A FICKLE MISTRESS
‘In the name of Zeus, why has the muse forsaken me?’
The cries of the poet rang through the house, prompting his wife to abandon her loom and hurry to the kitchen for a calming infusion. When Menodora had steeped the herbs to her liking, she sent her to deliver the potion.
The housemaid knocked at the door of her master’s room and waited.
‘Go in, girl,’ hissed her mistress, from the safety of the kitchen.
She opened the door to the sight of the poet, sitting on a stool, with his great head in his hands. After a few seconds he opened one eye, still red from weeping.
She placed the cup on the table in front of him. ‘Master, I bring you a soothing . . . .’
Before she could finish, Aeschylus swept the cup to the floor with a roar.
‘Out, you wretch, leave me in peace. My head needs stimulating, not dulling!’
Menodora had become used to this behaviour of late and turned on her heel, leaving the shattered cup marinading in a puddle of tea on the floor.
She and her mistress, who’d been eavesdropping, walked back to the kitchen where Eirene spoke to her in hushed tones, even though they were out of earshot of the great man.
‘This can’t go on. Fetch Sicinnus. Tell him we’re going to the temple and to bring a young goat. And I’ll need some honey cakes for the priestess.’
The Akropolis was the best part of a league away, but Sicinnus was young and strong and when the goat grew tired, he carried it on his shoulders. On arrival at the temple of Athena, they waited at the entrance until an attendant came to collect the votive offerings of animal figurines, left on the steps by the morning’s worshippers. Only those who wished to contact the oracle brought a living animal.
Recognising Eirene, the attendant beckoned her to follow him to an inner room.
‘I’ve been expecting you,’ said the priestess, kissing her cheek. ‘I sensed there was turmoil in your house.’
The poet’s wife brushed away her tears as she presented her gifts of honey cakes and olives, which the priestess placed on a marble tray.
‘Now tell me exactly why you have come,’ she said, returning to her couch and signalling Eirene to be seated.
‘Priestess Aspasia, I come because my husband is at his wits’ end. The festival of Dionysia is little more than six months away and he has composed nothing: no word, no music, no choreography. His lyre lies untouched. At night, when I hear him pacing the house and groaning, I fear for the soundness of his mind.’
The priestess closed her eyes for a moment. When she spoke, her tone was solemn.
‘He is possessed of a sacred madness: the madness that descends when the muse departs.’
Eirene wrung her hands.
‘I heard him tell the scribe that a great ox stands upon his tongue. But if he doesn’t produce four plays for the contest, his reputation will be in tatters.’
‘That would be a tragedy indeed,’ said Aspasia, rising from her couch and reaching up to a shelf containing knives of different sizes. She chose one and wrapped it in a piece of linen. ‘Follow me.’
She led Eirene to a courtyard where Sicinnus and the attendant were waiting. Tired from its journey, the goat barely objected when Sicinnus placed it on a stone altar. The priestess immediately plunged her fingers into a jar of water and sprinkled the drops between its eyes so the animal would nod its head in response – a necessary sign that it didn’t object to being sacrificed. In a flash, the priestess slit the creature’s throat, the attendant catching its blood in a jar.
When the sacrifice had breathed its last, the priestess sliced opened its belly and examined the entrails, muttering incantations all the while. What she saw must have satisfied her because she then gave permission to Sicinnus to light a fire and cook the carcass – the bones and offal to be offered to Athena, the remainder to feed the temple workers that evening.
Once the fire had been set, the attendant brought a three-legged stool and a small bunch of laurel leaves which the priestess sniffed from time to time. A few minutes elapsed as she entered a trance state. When she finally spoke, her voice was lower and more sombre than before.
‘Supplicant, you are allowed one question. Speak.’
Eirene was familiar enough with oracular tradition to know that it was vital not to waste this opportunity by beating about the bush.
‘I humbly ask the goddess Athena to tell me how my husband, Aeschylus the tragedian, can evoke the sacred muse who has deserted him.’
Aspasia breathed deeply of the laurel leaves.
‘The muse you speak of is Calliope, she who inspires poets, musicians and artists. Yet she is known to be a fickle mistress. Many commune with her and suffer endless torment when she abandons them. She may be tempted back if your husband takes certain steps to attract her to his side. But heed me, there is no guarantee she will ever return.’
The priestess then ordered the attendant to bring her papyrus, pen and ink and began to write. When she’d finished, she handed it to Eirene and told her to give it to her husband.
On their return home, Eirene instructed Menodora to bring water to her room for the footbath. Once the servant had done this, Eirene told her to inform her husband that she wished to see him. Menodora looked horrified at this request, no doubt expecting a further flood of abuse, so her mistress added, ‘Tell him I have an urgent message concerning the festival of Dionysia.’
