DISORDERS OF THE PLEASURE CENTRE
He crossed the ages just to kill the thing he loved
Prospective cover: Copyright Dominique Sanson*/Design by Martin Davies
A time slip narrative that moves between ancient Rome and modern Ibiza.
Mark Compayne, a former Latin scholar living on Ibiza, discovers a Roman scroll in a cave. Satirion, the scroll's author, describes his early life in Rome, Alexandria, and Britain during Boudicca's revolt. Back in Rome he becomes secretary to Petronius, arbiter of elegance at Nero's court, and helps in the composition of the Satyricon. Satirion is party to Nero's plot to burn Rome and blame the Christians but falls out of favour and is exiled to Ibiza. On the island he meets a slave girl whom he eventually frees and marries. He is, however, kidnapped by a former lover and forced to return to Italy where he is a witness to the now disgraced Petronius's suicide. Mark finds there is parallel between his own life and that of the Roman. He takes a drug which permits time travel and travels back to Satirion's Ibiza but with fatal consequences.
I thought the book impeccably researched. In fact I was full of admiration for the way that details of the period were worked into the narrative with complete naturalness. Details of dress, custom, social and military organisation, were all handled extremely well. The prose itself is fluent and expressive and can go from ironic observation to a vein of poetry.
*Check out Dominique's marvellous History of |Ibiza @ link
Read the first chapter -
Wherever he went on Ibiza, Mark Compayne met someone he knew. Here in the main square of Santa Eulalia, beneath the blue and orange awning that shaded the Royalty, he had only to glance at the faces on either side for stories to leap out at him. The podgy character nervously sipping brandy on his left was an Englishman who had perpetrated a computer fraud in the City and absconded with thirty-five million pounds. A few tables further down, the Greek with the haggard face called Cassandra was courting fortune in a less pragmatic fashion as she spread out her tarot cards for Tore, the old Norwegian painter. In the other direction, in full view of the town hall and the territory so long arbitered by Sandy's bar, a loose confederation of several nationalities sprawled round three tables cluttered with beers and coffees. Their pivot was a man in a white Stetson, which set strikingly with his saturnine features. This was Semilian, called by some the godfather of the town. Beside him, the pale, snub-nosed face beneath a mop of rust-coloured hair belonged to Nicholas Redcroft, recently arrived from England where he had inadvertently burnt the country house of his father, a distinguished judge, to the ground. With the loss of his teeth, Redcroft had formed the habit of jutting his under lip over his over lip if puzzled. He was doing this now as Compayne ignored his repeated beckoning to join the party.
Compayne worked in the only language school in the town. Summer was low season, and he had another fortnight before going back to work. He had been on the island for ten years. Nine of these he had spent with Live, a former model. She had returned to her native Sweden in June, and at her parents’ summerhouse, was currently free of the beer and vodka that transformed her normally sweet nature into that of a harpy. Alcohol replaced food for her as well, and she had grown life-threateningly thin. Ibiza, it seemed, could only collude with such self-sabotage; Sweden offered respite.
Compayne had secretly welcomed her departure and part of him relished the prospect of starry nights at Amnesia and the sense of liberation when out of his head on a beach at sunrise. Yet at endless summer parties, he felt he was on a ship of fools. There had always been this division in his nature. He had studied Classics at Oxford but been sacked for removing hallucinogenic plants from the botanical gardens. He had worked as a tutor in London but had thrown in the grey sky and sad tube journeys for the light and freedom of Ibiza. The light could be too strong and the freedom treacherous.
He placed a five-euro note on the saucer to which was clipped his bill. Rising, he waved farewell to Redcroft who nodded back, his lips still puckered in disbelief that Compayne had resisted his invitation. Semilian nodded as well, his hand moving to the chain he had recently taken to wearing. There was a flash as silver met the sun.
Compayne’s blue van was parked between a gleaming jeep and a state-of-the-art Mercedes. The van was old and battered; dust covered the bonnet. There was little money in teaching, and Ibiza, especially post-Euro, was becoming a place exclusively for the rich. The hippies had arrived in the sixties and found a cheap place with a simple people whose trust they had often breached. Now, only the cunning survived scammers and fraudsters, joined by porn barons from Stuttgart and mysterious “new” Russians. Nothing symbolized this more in Santa Eulalia than the closing of the kiosco, the café at the top of the Paseo, which Compayne was now passing. The locals had expelled the strays roistering on cheap absinthe at its tables and now tourists in nylon shorts gaped at the drawings on the caricaturists’ booths. Most of the characters Compayne knew had left for other parts of Spain or had abandoned Europe completely. His time and Liv’s was almost over.
