Will romance be rekindled in the ashes of Pompeii? Woman on holiday in Pompeii

From the Ashes

Creative Writing, Short Stories

Short story

Will an old romance be rekindled in the ashes of Pompeii?

Stella steps out of the hotel and Italy smacks her in the face. She squints in the piercing clear sunlight and feels its heat on her as if she has opened an oven door. She can smell it too, that hot dusty smell that you only get when the air is really dry, mingling with the petrol smell of the traffic fumes and the enticing sweet odour of cooking street food.

Then there is the noise, it almost pushes her back through the door; the roar of revving engines is interspersed with the pop-pop of passing scooters. Lorry and coach horns bray like cornered elephants and car horns pip in annoyance.

It has been thirteen years since her last visit; for the last four years, she has not really been anywhere. She remembers the first signs of her mother’s decay.
“Where’s Alfie?” Her mother asked.
“Alfie died 40 years ago mum; he was the dog you had when I was born,” Stella gently explained, knowing the conversation would be repeated in a few minutes.

Then, as the Alzheimer’s took hold, Stella had left her job as an HR coordinator. She returned home to the large house in Suffolk to sit amongst the happy memories of her childhood and watch the woman who raised her dissolve. Dutifully she returned the care her mother had given her as a helpless baby, but this time the care was to death rather than from birth.

When the house was finally empty she decided to return to Italy for a long holiday, wanting to feel its vibrancy and boisterous enthusiasm for life seeping back into her.

She fumbles in her bag for her sunglasses. As soon as she puts them on the dark, round, glasses and their thick frames seem to tone everything down, even the clamour of the frustrated drivers. Standing in front of the mirror in England she had tried on the bright yellow dress that had impossibly thin straps and the wide-brimmed floppy hat. Did adding the sunglasses create a resemblance to Audrey Hepburn? “Well at least Audrey Hepburn at forty-one,” she’d said to herself.

Now, with Italy assaulting her, she feels a little less like a film star and more like Stella Popay in an oversize hat and glasses. Where did the self-assured woman who ran her own department go?

Stella grasps her shoulder bag. “Confidence Stella, confidence,” she murmurs as she sets off down the street. She can feel the sun on her shoulders and immediately wishes she had put more sun cream on. She could retreat back to the safety of the hotel but then she remembers that she has carefully packed some in her bag so there is no excuse not to continue.

She didn’t remember fussing over sun cream on her last trip: the two glorious weeks driving through the country with Ralph. He had hired a small red sports car and she could still feel the hot, dry air on her face as they rushed down dusty roads.

One evening in a tiny restaurant he had told her that he had been offered the job in America; the job he had always wanted; the job he had worked towards all his life. To the delight of the local diners, he had gone down on one knee and asked. “Will you marry me?”

Stella had felt as if she was floating down a river immersed in the cool water and letting its gentle flow carry her happily downstream.

It was after that holiday that her mother’s diagnosis was confirmed.

Suddenly eddies in the river had begun to pull their lives apart until they were only linked by their fingertips. The ferocity of the current increased as her mother started to need almost constant care. Ralph’s departure grew closer, she had seen the sorrow in his eyes that said he knew she would stay.

Stella had felt she was drowning as she told him to go. She knew he would end up hating her if he stayed, resentful of the missed opportunity. They were swept into the two different channels and at first, she had swum furiously against the tide, writing and phoning almost daily. Eventually, it became too exhausting and too painful to keep in touch. She let herself be swept away by the current.

Half an hour later, having stood in the short queue of chattering tourists and passed through the gates to the ruins of Pompeii, she is sitting on a bench slapping more cream on her already reddening shoulders and telling herself that, being confident doesn’t mean looking like a lobster.

