Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Kaye McGann
Features Writer
3:00 AM 22nd January 2023

Florence In Venice

Venice. Image by Denis Azarenko on Pixabay
Venice. Image by Denis Azarenko on Pixabay
No-one will ever believe me. I shall be stuck in this hell-hole forever. I would not believe my tale if someone else were to tell it to me, so why should it be any different for you?

I suppose I shall have to tell you anyway, since you are supposed to be preparing my defence.

Where to start? Here is as good a place as any, where I think it must have begun, with my wife’s name. She was christened Florence, because that is where she was conceived – which one could say is a conceit. As she got older, that is at about the age of twelve, she informed her parents, friends, and school, she would no longer answer to that name, which she had always disliked, and even more so now she knew its origin. She would henceforth be known by her other forename, Anne.

I rather like the name Florence.

Anne and I met when we were students. I was reading for a joint-honours in English and Art, and Anne was reading History. We quite literally bumped into each other at a dance – I even had the bruises to show for it! In those days the dance was known as a hop. You can tell how long ago it was.

A digression. I often visit Oxford, and whenever I travel on the coach from there to Heathrow, I see the signs on the coach saying ‘For Terminals Two and Three, hop off at the Central Bus Station,’ and I imagine people either dancing, or, even sillier, actually hopping as they get off.

Anyway, as I was saying, Anne and I met, and after we’d taken our degrees we moved to Manchester, where I’d got a job teaching English at a Further Education College, and Anne had a post at a nearby rather prestigious girls’ school. My art interests dwindled to a bit of weekend sketching, with occasional visits to the city’s various art galleries. There are a lot of good galleries in Manchester and the towns which surround it. We decided we’d go travelling before we ‘settled down’, got married, and started a family, and do a culture catch-up. Fate has a habit of intervening though.

I had always wanted to visit the Uffizi in Florence, but Anne and I had our first major row about it. She was adamant it was the last place she wished to go. When I said she was being unreasonable, she shouted, screamed even, and it was three long days of sulking later before we reached a compromise. We would visit Venice first, and then have two days in Florence. I was delighted. I’d always wanted to see Venice, too.

What a wonderful time we had in Venice! I’d seen pictures of it, but nothing can prepare you for its beauty, for the feeling one gets the first time one stands in St. Mark’s Square, or travels up the Grand Canal by boat. Anne and I couldn’t afford much, certainly not an hotel at Venetian prices, and so we’d rented a couple of rooms above a vet’s on the Calle San Barnaba on Dorsodouro. The living room had a small kitchen at one end, with a shower and a lavatory in a cubicle off it. The bedroom was up a stepladder to a mezzanine, where there was just a bed. We seemed to spend a lot of time there. Those were the days!

Then we moved on to Florence, leaving Venice by the ferrovia, vowing to return. We were in Florence just two days, as agreed, and I’d booked a timed entry to the Uffizi. It was disappointing, as even with a reservation the crowds were dense, and we had to keep moving, shuffling past paintings and sculptures we’d have liked to spend time looking at for longer. Anne’s prejudices about Florence were confirmed. She was quite sniffy about the narrow streets, clogged with parked motor-scooters, and the immense amount of dog-dirt which meant one had to look down at one’s feet all the time, instead of drinking in the ambience of the buildings. I agreed with Anne that the Duomo seemed clinically cold, and I had to concur that Venice was far, far lovelier. We vowed to return there very soon.

It was not long after we got home that Anne realised she was pregnant. This was far earlier than we’d planned, but even so, after the initial shock we were delighted. I thought it would be ironic if our first child had also been conceived in Florence….. I hoped it had been in Venice.

We had a Register Office wedding with just our parents and a couple of friends present. When our son was born we called him Ben. It was possibly whimsy on my part to think about it rhyming with the ‘Ven’ of Venice. Our gallivanting overseas came to a halt almost as soon as it had got going, and the most exotic place we visited in the next few years was Cornwall. We had hoped to have another child, but somehow it never happened.

