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Goodbye to the JWs and Arriverderci to Napoli

I awoke the next morning to find an ever-more corpulent Mrs. Napoletano teetering atop a step ladder in my bedroom, and rummaging around in a cupboard. I felt red hot anger fill my chest. How dare she just come into my room like this, while I was asleep and … “I’m looking for the top section of my Christmas tree.” She had noticed that I was awake. “Have you seen it?” I shook my head. “I’m sure I left it in here, porca miseria.” I glanced quickly at my improvised Christmas tree in the corner. Thank goodness it was unrecognisable under all the junk. “I can’t understand it,” Mrs. Napoletano was continuing. “Are you sure you haven’t seen it?” I nodded. She stared at me for a second or two and then descended from the ladder, her huge bottom wobbling, and departed, muttering under her breath. 

I was feeling morose, although I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t just the result of having woken up to the spectacle of Mrs. Napoletano on a step ladder that was making me feel this way. There was something else. Something I had to do. Then I remembered. I had decided to tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I no longer wanted to continue studying the Bible with them. I had been going to their house for some weeks now, and I had always enjoyed it. They were good company and I found that I could even understand what Riccardo was saying these days, without Manuela having to interpret, although I was not yet able to reply in Italian. But I had started to feel that it wasn’t fair on them. For me, it was a diversion, a pleasant way of spending an evening. For them, it was deadly serious. And yet it was absolutely clear to me, by now, that I could never be a Jehovah’s Witness. What made it particularly difficult for me to accept their religion was their dogged determination to turn the Bible into a scientific text book. Yet, they would make use of science when it suited them, and reject it when it did not. They claimed that man had lived for only 6000 years; that they could demonstrate that Satan and his angels had been hurled to earth in 1914; that only 144 000 Jehovah’s Witnesses would make it to heaven while all other Jehovah’s Witnesses would inherit the earth, after Armageddon, and render it perfect. Everybody else, miserable sinners that they were, would face an eternity of death. There was no mystery of faith at all. The Bible must be 100% accurate, they maintained, for it was dictated word for word by God, and God does not make mistakes or contradict himself. If I pointed out to them that there were, unquestionably, contradictions in the Bible, they would become sulky and accuse me of “negative thinking”. Could it not be, I asked them, that, rather than being dictated word for word by God, the Bible was simply “inspired” by God; that God had made use of man’s natural propensity to record what happens to him? No, they insisted. It could not be. The Bible was a jigsaw puzzle and every piece fitted. I came to despair of what I viewed as their fundamental intellectual dishonesty.

And yet, I was sad about it, for there were many things I liked about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I found their angry, vengeful God much more interesting than the namby-pamby, hand-wringing, bleeding-heart liberal God of the Anglican church. I liked the idea of a God who went around smiting everything there was to be smitten. I liked their magazines, “The Watchtower” and “Awake”, with their cheesy, Technicolor drawings of perfect people with perfect teeth, demonstrating to others the wickedness of their ways and bringing them to repentance; drawings of old ladies leaving the grave behind them, tears streaming down their faces; sheep lying down with lions and wolves. I also knew that this meant the end of my friendship with Manuela and Riccardo, for they had made it perfectly clear that Jehovah’s Witnesses may only be true friends to other Jehovah’s Witnesses, or those on the road to conversion, and for that I was sorry. But it had to be done, and it had to be done today, as I didn’t want it hanging in the air over Christmas, ready to cast a gloom over my first few days back in the city after the vacation. So, with a valedictory bottle of red wine under my arm, I made my way to Manuela and Riccardo’s little flat. They welcomed me warmly as usual, but when they opened the cupboard to pull out their Bibles and study books, I put up a hand to stop them. They immediately sat down, realizing that something was wrong. I had been rehearsing what I was going to say all day long but, when push comes to shove, there really is no easy way to tell people you think their religion is a load of old bollocks. They listened to what I had to say and then just sat there, smiling at me, in unbearable silence. Riccardo looked as if he were about to cry – whether for my lost soul or for all the time he had wasted on my case, I wasn’t sure. 

