POZZUOLI, NAPOLI 1932
‘Carlo! Carlo! Aspetta! Wait for me!’
Ninuccia sounded slightly distressed. Carlo glanced back to see where she was. He caught sight of her far below, the parcel wrapped in newspapers tightly grasped to her chest as she lifted her short legs to climb each step. Her dark curls were dripping with sweat. She called again, louder.
He waved to her, frustrated, encouraging her to hurry.
Two women scrubbing clothes at the water fountain watched the scene unfold. They reproached him, laughing.
‘Carlo’! Wait for her! She’s only three. Poveretta!’
Carlo shrugged his shoulders, flashed an amiable smile and ran on barefoot up the steps. Ninuccia would take too long to climb up the steps to get home. She’d arrive when she did. He couldn’t wait; he was too hungry. His sister’s calls faded in the distance.
Everyone knew Carlo in the Rione Terra. He was Annunziata’s son.
He was a good looking boy, taller than average for his seven years, fair skinned with thick blonde hair. His large, dark, almond shaped eyes filled his aquiline face; his sweet cherub lips lit up his face when he smiled.
Everyone knew Carlo because Carlo knew everyone! He never passed without a call of greeting, a quick word of encouragement or a nod of interest. He had the uncanny knack of seeing everyone as a person, an individual; a fortunate talent. The two women had known him since he was born, but it was as if he had known them before they were born.
Swinging a brown paper parcel tied with string, he skipped up the narrow vicoletto, counting the hundred and seventy eight steps to reach home. It was almost midday and the shaded alleyway was gratifyingly cool in the summer heat. An occasional a shaft of light cut through the gloom and lit the way.
The buildings on either side of the steps were four and five stories high, jumbled and haphazard, so close together that people leaned out and spoke to each other from balcony to balcony as if in the same room. Washing hung shamelessly between the houses creating a spectacle of underwear, slips and vests; towels, sheets and tablecloths. An endless cascade of children’s clothes, hung outside narrow balconies in ever decreasing order.
On every door step, women huddled together in twos and threes, their aprons pulled up onto their laps, full of vegetables to prepare for the midday meal; long mottled borlotti beans, fresh pods of pea green piselli or bunches of leafy green friarielli. To help keep the backs of their necks cool, their dark hair was piled up and tied back with coloured rags, their bronzed faces flushed. Their dark eyes darting from face to face, engaging in the animated Puteolana dialect, enjoying una bella chiacchierata as they podded, topped and tailed the vegetables. They tossed the speckled beans and vibrant leaves into a bowl, the stalks and empty pods discarded casually onto the steps.
Other women were darning clothes or carefully embroidering pieces of lace, neither fingers nor tongues ever idle. Ragged children of all ages, barefoot and hatless, ran up and down the steps shouting and laughing or sitting in huddles, miniature imitations of their mothers and aunts, gossiping intently themselves.
There was not an inch of space spare, a centimetre unused. Most families lived in one room, a dozen or more people together, little space for furniture other than a table, some chairs and a bed. There was no such thing as privacy; everyone knew everyone’s business. Windows and doors were thrown open all day so that conversations, arguments and loving were heard by all.
Life spilled out into the alley, the opportunity of space and fresh air jealously enjoyed. The street was their living room. Every morning, on every available spot, tables were carried out, covered with anything to hand, a sheet of newspaper or an embroidered tablecloth. A random selection of odd cutlery, plates and glasses were laid, a candle or lamp, a jug of water, a fiasco of wine, ready, anticipating the next mealtime. Toothless ancient, great grandmothers, too old to help, were already perched at tables, observing the goings on, patiently waiting to eat. Groups of grandfathers sat absorbed playing Briscola together, cool in sleeveless vests, their large bellies a sign of comfort and success to their wives and mistresses.
The people of il Rione Terra had very little; they expected very little. The ancient fortified settlement perched above the Bay of Pozzuoli, a four hour walk along the coast, North of Naples. The continuously gasping Vesuvius menacingly loomed over them. Blessed with the sun, the sea and an appreciation of life’s brevity they lived intense, immediate lives.
A contented woman, Carlo’s mother constantly repeated her mantra to her son,
‘Figlio mio, magnat’, vevite e ve lavate ‘a faccia!
‘My Son, all you need is to eat, drink and wash your face!’
Carlo agreed with that, though was not so interested, at this stage, in washing his face.
As he climbed the steps smells of cooking lingered in the air. He took deep breaths, savouring the flavour of each scent; luscious fresh tomatoes softening into sugo with green oil and aromatic basil; creamy onions sweetly sizzling in olive oil; pungent sardines blackening on a grill; a sharp whiff of singed garlic and pepperoncino making him salivate. He loitered a moment to indulge in the aromas, his hunger knotting his stomach.
‘Madonna, ho fame.’
Judiciously he remembered his sister; she had the food.
He cupped his hand over his mouth and called down the steps, yelling to her to get a move on,
‘Ninuccia’! Ninnuuccia’! …Forza! ’
‘I’m coming, Carlo,’ she called back.
Jumping over a sleeping tom cat, he swung around some scraggy chickens pecking in the dust. He nodded ‘buon giorno’ to Giuseppe ‘ faniente’ , the one legged beggar who always sunned himself in the pool of sunshine at the corner of his uncle, Zio Alfonso’s cobbler shop.
‘Bravo, Giuseppe,’ thought Carlo, ‘if you need to beg, you may as well beg in the sun.’
He admired Giuseppe; he was always at his corner, every day, whatever the weather.
'No matter your job,' Carlo observed, 'you need to put in the hours.'
If you enjoyed this passage from Dear Alfonso then you can purchase the paperback here: https://www.valvonacrolla.co.uk/dear-alfonso-paperback