The Ghosts of Christmas Past: A Nathan Sutherland short story by Philip Gwynne Jones
This story takes place a few months before the events of the first Nathan Sutherland novel, “The Venetian Game.”
Christmas is a time for telling stories but tales, of course, always grow in the telling. This is not, therefore, a definitive account of what happened to Nathan during a rather bleak period in his life, but it is perhaps what might have happened. And given that stories belong to readers as much as they belong to writers, I’ll leave it up to you to decide…
The Ghosts of Christmas Past
Even Mestre looks festive at Christmas. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it beautiful, but half-close your eyes and there was still a little bit of magic to be found there. Lights hung in the arcades of Corso del Popolo where families strolled on the evening passeggiata, struggling to keep hold of excited small children scurrying from shop to shop. Even the man in the tabaccheria was wearing a Santa hat, as he slid my packet of 20 MS over the counter. Festive fags, in Mestre. What could be better?
Dario already had the beers in by the time I joined him at Toni’s. We clinked glasses, and then he tutted and shook his head as I slid the first cigarette from the packet.
‘Nathan man, you’re smoking a lot these days.’
‘Am I? I hadn’t noticed.’
‘You are. Trust me.’
I shrugged, and lit up. ‘First one of the day. Well, of the evening,’ I lied. I caught the expression on his face, and turned my head away in order to avoid blowing smoke in his direction. It didn’t work and he flapped his hands at the cloud, I thought, just a little too emphatically.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
He sipped at his beer. ‘I’m starting to worry about you.’
‘Well don’t. Everything’s fine. It’s just that I’ve kind of regressed into a bachelor existence again, with Jean being away. That’s all.’
He nodded, but didn’t look convinced. ‘Uh-huh. So how’s work?’
‘Not bad. I’m still waiting on being paid for all the translation stuff I did during the Biennale., but it’ll come in eventually. So Christmas might be a bit tight, but it should be a hell of a good Easter.’ I paused and scratched my head. ‘It’s not an early Easter next year, is it?’
‘Oh well. Hopefully, it’ll be a good Easter. But – get this – I won the lawnmower contract.’
‘No kidding. Every lawnmower sold in Italy from next year – the English language instructions in the manual – ‘ I jabbed my thumb at my chest – ‘that’s going to be me.’
‘That’s brilliant, Nat.’
‘I’m living the dream, Dario. Living the dream!’
He looked at his near-empty pint. ‘This calls for a celebration.’
I raised my glass. ‘More beer?’
‘More beer.’ He waved through the window at Toni, and held up two fingers.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot.’ I reached inside my coat and took out an envelope. ‘“To Dario and Valentina”,’ I read. ‘Just think, I’ll have to add another name next year.’
‘A Christmas card?’ I nodded. He smiled but then his expression changed. ‘Shit, I haven’t got you one.’
‘That’s okay. I know Italians don’t really send them.’
‘It’s just that, you know, we don’t really need them. We always see the people we want to, so why send them a card as well? Talking of Christmas – ‘ he paused – ‘what are you doing?’
I shrugged. ‘Nothing much.’
‘Yeah, but nothing much in Venice or nothing much in Edinburgh?’
‘Great. When does Jean arrive? Maybe there’ll be time for us all to have a drink together. Or maybe go out and eat. Or maybe -‘
I raised a hand. ‘She’s not coming, Dario.’
He was silent for a moment. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said, finally.
I lit another cigarette. ’Not sure I do, to be honest,’ I said, trying to keep my voice light.
Dario rubbed his face for a moment, and then examined the back of his hands. Anything, I thought, to avoid looking directly at me. ‘What’s going on, vecio?’
I stubbed my cigarette out and automatically slid another from the packet. ‘Don’t know,’ I said.
‘You’re staying in Venice, she’s staying in Scotland?’
‘Yep. Skiing trip with old friends, apparently. Something they used to do every year before I came along. Anyway, they all met up again recently, what with Jean being back in Edinburgh, and so they thought it might be nice for old times’ sake. She was sure I’d understand. Auld Lang Syne and all that.’
‘She never asked you? Seriously, she never asked you?’
