She was getting more than a bit worried; as the shadows gathered around her it wasn’t only the chill of the night air that made her shiver. Rachel had been so excited that afternoon when she had arrived – how had all this happened?
She’d been delighted when she had found a local excursion from near the hotel, and relished being on her own after the constant company of the coach tour. ‘You have three hours ladies and gentlemen. If you miss this bus you will have to make your own arrangements. We leave at 6 o’clock sharp!” called their driver.
Coming from the air-conditioned depths, she was unprepared for the heat and dust that hit her as she climbed down from the coach. All around her she could hear the chatter of fellow tourists mingling with the calls of street-vendors. Walking towards the turnstiles she caught a tantalising glimpse of bleached columns offering the promise of a walk into the past. Ever since she’d received a postcard when she was a child, she’d been fascinated by the story of an ancient town frozen in time – and now she was finally here: Pompeii!
Quickly losing the group tours she wandered for hours, taking in the sights that she’d admired in her little guidebook, and working her way further from the crowds and further from the 21st century. ‘There you go’ she said to her twelve year old self – ‘everything you hoped it would be!’
Aware that her feet were in need of a rest, she detoured off the main road and flopped down by the ancient bath-house. Idly watching the swarm of people milling around in the distance, she leant against the wall. It was blissful to be out of the punishing heat of the sun. Reaching into her battered duffle bag she pulled out a bottle of water – at the same time the tatty old postcard fell out. As she looked at the familiar scene featuring a plaster cast of a figure sitting down with their legs crossed, and hands up to their face she found herself wondering: were they struggling for breath, or had the horror of the situation overtaken them? It always made her so sad. She closed her eyes.
Coming round from a delightful daydream in which she was the mistress of one of those grand roman houses issuing orders to a multitude of household slaves, especially the handsome steward with the glint in his eye, she noticed suddenly how chilly it was. Where had all the crowds gone? More to the point, when had it got dark? Glancing at her watch she was horrified to see it was half past eight! No…! She couldn’t have fallen asleep? Retracing her steps as best she could in the gathering gloom she picked up her pace and got onto a central road hoping to run into some stragglers heading for home, but no, the place was completely deserted.
‘Come on now,’ she said to herself firmly, ‘they can’t have been shut long. There’s sure to be some people back at the main buildings where the café is – workers? Archaeologists staying late cataloguing their treasures? A grizzled night watchman?’ But no it was quieter than the grave – ‘Great’ she thought, ‘did I really need to start thinking about graves in this place?’ Then Rachel jumped violently as out of the corner of her eye she saw something moving. With mounting fear she stood watching – what on earth was lurching slowly and purposefully towards her? Then she started to shake with relief – it was just one of the stray dogs she’d read about in her little guidebook. Pompeii was proud of adopting and caring for local dogs – yes this one had the famous red collar round his neck. It was incredible the comfort she drew from his shaggy company.
The old dog sighed and settled down next to her on the uneven floor. Sinking down next to him she used him as a pillow, snuggling up with her arm round his warm, furry bulk. ‘Right…Calm….Breathe….’ she said in her most sensible voice trying to settle a rising sense of panic. ‘The way I see it there are two alternatives available to me.’
One: walk round the buildings and try and find someone. That didn’t appeal – she remembered that film where the girl got stuck on the London Underground – and woke up to a subterranean horror. EVERYONE knows you stay by the entrance ‘til morning. Besides what if she did run into someone? ‘Buona Sera …’What’s the Italian for “I fell asleep and got locked in and my bus has gone?” She didn’t really want to get arrested!
Two: Stay the night and walk nonchalantly out in the morning? Hmmm…. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well the worst thing that could happen is that at night all the plaster casts come to life and start lumbering round. Even better! Now I’m thinking about 2,000 year old skeletons encased in plaster of Paris searching for their skin!
‘Any thoughts old boy?’
‘Thanks; I’ll try that.’
In the end Rachel knew her only option was to find another exit. There were the iron gates by the visitors’ entrance but not everyone needed to come in that way – there would have to be a staff gate. There was; and it turned out to be a handy wooden gate that wasn’t too difficult to climb over. Just a scrape to one knee (next time you break out of Pompeii, remember to wear jeans, she thought,) and a slightly undignified landing. Hopefully if closed circuit cameras picked up that little gem, they’d see she was trying to get OUT.
Scurrying down the path towards the road, she started to absorb the real world again. In the distance scooter engines whined, she could smell the cooking in the restaurants and bars of the modern town. And then the most welcome sign of her life ‘POMPEII SCAVI’ – the railway station was still open and swarming with commuters waiting for the little train that trundles round Vesuvius towards Naples.
As she stood on the busy train pondering her adventure, she pulled the postcard out of her bag for one last look. “Oh now I get it” she thought with a wry grin. “That’s why her hands are up to her face like that. She’s trying not to laugh!”