Father Roberto sat on the edge of the dried
up fountain in the dusty piazza of the hilltop town of San Sebastiano. Whilst
waiting for the blue and white autobus he watched, with more than his usual
amiable fascination, two young children – a boy and a girl – at play.
Surprisingly, their game was quaintly traditional. Most of the youngsters he
knew would be stuck hypnotically to their Playstations or television screens.
This sight warmed his heart, especially as the game they were playing was one
he remembered from his own childhood. It was called Diabolo and consisted of
the tossing of an hourglass shaped top from a string suspended between two
He watched as the top flew high and spinning
into the rosy, gnat-whirling evening air to be caught on the string and flung
again. The ‘devil on two sticks’ they had called it in his day, and now he saw
it as a metaphor for his situation. He was that top, not knowing if he would
fall or be caught. But like the sand in an hourglass, time was fast slipping
away. He had a momentous decision to make. Roberto called to the children to
interrupt their game as he could see the autobus weaving its way up the hill
towards the quiet piazza. They waved, but continued playing as he lost himself
in his thoughts again.
His life so far had been formulaic. Reaching
the age of thirty-five without controversy or distress, either to himself or
others, he had expected it to continue in that vein. Recognising his vocation
from an early age, no doubts troubled Roberto’s childhood nor darkened his
teens, and he moved seamlessly and serenely from school to seminary and then,
in due course, to his order. There he remained, secure in faith and habit,
respected, if not revered, a good man, a solid man, his dependability a given.
But one day something wonderful and awful came to shake him from his reverie
and sent him spinning into orbit. Something? Someone. Her name was Alessandra.
She had come last week with his sister Rosa
to visit his monastery and in the time it takes for a candle to flicker, he
was lost. Alessandra was dark and mysterious as the crypt to him, yet fresh as
the zest of lemons and heady as Amaretto. She was all that Roberto had denied
himself and yet never coveted. But now, in a cruel reversal of a Damascene
lightning strike, his world had shifted its axis. Extraordinarily, when he
confided his feelings for Alessandra to Rosa he had found that they were
He must meet her again then that much was
certain. So, with Rosa’s complicity, they rendezvoused two days later. Such a
day he had never spent. Though not awkward with the opposite sex – like all
Italian men he was close to his mother and sister - he nevertheless had no
vocabulary for love, and love was what he knew he had found. Not that
mysterious, wholly spiritual love which he witnessed for God, but something so
naturally innate, both physically and emotionally, of this world; immediate,
all-consuming, terrifying, heart-rending, real and tangible. There was an
instant tactility between them. As they sat sharing a bowl of plump green
olives and a glass of wine outside the local trattoria, their fingers met and
intertwined. Roberto felt an unknown frisson, which shuddered through his
body, and as he self-consciously sucked the fruity-smooth oil from his
fingers, he wondered what it would be like to suck the oil from hers.
Alessandra eyed him with uncertainty. You
were supposed to treat priests with respect and reverence. This is not the way
she saw him. She saw a young boy in a man’s body; a free spirit who had denied
himself the natural processes of growing up. She wanted to touch him, to bring
him to his rightful maturity and completeness. But how could you tell a priest
this? She thought she might cry with frustration and happiness. As the
afternoon wore on into evening and the shadows lengthened across the cypress-
lined road leading back to the monastery they ambled, arm in arm, reluctant to
part. For what would parting mean?
A free man could walk on. But how could a man
of God, who had given his life to God, walk on into the uncertainty of the
material world? Conversely, how could he now take himself back inside,
exchanging one love for another? Could they invent a world that might contain
the two? Both felt that they must find a way; both were cognisant of the
antipathy, if not open hostility, of their discreet worlds to such unions.
They spun in the air, they twisted and turned, they came back to reality to be
spun into turmoil again.
As the tireless swifts eventually ceased
swinging to the heights of the trees and skimming at their toes, Roberto and
Alessandra gave in to an innocent animality. Side by side in the quickening
dusk they lay close by the road, hands clasped, turned and kissed. So now
Roberto watched the children beneath the campanile in the dusty piazza. A full
week had passed in which he had communed with his Father Superior, courted
Alessandra on the telephone and prayed incessantly to God both night and day.
And yet still he was in hell, or certainly not in grace. The autobus was
nearly here, and with it the inevitability of a decision; for he had promised
both Father Superior and Alessandra of his choice between his two
In the gathering gloom he was mesmerised. How
quickly the dark pressed in on these autumn nights. The top spun up once more.
With his heart now thrashing like a caged bird, he knew he must be caught, or
fall. God casts his net wide but after a lifetime’s devotion would he now slip
through? A hint of lemon and Amaretto came to him, a hint of incense, and in
the corner of his eye, the virgin-blue streak of the autobus as it thundered
into the piazza. He called again to the boy and girl. He called again to God.
His vain calls went unanswered. With a shriek, Roberto launched himself into
the air and into eternity, the impacting thud of the bus as he shoved the
children to safety making the material world go dark. Perhaps the spiritual