Standing in the choir stall always gives me a shiver of delight. I’ve been doing it for almost all of my thinking life, and yet each time I step up onto that wooden step to enter the stalls I fell like I’ve entered a world of forgotten voices who in their own time were awestruck at that first step up too. And I love the wood with its glorious patina created by the soft brushing from so many different garments over so many years. Even the creaks from the planked floor seem to say “Walk lightly. Because I, whom the world has forgotten, once stood here and sang praises to the almighty one”.
Then there are the candles which, in the silence before dawn, sing their own guttural song and send sooty reminders to the vaulted heights. But when the morning sun hits those stained windows, and their blackened stories spring into life with crimsoned Saints and Madonna’s with clothes glowing with Lapis Lazulli, then music and song are the only ways to truly celebrate such wonders.
The good Lord blessed me with a sense of music and a voice that others appear to admire, and it gives me great joy too to be able to sing and celebrate this wondrous life of ours. Most seem to think me a simple man who happens to have a gift for singing: but with song must come emotion, and I experience a great deal of life from my choir stalls in that great Cathedral. Even in those dark hours before dawn when we monks sing our Matins, I see those stooped widows creep like shadows behind the pillars of this great temple. I see them light a candle before a holy picture of our Lady or some oft neglected Saint, and the yellow glow from the flame reveals their creased and tired faces. And I see them shuffle and slowly bend their painful knees and bow their heads in silent prayer. I often wonder what it is they say. Is it for themselves or for loved ones long gone. Or is it for forgiveness for hurts received and hurts dispensed? So often the dark light before dawn seems to consume them in silence because when I look up from my music, the place where they knelt and prayed is vacant with only a tiny flame to remind me of their presence.
And I see the drunks come in, boisterously noisy and staggering like mannequins whose strings have been cut. I watch as they cloyingly embrace a priest, telling him things he already knows about sins he is familiar with. Then he slumps into a safe slumber under the shelter of that ancient roof that has seen and heard so much. But most of all I like to see the lovers come in. They truly understand what reverence is and what holiness means - it accompanies them in all their waking hours and they rejoice in the love they see reflected in the eyes they so delight in. Lovers really know how to smile. Its a smile that brings an ache to the cheeks and and heightens every sense. Its the feeling I get when I sing something very beautiful that reflects the emotions that love brings to life in our hearts.
Although I love to sing, I also love to watch the world with all foibles and threats, with all its hopes and despairs. Yet even when everything seems bleak and dispiriting, I always find green shoots of hope however deep the darkness of the moment. Perhaps that’s why some think me simple, because I smile and sing, but they forget that I see and feel more than that. It’s not my place to trouble the world with my own layer of dark thoughts, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have them. I choose rather to transform them with my voice into something else, something that people can recognise and share. Something that can shine a small light for a brief moment in their lives.
It’s amazing how quickly the mind can move through all these thoughts, which is what I’d been doing on the morning when I met Pietro in the street that day. He seemed burdened by more worries than his normal one of constant pain - a pain he never discussed but bore with great dignity. Pietro’s a transformer too. He turns his physical pain into a desire to help those who are even less fortunate than him. His little acts of kindness could fill a book and amaze all those who thought they knew him. But it is a book that will only be published at the end of times when we’ll all get a chance to see what we wrote in the book of our own lives.
We greeted each other kindly and he asked to come to Gian’s with me as he’d something he’d like to share with us. Seeing as it came in a conversion relating to the sudden disappearance of Marco and his family, my interest was immediately piqued. But as monk I’ve learned to be patient, so we continued the journey to my brothers taverna chatting about the little things we saw as we walked along. I was taken by the number of little urchins that he seems to be acquainted with. “You’ve been taking lessons from Rosso by the look of it.” I said.
“Any news from our tonsured red head novice Julian?” he asked in return.
“Not a scratch of a quill have I, or anyone heard” I replied. “He’s searching for the meaning of life in a cave was all I’ve heard. Alas, for someone of my shape and tastes, a cave is an improbable source of enlightenment, but you’d be surprised how many do see the light in such austere places”.
When we arrived at the taverna, my little niece and all her siblings drove all thoughts of Rosso from my mind as they scampered around me pulling at my robes and asking fourteen questions to the dozen. My little favourite slipped her hand in my pocket and pulled out the ribbon with total delight and ran off to her mother to immediately put it in her hair. That errand, once completed, was followed by her rushing back and hugging me and telling me that I was the very specialist uncle in the whole wide world.
In other words, it was a perfect start to a family get together.
