The passion, p.5

The Passion, page 5


The Passion

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  The Queen of Heaven looked down.

  When we had put aside our stained prayer books that only some of us could read we took communion with clean hearts, and Patrick, who had clipped his moustache, whipped to the end of the queue and managed to receive the host twice.

  ‘Double the blessing,’ he whispered to me.

  I had not intended to take communion at all, but my longing for strong arms and certainty and the quiet holiness around me forced me to my feet and down the aisle where strangers met my eyes as though I had been their son. Kneeling, with the incense making me light-headed and the slow repetition of the priest calming my banging heart, I thought again about a life with God, thought of my mother, who would now be kneeling too, far away and cupping her hands for her portion of the Kingdom. In my village, each house would be empty and silent but the barn would be full. Full of honest people who had no church making a church out of themselves. Their flesh and blood.

  The patient cattle sleep.

  I took the wafer on my tongue and it burned my tongue. The wine tasted of dead men, 2,000 dead men. In the face of the priest I saw dead men accusing me. I saw tents sodden at dawn. I saw women with blue breasts. I gripped the chalice, though I could feel the priest try and take it from me.

  I gripped the chalice.

  When the priest gently curled away my fingers I saw the imprint of the silver on each palm. Were these my stigmata then? Would I bleed for every death and living death? If a soldier did, there would be no soldiers left. We would go under the hill with the goblins. We would marry the mermaids. We would never leave our homes.

  I left Patrick at his second communion and went out into the freezing night. It was not yet twelve. No bells were ringing, no flares were lit, heralding a new year and praising God and the Emperor.

  This year is gone, I told myself. This year is slipping away and it will never return. Domino’s right, there’s only now. Forget it. Forget it. You can’t bring it back. You can’t bring them back.

  They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

  By forgetting. We cannot keep in mind too many things.

  There is only the present and nothing to remember.

  On the flagstones, still visible under a coating of ice, some child had scrawled a game of noughts and crosses in red tailor’s chalk. You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. It’s the playing that’s irresistible. Dicing from one year to the next with the things you love, what you risk reveals what you value. I sat down and scratching in the ice drew my own square of innocent noughts and angry crosses. Perhaps the Devil would partner me. Perhaps the Queen of Heaven. Napoleon, Joséphine. Does it matter whom you lose to, if you lose?

  From the church came the roar of the last hymn.

  Not heard as half-hearted hymns are heard on monotonous Sundays when the congregation would rather be in bed or with their sweethearts. This was no lukewarm appeal to an exacting God but love and confidence that hung in the rafters, pushed open the church door, forced the cold from the stone, forced the stones to cry out. The church vibrated.

  My soul doth magnify the Lord.

  What gave them this joy?

  What made cold and hungry people so sure that another year could only be better? Was it Him, Him on the throne? Their little Lord in his simple uniform?

  What does it matter? Why do I question what I see to be real?

  Down the street towards me comes a woman with wild hair, her boots making sparks orange against the ice. She’s laughing. She’s holding a baby very close. She comes straight to me.

  ‘Happy New Year, soldier.’

  Her baby is wide awake with clear blue eyes and curious fingers that move from buttons to nose to stretch at me. I wrap my arms around them both and we make a strange shape swaying slightly near the wall. The hymn is over and the moment of silence takes me by surprise.

  The baby burps.

  Then the flares go out across the Channel and a great cheer from our camp two miles away comes clearly to where we stand. The woman pulls away, kisses me and disappears with her sparking heels. Queen of Heaven, go with her.

  Here they come, with the Lord sewn in their hearts for another year. Arm in arm, huddled together, some running, some walking with long strides like wedding guests. The priest is at the door of the church, standing in a pool of light and beside him, the altar boys in their scarlet, shelter the holy candles from the wind. From across the street where I am standing I can see through the door, down the aisle and up to the altar. The church is empty now, except for Patrick, who is standing with his back to me right up against the altar rail. By the time he comes out, the bells are ringing crazily and at least a dozen women whom I’ve never met have thrown their arms around my neck and blessed me. Most of the men are in groups of five or six, still by the church, but the women are joining hands and making a great circle that blocks the road and fills the space from one side of the street to the other. They start to dance, going round and round faster and faster until my eyes are dizzy with keeping up with them. I don’t recognise their song but their voices are full.

  Sequester my heart.

  Wherever love is, I want to be, I will follow it as surely as the land-locked salmon finds the sea.

  ‘Drink this,’ said Patrick, pushing a bottle towards me. ‘You won’t taste the like again.’

  ‘Where did you get it?’ I smelled the cork, it was round and ripe and sensual.

  ‘From behind the altar. They always keep a good drop for themselves.’

  We walked the miles back to the camp, meeting a band of soldiers carrying one who’d thrown himself into the sea as a New Year gesture. He wasn’t dead, but he was too cold to speak. They were taking him to a brothel to get warm.

  Soldiers and women. That’s how the world is. Any other role is temporary. Any other role is a gesture.

