Flying into Naples
a short story by Nicholas Royle
Flying into Naples the 737 hits some turbulence and gets thrown about a bit. It's dark outside but I can't even see any lights on the ground. I'm a nervous flyer anyway and this doesn't make me feel any better. It's taking off and landing that bother me.
But when we're down and I'm crossing the tarmac to the airport buildings there's a warm humid stillness in the air that makes me wonder about the turbulence. I wander through passport control and customs like someone in a dream. The officials seem covered in a fine layer of dust as if they've been standing there for years just waiting.
No one speaks to me and I get on the bus marked "Centro Napoli". I'm on holiday. All I've got in Naples is a name, a photograph and a wrong number. The name is a woman's -- Flavia -- and the photograph is of the view from her apartment. The phone number I tried last week to say I was coming turned out to belong to someone else entirely.
I've worked out from the photograph and my map that the apartment is on a hill on the west side of the city. There's not much more to go on. It's too late to go and look for it tonight. Flavia won't be expecting me -- beyond occasional vague invitations nothing has been arranged -- and she could take a long time to locate.
I knew her years ago when she visited London and stayed in the hotel where I was working the bar. We knew each other briefly -- a holiday romance, if you like -- but something ensured I would not forget her. Whether it was the sunrise we saw together or the shock of her body in the quiet shadow of my room over the kitchens, or a combination of these and other factors -- her smile, my particular vulnerability, her tumbling curls -- I don't know, but something fixed her in my mind. So when I found myself with a week's holiday at the end of three difficult months in a new, stressful job, I dug out her letters -- two or three only over eight years, including this recent photograph of the view from her apartment -- and booked a last-minute flight to Naples.
I'd never been there though I'd heard so much about it -- how violent and dangerous it could be for foreigners, yet how beautiful -- and I would enjoy the effort required to get along in Italian.
I'm alone on the bus apart from one other man -- a local who spends the 20-minute ride talking on a cellphone to his mistress in Rome -- and the taciturn driver. I've come before the start of the season, but it's already warm enough not to need my linen jacket.
I'm divorced. I don't know about Flavia. She never mentioned anybody, just as she never revealed her address when she wrote to me. I've been divorced two years and a period of contented bachelorhood has only recently come to a natural end, and with the arrival of spring in London I have found myself watching women once again: following a hemline through the human traffic of Kensington, turning to see the face of a woman in Green Park whose hair looked so striking from behind. It may be spring in Berkeley Square but it feels like midsummer in Naples. The air is still and hot and humid when I leave the bus at the main railway station and begin walking into the centre of the city in search of a cheap hotel. I imagine I'm probably quite conspicuous in what must be one of the most dangerous areas but the hotels in the immediate vicinity -- the pavement outside the Europa is clogged with upturned rubbish bins; the tall, dark, narrow Esedra looks as if it's about to topple sideways -- look unwelcoming so I press on. It's late, after 10.30pm, and even the bars and restaurants are closed. Youths buzz past on Vespas and Piaggios unhelmeted despite the apparent dedication of the motorists here to the legend "live fast, die young". I hold my bag close and try to look confident but after 15 minutes or so the hotels have disappeared. I reach a large empty square and head deeper into the city. I ask a gun-holstered security guard if there is a pension in the neighbourhood but he shrugs and walks away. I climb a street that has lights burning but they turn out to be a late night bar and a fruit stand. Two boys call to me from a doorway and as I don't understand I just carry on, but at the top is a barrier and beyond that a private apartment complex, so I have to turn back and the two boys are laughing as I walk past them.