Gian came in and we all embraced one another. Then the children left and the three of us were joined by the Dom who had one of the children on his shoulders and had a firm grip on his ears too. Gian suggested in a fatherly way that the little boy “Put the Dom down and go out the back and play”. The Dom let him down gently and smiled with ear-glowing pride as the young lad scurried out the back.
“Good to see you Pietro. Are you keeping well? You look a little drawn: I thought the warmer weather would be good for your back” the gentle giant inquired.
“No. It’s not my blessed companion” a term he often used to describe the disability and pain that his back caused him. “I’ve got some news and I’m not sure whether it’s fair to share it with you” he said.
“Now you’ve really got my attention” said Gian.
“What’s it about” I asked. “You’re not in any trouble are you?”
Pietro fiddled with the empty glass that happened to be on the table. Then he sat back and pulled his beads from his pocket and began to run them through his fingers.
“It’s not really about me although what I have done could be seen as dangerous in some quarters, and it’s that danger that I really don’t want to inflict on anyone else. Especially someone who’s got a young family.” And here he looked at Gian, who in turn looked at me with some confusion written on his face. After a pause where Pietro seemed to struggle with whether to say anything or not he said, “Let me propose a situation to you. If your friend upset someone powerful in the Vatican, how far would you go to help them and would you involve anyone else in the situation?”. The thought hung in the air like the threatening blade of Damocles that it was.
“I’d steer clear of that nest of vipers” said Gian in a most unchristian tone of voice. Then looking at me sideways he added “Present company excepted” and gave a theatrical wink whilst pouring me a glass of wine. “What do you think brother?” he asked when he was happy that we all had what we needed to make us comfortable.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread springs to my mind. But then our little brother Francis was thought to have been the biggest fool of them all and look what he’s started’ was my initial light hearted response. But what Pietro was suggesting troubled me deeply. “Could you enlighten us a little more dear Pietro” I asked hoping to get a clearer picture of what I already suspected.
Our friend looked at us one after another, took a deep breath and then told us his story. Marco, Laura and their little family had been abducted in the night and nothing was known of their whereabouts. Pietro had found himself a small band of unlikely helpers in the shape of several urchins who roamed the streets unseen and unloved by the rest of the population of Rome. I knew some of these lads and lassies and they did indeed have formidable minds in those wretchedly starved bodies of theirs, and on the surface they had little to lose in trying to help. But up against the powers of the Vatican? And against the Religious order of Nuns up at Monte Sacro? “What would happen if one of them is caught?” I asked Pietro. It was as if I’d punched him in the back such was the expression on his poor face.
“I don’t even dare to think about it” he said. “But I was powerless to stop them. Have you ever tried to get a child to change it’s mind when it thinks there’s an adventure to be had?” And he raised his hands and eyes towards heaven as if to emphasise his powerlessness in the face of such a superior force! “So far there has been little to report. No one’s left the Convent according to my spies, but the Vatican is a different nut to crack” He said.
“Which convent are you talking about up at Monte Sacro?” I asked.
“It’s the at the top of the hill behind the Church there. My informants tell me that there are more tunnels coming out from under it than there are rabbit holes in the woods nearby”.
“I know that Church well. I’ve sung there on many occasions - wedding, funerals and feast days - so I know quite a few people at the Church. I’ll see what I can find out from my friends there. But the Vatican, well that’s a totally different situation altogether. I think it’s best to concentrate on where Marco and his lovely family were last seen and forget the men at headquarters for the time being” I said to Gian, Dom and Pietro.
“As usual brother you have shone a bright light in a dark place and I fully agree with you. For my part I suggest we eat and drink some more. All this plotting and planing can weaken a man and it looks like we’ll be needing all our strength if we’re to make any progress finding our friend the blacksmith and his little family”. And rising to talk to his wife in the kitchen, Gian left us feeling a glimmer of hope with his happy observations.
“When I first came to Rome” Dom spoke softly to the two of us “I was in a terrible way as you both know. I was a ragged mess left to live in doorways where most people ignored me and only the very few dared approach to offer help”. The memory which those words ignited in our memories flared briefly for a moment before he lifted his head and said with a half smile “I think it might be time to re-live those times down at St Peters Piazza. Just like your little urchins Pietro, nobody sees or worries about a destitute beggar, but they still see a great deal: even if they’ve only got one eye”. And the half smile on his face now blossomed into a full bloomed one.
