— Frances M. Thompson —
The heat smacks us in the face as we descend from the plane on rickety, plastic steps. In front of me, Martin raises his face to the sun as though he’s never seen it before, or perhaps, as though he’ll never see it again. I poke him in the back to keep him moving.
A man stands at the bottom, his chin lifted up and away from us. I sense that he thinks he’s taller than he really is. He’s wearing tailored black trousers and a short-sleeved white shirt over which a fluorescent yellow vest flaps open in a warm breeze. The gold rims of his oversized aviator sunglasses sparkle in the sun. Every now and again, he raises his left arm and slowly points to the terminal building with a slim, tanned index finger. I have never seen somebody so stylish doing such an unglamorous job.
“Bloody poser,” Martin sniffs.
* * *
A woman with big brown eyes greets us with a fake smile and a perfect manicure. She is utterly beautiful. In Leeds, she would be a film star. Martin melts in her presence, over-pronouncing his words and grinning at every opportunity. I indulge him, knowing it will perk him up for the rest of the day.
“Have you ever been to England? I wouldn’t bother, if I were you. Bloody cold most of the time, even in the summer. Though this feels pretty bloody hot to me. Is it always like this?” The back of his hand wipes his brow.
Seeing the sun reflect off his balding head, I wonder if we packed enough sunscreen. It’s another silly thought.
As we leave the terminal, I hold back so Martin can walk side by side with the film star. I pretend not to notice when he struggles to lift our suitcases into the boot of the mini bus.
* * *
Naples’ roads are terrifying. There is no order on the motorways other than a common tendency by cars to drive with the white lines of the road directly underneath them. Once on older, narrower streets our pace slows to a crowded crawl. It’s impossible to determine how many lanes of traffic the road is supposed to have or how many people would like it to have. I hear more horns than I see vehicles and though it is deafening, it is also a little exciting. I know it’s not the case, but it feels as though the noise is announcing our arrival, as though Naples is welcoming us.
As we sit in traffic, once grand buildings shade us from the sun. I look up and see walls crumbling, shutters missing panels and small balconies weighed down with flowerpots, chairs, bikes and even washing machines. Mopeds creep up on either side of us, one after the other. They are like ants, coming out of nowhere and unquestioningly following the one in front of them, trusting that they can and must go where he before him goes.
Down alleyways, I see rows of washing stretching across, high in the air. I always thought it looked romantic and neighbourly in films, but in reality, it’s a little sad to see peoples’ clothes drying in exhaust fumes on a shared washing line. Yet that doesn’t make it any less of a treat to see.
On the ground there is dirt. Rubbish bags are stacked on street corners and beside shop doors. I remember Martin telling me about the rubbish problem Naples had a few years ago. He showed me some frightening photos of huge mounds of rubbish lining the pavements and roads, so I know what I’m seeing is an improvement on this.
People sit outside their homes on chairs; some perch alone and stare sternly ahead, others lean into small groups and talk intently. Most are men, and all seem old, with the lines of life stories carved into their faces. All appear undisturbed by the noise, the traffic and the bags of rubbish that lie close by.
I look up and spot an elderly woman with unruly white hair staring out of a window, her face peering over a pot of purple orchids. Three young men wearing suits and too much hair gel walk by my window. They talk over each other, with their hands and shoulders as much as their mouths. As the mini bus finally begins to move forward, we pass a policeman sitting on a motorbike on the pavement. He smokes a cigarette and watches the chaos unfold around him.
I count seven stray dogs on our journey so far, one with only three legs.
Martin suddenly covers my hand with his, squeezing my knuckles together. “It’s bloody brilliant, isn’t it?”
* * *
Our hotel is basic but comfortable. I should have known it wouldn’t be perfect, but for the money we spent I would have liked something more; an extra pillow, a quieter air conditioning unit, drinking glasses instead of plastic cups.
We have a balcony that overlooks the vast and industrious port of Naples. It’s impressive, even to me. In the far corner is a collection of grey military ships, which appear very serious compared with the gigantic white cruise liner that stretches out along the other end. A little way out to sea, there are a number of tankers sending clouds of smoke into the sky. It doesn’t take Martin long to move a chair outside so he can sit and watch over the city.
“Make us a cup of tea, love.”
The unfamiliar taste of the UHT tea milk spoils the first sip for me, but Martin doesn’t seem to notice. I sit beside him as he slurps his tea and blinks at Naples.
He is finally here.
* * *
“Best pizza I ever bloody tasted!” Martin wipes his mouth with a paper napkin and surveys his empty plate. I am shocked but happy.
I have three slices left and pass two to him. He grins at me childishly. I tell him he looks like Steven when he smiles like that.
“Well, where do you think he got his good looks from? You? Ha!”
We laugh together. The restaurant is full; a mix of pale, polite tourists and dark-haired, lively Italians.
“But Stacie is like you, of course. Those blue eyes. Zara’s got them too. Bloody hell, she’s going to be a handful when she grows up. Just like Stacie was.”
It’s always thoughts of the future that pull at me hardest. I hope that Martin doesn’t notice. He would be disappointed if I cried onto the last slice of my pizza. I quickly pick it up, let it crease down the middle and nibble at the point of the triangle. Martin insisted that we eat with our fingers because that’s what Italians do. I think about what he said as we sat in front of his computer looking at flights.
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t want them knowing. We’ll tell them we’re off to Dorset for the week again. We’ll pop the car in the garage and they won’t even notice we’ve gone. If we say we’re going abroad, to Italy, to Naples, they’d wonder why. They know it’s not like us and then there’d be all the questions. I’m sorry, love, but it’s for the best. They may be like chalk and cheese in some ways, but they’re both as bloody nosey as each other.”
