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And then he had the cheek to put his hand out to shake mine. I stared him in the eye and laughed in his face as I shook my head. He didn’t like it, and told me that if that’s how I was going to be then he wanted me out of the hostel by tomorrow evening. And that was the moment when I knew I was going to rob him. My options were pretty limited. I said ‘Yea, whatever, prick,’ and walked out of his office. I felt stunned. As I reached the top of the stairs it hadn’t really sunk in yet what had just happened. Fifteen minutes ago I’d been sleeping peacefully, nothing out of the ordinary going on in my world. And now I found myself without a job, without a place to stay, without a ticket home and without cash. In the staff bedroom Matt was still asleep. He woke as I walked in and turned his head to the door to ask what they’d wanted with me. ‘He just sacked me. Mario got Julian to fucking sack me.’ Matt’s reaction was laughter, accompanied by ‘What you gonna do?’
‘Rob him. You in?’

Matt had no interest in robbing Mario and fleeing the country. ‘I’m comfortable enough here, thanks. I like this job; I like living in Rome. I’m not ready to leave. You can do what you want, though. You’ve just been sacked!’

I said ‘Fair enough,’ and started packing my bags, while Matt went downstairs for breakfast. He returned to the dorm ten minutes later. ‘Julian just sacked me. Mario got him to do it.’ Too fucking funny. ‘You don’t wanna rob him, though.’ ‘Well actually, I do now.’ ‘OK then.’

The brief meeting between Julian, Mario and Matt had been as amicable as mine just a little while earlier, meaning that Mario would be in vigilant mode, aware of the risks posed by two disgruntled and hostile ex-employees wandering around the premises. So before doing anything else, we had to trick him. Together, we walked downstairs and knocked on his office door. He was alone inside; Julian gone. I apologised for refusing to shake his hand earlier, and told him I had just been shocked in the moment, but deep down I knew he was a good man and I was grateful to him for even allowing me to stay until tomorrow. Matt said some words of similar description. Mario bought it. We all smiled like old friends and shook hands and patted backs. Then we asked if actually we could stay until Tuesday morning, in two days’ time, as there was a cheap flight back to London that we would grab. He agreed. Thank you, you’re a legend. More back patting and we left the office. Too easy.

We went back up to the fourth floor and finished packing our shit. Somehow we had to get everything out of the hostel without anyone clocking us. We couldn’t just walk past reception with our gear, not when we’d told Mario we were staying until Tuesday. In the dorm next to ours a group of cheerleader type American girls were chatting loudly. We tapped their door. ‘Ladies, you couldn’t do us a favour, could you?’

Without question, the girls carried our bags past reception and down the stairs and handed them over to us on the street in front of the huge iron door. Thank you, ladies. They went back inside while we hurried off towards Termini Station. As we turned the corner, who was coming the other way but Mario? Across the road and too busy studying girls’ arses through his aviator sunglasses in between glances at his own reflection in the wing mirrors of parked scooters to notice us. ‘Jesus fucking Christ, that was close.’ All good. Past the tramps, past the junkies, past the schizophrenic winos sitting in their own stinking piss, past the West African hookers, past the Italian soldiers wearing their ridiculous hats with the flamboyant feathers on top – looking more like a troop of camp cabaret performers than a professional fighting unit – smoking their fags, past the fat Americans drinking Coke and failing to get a coherent answer from anyone passing about where they’re supposed to pick up their coach to Florence, past the Indian man selling bottles of water for a small ransom, and into the busy station.  The smell of pizza, over-the-top passion and expensive cologne contrasting heavily with the piss-vomit-faeces-cigarette smoke cocktail that dominated the outer complex. Down the stairs to the basement of lockers; our stuff placed inside a big one.

Upstairs we checked the large clock. 2:30pm. We needed to give ourselves enough time to both plan and execute the heist, and we knew that the hostel would be at its weakest midway through the evening shift, as that was the slot that I would usually be working, so we booked a couple of tickets for the 9:45pm train to Florence. If we hadn’t managed to get our hands on the cash by then, we were in the proverbial, as there were no refunds and I’d just spent my last bit of money.

