A BRILLIANT but callow young man called Sebastian, who had just won a place to read theology at Cambridge University, decided to go travelling during his last summer vacation after finishing school. His intention was to do a three-week pilgrimage around all the great churches of Italy, about which he had read so much. Before his departure, his parents, who were slightly worried about their son going off on his own, helped him to book a comfortable, family-run hotel in the centre of Rome, where he was due to start his journey.

On his very first evening in Rome, Sebastian went into the bar of his hotel and ordered a small beer. Coming as he did from a small village in Shropshire, he was totally entranced by the eternal city: the smell of coffee, the musical language, the unfamiliar shapes of the Baroque churches.

Before going to bed that night he took one final walk around the church outside his hotel, where he found a young woman smiling at him. Had they met? Of course not. But she seemed to know him. She spoke to him in a charming foreign accent, telling him how much she loved this church. Sebastian, innocently moved by her smiling, Latin eyes, asked why she liked it, and she asked him to step inside.

There in the darkness, Sebastian was astonished to find the girl putting her lips on his. He wanted to protest. This was a church! But moments later they were silently making love in a dark niche of the church, beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary.

No words could describe the anguishhe felt after they had finished. He picked himself up and rearranged his clothes, only to find that the girl had pressed a parting note into his hand. Sebastian groped his way to the exit, where in the half-light he read the note. "Welcome to AIDS," it said.

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