Anton tripped down the glaring white steps of his block on the via dell’Emigrante, walked out on two threadbare mutts noisily giving in to the sensuality of summer. The ground-floor gargoyles were sleeping off lunch, as were the old vampires who shared a set of teeth, and the caretaker whose eyes shone out fear of his own pederasty, and the mama of four, straight out of Fellini, who had once signalled that she would give Anton a hand job; none of them would waddle out to sling a bucket of water over the hounds.
Pre-teens giggled at the frenzied canine business. Anton paused, stared at them, perturbed. A hundred years earlier, silk cravat at his neck, young gentleman on his Grand Tour, he might have raised a bone-handled walking stick, scattered them with the admonition that giggling in public was a…an unseemly thing to do, feminine and…childish. They’d be disturbed by the spectacle later, he decided, in the vivid dreams that came to children. No giggling from them then, he was certain, only whimpering.
He felt heavy-lidded, but knew that if he closed his eyes terrible angels would scratch holes in the membranes at the back of them. He hurried across the estate, arrested by the thought of what had happened to the bright-eyed kid who came to Rome to study the city’s history and culture. He had a dim memory of that kid’s face, tried to place it, then was astonished to see it blinking gauntly at him for a second from the vitrine by the metro.
That summer he drank coffee, disdained food, his hunger magicked away by Massimo, his first friend there. “I have your second friend here,” Massimo told Anton, and tapped a pocket. Anton checked out the way his friend’s black eyes rolled dizzy with pleasure when he laughed. He fed each night on Massimo’s amphetamine sulphate, drew it carefully up his nose via a banknote worth nothing despite its strings of zeros, dabbed the leavings onto his tongue, rubbed them around his gums.
To crown each utterance he made, Massimo would declare, “Okay.” The innocuous word projected such authority that, when Anton was wired, it alarmed him. He would be possessed at once with the almost uncontainable urge to reach out a hand and violently mess up his friend’s perfect blue-black hair that aped Superman before he fell from his horse.
Massimo lived in an old artisans’ quarter of the city from which the new rich had ousted the working people to establish their odd idea of respectability. Anton watched him play out his double life, scoffed secretly, almost, at the way his mama pulled Massimo to her and called him her sweet dove, and how his papa asserted, with a mixture of duty and doubt, how proud he was of his boy. After picking politely through Massimo’s mama’s stodge, Anton and his friend hit time-warped clubs full of talkers. In the dark, girls danced, and, watching them with one eye from corners, speed cadets and smackheads yattered and droned, competing against the noise to say the same dreary thing. Jug-eared boy, affable grown-up urchin. The haughty one, too plump to be a junkie, yet there he was, junked to his porcine eyes. Then the handsome one, a curtain of sleek fringe making an enigma of his fine features till he chose to reveal them with a toss of the head. And the one with preoccupied, urgent eyes, always in the act of beckoning the viewer to some mysterious place. The feminine one, too, who’d proved he could fight with his girlish fists one night on the metro in some fracas whose origin Anton could no longer recall. A blue-eyed raven-haired girl, Anton remembered, who laughed at the witty things he declared, once, twice, but laughed too, he suspected, at his hopes to catch her in his arms and hold her – no longer there, gone to some other group of boys, or gone home to…Lugano, was it? Or, on a whim, gone straight, now doing needlework and aerobics and museum trips with grandparents. And a skanky girl who smelt of old clothes and kissed him on several occasions, but who kissed anybody. She stood him up one night when he thought he’d get her full attention, which got him foul-tempered and girl-hating, off to a dark club where he snorted an enormous amount of very bad crank which kept him awake, and sick, for days, everything around him echoing and glowing, got him collapsing naked on his cold bathroom floor unable to move, wishing his mother was there to hold him. They’re my friends, Anton had realised one night, mystified by the idea.
That night, radiating a super-intelligence he sensed would be gone at the breath of a trigger-sound, Anton looked at Massimo and knew he was dipping his beak into the Afghan gear flooding the city, supplied by the men Anton had noticed watching the club talkers with both eyes. It was only a wink of time before Massimo was waving it under Anton’s nose, having him marked as a refugee from whatever he deemed ordinary in the world, and in search of a new home for his head. Anton was certain that, for the time being, he wasn’t about to stray quite so far. “You won’t get me doing that,” he had to tell Massimo, “not in this holy city.”
“When you are in Rome,” Massimo reminded Anton sternly, “you do as Romans do, okay?”
Round-eyed, Anton asked him, “What, burn Christians?” Massimo laughed loudly, told those friends of theirs the clever thing Anton had said.
Anton knew you could never really be friends with people who were turning into little more than slaves. He kept the illusion of his dignity, marred by the terrible feeling under his skin that if he stuck around, his eyes dimmer and dimmer day by day, he, too, would joyride into the wrong end of the slave trade.