‘Well, I’m not much of a skier. I’d only get in the way.’
‘So you’re going to be alone at Christmas?’
I waved a finger at him. ‘Ah-hah! Not totally. I have a copy of the Jethro Tull Christmas Album for company.’
‘Even better, it’s the special edition.’
‘Ah Nathan. What am I going to do with you, eh?’ He drummed his fingers on the table, and then shook his head. ‘Look. I’d say come to us. But we’re off to Trieste to see Vally’s parents. And so there’s not really going to be a lot of space and…’
I held a hand up to shush him. ‘Don’t worry Dario. It’s kind of you. And I understand. Besides, you’ll probably be talking about babies the whole time and that sort of thing scares me.’
He grinned. ‘Okay. You’re probably right.’
‘Remind me of the date again?’
‘April 22nd. It’s a good time of year. Nothing much ever happens in April, so it’s easy to take time off.’ He checked his watch and drained his glass. ‘Okay buddy, I’ve got to go.’
I got to my feet. ‘No worries. Merry Christmas Dario. And love to Valentina.’
He gave me a hug. ‘Merry Christmas Nat. I’ll see you in the New Year, eh?’ His expression changed, and he looked serious. He patted my jacket pocket, where the cigarettes were. ‘But take it easy on those.’ He paused. ‘You’re going to be okay, aren’t you?’
‘We’ll be fine. Just me and the Tull.’
He grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling , but the concerned expression never quite left his face.
It was tempting to stay and have one for the road at Toni’s, but drinking alone, outside, on Corso del Popolo, in December would be, I thought, a sign that things were starting to come undone. I took the next bus back to Piazzale Roma and hopped on the first boat along the Grand Canal instead.
I thought I’d get off at Rialto, with the intention of walking the rest of the way. The calli would be lit up with Christmas lights and the city would look, if possible, even more beautiful than normal. I loved the Italians for not starting Christmas until December. The lights would be on in the Magical Brazilians, and there’d be time for a drink and a chat with Eduardo. Then I’d go upstairs to the apartment and – what then – the Jethro Tull Christmas Album? Spending the entire festive season in the company of Ian Anderson? I wondered what was left in the fridge. Possibly not much. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve. I really needed to go to the shops to get some emergency provisions in.
Bulgaria, I was sure, was also lovely at this time of year, but I did not – repeat, not – want to be there. I did not – repeat, not – want to be on a skiing holiday to which my wife had not invited me.
I shook my head. Too much bad stuff. Come on Nathan, keep it together. I got off the boat, and let the other passengers file past, as I fumbled in my pocket for cigarettes, a reaction that was becoming far too automatic. Then something – someone – caught my eye. A woman was sitting inside the pontoon, bent over and running her fingers through her hair. I thought at first that she was ill or distressed, and wondered what to do. Then, as I looked closer, I could see – as she flicked her hair one way and then the other – that she was cleaning away what looked like fragments of dried paint or plaster. An artist, then? She straightened up, then drew her hair up into a bun and secured it with a pencil.
She rummaged in her handbag and took out a mobile phone. An old Nokia, the same as mine. She tapped away at the keypad, and held it to her ear, breathing deeply now. She closed her eyes, letting the phone ring and ring. There was the crackle of a voice from the other end, and she nodded to herself. The voice spoke once more, but I couldn’t make out the words.
She got to her feet. Again, she nodded to herself, and then screamed as she slammed the wall of the cabin with one hand and threw the phone to the floor with the other. It broke apart, the two halves of the casing flying in opposite directions, with the battery skipping and skittering across the floor to me. I bent to catch it before it could drop over the side and into the canal.
She cursed, and bent to retrieve the casing. Then she felt around under the bench, searching for the battery.
I held it out to her. ‘I think this is yours?’
She looked at me, as if noticing me for the first time. ‘It is. Thank you.’ She took it from me, her hands shaking every so slightly as she snapped the phone back together with swift, angry movements. It plinged into life again.
I smiled at her. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘these things are indestructible.’
‘Like me,’ she replied. She took a deep breath. ‘So. I imagine you must have seen all that?’
‘Erm, well I did. Yes.’
