The Neapolitan Question


'You ok, Frankie?'

'Yeah. I'm going to shower then make a start on dinner,' I call back to her, already at the French doors.


In fact, we make dinner together. I open a bottle of red and we make a start on it earlier than usual. By the time we sit down to eat I think we're both a bit tipsy. But I open another bottle anyway.

We end up talking about the time I'd visited Ellie at university -- Edinburgh -- in their third year. Her and Jane had taken me out to some basement club where the drink was half price and the music was ear-splittingly loud. I was tall for my age and once they'd both flirted so outrageously with the bouncer to let me in without ID no-one at the bar cared enough to check, so we'd drank and danced until we were really rolling, it was light outside, and we'd walked home with the folk going to church.

We reminisce about the music and the price of a double Tequila Sunrise, although inside my head, I'm mostly recalling the feel of Janey's breathless heat as we'd danced together.

Suddenly she's clicking her fingers in front of my face.

'I've lost you again, Frank. Where do you go with that expression on your face?'

'To a place where I'm gripping your hips as we dance and grind until the sweat is beading and pouring off us,' ...... is what I want to say.

But I don't.

Instead I just smile.

We clear the table, not very conscientiously, and repair to the sitting room, me carrying the bottle. I drop down into my usual spot on the sofa opposite her. Lean over to pour more wine into Jane's glass. And notice her skirt has ridden up her thighs as she's tucked her feet underneath her. I close my eyes but the damage is done. I spend the next half-hour concentrating on ignoring the tempting inches of pale smooth skin -- although not so pale after this week in the Italian sunshine -- and forcing myself to look anywhere but there.

It's difficult.

Almost impossible.

I'm in a better place once the light begins to leach out of the day and a comforting gloom lowers the visibility all round. I start to believe it's providing me with the cover to steal a few glances now and then, as she gives me an animated description of some of the pupils she's enjoyed -- or not -- teaching this year, her hands fluttering in front of her.

I ask her what being a live-in house mistress entails.

'Being responsible for the welfare of all the girls in my House. I have to make sure they get the best out of their time boarding with us -- personally as well as academically.'

'And you live with them?' I fidget, jiggling my leg, intrigued by the world she's been revealing to me.

'Yes. But I have a self-contained little flat of my own. I can even lock my door when I want to.'

She curls her lip, amused at my curiosity.

'But do the girls go into it? Or do you see them in an office?'

She laughs, a burst of light that illuminates her face.


I watch her, happy she's looking so alive.

'I have regular office hours when girls can meet me during the day and after lessons, and that's in my office. But I also do sometimes invite a girl or girls to meet me in my flat. Particularly if it's going to be difficult for them. Or very private. Sometimes it's not until I let them see something of my private self that a girl will open up to me.'

'What about?'

'Oh,' she shrugs, more energised than I've seen her all this time, 'it could be to do with what's happening at home. Some of the girls board with us because their home life is troubled; their parents are going through difficulties, or it's simply safer for them to be living with us.'

She sees the look on my face.

'We have a lot of supported places at the school, for girls whose families wouldn't be able to afford the fees, and we also have a relationship with the local authorities for girls who need a safe environment to live and go to school in. It's not all posh girls with ponies and a bottomless personal allowance, you know.'

'I didn't know.'

'I can see that.'

She holds out her glass for more wine.

'It doesn't sound like you get a lot of privacy for yourself, though? What about days off?' I ask while I'm sharing out the last of the red between Jane's glass and my own.

'Well, no. You have to live the life, if you know what I mean.'

'You must really love it, to do that.'

'I do!' But her smile fades a bit. 'Well, that's to say, I have done. But looking back, I think I've been getting wearied by it these last two years or so. It used to fill me up with energy, but recently it's felt like the job has been depleting me instead.'

'That must be -- disconcerting?'

'Yes.' She slumps back into the depths of the sofa, rotating the wine glass in her hand.

'Why do you think that's happened?'

'Lots of things. Dad dying. Working long hours. Not taking enough time off during the school holidays.'

She hesitates; puts her glass down and pulls her hair up into her hands, twisting it into knots behind her. I haven't seen her do that before, and I sit up straighter to watch the way she's pulling and twisting at it, exposing her graceful neck to my hungry eyes. One glance at her and it's obvious she has no idea of the effect she's having on me.

