Andrea Monteath (Edith Cowan University, Australia)
The man peered through a diminutive gap in a ridiculously tall tray of finger sandwiches, pastries and cream cakes. The tray, three-tiers high and topped with a golden artichoke, did not fit neatly on the petite marble table. The tray was oval. The table was round. It was simple geometry really. Where, he thought, was the grand design? To Angelo, this was a mystery. For generations, it seemed to him that this famous Italian caffé, along with a good many other businesses, had existed outside the basic laws of mathematics, mismatching its way through the serious art of commerce. It irked him. Like misaligned beams in the eyes of an architect, or too much salt in the soup.
Again, his weather-scaled hands flew up to smooth a few errant strands of grey hair, a blue vein forming like a volcanic mountain ridge above his slate-coloured eyes. Darkly, he stirred sugar into his coffee. He observed. The tide of human traffic eased past his table collecting small dots of takeaway crème-anglaise on hips and elbows. Bad planning. Clearly, wider aisles were needed. Angelo grimaced at the possibility that small dots of ‘person’ might, in turn, be accumulating on his aisle-side pastry. He strategised. The éclair would be sacrificed, a refund sought. This sort of thing, he thought, was all too common.
From behind the cake tray, Angelo was spying. Through a tiny multi-grain window he studied his mark, a sleek, tidy-looking woman of any age between forty and sixty. Her hair was cut very short, studied wisps of chocolate framed an unlined forehead. Her clothes were cut with scalpel-like precision. Unfeminine, thought Angelo. Mannish, almost. Why, he mused, would such a pretty-looking woman choose to dress like a funeral director? Briefly, he wondered if the woman was a lesbian. He’d never actually met a lesbian before but had heard some things in his sixty-eight years. He’d read something, somewhere, about a pop star and her girlfriend having a baby. To each his own, he thought. It would explain the clothes. Angelo once heard that lesbians had a border guard of genes flicked just so. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t like men. It was, he thought, like a card game. There are simply a fixed number of hearts to go around. If someone claims to have another one, he’s bluffing. The cards are what they are. A lesbian could only pretend to love him.
The woman balanced a wisp of a silver cell phone in the palm of one manicured hand. She held it aloft like an injured dove, studying it intently for several minutes as if, at any moment, it might unfold and escape through the gilded window to join a low-brow gang of pigeons calling from the square. Which, of course, it might have. The windows of the Caffè Florian were thrown completely open to the pulse of tourists who coursed through the portico of the Piazza San Marco. Inevitably, with the allure of a three-car pile-up, the traffic slowed outside Venice’s most famous coffee shop. A steady parade of faces peered inside. Nearly three centuries old, the Florian’s sumptuous ‘drawing rooms’ had once been creative and political havens for local artists, writers and philosophers. Revolutions were planned and odes were penned in their private corners. Every inch of wall-space was adorned with paintings, gilt mirrors and intricate hand-painted tiles. Outside, the Florian’s bow-tied quartet played Viennese waltzes and Argentinian tangos for patrons, backpackers and street vendors alike. Inside, each padded, red velvet banquette entitled one weary, well-financed backside to the quintessential Venetian experience. An understated espresso was ten euros. English High Tea cost forty. Musica, an additional five.
The woman kept her back to the rubber-necking. Angelo stealthily shifted a mille feuille to the left to get a better view. A herringbone wafer of icing slid unstoppably into a neighbouring profiterole. The woman’s smallish eyes darted toward the pastry and rested uneasily on Angelo’s own furtive gaze. They were odd eyes, he thought, an unnatural muddy blue, outlined in black. Like a charcoal drawing, hastily re-coloured. Contacts, perhaps? The woman looked away. Angelo was dismissed. Obviously, a lesbian, he thought. She reminded him of someone, though. An echo. She was like the melody of a favourite song, rearranged as elevator muzak.
The woman was tired. It was not the contented kind of tired, the kind that follows the puff and pinch of a body coaxed to speed. It was, instead, the generic, one-size-fits-all tiredness that arrives before a person has first passed out of jerky, morning dreams, to take up residence in the lungs, to limit the breath and squeeze the heart. It was a tiredness that robbed her hours of their possibilities and left only enough for a bus-ride home at the end of every day.
