Menton, Florence Venice
Nell is at the Courtauld Institute, studying art history. Whenever her holidays allow it we travel, by train, abroad. This is so that she can study pictures in the galleries of Europe.
Sometimes we stop at other places along the way. At Menton we eat in a vine covered pergola on the side of a hill and I spend a morning among the cypresses searching for the grave of the artist Beardsley. I have a wreath of ivy in my hand that I have picked from another grave, and high above me Nell lies on a marble grave in her white shirt and jeans on the golden stone.
In the evening, as we dine in that same vine covered pergola, from the bottom of the valley there rises the sound of a chorus of frogs.
On the night train to Florence, we find it hard to sleep on the third class slatted seats and so lie down together, two jean-clad figures, on the murky floor of the train. I am awakened by someone kicking my foot and, looking up, I see the intrusive faces of a large number of people gathered above us, clustered round like cattle. ‘Non e possible’, says one, shaking his finger.
In Florence, looking out over the green water of the Arno, I sit by the window at the narrow end of a long whitewashed room. Opposite stand the stark grand forms of palazzi, solid, dark-stoned, and then, beyond, the hills. One of the palazzi has across its first floor balcony in huge letters a banner saying CALABRI. I sit at a simple square table and spend some of the time while Nell is looking at pictures working on a series of translations I am doing from Plato’s epigrams. I see a frail blue figure approaching me across one of the bridges on the Arno. It is Nell, bouncingly returned across the footbridge over the Arno to join me for lunch.
‘The Italian men are strange,’ she says. ‘They mutter things to me as I go past them, like ‘bonita’ or ‘bella’. Some try to touch me, which I don’t like, so I jump away. I saw a most lovely faun in the Ufizzi.’
Our lunch, shared at the square table I work at, is bread, butter, cheese, salad, and red wine. In the evening we eat in the small pensione dining room. You have to buy your own wine at this pensione, and so it is that when going in for meals, we stagger heavily laden with bottles of red wine, white wine, vermouth, and some sweet Communion wine. The other people sitting in the dining room look us over.
At the end of the meal we lurch out, leaving the other people in the dining-room still immersed in their munching, still eating. We can’t wait any longer.
We continue by train to Venice, where we stay in a pensione on the Zatere Jesuiti. Some days I hire a small varnished dinghy in which we bob among the narrow canals, to whose side mouldering brickwork almost collapses into the putrid depths, in which blue and green swirl amongst the grey of the effluent of drains.
Often we go in this little rowing boat in search of some distant ornate church. There we search out behind some musty gilt altar the strange shy gaze of a Madonna by Giovanni Bellini or in a distant sacristy a trompe l’œil ceiling by Tintoretto. Carpaccio too I grow to love, and
the Tintorettos in the Scuolo di San Rocco, the slow
strange endless procession of the Three Graces as they wind up the hill, and Christ standing, proud and alone at the top.
Bobbing out of a narrow canal we come in sight of the town’s cemetery on a small island, its long lines of dark poplars rising above it like waves, lit golden in the evening sun.
In the piazza of San Marco we mix with the scurrying figures beneath the porticos, marvelling at the dexterity of it all. Sitting at a café table I confide to Nell, ‘Before we left my father asked me; ‘Are you taking Nell with you to Venice?’ and I said ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘If I were her father I’d horsewhip you.’
From the three bands in the piazza comes music in the morning air, music that caresses this city from above as the waters do below, a sweet wild and corny music that seems to have been born of the fine bright spray that lives and dies and glitters in the teeth of the wind. The vaporetti lean into the current that teems fresh and cold from the lagoon on their journey up and down the grand canal. I ask Nell, ‘How often do we think of the squelch of the eels beneath us as they slip through their eight feet of mud interminably and never dream of all this beauty overhead?’
In this city without motor traffic there’s time to hear the music that comes from the churches, a lot of music, besides what comes from Campo San Marco, the church bells, sounds of choirs and organs from churches, mixing with the haggling cries of the sellers in the water market.
Boat born on the bouncy water we visit not only the centre of the city, the crowds, the bands, the churches, but also the outlying parts, the smaller places, the canals which go twisting along the bottom of narrow shafts whose floor is water, black, oily, sinisterly swelling.
We enjoy the many half forgotten little piazzettas with well heads in their centres. In some of these, whose names have long since crumbled from the wall on which they were carved, the well head too has crumbled, and spittle and orange peel mix with the dry dust of their stone surface.
I am sitting doing a drawing in a church. Some workers on scaffolding get into conversation with me and, seeing Nell approaching up the marble steps, one says;
‘Ecco, la prima vera! Quante e carina!’
Another asks; ‘Ha domita bene, carina?’
Another says, with studied casualness; ‘A fata l’amore hiera sera?’
‘Si,’ cries Nell happily. ‘I slept well, grazie.’
She says to me; ‘Have you finished your drawing? Shall we go on?’
‘Then where are you off to, signorina?’
‘I am going to the Church of the Frari.’
‘To meet another lover?’
‘No, oh no, this is my lover. It’s to look at the tombs.’
‘Oho, no pretty girl comes to Venice to look at the tombs. They come to catch their man. E piu, no girl ever leaves without a proposal.’
‘Is that so?’ asks Nell, wide eyed.
‘It is indeed. For there is a magic in the air that makes even the English into lovers. May I conduct you there signorina?’
‘To the Chiesa Degli Frari?’
‘I show you the city, the museums, the art galleries, the palazzi.’
‘No, thank you.’