Anne stayed at home to look after Ben until he was five, and then began to apply for part-time teaching jobs, but they were few and far between, and in the end she registered with the local authority to do supply teaching in Junior Schools, as well as being able to teach History at Secondary Schools. She was kept busy, and the mileage on her little mini mounted up, as she whizzed round from Didsbury to Harpurhey to Northern Moor: wherever, in fact, she was sent, usually at short notice. It worked very well. She was generally able to pick and choose where she was prepared to go, and to turn down work if, say, Ben were to be ill, or to have a dental appointment.

We didn’t have expensive holidays. We bought a campervan and explored Britain. Then we sold the van, and rented a cottage in Port Isaac in Cornwall for the whole of the summer holidays each year. When Ben got older, he sometimes brought a chum along, and Anne and I became friendly with another couple Jill and Mike, who lived in Yorkshire, but did the same as us. The cottage they rented was next door to ours, so we met up each year, babysat for each other, and had many happy hours with barbecues. Their two girls, Laura and Penny, were twins, a couple of years younger than Ben, and as they got older we realised this was somewhat of an incentive for Ben’s friends to join us when we were down there.

When he finished school, Ben wanted to take a year out before going to University, and decided he’d go initially to Australia, staying for a time with Anne’s younger brother Martin, who lived in Perth. (Martin got his name because he was conceived in St. Martin-la-Riviere, somewhere in the middle of France. It could have been worse. He could have been conceived in Villedieu-les-Poeles and been called Les….)

Anne’s fears about Ben’s safety were allayed somewhat by knowing he’d have her brother on hand for the various emergencies she imagined happening. I, meanwhile, thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for Anne and me to spread our wings at last, and see more of the world, before we got too old....whenever that might be. As Captain Bertorelli in ‘allo, ‘allo said, “What a mistake to make!” It is so very easy to be wise after the event.

I thought we’d make a start be going back to Venice. Anne suggested we ask Jill and Mike to come too, but I wanted it to be just the two of us, a second honeymoon, and I stuck to my guns. Ha! Be careful what you wish for.

I trawled the internet, and found us an apartment near to where we’d stayed all those years ago, but infinitely more upmarket. It looked really attractive in the images I saw. There was an elegant sitting room, with windows overlooking a peaceful canal, a large square kitchen, and enormous bedroom with en suite, and the icing on the cake, a small courtyard garden.

We had a good flight from Manchester to Venice. We collected our two cases, and queued for the water bus which would take us across the lagoon. It was amazing to see the towers and spires of what must be the strangest and most atmospheric city rising up from the water as we approached. We pulled up at San Marco, bought our ten-day tickets for the vaporetti, and boarded the Number One for our journey up the Grand Canal to our stop at Ca’ Rezzonica. The grand, decaying palazzos had never looked lovelier, the sun lighting their facades and sparkling off the water; the bright colours, the timelessness of the scene, all of it touched my spirit, and I felt something akin to love as I drank it all in. All too soon it was time to disembark. We each took a case and walked Indian-file along the narrow footway leading to Campo San Barnaba. It felt very different from our first visit, when we’d been laden with rucksacks.

We crossed the square and edged past the café tables, and walked by the vegetable boat tethered alongside the side of the canal, one of only two left in Venice. (The other, not so famous, is in the far reaches of unfashionable Castello). ‘Our’ apartment was a little further on. We passed an open window, from which came the sound of a violin. Glancing inside, we saw a man busily working at a painting on an easel, while the music soared round. It sounded divine.

The apartment I’d booked was almost next door, on the first floor. In the entrance to the building was a very full umbrella stand, and also waders, no doubt in preparation for the Aqua Alta, when the city flooded, and the streets were under water. Not today though. A cloudless blue sky and a soft breeze were our benign weather. It felt as though the heavens smiled, and we were in its anteroom.

What’s that? You asked me the details, I’m giving them. I’m sorry you find my prose ‘purple’. Perhaps you should remember I’m an English tutor, and I read a lot of poetry. No, I’m not trying to delay ‘cutting to the chase’, as you put it. I’m giving you the background, as it’s important for you to understand my – and Anne’s – state of mind. If I might continue? Thank you.

The inside of the apartment was as we’d seen it online. The only disappointment was the courtyard garden, which was a lot smaller than the pictures had implied, and surrounded on all sides by high walls. It was almost entirely in shade. Still, to have any garden in Venice had to be a bonus.

