An Exclusive Short Story by Philip Gwynne Jones
The bestselling author of the Venetian thrillers featuring diplomat Nathan Sutherland, Philip Gwynne Jones is known for his atmospheric and gripping stories from the Floating City. With Venetian Gothic, the fourth instalment in the series, published earlier this year, Gwynne Jones treats us to an exclusive festive Nathan Sutherland short story, 'Deep and Crisp and Even'.
Deep and Crisp and Even
A Nathan Sutherland short story for Christmas
Donald Sutherland expired messily in a pool of his own blood as the scene faded to Julie Christie, lovely but red-eyed, accompanying him on his final journey. Pino Donaggio’s score played, the credits rolled, and I got to my feet and switched the lights on.
‘How about that then, eh?’
Federica was sitting next to me on the sofa with her legs tucked underneath her. She gave me the look that she usually reserved for delivering disappointing news.
‘Well, I think it’s quite good.’
‘Quite good. Quite good?’
‘It’s well made. But it’s a bit horrible. I don’t really understand why we had to watch it now.’
‘It’s a Christmas film.’
‘Don’t Look Now is a Christmas film?’
‘Of course it is. Just look at the Italian title – A Venezia, un dicembre Rosso shocking. “In Venice, a shocking red December”.’
‘That’s not enough to make it a Christmas film. There’s no Father Christmas, no sparkly lights, no Christmas music, no snow.’
She had, I had to concede, a point. ‘There’s a little red figure. Maybe kind of like an elf?’
‘There’s a murderous little red figure. That doesn’t count. This is like that other film you made me watch. What was it called – the really horrible one?’
‘That was it.’
‘It’s got snow in it.’
‘It’s got a dog turned inside out in it. The snow isn’t enough to add a festive atmosphere by itself.’ She paused. ‘Where’s Gramsci?’
I looked around. The familiar cat-shaped dent was still there on the back of the sofa but of Gramsci himself there was no sign. I kneeled down, and took a look underneath. An aggrieved miaow came from the darkness, and a paw narrowly whizzed by my nose.
Fede nodded. ‘So. Too much even for Gramsci?’
‘It seems so. Hopefully he’ll like tomorrow’s a bit more.’
‘Oh. There’s more?’ There was, I thought, a lack of enthusiasm in her voice. ‘What are you delighting us with tomorrow?’
I’d worked out our festive viewing programme in advance. Tomorrow’s was scheduled to be Black Christmas. Then I saw the expression on her face, and heard a plaintive little miaow from under the sofa.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ I lied.
Fede got to her feet, stretched and yawned. ‘I don’t know how you sleep after some of these. I’ll be seeing that little red figure everywhere I look.’ She reached her hand across to me. ‘Come on then. Time for bed. And what about you, Unfriendly Cat?’
Another miaow came from under the sofa, informing us that Gramsci was still unsure if it was safe to come out, and would be along in his own good time.
Piazza San Marco was never less than crowded and I hadn’t really expected it to be any better three days before Christmas. Nevertheless, Dario and Vally had wanted to meet us there before they headed off to Trieste for the holidays.
‘I don’t see why we couldn’t just have gone to the Brazilian’s,’ I muttered as we inched our way through the crowds.
‘Oh, don’t be grumpy,’ said Fede, ‘it’s for little Emily. This is probably the first Christmas where she knows it’s Christmas. That’s a big thing for them.’ She linked her arm in mine. ‘Come on. I know it’s busy, but it’s still lovely, isn’t it?’
I had to admit she was right. In the distance, framed by the columns of St Mark and St Theodore, we could see the lights of the great Christmas tree. It was as fake as Theodore’s crocodile, of course, but that didn’t matter. Crowds milled around the most elegant drawing room in Europe, the mosaics on the Basilica shining in the half-light of late afternoon, and the silver streams of Christmas lights twinkled in the darkening arcades of the Procuratie.
We were supposed to be meeting them by the tree but, as I tried and failed to spot them in the middle of the madding crowd, I started to wonder if perhaps we should have been a bit more specific.
Dario had suggested coffee outside the Caffè Lavena.
Outside. Caffè Lavena. At Christmas.
Well, it was going to cost a fortune, but Dario was still in his honeymoon period after re-turning to Venice, and so if this was what he wanted then this was what he was going to get. If, that was, we could ever find them.
I held my hand up to shield my eyes as I scanned the crowd.
And then, for a moment, I saw it. A moment only. A glimpse of colour in the middle of a sea of grey and black.
A tiny little flash of red.
I gripped Fede’s arm, drawing an ‘Ow’ out of her. ‘Did you see that?’
