I hear about him from a gondolier. One of these handsome Italian types, could've stepped out of an Armani ad. He says, "There is one gentleman..." in answer to my question. Are there any interesting people he knows that I could meet? "He is from England, very old now. An aristocrat, refined... I think you should meet him."
The women of Venice despise him. The elderly English gentleman. They call him il contessa vecchio, the old contessa. He is the fifteenth Earl of somewhere or other. Somewhere in the south of England. But he's an Italian citizen now. Been in Venice since the end of the war. Venice's men are not so dismissive. In a way they have adopted him. Brought him into their protection. In return he flatters and amuses them. Plays at being a naughty aunt. Some of them he outright spoils, expensive gifts, endless praise. He is affectionate towards them all, much like a thankful child, a wee orphan.
The gondolier arranges it for me. An afternoon audience with Lord Alistair Thrift. I ask a few people about him before it's time to go. Getting background information. I learn he was a conscientious objector in World War II, that he has a reputation for being flagrantly effeminate. But this offends only certain women. Women in their twenties and thirties who expect men to be a certain way, brimming with bravado and muscle. They expect this of the whole male populace.
Venetian men are more likely to forgive Lord Thrift's failure to live up to the expectations of masculinity. They know how hard that is. It is acknowledged, though only in private, among themselves.
I am taught about the Venetian male's open-heartedness by a college boy, in the shadows of a narrow alley. He follows me from the church I am visiting in the afternoon. He abandons his prayers and stalks me, finally pressing me up against the wall of a house filled with the noises of Italian life. A blaring radio and sizzling meat. He says, "Siete un finoccio?" Are you a faggot? I say Si, sono, yes, I am. He kisses me and pushes his hand under my shirt. I convince myself he's eighteen if he's a day, and I let him do what he wants. He pants, earnestly, into my ear:
Funzionerete amok sul mio corpo??
I can barely make out what he's saying. My Italian is poor. As he fills my mouth with his breath I do a rapid translation:
Will you run amok on my body??
I say Si, Si, Si; yes, yes, yes.
The next day I rendezvous with the gondolier at the assigned place. He holds my hand as I climb into the boat. Thinks nothing of it. Not like back home, where men fear to touch each other at all. We ghost drift along narrow canals. Sunlight gilds the tops of buildings, warming red tile roofs, while down on the canal, frogs croak in near permanent twilight.
The palazzos of once wealthy families loom overhead. Peeling plaster and leaning walls. Sinking even. I like the colours they're painted: lilac, dusty rose, blue. They have the appearance of antique wedding cakes, these crumbling houses. Cornices are sugar rosettes. Pillars are twirls of marzipan. Windows are translucent toffee.
Every now and then we pass under a bridge. The water underneath is dark and still, has a stagnant smell. It doesn't bother me. It's proof of centuries of culture. A millennium of decay as well. Venice's true nature lurks in these dark under places; the tenuous kiss of reality and dream.
The gondolier points out the mansions of Venice's reclusive aristocrats. He has nicknames for them all. The Mad Duchess. The Widower Baron. The Blind Prince. The characters of a sick pantomime. I ask him about the nicknames, why are they assigned? The Duchess sits in her palazzo cutting up magazines, defacing the eyes and mouths of unknown lingerie models. "She has been damaged by love," he says without further explanation. The Widower Baron married four times, and buried each of his wives within a few years of the honeymoon. I'm told one only survived a month. I hazard a guess about the Blind Prince.
"And the Prince is blind?"
"Oh, no. He sees very well. His wife is an adulteress." Again, I'm not offered any further explanation.
"So why is he called the Blind Prince?"
"Because he thinks his wife is a saint. He can't see that she is really a trollop."
"A trollop?" I'm amused by the old-fashioned word.
"A trollop... it is a good word, no? Trollop."
"Yes, I suppose it is."
