Salerno, Italy 1940
I walked up towards the castle… by the same path that I had descended a few hours earlier. It was now nearly lunchtime, so I stopped and sat under a tree on one of the paths… below the castle. I would either satisfy my hunger or make my fortune… whichever happened first… I smiled remembering the fisherman’s joke.
My fortune didn’t take long to arrive… He was wearing a naval uniform, not the military but some merchant marine officer’s. Seeing me sitting there he stopped, and lit a cigarette… He offered me one. I accepted and put it in my shirt pocket… He raised an eyebrow?
“Thank you… for later if that’s alright?” I said with a smile.
“Of course, but what’s a good-looking boy planning to do with his afternoon?”
“Oh, I’ll work on making my fortune!”
He laughed… it was a nice laugh.
“Well, I can’t make you rich, but perhaps we can make a small start on it. What would that cost me?”
I told him my prices, slightly more than priests had given… This was a man who had not made a vow of poverty!
“What will that buy me?” He asked… I think he appreciated that I’d increased the numbers I had first thought of… there had been a brief pause while I considered his question.
“Well, one will stop me talking and the other will… affect my walk… how long I am silent and how badly I walk will depend on you… mainly!” I grinned cheekily.
I planned to make him happy and anything beyond that could wait for confession tomorrow… or in Naples… whichever happened sooner… or later.
“Let’s go for a walk then… do you know the way?” He asked.
“No indeed. This is my first visit. I only arrived here yesterday, though I did sleep here last night.”
“This isn’t your first time… is it?”
“Not quite, I visited the caves at Pertosa, on the way here… that’s it I’m afraid… The darkness in the caves helped my fortune, very slightly.” I smiled disarmingly… at least I hoped it was disarming.
“You seem young… I can quite believe that this is your first week as a professional. How old are you?”
“Thirteen, nearly fourteen.”
I had subtracted a year. I suspected that was the professional thing to do… Less is more as someone once said.
He looked enthralled, and I could see that his enthusiasm was rising to meet the challenge. It was time to get him off the path and out of sight. As we left the path I held out my hand.
“Ah, he said… already a true professional!”
“It would be a pity if we forgot… in the excitement.” I smiled… disarming again!
“Yes indeed… the excitement.”
He put the money in my hand, in fact slightly more than I had asked for.
“I don’t have any change.” I said.
“Don’t worry… you will think of some way to make it up to me.” I liked him already.
I did… At the end I did what I knew Luigi had liked best. I used the muscles inside my bottom. I swear he made enough noise then to assure me that I had indeed made it up to him.
He went down the hill with a swagger and a smile. I liked my new profession… as he had called it. Being paid to make people happy is a good way to make a living… and,after all… he did nearly all the work.
Now all I needed was to practise walking again… walking without turning my toes out like a duck.
Making him happy had taken a half-hour. The next took longer, he was older. That was long enough for some boys to discover that they had competition. They confronted me on the path.
“This is our pitch!” The big one said.
I tried disarmament again…
“Don’t worry. I’m only here for a few days at most. I’m on my way to Naples and Rome.” I said.
The middle sized one said. “We don’t care how long you’re here… That’s our money you took off him… He’s a regular!”
“Yeah!” said the little guy with a squeak.
“I’m sorry you feel like that… but there’s not much to be done about it now.” Still disarming.
“Yes there is. Give us half… or we beat you up and take it all!” Disarming hadn’t worked.
“That’s not going to happen.” I said quietly.
“Oh isn’t it?” He had a knife in his hand. It was time for re-armament. I put my hand behind me… my knife was tucked in my leather belt, just under my knapsack.
We circled each other, while I judged his skill. Like most Italian boys he carried a knife but I guessed the threat had always worked for him… He had never had to use it… For a start, if he had, he would have some scars to show for it.
Then he rushed at me. I moved inside his knife hand as he thrust, circling outwards with my left arm to keep his knife away from me. When we came to rest, the point of my knife was pressing up ever so gently… upwards, into the skin under his jaw.
