The passion, p.9

The Passion, page 9


The Passion

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  Then we were gone.

  We walked for a night and a day without stopping. Our legs assumed an ungainly rhythm and we were afraid to stop in case our lungs or our legs buckled under us. We didn’t talk, we wrapped our noses and mouths as tightly as we could and let our eyes poke out like slits. There was no fresh snow. The hard ground rang at our heels.

  I remembered a woman with her baby, her heels sparking the cobbles.

  ‘Happy New Year, soldier.’

  Why do all happy memories feel like yesterday though years have passed?

  We were heading in the direction we had come, using the charred villages as gruesome signposts, but our progress was slow and we were afraid to stick directly to the roads for fear of Russian troops or some of our own army, greedy and desperate. Mutineers, or traitors as they were more usually called, found no leniency and were given no opportunity to make their excuses. We camped where we could find some natural shelter and huddled together for warmth. I wanted to touch her, but her body was covered all over and my hands were gloved.

  On the seventh night, coming out of the forest, we found a hut full of primitive muskets, a dump for the Russian troops we supposed, but there was no one. We were weary and took our chance in there, using dregs of gunpowder from the barrels to light a fire. It was the first night we had had enough shelter to take off our boots and Patrick and I were soon stretching our toes at the blaze, risking permanent damage to our feet.

  Our companion loosed her laces but kept her boots on, and seeing my surprise at forgoing this unexpected luxury said, ‘My father was a boatman. Boatmen do not take off their boots.’ We were silent, either out of respect for her customs or sheer exhaustion, but it was she who offered to tell us her story if we chose to listen.

  ‘A fire and a tale,’ said Patrick. ‘Now all we need is a drop of something hot,’ and he fathomed from the bottom of his unfathomable pockets another stoppered jar of evil spirit.

  This was her story.

  I have always been a gambler. It’s a skill that comes naturally to me like thieving and loving. What I didn’t know by instinct I picked up from working the Casino, from watching others play and learning what it is that people value and therefore what it is they will risk. I learned how to put a challenge in such a way as to make it irresistible. We gamble with the hope of winning, but it’s the thought of what we might lose that excites us.

  How you play is a temperamental thing; cards, dice, dominoes, jacks, such preferences are frills merely. All gamblers sweat. I come from the city of chances, where everything is possible but where everything has a price. In this city great fortunes are won and lost overnight. It has always been so. Ships that carry silk and spices sink, the servant betrays the master, the secret is out and the bell tolls another accidental death. But penniless adventurers have always been welcome here too, they are good luck and very often their good luck rubs off on themselves. Some who come on foot leave on horseback and others who trumpeted their estate beg on the Rialto. It has always been so.

  The astute gambler always keeps something back, something to play with another time; a pocket watch, a hunting dog. But the Devil’s gambler keeps back something precious, something to gamble with only once in a lifetime. Behind the secret panel he keeps it, the valuable, fabulous thing that no one suspects he has.

  I knew a man like that; not a drunkard sniffing after every wager nor an addict stripping the clothes off his back rather than go home. A thoughtful man who they say had trade with gold and death. He lost heavily, as gamblers do; he won surprisingly, as gamblers do, but he never showed much emotion, never led me to suspect that much important was at stake. A hobbyist, I thought, dismissing him. You see, I like passion, I like to be among the desperate.

  I was wrong to dismiss him. He was waiting for the wager that would seduce him into risking what he valued. He was a true gambler, he was prepared to risk the valuable, fabulous thing but not for a dog or a cock or the casual dice.

  On a quiet evening, when the tables were half empty and the domino sets lay in their boxes, he was there, wandering, fluttering, drinking and flirting.

  I was bored.

  Then a man came into the room, not one of our regulars, not one any of us knew, and after a few half-hearted games of chance he spied this figure and engaged him in conversation. They talked for upwards of half an hour and so intently that we thought they must be old friends and lost our curiosity in the assumption of habit. But the rich man with his strangely bowed companion by his side asked leave to make an announcement, a most remarkable wager, and we cleared the central floor and let him speak.

  It seemed that his companion, this stranger, had come from the wastes of the Levant, where exotic lizards breed and all is unusual. In his country, no man bothered with paltry fortunes at the gaming table, they played for higher stakes.

  A life.

  The wager was a life. The winner should take the life of the loser in whatsoever way he chose. However slowly he chose, with whatever instruments he chose. What was certain was that only one life would be spared.

  Our rich friend was clearly excited. His eyes looked past the faces and tables of the gaming room into a space we could not inhabit; into the space of pain and loss. What could it matter to him that he might lose fortunes?

  He had fortunes to lose.

  What could it matter to him that he might lose mistresses?

  There are women enough.

  What would it matter to him that he might lose his life?

  He had one life. He cherished it.

  There were those that night who begged him not to go on with it, who saw a sinister aspect in this unknown old man, who were perhaps afraid of being made the same offer and of refusing.

