TROUT   [5]

James Hollings
Visiting Pompeii

     Ana lay on her side, listening as Dave's breathing gradually slowed and deepened.  It was late in the afternoon.  The sun slanted through the shutters and slid up the wall opposite her in yellow bands.  Ana watched the light, trying to see the bands moving.  Above her, the blades of the fan turned slowly, dragging an irregular shadow which lagged and hurried, lagged and hurried.  She listened for the sound of the fan.  All she could hear was Dave's breathing, rising and falling.
   She got up and went into the bathroom.  She washed her face, savouring the tingle of cold water on her skin.  Her eyes were inflamed, probably with dust from the day's walking.  She tugged at the crows' feet which had begun to appear around her eyes.  Thirty, she thought.
   She urinated, then wiped herself, again checking the tissue for blood.  She held it up to the light above the mirror, examining its white surface for specks of red.  There was nothing, only a slight darkening from the dampness.
   The bathroom door clicked softly behind her.  Ana paused at the end of the bed.  Dave was on his side, his knees drawn up, his mouth slack with sleep.  His hair had a faint trace of whiteness.  She stared at it for a moment, wondering if he had aged suddenly, before she realised it was probably dust.

- Dave, she said.  Her voice sounded loud in the tiny room.
- Dave, I'm three weeks late.

   There was no reply, just the slow rising and falling of his breath.  Ana lay down on the bed.  She felt tired; she needed to sleep.  She propped a pillow behind her head.  On the wall opposite her, the yellow bands edged towards the ceiling.  The plaster was cracked and tom by the dying light into strange suggestive shapes.
   There were two women, dressed in long white shifts that dropped to their ankles.  The shifts were belted high around their waists in the Roman fashion.  They regarded Ana with large, almond-shaped eyes.  A man knelt at their feet with a bowl of water.  His head was bald and he wore a simple tunic.  He must be a slave, thought Ana.  The background was red, blood red.
- Do you like these? said Dave.

   Ana moved towards the comer.  There, half hidden by the darkness, lay what appeared to be a small statue.  It was a woman, with a small child tucked under one arm.  The other arm was thrown up to protect her face.  The woman's body was small, no bigger than a 12 year-old's.

   A sign said: These plaster casts were made by pouring liquid plaster into cavities left by actual bodies which were trapped in the volcanic ash over two thousand years ago.

   Ana stared at the woman, trying to understand the expression on her face.  It was scarred with rage and pain, yet also seemed somehow blurred, as if during the passing centuries the woman had begun to forget what had laid her there.  Ana imagined the woman stumbling through the streets, dragging the child, choking on the ash-filled air.  She would have lost her sense of direction in the thickening, swirling clouds, then begun to stagger as the ash seeped into her lungs.  When she fell, she would have used the last of her strength to pull the child close to her.

   Ana reached out to touch the woman.  The plaster was cold and a small chip came away in her hand.  She shivered and realised she had expected it to be warm.

- You can't help thinking all this is wasted on the Italians.
   Dave swept his arm out to one side as he spoke.  The wine tipped in his glass.
- How do you mean?

   Ana was looking at the table behind him.  Another couple about their age were having a loud conversation.  They sounded like New Zealanders, too.  The woman was rummaging in a new leather bag, the sort they sold cheaply in Florence, while the man talked at her.

- You feel like you want to grab this whole country by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shaking, the man said.  The woman kept searching her bag.  She looked tired, tense.
   Ana found herself wondering what had upset the woman.  Then she realised Dave was talking to her.  She turned towards him.
- Sorry what were you saying?
- Well they've had it for thousands of years and they've only just started to take any interest in it.  And then only because they think they can make some money out of it.  I mean you compare it to Florence, where they've done it so carefully.
- The way New Zealand's changed, you know, opened itself up.

- I liked those frescoes today, said Ana.
Dave leant forward.
- That's what I mean.  They were so hidden away.  We only found them by chance.
He scooped more wine into his glass, then held the bottle over Ana's.  She waved it away.
- I think I quite liked that.  It had a sense of privacy about it, or something.  It's like you can discover it for yourself
Dave nodded, and there was a silence between them for a moment.  The man at the next table's voice cut through, nasally.
- Everyone's scared of changing anything.

Dave caught Ana’s eye, and smiled at her.  She knew he'd noticed the couple too.
   They sat there for a while, not talking, both comfortable in each other's presence.  Ana sipped her wine.  It was cool and clear.  She was pleased they had come here, pleased they had made the effort to keep travelling.  There was something about being in Europe that still moved her, despite the crowds and the cost and the dirty, worn buildings.  They didn't unnerve her, the way it did some New Zealanders.  It was as if they came looking for some larger, more concrete reflection of themselves, and left feeling unsettled and faintly disappointed at the small, dusty cavities they found instead.

   She looked across at the couple at the next table.  They had stopped talking.  The man was holding the woman's hand.

   Ana put her hand on her stomach, and wondered about the child inside her, about how it would change things.  She wondered if Dave feared it now, this marker of change.  It was strange, that in their six years, they'd occasionally spoken of children, but never with any real expectation of it happening, and now it was real.  She studied his face.  Lines were beginning to form around his eyes, lines that had not been there the year before.  They gave him a calmer, more certain look.

   Dave saw her watching him.  He glanced down beside the table, and then frowned, as if there was something written on the floor.  After a while she said:

- Have you dropped something?

   He paused, then looked up at her, his face intense.
- Are you sure you're pregnant?

   Ana nodded, slowly.
- Then I guess that makes things different now, doesn't it.
   He took her hand and squeezed it.  She felt the sureness growing inside her.  She felt things were changing. Outside, a sudden tiredness came over her.  Dave took her arm, gently, then waved for a taxi.

   Dave's head rolled in her lap.  She held it there against her stomach and ran her hands through his hair.  It was strong and thick with dust.  She went to brush it away, but the dust kept thickening beneath her fingers,  powdering through his scalp, settling on his face.  It smoothed into the  lines in his skin, giving him an ageless appearance, like one of the marble statues they had seen that day.  She stroked her fingers across his face, following the curves, pressing against the whiteness.     

   She looked up.  She was in a train.  The passengers rocked with the  swaying of the carriage; they studied her with their long faces; their remote black eyes flickered over her then slid away. Ana glanced at her feet.  Her shoes were white with dust. She kicked them against the seat in front of her and a cloud of dust rose from them.  Ana kicked harder and the dust rose higher, until finally the passengers' faces began to blur and then were lost altogether.

   She woke to sunlight on her face, hot and brilliant.  Dave was standing at the open window, naked, his arms holding back the shutters.

- Bon Giorno, Napoli! he shouted. The sunlight ran down his arms, leaving his back a gentle shadow.  His buttocks were sculpted, pale as marble. In six years, they hadn't changed, she thought.

- Bon giorno, Pompeii! she said.

  © 1998