“You’re an Egyptian drag queen who goes by the moniker Kliofatra?” Ren frowned, he wasn’t sure if Professor Jabari was winding him up or not.
“You asked what I do at the weekends,” Jabari shrugged, pushing forward the stack of books across the desk towards Ren. “Although I’m sure I don’t need to ask what you’ll be doing.”
Ren sighed and glanced down at the dusty tomes, some were in torn or faded dust jackets, others were stripped down to their cloth bindings, cobwebbed fraying edges of gluey thread poking out from the spines like torn vertebrae. This stack of six books represented the entirety of the Istituto dei Classici di Londra’s library stores on the subject of Roman scatalogical humour.
“Yeah...” Ren frowned again, “so this assignment...”
“Pretty shitty huh?” Jabari smirked up at him from behind thick rimmed glasses.
Professor Jabari Ayman was Ren’s favourite lecturer at I.C.E., the Institute of Classical Education. The college was one of the oldest in Europe, with Italian sister campuses dating back to the 11th century.
The London Institute had been established around 1500 and many students were exchanges from the Milano and Venezia campsuses. They offered a surprisingly wide and varied choice of courses from Italian Renaissance art to Ancient Egyptian papyrology.
“Aren’t drag queens meant to be witty?” Ren raised an eyebrow as Jabari took a hissed intake of breath and clutched his chest in mock offense.
“I’m just saying,” Ren grinned, “Professor Ricci’s Class on Florentine guilds is looking pretty appealing right now.”
Jabari rolled his eyes, “Only that man could make Medici politics as dry as a nun’s –“
A loud knock at the door made Ren jump and cut off the rest of his professor’s tirade.
“Enter,” Jabari called out.
The door creaked open to reveal an elderly man that Ren knew to be Walter Möller, a visiting professor of Medieval history. Möller was old and covered in sun-spots, his hair was wiry and grey and would have seemed thick albeit from a notable bald patch on the crown of his head that gave him the almost appearance of a novice monk.
“Jabari, I must speak –“ Möller paused as he noticed Ren hovering by the desk.
“I was just going,” Ren announced to the strangely tense room, he swept up the books whilst eyeing the large black one in Möller’s arms. There was green script across the front but Ren could only make out one of the words, ‘alchymia’, it was Medieval Latin for ‘alchemy’. There were also lines of Arabic script beneath that, but Ren didn’t have the first clue what they could mean. He wondered if Möller had brought the book to Jabari for translation?
“Good luck with the research, Renzo,” Jabari nodded over to where Ren was stepping backwards out of the office doorway, still craning his neck at an awkward and incredibly unsubtle angle to try to read the rest of Möller’s book title.
“If you somehow do manage to get through all that by Saturday night then feel free to come down to the Big Bird club for my show.”
“The Big Bird,” Ren repeated slowly, he hadn’t heard that club name before, although Jabari had told him it was Soho based and Italian run.
“Il Grande Uccello,’ Jabari replied with an almost feral grin.
“Oh, of course,” Ren replied, trying hard to stifle a laugh as Professor Möller eyed them both with impatient confusion. ‘Uccello’ was also Italian slang for a penis.
“The Big Bird?” Professor Möller could be heard asking as Ren closed the door behind him and was finally able to let a grin split widely across his face. He knew there was a reason he had warmed immediately to Jabari.
For starters, Jabari was half Italian, just like Ren. Although, whilst Jabari’s father had been Egyptian, Ren’s father, Martin Harper, was British, born and raised in Greenwich. Ren's father was a tall, quiet man, highly competent and reliable and yet whose appoach to words was as if the usage of each one would exact a price far too great to employ them in social niceties.
Ren’s mother, however, Jiaying Silveri, was a strong, hot-headed woman from Milan who had probably not stopped talking since Martin had met her on a holiday to Lombardy thirty years ago. Ren had inherited most of his dominant features, such as dark eyes and hair, from his mother. Although people never pegged him as Italian, simply always assuming Ren was Britsh born Chinese.
There was actually a historical reason that Milan had the highest population of ethnic Chinese compared to anywhere else in Italy. Chinatown itself had been established in the 1920s due to Chinese coming over to Italy to work in the booming textiles industry.
