I want to get going. But Si is chatting away to the hotel manager, complimenting him on his wonderful rose garden, which is lovely, it really is, but it’s already 11 and this is our last full day to explore the Amalfi Coast. The first 20 minutes of the conversation I enjoyed, but he won’t let the poor man go and he’s obviously got things to do but Si is not a receiver of subtle social cues.
After coughing, swinging my handbag around, yawning, shifting my weight from foot to foot, sighing and tugging at his sleeve, I give up and leave them to it. The cream convertible Citroën 2CV is waiting at the entrance of the hotel. I jump in, sit in the passenger seat and apply my garish coral lipstick, attempting to wait patiently for Simon, like so many other wives I’ve seen. Five minutes tick by v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and that’s it, I’ve had enough. I go to round up my husband again.
And he’s still talking to the bloody owner! But now he’s got a glass in hand too. That’ll take at least another half an hour and I want to GO! I march up to Simon, my flashing eyes hidden behind my aviators, my floral skirt billowing in the breeze. I absorb the scene before shooting my mouth off. The signore speaks first.
Hotel Manager: “Simon was telling me about his Lady Jane Hamiltons when he was stung by a wasp.”
Me: “They smell amazing. (To Si) What is it with us and the local wildlife?” I say scratching the mosquito welts on my arms and resisting the ones on my bottom that are now begging for a quick scratch.
Si takes his middle finger out of the glass of ice cubes and sticks it up at me. “Ow.” He says putting it back in the ice.
“It’s just a sting love,” I say, echoing the Yorkshire nurse in Swindon hospital the day before our wedding. I had zero sympathy from Simon, only jokes about my fat hand and that he had special exercises to bring down the swelling down. I thank the hotel owner again for the loan of his car and drag Si off, with the ice.
We walk past the saltwater infinity pool overlooking the bay and the town below. He tried to take my hand as we cross under the bougainvillaea arbours to the grand staircase. We descend linking arms. “Hold my hand,” he says. But I don’t want to because it hurts my shoulder because he’s shorter than me.
“I don’t want you to drag my knuckles on the ground,” I say grinning.
Si: “You are so bloody rude.”
“Thank you,” I say, infuriating him more by taking it as a compliment.
Our 2CV chariot with HOTEL POSEIDON emblazoned across the doors is now blocked in by a taxi and several abandoned cars; Piaggios squeeze past and a coach honks angrily.
Si still insists on driving in spite of his sting and five minutes later after more honking horns, lots of Italians shouting at each other, we are away. The breeze, the freedom, no tots wailing in the back, just us on the Italian coast. Bliss. The cerulean sea on our right, the opulent villas in the hills on our left and the crazy Italian drivers all around, we grin at each other like lobotomized goons. THIS IS THE LIFE.
We have no idea where we are going so Si takes a right at a fork and we keep with the coast road. He says his finger is throbbing and it’s visibly swollen, but I tell him to man-up (just as he told me when I broke my collarbone and he cancelled the air ambulance after a horse fell on me.)
I smile at him. God, he’s annoying as f*ck but then I am a total liability – thank god we found each other. I wonder if anyone else would have us. I flick through a few contenders in my mind – Doctor Nick? Maybe. He does have tremendous patience. How about Buck (Mandy’s hubby)? I quickly discount him as not my type. The General pops into my mind and I decide he’d put up with anything as long as I stuck things up his bottom.
Si asks me what I’m thinking about. “Putting things up the General’s bottom.”
I want to know more about the information he’s gathered on The General but he says he’ll tell me another day. He shouldn’t have mentioned anything. I ask him for a hint.
Si pauses. “If my sources are correct, he’s going to jail.”
Me: “Oh my god.”
Si: “You need to keep an eye on him and Fiona and say nothing to no-one.”
“Anyone.” He’s never really grasped grammar but then he is from Devon, I think.
We reach another fork in the road. Si is now reaching his limits of spontaneity and would like to know where the hell we are going. I tell him to go left. I have a vague idea there is a restaurant in the hills.
Si drives on. “My goolies are composting,” he says, shifting uncomfortably on the hot leather seats. I thank him for the information.
At the next crossroads, he uses the opportunity for me to itch the middle of his back. “There are no signposts – where now?”
“Right,” I say with confidence.
Si: “Are you sure?”
He stops the car. “Listen, I’m hot and I don’t want to go on a wild goose chase today. Is there a restaurant up here?”
Me: “I thought we were going to ‘just go where the roads take us’.”
Si: “Yes and we are but I know you and everything always turns into an epic unless we have a plan.”
Me: “Oh, because we’ve never ended up on a survival mission after one for your rambles to the pub?”
Si: “That was a faulty compass! You make one mistake…”
Me: “Do you want me to drive?”
Si: “No, I’m perfectly fine driving. I just want to know where I am going!”
