© Jean and Stanley lewis
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Monday 11 March, 2002. Alenteju, Portugal. Two men stood at a crossroads. One, an aging priest, was nodding as if in agreement while his animated farmer friend outlined all that was ill with the world; blaming his woes on plastic imitation cork, foreigners, and the socialist government. The priest had heard it all before so was quietly enjoying the spring morning.
It had rained in the night and the grass was now fresher and greener. The first of the season’s wild flowers were washing the fields with yellow and white, and scattered about the rocky slopes the cork trees were standing like dark hands holding the sky; some pink and naked from the waist down, others plump, ready for harvesting.
The farmer explained, ‘The Portuguese are loyal to the Portuguese while it is in the interests of their pockets to do so. Portugal is getting richer and I am a poor soul getting poorer.’
‘You should have faith,’ the priest said. ‘If you attended mass more and the bars less, your troubles would be fewer and your soul richer.’
The farmer growled and turned a cool shoulder to his friend’s advice. Then he stopped, and without averting his gaze asked if the priest could see where someone appeared to be floating in one of his cork trees.
The priest looked, jumped, and told the farmer who he thought the lady might be. ‘…but I don’t believe my eyes.’
‘Being a priest you should believe,’ he said.
So the priest believed and belatedly knelt.
The lady spoke then vanished while the priest scribbled a name onto a scrap of paper. ‘Geraldo Ferguson do Basingstoke,’ he said. ‘Do you know him?’
The farmer, now searching the bushes for a projector, shook his head. ‘No, but if he makes plastic cork, I will kill him,’ he said, unaware the lady was still listening and, unhappy with his attitude, had decided to have words.
‘Have them!’ the farmer called, much to his own surprise. ‘It’s not you trying to make a living growing this stuff!’ he added, again for reasons he couldn’t later explain.
Monday 11 March, 2002. Canterbury – the Cathedral grounds. The Christ Church Gates were closed; the public still enjoying its breakfasts. The lawns were neat and fragrant after the first cut of the year, and the ancient building gaunt and grey under overcast skies. It was cold and quiet.
A chaplain marched through the South Porch, mustering a smile for the woman sweeping the souvenir shop.
‘Excuse me!’ she called after him.
The chaplain looked but kept walking.
‘There’s a lady over the Black Prince,’ she said. ‘I think she might be a virgin.’
He smiled as if he’d been listening, then continued along the south aisles of the nave and the quire to Trinity Chapel, and the tomb of Edward The Black Prince. He stopped.
‘Out!’ He was pointing back towards the entrance. ‘Get down now or I’m calling the police.’
The lady frowned and had started explaining who she was when the chaplain cut her short.
‘I don’t care who you are. There is no public access before nine o’clock, which is…’ He checked his watch, ‘…an hour and five minutes from now, so please come down and leave.’
The chaplain made as if going for assistance, but as he did so he realised the lady was not so much sitting on the tomb, as he’d first thought, but rather floating above it. He stopped and looked around to see who might be playing a practical joke. Then he began swaying back and forth, taking sideways steps as he did so to see exactly how it was she was floating there.
‘It… It is you. Isn’t it?’ he ventured.
She assured him it was.
‘Goodness!’ he said, summing her up quite nicely. ‘What can I do? We’re not Catholic, you know.’
She asked if there was anyone with an ounce of intelligence or respect to whom she could speak.
‘No, there isn’t. Sorry.’
She spoke slowly.
‘Basingstoke? Are you sure about that?’
She assured him she was.
‘So, what should I do now?’
She explained he should find someone with an ounce of intelligence or respect and that they would know what to do.
‘Thank you,’ he said, then took a closer look so as to compare her with images he’d seen. He thought she didn’t look particularly English which, he later told the Archbishop, for some reason surprised him.
Monday 11 March, 2002. Redwood National Park. Spring sap filled the air. Sunlight shafted like silk through the trees. A winter wren sang. A jay chafed the stillness.
A string of cars was pulled over to the side of the road where a group of visitors stood gazing up at the canopy.
‘Right up there!’ The alpha male directed each in turn.
Sure enough, high where the branches of one of the redwoods were woven with its neighbours’, there floated a lady in a halo of brilliant light.
The alpha yelled ‘What are ya doing up there?’
She spoke but her words were lost in the whisper of the leaves.
The group tried yelling in unison. ‘COME DOWN!’
She seemed troubled by this. It was as if she were unaccustomed to being told what to do, but recognising their suggestion was the right one, she began floating earthwards.