We unpacked. I say ‘we’, but of course I mean Anne. I just got out the tea bags we’d brought and made us each a mug of tea. The landlord had very kindly left us some long-life milk, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine, all very civilised. About an hour later we were ready to go out to explore our surroundings.

We began by walking down to the Zattere, the big deep canal which runs up the other side of Dorsodouro from the Grand Canal. We strolled along its wide embankment, the old, now converted, warehouses of Venice on one side, with the wide water stretching across to the Giudecca, the island on the other side, where we could see people strolling too. We stopped at one of the restaurants by the waterfront and ordered coffee, and sat outside, watching the boats passing up and down the canal. It was a feast for the soul. What could possible go wrong?

Well, everything from that point, though it wasn’t immediately apparent.

We sat as long as we dared, and left before the waiters started to glare at us. We found a small supermarket, set back a little, and easily missed. It had no bright signs, as supermarkets in England do, just a discreet notice at its side. We went in and bought what I considered to be rather too much food. Anne had wanted to eat in a restaurant that evening, as she claimed to be tired from all the travelling, but as I pointed out, Venice is an expensive place to be, and we shouldn’t go squandering money, particularly at the beginning of our two-week stay. She did one of her flouncing routines, with a lot of sighing, and then proceeded to buy a lot of what I considered too much stuff for the evening meal. But as she said, she was the one doing the cooking, so she would be the one to choose what she wanted to cook. We walked back to the apartment in silence. She could be very unreasonable. After we’d eaten, and drunk the whole of the bottle of wine we’d been left, Anne came round, and chattered excitedly about what we would do the next day. I’d actually worked out an itinerary, but was feeling a bit mellow, so told her she could choose this time. I also said we’d eat lunch in a restaurant tomorrow. That’s wine for you. On an impulse I suggested we visit a little local bar, and have a glass of grappa. After all, it was our first night abroad for twenty or so years, so a little celebration was called for. I suppose I’d felt a bit of a cheapskate, refusing to eat out as Anne wished. One grappa each became two, and it was much later when we stumbled back to the apartment. We fell into bed without even washing, and slept like logs – until I awoke with a dry mouth and pounding head. I could hear Anne being violently sick in the bathroom. I went to help her, and found her slumped on the floor, in a bad way. I helped her back to bed, and put the washing-up bowl by her side. Within a couple of minutes, she was fast asleep.

I sat in the comfortable living room and watched the reflections from the water outside shimmering on the ceiling. I could hear the sounds of the violin drifting over from next-door. Anne had prepared crab last night for our meal, and I was expecting to begin to feel ill myself, crab being notorious for causing stomach upsets. If so, there was nothing to be done.

Time passed, and I felt no different. Anne slept on. Our planned trip across the lagoon to the island of Burano would have to be postponed. I opened one of the guide-books we’d brought and leafed through, wondering how we’d manage to see all the amazing things we’d earmarked.

I must have dozed off, because when I raised my head, Anne was standing by me. Looking back, there seemed to be something different about her, something almost ethereal, but perhaps that is just my imagination. Hindsight can play tricks on the mind.

Before I could speak, Anne pre-empted me. “I want to see the Carmine,” she said.

We couldn’t help but be aware of the Carmine, the nearest church, just a short walk across a bridge which spanned the canal outside. Its sonorous bell tolled every hour, a sort of dirge with some kind of tune.

“Are you OK? Don’t you want to just rest for today? I asked.

“No, Jim.” She spoke to me as though I was a rather dim naughty child. “I want to go to the Carmine now.”

I should have protested, but was so taken aback I got up and went to put on my shoes. Anne could be pretty acerbic, and the last thing I wanted was a row. “All right, if that’s what she wants, that’s what she will have,” I muttered under my breath. The Carmine wasn’t on our to-do list, but it was very near, and if that’s what Anne wanted, for whatever reason, that’s what we’d do. And if she felt ill again, we could get back to the apartment very quickly.

As we went out, I realised the violin was playing the same things over and over. It must be on a loop, and was played with the window open to impress passers-by, rather than for the artist to listen to. I hoped we wouldn’t have another two weeks of this!

We crossed the bridge, and turned towards the church. It loomed up, dark and forbidding. We had to walk round to the far side to find the door. Churches in Venice are seldom locked, despite the many priceless treasures they hold. We went inside.

