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Kate van der Borgh

Kate van der Borgh

The History Lesson

by | Play Area, Short stories

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This story is about how a moment in time can’t tell the story of a life. It was published by the Fiction Desk in the anthology Separations.

When I visited Pompeii, I saw the plaster casts of those killed when Vesuvius exploded. And I was struck that the casts were a snapshot of someone’s life. It made me think of contemporary snapshots – Instagram posts, Facebook updates – and reminded me that a moment in time can’t tell the story of a life. This story was published in 2016 by the Fiction Desk, in their anthology Separations.


From her seat near the driver, Alice can hear the usual back-of-the-bus crowd. Snapping, deleting, snapping, uploading. Another shot for Whatsapp, another pout for Instagram, as the breathtaking Neapolitan landscape slides by.
She should tell them to be quiet, to pay attention to the guide, but she doesn’t have the energy. Instead she sighs as Mr Kelly – the florid French teacher who smells faintly of mothballs all year round – nods and droops dangerously close to her shoulder.
There’s no point looking at her own phone. No new messages. Alice hadn’t expected him to get in touch, but she couldn’t help hoping. For anything, really: just a few words to say that he’s finally done, that he’s put the keys through their – her – letterbox. One last text for her to tell her girlfriends about, while they pour the Pinot Grigio and pretend they always thought he was a dick anyway.
She turns to the guide, a young Italian woman who is busy speaking better English than most of the students on the coach:
‘The patron saint of Naples is San Gennaro. The people believe he protected the city when Vesuvius erupted and destroyed Pompeii.’
The coach turns sharply and a boy falls ostentatiously into his neighbour.
‘Jimmy, you bellend.’
‘Can’t help it.’
The guide continues, undaunted. ‘San Gennaro is famous for the miracle of the blood. A very strange miracle. Three times every year a small container of the saint’s blood is carried from the cathedral at Naples to the monastery at Santa Chiara. The faithful come from miles around to pray – and the dried blood turns back to liquid right in front of their eyes.’
Eyes roll, mouths smirk.
 The guide continues. ‘I know, you do not believe. But this happens almost every year. In fact, when there is no flowing blood, the people of Naples believe back luck will come. In 1944 there was no blood. That year, Vesuvius erupted and killed twenty-six people. In 1980 there was no blood, and an earthquake in nearby Irpinia killed three thousand.’
Hands rise throughout the coach.
‘Where do they keep the blood? In a special fridge?’
‘Does it smell?’
As the guide expertly holds the students’ fragile interest, Alice leans against her headrest. Naturally, it’s too low to rest easily on, too high to snuggle into. Across the aisle, two girls scroll through a selection of photos they’ve just taken at the summit. Two, or maybe three, photos are of Vesuvius’s deadly mouth, gaping in the mist. Fifty are selfies. That’s the thing, Alice thinks: you can take these kids to a volcano, a palace, a space station, but they’ll still come back with a hundred photos of their own faces.
As she gazes absently into the rear view mirror, she notices a pair of grey eyes gazing back. She looks away, flustered, fluttering a dog-eared itinerary between her fingers. Don’t make eye contact, she tells herself. Not yet, not unless you have to.
She reminds herself that there’s only one more day until they’re heading back to London, to their crumbling classroom in Walworth. Back to her house in Walnut Tree Walk, and the ruins of her old life.

