It is in the countryside, close to a one horse town called San Carlo with its one bar, one tiny supermarket, and the Macelleria, butcher, with its white plastic strip curtains in the open doorway. It’s hot, and on still days the town has a rich soupy smell from volcanic earth and the foul river at the bottom of the hill. San Carlo sits on the side of a mountain, one of Vesuvius’ cohort, a view to the sea and Gaeta’s dramatic coastline in one direction, and endless olive farms, vineyards, hills, even a nuclear power plant, in every other direction. It is beautiful.
The house is 3 kilometres from town, marked only by a KM 8 sign, no street numbers necessary in rural Italy. Grand gates and a barking scrum of former strays guard the entrance. The house is old and big and solid. It could do with a spit and polish. Maria, who lives in the gatehouse, greets us and shows us around our ‘villa for a week’. Her English is broken. She strides into the house, up stone steps to a doorway and points “room”, then continues up the steps to more bedrooms – “room”, “room”, “room”. “Si” we say, “Grazie”, our more broken Italian in reply.
It’s huge and did I say old? Oil portraits of long lost brigadiers and ladies on every wall along with framed family crests and official documents. Antique tables are strewn with silver trinket dishes, candelabra, and photos. The photos seem all of a similar time frame, perhaps 1980’s? 90’s? A smiling family, older husband and younger wife, and their regulation son and daughter. No recent photos it seems. The clock is stuck.
The eyes in the portraits follow me around the room. One is of a serious man in a black cape, with a high black collar and glossy black hair. Are there Italian vampires? The spaghetti was laden with garlic that night.
On the first night one bedroom is summarily dismissed by the girls. There are two beds in the room and they are hard and small, with dusty pea green covers. They decide to share a bed in another, grander, bedroom (they are all grand). The lamps have been turned on in this room and now that is no longer needed it is time to turn them off.
It is important to note that the age of the house and its many past inhabitants has my imagination running. It is flapping around like tape escaped from an old film reel – incessant, uncontrollable, and pointless. Because of this, I turn the lights off in a particular order, from furthest to the door to nearest, to enable a hasty exit. First the ensuite light. Then the lamp by the window. Next the lamp closest to the door, and then a quick step out of the room into the well lit hall. Well done, me!
The girls are ensconced in their bedrooms, clothes already strewn across royal red and blue carpet, iPhones and iPads adorning the beds. I do not infect them with my imagination. They are getting ready for a swim in the spectacular pool in the garden and are happy.
I pass the unwanted bedroom on my way back downstairs. As I near I see light reflected from the doorway onto the terracotta tiles of the wide hall. I slow down and move closer to the other side of the hall. A lamp is on between the two small beds. It was dark when I left, I am sure. But maybe not. It has been two big travel days to get to this remote part of Campania. I am probably weary.
The living room is opulent but tired. Candy-striped satin couches, pink and cream, overstuffed and piled with cushions, but ripped, stuffing coming out one arm. And holes from mustachioed pipe smokers of the past.
There is a guest book with over a decade of reviews from Germans, Russians, the Danes, and the English. A heavy book with thick pages, it sits on a pulpit-high wooden pedestal against the wall. I read a few reviews to settle my poltergeist qualms. Other people have stayed here. They had a good time! But then I notice that the most recent page has been torn out. Roughly. It was just the hard beds, nothing more sinister. Right?