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Beth In Venice

Dark Herald by Richard Niman for Jan Woolf

Dark Herald by Richard Niman

This story is taken from Fugues On A Funny Bone (Muswell Press, 2010).
Artwork ‘Dark Herald’ by Richard Niman.

The rhythms of the Marco Polo shuttle bus calm Spiderman, his head lolls onto his mother’s shoulder. ‘Asleep at last,’ whispers Beth. She’s had enough of him on the plane. She folds him in her arms and stares out of the window at the ugly road, her chin resting on his scarlet and blue webbed head. Funny. It looks the same as the A2 cutting through her Peckham Estate; that scribble of cranes on the horizon just like the Deptford building sites.

Where’s Venice then?
The canals and bridges from the Travel Show?
‘Venice the Menace,’
She’d joked to the Squeazy Jet rep,
But he hadn’t laughed
The miserable git.

They’d stepped out of their flat onto the fifth floor walkway at five o’clock that morning; so dark and quiet it could have been the countryside. No shrieks, dogs, or heavy bass music. The lift didn’t work though, it never did, so they’d trotted excitedly down the concrete steps; Ryan ahead, bouncing off the walls, just missing the broken glass and empty beer cans.

‘Is Venice in London mum?’
‘No babes, Italy.’
‘Is Italy in London?’
‘No abroad.’

Thank God he hadn’t stepped in dogs’ mess, so hard to get out of the ridged soles of trainers. Would have stunk on the plane. Bad enough him being sick.

She strokes her son’s shiny blue back. She’d put his joggers and sweatshirt out for him last night. But he had to wear his Spiderman outfit didn’t he? No time to argue.

She shifts his head onto her chest, her heartbeat keeping him asleep as she opens the guide book at Eating out. She reads about the lovely sea food restaurants, signature risottos, the slabs of pizza sold from street kiosks and Café Florian in St Mark’s Square – the most beautiful café in the world; but expensive.

‘We’ll go there tonight babes,’ she whispers through the nylon flap at his ear. ‘Florians.’ If they eat pizza from the kiosks she can afford it. Besides, they’re staying in the youth hostel and they won’t be going inside any of the buildings. No need, what with the outsides being so lovely. ‘I’ll have a Bacardi Breezer and you can have hot chocolate.’

She knows she’s not meant to give him too much sweet stuff because of his ADHD, but it is a holiday after all. The Unit won’t find out, unless he does something bad and Venice Social Services tells Mr Willoughby the head. Or would it be Italian social services? Is Venice a separate country? She stares at the horizon, imagining this long boring road as an umbilical cord joining Italy with its gaudy child, Venice.

His gentle snore disturbs the nylon mouthpiece, orange and soggy from the lolly he’d sucked at Gatwick. Probably that’s what made him hyper.

‘P’raps I’ll give you a pill later monster,’ she mutters, feeling for the plastic phial in her fleece pocket.

She turns back to the guide book, to Getting Around. Water buses – vaporettis – are cheap. Gondolas, the Doges’ water taxis – their crests designed like Doges’ hats – are not. What’s a Doge when it’s at home?

She flicks to History. The first Doge was elected in 726 AD, twelve were assassinated, three exiled, four deposed and three blinded; one of them, Marino Falieri, was so reviled, all likenesses were destroyed, so no-one knows what he looked like.

‘Weirdos,’ she murmurs, unfolding the little map at the back of the guide, tracing her finger along the snaking shape of the Grand Canal, Zitelle, Giudecca Island and over to the youth hostel. ‘Bene.’ She practices the Italian for good. ‘Should be easy; get on a Vaporetto at Piazza Roma Terminal….Bene.’

{ }

The bus pulls into its bay and Ryan raises his head like a waking cobra.

‘We there yet mum?’
‘Yes babes. We’re at – Piazza Roma.’
‘No Ryan, the bus stop.’
Beth looks around.
She still can’t see Venice.
But Spiderman can.

Dancing a jig in the aisle of the bus he sees the green water shimmering at the edge of the asphalt, the black crests of gondolas bobbing about like notes of music.

‘Ven iiice, Ven iiice,’ he chants, digit fingers alternately stabbing the air.

‘Calm down Ryan.’

But he’s away, down the aisle, jumping off the bus, crossing Piazza Roma like a skippingstone. Beth tucks his Spiderman rucksack into hers and lumbers after him like a freighted snail.


He’s heading for the Grand Canal.

‘Ryan, wait you little sod.’

She just makes it; slumping next to him on the back seat as the number 5 Vaporetto pulls away.

She pats her thighs as if they were lumps of butter and he sits on the throne of her lap, ogling this watery fairy land through the sockets of his hood.

They chug along the tatty majesty of the Grand Canal. The breeze is gentle, the sun warm for October. Beth marvels at the crumbling brown and pink brick and the brilliant green mosses where the buildings meet the water.

‘Isn’t this lovely babes?’ The Travel Show never did it justice. The salty smells, yelling of gondoliers, the slap and churn of the water don’t come over right on telly. She looks up at the clouds towering in a turquoise sky, smiling her face back to its original prettiness, before it got puffy, before Ryan came, Nelson left her and she put on the weight.

Ryan jumps off her lap and onto the deck, reaching for one of the red and white striped poles planted like lollypops in the water.

‘Come here Ryan,’ she shouts, yanking him back by the seat of his Spiderpants.

He swivels his head like a Meer cat. ‘I could spin my web over there Mum. Can I Mum? Can I?’


‘I’ll climb that wall, then that castle and jump to the next one.’


‘I’m gonna fly. Spiderman’s gonna fly.’

His curranty brown eyes flick around for the next tidbit of – what did Mr Willoughby call it? His peripheral vision. And here it is.