I could see her more clearly now. Pretty, not much younger than me. A fleck of white plaster was still attached to her left eyebrow. I thought, fleetingly, about flicking it away, and then thought better of it.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Idiot boyfriend. Idiot ex-boyfriend I should say.’
‘Ah. One of those. I’m sure you’re well rid of him.’
‘Oh yes.’ She held up her phone. ‘Thanks for this.’ She looked up the canal, to where the next boat was just passing under the Rialto bridge. ‘That’ll be mine. All the way to the Lido. Plenty of time to plan a terrible revenge.’
I smiled at her again. ‘Have a good trip. I hope you think of something suitably dreadful.’ Then I decided to be brave. ‘You’ve got a little fleck of something caught just here.’ I rubbed my left eyebrow, just to show where it was.
‘I have? Thanks.’ She gave her forehead a cursory rub with the back of her hand, which singularly failed to remove it.
‘Let me.’ I reached out and plucked it away.
‘Sorry.’ I flicked the little fragment from my fingers. ‘All done.’
‘Well thanks again.’ The vaporetto bumped against the pontoon, setting it rocking. ‘And now I have to be going.’
She jumped on board the boat, gave me a smile and a wave of her hand, and was gone.
I decided not to stop at the Brazilians, and congratulated myself for being sensible. I stopped outside the door that led up to my apartment and smiled as I saw the sign ‘British Honorary Consulate in Venice.’ I gave it a quick polish with my sleeve. I went upstairs to the flat, and instantly regretted having been sensible. The green light on the answerphone was flashing. I sighed, and clicked the ‘Play’ button.
’Hello darling.’ Darling. That was a good sign. ’I just wanted to check that you’re not still cross about Bulgaria. It’s just that I haven’t seen the gang for SO long, and I know skiing was never your thing and so I thought – well, this might be the last time. Okay? Talk soon.’ A brief pause. ’Love you.’
My good mood had evaporated. I took a look around the apartment. Snug for two. Spacious for one. Especially if happens to be Christmas and your only companion is the Jethro Tull Christmas Album.
Or not quite. I looked up at the enormous portrait of the Queen in my office. Victor, my predecessor as Honorary Consul, had bequeathed it to me. His apartment had, evidently, been rather larger than mine, but it would have seemed churlish to refuse it.
I brushed some dust from the frame. ‘Just you and me for Christmas then, ma’am? I suppose it’s worse for you though? Having to work, talk to the nation, that sort of thing?’
I went back to the living room, slumped on to the sofa, and picked up the book I’d been reading. Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison. No. Too serious, way too serious, for this time of night. I needed something light-hearted, and went to scan the shelves of video recordings.
The Raven. Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. Good knockabout fun, you got to hear Vincent Price declaiming Edgar Allan Poe and – just when you thought it couldn’t get any better – Hazel Court turned up.
The very thing. I slotted the cassette into the player, and it clunked into action with a sound as familiar and comforting as the crackle of a needle on vinyl. I went through to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of red wine.
’Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.’
Poe’s words were so familiar that I could pretty much recite the entire poem from memory. For that matter, I could have a fair stab at reciting the whole film from memory.
‘While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping’
And then I heard it.
‘As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.’
I hit the pause button, but the noise continued. Someone – something – rapping or, more precisely, scratching at my door.
Rats. Oh hell, not rats. I must have left the main door open and one had come in off the street. I didn’t feel like dealing with it now. I’d sort it out in the morning by which time, hopefully, it would have got bored and found its own way out.
I pressed the play button but, before the sound could kick in, I heard a miaow from outside that managed to sound both piteous and threatening at the same time.
A cat. Someone’s cat had wandered in. That was different. A stray cat seemed marginally less intimidating than a rat. I went to stand by the door, my foot raised so that I could gently prod my intruder outside if need be.
I opened it, just a crack. And then a little further.
‘In there stepped a stately Raven, of the saintly days of yore.’
Or, rather, a large black cat that hopped over my outstretched foot and into the living room where he – or she – sat down and gazed up at me with big amber eyes.
‘Hello puss,’ I said.
