A few hours later a knock on the door drew Fabio, and the other occupants of the room, out of sleep. Father Eugenio held the door open wide, and beamed at them from the doorway.
“Rise and shine. Are we all ready?”
There was a murmur of assent.
“All right then, get downstairs and let’s get this show on the road.”
Wiping sleep from his eyes, it took Fabio a few minutes to realise that his father was lying on the bed next to him, and as he sprung his legs out of bed, his father stayed as he was, on his back, both arms covering his face.
John was awake now too, and his mother was helping him into his chair, bending low, her solid knees locking, her feet shifting over the lino in a well-practiced dance. The young amputee, who had taken the bunk bed above John’s mother, was finding it harder to climb down than he had to climb up.
“Father,” Fabio whispered, shuffling along to his father’s bed as he elicited only grunts. “Father?” The man lay still, unwilling to open his eyes or admit the possibility of daylight. “Father, are you coming with us? Is today not the reason you brought us here?”
“For you, my boy, for you.” Now that he had spoken, he gave up on the idea of clinging to the hope of more sleep, and rubbed his reluctant eyes with clenched fists, shaking his head once he had done so, as if to rid himself of tiredness.
“But father,” protested the boy, about to tell him the good news that he had slept all night long on his back.
“No more,” interrupted the father, sitting upon his elbows. “I must return to the restaurant and work so that I may pay Father Eugenio. You go with him and pray that your affliction is cured. We will stay here, and I will work here, until our prayers have been answered.”
Unwilling to hear any further dissent, the father stood, banging his head in the process on the bottom of the upper bunk bed. It was not a heavy blow, and after an under the breath curse, he stumbled out of the room, crumpled and uncombed, leaving Fabio with the other pilgrims.
Breakfast was cold, and with leaden bread the only sustenance on offer, Fabio took one chunk, a small serving of butter and a glass of orange juice, and waited patiently for the others to finish, which meant allowing time for Father Eugenio and the young man to have a cigarette and a story each.
“Did you still want to push my chair?” John asked, shouting and deliberately making himself heard to everybody from the other side of the table.
“If that’s all right?” Fabio asked, looking more for approval from John’s mother, who nodded keenly as she chewed on a mouthful of bread.
“I should say so,” she said, laughing for the first time that Fabio had heard. “Give my back a rest. Give me a chance to talk to Father as well.” As she spoke, a few blobs of masticated bread flew from between her lips and landed on the checked tablecloth, their final destinations uncertain. Pushing his plate to the centre of the table, Fabio indicated that he had finished.
He found John surprisingly easy to push. Although quite tall for his age, and gangly, he was very thin, and afforded little resistance as Fabio took the handles and set the wheels moving, and they could easily keep up with the rest of the party. As she had indicated, John’s mother, walking now in rapid shuffling steps, kept up with Father Eugenio, who led the group, along with the one legged young man, who could, when he wanted to, cover a fair distance with each swing of his crutches.
After a while, they deliberately held back from the main group, but kept in sight, so as to not give them reason to stop. Their journey took them through the high street of the town again, and even early in the morning it was bustling with trade. Some shop owners who were less concerned to catch the early risers were only just raising their shutters and wheeling their racks of postcards, keyrings and lewd novelties onto the pavements, so the pilgrims had to thread through their wares on their journey.
Caught up in a shop display, and with John drawing his attention to a rack of flashing popes – cardboard cut-out images of the Holy Father with coloured LEDs around it – Fabio momentarily lost his bearings, as the main group became lost from sight.
“Don’t worry. I’ve done this loads of times. I can direct you,” promised John nonchalantly, picking up a snow globe of the town and giving it a shake.
“You really don’t want to be here, do you?” Fabio observed.
“I can think of better things to do with my time,” said John, putting down the snow globe and reaching for a Lent candle wrapped in cellophane.
“Do you think that’s maybe why you’re not…?”
“Cured?” supplied John. “You think you’ve been cured, don’t you?” He returned the candle, losing all interest in the souvenirs.
“I don’t know,” admitted Fabio. “But it does seem strange that coming here has made my back better.”
