“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.
“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”
“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.”
Ignored, yet again.
“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.
“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”
“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.
“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”
“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.
“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.
“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”
“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”
Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.
“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”
“Money,” said Roman.
“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”
“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.
“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”
My head was starting to spin.
All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?
“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.
“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”
“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”
“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”
“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”
“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.
“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”
“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”
“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”
“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”
Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.
As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.
I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.
I’d walked a short distance from the bus carrying two suitcases (I’d long since learned that two small suitcases were less of a burden than one large one).
A friend, who wasn’t expecting me, lived around here — I just wasn’t sure exactly where. My confusion was of no matter, I have the ability to find my destination, and there is nothing mysterious about the process. I simply walk around, smiling at people and looking for familiar landmarks. On a larger scale, it worked for me when I drove a car. These days, there are insufficient funds for a wheeled vehicle, so I wear out shoe leather.
When the war ended, I stayed in Europe.
There was nothing for me back home.
My parents were passed, and my girl ran off with a Real Estate agent. My aunty misses me, but she has a family of her own to keep her company.
I teach English to businessmen and children of wealthy parents, and I get by.
Things don’t interest me much.
As long as there are books and wine and occasionally, women, I’m happy. My way of living, for that is what it is — living, confuses my friends back home. When the guns fell silent, they could not wait to go back to their old lives. Old lives! How could anyone go back after what we have seen?
It has to be said that I didn’t notice her at first, I was scanning at ground level, looking at faces to see if I recognised anyone.
I was here about a year ago, and my reason was the same as it is today — the library.
The staff here managed to move all of the ancient texts to safety during the conflict. The frontlines were hard to define, and at times it was only a few miles away, before being pushed back. Those were tense times for the people who had lived here all their lives. We, on the other hand, had come from far away. Even the local troops were from other regions. The townspeople treated us like heroes — we weren’t, but it felt good. We were just trying to stay alive in a country that was not at all like our own.
The lady in the white gown, in the high window, was a woman who had lived her life in luxury. One by one, she lost most of the people she loved. Every year, she stands in the window of her apartment wearing the dress she was to wear on her wedding day.
Her man did not come home. If he had, she may not have recognised him, loved him, wanted him, but we will never know.
A love lost in such a melancholy way is a love that endures.
When I wasn’t tutoring, I was reading in the ancient library. The staff knew me by sight, and I was allowed access to books that were usually only available to scholars sent out from the Vatican. “Don’t tell anyone,” said the head librarian who had lost his only son in the war.
When the library was closing, he would gently place his hand on my shoulder and say, “Antonio, we are closing up now.”
My name isn’t Antonio — I never corrected him. It isn’t polite to correct an old man. I never asked, but I had a good idea who Antonio might have been.
If there wasn’t a student to teach, I’d head for the cafe on the corner, the one with the parrot in the window.
I have several favourite spots, but the table by the window is my preferred dining place.
The owner makes incredible meals, and as long as the ingredients don’t involve seafood, I leave it to her to feed me. “What you got against seafood Michael?” she would say, at least once a week. “The same thing I had against it the last time you asked Etienne, I don’t eat anything that can look at me,” I’d say, and she’d laugh every time.
The cafe has an excellent cellar which mysteriously survived the larcenous behaviour of the soldiers stationed here during the war.
I rarely drink white wine, but the whites that Etienne has squirrelled away are to die for, so occasionally, during warm weather, I break my ‘only red wine’ rule.
Etienne will not say which bakery supplies her bread, and I don’t understand her reticence. The bread, with well-salted butter, could be a meal in itself and often is.
“Why you only eat bread today, Michael?”
“Because it is so good and it reminds me of you; warm and crusty,” and again she laughs at my words.
“If I were thirty years younger,” she would say.
“I wouldn’t have been born yet, so I wouldn’t make much of a lover.” This time there is only a smile.
Once in awhile the lady in the white dress, would come into the cafe and we’d dine together. She’d tell me about her fiancé, and I would talk to her about my books and my life on the other side of the world.
The first time I saw her standing in her window, resplendent in her wedding dress, I thought her behaviour was unusual, to say the least. The villagers seemed to understand where I only wondered.
In a world torn apart by war, there was understanding and compassion for a neighbour who had lost all the things that mattered.
All that matters to me is on my back and in my two suitcases — and in my head, of course.
Every day, the things I have learned are slowly pushing out the memories I’d like to forget.
Maybe one day there will be room in there for romance and love, but not just yet.