Coffee Break Read – Titus Holdings

Early November MDCCLXXVII

The golden autumnal weather had given way to a chilly November. Dai Llewellyn sat at his desk by the broad window that looked out over the walled garden of his residence. He still struggled to think of it as ‘home’. Maybe it was the eagle over the door that sneered at him every time he crossed the threshold with its silent message that this was a villa designated sub aquila – Roman only. He wondered if he could arrange to get the facade remodelled on some excuse so above the name of the house, the poppies of its name were wreathed there instead.
He had been absently playing with the silver band around his index finger as he thought these near treasonous thoughts. Then he looked at the ring, it’s intricate blend of Celtic knots and Roman letters and symbols. It marked him out as a citizen – as Roman as his beloved wife Julia and without it she could not be his. She had given him this ring to remind him that their worlds were enriched by each other, not diminished.
Days like this he had to be reminded of that. Sighing, he tried to focus again on the information in front of him. A breakdown of the tenancy of a group of insulae on the rougher edge of Viriconium’s expanding commercial area. The buildings were owned by a Britannia wide property agency – Titus Holdings. They provided housing for over four hundred families – most were single-parent households or impoverished elderly folk who either had no family or whose sons and daughters lacked the space and resources to take them in. It was one of the poorest communities in the city and Dai knew that Titus Holdings did little for its tenants except ensure the structural integrity of the building was maintained. And that was only to avoid facing criminal charges if they should collapse.
He had not visited the estate himself since his return to Viriconium after almost a decade living in Londinium, but his Senior Investigator, Bryn Cartivel had done so and his account had been harrowing.
“I’m not saying I’ve not seen as bad – we both have. Think the dreg ends of the Caligula, but that was Londinium and most there were unregistered and criminals. These people are just desperately poor. Most do seasonal work in the farms around or go begging even. Half the kids look like they’ve not had a decent meal in their lives and most all the old folk are ill from the mould and damp. I was told there is a local joke that the estate has to restock each spring ‘cos so many don’t make it through the winter.” Bryn shook his head at the thought. “It’s grim, Bard.”
“Grim – but not illegal.” Dai had a bitter taste in his mouth as he spoke. “The law says no one forces those people to live there, they choose to do so. That means they choose to accept the conditions the owner offers. After all, if they don’t like it they can always leave.”
“I can see it now you put it that way. They are spoiled for choice with alternatives – sleep on the streets, or under a bridge by the river – or maybe in a nice comfy hedgerow.”
Dai sighed.
“Roman logic. People who can’t imagine what it is like to be so poor the very concept of ‘choice’ about anything in life is meaningless.”
“Not all Romans are rich – your Julia was born in a place not so very different, from what my Gwen tells me.”
“That’s true, but it’s the rich ones that make the laws.”

From ‘Dying for a Home’ a short story in The First Dai and Julia Omnibus by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago.

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