Serene was she as she stepped from the foam of her bath onto the sea shell patterned tiles, but then Gwen felt again the switch in her side which she took as a threat, a foreboding. Something was going wrong, something subtle and complex, beyond the skills of doctors.
What fools men are, with their logic and their techniques, what arrogance, what presumption. And doctors…
The towels lay warm and golden upon their rack above the radiator. One she wrapped about her head, a larger one she held to her body, patting the water away.
Doctors are the worst. A small growth perhaps, madame, but I know he meant cancer.
Rubbing, buffing to bring the red life to her skin (avoiding the long mirror), massaging, slapping the oils in, oils from the tropics, from the sea, one for her body, one for her hands and arms, one for her face and throat.
‘We must leave by seven-thirty, Gwen.’
‘What is it now?’
They worry about the wrong things, pay no attention to the right ones. They think time builds like bricks, but a woman knows it ebbs and flows like the sea.
‘Your hair is wet, dear. You’ll catch your death.’
She stepped from the bathroom and picked the blow-dryer from her suitcase.
‘Miracle of modern technology,’ with a smile.
‘Well…Venice at this time of year…’
He sits there reading a report which no doubt predicts a better world through technology, yet doesn’t trust it to dry my hair. He thinks it a god, not a convenience.
A quick once-through got out most of the moisture and the rest would come when she styled it. She reached into the suitcase for a packet of evening sheer tights and the slippery lingerie in midnight blue, all new this morning from her favourite boutique in the Rue du Rhône before they left Geneva.
No, he has never been cheap about clothes or anything else. He hardly thinks of money. And with the children out in the world he has more than ever, so I can spend as much as I like… a rampage! A credit card rampage along the Rue du Marché and the Rue du Stand… and surely there must be wonderful things here in Venice… tomorrow… why not?
As she bent to pull the black shimmer onto her legs, she felt the pain again, brief, sharp, flickering beneath her ribs.
A small growth, madame.
But I know it is not cancer, but something worse, worse.
***The ten-minute walk from their hotel to the one in which the reception was being held took them along several narrow lanes, under arches, over arched bridges, across squares, through more lanes, some bright with shops, some dim, mysterious, then into the great square, the Piazza San Marco, where they walked under a colonnade, then through an archway…
‘It leaves one… speechless… breathless.’
‘Yes, Venice is remarkable, especially in spring or fall, I hear. Why these fools decided to hold their conference here in January is beyond me. We can thank heaven it’s not pouring rain.’
Tomorrow she would explore, do some shopping, look for an art gallery perhaps.
Tonight the reception.
No dance, that was a relief.
‘Most of the financing for the project is American, of course, that’s Belmer, you’ve met them.
‘The wife is… Linda. Three children in their twenties, at least two on drugs, and the other daughter attending university in Paris the last I heard.’
‘Gone revolutionary, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh dear, no mention of the Belmer kiddies.’
‘The Dutch are also in on it.’
‘Let me guess, Kees Rietsma?’
‘Yes, and wife Tieneke.’
A routine briefing, the small change of the semi-diplomatic world of international agencies. After nearly thirty years of this life, they went through it effortlessly.
‘Oh… and Jean-Claude Thévenaz, you must remember him?’
To her left ran a narrow lane twinkling with lights from shops and cafés, lights glowing on the faces of shoppers, blue, gold, and red, a warm, vivacious scene, and in the distance the golden dome of a church.
Thank heaven for the scarf at her throat and shoulder, her own fashion accent lately, for the flounce of the skirt which would show off her legs in their sheer black, for the slingbacks, only three months old, for the new lingerie, slippery underneath.
‘Yes, of course.’
The glimpse along the lane was gone, but thinking about it, forcing herself to think about it, she realized there had been a great darkness between the shoppers and the distant church. Water? Some canal or harbour or lagoon? Some water to throw herself into.
She stopped abruptly to look into a shop window. Purses. Rather nice ones. Very nice ones. Tomorrow.
‘Gwen? Aren’t you feeling well?’
‘A little stich in my side.’
‘Then you should see Dr. Wenger as soon as we get back to Geneva.’
‘It’s nothing, really, a little nothing,’
‘We’re not getting any younger, old girl.’
‘Come along then, the hotel’s just around the corner.’
***The reception room had as its proudest feature a triple-casement gothic window with a view of the water and the golden dome she had glimpsed earlier.
