Little Flora liked reading and studying and when she had finished junior high her mother had sent her to high school despite the enormous efforts it would entail. She was a shy, introverted child. But she did well at school.
One evening – Flora was fourteen – she was sitting at the dinner table finishing her homework when she heard a shriek in the kitchen. She rushed in.
Her mother was standing in the middle of the room. The knife on the floor. One hand clutching the other, which was contracted like a claw. ‘It’s nothing. It’s nothing, dear. It’ll pass. Don’t worry.’
For some time Lucia had been complaining of pains in her joints, sometimes at night her legs would be paralysed for a few moments.
The doctor was called. He said it was arthritis. The hand had indeed begun to function again after a few days, though it hurt when she clenched it. Now Lucia found it difficult to teach, but she was a strong woman, used to dealing with pain, and she didn’t make a fuss. Flora saw to the shopping, the cooking and the cleaning and still found time to study.
One day Lucia had woken up with one arm completely paralysed.
This time they consulted a specialist, who admitted her to the Cardarelli hospital. They did dozens of analyses, called in famous neurophysiologists and concluded that Mrs Palmieri was suffering from a rare form of degeneration of the cells of the nervous system.
The medical literature had little to say about it. Few cases were known and at present there was no treatment. Maybe in America, but that would have been very expensive.
Lucia spent a month in hospital and returned home paralysed down her right side.
At this point Uncle Armando, Lucia’s younger brother, made his appearance.
A gruff man, covered with black hairs, which stuck out of his collar, his nose and his ears. As ugly as sin. He owned a shoe shop at the Rettifilo. A guy interested only in money and with a fat, surly wife.
Uncle Armando salved his conscience by giving them a paltry sum of money each month.
The only reason Flora could still go to school was that the concierge’s wife, a kindly woman, looked after her mother during lesson hours.
With the passing months the situation did not improve. Quite the opposite, in fact. By now Lucia could only move her left hand, her right foot and half her mouth. She had difficulty in speaking and was no longer self-sufficient. She had to be washed, fed, cleaned.
Uncle Armando came to see them once a month, sat beside his sister for an hour or so, holding her hand, and then, after giving Flora the monthly payment and a packet of pastries, would leave.
One morning – Flora was sixteen – she woke up, made breakfast and went in to see her mother. She found her curled up in a corner of her bed. As if her limbs, during the night, had suddenly snapped free of the springs that kept them taut and shrivelled like the legs of a dried-up spider.
Her face against the wall.
‘Mama … ?’ Flora stood beside the bed. ‘Mama … ?’ Her voice trembled. Her legs trembled.
‘Mama … ? Can you hear me, Mama?’
She stood there for a long time like that, biting her knuckle. And crying silently. Then she ran downstairs screaming, ‘She’s dead. She’s dead. My mother’s dead. Help me.’
The concierge arrived. Uncle Armando arrived. Aunt Giovanna arrived. The doctors arrived.
Her mother wasn’t dead.
She was no longer there.
Her mind had left, moved to a distant world, a world perhaps inhabited by darkness and silence, and had left nothing behind but a living body. The hopes of its returning, they explained to her, were very slim.
Uncle Armando assumed command, sold the house at the Vomero and took Flora and her mother in to live with him. He put them in a little room. A bed for her and one for her mother. A little table to do her homework on.
‘I promised your mother you’d finish high school. And so you will. Afterwards you’ll come to work in the shop.’
And so began the long period in Uncle Armando’s house.
They didn’t treat her badly. But nor did they treat her well. They ignored her. Aunt Giovanna hardly spoke to her. The house was big and dark and living there wasn’t much fun.
Flora went to school, looked after her mother, studied, did the cleaning in the house and meanwhile grew. She was seventeen. She was tall, her bosom had swelled and was a cumbersome thing that embarrassed her.
One day when Aunt Giovanna had gone to visit some relatives in Avellino, Flora was having a shower.
