The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2011 Results

A Traveller's Blog (guides do not get lost)

Copyright © Dean Briggs 2011

Day 1

Since listening to Francesco da Mosta parked on a series of alfresco dining chairs, purring between sips of dark Pablo espresso and grizzled plumes of Cubist cigar smoke, I have pined for his City of Love. After several years of planning I had myself poised at the very hem of its damp outskirts.

Our train paused just short of the station, allowing a lingering, out the window view of the lagoon. The latte brown water was dimpled by rain and further away shrouded buildings stood ankle deep in water. We had arrived where life hovers on the plimsoll line.

In my line of sight a young girl (obviously local) sat reading, a little bored and impatient. Beside her, in a plastic bag, waited a pair of pink gumboots, which she donned just as we arrived. I glanced down apprehensively at my Dunlop Volleys, crinkling back a wry grin.

Outside was a damp, dismal embrace but I felt irrepressible: over 400 bridges and 177 canals bustling with gondolas, traghettos and vaporettos eagerly awaited my arrival.

How could it not be exciting, it was Venice for God’s sake and Wombat Flats was a distant cooee.

I had directions to our monastery stay using watercraft but decided to wade instead. After a series of increasingly soggy directions, hurtling along umbrella-width laneways like a Pacman high on adrenaline, I arrived at Campo della Madonna dell”Orto.

Signora Stramberie, a brusque, stooped, walking-stick of a landlady settled me in with a waggling finger and protruding bottom lip.

I changed and found a supermarket, just two canals away (the locals use bridges instead of cattle grids for their mud/puddle maps) and progress took on the challenges of a ‘Snakes and Ladders’ game. The supermarket was secreted down a tiny laneway and expanded inside like The Doctor’s Tardis. I bought local bread and cheese, plus apples grown in Mele (Italy) but originating from Granny Smith’s back yard in Eastwood.

Back indoors the small troupe assembled in the dining area to await the arrival of our guide. He was late, which gave us time to meet properly. I will introduce you.

*Firstly I had a mix-up with Steven Tartar, a dentist. He said he was retiring, so I asked him what he would do when he returned home. He said dentistry. He just meant that he was shy.

*‘Daffy’ Daphne Duque is a perennial student, and, like her namesake, seems to spend a lot of time in Disneyland. Sparkling and intuitive but dogged by a good deal of uncommon sense, or common unsense.

*Stew Pidd is a Gold Coast real estate agent. I asked him if he was teased at school because of his name and he said the other kids called him piddler. He specially wants to visit the Realtor Bridge: I am not sure what he thinks he will find?

*Belle and Beau Ball are conjoined honeymooners, soul mates living in some sort of hormonal bubble that makes them smile and giggle a lot and share little whispery, earlobal secrets. I know very little about them.

*The Planks (Lotta and Frank) are simple grey mattered folk, there are two of them and both are short. Enough said. So far every sentence they have uttered used either the word ‘smelly’ or ‘dirty’.

Our guide Giuseppe Pellad’oca arrived two hours late. Although the name was Italian, (a translation from his original English moniker Jonathon Goosebump) he is a bona fide, former resident of South Dubbo

He hovered before our group, hunched over and shivering, in his safety yellow raincoat, more sodden than a pelican in an oil spill.

Not an auspicious beginning.

“Welcome to the city that ever seeps,” he grinned, scrunching his shoulders. “Sorry for being a little late, I somehow took a wrong turn.”

“That’s a tradition for visitors isn’t it,” I asked, mischievously omitting a question mark.

“But I live here,” he exclaimed, sharing my cavalier approach to punctuation. “I know this place like the back of my hand,” he added, digging his elbows into his hips and wiggling his upturned palms like spaghetti lifters.

The histrionic explanation of his tardiness that followed, seemed to imply that certain landmarks had been maliciously re-sited ‘a little to the left’ so as to befuddle him. He dripped mercilessly onto the carpet like a colander.

Signora Stramberie materialised and busied him across onto the false faux palazzo linoleum of the kitchen, all the while muttering ‘no, no‘ with her mouth whilst gesticulating ‘you bloody idiot’ with her arms.

He warned us of the perils of becoming sloshwacked during the ‘Aqua Alta floods’.

“That would appear to be a tautology,” Steve corrected.

“No, I think you will find that is a situation where a person unnecessarily repeats something by saying the same thing twice.”

Steve incisored his tongue and smirked, "Very good, er Benissimo.”

Gooseppe left us with an ill-fated promise to return at nine the following morning.

