St Mark's Square
Florian's is a real treat
Sarah was on holiday in Venice on an art history tour. It was an organised group, but she was alone in it: her friend had dropped out at the last minute. How tiresome that was! It made her seem needy, she thought, so she made a deliberate attempt to appear independent and unimpressed. The group was the usual assortment of retired teachers, recently bereaved widows, accountants trying to pass themselves off as investment bankers. There was one solitary man called Mark, who had rather a stern demeanour. He was handsome, or might have been if he cracked a smile. She wondered if he was pretending to be Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester, and whether he practised his dour expressions in front of the mirror. They looked accomplished enough. Every now and then she caught him looking at her, in a way that might have been judgemental. Once she had the effrontery to say “you should have seen me 20 years ago! I was something to look at then!”. He did have the grace to look askance at that.
And indeed it had been twenty years ago that Sarah was last here. It had been the same time of year, early spring, and she had arrived with her lover. What she recalled most clearly was the quality of the light: plangent, quivering. One day they had hired a boat and gone out onto the Laguna, and visited a small island (she forgot its name) and ate lunch in a restaurant there: clams, scallops, squid, and prawns so huge that they looked like lobsters. You could eat the shellfish then - it was before the mercury and the pollution - and you could give your heart without fear of the consequences. It was before she had learned to be cautious. When they got back to the hotel, the afternoon sun shone through the thin curtains, and they could hear the sound of oars in the canal and beyond that, the seagulls’ cry. That afternoon changed her life: she had never known pleasure like that before or since. Tom (for that had been his name) was that unusual thing: a nam who could give himself without stint.
Well, well. It ended, and messily too, with recriminations, lost books, and torn plane tickets. And here she was in Venice again, with a better eye for architectural detail and a better sense of history, her own as well as the city’s. She told herself ruefully that she ought to feel happier than this. Having a well-stocked mind should be more of a consolation that it was. She shook herself - “enough self-pity, already!” and walked out into St Mark’s Square. The air felt heavy, and as she paced over the marble pavement, she heard a rumble of thunder. Mark came out of Florian’s and walked towards her. She said: “it must be nice to have your very own square!” He smiled, something she had never seen before. It was a nice smile, emollient and playful, and he said “yes, it is. But it’s going to be a very wet square any minute”. And sure enough, there was a flash of lightning and a loud crack of thunder, and the rain fell so heavily that the drops bounced upwards. He said “let’s go back into Florian’s. Never mind what it costs”.
They ran over and found a table under a broad striped canopy, and, drinking endless cups of coffee, watched the rain. They began to talk. And here was the most extraordinary thing. It turned out that they were very, very alike: the same defensiveness, the same insecurities, the same impulsiveness, the same sudden shifts in mood, the same aesthetic tastes. She had never expected this. Their conversation was like a rivulet that became a stream and then a mighty river. There was the occasional silence, when they listened to each other breathing and thinking. And then they broke the silence again. He looked at her.
Sarah began to think that all relationships were like a road. Some of them were blocked off: some of the journeys were long, some were short. It looked as though this was going to be a path into the woods and out again into the marbled colonnades. Who knew how or where this one would end? But she knew for sure that it was important. After all, it was not every day that you met your soulmate in his very own square.