Naples: A long and winding road
The next morning, nursing stupendous hangovers, we were sat having a continental breakfast in the ‘greasy spoon’ café. On the table top we had laid out the two thin travellers cheques books, a few lira bank notes and a crumpled piece of paper with our dad’s mystery friend’s address written on it: a street in a town called Castel Volturno near the city of Naples. We were having a session of ‘blue sky’ thinking; how to get to Castel Volturno. Train, bus, hitchhike?
As we pondered our predicament we noticed a sign tied to to the lamppost next to our table. It advertised scooters for hire for a price that didn’t look like a mortgage repayment. We finished our meagre meal and, suspecting that the scooter hire deal was too good to be true, set off to find out. It was the turning point in our Italian adventure. The people renting the scooters were suspiciously genuine, and the deal equally so. As the rental forms were filled in we vaguely mentioned a bit of local sightseeing in Rome as the purpose of hiring the Vespa. Considering the lunatic Roman drivers, a ‘bit of sightseeing’ in Rome was probably more risky than the journey to Naples which we had in mind. Then, when for insurance purposes, we were asked about the history of accidents, we kept schtum about Willie coming off his motorbike on the cobbled High Street in Bonnyrigg and sliding under Father Gallagher’s Ford Anglia earlier that year in February. His helmet probably saved him serious injury then, but we would have no such protection if we fell off this scooter. Within half an hour we rode out into the mayhem of Rome’s roads and weaved our way to our hotel to pack and settle the bill.
Later that morning we took the bulk of our clothing and possessions, crammed into one suitcase, to the left luggage facility in the nearest railway station, the Roma Termini. A serious official in a intimidating martial uniform had asked us to open the bulging suitcase probably thinking it might contain a body. He then thrust a long rod into the case, some sort of electronic sniffer, to check for the presence of Semtex. We weren’t surprised he was po-faced. This was the era of the Baader Meinhof and the Brigate Rosse left wing terrorist groups.
Having successfully dumped our excess baggage we plunged into the chaotic traffic with the basic essentials strapped to the rack on the back of the Vespa scooter. With Willie at the handlebars and me precariously balanced on the minuscule pillion seat we headed for Naples.
We found the direction signs for Naples after twice circumnavigating a large, seemingly endless, roundabout; a Ben-Hur moment; the race scene but with cars instead of chariots. For the first stage of the journey we travelled on a motorway, probably illegally, burbling along the hard shoulder until we eventually left on a slip road to head over a line of jagged mountains before descending to the coast. As we rasped along l would watch, over my brother’s shoulder, as beetles of various sizes flew across our path. Willies head would periodically twitch and the scooter would wobble alarmingly when a larger bug would strike his face like the impact of a meteor on a planet. On the snaking mountain road trucks roared passed us within touching distance on one side as we looked down steep rock strewn, pine clad slopes on the other. At one point a red Ducati motorbike roared passed, the rider, dressed in red and black, impressively leaning over as he cornered at speed. Later we passed the same motorbike lying inert, on its side. Nearby a scrum of people were gathered around the front of a large articulated truck as a man looked under, presumably, at the body of the motorcyclist who had, with such élan, passed us.
Sobered by the accident that had befallen our fellow biker we travelled on with a little more care. At times we rested, sat in roadside cafes eating squares of pizza in the cool mountain air and in a haze of diesel fumes. As we caught sight of the coast, the sea sparkling in the distance then as the sun was setting we entered Castel Volturno. Castel Volturno, the place that I would remember decades later while sat in Mimmo’s Café in Baildon. The memory of an act of kindness by an Italian: Frederico the barista, the barman and night that the two young weary travellers that had walked into his bar at the end of their tether and their financial resources.
We had slowly entered a piazza that seemed to be the centre of the town. There was an abrupt silence as Willie turned off the rasping engine. My brother lit a cigarette and we stood in the warm evening air looking around as the cooling engine made small metallic ticking sounds that competed with the ever-present noise of cicadas. On one side of the square there was a brightly lit bar, empty, apart from a heavily moustached barman polishing glasses behind a counter. The only sign of life.
“Buona sera, Come stai?” Said the man as we entered, a tooth pick moving up and down like a miniature conductor’s baton under the moustache.
“Buona sera…… do you speak English?” Willie asks with hope.
“Sì, a little.”
“Do you have a room… eh… a stanza?”
“I regret, no.”
Our faces fell. This was bad news.
