The Passion, page 7
On an afternoon when the Casino didn’t want me and I didn’t want myself, I went to Florian’s to drink and gaze at the Square. It’s a fulfilling pastime.
I had been sitting perhaps an hour when I had the feeling of being watched. There was no one near me, but there was someone behind a screen a little way off. I let my mind retreat again. What did it matter? We are always watching or watched. The waiter came over to me with a packet in his hand.
I opened it. It was an earring. It was the pair.
And she stood before me and I realised I was dressed as I had been that night because I was waiting to work. My hand went to my lip.
‘You shaved it off,’ she said.
I smiled. I couldn’t speak.
She invited me to dine with her the following evening and I took her address and accepted.
In the Casino that night I tried to decide what to do. She thought I was a young man. I was not. Should I go to see her as myself and joke about the mistake and leave gracefully? My heart shrivelled at this thought. To lose her again so soon. And what was myself? Was this breeches and boots self any less real than my garters? What was it about me that interested her?
You play, you win. You play, you lose. You play.
I was careful to steal enough to buy a bottle of the best champagne.
Lovers are not at their best when it matters. Mouths dry up, palms sweat, conversation flags and all the time the heart is threatening to fly from the body once and for all. Lovers have been known to have heart attacks. Lovers drink too much from nervousness and cannot perform. They eat too little and faint during their fervently wished consummation. They do not stroke the favoured cat and their face-paint comes loose. This is not all. Whatever you have set store by, your dress, your dinner, your poetry, will go wrong.
Her house was gracious, standing on a quiet waterway, fashionable but not vulgar. The drawing-room, enormous with great windows at either end and a fireplace that would have suited an idle wolfhound. It was simply furnished; an oval table and a chaise-longue. A few Chinese ornaments that she liked to collect when the ships came through. She had also a strange assortment of dead insects mounted in cases on the wall. I had never seen such things before and wondered about this enthusiasm.
She stood close to me as she took me through the house, pointing out certain pictures and books. Her hand guided my elbow at the stairs and when we sat down to eat she did not arrange us formally but put me beside her, the bottle in between.
We talked about the opera and the theatre and the visitors and the weather and ourselves. I told her that my real father had been a boatman and she laughed and asked could it be true that we had webbed feet?
‘Of course,’ I said and she laughed the more at this joke.
We had eaten. The bottle was empty. She said she had married late in life, had not expected to marry at all being stubborn and of independent means. Her husband dealt in rare books and manuscripts from the east. Ancient maps that showed the lairs of griffins and the haunts of whales. Treasure maps that claimed to know the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. He was a quiet and cultured man of whom she was fond.
He was away.
We had eaten, the bottle was empty. There was nothing more that could be said without strain or repetition. I had been with her more than five hours already and it was time to leave. As we stood up and she moved to get something I stretched out my arm, that was all, and she turned back into my arms so that my hands were on her shoulder blades and hers along my spine. We stayed thus for a few moments until I had courage enough to kiss her neck very lightly. She did not pull away. I grew bolder and kissed her mouth, biting a little at the lower lip.
She kissed me.
‘I can’t make love to you,’ she said.
Relief and despair.
‘But I can kiss you.’
And so, from the first, we separated our pleasure. She lay on the rug and I lay at right angles to her so that only our lips might meet. Kissing in this way is the strangest of distractions. The greedy body that clamours for satisfaction is forced to content itself with a single sensation and, just as the blind hear more acutely and the deaf can feel the grass grow, so the mouth becomes the focus of love and all things pass through it and are re-defined. It is a sweet and precise torture.
When I left her house some time later, I did not set off straight away, but watched her moving from room to room extinguishing the lights. Upwards she went, closing the dark behind her until there was only one light left and that was her own. She said she often read into the small hours while her husband was away. Tonight she did not read. She paused briefly at the window and then the house was black.
What was she thinking?
What was she feeling?
I walked slowly through the silent squares and across the Rialto, where the mist was brooding above the water. The boats were covered and empty apart from the cats that make their homes under the seat boards. There was no one, not even the beggars who fold themselves and their rags into any doorway.
How is it that one day life is orderly and you are content, a little cynical perhaps but on the whole just so, and then without warning you find the solid floor is a trapdoor and you are now in another place whose geography is uncertain and whose customs are strange?
Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse.
I’m surprised at myself talking in this way. I’m young, the world is before me, there will be others. I feel my first streak of defiance since I met her. My first upsurge of self. I won’t see her again. I can go home, throw aside these clothes and move on. I can move out if I like. I’m sure the meat man can be persuaded to take me to Paris for a favour or two.
Passion, I spit on it.
I spat into the canal.
Then the moon came visible between the clouds, a full moon, and I thought of my mother rowing her way in faith to the terrible island.