Suddenly the bathroom door opened and …
And voilà, Uncle Armando.
Usually Flora locked the door, but that day he’d said he was going to the races at Agnano, yet here he was.
He was wearing a dressing gown (a red and blue striped silk one I’d never seen him in before) and slippers.
‘Flora, dear, do you mind if I join you?’ he asked her, as nonchalantly as if he were asking someone to pass the bread at table.
Flora was dumbstruck.
She would have liked to scream, push him away. But the sight of that man there, where she was naked, had paralysed her.
How she would have loved to kick him, punch him, shove him out of the window so that he plunged three floors down and landed in the middle of the road a split second before the number 38B bus passed. Instead there she was, as immobile as a stuffed animal, and she couldn’t scream or even walk two metres to reach her towel.
All she could do was look at him.
‘May I help you soap yourself?’ Without waiting for an answer, Uncle Armando came towards her, picked up the soap, which had fallen into the bottom of the bath, rubbed it over his hands, working up a good lather, and began to soap her. Flora, standing there, breathed through her nose, holding her arms over her breasts, her legs tight together.
‘You’re so beautiful, Flora … You’re so beautiful … You’ve got a lovely figure and you’re all red, even here … Let me soap you. Take away those hands. Don’t be frightened,’ he said in a hoarse, strangled voice.
And he started to soap her breasts. ‘Isn’t that nice? What big boobs you’ve got …’
All the better to eat you, she felt like replying.
That monster was squeezing her nipples and the only thing she could think of was Little Red Riding Hood.
And anyway, no, it’s not nice. It’s the most disgusting thing in the world. The most disgusting thing in the world. Nothing’s more disgusting than this.
Flora stood there, petrified, incapable of reacting to the horror of that monster touching her.
Suddenly, incredibly, she saw something that made her smile. A long thick dark thing had emerged from Uncle Armando’s dressing gown. It looked like one of those wooden soldiers standing to attention, arms against their sides. Uncle Armando’s (enormous!) penis had peeped out from behind the curtain. He wanted to have a look too, you see?
Uncle Armando noticed and a satisfied smile spread along those moist, fleshy lips. ‘May I shower with you?’
His dressing gown fell to the ground, revealing in all their splendour that squat, hairy body, those short legs with calves as thick as a ship’s fenders, those long arms and those big hands and that dick there, as upright as a ship’s mast.
Uncle Armando took his weapon in his hand and stepped into the bath.
On contact with the ogre, something inside Flora finally snapped and the awful glass ball that imprisoned her shattered into a thousand pieces and she woke up and pushed him, and Uncle Armando, all ninety kilos of him, slipped back and as he slipped clutched like a falling orang-utan at the waterproof curtain and the rings began to break off and stak one after another and stak flew all over the bathroom and stak Flora leapt out of the bath but one foot caught against the edge and so she tripped and fell on the floor and clinging on to the basin she got to her feet, even though her knee hurt and Uncle Armando was shouting and she was screaming and she got to her feet and slipped
on Uncle Armando’s red-and-blue-striped dressing gown and found herself on the floor again and struggled to her feet and grabbed the handle and turned it and the door opened and she was in the hall.
In the hall.
She fled and locked herself in her bedroom. She cuddled up to her mother and burst into tears.
Her uncle called her from the bathroom. ‘Flora? Where are you? Come here. Are you cross with me?’
‘Mama, please. Help me. Help me. Do something. Please.’
But her mother stared at the ceiling.
The dirty old man didn’t try it again.
Why can that have been?
Maybe he’d drunk too much at the races that day and his inhibitory brakes had been loosened. Maybe Aunt Giovanna noticed something, the shower curtain, the bruise on her husband’s arm, maybe he had only yielded to an uncontrollable fit of lust of which he later repented (an unlikely hypothesis). The fact remains that from that day onwards he never molested her again and he became sweeter than marzipan.