“Coming here has had nothing to do with it,” said John, with rare anger. “There’s nothing wrong with you. There really is no mystery. And there’s nothing wrong with me if it comes to that.” Sighing, he relented, but retained an edge in his voice. “Come on, let’s catch up with the others.”
Fabio, cursing himself for saying the wrong thing, but still very unsure why his skin condition had suddenly started to heal itself, pushed John onwards, the pair of them in uneasy silence, until they caught up with the main party at the foot of a steep, winding hill.
“Do you think you’ll be able to manage? It’s quite a way,” Father Eugenio asked Fabio, pointing to the summit.
Fabio looked at the gravel pathway, which, although it was fairly smooth, was steep, and he had no idea if he could make it pushing John on his own.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, grabbling the handles tightly.
“Do you trust him, John?” Father Eugenio asked, as he took the first steps up the path.
“Of course,” replied John, to Fabio’s relief, and he felt that he could talk to his friend again, but not about the reasons that had brought them together.
A few minutes later he was content to allow John to do the talking, and he the listening, because the further uphill they went, the harder it became to push the chair and maintain a forwards momentum. John helpfully explained to the exhausted Fabio the physics behind it, and took his friend’s occasional grunts and gasps as indication that he was still listening.
With relief, he reached the plateau, and the wheelchair, offering little resistance over level ground, seemed to move itself. Collapsing, exhausted and sweating, with his hands on his knees, Fabio didn’t take in his surroundings until he had gathered his breath, and he was surprised to find, when he did finally look up, that he had become the centre of attention.
“Look at him – quite overwhelmed!” posited an old man, sitting forward and resting his hands on a cane, who had witnessed the boy’s arrival. Fabio looked at the old man and his equally ancient wife, who sat on two of the folded chairs that ran in rows along an open plaza, a low wall separating them from the hill they had just climbed, and a spectacular view out over the town and neighbouring countryside beyond it.
Fabio had no time for sightseeing, as Father Eugenio was moving them forwards again. This time, now that they were close to completing their pilgrimage, John’s mother took hold of the wheelchair and kept pace with Father Eugenio, who marched off across the plateau. Still catching his breath, but disappointed to be replaced at the back of the wheelchair, Fabio fell in at the back of the group, following as they weaved their way through the forest of chairs towards a cave, under which ran a stream that was audible, trickling and gurgling, above the noise of the mostly silent crowd.
Never before had Fabio seen people in such a catatonic state of prayer. He was used to church services on a Sunday, but people here were on their knees, rocking back and forth, head bowed, some with hands clasped together, others with arms outstretched and reaching up towards the sky, and others still with fingers clasping rosary beads; many more moaning in prayer or weeping openly. It was more hope and faith and serenity than Fabio, in his not-yet decade of life, had ever seen before, and it electrified him, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and tears to involuntarily well in his eyes. Just before they reached the cave and stream where the miracles occurred and apparitions appeared, he knew the place to be divine, the people around him confirmed as much. Now, as he approached the rocks, he craned his neck to avoid the tears that had formed splashing onto his cheeks; and studied the jagged collection of crutches, which, like stalactites, hung from the ceiling of the cave.
“Remember to touch the rock on which She stood, and make a sign of the cross with the water,” Father Eugenio whispered, his tanned face bending low towards Fabio, and he encouraged the boy to step further into the cave with a pat on the shoulder.
Fabio did as he was bid. The rock was cold, slippery and well worn by the pressing fingers of countless millions of pilgrims over the years. The water was cool, sparkling, clear, and looked appealingly fresh. Dipping one hand into the stream, he wet his fingers then ran them through his hair, feeling the ice-cold drops trickle past the collar of his borrowed shirt and down onto his back.
Emerging out of the cave, he took up residence on the nearest seat and watched as the fellow pilgrims proceeded through, but not for long, because he found himself drawn onto his knees, his eyes closing and his hands clasping together as the tears now broke free and ran down his cheeks in parallel lines on opposite sides of his face, and he couldn’t understand how John, now emerging, his downy hair wet with the water from the stream, could be so unmoved, and could look at him sternly.
