By the Book
by D M Artis
The woman seemed eager to share intimate
details with strangers. In the fifteen minutes the vaporetto took to reach Murano
from Venice, she acquainted her fellow tourists with her life and prejudices. Her
coarse, cawing old-Brooklyn accent caused the children to cower and cling to
their mothers. Elizabeth found herself seated next to, and saddled with, this
“My sister Effie
is four years younger than me,” said the woman. “She’s sixty-three. Never been
married, never had a man-friend. What do you make of that?”
Elizabeth tried to
appear non-committal, without seeming rude. Above all, she prayed that the
woman, her views on race issues evident, would not turn her attention to the
mixed-race family seated directly in front. It felt like a dreadful situation
waiting to happen.
“We can’t say for sure,
but we think Effie’s still a virgin. She’s gotta be.”
She brandished a greasy
black hard-backed diary that she used to punctuate her proclamations. Elizabeth thought, if she jabs her book in my direction once more, I’ll go crazy. The woman
introduced herself as Hester Lloyd.
The signs were ominous from
the start. Upon boarding, Hester harangued their tour guide about the discrepancies
between the tour literature and the information she’d noted in her diary.
“It’s all here. I write
everything down,” Hester insisted. “Don’t try to sham me.”
Elizabeth resolved to make the best of it. She’d embarked on this trip to Europe after her
husband, Eddie, passed away. It provided time to reflect and contemplate this
new phase of her life.
She gazed at the
expanse of the lagoon through the veil of spray glistening on the window. At
least the beauty of the surroundings helped take the edge off the unpleasant company,
like an empathetic doctor could deliver bad news in a way that stopped your
heart just short of breaking – breaking all at once, anyway.
She noticed Hester fix her
glare on the family in front.
Hoping to distract her,
Elizabeth blurted, “I love Italian food, don’t you?” Her congeniality sounded
forced. “Terrible for the waistline, I’m afraid.”
Hester regarded Elizabeth for a moment - the way a person might regard an insect crawling toward their
plate. “How heavy are you? One-fifty, one-sixty?”
“A little less just
now,” said Elizabeth. “I confess I did hit one-fifty-five last summer, on my
sixtieth birthd -”
“I like food as much as
the next person.” Hester grimaced. “But I’ve never gone that far.”
She trained her sights,
with all the precision of a cobra about to strike, back on the family in front.
“Where you from?” Hester
demanded of them, flatly.
“I’m sorry?” said the
young man, who Elizabeth took to be the husband. “Are you talking to me?”
his British accent. He had a pale, sallow complexion, and a kind, intellectual
face. The two children who squirmed and giggled next to his ebony-skinned wife
had radiant golden brown complexions.
Hester bent forward and
planted her forearms on the back of the chair in front. A meaty puff of stale
sweat issued from the short sleeves of her garish floral dress. Her baggy upper
arms quivered with the rhythm of the boat’s engine.
“You’re British,” she
“No, York. It’s in the
north of England.”
Elizabeth flinched inwardly
as Hester, clearly done with formalities, squared up to attack. To Elizabeth’s relief, and, though she might have imagined it, the relief of the other
passengers, the intercom crackled into life. The tour guide announced their
arrival at the next island, Burano.
After they disembarked,
Elizabeth glanced around at the brightly coloured houses on the little
island. Some were painted the magenta and azure of neon lights, others in zesty
“I don’t care
for this,” said Hester. “I don’t care for this at all.”
Elizabeth had never been so bold with colour herself, but the houses made her feel light
they paint them brightly so the fishermen can see their homes from the lagoon,”
“Where d’you hear
that? I’ve got nothing about it in my diary.” Hester leafed through several limp
pages. “Sounds like bull to me.”
Elizabeth edged away. “Well, nice talking to you. I’ll see you back at the boat. They said to
meet in twenty minutes, didn’t they?”
“We may as well
get coffee. Nothing to see here.”
Elizabeth tried to think of a polite way to jettison the woman. It wasn’t a thing she’d
ever had to do. Before she could find a suitable excuse, Hester barged ahead of
a frail-looking couple and commandeered an outside table at a nearby café.
called. “I got the seats. You get the coffee.”