I try in another direction but there are only banks and food stores, all locked up. Soon I realise I'm going to have to go back down to the area round the railway station. I cross the road to avoid the prostitutes on the corner of Via Seggio del Popolo, not because of any spurious moral judgement but just because it seems I should go out of my way to avoid trouble, so easy is it innocently to court disaster in a foreign country. But in crossing the road I walk into a problem. There's a young woman standing in a doorway whom in the darkness I had failed to see. She moves swiftly out of the doorway into my path and I gasp in surprise. The streetlamp throws the dark bruises around her eyes into even deeper perspective. Her eyes are sunken, almost lost in her skull, and under her chin are the dark, tough bristles of a juvenile beard. She speaks quickly demanding something and before I've collected my wits she's produced a glittering blade from her jacket pocket which she thrusts towards me like a torch at an animal. I react too slowly and feel a sudden hot scratch on my bare arm.
My jacket's over my other arm so I'm lucky that I don't drop it and give the woman the chance to strike again. She lunges but I'm away down the street running for my life. When it's clear she's not chasing me I stop for breath. One or two passers-by look at me with mild curiosity. I head back in the direction of the railway station. Down a side street on my right I recognise one of the hotels I saw earlier -- the Esedra. Then I hadn't liked the look of it, but now it's my haven from the streets. I approach the glass doors and hesitate when I realise there are several men in the lobby. But the thought of the drugged-up woman makes me go on. So I push open the door and the men look up from their card game. I'm about to ask for a room when one of the men, who's had a good long look at me, says something to the man behind the little counter and this man reaches for a key from room 17's pigeon hole. I realise what's happening -- they've mistaken me for someone who's already a guest -- and there was a time when I would have been tempted to accept the key in the desire to save money, but these days I'm not short of cash. So, I hesitate only for a moment before saying that I'm looking for a room. The man is momentarily confused but gets me another key -- room 19 -- from a hook and quotes a price. It's cheap; the hotel is probably a haunt of prostitutes but right now I don't care. I just need a bed for the night.
"It's on the third floor," the man says. I pay him and walk up. There are lightbulbs but they're so heavily shaded the stairs are darker than the street outside. On each landing there are four doors: three bedrooms and one toilet cum shower. I unlock the door to room 19 and close it behind me.
I have a routine with hotel rooms: I lock myself in and switch on all the lights and open all the cupboards and drawers until I feel I know the room as well as I can. And I always check the window.
There are two single beds, some sticks of furniture, a bidet and a washbasin -- I open the cold tap and clean up the scratch on my arm. The window is shuttered. I pull on the cord to raise the shutter. I'm overlooking the Corso Uberto I which runs up to the railway station. I step on to the tiny balcony and my hands get covered in dust from the wrought iron railing. The cars in the street below are filmed with dust also. The winds blow sand here from the deserts of North Africa and it falls with the rain. I pull a chair on to the balcony and sit for a while thinking about Flavia. Somewhere in this city she's sitting watching television or eating in a restaurant and she doesn't know I'm here. Tomorrow I will try to find her.
I watch the road and I'm glad I'm no longer out there looking for shelter. Small knots of young men unravel on street corners and cross streets that don't need crossing. After a while I start to feel an uncomfortable solidity creeping into my limbs, so I take the chair back inside and drop the shutter. I'd prefer to leave it open but the open window might look like an invitation.
I'm lying in bed hoping that sleep will come but there's a scuttling, rustling noise keeping me awake. It's coming from the far side of the room near the washbasin and the framed print of the ancient city of Pompeii. It sounds like an insect, probably a cockroach. I'm not alarmed. I've shared hotel rooms with pests before, but I want to go to sleep. There's no use left in this day and I'm eager for the next one to begin.
Something else is bothering me: I want to go and try the door to room 17 and see why the proprietor was about to give me that key. The scratching noise is getting louder and although I can't fall asleep I'm getting more and more tired so that I start to imagine the insect. It's behind the picture where it's scratched out its own little hole and it's lying in wait for me to go and lift the picture aside and it will come at me, slow and deadly, like a Lancaster bomber. The noise works deeper into my head. The thing must have huge wings and antennae. Scratch ... scratch ... scratch. I can't stand it any more. I get up, pull on my trousers and leave the room.