‘The Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute,’ intoned one of the hosts, and Gwen tried to be impressed, tried to ignore the couple framed by the centre window, Jean-Claude slim, handsome, impeccably dressed, glancing from under his dark lashes, turning to his companion, murmuring to her, a blonde in a bit of a red dress, much of her cow-like front hanging out, her head tilted up in a chuckle, lips open, wet red lips, a beauty, the slut.
As they did the diplomatic quadrille toward one another (the blonde went a different route) twenty minutes of chat, joke, sip, turn, slip on to the next group, their eyes met occasionally, noncommitally. She thought him rather harder, but gradually resolved the discrepancy with the reflection that he was older, his jaw darker despite the recent shave (he always shaved before appearing in public, sometimes three times a day) and his eyes more webbed round with lines. His eyes… and gradually she was lost in his eyes again, as he had been those… years ago, lost in their dark, limpid depths, drowning in his eyes.
‘Jean-Claude! What a pleasant surprise. When Bill told me…’
‘I was too… you can well imagine…’
I certainly can, you bastard. Thought you’d skip in for the conference, then back to New York or wherever you’re posted these days.
‘Washington, actually, but it doesn’t matter where one lives in America, the streets are a jungle, one is always under siege, locked in.’
‘Perhaps you should request a transfer home to Geneva.’
‘Budget, my dear, budget,’ said her husband. ‘I’m afraid extended postings are the rule rather than the exception these days, so that…’
Another figure in the quadrille and everyone moved on. Presently their progress brought Gwen and Bill to the windows so that she was able to turn with some relief to the night, the golden dome, the fairy lights in the palazzi across the Grand Canal, the dancing lights upon the water. But when she looked instead at the reflection of the room she saw Jean-Claude in huddled conference with the blonde. The blonde was nodding.
No, you shameless bitch, don’t nod that you understand, you understand nothing, you think because you are young and beautiful that truth is as obvious as those tits slopping out of your frock, and because I am small and flat and buttoned up in this long-sleeved thing that I know nothing. Well, we shall see, my dear, we shall just see.
The dinner was over, the speeches done, and the first people leaving when she got her opportunity. At that, she had to stalk him through a maze of halls, the prey elusive and much practiced as hunter and hunted both, one then the other now striding boldly, now creeping, now slipping through a door (and all the time the red-clad blonde sat upon a bar stool, swingling the long leg, smiling, smiling, then smiling rather less) until Gwen, in a slightly sarcastic mood, ran him to the ground.
‘There is a little picture of a man on the door, here. Was he meant to be you, my dear, my darling Jean-Claude?’
‘Gwen, I beg of you, don’t make a scene.’
‘But we are in Venice, a city of spectacle, of drama, of emotion. Surely a scene is exactly what I should make, something to warm that cold Genevois heart of yours.’
‘Really, this is impossible. It has been fifteen years…’
‘But isn’t our love forever? That’s what you used to say.’
‘Can we not put aside the past? You must leave at once. Can you not see…’
‘That you want to poke that scarlet woman of yours? Oh yes, but I want you first, I deserve you, I deserve something in return for all the lessons I gave you, for the misery you put me through when you left me.’
‘This is neither the time nor the place to open old wounds.’
‘When is the time… to open old wounds?’
‘Really, I must get back. People will notice.’
‘When is the time? Later tonight? Tomorrow? You look desperate.’
‘I am desperate. I had no idea…’
‘That I would be here? I’m sure you didn’t. When? Tomorrow?’
‘All right. In the afternoon, after the shops have re-opened. I’ll be free for an hour or so.’
‘Five? Here, write down your room number… thank you. And now…’
‘No, not now, tomorrow.’
‘But you always said that I was a genius, the most talented, the most inventive, the most daring. Did you not say those things?’
‘You know I did.’
‘Then… take these.’
‘Nail scissors? What am I to do with these?’
‘I certainly don’t have time to undress, so must cut your way to me.’
‘This is absurd.’
‘The sooner you begin, the sooner you end.’
‘But I may hurt you.’
‘It would not be the first time.’
‘Pretend I’m a virgin. Cut.’
He bent, cut.
Snip, snip, snip.
***She locked the door behind him when he left. Her brutal exercise of power had left her drained, brought tears. She stemmed the tears with a concentrated concern for her make-up and its repair, she stemmed the welling humiliation with a totemic reversion to thought of her mother, losing herself in a contemplation which had for years been her dearest secret and, however distressing, a solace. For her mother had died when Gwen was not yet two and a half, and she barely remembered her, might not really remember her, she had long had to admit, confusing memory with photographs and the tart remarks of her Aunt Prudence.
