The Unseen Sky
Journal entry: April 14 1817
Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me now. My family and my ancestors owe our lives to you, lives that stretch back many hundreds of years, years far beyond these dark times to days of glory and conquest in the name of Your Son. Therefore, why do I now doubt you? Why am I so empty inside, as if these years spent in the bosom of faith, in the sweet discipline of my formative years, have no merit or meaning?
This is a strange day for I am writing my first journal entry. I do not write easily, even though I have had a better education than many young women of my age, because I have always found it somewhat pointless to keep a daily record of a life spent in prayer and contemplation. However, today marks the beginning of my new life, my new determination to escape my present intolerable circumstances.
In two days it will be my birthday but I do not look forward to it. My mother and father have always protected me but now I feel imprisoned rather than nurtured. My father wishes me to be married to a nobleman who lives in the city; he is a man I scarcely know. I have told my father that he cannot be interested in a girl with a withered arm. My father however, growing fat on his ever increasing wealth, is enthusiastic; he sees no reason why he should not provide a suitable dowry, as he has done for my elder sisters. How I long for the old days in Ogni Santi, where within its confines and regulations, I found liberty and peace; where I felt a sense of belonging and where my disability was of no consequence. For those few short years I was truly happy, but those days, like my hopes, are now no more.
There is nothing left for me now but to escape from this city, from all the reminders that hide around every corner, that shelter in every face. The city of my youth is gone. Even though the buildings remain, they are like empty shells that will slowly crumble to dust. I do not belong here. Only time will tell where I truly belong but I feel that it will be many miles from here. Holy Mary, Mother of God, please help me. If you cannot, then I must trust upon fortune to decide my fate.
April 14 2008
I didn’t need to think twice about the invitation. Although I had visited Venice several times before, I had never had the chance to stay long enough to soak up the atmosphere of the place. An opportunity to stay for a month or so was just what I needed as I hadn’t had the chance to recharge my batteries after the trauma of my divorce a year ago; Kate and I had been together for nearly twenty five years and being alone was something that I was not adjusting to very well. Of course, I had known that the relationship had been failing for a while, and in a way I was glad that we had finally ended our mutual suffering. I was also glad that we had managed to part on good terms; to remain friends. However, there had been times over those past months when I wondered how, and if, I could keep it all together. My career as an artist had always been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but now that I couldn’t rely on the extra income that Kate had always brought in, I was beginning to think that I might actually be in free-fall.
Martin Hogg and I had been close friends for many years; he had been very supportive to me in my career, and more recently over my break-up with Kate. It wasn’t one-sided however. In the past I had been called upon to support him after his many and various romantic disasters. However, good fortune had placed him in the enviable position of now owning a Venetian property which he tended to use out of season when the ancient city was not overwhelmed by day trippers.
Marco Polo airport was bustling when I arrived and for a moment, I felt disorientated; the last time I had visited Venice, Kate had been with me, organising me; I wasn’t meant to be alone. Martin hadn’t changed at all since our last meeting, except for a slight greying around the temples. He greeted me warmly, giving me a hug that I found slightly embarrassing.
“I’m so glad that you decided to visit, Ed. To be honest, I’ve been worrying about you, knocking around in Norfolk on your own.” He took one of my bags. “Come on, the boat leaves in about ten minutes.”
He was in good spirits as we walked the short distance from the airport to the Alilaguna pick-up point, and he chatted about safe things, like the weather and my journey.
“The last time that Kate and I were here, we missed the boat because I needed the loo; we had to wait half an hour for the next one. She wasn’t very happy.” I put my case down and caught my breath, noticing that Martin was not going to be drawn in to reminiscing about Kate.
“Well, I have to say this is my favourite way to approach the Serenissima.” Martin smiled, a typical smile, as warm and bright as the sun spangling on the green Adriatic water and thoughts of Kate dissipated on the soft, warm breeze.
We didn’t say much as the sluggish boat carried us and the handful of passengers that had boarded with us across the Venetian lagoon towards Venice. The windows were open and the welcome breeze blew in our faces, along with the occasional splash of water from the passing speedboats as Venice’s young and rich churned up the water around us. An American tourist and his young family sat immediately in front us, loudly proclaiming the merits and sound bites of his favoured Republican candidate in the race for the White House, seemingly oblivious to the island of Murano’s evocative atmosphere as we passed through.
“Isn’t it funny how nothing is ever as big and grand as it is in America?” whispered Martin, winking as he caught my eye.
