Last week, I commenced my Via Francigena journey by bus from Martigny in Switzerland. This week, the journey resumes on the Italian side with a strange encounter...
As the bus coasts to lower altitudes, snow turns to driving rain. I grow pensive. I will be arriving at night in a strange city in the middle of a rainstorm without a map or the faintest notion of where to stay. Oh yes, and carrying a large backpack. It wouldn’t be a party without the backpack.
I always tell people I love to travel. I’m trying to recall why. And that’s when I hear the voice.
“You snivelling little sod.”
There’s no one on the bus but me and the driver and the lady with the walker. I’m sure of that. Yet the voice comes from behind, so close that its cool breath of contempt tickles my earlobe.
“And you call yourself a pilgrim? Pathetic.”
I twist my neck to look back. In the unlit bus, I can make out only the dim impression of a face, long and whitefish-pale in the darkness. The man it belongs to - did he get on when I was dozing? - leans arms-crossed against the back of my seat in the familiar fashion of an old travelling companion.
“Great lamb of God, how you drone on,” he says in tone that is amused, yet not without a certain truculence. “‘Oooohhhh, I’ll have to walk in the nasty rain. What if it seeps through my Gooooooretex? It may be five or ten minutes before I find a warm hotel with a comfy bed. I’ll get a wee bit chilly.’”
The accent I’m sure is British, yet not quite like any British accent I’ve ever heard. Gnarlier, craggier, aged in some way I can’t put my finger on. There is also about him - I’m sorry to say it - but an odour. A distinctive odour. Not necessarily unpleasant, but antique. I instinctively draw back.
“I was three days crossing these wretched mountains, rain and wind every step of the way. And did I complain? Never a word. I thanked God He did not send hail or snow to try us.”
I’m about to ask who he is when suddenly I know.
“Archbishop Sigeric to you lad,” he replies. “Sigeric the Serious.”
“So they really did call you that?” I extend my hand and this time it’s his turn to draw back. Evidently he is not familiar with the gesture. I withdraw my hand, substituting an awkward seated bow.
“This is an honour, Archbishop. I’m following in your footsteps, you know.”
“Rolling all over them is more like it. If you were following my footsteps you’d be out there plodding.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain. I recognize that…”
“I’m not blaming you! If we’d had these bus contraptions back in the nine-hundreds, this is certainly how I’d have travelled. Ninety days it took me from Canterbury to Rome. Ninety there, ninety back. And I, an archbishop! It’s not like I’ve nothing better to do with my time than gallivant about the continent. I’ve got a flock to lead, all the business of a cathedral to conduct. I’ve got that spineless monarch banging on my door day and night, ‘The Vikings this, the Vikings that, what am I to do about the Vikings?’”
As Sigeric warms to the subject of tenth-century politics, the bus fills up. At each French-named village, and often in the middle of what looks like nowhere, one or two or three are waiting at the stop, young women mostly. “Buona sera,” they call to all and sundry as they board, then shake the water off their coats and take seats up at the front where they can chat together and tease the driver - entirely in Italian, I observe.
Sigeric pays the newcomers no mind. He goes on, speaking of a thousand years past as if it were yesterday. I have the feeling he hasn’t talked to anyone in a very long time. At last his fretful talk of ancient Britain winds down. He returns to the present.
“Come to think of it, I don’t know that I’d even bother with the bus. What I’d like is to take a ride in one of those… what do ye call them? Ryan Air and so forth?”
“Airplane,” he savours the word. “That‘s the ticket. I’d fly to Rome. Three hours from Heathrow to Leonardo da Vinci, gate to gate, God be praised. Saw it on the telly. I could pop out right after matins and be back in Canterbury in time for vespers. Can you tell me, son, who is this Leonardo da Vinci?”
The question takes me aback. “Leonardo?” I stammer. “Well, he was the original Renaissance man, you know? No, you don’t. You don’t know about the Renaissance. All right, after the Middle Ages, which is when you were around, or that’s we call that time now…”
“Middle? What were they between?”
“Between - before and now. I suppose. Anyway, in the Renaissance, in Florence… Did you ever get to Florence?”
His answer is lost in the squeal of brakes as we pull up to a red light. There are electric lights outside the windows now, and buildings and traffic. They catch Sigeric’s attention and he stares out, mesmerized. I study his face in the shifting, rain-tormented light. It is wizened and lean. Tight lips, drawn-in cheeks, hair shorn close to the skull setting off moderately protruding ears and the face’s defining feature: the twin dense white shocks of his eyebrows.
The bus navigates a knot of one-way suburban streets, then comes to a stop. The ladies up front rise en masse, gather their bags.
“Is this the centre?” I ask one.
“Not yet. This is the hospital.”
So that explains it. The other passengers must be the night shift. They bid the driver Ciao and head out into the rainy night. Only the lady with the walker remains on the bus.
“Sit tight, Archbishop,” I say. “We’re almost there.”
“I know,” he says.
Then we’re driving again, wheeling around a massive Roman arc - “The Arc of Augustus,” mutters Sigeric approvingly - skirting the old city walls with the train yards on our left, pulling into the bus station.
“Aosta!” calls the driver.
The signora pulls herself upright and turns to ask me for help with her walker. Too slow, the bus driver is already looking after it. She thanks me abundantly nonetheless in a rainbow of languages: “Tante grazie giovanotto, Merci beaucoup, bonne continuation. Danke, danke schön.”
“You’re welcome,” I reply. “De rien, niente, nada.” I flash a grin back at Sigeric.
But Sigeric is gone.