Here is a piece of flash fiction for you today. Purely imaginary, I assure you.
Lessons from Latin
It was a conversation from a long time ago – 1974? 1975? Latin class, anyway.
Latin, in our comprehensive school, was a hangover from the grammar school it had been only a few years before. Those who took it were self-consciously the clever kids, interested in history, or with parents who valued the old grammar school ways. We followed the Cambridge Classics curriculum – Caecilius est pater, Metella est mater – but we were well beyond that text, discussing a story we had just translated.
“Eww, marrying a thirteen year old off to a man in his fifties, it’s disgusting.”
“However did those Roman girls bear it?”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Oh, it was very common, especially among the upper classes,” put in Mr Miller, our Latin master. “Pliny the Younger himself was over fifty when he married his third wife. She was fifteen. He writes very affectionate letters to her. There is one included in your set texts for next year.”
Several people made faces at this.
In the story the girl, Polla, confided her troubles to the young man she had hoped to marry. This Helvidius proposed a Romeo and Juliet style solution. Consulting a sinister drug-seller, he obtained a preparation that would let Polla fake her death. He then proposed to abstract her body from the family vault and carry her off to marry her himself.
Nobody raised any questions about the implications of that, though it would still leave a thirteen-year-old in a sexual relationship and totally in the power of her husband. It was the seventies after all. And Romeo and Juliet has a lot to answer for.
I had been thinking about the unlikelihood of a thirteen year old having that kind of a relationship, a would-be lover to turn to, whether in Roman times or the present day. But I wasn’t about to make any remark that would draw attention to my own boyfriend-less status.
The story had turned to tragedy when the drug failed to work as promised. Polla died in truth, Helvidius was left distraught.
Then Kim Harper spoke up.
“Well, I think it was a silly plan. The girl should have married the rich old senator. He couldn’t have lasted long and then she would have inherited much of his money. As a prosperous young widow she would have had a lot more freedom, could probably have married Helvidius then.”
“Ah, yes. A solution more in keeping with Roman mores,” said Mr Miller. “Mind, fifty is not that old, she could have been waiting twenty years for her widowhood.”
“But it wouldn’t have been particularly suspicious if he died, at that age. If she wanted to hurry things.”
“So, Kimberly,” said Mr Miller, with a kind of horrified fascination, “if he lingered too long you would have been off to the drug-seller for a dose of poison?”
Kim considered this.
“Buying poison is a fatal mistake,” she opined, “you’d either be caught or blackmailed for ever. I think I’d go for Lily of the Valley. Perfectly acceptable flowers to have on display, for all that they are poisonous. If you put them in a vase the toxins leak into the water. Then you could feed the water to your victim, in spiced wine for example.”
There was a reason Kim Harper was considered the weirdest girl in the whole school.
Yeah, I had remembered that conversation a long time, I thought, as I added three pots of Lily of the Valley to the garden centre trolley. Men in their fifties and thirteen year old girls, thirteen year old step-daughters, that wasn’t to be tolerated.