We headed down the Via Cavour in the direction of the Coliseum, just as far as Finnegan’s, for a game of pool, a farewell pint and a plan. We compared details from our morning meetings. Both of us had been spoon fed the same bowl of bullshit – That we’d not done anything wrong, we’d been good workers for the 10 months that we’d been there, but that we both must be feeling tired now after working seven days a week for such a long time and surely we would appreciate a change of scenery, while the hostel could do with a change of faces around the place. Was it optional? No. Would the hostel give us any pay-off, even just to be able to get a flight home? No. But what if we can’t get home? Not our problem; deal with it. You can stay in the hostel for a week to sort your shit out, and then you’re out of here. That was the point when I’d refused to shake Mario’s hand. Right, I want you out of here tomorrow. Whatever, prick.

From Finnegan’s we strolled up to the Druid’s Rock for a couple more pints. It was in there that I told Matt how things were going to go down. Sometime between 7 and 8pm we made our way back to the hostel. Game on.

The scene that greeted us as we walked through the door was encouraging. No Mario. No Julian. Not too many guests, either. Just a very bored looking Kasia sitting behind the reception desk, my unwilling replacement, who broke into smile on seeing us. ‘I’m so bored,’ she said with a sigh. I replied ‘Yea sorry I had to go and get sacked. Well, actually I mean sorry your boyfriend had to come here and sack me. The least he could have done is cover my shift himself instead of just dumping you here and swanning off. Where is he anyway?’ ‘He’s gone to dinner with Mario.’ ‘Seriously? That’s lovely that is. Plonking his gorgeous girlfriend down behind a desk, putting her to work, while he goes off to a fancy restaurant with his mate. Unbelievable. Well Kasia, you know one thing for sure, if I had a girlfriend as delightful as you I’d certainly never put anyone else first. I’d worship her.’ She blushed. And then giggled. ‘You must be hungry, too. I was always starving at this time, sat there all alone behind that desk, smelling all the guests’ food cooking in the kitchen. Can you smell the food? Are you hungry?’ ‘So hungry!’ ‘Then Matt and I are going to make dinner for the three of us.’ Her face now beamed. ‘Thank you!’

We waited for a couple of Australians to finish washing the pots they’d just used, and then got dinner on the go. Tuna and mozzarella spaghetti. Classic. Each of us knew his role. Matt was the diversion. We dished up and sat the three plates down on the kitchen table. We poured some wine. I walked round to reception to tell Kasia her food was waiting for her. ‘Thank you. But can you just bring it here, please? I can’t leave reception, there’s no one else working. I’ll have to eat it here behind the desk.’ Oh dear. We hadn’t planned for this response. ‘I wouldn’t if I were you, Kasia. Trust me, if Mario walks through that door and sees you eating on reception he will lose his shit; go mental. Why do you think he sacked me? Basically it was for eating behind the desk. It’s not worth the risk.’ As I said these words, I hoped that she hadn’t been told too much in the way of truth about why I no longer had a job. But I knew that nobody ever told Kasia anything. Julian confided more in his dog than he did his girlfriend. And Mario only gave a woman the time of day if he thought he could fuck her later on. ‘I really can’t leave the reception unstaffed,’ she said.  ‘I’ve got an idea. I’ll cover for you just while you go and eat. I’ve worked this shift every day for the past six months, one more won’t hurt me. There are hardly any guests in at the moment anyway. If someone comes, I’ll just give you a shout. Your food’s getting cold as we speak. And it’s delicious; should be eaten hot. And washed down with the glass of wine we’ve poured you.’ This worked.

The moment she was out of sight, I reached under the counter for the cash box. I opened it and saw that it was full of 10, 20 and a few 50 Euro notes. I grabbed a large wad and stuffed it into my pocket. I had to fight the urge to take the whole lot, because I knew that an empty cash box would be noticed a lot sooner than a half empty cash box, and we needed time to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible before people started looking for us. At that moment Matt appeared from the kitchen, nervously popping his head through the doorway to see if I’d done it. I was already half way to the exit before I’d finished the words ‘Come on!’ Adrenalin kicked in. What a rush. Honestly, I’m not capable of putting into words the feelings of the ensuing minutes, as we sprinted through the door, down the stairs and out on to the street. Down the road, round the corner, through the station from front to back and out into the dodgy streets of prostitutes and junkies that sit in the shadows behind Termini. Not a place you want to be loitering about in after dark. But we had to hide. Our train wasn’t due to leave for another hour. We both knew that if we were discovered before leaving Rome, it wouldn’t be the police dishing out our punishments. Although it would be the police turning a blind eye to the severest of beatings handed down to us from a collection of Mario’s goons. The same policemen that I’d been handing envelopes full of cash to once a week on Mario’s behalf. The Italian way. The weird Romanian boxer with the long hair would go to town on us. Who knows, maybe Luigi would even show us his gun. Make us suck on it. And what after? Nowhere to sleep, no money left after being relieved of the spoils of war, and probably with a few broken bones and faces smashed to bits. The fear was quite real. But so was the excitement.

