Part 1 of ‘The Vesuvius Suite’
A story by Chris Roughsedge
This is a long short story. A novella, if I may be so bold. I have had this weird little fairy-tale rattling around for a few years, carrying it on my back like that poor fellow Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe Christian might have learnt a thing or two but whether I have learnt any story-telling lessons on the way is another question. I have my suspicions but you be the judge.
I have started three more about other people in the same time and locations all set in Naples, Italy or close by. They are interrelated tales, crossing over haphazardly from time to time but I have tried to concentrate on one character at a time. Lunetta, Dario and the dreadful Beatrice feature in these other stories. This one, the first, is about the boy Racine and his adventures.
You may get to the end of this story and wonder what it was really about and then I would have to confess that I’m not sure either. Is it simply a story about the righting of wrongs, perhaps revenge. It is an adult story about a child but I hope it is much more than that. If you think not, there is provision for your comments at the end. I would like to hear them. Don’t hold back, I’m a big boy, or so I’ve been told. Though, when I look in the mirror I see a rapidly ageing man wanting to see something else entirely.
In late October of nineteen seventy five a prostitute went into labour in Portici, a town just to the south of Naples, Italy, and at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Despite the presence of a midwife, the happy event occurred without the benefit of ceremony or anything approaching decent sanitation, a child was produced along with much grunting, screaming and expletives.
The woman, without so much as the offer of a comforting breast (or a name, this came later), gave him up to a catholic orphanage. If this was an early comment on his character, it is lost to history.
There is little of note in regard to the populous, bay-side town of Portici and it is certainly not exceptional for its infestation of crime gangs into the nooks and crannies of its mean little streets. It is a town in which a visitor is ill-advised to roam unaccompanied. The entire region of Campania has been, for several hundred years, a veritable nest of the ugliest and most poisonous of snakes, the Camorra.
You can stroll from the orphanage gates and take a right turn off the Viale Leone, to stand at some high point on the Via Aldo Moro. You will then have a passable view of the partially destroyed Mount Vesuvius and its more comely sister Mount Somma. If you turned away from Vesuvius towards the sea you would be delighted by the view of the headland of Sorrento, pointing a crooked finger at the tiny island of Capri in the placid waters of the bay.
Consisting of convent and orphanage, Santa Annunzia was known, among other things, for its wheeled infant delivery system. It is to be assumed the minuscule Racine was placed into the revolving basket and turned. It was also to be the baby’s good luck that when the basket appeared within the convent courtyard, Lunetta, a young novitiate, was sweeping the flagstones and heard the infant’s desperate wailing. She took the unhappy child to the infirmary and did her best to comfort him.
The infant wept without respite for an entire year. According to his medical records, he suffered incessant coughing, jaundice, abdominal distension and colic. He spent more time in hospital than at the orphanage, but eventually recovered enough to take his place within the infants’ dormitory.
A snippet from the salacious local newspaper La Caldera, had the temerity to chronicle the orphanage as follows – I dormitory Dickensiane dell’orfanotroforio da inferno. Describing it as the dormitory from hell was a bit much, even for that rag, but there is no evidence to dispute its accuracy in this regard.
Until his first anniversary, the infant was named temporarily by the irritated nuns Uomo Infelice—Unhappy Man, not a name you’d want to be known by for any length of time. Racine, for a while, became Lunetta’s responsibility. She was exceptionally bright girl of fifteen years when Unhappy Man swung into the orphanage. Even then, she had a burgeoning interest in French literature. In this instance, however, it was simply a liking for the sound of the word.
‘You must have a name, little one,’ she said one day as she was changing him. ‘You have no way of answering me now, but I think you might like Racine. What do you think of that, Racine?’ Perhaps because she was turning these words into a song, the tiny boy smiled his approval.
The child grew up in the care of women whose experience of motherly tenderness was limited. Apart from Lunetta and the old one Fortunata, they neither spared the rod nor any emotion one may confuse with compassion. They believed their holy duty was to set the bar high for their charges and none cleared its precarious heights unscathed, least of all Racine. Canes, belts, rulers, books, both soft and hard-bound and, when not in possession of these implements, a vicious swipe of the hand, were the weapons of choice.
It has not been recorded that the heft of the Holy Bible was used for the purpose of physical punishment. As you may know some editions are large and with their often soft covers could be assigned such extra-curricular duties. So far though it is only known this particular tome was used for the execration of the soul, but not of the body. In one report, however, a quite decent first edition of Psalms and Canticles was said to have caused loss of hearing in the ear of one unfortunate snipe.
Outdoor activities were confined to the courtyard and upon reaching school age, a severely corralled walk across a fetid lane to the school next door. When launched upon this brief journey, if a hand-me-down boy raised his eyes above the tenements and washing lines, he could catch a glimpse of the fuming glory of Mount Vesuvius.
Colloquially known as Vesuvio, the ladies in Christ often cited it as a final destination for unruly boys. The boys, however, viewed it as a symbol of freedom, an improvement on the hell they already occupied. To the young Racine the volcano seemed just at the end of the street. His dreams were laden with portents brooding beyond the high walls of the orphanage and the crumbling tenements of the neighbourhood.
When it dressed itself in clouds of smoke issuing from its belly, as it did on most days, despite its history the volcano became the magic filling Racine’s imagined life. In one dream he grew wings and flew to the holy mountain and beyond. He was a boy with a talent for invention and possessed a good brain as yet raw and untutored, awaiting lessons not currently available.
A daily hour-long release to the Golgotha of the courtyard seemed designed to sort men from boys. It was a place of terror for Racine but fitted neatly with the orphanages preoccupation with serving a vengeful God. The one time when the boys were unchaperoned left the meek among them most vulnerable.
Following their meagre lunch the boys would be herded to the bare courtyard and locked in. One or two dark-robed wardens would then retire to the balconies above and view but not intervene in any number of gladiatorial cruelties below. Some of these young toughs had vengeance in mind for one slight or other and there were others engaged in the art of bullying for sport. This was their only physical exercise and some took to it with a terrible glee.
Racine was the object of regular abuse from a much older boy by the name of Roberto. He had a handsome face and a deceptively quiet nature, but he possessed a streak of malodorous spite.
Roberto was also in receipt of a physical disability. His right leg was shorter than the left by approximately forty millimetres, causing him to develop an odd sideways limp. It would not have been much trouble for the nuns to provide a prosthetic for the boy, but it appears they were not about to blot their pristine copybook of neglect. It was said of this boy, that his easy smile and dark, glistening eyes could collapse into a serpentine leer at a moment’s notice. The awkward gait only enhanced his menacing presence.
The worst of Racine’s torments began during one of these courtyard interludes when he was ten years old. He suffered the impact of a stone above his left eye as he cowered in a corner of the courtyard, a dusty nook where he’d hoped a minimum of misfortune would find him. He reeled with the shock of the blow and endeavoured, through the blood now mingling with his tears, to find the source of his pain. Roberto stood not five metres away. A boy slouching to his left handed him another stone.
‘Bastardo,’ Racine screamed.
The use of this particular word was inadvisable in an orphanage. This indiscretion resulted in not the launching of another stone but the cold, black-eyed stare of Roberto and the instant attention of all the boys in the courtyard. A silence fell like a shroud over the courtyard as the stone rolled out of Roberto’s hand. He limped towards Racine.
Roberto came to a stop in front of Racine. He licked his lips, examining his prey as a leopard might a tethered goat. He turned to the spectators and defiantly up to the nuns lurking in the dark shadows of the balcony. He may have been hoping for pollice verso, the ancient signal of the thumb?
He suddenly snatched at Racine by his shabby shirtfront and the waist of his ill-fitting pants and lifted him so they faced each other eye to eye. They looked at each other like two species meeting for the first time, and then he began to swing Racine around in a circle, pivoting in the hard gravel. The crowd of boys, moving back to describe a wide arc in the courtyard, watched the spectacle with intoxicated horror.
Roberto determined an adequate speed for his impromptu merry-go-round, when Racine’s flailing legs became parallel with the ground; then abruptly released him so he flew briefly, before tumbling onto the gravel. To further emphasise his displeasure, he kicked Racine hard in the abdomen with his deformed foot; his victim vanquished, if not put to the sword. In that moment, the faint rustle of a nun’s habit from above, was the only sound.
As the dust settled and Roberto sidled away, Racine expelled a prolonged and pitiful wail of despair, causing the smallest of the boys to draw back in terror.
Bruised and bloody, Racine looked from his prone position to the billowing firmament rising above the orphanage walls and noted the mountain was angry. He raised himself from the dirt, and in silence, swore to avenge himself, praying with the fire of a zealot in his eyes. Through the bitter tears of his humiliation, he invoked Vesuvius, the white ghost of vapour pouring from its cauldron. He prayed there would be a day when he would call out and the mountain would respond with a mighty roar and shoot forth its avenging angel to rent Roberto from limb to limb.
Sister Lunetta greeted Racine as he limped into the infirmary. She examined his bruised and lacerated body, cleaned his wounds and patched them with plasters and gauze. She settled the sore and whimpering child in a cot, tucked a blanket around him, and stroked his forehead.
If anyone knew what it was to be frightened and alone, it was Lunetta; to feel as if all of life seemed a cruel and unforgiving burden. She had grown up within the dim cloisters of the convent, also abandoned by her mother at birth. It was she who had first laid eyes on the baby Racine, swaddled in his thin blanket, squirming like a dying chrysalis at the bottom of the revolving basket.
She tried to do her best for the tiny creature; a boy so small and neglected and of such poor health he was not expected to live. In his first year he had not even been afforded a name and Lunetta’s act of providing him with one, had bound her to him. She reached within the folds of her tunic and withdrew the only thing she owned. Twenty six years before it had been placed beside her in the basket, before she too was turned into the convent. She knew it was not her destiny to be Racine’s protector, but perhaps this one small possession might also help to sustain another.
Racine slipped in and out of consciousness. Before he finally submerged into sleep, his hand brushed an object propped on the pillow beside him. It was a small doll, worn by age and made of linen gauze carefully sown to keep it from unravelling. A firmness within could be detected, a structure to provide some durability. A smile was roughly stitched across its tiny face, with eyes of two faded shell buttons in the middle of the floppy head.
He grasped the doll close and fell into a dreamless sleep. Lunetta could not have known what terrible consequences were to be rendered from this small act of kindness. Nevertheless, the doll became a small compensation on lonely nights as Racine grappled with his terrors and anger. He kept it clasped to his breast at night and hid it beneath his mattress during the day.
