Venice of the North

‘Look at that,’ she says, pointing out of the train window. There is a wave of roiling cloud washing through the trees, streaked with yellow; a bruise flying over the fields. The long key is a kind of cold bone in my hand, the carriage smells of damp wool. ‘Do you think we can race the storm?’ I smile, I don’t tell her that we raced it months ago and lost. The little bed under the eaves has a patchwork quilt. An old dressing table leans by the window as the rain gently hurls its melody against the ground. She twirls, laughing, the hem of her black lace skirt ghosting across the old floorboards.

‘Isn’t it perfect? Isn’t it sweet?’ The beaded necklaces around her neck clack together, lapis lazuli, carnelian, amber. Her hands are as white and smooth as lilies, the brass buttons on her coat catch the light like old coins. ‘It’s Alice in Wonderland! You can be the Hatter.’

Yes, I think. Eat me. Drink me.

Outside the surreal womb of the hotel, the clip-clop of hooves striking the cobbles is always in the background, like the church bells. Faint wisps of snow flit across the bridges like tentative spirits; a haze of Christmas lights and camera flash and the raw wind stripping you, like silver bark peeled from a birch tree.

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We go to see the Holy Blood, a strange, speckled cloth housed between jeweled crowns, and her eyes fill with tears. I know she is not Catholic, but she crosses herself and smiles with folded hands and damp eyes at the woman standing patiently behind the sacred relic. I see communion in the woman’s eyes; happiness, approval. How does she do this? How does she connect so completely through so much impulsive artifice? It’s like holding a gloved hand, can’t they see? I want to drag her out into the aisle and shout, ‘It’s an act! Look! She’s an actress!’ As though the plaster would crack and fall and they’d all see the brick beneath.

I won’t. It never happens. Only my silence is required. I wonder sometimes if I am even there at all. I watch the glow of candlelight warming the old white stone and think of all the people who huddled in church as winter roared silently on down the centuries, staring at the little flames as I am now. Sanctuary. A pool of gentleness in the long, medieval terror of freezing water and salted meat.

After the wedding, we walk slowly through the town. There are shreds of cornflower and rose petals in her hair, from the moment they rained gently on the bride and groom. When she smiles, I remember everything. Somewhere underneath the plaster, the brickwork shifts. The laughter of tourists in a canal boat reaches me, a babble of French voices in a major key. I love that musicality transcends language; that I can tell those souls upon the water are happy, even though I do not understand what they are saying.

 

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