Fiction

The sewing woman

IN THE WINDOW on the other side of the narrow canal a woman sat sewing.

Susan wished she'd stop, just for a few minutes, and lean out and turn her head to the left and see the pink light streaming out from the setting sun: a rosy flood swishing between the buildings on both sides, splashing the water ambulance that was being repaired in the open space under the boat builder's place and shimmering against the glass door of the corner shop where she and Bernard went that afternoon for their bottle of prosecco. They'd had to step over the big yellow dog that lay alongside the counter.

Or if the woman didn't stop soon, Susan hoped she'd lean out later that night and see the full moon that by then would be hovering over the roof of the artists' studio.

Susan couldn't see what she was sewing but she hoped it was a piece of embroidery with threads of gold and scarlet and blue. The woman sat for so long while Susan had been on her feet all day with Bernard, drinking it all in.

Susan envied the woman one thing: her solitude. Bernard, her lover, got between her and Venice, his big frame blocking out details she would have loved to pore over, as close as if she were the woman on the other side of the canal, bending to make sure her needle went into the exact gap between the weft and warp of the linen. She'd have liked to stop and smell the wood or whatever it was that the mask was made of in the shop in the campo with the only tree she'd seen in Venice. Such a funny mask, it reminded her of her daughter's cat. She'd have liked to buy a rope of liquorice but she couldn't make up her mind between a rope filled with green or orange paste and Bernard tugged at her elbow because he was being buffeted by the shoppers and tourists and buskers and gondoliers and porters and spruikers and carabinieri and chalk artists and the man who dressed himself in silver to look like the Statue of Liberty and who was rushing past with his head under his arm. Bernard was too tall and thin for Venice. He didn't have the bulk to be able to stand like an island in the flood, whereas she was short and could duck and weave.

And he'd made such a fuss about the hot water. There was no hot water in their apartment, not even for the washing-up. He'd been so disappointed that he'd had to lie on the bed for an hour and read all of yesterday's newspaper, including the death notices. He closed the green shutters in the bedroom and blocked out the woman sewing and the pink light edging towards them. It was bad enough that the English papers didn't get to Venice until the next day, he'd said. But not being able to have a shower when it was more than thirty degrees outside was unforgiveable, considering the cost of the place.

Come with me and we'll find Roberto, said Susan.

Roberto was one of the artists and he owned the apartment.

That was another thing. When they'd arrived from Florence yesterday they'd walked from the station with their pull-along cases to the sestiero of Cannaregio where Roberto was in the studio with their key. He was standing at an easel, making a line with a brush dipped in orange paint. Susan watched as he made one or two more sweeps and a curvy nude appeared on the paper, her back to them. Around him, sitting at high wooden tables, a bevy of women smiled up at him because of something he'd just said. Even Susan felt as if she was intruding as she introduced herself and Bernard in her schoolgirl Italian.

Roberto excused himself from his class and led them to their nearby short-stay apartment where he flung open all the shutters and let in the noise of sawing from the boat builder's and the laughter from the café below where the vaporetto drivers had their coffee.

It wasn't until the next morning that Bernard and Susan realised there was no hot water. But when they went to tell Roberto about it, he wasn't there. Nobody was in the studio. It was locked and dark inside and the basil growing in pots beside the door was wilting in the sun.

So they sprayed on extra deodorant and walked to the wine shop. They went to the stand where they got the papers and Susan chose some Italian women's magazines. If they'd had hot water and Bernard had been happier, she'd have gone to the florist and bought a bunch of leaves with red berries. If they'd had hot water she'd have insisted on a pinza cake made with grappa and dried figs.

 

THEY TRIED THE studio again in the evening, when the canal was pink and the heat of the day was gone. Cats were licking their paws on doorsteps and the children in the room on the top floor of the building in which the sewing woman worked were calling their grandmother who was crossing the bridge with a shopping bag. Nonna! Nonna! Roberto wasn't there but one of the women, busy sorting through a bag of postage stamps, walked to the apartment with them and leant on the washing machine and looked up into the complicated heater and turned a dial and flicked a switch. Still no hot water. When she left, apologising for Roberto, Bernard threw himself on the bed after slamming the bedroom shutters and Susan pulled a kitchen chair to her window near the table and watched the woman. She'd have liked to be out, looking up at the gargoyles on the palazzi. She had a childish urge to stick out her tongue at their tortured faces. She'd have liked to be listening to the freckled violinist playing Vivaldi outside Florian's. Vivaldi's music always reminded her that Venice was floating flimsily above fathoms of water. Vivaldi was the rush of water and its crushing weight. She'd have liked to be waving to the American passengers lining the deck of the cruise ship sailing past the big white church that she remembered was called the Santa Maria della Salute. A church built by survivors of the plague. But Bernard was miserable. Venice with its hundreds of calli flooding with people overwhelmed him.

They tried the studio again next morning and the stamp woman was there with the key of another apartment Roberto owned. This apartment was unoccupied now and they could shower there.

Bernard stood under the jet of hot water as Susan waited for her turn. He dried himself and dressed in his ironed shirt but then didn't want to go beyond their apartment and yesterday's paper.

Susan watched the woman dipping and lifting her needle. She watched the vaporetto drivers playing cards under the red umbrellas of the café. She made tea and then coffee and then lunch. She washed clothes in cold water and hung them to dry over the canal.

She saw the ambulance boat glide past, its motor purring. She saw the couple from the wine shop lock up and walk over the bridge with the yellow dog. The woman opposite turned on her lamp and continued sewing. The children in the room above her called out to their nonna. Bernard finished the papers and got off the bed, ready for prosecco.

Susan was half-way through her first glass when the woman in the window stood up, turned off her lamp and pulled her shutters closed.

Susan imagined that she was about to start cooking her dinner, or doing her washing or ironing. She imagined that the woman had a husband to prepare for. Napkins to fold. Glasses to polish. She wondered if she'd cook gnocchi with four different cheeses and tiny chunks of walnut, or give her husband spaghetti stained with the black ink of octopus.

But then Susan saw her open the door of the building in silver stilettos and a sparkling sheath of a dress and raise her hand to the gondola gliding towards her. The gondolier brought it to a graceful stop and its passenger, a young man in a pale green linen jacket, stood to take her hand and help her in. He settled her beside him, holding up a parasol to keep the pink light off her face.

Bernard poured more wine into Susan's glass.

What are you looking at? he asked, leaning right out over the water.

Susan watched him watching the gondolier draw his vessel away from the side of the canal and head into the pink sunset. The silver blade-like ferro on the front of the boat bobbed with each stroke, plunging into the water and rising up dripping red.

Nothing, she said.

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