Within moments, Eirene heard the creak of a heavy tread on the outside wooden stairs, accompanied by ill-tempered protests.
‘Is there no end to your nonsense, woman? Am I not tormented enough with messages every day from the Archon Eponymos threatening to replace me with that upstart Euripides?’
Aeschylus stopped in his tracks when he saw she was soaking her feet.
‘What’s this? Are you ill?’
The concern on his face told her that his grief at losing his “mistress” hadn’t completely extinguished his love for her.
‘No, my love. Just a little fatigued. I went today to consult the oracle.’
She patted the couch and he sat beside her, allowing her to stroke his brow. As she kissed a grey curl she whispered, ‘on your behalf’.
He grunted. ‘The temple will be eating well tonight at my expense. And what did the great oracle communicate to your friend Aspasia? She desires more sacrificial beasts, no doubt.’
Eirene reached into the pocket of her robe and produced the papyrus.
‘This is what you have to do.’
He read it and tossed it aside.
‘Stuff and nonsense. Why should I pick up a pen myself when I employ a scribe? As for working with my men on the farm, how will tilling the fields with a bunch of dullards clear my head? And if this oracle thinks that bathing in lavender-scented water will let me “drink again at the fountain of Helicon”, both you and she must have lost your senses.’
Eirene grasped her husband’s hand to prevent him rushing from the room.
‘And what about the final instruction? To lie with a woman and indulge in a night of pleasure.’
‘I’m sorry I haven’t been much of a husband to you of late, Eirene. Did you confide in Aspasia? I sincerely hope you didn’t. These rumours can spread like wildfire.’
‘That my husband hasn’t lain with me for many months? No, of course not, my lord. That is between man and wife and will remain so.’
She cradled him in her arms.
‘I’ll tell the foreman to expect you tomorrow. I’ll say one of the comic characters in your next satyr play is an agricultural slave and you want to do some research.’
The following evening, after Aeschylus had bathed in the lavender-scented water that Eirene had prepared, they met for dinner. She had instructed Menodora to roast a hare, and her husband, his complexion glowing from a day in the fresh air, ate a hearty meal.
He spoke at length about a man who’d been working beside him, a Persian slave who’d been taken as a prisoner of war at the Battle of Marathon.
‘What he told me about military tactics was fascinating. I want to make a record of it while it’s fresh in my mind. I’ll summon my scribe first thing tomorrow.’
Eirene signalled Menodora to remove their plates and addressed her husband in a soft voice.
‘I’ve left papyrus and ink on your desk, my lord. No time like the present.’
Aeschylus rose from his couch and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.
‘If it pleases you, my dove.’
As he was leaving the room, she called after him.
‘Don’t work too long into the night, will you? I’ll be waiting.’
Next morning, Menodora had to delay breakfast because the master and mistress of the house did not emerge from their room until some time after their usual hour of rising.
This was not all that changed. Aeschylus now spent more daylight hours outside on his farm. His evenings were a torrent of productivity, resulting in a pile of scrolls which he gave to his scribe to copy more legibly. Six months later, to his great joy, the chorus and actors were ready to perform the requisite three tragedies plus a satyr play at the Theatre of Dionysus, at the foot of the Akropolis.
On the day after the festival had ended, Eirene set off for the Temple of Athena, with Sicinnus in tow, who carried her offerings of flowers and incense for the goddess. After placing these on the temple steps, she approached an attendant and asked to see the priestess.
The attendant excused himself and swiftly returned to escort her to the priestess’s private quarters where she was poring over some documents which needed her seal.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, Priestess Aspasia, but I want you to have these,’ said Eirene, placing a small silk bag on her desk. ‘With my deepest thanks.’
Aspasia beamed as she drew from the bag a pair of exquisite gold and amethyst earrings.
‘Thank you, they’re beautiful. I hear Aeschylus won first prize at the Dionysia. So he followed all three instructions, did he?’
Eirene nodded, a subtle smile playing on her lips.
‘Yes, now he spends time outside in nature; he doesn’t depend so much on his scribe; and he takes frequent fragrant baths.’
‘There’s something you’re not telling me,’ said Aspasia, her antennae invisibly aroused.
Eirene’s cheeks turned a delicate shade of pink.
‘I took the liberty of adding a fourth. Let’s just say that . . .’ She gave a discreet cough. ‘. . . Between ourselves, since then I’ve been very satisfied in a way I wasn’t before.’
Aspasia laughed and poured two cups of nectar.
‘In that case, let us drink to Calliope’s return. She has served both you and your husband extremely well.’
