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When Matteo moved to London, he’d brought with him little more than a simple vision of a growing bank account. He had withdrawn all his savings, every last bit, to move from his parents’ three-storey house in Naples to his bedsit in White City. Bedsit: he hadn’t heard of this word, and the compactness of space and economy of furniture it embodied, until he was standing on its threshold. He’d been dumbfounded and impressed all at once by the ingenuity before him: a sixteen square metre space that managed to fit a single bed, a closet, a chest of drawers, a shower cubicle, a plastic table and chair, and a kitchen counter with a sink, a double hob and a microwave. A single window looked out to a metallic West London dominated by the BBC and Westfield shopping centre.
Before moving, he’d imagined living in the London of tourist brochures: emerging from the stately front door of a Notting Hill house painted in classic white to go for a jog in Hyde Park, or to glitzy bars overlooking London shimmering under the night sky. Instead, the paint on his front door was peeling, yellowed and stained; the wood at the bottom was rotting, and he had to close the door gently in case it slammed. The streets that he emerged onto were grimy and littered with trash. There were hardly any trees, and Hyde Park was too far away to reach by foot.
To keep the sunken feeling at bay, he reminded himself of what he’d also imagined: a jubilation from grasping London in his hands and conquering it. He was the first in his family to leave Naples, and he was determined to achieve more than they had, create a successful life in a global city. When he found himself reminiscing about Italy with the Italians that he’d inevitably meet, the sunken feeling would rise up, reach his throat, and begin to squeeze.
He avoided Italian company. He melded into the city’s horde of people, one amongst many, seeking comfort from strangers. When he returned to his bedsit, he passed the time on his phone, allowing social media to numb the tightness in his chest at his unsuccessful job applications. Gradually, the compactness of the furnishings, fitting into each other like Tetris blocks, reduced the largeness of London. He tried to hold on to his vision of success, but it began to wilt in his arid bedsit. He could not grasp this London; it slipped through his fingers like raindrops off umbrellas. Often, when it was past midnight, he’d realised that he hadn’t spoken to anyone the entire day. Imagine that. This was not what he’d imagined; he’d imagined a life.
But he was here. And it’d only been a month. Perhaps things would look up if he lowered his expectations, settled for something that paid the bills, sorted out the basics. Eventually, he found a job with a ride-hailing company. Why not? He liked driving, he was good at it, and the company liked people who fulfilled those two criteria. Besides, interacting with passengers every day would be good for him; it would lend some weight to his days.
His employer helped him with the requisite licences, and he rented a car from them. A few weeks later, he slapped on a smile and began his new job. At first, he greeted his passengers like potential friends and tried conversing with them.
“Hi!” he would say. “I’m Matteo. How are you?”
“Oh, hi. I’m well, thank you.”
“How’s your day been?”
“Nice. Where are you from?”
“You like it here?”
“Yeah, it’s all right.”
He felt like an intruder into their private lives. When they stared out of the window, he stopped trying to fill the silence.
He brought the silence back to his bedsit where it began to crowd what little space he had. The view from his window was indistinguishable from what he’d looked at the whole day: a city dunked in a bucket of unremarkable grey paint, preparing in perpetuity for a funeral. Although it took on some colour when he received his salary, for it was more than he’d make in Naples, he began to suspect that he had it all wrong.
He held on anyway. Things had to get better. Hadn’t they?
And they seemed to, one Monday evening, when he picked up a pretty Asian-looking woman from the Barbican.
“Hello,” she said, and shut the door.
Matteo glanced at her in the rear view mirror. Her fair skin seemed translucent in the darkness of the car, and her eyes, framed by a pair of large round glasses, twinkled as she smiled at him.
“Ciao,” he said. He looked back onto the road. “Where are you from?”
“What do you do in London?”
“I’m a student.”
“What do you study?”
Matteo nodded and started thinking about what to have for dinner. To his surprise, she asked, “Where are you from?”
His gaze darted back to the rear view mirror. She was still looking at him. “Italy,” he said. “You can’t tell from the accent?”
“Not really,” she said with a laugh. “I just arrived a month ago. Maybe I will be able to tell after a few more months.”
She was like him: a new arrival. He held her gaze as long as he could, and said, “I see. You ever been to Italy?”
“Yes, Rome, a few years ago. I went with my parents.”
“You like it?”
“Oh, yes! I loved the Coliseum. So historical and amazing. Are you from there?”
“No, I’m from Naples. You been?”
“No. Is it nice?”
“Yes, of course. We have the best pizza in the world!”
“Really? I’ll have to try. Maybe I will go this summer.”
Her accent lilted like musical notes. When he could look at her in the rear view mirror, her eyes were always ready to meet his. He broke into a huge smile. “Yes, you should. I can give you some tips.”
“Yes, that’ll be nice.”
He thought maybe he shouldn’t, maybe it was unprofessional, maybe he would get into trouble if she complained. But she was still smiling at him when he pulled up at her student flat. After the payment had gone through, he turned to face her.
“Hey. Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I enjoyed talking to you and I’d like to get to know you better. Is that okay?”
There was pinkness in her cheeks. “Oh … sure, why not?”
“I’m Matteo. You’re…” He looked at his phone, then back at her. “Xiangni,” he said, stumbling over the first syllable. “Did I say it correctly?”
“Um … yeah, kind of, more or less.”
“How should I say it?”
“Uh, it’s hard to explain. It’s Chinese.”
“What does it mean?”
It was the loveliest name he’d ever heard. He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “Fragrant mud,” he added with a grin.
She took his hand with a brief smile. “You too. Sorry, I have to go. It’s quite late and I have a morning class tomorrow.”
“Oh, of course. I won’t keep you.” As she got out of the car, he said to her retreating back, “I’ll text you later?”
