Naples, Italy 2003
“So in part one of the speaking test the examiner asks you some questions about yourself like, where you’re from, or what you do, or why you’re studying English, things like that,” I said to the judge.
“Okay,” he nodded thoughtfully.
He was medium height for an Italian, about five foot eight, a bit smaller than me. His face was round with bulging brown eyes, a Roman nose and thinning black hair. He wore a blue suit with no tie, making him look smart but relaxed. On the wall behind him hung typical pictures of England: a red telephone box, a Beefeater standing outside The Tower of London, a chocolate box cottage in a remote village. This was the room where I waited for my interview a few months before. Then it was a waiting room, now it was my classroom, my domain. We sat at the end of a long table, stretching from one side of the room to the other, and out of the window you could see the prominent outline of Mount Vesuvius rising up into the blue morning sky.
The judge was only doing the First Certificate because his teenage son was doing it, and he only had a month to prepare for the exam. But there was something about him that convinced me he would pass; maybe it was his charisma, or his enthusiasm, or even his quick sense of humour.
“So, here’s the first question,” I said, looking at my photocopy. “What do you spend your free time doing?”
“That one’s easy, Rob,” he laughed. “Driving my wife crazy!”
“Really?” I grinned, thinking it would be funny if he said that in the exam.
“My wife,” he said, shaking his head with his eyes closed. “I don’t know how she puts up with me!” he laughed. “One time, when we were just married, we went out for dinner--to a trattoria--Nennella I think it was called. Anyway, at the end of the evening, instead of driving home, I drived her to the house of her parents--like when we were...” He searched for the word-- “fidanzati.”
“Yes, going out--boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“What happened, then?” I asked, writing down some language errors.
“She just looked at me as if to say: ma sei pazzo?--are you crazy? I just completely forgot!” he said with tears in his eyes.
Was this guy for real? I couldn’t help but laugh.
“No, really,” he continued. “In my spare time I like to watch sport like football, tennis, rugby. By the way, where are you going to watch the Rugby World Cup Final?”
“I’m not sure yet. Isn’t it going to be in the morning?”
“Yes, I think in Australia the game starts at eight in the evening, so here it’ll be eleven in the morning.”
“Maybe I’ll just watch it in my flat then.”
“I’m going to watch it at my friend’s bar near here. Would you like to come? I promise I’ll support England!”
“Yeah, okay then.”
“Good, we’ll arrange it next week,” he said. “So, what’s the next question?”
I looked down at my photocopy.
“The next question is about holidays.”
“Is there anything you always bring with you on holiday?”
“Hmm,” he said, holding his chin pensively, “I’d say coffee.”
“Yes, Kimbo coffee.”
This was a man after my own heart.
“And why coffee?” I licked my lips with anticipation.
“Because when you go to another country the coffee is, is...” He made a gesture with his thumb and forefinger that Neapolitans use to show something doesn’t work, “...is terrible!”
“I even took a packet with me when I went camping in the Sahara Desert.”
“Wow!” I said, impressed with his appreciation for coffee. “Okay, so the next question is about work. Do you prefer working on your own, or with other people?”
“Er, well that depends,” he said.
I tilted my head.
“Allora, in my job I must work with many people, for solve the criminals”
“To solve the crimes?”
“Yes, the crimes.” He screwed up his face. “What did I say?”
“The criminals--they’re the people. The crimes are the, the delitti.”
“Ah gia!” he said, nodding his head. “The crimes, the crimes.”
Just then, the classroom door swung open. We both turned round in our chairs. There was an old priest dressed in black from head to toe murmuring something in Italian, his face was waxy, his eyes closed, his eyelids fluttering to the rhythm of the words. Next to him was Nino, the owner of the school. His long tanned face didn’t have that usual reassuring look about it. He seemed rather serious, almost worried. I found it funny how he never thought twice about interrupting my lessons. Normally, it was for something trivial like asking if I wanted a coffee, or showing me photographs of when he was young. Last time it was to show me his football medals. Apparently, he used to be a goalkeeper and had a promising career until he got injured.
“Scuateci,” Nino apologised, the light reflecting off his balding head.
Before I could reply, the priest sprinkled water over us, flicking it randomly around the classroom as if sowing seeds in a field, his silver crucifix playfully bouncing on his chest.
Nino gave a warm smile, and then they were gone.
I looked at the judge open-mouthed; this was definitely a teaching first!
“What was that all about?” I asked, wiping the water from my face.
“The priest? He was er...” The judge’s brow furrowed, looking for the right words; he cast an eye at the ceiling as if he would find them there, “come si dice, he was er benedicendo la scuola,” he said finally.
“Blessing the school?”
“Bravo.” He wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
“I see,” I said, slightly confused. “And why?”
“Why?” He looked at me as though I had asked him if the Pope was Catholic. “Per allontanarsi il malocchio.”
“To keep away evil spirits?” My voiced went up into a falsetto. “You can’t be serious.”
“Ma certo,” he said as if this was the most natural thing in the world. “Some people even have their cars blessed,” he added with an air of defiance.
“Yes, when they buy a new car, they take it to Pompeii to, to...”
“To have it blessed?”
“You’re joking!” I laughed. “Do they have to pay?”
“Let’s say they give a little donation.”
“A donation?” I grinned. “Do they get a discount on their car insurance?”
“No,” he laughed hesitantly.
I felt that we had drifted off topic somewhat, and wondered whether we would have enough time to get through all four parts of the test.
“So, what were we talking about before?” I asked, looking down at my photocopy. “Ah yes, your job. So, you were saying that sometimes you have to work with many people.”
The judge looked confused.
“Ah, già,” he said, looking at the ceiling again. “Allora, usually I work with many different types of people, but sometimes I prefer to work alone.”
“Okay.” I nodded. “So, in what situations do you work alone?”
“Beh, one time, I was involved in an investigation.” He paused and wiped his brow again with his handkerchief. “And there had been a come si dice? Una strage.”
“No, many people.” His face looked serious.
“Yes, a massacre.”
“Yes, many people were killed.” He cleared his throat. “When we analysed the proiettile...”
“Yes, when we analysed the bullets, we realised that they had come from police guns.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.
“Yes, and it doesn’t finish there.” He rubbed his neck.
“We discovered that the guns came from our, our commissariato.”
“From your police station?” My voice went up again.
“Sì.” He nodded. “For identify the assassin I had to work secretly.”
“So, the murderer was a policeman?”
“Worse.” He looked over his shoulder as if someone might be listening. “After weeks of investigation, I realised that the murderer...” He leaned forward, “...was my bodyguard!”
“No!” I whispered. “But, what did you do?”
“Beh, for days I had to pretend I didn’t know.”
“What, until you were certain?”
“It must’ve been terrible,” I said. “Were you scared?”
“Terrified,” he said, looking me squarely in the eyes. “If he knew that I knew, then...”
He put two fingers to his temple as if he was holding a gun, then pulled his thumb down.
Just then, the classroom door opened, and I jumped with a start. It was Manuela the receptionist. She poked her head round the door, in her hand was a little tray with two espresso cups.
“Sorry to disturb you.” She smiled sweetly, her dimples turning into inverted commas. “Would you like a coffee?”
Robert Steward teaches English as a foreign language and lives in London. He is currently writing a collection of short stories, some of which have appeared in Scrittura, The Creative Truth, The Ink Pantry, Winamop, The Foliate Oak, Communicators League, Adelaide, Down in the Dirt and The Stray Branch. You can find them at: @theroadtonaples