“Laudatio! Precatio! Sanare! Mederi!”
The following morning, Fabio awoke as the corridors and rooms echoed with the sound of a deep, soulful male voice, which yelled the strange words over and over again as if it was the most exciting news anybody could hope to hear.
It was the mood of the sentiment that explained the smile on Fabio’s face as he leaped from the bed, dragging the cotton sheet across his still-sleeping father (somehow he had ended up in bed but Fabio was unsure how, as he remembered falling asleep with his back sorely pressed against it).
“Laudatio! Precatio! Sanare! Mederi!” The voice was louder this time and there were footsteps in the corridor outside the room. Daylight forced its way through the shutters, accompanying the jolly announcement as if the newcomer had brought with him the light of a new day, though it could only have been a few hours since the boy fell asleep.
Opening the door gingerly and poking his head into the corridor, the boy was greeted with an extraordinary sight. Even rubbing his eyes to clear them of sleep, he still saw in front of him a tall, shaggy-haired priest, dark-skinned like a sailor, running along the corridor, loose change jingling in his pockets, with his arms aloft and two dark red lips parting to speak the words, “Laudatio! Precatio! Sanare! Mederi!” from between a lip and chin furnished with thick foliage of peppered brown hair. He was unlike any of the grey-haired old dodderers from his home town that Fabio thought of in connection with a priest, and so unlikely a character, far removed from anyone he had previously encountered, that he assumed he must exist in a different realm altogether, and he was taken aback when the priest spotted him and dashed forwards, yelling his catchphrase. Thinking that the priest had exhausted his vocabulary, the boy was further surprised to hear him ask a direct question, and at a quieter volume.
“Are you coming on our pilgrimage, young man?”
Fabio smiled back at the toothy grin bending down from an enormous height to reach his eye level. “If you please, sir.”
“If I please? If I please?” The priest laughed enthusiastically to himself, although Fabio had no idea why and didn’t like to press the matter. “And who will you be supporting on this pilgrimage? Is there somebody sick in the room with you?” He pointed into the room, which he could not see for the obstacle of the door.
How the priest knew of his father’s sudden illness, the boy had no idea, but he saw it as confirmation of the different, more intuitive realm that the newcomer occupied, but Fabio nodded in agreement and explained that it was his father who lay ill inside the room.
“Ah, so your father is afflicted?” the priest said, in the form of a question, a note of sympathy clouding his ebullience.
“Yes, sir. He was taken ill last night.”
“Really?” The priest scratched his head, the thick brown curls of his hair bouncing back and forth around his ears. “Normally the pilgrims have been afflicted longer than that, but you are very welcome, sir.”
With a quick ruffle of the boy’s hair, the priest continued his rounds of the corridors, announcing, “Laudatio! Precatio! Sanare! Mederi!” to anybody unfortunate not to have heard through the inconvenience of sleep.
By the time the boy closed the door and looked over to the bed, his father, white-faced and unable to fully open his eyes, was struggling to sit up and was asking for water.
The courtyard provided the setting for the send off. The priest, who had introduced himself as Father Eugenio, and who had subsequently marched the pilgrims into the dining room, dug out the food from the kitchen and served it himself, blew like a gale around the orphanage, or like a storm that washes clean the accumulation of dirt. Why the nuns tolerated this infestation was not immediately clear to Fabio, especially since Father Eugenio exploited unfettered access to the desserts, and filled up his pilgrims with hearty fruitcake for the long journey ahead, which the nuns observed disappearing in silent horror. Sneaking a sly glance, Fabio saw a smile grace the face of Mother Superior, just for a moment, but it made her almost unrecognisable, apart from the long thin nose and habit: and then he understood a fraction more. Even the fat nun, whose affliction in life seemed to rest on culinary matters, giggled and turned bright red, holding up two beefy hands to cover her washed and fresh morning face, when Father Eugenio disarmed her with a gentle nicety about how she managed to keep her habit so pressed and tidy.
Recovering her composure, Mother Superior clapped her hands together twice, bringing the ripples of giggling between some of the nuns to an immediate end, and replacing it with a silence and the thorough study of the hems of habits.