“Aren’t we forgetting someone here?” asked Pietro. “What about Rosso? Shouldn’t we be thinking about getting a message to him, wherever he is? After all, he and Clare were mixed up with that mysterious message from Cardinal Visconti to Cardinal Villeprieux in Paris wasn’t he.? I’ve a deep suspicion that the two events are linked in some way”.
Gian returned with a jug of wine, some cheese, olives and a loaf of fresh bread “Just to get us started” he added with a broad smile. “Now where are we” he said sitting down. He tore a piece of bread off and dipped it in the olive oil that was already on the table.
“I was just saying that we should try to get a message to Rosso, but we’re not sure where he is” said Pietro “And Dom here has suggested that he reacquaint himself with his former skills as a beggar, but this time go upmarket and ply his trade in St Peters Piazza”
“Wasn’t it somewhere near Siena that that Englishman was living in a cave?” a now thoughtful Gian offered. “That’s not too far away from Rome when you compare it with going to Milan or Sicily. And come to think of it, we have a farmer just outside of Siena who supplies us with the best olives in the whole of Italy. And he’s often asked me to go up there and visit him, but of course that’s impossible for me with a business to run and a young family to care for”. He paused to let the information sink in and then turned to Dom and said “But if my partner was to take a trip to Siena and meet up with my farmer-friend there, then he might get more news than he would sitting in St Peters piazza getting a very numb backside”. After a brief pause whilst the image of Dom rubbing life into his buttocks flashed through their minds, they all burst out laughing. Even Dom did too, though his face was blushing.
“Thank’s Gian for even suggesting that I am your partner. You know I would never let you down but I think employee would be a better description, don’t you”.
Gian, who was the eternal optimist amongst them and always seemed to find a smile, even when the others were enveloped in gloom, now allowed his face to adapt a more serious look. “Ever since you walked in that door Dom, you’ve been my partner. It’s me who’s honoured to call you partner”. And then the sunshine returned to his face. He filled everyones glass and then offered the toast “To true partnerships”. Glasses chinked and the refrain was taken up by them all. Gian’s wife popped her head out of the kitchen and said, “Make sure you don’t break any of those glasses. Pasta should be ready in 10 minutes”. And then she disappeared again.
And so it was decided. I would head to Monte Sacro to see what I could discover there, and Dom would head off to Sienna to taste some olives and hopefully find Rosso’s trail and tell our red headed mystic what had been happening in his absence.
My duties at Santa Maria Maggiore kept me occupied for some days, but I was able to send a message to a friend at Monte Sacro suggesting we collaborate on a music project together and that perhaps we should meet there to discuss my idea.
It was shortly after Trinity Sunday, when things tend to quieten down liturgically in the Roman Church, and which also meant that my singing services were in less demand, that I managed to slip away and head up to Monte Sacro. It’s a lovely walk at that time of year, if the sun is shining, but just as likely are the heavy cold early summer showers that can both freeze and soak at the same time. Unfortunately it was one of those days and even though the walk along Viat Nomentana is a straight and easy one through the countryside, if it’s raining and cold then it’s a miserable journey. I arrived at Monte Sacro with my clothes twice their normal weight with water, and twice as cold as when I started out, and even though I describe myself as pleasantly rounded, not even that was enough to stop my limbs from shivering from the cold I felt inside.
“Come in dear Brother” my friend whispered with some degree of anxiety in his voice, “come and sit near the fire and get some heat into your body. You must be frozen”. And leaving me for a moment as clouds of steam began to come from my drenched habit, he returned quickly and said “I’ve asked the cook to bring some hot soup as soon as possible, but you shouldn’t have set out in such terrible weather. Couldn’t it have waited for a few more days? There’s no point dying from fever over a piece of music is there?”
“I would have to disagree with your there Brother” I replied through chattering teeth, “although I would prefer to leave this world feeling just a little bit warmer. I’m sure I’ll feel better soon and bless you for being so kind to me”.
“The whole community here will rejoice with me once you’ve recovered from your journey, especially if you find you’re able to sing with us at Vespers later on” he added with genuine kindness in his voice.
“Thank you Angelo” I answered as the trembling in my body slowly began to subside as the heat from both the fire and the soup began to infiltrate my body.
The Monastery at Monte Sacro was a small one, the principal house being in Rome itself, and there were only about a dozen brothers who lived there working amongst the poor of the district, which meant that they were busy every days. For such a glorious city, Rome has always managed to attract those who have fled destitution only to find it again in this expanding metropolis.
