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The International Writers Magazine: First Chapters

Salt, Mustard, Vinegar
Tony Southport

Salt, Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper the chants of the children drifted over from the school playground like a distant echo from another age. Gareth stopped and watched in fascination as memories of his own childhood flooded back. Salt, Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper, subconsciously he felt the heels of his shoes rising from the pavement in time to the slap, slap of the rope as the children skilfully dodged out and then back into the arc of the spinning line as they played their skipping game.

Salt, Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper he silently intoned the chant in time with the children and almost burst into applause when the children stopped their skipping and stood facing each other and played a complicated touching hands game. Slowly he turned away from the source of his reverie and gave his companion a weak smile of apology as he turned back to the drawing he was holding up for him to study. Salt, Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper, he looked in the direction of the drawing without any real interest in what was there and continued his silent chant until his daydream was rudely interrupted and his attention was drawn to a car parked by the school railings on the other side of the street.
"I know we are pushed for time on this one Gareth, but I didn’t think you needed to bring your old woman along to give us a fucking hand." Paddy Holland’s raucous blaspheming seemed harsh and totally out of place after the chants of the children.
"What are you talking about", said Gareth giving his site foreman a puzzled look.
"Isn’t that your Laura in that car over there?" Gareth looked and his jaw dropped. It was Laura. He was puzzled and didn’t say anything; but Paddy Holland did.
"Well if she hasn’t come to give us a hand she must have come for a good shagging off the good looking guy in the driver’s seat." Paddy’s comment was meant to be a jokey between us men type of thing, but his last few words trailed off into almost inaudibility as Laura turned and kissed the good looking guy in the drivers seat. Paddy and Gareth thought the same thing at the same time but Gareth felt stunned and Paddy felt embarrassed.

Gareth Davies was not a demonstrative man and unless she was mentioned by somebody else, or he was asked a direct question about her, he rarely talked about or even mentioned his partner Laura Harris. During the increasingly rare social occasions they spent in each others company anybody that didn’t already know, or anybody from outside their immediate circle of friends, would have found it difficult to guess that they were a couple; and had been for some time.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t proud of her; he was. She was clever, good looking, ambitious and successful. She was the sort of partner any man would have been proud of and would have wanted to show off. But Gareth wasn’t the trophy collector type, so the subject of ownership or self satisfied tenure was never a factor. Laura was Laura and he loved her, and she knew he loved her; or at least he assumed she did. But as time passed and their initial ardour cooled into comfortable consistency, Gareth failed to notice that they were slowly but surely living the greater part of their lives as separate people.

Laura had lots of friends, and an even greater number of significant acquaintances and chose to spend most of her time in their company and not his. Gareth had just a few good mates and the members of the Photographic Society and tended to spend one evening at the society and the rest of his time working or doing nothing in particular. The even smaller group of friends they had in common had long had been of the opinion that their association had only lasted as long it had because it never crossed Gareth’s mind to do anything else, and Laura was too career fixated to risk the upheaval that change, and the possible insistence on children by another partner, would have brought.

Initially the relationship seemed so natural, inevitable and destined to succeed, and with their first meeting taking place in Venice the relationship couldn’t have had a more romantic and auspicious beginning.
Venice was Gareth’s special place long before he knew Laura, but when their paths crossed on a Group Photographic Holiday to Northern Italy, and they visited the city together, things changed. They had already spent time in each others company, but mainly as part of a larger party. But as he shared his broad knowledge of the city with her and the rest of the assembly, she, feeling randy after sharing a room with a female friend for the last two weeks, singled him out. She gave him a broad smile and a: although I’m impressed with your knowledge of this amazing place I’m also interested in you as a man sort of look; and that was enough. He was flattered and bowled over enough to decide to fall in love with her, and as he was doing just that, she, equally smitten, fell in love with Venice. After sharing in his knowledge of the city she began to share his bed; but as things turned out it was as if as he was making love to her, she was panting in admiration of the badly painted pastiche of a Tintaretto ceiling over his shoulder. Nevertheless his special place became their special place and during another visit there they made the decision to live together; fifteen years later they were still a couple; just.

Gareth loved Laura because that was what he did. It was what he had decided to do all those years ago; and the consequences arising from that decision would remain in place until he decided to change it. But sadly Laura’s attitudes were not as fixed and immutable as his, and her feelings for him not as constant. Eventually a joint address, a shared set of habits and a mutual love of Venice proved to light to anchor their relationship and things began to slip.