Suitably protected she walks further into the site and is strolling amongst the remains of the houses, touching the warm grey stones, when she looks up. Beyond the town the hazy presence of Vesuvius rises into the blue sky; its silent threat makes her think, what if …? The thought seems to emphasise that she no longer has anyone to look after but herself. She is free, even if that makes her feel slightly guilty. Just as the great black plume of Vesuvius’ destruction settled and was then dug away over time she feels that the darkness of the last ten years is beginning to lift; the memories of her mother shouting, “Who are you? Go away – I don’t want you here,” feel a little less jagged.

It is nearly lunchtime and the site has started to fill up with excited tourists. Sitting in the Teatro Grande amphitheatre she listens to voices talking in a multitude of different languages. Was this how it was before the eruption, but then there was probably less Japanese spoken?

She lifts her camera to take a photograph she catches sight of a man disappearing over the top of the amphitheatre. There is a glimmer of recognition as if she is looking at a distant light but unable to make out its form. “Ralph,” The word seems to drop from her lips without conscious thought.

She stands up, dropping her bag, its contents scattering across the stones. “Ralph,” she shouts at the empty space where the figure was.

The heads of several startled tourists turn and she feels their eyes on her. Flushing red she bends to gather up the contents of her bag and, trying not to run, climbs the steps of the amphitheatre. She reaches the top; she can feel a trickle of perspiration running down her cheek. A sea of heads flows up the street in front of her as if the whole population of the ancient city has come back to life.

She scans the mass frantically, sure that it was him. Yes, there he is, dark wavy hair still thick and silky and showing no sign of thinning or grey despite the passing years.
“Ralph,” she shouts, but her voice is carried away by the babble of the crowd.
She plunges into the sea of people that flows down the street and pushes through them like one of the ancient citizens fighting against the weight of ash and pumice that spewed from the volcano. She sees him again, briefly, in profile as he turns a corner. His long straight nose and firm chin just as she remembers. She struggles forward, making slow progress as she is too polite, too English, to push people aside and shout. “Get out of my way.”

Eventually, she reaches the corner. The side street is quieter and slopes away down the hill. A family with two small children sit on some of the large crossing stones and a young couple take their picture with Vesuvius in the background. There is no sign of Ralph.

Stella takes a few steps into the street; she can feel the sweat erupting from her and running down her back. Her dress is sticking to her. Her lungs pull in great gasps of hot air and then her legs seem to lose the ability to support her. She flops down on a stone seat. She can feel tears behind her dark glasses and she is faintly aware that her shoulders are burning again.

Cursing she fumbles in her bag for a tissue and the sun cream and then feels a shadow on her. She looks up, a man is standing silhouetted against the sun.
“No. My name is Luca, Luca Camilleri. Are you alright? Have you lost someone?” He holds his Panama hat politely in his hand.
Stella laughs, it is a strange sound somewhere between a mirthless laugh and a grieving wail. ‘Yes… well no… it was a long time ago.” She is aware she must sound slightly hysterical. “Your English is very good. Are you Italian?” She asks trying to change the subject.

“May I?” Luca points to the seat beside her.
Stella nods.
He puts the hat back on and Stella notices there is a tinge of gray in his dark hair. “My mother was English and my father Italian. I grew up in England and came back to Italy after they died.”
Taking off her glasses she wipes her eyes and looks at him. Soft brown eyes and a gentle smile look back
“I’m sorry,” she says, feeling some sort of explanation is needed, “I thought I saw someone I knew many years ago but …” her voice falters “… it can’t have been.” She rummages in her bag, “Damn. I must have dropped my water back at the amphitheatre.”
“Come on,” Luca says. “We will go and find you a cool drink and I think maybe you could also do with a glass of wine.”

Sitting in the cafe outside the ruins with the noise of modern Italy clamouring beyond the open door she tells Luca about Ralph, about her mother and about the broken engagement. She had never really told anyone the whole story and the words pour from her.

There had been help and counselling on dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s but she always dreaded the look of sympathy that showed on her friends’ faces when she mentioned Ralph. Now, talking to a complete stranger, she can link all the events together and she notices that, as she speaks, Luca’s expression remains passive.

