September 2018 Competition Winners are: -
Dianne Bown-Wilson of Exeter for
Malcolm Havard of Crewe for
Katherine Mezzacappa of Carrara, Italy for
I glance at my watch calculating the time remaining until, once again, it’ll all be over. Out of the 168 that comprise each week this precious hour is the only one that matters causing me to savour each minute as if it was a droplet of cool, fresh water and I, a parched desert-traveller.
As ever, apart from me, the place is empty but if ghosts should dwell within the room’s suffocating, overly-warm atmosphere they’d have endless, tragic tales to tell about those who, even just today, have occupied this space.
So many stories, so much grief.
Three easy chairs crouch round a watermarked coffee table and I perch on one, mindlessly ironing my skirt with my sweating palms. Too nervous to read or check my phone, I occupy myself by looking around, not that I expect to see anything new. Quite the opposite, everything is old, worn and shamelessly functional. The combination of cream woodchip walls, cheap floral curtains, and serviceable carpet tiles contribute nothing to homeliness and seem, should such a thing be possible, to become even less welcoming week by week. Clearly, whoever designed this space believed that those of us who have to come here deserve nothing more.
The door opens and Myra’s face appears, creased but comfortingly familiar like a well-used road map. “Ready, Eva?”
“I’ll go and see if he’s here, then.”
She retreats and in the silence, the clock’s tick is as loud as a metronome. Beneath it, a plastic-framed poster says: Quality Time is Worth More Than Quantity Time.
My heart is racing.
Suddenly, like a spectre, he appears in the doorway - all alabaster skin, copper curls and forget-me-not eyes - and for a while we look at each other as if we we’re cats, assessing whether the familiar remains unchanged.
His gaze is so intense I can hardly bear to look away but when I do, breaking the spell by smiling and reaching out to him, he doesn’t move and his expression remains blank. I’m not surprised, it’s been a fortnight since our last meeting - a sizeable gap when you’re only four.
“Come,” I say, “Let’s see if I’ve got something for you.”
He pauses for a few seconds then approaches me cautiously, his thumb in his mouth as flush as a plug in a sink. Stop that! You’re too old! But I bite back the words, knowing I’ve surrendered all rights to judge.
As he nears, I reach into my bag, extract a small package and hold it out to him. Still at arm’s length, he takes it, unsmiling, then slowly pulls at the paper wrapping. The toy car inside is nothing special, deliberately chosen so his grandmother, his father’s mother, can’t object. In the past, on top of all her other allegations, she’s apparently accused me, so my solicitor said, of trying to ‘seduce him with expensive gifts’. I was only trying to give him something he mightn’t already have, I wanted him to tell her (I’m barred from contacting her myself) - but knowing it’d change nothing, I never bothered to respond.
Seeing the car, he finally smiles, dropping to his knees to run it up and down the coffee table, as kids do.
I return his smile, as warmly and genuinely as I can. “Shall we look in the toy box and see if there are any others?” I ask. “Then we can have a race. What do you think?”
He nods, and with apprehension still squeezing my throat as tightly as a ligature I reach for his hand.
Fifty three minutes:
We slip easily into a racing car game and finally he starts to relax, rolling on the floor, making BRRMMM noises, squealing and laughing. But this much I know: contentment can segue into boredom as rapidly as the skies change on an April day. Time for something new.
“So what now?” I ask. “How do you feel about some colouring and then, maybe a snack? I bought some cake on the way here.”
“What sort do you like the most?” I’m trusting his preferences haven’t changed; I’ve so few opportunities to get anything right.
“And what sort of juice?”
“Oh dear, I must have got you mixed up with another little boy. I thought you liked turnip cake and celery juice best.”
His lip trembles. “No…”
I smile to hint I might be teasing. “Well, perhaps I have got something else, when you’ve finished colouring at least one page in this super book, we’ll see. What colour are you going to start with?”
He surveys the crayons I’ve produced, frowning with concentration, “Yellow!”
“Sunshine in a stick,” I say, but he doesn’t respond. Tongue poking out, he’s already focused on doing a good job.
