A long short story by Chris Roughsedge
Racine was born to a prostitute without the benefit of ceremony or sanitation in Portici, a town to the south of Naples, Italy, and at the very foot of Mount Vesuvius. A midwife was summoned and amidst the grunting, screaming and expletives that followed a child was produced, that much we know. Following the angry labour, 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 spiders, the Camorra. You can stroll from the orphanage gates and take a right turn off the Viale Leone to stand on the Via Aldo Moro which, without an adequate reason, becomes Via Alveo, for a passable view to the North East 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 container and turned. When the basket appeared within the convent courtyard, Luckily, a young novitiate by the name of Lunetta, one of the few kind inhabitants of this drear place, was sweeping the flagstones and heard the infants desperate wailing. She took the unhappy child to the infirmary and did her best to comfort him.
It seemed to some, 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 infant’s dormitory. My research has uncovered a snippet from the salacious local newspaper La Caldera, which 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, he was named temporarily by the irritated nuns ‘Uomo Infelice’, which I might add, is not something you’d want to be known by. It was the novitiate, Sister Lunetta, who was responsible for the name ‘Racine’. She was clearly an aficionado of French literature! As it transpired, it was not until I had become familiar with Sister Lunetta’s story the pieces of this sad tale acquired an accurate conformity with the whole miserable business.
Racine grew up in the care of women whose experience of motherly tenderness was limited, o say the least. Apart from the aforementioned Lunetta and one other old lady, they neither spared the rod nor any emotion one may confuse with compassion. They believed their holy duty was to set the behaviour bar high for their charges and none cleared its precarious heights unscathed, least of all our eponymous hero. 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. To my knowledge the Holy Bible was not used for the purpose of punishment; for the execration of the soul, indeed yes, but not of the body. One witness reported, however, a quite decent first edition of ‘Psalms and Canticles’ was said to have caused permanent hearing loss for 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 one of these hand-me-down boys was to raise his eyes to the heavens that boy could snatch a glimpse above the tenements and washing lines, of Mount Vesuvius.
The great cauldron of Vesuvius was oft sited by the black clad ladies in Christ, as a final destination for unruly boys. The boys, however, viewed it as a symbol of freedom, for anywhere other than the hell they were already in, could only be an improvement. To the young Racine it seemed this alluring, angry tower was at the end of the street, at night his fitful sleep was laden with portents of an imagined life. Beyond the high walls of the orphanage and the crumbling tenements of the neighbourhood lay the brooding mountain and dressed in clouds, a winged mother to show the way.
There was no place in the mind of this lonely child for the prosaic. His history, after all, had been stolen at birth. The commonplace was not possible outside the walls of the orphanage. Despite its dreadful history, the lofty peak above Racine necessarily became the magic filling his small life. Within the gossamer of his nightly dreams, he could sprout wings and fly to the holy mountain and beyond. He was a boy with a talent for imagination and possessed a good brain, as yet raw and untutored, awaiting lessons not currently available.
The orphanage courtyard was a place of terror for those boys who disported a deficit of manly attributes. The daily one hour release to this Golgotha was designed for the sorting of men from boys. It fitted perfectly with the convictions of the ‘Holy Order of Abnegation’, to which the nuns adhered. The one time when the vulnerable were at their most susceptible, went completely unchaperoned. 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 to view but not intervene in any number of gladiatorial cruelties perpetrated below. Some of these toughs had vengeance in mind for one slight or other and there were others engaged in the art of bullying for sheer 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 boy by the name of Roberto. At the time of the event I am about to describe, Roberto was aged fifteen. He had a handsome face and a deceptively quiet nature, but he possessed a streak of malodorous spite unsurpassed during Racine’s stay at the orphanage. He 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, his easy smile and dark, glistening eyes could collapse into a serpentine leer at a moment’s notice. Roberto’s awkward gait only enhanced his menacing presence.
The worst of Racine’s torments began one lunch time when he was about ten years old. He suffered the impact of a stone above his left eye as he stood cowering in a corner of the courtyard, sustaining little hope a minimum of misfortunes would befall him. Racine reeled with the shock of the blow and endeavoured, through the blood mingling with his tears to find the source of his pain. Roberto standing not five metres away received a high five from a buck toothed idiot on his left while the Neanderthal to his right handed him another stone.
‘Bastardo,’ Racine screamed. Now, it goes without saying the use of this particular word was inadvisable in an orphanage. The indiscreet utterance from our hapless little orphan 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, and he advanced towards his prey. He grabbed Racine by his hand-me-down shirtfront and the waist of his ill-fitting pants, lifting him so they faced each other eye to eye. One, the bitter and bleeding Racine and Roberto, a suppurating boil of hate and resentment, looked at each other like two alien species meeting for the first time. Roberto licked his lips, examining Racine as a leopard might a tethered goat. He leered at the spectators and defiantly up to the nuns lurking in the dark shadows of the balcony.
Was Roberto hoping for pollice verso, the ancient signal of the thumb? We shall never know, but with great relish Roberto began to swing the hapless little fellow around 360 degrees, pivoting in the hard gravel. The crowd of boys, who were now spread out in a wide circle, 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 suddenly released him so he flew briefly, before tumbling onto the gravel. To further elucidate his displeasure Roberto kicked the now prone and crumpled Racine, hard in the abdomen with his deformed foot; his prey vanquished, if not put to the sword. A faint rustle of a nun’s habit from above was the only sound. As the dust settled and Roberto sidled away in search of other prey, his victim expelled a prolonged and pitiful wail of despair, as to cause the smallest of the boys to draw back in terror.
Bruised and bloody, Racine looked to the billowing firmament rising above the orphanage walls and noted the mountain was angry. In terrible pain, he raised himself from the dirt and swore to avenge himself. He prayed with the fire of a zealot in his eyes, he fixed his livid imagination on blood-soaked demons and craven harpies. Through the bitter tears and at this moment of his deepest 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.
It was Sister Lunetta who greeted Racine as he limped into the infirmary. She examined his bruised and lacerated body, cleaned his wounds and patched them up with plasters and gauze. She settled the sore and whimpering child in one of the cots, 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, 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 in some small way, bound her to him. She reached within the folds of her tunic and withdrew the only thing she owned. Twenty six years ago it had been placed beside her in the basket before it was turned into the convent. She knew it was not her destiny to be Racine’s protector, but perhaps this one small possession might sustain another as it did her.
