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.
* * * * * * * *
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.
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‘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.
* * * * * * * *
Island of Giglio
Fabrizio yawned. Too much local wine, too much dope. Also he was bored. For the second day running they had sailed the fifty kilometres to the volcanic outcrop of Montecristo only to find the sea too choppy for snorkelling. Il frocio (he always thought of him as ‘the queer’) lacked the nerve to try scuba-diving and Fabrizio was wary of going down unaccompanied.
The Corsican girl had joined them for dinner again. Her mother had another headache. The girl was sure her mother was screwing one – or possibly all three – of her absent father’s crew. The liver in the purportedly best of Porto Giglio’s few restaurants had been indigestible, the red wine as heady as Marsala. The girl ate and drank with relish, prattling away to il frocio in French, a language in which Fabrizio was far from proficient.
Back on board his father’s yacht (half the length and a quarter of the draught of the Corsicans’) they drank more wine – and smoked. A moonlight swim failed to clear Fabrizio’s head. And the girl kneed him in the groin when he tried to fondle her breasts underwater, although he was certain she had been groping il frocio.
The lighthouse beam swept over the small harbour, briefly illuminating the girl sprawled on the padded banquette facing the cockpit. She was wearing Fabrizio’s robe. She wore it carelessly, exposing most of her over-large untanned breasts which were already beginning to sag. Her face was unmemorably pretty; the dyed blond hair, still wet, clung to her skull. Her eyes were closed but she was not asleep. A smile played at the corners of her mouth.
Reclining on a lounger inside the cockpit, il frocio was watching Fabrizio watch the girl, also with an amused expression. He too wore a towelling robe, drawn tightly across his chest with only his calves and feet exposed. Unlike the girl, who’d merely discarded her swimming costume in the aft cabin and put on the robe, il frocio had lingered in the forward cabin to dry and groom his hair. After the first joint and their swim he reverted to his usual mentholated English cigarettes, while Fabrizio and the Corsican girl rolled and smoked two more joints.
Sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the deck with his back against the gunwale, Fabrizio still wore his bathing trunks, a brief slip which barely contained a swelling erection. A few drops of water ran out of his hair and he shook his head. He felt a flare of anger that the girl seemed less interested in what he was putting on show than in that which il frocio modestly kept hidden.
Fabrizio rose unsteadily to his feet, crossed to the girl and tugged open the robe. Her eyes opened, she started to laugh and pushed him away with both hands. He clung to the robe and she rolled off the bench with the cushions still beneath her. Her head banged onto the deck and she shouted a curse as tears streamed from her eyes. The robe had fallen completely open. A thin neat scar crossed her belly: an appendectomy? A surgical abortion? The triangle of dark brown hair below the scar resembled damp moss.
Fabrizio fell on her and pawed at her breasts. She cursed him again and struggled. He put one hand over her mouth and with the other started to pull off his trunks, trapping the girl with his weight. He glanced up as the lighthouse beam passed over again. Il frocio still wore an amused expression. The sound of cats hissing and growling carried clearly across the water from the rocky hillside beyond the harbour.
The body beneath Fabrizio squirmed. After a last triumphant glare in the direction of the Englishman, he concentrated his attention on freeing himself from his trunks. His mouth slavered at the Corsican girl’s wobbling breasts with their wide flat nipples.
From his chair above the writhing pair Andrew Rutherford looked down and laughed.
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