He thought he heard her say “uh, okay, bye” as she shut the door. Just before he sped off, a notification popped up on his phone: a trip request that was on his way home. He rejected it and gunned the accelerator.
Back in his bedsit, he forgot all about dinner. He sat down on his bed and texted her. “Ciao! This is Matteo. Really nice to meet you tonight.”
A while later – minutes and seconds too long – his phone lit up: “Nice to meet you too. :)”
His heart leapt at the smiley face. “Would you like to have a drink with me tomorrow night?” he texted.
Two blue ticks appeared next to his message immediately. His hand quivered as he stared at the screen, waiting for her “online” status to change to “typing”. It never did. A minute later, it disappeared. He checked his phone every few minutes, watching her come online and go offline, waiting for the “typing” that never came.
When it was past midnight, he went to bed, confused, wondering if he’d done something wrong. The next morning, there was no message from her. There was none in the afternoon, or in the evening, or the next day, the day after that, the rest of the week.
The silence had settled with a domineering smugness. His bank account brought him cold comfort, and he missed home with a tight-eyed desperation. But he hung on anyway.
The following week, on his rare Sunday off, he took advantage of the unusually sunny weather and went for a walk around his neighbourhood. He turned from Wood Lane onto South Africa Road, and saw a group of five men coming out of a sports complex. They were talking and laughing; one was bouncing a football. Matteo had a flashback to his weekends back home, playing football with his friends: laughing, jostling, carefree.
The nostalgia took over. He walked up to the men and said, “Hello. Excuse me.”
They stopped chatting and looked at him. Matteo said. “Sorry, can I ask where you play football?”
“Oh, it’s just here, mate,” one of them said, pointing to the complex they’d just left.
“I see. And how do you play?” He hadn’t phrased the question correctly. “I mean, how do you … you know…” he made a twirling motion with his hand, searching for the word that escaped him. He felt a flush in his face.
“How do you book, you mean?” said the same man.
“Yes! Book. How do you book?”
“You can do it online. There’s a website.” The man – blond, tall, with a friendly smile – looked him up and down. “You looking to book for your team?”
“No, I don’t have a team. I don’t play here. But I used to play a lot back in Italy.”
“You’re Italian. I guessed from the accent. Well, Tim here” – he slapped his arm around the man standing next to him – “is leaving us next week. He’s moving to Oxford.” At this, the other three men groaned. “So we’re going to be one member short. Would you like to join us?”
“Oh.” Matteo’s heart skipped a beat. “Really?”
“Yeah. Well, unless you’re a goalie?” Matteo shook his head. “That’s wonderful. Tim isn’t either. But yeah, if you’re interested, we can try it out first, make sure we sync and all that. We play every Sunday at this time. That good?”
He usually drove on Sundays. But he was his own boss; he could change things around. “Yes,” Matteo said. “That’s good.”
“Lovely. I’m George, by the way.”
“Matteo.” They shook hands. “Nice to meet you.”
George introduced him to the rest of the team: Bruno, baby-faced and Spanish; lanky Jam, from Taiwan; and John, tall and muscular, born in Nigeria, bred in London. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet next Sunday.
Matteo finished his walk with a bounce in his steps.
On Friday and Saturday, Matteo worked from 8am to 10pm to make up for Sunday. By the time he returned to his bedsit, he could hardly keep his eyes open. He chucked his phone aside and went to bed straightaway.
On Sunday, when it was finally time for the game, Matteo hurried to the football complex. To his surprise, his potential teammates were already on the pitch.
“Sorry, am I late?” he said, catching his breath.
“Nah man, we’re all early for once,” said John. “No worries, mate.”
“Yeah … and you’re Italian, right? Won’t be surprised if you’re late,” George said with a wink. “Bruno is usually late. But today, he made an effort for you.”
Bruno laughed and shook his head. “Don’t listen to him. I’m always on time … by Spanish standards!”
“Please, you call fifteen minutes late on time?” Jam said, jabbing Bruno in the ribs. “I’m always on time. Like, actually on time. That’s Asian standards for you.”
Matteo laughed with them. Then George said, “All right, let’s get down to business. Matteo, what position do you play? Tim was our striker.”
That suited Matteo just fine. “Yeah, sounds good,” he said. “I can take over his spot.”
“Perfect! Okay, let’s warm up quickly. The other side looks like they’re ready.”
They got into position. At the sound of the first kick of the ball, Matteo felt a rush of adrenaline. The game’s symphony of sounds – teammates shouting to each other, football boots striking the ball – filled the silence of the past months. He was caught up in the whirlwind: yelling at Bruno and George to pass him the ball whenever he was wide open; his heart stopping when he kicked the ball towards the goal, groaning when it hit the post; shouting encouragement at Jam after he nearly scored; and cheering John when he blocked the other team’s attempted goals. It was the most exercise Matteo had done in months. The stitch in his side felt like a mere pinprick.
It was fifteen minutes into the first half when everything changed. Matteo intercepted a pass from the opposing team, and saw a clear path to the goal. He charged towards it. The stitch had intensified, but he refused to give up ground. As he dashed forward, he spotted, from the corner of his eye, an opponent gaining on him. He drove his arms and legs harder, propelling his body forward, and guarded the ball like treasure.
Only the goalkeeper was in his way now. Was that panic on his face? Matteo feinted a left and the goalkeeper fell for it. It was all that Matteo needed. With a swift kick, he sent the ball whizzing past the goalkeeper before it crashed into a soft cushion of nothing but net.
He felt, rather than heard, his teammates’ roar. He felt it even more as they rushed to him and leapt at him. “Matteo!” “What a lad!” “You’re defo one of us now!” They enveloped him in a sweaty hug, almost suffocating him.
But air surged through his lungs as he matched them smile for smile, laughter for laughter.