Extract from LILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS
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VENICE: August, 1966
It is extraordinarily difficult to establish Venetian facts.
As the train rattled onto the causeway with a klaxon roar, Lillian caught her first glimpse in thirty-one years of the spires and domes of Venice shimmering in the midsummer haze above the electric blue lagoon. Most of the buildings on the landward side were utilitarian – warehouses and multi-storey car-parks – but this was still unmistakably a city that floated on the sea, the mere notion of which was exotic to someone whose feet had always been firmly planted on the ground. Lillian felt the return of something she had forgotten from her honeymoon all those years ago: the spell that Italy could cast over a foreigner – a spell which had called like a summons to Andrew, the ‘Prodigal Son’ she was here to track down.
With another klaxon belch from its diesel engine the train began to slow, no longer overtaking cars and buses on the adjacent road bridge. When Lillian and George came here on their honeymoon in 1935 the train had been drawn by a steam engine which whooped and whistled. Its elegant wagons-lits were very nearly as romantic as the Orient Express (‘We can’t afford that,’ said George, lumberjack turned builder). Lillian, the property developer’s widow, could now afford the Orient Express but it had stopped running in 1962. Today’s train had ordinary carriages and modern sleeping cars that were about as romantic as a camper van. And Lillian was alone in her stiflingly hot First-Class sleeper – a widow since last year, her children and grandchildren scattered to the winds.
Shuddering to a stop inside the terminus station, the train was greeted by a cacophony of over-amplified announcements on the public-address system and the shouts of porters and people waiting to meet the new arrivals. The last of the horde that had boarded in Milan with much noise and huge quantities of baggage now poured onto the platform. Lillian and her fellow First-Class travellers disembarked more soberly.
A porter, guessing that she was English, addressed her as ‘Lady’ in the voice of a taxi-driver in a New York movie. Lillian gave him the name of her hotel which she had been told was only a short walk from the station.
‘Listen, lady,’ the porter began in a confidential but worldly tone, leaning on his barrow, ‘I make you da proposition. Porter not s’posed to go after da front of da stazione, but for one t’ousand lire I take you and dis cases to your ’otel. Okay?’
A currency that dealt in thousands was intimidating. Mistaking Lillian’s hesitation for haggling, he gave a shrug born of long experience. ‘Okay, lady. Seven ’undred fifty. Is ’alf of one pound in your money. Okay?’
‘Thank you very much,’ Lillian said. ‘That will be fine.’ She hoped there wouldn’t be an embarrassing scene when they arrived at her hotel and he tripled his fee. Members of her golf club who’d travelled in Italy recently had cautioned her against the natives – rogues, they claimed, to the last man and even child.
She followed him into the main hall of the station and out to the steps leading down to the canal-side. Across the canal was a church of stained white marble with a green dome topped by a cupola with a statue above it. Fifty yards away a slim balustraded bridge, crowded with pedestrians, spanned the canal. The sunlit water was a dull shade of green, visibly dirty and more than a bit smelly. Nevertheless, with motor-launches and vaporettos and gondolas plying busily up and down, it was breathtaking. This was Venice’s High Street: the Grand Canal.
The porter bumped his trolley down the steps and off to the left, into a narrow street flanked by bars and glassware shops and crammed with idling tourists. Shouting a way through the throng, the porter pushed his trolley on to the entrance to a hotel. Lillian gave him 1,000 lire out of the money Bob Sadler had provided her with and made it plain that she expected no change. The porter bowed low. ‘You are a fine lady,’ he said. Lillian smiled.
A hotel porter came out to fetch her bags and, once the formalities of registration were completed, escorted her to her room on the second floor. It was agreeably cool but gloomy with the shutters drawn. She’d booked a double room – single rooms tended to be tiny and cramped. The décor was Empire style: flock wallpaper, velvet curtains and bedspread, huge mahogany wardrobes and chests-of-drawers. Lillian hoped that a 500-lire tip was sufficient for this porter’s labours. As soon as he left, she opened the shutters. One window gave onto a small piazza, the other directly onto the canal.
This stretch of the Grand Canal, from the railway station bridge up to the first bend, boasted no notable palaces, but Lillian was nonetheless delighted. The buildings were old and faded and in varying stages of decay; some had terraces and roof gardens; two almost directly opposite had blue-and-white mooring poles beside their landing stages; all bore marks from the ravages of water at their base. Vaporettos threshed the water as they pulled into and out of the station stop. Gondoliers exchanged shouted conversation as they passed one another.