On the first night of the trip, she bargained with Mr Kelly: if he patrolled the hotel corridors, intercepting any would-be Romeos and Juliets, she’d take tomorrow’s shift.
He agreed, incurious. So she ordered a glass of house white and took it to a quiet spot on the enormous ground floor balcony. From there, she had a view across the coast: scooters wound along mountain tracks, superyachts sparkled just shy of the Sorrento coast. And beyond, looming in the dark, was Vesuvius. Their activity for the final day: a trip up the volcano, and then into Pompeii. Not that the kids gave a shit.
Funnily enough, she’d often dreamed of coming here with Luke. She’d had a turquoise-tinted picture in her mind: her, fresh from the pool, reclining on a wicker chair and sipping an Aperol Spritz. Him, eyes crinkling in the sun, alert to any prowling Italian stallions. Funny, the way we like to see ourselves.
She’d just finished her second drink (both large) when she saw the boy standing there, smiling. She felt caught out, embarrassed about the glass in front of her – was it unprofessional? – but her voice was steady.
‘Daniel? You were supposed to be in bed an hour ago.’
He walked towards her, still smiling.
‘Sorry Miss,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t sleep. You been out here a while?’
He seemed to be nodding at her wine. She felt her cheeks redden and hated herself for feeling this way – still intimidated, even after a year of teaching. But teenagers are wild, unpredictable.
‘You deserve it anyway,’ he said, ‘what with us lot. We must do your head in.’
And then she laughed, her expression softening. He reached the table and pulled out a chair.
‘Do you mind if I just sit here for a bit, Miss?’
‘Actually, Daniel…’
‘Just for a sec. I wanted to say thanks. For you being good about my mum and dad and stuff.’
So that was it. The divorce was still on his mind. He was a smart, popular student, one of the ‘in’ crowd, but things had been tough for him. The boys his age didn’t understand what was going on, didn’t appreciate how his family life had fallen apart. She knew she could offer wisdom, experience. And, she supposed, a kind of friendship.
‘You’re welcome, Daniel,’ she said.
His smile was broad, disarming. There in the starlight, Alice felt warmed by the wine, and by the trust of this boy – this young man. She felt wanted.

The group picks its way around the ruins. In the heat the girls blot their shiny faces, the boys smell especially ripe. They step quickly through the remains of the spa, past sophisticated carvings and intricate tiling. They cross roads, leaping from one huge stone to another, disbelieving when the guide explains that these are early zebra crossings.
After a while, seeing pale skin turning pink, the guide leads them into a shaded area where tables and shelves are stacked with crockery.
‘These are some of the things found in the excavations,’ she explains. ‘These jars would have been for olive oil, those for wine. Does anybody know why the bottles taper to a point, rather than being flat at the bottom?’
Alice wants to prompt the group, but she doesn’t know the answer.
‘It means you can push the bottle into the earth, hiding it from the sun and keeping the wine cool. The people of Pompeii were very clever, no?’
The students stand, silent. Several have white wires sneaking from under their coats and into their ears.
Alice shifts in the heat. Her armpits feel sticky, her waistband is tight, and she pulls the stiff material of her suit away from her skin. She moves subtly from one side of the group to the other, putting as much distance between her and Daniel as possible. It’s immature, but she just needs to get through the trip. She’ll sort things out when they’re back home.
Suddenly a girl calls out: ‘Eugh! Miss! What’s that?’
The group pushes toward a long stone slab. On top, an ash-white figure lies face down, arms outstretched.
The guide nods. Teenagers always come to life at this part. ‘I’m glad you asked. This is a cast of a real woman, exactly as she was at the moment Vesuvius exploded and destroyed the city.’
The students whisper:
‘That’s rank.’
‘Are those tits?’
Alice shoots a look. ‘Ben. Please.’
A boy puts up a hand. ‘Does anyone know, like, who she was?’
The guide shakes her head. ‘Unfortunately no. She is just one of over fifteen hundred people discovered in the ruins. We know only what we can see today: she was here in the city when the volcano erupted. And, judging by the curve of her belly, she was pregnant.’
The group leans closer. This is more like it.
‘Miss?’ asks Jodie, one of the quieter students. ‘Is she holding her hands up because ash was coming down on her?’
‘We think no,’ says the guide. ‘She would not have been killed by the ash. Scientists believe that, at the moment of the explosion, the temperature here would have reached more than 300 degrees. So she would have died of thermal shock in an instant. It is likely that the heat twisted and contorted the body after death.’
In the sun, Alice shivers. It’s unsettling, this picture from another time – a fragment from a life nobody knows anything about. Who was this woman? Roman? Greek? Cook, seamstress, nurse? What were the true colours behind this lifeless impression? Alice isn’t usually sentimental, but she imagines scenes from the woman’s life: her, singing loudly and off-key in spite of her husband’s gentle teasing. Gossiping about her neighbour’s drinking. Combing her elderly mother’s hair. What did she see that day when the mountain fumed and raged, more powerful than any god Pompeii had ever dreamed of?
Nobody will ever know. And now she’s here, trapped forever in a moment in time: a moment where her future, and the future of everyone around her, stopped dead.

