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Arrival in Naples – Settling In

An obese lady with enormous breasts – it was impossible to hazard a guess as to her age – was there to greet us. Karen introduced her as Mrs. Napoletano and promptly vanished. Mrs. Napoletano spoke no English but immediately subjected me to a torrent of Italian, punctuated with frantic gesturing. Although I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, I could deduce from her sign language that she was talking about money. Indeed, in all my dealings with Mrs. Napoletano over the years, I don’t believe I ever heard her speak about anything other than money or food. 

Mrs. Napoletano inserted a heavy iron key into an old wooden door, which she then shoulder-butted. It burst open with a loud crack and in we went. The place was quite literally falling to pieces. Fragments of plaster littered the floor and the furniture was protected by a thick covering of dust. Mrs. Napoletano shooed me into a room, which I immediately, and quite correctly, took to be mine. The walls, wherever they still had any paint attached to them, were dirty lilac in colour. There was a camp bed in the corner with a filthy sheet covered in a brown stain. Mrs. Napoletano caught me looking distastefully at it. “Caffé,” she hurriedly reassured me. The room was vile. Its only saving grace was an impressive chandelier with sockets for eight light bulbs. Only two had been fitted and a flick of the light switch confirmed that only one of these was working. I looked around, dejectedly. Mrs. Napoletano, who had hooked her fish and was scared of his escaping as he was reeled in, had read my thoughts. She ushered me out of the room, through the kitchen so fast that I didn’t have time to look left or right, doubtless her intention, and out onto an enormous terrace. Here, my spirits soared. This was more like it! No, it wasn’t a view over the Bay of Naples. It was a view of several other apartment blocks, all of them crumbling, all of them with washing hanging from lines tied to balconies, TV aerials and various other uprights. Naples football flags and the occasional battered Italian tricolour fluttered in the breeze. The sun was high in the sky and brought the facades of the buildings to colourful life. It warmed the russet red tiles of the terrace and I could feel them begin to burn my feet through my shoes. If my calculations were correct, this terrace would be bathed in sunlight from morning to evening. You could fit a huge table out here, and a good 25 people could all sit round it, scoffing seafood and quaffing crisp white wine. I could see them now: my friends from school and university raising their glasses to me, their flushed pink faces radiating contentment and gratitude for such a pleasant afternoon spent in good company … 

“OK?” Mrs. Napoletano spoiled my reveries. If it weren’t for that damn room. 

“OK,” I said and smiled weakly. I turned my back on her and wished that she would bugger off and leave me to settle in. She didn’t. Instead, she gave a cough, which was an obvious request for me to turn round and face her, rather than an attempt to clear her throat. I did so, reluctantly. She held up her hand and rubbed her thumb and fingers together in a gesture which, in any language, means “money”. 

“What the bloody hell does she want now?” I wondered. “A tip?”

“Trecentocinquantamilalire. In anticipo.”

“I’m sorry?”

“She wants 350 thousand up front,” said a voice behind Mrs. Napoletano. A young man stood there in a pair of shorts. He was stocky and squat, with dark hair and a deep suntan. I took him to be an Italian who spoke remarkably good English. His Brummie accent was so accurate, it was uncanny. 

I pulled out some crumpled banknotes from my jeans. This Italian money was weird stuff; so many zeros, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Mrs. Napoletano clearly had no such difficulty. The minute she saw the mistreated notes in my sweaty fingers, she practically pounced, taking three notes of one colour and one of another, smoothed them out with her fingers, held them up to the sunlight, carefully folded them and tucked them into her cleavage. Having got what she wanted, she turned and, despite her considerable carriage, managed to flounce contentedly back through the kitchen and out of the apartment without another word. 

“Strewth!”

“She’s alright when you get to know her.”

The young Italian man smiled and stepped forward, thrusting out a muscular arm. I shook his hand. 

“Pete,” he said.

“Oh, so you’re not Italian, then?”

“Christ, no.”

I was struck by the fact that he had practically no neck; his head seemed to rest between his shoulders. He reminded me of a young Richard Nixon. 

“Come in and meet the others.”

“The others?”

When we went back into the apartment, something miraculous had happened. The kitchen had filled with people. They were everywhere; on every chair, every work surface, standing in the doorway, male and female and, apart from Pete, unmistakeably British. All of them were staring at me in curiosity and, perhaps, with a hint of hostility. Pete opened the fridge, grabbed a bottle of beer, opened it and held it out to me. Many pairs of eyes still bore into me and I felt as though I were being subjected to the first test. I took a swig. Not a single eye lowered. 

“Hi!” I ventured. A murmur rippled round the kitchen. More beers were opened and, slowly, the atmosphere began to warm a little, or, if not exactly warm, at least thaw. 

Heavens above, but doesn’t the English teaching profession attract some strange creatures? Much later on, after years in the profession, I thought I’d met just about every type of weirdo you could ever meet, but I still hadn’t even scratched the surface. And many of them were sitting here now in my new kitchen. It quickly became clear that they and I were destined to get on each others’ nerves. Guardian-reading, ultra-liberal, anti-capitalist (except when it came to protecting their own financial interests, of course), and tolerant of practically everything vile, we had absolutely no common ground at all. That afternoon, I was to learn that my new bosses were nothing but thieves who were only interested in turning a profit; that I had to be careful with Karen, as she would sack me as soon as look at me; that I could expect to be working the most antisocial hours and Saturday mornings to boot; that the contract I would sign would not be worth the paper it was written on; that the whole experience was worth enduring only because, when the academic year finished in July, I could disappear to the beach for a month before returning to England and getting a “proper job”. 

Why, I wondered, had they all come back for a second or third year, if it were all so awful? Why weren’t they all doing “proper jobs”? But my innocent questions were interpreted as provocation, and those who didn’t shrug turned on me spitefully. Clearly I knew nothing. In fact, I knew less than nothing. But I would learn. They gave nasty laughs and took further swigs of their beer. The atmosphere froze over once more and the rest of the afternoon passed in embarrassed silence. 

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