Nell has sat down with her bare legs dangling over the canal. The man holds out his hand to her, to help her up, and as she rises exclaims; ‘Ho ho, Ti tengo io.’
But another of those standing around, fearful lest Nell might be offended, says; ‘Ecco, va bene.’ It is too late. Her foot has slipped on the seaweed step and Michaelangelo has taken care that she falls into his arms.
‘Grazie, grazie,’ cries Nell, trying to disentangle herself.
‘Grazie,’ she cries again. And at length is released from his beary hug.
Emilio says; ‘Alora, andiamo.’
Nodding in my direction, Michaelangelo asks Nell; ‘What nationality is he?’
Nell says; ‘Try and guess.’
‘Well ... Francese?’
‘From Norway then?’
‘No no no.’
‘He cannot be ...’
‘He cannot be English?’
‘But of course. Why do you look so surprised?’
‘It is incredible.’
‘Because he has the appearance of an able lover.’
‘It is a well known thing that the English do not make love.’
‘Is that true?’
‘But of course.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Oh, Emilio told me.’
‘How do you know, Emilio?’
‘Emilio! Wake up, the signorina wants to know how you know that Englishmen do not make love.’
‘Oh, everyone knows it, signorina. It’s on account of the fog.’
Nell lets her gaze rest on Emilio, as he swigs white wine down into his hot throat, and the wine disappears like a river going underground.
This subject appears to have now been exhausted and Nell asks; ‘What do you do, Emilio?’
‘I am gondolier, signorina. Emilio, gondolier. Everybody knows me. And why? I sprik to you in English. One two five four. Perque sono sempre molto bene campania. Sempre. It is well known.’
‘Have you noticed it?’
‘Oh yes, I know England well of course. I sprik it. One two four five, English numbers, nicht wahr? Ah, Inglese e una molto bella lingua.’
Michaelangelo chips in; ‘There you see, this is an intelligent man, this Emilio.’
‘Indeed,’ says Nell.
‘One two four five,’ repeats Emilio.
‘Nell asks; ‘Where did you learn to speak so well?’
‘Oho,’ says Emilio, offhand, ‘Sone stesso in Inghiliterra tre quadri mezzi ...’
‘You were in England?’
‘Si, si, I was a miner.’
‘And why did you leave England, did you not like it?’
‘I like it alright. But they sent all of us back, all Italians.’
‘Oh, naturally because they were seducing all the English women, that right Emilio?’
‘Oh yes, it is well known.’
‘The Englishmen didn’t like it.’
‘I quite appreciate that,’ says Nell. ‘How extraordinary ... but he, of course he’s quite different,’ she adds, indicating me with a gay toss of her golden tresses. ‘From the sort of Englishmen you’re talking about, I mean.’
‘Oh, naturally. That’s why I doubted his being English. I think ...’ He looks at me thoughtfully, ‘I think perhaps that of all that nation he is the one Englishman who would know how to make love. What do you say, Emilio?’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ says Emilio thoughtfully. He asks Nell, ‘Do you love him very much?’
‘Of course, I am affilianzata to him. But then, I love everybody.’
‘That’s because you are affilianzata. Then everything is always lovely. And he himself, he is a good man?’
‘Si, si,’ Nell agrees.
‘And a tough one?’
‘Yes, he is a tough one.’
‘Workmanlike, not flashy?’
‘Not effeminato, oh no, but largo, allargando non legato, and also, expressivo?’
‘Si, si, si.’
It is mid day and getting hot. Our words as we speak drift across the piazzetta, rubbing against the rough textured stones, rising past the balconies or washing or falling quietly into the water where they are silenced. Those that rise climb up the buildings around, flutter against the ancient masonry of the Pensione Secluso, linger in the white crevices of the church on whose roof Isiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah are raising their arms to heaven. On the rich swelling stones of the piazetta surface spittle, dust and orange peel bake in the sun.
Now a hardly perceptible murmur or hum is floating down from above. What is it? Oh yes, it is the midday prayer time of Beatrice Scapa, devotions which take the form of a repetitive muttering.
The men get back into a long boat and punt it away. Nell and I get into our dinghy and the boat bobs along the little canal in the direction of the Grand Canal.
We go back to the pensione for our siesta and after that I sit at the window as Nell wanders off into the dusk and away. She passes the zattere, where the girls caress their men by the warm lipped water, and the night bells ring. She passes the prison, and along its wall stalking the guard like the moving target in an amusement arcade. She passes the canals, sinister at the bottom of their man-made ravines.
She goes further, where the façades are fewer, and the canals are filled up with rubble. Along them tenements stand, unkempt and self-conscious like gate-crashers at a champagne party. The sky is ribboned with washing, the walls pastiched with slogans. Nell reaches a huge wall, within its midst a small door labelled ‘Zono molto privata.’ Three men in uniform with sten guns are leaning up against it. As she approaches they spring to the ready and cover her with their guns.
‘Attentione! Attentione! Zono molto privata! Vietato entrare!’
‘Perque?’ asks Nell.
‘Perque? Perque e molto privata, vietato entrare!’
Nell asks; ‘What have you got in there that you guard so carefully? Is it an atom bomb?’
‘It is of very great importance. It is the spaghetti for the army.’
On an especially turbulent night Nell is sitting bunched up in the stern of the boat as it tosses on the waters lit by the flashing lights from the palazzi. The water is dark and oily, I am resting on my oars a moment as the boat tosses, and etched on my memory still is the vision of Nell silhouetted against the tall beauty of many palazzi.
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