SUNDAY IN VENICE
by Julie Kearney
The alleyway was paved with humped dark stones like so many dead or hibernating turtles. On either side of these stones, walls leprous with peeling plaster inclined inwards towards a sliver of grey sky. The man walked ahead trundling his suitcase, the woman followed dragging a matching one. Their wheels made a thunderous noise on the stones.
‘Wait for me,’ the woman called. Her face was red.
The man kept walking.
‘Will you stop?’ she called more loudly. ‘Are you deaf or what?’
The man stopped but didn’t turn round.
‘That’s it!’ she said when she came up to him. ‘I’m not going another step!’ She wiped her sweating face with the back of her hand and said without looking at him, ‘I hate you. Why don’t you ever listen to me? If you’d listened to me we would have got off the vaporetto at the right stop.’
He turned round to face her. ‘We did get off at the right stop,’ he said. ‘According to the map it’s only a couple of laneways from here.’
‘No, it’s not! I saw the map. You’re not the only one who can read maps you know.’
The woman perched her anorak-covered behind on the black suitcase, which teetered on its metal wheels. ‘My feet hurt,’ she said. She sounded as if she was about to cry.
‘It’s not that far,’ the man said. He pulled a map from his pocket and unfolded it. ‘See. We’re about…um…about here.’ He stabbed his finger at the middle of the sheet.
She looked away and stared at the peeling walls.
They were alone in the alleyway. Where it joined up with the next one another wall rose up, fitted like a jigsaw piece under a flat section of grey sky.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, still staring at the crumbling plaster. ‘And I don’t care what you say, I’m not going another step.’
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You can’t stay here.’ He was having difficulty refolding the map. When he couldn’t get it to go into the right creases, he swore at it and shoved it in his pocket.
‘I told you, my feet hurt,’ the woman said. ‘Much you care about that.’
When he said nothing she tightened her lips. ‘Where are we anyway?’ she demanded, casting glances up and down the alleyway. ‘There’s no street name that I can see so how come you know where we are, Mister Smartypants?’
‘Let’s go,’ he said and began walking again. The rattle of his suitcase on the cobblestones echoed against the walls.
She watched him go. When he didn’t look back she got up from the suitcase, pulled up the handle and followed him. The man turned the corner, his bag bumping on the dark stones. The woman reached the corner and saw that the new alleyway was no different from the last one. She stopped walking, but when the man was about to turn the next corner she followed him with dragging steps.
The man and woman continued in this way for five more alleyways until they came to a large open square surrounded by grey stone buildings. The man kept walking but the woman pulled her suitcase upright and looked around. She seemed surprised. She looked at the expanse of cloud-covered sky, then at the stones under her feet. They were not so dark as the ones in the alleyway but a lighter grey, much the same color as the sky. People were walking in twos and threes over the stones and children in their Sunday best of frilled dresses or miniature suits trotted beside them. A small boy dribbled a black and white soccer ball beside an obelisk-shaped stone fountain in the center of the square. A tall thin priest in an ankle-length black gown walked arm in arm with an old woman who also wore long black skirts.
The woman caught up with the man who had stopped and was waiting for her.
‘At least I can sit down now,’ she flung at him from the side of her mouth, not slowing her stride as she rattled her case past him. She trundled it across the square to a café on the other side. When the man arrived she was sitting at a grey metal table, frowning at the fountain. The other tables around her were unoccupied.
‘I want a coffee,’ she said.
The man pushed in the handle of his suitcase and sat down opposite her on one of the grey metal chairs.
‘Are you going to get it?’ she asked.
‘What do you want, flat white?’ he said, taking out the map again.
‘Oh, leave that thing alone. Cappuccino please. And a packet of cigarettes while you’re at it. See if they have Winfield or something similar.’
He frowned at her. ‘Don’t be stupid. You’ve given up.’
‘Too bad. I’m taking it up again.’ She shifted her gaze from the fountain to the square. The boy with the soccer ball was playing with another boy now, taking it in turns to drop-kick the ball across the cobblestones.
‘Why don’t you calm down?’ the man said. ‘I’ll get you a coffee but I’m not buying any cigarettes.’ He started to get out of his seat but she was up before him.
She stood over him. ‘Just give me the money then. I’ll get them myself if you won’t.’
The man took out his wallet and passed her some notes and she went over to the café. He sat in the metal chair, watching the people in the square as they strolled about or stopped to greet one another. The boys with the soccer ball weren’t playing anymore. They had joined two couples who stood chatting in a circle near the fountain. One of the men waved his arms about as he spoke and the other three laughed.
