Start of Term
“God was bored.” His deep, rich voice carried across the room of sober-suited students. “So God created the world. It did not take long, even with all the bits and pieces to take care of; the little things like ants, cricket bats, colours and long evenings with a gently declining sun.” The sun outside was far from gently declining. It was at its high point for mid-September, beating down on the thick clay roof tiles and yellow travertine walls, but with no impact on their ground floor lecture room, leaving it as cold as a morgue. The occupants sat on benches across the room, the warmth restricted to the fringes where the sun broke in and danced against the interior.
“It took God only six days, for he was a mighty God. But at the end, instead of taking a rest (for what god needs to rest?), God started on another world, and then another and another.
In fact, God created infinity worlds, each one sitting alongside the others, and into these worlds were put different situations, every situation and every decision catered for with its own world. Even this did not take long, for with God there is no time. All time is one – past, present and future amalgamated into one blasting, searing sensation of nowness. When this work was done, God sat back and observed his infinity worlds.
Then God was not bored anymore. “
He had always wanted to start his teaching career in this way.
With a jolt to make his students sit up.
And now he was doing it.
“Into one of these worlds was put a man called Adam. And Adam had a wife called Eve. Adam was thickset, hairy, strong with sandy, almost red hair, and a grin that spoke of the future. But the future was nothing to God. For God, everything was now but he let his people have their future, just as he let them have their present and their past. For that way led to infinity worlds and, with infinity worlds, choice was possible. Each world could sprout a new infinity as it faced each decision, every fork leading to new creation.” His approach was working, rapt attention from the whole class.
It was his way of imparting the beauty of free will under the umbrella of the Almighty.
“And Eve was his wife. She was petite with the richest black hair you have ever seen and wide, open eyes that echoed her husband’s honesty. Adam lived with Eve in this world, the world we call ours, where they worked their happiness as if they were king and queen, favoured above all.”
Was he making sufficient impact? Certainly, 34 pairs of eyes were glued on him. He chided himself for pride, but then forgave himself; he was doing God’s work.
“For God had made one rule when the worlds were created. The rule said each world should have the same sum total of happiness. God made no other rules, for no other rules mattered. For happiness was measured in terms of love.
And the only thing that mattered to God was love. And… not being bored.” The pause in this sentence was artificial. It prompted the expected outburst of laughter, rippling across the cold room like a physics experiment into acoustics.
“But there were others for whom love was weakness. And to them only strength mattered. They had once cared about love. Indeed, once they had cared only for love, just like God, their creator.
But, gentlemen, there is a whole story before the story I tell today.” Now he was getting poetical. There was a danger he would become too lyrical, smashing the atmosphere he had created. He paused and looked around the room, saw his new devotees, 34 of them. He was safe.
But what was that movement at the edge, where the light from outside broke in? The disrespectful movement was confirmed in that late summer stillness by the sound of a door closing. Somebody had left. And he was sure he had seen long golden hair move in a semi-circle, flaying out as she turned, kinetic energy abounding.
As ‘she’ turned.
He was sure now that he had seen a woman. And she had left his lecture halfway through. The faint aroma of rich perfume came to him, spreading across the air molecules to leave an identity.
He had paused too long, savouring the sweet smell in a masculine world, disturbed by the departure of someone who should not have been there. He continued, but some of the fire was gone now, destroyed by the golden hair swinging as it left the room.
And the click of the door closing behind her.
“These others set one rule; that each world should strive to have the most misery. They could not change the level of happiness, for that was prescribed, so they worked instead to maximise the amount of misery.
Tomorrow we will examine this story and consider the implications for free will. Class dismissed.”
It was a pitiful end to a glorious start. The class shuffled, broke slowly. Individuals emerged from the benches of grey and black. He looked down at his notes, saw salvation in his briefcase. He did not want to answer questions.
“Father Barrow?” It was no good. He had to be there for them.
“Yes, my son.” That was pompous. The voice was almost Barrow’s age, an older recruit.
“My name is Pierre Pascal. I’ve read all your books. I have always wanted to meet you.”
“Thank you.” But his mind screamed ‘not now, not in my moment of failure, not when that long golden hair has wreaked havoc in this sea of neat brown cuts’.
“I would like to ask you about some of your theories.”
“Of course, Pierre. Perhaps we should get some coffee?” He owed it to his students. It was not Pierre’s fault that the yellow abandon had destroyed the moment.
“That would be delightful, but perhaps another time?” Pierre was sensitive as well as intelligent, seeing the disturbance in Barrow’s eyes, the uncertainty in his expression.
“No time like the present, because there is only the present in the eyes of God!” The joke broke the barrier; it was his duty manifested.