Rome at night was exciting, when its history would open up without sequence, splattering collages in Anton’s head of a city never having escaped its past of interesting times. In the back of Massimo’s midget Fiat, Anton would wonder what instrument Nero had really played the night he burned the city, because if a violin was possible then so was a sax, alarming and erotic.
In a lull in Anton’s other life, in the refectory at the Sapienza University, the students endlessly, and earnestly, discussed their new home. “The most disgraceful act in history occurred here,” an engineering student from Thessaloniki spluttered. “The Fourth Crusade, ordered by Pope Innocent the Second to Constantinople, all so that the Latins could work over the Greeks. An outrage.” Anton told him to keep his wig on, that he’d got it wrong: despairing of the rift between the Latins and Greeks, Innocent had beaten his tonsured bonce when he heard. Anton was whizzing out of his face, saw the old primate stretched across a floor of Etruscan marble, sobbing his sacred heart out.
Anton remembered that the Constantinople diversion was thought up not by Innocent, but by the ancient, madly avaricious Venetian Doge Dandolo. He was given a pious and noble burial under a slab in Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia cathedral, only, eventually, to have his bones scattered for the dogs to chew on by Mehmet the Conqueror’s soldiers. Latins, Greeks, Popes, Metropolitans, they were all dog food to the Turks, who banged all their heads together for them, killed them, banished them, enslaved them, and took the church, and the fabled city, for their own.
“The dogs ate the Doge.” Anton’s voice sounded spiked, loud, not his own. He was aware of amused, wary stares. “Long time ago. Constantinople is safe now.” He giggled, clutched at the Greek’s arm, pointed out the primate, recovered now, showing his arse as he shinned up a Corinthian column and swung one-handed from a vaulted dome. “We’re all safe, now.”
That wasn’t true, though. Right at that moment he sensed the city’s past under his feet, and protected himself with goosebumps as he became aware of its appetite for his soul. He needed to be with friends, but then only saw around him the harrowed looks on the faces of those about to die in the name of entertainment, and again had the crudest sense of his own shaky mortality.
He was close to the arena himself, he woke up one morning and knew. Massimo was changed, was keen to see him eaten up; his friends were andabatae, those unfortunates of the arenas of ancient Rome who, armed with stilettos, fought blind, their heads encased in visorless helmets, to stagger towards their doom as the Coliseum crowds jeered. Anton ate disdainfully small portions of those friends’ haughty mamas’ dreadful food, sat up with them watching all-night TV. Massimo’s Fiat was gone, sacrificed to debts shelled out to men who came into clear focus from their fuzzy background to smile out menacing demands, so Anton walked the ghostly early morning streets of that summer with them. He saw them shake and cluck in the light, flashes in their eyes as they caught on to what was happening to them. He watched them too in their intimate moments of euphoria, cooking stuff in spoons and tightening bindings round their arms to find the shimmering beauty of veins only to spike and spoil them.
“You’re dying,” he blurted out to Massimo from a mood of the deepest blue that had dropped abruptly on him. “All of you, dying miserably, to give the crowds a good laugh.”
Massimo squeezed his hand, a gesture of the dying, Anton thought, but pulled his hand away sharply. It was a moment of breakage. Massimo acknowledged it with a so-that’s-how-it-is nod, then said softly, “Who’s laughing? You tell me.”
Anton said, in a tiny voice, “I am. I always laugh, in the end.” But he didn’t. Something in Massimo’s expression stopped him, as Massimo began rolling up Anton’s sleeve for him, staring hard into Anton’s bright eyes.
Yet Anton knew he was losing that bright-eyed kid. He appeased the needle, his veins marked, tongue numbed, his nose startling him when his brains began to leak out of it, blood roaring over rapids in his ears. Anton vowed to find that kid again, and did, saw him go from figment to friend one night at a place near the Porta Maggiore when Massimo pushed something a little too pure into a handsome vein standing out on his instep, that lit up his central nervous system and made his blood glow orange for a second, sent his heart into the red. “He’s gone,” another friend observed – jug-eared boy, Anton thought later, affable, calm – and looked round, said, “The party’s over, huh?”
It was, eventually; nobody was going to ruin the temporary and fragile beauty of a rush combined with a breathtaking crisis. Anton noticed that one of Massimo’s eyebrows was thicker than the other, and that he was wearing a shirt Anton liked. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember whether he’d expressed his admiration of it out loud or, meanly, kept it to himself. Later, they moved Massimo into an abandoned apartment and, all huddled, all tensed and hushed and nudging in a phone booth, called an ambulance. They left the booth and forgot Massimo and the charms he’d had, and the dinners his mama had fed them all, and ran down the empty streets, giggling like children, unseemly, and blinded by their paradoxical, momentary immortality.
Nick Sweeney’s novel Laikonik Express was published by Unthank Books in 2011. Much of his work shows his fascination with Eastern Europe and its people and history. When he’s not writing, he plays the guitar with Balkan troubadours, the Trans-Siberian March Band. He has turned to America to inspire his current work-in-progress, about arms dealers and serial killers, The Fortune Teller’s Factotum.