He – or she – purred. At least, I think it might have been a purr.
‘You don’t actually live here, you realise?’
He – it seemed easier just to think of him as a he – continued to purr.
‘Or perhaps you don’t realise that. On account of you being a cat.’
He had no collar, but looked well fed. More than well fed, for that matter.
I continued. ‘Anyway, I’m assuming you’ve got a home to go to. And you can’t stay here, and it’s still dry outside so – .‘ I opened the door.
He gave no sign of wanting to move.
I sighed. ‘Look, there’s an old film I want to watch on the television, and a glass of wine that desperately needs my attention on the table, so I think it’s time we said goodnight.’
I made to pick him up, and only just snatched my hand back in time.
‘Okay. Okay, I understand. But just one night, all right?’
He was going to need somewhere to sleep. Victor had left me a cardboard box, full of consulate-related documents. That would do. I emptied the papers on to my desk, and put the box down next to my visitor. He sniffed around it, gave it a prod and then, having evidently decided that it was good enough, jumped in and curled up. It was a snug fit but it seemed as if it would do.
‘Just the night, remember. Don’t get too comfy.’
I went back to my film and my glass of wine, disturbed – but only occasionally – by happy scrabbling sounds from the box behind me.
‘Morning Nat,’ said Eduardo.
‘Morning Ed.’ I yawned.
He looked closer at me. ‘You look tired, Nat.’
‘I am tired. I was woken up in the small hours of the morning by an unfriendly cat demanding food.’
‘I didn’t know you had a cat.’
‘I don’t. I just seem to have acquired one. Or rather he seems to have inflicted himself upon me.’
Ed laughed. ‘Cats are smart, man. Just pick him up and put him outside. He’ll survive.’ I showed him my hands. ‘Okay. Maybe not that. What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know. I gave him a tin of tuna. That seems to have calmed him down for the time being. He’s sleeping now, but I’m not sure how long I’ve got.’
‘You don’t know where he came from? No collar? Nothing?’
I shook my head.
‘Maybe he’s chipped?’
‘Maybe he’s chipped. You know, the owner has a vet put a microchip or something under the skin. So you can always find out where they live and who they belong to, if they get lost.’
‘That’s brilliant. Or at least it’s worth a go. How do you do that?’
‘Dunno. You go to the vet, I suppose.’
‘You know a vet here in Venice?’
He shook his head. ‘Sorry Nat.’
‘No problems. I’ll look in the Pagine Gialle. Thanks Ed.’
‘No problems Nat. See you later, eh? And put something on those hands, yeah?’
‘Can’t you try again,’ I pleaded.
The vet shook his head. ‘You heard the same as me. Three times he’s hung up now. There’s nothing more I can do. If he doesn’t want to speak to me that’s his business.’
I’d constructed a temporary carrying case out of the cardboard box and packing tape, and carried my new guest all the way up to a vet in Cannaregio. To judge from the sounds within, he did not appear to have enjoyed the experience, and I’d got some dark looks from passers-by. Nevertheless, once the box was opened, he showed no sign of wanting to actually leave it and merely looked from me to the vet and then back again, purring all the while.
‘What do you think that means?’
‘That way he’s looking at us. At me. He howled all the way here and now – he’s just sitting and staring.’
‘Oh that.’ He cleared his throat. ‘It’s a behavioural pattern. It shows he’s comfortable with you.’
‘You just made that up, didn’t you?’
He cleared this throat again, and nodded.
‘What am I going to do? Can’t you take him?’
‘There must be somewhere that will take him in. Homeless cat charities, that sort of thing.’
‘At this time on Christmas Eve? You’ll be lucky.’
‘Okay. I understand. Just give me the name and address of the owner. I’ll take him over there myself.’
‘I can’t do that. Data protection laws. I’m sorry. Besides, as you’ve heard, he obviously doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.’
‘To hell with the data protection laws. It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve inherited a cat by mistake. Just tell me where he’s supposed to live and I’ll promise you you’ll never see me again.’