Dinner was an embarrassing affair, with Riccardo repeatedly telling me what a pleasure it had been, and how I mustn’t hesitate to go scampering back to them, should I ever come to understand my error. Manuela just continued to smile, having reverted to church mouse mode. Our farewells were dignified and I left the cosy little flat for the last time. Back at home, I sat on my bed with the fairy lights twinkling in the corner and couldn’t decide if I felt wretched, or whether a weight had been lifted from me. Strangely enough, after the final weeks of counting the days, and the final days of counting the hours, when the day of my departure came, I didn’t want to leave. I woke up to a warm sun and had breakfast out on the terrace in my shirt sleeves. I would only be gone two weeks, but I was astonished to find that I had a lump in my throat at the thought of leaving this place, and was overcome by an irrational fear that, having left, I would not be able to find my way back again, that the spell would be broken, just like in one of those films in which the protagonist creates a world of fantasy for himself, which then disappears in a puff of rationality at the sight of a concrete object from his former mundane existence. I really did feel that this could be my last breakfast out here on the terrace, although I knew there was no logical reason why this should be so. As far as I knew, my bosses were happy with me, and there was no reason why Mrs. Napoletano should want to evict me, provided that I continued to stump up 350 000 lire every month, and that she didn’t discover what had become of her Christmas tree’s top section. 

England would no doubt be freezing. It was odd trying to cram heavy pullovers and thick woollen socks into my suitcase, already heavily laden with wines, cheeses and bottles of limoncello. The cold gloom of the English December, which I had so recently craved, now seemed an unappealing prospect and, although I couldn’t wait to see my friends and family again, I wished the journey could wait just a few more days, perhaps a week or two. But, all too soon, the taxi was waiting outside and I hauled my case out to the front door. Off we went, the driver honking merrily, back down over the stilted motorway towering above the craziest metropolis in the western world, back to the ramshackle hut that the Neapolitans called an airport – the reverse of the journey I had made with Karen three months earlier. Naples already felt like home – and yet it didn’t. It all felt fleeting and fickle – something that I would have to grasp hold of tightly if I didn’t want it to seep through my fingers. The rest of the morning passed in a haze, and I was back flying northwards before I knew it, a copy of Il Mattino, the local Neapolitan rag spread out on my lap, along with dictionary, so that I could look up any words that looked as though they might be vital for general comprehension. I had just finished my second glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and was about to close my eyes for a moment or two, when the old lady sitting next to me suddenly announced, in Italian, “My son lives in London, you know.” “Oh … er … well. That’s nice,” I replied. “Have you ever been to England before?” “Er, yes. As a matter of fact, I am English.” “Oh, so I expect you know it quite well, then.” She smiled and went back to her puzzle book, and I thought that I might now be able to doze in peace. But no. “I’ve never been on a plane before.” “Haven’t you?” “No. In fact, I phoned British Airways last night, to make sure I had a seat. I didn’t fancy standing all the way from Naples to London.” I looked around at her, half ready to laugh, to see whether she was pulling my leg. But she was absolutely serious. 

Ding dong. There was that bloody tannoy again. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. We are currently flying over the Bavarian Alps. Normally the view would be rather spectacular, but I’m afraid the heavy cloud covering means that there’s not much to be seen today.” “What did he say?” asked my new friend. Oo-er. I was going to have to attempt a translation. I did so, and thought I had managed quite well. To my consternation, however, the old dear instantly panicked and went into a spasm of flaps that brought two hostesses down the aisle to see what the matter was. One of them uttered a few soothing words in Italian and the old lady immediately calmed down. 

“What’s the problem?” I asked the hostess. “Oh, it’s nothing. She seemed to think that the pilot couldn’t see where he was going because of the clouds.” “Oh.” I thought it wise not to attempt to say anything else in Italian, and so pretended to be asleep for the rest of the journey, snoring just that little bit more extravagantly whenever I sensed she might be about to open her mouth and say something. The last I saw of her was at baggage retrieval in Gatwick Airport. She had commandeered a luggage trolley and was waving a five pound note over her head. “Who do I have to pay for the trolley?” she asked me. “You don’t. They’re free.” After my deplorable translation aboard the plane, she clearly didn’t trust me, and off she trundled in search of other, more reliable sources of information, fluttering her fiver ostentatiously as she went. My bags had arrived. “Mind how you go, love,” I thought as I loaded them onto my trolley and headed off to find a train to Cheltenham. 

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