When it happened, she unfriended Luke straight away. But thanks to their web of mutual friends, it’s impossible not to see him on Facebook now and again. That’s how – as she sat alone in her hotel room that first night, scrolling through videos of dogs, pictures of food, announcements of engagements – she’d found herself looking at that familiar face. But this time there was another face too, one she’d never seen before: the one he met a year ago at work, the one that turned his head. The one he left Alice in pieces for.
At that moment, she’d felt as if she was having a panic attack. She’d thrown her phone across the room and slumped onto the carpet, breathing hard. She’d cried, again, not knowing or caring whether Mr Kelly could hear her from his room next door.
But two, three drinks down – four counting that shot of vodka from the mini bar – as she strolled through the hotel gardens with this softly-spoken young man, the world looked different, brighter. She was only 23, not much older than her students. She had a great job, and she was good at it. And here she was, on this sparkling evening, in the most beautiful town she’d ever visited.
They ambled down a path, shaded by lemon trees. He talked about his friends at home, telling stupid stories, making her laugh. Making her forget about all the shit with Luke, even if only for a short time. She had a sensation of stepping outside her own coiled, aching body, like a snake leaving a shadow of itself in skin.
She stumbled over something, possibly her own feet, and he caught her firmly by the arm – he was tall and strong, like so many of the students his age. The two of them erupted with laughter and immediately shushed each other, conspiratorially. As she righted herself, she felt a swimming in her head. A lightness.
His eyes twinkled. ‘Your boyfriend should be here looking after you.’
She heard herself reply: ‘I don’t have a boyfriend.’
And then they were away from the path. Behind them, beyond a tall hedge, came the sounds of murmuring voices and clinking glasses. But she didn’t hear a thing.

While Alice never expected the airport to be a peaceful end to the trip, it’s even more head-splitting than their departure from London. From the moment they step into the terminal she’s counting heads, dragging students out of chocolate shops and jewellery stores, herding them hurriedly toward the gate. Mr Kelly is elsewhere, probably sniffing out single malt like a pig hunts truffles.
When they finally arrive at gate 9B, Alice asks the students to call out the numbers they’ve been using throughout the trip.
Daniel is at twelve. She tries to be authoritative as his number comes around but can hardly hold his gaze. She doesn’t understand that smile any more: she hopes it’s a look of awkward understanding, a tacit acknowledgement that it’s all in the past. She knows he’s mature enough to understand. But there’s something else in his expression, and a crackling in the atmosphere. She feels heat rising, across her chest and up her neck…
There’s a click. Alice realises she’s stepped in front of an iPhone, held by a freckled student known mainly for his poor hygiene.
‘Sorry Matt,’ she says, turning. ‘I didn’t mean to ruin your picture.’
‘It’s OK,’ he says.
Then, as she’s walking away:
‘I don’t mind having pictures of you, miss.’
She stops. What? That a weird thing to say, wasn’t it? The gathered students have gone quiet, and all seem conscious that she’s stopped mid-count. Alice wants to ask Matt what he means, but maybe that’s just paranoia. Maybe he didn’t mean anything at all.
There’s a rumbling in the distance. It’s probably the noise of engines firing. But it feels likes the earth shifting beneath her feet.