There were other tears that morning, and it was some time before all of them had dried. For a few hours the pilgrims had been allowed to spend their own time in and around the cave, in private reflection, as Father Eugenio had termed it. There was no thought of food, or even of cigarettes. The mood of the place had changed all that. For a while, suspension of the normal laws governing people’s lives ensured that such material concerns became irrelevant. Many had wandered off to the row of taps beneath the brow of the hill and purchased bottles to carry the local water home, some filling an armful of small bottles for family and friends. Others, like John’s mother, made do with the largest container she could find (in her case a bottle that had once contained cooking oil), which was now stowed away safely inside a bag which hung over the back of John’s chair, though she sat beside her son and cried into her hands.
Unable to stand the weeping of John’s mother indefinitely, Fabio took himself to the back of the plaza, to watch the other pilgrims and to see the view over the hills.
“Penny for them,” Father Eugenio said, settling beside him.
“I was just thinking that I wish my father could have been here, but I don’t know why,” admitted Fabio, trying to work out which of the myriad orange dots beneath him was the café where his father was working. “Now that we have what we came for, surely we can go home?”
Father Eugenio frowned. “You have what you came for? Surely your father’s health is not restored? Not without even making the visit here?”
“No, my back,” Fabio replied, blinking in the sunlight and perplexed by Father Eugenio’s questions.
“Your back? But you can’t mean the rash?” Father Eugenio guffawed to himself, then stopped when he realised that Fabio wasn’t joining him. “You’re not joking, are you? You came all this way because of that rash? Because of an allergy to…” He stopped, and then asked, “Let me see.”
Fabio remembered to unbutton the neck of his shirt and lifted it over his head so that Father Eugenio could see his mostly clear white torso and back.
Fabio did as he was bid, as the priest shook his head in disbelief and whistled through his teeth. “This is what your father wanted to see? This? I thought it was he. I thought he was the one.”
Fabio shook his head. “There’s nothing wrong with him that needs curing here.”
Father Eugenio was dead serious. “Your father is a truly good man, to be more concerned for your back than for his own health.”
Fabio considered, and replied a little awkwardly, “Why? He’s not my real father.”
“He is your real father.” Father Eugenio dug in his pockets for a cigarette and told Fabio to put his shirt back on. “You can keep it,” he said, lighting up. “Always check and see what a shirt is made from. You can’t go wrong with cotton and silk.” He inhaled. “Linen too,” he said, coughing as the grey blue smoke filtered through his nose. “So, your father thought you were dying?”
Fabio drooped his head. He felt cold suddenly, and the plastic seat was sweaty and uncomfortable. “It was just the shirt, wasn’t it? We needn’t have come. John was right. He said it. Now you agree. It was stupid. We shouldn’t have come.”
Father Eugenio stuck out his bottom lip as he considered. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I am right. It was just the shirt making a mess of my skin. That’s all it was. Now I’m better because you gave me another shirt. We didn’t need to come here.”
“But if you hadn’t come here I wouldn’t have given you another shirt, right? Maybe it was meant to be me. Maybe if you hadn’t met me, your skin would have become infected and gangrenous, and you may have died from blood poisoning because of a simple allergy. Your father was right to be concerned. It was an easy and simple answer, but one that needed to be given, yes?” Father Eugenio flicked the ash from the end of his cigarette as he studied the change in Fabio’s face. “You were right to come on this trip. You know, your recovery will impress your father. It will make him very happy. It may even make him better. You mustn’t tell him about the shirt, though. Let that be our secret.”
“Just as you say.” Father Eugenio offered his hand, and Fabio took it, his small, clammy white hand disappearing inside the sun-stained priest’s.
Fabio felt awkward to ask, but he had to get to the truth. “John. He’s no better, is he?”
Father Eugenio shook his head sadly.
“And that’s why his mother was crying? But he was born that way, wasn’t he? And the young man? His leg didn’t grow back, did it? Those crutches: they were from people with limps, weren’t they?”
Father Eugenio placed a parental hand on Fabio’s knee, which calmed him and stopped the flow of doubts.
“People must have hope, Fabio. It is a cruel thing indeed to deny them that. We must all have hope for something. Your father has hope. We must bring him up here. Then he will go home a happy and fulfilled man. Bring him up here, then show him you are cured. You will give him hope for life.”
