– The Shopkeeper –
Even though he had locked them only moments before, Luigi tested the padlocks on both the main door and the narrower door round the corner. It was a ritual that he performed every time he closed the store for the night and, like now, for la pausa; as far as he was concerned, broad daylight or not, one could never be too careful in this city full of thieves and foreigners. Satisfied, he turned to face the street and lit his first panatela of the day. Then he buttoned up his overcoat and adjusted the brim of his fedora so that he didn’t need to squint in the glare of the early afternoon sun. It was the middle of December, but, as was the case at this time on most winter days in Venice, the sun shone strongly in a clear blue sky.
Luigi smiled. It had been a good morning, his kind of morning; not too slow and not too busy, but with plenty of purchases by his regulars in the neighbourhood, plenty of euros dropping into the till and time left for a bit of gossip here and there. He would head home soon and eat something before going into his study to check up on things, the latter being another twice-daily ritual of his. And then he would relax; take a little nap, perhaps. First, though, he would spend a few minutes here on the campiello smoking his cigar and chatting with his amici – and catching up with the gossip, di sicuro!
Glancing across to the sun-drenched centre of the campiello, he could see that the usual gang was there. And, as usual, it was impeding the flow of pedestrians coming from and going in the direction of the Ferrovia. There wasn’t so much a flow today, more a torrent, he remarked to himself; an endless torrent of people, almost all of them visitors to the city, who gaped and babbled and jostled as they passed by.
Turisti! He spat out the word under his breath. How he hated them and their constant noise and litter. The Mayor and the rest of the City Council should have done something about them, something to stem the torrent, a long time ago. But now it was too late. They were like vermin, infesting the city, making it unliveable! And how he detested it when any of them strayed into his store, his generi di drogheria. He would ignore them at first. If they persisted, he might serve them, but only after serving any locals who were already on the premises or who came in subsequently. After all, his store existed for the convenience of the locals, not for them! If he did end up serving any of them, he would make sure that they paid over the odds for their purchases. He kept a stock of special turisti items – chocolates and biscotti and Italian liqueurs – for that very purpose. They were meant to be high quality products, but in reality they were just cheap imitations. He knew how to swindle unwelcome customers, all right. He was Venetian, wasn’t he? Hadn’t his people been in the business of swindling travellers to the city for centuries?
It occurred to him as he looked at the gang that it resembled a cluster of boulders in the middle of a fast-flowing stream. The boulders seemed immovable; unaffected and unperturbed by the waters swirling angrily around them. He smiled again; ‘boulders in a stream’ – he liked that metaphor. Anyway, why shouldn’t they stand there like boulders soaking up the sunshine? Why should they be forced to huddle in the cold and shade at the side of the campiello? It was their campiello, their neighbourhood, wasn’t it?
Playfully, Luigi continued the metaphor in his mind. He could see that all of the boulders were already deep in noisy conversation and that, as always, several conversations were going on at once. Some of the boulders were old, retired residents of the neighbourhood. Others were local storekeepers, negozianti, like himself. But two boulders, younger and taller than the rest, stuck out from the cluster, almost as if they didn’t belong there. Both of them – Maria, his daughter, and Bruno, his son – had inherited their mother’s height. While he, Luigi, was small and dark like most Venetians – and elegante, he liked to think – their mother, who had hailed from the South and who had long since departed this world, may God rest her soul, had been taller and fairer and, he had to admit, plain looking. Unfortunately, Maria had inherited not only her mother’s build and red hair, but also those plain looks. In her thirties now, she was not married yet and not likely to be in the foreseeable future. Still, he acknowledged, she did keep house for the three of them – and she was a bellissima cook! She would leave the campiello in a moment or two and set off home ahead of him and Bruno in order to prepare their meal ...
Luigi scowled when he remembered that only a handful of years ago he and Bruno and Maria would often dine leisurely at this time of the day at one of the local trattorie; they had their pick of at least half-a-dozen good places to go to in the neighbourhood during la pausa. But now it was impossible. All of those places were always full of ignorant turisti demanding service, insisting on explanations of even the simplest menus, complaining about their food, questioning their bills, contriving to spend as little as possible. It was just impossible to sit there and watch and listen to all of that – and enjoy one’s meal at the same time! No, it was much better to go home these days ...
His attention returned to the boulders and to the biggest boulder of them all – his tall, dark-haired son. Bruno would be thirty soon. Like Maria, he was still not married, but there were prospects in the offing, some good prospects; he was a handsome, young man, after all. And he was so polite, so well-mannered: a quality that he took from his mother. But his downfall was that he was too ... well, too soft! That was something else surely that he took from his mother, because it certainly didn’t come from the Venetian side of the family. Only this morning the big stupido had been on the point of giving money back to a couple of inglesi. They were returning a bottle of amaretto that they had bought in the shop, claiming that it wasn’t authentic and demanding a refund. A refund, indeed! He, Luigi, had had to step in quickly and nip the thing in the bud. He examined the bottle and, as he knew he would, found that the seal had been broken – well, he had broken it himself, hadn’t he? So he told the inglesi that he couldn’t possibly accept responsibility for a bottle whose seal had been broken, and he sent them packing on that basis. Those clueless turisti. For them, it was a ... how do you say it? ... yes, a Catch 22 situation. Without opening the bottle, they couldn’t have established that the liqueur had been watered down. But they couldn’t have done that without breaking the seal, could they? So by admitting to opening the bottle they had immediately exonerated his store. Ha!
