My name is Luke. I write books now, but years ago I was crass and loud. It was mostly front of course, but the people I met seemed to find me amusing, and they included the two girls I happened upon during my youthful tour of Europe. Our paths crossed in Rome, in a cheap hostel. They were American; Victoria was Californian and fairly committed to acting the part, while Colleen was quiet, modest, and Bostonian. She listened to Victoria’s jokes and smiled subtly, only on the odd occasion appearing to find her too much. They had been travelling together since their meeting in Venice. Thus our group of three, lacking in sexual balance but platonic in the extreme, travelled down to Naples.
I was already four months into my trip. I had befriended and parted from many people, joining them or allowing them to join me while we explored new cities and miles of railway, until our vaguely pre-planned paths happened to diverge. The two girls and I wanted to visit Sicily, so from the start it looked as though fate had confined us to each other’s company for the next fortnight or so. As the train made its peaceful way to Naples I found myself competing with Victoria. The stories that we told grew more exaggerated. The height of the surf in my Australia (I was born in Sydney – I carried the cool of the city abroad with me, and I was determined to wear it) had to be higher than her west coast waves; the villages I had come across in Northern Thailand during an earlier trip had to be more remote and more primitive than those she had seen in Indonesia. These were the boasts of self labelled ‘travellers’. Colleen sat in her corner, and moved her gaze from one immature head to another. I can say that now – I am older.
I fancied Victoria intensely; she was slim and brown, her eyes were wide and dark. When we walked the streets of Rome, or through the smaller towns that we visited on the way to Sicily, strangers would not have guessed that she belonged to our otherwise scruffy group. She would not succumb to the drab practicalities that had been enforced on the wardrobe of every other traveller. Instead she looked chic, trim and clean. I wondered…could our incipient friendship be transformed? I noticed a glint in her eye as we talked. Then we dozed off. The train jogged our warm limbs. I saw the girls slip into sleep. I slept only fitfully. The pressure of Victoria’s bare leg against mine disturbed me, and I could not relax.
We arrived in Naples. The railway station, its atmosphere now familiar to me through experience elsewhere, had drawn the usual array of complex characters into its environs. The descent of dusk made the lights and the bustle of the platforms seem secure and attractive in comparison with the glimpses of the city beyond. We made our way past glaring touts, some of whom made to approach us, pulling away reluctantly from the shadows offered by the walls. I flicked to the appropriate page in my European guide. The girls moved to close the distance between us. We felt intimidated. The prostitutes scared me with their challenging smiles. The little boys, clustered together, revving their motorbikes (pathetic, whining little machines) made me anxious. I wanted to find a place to stay where the three of us could sleep safely, until daylight came to wash these shady types away. I didn’t talk. Victoria saw the worry in my eyes. The magnitude of our waves and the authenticity of our villages became irrelevant.
“Excuse me!” A sharp English voice broke through the heat, from a spot right behind me. I jumped. It was no swiftly disguised jerk, but a literal jump. The weight of my rucksack carried me off balance. The stranger put a hand out to hold my arm. He helped me to stay upright.
“You look as jittery as I feel.” he said, “Am I being paranoid, or is this one hell of a shady area?”
“You think you’re on the edge.” I smiled, but decided that quite enough had been said about my fear. I was used to travelling. This was unusual for me. “Take it you’ve just arrived.”
He nodded. Colleen jumped in,
“We’re looking for a place to stay. Do you want to come with us?” I felt a little deflated, but then the beauty of the situation struck me. Two couples; that was why Colleen had jumped in. She was feeling uncomfortable with (sexual?) tension that had sprung up between Victoria and I. While Coleen and the newcomer talked I could get to know Victoria better. Of course Victoria was quite capable of spending a month with a tall, acceptably attractive Australian man without feeling the need to have sex with him. But I would try. She had made no signals, and seemed to absorb without a ripple the intensity of my mute passion for her. I hoped that she would thaw, but was prepared for sustained neutrality. I had learned at a young age that the only way I could develop a relationship with someone on whom I had a crush was to look down at myself, and at my actions, as though I was an amused spectator. In that way, and from that imaginary distance (a sort of false, immunising retrospection, from which all our most painful embarrassments lose their edge) I could say the things I had to say without the fear of making a complete fool of myself. Thus, self absorbed and self conscious, I really didn’t pay much attention to the English boy, Charlie, who from the first charmed Colleen and made us all laugh with his cynical, irreverent humour. But this account is all about him, and I am forced to recall his words.
