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In Ancient Rome (from Deafness Down)

The Colosseum

In ‘Deafness Down’, Michael Uniacke uses a Greek font to give the sensation to the reader of something said but not understood, an everyday experience for deaf people. This extract is part of Michael’s memoir being launched in Castlemaine on Monday 14 March with the support of Writeability Goes Regional. The protagonist is about 11 or 12 years old and trapped in a history class.

“The early Romans were men of action but of few words. It was reflected in the Latin language, which as those of you who study it know, is quite abbreviated in its syntax. Latin conveys much information in few words. The Romans were builders and warriors, and believed themselves to be the master race of the ancient world. At the height of the Roman Empire they ruled most of the known world, from northern England through France, which was known as Gaul, to Palestine and northern Africa.”

Old Spencer, the history master, wore a black academic gown over his tweed jacket and fawn trousers. He looked like he had been teaching boys for seven or eight hundred years. But just when we thought he was too old to be of much consequence, he had an unnerving habit of letting fly with a waspish aside that drew sniggering, uncertain laughter and showed he was absolutely with it.

He paced the platform at the front of the class, his gown flowing behind him as if readying for take-off. I swivelled to keep his face in view. It disappeared when he reached the end of the platform, but the momentum of his oratory sustained me until he executed a turn. Then his face came into view as he began a new lap, and his robe swirled gracefully about his calves.

“Today I want to look at the building works of the ancient Romans. Some of their buildings survive today, notably the Circus Maximus, or the Coliseum, which was the scene for chariot races and some quite bloodthirsty spectacles in which gladiators fought to the death and Christians were put to the lions for sport. It was a bit like the MCG, except today the Lions don’t battle the Christians, they play the Saints or the Bulldogs, don’t they boys, ha ha ha ha!”

Spencer’s voice was like old, quality furniture; it was solid, durable, and had presence. But his pallid little joke encouraged him, because he stepped from the platform and moved between the rows of desks, cruising his academic ship on the seas of captured adolescent heads. Only by turning could I see the back of his head and the gently rippling wake of his gown, and turning like I did, I met the eyes of the rest of the class.

I kept my face as bland as possible. I did not want to attract attention as I did something that attracted a great deal of attention from the other boys, but at least it was not from the master.

When he reached the back of the class I turned to face the front, just a fraction before he did. “Απαρτ φρομ λανγυαγε, τηε Ρομανσ γαϖε υσ μανψ οφ τηε ωαψσ οφ γοϖερνμεντ τηατ αρε στιλλ ωιτη υσ τοδαψ. Τηε Σενατε ωασ ονε εξαμπλε. Τηε ελδερ στατεσμεν ωουλδ γατηερ το δεβατε ανδ ϖοτε ον λαωσ τηατ γοϖερνεδ τηε Εμπιρε. Ωηιχη ρεμινδσ με. Ηερε’σ α θυιχκ τεστ Ι ωαντ ψου το ωριτε δοων ιν ψουρ εξερχισε βοοκσ. Ψου σηουλδ κνοω τηε ανσωερσ. Ανψβοδψ ωηο δοεσν’τ ωιλλ βε τηροων το τηε τιγερσ. Φιρστ θυεστιον: ωριτε δοων τηε ναμεσ οφ τηε τωο μαϕορ ροαδσ λεαδινγ ουτ οφ Ρομε.”

Without warning, everyone in the class opened exercise books. In alarm I did the same, and the sour familiar juice rose in my throat.

Behind me classroom noises of shuffling paper, scraped feet and a dropped ruler subsided into a silence as pupils scribbled on paper. It was a silence that became heavy and sinister as I stared furiously at the blank page, my pen poised to write… nothing; I glanced left and right and squirmed to steal a clue from Shane Sanderson, who shared my desk, but it told me nothing.

Again without warning, Spencer’s voice boomed from somewhere near the back. “Γιϖε τηε Λατιν ναμε φορ Φρανχε.”

I swivelled around but by the time I saw the master he was gazing out the window, oblivious to the sea of downturned heads. I was half-heartedly ready to tell him I didn’t hear but now I couldn’t get his attention. I turned to my exercise book and stole another useless glance at what my deskmate was writing. Not writing was too difficult.

I wrote something. ‘In ancient Rome.’ In ancient Rome what? You do as the Romans do?

“Ναμε τηε βυιλδινγ ωηερε τηε Ρομανσ μαδε τηειρ λαωσ.”

I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t copy it. I couldn’t write anything. I couldn’t ask. I didn’t know the answer. Because I’m stupid.

For the third time, with no warning, pupils banged down their pens and sat up. I did the same. The master appeared in my peripheral vision as a piece of leg covered by a stripe of black and a stripe of fawn.

“Hawkins. Answer το τηε φιρστ θυεστιον πλεασε.”

Sit absolutely still. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t even try, and nobody will know you’re stupid.

From somewhere I heard Hawkins’ voice: “τηε ςια Αππια ραν νορτη ουτ οφ Ρομε ανδ τηε ςια Φλαμινια ραν σουτη.”

It sounded like a substantial reply, and I glanced at what I’d written. ‘In ancient Rome.’

At least if he takes a sweeping glance at the exercise books it will look as though I’ve written something, however little and pathetic it is. I folded my arms and leant forward to cover as much of the exercise book as I could. I stared hard, sensing behind me the master’s heavy voice and the lighter voices of pupils.

Then Shane, who sat next to me, jabbed me in my ribs. I turned to him in fright, and saw others looking at me. I turned the other way, to find the entire class, led by the master, transfixing me with their eyes.

“Uniacke,” boomed the master. He’d moved further to the back. “Thought you’d lent your ears to Marc Anthony. Or your hearing aid, rather. What’s your answer to the third question?”

I was naked and alone, and my heart began a canter. Play dumb. “Umm, the Romans, the ancient Romans…”

The master cut in. “Ωηατ ελοθυενχε! Ηε’σ λεντ ηισ βραινσ το Μαρχ Αντηονψ ασ ωελλ!”

I sensed a heavy-humoured edge to his words so the ripple of laughter that followed did not surprise me. I sat still and stared at a chalk duster. The master appeared and faced me. He looked more kindly. “Uniacke, no-one’s going to throw you to the lions.” Laughter rippled again.

“Αλτηουγη ωε μιγητ φεεδ τηε τιγερσ,” he told the class to a third wave of rippling laughter, although it didn’t feel as pronounced this time.

He turned to me again. “What was the name of the building where the Roman senators met?”

Jesus bloody Christ was it that easy? Did I have to worry that much? “The Forum,” I answered. I saw his approval just as his gaze swept away. I was suddenly aware of cables of tension in my neck, shoulders and back.

At morning recess I waited for Terry to finish a turn with the cricket bat. “What did he say? You know, during history. What was he saying about me?” I asked him, heavy with the memory of the voice leading a dance of laughter, but Terry had nearly forgotten.

He frowned, then grinned. “Nuthin to worry about Mick. He makes these crappy jokes all the time. Nuthin to worry about.”

About Michael Uniacke

Michael Uniacke writes mainly on themes around deafness, hearing impairment and disability. He wrote and presented comedy material on disability for the television series No Limits on Channel 31 and has worked in journalism, as a freelance contributor, editor and subeditor, for magazines and newspapers. His writing interests include deaf history in Europe and Australia.

Writeability Goes Regional is proud to support the launch of Michael Uniacke’s two memoirs Deafness Down and Deafness Gain as part of the Castlemaine Arts Open festival on in March 2016.

This commission is supported by Perpetual Trustees.

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