It was noisy, it was decidedly smelly: it was Venice!
And her son was here. Maybe less than a mile away.
Her heart raced at the thought of seeing him. Tomorrow.
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By the time she had unpacked and showered and changed into a skirt and blouse, it was early evening. Looking out of the window at intervals Lillian savoured the colour of deepening twilight on the faded walls of the houses and the murky waters of the canal.
Hungry from missing lunch (the dining car had been removed from the train at Brig, the last station before the Simplon tunnel), she dined on minestrone soup and a veal cutlet, served with a salad but no potatoes. Where was Andrew dining, she wondered, and who was he with? She thought of trying his telephone number again; Continental Directory Enquiries had found it for her last month; then it had taken the operator more than three hours to discover that the number was ‘out of service’: this, he’d informed her, could mean that the phone was unpaid or not working or even disconnected.
It would be best to just go to his address tomorrow, as planned. Back in her room she took out the piece of paper Bob Sadler had given her on the day she’d announced her decision to go to Italy and find her son. She didn’t need to look at it – it was burned into her memory – but it provided a link between the day of her decision and today, the eve of its realisation.
‘Well, I think you’d be mad to go gallivanting off to Italy,’ said Amy, never one to mince her words. Lillian had to resist the urge to throw one of the new cushions. Having said her piece Amy, who was strong on flouncing, flounced to the kitchen. Water was soon heard to flow, although Lillian had said to leave the tea things for her cleaning lady tomorrow.
Bob moved round the settee and seated himself at its other end, vigilant of the creases his wife had remorselessly pressed into his charcoal-grey suit.
‘Lillian,’ he began and her spirits sank at the solemnity of his tone, ‘you know the disappointments Amy and I have had from our – how shall I describe them? – our feckless children. She wouldn’t like to hear me say it, but I’ve come to regard them as lost to us.’ He paused before adding bluntly, crushingly: ‘Isn’t Andrew lost to you?’
Lillian had spent years defending her son against criticism from his father and, latterly, his sister. She was not going to be crushed by Robert Sadler. She shook her head. ‘I can’t accept that,’ she said. ‘I know he’s a – “rolling stone”, he’s been drifting further and further from Hastings since he left school, but I won’t think of him as lost. I’ve lost George. Sylvia’s as good as lost, she’s so far away. Andrew’s all I’ve got left, now.’
‘Have you still got him?’ Bob persisted callously. ‘He’s never invited you to Italy.’
Lillian twisted a white handkerchief in the lap of the black linen dress she’d worn to two other funerals since her husband’s last year: an 80-year-old woman from her bridge club and a 68-year-old former mayor whose widow took her grief on a Caribbean cruise and came back engaged to a fellow passenger. Today they had cremated the previous manager of Bob Sadler’s bank.
‘All the more reason for me to go and look for him,’ Lillian said.
He sighed, conceding the point. ‘Have you given any thought to how you’ll go about it?’
‘His letter last year came from Milan. There must be a British consulate, where he’d have to register as an alien. That’s probably the best place to start.’
‘Go to Venice,’ Bob told her.
Lillian shook her head. ‘I don’t think he’s still in Venice. That’s where his first card came from, but the other cards and the letter all came from different places.’
‘He’s in Venice,’ Bob said. He fished inside his jacket for his wallet and took out a slip of paper which he unfolded and passed to her. Squinting to decipher the three short handwritten lines without her reading glasses, Lillian read:
Andrew Rutherford Interiors
San Marco 253
Somewhere, Lillian thought, in the loft perhaps, she might still have Robert Sadler’s earnest declarations of love in that small cramped bank clerk’s script which had not changed in thirty-three years. Her hand shook.
‘How long have you had this?’
‘Since October. American Express in Venice telexed it to us after I put your solicitor in touch with our overseas branch in London when he was probating George’s will.’
‘But you didn’t think to give me his address before today?’ She no longer wanted to throw things, she wanted to lay into him with her fists. She could not recall ever feeling so angry or so betrayed.
He met her gaze levelly. ‘I discussed it with the solicitor and we both felt that it should be left to Andrew to contact you. Which he did. Lillian, if he’d wanted you to be able to stay in touch with him he’d have given you his address himself.’