“I have made a nuisance of myself,” declared Father Eugenio, scratching his beard and smiling an apology at Mother Superior, and instantly thawing the frost that had frozen around her.
“Not at all, Father.”
“We will leave at once.” With that decisive utterance, Father Eugenio turned to face his pilgrims, and clapped his hands together, though softly. “Are we all ready?”
There was a murmur of assent. Fabio felt his father, who had been leaning against the wall, shuffle into a standing position. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, as if he was not sure what was happening.
“Are you sure we should go with them?” the boy asked, supporting his father as he straightened his back, wincing with the effort.
“Certainly,” replied the father, extending his arm around his son’s shoulders and patting him reassuringly, a meek smile and a pump of the fist of his other hand lending weight to his conviction that they should press on.
“What a wonderful son, who would do such a thing for his father,” said Father Eugenio as Fabio, calling his father to keep his arm around his shoulder for support, trudged past towards the doors. Overhearing, the father’s face lit up. “Rather like our own father’s son,” Eugenio commented, once they had passed him and fallen into line with the other pilgrims.
“I only hope you make it in time, Father Eugenio, and their prayers are answered,” said Mother Superior, watching and shaking her head slightly as the pilgrims filed away, returning her orphanage to normal.
Father Eugenio nodded, and turned to thank Mother Superior with another smile. Even in his fifth decade he showed few signs of wear and tear. “Until next time. Take care. The Lord be with you.”
“You too, Father.” Mother Superior took his proffered hand but only held her arm there, allowing him to gently squeeze her fingers for a moment, before, still smiling, he stepped briskly after the pilgrims, the sound of his clapping hands echoing around the halls until the quadrangle door shut behind him.
The road seemed dustier than Fabio had remembered, or perhaps it was because they had reached the outskirts of a town, and the greenery he had taken for granted in previous days, which he now missed, was replaced by a tarmac road flanked by squat white buildings and alleyways that smelt of rotting food. The haze the dust caused was a visible reminder of the reason behind his scratchy throat.
Out in the front, but constantly checking back, always with a smile, periodically with his finger jabbing over his head as he counted up the number in the party, Father Eugenio led the way, keeping, like a naval fleet, the pace of the slowest pilgrim.
The ice had never been broken in the dining room, nor in the quadrangle, and was no nearer to thawing now. Having kept their own company, through concern for each other’s health, father and son contrived to keep their own counsel, and as such they loitered towards the back of the small band of pilgrims who trudged after the priest.
Immediately in front of them was a stout, solid-looking pair of legs which belonged to a woman in an impractically dark-coloured cotton skirt, which was zipped up the back, who pushed a wheelchair in front of her, beefy arms taut as they gripped the handles. So firm were the stockinged legs (he could see above the flat leather shoes and below the hem of the skirt several inches of tightly-covered lower leg) that Fabio imagined the woman to be hewn from stone; or if not stone, something more solid than flesh, for she kept the same pace without a quickening of breath, and with no evidence of exertion, and with such neat and regular movements that she struck him more as a piece of machinery than a human being.
Occasionally, but not often, the occupant of the wheelchair shuffled in the seat so that he could turn around and fix a pair of steel blue eyes, peeping out from around the hewn torso of his companion, upon Fabio, but never upon his father. Judging only from the downy blond hair and the wide eyes, Fabio supposed the occupant of the chair was young, about his age, maybe a little older. Unable to see the rest of his face, he was uncertain whether or not the boy was smiling, so he decided the best response was to assume this and smile in return, until the boy’s minder, whom Fabio took to be his mother, tapped the top of his head and scolded him to sit up straight.
The pilgrim that slowed the party the most was a man of intermediate year: younger than the priest and Fabio’s father, but older than the boys, who conveyed himself on crutches thanks to the absence of a right leg. The hem of his trouser was rolled up to above the thigh on that side, but judging by the way the wind blew it, Fabio could see that not even a stump remained. Despite muscled arms that rivalled (but not bettered) those of the woman in front, the young man frequently yelled at Father Eugenio for a break, at which point Father Eugenio, whistling through his teeth to attract attention, signalled the group to congregate on the side of the road and rest, whereupon he would withdraw a well-stocked silver cigarette case from his pocket and light up with the young man. It was on these occasions that Fabio’s father would go and check where they were, by removing himself from the group and examining the nearest alleyway.
