Paying the Piper by Jim Archibald
It's a crackling sound. It sounds like old parchment. How appropriate for the Tomb of the Holy Father. But wait. I get ahead of myself. I know the sound; it's within me. The dry crackling flexion of my lungs. The parchment paper lungs of Christ's Vicar on Earth.
'Holy Father. Holy Father. Some water perhaps?' Ah Sofia. The dear companion of my final days. A broad-faced, wide-beamed peasant from the Mezzogiorno. I still find it impossible to believe that the world Press might speculate on sexual misadventure between this stolid, plodding mule and myself. Sister Sofia, younger, much younger than I, and yet smelling of old, dry linen; dried, 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, a street thief and pimp from the North. A venal, immoral child of the streets of Aosta. Light years from Pope Sextus VI. And yet the root, the life-line runs through both unique entities to end here, curtailed in this impossibly large bedroom.
'For pity's sake. open the curtains. The curtains ... some light.' For some reason they don't understand what I'm saying. My bedchamber is full of people. They merge with the shadows, they shift in the guilty manner of supplicants. I hear them gossip 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 can speak five languages, who can quote a long dead German Poet. After ruling the Roman 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. My death is the main event.
'Eminence. His Holiness is trying to speak.' She speaks to that bumbling old saint, Henri. Here he comes, 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; but no Prince, no Iron chancellor.
'Holy Father. It is I; Cardinal Fourchet.' I know that you old French fool. I haven't said that of course. Can you imagine sitting throughout eternity having departed life with that sobriquet?
'Open the curtains.' I'm shouting at the top of my voice. It's quite 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 Fourchet's uncertain shoulder the Holy See shifts.
Come, come Gianni? Gratuitous hyperbole at this late hour? What I mean is that I have spotted the opposition party. There 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? Contessa Farinese, the darling of the Paparazzi.
And next to the old Roman Satyr? The American. That bloody American Thomas O'Shaunnessy. Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago; Panderer to the Mob. A cheque bouncer. 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?
Old 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. Who is that, I wonder?
'Holy Father what is it you want?' Henri has begun my absolution. 'Ego te absolvo, in nomine patrie...' 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. I can see you, you bumbling old fool. Don't do that. Don't shut my eyes. I need to see...
I'm still here. In my cavern of a bedchamber. Dear God I am so confused. Am I dead? Is this Purgatory? Have I been allowed direct entry to Paradise? 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 why him? Where are the others?
'Oh come now Gianni; of course you know me.'
I don't know him... and yet. He's much older than his looks. Handsome. Compelling in a strange 'Renaissance' way. I could imagine him in silks and lace. His hair much longer maybe.
'You think I'm handsome, Your Holiness? Here, let me stand out of the shadows. Better?' The dark hair is swept back from a sharp peak in the middle of his brow. The eyebrows thick, lustrous. The fleshy, 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. It's 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?'
'Dead - yes of course. Angel - No. But then you know that already. Deep down you recognise me.' He spins like a dancer. He's pulled the heavy curtain wide. My eyes. The pain of the light.
'Close the drapes, please. Please, it hurts my eyes.'
'But you wanted your hour in the Sun, Gianni. In your pride you asked me; begged me to place you here.'
'That was a dream. That wasn't real, just the fevered imagining of a young man. I... I....' He's smiling. I remember the smile. Oh God I remember the smile.
'Monsignor Contadini, Bishop of Perugia.' His hands shape the words. 'But you wanted so much more Gianni. Non e Vero?' He has moved. The sun slants directly at the bed. The pain is unbearable. 'Come Holy Father I have the transaction here.' He beckons to a side table. He is nearing the bed, pressing me to take his hand. I must rise it seems. It's a broad, heavy ledger. Tooled leather and creamy, velIum pages. I recall it from my dream, and sure enough the memory is accurate. Too accurate.
'It was a dream... a dream that's all. Vivid I grant you but still just a dream.'
'Turn the page Gianni. Go on Your Holiness, look at the result of your dream.' The unctuous bastard shoots his cuffs and then 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 immediately before my predecessor. 'You bought the Throne of St. Peter with your soul Gianni. Not something one would readily forget. Turn the page.' I don't need to look round I can hear his smile. The page gives a crack as it turns and it's there before my eyes. My own bold, looping signature; the guarantee in Latin, the price for a promise made and kept, God help me.
'I did all of this for God. He will not 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.
'Now what part of God's work was your becoming the Supreme Pontiff? 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 my shouted command.
'Satan? You think I'm Satan?' 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?' He leans toward me and I can see silver white in the black hair at his temples. 'With such a weight of evidence at your disposal here, Holy Father, you can mistake the dual nature of God?'
"You mean... you mean you're...'
'Yes Gianni. Just so." A small brazier burns on a table behind his shoulder. I haven't noticed it before. "Your soul is a gift from me. A gift you thought so little of that you sold it to gain the world.' His hand is passing unobstructed through my chest. Impossible surely. It has re-appeared, closed as a fist. A light seeps through the fingers, and now he drops it onto the brazier. It burns swift and bright. Some of the colour seems to have been drawn from the room. He leads me by the shoulder, propelling me toward the window. 'This is the world you have bought Gianni.'
A legion of grey faces peer up at me. Faces I recognise, all with the same thing in common. Eternal life in the grey, soul-less world of our own choosing.