Inspired by The Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese, in the National Gallery, room 9
Read by Nick Delvallé
Plato once said that each of us is a man divided, always seeking his other half. I suppose this is what Aristotle was thinking of when he called Alexander and me, “one soul residing in two bodies.” The question is: whose soul? That’s what I’ve always wanted to know.
In the early days, we had a lot of fun. Back when we used to hang in the Palazzo on the Grand Canal. We used to swap clothes on a regular basis. Then we’d trade places and bite our cheeks to avoid giggling as viewers stared at the painting in bafflement.
“But which one is Alexander?” they’d say.
When they’d gone, we would bend double with laughter, holding onto one another and wiping our eyes.
Only later did the question sink in. Which one is Alexander? Never: which one is Hephaestion?
After a while, Alexander got bored. He was like that. Let’s conquer India. Let’s go to Sogdia. Too much was never enough for him.
“Everyone says we look like twins. And so we are. Twin souls.” He seized me by the shoulders and kissed me. “You, too, are Alexander.” His eyes sparkled with mischief. “Let’s make more twins. It’ll be fun.”
First we gave Darius’s daughters matching dresses. It was a pretty gesture, but not bold enough for Alexander. So we began making doubles of people in the crowd. Not all at once. We spaced it out over time, so that new generations would discover two figures where once there had only been one. Two plumed soldiers. Two observers in turbans. Two androgynous youths – that to my mind looked worryingly like Bagoas – dressed in green and coral. Alexander even gave them twin dogs.
“Look, Hephaestion!” he would say. “Our sweet twinship reflected everywhere!”
But I began to have my doubts. In all our years, he had never once said, “I, too, am Hephaestion.” How could I know he didn’t multiply twins as he had once multiplied Alexandrias, for his own glory? These people, too, are Alexander. You are all Alexander.
My doubts grew when the dwarf and the monkey appeared. Before that, it had been a dark and a fair child, peeping at one another around my legs. That, I could accept. But the dwarf seemed to look on the monkey with horror, as if to say: “Don’t you dare consider me a twin.” I recalled Alexander’s words to Darius: “I am king of all Asia. Do not speak to me as an equal.” From that day, I stood just a fraction further off.
And then he appeared. The child in red. Looking up at Alexander from the safety of Sisygambis’s arms. The same cloak and tunic; the same curly hair. A boy made in his own image.
The Great Alexander had succeeded in making himself a new twin. All the hurt of the centuries came flooding in like the Indus. It was as it had been in life. First Bagoas, then Roxane. Always the next conquest, the new horizon. And I was as I had always known myself to be. Expendable. Insignificant.
He didn’t even see me leave. Too busy flaunting his magnanimity to Darius’s wife and mother. I stood on the polished floor of the gallery and read the title of the painting: The Family of Darius before Alexander. Bitter tears came to my eyes. Before Alexander. Never mind that the whole point of the story was that Sisygambis had knelt to me. That she had called me, “Great King,” when she begged for clemency. That for one moment I had known what it was to have the adulation Alexander had imbibed with his mother’s milk. No. Who would come to see a painting called: The Family of Darius before Hephaestion? What storyteller would speak of Hephaestion the Great? If they spoke of me at all, it would only be as another Alexander, an extension of his all-conquering ego.
I turned my back and walked away.
A voice echoed through the maze of rooms. A sound of footsteps drew nearer. I flattened myself against the marble doorway, hidden by shadows.
“But why does it have to be here?” said a second voice. “Can’t you just say it?”
I could see them now. Two young men in their twenties. One held the other by the wrist, dragging him towards The Family of Darius. They were laughing, breathless. I knew the look in their eyes. I had seen it in the eyes of Alexander, time without number. Late at night, outside his tent. Across a crowded council chamber. By my bedside as I lay dying. My throat tightened.
“It has to be here.” The first youth dragged his companion to stand before the enormous canvas, right where I had been standing moments before. “In front of the painting. Our painting.”
“Very well.” The second youth’s lips quirked a smile. He knew what was coming.
“Will you…” His lover took a breath. “Will you m― Oh God, where’s Hephaestion?”
They turned to stare at the painting, now spectacularly empty of – well – me. Viewed from this side, my absence left an awkward gap. Darius’s family gazed at a portion of canvas between Alexander and a dull blank. The two little boys played peek-a-boo around nothing. And were those – could those be – tears on Alexander’s cheek?
The first youth was shaking.
“It’s not possible. I mean, why? Hephaestion and Alexander, that’s the whole point. How could they even...?”
“It’s all right.” His beloved laid a hand on his shoulder. “There’ll be some explanation. Restoration work or something. Let’s go and ask someone.”
The first youth continued to look back in disbelief as his beloved lead him away. My cheeks burned with shame. I had done this. To these two, the painting had become a precious symbol of their love, and I had ruined it. How many more like them had there been down the ages? How many more were still to come? Without me, there was nothing for them to hold onto. Without me, the painting was meaningless.
Quietly, I slipped back between frame and canvas. Alexander was waiting. The force of his hug winded me as our breastplates clashed.
“Where were you?” His voice was hoarse. “I thought you’d left me again.”
“Just getting a change of scenery,” I said. “Seeing things from a new perspective.”
“Well, don’t.” He squeezed my hand. “I die without you, Hephaestion. You know that.”
I squeezed back. It was good to feel this way again. It had been a long time.
“Let’s swap clothes again.”
Alexander’s eyes sparkled. They had had that same spark just before he charged up the bank at Granicus. I wanted to kiss each of them a thousand times.
“I was hoping you’d ask,” he said. “The red looks much better on you. And look!” He pointed. “I made you a little twin.”
(c) Elizabeth Hopkinson, 2016
Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 50 short stories published, as well as a historical fantasy novel, Silver Hands. She has won several prizes, including the James White Award, Jane Austen short story (runner-up) and Historic House short story (runner-up). She lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Her website is elizabethhopkinson.uk
Nicholas Delvallé trained at Bristol Old Vic. Since leaving he’s toured Austria with Vienna’s English Theatre; performed in All’s Well that Ends Well & Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe; played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet by Theatre Sotto Voce, understudied in the National Theatre’s production of A Small Family Business & most recently played Ferdinand/Antonio in The Tempest at the Southwark Playhouse.