That evening we dined at Ristorante Diana, a tipsy slip from the water’s edge. As we enjoyed our potato Knocky there came the distinctive ‘dooff, dooff, dooff’ of a deep electric base. Two ‘Lurve Boats', with young couples on board, skimmed by, pumping out loud music. Open outboards, each with a small neon heart at its centre, one purple, one red. Venetian Hoons, doing laps.

Day 2

Gathered for breakfast and Stew hit us with a fact he had gouged from a brochure. “Venice has 65,000 residents and twenty million tourists a year.”

Daffyknee looked bewildered. “I am dreadful with numbers, I was frightened by an abacus when young and I still cannot even say the word M-A-T-H-S. All those zeroes, how do lots of nothings make a big number? Billions are what astronomers use to describe the sun and galaxies.”

Appropriately, Steve extracted a solar calculator. "That means on any given day there are 54794.52 visitors.”

“What’s a point five two?”

"Close to a half.”

The Planks joined in.

“Half a tourist. Do you mean a child?”

“No darl, that would be silly: a small adult or a toddler would still be a whole person. It’s probably an amputee.”

“Yeah. No legs, I reckon."

Signor Pellad’oca mercifully interrupted the exchange.

We fell in behind him like a skein of goslings, bustling alongside the deep wet streets. We visited a small public park called 'Villa Grogga' (no it wasn't full of empties), and Cannaregio square. There was an area called the Jewish ghetto, which is apparently where the term 'ghetto' derives.

There were workers on scaffoldings, slopping mortar out of wheelbarrows, laying paving, digging holes and even drilling with a rig. Maintenance on the island must come a close second to tourism. Their beautiful castle is under siege from its own moat. A section of canal had been dammed and pumped dry so that the stonework could be repaired.

“Looks like root canal therapy there, Steve,” I said.

“Their bridgework is braced and retained with orthodontic precision,” he added.

We weaved across to San Marco and entered the Doge's palace, now a museum. The first rooms had a column collection to rival the Sydney Morning Herald and upstairs boasted more gold than in Michael Phelps’s china cabinet. There were giant globes, marble figures, massive doorways, unbelievable fire places and room after fabulous room of Titians, Tintorettos, Veronese, Carpaggios, Boscheis, Tiepolos and the Italian word for etcetera.

Somehow each space grew grander and more elaborate than the previous, rounded off by the Senate Chambers and the Chamber of the Great Council.

“I'm ready for some dungeons and prison cells,” Daphne muttered sotto voce.

We crossed what the Planks thought was the ‘Bridge of Size’ and entered the horrible part of the castle where naughty people spent their declining years. It was a dingy, inescapable place of suffering and sensory famine and in its own quirky way a pleasant break from the smorgasbord of opulence nearby.

Next we briefly visited the Basilica of San Marco, the resting place of St. Mark or Alexander the Great, depending on which archaeologist currently rests on your bedside table. It was, of course, impressive: the ceilings shimmered with thousands of small mosaic tiles and the floors were decorated in beautifully elaborate designs of marble tiles, spread under felt (sorry, foot) like a Persian (sorry, Iranian) carpet.

“I have one more treat for you today,” Giuseppe proudly announced. "We will visit the home of Marco Polo at Corte De Milion." As we followed he explained that Mr. Polo had brought back so much wealth and hyperbole that he was nicknamed ‘Mr. Millions’.

After forty five minutes we had still not found closure. In desperation I asked a local, who offered a four dimensional MC Escher wink.

“To go down one must go up,” he observed.

Dutifully we penciled ourselves in behind him and arrived before you could write HB.

Giuseppe took over. “Marco was O.S. from age 17 to 41 and returned in1295.”

“That’s about one o’clock isn’t it?"

“A.D. not P.M. Daff,” our chaperon corrected. “See there on the wall, the Polo family crest, two birds facing each other.” Next Goose tried a joke, obviously a regular on his tours… “Also, whilst abroad he discovered a four sided ball game played on horseback and after returning he and his Uncle were often seen down at the shops wearing bespoke T-shirts with a collar, 3 button placket and an optional pocket.”

The Planks lapped it all up.

After our visit we somehow arrived out by the Grand Canal, guideless and clueless (perhaps that is a tautology).

On our sans-Giuseppe homeward journey Stew aired his disappointments. He described Venezia as ‘pretty much a smaller, danker, older version of Currumbin Waters Estate, jammed full of handyman specials’: a succinctly disappointing revelation.

Day 3

The day began with a tardy, excuseless apology from Giuseppe.

We called in to the Church of the Madonna dell'Orto (from 13th century) which is connected to our monastery stay. It was a wonderful surprise, with many Tintorettos blue-tacked to all the walls. He apparently toiled away there for thirty years on various artworks. It is hard to properly digest these moments standing before the actual centuries old masterpieces still in situ. A lesser scribe would use the term surreal. He worked and painted from about 1546 to 1594. As with today’s rock and movie stars he adopted aliases in keeping with his image. Born Jacopo Comin, also known by the surname Robusti, Il Furioso (because of his muscular robust style) and Tintoretto (meaning the dyer’s son).

