The first day of September day in Úrkút set in with a gloomy drizzle.
It marked the end of the summer holidays for the Bergmann family. The house became desolate; there was only the cat on the windowsill, daydreaming in her loneliness about titmice singing in the garden – although, of course, she was not exactly longing for their songs. The lawn swarmed with ants hauling their load, in a hurry to salvage the last valuable crumbs of the summer. Squirrels and dormice prepared for the final test, waiting for the cambric-clothed murderer whose lances were the piercing winds and armour the frozen lakes. When winter set in, it would be too late to search for anything on the lifeless ground. Relentless starvation, thirst, and death by frost awaited those who had not provided for themselves, or did not sleep through this dreary period. Now, however, there was no sign of the approaching danger. Crickets chirped in the mild evenings, while tomtits swinging on twigs puffed themselves out contentedly as they spent the cooling nights with food in their crops.
The father usually stayed at home in the daytime. His computer, his only companion, bound him to his desk, although he had to travel to the faraway from time to time. In the morning, the rooms were filled with silence worthy of a cemetery; bats rustled in stuffy corners of the attic and daddy-long-legs romanced on the ceiling. The only real noise was the monotonous purr of the computer’s cooling fan.
Joseph had trouble immersing himself in his usual work, however enthusiastic he was about it. Instead of ideas, scenes from the earlier events kept flitting across his mind. He tried to shoo them away desperately, but all his efforts had been in vain. It was so difficult to believe all he had seen, and all he had heard had happened to his own daughter. He would rather have read about it in a novel created by some talentless artist with a great imagination.
What does God want of my daughter? Why is it so important for Him that she gets to know Him? Smouldering terror held his soul, but he could formulate no exact reason for it. But God is good. Is God good? A sense of his own inadequacy seized him when he thought of Angela, as if he were a diamond cutter about to fashion a special gem. Which facet shall I cut first? Why, it’s hard on all sides, yet so brittle … She’s such a unique child … and I love her so much.
The currents of anxiety parted, and his thoughts drifted back to the distant past of his childhood. Carefree and joyful times appeared vaguely in his memories and the past suddenly came to life: a soft bouquet of scents, feelings and snatches of sound caressed him. He was free again, daydreaming, a child in his imagination …
His eyes closed gradually and his head fell forward. The light from the computer screen shimmered, reflecting his attractive face. His eyes were set in deep sockets separated from his wide forehead by long, arched brows. Joseph had wavy lips – worthy of an artist’s brush – and a soft chin, which had enchanted Edith from the very first moment she saw him. This face was peacefully resting at the moment, and its owner entered more and more deeply into his colourful dream world. His mother appeared before him, lighting candles on the copper candlestick a Jewish acquaintance had given her.
‘My dear son, look how interesting this candlestick is. It’s called a “menorah” where it comes from. It holds eight candles and it symbolizes the burning bush Moses saw in the wilderness. The Father Eternal appeared to him in the fire’, he remembered his mother telling him with a joyous heart.
‘My heart shall also burn for you forever, my dear son, like these candles in the menorah. Never forget this, no matter where life takes you. Always approach the burning bushes others avoid, and take a good look, because life may have sent them to show you something important. Don’t forget that the greatest possibilities in life are always surrounded by fire and suffering, in order to scare away those who aren’t worthy of them.’
The gatebell rang. The dream vanished. Joseph shook his head and looked at his watch. It was already noon. Saliva had dribbled on his wrist.
‘Oh, mighty …! I’ve made no progress whatsoever!’
He growled and made for the gate. It was the podgy, monkey-faced postman. His potty-shaped green hat squatted on his head. His eternal joviality surrounded his countenance, flushed from drinking wine, like a halo.
‘Greetings, Mr Joseph. How are we feeling today?’ he began.
‘Hi, Ricky! Well …’
‘I see we’ve just woken up, haven’t we? No problem. We’ve got a registered one.’
He began to forage in his bottomless leather bag, which had a sizeable strap sewn around it in vain; the pouch strained against it. At last he found the leather-bound register and pulled it out together with an orange envelope.
