Short stories

The Curse of Naples

Grabbing the bag.  Dashing past the burning tyres.  Skirting round the car on bricks.  Jumping over the stinking sewer.  Landing on corrugated tin.  A starving cat bolting over the crumbling wall.

Behind Lucia, beneath the motorway, a shamble of caravans and shacks, a rabble of lazy men, hungry children, broken mothers.  Ahead, her older sister and two cousins.  They’re smoking and talking.  Dresses and boys and gossip.  Their bums wiggle and their words come to Lucia.  Bold words.  Bad words.  Her sister stops and waits for her, as do the words.  There are always words waiting.  You grow and the words become things.  Things that happen to you in the night.

The cousins are arguing.  Always arguing.  The sister is squinting her eyes against the sun, scowling at the boy who scurries past.  Holes in his jeans.  Bruises on his face.  ‘Run home, loser,’ the sister shouts.  ‘Your mama is in bed with her brother.’

Lucia always gets the bag; the others are too cool to be seen carrying it.  One day she’ll get rid of it, when the little sister is old enough.  Lucia will run ahead then, with the wiggling bums and the bad words.  She’ll smoke and strut and shout rude things at passing boys.  She’ll turn every so often and wait for the little sister.  And she’ll know that the day is coming when the bad words will catch the little sister too.

The others start to run.  ‘Quick, the train’s leaving’.  They’re lying, just to make Lucia run with the bag, just so they can laugh.  She runs anyway.

As the girls pass through the train carriage, arms creep round handbags, clutching them tight, pulling them in like beloved pets.  Soon the air is so heavy that Lucia starts to cough.  The cousins argue.  The sister stares out the window.

A child, encircled by his mother’s arm, is pulled close.  He peeps from beneath a perfect fringe, his brown eyes wide and curious.  They watch each other for a while, the boy and the girl.  A hint of a smile in his eyes.  It sparks the hint of a smile in Lucia’s, the age-old hatred split for a second by the innocence of childhood.  Until the mother sees.  Sharp words hissed in the child’s ear and he frowns, scowls, sticks his tongue out.  Lucia knew it was coming.  As she jumps from the train, she gives him and his mother two fingers.

On the platform, a cousin shoves a wallet into her pocket.  It came from a tourist with earphones, one hand on the rail, the other holding a map, oblivious to the hatred.  Round the corner, they huddle in and count the cash.  More than they’ve seen in weeks.

Heavy, heavy bag.  Too heavy for this bright day.  Lucia wants to empty it in a bin.  They have enough money now, but the stolen notes are too big and crisp and new to have been exchanged for the trinkets in the bag.  They must return to the camp with pockets full of small change, grudgingly scraped from the bottom of purses.  Handed over carefully, without touching.

The bigger cousin kneels down beside a muddy puddle and beckons.  Lucia shakes her head.  Not today.  It’s a day for being clean and bright.  But she has no choice.  The cousin’s fingers drip with mud and it feels so clammy and sad on Lucia’s cheeks.  Tears would be good, the cousin says; tears on a muddy face could melt a heart of stone.  Lucia shakes her head.  If the cousin wants tears, let her make her own.

They leave Lucia in a cold underpass, sitting on the bag, her wares set out around her.  It doesn’t do for the others to hang about.  No one feels sorry for a gang of young girls, but one grubby girl alone, with sad eyes and upturned hands, and the tourists can’t refuse.

The smaller cousin appears and dumps something on Lucia’s lap.  A laugh, and she’s gone.  Lucia is glad she changed into ragged clothes before she came down to the underpass, for this thing does not smell good.  A weak sound and Lucia knows it.  The camp is crawling with them, kittens that no one wants.  This one is cold and shaking, its fur matted and scabbed.  One eye is gone, the other thick with pus.  From the bag, she takes a red hankie.  She wraps the kitten carefully.  On her lap, it sleeps, enfolded in the layers of her dirty skirt.

When her pockets are full, Lucia changes and emerges into the sun.  Glancing back at the underpass, she wonders how long the little sister will last down there when her time comes.  She’s wild, the little sister, just like the cousins.  Maybe she’ll seek out the words for herself, long before they can catch her.

‘Come on’, the cousins shout.  ‘The beach’.  As Lucia struggles to keep up with them, she wants to ask her sister to carry the bag.  But she might look inside, and throw the kitten in the gutter.

The smell of the sea is strong.  It’s clean, like their grandmother’s laundered sheets.  No burning tyres in the camp on Nonna’s wash-day; no one would dare.  Sometimes Lucia sneaks from her own dirty sleeping bag to Nonna’s clean bed.  Sometimes a cousin or a sister gets there first.

There are diamonds in the sea and they take Lucia’s breath.  She can’t speak, can’t hear the others telling her to start with the family by the steps.  There is nothing but the sea.  It is whispering as it caresses the sand, diamonds dancing.  Whispering her to come.  Don’t look back.