Racine slipped in and out of consciousness, but before he 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 sown to keep it from unravelling. A smile was stitched across its tiny face, and with eyes of two faded shell buttons in the middle of the floppy head. At once, Racine cherished it as Lunetta had. He grasped the doll close to his dispirited breast and fell into a dreamless sleep. Lunetta could not have known what terrible consequences were to be rendered from this small act of kindness.
The doll became a small compensation, as Racine grappled with his terrors and anger. He kept it clasped to his breast at night and hid it beneath his mattress. 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 was an unrehearsed thought and at his tender age he would not have been able to conceive venom can kill the prey and poison the host simultaneously.
Two more years passed and Racine, more or less, became immune to the privations of orphanage life. He was accustomed to being overlooked by those in search of children they could not themselves beget. One look at the small-framed and unappealing Racine was enough for most to move on to other, more agreeable orphanic produce. As he watched the nervous hopefuls, the chosen children being prepared for their brand new parents, and lovely new lives beyond the high walls of the orphanage, he concluded he had reached an age where any dream of such an outcome for him, was a chimera and he put it behind him.
Apart from the usual crying, wheezy snoring and furtive onanistic grappling one might hear 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. The reality was the novitiates, already exhausted by administering to the continuous and unmet needs of their charges, fell asleep at their earliest convenience. Bed-time was also a respite for the orphans who dreamed, as one might expect, of absent mothers and dauntless fathers, of waggish siblings and doting aunts, presents at Christmas, indolent bicycle rides and swims in the bay during long warm summers.
One evening, when the children were marched off to the dormitory, with little in their undernourished bellies, Racine’s hand crabbed-walked beneath the mattress to retrieve the doll. He was shocked to find his prize missing. A species of horror gripped the boy. He tore the mattress from its iron springs, entangling himself within the sheets like a frantic apparition. A moan of such wounded depth was so alarming to the smaller children, they started screaming and crying out in terror at the horrible spectre of Racine and his ghostly, flapping bed-sheets.
Racine was barely restrained by the terrified novice, all but a child herself, and it wasn’t until Sister Beatrice arrived a modicum of decorum could be had in the dorm. Having been abruptly ripped from her dark prayers she 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 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 exceptional salami and occasionally bad nuns.
Beatrice took control of the situation by pushing the novice out of the way, and slapping the distraught boy 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, Racine’s 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 his spine.
A person of sound mind may conclude 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 ebbed and then dissolved into silence. Across the far side of the dormitory, Roberto, our hero’s much loathed enemy, turned his eyes to the drab ceiling. A foul malevolence danced like fire in his eyes, as he clutched the rag doll beneath the sheets. What a delight it was to create such mayhem and despair. He believed much awaited a person who displayed such talent. Two months after this evening, Roberto, having come of sufficient age, 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.
The elopement of an inmate could cause problems of a fiscal nature for the orphanage. This meant the government per child subsidy would have to be recalculated unfavourably. Finances were scarce, and in Racine’s case it was concluded the accounts remain unsullied by correction. Only Lunetta spared a thought for the boy, and from time to time she wondered what might have become of him.
Racine had his subsequent career well mapped out by the surly postulants within the orphanage. Apart from Sister Lunetta and the senile old one, Fortunata, they 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 and we well know, there can be no more thorough a reproof than indifference.
He had grown into a short, wiry haired teenager with poor manners and unfortunate personal hygiene. At the tender age of thirteen, Racine absconded by leaving the raggedy flock as they crossed the dim lane for their lessons at the school. Astonished by the ease with which he made his escape he scampered off towards the mountain to the east, the singularly enduring presence, his entire life. He walked, for he left the orphanage without bus money; in fact, he only had a vague notion of what money was, never having had any himself. His pilgrimage was interrupted by the vast road-works of what would become the dual-carriage freeway of Napoli – Reggio Calabria and now referred to as the A3.
He was awestruck by the magnificent red and yellow earth moving vehicles. He saw one monster with its wheels taller than himself, violently pounding into the bedrock with a giant spike. Men beneath shiny plastic helmets scurried about between the growling behemoths. Racine reached the outskirts of Portici on the Via della Liberta, but Vesuvius seemed as far away as it did looming over the walls of the orphanage. It was the longest journey he had ever taken. As he gazed at the mighty tower over the treetops, a signal of smoke rose from its broken funnel followed by a red flash spat high into the sky over Naples. Some of the portentous allure of the volcano departing, he turned back for what he thought to be less alarming, albeit homeless adventures in the malodorous alleys of Portici.
At this time in history the Camorra’s influence pervaded both the alleys and high streets of Naples and indeed, greater 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 Fascists reigned. Racine managed to meet up with other delinquents in the thrall and employ of these ghastly creatures. Schooled in the rough ways of the street, he was pursuing a career in petty crime by the time he had reached his fourteenth birthday.
His small stature had made him eminently suited to insertion into cavities such as cat-flaps, crawlspaces and chimney flues for the purposes of ingress to properties not his own, to purloin goods to which he had no right. One night, such an exercise found him firmly wedged in a chimney stack on Via Arenaccia. The blood curdling screams for help from the chimney of the Gallacio family mansion caused, both the departure of his accomplice’s and the arrival of the police in short order. It appeared, his girth was beginning to show signs of the corpulence with which he was graced in adult life, and he misjudged the size of the chimney cavity in question.
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 in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia as ‘Teenage Flu Epidemic in Naples Mooted’. This caused a few flight cancellations. Several things occurred in Racine’s favour as a result of the chimney episode, and one not so much in his favour. A block and tackle employed by the police rescue squad for the purposes of chimney extraction, was the first favourable event. 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 Paulo, summoned to read the last rights to the flue snipe.
Once Paulo was aware of his redundancy in one ministration, he applied another. He suggested the poor creature had suffered enough and if the policemen were to place him in his care, he would ensure he took a path not including activities of a felonious nature. The police were more than happy to forgo the extra paperwork and the bathing entailed in bringing the wretch to justice, and delivered him to the gates of Paulo’s church in Piazza Santa Drogo. Racine arrived at the church a little worse for wear, but among the living.