The interior was sombre and silent. Dark red walls stretched towards the altar, and the pillars separating the nave from the side-aisles were the same shade. The atmosphere felt dense. I stood still, seemingly unable to move. Beside me I heard Anne groan. I turned my head. She was standing as if transfixed, her eyes on the large crucifix behind the altar. She began to move down the aisle towards it. I say ‘move’, because she didn’t appear to walk, just to glide. I made to follow her, but couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t obey me. I stood there, watching Anne get further and further away from me. A mist enveloped her, though elsewhere all was clear. Then the mist came down on me as well, and I slipped sideways into a pew. My head went down, and I could see nothing.

It must have been some time later I became aware of people bending over me, and English voices saying ”Are you all right?”

I struggled into a sitting position. An elderly couple stood by me, with concerned expressions. One could have picked them out as English anywhere in the world.

“I don’t know what happened,” I said. “I think I must have passed out. It’s probably the effects of the dodgy crab we ate. Sorry to give you a bit of a shock.Have you been here long?”

“When we came in and saw you lying there we thought at first you were just resting,” the man said.

“No, George, you thought he was drunk,” said the woman, giving him a playful poke in the ribs.

George looked a bit sheepish. “Anyway,” he said,” we walked all round, having a good look at things, and when we got back we could see you hadn’t moved. Sybil thought you might be ill.”

“Yes, and we could tell you’re English from your appearance,” Sybil said”so we thought we ought to see if you were all right.”

Oh well. It hadn’t occurred to me that others were assessing me as I was them.

“I don’t know what happened,” I said. “We came in, my wife went to have a closer look at things, and I don’t remember anything after that.” I looked around. “I can’t see my wife here now.”

“We haven’t seen anyone else here,” Sybil said. It’s a bit off the tourist trail, but we often come to Campo Santa Margaretta, and as it’s so near, we decided to have a dekko.”

I’d read that Campo Santa Margaretta was a place locals like to meet. Somehow I’d not realised it was so near, almost on our doorstep. I put that thought on a back-burner, and concentrated on my immediate concern. Where was Anne?

“I think I’d better go to our apartment, and see if she’s gone back. She wasn’t feeling very well earlier, so perhaps she rushed back in a hurry. We think she’d got food-poisoning from eating crab.”

“I expect that would explain it,” George said,” but I think we ought to come with you. You seem very shaky still.”

He offered me his arm, and I stood up very gradually, still feeling disorientated. Slowly the three of us made our way out into the bright sunlight, round the looming bulk of the church, over the little bridge, and to the apartment. That bloody violin was still playing that infernal tune.

“Oh, what a lovely sound,” Sybil said.

I grunted. “Come in,” I invited, and as we went in I called “Anne! Anne!” The silence was profound. One can always feel when a place is empty.

“Please, do sit down,” I said, as I went into the kitchen. It was as we’d left it. The cups I’d washed that morning on the draining board, the towel hanging on the rack, the sound of the violin seeping through the closed window. The bedroom was empty. On an impulse I opened Anne’s wardrobe door. Her clothes were still there. I turned. Her make-up was on the dressing table – and so was her bag. I pulled open the drawer by my side of the bed, and lifted its liner to see the place I’d hidden our passports. Both were there. I sat down heavily on the bed. Where could she be?

It is ridiculous that when faced with something momentous, one can still be concerned as to what others might think. I went back to George and Sybil.

“I’m terribly sorry. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation of where she can be. It’s just that she was quite ill in the night, so I’m a bit worried about her. In the church, one minute she was there, and then she sort of disappeared.” George and Sybil were looking at me with concerned expressions. I took a deep breath. “Actually, I’m worried sick. She’d been very ill indeed. One minute she was with me, the next gone. And something odd happened to me in that church. Now I’ve come back here, and there’s no Anne. She didn’t have her bag with her, she’s no money, and I haven’t a clue where she is.”

I was shaking uncontrollably. The two old people were clearly embarrassed, but tried to help me. George guided me to a chair, and Sybil disappeared into the kitchen, returning a couple of minutes later with a cup of sweet tea for me, which she insisted I drink.