‘Jesus Christ, Joey, I can’t find my pen. Aunty Ida must have taken it. The devil take it! Is her pension so teeny? Can I borrow a pen?’
‘All right, come in,’ answered Joseph, though he knew very well that Ricky had not left his pen behind. He was the ultimate joker. They walked slowly back towards the house, but the postman assiduously pulled up beside Joseph.
‘Joey, Joey mate, have you heard the latest postman-joke? Hilarious, gonna knock you out!’
‘Nope. Spit it out, Ricky.’
Joseph tried to stay on the stone path that linked the gate to the front door but, given his substantial girth, Ricky pushed him off unawares. At least, Ricky was unaware of it.
‘Well, in goes the postman, he’s bringing a letter, can see the dog’s on the loose. The owner says, “No need to be afraid of him, he’s still drowsy: he’s just been castrated.” To which the postman says, “I’m not afraid he’ll fuck me, but that he’ll bite me.” Good, yes?’
Ricky choked with laughter and slapped his knees. Joseph smiled, flashing his teeth as well, but inside he was hoping there were a few pens on the little phone stand by the door and they would not encounter any more complications. Ricky was trotting beside him faithfully and nearly fell on his belly at the bottom of the stairs. Joseph signed the register but, as the letter was addressed to his wife, he left it on the stand without opening the envelope. He saw the postman out for fear he might sit down somewhere: if he did, he would never leave for his ‘world-conquering’ journey before tossing back two half-decilitre glasses of brandy. Joseph managed to show him out of the gate after a lot of smiling, shaking hands and slapping shoulders. He was just rejoicing at how smoothly he had managed to remove Ricky to this distance from the house when misfortune struck. Ricky looked back and cast a sly glance at him.
‘My dear Joey, I’ve become really tired of so much walking, I’ve grown quite thirsty too. Have you still got some of that home-distilled brandy of yours left? You know, the stuff you’ve nicknamed “hell-water”. You’ve too much to drink it all up yourselves anyway …’
‘Sure, Ricky mate.’
Joseph trudged back into the house like the remnant of a beaten army. All his efforts had been in vain; there seemed to be a little bell hanging on the convolutions of the postman’s brain. If his blood alcohol level was not up to the yearly average, this bell started ringing as soon as his level slumped below a threshold. On some days, he returned to the post office soused, to put it mildly.
‘Bring along two glasses,’ Ricky yelled after Joseph from outside, ‘I’m not in a hurry, my dear Joey! I’ve left you to last.’
Fabulous, Joseph thought. That’s curtains for any work this morning. He reached into the kitchen cupboard mechanically and uncorked the last bottle of brandy. He sniffed it: the permeating plum scent of the hell-water made his nostrils contract. As he was getting out the half-decilitre glasses, he heard mad whooping and a hoarse laugh. He carefully drew the lace curtain aside. This is a real catastrophe! The dustman’s got here just in time to join him. They must’ve collaborated against me.
The lorry puffed, its engine came to a stop with a growl, a door slammed. Joseph began to understand that his afternoon was also lost.
‘Joey dear! Imagine! Zümi is here. Bring out three glasses! D’you hear me?’
Joseph waved from the door and fished out a third small glass.
‘Joey dear, you’re a godsend!’ Zümi thanked him upon seeing the bottle of brandy.
‘I think Rézangyal, the brass angel, has sent him from hell!’ The postman uttered a hoarse neigh and slapped his knees again.
Joseph realized that this was how Ricky rewarded himself for anything he thought was a great punchline, and that was why his trousers were threadbare at the knees.
‘But Zümi, you’re driving.’ Joseph made one more weak attempt to get them on their way.
’C’mon, Joey dear, I only have to roll down to the site; I could do it with my eyes closed.’
‘He’s tried before after half a bottle of rum.’ Ricky was howling with laughter. ‘He only took out a bush.’
Joseph smiled. These honourable citizens of Úrkút were beginning to amuse him.
‘I’ve settled it, Joey dearie, I’ve settled it. I’m gonna drink aaand drive!’
