“Come on, Buster. Let’s go.”
Edward Keaton jumped.
This was what his mum said to him at the end of the day, but it wasn’t his mum who was speaking.
“Well – what’s keeping you? We’ve got to be off.”
The voice came again, hushed and low; a man’s voice.
He swivelled his eyes around, careful to keep his head still. It was getting dark. The lights, high in the ceiling, were casting shadows into the deepest recesses of the museum.
Footsteps echoed as the last straggling visitors stepped out into the precinct.
Now the place was empty, except for himself, his mum and whoever owned that voice. Mum was busy in her office.
A chill wrapped itself around him so that he shuddered.
He moved his head to see the tall windows reflecting the early-December darkness. The museum's stark walls were painted a dingy cream. In glass boxes there were relics, with statues of Roman gods and emperors in corners and in alcoves.
At the head of the stairway was a picture, a portrait of Marcus Horatius Scapula, procurator of the province of Britannia.
Every Saturday Edward came with his mum to the museum. She was the curator. As there was no school on Saturdays, it meant he either came with her, or stayed at home alone. He didn’t mind. He spent a lot of his time reading, sitting on the stairs under the portrait of Horatius Scapula. It was here that his mum usually found him when she’d finished work. It was here that she would say: “Come on, Buster. Let’s go.”
No one called him Buster except his mum.
The voice came again. “Well, are you going to move, or do I have to wait here all night?”
He thought he saw the slightest shudder in the alcove by the portrait.
He strained his eyes, hardly daring to breathe. Then the shadow moved again, ruffling a curtain.
There was a shape standing there, still and straight.
“Who is it?” he croaked. His eyes gazed unblinking.
“It’s me,” the voice retorted irritably. “Come on, let’s get moving. I’ve been stuck in this place for long enough.”
Still Edward didn’t move. “Who?” he persisted, fingering the banister, ready to make a dash for it.
“Me, idiot child. ME!” The voice was beginning to sound impatient. “Ye gods, you’ve spent enough time every Saturn’s day staring at me.”
Then the figure stepped out into the light making Edward gasp.
On the landing above him stood Marcus Horatius Scapula, just as he was in the portrait, with his toga thrust over his left shoulder. He was shorter than Edward had imagined from the picture, but his face was the stamp of the painting, swarthy, bronzed, with a slightly hooked nose. He had the same dark hair, the same untidy fringe, brushed down onto his forehead, the same thick neck and broad shoulders, the same thin, firm mouth. But now there was a living twinkle in his eyes.
“Well, don’t just sit there staring, boy. On your feet. Show a bit of respect for your betters.”
Edward gulped. “But…” he gasped. “But…”
“There are no buts, child.”
All of a sudden the figure strode down the stairs towards him. “It’s Marcus Horatius Scapula. Scapula to his friends… and as I am a bit lacking in that department, you’re nominated friend to Horatius Scapula.” He held out a stiff hand, adding, in a clipped voice, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Sorry,” he muttered at last. “I’m Edward Keaton.”
Horatius Scapula took a step back. He looked puzzled. “Edward Keaton?” he repeated. “But I’m sure I heard the priestess call you Buster. ‘Come on, Buster, let’s go,’ she said.”
“My mum calls me that, yes,” Edward said. “After the film star, Buster Keaton, but it’s only a nick-name. My real name’s Edward.”
“Nick-name eh?” the Roman said. He walked down the stairs again. “Let’s get this straight. Your clan name is Keaton, your nick-name is Buster after this filmy starry thing, and your first name is Edward?”
“Something like that,” Edward said.
Not that it mattered.
What mattered was, how he came to be standing on the main stairway of Rodechester Museum with an English speaking Roman who, up until a few seconds ago, had been nothing more than a portrait hanging on the wall. It was also important to find out what this Roman was up to. Because it was very clear, whatever it was, he had every intention of making Edward a part of it.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
“Do, boy?” Horatius Scapula said. He began to march towards the entrance. “Do? I’m going out into the night, to taste the air, to feel the wind, to walk, to see, to be free. I’ve been held prisoner in this temple for long enough.”
But Edward wasn’t sure that was such a good idea. He held on to the Roman’s arm, gripping it firmly. “You can’t,” he said. “Not with those clothes on. People will think you’re crazy.”
Horatius Scapula turned and glared.
“With these clothes on?” he stuttered. “But these are the clothes of a Roman citizen – a Roman procurator – keeper of the Emperor’s affairs. It is a uniform that will command respect from everyone.”
“It might have done when you were around,” Edward said. “But if you go out like that now they’ll think you’re going to a fancy-dress party.”
Horatius Scapula pulled a dagger from his belt. Edward had to dodge smartly. “Fancy-dress party?” he exclaimed. “I sweated blood earning the right to wear these clothes… and I’m not going to be told by any chit of a boy that they look like fancy dress.”