‘A flapper? Wherever did you hear such a word?’ (Gwen perhaps seven.) ‘But it is apt. Constance was indeed a flapper, Gwendolyn. That is perhaps the politest word one could use to describe her.’
Other terms which Aunt Pru used from time to time Gwendolyn collected and locked away in that room in her soul where the ghost of her mother lived, a room of hidden lights, heavy perfumes, jungles of hanging, flowing silks. Bohemian clearly meant artistic, and minx and vixen were still perhaps kind words, carrying with them the possible sense of a titian-haired beauty with a sly or shrewd sense of humour and a quick tongue, while fast and loose, and a bit free and easy might just barely betoken a lively party-girl of generous nature, but of the words which became more frequent as Gwen got closer to maturity there could be no doubt. Harlot, strumpet slattern, slut, and trollop, although largely archaic are brutally direct. Then, when Gwen was sixteen, Aunt Pru had said,
‘There is no point in our being polite about it: your mother was a whore. Perhaps if she had stayed here in Hampshire, but, no, she had to go up to London to flitter about. I can hardly think of a less appropriate name for my sister than Constance. She should have been called Inconstance.’
Gwen rather liked the idea of flittering about London… or even Winchester… Basingstoke would do for a start.
‘For what it is worth, and that is nothing at all, I’m afraid, she claimed your father was a rich American. But how could she know? She was as promiscuous as a barn cat.’
But Gwen knew, was sure she knew the truth. What others called promiscuity was in fact love, a fullness of love spilling out of her.
And men too stupid, too narrow to absorb it all. Light and bright and sparkling. She was lucky to have died in her twenties, still sought after, a beauty, fresh and laughing.
And floating in this dream, the smiles and whispers, the floating silks of reverie drifting about her like perfume, a haze of golden light, she returned, serene, to her husband, and they strolled away through the glowing night of Venice, itself a reverie, most serene.
***Bright sun of morning, bright chill which bothered her not in her Swiss winter clothes, and she strolled out, comfortable, receptive, bemused, wandering at will, by chance, directionless by calle and campo, ponte and sottoportego through Venice, Venedig, Venezia, Bride of the Sea, exquisite, preposterous, beguiling, most feminine of cities, oh! greatly loved, a soul upon the waters, amazing, a maze, reticulated, decorated, Gwen drifted, orphaned waif, wanderer of continents, adventurer, Englishwoman, woman, homeless, home at last.
At first she found herself in abrupt dead ends, rounding corners to find her walkway ending at water, perhaps a bridge to the door of a home (why can’t I live there?) but she gradually saw that by walking in the light stream of people (that peculiar, forward-tilted quickstep of Venetians) she got along further, nowhere, but somewhere she had not been, a little marble church by the water, a grand, stark church on a square with a statue of a serious old man on a horse, the man having the face and neck of a turtle, and little streets of small shopping where she bought, desultorily, as if in practice, a few souvenirs, and stopped for coffee and smiles, per favore, grazie, prego.
By and by, however, she found herself distracted by that bar of blue above the narrow lanes, corners of her vision tweaked, her body drawn by the promise of sun, and she went seeking the open light. Shadowed lane, archway, small square, lane, and turn, abruptly, there, ten paces before her in a frame, sea and sky with horizon lost in haze of pearl. She stepped slowly through the frame, into the light, a soul in Paradise, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
The great dome of blue, clear blue as the eye of a young winter’s nun, the sea below flashing blue spangles of giggles, blue ripples of laughter, horizon the luminous flesh of cut lemon, sunward was richer, pale golden of peach, while just there in the distance, domes, towers of churches, domes golden and glinting across the bright water, and off to her right the great curve of the quayside, the Riva, the sea-face of Venice, Venezia, Bride of the Sea.
Gwen spun, stunned, buffeted by beauty.
Caught her balance, turned seaward again.
(A quick catch of pain.)
This, this is why we live, and all of me, this beauty, here, now, alive!
***‘Yes indeed,’ said the red-nosed Englishman seated across from her at the lunch table, ‘Venice is a remarkably beautiful city. I first saw her when I was with the occupying forces in the spring of ‘45, and I can tell you it was love at first sight.’
‘Ahh, springtime, certainly,’ said the long-nosed Frenchman, ‘but in winter she is not at her best. The snow on the domes of San Marco looked, last night, like the powder on the cheeks of an aging actress.’