I stood outside the posh chocolate shop near San’ Toma and took in the window display. An entire Nativity scene had been sculpted in chocolate. I wondered if this was a little disrespectful. At any rate, I didn’t fancy its chances of surviving until Epiphany. I would have lingered a little longer, but the scrabbling from within the box reminded me that I still had work to do. And then I remembered that I had no-one to buy chocolates for anyway.
The address I’d been given was just a few doors down. I rang the buzzer with the name ‘Vianello’ on it, and wondered what I was going to say.
The door was opened by a little man in middle age; compensating for his thinning hair with a ferociously bushy moustache. He looked at me, and then at the box; taking a half-step backwards when he heard the sounds from within.
‘Merry Christmas!’ I smiled, and held it out to him.
He took another half-step back.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘I’ve got your cat.’
‘Mister, I don’t have a cat.’
‘I’ve been to the vet. He’s microchipped at this address.’ He said nothing, so I carried on. ‘You’re very lucky. I live all the way down in San Marco. Somehow he made his way there.’
‘He must belong to the previous tenant. We don’t have a cat.’
‘But your name is Vianello?’
‘Mister, this is Venice. Everyone’s called Vianello.’
A little girl walked into the hall, a fluffy white pussy purring in her arms. ‘What is it papà?’
Her dad caught the expression on my face. ‘As I said, we don’t have a cat. Apart from that one. What I mean is, we don’t have any other cats. We’re not missing one. You understand?’
The little girl smiled. ‘This is Nuvola,’ she said. ‘We got her for Christmas. After our old cat ran away.’
I looked at Nuvola. She was fluffier, prettier and undoubtedly a hell of a lot friendlier than the one in my box.
Dad waved a hand at the ragazzina, trying to shush her, but it was too late.
‘Your old cat?’, I said. ‘Could this be him?’
I opened the box. He popped his head up over the side, and stared at dad and daughter.
They both took a step back.
He gazed deep into Nuvola’s beautiful blue eyes. She stared back at him and purred gently, as if to say You look a bit like me. Perhaps we will be friends?
He raised a paw, as if in greeting. There was silence for a moment, and then he extended his claws and hissed at her.
Nuvola howled, struggled out of the little girl’s arms and fled inside the house. The child burst into tears and ran after her. Then, before I could move, Dad had slammed the door in my face.
The cat turned to look at me, gave a long, drawn-out miaow, and curled back up in the bottom of the box.
I had never had a cat before. I did not know how they worked or what one was supposed to do with them. I wasn’t even sure that I liked them and, thus far, this one was doing nothing to improve my opinion of them as a species. But it was Christmas Eve. Christmas Bloody Eve.
I closed the box up and adjusted the makeshift carrying handle. I stopped the next passer-by. ‘Excuse me. Do you know if there’s a pet shop near here?’
Both my arms were aching as I staggered back to the vaporetto stop. Slow boat or fast boat? The fast one would minimise the amount of on-board whinging from the cat, but would also mean carrying both him and heavy shopping bags over the Accademia bridge; something that I thought neither of us would enjoy.
The slower boat was full, as I’d expected it to be, but surely someone, on Christmas Eve, would take pity on a man transporting a cat and weighed down with armfuls of shopping?
Nobody would catch my eye. And nobody moved. A small boy sat in an aisle seat, swinging his legs and looking bored as he played with his phone. I stood next to him.
I am old enough to be your father. I’m trying to do a good thing on Christmas Eve. I have spent the entire afternoon carrying an angry cat through the cold streets of Venice and now all I want to do is sit down in the warmth. So be a good lad eh?
I coughed, gently.
He didn’t move.
I stared down at him.
He didn’t move.
I coughed again.
His mother looked over at me. ‘Is there something wrong?,’ she said.
I tried my best to hold up my shopping bags, but my arms were no longer working as they should.
‘What?,’ she said.
‘Nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Merry Christmas,’ I muttered, squeezing my way through the cabin to the rear outdoor seats which – in December – were the province of the tourist or the desperate. I put my shopping down, and slumped into the adjacent seat, balancing the box on my knees. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
My eyes snapped open. It was the phone-smashing woman from the night before, sitting opposite me with a similarly-sized box on her knees.
‘Hello there.’ I nodded at the box. ‘Christmas shopping?’