A pheasant squawked in the thicket nearby. Joseph poured the portions equitably, they clicked their glasses and wished each other fabulous wealth. Soon the bottle was empty and, by two in the afternoon, the postman’s reserve flask was also dry. Joseph took much persuading at the beginning but Ricky always took care to divide any hell-water around into three parts in a brotherly fashion.
That evening, three major events took place in Úrkút. The dustman drove into a tree and was killed outright; the postman broke his leg on the slope; and Joseph dozed off on the steps of the veranda.
In his inebriated dream, Joseph cowered on a pew in a fusty chapel. His father sat beside him, stooping slightly, with an intent expression on his face. Joseph could smell the aroma of smoked sausage on him. This pungent smell permeated his clothes, perhaps even his soul. He was a tall, wiry peasant with piercing black pupils. He watched the flock gathered in the church; nothing escaped his penetrating stare. Being tall allowed him to see everybody from above. He was especially fond of sermons about sin, punishment and God’s judgements. At such times he pulled himself up contentedly. He thought he acted properly in all matters and had not the slightest suspicion that his neighbours were afraid of his self-righteousness and obduracy. He often cast looks of disapproval at his son, then turned away with a sigh. As a little boy, Joseph’s heart regularly sank because he guessed his father’s love for him was blowing away like drifting sand. He felt he could never satisfy him. I can never become like him. I don’t know why he doesn’t throw me out, he thought bitterly. He surely doesn’t love me any more.
His soul was always tortured; the feeling wounded him in the way a stray dog’s soles are tortured by a broken thorn. He had no idea that, in spite of the harsh words and high expectations, his parents were proud of him. He felt guilty. He hated going to church, found religious books repugnant and watched people in church with increasing suspicion. Do they succeed in living according to the teachings of the Holy Bible? Do they always act in a perfect way? He wondered, but he never received an answer to these questions: he never dared to actually ask anybody about them. He felt far away from this God he heard about every week. He thought people had only made Him up so that nobody could consider himself good. He imagined God to be similar to his father: strict, consistent and temperate.
‘You’ve got drunk again,’ said his father out of the blue, turning to him. ‘You’ll always be a sot.’
He was taken aback. How does he know I’ve got drunk? He felt dizzy, expecting an enormous slap in the face. He looked around the chapel for a way to escape. The slap failed to come. He began to gaze at the colourful windows in the chapel walls. The rays of sunshine tumbling through them tickled his skin. Oh, I wish you windows could talk. What would you say? Would you cry or laugh? You are as colourful as the human soul. Do you understand these Masses? Have you ever seen even one true man?
The windows did not answer, just went on shading the sunlight coming through them.
Suddenly, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. His pulse accelerated. Now comes the slap, he thought, and shuddered. His skin stretched as the veins throbbed in his temple. Carefully, he looked into his father’s eyes, but he found them neither reproving nor resigned.
‘We’ve got to go, son. The mass has finished. We have to finish the sausages this afternoon. We need fresh shavings in the smoking chamber.’
‘Yes, Father. Could I collect the hymnbooks from the pews? If possible.’
‘Very well,’ his father answered in a soldierly manner. ‘Ordo est anima rerumyou know that, don’t you?’
Joseph nodded humbly and stood up with a broken heart. He just loved to put the books in order. He was so intent on his task that when he got to the end of the pew he bumped into a woman. She helped him collect the books lest they bury him. As a farewell, she kissed him on his forehead and told him, ‘God loves you, little boy, you can be sure of that.’
He stood there, grinning inanely for a second, watching the receding woman. She must have been an angel! The nape of his neck itched.
He made after his father but the light coming through the doors disturbed his eyes. Maybe God had come for the woman and was now entering the church door. He wanted to shout after his father, who also walked into the light, but at that moment the door was blown from its iron hinges and the light flowing inside swept him away too. He awoke. He was no longer a little boy and the otherworldly light was coming from the little mirror of Angela’s bicycle, left on the grass. The afternoon sun was dancing in it. He snorted and made for the door at the double. He kicked the brandy bottle, which helplessly rolled along the grass.