It was at just such a juncture that Father Eugenio, a benevolent and slightly glazed look on his face as he allowed the grey smoke to stream from his nostrils like a dragon, suddenly leapt to his feet and ran a short distance into the road, waving his arms in front of a fast-approaching steel bus, which screeched and hissed and abruptly stopped, from where Fabio was sitting, what looked to be inches from the priest’s face. It was impressive that he had managed to halt such a large machine without it pulverising him, impressive still that the driver, who yanked open his window turned his yells and obscenities into apologies on seeing the dog collar and the benign face of Father Eugenio, who pointed to the party of pilgrims as he spoke.
Within minutes Father Eugenio was leading them onto the bus, settling them into seats towards the back, away from a small, disgruntled selection of paying customers who watched the parade of pilgrims who filed past them, limping and struggling. The boy in the wheelchair took the longest to settle, as the chair itself had to be stored in the bowels of the bus, and the boy, unable to stand up straight, had limited control over his limbs, and was less mobile than the one-legged young man, whose strong upper arms conveyed him to the back seat, using the headrests to propel himself forwards in no time.
It was only when the wheelchair-bound boy had been seated next to his mother (Father Eugenio helping to support him along the aisle), that Fabio realized his father had not returned from his quick check of their location.
“Excuse me,” he said, turning to Father Eugenio rather than to the driver of the bus who had now installed himself behind the wheel once more. “My father went to check where we are and still hasn’t returned.”
Father Eugenio patted the boy on the shoulder, jabbed his finger in the air to complete a head count and nodded gravely, turning at once to the driver, who was allowing the vehicle to crawl forwards in first gear.
“If I could trouble you a little further,” he began, before starting a conversation about waiting for a seriously sick man that soon became lost as their whispers were swallowed by the roar of the turning engine. The bus hissed loudly as it stopped, and the boy spotted through the window his father returning, a bemused look on his face, to where the pilgrims had once sat, only to discover that he was now alone. Worrying as his father panicked, his pale, concerned face peering into the road to check both directions in vain, Fabio banged on the windows, but earned only the attention of the driver, who shot him an angry glance.
Father Eugenio had already stepped off the bus, and now ran over to the boy’s father, catching his arm and instantly calming him, at the same time as directing him across the road and up the steps of the bus, where, smiling with relief through a heavily sweating face, he spotted his son.
“You sit by the window,” the boy said, sliding into the aisle to let in his father. Saying nothing, but heartily patting the boy on the head, the father stepped into the inside seat and at once settled, breathing deeply as he forgot his moment of panic.
Sitting, Fabio leant forwards to avoid the effect of pressure on his back, and realised that he was opposite the wheelchair boy, who was leaning forwards in his seat too, smiling with his mouthful of eccentrically-arranged teeth that forced sharp lines to etch themselves in the skin around his mouth.
“I’m John,” the boy said, his voice disappearing mostly through his nose, making him hard to understand above the noise of the tyres spinning over tarmac.
“Pleased to meet you. What brings you here?”
Fabio pointed at his father, who was already asleep, his mouth wide open, his forehead pressed against the fogged-up glass window. “You?”
Imitating him, John pointed in the direction of his mother, who was similarly passed out on the inside seat.
The boys laughed and, having found something in common, and seeing Father Eugenio now settle down near the front next to the driver, they assumed a long journey, and talked and slept to fill the time.
As the scenery changed beyond the window and the light faded, there was a time when the only passengers not sleeping were Fabio and John. The sounds of snoring and deep breathing did not discourage the boys from holding a lively conversation punctuated by laughter. They had found more common ground in their ambitions. Fabio had always been impressed by paintings and the arrangement of colours, and at home had spent many hours watching a pavement artist create landscapes and portraits on the ground using coloured pastels, but he had found no-one to share his enthusiasm. John told Fabio about mathematics, and made numbers dance in his mouth as skilfully as a poet manipulates words, but with words Fabio did not understand. Nevertheless, he was impressed by John’s enthusiasm for his subject, and learned by his caustic comments that his mother limited his study time after swapping two of his textbooks for the bible. There were few books in Fabio’s house, though the bible was rarely shelved, and after he confessed to John that he poorly understood it, John shocked him by saying that it wasn’t worth the effort.