He could not conceive of any favourable outcome for the violent events on that fateful day in the courtyard. It seemed to Racine so arbitrary and unfair. A child would not have known what he was capable of achieving. A child of ten barely knows he exists. Without doubt, revenge on Roberto was an unrehearsed desire and at Racine’s tender age he could not conceive that the venom of his hatred would have the capacity to kill the prey and poison the host simultaneously.
Two more years passed and Racine became inured to the privations of orphanage life. He became accustomed to being overlooked by those in search of children they could not have themselves. One look at the small-framed and unappealing Racine was enough for most to move on to other, more agreeable orphanic produce. He watched the nervous hopefuls and the chosen few being prepared for their brand new parents, and their lovely new lives beyond the walls of the orphanage. He determined that any dream of such an outcome for him was unlikely, and he put such thoughts behind him.
Apart from the usual crying, wheezy snoring and furtive onanistic grappling in any orphanage at night, bedtime was a relatively safe haven. A novitiate was perched close to the dormitory door to prevent escape or mischief. These women, already exhausted by administering to the continuous and mostly unmet needs of their charges, fell asleep at their earliest convenience.
The quiet dormitory was a respite for Racine. He’d read enough stories of such things as to dream of at least the possibility of a mother and a father, of laughing siblings and doting aunts, presents at Christmas, indolent bicycle rides along country lanes and swims in the bay during long warm summers.
One evening, when the orphans were marched off to the dormitory Racine was shocked to find his prize missing. He tore the mattress from its iron springs, entangling himself in the sheet like a frantic apparition. A moan of such wounded depth emerged, the little ones started screaming and crying out in terror at the horrible spectre of Racine and his ghostly, flapping bed-sheets. He was barely restrained by the terrified novice, all but a child herself, and it wasn’t until Sister Beatrice arrived, decorum could be had in the dorm.
Having been abruptly ripped from her dark prayers, Beatrice was in no mood to be trifled with and launched herself into the fray. She was a recent transfer to the orphanage, from a convent in Benevento. The reason for her relocation can be found in the mouldering archives of San Annunzio, and if a person had a mind to engage in such research, that person may be alarmed by what they found. In Benevento, they made exceptionally spicy salami and sometimes unsavoury nuns.
Beatrice took control of the situation by pushing the novice out of the way and slapping the distraught Racine so violently across the cheek, he was sent sailing into the lap of the boy in the next bed. Not wishing to be implicated in any way, his neighbour pushed him off and cringed back against his headboard, his blanket rumpled below his fearful eyes.
The muscular Beatrice lifted Racine by his pyjama collar with one beefy hand and threw him back onto his bed as one might throw a dead rodent into the trash bin. She had not uttered a single grunt during these activities but stared down at the miserable boy with such malice as to send a sharp chill down the spine of all who witnessed.
An observer might think such relentless ignominy would outweigh the will to live, but Racine vowed that night, he would find a way to escape this nest of vipers.
The sobbing and furtive whispers dissolved into silence. Across the room, Roberto turned his eyes to the drab ceiling, as he clutched the doll beneath the sheets. What a delight it was to be the creator of mayhem and despair. He believed that much awaited a person who displayed such talent.
Two months later, having come of sufficient age, Roberto was released to fend for himself on the streets of Naples. He made his way to the Spanish Quarter and set about ingratiating himself within the grim embrace of the Camorra.
It could be argued Racine had his subsequent career foreordained by his sojourn at the orphanage. Apart from the kindly few, Sister Lunetta and the gentle old one, Fortunata among them, the grim brides of Jesus punished him for being both evil and virtuous, for being nervous and confident, for being silly and serious, for being miserable and euphoric, for being both smart and stupid. It mattered not what the child did as it was met with either calamity or worse still, indifference. As we all know what it is to be a child, there can be no more thorough a reproof than indifference.
The elopement of a child could cause problems of a fiscal nature for the orphanage. It meant the governments per child subsidy would have to be recalculated unfavourably. Money was scarce, and in Racine’s case, it was concluded the accounts remain unsullied by correction.
Fortunata was now at a stage in her life when she had forgotten much more than she could remember, but Lunetta spared a thought for the boy. From time to time she wondered what might have become of him.
He was now thirteen years old, having grown into a short and wiry haired teenager with poor manners and unfortunate personal hygiene. Racine absconded by leaving the raggedy flock as they crossed the stinking lane with its ever mounting piles of garbage, for their daily lessons at the school next door.
Astonished by the ease with which he made his escape, he made off to the east, towards Vesuvio, the enduring presence of his entire life. He travelled by foot, for he left the orphanage without bus money. Racine only had a vague notion of what money was, never having had any of it himself.
Sauntering along the narrow streets of crumbling tenements and poorly stocked stores, he made the smoking peak of Vesuvio his compass and the people he passed paid him no heed. He was merely another scugnizzo, a street urchin among the many. He saw a girl and a boy, huddled together playing marbles and another jumping barefoot over an oil-slicked puddle.
Racine stopped for a while, leaning as insolently as he could manage against a dirty shop-front, the little boys dark reflection flickered in the dull morning light as he danced around the puddle. Presently a woman’s sing-song voice could be heard from a rancid doorway and the child scampered inside. Ten more seconds and he would have been run down by a car speeding towards the bay. The spray from the puddle made a greasy descent down a shop window. Racine had jumped aside just in time, escaping with only his boots splashed.
The vast road-works of Reggio Calabria interrupted Racine’s pilgrimage to Vesuvius. He couldn’t have known, but this new highway would be the dual-carriageway moving traffic in and out of Naples. He was amazed by the magnificent red and yellow earth moving vehicles, watching one monster with its wheels twice his height, violently pounding into the bedrock with a giant spike. He saw men beneath plastic helmets scurry like furtive beetles between the growling behemoths.
A steady climb found him on the outskirts of Portici, but the mountain seemed as far away as it did looming over the walls of the orphanage. It was the longest journey he had ever taken. He stopped on top of yet one more hill, already puffed from his exertions. As he gazed at the mighty tower over the treetops, a quick signal of smoke rose from its broken funnel and there followed a red flash. He saw it spit fire and sulphur high into the sky over Naples.
With this display of power, the portentous allure of the volcano, though not departed, frightened Racine. Fear had run like the lava from Vesuvio’s maw, as a continuous and poisonous stream through him most of his life. He realised standing before it, on its now steepening slopes, he had been equally repelled and attracted by this dark mountain. Every person who had ever lived in its presence had cause to be concerned for the complicated uneasiness it revealed in their souls.
Racine sat on a rock and wondered what he would do. He refused to entertain the thought of returning to the orphanage. After a miserable hour of worry, he turned back for what he thought to be less alarming, albeit homeless adventures in the decaying alleys of Portici.
At this time in the history, the Camorra’s influence had tainted every lane and street of Naples and suburbs, as it did throughout Campania. There was not a pie these vermin weren’t fingering. Prostitution, drugs, protection rackets, illegal gambling and theft were pursued with a ruthlessness not seen since the fascist terror.
It was not long before Racine managed to encounter several delinquents in the employ of one such gang on Via Caportano. Always on the hunt for new talent, they taught him the art of the cut-purse, the craft of the home-invader and the trade in stolen goods. Quickly schooled in the rough ways of the street, he was pursuing a busy career in petty crime by the age of fifteen. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of a certain Padre Paolo, an expectation of jail-time or an early death might have been the expected outcome.
Racine’s small stature had made him eminently suited to insertion into cavities such as cat-flaps, crawlspaces for the purposes of ingress to properties not his own, to purloin goods to which he had no right. One evening, having discovered no point of ingress found him firmly wedged in a chimney stack off Via Arenaccia. The blood curdling screams from the chimney of the Gallacio family mansion caused, both the departure of his accomplice’s and the arrival of the police.
The owners of the palatial villa were enjoying a holiday on Ischia at the time. It seemed Racine misjudged the size of the chimney cavity in question. A block and tackle was delivered to the roof and employed by the police rescue squad for the purposes of chimney extraction. Near death by this time, the soot encrusted creature had to be first identified as human before certain unsavoury efforts were applied to revive him.
Present was a priest by the name of Paolo, summoned to read the last rights. Once the Padre was aware of his redundancy in one ministration he applied another. Paolo suggested the boy be placed in his care, giving a solemn undertaking that the snipe would take a more virtuous path henceforward. The police were more than happy to forgo the paperwork, not to mention the bathing required before bringing the wretch to justice. They delivered him to the door of Paolo’s rectory in Piazza Santa Drogo a little worse for wear, but among the living.
The following day, news of the incident appeared in the local newspaper Il Inflame misconstrued as Un focolaio di invasioni di scarico adolescenti and roughly translated. for instance, in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia as Teenage Flu Epidemic in Naples Mooted. Needless to say, this caused a flurry of flight cancellations.
Saint Drogo, the Patron of Unattractive People, was born in Epinoy, Flanders in the 11th century. Like Racine, he was an orphan. When he became aware that his mother had died giving birth to him, he assumed an unreasonable responsibility for her demise and began a lifetime of grim penitence.
At his earliest convenience, he discarded his scant belongings and embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome, so he might better represent his guilt. His goal was to receive instruction in the many and varied ways of prolonging his misery; an art with which the Church was diligently familiar. For instance, there was some conjecture at the time as to the efficacy of olive branches as opposed to that of the privet for the purpose of mortification. It was already known for certain, the stems of the wild rose were considered particularly pleasing to God. Flagellants of the Dark Ages had much to consider.
In all, he eventually made ten pilgrimages to the Holy See and eventually took up a position as a shepherd on the outskirts of what was then the Duchy of Naples. His flock grazed near the Duke’s castle known as Castel Capuana and the nearby village. In modern times, Capuana is situated in the heart of the Metropolitan City of Naples.
At some point during this time, Drogo became sick with a particularly alarming disorder of the body. The illness rendered him horribly deformed, his resulting appearance frightening many people of the village. Nevertheless, he was already considered a profoundly holy man and a suitable piece of land was procured in Portici and a church was built in his honour.
In order to spare the parishioners his unlovely mien, a small cell was provided within the church. In this way he was able to continue attending to his spiritual needs incognito. He lived on water and grains softened in water, not to mention the humble Eucharist for 40 years. He was occasionally found stumbling around the Piazza mumbling and wildly gesturing towards Vesuvius. It was thought that he might have been taking on rather too much of the liquid element of the Holy Eucharist.
Drogo was said to magically be in two places at once. One unkind cynic said that, given his looks, who on earth would have wanted to see two of him? All in all, it was a sad tale best forgotten, but Padre Paolo found much to admire in this strange and enigmatic man.