Although Gareth was a builder he hadn’t seen the cracks developing; but they had been growing and showing for some time. Laura had already indulged in a number of short lived and secret affairs before that fatal encounter by the school; when Gareth was not where he was expected to be. The affairs didn’t mean that much to her, but the fleeting frissons fitted in with her career plans, temporarily satisfied emotional and egotistical needs and acted as the cement that kept their relationship in place. But unsurprisingly once she started down that path the relationship didn’t last much longer. With the same predictability that had signalled the beginning their affair, the thoughts that didn’t cross Gareth’s mind did cross Laura’s; and when they did she made her mind up quickly. What she had wasn’t what she wanted. Quiet consistency wasn’t enough and she wanted something else.

The something else she decided upon turned out to be a serious somebody else. Even before she was caught in her act transformation she had already stopped pandering to Gareth’s entrenched habits and had fallen in love with, in Gareth’s words, although he was not known for his innovative style of invective, a lying, cheating, dirty bastard. He offered to forgive her and tried the obligatory too little too late rearguard action, but Laura had had enough and the relationship still ended abruptly and acrimoniously.

It was a common enough event and one that could have happened to anyone. But the predictability and ordinariness of the situation didn’t make it any easier for Gareth to accept. Being a proud, intelligent and consistent man he felt the pain all the more deeply because it was ordinary; and he still didn’t see it coming. He failed completely to pick up any of the signs and signals that were glaringly obvious when he looked back; but totally obscure at the time.

The coded asides, the pitying looks, the unexplained avoidances, the hints and cryptic remarks from friends and acquaintances, the barbed but obscure comments from people who he didn’t know that well; but Laura did. The increase in the frequency of wrong numbers, the clicks on the end of the line when he and not Laura answered the phone and the rapidly curtailed phone calls when he arrived home. None of it registered; at least not until it was all too late. When the truth finally did emerge it was obvious that many things had already been said and Laura had been building her case for leaving for some time. Gareth had already been cast as the villain of the piece even before he knew there was a piece to be the villain of. He really did end up being the last to know; the disappointment and embarrassment almost destroyed him. One minute he took for granted he was in a successful, long-term relationship. The next, the person he believed he loved, and who he believed still loved him, called him a boring bastard, put the flat on the market and walked out the door to go to another man; pretty much in that order.

It might have been harder for Laura to leave if they had had children of their own. But that had been a joint decision and one he regretted. It also might not have seemed so bad if he had been a stronger man; but Gareth had an ego problem and an inferiority complex that had hovered above his left shoulder all his life. Paddy Holland had the biggest mouth in the world and the break-up was soon public knowledge. Things began to go seriously wrong when Gareth didn’t get the promotion he was the favourite to get and it hurt.

Unusually the flight from Manchester to Venice was only half full and Gareth was soon through customs and striding out into the wide open spaces of the new Airport Terminal. He attempted to take his usual mode of transport into the city but was disappointed to be informed that there wouldn’t be another Water Taxi available for over an hour. He decided not to wait. He shivered in the chill air and light drizzle and hurried on board the waiting Water Bus and found a seat. After a quick look at the faces of the passengers around him, he pulled out his old, dog eared map of the city and spent the rest of the journey pinpointing the exact location of his hotel.

Venice Marco Polo Airport to the main island was a journey he had taken many times, but it was the first time he had chosen not to stand on an outside deck and eagerly await his first glimpse of Venice’s unique and sublime skyline. Sitting inside the damp cabin he felt strange and furtive, he rubbed the growing condensation from the metal encased window and persuaded himself that it was the right thing to do; far more sensible to remain where he was and avoid the effects of the worsening weather. It was probably the first time during his long connection with Venice that Gareth Davies had associated the word sensible with anything to do with the city; sensible was what you did at home.

As the boat reached its stop at San Marco the helmsman skilfully manoeuvred round the few Gondoliers hardy enough to continue working on the lagoon and tied up at the floating landing stage. It was cold and a heavy drizzle hung in the half-light saturating everything and creating strange pink halos around the lights on the canalside. As Gareth lifted his bags out of the luggage rack and swivelled round to deposit them onto the pitching pontoon he stole a quick glance over his shoulder. He looked anxious, his anxiety made all the more conspicuous by the careful way he raised and placed his camera bag on top of his suitcase. He cautiously adjusted its position three times before he felt confident enough to let it go. Even then he still seemed reluctant to move. As the other passengers stumbled and scurried away from the pitching raft, buttoning their coats and raising their umbrellas as they flowed around him, he made no attempt to join them. He stood with his back to the city and watched as the helmsman sounded two raucous blasts before the stretched and creaking mooring ropes were lifted from the bollards, cast off and the boat slowly pulled away from the bank. When the boat had gone he ignored the deepening puddle that was forming around his carefully placed luggage and turned and carefully scanned the areas leading from the Calle Vallaresso and on to the Piazza. He looked left, then looked right, then looked left again before he picked up his luggage and quickly crossed the glistening pavement. It was safety first and a strict adherence to a highway code in a place that had no highways.

