Saturday, 26 January 2008

By their fruits..

Cardinal Listener was embarassed beyond imagining. As a welcoming gift the clerics had arranged the luxury of a full english breakfast for their guest ; and he couldn't touch a morsel. It was not that the younger man was not hungry. Indeed he would have loved to have consumed most of the food placed before him.
Regrettably the veritable feast piled high on the plate was swimming in the juices of fried tomatoes. The Cardinal was violently allergic to them; one bite would have sent him into anaphylactic shock and he would have required an ephedrine injection within seconds.
His nervous apologies and lack of knowledge of italian were primarily understood as downright rudeness. Casaregna grunted and after the joining of hands and the mumbling of Italian incoherencies which only halfway through Listener recognised was grace and quickly placed his hands together for prayer, the hefty monsignore commenced wolfing down his meal, and Ponti followed.
Apparently the clerics were not "morning people".
Listener grabbed a bread roll , broke it in two and took a few small bites like a nervous squirrel.
He leaned towards the coffee pot and proferred to pour for his fellow clerics ? Bad idea. Eventually some did manage to remain in the cups and the linen tablecloth did retain a few small dry white patches amid the rapidly spreading dark brown lake...
A diminutive buxom italian cook in her forties entered through a portholed swing door. Listener managed a nervous smile and a raised eyebrowed innocence but the cook was having none of it. She demanded to know what was wrong from Casaregna. Mid-mouthful Casaregna just emitted a moan and without looking just made an swinging arc with his knife in Listener's direction.
A few words from Ponti. some lightning speed retorts from the cook.
"I told her you were not hungry Eminence..It's ok"
Then she saw the tablecloth...
Without a word she grabbed the coffee pot and clutched it to her breast as if protecting her bambino. Turned and hurried out.
She returned within the minute with the pot refilled , eyes narrowed with a look at the young englishman which said "Just you dare touch!", she retreated to the kitchen.
Listener got up.
"I have to explain!"
Casaregna rolled his eyes and Ponti was beginning to tell the cardinal it really wasn't necessary...but Listener was in the kitchen.
Marcel Marceau could not have done better... Within ninety seconds of mime,repeatedly pointing at a tomato, pretending to eat,pretending to choke,humming a few bars of Chopin's death march,making the sound of an ambulance siren and pretending to use a syringe,and Listener's beginning to breathe again...the widening eyes of the cook's realization and the elongated "Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!" changed everything...
Ponti was at the door...
The Cook turned on the bishop "Eminenza??? E Cardinale???!!!"
"Si, si..." but Ponti wasn't allowed to finish.
The cook was like a different woman .
From what Listener could deduce, this was going to be interesting : amidst the shouting and hand waving and lunges with a spatula threatening violence to Ponti and the intermittent kisses of Listener's hand in hers and then her pressing his hand comfortingly to her cheek, stopping , and recommencing the haranguing of the poor bishop for trying to starve [or was it poison?] the poor young man ; the entering of Casaregna who received a shocking smack on the back of the head from the irate woman, more shouting from all three [what did scusi tanto mean ? tantamount excuses? very sorry? big sorries? ] The furore suddenly ceased and they turned to view the young englishman - in fits of laughter!! was so infectious that within seconds they were all in hysterics, there was cheek kissing and embraces and within two minutes all three smiling italians were sitting round the wooden kitchen table talking nineteen to the dozen, Ponti translating anything interesting for the englishman. Listener had made all four of them coffee and was frying himself and Monsignore Casaregna some bacon sandwiches, despite sister Gianetta's [yes the cook was a nun!] protests and pleas to do it for him. Listener corrupted the sister by offering her a cigarette. Coughs ,smiles, overlong drags and some incomprehensible comments.
