Here's the latest from Harold Hark. TGW.
Apologies for being out of touch for so long, but I've been recovering in yet another hospital. This time in Livorno, Italy with a broken arm and leg. I'm lucky to be alive.
Unused to left-hand driving, I nevertheless accepted the invitation of one, Vittorio Petrolio, to drive his late-Fifties Lancia Aurelia Sport Supercompressa along the winding coast south of Livorno.
We shared a state of exhilaration from lack of sleep, too much booze and not much food, and the intense experiences of the twenty-four hours we had just spent together.
Both of us were singing "Guarda come dondolo" at the top of our lungs, a hit song from the Sixties that Vittorio had played over and over in the extraordinary 45 rpm record player his car was equipped with. Vittorio kept encouraging me to pass cars and, zooming around a sharp bend, I became confused as to which side of the road I should be on. I zigged when I should have zagged and we hurtled over the cliff, coming to a mangled stop midway between the road and the ocean. Our lives were spared, but Vittorio's sports car was a total wreck.
Were he not now in traction a few beds away, his jaws wired shut and looking forward to a year's rehabilitation, I am sure he would give me somewhat more than a hearty serve in the Roman dialect he speaks like a Gatling gun. Then again, maybe he would just laugh.
How did we come to be in this predicament? Well ...
I got off the train in Rome the morning before, a Sunday, with the intention of visiting the place where Marcello Mastroianni had so memorably gawped at the gormless but well-stacked Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, none other than the Trevi Fountain. Typically, I got on the wrong bus and wound up in a distant suburb whose name I never discovered.
Everything was closed. The high white apartment blocks appeared to be deserted. Yes, it was Sunday in Europe, but every quarter usually sports a non-Christian grocer open for business. Not here.
Maybe some alien invasion had zapped the world in the instant my bus, having deposited me, turned a corner and disappeared from sight. For reasons unavailable to we simple organisms of the human species, I alone had been saved. Stranger things have happened. John Howard was re-elected Prime Minister of Australia four times, for one excruciating example.
I sat down on a bench wondering if the woman of my dreams had survived with me and was just about to look out the window in one of the apartments opposite. Travelling has two immediate effects on me: I remain insatiably ravenous and feverishly horny.
I was just beginning to imagine my new companion into existence, her face in perfect thirds and her bronze, satiny Mediterranean skin with pores so minute they could only be discovered with a tongue as scientific as mine, when a convertible sports car came whizzing by, stopped and backed up.
Who was this to interfere with my fantasies? I searched my memory for an expletive. Unfortunately, the extent of my Italian comes from the movies David Stratton used to present on SBS television before the Howard Era's pursuit of that which lies below the lowest common denominator conquered Australia. In those halcyon years, I paid special attention to the foul words so zestfully articulated by the actors. One of them, vaffanculo, which more or less means "get fucked," was about to escape my lips when I realised the driver might be my saviour.
Vittorio Petrolio introduced himself and then carried on for a minute or so. I threw my hands up and said a phrase I thought I knew, "Non capiscum." He laughed like I had said the funniest thing since Garibaldi turned on his aide-de-camp with a rousing "What're you hollering!" after the poor fool had suggested capitulating to the overwhelming forces of the Austrians. I would soon discover that Vittorio Petrolio laughed at everything.
Unlike the French, who will only condescend to speak English if you know something they don't, Italians are happy to give any language a go. In a broken English that was to fracture my capacity for comprehension in the next twelve hours (but which improved dramatically thereafter owing to alcohol), he asked if I had seen a bar or hotel or any open business where he could buy cigarettes. I threw my hands up again. "Non so niente," I said, using a phrase I did know, thanks to Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It was Italian for "I know nawseeng." Vittorio shrugged with a toothy grin, pointed at my bag, little more than a swag with a zipper, and pointed his thumb toward the back seat.
"Andiamo," he shouted with great flourish, and off we sped.
My new companion and saviour from alien malfeasance was not young, he looked about forty, but he seemed as carefree as if he had just turned twenty-one, free from all schooling with a lifetime of boundless opportunity and pleasure ahead of him. He was handsome and extroverted in a Neal Cassady sort of way, gesticulating and rubbernecking the surrounds as if he had never seen them before. He was constantly on the lookout for pretty women, whooping with delight and sounding his horn (a truly infernal klaxon) every time we saw one.