“If you’ve finished dancing, you can drop your knife…” I pressed up gently. He stood on his toes… dropped the knife, and as he did so I swept my foot across and cut his legs out from under him.
He landed in a heap. I bent down and picked up his knife. It wasn’t any better than mine and not nearly so sharp… so I threw it into a ravine.
His two friends hadn’t moved… the little guy had wet himself… but that was all.
“It’s time for you to go home, class is over!” I spoke calmly and quietly.
“Anyway, business is nearly closed for the day.” I pointed at the sun. It was late afternoon.
“Come back tomorrow, the hill will be yours again… Unless I decide to stay.”
“Say goodbye!” I said.
“Goodbye.” The little one said.
They started to climb down into the ravine, presumably in the forlorn hope of finding the knife. I felt almost sorry for them… almost.
As the day ended, I stole two more customers from them… both for my top priced item. The second complained that for my age I was very loose. I smiled… That’s business for you!
As I started my walk down the hill I used the bushes and a rag to remove as much evidence as I could. I suspected that if I was being bought dinner then I was going to need to be in working order… but that was fine. If the fisherman made me happy with dinner then making him happy afterwards would be fair exchange.
I saw nothing wrong in what lay ahead.
The fisherman was waiting where we had agreed, and the sun was setting as we met.
He put an arm round my shoulders and squeezed me affectionately. He was at least a head taller than I so I put an arm round his waist and hugged him back. Then we walked together to the small restaurant… perhaps not so much a restaurant as a place where a pair of old ladies cooked good food for fishermen and sailors. I smiled at the thought that if I charged him for the night and paid for my own meal I would actually be in profit.
But that wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t why I had slept with most of the priests for bed and breakfast either. It was their company that I wanted… the companionship of a nice man who wanted to be with me as much as he wanted… Well, you get my meaning. To not be alone… that means a lot when you have nothing and nobody… and a three hundred mile walk..
Dinner was good. We drank a rough red wine. I was quite cheerful when we made our way back to the boat.
“I never asked…” He said, a little unsteadily… “Did you find the Mission to Seamen?”
“No,” I replied. “I didn’t think I was going to need to ask a priest for a bed for the night.” I smiled knowingly.
In the darkness he took my hand in his. I felt a lump in my throat. It was a long time since Mama had held my hand in the dark, even longer since my father had… it felt nice. I gave it a squeeze, he squeezed back… I felt safe with this tough fisherman… who undoubtedly hoped to… to have me before the night was out… and probably have me again before breakfast.
That was roughly how things went. Except that he was incredibly gentle for such a tough man. He made sure I was really ready to start before he started… and then he made sure that I was ready to finish before he finished. It was almost as if our Dom had spoken to him.
We lay there in his bunk, too hot to need clothes and too naked to be decent when the sun came up. It didn’t matter. When the sun came up we were pretty indecent anyway. When we had finished our indecency, we had breakfast at the little café behind the quay-side. Life was perfect.
“Have you ever been out to sea? Would you like to help me with the fishing? I’ll pay you what I would have paid Francesco.”
It was a very tempting idea… and a better prospect than the Mission for Seamen.
“If I come to sea with you… will you let me repay your kindness in the way that Francesco would have?”
“I would be most happy… if you did!” He answered with a smile.
“Our priest said that there is no sin in making people happy… men that is… He was less encouraging about women!” I moved the joke along.
“In that case I shall provide an opportunity for you to make men happy… and as we shall be alone out there…”
“It will have to be you if you are all the men that are available!” I laughed… he laughed… life really did feel good!
“So, that’s agreed then. You come with me, we fish, you make me happy… we end up at Naples in a few days. You get dropped ashore at Naples, and I retrieve Francesco from his grandma. It sounds like a perfect plan!” He said, and he was right.
That night, out at sea under the stars, I asked him about Francesco. He said that he was his wife’s nephew. He was sixteen and had been fishing with him for the last three seasons. He was a good lad… he had even saved my friend’s life when a wave swept him overboard. Francesco had been tied with a lifeline… his older companion was too experienced to be sensible and had left his untied. Without a thought Francesco had jumped into the sea, grabbed his older bigger friend and together they pulled their way back to the ship. He was obviously very proud of Francesco. I was pleased for him.