They fell into an uneasy silence when Father Eugenio stealthily approached, and crouched in the aisle between them, tapping the tip of a cigarette against his silver case.
“What are you two talking about at this hour?” he enquired with a certain playfulness despite the bleariness of his underslept eyes.
“Nothing, Father” said Fabio, innocently lying.
Father Eugenio laughed. “You mean you don’t want to tell me? How about you, John? Are you looking forward to taking the pilgrimage again?”
After saying that he was, Father Eugenio ruffled John’s hair, then ruffled Fabio’s too as an afterthought, in case he should be showing favouritism. “Right, lads. I’m off to se if I can’t open a window at the back and have a smoke. Maybe Leshka will join me. Remember to pray for your father before you sleep, Fabio. We will pray together for his recovery.”
Father Eugenio threaded his way deliberately to the back of the bus. The boys watched him as he balanced against the seats, making sure he didn’t bump into the sleeping, making an exception for the one-legged young man on the back row, whom he slapped gently in the face. Swinging himself into the next seat along, Father Eugenio proffered his cigarette case, and the bleary-eyed young man gratefully took one, already reaching with his other hand to slide open the sticking window which ran with condensation. Giggling like an errant schoolchild, Father Eugenio held out the flame of his lighter, and within an instant the smell of burning tobacco filtered down the bus.
Turning back to his friend, Fabio asked: “This is your second trip?”
“Third,” corrected John, with a tone of resignation.
“Why?” asked Fabio.
“Same reason as you. To pray for a cure.”
“To cure what?” Fabio asked, perplexed. John stared at him as if it was a stupid question, and Fabio felt ashamed, as if he had somehow, unbeknownst to him, overstepped the mark. Resting his forehead against the seat in front of him, Fabio thought of his father, and then of John, and wondered why any of them were on the bus, and where they were heading.
“Who’s been smoking on my bus?”
Fabio had been sleeping, though he wasn’t sure for how long, when the driver stood in the aisle pointing an irate finger at the young man, in accusation rather than question.
“To be honest, it was me,” said Father Eugenio apologetically, and the bus driver instantly backed down, though his patience was being tested.
The bus was parked, and although it was still night, it was well lit outside, revealing their location. Two ferries clung to the side of a port, like a giant pair of clogs. Traffic and people teemed back and forth, creating a busy scene that seemed incongruous against the night sky.
“Are we going on one of those?”
John nodded. “It’s the best bit of the journey.”
The bus edged closer to the edge of the water, and through the window, wiping away condensation to see better, Fabio watched as it swallowed cars and lorries that filed in before them.
“This is where I leave you,” the driver announced, still with a tone of annoyance.
Father Eugenio clapped his hands twice, and a busload of tired passengers roused themselves and shuffled in their seats.
By the time they had boarded the ferry and it had set off, the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon again, and it became warm enough to sit outdoors. Fabio was relieved to hear that his father was feeling much better, and had regained some of his strength after the sleep on the bus, but nevertheless he was still weaker than usual, and required another day of sleep to fully bounce back. Agreeing to his whim, Fabio followed him outside, onto the deck, which was quiet so early in the morning, and took two deckchairs at the rear of the ship, facing the wake the ferry cut into the seawater.
His father sat with his arms folded across his chest, and gazed out to sea. After a while he said: “You’ve been on a ferry before.”
“I have?” Fabio asked, surprised.
“You were only young. Your mother…” he broke off and looked to the clouds, clearing his throat. “Anyway, we sat at the back, like this. It was colder then, and windy too. One passenger’s hat blew off and was lost at sea. You found that terribly funny.”