Father Paolo was a tall and impressive man of fifty-one years. He combined a manly vigour with an urbane and cultured demeanour, peculiar to certain Neapolitan men. Steel grey curls fell to his dog collar, seemingly the only sartorial endorsement of his profession. He wore fashionable, blue loose fitting linen shirts and tan Chino’s with a belt buckle describing a serpent consuming itself.
The symbol of the serpent is a potent one, referring to the notion of the cyclical, a detail the reader will eventually find to be apt. His face was partially concealed by a trimmed salt and pepper beard and a pair of old fashioned wire-rimmed glasses that he was perpetually adjusting on his not inconsiderable nose. He had the bluest of eyes remarked on for their candour, seeming to look deep within those he encountered.
‘I am looking for the light, I know it is there. By this I try to determine the meaning of a person’s soul,’ He once said to a parishioner who had become alarmed by his gaze. Some of the brethren thought him quite an odd man.
‘Indeed he has some strange quirks in his personality,’ Mrs Dante said once. ‘Though, he is a very good man.’ She would brook no criticism of the Padre. She and her husband ran Bar Dante that shared a corner with Via Sampruro and the lane to Piazza Drogo.
‘He seems not of this world,’ old Mr. Pulcini replied while Mrs. Dante pulled him a glass of beer. ‘Gazie signora…sometimes I think he is…well, you know,’ with this he tapped his skull before taking a sip of beer.
‘Signore Pulcini, he is our priest!’ she said with an admonishing tone. ‘Still, I admit, when he speaks of the soul, I do not know if it is the same soul the Holy Father speaks of.’ Mrs. Dante said this quietly, glancing over her shoulder as if the Pope might be currently amassing the Swiss Guards in Via Sampruro for an attack on the Piazza.
As with many Italian men, Paolo smoked cigars, the smell of which seemed to overlay, not unpleasantly, the atmosphere of Piazza Drogo. He had a propensity for gesticulation over-reaching what we would normally expect, even from a Neapolitan. He thrust and waved these appendages about, his large hands taking on a trajectory as though they wanted to escape the confines of his land-locked wrists.
The good father’s first duty to Racine was to provide him with a bath, from whence he was not to emerge until his true colour might be observed without the benefit of black soot and rags gracing his callow hide. A hassock, clearly meant for someone with a larger frame, was provided to cover his chafed body.
He joined the father at table for a simple repast of beans with passata, olives, pasta, a heel of bread and a carafe of Chianti. The urchin shot his arms through the sleeves of the hassock to reveal two bruised but hungry hands and proceeded to demolish the food and drink with relish. The father said a small silent prayer of thanks and let the child be while the young maid, Flavia, dished more pasta to his plate. She normally would have caught the bus home on this evening but had waited for Paolo to return. She was greatly surprised to see Racine in tow.
She had seen many of his type, loitering on the streets of Naples. This one was an exemplar for all scugnizzo. Covered in soot, clothes torn, bleeding from so many scratches, his hair sticking up all over his head—all this was a shocking sight. She held her tongue as she watched him coil his arm around his plate as if defending it from invisible greedy hands. Racine, what sort of name was that anyway? Falvia was moved to sympathy for this small injured boy but was also suspicious. She joined them at the table and ate a bowl of pasta eyeing Racine’s poor table manners.
Flavia believed Padre Paolo spoke the word of God, or at least he was capable of something very much approximating god-like utterances, so she thought he must have some good reason to have the smelly little scugnizzo here. Holy Mother of baby Jesus, I can’t look at him anymore. He’d managed to replace passata for the sooty face he’d arrived with, but he remained secretive, surly and rudely uncommunicative throughout the meal.
The cup of wine and the wholesome food caused Racine to become sleepy. For obvious reasons, it is a quite wonderful fact that no one in Italy disparages a parent for providing a little wine to children at dinner. Several times he nodded off to quickly recover with some embarrassment, at one point upending his bowl. He was in a state of shock from his roof-top ordeal. He wondered even now, how he thought such a caper as entering a house through the chimney could have succeeded.
Since his arrival at Drogo he’d remained assiduously silent, at the same time as being blissfully unaware of his slurping and spaghetti sucking. He was used to being looked down upon as this stupida girl was doing. Ahh, fuck ‘em all, he thought, wondering what he could filch before he left in the morning.
He remembered all his screaming and near fainting by the time help had arrived. In retrospect, he was amazed anybody bothered to give a shit and came to save him. He didn’t know what had happened to his companions, but suspected they’d slinked off into the night with little thought for him. It was a case of cane mangia cane—dog eat dog on the streets. Indeed, on one occasion, when food was scarce, he had eaten dog. It was alright—a bit tough.
So immune to the lack of comfort or kindness on the street had he become, that, as he was shown to a cot in the spare room, principle among his thoughts was certainty he would be kicked back out onto Via Caportano at dawn.
What was he even doing here—who were these people, he thought as the man walked with him into this room, helped him into the bed and pulled the blankets up to his chin. The bed was so comfortable and the pillow seemed to all but swallow his sore head. If he hadn’t been so exhausted he would have shirked as the man gently stroked his forehead. Despite himself, he liked the sensation of this man’s cool, dry hand.
For such a big man, this Paolo guy seemed to have a calm and soft-hearted way about him. He had those shining blue eyes, like Lunetta. Lunetta, the only person who’d ever cared about him, he hadn’t thought of her in years. He remembered her hand stroking his forehead just the same as Paolo. The sting of a memory flooded his mind. He had looked into the devil’s eyes that day. Roberto. Before he passed out, Racine heard the man sing some weird song…and Drogo—what the fuck was Drogo…?
If Paolo held any regret, it was that his chosen profession necessitated restraint. He would have liked children of his own. Now, by way of an illegal chimney intrusion, he was made into a father as well as a shepherd. Needless to say he would have preferred a more biblical version of fatherhood but he was thankful for small mercies. He was indeed an odd fellow, often speaking cryptically. If in rarer circles his acute perceptions might be seen as engaging, they left his untutored flock almost entirely bewildered.
The congregation of Saint Drogo wandered astray into rough fields of barley and spiny nettles rather than the expected delights of clover and heather. They needed their spiritual appetites gently persuaded with the familiar myths of virgin births and reincarnation but received a starvation diet of Platonic dialogues, Socratic oaths, not to mention the occasional and perplexing stroll into the odd Elysian Field with Aristotle. He was not averse to invoking Descartes from the pulpit or even more controversially, Nietzsche. The musings of Foucault were favoured on several occasions to the profound confusion of his audience.
How he thought ancient Greek wisdom and the disgracefully modern concepts of existentialism and post-structuralism rather than the teachings of Jesus might bring the flock to God, never emerged. He merely claimed his path was righteous and only mentioned the alleged Son of God and the divine virgin, when pursuing an obscure reference into which He or She could be neatly located, and only in an effort to mitigate the Padre’s bewildering sermons.
Many glazed eyes and drooping heads occupied the pews when Father Paolo proposed the perfectly reasonable nature of context, structure or relativism. All of which would have earned him, in less tolerant times, a terminal sojourn within the Iron Maiden.
For a man who scythed an unusual path to spiritual enlightenment, Paolo was also a variety of person who treated all with generosity and equanimity. Avoiding judgement, he listened with an ear to nuance and spoke with wisdom. At times, his flock may have been shocked and without doubt confused by his words, but they trusted him with their spiritual needs nonetheless. What he offered was not the retelling of outlandish tales from the book of Genesis or Judges but something much more fulfilling.
From his pulpit, Paolo never expressed views he could not prove to be true. The goblet was simply filled with wine. The sacramental wafer was a tasty snack and occasionally accompanied by an olive or perhaps an anchovy if the budget allowed. Paolo’s flock were mostly in dire straits, so any form of nourishment was gratefully received. Holy Communion had deteriorated into a small feast and the father, not one to miss an opportunity, sought to cultivate his poor, beleaguered flock, by way of their undernourished bellies.
Of course, some left his congregation in disgust. Among the grievances, were cited ungodly behaviour, demonic possession, the bearing of false witness and according to one poor soul—an anchovy allergy. Another disgruntled zealot confessed to her alternative priest that Padre Paolo had been responsible for her cancer diagnosis, indicating a particularly disgraceful lecture on relativism as the moment at which the demon cells encircled and consumed her pristine corpuscles—or something to that effect. Naturally we can’t know for sure, it being a confessional. It was later indicated the priest involved was notoriously indiscreet, often failing to uphold holy privacy in favour of some inebriated amusement at dinner.
With the assistance of his long suffering bishop and his own meagre stipend, augmented by a small inheritance, Paolo setup a soup kitchen in the piazza. Three mornings a week the father, Flavia and now Racine offered cups of soup and thick slices of ciabatta, cheese and salami to the neighbourhood’s poor and since this was about as poor a neighbourhood as you could get in Naples, everybody came to the party.
It was to these sacramental repasts, rectory meal preparations and the soup kitchen Racine was assigned once he had recovered from his injuries. At first he engaged with this new occupation with ungracious resentment. The years within the walls of the orphanage and the filthy streets of Portici had shaped him into a surly and suspicious boy.
Flavia educated Racine in the rudiments of simple meal preparation. She had other duties, however, and concluding Racine could boil water safely and cut a slice from a loaf of bread without a visit to the hospital, left him to it. Flavia was repelled by the impolite scugnizzo so recently adopted from the gutter. She noted with repugnance his disinterest in personal hygiene, so avoided his company for any extent of time. When she brought his perceived defects to Racine’s attention, he merely picked at one of his pimples and smirked, a particularly abhorrent expression on this boy’s face.
It should be said in his favour, Racine was in receipt of an elevated imagination and as any thinking person would know, this singular attribute has been exploited in many walks of life, sometimes even, for the benefit of humankind. One only has to look at the many applications of Selleys No-More-Gaps—a humble substance that makes good all inconsistencies, to be drenched in the warm glow of human cleverness. On the other hand, the atom bomb has proven to be an unpleasant outcome of the imaginary skills.
As it happened, Racine did develop an interest in cooking. Paolo and Flavia were astonished to find Racine transforming the already unconventional Holy Communion to an artful feast. As a result, a form of pride interrupted some of his more disagreeable tendencies. Again, to Flavia and the Padre’s surprise, Racine started to pay more attention to both his appearance and behaviour.
One morning, passing the bathroom, Flavia smiled to hear his surprisingly tuneful voice singing along with the sound of running water. Her favourable judgment of this moment was reduced, however, when she paused to discover the song was of the bawdy, street variety. It told a story of a fisherman who brought a lobster home as a gift for his wife and put it in the chamber pot for safe-keeping. During the night the wife answered a call of nature and was rewarded with the lobster attaching itself to her genitals. Flavia, flustered by the salacious ditty was both amused and appalled in equal measure.