The group fell silent. The alpha removed his cap. The women placed their hands across their mouths. The other males moved closer to the alpha. One had a video camera.
‘Do you speak American?’
She said she didn’t but nevertheless understood what they were saying. Then she gave instructions that sent a beta male off for his road atlas of the United States.
‘Basingstoke, Massachusetts,’ he called.
He brought the atlas to show the lady but she’d gone, so he showed the others and they began screaming and hooting and hugging and high-fiving and embracing and kissing the tree and spitting out little bits of bark. They then gathered around the tiny video screen and viewed the lady’s gentle descent. It was very good; clear, well lit, no obvious camera shake. They watched it several times then wiped it clean with footage of their group standing before the sacred redwood tree.
Wednesday, a week and a bit later. Basingstoke, England.
Darkness. A loft hatch opened, light flooded in and there was the Virgin Mary. The frame was old and the glass flat with dust, but it was her and her eyes were lowered to the bottom corner of the frame where Gerald Ferguson – 66, less trim than he’d once been, less tawny haired than he’d once been, less clipped and groomed and Brylcreamed than he’d once been – gazed wide-eyed.
‘Can’t see a damn thing.’
He flashed his torch around the loft until the light fell on the Phillips screwdriver he’d lost months before. He smiled. The Virgin and Screwdriver – the new designer pub that had become his local since they’d started showing so much live football. He laughed and looked around for more pub name potential. The Kettle and Danset. The Scrabble and Bagatelle. The Cobweb and Dressmaker’s Model. He laughed again.
His mother had willed him the portrait. Her thinking was that although she couldn’t take it with her then, what with advancements in science, when his time came maybe her son would be able to bring a few things along. That’s what she’d decided and Gerald was too wary of his mother to dispose of it even eight years after her death.
The problem he was having with religion of late – and in particular Catholicism, with which he had been kept in good faith for most of his childhood – was… What if it were all true?
In his youth, he’d decided it was a load of nonsense; a trick instigated by tricksters and perpetuated by his mother for the purpose of getting him to wash behind his ears. But more recently, he’d started harbouring doubts. The problem was, he couldn’t get his head around how it was he was thinking, and then of course there was the question of what would become of his thinking when he died. It was a real puzzle, and as he was reluctant to dismiss his mother’s baleful explanation of it all, he was hanging on to the picture, just in case.
Now his old screwdriver was perched against it and he again wondered if there might be something to it all, because if there were gates, and if they were pearly, then he was moving ever closer. Maybe it was time to source himself a little religious insurance. It was his age, he decided. It was why churches were filled with so many older folk.
Religion had been the one topic forbidden during his tax office days. An excellent rule broken only once one Friday after-lunch when a colleague named Frank confessed to being a churchgoer. The office atheist just back from the pub thought he’d wade in. It had started amicably enough but the louder the atheist asserted, the calmer came Frank’s biblical proof. And on it had gone until… SNAP! Frank lost temporary use of his nose; his assailant, permanent use of his job.
Gerald was lucky. He’d been there a few years by that time and although he’d been promoted behind one of the taller partitions, he hadn’t achieved (and never would, it’s worth pointing out) the dizzy heights that required him to resolve matters. He’d just sat there, head down, worked unusually hard for a Friday afternoon, and left early.
It was a great partition. Not just because of its imperviousness – useful as that had been – but more because he’d had pinned upon it all that was dear to him in life. Pride of place his little granddaughter Rose. It was a photo taken in Prospect Park, Reading when she’d been about four. It showed Gerald laughing and crouching on the grass being a dog, and Rose clinging to his neck with such a gorgeous little-girl smile that he could still smell the summer air whenever he gazed upon it. It was in his greenhouse now; his little hideaway since retirement; his surrogate partition.
There’d been two other photos.
Tucked beneath the first had been a studio shot of Rose bookended by her parents. It was one of a series daughter-in-law Beverley had dictated they should have taken. They were dressed in their Sunday best with Rose looking beautiful and her parents laughing un-spontaneously as they touched heads in an arc of love. It was ghastly. Owing to lack of space, Gerald had pinned it so Beverley was obscured by the bigger, lovelier one of Prospect Park.
The third had shown ‘Three Generations of Fergusons’: grandparents Gerald and Janice, father John, and little Rose. Gerald loved it because his boy John looked almost comfortable having his hand on his dad’s shoulder. It hadn’t been a great one of Janice so he’d covered her with a Xerox of his first ever lottery win.
