I was on holiday in Amalfi with friends, over twenty years ago now. We'd taken the ferry to Capri for the day and were walking across the Piazzetta when I heard someone call my name. Richard was sitting alone at one of the tables, wearing a hat and large dark glasses. He looked like a flushed, down-at-heel Truman Capote. I only recognised him when he slid the glasses down his nose and beckoned us over. You look like you're on the run, I said, laughing. I am, he said. Who from? The Mafia. Well, the Camorra actually. We didn't believe him at first. This is what he told us.
He'd been invited out to dinner by his girlfriend's father, a well-placed lawyer in Salerno, where Richard worked. The dinner was formal and Richard was seated, somewhat against his will, beside an over-dressed middle-aged woman. She asked him what he did and he told her that he taught at the university. He didn't say that he was a lettore and it probably wouldn't have made any difference if he had; she wasn't the kind of woman who'd understand the niceties of academic hierarchies. She looked interested for the first time since they'd started talking (I admit to adding this detail myself) and started to ask him exactly what he did. Richard's what my mother calls a bit of a romancer so I imagine he skipped the humbler aspects. Whatever he said he must have given her the impression that he had a certain clout. As they were leaving the table he kissed her hand and said, and I quote: Of course if there's ever anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to ask. Adding to us: As one does in these situations. Does one? I said. I don't. You don't live in Salerno, he said. You kissed her hand? I said. He nodded, hopelessly.
A few days later, she called him.
- I have a little favour to ask of you, she said.
- Of course, said Richard, sweating.
- It's a trifling matter. Un niente. My son is enrolled in your university. In the faculty of law. He's supposed to be taking an exam this month. Perhaps you could help him?
-Of course, said Richard, relieved. I'll do everything I can. Ask him to come to my ricevimento. On Friday mornings.
There was a pause.
- That would be rather awkward, she said.
- Well, perhaps he can call me at home, said Richard, one evening. Any evening will do. If that's easier. I can give him some tips to help him.
A longer pause.
- I don't think you quite understand, she said. He's a very busy young man. He really doesn't have time to come back to Italy and take the exam.
- I'm sorry?
- He's in New York. It's out of the question that he should come back to Italy to take one small exam. I'm sure you'll be able to help him. I'm sure you'll find a way to help him solve this little problem.
- I'll see what I can do,' he said.
A much longer pause.
- You do know who I am, don't you? she said.
Her husband was the chief lawyer of the Nuova Camorra boss, Raffaele Cutolo, serving a life sentence at that time in a carpeted cell in Poggioreale. Richard's girlfriend asked him why he wanted to know. His eyes filled with tears when he described the way she pleaded and shouted and said that her father would kill her, and that Richard was pathetic, and that she never wanted to see him again. If he didn't do this one little thing.
The thing is that he would have done it if he could. It wasn't wrong. It was just not feasible. I think he was angry not because the woman had put him in such a position, but that he hadn't had the power to give her what she wanted. Her little favour.