Paulo, though not alerted to Racine’s musical talents, interpreted the change in his young protégé in a particularly small ‘c’ catholic light. That is to say, he rationalized it as part of the cosmic influence to which mankind was inevitably tethered. Paolo concluded the rescue of the boy was validation that a comprehensive change in environment and circumstance could lead to a meaningful future.
The circularity of Paolo’s convictions allowed him the leisure of recognising separate roads to the truth. In a world where venality and cruelty appeared to be the dominant forces of nature, Paolo saw his role as one to console the weak and vulnerable and so promoting them to a standard above the common fray. To lie about the essential reality of nature, was an abomination to him. Every day, while clipping on the clerical collar, his only deference to godliness, he pondered a familiar question. He wasn’t looking at his image in the mirror to admire his reflection in God.
Paolo believed that the pale tissue of control lay at the heart of all religious teachings. Privately he tended to refute the fundamental issues promulgated by his chosen vocation. The question was this: with verifiable proof of the existence of God, would there then be the need of faith? The construct of belief relied on its many inexplicable notions and thus, structurally, its own self-denial. Nobody ever accused Paolo of being uncomplicated. Pomposity yes, but lacking intellectual depth, no.
Flavia was a petite and pretty girl of seventeen years at the time of Racine’s entry to the hallowed gates of St. Drogo. She lived with her father in Naples, an often lonely child who, like Racine, silently lamented the absence of motherly love as a deep and unresolved loss. She listened to everything Paolo said; in her own way she respected him, often perplexed, but generally impressed.
One day they were eating lunch together at the kitchen table. They paused like this often in their daily duties, and were in the habit of discussing many things.
‘Flavia, my dear child, I can offer you this. In all of the world there are much of which you currently know little, but if you keep your eyes open and make your mind a vessel for experience, you will become wise,’ Paolo said.
After a while, she replied. ‘Padre, I am sometimes confused by what you say. It is as if they are walking beside me as friends and when I look, they run away to hide like naughty ghosts.’
‘I see.’ He busied himself absently with a cigar, extracting one from a silver container, then producing a pen-knife he cut off the end careful not to cut away too much of the sealing leaf. He tapped the cut end a little on the table and finally lit the other end with a match, revolving it carefully above the flame and sucking on it until a glowing ember appeared. Flavia liked both the rich, earthy smell of the cigar and the slow deliberation in its preparation.
Paulo pushed his spectacles along the bridge of his long nose. ‘I have to say Flavia, you have chosen a pleasingly poetic way of stating your case. I will try to do it justice. Is there anything specific you have in mind, my dear?’
‘Last week you told the congregation the story of Oedipus and how by a set of tragic circumstances, he unwittingly fulfilled a prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother,’ she said.
‘Ah yes…you were listening child, go on.’
‘You said a deed perpetrated in ignorance deserves more compassion than one done wickedly, even though the outcome is the same.’
‘Yes, yes. You see Oedipus’s crime was really one of pride and not intention. He failed to understand a fundamental issue as to what it is to be human. To be a good person one must exercise humility, even in the face of unbounded success, such as that which Oedipus experienced when he became king of Thebes. I think Sophocles was saying this—when we try to avoid the true trajectory of our nature we are destined to fail. By being arrogantly determined to escape the prophecy he had, in fact, caused it to be fulfilled.’
‘So his crime is less because he let his pride place so many obstacles in the way, he lost the means to see the truth?’ She stopped for a moment and looked into Paolo’s bright blue eyes. ‘And…and that’s the reason he put out his own eyes; because he was already blind with them?’ she said.
‘Goodness Flavia, I could not have said it better myself. You see, malice had not entered his thinking. He tried with all his might to avoid the murder of his father and the marrying of his mother. The actual effort to achieve it was the cause of the tragedy.’
Not all of Paolo’s knowledge was immediately accessible, yet it was as though it contained the sum of all wisdom. Flavia saw herself as a person on a journey to understanding. A destination at which she very much hoped to arrive one day.
Father Paolo, on the other hand, was under no allusions as to the intelligence of this extraordinary girl. He knew from her father, an unhealed wound lay at the bottom of her question and hoped this conversation allayed Flavia’s anxieties to some degree.
Flavia was blessed with long and luxurious black hair. If she had a notion to, she could make it swing down the length of her back. She performed some of this swinging in the privacy of her own room but being a demure young woman confined her self-appraisal to that place, and bundled her tresses up with the aid of clips and pins.
Her delicate, pale face presented the world with a somewhat meditative expression. What merely happened to be part of the architecture of her face appeared artful to some, or at least misleading. She found it exceedingly annoying when people told her to smile more or said—it will never happen Flavia—, when she looked distracted or less than happy. It is not normal to be continuously smiling—, she countered, but only in her thoughts. Nevertheless, it has to be said, she was generally known to divert her clever mind toward the melancholy.
Most nights, alone in her room, Flavia could be found reading the books that Paolo passed onto her from his library. He thought Montaigne, the great French thinker, might be of some help to her. One such night she read the following—My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened. She saw that even this great man was acknowledging the power of his mind to invent anxieties. It has to be said that a certain degree of melancholy can act as a protective shell to a girl. It is a fact that a clever person might harbour, by natural means, the propensity for sorrow, and so it was for Flavia. The ridiculously clever Montaigne also wrote—A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.
School did not provide the nourishment she sought; she excelled but the lessons failed to engage her. Through her father, she found employment with his friend, Father Paolo. This was a temporary arrangement until something more splendid made itself known to her. Her father, Janek, knew his daughter well; she possessed a bright mind full to the brim with awkward prerogatives and the plosive resonances of youth. He knew her time would come.
Flavia and her father lived at the rear of his delicatessen. The wife and mother had abandoned them when Flavia was only six years old. The woman, for the purposes of this story, shall remain nameless on the grounds that naming her would afford her a humanity she did not deserve. She was a wild and exceptionally beautiful girl from a nasty little Camorra infested village called Palo in the district of Eboli, southern Campania. She was visiting the capital one weekend with a loud brute, who dumped her outside the bar where she met her future husband. She drank Janek under the table that night and married the smitten fellow two days later, giving birth to little Flavia within six months of their union.
No explanation had been given in regard to the premature birth but Flavia bore none of the usual characteristics of such an entry into the world. She was of a healthy weight, pink of cheek, and conveyed no resemblance to Janek whatsoever. This inconsistency of dates, times and weights made no difference to him. He loved the child unconditionally from the day he set eyes on her.
Her mother cited unmitigated boredom and, unlike the majority of her countrypersons, an overwhelming distaste for fermented sausage as her principal reasons for her leaving. Fortunately for all concerned, she was never heard from nor seen again.
Janek was Polish by descent and nature. As with most self-respecting Poles, he had a fondness for Vodka and pork, and in that order. His calling was in the smoking and purveyance of pork sausage as was his father’s and grandfather’s before him. He found life in the Soviet Bloc too morbid and confining for an aspiring pork butcher and he decamped for soil that did not require the presence of Soviet boots.
His skill with sausage-making soon became known. The Italians, already firmly in favour of sausage, found the Polish variations irresistible. Salowski’s Delicatessen was established in Piazza Nolano, a location known for its fifteenth century entrance gate, one of five that ringed the old city of Naples. The gate at Nolano was flanked by two bastions, the Tower of Faith to the south and the Tower of Hope to the north. Below the twin towers a bustling market thronged daily with Neapolitan’s from all walks of life. The Circumvesuviana—bus and train terminal, were nearby and a few paces to the north, sprawled the Piazza Garibldi-Umberto.
The Delicatessen sat beneath the Tower of Hope and close to the bus depot, where a hungry commuter returning home might purchase a string of the finest Kabanossi in Naples. Janek Salowski soon became much admired for his honest dealings, and amiable nature, and, among many patrons, large and small, drew favour of the clergy. Though not much of a believer himself he knew enough to realise that no more hungry a customer could he have, than one engaged in the saving of immortal souls.
In Janek’s eyes Flavia could do no wrong and he did his best to replace what might have been lacking for a little girl without a mother. This is not to say he wasn’t stern when a knotted brow was required, but he never once laid a hand in anger on his beloved daughter. He was a man with a naturally sunny disposition and made up elaborate games such as toothless vegetables with which he would amuse his daughter.
Her nervy and melancholy demeanour, little by little, gave way to smiles and occasional merriment. He told her jokes and stories, which may have scandalised Senora Paciolla in the apartment across the courtyard, but were a source of much mirth in the Salowski household.
One day, when Flavia was about twelve years old, Janek told the following story. He loved to wind up their neighbour, the straight-laced Luigi. Luigi had a little boot-makers store nearby. Much to Luigi’s outrage, he told yet another saucy joke; this time, the one about why Jesus wasn’t born in Napoli. However, before he got going, in walks, of all people, a rather flustered young nun. She was clearly overcome with the heat of the day. The presence of the nun failed to caution Janek, he told the joke without missing a beat. Once he had finished and elicited the customary response from Luigi, he was astonished to hear the nun burst into the most raucous of laughter.
So overcome was the sister that he was obliged to provide a chair and a glass of water for her. He vigorously fanned her with a copy of the salacious Il Inflame, from which he had purloined the joke earlier that day.
Question: Why wasn’t Jesus born in Naples? Answer: Because they couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin.
The nun, who told him her name was Lunetta, had the most sparkling of blue eyes and a cowlick of bright red hair escaping her veil. She explained to Janek and the utterly outraged Luigi that she had never heard a joke before. When, with considerable indignation, Luigi had left, Sister lunetta pleaded with Janek to tell another one, he obliged and was met again with unabated hilarity.
By the time Flavia was sixteen she was as schooled in the ways of the world as any girl still in the thrall of adolescence; which is to say her education was as yet incomplete. A number of illicit exploits included the stealing of a cherry red lipstick, a ball point pen and a chocolate frog from a discount shop in the city. She spent one mid-summer evening with her girlfriends on a beach at Sorrento ill-advisedly drinking a large quantity of cheap Amaretto and sharing a potent marijuana cigarette. She made a mess of her new blue-jeans by vomiting on them and had a miserable journey home on the train.
Flavia had also engaged in a fumbling and unsatisfactory fornication with a very stupid but libidinous boy and subsequently became familiar with his penis. The boy presented his member with the hope that it may be admired in close up. He failed to note that Flavia’s interest was one of curiosity rather than idolatry. She examined its veiny bumps, its strangely textured and soft but hard silkiness, from the purple head to the strange, spongy egg-sacs below. The boy suggested an oral inspection but she didn’t much care for this, also refusing entry to the alternative cavities the boy suggested.