Once I was feeling warmer, I was shown to the small guest room close by the kitchen. The room itself suggested that the brothers didn’t intend for their guests to remain too long. It was simple and cold with that musty dampness that leeches from the walls and into the lungs. It was close to the kitchen which meant that whilst the smells of food being cooked was tempting - especially to someone like myself - the smells that lingered on in the damp atmosphere had the reverse effect one’s appetite too.
Looking back I suspect that it was the combination of being soaked to the bone and the dampness inherent in the marshy air surrounding Monte Sacro, that led to me coming down with a fever. My resulting illness had several consequences. First I lost the ability to talk as my voice was reduced to a whisper. You can image what a terrible shock that was to me. Then my appetite, already sullied by the sour smells in my small cell, went too. And you can imagine what an even greater shock THAT was to me too!. But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and the light within that celestial cloud came in the form of the apothecary who was called from the nearby Convent to prescribe some herbs, unguents and inhalations for me, there being none in the small house where I was staying.
To my surprise, the apothecary was a Nun, and a very wise and well educated one at that. During her ministrations she let slip that she was the fourth daughter of a minor noble in Marche who’d had no hope of bringing in a decent dowery so had been sent to the Convent in her late teens. But she was a bright girl and knew her herbs and tinctures. I was given medicines to take, ointments to rub on my chest and a foul smelling mixture to use as a steam inhalant. I’m not sure which one worked, but over the next week my voice slowly croaked back into life and my stomach renewed it’s love affair with food … and wine.
By this time Sister Maria and I had become quite friendly and she was delighted that my voice had returned to its former glory. “Perhaps dear brother Julian” she asked one day “you might consider coming to the convent and singing a gloria for our sisters in thanksgiving for having recovered from your illness!”
“Dear Sister Maria, you don’t realise just how happy that invitation makes me” I answered with almost guilty truth. “But won’t you have to ask for permission from Mother before I can come?” I asked.
She blushed a little and said “I’ve taken the liberty of already suggesting the idea to her and she’s given her permission”.
“God is good” I said with a broad smile and couldn’t resist in trying our my vocal cords on a simple Hallelujah in praise and thanksgiving. “Do you often have guests at the Convent” I asked as calmly as I could.
“Oh yes” she said. “Well, we did until recently and then Mother told us ‘No visitors, and no visits unless I give permission’ - so, in fact, you’re the first one who’s been invited since. And being the apothecary, I’ve been the only one who’s been allowed to leave the convent either”.
“That must have been a bit unusual for a Convent to stop seeing anyone. Have you had the plague or something?” I asked because although Monte Sacro was well know to be a holy place, the other well known fact being that it was a wonderful breeding ground for diseases too.
At this Sister Maria became a little uncomfortable. “No one really knows, although there are rumours” she said very quietly as if the walls in the Monastery had ears as well as rising damp.
“Ah the joys of living in Community eh?” I chuckled. “Lay people seem to think we lose the ability to be human once we don the religious habit. Show me a religious house where they don’t have rumours, or where they don’t have discord and or especially where they are inoculated against doubt and I’ll show you a religious graveyard”.
Sister Maria’s rocked back involuntarily with genuine laughter and said “Oh, you’re so right Brother Julian. You are so right”!
“Let me know when Mother will allow a visit and I will try not to embarrass you” I said with genuine warmth for this special woman.
Whilst I waited to hear back from Sister Maria, I spent many a happy hour with my friend going over a project that was really close to my heart, which was the preparation for the Christmas Mass. Although it was still several months away, if it were to be a truly joyous occasion then the signing must be joyous too. I love to sing from my heart, and I thank the good Lord that he has provided me with a sunny disposition. My friend and I went through all of the archives at Monte Sacro and discovered some hymns that hadn’t been used for quite some time yet exploded with joy when properly sung by a group of well rehearsed monks.
The next morning a message arrived from the Convent inviting me to join them for their midday meal. As I walked into the little piazza and looked up at the imposing dome of the grand Church that dominated it, I was happily humming some of the tunes we had re-discovered the day before. Just then a little voice caught my attention by saying “I’ve seen you wiv Dom ain’t I?” whilst giving the official greeting of such little ones which was to wipe his face with the tattered sleeve of his jacket.
“You’re a very observant young man” I said, and involuntarily reached into my pocket to find the crust of bread that I always carried to give to such as he.
He sized me up and down as he fed his face with the bread that I’d given him. “You looks an honest man” he said, then added “for a monk anyways”. Which was a compliment I found difficult to decipher.
“It appears that you seem to know who I am young man” I replied looking around me just to check that there were no prying eyes watching us. But the windows of the Convent didn’t face onto the square as the building was hidden behind the massive edifice of the Church itself. “Have you seen any unusual visitors come in or go out of the Convent” I asked?