'But recently I've begun to think I'm not as good at the pastoral stuff as I thought.' She darts a look at me, sees I'm still listening, and seems to rush onwards. 'I've fallen out of step, somehow.'

We both take a big breath.

I speak first.

'What do you mean?'

Her eyes dart around, between me and the paintings on the wall behind my head.

'The girls -- they are so much more worldly than I am.'


'Yes. They're experiencing things I've never experienced, and sometimes I feel at such a loss as to how to help or advise them.'

'But, Jane, no-one can experience everything. And isn't it the feature of all generations, to grow up in different times to each other? I can't imagine anything other than you're the best sort of adviser to those girls, because you're such a good listener.'

'I think some of the girls see right through me. They think I'm a fraud, pretending to know what they're talking about; that I've done it all too.'

'A fraud? Surely that's not right?'

'Oh I'm sure it is. I can see it in their eyes. They don't believe I have any idea what they're talking about. What they're up to. I probably sound utterly ridiculous to you, but it's got to the stage where it's undermining my own confidence in what I can do for them.'

Her words are spilling out at quite a rate now.

'Good grief, Janey, what are we talking about here? Drugs? Sex trafficking? Chatroom grooming? What are these kids of yours up to? I had no idea the Highlands was such a hotbed of teenaged debauchery.'

'Just sex. Yes, sometimes drugs, and worse, but I've got other people -- specialists -- I can turn to for that. It's the sex.'

'The sex?' Now I'm the one leaning forwards, trying to read her face in the low light. 'What kind of sex is it, that you don't know enough about? How -- uh -- specialist are we talking?'

She's flushed. Probably with the wine and, more so, the subject matter. I chew at my bottom lip, remembering too late Ellie telling me even she has never had this sort of conversation with Jane.

'Just the sex, Frank. The sex.'

'I don't understand,' I stutter, but looking at the panic in her face, I think I do. Or I'm beginning to.

'What do you mean, Janey? That it's been a while since --,'

'No! It's not simply a matter of time, Frankie.'

'Not of time?'

'No,' she moans, and covers her face with both hands.

I can't reach her from here, so without thinking, I stand up, take the couple of steps needed to close the distance between us, and reach down to touch her hands.

'Oh God, I must be so much more bloody drunk than I thought,' she moans again, her voice muffled.

I touch her hands again but they stay firmly over her face.

'Jane? Janey? Are you saying what I think you are?'

The sight of her shrinking back into herself is more than I can bear, coming so quickly after all that gorgeous, excited animation of earlier, and there's nothing I want to do more than to bring that good energy back, to dispel whatever this despair is. I sit down next to her, and gently run my hand down her forearm, trying to encourage her to uncover her face. I need to know what's going on.

'Jane? Talk to me. It's only me. And to be fair, you've pretty much already said it?'

She drops her hands then, and barely turns towards me, but it's an improvement.

'That's a start.' I lean across her, retrieving her glass, and lift it up. 'Perhaps now you'll want the rest of this, to help you finish?'

She gives me the tiniest smile. 'Honestly? I'd rather run to the hills, but I fear that's not really possible, is it?'

I shake my head. 'Not really,' I agree.

She takes a big gulp of wine, sighs, shakes her head, still avoiding my eyes.

'Oh God, I can't believe I've told you. You, of all people.'

I sit back a bit, to give her more space; stop it feeling as if I'm crowding her.

'Janey, you know how slow I am on the uptake, so forgive me, but are you actually saying you've never had sex?'

At last, she turns her head to really look at me.

'Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.'

I'm sure my eyebrows are as high as they can reach and my mouth is hanging open, despite how hard I'm trying to keep my expression as neutral as possible.

'But, how? How, Janey? You're --,'

'I'm what? Too old to be a virgin? Well, here I am. Exactly that. A bona fide, one hundred per cent, thirty-five year old virgin,' her voice getting higher with every syllable.

The sofa heaves as she pulls herself up, but before she's standing, I've grabbed her wrist. Too hard, but I'm damned if she's leaving before this is finished.

Whatever this is.

'No, Jane, don't walk out.'

'I can't talk, Frank. I'm so embarrassed. And ridiculous. A silly old maid.'