Despite the lateness of the season the Piazza San Marco was busy, but the inclemency of the weather had forced most of the crowds away from the open spaces and into a huddle under the ancient colonnades. Gareth moved to do the same but, having no appetite for battling his way through the milling throng pulling a wheeled suitcase he changed his mind and turned away from the shelter and into the broad and empty spaces of the Piazzetta. There was a just discernable hesitation in his progress as he stared intently at the scene ahead of him. He waited a few seconds and blew a water droplet from the end of his nose before he hitched his camera bag further on to his shoulder, gripped the handle of his suitcase and set off.

For months after the break up Gareth was assailed by the words ‘don’t’ or ‘you can’t’. The suggestions and advice for him not to do things or go to places was given so often and with such pious sincerity that far from helping to assuage his unhappiness they acted as a constant reminder of his misery and humiliation. The growing sense of betrayal and the increasingly frequent bouts of self pity and flashes of temper usually followed on from a piece of wise counsel that had been delivered by somebody who, Gareth thought, should have minded their own fucking business or delivered their advice swiftly and clearly, and when it really mattered; before the break-up.

His old haunts being off limits didn’t please him, but he could have lived with that, if he had thought that the no-go areas applied to the both of them. When the break up first happened he had followed Laura around hoping to see her with her new man. He wasn’t sure what he had hoped to achieve by skulking in doorways and sitting in cars, he knew she wasn’t coming back and had already assumed that most of the responsibility for the parting lay with him. So he wasn’t about to apportion all the blame on the ‘dirty bastard’ and beat him to a pulp. In the end the only outcome of his surveillance was a stinking cold and the painful confirmation that the advice did indeed only pertain to him.

Following her was easy because the only parts of her life that had changed were her address and her partner. But his life had been turned upside down and almost everywhere he went and everything he did, or was about to do, was scrutinised and commented upon. The situation became so pervasive and basic that he began using a different garage, a different photo lab and started shopping in ASDA instead of Tesco. Along with the lion’s share of their friends, most of the furniture and the best of the CD collection, he was convinced that Laura had also taken possession of the sum total of their experiences when they had been together; it was as if he was slowly but surely vanishing. In his troubled mind he was convinced that he was being denied a history in his own right and the old him only existed as a redundant adjunct and appendage of somebody else’s past. It was that sense of irrelevance that fuelled his anger and made him irrational and afraid of himself; it was, in his own words, ‘doing his fucking head in. But it also made him all the more determined that he would not stand for it and things would change.

As good as his intentions were the changes didn’t improve his situation and his malicious and insulting accusations of disloyalty and collusion had the effect of alienating the few friends he had left. But they did light a faint glimmer of hope.

Gareth, head bowed against the slanting rain, skirted the deepening puddles and dodged the ever hopeful peanut and souvenir sellers as he walked steadily towards Saint Marks. He had been in Venice in the autumn before and had seen most of the different weather faces she could present. But such is the nature of memories of favourite places the worst he could recall were mild frosts, gentle rains and superbly photogenic sun streaked mists. But that day would not make a fond memory; it was, without doubt, the most dismal he had ever experienced.

As he neared the Basilica he blinked the rain out of his eyes and nervously scanned the faces of the people ahead of him. Preoccupied with his own thoughts, and confident in his own grasp of the geography of the area, he walked as if on auto-pilot. He paid scant attention to the familiar splendour around him and even failed to notice that the orchestras were missing; sitting and listening to the music in the square was one of his a favourite pastimes. He only became aware of their absence when he walked out of the Piazzetta and into the main body of the square and caught sight of the single pianist playing under Café Quadri’s ornate but sodden canopy. He stopped in surprise and checked the other café’s; not a musician to be seen. A line from Poe’s ‘Ulalume’, Laura’s favourite poem, sprang into his mind and he groaned inwardly as he realised just how appropriate it was,
‘It was night in the lonesome October of my most immemorial year’,
The last twelve months really had been a year to forget’, shortly after breaking up with Laura he seriously assaulted one of his colleagues and had to walk out of his job before he was sacked; soon after that he became ill and was hospitalised for weeks when his lung collapsed for the third time.

