“The Exchange” by Annemarie Neary

Giancarlo almost tripped over the girl. She was lying in the centre of the nave, stretched out between the pews in a long thin line. Her eyes were wide open and she lay so still that he was afraid she might even be dead. On closer inspection, the strange tilt of her head was due to the small backpack wedged beneath it like a pillow. A trail of smoke floated up from the cigarette in her hand.

He took a step back and coughed quietly but, even though the cough echoed through the empty church, she didn’t stir. Those stones were cold as a mortuary slab, but the girl seemed not to notice. He’d become expert at judging the origin of visitors. It was an amusement he allowed himself and he was rarely wrong. His first observation was that she wasn’t English. The English tended to cower at the back, as though they might catch something. No Frenchwoman would wear shoes like those, and she wasn’t American either: she was much too overawed for that. In fact, the girl seemed bludgeoned into a daze by the grandeur of the ceiling. Perhaps that was why he felt a spark of sympathy for her, in spite of the cigarette. And the ceiling was extraordinary. It was as though the roof had been ripped off to reveal another world, where ranks of painted soldiers rose up in dark tiers towards a teetering colonnade, where a martyr saint trumped his enemies and sat enthroned beneath a rush of wings. Beyond the saint, the wings spiralled out of sight. Higher still, the light was sallow, fugitive. It didn’t look like a sky.

When eventually the girl spoke, it was in German. ‘We have no ladder,’ she said.
At first, he wasn’t sure whether she was addressing him at all or whether there was an accomplice there, someone he hadn’t yet observed. He glanced around, but they seemed to be alone. Although customary with English speakers, it showed unusual arrogance to speak in German and expect to be understood. At first, he didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure whether to enter into whatever fiction was in her head or to try and remove her now. One thing was certain; he would have to move her before he opened up the church for the afternoon. He wondered where she’d been hiding. Stragglers were always a worry, with all the side chapels. He’d had a vu cumpra in here once, a poor skinny fellow in a red t-shirt, his white sack of handbags by his side. The boy had hidden, shivering with cold or fear, in one of the confessionals. Turned out he was terrified of the mist and how it seemed to make the canals rise up and surround him so that the whole city became liquid.

Giancarlo remembered his German, whether he cared to or not, and so he used it to speed things along. He’d already decided she was from Munich, but when he suggested it, he knew it sounded like an accusation.
‘Not any more,’ she sighed. ‘These days, I’m just a traveller.’
How like the young to shrug off a history just like that.
‘Unusual,’ she murmured, half to herself, ‘for an Italian to speak German. Why bother?’ Her eyes were still on the ceiling, her voice vague. She hadn’t taken a puff on her cigarette in all the time he’d been standing there, and several centimetres of ash sat piled on the end of the filter.

He bent down, cupped his hand underneath it and she dropped it into his palm. He turned away to dispose of the butt in the little bin he used for candle stubs. Then, in the silence, he heard a faint click and hiss, click and hiss. He realized then that she held a cigarette lighter in her left hand. He began to wonder if she might be unhinged. Her voice was very small, very calm. He was tired from standing and he slumped into a pew to draw his breath. Trying to think in German again was exhausting. He could feel the tension between his eyes. Besides, he was focussing all his energy on the hand that held the lighter.

There was a brief moment when he was a younger man when self-immolation became popular. He thought it was after the Prague Spring had ended. The nightmare of burning students filled his dreams back then. On Giudecca, they’d named a building after one of the martyrs, but he could no longer remember the man’s name. He couldn’t see any bottle that might contain flammable liquid but who knows what might be in her knapsack. Perhaps she intended not to burn herself but to set fire to the church.

But she remained calm, serene almost, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. ‘Those columns,’ she began, ‘It’s like they’re straining for gravity when all the force is in the opposite direction, sucking us towards the sky.’
He might have engaged with her, as he did with the occasional student. He might have commented that Venice was never a place to buckle under the orthodox. He might have explained so much, but the language they spoke threw him off kilter, and he wasn’t sure he could remember all the words. ‘I haven’t spoken German for forty years,’ he said.
‘Ah,’ she replied, a sharp little sound, and with that she drew down the shutters on her curiosity. It was as though she’d done a quick mental sum and understood, but of course she couldn’t have done; not a young thing like her. She recovered herself soon enough, though, the voice dreamy again. ‘How weird to have painted this back then. Before they knew about all that chaos.’