We found a ragged looking hostel, and accepted the owner’s terms straight away. The thought of taking to the streets again was abhorrent. Dawn washed the grime from the walls of our four-bedded room, just as it had cleansed the streets of our seedy, now dispersed welcoming party. I awoke first, and gasped as I drew the curtain. Our window overlooked the bay of Naples. Like a child at Christmas I woke the others. Arriving at Victoria’s side I hesitated. I had shaken Colleen’s shoulder as though I were a younger brother, but to touch Victoria seemed like an invasion.
“Why are you standing there?” she said, quietly.
“I was going to wake you, to see the view, it’s amazing.”
She looked up at me, all but her head, neck and right shoulder covered by a thin sheet, and slowly sat up.
The first day we spent exploring the city. The following day we caught a train to Pompeii. The dynamic of our enlarged party of four was working well. I was happy, we were all happy. Charlie made us laugh. I curse my memory for not giving up his words, for jokes just aren’t funny in narration without them. We laughed for minutes on end at his well aimed words, his sharp descriptions, at nearly everything he said in fact, often for hours on end. He would make a comment, or take off at a surreal tangent, and fuelled by the positive response his witty brain would leap forward, find another association, make another link, and exhaust us by making us laugh anew when we had barely recovered from the last bout. I have met many English people since, and I think he could best be described as ‘dry’. He did not laugh at his own comments, nor even smile, and I found that difficult to understand at first. If I told a story I signalled its hilarity with a grin, or a raucous laugh. But Charlie said his thing, and moved on. It was not relentless. He enjoyed serious conversation, and while we ate that evening, back in the grimy Neapolitan square that could now be trusted, I realised that I had not had a ‘deep’ conversation for many weeks. Early on in my trip, in Paris, in Berlin, I had met many over-serious, pseudo-Bohemian individuals, who spent their days worrying about profundities, young philosophers seemingly born into the wrong century. I had nothing against intellectuals, nor have I now, but at that time I felt strongly that they had not earned the right to be so opinionated. ‘Go out and see the world, before you decry it.’ I wanted to say, ‘Get away from your cafes!’ Having accepted that my accent debased what contributions I had to make, I took on a no-nonsense, practical persona. Insightful analysis could not, it seemed, emanate from the Antipodean.
On this warm night, around our unstable table, holding our chilled red wine (‘to anaesthetise our palates’ suggested Charlie) we explored each other’s lives. Victoria told us about her Italian ancestors. She described her parent’s attempts to inculcate her with Catholicism. She had rebelled against that, and against many other things in life. This very trip had been undertaken without their blessing; she had saved money for two years, working in bars and restaurants, to fund her flight. She had no commitments back home, no College course to commence, no career to further.
Her situation in life was akin to mine. Our lives were open ended. Colleen’s future on the other hand was seemingly cast in concrete. She had a ‘round the world’ ticket, and in the single year between high school and College (to where she would return to start studying medicine, funded by her parents) she would alight in nearly every continent. She was on a long piece of elastic. It would pull her back to her home town. She would become a Doctor and set up a practise, to treat the old ladies that had watched her grow up. Perhaps I read her wrong. I hoped an adventure, or several adventures, would change her outlook. I found nothing about her attractive, but I now considered her a friend. I was careful not to impart a hint of the disdain that I felt for the structure in her life. How young I was. I respected ‘freedom’. Charlie was a little like Colleen. He had secured a place at an English university, would in time obtain a degree in some nebulous subject, and during the three years of student life would ‘see what came up’. We talked about careers and futures for half an hour or so. The wine, rank as it was, worked well. My cheeks turned red. Charlie’s cynicism began to flood. Single words or brief asides were no longer enough. He turned the revealing, stripping torch of his mind to Victoria’s diluted Catholicism. She had admitted, after telling us about her rebellion, that at times, when worried, when scared, she thought about God, and took comfort from the memories she had of the icons and the colours, the smells and the warmth of worship. Her rebellion had been directed against her domestic life, against her parents, but not against the spiritual tradition that had predated them. She admitted to this tendency, in a self deprecating tone, as though she was retracting the statement of rebellion that she had made to us, almost as though someone were listening; she did not want to break all connections with home, and with ultimate safety. She was alone in Europe, with only us, random acquaintances, to keep her company and protect her in these unknown environs.