He jabbered as fast as his careening car negotiated the endless piazzas and one-way streets he always entered the wrong way. We finally encountered some people strolling across a side street. Vittorio whooped again and hung a right on two wheels, sounding his horn as they scurried out of his way, shouting back at him in what sounded like a chorus of vaffanculos. I held on to the hat I didn't have and was about to ask him to drive me to the central train station, when we suddenly found ourselves on the road out of Rome heading for Civitavecchia and the coast.
The roads and beaches were crammed with cars and people. Of course. There was your scientific explanation for the deserted suburb. No one stays in town on Sunday. Vittorio started singing "Cuando Caliente el sol" in an operatic voice while hitting that klaxon of his over and over. Evidently, this particular car horn was invented solely to irritate the bejesus out of people. In our time together, I must have heard it two hundred times. [Willikers note: You can hear it here.]
We stopped at a roadside café. Vittorio was out of the car before it had properly turned off. I'm not sure how he did it, but he had put on the hand brake, removed the keys, opened the door and was half way to the café entrance before the car realised it wasn't moving anymore.
Inside, he spied a cigarette machine. "Finalmente!" he roared theatrically. "It harms the brain to be free of cigarettes for too long." But the machine was broken. His curses thumbed through every page of the Italian Book of Adult Slang, after which he pounded the machine a few times before bumming a cigarette off the unruffled bartender. He ordered two glasses of Cynar, the extremely weird Italian aperitif made from, of all things, artichokes. With a mischievous saluté, he clinked my glass and we drank. I made a mental note that if I were ever to regain a normal life, the kind where you have friends over, I would have a bottle of this bitterly sweet concoction on hand, along with a camera at the ready. It was guaranteed to provoke outrage in Anglo-Saxon swillers.
On the road again, destination unknown, Vittorio delivered a lesson on the correct steering wheel hand placement. "Wheels magazine wants you to put your hands at twenty to three, but I prefer 12:15." I was about to say nothing when he slowed down to allow two girls driving a car with German license plates to pass. Vittorio waved both noon and quarter-after hands, leaving the steering wheel to its own devices, as he exclaimed: "Aroldo, I am a truffle dog when it comes to women. Did you see? The one on the passenger side was looking at you. Fine, I'll take the driver."
There followed a wild race through small towns and winding coast with the klaxons of both cars blaring. The women turned down a side road, Vittorio following, his enormous mouthful of dazzling white teeth reflecting the sun's rays as if they were a power source unto themselves.
Bad move. The girls stopped at the entrance to a cemetery. By the time we found them they were standing in front of a grave -- could it have been a grandfather buried there, felled during World War II? This spooked Vittorio. He headed back to the Aurelia. I lingered long enough to hear the girl who had looked at me say, oddly enough in English, "Typical Italians. They charge, then retreat." I told Vittorio what she had said when I caught up to him. He slapped his forehead. "We could have had them," he moaned, "even if they were the granddaughters of Nazi swine. No matter, the road ahead of us stretches forever and there are more beautiful women between here and there than in all the world put together." At least, I think that's what he said. Indeed, my translations of his garbled English throughout this tale are pure speculation.
In the next town, seemingly as deserted as the Roman suburb, we stopped again for cigarettes. Vittorio parked next to a car with a parking violation on the windscreen. "Don't park here," I said, in case he hadn't noticed, "you'll get a ticket." "Eh," he said, shrugging his shoulders. He snatched the ticket and slipped it under his windscreen wipers. "We motorists must help each other." When we returned from a fruitless search for anything open, sure enough, the other car had received its second violation. Vittorio returned the original and we sped off.
As evening fell and the traffic and beachside hubbub lessened, we came up behind an old Fiat 600 poking along much too slowly for Vittorio. On to the klaxon went his hand. An old man was driving, a burly, younger man in the passenger seat. Their arms shot out of each window, giving us every insulting example in the Italian Book of Hand Gestures. Vittorio kept one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on the klaxon, not letting up for at least ten minutes. As we finally flew past, Vittorio matched their curses and shaking fists, except that he was also laughing. I hoped we would not see them again.
