It is a joy to hide but a tragedy not to be found. These were the words of Clara’s dementia-ridden grandpa, uttered from his armchair with a sense of foreboding each time she went out to play hide-and-seek with the neighbourhood children. In the park nearby, she knew the best places to hide, but she never knew when to come out and the others would often be gone by the time she did. Back then she’d never given much thought to the sayings of the muddled old man, but she understood them now. He had forewarned her.
Clara had left her husband and daughter and come to stay with her sister in Venice not – she was adamant – to hide, but to find herself. To see if she had it in her to return. It was carnival weekend, a time of year when it was not uncommon for her to visit alone and so her sister suspected nothing out of the ordinary when Clara arrived just before dinner.
She awoke early the next day, made her bed in the guest room and then slipped out, taking care not to wake her sister. At that hour the streets were empty and although the sun was out, the air was cold. She drew a shawl over her head and shoulders and made her way through the labyrinthine streets in search of the Rialto market. She loved markets. She found the gathering of inquisitive crowds moving amongst the different stalls, the assembled sellers, everybody looking out for their own special need, resembled an entire pattern of life.
She came to the Rialto Bridge without too much effort, crossed over and went towards the market. Some vendors were still setting up their stalls, chatting amongst each other. She understood little of the Venetian dialect, but it sounded good-humoured. Close to the water’s edge, a man and a boy unloaded fish in wicker baskets from a skiff. The man then gutted the fish while the boy packed ice into large flat wooden crates, raised and secured on top of steel poles. The boy was strong with taut muscles, his skin dark. She lowered her shawl and felt the sun on her face; closing her eyes, she listened to the sounds of the sea lapping against the banks, the light rumbling of distant tug boats and the cries of seagulls that swept down to eat the innards of the fish that the man threw to the ground.
But as the morning went by, the market grew crowded. She could not find what she needed and decided to turn back. Pushed about, she wandered through the crowd, searching for a way back to the bridge.
She came to a stall selling fruit and vegetables. The grocer, a large man with hairy arms, was helped by a young girl, whose resemblance to the grocer was seen in her dark, lively eyes. Clara was reminded of her own family and could not help staring at them. From a nearby cart, the man carried baskets of apples, sacks of potatoes and crates of other vegetables, which he left for the girl to arrange. She was only about sixteen, but she set about her work with an industriousness that belied her age. The produce was placed on large wooden trays with nimble quickness and grace, as if her composition of ripe tomatoes set against the heads of light green cabbage was a work of art. Their effort was constant, weighing the fruit and veg, bagging it and working the till, whilst listening to the friendly gossip of regular customers. Clara wondered about the girl’s mother. The grocer’s wife.
She decided to buy something, some fruit for her sister perhaps.
A half kilo of persimmons, Clara said when her turn came. As the girl put the fruit in a paper bag and weighed it, the grocer approached. He leant across the display, directly in front of Clara, so close that she could smell the sweetish scent of onions in his sweat, and inexplicably she found herself trying to entice him with her eyes, inviting him into some game of seduction. But it was all too obvious. In the excitement, her heart beat faster, and she had no choice but to gasp for breath. The girl and her father exchanged smiles and he shrugged and emptied a sack of potatoes into one of the wooden trays and spread them with his thick hairy hands. Clara felt the sting of shame prick the back of her neck and cheeks. The girl held out the bag of fruit. That’s four euros, she said with a curious smile.
Clara quickly paid the girl with a note and, without waiting for her change, slipped into the crowd, her head down, the bag of persimmons held against her chest.
She felt foolish, like some desperate schoolgirl. And worst of all, she had unwittingly placed herself in the very situation she had come to get away from. The grocer and his daughter were so much like them – them so at ease in each other’s company, so alike in temperament, their sensitivities. So like them. Her husband and her daughter. The professor and his student. How they mocked her. Cut her from their talk at the dinner table. Do you remember the story of Aida and Radamès? he would ask. Do you think Orpheus really loved Eurydice? What did she know of anything? It is natural for a daughter to adore her father. The mother is the despot. The burdensome wife.
She felt the wet bag of squashed persimmons in her hands, the sticky juice dripping down her fingers, and she dropped it to the ground. She was alone. A narrow street extended ahead of her with red brick walls on either side. She did not know how she’d come this way or for how long she’d been walking.
She heard the laughter of a young girl and turned to see a lithe, blonde figure running towards her, chased by a boy wearing tennis shoes and a devil mask. The boy wasn’t laughing. Clara stepped aside as they ran past, first the girl and then the boy. They did not seem to see her. As they got further away, the girl’s laughter grew more pressing: that urgent laughter of one out of breath, that forced laughter when it’s no fun playing anymore. She watched them disappear at the end of the street, listening until eventually the laughter died.
Determined to find her way again, she continued walking. She came to a canal where a man sat begging near a small bridge. His clothes were filthy and his unruly hair and beard hid his face. She felt in her pockets and dropped a couple of coins in the hat at his feet. The man looked up, and for a moment, in his reproachful eyes, she saw an older version of her husband. She hurried up the stairs of the bridge and looked back to ensure that he was not pursuing her. But the man had not moved. He smoked and tipped the coins from his hat into his pocket without counting them. He took no notice of her. In fact, he no longer seemed to see her.
She covered her head once more with the shawl and crossed the bridge. There’s no turning back, she thought. She had nothing, and even if she did, it still wouldn’t be enough to go elsewhere.
Venice was the city for the lost to be lost in.