That may well have been the sum of her interest in the opposite sex, but for a chance meeting at the local supermarket. It was now six months since Racine had come to Santa Drogo and he had become quite the little cook, very much impressing Flavia and the Padre. The errand at the supermarket was to culminate in a dinner Racine had planned for them at the rectory. Flavia’s father was to come as well.
Whilst selecting a sack of flour from one of the fixtures, she met Marta, a friend from her school days. The two had been close and fell easily into conversation. They talked of this and that, when a young man approached them from another aisle and snaked a proprietorial arm around Marta’s neck. Flavia was immediately taken with the man’s darkly handsome features.
‘Who’s this Marta?’ The man’s smile carried with an element of a smirk.
‘Flavia, an old school friend—sorry we have to go,’ Marta said. She offered Flavia an embarrassed smile and started pulling the man away, impatient to leave, when only moments before she was happy to see her old friend. He stood firm.
‘So Flavia—nice.’ He looked Flavia up and down; appraising her—Molto bello.
Though Flavia was flattered by his remark, she could see Marta seemed apprehensive. ‘We should catch up, come and see me Marta. I am the housekeeper at Chiesa Drogo. You know it?’
‘Si, si,’ she was visibly nervous and finally dislodged the young man, who stumbled a little. A sudden spark of anger caused his expression to briefly sour but he quickly recovered.
‘Ha ha, she has her needs, don’t you little Marta,’ it seemed to Flavia he applied too much pressure to Marta’s neck as she led them away.
The fellow’s insolent gaze left her feeling strange, both sullied and breathless at the same time, and along with a cool change to Marta’s levity of only moments before, Flavia felt uneasy about him. Though she was pleased to see her old friend, Marta was no longer the happy child of her school years. Flavia noted a sallowness to her friend’s skin. She seemed to be afflicted by some rash, as the inside of her arms were blighted by angry red spots and dark bruising. When Marta saw Flavia looking, she covered her arm and raised her eyes with a strained combination of fear and need towards her companion.
As she left the supermarket, Flavia caught sight of them walking towards a sleek, black motorbike hovering, like a hornet, in the hot midday sun. She saw something about the man she’d not noticed in the store. This disturbing, beautiful young man was flawed by a slightly awkward gate and as he swung his right leg over the saddle of the bike, she noticed his boot had been modified to compensate, she assumed, for some malady of the foot.
An unmarked and narrow lane, barely wide enough to admit a car, leads into one of the most grey and penurious squares one might happen upon in the whole of Naples. Upon arriving in Piazza Drogo, the lane merges with its drab structures and simply vanishes. Cramped and dirty, the little piazza was choked with the kind of unremarkable architecture overlooked by all but the most persnickety of art historians. There was no question the buildings were old, some dating back to the early seventeenth century.
The church, already four hundred years old, had suffered from the devastating earthquake and eruption of Vesuvius of 1631. Its walls fell down, its modest spire destroyed and many of the local people died. It was rebuilt but its simple Romanesque elegance was not restored. The austere cell of Drogo remained almost entirely intact and the church was reassembled around it. The church settled within the shadows once more, sliding into obscurity even before its haphazard rebuilding had been completed.
A further four centuries later and The Church of Saint Drogo sat like a reproach in the piazza, suffering the same level of neglect as the other buildings. Paint peeled from its walls and the brickwork had not been repointed for over a century and a half. In the square, broken cobblestones were heaped in piles as if projectiles were required for an imminent clash with the Carabiniere. Weeds poked their sorry heads up only to be disappointed by the lack of sunlight. The one geographical feature that could be glimpsed above the church and tenements was, of course, the smoking menace of Vesuvius.
Father Paolo’s rectory, the colour and texture of boiled cabbage, merged with the left of the bell-tower; on the right stood the entrance to the church. The old oak doors opened directly to the extreme penitent Drogo’s cell, a rough box in the vestibule, its stones darkened by the ages. This structure is where he lived, died and, according to legend, occasionally bi-located. Parishioners passed through the vestibule either side of the cell to be reunited at the baptismal font, the door to prayer. A child is not with Christ until he or she was baptised. It had been recorded that Saint Drogo would cry out as though in pain, even fainting, when an infant was brought to the font.
These same ancient records of the church revealed that Drogo had the most beautiful of eyes, even though the rest of his face was horribly disfigured. They could be seen unblinking, through the brass fretwork of the cell’s only window.
The congregants, when passing the cell touched their hand to the small brass aperture before receiving the Holy Eucharist; the eyes of Drogo a witness to the devotions among the pews and the blessings of the priest at the sanctuary. In those long lost times, many people came to the humble church of Drogo, some travelling from far away.
Even the Duke of Naples ventured from Castle Capuana to peer into the cell. He was famed for his prowess on the battlefield, but few knew him to be a scholar. He wrote about this experience in his journal. I became mesmerised by the startling cerulean blue of Drogo’s eyes, as clear as ice, as soft as snow. The duke beseeched the poor demented man to venture out and join him at his pew, but was met only with silence.
If a modern visitor did happen upon the church and stood below its red brick bell tower with its ugly black cross fixed to the gable they might wonder how they got there and how they would get the hell out.
Flavia’s father Janek, after a few scrapes to his van, had learnt to traverse the lane for his deliveries. Mr. Dante initially feared for the signage of Bar Dante, but eventually was impressed by Janek’s skill, once uncapping a bottle of vodka to celebrate the sausage-makers’ victory over the lane. Slices of the famed Salowski Kabanos were made available with bread, olives and Chianti and the men and women of Piazza Drogo would gather at the bar, even Paolo.
‘Did you see the Padre at Dante’s, he was very jovial and laughed at all of signore Salowski’s jokes. I’m not sure what to think of my priest in a bar, Signora Dante.’ Mrs. Pulcini, who was even older than her husband, had misgivings.
‘Oh don’t bother yourself with such things, Signora Pulcini. You were there, after all, and I saw you laugh when Signore Salowski told that one about the bishop and the nun. You were in such good cheer, you ordered another glass of Chianti.’
‘Our priest has a sense of humour, nothing wrong with that, Marcella,’ Mrs. Albani added. ‘Did you hear him laugh at Signore Salowski’s remark about the Holy Father?’
‘No, what was it?’ Mrs. Pulcini was not scandalised enough to discontinue the conversation; besides, her glass of Chianti had just been poured.
‘Let me see…the Padre was saying he wrote to the Pope asking him to mention the uncollected rubbish in our streets at his weekly sermon to the people in St. Peter’s Square.’
‘It is very disgusting, the Camorra you know, they are responsible,’ Mr. Pulcini suggested.
‘Yes, well it is so, but have you ever known it any other way signore? What I am saying is Signore Salowski said the Pope hasn’t got time for us in Napoli because he’s too busy defrocking cardinals…I think that’s what he said,’ Mrs. Albini replied.
‘Is he?’ Mrs. Pulcini said.
‘Is he what, Marcella?’
‘I don’t know, but everybody thought it amusing for some reason.’
‘Oh, well I don’t know about that, it sounds very unseemly for a Pope to be removing a cardinal’s clothing. Did Signore Salowski say which ones?’
‘It’s alright dear. Another glass of Chianti for me, if you please Signora Dante,’ Mr. Pulcini patted his wife’s hand.
On delivery day, the result of Janek’s good humour could be heard throughout Piazza Drogo.
Imagine you were visitor to Naples and you stumbled into Piazza Drogo. Let’s be specific and say it is a Friday in July 1990, it’s late summer and the sun had not yet receded, though the shadows were lengthening. Momentarily you watch as an indolent wisp of white vapour has been caught by a breeze above the peak of Vesuvius. No guide speaks of this forgotten place, so having strayed here accidentally you may now be resting on the old stone seat outside the rectory, Naples city map open on your lap.
You look around the square somewhat perplexed. How odd, you think, I remember arriving in the square but where is that lane through which I entered? You might think to venture within the church with no knowledge of its significance, but why would you? Still, without thinking you touch your hand to the dulled brass of the cell window.
Then again, you may merely spot a handsome, fashionably dressed and pleasant-looking young man leaning on a motorbike across the square. Should you approach him to ask about this place? Perhaps, but the fact is he would not have even given you the time of day. He might, however, have taken a little time out from his vigil to stick the business end of a switch-blade to your jugular and rob you.
The same young man escorting Flavia’s friend Marta in the Portici supermarket was indeed Roberto, Racine’s sworn enemy. Roberto was as bitter and twisted a person as one would ever chance to meet, and the years had not corrected his odious singularity of nature.
From across the square Roberto peered at the church through the black eyes of his aviator sunglasses. Either side of the entrance to the rectory were two round windows and, in need of a lick of paint and putty, but solid enough. Frowning back at Roberto from one of these portholes was Father Paolo. At the other window partially, concealed by drapery, was Flavia whose short breaths clouded the glass, illustrating her confused emotions.
Not for the first time, Flavia wondered how it was possible to be both bewitched and repelled at the same time. Neither Paolo nor Flavia knew the other was watching the dark presence across the square. Roberto saw both Paolo and sensed Flavia’s presence behind the twitching drapery. Eventually, Roberto strapped on his helmet and left the square with a cacophonous roar. A piece of the ancient, brittle putty cracked off Flavia’s window and fell onto the ancient cobbles.
Most evenings Paolo walked with Flavia to the bus stop on Via Sampruro. As they waited, Paolo spoke to Flavia, an element of grave concern entering his voice.
‘Flavia, you are a fine young woman. Always be true to your heart.’ He paused. ‘It’s a silly thing to say really, the heart is just a muscle to pump your blood around. But look my dear, just trust your feelings, which I can see are complex and true. This will keep you safe.’
‘Sometimes Padre, I am so confused. I have many feelings in me. I love my dear Papa. He has given me so much…so much love. He tried so hard when my mother left.’ She said.
‘Your papa is a good man Flavia. Among the best of men I have known.’
‘Yes, its’ true, I think my mother was not a good person, but she is the only mother I had,’ she said. A silent moment fell between them. ‘Sometimes I have questions I’d ask her and not papa, or even you Padre.’
One warm afternoon the following week found Flavia hugged close to Roberto’s slim torso as the motorbike sped recklessly through the narrow lane leading from the Piazza Drogo. A moment of fear entered her. Not many cars entered the lane but there were some. Signore Dante parked his car in the courtyard beside his little bar. Her father made regular deliveries via the lane.
She’d released her long hair from its pins and combs and now it flowed behind like black ribbons; her feet planted hard to the foot pegs as they sped out onto Corso Resina and in the direction of the city. The afternoon light dimmed and sputtered, finally leaving the city within the deep shadow of Vesuvius. The long series streets known locally as the Spaccanapoli—Naples splitter, beginning at Metro Toledo in the infamous Spanish Quarter, snaked through intricate web of narrow lanes, pizzeria’s and the ever present piles of stinking garbage.
