Our final short story for National Short Story Week is 'Volare', from our September CITIES issue.
I sit on the edge of the canal, touch the little mirror and flash a beam of sunshine onto the closed shutters of the old palace on the other side. Lapping water liquefying the crumbling stone, the slime-line of weed, the howl of decay and pirouette of mortality – Venice, a forest of gilded stone supported by dreams. I study the picture of the Virgin Mary on the back of the mirror. A white veil, a faded, red heart on her blue shift, she’s holding up a finger. A warning perhaps.
It’s a peaceful alley, dark except for this shaft of sunshine. I glimpse, in the distance through the ravine of old buildings, Isola di San Michele, the cemetery island. I flash the mirror into the gap but it dissolves into the glare of the sun. And then, blood orange accordion music bounces between the buildings and a cavalcade of gondolas sweeps past, bumper to bumper, laden with American tourists. The musician squeezes his accordion while the last gondolier sings ‘Volare’. I kiss the red heart.
I met Lilia in Giardini. She was sitting on a rock, smoking in the shade of a plane tree outside the British pavilion. Her skinny, curved back turned as if she knew she was being watched and her nipples showed like pinpoints through the thin grey t-shirt. A rim of a girl, a ragged edge of a lettuce leaf. I was handing out pamphlets for the show, sending people clockwise round the exhibition. When a man in a leather hat sat on the steps of the French pavilion, she slung an old canvas bag over her shoulder, climbed our steps and threw her fag on the ground.
“Welcome to the British pavilion. Would you like an information sheet?” It’s the spiel.
“They say you have tea.” Her accent was strong but probably better than my Italian and she had small, crooked teeth, top and bottom.
“Tea? At the back.” I gestured the clockwise direction.
“You want to show me?” Her eyes shifted from side to side, over my shoulder, out the door so I wondered if she meant me and looked behind. But she didn’t move.
“Delighted,” I said.
She glared at me and pushed past.
“No I mean it. Could do with a cuppa. This heat.”
She sat by the window and I fetched the teas and biscuits.
“I’m Tom,” I said. “What’s your name?”
She put all the biscuits on her saucer and hunched over like she hadn’t eaten in ages. She flicked her cigarette lighter on and off, just like her eyes. Her hair was a brown stew of curls, a bit greasy, jeans, dirty plimsolls, trodden down at the backs, too small and her fingernails were bitten back to the skin. But all that means nothing here. With artists you can’t tell success by appearance. I went back to work and didn’t see her leave but when we closed at six, there she was by the gate, arms folded, curved like a reed. She stood up when she saw me.
“I thought maybe I’d come with you,” she said.
In Venice, it’s different to London. You can turn a lettuce into party, masks and all, anything can happen, a puff of smoke becomes a palace. So I didn’t run a mile. I just smiled and carried on walking at my pace.
“You like that I come with you, I think.”
I shrugged. “I don’t have plans.”
She threaded her arm into mine. “I like you,” she said. “You’re a calm sea, far out, deep like the Atlantic not the lagoon. Deep is safe, you know that?”
“Thanks.” I sniggered, nerves, a bloody weir more like but it was probably meant as a compliment.
“And I’m the canal.”
Sour water gleaming, always shifting, causing havoc.
“Volare, oh oh,” I sang. “What would Venice be without the canals?”
“Cantare, uh,uh oh oh,” She sang back. “Now you are the gondolier earning big money.” We laughed. “Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più.”
“I painted my hands and my face blue, then suddenly I was ravished by the wind and started to fly in the infinite sky.”
She bared her crooked teeth at me and handed me a peach from her bag and bit into another so juice dribbled down her chin and I saw more than lettuce - clouds on a mattress, a feast of seashells, pan-fried diamond forget-me-nots. She wiped the juice with the shoulder of her t-shirt.
We walked along the broad stone promenade. Launches were moored at the quayside, a few tourists ambled lethargically, a man tugged his dog. Across the other side of the water, in the distance, you could see the Campanile and Basilica San Marco with its vast hoards of people cramming the square, barely space to breathe.
“Too busy,” I said. “I don’t ever go there.”
She spat her peach stone so it hit the launch and tumbled like lottery numbers into the gutter. A crewmember yelled. She spouted an aerosol of sparks and the guy wafted his hand at us.
“In Piazza San Marco, I’m a cat in a fire,” she said.
“Like I said, too busy.”
I led us my usual route home, crossing the bridge at Arsenale, winding through the narrow streets until we arrived at the square with the bar where I usually stop off.
We sat in the shade in front of a group of tourists who asked me to take their picture with a fancy Nikon SLR, and when the beers came she drank straight from the bottle draining half.
A funeral boat drew up; modern, grey with a remote control trolley. Three guys in baseball caps wheeled the coffin across the cobbles. Lilia lit a cigarette and curled her lip as she watched. I took a photo with my phone as the coffin swivelled with a hum of electronics and sank into the bowels of the boat.
“Death in Venice,” I laughed.
