“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …..”
“Carry on…God will give you the strength to make a true and humble confession …”
Beyond the open window is a night scented with honeysuckle and thick with
moths, fluttering like torn paper around every light.
The man on the bed is approaching death; there is the smell of it about him. His face is all planes and angles; he can no longer move.AII his remaining strength is gathered in his voice and in his eyes. His name is Paulo Felice and he has been my friend for over thirty years.
The village had adopted Paulo long before I came. Gina the housekeeper said he arrived in the early sixties. A proper city boy from the north – Milan maybe. No-one quite knew why he had come to Rivolino.Some said that he had left a girl pregnant and had run away to escape from her family; others said that he had murdered an important gangster and there was a contract out for him. lt didn’t matter. Maybe he had a fling with one or two of the village girls – but that was in the early years. He was a man you could trust; he paid his bills. And he went to mass every day.
He had been sacristan for three years when I came. Every morning he would stopat the post office to see if there was any mail and then hurry across the square to the church .By the time I came in for the nine o’clock mass, the place was swept and clean, the candles burning on the altar, and the altar boys cowed into submission, hair plastered across their foreheads in neat cow licks.
After mass he would tell me the village gossip while he was putting away the vestments and stripping the altar.
“That Angelina Alibrandi…” he would say, “You know her father’s pushing her to
marry Giacomo Asperge.don’t you, Father ?”
“No… I didn’t know that”
“She’s soft on young Luciani…- you know…the farmer’s son…He’s a good lad, Father. ..make her a good husband. You might be able to have a word with Angelina’s father ..you know …put him on the right track …tell him to give the boy a chance …”
I didn’t always follow his advice- I didn’t want him to get ideas above his station. But he was usually right.
“He knows this village better than I do,” said Gina, the housekeeper, “And I was born here.”
It was Gina who told me about Paulo and the men of honour. Mafia, Cosa Nostra, The Undertaking – call it what you like – gangsterism is as much a part of the island as lemon juice and the small scorpions you find under rocks.For the most part it is accepted- an extra tax to be paid- an unwanted guest to be put up for the night. But from time to time the ugliness bursts out like a boil breaking and someone comes across a body on the road, with a circle of bullet holes in the chest.
It was some time in the early seventies, said Gina- one summer morning. Four of them had driven into the village in a new Lancia car.They had come to see Ernesto, the mayor. Ernesto also kept the only bar in the village.They suggested that he might like to pay them twenty five percent of his monthly takings – just to ensure that things continued to run smoothly. lf that was a problem, he could have a word with the farmers and olive growers round about and get them to make a contribution. He was the mayor after all. lf he played his cards right he could become a really important man, with his own commission on everything he collected.
They drank his coffee and ate his pastries and talked, then they brushed nonexistent crumbs from their pale grey jackets, put on their sunglasses, and drove away.They would return in a month for the first instalment, they said. When they came back, Paulo was waiting for them in the square. He had put on his best suit, the one he had worn when he first came to the village. lt was out of fashion by that time, the trousers too tight and the lapels too small.
The blood red Lancia drew up outside Ernesto’s bar and one of the men was heard to snigger. Paulo stepped up to the car and leaned in to talk to the driver. lt might have been two friends having a chat, said Gina – except that Paulo’s fist wasclenched tight where it rested on the roof of the car and Ernesto was staring, white faced from the shadows. It didn’t take long. No more than five minutes. Paulo stepped away from the big Lancia and smiled across at Ernesto.The driver gunned the engine and swung the big Lancia round in a tyre screeching circle.Then they headed back the way they had come.They never came back.
Then there was the business of the dog. It appeared one autumn evening in the alleyway behind the church. You could tell straight away that it was rabid. Long strings of drool hung down from its jaw; its eyes were yellow and slitted and itstaggered from side to side, howling. Suddenly the street was filled with shouted warnings and the slamming of doors as mothers grabbed their children andpushed them inside.
A dog with rabies will sometimes drop in its tracks when it enters the final stage of the disease, and there is nothing to show for it but drool round the lips and blood flecked eyes. At other times he will fight the demon in his blood and howl like a soul in hell. I have known a rabid dog bite through his own side.This one was not going to die quickly. I heard him flinging himself against the closed doors, growling thickly in his throat.
