The Beat Generation

I could not remember entering the room, but simply found myself standing in the middle of it. There seemed something odd about the room and I could sense, don’t ask me how, that what was wrong, was my being there. The chamber was enormous. A vast array of tables, bookcases, chairs, hammocks etc. stretched out in every direction. Despite this, I had an immediate feeling of being closed in. Magazines were scattered about on the tables, books, Bibles—all rummaged. A few people were slouching in the chairs. One aged couple looked my way and smiled. “Well, well,” said the woman of the pair, “look what the Pope dragged in.”

 I could make no sense of her comment. The old man rose stiffly and approached me. “What’s your name, kid?” he asked.

 “Kid?” I wanted to reply, “Who are you calling kid? I am sixty-nine years old.” Instead, I answered meekly, “My name is Mary.”

 “Can’t have that,” he laughed. “Been too many Marys about these parts all ready.” He turned to the others, most of whom were playing cards. “Listen up, everyone,” the old man shouted. “This here is . . . Marsha. She’s new.” A few grunts came my way, nothing more.

It was hot, uncomfortably so and stuffy. Despite the ample space, the room felt overcrowded and edgy. An almost palpable impatience hung in the air, as if people were expecting something to happen, though by the looks of the place, nothing had happened for a very long time. “Where am I?” I finally had the courage to ask.

“Where do you think you are, dear?” said the woman, smiling, having come over to have a closer look at me herself.

All I knew was that the terrible fatigue I had endured the last few months was gone and that somehow, I had moved from my sick bed to this room. I looked around again. There was only one conclusion. Strangely, I didn’t feel any self-pity at that moment. I just didn’t know what I had done to deserve this. I met the old woman’s eyes and took in a slow breath. Where did I think I was? “Purgatory,” I exhaled.

The two convulsed in laughter. “Purgatory! That’s priceless!” the old man cackled.

A voice came from behind me. “Don’t pay any attention to them. They don’t mean any harm.” It was the first younger man I had seen since entering the room. He looked about thirty-five and was handsome, save for a ragged scar that creased his forehead. “Where you from, kid?” he asked.

Why I let this young pup call me kid, I don’t know. “Australia,” I replied.

The man squinted. “You don’t sound German,” he remarked, cryptically. He nodded for me to walk alongside him and I did. Despite his curtness, he struck me as more welcoming than the others. “Sometimes they like to baffle newcomers,” the man explained. “There is not much to keep us amused here. If you have any questions, I’ll answer them the best I can.”

We walked along a seemingly endless aisle of hammocks, chairs and clutter of all sorts. I found myself in no rush to ask anything, fearing perhaps the answers would prove overwhelming. To try to put the conversation on a normal footing, I introduced myself, but this man too insisted on calling me Marsha. The young fellow was an Italian, Fabio Bartolo, born in a village near Perugia. Where we were now apparently had no official name. Fabio called it ‘The Waiting Room.’ He’d been here longer than most of the others and reminisced a little about when he first arrived. There was obviously great compassion and love in the man, but it was tinged with a cynicism uncommon for his years. My thoughts, still disturbing, became clearer as we walked along. The last I could recall prior to appearing in this room, was lying prone in my bed with a feeling of absolute enfeeblement. I had replied, “Purgatory” to the old man’s question almost without thinking. I was dead. Somehow, I knew this to be true. Surprisingly, it did not seem all that traumatic. Dead was just something I now was, no more unusual than being right-handed or brown-eyed. “When did you die?” I found myself asking Fabio, as casually as if I had asked him if he’d like a cup of tea.

He shrugged. “We weren’t that good at keeping track of the years back them. It was fourteenth century.” He gave a modest, almost embarrassed smile. “I fell afoul of the local lord over certain things I was suggesting to the poor. It was all very exciting at the time. There was a lot of vanity in it I realise now, thinking back. I got a thrill out of speaking so defiantly, so righteously . . . until the hot irons in the eyes, the bone breaking and disembowelment came along. That took the edge off it all right. I’ve been here ever since.”

“You’ve been here six hundred years!” I gasped. I couldn’t believe it. “Are you telling me there isn’t any way out of this room?”

I’d obviously spoken loudly because a woman leaning against the wall laughed. “To get out of this place, kid,” she informed me, “would take a bloody miracle.”

Fabio shrugged again, a characteristic trait it seemed. “That’s roughly it,” he agreed. “My being beatified was all political. The Pope back then wanted to embarrass the Perugian Dukes, so he beatified a naïve parish priest who hadn’t known when to keep his mouth shut. I was put on the short list for canonisation six hundred years ago, but I’m still a miracle shy of making the grade.”