“But I think l may help you,” he says, line of nicotine stained teeth still gripping the toothpick appear beneath the moustache, “mi chiamo Frederico. Follow please.”
I looked uncertainly at my brother. His face apart from the outline of the area that had been protected by his sunglasses was spattered with the corpses of flying insects. Willie shrugged his shoulders: we had run out of options. We waited on the pavement while Federico locked up the bar, then follow our new amico around the corner. We were more than a bit apprehensive; our last ‘amico’ had enticed us, into a Roman brothel, with disastrous results. For all we knew he might be a psychopath or a bandit planning to kidnap us.
What Federico, the friendly barman was leading us into was not a trap. He had no intention of kidnapping us and sending ransom demands to our family in Scotland. We nervously followed him through a gap in a hoarding, then through a gold framed smoked glass door into what, obviously, was a hotel reception, a vision in marble.
“Is new built,” said Federico, stating the obvious, “l take care.”
“Caretaker?” Asked Willie, clarifying Federico’s position.
“Si, si,” Federico grinned in the gloom. “Follow.”
We padded down a corridor behind our new amico. He stopped outside a door which he opened with a theatrical flourish.
The bedroom had a chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling over two single beds draped with with dust covers. Other pieces of furniture, a dressing table, wardrobe, chairs and a circular occasional table were hidden to under covers, ghosts in the moonlight. Frederico walked across the room and closed the full length curtains, pulled the dust cover off a standard lamp and switched it on. A door in the corner led to an ensuite bathroom, the walls faced in a creamy marble with a bowl to wash your feet in.
We were in a recently built hotel, ready to be opened. We were about to be the first guests.
“You like, si,” said Frederico.
We were astounded. Was he offering us the room? Then the important, twenty million lira question.
“How much,” asked Willie. “Quanto costa?” In case Frederico didn’t understand the he rubbed his fingers together in the international sign language.
Federico shrugged and smiled. “Niente.”
Nothing! Amazed we shook his hand vigorously and thanked him profusely.
Once Frederico left we showered and lay, wrapped in the dust sheets, on the beds.
“Jings, Willie. This is great!”
There was no reply, just a gentle snoring. It had been an epic journey and my brother, usually the nocturnal one, had been the pilot. I had only been the passenger.
In the morning we would look for dad’s friend.
Castel Volturno: Salvation and the American Dream
We had breakfast in Federico’s bar. We thanked him and Willie gave him some of his tax-free cigarettes to show our gratitude and thanked him profusely. Frederico gave a depreciating shrug of the shoulders. He smiled. “I am a father to two boys. But they are younger than you, si. I would like someone do the same for them in the future, maybe in England, eh?” We were so grateful we suppressed the urge to point out the we were not English.
We left the piazza with the rasp of the Vespa bouncing off the buildings and set off along the coast. Directions from Frederico meant we knew where we were going.
Our father’s friend’s villa stood somewhere on a small and obviously exclusive estate that lay between the coast road and the vivid blue sea, a sprawl of white walls and terracotta tiled roofs. This idyllic view was marred by a man of brick shithouse proportions, dressed in a quasi-military uniform casually holding a pump action shotgun. He wore aviator sun glasses with mirrored lenses, the sort of sun glasses that you can’t see the wearers eyes but, disconcertingly see a reflection of yourself.
We pulled into the entrance and stopped alongside the security guard. Arriving unannounced and uninvited, the guard was both a surprise and a problem.
“Il nostro padre amico Mr Hutchinson,” explained Willie showing the piece of paper with the address in our father’s spidery writing.
The guard grappling with Willie’s phrase book Italian scrutinised the note for a while; a Bletchley Park code breaker trying to glean the meaning of message from Berlin to a U Boat hunting in the North Sea.
He took our passports, peered at each photo and peered at us. Luckily, we had showered and the insect graveyard had been washed from Willie’s face. Satisfied that we were not a cell of the Brigate Rosse terrorist group planning to cull the filthy capitalist villa owners he motioned for us to leave the Vespa and walk up the road in front of him; in front of his shotgun.
We arrived at the villa with the guard on our heels with his shotgun slung under his arm. As we walked apprehensively down the drive way we realised that the villa stood on the edge of the sea, the shimmering blue Mediterranean Sea. For a moment, I had a vision of us running down the golden beach and playfully throwing ourselves into the waves. Our armed escort had different thoughts altogether.
‘Stand!” He commanded pointing with the barrel of his gun at a spot to the right of the doorway; just in case we had any thoughts about running down to the beach and playfully throwing ourselves into the waves.