  We slept in the kitchen tent that night as a concession to the unimaginable zero temperature. Unfeelable too. The body shuts down when it has too much to bear; goes its own way quietly inside, waiting for a better time, leaving you numb and half alive. With frosty bodies all about us, drunken men sleeping off another year, we finished the wine and the brandy and shoved our feet under the potato sacks, boots off, but nothing else. I listened to Patrick’s regular breathing choke into a snore. He was lost in his world of goblins and treasure, always sure that he would find treasure, even if it was only a bottle of claret from behind the altar. Perhaps the Queen of Heaven did care for him.

  I lay awake till the seagulls began to cry. It was New Year’s Day, 1805, and I was twenty.





  There is a city surrounded by water with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross. Miss your way, which is easy to do, and you may find yourself staring at a hundred eyes guarding a filthy palace of sacks and bones. Find your way, which is easy to do, and you may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune, depending on your face.

  This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you. Your confident instructions to passers-by will send them to squares they have never heard of, over canals not listed in the notes.

  Although wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead. No as the crow flies short cut will help you to reach the café just over the water. The short cuts are where the cats go, through the impossible gaps, round corners that seem to take you the opposite way. But here, in this mercurial city, it is required you do awake your faith.

  With faith, all things are possible.

  Rumour has it that the inhabitants of this city walk on water. That, more
bizarre still, their feet are webbed. Not all feet, but the feet of the boatmen whose trade is hereditary.

  This is the legend.

  When a boatman’s wife finds herself pregnant she waits until the moon is full and the night empty of idlers. Then she takes her husband’s boat and rows to a terrible island where the dead are buried. She leaves her boat with rosemary in the bows so that the limbless ones cannot return with her and hurries to the grave of the most recently dead in her family. She has brought her offerings: a flask of wine, a lock of hair from her husband and a silver coin. She must leave the offerings on the grave and beg for a clean heart if her child be a girl and boatman’s feet if her child be a boy. There is no time to lose. She must be home before dawn and the boat must be left for a day and a night covered in salt. In this way, the boatmen keep their secrets and their trade. No newcomer can compete. And no boatman will take off his boots, no matter how you bribe him. I have seen tourists throw diamonds to the fish, but I have never seen a boatman take off his boots.

  There was once a weak and foolish man whose wife cleaned the boat and sold the fish and brought up their children and went to the terrible island as she should when her yearly time was due. Their house was hot in summer and cold in winter and there was too little food and too many mouths. This boatman, ferrying a tourist from one church to another, happened to fall into conversation with the man and the man brought up the question of the webbed feet. At the same time he drew a purse of gold from his pocket and let it lie quietly in the bottom of the boat. Winter was approaching, the boatman was thin and he thought what harm could it do to unlace just one boot and let this visitor see what there was. The next morning, the boat was picked up by a couple of priests on their way to Mass. The tourist was babbling incoherently and pulling at his toes with his fingers. There was no boatman. They took the tourist to the madhouse, San Servelo, a quiet place that caters for the well-off and defective. For all I know, he’s still there.

  And the boatman?

  He was my father.

  I never knew him because I wasn’t born when he disappeared.

  A few weeks after my mother had been left with an empty boat she discovered she was pregnant. Although her future was uncertain and she wasn’t strictly speaking married to a boatman any more, she decided to go ahead with the gloomy ritual, and on the appropriate night she rowed her way silently across the lagoon. As she fastened the boat, an owl flew very low and caught her on the shoulder with its wing. She was not hurt but she cried out and stepped back and, as she did so, dropped the sprig of rosemary into the sea. For a moment she thought of returning straight away but, crossing herself, she hurried to her father’s grave and placed her offerings. She knew her husband should have been the one, but he had no grave. How like him, she thought, to be as absent in death as he was in life. Her deed done, she pushed off from the shore that even the crabs avoided and later covered the boat in so much salt that it sank.

  The Blessed Virgin must have protected her. Even before I was born she had married again. This time, a prosperous baker who could afford to take Sundays off.

  The hour of my birth coincided with an eclipse of the sun and my mother did her best to slow down her labour until it had passed. But I was as impatient then as I am now and I forced my head out while the midwife was downstairs heating some milk. A fine head with a crop of red hair and a pair of eyes that made up for the sun’s eclipse.

  A girl.

  It was an easy birth and the midwife held me upside down by the ankles until I bawled. But it was when they spread me out to dry that my mother fainted and the midwife felt forced to open another bottle of wine.

  My feet were webbed.

  There never was a girl whose feet were webbed in the entire history of the boatmen. My mother in her swoon had visions of rosemary and blamed herself for her carelessness. Or perhaps it was her carefree pleasure with the baker she should blame herself for? She hadn’t thought of my father since his boat had sunk. She hadn’t thought of him much while it was afloat. The midwife took out her knife with the thick blade and proposed to cut off the offending parts straight away. My mother weakly nodded, imagining I would feel no pain or that pain for a moment would be better than embarrassment for a lifetime. The midwife tried to make an incision in the translucent triangle between my first two toes but her knife sprang from the skin leaving no mark. She tried again and again in between all the toes on each foot. She bent the point of the knife, but that was all.

