The Shepherd's Tale

By Ron Waywell

The coach for the eight days’ Italian winter holiday picked up some passengers at Dalton Square, Lancaster, and it was there that the old man joined the group. He was frail and toothless, wearing an ankle-length heavy overcoat and a woollen bobble hat, and he smiled to everyone as he took up one of the vacant seats near the back of the coach. He struck me as being rather shy and seemed content to remain on his own.

I had met Colin, the coach courier, on a previous coach holiday and sat near him throughout this journey. He was good at his job and adept at drawing people out. He made a point of chatting to the passengers at each stop we made. It was from him that I learned more about the old man.

Apparently the old man was a widower from the Caton area whose small sheep farm had been badly hit by foot and mouth disease. Sooner than start again, he had decided to sell up and take the holiday in Italy that he had planned for many years. As the journey progressed, Colin discovered that the old man was named Albert and that he had some mysterious unfinished business to attend to in Florence. What it was, he didn’t know, and Albert was reluctant to explain further.

Our first holiday venue was Rome, where we spent two days, and on the second day there I learned more about Albert. I had spent the first day at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. On the second day I found my way to the Trevi Fountain and was looking forward to tossing in a coin when I saw Albert. He was sitting on the fountain’s parapet, one hand gently swirling the water, looking at the tritons and prancing horses. As he had changed into holiday clothes and put his teeth in, he seemed quite a different fellow. For the first time I noticed his faded watery eyes, which lit up with shy pleasure as he saw me coming up. Untidy white side-whiskers peeped out from under a flat white cap, and his sports jacket was far too large. His shanks were draped in grey cotton trousers, rather wide for today’s fashion, and on his feet he wore a pair of rather grubby bumpers.

In some indefinable way he seemed to have gained in confidence, and he was the first to speak. "Hello Mr. Wilson." He smiled. "Enjoying Rome?"

I sat down beside him. "I’m gradually finding my way around," I said. "We’ve not much time though. Two days. I’d really like to find the Spanish Steps before we leave."

"Oh, they’re not too far from here," he replied. "I’ll show you. But take the weight off your feet. Plenty of time."

I joined him gratefully. "You seem to know your way around," I said. "Have you been here before?"

"Never, but I’ve been planning to come for some time. Ever since my brother Joe died three years ago. Something I found amongst his things. Family stuff, going back years. Got me really interested in the family tree. Did a lot of research. But it was losing my teeth that finally decided me. Pyorrhoea. Lost the lot in one fell swoop about a year ago. Can’t get used to this set…. But enough of me. Spanish Steps, you said? Come on."

I was very tempted to ask questions, but he continued speaking without a pause. "Lovely city, this. What have you seen so far?"

When I told him, he seemed disappointed. "Pity. I’m on my way to the Sistine now. Read a lot about it. Could have explained a few things. However.…"

The old man seemed in the mood to talk and went rambling on. "Now, that stuff of Joe’s. I knew about the family history of course. Flemish Weavers and all that. Came over to England in the fifteenth century from Ghent in Flanders. The folks left some stuff about it to Joe. He was the eldest brother, you see. Never married. Left things in a hell of a state, I can tell you. But enough of that." He pointed. "There you are. Spanish Steps. And I’m off. See you tonight. We’re starting early tomorrow. Looking forward to Florence."

And a few days’ later the mystery of the teeth was solved. We were three days in Florence, and although various trips out had been arranged, we had some free time to explore. On the last day I decided to visit the Uffizi and spent an enjoyable afternoon viewing the pictures in the various galleries.

And as I entered Rosa’s Gallery, I saw Albert again. He was sitting on a bench in front of a large wooden triptych in the form of an altarpiece; he seemed to have fallen asleep. He had taken off his cap and the afternoon sun from a nearby window shone through his wispy hair. He sat, eyes closed, head bowed, with legs wide apart and elbows on knees. And from the fingers of one limp hand, a scrap of paper dangled.

Then suddenly I sensed that the old man was praying, and I felt intrusive. I was about to pass by quietly when he opened his eyes and saw me.

Again giving me that shy, beatific smile and a quiet greeting, he moved along the bench in a mute invitation for me to sit. Seeing the curiosity in my eyes, he brought the paper closer. It was four-folded, slightly yellow with age, and as he unfolded it I saw the drawing – head and shoulders. "It was in a box amongst Joe’s things," Albert murmured. "But I wasn’t sure until a year ago."

Then the old man lifted his other hand and, pointing to the altarpiece, said, "Now I’m certain."

The centre portion of the triptych depicted a Nativity Scene with the Virgin Mary looking down upon the Christ Child and surrounded by people at prayer. The title underneath read "Flemish School. The Portinari Altar. ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’. Hugo van der Goes 1476 – 1478."

I looked more closely at the drawing in the old man’s hand and then went up to the picture. The three shepherds at the top right of the picture looked down in adoration. And the centre shepherd was a toothless old man with a beatific smile. It was Albert… to a "T"….

Copyright 2002, Ron Waywell

About the Author

Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.

Ron Waywell passed away at the age of 86 in 2008.

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