He took a left into the shadow of a side street, drove to the top, and then took a left again. He was following the road that snaked up past the high school, occasional shops, and white flat-roofed houses. The buildings became fewer and just before a wall of heaped stone replaced them, a right turn, demarcated by Maria’s bar, took him onto a narrower road that half a mile later skirted the urbanization where Compayne lived. Passing the cisterns that flanked the entrance; he drove past two houses then took a right. A few yards on, he drew up alongside the featureless white house with green door and shutters he had shared with Liv the past three years. Foxy, the plump denizen of the Colony Club who had modelled for Francis Bacon, had given him the key at one of their joint parties, for they both shared the same birthday. Making his presence known to the landlord had been almost an afterthought. Yet the Ibicencos and Spaniards from the mainland who made up the neighbourhood were friendly and fortunately possessed a high noise threshold. Sometimes Compayne banged on his guitar late into the night, his voice joined by Liv’s, making up in volume what they lacked in craft. At others, the source of the noise was their savage rows. Nobody had ever complained. There were parties and pig-killings, in which whisky, hierbas, schnapps, and cava were indiscriminately on offer. The neighbours even trusted him with the education of their kids, sending three of them to learn English twice a week.
Placing the small whiteboard on the wall, Compayne wondered if the hundred euros he gained a month for such work was the real reason he had resisted Redcroft’s invitation. Though he chafed at it, the discipline was good for him. It limited his intake and connected him with the community. The children arrived just after he had finished arranging the chairs in a semicircle around the board. The class had curtailed their day at the beach and they seemed resentful. The old fan on the sideboard whirred feebly. Outside a man was collecting oranges from the ground. Oval-faced Cati fidgeted. Her brother Mario prodded the podgy Isabella, who with teeth brace and thick glasses was always the victim. Compayne held up the flashcard of the fire fighter, which he had used at the end of the last class.
‘Hot,’ said Cati.
‘Jota,’ quipped her brother.
They all found this savagely amusing, even Isabel, whose chins rippled when she laughed. There were ninety minutes of waste and boredom to go. Compayne looked out, wondering how a privileged education had qualified him to teach these surly kids. The shadows of the fruit trees were lengthening. It was stuffy in the room even with the window open, but outside the afternoon was mellowing into early evening, the air warm now instead of hot. He should get them out, but they could do the urbanisation itself in fifteen minutes. The kids’ families might see them and wonder why they were paying good money to have their kids walked. Apart from that, there was just the lane and parched hillsides. Mario was fiddling with something. Compayne wished he would stop. The others bent over looking at whatever the boy was holding, sniggering. Compayne moved sharply forward and snatched it out of the boy’s hand.
It was a wax tablet with a few lines incised upon it. The writing was book-hand, the precise square-shaped capitals the Romans had used in official documents. Rather unusually, it ended with a personal statement: “She who was my own is mine.” A Slight levity had crept into such testaments after the reign of Augustus, Compayne remembered, before Mario’s bawling brought him back to the present. The girls were glaring at him. Cati insisted on Compayne giving it back. It was crude to offer to do this in return for information as to where they had found it, but Compayne did so anyway. Mario shook his head and bawled some more. Compayne took pity on him and held out the tablet. The boy snatched it back.
‘It was in the cave,’ Cati said, compensating for her brother’s lack of grace. ‘We found it this winter. Part of the rock wall had collapsed.’
‘Is it worth a lot?’ demanded Isabella.
The others hissed at her. Their cousin came from the money grabbing side of the family.
‘What’s the strange writing?’ demanded Mario whose tears had stopped now he had regained possession.
‘It is Latin, the language of the Romans,’ Compayne said. ‘It is a testament of manumission.’
‘That’s the club where they do dirty things on stage on Friday nights,’ said Isabella.
‘No, not the club,’ Compayne said good-humouredly. ‘Manumission means the freeing of a slave. Her name was Veleda. Her master was Satyrion. A certain Rombulus was witness.’
This had caught the kid’s interest in a way English grammar never would. They wanted to know more but there was only one way to satisfy this.