Not nearly long enough after this altercation, the highway entered a pinewood forest. We came to a crossroads, the main highway going on to Pisa and a side road pointing to the seaside town of Castiglioncello. I had been silently hoping to be rid of Vittorio in Pisa. No one could take Neal Cassidy for very long unless they were as high on uppers as Neal always was. Vittorio, who even looked like Cassady, was high all the time on the wondrous possibilities the next moment might afford, preferably the possibility of encountering willing ragazze, or failing that a dustup with outraged cologni. The latter word, meaning "dickheads," was his favourite word of abuse.
He pointed to the signs and offered me a choice: "Shall we go on to Pisa or to the little town of Castiglioncello, where I know a good, but expensive restaurant." I was hungry but answered without hesitation, "Pisa." Equally unhesitant, he said, "Aroldino, you are in need of a good meal, and so am I. To Castiglioncello, then."
We pulled up at Il Cormorano, a posh restaurant and night club near the seashore. We could hear waves crashing close behind the majestic, old-fashioned building set among pines.
On the marbled pathway leading to the entrance, Vittorio bumped into a business associate and his friends. There followed a tense conversation before the party went on ahead, leaving us to follow slowly behind. Somewhat embarrassed, Vittorio told me he had taken money from this man several months ago but had as yet failed to deliver the agreed-upon goods. He didn't elaborate. I thought I had heard the man mumble something like "You Romans can't be trusted."
Before we even sat down, let alone looked at a menu, Vittorio was up and dancing with the business associate's wife. I looked around with great anxiety for her husband, but he was busy regaling his friends with drinks and, from the expressions on their faces, what looked like a good yarn.
The music, like all music I had heard since becoming part of Vittorio Petrolio's life, was from the Sixties, a song called "Quando, Quando, Quando". It was a lilting, romantic tune. Vittorio and the wife were glued together, barely moving. I looked back at the husband. He would surely go for Vittorio's jugular if he stopped talking long enough to look for his wife.
And then, wouldn't you know it, in the door came the two outraged drivers of the Fiat 600. They must have seen the Aurelia parked outside. They went straight over to Vittorio, shouted a few choice words and started punching him. I went reluctantly to the rescue but had only managed to grab the old man's shirt when two bouncers arrived and threw the intruders out. I had expected us to be thrown out too, but we were left unmolested.
The businessman, however, had been drawn by the ruction to Vittorio and his wife grinding away. It was now his turn to grab my poor friend by the shirt. What followed was the greatest example of plea-bargaining I have ever seen. In tones wheedling and whining, injured and put upon, Vittorio talked the potential cuckold out of beating him to a pulp.
Disgusted and embarrassed, the man collared his blubbering wife and stormed out, followed by his nonplussed entourage.
Again, I thought we would be thrown out; after all we (Vittorio, actually) were the cause of all the trouble. But no, it was as if we were invisible. The waiters paid us no attention. When the music started again, I looked around aghast. Now the dancers were doing … the twist!
"Ma guarda," Vittorio said intently, turning me away from the remnants of another time and pointing to the businessman's table. Their food had arrived but hardly been touched. With his trademark cheeky grin he gestured for us to sit down. A waiter came over; the jig's up, I thought.
Before the waiter could speak, Vittorio fired off a two minute round of Italian that seemed to free the waiter of all thought. He produced a cigarette from his vest pocket, gave it to Vittorio, bowed, and left us. Vittorio recounted: "I said to him the others would return soon, why would they leave all this food? They were just going out to cool off and have a smoke and, by the way, did the waiter have one for me, I was dying from nicotine prevention."
It seemed to work. The place was so busy, the waiter had no time to check the story with the Maitre d' who was also a dervish in action. No one seemed to notice that for the next hour there were only the two of us at a table for eight.
Along with the remains of two platters of antipasto, we ate from plates (Vittorio happily naming as we went along) of Strozzapreti alla Fiorentina, spinach and ricotta gnocchi; Risotto al sol d'Agosto, basil and sage risotto; Pappardelle all'anatra, duck sauce in ribbon pasta; Stracotto, braised beef; and Agnello o vitello in fricassea, Lamb fricassee. We finished off the Chianti and then drank nearly an entire bottle of Scotch.
Euphoric from our gratis bibulations, we joined a conga line of dancers as far as the loo, into which we slipped for interminable urinations, followed by an impromptu tribute to Laurel and Hardy as we made our escape out the toilet window and sped away for, as Vittorio proclaimed at the top of his lungs, "una bella sorpresa."