He knocked on the door. We held our breath. Footsteps approached followed by a nervous questioning voice. The guard answered. The person on the other side of the door seemed satisfied and with a rattle of chains the door swung open.
A petite, attractive woman stood in the doorway looking quizzically at the two of us as the guard gave his report in Italian. Then Willie gave a rambling travelogue of our journey from Edinburgh and explained that our dad was a friend of her husband. Reassured that we were not terrorists intent on kidnapping her she thanked the security guard, introduced herself as Penny. She led us into the villa an asked us to make ourselves comfortable in the lounge then disappeared. As we sat on the cream fabric sofa looking out at the sea we could hear a muffled voice somewhere depths of the villa; the lady of the house speaking on the telephone, breaking the surprise news to her husband.
The door opened and the Penny reappeared with a reassuring smile.
“Okay, Andy will be home later this afternoon.” She said.” I’ll sort out a room for you and give you some lunch.” Then, probably concluding that our state of uncleanliness was a threat to her expensive furnishings. “Why don’t you go down to the beach for a swim?” Adding, “you’ll have it all to yourselves. It’s private.”
And it was. The deserted pristine beach had a wire fence running from the estate down to the edge of the sea to keep the rabble at bay. The wind had piled up colourful food wrappers and newspaper pages, against the fence on the peasant’s side stopping the private beach from being sullied by their litter. Willie and I ran down the golden beach and playfully threw ourselves into the waves then swam out and floated on the gently undulating sea. We looked back at the immaculate white villas and the cloudless blue sky above, savouring the moment.
Lunch was served on the patio. To the gentle accompaniment of the lapping waves Penny told us about Naples, Pompeii, Vesuvius and other places of interest. Andy, she explained worked for Alfa Romeo, not the cars but the aerospace division. She was a lovely person. It was a relief to sit and talk with someone without the worry that our virtually empty wallets would be stolen.
In the evening Andy appeared. A short, stocky, fair haired Scotsman with lively eyes and an easy smile. Yes, he knew our dad. He was a client of dad’s bank. It dawned on us then that Andy was not an actual friend but a client who handily lived in the country where his sons would probably have needed rescuing from some disaster or other. He may have even given us the address without forewarning his client. I could imagine the phone conversation on the hissing line giving the news that we had washed up in Castel Volturno.
“Mr Wilson, I have a Mr Hutchinson on the line. He’d like a word with you……he’s calling from Italy…shall I put him through……” our father, sat at his desk in the Granton branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland would had momentarily looked out of his window at the grey sea of the Firth of Forth, gathering his thoughts while watching the seagulls soar and swoop under the grey cobbled sky. He would have sighed, possibly with frustration but probably with relief. “Yes, put him through please.”
Back in Italy Andy explained to us that we could stay a couple of days but that he and Penny had to return to the UK. Our faces fell. Andy laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ve sorted something out for you. I’ll show you tomorrow,” he said, “and in the evening you’ll meet our neighbours. We’re all invited to a barbecue!”
The next morning after a continental breakfast Andy drove us to a holiday camp not far away from his villa. After a brief conversation with a man who appeared to be the caretaker we were shown to a room on the first floor of a block of holiday apartments that overlooked a large pool. The room was not as palatial as the bedrooms we had previously occupied: the hotel in Rome or the friendly barista’s hotel or Andy’s villa but it was clean and serviceable. And it had a large swimming pool. Feeling obliged to show gratitude to the caretaker Willie gave him some of his dwindling supply of cigarettes; due to our dwindling supply of liras we were not in a position to pay any rent. Later I realised that during that telephone conversation between our father and his client the funding of our accommodation in Naples would have been thrashed out.
The final days with Andy and Penny in their beach front villa were spent swimming in the warm sea or sunbathing on the beach under the envious gaze of the hoi polloi huddled together on the other side of the litter festooned fence.