The woman came back, pulling open the cigarette packet as she walked. She sat down and fumbled with the lighter, then touched the flame to the cylinder in her mouth. She inhaled deeply, forcing out a long stream of smoke, and inhaled again. The man watched. Her hand trembled as she took a third drag.
‘This is all your fault,’ she said, narrowing her eyes to look at him for the first time. ‘Why can’t you be civil? Why can’t you talk to me properly? Why can’t you listen when I try to tell you I’ve found a shorter way to the hotel?’ Ash fell on the stones beside her feet as she spoke. ‘You think I’m stupid, that’s why! You think you’re so smart but you’re not.’ Her eyes glittered with unshed tears.
‘I’ll get the coffee,’ the man said. He stood up and walked over to the café. When he came back he said, ‘I know what this is about. It’s because you gave up smoking. I told you it was a bad idea to give up at the start of our trip.’ He put the cups on the table and sat down. ‘You’ve been hanging out for a smoke for weeks. That’s why you’re carrying on like this.’
The woman pulled a second cigarette from the packet. It was a Winfield packet with Italian words on it. She frowned at it and pushed it aside. ‘Is that what you think?’ she said. She lit up and began puffing again. ‘How very convenient. Nothing to do with you of course. Nothing to do with your behavior.’ She waved her free hand in the air. ‘Nothing to do with ignoring me when I try to tell you something useful that would’ve spared my feet six alleyways at least.’
She drew on the cigarette in quick sharp puffs. The man picked up his coffee and sipped. The woman reached forward and stubbed out her half-finished cigarette, grinding it into the ashtray. When her hand came away the butt was torn and tobacco fibers were mixed into the surrounding ash.
The woman bent down so that only her shoulders were showing above the table and began jerking at the laces of her shoes. When she had the shoes off she sat up and looked at her feet. The man looked too and saw they were red and swollen. He looked away.
‘You shouldn’t have bought those cigarettes,’ he told her. ‘Now you’re back to square one.’
‘Make up your mind.’ She was smiling now. ‘You just said I shouldn’t have given up, now you’re telling me I should have.’
The man picked up his cup and took another sip. ‘You shouldn’t have stopped when you did, but since you did you should have stuck to it.’
‘I see.’ She stopped smiling. ‘Whatever I do will always be wrong. Whereas you, of course, will always be right.’ She rapped the cigarette packet on the metal surface of the table. ‘In that case, conversation over.’
The man opened the map and began studying it. She watched him, her head tilted back so she was looking down her nose at him, then shifted her gaze to the square. The boys with the soccer ball were gone. Three jeans-clad young women with shoulder-length black hair were walking across the cobblestones, bending their heads together as they talked. On the far side of the square a young man came with loping strides, his arm around another girl who also had black hair and was wearing jeans. In the middle of the square, next to the fountain, he stopped and turned the girl towards him. She put up her face and he kissed her, his arms wrapped tightly around her. A little girl ran past them in a frilly pink dress, carrying two ice-creams.
The woman watched the kissing couple for some time, then closed her eyes. Her face was less red than before. She wriggled her toes and sighed.
‘I feel a bit better now,’ she said.
The man looked at her over the top of his map. ‘I think I know where we are,’ he said. ‘The hotel is only two blocks away. Want to have a look?’
She shook her head. ‘If you know where we are then let’s go.’ She bent down and began to put on her shoes.
The man folded the map, which took him a long time. She stood waiting for him, one hand gripping the handle of her suitcase. When the man finished his folding he got up from the metal chair and put his arm round the woman’s shoulders. He massaged her neck and she sighed, relaxing her grip on the handle.
‘It might not rain after all,’ she said, looking up at the sky. ‘I think it’s clearing up.’
‘You’re wrong there,’ he said. ‘It’ll pour cats and dogs.’
She turned her head to look at him.
‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘you could be right.’
They walked away, trundling their noisy bags.
Julie Kearney is an award-winning artist and writer who lives in Brisbane, Australia. She has written a fictional autobiography of her great-grandmother titled True History of Annie Callaghan, and is published in national and international anthologies. Her stories have appeared in Griffith Review, Hecate and Idiom. Currently she is working on the second of a trilogy of historical novellas with an Indigenous theme, inspired by The Tempest, Shakespeare’s iconic depiction of the colonised and the coloniser. You can find her on www.juliekearney.com.au.
Image credit: Tim Sackton on Flickr