Like all Neapolitans, Flavia felt the Vesuvio’s sombre presence above her. Confused thoughts streamed past as her long black sail of hair ducked and dived in the slipstream of the speeding motorbike. She felt an intensity she had never before experienced. Paolo’s recent words to her at the bus stop circled between these disturbances of fear and exhilaration.
Racine was ignorant of Flavia’s recent activities. She had, of late, stirred in him certain emotions with which he had been hitherto unfamiliar. Was this what it was to have a sibling, or was it something more? He knew it was perverse to behave in a way she would find repellent, but he found himself both nervous and mischievous in her presence. His real feelings towards Flavia were strange and oblique. His undeveloped character had become overwhelmed by the rigors of orphanage life, and the subsequent brutality of the streets.
He had never thought to be familiar with the work of a kitchen. His knife skills, for instance, came to him as if born to them. From the sharpening and care of that most personal of utensils, grips so perfectly attuned to the human hand, the slicing, dicing and delicate paring, the flaying, the chopping and the satisfying thrusting of sharp blades and glistening points made Racine purr with delight. Pots and pans, bowls and wooden spoons, strainers, whisks, fats and oils and the roar of an ignited gas flame made him shiver like a horse’s flank at the intrusion of a march-fly.
He had been a boy, but since he had come to Santa Drogo, he felt as a man and born to the arts of the kitchen. He had the capacity to elaborate on the most parsimonious of edible fare. He made from the lowly turnip, a tour de force of the root vegetable clan. He coddled an egg like no other. A simple heel of ciabatta could, in Racine’s hands, become a tapenade topped miracle. He could transform the common mackerel, an oily and unpleasant contraption, fished from the equally oily Bay of Napoli, into delizia del mare.
His culinary inventiveness appeared to set him free. He knew he had found his life’s work by the praise with which his dishes were greeted. Even the generally disobliging Flavia savoured his Osso Bucco with restrained approval. Racine thought he had indeed turned a corner, when his creations met with approval from her. Sister or something more, he only knew that she had slowly become kind to him, despite his scugnizzo ways.
At times, thoughts of his past caught him off guard, as if to warn him not to become complacent, to reel in his burgeoning confidence and this unaccustomed pride in useful work. The great tower of Vesuvius still held sway on restless nights. Among his imaginings were laughing siblings ringing like songs into the soft evening light, and the low, companionable murmurs of parents. He created a world of light out of wisps of smoke caught in those imagined high winds on the mountain. In his dreams, he built beautiful rooms with sea breezes, white drapes across open windows and the goodnight kisses of mothers.
Some nights, awakened by these dreams, he stepped out into the drab square and looked up at Vesuvius’s indistinct shadow falling over Naples. He wondered at its power, about its violent past and how it became enmeshed in his childhood, and how it still pulled him to some as-yet unknown and inexorable need. He dared to think of Padre Paolo as his father, who was, with the exception of Sister Lunetta and now Flavia, as kind to him as not one person had ever been.
On the evening Flavia tarried uncertainly in the web of Roberto’s charms, Racine watched the night clouds rush from the bay. They rode over the storied old buildings and were drawn up towards Vesuvius. In these last days of his childhood, he remembered the little doll that had consoled his lonely nights and whose tattered remains had absorbed so many of his tears.
Father Paolo knew of Racine’s nocturnal escapes to the piazza and it was his custom to let the boy be. Boys, as do men, need moments of silent reverie, a certain aloneness completes a man, is how thought of it. However, on this night, he was inclined to join his troubled ward on the stone seat outside the rectory. Paolo had noticed the boy seemed distracted, even troubled of late. It had been almost a year since he came to Drogo and he calculated that Racine should be approaching his sixteenth birthday. Yet still, to Paolo, this boy seemed an unformed person, with troubles so deep they seemed locked beneath the earth. Here beneath them, in this ancient damaged city, the earths plates crack and grind and the underworld moves, ever desiring to make the world anew. So why not this damaged boy?
Piece by piece the Padre had put together a history of Racine’s past. The boy was reticent, suspicious and afraid. When approached, he would often shiver, even his wiry, unmanageable hair seemed to stir as if with a distrust of his own head. So it was not easy to have him release the fractured episodes of his life on the streets and of the orphanage before. To Paolo, there was no question that Racine had suffered grievous injustices within the confines of San Annunzio. He knew the orphanage had a forbidding reputation, a place to scandalise the devil himself if Paolo had the stupidity to believe in such an entity.
Racine moved to make space on the stone seat For the Padre, but his gaze was still fixed on the dark outline above. Paolo looked with him into the black western face of Vesuvius and he, as always, was awed by its looming presence in the moonlight.
‘You know Racine, all I have learned about Santa Drogo leads me to believe he was hopelessly insane, but he also had moments of remarkable lucidity. Did you know he wrote many thoughts down on parchment, the tattered remains of which now rest in the archives of the chapel.’ He glanced down at the boy. He would soon be a man, Paolo thought. ‘His writings are mostly unintelligible but some are not. Did you know Drogo was an orphan, my boy?’ Racine shivered; the night air had turned cool. He dropped his eyes from Vesuvius to the cobbles at their feet.
‘I’m sorry…you have been wounded so. The life you have had, Racine; this is not something a child should suffer.’
‘He was an orphan…Drogo, how did he…?’ Racine’s muffled voice was overcome with grief; with the same inconsolable loss that had been beside him all of his short life. He did something his defiance and fear in the street had forbidden him to do, he started to cry. Paolo put his arm around him. The boy’s body melted into the warmth of his jacket.
Paolo, deeply affected by this exchange, more than he expected, took a moment before continuing. His voice had reduced to a whisper. ‘Drogo wrote some verse concerning Vesuvius. He called it his ‘benevolent devil’. This poor, disfigured creature suffered great loneliness. In his need of some small solace, he wrote as if to the mountain itself—as if it was listening. Let me see if I remember…I think I have it’
Why have you placed such sorrow on me?
Your love has filled me with mourning,
Yet, you have taken me beneath your deep shadow.
When at night, I fly dreaming to you, I am alone;
You have let me live in sorrow and shame
Yet still to bind me with this strange love,
So that I have known you as you,
Through all of time, known me.
‘Where is my mother?’ Racine said his voice barely discernible.
‘Racine, I’m sorry but she’s not there. That mountain is not a place for mothers. I promise you, you’ll not find her there.’
‘Where will I find her?’
‘I can’t answer that but I will make this promise to you Racine; one day, you and I will make the pilgrimage there together, nor can I say what draws us on,’ Paolo made an odd gesture, his free arm reached out towards the mountain and then swung around the night sky. It was as though, like Racine, Paolo saw Vesuvius as some grand staircase to a higher place. He saw this troublesome behemoth above them all, which he had lived beneath all of his life, as a danger but also as a symbol of liberty. The strange, distorted Drogo saw the mountain as a place of knowledge—So that I have known thee as thou, for all of time known me—he knew that in order to be free we must first be wise.’
‘We’ll go to the mountain—all the way?’ Racine said.
‘All the way. We will provision our knapsacks with the fine lunch you have made for us, and we will set out as the two companions we are. We’ll walk to Vesuvio’s summit and beyond, and we will see what we can see.’ Paolo placed a hand on the boys shoulder. ‘Come on son, let’s find our beds.’
The bike entered the Spaccanapoli, the crowded series of streets dividing the two halves of old Naples. Flavia noted The Vomero, where the wealthy resided in their grand villas on the hill overlooking the city. Some way along to the west the Funicular could be used to traverse the steep climb to Castel Sant’Elmo. Flavia remembered visiting the vast fortress on a school excursion and looking down upon the rest of the city lying between Vesuvius to the south and the Thyrennian Sea to the west.
Roberto came to a stop outside a dilapidated but once princely 17th century palace on Vico Noce in the Chiaia district. As they waited for cars to pass before entering the courtyard, a thin girl loitering near the entrance door to the building, called out—Ciao Robbie. Above the door Flavia saw the words il venus flickering on a dirty neon sign illuminating the girl’s garishly painted face. Roberto secured the bike and they climbed the stairs to the fourth floor.
The first thing Flavia saw when she entered the apartment was a painting on the ceiling depicting naked cherubs above a lake. They appeared to be hovering over a partially clad couple embracing on a barge, a poorly executed fresco of the late Rococo period, impressive to anyone who had never set eyes on such a thing.
The decor was neat but austere, the furniture of good quality, Memphis-style Milanese. Past a very modern looking multi-coloured lounge chair with a lathed wooden ball as one of its feet, she could see an immaculately made bed through a doorway. This man was very neat. A high-gloss black and white sideboard stood to the left of the door. Above this a large but plain, square mirror had been hung on the wall. A long leather coat hung from one of a series of hooks fixed to the wall. A peculiar object attracted Flavia’s attention and she walked across the room to take a closer look.
Roberto watched her looking at the doll as if it were a puzzle to be solved, her head tilted slightly. She was a smart, very pretty, but she had a wild spark about her, no mistake. He’d pinned the little rag doll with a thumbtack to the wall, a talisman from all those years of orphanage life. He had pinched it from some dirty little brat—what was his name—weird, not Italian. It didn’t matter.
Two eyes made of shell seemed to peer expectantly towards the window making Flavia feel strange. It seemed to her the smile awkwardly stitched to its little face was not one of happiness. She turned away to view the rest of the apartment. A simple but elegant cedar table with two matching chairs sat in the middle of the room; to the left of this, was a kitchen with polished black and white floor tiles. Apart from a glass of water sitting on a bench-top it was spotless.
Despite the sparseness of the furnishings, it seemed to Flavia her escort must be very well off to be able to afford such an apartment. It seemed unlikely that such a young man should be so wealthy. There was a large window facing west, and a slight breeze caused the drapes to tremble. Flavia walked to the window and Roberto followed. He pulled the drapes, exposing more of the room to the last of the afternoon light.
They looked down onto the cluttered and busy street.
‘Disgusting isn’t it,’ Roberto said. He’d barely spoken since he picked her up in Piazza Drogo.
‘The Padre, I mean Padre Paolo, the priest of Drogo, he wrote to Rome about it, to the Pope in the Vatican.’ Flavia said proudly.
‘Ha! You think the Holy Father is listening to your priest?’
Flavia breathed in the foul air. Even here from Roberto’s window four stories up, it was vile. She was aware that a syndicate comprised of Camorra crime gangs controlled the garbage collection and had been in dispute with the city’s administration for years. It was unclear to her how such an evil presence had been able to insinuate itself into every facet of her city.