“And I’m never to tell him about the shirt?”
“Between you and me,” said Father Eugenio, pointing a stubby finger. “Deal?”
Fabio nodded. “I will find my father and bring him up here.”
“Do that, my son, do that,” said Father Eugenio, standing, and extinguishing his cigarette beneath a large black leather shoe.
Cutting through the throngs of pilgrims, disturbing a few dozen prayers, Fabio set off at pace, sprinting on the easy downhill trip back into the town and towards the café where his father was still toiling, unaware that he toiled in vain, because his prayers had already been answered.
The head waitress greeted Fabio kindly, because she remembered him from the night before as the little boy who took more than his share of the bread. The story his father had told her on the way through the doors about the mysterious rash all over his son’s torso impressed on her the importance of helping him, over and above the need for a plongeur, and especially one who looked so tired, so she was relieved to see the boy come in search of his father, and looking pleased with himself at that.
“It is just here,” she said, pointing. “Come, I’ll show you.”
The boy followed her into the body of the café, where the orange lights gave warm succour to a dozen or so customers who mostly drank dark coffee, some smoking.
“Just down the stairs,” the head waitress said, holding open a swing door for the boy. He thanked her, and, ducking under her arm, headed down a small and dark staircase, which opened out into another corridor that, unlike the cosiness of the floor above, was decked out in utilitarian white tiles and wall paint.
Guessing the nearest door, Fabio pushed his way through. The humidity hit him as soon as he crossed the threshold, taking his breath away. It was also dark and forbidding in the room, with no windows and inadequate lighting. It was well-organized space, with multiple large ceramic sinks, some with taps at the ends of hoses, for cleaning dishes, pots and pans.
Spotting the back of a familiar head, thanks to his height, which was not quite covered by a stack of fat-bellied copper pots, Fabio weaved his way through the rows of sinks until he reached his father, who was standing over a sink, muttering to himself as he attempted to remove incinerated food from the bottom of an aluminium pan that seemingly no amount of suds and scrubbing could disperse.
“Father,” said Fabio. His expectation of a warm welcome was thwarted when his father looked down at him, barely acknowledging that he was even there, and returned all of his attention to the pan, swivelling it around and scrubbing from another angle.
“Father,” the boy tried again, this time with more urgency in his suddenly squeaky voice.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” asked the father, splashing water and suds onto the floor, creating a splattered mess on the tiles. “Now look what you’ve made me do.” Exasperated, he attacked the bottom of the pan with renewed vigour.
“I thought you might like to know, father, that I have been to the summit of the hill at the far end of the town, and it is beautiful up there; beautiful.”
“Are you cured?”
Fabio recalled his promise to Father Eugenio. “I want you to come with me to the summit, father, and see the shrine with me. That’s why we came here.”
The father leaned against the counter, allowing the scrubbing brush to fall into the base of the pan, which bobbled about on the soapy surface of the water. “Don’t you understand? I must work. Work to pay Father Eugenio; to pay our hostel bill; to pay for food; to pay for the trip home. Miracles are not cheap, my son.”
Seeing the disappointment in his father’s eyes, he stopped. Taking the boy’s face in his hands, and gently removing the hair from his face and pinning it behind his ears, the father stroked the boy’s cheek, squeezing it when he saw tears reddening his eyes, leaving a line of suds like the slime trail of a snail over one half of his face.
“I will go to the summit with you, my boy,” said the father. “You are right. Of course that is why we came. Soon. We go tonight. As soon as I finish here.”
A little disappointed by this compromise, Fabio nevertheless nodded in agreement. What was unspoken was that he would wait for his father to finish, so that they could make the journey together.
“And then we go home?” The boy thought of his own bed, and of the cosiness of their little house, and the food that could always be found in the kitchen cupboards.
The father nodded, wiping a layer of sweat from his brow into his already sodden sleeve. “Then we go home. If there has been no miracle by then, we go home, and I work and I work and I work, and we pay for medicines if our prayers are not answered.”