And now Charlie picked on that tendency, on what he gently suggested was a weakness. Victoria was up to it. She defended her faith. Charlie turned on us (it was all amicable, we were drunk, and happy, in Naples, in Italy, so many sophisticated miles from where I now sit) and drew from us our true feelings about religion.
“Now, do you think about God, do you ask him for help, when you’re in trouble?” he asked. He was constructing his argument from our responses. I was honest,
“I do. When you found us by the station, I was shit scared, as Vic and Col could tell…”
“Poor thing, big strong man.” taunted Victoria.
“..and…” I put my hand over Victoria’s mouth, to shut her up. She bit it. I could then smell the perfume that I had caught in my palm.
“…and, I have to admit, I asked someone, or something, to protect us. I’ve done it before, I remember when me and my brother camped in the Bush…”
“Boring, boring, boring…” shouted Colleen
“You know what you call that?” said Charlie.
“I know what you’re going to say.”
“You know, you know it…that’s called PRAYING that is. Now would you usually admit to praying…do you PRAY Vic?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Because it makes no sense right. Praying is what children do on their knees.”
“It’s more than that…” retorted Victoria, “But I don’t do it. It makes no sense.”
“But you do believe in God.” he asked, and looked at all of us, in turn. I shook my head,
“No…I admit that when I ask for help from some invisible force it’s just a result of fear, just a kind if internal verbalisation, of my wishes, not to get hurt, or mugged, or whatever.”
“That’s honest, but not logical. And what you have said is the whole reason why religion has developed in human society…it’s that weakness if you like, that has made humans make the invisible force that you mentioned into something we can touch, into idols, and into icons Victoria…you agree?”
“I believe in God.”
“Am I offending you?”
“You’re challenging me. I can take that. Be sad if I couldn’t wouldn’t it?”
“Is this an obsession of yours?” I asked.
“A bit. Religion is one thing that bugs me. I can’t empathise, I just cannot contemplate believing in God…”
And so the conversation continued. Charlie admitted that he was trying to test us, to test the strength of beliefs that we had not ourselves scrutinised. It was educational.
Charlie had not planned to visit Sicily, but he travelled south with us nevertheless, happy to postpone his crossing of the Adriatic to Patras in Greece. We persuaded him, and were happy when he nodded his subtle head. He told us that he was only travelling for a month, because that was all he could afford. He admitted that he had been lonely in Northern Europe, and that we were the first people with whom he had spent any significant time. In Paris, Milan, Venice and Florence he had wandered the streets alone and eaten with only a novel and a journal for company. He realised, as I had months before, that the wonders of the inanimate world, its buildings, monuments and views, become a hundred times more memorable when experienced with others. Every visual memory is then paired with an atmosphere, with the mood of the group. So together we travelled down to Reggio, and across the water to Messina in Sicily, then directly south to the regional capital of Catania.
The sun shone directly on our heads and limbs from sunrise to sunset. We found a pension, on a main road, four floors up. I shared a room with Charlie, but we spent most of the time after our arrival in the girls’ room, reclining on the beds, sitting on cheap plastic chairs on the narrow balcony and planning what to do in a lethargic way. We were tired after the train journey. I consciously lay on Victoria’s bed, and in time, during the hot afternoon, she joined me. It was not a strong statement. She needed to lie next to me to see the guidebook that I was holding. We read about the various sites and ruins for a while (Charlie and Coleen I noticed were reading their own books, she with her legs crossed at the head of her bed, he in the white light of the balcony, often distracted by the activities of passers-by and stall keepers down on the street) until Victoria suddenly tensed and planted a fingertip on a part of the page that I had not yet reached.
“Look, it says there’s an active volcano on an island…turn over, turn over…” I did.
“Stromboli. It says you can see lava spurting from some sort of flue, near the top. There’s a walk you can do, and places to sleep in fine weather. What do you think guys?”