She checked her phone. No messages. This, she thought, was probably a good thing. The specialist had said she’d call today. No news is good news or, at least, no worse than yesterday’s news. The doctor’s telephone call would make no difference to the outcome of course, but still, she was nervous. Her husband was going to die and that was that. No remissions, no last minute reprieves, no miracle cures. He was off and, in time, his familiar shape would grow blurry, then dark as his silhouette shrunk to a faint dot on her horizon. She’d seen the movies, read the books. Heard the euphemisms. There was nothing charming about ‘pushing up daisies’. It was not entertainment. She checked the screen again. No messages. The tiredness turned in her chest and stretched lazily into her stomach. She waited.
Angelo searched for signs. Yes, there was some indefinable quality in this woman that made him think of Imma. He couldn’t think why. His beautiful Immaculata. They married young, the kind of naïve youth that rarely exists anymore. It was a ‘shotgun wedding’. Sour spinster aunts counted the embarrassing deficit of months between nuptials and nappies. Blame was tossed from mother to father, family to family. A grandmother refused to speak while women fetched weak tea and patted her wrinkled hand. The family priest was consulted in hushed whispers. Angelo was older. Yes, it was definitely his fault.
On their wedding night, they moved directly from their family homes into a rented flat above an Indian restaurant. The flat was tiny, filled with expensive Italian wedding crystal and shabby, second-hand furniture. At night, cockroaches owned the kitchen walls and benches. There was a permanent grey-green shadow of mould in the shower recess. The communal basement laundry smelled of urine. Imma’s parents complained about the smells.
‘It stinks of curry,’ sniffed Imma’s mother.
‘It’s not curry, Mama, it’s tandoori on Thursday.’
Two or three times a week they heard the cries of the woman in the corner flat above them. Drunken roars. The crash of furniture and people being hurled into thin walls. In bed, they listened as the familiar storm raged above them. The slam of the door. The hurried click of heels on the steel stairwell. Hours later, soft tiptoes and the muted jingle of keys in the lock. Snoring. The woman always came back. Angelo would gather Imma to his chest and wonder what drove the woman to return, time and again, to a life where everything was broken.
To Angelo, life was perfect. Imma was all cascading dark hair, round belly and dimpled thighs. In truth, no one had needed a shotgun. Angelo fell into marriage as eagerly as he’d shed his virginity in the back of his uncle’s delivery van. After more than forty-eight years of marriage, she remained his ideal woman – his benchmark for femininity. When Imma left, Angelo woke up falling. With every day that passed he fell further.
Angelo sipped his coffee.
‘Bitter’, he scowled into the blackness. ‘Whatever happened to cubes?’ he wondered, carefully tearing open another black sachet of white sugar.
He remembered this place. He and Imma had been here together.
‘The same’, he thought, ‘but different’.
He looked around, scanning the walls for something in particular. A portrait. Imma had liked it. In it, an unsmiling young girl, black hair tied back from a pale face. Angelo never cared for the painting.
‘Such a stern face for a little girl,’ he’d said.
Imma didn’t think so.
‘Not stern. She looks like she knows something important, serious maybe. She’s waiting, I think.’
The portrait was gone. Angelo stood up, bumping the table with his knees. The cake tower swayed then settled. A phone rang. His eyes swept the caffé, methodically checking then rejecting the assortment of cherubs, angels and bare-breasted ‘native’ women that lined the plush parlour.
‘Perhaps another room…’ he murmured.
The woman jumped at the sudden shrill chirping of her phone.
‘You can never be prepared,’ she thought, flipping open the silver pod.
The conversation lasted four or five minutes. The woman said ‘hello’, nodded politely at the faceless messenger and finished with the obligatory ‘thank you’. And then it was done. Fade in the music, roll the final credits then fade out.
There was mention of drugs.
‘Not a cure, you understand, just something to buy him some time before, well, you know…’
The best medical guess was seven to ten years.
‘Seven to ten,’ she’d said.
It sounded like a prison sentence – something you got for stealing cars or robbing a liquor store.
The doctor was upbeat, had been to the seminar on ‘bad news’. She made it seem more of a game-plan than a death sentence. A brisk, Ten-Point Plan for Managing Your Successful Terminal Illness. Step one, draw up a Power of Attorney. Step two, locate nursing care. Step three…
‘You still have plenty of time,’ she announced cheerily, ‘it doesn’t happen all at once.’
The woman closed her eyes and visualised her husband at his drawing board. It was comforting to picture him there, sitting at the kitchen table in a small pool of light. The neck of his extendable desk lamp was broken. She tried to remember it new. Couldn’t. Two fresh pencils held it in place with duct tape. The table covered in plans and paper. Fine ink pens, set square, rulers, cigarettes. Smoke spiralled from an ashtray.
They had their rituals. She would nag as she set down the coffee.
