I was very cross at the gypsy even before he stole from me and cursed me for life. He was standing sentinel over the Milano Stazione Centrale ticket machines like a gnarled gargoyle over a church door, snarling and pushing at the Romanian women in long skirts who were trying a gentler tack than him to earn a day’s crust. He was a bully and I don’t like bullies.
As though he’d heard my secret telling off, he launched and hung his lumbering frame over me just as I was selecting two singles to Il Duomo. I knew some game was afoot and was waiting for the bite while trying to stay on my toes. He dragged money from my hand, pushed buttons that didn’t need to be pushed, and swiped my hand away every time I tried to thwart his machinations. What could I do? I didn’t want to get shanked, or worse – look rude.
I certainly don’t think I deserved to be cursed for life just because I was being a little bit assertive. In the old days I would have ended up waving him off with all my worldly possessions tied up in my cardigan just so he could buy a sandwich, but I’ve grown up a bit and have realised the world is full of hustlers. True, I waved my finger at him in the universal symbol of “no, no, no” – and with such arrogant reproachful finger-waggling right in their face which trickster wouldn’t want to turn it a bit Brothers Grimm and desiccate my uterus?
Somehow in the sleight of hand trickery that probably buys him Tuscan truffles every night for tea, he managed to walk off with two of my Euros (I calculated afterwards, squinting at the maths). In addition to the casual theft he glowered at me like il Diavolo himself as he bowed, kissed the money, and muttered darkly as he backed off – before folding himself away into an insouciant swagger. He took up his leering perch with the other gypsies, who were picking their people out like pecking magpies.
I gave the back of his head my best haughty look and hoped it would at least have given him a prickle of conscience if not scorched his testicles. But I am not trained in the dark arts. I couldn’t even do basic Chemistry at school, much to the chagrin of Mrs Chilton who lived in her white coat. Legend had it she was born in it, got married in it, had babies in it and would at some point die in it. How she kept it white through all that is the stuff of alchemy. (Maybe if she’d snuck some arcane alchemy on the curriculum – like Beginner’s Turning Stones Into Gold or Key Stage 4 Living Forever – I would have been more diligent.)
I felt like a chump and bristled with hot indignance for about half an hour as Matt and I made our way to the cathedral, retrospectively acknowledging the trickster’s tactics, which now seemed so obvious. I hated feeling like a dimwitted tourist. I don’t mind feeling stupid at home, but in another country it felt somehow worse, especially after such a gorgeous welcome from our Italian friends. We emerged from the metro into brilliant sunshine and got jostled about with our bags as we found our way. I still hadn’t forgotten the gypsy or his unsettling subterranean kiss.
Within the hour, a market bracelet of wooden beads now wrapped around my wrist, with tiny iridescent Jesus and Marys hanging from it as though to soothe my agnostic superstition, I had let my anger go. Milan was bustling with springtime tourists, it was already as hot as England ever gets, and we had frothy steins of cold beer in front of us. I may have been hustled, I may have been stolen from, I may even have had a gypsy’s curse on my womb, but for now I had Italy, and beer.
I’d deal with being barren when I got back.