I was taken aback by what I’d just heard. This humble man had been beatified. I fell to my knees and kissed his hand repeatedly and hailed him as the Blessed Fabio. “Get up, get up!” he said, lifting me back to my feet and blushing, perhaps on my behalf. The woman, who was wearing nun’s attire of a sort I had never seen before, laughed again. “It’s no big deal here,” Fabio assured me. “I’m beatified. She’s beatified.” He jerked his thumb toward the chuckling nun. “And,” he continued, pointing a finger my way, “you’re beatified.”

“Me?” I asked, incredulously. “That’s impossible. How could I have been beatified?”  

The amused woman came over, peered at me closely, nodding her approval. “Very good. Humility. I like that,” she chortled then shook her head. “But that stuff doesn’t cut any ice here. It’s miracles that count.”

She introduced herself as Greta of Koszeg. She had stayed outside the city walls with her cloister when, in 1532, the Ottoman army had besieged the Hungarian town. She had been defiantly martyred, barring the door to the convent against the Turkish invader. The seemingly miraculous deliverance of Koszeg soon afterward, the small town successfully withstanding such a mighty army, had led to her beatification. However, miracles for Greta had been in short supply ever since. You couldn’t get to be a saint without that second miracle. The ticket out of The Waiting Room, I discovered, was not easy to come by. Some had been in the room for over a millennium trying for that big and verifiable one.

A heavenly fanfare of trumpets resounded, seemingly out of nowhere. Before me I beheld a blessed sight, wondrous to all of the Catholic faith. “Look lively,” Fabio hissed. “Inspection time.”

Striding down the corridor were two saints, a gold shimmering aura around each of them. As they approached, I doubted my own eyes. One was the glorious Saint Sebastian who had endured so much for his faith. His wounded body still bore testament to the cruel arrows of the Emperor Diocletian. The other, though he looked familiar, I could not name. What did surprise me though was the sour expression on the holy face of Saint Sebastian. I wondered if the arrows, I could see five or six protruding through his vestments, pained him still. He was striding along briskly, acknowledging no one. The other saint was pausing for a word or two here and there and scuttling along to keep up to the fast-paced Sebastian.

I was just about to fall on my knees before him when Saint Sebastian suddenly stopped. His harsh expression melted. “Fabio . . . Greta,” he said, so tenderly it made my heart burst. “Still here after all this time?” His voice choked with pity. “I’ll . . .” Saint Sebastian shook his head. “I’ll see what I can do for you.” He touched each gently on the shoulder in turn. I stepped forward, not to speak to him, but simply to take in more fully the blessed sight of Sebastian. Suddenly, his face contorted and contempt returned to it. “Who’s this?” he said with obvious scorn. “Another nat?” He jerked his head toward the other saint. “One of yours,” he rumbled at him and strode off quickly.

The other saint flitted up to us in quick short strides. “Everything all right?” he asked. “Got enough food, clothes?”

“This is Saint Vincent de Paul,” Fabio introduced.

Saint Vincent was following Saint Sebastian with his eyes. “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you,” he said quickly and trotted after Saint Sebastian with more of the same short, hurried steps.

I was devastated. The exultation of being in the presence of Saint Sebastian had been shattered by the disgust I had invoked in him. What had I done to cause such offence?  My dismay must have been apparent to the others. “Don’t let it get to you, kid,” Greta said, putting her arm around me. “It is just the way he is.”

“Seb’s very old school,” Fabio explained. “He doesn’t think anyone deserves to get to be a saint unless they’ve had their head dunked in a vat of boiling pitch.”

And so I learned. Saint Sebastian’s compassion for Greta and Fabio was because they had been martyred for their faith. The derogative term “nat” meant “died of natural causes”, a slur that carried over even if you were canonised. Saint Vincent de Paul, according to the old guard, was nothing more than an ambitious upstart who smarmed his way through the court of Louis XIII, did the occasional safe stint with the poor and was always careful to watch his back.

I may have been very slow on the uptake, but suddenly a pang of realisation thrust right through me. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve been beatified.” My voice rose in pitch at the implications. “I’ve been beatified and now I’m supposed to perform miracles!” Panic seized me as if by the throat. “What do I know about miracles?” I shrilled.

“Good question,” Fabio agreed. “I was just a medieval village hick with a smattering of Latin. What do any of us know about performing miracles?”