“Definitely.” I said.
“Yep.” said Coleen.
“What about you Chas?” I called.
“Volcano, lava, gentle walk…”
“Count me in.” It was settled. At eight in the evening we left to find a restaurant.
“You know this city is a Mafia stronghold don’t you?” Victoria had said on our arrival. She was apparently well informed about the organisation.
“So.” said Charlie.
“No, it’s just that all these restaurants you see, all these shops, I bet they have to pass on a good part of their profits, in case of accidents, fires, things like that. Any of these men you see, walking past us, could be killers, or arrangers of accidents. Spooks you out, doesn’t it?”
And it did. I looked at the men, scrutinised their suits and their shades, and I feared them. I found myself walking next to Charlie (for all the camaraderie of our group, I found that I got along with him the least well) and joked,
“Ask one of them. Ask them if they’re in the Mafia.”
“But it’s normal here, I reckon. I bet it’s not even remarked upon, it’s just known…”
At that moment a man emerged from a doorway. His black shoes shone, his tanned, beard shadowed chin looked strong.
“You’re looking for a meal.” he said, his accent strong, his tone insistent. We nodded.
“I know a good restaurant. You come with me.”
We followed without question, ate our meal appreciatively and paid dutifully in a restaurant half a mile away.
The island of Lipari is half way between the coast of Sicily and Stromboli. We spent a day there, sleeping in what used to be a monastery. The beauty and tranquillity of the little island did not suit the level of excited anticipation that the volcano had created in our minds. We caught the first onward boat next morning, and by ten in the morning our legs were giving the first signs of distress as we began to climb the ever increasing incline at the volcano’s base. By lunch we could look down on the tiny village (a mere street) that existed down by the ferry port, and across the light blue sea that now isolated us from the mainland of Sicily to the south and Italy to the east. The intensity of the sun on the water made me narrow by eyes. I was hot and thirsty. The path grew less organised the higher we climbed. But what I remember most vividly is Charlie. In this setting, with three friendly people, in a stunning location to which we had been led by serendipity and our own adventurous nature, he was in his element. We joked and laughed, for hours on end, and our mood was brightened continually, even as our legs grew heavy and our water bottles grew light, by his incessant good humour. The hours passed in hilarity, until, with the sun visibly approaching the level of the red sea, we realised that we were close to the top. The temperature dropped. A few clouds encroached. Coleen read the guidebook, and stood on top of a rock to look in the direction of the supposed lava plume. She caught a glimpse, and exclaimed happily, pointing, brushing back her sweaty blonde hair with her other hand. It had been ruffled by the breeze that was now building. For the first time, with the sun now cut in half, I was no longer uncomfortably hot. We left the path (only the presence of the occasional broken lace or water bottle wedged between two rocks gave the path’s existence away) to head horizontally across the volcano, to get closer to the plume. Three quarters of an hour later we came across a small clearing, free of rocks. Many walkers had preceded us. Two tarpaulins lay scrunched up under a fist sized rock. Five metres away stood a large, flat topped rock, designed it seemed for nothing else but for tourists to stand on. It was dark. The breeze was now strong; it had cooled me through. I put on another shirt. We decided to eat the bread and cheese that we had bought in Lipari. I have never been more comfortable. In the small clearing we curled our overlong bodies to make room for the picnic. Charlie brought a torch out of his small bag. I realised how ill-prepared I was. When I put my head in Victoria’s lap I was glad not only for the increased level of intimacy, but for the body warmth. I had no more clothes. Her thighs (bare and brown) were cold.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
“No. I’m fine.”
Charlie put his hand into his bag again. Without the need for words he had noticed Coleen’s hunched posture. He handed his cagoul over to her. She put it on and smiled, and then, looking at Victoria and myself, said,
“That’s a good idea.” She moved over to Charlie and put an arm around his middle. The cagoul creaked as she did so. Charlie smiled. We all smiled. We were in paradise. Once the food was finished we stood up and clambered to the top of the spectator’s rock. The view was incredible. Every thirty seconds, pushed from the depths of the earth, there issued a solid, glaring column of orange lava. It shot into the air (no more than fifty metres away from us), slowed under gravity, and then split, as a fountain does, into smooth drops, which then fell back to the ground, and out of our sight. It made a rushing, blowing sound, but the wind (no longer a breeze) masked the sound of the lava drops hitting the ground at the end of the performance. Each plume looked a little different. The path of the drops burned a visual memory into our eyes and brains. I don’t know how long we stood there. I must have seen and heard the plume fifty times. We could have stood there for longer, but the wind was beginning to bite. All four of us had enjoyed the feeling down in the clearing. We moved away. Coleen and Charlie lagged behind us.