Watching him, my heart melts in the radiance of his energy, enthusiasm, total in-the-moment being-ness. My boy.
When he was newly born, I used to spend hours just looking at him, never tiring of his perfection, his knowing gaze, the velvet of his skin - everything about him as exquisite as a renaissance cherub. But these days I hardly know the child and my memories of those times are steadily dissipating like wisps of bonfire smoke across a cloud-filled sky.
There’s little to replace them. These visits are no substitute for normal life.
He’s tired of colouring.
“So how’s school?” I ask, handing him a chocolate brownie and struggling to pierce the juice carton with its tiny plastic straw. Eventually it succumbs, and I place it in front of him on the coffee table between us.
“Pete still your best friend?”
He screws up his nose. “I think so.”
“That’s good, we all need best friends. And is everything alright at home with Grandma?”
His lack of meaningful response is frustrating, but I know not to press for more. And I’m hardened to the fact that he never asks me anything about myself. Part of me thinks he ought to want to get to know his mother better but how would I respond?
Well I’m clean, two years now, but still going to meetings every day. I’ve got a job, a flat, I get by, but it’s still not enough to persuade them to let you live with me.
Time is ebbing away like blood.
“How about a story?”
“Come round here then.” This is the bit of our time together that I love the most and I like to think that it’s the same for him but in all honesty, I really don’t know.
I pick up a book, settle back in the chair, and he climbs onto my lap, so close I can feel his breath on my cheek.
We start, slowly examining each picture on the page before moving to the next, but as I read the words my brain is elsewhere. They call this bonding. This is what you’re left with when your baby’s taken away.
I try and focus on the story and swallow the pain.
The door opens, Myra appears, and a surge of disappointment and resignation surges through me with such force that I feel I might be physically sick.
She frowns, pityingly, no doubt noting that I haven’t moved position from where she left me an hour ago. “Sorry he didn’t show,” she says. “I’ll get them to talk to his grandmother and remind her in no uncertain terms that he has to come.”
Sitting alone all this time, thinking, imagining, has exhausted me. Apparently, yet again, my memories of him are all I’m to be allowed; I can’t even summon the energy to cry.
Myra nods towards the poster. “Hopefully next week,” she says.
She stands in front of the mirror in her slip, turning to the side, then around, looking over her shoulder at her back and bottom. She pulls a face.
'I'm putting weight on,' she mutters. She pauses, listens. 'I said I'm putting on weight, Donald,' she calls. There is no reply. She smiles. She has often worried about her weight, about her looks as she has got older, whether he would still love her as he did when they first met, but he has never strayed, always been constant, and, whilst he has never actually said anything complimentary, which she would really appreciate, he has also never uttered the slightest word of criticism. He has never looked at her askance or grumbled to his friends or at another woman and so, after nearly fifty years, the absence of compliments is almost as good as words of praise.
But Donald would not be Donald if he did anything differently.
'I haven't got a new outfit this year,' she calls. 'It's the one that I wore to Diane's funeral, that will be all right, won't it? It is black after all. You don't mind do you?'
Donald never minds, but she feels that it is polite to ask. It is what she has always done. It is one of her mantras, that it's the secret of a good relationship not to assume but to keep talking, to always check, at least mention anyway, anything and everything, the little things and the large. She thinks that, if you don't, well that is how misunderstandings can start, and misunderstandings can fester and lead to rifts. Don't assume, for to assume makes an ass of u and me. She has always like that saying, even though she thinks that it might be American. It doesn't matter if it is right, so she tells him everything.
Which reminds her of something else. Something he would not approve of.
'I forgot to get milk,' she says, slipping the black dress over her head. 'We'll have to call into the supermarket on the way back. I know it's a Sunday and that you don't like us shopping on the Lord's day but just this once won't matter, will it?' She listens for his reply. Silence. She sighs. She sometimes wishes that he would follow her rule, but then men don't, do they? Men don't talk, well not about anything important. Football, yes, cars, of course but nothing important, nothing about feelings, theirs, ours, nothing. She still finds that frustrating, even after all these years.
