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Luckily there was no one around to bug him.
He needed to think. Though any thought he formulated was a nail driven into his head.
First of all he had a serious problem to solve. How was he going to square things with the villagers and his friends?
Everyone, for twenty kilometres around, knew he was getting married.
What a fool I was to talk about it. Why did I tell everyone?
The question was a rhetorical one and didn’t expect an answer. Rather like a beaver asking itself, ‘Why the hell do I keep building dams?’ If it could, the rodent would probably reply: ‘I don’t know, it just comes naturally. It’s in my blood.’
When they discovered that he wasn’t getting married after all, they’d go on taking the piss out of him until 2020.
And imagine what they’ll say if they find out she’s got something going with the Poof …
Gastritis churned his stomach.
He’d even told them the Slut’s name. And they’d have seen her on TV. Or in those trashy magazines they read.
Lovers in the Limelight: Mantovani with his new squeeze Erica Trettel … I can see it now.
And what about Saturnia, too?
Of all the idiotic ideas, he had chosen the most idiotic of all. He’d always loathed bathing in the thermal baths at Saturnia ever since he was a child. The stench of the sulphurous water disgusted him. A smell of rotten eggs that impregnates your hair, your clothes, the seats of your car and never goes away. Not to mention the Arctic cold that hits you when you emerge from that lukewarm swill. And all this to show those meatheads the Slut’s body.
Only he could have dreamed up such a stupid idea.
If he thought about it he felt like vomiting. Though the only thing he had left to throw up by now was his soul.
And what about his mother and her vow?
‘Oh, my poor stomach … Oh God, it hurts,’ moaned Graziano.
Such an utterly bird-brained mother would be hard to find. How could anyone make such a stupid vow … ? There was nothing for it but to tell her the truth. She must have been wondering after last night’s phone call. And then he would have to go to his friends and say: ‘Sorry about Saturnia, boys, it’s all off. You see, I’m not getting married after all.’
Too difficult. Impossible, in fact. It would have been like kicking your own ego to pieces. And Graziano wasn’t born to suffer. The only thing to do was get in his car and get the hell out of there.
That was no good either. It wasn’t his style. Graziano Biglia didn’t run away.
He must go to Saturnia anyway.
With another woman.
Right. He must find another woman. A real sex-bomb. The Marina Delia type. But who?
He could call the Venetian, Petra Biagioni. She was really tasty. But he hadn’t been in touch with her for a long time and their last encounter hadn’t been exactly amicable. He could phone her and say: ‘Hey, how about driving four hundred kilometres down here for a bathe at Saturnia?’ No.
He must find something around there. Something new. Something that would set tongues wagging and banish the wedding from his friends’ minds.
The problem was that Graziano Biglia had sucked, like a greedy mosquito, everything this barren land had to offer. All the females who were worth the trouble (and, to be honest, a good many who weren’t) had already passed through his hands. He was famous for it. There was a saying among the village girls that if you hadn’t had your baptism with Biglia you were a skank and would never get a man. Some had even offered themselves to him just to keep up with their friends.
And Graziano had been generous to them all.
But those glory days had gone. Now he had returned to the quiet of the village to rest, like a Roman centurion tired of campaigning in foreign fields, and he didn’t know any new girls.
No … That monster wouldn’t fit into the pools at Saturnia. And what kind of novelty would she be, anyway? All the best-looking women were married by now and while one or two might still be prepared to spend an afternoon with him in a motel in Civitavecchia, none of them would be prepared to go to the baths.
Better just to forget about it.
It was sad, the only solution, cowardly but necessary, was to do a runner. He would go home and tell his mother to break off her culinary Le Mans and revoke her vow, then he would make her swear on the Madonna of Civitavecchia not to divulge the truth and would confess to her: ‘Mama, the wedding’s off. Erica has dump …’ Well, he would tell her and ask her to cover for him with a little white lie, such as: ‘Graziano had to leave unexpectedly for a tour in Latin America.’ Or better: ‘Paco de Lucia called this morning. He begged him to go to Spain to help him finish his new album.’ Something along those lines, anyway. And lastly he would ask her for a loan so that he could buy a ticket to Jamaica.
That was what he must do.
He would heal his wounds in Port Edward getting as high as a kite and screwing coloured girls left, right and centre. The very idea of the jeans shop suddenly seemed ridiculous. He was a musician, for God’s sake. Can you imagine me as a shopkeeper? I must have been out of my mind. I’m an albatross borne on positive currents which I control with a gentle flap of my wings. To hell with it.
He already felt better. Much better.
He picked up his cappuccino and finished it in one draught.
Miss Palmieri didn’t like the Station Bar.
The girl behind the bar was rude and the place was a den of perverts. They mentally undressed you. Talked behind your back. You could hear them squeaking away like mice. No, she didn’t feel at ease there. So she never entered.
But that morning she decided to stop by, for two reasons.
1) It was very early, so there wouldn’t be many people.
2) She’d left home in such a hurry that she hadn’t had breakfast. And without breakfast she just couldn’t function.
She stopped the Y10, got out and entered the bar.
Graziano was paying when he saw her.