The stairs are completely dark. I feel my way up to the next landing and switch on the light in the WC to allow me to see the numbers on the doors. I push open the door to room 17, feeling a layer of dust beneath my fingertips, and it swings open. The chinks in the shutter admit enough light to paint a faint picture of a man lying on the bed who looks not unlike me. I step into the room and feel grit on the floor under my feet. As I step closer the man on the bed turns to look at me. His lips move slowly.
"I came straight here," he says, "instead of walking into the city to find something better."
I don't know what to say. Pulling up a chair I sit next to him.
"I found her," he continues. "She lives above the city on the west side. You can see Vesuvius from her window."
I grip his cold hand and try to read the expression on his face. But it's blank. The words rustle in his mouth like dry leaves caught between stones.
"She's not interested. Watch out for Vesuvius," he whispers then falls silent. I sit there for a while watching his grey face for any sign of life but there's nothing. Feeling an unbearable sadness for which I can't reasonably account I return to my room and lie flat on my back on the little bed.
The unknown insect is still busy scratching behind the ruins of Pompeii.
I wake up to heavy traffic under my window, my head still thick with dreams. On my way downstairs I pause on the landing opposite room 17 and feel a tug. But I know the easiest thing is not to think too much about it and just carry on downstairs, hand in the key and leave the hotel for good. Even if I don't manage to locate Flavia I won't come back here. I'll find something better.
I walk across the city, stopping at a little bar for a cappuccino and a croissant. The air smells of coffee, cigarettes and laundry. Strings of clothes are hung out in the narrow passages like bunting. Moped riders duck their heads to avoid vests and socks as they bounce over the cobbles. Cars negotiate alleys barely wide enough to walk down, drivers jabbing at the horn to clear the way. Pedestrians step aside unhurriedly and there are no arguments or remonstrations.
The sun is beating down but there's a haze like sheer nylon stretched above the rooftops -- dust in the air. I'm just heading west and climbing through distinct areas. The class differences show up clearly in the homes -- the bassi, tiny rooms that open directly on to the street, and higher up the huge apartment blocks with their own gate and security -- and in the shops and the goods sold in them. Only the dust is spread evenly.
As soon as I'm high enough to see Vesuvius behind me I take out the photograph and use it to direct my search, heading always west.
It takes a couple of hours to cross the city and locate the right street. I make sure it's the right view before starting to read the names on the bell-pushes. The building has to be on the left-hand side of the road because those on the right aren't high enough to have a view over those on the left. I still don't know if I'm going to find the name or not. Through the gaps between the buildings I can see Vesuvius on the other side of the bay. By looking ahead I'm even able to estimate the exact building, and it turns out I'm right. There's the name -- F. Sannia -- among a dozen others. I press the bell without thinking about it.
When Flavia comes to open the door I'm surprised. Perhaps it's more her place to be surprised than mine but she stands there with a vacant expression on her face. What a face, though, what extraordinary beauty. She was good looking when we first met, of course, but in the intervening years she has grown into a stunning woman. I fear to lean forward and kiss her cheeks lest she crumbles beneath my touch. But the look is blank. I don't know if she recognises me. I say her name then my own and I must assume her acquiescence -- as she turns back into the hall and hesitates momentarily -- to be an invitation. So I follow her. She walks slowly but with the same lightness of step that I remember from before.
As I follow her into the apartment I'm drawn immediately to the far side of the main room where there's a balcony with a spectacular view over the Bay of Naples and, right in the centre at the back, Mount Vesuvius. Unaware of where Flavia has disappeared to I stand there watching the view for some minutes. Naples is built on hills and one of them rises from the sea to dominate the left middle ground, stepped with huge crumbling apartment buildings and sliced up by tapering streets and alleys that dig deeper the narrower they become. The whole city hums like a hive and cars and scooters buzz about like drones. But the main attraction is Vesuvius. What a place to build a city: in the shadow of a volcano.
It's a while before I realise Flavia has returned and is standing behind me as I admire the view.
"What do you want to do while you are in Naples?" she asks with a level voice. "You'll stay here, of course."