St. Drogo, Patron of Unattractive People was born in Epinoy, Flanders in the 11th century. He was also an orphan and this would play a significant role in the saint’s future. When he became aware his mother had died giving birth to him, he assumed a terrible responsibility and subsequently performed penances en extremis. At his earliest convenience, he discarded his scant belongings and embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome, so he might better represent his guilt and receive instruction in the leading of a penitent life. For instance, there was some conjecture as to the efficacy of olive branches as opposed to that of the privet for the purpose of mortification. The stems of the wild rose were considered particularly pleasing to God. Flagellants of the Dark Ages had much to consider.
He eventually made ten pilgrimages to the Holy See and 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 which is, in modern times, situated in the heart of the Metropolitan City of Naples. On one pilgrimage he became sick with a disorder of the body, rendering him horribly deformed. His resulting appearance scared the living daylights out of people in the town; however, by now he was considered a profoundly holy man. 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, grains softened in water, other water related products and the holy Eucharist for 40 years. It is said he could magically be in two places at once. It was also suggested by one unkind cynic, given his looks, who would have wanted to see two of him?
Father Paulo was a tall and impressive man, fifty one years old at the time of his meeting with Racine. He combined a manly vigour with an urbane and cultured demeanour, peculiar to a certain type of Italian man. Steel grey curls fell to his dog collar, the only sartorial endorsement of his profession. He wore fashionable, blue loose fitting linen shirts and tan pants with a belt buckle describing a serpent consuming itself. His chin was graced by a trimmed salt and pepper beard and a pair of old fashioned wire-rimmed glasses, sat on his not inconsiderable nose.
As with a great many Neapolitan men, he smoked cigars, the acridity of which seemed to stain the very 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 about his large hands, as if they were in need of wings to escape the confines of his land locked wrists.
Paulo’s first duty to Racine was to provide him with the bathroom where he was not to emerge until his true colour might be observed without the black soot and rags gracing his callow hide.
Clothing clearly meant for someone with a larger frame was provided to cover his chafed body and he joined the padre at table for a simple repast of beans, olives, pasta, a heel of panne casa and a carafe of the house red, supposedly the blood of Christ. The urchin shot his arms through the sleeves of the hassock to reveal two bruised but hungry hands and proceeded to demolish the food with relish. The padre said a small silent prayer of thanks and let the child be while the young maid, Flavia, dished more pasta to his plate.
Flavia, of whom we will hear more shortly, was suspicious of the little reprobate but held her tongue for she believed the padre literally spoke the word of God or something very much approximating god-like utterances. The wine and the wholesome food caused Racine to become sleepy and he was shown to a cot in the spare room where he passed out with not so much as a Hail Mary.
If Padre Paulo had any regret it was that his chosen profession necessitated a herculean restraint in the purveyance of his seed into its god given receptacle for the purpose of progeny production. 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 an odd fellow consisting of cryptic but often acute perceptions which left his untutored flock almost entirely bewildered. They 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 virgin births and crucifixions 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.
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. Presumably he claimed his path was righteous and only mentioned the alleged Son of God when pursuing an obscure reference into which He could be neatly located in an effort to mitigate the padre’s frequently confusing sermons. Many glazed eyes and drooping heads occupied the pews when the good father proposed the perfectly reasonable nature of context, structure or relativism. All of which would have earned him a terminal sojourn within the embrace of the Iron Maiden in less tolerant times.
Padre Paulo was a man who marched to the beat of his own drum but he was 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 even confused by his words, but they trusted him with their spiritual needs nonetheless, for what he offered was not the retelling of outlandish tales of virgin births and reincarnation but something much more fulfilling. From his pulpit the Father Paulo never expressed views he could not prove to be true. The goblet was filled with wine and not blood he affably proclaimed. The sacramental wafer was a nice snack and occasionally accompanied by an olive or perhaps a smidgen of anchovy if the budget allowed. The padre’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 their poor beleaguered minds.
Of course, some left his congregation in disgust, citing ungodly behaviour, demonic possession, bearing of false witness and one because of an anchovy allergy. Another disgruntled zealot confessed to her alternative priest that Padre Paulo had been responsible for her cancer diagnosis and indicated 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 I wasn’t there, it being a confessional, but the priest was incorrigibly indiscreet and failed to uphold holy privacy, in favour of some inebriated amusement at dinner one night.
With the financial assistance of his long suffering bishop and Paulo’s own meager stipend augmented by a small inheritance, he setup a soup kitchen in the piazza adjacent to the church. Every morning the padre, Flavia and now Racine offered steaming cups of soup and thick slices of ciabatta, cheese and salami to the neighbourhood’s poor. The good padre had many sad and lonely congregants and believed that the conduit to their hearts and minds was through their hungry bellies.
It was to these sacramental repasts, rectory meal preparations and daily soup kitchen activities Racine was assigned once he had recovered from his injuries. At first and perhaps understandably, he engaged with this new occupation with ungracious resentment. The years within the walls of the orphanage had shaped him into a surly and suspicious boy.
A fragrant and comely girl, Flavia was no slouch when it came to the kitchen and she educated Racine in the rudiments of simple meal preparation. She had other duties, however, and once concluding that the Racine could boil water safely and cut a slice from a cob of bread without a visit to the hospital, left him to it. To be honest, Flavia was a tad repelled by the less than polite snipe so recently adopted from the gutter. She noticed he was disinterested in personal hygiene, so one can’t blame her reluctance to enjoy his company for any extent of time. When she brought this defect to Racine’s attention he merely picked at one of his many facial pimples and smirked malevolently at the olives he was decanting for the evening repast.
It should be said in Racines favour that he 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, mostly for the benefit of humankind. One only has to look at the many applications of ‘No-More-Gaps’ to be drenched in the warm glow of our cleverness although the invention of ‘The Rack’ could be considered stretching the frontier of human endeavour. (O my goodness, did I just write that?) Racine used his opportunity at Drogo to transform the unconventional Holy Communion to an artful feast and, in so doing, a form of pride interrupted his customary unpleasant disposition.
Much to Flavia’s and the philosophically distracted padre’s surprise, Racine started to pay more attention to his appearance and behaviour. One morning, passing the bathroom, Flavia smiled to hear him singing along with the sound of running water. Her favourable judgment of this moment was somewhat reduced when she paused to discover the song was of the bawdy street variety. She became agitated by the lyrics which 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 answers a call of nature and was rewarded with the lobster attaching itself to her genitals. Flavia, flustered by the salacious ditty was both stirred and appalled in equal measure.