It took him a moment or two to place her.
I know who she is. She’s the … the teacher from the junior high. La … Pal … Palmiri. Something like that.
He’d seen her a few times. Shopping in the supermarket. But he’d never spoken to her.
Some men touched their testicles when she went by. Said she was a jinx. And he himself had sometimes made the two-horn sign behind her back when he used to live in Ischiano. People said she was unfriendly, weird, a kind of witch.
He knew very little about her. She came from outside, of that he was sure, she had suddenly appeared a few years before and she lived in one of those clusters of little houses on the Castrone road. Someone had told him she lived alone and had a sick mother.
Graziano studied her carefully.
No, not sexy, beautiful. A cold, strange, Anglo-Saxon kind of beauty.
He’d seen them, the men who lounged around the tables of the Station Bar. Seen how they’d stop leafing through the Gazzetta, playing tressette, joking with each other, when the schoolmarm walked across the piazza.
They called her a jinx, but you could bet they wanked away in private …
He sized her up.
How old must she be?
Thirty. Give or take a year or two.
Under her raincoat she wore a knee-length grey skirt which revealed tapering calves and slender ankles. Nice legs, no doubt about it. On her feet she had low-heeled dark shoes. She was tall. Slim. Aristocratic neck. He had always seen her with her hair up, but he guessed it was long and soft. And she must have beautiful boobs. Her black round-necked jumper formed two mountains on her chest. Her face was very odd. Those high, protruding cheekbones. The pointed chin. The wide mouth. The blue eyes. Those small schoolmistressy glasses …
Yes, she’s really strange. And she’s g
ot a really beautiful arse, he concluded.
How come such an attractive woman lived alone and no one had tried to approach her?
Maybe it was true that she was stand-offish, as they said. But Graziano wasn’t so sure. She was just an incomer who minded her own business. The quiet type.
And in this village if you keep yourself to yourself, they say you’re a bitch, you’re jinxed, you’re a witch. What open-minded bastards we are.
Maybe someone had made a pass at her, as men do in villages, coarsely, and she’d told him to get lost. So the guy had put it about that Miss Palmieri was a jinx. And that was it. Her fate was sealed. The males of Ischiano were used to a diet of small rodents, frogs and lizards, they didn’t have the wit to catch this swallow which flew too high for their teeth. And they had excluded her.
She had become withdrawn, frightened and unapproachable.
But while that might go for other men, it didn’t for Graziano Biglia. Where women were concerned, unapproachable was a word that didn’t exist in his vocabulary. Graziano had succeeded in making the Slut his girlfriend, he was damned if he couldn’t win the affections of an Italian teacher from Ischiano Scalo.
The first rule of the ladykiller is that every woman has her weak point, all you have to do is find it. Even the strongest building in the world has its breaking point, you only have to hit it there to bring the whole thing crashing down. And Graziano was an expert at breaking points.
She could be the one.
He felt a deep affinity with this woman whom he didn’t know. He, too, had been told by a Slut that he was a jinx. And he knew how bad you feel when someone says such a hurtful thing to you. It’s the best way of wounding you, excluding you and breaking your heart.
Yes, he would help her. And he would prove that there was no such thing as a jinx. That it was a primitive and cruel notion. He would free her from her segregation. He felt charged with a great mission, a mission worthy of Bob Geldof or Nelson Mandela.
Yes, she’s the one.
That night he would take her to Saturnia, to the pools.
He would screw her.
And Roscio, Miele and the Franceschini brothers would have to bow their heads, acknowledge once again his superiority, his bold ingenuity, his defiance of village obscurantism.
Yes, this could be the last performance of a Latin lover. Like a great boxer’s farewell to the ring. Then he would hang up his condom and head for Jamaica.
He smoothed back his hair and walked over to the schoolmistress.
Flora Palmieri had been wrong, the perverts were there even at this hour.
She couldn’t drink her cappuccino. One man was staring at her. She felt his gaze run down her like a scanner. And when men did that she got clumsy. She’d already dropped the sugar and nearly spilled her cappuccino over herself. She hadn’t turned to look at him. But she’d seen him out of the corner of her eye.
He was a guy who always used to hang around the bar until some time ago, then had disappeared. She hadn’t seen him for a couple of years at least. A handsome, swaggering lout. He used to ride around on a motorbike and show off, with some poor girl behind him. In those days his hair had been black, short on top and long at the sides. Now, with those long blond locks and that deep suntan, he looked like Tarzan.
He was one of the guys who made the two-horn sign when she walked by. That alone was enough to place him on the lowest rung of humanity, along with a lot of other men who frequented that bar.
She heard him come over and stand beside her. She moved away.
‘Excuse me, are you Miss Palmiri?’
What does he want now? Flora began to get flustered.
‘Palmieri,’ she murmured, looking into her cappuccino.
‘Palmieri. Sorry. Miss Palmieri. Sorry. I wanted to ask you something, if I’m not disturbing you …’
For the first time she looked him in the face. He looked like the corsair of mystery island, a character out of one of those low-budget pirate films that were made in Italy in the Sixties. A cross between Fabio Testi and Kabir Bedi. With that bleached hair … and those gold earrings … He didn’t seem in great form either, he looked as if he’d been up all night. His eyes were ringed and his beard stubbly.