Flora never spoke to him again, and even when she finished high school and started working in the shop she ignored him. At night she studied like mad, there in the little room with her mother. She’d enrolled for a degree course in Italian literature. In four years flat she graduated.
She took the exam to become a teacher. She passed and accepted the first posting she was offered.
It was Ischiano Scalo.
She left Naples with her mother in an ambulance, never to return.
But what had happened at the school after Pietro and the others had made their escape?
Alima, who was waiting in the car, had seen three boys emerge like black devils from a window of the school, climb over the gate and disappear into the gardens opposite.
For a moment she had been uncertain what to do. Enter, go away?
A gunshot had interrupted her deliberations.
A couple of minutes later, another boy had emerged from the same window, he too had climbed over the gate and run off.
That maniac Italo must have shot somebody. Or had somebody shot him?
Alima had stuffed her wig in her coat pocket, clambered out of the 131 and hurried away.
She wasn’t stupid. She had no residence permit and if she was caught mixed up in a business like that she’d find herself back in Nigeria in three days.
She’d walked three hundred metres in the rain, cursing Italo, this shitty country and the dirty job she was compelled to do, but had turned back.
What if Italo was dead or badly hurt?
She’d climbed over the gate and entered Italo’s cottage and performed a heinous deed, which offends against the ethical code of any prostitute.
She’d called the police.
‘Go to the school. The Sardinians have shot Italo. Hurry.’
A quarter of an hour later, officers Bacci and Miele had been driving at high speed towards the school when they’d seen a black woman hiding behind a bush.
Bruno Miele had leaped out, she’d run away but he’d pointed his gun at her. He’d grabbed her, handcuffed her and put her in the police car.
‘I called the police. Let me go,’ Alima wept.
‘Sit down and shut up, you whore,’ Miele had replied and they’d raced off with sirens blaring towards the school.
They’d emerged from the car, guns at the ready.
Starsky and Hutch.
From outside everything seemed normal.
Miele had seen his father’s cottage in darkness, but there were lights on in the school.
‘Let’s go in,’ he’d said. A sixth sense told him something nasty had happened in there.
They’d climbed the gate, glancing behind them. And then, with pistols raised and legs wide apart, they’d hopped their way into the school.
They’d searched the whole building without finding anything and then, one after the other, flat against the wall, they’d sidled down the stairs into the basement. At the end of the corridor a door was open. The light was on.
They’d taken up positions on either side, holding their guns two-handed.
‘Ready?’ Bacci had asked.
‘Ready!’ Miele had replied, and did a clumsy somersault into the gym and got to his feet again swinging his gun right and left.
At first he hadn’t seen anyone.
Then he’d looked at the floor. There was a body.
A corpse that reminded him of his …
‘Papa! Papa!’ Bruno Miele had wailed and had run over to his father (and as he ran he couldn’t help thinking of that marvellous film where the cop Kevin Costner finds the corpse of Sean Connery, who had been like a father to him and, distraught with grief, wreaks his private revenge, hunting down the mobsters. What the hell was the title?). ‘Have they killed you, Papa? Answer me! Answer me! Have the Sardinians killed you?’ He’d knelt down beside his father’s corpse as if there were a movie camera somewhere around. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll avenge you.’ And he’d realised that the corpse was alive and was moaning. ‘Are you hurt?’ He saw the shotgun. ‘Did they shoot you?’
The caretaker murmured some incomprehensible words. A walrus after a collision with a steamer.
‘Who hurt you? Was it the Sardinians? Tell me!’ Bruno had put his ear to his mouth.
‘Naaa …’ Italo had managed to say.
‘Did you chase them off?’
‘Well done, Papa.’ He’d stroked his forehead, barely able to hold back his tears.
What a hero! What a hero! Now no one would be able to tell him his father was a coward. And all the people who said that when there’d been a break-in two years ago his father had hidden away would have to eat their words. He was proud of his pappy.