The padre, who was not alerted to Racine’s musical talents, interpreted this change of 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. The rescue of the boy was validated and the good shepherd had concluded that a comprehensive change in environment and circumstance could render the lowliest of creatures in such a way as to propagate a meaningful future.
Now to Flavia. She 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. She was an often lonely child who lamented the absence of her mother, as a deep and unresolved loss. She listened to everything father Paulo said; in her own way she loved him and was both perplexed and impressed by him. One day as they sat at the kitchen table and enjoyed a delicious salami sandwich together with pickles, olives and pfefferoni on the side, he told her this…”Flavia, my dear child, in all of the world there are many things 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.” She thought about what he said and then replied.
“Padre, I am sometimes confused by the things you say. It is as if they are walking beside me as friends and when I look, they run away like naughty ghosts.”
“I see,” he thought for a long minute, busying himself absently with a cigar. First he chose it from the silver container he kept in his jacket and then with an object looking like a nail clipper he clipped off the very tip sealed end, careful not to cut away all 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 the cut end until the glowing ember appeared. Flavia liked the rich, earthy smell of the cigar smoke and admired the slow deliberation in its preparation. “That is a pleasingly poetic way of putting it I have to say Flavia and I will do my best to do it justice. Is there anything in particular 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 killed his father and had relations with his mother,” she said.
“Ah yes…you were listening child, go on.”
“You said that a deed perpetrated in ignorance deserves more compassion than one done wickedly, even though the outcome was 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 is to be human. To be a good person one must exercise humility, even in the face of unbounded success such as 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. So by being so arrogantly determined to escape the prophecy he had, in fact, caused it to be fulfilled.”
“But his crime is less because he let his pride place so many obstacles he lost the means to see the truth and that is the reason he put out his own eyes; because he was already blind with them?”
“Goodness Flavia, I could not have said it better myself,” Paulo said. “You see malice had not entered his thinking. He tried with all his power 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.”
The secret power of his knowledge was not immediately accessible and somehow magical to the girl, it required a journey to understanding and she very much hoped to arrive there one day. Padre Paulo on the other hand was now under no allusions as to the intelligence of this extraordinary girl. He knew from her father, a deep wound lay at the bottom of her question and hoped this conversation allayed Flavia’s anxieties in regard to the cruel departure of her mother. Of this we will hear more presently.
She was blessed with long and luxurious black hair that, if she had allowed it, would have swung alluringly across the top of her buttocks. She performed some of this swinging in the privacy of her own room but being an outwardly demure young woman confined her tantalizing 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 quizzical expression which appeared to some as artful, but it happened to be part of the architecture of her appearance. She found it exceedingly annoying when people told her to smile more or say things like ‘it will never happen Flavia’ when she looked, as she often did, the sky was about to drop on her. Her rebuttal would have been to say that ‘it is not necessarily normal for people to wander around with smiles permanently plastered to their kissers, for Christ’s sake!’ She only thought this by the way, she didn’t actually come out and say it but I am in complete accord with her myself. If anything she took life as it came, although generally veered towards the melancholy.
This does not mean that she was miserable or overly burdened by a troubled life; she was a quiet and serious person. Though not an idiot, she did not excel at school, and left as soon as she was allowed. Through her father’s influence, who happened to be the principal purveyor of smoked meats to the local clergy and a great deal of the laity, she found her employment with his friend, Padre Paulo. This was a temporary arrangement until something more splendid made itself known to her. Her father knew his daughter well; she possessed a bright mind full to the brim with awkward prerogatives and the plosive resonances of youth and 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 beautiful girl from a nasty little Camorra riddled 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 him under the table and married the smitten fellow two days later, giving birth to little Flavia within six months of their union.
No explanation has 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 a healthy 4.5 kilo’s in weight, pink of cheek and conveyed no resemblance to the small-goods vendor whatsoever. This inconsistency of dates, times and weights made no difference to Falvia’s father who loved the child unconditionally from the day he set eyes on her. Her mother cited unmitigated boredom and an overwhelming distaste for the smell of fermented sausage as her principal reasons for her leaving and was never seen again. As she miraculously turned into a dreadful and foul mouthed scold, she was not missed.
Flavia’s father, Janek was Polish by descent and nature. As with most self-respecting Poles, he had a fondness for Vodka and pork in all its forms, and in that order. His ambition was to smoke pork sausage just like his father and grandfather before him; but life in the Soviet Bloc was too morbid and confining for the aspiring pork butcher and he decamped for soil that did not require the presence of Soviet boots.
Janek’s skill with smoked pork sausage soon became known. The Italians, already firmly in favour of all manner of sausage, found the Polish variations irresistible and Salowski’s Delicatessen was established in a little piazza called Porta Nolano close to the bus depot where a commuter returning home might purchase a string of the finest Kabanosy for their evening meal. Flavia and her father were devoted to each other and in Janek’s eyes she could do no wrong. They brought solace to each other and Janek did his best to replace what might have been lacking for a little girl without a mother. He was a man with a naturally sunny disposition and made up elaborate and hilarious games such as ‘toothless vegetables’ with which he would amuse Flavia. 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, following their evening meal he related, much to Flavia’s amusement, an incident that occurred in the shop that afternoon. He loved to wind up the straight-laced Luigi – who had a little boot-makers store around the corner – with his saucy jokes and had started telling him the one about why Jesus wasn’t born in Napoli and in walks of all people a rather flustered young nun clearly overcome with the heat of the day and her heavy black garment. Janek was not a religious man and didn’t care about the presence of the nun while he told the naughty joke. Once he had finished and elicited the customary ambivalent response from Luigi, he was astonished to hear the nun burst into the most raucous of laughter. So overcome with mirth was the good sister that he was obliged to provide a chair and a glass of water for her, fanning her with a copy of the salacious Il Inflame, from which he had purloined the joke earlier that day. The young bride of Christ, who, had the most sparkling of blue eyes and a small cowlick of bright red hair escaping her veil, explained to Janek and the now stupefied Luigi that she had never heard a joke before. When the scandalized Luigi had left she pleaded with Janek to tell another one, he obliged and was met again with unabated hilarity.