“Get Paulo !” said Gina,”He will know what to do.”
Paulo was in the church, polishing the altar silver.
“Where is he, Father ?”
“Headed down the alleyway towards the square.”
“We’ll go to Ernesto,” he said, “He has a gun.”
Ernesto’s gun was a little .22 rabbit rifle.
“Will it do ?”
Paulo picked it up off the bar and flicked open the breach with one smooth movement. He slipped in one of the little brass shells and snapped the gun closed. He seemed to hesitate for a moment.
“It’s good enough .”
He grabbed a handful of shells and headed for the door.
The dog staggered round the corner just as we reached the alleyway. lt saw Paulo and dropped to its haunches; its sides were heaving, yellow tongue lolling obscenely. It growled.The dog’s muscles bunched for one final leap at the man figure in front of it.
“Paulo !’ I shouted
But Paulo had already fired.
I know something of experts. I have seen the casual, almost insolent skill of Venetian glass blowers, and the way a good farmer can round up a herd with just a dog and his voice.
Paulo was an expert.He brought the gun from his shoulder, reloaded and had it back at the aim before I could catch my breath.He fired again. The dog grunted,and rolled over on its side. Bloody slaver trickled into the dust, it breathed outnoisily, like an old man with a cough.Then it was still.
Paulo broke the gun open and handed it back to Ernesto. A look of loathing passed over his face –it was nothing to do with the dog – he looked like a man who had suddenly been visited by an old nightmare.
He wiped his hands on his jeans.
“I’ll get someone to clear this up,” he said, ””We’ll need some gloves.”
He could have had anything he wanted after that business.Some said Ernesto had pleaded with him to become mayor. But he smiled and shook his head and said that no, that would not be a good thing to do at all,he was merely a sacristan.And I Ithought there was an edge of anger, and even panic beneath his smile and modest shaking of the head.
I counted him as my friend – yet there was always a distance between us.At first Ithought it was the respectful gap that some parishioners leave between themselves and their priest, but I soon realised that Paulo Felice had some reason setting for himself apart from other men. He was always happy to talk about parish business and he had a wicked ear for gossip, but when the talk turned to himself, he would push his chair back from the table, shake his head, and change the subject.
Twelve Easters after that business of the dog, Paulo Felice fell iII. His friend Ernesto drove down the stoney track to Paulo’s cottage and came back to say that Paulo had been sick, he had not eaten for three days, and no, he did not want the doctor to come and see him. He would be well by the end of the week.
When he did not appear for Sunday mass I decided to go and see for myself.
Doctor Anzani took me in his car and we found him sitting in front of an empty hearth. He was wearing a faded pyjama jacket and had a blanket over his knees.The little room smelled of disinfectant and vomit.Doctor Anzani tapped his chest and pressed his stomach, and asked him questions in that absent, disinterested way.doctors have, as though they are asking about the weather. He could keep nothing down, he said, and there was this stabbing pain in his belly. He had been living on sips of water and pain killers- only the pain killers werenot working so well any more.
The doctor nodded and pulled reflectively at his moustache.
“You need to go into hospital,” he said, “In the town.”
Paulo shook his head.
“No,” he said, ”That is not possible.”
Doctor Anzani was rummaging in his bag for a hypodermic .
“You do not understand,” he said, “You need to have an operation …”
He eased the needle into Paulo’s arm.
“You have a tumour. ..a cancer in your stomach. If they do not remove it…”
Paulo turned away to look out of the window. Sunlight lay across the valley like a
curse; the village shivered in the heat.
“And if they don’t remove this …tumour ?”
“I don’t understand,” said the doctor.
“How long ?”
“A year- if you’re lucky. If you don’t have it done you’ll be dead in three months.”
Paulo nodded, as if the doctor was telling him something which was interesting,
but had nothing to do with him.
“I’ll stay here …it’s the only way …there is one thing though …”
“I’m not good…you know …with pain…”
Doctor Anzani put a hand on Paulo’s shoulder,
“I can help you with that.”
