Venice, February 2018
The days since Christmas have been short and the nights too long. Acqua alta plagues the serene city; like a serpent, the salty marsh water above which she sits, creeps out of her canals, slides down her alleys and threatens to strangle and suck Venice back into the sea.
I have been hiding away, scarcely venturing outside. In the gloom of the fog which swirls around me, I cannot see a future.
Yesterday, when Jessica arrived home from school the apartment was in darkness.
‘Mum! Mum? Where are you?’
The door burst open and, like the arrival of the Angel Gabriel and the holy host, light flooded the room.
She stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, staring at me in silent provocation. In the light her dark hair glowed like a chestnut roasting over an open fire, rippling in waves onto her shoulders. Her lips, usually pink and plump, were clamped together tight as an oyster shell and beneath thick eyebrows, arched in a permanent question mark, her cat-like eyes were oval and daring.
‘What have you done today?’ she crossed her arms, barely able to contain her fury.
I was still in my dressing gown, propped up in bed, with the laptop unopened by my side.
‘Did you actually listen to Dr Whittington? When was the last time you even played any music?’
‘I don’t think I can…’
‘Can’t or won’t?’ she exploded, tears filling her eyes. ‘If you won’t do it for yourself, then what about me? You’re all I have. Don’t you even care? You’re so selfish!’
With a defiant toss of her head, she turned and fled to her room.
Half an hour later, Eros Ramazzotti blared from the radio, pots clanged and the enticing scents of garlic and basil wafted down the hallway as Jessica prepared the supper. I smiled wryly. She was so much like I had been at her age. I got up and padded in my slippers to the kitchen. Jessica glanced over her shoulder, then silently passed me a knife and I began chopping tomatoes at her side.
Now, the door to the street slams shut, the lock trundles and Jessica’s footsteps recede along the calle. She is on her way to school. Last night I saw the fear in her eyes. However brave and feisty, she is still a child. My child. She’s right. I know that I must do this, however painful, and whatever it might bring.Good or bad.
I open the windows, push back the shutters and breathe in the sweet smell of vanilla floating up from the bakery. Beyond the mosaic of terracotta roofs, birds swoop against a pale blue sky and creamy sunshine promises an unseasonably warm day. Today heralds the advent of spring.
I dress, pick up my camera and sunglasses and set off towards a far flung part of Venice that I haven’t visited for years. I will test myself.
Strolling down the Via Garibaldi I stop to photograph a fish stall, a boat on the canal piled high with vegetables and a group of old men smoking outside a café. At the end of the street I turn left down a narrow calle bordered on each side by tall ochre-coloured buildings. High above my head, freshly laundered sheets sway from communal lines strung across the alley, casting fluid shapes on the walls and pavement below. I pause again to capture the fleeting patterns and playful shadows with my Nikon.
I find a tiny neighbourhood restaurant for lunch with a beamed ceiling, wooden tables laid with plain paper cloths and walls plastered with posters of Molluschi, crostace e anelidi di laguna. In the corner, a group of young men chatter animatedly over steaming cups of espresso. I sit at one of the empty tables and order a Campari spritz and a plate of cicchetti. I look on in amazement as the frail old man next to me devours a bowl of gnocchi in ragu followed by a huge pile of roast veal, which he douses in lemon and black pepper.
A whoosh of hot air, and the kitchen door swings open. Like a ninja warrior the cook, wearing a black apron and matching bandana, bursts through. In his hand is a twitching plastic bag.‘Ciao, Piero! Cosa hai nella borsa?’ The young men greet him. He joins their table and wrestles a wriggling black lobster from the bag. I watch in horror as it unfurls its claws and back, stretching to feel the reach of its limbs, relieved to be free from the sweaty stickiness of its confinement. They poke and prod the animal as it squirms and snaps between the Ninja’s fingers. I feel my heart pound, a raging anger pulses through my veins. I want to run over and snatch it from the assassin’s hands, flee with the creature to the waters edge and let it scramble to safety. But I know I cannot. A wave of sadness drowns me. I watch as the tormented crustacean writhes in its last moments of freedom, before perishing in a pan of boiling water. It is such an unjust and cruel end to life.
I pay for my lunch then walk purposefully towards the island of San Pietro. A neglected part of town rarely visited by tourists, or even by Venetians beyond the sestiere, it is best known for the Palladian church of San Pietro di Castello, once the cathedral of Venice. In the small square opposite the church I erect the tripod, screw my camera onto the mount preparing to record, second by second, the changing light across its gleaming white façade.
Shaking; Spinning; Sinking.
I drop onto the grass, grateful for the solid ground beneath me. Fatigue engulfs me. I fumble around in my bag, find my headphones and put them on. They cushion my ears, sealing in the sounds and the memories. They have become my comfort blanket now for times when I feel like this. I stretch out, like a languid cat, beneath the cloudless azure sky, close my eyes and breathe in deeply. The sun kisses my skin, the sharp grass pricks the backs of my legs. I press play and Randy Edelman sings that you are one of the few things worth remembering…
And I am lying next to you, by the reservoir in Frampton, on a blistering summer’s day…
Frampton, July 1978
‘Don’t be nervous, Claire. They’ll love you. They’re really not that scary.’
You kissed me, and with your arm wrapped around my waist, we walked to the car park underneath Euston station where your parents waited for us. They stood in the shadows, in front of a sleek black Mercedes.
‘Hello, Claire.’ Your father shook my hand firmly. ‘I hope you had a pleasant journey?’
Tall, silver hair swept away from his face, he wore a checked shirt, beige slacks and asports jacket, even though it was a scorching July day.
‘How nice to meet you,’ your mother added, fixing me with unsmiling eyes.
Hot and sticky on the leather seats in the back of your father’s car, I held your hand tightly and studied your mother’s reflection in the wing mirror. Her steel grey, immaculately coiffured hair was backcombed and tucked behind ears adorned with pearl earrings. She wore a double strand of pearls around her neck (I guessed that they too were real), a short-sleeved cream silk blouse, a camel coloured cotton Jaeger skirt and a Hermes scarf was draped across her shoulders. Her manicured nails were painted in a sheer gloss and an enormous sapphire and diamond ring sparkled on her wedding finger.
We drove to Sussex mostly in silence. The low hum of the engine and the smoothness of the ride made me feel sleepy. The busy roads lined with grimy inner-city terraces and multi-coloured ethnic grocery stores turned into leafy suburban streets and then became open fields and tall-hedged narrow leafy lanes. Gliding through villages with white wooden houses, smooth green cricket pitches, gardens brimming with foxgloves and roses, and country pubs, we finally arrived in Frampton.
We turned into the driveway hidden behind a carpet of joyful yellow flowers. Many years later when I planted my own garden I discovered that they are called Hypericum, or Rose of Sharon. But I will always remember them as Frampton blossom. Whenever I see them, I think of you.