By the time Flavia was fifteen she was as schooled in the ways of the world as any young woman still in the thrall of adolescence. She had engaged in fumbling and unsatisfactory fornication with a very stupid but libidinous boy and became orally familiar with the human penis. The boy presented his rigid, spindly member with the hope that it may be admired in close-up. Flavia’s interest was one of curiosity rather than idolatry. She examined its veiny bumps and nuances, its strangely textured but soft silkiness, from the purple head to the strange, spongy egg-sacs below; she tasted, licked and sucked but then decided she didn’t like any of it very much and refused entry to the alternative cavities the boy suggested. She incidentally considered at the time, the possibility that she may be too young to be fooling around with somebody’s penis. Sensibly she chalked it up as another of life’s experiences. Other 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 night with her girlfriends on a beach at Sorrento ill-advisedly drinking a large quantity of cheap Amaretto and sharing a potent marihuana cigarette.
That may well have been the sum of her vices but for a chance meeting at the fruit stand in the supermarket; she was on an errand for the Padre. No shoplifting occurred during this particular visit when she met a girlfriend Marta from her school days. They talked of this and that when a young man approached them from another aisle and snaked a proprietary arm around the Marta’s flinching neck. He was introduced as Roberto and Flavia was taken with his darkly handsome features and simultaneously repelled by his serpentine eyes.
Roberto’s insolent gaze left her feeling both sullied and breathless. This along with a cool change to Marta’s levity of only moments before caused her to feel uneasy about the couple. Though she was pleased to see her old friend, Marta was no longer the happy child of her school years; Flavia detected sorrow in eyes and a sallowness to her pallor. As she left the supermarket, she caught sight of them walking towards a sleek black motorbike that resembled, a hornet hovering in the hot midday sun. She noticed something about Roberto she had not seen before. 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 for a club foot.
I will get right to the point and confirm that this Roberto chap is indeed the very same Roberto who cruelly lay Racine so low several years before within the gladiatorial arena of the orphanage courtyard. It was the great screenwriter and film director David Mamet who wrote, and I am paraphrasing from memory, that to withhold the truth for the purposes of dramatic effect was to lie to your audience and I am in full accord with this. We already know, that the older boy was as bitter and twisted as a person could be.
The aforementioned old Church sat like an austere reproach in Piazza Santa Drogo. If a car found itself planted below its red brick bell tower with its ugly black cross fixed to the gable and if it could do such a thing, it would be wondering how it got there and how it would get the hell out. The only entrance to the Piazza was via an unmarked narrow lane which, if collisions with pedestrians could be avoided, took you into one the most grey and penurious squares one might happen upon in the whole of Naples. Immediately you arrived the lane seems to merge with the drab structures of the square and simply disappear.
Cramped and dirty, the little piazza was choked with the kind of unremarkable neo-gothic architecture that has been overlooked by all but one persnickety art historian. Just as an aside, he was a person by the name of Sir Mordechai Crump, a minor British peer who died ignominiously of syphilis in 1905, infected by a Neapolitan prostitute, which might illuminate the possibility that he was not as fastidious as he may have pretended. It’s of no ultimate consequence to this story but I have it on good authority that the particular harlot in question was coincidentally the great grandmother of Racine’s mother. Strange, how things work out sometimes.
Paint peeled from walls and bricks remained un-pointed since the sixteenth century. Broken cobblestones were heaped in piles as if in preparation for the next clash with the Carabinieri, all indicating the ongoing degree of decay. Father Paulo’s house, the rectory, the colour and texture of boiled cabbage, merges with the left of the tower; on the right stands the mean little entrance to the church. This is where the extreme penitent Drogo’s cell, in which he lived and died and occasionally bi-located, can be found.
If you were in this piazza opposite this church and leaning insolently on a black insectile motorbike, you would be Roberto for this is precisely what he was now doing on a late summer Friday evening in 1985 and. The priest’s house sported two round windows, incidentally a typical mannerist affectation of the fifteenth century, either side of the entrance. Staring out one of these portholes with a frowning visage was Father Paulo himself. At the other window partially concealed by drapery was Flavia whose short breaths momentarily clouded the glass as if to illustrate her confused emotions. She wondered how it was possible to be both bewitched and repelled at the same time and made a mental note to ask the padre. The windows were separated by the entrance hallway so neither Paulo nor Flavia knew that either one was watching the dark presence across the square. Roberto saw Paulo clearly and sensed Flavia’s presence behind the twitching drapery.
It is worth noting that on most evenings the Padre walked with Flavia to the bus at the end of the narrow lane that fed into the Piazza. He spoke to her gently one afternoon….. “Flavia,” he said, “you are a fine young woman; always be true to your heart, trust your feelings, which I can see are complex and considerate, and this will keep you safe.”
“Sometimes padre, I am so confused. I have all these feelings in me. I love my dear father – 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. The best of men I have known.”
“Yes, this is true. I know my mother was not a good person; it’s just that she is the only one I have. I know I shouldn’t miss her padre but…”
Flavia discovered that a motorbike was an ideal conveyance for passing through the narrow lane that led from the Piazza Drogo. She sat astride the bike, hugging the slim abdomen of the leather clad Roberto, her long hair released from its bounds flowing like black ribbons and her feet planted hard to the foot pegs as they sped out onto Corso Resina in the direction of Naples. The evening light dimmed and sputtered once again, leaving the city within the deep shadow of Vesuvio. She felt the mountains presence above them as confused thoughts streamed into and past her as the long black sail of hair flapped, ducked and dived in the slipstream of the motorbike’s wake. She felt an intensity she had never before experienced. The padre’s words circled around these disturbances of fear and exhilaration, searching out a lucid narrative from whence she may gather up her feelings and make them her truth.
Racine was ignorant of Flavia’s recent activities although she had, of late, stirred in him certain feelings with which he had been hitherto unfamiliar. Were these new emotions as those one has for a sibling or was it something more? He perversely preferred to behave in a way that she would find repellent. His real feelings towards Flavia, however, were both strange and oblique, so overwhelmed was his undeveloped character by the rigors of orphanage life and the subsequent brutality of the streets. As we already have become aware, Racine was a slate onto which all manner of horrors had been written by the unpropitious and cold fingers of fate.