Elizabeth longed to be
assertive, to brush this woman with her abhorrent views away without feeling
overwhelmed by guilt. I’m a dormouse, she thought. I’ve been a dormouse my
entire life, albeit a happy and contented one.
carried their coffee to the table.
“So, what’s your
story?” Hester issued the question as a demand that Elizabeth justify herself.
“This trip is a
gift from my children,” said Elizabeth.
“No, he passed
“I’ve been through five marriages.” Hester pursed her lips, making her mouth a tight downward
curve. “None of them worth the price of the ring.”
“Oh, I’m sorry
to hear that.”
expect it. My trouble is I’m soft-hearted. I’m a people person. I married three
of my husbands out of sympathy. The last one, Enrico – he was half Spanish.” Hester
said this as though it would be an obvious cause for sympathy.
Elizabeth saw an opportunity to head off trouble about the mixed-race family – or at least
give Hester a chance to exhaust her scorn out of their earshot.
She smoothed the
tablecloth with the flat of her hand and began tentatively, “I often think how
interesting it must be for a couple to have different cultural backgrounds…”
“It sure wasn’t
interesting for me.” Hester swatted a fly circling the plastic flower
decoration. “Enrico left under a cloud.”
“I see,” said Elizabeth. “You mean you didn’t stay friends.”
“No, I mean he left
under a cloud. He was an amateur meteorologist. Used to go taking pictures of
hurricanes up close. One minute he’s holding a cream cheese bagel and adjusting
his crotch, the next minute he’s swept away. Whoosh.” She gave a flick of her
hand, showy gold rings squeezed onto each finger. “I have the video footage.”
Surely, it was a
joke. Elizabeth paused, expecting Hester to laugh, but her expression remained stony,
her cod-like mouth down-turned.
“All I got from that
marriage was a stack of flamenco LPs and a taste for tapas.” She grunted
mirthlessly. “I gotta hand it to him though. He paid for his own funeral.”
“I sold the video
footage to that TV show, World’s Wackiest Weather. It covered the
funeral expenses and kept me in support hose for five months.”
Elizabeth glanced at
her watch. “I think it must be time to head back.”
“We have another three
minutes.” Hester tapped her diary. “I wrote down exactly what the tour guide
said. You can’t take chances. People make their own rules. I do things by the
book. Always have.”
By the book. That
phrase made Elizabeth reflect. She knew that was how some would have described
her married life. But domesticity had suited Eddie and her. Friends and
neighbours thought them mild, honest people - dependable in difficult times to
be non-judgemental. Remembering this, she chastised herself for her
un-Christian thoughts about Hester.
When they returned to the
vaporetto, the other tourists were seated and restless. The tour guide, a young
woman clearly operating to a strict schedule, appeared eager to get underway.
She started to emphasise that a prompt return after the next stop would be essential.
Hester responded by bullying the guide into submission and jabbing her finger
at a page in her diary.
“Look. What does that
say? Not my words – yours.”
The tour guide pleaded,
“But that is the time I asked that we should meet on the boat –”
“No. That’s the time
you asked us to start heading back. You people might insist on your own
time zone, but I’ve paid for every minute of my trip and I mean to get it.”
Elizabeth tried to apologise to the guide, but Hester swept her along the aisle to their
seats, like a spiteful tsunami.
As the vaporetto
left the island, Hester fell silent for the first time during the trip. Elizabeth felt curious about her. Beneath the obnoxious exterior there had to be a damaged,
needy soul. Why else would a person engage the world with such hostility? Elizabeth believed that good existed in everyone, somewhere.
Hester turned to the
family in front. “Your kids get bullied much?”
“No.” The man sounded
wary. “What makes you ask that?”
His wife nudged him.
“Leave it, Jeremy. I told you she’d start. Ignore her.”
“Seems to me,” said
Hester, “they’re starting off at a disadvantage.”
A flush bloomed in the
man’s cheeks. “If you mean what I think you mean then you’re as out-dated as
you are offensive. This isn’t the nineteen-fifties.”
Someone a couple of
rows back muttered, “Hear, hear.”
“That’s the problem nowadays,”
said Hester. “People are too selfish to worry about how things might be for
The wife gestured to
her children. “Turn around. Ignore her.” The youngest clambered onto his
“And the crying shame of
it is,” continued Hester, “a person’s not allowed to speak out about what’s
right and wrong, not any more.”