“Depends by wot yers mean by unusual. To such as us, they is all a bit unusual” he retorted with unexpected insight. “The fing is that I don’t fink this is the best place to look fer anyfink unusual anyway. If you ask me, if you want to shift summinck wot you don’t want overs to see, then yer’d use one of them tunnels wot runs out of there from the cellars underneaf”. Giving me the ritual sniff of urchin intelligence he continued “But the good news is that there’s more of us than there is of them” jerking his thumb in the direction of the Convent, “And I reckon we’s got all of them exits covered” he grinned with his very grubby face.
“How would you know where those tunnels ended” I asked with genuine amazement.
“Who do you fink cleans the chimlies around here? And who ’elps the rat catcher collect the dead bodies what ’e’s poisoned and which’s fallen down in places where big people can’t get inta?” he informed me. This information made me wince with humiliation at what our poor discarded infants can end up doing. “Grown up don’t fink we see fings when we’re doing them ’orrible jobs, but we do. And we tell our friends too. All of us little ’uns know which ’ouses ’as tunnels wot goes back and forth from that Convent. And guess what bruvver? Every one of them ’ouses ’as a little servant girl or boy what tells us ’ho’s a coming and ‘ho’s a goin’ in and out of ’em. You just tell Pietro not ta worry ’cos we wont let ’im down”. At which my conspiratorial friend ambled off across the square with his hands deep in his pocket and whistling loudly.
“That’s a beautiful tune” I shouted after him “Can you sing as well?” I added. He just turned and smiled, “Maybe I can, and maybe I can’t” was all he said and he was about to continue on his merry way when an idea entered my head. “Hang on a moment” I shouted again and hurried across the Piazza to where he had stopped. I whispered the idea into his ear and he listened with a serious face across which slowly spread a broad grin. “Gotcha” he said tapping the side of his nose. “Leave it with me” he finished and ambled off around the corner whistling like a lark.
Knocking on the big door of the convent resulted in a spy hole being slid to one side and a wimple covered face appearing in the barred gap. “Brother Julian” I announced. “Reverend Mother is expecting me” I said, at which the shutter snapped shut and I was left communing with an ancient wooden door for some minutes. Whilst humming the hymn “Knock and it will be opened unto you” the ritual of entrance to the convent began with the drawing of several heavy metal bolts and the creaking of ancient hinges. I was surprised to be met by a young face which blushed when she saw me.
“You’re welcome brother” she said, and indicated that I should enter. “We don’t get the pleasure of many men here” she said, and her eyes darted to my face with a nervous smile. “Mother said to take you straight into the refectory as the meal is ready to be served”. I followed her rustling habit along dark dank corridors half-lit by dirty, high windows. My guide turned frequently to look at me with that nervous half smile on her sweet young face.
“This must be a cold place in winter” I commented. She giggled, which confused me. “I mean that it must be a hard place to keep warm” I muttered.
Before she could answer we’d arrived at the refectory where all the sisters were lined up along a trestle table with at least a dozen down each side and Mother perched at the top end like a hawk hovering over it’s prey. She indicated to a vacant place on her left side and indicated that this exalted position had been reserved for me. I was relieved to see that on my left was Sister Maria whose eyes were demurely turned towards the table.
I went and stood at my place. Mother inclined her head towards me and instructed rather than asked, whether I would “Sing a Grace for us Brother?”
I closed my eyes and paused for a moment, thinking of what would seem most appropriate for such an occasion. The silence in the room was tangible. Then I smiled to myself as I remembered a wonderful Thanksgiving antiphon, and sang those sweet and wonderful words. It only took a minute or two, yet when I stopped the silence was still as intense, yet it was a silence full of light and repose. I opened my eyes to find all the Sisters had turned towards me and everyone of them had a smile on their faces.
“Sit”. The word crashed through the moment and the tense atmosphere snapped shut around us once again. The food was simple. There was no talking, just the scraping of knives on pewter plates and the occasional scrape of a foot on the floor. Eyes secretly darted from place to place, but Sister Maria kept her eyes focused on the table all during the meal. A light bell rang, shaken by the thick fingers of Mothers hand and all the Sisters rose as one. “Would you like to visit the Chapel Brother?” Mother asked in her crisp clipped voice.
