The duomo or cathedral of Naples, is the sort of church that makes Protestants, and my old friends the Jehovah’s Witnesses, very much ill at ease. Packed to the rafters with the sort of relics and images that lead to accusations of idolatry and even corruption, it has been known to make even hardened Catholics wince. And never more so than during the weird and wonderful festival of San Gennaro, Saint Januarius, patron saint of the City of Naples. In a little chapel in the right wing of the cathedral, Gennaro’s skull is kept along with two phials of his dried-up blood. This blood is said to liquefy twice a year in accordance with the prayers of a large crowd of Neapolitans, once on the Saturday that precedes the first Sunday in May, and again on the day of San Gennaro itself, the 19th September, the day on which the saint was decapitated in Pozzuoli. The best seats in the cathedral are reserved for “the relations of Saint Januarius”, a group of wrinkled old dears of whom there are now very few remaining, and who claim to be direct descendants of the saint. They lead the prayers and they, and the rest of the congregation, can work themselves up to a pitch that borders on aggression in the fear that the miracle might not be performed.
The liquefaction of the blood is hugely significant for the people of Naples for, if the miracle does not occur, the city can expect to be struck by some dreadful calamity. The Neapolitans I know, as is typical, cannot seem to agree on the last time the blood failed to liquefy. Some claim that it was in 1973 during the cholera epidemic. Others maintain that the blood remained stubbornly solid as recently as 1980, and the city was duly shaken by an enormous earthquake on the 23rd November. But what is certain is that the whole population of the city, those, generally of the lower working classes, who believe unquestioningly in the miracle’s authenticity, and those, generally more educated, who scoff at their more gullible brethren, are on tenterhooks until news of Gennaro’s co-operation is broadcast on the local television news.
“I don’t believe in the miracle,” one of my students, a big cheese at a local bank once told me, “but I’m always relieved when I hear that the blood has liquefied.” His attitude is typical. “The miracle is beyond question,” another student, a mechanic told me. “How beyond question?” I wanted to know. “Have scientists ever analysed the blood’s behaviour? Have they ever come up with an alternative explanation as to why it should liquefy?” “No! The scientists mustn’t be permitted to touch the blood! Gennaro might be offended. And then he would never perform the miracle again.” His attitude was also typical.
Watching the news report on 19th September, Nick was in cynical mood. “Opium for the people,” he insisted. “They keep them sitting there in the cathedral, no doubt handing round the collection tray at frequent intervals, and telling the poor suckers to cough up if they don’t want to piss Gennaro off, and then, voilà! They all go home when the miracle occurs, relieved and happy, and can forget all about the squalor they live in for a few days.” “It does seem strange,” agreed Bimbo, “that we’re coming up to the 21st century, and there are still people around who believe in all this bollocks.”
Roger was silent. He was turning a videocassette over and over in his hands, He hadn’t watched any porn at all that day and was eager for the news to finish so that he could grab his daily fix. I wasn’t at all sure about the miracle of San Gennaro. It was certainly a strange phenomenon, but I was loath to scoff. After all, I was, and remain, a great believer in miracles. And this one clearly had some sort of powerful sway over an entire city. Few were those I met who stated outright that the miracle was nonsense, and who showed no interest at all in whether it had occurred or not. And, after a few years in the city, I began to feel a strange compulsion every 19th September; a compulsion to switch on the TV every time a local news bulletin was due, to find out whether Gennaro had come up with the goods. And whenever I hear that the miracle has, indeed, taken place, I always give an involuntary sigh of relief.
“Where are you going dressed like that?” Nick demanded one evening as I was about to leave the house. I looked down at myself. It was true. I hadn’t put in much of an effort for the party, it was true. But, if truth be told, I hadn’t really wanted to go. Two of my students, twins by the name of Mimmo and Maria, were celebrating their birthday and had invited me to go along. I had tried to get out of it, as I had heard awful things about Italian parties. I had been told that I was unlikely to be offered anything stronger to drink than Coke or Fanta; that I would probably be expected to play games or sing songs. And there would be Italian music. Just hearing the description had put me in a bad mood. But it was clear to me that it was particularly important to Mimmo and Maria that I attend. And so, with a black cloud hanging over my head, I had thrown on the first clothes that came to hand and made for the door. But Nick was right. It would be an insult to go to the party dressed like this. I could, at least, iron my shirt, I supposed.