“Now we are even allowed to spread our ashes on the lagoon or keep them on our mantelpieces.” She shook her head. “Since Napoleon, the dead must leave Venice. They create an unhealthy atmosphere.” She blew a stream of smoke and laughed. “But we see the gates of cimitero across the lagoon. Reminding us Death is waiting, eh? But no rest, we exhume our bones after twelve years and line the ossiary. I come from doges and cardinals. All my family is in San Michele. My family ruled Venice and we walked the bridge of sighs with our heads held high.”
“I heard Byron invented that.”
“You English.” She spat a strand of tobacco from her lip. “You think you know everything.”
“Now? What’s the matter with you? I tell you this so you know you are meeting a real Venetian. Now is not important. Is history.” She lit a cigarette. Eyes binking. I’ve never seen anyone more alone than Lilia.
When I was paying the waiter, I saw her hold up the little mirror and examine her face.
“I won’t be a moment.” She picked up her bag.
I guessed she’d left, but minutes later there was a kerfuffle as she knocked into the tourist’s table and spilt their drinks.
The vaporetto was crammed; rush hour. Lilia’s nipples pressed against me, she smelled of salt and cigarettes. I thought of touching the dark hairs on her arm but her face was a fumble of frowns and then I glimpsed Leather Hat halfway down the stairs.
At Fondamenta Nuove I barged through the passengers going on to the islands. I found Lilia looking in the window of a flower shop selling funerary wreaths. She turned to face San Michele a couple of hundred metres away.
“Spooky place,” I laughed.
“Home.” Her eyes spat a spark at me.
“I sleep there. In the foreigners’ cimitero. Is more private.”
I couldn’t tell if she was lying.
We walked down the narrow alley into the seclusion of Campo dei Gesuiti. She splashed her face and arms at the pump and gathered a few figs that had dropped onto the street from a garden tree.
A cat sidled along the wall and turned along the canal. Water slapped against stone, tongues teasing the sun and an elderly woman tied her topo, with a dark red sail and gleaming varnish, to the steps that led from the canal to her house.
“That’s my place.” I pointed to the shuttered palace. An arched cargo door gaped like a scream.
“The top window.” A gull landed on the terracotta roof tiles.
“Bloody gulls,” she said and pointed her finger and shot it.
We crossed the narrow bridge, into the labyrinth, turned into a passage barely broad enough for two people to pass. She leant into the shadows until I’d unlocked the door, heaved it open and pressed the light.
“You coming in?”
With a glance over her shoulder she darted inside.
“Smells like a convent,” she said, checking out the wrought iron staircase, the marble floor, a kid’s scooter propped against the wall. Before locking up, I glimpsed the brim of a leather hat in the shadows of the corner to the next passageway.
My place was at the top, above the palace, a 1950s add-on.
We climbed the four flights, the stairs narrowed at the top. I unlocked the next door. “Come in.”
I heard footsteps on the stairs like the snap of spaghetti but Lilia was peering into the bedroom, bathroom, the tiny kitchen.
On the terrace, she opened the door to the workshop and stepped in. I never let people in there, but with Lilia it didn’t matter. She walked amongst the draping muslin fluttering in the breeze pressing against the features of the plaster heads suspended from the rafters.
“I’ve been working with shrouds.”
“You heard of the shroud-eater? They found her on Lazzaretto Nuovo, with a brick jammed in her mouth so she would starve to death. You don’t know?”
“The shroud-eater eats its way through the shroud then its own flesh.” She shivered. “It’s an old story.”
That night we cooked the figs with tomatoes and pasta and Lila squashed peaches in a bowl of sugar and mixed it with half a bottle of Prosecco I had in the fridge.
“Bellini? You like? You taste the marble of Istria like in cimitero.”
“A real Venetian cocktail.”
She looked in the little mirror, rubbing her teeth with her finger, turned it and kissed it before slipping it in the back pocket of her jeans.
She dressed in one of my shrouds when we went to bed and scratched my legs with her toenails and all I could hear in my head was the blood orange accordion, the snap of dry spaghetti and then the sound of the peach stone tumbling in the gutter like lottery balls where she’d spat.
It was around two am that flashing blue lights turned the room into a massacre of discord. Her bones tensed in my arms. Without a glance at me, she slipped from the bed onto the balcony and the last I saw of her were her feet as she dived. I waited for the smash, the scream, the splash, but nothing, white space.
Inside the bag I found the Nikon from the bar, a passport, a couple of wallets and three other cameras. The little mirror was on the table in the kitchen.
I took the hoard to the police, just said I’d found it lying around. They asked if I knew anything about a stolen topo.
I flash a sunbeam with the little mirror, wait for a response from cimitero and flash again. The vaporetti leave the Fondamenta Nuove pontoon as I scan San Michele, with its thin brick walls tipped with marble and cypress trees. Seafood risotto drifts on the breeze. I’ll wrap her in deep waters if I can. Someone hums ‘Volare’.
Amanda Oosthuizen is from Hampshire, UK, and loves to travel, especially to cities. Her work has won prizes and been shortlisted in various contests, and is published in all kinds of places, including King’s Cross Station. Take a look at www.amandaoosthuizen.com.