For Elena, Sebastiano and Vera
Dario, Vally, Federica, Emily and I stood at the great entrance to the Basilica of the Salute and realised that balloons were going to be a problem.
‘We should have thought of this,’ said Dario.
A young man in clerical garb stood at the entrance barring our way. He looked at us, and then down at Emily, happy and smiling with two enormous helium balloons floating above her head, one in the shape of the Amazing Spider-Man, the other in the shape of a motorcycle. His face bore the expression of one who is going to have to deliver bad news to a small child.
‘Signori -‘, he began, with a weak smile.
Dario interrupted him. ‘It’s the balloons, isn’t it?’ He turned to Vally. ‘I knew the balloons would be a problem.’ He turned back to the young man. ‘We’ll be very quick, I promise.’
‘Signori -‘, his smile grew ever more watery, ‘- I’m sorry but…’
‘Five minutes, that’s all.’ He looked at Vally. ‘That’s enough, right?’
I put my hand on his arm. ‘Dario, there’ll be people there wanting to pray. And I don’t know very much about that but I’m pretty sure having the Amazing Spider-Man floating in the air just in front of you isn’t going to help with getting into the right frame of mind.’ I stretched my hand out to Emily. ‘You go in, and just let me look after them, eh?’
‘You sure, vecio? Why you?’
‘Because I’m the least religious person here. And I’ve always wanted to be a balloon monitor.’
Emily passed them over to me, slowly, and with an expression on her face that suggested it would be the worse for me if the same number of balloons was not there upon her return.
Vally took her by the hand and led her inside. Fede smiled, touched my cheek, and followed her.
Dario frowned. ‘You sure this is okay?’
‘Dario, they’re balloons. What could go wrong?’
‘Okay, now I’m worried.’
I grinned. ‘Don’t be. Go on, have a good time. Sorry, wrong words. I mean, just go on in. Take all the time you need.’
A fine rain was starting to fall, and I leaned back into the shelter of the walls, trying not to look as if I was selling anything. I looked out at the procession of Venetians making their way across the votive bridge that stretched from the sestiere of San Marco across the Grand Canal to Dorsoduro.
At least we’d had a Festa della Salute this year. The previous one had been a dour affair shorn of almost everything that made it special. But this year some sort of normality had been restored. The temporary votive bridge was back, to the delight of all except the residents in the vicinity of Santa Maria del Giglio, who – as ever – found their vaporetto stop disappearing. The mercatino was back, and the air was rich with the smells of anything and everything that could be fried, doused in sugar or – ideally – both. Small children with enormous balloons were back, meaning that your space on the vaporetto would be shared with a menagerie of cartoon characters that I was far too old to be familiar with. I looked upwards. Except for Spidey, of course. At least I recognised him. And later that evening, we’d head out together to eat castradina, that hearty Venetian stew of smoked mutton and cabbage that really was better than it sounded.
Yes, close your eyes and take in the smells and the sounds and it could be any normal Festa della Salute. Open them again and, well, you saw the masks and the not-always-convincing attempts at social distancing and realised that it was no more than normal-ish. But Venice would settle for that, right now.
Vally, Dario, Emily and Fede emerged from the Salute, and smiled as they saw me trying to shelter from the rain with only Spider-Man to help me.
‘Good?’, I said.
Fede squeezed my free hand. ‘A bit strange. I always light a candle for papà but they’re not allowing us to do that this year.’
She shook her head. ‘No. We just give them a candle and they light it at some point in the future. It’s not quite the same, but it’s something.’
Normal-ish, then. And that would do for now.
Emily tugged at my other hand. I smiled down at her, and passed her the balloons. She stared up at Spider-Man, as if to be absolutely sure that he’d come to no harm whilst in my possession, and then smiled and skipped away after handing the strings of the motorcycle to Dario who looked a little embarrassed.
I grinned. ‘Wait a minute. That’s not Emily’s, is it? That’s yours.’
Vally laughed. ‘You’ve only just worked that out?’
