It didn’t take long to realize that the new flat had been a mistake. Although it was great to be away from Daniel, and I was enjoying the novelty of pristine white walls uncluttered by postcards and pictures cut from magazines, we quickly came to realize that we had moved to one of the dullest corners of the city. There was absolutely nothing going on here at all; it was certainly devoid of the chaotic and colourful life that I had enjoyed in Via Pigna. And the people in this area seemed, for some unknown reason, to regard themselves as a cut above the rest of humanity. They were aloof and suspicious and, at times, downright unfriendly. The one advantage the place did have, as far as I was concerned, was that it was within walking distance of Giovanna’s flat, and I could pop round for dinner several nights a week. How I adored spending the evening over a long, leisurely dinner in their cosy little kitchen, just chatting with Giovanna’s father over a glass of wine, watching TV, and being waited on hand and foot by Giovanna’s lovely sisters, and by Giovanna herself who, quite the feminist when alone with me, fell dutifully back into the role of Stepford Wife when in the company of her family.
We were making our way there from my flat one evening, when we saw something small and furry weaving in and out of the speeding cars. It proved, on closer inspection, to be a puppy. The poor thing was tiny and, from the joyous expression on its face, it seemed blissfully unaware of the grave danger it was in. Neapolitans, in my experience, were loath to slam on the brakes for those of us with two legs, let alone for a pathetic bundle with four stumpy paws that could barely carry its negligible weight. I strode out into the street to rescue it, and the honking, snarling and yelling that accompanies any break in the traffic flow in Naples, no matter what the cause, or the severity of the casualties, immediately started. I flicked the bird at the tailback of impatient, revving motorists, picked up the ball of fluff, which took to licking my hands and wagging an apology for a tail, and brought it back to Giovanna, who dissolved into oohs and aahs, the way that women are wont to do when they come face to face with puppies, kittens or babies. The sorry creature was flea-ridden. I could see and feel that even in the dark. The blood-sucking bastards were jumping all over its skinny body like spoiled, fat children on a bouncy castle.
“What are we going to do with it?” asked Giovanna. “We can’t take it to mine. Not with five cats in the house.”
“We’ll have to take it back up to my flat,” I said. “We can’t leave it here. It’ll get skittled before you can say Jack Robinson.”
We took the dog inside and examined it under the lift’s strip-light. The puppy’s underbelly had been bitten raw by the fleas. Still, we’d soon show them what for.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” asked Giovanna.
“Boy, I think. Yes, it’s got a pair of bollocks, look.”
“Are you sure they’re bollocks? They don’t look like bollocks to me.”
“Well, what do you expect? Apricots? He’s only a few weeks old, for heaven’s sake!”
That settled it. It was a boy. “Good boy!” I said, tickling him behind the ear. The dog closed its eyes, licked my hand and thoroughly enjoyed the attention. Whatever limited experience he had had of human beings, it must have been positive, for he wasn’t in the least bit wary of us.
Once inside the flat, we filled the bathroom sink with hot water and plunged the dog into it. This it did not like and began to quiver and quake, as if it were only now beginning to entertain the thought that our intentions might be less than wholesome. It was easier to spot the fleas among the wet fur. Giovanna began to pluck at them and drop them in the water, but they managed to reach safety at the side of the sink and jump straight back onto the dog.
“Not like that!” I rebuked her. “Like this. Watch.” I picked up a flea between my thumb and forefinger and squeezed hard. It made a faint but satisfying squelching sound and I rinsed my fingers in the water.
“Ugh!” said Giovanna. “That’s disgusting!”
“No it isn’t,” I countered. “It’s fun. Go on! Try it!”
She did and was an instant convert. Over an hour later, we were still crushing fleas under Thomas’s bemused gaze.
“What are you going to call him?” asked Thomas.
“We’re not,” I replied. “First thing tomorrow, after it’s had a slap-up breakfast, it’s going down to the abandoned animals’ stall in Piazza Vanvitelli, and then it’s addio.”
“Shame,” said Thomas. “He’s very sweet.”
