Naples, Italy 2000
"Let's see now, Milano Centrale– platform seven," I say to Giovanni, looking up at the departure board.
"I'll accompany you to the platform," he says.
"No, don't worry about it."
"But, are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine," I say. "You'd better get back to the car."
He's double-parked outside the station.
Giovanni pulls a face. He's tall with dark curly hair and deep staring eyes. He has a black Bruce Springsteen t-shirt with the words: The Boss written down the front, and a pair of ripped jeans.
"Well, okay then," Giovanni says. "Do you know where the platform is?"
I survey the huge station; it has an industrial look about it with its grey v-shaped columns, Perspex partitions and honeycombed ceiling. A large yellow sign, hanging from the ceiling says: Binari 2--8, with an arrow pointing left.
"Yeah, it's over there." I point.
"Well, it was great to see you, Rob," he says, turning towards me.
"And you too."
"I can't believe we've kept in touch all this time," he says. "How long has it been since we met on that campsite in Corfu?"
"About ten years."
"Wow, I couldn't speak a word of English back then."
"And I couldn't speak Italian either."
"Well, arrivederci, my friend."
He holds my shoulders, and we kiss on both cheeks.
"Thanks for everything," I say. "Ciao."
I lift the strap of my bag further up my shoulder and walk towards platform seven. The station is a mass of people; people with bags, people with suitcases, people with backpacks. Some walk in a hurry, others seem lost, some just stand around waiting. A group of teenagers sit on the floor, chatting and laughing. They're probably students home for the weekend. One of them is wearing a Napoli football shirt. It reminds me of the light-blue bunting, hanging from every building in Centro Storico. Napoli have just been promoted to Serie A, but by the look of the streets you would've thought they'd won the league. There are even posters of the ex-Napoli player, Diego Maradona in his heyday, hanging on the walls like shrines.
I shimmy my way through the chaos with more than the usual anxiety of catching a long-distance train. What I didn't tell Giovanni was that all the Eurostar tickets for the return journey had sold out. Instead, I bought an Intercity ticket with the intension of paying the difference on the Eurostar. I couldn't bear the thought of taking an Intercity. Not only do they take forever, but also without a seat reservation, you can end up standing for the whole journey. Once, I took one to see my relatives in the south. I was stuck in the corridor with a family of gypsies and their pets. The train was so full that one woman actually used the toilet as a seat. When it got to the point where I couldn't take much more clucking, I got off the train and looked for the buffet car. It was well worth paying the thirty-thousand lira for the three-course lunch in santa pace.
As I get nearer platform seven, I see I'm not the only one with the idea of catching the Eurostar without a seat reservation.
"Santo cielo!" I say under my breath.
Train guards line the entrance to the platform, checking tickets. They look menacing with their navy blue uniforms and peaked caps. They even carry guns.
I look at my watch. It's ten to seven.
It suddenly dawns on me this is the last train back to Milan, and I've got to teach tomorrow morning in Monza– I've just got to catch this train!
Some passengers protest as the guards turn them away. But the guards have no mercy– without a Eurostar reservation, you can't board the train.
I look at my watch again. Eight minutes.
Time's not on my side.
Think, Rob. Think! Hang on-– there're no guards on platform six. Maybe the train there's an Intercity.
I have an idea– a plan. It's going to be risky, but I have no choice.
I walk down platform six, clutching my shoulder bag. My heart beating fast. The train goes on forever, the blue insignia stripe endless. Window after window after window. Carriage after carriage, after carriage.
I walk faster and faster, with my head leaning forward, my arm flicking back and forth with intent.
Finally, I reach the front of the train; with air vents for gills and glaring lights for eyes, it looks like a huge metal beast, hissing menacingly at me, daring me to cross its path. The track lies only a couple of feet below. I glance up at the driver's cabin but can't see inside. If only I could get across without being seen. I look down the platform. The coast is clear. This is it. Without a second thought I skip across the track with my head down and pray the driver doesn't see me. My feet crunch on the gravel between the wooden railway sleepers. Reaching the other side I climb up onto platform seven, waiting for someone to call out: "Hey! Aspetta!" But there's nothing. Only the sound of the engine. I daren't look up. At the other end of the platform, the guards chat, facing the other way. I climb aboard the Eurostar and feel self-conscious of not having a seat reservation. Most of the passengers are already sitting down, while others are looking for their seat numbers or putting their bags on the overhead shelves. Above the door is a sign that says: Servizi. Following the arrows I pass through the carriages until I find the toilet. It's small inside and smells of disinfectant. Turning the lock to Occupato fills me with a warm feeling of relief, and a bead of perspiration snakes down my back. My reflection in the mirror brings home the absurdity of the situation, and I can't help but laugh.
If Giovanni could see me now!
The thought of him reminds me of the weekend just past: the bars in Centro Storico, the beach party, sitting around a bonfire–
But wait– what's that?
There's someone in the corridor. I feel it through the door. The hairs on my neck prick up one by one. The cubicle door rattles. I hold my breath for what seems an eternity; the sweat freezes on my body. The rattling stops and the presence goes. The train makes a roaring noise as the engines warm up.
The train starts to rumble and eventually starts moving. It's difficult to keep my balance as the train rocks from side to side. It picks up speed, and the view from the window becomes just a blur. After a couple of minutes, I open the toilet door, go to the buffet car and wait for the inevitable.
"Biglietti," the ticket inspector calls out to the passengers from the adjoining carriage. His voice so loud that he sounds like a corporal in the army.
What if he throws me off at the next station? I fret. No, he wouldn't do that, would he?
"Biglietti," his voice gets louder.
I peer at him through the Perspex door. He shuffles along the carriage, diligently checking the tickets, and I imagine the sound of the ticket stamper going clip, clip, clip...
When he gets close, I move away from the door and take my position by the window, pretending to admire the view, like an actor, waiting for his cue. But when he eventually enters the buffet car, I become stiff and wooden and fear I'll forget my lines.
"Biglietti," he says firmly.
He's a small man, stout, and with his purple uniform looks like a squat aubergine. He takes off his peaked cap to wipe his brow, revealing a bald head save two patches of black hair on each side.
I show him my ticket.
"Questo biglietto è per l'Intercity," he says gruffly.
"Sorry?" I reply, pretending not to understand.
"This ticket is for the Intercity," he says. "Not the Eurostar."
"Oh," I say, carrying on the pantomime.
"You have to pay a supplement," he says. "It's twenty-five thousand lira."
I give him the exact money, and he makes me out a ticket with the machine, hanging from his shoulder.
"Grazie," I thank him, and before looking for a place to sit, I head straight for the bar and order an espresso.
Robert Steward teaches English as a foreign language and lives in London. He is currently writing a collection of short stories, several of which have appeared in online literary magazines, including: Scrittura, The Creative Truth, The Ink Pantry, Adelaide and The Foliate Oak. You can find them at: twitter.com/theroadtonaples