September 1943: German forces occupy Rome.
Gestapo boss Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann rules with terror.
Hunger is widespread. Rumours fester. The war’s outcome is far from certain.
Diplomats, refugees, and escaped Allied prisoners risk their lives fleeing for protection into Vatican City, at one fifth of a square mile the world’s smallest state, a neutral, independent country within Rome.
A small band of unlikely friends led by a courageous priest is drawn into deadly danger.
By Christmastime, it’s too late to turn back.
Sopranos: Delia Kiernan, Marianna de Vries
Alto: The Contessa Giovanna Landini
Tenors: Sir D’Arcy Osborne, Enzo Angelucci, Major Sam Derry
Bass: John May
Conductor: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty
SUNDAY 19TH DECEMBER 1943
119 hours and 11 minutes before the mission
Grunting, sullen, in spumes of leaden smoke, the black Daimler with diplomatic number plate noses onto Via Diciannove, beads of sleet fizzling on its hood. A single opal streetlight glints at its own reflection in an ebbing, scummy puddle where a drain has overflowed. Pulsing in the irregular blink of a café’s broken neon sign, the words “MORTE AL FASCISMO” daubed across a shutter.
Delia Kiernan is forty, a diplomat’s wife. Doctors have ordered her not to smoke. She is smoking.
A week before Christmas, she’s a thousand miles from home. Sweat sticks her skirt to the backs of her stockings as she pushes the stubborn gear stick into first.
The man on the rear seat groans in stifled pain, tearing at the swastikas on his epaulettes.
The heavy engine grumbles. Blood throbs in her temples. On the dashboard, a scribbled map of how to get to the hospital using only the quieter streets is ready to be screwed up and tossed if she encounters an SS patrol but the darkness is making the pencil marks difficult to read and whatever hand wrote them was unsteady. She flicks on her cigarette lighter; a whiff of fuel inflames his moans.
Swerving into Via Ventuno, the Daimler clips a dustbin, upending it. What spills out gives a scuttle and makes for the gutter but is ravaged by a tornado of cadaverous dogs bolting as one from gloomed doorways.
Squawking brakes, jouncing over ramps, undercarriage racketing into potholes, fishtailing, oversteering, boards thudding, jinking over machine-gunned cobbles, into a street where wet leaves have made a rink of the paving stones.
Whimpers from the man. Pleadings to hurry.
Down a side street. Alongside the university purged and burned by the invaders. Its soccer pitch netless, strangled with weeds, the pit meant for a swimming pool yawning up at the moon and five hundred shattered windows. She remembers the bonfire of blackboards, seeing its photograph in the newspaper the morning of her daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Past the many-eyed, murderous hulk of the Colosseum like the skeleton of a washed-ashore kraken.
Across the piazza, gargoyles leer from a church’s gloomy facade. She flashes her headlights twice.
The bell tolls eleven. She feels it in her teeth. Wind harangues the chained-up tables and chairs outside a café, wheezing through the arrow-tipped railings.
A black-clad man hurries across from the porch, damp raincoat clinging, abandoning his turned-inside-out umbrella to the gust as he scrambles into the passenger seat of the ponderous, boat-like car, trilby dripping.
As she pulls away, he takes out a notebook, commences scribbling with a pencil.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Thinking,” he says.
Pulling a naggin of brandy from his pocket, he offers it to the groaning passenger who has tugged off one of his leather gloves and jammed it into his own mouth.
The man shakes his head, scared eyes rolling.
“For pity’s sake, let him alone,” she says. “Give it here.”
“Give it here this minute. Or you’re walking.”
An eternity at the junction of Via Quattordici and Piazza Settanta as a battle-scarred Panzer rattles past, turret in slow-revolve as though bored.
“What does it mean for the mission?” she asks. “If he’s gravely ill?
“We’d have to find someone else. Maybe Angelucci?”
“Enzo couldn’t be trained up. Not in the time.”
Hail surges hard on the windscreen as they pass Regina Coeli prison. She lights another cigarette, veins of ash falling on the collar of her raincoat. He has his eyes closed, but she’s certain he’s not praying.
“For the love of God, Delia, can’t this rust-bucket go any faster?”