A dirty drunkard, right? He remembered his father’s words. He quickly picked up the glasses and threw the bottle over the gate in a fury.
‘Damn! Damn you!’
He felt tears coming. As he returned to his study, the Biedermeier wall clock he had inherited from his grandmother caught his eyes. It had been dependably and steadily ticking time for over a hundred years. The passing of time had not left any mark on its nut-brown carvings and lacquered casing. Its ebony hands were now standing at exactly four o’clock. So the others will be home soon. Oh God! Must get a coffee, a shower, chewing gum – and brush my teeth!
Outside, a crow croaked autumn and the wind rolled acorns on the veranda. Among the trees, the noise of a chainsaw echoed from afar as the fire brigade cleared the trunk of a locust tree away from the road; it had been broken in two when it stopped the garbage truck that had crashed into the ditch.
 Order is the soul of things (Latin)
Thunder, like a gunshot, exploded above the Vatican.
The wind relentlessly chased the ash-coloured rain clouds and squeezed all moisture out of them. It soaked the cobblestones of Saint Peter’s Square, foamed between them and swept along the plastered walls of the houses. A gargoyle belched out jets of rainwater, and veils of water spread down the columns and from arches of the basilica. Ennio Marino’s steps splashed rapidly on the deepening puddles that were proliferating like mushrooms as he sprang awkwardly from one little dry island to another, missing his target time and again. He held his stuffed leather briefcase above his head, clutching it tenaciously, afraid of what would happen were it to fall. Not long before, he had had to pick up some papal documents, strictly confidential of course, from the pavement surrounded by a ring of grinning Japanese tourists. Hating all mistakes, he was ashamed of himself. His fingers froze in the raging storm while bitingly cold streams of water ran down his wrists into the sleeves of his shirt. He winced and ran towards his car at full tilt. It was pouring even harder. The cypresses at the roadside danced like hefty titans. His car was waiting for him on the Via della Posta, hidden behind the central post office of the Vatican. Most secular workers had left long ago. He was late because of his perfectionism. A few steps further and I’ll be soaked to my bones! As if this were a wish it were to fulfil, the low-hanging branch of a cypress doing a rain dance beside him dumped a huge amount of water down his collar.
‘Damn it!’ he shouted, but he stopped running. He gave up trying to stay dry. He lowered his hands. At least my documents should be unharmed.
His Mercedes looked like an ivy-green crocodile just popping out of the water. It withstood the repeated blasts of the wind really well: it did not even tremble. He loved this car because he had admired the brand as a child, and now he owned one. He should be rejoicing; instead, he felt irritable because even a thirty-thousand-lire raincoat would be more useful now than his hundred-million-lire car. He flung his briefcase into the boot and his soaked jacket on the back seat, then, having turned the ignition and the heating on, stretched out contentedly on the driver’s seat. Listening silently to the murmur of the engine for a while, he was overcome by a strange feeling and looked up. A pale green light was glimmering on the dashboard. At first he thought this was caused by the darkened strip of sunshade on the windscreen, but he was wrong. It was coming from something in the back seat.
’Ennio,’ came the call from the shape, who had long been sitting in the car. ‘Have you got some time now? We must talk.’
The man was startled but did not turn round.
‘What?’ he stammered. ‘Of course, my Lord … Why?’
A blinding spear split the sky above the cathedral.
‘Well, Archbishop Ennio Marino, you are now a widely respected person, a servant of humanity, right? Have I missed anything out? You’ve become somebody.’
The archbishop was waiting silently, as he knew very well that praise always preceded a question.
‘That’s right, Ennio, I’d like to ask you something. Or rather, I’d like to bring somebody to your attention. This person lives far away, but if this distant gem of mine is brought to me, it’ll dazzle me with its splendour. You’ll get it to me, won’t you?’
The panoramic rear-view mirror reflected a pair of ivy-green elongated rings, the sight of which always ruffled Ennio’s soul. He nodded reverentially.
