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 unwanted companion.

“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?”

            Elizabeth recognised 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 said.


            “From London?”

            “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 citrus tones.

“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 and happy.

“Apparently, they paint them brightly so the fishermen can see their homes from the lagoon,” Elizabeth said.

“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.

“Here,” she 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.

The waitress 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 husband?”

“No, he passed aw –”

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.”

“You gotta 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 their kids.”

            The wife gestured to her children. “Turn around. Ignore her.” The youngest clambered onto his mother’s lap.

            “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.

“It’s beautiful. I like it.” Elizabeth surprised herself with her new boldness.

“What’s to like?”

“It’s natural…unspoiled.”

“It’s unspoiled 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 everybody.”

Hester huffed 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.”

The waitress 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.”

Hester hoisted 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 language barrier.

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 again.”

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 renewed.

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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