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve got a problem. You see …’ The dandy suddenly stopped as if his brain had seized up, but then got a grip on himself. ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself, my name’s Graziano Biglia. We haven’t met. I’m the son of the lady who runs the haberdasher’s shop. I’ve been away for a while … Abroad, on business …’ He held out his hand.
Flora shook it delicately.
He seemed at a loss how to go on.
Flora wanted to tell him that she was in a hurry. That she had to go to school.
‘You see, I wanted to ask you a favour. In a few months I’m going to work in a tourist village on the Red Sea. Have you ever been to the Red Sea?’
‘No.’ Oh my goodness, what on earth does he want? She plucked up courage and whispered: ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry …’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll try to be quick. The Red Sea’s an incredible place, with white beaches. It’s the bits of coral that make them white. Then there’s the reef … Well, it’s beautiful. I’m going to play at the village, I play the guitar, you know, and I’ll have to be an entertainer too, organise games for the guests. Anyway, to cut a long story short, they’ve asked me to send them a CV. And I’d like to make it a good one, not the usual list-type resumé, something fresh. Something that’ll really make them sit up. You see, I’m really keen on this job …’
What does he mean by something fresh?
‘If you would help me to write it, I’d be eternally grateful to you. I have to send it off tomorrow without fail. It’s the last day. It wouldn’t take us long and if they give me the job, I swear I’ll invite you to the village.’
Thank goodness, at last he’d come clean. He wasn’t capable of writing his own CV.
‘I’d have been glad to help you any other day. But today I’m very busy … I really can’t.’
‘Please. I don’t want to be a nuisance, but it would be so wonderful if you’d help me, it’d make me so happy …’ Graziano said this with such childlike candour that Flora couldn’t help smiling.
‘Ah, at last, a smile. How nice, I thought you didn’t know how to. It’ll only take us ten minutes …’
Flora was lost for words. What was she to do? How could she refuse him? He had to send it tomorrow, and if he was left to his own devices she was sure he’d make a complete hash of it.
You mustn’t help him. He’s one of the guys who gave you the two-horn sign, a voice in her head told her.
Yes, she replied, but that was years ago, maybe he’s changed. He’s been abroad … It’s no trouble, really … And actually he’s very polite.
‘All right, I’ll help you. But I don’t know if I’ll be any good.’
‘Thank you. I’m sure you will. What time could we meet?’
‘I don’t know, would six-thirtyish suit you?’
‘Fine. Shall I come round to your house?’
‘My house?’ Flora gasped.
No one (except doctors and nurses) had ever been to her house.
Once the parish priest had come to give his Christmas blessing and on the pretext of sprinkling incense had poked his nose into all the rooms and Flora had been very upset. ‘Don’t you want me to say a prayer for your mother?’ he had asked.
‘Leave my mother alone,’ she’d snapped, with a violence that had surprised even her. She didn’t believe in prayers. And she didn’t like having strangers in the house. It put her on edge.
Graziano moved closer. ‘It would be better. You see, my mother’s always around at my house. She’s such a chatterbox. She wouldn’t let us work.’
‘All right, then.’
Flora looked at her watch.
It was very late. She’d have to
rush to school. ‘But now I must be going, I’m sorry.’ She took the money from her coat pocket and stretched out her hand towards the cashier but he grasped it. Flora jumped back and snatched her hand away as if he had bitten it.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. Did I startle you? I just didn’t want you to pay. Breakfast is on me.’
‘Thank you …’ Flora stammered and made for the door.
‘See you this evening, then,’ said Graziano, but the teacher had already gone.
It’s in the bag.
The CV idea had worked.
The teacher was very shy and scared of men. A complete beginner. When he’d touched her hand, she’d jumped two metres in the air.
She would be a difficult prey, but a stimulating one. Graziano didn’t foresee any great difficulty in carrying out his mission.
He paid and went out.
It had started raining. Lousy weather today, yet again. He would go home, have a siesta and prepare for their meeting.
He did up his jacket and started walking.
Who was this strange creature called Flora Palmieri, and what was she doing in Ischiano Scalo?
She’d been born in Naples thirty-two years earlier. The only child of an elderly couple who’d struggled to have a baby but whose efforts had finally been rewarded by nature with the birth of a little girl who weighed three and a half kilos, was as white as an albino salamander and had an incredible quiff of red hair.
The Palmieris were unassuming people who lived in a flat at the Vomero. Lucia taught in an infants’ school and Mario worked in an insurance office down by the harbour.
Little Flora had grown older, gone to nursery school and then to infants’ school, in her mother’s class.
Mario had died suddenly, when Flora was ten, of fulminant lung cancer, leaving mother and daughter grief-stricken and very short of money.
Life had immediately become hard. Lucia’s salary and Mario’s meagre pension were barely enough for them to make ends meet. They had cut down their expenses, sold the car and stopped taking holidays at Procida but still they were in dire financial straits.