When she eventually falls silent Luca thinks for a while and takes her hand.
“A philosopher once said, ‘Life can only be understood by looking backwards but it must be lived by looking forwards.’ It’s a bit trite I know, but I think it is also good advice to learn from the past, to understand it and use it to look forward. But then I’m an historian so I would say that.”

Stella laughs. “Thank you, it has been so nice to talk to someone, you have been so kind; it really has …” the words tumble out of her as she picks up her bag, “I should go.”
“Are you going to the ruins tomorrow?” he asks as she stands up.
The question catches her off balance. “Yes.”
“Perhaps we could meet and walk together?”
‘Will I get a history lecture?’
“Most probably but I’ll try not to be too boring.”
She thinks for a moment. “That would be nice.”

Luca is waiting for her outside the gates to the site. She realises for the first time that he is quite tall. He is not overweight but there is a heaviness to his body that makes him appear solid; it gives him an air of authority that some might interpret as arrogance.

She hadn’t really noticed what he was wearing yesterday apart from the hat. Today it was obvious he had inherited his clothes sense from his father as he is wearing light chinos and a beautifully tailored green jacket the colour of ripening olives. For a moment she wonders whether he has dressed up especially for her. His smile is wonderfully reassuring as she approaches.

“Stella,” he seems to elongate the word as if rolling it round in his mouth like a sweet. He takes off the Panama hat and his fingers brush her shoulders as he bends forward to kiss her lightly on both cheeks.
Stella feels her face redden.

They walk through the ruins, it is still early in the day, the sun is still climbing to its full ferocity and the busloads of tourists have yet to arrive. Luca walks quietly beside her as if absorbing the history embedded in the stones and she enjoys the silences. Each time they come to an interesting structure it is as if his English self steps back and the Italian takes over to produce vivid descriptions of the building and its previous occupants.

Stella listens intently but each time they walk quietly she finds herself scanning the other visitors wondering if her past will suddenly reappear. Several times she feels her heart jump as she thinks she sees him but today the figures are not elusive. Her pulse returns to normal as they come closer and she can see them clearly.

When they get to the forum they sit on the base of a column and Luca begins pointing out the temples of Apollo and Jupiter.
“You are a very good guide,” Stella smiles.
“I’m sorry”’ Luca looks embarrassed, “I sometimes get rather over enthusiastic and forget that I am not in front of my students.”
Stella rests her hand on his. “No it is beautiful; you are bringing the place back to life. Don’t stop.”
“And your past, it hasn’t come back to life this morning?”
“No … no,” Stella tips her head and hopes he cannot see her face beneath the hat. “I didn’t realise you noticed me looking.”
She feels the smile in his voice “We have all walked down the street and thought that we had glimpsed an old friend, a lost lover or someone who has died.”
“Have you?” Stella asks.
Sadness passes across his face. “Yes.” There is the briefest of pauses. “Have you ever thought you’ve seen him before … since he went to America?”
“No.” Stella thinks for a while. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No, not at all, from what you have told me this is the first time in years that you have been free to be yourself, to make your own choices. Maybe you think that this is a good time for someone to come into your life… or maybe come back into your life.”
“So you think I am seeing things.” Stella gets up and marches into the centre of the forum.

Luca follows her. “No. Maybe you are just trying to work out whether you should try and repeat the past or step into the future. Ralph was on your mind so you thought you saw him.”

Stella turns and faces him taking off her sunglasses. Looking into his eyes she can see him in the original Pompeii as the volcano erupts, calmly issuing orders, reassuring and confident. Would he have been one of those who escaped? Maybe his slight arrogance would have made him overconfident and left him trapped on the beach with Pliny the Elder.
“Let’s go and get some lunch,” she says.

They stroll back through the ruins and Stella becomes aware that she was no longer looking for Ralph. As they walk their fingertips touch and she feels the river once again carrying her downstream.

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