Although the cleverness of the scam brought a smile to Luigi’s lips, the smile vanished when he thought about how the incident might have turned out. Looking to the heavens, he rolled his eyes and shrugged. Allora, he muttered to himself, but what about that big Bruno? Refunding the inglesi would have been tantamount to an admission of fraud. He could have given the store a bad reputation in the neighbourhood. And he could have landed them all in serious trouble; he could have ruined them! When was that boy going to toughen up? When was he going to grow a pair of palle?
Glancing back over at his son, Luigi frowned. Then he bit on his cigar, put his hands in his coat pockets and headed purposefully for the gang. As he weaved through the passers-by, he frowned again when he remembered that it wouldn’t be long – only a couple of years, perhaps – before the time came to hand over the reins to Bruno. What would happen then? he wondered. Calamità!
The uneasy feeling had stayed with him during the brief time that he had spent with his friends on the campiello; it had accompanied him and Bruno on the short walk down the calle to their appartamento; and it had hung over him all the way through Maria’s meal, which he had hardly tasted as a result. Now here he was supposedly relaxing in the warmth of his study, and the uneasiness was still there.
He lit another panatela, leaned back in his chair and watched absentmindedly as a vaporetto chugged past the window in front of his desk. He knew that this feeling, this sense of foreboding, wasn’t just about Bruno and the boy’s incompetence; it wasn’t just about the handover to Bruno; nor was it just about the business of growing old and losing control. No, there was something deeper, something that went much further back in his mind. He kept asking himself the same question: when it came time to hand the store over to him, did his father also think that he was soft and incompetent? The problem was that either he couldn’t remember – it was so long ago now – or he simply didn’t know. Although his father got on amicably enough with the customers, he had been a man of few words. He had disapproved of his son’s marriage to someone outside of Venezia, that was for sure. Apart from that, Luigi didn’t have a clue now about what his father felt about him then.
He puffed on the cigar and chopped angrily at the smoke around his head. He was annoyed that these thoughts were spoiling his enjoyment of the day. It didn’t matter anyway, he decided. He had been very different from his father – much more friendly and talkative, for a start – and the store had prospered under his ownership, hadn’t it? Money had been made, hadn’t it? And lots of it, too. Not long after he had taken over, he had moved the family out of the handful of small rooms that they occupied at the back of the store and into the appartamento on the floor above. Then he had proceeded to expand and modernise the store. Only a few years later, they had moved to this palazzo. He hadn’t purchased the whole palazzo, of course, not even a whole floor of it, but a corner of a floor. It was a good corner at the front, though; light and spacious, catching the sun in the morning, and with wonderful views across the Grand Canal. It was the kind of accommodation that was highly sought after these days, especially by those rich americani, and therefore worth a great deal of money.
Luigi was calmer now. The cloud that had been hovering over him was lifting. So, yes, he reasoned, he had been different from his father, but he had developed into a successful businessman. And, yes, Bruno was so unlike him, but that was no reason why the boy couldn’t also be successful, perhaps going on to buy a complete floor of a palazzo and becoming a proper Venetian merchant. There was time yet to toughen him up, to mould him, to turn him into a sharp businessman like his father. The main thing was to ensure that their prestigious corner store – the biggest independent drogheria in the whole of Cannaregio – remained in the ownership of the same family, just as it had done for hundreds of years.
Taking another long puff of his cigar, Luigi relaxed visibly. The uneasiness had gone completely. Now he could get on with something far more pleasurable. He leaned forward over the desk, put on a pair of rimless glasses and opened up his laptop. As he did so, he was reminded once more that on this very floor of the palazzo, when the sun was dropping down over the canale, the merchants of old had sat at a long wooden table to view and count their wealth. He had a sudden vision of his father sitting in the dimly lit kitchen at the rear of the store, carrying out the same ritual at the end of each day, but counting piles of crumpled banknotes instead of columns of gold and silver coins. That was back when he was a boy just after the War, when people no longer trusted the banks to look after their money. And then he could see himself years later, when the banks were back in favour, sitting of an evening with his bank book in hand, scrutinising the entries and making sure the figures tallied.
The laptop purred when the screen lit up. Luigi grinned. He was happy now. It was all so much easier nowadays thanks to this new technology, he remarked to himself. Just by typing in his secret code, he could see his wealth at a glance: the most recent deposits, the amounts of interest that had been added, the growing balance; the proceeds of many hours of hard work and of a thousand little swindles. Yes, the figures were all there – and up to date! And he could look at them as many times as he wanted!
He adjusted his glasses. For a moment, the numbers from the screen seemed to dance on one lens, while the lights from across the canale in Santa Croce were reflected on the other. Outside, dusk was falling fast.
– o –