The Neapolitan Question
It takes a while for this story to unfold -- as for most of my stories - but I hope you enjoy reading it. Please leave a comment if you'd like to, as I really appreciate those of you who take the time to write them.
Anyone in this story participating in sexual activities is most definitely over the age of 18.
'Jane? Jane McInerney?'
'Yes! Jane McInerney. How many other Janes am I friends with?'
I sit back, too suddenly, almost tipping my chair over and curse, loudly.
'Frankie, what on earth's wrong with you?'
'Nothing. Nothing. I just nearly fell off my chair, that's all.'
'You'll break your neck, young man, and so you will!' Ellie screeches down the phone at me in a painfully accurate impersonation of our mam; how she used to yell at me for tipping back on every chair I ever sat on.
'Yeah, yeah,' I say, once I've stopped laughing. 'Anyway -- so -- Jane?'
My sister treats me to one of her excellent sighs, replete with the suffering of having a stupid younger brother like me.
'Yes, Frankie. Concentrate, will you? Jane's going to be staying with us at the villa for the summer, and maybe even longer than that. She's been so ill this year and needs to get away from the gloom and chill of the Highlands if she's going to make a full recovery.'
'Yes -- pneumonia. Twice in three months, and that on top of her asthma, you know?'
No. To be truthful, I didn't know. Didn't know she had asthma or that she's had pneumonia on top of it, whatever that means. To be completely truthful, my head's so busy with an invasion of long-dormant memories of Jane McInerney, I'm having difficulty taking in anything Ellie's saying to me down the phone.
And she's still talking. Something about Jane's dad, and the school she works at, but I know I've lost the plot too completely to be able to make sense of what she's telling me, so I just let my mind wander, peering out of my office window at what passes for summer in London. Light grey cloud, light grey drizzle and light grey faces. I'm not doing it down, because I love living here, but the weather isn't London's best feature. Except for the days when it is. I suck at my lower lip. Now I'm the one not making sense here.
I tip the chair back again and look up at the ceiling.
When was the last time I saw her? Ellie's wedding, maybe? Even now, I can recall what she looked like on that day. She was wearing some kind of slim dress that fitted close to her waist and was sort of draped around her shoulders. I'm totally crap at describing clothes, but that dress was amazing. So good I nearly went blind just looking at her, overheated barely out of his teens, bloke that I was back then. It was green but the fabric sort of shimmered so that sometimes, in the sunlight of that baking hot afternoon, it looked like a rich blue almost purple colour. Probably the best thing was how it exposed the line of dark, perfectly round, moles that looped around her shoulders and down into her cleavage.
'Frankie, knock, knock. Are you even listening to me?'
I snap my head upright, sit up sharply.
'Sorry, Ellie. I'm a bit distracted today.'
'No fucking kidding. Anyway, I just wanted to forewarn you so you don't flip out when you get there.'
'Yes, because she'll already be at the villa when you arrive, assuming you're still planning on flying in on Thursday?'
'Right, good. And we'll be there the following Tuesday, as the kids are getting out of school at the end of the week.'
Despite my fractured state of mind, I grin, thinking how much fun it's going to be to see them all again. Since Ellie and her partner Mike moved out to Singapore last year. We're a close family, what's left of us, and I've really missed seeing them and my nieces and nephews. I say as much and can almost feel Ellie's warm smile down the line.
'Yeah, George is dying to show you how much better he is at swimming now,' she tells me.
I'd spent hours coaxing my youngest nephew into the pool last summer, fighting his fears with as much energy as he had, sharing every setback and every success with him, day by day. My chest suddenly feels tight and hot, and again, it takes me a while to tune back in to what Ellie's saying.
'... even though I'm sure Yvonne will have shown Jane what she needs to know about the house, you'll be ok to take her round and show her the village and things like that? Just for that first weekend, before we get there?'
'Uh, sure, yeah.'
'Ok, so you're fine about it?'
'Franklin! What IS the matter with you?'
I frown, almost as annoyed at myself as Ellie.
'You sound like you're in need of a holiday as much as Jane.'
She pauses. Just drawing breath, or was there something in the tone of my voice that caused my sister to stop?
'Frank, is everything alright? I shouldn't be worrying about you too, should I? Two broken birds to look after this summer?'