She shook her head. ‘Just the last of my things from Idiot Boyfriend’s. I’ve just taken the last of his clothes round.’ She smiled. ‘In kit form.’
She moved her box on to the adjacent seat, and pointed at mine. ‘So – shopping or Idiot Ex-Girlfriend?’
‘Neither,’ I said. ‘It’s a cat.’ I ran through the whole story.
‘Bastards,’ she said when I’d finished.
I could only agree. ‘Their new one is cute and cuddly and friendly and this one – well – he doesn’t seem to be any of those. Neither does he seem to get on with ‘Nuvola’ or whatever cutesy-pie name they’ve given her. And so out he goes. Just a few days before Christmas.’
‘Well, I think he must be the luckiest cat in the city. And as for you -‘, she smiled – ‘I think you must either be the nicest man in Venice or the unluckiest.’ She moved to sit next to me, and nodded at the box. ‘Come on then,’ she said, ‘let’s have a look at him.’
‘Are you sure? As I said, he’s not very friendly.’
‘I’m sure. Come on.’
I opened the lid. The cat poked his head out, and looked at my companion with an expression of absolute, unconditional love.
‘Oh, he’s beautiful,’ she said, and reached out her hand. With a swift and – by now – well practised movement, I pulled it away just as his claws scythed through the air.
’Sorry,’ I said. Then I realised that I was still holding her hand in mine, and released it. ’Sorry,’ I repeated.
‘What’s his name?’
‘He hasn’t got one. Not yet. Apart from “Unfriendly Cat”.’
‘You can’t keep calling him that. Although it is rather apt.’
‘Something will come up. It’s a project for Christmas. Talking of which, where are you spending it?’. I wasn’t quite sure quite why I’d asked her that, but she didn’t seem to mind.
‘Just at my apartment. On the Lido. Mother’s coming to visit. Just the two of us.’
‘Ah. Same as us then.’
‘You and your wife?’
‘No, me and the cat.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She pointed at my left hand. ‘I saw the ring and thought…’
‘Oh that. Well yes, I am married. At least I think so. But we’re not spending Christmas together.’
‘And no, I’ve not been an Idiot Hubby. At least not like that. So it’s just going to be me and Unfriendly Cat.’ I pointed to the bags at my feet. ‘Cat litter, kitty biscuits, bowls, foam-rubber balls and a special festive catnip mouse.’
She laughed. ‘As I said, the luckiest cat in Venice.’
‘Isn’t he? So we’ll have a bit of a bachelor Christmas. Some old horror films on the television, a little bit of Jethro Tull on the stereo.’
She laughed again. ‘Okay. Perhaps not quite the luckiest cat in Venice.’ She paused, as if thinking to herself. ‘Do you like Titian?’
‘Erm, yes. Yes I do.’
‘Okay. There’s a restoration project I’ve been working on at the Accademia. The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo. There’s an opening view in a couple of weeks. Come along.’ She paused, once more. ‘You and your wife.’
She pressed a business card into my hand. I turned it over. Dottoressa Federica Ravagnan.
‘Friends call me Fede,’ she said.
‘Okay. Fede is is.’ I took out my own card, and passed it to her.
‘Nathan Sutherland.’ She pronounced it with a short ‘a’. ‘British Honorary Consul.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘You must be very important.’
‘Oh absolutely. Passport gone missing? I’m your man. Anyway, some of my friends call me Nat.’
She shook her head. ‘No. I like Nathan better.’
The vaporetto was pulling in to the Sant’Angelo stop, and so I got to my feet. ‘I’m getting off here.’ I smiled at her. ‘Merry Christmas, Fede.’
‘Merry Christmas, Nathan.’ A miaow came from inside the box. ‘Merry Christmas, Unfriendly Cat.’
I laughed, and squeezed my way as best I could though the cabin; and then waited on the pontoon to give her a wave as the boat departed.
It would have been nice to stop for a drink at the Magical Brazilians, and wish Eduardo and the regulars a Merry Christmas, but a sign on the door indicated that they’d closed early and wouldn’t be open again until the 27th. It was probably just as well. Sounds from inside the box suggested that Unfriendly Cat was becoming increasingly fractious.