‘He wants to shame the Camorra. The Pope can do this I think.’
‘Don’t know much, do you? You need educating, kid.’
Roberto looked at her with obvious amusement, embarrassing her, but she decided not to be humbled by his condescension. Why am I attracted to this man? Look at his smirk Flavia!
‘One day we’ll be free of them, Roberto. You are cynical, but the Padre says their days are numbered.’
‘Does he really—I must meet this Priest.’ He seemed to become more and more amused by the conversation, until at last, he burst into laughter. He recovered quickly and put his hand on Flavia’s wrist. ‘Ah, sorry, I just…sorry,’ he shook his head as if to shake off his mirth.
Flavia kept looking out the window, her face red and now mortified by her pronouncement of Paolo’s powers.
Once, years before, a fat man came into the store and drew her father aside. He spoke for a while and then her father became infuriated. Falvia had never seen him so angry, his face red and he started swearing at the man. She became afraid and clung to his belt behind the counter, his arm curling around her and pushing her behind him as if to hide her. The man seemed unfazed by Janek’s anger, instead making a remark she didn’t understand and then pointed a finger at her, clinging fast to her father’s back.
From then on the man returned to the delicatessen every week and Janek gave him money from the till, and every time her father swore under his breath when he left. The dirty fingernail at the end of the man’s stubby hand still clouded her thoughts on that day of the week because she knew that while she was at Drogo, he was being humiliated by a Camorra thug.
Everywhere garbage bags piled up in skips or on the sidewalks, some spilling their contents where pedestrians were forced to pick their way through them. Looking down on the filthy street, Flavia felt both affection and sadness for her fellow Neapolitans who, like she and her father, had become immunised to the mess of uncollected rubbish, so long had they been forced to tolerate it.
She cast her gaze to the south, thinking she might see her own home or at least the Tower of Hope. Just then, two children ran up the street, expertly sprinting on the old and broken cobbles. They darted between the cars, the pedestrians and the rubbish bags as if their feet had wings. Sure and fleet like the devious Mercury, one of them plucked a back-pack off an unsuspecting tourist and Flavia heard the expected cry— Polizia! Polizia!
She was familiar with the sight of fleeing Gypsy children of Naples escaping a tourist’s wrath with their spoils. There would have been another child, set as a distraction, who by now had slunk back into the milling crowds as if he or, more likely a very sweet-looking she, had never existed.
Such was Flavia’s city at this point in history. It was a city known in ancient times for its bread and circuses—now the bread was blighted and its arenas, the streets running with vendetta blood and lubricated by the oil of complacency. The collective shame for Napoli’s corrupted soul had long been replaced with acceptance. The inhabitants were willing to take the good with the bad and, in fact embrace it as part of their identity, despite the fact that crime gangs had bled their once beautiful city dry.
Flavia knew instinctively in which direction her home lay, but it seemed as if the entire sprawl of Naples stretched between Roberto’s apartment and her father’s little delicatessen. Disquiet entered her mind. She turned abruptly and her eyes met Roberto’s. His expression seemed to change, or perhaps she had chosen not to see it for what it was. A lopsided smirk played on his lips, marring his beautiful face.
‘Where is Marta?’ she asked.
He noted the difference in her demeanour. Releasing her wrist, he shrugged. ‘Haven’t seen her around lately, probably at home.’ He had become still, a fox uncertain of its quarry.
‘I went to her home and her parents told me she’d run away—months ago. I thought you might be her boyfriend. I didn’t want to cause trouble so I didn’t tell them about you, but now I don’t think you are.’
‘What do you not think I am Flavia?’
She realised that this was the first time he’d addressed her by name and now that she heard him speak it, she didn’t want him to it repeated. Her feelings had become altered from exhilaration to disoriented fluster. She looked around, shivering, as if she had awoken from a day-dream. Once more she felt drawn to the weird little doll pinned to the wall.
‘It’s strange to have that doll pinned up like that,’ she found herself saying with an element of accusation in her voice. The doll carried an unaccountable familiarity, even though she didn’t care for it and was certain she had never laid eyes on it before these past few minutes.
‘Ha, it’s nothing, it’s just…it’s nothing at all Flavia.’
There it was again, he gave her name an inflection that chilled her. The way he looked at her didn’t feel right, his beautiful dark eyes felt as if hands were reaching for her, touching her skin. She glanced down at the floor and saw his left boot. It seemed odd now but she’d forgotten about his deformity. She felt a deep and unaccountable sorrow for him and sought not to judge him, as she had just then felt inclined to do.
‘What are looking at, why are you looking there? You…you can’t…’
Flavia looked up, aware of his anger.
‘I want to go home now.’
His handsome face had changed, his lips had tightened, his cheeks colouring and his fingers had curled into fists. He looked entirely like another person. He seemed to hunch over, folding his arms close to his chest. In his black leathers and with his straight black fringe falling across his eyes, he reminded her of a beetle, vulnerable, ready to scurry to safety.
He pointed to the door and followed her out to the steep stairwell where they descended to the courtyard and his motorbike.
The double-headed beast growled impatiently, delayed by pedestrians hurrying past. The girl from before, still loitered near the front door of il venus, now smoked a cigarette and waved limply as they sped off into the darkening streets. Flavia felt Roberto’s tensed muscles relax beneath his leather jacket as they weaved once more through the narrow lanes branching off the Spaccanapoli.
The bike pulled up outside Salowski Delicatessen and Roberto turned the engine off. The street lights had come on and people milled about in the piazza, some running to catch their train at the metro around the corner. The barrowmen and women were beginning to pack their produce up for the night, while the odd customer sauntered amongst the market produce, hoping for a late bargain.
Cars were parked bumper to bumper along-side the bollards separating Piazza Nolano from Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi. One dusty car abandoned years before, had bricks under the axles. The walkway beyond the bollards was filled to bursting with rubbish, causing pedestrians to spill onto the busy street. Many scooters darted up lanes so narrow not even the narrowest car could pass. Sluggish pigeons pecked between the cobbles.
Flavia shook herself free of the bike saddle and staggered, drunk from the rush of the slipstream as Roberto also disembarked. He moved towards her and touched her cheek, flushed by the fury of the ride through the ancient lanes of Napoli. She flinched at the contact. His anger had seemed to have dissipated during the ride to Porto Nolano. She was careful not to look down at his feet.
‘Can I see you again?’ he said. She took his hand as if to move it away but then noticed his palm had a scar running diagonally across it, the old wound was rough, badly knitted together. He watched her look at his hand as she recoiled further from his touch.
‘How did you get that?’
‘It’s nothing, just – well – it’s nothing,’
If he had told her the meaning of it, she would not understand. She would fail to understand everything that had ever happened to him but still he wanted her.
‘How could it be nothing, it must have hurt a lot. It’s—it’s horrible,’ she said. He noted her concern and a miniscule hope slithered across his mind like a snake on greasy bitumen.
Flavia didn’t know if she wanted to continue seeing this odd and mysterious young man. She was unable to shake her sense of disquiet about him. She allowed a small smile to interrupt her accustomed diffidence and left him standing in the bustling square. She could not know with whom or what she was dealing, but when she felt Roberto’s eyes follow her into the shadows of her father’s store, mingled amongst these nascent sensations a small trickle of fear rolled silently through her mind.
Roberto strolled into the dank entrance of The Venus. He grimaced at the painted crone behind the front desk.
‘Non molto accadendo Roberto,’ she croaked over the music scratching out of a battered tape-deck on the counter.
Yes, business had been slow—that much was true and plain to see. If she hadn’t been some shitty relative of his Capo, he would have stuck the old crone with his blade and dumped her body in the bay long ago. The place needed new blood and he intended to provide it—soon. His methods were slow and methodical. Patience was a virtue in his line of work. He had plans, big plans, not the least of which would be a state of the art speaker system, get some cool tunes happening to bring in the street trade, and some really decent furniture. Not going to waste Milano Memphis masterpieces on the plebs but something better than passable. People demanded a bit of class these days.
The madam reclined back into her chair to snooze.
Roberto turned to see three girls in various stages of undress, lounging around the room. The dulled light picked out the small-framed Marta sprawled half asleep on a worn and dirty settee in one of the dim corners. Her eyes barely registered Roberto as he approached. He knelt down in front of her and absently fondled her naked breasts. Goose flesh rippled the skin of her decimated arms and she withdrew into the plush of the settee. Roberto’s orthotic, elevating his left foot, had to be pushed out twisting his ankle awkwardly; second nature to him, but no one, save the untutored, dared bring attention to it.
‘Viena la mia picocola puttana,’ he sung sweetly—Come on my little slut. He pulled Marta up as though she was a rag doll and pushed her towards a grubby corridor as the first tinny bars of Bohemian Rhapsody croaked from the tape-deck. Roberto’s voice could be heard, mimicking Freddy Mercury. It rang like an accusation through il venus…
Look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I’m easy come, easy go
A little high, a little low
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me…
Unnoticed and into yet one more dark Neapolitan night, a great plume of sulphurous gas unfurled out of the maw of Vesuvius’ caldera. Descending as the night drew on, it began its insidious crawl through the streets, a cunning serpent seeking fresh meat.
Sundays are, of course, a holy day for the admirers of God and his accessories. Father Paolo’s interpretation of the liturgy might have been found wanting, but the local flock came to show their respects on that day as they did every Sunday. It could be argued the reason for the reliability of the congregation at St. Drogo’s could have been the anticipation of a tasty repast rather than the mental mastication required for their shepherd’s deliberations on the likes of Axiological Formalism or if they were lucky, Methodological Reductionism.
At midday, following the racket of the tuneless iron bell in the tower, a community of threadbare souls made their way through the entrance to the church, paid their genuflecting respects to Drogo’s dingy cell and seated themselves among the pews to listen once again to their priest’s odd liturgy. On this particular occasion it happened to be some insights purloined from ‘Rules for the Direction of the Mind’ by that quintessential sceptic, Rene Descartes.
Flavia was not present at the church, it was her day off. She had awoken early to try on her new bikini. She and her father had planned to drive to Sorrento beach for a swim and lunch. During a restless night she had spent some time contemplating her next move in regard to Roberto. Sensibly, she decided that her many uncertainties about him—not to mention the palpable danger he so clearly exuded—were not worth the effort required to pursue the relationship further. Once she had come to this conclusion she forgot him so conclusively it would not be a stretch to imagine him experiencing the rejection in absentia.
As Janek manoeuvred their van from the courtyard into Piazza Nolano he told Flavia, on their return from Sorrento, he would have to make a small diversion to St. Drogo’s, for a delivery of Kielbasa.