But that night, Father Humphrey Barrow dreamed of golden hair swinging wildly and bringing chaos all around. He woke several times in a sweat, walked once to the window and opened it for air, breathing deeply. But he returned to the fleeting vision in his dreams, her character, her beauty developing as the midnight hours ticked by.
In the morning he went to confession before saying early Mass.
It was at communion he saw her again. At least it might have been her.
He smelt her perfume first. It was the essence of a long hot summer’s day; sweet, lazy but brim-full of life, like insects buzzing above a pond.
“Corpus Christi,” he muttered.
“Amen,” she replied.
“Amen,” she repeated, a little louder for he had not moved, had not placed the host in her cupped hands.
He could not be sure that the veiled figure before him was the same girl, but something said it was; the way the hair reflected the light, although still now and not in motion, veiled in black.
“Ti vedro dopo la Messa,” she whispered.
He did not answer but moved to the next person kneeling in front of the altar.
She stayed behind after Mass, just as she said she would, kneeling in the front row.
“You are the English priest?” She did not remove her veil, nor stand up, switching easily to English, although obviously a native Italian speaker.
“I am Father Humphrey Barrow.” He did not like her lack of reverence. “I am newly attached to the English College.” He replied in Italian, thinking she would prefer it.
“Jesuit?” She looked up. He detected disdain in her enquiry.
“Not everyone at the English College is a Jesuit by any means.” He checked himself, aware that he was sounding pompous, wanting to be friendly. “But it so happens that I am a priest ordained into the Society of Jesus. I am a Jesuit.”
She made the sign of the cross, stood up and turned to go.
“I have a message from the Cardinal. I am his assistant. He sent me to summon you at 11 a.m. today.”
There was the slightest flash of light on her hair as she turned to leave the chapel, darkened by her veil, tinted by the stained windows, but evident nonetheless.
He wanted to say he had seen her in the lecture room, but she was gone. It seemed undignified to chase her up the aisle.
It was only afterwards, at breakfast of tea, porridge, eggs and bacon that he realised that she had not said which cardinal he had been summoned to.
The administration office was the place to go to. It was run by an English woman, Signora Silversitrinni, but to everyone at the English College she was known as Old Ma Silver. They had met on Humphrey’s arrival the week before and, after showing him around, she had told him to come back with any problems. Then, to answer the unspoken question, she gave her story, speaking in English rather than Italian.
“I applied for temporary work during my year off before university.” Her story had been told a million times over the years, her English accent somehow grown stronger with each passing year in a foreign country. “That was in 1978 and I’m still on a temporary contract!” Her face was wrinkled and lined with laughter over the years.
She had met Signor Silversitrinni in December of that year. The wedding had taken place at the English College in June 1979, followed a year later by his funeral.
“We were left…”
“We?” Humphrey could not help interrupting.
“Yes, my son and me. Simon was six weeks old. He’s almost 55 now.” Pride was wrung through her voice. “He’s a successful stockbroker on the Borsa Italiana. But he’s still my little boy!”
Old Ma Silver was in her 75th year but still put in a hard days’ work and, many said, held the whole place together. At 34, she had started to streak grey, giving credence to her nickname. Now, for as long as anyone could remember, she presented with a thick abundance of hair: vibrant, healthy but distinctly silver.
Humphrey knocked on the door of the admin office and was told off gently, there being no need to knock, ‘just wander right in’. He thanked her and then explained the situation. Old Ma Silver rose to the challenge.
“It can only be one of a handful. You say she was Italian, this girl?”
“Yes, long blonde hair, almost as tall as me. She came to Mass this morning.”
“Ah, so she has access to the college? Well, that narrows it down a little. Do you have any classes now?”
“Yes, from nine to ten I’m giving a lecture on ‘Morals in the Modern World’ and then nothing until after lunch. My full workload has not started yet.”
“We always try and phase it in with the new teachers so that they can get to know the other staff and their surroundings. I will make some enquiries if you would like to come back at ten. Are you otherwise settling in alright?”
“Yes, Signora Silversitrinni.”
“That is quite a mouthful, just call me Old Ma like the others do.” She smiled, broadly and warmly. For a moment Humphrey was back with his mother, sitting at her feet in their tiny front room, listening to her story-telling before she clapped closed the big book and said ‘more tomorrow my little one, bedtime now.’
“Thanks…Old Ma.” He grinned, as did she. He had been so lucky to be selected for this teaching assignment. Everything felt right. The other teachers were friendly, the students respectful, the accommodation comfortable. And the food was spectacular. “Enough,” Old Ma had said when she had showed him around, “to make quite a roly-poly of your stick-like frame!”
He had prepared for ‘Morals in the Modern World’, wanting to make an impact from the start, just as in ‘Core Theology’ that had started so well the previous day.
“Good morning class, my name is Father Humphrey Barrow S.J., which, as most of you know, stands for the Society of Jesus. I am thus a Jesuit priest and have the good fortune of hosting this class with you.”
