Online Exclusive

Too Late

There was a lively and cheerful hubbub on the quay, as we waited for the gangplanks to be lowered and the embarkation procedures to begin. The ship, painted all in white, flaunted its high, elegant flank with a double row of sky-blue stripes on its stern—like upturned circumflex accents—and its name on the prow, Eucalyptus—written in golden characters—already stirring dreams of Greek landscapes. The captain climbed aboard by a private ladder, a fair-skinned man in his fifties, not especially tall, sandy-haired, rather corpulent and pot-bellied, with a broad cordial face. He held his cap under his arm and his forehead glistened with sweat. He was followed by a young officer, also of average height but slim and amber-skinned, with dark eyes, hair and moustache: a Greek, probably, while the other was Italian. He had an affable curved nose and a beguiling manner, prodigal with smiles. It was beginning to get unpleasantly muggy; we longed for the ship to set sail, so that we could enjoy the cool breeze of the open sea. Anna and I were just saying that the passengers must all be there by now, since it was some time since any new arrival had joined the waiting group, when a chauffeur-driven Mercedes swept into the square just beyond the quay. A couple got out and made towards us. They were both young and clearly in love because they walked from the square to the quayside clinging tightly to one another, escorted by the chauffeur; when they reached the group they unclasped each other and stood slightly apart, but still in an affectionate attitude. We had never seen her before, but I had met him once and knew who he was: a professional man aged about thirty, from an aristocratic family that was extremely well-known in Venice and all of the surrounding area. He had an air that was at once distinguished and mild and he was strikingly good-looking, perhaps even more so than his companion, who was nonetheless extremely pretty. Given these characteristics—or, rather, these qualities—it was clear that he was a man a woman could easily fall in love with. This was Anna’s opinion too; struck by the air of tender beatitude that hovered between the two of them, she couldn’t restrain a nostalgic exclamation, while the faintest of shadows veiled her limpid gaze. Finally the gang-planks were lowered and we began to board. Anna pointed out to me that the kiss that the two exchanged was not a generic display of affection, but signified a farewell: the girl was boarding alone.

We were greeted by the moustachioed officer, whose job it was to welcome us, while the captain would introduce himself formally, we were told, during a gala that was to be held later on. The cruise began slowly but pleasantly. We had left the sultry haze that swathed the port and now offered our bodies to the sea-breeze, watching the great arcs of the dolphins leaping in the ship’s foaming white wake. We spent the evening partly in the bar, partly in the gaming room. During the night, as we approached the point where the Adriatic meets the Ionian Sea, the water grew a little turbulent. To my uninitiated mind the light pitching was attributable to the confluence of the two seas, but an hour later, around six in the morning, it had not ceased and was, indeed, growing even stronger. It was clearly a case of bad weather. We were advised not to leave our cabins and to stay in bed in order to avoid unpleasant consequences. Anna couldn’t find the Xamamina she had bought and placed, as she thought, in her handbag. I myself felt a slight indisposition, more psychological than physical, as I gazed out of the portholes at the grey rollers buffeting the ship. I don’t suffer from seasickness any more than most people, but when the sea turns especially rough, my inborn anxiety turns into a fear of death. An acquaintance in the group, a rather strange type with esoteric interests, had told me, during a conversation on deck the evening before, that if I was so afraid of the sea it must be because I had drowned in a previous life. Although at the time I had laughed, this odd remark did in fact perturb me, as I mentioned to Anna. I decided to get up and to go and look for the ship’s doctor. The sky, still bright on the horizon, was leaden above us. A strong wind was blowing. On the staircases and in the corridors I met nobody, given the state of the sea and the early hour. Later I would meet the doctor, bustling here and there in answer to calls. But before this happened, the ship pitched more violently than ever, forcing me to stop and cling to the handrail in the corridor. From the cabin opposite me I could hear voices, languid one moment and excited the next. I thought I caught a hushed sob, but it could have been the strange music of the wind. At that moment, pummelled by a sudden gust, the door swung open and shut before my eyes: for a few instants I saw the Greek officer and the girl clinging to each other half-naked.