And what did this girl know about anything? He was about to speak, to ask her to leave, but she hadn’t finished. He braced himself, but no, she wasn’t referring to the chaos that had changed the course of his life, not at all. ‘Do you think they knew about black holes back then?’ was what she said. This time, she almost sat up, suspended in the kind of curve that only youthful muscles allow.

He told her that, whatever about black holes, the artist fell from his scaffold against the flow of his own painting; that in his case, gravity had won the day. She seemed disappointed, lay back down again, and looked away from him.
‘I shouldn’t have smoked. Not in a church. And not in front of a priest.’
People often made that mistake; the black cassock confused them.
He rummaged ostentatiously through his keys even though the only one required to open up the side door to the public was a small stainless steel one in his trouser pocket.
‘Already?’ she asked.
‘There may be others outside.’
‘I doubt it.’
It was hard to disagree. From the outside the church was drab. With its rough, unfinished façade it had never made it into Top Ten Venice, and visitors were few.

The girl had started to fidget again and that was making him nervous, the way her legs constantly twitched as though they were the visible part of her brain. He understood the urge to climb up into the painting, to examine its chaos at close quarters. He’d climbed up once himself, when the ceiling was being restored. From close up, though, the figures were rough, their faces blurred. They meant nothing.
‘You should be glad there’s no ladder,’ he said, ‘it looks better from here. You can only read the story from down here.’

She looked at him strangely, ‘Tell me this story,’ she said, and there was a crackle in her voice.
He didn’t remember (if indeed he’d ever known) all the words in German so he interspersed them with Italian, but she seemed to understand. He started to tell her the story of the saint who gave the church its name, Pantalon, the young doctor, whose insubordination had so angered the emperor. ‘He was a healer,’ he began, ‘And a martyr.’ As he spoke, the girl closed her eyes like a child and without realizing it at first, instead of telling Pantalon’s story, Giancarlo began to tell his own.
It was the start of winter when they came, in the first days of November. Though the sun was still bright there was a chill wind. The Canale di Cannaregio was choppy with comings and goings, and stories swirled around the campo with the leaves of the dead summer. The sound of marching men would be heard across the lagoon, they said. They would torch the place, crush it like they crushed everything.

He’d had the sense that another festival was in the offing, so many of their neighbours stood in clumps as though planning adventures, rushing from their houses with armfuls of things. Bells rang all day long in the Madonna just around the corner. His tenth birthday just past, it had coincided with the festival of Succot. He and his sister Amelia had spent a night outside, in the wooden shelter that had been built especially for the festival. They’d huddled together for warmth and watched the stars wink through the roof of greenery his mother had made. It was too cold, really, to sleep out but they were permitted just this once. Perhaps it hadn’t even been a whole night for he couldn’t remember waking to daylight. The buildings in the Ghetto were taller than anywhere else in Venice, almost crowding out the rag of sky.
‘We were Germans too,’ he told the girl on the floor, ’of a sort.’ She was staring at him now.
In Venice they were Jews, of course. In the Ghetto itself, they were Germans. They were a cut below the Sephardis with their fancy ways, but above those who were Italians, really, first and foremost. When his father was a boy, the Germans had even had their own synagogue, no more than a room at the top of the house where they all lived, but one of richness unimaginable from the outside. Like San Pantalon, it held its secrets tight. When the real Germans came, though, that didn’t cut any ice. There were no Germans in the Ghetto, that’s what the rabbi was told. Giancarlo wasn’t sure which of this he spoke and which swirled about in his head, for the girl still said nothing.

The day the soldiers came, he went with his father to visit Signora Contarini, his father’s most important patient, over near San Marcuola. He liked the Signora. She spoke with a funny accent and had pale twigs for fingers and a scribble of white hair wound round and round on the top of her tiny head. When they arrived, he spotted the old lady through the open door, propped up on velvet cushions like something delicate but sharp. He hoped she wasn’t about to die.