‘There.’ I waved my arm in the general direction of the hordes in front of the Christmas tree. ‘Something in red. A little figure in red.’
I saw it again, but only for a fraction of a second before it was lost from sight.
Fede shook her head and laughed drily. ‘I did warn you, tesoro.’
The crowd parted for an instant, and I could see it clearly now. A tiny figure in a bright red coat, running from the direction of the Christmas tree. Running with arms outstretched.
Running towards me.
I tried to cry out, but only a strangled ‘Nyaaarghhh’ would come from my throat as I threw my hands up in front of my face. Then it was upon me, and had wrapped its arms around my knees.
I dropped my hands, and looked down.
‘I’m so sorry, Nathan, she’s never done that before.’
Vally sat down at the table and pulled Emily onto her knee.
Dario was still wiping tears away. ‘You should have seen your face!’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You have to admit there was something just a little bit creepy about that. No offence, Emily.’
Emily looked up at the mention of her name, but appeared more surprised than offended.
‘Buy her a hot chocolate and she’ll forgive you,’ said Vally.
Emily smiled. I wasn’t quite sure how much she actually understood now, but ‘chocolate’, I assumed, had been one of her first words.
Dario patted me on the back, as gently as he knew how. ‘Still. Uncle Nathan. That’s pretty good, eh?’
I smiled and nodded. ‘Yeah. I guess that is pretty cool.’
‘You can bet we’re gonna tell this story at her wedding, of course.’
I smiled as best I could. ‘Right. Shall we order?’
Italians can make small cups of coffee last a surprisingly long time, and small Italian girls can, equally surprisingly, do likewise with mugs of hot chocolate.
‘So. All ready then?’ said Dario.
‘Pretty much. Still a little bit of shopping to do tomorrow.’
‘You have?’ said Fede.
‘Yes.’ I paused and weighed my following words very carefully, trying to keep them as light as possible. ‘You mean, you haven’t?’
She stirred the remains of her coffee, and tapped her spoon in the saucer. ‘No. I’m all done.’
I thought it might be wise to change the subject. I folded my fingers and rested my chin on them, the better to bring me down to Emily’s level.
‘So, Emily,’ I said. ‘You’re a big girl now. Tell me, what do you think was your best Christmas ever?’
She folded her hands, mirroring my gesture, and put her little head to one side. Then she frowned, as if struggling to record the former Christmases of her young life.
‘This one,’ she said, finally and decisively.
‘Mm-hmm.’ She nodded and, evidently considering her contribution to be over, turned her attention back to her chocolate.
I turned to Vally. ‘How about you?’
She smiled. ‘I think this one as well. Because it’s Emily’s first. I mean, her first proper one. I don’t know if she’ll ever remember it. But we will. And I know there’ll come a day when’ – she put her hands gently over Emily’s ears – ‘when she’ll find out that Babbo Natale is just Dario in a big white beard and a red suit. And that’ll be a bit sad. But we’ll always have this.’
‘That’s lovely,’ I said. I looked at Dario. ‘You do this?’
He shrugged. ‘Of course.’
‘So go on then,’ said Fede, ‘which was your best Christmas?’
Dario frowned. ‘Difficult to say. It might have been 1993. Me and a pal hitchhiked to Genoa to see PFM supporting Jethro Tull on the twenty-third. That was a good one. Or may-be ’89. Le Orme played a secret gig at an old factory in Marghera. Yeah, that was a good one as well.’
He caught the expression in Vally’s eyes, and looked down at his little daughter. ‘Or, of course, it could be—’
‘This one. Yeah. This one.’ He patted her hand. ‘Definitely.’ He turned to me. ‘So how about you, vecio?’
‘Hmm. Difficult. Definitely not when I was growing up. Perhaps 2014. I spent it alone with an unfriendly cat. Then a few months later my wife left me. Oh, and a villainous art collector tried to have me killed.’
There was silence around the table.
‘That was your best one?’ said Vally.
‘Well, yes. Because that’s when I met Federica. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.’
Fede leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. ‘Thanks. I think.’
‘So, how about you, then?’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s easy.’
‘Aww. I know. The first Christmas we spent together?’
She shook her head. ‘Oh no. Nothing like that.’
‘No. In some ways my best Christmas wasn’t a good one at all. But it was the most special.
‘It was six months after my grandmother died. Everything was changing. There were just the four of us – me, Mamma, Papà and Grandfather. And I wasn’t just their little girl any more. So there were friends and presents and too much food and Midnight Mass which – even then – I was not allowed to get out of. And we did everything we possibly could to make things nice for Grandfather. But there was always that missing voice, you know? The empty chair at the table.