‘Did you shoot at them?’
Italo, with his eyes closed, had nodded.
‘But who was it you shot at?’ Antonio Bacci had asked.
‘Who? Who? The Sardinians, of course!’ Bruno had snapped.
What stupid questions that idiot asked!
But Italo with an effort had shaken his head.
‘It wasn’t the Sardinians, Papa? Who did you shoot at, then?’
Italo had taken a deep breath and gurgled: ‘The … the … pu … pils.’
‘The pupils?’ the two policemen chorused.
The ambulance and fire brigade had arrived an hour later.
With one snip of his cutters the fireman had severed the indestructible chain. Officer Bacci hadn’t noticed that the chain was the same one he’d given his son a few months earlier. The two ambulance men had gone into the school with a stretcher and put the caretaker on it.
Then they’d called the headmaster.
At seven o’clock Flora Palmieri parked her Y10 in the school yard.
Already there were the headmaster’s Ritmo, the deputy head’s Uno and …
A police car? Good heavens!
She went in.
Miss Gatta, the deputy headmistress, and Mr Cosenza, the headmaster, were standing in a corner of the entrance hall, muttering conspiratorially.
When she saw her, Miss Gatta came to meet her. ‘Ah, there you are at last.’
‘I came as quickly as I could …’ said Flora apologetically. ‘But what’s happened?’
‘Come and see what they’ve done …’ said Miss Gatta.
‘Who was it?’
‘We don’t know.’ Then she turned to the head. ‘Giovanni, let’s go downstairs and show Miss Palmieri what a fine job our pupils have done.’
She set off and Flora and the headmaster followed her.
To see them together, Mr Cosenza and Miss Gatta, you might think you’d suddenly been transported into the Upper Jurassic.
Mariuccia Gatta, sixty years old and unmarried, with that big shoebox-like head, those deep-set eyes as round as marbles and that blunt nose, was a dead ringer for a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the most notorious and feared of dinosaurs.<b
Giovanni Cosenza, aged fifty-three, married and a father of two, was like a Docodon. This apparently insignificant mouse-like little creature, with its pointed nose and protruding incisors, is thought by some palaeontologists to have been the first mammal to appear on the planet when the reptiles still ruled the roost.
Small, unseen, these progenitors of ours (we’re mammals too!) raised their young in underground burrows, ate berries and seeds and crept out after dark when the dinosaurs slept, their metabolisms slowing, and snaffled their eggs. When the great cataclysm came (meteor, ice ages, shift in the earth’s axis, and all the rest of it) those great scaly monsters dropped like flies and the Docodons suddenly found themselves lords of all creation.
Life’s often like that, the people you wouldn’t give a penny for end up rubbing your face in the dirt.
And sure enough the Docodon had become headmaster and the T. Rex, deputy headmistress. But this didn’t mean a thing, because it was Miss Gatta who held power in the school and fixed the timetables, the shifts, the make-up of the classes and everything else. She took all the decisions, and without hesitation. She was the bossy type and she ordered the head, the teaching staff and the pupils about like a troop of soldiers.
The first thing you noticed about the headmaster, Giovanni Cosenza, when you talked to him, was his protruding teeth, his moustache and those eyes that looked everywhere except at you.
The first time Flora had met him she’d been very disconcerted, while he was talking he stared up at a point on the ceiling, as if there were, I don’t know, a bat or a huge crack up there. He moved jerkily, as if every movement were produced by a single muscular contraction. For the rest he was dull and ordinary. Skinny. With a greying fringe that fell over his tiny face. As timid as a weasel. As ceremonious as a Japanese.
He had two suits. A summer one and a winter one. The intermediate seasons might just as well not have existed as far as he was concerned. When it was cold, as it was that day, he would put on his dark-brown flannel suit, when it was warm, his pale-blue cotton one. In both suits the trousers were far too short and the shoulders too thickly padded.