And there’d been a clipping of Reading FC winning the old Third Division, and some postcards from Kew of various azaleas and maples he liked. Then there was a Telegraph crossword from July 1993, the only occasion he’d finished it on his own. It was very yellow by the time he retired so he’d binned it, although he could still recall one-across having been POPPY, and the clue something about ‘…going off in a corn field.’
What else had there been?
Photos of Portugal, of course – beaches mostly; and a menu from a restaurant they’d visited one night with the da Silvas. Lovely family. His mind drifted back twenty-odd years to the Algarve. He smiled.
‘Right, this will never do. Find the whatever it is I’m looking for. What was it? Can’t remember. Don’t ask her, you’ll get an earful.’
He took his mind downstairs. It was something his Janice was wanting. Dressmaking? No. Cooking? Yes, she was in the kitchen. What was she doing?
‘Haven’t the foggiest!’
He stooped below the ceiling. ‘Jan, do you have any idea where exactly I should be looking?’ It may elicit a clue.
‘Well, you put them up there. You should have more idea where you put them.’
‘Them’. She’d said ‘Them’. It must be things, not a thing.
‘It might help if I knew when we had them last.’ Another optimistic fist of ground bait.
‘Goodness, I can’t remember. Whenever we finished the last of the gooseberries, I shouldn’t wonder. There can’t be too much up there.’
But Gerald was already head back in the loft shifting boxes. Kilner jars. Jan was bottling imported plums on offer from the market and she wanted the Kilner jars, and in no time he’d located a box that chinked as he moved it. On top was a Somerfield carrier of old shoes.
‘The Brogue and Kilner Jar’ he informed the dust and cobwebs. ‘Open eight till midnight. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served. Live football: Chelsea versus The Wolves. Kick off 7.30’; and he wondered when Chelsea had last faced up to Wolverhampton Wanderers and decided it must have been back when football had been black and white. ‘Happy days.’
He backed down the steps, box of Kilners in hand, pleased with how he could still carry heavy things on ladders and thinking maybe someone called ‘Val Kilner’ had once played Batman in a movie.
‘Here you are. One box of Val Kilner Jars courtesy of Batman and The Boy Wonder. Here OK?’
The box gave a chink as it hit the kitchen table.
‘Yes, now wash them, will you?’ Janice said, continuing to slice out stones.
‘Wash them?’ His heart sank. He’d planned a morning washing flower pots. Washing jars was no fun. But then the phone rang and as things transpired Janice had to wash them herself.
He made for the phone thinking on how his wife pitted the plums with her kitchen knife just as he pitied them being split open like that. Pitted, pitied. Or was it just Californian prunes that could be ‘pitted’.
‘Buon giorno,’ said a voice like a Latin lover. ‘I am from the Vaticano.’
‘And this is Val Kilner, pitier of plums, part time Batman. What’s wrong, Roger, stuck in a bunker?’
There was scarcely a pause, suggesting the caller was used to not being believed.
‘No, Mr Ferguson, I am from the Vaticano, in Roma.’
‘And this is Val Kilner in Basingstoke, waiting for the Kettle and Danset to open so I can watch The Wolves take apart Dave Sexton’s lot. So what’s new? I thought you were playing in the sand up Kempshott Hill today.’
‘Mr Ferguson, although my name is Roger, it is Roger Andrioli, and Heesa-horlinessa-the-Porpa is inviting you to Roma.’
‘Is he, now?’ Gerald laughed, although Roger was usually funnier than this. It was his nature: Roger would speak and people would laugh. He could cough and it would be funny. Well, a bit funny. Well, certainly funnier than this line about Rome. ‘I’ve just been up the attic getting kilner jars,’ he said, hoping it might interest. Then, wondering if this perhaps might not be Roger on account that he wasn’t funny, he added, ‘Who did you say you were?’
Roger Andrioli repeated the bit about Rome, the Vatican and the Pope, and it became clear it wasn’t his Roger, but another, probably Italian, certainly not funny, and quite possibly with links to God.
So what had he said? Anything to upset his mother? No matter. One lesson life had taught Gerald was there are times when it’s best to act as if an embarrassing thing said has not been. Then, if carried through with sufficient conviction, others will start wondering themselves whether they might have imagined it. He would do that.
‘Fine! So what can I do for you?’
‘Mr Ferguson, please bring your passaporto to the front gate as I am to escort you to Heathrow Airport. From there we fly AlItalia first class to Roma.’
