If you mention Via Plebiscito to a Catanese, they look askance. "You shouldn't go there. It's dangerous." For the three months since I arrived I've avoided it. However, tonight my sense of direction has failed me and I'm slap bang in the middle of it. It’s a pretty street, belying its reputation. The pavements are wide, fairy-lit and tree-lined, and people are out and about enjoying their evening. I relax my grip on the steering wheel as I try to remember where it comes out. Nothing comes back to me and I snort derisively at my useless memory.
I glance in the rearview mirror. There's a moped almost riding pillion on my bumper. With a flash of fear I remember my boss driving when I first arrived in Catania. Whenever a moped came close she would slam the central locking on and grab her handbag, muttering dire curses in Sicilian.
Reflexively I jerk my elbow backwards, fumbling for the door lock. I meet only smooth plastic. I look again in the rearview mirror. The moped's still there, and I notice that beneath the helmet he’s wearing a balaclava. I scan the dashboard for the central locking button.
There isn’t one.
I clutch the wheel and check my mirror. Thank God! He's gone.
Movement at the passenger window douses my relief with an icy gush of terror; he’s right beside the car, peering inside. I yank the wheel down to crowd him out, hoping he won’t have space to open the door.
He drops back and disappears.
Up ahead, a moped turns around. I swear at his slowness. He’s hesitating to cut across the traffic coming the other way, which means he’s blocking my way. I slow the car to a stop, on the verge of sounding my horn at him.
I realise what’s going to happen a split second before it does so.
It’s the same moped as before, and he isn’t trying to turn around; he’s blocking my way. He stares at me, eyes insolent through the gap in his helmet. I consider flooring the accelerator and knocking him off the bike before he can get into the car, but as I hesitate, there’s a CLUNK and a rush of cold air. I understand, too late, that it’s a two-man team. I look over, terrified; see black balaclava, gloved hands, black jacket. All I hear is his breathing and the rattle of the door as he grabs the pile of stuff I’ve flung on the passenger seat. I whimper, "No!" and claw after my belongings, but it's useless.
I stare at the space where my bag once was. The passenger door hangs open and my favourite scarf lies on the road. A shout outside bursts my bubble of silence and I realise I’m clutching my bodywarmer, the one thing I managed to grab back from the thief. With brief rage I hurl it into the back.
Then I start to shake.
Through a fug of shock, I realise the thief missed my handbag. I grab it, wind the strap around my leg and push it under my seat.
My brain clicks.
At first I’m cheered that he didn't get my phone, money or cards, but when I mentally go through my overnight bag it hits me: my passport was in there.
I start to cry.
With the tears come recollections of everything that's gone: Kindle; camera; driving licence. Then there's the detritus that is valueless to anyone else but me: favourite pyjamas; make-up bag; Italian dictionary. I try to laugh at the thought that there's also dirty laundry in there. It’s not as comforting as I’d hoped.
A horn blares and a big black car roars past. I realise that in my dazed state I’ve driven into an even worse area than the one where I was before. Here there are only faceless warehouses. The absence of human life unnerves me. If I get into trouble here, no-one will help me. I clutch the steering wheel and peer through the darkness in desperate search of roadsigns. Something. ANYTHING. My breathing has become shallow with panic and I'm getting light-headed. I turn down another street, then another, aware that I’ve driven three times past the same group of men smoking on a corner.
I turn down a different street and realise that I'm one street back from the port. This time the tears are of relief: finally I know where I am.