‘Of course you don’t have to like me,’ added the devil, ‘although you like me anyway. This cream-coloured leather upholstery is simply fantastic. Hellishly in vogue. You know, of course, that you owe me this too, don’t you?’
Satan’s eyes glowed. Ennio nodded again.
‘You must travel to Tibet, because the person I need lives there. He turned eight years old this year. His name is Ma-gios. You’ll get the details in an e-mail. Not from me of course.’
He burst out laughing, and Ennio also allowed himself a chuckle.
‘Yes, my Lord. I have one more question.’
‘If you’re thinking of the pope, well, he won’t die for a long time to come, don’t even think about it. This John Paul II is a little different from the others. It’s only his character that is strong, but his health too. Ten years ago I tried to strike him down, but powers from above thwarted my attempt.’ He wheezed, then snatched at his head as if bitten by a wasp.
The Mercedes was struck by something at the side and a shadow passed in front of the windscreen.
‘Yes, I know, the Grey Wolves Group. May 1981. Was Ali Ağca your man?’
‘I have no “men”,’ he rasped. ‘I don’t need your wretched human race. You’re powerless, mortal beings. He only did what he had to do.’
‘Yet you need us, otherwise you wouldn’t be here now.’
‘Silence! You can’t even hit a pope properly. Clear target, clearly visible, then he fluffs it. Idiocy! Imperfection! Mistakes! These are your …’
‘Yes, my Lord, we are fallible humans,’ the archbishop feigned a humbler note.
‘This year I’ll try a tumour. I’ll hide it well, in the large intestine. I wonder what the Lord of Lords will make of it. Will he let him go, or save him again? I can’t understand what he’s planning to do with this Methuselah. What a marathon term for a pope!’
Some drops of rain in blinding rainbow colours appeared on the windscreen. They flew about like fireflies. Ennio watched the iridescent drops in amazement. He was overcome by heat.
‘I’ve got to go,’ the devil declared suddenly. ‘Until then, study Tibet and the monasteries. You mustn’t kidnap him, he has to come along of his own free will.’
Ennio thought about it.
‘Don’t worry about them. Those people are beggars. For a few thousand dollars they’d even run all the way around the Himalayas,’ he answered the darkness.
‘Pathetic,’ said the dark head, and it disappeared.
Ennio lit up, relieved. He never knew how to behave around his boss. He would have liked to laugh at him because he was so theatrical, but he treated his power with reverence. It is useful to have influential mates in this Earth-prison. He coughed. He opened the car doors and saw that the shower had abated. Mum had always said I should give it up. He flicked the butt outside and followed it with his eyes as it died out in the rain with a hiss.
He lived a few streets away from the Vatican. He climbed the stairs to the second floor of the vaulted, beige-plastered building, from which light poured into the night. Giovanni has been waiting for me. I hope he’s saved my dinner. He felt the unrelenting stare of the old lady living one floor below him. She had opened her door just a crack to peer at him.
‘Buona notte, Signora Rossi!’ he shouted with a grin but, instead of an answer, he only heard the soft click of the door lock.
Giovanni, his faithful factotum, was already waiting for him at the door. The archbishop was welcomed by pleasant warmth and the smell of food. Even the most evil man is expected home by someone.
‘I’ve made spaghetti for you, my lord,’ Giovanni said curtly and smoothed his jet-black curls away from his forehead. He helped Ennio take off his suit, which was soaked through, the shirt under the jacket was wet as well. ‘I’ll put them out to dry.’
‘Thank you, Giovanni. I don’t know what I would do without you.’
‘My lord would be a hermit,’ Giovanni answered. He was chuckling but his brow darkened. ‘And so would I.’
‘Is something bothering you, my old servant?’
‘Yes, my lord, we need to talk about something.’
‘I won’t give you a pay-rise,’ remarked the archbishop jauntily and laughed at Giovanni’s foolish expression.