‘Yes. I naively assumed the balloons were for the small girl. Was I wrong?’
Dario pretended to grumble, and looked down at his shoes. ‘Well, okay, yes. It’s mine. But that’s a Ducati 950. Good bike.’
‘Even in balloon form?’
‘Even in balloon form.’ He gave up trying to look serious. ‘Come on, I’m hungry. It’s raining and Nathan’s lost his superhero to keep the rain off. Let’s go and eat.’
Dario pushed his plate aside, and sighed happily.
‘Sure was.’ He tapped on the window, inclining his head towards Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. ‘The lights will be going on soon. Christmas is nearly here.’
‘It certainly is. Any plans?’
There was silence around the table for a moment, and I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing.
‘I mean, you’ll be heading off to Trieste, right? To see Vally’s mum and dad.’
Vally sighed. ‘Maybe. We’re not sure.’
‘But we can travel again now. In between regions, I mean.’
‘We can. At the moment. But what about in a month’s time? Who knows?’
‘I know. But we can hope for the best, eh?’
She shook her head. ‘No. We did that last year. Right up until the last week. And then we had to cancel. That made it worse for them.’ She nodded at Emily, and lowered her voice. ‘And for her. Having to tell her that we wouldn’t be seeing nonno and nonna on Christmas Day. So no, no plans this year. Maybe we’ll see them at New Year. If we’re allowed.’
‘Ah, that must be difficult. How are they?’
Vally looked down at the table. ‘It’s been tough for them. Being a long way from us. When I see them now, I just keep thinking that they look older, you know?’
I nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’ A thought struck me. ‘Look, why don’t you come around to ours?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course. Look, if you’re at home , you’ll be stressing out about not being with your mum and dad. And somebody will be having to cook as well. Whereas if you come round to ours I’ll do the cooking and you can just relax. Six will be just as easy as three.’
‘That’d be so nice.’ Vally reached across the table and hugged me. ‘Thank you.’ She looked down at Emily. ‘Christmas dinner with Uncle Nathan then, cara. Won’t that be fun?’
The little girl frowned slightly as if unconvinced.
‘Remember he’s got a cat,’ Vally added.
Emily brightened, and I winced inwardly. Vally looked over at Fede. ‘This is okay, isn’t it?’
Fede smiled. ‘It’ll be lovely. Mamma will be there as well. She’ll be so happy to see a proper family around the table. Be prepared for her to make a big fuss over Emily.’ She leaned over and kissed me. ‘Well done tesoro, you’re becoming quite the New Man.’
‘Wow. Have we reached the moment at which everybody hugs me and tells me what a great guy I am?’
‘We have.’ Dario stood up and pulled me half out of my chair, drawing the breath from my lungs and a plaintive little N’yeep from me. ‘Thanks man. We’ll look forward to it.’
‘It’s settled then. Fantastic. Oh, but you might want to bring a chair with you. Actually make that two chairs. We’ve only got four.’
Dario insisted on grappa at the end of the meal. To be honest, it didn’t take that much insisting, and we made our way happily and only slightly unsteadily homewards.
I’d been in a good mood upon leaving the restaurant, but started to fret during the walk home. Fede kept looking at me, knowing that something was up but not wanting to press me. She suggested a nightcap at the Brazilians but I wasn’t really in the mood and told her I’d rather have an early night.
She waited until I put the kitty biscuits down for Gramsci, and then gave me a gentle hug.
‘You’re thinking too much, tesoro.’
I gave a weak smile. ‘Is it that obvious?’
‘You hardly said a word on the way home and then you turned down a drink. Obviously, it’s serious. Come on. Tell me.’
I sighed. ‘I dunno. Things suddenly seem a bit complicated that’s all. So many things to go wrong.’
‘About Christmas? Come on, you’ve done a nice thing tonight. We’ll have a lovely time, all being together. And don’t worry about cooking. I’ll help. So will mamma.’