Father and daughter spent the day companionably engaging in pursuits entirely secular and indeed, without the benefit of philosophy. Their Outing included the consumption of pizza, delicious pastries and the creamy gelato of the region, not to mention a glass each of Limóncello. They concluded as many had before, a visit to Sorrento without sampling this exquisite syrupy drink, was unthinkable. While Flavia and Janek enjoyed the delights of the dazzling blue bay, a mere twenty kilometres to the north, Father Paolo’s congregation girded their loins for his indeterminate wisdom.
‘Consider this my friends—cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.’
Father Paolo’s considerable vocal delivery proffered the rather over-asserted dictum of his philosopher of the week and resonated high into the vaulted ceiling. As the Neapolitan vernacular had not extended to Latin in Piazza Drogo or indeed any part of Portici, the translation was welcome. Nevertheless, while Paolo may have educated the churches rafters, the same could not necessarily be said of the tender minds of his parishioners. As the beleaguered brethren settled into another incomprehensible sermon, the Padre’s articulate hands, further exercised their own astonishing vocabulary.
‘The great French philosopher Descartes, among other things, said this, and here I paraphrase for your better understanding my children… ‘The acknowledgement of a fundamental truth would inexorably lead to the realisation of all truths. The mind must be open to learning beyond our immediate experience.’ His arms reached wide and high, his wrists flourished with a determination not normally required of them.
‘This is not to say we should confuse our poor minds with that which we cannot conceive in the here and now, my friends.’ He continued, perfectly demonstrating the opposite. ‘It is only when we employ all the aids of understanding, imagination, sense and memory, for the purpose of …’
And thus he continued for some time, extolling Cartesian philosophy with great enthusiasm.
Signore Pulcini, in the third pew from the front, turned his tired old eyes towards his beloved wife seated beside him, and she responded with a small smile. As it often is with couples—after many a companionable year together—words are not entirely necessary. Marcella concurred with her devoted smile only, looking forward to the refreshments at the conclusion of their odd priest’s sermon; in particular, the Chianti which had been an especially good vintage of late. The congregation were to receive Racine’s beautifully prepared brunch, sometimes, but not often, referred to as the Holy Eucharist. They often remarked amongst themselves, on the presence of this child with such remarkable culinary skills and how clever it was of their Padre to rescue him from the gutter the chimney.
Signora Pulcini had a good nose. Paolo, aside from his many other mysterious talents, thought of himself as a connoisseur of wine. He was able to procure a case of the remarkable vino Mrs. Pulcini was anticipating, squeezed from the Sangiovese vines in northern Tuscany of 1981. He said more than once to Mr. Dante of Bar Dante, that there had not been a better vintage. As he, Mr Dante and the wines aged, Paolo had to concede it was a crime that subsequent vintages had suffered from too much oak. As for poor Mr. Dante, despite his profession, he had neither nose or tongue for vintages and now this fellow Day-car had to be added to his bewilderment.
Racine listened with interest as he awaited the signal to play his part in the proceedings. He saw these aids of understanding with a nuanced regard unforeseen by Descartes himself. For Racine, imagination, sense and memory all unhappily coalesced with a deep and unsatisfied bitterness dwelling within him. The definitive truth of which the father spoke, could be the portal to understanding and deliverance, but offered Racine little consolation. Truth deriving from the original fundamental was all well and good but what if this cardinal truth were a seething succubus…what of that?
The disciples seated in their serried rows before their sage, listened politely. Mrs. Albani thought her ears were about to bleed from her herculean effort at understanding. The aforementioned Signore Pulcini was in a state of blissful torpor and his wife was about to follow him into repose when Paolo finished his sermon with a heroic flourish and Racine entered with a trolley laden with the much awaited Holy Communion.
The flock made their way to the altar and with neither pomp nor circumstance joined the Father and Racine distributing the metaphorical loaves and fishes. Paolo walked among them chatting amiably with all and sundry, while Racine plated the bounty of Drogo. His lapse into melancholy was momentarily assuaged by the gentle folk who humbly and gratefully received his tapenades and relishes, his marinated olives, his pickled and balsamic tinctured roasted tomatoes topped with basil, his pickled turnip and his dainty pieces of breaded mackerel.
The congregants cleaned the plates of their contents to such a degree as to put a dishwasher out of work. God’s satisfied customers filed out shaking hands with their priest to stroll back to their homes or Bar Dante in the lane for a hand or two of cards and to contemplate the wisdom of Descartes, not to mention the surprising succulence of pan fried mackerel. Signora Albani crossed the piazza to her second floor flat wondering if she would be delighted by the presence of her grandchildren this afternoon, or if it was to be just another dreary Sunday. Si, primum la madre….primum was the refrain from her son but a year had passed since the children had seen their nonna. As she neared her threshold, she failed to notice a leather clad figure slouching on a motorcycle in the alley.
It was an exceptionally sunny afternoon and Paolo suggested to Racine they have their lunch on the old stone seat attached to the front of the rectory. The boy had already isolated some of the food for them, and they laid out a picnic between them to take in the last rays of afternoon sunshine. As always, from the now empty square in Portici, they had a good view of Vesuvius above the rooftops. The father asked him if he felt better today about his circumstances. Racine was looking across the square and seemed to be collecting his thoughts, but his expression changed to one of disbelief as he watched a figure emerge from the shadows and approach them. Racine recognized Roberto immediately; an almost imperceptible limp verified what he already knew.
He saw his ten-year old self looking into that face with fear and hatred in equal measure when Roberto had picked him up as if he was something of only the most cursory interest, and discarded him violently to the gravel of the orphanage courtyard like trash. This event, which had occurred less than a kilometre away, still festered, five years later, like a cruel gash to his heart.
For his part, Roberto indicated no recollection of Racine. Instead he stood in front of Paolo, his leather-clad legs apart and his hands insolently placed upon his hips.
‘Where is she?’
Paolo raised himself to his feet.
‘Come on Racine, let us go inside.’
‘Priest, I’m talking to you.’ Roberto reached over and grabbed Paolo’s arm. ‘I have something for her.’ As he reached into his jacket pocket, Paolo wrenched Roberto’s arm from his own, braced himself by stepping back and thrust his other hand at Roberto’s chin, snapping his head back. The priest then gripped the younger man’s hand, causing it to splay out and with his foot deftly swiped at the younger mans legs to lay him on the ground. He held Roberto’s hand, palm up, pushing it back towards his wrist causing him to cry out with pain. Paolo slid his right hand from Roberto’s chin down to his throat and held him tight on the cobbles, his right leg pinning both of Roberto’s.
The whole manoeuvre took less than five seconds and Racine stood there completely flabbergasted. Roberto let out a throttled squeal and struggled for a while, before his face started turning white as he attempted to breathe. A few seconds more and the priest released his hold and calmly stood over Roberto who was writhing and coughing. He got to his knees but Paolo pushed Roberto back down. He looked like a struggling black beetle attempting to right itself. Paolo planted his boot on Roberto’s chest and leaned over him, stern eyes warning his adversary against further resistance.
Racine palmed the knife he had provided for the cheese intent on plunging it into Roberto’s heart, if it was the last thing he did. He lunged at the bully and all the years of torment fell like a stone into his enraged bloodstream. As Racine lowered the knife and Roberto raised his hand to protect himself, Paolo deflected Racine’s arm and pushed him away. If Paolo had known of the history of these two youths he may have acted differently. Who will know, but he addressed the boy firmly.
‘This is not the way Racine. Put the knife down.’ Father Paolo then saw the scar on Roberto’s outstretched hand and spoke to him with palpable contempt. ‘Il Camorristi! Ha! I thought as much. Take your filthy initiation and get lost. While you’re at it tell your capos and the other assorted scum to whom you answer, to clean-up-our-city.’ Father Paolo took his boot from Roberto’s chest and watched him scramble to his bike peeking from the alley across the square. In a few seconds, a roar could be heard and Roberto and his motorbike raced towards the lane to exit the Piazza, giving Paolo and Racine the finger as he sped off.
Roberto did not make it out of the lane alive. In his blind fury he rode at speed through the narrow lane straight into an oncoming van. Roberto’s flailing black clad body sailed past the windscreen and miraculously cleared the entire length of the vehicle to land hard on Via Sampruro where he was flattened beyond recognition by a bus, hooking him like a trout and dragging what was left of him twenty metres further down the street.
It was Janek’s delivery van entering the narrow lane as Roberto was making his impromptu exit. Janek and Flavia, refreshed from their outing in Sorrento, watched incredulously as the young man soared like superman past the windshield.
The less inebriated of Bar Dante helped to move the wrecked bike into the piazza where it eventually found a home in the alley from whence it unceremoniously emerged on that sunny Neapolitan day. For all I know it’s still there. Much commotion ensued in the square and on Via Sampruro, as you would expect. The Caribineri were summoned and with their customary irritability, set up barricades. An ambulance and a couple of city workmen arrived, along with various tourists and assorted ghouls out for a bit of local colour. It was a grisly task for the workmen but only marginally exciting for a city already so full of chaotic drama. A couple of buckets of water supplied by Bar Dante to sluice down the street and the efforts of the unusually efficient authorities were done and dusted by dinner time.
The evening of the accident, a young man entered the little lane into Piazza Drogo. He wasn’t from Naples; his accent placed him as a Corsican and he explained this to Mr. Dante, the curious owner of Bar Dante.
Dario chatted with the barman over a glass of Chianti and before long wished him well and made to leave. Mr. Dante accompanied Dario to the door, thinking he might lock up for the evening. He was weary of this day and hoped for a better one on the next.
When he re-entered the lane, Dario spotted an object on the rough cobbles directly in front of him. He was an observant and curious man and the object seemed so alien to the ill-lit and damp lane. Finding it impossible to ignore, he knelt down and retrieved a small rag doll from the cobbles. Its two little eyes made of shell, blinked in the glow from the neon sign of the bar.
‘It appears a child has lost its toy.’
Dario looked around his only companion on the street was the barman locking his door.
‘You think it belongs to a child.’
‘Si, signore, there will be at least one who will not rest well tonight,’ Mr. Dante said with a sad smile.
It was a frayed, hand-made object with a tiny smile stitched into its face. To Dario, it exuded a certain allure he could not quite put his finger on. He placed it in his coat pocket and venturing out into the street, he thought, against all odds in the vast and sprawling city of Naples, it might be possible to find the owner and return it. He glanced up at the glowering presence of Mount Vesuvius, festooned with a million stars and the faintest wisp of smoke. He knew from what others had said, it was a trick of the eye, but it seemed as if the mountain was just at the end of the street.