‘We’ll need a torch,’ cried Mario, springing to his feet and hurtling out of the room, before Compayne could tell him he would bring his own.
Outside Compayne could have sworn the vine clambering over the wall that separated the garden from the path had grown a foot since morning. Thick leaves draped the ripening black grapes. His landlord Antonio was in the garden watering the peppers and white-flowered potato plants. He saw them and waved, wondering perhaps why class had finished so soon. Feeling guilty, Compayne suggested they play “I spy”, a game the children knew. He deliberated about what to pick. There were twenty-seven orange trees, the red earth at their base littered with fallen fruit, a few apple trees, but only one peach tree. ‘Something beginning with “P”’, he said. Isabella and Cati scrutinized the surroundings. ‘Potato,’ the latter said eventually. They all laughed. Ever since first hearing this they had thought it a funny word. ‘I’ll give you a clue. It produces fruit.’ A strained look appeared on faces not normally given to such intellectual exertion. Compayne told them and they moved on, joined by an out of breath Mario wielding a large torch.
They walked down the dusty path, took a left at the bottom, passing white houses fenced by scrambling vines, until their tread met warm tarmac: they were on the road. Glancing to his left, Compayne made out the house with the gabled tower where Semilian stayed. Mario now was leader, and they followed him for about a hundred metres, before crossing over and ascending a path that snaked up the bare hillside. On the way, Compayne had tried “G” for “garden”, “H” for “house” and “R” for “road”, and been successful on two counts. The game was forgotten, however, as the path steepened and they scrambled up past withered clumps of garlic rose. Mounting the brow of the hill, they began to descend, the air dustier at each step. At the bottom, there was a truck piled with stones and near this, a little wooden shack with a chipped sign across the door that announced “Cantera Noguera”. It seemed Compayne was alone in his desire to work late on Saturday afternoon. Both truck and hut were empty. There was another hill, which they ascended. This time, apart from random cacti, there was hardly any vegetation, and dust from the path caked the tops of their shoes. When they reached the summit, the quarry lay below them. Sheer sandstone walls plummeted down like a miniature canyon and met the valley whose centre held a lake of startling turquoise. Compayne gasped, for hundreds of egrets, herons and pink flamingos idled in the water. Mario hissed and the birds rose as one, filling the sky with long legs and beating wings before they disappeared in the direction of the salt flats at Salinas.
The children scrambled down the quarry slopes and Compayne followed. At the base, they skirted the lake, the water milkier at close quarters, the turquoise more like pearl. A smudge on the rock face broadened into a gap as they neared. It was little more than four feet high, no problem for the kids, but Compayne had to crawl in on all fours. The darkness was welcoming, cancelling the outside heat. He wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, took his torch out of his pocket, and switched it on. Ahead of him, the children were now upright. The roof of the cave was high enough for him to imitate them, nursing a scraped elbow as he did so. For a few moments they all stood there, hushed, smiling at each other, feeling they had achieved something, though precisely what it was difficult to say. The beams from Compayne’s torch and Mario’s scanned the walls, straying across a surface of jagged rock. At a signal from the boy, they walked on, Mario leading, with Compayne bringing up the rear, guiding the girls’ footsteps with his torch. A hundred paces on the rock walls grew smoother; a hand other than nature had played a part in their formation. The boy had stopped ahead, the girls were alongside him, and then Compayne caught up. The torch beams made out a pile of stones and slate. Compayne raised his torch; there was a gap incised into the rock about three feet across. He tried to mount the rubble, but some of the stones dislodged and he slipped, leaving a neat cut across one shin. The second attempt was more successful. Shining the torch through the gap, he made out a small square chamber with a mound at its centre. He turned and looked at the children. They were tight-lipped, embarrassed.
‘That’s where Mario found the tablet,’ Cati said eventually.
Her brother looked furiously at her.
‘He came out screaming,’ said Isabella.
Now the boy glared at his cousin. ‘There is a dead one inside,’ he blurted out.
‘We must go back,’ Cati said. ‘Our parents will be worried.’
‘Yes, you should go back,’ Compayne agreed.
‘A dead one,’ repeated Mario.