He grimaced and quickened his pace, trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the bad memories, but as he walked beneath the chiming Torre dell’ Orologia even the laudable efforts of Quadri’s lone musician seemed to underscore the gloom. Nobody stopped to listen, but the pianist played on regardless the quiet, almost inaudible tintinnabulation helping to deepen rather than lift the drab air of melancholy.

Gareth had experienced more auspicious beginnings on previous trips, but then he had been visiting the city because it was his favourite place and he wanted to be there; a far cry from the salvage operation and act of recovery that he was attempting to engineer. He had been alone and lonely for almost a year and, contrary to the advice he was given, the sensations of anger, betrayal and loneliness hadn’t diminished with time but had become so much a part of him that they had ceased to be feelings and had become deeply entrenched habits; the trip was an attempt to change the person he had become and to stop those habits turning into a way of life.

The hotel he was booked into wasn't one he had stayed in before but it was cheap enough and, being on his own with nobody to impress, it was more than adequate. It, like most other hotels of its type in Venice, exists purely for people to sleep in. Despite the city’s great reputation for romance Venetian hotels, unless you pay a great deal of money, are usually small affairs shoe horned into unsuitable buildings with insufficient bars and lounges and undersized bedrooms that allow little space for slow, intimate courtship.
Gareth chose the hotel deliberately, the fear, irony and distinct possibility of him booking into the same hotel as Laura and her partner didn’t escape him. When they were together Gareth usually took care of booking their accommodation so he reasoned that if she chose to visit the city the chances were that she would choose one she had already stayed in. Laura was chic and Laura was fussy the hotel he had booked into wasn’t.

With no restaurant in the hotel Gareth took a tepid shower and changed his clothes before swinging his camera bag over his shoulder and heading back out into the rain in search of something to eat. In the mood he was in an in-depth knowledge of the city was not that much of an asset. His search wasn’t directed at finding a particular restaurant; in fact his intention was quite the opposite. Where not to go took precedence over where was good. After walking for nearly two hours, peering through doors and into windows of old haunts and familiar good eating places, he followed the advice he had railed against at home and ignored them all. In the end he settled for a beer and a tasteless pizza in a soulless overpriced café just off Saint Marks Square and felt cheated.

When Gareth announced his intention to re-visit Venice the chorus of opinion against the idea was loud and unanimous; but that didn’t surprise him. With so few friends left unanimity was easy to achieve. But those that warned and opposed his intentions were the same few friends who stood beside him and helped as he suffered through one of the worse years of his life; so he listened. There was only kindness and concern for his welfare in their comments; they were terrified that he would meet Laura with her new man and the shock would traumatise him again.
He was grateful for their concerns but they had little to worry about, Gareth was as sick and tired of the deep depressions, violent outbursts and pathetic self-pity as they were. But he knew that if he wanted to get his life back on track, and continue his association with the city, the possibility that he would meet Laura had to be faced. He had to reconcile the past and get on with the rest of his life. Venice was the choice and was, in the mental state he was in, the only choice. Laura had ended the relationship and moved on and forward. Gareth perversely, was trying to reverse the process and go back. He was trying to recreate his life the way it was before Laura. The words of the song, much played by the orchestras in the square anticipated,

‘How sad Venice can be when you return alone’, Gareth knew that wasn’t true, at least not for him. Going back alone was what it was all about. Too much had happened for him not to have fallen out of love with the person he had been with on his last visit and, in the great scheme of things; no other great tragedies had intervened since. So why did he feel so sad?

It wasn’t late when he meandered back into the Piazza, but to his surprise the area was all but deserted. Grateful for the dark and feeling content in his solitude for the first time that day he relaxed. He walked slowly around the empty colonnades and on to the Riva. He took a cursory look towards the floodlit Redentore and watched as pinpoints of light from the ferries drew zig-zagging patterns across the dark waters of the lagoon. He yawned. It had been a long day and he had been too long out of his bed. He decided to call it a day and retraced his steps. On the way back to his hotel he came across a Pizza and Sandwich sellers hatch still open. He paid a lot of money for a bottle of cheap wine and an opener, then, feeling strangely empty, he strode back his hotel.

© Tony Southport December 2007
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