The tension was
palpable, like a bubbling pot of resentment. Elizabeth found it remarkable that
none of the passengers challenged Hester’s remarks more forcefully. Then she
reminded herself that she had not done so either.
Within a few minutes, they arrived
at Torcello. A long pathway snaked from the dock, past meadows and isolated houses,
a shop, a café, and a restaurant, towards the cathedral that represented the central
tourist attraction. The smell of cut grass carried on a lazy breeze.
“This place is a
dump,” said Hester, fanning herself with her diary.
I like it.” Elizabeth surprised herself with her new boldness.
by anything worth looking at, that’s for sure.”
“Hester, why are
you so negative? I mean, excuse me for saying, but you seem to hate just about everything
and looked away.
Elizabeth said, “I…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
“I guess I had
you figured wrong. You’re just like the rest.”
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth repeated, cursing herself for apologising at all. The aroma of oregano, garlic,
and baking bread wafted towards them as they approached the café. “It’s the
heat getting to me. Shall we go in? I’ll buy coffee.”
served them promptly. Elizabeth sipped her coffee and endured Hester’s views on
mixed marriages, racial equality, bad husbands, rude Europeans, and the lack of
respect young people had for their elders.
“I’m telling you,
kids these days don’t know what polite is. Wait here. I gotta use the restroom.”
herself out of the chair and shuffled to the counter. She asked the waitress
something in a voice harsher than usual, as though volume would overcome any
Elizabeth saw that Hester had left her diary on the table. Would it be wrong to sneak a
quick look? The diary might reveal something that would make her difficult
companion easier to understand - to connect with. No, it would be very wrong. Elizabeth glanced at her watch. She gasped. They had only two minutes to
get back to the vaporetto.
She hesitated for
as long as she dared. When Hester didn’t re-appear she snatched up the diary
and her bag and hurried to the restroom. Inside were three stalls, one of them occupied.
“Hester?” Elizabeth whispered, thinking it worse to talk in a restroom than in a library. Then a
little louder, “Hester? Sorry to disturb you. We have to get back, we’re late
Hester’s voice resounded
from the stall and reverberated around the tiled room. “I don’t give a good
goddamn! Let them wait.”
“It’s not fair
on the others…”
Elizabeth clenched her fist. What was this unfamiliar emotion? Yes, anger. For the first
time Elizabeth could remember, she felt angry. She yearned to barge the door
down and drag Hester out kicking and screaming, with her hose around her
ankles, if need be.
She raised her
eyes upwards and mouthed, “Sorry, Eddie.”
Elizabeth returned to the vaporetto
without Hester. Several minutes passed. The guide checked her wristwatch repeatedly,
and chewed her bottom lip. When ten minutes elapsed with no sign of Hester, the
vaporetto engine spluttered into life and they began the journey away from
Torcello, back to Venice.
Elizabeth gazed back at
the island shrinking in the distance – a fleeting interruption between the vast
blue of the sky and lagoon. Plumes of foam rose as the vaporetto cut through
the water – like the shaving foam she’d spent forty years unsuccessfully reminding
Eddie to rise thoroughly from the bathroom sink.
She thought of
Hester. It would be easy for her to find her own way back. The services to the
mainland ran regularly. The atmosphere onboard seemed brighter in Hester’s
absence, like the chirruping of birds after a passing storm, when the earth feels
Elizabeth recalled her bellowing from the restroom stall.
“I don’t give a
good goddamn! Let them wait.”
It had been easy
to imagine the door of that stall juddering with the sound of Hester’s voice. Elizabeth noticed the large gap by the hinge, between the badly fitted door of the stall
and the frame. If something accidentally became lodged in that gap, a piece of wood,
or a hard-backed diary, say, it would be impossible to open the door from the
inside. A person might be stuck in the stall and miss their boat.
I should feel
guilty, Elizabeth told herself. She wondered whether Eddie was looking down at
her, disappointed. Her first footsteps along her life’s journey without him and
she had chosen to act out of character. She shielded her eyes and gazed out of
the window. The afternoon sun embraced the day and etched a thousand platinum arcs
on the shifting surface of the lagoon. They all winked at her.
©2008 David Artis
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