Cleopatra was a chubby little tart with something of a moustache. She had a single eyebrow that seemed to be crawling across her forehead like a demented millipede and a bloody great nose. In short, she was the kind only a brother could love - but that was the Ptolemys all over. Yes, you've guessed it: the Prof and I were at it again. We spent a few days working on the Temporal Interface Terminal - T.I.T. for short. Well to be honest, the Prof did all the real work - I just supplied the muscle. I might not be very clever but I'm good at lifting things. He fiddled about with coils and inductors and I humped large metal objects back and forth and endured a stream of sarcasm. It came as quite a relief when he pronounced himself satisfied.
"Well, Jonty, my boy, I think we're ready. The Q.U.I.M. appears to be functioning perfectly."
"Quantum Universe Indicator Matrix. It will tell us if we stay in this branch of the continuum or go elsewhere. Look here, I've calibrated it so this universe is number one. The one where we met that odious version of Socrates is provisionally number two, although the Q.U.I.M will eventually determine its true relationship to the baseline."
"But how many are there?"
"Oh, infinity minus one, I should hazard a guess, but I could be wrong."
I have trouble getting my head around numbers as big as my bank overdraft so I just looked suitably impressed - or tried to. The old Prof squinted down his nose me and inquired if I was suffering from a bad case of gas. There's no pleasing some people. Anyway, I duly presented myself at the Prof's pad the following day. The mad old bastard had surpassed himself in the sartorial stakes yet again. He was wearing a wretched polyester safari jacket in a shade that I can only describe as dog-shit brown. Actually 'wearing' doesn't quite cover it. It was several sizes too large so he was more walking around inside it. The shoulders of the jacket seemed to change direction a few moments after he did. It gave the impression that his head could perform 360-degree rotations - like he'd just escaped from the set of The Exorcist. I was expecting projectile vomiting at any second - on my part! It was the bilious yellow Lycra cycling shorts that did it. With his skinny little legs, he looked like a variegated turd on stilts. I won't even mention the sandals with socks.
"OK, Boss, where're we going this time?"
"Ancient Egypt, Jonty. I have a mind to establish once and for all precisely how the Pyramids were built."
Who was I to argue? He screwed that damned C.U.N.T. (Compact Universal Neural Translator) into my ear again and we entered the T.I.T. as before. I eased myself into one of the over-stuffed armchairs and leapt out again with a yelp.
"Whatever is the matter you with now, Jonty? If I had known you were going to be such a fidget I would never have taken you on."
I didn't say a word but gave him a very pointed look as I removed eight inches of rusty upholstery spring from my posterior.
"Well I'm buggered!"
"No Prof, I am."
The T.I.T wobbled and I felt that now-familiar nausea. The Prof was working like a one-armed paperhanger as he dashed from one side of the control console to the other. I sat back and watched him - from a different armchair. There was a strange moment when the T.I.T seemed to bounce suddenly and then everything returned to normal. The Prof stared angrily at a blank VDU and then smashed his palm down hard on the top of it. Some fuzzy writing emerged, flickered briefly, blazed brightly for a nanosecond and then disappeared leaving a blue screen on which the words 'Windows general protection fault, press any key to continue, ' appeared.
"Bollocks, balls and balderdash! The C.L.I.T.'s still playing up."
"The Combined Location In Time array. I set it for the time of Cheops and when do we go? Bloody Ptolemaic Dynasty, that's all. It really is too bad, Jonty. Bloody Microsoft!"
"Oh, come on, Prof. You surely can't blame Bill Gates for this one?"
"Of course I can. I wrote the programme using all the redundant bits from Windows 98. Bloody thing has never worked properly."
"That's what you get for using Princess Di software."
"Yeah, you know, consumes masses of resources and very prone to crashing."
"Jonty, sometimes I find your taste very questionable indeed."
I didn't mention the Lycra shorts. Unless your idea of meat and two veg is a cocktail sausage and a couple of frozen peas...
