The concierge is there every night when she gets home; and every night he gives her a complicit smile and suggests she have a glass of wine with him. Guido waggles his eyebrows; he shows his white teeth, square and neat. His eyes are dangerously blue against his olive skin; his throat above the neck of his jumper is smooth and brown. She enjoys their encounters; enjoys the frisson. As she walks up the stairs he calls after her, ‘I’ll see you later, beautiful. Don’t be scared. I won’t touch you!’

The third night, home early because she’s so tired, she contemplates the long evening ahead with her volume of Casanova’s memoirs and the bedspread, and says yes. Just one glass of wine. She gives him a warning glance.

Bene. I’ll meet you in the lounge in two hours.’

She rings Jack, but there is no answer; he’s probably still at work. She lies on the bed, her feet ticking over like an engine. Casanova is writing about virtue: An intelligent girl could only be ashamed of giving herself to a man she did not love. He goes on: but if she loved me, then love, assuming responsibility for everything, would justify her in everything. She puts it aside. In the mirror she looks tired, her skin a mask of age over a young face. The last thing she wants is to get up and walk out of the room, but she’s promised.

In the hotel lounge Guido pours her a glass of young white wine. ‘To your visit to Napoli.’

‘To Napoli. Che bella.’

They talk about what she’s seen, a little in Italian, mostly in English. She offers idiotic comments on the spirit of the city, he listens, sitting next to her on the old couch with his legs crossed. She says the men of Naples are interesting, predatory, impassive; she has noticed how at a certain time of day all the women disappear. ‘To make dinner?’

He clicks his tongue and looks at her. ‘They meet their lovers, maybe?’

She laughs. ‘Probably. But then what are all the men doing out on the footpath playing cards?’

‘They hope their wives don’t have good time with their lovers.’

‘Are you married?’

‘No. I had una fidanzata but we….’ He makes a ‘breaking’ gesture with his hands.

‘Weren’t you a bit old for an Italian guy, to be getting married?’

He shrugs, looks sheepish.

She is sympathetic. He’s a nice guy after all; those eyes are friendly, mischievous. He shifts in his seat and watches her. ‘You are a nice girl. You’re here alone, you like adventures. But you are a little afraid. You smile a lot. I think you have a hard time. Now you are here to have fun.’

‘Yes. I’m living here, I… had a hard time before I arrived. The world is still new to me. I need some nice things. Naples,’ she says, unnerved by his astuteness, ‘seems like a crazy place to come for fun but I like it. The streets, the air of wildness, anything could happen…’

He interrupts. ‘Napoli è un casino.’ A mess. ‘Keep your eyes open. Always look where you’re going. You are a foreigner, you have to be careful.’ He’s smiling. ‘I’ll look out for you.’

‘Thank you.’ She is embarrassed. Is it that obvious that she’s raw and naïve, that she puts on bravado when she stares back at the sinister men in the street, when she forces herself to enter a male-only café for a coffee? She thought she was doing well. All these men so keen to protect her. She stifles a yawn. ‘Sorry.’

‘Tired?’

‘Yes.’

He says, ‘Let me rub your shoulders.’

Oh, she thinks. Oh, it’s too crass. ‘No, I’m all right. Thanks.’

‘No worry. I don’t touch you if you don’t like. Just to make you feel good.’

She refuses; he keeps offering. It gets ludicrous. In the end she says okay. Stiffly she half-turns; his hands are warm on the upper part of her arms. She giggles, but her stomach is tense.

He is talking: about Naples, about his father, who was a fashion model, went to all the famous parties in the 1960s, a very handsome man, his brother Massimo looks just like him. His hand strokes down her spine, lifts the hem of her jumper, slides beneath. She says, ‘Ah, don’t.’

‘Just here. I won’t touch you more. Just here.’

She thinks that she must say something but it is only his hand, on her back. It’s only skin. Perhaps he’ll stop there. She knows, as she says it to herself, that this is not true, but she can’t seem to say anything more. She doesn’t want to make a scene.

Stroke, stroke… his palm is warm and dry, her body is rigid with tension. ‘Thank you,’ she says, meaning, ‘stop’; but she doesn’t say that word, and Guido keeps stroking. Now around the soft of her waist, now onto her belly. Yes, up to her bra, and underneath.

She has become a doll, waiting for him to release her. If she weren’t blank she would be nervous. She thinks, in a minute he’ll get bored, then I’ll say goodnight. Her eyes are closed. She observes herself, stiff and half-toppled onto his lap, his sensuous caresses, her absurd passivity. He must know she isn’t enjoying this; but then, why doesn’t she say so? What’s wrong with her?