'Don't mind me, Ellie. I'm fine, really I am. Just not firing on all cylinders today, that's all. And, I might add, it's only just half past seven in the morning here?'
'Except you're normally such an early bird. Or was it a bit of a big night last night?'
'Nah, nothing like that.'
'Not Cate again?'
'No. Not Cate. That's all over. Really it is. Done. Finito.'
'Hmm. Probably for the best, though?'
And that's it. I'm not going to say any more about it. Enough words have been used up on that subject to last me more than the rest of my lifetime. For two relatively intelligent people, we'd made a right mess of breaking up.
'Well ok. I suppose we'll be seeing each other in less than a week anyway, so we can have a proper catch up then. I'd better go, or I'll be late. Love you, Frankie.'
'Love you, Ellie. Can't wait to see you all.'
And that's that. We cut the connection.
I tip back again, finding the ceiling the most comfortable place to focus on while I attempt to sort through the fragments of what Ellie was trying to tell me. Jane. Jane McInerney. My sister's best friend from university. I frown. But a couple of years younger than Ellie. The year Ellie'd been meant to go to university, she'd deferred. It had caused havoc with mam, but what was the alternative? Mam had just been told her cancer had returned, and this time it wasn't leaving without her. Dad was in bits. And I was only eleven. It didn't matter how much mam had shouted and pleaded with Ellie, there was no moving her. She stayed home that year. Until mam died. That hadn't taken long. I'm not going to say it was mercifully quick, because cancer has no mercy whatsofuckingever.
Anyway, by the time Ellie got to university she was a year older than a lot of the students in her cohort. And Jane was a year younger than them. One of those brainy kids who'd taken her exams earlier than most. Yeah, that's it. The details are suddenly flooding back now. Ellie bringing her to stay for the Easter holidays, and overnight, our house had felt alive again. Even dad had cheered up a bit. I was nearly thirteen by then, and I'd done a lot of growing up. Your mam dying does that. It was like a hot smack in the guts. It still is, some days.
I'd been learning to cook for me and dad, and that's what I mostly remember of that first time Ellie brought Jane home. Us three, jostling each other in our tiny kitchen, cooking together. Jane's cool hands over mine, showing me how to mix and knead and roll pastry, her hair brushing and tickling my ears as she leaned over me. Ellie winking at me, able to see my cheeks turning red as Jane ran her fingers through mine to show me the right consistency for the dough, utterly innocent of the effect she was having on me. I was just a kid to her.
But, I repeat, I'd actually grown up a lot. Thinking about it now, I reckon it was only a matter of a few weeks before that Easter I'd discovered masturbation. I certainly got a lot more practice in while Jane was staying.
I snort, loudly and press my eyes shut. What am I doing, a grown man, replaying my very first teenaged fantasies here at my desk? I squirm in the chair, tugging at my jeans, because -- am I embarrassed or exasperated to admit? -- I'm almost totally hard. A hard on? Just from thinking about Jane teaching me to make pastry?
Maybe Ellie's right to be worried about me.
And fuck it. I stare at my desk. This tender document isn't going to write itself, is it?
I tap the laptop awake and stare at the densely packed financial tables, unable to process them. I press my palm over my cock, not sure if I'm willing it to relax, or tempting myself to stroke it to release, to clear my head. So to speak.
Still undecided, I stand up and walk into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Times like this, I'm happy I mostly work from home.
I wait for the water to boil, tapping my fingers on the cool granite countertop, wondering why Jane is coming to Mike and Ellie's villa on her own. I thought she'd have married some bluff, posh Scots bloke by now, maybe with kids. And a dog. The thought she might be married strangely flattens my mood, but at the same time, it makes me just as sad to think she might not have met someone by now. I shake my head and pull at my hair.
The kettle starts to whistle. I turn the gas off and pour water into my mug.
At least my cock has given up trying to remind me I'm a red-blooded male who's barely thirty but feels much older. A relief, I suppose. I switch my thoughts back to how I can persuade my client to re-draft his financials to make a more successful bid for the Northern Line extension project. Tedious, maybe. But safer ground than thinking about Jane.
I jerk awake, a sharp crick in my neck and a dread I've made a socially embarrassing sort of noise, but I look at the passenger next to me, and there's no sign I've called out, or been snoring, or worse, so I try to relax. Impossible in an economy airline seat with my height. But I try. Until I remember what I'd been dreaming about just then. Jane in a bikini, in Mike and Ellie's pool.
