The editor looked up from his seat at me, frowning.
“Who are you again?”
He was a busy man, he kept telling us all, and didn’t have time to remember everyone on staff, particularly the reporters whom, to him, seem to come and go as they please.
“Jenkins, sir. New last week.”
“And you’re here because?”
“You said to come and see you about an assignment, sir.”
“Yes, sir. An assignment, sir.”
He’d come past my desk and stopped, asking that same question, “Who are you again?” Before pretending to recognize the name and tell me to come to his office in an hour for an assignment.
“Jenkins, you say. Not related to Elmer Jenkins by any chance.”
“He was my father, sit.”
“Damned fine reporter. Assignment you say.” He shuffled through the pile of folders on his desk, then plucked one seeming at random, and handed it to me.
“Odd goings-on at St Peter’s cathedral. Go and see what it’s all about, will you?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Perhaps the better story here was how come the church seemed to get the best real estate in every city, and the bigger the church, the better the spot.
St Peters was where I would have expected the city center to be, on a few acres of perfectly manicured gardens surrounding an exquisite cathedral built in the mid-1500s.
I was not a Catholic, so I had not ventured inside, not realizing that it had always been open during the day, church services or not.
There was also a parish office, a school of sorts, and a priory for visiting priests, as well as those who worked around the cathedral, so it was not unusual to see one or more priests wandering about.
But the most interesting thing about this cathedral was the fact it had an exact replica if the statue of St Mary Magdalene by the Italian sculptor Donatello, considered to be an earlier attempt before creating the real one now housed in the Museo dell ‘opera del Duomo in Florence.
It was not an advertised tourist attraction, but it could be seen by special appointment only with very restrictive visiting hours because of its rarity and delicate condition.
But the report I’d been given was that a cleaner, working in the room where it was housed had seen something very odd involving the statue. It had what she had described as tears coming from the statue’s eyes.
Of course, the editorial staff had rung the church to ascertain whether the reports they have received were true, and were immediately and emphatically denied, thus putting it into the category of “thou protest too much”, indicating, meaning there had to be something going on.
A second report, which was interesting in itself, had said there was an increased flurry of activity in the church, with several notable arrivals, particularly of the bishop, and a Cardinal from the Vatican, who was by coincidence in the country.
To the inquisitive reporter, that was embers in the grate about to create a much bigger fire.
“You heard?” Jaimie was another of the ‘going to be famous one-day’ group, I was also a member of.
I arrived breathlessly at the entrance to the cathedral grounds, to find several other reporters already there, conversing.
They were my former classmates at university, working as junior reporters for various media outlets.
“The editor tossed me a sparse file with very little to go on.”
“They’re not taking it seriously, are they?” Joey, never the one to take his profession seriously, was here just to meet and greet.
The three of us were juniors. There was not any of the ‘serious’ reporting staff there, perhaps waiting to see what we came up with.
“No. I mean, a cleaning lady and a statue with tears. My guess, sap leaking out of the wood, though waiting four or five hundred years to do so is a bit farfetched.”
“Then it’s true that it might be a replica of the real thing.” Joey seemed surprised, and it was him, never studying up on background before turning up.
“I’ve seen the real one in Florence,” Jaimie said.
“You’ve been everywhere, done everything, and seen everything. Why am I not surprised?”
Joey never liked her because of her family’s wealth and privilege which granted her access to much more than either Joey or I ever had. Including traveling the world twice.
“Can’t help drawing the parents I got, but that’s beside the point. You should have done some research.”
Joey held up his cell phone. “All the research I need is right here. Where and when I need it?”
“Why are you waiting here?” I asked. I would have expected them to be chasing up the relevant parish office person, if not the bishop himself.
“The doors are closed, which is highly unusual for a church during the day, and the sigh refers everyone to the parish office, who are telling everyone, and reporters, in particular, there will be a statement soon. We have a line of sight to the office and one of the staff will call us. Why wait over there when this area is so much more peaceful “
“So, you’re just going to quit?” I asked.
“What else can we do?” Jaimie was not the adventurous sort.
Neither was I, but this story could be something more, and getting the scoop might improve my standing with the editor.