I asked delicately if Francesco spent nights ashore with his girl. He smiled… sadly I thought.
“That’s not a problem… He is always here. One day his mama will realise there will not be any bambini to play with. I hope he doesn’t get hurt. I’ve given my mama bambini, but Francesco… he’s less flexible.” He said wistfully.
Then he said…
“What about you… will you want bambini?”
“Perhaps…” I said. “There were only two girls in our village, and the town was too far away… Luigi was much more… available… and our Dom would give me absolution… if I gave him enough detail!”
The idea that the priest needed exact detail before he gave absolution made my friend laugh.
We lay there on deck under the stars, holding each other and touching… again. That was when he kissed me for the first time. It was a gentle kiss, and I said so.
“I was used to kissing boys when I was young. When I married, my wife complained that I was too rough. She taught me to be gentle… Now the boys complain that I am too gentle and try to teach me to be rough!” We laughed at the complications in his bed.
“Francesco was only thirteen when he first came with you?” I asked.
“Well, he may have come before, but he was certainly thirteen the first time he came with me!” He roared with laughter.
“You liked that he was young?” He thought about that… “I liked the perfection… Now he is windblown and tanned, a fisherman like me… but I love him for himself, so his age is not important.”
I sighed happily. I had felt the same way about Luigi.
I was learning that I was not so unusual, and neither were the priests and men I made happy.
Life was good… and it was getting better… I was becoming less confused.
Naples, Italy 1940
We sailed along the coast, fishing as we went, with Paolo explaining the sights.
The most impressive was Vesuvius, the volcano that dominates the skyline of Naples. He pointed to where Pompeii and Herculaneum lay at the foot of the mountain and told me of their destruction in 79AD. He told me of the wall paintings of people enjoying sex and how some buildings were so… rude… that ladies were discouraged and children excluded! He took the boat closer and told me of the Roman scientist Pliny who had sailed this close to the volcano to study the eruption… and had been killed by it.
As we approached Naples harbour, dodging the ships and boats, large and small that rushed hither and yon, I could see a young man, perhaps a boy, standing on the end of the mole waving furiously at us as we approached. He was suntanned and well-built, a bit older than me… We could have been brothers.
When Paolo leapt ashore at the pier in Naples it was with more than average enthusiasm.
That was when I fully realised how much he had been missing his young friend. The boy on the pier was much more than a pair of hands to help him work the boat. The ease with which he had taken me into his bed made it obvious that he was more than familiar with the comfort to be found in a young man’s bottom. He had shown neither shyness nor hesitation… just a need, and gentle care.
Now I could see that the need was for the ship’s boy who had been away in Naples. The gentle care?… probably for the same boy.
Once again he was not shy. He introduced Francesco without the least embarrassment…
“Francesco! Come meet Carlo, he’s been helping me with the boat while you were away. He’s having an adventure… walking all the way from Calabria to Rome! I’ve brought him to Naples… From here he travels on to Cassino, Anzio and Rome. In Rome he visits the secretary of a Cardinal!”
Francesco viewed me with some suspicion I thought. I gripped his hand in mine.
“Paolo’s a good man! I have been mixing with priests, so a man who gives and doesn’t count the cost is a nice change.” I laughed. I was so used to listening to priests that religious jokes came as naturally to me as swearing. “I was hungry, and he gave me food.” The joke spun on.
Perhaps Francesco wasn’t an ex-altar-boy. He didn’t laugh… in fact he didn’t even smile. I thought I could see trouble brewing.
“Paolo… I can’t tell you how grateful I am… the meals, the work and this passage to Naples… you have been a good friend. When I have made my fortune I shall come and buy you dinner!” I grinned at him.
“Now, I’ve taken up enough of your time… I must go… I need to find the Mission for Seamen… This time I cannot depend on meeting another Paolo… unless you have a friend?” He smiled sadly and shook his head.