Me: “I don’t know – that’s the point of an adventure.”
“F**cking fine,” says Si accelerating at speed. And off we go wiggling and winding this way and that until we arrive at a hilltop hamlet, inhabited by locals and a few animals. An old woman stares at our ‘Hotel Poseidon’ deckchair car.
Si: “There’s nothing here.”
Me: “Is the General visiting prostitutes?”
Si: “Drop it.”
Me: “Am I right?”
“Damn,” I say pointing at a faded wooden sign with Ristorante on. I look at Si in triumph and we keep driving down an even narrower dust track on the edge of a sheer hillside for a few miles. And, right at the end, is the restaurant I had hoped to find. “See,” I beam. Si is now sweating profusely.
“Why didn’t you bring a hat?” I ask, getting out to take a look. As I walk over I already know it’s deserted but I feel the need to double check. I’m also hoping I can open a set of double gates into a courtyard so Si can turn round. They are padlocked.
I get back in the car. Si is now expelling water like a human fountain and looks lead grey. I break the news that the ristorante is no more and we need to reverse all the way back to the hamlet.
He says nothing and starts to back up but he’s all over the place, dangerously close to the edge. I jump out to assist, encouraging him to stay ‘closer to the cliff face’ and I am reminded of ‘Herbie Goes Bananas’, a film of my childhood. “Well done,” I say. “You’re doing really well.”
But Si is not doing well at all and soon his reversing is increasingly erratic as he overturns the steering wheel this way and that. “Stop!” I shout and walk round to see what’s going on. Si is now even paler and struggling to breathe. “How much further?” he wheezes.
“A f*ck of a long way. Get out!” I order him.
“No,” he says defiantly.
“Get out and strip, Simon!” I haul him out by his arm.
Si: “Not here, I’m not in the mood.”
I rip the buttons of his check shirt and my suspicions are confirmed – he is covered in a rash. “Urticaria,” I say, my hypochondriac voice coming to the fore.
Me: “It’s a reaction to the sting. We need to get you to a hospital. F*uck.”
Si: “I just need a little sleep and I’ll be right as rain.”
“Stay the f*ck awake!” I say bundling him into the passenger seat. I get in the driver’s side and take a deep breath – if I can reverse tractors WITH trailers (one of my Country Matters challenges), I can reverse this car without falling off a mountain. In theory.
I put the gearstick into reverse and slowly gather pace until the car is whining on full lock. ‘Clonk’, the back wheel clips the cliff face. I adjust my line. A few more clonks and bangs later and I am spinning the car round in a driveway of goats and tearing off, wheels spinning at breakneck speed.
Si is fighting for breath. I grab my handbag at his feet, still driving with fury, and take out one of the four bottles of water I cannily brought with us. “Drink,” I order.
A car is coming the other way on this single track but I am not slowing down. I try to flash my lights but put the windscreen wipers on. I drive on.
Si: “F**king hell!!”
The car pulls over and I zoom past, tooting. Si is now covered in water.
“There’s a hospital in Amalfi – I saw the sign on the way.” I drive full speed, the 2CV rattling and, after getting lost in a one-way system, I hum the Marseilles – which is as good as any tune to head down a ‘no entry’ road – humming louder as I narrowly miss a moped and two pedestrians. I swing into the newly tarmacked hospital car park, abandon the car by the entrance and drag Si out, channelling the strength of a rugby player. Perhaps a French one?
“Aiuto,” I shout (thanking my lucky stars I lost my virginity to an Italian). But I don’t know the bloody Italian word for wasp. “Bzzzzzzzz.” I say. They look at me poleaxed. “Bzzzzzz. Ow. Ow.” I say miming a sting on Si’s arm but pinching him. “Ow!” he adds.
And then I shout the universal magic word of, “Anaphylaxis!”
And four nursing staff jump into action, shove Si on a bed and wheel him off, by the time I’ve parked the car he’s been pumped full of adrenaline, steroids and antihistamine and is breathing normally, with the help of an oxygen mask. I hold his hand, watching his legs jerking like a post-Ibiza come down.
A few hours later, I am able to take him away and he feels strong enough to check the 2CV for dents and dinks. There is no damage and he seems disappointed. I want him to tell me I am a legend, that I saved his life but we drive silently back to the hotel. I enter the underground garage (where I am to leave Herbie) and back the car slowly into a space and eeeoiiitttcccchhh! I catch the back panel on a concrete column. I look at Si in horror and let loose on the Italian swear words: “Vafanculo testa di katza, bastardo dentro. VAFANCULO!!!”
The last word echoes around the garage. I repeatedly bang my head on the steering wheel, before noticing the owner, watching from the shadows, showing another guest a blue MG. He has seen the whole thing.
Si grins at me, somewhat smugly.
VA. FAN. F**KING. CULO.