Forgetting Venice – Part 1

This was the second ‘free writing’ short story I wrote as part of my Masters. I really wanted to write something about Venice, having lived there a couple of years before, and this is what I came up with!

Read the entire story here.

Forgetting Venice – Part One
November 2010

I am not a writer.  They said that I am likely to lose almost everything within the next few years and have thereby started a countdown, as if that final second will splice together perfect sanity and whatever must come after.  This is a self-deception I use to comfort myself – although it can hardly be considered comforting at all – but it is easier to face than a gradual, constant erosion of myself.  Still, no matter how awful the deterioration, nobody ever imagined that I would have to write about Venice in order to remember it and yet, here I am.

It was my husband’s idea; he said that paintings take too long to create and are too open to individual interpretation.  He said I would need to read explicit sentences, like graffitiing I was here on a wall nobody else particularly cares about.  He said that when I have lost everything a mere landscape will not evoke the memories like it does now, but a clearly written record in my own hand will be indisputable evidence to myself that everything that happened, happened.  But I disagree.  For me writing takes an age, and I cannot reread a single sentence without thinking of ten different ways to interpret it.  I do not tell him this.

I am a painter and I cannot conceive of an existence where a painted landscape does not seize me around the waist and drag me into itself.  But I also know there is no time to paint all the landscapes and portraits which are etched inside my skull.  I have tried to paint them before, but every time I have told myself there simply is not the need.  I have never admitted that my own hand will not be able to reproduce all the beautiful things I see so perfectly when I close my eyes.  My brain is dying, and every moment could be the last time I see those immaculate, unrealised paintings and I remember who I am, who I have been.

So I am writing, reluctantly, half-heartedly, undeniably.  On the days when I cannot hold a paintbrush, I admit that it is easier to punch the keys of a typewriter, one at a time.  I am writing because my husband thinks I should and I love him.  I am writing because my children will want something to remember me by when I am shouting at them and asking who they are.  Selfishly, I am writing to frighten the person I am going to become; to make that lolling, addled old woman in the comatose armchair sit up and stare wide-eyed at these pages.  She may cease to remember what I tell her, but in writing to her I will take her by the shoulders and angrily shake her to the core.


Beneath silent brushstrokes of stars the city looks heavy and suspicious, like a dockyard abandoned to neglect and the lurking, eerie shadows of night.  Unshuttered windows yawn darkly from powdery, peeling walls; wakes of thrumming boats noisily slap the stone pavements; and hulking islands, lacking the illusory buoyancy of light, frown low and thunderous in the thickening lagoon.

I am radiant with happiness.  If I crane my neck to peer through a smudged patch in the steamy window, I can make out shadowy heaps of buildings and slick marble walkways, bathed here and there in grainy pools of lamplight.  It is not familiarity that warmed me, because what I see on the other side of the window is not an altered scene overlaid with the delicacy of recognition.  No, what I see is absolutely unchanged.  The ghostly images of the place, which always linger just beyond my vision, are here resurrected and they parade before my eyes, preening and self-assuredly cocky, knowing absolutely that in my lifetime nothing here will diverge from the course of my memory.  Miniscule alterations and delapidations are consumed by the whole.  Gossamer change shimmers, breathy and incomplete, like a thin cloth draped over a solid, inevitable table.  The poets do not lie when they say Venice is eternal.

There is a couple seated on the row of plastic chairs in front of me, and they are twisting and straining to look out of the window.  They do it so frequently, and without comment, that it is clear they are worried by what they see.  Where are the grand palaces and ethereal churches?  Where is the glorious art and where are the turquoise pillows of shining water?  Everything before them is black and desolate; the woman grips her guide book tightly and thumbs through the crisp pages over and over, unable to equate the glossy pictures inside with the ominous silence beyond the Perspex pane.

I want to tap them on their shoulders and tell them that Venice is the biggest trick of the light in existence; that entering by boat this way takes in the darkest corners of the city and, unless you disembark directly by St Mark’s Square, even the wide waterfront appears sad and decaying at night.  I want to tell them to be patient until sunrise, when they will step out of their hotel and immediately fling their paltry guidebook into the nearest canal.  I do not tell them; instead I sit back, close my eyes and bask in the heat of memory.

I first came to Venice when I was thirteen.  My parents, my two sisters, my brother and I stepped off the boat at San Zaccaria into quiet darkness and, clutching a strange, new map printed with the shape of two distorted, interlocking hands, made our way through uncertain deserted streets to the hotel.  My parents led silently and my sisters followed directly behind, holding hands, whispering secrets to each other that I was too young to hear.  My little brother danced around them, desperate to listen in, not yet mature enough to understand – as I was – that they wanted to be left alone to their pretence at adulthood.  I walked at the end, smiling at his persistence despite my sisters’ attempts to distract him by pretending they had heard splashes in the canals, which were almost certainly sharks.

I held my hands just away from my sides, fingers outstretched and wafting gently like the feelers of a sea creature.  As we passed small streetlamps or lighted windows, I believed I could feel the edges of the darkness curling at my fingertips and, as I realised how cripplingly difficult it would be to recreate this phenomenon of light and shadow on paper, my vast childish ambition faltered for the first time.  The city presented itself as a worthy adversary – its mottled hide would be far more elusive to sketch than anything I had attempted before – and like any teenage girl, whose own world consumes her so absolutely that she thinks herself the centre of everything, I believed the city had been created solely for me to draw.

Only a few distinct impressions remain of my first visit, but that initial walk through labyrinthine streets is the most vivid in my memory.  Sensing the potential of the city in full light was perhaps more influential for me then, than witnessing the city in daylight for the first time.  Besides, for a child there were a myriad of distractions – squealing excitement and simmering tedium – to disturb the tranquillity of silent contemplation.  Spring floods led to the erection of narrow walkways along the city’s major arteries, but where the water was shallow my sisters and I could not resist our brother’s infectious playfulness, and we all jumped in to pretend together that we were the inhabitants of a new Atlantis.  Our parents insisted on buying us wellies to save our salt-eaten shoes, but the shops had almost sold out so, to our endless amusement, we ended up with botched pairs in mismatched sizes and colours.

As the Doge’s Palace materialises through the rocking boat window in the middle distance, I remember how our parents took us inside to look at the paintings and sumptuously moulded ceilings.  My siblings were bored and I, secure in my youthful superiority, believed the classical paintings all old hat and joined in theatrically with the dragging of feet and moans of unimaginable boredom.  There was an enormous room – bigger than any room I had ever been in before – and shortly after, intriguing collections of ancient weaponry.  We came alive as we crossed the Bridge of Sighs into the palace dungeons.  While all the grandeur and wealth of Venetian politics had held no interest for us, the barred suffering stone cells inspired in us caricatured cries of despair, as we hung our wrists through thick loops of iron bolted into the stark walls, and traced our fingernails along the foreign pleas that hundreds of years previously had been bloodily scratched into the marble.

Just outside – I think I can still identify it – the guidebook informed us that one of the row of supporting marble pillars raised off the stone pavement by a short marble step, is slightly closer to the edge of the step than the others.  In olden times prisoners who were sentenced to death were told that their lives would be spared if they could walk around the outside of this pillar, their faces pressed to the cold marble, hands tied behind their backs, without falling off the step.  It is impossible to do, but we tried it over and over just to feel the gruesome thrill down our spines from knowing that, in ancient Venice, we would have been put to death.

Click here for part two.

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