Venice has sensitised me to the passage of time. The indistinct boundaries between cultures. It is a city equally influenced by Europe and the Orient, by Christianity and Islam. Architecturally at least. Saint Marc's Basilica is reminiscent of a Moghul palace in India, in Afghanistan, a tribute to restrained ornateness. At night, under lights, its dome, its Moorish ambience, is a fairy tale sight. A lucid dream. The cathedral of Santa Maria Della Salute and the Campanile are another kind of perfection, more at home in Europe. Skywards glancing.
Then there is the Bridge of Sighs. Straddling a sleek canal it connects the palace of the Doge, one-time rulers of Venice, with a prison on the other side. It has the shape of a tomb. Pale stone, perhaps marble, dusted over with centuries of damp grime. The canal below could be the gateway between paradise and the inferno, between opulence and the grave. The gap between them, the palace and the prison, so close, tells of the inevitability of the fall from grace, of the role of chance in determining where you happen to end up.
We arrive at a palazzo even more decrepit than most. Moss and strange ferns grow on its facade. The first few of its steps are under water, slimy. The floor to ceiling windows seem dangerously close to the waterline. I figure the cellar is well and truly submerged.
The gondolier leads me in, clutching a brown paper bag. I wonder what's in it. Maybe his lunch. An ancient lady meets us in the foyer. Her apron is as old as she is. The skin of her slippered feet looks like that of a crazed porcelain doll, full of cracks and fault lines. She is very cheerful. She and the gondolier exchange banter I don't understand. She shows us into a dark room. I'm momentarily blind.
I see the small shape of someone nestled in a large wing-backed chair. The gondolier goes over and kisses the figure's cheek. Pulls two peaches out of the paper bag and hands them over. Two tiny and immaculately white hands accept them. The hands of the legendary Lord Alistair Thrift.
Something about the alabaster paleness of his hands, how they resemble the hands of a petite waxwork doll, brings to mind the fact that it was in Venice, a few hundred years ago, that the castrati, the eunuch songbirds of Italian opera, became the dazzling centrepiece of a quasi-religious cult of the androgynous. Any wonder Lord Thrift felt compelled to call it home.
When my eyes adjust I'm met with an interesting spectre of a person. Nearing eighty years old. Age and the decades spent in these dark rooms have erased all signs of gender. The tailored pin-stripe suit and ascot tie do little to mark this being as one or the other, man or woman. Nor does his silver-blonde pageboy haircut. The voice, when it speaks, in soft yet full tones, maintains the ambiguity. But I know this must be Lord Thrift and, as he purrs to my gondolier, pats his brown hand, I know that the handsome young man is one of "the old contessa's" favourites. As he leaves, the favourite, he admonishes me not to stay too long: "Alice tires easily." I have no idea who Alice might be. Maybe the maid, who closes the door, leaving me alone with Lord Thrift. The room is now much darker, darker than an empty cinema.
"Thank you for coming." His voice helps me to locate him in the room, and get a fix on my own position.
"You're welcome Lord Thrift."
"Please, all the young men call me Alice."
"Short for Alistair."
"Oh, with an 'S'. Alis."
"Yes, but I think the 'C' is implied."
"Of Alice. I think it's implied."
"I think you're right."
His skin picks up every hint of light in the room, grows to a sombre luminescence. Marlene Dietrich was the same. A touchstone for light beams. His eyes are sapphire blue. As dark and glistening as an alpine lake. I notice he wears only one piece of jewellery. A ring of copper. A treatment for arthritis. All that Venetian damp must be getting to his bones.
In a few months, he will write about it in a letter. One winter a terrible flood hit Venice. The whole first floor of his palazzo went under. The arthritis started then. "To this day," he will write, "my bones are still under the high-water mark. The flood has receded from everywhere but there. It lingers on my knees." But that is weeks away yet.
"So, you go about meeting eccentrics?"
"What on earth for?"
"I find them interesting."
"Good gracious, how unfortunate, for you I mean."
"If you lived in Venice, as I do, you would find that eccentricity is a tedious bore. All those damn weirdos. It's almost enough to make me pack up and leave. Almost."