Martin reaches for my hand over the table, something he hasn’t done in years.
“Maybe we should have gone away more, you and me. Seen more of the world,” he says.
Maybe we should have, but we were never the type to go abroad, not once the kids were grown. After Martin’s redundancy there was a constant worry for money. And where would we go? Of course, it should have been obvious. Naples was what Martin always talked about but he never actually suggested going there. I thought him happy enough to keep it as a hobby, a pipe dream. Why did I never think to make my husband’s dreams come true?
And now I’ve started to think about my own dreams. I’ve always wanted to see the Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower all lit up at night. I remember saying once how lovely it would be to see New York at Christmas, but Martin wasn’t keen. Big expensive holidays were things we did with the kids. Now it was just the two of us, squeezing into a caravan in Dorset or spending a night or two up on the Dales kept us happy.
I stare at our linked hands and think about New York. I can always go with Stacie. Maybe Zara too, when she’s old enough.
I line Martin’s medication on his bedside table and place a plastic glass of water behind them. The toilet flushes and Martin coughs. His cough will never get better. I know that now, but it doesn’t stop it shaking my soul every time he wretches.
It used to take him five sips to swallow all the pills. Now he can do them all in two gulps.
“Bloody hell,” he sits down on the bed. In the dim light of his bedside lamp I see him rub his stomach, the source of all our ills.
It is at night that I notice how sick he really is. He struggles to stay awake after 9 o’clock. The more he needs to sleep, the harder it is for me to enjoy the comfort of slumber. But he can have my sleep. If it had been in his kidneys, he could have had one of mine too. I would give him anything.
“Six months. Six bloody months.”
Those words. They were the beginning of Naples, but they were also the beginning of the end.
* * *
The sun burns and blisters above us. Here in the middle of Pompeii, we are fully exposed to its strength. I have applied Factor 50 onto Martin’s freckled skin and he is downplaying how hot he is. He doesn’t want anything to ruin today, not even his own discomfort. But I can see the circles of sweat swell across his shirt, and I watch his chest rise and fall more than it should when we stand still. Last night he vomited three times.
“I’ll be fine. Stop fussing. We’ve come all this bloody way. I’m not going to waste the day staying in a bloody hotel room. I want to see Pompeii!”
It feels as though Martin has already been here. He moves around the ruins as though he knows exactly what lies ahead. He turns with confidence in his chosen direction. I follow him, climbing down into a crater that he explains was once an amphitheatre, and we walk along the foundations of a Roman temple where leftover stubs of pillars line its entrance. With every step, I develop a better understanding of both the size of the city that used to exist and the magnitude of the volcano that destroyed it.
“This way, love,” he says.
Martin leads me on to a collection of partially built buildings gathered around the remnants of a courtyard. It doesn’t take long to envisage what this place was like; a cluster of houses, perhaps shared by friends and family. It’s not dissimilar from our own neighbourhood.
“Look at this, love.”
Inside the broken walls of a house, Martin points to an area fenced off with transparent plastic panels. Behind them lie raised, grey shapes of various sizes. It takes a couple of seconds, but I eventually make out the ashen mould of a mother and child crouching on the floor, the mother holding her child under her in pointless protection. It happened thousands of years ago, and yet I can see them both and their fear vividly. I turn away and walk to the other side of the room, grateful that I’ve mastered the art of crying silently.
When I look back, I watch Martin absorbing the stories of the ash people who lie at his feet. His lips are pouted into a sombre stare. His nose twitches and a few droplets of sweat trickle down the side of his face, losing their way somewhere near his ear. I wonder how he feels to be so close to death.
I still remember the Martin I married. The fit, young man with the slightly upturned nose, peach freckles and wild thick hair neither of us could control. I thought he would look young forever. But now he looks old, all belly and sloping shoulders.
The drugs will help reduce the swelling, the pain and the symptoms. They may even buy him more time if he responds well, but the bottom line doesn’t change. It’s inoperable and it’s not disappearing. There’s no role for radiotherapy or chemotherapy to play. It spread from his stomach to his liver before we’d had the chance to even discuss them. A Gastrointestinal Sarcoma Tumour, a rare cancerous mass the size of an orange, is fixed to the lining of Martin’s stomach feeding off him, maturing, spreading, killing.
“I don’t even like bloody oranges.”
Of course, I asked him, begged him, to tell the children.
“What’s the bloody point? I don’t want all the fussing and the worrying. You’ll be enough bloody trouble as it is.”
We thought we could beat it alone, just the two of us. We’ve seen off other threats before, beaten away the things that tried to shake our smallholding of this world, like when Stacie got hit by a car two days after her fifth birthday and broke her femur in four places. She walks with a slight limp that reminds me how lucky I am that she is alive. And when Martin got made redundant seven years ago, I thought we’d have to sell the house, spend our savings on surviving until we could claim a state pension. But after a week of moping about the house, my nagging at him and worrying myself sick, he took himself off to evening classes to learn how to build a website. Somehow, he turned that website into a business, selling model planes and helicopters to other men like him who spend too much time in sheds. In the beginning, I doubted him and in the end, I shouldn’t have. His business meant I could retire on the day I always planned to.
“Ye of little faith. I told you I knew what I was doing. I always bloody do.”
That’s why I agreed not to tell the children. They didn’t need to know if everything was going to be okay.
I gather my tears and my thoughts and I walk up to Martin’s side. I make sure the length of my arm touches the side of his. I shudder seeing the mother and child made of ash again.
“At least they were together, eh?” he says, his knuckles brushing against mine.