In the evenings we were invited to join Andy and Penny’s American neighbours for barbecues. George and Mary were from somewhere in the American South. George was large man with a big personality. A sort of John Wayne, not a ‘red neck although he did have a rather florid complexion. Mary, his wife was small, bird like and intense. They had an attractive daughter about about fifteen and two younger sons. The barbecue, the first of many, was a feast. Our only comparable experience was Scout camp bonfires with sausages on sticks and potatoes thrown in the embers while we sang ‘Ging gang goolie’. This was a more sophisticated menu of thick steaks and fat beef burgers washed down with bottles of Budweiser beer. After the meal we had strong black coffee laced with Sambuca, an aniseed flavoured liqueur. As homespun Scottish boys we were fascinated by all things American and they, residents of the ‘New World’ wanted to learn about the ‘Old country’. The conversations flowed to a background of Frank Sinatra songs. We soon discovered that George was a fan of ‘Old blue eyes’. In fact, he was so fanatical about Frank that he possessed every recording he ever released with collection displayed on shelves that ran the entire length of a wall of the lounge. His eldest son was, in that confusing American way, named George Junior and his younger son christened Frank in homage to his crooning hero.
This extraordinarily generous American family would take care of us after the extraordinarily generous Andy and Penny left for the UK.
The next day, the day of their departure and our final day, the coast was visited by a violent storm. Grey clouds scudded over a slate grey sea. The crisp packets and newspaper pages had been blown free from the demarcation fence to join the gulls battling to keep their position in the gale. But it was warm, at least to us Scottish boys it felt warm. We decided, on this final day at the villa to have a swim regardless of the weather. Running down the beach through a thin salty mist we passed a group of astonished Italians dressed in thick coats and woolly scarves and launched ourselves into the rolling waves. We swam out some distance and turned to look back. It was our turn to be astonished; the Italian beach walkers and the villa had disappeared. As we had swum out we has been swept down the beach; a long way down. Alarmed, I turned to look for Willie only to find that he had disappeared too. Then, with relief I saw his head surface on the top of a rising wave some distance away then vanish. He was being dragged out to sea. I was near enough to swim for the shore where eventually I reached a point where I could stand up. I started to stagger up the beach to find help. But help wasn’t necessary. When I turned around Willie was standing Jesus like on the water. Luckily, he had been washed up onto a concealed sand spit. He was lucky. The next landfall would have been Sardinia.
Fifteen years later on a holiday in Wales l would regale a friend with this story, this tale of nearly losing my elder brother in a storm in Italy. It would lead to an extraordinary meeting on a windswept golf course in Abersoch. But in 1968 my brother survived, swam back to the shore where both of us trudged exhausted up the beach to the villa. Later that day we all gathered and watched Andy and Penny loaded their suitcases into his Fiat. “Don’t you go worrying about these here boys,” said George in his southern drawl, “we’ll take real good care of them.” We were about to experience the ‘American Dream’.
With Andy and Penny gone we moved into the holiday camp which, on this second viewing, looked like a small Italian version of an derelict Butlins or a Hollywood set for in an apocalypse film. A far cry from the luxury of Andy’s villa, it was beyond faded elegance. But, standing on the balcony we consoled ourselves with the fact that it had the swimming pool and the knowledge that things could be, had been a lot worse. It seemed, for some reason that the resort was deserted. Perhaps it was out of season or more probably, scheduled for demolition.
Every morning, before our self-catering breakfast we would carve our way through the flotsam of fly and beetle corpses and leaves that floated on the surface of the pool. Obviously, the duties of the caretaker didn’t extend to taking care of the pool; or much else for that matter. When we weren’t navigating through the pool debris our days were filled with a visit to Naples where we had run-in with the police when we drove up a one-way street in the wrong direction, to Pompeii where we marvelled at the ruins and the petrified inhabitants and to a place where hot gasses hissed out of holes in the ground and the soles of our sandals nearly melted. At the holiday camp, we would read or play chess on a minute travelling chess set; my brother the victor most of the time. And, thankfully we had permission to use the private beach to frolic in the sea without being shot by the security guard. Most evenings we were the guests of the Americans, enjoying lavish barbecues with Frank in the background singing ‘My Way’, his hit of that year. The Kinks, The Bonzo Dog Band and the Beatles were my sort of music, but Ol’ Blue Eyes slowly grew on me.
“Have you guys ever been to a drive-in movie?” Asked George one evening while we sipped our Sambuca laced coffee.
We explained that we while we were familiar with the term ‘drive-in movie’ it wasn’t a common cinema experience in Scotland due to the inclement weather. Not for the first time in our short friendship the Americans looked at us with compassion, as though their visitors were from a deprived country.
The next night, with petite Mary at the wheel of their vast American automobile we all set off for the leisure centre on the US military base. It was the biggest car I had ever seen. My ex GPO Morris Minor van would have fitted in the boot, or as the Americans call it: ‘the trunk’. We sat on the long leather front bench seat beside Mary as she manoeuvred the wallowing car down narrow rural roads, ghostly trees and hedges caught in the headlight beams rushed by. Worryingly, as I sat swaying in the middle of the front settee I noticed wooden blocks had been attached to the pedals so that Mary’s feet could reach them.