Alice feels queasy before the plane has even started moving. She’s desperate for a gin and tonic, but she definitely can’t get away with it now. Mouth dry, she turns to one of the overpriced guidebooks she bought on the trip and opens it somewhere in the middle.
The book is explaining how the famous Pompeii figures are formed. Turns out they’re not preserved bodies, like lots of people think. They’re just plaster. Some archaeologist realised that those dead people, buried for centuries beneath the ash and dirt, had rotted completely away – leaving just an empty space in the earth below. By filling the space with plaster, they created ghostly statues of those in their final moments: children sleeping in their beds, dogs straining on their leads. Couples embracing, oblivious.
Alice thinks about this. A moment in time that will last for generations. An impression of a person, made from something that wasn’t really them.

And then their lips touched.
In that moment, the world fell away. She became weightless, her body a billion particles scattered on the air.

As soon as she walks into the office, Alice knows something is very wrong. The headmaster doesn’t look up as she takes the chair. He simply sits, jaw clenched, hands folded on his desk.
‘Miss Gray,’ he says.
Not Alice today, then.
‘We have a problem.’
He slides a pastel-yellow iPhone across the desk, screen-side up, as if he’s in a cop show or something. Alice takes it. And the last pillars in her world crumble around her.
There’s no denying it: her face is toward the camera, while his is nuzzling her neck. Her hands are around his waist. Grasping – you couldn’t argue she was pushing. In a moment of quiet shock, Alice finds herself thinking: the zoom on these cameras is really very impressive.
‘Miss Gray, you admit that this is a picture of you and Daniel Richardson?’
Of course she does. There’s nothing else she can do. At the same time, she doesn’t recognise this version of herself, the blank eyes, the wine-stained shirt. In that state she wouldn’t have noticed faces hiding behind branches, wouldn’t have heard them whispering in the dark.
And yet: thank god this is all they have. Imagine if she hadn’t taken him back to her room, if they’d undressed each other right there in the gardens like he’d suggested. Like, she realises now, his friends encouraged him…
The headmaster is saying something about immediate dismissal, about needing to ‘contain the situation’. But she knows how this goes. If one student has this photograph, a hundred of them have it. And if it’s on their phones, it’s on Facebook, Snapchat. It’s on the internet. The story could end up with the local press. Hopefully not the nationals, though. Surely not?
But she sees it now: this everlasting clinch, only a Google search away, she first thing a prospective employer will see when they look her up online. Same for any online dates, any potential boyfriends. Is this her history now? There must be laws, there must be ways to force them to take that stuff down…

Back in her flat she doesn’t turn on the bedroom light, just takes off her shirt, socks, trousers and climbs completely beneath the sheets. Every so often her phone vibrates in her bag, but she doesn’t get up to answer it.
She thinks of what her life used to be. Before all this, she spent every waking moment trying to be the perfect girlfriend to Luke: she went to the gym three times a week, never touched any foods with more than 3% sugar. She worked hard at her job, and spent her weekends making their home beautiful. Ironically, she hardly ever drank alcohol. Bad for the complexion.
And she never so much as looked at another man. When Luke sees the pictures – as she realises, he inevitably will – he won’t know the woman looking out at him.
But it doesn’t even stop there, with the collapse of her reputation and her dignity. Yes, the headmaster, the students, probably the parents now – they know it’s bad. But they don’t know how bad.
They don’t know that, on that morning, she’d looked in the bedroom bin, the bathroom bin, hoping that they’d been careful – even though, deep down, she knew they hadn’t. They don’t know that, for the last few days, she’s been trying to blame her feelings of nausea on a bad prawn sandwich. They don’t know that her period, famously punctual, is late.
Alice thinks of San Gennaro and his miracle: the magic that means his name will be spoken reverently through the ages. Why can’t miracles happen to her? God knows she needs one now. She throws off the covers and goes to the window. In the electric glow of the evening, pedestrians rush in the drizzle, cars streak noiselessly by. She looks for those Sorrento stars, but the light pollution is too bad and there’s only darkness. So she closes her eyes and pictures a talisman many miles away: a crimson vial, held aloft in the candlelight, as voices ask for protection against nature’s devastating will.
Placing her hands on her belly, she prays for blood.

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