‘That’s just it. What if we can’t all be together? What if the rules change again? What if it’s like last year? Because if it is, I’ll…’
She put a finger to my lips. ‘Shush now. That’s four IFs. Let’s not worry about the IFs.’
‘I know, but I keep thinking…’
’Stop thinking then. This is Mr Grappa talking isn’t it? Come on now, there’s nothing we can do, whatever happens.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’
‘Of course I am. That’s my job. Now, would watching one of your horrible films cheer you up?’
I brightened. ‘Even Profondo Rosso?’
She did her best to keep the disappointment out of her voice and I loved her for it. ‘Again?’
‘We haven’t watched it since last Christmas.’
‘I’ll never understand why you think it’s a Christmas movie.’
‘It begins at Christmas.’
‘It begins with a stabbing at Christmas.’ She smiled. ‘Come on then. If this is what it takes.’
And so we curled up on the sofa together to watch a giallo from 1975 that even I had to admit was only tangentially related to the festive season. Gramsci’s ears twitched upon hearing the opening theme, and he slunk wearily under the sofa, safely out of reach of the terrible events unfolding on screen.
Fede was right. It did cheer me up. Nevertheless, the IFs were still there, nagging away insistently at the back of my head, and I found it difficult to fall asleep…
At first, I thought it was just cold and that Fede or Gramsci had managed to steal the bedclothes away from me. But then my back twinged and I wondered if I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, thinking that perhaps both of them had left me to my own devices whilst watching yet another terrible old film of no interest to either of them.
I opened my eyes.
No wonder I’d felt cold.
The pink and white marbled floor could have been from any number of churches in Venice but, nevertheless, seemed familiar to me. A red glow came from a candle placed on top of a simple altar, and moonlight streamed in through the windows illuminating a gilded, empty picture frame.
The Valier chapel, in the church of Madonna dell’Orto.
I yawned, scratched my head and stood up, and yelped with the shock of the cold floor against my bare feet.
‘You should put some shoes on, you know?’
I yelped again, and jumped backwards.
The speaker was sitting on the opposite side of the chapel. At first I took him for a priest, but then I realised that what I had mistaken for a clerical collar was just a white collarless shirt under a flowing black robe. His hair, reddish, shoulder-length and almost painfully unfashionable, was topped off with a black cap, and he stared back at me with some amusement in his eyes.
I shook my head, and screwed my eyes shut. I heard the sound of his gentle laughter echo around the chapel.
I counted to ten and then opened my eyes. He was still there. For that matter, I was still there. There was something about his face, something familiar…
The Valier chapel in the church of Madonna dell’Orto. From where a Madonna and Child painted by Giovanni Bellini, in the fifty-first year of his long life, had been stolen almost thirty years previously, leaving nothing behind but a gilded picture frame.
I sat back down again, happy to take my feet off the freezing cold marble. ‘You must really like Bellini to come and look at an empty picture frame in the middle of the night,’ I said.
‘I could say the same about you,’ he smiled. He got to his feet, and walked to the altar, stretching up to trace his fingers around the empty interior of the frame. ‘Beside, this was a good piece. I was quite proud of it, you know.’
He turned around to stare at me, and this time there was no mistaking the resemblance. The face of a man I’d last seen in an oil painting at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
’You?’, I said.
He smiled. ‘Of course. Hello Nathan.’
‘I have to say I wasn’t expecting this.’
‘Me neither. So what brings you here?’
‘Too much castradina and a grappa too many.’
He shook his head. ‘There must be more to it than that. Something’s on your mind. I can tell. We should go for a drink.’
‘At this time of night?’
‘I’ll find somewhere that’ll let us in. Most people know me.’
‘Well, if I’m just imagining this, why not make it Florian’s?’
He sucked his teeth. ‘That’s a little too expensive. Even in your imagination. Besides, it’s Sunday. Casanova’s always there, holding court. Just showing off, if you ask me. He’s a terrible old bore and I’ve heard all his stories before. How about Quadri?’