‘To Calliope,’ said Eirene, fondly. ‘May my husband’s mistress be forever faithful.’
NOT MY FINEST HOUR
(An unpublished episode from Pandora’s life)
I closed the waiting-room magazine and followed the dental nurse into the treatment room, silently repeating www.NotMyFinest Hour.com, so I wouldn’t forget it. The article I’d been reading described the site as a sort of online confessional box where people posted about the deed they were most ashamed of, presumably in search of virtual absolution.
When I got home I logged on, and there they were: a shoplifter with a good job who stole for kicks; a best man confessing to sleeping with the bride a week before the wedding; a forum of people addicted to porn sites.
At first I was intrigued but I soon got tired of wading through the breast-beating that followed most of the confessions. It set me thinking, though, about the worst thing I had ever done.
I’d say it was when I slept with my husband’s PR man, Alvie, back in the 80s, when it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Jay and I got married in 1975, when he and his band, the Jaylers, were just moving up the ladder from club performances to the dizzy heights of a recording and touring contract. As they got bigger, they became clients of Alvie’s agency, but it wasn’t till 1985 that he and I started working together.
Before then, I’d shared a vintage clothing stall in Camden Market with Clive the drummer’s girlfriend. Then we progressed to designing retro fashion – we even had our own shop in Covent Garden – but when they split up, she moved to Paris, so we wound up the business and I started looking around for something else to do.
It was Jay who suggested Publicity.
‘You’ve done the rag trade, why not try the brag trade? Then again, you don’t have to do anything. You could spend more time with the kids.’
We were sitting in a pub in Fulham, just around the corner from our flat. The ‘kids’ he referred to were various dogs, cats, and goats we’d acquired as child substitutes, since we hadn’t had any luck producing the real thing. They were based at our country pad which we’d originally bought with the intention of filling with human kids.
Whenever I got upset about my failure to get pregnant, Jay would say, ‘It’s okay, Andy. If it happens, it happens. We’ve got plenty of time.’
I sometimes wondered if he felt that way because we had such a good social scene going. We loved parties . . . liked a drink . . . not to mention additional recreational substances. But I’d have swapped it all in a second for a child of our own.
People have asked me why we never saw a doctor, got tests done. Looking back, I can see it was not wanting to rock the boat. I suppose it was a sort of defence mechanism – best not to know which of us it was, because then the other might have a reason to leave. What cowards we’d been.
For some reason I was convinced it was Jay. And I was nervous that if it was established as a fact, it would make him feel less of a man.
Anyway, Jay gave me his publicist’s number and when I contacted him he invited me over to his office in Tottenham Court Road for a chat. During the call, I detected a southern European accent, so it was no surprise to find that Alvie had jet black hair and an olive complexion.
‘Hello, Pandora, it’s lovely to meet you at last,’ he said, when I was shown into his office by his assistant, a matronly woman, who appeared to be his only employee.
He was tall and slim and looked about forty. Dressed in a sharp, grey suit, he’d left the top button of his white shirt undone and loosened his skinny tie.
‘Good to meet you, too, Alvie,’ I said, taking his outstretched hand.
‘My name is actually Alvaro, but everyone calls me Alvie.’
‘Snap! My name’s Pandora but Jay always calls me Andy.’
‘Che coincidenza.’ He beamed. ‘Pandora is a beautiful name. We won’t spoil it.’
He motioned me to an ancient armchair while he returned to his seat, swivelling to face me. There were several files on his desk and a metal cabinet bulging with more.
I waited for him to speak but his eyes were fixed on my mini-dress, which had a front zip from hem to neck.
‘That’s an interesting dress,’ he said, leaning forward.
‘It’s a Betsey Johnson. So much easier to put on.’
‘And take off,’ he said, with a grin.
His remark didn’t faze me at all. With Jay being in the music industry, I was used to characters who’d stop at nothing to shock, nor think twice about propositioning any woman with a pulse.
‘I’m interested in public relations and marketing but I don’t know much about it,’ I said, fastening my coat to the last button. ‘If I could serve a sort of apprenticeship here, it’d help me decide whether I want to get more involved.’
Alvie took the hint and shifted his gaze from my legs.
‘I’m expecting a client, so I’ll get to the point. I’d like you to shadow me for a week. I can introduce you to some music journalists: you can sit in on an interview with a singer, maybe, or a band. After that, I’ll give you a project of your own . . .’ I must have looked unnerved because he added, ‘Margaret and I will monitor you, of course.’
‘I’ll give it a try,’ I said, my doubts overruled by my desperation to find something to do while Jay was away on tour or at the studio.