‘No, my lord, I really didn’t mean … I only …’
‘It was only a joke, you old fool. C’mon, let’s sit down to dinner first and then you can unload your heart.’ He placed his hand on Giovanni’s shoulder and they stepped into the kitchen together. He was always overcome by peace in the smell of the kitchen. Night beetles, butterflies and moths eddying around the lampshade, the smells of the oilcloth on the table and the sooty stove all woke memories of his home; Mum’s swaying hips hugged by Dad’s hard-working hands. His father had been shot dead by Mussolini’s fascists on a lovely summer night. Ennio had been there, sobbing in his angel-patterned pyjamas, when they hit his mother on the face, ripped off her clothes and raped her, forcing his father to his knees at gunpoint to watch the rape. But the man revolted and punched an officer in the face. He was shot in the back of the head. “Antifaschistischen Hund!”* shouted the Nazi officer, his face bleeding, and spat on the ground. His father’s body slumped to the ground, lifeless. Ennio ran to him, fell to his knees and caressed the head of his dead father. ‘Daddy, Daddy! Wake up, wake up!’ he cried into his ear.
The soldier aimed the gun at Ennio, too, and pulled the trigger. His mother screamed, but the striker clicked hollow. The man gave a foul laugh, but his glance etched itself forever on the boy’s retinas. The light in Ennio’s heart was extinguished at that moment and he was overcome by a blunt, dark and sick daze.
But today there was only Giovanni, who was actually an angel living on earth, standing opposite him. The archbishop sometimes called him an earthly reincarnation of his mum, and the servant turned very red on hearing this. He was someone who seemed not to even know the word “I”: he had served others all his life and had become Ennio’s surrogate mother, one who was now helping his ‘child’ to spaghetti and waiting impatiently, not daring to speak. He was pouring the meaty tomato sauce when a drop fell on the tablecloth. Both of them glared at the stain as if the cloth were bleeding.
‘Giovanni, what did you want to tell me?’
‘My lord,’ he started out, almost penitently, looking at the tomato stain. ‘My mother slipped in the bathroom and has fallen into a coma. She didn’t break anything, but she bumped her head so hard that she still hasn’t come to. Would you be kind enough to let me visit her in the hospital tomorrow?’
‘That’s really sad news. I’m sorry, my friend. Of course you can go, but cook for the evening in the morning. That’s is the condition.’
‘Oh, God bless you, signor Marino,’ the old man murmured, bowing profusely.
‘Come, Giovanni, come and join me. Anyway, I can’t eat so much spaghetti.’
‘I thank you for your kindness, but your servant has eaten. I eat like a bird in the evening.’
The archbishop began to eat with relish while Giovanni poured wine. The old man sat with a straight back opposite his boss. They sat silently for a while, then Ennio wiped a drop of sauce dribbling from his mouth.
‘Giovanni. It looks like I’m off for a long journey at the end of the summer. Can you do without me for a month?’
‘Oh, oh!’ the old man clapped his hands. ‘Where are you travelling, Signore?’
‘To Tibet. I have to deal with an important matter. Church matter …’
‘A mission? Building a church? Or something else?’
‘How long have you been so inquisitive, Giovanni? You’re dying of curiosity!’
‘Excuse me, Signore, excuse me—’
‘Make bean soup for tomorrow, please. You know it’s Friday,’ he cut in.
The archbishop nodded contentedly and drained his glass.
‘This was a heavenly dinner, Giovanni. You can go to the hospital the day after tomorrow as well as a reward.’
‘Your excellency, thank you very much,’ his servant was bowing again.
‘I’m going to bed if you don’t mind. I had a hell of a day you see.’
‘Were you perhaps conversing with the devil, Signore?’
‘I hope your mother gets better,’ he answered and pulled the door shut behind him.
Early the following morning he was in discussion in the Vatican with the leader of the theological congregation but he was terribly bored by the hair-splitting meticulousness of his colleagues. Tibet was the only thing on his mind. After lunch he enjoyed the July sun, which showered down on him and dried up the puddles remaining from last night’s storm. Haze and smoke spread over the streets of Rome, the Eternal City throbbed in a summer frenzy. He decided to take a long walk and give himself an afternoon off. He left Saint Peter’s Square at the zebra crossing, although he often left the Vatican through the basilica. His sight kept drifting to the scantily attired women tourists, evoking an eager desire to visit a prostitute, but his fears overcame his adventurousness. If she ended up not being able to keep her mouth shut, I’d be done for. The Church is already reeling in attempts to thwart paedophile scandals. It seemed advisable for him to draw back and avoid the limelight.