He thought it strange that his father hadn’t even taken off his coat and that his stethoscope was not around his neck. After all, he was always listening to the Signora’s chest like it was a seashell that sang to him. That was when he was allowed to come into the room and as he got close he could smell roses off her and hear the rattle when she breathed in.

When it was time to go, the Signora asked if Giancarlo might stay a while. He was surprised that father had brought a bag and that even his knife and whittling stick were in it. He slept well at the Signora’s house and a woman with red hands and a big red face gave him food and he learned not to ask questions because it just seemed to make everyone look at the ground. He became Giancarlo Contarini after that. They baptised him in the Madonna one evening after the church was shut. Being a Contarini put him beyond reach, and, when he came of age, it also gave him his living, for the position of sacristan at San Pantalon had always been in the family’s gift.
He’d forgotten all about the girl. When he looked for her, she was sitting propped up against the wall. She held a strand of her long thin hair out from her face and examined the tails, pinching them between finger and thumb, then singeing them with her lighter.

‘I should go now.’ Her voice sounded wary, as though this was a story she had heard since infancy, re-told in countless terrible ways. ‘Did you ever find them?’ she asked, ‘Your parents? Or your sister?’
‘No ladder,’ he said.
Once, a young American had come to interview him. A PhD student, if he remembered right. She’d asked clumsy questions about his memories, not realising perhaps that the point of his life had been to remember only so much as was necessary. To keep the forces in equilibrium, as the painter had done. The American was fixated on the irony of his life’s work as custodian of the church of a Christian martyr. He thought she was horrified by it. He allowed her to take her horror back to Philadelphia with her where it might grace her dissertation. He didn’t want it.

He didn’t tell the American of his silent tribute to memory, each autumn during the seven days of Succot, when he exchanged the roses under the Veronese for a sheaf of greenery and a strange misshapen fruit. In the centre of the deep vase he would place a date palm, two willow branches to the left and three boughs of myrtle to the right. The citron was harder to get, but he usually found a Genoese one in Mestre. He placed it upright. It was hard to remember how his mother had done it, all those years ago, but as far as he could recall he arranged these things in the prescribed manner. Each autumn he expected someone to be outraged, or at least to remark on his Succot display, but no one ever did. When he was much younger it had been his habit to spend one night in the church during this time, lying beneath the painted ceiling as the girl had done, under a not-quite sky.

He glanced at his watch and saw that it was now well beyond four.
‘I must open now,’ he said.
The girl nodded, still sitting with her back to the wall. She leant forward and patted the flagstone in front of her. Perhaps she wore a ring, because there was a faint metallic clink. He held tight onto a pew, bent one knee and then the other until he was able to position himself on the paving. He lay flat on his back, felt the cold spread along it like a liquid. As he gazed up into the vortex of the ceiling, he was back in the Ghetto with Amelia under a sky screened with pine branches, and all the sorrow of a life that should have been seemed easier to bear.

By the time Giancarlo managed to drag himself back into the present, his joints had frozen stiff. He had to ease himself onto his side and shuffle back towards the pews before he could even attempt to get up. Then, as he struggled to his feet, he felt a jab of alarm when he remembered the girl, the lighter, the unattended Veronese. As he stumbled towards the side chapel, he saw the first flickers of reflected flame. His breathing tightened until he realised that it was just the candles. She’d lit them, every single one. As for the girl, she was gone.

Biographical Note:
Annemarie read The Exchange, one of her Venice stories, at the very first session in January 2010. Her novel, A Parachute in the Lime Tree, will be published by The History Press Ireland in March 2012.
In 2011, Annemarie won the Columbia: A Journal prize, judged by Robert Olen Butler, the Galway WOW! Anthology prize, and the inaugural Posara prize. She was a 2011 finalist in the Wordstock Festival short story competition, judged by Aimee Bender, and in the Brit Writers’ Awards.
In previous years, Annemarie has won prizes in the Fish and Bridport competitions, having been shortlisted for Bridport four years running. In 2009, she won the Bryan MacMahon short story award at Listowel Writers’ Week.
She was educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Courtauld Institute. She lives in London with her husband and three sons. www.annemarieneary.co.uk

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