‘A bit tawdry, agreed, but at least the canals don’t reek. And if we had had the luck to have been here next month we could have seen her all tarted up for Carnival.’
‘Of course, the sewage problem has been with the city since the beginning,’ said Gwen’s husband. ‘It’s in the nature of the place. The Venetians seem incapable of organizing a solution.’
The three nodded sagely.
‘Yet the Venetians have always been supremely efficient at what they have considered important, haven’t they,’ said the Englishman.
The Frenchman supplied the answer by rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.
‘But only when they had a monopoly,’ Gwen’s husband remarked. ‘Any fool can make money that way. Once Vasco da Gama got around the Cape…’
‘They have also been efficient thieves,’ added the Frenchman. ‘The body of St. Mark they stole from Alexandria, the body of St. Roch from Montpellier, the famous bronze horses from Constantinople…’
‘Didn’t they steal the winged lion on the Molo?’
‘Doubtless. And, do you know, I believe they also stole the columns on which the lion and St. Theodore stand…’
‘Heavens, I don’t suppose a stone or bronze lion anywhere in the Mediterranean was safe from the covetous agents of La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia.’
‘But surely they were just stealing to show how much they loved their beloved?’
The three stared at her, open-mouthed.
Her husband recovered first.
‘It is still theft, my dear.’
‘Looting,’ said the Frenchman.
‘In any case,’ said the Englishman, ‘the Venetians seem to have thought of Venice as masculine. In the Marriage of the Sea, the Adriatic was the wife, the doge threw her a wedding ring and declared Venice had dominion.’
‘Then the doge was wrong. The sea was masculine and Venice was the bride. You yourselves were saying she.’
‘She has a point,’ said the Frenchman. ‘Certainly there is something feminine about Venice, although bride carries the wrong sense. There is something… louche about her, something suspicious, false, not quite…’
The Englishman held up his hand, nodded to the Frenchman.
‘I see what you’re getting at.’
He turned to Gwen.
‘When the princes of Europe were trying to organize one of the crusades, they sent emissaries to the Venetians, asking for help. ‘You have the greatest fleet of ships in the world,’ they said. ‘The Sacred Shrines of the Holy Land are being defiled by the infidels. We are willing to spill our blood to avenge these insults to our Lord Jesus Christ, but we can only get there with your help. Will you transport these soldiers of Christ to the Holy Land? And the doge replied…’
Again the Frenchman supplied the answer.
‘On what terms?’
‘You see,’ began her husband, ‘If Venice really is feminine…’
‘Then,’ continued the Frenchman, ‘ the Venetians have never been better than pimps…’
The Englishman concluded softly:
‘And Venice is their whore.’
At mid-afternoon, as the shops began to open again, she wandered about, following the people, her sense of place, doing her serious shopping, earring of silver filagree, shamefully frivolous shoes in black patent leather (how vain she was of her feet and legs!) at a price so much better than in Geneva that she bought another pair in beige, and matching purses, and several blouses in limpid silk, and as a replacement for what had been damaged the night before a set of lingerie, black with écru lace. This she changed into when she took her purchases back to her hotel.
‘Gone shopping, back at seven,’ she noted for her husband, then left for her rendezvous. She was rather early, but her sense of direction had never been good and she wanted to give herself ample time. If she arrived much too soon, she could step into a bar, for it was the cocktail hour, she was feeling none too calm, and the pain jabbed at her side as she walked.
Then, as she approached his hotel, she saw the blonde bounce of Jean-Claude’s cow arriving from the opposite direction, laden down with parcels. In quick panic, Gwen slipped into the first turning, tripping along until she was safely, more than safely, away.
Wait now, girl, why run? You’re twenty minutes early, he said five, she’ll be going out again soon, the spendthrift bitch, so everything is all right, have a drink, calm down, phone him at five. Yes. All right. Now. Slow and steady, over this bridge, bear left, I think…
She was in an obscure campiello, a tiny square, off the beaten track, one of the modest, unexpected delights of Venice. Here fruits and vegetables in neat piles of green, orange, white, and red, here the minuscule tobacconist’s with magazines hanging around the window, here meat, here fish, and opposite, stationery, shoes, prints and maps, and, when she stepped toward the prints, a small dusty display window through which was visible a mask, a lady’s mask, a beautiful mask of a beautiful face in black with lips of gold and, reaching down over the temples, two golden hands in black net gloves, the hands making, between thumb and forefinger, ovals for the eyes. A hand-lettered card pointed to a rough door next along. She had seen masks in a number of shops, but no mask quite so elegant, quite so alluring, quite so mysterious as this one. She pushed open the door, stepped through an archway into a courtyard, and there through a large window she saw the shop, a jumble of materials and masks in various state of completion. Through the dusty glass a young woman smiled and beckoned. Gwen opened the door and stepped inside.
