Issue 1

John Banville
The Sinking City (a novel in progress)

Venice. Forty years ago, more. It is wintertime and La Serenissima’s vaunted charms are all crazed over by the cold. There are caps of snow on the bronze horses outside St Mark’s and a freezing mist is suspended over the canals, under the quaint toy bridges. Adam is sitting in a restaurant, at a corner table upstairs, with a view across the lagoon to where the wedding-cake façade of a white church which he should know the name of gleams eerily through the midday murk. In some corner of the low-slung sky a weak sun is shining and each wavelet of the leaden canal waters is tipped with a spur of sullen silver-yellow light. He eats lamb chops and drinks a melony tokai from Friuli — today he recalls that wine as if he were tasting it again, the tawny flash and oily sway of it in the glass, the sour-sweet tang of the fat late grape. He is grieving for his wife, recently dead. Grief is an enormous globe that has been thrust unceremoniously into his arms, he totters under the unmanageable greasy weight of it. Thus burdened he has fled to the sinking city where there is no one who knows him and he knows no one.
      And promptly a stranger approaches his table and introduces himself. He is a long-limbed fair smooth-faced personage with a narrow head and high cheekbones and a somehow inappropriate ginger moustache which he keeps fingering as if he knows it is not quite right. He wears English tweeds though he is no Englishman, and an unlikely canary-yellow waistcoat and a matching yellow silk foulard that droops negligently from the breast pocket of his houndstooth jacket. His name, outlandishly to Adam’s ears, is Zeno, and he claims to be a count. Presently the two of them are crossing the canal in a gondola. The winter afternoon is all salt and smoke and the harsh cries of seagulls. Adam sits in a huddle on the damp wooden seat with his thin raincoat pulled tight around him. He seems to himself a hollowed-out vessel with something rattling around inside it, the dried pea that his formerly robust self has shrunk to. At his back the gondolier, a gnarled old-timer wearing a short pea-coat over his regulation striped jersey, plies a long yellow oar and croons snatches of a barcarole. The boat wallows in the wash of a passing launch. Vague rain drifts out of the air.
      The house is in a narrow alley behind the Salute. It is apparent from the dank air and the silence hanging over everything like dust sheets that no one is living here. On a low table there is set an enormous marble head of Zeus, neckless, with a tight crown of curls and a pubic beard, seeming sunk to its chin in the wood and wearing an expression of puzzlement and slow-gathering indignation. In an armchair facing this irate godhead Adam sits, hapless and distracted, his hands resting limply in his lap with palms upturned. The Count, who has not taken off his overcoat, produces a bottle of red wine and two goblets of purple Murano glass. He has the blandly unimpedable manner of a circus ringmaster. The wine is as cold as stone and so thick it makes Adam’s gorge rise. Outside, the air has turned to the colour of watered ink. The parchment-brown dome of the Salute looms in a window. He feels spongy and raw all over, he has felt like this for weeks, sodden with grief, flayed by guilt. He had thought bereavement would be entirely an inward process, a malady of the soul, and is dismayed by its brute physical manifestations. His eyes scald, his lips are cracked, even the follicles of his hair seem to simmer and twitch. He is convinced he has developed a smell, too, a rank hot meaty stink, and there is a salt taste in his mouth that nothing will shift.
      The young woman when she arrives is called Alba. Her skin is of an extraordinary translucency — Adam thinks of ice, wet pearls, breathed-on glass. She perches on the arm of his chair. Her gaze moves here and there, settling with mothlike inconsequence on random objects, a wine glass on the table, the frayed edge of a floor rug, the god’s big glaring head. She has a look, at once dreamy and expectant, as if she were awaiting the imminent arrival of some as yet unknown marvellous thing. When she shifts her position on the chair-arm and puts a hand briefly on Adam’s shoulder to steady herself he twitches as if a ghost had touched him. The Count beams upon them both and seems mentally to rub his hands.
      The bedroom is bare of all furniture save a large low square bed with a white cover and no pillows; above it on the whitewashed wall hangs an iron crucifix, which instead of a figure has four studs of ruby glass set one into each of its extremities. Adam savours the sudden candour of being with a stranger in a strange room, unclothed, in broad or at least broadish daylight; how cool the air feels against his skin, how poised the stillness, poised and somehow archaic. Alba has stepped out of her clothes in one flowing stylised movement, like a torero trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull. She is looking to the side, downwards; her eyelids are so shinily pale and fine that Adam can see clearly all the tiny veins in them, blue as lapis. He takes a floating step forward until his chest touches the tips of her nipples, behind which he senses all the gravid tremulousness of her breasts. She puts her hands flat against his chest and leans into him in the simulacrum of a swoon, making a faint mewling sound. When he kisses her hot soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently—faint as it is there is no mistaking that taste of fish-slime and sawdust. He does not mind.