‘A sea monster mum.’ He jumps onto the seat beside her, his skinny blue knees splayed, finger tips balancing his body. But the fat black water buoy is too far out to touch.

Beth wonders about the pills. Was it a good idea to stop them for half term? She’s suddenly angry with Ryan – or his behaviours – as his teacher, Hannah had taught her to think. ‘Just shut up – shut the fuck up you little shit,’ she hisses under her breath.

Mr Willoughby told her that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder made him unhappy, that he needed medication to calm him enough to help him learn. She rummages in her pocket for the phial of Ritalin. She took one once to see what it felt like. It spoiled things.

‘Here!’ She tosses it into the Grand Canal. ‘This is for you Doges. Might do some of you some good.’ She watches it bob about for a few moments and then disappear.

‘I need to wee Mum.’

‘Not now Ryan.’

Too late. He’s pointing his mannequin penis at someone’s palace. As the breeze shreds his ribbon of urine the conductor shouts something in Italian, making wide sweeping gestures with his arm. It looks like OFF. At the next stop.

Maybe the hood’s bothering him, making his head sweat. ‘Take off your hood lovey,’ she urges, embarrassed, thinking she needs to be seen doing something. ‘Let your head breathe.’

‘No mum.’ He clamps both hands over his face. ‘No-one must know the identity of…. SPIDERMAN,’ he shrieks as they glide under a bridge.

Beth thinks of the Doge whose face was never seen as she buries her own in the guidebook. The Rialto Bridge, built in 1588 and until 1854 the only way of crossing the Grand Canal on foot.

They chug to the quayside and Beth grabs Spiderman’s wrist, ‘c’mere you.’ She feels as if she’s walking the gangplank, what with the angry conductor and gawping tourists; the only one smiling a small aged Japanese man wearing Burberry. Do they have kids like Ryan where he comes from? She supposes they do.

Beth has no idea where she is but, ‘what the fuck,’ she mutters defiantly, pulling his Spiderman rucksack out of her own, securing it to Ryan’s back with a snap of its plastic teeth. He looks like a strange tropical monkey carrying its baby. ‘There, that’ll tire you out.’

He skips beside her, three skips to one of her strides as they head down a winding lane. Glass objects wink from windows, masks swing in the breeze and plastic gondolas dangle from shop doorways like cheap shoes.

‘Is Santa down here, mum?’


He sees a cluster of carnival masks. ‘Can I have this one?


He grabs a red beaked mask with blue sequined eye sockets and puts it on, over his hood.

‘I said no Ryan.’

He twirls and runs; a blur of red and blue as he turns a corner into a narrow alley, then the corner after that, into deep shadow.

‘Ryan you idiot,’ yells Beth, running after him, hoping she turns the same corners.

She stands beneath a marble balcony; all she can hear her own panting breath. It smells bad here. No bright stripy poles, just dark water, decay and graffiti.

Fuk U Berlesconi.

He’s playing a jumping out game the little sod, does it all the time round the estate.‘Ryan,’ she bellows.

An old woman in black withdraws into her house. She’s fed up with the English, their rudeness, loudness, drunkenness.

Beth looks around. Two stone lions with chipped snouts sneer back at her. She looks ahead. Just ten metres between her and the next canal.

A Gondolier glides past
Looking like a figure on a shooting range.
She strides to the edge,
Imagining his long black boat
As a coffin.
Why did she put his rucksack on him?
In a place made of water.
Why didn’t she think?
No wonder she has to have a social worker.
No wonder her boy has special needs
And has to go to school in a Unit.

Her blood freezes as a cloud covers the sun. She sinks to her knees, looking into water that seems to quiver, not flow. Smudges of red and blue shimmer as a breeze whips the surface.

‘Ryan. Babes.’

Her tongue feels thick in her mouth as she thrusts her arm into the murk, remembering the time she nearly lost him eight years ago.

The adopting couple knew all about her life; her muddles, addictions, unstable men. They’d followed her pregnancy with care. Everything signed on the dotted….. But as he grew inside her, her body felt her own for the first time.

After waves of pain and the great pressing agonies, he’d come out of her in a burst of red and purple, his mouth open in a lusty yell, eyes shut, his tiny fists clenched. ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ she’d told the midwife as she looked into his face, currents of feeling passing between them. It was like a switch had been thrown that brought him magically back inside of her. She would kill for him. Kill.

The cloud passes and Ryan’s red beaked mask bobs to the surface, turning slowly in the canal, its blank eyes searching the sky. She decides to pray.
‘Dear God.’

A man’s voice.
Is this God?
She looks around.
‘Signora, up here.’
She looks up
At the broken face of a gargoyle.
‘Up here Signora.
More high.’

And there, squatting in an archway is Spiderman, spinning imaginary webs with one hand, holding a corneto of ice cream with the other.

‘He try to climb the wall signora and nearly fall in so I give him gelato and keep him safe,’ says the old man grasping his backpack. ‘He is yours, yes?’

‘Yes,’ she takes a long shuddering breath, ‘he is mine.’ She feels the sap of her life flow again as she looks into the water. A restored blue sky reveals the sharper reds and blues of Spiderman’s reflection.

{ }

Dark now; the wind from the Dolomites pokes its chilly fingers round the old lagoon city. Florian’s is cosy and warm. Toffee glazed portraits of poets and libertines look down on a red and blue boy with his exhausted mother sitting on crimson velvet.

Spiderman, his hood dangling, his hair released into a frizzy black cloud, looks around this strange place where the walls are made of wood and the waiters dress like penguins. One comes over now carrying a bronze tray with china cups and a silver jug of hot chocolate. The waiter smiles as Ryan pours chocolate straight into his happy mouth.