The Souvenir

Read Part 1 here.

Part 2

By 4’o clock, I was ready in a pretty dress that I picked out at a street market. Leaving my hair in loose waves, I grabbed my clutch and put on heels. I loved the feel of freedom but would it be wiser to have a few acquaintances know where I was? No, I’ll just go, I decided. This was my adventure.

Your choices are often wrong a voice reminded me. Not my instincts I reminded myself as I tried to inject myself with courage, which had waned, as evening approached. I was anticipating the meeting, never doubting for a moment that he would come. I took a train to the nearest stop and walked down to the imposing masterpiece of the Florentine architect, seen from across the canal.

The Doge’s Palace, the seat of the Venetian Republic in the past, was majestic with its marble facades and grand sweeping view of the surrounding. But I was not amused that the floral columns and pillars reminded me of the Mughal architecture of my homeland. The Mughals were plunderers and greedy. All they did was kill people, build palaces, marry women and leave behind obsequious verses and a boring history for posterity to pore over and spit out at exams. That’s what all men did, across time, I thought as I looked about me.

He had asked me to meet him at the corner pillar which looked out on the waters of the Rio de Palazzo. He was already there with his easel and brush. I was slightly disappointed to see him wearing the same shabby coat from yesterday.  But to his credit, he had on a fresh white shirt and a tweed coppola, a favourite of Picasso’s, I had read somewhere.

He tipped his cap in greeting and pointed me to the steps with a compliment. A trick used by artists, but which relaxed my facial muscles into an easy smile. I was trying to hold the smile for as long as I could but only after some time had passed I realized, this was stupid on my part; he wouldn’t have been working on my smile all that time.

To distract myself I looked about and saw the Bridge in the distance. I wondered why it had such a peculiar name. Perhaps lovers parted here when fate beckoned men to battles. Perhaps lonely souls hung about here to grieve their loved ones. Perhaps poets and writers were drawn to ponder on the meaninglessness of life here.

“Why is it called the Bridge of Sighs?” I called out to him.

He barely glanced back and said dismissively, “They probably couldn’t think of a better name.  If you look at the water long enough you’ll sigh.  The beggars and tramps of Venice have pitched tent there since many years now. Adds colour to pity, huh.”

Seeing my annoyance, he said apologetically, “It has something to do with the water’s gentle movement forward, out of sync with the strong breeze that blows backward, creating an illusory effect. Much like life that pulls you backward and forward at the same time.” I was struck by his comparison and relapsed into silence.

When he finally finished and gestured to me, I stretched and immediately cringed at the calf muscles waking from sleep. Limping to the wood easel, I eagerly looked around. He had not used any defining lines but let the colours spread on the canvas to take the shape of my face and torso. A pretty smile. A dreamy faraway look. And shining eyes.

“What? Why are there tears in my eyes? I was smiling the entire time.”

Anger was bubbling up within me. He seemed surprised at my reaction.

“There is sadness in you. Your eyes are not quite lively,” he mumbled softly.

How could he be so presumptuous? Is that why he called me here? To analyse me? Who was he anyway?

He continued, “But that’s what is beautiful in you. You have a certain depth to your beauty.”

I glared at him, “How much should I pay you for the portrait?”

He did not answer me. Instead he folded up his stand and put the brushes into his tool box. And slowly but carefully he started putting the canvas into a large wooden box with a soft lining. I saw that he had many others canvas papers in that box. Once again I grabbed his hand,

“What are you doing? You can’t take that. I want it,” my voice had risen considerably.

I looked around helplessly. How was I to negotiate with this man?

He was unmoved. Closing the lid and locking it with a padlock, he next picked up the stand and the brush holders. There were so many things to carry. I watched him defiantly without offering help.  With the same crooked grin from yesterday, he said, “You can help me carry it to that bus stop around the corner. I can go from there.”

My irritation turned to incredulity. Was he really senile as I had thought? Or had I played into his hands?  He would sell that painting and make money. Yes, that was how he lived. Now I was sure.   Grabbling the extended stand and assortment of brushes from his hands I weighed my options. I could run. But what would people think? That I was robbing an old man? I had no money if police arrested me. It would be shameful if someone at the Institute had to be called. How was to explain this random art appointment with a stranger? I was held in place by the fear of what people would think. He on the other hand could care less.

I looked out of the corner of my eye at the strange man. He looked old and tired. Resigning myself to the unfortunate predicament, I decided to tag along.  While waiting for the bus, he asked me about my morning. I was sullen and angry and did not answer him. Resolutely, I kept my eyes on the bus pulling into the bay.

Just before entering, he turned around, “Come to Castello Pizzeria, north of Doge’s Palace for lunch tomorrow. It’s a good place for a taste of real Italian food.”

Without waiting for confirmation, he disappeared into the bus.

Feeling bruised and angry I went back to my room. After a light sleep, I passed the evening walking across Rialto Bridge looking down the Grand Canal. There was so much to take in, so much to see, so much to make sense of around me. Why worry about some stranger?  For some time I sat and watched the street musicians on accordions and clarinets playing soulful Italian tunes. With their heavy accents it was difficult to catch the lyrics when they sang; nevertheless I spent an enjoyable evening. After a pizza I walked back to my makeshift place, where roommates, exchange students themselves, were catching up on their day.

Tomorrow is a long time away, I whispered to myself, as I tried to join in the conversation.

(Read Part 3)

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Love it 🙂 It’s so interesting! waiting to hear _more_!!

    Reply

  2. […] « The Souvenir […]

    Reply

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