DIABOLO by Alan Jeary

     Father Roberto sat on the edge of the dried up fountain in the dusty piazza of the hilltop town of San Sebastiano. Whilst waiting for the blue and white autobus he watched, with more than his usual amiable fascination, two young children – a boy and a girl – at play. Surprisingly, their game was quaintly traditional. Most of the youngsters he knew would be stuck hypnotically to their Playstations or television screens. This sight warmed his heart, especially as the game they were playing was one he remembered from his own childhood. It was called Diabolo and consisted of the tossing of an hourglass shaped top from a string suspended between two sticks.

     He watched as the top flew high and spinning into the rosy, gnat-whirling evening air to be caught on the string and flung again. The ‘devil on two sticks’ they had called it in his day, and now he saw it as a metaphor for his situation. He was that top, not knowing if he would fall or be caught. But like the sand in an hourglass, time was fast slipping away. He had a momentous decision to make. Roberto called to the children to interrupt their game as he could see the autobus weaving its way up the hill towards the quiet piazza. They waved, but continued playing as he lost himself in his thoughts again.

     His life so far had been formulaic. Reaching the age of thirty-five without controversy or distress, either to himself or others, he had expected it to continue in that vein. Recognising his vocation from an early age, no doubts troubled Roberto’s childhood nor darkened his teens, and he moved seamlessly and serenely from school to seminary and then, in due course, to his order. There he remained, secure in faith and habit, respected, if not revered, a good man, a solid man, his dependability a given. But one day something wonderful and awful came to shake him from his reverie and sent him spinning into orbit. Something? Someone. Her name was Alessandra.

     She had come last week with his sister Rosa to visit his monastery and in the time it takes for a candle to flicker, he was lost. Alessandra was dark and mysterious as the crypt to him, yet fresh as the zest of lemons and heady as Amaretto. She was all that Roberto had denied himself and yet never coveted. But now, in a cruel reversal of a Damascene lightning strike, his world had shifted its axis. Extraordinarily, when he confided his feelings for Alessandra to Rosa he had found that they were reciprocated.

     He must meet her again then that much was certain. So, with Rosa’s complicity, they rendezvoused two days later. Such a day he had never spent. Though not awkward with the opposite sex – like all Italian men he was close to his mother and sister - he nevertheless had no vocabulary for love, and love was what he knew he had found. Not that mysterious, wholly spiritual love which he witnessed for God, but something so naturally innate, both physically and emotionally, of this world; immediate, all-consuming, terrifying, heart-rending, real and tangible. There was an instant tactility between them. As they sat sharing a bowl of plump green olives and a glass of wine outside the local trattoria, their fingers met and intertwined. Roberto felt an unknown frisson, which shuddered through his body, and as he self-consciously sucked the fruity-smooth oil from his fingers, he wondered what it would be like to suck the oil from hers.

     Alessandra eyed him with uncertainty. You were supposed to treat priests with respect and reverence. This is not the way she saw him. She saw a young boy in a man’s body; a free spirit who had denied himself the natural processes of growing up. She wanted to touch him, to bring him to his rightful maturity and completeness. But how could you tell a priest this? She thought she might cry with frustration and happiness. As the afternoon wore on into evening and the shadows lengthened across the cypress- lined road leading back to the monastery they ambled, arm in arm, reluctant to part. For what would parting mean?

     A free man could walk on. But how could a man of God, who had given his life to God, walk on into the uncertainty of the material world? Conversely, how could he now take himself back inside, exchanging one love for another? Could they invent a world that might contain the two? Both felt that they must find a way; both were cognisant of the antipathy, if not open hostility, of their discreet worlds to such unions. They spun in the air, they twisted and turned, they came back to reality to be spun into turmoil again.

     As the tireless swifts eventually ceased swinging to the heights of the trees and skimming at their toes, Roberto and Alessandra gave in to an innocent animality. Side by side in the quickening dusk they lay close by the road, hands clasped, turned and kissed. So now Roberto watched the children beneath the campanile in the dusty piazza. A full week had passed in which he had communed with his Father Superior, courted Alessandra on the telephone and prayed incessantly to God both night and day. And yet still he was in hell, or certainly not in grace. The autobus was nearly here, and with it the inevitability of a decision; for he had promised both Father Superior and Alessandra of his choice between his two unmarriageable loves.

     In the gathering gloom he was mesmerised. How quickly the dark pressed in on these autumn nights. The top spun up once more. With his heart now thrashing like a caged bird, he knew he must be caught, or fall. God casts his net wide but after a lifetime’s devotion would he now slip through? A hint of lemon and Amaretto came to him, a hint of incense, and in the corner of his eye, the virgin-blue streak of the autobus as it thundered into the piazza. He called again to the boy and girl. He called again to God. His vain calls went unanswered. With a shriek, Roberto launched himself into the air and into eternity, the impacting thud of the bus as he shoved the children to safety making the material world go dark. Perhaps the spiritual too.

ENDS © Alan Jeary