“Anybody hungry?” said Charlie, when he arrived back, picking his way across the dark, jagged terrain.
“I am actually.” replied Victoria. A pang of jealousy disturbed me. What present was he going to give to my girl. He opened his limitless bag, and this time drew out a bunch of slightly bruised bananas, a whole, wrapped cake, and a bottle of red wine.
“You hero.” Victoria said.
“I’ll be glad not to carry it back down. That cake is bloody dense. I thought we might need supplies. This gut-rot will warm us up.”
“No glasses.” observed Coleen.
“Never mind.” I said, “You two go first.” Thus I publicly coupled them in all of our minds, not that they needed me to grace their friendship with my blessing. Victoria had positioned herself around me, her chest against my back, her legs circling my thighs. She had wrapped a sleeping bag around her shoulders, and I was benefiting from the extra protection.
“That was amazing. Really amazing.” said Charlie.
“The wine, the volcano, or…” I said, pointing to the rock, referring to the new couple’s delay in getting back to the clearing after the ‘show’. I kept a straight face. They all laughed. I felt good. It was the sort of joke Charlie would have made himself. Coleen jumped across the clearing and knocked me on the head. I rearranged my hair (shoulder length then) and felt a drop of rain spread over the back of my hand. The others looked up. Victoria wiped an eye, muttering,
“It’s raining. Can you bloody believe it?” Another Charlie word.
“It’ll pass.” I said. But the shower intensified. Soon our hair was wet. Before the sleeping bags could become soaked though we unfolded the two spare tarpaulins. I had envisaged Victoria and I sharing the space under our unzipped, overlapping sleeping bags. But the cold air forced us to creep into our own separate cocoons, four in a row, with rocks holding down the corners of the tarpaulins that we had stretched over us. The rain poured down, the wind crossed the side of the volcano and dipped into our clearing with a special vengeance, intent on sliding its narrow fingers under the tarpaulins. After an hour it succeeded, taking hold of one of the sheets and tearing it from under the puny rocks. In a flash and a crack of wind on canvas I saw it carried away, into the air and down the slope. We readjusted the remaining cover, so that it could offer all of us some protection. The rain continued to fall. My sleeping bag became saturated, cold and heavy. Water was pooling in the clearing, and I felt damp rising beneath me. My clothes began to take in the moisture that had crept through the sleeping bag. I began to shiver. I put a hand on the smooth lump that was Victoria, to my left. She was shivering. To my right lay Coleen, and already she was in an embrace with Charlie. For the next half an hour we lay still, each of us sacrificing an arm to the job of holding down the remaining, inadequate tarpaulin. Our hands froze. I heard thunder. I felt the wind on my face. When I opened my eyes I saw no stars. The dark clouds, impossible to discern but definitely there, hanging right over us, obscured all.
A little later I felt Coleen juddering.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“It’s Charlie. He’s shivering like crazy.”
I reached over Coleen and felt him; the thin Englishman. He was shivering, but so violently it looked like a kind of fit.
“CHARLIE!” I shouted. “CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
“Yeah. I always shiver like this. Make’s more energy. You all right?”
“None of us are. We’re fucking cold.”
Silence again. Six hours to go until dawn, according to my wristwatch. Only with the aid of sunlight could we hope to manage the long, complicated walk down. It had taken us three and half hours to climb up, and we had met no others. Perhaps they had seen the weather report.