The surface of the canal had the look of polished jet. I took off my boots slowly, pulling the laces loose and easing them free. Enfolded between each toe were my own moons. Pale and opaque. Unused. I had often played with them but I never thought they might be real. My mother wouldn’t even tell me if the rumours were real and I have no boating cousins. My brothers are gone away.
Could I walk on that water?
I faltered at the slippery steps leading into the dark. It was November, after all. I might die if I fell in. I tried balancing my foot on the surface and it dropped beneath into the cold nothingness.
Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?
I stepped out and in the morning they say a beggar was running round the Rialto talking about a young man who’d walked across the canal like it was solid.
I’m telling you stories. Trust me.
When we met again I had borrowed an officer’s uniform. Or, more precisely, stolen it.
This is what happened.
At the Casino, well after midnight, a soldier had approached me and suggested an unusual wager. If I could beat him at billiards he would make me a present of his purse. He held it up before me. It was round and nicely padded and there must be some of my father’s blood in me because I have never been able to resist a purse.
And if I lost? I was to make him a present of my purse. There was no mistaking his meaning.
We played, cheered on by a dozen bored gamblers and, to my surprise, the soldier played well. After a few hours at the Casino nobody plays anything well.
We went to his room and he was a man who liked his women face down, arms outstretched like the crucified
She greeted me like an old friend and asked me straight away about the uniform.
‘You’re not a soldier.’
‘It’s fancy dress.’
I began to feel like Sarpi, that Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone. Many times that evening as we ate and drank and played dice I prepared to explain. But my tongue thickened and my heart rose up in self-defence.
‘Feet,’ she said.
‘Let me stroke your feet.’
Sweet Madonna, not my feet.
‘I never take off my boots away from home. It’s a nervous habit.’
‘Then take off your shirt instead.’
Not my shirt, if I raised my shirt she’d find my breasts.
‘In this inhospitable weather it would not be wise. Everyone has catarrh. Think of the fog.’
I saw her eyes stray lower. Did she expect my desire to be obvious?
What could I allow; my knees?
Instead I leaned forward and began to kiss her neck. She buried my head in her hair and I became her creature. Her smell, my atmosphere, and later when I was alone I cursed my nostrils for breathing the everyday air and emptying my body of her.
As I was leaving she said, ‘My husband returns tomorrow.’
As I was leaving she said, ‘I don’t know when I will see you again.’
Does she do this often? Does she walk the streets, when her husband goes away, looking for someone like me? Everyone in Venice has their weakness and their vice. Perhaps not only in Venice. Does she invite them to supper and hold them with her eyes and explain, a little sadly, that she can’t make love? Perhaps this is her passion. Passion out of passion’s obstacles. And me? Every game threatens a wild card. The unpredictable, the out of control. Even with a steady hand and a crystal ball we couldn’t rule the world the way we wanted it. There are storms at sea and there are other storms inland. Only the convent windows look serenely out on both.
I went back to her house and banged on the door. She opened it a little. She looked surprised.
‘I’m a woman,’ I said, lifting up my shirt and risking the catarrh.
She smiled. ‘I know.’
I didn’t go home. I stayed.
The churches prepared for Christmas. Every Madonna was gilded and every Jesus re-painted. The priests took out their glorious golds and scarlets and the incense was especially sweet. I took to going to service twice a day to bask in the assurance of Our Lord. I’ve never had a conscience about basking. In summer I do it against the walls or I sit like the lizards of the Levant on top of our iron wells. I love the way wood holds heat, and if I can I take my boat and lie directly in the path of the sun for a day. My body loosens then, my mind floats away and I wonder if this is what holy men feel when they talk about their trances? I’ve seen holy men come from the eastern lands. We had an exhibit of them once to make up for the law prohibiting bull-baiting. Their bodies were loose but I have heard it’s to do with the food they eat.
Basking can’t be called holy, but if it achieves the same results will God mind? I don’t think so. In the Old Testament the end always justified the means. We understand that in Venice, being a pragmatic people.
The sun is gone now and I must do my basking in other ways. Church basking is taking what’s there and not paying for it Taking the comfort and joy and ignoring the rest Christmas but not Easter. I never bother with church at Easter. It’s too gloomy, and besides the sun’s out by then.
If I went to confession, what would I confess? That I cross-dress? So did Our Lord, so do the priests.
That I steal? So did Our Lord, so do the priests.
That I am in love?
The object of my love has gone away for Christmas. That’s what they do at this time of year. He and she. I thought I’d mind, but since the first few days, when my stomach and chest were full of stones, I’ve been happy. Relieved almost I’ve seen my old friends and walked by myself with almost the same sure-footedness that I used to. The relief comes from no more clandestine meetings. No more snatched hours. There was a particular week when she ate two breakfasts every day. One at home and one with me. One in the drawing-room and one in the Square. After that her lunches were a disaster.