It was a long wait for the boy, though the head waitress tucked him into a corner seat outside, away from the aisle that allowed custom to flow towards the orange light. She brought him a glass of orange juice, which he tried to refuse, telling her that he had no money to pay for it. She ruffled his hair and walked away, turning on her smile for a well-dressed family of six who wandered in from the street, bags of purchases in their hands. An hour later she returned with a small bowl of vanilla ice-cream and promised the boy that she had spoken to his father.
“Will he be long?”
“He says not.”
It took him only minutes to eat the ice-cream, which was cold on his teeth and slipping down his throat now that the daylight had gone, after which he fell back on observing the comings and goings of the customers, which had to occupy his interest until his legs and hands became numb with cold.
By the time his father emerged into the outside air, standing under the canopy, catching his breath, his pale skin barely lit above slate grey under the orange glow behind him, the boy felt miserable, and had slunk down low in his chair, hugging the cushion of the seat beside him for warmth.
“You’re still here?” The father slumped down opposite the boy, but received no response. “Why did you wait?” Still he received no response, not even eye contact from the boy. Sighing, the man leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and massaged his aching muscles.
“We were meant to do this together. It won’t work unless we do it together,” the boy said at last, accusingly.
“I work to pay,” the father said, as a patronising explanation.
“Together. It’s no use unless we go together,” insisted the boy, gripping the cushion even harder.
“I’m tired. Tomorrow,” promised the father, rubbing his temples and then his eyes, and feeling nothing but the coolness of the air around his overheated body.
“I waited for you. I waited for hours, father.”
The father froze in his chair, and in that instant felt some of the serenity that had earlier touched the boy up on the hill, though he could not have said where the feeling came from. He wanted to reach across the table and take the boy in his hands and kiss him on the forehead. He wanted to make a public show of his affection for him, which would have said more to the people of the town than his abandonment of his son to clean pots and pans ever could. The boy, who had so often during the course of his childhood, been a stranger to him, and never more so the day he buried his wife, had waited for him, and wanted to share the experience with him.
“Then we go now,” said the father, standing, neatly pushing his chair under the table and folding the tablecloth straight as he waited for his weakened legs to adjust and the wooziness in his head to fade. “Come, let’s go together.”
He reached out a hand, which the boy unfolded himself to take, slipping his cold cub paw into his father’s protective grasp.
“You’re freezing,” said the father. He bent down in the aisle between the tables, as there were no customers by this time, and took the boy’s hands, rubbing them between his own. “Soon be warm.”
“Soon be warm,” the boy agreed, leading his father out of the café and back to the high street. “If we keep a brisk pace we’ll soon be warm.”
He remembered the route. It was easy enough. Every road in the town pointed towards the hill eventually. All they had to do was follow the brightest star in the sky, that glowed above the silhouetted hill.
The boy felt so happy he wanted to skip, but thinking that this would displease his father, he settled for running, all the time keeping hold of his father’s hand and dragging him along the pavements. Such a small figure, the boy could move between large groups of pilgrims, but his father was not so lucky. His broad shoulders bumped into the passing travellers, and he issued a near constant stream of apologies until they were well clear of the main streets and the crowds finally thinned out.
“This way,” said the boy, excitedly pulling his father by the arm to encourage him to speed up.
“Up there?” the father released his grip on the boy’s hand and pointed up the hill, his heart sinking at the prospect of climbing it; the very thought forcing his hands onto his knees as he gasped for breath.
“It’s not far. It’ll be worth it when we get to the top,” promised the boy, keen to press on.
“I’d better,” said the father, laughing, but not meaning it. “Come on, then.”
Wearily, he followed the boy uphill, keeping an eye on the grey socks of the short legs that walked in rapid little shuffles in front of him, leading him higher towards their destination. What he hoped to see at the top, he was unsure, and doubts about the sanity of the venture he suppressed, all the while concentrating just on putting one step after the next, as they ascended; passing the statues in wood and bronze; passing the pilgrims descending; counting the steps now; losing the count somewhere into the hundreds. Was it the six hundreds? Seven hundreds? Step, step, step.
The boy stopped. His father, some twenty feet behind him, was leaning against the railings, sweat pouring from his face, a look of defeat etched into the wrinkles around his eyes.
