This short story was first published in Wet Ink #22, March 2011.
This is a mix of fact and fiction, involving elements from four visits to Venice. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is perhaps my favourite Venetian anecdote, wherein, forgetting my key on the way to the shower, I was locked outside my hotel room at 0600 AM in nothing but a towel, for two hours. Three wonderfully adventurous octogenarian Kiwi ladies made me cups of tea and kept me company the whole time, which made up for not being able to photograph the sunrise, sorta. As to cigarettes, I took my last drag in New York, in April 2007 and don’t miss them at all.
Last Smoke in Venice
I had to give up. Again. I swore I’d never smoke another cigarette after the age of thirty on pain of cancer and, being superstitious, I believed it. For many shining months I didn’t have so much as a single drag. It was tough when waiting for trains. It was tough when drinking, tough after eating, tough with my afternoon coffee, tough when emerging from a film. In the end it was just too tough. After eight months, like a dog returning to his own sick, I found myself back sucking grime.
The truth is that I was already suffering from cancer: cancer of the discipline; cancer of the willpower. If I couldn’t control something as simple and straightforward as an addiction to a deadly poison, then what hope did I have of achieving anything worthy? I needed to find the strength, or perhaps the romance, for a ceremonial act of excision; the cigarettes had to go once and for all.
Travel was a serious problem. Every time I gave up smoking it would be a holiday that brought me back. It’s nigh impossible to resist cigarettes on the road. My resolve had failed in Tokyo, in the Balkans, in Italy, Spain and Greece. Wherever the smokes were plentiful and cheap, and whenever I was in a festive, campaigning spirit, out came the wallet and in came the poison.
Then it hit me. Perhaps I could turn the problem on its head. Perhaps I could make a journey just for the sake of quitting; pick somewhere special – new and exotic, or even an old favourite – go there, smoke myself silly until, in a chosen moment of unmatchable glory, I polished my final gasper.
I was excited by this idea. It was also a good excuse for another holiday, and I immediately began to think about where to go.
Four weeks later I flew into Bergamo, having decided on a forced march across northern Italy as a prelude to the glories of the Venetian lagoon. In five days I travelled through Como, Milan, Brescia, Verona, Mantua, Bologna, Rimini, and Ravenna, smoking all the way. On the night before I set off north for the floating city, I went out skulking. In the grey exhaust side streets, before a rainy fortress, I met some hooded men and bought some hash.
The following day was lost behind curtain rain. I took my time. At Ferrara I changed trains in a fish-tank world, fearing the worst for my visit to Venice. I was banking on sunshine for high-contrast, black and white photography, and of course, for plenty of outdoor smoking. Thankfully, as the train rattled across the causeway, the sun returned; shining low through departing clouds. The winds flicked raindrops like mounted archers peppering a column. It was late afternoon. The lagoon was bruise and silver blue.
At the station I ordered a coffee and smoked a cigarette on the steps outside the cafeteria. It was nothing special, but I enjoyed every drag. The first of my last cigarettes in Venice! I had booked a hotel in advance; a little two-star number only three minutes from the Piazza di San Marco. November was clearly a good time of year to visit; if only the fog and the rain might hold off. I set off into Venice down its old, paved ways.
I found my hotel without trouble. The heating worked, the bed was comfortable, the outlook simple but pleasant. The tiled floor was cool on my hot, tired feet and the shower ran with rare force. Having stopped at the supermarket, I opened the shutters and placed my supplies on the deep window sill; ham, cheese, bread, milk, pastries, and a two-litre bottle of cheap barbera.
Warmed, fed and spruced, I set off into light rain to commence my picturesque arrivederci to the smokes. I chose melancholy music to match the chilling beauty of the weather. I wandered without aim over bridges, stopped under awnings, leaned against dry walls, puffed my way down narrow alleys. After two hours the long day got the better of me and I returned to the hotel for another hot shower and some bed rest. I treated myself to one last cigarette; leaning over the street with a glass of milk. There were plenty of smokes left, so I didn’t count them. This may have been the final packet, but it wasn’t ration time yet. Below, the wet stones scuffed and echoed. I exhaled into the backlit droplets.
The following day dawned with a piercing blue sky. The air was mild and bracing and standing at the window I felt fresh. Ahead lay many indulgent hours of smoking and photography. I showered, made my lunch, ate my breakfast, and kicked off with a nice hit of hash. At seven thirty, I set out to walk the streets in awe.
I spent the morning circumnavigating the Arsenal; from here the Venetians had once ruled the eastern Mediterranean. It was no mean feat and yet, despite the size of the space, and not normally being one to judge a book by its cover, it had about it the quaintness of pre-industrial industry. The small, clean, pocked bricks of the wall belied the great scale of the business they once secreted.
I took the ferry to the Island of Burano. Despite the beauty of its rainbow streets, it left me empty and distant. My eyes were ever looking back to Venice; the floating city seemed so rare and precious that I could not stand long to be separated from it. Anxious, I rushed back to the ferry and returned post-haste.
By one in the afternoon I was half drunk. The bottle of barbera in my pack steadily lightened as I swigged my lost way through alleys and down canals. At two I followed the signs to the Rialto and waited to take up pole position. Once installed at the bridge’s summit, the sun swung into place and shone down the blinding Grand Canal. The water turned to a black steep of silver stars; oblivion overrun with ripple sparks. I shot in black and white, straight into the face of the sun, seeking out silhouettes, cigarettes hopping on my lips. It might be impossible to take an original photograph of Venice, yet if one can get the cliché just right, then perhaps there is art in that.