  What you risk reveals what you value.

  These were the terms.

  A game of three.

  The first, the roulette, where only fate is queen.

  The second, the cards, where skill has some part.

  The third, the dominoes, where skill is paramount and chance is there in disguise.

  Will she wear your colours?

  This is the city of disguises.

  The terms were agreed and strictly supervised. The winner was two out of three or in the event of some onlooker crying Nay! a tie, chosen at random, by the manager of the Casino.

  The terms seemed fair. More than fair in this cheating world, but there were still some who felt uneasy about the unknown man, unassuming and unthreatening as he seemed.

  If the Devil plays dice, will he come like this?

  Will he come so quietly and whisper in our ear?

  If he came as an angel of light, we should be immediately on our guard.

  The word was given: Play on.

  We drank throughout the first game, watching the red and black spin under our hands, watching the bright streak of metal dally with one number, then another, innocent of win or lose. At first it seemed as though our rich friend must win, but at the last moment the ball sprang out of its slot and spun again with that dwindling sickening sound that marks the last possible change.

  The wheel came to rest.

  It was the stranger whom fortune loved.

  There was a moment’s silence, we expected some sign, some worry on one part, some satisfaction on another, but with faces of wax, the two men got up and walked to the optimistic baize. The cards. No man knows what they may hold. A man must trust his hand.

  Swift dealing. These were accustomed to the game.

  They played for perhaps an hour and we drank. Drank to keep our lips wet, our lips that dried every time a card fell and the stranger seemed doomed to victory. There was an odd sense in the room that the stranger must not win, that for all our sakes he must lose. We willed our rich friend to weld his wits with his luck and he did.

  At the cards, he won and they were even.

  The two men met each other’s gaze for a moment before they seated themselves in front of the dominoes and in each face was something of the
other. Our rich friend had assumed a more calculating expression, while his challenger’s face was more thoughtful, less wolfish than before.

  It was clear from the start that they were evenly matched at this game too. They played deftly, judging the gaps and the numbers, making lightning calculations, baffling each other. We had stopped drinking. There was neither sound nor movement save the clicking of the dominoes on the marble table.

  It was past midnight. I heard the water lapping at the stones below. I heard my saliva in my throat. I heard the dominoes clicking on the marble table.

  There were no dominoes left. No gaps.

  The stranger had won.

  The two men stood up simultaneously, shook hands. Then the rich man placed his hands on the marble, and we saw they were shaking. Fine comfortable hands that were shaking. The stranger noticed and with a little smile suggested they complete the terms of their wager.

  None of us spoke up, none of us tried to stop him. Did we want it to happen? Did we hope that one life might substitute for many?

  I do not know our motives, I only know that we were silent.

  This was the death: dismemberment piece by piece beginning with the hands.

  The rich man nodded almost imperceptibly and, bowing to us, left in the company of the stranger. We heard nothing more, never saw either of them again, but one day, months later, when we had comforted ourselves that it was a joke, that they had parted at the corner, out of sight, given each other a fright, nothing more, we received a pair of hands, manicured and quite white, mounted on green baize in a glass case. Between the finger and thumb of the left was a roulette ball and between the finger and thumb of the right, a domino.

  The manager hung the case on the wall and there it hangs today.

  I have said that behind the secret panel lies a valuable, fabulous thing. We are not always conscious of it, not always aware of what it is we hide from prying eyes or that those prying eyes may sometimes be our own.

  There was a night, eight years ago, when a hand that took me by surprise slid the secret panel and showed me what it was I kept to myself.

  My heart is a reliable organ, how could it be my heart? My everyday, work-hard heart that laughed at life and gave nothing away. I have seen dolls from the east that fold in one upon the other, the one concealing the other and so I know that the heart may conceal itself.

  It was a game of chance I entered into and my heart was the wager. Such games can only be played once.

  Such games are better not played at all.

  It was a woman I loved and you will admit that is not the usual thing. I knew her for only five months. We had nine nights together and I never saw her again. You will admit that is not the usual thing.

  I have always preferred the cards to the dice so it should have come as no surprise to me to have drawn a wild card.

  The Queen of spades.

  She lived simply and elegantly and her husband was sometimes called away to examine a new rarity (he dealt in books and maps); he was called away soon after we met. For nine days and nights we stayed in her house, never opening the door, never looking out of the window.

  We were naked and not ashamed.

  And we were happy.

  On the ninth day I was left alone for a while because she had certain household affairs to attend to before her husband’s return. On that day the rain splashed against the windows and filled up the canals below, churning the rubbish that lies under the surface, the rubbish that feeds the rats and the exiles in their dark mazes. It was early in the New Year. She had told me she loved me. I never doubted her word because I could feel how true it was. When she touched me I knew I was loved and with a passion I had not felt before. Not in another and not in myself.