      They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, a sort of passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a vertiginously inviting precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory, avid and intense. When they are wearied at last, and that beacon in the jungle has been extinguished, they lie together contentedly in a tangle of arms and legs and talk of this and that, in their own languages, each understanding hardly a word of what the other says. Alba, twisting a lock of her hair round and round a finger, pauses now and then to explore with the tip of an agile tongue the mauve bruise at the side of her mouth. She is from somewhere in the north—she waves towards the window behind her, showing him an unkempt armpit — Bergamo, it sounds like, hence perhaps her pale skin and paler hair, for he imagines bergamasks as blond laughing types.
      He tells her about Dorothy who has died. He marvels at how easy it all is, suddenly, saying these things.
      In a little while he rises from the white bed and wanders off through the house until he finds himself in what appears to be the kitchen, an odd elongated room, also white, that makes him think of a milking parlour, with a lofty ceiling and a row of frosted-glass windows high up along one wall. Zeno the Count is there, still in his overcoat, seated at a small round table on which stands, appropriately enough, a glass of milk, partly drunk. The Count, who is taking his ease and smoking a cigarette with his milk, greets him with an open-handed gesture, in the papal manner, smiling. Adam is conscious of being shirtless and barefoot. He sees, in the stark light reflected from the walls, that the Count is older than he had seemed at first. His sideburns are grizzled and there are broken veins in his nose and in the pouches under his eyes. Adam senses a large weariness in him, the weariness of an old actor in the middle of a long run in a poor part. Yet perhaps he really is a count, last of a line as old as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, reduced to pandering to bereft and needy travellers such as this one that he chanced upon today. He goes on smiling; his expression is one of calm and not unkindly knowing. Adam sits down opposite him, suddenly exhausted, and folds his arms before him on the table and rests his forehead on his arms. Shivers pass across his back in spasms like gusts of wind upon the surface of the sea. Bells are tolling slowly all over Venice. He weeps, making no sound. The Count rises and taking off his overcoat comes and drapes it on his trembling shoulders. ‘Povero,’ he murmurs, ‘you are cold.’ Adam weeps on.
      Dorothy, called Dot, and sometimes, with an aptness it would be heartless to acknowledge, Dottie, a mere fortnight dead, is already, this day in Venice, fading in his thought. Perhaps she had not been sufficiently present, when alive, for the memory of her to flourish properly after death. This he thinks is a strange conjecture. She was a large woman, tall, that is, but not at all heavy. He recalls his surprise, the first time he took her in his arms, the first time she submitted to being taken into his arms, at the lightness of her; it was as if all her long bones, of which she seemed to have more than the normal human quota, were hollow as reeds. He might have been embracing a tall delicate bird, at once graceful and ungainly, a heron, perhaps, or a cormorant. It strikes him how much she resembled his mother, they were the same type, lean, dark, driven. Why did he not realise this before now? She was secretive, was Dorothy, and led an endearingly furtive existence. The house where they lived for the five years of their marriage was not large yet she could somehow manage to disappear in it. A whole morning would pass without a sound from her, so that he would assume she had gone out, then suddenly, padding from his workroom to the kitchen or the lavatory, he would chance upon her lurking in a passage or a doorway or the dim recesses of a room. She would start and turn to him quickly, holding her hands behind her back and widening her already big eyes in a look of desperate innocence, like a naughty child caught in the act. When he was with her he had always the impression that she was listening beyond him for something in the house, some small telltale sound that would give her away. He wondered what she did all day long. She took up projects — gardening, carpentry, exotic cooking — but quickly tired of them. He could always tell when a pastime had palled, for she had a particular way of laying a thing down out of her hands, a cookery book, a pair of secateurs, a ball of wool pierced heraldically with two crossed knitting needles, and turning vaguely away, with a faint vague sigh, trailing her fingers along a chair-back or the edge of a window-sill. The thing would stay there, where she had left it, until by a mysterious process of temporal transformation its original identity would blur and it would become a mere object, a fixture, lifeless and inutile, and as often as not he would be the one who in the end would put it away, discreetly, without comment. She had the guardedly distracted air of holding back some large revelation, or terrible confession. In latter days she had grown increasingly remote, and he would catch her looking at him with a frowning surmise, as if she were trying to recall who exactly he was. He would say something and feel that he was calling out to her, more loudly than he had meant to, and the light of recognition would dawn in her face and she would smile her radiant helpless smile that seemed to start from a long way off and make its way to him over immense and difficult distances.
