When you experience it, it’s not a cliche:
It was the best of times and the worst of times. We were in an epoch of belief and an epoch of incredulity, in a season of Darkness and a season of Light. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. There was to be a feast in Rome that I would attend, and one in New York that I would not. And so we will come to the end of the tale of the Talented Mr. Ripley and me (with no snide remarks from you, Steed), when he walked down the aisle in my own parish in New York while I was in Rome getting some comfort from the monks.
Cadfael and I left Dublin and landed in a Rome of grey skies and drizzle, which fit my mood. We buzzed around town a bit on the Vespa to say goodbye and good riddance to the old year.
The plan was to have a late New Year’s Eve dinner in a small neighborhood place in Trastevere, with 2 of Cadfael’s English monk friends, Rupert and Lambert. For me it would be like having a monk shield against the sad thoughts of a disappointing year.
And quite a shield it was. Rupert is a dazzling dissipate. He is a living cross between Lord Sebastian Flyte and C.S.Lewis. A compact man, fortyish, his boyish good looks starting to fade, he is a compelling presence of sweetness and darkness. Lambert is a little younger and very uncomplicated; he’s 6 feet 2 of openness.
The trio called for me at my hotel on the Aventine, and we walked through the small, winding alleys of that most charming of Roman neighborhoods. We were led to a great table in the back of the taverna, where I sat against the wall looking into the room through the ring of Benedictines. In the deep haze of cigarette smoke the large Italian families were in full, noisy animation. I felt safe.
We got bottles of wine, and then more bottles. The monks reminded me of the sailors from my schooner sailing days. When they are on duty, it’s all business, but when they are off duty, they know how to relax, and drink. Our conversation danced to all corners—-American pop culture, Leeds, childhood stories, life in Italy. We laughed and laughed and at midnight sang a sotto voce “Auld lang syne” to each other. For a table of damaged people in a foreign city, we were doing very well as 2003 became 2004.
January 1 is the Solemnity, Mary, Mother of God. I found myself in a church that was surprisingly modern inside. The sun was pouring in as I sat in the dazzling light tightly wrapped in my New York black coat, watching my dinner companions in their community. They seemed familiar and unknowable at the same time.
After Mass, Cadfael said that the Abbott had granted permission for me to join Cad at the holiday meal. Visitors are only allowed in the refectory on special occasions, and it is an honor to be invited to eat with the community. We walked into the huge dining room with long tables set around its perimeter with almost 100 place settings for 100 men, and me. I was seated next to Cad, thank goodness, while a special holiday meal was served: classic antipasto, saltimbocca, potatoes au gratin, fresh bread, haricourt verts, spumanti for dessert, all with the correct wines from proseccio to champagne and a fabulous espresso.
Men eat faster than I do, and monks eat very fast. I tried to keep up but plates were flying around me left and right. The monastery is built on hierarchy: junior brothers serve, and everyone is seated by seniority. Usually a reader reads a text during a silent meal, but not on holidays.
After the meal, the assembly broke up pretty quickly. Cad and I went over to the Abbott, who is Spanish, so I could say thank you. We started to leave, when Rupert and Lambert came up behind us.
“Happy New Year”
Rupert sparked a conversation about Praxiteles, one of the greatest of the Attic sculptors, only for Lambert to jump in with the Phidias was greater argument. Did I mention they are both serious classicists. Their knowledge was startling, and they were showing off, but since it had the spirit of Monty Python about it, it was a riot instead of insufferable. We lingered in the room for two hours of nonstop cigarettes, chatter, and laughter. I wish I had captured it all on video--I would love to watch it again.
Finally we needed to go. Rupert walked me out, crooning an early Bing Crosby tune in his madly eccentric way:
Lend your little ear to my pleas
Lend a ray of cheer to my pleas
Tell me that you love me too.
Right words, wrong man.
Another wrong man was just starting his feast, his wedding reception in New York. For a brief minute I wondered what could be going through The Talented Mr. Ripley's mind as he surveyed the buffet in the parish basement. It was a far, far better thing he had just done than he had ever done before. And that is no cliché either.
As for Cad and me, we had one more trip ahead of us, before things would change forever.