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Sam Wilson

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Commedia – Book Excerpt

My first novel, Commedia, is set in Roman Britain in the year 410 and follows the adventures of a group of slacker actors on a road-trip around the collapsing country.

Although I’m still in the process of final revisions, I thought I’d post the first chapter to give a taste of what the novel’s like.

LONDINIUM AUGUSTA, 410 AD

It was a burial, and Curio had the giggles. He tried to stop himself laughing by stamping down on the toes of his foot, but it didn’t help. Everything he saw made him feel like he was going to burst. The mud splattered on the nobility’s funeral robes, for instance, or the way they were glaring at the young priest, who couldn’t pronounce the ceremony’s high-Latin words. The way the women’s jewellery was jangling in the wind. But the fact that Musca was dead was enough. The more that Curio told himself how awful it would be to laugh at something so tragic, the worse it got.

They were in a field to the east of the town, on a gentle slope littered with grave markers. This was where the lowest of the low were buried. There were better graveyards to the north of Londinium, filled with cultivated flowerbeds and marble mausoleums. Not here. The graves were shallow, and the gentle rain that had been falling all day had washed away the upper layers of mud, bringing some disturbing things to the surface. A couple of goats stood nearby, watching the proceedings through hourglass pupils. One of them was chewing on something that had recently come up from the ground. Curio decided not to look too closely. Other than the goats and the burial party, the field was empty. No trees, no shrubs, no buildings. No mausoleum for Musca. The nobility were gathered there to make sure that he was buried in disgrace.

Musca’s body was wrapped up in the shroud at the foot of the grave. The sheer size of it was testament to a life lived for pleasure. In forty years of life he had eaten spectacular volumes of pork, lamb, venison, beef, chicken, turkey, quail, and, when the imperial menagerie had closed, giraffe. Musca was an old-school Roman. While the rest of Britain was prostrate before their local emperor, Constantine III, Musca was prostrate on a couch. While the rest of Britain was paying Christianity lip-service, Musca was filling his lips with grapes. In the war between virtue and vice, Musca had been a significant outpost of vice.

Still, he had been rich, which got him a proper Christian burial, including a priest with thinning hair and poor eyesight who was stumbling over the words and sweating at all the attention.

He came to the end of his scroll and looked over at the slave captain, who signalled to his men. The four slaves lifted Musca’s stretcher and carry it over the grave. As they lowered it into the hole the wet ropes slipped in their hands, and two of them lost control.

“Shit!” said the slave captain.

The stretcher flipped, and Musca’s body dropped into the muddy water at the bottom of the grave.

The splash sounded exactly like a privy. The priest flinched and lost control of his scroll. Half of it unrolled down into the hole, coming to a stop next to the body. The priest hurriedly rolled in the scroll, reciting a psalm to cover his mistake. It came back up covered in mud which smeared on the sleeve of the priest’s oversized robe. The nobles shifted from foot to foot. Curio screwed up his eyes and pinched his nose closed and prayed that the people around him thought he was crying. No such luck.

“Pull yourself together, you tit,” said a voice in his ear.

“Can’t!” squeaked Curio.

The man behind him took a swig of wine. He was ragged and crow-like, with greasy hair and a sneer. He was also Curio’s oldest friend, although neither of them were sure why. His name was Pavo.

“Typical Brit. Can’t respect a Roman at his own burial.”

One of the slaves behind them tried to shush them. Pavo ignored him.

“Look at this place,” Pavo said, almost hitting Curio in the face as he waved his arm. “A Roman shouldn’t be buried here.”

“Shouldn’t have conquered it, then,” said Curio.

Several more slaves started shushing.

“No respect,” said Pavo. “No respect.”

- – -

After the ceremony the nobility dispersed, shaking unspeakable things off their boots, and calling for their litter-bearers. Curio and Pavo watched them go.

“It’s over already?” said Pavo accusingly.

Curio wiped his eyes. “What a service,” he said. “Did you hear that prayer? Musca’s going to Heaven, apparently. Unbelievable.”

Pavo held his jug of wine upside down and shook it. He threw it aside.

“Come on,” he said.

“Can we stay for a bit?” said Curio, looking at the grave.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. To get a good look our lives.”

“Why would you want to do that?” said Pavo. “My life, all right, yes, that’s a tale worth telling. But you’re from Isca Dumnoniorum, for God’s sake. Get a grip.”

“What’s wrong with Isca Dumnoniorum?”

“Nothing. It’s a fine place to come from if you fuck your own sister.”

Pavo slouched off towards the gate, leaving Curio watching a swinging greasy ponytail.

Curio looked back at the grave. The man who gave him money and kept him out of prison was dead. Why didn’t the moment feel more significant? Maybe really big disasters were too big to understand. You could just get on with your life and not bother noticing.

“Here lies Curio,” called Pavo. “Not dead, just too lazy to leave the graveyard.”

“Coming, you lanky Roman twat,” muttered Curio.

 

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