The stupid foreign girl, seduced. Is she supposed to be flattered—an Italian adventure? She wishes it were Casanova, how good he’d have been at this. But is it so bad, this attention? Jack, telling her that he’d finish with her if she fucked anyone else. Jack, who won’t fuck her—who can’t seem to give her a compliment without a lecture as well—and this guy hasn’t lectured her, has only noticed her vulnerability and seems to understand it. His hand is so hot.

So when Guido kisses her, she keeps her lips shut against his for a moment; then opens them. But her eyes are still closed.


::


The next day she wakes to a city dank with clouds. It is stony cold; in her black shawls and coat she stalks up an incline through light that makes everything harsh, and gets the funicular train to San Martino high above the rest of the city. There is a monastery there. She is the only visitor in the vast white cloister. As the sky above clears to freezing blue she leans against a wall beside a stone skull. In the shelter of this wide space there is no wind.

Her belly is tight, her mouth sour from cigarettes. The evening scene with Guido seems unreal, a tableau: her weird blankness, her mute acquiescence, his hidden face and groping hand. Even if they only made out, didn’t go all the way. Stupid fucking girl, fucking slut. So weak, as to let a man do that as if she were so cheap, as if she were still cheap.

Fucking moronic bitch. Thing. She walks around the cloister with her face tight, her front teeth set.

Is it such a fallibility, being a romantic? It seems to make her a mark. It’s there for all to see, even some idiot in a hotel, she might as well hang a sign around her neck: Take advantage of me please. The ‘please’ is because not only is she stupid but she’s obscenely polite, too. So polite she couldn’t ask someone to remove his hand from her tit.

Jack, Guido, they think she’s so fey, so naïve. Her black clothes, her love of poetry, the wistfulness. Like a child. How much they love themselves, while all the time they despise her. What they don’t know is that this is her survival. It’s not that she’s unaware of the world’s perils; she knows them too well. She is clinging to the rope of romanticism like a woman hauling herself up a cliff.

The shit she’s seen. She knows more about the world than either of them. But she is too tactful to say so; she is too intent on her lifeline. And she is stone, stone as these white marble skulls, trying to melt back into flesh.

But look at her: no independent sprite, but a pathetic woman-child throwing herself at every man who wants her. Has she rescued herself in all the wrong ways? Her muteness, her paralysis. Perhaps she’s not so strong, so recovered. Perhaps all that she believes about herself is a terrible error.

Unwelcome, a memory from years before, as things started fraying and the drugs tipped her sideways, when she was frightening herself, trying to be bold. Saying to a friend, ‘But don’t you want to fuck me?’ His look of shock—and pity.

She has no bloody idea what she’s doing here; it seems she needs more from other people than she wanted to believe. She flinches at the thought; then hears, deep inside, a small mocking voice that says: you’re running away. ‘I could lie down like a tired child,’ she whispers. Shelley wrote those words here in Naples. ‘And weep away the life of care / Which I have born and yet must bear…’

She leaves the high plateau of San Martino; tight as a blister with frustration she stomps down a thousand steps to the city below, and loses herself in the streets until she is exhausted.


::


That night Guido takes her out to dinner. She has no will to say no; she can’t tell the difference anymore between blaming him and blaming herself. Wretchedness makes her pliant. After all, he is attractive. He looks at her and promises to make her feel better. He chatters away as they walk through the mad Naples evening; the noise and the chaos wake her up. Guido ushers her into a taverna and orders seafood. He gazes at her, distracts her with jokes, tells her about his childhood, makes her comfortable. Slowly her spirit animates. Here she is, in a real Naples restaurant, not some tourist place, with a Napoletano who is pleased to have her company, who pours her wine and water, who is handsome. He didn’t just kiss her and dump her; perhaps he really likes her. Or most likely he wants to get his end in this time. If that’s the case then she appreciates the trouble he’s taking. Ah, stupid girl, be on your guard, she thinks, but he makes her laugh, and she finds she is not so sad now.

She is buoyed by this sense of being a real person in Naples, and Guido is so worldly, talking of his youth here and the crime and the drugs and the girls, all the foreign girls who come here, and the city, full of mysteries and grit. But enough of acting the innocent who needs everything explained to her. She takes a gulp of wine and says, ‘I was a hooker once, you know. A prostitute?’

He raises his eyebrows.

‘Yeah, I was on the streets. That’s why I’m not scared here. I know it’s stupid but I feel like I know these places. You know, around the station, near the hotel—it’s pretty sketchy. But I’ve been there before. I had to be really hard, you know. I was a tough cookie.’

Scusa?’

‘Tough. Brutta.’ She bares her teeth. ‘Mean. Watch out.’

He laughs. ‘I think so.’

‘I did drugs too.’ A confession, fast as a rush. ‘So I’m not quite as innocent as you might think.’

‘Ah, droghe.’

