issue 36: may - june 2003 

 | author bio

Ron Butlin

Never having seen a sheep in Venice, junior priest Antonio Vivaldi began counting cardinals instead, cardinals jumping off the Papal balcony. Cardinal number one, then cardinal number two went leaping over the stone balustrade in a swirl of burgundy-and-scarlet cape.
         It was one of those nights. Try as hard as he could, he just could not get to sleep. Lying on his left side, lying on his right side, ten minutes flat on his back. Punch the pillow, then onto his left side again. . . The electronic red numbers on his bedside clock flickered at 0315. He willed them to move on to 0316. They refused to.
         He sighed, took a sip of water and lay down again. Too much wine with dinner? Not enough wine? The next cardinal paused before jumping, and spoke to him:
         ‘The Holy Trinity is God’s number and soon it will be yours, young Antonio.’ He made the sign of the cross: ‘God is giving you the number 3.’
         ‘The number 3?’
         ‘Yes, my son.’ The voice faded as the burgundy-and-scarlet cape filled out and rose into the air. ‘The number 3 will be yours.’
         ‘Wait . . . ! Wait . . !’ Vivaldi made a grab for the vanishing prelate. But God’s emissary was already mere strands of coloured mist slipping between his fingers. Soon only a smell of incense remained, and he was alone once more.
         ‘Shit! I’d actually been asleep!’ He gave the pillow an extra-hard thump, turned it over for coolness and lay back down again. But wearily, so very wearily. The number 3? In his imagination he could see the next batch of cardinals jostling to get in line at the rear of the balcony, like so many charter flights waiting for takeoff. But he seemed unable to give them the all clear. The number 3? What was it with the number 3? Just then the church bell of San Giovanni chimed quarter past. Half past would be next. Then quarter to. Strike the hour, and they’d be back to quarter past again. Sleep, it seemed, was now further than ever.
         Over the caffé latte and panetto next morning he remembered his strange dream, and had a good laugh. After a night like that he deserved a leisurely breakfast. He was late already - but so what? Becoming a junior priest had never been his first choice - all that kneeling and standing, elevating the host and benedicting. His was a delicate constitution, a full-length mass often had him feeling pretty wrung out by the end, as well as a few kilos lighter from sweating under the holy vestments. But, as the eldest son of a poor family, what were his options? He kept reminding himself it was better than working in McDonalds; and, at least, he wasn’t expected to smile as he dished out the host and holy wine, or tell them to have a nice day.
         Breakfast over, he stood up, brushed off the crumbs, donned the holy overalls, called goodbye to his mum and set off for San Giovanni’s.
         By the time he arrived, his twenty fellow apprentices were standing in front of the altar, a chorus line of swaying robes and bobbing hats, practising the day’s routine. A priest was calling out, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost. . . Father, Son and Holy Ghost . . .’ Vivaldi slipped to the end of the line and, having caught the beat, began joining in at making the sign of the cross.
         Finally the priest clapped his hands for them to stop.
         ‘Take five everybody. Our colleague, the recently arrived Signor Vivaldi, is going to give us a demonstration of how it should be done. He knows the moves so well he doesn’t even need to be shown them. So he can show us - the moves and the words together.’ With a smile that was equal parts smugness and sneer he beckoned Vivaldi to the centre of the altar. ‘If you please? I’ll cue the “In the name of the . . .” - you’ll take it from there. Let’s say, twenty times, just so we get the full benefit.’
         Vivaldi took up position, facing the apprentices who were arranged in a semicircle behind the priest - some were making faces, others sticking out their tongues. The priest glanced round to look at the boys and, immediately, as if some invisible force had preceded his gaze, their faces were smoothed back into looks of studious anticipation. When he turned to Vivaldi once more, the protruding tongues and rolling, bloodshot eyes were restored.
         Vivaldi ignored them and began psyching himself up for performance. He stared into the middle distance, contemplating the emptiness of the pews beyond, the shafts of sunlight slanting down between the stone pillars, the shadows in the side altars. Then something very unexpected happened.
         He was well into his routine and gazing up at the decorated ceiling when, all at once, everything around him seemed to fade into the distance. He was still aware of the priest’s voice calling, ‘In the name of the . . .’, and his own dutiful ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost,’ with his hands waving in perfect time, when suddenly the church seemed to fill with an unearthly light. A light that was streaming directly at him!
         Next came a flash of burgundy-and-scarlet, and there - hovering impossibly in mid-air, almost touching the ceiling with his holy hat - was his friend from the night before, the jumping cardinal.
         ‘Greetings, Antonio!’ Though the cardinal was manifesting himself a good thirty metres above him, Vivaldi was aware of his voice as a whisper in his ear.
         ‘God is speaking to you directly through me, but even He has His communication problems sometimes. If you can hear me, please nod.’
         Vivaldi nodded.
         ‘Good man!’ The cardinal gave him the thumbs up. ‘Now, you and I both know that all this dressing-up, hand-waving and chanting is strictly for the birds - nothing but audio-visual aids, consumer-friendly signifiers of the Divine Presence. Agreed?’
         Another nod from Vivaldi.
         ‘Exactly. So, if you are ready, Antonio, God is about to give you the number 3 -’
         ‘But I don’t understand, I -’
         The cardinal’s hand was raised for silence. ‘How you choose to use God’s gift is up to you. Most people are just given a life and left to get on with it - their loyalty points can be redeemed in heaven or hell. But you are different.’
         Vivaldi shrugged.
