Popes Я Us have been in contact again. They are all atwitter about the conclave that is to be held next week in order to choose the next Pope, and they maintain that they are much too busy to talk. They did have time however to tell me this strangely affecting story.
The Pope (I won’t tell you which one and you certainly shouldn’t assume that it is the most recent) was in the habit of making official sorties from Vatican City into Rome. Ivy Compton Burnett wrote in one of her novels of the weekend inhabitants of one country house making ‘bombing raids’ on those of another. Popes Я Us would not be familiar with the novels of Ivy Compton Burnett, and perhaps it is not such a good comparison anyway, because the mystical gulf between pontiff and people is immeasurable whereas spiritually one English grandee is much like another, but the same chilly implacability invested the Pope and his entourage on their missions as the English upper classes on theirs.
And in the Pope’s case, it was a mission. He wanted to spread the word (or, as his PR advisors put it, ‘send a very clear message’) about God. He would dress up in his best, surround himself with a cardinal or two and set off in his open-topped vehicle, with his motorcycle outriders, to the poorer parts of town, which he would bless and then return to the Vatican for Vespers and a meat tea.
This was a great success, and the visits, although unannounced, always found the streets lined – the word spreading rapidly – with cheering Catholics and other well-wishers.
One of these outings however went wrong. In a dim part of town the Pope’s open-topped vehicle struck a pot-hole and something came off it. It stopped, unable until fixed to go any further. The Pope’s hand, outstretched to bless, returned to the papal pocket. The advisors conferred. Clearly His Holiness had to be got back safely to the Vatican as soon as possible. Equally clearly the back of a motorbike would not be an appropriate place for the papal bottom; apart from anything else the munificence of his robes would be all too likely to result in what the advisors called an Isadora Duncan-style outcome.
The Pope himself resolved the problem. He indicated a nearby espresso bar.
I will stay here, he said. Send for a papal Zil.
As the cardinals and advisors kept the people (who naturally wanted to get as close as they could to their spiritual captain) physically at bay, the Pope found an empty Formica-topped table and ordered un caffè from a waitress, who was called Irma.
Irma was a woman in her mid-twenties. She was not the owner of the café or, as might have made the story more appealing, the daughter of the owner of the café: she simply worked there. She was not originally from Rome. She knew who her customer was but thought that he would rather not be made a fuss of. However she did bring him with his coffee a small cake, which she indicated was on the house, and extra paper napkins to protect his robes against spills.
In no time the papal Zil arrived, along with the paparazzi. The Pope said, a little embarrassed, that he had no cash on him; he had not been intending to stop for tea, and his credit card didn’t work because of some misunderstanding involving the Vatican Bank. Irma said that he was to regard the entire transaction as complimentary in the circumstances, but the Pope said that that was inconsistent with the Church’s mission in the World and that he would ensure that she was paid in due course. He asked for an invoice, which she gave him, including the small cake but showing it with a nil charge.
Back in the Vatican, the whole brief episode nagged at him in retrospect. He never intended to leave his debt unpaid but initially he proposed to send a chorister in a papal Zil with some change. Before he had had a chance to do anything it turned out that it was his afternoon off. He remembered Irma’s pleasing lack of subservience and the gift of the cake. What style, he thought; I’ll go myself.
There is never a shortage of papal Zils and drivers mid-week in the afternoons. Cash was more of a problem. Popes, like our Queen, don’t carry it, and the ATMs in Vatican City then as now were non-operational owing to a misunderstanding involving the Vatican Bank. In the end he borrowed a tenner from a priest who worked in a department in the Curia then called something in Latin but now Popes Я Us. (If he hadn’t, I never would have heard the story.)
Curiously, the reappearance of their spiritual leader in this poor district of Rome, robed to the teeth but all by himself, caused more surprise than his earlier cavalcade. A number of people asked for autographs which he gave with unhurried courtesy. But he made it clear that it was Irma that he wanted to see. He handed her the €10 note and tipped her appropriately from the change. They sat down together at the Formica-topped table. His conversational skills were a little rusty but he asked her about her early life and she asked him about his.
After ten minutes or so it was clear that there were customers waiting to be served so he stood up and indicated that Irma should return to her duties.
I hope that I see you again, he said.
He was about to add: Maybe at mass. She interrupted, however.
We’re always open, she said. I’m usually here.
And of course he returned – and again. First it was on his afternoons off, but then he discovered that some of his engagements could easily be delegated to some cardinal or other without imperilling the souls of the faithful.
Early on he resolved to go in secular clothing, but realised that he had none. Actually he did have some baggy trousers and amusing t-shirts for pottering about the garden at Castel Gandolfo, but nothing for town. With the help of a chorister he bought some nice slacks and one of those open-necked shirts, not cheap, that until they have been washed a few times tend to stick up and to scratch your neck. He also bought some All Stars; fortunately Converse do them in papal crimson.
He would sit at the Formica-topped table nursing his caffè. Irma would sit with him when she could, jumping up when new customers came in. When she was busy, as at lunch time or during the evening, he would work quietly on an encyclical. The owners were content with this arrangement; after all, they were Catholics. When the initial curiosity died down people left him alone.
Every time he visited, his affection for Irma grew. To start with he hatched various plans for her. She could become a nun. She could be appointed an advisor to the department in the Curia then called something in Latin but now Popes Я Us. He knew however that she would never agree and he realised that to try something like that would be untrue to the spirit of their relationship, whatever that was. Of course, he always behaved with perfect propriety.
Then he took to wondering what her feelings towards him might be. She was always happy to sit with him, but was it spiritual respect or was it the feelings that might otherwise have been directed to her father, a man, she had told him, who lived far away and had never been entirely satisfactory even when available?
He was to find out. One afternoon they were sitting together. The place was almost empty. She put her young hand over his old one. It was the first time that they had touched, apart from the passing of coins.
I like you very much she said. I would like to marry you, if you weren’t so old.
He thought about this, immensely touched.
Possibly of more importance, he said, is that, as Pope, I have taken a vow of celibacy.
Yes, she said. That too.