  Love is a fashion these days and in this fashionable city we know how to make light of love and how to keep our hearts at bay. I thought of myself as a civilised woman and I found I was a savage. When I thought of losing her I wanted to drown both of us in some lonely place rather than feel myself a beast that has no friend.

  On the ninth night we ate and drank as usual alone in the house, the servants dismissed. She liked to cook omelettes with herbs and these we ate with hot radishes she had got from a merchant. Occasionally our conversation faltered and I saw tomorrow in her eyes. Tomorrow when we would part and resume our life of strange meetings in unfamiliar quarters. There was a café we usually went to, full of students from Padua and artists seeking inspiration. She was not known there. Her friends could not find her out. Thus we had met and met too in hours that did not belong to us, until this gift of nine nights.

  I did not meet her sadness; it was too heavy.

  There is no sense in loving someone you can never wake up to except by chance.

  The gambler is led on in the hope of a win, thrilled with the fear of losing and when he wins he believes his luck is there, that he will win again.

  If nine nights were possible why not ten?

  So it goes and the weeks pass waiting for the tenth night, waiting to win again and all the time losing bit by bit that valuable fabulous thing that cannot be replaced.

  Her husband dealt only in what was unique, he never bought a treasure someone else might have.

  Would he buy my heart then and give it to her?

  I had already wagered it for nine nights. In the morning when I left I did not say I would not see her again. I simply made no arrangement. She did not press me to do so, she had often said that as she got older she took what she could of life but expected little.

  Then I was gone.

  Every time I was tempted to go to her I went to the Casino instead and watched some fool humiliating himself at the tables. I could gamble on another night, reduce myself a little more, but after the tenth night would come the eleventh and the twelfth and so on into the silent space that is the pain of never having enough. The silent space full of starving children. She loved her husband.

  I decided to marry.

  There was a man who had wanted me for some time, a man I had refused, cursed. A man I despised. A rich man with fat fingers. He liked me to dress as a boy. I like to dress as a boy now and then. We had that in common.

  He came to the Casino every night, playing for high stakes but not gambling with anything too precious. He was no fool. He clasped me with his terrible hands, with fingertips that had the feel of boils bursting, and asked me if I’d changed my mind about his offer. We could travel the world he said. Just the three of us. Him, me and my codpiece.

  The city I come from is a changeable city. It is not always the same size. Streets appear and disappear overnight, new waterways force themselves over dry land. There are days when you cannot walk from one end to the other, so far is the journey, and there are days when a stroll will take you round your kingdom like a tin-pot Prince.

  I had begun to feel that this city contained only two people who sensed each other and never met. Whenever I went out I hoped and dreaded to see the other. In the faces of strangers I saw one face and in the mirror I saw my own.

  The world.

  The world is surely wide enough to walk without fear.

  We were married without ceremony and set off straight away to France, to Spain, to Constantinople even. He was as good as his word in that respect and I drank my coffee in a different place each month.

  There was, in a certain city where the climate was fine, a young Jewish man who loved to drink his coffee at the pavement cafés and watch the world go by. He saw sailors and travellers and women with swans in their hair and all manner of fanciful distractions.

  One day he saw a young woman flying past, her clothes flying out behind her.

  She was beautiful and because he knew that beauty makes us good he asked her to stop awhile and share his coffee.

  ‘I’m running away,’ she said.

  ‘Who are you running away from?’


  But she agreed to sit awhile because she was lonely.

  His name
was Salvadore.

  They talked about the mountain ranges and the opera. They talked about animals with metal coats that can swim the length of a river without coming up for air. They talked about the valuable, fabulous thing that everyone has and keeps a secret. ‘Here,’ said Salvadore, ‘look at this,’ and he took out a box enamelled on the outside and softly lined on the inside and on the inside was his heart.

  ‘Give me yours in exchange.’

  But she couldn’t because she was not travelling with her heart, it was beating in another place.

  She thanked the young man and went back to her husband, whose hands crept over her body like crabs.

  And the young man thought often of a beautiful woman on that sunny day when the wind had pushed out her earrings like fins.

  We travelled for two years, then I stole his watch and what money he had on him and left him. I dressed as a boy to escape detection, and while he snored off his red wine and most of a goose I lost myself in the dark that has always been a friend.

  I got odd jobs on ships and in grand houses, learned to speak five languages and did not see that city of destiny for another three years, then I caught a ship home on a whim and because I wanted my heart back. I should have known better than to risk my luck in the shrinking city. He soon found me out and his fury at being robbed and abandoned had not abated, even though he was living with another woman by then.

  A friend of his, a sophisticated man, suggested a little wager for the two of us, a way of solving our differences. We were to play cards and if I won, I should have my freedom to come and go as I pleased and enough money to do so. If I lost, my husband should do with me as he pleased, though he was not to molest or murder me.

  What choice had I?

  At the time, I thought I played badly, but I later discovered by chance that the pack was fixed, that the wager had been fixed from the start. As I told you, my husband is no fool.

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