fear being struck by lightning, but one need never again fear the right arm of Zeus. Ever better knowledge a necessary condition for lasting tranquillity.

    By all the gods, that tasted good. And those dates, quite superb. He licked his fingers, having by now forgotten all about the girl, never once pausing to consider what might contribute to her tranquillity. Perhaps if she were satisfactorily informed about the exact nature of meteorological phenomena, or (even more fancifully) shown that beautifully bold Pale Blue Dot image of tiny Planet Earth taken by the Voyager 1 probe from somewhere beyond the orbit of Neptune, perhaps then she would at last understand our place amid the grandeur of Nature and experience the thrill of knowledge-induced serenity? Perhaps. But just as he was spectacularly failing to do justice to her peace of mind, a thought struck from nowhere that almost entirely derailed his own: where were the fig rolls? He could really eat a fig roll right about now. And never mind a shortage of very little.

 *        *        *

[Go to Chapter 5, Part 1]


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