The methodical desideratum of the kitchen had brought to the fore, something he had never thought to be familiar. His knife skills, for instance, came to him as if were born to it. 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 and flaying, the chopping, thrusting and the satisfying manipulations 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 the capacity to elaborate on the most parsimonious of edible fare. He made with the lowly turnip, a tour de force of the root vegetable clan. He coddled an egg like no other. My own coddling experiences have always ended in tears so I know of what I speak. A simple heel of ciabatta could, in Racine’s hands, become a tapenade topped miracle and transform the appalling common mackerel, an oily and unpleasant contraption fished from the equally oily Bay of Napoli, into delizia del mare. His culinary inventiveness appeared to have no bounds. He knew he had found his life’s work by the praise with which his dishes were greeted. Even the generally disobliging Falvia, he noted, savored his Osso Bucco is if it was manna from heaven. Racine thought he had indeed turned a corner when his creations met with approval from the beautiful Flavia.
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 the pride to be garnered from useful work. The orphanage’s legacy and the great tower of Vesuvio became as one on restless nights. He dreamed of laughing siblings ringing like songs into the soft evening light, of parents he would never know, creating them out of wisps of smoke caught in those high breezes on the mountain, giving them names, beautiful rooms with sea breezes moving white drapes across open windows and gentle kisses as he lay expectant in his bed. Some nights, awakened by the dreams, he stepped out into the drab square and looked up at the mountains indistinct shadow falling over Naples. He wondered at its power, about the ever present drama of it and how it became enmeshed in his childhood and how it still pulled him to some, as yet unknown and inexorable conclusion. He thought of father Paulo, who was now his father, as kind to him as not one person had ever been with the exception of Sister Lunetta. On this evening, as Flavia tarried uncertainly in the web of Roberto’s soulless charms, he watched the night clouds rush from the bay and over the storied buildings that made up the square and up towards Vesuvio, he wished he still possessed the little doll which had kept him safe in the desperate struggle of his childhood.
Padre Paulo knew of Racine’s nocturnal escapes to the piazza and on this night joined him on the old stone seat outside the rectory. He too looked into the black eastern face of Vesuvio and he too was always awed by its looming presence over them. While they sat there Racine began to tell his story to Paulo. He spoke about growing up in the harsh environment of the orphanage, of the cruelty of some of the nuns and the kindness shown by others. He told of Lunetta, who had named him and given him comfort when he thought there was none to be had; of the terrible event of the beating he had at the hands of a brutal bully. He spoke of his escape from the orphanage and his thwarted pilgrimage to the mountain and of his life on the streets of Naples.
When Racine had finished his story they sat for a while in silence, both with their thoughts of what had gone and what was to come. Paulo started his familiar ritual of preparing a cigar to smoke. He lit it and leaned back against the wall of the rectory and he considered the form of Vesuvius in the moonlight. The Paulo knew Racine’s trials needed to be acknowledge, simply and unconditionally. He looked into the silhouette of Vesuvius above them as though within its dark vitrified heart he might find a way to sooth the boy’s own broken heart.
“Racine, all that I know about St.Drogo leads me to believe that he was hopelessly insane; but he had moments of lucidity. He wrote on reams of cheap parchment, the tattered remains of which now rest in the archives of the chapel. They 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 looked into the kind eyes of his padre and started to cry. Paulo put his arm around him, enfolding him within the arms of his cassock.
“He was…what did he…?” Racine’s muffled voice was overcome with a familiar sadness; with the same inconsolable loss that had been his companion all of his short life. Paulo felt deeply saddened for this lost boy and he took a moment before continuing, his own sorrow disguised within a whisper.
“Drogo wrote some verse concerning Vesuvio. He called it his ‘benevolent devil’. He suffered great loneliness and 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…”
Why have thee placed no love on me?
Instead though love has filled me with mourning,
Though hath taken me beneath thy shadow,
But when I ride up unto thine eerie I am alone;
Thou has let me live in sorrow and shame
Yet still to bind me with thine strange love,
So that I have known thee as thou have me
Paulo felt the boy relax beside him, shaping himself into a semblance of peace. He hoped that one day Racine would follow his dreams beyond Portici, beyond Campania. He hoped the demons that harried his youth could one day be banished forever. “I will make this promise to you, my dear boy; one day you and I will make that pilgrimage to the mountain together. We will walk to its very summit and see what we can see. Come let’s find our beds son,” Paulo said, placing a hand gently on the boys shoulder as they entered the rectory.
Roberto lived in a dilapidated 17th century palace in the Chiaia district. A harshly pretty girl loitering near the front entrance called out “Ciao Robbie” as they entered the courtyard. Above the door the words il venus flickered on a dirty neon sign. Roberto secured the bike and they climbed the stairs via the courtyard to the fourth floor. The first thing Flavia saw when she entered the apartment was a painting on the ceiling depicting naked cherubs gleefully hovering above a partially clad couple embracing on a barge set in a lake. It was, I might add, a poorly executed fresco of the late Rococo period but pretty impressive to anyone who has never set eyes on such a thing.
The furniture was oddly austere, as if no thought of the owner was considered. Past an old overstuffed lounge chair, she could see an immaculately made bed through a doorway which had to its left a Gothic style sideboard. Above this a mirror had been hung on the wall with a hat stand on the right with a long heavy looking-leather coat hanging from one of its hooks. A peculiar object attracted Flavia’s attention and she walked across the room to take a closer look. It was a small dirty-white rag doll pinned with a thumbtack to the wall. She stared at it and it made her feel strange, uncomfortable, as if it was not meant to be there but then she turned to view the rest of the apartment. A round cedar table with two matching chairs graced the middle of the room; to the left appeared to be a kitchen.
Despite the economy of the furnishings it occurred to Flavia that Roberto must be very well off to be able to afford such an apartment but it seemed unlikely for such a young man to 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 to expose the room to the last of the afternoon light and they looked down onto the cluttered and busy street below. Everywhere garbage bags piled up in skips or on the sidewalks, some spilling their contents into the street where pedestrians were forced to pick their way through them seemingly oblivious to the mess of uncollected rubbish; so long had they had been forced to tolerate it.