And that was the end of it. Paulo had chosen how his death would be.Except that I persuaded him that he would be more comfortable in our spare bedroom in the
The following day Ernesto drove down to the little cottage to collect him. It is not death which is truly fearful, but the prospect of pain. Once pain is removed the dying are free to make their peace with the world, their friends, and maybe themselves. The doctor came every morning to give Paulo his injection and afterwards he would doze contentedly until noon, when Ernesto would come and visit him.They would talk and play checkers for an hour or so before it was time to open the bar.
For the first few weeks I kept my distance and saw Paulo only briefly. l knew he would tell me when he needed me, and I did not wish to haunt his bedside like a black crow.
He faded with the summer, ate very little – half a bowl of soup one day – a handful of grapes the next.The flesh seemed to melt off his bones. Gina muttered
under her breath that it was her fault and she was a terrible cook.
That is how I come to be here, sitting by Paulo’s bed, waiting to give him
permission to die. He looks at me and his face is full of the knowledge only the dying possess. But there is fear there too.
“All my confessions …” he says quietly …”Everything …it is all a lie…”
“I don’t understand”
“Even my name..Paulo Felice …..”
He is lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling, scarcely aware that I am here.
“I am from Milan.!t was just after the war.We were poor. I joined one of the gangs.I made…a career of it. I know how to threaten, to steal, how to break a leg, where to
buy a woman.”
He turns his head towards me
“I have killed two men.”
“That is a dreadful sin,but you must believe that God is merciful”
“One I do not regret.He was an animal.! was told to shoot him. lt meant nothing to me.”
“And the other ?”
He turns from me and looks out of the window.The church tower is outlined against
the stars, like a thick arrow pointing to the sky.
“It was in the sixties. I was in Marseilles then.There was money there ..drugs..cigarettes …I was approached by some Americans from Chicago …they had heard about the man I shot. They were very … complimentary. I had done a good job.They wanted me to shoot someone for them.lt would mean a great deal of money.”
”They flew me to Mexico. I waited there for three weeks. And then they brought meover the border in a fruit truck.To Dallas.”
I feel as though something is crushing my ribs.I cannot breathe. I see Paulo in his cassock, chuckling as we chat after the service; I hear him as he comforts relatives at a graveside.And then I remember the rabid dog.
Paulo’s face is alive now with the remembrance of it.
”They put me on a little hill with trees. I was dressed as a security man.And then I
heard the cheering as the line of cars came in to the plaza ..”
There is pride, even arrogance in his whisper.
”Through the scope I could see beads of sweat on his face.He kept licking his lips.1 think he knew. I was ready, I had taken the first pressure on the trigger ….. ”
His voice falters.
“And .. ?”
“He flicks a piece of lint off his lapel. He was a vain man.! knew about that. I was vain in those days too …”
A moth is caught in the lamp.lt flutters round and round, drumming against the
“My aim must have slipped a fraction.My first shot took him in the throat.The second blew his head open…”
There is a terrible silence between us.I push away the feeling of betrayal and anger which rises like bile.He must bring this obscene thing out into the open, and we must look at it, both of us, and then he can die.
He is looking at me, willing me to say something. He thinks he has destroyed our
friendship and there is terror in his eyes.
“What happened afterwards ?”
“There was never any money.They betrayed me, those Americans.The Dallas police knew my name before Kennedy’s car arrived at the hospital.! was a fugitive.”
“So you came here.”
The moth has fallen to the table;one of its wings flaps uselessly, like a broken arm. “To escape ..first of all…and later ..to make amends.”
What strength he has is fading now. My friend is more corpse than man. His breathing is thin and shallow, his voice scarcely more than a hush of air.I think he may be blind. His lips move and I lean forward to catch the rustling in his throat.
“Who are you going to forgive ?”
Without thinking I say the words of absolution – loudly -–in the hope that he can hear me.lt is only much later, when we have buried him against the church wall, that I wonder what he meant. For Paulo Felice there was God’s forgiveness, I am sure.But what about that other young man,waiting in the Texas sun, rifle cradled in
his hands? Could there be forgiveness for him? I do not know. And though I still love Paulo Felice as my friend, he has planted a doubt inside me, a seed of anger.God may forgive him- I hope so- but I am not sure that I can.