After the children had gone, Compayne hoisted himself through the gap. It was too narrow for him to turn his feet around so he had to slide forward bruising his hands as he steadied the fall. He scrambled to his feet and examined the chamber. The walls were smooth and free of any decoration. The only feature seemed to be the mound. He approached and pointed the torch at the shallow trough hollowed out at the tomb’s centre. There was a long skeleton lying within. A few inches from the skull, there was an intact urn. He crouched down and examined it. Just below the mottled rim, there was a faint inscription: “VELEDA TIBI SIT ETERNITUS LEVIS”. Compayne translated this: “Veleda, may eternity be light upon you”. Why had they buried her here, he wondered, and not in the necropolis in Ibiza town? He could recall no private Latin tombs there, however. After the ash-filled urns of the Punic burial chambers, there were just repositories in which the Romans had piled the bones of their dead.
There was a coin in the skull’s mouth. Considering the time for paying the toll to cross the Styx long past, Compayne leant over and gingerly removed it. It was a bronze sestertius in almost perfect condition. On one side, it bore the profile of a chubby middle-aged man with a crooked nose. Flipping it over, Compayne found the image of the same man holding a spear. Alongside him was a palm tree. Seated against this was a woman with a mournful face. Running vertically down one side was the word “JUDEA”, down the other “CAPTA”. The Emperor Vespasian had struck such coins to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem, which had occurred in A.D. 71. Vespasian had died eight years later. As Roman custom was to pay Charon’s fee in the coinage of the reigning emperor, the tomb was most probably a creation of his reign. Examining the skull, Compayne noticed wisps of matted hair, the colour of dull copper, lay clumped over the ear socket. Above this was a dent, which caved into a crack that ran along the temple. Compayne wondered what she had looked like. Beneath the Vatican, they had found death masks in the tomb of the Valerii. He regretted their absence here.
The skull tilted at an awkward angle; something was pillowing it. He placed the torch on the floor and cupped his hand under it. His knuckles pressed down on a cool metallic surface, his fingers on bone. Raising the skull, he used his free hand to pull out the object beneath. It shifted easily. He replaced the skull gently on the platform and picked up the torch. The beaten surface of a bronze chest reflected the beam. A brown spider, suddenly homeless, scuttled off. He lifted the chest. There was the dull thud of something soft colliding against the sides within. He swivelled the torch round the chamber to make sure he had not missed anything. Traces of blue fibre clung to the skeleton, remnants he surmised of the shroud. He turned and made his way back to the opening. Placing the chest on the impromptu ledge, he hoisted himself through and made his way back down the passage.
Outside, the first stars glimmered in a sky in which blue was sharpening into black. It was considerably harder scrambling up the quarry’s sides than it had been descending them and added a few more bruises to the tally. The lane was busier when he reached it. Three cars passed him heading for the dubious revels of Santa Eulalia on a Friday night. A large jeep came from the other direction, hurtling past then taking the track that snaked up to Semilian’s. Lights blazed from the garden and windows of the gabled house. There was music too: snatches of flamenco then Trance.
Inside his own house, Compayne placed the chest on the kitchen table. He took a cloth, dampened it, and wiped away two thousand years of dust. The chest was made of fine beaten bronze that gleamed dully in the light. He undid the clasp and raised the lid. He greeted the three scrolls within with a gasp. Detaching one, Compayne slid it out of its vellum wrapper and began to unroll it. The papyrus was tattered at the edges and stained yellow by cedar oil rubbed on it for protection against moths. The writing itself was still distinct; a flowing, leftward-slanted cursive in columns of about forty-five lines each. There was neither spacing nor punctuation. It was in a style in vogue during the first century, but again less formal than the documents of Augustus’s reign. He tried to recall any first-century works that were not extant. There was the missing poetry of Lucan and Persius as well as some of Seneca’s plays and letters. There were the lost episodes of the Satyricon. Nobody knew how long Petronius’s great picaresque novel had been, but less than a fifth was supposed to have survived, and most of that in fragments. The dryness of the tomb had made a perfect time capsule. The fate of the scrolls in these more humid surroundings worried him. Yet he wanted to find out if he had stumbled on something known or on an entirely new voice, not transmitted via monasteries vulnerable to siege and the unsteady hand of the copyist. He would have to be swift. There were two heavy soup ladles in a kitchen drawer, a gift from Liv’s parents in the hope of more settled days. He found them and placed one at either end of the scroll’s top corners. Then he unrolled a section of papyrus, which he flattened against wood, and began to read.