‘Anyway, there was one night when I couldn’t sleep, so I came downstairs to get a glass of water. I noticed the light was on in the main room, so I crept in. And there was Grandfather, watching the television. It was an old Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movie. That old comedy western, They Call Me Trinity. I’m sure he’d seen it twenty times before, but he always loved those two.
‘So I snuggled up next to him, and we sat there and watched Terence and Bud, and didn’t say a word until it was finished. Then he patted my hand and smiled. And he reached into his jacket pocket – Grandfather was one of those people who didn’t think they were properly dressed unless they had a jacket on – and he took out a little box. Gift-wrapped, it was. And he pressed it into my hand. He said he’d been meaning to give it to me but had never found the right moment.
‘And I opened it up, and inside was a little gold ring.’
Fede paused to sip at what remained of her coffee.
‘Your grandmother’s?’ I said.
She shook her head. ‘No. Not quite. He’d bought it for her earlier in the year. When she became ill. He’d meant to give it to her when she came out of hospital. But now, he said, he’d like me to have it.’
She dabbed at her eyes. ‘I remember, just sitting there next to him, you know? And finding it so hard to find the words. And all I could think of was to ask him why this was the right moment.
‘And he smiled and he said that grandmother had always hated Terence Hill and Bud Spencer and so this had been the first time he’d been able to watch the bloody film in peace!’
There was silence around the table for a moment, and then we burst out laughing as one.
‘Okay,’ said Dario. ‘I think you win that one.’
Emily looked at us all in confusion, and then picked her mug up, the better to see if any chocolate was still clinging to the sides. She looked disappointed for a moment, and then turned it upside down onto the saucer. She yawned, as if to indicate that time, perhaps, was getting on.
Vally gave her a hug. ‘Well, it’s been lovely. But I suppose it’s time we got this one home.’
‘Will we see you tomorrow?’ I said.
‘Probably not. There’s packing to be done before we head off on Christmas Eve. But Dario can have a few hours off for a beer with you if you like?
‘I can?’ said Dario, ‘Aww, thanks!’
‘It’s just to get you out of the house,’ said Vally. ‘You only get in the way when I’m packing.’
We laughed once more, and got to our feet. I kissed the top of Emily’s head.
‘Bye-bye, murderous small child,’ I said.
She looked confused for a moment, and then smiled. ‘Bye-bye, Uncle Nathan.’
‘Have a lovely Christmas. I’ll see you soon, eh?’
‘Not if she sees you first,’ said Dario, making a stabby motion with his right hand.
‘Hmm. This is going to take some time to live down, isn’t it?’
Federica and I walked arm-in-arm through the darkening calli, back to the Street of the Assassins.
‘So,’ I said, ‘Uncle Nathan, eh?’
Fede stopped in her tracks and stared at me. ‘I’m starting to worry about you.’
‘Oh, come on. It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’
She shook her head, but then smiled and gave up trying to look serious. ‘Look at you! But, yes, it’s quite cool.’
‘It’s all down to that soft toy I gave her. Mr Floppy the rabbit. Apparently it’s still her favourite.’
‘Mm-hmm. This is the rabbit that had previously belonged to Gramsci, isn’t it?’
‘Well, yes. But she doesn’t have to know that.’ I paused. ‘That story about the ring. You’d never told me about it before.’
She sighed. ‘The sad thing is, it was too small for me. I could just about get it on my little finger, but that was it. I wore it on a chain for a couple of years, and then I realised that, having a job that involved being up on scaffolding or bending over fragile things, long dangly necklaces weren’t a good idea. So I haven’t worn it in years.’
‘You’re sure you don’t mind me going out?’ said Fede.
‘Not at all. Have a great time.’
‘It’s just that it’s kind of a colleagues-only thing. No partners. I hope it won’t be too long.’
‘Oh, that’s no problem. Take all the time you need,’ I said, with just a touch too much breeziness.
‘Thanks.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘What have you got planned?’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all. Well, maybe just some last-minute food shopping.’
‘You must have finished that by now, surely? You’ve been obsessing about it for months.’
‘Yes, but I’m sure I’ve forgotten something important.’
She looked unconvinced, but then she smiled. ‘Oh, I get it. This is about last-minute beers with Dario, isn’t it?’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Was it that obvious?’
‘Just a bit.’ She touched my cheek. ‘But have a nice time. Don’t keep him out too long, though, he’s got a busy day tomorrow.’
‘I won’t. Promise.’
‘See you later then. Bye!’