Oh hell. I need to stop thinking like this. I've never even seen her in a bikini. It's totally dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb as can be. That's me.
I've been nervous enough about spending this weekend alone with Jane in the villa before Ellie's mob landed. Then Ellie called me last night to deliver the bad news they were going to be delayed because Frank (her eldest, and yes, poor little sod, named after me) has managed to break two bones in his leg by falling out of a tree in their garden, and needs an operation to repair the damage.
Once I'd found my stomach again after it'd plummeted at Ellie's tone of voice, and then again as she'd described how bad the break was and how much Frankie had tried not to cry as they waited for the ambulance; and once I'd dragged my brain away from my memory of the feel of him in my arms the day he was born (tiny and hot and light), I'd got even more nervous at the thought of me and Jane alone in the villa together. And not just for a few days, by the sound of it.
With her uncanny sixth sense, Ellie had told me in no uncertain terms I was not to delay my arrival, and she fully expected me to play good host for Jane until she could get there.
'You need a holiday too, Frankie, you can't deny it. And you two always got along. I think it'll be fun for both of you to have each other there.'
'Yeah, yeah, I hear you, I do.'
'Really? I'm not suggesting you have to spend every hour of every day together. But sharing meals is always nicer than eating on your own, isn't it? That's all I mean.'
'I know.' I'd opened my mouth, daring myself to ask if Jane is single or what.
But I hadn't. I'd gazed at the bird table outside my kitchen window instead, wondering what was going on with me. Maybe just a reaction to the break up with Cate, even if most of that pain was months ago now. As my mate Rob had reminded me just the night before, I hadn't exactly got back on the bike, though, had I? There's been no one since Cate. My right hand excepted.
The idea of getting back into the dating scene fills me with something close to dread. It all seems so pressurised. Full of misplaced hope and false expectations. And even though I think thirty is still young, finding a partner at my age seems as fun as finding Room 101. A slow torture of expensive nights out eating average food, of drinking in bars filled with fabricated character, and of treading that fine line between fantasies stoked by too much porn or too much Disney Princess romance.
Rob had looked at me like I'd lost my mind as I'd tried to explain it to him, brooding over my pint of Guinness. He clearly didn't feel the same as me. Or as old. Old in mind, not body. Cate had said something similar to me during one of our last counselling sessions. I think she'd meant it kindly. Hard to tell by that point.
I shut my eyes, almost willing myself to drop off again. Instead, my ears pop. We must be starting our descent already. I rarely fall asleep on planes. But I'm knackered. Finishing up the tender and a couple of bits of work for other clients this week took some doing. Late nights and coffee, etcetera. I yawn and my ears pop again. Bright blue skies out of the window. I try to relax my shoulders. The view is spectacular as we come in to land over the Bay of Naples.
The villa isn't too far outside of the city. It's a ramshackle place, that belonged to Mike's grandparents. He's Italian, by way of north London. None of his sisters were interested in it, so it fell to Mike to keep it in good repair. Once he and Ellie married and had kids, they spent every summer holiday here. Longer, before Frankie had to go to school, and when Mike's work was more portable. Since I've been running my own business, I've joined them here most summers too.
It's only as I drive up to the front door I wonder with a stab of anxiety how long it will take them to get here following Frankie's surgery. I'm desperate to see them all and so wrapped up in my thoughts I'm taken by surprise as Jane calls out to me from the front steps.
I snap my head up to see her big smile and, before I can fret about how to greet her, she's kissing my cheeks and gripping my arms.
'Janey!' I grin back at her, delighted by how pleased she seems to see me again. And at the same time, taking in how pale, how fragile, she looks.
'No one calls me Janey except you,' she reprimands me, but gently enough.
I grin more, until I give myself a mental shake, and break away from her to retrieve my bags from the car.
'I'm so glad you're here,' Jane's saying.
I'm opening my mouth to say the same about her, but she's already running on, telling me how she'd found it difficult to get to sleep on her own in the villa last night. So that's it. She's glad to see me just so she's not the only person here. I shrug, lock up the car (out of habit), and walk up the front steps.