The boy turned back to join his father. “Not long now. Another few minutes.”
“Two minutes? That’s all?”
“That’s all. You can rest when we reach the top.”
The boy still felt excited. He knew that showing his father his skin was cured would raise his spirits. Once they had been to the summit together there would be no more overworking, no more wandering, no more waiting for miracles: they could go home.
“Two minutes, right.” Saying it cheerily, the father took his son’s hand and allowed the junior to guide him the remaining way up the hill.
The boy had not exaggerated. Two minutes later, by keeping a constant speed, they had emerged onto the level plateau. The boy looked up at his father to see him take in the sight. His face was shining all over with cold sweat, and he rubbed his eyes to see the thin dispersal of the faithful and the cave and stream further back, as little black spots in his vision made it difficult for him to see clearly.
“Show me the stream,” the father said, imagining plunging his burning face into the water, then collapsing into one of the chairs to recover his breath.
The boy led his father along the rows of chair, and the now common sight of prostrate and weeping pilgrims, and took him to the entrance to the cave, which was pitch black now that it was lit by the night sky and a table of candles alone.
“To the stream. Take me to the stream,” the father asked, reaching for the top button of his shirt and clumsily wrenching it open.
There were pilgrims ahead of them, and two wheelchairs side by side blocked access to the stream, which they could hear tricking beyond them, the father swaying on his feet, mesmerised by the sound.
“Excuse me,” Fabio said, trying to attract the attention of the woman who stood with the first wheelchair, but she was struggling to light a candle as the dampness had been absorbed by the wick. “Excuse me, my father wishes to see the stream.”
Thinking only of his father, the boy put his hands on the wheelchair to move it himself, but as soon as he leant against it he heard a woman scream, and he instantly thought better of his intentions and decided to return to his father and wait until the path to the stream had cleared.
At first he did not spot his father, but noticed a circle of people forming around where his father had stood, looking at one another and at the ground.
Weaving his way through the circle, the boy caught sight of his father, lying on the ground, facing upwards, as if his legs had just given way. His eyes were open and blinking, as if he was in pain. The pilgrims hovered around him, watching, waiting for something to happen.
“Somebody please help, he’s my father,” pleaded the boy, falling to his knees next to his father’s head, which he lifted onto his lap. “Please, somebody fetch some water,” he implored, trying to push a woman away from him whose skirt had become trapped beneath his feet.
“I have some water,” announced one, passing the boy a plastic bottle with a screw top lid that was brim full with water from the stream.
The boy quickly removed the stopper and splashed the contents over his father’s face. He groaned, stirring a little, spluttering as a trail of water fell into his mouth.
“It’s working!” somebody shouted, the words echoing around the suddenly silent cave.
“Father,” implored the boy, but his father’s eyes were wide and staring over his shoulder. Following his line of vision, the boy looked back and saw the light from the candles flickering against the wall of the cave, casting shadows which made it look as though the pilgrims flittered about. He moved his head close to his father’s. “Father?”
The man could only move one arm to point at the wall, fear in his eyes. Desperate to think of something to offer his father to keep him conscious, the boy thought of the reason they had come to the town, and the reason he had insisted his father make the journey up the hill with him. Removing his shirt, and lifting his father’s head so that his neck was bent awkwardly on his breast, the boy said, “Look father, look. It worked! Do you see? My rash has gone.”
“A miracle,” a voice behind them declared. Fabio looked round to see that the circle that had formed around his father had grown in numbers, and its diameter had swollen. He glanced at the faces looking in on him, not helping, their faces jumping and distorted in the candlelight.
“A miracle,” whispered the father, reaching Fabio’s attention.
“It was the…” he began, but then he remembered his promise to Father Eugenio and held his tongue. “Now it’s your turn, father,” said the boy, grasping his father strongly by the hair and pulling at it in clumps as his face creased into tears. “Father, come on, get up.”
Only a hand could he raise, which he used to trace over his son’s chest. Where there had been blotches and swelling, the tips of his fingers now traced over clear white smooth skin.
“A miracle,” he said, happily. “My prayers were answered.”