The father stopped speaking and a frown came over his face, as if he was trying to keep back memories. Fabio said nothing. He wondered where John was and guessed he would be indoors, with all the others. It was cool in the morning air with the sea breeze whipping around them, but his father showed no inclination to move, so Fabio slunk low into his chair and stared at the empty deck, at the wind tearing into the fabric backs of the chairs, and at the trail of white foam from the churned sea, and tried to remember his previous trip on a ferry, and the funny incident with the lady’s hat that had amused him; but it was a time that had gone and could not be fetched back.
Some time later another soul appeared on deck. It was Father Eugenio, looking, despite the wind whipping his black cotton suit, as fresh as ever, as he rubbed his hands to get used to the coolness outdoors.
“There you are! We’ve been wondering where you two got to!”
“My father likes to sit outdoors,” Fabio explained, looking to his dad for corroboration only to find he had dropped off to sleep, his chin upon his chest.
Father Eugenio collapsed into the neighbouring deckchair, tried to light a cigarette and soon gave up, the wind extinguishing his lighter on each attempt. “To hell with it,” he muttered, rehousing the cigarette and pocketing his silver case. “Never start, boy. That’s my advice. Never start.”
Fabio smiled but thought of nothing to say.
“Are you very concerned about your father?” Father Eugenio asked sympathetically.
“No, he seems much better today.”
This was not the response the priest had expected. “But his condition?”
“I’m sure he’ll be all right in a few days.”
Father Eugenio was delighted by Fabio’s response. “Your faith is admirable. I’m sure the pilgrimage will do him a world of good.” He placed a hand on Fabio’s shoulder and noticed the boy wince in pain. “Are you hurt?”
Fabio explained about his rash, and turned bright red as he did so, ashamed of his affliction. Father Eugenio asked to take a look. The boy leaned forwards and, bracing himself for the cool wind, lifted his shirt over his back, revealing the patches of his skin that were blemished with boils, blotches, and the far-reaching rash.
“Let me know if this hurts,” said Father Eugenio, pressing his hands against the boy’s back. In fact, the coolness of his hands and the relief of the air against his back were more pleasurable than painful. “As you can imagine,” the priest went on, “I have seen many diseases in my time. My brother is a doctor. I too would have liked to have studied medicine, only my parents – and God, you could say – had other ideas.”
Then he laughed. It was a short explosion, in exclamation rather than joy. “Remove your shirt,” he said. “Let me look at it.”
The boy did as he was bid, but, shivering, instantly wrapped his jacked close around his naked shoulders. He handed the shirt to Father Eugenio, who studied it closely.
“Is this the only shirt you have?”
“I have another just like it back home – but I have only the one shirt for our trip.”
“Is it new?” the priest asked, feeling the shirt between his fingers.
“Ha!” exclaimed the priest, his bright face beaming. “At first I thought it might have been the stress of looking after your father, but now I have a better idea. Wait here.”
Father Eugenio stood and walked to the side of the deck. With a flourish, he flung the shirt into the air, where Fabio was shocked to see it caught by the wind so that it shot sideways and disappeared into the water, lost forever at sea.
The priest also had gone, but he soon returned with a black cloth in his hand.
“It will be too big for you, but try it for size all the same,” he said, handing the boy a clean black shirt. “It’s pure cotton, with a touch of silk,” he added.
The boy did as he was asked, shivering as he lowered his jacket, exposing his torso to the elements; but the shirt was voluminous and easy to slip on, and he was soon able to replace his jacket. The new shirt felt soft against his skin.
“Your mother is not on the trip?” Father Eugenio asked.
Fabio shook his head. “She’s dead.”
“She is with Our Lord.”
“She’s dead,” repeated the boy.
Father Eugenio nodded, stroking his beard but for the moment saying no more. “Will you let me check your rash again in two days?”
“Promise me you will only wear the shirt I have given you. It has magic priest properties that will heal you.”
Fabio nodded again. He liked Father Eugenio, but he was never sure what he meant. Ruffling the boy’s hair, the priest stood, and, making the excuse that it was too cold for him, he disappeared below decks once more. Fabio felt the warm black cotton of his new shirt, and thought about waking his father to tell him what had happened, but decided better of it, and instead lost himself in staring at the sea, wondering how much further they had to travel.