"What keeps you here?"
"I have so many dear friends."
"Like the gondolier?"
"Yes, just like him."
"But what about your nickname -- 'the old contessa'?"
"What about it?"
"Does it bother you?"
"Of course not. It's perfectly appropriate, wouldn't you agree?"
"Well, now you mention it."
"I find it persistently ridiculous that people should think I am not aware of what I am. There are such things as mirrors you know... and the annoyingly honest comments of children."
"You're happy with yourself and your life then?"
"Oughtn't I be? Have you information I don't?"
"No. It's just that a lot of people think that...umm, effeminate men are doomed to a dismal existence."
"Poppycock. I never knew an unhappy sissy. Nor would I be one. I would think it ungrateful."
"Of course. Why not be pleased with my lot?"
"I'm sure you're right to be happy. But there must be some things you could do without. The scorn of the local women for one."
"Ah, that. The snits. They are bothersome. However, it is just a game."
"The matrons of Venice cannot openly allow their husbands and sons to look after me. They have the church to think of. The priests would go silly!" He laughs with an appealing wickedness. "So they pretend indignation. It's a kind of arrangement."
The maid returns with a tray. Steaming tea. She plonks it down with a clatter and trots off. I very nearly laugh, but restrain myself. I see that Lord Thrift has no intention of serving. So I do. He overdirects me in the process. Do this first. Don't leave that there. Pour the tea slowly, my dear. I pour the tea very slowly. He tells me to hurry up, it'll go cold. We drink our tea. He brags about his friends, how smart they are, how kind, devoted. I detect the love.
I ask him if he has any advice for me before I go. What is the wisdom the years have revealed? He answers firmly, "Only to refuse to do what others think you must." Here is the conscientious objector. The exile from the harsh light of day into eternal twilight.
He kisses me damply on the cheek as he says farewell. Holds my hand overly long. I don't feel uncomfortable. Something about the warmth of his palms, the firmness of his fingers, puts me at ease, reminds me of my grandmother. He says, "You must keep in touch my dear. I have so few correspondents these days." I promise that I will.
As the maid leads me out of the parlour, I turn to smile a final farewell and see Lord Swift ensconced, once more, in his wing-backed chair. In one hand he holds a soft peach, in the other a short silver knife that flashes as stray sunbeams find it in the dark.
The gondolier is waiting for me outside. His smile is more radiant than before. He asks, "How did you like my good friend?" and I say that I liked him very much. He is pleased, extends a muscled arm, enthusiastically takes my hand, guides me into the gondola.
Some minutes later, still smiling broadly, proud of his contessa, he says, "I am his favourite, you know." I smile, indicating that I know and he says, "One day, maybe you will have a contessa of your own." I smile quizzically, as if to say, What does that mean? He shrugs his shoulder either unable, or unwilling, to answer my unspoken question. I feel that he knows something I don't and feel inferior for not knowing. I am still thinking about this when he deposits me outside my hotel. I go up to my room thinking that, like Venetian gondoliers, my life might be much improved by the presence of an elderly sissy. After all, everyone needs a great aunt.
I keep my promise to Lord Swift and regularly correspond, finding over the years that my life is indeed much improved by the wisdom and humour he brings to it. Recently, I received another letter from him. Just a few sentences:
I am dying. I, who have always thoroughly objected to the tackiness of death, especially in Italy. I would rather perish than be laid out in a box lined with black taffeta! But, there is yet another irony. Ti amo, your contessa, Alis.
For some reason those words cause me to remember something I'd read a few years before, something an American journalist wrote about living in Venice. The journalist wrote that living in Venice in modern times is "like witnessing the slow death of a drag queen." The negative spin is evident. Drag queens are corrupt, almost vampires, their demise inevitable.
I know what Lord Alis would say to that: All death is inevitable. You might as well die with a few feathers in your hair! Especially if you happen to die in Venice.