Fabio heard, rather than saw, his father’s arm relax and fall to the ground, and, with no prior direct experience of death, having been protected from his mother’s last days, he knew the moment that his father had gone. There was something in the manner and surety of the last, resigned sigh, and the relaxation of his muscles, and the look in his eye, which went from fixed to vague without changing position that told him.
Weeping freely now, the boy buried his face in his father’s unmoving breast and ground his knuckles against the cold stone floor; and cried out for his father over and over again, to no avail; whilst all around him, in hushed and reverent tones, the assembled pilgrims who had been blessed that evening spoke of the miracle they had that very night witnessed; and within an hour, by the time Father Eugenio reached the boy and tore him away from his father’s corpse, the story had become a legend, and the boy who had been miraculously cured by the smallest splash of water, right there, in the holy cave, was the talk of the town.
At first the requests were few and far between. Polite, even.
“The boy has been touched by God,” Father Eugenio was told.
They were sitting inside the café. A bowl of untouched and melted ice-cream sat in front of the boy, who stared into space, the salt water on his face tightening his red and blotchy skin.
“Why do they want to see me? Why am I blessed? My father just died.”
“I know, I know,” whispered Father Eugenio, “but we must give people hope.”
“What hope is there for me? I poured water on his face. Why didn’t it save him? Why didn’t it work?”
Father Eugenio shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that, my boy.”
“It doesn’t work,” shouted Fabio, then he cried again and accepted Father Eugenio’s shoulder as he upset the contents of the table to bury his head in the priest’s broad shoulders. The thought of how he would get home, alone, had not yet occurred to the boy.
The head waitress, hearing the news, brought a few notes to the table, explaining that it was the amount the boy’s father had earned (though she rounded up and not down), and suggested that the boy should take it. Fabio kept his head buried in Father Eugenio’s breast, so the priest pocketed the money. Gently ruffling the boy’s hair, her heart going out to him, the head waitress turned away to carry on with her work, allowing the grief-stricken boy his own space.
Seconds later, a tall, thin woman with a hooked nose presented Father Eugenio with a large sum of money, which she waved under his nose as if trying to tempt a dog with a bone.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” said the priest.
“Yours, if I may touch his hair – as she did,” the woman replied, jabbing a skeletal finger in the direction of the head waitress. Before the priest could answer, long, wrinkled fingers reached forwards and stroked the boy’s hair. Clutching her hand as if she had experienced an electric shock, the woman left, singing to herself.
“How much? How much did you pay them?”
“What are they asking for?”
A queue formed, which soon stretched out of the café and into the high street. By the time most of the pilgrims in the town had heard about it, the line snaked into the high street and ended at the foot of the hill. The pilgrims who joined the line later in the evening brought candles, protected by paper shields, which flickered in midnight procession through the town, converging not on the shrine but on the café.
Father Eugenio cursed that he had not worn his cardigan, which had two more pockets, but he folded the notes into bundles and distributed them about his person as best he could. Fabio, for his part, in dull resignation, finally left holding onto the priest and took a position on the chair next to him, sitting with his head down, his hands shielding his eyes, watching the feet shuffling past him, feeling the fingers of a multitude of strangers ruffle his hair.
He heard many things said that night, most of them spoken with utter conviction, but he never once lifted his head to respond. Father Eugenio could see that the boy was tired, and in need of privacy, but he could also see that the people kept on coming, and he did not ever wish to disappoint a pilgrim. It gave him time to plan the boy’s father’s funeral, which had to happen soon, and, he decided, be paid for out of the fortune he was steadily amassing.
When the light of the new day began to reveal itself, Father Eugenio took the sleeping boy in his arms, and threw a muslin bag holding money over his shoulder, which the head waitress had supplied. Reaching into his pocket, he tried to treat her for her patience, but she would have none of it, grateful only for the extra custom the boy had that evening brought to the café, and, knowing the people who visited the town very well after years of working there, the extra business that it would bring them for the foreseeable future.
