When the Roman Empire ruled the world, you could make it work for you. The women, the hospitality. You will have heard the cliché about wives in every port. You could make that happen, I promise you.
Not so much now. It’s important for a man to settle down. As important as going out and being a beast and hunting is settling down.
When I came home drunk last week I dropped the baby on its head. One minute the baby was in my arms. Its face was squashed against the shiny brass of my breastplate. The next minute it toppled backwards and fell out of my arms. The bang of the baby on the floor woke my wife up. The baby’s eyes opened. It didn’t make a sound. It looked straight up at me. The silence was odd. My wife sat bolt upright in bed. She pointed at the baby:
‘That’s even more dangerous!’ she said.
I knew exactly what she meant.
We ran through the streets to the hospital. I held the broken-headed baby aloft as we ran. My wife ran two paces behind us all the way. We ran all the way to the hospital in that formation.
The wages of war are not enough for my father-in-law. He has begun talking about opening a little Italian restaurant. He claims that it is something he has always dreamed of, but I find this hard to believe. When I was a little boy, there were pictures of my father-in-law in our history textbooks. The pictures showed him drinking from a goblet full of blood. His jaw jutted out and the blood ran in little streams from the sides of his mouth. Now he wants to open a little Italian restaurant.
The reason for the restaurant is that he wants something to leave to my wife and my baby when he passes on. It’s partly a nice thought, and it’s partly a nice fuck you to myself.
The nurse talked to us in a patronising way. She told us that the doctor was going to open up the baby’s head to make sure that nothing went wrong when it had the fall. She said ‘the fall’ to mean something specific. It meant: I know it was you asshole. I told the nurse that I was perfectly aware of the procedure. My wife punched me in the back. She says that I sound stupid when I use big words. It sounds (she says) like I don’t know what they mean.
We watched the operation through a window. Behind the glass was a huge trestle table. On the table sat six babies. Each one of the babies was being worked on by a doctor. Some of them had holes in the backs of their heads. Some of them had had the whole top of their skull removed. The sight was horrendous in the extreme, but you’ve got to watch, because it’s your child in there. It’s the least you can do. The doctors looked relaxed anyway. They had pencils stuck behind their ears. A couple of them were smoking.
There was a time when I wanted to quit the Romans. This was before I settled down and when I was tired of the constant moving around. The law was that you could get out of the Romans as long as you had another job secured. People would take days off specifically to go to job interviews. I went to one interview, which I remember went very badly. In the Romans, your hobbies are supposed to be sports. Out of the Romans, it’s not the same. When they asked me what my hobbies were in the interview, I replied that I liked sports. The interview panellists looked at me as if I’d cursed.
‘We’re not interested in that here,’ one of them said.
There was an awkward silence before they asked if there was anything else. They looked put-out.
‘I like movies.’ I said. The expressions didn’t change.
‘I like religion.’ I said.
The toilets at the hospital stank. I gagged when I walked in. Standing at the single urinal, I realised that there was a man in the cubicle taking a shit. You could hear it. It was disgusting. It was all I could think about while I was standing there, with my penis out at the urinal.
‘What kind of an animal,’ I kept thinking. ‘At a hospital of all places.’
When the shitting man came out of the cubicle, I saw that he had long hair, and wore jeans and a denim shirt. I glared at him as I dried my hands under the electric drier. He looked back at me as if I were a psychotic. He looked as if he didn’t know what he had done.
There were two new people in the baby-surgery waiting-room. My wife was standing up to the glass but the other two women were sitting on chairs by a coffee table. One was reading a magazine while the second rocked back and forth, weeping quietly. I tried to decide which approach was best, which camp we should align ourselves with. When I went up to stand by my wife, I could see that her eyes were closed. She was very beautiful, even more beautiful when she looked in danger like this. She felt my presence next to her, and turned, and opened her eyes. She looked at me.
‘You’ll tell him of course. Since it was your fault,’ she said.
I told her about the scumbag in the men’s room, and did an impression of his haircut.
‘You’ll tell him,’ she said again.
My relationship with my father-in-law is complicated. That the man does not like me is plain to see. I’m not sure what his dislike stems from. Perhaps I am not the natural Roman that he was, but I’ve worked at it harder than he has. It’s more difficult to become a Roman than it is to be born one. He came from a time and a place when it was like: ‘Sure! Be a Roman! What the fuck else?’ I was born a long time after he was.
Over many years now, a thin gestural friendliness has characterised our relationship. I don’t really have a choice. My father-in-law dotes on my wife, and vice versa. My father-in-law dotes on the baby, and vice versa. I have this dream sometimes. In the dream, I am Rapunzel, high in the tower, waiting for a prince to rescue me. When the prince finally arrives, he turns out to be my father-in-law. He lights fires in a circle, all around the base of the tower. His facial expression doesn’t change all the way through the dream. When I start to smell the smoke, I realise the impossibility of it all and I wake up.
When the baby was finished with its operation, it was taken to the hospital nursery. The patronising nurse told us that it would be ready for us to collect in the morning. I asked a reasonable question about the shape of its head. The nurse smiled:
‘Its head is back to normal, sir.’
‘Have you actually seen the baby?’ I asked.
The nurse smiled. My wife punched me in the back.
When I was younger my father would collect me on weekends and take me back to his place. It was above a pub. He was a bad parent. He would pass me around all the deadbeats and slappers in the pub. Everybody would say what a handsome boy I was. I’m still not sure how that works. Is that what people say about all baby boys? Whenever I ask people that question, they think that I’m making a point.
When we left the hospital, I took my wife to the pier to cheer her up. At the entrance to the pier we bought candyfloss. My wife likes the way she can open her mouth as wide as she can and as soon as the candyfloss meets her saliva, it dwindles away to nearly nothing. All along the pier, she gulped her candyfloss and giggled as she felt it disappearing inside her. When she was done with hers, she had mine.
I know that my wife sleeps with her father’s friends. I know that she is embarrassed to be seen with me in public. I know that she wishes she could wear high-heeled shoes without being taller than me. I know that she loves our baby more than she loves me. I know that I am no longer part of her family.
We stood at the end of the pier. She slipped her hand into mine and began writing things with her index finger onto my palm. I lost track of what she was writing. A man in jeans sidled up to me and my wife and offered us a bagful of cannabis. I turned and glared at him. I rapped on my breastplate.
‘Do you know what this means, son?’ I screeched.
‘Is it a gay thing?’ he asked.
Last night, for the second time in a week, I disturbed my wife and my baby in the night. I was woken up by a strange scratching sound and became aware that there was a bird in my bedroom. I knew how dangerous birds were for babies. I wasn’t going to have my baby’s eyes pecked out by a pigeon, or my wife’s eyes for that matter. The windows were open. The wind blew the curtains out, horizontal, into the room. The bird darted about. It perched on a cabinet, then on the chest of drawers, then on the baby’s crib. I clutched a newspaper, and lurched towards it, the duvet caught between my legs. I swung at the bird and knocked my wife’s jewellery box clattering to the floor. Diamonds and rubies rattled across the stone. The noise woke my wife. She saw the bird, perched above her baby’s head.
‘Get him out of here!’ she bellowed.
‘I’m trying, I’m trying!’ I yelped.
‘Get it out of here!’ she howled.
‘I’m trying!’ I squeaked.
The bird crowed and cackled, and tangled itself in the billowing curtains. The sound of my high-pitched squeaking made my wife laugh. She laughed and laughed, as I clattered around the room chasing the terrified bird. The baby was awake by now, and hearing his mother’s tinkling laugh, he began to giggle himself. Even though it was after midnight, the phone began to ring.