"You're very kind. I meant to give you some notice but I don't think I had the right phone number." I show her the number in my book.
"I changed it," she says as she sits in one of the wicker chairs and indicates for me to do the same. "I've been widowed six times," she says and then falls silent. "It's easier."
I don't know what to say. I think she must have intended to say something else -- made a mistake with her English -- although she seems so grey and lifeless herself that the statement may well have been true.
We sit on her balcony for half an hour looking out over the city and the volcano on the far side of the bay, during which time I formulate several lines with which to start a fresh conversation but each one remains unspoken. Something in her passivity frightens me. It seems at odds with the élan of the city in which she lives.
But Flavia speaks first. "With this view," she says slowly, "it is impossible not to watch the volcano, to become obsessed by it."
"My father was alive when it last erupted," she continues, "in 1944. Now Vesuvio is dormant. Do you want to see Naples?" she asks, turning towards me.
"Yes, very much."
We leave the apartment and Flavia leads the way to a beaten-up old Fiat Uno. Her driving is a revelation: once in the car and negotiating the hairpin, double-parked roads leading downtown Flavia is a completely different woman. Here is the lively, passionate girl I knew in London. She takes on other drivers with the determination and verve she showed in my room overlooking the hotel car park when we took it in turns to sit astride each other. She rode me then as she now drives the Fiat, throwing it into 180-degree corners and touching her foot to the floor on the straights. She's not wearing her seat belt; I unclip mine, wind down my window and put my foot up on the plastic moulding in front of me. At one point -- when I draw my elbow into the car quickly to avoid a bus coming up on the other side of the road -- Flavia turns her head and smiles at me just as she did eight years earlier before falling asleep.
We skid into a parking place and Flavia attacks the handbrake. Once out of the car she's quiet again, gliding along beside me. "Where are we going?" I ask her. Beyond the city the summit of Vesuvius is draped in thick grey cloud. Out over the sea on our right a heavy wedge of darkest grey thunderheads is making its way landwards trailing skirts of rain. In the space of two minutes the island of Capri is rubbed out as the storm passes over it and into the bay.
"She must want to be alone," Flavia says and, when I look puzzled, continues, "They say that you can see a woman reclining in the outline of the island."
But Capri is lost behind layers of grey veils now and just as Flavia finishes speaking the first drops of rain explode on my bare arms. Within seconds we are soaked by a downpour of big fat sweet-smelling summer rain. My thin shirt is plastered to my back. The rain runs off Flavia's still body in trickles. She seems impervious to the cleansing, refreshing effect that I'm enjoying. Dripping wet with rain bouncing off my forehead I give her a smile but her expression doesn't change. "Shall we walk?" I suggest, eyeing some trees in the distance that would give us some shelter. She just turns and starts walking without a word so I follow. The trees -- which I realise I have seen previously from Flavia's balcony -- conceal the city aquarium, housed in the lower ground floor of a heavy stone building. I pay for two tickets and we pass in front of a succession of gloomy windows on to another world. It's so damp down there I feel almost as if we've entered the element of the fishes. My shirt clings to my back, getting no drier under the dim lights. Flavia's white blouse is stuck to her shoulders but there's no tremor of life as far as I can see. She stares unseeing at the fish, the sinister skate and lugubrious octopus which regard us with an expression I feel but can't put a name to. Because I'm beginning to feel quite anxious I hurry past the shrimps and seahorses -- which I see only as a blur of commas and question marks -- and I'm relieved to get back into the open air.
Flavia takes me to a restaurant she knows and I eat cousins of the creatures we've just seen in the aquarium. Flavia orders mineral water and oysters but then hardly touches them. My teeth grind on tiny particles of grit or shell in my sauce but I don't say anything because it seems to be a city-wide problem. The waiter's black patent leather shoes are matt with a fine layer of dust.