Steaming blue streetlights, alleyways snaking up hills, ranked silhouettes of martyrs on the rooftops of churches. It comes back to her, her second morning in Rome, when she climbed the staircase to the roof of St. Peter’s, every feature of every statue worn away by time and storm. Soot-stained, weather-beaten stalagmites.
Now, a farm gate blocking a driveway. He steps out into the furies of rain and tries to haul the gate open, trilby falling off with the fervour of his shakes. In the glim of the headlights, he wrenches at the bars.
“Tied closed,” he shouts. “Would there be a toolbox in the boot?”
“Stand out of the road.”
Revving, foot down hard, she bolts the massive car through the splintering, wheezing smash as the gate implodes and he clambers back in, shaking his heavy, wet head as a man wondering how his life can have come to this pass.
Through the long, flat grounds, where soaked sheep bawl, then the road climbs again and the hospital buildings loom, three blocks of brutal concrete bristling with empty flagpoles and monsters that must be water tanks.
A fluorescent yellow road sign commands in black: “Rallentare!”
Up a short winding drive where the gravel is wearing thin, past a trio of diseased sycamores and the concrete hive of a machine-gun turret, to the floodlit portico by which a khaki and-red-cross-painted ambulance is parked, engine on, three orderlies in the back playing cards. Inexplicably, on seeing the Daimler approach they pull the doors closed on themselves. A moment later, the floodlight is extinguished.
She exits the car but leaves the engine muttering.
The hospital doors are locked, the lobby beyond them in darkness. She tugs the bellpull three times, hears its distant, desolate jangle from somewhere in the heart of the darkened wards.
Stepping back, she looks up at the shuttered windows, as though looking could produce a watcher, the hope of all religious people, but no one is coming and as she approaches the shut ambulance for help a wolf-whistle sounds from behind her.
An orderly in his twenties has appeared from some door she hasn’t noticed. Sulky, kiss-curled, cigarette in mouth, he looks as though he was asleep two minutes ago. The smell of a musty room has followed him out. The flashlight in his left hand gives a couple of meagre flickers, diminishing whatever light there is. In his right hand is an object it takes her a moment to recognize as a switchblade. He looks like he’d know what to do with it.
“I’ve a patient who needs urgent assistance,” she says.
“There. Back seat.”
“Your name?” he sighs, peering into the Daimler’s chugging rear.
“I am not in a position to identify myself. I am attached to a neutral Legation in the city. This man is seriously ill, I had our official physician attend him not an hour ago. He says it’s peritonitis or a burst appendix.”
“Why should I care? I am a Roman. What are you?”
“Matter a damn what I am, send in for a stretcher.”
“You come here with your orders expecting me to help a son-of-a-whore Nazi?”
“You’ve a duty to help anyone.”
He spits on the ground.
“There’s my duty,” he says.
The man in black steps out of the car, heavy hand on the roof, gives a grim stare at the sky as though resenting the clouds, slowly rounds to where the youth is standing.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“Name’s O’Flaherty.” Opening his raincoat, revealing his soutane and collar.
“Father. Excuse me, Father.” He crosses himself. “I did not know.”
“The German uniform that man in the car is wearing is a disguise. He was running a surveillance mission and became seriously ill.”
“Tough Guy, here’s a question. Is there a dentist in that hospital behind you?”
“Because you’ll need one in a minute when I punch your teeth through your skull. You ignorant lout, to comport yourself before any woman in that fashion. Go to confession tomorrow morning and apologise this minute.”
“I beg forgiveness, Signora,” bowing his florid face. “I haven’t eaten or slept in three nights.”
“Granted,” she says. “Can we move things along?”
“Our passenger is escaped British prisoner Major Sam Derry of the Royal Regiment of Artillery,” O’Flaherty says. “The lives of many thousands depend on this man. If you love Italy get him into an operating theatre. This minute.”
The youth regards him.
O’Flaherty hurries to the ambulance, hauls open its doors.
“Andiamo, ragazzi,” he says, beckoning towards the Daimler. “Off your backsides. Good men. We need muscle.”
Derry lurches from the car, blurting mouthfuls of blood, clutching at his abdomen and the night.
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