by Robert Steward
Naples, Italy 2003
I stood under the red and white metro sign in Piazza Dante. The post was covered with student ads, flickering in the breeze. Beyond the metro station stood the large, white statue of Dante with his hand held out. It looked like he was about to recite something. The plinth underneath was riddled with graffiti. At night Sri Lankan boys would play cricket in the square under the watchful gaze of the great writer. Now the square was full of people going to lunch in the many restaurants, cafés and bars. The sky was blue with cotton wool clouds, but in the distance the clouds were darker, more menacing.
I looked at the clock tower, standing above the entrance to the Convitto Vittorio Emmanuele II.
Manuela was late.
Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe there was a problem. Maybe she wasn’t going to turn up, I fretted.
Then she appeared on the escalator, slowly rising up from the metro station, her denim jeans jacket making her look casual, carefree, breezy.
“Ciao.” She smiled, her dimples like inverted commas.
“Ciao,” I said, and we kissed each other on both cheeks.
My heart beat faster. This was the first time we had met outside the school and the first time we had kissed.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, lifting her dark hair out of her eyes. “There was a problem with the metro.”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “I’ve just got here myself.”
There was a brief silence.
“So, where would you like to eat?” she asked, adjusting her shoulder bag.
“I know a good place just over there.” I pointed to the other side of the piazza. “It’s called Vaco e Press.”
“Okay.” Manuela smiled. “Let’s go there.”
We weaved through the steady stream of traffic in Via Toledo. For some reason everyone called it Via Roma. I don’t know why, but they did.
“Here it is,” I said.
Outside Vaco e Press were some glass cabinets, displaying an assortment of sweet and savoury food: panini napoletani, arrincini, graffe, cornetti.
“So, what do you think?” I asked. “You can sit down inside.”
“It’s a bit hot to sit inside,” she said.
(c/o Trip Advisor.)
Next door was one of my favourite cafés, Bar Mexico. From outside you could see the baristi pulling the long-handled pumps to draw the coffee. They reminded me of the draft beer pumps you find in English pubs. Sometimes people would leave an extra tip on the counter for people who couldn’t afford a coffee, un caffè sospeso. I admired this anonymous act of generosity, this anonymous act of kindness.
“Let’s go to Port’ Alba,” Manuela suggested. “I fancy a pizza.”
We crossed the road again and walked towards the old city gate.
“So you didn’t have a lesson this morning?” she asked.
“No, at the moment I only do Tuesdays and Thursdays at Cambridge, but I do private lessons too.”
“Where?” she asked.
“I teach this guy who runs a guest house in Centro Storico. He’s also a pianist.”
“And what do you teach him?”
“Actually, he likes to read short stories by Hemingway.”
We passed through the arch of Port’ Alba. There were several book stalls on each side, the books lined up in rows against the graffitied walls. On the other side of the arch hung a gold sign that read: Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba.
(c/o Trip Advisor.)
“Eccola.” She pointed.
In front of the pizzeria was a glass cabinet full of small round pizzas.
“Prego,” the pizzaiola said, leaning on the counter.
He wore a white apron and hat.
“What would you like Rob?” Manuela asked.
This was the first time she called me by my name; my stomach tingled with joy.
“Er, whatever you’re having.”
“Do you like lemonade?”
“Due pizzette e due latine di limonata, per favore,” she ordered.
“Da asporto?” the pizzaiola asked.
“Shall we take it away?” She turned to me.
“Sì, da asporto.”
“Subito,” the pizzaiola said.
He wrapped the two pizzas in paper and then took the drinks from the fridge.
“È tutto?” the pizzaiola asked.
“I’ll get it,” I said, putting my hand into my pocket.
“No, don’t worry,” she said, handing me the pizza and the drinks.
As Manuela paid, she dropped a handful of change on the ground; the coins jumped and skipped and circled round and round on the pavement. When she stood up, her cheeks were a rose colour.
“Where shall we eat?” she asked.
“How about Piazza Bellini?” I suggested. “It’s just round the corner.”
(c/o Trip Advisor.)
The piazza was surrounded by palatial and plain looking buildings with bars and cafés, running along one side; their large umbrellas flapping in the breeze.
We sat down on some steps near the Greek ruins. The large stones were part of the ancient city walls and covered in ivy and moss. They looked like tiny storerooms of a villa or a palace. Behind the ruins stood the statue of the composer Bellini, who from where we sat, looked like he was sitting in the trees.
I removed the aluminium foil from the can of lemonade. Only a nation obsessed with hygiene could have invented something like that. The can hissed as I pulled back the ring pull. The lemonade was cool, fresh and fizzy. I put the can down and took a bite from the pizza, the tomato, the mozzarella–a marriage made in heaven.
“What do you think of the pizza?” Manuela asked.
“It’s delicious,” I replied, trying not to speak with my mouth full. “It’s so light.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
There was a little silence.
“So, how long have you been working at Cambridge?” I asked.
“About four months now,” she replied. “Before, I used to study there.”
“Really?” I said with mozzarella stretching from my mouth.
“Yes, Nino offered me a job when the receptionist went on maternity leave.”
She took a sip of lemonade.
“Oh,” I said. ‘So, do you like it there?’
“Yes, it’s okay.”
I looked at her, at the way her mouth went, and the curve of her cheekbones, at her bluey-green eyes, the flecks of amber round her pupils, and at the way her hair fell over her eyes.
She caught me looking at her, and I felt something in the air between us, something pure, intense; it made me shiver inside.
Just then, una scugnizza appeared, a street urchin. She was about twelve years old with dark curly hair and olive skin; her big gold earring made her look like a gypsy.
“Te vuò accattà n’accendino?” the girl asked in Neapolitan.
She showed us a purple disposable lighter.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She wants to sell you a lighter.”
“Oh, but I don’t smoke.”
“Lui, non lo vuole,” Manuela said to the girl.
The girl’s brow furrowed; she didn’t look very happy.
“How much does she want?”
“Quant’è” Manuela asked.
“Due euro,” the girl replied.
I gave her all the change I had.
The girl looked at the money as if I had insulted her and said something as she went away.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Manuela replied.
“No, really, it was nothing.”
Suddenly, it started to rain; it was light at first, but then it poured down, the raindrops large and cold.
“Ah!” Manuela cried, putting her denim jacket over her head.
We sought refuge under a balcony nearby. The rain splashed on the ground around us; the sound was deafening, the smell earthy. We laughed. I felt a closeness between us, an intimacy. I wanted to kiss her, but I felt unsure. Unsure and afraid. Unsure whether our feelings were mutual. Afraid of losing what we had.
I let the moment pass.
The moment would pass many other times too. A few days later, we would go for lunch in Vomero, then another day walk through the Parco di Villa Floridiana, and a few weeks later, we would go to Pozzuoli, and Manuela would show me the old Greek amphitheatre, the Solfatara, the bay of Naples, and one day, my colleague Gabriel would come into my classroom just before a lesson, his hand leaning against the classroom door, and he would ask: “What’s wrong with Manuela? She hasn’t said anything all day!”
“I don’t know,” I would reply, putting my pen down between the pages of my coursebook.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” He would persist, “Did you have an argument?’
“What did you do to her, then?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Well, you must’ve done something.”
“Really, I didn’t”
“Well then, my friend,” he would say, putting his hand firmly on my shoulder and staring at me with his dark Gibraltarian eyes. “Do something then!”