The Church of Lost Souls 5
Considering that my main reasons for living since the age of sixteen had been to get stoned, take acid and speed, go to festivals, listen to music and generally doss about with my loser mates between dead end jobs, girls were way down there with responsibility and normality. I’d had a few flings but they always ended summarily.
Booted out of art school at seventeen I’d been kicking around at my mum’s little house on the edge of our dreadful seaside town for too long. Watching Minder in the afternoon was a highlight of the day. There wasn’t any decent work around and youngsters were dropping like flies off the smack or busy going potty from bad trips and crap childhoods.
Thin as a rake and with the stuffing knocked out of me Mum knew that if I didn’t leave the country I had a fair chance of dying very young so she gave me £300 and put me on a ferry at Newhaven. I remember her feeding me up at a fish and chip shop, looking at my scrawny body and crying for me to stop taking drugs before waving me off.
I knew she was right, that I had to stay clean if I was to make anything of my life. The hitching expedition to Rome would clean the pipes out and if I found a job I’d be able to stay as long as was necessary to make positive changes. There was nothing for me in Hastings and London was only good for gigs. If I stayed off the drugs and knuckled down I could learn a new language and return a new man.
So there I was, stoned out of my head at the YMCA. I knew I’d let myself down but after the endless job-hunting around Rome, the truck driver and poor old Fabrizio’s black eye, the thought of hash had been too strong to resist.
I didn’t see Natasha after the walk. It was a bit awkward going up and down the hill but they didn’t seem too bothered.
I found a book called I Jan Cremer in the breakfast room the next morning and took it wherever I went till I’d finished it. Trying to emulate Cremer’s style I kept a little diary of my own but nothing really happened because I was stoned most the time. I wrote a few air-mail letters, the old blue ones you had to lick around the edges to fasten.
Naples itself was quite the decrepit old town, strangled and made into a limp cripple from years of debt, neglect and disease.
One day I went to Capri with a Danish girl and we were hitting it off but then I pulled out a pre-rolled joint and she stormed off. The YMCA wasn’t as I’d imagined it. For a start no one smoked hash. I thought it would have been crammed full of student hippies on years out, getting high and having fun, but they didn’t have a ghetto blaster between them. One German bloke had a guitar but he played and sang folk music very badly.
Most days I’d get up, walk down to the café next to the pizzeria, smoke some roll ups, read a book, write my diary, then at one o’clock I’d have a pizza. This amazing pizzeria had been cut into the side of a huge rock at the promenade’s end and I frequented it twice daily without fail.
After lunch, I’d go onto the prom, roll a joint and invariably stomp into town with my Walkman playing my favourite album, What’s This For? by Killing Joke, on the hunt for record shops and free art exhibitions.
What became abundantly clear during my time in Naples was that I was a very damaged young man. Up until then I’d assumed that my life in Hastings was a natural progression into adulthood and it was only when I got to Naples that I discovered how different my contemporaries were. Staying at the YMCA I’d seen three paths; the junkie kids whacking up on the road, the hippy anarchists smoking dope on the scrubland and the squeaky clean kids staying clean at the hostel. I was also aware that my ability to socialize and make true connections had generally failed abysmally.
In the evening I went for pizza with Thomas from Austria, one of the few that weren’t glued to one group or another at the hostel. After dinner we’d sit outside and play backgammon at a table. The restaurant didn’t mind so long as there were seats available for diners and drinkers and if it got busy we’d retreat to the prom and continue playing on a bench till it was time to run past the junkies.
When there was one of the best pizzerias in the world on their doorstep I found it incredibly sad that everyone at the hostel ate the cafeteria slop, which usually consisted of processed meat and crap tomato sauce with processed pasta. When we got back they’d all be tucked up in bed so we’d say goodnight and go to our dorms, where I’d often think about The Church of Lost Souls before sleeping.
I resolved to go back there directly after dropping my bag off at the pensione, which I hoped would have a room for me. I didn’t even know its name so I couldn’t book ahead.
On the morning of the sixth day in waiting I packed up my stuff, slung back a coffee next to the pizzeria, said goodbye and smoked the last of the hash en route to the motorway for a hitch.
To get there I had to walk through a tunnel that was dirty as hell. Needles and cans were strewn everywhere and the further I went the darker and dirtier it got. I only had a pair of pumps on and started to get worried about infection so I turned back.