He pushed his face to the front door, trying to determine some detail through the distortions of the stained glass. He could see a shape of some description out there, but his mind too was becoming distorted as he tried to rationalise what he’d just been told. Passport? Rome? AlItalia? Hang on! Then… Mafia. Oh God, they wanted to kill him because… But he couldn’t think why they’d want to. Then… First Class, and he got quite excited as he’d never flown posh before.
‘Why?’ he asked, endeavouring to show some defiance but thinking of Roman Holiday and an affair with Audrey Hepburn.
Roger Andrioli sighed. ‘Mr Ferguson, let me come to the point. Have you in the last few days… um…’
Gerald held his breath, anxious, suspecting something significant was about to hit him. ‘Yes?’
‘…received a message from anyone, shall we say, ‘spiritoso’ in the last few days?’
‘Spiritoso? Well, I don’t think… Hang on.’ He pulled the receiver from his ear. ‘Jan, has any post arrived I’ve not had?’
‘It’ll be on the table in the hall if it has,’ she called back, continuing her tracheotomies on the plums.
‘It’ll be on the table in the hall if it has.’
Back to the phone. ‘It seems not.’
‘No floating ladies in the trees?’
What? ‘Almost certainly not. I’d have remembered. May I ask why?’
‘It will become clear, but in the meantime could you please come with me. Clear it with your wife if it makes you happy.’
‘Jan,’ He stuck his head round the kitchen door. ‘It seems I’ve been invited to Rome to meet the Pope.’
‘What do you reckon? Seems a bit suspicious. Should I go, do you think?’
‘Definitely!’ She was grinning. ‘I don’t suppose Roger will be there, will he?’
‘I think he may,’ he said, wondering how she knew but feeling happier for her doing so.
Janice gave a laugh of having heard it all before and throttled another Victoria plum. ‘Well, don’t be late back, and don’t come back drunk.’
‘Not much chance, I don’t think.’ He looked to the front door but then returned to the kitchen. ‘Really? You really think I should? Isn’t it a bit weird?’
‘Just go! I can wash the stupid kilner jars, if that’s the problem. Sod off! Leave me alone.’
‘Just like that – Rome?’
‘For goodness sake, Gerald. Dad always said you’ve got no balls. Now’s your chance to prove him wrong. Go inherit the world.’ She gave a mocking laugh.
He took up the receiver but hesitated. With Janice’s approval or otherwise, it was very strange, and the chances of there being someone waiting to do a ‘plum job’ on him were so high it seemed certain suicide to go. But what if this were genuine, and what if his mum had read his thoughts regarding the picture in the attic and was ‘displeased’, as she would have put it. And anyway, he’d never found ‘No’ an easy thing to say. So he took up the receiver, hesitated again, thought about having to wash kilner jars, then said ‘OK’ to the man from the Vatican. Then he went for his passport.
Above the bureau was a painting of Rye Janice had done when they were courting, and he paused to admire and straighten it before glancing outside. A Range Rover was waiting by the gate, and as he watched, a suited Italian type in dark glasses emerged and leant on the wing.
Mafia. Most definitely Mafia, and his heart started dancing with the thrill of imminent doom and adventure until he noticed a yellow and white papal flag fluttering on the front wing.
‘Right, Jan. I’m off. Can I get you anything? Ice cream? Olive Oil – big bottle?’
‘No, but if the Pope has any of those rubber seals for Kilner jars then bring me some, will you.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. Cheerio!’
‘Keys, money, handkerchief, wallet. Here we go!’ He stepped outside and offered a breezy ‘Good morning’ to his assassin.
The man returned the compliment and offered Gerald the Range Rover’s soft leather back seat. It smelled new, expensive and very clean. There was a picture of The Virgin on the dashboard and a Sacred Heart in the centre of the steering wheel. In the pocket behind the driver’s seat he found a road map of Britain, another of Italy and a slim volume which on closer inspection turned out to be an A to Z of Vatican City.
Seems Kosher, he thought.
The room was pure opulence. The ceiling was a bevy of cherubs dangling dangerously from sunlit clouds, and the walls, tall and equally resplendent with shepherds and saints and misty distant cities, rose from a crimson skirting of cardinals.
The whole college was in attendance, and they did not look happy. They were frowning, scowling, their chins lowered, hands clasped deep within their sleeves as they watched Gerald shuffle into the room.