I watch Flavia as I eat and she stares out of the window at the teeming rain. When she moves it's with an incredible slowness that sets up a tension in me. Her stillness makes me want to protect her. She must have suffered so much, like a tree that's been buffeted by so many storms it's been stripped of leaves and twigs, but still stands, proud and defiant. I want to reach across and touch her cheek in the hope she might soften and smile, but such a deliberate act seems reckless. The worst thing would be if she remained indifferent to my advance.
As I continue eating, however, I'm filled with desire for her. I want to take her to bed and hold her and stroke away the years with her thin layers of clothing.
The feeling grows throughout what remains of the day. We go to a couple of basement piano bars and a club where crowds of strikingly beautiful people spill out on to the street. The atmosphere of intoxication and sexual excitement does nothing to spark Flavia into life. She simply trails her fingers through the dust which seems to coat the tables in every bar we go in.
Only in the car does she come alive as we race from one venue to another, bouncing down noisy cobbled escape routes and diving into alleys thin as crevices. The car's headlamps startle cats and in one hidden piazza a huddle of unshaven men emerging from a fly-posted door. "This is a dangerous quarter," she says, pointing at streets I remember from my first night. "Camorro. Our Mafia. They kill you here as soon as look at you."
Way past midnight we end up in a park above the city on the same side as Flavia's apartment but further round the bay. "This newspaper," she indicates piles of discarded newsprint lining the side of the road. "People come here in their cars and put the newspaper up to cover the windows. Then they make love."
I look at the vast drifts of newspaper as we drive slowly around the perimeter of the park. "Why?" I ask. "Because they live at home? It's their only chance?"
She shrugs. "They do it in the cars then throw the newspaper out of the window."
"And what a view they have," I say, looking across the bay at the brooding shadow of Vesuvius.
Back home again she retreats inside her shell. The sudden change throws me. I want to touch her, sleep with her, but suddenly it's as if we're complete strangers. She sits on the balcony staring at Vesuvius and I bring her a drink. As I put it down I place my other hand on her arm and give it a brief squeeze. She doesn't react so I pull one of the wicker chairs round to face hers and sit in the darkness just watching her watch the volcano. The moon paints her face with a pale wash. I can see the shape of her breasts under the white blouse and as I concentrate I can see the merest lift as she breathes. Otherwise I might have doubted she was still alive. "Do you want to go to bed?" I ask.
She just looks at me. Inside me the tension is reaching bursting point. When Flavia gets up and walks to her bedroom I follow. She undresses in front of me. The moonlight makes her flesh look grey and very still. I undress and lie beside her. She doesn't push me away but neither does she encourage me in any way.
When I wake in the morning she's gone. The pillow on her side is still indented and warm to the touch. I wish I'd done something the night before but her terrible passivity had killed my desire. A night's sleep, however, has returned it to me. If she were here now I'd force her to decide, whether to accept or reject me, either being preferable to indifference.
I get dressed and step out on to the balcony. The top of Vesuvius is covered with cloud. The air over the city is hazy. On the little table there's a note for me from Flavia. She's had to go out for the day and can I entertain myself? I'm to help myself to whatever I want. She suggests I visit Pompeii.
The Circumvesuviana railway trundles out of the east side of Naples and skirts the volcano, calling at St Giorgio and Ercolano, the sun beating down on the crumbling white apartment buildings. I avoid the modern town at Pompeii and head straight for the excavations. German tourists haggle over the entrance fee. I pay and go through, detaching myself from the crowd as soon as I can. They saunter off down the prescribed route armed with guide books from which their self-elected leader will read out loud, peculiarly choosing the English-language section, as they pass by the monuments of particular note. The same man -- he's wearing a red shirt which bulges over the waistband of his creamy linen trousers -- carries the camcorder and will listen impassively to anyone who suggests they operate it instead. They're a distraction from my surroundings: a city preserved to a far greater degree than anything I had been expecting. I wander off into an area of recent excavations where I'm alone with the buzzing insects and basking lizards that dart away at my approach. The heat is overpowering and after a quarter of an hour threading my way through dug-out paved streets bordered with shoulder-high walls and great swathes of overflowing undergrowth I have to sit down for a rest. I look up at Vesuvius, a huge black shape jiggling from side to side behind the thickening haze.
