Aut Virum Aut Murum Oportet Mulierem Habere
“Late sixteenth, early seventeenth century.”
“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.
“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”
“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.”
Ignored, yet again.
“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.
“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”
“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.
“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”
“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.
“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.
“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”
“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”
Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.
“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”
“Money,” said Roman.
“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”
“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.
“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”
My head was starting to spin.
All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?
“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.
“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”
“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”
“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”
“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”
“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.
“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”
“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”
“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”
“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”
Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.
As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.
I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.
As far back as anyone can remember, there was the three of us.
Of course, there were others — friends, relatives, enemies, confederates, liars and parasites. But through it all, we remained untouched, unsullied and unconcerned.
My main job was to not favour one over the other — a clear course to disaster.
They both wanted me, and the feeling was mutual, but to fall in love with one more than the other would pull our world apart.
I’d loved them both — not at the same time, we were too young to be that creative or that unselfish. Our carnal adventures were played out over the raging fire of adolescence. We could not; would not see any further than our triumvirate.
I’m younger in years but older and wiser. I put a gentle stop to our naked activities, and it has been that way ever since — not an easy feat.
We are closer than family, fiercely loyal and dangerous to cross, as certain people have found out.
There are ‘sticks and stones’ to deal with from time to time, but we’ve heard all the jealous jibes, and they roll off us before they even make contact.
The concept of ‘friends forever’ seems to be a belief of the young. Life pulls friendships apart, but our goal is to be the exception.
Small cracks are beginning to show as our careers begin to accelerate and war looms, but for now, we are here together, and the sun is shining, and the breeze is cool.
If yesterday is a foreign land then tomorrow is a promise never fulfilled — give me today every time.
I know what you’re thinking, and you are partly right — I was writing ‘I Love’ on the train carriage window, making him think I was going to finish with ‘you’.
Instead, I wrote ‘chocolate’.
I wasn’t being mean, he liked my sense of humour.
In retrospect, I probably should have written the letters in ‘mirror image’ so he could see more clearly what I was writing, but I knew he was a smart fellow and would work it out. Besides, writing ‘mirror image’ is harder than you might think.
My girlfriend took the photo, and I think I look good. I was certainly feeling good on that blustery day. I should have been sad, I suppose, but in my youthful foolish way, I thought I was enveloped by the beginning of a wonderful adventure. I thought he would follow me all the way to the other side of this vast country.
He looks so handsome with his coat collar turned up — wistful, wondering why I don’t look as sad as he was feeling.
He didn’t follow me, but we did exchange letters for a while.
He found someone else, and it broke my inexperienced heart.
My heart healed, and I found happiness, of a sort, but I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got on that train, had written something different on that window.
My girlfriend and I are still good friends. She had an extra copy of this photo made for me, and we get it out from time to time and reminisce.
I’ve never been tempted to write on windows since that day.
I’m not superstitious, but you just never know.
It usually happens when someone distracts you.
You’re used to a certain routine; someone asks a question, and you put the keys in the fruit bowl instead of their usual spot.
You don’t notice the mistake until the next day when you need to drive to an important meeting.
The problem is easily fixed by using the spare keys; the lost keys are soon to be found.
Losing yourself is quite a different matter, as Georgina found out.
I’ll fast forward to the end and tell you that her friend Harriet was the one who found her, so now that you know it will be a happy ending, you can relax.
Georgina and Harriet had been friends since that first day at Kindergarten.
They crashed into each other in the playground, smiled, and a lifelong friendship was born.
They shared the intimate and the mundane and found them of equal interest. They had each other’s backs and their friends called them George and Harry.
Georgina’s parents had money and were ambitions for her. Harriet’s parents lived quietly and just wanted Harriet to be happy.
The friendship storm clouds gathered when Georgina received a scholarship to study at Oxford. If she chose to go, it would separate the friends for the first time in their young lives.
It was a tough decision for Georgina but in the end, she followed her parent’s wishes and took the long flight to the other side of the world.
Of course, there were young men and parties, but Georgina also applied herself and received appropriate results. She was a voracious reader, and this is what started her ordeal.
She shared a room with a girl from one of those tiny islands in Scotland, and both girls struggled with their respective accents, but as usually happens with young people, they laughed a lot and muddled through.
Their room was on the third floor and looked out across the square to the library.
Georgina came from a country that counted it’s recent history in a mere hundred years.