‘Buon giorno, signora.’
‘Buon giorno, signorina.’
Gwen had little Italian, so after a few tries they settled on French as the most convenient.
‘The masks are for carnival next month. A year of work for a few weeks of business. Silly, isn’t it?’
‘I noticed others in the shops, but none so beautiful as the one in your window.’
‘Thank you. The form of the mask is common enough, but the combination of black face and gold features is new. I think it a little interesting, no?’
The girl continued with her work, explaining the process, the layers of plaster, the sanding, varnishing, painting, all the while lightly sanding a succession of masks, seemingly in no hurry to make a sale.
‘Most do not go through each step, but I believe it must be done right.’
‘I would not sit if I were you, the dust gets on everything. But if you wipe that stool…’
The girl was blonde, with heavy-lidded brown eyes, full lips, and high cheekbones in a rather flat, almost Slavic face. Under the smock she seemed to have a generous figure. Sensing the frank appraisal, she glanced up with a smile and the shadow of a shrug which Gwen read as saying, ‘Yes, many people think me beautiful, and that makes things go more smoothly sometimes, but there are other things in life as well.’ Immediately Gwen fell in love with her and, for the two dozenth time that weekend, with Venice.
‘Those are made from ancient designs from the commedia dell’arte…’
She pointed out great-beaked Pulchinella, the black half-mask of Arlecchino, Pedrolino with the tear falling from his eye, angry Pantalone, the cuckolded merchant.
‘He is truly Venetian, Pantalone. But there are not really any proper ladies’ masks from the commedia. A lady’s face is beautiful enough as it is. Make-up was enough, even when the female parts were taken by travesties… But for the Carnival there must be masks for the ladies, so we make them. Mostly they are as you see there. They are the most comfortable to wear.’
On the wall hung a variety of cloth half-masks with riots of beads, sequins, plumes. As she imagined a costume ball, Gwen found herself becoming dizzy with the exoticism of anonymity, of the elaboration and exposure of the gown one could wear, of the danger.
‘And the one in your display window, is it for Carnival? Do women wear it?’
‘Well, it is made with strings so it can be worn, and some do wear it, I know. But it has no mouth, so after a while the breath may soften the plaster, and perhaps she will put it aside. Also, it is rather expensive. I think most people just put it on the wall.’
‘Yes, it is certainly decorative.’
It could be had in variations of white, black, and gold, the face one colour, the hands and lips a second, with mesh gloves usually the first colour. The white face Gwen found too bland, the gold face too garish, so she settled on the version with black face, gold hands and lips, and black mesh gloves like the one in the window.
‘The gold is put on with leaf,’ explained the girl as she offered half a dozen, each slightly different. ‘Though it is not, of course, real gold.’
She wrapped the chosen one in tissue paper and warned about packing it too tightly in a suitcase. Gwen paid but lingered yet. The girl stood still, smiling, seeming content whether Gwen should stay or should go.
‘I have enjoyed this so much… you have made something beautiful…’
Impulsively, she kissed the girl on both cheeks.
‘So feminine,’ she added.
When she called from the house phone in the lobby, he seemed a long time answering and was cold when he spoke. Yet he told her to come up and opened the door readily enough when she knocked.
Mellowed by her encounter with the girl of the masks, she smiled with genuine warmth which he could not help but feel. He returned the smile and the embrace, if a trifle reluctantly.
‘Oh, Jean-Claude, don’t be frightened of me, I’ll not make a scene. Let us have a nostalgic hour and then I’ll be gone. Copains?’
‘Certainly, Gwen. Copains.’
‘A large room… and a view,’ trying to ignore the stack of fresh shopping bags in the corner, ‘much more grand than ours. We overlook a tiny courtyard with cooking smells.’
‘Everyone knows Bill hates to waste agency money on frills. Is the room really that bad?’
‘No, of course not. And the smell was a peppery shrimp last evening. It was mouth-watering.’
‘Oh yes, he’s a wonderful man, his virtues are manifold, and he’s very dear to me… if only he had been a little bad from time to time, just a bit naughty. But at least he brought me here. I have something to show you… first the lights down low… yes, you get that one… and get into bed, I’m just going in here… I’ll be quick… a surprise.’