‘Great,’ he said, his large brown eyes shining. ‘On the question of salary . . . I’m afraid, as a trainee . . . there will be none.’
I felt myself blush. I had no need of any disbursement. On the contrary, I’d be glad to learn the ropes without having to pay someone to train me.
There was a brisk knock on the door and his assistant opened it to announce that his ‘two o’clock’ had arrived, so I got up to go, wondering whether Monday morning would prove to be heaven or hell.
In fact, working at the agency turned out to be not too bad at all. I soon learned that Alvie was marvellous at the fun stuff: having drinks with editors, coming up with whizz-bang ideas for public appearances, charity events, all that. But the day-to-day slog of putting these ideas into action was something he liked to delegate to his assistant.
When Margaret, in turn, handed over some of the the tasks to me I was quite happy to get a t-shirt signed by a pop singer for a competition prize, or work through a list of interview questions with boy bands who behaved like overexcited puppies. Better far than sitting at home twiddling my thumbs, waiting to get pregnant.
It was on the occasion Alvie took me to Fleet Street that my madness descended. He marched in to see the editor of one of the tabloids who greeted him with a slap on the back and me with a leer.
‘You must be the lovely Mrs James Jay. Let you out of jail for the day, has he?’
I forced a smile and held my breath as he planted a wet kiss on my cheek. The sickly combination of cigars and hair oil was overpowering. When he turned away, I dabbed my cheek with a tissue, making a face at Alvie, who shook his head as if to say, ‘Don’t mess up’.
We both watched as he opened a filing cabinet and withdrew a bottle of scotch and three glasses which he placed on his massive desk.
Alvie was there to plug Jay and the Jaylers, hence my presence. I had to join in, otherwise Alvie’s article on the band’s new album might not run. So, like a good girl, I matched them shot for shot. I could usually take my drink but straight scotch at eleven o’clock in the morning had me staggering from the building at noon, leaning heavily on Alvie’s arm.
‘It’s all right, cara mia, I’ve got you,’ Alvie whispered. ‘You did well.’
‘Where are we going?’ I mumbled, my innards recoiling from the cold wind. ‘I can’t go back to the office. Don’t want Margaret to see me like this . . .’
Alvie hailed a taxi and gave the driver an address in Kings Cross.
‘I’ll take you to my place. You can sleep there until you feel well enough to go home.’
I sped through his apartment like a homing missile, straight to the bathroom, where I disgorged the contents of my stomach. Afterwards, his cool hand mopped my brow and lips. He handed me a glass, already primed with mouthwash, then led me into a bedroom.
‘Take off your clothes, piccola, you’ll be more comfortable,’ he said, as he removed his own clothing.
‘I can’t . . . I’ve never been unfaithful to Jay before,’ I murmured, as he guided me to the bed and began to help me undress.
‘I won’t go any further if you don’t want me to,’ he whispered, between kisses. ‘But you’re so desirable, I can’t stop.’
I bet that’s what you tell all the girls, I thought, as I gave myself up to the intense pleasure of the moment. Alcohol always made me amorous, which was probably what he’d been counting on.
Some time later, I woke up alone in bed. Beside me was a note.
Dear Pandora, I had to go to the office for a meeting. A domani, Alvie x
I took a taxi back to Fulham and was relieved to find a message from Jay on the answerphone, that he’d be late home and not to wait up. To say I felt guilty was an understatement so I did what I always did when something was tormenting me: I changed into running gear, drove to the park and ran until I could run no more.
By the time I arrived home, I had convinced myself that it wasn’t my fault, and resolved never to divulge what had happened to another soul.
When I left for work the next day, Jay still hadn’t arrived home, but that wasn’t unusual; the band regularly had late-night sessions and often crashed at Clive’s house, which was near the studio.
Alvie greeted me with a relieved smile.
‘Are you feeling better?’ he said, lowering his voice so Margaret wouldn’t hear. ‘I’m glad to see you.’
Maybe he thought I wouldn’t show up. Or even that Jay would arrive instead, brandishing a horsewhip.
‘I’m fine now. But I never want to drink like that again. You understand?’
He nodded, his pursed lips telling me he’d hoped for a warmer response.
That morning, in between taking calls and working my way through a list of chores from Margaret, I began to wonder about Alvie’s romantic life. He’d never spoken of a girlfriend but there was a picture on his desk of a woman and two boys.
‘Are they your children?’ I asked, when I took him coffee later that morning.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They’re in Italy. But my wife and I . . . we are separated.’ He paused. ‘You don’t have any kids?’
He must have known that we didn’t, so it was probably an oblique way of asking if we’d chosen not to have them.