“Good morning, Father Barrow.” The chorus floated back to him.
“Tell me, you in the front row, what do you see when you look at the podium.”
“I see you, Father.”
“No, that is who you see. I asked what you see.”
“Oh, well…I see…a theology professor, a priest, a mentor, I mean someone to look up to.”
“Wrong answer, young man. You see a sinner.” That produced an intake of collective breath. “Let me tell you what you see. You see a vain man who appears good but hides many weaknesses. Yes, Pierre?” Pascal, the man he had bought coffee for the previous day, had his hand in the air. Humphrey briefly wondered who would notice his use of a Christian name, not bad for the first week of the new year.
“Father, I think I know the answer.”
“Go on, stand up Pierre so we can all hear you.” It would be even better coming from one of the students.
“Father,” Pierre stood up in the fifth row of the banked seats so he was taller than Humphrey on his podium in the front, “I see a man, an ordinary man, cursed or blessed, I know not which, with original sin.”
It was the perfect answer.
And the perfect opening to his series of lectures on ‘Morals in the Modern World’.
The hour wound on in similar vein, free-flowing ideas, bartering concepts as if in the market place. Humphrey’s role was to guide in a general direction towards a purpose but certainly not reaching it in the very first lecture of this class; he had the whole academic year to achieve that objective.
He felt good as he packed away his notes while the discussion continued into the hallway and, no doubt, into the students’ common room as well. This was what education was all about.
And there had been no invasion of long blonde hair, flaying out as she turned.
Old Ma Silver had the cardinal pinpointed when Humphrey returned just after 10 a.m.
“The one you want is Cardinal Forrundiker. He’s the Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education. I expect he would like to meet you as a promising young educator!”
“You flatter me,” he replied but was a little relieved that it was work related and nothing more.
“Be warned, Father, he is an ambitious man. Now, you better take the college car or you’ll be late.”
“I’ve not driven in Rome before.”
“That’s not a problem. I’ll drive you and you can drive back.”
Sophie LaNeve was in a foul mood. And her boss was the reason why. Once tall, now slanted over, forwards and to the right, her boss walked with a shuffle that seemed endearing.
Only Sophie knew otherwise. She knew exactly what he was like, his ambition, his clinical detachment, his total lack of humanity.
And most of all, his complete lack of interest in Sophie LaNeve.
She slammed the papers onto the table that made do for her desk and kicked the metal filing cabinet shut with her foot, scuffs on the lower drawer indicating the same action repeated many times. It hit the lock mechanism and bounced back open. She kicked it again, sighed and bent to close it properly.
The main offices had mahogany cabinets with matching chairs and desks. Her office had a plyboard table on aluminium legs, an unwanted coat stand and a linoleum floor with a crack running like a ravine diagonally from corner to corner.
She had asked for an office makeover last year.
It had been refused.
She slumped into her chair, wondering again why she endured this job.
But she knew why.
It was for her father.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Father Barrow’s body came into the room, the top half at speed as he stumbled on the lip of the linoleum and crashed into Sophie’s table, breaking a section with a snap of plyboard. Papers took off, caught by the breeze from the open window so they soared like birds of prey before floating gently downwards.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Humphrey blurted from the floor, grasping at papers all around him, but most seemed to avoid his grip, making neat dodges sideways before resuming their gentle progression down. He grabbed some, scrunching them in his fists to secure them.
“Don’t damage my papers,” Sophie shouted as one caught in the ragged edge of the broken plyboard and tore. “What have you done now? Get up and help me gather them from the floor.”
He tried to rise but fell backwards.
“I think I’ve injured my foot. It’s the ankle.”
As she helped him to his feet and into her chair, he again smelt her perfume. It took him to the sunny harvests of his deepest memory, hedgerows of middle England, busy insects above still ponds in which he had fished with his friends and talked of girls on his way back from school.
That was before the vocation had hit him like a train at full speed.
But it had a large dose of Italy too; the urban Rome he had known as a student ten years earlier, now returned to as educator. It was simplicity from the past meeting sophistication from the present.
“It’s swelling like a melon,” she broke into his thoughts. “Or more like an aubergine!” she laughed.
She was right; the bruising was spreading like purple gangrene.
When she helped him hobble out of her office and back down the stairs, he could feel the rhythm of her body, pumping beneath her fair skin.
“You’ll need to get someone to drive you back,” she said, not offering. “I’ll explain to the cardinal that you became indisposed following an accident.” There was anger in her voice. He did not understand why but left it too late to question, instead just said.
“It’s ok, I have someone here, Signora?”
“Signorina LaNeve.” She was not married.
“Signora Silversitrinni drove me here. She is waiting outside, Signorina LaNeve.”
She seemed like snow yet was burning hot against Humphrey’s skin.