She stepped back into the bedroom a few moments later wearing the teddy from today’s lingerie, the black lingerie with the écru lace, with stockings rather than tights, an archaic notion, a fantasy, a scarf about her neck and over one shoulder, and the mask of black and gold. Silently, arms held behind her, she paced slowly forward.
She sat beside him on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs, sitting tall, turning her torso, posing, a seductress.
‘As beautiful,’ she asked in a whisper, ‘as the nymph of Carouge?’
‘As beautiful, take off your clothes.’
‘As alluring. Take off your clothes.’
‘Tell me of this nymph of Carouge, tell me of your love for her, your passion for her.’
He fell into the game reluctantly, but he did play, telling how he, a shy university student, had fallen in love with the young wife (well, not so young perhaps, for she had been in her mid-thirties, but he did not mention this) and of their meetings in that little bar in the slightly naughty Geneva suburb of Carouge, of oysters and chanterelles and wild strawberries, of borrowed flats and rooms, of cruises on the lake steamer to Thonon, to Evian, of their day trips to Annency and Aix-les-Bains, of the great and massively sinful long weekend in Paris after his graduation, of the education he got from her.
‘And did your nymph teach you to slough off the cares of the day?’
‘Yes. Take off your clothes.’
‘Did she teach you to float in your sensations as an island floats between sea and sky?’
‘Yes. Take off your clothes.’
‘And was that an enchanted island?’
‘Yes. Take off your clothes.’
‘Yes, the isle was full of noises, sweet sounds and airs that gave delight and hurt not. Was it not so?’
‘Hush, Gwen is not here. And was that island like an enchanted dream, so that when you woke, you cried to dream again?’
‘Yes. Gwen, we must hurry. We don’t have all night.’
‘And did you desert the island? Did you sail away, leaving the nymph to weep alone?’
The mask stared, mute.
‘I doubt she was alone.’
‘The nymph was busier than she pretended. Or pretends today, it seems.’
The mask turned toward the window.
‘Your mistake was getting your husband to find me that job with the Agency. Everyone knew, of course, everyone except Bill. A good man. Generous, intelligent, conscientious, and without suspicion. But not passionate enough, so you betrayed him.’
The golden lips were sealed, the eye sockets blank.
‘But I wasn’t the only one. Not even one of the few. Everyone had sailed across to the little island, hadn’t they? The entire Agency staff as far as I could tell. The poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind. Not, perhaps, the senile. And, of course, the Agency’s clients, let us not forget them. The imperialist conquest of Africa in the last century had nothing on your campaigns. Do know the name they had for you around the Agency in your African years?’
Did the mask waver?
‘The Black Man’s Burden.’
The mask slumped, the torso bowed forward.
‘How many have there been over the years? Hundreds? Thousands, more likely. You have shown the discrimination of a public urinal.’
Hand slipped inside the mask, covering the face, the sobs.
‘How many, Gwen? I suppose you have no idea how many?’
How masculine of him to demand numbers when what mattered was amount.
She slipped the mask up to the top of her head, wiped her eyes, sat straight, head high. She directed all her will to the words of her answer, to their soft dignity.
‘I have been greatly loved.’
She turned her eyes to his.
The silence which floated about them was so thick the air might have been water and they at the bottom of a lagoon.
The rattle of the key in the door was abrupt, noisy, violent, terrifying, as was the entry of the blonde, as was the demolition which followed.
‘Bloody hell, if it isn’t the office bike!’
An Australian accent, unexpected, harsh. Its metallic edge was a particular pain to Gwen’s ears. She had lived with some equanimity among the various drawls and rasps of American, had learned to bear her husband’s dreary, nasal Canadian, but she had never been able to abide Australian, and now she tried to block it from her ears, to concentrate instead on the pain in her side, for the voice went on and on in a refrain of questions and answers, asides, tried to ignore the pain of the sounds, the pain of the meanings. She also tried to hide her body, pulling the sheets to herself, curling up, but the woman was having none of it.
‘Get up you bitch, get off my bloody bed and let go my bloody sheets.’
Gwen started to make a rush for the washroom, but the woman caught her arm and slapped her head, sending the mask bouncing, skittering into the corner.
‘Bloody tart. Christ, Jean-Claude, I don’t know how you ever managed. I mean look at her, wearing stockings like a five-dollar whore trying to attract dirty old men. And do you know why she’s wearing them? Because her legs are all soft. Look…’
‘Leave it, Coreen.’