Lillian felt that if she didn’t move she would strike him. She rose and walked to the window. The garden was dry. It hadn’t rained since a shower at the weekend. A clatter from the kitchen indicated that Amy was hard at work.
Lillian looked across at Bob on the sofa – thinning grey hair over a pale narrow face that always reminded her of Leslie Howard: handsome but – weak. ‘I shall never forgive you for this,’ she said and had the satisfaction of seeing a hurt expression on his face. She crossed to the sofa, slipped her feet back into her black court shoes and walked through the conservatory to find the watering can.
Andrew was not lost. And if he was, she would find him.
With a feeling of nervous anticipation Lillian walked onto the landing stage and joined the queue for tickets. At nine-fifteen the sun was already high; it was going to be another searing hot day although the canal lent a sense of coolness. The vaporetto was packed with tourists who jabbered in many languages. As they rounded the first bend and some of the finer palaces came into view, Lillian felt a pang of nostalgia for George. Except for the fact of being in a boat on the Grand Canal, nothing struck a chord in her memory. Perhaps thirty-one years was long enough to forget anything. And yet she could still recall the excitement of exploring this beautiful city with her new husband; and she remembered trivial details, like his awful flannelette pyjamas which she had insisted on replacing with a pair in silk paisley from a street market stall. George had floundered at first, a builder out of his depth in this city built on water, but he’d soon taken charge, waving his arms and raising his voice as if ebullience alone would make these bloody foreigners understand him. If only he was with her now. She was here to find Andrew but without George it was she who was lost.
The loud voice of an American behind her interrupted her thoughts. He was reading to his wife the guidebook description of the Ca’ d’Oro as the vaporetto pulled in at another landing stage; this palace with its three elaborate loggias was clearly exceptional. People took pictures of each other against the marble-pillared backdrop. She would be in some of these photographs: what would they make of her, a middle-aged Englishwoman (would they guess that she was British?) in a pleated brown skirt, yellow blouse, beige cardigan, low-heeled shoes, holding firmly on to a leatherette handbag (Bob Sadler had warned her not to carry luxury accessories or wear jewellery other than her wedding ring)? Did she look like them, another tourist? Did she look like a mother on a vital quest?
The Rialto bridge, as the boat rounded the next bend, was familiar as much from films and paintings as from Lillian’s honeymoon; she didn’t recognise the plain wooden bridge beside the Accademia. After another stop on the left close by the Gritti Palace Hotel, the vaporetto crossed the canal, now much wider, and stopped below the octagonal white marble church of (the American was still reading to his wife) Santa Maria della Salute. Ahead of the boat the golden sphere on top of the customs house glowed in the sunlight. Now, as they re-crossed to the San Marco stop in front of Harry’s Bar, the great vista of St Mark’s Basin opened up: the Giudecca, the island of San Giorgio, the broad glistening waters of the lagoon.
As she rose to join the other disembarking passengers Lillian’s gardener’s eye noted boxes of geraniums and hanging creepers on the trellis above a mooring station for gondolas. The gondolas danced on the turbulence of the sunlit green water. She followed a gaggle of tourists along the tree-lined promenade to the square beside the Doge’s Palace and on into the Piazza San Marco itself. There was a faded photograph in one of Lillian’s albums of George and herself sitting in at an outdoor café where, she remembered, a small orchestra had played music in the Palm Court style.
Ignoring the architectural splendours, the babble of the sightseers, the whirr of pigeons’ wings and surging memories of her honeymoon, Lillian applied herself to finding number 253. She shivered at the thought that she must now be within a hundred yards of Andrew, her handsome, talented and – what was the word Bob Sadler had used to describe his children? – feckless son.
The corner shop under the colonnade nearest the base of the bell-tower was No. 40, the first of many glassware dealers. Lillian crossed the piazza, walking along the shadow of the bell-tower to be out of the sun. The last shop on this side was No. 145. Facing it, across the narrow street that began under the clock-tower of the two bronze Moors, was a bar: Nos. 301 and 302. Beyond the bar was an alleyway and then Thomas Cook’s whose doorway confusingly bore the numbers 289-305. She had thought how well Andrew Rutherford Interiors must be doing to operate from premises in St Mark’s Square; now it looked as if his business was hidden down a side street.