The instruction had come from the direction of the well-fed man in white slouched in a throne at the far end of the room. His white-capped head was bent over the leather-bound tome perched on his lap, and he gave the impression of being a man deep in concentration. Closer inspection revealed otherwise as he was taking quick, furtive glances as Gerald Ferguson approached, ogling the glorious blues and golds of the ceiling.
He sat as instructed in the carved, gold, dining-room chair provided and the man in the throne raised his head.
Gerald nodded and squeezed out a smile.
The man’s eyes sparkled over his half-moon glasses in a manner resembling Miss Hoad, Gerald’s old junior school teacher.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he said.
‘You’re the Pope?’
‘Yes, I am the Pope!’ He chuckled and looked at the assembled cardinals. Some smiled back, others kept their stony eyes on the heavenly-graffitied wall opposite. None now looked at Gerald.
‘And honestly now,’ the Pope said, ‘did you ever think you’d meet me?’
‘No.’ Gerald said honestly.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘No one ever does, you know. Quite a surprise.’ And again the Pope sparkled into a hearty laugh while those about the wall again offered a superficial simper. Then he placed his hands flat on his book and sat up as if a game were about to commence. ‘Gerry! Is it all right if call you Gerry?’
Gerald said it was.
‘Good, and do you know what you should call me?’
‘I have been told “Your Holiness”, Your Holiness.’
‘That’s right, “My Holiness”. I call you “Gerry” and you call me “Your Holiness”. Does that seem fair? I get a fancy title, you get “Gerry”?’
‘It’s not a problem.’
‘Well, maybe there’s something better. Let’s think.’ The Pope furrowed his brow and thought. ‘Right! What is it you do?’
‘Do? Well, nothing now. I used to work for the Inland Revenue but now I’m retired.’
‘Retired, are you? Then why don’t I call you “Your retardiness”. That would be fairer, yes?’ He smiled at his idea and the cardinals grinned audibly at the pontiff’s suggestion and inability to see his own joke.
He slipped a sheet of paper from the book and spread it flat on his lap. ‘Well, Your Retardiness, you’ve caused us all sorts of to do over the past few days. Did you know that?’
‘Not really, no, although I guessed something must have happened for you to fly me here first class. Am I in trouble?’
‘Trouble?’ He chuckled again and the cardinals fell serious again. ‘It depends. Can you write?’
‘Write? Yes – letters, tax returns, things like that.’
‘A book?’ What on earth was this? ‘Well to be honest, I’ve never tried although I’ve always felt…’
‘Stop!’ The Pope had raised his hand. ‘…you always felt you had one in you. Yes?’ He laughed. ‘We all do, Gerry. We all do. We all of us think we have one in us; even this lot.’ He nodded at the skirting. ‘I know for a fact they do, some of them. Anyway, for the next little while whether you can or not won’t be a problem as I have a feeling Someone will be guiding you.’ He stopped, grinned and stared at Gerald.
Gerald stared back, guessing he was meant to be understanding something. As they continued to stare, the Pope widened his smile and raised his eyes to the cherubbed ceiling.
‘Ah! Oh right, I see.’ Gerald laughed, still without a clue but hoping things would become clearer in good time.
‘He’ll see you right.’ The Pope grinned again. ‘Good. Let’s get down to the serious, shall we? As you obviously don’t know, many people – I think 40 at the last count – have been subject to visions. Now, do you know what visions are?’
‘Yes, I think so,’ Gerald said. ‘They’ve been seeing people in caves and things.’
‘That’s them. Well, these people have all received the same message. Can you guess what?’
‘Have a guess!’
‘I really have no idea.’
‘Then I’ll tell you. They’ve all been told that you, His Retardiness Mr Gerald Ferguson from Basingstoke, should be commissioned to write… What, do you think?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Have a guess!’
‘I honestly have no idea.’
‘Then I’ll tell you. A testament.’ He smiled. ‘Like the Old Testament and the New Testament, but this one will be a newer-still testament. The first new one for… Oh, how long is it now?’
He looked to an adviser who offered, ‘Almost 2,000 years, Your Holiness.’
‘Almost 2,000 years, My Holiness. How about that. Quite some time.’
Gerald stared at the Pope and for several moments said nothing. Then he smiled and stuttered, ‘Sorry, could you… Could you say that again… Please… Your Holiness, please?”