He was. But there was no way I could keep a dog. I was out for most of the day and dogs needed attention. We patted him with a towel and dried him with a hairdryer, which he seemed to love, and Giovanna went off to scrounge some cat food from her parents. She was back 20 minutes later with some meaty-chunks in jelly and a packet of cat biscuits, and the dog gratefully hogged everything we gave it. We made up a basket for it in a shoe-box out in the hall, and went to bed, naively thinking that it would settle down for the night. It didn’t. It scratched and whined and snuffled at the door until we had no choice but to let it in. The first thing I saw when I woke up the next morning was its dear little face looking up at me. When it saw that I was awake, its tail immediately began to wag. But there was no room for sentimentality. We had to find this dog an owner. The good people who ran the stall down at Piazza Vanvitelli would look for one, and if they didn’t find one today, they would take the dog away themselves and continue to look over the coming weeks. We had done our bit. Now the problem was someone else’s.
But things didn’t turn out quite the way we had planned. Massimo, the young man in charge of the stall, gave the dog the once over.
“You’re welcome to stay here and find it an owner,” he said. “But you can’t leave it with us. It’s got a skin disease. It would infect all the other animals. Stand over there with it and don’t let it go near the other dogs.”
The puppy certainly attracted a lot of attention from passers-by. They stopped to caress it behind its ears, to tickle it under the chin and to show it to their children.
“I do hope you find someone to look after it,” they all said one after the other. “I’d take it myself, but …”.
There was always an excuse. The flat is too small. The mother-in-law is allergic to them. I spend too much time at work. I already have one. I have a cat. What will I do with it when I go on holiday?
“It just goes to show, though,” said Giovanna. “There’s a lot of good will around.”
“No it doesn’t,” I disagreed. “It just shows that there are a lot of pretty words around. You can’t tell me that not one of these people has a home that would be ideal for a dog.” Giovanna shrugged.
At the end of the day, we had come no closer to finding the puppy a home. I had to work the next day, but Giovanna volunteered to come down again and have another go. I wasn’t surprised to find the dog still in the house when I got home from work the next evening. The same thing happened the following day. And the day after that. On the fourth day, I was shocked to discover that I was relieved when I saw the little ball of fur bounding up to me as I opened the front door.
It was difficult having a dog in the house, there was no denying it. He chewed up shoes and books. He pissed and shat everywhere. One day he even managed to get into the bath, bite a hole in a bottle of shampoo, spilling its contents everywhere, shit in the plughole for good measure, and then jump out and run around the house leaving a pungent mixture of pine shampoo and shit on every surface. It smelled as if someone had crapped on a Christmas tree, and we spent every waking moment cleaning up after him. But I was beginning to fall in love with the little fellow, and Giovanna was as well.
“Why don’t you take him to the vet’s tomorrow?” I asked Giovanna. “Let’s see if we can’t do something about that skin disease.”
Giovanna was stony-faced when I came back from work the next day.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well, the dog has two main problems. Firstly, it’s got scabies.”
“Secondly, it’s suffering from an identity crisis. That thing you saw between its legs? It doesn’t have bollocks. It has a vulva. He is a she!”
“Oh. Well, there’s not much we can do about that. What can we do about the scabies?”
“We can treat it. But it’ll cost you 300 000 lire.”
We ate dinner in silence and listened to the dog playing with a squeaky toy out on the balcony.
“I was thinking,” I said to Giovanna. “I don’t mind coughing up the money. But if I do, I want to keep him.”
“Her,” Giovanna corrected me.
“Her,” I repeated.
“It’s a big responsibility.”
“I know. But I love that little dog. I’ll cry for a week if we have to give him up now.”
“Her,” Giovanna corrected me again.
“Her,” I repeated. It felt strange.
“The vet did say that dogs get used to peoples’ rhythms. If it gets used to you being out of the house all day from an early age, it shouldn’t be a problem, he said.”
Giovanna thought for a moment. Then she smiled.
“What are we going to call her?” she asked. I hugged her.
We settled on the name Pulcinella, after the Commedia dell’Arte character, a Neapolitan mandolin-playing minstrel in a white outfit with a black mask, who had earned his name – roughly translated as “fleabag” – by irritating the powers that be, and the rich and pompous of the day, with his brand of satire. Although it was really a name for a male dog, not a female, we felt it was appropriate for this particular puppy, for not only was she a Neapolitan with a positive, optimistic take on life, she could also be irritating and was often riddled with fleas. Besides, we never called her anything over than Pucci.