She investigated the street of shops behind the clock-tower. On her left the numbers rose towards 200; on her right they descended promisingly in the direction of 250. No. 258 sold umbrellas and leather goods. 257 was another glassware shop. 256, on a corner, was a menswear boutique. Beyond an alleyway – still more glassware: No. 231.
Although the sun was not directly overhead and the street was pleasantly cool, the narrow thoroughfare induced a feeling of claustrophobia, of suffocation. She turned into the alley beside the menswear boutique. A similar but less smart-looking shop next door was No. 255. Lillian’s pulse quickened: nearly there! Beyond the second menswear shop a tunnel-like passage led to a small courtyard where a patch of sunshine high-lighted the shabbiness of the buildings. Beyond this passage – a camera shop: No. 236.
Another dozen steps brought her into a tiny misshapen square dominated by the grimy black side-wall of a church. A souvenir shop on Lillian’s left as she entered the square was No. 234. On the far side of the square a pharmacy bore the disheartening number 606.
The whole system was beginning to appear a huge conspiracy to keep Lillian from finding her son. Retracing her steps, she ventured into the short tunnel between the camera shop and the men’s outfitters. As she came into the scruffy lozenge-shaped courtyard she found instantly on her right a badly varnished door in a featureless five-storey wall that bore the number 253 and, below two other nameplates, a small black square with white Gothic script which read:
This ugly building in a squalid courtyard was far below the expectations generated by the piece of paper Bob Sadler had given Lillian. Was this Andrew’s office or his home? Whichever, it was the place she had set out to find.
Forty-eight hours ago she had left Hastings in the Sadlers’ Austin Princess, heading for Dover and the start of her quest to be reunited with her son. On the ferry to Calais and on the long train journey to Paris, through the Alps and on to Milan and, finally, Venice, she had endlessly rehearsed this moment:
‘Hello, Andrew. Long time no see!’
‘I just happened to be passing…’
‘Can you advise me about redecorating my lounge?’
As well as these and other bantering openings she had also imagined simply falling into his arms. She had not rehearsed – hadn’t dared to – his response. Now that she was actually outside his front door, she felt tense and apprehensive. She took a deep breath and pressed the bell beside his nameplate. It rang on what sounded like the second floor, but after several minutes and two more pressings no one came.
A red-and-green plaque next to the top bell advertised the Touring Club Italiano. Lillian tried this but again obtained no response. The middle plaque, brass, was engraved with two names, one an ‘Avv.’, the other a ‘Dott. Proc.’ Whatever they meant, ringing their bells also yielded nothing.
An open doorway adjacent, No. 252A, proved to be the rear entrance to the umbrella and leatherware shop in the main thoroughfare. A young woman caught Lillian’s eye and beckoned her into the shop.
‘Do you speak English?’ Lillian began hesitantly.
‘Yes, signora, but only when you are speaking slowly.’
‘I am looking for Mr Rutherford.’
‘Ruth-er-ford. In the house next to your shop.’
‘Ah, sì, Signor Rutterfort! He is not here since many weeks. His working make him often to go away. You are wanting him to work for you, in the house?’
‘I’m his mother,’ Lillian said. ‘From England.’
‘His mother,’ the girl repeated solemnly. ‘You did go to his house?’
Lillian gestured at the ceiling. ‘He doesn’t live here?’
Struggling for words and with much gesticulating of her chubby hands, the girl launched into an explanation. Another assistant, an older woman, dealt with the customers who came into the shop.
The building next door was Andrew’s office. His partner or employee (‘the man which work with him’), a Signor Marini, came to the office once or twice a week. There was a part-time secretary but, August being the holiday month, she too was away.
The girl was not sure where Andrew was living. He’d lived in Venice when he first came to the city but had subsequently moved to Murano where Mr Marini had a house. Murano, Lillian knew, was where Venice’s famous glass was produced. Since Mr Marini had married earlier this year, the girl was sure that ‘Signor Rutterfort’ must be living somewhere else, but she didn’t know where. Plainly she found it odd that Lillian did not know her own son’s address.