Ren supposed he had Italian fashion to thank for his existence. Without it, his awkward, emotionally unavailable father would never have met his loud and opinionated mother.
Ren, however, had not spoken to either of his parents since legally changing his name a year ago. Sometimes he missed his father playing the piano, carefully and methodically – the signs of someone who had started learning at a later age. He occasionally longed for his mother’s cooking, the way the steam would rise off the congee she made for him when he had been sick home from school.
But there were other things too, that he did not miss at all.
“I’m not even going to ask why you’re holding a book called Stercus Accidit,”
Ren looked around grinning as his friend Aurora approached him. Her heels skidded dangerously across the newly polished wooden floors of the university’s corridor.
“I know what it means Ren,” Aurora snapped dismissively, “I do take intermediate Latin with you. ‘Shit happens’.”
“Yes it does,” Ren laughed, “how did it go in the library?”
“Well, I went to go snag my usual place in the Ptolemaic Kingdom Papyri section,” Aurora began with a huff as Ren nodded in understanding. The papyri room was always adequately deserted as all the ancient documents had been scanned and uploaded onto the library’s website for free download. This meant that students rarely needed access to the originals. “And it’s closed due to water damage!”
“Water damage?” Ren screwed up his nose, “Are the papyri alright?”
“Who cares,” Aurora shrugged, “but the incompetence in this place truly astounds me sometimes. I’m telling you, my undergrad in Bolgona – “
“Yeah I know,” Ren reached out to squeeze her shoulder in a gesture of affected comfort. “Bologna was amazing; you’re incredibly bummed out to have had to do your Masters in London.”
“Dumb, sick grandmother,” Aurora muttered, before looking horrified at herself and muttering what sounded like a quick prayer in Italian whilst crossing her chest repeatedly. Ren had always quite liked that seeming facet of his friend’s Catholicism – that any sin could be wiped out by a few erratic hand gestures and a couple of heart-felt ‘Hail Marys’.
“I’m sure it will reopen again soon,” Ren consoled her, “but I do have something that will cheer you up.”
“Oh?” Aurora eyed him with a look of accustomed suspicion.
Aurora was beautiful. She was everything Ren imagined an Italian girl should be, everything he never could seem to live up to during his awkward teenage years.
At twenty-one years old and 5ft 9 she stood three inches taller than Ren and lorded it over him just as much as her two advanced years of age. She had a golden Mediterranean glow to her skin, deep brown eyes and lips that other girls gossiped were fillers, but Ren knew they weren’t. Aurora was pathetic when it came to needles, although she swore she was soon due to get Botox. Her supermodel mother’s first procedures had started happening in her mid twenties and Aurora was determined to follow suit.
Her hair was long and glossy, cascading down her back, a dyed honey blonde that Ren couldn’t quite tell if it suited her or not. Surely someone without Aurora’s devastating confidence wouldn’t have been able to pull off the colour and its ‘box bought from a convenience store’ quality.
“It’s an Egyptian queen,” Ren began with a coy smile.
“I’m not helping you revise for Amarna Period religion,” Aurora shook her head vociferously; “it’s your own fault if you didn’t brush up on Nefertiti.”
“Wow, thanks for the support, but no,” Ren scoffed, “this queen’s a little more contemporary, a little more loud and a little more plus-sized.”
Aurora’s eyes suddenly widened as she slapped her hand against Ren’s chest and pushed him into a nearby alcove with a thud. “The rumours are true?” she hissed excitedly.
“There are rumours?” Ren frowned; he was always the last to know anything it seemed.
“Professor Ayman?” Aurora garbled, her eyes lighting up. “I heard some doctorate students discussing it in the cafeteria, tell me he moonlights as a drag queen.”
“He does,” Ren laughed, “and I’m invited to the show.”
“Oh my god,” Aurora squealed, “what’s his drag name – no wait, don’t tell me.”
Ren huffed another laugh as he flicked his eyes up to see an attractive, fair haired boy walk past them. The boy looked like he was a little older than Aurora and predictably his gaze caught on her curved form that was currently caging Ren against the wall. Ren squirmed as he met the other boy’s bemused expression.