For the first time, I burst into tears. “That wasn’t what my work was about.” I wailed. “I didn’t do what I did to get canonised! It wasn’t—I don’t do miracles!”

Fabio hugged me and Greta daubed at my eyes with her handkerchief. I sniffled and sobbed a good many minutes and was starting to feel better when a nasal voice from above intruded. “Would Greta of Koszeg please pick up the nearest blue courtesy phone,” it requested.

Greta eyes widened. “Holy moly!” she exclaimed and raced down the hall without another word.

“Incoming prayer,” Fabio explained excitedly. “Someone has asked for Greta by name.”

Two minutes later a clattering of clogs came back down the hall. Greta was panting. “Fabio,” she heaved, “it’s a kid. She’s got something terrible. I had the mother on the line. Where’s Timasion?”

We set off for the library section of the room in great haste. Timasion turned out to be a portly man who looked Greek or Arabic. I was told later he was one of the really old beatifieds, seventh or eighth century. On the desk before him were several journals and texts. He was making notes from one called The Lancet. “What’s up?” he asked, gazing at my two companions.

Greta was breathless, but she still managed to get out the story. “Prayer came in . . . for me. A girl is really sick . . . might die.”

“Did you get the symptoms?”

“Yes. It sounds like plague or something, but with no fever. The mother called it bulimia. The daughter is wasting away before her eyes.”

Timasion sighed. “Bulimia is an eating disorder,” he informed her.

Greta was puzzled at the term. “Eating disorder? What’s that? Is it like . . . famine?”

Timasion rubbed his forehead. “Greta,” he sighed, “how do you expect to perform miracles if you don’t keep up?” He seemed upset, almost despairingly so, at her ignorance. I kept quiet having never heard of the disease myself. “Bulimia,” he went on, “is a very destructive disorder. It has a lot to do with body image and self-esteem. Though usually very thin, dangerously thin, which places a dreadful strain on the heart, the person thinks of themselves as grotesquely fat.”

Greta mulled this over. “So . . . all I’ve got to do is to get her to eat,” she suggested.

“It’s not so simple,” Timasion informed her. “The patient eats, sometimes a lot.”

Greta was obviously perplexed. “I don’t get it. How come she’s so thin then?”

“After a bulimic patient eats,” the scholar elaborated, “they go off some place private and vomit it all up. Stick their fingers down their throat,” Timasion gestured the motion, “until they wretch.”

Greta looked as she was about to wretch herself. “That’s disgusting,” she said. She gave me a look as if I was somehow responsible for the girl’s problems. “We didn’t have this kind of stuff back in the sixteenth.” Then she said a sentence I was to hear frequently over the next months, “Your century is a pretty screwed up place.”

Timasion looked at me closely. “You twentieth century?” he asked.

I nodded. Timasion was anxious to probe my medical knowledge, but I proved unfamiliar with many of the terms he used. “What do you make of Positron Emission Tomography?” he asked me and followed it up with a dozen other equally baffling questions. I stammered my way through the conversation not knowing what antibiotics were, what x-rays were used for or what in the world was done to some poor sod who received by-pass surgery. He didn’t appear annoyed at my ignorance, but I could tell he was disappointed. “Where are you from, Marsha?” he asked eventually.

“She’s Austrian,” Fabio answered on my behalf. “A northern neighbour of mine.”

“Not Austrian,” I corrected him, “I’m Australian.”

Fabio and Greta stared back at me blankly.

“Australia is a country, an enormous country, an entire continent,” I informed them, feeling a strange surge of nationalism. “Millions of people live there.”

Fabio shrugged again. “Not one of whom,” he observed morosely, “will ever pray for a miracle from Fabio Bartolo, a poor forgotten parish priest of Perugia.” And this was an attitude that I was to find very pervasive in The Waiting Room. To bag their coveted miracle, Greta and Fabio needed prayers sent directly to them. They didn’t care about Australia. They didn’t care about Africa, Asia or the Orkney Islands or anywhere else where they were not known. Fabio had been beatified and forgotten. He pinned all his hopes now on one small Tuscan church where a faded tapestry still depicted his martyrdom, and one wall bore a fragment of a Latin inscription that read ‘. . . tolo, faithful and blessed, son of the Holy . . .’ He had to hope that some parish priest with a penchant for church history could uncover Fabio’s heroic past and inspire the flock with the tale. Only then would a call come through on the blue courtesy phone for him. Greta had it better. She was still venerated, but her religious heroism was irreparably confused with the Hungarian national struggle against the Turks. The siege of Koszeg was only one small, not particularly decisive event in a struggle that had spanned one hundred and fifty years. There was no shortage of glorious self-sacrifice to honour. The convent where Greta had died was long gone, a plant making a chemical solvent of dubious worth now occupying the site. There did remain one solitary statue to commemorate Greta’s martyrdom, but this had been put up by atheist Communists who played up her working-class origins and patriotism. They depicted her, not in her nun’s habit at pious prayer, but in tattered peasant garb with one breast mostly revealed, waving a battered sabre at invisible invaders.