There were a few songs, a smattering of jokes and many,many questions...Listener learnt that the Dictatorial Cardinal Athanasio was known as Freddo - the Iceman - The Vatican "M" and the Papal Talleyrand [Listener had to laugh at the irony], Tortured by Stalin and Mao, this still did not prevent Nixon demanding his dismissal; branding him a "Commie" after Brezhnev awarded Fred the Order of Lenin for saving his life.Papa Montini had politely told the US president that he had no intention of doing so and his Excellency recommended the President consult a Mr Gormley regarding certain difficulties and he should be aware that certain "friends" of his were attempting to steal hundreds of thousands of square miles of individual state's territory.. Nixon had ignored the warning and Watergate ensued [Listener had no idea the whole affair had been a smokescreen]. Athanasio looked like he needed to be plugged into an electric socket to remain alive , but the man was a genius. The supreme strategist who once stopped a genocide of eighty thousand by contaminating the Indonesian army's water supply with Dysentery ,prevented the destruction of the british houses of parliament with Red Mercury by convincing the captured terrorists they had succeeded, giving him four hours to find the bomb ; he even saved the lives of four hundred unborn chinese babies by smuggling a pirate copy of a 'Die Hard' video to Kim Il Jung! And these were the minor things the secretariat's gossip network managed to discover. Listener had heard one rumour from an elderly Scottish priest that the CIA once crossed the vatican in the early eighties and lost half its agents east of Berlin overnight!! Was that Athanasio's handiwork ? The two clerics stated vehemently that the man was not only a legend in the Vatican, there is a non-hostility Concordat amongst all the Major Intelligence agencies in the world - even Mossad - don't piss on Athanasio !
Listener began to be more frightened of meeting the man than he thought possible.
In the moments of ensuing silence , Listener took coffee and cigarettes out to the security guard gorilla Gianni, a blond haired replacement for Stefano, the night gorilla. Listener did wonder why Gianni was immistakeably wearing Stefano's jeans - the tiny j-shaped bleach splash on the right leg? Once he saw the fresh stubs of two different brands of cigarettes on the ground he chose to ignore anything else and make a hasty retreat. Plus ca change?
Upon returning Listener decided to change the mood and told the joke of the widow at the funeral, with Ponti translating each line...
{The weeping widow is being consoled by her parish priest}
{"four husbands have I married and buried"}
{"the first one died from eating poisoned mushrooms..."}
{"the second one died from eating poisoned mushrooms..."}
{"the third one died from eating poisoned mushrooms..."}
{"what bad luck" says the priest "but your fourth husband fell out of a window and broke his neck"?}
{"I know..." says the widow ,"he wouldn't eat the bloody mushrooms!!!"}
All four were laughing like schoolchildren drunk on cooking sherry.
Ponti and Casaregna cleared the table and Listener washed and dried the dishes while sister Gianetta attempted to understand the chess notation on Listener's note using various pots of dry herbs configured upon the red and white tablecloth. Ponti and Casaregna looked at each other worriedly at the blatant indiscretion , but Listener put his finger to his lip and pushed some more coffee before them and with Gianetta's permission, some chocolate gateau he'd discovered in the fridge .
A scheduled twenty minute breakfast lasted nearly three hours...The Cardinal was supposed to be on an excursion outside Rome until 14:00 , but none were interested in breaking up the fun.
Towards Midday Sister Gianetta turned to the englishman and in broken english told him he was a good man.
Listener shook his head. A verbal tennis of "Non"-"Si" was interrupted by both Ponti's pager and the Angelus bell entering into a complex harmonic.
Once prayers,gratefully in Latin and therefore intelligible to all around the table, were over the young cardinal came to a decision.
Listener made them swear to silence under the seal of confession.
He then produced a photograph...delivering a long detailed explanation which exhausted another three rounds of coffee and Listener's spare packet of cigarettes.
Gianetta smiled, she wept, she became enraged and blessed herself in sheer terror as the story progressed.
Ponti and Casaregna then agreed this was a time to break rank. They told the cardinal they didn't know much, but this might help..?