“Ah well then… My thanks, and I hope we meet again someday.” We shook hands once more and I leapt ashore. Francesco followed me.
“I’ll show you where the Mission is.” He said.
As we walked along the pier he said “Paolo likes you… I can tell!”
“He likes you more!” I said. “I was just a spare berth and a useful pair of hands… There was never any risk of losing your…”
“I know that!” He said, cutting me off before I said anything indiscreet. “I know that. We have been together a while… we’re distant relatives.”
He thought for a moment. Then he said…
“A friend of Paolo’s is a friend of mine… of course. I owe him that. But… for everyone’s sake… don’t come back until we are both older… much older.”
Then he relaxed and grinned. He had said what needed to be said.
His honour was satisfied, he had seen off his rival.
“That’s the Mission to Seamen, over there.” He pointed to a church at the end of the harbour.
“I wish you good fortune and a safe journey.” He said.
“Thank you… and I wish we had time to get to know one another. I think we could’ve been friends.” I offered. He accepted… grabbed me gruffly in a hug. “You’ve made him smile for me while I was away, thank-you for that… Goodbye!”
He stepped back and waved as I looked back over my shoulder.
I thought that Paolo had chosen well…
His young companion had honour, discretion and courage. Yes, he had chosen well.
Naples, Autumn 1942
Naples was full of sailors. A town that full of sailors is also full of bars, and the bars are full of sailors… or so I found. I had never been drunk, in fact I had never had more than two glasses of beer or wine at a time. That changed in Naples.
I must have been a strange sight as I wandered the streets. I was a ragged young boy with a bundle, looking for somewhere cheap to eat. All the places I checked were beyond my budget. I soon concluded that it had been a mistake to miss the evening meal at the Mission, at the harbour. Now I would need to wait until after breakfast to buy bread and cheese and maybe some smoked ham or sausage for the road.
I was hungry… and that was when I met him. He was younger than me, and smaller. That was why I took the risk. I’d become cautious about boys of my own age… They were likely to view me as a rival, either for their special-friend’s affection or for their customer’s money.
I was travelling alone and had a long way to travel. Warm company was nice, but there seemed little purpose in trying to make friends.
This boy was different though… he was cute in an elfin way… quick on his feet and had a delightful smile. He was with two or three other boys and a small group of sailors. He came running across to me…
“Come and join us… there are plenty of them to go around!” He said quietly.
“Plenty of them?” I asked, slightly puzzled.
“Yes, their ship paid them off. They’ve a few nights before they sail again… Lots of cash and not long to spend it!” He took me by the sleeve and pulled me after him, to the nearest sailor, who was sitting alone at the edge of the group.
“You look like you need company! This is…?” He turned to me… “I’m Carlo!” I said to the man. He looked up and considered me. Then he smiled and said, “Join me, have some wine… Have you eaten?” I shook my head and he waved to the waiter to bring another glass and some more olive bread and smoked ham. I had no idea where this was all leading but I was hungry… I needed to eat, but bed… that wasn’t a problem… the Mission for Seamen still had one waiting for me.
We sat there, by the harbour, at outdoor tables… It was autumn but that didn’t count for much in Italy, the nights were still warm. I saw that the boys were flirting with the men, and the men were enjoying the teasing. I saw one of the sailors fondle the boy he was with. The boy giggled, said something more or less obscene and moved off to find some more food. There was a lot of eating going on, these boys seemed driven by hunger!
As the evening progressed we steadily became drunk… maybe not drunk but certainly merry and the things the sailors said seemed to get funnier. Eventually we were very noisy and not entirely dignified. Some of the youngsters were sitting on their sailor’s knee with an arm round his shoulders. One or two were kissing.
The inn-keeper eventually told us it was time to leave. The group took a while to gather itself together and wander out into the street. One of the men shepherded us across the road to a small hotel. He said that they had taken a pair of family rooms.
I said that I had a room at the Mission… but he said that it was only fair to stay with them… They had fed and wined us, so it would be rude to leave while everyone was still having fun. That seemed reasonable… That’s the trouble with coming from the country… city people seem reasonable, just when you ought to say goodnight… and run!