With no bus at the other end, the pilgrims spent a few hours of the new day on foot once again. Quickly the road signs in a foreign language and the slightly flatter topography became wearingly familiar, as the long journey took its toll.
Popping into a café and returning with ice-creams for everyone, Father Eugenio kept spirits high, and even managed to flag down another bus and use his free pass as a man of the cloth to secure his pilgrims another free ride that carried them to their eventual destination.
Alighting during early evening, and waiting until the whole party was assembled, Father Eugenio led the way to what he promised would be a feast worth the wait. The streets of the town teemed with visitors as the select band who had set off from the orphanage found that they were far from the only ones visiting the holy site. Fabio was unsure if he had ever seen a Japanese person in real life before, but he would, in the coming weeks, wind his way back to Japan stored safely inside many modern cameras.
Not a building on the high street of the town was wasted. Each one had something to offer, whether it was selling holy relics of all shapes and sizes, many with flashing lights and sound effects; or bars, cafes, hostels, hotels: everywhere bustled with wide-eyed visitors who gave the town an air or placelessness and frantic hope.
“Here we are,” announced Father Eugenio, leading the way inside the boundary of an open-air café which had many tables outside the premises under an outstretched canopy. The pilgrims followed after him. Winking at a young lady in a waistcoat and apron, who approached them from the orange glow of the interior, Father Eugenio exchanged a few words with her and they were quickly invited over to a long table which backed onto the pedestrianized road, separated only by a canvas sheet held between two iron bars. Within seconds, baskets of bread with butter and olive oil were brought to the table, and Father Eugenio, through years of practice able to say the shortest grace Fabio had ever witnessed, gestured with a wide smile and wider arms that they should tuck in, and with that invitation, arms reached hungrily for the hunks of bread, and knives clattered against crockery as soft butter was scraped up and spread thickly.
Fabio took two pieces (one for his father, who was looking pale again and sat back in his chair, sweating and troubling to catch his breath), as he had noticed John’s mother take two.
“You have mine,” the father said, with a wave of his hand to the proffered bread. Then, trying to dismantle the boy’s concern, he added, “The journey has exhausted me, nothing more. I will be well tomorrow.”
The boy held onto the second piece of bread for a good few minutes after eating the first, holding it out of sight of the others, between his knees; but hunger was gnawing away inside him still, and he could not resist for longer than a few minutes before dipping it in olive oil and biting off the end, sucking the oil before he chewed.
“This does for my dentures, it really does,” said John’s mother, placing down a half-chewed chunk of bread whilst John gnawed at his as she popped pieces into his mouth.
Leaning forward, placing his elbows on the table and lighting a cigarette, Father Eugenio spread his arms apologetically. “This is the part of the trip I really hate, so let us get it over with now. I ask nothing for myself, but ask only for you to cover the expenses of our shelter, which we will go to after we have eaten. The meal must also be paid for. After that, you are on your own and may buy what food you will.”
“What is he saying?” Fabio’s father asked, almost in a whisper, such was his struggle to speak.
“He is asking for money, father.”
“I have no money,” he said, growing panicked and pressing his hand against his chest. The sweat was returning to his brow, as well as his earlier breathlessness.
Father Eugenio’s hearing was acute, for even though the young man with the crutches was speaking to him, counting out a few bank notes onto the table, he overheard their conversation.
“I’m afraid that the shelter and the food must be paid for,” Father Eugenio said.
“The Mother Superior at the orphanage said nothing of money,” he protested, speaking loudly in a rasping voice. “If I had money I would have paid for doctors, paid for medicines. I came here because I have no money, no hope apart from the hope of a miracle.” He was becoming agitated, and had clamped a hand on his son’s shoulder, which he pushed back and forth, rocking the boy as he spoke, and was unwilling to let go.
“Do you not expect a miracle?” asked Father Eugenio, taking a thoughtful suck on his cigarette.
“Of course not,” the father snapped, finding it difficult to even draw breath into his lungs, which wheezed with constriction, such was his distress.
“The town is very beautiful, and the water from the stream very pure.” Father Eugenio asked. “If you spent a few days here in perfect relaxation and prayer, it could transform your fortunes.”