You could have said it was my lucky day (except it so obviously wasn’t) when George offered to contact the police. He said he could speak Italian.

“They’ll probably say it’s too soon to be worried” he said, ”but it will get the ball rolling, and there is concern because she’s been ill, and she has no money with her.”

“George was a Detective Chief Inspector, before he retired,” Sybil told me. “He’s been learning Italian at Night School, so he’ll be able to help you if anyone can.”

I thought at the time what kindly people they were.

I could hear George speaking what sounded fluent Italian on the phone. When he’d finished, he said he’d been asked to call back if there was no news by tomorrow. I was in despair. One part of my mind was worrying I had no words of Italian, beyond ‘hello, goodbye, thank you’, so couldn’t speak to the police myself; and the other was full of dread about Anne. The dread was winning.

“Try not to worry,” George was saying. “Look, we’re staying at a small hotel not far from here. If it’s all right with you, we’ll call round again later, and hope Anne will be back and we can meet her. And if for some reason she hasn’t returned by tomorrow, I’ll ring the police again.”

I felt my eyes filling with tears, for their kindness, and for myself in my fear, and for Anne, wherever she might be.

Sybil gave me a hug as they left. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t just sit about. I got up and wandered round the apartment, which had seemed so spacious when we arrived, and now felt claustrophobic. I opened the drawer on Anne’s side of the bed, and rifled through her things, something I would never have done ordinarily. There were a couple of books, some pamphlets about exhibitions, and underneath them all I found a crucifix. I sat down on the bed, astounded. What on earth was Anne doing with a crucifix? She had no time for organised religion, dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. Why on earth would she have this by her bed? After a moment, I thought of an explanation. It must already have been here when we arrived.

I couldn’t just stay here, in the apartment. I needed to go out and retrace our steps. But what if Anne were to return and find me gone? I tore a piece of paper from my pocket diary, and wrote, ‘Back soon. Gone a walk. Jim x’.

Yes, I know it’s now part of the evidence against me. Not everyone uses their mobile phone as if it’s an extension of their body. I hardly ever use mine, and Anne felt the same. I’ve told you numerous times she rarely carried her phone. If I’d rung her earlier, when I first realised she was missing, it would have rung in her handbag in the flat. I keep telling you this. Why is it so hard for people to accept? Yes, all right, I’ll continue.

I left the note propped on the kitchen table, and went out, back over the bridge, round the outside of the Carmine, and into the church once more.

Nothing had changed. The place was deserted. I moved slowly towards the altar, the crucifix at which Anne had gazed so fixedly hanging above it; and as I did so I heard a faint sound of female voices singing. I looked round. I couldn’t see anyone. I sat down in a pew, and the sound got louder. It was coming from behind me. I turned. There was no-one there, but still the sound of singing increased. I felt the hair on my body stand out, and suddenly I was horribly afraid.

Before my eyes I saw a mist forming, moving towards me, and through it I could see a procession of nuns. It was they who were singing. They made their slow way towards me, and though I wanted to run, I could not move. They passed slowly by where I was sitting. I could see them clearly - and I could see through them. As the last nun drew level with me, she turned her head, and looked straight at me – and it was the face of my wife. “Anne!” I cried, and stretched out my hand to grasp her arm. My hand passed right through her. “Sister Florence,” she murmured.

The music stopped. The mist disappeared, and the nuns with it.

The next few days are a jumbled mass in my mind. I know George came back, and the following day the police came. I know a big search was mounted for Anne. Canals were dragged, the ferrovia station and airport watched. I knew they’d find no trace. She had just vanished. The longer the search went on, the more suspicious of me the police became. In the end I had no alternative but to tell them what had happened, just as I’m telling you. That’s when I was arrested and charged. They keep hoping they’ll find her body, but obviously they won’t, as she isn’t dead, just in a warp of time.

Whatever the psychiatrist you’ve appointed has told you, I am not a fantasist. What I’ve told you is supported by what evidence there is. CCTV shows Anne and me at the entrance to the church, and then George and Sybil going in a bit later, followed by George supporting me out, with Sybil by our side. There are no other images of Anne. She had gone in, and become Florence.

Yes, please do your best with, as you put it, ‘what little you have.’ And remember, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy……’