The Pope


The air had warmed. In fact it was that terrible time of the year when the Highveld waited for rain. The rain was always expected at the end of the second week, or the beginning of the third. It was either true, an urban legend, or just tradition.

But today was 9th October, and it would be any day now. Oct 9, 1958.
What’s the panic for rain? The weather was consistent in those days. Well, no – as consistent as it is these days, but one thing I have learned is that people are creatures of habit and want everything to be consistent. Sort of makes them secure.

So when anything like the weather does happen to be “unseasonable”, then the immediate reaction is always, “Didn’t used to be like this. Always predictable. Regular as clockwork, things just ain’t wot they used to be.”

July was winter, well that was unavoidable, although we could have warm winters or cold winters (“Didn’t used to be like this, regular as clockwork it used to be.”) Winter was dry. Round about the end of July was veld fire season when clouds of white smoke billowed into the sky, and you could smell it. You didn’t feel the ash, but your lungs did. Mixed with twenty Cavalla Kings a day, the combination was often fatal.
But it was another time and another place.

The dust came from the mine dumps. No one had thought of grassing them, and the winter wind skimmed the tops off the mountains of cyanide sand, lifted the fine grains heaven-wards, and dropped it down onto Johannesburg. We would rush into the kitchen for a frying pan and bucket of water. Outside we’d gather the sand from the stoep, and pan it looking for gold. Silly arses, gold is heavier than sand and would never fly through the air. We didn’t know that, or if we did, we wouldn’t have cared. We were going to be rich, that’s all that mattered.
So winter in the Highveld was a near to hell as you would get outside of Australia. By the time August and September came, if you hadn’t the guts to last it through until the first rains in mid-October, you killed yourself.

September – suicide month.

So it was the 9th October, we were staring out of the classroom windows wondering when the first rains would come, when Brother Christopher burst through the doors. “His Holiness is dead.”

He just stood at the door looking desolate. We just stared at him, looking equally desolate.

“Who the hell is His Holiness?” was all our thoughts could muster.
We were to find out soon enough, the Pope, Pius XII, whose photos with his hands together in sanctimonious prayer were hanging all over the place. In fourth place, if you took the number of pictures.

The most went to His Holiness Jesus Christ, solemnly hanging from nails through his hands from a wooden cross (one in every classroom, and other rooms.)

Second place went to Her Holiness the Virgin Mary, Mother of what’s his name. She had portraits and statues; the statue was always midway as the stairs turned on the way up.

Third place went to His Holiness, the Blessed Marcellin Champagnat, founder of their Holinesses the Marist Brothers.

Fourth place went to His Holiness Pope Pius XII. He only got to fourth place because he was a hated Italian.

The Marist Brothers were a French order (it does take many brains to see “Marcellin Champagnat is French), and couldn’t for Chrissake see what the Pope couldn’t be French.

I mean for Chrissake, there’d been 17 of them so far. However, since the last one was Gregory XI who died in 1378 – we were told this at least once a month – it was obviously a conspiracy that kept the ‘Eyeties’ in the Vatican. In fact, dare we even think it, it’s possibly some satanic victory, after all, don’t most Italians look devilish?

But Armageddon will come, and with that the Day of Reckoning, which may come before or after the Last Judgment (which came after the Last Supper), and justice will be restored. The ‘Eyeties’ will be banished from the Vatican, and great and glorious French will be victorious and once again put their tootsies in the Shoes of the Fisherman, hold the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The dead shall rise, sins will be forgiven (thank God), and hark the herald angels sing.

That gives you the background. Brother Christopher’s shock was not that of the bereaved, but that of the hopeful.

In a blink of an eye, as His Holiness Saint Paul would say, we beheld that religion was a simile for politics. That the value of a Catholic education. We learned deep and spiritual values, and I was only 12 years old.

School closed, well, it didn’t close, but there were certainly no Brothers in the classrooms, just the lay teachers (the ones allowed to have sex, and accordingly didn’t drink as much as the brothers did.)
There weren’t enough lay teachers to run each classroom, so they ran from class to class giving us yet another 20 pages of the history of the Unification of Germany to read.

The brothers stayed in their private common room, ears glued to Radio Vatican, and lips glued to crystal glasses of Mellowood.

Black smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the place with Michelangelo’s painted all over the ceiling. It was supposed to last about three days.

It happened bloody 19 days later, longest holiday we had ever had. Sitting in class, lifting the tops of our desks to sneak in another bite of a peanut butter sandwich, and learning all about Otto von Bismarck. And when we had done with that, it was Giuseppe Mazzini, not to be confused with Giuseppe Verdi, who invented operations.

Twenty days in which I laid the foundations to the exhaustive general knowledge that I have today.

But, worse was to come. On the 20th October, the smoke came out white. Mellowood was swallowed from the bottle in anticipation.
Mellowood was emptied from the bottle with grief when the news came out. Another Italian, some fat drub called Angelo Roncalli. Within days, testimony to the efficiency of the Vatican bureaucracy, photos of His Holiness John XXIII had replaced those of Pius XII. Although in the interests of cost-efficiency, the same frames were used.

The next day, everything was back to normal. The brothers caned us for anything they could think of, just as they had done for all the past 700 years of the Great Tribulation since the last French Pope.

Life went rushing on as if nothing had happened, except that we all knew how to spell Giuseppe Mazzini. Not to be confused with the guy who invented Cinzano.

I saw a girl friend after school, who went to the girls’ convent school in Yeoville. I told her about the new Pope. She said, “I know. Sister Ignatia came and told us all about it. She said it was a great and glorious moment. They talk rubbish. She was just glad it was another Italian.”

“The Brothers were devastated,” I said.

“It’s just politics,” she said dismissively. “I’m hungry. What should we do?”


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