Previously Mel had only passed through Pula on her way from the airport. Now, she sat in an open-topped car being expertly steered by Ryan Peacock.
The breeze as they sped down the road blew her hair as fields of corn baking under the sun flashed by.
Ryan adjusted his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose.
“Let’s go to the market first and pick up some lunch. Can you cope with fruit, bread and cheese? We’ll have dinner later.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“Let’s make it a picnic. It’s too lovely to sit inside in a restaurant,” he went on. “Do you fancy taking our stuff over and sitting on the harbour wall by the sea?”
She was so happy, energised by his positivity. It was a welcome break from all the things troubling her.
They walked into the cool of the covered market, with its wondrous wall tiles depicting Roman maidens carrying pitchers of wine.
The scent of the sea, squid and fish of all shapes and sizes teased the senses as their scales shone silver-bright on dripping iced slabs. Bread, cheese, meat and bunches of flowers, lush and fresh, surrounded them.
“This ewes’ milk cheese is the best; it crumbles and melts in the mouth. Do you want to try some?” Ryan’s enthusiasm bubbled over as he filled their bag with Mediterranean crescent rolls scented with rosemary, basil and thyme.
Outside were stalls under umbrellas, each owned by ladies down from the hills to sell produce from their stallholdings. They beckoned and grinned, skin tanned the colour of walnut oil.
Their stalls were proudly displayed with fruits the colour of a Croatian sunset: cherries, peaches, nectarines. Another had Mel trying to converse with the stallholder to find out what the curiosities were.
“It seems they’re white peppers and orange beetroots,” she told Ryan after much gesticulating and giggling from the ladies.
Then there was one with honey in all varieties from the foothills and the plains. Ryan bought her a small jar made from bees fed on lavender, saying, “The sweetest honey for the sweetest girl.”
Was he flirting with her? Mel blushed the colour of the Sweet Williams on the corner stall.
She and Ryan sat on the harbour wall, feet dangling over crystal water.
While they ate, they fed crumbs of bread and cheese into the mouths of waiting fish. The fish made gulping sounds on the surface of the calm sea.
When they were full, Ryan gathered up their things.
“The amphitheatre’s lovely, if you fancy a look.”
He held out his hand to help Mel up and she took it willingly. It was firm and dry, making her feel safe. They laughed as the breeze caught her skirt, making its orange and yellow butterfly patterns dance.
She wondered whether he might keep hold of her hand, but he let it fall back to her side.
They wandered across the amphitheatre’s oval space, thinking their own thoughts of the countless souls who had lost their lives there, of the tiny dramas of love and passion played out by the ancient Romans who centuries ago would have shopped in the Istrian markets just like they had done, and where boys had stolen first kisses.
Ryan looked up at the walls with their arches.
“Don’t the pale limestone bricks look cool against the blue of the sky?”
Not as blue-grey as your eyes look when the sun’s in them, Mel thought, unable to take her gaze from him.
“See those slabs?” He pointed. “That’s where the Romans fastened a canopy to protect the spectators from the sun.
“Can you imagine the deafening roar from a crowd of twenty thousand people watching gladiators fight?”
Mel shook her head.
“I’m glad they don’t have fights today.”
“Ah, but they do have reenactments in full costume. That must be a thing to see.” Ryan turned round and round, his arms spread as if acknowledging an invisible toga-wearing crowd, then made himself dizzy and tottered, laughing, so she had to grasp him.
She was startled by the strength of his muscles through his summer jacket as she made to catch him.
His beard showed tints of copper in the sun. For a fraction of a second she wondered how soft it might be brushing against her cheek.