At the entrance to the military base we were stopped by a sentry at a barrier where passes were examined while torch beams flitted across our faces. Satisfied that we weren’t terrorists or Russians the barrier was lifted and we drove into the base.
The base was a sprawl of buildings enclosed in what appeared to be a vast extinct volcanic crater. Hopefully extinct; in this area of Italy it may have just been dormant, the magma bubbling beneath us. A dense pine forest covered the slopes that rose to the curved rim of the crater. Above there was a backdrop of a star splattered black sky and the bright orb of a full moon.
On the way through the base we passed between the playing fields set out for baseball and American football. Groups of footballers dressed like modern day gladiators caught in our headlights would trudge across the road in front of our car causing to Mary stab at her wooden block brake pedals. At least the men were well protected in their helmets and armour-like kit if Mary couldn’t reach the brakes.
Mary swung the car into the movie area. It was an enormous car park with a gigantic white painted concrete screen at one end. With our huge car parked amongst an armada of other huge cars we sat, windows open, and watched a forgettable movie in an unforgettable venue. To add to the surreal experience and to provide a pleasant distraction, a fire erupted amongst the trees on the hillside, flames leaping like solar flares into the night sky. Hyper with Coca Cola and stuffed with popcorn we drove back to our American friend’s villa, said our farewells and headed off back to the holiday camp to pack ready to leave Naples. After a subdued and exhausting journey back over the mountains we returned the scooter to the rental garage in Rome and caught the bus to the airport and the plane home.
At Napier Technical College my classmates excitedly exchanged stories of their holidays. Jimmy, John and Dave had worked on the refuse collections and wore the retro clothes that they had retrieved from the bins. Others recounted mundane holidays with their parents. I told my ripping yarn of our Italian adventure, only to be trumped by Maria who had got a job as an au pair in a town in Sicily only to arrive during a ferocious gun fight between two Mafia gangs. Willie and I had brought back a bottle of Sambuca liqueur, but the combination Sambuca and black coffee didn’t impress our parents and to be honest, us. Some holiday experiences just don’t travel well.
Wales: A coincidental encounter in Abersoch
My story now moves forward nearly a decade and a half to 1983. I had successfully qualified as an Interior designer and moved from Scotland to work abroad to the city of Leeds in England. I had married, fathered a daughter, acquired a dog, and bought a caravan. It was a time when we went on summer holidays with friends, fellow caravaners.
In the summer of 1983 we spent our holiday on a farm in Abersoch in North Wales.
The weather was shocking. Ferocious squalls blew in from the Atlantic. The caravans pelted with rain rocked from side to side in the wind. One day we braved the weather and walked down to the beach with our respective dogs and watched the white capped waves sweep in to rush up the beach. The combination of the warm winds and the stormy scene brought memories flooding back. Memories of a holiday in Italy with my brother. As we sat on a rock I told our friends the story. Of the colossal grandeur of St Peters, the visit to the Roman brothel, the scooter journey, the generous barista, my dad’s ‘friend’, the American experience. And, of how the stormy beach scene in Wales had reminded me of how my brother had been swept out to sea.
It was part of our holiday routine that my friend Martin and I played golf. To avoid antagonising our wives we played first thing in the morning, as early as possible, and in any weather; rain or shine. The morning after my story telling session on the beach we set off from the first tee of Abersoch Golf Club in the teeth of a howling gale. We were cocooned in plastic with bobble hats pulled down to our eyebrows. As we played along a fairway that ran parallel with beach we noticed a solitary golfer, also battling through the storm and slowly catching us up. Eventually, we waited at a tee, and as demanded by golf etiquette we invited the lone golfer to play with us. He agreed, and after welcoming handshakes, we played on.
“Do l know you, have we met before?” It was our new friend his words nearly swept away on the wind.
“I don’t think so.” I said uncertainly. Under all the protective clothing and bobble hat, for all I knew, he could have been Jack Nicklaus.
“I do know you, you’re Sandy. You and your brother Willie stayed with us in Naples, in our villa in Castel Volturno. I remember you fine.”
I was astonished. Only the day after the telling of the event filled Italian adventure to my friends, Andy Hutchinson, the man who had been our salvation in Italy was standing before me.