Once we were upstairs with the doors closed the sailors lost their inhibitions, and so did the boys. They were draped around the men’s shoulders, with a lot of kissing going on. Some of the men were crying. It took a while to understand. These were men who sailed away from all affection for months at a time. Alcohol and play-acting by the boys were enough for them to be able to dream of happier times… of wives and lovers, sons and...
I felt sorry for them, and grateful for the food. They were no different to the lonely priests along my journey. I sat on his lap and hugged the man. He seemed nice, was happy and slipped money into my pocket!
I now understood.
He put his hand on my thigh. I moved it back onto my shoulder, and he kissed me chastely, like a father. Then, he tried again, I smacked his hand but didn’t move it. Each time his stroking became naughtier I smacked him gently, and he slipped more money in my pocket.
Some of the boys were naked by this time. I was still fully dressed and my sailor had only just managed to really feel me up. I was able to control his passion, extracting ever more of his wallet into my pocket, while I watched what was going on.
I had thought that what Luigi and I had done while the Don watched was pretty wild, but this was… dirty… that was the word that occurred to me.
I loved Luigi, he loved me… and we both loved the Don.
There was love, and respect.
I still didn’t see what was going on in the room as sinful. I was too used to the idea that making lonely men happy wasn’t a sin. But, what I saw going on was… dirty.
The Dom had always asked “Was this alone or with others?” and this must have been what he meant! With others it was possible… easy even… for it to become lustful and… dirty. I still couldn’t think of another word for it.
One of the sailors appeared beside us with more wine. I took a glass and drank it swiftly, and then sipped another more slowly… while my companion enjoyed the feel of what he could feel… what I was now willingly allowing him to feel.
He had been generous and I was glad that he was happy, but I decided that if the night was going to be as wrong and undignified as I thought it would be, then I had better be a bit less sober.
I couldn’t afford to be critical… I had eaten their food and drunk their wine. They were filling my pockets with money… The least I could do was appear to be enjoying their attention while I brought them off.
I was now thinking and acting like a professional.
I asked the sailor I was with what time things would break up, and he said “After breakfast normally.” I wasn’t sure that I was pleased. It was useful to know that I had somewhere to sleep, but the company was not what I was used to. Mostly… on average… the men I had slept with had been priests. They had treated me with gentleness and respect. These men were choosing two boys at random and have them do… well it was more of a farmyard than a bedroom.
Thinking about it many years later… perhaps I was innocent… perhaps I was a prude… Either way, sex without love, sex without emotion was exactly as empty as the Dom had said. He had said that the other person’s pleasure should be the focus of what you were doing. In that room the men were getting their pleasure from what boys were doing to each other. I was pretty sure that the Dom wouldn’t have approved. I knew that I didn’t.
I couldn’t see any easy way to leave without causing an upset, a fight or worse. So I stayed. When they wanted me to perform for them, I chose the cute youngster who had approached me. I tried to make sure that he enjoyed what I did to him… I thought about him and only him during the act.
Afterwards I brought off the man I was with and one of the others. Each time I made sure that they enjoyed it to the full, and each time I rejected their attempts to excite me. I told them it was too soon, that I was still too limp or too sore.
I tried desperately hard to live up to the ideals that the Dom had taught Luigi and I.
Eventually even young boys and old sailors run out of steam… or something. It was about two o-clock in the morning by the time the last of us went to sleep. Before I slept I moved all the money I had made to the bottom of my pants pocket and then shoved my woollen hat in on top. Anyone trying to rob me while I slept was going to find it difficult. I slept on that side… getting past my hat would wake me.
I need not have worried. I was the first to wake, to find that my sailor… who had been the nicest of the men, was curled around me protectively. I relaxed into his embrace and went back to sleep.
When I woke again it was to find that I was now the last one asleep! The men said that we had been good fun and so they would buy us a good breakfast before seeing us on our way. The other boys said that they would be going back to the harbour, and invited me to join them… that they wanted me with them was nice to know… but I wasn’t tempted. For me it was the road west out of the port, towards the main road along the coast that would eventually bring me to Cassino.