As we stood under the arches of a residential building, blending into the shadows, hearts racing, it struck me that I had no idea how much money I’d got away with. I could feel it weighing heavy in my pocket, but I hadn’t counted it. We slipped back into Termini from one of the side doors and slid down the stairs to the basement toilets. Matt stood guard while I locked myself in a cubicle and pulled out the bunch. As I counted it, a huge smile spread across my lips. €1500. One thousand, five hundred Euros. Get in there you little fucking beauty! I put €900 in my left pocket and the other €600 in my right, and exited. Back to the shadows. Once there I handed Matt the smaller of the two piles. Not because I’m a cunt, but because he had been saving money for the past few months and was already holding around €600. I, on the other hand, didn’t have two pennies to rub together. Not too hard to understand when you realise that Mario had been paying me just €2.50 an hour to work there. Don’t be surprised when the exploited exploit you right back. Matt took his share happily. We both had our mobiles switched off, just in case anyone from the hostel tried to get hold of us before we’d managed to get out of the city, but the downside of this was that we had no idea if our crime had been detected yet. In our imaginations, there was now a huge manhunt underway across the city, as Calabrese pseudo Mafiosi ran around asking anyone and everyone if they’d come across two English dead men during the past hour. We were too afraid to get a slice of pizza in case the vendor was under instruction to keep us distracted until our torturers turned up to take us away. In our minds, the scene back at the hostel was pure chaos. But then again, maybe everything was exactly as we’d left it. Kasia had just eaten her food and gone back to working the desk; slightly confused as to why we’d disappeared, but not intelligent enough to question it in any depth.

Ten minutes before departure time, we returned for the final time to the basement of the station and removed our gear from the locker, and then put our hoods up and our heads down as we made our way to the right platform, stamping our tickets before jumping onto the train and slumping down into our seats. We took comfort from noticing that the windows were tinted. Still, we didn’t feel out of grave danger until the electric doors locked shut and we slowly began rolling out of the station. Only then did we allow ourselves a laugh. And laugh we did. Uncontrollably for a good half an hour.

An hour into the journey I switched on my phone. It rang immediately. It was Amin, the nightshift Bangladeshi. ‘Where are you?’ ‘Here and there.’ ‘You should come back with the money. Mario says if you bring it back, all will be forgotten.’ ‘Yea, OK Amin. We’ll be back in 20 minutes.’ I hung up. Ten minutes later it rang again, this time it was Dan, the nightshift Mexican-American. ‘Yo, where you guys at? Mario just wants to talk to you. Are you coming back?’ ‘We’d love to, Dan, but the thing is we’re well on our way to the coast to pick up a boat to Greece.’ ‘You’re going to Greece?’ ‘Looks like it. See ya.’ I hung up. Five minutes later it rang again. ‘Kris, it’s Julian. This isn’t funny. Where are you?’ ‘In your dreams, mate.’ I hung up and switched off the phone.

We’d watched Mario stealing every day without remorse. Now it was his turn to get fucked.

We pulled into Florence at around 11:30pm. There was a slow train scheduled to leave for Venice at 2:30 in the morning. It would take six hours, but it was cheap. We bought a couple of tickets for it from the machine. Three hours to kill, late on a Sunday night, and with it pissing down with rain. There was only one place to go. The Fiddler’s Elbow pub. We’d never been in Florence before, but we knew of the Irish pubs, as most of the ones in Rome and here were connected. We found it without too much trouble, and drunk for free until closing time as Matt had worked in their Rome pub of the same name. We were treated warmly. Eventually we returned to the station and stood around, freezing, until our train was ready to leave. We pulled into Venice just after 8:30 in the morning. From there we took a two-hour train ride to Trieste, where we sat and ate sandwiches next to the canal, in the shadow of the Sant’Antonio church, as we waited for the afternoon departure of a bus to Ljubljana.

As our passports were checked by the Slovenian border guards and our bus rolled off of Italian soil, we relaxed. Goodbye Italy, goodbye European Union, hello Slovenia.

ljubljana

The day after, in Ljubljana. November 2003.

If you’ve enjoyed this read, you’ll probably like my book Gatecrashing Europe. Get it from Amazon or any other high street bookseller. Or direct from the publisher.

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