Roberto was waiting in Catello’s office to show us around the new flat. He was a distinguished-looking man with longish, grey hair, swept back over his head, expensive gold-rimmed glasses, corduroy trousers and cream pullover, and a haunting, haunted expression. He quizzed us in a friendly manner on why we wanted to leave Naples and come to live in Vico, and he smiled sadly, nodding his head as I cited deteriorating mental health as the main reason.
“I understand you. Believe me, I understand you only too well. My wife and I were very happy whenever we spent any time here. As I’m sure you can imagine, however, it gives me no pleasure to come to Vico at all now. I can’t bring myself to sell the place. Too many happy memories. But I certainly don’t want to stay there on my own. That’s why I asked my dear friend Catello here to find somebody who would treat the flat with the love and respect that my wife had for it. Please, please look after it. I think you’ll find me a very reasonable landlord.”
We told him that we didn’t doubt it and promised that we would, indeed, look after the place very well.
“Well then,” said Roberto, with his melancholy smile. “Let’s go and take a look.”
We climbed the stairs to the top floor together and Roberto seemed to lose twenty years all of a sudden, bounding up the flights three stairs at a time. As we went inside, he became a lot more talkative than he had been back in Catello’s office.
“Now, look at this,” he was saying. “Small but beautifully set out. This looks like a cupboard, but it’s actually a washing machine and there’s lots of extra storage space up there. Catello will no doubt have told you that that’s a bunk bed there. You can use it as a cupboard and …,” he practically leapt into the sitting room, “that’s a double bed – actually very comfortable, even though it’s only a pull-out, and then, of course, …” He scuttled out onto the balcony and threw open his arms at the view that lay before us. Words failed him and he collapsed onto a wooden chair, quite exhausted, and sadness engulfed him once more.
“I hope that you’ll be very happy here. It’s a nice place and the people are lovely.” He winked at me. “You certainly won’t see me here very often. It upsets me, to be honest. But please don’t hesitate to call me if you have any problems.” He shook our hands warmly. I liked Roberto and I admired him. I was becoming very wary of Neapolitans and, in my experience, the friendlier they appeared to be, the more reason you had to be wary of them. But I could tell that Roberto was not acting. I wondered whether I could have coped so well if Giovanna had simply dropped dead one morning after her morning croissant.
Roberto did, indeed, prove to be a prince of a man and never gave us reason to complain about anything at all. I was delighted when I met him in Vico after several years, accompanied by his new wife, a lovely lady who had banished the melancholy smile from his face and replaced it with an expression of pure serenity.
“If you’re interested,” said Catello when Roberto had left us, “a few of us meet up every Sunday to go walking in the mountains.”
“What mountains?” I asked him.
He looked at me as if I were a complete cretin. He didn’t bother to answer me but swept a theatrical hand towards what was, indeed, a mountain range that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Oh. What mountains are those?”
“Monte Faito and the Monti Lattari,” he told me. “Many beautiful walks to be had around here, I can promise you. Make sure you bring some stout shoes. We meet at 7:30 here in my office.”
We decided to give it a go. After six years in Naples, an abundance of fresh air was just what the doctor ordered. The exercise would be good for me as well. As life had got more and more unbearable in Naples, I had turned every more to the comforts of food and drink and this had taken its toll on my waistline and jowls. It was high time I got back into shape. Catello and the others were waiting in the office for us when we arrived at half past seven on Sunday morning. Catello, one of the first Italians I had met who prized comfort over elegance any day of the week, was wearing a pink polo shirt with khaki slacks and rugged, well-worn walking boots. Two friends were with him: a hyper-active joker by the name of Alfredo, who we could immediately see would be great fun to be with, and Nello, a quiet but authoritative man, dressed in smart-casual fashion, who we later discovered was something of a big cheese at the handling company in Capodichino airport.
“Where are we off to today, then?” I asked, rubbing my hands together in anticipation.
“Well, first, we’re off to the bar,” said Catello. “We’re going to need some sustenance if we’re not going to collapse en route.”
Catello led the way and we all marched into Bar Aldo, a regular port of call, judging by the way everyone greeted the little party of walkers.
“Where to today, then, Geometra?” asked a kindly-looking man of late-middle years, who I took to be Aldo himself, addressing Catello by his title of “Chartered Surveyor”.
“Punta Campanella,” replied Catello.
“Where’s that?” I asked, taking a bite from my enormous cream-filled croissant, still warm from the oven, and washing it down with gulps of hot, sweet cappuccino.
“It’s out in Massa Lubrense; it’s the westernmost tip of the Sorrento Peninsula. Very beautiful and well-known for its flora and fauna.”
Croissants seen safely off, we bundled into Alfredo’s Mercedes and headed off along the Sorrento coastline, through Sorrento itself and out to Massa Lubrense, the mass of land after Sorrento. We stopped the car in Temini, Massa Lubrense’s main town.
“This,” said Catello proudly, “is Massa. What do you think?”
Massa was, indeed, glorious. Beautiful, tempestuous and utterly, utterly wild, with weather-beaten villas, sinister watchtowers and old, gnarled women dressed in black, carrying baskets of loaves. Cars were very few and far between and you would honestly have believed that you had travelled back to one of the happier periods of Mussolini’s domination, when people did what they were bloody well told and didn’t cover everything in litter and graffiti. We walked from Termini down to Punta Campanella at Massa’s very tip, famous for its fine fishing, scuba diving, sailing and other pleasant summer pursuits. But for me, it’s at its best in early spring or late autumn, those times of the year when the winds are at their most tumultuous and savage seascapes result. Giovanna and I ignored Catello’s advice not to take the steps down to the water, as it was just too much to resist. Damn dangerous, mind you, as one good gust would have had us hurled into the sea, and we would have been dashed to pieces against the rocks in the gale that was blowing. Once we got down there, we came across a man and his son doing some fishing. Some very successful fishing, judging by the bucket of gilthead and grey mullet that he had anchored to the rocks. The son was lobbing a compound of bread and cheese into the froth like it was going out of fashion, and the plentiful food and the frenzy of the water seemed to drive the fish nuts. Those that did not take the bait attached to the line, were literally hurling themselves against the rocks, where they were plucked up in their dazed state and reunited with their hapless chums in the bucket. In front of us lay Capri, so close that you felt you could almost touch it. It was like being in an IMAX theatre.
Not that it’s unpleasant on a hot summer’s day; far from it. On many an occasion during the summer, our little band of plucky walkers would return to Punta Campanella to pick wild fennel and eat figs directly from the trees. Now, cast your mind back 20, 30, 40 years, or whatever, to your schooldays. Have you done it? Do you remember O-level biology? It’s a hot summer’s day and you can hear the crickets and grasshoppers outside. There’s no air-conditioning and you are wondering how it can be that photo-bloody-synthesis is so incredibly exciting for your teacher, when it’s so excruciatingly boring for you. Do you remember that? And do you remember how you just wanted to tell the teacher to shove photosynthesis right up his bottom before walking out and cycling off to an idyllic spot in the country to make yourself seriously ill on a bottle of rough cider and a packet of Woodbines? Well, Punta Campanella is that spot. We stayed there for what seemed like an eternity, exploring underground caves and admiring Mother Nature at her most ferocious. And then we took the long way back round to Termini, a route that involved scaling a mountain that offered the most unbelievable views of the Bay of Ieranto and back over the peninsula. And I knew that I would never leave this place. I had a sneaking suspicion that we would be Catello’s faithful walking companions for some time to come.