'... and I didn't even think to ask Ellie about which bedroom I should use, but thankfully, Yvonne had made that decision for me.'
She stops. Expecting a reply from me, by the look of her.
'And she's done the same for you. You're in the room next to me.'
I trip over the carpet in the hall and curse, but Jane's letting out a quiet giggle, and instead of feeling foolish and irritated, I smile with her.
'You think that's funny, do you?'
She stops giggling.
'Sorry. I've probably been spending far too much time on my own recently. I've quite lost all my social skills, Frankie.'
Something in the way she says it takes the wind out of me. I look into her face. She looks back, her expression caught between amusement and contrition, her weight over on her left hip as though her body, too, is caught between two opposing forces. It's an odd moment.
'I think I know what you mean, Janey,' and decide I don't need to take my bags upstairs right away. 'What's in the kitchen? Do we need to get food for a meal tonight?'
'Err --,' she looks nonplussed at my change of direction.
Shakes her head at me, confused, but I'm already walking to the back of the house, to the kitchen, along the way feeling happier and happier to be here, the photographs of my family hanging on the walls, smiling and waving back at me.
'You must be worried about little Frankie,' she says as we enter the sun-filled kitchen.
'Yeah. Yeah, he must be nearly out of surgery by now. Ellie will call me once he's out, I'm sure,' I reply, opening the fridge and surveying the contents. 'I reckon there's enough here to make a decent dinner, don't you?'
She rounds the big table to stand next to me. We survey the fridge solemnly together.
'I think so, yes. Although I'd be ok if it was just toast for dinner.'
'Oh no, that is not happening, Janey. No, I'm pretty sure Ellie will kill me if I let you eat "just toast" for dinner.'
'What do you mean?'
I turn to look at her, a bit too aware of how close she's standing.
'Well, she told me about how you've been ill and need --,'
'Well -- no, she didn't say that, exactly.'
It's another strange moment. Awkward. And intense.
'More that you need to, um, heal.'
I wince, thinking I've hit a wrong note. And breathe more easily when I see Janey's eyes crinkle at the corners.
'Your sister has four children of her own, and she still tries to mother me.'
'That's Ellie alright.'
We share a smile.
'How about a glass of wine while I put something together with what we've got here?' I gesture at the still open fridge.
'Will that aid my healing, a glass of wine?'
I turn around to look at her again, surprised at the humour in her voice. There's a bit of sparkle in her eyes. But, oh, how she does look fragile. Blue shadows under her eyes; skin that's almost translucent. And thin. We're not going to be settling for toast for dinner any time I'm here, I know that much. She needs good food in her. And lots of it. I'm going to make that my mission. It'll give me something to focus on, until Ellie and the kids get here.
That first night, we moved between more of those awkward moments and then flashes of humour and familiarity in each other's company. She reminded me of the last time we really saw each other. Not Ellie and Mike's wedding, but the party they threw after the birth of Frankie, a bare seven months later. I'd been viciously hungover from the night before, which is probably why I couldn't bring it to mind quite so readily. Janey remembered it all too clearly, especially the part where she found me puking my guts up outside on the drive and had gone into the house to get me a big glass of water.
It had been a nice enough evening, and I was pleased she a fair proportion of the food I'd put onto her plate. But I'd gone to bed feeling wired and hadn't managed much sleep.
The next day, we drove down to the local market and picked out fresh fruit and vegetables. She seemed better. More relaxed? Or just a bit more energy? We bought meat from the village butcher, and I went in search of a bottle of whiskey while Jane disappeared into the pharmacy.
Driving through the countryside I began to think about how different she was to the Janey I remember. Quieter. Withdrawn, even. Just bare hints of the funny, impassioned girl I remember.
She fell asleep in the car on the way back, even though it wasn't a long journey at all. I stole glances at her as I drove. She was wearing a t-shirt that revealed more of her than the long-sleeved shirt she was in the day before and confirmed my suspicions about how much weight she seems to have lost.
She looked embarrassed when I woke her up, still in the car. I'd already unpacked the shopping and taken it into the kitchen. She disappeared upstairs. For a nap, I assumed. I was distracted with some work calls all that afternoon. And another call from Ellie, confirming everything was fine with Frankie, but the surgeon had said they'd have to wait a week or more before they'd know if he was ok to fly here.