“Thank you Mother” I replied “The food was delicious”. This last comment was met with a slight rise of one of her eyebrows as she turned and left the room with me following behind like a lost schoolboy. The transition from those dank grey corridors into the Chapel could not be more stark. Inside that Holy place it was all gilt and glister, stained glass glories and sensuously carved dark woods with the patina of many souls who had passed over, and beyond them.
“It’s beautiful” I said with genuine admiration “and I would think that the acoustics are wonderful too” and I turned to Mother and said “do you mind…?”
“Certainly” she clipped. And I hummed some arpeggios before launching into some of my favourite hymns.
“Perfect” I said with a big smile on my face, which sadly, was not reflected in her face.
“My office”. I was beginning to think that she was afflicted with some sort of illness that only allowed her to say two or three words together. But she had already genuflected and was leaving the Chapel. I followed obediently.
Mother’s room reflected her personality to a tee: austere and cold with a pinched feeling about it. “I was honoured to be asked to join you for a meal Mother” I said in my most genial of voices. “Do you often receive guests here?” I asked, veritably oozing with friendship and light.
“Our vocation is to serve our Master by doing what we can Brother. But as a rule, we don’t encourage people to join us as we have to be busy about our Fathers work” and she made the sign of the cross in an automated fashion.
I stared around the room and asked her “This hasn’t always been a religious house has it?” I asked her, gaining the courage that a full stomach can often bring. “I’d heard it was once the home of a less than christian banker who came to a bad end. And I hear tell that there are cellars underneath which are linked by dark passages to other houses where darker deeds were done in times past. Just imaging if those walls had mouths as well as ears,” I paused for a quiet chuckle to myself before suggesting in a conspiratorial tone “I bet they could tell some strange stories eh Mother?” A slight colour came to her face, or perhaps it was the contrast with the whiteness that now edged her aquiline nose that made her face seem pinker. But she never faltered from looking at me straight in the eye.
“As a rule, Brother, we don’t listen to gossip and fairy tales. We have better things to do with our time” she clipped back at me.
“But we religious love our mysteries don’t we” I pushed her, “and would you believe that just the other day a rumour reached our own humble house that strange things had been seen coming and going at this very convent in the middle of the night. Do you think it was ghosts or fairies or just local tittle tattle?”
The slight colour on her face now disappeared as the pupils of her eyes darkened as with the advent of an impending storm.
“Brother Julian” she said with a voice that was glacial in it’s tone “it does you no credit to repeat such offensive gossip. You may close the door as you leave”. And the iciness in that room became almost tangible.
“Thank you Mother” I replied in the most polite manner I could summon up, then turned and left trying to look as monkish as I could.
As I was walking away from her room I saw the most welcome sight of Sister Maria in the corridor. If one was to be of a judgmental character, one would almost suspect that she’d been loitering there, but the mere sight of her dissolved any arctic memories associated with her Superior.
“What a joyous sight to lonely monk” I said, trying to bring some cheer into such a cold and isolating place. She turned and showed me her face, and her intelligent eyes seemed to reflect how I felt. And I must admit that it had a most strange effect on me.
“And it’s good to be able to thank you for coming brother Julian”. And just to hear her say my name made me feel as if we’d been friends for a long long time. “One more thing” she added looking swiftly behind her at the door to Mother’s office, “On occasion I’m called into the Community to see a sick person”. She paused before saying quietly “perhaps we could meet. There’s something I’d like to tell you about” she added ‘sotto voce’.
“I shall have to return to my chapter in Rome soon” I replied “Now I’m feeling so much better - thanks to your expert ministrations dear Sister - there is little reason for me to remain at Monte Sacro”.
“Expect to see me, or hear from me soon then” she said. “If I can’t leave, then I’ll send a message to your house in Rome. Blessings and good bye dear friend”. And she lowered her head and walked away from me down that dank dark corridor.
I returned to the nearby monastery where I stayed for two more days without hearing back from Sister Maria. Having run out of excuses to remain at Monte Sacro, I made the return journey to Rome on a bright sunny day and determined to stop off at brother Gian’s taverna for purely nutritional reasons. I paused along the way to buy some flowers from a beggar woman just outside the Porta di Roma. The thought of not bringing some small gift to my little niece was one that has never ever entered my head.
There were three of four customers enjoying the hospitality of the house, eating the food, drinking the excellent wine and of course talking in loud voices with each other. Gian was very pleased to see me as he’d begun to get worried, not having heard from me for a few days.
“You’ve grown thin” he said staring at my ample girth and continuing “what has happened to you out at that swamp of Monte Sacro?”
