1870. Or thereabouts. Four in the afternoon. Or thereabouts. On a hot summer’s day. (Is it imagination or were summers longer then ?)A man with a mane of greying hair, an excellent moustache for keeping out draughts (but a less than impressive beard), and a straw boater, marching briskly along the dusty banks of a narrow canal, encumbered with various suitcases and boxes.
A cat, a huge tabby, wandering and twining aimlessly along, nearly colliding with said man (William Thomas, late of R.A. , naturally impoverished), who has now arrived at his destination: a fading green door halfway along the embankment.
He pulls at the bell and listens patiently for the shambling footsteps of Lucia, the lady who ‘does’ for his hospitable friends. They are away at present, but have kindly left their house at Mr Thomas’s disposal for the summer, as they have done before. Lucia, breathing heavily (her knees bother her in this heat), eventually opens the door, and cordial exchanges are performed. Yes, everyone is very well, we have been fortunate with the weather, how was the crossing ? Very good, very good. Then, sir, the usual rooms are ready, hot water will be brought up directly; Well,well, what a magnificent beast – eh, Mrs Lucia ? Nearly knocked me over – Does he, indeed ? Must make an excellent mouser . . . How are the knees ? – No,no, I can manage perfectly well, and you must consider yourself on holiday; you will remember my needs are simple – dinner at 8.00 ? Capital , capital. A dopo.
A fair number of stairs to the top, which creak with comforting familiarity, a narrow corridor with several doors leading off from it, turn the handle, throw the suitcases down and fling open the shutters. Red rooftops, blue sky, white stone, yellow walls, green water, and black boats. The afternoon sun dapples lovingly on the water, plays tricks on the underbellies of bridges and flirts engagingly with the metalwork on the long, lazy-looking black boats. There’s that huge tabby again, curled up now in one of the boats. Well, well. Such is this city of stone and water. Mr William Thomas, late of the Royal Academy, turns first to a battered brown valise and proceeds to sort out his most precious belongings: paintbrushes, colours and pencils. Summer is not a time for idleness for such as he. Summer is to be spent seeking to emulate that hero (and namesake) of his: tight-fisted, secretive, successful, brilliant Mr Turner, also R.A. Also fond of Venice. Also, from what Mr Thomas recalls, amiably tolerant of cats. It really is a magnificent beast, even curled up down there; positively huge. No doubt Lucia is partly responsible for its massive girth . . .
An absent-minded fly settles on the cat’s nose. He swipes at it languidly, but really, it is simply too much effort. The fly will get bored and float away of its own accord. The sun is just a little lower in the sky. The cat settles down to another light nap.
Mr Thomas has finished unpacking. Water has duly been brought up; he has washed, and inspected his rooms – a bedroom, a larger room with a balcony and a long table which makes do as studio, and a third room- quite unnecessary, he tells himself, – the ‘parlour’- in the unlikely event that he should receive visitors. All in order, as ever.
It remains only to take in the fresh air from the very top of the house – up a somewhat decrepit stairway in the ‘parlour’ to the rooftop, where a wooden platform has lain basking in the sun for the last two hundred years or so. It is the altana, possibly the artist’s favourite part of this most comfortable of lodgings, ideal as an extended studio for painting on fine days. This is where, in days gone by, ladies of leisure sat bleaching their hair, he muses, an incorrigible romantic. He might even make it the subject of a painting. (He might not, if he realized what noxious substances they were busy lathering their heads with at the time).
The day is not quite finished, nor yet the evening quite begun. There is that lingering light, what some like to call the Flemish light you see in Carpaccio or Bellini. It is a little more than twilight yet a little less than dusk. It is the moment of change, where one thing becomes another, or is not quite as it appears.
It is the moment for change . . .The cat starts to grow in the smallish, neatish boat which also begins to turn into . . . A long and narrow and black boat, with a cabin in the middle, in the best of traditions.
A low rasping chuckle across the water; a velvety movement in the prow of the boat and suddenly, a figure rises apparently from nowhere, doffing his hat to the world at large, before settling down again. To the passer-by, it would appear there really is someone sitting there.
Yellow; red madder, crimson lake , ultramarine, burnt umber. . . to work tomorrow.
Thus musing, Mr Thomas hardly hears the voice at first.
‘Oé . . .’
Familiar calls of the boat men, ferrying their way about, looking for custom.
