At first light the mist was soft and smoky over the lagoon and it was cold enough for Simon Serrailler to be glad of his heavy donkey jacket. He stood on the empty Fondamenta, collar turned up, waiting, cocooned in the muffled silence. Dawn on a Sunday morning in March was not a time for much activity on this side of Venice, where few tourists came; the working city was at rest and even the early churchgoers were not yet about.
He always stayed here, in the same couple of rooms he rented above an empty warehouse belonging to the friend, Ernesto, who would appear any moment to take him across the water. The rooms were comfortable and plain and filled with wonderful light from the sky and the water. They were quiet at night, and from the Fondamenta Simon could walk about among the hidden backwaters, looking out for things he wanted to draw. He had been here at least once, and usually twice a year for the last decade. It was a working place and a bolt-hole from his life as a Detective Chief Inspector, as were similar hideouts in Florence and Rome. But it was in Venice that he felt most at home, to Venice he always returned.
The putter of an engine came just ahead of the craft itself, emerging close beside him out of the silvery mist.
The boat was small and workmanlike, without any of the romance or trimmings of traditional Venetian craft. Simon put his canvas bag under the seat and then stood up beside the boatman as they swung round and headed across the open water. The mist settled like cobwebs on their faces and hands and for a while Ernesto slowed right down until, suddenly, they seemed to cut a channel through the whiteness and emerge into a hazy buttery light beyond which Simon could see the island ahead.
He had been to San Michele several times before to wander about, looking, recording in his mind’s eye – he never used a camera – and he knew that at this hour, with luck, he would find it deserted even of the elderly arthritic widows who came in their black to tend the family graves.
Ernesto did not chat. He was not a voluble Italian. He was a baker, still working out of the cavernous kitchen generations of his family had used, still delivering the fresh hot bread round the canals. But he would be the last, he said, every time Simon came; his sons were not interested, they were off at universities in Padua and Genoa, his daughter was married to the manager of a hotel near San Marco; when he stopped baking the ovens would go cold.
Venice was changing, Venetian trades were in decline, the young would not stay, were not interested in the hard life of daily work by boat. Venice would die soon. Simon found it impossible to believe, hard to take the prophecies of doom seriously when the ancient, magical city was still here, floating above the lagoon after thousands of years and in spite of all predictions. Somehow, somehow, it would survive, and the real Venice, too, not merely the overloaded and expensive tourist city. The people who lived and worked in the backwaters of the Zattere and the Fondamenta and the canals behind the railway station, and would still do so in a hundred years’ time, propping one another up, servicing the hotels and the tourist area.
But ‘Venice she dying’, Ernesto said again, waving his hand at San Michele, the island of the dead; soon this was all there would be, one great graveyard.
They swung up to the landing stage and Simon climbed out with his bag.
‘Lunchtime,’ Ernesto said. ‘Noon.’
Simon waved his hand and walked off towards the cemetery, with its well-tended paths and florid marble memorials.
The sound of the motor boat faded away almost at once, so that all he could hear were his own footsteps, some early-morning birdsong and, otherwise, the extraordinary quietness.
He had been right. No one else was here – no bowed old women with black headscarves, no families with small boys in long shorts carrying bunches of bright flowers, no workmen hoeing the weeds out of the gravel.
It was still cool, but the mist had lifted and the sun was rising.
He had first come upon the memorial a couple of years before and made a mental note about it, but he had been spending most of his time that year at all hours of the day among the market stalls, drawing the piles of fruit and fish and vegetables, the crowds, the stall holders and had not had time or energy to take in the burial island in detail.
He reached it and stopped. On top of the stone plinth was an angel with folded wings, perhaps ten feet high and flanked by three cherubs, all with bent heads and expressions of grief, all gravely, impassively beautiful. Although they were idealised, Simon was sure they had originally been taken from life. The date on the grave was 1822, and the faces of the angels were characteristically Venetian, faces you still saw today, in elderly men on the vaporetto and young men and women promenading in their designer clothes on weekend evenings along the riva degli Schiavoni. You saw the face in the great paintings in the churches, and as cherubs and saints and virgins and prelates and humble citizens gazing upwards. Simon was fascinated by it.