'Please sit down,' I tug at her wrist. 'And there's nothing old maid-ish about you, never mind whether you've fucked anyone or not.'

Well, she's not the only one who's drunk too much tonight.

I feel her shiver, and think I've lost her, but she surprises me by sitting down with a thump. I clear my throat, growing more aware with each second that I'm still holding her wrist in my hand.

'I'm finding it difficult to believe, Jane. I mean, you've had boyfriends, haven't you?'

She rubs at her eyes.

'Not since school. Not really.'


She nods.

'Yes. I had quite a long relationship at school, actually. But then at university, somehow I just never seemed to -- I don't know how to explain it. I studied hard, but it wasn't only that. I just wasn't in the same groove as the other girls. Then my first teaching job was at an all-girls' school, followed by the job I have now, so, not exactly rich pickings in the way of men.'

'I can imagine,' I murmur.

'Now you know why I feel such an utter fraud when girls come to me for advice when they think they might be pregnant, or don't know if it's the right time for them to lose their virginity, and the myriad of other things they want me to help them with.'

'I can imagine,' I repeat, sliding my eyes to look at her profile as she rubs at an imagined spot on her skirt, worrying at it with her fingertips.

'I'll bet you can't,' she finally says, an edge to her voice.

'Why can't I?'

Now she's brave enough to look at me again, I see the shiny glint in her eye.

'Because the last thing you are is a virgin, that's right isn't it? Ellie used to tell me about some of your exploits when you were younger.'

I grimace.

'It's true though, isn't it? You were never without a girl.'

I tip my head, not knowing what to say.

'Come on, I've told you mine, now it's your turn,' she challenges me, turning her wrist in my hand until she's gripping my fingers with hers.

'What are you asking, exactly?'

'How many women have you slept with?'

I cough. 'It's not about that. It was never about that.'

'You haven't been carving notches in the bedpost, then?'

'No,' I laugh, 'no I have not.'

'Then what was it about? Is it about? All the women?'

Well, shit, if she hasn't reversed this conversation right back into me. Clever, remember? I suck air into my chest; cough again.

'Janey --,'

'Do you even know how many, Frankie?'

'No. I haven't been counting.'

'So --?'

'So -- I really like women, what can I say? I like being with them.' I stop, not knowing how else to express it.

'Open your eyes, Frankie, I want to see what you're really saying.'

I open them, surprised they were closed at all, and just as surprised at how close Jane's face is to mine. She smiles a little bit.

'I've always thought your eyes are the most expressive part of you.'

'Really?' I don't know what to say at that, either.


I swallow. Given how close she is to me, it's only a matter of time before my body is going to betray how I'm really feeling here.

'Maybe you can help me.'


'Maybe you can help. I mean, you've slept with lots of women, what would one more be?'

That does it. It's a mere second or two of time for her words to be uttered, for me to hear them and to begin to understand precisely what she's said. Asked. What she's asked. Is that what she'd be? Just "one more"?

'What?' I'm totally, wildly, wrong-footed by her. 'What? No, Jane --,'

I realise my mistake as her whole body contracts away from me.

'No, Jane, I don't mean -- didn't mean -- that.' I stop, defeated by the twists and knots we both seem to be in. Bite down hard on my lip.

She emits some kind of distressed sound, still tense under my touch.

'You don't want to?'

'Oh Janey.'

Now I'm in a state of frantic despair.


I meet her eyes, but I can't see enough in this dark. I lean across her, startling her I think, and fumble with the light on the side table behind her, eventually succeeding in switching it on. Sitting back down; her eyes following my movements carefully.

'Ok, that's better. I need to see you, too, if we're really going to have this conversation.'

She inhales quickly.

And then gamely, bravely, sits up a little taller, and twists to face me some more.


'Ok,' I nod. 'So, are we? Having this conversation, I mean?'

'Yes,' she squeaks out.

I can hardly think, my heartbeat is thumping so loudly in my ears. Is this really happening? I consider the wine we've drunk, but it's nowhere near enough to cause this kind of hallucination.

'Right. So -- what --? You think we could, um --,'


Once again, she's floored me.

I feel the first twitch. Because the thing is, I rather like women with nice accents like Janey's wrapping them around a few dirty words now and then. She's looking at me. Intently.

'You liked that?'

