Dante

We had been in Naples for only a few days when my father sent the telegram telling me that he had procured me a job in the city. My ticket home was already bought and I was to return immediately.  David was sympathetic, understanding, but would not cut his own Grand Trip short, and I didn’t blame him for that.

Naples is, famously, a dirty place, and as we walked about the cobbled streets discussing what could be done, we threaded our way through scattered rubbish and honking traffic and thought the reputation of the city was not unearned.

I spent the following morning at a tourist office arranging a train ticket to Milan. The reservation my father had made was a plane ticket, held for me at the Milan Malpensa Airport, and I was due to fly at the end of the week. We had a few days left in Naples but I knew already that these would pass quickly, and that nothing really would happen within them; the relentlessly oncoming end of the trip stole  from me the enjoyment of these last days and made me instead listless and depressed.

David and I had been staying at a small bed and breakfast in the centre of the city; slightly east of the magnificent Orto Botanico gardens and following my father message we spoke to the owner of the hotel of our need to leave earlier than planned. The man crossed his arms and demanded payment for the entire week’s booking and in our school boy Italian we agreed, after a while, but a bad blood grew between us in the exchange and he no longer called out ‘Buongiorno! Buongiorno!’ each morning when he saw us. We for our part began to run down the marble stairs in the morning and disappear through the heavy door without stopping. We no longer waited for a salutation, nor gave one in return.

In the last few days we travelled to Pompeii the following day and walked among the preserved ruins; all ash, scorched walls and sweltering heat. We strolled along the concrete enforcements of the sea front, looking out on a sea busy with cargo boats. We drank crushed ice and lemon juice from street vendors and sat in the hot dusty parks to read and sleep. In the evenings we drank, first at tourist bars and then, as the night darkened, at the local bars, hidden behind small wooden doors and tucked, un-signposted, down side streets; bars that opened late and closed late and were always lively with music.

Getting home was a perilous affair in this city of Mafioso’s, or so it seemed in our drunken states. More than once we were scared in to partial sobriety as we approached hulking figures, grouped together on the streets. Paranoia induced adrenaline overrode intoxication, and then, as we passed the clusters of men and nothing happened, we laughed and sagged and were drunk again.

We woke late on the final morning, hung over and ill tempered. The previous day we had thought that we might visit the Piazza Dante, a large public square in the heart of the city furnished with a statue of the poet. Right now I was loath to go; my head ached as I moved, and the streets of the city shimmered and swum in the scorching sun.

We spent what remained of the morning sitting beneath a fan in a cafe, sipping iced drinks and picking at plates of food that, after and hour, remained barely touched. We left when the cafe owner pointedly placed a silver tray on our table, our receipt weighed down on the tray by two sucking sweets.

Walking through to the Metro station the bottle of water I held in my hand beaded with perspiration. Ahead of us the entrance to the Metro looked black in the sunshine, a yawning mouth sunk in to the ground, but I looked forward to the coolness of the tunnels and the roaring, buffeting winds that heralded each approaching train.

David and sat opposite each other in the empty carriage. The smell of dust rose from the seats and then the lights flickered, the doors hissed closed, and we were moving. The jolting sound of the train in the tunnels was loud, too loud for conversation, even had we even been disposed to talk. Our carriage remained empty at the next station, and at the next, and after fifteen minutes or so of travelling the train slowed in the middle of the tunnel, then stopped.

In the sudden silence I could hear the humming of electricity in the tracks below us and in the lights above. The Doppler effect sound of an approaching train filled the tunnel; the sound grew louder, faster, and then it became a scream and the train bust upon us.

As it rushed past our stationary engine I could see the train flashing behind David’s head, the speed of the engine turning all of the train’s compartments in to one long, flickering carriage. In the black of the tunnel and the yellow light of the carriage I could see people sitting; see the back of their heads and their shoulders and their newspapers. I saw other things as well. The lights of the train flickered like fire and in each flicker I saw the shapes and antics of ghouls and condemned men. I saw black handled knifes and gleaming demonic eyes. I saw torn flesh and naked bodies, and beneath the flesh ebony white ribs, lined up like the strata of a rock. In and above the scream of the train I heard the human screams, and that sound was cut in two by the low delighted chuckles of the train’s other inhabitants. I saw ancient devils stripping the younger race of men of their dignity, their sanity, their humanity.

David, oblivious to the vision of hell that passed behind him, sat impatiently in his seat, rolling his head from left to right and biting at the cuticle of his thumb.

Five seconds passed, ten seconds, and then this train of the damned was gone. I heard it for a while longer; the noise and sound slowly dropping in pitch, and then our own train rumbled and shuddered in to life and the sound was lost in the background.

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