I heard her footsteps on the staircase, followed by the sound of the front door closing. Then, just to absolutely sure she was gone, I went to the window and watched her disappearing down the Street of the Assassins.
I turned to Gramsci. ‘Okay puss. By my reckoning we’ve got about three hours to buy Lovely Secondary Care-Giver the best Christmas present ever. Are we up for it?’
Gramsci purred, as if to indicate that he was modestly up for it and would do his best as long as there was some food involved at the end of it.
Dario and I stood outside a jeweller’s shop just off Campo San Luca.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘So this isn’t weird at all.’
‘Sorry, Dario, it had to be you.’
‘Thanks. I appreciate it. But why me in particular?’
‘You’re a bloke and you’ve almost certainly bought more jewellery than I have. And so I thought you might know the best place to get a ring enlarged.’
Dario nodded his head at the door. ‘Well, the afternoon before Christmas Eve isn’t ideal. But this place will be able to do it if anywhere can.’
‘I know it’s not ideal, but, given that I didn’t even know of the existence of said ring until yesterday afternoon, it’s the best we can do. Gramsci and I practically tore the apartment apart looking for it.’
I took the ring from my pocket. Golden, decorated with a repeated pattern of fleur-de-lys on a thin gold chain. ‘It’s quite a lovely thing,’ I said.
Dario nodded. ‘Uh-huh. So which finger is it for?’
‘Blimey, I hadn’t really thought.’
‘You hadn’t really thought? Well, what size are you going to need?’
‘I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought of that either.’
Dario rubbed his forehead. ‘Okay. So you don’t know which finger and you don’t know what size. Otherwise everything’s clear, right?’ Then he grinned at me. ‘You sure you don’t know what finger this is for?’
I jabbed him in the chest. ‘This is just a ring, okay? Just a ring. Don’t go getting any ideas.’
He threw his hands up in the air. ‘Okay. Okay, Nat, I understand.’ He looked slightly disappointed.
‘I don’t have much experience of this, you know? And anyway, how do you go about covertly measuring somebody’s fingers?’
‘How should I know?’
‘You were in the army, weren’t you? They must have taught you all sorts of covert operational stuff.’
‘Yeah, you’re right, they do. But I remember now, I missed the “measuring fingers for rings” course. I think I was doing parachuting that day, or something like that.’ He rubbed his face again. ‘Come on then, let’s go in. Maybe he’ll take pity on us.’
The jeweller held up the ring, watching it spin on its chain in the soft golden light. ‘It’s a lovely piece,’ he said. ‘Very pretty.’ Then he frowned. ‘You say you’d like it enlarged?’
‘Mmm.’ He held it closer to his face. ‘Do you know the size?’
‘Er no, not really. Just a bit.’
‘Mmm,’ he repeated, and sucked his teeth. ‘“Just a bit”. The trouble is, it’s going to be very difficult not to disturb the engraving on the outside and the inscription on the inside.’
‘There’s an inscription?’ I said. I hadn’t thought to look.
He nodded. ‘Per Federica, ti amo.’
For Federica. I love you.
I looked at Dario.
‘That was her grandmother’s name. This would have been the last present her grandfather ever gave to his wife. Except he never got the chance. So he gave it to Fede instead.’
He shook his head. ‘Nat. This is more than a bit special, you know?’
I nodded. ‘Yeah.’ I turned back to the jeweller. ‘So do you think you could enlarge it? This afternoon?’
He drummed his fingers on the counter and finally nodded. ‘Well, I can try.’
‘That’s brilliant. Can I just take another look at it?’ I stretched out my hand, and he passed me the ring. I turned it over and over, straining my eyes as I tried to read the in-scription.
Per Federica, ti amo.
It was a risk, of course, but if it worked . . .
Dario laid his hand on my shoulder. ‘No,’ he said.
‘This is the most precious thing she owns, vecio. “I can try” isn’t going to cut it.’
I sighed. ‘You’re right, of course’. I dropped it back inside my pocket, and turned to the jeweller. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘No problem at all, sir. You know where to come if you change your mind. And Merry Christmas.’
‘Merry Christmas,’ I said. ‘Okay, Dario, it’s time for Plan B.’
‘There’s a Plan B?’
‘There certainly is. Now all we need to do is find a good DVD shop . . .’
I stacked the last of the dishes in the rack. ‘All done. Have I earned another prosecco?’
‘I think you have, tesoro.’ Fede stretched out her glass towards me. ‘Make it two, eh?’
My phone plinged. I read the message whilst pouring Fede’s drink with my other hand. ‘It’s from Dario. Everyone’s safe in Trieste. They all send their love.’
I passed her her glass, and she sipped at it.
