Cleansing the Temple
A reworked piece, meant for performance. I only hope it comes across as a short story,,,
It’s a crackling sound. Old parchment; it’s like old parchment. Appropriate for the tomb of the Holy Father, don’t you think? But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. After years of studying the stultifying scribblings of my predecessors, I’ve come to recognise the dry flexion of paper. I know the sound. It’s not the soundtrack to my life story, it’s the sound of my flagging life force; my lungs. The lungs of Christ’s Vicar on Earth.
‘Holy Father. Holy Father. Some water perhaps?’ Ah Sofia, dear companion of my final days. A broad-faced, wide-beamed peasant from the Mezzogiorno. She has the most irksome lisp. It dispenses her own brand of Holy Water, the fine mist of saliva bathing my face. I find it impossible to believe that the world Press would speculate on sexual misadventure with this stolid, plodding mule. Sister Sofia, younger, much younger than I, yet smelling of old linen. Dry, wrinkled, redolent of rosewater and vapour rub. If they but knew how much of a relief the celibacy of the Holy Father was.
Gianni Contadini. Now there was a boy. A street thief and pimp from the North. Immoral child of the streets of Aosta, and light years from Pope Sextus VI. And yet the root, the life-line runs through both entities, to its end? Here in this impossibly large bedroom. I might smile at the recollection were it not that the spectators, drawn by curiosity, would mistake it for the rictus of fear and regret. And it’s too late for regrets, if indeed I still harbour any.
‘For pity’s sake, open the curtains. The curtains …some light.’ They don’t understand what I’m saying. My bedchamber is filled with people. A gathering of the pious and the powerful who can’t understand the simple wish of a dying man. Mind you, when did they ever understand me? Fear me, yes. Obliged to make an obsequious bow over this fisherman’s ring; the source of my power. But little understanding, other than a working knowledge of secular politics. They merge with the shadows, they shift in the guilty manner of supplicants. I hear them and it takes my attention. I want to see the sky. The long narrow slice of blue glimpsed above the tall, ancient corridors of Aosta.
‘More light.’ Mehr Licht. Goethe’s last words. Who would have thought it, Gianni? A pick-pocket who speaks five languages; who quotes long dead German poets. Maybe not so surprising. Mama loved men. She was willing,wanton and indiscriminate when making the beast with two backs. I simply repeat what the good people of Aosta took such delight in telling me. Baldracca, fornicare, prostituta, puttana. Some of the more acceptable names, though there were many others. German soldiers, our allies in the War, had other more guttural names for Mama, who found consolation in their bed. The good Lord has a keen sense of humour. I was plunged into the turmoil of this world gone mad. Old enough to witness my mother’s many lovers flee before the avenging Americanos. Mama loved me and I her. It was an informal emotion; her’s being a kind of affectionate neglect, languidly expressed; mine a role but vaguely remembered. My Father? Who knows? God I suppose. Contadini was my mother’s name.
Now after ruling the Catholic World for twenty-five years, I learn at the hour of my death why this chamber is so large. It must accommodate all these privileged spectators to the death of St Peter’s successor.
‘Eminence. His Holiness is trying to speak.’. She speaks to that bumbling old saint, Cardinal Fourchet my Secretary of State. I wanted a St Paul as my strong right hand. Instead I had a St Francis. A wonderful shepherd Henri. but no Prince, no Iron chancellor.
‘Holy Father. It is I.’
‘I know that you old French fool.’ I haven’t said that. Of course I haven’t said it. Can you imagine sitting through eternity with those last departing words?
‘Open the curtains.’ I’m shouting. It’s undignified but I hear the slough of sand in the glass. Henri looks at me in the same way he gaped at my Private Secretary’s mobile phone, back when we thought we might change the world. Over his uncertain shoulder the Holy See shifts. Come, come Gianni? Gratuitous hyperbole at this late hour?
I’ve spotted the opposition party in the shadows; I see their sharp, expectant features. Cardinal Ancelloti. The full, fleshy face of a Borgia; the thin rapier brain of Macchievelli. The Papal choice of the Italians. What will the world make of the new Pope’s mistress? And next to the old Satyr? That bloody American Thomas O’Shaunnessy. Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago; Panderer to the Mob. Money launderer too. There must be a good half dozen of them huddled in the shadows. The ‘Must live in the Real World’ men. When they move away they will leave an oily slick on the wall. Am I to leave St Peter’s throne to these peddlars and perverts Lord?
Henri takes refuge with the Third World I see. The Africans, 0rientals, South Americans, even the beleaguered British. Not the Glaswegian Cardinal? Not that night club comedian, laughing boy Desmond. He’s become Ancelloti’s court jester. There he is, practising his homespun patter on that handsome civilian in the dark suit.
‘Ego te absolvo, in nomine patrie…’ Henri has begun my absolution.The rattling in my chest has stopped. Sofia stop blubbering please. I can hardly hear myself breathe.
‘Au Revoir, my old friend.’