“I’m only telling you what it’s like out there,” Edward said. “There have been a lot of changes in the last two thousand years.”
For a moment Horatius Scapula didn’t move, but, at last, the twinkle came back into his eyes. He sighed. “Two thousand years? Is it that long – and lot of changes?” The dagger went back into its sheath. “Beg pardon, boy. Being caged up in this temple for so long has made me tetchy. But, never fear. Things may have changed over the last two thousand years, but it won’t take two thousand years to get it all back to rights, eh? Show the people out there the glint of cold metal, and before you can say ‘Mars, god of War’ they’ll be for Rome and Marcus Horatius Scapula, just as they used to be.”
He was heading for the door again; but there was no way Edward could let him go – certainly not if he was planning to re-conquer Britain for Rome.
“I keep telling you,” he said, making another grab at his arm. “Things have changed. Besides, if you go out now, you’ll get locked out. Mum will be closing up in a minute.”
A look of disappointment passed across Scapula’s face. “We can’t go out?” he said.
That was another thing. Edward had more chance of captaining the England football team than he had of persuading Mum to let him go out with someone like Horatius Scapula. She had a lot on her mind at the moment. Mr Collins, the chief councillor at the planning office was trying to close the museum down. She was worried - pre-occupied. She’d go mad if he bothered her with any ideas of giving a Roman-come-back-from-the-first-century, a guided tour of Rodechester.
“I’m afraid Mum won’t let me go anyway,” he said.
Horatius Scapula paused. “The priestess, she’ll miss you will she, if you’ve gone?” he said.
Edward nodded. “Miss me? She’ll have the police out, the fire brigade, Air-sea Rescue, Air Ambulance, she’ll have everybody out.”
“So we’ll have to postpone our adventure till next Saturn’s day, is that right?” Horatius Scapula sighed. “And we’ll have to persuade the priestess first.”
He began to walk dejectedly back towards the stairs.
In a strange way Edward felt sorry for him. He was like a little boy who’d been told his birthday had been cancelled.
“It might be okay next week,” he said. “If I can talk Mum around. We could go to the football in the afternoon.”
The Roman gave a weak smile as he eyed the alcove. “Another seven days. But I don’t want to be locked out, and it would be inexcusable to upset the priestess.”
Suddenly they heard Mum’s voice from the office. “Buster, I’m just about done. Are you ready?”
Silently, Horatius Scapula retreated towards his portrait. Then he faded into the shadows. There was a rustle of movement followed by a disembodied voice: “Farewell then, Buster, until next Saturn’s day.”
“See you,” he whispered.
His mum was at the office door now. Slowly he picked up his books.
Then, as Mum turned the key in the museum door, Marcus Horatius Scapula was left alone, and in darkness.
Edward didn’t say much on the way home. It was hard to take it in. Had he really seen a Roman procurator – some person who’d just appeared from behind his own portrait in the museum? Had he really grabbed this person by the arm to stop him launching onto the unsuspecting population of Rodechester? Or had he been sitting on the stairs reading and fallen into a dream?
It hadn’t felt like a dream. Horatius Scapula’s arm was solid. So was the way he’d tugged when Edward tried to pull him back from the museum door.
But if it wasn’t a dream, what was Edward going to do? He’d promised to show him around Rodechester. He’d even promised to take him to a football match.
That was crazy.
He didn’t want to say anything to Mum. She had enough on her mind with Councillor Collins and the museum. He could tell she was worried because she hardly spoke to him nowadays. She used to be full of talk and fun. If he did tell her he’d seen a Roman - that this Roman wanted to be shown around Rodechester; if he did tell her he wanted to take him to a football match, it just might push her over the edge.
It seemed a long week too. As time went on, Mum got even quieter. She began snapping at him. It wasn’t like her.
He decided not to say anything. Then as the days meandered towards Saturday he managed to convince himself that Horatius Scapula had been a dream.
Even so, when Saturday came, he was bubbling with excitement. After Mum had opened up the museum and gone to her office, he searched the main hall for signs, for a twinkle in the eyes in the portrait, for the slightest twitching of the curtain, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There wasn’t even a spooky feel about the place.
Eventually he settled on the stairs, digging a book out of his bag. But he couldn’t concentrate. The words just danced on his eyes. He knew he was waiting for something, watching, listening, looking for a movement, a flick of the curtain, a shuffle of footsteps.
Then he heard it. There was a hint of rustling from behind him. His spine tingled. At the corner of his eye he saw a shadow. There was a whisper. “So, Buster. Are we ready?”
He turned, to see Marcus Horatius Scapula, standing beside the drape, with sandals strapped to his feet, a toga pinned at the chest, his eyes glinting and his face beaming with excitement. “Did you ask the priestess? Is it all right? Can we go?”
