Piccolo Napoli (part 5)

The taxi driver was grey faced and miserable in a grumbling, uniquely Southern Italian way. The kind of man who presses his palms together in supplication and casts his eyes heavenward while cursing and beseeching the saints to deliver him from idiots and late night fares. He turned his sinking face to us as we climbed in, and evidently didn’t much like what he saw. Still he accepted the fare grudgingly.

‘Can you turn on the meter, please?’ asked the Ponce as we settled into the back seat and the vehicle veered off into the night-time traffic, a somewhat sparser version of the daytime chaos with the added excitement of darkness, poor street lighting and hidden potholes.

‘Meter.’ he repeated when the driver ignored him, this time in one of his acid tones, (and there are many). ‘The meter.’

Our driver hurumphed and turned it on.

‘You said just under ten euros, right?’ Again the Ponce was ignored. I had been instructed not to get involved.

‘A  Neapolitan taxi driver will eat you alive and spit the pips out.’ I’d been told. ‘I’ll deal with this, I’m Italian at least. He’ll still try and take the piss.’

By this time I was so tired I became compliant. Sit me in the back seat like an upright piece of luggage and pull me out when we get there. After a few minutes the driver found his tongue, but he wasn’t chatting or sharing any of his opinions with us. He began to mutter under his breath, a habit that seems peculiarly latin/Mediterranean to me. It is a Spanish trait as well, to carry on a lengthy and whingeing conversation aloud with yourself. I caught the occasional word only:

‘…. Late at night for this sort of thing…. People like this…. Madonna……. Do this, do that…’

Of course, when we arrived at the agreed piazza where our host was going to meet us, and we handed over our precious last fifty euro note, he began to have a meltdown.

‘A cuesta hora?! You need change at this time of night? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you tell me when you got in… Madonna!…. People like this, and at this time of night….. messing me about. Well, I haven’t got any. You’ll have to get some.’

‘No change at all?’ queried the Ponce. ‘Really? At the end of the night you have no change at all?’

In answer he swerved the car round and headed back to the previous piazza, jerking the steering wheel so we careened right and left down the middle of the black street.

‘Try there.’ He slammed to a halt opposite an ice cream parlour where a bored looking woman was running a cloth over the counter top.

‘Stay here. Don’t move.’

The following twenty minutes were spent stopping and starting the car, screeching round corners, driving aimlessly looking for somewhere that was open and that would change us a fifty. Not an easy job. As I sat silently in the back listening to him griping away in Italian which I pretended not to understand, I noticed the meter was still on. As did the Ponce when he finally came back with a pocket full of notes and change.

‘Out the car.’ He hissed through the open door and I obeyed.

‘So, that’s ten euros then.’ he said to the driver, extending a ten euro note. Immediately he started shouting.

‘No, no, no, look, you said turn on the meter, I’ve been waiting here for you, working for you all this time, while you’ve been off looking for change. Oh no, it’s eighteen euros now, and fifty cents. See?’ He slammed his palms onto the steering wheel and gestured at the meter display which glowed greenly in the interior of the scruffy little car.

‘I don’t think so. (Get away from the car, don’t worry, I’ll deal with this.) You said the fare was about ten euros and I’m giving you ten euros, that’s what we agreed. You can’t keep the meter running like that and think I’m just going to pay for it all. You should have switched it off when we got there. I saw the fare when we arrived, it was eight euros and ninety cents. I’m not giving you eighteen bloody euros.’

By now the driver’s door was open and he was half in and half out of the car, his voice rising steadily.  At the same time his little feet shuffled and kicked excitedly at the floor of the car, and his arms began to pinwheel.

‘And how am I supposed to turn the meter off? I can’t just switch it off.;

‘With your finger. Like you turned it on…. eventually.’

I wouldn’t exactly say a crowd was gathering, but there were peripheral night-time people listening in by now, drifting closer very slowly and softly, like zombies closing in.

‘Eighteen euros! Do you think I’m doing this as a hobby, young man? At this time of night? Don’t mess me around; pay me my eighteen euros otherwise-‘

‘Or what? You’ll call the police?’ I could see the glint of the Ponce’s eyes now, the whites gleaming, the flash of white teeth in the darkness. He was gearing up for a good one, I could tell.

‘Don’t take the piss, mate. I may be a tourist but I’m not fucking stupid. And I’m Italian, so don’t even try that crap with me.’

Here he began hunting through his ample trouser pockets and jangling small coins, then counting pennies into his hand.

‘What are you doing?’ demanded the driver suspiciously.

‘Hang on.. seven euros, seven fifty…. Er… eight euros… eight twenty…. Me? I’m looking for your fare, for the exact fare. It was eight euros ninety, wasn’t it? I was going to give you ten but as you’re being such an arsehole I’m giving you the exact money now-‘

‘Give that to me.’ That solved it once and for all. The taxi driver gave in, and snatched the ten euro note. He knew he was beaten. There was a squeal of tatty tyres, and he drove away, shouting out of the window at us as he went.

A cry went up behind us.

‘Yeah! That showed him! Screw him!’ Two teenage girls were sitting on a low wall, our closest spectators, cheering us on. One of them punched the air with her fist.

‘Nice one!’

A phone call was made, and our generous host who had offered us his sofa for the night instructed us to wait there and he’d be down in five minutes. We sat on a bench by the side of the piazza, both feeling a little dazed, and people-watched while we waited. By this time I was beginning to get the notion that Napoli didn’t want us to leave so soon. It seemed to be holding on, digging in with the tenacity of a tick, insisting that we stay just a little bit longer.  I was annoyed that we had missed our train and I was tired and fed up yet there was part of me that didn’t want to leave just yet.  This night was by turns inconvenient, complicated, and vaguely sinister, but I was enjoying the ride. The place itself was a kind of infection, an itch that could only be scratched by close proximity. It was like listening to the song of a mermaid: vile but fascinating.

To our left there was a low wooden table on a patch of scrubby park land, round which were seated a group of nervy-looking young men. They were playing cards. Occasionally another one would pull up, either in a car which ejected him and speeded off, or on a motorbike or moped which he would park angled to the kerb, then he would swagger over to the group, and after a short preamble join in. A boy of about fifteen strutted over to the group and took his place at the table.

‘They’re playing for money, look, can you believe it?’ I nudged the Ponce.

‘Yeah, I can. Look at it, three in the morning and they’re running a little gambling racket out on the street. Welcome to Napoli. ‘ and he began to laugh.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, which we spent on a sofa. Our host was kind, affable and sympathetic, offering us drinks and food, clean towels and pillows, and listening sympathetically to the account of our strange and frenetic day. I could tell he was proud and pleased when we insisted that we still loved the place, not despite its nightmarish weirdness but because of it, and he added, with a shrug,

‘I love Napoli. It’s madness but you have to take it with a pinch of salt. It’s a great place to live, if you like that kind of thing. It’s got something other places don’t have. The people can be a pain in the arse, but it’s never boring. Never ever boring.’

 

What I do remember is the sign above the moped shop opposite his house, when we came out of his flat blinking in the sunlight on the way to the station the following morning. In the dark we hadn’t seen the approach to his flat the night before, we hadn’t seen the elevated bridge with its view of higgledy-piggledy spires, topsy-turvy roofs, rotting churches and walls, and narrow streets tumbling with refuse that was almost picturesque and beautiful.

‘RIP Motos.’ said the sign.

 

 

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