It did. There were another twenty minutes of speculation about why he was here ; but even Gianetta realised it was more than the dismissive explanation the two Italian clerics proffered : Cardinal Listener was merely silently overseeing an operation from a position where he could veto certain authorities in an emergency...
"In your dreams!" she thought, "You don't make young men into cardinals just to datestamp a few permission slips"
But the young naiive cardinal seemed to believe it.
Listener poured the dregs of the coffee pot into his mug and was about to say that we're all in God's hands...
Ponti's pager requested he ring HQ for updated orders.
He had barely lifted the receiver when three sharp bangs were heard from the front of the house, they all rose in panic.
Everything was brought to an abrupt end when Gianni, Stefano and seven swiss guards in black combat gear with menacing assault rifles stormed into the room. They escorted the four from the house at a running jog, virtually threw them into the waiting jeeps ; and sped along the via della conciliazione.

Listener had little idea of the details of the heated conversation between Casaregna and a suave italian cleric with gelled hair known as 'Ricky' as they hurtled through the streets; but a few words he recognised...american...he knew "e pazz" meant "he's crazy" was kind of obvious....american college. Listener was getting quite irate and wished the Italians still spoke latin - he understood that! But this?
Then it hit him right between the eyes.
Damien!!! Somehow Damien thought he was in danger and they all thought he was heading for the American College for safety.
They were wrong and he knew it.
He tried to make himself heard above the engine and the shouting but it was to no avail.
After the third attempt to explain to Ponti that they were making a mistake - and the bishop complaisantly brushed him aside with "it's nothing to worry about eminence" - Listener decided to risk the humiliation of exercising authority he did not in reality possess.
"Stop the car NOW!"
They brushed his demands aside, like they would a child having a tantrum.
"Ponti , I know you all think Damien is coming here but you're wrong !!! Listen to me now and tell these thugs to stop the car NOW!"
Ponti was startled at the cardinal knowing who they were talking about and hesitated momentarily ,but then continued his attempt to placate the young man. Before he could open his mouth Listener shouted four words; but it was the eyes that made Ponti pay full attention.
"Ponti! Trust me - Please?"
Whatever it was in those eyes that swayed the Bishop was inexplicable to even Ponti.
Nevertheless he issued the order to stop, and when Ricky questioned the sensibility of the request he roared the demand with a ferocity that made Sister Giannetta jump back in shock.
Listener almost collapsed in relief and wished he was in Heaven to hug all the Saints who had helped him get to this point.
"Thankyou, now listen, it's important. Tell me everything you know...please? "
The next three minutes left Listener's audience in awe and with an uneasy embarassment that this young man had resolved a problem that the entire Vatican security network had failed to succeed in.
Within five minutes Listener had finished informing Athanasio, over the radio, as to where they would find Fr Damien. Listener made two requests and both were denied with good reasons. Athanasio thanked his brother cardinal and hoped to see him later this evening at the arranged time. He also apologised for any inconvenience and discomfort, and trusted that they would all enjoy the hospitality of the "venerabile" ? Listener attempted an apologetic goodbye but Athanasio had signed off.
The second jeep had already screeched off in the opposite direction and left them to endure the horns and expletives of fellow drivers screaming at the Jeep's occupants to stop blocking the road. The orders came through on the radio and the swiss guard driver continued on his assigned journey.
Stefano turned and looked at Listener nervously. The Cardinal winked.
Listener turned to the others.
" Sorry about all that, we're heading to the "venerabile" - whatever that is ?"
" Ah eminence you will like the English college"
"What ?" Now it was Listener who seemed disturbed.
Ponti clarified : "The Venerabile Collegio Inglese - the english college ! Maybe we have some english food no?"
Listener groaned. Of all the colleges in Rome and they had to pick that one! Did they know about ? Oh God, no !
It could be said that the young cardinal had very few friends; but had an amazing capability to accrue enemies by the barrel-load. Even though this was Listener's first time in Rome he was fully aware that a few of the city's residents would revel in exacting revenge upon him for his past actions and misdemeanours . One such person was the president of the English College !

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