'It’s my fault, I know. You always say that I should make a list. Well I did make a list but my memory isn't as good as it was and I forgot. And you didn't remind me, did you? You never do.'
Silence. That was unfair of me, she thought, I passed the blame for my mistake onto him. It's me that is not as sharp as I used to be. Donald though, he never changes. But then she remembered he never helps either.
'Yes, it IS Remembrance Sunday which makes it worse but we still need milk,' she says, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. 'If I don't get some then we'll have to have it black or with Carnation milk and you know how horrible that tastes.'
She takes his silence as affirmation. Communication is not always verbal, after all, she tells herself, that's what being married to the same person for so long gives you, an understanding of what is all right, what is acceptable, even if they don't say anything. She should know, it has only ever been the two of them. She would have loved children, so would Donald but it was not to be and there was no need to dwell on it or to wish about what could not be. It was what it was and that was an end to it.
She zips up the dress, smoothes it down, is satisfied if not happy with what she sees. 'If we'd had children, I wouldn't have kept my figure,' she says, quietly so that there is no chance of Donald hearing. She does not see the need to bring something up that might upset him. Not when there is nothing to be done about it, that would be pointless, hurt for hurts sake. She keeps it to herself, that is a woman's role, she tells herself, to bear, if not children then to stoically bear problems. She doubts that modern women think that way, and that is fine for them, but she is of a different generation, the generation that just put up with things, the generation that does not complain and want what you cannot have.
She sits at the dressing table, brushes her hair and does her make-up, trying to ignore the lines around her eyes that her foundation will not hide. One last check. Acceptable. All done. Oh except for the final touch, the vital, essential accessory.
'I'm ready,' she calls. 'Except for my poppy. Have you got it? Silly me, of course you have, you never forget.'
She walks into the lounge. The poppy is there waiting for her. Donald smiles at her from the picture frame, a young man, smart in his RAF uniform.
As he was.
As he is.
As he always will be.
She smiles back. She puts her coat on and pins the poppy to her lapel.
'See you soon,' she says and heads out.
Scholars agree that Titian’s ‘The Venus of Urbino’ is in all probability the portrait of a contemporary Venetian courtesan.
Angelica’s once luminous flesh has rotted into the shifting mudflats from which the Serenissima rises, for fifteen years have passed since I accompanied her corpse to Campo San Benedetto. It was early, and there were few mourners. The city fidgeted into wakefulness as the young priest muttered over her coffin, scattering drops of holy water, the sexton patiently leaning on his spade. Looking into the hole he’d dug, I saw scattered bones, greasy with dirt, and fought down the vomit that burned my throat. I trembled to think of Angelica’s tapering fingers shrivelling, darkening, the nails lifting loose, those lips drawing back from her teeth in a grimace she never had in life, the silky strands of hair separating from her scalp – these and my memories mixing with the common remains in that pit: of women who would have hated her - men who could never have afforded her. Oh, Angelica!
Against the rhythm of the sexton’s spade, the priest shook my hand; I was the last to leave, hating to leave her there alone. Today it is I who am solitary, the only one left of any of us who followed her coffin, indeed of any of those who cried aloud in her arms, for I have lived almost a century. The priest was too young, too poor to have known her, lover of cardinals – yet she might have embraced one such as he from pure kindness and a liking for his gentle face.
The priest hesitated; I realised he was expecting a fee.
My boatman sculled me home in silence. I sat beneath the felze though the pearl-grey morning was dry, so that I could weep unobserved, lying back on the cushions and remembering Angelica’s tales of love-making in her own little floating cabin, with the rush of water about her ears, and the knowledge that all Venice passed only feet away. She even once coupled with Alessandro Vendramin as his noble spouse sailed close by, going to see her sister in the parlour of her convent.