“Oh, I got caught in the rain and then came down with a fever. But I was well attended to by a delightful Sister from that convent we have an interest in. Sister Maria’s her name”, and even as I said it I felt a strange flush rise up in my cheeks. “Oh dear” I hurriedly added “maybe it’s still lingering with me”. Gian gave me a knowing look which I realised would be foolish to comment on. “But getting well gives one such a wonderful appetite” I said, and at this Gian replied “Well, some things never change eh? I’m glad to hear you’ve recovered, and I even happier to see you in the flesh - even if there’s not as much as there was last week!” And calling out to his wife in the kitchen said “Julian’s here and he in need of a good feed. Bring some pasta and some wine to help give the man some strength back.”. Then he stuck his head out into the store room and called for Dom to see if he could find Pietro. “Tell him that Julian’s back” he said, and gave further instructions that we should all share our news before I returned to my duties at the Church.
Soon, the three of us were seated around one of those round tables enjoying the delicious food prepared for us and sipping the wine from Gian’s reserved part of the cellar. Wiping the food from my face I began to hum to myself again and it came into my mind that this was the first time that I’d hummed away like that since I’d left Rome. I was just starting to reflect on that when Pietro walked in accompanied by a deeply grimed urchin with a very intelligent face.
“This is the Bishop” said Pietro. With which the young urchin wiped his nose on his sleeve before giving each of us a nod of the head and saying “Salve”. He stared around the room for a moment, but it was the food that attracted his fullest attention. Gian, knowing how empty a young boys stomach can really be, went into the kitchen and returned with a mountain of pasta surmounted with steaming sauce and placed it in front of him.
“Thanks signore” were the last two words we heard from him for several minutes whilst he proceeded to shovel the pasta from plate to palate.
“I met one of your friends up at Monte Sacro didn’t I” I said.
The Bishop nodded his head but continued eating.
“I hope the message I gave him had some effect.”
Here the Bishop paused to smile, nodded his head once more but continued eating.
“I’m lost” said Dom looking from one to the other. “What message? Where?”
“I’m sorry Dom” I said, “Perhaps I’d better fill you in. My trip to Monte Sacro was to find out if our friends were still being held there. Obviously Reverend Mother wasn’t going to invite me down to give them my blessing, so I thought I’d play the ferret instead”. And the image of me, a rather rotund monk playing the part of a small, lean mammal sent me into a paroxysm of impish humming.
“Now you’ve completely lost me” said a dejected Dom.
“Hunters send ferrets down holes to chase out rabbits. The Bishop’s confrere had told me that the cellars of the convent are connected to a veritable rabbits warren of tunnels which lead to surrounding houses. So I whispered to him what I intended to do and he, knowing where those tunnels ended, was going to put his ragged band of guards on the alert to see if anything or anyone popped out their end”. And I finished with a sweetly sung ‘I have led my people out of bondage’, and emptied my glass of wine.
By this stage, the Bishop had finished his pasta and was wiping his plate with a large chunk of bread. The rest of us looked on with amazement as the Bishop glanced longingly at the food scraps left on our own plates.
“Perhaps you’d better tell us what you were telling me on our way here before your stomach busts” chuckled Pietro. But our hearts warmed at the sight of the happy smile that had now taken up residence on the young lads face.
“Thanks signore Gian. Tell your Donna that I’ve just eaten the best meal of my whole life. But if there happened to be a little desert left over somewhere, I might just be able to squeeze a taste of it in” and he turned and gave Dom a sly wink.
“You’ll go far” was all the Dom said. But he said it like a proud brother.
“Well, as I was saying afore I was interrupted by this tasty repast. Bruvver Julian ’ere is telling the truth when ‘e said that my bruvvers was waitin’ at all them ‘ouses where them tunnels end, and low and behold, yesterday evenin’ just a’ter sunset, that old cart rumbled up to one of them ’ouses. Two fellas in big cloaks ’nd ’ats goes up to the front door, knocks on it and after a while they disappears inside. About ten minutes later, one of ’em pops ’is ’ead out the door and ’as a quick look see. “e’s got some steel in ’is ’and and is calling to ’is mate that it’s all clear. Then the next bloke leads out two wimmin and three little ’uns all blindfolded and tied to one anuvver. They bundles them on the cart and ’eads off out inter the countryside. Needless to say there’s a few little shadows following ’em. Any sign of that dessert Gian mi ole friend?” he finished with a big grin.
The four of us were a little taken aback by the news, but it was Dom who first spoke and said “You said there were two women Bishop?”
“Tha’s right Dom - two wimmin. But yer not gettin’ any of mi dessert for bein’ so smart.”