‘So what’s it to be?’ she said. ‘An early night or Babbo Natale won’t come?’
‘Well, erm, I did kind of have another idea.’ I paused for a moment. ‘I thought we might watch something together.’
She sighed. ‘Oh God. Something horrible?’
‘No. Nothing like that. I promise.’ I stuck my hand down the back of the sofa to where I’d hidden my present out of the reach of both Gramsci and Fede.
‘This is – well, this is an early Christmas present.’
‘Really? Oh, that’s so sweet.’ She kissed me on the cheek. ‘How thoughtful.’ She ran a nail along the wrapping paper, peeling the sticky tape back as gently as possible in order not to tear it. Art restorers, I had learned, did not simply tear their presents open.
She edged out the package within, held it up, and smiled.
They Call Me Trinity.
‘I don’t believe it. I haven’t seen this since – well – you know when.’ She reached over and hugged me. ‘You are brilliant.’
I shrugged. ‘Well, I wish I could find it in my heart to disagree.’
She clouted me on the back of the head with a sofa cushion, sending Gramsci scurrying. ‘Don’t push it! But I think we have to watch it now.’ She drained her glass. ‘And we definitely need more Prosecco.’
And so, on Christmas Eve, Federica and I snuggled up together to watch the classic Italian comedy-Western They Call Me Trinity. In absolute silence. Just as her grandfather would have wanted.
‘Well,’ she said, as the credits rolled, ‘that was a bit lovely.’ She squeezed my arm. ‘I never knew you could be so thoughtful.’
‘I’m glad you enjoyed it.’ I paused. ‘Given that there are another seventeen films in the set.’
‘I couldn’t find a single disc of They Call Me Trinity. Just a box set. Terence and Bud were very prolific, it seems. They made eighteen films together. And so – well – it was a bit expensive. But there are all sorts of extras, I understand.’
She shook her head. ‘You’re mad. In a good way, I think. But still mad.’
‘Well, should we start on the next one?’
‘No. Maybe not tonight. But we will. It’s a little project for us.’ She yawned and patted my arm. ‘I think it really is time for bed.’
I nodded. ‘Yes. Absolutely. It’s just that there was one other thing that I—’
‘Well, as I said, there was just one other thing that I—’
She put her finger to my lips and shushed me. ‘No. What’s that?’
A tapping sound was coming from the window. Gramsci was perched on the sill, swatting away at something on the other side of the glass.
‘What’s he seen?’
I went over to him, looked outside, and laughed. ‘I don’t believe it. It’s actually snowing.’
‘You’re joking? Seriously?’
‘I’m absolute serious.’ Gramsci leaped up again, and swiped in vain at the flakes swirling past outside. ‘He’s never seen snow before,’ I said.
‘I’m not surprised. It hardly ever snows here. And at Christmas!’
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes. Oh yes I am.’ I grabbed her hand. ‘Come on.'
‘Come on. We’re going outside.’
She laughed. ‘Hang on, let me get my coat.’
‘Because it’s snowing in Venice on Christmas Eve and if I don’t do it now . . .’ I shook my head. ‘Come on.’
We half ran downstairs into the Street of the Assassins. Ed had long since closed the Magical Brazilian’s for the night, and the only light came from the glow of the street lamps in the Calle della Mandola.
Fede jumped up and down. ‘God, it’s freezing.’
‘It won’t take long. Promise.’
I took the ring from my pocket.
Per Federica. Ti amo.
Just a ring.
Don’t go getting any ideas.
It’s just a ring.
‘The other day – well, you mentioned the ring and so Gramsci and I searched everywhere for it – and I’m sorry if that sounds a bit stalkery. Well, anyway, I was going to get it enlarged, but it seems that’s a bit difficult because of the engraving.’
A tapping sound came from behind me, and I turned to see Gramsci, in shadow, still flailing at the flakes that had the audacity to float by his window.
‘And so I remembered what you said. About it just about fitting on your little finger.’
Per Federica. Ti amo.
Just a ring.
Don’t go getting any ideas.
But of course, it was never just a ring.
I took her hand and, before she could say anything, managed to twist and turn the ring onto her finger.
‘Nathan, ‘ she laughed, ‘I’m a bit bigger than I was twenty years ago. I’ll probably never be able to get this off.’
I took a deep breath.
‘Well, that’s kind of the point. I was thinking – perhaps – you wouldn’t have to.’
The snow was lying properly in the street now. Deep and crisp and even. I dropped to my knees, feeling it crump satisfyingly beneath me.
‘You see, Fede . . . there’s something I need to ask you . . .’
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