This was a time in Neapolitan history when the Camorra controlled the garbage collection trade. A business that would have well suited their collective consciousness as it did the American branch of these pestilential criminals. There is something about the filth and maggots that attracted them I suppose. Nevertheless they knew which side to butter their bread. Having found the legitimately assigned state landfill areas to be somewhat inconvenient they elected to dump at a pittance of the price of the alternative disposal firms, what is thought to be 11.6 million tons of waste. This included toxic chemicals shipped from the north of Italy, in what is now known as the ‘Triangle of Death’. It is also called the ‘Land of Poison’ by the locals in the Casserta region of Campania, having the highest per-capita incidence of breast cancer on earth.
So, this was all happening coincidentally as Flavia breathed the less than pleasant air from Roberto’s elegant window. She cast her gaze to the south as she thought she might spy her own home near Piazza Nolano, but tall buildings blocked her view. Two children of an indeterminate age ran up the street, knowing how to expertly sprint on the cobbles. They darted between the cars, the pedestrians and the rubbish bags as if they had wings on their feet, sure and fleet like the devious Mercury. One of them gripped a back-pack and Flavia heard a strange accent crying “polizia, polizia”.
She had heard it before; the flying boys are Gypsy children escaping a tourist’s wrath with their spoils. There would have been another child set as a distraction and who, by now had slunk back into the milling crowds as if he or, more likely, she, had never existed. Such was Flavia’s city at this point in history; a city known for its ‘bread and circuses’ albeit blighted bread and cruel arena’s. The streets ran with vendetta blood and a careless bonhomie at the same time; the collective memory of any 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, no matter that the crime lords had bled their beautiful city dry.
Flavia knew instinctively which direction to look for her home but it seemed as if the entire sprawl of Naples lay between Roberto’s apartment and her father’s shop. Disquiet entered her mind. She turned abruptly and their eyes met. His expression never seemed to change; a lopsided smirk which, she realized, marred his beautiful face.
“Where is Marta?” she asked and he shrugged.
“Haven’t seen her around lately, probably at home,” he said but the colour seemed to drain from his face, he had become evasive somehow; wary – like a fox uncertain of its quarry.
“I want to go home now,” she said suddenly flustered and disoriented as if she had awoken from a dream. He pointed to the door and followed her out to the stairwell. They walked silently down to the courtyard where he parked his bike. The bike emerged like a double-headed black wasp, people warily scurrying past at the loud throaty pop, pop, pop of the motorbike. The prostitute, who still loitered near the front door smoking a cigarette, winked at Roberto as they sped off into the darkening streets.
The bike pulled up outside the delicatessen and Roberto turned the engine off. The street lights had come on and people were milling about in the piazza, some running to catch their train at the metro around the corner. Cars were parked bumper to bumper along-side the bollards that separated the piazza from Via Sopramuro. A dusty car abandoned years before had bricks under the axles. Sluggish and complacent 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 with his cold hand.
“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 spark of hope rolled across his damaged mind as a snake might slither into view at the whiff of a mouse. The process was slow, precise. He needed to be ever vigilant.
Flavia did not know if she wanted to continue seeing this odd and mysterious boy. She could not shake her sense of disquiet about him. His presence created in her something akin to narcosis, which was worrisome, but she was like any young woman and knew to accept ardour when it presented itself. She allowed a small smile to interrupt her accustomed diffidence and left him. 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, a small trickle of fear rolled silently through her.
On returning home, Roberto strolled into the dank entrance and grimaced at the skinny, painted crone behind the front desk; ‘non molto accadendo Roberto’ she croaked over the music. Business had been slow, that much was true. The place needed new blood and he intended to provide it soon. The madam reclined back into her chair to snooze. The dull yellow light barely picked out Marta reclining half asleep on a ragged settee in the corner of the room. Her eyes barely registered Roberto as he approached, leaned over and fondled her naked breasts.
“Come on,” he growled. He pulled her up roughly and pushed her towards a grubby corridor as the first few bars of Freddie Mercury’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ began to ring like an accusation through the rooms of the bordello.
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, little low
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me…
As the odious Roberto had his cruel way with Marta, a great billowing plume of sulphurous gas curled out of Vesuvius unnoticed and into another dark, Neapolitan night.
It was on the following Sunday afternoon that things went pear-shaped for our little cast of characters. Sundays are, of course, a holy day for the admirers of God and his accessories. Notwithstanding Padre Paulo’s interpretation of the liturgy, the local flock came to show their respects on that day as they did on every Sunday. It could be argued the reason for the decent turnout to 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 the appointed hour of ten in the morning and following the racket produced by the tuneless iron bell in the tower, a small and threadbare community of souls made their way through the entrance to the church, paid their genuflecting respects to Drogo’s dingy cell and seated themselves sporadically among the pews to listen to their priest extolling. 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 as it was her day off. She had awoken early to try on her new bikini as her and her father had planned to drive to Sorrento beach for a swim and lunch. You might have thought as she admired her ambrosial attributes in the mirror, she could be contemplating her next move in regard to Roberto but no, she had sensibly decided, on balance, that her many uncertainties about him – not to mention the omniscient danger that 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 immediately experiencing the rejection in absentia. As Janek manoeuvred their van from the courtyard into Piazza Nolano he told Flavia that on their return from Sorrento, he would have to make a small diversion to St.Drogo’s, for a delivery of Kielbasa to the rectory.
So Flavia and her father spent the day engaging in pursuits entirely secular and indeed without the benefit of philosophy. I have to say, this included the consumption of pizza, delicious pastries and the creamy gelato of the region, not to mention Limóncello. One cannot visit Sorrento without sampling this exquisite and refreshing drink. While Flavia and Janek enjoyed the delights of the dazzling blue bay, a mere twenty kilometres to the north, Padre Paulo’s congregation girded their loins for his indeterminate wisdom.
“Consider this my friends”, ‘I think, therefore I am'”. Padre Paulo’s considerable vocal delivery, proffered the rather over-asserted dictum of his philosopher of the week and it resonated high into the vaulted ceiling, if not necessarily into the parishioner’s minds. His articulate hands exercised their 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 realization of all truths. The mind must be open to learning beyond our immediate experience, my brethren. 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, first for the purpose of having a distinct intuition of simple propositions; partly also in order to compare the propositions.’
Signore Pulcini, in the third pew from the front on the left hand side, turned his tired old eyes towards his beloved seated beside him and she responded with a small smile. As it often is with couples – who after many a companionable year together – words fail to be entirely necessary. She concurred with her devoted smile that she also looked forward to the refreshments and particularly the Chianti, which had been an especially good vintage of late. Actually, Signora Pulcini had a good nose; it was indeed a product of that remarkable vintage squeezed from the Sangiovese vines in northern Tuscany in 1981. Some say there has not been a better vintage since, however I disagree. The Cepparello of 1997 was to die for. It is literally a crime that subsequent vintages have suffered from too much oak.