Instead of hitching I elected to take the train. This expense was warranted but unwanted, representing one night at the pensione, so I boarded the train ticketless in an attempt to blag the ride.
All was going well till I arrived at the gate at Central Station, where I was forced to pay the full amount and thrown a few nasty glances.
It was about three o’clock in the afternoon by that time so I went straight to the pensione, where I found the place to be completely full for the next fortnight.
Not to be deterred, next stop was The Church of Lost Souls. The main premise for my swift return was the prevailing thought that, perhaps, the old lady might be there and that, perhaps, she’d let me stay at the homeless hostel, from where I could find a job were Maria to decline my services.
The week in Naples confirmed that going back to Blighty was not an option if I was to return with my head high. I’d promised Mum that I’d find work and not come back till I’d done so and it wouldn’t have looked good to my mates if all I had to show for my romantic exodus was a suntan and a penchant for pizza.
Approaching the joke shop it was apparent that the joke was on me. It had done a disappearing act, the entire frontage boarded up with blue steel sheets.
I asked a passing old lady where it had got to but she waved me away as if I was mad or a beggar or both, then two burly Italian men came bundling along and knocked me flying. Picking myself up I scurried off to the café at the bus depot for a think.
After a quick coffee I decided to return to the joke shop. There was a door to its side that gave onto the courtyard where the church was down the hole and if I could get through that door I could at least see if the old man was there.
While I was waiting, trying to look as Italian as possible, I took a peek up onto the street momentarily and I swore I saw Maria walk past. I couldn’t be sure and while I was deciding whether to run after her or not the two men came back into view and started laughing, seemingly at me. With this ridiculous commotion Maria turned round but kept on walking.
When I spotted a young woman opening the door I was quick to take it from her and close it behind us. She asked who I was visiting and I said chiesa so she gave a little shrug and let me go about my way.
In the courtyard the old man wasn’t there but his chair was, right in the middle there next to the hole that led down to the church. I looked towards what I’d known to be the back door of the joke shop and wasn’t surprised to find it covered in blue steel. With the two apes outside I didn’t necessarily want to have to come back again if I could help it and therefore decided to investigate the situation further.
After knocking on a few doors up the stairs from the courtyard, I found a resident who spoke English and told me the joke shop had closed down without warning few days ago.
I asked him if the church was still open and he looked at me in a perplexed way, asking which church I was referring to. When I explained about the noticeboard for English speakers in the church under the hole in the middle of his courtyard he looked utterly dumbfounded.
After a second or two he laughed, remarking that the hole in the courtyard led to only one place, the sewer, after which he guided a hand towards the stairs for me to take leave.
As I waddled back down the stairs into the courtyard it became obvious that I had my work cut out if I was going to get to the bottom of this.
I tried pulling the cover off the hole in the courtyard but it was stuck tight. It would have needed a key but it certainly looked like it hadn’t been touched for years.
The guy from upstairs poked his head out of a window and told me to scram, then a woman’s head appeared from another window and the guy started talking Italian to her. They both laughed, looking down at me.
‘No chiesa,’ the woman said, wagging a finger at me.
More and more windows opened. Heads poked out of them and asked what was going on and soon enough the repetitive chorus of no chiesa boomed longingly into the dusky darkness of the courtyard below. For a nation bred on religion this little lot didn’t have much time for church.
There was nothing left for it but to walk out. As I exited the door and waded into the street I could still hear the ring of the residents’ din in my ears.
I wasn’t quite sure what had just happened so I went back to the café at the bus depot and asked Maurizio the barman if he knew of any campsites. I’d hunted for a hotel before and the pensione was the cheapest around so I knew I had to head out of town somewhere. I only had 50,000 lira left, about twenty-five pounds.
Maurizio told me to take a bus to somewhere or other and then ask for Il Buon Tempo Campeggio.
At the outer limit of Rome I got off the bus and asked around for the campsite, which was found only a few minutes’ walk away.
Because I didn’t have a tent, the owner offered me a room for 5,000 lira a night so I paid for two nights up front. Dropping off my bag in my room, which was very small but tidy, I thought about going out and looking for some food but the moment I sat down on the bed I was out like a light.