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The Company Of Angels

Graham Roos Took his Mother on a Trip to Rome with 'a Spiritual Twist'. They did not enjoy it...


The recent little trip I made to Rome with Mother was not the success we had hoped for. She was recovering from an accident some weeks previous when a fat man fell on her and left a gaping hole in her leg. So we were looking forward to the quiet, restful holiday that Voyages Jules Vernes had advertised as an ideal ‘unwind’, with a spiritual twist...


To the North of St Peter’s, in the high forgotten gloom of the Hills above the Vatican lies the Convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition. It is in the middle of nowhere – an anti-oasis in the desert of the damned. The twisting snake of the Aurelian Way winds around it, lit by sodium lamps whose dull orange glow casts opiated light on the antique retaining walls that form a canyon around the road. Images of long gone funeral processions and sacrificial victims flicker briefly in the mind. To the left and right is a motorway, punctuated by drab concrete apartments lit by a luminous green glow and the ruins of industry that look like huge dead insects on their backs. Even the air is a miasma of bleak loneliness.


It is night when we arrive to be greeted by an extra from Breughel. She doesn’t smile but her eyes are needles that pierce us as she mutters and flicks through the bookings. The Apparition herself arrives in the guise of a grey, transparent nun floating behind us in greeting. We are given the keys to our cells and never has a word been so poorly misunderstood. When we think of cells we think of modern prison and all the many luxuries afforded such as television and central heating, life and the camaraderie of sinners… This is all wrong. These cells are cold high towers of the dead. A child’s single bed sits on a cold tiled floor – a wardrobe made from sawdust and covered in photocopied plastic wood stands forlornly to the side. There is one sheet upon the bed. Nothing more. The shutters are locked and the only light the soul-probing glare of a naked electric bulb hanging from the ceiling. There is nowhere to hide.


Later that night we are invited to dinner at the Casa Bonus Pastor, where we’re assured we will receive a special welcome. We walk down the long drive and into the mysterious dark melancholy of the Aurelian Way. We are lost – none of the directions we are given seem to lead anywhere. Eventually we find it is across the road. An elderly man is almost killed as tired and in need of food, he braves the traffic like a desperate tortoise in search of a distant tomato.


The little gate concealed in the wall leads us down a long and windswept drive, as the leaves fall from the trees around us. And there is the Casa Bonus. Inside is a massive refectory, with tables running up and down like at Hogwarts but without the charm. Around us the crippled and elderly of this forgotten island of humanity eat their €15 three course, salty meal with what appears to be pleasure as the disturbed and possessed flail appreciatively in their wheelchairs, their squeaks and gibbers somewhat constrained by the straps that secure them to their seats. Or perhaps they too are trying to make a run for it.  No one will ever know.


Back in our individual cells all we can hear is the moan of the circling wind. I lie under the sheet peering around the gloom of my room as menacing trees blow in the gale outside, casting hideous shadows through the shutters in the laudanum light.


I look up and a severe Madonna gazes down on me as Jesus writhes in agony on a wooden cross. I search her impassive face for a glimmer of holiness and sanity. She says to me: "You are a bad boy. I know you are a bad boy and you know that I know you are a bad boy and now you must be punished." A terrible rumble shakes the floor. It is the night train into Rome whose line runs under the convent. It is busy all night.


I fall out of bed twice with a terrible ache in my neck. Now I am awake, as the fear of falling out again keeps me tense. The wind is strong now and the bare limbs of the trees slash and stab at the windows. I go to check on my mother to find her shivering on her tiny bed under a thin blanket in the stony coldness of her cell as branches scratch and claw at her windows. She has what I call her ‘little face’ on. She turns to me and says: “I think we’ve made a terrible mistake.”


Next morning bruised and confused, our fellow inmates stagger into the morning light for our penance breakfast. We are greeted by meagre slices of mortadella and plastic cheese and a single, two slice toaster that works only sporadically for 30 hungry people. This is the entire ration for everyone, so anyone coming later than 8am is left with an assortment of inedible breads that draw blood from the palate and remove loose teeth.


Not a nun in sight the entire time we are here, just suspicious looking old gargoyles clattering their teeth at us in an alarming fashion. I suggest that the nuns are living elsewhere in luxury, having a fag and a gin and putting their feet up.


Outside in the morning sun is St Peter’s. It looks deceptively near, as if one could reach out one’s hand and touch it, but in fact the only way to it is a steep and perilous trek down the sort of treacherous and pot-holed roads that would give even a mountain goat pause for thought, with no footpath and the constant danger of Roman traffic.


The Vatican has become a hellish tourist trap. We are caught in one of the deeper circles of Dante’s inferno as we’re hustled and bustled around the sights, as if a million tortured souls cried out, if not for salvation, then at least a decent selfie to send home to Tokyo. We get a taxi back. The taxi driver has no idea where the convent is but when I tell him it is ‘the one North of the Aurelian Way’ he shudders and puts his prices up. Danger money, I suspect.


On our return, a flock of parrots that has somehow insinuated itself into the gardens screeches and swoops ominously at us as we run for the cover of the convent, tired and hungry to do our nightly purgatory on the penance bed which has been so generously donated by the inquisition. Tippy Hedren got off lightly, I’m telling you.


By the time the limo for the airport comes for us and another couple, we are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. We all sit in silence as if escaping from the shared horror of Castle Dracula. After some time, the other woman says, “Well that isn’t quite what we were expecting from the brochure.”


For more information about Voyages Jules Verne's In the Company of Angels click here

Image Credit: Impolite Composite of images from Voyages Jules Vernes website

Graham Roos

About the Writer

Graham Roos is a producer, writer and performer. His work has appeared in print, on stage, television and radio. Since 2011 he has been appointed the first Creative Artist in Residence at Buckingham University. His work has been performed by Derek Jacobi, Fenella Fielding and Janet Suzman and his publications include Rave (1997) and Apocalypse Calypso (2012).


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