‘And look at the scarf, she was wearing one last night too, as if no one knew why. But look at her neck, get your hands down, you old hag, there, see? Turkey neck. And how many kids has she spawned? Two, wasn’t it? And both out and gone years ago. So let’s see your body, dearie, get that thing off, come along then, let’s have it off.’
The woman was so much bigger, younger, stronger. Gwen stopped struggling. She stood in the middle of the floor as the Australian grabbed the bodice of the wispy teddy and ripped it from her body.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it? Look at the stretch marks, you’d think she had ten brats. And what about your norks, darling?’
‘Enough, hell, did I ask her to start taking off her clothes? Here, let’s have a look.’
The long red fingernails cut a gash over Gwen’s breastbone as the hand snaked out and ripped away the bra.
‘Christ, they look like a pair of flounders lying there, I think I’m going to puke. I mean, how did you think you were going to get it up for her? My God, I leave you alone for two hours and you drag this up to our room. It’s degrading, disgusting, look at her, the pathetic slut.’
‘Coreen, leave her alone.’
‘Scrawny wrinkled thing. Get her out of here before I tear her apart.’
Not sure that it was really over, Gwen stood still with head bowed and arms at her sides, that pain again, wearing only the absurd suspender belt and stockings, waiting for the blows, cringing, shrunken.
‘Go dress yourself,’ said Jean-Claude softly. ‘It’s all over now. She won’t hurt you.’
‘I bloody will if she’s not out of here in two minutes. I have to get ready for that banquet.’
‘Coreen, stop, now.’
And indeed the cutting whine was not audible through the closed door as Gwen pulled the dress on over her nakedness, and when she returned to the bedroom the Australian was staring out the window, a cigarette in her cocked hand. Jean-Claude arose from the chair and stood near the door, holding out her handbag and the shopping bag, his head bowed with, just possibly, a touch of apology.
‘I wrapped the mask in your other things. That will protect it. I didn’t see any scratches.’
She took the bags and stood waiting like a convict for the door to be opened for her.
‘It’s a beautiful mask.’
‘Don’t fawn over her, it’s disgusting.’
‘Coreen, have pity on her…’
He pulled the door open and stood aside:
‘She’s just an old woman.’
She found the restaurant by instinct and luck, by avoiding San Marco and the Rialto, by walking away from the crowd. A few local youths around the pinball machine in the outer bar room and six tables of dinners in the restaurant. She allowed herself to be led to a table by the window overlooking the glimmering little canyon of canal. In summer the view would be prized, but now, she knew, it would mean sitting in a chilly draught. It was, however, the only small table left and she could leave her coat draped over her chair.
‘Grazie. Cinzano rosso, per favore.’
And she would have her left cheek away from the other dinners.
‘Cinzano… and the menu, signora.’
The slight astringency amid the fullness of the drink was pleasant on the roof of her mouth. She had brushed her teeth in the washroom of a bar, but the drink renewed it somehow, masked the lingering taste of blood.
From behind on the right, German was being spoken by a family of five, and another northern language from the young couple near the door. Everyone else seemed to be Italian. No one was paying her any attention. She might just make it through.
She ordered by pointing at items on the little menu card, not quite sure what she was getting or how it would be prepared, not much caring. In the event, the first course was a plate of cold seafood antipasto, tasty and mysterious, the bodies of tiny shellfish, curled up, little bunched tentacles. It renewed her vigour somewhat, reminded her that she hadn’t eaten for six hours.
The waiter took away her plate, filled her glass with white wine.
Her husband had been understanding when she explained over the telephone.
‘Not at all, my dear, I know you loathe banquets. I’m afraid I may be back late tonight. I have to talk to Belmer about the Mombasa job and he’s going to insist on a visit to the Casino. Ridiculous. If you would care to join us, go to the Rialto vaporetto…’ and the useless directions.
‘Thank you, Bill, I understand exactly.’
‘I’m told Venice is not a violent city,’ he assured her, ‘and that it is safe for a woman to walk about at night.’
How many similar conversations had they had over the years? The telephone in the bar, the restaurant, the strange apartment, the backstreet hotel, and the apology, a headache, shopping not done, an old friend, the Bill’s assurance, he understood, had a meeting, a report to finish. Had he really believed, all these years? Well, the pain reminded her, it wouldn’t matter much longer.