‘Excellent. Do you think they’ll let me in in pyjamas?’ A thought struck me. ‘That’s a point. I never wear pyjamas. What am I doing in pyjamas?’
He sighed. ‘Nathan, I’m a long-dead painter from five hundred years ago. What you choose to wear in your subconscious is up to you. Now come on.’
’So what are we drinking?’
‘I’ll have a small glass of red. It’s late, even for me. How about you?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe a Bellini would be appropriate?’
He grimaced. ‘I don’t think so. I gave decades of artistic service to this city. I’d hoped to be commemorated by something rather better than a fizzy drink.’
‘Oh. Okay then. I’ll have a small red as well.’
‘Two small reds it shall be. My treat.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course. Don’t worry I’ve had a tab here for nearly five hundred years. They’re not showing any signs of calling it in yet. So come on, Nathan. Tell me your problems.’
‘Where to start? Well first of all, I don’t understand why you turned up? I mean, why would my subconscious conjure up Giovanni Bellini to pour my heart out to?’
‘Well, who else would you have chosen?’
‘I dunno. Maybe Myrna Loy? Ingrid Bergman?’ I clicked my fingers. ‘Dave Brock!’
Giovanni frowned. ‘Who?’
‘Oh, never mind. I don’t understand it though.’
‘Well, we have a bit of history together Nathan. My painting in the Valier chapel. You pushed a cigarette into it once if I’m not mistaken.’
‘A copy! It was a copy!’
‘A very good copy, though.’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘That was rather naughty of you.’
‘I’m sorry.’ A thought struck me. ‘Hey, I don’t suppose you know where the original is?’
‘Not at the moment. But I imagine those responsible will be joining us – on our side, if you see what I mean – in the not too distant future.’
‘You think they’ll tell you where it is?’
‘Eventually. Caravaggio tells me he has something unpleasant planned for them. He hates art thieves.’
‘You know Caravaggio?’
‘Of course. Good company when he’s sober. But he’s a nasty drunk. Oh, and it goes without saying, one should never play tennis against him.’ He winced. Just ever so slightly.
A handsome young man with long flowing locks clapped my companion on the back. Giovanni squeezed his hand. ’Ciao ,Giorgio.’
They exchanged a smile and a nod before the young man’s attention was distracted by the sight of a pretty girl at the other end of the room. He gave an apologetic shrug, and squeezed his way through the crowd to her, running his hands through his hair to be absolutely sure of presenting as bella a figura as possible.
‘Friend of yours?’, I said.
‘Giorgione. He might have been my best student. Always had an eye for the ladies. I always thought that would get him into trouble. And sure enough, it did.’
‘He died of the plague, didn’t he? He contracted it from his lover. At least, that’s what Vasari says.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, Vasari. I’d take anything he says with a pinch of salt. But there’s some truth in it.’ He looked across the room to where the young girl was blushing, as Giorgione leaned in for a kiss. Giovanni shook his head. ‘Poor Giorgio. She’ll be the death of him.’
I looked around. I’d been unaware of the sheer weight of people before, and, for a moment, I felt uneasy. The only face coverings to be seen were Carnival masks, and social distancing – particularly in young Giorgione’s case – was not being treated as a priority.
Giovanni caught the expression in my eyes. ‘What are you thinking, Nathan?’
‘I’m thinking that having a drink, at Quadri, in pyjamas, with Giovanni Bellini feels bizarrely normal.’
‘Perhaps it is. Given the past few years you’ve had. That everyone’s had.’
‘Yep. My subconscious dredging up a long-dead artist as a drinking buddy is what we now call the New Normal.’
He smiled. ‘It’ll pass, Nathan. All this.’
I shook my head. ‘It doesn’t feel like it, Giovanni. Sometimes it feels like it’ll never be normal again. I’m one of the lucky ones, I know. But I’ve had to deliver bad news to people. And I’m tired of that. Just so tired of that.