The room that Georgina slept in was part of a building that was constructed more than a hundred years before her country became a country.
She liked to sit in the window on the wide timber sill and devour a book.
From where she was sitting she saw the whole thing, or to be more accurate, she saw the aftermath.
She told the authorities what she had seen and from then on things went downhill very fast indeed.
She found herself in the middle of a controversy that would consume the college and almost everyone in it, and peace would not return to anyone’s life for many months.
Being a foreign student, suspicion fell on her. Her motives were questioned, and her character came under scrutiny. She had simply told the truth and said what she saw and now her life was in turmoil. She was not yet lost, but she was losing. Far from home and far from the strength of her friends and her family she struggled to understand what was happening.
When the situation seemed to be at its darkest, there came a knock on her door.
She opened the door, and there stood Harriet.
They smiled at each other as they had done all those years ago.
Harriet gathered her up and led her out of that room and within a couple of hours the two girls were airborne on the first leg of a long flight back to their homeland.
They had barely spoken.
They would not be separated again by distance or circumstance.
After a short holiday by the sea, Georgina resumed her studies.
Harriet started work at a small shop located very near to the university, and the two girls shared a house with a couple of noisy young men.
Careers and boys and husbands and babies and homes and families followed, but Georgina never again became lost.
She didn’t exactly find herself; Harriet did it for her, but that was the next best thing.
As we all know there are two things in life that sustain a writer……. constant praise and adulation……..and of course, coffee. I know, that’s three…… I’m a writer, not a mathematician…….. my coffee bill is enormous…… help!!
It’s the middle of Winter and there’s a gun in my handbag.
Actually there is a lot of stuff in there, but mostly it’s the usual things that a woman carries, until you get to the envelope stuffed with money and the small calibre hand gun.
The envelope is a pretty shade of light blue and it came from a stationary set that I bought in a little shop in an arcade in Toorak.
I’d been visiting a friend who had made herself invisible in the previous few months.
It wasn’t a big deal, I was just trying to do better in the ‘friends’ department.
I’m a bit slack when it comes to friends so I was trying to make an effort.
After several tries she eventually decided to meet me for lunch.
She was very bad company; obviously depressed and just barely able to put on a glad-face. It was painful, but we got through it and we bought each other a writing set. I knew she liked to write letters so I thought it would be a fun way for us to keep in touch.
I never received a letter from her and a few weeks after our lunch she arranged for her son to come to her apartment. When he arrived he found a note, written on the writing paper I had bought for her, a copy of her life insurance policy and her body, all neatly laid out.
She’d had enough.
Her affairs were in order and she simply, left us; almost as quietly as she had lived.
Her son was evasive about the contents of the note. “Just a goodbye note. Saying how much she loved us, that sort of thing.”
But, there was more to it than that, and while I was still grieving the loss of my friend I received a visit from a certain acquaintance who had come into possession of some information and if i wanted to make sure that the information remained a secret I was to bring along a certain sum of money to a certain park at a certain time on a certain afternoon.
I’m on my way now.
It’s cold, but I have my gloves to keep my hands warm with the added benefit of not leaving fingerprints and protecting my hands from gunshot residue.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t actually decided to kill the blackmailing bastard. I may give him the money instead.
I haven’t decided.
I may flip a coin.
I may kill him if it rains, spare him if it’s fine.
I wonder if he knows that his life hangs on the outcome of a weather report?
He deserves to die for what he did to my friend but that’s not how the world works; people rarely get what they deserve.
My friend made her choice and she cannot be hurt anymore.
I have to look out for me.
Putting it simply, I’ll kill him if I think I can get away with it. If the circumstances are such that I can walk away undetected, then I shoot him and I won’t lose any sleep.
With a bit of luck the park will be emptied by the inclement weather and no one will take much notice of a single gunshot. “I heard it but I thought it was a car backfiring, so I did think much about it, officer”.
The police will go through his papers and see that he was blackmailing a whole host of people, and not just women. They’ll spend months checking all the names and checking to see where everyone was on the day.
“If I had known I needed an alibi officer I would have made sure I had one, but I was just out shopping and I doubt that anyone would remember me. No I don’t own a gun. No I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”
The first bit is true and I’ll look very convincing when I say it.
The gun belonged to a lover from many years ago. He gave it to me ‘for protection’.
It was mostly him I needed protection from, and some of his hoodlum friends, but once he was gone the threat went away and it cured me of ‘bad boys’ for life.