When I returned to our cabin (the sea, in the meantime, had calmed down), I naturally told Anna about the episode, a fairly surprising one after all that we had seen and said on the quayside. Anna was puzzled, if not incredulous: probably I had misidentified the people; at that hour, in that situation … But she was forced to change her mind: as the cruise continued the two of them appeared constantly together, sharing that sort of carnal complicity that leaves no room for doubt even in the most ingenuous of observers. I took great care, when I happened to run into them, to avoid them and yet not to give the impression of avoiding them, because in either case I was afraid of embarrassing them. There was no need to worry. I never caught, in either of them, the faintest sign that they had recognised me. 
     The girl, I have to admit, intrigued me greatly. When, after disembarking at Patras, we took our places on the coach to Olympia, I realised, as I brushed by her, that her cheerful animation had given way to an air of resignation. In the afternoon, as we gazed in wonder at the cracked helmet of Miltiades in a room in the Museum, it was she who came towards us, attracted by the same display-case: her eyelids were reddened under her dark glasses, which every so often she allowed to slide gracefully down her nose. Something must have happened. And in fact, when we returned to the ship and set off again for Piraeus, we learned, without any further explanation, that the Greek officer was no longer on board.

For the whole of our stay in Athens we no longer had any occasion to meet or to see the girl. The number of people taking part in the cruise was in the hundreds, mostly divided into groups that did not all follow the same itineraries, without counting those who preferred to get around individually. But on the same day as our departure from Athens, when we still had a few hours at our disposal and wanted to visit the monastery of Daphnis, the girl turned up. She asked to join our group, which had hired a small coach. We set off under a blazing sun, but were aware that it might rain, as a few black clouds formed an unexpected stain on the horizon of the otherwise clear blue August sky. I was thus able to get a good view of the girl, with whom I had not exchanged a single word or greeting. She was fairly tall, with emerald eyes, and a complexion between honey and tawny-coloured. One might have said that there was something Botticellian or Pre-Raphaelite about her, with her long hair, her pronounced cheekbones and long neck. When we got off the bus I noticed that her bearing suggested the idea of energy or a lack of reflection. Her pace was both steady and soft, with an almost animal-like elasticity. She paused in front of the figures of the mosaics in the church with intense attention, but without lingering. Suddenly we heard the sound of the pounding rain. Anna had brought two folding umbrellas with her. We left the church just behind the girl: she had set off in the rain, which was already pouring down. I darted forwards, caught up with her and said: “Don’t you want some shelter? It’s not a big umbrella, but it’s better than nothing. You’ll get soaked otherwise.” It didn’t cross my mind that she might refuse. But she did, thanking me courteously and adding: “I never carry an umbrella. I like to feel the rain on my body.” I was left speechless, as if I had received a small revelation. It wasn’t just the disparity of the situation that embarrassed me. I looked at the girl walking beside me amid the downpour and lightning, and for the first time I was struck by just how ridiculous it was to hold an umbrella. I felt imprisoned by an obtuse and petty prudence not only with regard to nature, but to life as a whole, as if I had let the best part of it escape me. I asked: “Do you often come to Greece?” “I used to,” she answered, but added nothing else. Unable to continue the conversation with the girl, who in the blue light of the storm seemed to come from another world, I turned back to Anna and said: “Why don’t we do without the umbrella as well? Why don’t we let the rain fall on us?” “What’s got into you? Have you gone crazy?” she answered. “Don’t pretend,” I insisted with a touch of simulated exasperation, “don’t pretend to take me literally …” Anna fell silent for a moment, then said: “Do you really think I don’t understand? No, that’s not it. It’s just that now … now it’s too late.” And she added, with amused irony: “Maybe, who knows, in some future life, similar to the one in which you didn’t know you would die by water …”
     The girl didn’t seem to follow our remarks. To say that in just a few minutes she got wet would be understating things: the water streamed from her hair in rivulets, as it did from her light clothes, which adhered to her body. 
     After that episode we lost sight of her again until our final disembarkation. It was night. Venice gleamed in the water like a casket of diamonds spilled on black velvet. Waiting for her on the quay, together with the chauffeur, was her fiancé, who kissed her tenderly and with whom she went away arm in arm, just as she had arrived. 

Mario Andrea Rigoni is a full professor of Italian Literature at the University of Padua. He writes regularly for the Corriere della Sera and the Nouvelle Revue Française. He is the author of two books of aphorisms (Variazioni sull’Impossibile (Milano, Rizzoli, 1993) and Elogio dell’America (Roma, Liberal, 2003) and has just published a collection of short stories entitled Dall’altra parte (Torino, Aragno); “Too Late” is one of these stories.
Gregory Dowling is an associate professor of American literature at the University of Venice. He has published widely on British and American poetry and is the author of four thrillers, set in England and Italy. His most recent publication is a guidebook to Byron’s Venice. He translates regularly from Italian and writes for the Time Out Guide to Venice.