“But I told you, I have no money.”
“You need not pay straight away. Take your time, but here, your prayers will be answered.”
The father considered the priest’s word, keeping his eyes on his boy, who was desperate to tell him that his back already felt a little better; but was wise enough to be cautious against false hope.
“Let us go home, father, please,” asked the boy.
“Even that would cost me dearly, without the priest,” said the father. “We either stay and pay our way, or we go, with no hope of a miracle, and still pay our way.” Rubbing his chin with the back of his hand, and looking between the priest and his son, the father finally said, “Of course I should have faith. We will stay.”
Father Eugenio raised his glass of water in salute, and returned to counting the money that the others had passed to him. The waistcoated woman arrived at the table, bearing an impossible number of dishes, of meat and vegetable, which she placed in the centre, returning immediately with individual plates, which she distributed whilst the steam rose from the dishes and the rich smell of food filled the nostrils of the pilgrims and started their mouths salivating. There were more baskets of bread, and fresh butter, and the silence of the hungry spread around the group, talk giving way to the scraping of metal on crockery.
After a while, the boy’s father spoke, now managing to eat a small portion of food. “Please,” he said, raising an ineffectual hand apologetically skywards, just as the young waitress brought over a jug of water. “Please, let me work here. Just for a few days. I will work hard.”
The waitress hesitated, thinking as she arched her arm to place down the heavy jug. With both hands free, she plunged them into the folds of her apron.
“No, father, you mustn’t offer. You are not well,” said Fabio crossly. “We must go home tomorrow.”
“I have made my decision,” the father said, silencing the boy. “We stay, and I must work to pay our way. I am plenty fit enough. I am already eating my food again, look,” said the father, shovelling a sizeable forkful of food into his mouth. Unable to convince his son, he continued, “We must stay until we have paid Father Eugenio. This is a place of miracles.” Beaming happily, and under the orange light of the café, he looked years younger, his face less grey, his hair less peppered with white.
“Well, if you can wash dishes…” said the waitress, hovering awkwardly around the table, and keen to serve another.
“I can wash dishes,” the father said with great relish, and he reached for the waitresses’ arm, which he drew out of the apron so that he could kiss her fingers.
“I will check with the manager,” she said, smiling as she reclaimed her hand.
“I will wash dishes,” announced the father cheerily to the whole table, and he slammed his hands down upon it, upsetting the glasses, which wobbled dangerously before stabilizing. With a renewed appetite, the father tucked into his food, and spoke of his special son, whose hair he ruffled with his left hand, and who caught Father Eugenio nodding approvingly at him.
What was happening, he was not sure. Nevertheless, they were now staying in the strange town for sure. Across the table, tiring of the food on offer, John raised a thoughtful eyebrow at Fabio, who looked resignedly back.
The party of pilgrims left the café that evening with one member fewer. Father Eugenio had made the boy’s father promise that he would not work hard, and that he would put completing the pilgrimage above all other concerns, and, shaking his hand, the father had agreed. Fabio, holding, at least until they had reached the main road out of the town centre, Father Eugenio’s hand, felt the absence of his father more keenly than he expected to; and when they arrived at their hostel, and he sat down upon the thin mattress (one of six in two tiers around a square room) he wept to see the empty bed beside him and thought of his father, his gaunt frame and delicacy, still toiling at this hour, and all for his benefit.
He had left them, following the head waitress into the orange light of the inside of the café, just as Father Eugenio settled the bill, using the notes he had gathered from the pilgrims, and asked his weary group to follow him. There had been no tears at the time, just a mild panic as he saw his father, folding back his sleeves over his long, thin arms, a new determination in his face, disappear from view, leaving him to follow the new familiar group of strangers. Only then, as he took Father Eugenio’s hand for comfort, did he realise just how far from home he really was – separated by sea as well as land – and unsure what he was even doing in the strange town full of shops and the countless traffic of the hopeful.
On entering the hostel; a tall, thin building sandwiched between a music club and a souvenir gift shop, which boasted a late bar on the ground floor, the pilgrims fell into silence as the meal they had enjoyed sat heavily in their stomachs and the thought of sleep, this time on a bed, concerned them all.