“I didn’t tell her,” Edward said.
The Roman’s face darkened. “Didn’t tell her? When I’d requested to take the air, to feel the wind, to walk, to see, to be free, you didn’t tell her?”
“Mum’s got big worries,” he said. “There’s this man called Councillor Collins. He wants to close the museum. If he does, Mum won’t have a job. She loves this museum. I didn’t want to bother her with more worries.”
But Horatius Scapula was already heading down the stairs. “Close the temple?” he snapped. “Sack the priestess? Who is this Councillor Collins? Some artisan on the Municipal Council?”
“Sort of,” said Edward.
He wanted to explain more, but it was hard because the Roman procurator was making for Mum’s office.
“Where are you going?” Edward said.
“To talk to the priestess, of course. We’ve got to stop this Councillor What’s-his-name. We can’t have some plebeian closing the temple. We can’t have some fool of an artisan sacking the priestess.”
Edward pulled hard on his arm. It was just like last week with Horatius Scapula belting off out of control, full of hair-brained schemes. “It’s complicated,” he panted. “You mustn’t see Mum. She’ll have a heart attack. I’ll have to see her on my own. She needs her mind prepared before she sees you.”
“But you’ve had all week to tell her on your own, Buster,” Horatius Scapula spluttered. “We’ve got to get out. We’ve got to do something about this councillor fellow. I’m the man to do it you know? I’m the scourge of councillors. It’s part of my job.”
“I’ll see mum,” Edward said, dragging him to a halt. “You go and put something warm on instead of that toga and then come back here and wait. And if anyone comes in, just pretend to be a statue.”
Mum was in the office tucked away at the back of the main hall. She was staring at lists of figures on the computer screen. She hardly looked up when Edward came in. All she said was, “What is it, Buster?”
He knew her mind wasn’t on him. But he needed to be careful. He also knew he wasn’t going to be entirely honest. He didn’t like that. His fingers were firmly crossed behind his back.
“I’ve had an idea how I could help save the museum, Mum,” he said. He stood in the shadow by the door so she wouldn’t see his face. “I’ve got a friend. He’s got loads of dressing up clothes. We thought, if we went out into the precinct with him dressed up like a Roman, we could get some of the shoppers to come in. That might stop Councillor Collins closing the museum.”
When she looked up, he felt really uncomfortable, because he could see she was touched. “That’s a sweet thought, Buster,” she said. “But I’m afraid we’d need more than just a few more visitors. We’d need something really big to stop Councillor Collins closing us down.”
He wanted to say: “But I have got something big, Mum. I’ve got a real live Roman out there.” All he could manage, though, was: “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? My friend’s got all the gear. We’re ready to go.”
At last, Mum said: “Okay Buster, but, only in the precinct. And promise you won’t talk to people you don’t know.”
He was about to slip away, but then she leaned back in her chair. “Who is this friend anyway?" she asked. "Do his parents mind him doing this?”
He wasn’t expecting that question. He had to think quickly. “His parents are fine about it, Mum,” he said, with his fingers crossed even more tightly behind his back. “He’s called Horatio. You must have seen him around.”
Fortunately Mum’s attention was drifting back to the figures on the computer screen. She smiled. “That’s all right then,”
As he sensed she wasn’t giving him her full attention, it seemed the right time to tell her the other part of his plan. “Can we go to the football afterwards?” he said.
She sighed, sitting back in her chair again. Her eyes looked sad. “I’d love to say yes, Buster,” she said. “But… money’s going to be really tight if I lose my job.”
That made him feel seriously bad.
“I’ve got money,” he said. “I took it from my birthday savings this morning.” Then she looked so guilty he felt even worse.
“You shouldn’t have to do that, Buster.”
“I don’t mind,” he said. “When we save the museum you can pay me back, okay?”
“You’re such a good boy,” she said. Then she gave another sigh, looking back towards the computer. “All right, Buster. Let me know how much it costs and I’ll try and reimburse you.”
He scooted for the door before she could change her mind.
Horatius Scapula was waiting. He’d put on a roughly woven woollen cloak. It looked rather like a duffel coat. It had a hood. Instead of his sandals, he was wearing what looked like leather trainers.
When he saw Edward, he beamed. “Is it all agreed then, Buster? With the priestess? She’s granted us leave to explore the town, has she?”
The procurator was halfway across the foyer before he’d finished his sentence. There was no time for Edward to explain anything. Before he could think, they’d burst onto the precinct with its crowds of milling shoppers, and Marcus Horatius Scapula was standing on the museum steps.
Enjoyed reading this so much
I love this story. I was hooked from the opening description. I laughed out loud. The writing is delightful. THe humour is great and the idea is wonderful fantasy. Congratulations. Great work. You are a great writer.
I really enjoyed this start! Fun story, quirky & sweet characters, and great premise!