A bee the size of a fat cockroach lumbers towards me buzzing like a whole canful of blowflies and I have to duck to avoid it. Even when it's gone I can still hear it, as if I hadn't managed to get out of the way quick enough and somehow it got inside my head. The sun, even through the dust in the air, amplifies the noise and cooks my skull so that everything inside it rattles like loose beans. Off down a long straight street to my right I recognise the party of German tourists standing to attention as they listen to the man in the red shirt with the stomach, the camcorder and the guide book. His words are just a low hum to me amid the constant buzz in my ears. My limbs tingle as if electricity is being passed through them, then they go completely numb and the buzzing gets slower and even louder. At the far end of the long straight street the Germans have frozen in position. The man in the red shirt is in the act of raising the camcorder to his eye, a woman in a wraparound top and shorts is caught in the act of leaning backwards -- not ungracefully -- to correct the fit of her smart training shoe. The air between them and me is thick with shiny dust, glittering in the golden sunshine. The tiny particles are dancing but the figures remain petrified.
Suddenly they're moving but in a group rather than individually. They are shifted silently to one side like a collection of statues on an invisible moving platform. It's as if they're being shunted into another world while I'm left dodging the insects in this one and I want to go with them. Maybe wherever they're going there won't be this terrible grinding noise which is giving the inside of my skull such a relentless battering.
By the time some feeling returns to my arms and legs the German tourists have completely disappeared. I stumble over the huge baking slabs, trying to escape the punishment. Pursuing the merest hint of a decrease in the noise level I turn in through an old stone doorway and begin a desperate chase after silence: over boulders, through tangles of nettles and vines where enormous butterflies make sluggish progress through the haze. As the pain levels out and then begins to abate I know I'm heading in the right direction. A couple more sharp turns past huge grass-covered mounds and collapsed walls where lizards the size of rats gulp at the gritty air; the noise fades right down, the pain ebbs and warm molten peaceful brassy sun flows into my bruised head. I fall to my knees with my hands covering my face and when I take them away I'm looking directly into the empty grey eyesockets of a petrified man. His face is contorted by the pain he felt as the lava flowed over him. I'm screaming because the man looks so much like me it's like looking in a mirror and a lizard suddenly flits out of one of the eyes and slips into the gaping mouth. The pain is back and this time it doesn't go away until I black out.
I'm out for hours because when I come to, rubbing my forehead, the sun casts quite different shadows on the stony face. Dismayingly I have to admit he still looks like me. For several minutes I sit and watch the insects that use his cavities and passages as they would any similar rock formation.
Later I tell Flavia how closely his volcanic features resembled mine.
"It's quite common to hallucinate after an eruption," she says, applying a piece of sticky tape to the newspaper covering the driver's window.
That's all very well, I think, but I'm 2000 years too late. Or did she mean him? But I don't want to dwell on it because the faster the newspaper goes up the sooner I can have her.
It clicked with me that I could make the most of Flavia's carbound vivacity so that her passivity at home would not matter as much.
Through a narrow gap at the top of the windscreen I can see Vesuvius rising and falling as Flavia and I punish the old Fiat's suspension.
In a few hours' time I'll be climbing Vesuvius herself. Flavia's away somewhere -- working, she said -- so I'm to tackle the volcano alone and although I could have taken a cab to the tourist car park halfway up the mountain I decided to walk all the way from Ercolano which, as Herculaneum, was itself covered by the same lava flows that buried Pompeii. The road folds over on itself as I climb. The routine is soon automatic as I maintain a regular ascent and efficient breathing. My mind is rerunning the night before in Flavia's car. Six times her emotions reached bursting point and boiled over. In the early hours the air in the car was so thick and cloying we had to wind down the window, which meant losing part of our newsprint screen, but the park had emptied hours before.