‘Sinior ! Sinior ?? Oé ! Andemo in gondoá ?’
One of them down below. In the boat he’s seen the cat in. Waving. At Mr Thomas ? A rather optimistic character, as Mr Thomas is unlikely to want to trail all the way downstairs for a boat trip. However, to be polite, he waves back. The light has changed again. But he is tired after the journey, and retires to his room to dress (with trepidation) for dinner. If memory serves him well, Lucia will be preparing dumplings.
The cat takes a quick look around, as if seeing things for the first time.
It espies Mr Thomas on the altana, who has returned the gesture of the raised hat. Aha. The man sees. The cat purrs meditatively.
In the kitchen, the water comes to boil, while Lucia thrashes the soul out of several potatoes. She believes in her gnocchi. She is convinced that her gnocchi are what any human being with a decent appetite desires at the end of a long day’s journey. She sings under her breath and prepares the sauce. She is also convinced that Mr Thomas is devoted to her gnocchi sauce. She heaves the potato dumplings into the pot hanging over the fire. Plup,plup,plup. Spat, spat, spittle.
Wooden table, creaky chair black with age, old crockery and silver polished to gossamer, everything in place. Mr Thomas sat at table with a mild air of resignation. There remained only the question of Lucia’s dumplings, after which he could look forward to a night of either mild or galloping indigestion.
The dumplings arrive, accompanied by a beaming Lucia, amidst clouds of steam. The wine jug (Mr Thomas’s only hope of salvation at this point) is cheerfully banged down before him. Outside the now shuttered windows he can hear the occasional footfall of a passer-by, the blip-blop-blip-blop of water lapping against boats.
‘Ah, the famous gnocchi, yes indeed, thank you, most kind, thank you, that is sufficient – is that our friend the cat miaowing outside ? I saw him sleeping in the boat earlier on – as you say, probably belongs to no-one in particular – but no doubt looks so well because you feed him – oh you don’t ? At least, not as far as you know – yes, well . . .’ and he continues in this vein until mercifully Lucia remembers she left something in the kitchen undone and leaves the room. He tastes one dumpling gingerly. Quite. Quick move to the nearest window, open the shutters and peer out furtively, like a criminal escaping with the family jewels. Nobody about. Seize the dish, take aim – there’s that cat again. In the dim evening light he appears to loom even larger, and patters heavily towards the window in the way cats do, with a most beguiling expression made up of innocence and conspiracy. It is the act of a moment to feed him and return with empty dish to his place at table, and there await the return of Lucia with (thank heavens) some cheese; this at least she had no hand in the making of. Mr Thomas allows himself a slightly smug expression. It bears no comparison to the smugness on the face of the cat sitting outside on the canal’s edge in the warm summer night, with girth even more distended than before. It allows itself a quiet burp.
Satisfied and relatively comfortable, Mr Thomas makes his way to the library for a brief visit before going up to bed. On this visit there is the added boon of sorting out the massive collection of books housed there. He has been asked, almost apologetically, to do his friends the favour of looking over some old prints and engravings, knowing his ability as restorer. And naturally, equally aware of his scholarly inclinations, they have invited him to look through any part of the collection that catches his interest. They could little have imagined his enthusiasm at the prospect, for they did not realise that here was a man with a secret ambition.
Lucia brought the key to the library before clearing away the dishes, laying it reverently on the table, on its own little worn velvet cushion. He now wanders around slowly, savouring every moment of transitory possession, taking in the worn spines and faded lettering in the flickering candlelight.
He gloats, for the collection is known to contain a great mass of material concerning the old masters – some handwritten in ancient notebooks, quite possibly unread for a hundred or more years. Mr T’s aspiration is no mean one – he has determined to make the Discovery of the Ages, and dig up , in a manner of speaking, the Golden Key.
He first heard it mentioned during his student days; it was the fever of the time in many artistic circles, but where others had lost spirit and settled for eking out their livings in teaching and etching, he had never lost the fire those words had first ignited : the Golden Key. The Secret. The Secret to the Great Art of Painting, to which all artists aspired. Some had become obsessed and self-destructive, wrecking their own work and that of others in an attempt to re-discover the secrets of the Masters; some had ended even in the mad-house, or dead in miserable hovels. Mr T. had continued with the fervour of Pan chasing Echo. Any library caught his attention – whisper to him that there were papers on the life of Titian, or the technique of Van Eyck, and he would not sleep till he had found an opportunity to peruse them. This collection in the creaky old house in this city of stone and water would surely be a treasure trove.