‘No, but we’d like to, one day,’ I said, heading for the door, to indicate that the subject was closed.
My period was due soon but the weekend came and there was no sign of it. We hadn’t used any protection and, as I began to wonder whether I could be pregnant, I felt an unexpected rush of pure joy.
In actual fact, I couldn’t have picked a more suitable subject if I’d tried. My husband, Jay, was the product of an English mother and a Kashmiri father: his hair jet black, his body tall and lean. Alvie was the same build: his Mediterranean colouring almost as dark as Jay’s, so if I did have his child, who would know Jay wasn’t the father?
I began to imagine that my breasts had become a little swollen. On Sunday I convinced myself I was feeling queasy and skipped breakfast. But on Monday morning, my hopes were dashed. I was so devastated that I rang in sick to the agency, saying I had an upset stomach. Margaret said she was sorry to hear that, before casually mentioning there were two free tickets to the Wham! concert on Saturday night if I wanted them.
Being a fan of the boys, I wanted to say yes, but Jay couldn’t stand them because they were edging him and the Jaylers off the charts, so I knew he wouldn’t come with me.
‘I would, Margaret, but, at such short notice, I can’t think who to go with.’
Alvie must have been in the vicinity because his was the next voice on the line.
‘I’m going, Pandora. We can go together if you like.’
This was the point when I should have invented a watertight excuse, but my hormone levels must have scrambled my brain because I heard myself agreeing to go with him.
After the concert, with Careless Whisper ringing in my ears, I ended up back at Alvie’s apartment. This time I wasn’t drunk and therefore able to take a more active part in the proceedings. He must have taken my enthusiasm for a high libido because he asked me if Jay and I had a lot of sex.
‘About average,’ I replied, unwilling to share intimate details of my marriage with him.
‘I’m flattered you came back for more, tesero . . .’
I kissed him on the lips to shut him up. I could sense he thought that Jay couldn’t be much good in bed if I had to look elsewhere, and was angling for a compliment on his own sexual prowess.
We went on like this all through spring and early summer. Each time I found I hadn’t conceived I’d contrive another meeting, in the increasingly desperate hope that this time one of Alvie’s arrows would hit the target. By now I was walking a tricky tightrope. Alvie had started to buy me gifts, in small boxes, which he’d leave in my bag or even in a file I was working on. He was good at choosing jewellery but I could never wear any of it because Jay might have noticed and smelled a rat.
I don’t know how long my baby madness would have lasted if karma hadn’t come to call in the form of an anonymous letter, which arrived a few days after Jay and the band played the Live Aid Concert. The letter told me that I had a right to know that Jay had been having an affair with a girl called Debbie, who worked for the band’s management company, and she’d given birth to his twins.
At first, I thought it was just one of the nutty letters that wafted in from time to time, but when I showed it to Jay he went white and started shaking. It was then I knew it was true. The shock made my legs buckle and I slumped to the floor.
All I remember is Jay saying over and over that he was sorry. I just sat with my back to the wall. Like a rag doll. Unable to speak.
I can see him now, pleading with me, tears streaming down his face.
‘We can do it, Andy. We can work it out. I can be here with you, and with them as well. They’re just babies. They’re part of me. I can’t turn my back on them. I want you to be a part of their lives too.’
He got me a glass of water and cradled me like a child, holding it to my lips as I sipped.
‘Or we could all live together if you like. Us, the dogs. The twins, Debbie.’
At the mention of her name, I whacked the glass of water out of his hand and, as it shattered on the wooden floor, dragged myself to the bedroom where I surrendered to a storm of gut-wrenching sobs.
When I heard the front door close, I packed as much of his stuff into two suitcases as I could, and had them couriered round to the studio along with a letter telling him not to come back. I followed that by having the locks changed – in case he did come back and I weakened, and let him stay.
Then I smoked a spliff and rang Peter, from the basement flat, to see if he fancied a drink. Never one to refuse, he was at the door within five minutes. We consumed three bottles of Cristal between us, the last glass of which I raised to Jay.
‘I propose a toast to James Jay. For proving himself to be a real man after all.’ Then I collapsed and had to be put to bed.
In the aftermath, I realised that finally knowing which one of us it was who couldn’t create a new life, brought with it a kind of relief. As for Alvie, I dropped him like a hot brick once I knew there was no chance of conceiving, which brought a welcome freedom of a different kind.
I can see now what a hypocrite I was. I divorced Jay because I couldn’t bear him having children with another woman, not because his behaviour was any worse than mine. And how could I blame him for wanting to be with his own flesh and blood – the one thing I couldn’t give him?
Not my finest hour.