A hand on her arm.  A cousin.  A vicious nip.  Lucia turns from the water.  They push her towards the steps and the picnicking family.  See how greedy they are, with their roast chicken and prosciutto, their ciabatta and olive oil.  See how rich they must be.  Lucia can smell the chicken.  It makes her mouth water.  The innocent laughter of the two children makes her heart sad.  No open sewers outside their bedroom windows.  They will not do their homework by the flickering light of the last candle, as the motorway rumbles over their heads.  They will never cower in fear while the police tear their homes apart.  They will always have light and heat and running water.  They will always belong.

It has started.  Whispers to the children and they move closer to their parents.  Bags and belongings are guarded, zips closed.  Their food does not taste so good now, and Lucia is glad.

No one is buying.  Above the laughter of playing children, Lucia hears the word.  It comes from a young mother, her brown skin shining with oil.  Lucia has heard the word before and it didn’t sting.  Today, it hurts like boiling water poured on a raw wound.  Today, she wants to cry out.  We were born here, she wants to shout, just like your children.  She moves on, a wooden turtle in one hand, a hankie in the other.  An older lady takes pity, buys the turtle, almost smiles.

The cousins won’t let her stop, though she’s been round everyone.  Her curse isn’t wild enough, one tells her.  Her face is too happy, the other says.  Her sister says nothing.  She’s sorry for Lucia, but she won’t cross the cousins.

On her second trip around the sunbathers, the scorn is so thick Lucia can taste it.  A boy throws a stone.  It stings her leg and he laughs.  She utters the worst curse she has ever heard, shivering inside as the venom pours from her.  The boy laughs again and she realises that the curse meant nothing to him.  It was in her grandmother’s language, not his.  She wouldn’t even know how to translate it; perhaps there are no Italian words for such poison.

Lucia turns to find the others gone.  They were sitting on the steps at the sea wall when she last looked, as far from the scorn as possible.  Have they left her?  Perhaps the last train has left too.

Footsteps.  Children, braver now that she’s alone.  Creeping up on her.

Whispering.  Mocking.  The word.

Scum.  Scum.  Scum.

And she knows.  It doesn’t matter where she was born.  They will never be the same.  She takes a step towards them, spits, and they back away.

From the shore, a cousin calls out.  They’re paddling in the shallow water, where the sea is etching flames into the sand.  Lucia snatches the bag and runs.  No one follows.

When she reaches their shoes, discarded on the sand, Lucia looks inside the bag.  She kneels and digs a hole with her hands.  She places the dead kitten carefully, crosses herself, and scoops the crumbling sand into the hole.

Jeans turned up, she throws off her shoes.  The diamonds have merged and the sea is molten silver.  She lifts the sparkling water in her hands to wash the mud from her face.

Below the cliff at the end of the bay, the others have clambered up on the rocks.  Lucia laughs as she tries to run towards them.  Her legs are heavy, her heart so light, as the sea splashes from her and rises in sparkling droplets.  She lifts her face to the sun and screams with joy.

They help her up on the rocks.  One cousin keeps an eye on their belongings.  The others lie flat out.  The sun is growing hotter.  The tide is coming in and the sea is deeper.  Lucia is captivated.  Nonna whispered of the sea once, of a different sea, a childhood sea, in the days before she left her home.  She cried as she whispered.  She should have stayed on the shores of that sea.  Stayed where she belonged, where people were all the same.  She should have kept her heart to herself, kept it from the wandering gypsy that took her from her home, dragged her from one stinking camp to another and another and another.  And left her.  Discarded.  Scum.

It wasn’t always that way, Nonna had whispered.  We came from somewhere good.  We belonged.  One day the sea will take us back; it will take us home.

Home.

The cousins gasp as Lucia leaps from the rocks.  As she hits the sea, it sprays up in front of her.  Through the broken water, she can see the cousins’ shocked faces.  It’s good to shock the cousins.

Before, the sea had a floor; now it’s gone.  Lucia slips beneath the waves, water gushing into her nose and mouth.  As she struggles, she’s aware of her sister beside her.  They sink together.  Lucia holds her breath, though the cold makes her want to gasp.  Her body rises a little and she can see the sun glinting through the shifting waves.  In just a moment, her head will clear the water and she will breathe.  She will laugh.  She raises a hand above the water, reaching for a cousin.  There is nothing there, just waves that break on the rocks and force her back down.

Lucia has known pain before, but not like this.  Her chest is being crushed by giant boulders.  She cannot hold her breath.  She gasps and screams, but the rushing water silences her.  It burns and tears and paralyses her throat.

Her sister has slipped away.  The pain rises and rises.  It is new and terrifying and consuming.  And she knows.  She can’t fight this.  The struggle is useless.  There is no point in trying; there never was.

As the struggle stops, she is filled with calm.  The pain slips from her.  She watches it sail away on the silver sea, just like Nonna’s dreams.  Her body is tingling all over, music ringing in her ears.  A light so bright it takes the chill from her body and warms her to her heart.

Home.  She’s going home.