In her apartment, where I swallowed glass after glass of fresh orange juice, Flavia was once more still and grey. I was thinking about getting her out in the car again but I knew I had to climb the volcano before I left: it had been calling me and this was my last day in the city.
If the air were not so thick with dust, the view from halfway up the mountain would be spectacular. I can just make out a darker shadow which is the centre of Naples and a thin line separating the land from the sea. Only the island of Capri is clear in the distance but its profile is still no more like a woman than the trembling slope beneath my feet. Down here there are trees either side of the road but I can see that higher up the ground is bare. The sun still manages to break through the thickening air and once caught between the ground and the dust the heat cannot escape. I've taken off my shirt and tied it around my neck to soak up some of the sweat. The mountain seems to get no smaller even though I know I'm climbing. The road hugs the side and disappears some way round the back before twisting back on itself to reach the car park and refreshment stand. I have the sense, the higher I get, of the volcano as an egg, its exterior thin and brittle and cracked open at the top. I stop for breath, lean back and stretch. The summit and crater are covered by cloud.
Beyond the empty car park the narrow path zig-zags into the clouds. I climb with the same sense of purpose that took hold of Flavia and me in the car and I sense that the prize is not so far removed from that sweet and fiery memory which even now stirs me. The earth and trees have been left behind and the slate-grey cloud thickens about me like hospital blankets. The mountain is loose cinders and disintegrated volcanic material, a uniform grey-brown, like a dying horse in a burnt field. I'm suddenly engulfed by a wave of sympathy for Flavia and the years of suffering. They have turned her into a brittle shell, but life lingers within her, a dormant energy that last night we fired up. She deserves longer-lasting happiness and yet I know she wouldn't even flicker in some other city; Naples is her only home. Some things are rooted too deeply in the earth to shift.
Never in my life have I felt so alone as I feel now, wrapped in cloud, buffeted by sea winds, following a path to a crater. I can't see more than ten barren yards in any direction.
When I hear the music I think I've died or am still asleep in Flavia's bed and dreaming. Soft notes that gather a little power then fade quickly as the wind blows new ones slightly up or down the scale. I've already called Flavia's name three times before I realise I'm doing it. The name is taken from my lips and wrapped in this soiled cotton wool that surrounds me. Her name rolls on with the cloud over the top of the mountain where the crater must be. It mustn't fall in.
The source of the music comes into view -- an abandoned shack supported by an exoskeleton of tubular steel shafts. The wind plays them like panpipes. A sign still attached to the side of the shack advertises the sale of tickets to the crater. I begin to laugh at the absurdity of such an idea and wade on past the chiming tubes and up towards the edge. I know it's up there somewhere although I can't see it and I stumble blindly onwards, scuffing my shoes in coarse, loose material. Then suddenly the ground disappears beneath my feet and I'm clawing at space for a handhold. Somehow I manage to fall back rather than forward and I crouch in the harsh volcanic rubble peering over the edge of the crater. Below me the cloud twists in draughts of warm air. I'm muttering Flavia's name to myself and thinking I should never have gone to look for her. Then I'm thinking maybe I never did go, but stayed in the insect-ridden hotel instead.
As I watch the updraughts of ash and dust I see a recognisable group of shapes take vague form in the clouds. The German tourists -- he with the red shirt, the camcorder, the stomach, she of the shorts and smart training shoes, still frozen as an exhibit of statuary -- descend through the rising dust as if on a platform. The thicker swirls beneath me envelop them.
They pass into the throat of the giant and are followed by a facsimile of Flavia, falling like a slow bomb. A cast of myself -- whether from Pompeii or the hotel, I don't know -- is next, slipping in and out of focus behind curtains of clogging ash.
The last thing I remember is the buffeting and turbulence the 737 went through as it passed over Vesuvius on its descent into Naples, and suddenly the whole crazy city with its strange visions and coating of fine dust -- from a waiter's shoes to the air rattling in lungs -- makes perfect sense.
© Nicholas Royle 1993, 1997
This story appeared in Interzone #77.
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