The Pope laughed and repeated himself, and Gerald muttered a ‘Don’t be so stupid!’. He very nearly shouted it at the man. He very nearly apologised again, and asked the pontiff to repeat himself again. He very nearly burst out laughing. Ludicrous suggestion. Who did they think he was? Ridiculous! It must be a joke. Somewhere there were TV cameras and that bloke with the too-white smile was waiting to pop out grinning like an idiot, infuriating the millions who tuned in every Sunday. He looked around the room but saw only serious, cardinal-red faces.
‘Are you sure it’s me?’
‘Gerry, you are the one.’ The Pope nodded. Then his head twitched sideways and he asked, ‘You’re not Protestant, are you?’
‘No,’ Gerald said with a clear conscience.
‘But you are Catholic?’
Was he Catholic? ‘Marginally, Your Holiness.’
‘Well that’s OK then, isn’t it. Not perfect but “marginally” beats Protestant and it’s my bet by the time you finish there’ll be no “marginally” left in you.’
‘Maybe not, Your Holiness.’
‘Good!’ The Pope sat back and patted the book on his lap. ‘Now, any questions?’
‘Yes, many, strangely enough. Um… Where to start. Um… Well, what do you want me to write exactly?’
‘Good question. Stuff about God – lots and lots of it. New ideas, exciting ideas, good versus evil. Good winning, please. The stuff that good old Italian art thrived on. Jokes never hurt, mind. Think about that. Are you funny?’
‘Not especially, no, but I do have a friend Roger who makes me laugh.’
‘Good. Ask him for jokes if you must but keep it clean,’ and he smiled as if they were both thinking of the same joke that perhaps shouldn’t be included. ‘Make it modern, I say, and I think the term is “relevant to today’s youth”. Make them want to “have a go” at God. Do you think you can do that?’
Not in a month of Sundays. Not in a dozen months of Sundays.
‘I can try.’
‘That’s the spirit!’ The Pope punched the air.
Gerald felt he was drowning. He knew from experience it was most unlikely he’d summon the courage to say ‘No’, and knew his best course would be to go along with things, show keen, and wait for everyone to realise the error of their ways. Then he could walk away a failure. Certainly don’t do anything to upset Mother.
‘I have another question,’ he announced.
‘What form should the testament take, in your view? I mean, how should I present it?’
‘You tell us,’ the Pope said, challenge in his voice. ‘You’re the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on this one. You tell us.’
‘Me!’ Oh goodness! He pulled a face he hoped would suggest deep consideration. ‘Internet?’ His boy John was forever talking about the Internet, and although Gerald had only once used it to search for a girl he remembered from school, he hoped the suggestion would seem ‘informed’.
The Pope smiled and looked to his left. One of the cardinals had stepped away from the wall. He was well into his seventies but looked sprightly as he regarded Gerald. ‘We think a book,’ he said.
‘A book.’ Gerald said. ‘Yes, it could work.’
‘A book. Big and black with brass hinges and a lock. Heavy cumbersome thing, ideally. Difficult to nick. Suited us fine for how many hundreds of years and we see no reason to change. As the business people say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Isn’t that right?’
‘Yes, but isn’t that rather an old-fashioned way of going about things, nowadays?’
‘Decision made on that one,’ said an even older cardinal who, Gerald decided, must have been in his nineties. ‘Done and dusted. What we can’t decide on is how many keys. This is what we want you to think on. I say one to be kept here and one in the vestry desk, itself under lock and key. Other so called “modern thinkers” say everyone – well every Catholic – should have one. Six hundred million keys. Stupid! Why bother, I say. Do you have any views on the matter?’
What? ‘Um… I think I’ll need to think a bit more on that one.’
The Pope was chuckling again. ‘You’re a bit of a diplomat, aren’t you Gerry? Keeping your thoughts to yourself, I can tell. You think these silly old fools are silly old fools. Yes? Don’t answer that.’ He grinned. ‘Just remember that your hand is free. Write whatever you want, publish however you like. He will be guiding you, remember. You can print it on banana leaves for all I care, or post-its so we can stick them on the wall like a mural. Just don’t let anyone make decisions for you about what should be in it – apart from…’ and he flicked his thumb at the ceiling again. ‘You supposedly have been chosen; you ultimately decide.
‘Cardinal Presto here thinks we should shut you up in a miserable darkened cell so you suffer and go blind, and mad no doubt, trying to write by the light of a candle and an arrow slit clogged with starling nests. It’s all about suffering and contrition to him – pained expressions; looking like you’ve overdone it with the gnocchi.