The mobile ice-cream vendor across the street was nearly drowned by a gang of sweet-craving schoolkids. With a malicious smile, he passed the vendor who adjusted his white cap in haste and seemed so overwhelmed by the requests of the swarm of kids that he was apparently not even aware of what flavours he was offering. Ennio walked on proudly, considering himself above a society that rushed after its own pleasures. Suddenly, he saw her coming towards him. Her name was Francesca and she had a pastry shop on Corso Vittorio Emanuel. His stomach sank. He knew she was going to the basilica: he saw her there every Friday and watched her surreptitiously from the crowd. And she’s here now! She’s looking at me.
‘Good afternoon, Francesca,’ he greeted her firmly, yet confidentially.
The red-haired woman in her forties and wearing a dark purple dress gave him a wide smile. Her heavily rouged lips opened like cockleshells, revealing a perfect set of teeth like pearls. She nodded.
‘Good afternoon, Monsignore!’
This formal address annoyed Ennio as Francesca addressed him as Ennio in her shop.
‘What are you doing here, Francesca, going to the basilica perhaps?’
‘Yes. I want to spend a quiet hour in front of the Blessed Virgin and give thanks to her and her beloved son for a happy week. I owe everything to Him.’
‘An honourable deed,’ came his answer. How banal.
‘And what brings you here, Father?’
‘Oh, well, I’m only blowing away the cobwebs of the lots of sacraments. You know how it is, don’t you?’
Francesca laughed. ‘You’re on the right track, then. You could pop in for a cake as well. A cream pastry feels heavenly at such a time.’
She laughs like an angel: like Satan’s angel. Ennio’s heart wailed. He would give up everything if only he could have this woman. ‘Believe me, Francesca, even a cream pastry is not good enough without you, dear.’
At last! Ennio was exultant. I’ve said it! Now she knows how I feel.
A bus rumbled by and filled the air with piercing blue fumes. They were choking. He may have been expecting a miracle, perhaps that Francesca would hug him on the spot and whisper she would love him forever. Instead, Francesca shooed away the smoke and said, ‘I’m glad to hear it! Stop by next week, perhaps, if you have time. Have a good walk. Goodbye.’ She ran across the road and was lost in the afternoon commotion.
‘Goodbye,’ Ennio replied dreamily.
He was left alone with his thoughts. He set off clumsily and almost hit a postbox. He thought of following Francesca, but it would be so forced. It’s better to preserve spontaneity, that’ll prevent suspicion.
He wandered as far as Corso Vittorio Emanuel. He stood in front of Francesca’s pastry shop for a while and picked a geranium. He was fiddling with it. I must see her. But it’s such a long time until next week. What a cheeky way to disappear from an archbishop! I’m somebody after all. Just leaving me like that!
He walked back slowly to the Ponto Vittorio Emanuel and rested his elbow on the stone balustrade of the bridge. His face in the water was a mysteriously swirling green opal. His wounded pride hurt him; he almost felt like bursting. He was twirling the geranium in his fingers when he heard a noise from among the flowery stonework of the abutment. He saw a young sparrow that had probably fallen from the crown of one of the statues above him. He took it into his hand and reassured it.
‘You’ve had bad luck, my friend. But, believe it or not, so have I.’
The young bird was panting, shivering in his hands. Ennio looked up perhaps looking for the nest, then held the sparrow over the river. Thinking of Francesca, he opened his palms. The young bird disappeared in the silent coffin of water with a soft splash. The geranium was flung after it too. A Japanese tourist with a camera with a huge lens around his neck, who had watched the whole ‘execution’, stared at him. The archbishop winked.
‘To our successes!’ he murmured and hurried off.
His heart was not hurting so much any more.
* antifascist dog (German)