         ‘Let’s be frank, Antonio. Priest-wise, you’re never likely to amount to much, are you?’
         Vivaldi shook his head.
         ‘In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the number 3 is all that stands between you and a career in hamburgers.’
         Another nod from Vivaldi.
         ‘So, how about telling the good Father here that you suffer from asthma? The nodding and shaking you’ve been doing will look as if you’ve been gasping for breath. Tell him it’s all too much for you - and you’re out of here. Simple as that! With me?’
         Another nod.
         ‘Now, if you have ears to hear and eyes to see - God has something to show you.’
         Already, the burgundy-and-scarlet cape was billowing to transparency, fading fold upon fold. A moment later, it, and the jumping cardinal himself, were gone. Meanwhile, the stone arches that curved weightlessly, soaring upwards above the altar and pews to meet at the highest cross-point, seemed themselves to have shimmered into invisibility . . . into a series of chord progressions rising on all sides simultaneously to merge, layer upon layer, into a perfect harmony that held the unseen structure together.
         Vivaldi fell to his knees. There was no stonework anymore, no pews, no altar, no pillars, no walls, no windows, no church. Neither light nor darkness nor shadow. Only this perfect moment: utter concord, spreading out from one still point . . .
         Vivaldi closed his eyes, and God entered him as sound.
         He was carried home on a stretcher, and put to bed covered in poultices, leeches and an ice-pack. As a special treat, his father brought through the new 24” and put the remote in his right hand, whispering words that would normally have thrilled:
         ‘Today’s an all-day Sergio Leone Special, back-to-back spaghetti westerns!’
         Vivaldi managed to give his parents a smile as they left him, but less than five minutes into A Fistful of Dollars he had zapped it off. He wanted to relive that glorious epiphany in the church. He wanted to hear once more God’s music within him.
         He focused himself, he concentrated - and nothing happened. He forced himself to concentrate even harder. Still nothing happened. Silence - and the harder he tried, the emptier and hollower the silence became. Eventually he slumped back exhausted - exhausted and bitterly disappointed. Heartbroken. Having heard God once, was he doomed never to hear Him again? Awash with suppurating poultices, leeches and melting ice, he lay on his bed and wept.
         It was then that God received him. Vivaldi sensed Him as a strength and a tenderness beyond anything he had ever known. The Divine Presence began as rhythm. Not just as a rephrasing of the flow of time, mere skilful punctuation - but as a glimpse of eternity itself, patterned into purest form. An allegro of Divine Affirmation, expressed as a bass-line that thrummed to the very pulse of life. Then, arching across it, the beginnings of a melody . . .
         Vivaldi picked off a few leeches and reached for his quill.
         His mother looked in to see how he was. Fast asleep, the wee soul. Quietly she gathered up the mess of papers that had spilled off his bed onto the floor and put them tidily on his bedside table. Then she tiptoed out of the room, closing the door behind her.
         His mother gone, Vivaldi peeked out from under his duvet. He glanced proudly over at the neat stack of music paper. His first concerto, for violin and strings. A symmetrical arch in 3 perfect movements, rising above and spanning the bustling abyss of everyday human clamour and chaos: Allegro, Largo, Allegro.
         Time for a well-earned rest. Time for what remained of the Sergio Leone Special. If he was lucky he might still catch the closing scenes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He reached for the remote, zapped straight to the film channel and lay back down with a sigh of contentment.
         Seconds later, he was sitting up rubbing his eyes in disbelief: A Fistful of Dollars? It couldn’t be . . . and the action wasn’t much further on than before: near the beginning when the man with no name slouches his way up the main street towards the hired guns!
         ‘Get three coffins ready,’ he calls over to the old undertaker.
         Vivaldi stared at the screen: he’d been working nearly all day at the concerto, hadn’t he? Well, hadn’t he? As though he was standing at the very threshold of the unknown, he paused. He felt himself in the presence of God and His mysterious ways. Was it possible that writing God’s music had taken - no time at all?
         Just then Vivaldi heard the church bell of San Giovanni chime quarter to the hour, three strokes followed by silence. God could not have spoken to him more clearly. He heard and understood: no time to waste on robes and funny hats, no time for practising the holy hand jive. From now on, it would be concertos. Always concertos, and always in three movements. God had given him the number 3 . . . and if you’re offered the real thing - why settle for anything less?

© Ron Butlin 2003

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author bio

Ron Butlin's novel, The Sound of My Voice, was published in the Serpent's Tail Classics series in 2002. His second novel, Night Visits, is due out from the same publisher in August this year. Forthcoming are two collections of short stories: How the Angels Fly In, and, in Spring 2004, Vivaldi's First, from which this story comes. Ron Butlin lives in Edinburgh with his wife and their dog.


 tbr 36           May - June 2003 

Short Fiction

  Iain Bahlaj

     Tilt (novel extract)
  Ron Butlin
   Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and The Number Three

  Greg Chandler
     Bee’s Tree

  Abelardo Castillo
     Ernesto’s Mother

     Girl from Somewhere Else

    Picks from Back Issues

  Anne Donovan

  Steven Rinehart
     Burning Luv


  Gretchen McCullough May 2003: Letter from Cairo


   Answers to last issue’s quiz, All About Books

Book Reviews

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Tilt by Iain Bahlaj
Shoedog by George P. Pelecanos
Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen Jones

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TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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