Popping his head around the door, Father Eugenio said goodnight to both rooms which housed the pilgrims, and retired awhile to the bar, where he smoked and drank with the young amputee.
“Are you all right?”
Fabio was at first embarrassed to be caught weeping, but then he stopped sniffing as the relief that he was not alone amongst the sleeping made him feel instantly better.
John had taken the bed next to him, at right angles to it, and he was positioned just under the unshuttered window, so that the light from the moon shone silver over his crooked teeth.
“Just worried about my dad,” Fabio admitted, wiping his eyes with the cotton sheet and trying to push his sadness out of mind and think of something else to talk about. “You must be excited about tomorrow.”
“Must I?” asked John. “What do you think will happen?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Fabio. “I hadn’t thought about it. This is all new to me, but Father Eugenio promised miracles.”
“I’ll tell you what will happen,” said John, struggling to sit up, positioning himself on one elbow. He glanced to his right to check that, over on the far wall, the large frame of his mother was asleep. Satisfying himself that her deep breathing indicated she was, he turned back to Fabio. “First this: Father Eugenio will make us have breakfast. Then we’ll go to some church or other – doesn’t matter which one – there’s loads and they’re all called the same thing; and he’ll say a long, slow, tedious mass, and say how optimistic he is that this year there’ll be an amazing spiritual experience for us all, even if there aren’t any bona fide miracles. Then we’ll trudge up the hill on the other end of the town to the place where Mary is said to have appeared, wallow in a bit of water for a while and then come back home when my mother will cry herself to sleep.”
“How do you know all this?” asked Fabio, trying to order the myriad questions that crashed into his mind.
“This is the third year running that we have made this pilgrimage.”
There was a weariness and resignation in John’s voice that bewildered Fabio. “Aren’t you in the least bit hopeful of a miracle?”
“For what? To cure me?” John asked, his voice high-pitched, making it harder for Fabio to understand him. “I was born this way. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change who I am. Why would I want to change; to be like you?”
Fabio had not seen this side of John before, and he was shamed into silence.
“If you believe in God,” went on John, “then you believe he must have made me this way for a reason. So he must have known what he was doing. So why would he change his mind just because I trudge all the way out here where there’s said to have been some sort of apparition? Every year it’s the same. I tell my mother never again, and yet, here we are. And every year she starts off hopeful and ends up disappointed. Life deals you a hand of cards, and you can’t change them.”
It was John’s turn for tears, but they were of a different kind to Fabio’s, born more out of frustration and anger than sadness. Fabio hung his head and was quiet, wishing he could say something to reassure his friend, but unable to think of the right words, and too worried that he might say the wrong thing again. He nearly mentioned that his parents were dead, and that even his adoptive mother had died from cancer a few years after he found a new home, but he didn’t want John to think he was competing in hardship.
“You have your maths, though?” he said finally, changing the subject to one he guessed may cheer John. He was right. John told him his plans to move away from home and study at a university in the coming years.
“I tell you, an automatic, electric-powered wheelchair would be more use to me than a miracle. I’m fine as I am, and I’m better at maths than everyone else I know.”
Fabio felt a little guilty because his own condition had improved, and he was leaning comfortably with his back against the wall, as he had not done for months. If a miracle was possible for him, then why not for John?
“Are you still going to come tomorrow,” John asked, “now that you no longer need a miracle?”
It was as if he had read Fabio’s thoughts.
“You can push my chair, if you like,” John said, as he flattened his pillow and curled himself into a ball in readiness for sleep.
“I’d like to,” Fabio said, copying his friend’s movements, but leaving his eyes open and wondering for a time if his father would be all right, still up and working at this time; as well as who he owed his sudden recovery to. Comfortably stretched out on his back, the rash that had tortured him was receding with every hour. He considered if John was right to discount holding out hope for tomorrow, as surely his friend would rather leave his wheelchair behind and walk home? With these thoughts running through his head, it wasn’t long before the deep sleep breathing of John joined the chorus, and Fabio conjectured if he was the sole person still awake in the world.