‘You have look in telephone book?’ she suggested and when Lillian said that she’d only been given the number for 253 San Marco which had been out-of-order for the last four weeks, the girl made another gesture with her hands dismissing the Italian telephone system. Leafing through the directory she turned it round with her finger against Rutherford Andrew, Interior Designer, S. Marco 253 and the number Lillian had tried a dozen times from Hastings. Strange to think that for – how many? – of the last four years, while she worried about where he was and how he was, he’d been a mundane entry in the Venice phone book, had she only known where to look. Next the girl thumbed through the M’s and held the book open while Lillian copied out Mr Marini’s address and telephone number – it was in a place called Burano, not Murano. The girl offered the use of the shop’s phone, and Lillian, weighing the advantage of an interpreter against the embarrassment of speaking to Andrew’s unknown business associate in front of a witness, said, ‘This is all very kind of you.’
The girl dialled the number and greeted whoever answered with a torrent of Italian, still gesticulating with her free hand. Passing the telephone to Lillian, she said, ‘Is la signora Marini. Meesees Marini. She speak English.’
‘Mrs Marini?’ Lillian said into the telephone.
‘Mrs Rutherford?’ A female voice of indeterminate age.
‘I’m – Andrew’s mother,’ Lillian explained hesitantly.
‘I know that,’ the voice said in effortless English, sounding both sharper and younger. ‘The girl said you’re calling from San Marco, but shouldn’t you be in Hastings?’
In spite of her anxiety Lillian laughed. ‘Well, wherever I should or shouldn’t be, I’m in Venice.’
‘Goodness me,’ Mrs Marini said, sounding exaggeratedly English. ‘Did Andrew know you were coming?’
‘I was rather hoping to surprise him,’ Lillian said, aware that this must sound preposterous. There was a pause at the other end of the line and then the woman said, ‘Oh dear, this is very difficult. I have no idea where Andrew is right now. My husband’s not here today, but I doubt if he knows any more than I do.’ Except for a slight foreign accent she was sounding more English with every sentence. ‘If only you’d written first or sent a telegram –’
‘I tried telephoning,’ Lillian said, ‘but the line’s been out of order for a month.’
After another pause Mrs Marini said, ‘I think I’d better speak to my husband. He’s in Ravenna at the moment.’
‘But you said your husband doesn’t know where my son is either.’
‘No, but – after you’ve come all this way, the least we can do is to try and find out.’
‘Nothing’s wrong, is there?’ Lillian asked anxiously. ‘Andrew is all right?’
The other woman gave a short bitter laugh. ‘Oh yes, he’s all right. Nothing much has gone wrong for Andrew since the day he set foot in Italy.’
Not knowing how to respond to this acrimonious remark, Lillian said nothing.
‘Well, anyway,’ Mrs Marini went on, ‘I’ll try to get hold of my husband and call you back later, if I may. It probably won’t be until this evening, since there isn’t a telephone in the house they’re converting. Will it be convenient if I call you between seven and eight?’
Lillian assured her that it would and gave her the name of the hotel and her room number.
‘You have my sympathy, Mrs Rutherford. I know what it’s like to feel cut off from your family,’ the woman said, unexpectedly, just before she hung up.
Lillian took out her purse to pay for the call, but the girl pushed the money away. Wondering if she ought to make some unnecessary purchase, Lillian settled for thanking her profusely. The girl ushered her to the front entrance, shook her hand and sent greetings to Signor Marini and Signor ‘Rutterfort’.
Almost in a daze, Lillian walked back to the clock-tower and into the Piazza San Marco. The sun in the square was now fierce. She decided to take coffee while she collected her thoughts. The outside tables at Quadri’s, where she and George had been photographed thirty-one years ago, were unshaded except for those in the arcade which were all taken. Lillian crossed to Florian’s on the opposite side, where there was shade over most of the outside tables. A quartet, strongly featuring an accordionist, was playing ‘As Time Goes By’.
Sipping a coffee which was too frothy for her taste and came with a bill more appropriate to a three-course dinner, Lillian felt alienated from the noise and bustle of the square, almost disoriented.
Mrs Marini had a rather jaundiced attitude towards her husband’s partner or employer or whatever the arrangement was. And where, in God’s name, was Andrew? Why would he go away without telling his associate where he was going? It was all very mysterious, very worrying.
The shop assistant knew more of Andrew’s life in Venice than his mother. His business attracted customers from Ravenna, wherever that was, and elsewhere. He’d had at least three homes since Lillian last saw him. He had failed to put down roots even in this most majestic of cities. Sussex, London, Venice – Andrew would always be a ‘rolling stone’. In the four years since Lillian had last seen him he had not gathered any moss.
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