‘Now, it’s not my job to tell you what to do, but I want you to up sticks and disappear for a while; a few months or whatever it takes. Go, walk, seek wisdom from others. You just remember that this world is run by a select band who think they have the wisdom and capacity to do so, but in reality don’t. And by the same token, it’s overflowing with people blessed with insight who don’t realise it and choose to keep their ideas to themselves.
‘They are the ones, Gerry. Seek them out.’ He nodded as if in agreement with himself.
‘Walking frees the mind and the spirit. Look at Cardinal Presto here.’ He gestured to his left again. ‘He hasn’t walked for nigh on 15 years and makes about as much sense as left-handed spinach.’ He laughed at his joke. ‘Or Spaghetti. Left-handed spaghetti. That’s better, isn’t it. Funnier – bit more Italian. You can include that if you like.’ He laughed again, looking round to see who was showing amusement.
‘Yes, walking. Walking’s the thing. It’s what the ‘nomadics’ do and they’re the happiest people on the planet. Did you know that?’
Gerald shook his head.
‘Oh yes. You can put that in too, if you like. Right! Anything else?’
‘Yes, how about security. I mean, I’m sure many people must know of me by now so who’s to say someone won’t try to do me harm me in some way?’
One of two of the cardinals growled.
‘Another reason to walk. Change your name. Shave off your beard.’
‘I don’t have a beard.’
‘Grow one then. He, I am sure, will keep an eye on you, just as He, we assume, chose you in the first place. Mind you, choosing you to do this thing then having you bumped off is just one of the mysterious-way things he’s apt to do, isn’t it.’
The Pope thought this most amusing and received almost universal approval from the skirting.
‘Take a pseudonym. Abdul.’
‘Do I look like an Abdul?’
‘Something else then. Roger?’
‘I’ll think of something.’ In his dreamlike state Gerald saw only problems and was unable to view them as opportunities, as an office trainer had once encouraged him to do. ‘Will I get paid?’ he asked, thinking he could orchestrate a row and get out of it that way.
‘Most certainly. Loads and loads of cash plus an S.T. for your troubles, no doubt.’
Gerald didn’t ask for fear of looking stupid. He just looked stupid and waited for the Pope to explain.
‘S.T. Like “street” but before your name.’
Gerry still looked stupid.
‘Saint, for goodness sake! Be good and 50 years after you’re dead, I’ll see what I can do about an S.T.’
‘Fifty years after?’
‘The rules, I’m afraid. We’ve offered an S.T. to the 40 who passed on your name and they’re all quite excited about the idea. They don’t want money but then again you’re having to come up with some original input. I’ll look into what the contributors got for the last one and take into account any cost of living rises. We’ve already popped something in your bank to tide you over so you’ve no worries in the short term. Now, anything else before we all go?’
‘Yes, why me?’
The cardinals began shuffling against the wall and growling as if keeping the lid on an irreverent fury which had been boiling away in various meetings since this ridiculous business had begun. A very good question extremely well asked, they were thinking. Why him? Why not, for example, them?
The Pope shrugged his shoulders, and sandwiched between two wide smiles he said, ‘Mysterious ways. Anything more?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’ Then, ‘Yes, there is one thing, but it’s for my wife really. She asked me to ask.’
‘I can’t help feeling that the answer will be no but, do you have any of those rubber seals for kilner jars? I don’t suppose so but…’
‘Do we?’ The Pope addressed the cardinals collectively and they shook their heads a little puzzled and passed the question among themselves with raised eyebrows.
‘Doesn’t seem so, but I’ll get someone to check more thoroughly. Mustn’t upset the good lady, must we.’ He laughed, started to stand but then paused and sat again. ‘Gerry… Sorry, Your Retardiness, honestly now, how’s my English, do you think?’
‘Oh, very good,’ Gerald said, and the Pope laughed as if recognising the Englishman was being a diplomat again.
In St Peters Square, Gerald pondered the questions he’d not thought to ask but knew that had he, he’d be no less confused as to the reality of the situation and no nearer figuring out how he could rid himself of it.
The most positive consequence of the day had been his enhanced opinion of the pontiff. He’d expected a miserable, aging individual posing like a martyr pasted to a 12th century church wall, his head tilted and an expression of gloom. How had the Pope put it? "…as if he’d eaten too much gnocchi."
‘Something like that. Must look gnocchi up when I get home.
But no, he was great. He decided if the Pope lived nearer Basingstoke – Reading say, or Windsor, or even as far as Bristol – he’d visit from time to time.