He found a place to sit, on a ledge of one of the adjacent monuments, and took out his drawing pads and pencils. He had also made himself a flask of coffee and brought some fruit. The light was still hazy and it was not warm. But he would be absorbed here now for the next three hours or so, only breaking off to stretch his legs occasionally by walking up and down the paths. At twelve Ernesto would return for him. He would take his things back to the flat, then go for a Campari and lunch at the trattoria he used most of the time he was here. Later, he would sleep before going out to walk into the busier parts of the city, perhaps taking a vaporetto the length of the Grand Canal and back for the delight of riding on the water between the ancient, crumbling, gilded houses, seeing the lights come on.
His days scarcely varied. He drew, walked, ate and drank, slept, looked. He did not think much about home and his other, working life.
This time, though …
He knew why he was drawn to San Michele and the statue of the wildly grieving angels, just as he had haunted the dark, incense-filled little churches in odd corners of the city, wandering about inside, watching the same old widows in black kneeling with their rosary beads or lighting candles at one of the stands.
The death of Freya Graffham, who had been a DS under him at Lafferton Police Station for such a short time, had affected him far more than he might have expected and for longer. It was a year since her murder and he was still haunted by the horror of it and by the fact that his emotions had been engaged by her in a way he had not admitted to himself while she had been alive.
His sister Dr Cat Deerbon had said he was allowing himself to feel more deeply for Freya simply because she was dead and so unable to respond and therefore unthreatening.
Had he felt threatened? He understood perfectly well what his sister meant but perhaps, with Freya, it had been different.
He shifted his weight and resettled the sketch pad on his knees. He was not drawing the whole statue but the face of each angel and cherub individually; he intended to come back again to do the complete monument and then work up each drawing until he was satisfied. His next exhibition would be his first in London. Everything had to be right.
Half an hour later he got up to stretch his legs. The cemetery was still deserted and the sun was full out now, warming his face as he walked up and down the path between the black and white and grey gravestones. Several times on this particular visit to Venice Simon had wondered if he might even come to live here. He had always been passionate about his job – he had taken the opposite path to that of his entire family, doctors for three generations – but the pull of this other life, of drawing and perhaps living abroad to do so, had become increasingly strong since Freya’s death.
He was thirty-five. He would make Superintendent before long. He wanted it.
He did not want it.
He turned back towards the grieving angels. But the path ahead was no longer empty. Ernesto was walking towards him, and when he saw Simon, he raised an arm.
‘Ciao – something wrong?’
‘I’ve come back for you. There was a phone call.’
‘No, family. Your father. He needs you call him right back.’
Simon put sketchbook and pencils back into the canvas satchel and followed Ernesto quickly to the landing stage.
Ma, he thought, something’s happened to her. His mother had had a slight stroke a couple of months previously, the result of elevated blood pressure and too much stress, but she had made a good recovery and it had apparently not left any after-effects. Cat had told him there was no need for him to cancel his trip. ‘She’s fine, it wasn’t major, Si. There is no reason for her to have another. Anyway, if she isn’t right, you can get back quickly enough.’ Which was what he must do, he thought, standing beside Ernesto as they sped back across the now sunlit water.
The only surprise was that it had not been Cat but his father who had telephoned. Richard Serrailler disapproved of Simon’s choice of career, of his commitment to art, of his unmarried state – of him, period.
‘Did he sound worried?’
‘Did he mention my mother?’
‘No. Just you call.’
The motor boat shot up to the Fondamenta, turned neatly and stopped.
Simon put his hand on Ernesto’s arm. ‘You’re a good friend. Thanks for coming back.’
Ernesto merely nodded.
Simon ran up the dark staircase from the empty warehouse to the flat and threw his satchel and jacket on the floor. The telephone connection had improved since the new digital lines had come in and he heard the ringing tone in Hallam House at once.
‘Is Mother all right?’
‘Yes. I rang to tell you about your sister.’
‘Cat? What’s happened?’
