The Church of Lost Souls 8
I drank very occasionally in those days and even then it would be just the one beer or a glass of wine if I had to. Alcohol had always disappointed me since an early age so when I discovered acid and hash at sixteen that was it.
With acid I thought I was Superman and with hash I imagined I was a struggling artist. Both, of course, were lies and I was deluded but there was hardly any trauma attached. I didn’t have to suffer the delirium, the vomiting, that feverish feeling that I might just die as every pore in my body ached for release from the poisonous torment, the brain squeezed and dried and with a headache so rough I had to cancel the next day, laid in my bed wishing I was a corpse.
What surprised me most about the young people I encountered on my trip was that hardly any of them took drugs and very few drank. Guys with long hair in Europe would more than likely be clean as a whistle studying something I couldn’t even pronounce, whereas back home, by and large, long hair meant dope smoking hippy dropout.
In Hastings, drugs meant everything to everyone. Hash was the currency by which our movements were defined. We were all on a conveyor belt of dead end jobs, hopping on and off, and we all knew when everyone’s dole or pay cheque was coming. If they’d done a social study of youth in Hastings we’d have probably be likened to mammoths during the Ice Age. We were the Cold War Kids and proud of it.
Being away from all that, I was given long overdue insight to what I needed to see in order to survive. Life didn’t necessarily have to revolve around narcotics. OK, I’d smoked a lump of squidgy black in Naples but that didn’t count because I wasn’t looking for work. I was categorically on holiday. Back in Rome, my desire had returned and I craved it no more.
With my stomach growling for food I bought a spit-roast chicken from a rotisserrie van on the street while Paolo got beer, crisps and a few other things from the supermarket.
When we got back to Il Buon Tempo Campeggio I was down to my last 2,000 lira, which was just enough to call Mum and ask her to call me back. I’d been putting it off, just in case Maria came up trumps, and since I’d been busy all day convincing Paolo I wasn’t a murderer I hadn’t had time to make the call.
I went for a shower and Paolo suggested I go over to him once I was done. I was so hungry I didn’t feel like calling Mum. It would be cheaper for her to call back after seven anyway and it was still only about sixish. All I had to do was make sure it didn’t clash with Coronation Street.
Approaching Paolo’s tent I could see him sipping beer on his rug and I wondered again what he really thought of me. His eyes and general countenance gave little away but as I came closer I felt fairly confident that he’d seen through the old man’s story.
A girl appeared from the tent next to Paolo’s. She looked at me with squinted eyes adjusting to the low sun’s glare.
‘So this is James,’ she said.
Paolo removed the beer from his lips. ‘James, this is Sofia,’ he said. ‘Sofia, James.’
‘Hi,’ I said, conveniently averting my eyes down to the feast splayed across the rug Paolo was sitting on. ‘Wow.’
He’d cooked some baby potatoes and with a tub of coleslaw, pitted olives and bread we made and ate some gorgeously juicy chicken sandwiches.
Paolo revealed that he’d beckoned Sofia on his return to hang out with us and hear about what had happened, thinking quite rightly that a third person may help to solve the problem.
As I delved into the story once again they looked more and more perplexed. While I painted what was really quite a sinister scenario I couldn’t help splashing a bit of colour in there and intermittently drew back a chuckle or two as I went on. I was happy to see the pair of them laughing with me.
None the wiser for the sole reason that there could be no conclusive answer without the help of my nemesis, the dastardly old man, Paolo and I decided that it would best all round to go back there tomorrow and seek him out.
Having listened very carefully, Sofia wasn’t convinced this was such a good idea. She was from Romania, studying Western Civilisation, and in particular Italian history, at Padua, and from what we could tell she knew an awful lot about cults. She translated the Church of Lost Souls into Italian for us.
Its direct translation, ‘la chiesa delle anime perse,’ she said, could be traced back to ‘il culto delle anime purganti’ (the Cult of the Purgative Souls), an old Neapolitan sect set on purging the souls of those lost to sickness and famine in the 1600s, when 300,000 were wiped out, leaving only 100,000 alive. As if by a miracle, she’d studied it that year.
In 1969, the cult was banned by the church because it was deemed to be based on superstition and therefore not an admissible religion. That got a laugh from me and Paolo.
‘So Adam and Eve really did exist,’ joked Paolo.
‘Maybe Jesus did turn water into wine,’ I said.
‘It’s probably best you don’t go back there,’ said Sofia with finality.
She was about twenty, long brown hair and green eyes, tall and buxom. I fancied her but I didn’t know how to chat up girls back then, especially without drugs inside me. It was a shyness thing.
For a second time Paolo asked if I wanted a beer and when I told him I was more of a smoker he got up and said he’d see if he knew anyone around who might have a joint to share. We watched him go as he wandered off.
‘Did you meet anyone when you were in Naples?’ asked Sofia.
I could tell she was asking for a reason so I thought about it but nothing particular registered. There was Thomas, Natasha and the girl I went to Capri with, I said.
‘No one else?’ she asked, looking at me with quietly determined eyes.
Fabrizio came to mind. ‘Well, there was one guy,’ I told her.
By the time I’d recounted my arrival in Naples, the truck driver, Dad’s friend and then the night with Fabrizio, Sofia was next to me, her hand caressing my neck and shoulders. As the story drew to a close she sighed and slowly removed her hand from my neck.
‘I’d like to do your chart for you,’ she said. ‘What’s your date of birth and at what time were you born?’
I told her and asked what a chart was.
‘An astrological chart is a reading of how your stars align,’ she said, getting up. ‘I have to get on with the chart now. I’ll have it ready for you tomorrow morning, OK? You’ll find it interesting.’ She gave me a peck on the cheek and then returned to her tent, waving with a smile as she disappeared into it.
Paolo came back with the tail end of a lit joint and passed it to me. He asked where Sofia was.
‘I’m working,’ she said from inside her tent.
‘The taverna’s going to be finished on Friday and there’s going to be a grand opening,’ he said. ‘They’ll be doing pizza and pasta for all the guests.’
Sofia offered a sarcastic ‘whoopee’.
Paolo and I resumed conversation but it was strange with Sofia listening. We shared the usual stuff about home and family, football and music, but we were both exhausted from the day’s events and the evening drew to a natural close by ten, at which time I realized it was too late to call Mum.
We shook hands on parting but I still wanted to know what he thought about going back to the joke shop. If we could confront the old man we could at least put the mystery behind us.
‘Shall we go back tomorrow?’ I asked, but he didn’t have time to answer.
From inside her tent, Sofia’s voice boomed out. ‘I wanna come too!’
‘It looks like we’re going,’ said Paolo with his hands aloft.
‘Right you are,’ I said, and trundled off towards the main building at the entrance of the campsite, where my little bed awaited me.
When I got to the main esplanade I saw something on the ground that resembled a note. In the short time it took to zoom in on it I realized it was a 100,000 lira note, enough for a week’s survival, which could easily see me through till I got to Switzerland, where I’d be earning a good wage with the grapes.
I scooped it up and, still walking, regarded it carefully.
As I looked up my vision was drawn to the exit of the campsite, where I saw a short old man standing by a car. He was directly under a streetlight and looked like a stubby version of the bloke in The Exorcist poster, dressed in a black coat. He was looking right at me.
As I pocketed the note he turned, got into his car and drove off.