“Heifer-titti!” Aurora suddenly shouted, making Ren flinch and bang his head painfully against the stone wall. By the time he had had a chance to blink the tears from his eyes, the other boy was gone.
“It took you a whole two minutes to come up with that travesty?” Ren groaned.
“It’s amazing,” Aurora snapped, grabbing Ren’s hand and pulling them down the corridor in the direction of I.C.E’s main courtyard. Her favourite coffee van was waiting outside with steaming espressos and student discounts. “It’s both a play on Egyptian history, female anatomy and Jabari’s voluptuous size.”
“It’s offensive,” Ren rolled his eyes as he slumped down on a stone bench whilst Aurora placed her order. He hadn’t had caffeine in years, not since his last episode of tachycardia, an elevated heart rate brought on by extreme anxiety and stimulants.
“Anyway it’s Kliofatra and she’s performing at the Big Bird tomorrow night, do you want to join?”
“Oh I’ve been there before!” Aurora exclaimed as she handed the coffee man a two pound coin.
“Why haven’t I?” Ren scrunched up his face.
“Because although you like to pretend you’re a cocky little shit who’s in the know, you actually never go out and prefer to watch old American detective shows in your ratty pjs whilst vacuuming your apartment,” Aurora smiled sweetly. “Which is probably why you’ve never had a boyfriend or even many friends until I came along and-“
“Okay thank you, I get the picture,” Ren replied through gritted teeth, “Anthony the coffee man gets the picture, everyone else in the queue gets the picture.”
“You’re literally holding a stack of books on ancient turds and yet you’re questioning why you don’t have a social life?” Aurora continued relentlessly as Ren rolled his eyes and began to stalk off across the courtyard. The bells were tolling loud and clear for midday and pigeons were taking flight above them, spreading out across the city.
“I’m just saying,” Aurora yelled after him, attracting the attention of other students and several professors who were picnicing in the Friday sun. “Maybe you should spend a little less time vacuuming and a little more time sweeping!”
It would have been an innocent enough remark, strange but innocent, if Aurora had not chosen to say it in Italian, using the verb ‘scopare’ for sweeping.
Scopare was also slang for having sex.
Ren wheeled round, ready to scream some expletives back at her. However he managed to launch himself face first into the chest of the boy he had seen in the corridor.
“Watch out,” the boy laughed, reaching out to stabilise Ren and the books.
“Sorry,” Ren mumbled, feeling his face flush. He wondered if the boy had heard Aurora’s insult? Probably, she was excruciatingly loud at times.
“Do you think you could direct me to the Medieval Studies department?” the boy asked brightly, “I’m meant to be meeting someone there.”
“Of course,” Ren nodded, “It’s behind –“ he paused as he looked at the boy. “Do you know the campus at all?”
“No,” the boy smiled apologetically, “I’m Oskar by the way.”
“Ren,” Ren replied, noticing the boy’s slight German accent, “I’ll show you the way then, it’s easier than trying to describe it – there’s a lot of turns.”
“I appreciate it,” Oskar beamed.
Ren gestured awkwardly in front of him as the two of them began to move across the quad towards the side of a large brick building.
“You’re not from London?” Ren hazarded as Oskar laughed.
“No, but I’ve visited my Grandfather here a few times before. I’m originally from Germany, a town called Darmstadt.”
“Are you doing a semester abroad then?” Ren asked.
Oskar seemed so confident, smiling at the people they passed like they were old friends.
“Something like that,” Oskar replied, “just need to clarify some research. What about yourself?”
“I’m an undergrad,” Ren explained as Oskar nodded enthusiastically.
“Oh yes, I have intensely caffeinated memories of being one of those.”
Ren laughed and pointed at a narrow building in front of them with a stone carved dragon above the doorway.
“Medieval Studies is in there, on the second floor,” he explained.
“Thank you, Ren,” Oskar beamed, reaching out to shake hands. Ren smiled with bemusement as he took the other boy’s hand, noticing the softness of his skin and the cool metal of a large gold ring bearing what Ren assumed was some sort of family crest. “Until next time,” Oskar nodded.
“Bis später,” Ren grinned, watching Oskar disappear into the relative darkness of the building.
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