Thursday, August 15, 2019

New Writing by Robert Steward

The Hand of Padre Pio

Naples, Italy 2003

I walked along the old, cobbled street of Via della Sanità to the clamour of church bells. The shops had their shutters down, and there was hardly anyone about. The streetlamps and electric cables dangled above me, and the cool morning sun cast long shadows under the wrought iron balconies. On the left was my local café: Bar Moreno, with its outside display cabinet full of croissants and pastries. Next to it were two shrines: one of the Virgin Mary, and the other of the Napoli football player Diego Maradona. Both equally revered. 
 I went in for breakfast. 
 Inside the café the barista was cleaning the coffee machine. He wasn’t the usual guy who worked there. He was smaller and chubbier with a stubble beard. Behind him was a shelf full of spirits and liqueurs, and on the wall hung a black and white photograph of the comedy actors Totò and Peppino drinking coffee. The photograph always made me smile. The only other customer in the café leaned against the bar, reading La Gazzetta dello Sport, his lips moving as he read.
 ‘Buongiorno,’ I said to the barista.
 ‘Prego,’ he replied.
 ‘Un cappuccino e un cornetto al cioccolato, per favore.’
 He handed me a chocolate croissant, wrapped in a serviette from behind the glass counter and started the coffee-making ritual with a familiar clanking sound. The noise made me wince. Each bang went straight through my aching head. The effects of another hangover. I could still taste the Cuba Libre from the night before--Gabriel’s favourite drink. He was one of the teachers from my language school. He knew one of the barmen in Bar Giusy, who supplied us with rum and coke all night. With his glistening brown eyes and trilby hat sat forward, I remembered Gabriel telling me in his Gibraltarian accent: ‘Hey Rob, we came here thinking we could conquer Naples, but just look at us! It chewed us up and spat us out! We’re nothing, man--nothing!’
 His Neapolitan girlfriend had just left him. 
 Today I wanted to do something more cultural, more spiritual--the godly kind, not from the bottle. I was going to visit the Cappella Sansevero, to see the Veiled Christ.
 Sculptured from a single piece of marble, the body of Christ lies covered with the most delicate transparent veils, I read from my travel guide, while waiting for my coffee. The photograph looked impressive.
 What could be more enlightening on a typical Neapolitan Sunday? I thought. 
 ‘Prego,’ the barista said, handing me the cappuccino.
 ‘Grazie,’ I replied, and slid the customary five-cent tip over the counter.

 Outside, the street was coming to life, with people chatting on street corners, riding scooters, going for a stroll, taking a coffee.
 I walked down Via Arena della Sanità, past Palazzo Spagnolo, past the clothes market and past the church of Santa Maria dei Vergini. In the alley leading out of Sanità stood a small statue of the saint Padre Pio. It was customary to touch his hand when you walked past. Maybe it was for good luck or safe passage. Sometimes I touched his hand and sometimes I didn’t. I remember telling my girlfriend Manuela about the custom when she came to Sanità one night.
 ‘Che scemità!’ she said, which means, ‘What rubbish!’
 But when she saw how dark the alley was, she ran back and touched his hand.  

 On the other side of the main road stood Porta San Gennaro, the entrance to Centro Storico. I walked under the huge arch and entered the old city. In the mazy narrow alleys, the buildings looked as if they belonged to a different time; they all looked similar, different, old. Even with my travel guide map I became disorientated and decided to ask the way. 
 ‘La Cappella Sansevero?’ I asked a man, taking a walk with his family.
 The man shook his head, looking at me as if I was an alien. I asked a couple of other passers-by, but they didn’t know where the church was either. Going round and round in circles, I stumbled upon another church and went to ask inside.
 The first thing I noticed was the size of the church. Tall grey and white columns ran either side of the wooden pews, supporting gold and white arches, and on the ceiling, row after row of elaborate gold square carvings, so high it made me feel dizzy, and at the far end of the church, above the marble alter piece, hung a large wooden crucifix, which must have been over two metres tall.
 A young priest in white robes was trying to usher the tourists out of the church.
 ‘Signori, la chiesa sta per chiudere,’ he said gently.
 I didn’t know churches closed at lunchtime on a Sunday, I thought. Then again, everything closes for lunch in Italy. 
 I approached the priest in the main aisle. He was about my height and probably the same age. He had short dark hair, dark eyes with high cheekbones and a dimple on his chin.
 ‘La Cappella Sansevero?’ I asked.  
 ‘La Cappella Sansevero?’ the priest replied. ‘Are you English?’
 ‘Yes, I’d like to visit La Cappella Sansevero--to see the Veiled Christ.’
 ‘Ah, yes. The church you’re looking for is just around the corner,’ he said, holding his hands together. ‘Are you alone?’
 ‘This church also has some wonderful treasures. Would you like to see our cloister?’ 
 Why not? I thought. A lot of churches in Naples had hidden treasures, never seen by the public.   
 ‘Okay,’ I replied.
 ‘Come.’ He opened out his hand, showing me the way, his white robe hanging from his arm.     

 He led me through an old wooden side door to the entrance of a cloister. It was dark and secluded with a familiar smell of damp. It reminded me of my basso studio flat in Sanità. The old iron gate was locked, but you could still see through to the courtyard inside. It looked more like a gothic crypt than a cloister with its ribbed vaults and pointed arches.
 ‘Can you see the statues in the alcoves?’ the priest asked, putting his arm round my shoulder. ‘Look how beautiful they are!’
 He held me so close that I could feel his stubble on my cheek. Sweat glistened on his forehead and nose, and there was a sharp heady smell of body odour in the air. I subtly tried to pull away, but before I could do anything, he pointed to the other side of the cloister, holding me even tighter, his large hands like a clamp.
 ‘And look at those over there!’ he said, breathing into my ear. ‘Wonderful, aren’t they?’
Santo cielo! I thought. What the hell is going on here? 
 This was way beyond being tactile. I had the impression he wanted to do more than just show me his blessed masterpiece! 
 The dusty white statues stood in the corners of the cloister, draped in haunting shadows; their faces looked on in horror as if witnessing a sickening crime, their eyes aghast, their mouths open. The whole scene started to spin round in my head. As he explained the history of the cloister, I tried to prise myself from his grip. 
 But how do you disentangle yourself from a member of the clergy? I didn’t really want to start wrestling with a priest! 
 ‘Look how thin you are!’ he laughed, rubbing my belly. ‘A guy like you should eat more!’
 When he finally let me go, I became aware of the space between us. I wanted to run, escape, cry for help, but I was speechless. He looked at me as if nothing had happened. The word untouchable came to mind, sinister, dark, depraved. I felt sickened. 
 ‘I have to go to lunch now.’ The priest smiled, opening the side door to the church.
 ‘But if you come back at four-thirty, I can show you more.’
 Outside the church, the sunshine was sudden and bright. I was even more disorientated than before. I didn’t know whether to continue on my journey or to... or to... I just don’t know. What do you do in a situation like that? I tried to piece together the images in my head; it all happened so quickly. 
 I should’ve said something, I thought. I should’ve done something about it. I should’ve... I should’ve... I should’ve touched Padre Pio’s hand!

- Robert Steward 2019

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:

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