  ‘It’s the Virgin’s will,’ she said at last, finishing the bottle. ‘There’s no knife can get through that.’

  My mother started to weep and wail and continued in this way until my stepfather came home. He was a man of the world and not easily put off by a pair of webbed feet.

  ‘No one will see so long as she wears shoes and when it comes to a husband, why it won’t be the feet he’ll be interested in.’

  This comforted my mother somewhat and we passed the next eighteen years in a normal family way.

  Since Bonaparte captured our city of mazes in 1797, we’ve more or less abandoned ourselves to pleasure. What else is there to do when you’ve lived a proud and free life and suddenly you’re not proud and free any more? We became an enchanted island for the mad, the rich, the bored, the perverted. Our glory days were behind us but our excess was just beginning. That man demolished our churches on a whim and looted our treasures. That woman of his has jewels in her crown that come out of St Mark’s. But of all sorrows, he has our living horses cast by men who stretched their arms between the Devil and God and imprisoned life in a brazen form. He took them from the Basilica and has thrown them up in some readymade square in that tart of towns, Paris.

  There were four churches that I loved, which stood looking out across the lagoon to the quiet islands that lie about us. He tore them down to make a public garden. Why did we want a public garden? And if we had and if we had chosen it ourselves we would never have filled it with hundreds of pines laid out in regimental rows. They say Joséphine’s a botanist. Couldn’t she have found us something a little more exotic? I don’t hate the French. My father likes them. They’ve made his business thrive with their craving for foolish cakes.

  He gave me a French name too.

  Villanelle. It’s pretty enough.

  I don’t hate the French. I ignore them.

  When I was eighteen I started to work the Casino. There aren’t many jobs for a girl. I didn’t want to go into the bakery and grow old with red hands and forearms like thighs. I couldn’t be a dancer, for obvious reasons, and what I would have most liked to have done, worked the boats, was closed to me on account of my sex.

  I did take a boat out sometimes, rowing alone for hours up and down the canals and out into the lagoon. I learned the secret ways of boatmen, by watching and by instinct.

  If ever I saw a stern disappearing down a black, inhospitable-looking waterway, I followed it and discovered the city within the city that is the knowledge of a few. In this inner city are thieves and Jews and children with slant eyes who come from the eastern wastelands without father or mother. They roam in packs like the cats and the rats and they go after the same food. No one knows why they are here or on what sinister vessel they arrived. They seem to die at twelve or thirteen and yet they are always replaced. I’ve watched them take a knife to each other for a filthy pile of chicken.

  There are exiles too. Men and women driven out of their gleaming palaces that open so elegantly on to shining canals. Men and women who are officially dead according to the registers of Paris. They’re here, with the odd bit of gold plate stuffed in a bag as they fled. So long as the Jews will buy the plate and the plate holds out, they survive. When you see the floating corpses belly upwards, you know the gold is ended.

  One woman who kept a fleet of boats and a string of cats and dealt in spices lives here now, in the silent city. I cannot tell how old she may be, her hair is green with slime from the walls of the nook she lives in. She feeds on vegetable
matter that snags against the stones when the tide is sluggish. She has no teeth. She has no need of teeth. She still wears the curtains that she dragged from her drawing-room window as she left. One curtain she wraps round herself and the other she drapes over her shoulders like a cloak. She sleeps like this.

  I’ve spoken to her. When she hears a boat go by her head pokes out of her nook and she asks you what time of day it might be. Never what time it is; she’s too much of a philosopher for that. I saw her once, at evening, her ghoulish hair lit by a lamp she has. She was spreading pieces of rancid meat on a cloth. There were wine goblets beside her.

  ‘I’m having guests to dinner,’ she shouted, as I glided past on the other side. ‘would have invited you, but I don’t know your name.’

  ‘Villanelle,’ I shouted back.

  ‘You’re a Venetian, but you wear your name as a disguise. Beware the dice and games of chance.’

  She turned back to her cloth and, although we met again, she never used my name, nor gave any sign that she recognised me.

  I went to work in the Casino, raking dice and spreading cards and lifting wallets where I could. There was a cellarful of champagne drunk every night and a cruel dog kept hungry to deal with anyone who couldn’t pay. I dressed as a boy because that’s what the visitors liked to see. It was part of the game, trying to decide which sex was hidden behind tight breeches and extravagant face-paste . . .

  It was August. Bonaparte’s birthday and a hot night. We were due for a celebration ball in the Piazza San Marco, though what we Venetians had to celebrate was not clear. In keeping with our customs, the ball was to be fancy dress and the Casino was arranging outdoor gaming tables and booths of chance. Our city swarmed with French and Austrian pleasure-seekers, the usual bewildered stream of English and even a party of Russians intent on finding satisfaction. Satisfying our guests is what we do best. The price is high but the pleasure is exact.

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