‘Eroina. Cinque anni.’ She strokes the crooks of her elbows. ‘So. I like Naples. It’s familiar.’ She grows a little quiet, then. ‘It’s all over now. I wasn’t a puttana, Guido, not really. I wasn’t, how do you say, promiscuosa? Just work. It was just work.’

Ho capito. Lavoro, work.’ A dazzling smile. ‘Va bene. Va bene. I know.’ He raises his glass, she clinks hers against it. ‘To Napoli. Bella Napoli. And to you, Katie, ragazza misteriosa.’

‘Chin chin.’

‘Cheen cheen.’

He drives them back to the hotel and they go to the small concierge’s bedroom. Does she want to be here? She thinks so; that is, she can’t think of a reason why not. Jack? He is not reason enough. Guido is nice to look at, he has a directness and candour she appreciates. He tells her she is beautiful and he seems to understand who she is. He paid for the meal.

‘You think I am a naughty guy,’ he says. ‘You think I just want to kiss you and touch you and then, hey, nothing. I want to kiss you and touch you, yes. Why not? You will like it too. If you don’t like, you tell me. Here,’ he says, and pulls off her coat, removes her shoes, her clothes piece by piece.

‘I told you I have a boyfriend,’ she says. Boyfriend? For Jack? He’d kill her to hear it. She’s already naked. But it has to be said.

‘And where is he, your boyfriend?’

‘On the other side of the country,’ she admits. ‘We don’t have sex much, anyway.’

‘Well.’ Guido stands and strips off his jumper and shirt. ‘I am here. Here I am!’ He pumps out his chest; strikes a pose.

He eases her onto her back. It’s cold in the room. Oh, all this newness to be got through, another body to learn. She peeps at it: nice. She lies there and doesn’t move; only the back of a hand tentatively strokes Guido’s wrist.

He runs his hand down her chest, pausing to caress each breast. He kisses her belly. He kisses each knee. He raises his face, smiling like a kid and blows a kiss at her. Gradually he calms her with his slow hands. Her skin grows warm. This time it is she who lifts her head to kiss him and pull him down. She thinks, Tenderness is a gift.


::


The next morning she comes down from her own room and Guido is at the desk. He beams up at her as she descends the stairs.

‘I didn’t know you had to work this morning.’ She is already mothering. ‘You must be so tired.’

‘I work, yes. But I play too.’ He comes out from behind the desk, takes her hands. ‘Tonight I play again.’

But Jack will call. She had already decided to tell him that her phone ran out of charge; there were four missed calls on it this morning. ‘Ah, I’m sorry, I can’t tonight.’

‘Your boyfriend?’ Why does he look so amused?

‘Yes. That’s right. And,’ she says, deliberately but smiling, ‘I miss him.’

Guido shrugs. ‘Of course. But—’ His eyes widen. ‘One moment. Here, quick.’ He grabs her arm and leads her to a small door off the foyer; opens it. ‘Get in.’

Confused, she enters: it’s a tiny room, filled with brooms and cleaning products and someone’s luggage. Guido turns away; darts back to kiss her and whispers, ‘You wait here.’

From behind the closed door she hears a woman’s voice, and Guido’s, speaking dialect. A tone of familiarity, few greetings or farewells, then the woman leaves.

Guido comes back in and flicks on the light.

‘Who was it?’

‘My girlfriend.’

‘Your girlfriend… you mean, now?’

He chuckles. ‘Yes. I told you we broke up. In fact we are still together.’

She gazes at him, unsure how to respond. He seems amused. He expects her to understand this situation, this game; he is treating her as a player, not a dupe.

She decides to go for sophistication; shakes her head ruefully. ‘You Napoletani. So many women.’

Arms around her waist. ‘So many beautiful women. And this beautiful one, who I want. Who I want very much.’

His face is so handsome, his eyes glitter with arousal. It is wicked, this game; now she too is entertained by the way he’d bustled her into a cupboard, like something in a farce. The foreign girl, the secret lover, the dangerous risk. She lifts her face and kisses him.

He spins her around, presses her against the vinyl wallpaper of the little room and undoes her pants. The sex is quick and intent: his breathing in her ear, the flush of excitement to her face, and her hand, flexing against plastic wood grain in front of her, are all she remembers.



My parents sentenced me to a life of literature when they named me after an ancient Greek monkey in a Lawrence Durrell play and then had the nerve to tack on the middle name Esmé. “Love and Squalor” is not only a nod to my namesake short story (R.I.P. Salinger) but a reminder of two ingredients that too often go missing from contemporary fiction. In this column, I’ll try to include the kinds of prose that give publishing houses migraines: story collections, translations, fiction set abroad, and works that defy genres. Basically, books that like to travel as much as I do.