All who gaze on my painting of Angelica must see that she has not risen from sleep, nor stepped out of her bath, but has cast aside her garments and lies waiting, on an evening in May, before the shutters are closed. Her gaze never leaves the onlooker’s face. I recall too that as I painted, her flesh became warmer, more pliant before my eyes. As something like a frown crossed her face, I swallowed, and laid down my brush as carefully as I could without looking at what I did. Her lips parted and I caught sight of the point of her tongue as I stood up and walked across to where she lay, and she, abandoning the pose, raised her arms to me.
‘Angelica!’ There, I have cried her name aloud, though I am alone, the loneliest I have ever been, and mine is the cracked voice of an ancient. Hearing me, Francesco comes in, solicitude in his brown eyes. ‘Father?’ he asks.
‘I was dreaming.’ Indeed I was.
‘I’ve finished that Magdalen,’ he says. My son is the most diligent of pupils and the most disappointing, an accomplished copyist, but no artist. He realised this long ago, and so I have not seen that wounded look of his for some years. I have lost count of the number of canvases of Magdalens in the desert that have left this workshop. This latest one conforms to the tested pattern: tears glistening on her cheeks, the russet strands of hair failing to cover the naked breast – one must not disappoint the patron (the chaplain of the Convent of the Convertite; what better subject for he who must confess all those penitent whores?). Nine-tenths of this painting is Francesco’s work, but without my tenth and my ‘Titianus pinxit’ no-one would give good money for it.
Angelica on her couch I painted only once (you will see other images of her half-wrapped in furs, or gazing in a mirror, but never utterly naked as she was that time). The patron came to me with her scent still upon him, eyes glittering, trying to find words to describe their night of rapture. Though he did not dress as one, Angelica told me he was a Cardinal, a Florentine prince.
‘She made no pretence, you know,’ he said. ‘I had to earn her bliss. Paint that if you can!’
I could. I did.
For half a ducat a drab will make all the sounds you think you deserve to hear. If she did not, you would consider your manhood maligned and your pocket robbed. Not my Angelica, who refused to feign her pleasure. She chose carefully: no belching Bremen merchants for her, no matter how generous. Nor would she go with a man again if once he failed to please her.
They say revenge is a dish best taken cold. I know this – I have, as I say, lived many years, and no longer care who knows this story.
Angelica was at the beginning of her career when she suffered the worst punishment a woman of her calling could endure; if any blame is to be apportioned to her (I see none) it could only be due to her inexperience – I thought to write innocence, but that is the wrong word. Yet already the men who were admitted to her salone in Campo Santa Maria Formosa were only those connected with the Council of Ten, or were prelates, foreign ambassadors, publishers, architects, writers – or artists of note.
Lorenzo Venier was one of her patrician lovers. Angelica’s offence was to close her house to him one evening when he was expected, for more congenial business had come her way. He could not stomach that others saw him banging on her door yet no-one came to answer, and went away with his face burning and rage in his heart.
She told me that he pretended to laugh off the affair as a simple misunderstanding, accepting her pretty apologies gallantly – whilst he plotted. One evening, brought there by a boatman who would not meet her eye, she and Lorenzo feasted on the island of Malamocco.
‘As I washed down the last of that fat partridge,’ she said, ‘Lorenzo laughed, saying, “Let us see by morning how insatiable you really are!” I was young, too young to ask myself why it was he had eaten little, and drunk less. When I couldn’t manage another mouthful, we took to the water again, and that little craft brought us not back to Venice but to a shuttered house on a side-canal in Chioggia.
‘I heard whispering and shuffling outside the door of our room, believing the sounds to come from the servants. But the moment Lorenzo had finished with me, he sprang up, and leaving me lying on the ruckled sheets, flung open the door.
‘And then they came, the trentuno reale – not thirty-one, but eighty – that is why the punishment is called “royal”. Who established these totals to debase a defenceless woman I do not know. Not that I counted, for I thought I should be dead before they were finished with me. No patricians with their lineage inscribed in the Golden Book these, oh no. Wretches who carried the stink and grease of their lowly professions on their finger-ends, on their foul breath, in the dirty hair of face and body. They held me helpless by wrists and ankles, splayed like poor St. Andrew on his cross, and one by one they defiled me, whilst as many as could crowded in at the door to witness the spectacle: fishmongers, tanners, bargemen, bloodied butchers, sacristans reeking of wormed wood and incense – Lorenzo’s silent boatman. My screams were drowned out by their jeering. Nameless men – men deserving of no name.’