‘Thoroughly good egg!’ Gerald said as he marched off in search of souvenirs.
He bought nothing. One quick glance revealed all the pens, notebooks and nonsense he’d seen at the London Eye the weekend before, only with saints, popes and basilicas screened where the previous week there’d been a big wheel.
Roger Andrioli pulled into the kerb with a smile and dark glasses and drove him at speed in his Alfa to the airport.
‘You’ve been a long time.’
Janice Ferguson analysed the odd assortment of stale, foody smells emanating from Gerald’s smile, and pulled an expression of mild surprise – something vaguely Bolognese but no beer.
‘So how was the Pope?’
‘Top bloke! He sends you these,’ and he placed a stack of yellow and white kilner jar seals on the table top. ‘Says he has some spare lids and screw tops if you’re interested. And he says with plums, don’t remove the stones. He said it seems a “pity” to – or was it a “pitty”; not sure. Then he laughed. He also asks where you got plums in March.’
She looked at Gerald, for once letting him totally interrupt her day.
‘Where have you been?’
‘I told you, Rome; the Vatican,’ and to prove the point he placed a logo’d Alitalia pen on the table next to the seals, along with an Alitalia knife and fork, a Vatican teaspoon and the A to Z of Vatican City ‘Someone’ had decided he should lift from Vatican Roger’s car.
‘Let me smell your breath again.’ She frowned and to humour him asked, ‘Why?’
‘The good man’s asked me to write him a testament. A “Newer Testament”, as he put it. Impressed?’
She slipped the seals into a drawer and examined the knife and fork.
‘First Class,’ he added. ‘Proper coffee – like at Mister Donut.’
Janice Ferguson – 67, retired, Basingstoke, Hampshire.
I couldn’t make him out that evening. I mean he was always a bit eccentric in a way – a less than interesting way – but I couldn’t make him out. I was about to ask him what he was blithering on about but I thought: Don’t waste your time, girl. Humour him.
So I humoured him.
But it was odd, you see, because his attempts at humour were invariably tedious and predictable but at least they could be recognised as attempts. This visiting the Pope thing just wasn’t funny. If his equally tedious friend Roger had said it, it still wouldn’t have been funny. It wasn’t funny. So what was he up to?
A woman? No, sorry Gerald and all that but no. I’m a woman and I know what women want in a man and Gerald does not have it. He used to have a charm that appealed to older women, but there are precious few of them left now, so to speak. Sad thing is he’s never had it. Even when we first met he didn’t have it. We’d just got used to one another and drifted along fairly non-communicatively, raised John whom we both love dearly, of course, and shared our separate lives aware of neither loving nor loathing. That’s how I’d always seen it.
There wasn’t a woman – I was sure of that. It was just the strangeness in him having itself a little outing. Perhaps he fancied the idea of a late mid-life fling. I thought he might be off to Portugal to see what he could pick up, but when he said he was going to Portsmouth and was going to walk the coastline of Britain, I thought, ‘See you this evening, dear. Don’t get too lost.’ Because he can’t look after himself. Can’t pack for holidays. Could never get himself ready for work without me having to make sure his socks matched and there was a clean shirt that ‘went’. His idea of planning was making sure we had Kitkats and Pacamacs when we went for a walk.
I thought, ‘Two days tops.’ Three if he finds a comfy guest house.
Day 1 – Tuesday 26 March, 2002
A few mornings later, Gerald Ferguson took the train to Portsmouth, ‘With my knapsack,’ he sang, ‘on my back.’
What a tremendous word ‘knapsack’ was. Not of this generation although he could see it making a come back, perhaps with a fancy logo and a ludicrous price tag. His was blue and contained a change of clothing, a Pakamac, a sponge bag, a towel, a notebook destined to be his chum and confidante during his life as a nomadic, and a Kitkat. He wore an anonymous beige jacket and his trousers, light and comfortable for walking, were a brown that wouldn’t show the dirt too much. He drank a British Rail coffee, watched the spring-green countryside racing past, then tucked the paper napkin into his notebook; a memento of Day One.
At Portsmouth he needed the gentlemen’s. It was the coffee, he decided, but he was also excited by his new life – his ‘Quest’ – seeking a supreme truth. So after helping himself to the Portsmouth in a Day leaflet from the tourist information kiosk, he marched forth.
The smells of the seaside flooded his nostrils and large grey and white gulls screamed across the windy sky. There were a few clouds but sufficient blue for twenty sailors shirts. A good omen.