Tuesday, 31 March 2009

'The Crossing'

Isabella wavered for a moment, then slid the camera back into her bag. On the far side of the lagoon, a wide strip of Venetian buildings stretched along the horizon, but at that moment she didn’t feel inclined to photograph it. The last thing she needed just now was more memories.

Green waves lapped carelessly along the pier, an irregular rhythm counting down the minutes until the waterbus arrived. As she fastened the bag, her hands on the clasp seemed suddenly older now. She still couldn’t get used to wearing her mother’s ring – it looked strangely out of place on her finger. Of course it had only been a month ago.

She turned and looked back along the palm-lined waterfront of the Lido – so lovely in the late afternoon sunlight, but not for her. She couldn’t shake off the hollow feeling… all around her, beauty made empty, like brightly coloured ashes.

The low throb of engines drew her back from her thoughts and she walked slowly towards the pier-head. The other passengers seemed to have melted away. For a moment she thought she might even have the Vaporetto all to herself but as she stepped onto the gangway and under the low roof of the waterbus she heard footsteps behind her. A young woman in a pale blue summer dress, long dark hair and huge sunglasses, hurried down the pier. The ferryman waited for her, giving a slight nod as she handed over her fare and passed on board, then secured the gangway and prepared to sail.

Isabella checked her watch as the engines surged into life. She had plenty of time before she met her son for dinner. Absently, she wondered if he’d enjoyed his afternoon exploring the city. She’d missed his company today, but he was young and she was determined not to let her mood spoil the trip for him.

The giant Campari sign on the roof of the Hotel Riviera bobbed and swayed across the horizon as it slowly receded. Already they were moving out into the maze of waterways that criss-crossed the lagoon, seagulls circling above them. The buildings of the Lido seemed suddenly distant, and Isabella moved round to the open side of the ferry to look across the water at Venice. The metal guard rail was cool to the touch, encased in layer upon layer of white paint, polished by thousands of passing hands. Running her fingers along it, Isabella was aware of the young woman moving over to her side of the ferry.

There was a timeless quality about her and the way she dressed. Perhaps that was just normal for people on the continent. She looked so free with the breeze in her dark hair, taking in the view across the glittering water and clearly enjoying it. When she looked round, there was a warmth in her smile.

“Some journeys pass too quickly, don’t you agree?”

The question caught Isabella a little off guard. Somehow you don’t quite expect people to make conversation with you in a country where you don’t speak the language. How had the girl even known that she spoke English? Was she so obviously a British tourist?

The young woman inclined her head to one side, “Oh dear… I didn’t mean to disturb you…”
“No, it’s fine,” Isabella managed a small smile of her own, “It is very beautiful.”
“Isn’t it just?” The girl held out a slender hand, “I’m Lizzie.”
“Sorry,” She took the offered hand, felt the affectionate squeeze, “Isabella.”
“Nice to meet you. I do hope I’m not disturbing you, but sometimes, when you’re in a lovely moment like this, it can be rather sad if you don’t have someone to share it with.”
“No, I quite agree.” Isabella nodded. She looked out across the lagoon towards the red-brick buildings, “Is this your first time in Venice?”
“Not my first…” Lizzie looked down for a moment, “but I haven’t been here for years.”
She turned her head to look back at the Lido, which now seemed far behind them on the opposite side of the ferry.
“I always wanted to come back though.” She looked up and smiled again, “I’m so happy I got the chance to.”

The note of the engines changed slightly as the Vaporetto turned to follow the deep water channels, and the campanile of San Marco slid gently along the horizon.

“What about you?” Lizzie asked, “Travelling alone?”
“Alone? Oh, I see. No, my son has been exploring the city today. I’m on my way to meet him now.”
“Ah. So you’re here on holiday?”
“Well, sort of…” Isabella answered, “We just felt that some time away would be good…”
The young woman was looking at her from behind those huge sunglasses but she didn’t say anything. Isabella found herself continuing.
“It’s been a difficult time at home recently.” She looked up again, then gave another small smile, “I’m not sure how we came to choose Venice, actually. It is rather lovely I suppose.”
“Yes, it is.” Lizzie agreed softly, “I always felt it was the sort of place I could stay forever.”
“Anyway,” Isabella finished, “Now that we’re here I’m sure it’ll do us good.”
Lizzie studied her a moment longer. “I’m sure it will.” She nodded.

They were more than half way across now. The sun was getting lower in the sky, the bricole beginning to draw long shadows on the water. Isabella watched them slipping by, wooden stacks – so lonely, like a line of forgotten memorials. Why must everything bring her mind back to that? To the loss. To all the things she’d never got around to saying, even though the end had come so dreadfully slowly.

She felt a hand placed over her own and looked up.

“Have you ever seen Venice in the rain?” Lizzie asked her.
“No.” Isabella shook her head, “We seem to have been lucky with the weather whenever we’ve been here. Always warm and sunny, like this week.”
Lizzie leaned forward so that her head was outside the boat, enjoying the feel of the warm breeze on her face.
“It’s funny, but I rather like the Winter too.” She smiled at some private memory, “Of course there’s the Carnival to look forward to, but it’s more than that.”
She reflected for a moment, then added, “Even in the fog and the rain… maybe that’s what sets it apart. That it’s still special, even when it’s not at its best.”

The Doge’s Palace was clearly visible now. Rows of gleaming gondolas moved restlessly between their mooring poles, and a seemingly permanent crowd of people hovered on the waterfront, gazing between the buildings at the Bridge of Sighs. The city seemed suddenly very close, and it was not long before the ferry swung around, the engines rumbling as they surged against the water and gently bumped to rest against the pier.

“Well, I suppose we’ve both got to go…” Lizzie said, giving her travelling companion a last, affectionate squeeze on the hand. Her ring was quite similar to the one Isabella was wearing, only brighter, untarnished.
Isabella looked up at her. For a moment, neither of them spoke.

“I’m so glad I could make this crossing with you, Bella.” she said, taking a step towards the gangway. And then her hand slipped away and she was gone, with a light step, disappearing into the crowd with a final smile over her shoulder.

Isabella stood quietly for a moment, a still figure on empty ferry. Nobody called her Bella but her mother.

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