Like Moses cutting his way through the Red Sea, Father Eugenio parted the pilgrims on the streets with the sounds of gasps and awe, carrying the sleeping boy in his arms, until he reached the hostel with no less fanfare, gladly shutting the door to the world after an extraordinarily long day. Whilst the boy slept, Father Eugenio counted the money and packed it away in his suitcase, taking a nip of whisky to keep his concentration, the want of sleep not yet hitting him.
In the time that the boy slept, Father Eugenio formulated a plan, and wrote out a letter to the other pilgrims, which he signed in his name.
Some time later the boy awoke. The first thing he saw was the open suitcase of money.
“It really happened?”
Father Eugenio nodded. “How are you feeling?”
Fabio shrugged. Sleep had numbed him.
“I have a suggestion to make,” said Father Eugenio, gently sitting on the edge of the boy’s bed. “How about I take you home?”
“Home?” asked the boy, confused now as to where this may be.
“We can stop off along the way. Maybe meet a few more people who may have heard your story.” He cleared his throat, and said clearly, “I will give you ten per cent of everything we earn.”
The boy had not listened to the proposal. “Where is home?”
Father Eugenio felt ashamed. It only occurred to him now that the boy had asked so simple a question that he was an orphan for the second time in a few years. It would be back to the orphanage for him, with even less chance of adoption now that he was growing older and had a mind of his own.
“How would you like to travel with me?” Father Eugenio asked, and when this elicited no response, he added, “I could take you to Rome.”
The boy shrugged. “You would die.”
Father Eugenio laughed. “Die? I hope not!”
“Everyone who looks after me dies, sooner or later.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Father Eugenio explained.
“That’s what people say when everything goes wrong and there’s no reason for it,” responded the boy.
“No reason that we can see.”
“No reason,” insisted the boy.
Father Eugenio sighed, and patted his pockets to locate his cigarettes. “You don’t believe?”
“No more than you.”
The priest let out a little chuckle, and slapped the boy’s foot beneath the blanket. “What a perspicacious young man you are. And honest too. But the important thing is that other people do.” He considered further. “How about you join me in travelling around for a little to tell your story. You could become famous. Would you like that? I will give you twenty per cent of everything we make. I’m sure we will find a wealthy couple to take you in, somewhere on our travels.”
“I could just stay with you,” the boy said. “I don’t want your money, don’t offer me money. I want you to be my father from now on. After all, in a few years I won’t be a child any more and then nobody will adopt me.”
“But your education…” spluttered the priest, who knew nothing of raising children. Having extracted a cigarette, he now found that his lighter eluded him.
“You keep the money so long as you shelter me and talk to me and teach me Latin and philosophy and theology in the evenings. If we’re rich enough we could buy a house.”
The priest laughed delightedly. “What an imagination you have,” he said, slapping the boy’s feet anew. “And a business mind, too. We will go far.” He frowned. “But you must remember that your father died because he had seen a miracle – his son cured – healed by the grace of God.”
“Just as you say.”
“That is what people will want to hear, so that is what we must always tell them. You were touched by the grace of God, and that is why they wish to touch you. They want your divinity to rub off on them.”
Fabio nodded. “I know what they want. It’s what my father wanted. It’s why we’re here.”
“Then his prayers were answered.”
The both paused to consider their plan further.
“John could help us,” enthused Fabio, cheering a little now that he felt the priest was taking him seriously. “He can do maths.”
“John can do maths?”
Fabio nodded. “He can keep track of our earnings. You could give him my ten per cent.”
“I suppose he would be company your own age,” muttered the priest, wondering if the plan he and the boy were formulating could possibly work, but too carried away by the thought of all the pilgrims in towns far and wide to stop thinking.
“Then it’s a deal. If you look after me, I’ll go with you to Rome. Then, we go home.”
“Home? Where’s home?” asked Father Eugenio.
“You’re the father, that’s for you to decide.” Fabio offered the priest his hand, which, laughing, the priest took.
They still had the funeral to prepare for, and in the coming days, thousands of mourners, having heard the story, flocked to the town to witness, hoping to catch a glimpse of Fabio, the most revered person for miles around, who only stepped foot outside with the priest accompanying him, and only then in order that they could draw a crowd and tell their story, with always the thought of home foremost in his mind, and the sacrifice his father had made weighing heavily in his heart.