In the brothel, a tourist with a Newcastle accent asked if the beds had been curtained, or was everything done in public? Was voyeurism all part of the fun for the lusty residents of old Pompeii?
Most of the visitors crowding into the brothel laughed, but our local guide, confounded by the accent, looked blank. I translated the question into Italian, hoping to impress the man who had asked it. He looked a bit Roman himself: tanned, heavy-set and — until he smiled — militarily grim in the face.
The guide wasn’t sure about the curtains, but thought perhaps not; surely they would have hidden all the marvellous frescoes? She led the other tourists back out into the sunlight, leaving me and the man behind. As I’d intended, he complimented me on my Italian and asked when and where I’d learned it. I told him about my gap year in Rome, the bar in Trastavere where I’d worked and my bedroom window that overlooked the Forum (this was an exaggeration; you could just about see the top of the Temple of Saturn). Then he said, Guess what I do for a living.
For the rest of the tour we walked together, dawdling behind the rest of the group, I guessing, he laughing and laughing. I noticed his beautiful teeth, which broke up the sternness of his soldierly face in a surprising and sexy way.
In the wine shop: Archaeologist?
Lining up a photo with Vesuvius rising at the far end of a cobbled street: Classics professor?
Given where we had met, I entertained and then dismissed the thought that he was a high-class gigolo.
In the upper circle of the amphitheatre: Viaduct engineer? Vulcanologist?
Outside the House of the Tragic Poet: Author of Pompeiian whodunnits?
Now, there’s a thought.
Back at the Forum, the guide announced that the tour was at an end. Our group began to drift towards the city gate and the exit. The man and I looked at each other.
I said: “You’ll have to tell me what your job is now.”
“I’ll be glad to tell you,” he said, “if you’ll have dinner with me tonight.”
At this, although it was not really a surprise, I panicked. I blurted: “But I can’t…” and fled like a scarlet-cheeked Cinderella over the two thousand-year-old cobbles, shouting over my shoulder: “I’m sorry! Really!”
Back at the hotel, my boyfriend had not yet arrived back from his boat trip to Capri. From the way we’d parted that morning, I knew there would be another argument when he did.
– Why would anyone come here and not go to Capri?
– Well, why would anyone come here and not go to Pompeii?
– I was quite prepared to see your crappy old ruins another day, I just thought on the first day of our first holiday together…
– Together, that’s the point! It’s not very together when you go into a sulk and fuck off to Capri by yourself.
– Well, it’s not very together when you pre-book the tickets for the crappy old ruins without even telling me…
– I did tell you! You just weren’t listening, what a surprise….
The signs were that our first mini-break as a couple was also going to be our last.
While I waited for him to return, I treated myself to a juvenile soft-porn fantasy, in which I was a concubine ravished by the might of Rome. Though I didn’t confide this to my boyfriend, the damage was already done. For the next two days he was jealous and spiteful, I was disdainful and bored, and we both made things worse by drinking far too much red wine. The mini-break was a failure of imperial proportions. We flew home in mutual disgust.
Two years and another disappointing relationship later, fifteen degrees north and eight hundred miles from the Bay of Naples, another gang of tourists stood by a wind-blasted Hadrian’s Wall and cackled about those cheeky Romans. We were in a roofless building that our guide, a middle-aged woman in a long homespun tunic and leather sandals, called ‘social loos’. There were two rows of stone seats with holes in them, and channels beneath where water had once flowed. The guide invited us to imagine the scene some frosty morning, the legionaries sitting in disconsolate rows with their leather trousers down, grumbling about the climate, missing the vineyards back home.
A group of chattering, windblown schoolchildren was waiting to enter the social loos behind us. As we filed out, I saw leaning in the lintel-less doorway their guide: a disconcertingly authentic centurion, in full armour and with beautiful teeth, smiling as he watched me. The concubine stirred.
Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in a cottage in Brittany, partly in a VW camper van. She has worked in Bahrain, Kuwait and Portugal as an English teacher, and more recently in local government near Liverpool. “The Oldest Profession” is her third published piece, and is dedicated to her husband Eric, an ex-Latin teacher with an obsessive interest in all things Roman.