‘I remember when it all started. All those signs in people’s windows. Tutto andrà bene. “Everything will be all right”. And for those first few months, just sitting at home, it seemed we had all the time in the world. But we didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t time being given to us, it was time being stolen from us. And now I’m thinking about Dario and his family. About Vally’s parents. About people growing older and that we might not be able to see them for much longer. About not being able to be there when they need us. And right now, all I want is for Dario and Vally and Emily and Marta to be able to sit around a table at Christmas and just do normal, silly stuff and I’m wondering if…’
Giovanni frowned. ‘Enough of the IFs Nathan.’
I smiled. ‘Do you know my wife by any chance?’
’Well perhaps you should listen to her.’ He reached over and shook me by the shoulder, ever so gently. ‘There’ll be other Christmases, Nathan.’
‘You’re right, of course.’ I took a deep breath. ’But so many people have died, Giovanni.’
He nodded. ‘I know.’
‘And more people are going to die. Aren’t they?’
He nodded again. ‘Yes. Yes, they are.’
‘But it isn’t – ‘
‘Fair. I know. Of course it isn’t.’ He paused. ‘What do you want me to say, Nathan?’
‘Tell me it’s going to be all right, Giovanni.’
‘It wouldn’t mean much coming from me. I’m just a long-dead painter.’
‘I know, but I’ve said those words to so many people over the past two years I’m not sure if I believe them any more. I’d just like someone to say them to me, you know? Is it going to be all right?’
‘Oh Nathan.’ He tapped me on the chest. ‘I think you know.’ He smiled and reached across the table, pulling me close to him. Then he leant over and whispered in my ear. He sat back in his chair, but not before jabbing me in the chest once again. ‘I think you know,’ he repeated.
Something was pressing down on my chest. No, more than that. Not pressing, but pushing at me.
I opened my eyes. Gramsci, pleased to have got a reaction, gave a miaow before prodding at me once more.
I closed my eyes again, wanting to hold on to the dream before it slipped away forever. But it was no use. This was just with a paw, a warning prod. Ignore it for much longer and claws would be involved.
I sighed, and sat up in bed as best I could with Gramsci’s weight on top of me. ‘I guess that means it’s time for your breakfast, eh?’
Fede stirred beside me and yawned. ‘Oh, is that you getting up?’
‘I guess I am.’
‘Are you going to feed Unfriendly Cat?’
‘I think I’ll have to.’
‘Could you make me a cup of tea?’
‘I could do that as well.’
‘Oh, and you could make yourself a cup of coffee as well if you like.’
‘Well thanks. That’s very kind. I’ll try to remember that.’
I kissed the back of her neck and closed my eyes. And just for a moment I was back in Quadri, where a smiling Giovanni Bellini had leaned across the table and whispered in my ear.
Gramsci prodded me once more, claws out this time, and I gave a little yelp that turned into a laugh.
Fede opened an eye, and looked up at me smiling down at her. ‘You’re unusually happy for this time of the morning,’ she said.
I slipped out of bed, and tucked Gramsci under my arm, his little legs scrabbling away in indignation.
‘I think I am,’ I said. ‘I just met with an old friend.’ I leaned down to kiss her. ‘He told me everything was going to be all right.’
In case you’re wondering
A few years ago, I was asked to talk about my books to a group of high school students. We read through various parts of The Venetian Game together, I got them to act out a couple of scenes and then I set them a challenge : whoever wrote the best “missing scene” from the book would get a credit in the upcoming Venetian Masquerade.
Elena, Sebastiano and Vera came up with the idea of a meeting between Nathan and a time-travelling Giovanni Bellini in St Mark’s Square, an idea so delightful I thought I really should use it myself. This is my attempt. If they ever read it, I hope they’ll think I did it justice.
You’ll notice that this doesn’t fit into Nathan’s timeline as it stands at present. Is it ‘canon’? Quite simply, it is if you want it to be.
Wishing you all, wherever you are, a happy and peaceful Christmas. Tutto andrà bene.