Venice, January 2018
It’s a beautiful crisp morning. The low winter sun twinkles on the puddles from last night’s downpour, bouncing shafts of iridescent light across the street. Downstream plays through my Mac and, as the piano chords sparkle and swell, through the misted windows of my mind hazy memories come into sharper focus. I remember when we took a boat on Sunday…and it rained.
Venice, April 1978
‘Claire,’ Rachael gently tapped my arm. ‘Wake up! We’re nearly there.’
We’d been squashed into the carriage from Rome for the last few hours. Your arms around me, my head on your chest and, still wearing your white sweater, we had slept all the way. I wriggled free, Rachael slid the narrow window open and together we peered out. I felt the warm evening air light on my face and took a deep breath. The individual components were indefinable, but the combination was unmistakable. The unique smell of the sea.
‘Guess who I am, Rachael?’ I pretended to film her with a movie camera. ‘I’m an independent type, Cookie.’
‘Easy. Katharine Hepburn. Summertime.’
‘With the divine Rossano Brazzi!’
Rachael rolled her eyes at me as you stirred in your sleep.
The train rattled across the bridge coupling Venice with the mainland. And then she appeared. Like a watercolour sketch, her spindle-shaped campanile, the curve of her elegant domes and haphazard undulating rooftops were finely drawn against the translucent pink-smudged sky. Venice; La Serenissima.
‘It didn’t have a happy ending though, did it?’ Rachael whispered in my ear.
‘Depends what you call happy. Although Renato didn’t get to the train in time she had an unspoilt, eternal love to remember.’
‘But when she got back to Ohio, did she survive on the memory of that love? Or did she starve for the lack of it?’
‘You’re such a cynic, Rachael. It’s just a film.’
The train finally slowed and, brakes screeching, we pulled into Santa Lucia station.
We floated in a bubble for those two days in Venice. You and I.
In Piazza San Marco, Napoleon’s great drawing room, you photographed everything and everyone; the stately colonnade; the terracotta Campanile tipped with a verdigris tower; the glittering mosaics and gilded bronze horses of St Mark’s basilica; musicians in dinner jackets serenading lunchtime customers at the tables of Florian and Quadri; pigeons, in their hundreds, swooping and nose-diving around tourists clutching packets of bird seed.
We wandered from Piazza San Marco, through the maze of passages in the Mercerie, through Campo Santo Stefano and up onto the wooden Accademia bridge which, like a meccano construction, straddles the Grand Canal. Below us, liquorice black gondolas, polished as patent leather, gleamed on the greenish water, their boughs, tipped with silver ferri, flashing like swords in the sunshine. They rocked and bobbed against candy-striped mooring posts as vaporetti and motoscafi ploughed gentle furrows through the water. We watched them veer from one side of the canal to the other, disgorging passengers onto the vaporetto pontoons before plying past San Salute, the majestic sentry church at the yawning mouth of the Grand Canal, and out into the Bacino.
After crossing the bridge we turned left, past a cosy neighbourhood café, noisy with chatter and the gush of steaming coffee machines and a row of shops selling coloured glass, hand-printed paper, and Venetian velvet slippers in rich gemstone colours. The narrow calle eventually opened onto a wide fondamenta alongside a canal, bordered by a walled garden overflowing with cascades of early white geraniums and magnolia blossom.
‘I recognise this! This is where Jane meets the little beggar boy.’
‘Jane? The beggar boy?’ you were mystified.
‘This is not just another film. It’s my absolute favourite. It’s David Lean’s homage to Venice.’
‘Perhaps we’ll watch it together sometime.’ You laughed and kissed me.
I wondered how on earth that could ever be possible. Like Jane and Renato, our romance was destined to be an idyllic, but very short-lived one. We had spent every hour possible together since Rome. But I was already dreading the moment when we would finally be separated. It was simply unbearable to imagine.
‘Come over here,’ you sat on the bridge. Holding out your arms to me you looped your Olympus Trip over my neck. ‘Have a go,’ you said. ‘Take a photograph.’
I’d never held a 35mm camera before. On the bridge at Campiello Barbaro I took my first picture: of you.