A flush of heat begins its crawl outwards from the base of my spine.

'You liked me using that word?' she repeats, the slightest of smiles curling around the corners of her mouth.

'Looks like you really can see what I'm feeling,' I say, discomfited.

'Mmm. Maybe.'

I pull at both of her hands.

'Look, Jane, sex isn't just something --,'

'Oh, please, Franklin Priest, spare me. I've watched and read more health and sex education information than you've had hot dinners, I promise you. I know it's not to be taken lightly and all of that. But look, we know each other, I trust you to -- um -- be nice about it. But if you don't fancy it with me, or just don't fancy me, then say so, and we'll both down a large whiskey each and crawl to our beds to lick our respective wounds, ok?'

It's hard to keep up with how quickly she can change from abject embarrassment to feisty teasing like this. I grin.

'Janey, I couldn't fancy you more if I tried. I've spent the last week torturing myself with long runs every morning, immersing myself in the most tedious technical specifications for an engineering client of mine, and practising hardcore mental arithmetic whenever you insisted on swimming in front of me, just to distract myself from how much I've wanted to scoop you up and drag you into my bed.'

Her mouth and eyes are both wide with surprise. Or shock.

'Ha-have you?'

'Yes,' I exhale, the relief sudden and palpable, like a bad spirit leaving my body.

I think the same is happening for her too, because she bows her head and lets out a quiet laugh.

'You mean, we could've got to this point without me having to confess my embarrassing virgin state at all, or propositioning you so clumsily?'

When she raises her head, she's smiling, her eyes softer.

'Well, I don't know about that. I've always thought you're too far out of my league. I'd probably have dismissed any idea you were flirting with me because of it.'

'Out of your league? You're out of your mind, Frank.'

I shrug. 'Maybe I am.'

We sit there, both wondering what to do next.

She starts to rub at that non-existent mark on her skirt again.

I lean over to her, pausing long enough to give her time to pull back. She doesn't, and I think my heart might be expanding too fast for my rib cage to contain it as I touch my lips to hers.

I sense the flow of air between us as she pulls in a sharp breath of anticipation, and then just the warmth and wet of her mouth. Tasting of wine. And of Jane.

I'm kissing Jane.

Only seventeen years from when I first wanted to.

After a few seconds, she's kissing me too. Slowly. Maybe a bit self-consciously. I force myself to hold back until she's more comfortable. Can't stop the tremor when one of her hands slides around the back of my neck into my hair, though. She retreats, leaving me unbalanced.

'You liked that too?' her clever eyes on mine. 'This?' as she runs her hand back across my neck and, more roughly now, into my hair.

Same reaction. No one can accuse me of inconsistency. The intensity of her scrutiny leaves me nowhere to hide. I move closer to her.

'What I was going to say before you interrupted -- about sex -- is it's not something to take too lightly, because it's when people are at their most honest. It's baring everything -- mind and soul, not just bodies.'

'Are we doing a risk assessment or pre-emptive damage limitation Frank, or what?'

'I'm just saying you might be disappointed.'

'In the sex?'

'That. Yes. Although I'd do my level best to make sure that wouldn't happen, Jane. But you might be disappointed in me.'

'Because I'm out of your league? How so?'

'You're exponentially brighter than me. I can't hold a candle to your intellect. I think you'd see me for the dull, unimaginative bloke I am, and that'd disappoint you, surely? For your first?'

She looks torn between smacking me and laughing at me. Except she meets my lips with great deliberation, pulling me down into a soft, sweet kiss, her tongue just tipping against my lower lip. I open for her, enjoying this taste of her, letting her explore me before sliding my tongue against hers, feeling the push and pull of breath through her nose.

Whatever she's doing with her hand in my hair, it's almost as good as the kiss. I lift her a little, lie back on the sofa, almost flat, and pull her on top of me, my wine glass getting knocked over in the process and rolling around on the floor. It's a relief to lie down. For my back, but also for my cock which was getting uncomfortably trapped in my jeans.

We settle like this, and kiss some more. Running my hands across her back and hips and bum I reassure myself she's definitely put on some weight since I first set eyes on her. I restrain myself from going too fast and tearing at her clothes until they're in a messy jumble on the floor.

It crosses my mind I'm going to need to know a bit more about what experience Janey's had before we proceed much further.

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