Cassino may seem a strange choice… it wasn’t the straightest route and if I visited the Abbey on the top of Monte Cassino then it was going to involve a stiff climb. But… all the priests who suggested a route had said that I should not miss the mountain with its huge abbey on the top, home to the Benedictine order of monks. They said that it had been a holy site since more or less Roman times.
This might be the only genuine holiday I ever got, so I had decided to make the most of it. If I was going to be a goatherd again one day then I was going to be one who could bore people with stories of his adventures.
Speaking of adventures… I had decided to stay away from Mount Vesuvius, which was to the east of Naples, brooding over the city… a silent warning that some day something terrible was going to happen again, as it had in the first century. I was tempted by their stories of rude wall paintings, but they said that as I looked young I would probably be turned away.
Anyway… I had a long journey ahead of me, and I didn’t like the smoke that could be seen occasionally pretending to be a cloud… or was it a cloud trying to alarm the people.
I decided to go west towards Ischia.
After the excesses of the night before I stopped at the first church I came to and obtained forgiveness. There was a long list of things that I had done, alone and with others, and things I had watched… that I admitted to having taken an indecent pleasure in watching… Finally I reduced the old priest to silence. Curiosity satisfied, he said that he would accept my general confession that I had done many things that needed absolution… that would have to do… he had people waiting their turn. He would just accept my confession of… well a night of sinful and selfish pleasure.
So that was what we did. I said that I had committed sins of the flesh that included… well, a bit of a list. He gave me absolution for the long list in general terms. It lacked precision, but it saved the old ladies from straining to listen.
Afterwards I walked towards the setting sun and found myself somewhere to sleep on the wooded slopes of Monte Spina. When I woke there was a wonderful view out to sea, towards the island of Ischia. It was a pleasure to wake sin-free and with an innocent day’s walk ahead of me. My holiday was back on course.
That didn’t really last very long.
From heaven I rapidly reached the gates of hell. In fact I got there before lunch. I could tell where I was headed from a few miles away. The smell of sulphur became overpowering. The wind was from the west as I approached Antiniana. Then just beyond, I came upon a scene that could only be the entrance to hell. A local told me that it was the crater of Solfatara. The mud bubbled with evil smelling sulphur gases, and there were patches of yellow that he said were pure sulphur.
I kept walking!
This didn’t seem a good place to hang about. After the events of the previous few days I felt it unwise to spend too long somewhere that the devil clearly felt at home.
Beyond the sulphur crater I came upon a place that called itself the new-mountain. From the top you could see that it had an enormous crater in the middle. Beyond that was a huge circular lake in a hole that I took to be all that was left of the old-mountain. With so many recent sins I wasn’t going to waste time near so many ways to enter hell.
I kept on walking until I reached the sea… and heaven again.
I kept to paths high on the hillsides because the breeze was cooler, and the view towards the sea was heavenly. I could see the island of Ischia, one of the most beautiful views of my journey.
I followed the road along the edge of the sea until I reached Formia.
Coming from the centre of Calabria the sea was a novelty for me. Of course I got very wet on the fishing boat with Paolo but I hadn’t intentionally entered the water. Here I saw tourists swimming in pools and lying in the sun. At most things I was generally a quick learner, but I wasn’t going to learn to swim… I couldn’t quite believe it even when I saw people doing it… it was just a touch more probable than walking on water!
Instead I waded into the water, with all my worldly possessions balanced on my head in my knapsack… Walking along parallel to the shore, up to my chest in salty sea-water felt wonderful… I felt healed.
It was the first time my clothes had seen anything resembling washing since a more than averagely fastidious priest south of Salerno. Other priests had given me a bath… but this one had insisted that my clothes needed the same treatment… It meant that I sat naked beside his fire while they dried. He hadn’t touched me, just insisted on taking all my clothes… and washing them for me. He had also insisted on washing my feet, so I think I understand what he was thinking.
The bright blue sea and the green and brown of the hillsides… I was truly in heaven.