“And only three children?” added Pietro.
“Well give the man a coconut! Whas wrong wiv you all? You all sound like a bunch of parrits!” the bishop said. “And Gian ole fella. Mi dissert?”
Still there was no movement amongst the four of us and the young urchin threw up his arms in mock disgust and then sat back and folded his arms across his chest. But like all good homes where there is a woman in residence, the needs of the child had been heard and Gian’s wife appeared with bowl of fruit topped with thick cream “Just to fill those gaps … if there are any left” she said with a warm smile.
“Thanks Signora” said the Bishop, focussing with renewed relish on the bowl before him.
“It doesn’t make sense” said Pietro, “they must have been mistaken. The other woman must have been Marco, but then where was the other child?”
All these thoughts were buzzing around my head but none of them seemed to settle into any sort of clear pattern or reason.
There was something I was missing.
I believed the Bishop because he was a sharp witted young lad and hadn’t let us down in any way so far.
So why two women, and a missing man and a missing child?
I was tapping out a tune on the table top when a terrible thought struck me like a physical blow. Gian noticed my sudden quietness and looked at me with concern. “Are you OK brother” he said.
“Just give me a moment please” I answered, “but I think I have the answer to one of those mysteries, although I pray to the highest heavens that I’m completely wrong.” And pausing to take a sip of wine and say a few silent aspirations, I re-gathered my senses. “When I was up at Monte Sacro and I came down with a fever, a very kind apothecary was sent from the convent. Her name was Sister Maria and she was so very kind to me”. I paused for a moment, and my friends respected that slight silence although I think they sensed more than I knew. “I met her again up at the convent and she said she had something to tell me and hoped to call on me before I left, but she didn’t. I am beginning to think that someone overheard that conversation and that she is the other woman who was bundled onto that cart”. Gian came around the table and put his arm round me as I covered my face and my shoulders shuddered with half suppressed sobs. “She was such a very kind Sister. It would be cruel if anything happened to her just for wanting to talk to an old fool like me” I said, struggling to regain my composure.
Pietro was turning his beads through his fingers all this time and trying to make sense of all that he heard. “It certainly would fit the facts” he conjectured “but until we know where that cart was heading and who was in it we’re all still very much in the dark. Bishop, is there anyone still watching those houses up at Monte Sacro? Because if Marco and a child are still unaccounted for, then they’ll have to come out sometime”.
“Don’t you worry about nuffing Pietro. My people are on its and my friends is as sharp as tacks when it comes to watchin’ you adults” and then buried his head in the food once more.
“Don’t make yourself sick by eating too much Bishop” said a concern Dom.
“A growin’ lad needs his victuals Dom. Look at youse. You must’ve packed it away when youse was a little ’un”.
Dom smiled and ruffled the young ruffians hair. “If I were a guessing sort” he said absently to the others present “then I’d have to say that I think that it’s Clare who’s the missing child. It fits wit her history. Remember how Rosso was told never to ask who her mother was? Well perhaps her mother has found out who she is and has decided to take matters into her own hands?”
“That’s what I was beginning to think to Dom” said Pietro. “But what’s happened to Marco then?”
“All we can do is wait for the Bishops friends to come back with their news” I said having recovered my equilibrium. “And I must say all this adventure and emotion gives one a serious appetite eh’?”
“Are you ’aving a piece of me Bruvver” asked the Bishop with his street wise smile.
“Certainly not. It goes against the ecclesiastical grain to do something like that! Now dear brother, there wouldn’t happen to be a little bit of that glorious pasta left in the kitchen would there? I will have to go soon and only the Lord knows when I’ll get a morsel of food to eat again”.
“I will go straight away and check for you brother. We can’t have you fading away to nothing can we” and as he turned he gave those gathered a conspiratorial wink.
We stayed on for a short while before we departed and went our separate ways: me to the monastery, Pietro to his solitary room and the Bishop to only he knew where. Within a very short time I was back in the routine of the Church’s life with sung Matins and Vespers and Mass during the day. As well as singing I was also in charge of the music which was stored at Santa Maria Maggiore. These vast, illuminated books were kept in a special room in tall cupboards to accommodated their great size. Each sheet of music was a work of art and I treasured the fact that I was the one who had the privilege of taking down those folios and being able to leaf through them. Each piece of paper told a story as well as denoting the music inscribed upon them: music that reflected a glory beyond our limited use of words.
I immersed myself in my music and my prayers and remembered especially Marco and his family, and my new friend Sister Maria.
And I wondered what had become of them.