‘Henri, I’m still here you bumbling old fool. Don’t do that. Don’t shut my eyes. I need to…’
I’m still here. In this cavern of a bedchamber. Dear God I’m so confused. Am I dead? Is this Purgatory? What?
‘Well, well. So we’re finally here?’
‘Do I know you sir? Have we met before perhaps?’ No I’d remember. It’s the gentleman in the dark suit. From Ancelloti’s little clique. But where are the others?
‘Oh come now Gianni; of course you know me.’ I don’t… and yet. He’s older than his looks. Handsome. Compelling in a ‘Renaissance’ way. I could imagine him in silks and lace, hair much longer maybe. ‘You think I’m handsome, Your Holiness? Here, let me stand out of the shadows. Better?’ The dark hair swept back, the eyebrows thick, lustrous. The bee-stung lips of a Titian cherub. He talks with his hands. Long tapered hands that compel the listener. It’s what he does once your fixed. A shyster’s cheap trick and yet I can’t but follow the beat and swoop.
‘I’m dead, that’s it, isn’t it? And you… you’re… an angel?’
‘Angel – No. But then you know that already. Deep down you recognise me.’ He spins like a dancer. He’s pulled the curtain wide. My eyes. The pain of the light.
‘Close the drapes. Please, it hurts my eyes.’
‘But you wanted your hour in the Sun, Gianni. You begged me to put you here.’
‘That was a dream. That wasn’t real, just the fevered imaginings of a young man. I… I….’ He’s smiling. I remember the smile. Oh God I remember the smile. When Mama died I fled south to Torino; my Gomorrah. The smile I saw everywhere, worn by the men who purchased their girls from the handsome pimp Gino Conte. ‘Something special,’ they’d say, with that jaded, sordid smile.
‘Monsignor Contadini, Bishop of Perugia.’ His hands shape the words. ‘But you wanted so much more Gianni. Non e Vero?’ He’s moved. The sun slants at the bed. The pain is unbearable. He points toward a large open ledger. ‘Come Holy Father I have the transaction here.’ I must rise it seems.
‘It was a dream… a dream that’s all. Vivid yes but still a dream.’
‘Turn the page Your Holiness, look at the result of your dream.’ The unctuous bastard shoots his cuffs and puts dream in quotes with two fingers of each hand. The vellum is cool to the touch. The open page shows the signature of the Pope before my predecessor.
‘You bought the Throne of St. Peter with your soul Gianni. Not something one would readily forget.’ I don’t need to look round I can hear his smile. The page gives a crack as it turns. My own bold signature; the contract in Latin, the price of a promise made and kept, God help me.
‘I did all of this for God. He won’t forsake me now.’ I sound more confident than I feel, though it has no outward effect on Satan. There, I’ve dared to put a name to my tormentor.
‘I mean really Gianni… you sold your immortal soul to advance God’s purpose? What delusion. Tell me your Holiness; who am I?’ There’s that smile again. Gentle, wistful, benevolent even. ‘Come now Gianni; I need to hear you say it.’
‘Get thee behind me Satan.’ I hear the reverberations of that shouted command.
‘Satan? You think I’m Satan?’ I am pulled back through intervening space and time. Maximilian. That was Lucifer’s name back then, back when I could cater for even the most exotic sexual taste. He wanted Bernadetta, Carlo the baker’s half-witted, mis-shapen daughter. She didn’t satisfy the Austrian’s taste so he orgasmed on her destruction. It had pleased him to gut her like a fish. The horror in that basement room has never left me. He smiled as he handed me my blood price. Six million Lira for my silence, Bernadetta’s ruin still red on his hands. I fled that room, that city.
His laughter has a high, feminine quality.
‘Do you believe good and evil to be two sides of the same coin? Do you believe in the eternal battle between right and wrong, the light and the darkness?’
I bought my education with the life of that poor unfortunate. I entered the priesthood and I never look back. Forty years of penance turned to vocation. Enough surely? I can see silver white in the black hair at his temples.
‘With such a weight of evidence at your disposal Holy Father, you don’t recognise the dual nature of God?’
“You mean… you mean you’re…’
‘Yes Gianni. Just so.’ A brazier burns on a table. Its appearance is a mystery and a worry. ‘Your soul was my gift. The gift you thought so little of, you sold it to gain the world.’ His hand passes unobstructed through my chest. Impossible surely? It re-appears, closed in a fist. Light seeps through the fingers, and he drops something onto the brazier. It burns swift and bright. Some of the colour is drawn from the room. He leads me by the shoulder, propelling me toward the window.
‘Welcome to the world you have bought Gianni.’ Grey faces peer up at me. People I recognise. Papal predecessors, courtiers and kings and captains of industry. A grey, half-life eternity in a darkening Eternal City. I steal a last glance over my shoulder. Ancelloti and a laughing, Cardinal Crawford stoop over the ledger. Maximilian smiles and closes the heavy drapes.
‘What? You think it is any consolation knowing these two will eventually join me? Grey, hollow forever in the company of ‘Laughing Boy’ Desmond?’