Timasion had it the worst of all. Six years after his beatification, Islam had spread like a bushfire over his land. The followers of Mohammad had ruled there ever since. There were still small clusters of Christians in his beloved mountain villages who remembered, honoured and prayed to Timasion for miracles. And according to Fabio, Timasion had delivered the goods time and time again. He was known to be particularly effective with cataracts. But this Christian community hadn’t lived thirteen hundred years under the sword of Islam without learning to keep its head down. The locals were grateful for the miracles, but no one ever called in the official investigators from the Vatican to check them out.

Timasion continued to lecture Greta on bulimia and what he called “a related range of psychological disorders.” I could tell most of it was going over Greta’s head. Greta gave a smirk. She held up two fingers in a “V” before her face. “I’ll give that kid a dream,” she declared, interrupting him, “in which her fingers turn into flaming red hot torches. We’ll see if she’s so quick to ram them down her throat after that!”  

Timasion groaned. “Your methods are crude, Greta. The child needs counselling.”

 I agreed.  “Frightening someone is not the way to help them from their pain,” I suggested.

 Greta grinned a knowing sneer. “You’re new here kid. There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

 I hadn’t yet fully grasped the beatified predicament. As Fabio explained it to me, it wasn’t good enough simply to solve the problem. If Greta inspired that girl to go off for counselling, she would likely not receive one jot of credit for it. The sickly girl would call a receptionist to book an appointment. She would meet with some hushed-voiced counsellor who wouldn’t know her from Adam. After six meetings, the counsellor would be transferred and someone new would be there. Reports would be filed, specialists consulted. The girl would end up participating in some psychology student’s PhD research. A neighbour would persuade her to go for acupuncture and an aunt would fill her full of garlic and clove tea. If by some strange chance, she managed to get well from all this, no one would remember Greta’s small role in it all. The key was to do something quick and dramatic. “You know,” Fabio observed, “for someone from the twentieth century, you don’t seem to have a very good feel for how it works down there.”

Timasion scrutinised me with his pensive gaze. “You’re early twentieth century, aren’t you?” he commented.

I nodded. What else was there to be? The century had only started when I became ill and died.

“That explains why you know nothing of antibiotics,” he said with the satisfaction of a mystery solved.

Slowly, it dawned on me. Time, it now appeared, had carried on without me. “What year is it . . . down there?” I asked with trepidation.

Timasion flipped to the cover of The Lancet. “It’s 1995.” He could tell I was mystified. “You weren’t beatified right away,” he explained. “These things take time.”

“Then,” I asked shakily, “where have I been . . .” I did a quick calculation . . . “these last eighty-six years?”

It turned out that if ‘they’ thought you had a good chance of being beatified, you were, to use Greta’s phrase “put on ice for a while.” They didn’t want someone getting all cosy in heaven only to be yanked out upon beatification and shoved into their dingy Waiting Room. It would be demoralising.

I deliberately did not question why I should be denied paradise so that I could be “put on ice” for eighty-six years while Vatican officials dithered over my saintly credentials. My duty is to serve, not to question, I reminded myself.

Timasion seemed intent on filling me in on the medical progress that had dominated the century I had sat out. Most miracles, weeping statues, grandstand appearances before overawed devout little eight-year-olds, were frowned upon now. Saving lives was respectable. Medicine was therefore vital to canonisation although Timasion was one of the few in The Waiting Room who made a systematic study of it. However, the twentieth century had made it very hard for the beatified trying for the medical miracle. Despite Timasion’s obvious admiration for the medical profession, what he described portrayed surgeons as little more than coal miners, hacking their way into bodies, ripping out this and that and shoving in plastic tubes, battery packs or even parts they had removed from some other patient. And doctor’s egos had grown alongside their profession and their pay cheques. They readily took credit for everything, often leaving the beatified miracle maker out in the cold. “Stage a miracle in the operating room,” Fabio warned, “and all that comes of it is an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

