May 1945. They had made it to St Peter’s Square, the beautiful central plaza in Vatican City, and they were alive. The men wandered around under the gaze of the stone saints, some jubilant, some quiet, some dazed, some confused. Men like Jack were struck dumb by the luxury of the city, streets and ceilings lined with treasures that could fund every one of their home towns for generations.
Jack stared up at St Peter, but he did not feel happy, or sad. He was mad. You smug, arrogant bastard, he thought. Don’t you dare judge me. I am alive, I did what I could to stay alive, and that was no help from you. You look down at us peasants, just like you always have. Those that fought for you, those that died for you, all of us beneath you.
He had lost too many friends. So many mates died by his side, blown to pieces, drowning from a bullet to the lungs, arms carried off by starving dogs, eyes plopping into the mud from a splintered skull, holding their balls in their hands watching their last seconds of life pour out in a red splash from a shot groin.
He had stayed alive though, stayed alive and made it through Africa, through Italy, to the Vatican in time for the Germans to surrender, bringing an end to the horror. Salvation did not come from God’s will, or any priest’s self-serving prayers. It came from brutality and exhaustion. God had let it all play out beneath him, his saints ignorant of the pleas of men, women and children to help them.
He remembered his family home back in Ireland, that was now so long ago and far away. His mum and sisters scraping by, so poor the pig and chickens slept with his siblings in their two room stone cottage. The priest gurning at the door with his special brand of extortion. His mum handing over a weekly pittance they could not afford, yet guilt-stricken for not giving more.
All because Rome’s beauty had to be preserved. Beauty not in the simple virtues the Bible preached, but in excessive hoarded wealth, that Jack could never have imagined until he saw those gilded pulpits with his own eyes. The priests wallowed in extravagant luxury, while millions starved, living like pigs in shit.
He clenched his fists, stared up at the saint and spat his curse.
“Damn you Father! Damn your shameful penny grubbing.”
“Damn you Mother! Damn your fawning servitude.”
“Damn you Rome! Damn your smug hypocrisy.”
“Damn you Ireland! Damn your blithe blind eye. Damn you all!”
He turned his back on all of them. His family, his church, his country. He damned them all, and as the celebrations began, marking one hell finally over, he stalked off alone, into a fresh one of his own choosing.