A fully loaded .32 automatic seemed like something that might come in handy one day. I kept it cleaned and well oiled. No use having a gun if you don’t look after it.
There is always a chance the gun will misfire, the ammunition is old, but it will give him the fright of his life even if it does.
I hope I don’t have to burn this coat.
I really like this coat.
Only one more stop and this tram will be outside the park.
The money or the gun?
As I step off the tram it starts to rain.
Painting by Kenton Nelson
I dropped it.
I didn’t mean too, it just slid off my finger.
Now, I can’t find the bloody thing.
It has to be along here somewhere.
George is sick of looking, but Harry is still with me.
We’ve been at it for half an hour.
I can’t go home without it.
It belonged to my husband’s grandmother; she left it to his mother, and she gave it to him to give to me.
It’s a beautiful ring but a bit old-fashioned, which is fair enough, it was crafted a long time ago.
I don’t think his mum thinks I am good enough for him.
I know that she thinks it is strange that my two best friends are men.
“Women cannot be friends with men. Men only want one thing, and it isn’t friendship.”
George, Harry and I have been friends since we were kids, and they had both tried it on, back when we were teenagers.
They fumbled around, and I let them, but it didn’t feel quite right for any of us.
“You’re dead sexy Veronica, but seriously, it’s like kissing my sister.”
Even now, I like that they ‘want me’, but don’t follow-through.
It adds a bit of spice.
I’ve got female friends, but men are easier to be friends with.
They say what they think, and they don’t play games.
They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they are incredibly loyal.
And, they can carry heavy stuff, which comes in very handy, especially on shopping expeditions around Christmas time.
My husband understands.
He knows I’m a one man woman and I think he likes it that men find me attractive. I guess that makes me a kind of prize.
He bought me the red dress I’m wearing. He likes me in red.
It’s not my favourite colour, but it does look good on me.
We’ve been staying at a hotel close to the beach.
I wanted the boys to come down for a couple of days, and David said he didn’t mind. He’s off doing something important in the City today. He received a mysterious phone call last night and woke me up early this morning to tell me he was catching the 5 am Milk Train back to town, but that he would be back by 11 pm.
All very mysterious.
But, I shouldn’t be surprised, David has always been a bit like that.
When I ask him why we can afford our little cottage and be able to come down to the sea whenever we want he just tells me that it’s man’s business and it’s my job to look pretty. I usually take a swing at him when he says it, and I know he’s only kidding about the ‘looking pretty’ stuff, but even so, the money thing worries me a bit.
I’ve broached the subject with George and Harry on a few occasions, but they just roll their eyes and tell me that I don’t want to know, which just makes it worse.
If it comes down to it, I don’t know what George and Harry do for a living either.
When we were at university I read English, George read Economics and Harry did Chemistry. When I bring it up, Harry says he makes stuff, and George says he invests the profits. That’s all very well, but where does the money come from?
“The wonders of Chemistry.”
That’s all I get, then I get sick of asking, and we go back to looking for my lost ring.
It has to be along here somewhere.
Painting by Jack Vettriano.
If you enjoy my stories, then why not buy me a coffee?
I don’t remember the first time I met him and, as often happens with people you lose touch with, I don’t remember the last time I saw him either.
He had a creative eye and worked in the business that his father had founded.
His dad was a builder but somehow ended up with a business which made decorative patterns on glass via sandblasting.
His business gelled with the business I was in at the time and we worked together.
Before he took over his dads business he worked as a shopfitter and I worked for him for a few weeks during my holidays when I was still a classroom teacher.
I loved it and I enjoyed his company.
Sometimes creative people have a loose relationship with sanity, and this is how it was with him.
I remember sitting in a car with him while he told me fantastical stories in a language only vaguely associated to English.
In my naivety I thought that I could keep him calm and when he got better he would remember that I had been there for him.
He didn’t, of course.
I found out recently that he had died a few years ago and I still don’t know how.
His brother and partner in the business died just recently and the business that their father had started is now shuttered and closed for business
I feel sad about all of it; the losing touch, the untimely unexplained deaths and the ending of a dream.
Of all the conversations and all the adventures we had the thing that keeps coming into my mind is a story that he told me about his dad.
Apparently, his dad built their family home with his own hands and every hinge in the house had only one screw in it.
The promise to return and screw the rest of them in was never kept.
It’s funny; the things you remember.