Over the next weeks, I found there was much to learn about the ins and outs of miracle making. Fabio’s unenviable obscurity for instance was compounded by St Francis of Assisi being from a nearby town. Few, in a moment of truth, were going to turn to a beatified nobody when a full-fledged saint was also a local boy. Fabio had received only one prayer directed his way all century and that one had proved a lesson in how a well-designed miracle could still go utterly wrong. It had come from a Perugian teenager conscripted into the Italian army and sent to fight in Abyssinia. Fabio had no idea where that was, but that hardly mattered. The lad’s patrol had been ambushed, he was wounded severely and the rest of his comrades killed. Somehow this boy knew the story told on Fabio’s faded tapestry because, in the thick of the crisis, he prayed to Fabio for help. He was coughing up blood and rattling off all the usual promises a frightened-to-death nineteen-year-old promises: he was going to go to church every week; he wasn’t going to blaspheme anymore; he wasn’t going to copulate with anyone he hadn’t married first . . .” Fabio looked at me candidly at that part of the story. “They always make a big deal about that one, but I’ve reached a point now where I don’t care who screws who down there.”

This was, I had come to accept, a common feeling among the beatified. They had been around a long time and there wasn’t much that could surprise or shock them. Just as someone who frequents dockside bars might not blink an eye to see a bottle broken over a fellow patron’s head, the beatified were a toughened lot.

Fabio pulled out all the stops. He guided the boy’s hands as he bandaged his own wounds. A true medieval man, he even lured maggots to eat at a festering sore in the soldier’s leg. Under Fabio’s guidance, the young Perugian hobbled back to base. I could sense the pain Fabio had in recounting the story to me. I put a hand on his shoulder. “He died anyway, didn’t he,” I murmured sympathetically.

“No,” Fabio nearly spat. “The bastard lived,” he grumbled and walked away from me. It was left up to Timasion to tell me the rest of the story. The young soldier got shipped back to Italy and he was proclaimed a hero. Standing before the faded tapestry in Fabio’s church, he told everyone how his prayer to Fabio Bartolo the priest of Perugia priest had been answered. It was a picture-perfect finish to a finely crafted miracle.

The only trouble was, Fabio had, to use Timasion’s phrase, “backed the wrong horse.” Within a few years, the young hero had risen high up in the police force. From this position of power, a previously dormant tyrannical streak in the man emerged. When war broke out again, he abused his position terribly, and carried out horrifying acts against those he disliked. He amassed great wealth by leading what was little more than a gang of pirates in uniform. By the time the Resistance finally managed to put a bullet in his back one day as he was leaving Fabio’s church, the young man had personally been involved in forty-six killings and an untold amount of misery. No one was much inclined to pass out a halo to Fabio for having saved the boy’s life that desperate night in the Abyssinian bush. A cruel joke went around The Waiting Room in those days calling my dear friend: “Saint Fabio, patron saint of mass murderers.”

The pressure of pulling miracles was too much for some. Greta pointed out one gentle looking soul as a particularly sad case. “Agnes just isn’t up to miraculous standards anymore. She only does skinned knees,” Greta told me. “She’s big with seven-year-olds, but it doesn’t carry a lot of clout with Cardinals.” She had suffered what Timasion would call ‘a nervous breakdown’ during the Great Plague of 1348, when the blue phone was ringing off the hook with prayers for her. Peasant after peasant from her homeland keeled over in the bubonic weeks that followed, dying wretched, fever-racked deaths. Agnes, pushed beyond reasonable expectations, tried to do too much for too many and proved, in the end, unable to do anything at all. Thousands died with her name on their lips. She had never recovered from the ordeal. For six hundred years since, she had taken only calls on the general open line, patching up skinned knees, never even venturing high enough to tackle a case of warts.

Greta and Fabio were very supportive of me. Despite never having heard of Australia, they were enthusiastic about it. “You’ve got it made kid,” Fabio assured me. “The first beatified Australian. You’re set.”

“It will be a point of national pride. You cure a case of hiccups,” Greta predicted, “and you’ll get the big yellow ring,” her term for a halo.

I soon settled into the routine of The Waiting Room and spent a lot of time reading with Timasion. There was no shortage of printed matter. We could get anything we wanted. Timasion loved his medical journals but others were not so scholarly. The magazine Hollywood Star was popular and there was much idle gossip about ‘celebrity saving’ being a high-profile way to canonisation.