We stepped out of the T.I.T. into blazing sunshine. My ears were assaulted by a babble of voices; peddlers, pimps, drunks, curses, laughter, threats - you know, the kind of thing you can hear any Saturday night in the West End. Except this was Egypt around 46 BC. I like it when we go BC - it makes me feel less of a heathen if JC hasn't been born yet. What the locals made of us I hate to think. How would you feel if a silvery dome suddenly materialised in the middle of your used donkey lot and two strangely dressed apparitions just lurched out of the walls?
The citizens of Alexandria reacted in the predictable way of big city folk at any time or place. They ignored us, stepping out of our way with a slight shrug as if we were just another pile of camel poo on the pavement to be avoided. Not so the local goon squad. Policemen everywhere must take ugly pills along with lessons on how to be obnoxious and aggressive without raising a sweat. I felt like an ethnic minority. Before you could say 'knife' we were taken down town and banged up in a cell with an evil looking goat molester and a confused menopausal Alexandrian housewife who'd been caught stall-lifting in the local bazaar. The professor was trying to make his protests in what, he assured me was ancient Egyptian but wasn't getting very far. I haven't had too many brushes with the Long Arm of the Law but even I know that saying " Oi, monkey-cunt! We got rights. My grandmother was a hippopotamus God while yours wore army boots," isn't going to exactly endear you to the local fuzz. The Prof assured me that what he actually meant to say was that we were very important people and should be taken to see someone in authority.
It was fortunate that the locals could barely understand his accent and contented themselves with giving us a good kicking - I'd have hated the Prof to have made them angry. We spent a sleepless night getting acquainted with the resident micro-fauna - fleas, to the likes of you and me - before being dragged up before the Beak next morning. He turned out to be a decent sort and suspended the sentence of castration with a rusty razor. Fortunately he was Greek so we didn't have any trouble making ourselves understood. Apparently the charge was 'making the place look untidy, ' they obviously had the same reaction to the Prof's outfit as I did. The Magistrate must have thought we were vastly amusing and he sent us up to the palace to entertain some visiting bigwigs. The Prof was going to protest until I reminded him of the alternative by stomping hard on his besocked foot.
We hung around in an anteroom for a while. The Prof made a big deal of studying the murals while I ogled a couple of serving girls. It was very frustrating not being able to chat them up. The C.U.N.T only allowed me to understand what was said, not to speak anything other than my native English, although the Prof disputes that I do that with any fluency. I was getting on OK. I had at least, by dint of sign language of the 'me Tarzan, you Jane' variety, established that one was called Charmione and the other Iras. I was trying to work up the courage to ask the Prof what the Greek was for 'fancy a shag, darling?' when we were summoned to the presence.
I've already told you my first impressions of old Cleo. The others present were obviously Romans and the Prof became ecstatic, rattling away in Latin and having a right good laugh. I'll say one thing for Cleo, she was a bright lass. She told the Prof she was fluent in nine languages, which put his snout out of joint a bit, as he could only muster eight. The Prof jauntily dismissed me as his body-servant. I couldn't let that go.
"I've never served your fucking body in my life and well you know it!"
"What did he say, Magus? What language was that - if such a barbaric tongue can even be called a language?"
"Ah, that was British, Your Majesty. A small Island off the coast of Gaul."
One of the Romans piped up:
"Ooh, I've been there. Horrible place, wet and cold and they all paint themselves blue. You there! Why aren't you painted blue?"
"I know who you are, bastard. You're Julius bloody Caesar. You're the one who called us weeny, weedy and weaky."
You can see I know my History. The Prof looked exasperated.
"He was speaking Latin, Jonty. Vini, vidi vici. It means, 'I came, I saw, I conquered.' Really, your ignorance is truly appalling at times."
He turned to apologise to Caesar but the bald old bastard was grinning happily and nodding his head. On the strength of that, we got invited to dinner. I ended up sitting next to a bloke called Marcus Antonius who was a right laugh. He drank like a fish and kept up a ribald commentary on his Boss and Cleo, whom he thought was a real fright. I thought it was pretty rich, knowing what was in store for him in few years! Still, I dredged around in my memory and found a couple of words of Latin that had been left there from some book I once read. I tried them out on him.