Not cancer, never mind their modern science, this was something out of Africa, something mysterious, dark, contracted during her adventures, sweat on hot afternoons, rumbles of deep voices, like distant thunder, black skin like velvet over hunched muscles, gods from the secret dark of the soul, gods alive, above her, she had been greatly loved, but now she was being punished, and her mother’s name was not Constance, there was a secret name, she whispered it in my ear when Aunt Pru took me to see her that last time, in the white room, she whispered her name in my ear, but I forgot it, forgive me, Mother, I forgot your real name.
‘Scusi, signora, is…’ and in a jumble of language she heard ‘terminate’ or something like it.
‘Yes, it was very nice, but…’ and gestured about her narrow waist. Relieved, he took away the plate of gnocchi, barely touched. They had been light and fluffy enough, but not tonight. She looked at her reflection in the window: a tiny bird-like thing she was.
The little sparrow, Jean-Claude used to call me, meaning I was like Piaf, which was no compliment as far as looks go, poor tiny wreck Piaf was those last years, but meaning character, meaning passion, courage.
La vie en rose.
Poor tiny wreck of a thing.
A sip of wine.
Pity all the wrecks of little old women, cast off, no one needs them any more.
A toast to them, every one.
Colette, there was another one, all crabbed up with arthritis those last years, her face devastated, like an African village after the passage of an incomprehensible gang of men in uniform.
No, not despoiled, Piaf and Colette had triumphant faces, had grown the faces of women who had lived. Lived greatly, loved greatly.
So they were made to pay?
As am I?
Cuttlefish in its own ink, dark, daunting, an adventure.
Like Africa, like the mask.
Thank heavens it had not been scratched.
In that earlier bar, in the washroom for repairs. Pull on the cheap new undies bought in the first shop she had come to, do her make-up again, careful, not too much, then take the mask carefully from the bag, throw out the torn things, Venice, it seems, is hell on lingerie, but the mask is unharmed. Truth to tell, she wants to put it over her face for the rest of the evening, the rest of her life. Hastily she wraps it in paper towels.
Now it is safely hidden in its bag on the other chair.
The taste of the cuttlefish, rich, heavy, dark brown like the ink sauce.
As she chewed it, a soreness in her jaw, reminder of the big horrible woman, cow. More than cow. Dairy.
And he lay there in bed like a sultan, letting her hit me, letting her tear the clothes from my body, my pretty things. How much had he planned? ‘I leave you alone for two hours,’ she said. But she was only gone twenty minutes, half an hour. She had shopping bags when I saw her in the street and they were in the room when I arrived, so she only went out long enough for him to get my clothes off…
And that’s why he kept asking me…
To undress more…
And when I kept my pretty things on…
She tore them from me…
‘No, grazie, but I’ll have a cappuccino in there.’
She pulled her coat over her shoulders, shook out another cigarette, took a table in the bright bar, set the bag with the mask carefully on the floor against the wall.
‘Your coffee, signora.’
Two boys remained, standing at the end of the bar talking, sneaking a brief look at her, turning in upon themselves again.
‘And I’ll have a grappa, per favore.’
She nodded at the two boys, questioned the waiter with her eyebrow.
‘Why not, signora.’
‘And have one yourself.’
He was amused, they were surprised, confused briefly. The waiter lined up the four glasses, poured the yellow liquor, they all raised their glasses. What did one say in Italian? Yes,
‘Cheers, madame.’ And awkwardly, formally, from the older of the two boys, ‘Thank you very much.’
‘Cheers. Where did you study English?’
The ancient game, the rules, the moves repetitive as ritual, variations on a theme, plus ça change, more drinks as the boys strut and display, dancing forward like painted warriors, tribe of the lion, Viva San Marco! retreating, giggling, unsure, untested, not blooded in battle…
‘See what I bought today. Mask of Venice.’
The mask, more serene, pure ritual, play, their courage could handle.
The mask selected, beckoned.
In the dim toilet, light from the canal, soft light of Venice.
‘There, how does that feel?’
‘Signora, I am a poor boy.’
‘And I am a poor woman…’
‘But I have been greatly loved.’
‘Yet this evening my soul was harrowed.’
‘No work, signora, so…’
‘So here,’ gaily, the mask hiding her tears, a bunch of bills into his pocket, the pain again, ‘After what that creature did to me, it’s nothing, my pleasure, a gift.’
‘Thank you, signora.’
‘For I have been greatly loved.’
The Mask, and the Woman, and Venice.