3 weeks ago

The Italian Job: Planning A Heist in Rome

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Belfast poet and author Susannah Dickey describes a premeditated heist and a testament of real female friendship …

Four years ago, five women in their early twenties flew from Dublin to Rome. Their primary objective was to implement a high-stakes extraction mission. Their secondary objective was to have a nice time. 

In May 2016, one of my most excellent friends started a new job. Listed as ‘Live-in English teacher & Au Pair’, the description said that she would spend her days educating the couple’s offspring. She would provide some pastoral care (sandwiches, encouragement), and the evenings would be her own. My friend, (who, for the sake of continuity and anonymity, I shall hereafter refer to as Giblets) had just returned from a year teaching English in Thailand, and was due to start a secondary PGCE in the autumn. All this is to say: she was, and is, a really very good and experienced teacher. 

Upon her arrival, though, something was amiss. The children were considerably younger than advertised, and less inclined towards learning English than they were inclined towards being very young children. Teaching immediately gave way to babysitting, with the additional caveat of an enforced regimen of questionable hygiene practices: Giblets was informed that she was to clean the smaller child’s nether regions without the aid of cloths, or towels, or wipes. The evenings weren’t the sprawling and leisurely adventures she’d been promised, either: the couple rarely appeared home before 8pm, and she was then drafted into the complex rigmarole of bedtime. That said, she couldn’t have got up to much anyway: for all the perks of free, beautiful accommodation, she was earning, it transpired, less than minimum wage. Her employers were unpleasant, expectant, short-tempered. She was exhausted, poo-handed, miserable. 

In June, we made it to Rome. None of us flush, we exercised a deranged parsimony and rented an apartment meant for two people, and while the more palatable among us collected the keys, the shady interlopers lurked in a nearby restaurant – the majority eating pizza; me, who had recently gone vegan, eating an endless, seemingly self-replenishing bowl of just spinach. That night, buoyant and merry, we commenced heisting. Under cover of darkness, Giblets expunged herself from the apartment building in increments. The rest of us waited at street level, arms open. We’d arrived on a Thursday, accounting for the family’s weekend trip to their nebulous, palatial and vineyard-adjacent country property. The following evening, once they’d departed, the final extrication took place, and soon Giblets was free. Her colleague – a benevolent Rome local – helped with the last vestiges of Giblet’s presence, and promised not to reveal the illicit moonlighting. 

Our remaining two and a half days sprawled in front of us: we saw the stuff, visited the bits, we saw some of the really truly great Rome bits. Everywhere was love, and we were too conscious of it, sticky with it. I, who for reasons unbeknownst had always had a natural suspicion of the Colosseum (possibly because it is everything I’m not – perennial; a paean to human endeavour; at one time full of gladiators) decided that actually, no, the Colosseum is great – it is who am the idiot. On Saturday afternoon we got trapped in the rickety lift of the apartment building, and while waiting for assistance we innovated ways of receiving fluids through an elevator door (this may have been the moment we invented ‘the tube’). In the evenings we wandered loudly through Trastevere, and I had the unparalleled delight, upon telling a man that I was trying to be a writer, of having him perform his poetry for me, off-script. Every time he stopped, said, ‘Shit, shit – I messed that bit up, I’ll start over,’ my enthusiasm only grew, so full of mirth was I. 

Back in the apartment, we distributed ourselves across the two small beds, and Giblets, PomPom and I performed feats of such perfectly executed tessellation that you might have thought us otters, or the components of an IKEA wardrobe. The apartment’s shelves came stocked with assorted miscellaneous liqueurs and we drank them. We saw the Vatican at night, beautiful like a birthday cake. We sweated next to the Castel Sant’Angelo and stopped Sunbeam from giving her shoes to a voluntarily shoeless monk. We were giddy in a way that seems unique to having done something mostly inconsequential, but that somehow felt incredibly high-risk (crossing a decommissioned train track, or eating a cigarette). 

Recently, after going almost two months without, I got to gorge myself once more on delicious, doughy friendship. I spent an evening in the park celebrating a friend’s submission of her PhD thesis. I’m still riding the high of having seen her, and other beloveds, and it’s made me think that I’ll probably never outgrow or shake off the palpable, wibbly joy I feel when I’m with my favourite people, being an idiot. I’d forgive these people anything. They could puke in my hair and I’d get over it, probably. I’d stand in line to get them their really embarrassing drink order: a porn star martini with no alcohol; a Tennant’s Ice. 

On the Monday, dawn-shivery and a little deflated, we made our way home. Once on the bus, the phone calls started. Giblets’ absence had been discovered, and the couple was furious. The unanswered calls were soon supplemented by texts, irate and threatening. It didn’t matter, though. Giblets, PomPom, Sunbeam, Radiator Key, Potato, and I, were off. The bus headed airport-wards. We were in the clear. 

Susannah Dickey’s debut novel Tennis Lessons is published by Doubleday on July 16, £12.99.

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