“Surely not related to Bob and Dolly?” Frank ejaculated.


“From Pick-a-Box.”

“I’ll leave you to Google that one,” suggested Giuseppe.

Across on the north side we caught a ferry out onto the aquamarine water and signore Goosebump was in full cry.

“Like an archipelago of rare jewels flung across the lagoon,” he crooned.

“Wouldn’t gemstones sink?” Steve suggested.

“Would you prefer I said polystyrene beads, rubber duckies, or coke bottles?”

“Islands don’t actually sit on top of the water anyway.”

“It’s just a starry-eyed notion.”

“Not a good analogy though.”

“Its fine if you just take it on face value, no analogy is completely watertight."

“That’s probably why they don’t float,” Lotta muttered to her hubby.

We carefully waved to Murano (the glass maker’s island) on our way to Burano, the doily capital of the Mediterranean. Memories resurfaced of trailing behind my mother’s enthusiastic bustle as we trawled every bloody tatting ‘shoppe’ darned into the fabric of the Dandenong ranges. These were a little more enchanting. It featured brightly painted buildings and a wealth of shops selling fine lace work, most of which is done somewhere nearby. We strolled about its wider streets for a long while, then boarded another water bus to the cemetery island.

Although now only having a population of 65, Torcello in its prime was a thriving commercial hub of 55,000. These days it has a handful of restaurants and the obligatory chapel, the oldest in Venice. We paused inside the old church under its simple wooden dome and sat in quiet reflection; unfortunately the dry wooden seats went off like cap guns at the slightest movement. Frank prayed for a can of WD40. Still, we had an enjoyable time lazing on the grass, and trying several camp poses on the stone seat that supposedly cooled Attila the Hun's gluteus maximi at one time.

Ernest Hemmingway purportedly qwerty’d several chapters of a book there in the late forties (both his and the 20th century’s).

After a choppy return we wended to a small a capella café, beside the Academia Bridge. There we enjoyed sparkling wine (mustn't use that French word), pizza and a Venetian sunset. The afternoon light highlighted Venice at her seductive best. The gondolas passed four abreast with operatic harmonies floating up to those on the bridge above.

“Listen to those Venezuelas,” Lotta cooed.

“They sing in Italian, not Spanish,” Daphne chuckled.

Giusseppe left early but for the next ten minutes continued to appear in the middle distance like a pop-up ‘Where’s Wally Wills’ searching for the ‘Dig Tree.’

The Vaporetto ride back to the station along the GC was wonderfully atmospheric, fumes and mechanical grinds included. The water had dissolved to black, and was brought alive by lights from the buildings. No gaudy neon show, just glimpses of chandeliers and lamps from opened windows, mysterious and captivating. It was a lovely way to finish the day. It was so romantic that the Balls hugged, kissed and held hands (yet again).

Day 4

We left our digs with breakfast still in the air. Signora Stramberie’s friends sipped and cursed inside their houses as our dreadful little wheels clacked past early morning routines. I hated the noise we made, advertising our presence and highlighting our imposition.

We gathered for a coffee and gasbaggage before separating. Giuseppe promised to join us but was again lost in translocation. The Planks were chipper.

“We found ‘im,” Frank beamed. ”The half.”

“A man in a wheelchair with no legs.”

Daphne chimed in with the explosive finesse of Billy Slater. “Definitely no hanging feet but I detect a participle,” she chided.

A shot of Pablo slurped up behind my palate and gushed out through my sinuses. The subsequent paroxysm of laughter had Steven scrabbling for ‘paramedic’ in his phrase book. It was a grand Mal way to finish.

We exchanged cyberspace co-ordinates, handshakes and pecks then went our separate ways.

I dashed up onto Ponte Scalzi to imbibe some last quiet moments of ambience. There, an infernal American woman accosted me with a list of places that had bigger cathedrals, more expensive artworks, and grander whatevers. On and on she blathered.

I felt my remaining time too precious, so I called her a fool, told her to piss off, and returned to my bridgeful musings. Francesco would have been proud.

My visit had been far too brief.

Soon after I left for Florence with a curiously buoyed and heavy heart.

Dean lives in Newcastle, where he works as a gardener and baby boomer. He began by writing vignettes for a local paper about family life on a small farm outside Orange. Later he self-published some of these in a book called ‘The Slow Lanes’. After attending a course in 2003 he also began writing both serious and humorous short stories and entering competitions. At this stage he has no plans to give up his day job.