The congregation were to receive the beautifully prepared brunch also known as the Holy Eucharist forthwith. Racine listened with interest as he awaited the signal in the vestry to play his part in the proceedings. As I have already indicated Racine was a pretty smart cookie really, but he saw these aids of understanding with a nuanced regard I am not entirely sure Descartes intended. Imagination, sense and memory all reconciled with a deep and unsatisfied bitterness dwelling within him. The definitive truth of which the padre spoke – for some – could be the very portcullis 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 lengthy sermon was not entirely comprehended by the disciples seated before their sage, but they listened politely. A new parishioner, Signora Albani thought her ears were about to bleed from her herculean effort at cognizance. The aforementioned Signore Pulcini was in a state of blissful torpor and his wife was about to follow him into repose when Paulo finished his sermon 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 Padre and Racine distributing the metaphorical loathes and the fishes. The good Paulo 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.
So unconditional was the congregation’s appreciation of this Holy Communion that the contents of the plates were demolished to such a degree as to put a dishwasher out of a job. 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 and 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. She failed to notice a leather clad figure slouching in the alley next door to her tenement.
It was an exceptionally sunny day and Paulo suggested to Racine that they have their lunch on the old stone seat attached to the front of the rectory. The boy had already isolated some of the scrumptious food he had created and they laid out a picnic, sitting either side to take in a bit of the sunshine. From their little, now empty square in Portici, they had a good view of the ever looming presence of Vesuvio above the rooftops. The padre 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 as 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 was seared like a cruel gash to his heart, having occurred less than a kilometre from where he now sat. For his part, Roberto indicated no recollection of Racine at all but instead stood in front of Padre Paulo, his leather-clad legs apart and his hands insolently placed upon his hips.
“Where is she?” Paulo stood, towering over Roberto but kept a watchful eye on him.
“Come on Racine, let us go inside.”
“Padre, I am talking to you.” Roberto reached over and grabbed Paulo’s arm. “I have something for her.” As he reached into his jacket pocket, Paulo 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. Paulo then gripped the younger man’s hand causing it to splay out and swiped his legs to lay him on the ground. Paulo held Roberto’s hand palm up pushing it back towards his wrist. The priest slid his right hand from Roberto’s chin down to his throat and held him on the cobbles, his right leg pinning both of Roberto’s.
The whole manoeuvre took less than three 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 Paulo pushed Roberto over onto his back and he looked like a struggling black beetle attempting to right itself. Paulo planted a heavy boot on his chest and leaned over him, stern eyes warning his adversary against further resistance.
Racine palmed the knife he had provided to cut the cheese for the picnic. He was going to plunge the knife 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 Paulo deflected Racine’s arm and pushed him away. If Paulo 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 Paulo 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 iniziazione and get lost and while you’re at it tell your capo’s and the other assorted scum to clean up our city.” Padre Paulo took his boot from Roberto’s chest and watched him scramble down the alley. In a few seconds, a roar could be heard and Roberto and his motorbike raced towards the lane to exit the Piazza, giving Paulo and Racine the finger as he sped off.
I have to report, and you may or may not be saddened by this information, that Roberto did not make it out of the lane alive. In his blinding fury he was negligent of any defensiveness he may have learned in regard to motorcycle riding and drove the monstrous insect at speed through the narrow lane straight into an oncoming delivery van. Roberto’s flailing black clad body sailed past the judiciously placed bull-bar and miraculously cleared the entire length of the vehicle to land hard in via Sampruro where he was flattened beyond recognition by a bus that hooked his remains like a trout and dragged what was left of him twenty metres further down the street.
In case you are wondering, yes it was Janek’s delivery van entering the lane as Roberto was making his impromptu exit. Janek and Flavia, refreshed from their outing in Sorrento, watched incredulously as the young man soared to his destiny like superman past the windshield. The less inebriated of Bar Dante helped to move the totalled bike out to the square where it eventually found a home in the alley from whence it unceremoniously emerged on that sunny Neapolitan day in June. 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 along with an ambulance and a couple of city workmen, not to mention 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 tea-time.
We can conjecture as to what state these events left the surviving small cast of characters. I did not hear any more about them except for Lunetta and the ghastly Beatrice but that is another story. I asked around but nobody recalled much else. We can assume that Janek made his delivery of Kielbasa to the good padre and that given the trauma of the events Racine and Flavia may have formed a bond as often happens in such circumstances. Did Signora Albini get to see her grandchildren? It is my opinion, the chances of that occurring, were approximately second to none. I feel sure Padre Paulo continued to minister to his brethren in his peculiar way and gave them the succour they had come to cherish and I sincerely hope Racine and Flavia were by his side when he did so.
There is one small matter that needs to be dealt with before I go. I came across this snippet in my research and I know it to be relevant to subsequent events. The morning after the death of Roberto, a young man entered the little lane that fed into Piazza Drogo. He wasn’t from Naples; his accent placed him as a Corsican and he explained this to the curious owner of Bar Dante, then went on to deliver a small memoir. Dario came from Elba and he was in Napoli to take up a position as a consulting landscape architect for the city. He talked with the barman over a Chianti or two before making his way back to his apartment. The barman accompanied Dario to the door, thinking he might lock up for the afternoon. He was weary of this day and hoped for a better one tomorrow. When he re-entered the lane, Dario spotted an object on the rough cobbles directly in front of him. He was an observant man and the object seemed so alien to the dark and damp lane that he found it impossible to ignore. He knelt down and retrieved a small rag doll from the cobbles.
“It appears a child has lost its toy,” he looked around but his only companion on the street was the barman locking his door.
“Si, senor, there will be at least one child who will not rest well tonight,” the barman said with a sad smile.
It was a frayed, hand-made object with a tiny smile stitched into its face and shell buttons for its eyes. To Dario it exuded a certain charm he could not quite put his finger on. He placed it in his coat pocket and ventured out into the street glancing at the glowering presence of Monte Vesuvio to the east. He knew it to be a trick of the eye but it seemed as if it were just at the end of the street.