“Do a little investigating of our own.”
“We might miss the statement.”
“You know what it will say, you could probably write it yourself. Nothing to see here, move along. I’m going to see if there’s a back door.”
“Churches don’t have back doors, Colin.” Joey would not be coming, his preferred modus operandi was to do as little as possible.
“Then I’ll soon find out.” I looked at Jaimie. “Coming?”
She shook her head. She liked to play by the rules, but it is getting a good story, there were no rules.
“Then no doubt I’ll see you later.”
I walked slowly towards the main entrance, but my intention was to do a circuit of the cathedral and see how many entrances there were, and if I could gain entrance by one of them, acting like a routine might so as not to arouse suspicion.
After a few minutes, I realized just how large the cathedral was, having only been inside once; to attend the wedding ceremony for one of my uncles and then it had seemed small when compared to Westminster Abbey.
In the end, I found an unexpected obstruction, a fence between the walkway from the church, most likely the cloisters, to where the clergy lived, and the gardens alongside the cathedral.
There was a gate. I walked across the grass, and by the time I reached it, it swung open, and Jaimie popped her head out.
“Come on, before anyone sees you?”
“How did you get in there?”
“Simple. Did you try the front door?”
“I assumed it would be locked.”
“It wasn’t. Then I guessed you’d been right here, after watching you leave “
She closed the gate. “Quick, before someone comes.”
She walked quickly back to, and into the church through what might literally be the back door, but more likely how the priests came and went.
Once inside, she led the way through the back room where a variety of vestments were hanging, out into the church, across the front of the altar to the other side where there was an archway, and steps leading down to a lower level, presumably where the statue was located.
“And you know this is the way to the statue because…” The moment I asked, I knew the answer. It was a dumb question.
“My parents had a viewing and brought us, kids, along. At the time I thought it was a funny-looking wood statue.” She spoke quietly because the acoustics for sound at this end of the cathedral was amazing.
You could probably hear a pin drop on the other side.
Then, she added, “It’s down in the basement. They build a special room with all the environmental procedures built-in. Been here for a long time.”
I followed her down to the bottom of the stairs, considerably more steps than the usual floor to floor level in a modern building, and the moment we came through the arch, the temperature dropped ten or more degrees, and I shuddered.
I had a strange feeling of unease, that something bad had happened here.
The light was very poor, perhaps because of the environment, but across the room I could see a glass-fronted space with a statue in the middle on a base, with lights shining upwards, giving it a strange hue. To one side there seemed to be someone kneeling, as if in prayer.
Jaimie started walking towards the statue, slowly, as if she had been mesmerized by it.
I followed, but headed towards the kneeling figure, stopping just short.
Jaimie had stopped in front of the statue, staring at it.
The next second the kneeling figure jumped up and grabbed Jaimie and dragged her away, telling me, “get away from here, back to the stairs, and don’t look at the statue under any circumstances.”
By the time we reached the archway, he had sufficiently shaken Jaimie back to life, although she sounded confused, and dazed.
“What just happened?”
“You looked at the statue. How did you get down here, past the guards?”
“There are no guards upstairs,” I said. “Though we did come around the back way.”
“You two get out of here now, and I’ll overlook this transgression. Do not mention anything you’ve just seen or heard, or God will, quite literally, smite you down.”
“Through the statue?” I thought it a bit far-fetched.
“The cleaner prayed for a miracle. She got one. That statue now has some sort of power. Now, you never heard that, and you cannot use it in a story or it will create panic. I can tell you are reporters. Just stick to the official handout.”
“What about the cleaner, she’s already told a lot of people.”
“She’s dead. Her story has already been refuted. Go, now. I’m relying on your common sense.”
Outside back in the sunshine, we stopped before going back to Joey, who was still standing by the gate.
“What just happened?” Jaimie asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean why are we standing here. I don’t remember coming here.”
“We were in the church?”
“No. Who are you, by the way. I haven’t seen you before.”
I looked at the alternating blank, inquisitive face trying to see if she was playing a joke on me.
“Do you know your name?”
“Of course, I do. Mary. Mary Magdalene.”
© Charles Heath 2022