‘If you don’t wear your glasses, you’ll end up cross-eyed like your mother.’
‘If I wear my glasses I’ll see the hairy mole on your mother’s cheek.’
‘If you don’t stop smoking, I’ll leave you for that Greek god at the real estate place.’
‘If I do stop smoking I’ll have the money to buy a trophy wife.’
Angelo was a draughtsman, not an architect like his father.
‘No, it’s not the same thing,’ she’d heard him say over and over again to new acquaintances and smug in-laws.
He loved his work – the solitude, the late night scratch of sharp pencils and perfect angles. It suited him. He had always been shy. Awkward with people. She understood that about him. Some thought he was arrogant. She knew it wasn’t so. In conversation he was a silent observer. He listened hard, conserved his words and distilled his thoughts. Like a poet. Finally, when all the elements intersected precisely, he made his contribution. Often, he surprised people. Occasionally offended. Rarely was there anything between the extremes. He never planned it that way. His thoughts simply emerged fully-formed and unfiltered. He was a man for whom everything was clear. He loved the ordered space of his home, the logic and line of his drawing and the warm adventure that was his wife. He wasted neither words nor time.
‘Now’, thought the woman, ‘time will waste him’. Ten years, she thought, was a very long time to say goodbye.
Angelo wandered through the caffé’s drawing rooms, examining the centuries-old artwork. He scanned the gloriously frosted walls, dismissing this masterpiece and that. He checked again. It wasn’t there. Her favourite painting was missing. Imma was missing. He felt pressure in his chest. His eyes stung. Tears gathered.
One white-jacketed waiter whispered to another.
‘Do you need assistance, Signor?’ asked someone close.
Angelo’s arms flung out from his chest, the ache of electricity in his finger joints. Startled back from somewhere, Angelo spun to face the waiter.
‘Yes, you can!’ he snapped. ‘My wife’s painting is gone. It was right here on this wall and now it’s gone. She will be very disappointed when she arrives.’
The waiter stepped back.
‘The artwork here, sir, it has not been moved in over ten years. Perhaps it is another caffé you are thinking of?’
‘No it was not another caffé. Don’t question me, young man, I’m not an idiot! It was right in this spot here, where this… this… shiny round disk is.’
Angelo stabbed an angry finger at an enormous gilt-edged mirror, his voice shrill.
‘The mirror, sir?’
‘Yes,yes! The mirror.’
‘I am sorry sir, but I believe this mirror has been in this spot for many years. It was here when I started work at the Florian. Perhaps the manager could help you, sir?’
Angelo felt the heat ebb from his face, his anger melting. He lifted his chin and gazed out into the piazza. He could not see the quartet. He changed the subject.
And where are the sugar cubes I asked for? The coffee is undrinkable! The crema is burned, just like last time. Honestly, I don’t know why we keep coming here.’
‘Very sorry, sir. I will get your sugar immediately.’
The waiters scattered like startled gulls.
The woman slipped the phone into her handbag. There would be nothing else to discuss. No eleventh-hour reprieve from the Governor. No cavalry. Just the thin net of a lifetime past to hold them together, and a future of daily goodbyes. Alzheimer’s disease. Poacher of presidents and now her husband. It was so unfair. For a man like Angelo there were so many kinder, more dignified ways to die. A short, sharp heart attack. Death by falling scaffolding. Clean. Precise. Like him.
‘The gentleman asked for more sugar, Madam. Will I leave this with you?’
The woman looked up. A waiter offered a bowl of black, sugar packets.
‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘but why…’
‘I am very sorry,’ said the waiter, ‘we have no cubes. Shall I remove the tray, Madam?’
The tray and Angelo were gone, a trail of torn and twisted, sugar packets dotted the marble table-top. Cold coffee waited in a cup.
In the piazza, bodies swayed. The quartet was playing something from the forties. Swing. A few people danced. Angelo tapped his foot to the beat of the music. He remembered the tune but not the words. Then Imma came and Angelo felt his feet on the ground.
‘When did you cut your hair?’ he asked.
The small, dark woman slipped her arm into his.
‘Just yesterday,’ she lied.
Angelo squeezed her arm tightly.
‘I missed you,’ his voice small.
‘I miss you too.’
Andrea Monteath was born in Montreal, Canada and has lived in Australia for over thirty years. She has an honours degree in Writing, and is currently writing a philosophy and ethics textbook for teenagers as her PhD thesis. Andrea lives in Perth with her husband, two sons and a sleepy, chocolate Labrador called Columbus.