E Jane Dickson: Staying Afloat

'We recline on our left elbows with a glass of wine and wait to be served by our slave girls'
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The Independent Online

Following a school trip to old Verulamium, Clara and her friend Elena are all fired up about the Romans. This afternoon, Clara announces on the way back from school, there will be a Roman feast at our house.

Following a school trip to old Verulamium, Clara and her friend Elena are all fired up about the Romans. This afternoon, Clara announces on the way back from school, there will be a Roman feast at our house.

"S'alright, Mum," she whispers behind her hand, "we've got the ingredients already." I'm grateful not to be packed off to Safeway for a ready-basted swan, but I'm not sure what kind of feast can be knocked up from my frankly uninspiring cupboards. The girls, however, have things in hand. Armed with Elena's book of recipes from the ancient world (oh God, don't let it be dormice), they're soon pounding away with mortar and pestle and promising to call me for "the bit with the hot pans". Tonight's delicacy, it turns out, is to be stuffed, salted dates fried in honey, and if the Gordon Ramsay oaths issuing from the kitchen are anything to go by, it's a complicated dish.

Elena's mum and I recline on our left elbows with a glass of wine - this is the easy part - and wait to be served by our charming slave girls. Rather to our surprise (although the ruby draughts of Falernian may have something to do with it) the fried dates are delicious and we lick the platter clean.

"Is it time for the vomity bit?" asks Conor, who has been greatly struck, in his studies of the Romans, by the practical arrangement of the vomitorium. ("Just when you think you can't eat any more, Mum! You get to start all over again!") The mums call lustily for more wine and the handmaiden Clara appears, looking a little harassed. "I'm tired of being a slave," she says. "Yeah, tell us about it," we cackle. "And bring on the dancing boys!"

Later that evening, I am still enjoying the game, but there is open rebellion in the slave quarters. I clap my hands, thinking an apple might be nice, and Con slouches in, looking like a disgruntled Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii. "Actually," he says, "I don't think this can be right. I mean, Mum, we're English."

"You're English," I point out. "I can tell by the way you've been wrapped in an Eng-er-land flag all week. But I'm not."

"Exactly," says Con, with Rule Britannia doggedness, "so if we're English and you're not, we can hardly be your slaves, can we?"

"It didn't bother the Romans," I tell him. "Slavus Britannicus was particularly prized for his ability to work in all weathers."

"I still don't think St George would have been a slave," insists Con, unwilling to let a week's patriotic fervour fade with a missed penalty kick.

"Nor would he have been English," I argue. "People think he was probably Palestinian."

Con gives a tiny "tsk" of irritation. He's been a little worried about my commitment to queen and country all through the European Cup, and now it's confirmed. "Don't you love England, then?" he asks.

"Well," I relent, "I like living here, and I love my two English children, so yes, maybe I do love it a little bit."

My son shoots me a complicated look, in which the pride of Empire is mixed with scorn for maternal soppiness. "Clara!" he calls urgently. "It's time now for the vomity bit."

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