We were not far out of Castiglioncello when he turned off the road and drove down a gravel lane to a modest country house. What in hell is he up to now? I wondered. True to his word about a surprise, he simply walked in the unlocked front door. I followed him into a large, open lounge room. Stairs led to visible upper rooms. Vittorio made himself comfortable on the couch and there on the table in front of him, to his immense delight, was an old fashioned studded leather cup filled with non-filtered cigarettes. "Smokes, at last," he exclaimed. Within moments a tall blonde woman about his age and wearing a dressing gown came down the stairs. "What happened to you?" she asked. "On second thought, don't tell me." Grinning, Vittorio turned to me. "My wife, Gianna" he said, introducing us.
"The Amazing Vittorio," I blurted, wondering what rabbit he would pull out of what hat next. It didn't take long, for soon a car pulled up, depositing his daughter -- perhaps the most beautiful girl I have ever seen -- and her lover, a man older than Vittorio. She looks just like Catherine Spaak, I thought. But Catherine Spaak can't still be this young. The next thought -- that maybe, from the moment I got off the bus in Rome I had fallen into a time warp -- I sent packing.
Meeting for the first time, Vittorio and Bibi, as his daughter Lilli's lover was called, exchanged insults, the Italian kind, not meant to be verbal precursors to a fight Yankee style, but gentler, more of the I-can-be-brutally-wittier-than-you variety.
Bibi: "Rome is sad and humid and makes all Romans lazy. It overtakes the senses. A normal person, when he visits Genova or Firenze remains himself, but three days in Rome and he becomes a sad, lazy Roman."
Vittorio: "Al contrario, my dear grandfather, we Romans alone are capable of producing beautiful girls like this child here, the one you wish to steal from her innocent cradle."
After Bibi left, Lilli sprawled on a chair, lit a cigarette and announced she was going to marry him. "What, now she smokes?" Vittorio thundered to his wife, getting his twin outrages out of order. "I mean, I forbid you to marry that old fool." Lilli snapped back, "Why not? Unlike you, he's rich." His look of thespian hurt nearly made me laugh. I was beginning to sense that Vittorio loved everyone a little and no one a lot.
Lilli's beauty had sobered me up. Her hair fell in bangs over a face in … yes, in perfect thirds!
There was a slight part in her bangs, revealing the upper third of that eternal face, a forehead whose contours could only have been fashioned using universally renowned formulas requiring an extensive knowledge of golden ratios, golden sections, golden rectangles, golden strings, golden means, and golden rules, by a God who does exist, and whose gender could only be male. For only a connoisseur God with thundering loins could produce such beauty as that which He had bestowed upon Catherine, er, I mean, Lilli.
The middle perfect third began with the most penetrating eyes ever to behold an imperfect world. When she looked at me I felt as if I had gained an extra dimension, as if I had been suddenly brought to life, my existence before and after her brief gaze little more than a vague and inauthentic shadow. I couldn't actually see their colour (or the colour of her hair, come to think of it) because the dim lighting in the room rendered everything into a sort of grayscale, just like a black and white movie.... From her eyes one simply gasped as one's own eyes slid down her nose, a genuine pista di dea, not Roman at all, but Goddessy Grecian, so finely chiselled yet sturdy that it begged to be ardently nuzzled.
And then just below her nose and continuing the descent to her corpo divina came her piccola pista, the little indentation above her lips which seemed to be faintly glistening with minute beads of perspiration that required urgent removal by gentle licking. Now the ecstatic skier encountered Cupid's Bow, her upper lip shaped like a child's drawing of a pretty bird. Her teeth were only just visible; indeed it was only the lower part of her two delightfully prominent incisors, punctuating just a hint of a precocious smile, that rested on her lower lip, whose cherry-ripe fullness demanded to be softly bitten. A smooth, rounded chin, moulded with the same attention to detail as the Potter God had done with her forehead, completed this final, perfect third.
Alas, Lilli announced she was going to take a bath and go to bed. Her mother went off to bed too.