"Canis major, Tone, don't you think?"
He fell about laughing and had to be helped back onto his couch by a couple of Nubian slave girls. He took his time over it. He then bellowed to all his Roman mates that I thought the Queen was a big old dog and they all fell off their couches. The ones served by the eunuchs got back on pretty quick; can't say as I blame them for that, though. Old Tone then regaled me with a blow-by-blow account - and I do mean blow-by-blow - of his erotic progress through the Roman Empire and expounded the theory that world domination was only an excuse to get to try out loads of exotic pussy. He was modest enough to admit that if it had been up to him, he'd probably have stopped at the German border - all those hairy armpits kind of turned him off.
"What's the totty like in Britannia, then Jonty?"
I gave him the thumbs up and sketched a shapely figure in the air. He gave me a wolfish grin. Our Tone was something of a sex maniac, it seemed.
"Still, how do you find it if they're all painted blue?"
I shook my head and pointed at my own unpainted flesh.
"Old Caesar's telling porkies again, then, is he?"
I nodded. A bloke called Brutus looked sharply interested for a moment or two and then went back to brooding, as he had been doing all evening. Tone took another gallon of wine from a passing slave and grinned at me.
"Well, we're all off for a nice cruise up the Nile tomorrow with his nibs and the Queen. From what I heard, you and your master will be joining us."
The rest of the evening passed in an alcoholic haze. I had to be carried to my bed by a couple of hefty slaves and don't remember much else. I was awoken by the Prof at the crack of sparrow-fart. I could tell the old boy was really excited. My head was thumping and my mouth felt like the crotch-piece of an Arab's underpants so I wasn't in the mood.
"Jonty, my boy, don't you see? This is the chance of a lifetime!"
"Gerroff! Oh fuck! My head hurts. Prof, do something useful and fetch me a priest. The last rites are in order."
"Serves you right. I never indulge in strong liquor and look at me today."
I gazed at the double image of the Prof that swam in out of focus in my bleary vision. At that point it became necessary to park my custard in a convenient lay-by. When I finished throwing up I felt marginally better than spoonfuls of warmed-over death but totally unprepared for a romantic cruise with the bald bullyboy and his big-nosed trollop. Mark Antony looked even worse that I felt and even Brutus was a little tattered around the edges. We boarded the royal barge and set sail, if one can still sail in a bloody great rowing boat, up the Nile. Caesar and Cleo were hidden away in a pavilion at the stern. The rest of us lay about on the decks. Only the Prof was still full of piss and vinegar and he kept up a running commentary on everything and everyone we saw. Eventually, old Tone had enough of the Prof's ramblings and offered to help him lose twenty pounds of ugly fat instantly - by cutting the old wind-bag's head off. Silence returned and I fell asleep.
I woke to the sound of leather thwacking into flesh and a recurring pain in my ribs. Someone was kicking me in the side and demanding that I get up as it was 'time for the show.' There stood one of Caesar's henchmen glaring at me like I was something he just scraped off his boot and was none too thrilled about it. The Prof was already up and looking as happy as the man who killed his father. I struggled to my feet and shambled over to him.
"What gives, Prof?"
"Jonty, my boy, I hardly know how to tell you this but they seem to believe we are some variety of mountebanks and insist that we perform for the Queen and Caesar. I really don't know where to begin."
"Leave it to me, Prof. You just translate what I say. I've had to do a bit of stand-up in my time."
Precisely three minutes and fourteen seconds later there were two hefty splashes in the Nile. I think it was the one about 'what do you do if your husband has a fit in the bath? - Throw the washing in and save on the electricity.' Of course, it could have been the Prof's translation, because that one normally goes down a storm in the Pub. Anyway, how was I to know that Caesar was epileptic? I towed the old boy to the bank before the crocodiles could get indigestion and we squelched our way back to Alexandria. He belaboured me all the way for my 'execrable taste and shoddy humour.' I took it as a compliment - at least I was better than Socrates.