‘Martha. She has bronchial pneumonia. They’ve taken her to Bevham General. If you want to see her alive you should come home.’
‘Of course, I …’
But he was speaking to a dead line. Richard Serrailler wasted words on no one, least of all his policeman son.
There was an evening flight to London but it took Simon half an hour on the telephone and in the end the help of a contact in the Italian police to get himself a seat on it. The rest of the day was spent packing, sorting out the flat and arranging for Ernesto to take him to the airport, so it was not until he was on the crowded plane that he had leisure to think. And he had not thought, not until now. His father’s telephone call had been an order in all but name and he had obeyed without question. His relationship with Richard Serrailler was so poor that Simon behaved towards him as towards one of his superiors in the force and with about as much emotional involvement.
His seat was over a wing so there was little chance to look down on to the lagoon when they took off, which was as well because he minded leaving Venice more than usual, leaving his refuge, his work, and his calm, private space. Walking about the city, over canal bridges, through the squares, down the little dark passageways between the tall old houses, sitting looking and drawing, talking to Ernesto and his friends over an evening drink, Simon Serrailler was a different man from the DCI at Lafferton, his life and concerns were different, his priorities changed entirely. Time on the journey was time in which he moved from one to the other, but tonight he was being hurtled back into his everyday life without the usual relaxed period of adjustment.
The sign to fasten seat belts went off and the drinks trolley was being manoeuvred up the aisle. He asked for a gin and tonic and a bottle of mineral water.
Simon Serrailler was one of triplets. His GP sister, Cat, was the second, their brother Ivo, a doctor in Australia, the third. Martha was ten years younger, born when Richard and Meriel Serrailler were in their mid-forties; she was severely mentally and physically handicapped and had lived in a special care home for most of her life. Martha might or might not recognise Simon. No one could tell.
The sight of his sister had always moved him profoundly. Sometimes she lay in bed, sometimes she was in a wheelchair, her body propped up and strapped in, her head supported. If it was fine he wheeled her into the garden and round the paths between shrubs and flower beds. Otherwise they sat in her room or in one of the lounges. There was nothing he could take her. He talked to her and held her hand and kissed her when he arrived and left.
Over the years he had come to worry less about whether she knew him or gained anything from his company; if his visits had no significance for her, they became important to him, in something of the way these visits to Italy were important. With Martha, he was someone else. The time he spent beside her, holding her hand, thinking, talking quietly, helping her to sip a drink through a straw or eat from a spoon, absorbed and calmed him and took him away from everything else in his life.
She was pitiful, ugly, drooling, unable to communicate, barely responsive and as a boy he had been embarrassed and upset by her. Martha had not changed. He had.
His parents mentioned her occasionally but her situation was never discussed in depth or detail and emotions were always kept out of such conversations. What did his mother feel about her or for her? His father went to visit her but never spoke of it.
If she was unwell her condition always became acute very rapidly yet she had survived for twenty-five years. Colds led to chest infections then pneumonia. ‘If you want to see your sister alive …’ But it had all happened before. Was she going to die this time? Was he sorry? How could he be? How could anyone? Did he wish her dead then? Simon’s mind veered away. But he needed to talk. When he got into Heathrow he would ring Cat.
He drank more of his gin. In the locker above his head were two sketchbooks full of new drawings from which he would select the best to work up into finished pieces for his exhibition. Perhaps he had got enough after all and the extra five days in Venice would simply have been spent mooching about.
He finished his drink, took out the small sketch block he always carried and began to draw the elaborately plaited and beaded hair of the young African woman in the seat opposite.
The plane droned on over the Alps.
‘Hi!’ Pleased, as always, to hear her brother’s voice, Cat Deerbon sat down ready to talk. ‘Hang on, Si, let me shift myself.’
‘Fine, just don’t know how to get comfortable.’ Cat’s baby, her third child, was due in a couple of weeks.
‘OK, I’m as settled as I can get … but listen, it costs a fortune on the mobile from Italy, let me call you back?’
‘I’m at Heathrow.’
‘Dad rang. He said I’d better come home if I wanted to see my sister alive again.’