I took him upstairs and opened the box. He hopped out and padded over to the sofa, where he extended his claws and scrabbled away happily. He’d been here less than twenty four hours and the furniture was already starting to look a bit ragged. Jean would have something to say about that. The thought made me look over towards the answer phone, but there was no green light flashing.
Merry Christmas, I thought, bitterly. Then I shook my head. No time for this. I unpacked my bags and distributed my purchases around the flat as seemed best.
‘Okay, Unfriendly Cat – ‘ I pointed – ‘bathroom facilities are over there; dining facilities are – ‘. I realised he was no longer to be seen, but munching noises came from the kitchen. ‘Okay, I see you’ve found those. Sleeping facilities are here.’ I indicated the box. Then I noticed that the back of the sofa was already starting to acquire a suspiciously cat-shaped dent. ‘Anyway, I’ll leave that up to you. I’ll get you something more permanent after Christmas.’ He padded back in from the kitchen and hopped up on to the sofa. I wagged a finger at him. ‘All of this, of course, is dependent on this trial period working out, you understand?’
I went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. I’d spent so much time shopping for Unfriendly Cat that I’d forgotten about myself. As a result, he was likely to be rather better fed over the next few days than I was. No matter. There was some rice, some pasta and some non-distressing looking vegetables. I might not be having the most festive of Christmas dinners, but at least I wouldn’t starve.
I made myself a spritz, and went back into the living room. Unfriendly Cat had not moved from the sofa.
Unfriendly Cat. I couldn’t keep calling him that.
I checked my watch. I should, perhaps, make myself something to eat, but that could wait. Christmas was fast approaching and I needed something to put me in the right mood. I chose three tapes at random and laid them on the coffee table, moving my copy of Letters from Prison to one side.
‘Okay, Unfriendly Cat, help me out here. What are we going to watch?’
I pointed at the tapes. He seemed to get the idea, and hopped down on to the table, nuzzling at each of them in turn. Slowly, he pushed one of them off the table, where it dropped into my hand.
‘M. Fritz Lang. Peter Lorre. Horrible child murders in Weimar-period Berlin. Not the thing at all for Christmas Eve. Well done, puss.’
He prodded and nosed at the remaining two, before sitting down on one of them.
‘Hmm. Do I take it I discard the other one?’
I reached for the available tape, but his tale swished and knocked it to the floor before I could reach it.
‘Eisenstein. Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2. Marvellous. But a little bit long, perhaps? Which leaves – the one you’re sitting on. Okay.’ I tried to pull it out from under him, but he sank his teeth into my knuckles.
I reached into my pocket for a handkerchief and dabbed at the back of my hand. I noticed something had dropped to the floor. Federica’s – or was it Fede’s – business card. I smiled and filed it away inside my wallet.
‘So it’s to be a film-free evening, is it, Unfriendly Cat?’ He miaowed, and swished his tail once more, tipping my paperback off the table.
I picked it up. Letters from Prison…
I reached out my hand towards him and quickly – ever so quickly – gave him a prod in his well-padded ribs. He yowled and clawed at me, but I was too fast for him this time. I grabbed the tape, looked at the label, and laughed.
Frank Capra. Well, of course it was. I slotted it into the player. Static burst on to the screen followed by the credits, in glorious black and white.
Unfriendly Cat had now taken up a position on the back of the sofa, behind my left shoulder. I reached behind me and scratched him behind the ears. He tolerated it for perhaps three seconds before biting me again.
‘Like I said, don’t go getting any ideas. This is just for Christmas, right?’
I could hear the sounds of the Marangona bell chiming midnight, and I paused the film in order to listen better. I looked back at the screen. The film was paused at the title card. It’s a Wonderful Life.
I smiled, and looked over my shoulder to where my new flatmate was perched. It was, probably, going to be all right.
‘Merry Christmas, Gramsci,’ I said.
The first three books (The Venetian Game, Vengeance in Venice and The Venetian Masquerade) in Philip Gwynne Jones’ sensational Venice series are out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook. The next book in the series, The Venetian Gothic, is available to pre-order now.