International Writers Magazine: First Chapters
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
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 didnt
think you needed to bring your old woman along to give us a fucking
hand." Paddy Hollands 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.
"Isnt that your Laura in that car over there?" Gareth
looked and his jaw dropped. It was Laura. He was puzzled and didnt
say anything; but Paddy Holland did.
"Well if she hasnt come to give us a hand she must have come
for a good shagging off the good looking guy in the drivers seat."
Paddys 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 didnt 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 wasnt that he wasnt 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 wasnt 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 Gareths 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 couldnt have had a more romantic and auspicious beginning.
Venice was Gareths 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 Im impressed with your knowledge
of this amazing place Im 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 Lauras 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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
didnt last much longer. With the same predictability that had
signalled the beginning their affair, the thoughts that didnt
cross Gareths mind did cross Lauras; and when they did she
made her mind up quickly. What she had wasnt what she wanted.
Quiet consistency wasnt 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 Gareths entrenched habits and had fallen
in love with, in Gareths 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 didnt
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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 wouldnt 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 Venices
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 dont
or you cant. 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 didnt 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 wasnt sure
what he had hoped to achieve by skulking in doorways and sitting in
cars, he knew she wasnt coming back and had already assumed that
most of the responsibility for the parting lay with him. So he wasnt
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 lions
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
elses 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
As good as his intentions were the changes didnt 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 Quadris
ornate but sodden canopy. He stopped in surprise and checked the other
cafés; not a musician to be seen. A line from Poes
Ulalume, Lauras 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
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 Quadris
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 hadnt
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 citys 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 didnt
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 wasnt.
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 wasnt 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 didnt
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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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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