I thought it could not be possible to feel any colder, but soon my body started to do odd things. Like Charlie, I began to quake. My limbs shook wildly, in arcs. I had to curl my legs up to stop them hitting the girls, but the muscles would not calm down. Then my abdomen began to feel as though it were liquifying. I thought for a moment that my bowels had opened. An icy feeling travelled from my chest to the pit of my stomach. The muscular spasms ceased for a moment. At that point I began to fear that we might not survive. With stiff, unwilling arms I clasped Victoria. A cold hand responded by holding mine. I nudged my chin onto the back of her neck. I heard a mumbling. Listening hard, I could make out her words. She was praying to God. Five hours remained until dawn. We were, quite obviously, going to die. I thought about the regrets that Victoria must be feeling; she had left her family, without their blessing, harbouring an enduring love for the people who had brought her up, and for the nature of that upbringing. She was a good girl, who wished only to see more of the world. I turned my head, and focussed my ears on the tones that I thought might be emanating from Coleen’s corner. And yes, she too was murmuring away, praying to God to deliver her from a premature death.
“Pray with me, please…” whispered Victoria. “I’m so scared. Why…why did we come?”
I squeezed her for a moment, and then, taking over the burden from her tired lips, improvised a supplication. The words, were I too write them here, would embarrass me. Victoria pressed herself against me, and through my clothes, my sleeping bag, and her sleeping bag and her clothes, I felt the pressure of the smooth, tanned skin that had so preoccupied my mind during the preceding week. Then I took an arm away, and reached back over to Coleen and Charlie. Coleen grabbed my hand, and joined in with the our pleading. The volume of our words rose, as though in defiance of the elements. I shouted against the wind, even as it tried to fill my mouth with compressed air and water before the words had come out.
“Charlie.” I said. He knew what we were doing. “Join in.”
There was no reply. I recalled our conversation, just one of many. How serious could he have been?
“Charlie. It will help us.”
“We will or we won’t.” (by which he meant ‘survive’ I presumed) “…it can make no difference. I can’t.” That’s all he said. And then, against expectation, one by one we actually fell asleep. I tried to stop myself, harbouring an old fear, derived from some old film, that when you freeze to death you just fall asleep, nice and gently. But we could not stop ourselves. The murmuring stopped. The rain fell. The wind ripped. We fell asleep.
The world was red. The early light of the new day passed through my eyelids. I was alive. At once I sat up, still sodden, and rocked Victoria. She made a sound. Coleen stirred. Charlie still slept. I extricated myself from the bag. The second tarpaulin had disappeared while we slept. I stood up, and felt the warmth of the sun on my forearms. A few yards away the corner of the first tarpaulin lay within view. It had not been carried far. I saw that Victoria was looking up at me. She smiled. I knew that in time I would feel the pressure of her body against me again, in a more comfortable setting. Coleen had not yet opened her eyes, but her legs were awakening. I would let her meet the day on her own terms. I wanted to see her face. All was well. Charlie’s face was obscured by his sleeping bag. I reached down to pull it back. His face was blue. I did not touch it. His lips were black. I fell back, against a rock, nauseated and faint. Victoria sprang up.
I pointed with my head. She bent over as I had done, but touched his face.
“No. No. No.” She shook him. His head did not move as a sleeping man’s would; his neck was stiff. As she continued to shake him I watched his lips. Black. His eyes were closed. Coleen was now awake, having been disturbed by Victoria’s shaking.
“What’s up Vicki?”
“Charlie…I think he’s dead.” And it was true. A thousand questions hit me, procedural, emotional, self critical.
“What do we do?” Victoria asked. I was crying, but I answered,
“We can only go back down, inform the authorities, and wait…”
We set off for the small town below. We could not have carried him. As we neared the town we saw that the street signs (so few in number anyway) had been washed away, and that the street itself was no more than a river of mud. Doors had been laid across the road to ease crossing. The storm had been out of the ordinary for the residents of this small island.
We said nothing to each other on the ferry. I carried his bag. The sight of it made the girls cry now and again. I was now tearless.
We found a tiny police station on Lipari. The bureaucratic nightmare began. It was to last for another month. During that time Victoria and I became lovers. We talked, then loved, then talked some more. Coleen only departed when the practicalities were over. Vic and I stayed on. There was more to see. We were alike. She admitted her love for home, and that love, she was sure, had saved her, but there was no need to rush back.
From Malady/Therapy, a collection of 12 short stories
© Copyright 2016 PhilBerry. All rights reserved.