The Church of Lost Souls 6
When I woke up I knew I wouldn’t get the job. I’m not sure how I knew but when I asked the owner if I could use the phone I was ready for the bad news.
Maria was shouting at someone when she answered. She apologized for the commotion and then broke the news that she’d talked it over at length with her husband but he’d been firm in finding someone with a degree. When she told me she was sorry because she really liked me I wanted to ask her if I could see her but I couldn’t get the words out. I was scared she’d say no and if she said yes, where would I take her? She wouldn’t want pizza slices and the bus depot café was shut in the evenings.
I asked how Giovanni was and she told me he was fine. He’d been working hard on his art and had submitted an interpretation of a Karma Sutra love tryst to his occult class. He was a real talent, she said.
It would have been rude to suggest that he was too young to be drawing lewd sex acts so I let it go.
‘Have you been in Rome the last week?’ she asked.
‘No, I went to Naples,’ I said.
‘Naples?’ she said, aghast. ‘Why did you go there? It’s a really dangerous place.’
‘I know, but it’s cheaper than Rome and I needed to save money.’
There was a silence, in which I imagined her feeling a touch of guilt.
‘Where are you now?’ she asked.
‘I’m not sure. I got back to Rome yesterday and the pensione was full so I got a bus to the suburbs and found a campsite.’
‘Will you stay for long?’
‘I’m not sure.’
Again, there was a silence and I wondered about asking her out but when she finally resumed conversation her voice had hardened and she said she had to go. She wished me luck and I thanked her.
Stowing her phone number away in my pocket, I gave the owner some change for the call and went back to my room to get ready for the day.
After having a shower in the communal bathroom I went outside and walked into the campsite looking for coffee and pastry.
Spotting a building I walked towards it but when I got there I found it to be an unmanned building site. There was a cement mixer, some work benches and bags of cement around the place and I wondered if they might need a hand. Perhaps I could pay my way there by working a few hours a day.
A guy with long black hair noticed me looking inside the building of breeze blocks. This, he said, was going to be the new taverna. I asked him if there was any coffee anywhere and he said I could have some of his.
We walked across the dry, burnt grassland over to his tent, which was huddled among about six or seven others.
Paolo was from Brazil. He’d come to Italy to visit an aunt in Modena and had wanted to see Rome for a week before heading off to Switzerland to pick grapes for the season.
His coffee was strong and there was no milk so I sipped slowly. He spoke excellent English so we talked about things and got along well. I told him I’d come to Rome in search of work but hadn’t found anything at all. When I revealed that I’d have to hitch back up to Blighty in a few days if nothing materialized, Paolo suggested we look together. If we found a job in Rome he’d forego Switzerland and if we didn’t I could hitch up to Switzerland and pick grapes with him. The money was good, he said.
As soon as I’d finished my coffee we took the bus into town, arrived at my bus depot and immediately set about finding work. We arranged to meet at the bus depot café in two hours and wished each other luck.
I headed straight for the British Embassy with the hope that they might be able to lend me some money but that proved unsuccessful so I returned to my old job hunting patch around the Spanish Steps and started asking restauranteurs if they needed anyone. Lavoro was one of the few Italian words I knew. I hated that word. I’d said it a thousand times and received the same assortment of negative responses, those being no, scusa and niente.
With Paolo to compete with I thought I’d stand a better chance but nothing had changed. It was still hopeless.
I went to the café and Paolo hadn’t had much luck either. We took a coffee and I told him about the joke shop and the people in the courtyard. He seemed to find the story very entertaining and asked if I was sure I’d not mistaken its location from my first visit, to which I replied that I knew the area like the back of my hand. He asked if I’d like to go back there with him, just to be sure, so I told him about the two heavies, which didn’t seem to deter him.
I decided to take him up on this challenge so we made our way to the joke shop through the back streets. Passing by the pensione I spotted a sign on its door saying that there were rooms available. I’d have been angry with the landlady had I not found the campsite, which certainly represented far better value and offered the chance to meet people my own age.
As we turned the corner to the joke shop I hoped that it would be there just as it had been but it was still boarded up. Someone had sprayed some weird sexualized graffiti over the blue steel sheets and Paolo laughed. It was inscribed by an artist called Giacomo.
‘Hey,’ he said, ‘did you know that Giacomo means James in Spanish?’
‘No,’ I said, disinterested. Looking at Giacomo’s portrayal of a lewd sexual act I wasn’t in the least impressed, especially when I thought of what little Giovanni was up to at his occult class.
The two men weren’t there so I asked Paolo if he’d go in through the door and see if there was an old man sitting on a chair in the middle of the courtyard.
He didn’t seem to mind and when an old lady approached the door I went up behind her, placed my foot in the way of its closure and then, once the lady had been given sufficient time to disappear into the building, held it open for Paolo. He ducked under my arm and the door closed behind him.
I guessed it would take less than a minute for him to return but when he hadn’t come back after five minutes I started to get worried.
A young man and an elderly woman opened the door so I tried to peer inside but all could see was their backs and then the door closed again.
After about fifteen minutes I had resolved to go through with the next entrant when Paolo finally reappeared.
‘Where did you get to?’ I asked, clearly distraught.
From his pale complexion I could tell that something had happened in there but Paolo was in no mood to explain, motioning for us to walk away immediately.
When we turned the corner into another street I asked him if he’d seen the old man.
‘I saw the old man, James,’ he said, ‘and he told me about what happened.’
A gulp of incredulity passed my lips before asking him what he meant.
‘He said that the joke shop was his, and that he’d been forced to close it down after you went there.’
‘What do you mean, after I went there? What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘The girl he employed, you met her, well, she died last week and apparently you had something to do with it.’
‘What? That’s absurd. I don’t know what you mean. Look, I only went to the bloody place because a girl at the British Embassy told me about somewhere called The Church of Lost Souls where there was a noticeboard for English speakers to find work. I asked the girl in the joke shop where it was and she guided me towards the back of the shop and that was when I met the old man, who told me to go down the manhole in the middle of the courtyard, which was where I met this old woman who ran a homeless hostel.’
Paolo wasn’t impressed. Apparently he knew something that I didn’t.
‘Paolo, for God’s sake,’ I implored, ‘tell me what he said. If I’m supposedly involved in the girl’s death, why aren’t the police after me?’
‘They are,’ he said.