I was beguiled by the atmosphere of The Waiting Room, the coarse, almost jocular talk, the historical name-dropping, the modest self-mockery of the old hands. Greta liked to call all us would-be saints ‘canonfodder’. The saints themselves were called “haloheads” and many sometimes ribald jokes were told at their expense. The beatifieds made fun of everything, even Sebastian’s arrows. There was a delightful irreverence that, at first, I found near blasphemous but later came to appreciate greatly.

By the time the next inspection came, I felt very much part of the crowd. No one was looking forward to this inspection as word had it that ‘The General’ would be in charge. They kept me guessing as to who this was. I was still anxious to see another saint, but this time I was determined not to be quite so overawed. After all, a saint was just a beatified with a lucky miracle under his or her belt.

I was very surprised when I saw the tell-tale aura of ‘The General’ coming down the hall. “When did she get canonised?” I whispered to Fabio. “She wasn’t even beatified when I died.”

“1920s, I think. The French Right made a big fuss about her. A Conservative Pope. The usual combination.”

Politics was another thing that had carried into The Waiting Room. The French were widely resented. It was felt the Popes frequently bent over backwards to please that powerful Catholic nation. A lot of good beatifieds were passed over for canonisation while French lightweights with shaky credentials got the call up for the yellow ring.

‘The General’ had us lined up soldier-like and was inspecting the ranks. She still wore her fifteenth century armour which was, of course, immaculate. She was a short woman, but she knew how to wear armour and her eyes blazed with a fanaticism that could inspire or terrify. Joan of Arc kept pausing along the line to straighten a misaligned cowl or the cross around a nun’s neck. She had such a formidable presence that I began to hope she would pass by me without the slightest look my way.

Instead, she came to a complete halt in front of me. I could feel my knees quaking. A grotesque sneer rose on her lips. “Saint Joan,” I murmured humbly.

“Une autre anglaise,” she observed with disgust.

I said nothing. I sensed that the difference between being English and being Australian was a subtlety that would be lost on her. Without warning, she grabbed me roughly by the habit and yanked my face close to hers. “Heh, écoutes-moi, tête carée! Mon nom n’est pas ‘Saint Joan’. Je suis Jeanne d’Arc. Saint Jeanne! Liberatrice de la France!”

I was too terrified by this amazon to say anything in reply. To my side, Greta, my friend indeed, mumbled something I didn’t catch. There may be those who have their doubts about the ‘voices’ Joan of Arc heard, but I’ll tell you this, there was nothing wrong with her ears. Her eyes practically exploded and she flung herself at Greta’s throat screaming “Putain! Maudit putain!” Greta didn’t wait to let herself be strangled. She gave Saint Joan a two hander under the helmet that rocked the saint backwards on her heels. But Joan of Arc hadn’t raised the siege of Orléans without learning to take a few hard knocks. She decked Greta with an elbow smash across the bridge of the nose. Fabio threw himself on Saint Joan from behind and they both tumbled to the floor. Suddenly the hall was filled with saints. These were not the usual do-gooder sorts but some of the rougher warrior saints who had slashed and speared their way to canonisation back in the days when what the Church needed most was ‘a few good men.’ This lot, apparently, looks forward to the occasional dust-up in The Waiting Room when the beatified get out of hand.

I found myself in the thick of it, paired off against some crusader. Screaming something incoherent about Cathar heretics, he swung a wild punch my way that I only barely managed to duck. Fortunately, Ekkehard, who had once fought the Bohemian Hussites for reason he could no longer quite recall, floored him with a left hook to the head. “Bloody hell!” I gasped, thanking him. I learned later that what Greta had said to Joan of Arc to instigate this fracas was “As-tu un feu?” or roughly the French for “Got a light?” There are those who can laugh at death, but few who can joke about their own afterwards.

In the midst of the melee, an arm reached in and yanked me out. It was Timaision. He was shouting, but I couldn’t hear him amongst all the battle cries. “The phone, Marsha,” I eventually made out. “The phone’s for you!”

I went numb. My first prayer! I couldn’t even move. Timaision grabbed me by the arm and hustled me along the corridor. Two saints shouting “Jerusalem!” rushed past us and plunged into the fray. Finally, I reached the courtesy phone and took it with trembling hand. “Yes, hello” I said, knowing the person on the other end would want, even expect, a miracle from me. “This is Marsha…Mary speaking.”

I listened for only a moment. “Merciful heavens!” I exclaimed, covering the mouthpiece and gawking at Timaision. “It’s the Prime Minister!”