We stopped at several more places en route, most notably St Marks Square where all the other passengers, including our American friends, disembarked. The terracotta stone of the Doge’s palace looked down on us and in the distance the Campanile rose threateningly into the perfect blue sky, like a needle wishing to burst a balloon. The Americans, however, performed their parts perfectly and I smiled as I heard the predictable gasps of “Wow!” and “Look at that!”
“Aren’t we getting off here, Martin?” I asked as the boat’s noisy engine sprang into life again and powered us out once more into the choppy waters of the lagoon.
“No, we’re the last stop but it’s well worth waiting for. You know, when I first decided to take the plunge and buy a place out here, I didn’t know which area to choose. Obviously, everything is busy, very expensive, and frankly a little bit tacky around St Marks and the Rialto, so I figured those were the areas that were best to avoid. Eventually, after several visits, I homed in on the Dorsoduro district.”
“I’ve never been there. In fact I’m not even quite sure where it is.” I was starting to feel panicky again; I had thought that we were going to be near St Mark’s Square, an area I felt comfortable and safe in.
“Exactly my point. It really is extraordinarily quiet most of the time. It’s also very pretty and has all the character that you’d expect from Venice. You’ll find, once you get your bearings, that you’re also just a few minutes walk from the Rialto. It was Maria who pointed out the charms of the place. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d probably still be looking now.”
“It’s been ages since I’ve seen Maria, how is she? Is she here as well?” Memories of a gawky and very moody teenager surfaced and I hoped that she had improved with age.
“Oh, she’s fine. Although she very rarely gets home to Norfolk, she makes a point of coming here whenever she can. She adores this place as much, if not more than me. Whenever she’s here, off she goes, sketch book in hand, disappearing for hours at a time.” There was evident pride in Martin’s voice as he spoke of his daughter.
“I’m trying to remember the last time I saw her,” I said. “It must be over a year at least. I know that Kate and I were still together then – just. I remember worrying that she might have been ill, I recall her being painfully thin.”
“Yes, she was a bit thin then, wasn’t she?” Martin laughed as memories caught up with him too. “I have to admit that I was worried about her for a time because she just didn’t seem to eat and she wouldn’t talk to me; you know how teenagers can be. It was as if she had retreated into herself and I just didn’t know what to do or who to approach. I nearly asked you and Kate for advice.”
“Us? We didn’t even know how to speak to each other at that time. We wouldn’t have been any use at all.”
“Yes, I was aware that things were not as they should be, that was the reason that I decided to cope with Maria all on my own. And, even if I say it myself, I didn’t do a bad job at all.” Pride was once again shining from him. “By the way, see that over there? San Giorgio Maggiore – just beautiful. You really should have taken time out in your career to get to know Venice. There’s so much for an artist to be inspired by. Some of it is tacky, but not all of it, far from it.”
We continued in silence and I let the sound and the smell of the water enter my blood. I was so lulled by the gentle rippling of the water that I wasn’t even aware that we had stopped until Martin shook me. “
This is it, Eddie. The Zattere, my home in Venice.”
We clambered off onto the waterfront at the Zattere, a part of Venice that I had to confess I really didn’t know at all, or even knew existed. However, the buildings were wonderful, particularly the church with its imposing white columns directly in front of the get-off point. As usual, the architecture of Venice didn’t fail to amaze me. We walked a short distance past the church and were soon negotiating a narrow calle heading into the heart of the Dorsoduro district.
“Is it far?” I enquired, as we approached a bridge. It had been a long day and I was regretting that I had packed so much into my case.
“Not at all. Over the bridge and we’re there. Isn’t this just beautiful?”
On the bridge we passed an old lady dressed all in black; she was toothless, limping and mumbling something to herself in her own peculiar dialect. She might have been praying, or she might have been cursing the English for buying property and invading her town. Either way, as we passed, she stopped and turned to watch as I struggled with my case down the steps on the other side of the bridge. I stepped aside to avoid a bedraggled tabby cat who was eyeing me, menacingly, tail in the air; Martin was striding ahead of me. From behind me, I heard a guttural cry from the old lady and guessed that her attention had not been on me at all but had, in fact, been focussed upon the cat; perhaps she was ordering the feline to go home. Whether the cat did as it was told I never found out for I noticed that Martin was standing about thirty yards ahead of me, proudly leaning against the warm stone of a Venetian house.
“Home! If you look down there,” he pointed down the canal, “we’re actually not far from the only remaining gondola building-yard in Venice.”
He unlocked the door and stood aside to let me enter. “But more of that later. First things first – in you go.”
© copyright Milly Reynolds 2011