He barely refrains from rubbing his hands in a child’s glee at the thought of opening his box of delights the following day. With great self-restraint he withdraws before the candle can burn too far down.
His first task in the library, the next morning, was to sort through the set of engravings kept in the holder/rack.
They were varied and in various conditions – some almost in pieces, others wearing through in parts, laid between tissues. He spent the morning setting them out on the long library desk.
He made out a list of materials and equipment that would be required and went through to the kitchen where Lucia was peeling potatoes. His heart sank. More gnocchi. She nodded when he gave her the list. Her nephew would oblige. He also needed canvasses prepared. All in all, a good part of the day had passed before he got down to the serious business of painting. He made some drawings, and made do with a wooden panel for his first oil sketch.
He heard the boatman again. The occasional ‘Oé – andemo in gondoá?’fading away as the dusk came in.
Several days went by peacefully enough, despite Lucia’s cooking. Bright sunshine, brilliant colours, brush on canvas, morning, noon and evening – and the persistent calls from whoever it was attempting to attract Mr Thomas’s attention.
‘Oé . . .andemo in gondoá ?’
As ever out of politeness he would raise his hat and wave, and continue to paint, but curiosity had begun to seep in, and he had even gone down on a couple of evenings – only to find nobody there. On the fourth day he decided to investigate again. It had been a scorcher of a day, he had worked rather less as a result of feeling the heat, and felt he could do with a quiet amble outside in the cooler evening air to clear his head.
So down he trundled and creaked, his hat at a rakish angle, his notebook and pencil in a capacious pocket, at the ready. The heat of the day hit him as he stepped out; all day it had been quietly storing up in the walls of the building, and now unleashed itself. Fortunately he had thought to pack a handkerchief in his other pocket, and dabbed briefly at his forehead. There was a little bridge at the further end of the canal; he strolled towards it and stood awhile, gazing at the stonework, marvelling at the moss-covered porous brickwork and the plants climbing in between the bricks and stones. He was so absorbed in the study of this landscape he scarcely noticed the quiet swirl of water behind him, the gentle rasp of wood against stone. A rumbling clearing of the throat startled him; he turned round to see a figure in a boat, outlined in the strong, low light of the evening sun. The figure bowed, lifting its large, feathered hat in a grand sweeping gesture. Mr Thomas was so taken aback that he paused awhile before speaking. The figure cleared its throat once more, and placing a well-filled gauntlet across its chest, spoke.
‘So you have come at last,’ it said. ‘Out for an evening stroll, are we ?’
‘Yes, that is so. And you – business is not quite what it could be, I take it ?’
The boatman shrugged. ‘I do not need it, as such. Come here a lot, do you?’
‘Every summer for the last few years.’
‘I do not recall seeing you before. But then, I am often busy.’
‘Indeed,’ rejoined Mr T., politely refraining from commenting that he had certainly never seen anything like the boatman before.
‘And what will you be having for dinner tonight ?’ added his companion carelessly.
Mr T winced slightly at the thought of Lucia’s cooking.
‘The housekeeper makes dumplings rather often.’
‘Ah, but you are not so enthusiastic about them, is that the case ?’ replied the ca- replied the boatman. Mr T could not help himself thinking of whiskers – and he could have sworn he heard a licking of chops.
‘In fact, you would prefer to give them generously to a cat than to eat them yourself, or am I mistaken ?’ So he had been seen feeding the tabby.
‘Let us see if we can tempt your appetite with something more interesting . . .’
‘I may as well tell you my friend, I have no money for fares.’
‘Mon- oh, that stuff,’ shrugged the boatman as Mr T pulled out a few coins from his pocket. Mr T. began to be intrigued. A boatman uninterested in money was a thing wholly new to his experience. His dress was rich, that was true – an eccentric nobleman, weary of idle living in some dark and fusty palace ? So he donned his hat every evening, and sauntered out in his boat to accost unwary foreign visitors in an attempt to enliven an otherwise boring existence ?
‘Besides,’ Mr Thomas continued in genuine concern, ‘ I fear my housekeeper is unaware that I have left the house – I did not think I would be out long -‘
‘Oh it will not take up any of your time,’ replied the eccentric airily, grasping the oar. ‘It is a little place I know of.’