But amongst them there were five she knew, Venier’s drinking companions. I knew them too.
She told me that it was on her way home by barge, jolted between crates of vegetables and in pain as much in mind as in body (though she was to spend six days under the hands of her doctors) that she vowed her tormentor should not win. Her next journey on the waters of the lagoon had to be a triumph. That resolve did not shake even when creeping ashore at dusk onto the landing stage of the Zattere, the first thing she saw were these words scrawled upon the wall: ‘Angelica Zaffetta satisfied everyone, 6th April 1531.’
She was superb. She threw a party, told everyone she had been ‘indisposed’. Some came from curiosity, but left in admiration. I called on her the next day, for she wished to discuss a commission with me, the first portrait I ever painted of her. She posed for it in brocade, starched lace, weighed down with gems – triumphant. She whispered: ‘If I have the pox, these will pay for my care.’
She did not. One assumes that most of her violators were too poor to have afforded anyone other than their greasy wives.
Our revenge was not a rapier, nor a shove in the small of the back into a dark canal. Deodata was a foundling from the orphanage of the Pietà who had been sent out as a servant. Her story was depressingly common: seduced by her illustrious employer, the man’s wife had thrown her out, forcing her to earn her bread the only way left to her. A year later Deodata’s poor face was testament to the seed of destruction buried deep in her; I do not mean that she showed signs of contagion – not then - but that a customer of hers had come back, driven mad by the tartar she’d infected him with, and beaten her for it. I explained gently to the girl what I wanted her to do. In exchange she would be fed, and clothed for her task as sumptuously as the wealthiest of her sisterhood – as richly as my beloved Angelica, for she lent her a dress for the purpose.
Venier had left Venice for a fowling expedition on the Brenta when Deodata visited each of his chief accomplices in turn, apparently sent by him as an expression of thanks for their part in Angelica’s humiliation: if an artist can imitate life as I can, a signature presents no challenge. Afterwards, I provided Deodata with her convent dowry, and she accepted the veil of the Convertite, where she was cared for and lived out her life in imitation of the Magdalen herself. Thus I credit myself with the saving of a Christian soul - whilst condemning those who defiled my Angelica to the fires of hell in their own bodies.
We waited. Ten years later Bastian Zon flung himself into the canal at San Stae, driven mad by the pain in his distorted joints. The others died at varying intervals in the Incurabili. Marin Balanzan’s nose rotted out of his pretty face. Alvise da Rivoltela was chained and raving at the end, and Domenego di Polo’s brain could be seen pulsing through the gap in his skull: surgeons from Padua brought their students to view him. Zuane Strata lost the power of speech and so could not tell them that he had already been bled that day.
Venier cheated us of our revenge. He succumbed to malaria on that same jaunt to the Brenta, but on his death bed an anonymous letter informed him he was a cuckold. His lady, though, had none of Angelica’s arts: she was dull, wheezy and malodorous. But I of course would have done anything for Angelica.
The Long List
Secrets by Julia Williams
Simply the Best by Ron Mansell
Angelica by Katherine Mezzacappa
Review by L. D. Clark
The Buses are Late Again by Elaine Turley
A Fatal Blow by Emma Bassett
Rising Moon by Linda Topliss
Remembrance by Malcolm Havard
Rapid Advances by Kevin James
Quality Time by Dianne Bown-Wilson
Timely Revenge by Jim Truelove
Just the Truth by Amy Derkin
Lovely Linda by Joyce Walker
The Short List
Angelica by Katherine Mezzacappa
Review by L. D. Clark
Remembrance by Malcolm Havard
Quality Time by Dianne Bown-Wilson
Timely Revenge by Jim Truelove
Lovely Linda by Joyce Walker