“You might even meet your future wife tonight!” shouted Nick as I left, having changed into something a little, if not a great deal, more suitable. “Bollocks!” I replied, slamming the door. I stood sulkily at the bus stop for a quarter of an hour. Nothing. “I’ll give it another quarter of an hour and if the bus doesn’t come, then I’ll say ‘Right, bollocks to it’. I’ll phone Mimmo and tell him that there were no buses,” I told myself, and felt slightly better. I spotted a pizzeria over the road and went over to buy some bottles of beer. If the Italians all wanted to sit around sipping Fanta from plastic cups and playing Pass-the-Fucking-Parcel, then that was their funeral. At least I could sit quietly in a corner and knock back a beer or two. The 15-minute deadline came and went. “Right, bollocks to it,” I said to myself, just as I had promised I would, and started to march off down the hill. At that moment the bus came round the corner. To jump on or not to jump on? I jumped on and, with very little traffic on the roads, I arrived in just 20 minutes at Mimmo and Maria’s house.“Hi! Come in! Glad you could make it!” said Mimmo, grinning broadly and ushering me into the living room where, as predicted, some truly dreadful music was playing and groups of young Neapolitans were sitting grouped around huge plastic bottles of Coca-Cola. “What can I offer you? We’ve got Coca-Cola, Fanta, or there’s some mineral water in the fridge.” “I’ve brought some beer,” I said hurriedly. “If I can just have a bottle-opener and a glass, I’ll be fine.” Mimmo handed me a bottle-opener and a plastic cup. I shrugged. Better than nothing, I supposed.
I sank into the sofa, poured some beer into the cup, and smiled at three young girls who were sitting talking together cross-legged on the floor. They smiled back at me. All three were pretty. The eldest girl had a stunning smile and a delicate face spoiled by a close-cropped hair-style that made her a little too boyish for my liking. But the other two had long, flowing locks and deep, passionate eyes. One of them had the most enormous breasts and a porcelain, doll-like face. I guessed, from the similarity that she was the older girl’s sister. Now, she was definitely my sort of girl. The older girl who, it turned out, was called Giovanna, did all the talking. She was a lot of fun and her fiery eyes and pianist’s hands darted this way and that as she spoke and gesticulated, and she expended so much energy that she made me feel quite exhausted. Giovanna was a medical student. She had another four years of study to go before she became a qualified doctor. “And what about you?” I asked the younger girl in an excuse to break the ice and involve her in a little conversation. “Do you go to university?” She dissolved into giggles and Giovanna clapped her hands together in delight and gave a loud laugh. “Federica’s only 14!” she said. “She’s still got some way to go before she starts to think about university!” Fourteen! I was glad that her age had come out so early in the conversation before I had got myself into hot water with my hosts and heaven knows who else. “Really!” I said. “You look older.” Federica blushed and lowered her eyes bashfully. “Come on!” said Giovanna, jumping to her feet in one quick movement. “The others are writing a song for Mimmo and Maria’s birthday. Let’s go and see how they’re getting on.” “In a minute,” I replied, but it was to the two girls’ backs as they bounced out of the room. The third girl stayed where she was, looking at me, from under waves of wavy dark hair.
I introduced myself. “My name is Giovanna,” the girl replied. “Oh! Another Giovanna. You’re not their sister then?” “No. Cousin.” “Oh.” I have never been one for small talk and I groped around desperately for something to say. For me, the silence was excruciating embarrassing, but it didn’t seem to bother Giovanna, who just kept on looking at me between sips of Coca-Cola. “Er, shall we go and see how that song’s coming on?” I asked. Giovanna shook her head. “Er, well … so … what do you do, then, Giovanna?” “I study.” “Oh. Splendid. Splendid. Er … what, exactly?” “Philosophy.” “Oh. Great. Really interesting.” Now, I’m not sure how it happened. I don’t even remember what we talked about. But I do remember that when the others came back out of the bedroom with the completed song ready for its first ever performance, Giovanna and I were deep in conversation. So deep, in fact, that we hadn’t noticed them come back in, and hadn’t realised how much time had passed.When the song had been duly performed, the cake cut and consumed, the birthday boy and girl toasted with Coca-Cola for the umpteenth time, and the moment had come to leave this pleasant scene, I did something I had never done before. I asked Giovanna for her phone number and, to my amazement, she nodded. She took a post-it from by the telephone and printed her name and number carefully. I thanked her, put it in my pocket, kissed her on both cheeks, did the same to her cousins and to the throwers of the party, and headed back off to get the night bus with a spring in my step.