‘Is it far ?’ asked Mr T anxiously.
‘Not so very far, in some ways,’ replied the boatman(devil take it, the fellow really did put one in mind of a cat) – and held out an imperious, well-filled glove that put Mr T in mind of nothing so much as a large paw. ‘Are you going to stand there all evening ? Me, I prefer comfort.’ So saying he stepped back down into his boat and indicated the cushions, carpet and little chaise that furnished his vessel. Mr T, bemused, allowed himself to be settled down, and had to admit it was extremely comfortable after a long hot tiring day. It was cooler on the water, and the lapping sound was very relaxing. They moved smoothly, swiftly on, curving easily round a bend in the water; the only difference being a change in the sounds; more activity, more footsteps, more voices. The relative silence of the place they had left behind them was broken , chased away by this new, brash noise. They shot along and suddenly passed an opening in the plastered or wooden walls lining the waterside. A sandy bank ran down to the water; there were stalls and open tents, with groups and huddles of people, chatting ,eating and drinking – and here Mr T began to blink, for he had not seen quite such costumes as these people wore, unless at a masked ball.
‘I should have brought my sketchbook with me. Must remember to put it in my coat pocket another time -is this local traditional dress ? ‘ He asked his companion, who merely nodded and replied : ‘I imagine you could call it that – Although they will tell you it is the height of fashion.’
Mr T. gazed on, wondering. ‘I do not believe I have ever seen it on my previous visits – at least, not outside of a painting . . .’
More riddles. The boatman sidled the boat up to one of the mooring post and tied up. He turned and helped Mr T onto the sandy earth. They staggered up as another crowd of brightly dressed people, in equally bizarre costumes, wandered across the beaten earth, chatting and laughing. There was however nothing bizarre about the smells wafting over from some of the stalls. His companion was smacking his lips quite loudly now, and wandered around, sniffing appreciatively. Mr T. patted his pockets and found a few remaining coins. As he lifted them out of his pocket his hand brushed against the cloth, and he was surprised by the sensation of velvet rather than his usual coarse linen. He glanced down. In place of his flannels he was unaccountably wearing dark velvet robes down to his feet; his pockets were now deep slits in the sides, from which he had just extracted a leather pouch tied with cord – not at all his usual means of carrying funds.
Mr T came to a quick decision. He had evidently fallen asleep, and this was a very vivid, colourful dream. With strong smells of food in it. This was admittedly a novelty in the way of dreams, but no doubt hunger was causing him to dream of food. It was all amazingly real, including tripping over a tuft of grass and banging his knee against a bucket; likewise the chicken drumstick the eccentric boatman offered him from one of the first stalls they came to.
Mr T fished around in the pouch for coins which felt rather heavy and handed over one of the larger ones. The stall keeper’s eyes were popping; the boatman took hold of the pouch and opened it out; the stall keeper nervously picked out some of the smallest coins and waved a hand invitingly at the rest of the food. The boatman made a strangely appreciative growly sound at the back of his throat, and fairly pounced on a plate of prawns. It seemed that the coins sufficed for a fair amount of food.
There were some dark narrow green rolls on a dish; Mr T thought to ask what they were.
‘Vine-leaves, gentle sir, stuffed with rice – very tasty-‘, the stall keeper quickly placed some on a smaller dish with olives and goat’s cheese for him to try.
For a dream, it all tasted remarkably good. There was a clinking sound to his left. A man was standing near him, with a jug, pouring water into a glass. A huge amphora stood beside him; when the jug was empty, he would dip it into the amphora. He caught Mr T’s eye and held out a glass questioningly.
‘What ? No milk?’ he heard the eccentric boatman say. The waterman shook his head and waggled his eyebrows over to another seller across the clearing; this one had pails hanging from a yoke over his shoulders. The boatman had the noisiest set of chops for smacking with in Mr T’s experience and trotted over at high speed. Mr T followed with his purse, feeling under some sort of obligation for this intriguing, colourful dream.
‘Are you all here every evening ?’ he asked the milk seller.
‘Indeed, master, there is always someone here – are you a visitor here?’
‘Yes . . yes, I am. No, I am unfamiliar with all of your customs . . Mm. Very good , these.’