Pompeii, Italy, 1994

John and I are in Old Pompeii.  The empty town square that tenements of crumbling tan brick surround and on a pedestal Apollo stands, his arm raised to Vesuvius – glistening black metal God of a sun that shone blackly that day.  That terrible day of apocalypse and pyroclastic flow as Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and killed so many people.

I try to envisage a pair of ancient eyes watching me as I wander aimless amongst the roofless ruins.  But that was all part of the tourist trade, where people flog their business as usual and many guides beckon to reveal behind tawdry curtains, what they know of the real Pompeii:  The love-making room in the town brothel being a climax.

Yes it is all big business, that apocalypse.

Movie extras in costumed togas and rhinestone diadems wander around the old round open theatre at will, pursued by cameras recording that endless fascination with so many violent deaths.  All at once.  And they didn’t know.

Now death agony can be viewed in perfect detail under glass.  The torturous twisted faces of pool attendants in the public baths.  They are somewhat smaller than people today, mouths agape in mid-scream of pain and terror – on that day.  Some day that black will be marble, honed and polished, slabs all ready for sale at the markets.

We wander in the Villa of Mysteries, in what must have been a secluded and affluent kind of cul-de-sac quite some walking distance from the town centre.  Only someone of supreme wealth would have caused such great, beautiful slabs to be laid – like the best playing cards in the deck.  Not showy, but brimming with silent quality and built to last a lifetime memory in an art-lover’s mind.  And that isn’t just the frescos.

But a heart-thumping wall of black earth bearing green weeds rises just behind the back windows and doors.  And on the floor the figure of a broken boy, face dove-peaceful in the greenish light…

Around Old Pompeii lies the tacky modern town feeding from its bones.  It has erected ugly concrete boxes of hotels and neon-lit shops and the main drag boasts cars bumper to bumper, moving at a glacial pace in the warmish early autumn evening.

Mount Vesuvius – imperceptibly massive – had defeated us that day.  It imperiously beckons, but its summit enticingly near, melts further away with each kilometre.  So we had given up and returned to the town debating pizzas for dinner as we griped our way through the evening traffic jam.

It was quite dark when we stopped at a club-house and then, there they all were, the entire town almost.  Men, women, couples, families with children, groups of friends, young, old and middle-aged.  They were all dressed smartly with the women in black and hair done just so, in Saturday night best all promenading the town square.  The people of Old Pompeii still live among us!