      The thought that torments him now — we are still in Venice forty years ago, the wound of her loss is still raw — is that he did not value her enough. He took her, as the saying is, for granted. He did not understand her and did not try to understand her. He was content, more than content, to have her as an enigma. He was proud for having taken her on, this big reserved woman whom others shied away from uneasily. She was the kind of wife he should have, a wife fit for a great man, the great-man-in-waiting he knew himself to be; he thought with satisfaction of the biographers, when in time they got to work on him, puzzling their heads over his choice of helpmeet. What he did not consider, what he did not bother to consider, is that she was an enigma only to him, not to herself. What for him was strangeness was for her the perfectly ordinary. The fact is, as he suddenly sees, she was just another human soul, a little more peculiar than the usual, perhaps, a little more tentative, a little more guarded, but essentially no different from all the others, including him. This failure on his part, this cavalier withholding of comprehension, acknowledgement, sympthy, is the source of the guilt that is now corroding him like acid. Is it that he did not love her? The earliest lesson he learned from his mother is that love is action — what you do, not what you feel — but now he wonders if it was a false lesson, if his mother was wrong in this, as she was in so many things. Perhaps to love truly is not to act but to understand? Putting this and other like questions to himself makes him shiver. He is not accustomed to doubt, and certainly not to self-doubt. He has no time for psychology — in the beginning was the deed! — and despises those who have. He sees now how vulnerable this leaves him, how ill-equipped for the unprotected place where suddenly he finds himself standing all alone in bewilderment, pain and rage.
      When they took her body from the water there were stones in her pockets. How could she think a few stones would be enough to weigh her down and carry her to the bottom? Surely she should have known the basic physics. Had she been his wife for nothing? What sank her, he must suppose, was the weight not of stone but of unhappiness and despair. Of which he knew nothing. Nothing? Not an inkling? No.
      And the girl, now, the girl in Venice, Alba, was she Dottie’s ghost, come back somehow to comfort him? Once, many years later, he saw her again — Alba, I mean, not Dorothy, for he sees her every day, in a manner of speaking. This sighting took place not in Venice but some other small land-locked Italian city, Siena, Lucca, Mantua, he cannot remember which. He was sure it was she, although it was the merest glimpse he had of her, in the street, in the midst of shuffling crowds. She looked no older than she did that afternoon in the house under the Salute, but she was changed, greatly changed. She was in a wheelchair, being pushed by another young woman, short and round and angry-seeming, with a frizz of red hair like so many filaments of copper wire bristling with electricity. This second person also Adam was convinced he recognised. Was she not there, in the background, that day in Venice, when he was trying to leave and got into a wrangle over money with the Count? The Count though firm about his fee remained amusedly forbearing, showing the faintly rueful pained smile of an adult being haggled with by a clamorous child over sweets, while, yes, there behind him this red-headed fat young woman prowled the room in seeming anger, smoking a long cigarette and ejecting smoke in thin quick jets like squirts of venom. How strange, the way they come and go, memory’s figments. Anyway, the wheelchair in which Alba sat, or better say was held fast, was of the old-fashioned kind, black, with a hoop attached to the wheels on either side for the occupant to grasp and propel herself onwards, or backwards, for that matter , and two handles behind should she need to be pushed, which evidently she did. She was clutching the padded arms of the chair and leaning forward urgently, her upper body twisted tensely a little to one side, as if the red-head had set off with her unexpectedly while she was in the act of trying to pull herself up forcibly out of the seat. Her feet, with those slightly splayed blunt toes that he surprised himself by remembering clearly, were braced on the foot-rests, as if she might be about to make another urgent attempt at leaping up and effecting an escape. She wore, heartbreakingly, a pair of transparent cheap pink sandals. Her look of thrilled expectancy that he had remarked that afternoon in front of the god had become one of angry distraction; the marvellous thing she had been waiting for would now not come. Her lips moved in a slack rapid mumbling, like those of a stricken penitent in the confessional. He might have hailed her, might have followed after the two of them and accosted them, but what would he have said, what done? Instead, he went on standing there in the lemony sunlight of the Italian noon, and saw again Venice in winter, the murky air and the wheeling gulls and old Charon crooning for his coin.