To celebrate our growing sobriety, Vittorio poured us some of his wife's Scotch. He sighed stentoriously -- it was not Vittorio's style to do anything subtly -- and talked about the marriage. Yes, it was an old story. He had gotten Gianna pregnant. Stony-faced parents forced the shotgun marriage, but they were incompatible; perhaps no one could stand Vittorio for long. "What finished us was a car," he said, "my old Cisitalia. She said I loved it more than her." He looked sheepish. "She was partly right. It's still in the garage, in bad need of repair. Maybe one day …"
They were still married because neither could bring themselves to finalise the anullment. Over the years he dropped in once in awhile to see how things were going, and, perhaps for Lilli, Gianna put up with these periodic visits from her impossible husband, who arrived usually at night, and always a little drunk.
I was starting to nod off when Vittorio finally ran out of things to say. He disappeared upstairs and I went to blessed sleep on the couch. It didn't last long. He shook me awake still putting on his pants. Seems he'd tried to talk his way into his wife's bed after all these years and she'd told him, you guessed it, to vaffanculo.
We drove to the beach -- it was nearly dawn -- and collapsed in a couple of beach chairs. The next thing I knew, a beach ball hit me in the face. I awoke to squealing children and a beach full of bikini-clad maidens of the moon, sun and stars, each face in a halo of exquisite beauty.
And there was Vittorio, rising from his chair bed, stretching and gustily singing "Cuando caliente el sol" yet again.
Not long after, Gianna, Lilli and Bibi joined us and we all scrambled aboard Bibi's yacht. While I was mooning over Lilli, Bibi and Vittorio took turns water skiing behind the yacht's motorboat, to the cheers and admiration of all. Vittorio was indefatigable.
When we returned, a downcast Vittorio told me he had tried to borrow 50,000 lire from Bibi, claiming some incredible business scheme that would return Bibi's investment a hundredfold. "Lire?" I asked him. "Isn't everything in euros these days?" He looked at me blankly. "I have arranged a table tennis match," he said. "The stakes: If I win, Bibi gives me the money. If Bibi wins, I give him Lilli." He looked at me looking at him. "You think I'm a cad? The fool doesn't know that she'll do what she wants anyway."
Lilli was the scorekeeper and as the game progressed to a tight finish it was easy to see that she wanted her father to win. To Vittorio's great surprise, he did win. He was as ecstatic as Bibi was stunned. Like all rich men, Bibi parted company with his money reluctantly. Vittorio shoved the wad of lire in my bag for safekeeping and promptly jumped into the water for a raucous swim. (Yes, it was lire; had Bibi cheated him? Didn't he know about euros? What was going on?) The next thing, I saw him doing handstands for a gaggle of cheering children.
By then I was frazzled to a core I never imagined was there. I begged Vittorio to take me to Pisa so I could get a hotel room and rest for between one and two hundred days. He laughed, looking more than a little frazzled himself, and agreed. And while he was at it, he could stop in Viareggio to see a girlfriend, Valeria. We parted company with his wife, the heart-stopping Lilli and future son-in-law and hit the road in the trusty Aurelia Sport Supercompressa.
With me driving.
I never did make it to Pisa. I'm due to be released tomorrow from the hospital here in Livorno. After farewelling the mute Vittorio and returning his wad of old Italian lire, I'll catch the first train to Paris. I hope he offers me some -- I understand it can still be changed in certain banks -- because I'm nearly broke. It seems I paid for just about everything we did.
What hurts more than the pain I've endured the last several weeks is that it will be at least a year before Vittorio Petrolio is once again able to speed along the Costa Etrusca, perhaps in his repaired Cisitalia. I can still hear him shouting over the roar of the motor and the squealing tires, "What is the best age? The age you are day by day, until you drop dead." No matter how much traffic it bears, the road will be empty until he returns to laugh that huge good-natured laugh as he gleefully blasts everyone in sight with il suo clacson perpetuamente irritando.
Willikers Note: A nice story Hark, with a suitably teary ending. Keep them coming, by all means. But Vittorio Petrolio? Vittorio Gassman is more like it. It appears that Hark has once again tried to pull a fast one. What we have here is an edited rehash of the 1962 Italian film Il Sorpasso. Hence his feeling of being caught in a "time warp".
What has gotten into Harold Hark? First, he assumes the role of Irish song legend Johnny McEldoo, then tells us he was shot in the arse during a truffle war in Provence. Now he would have us believe he went over a cliff driving an old Italian sports car.
A note included with this manuscript says he is heading for Paris. Who will he be next? Baudelaire? Rimbaud? Verlaine? Stay tuned.
Further entries in this series: