– The Dreamer –
None of us knew why old Tomà stopped coming to his spot at San Marcuola. You know the place I mean: there on the low wall of the campo in front of the Church of San Marcuola. As you stand on the footpath between the two vaporetto landing stages and you look out to the Grand Canal, it’s the part of the wall away from the traghetto stop, just to the left of the steps coming down from the campo, the part that is only passed now and again by turisti in search of the correct landing stage or a good view of the Grand Canal. And what a view it is! Directly opposite you, over in Santa Croce, is the old Turkish Warehouse, the Fondaco dei Turchi. Such a magnificent palazzo! It has stood there, dominating that part of the Grand Canal, for over seven centuries. In the mornings, when the sun’s rays creep up the canale and wash over the building, its white stones seem to sparkle, and its shimmering reflection in the water is so clear that you feel you could just reach out and touch its rooftops. And in the evenings, when the sun sinks behind those rooftops, the stones blush pink and then turn crimson, as if the building is on fire. Magnifico! You could spend all day at that spot, taking in the scene, watching the comings and goings of the vaporetti and the traghetto and the seagulls in their wake, wondering at the beauty of it all, dreaming. Which is exactly what old Tomà did.
We would see him first thing in the morning when we were out with our dogs and standing and conversing in our usual place; you know, the point where Rio Terà San Leonardo widens out to join Rio Terà Farsetti and Calle del Pistor, that little triangular-shaped campo. He would stride past us – never acknowledging us, of course – on his way down to San Marcuola, a lanky man with hunched shoulders, limp grey hair and a gaunt, mournful face. Whatever the weather and the season, he always wore a heavy anorak that was zipped up to the neck, and he always carried one of those little knapsacks on his back, the kind that the studenti use. Sometimes, when it was very cold, he would stop at the bar on the corner, the one that is run by the Japanese. He would stand outside with his caffé, just to the side of the door, smoking, his head bowed, staring at his feet. If any one of us spoke to him on those occasions, perhaps only to say ‘Buongiorno’, we would hear nothing in return, not even a ‘Giorno’. It was as if we weren’t there. I don’t know, but perhaps he thought we were cockroaches! He would nod and smile at the Japanese girls, though; they were always kind to him, I suppose.
Anyway, he would go down to his spot at San Marcuola every morning. He would sit on the wall and take off his knapsack, and then from his knapsack he would unload his provisions for the day, laying them out at his side: usually some tins of beer, a panino of some sort or another, and a pile of newspapers and comic books. He would spend the rest of the day sitting there among the pigeons as they strutted and pecked on the ground at his feet or on the campo behind him. He would read mostly, stopping from time to time to sip his beer or to eat his panino or to smoke and gaze out over the canale, while off to his left and right constant streams of people would be going to and coming from the vaporetto and traghetto stops. Sometimes he would lie on his back along the top of the wall and snooze in the sun, using his knapsack as a pillow. I’m told that on more than one occasion he woke up from such a snooze to find a small pile of coins on the wall beside him – left there by some witless turisti, no doubt! On days when the sun was very hot, he would sit for a while in the shade of the well in the centre of the campo, his back resting against the ancient stones of the well’s base. And when it rained, he would take shelter in the first landing stage – the one for vaporetti heading up to Piazzale Roma – where he would wait patiently on a bench in the corner until it dried up or it was time to go.
In the evenings when the sun was setting and we were standing in our usual meeting place or sitting outside at one of the bars with a glass of campari, we would often see old Tomà going home, striding past us as usual, always with that sad face, on his way to Rio Terà Farsetti to disappear at the end of that street into the maze of canals and fondamenti and long, narrow calli up there. Some people said that he lived in one of those calli. Others claimed that he would walk straight on to the edge of the island to take the vaporetto from Sant’Alvise over to Murano. The truth is that no-one really knew where he lived. Nor did anyone really know why he came down to San Marcuola every day. There were many theories, of course; many stories. According to Luigi – you know him, the little, bald-headed man who owns the store on the corner of our campiello and runs it with his son and daughter – Tomà used to be a schoolteacher here in Cannaregio. When he was much younger, he fell in love with a girl, an aristocratica, who lived in the Palazzo Correr on the Grand Canal, just next to the Fondaco dei Turchi. The love affair was an illicit one, however, and the girl was forbidden to associate with Tomà because he was too lowly for her. Nevertheless, she continued to see him. On the pretence of going to the fruit market in Campo San Leonardo, she used to make a daily trip with her servant on the traghetto over to San Marcuola. While her servant went off to purchase the fruit and vegetables for the palazzo, she and Tomà would dally in the shade of the streets behind the church, away from prying eyes. But then, alas, the girl was sent away to the mainland – to save her from herself, her parents told her – and ever since Tomà had made his pilgrimage to the traghetto stop in the hope that one day she would return. A sad story, sì? A romantic one? But probably rubbish, made up by Luigi, as he always did, to amuse us cockroaches. I don’t buy it, anyway; what was a schoolteacher doing with comic books, fumetti, I ask you? The simple fact may well be that old Tomà was just soft in the head.
Which brings me back to where I began. None of us knew why Tomà stopped coming to San Marcuola. One day he was there; the next, he wasn’t. Paolo and Giorgio, the two ragazzi who run the traghetto, alerted us. They said that he didn’t appear at his usual spot one morning, nor the next morning or the one after that. Then some of the old women from the neighbourhood told Luigi in his shop that they had seen Tomà praying in the church on the day before he disappeared. As far as we knew, Tomà never entered the chiesa in all the time that he had spent in front of it, so perhaps something momentous or tragic happened. Who knows? Maybe one of these days his body will be found floating in the laguna. After all, the old man was an eccentric, a dreamer. Just another sad dreamer in a city full of dreamers.
Allora, as if we cockroaches didn’t have enough to worry about! There are the infernal turisti for a start ...
– o –