She is much prone to going to the theatre, and because he does not enjoy the stage she goes alone. For a time she only saw one act of everything. In the interval she came to me.
Venice is full of urchins who will carry notes from one eager palm to another. In the hours we could not meet we sent messages of love and urgency. In the hours we could meet our passion was brief and fierce.
She dresses for me. I have never seen her in the same clothes twice.
Now, I am wholly given over to selfishness. I think about myself, I get up when I like, instead of at the crack of dawn just to watch her open the shutters. I flirt with waiters and gamblers and remember that I enjoy that. I sing to myself and I bask in churches. Is this freedom delicious because rare? Is any respite from love welcome because temporary? If she were gone for ever these days of mine would not be lit up. Is it because she will return that I take pleasure in being alone?
Hopeless heart that thrives on paradox; that longs for the beloved and is secretly relieved when the beloved is not there. That gnaws away at the night-time hours desperate for a sign and appears at breakfast so self-composed. That longs for certainty, fidelity, compassion, and plays roulette with anything precious.
Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness.
We gamble. Some do it at the gaming table, some do not.
You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.
The Holy child has been born. His mother is elevated. His father forgotten. The angels are singing in the choir stalls and God sits on the roof of each church and pours his blessing on to those below. What a wonder, joining yourself to God, pitting your wits against him, knowing that you win and lose simultaneously. Where else could you indulge without fear the exquisite masochism of the victim? Lie beneath his lances and close your eyes. Where else could you be so in control? Not in love, certainly.
His need for you is greater than your need for him because he knows the consequences of not possessing you, whereas you, who know nothing, can throw your cap in the air and live another day. You paddle in the water and he never crosses your mind, but he is busy recording the precise force of the flood around your ankles.
Bask in it. In spite of what the monks say, you can meet God without getting up early. You can meet God lounging in the pew. The hardship is a man-made device because man cannot exist without passion. Religion is somewhere between fear and sex. And God? Truly? In his own right, without our voices speaking for him? Obsessed I think, but not passionate.
In our dreams we sometimes struggle from the oceans of desire up Jacob’s ladder to that orderly place. Then human voices wake us and we drown.
On New Year’s Eve, a procession of boats alive with candles stretched down the Grand Canal. Rich and poor shared the same water and harboured the same dreams that next year, in its own way, would be better. My mother and father in their bakery best gave away loaves to the sick and the dispossessed. My father was drunk and had to be stopped from singing verses he had learnt in a French bordello.
Farther out, hidden away in the inner city, the exiles had their own observation. The dark canals were as dark as ever but a closer look revealed tattered satin on yellow bodies, the glint of a goblet from some subterranean hole. The slant-eyed children had stolen a goat and were solemnly slitting its throat when I rowed past. They stopped their red knives for a moment to watch me.
My philosopher friend was on her balcony. That is, a couple of crates fastened to the iron rings on either side of her nook. She was wearing something on her head, a circle, dark and heavy. I slid pas
‘Almost New Year.’
‘I know it. It smells.’
She went back to dipping her cup into the canal and taking deep swigs. Only when I had gone on did I realise that her crown was made out of rats tied in a circle by their tails.
I saw no Jews. Their business is their own tonight.
It was bitterly cold. No wind but the icy air that freezes the lungs and bites at the lips. My fingers were numb about the oars and I almost thought of tying up my boat and hurrying to join the crowd pushing into St Mark’s. But this was not a night for basking. Tonight the spirits of the dead are abroad speaking in tongues. Those who may listen will learn. She is at home tonight.
I rowed by her house, softly lit, and hoped to catch sight of her shadow, her arm, any sign. She was not visible, but I could imagine her seated, reading, a glass of wine by her side. Her husband would be in his study, poring over some new and fabulous treasure. The whereabouts of the Cross or the secret tunnels that lead to the centre of the earth where the fire dragons are.
I stopped by her water-gate, and climbing up the railing looked in through the window. She was alone. Not reading but staring at the palms of her hands. We had compared hands once, mine are very lined and hers, though they have been longer in this world, have the innocence of a child. What was she trying to see? Her future? Another year? Or was she trying to make sense of her past? To understand how the past had led to the present. Was she searching for the line of her desire for me?
I was about to tap on the window when her husband entered the room, startling her. He kissed her forehead and she smiled. I watched them together and saw more in a moment than I could have pondered in another year. They did not live in the fiery furnace she and I inhabited, but they had a calm and a way that put a knife to my heart.
I shivered with cold, suddenly realising that I was two storeys in mid-air. Even a lover is occasionally afraid.
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