So, things were going nicely! If this really was to be my last packet of cigarettes, what better place could there be, what better than this? And there were other good signs to consider. For all the pleasure of the loving drags I took, I rued the pungent reek of my fingers and the oily prickliness in my cheeks. I allowed myself to enjoy the cigarettes, yet did not forget the many, immediate and obvious disadvantages; the stench, the dizziness, the heaviness in the lungs. How I longed for a scrub with soap and water.
I grew increasingly drunk on the Rialto Bridge and did not budge for two hours. By four in the afternoon I was exploding for the loo and finally abandoned my post. Back at my hotel room, relieved by a rumbling torrent, I lay on my bed to download my photographs and woke up, lap-top across my thighs, at eight in the evening. The day had gone, the sun had set; the clear sky had retreated behind fog and rain clouds.
Sunburned and beat; hungover and nicotined out, I set off into the clinging night for a final, tripod-mounted shoot. My impeccable sense of directionlessness got me lost in all the right places. I felt fraught with a wonderful longing that pained me to know what to long for. I stumbled across floodlit decay; scaffolding shoring up damp bricks; dead ends in the emerald murkiness. I looked for spots to sit, spots to smoke then leave behind for other spots, feeling at times both whole and halved.
I was woken at six by a booming siren. In my pillow-muffled ears it sang like the old factory hooters that once sounded so sonorously across Sydney. The low moan tugged me back to harbour sunrise; rinsed blues and yellows in a hazy glare. With the dawn colour of ocean behind my eyes, I recalled where I was. My lids fluttered, blinking away the chimneys and rusting cranes. I stirred, happy in my heat, and sent a foot to the temperate air.
A moment later I knew the siren’s meaning. It came with unexpected clarity. Some time ago, when reading up on Venice, a particular detail had stuck; that the sirens warned of floodtides. Their sounding called the city council into action and prepared the people for a day of sloshing. All across the sinking city, Venetians would be pulling on gumboots. I sprang out of bed feeling lucky. It was too good to be true. The surf was up.
From my window I could see nothing of the flooding, but my faith was strong. I showered and dressed quickly, emptying my pack of all that I would not need. I should have to return before eleven to check out, but there was plenty of morning before then. I sat by the window and rolled two joints, tucking them into my cigarette packet. There were only five smokes left. I made myself a packed lunch; over-buttered rosetta rolls, ham and chunks of hard, dry cheese; apples and chocolate. I ate half a packet of cupcakes, drank a pint of milk and went downstairs for a surprisingly bad coffee.
It was seven thirty when I left the hotel. Outside the door, to the left, the street came to a dead-end at a narrow canal. Here the water had spilled over the lip, but it was dry along the base of the wall. I stopped, eyes locked to the ubiquitous arched bridge opposite, and smoked up one of the joints.
Being morning, the first thing that hit me was the tobacco. I felt so light-headed that I leaned against the wall to avoid dizziness. Good old tobacco, wondrous nicotine, with its strange ability to relax and make uneasy simultaneously. The hashish came on strong as I turned back towards the main vein.
I soon found what I was looking for – the canal overlapping its banks. Along the promenade, heading west and south, the water had risen above ankle height. Men unloaded from barges onto these swilling pavements. The manmade banks with their pretence of ordering the ocean had lost authority to the swollen sea.
I stopped, aghast, in love, in awe, propped and fired off shots. The cigarettes were hot in my pocket; the sea air risen, sharp and salty. I pulled out a smoke and stuck it in my lips. I knew I was putting it on, narrowing my eyes, sucking in my cheeks, trying to look tough and cool, but that’s how I started smoking and that’s how I was determined to finish. It was an irresponsible stance, foolish and vain, but how I loved it here on this fired-up, overflowing morning, the thin sun yellow through a fug of fading mist. I set off for the fish markets; first stop on a long day’s march.
Along the lengths of the main thoroughfares, wooden platforms, like clattering old school desks, had been erected. Upon these people walked, one abreast, turning their shoulders sideways as they edged past each other. Alongside, vendors stood in calf-high water, wearing thigh-high, olive green gumboots. People leaned from the safety of the platforms and bought whatever they required. I stuck some Italian opera in my ears, highlights, arias, then walked up and climbed aboard the platforms. It was slow going and soon lost its novelty, so the first chance I had I hopped off onto an island of dry land outside a café. On a whim I went in and ordered a scotch, to put some fire in my belly. It went marvellously well with a cigarette. I stood outside watching people shuffle down the boards; I was high on the atmosphere, high on the romance, high on the nicotine. It was all going so well!
I made my way along the higher, drier streets, photographing everything I could: men slicing fillets from large and bloody fish; market stallholders and deliverymen unloading goods into handcarts; widows sloshing from their homes; bored gondoliers lamenting the clouds; waiters waiting. I wandered through these vignettes; hoping my camera could capture the narrative. Venice was such a tumult of stimuli that it had ruined my concentration. The emotional tugs in the arias; soaring beauty and epic despair, robbed me of the desire to force things. I abandoned all plans to visit galleries and museums. Despite the rich interiors, this was not a time or place to be indoors. I strolled on through the wet and marvellous gloom that grew across the morning, content to witness this decay and fading grandeur. Venice is a living ruin, the heart of glorious sadness. It was appropriate that under a leaden sky, chest heavy with the weight of awe, I was smoking my final cigarettes.
I stopped and had another whisky. It warmed me and loosened my shoulders. Cold was seeping in from the ever-present damp. The clamminess and slow oil of skin passed to memory with the macchiato chaser. I had another smoke, then washed up in the bathroom. I had only two cigarettes remaining and the thought was making me anxious. Doubts were beginning to creep in. What would really happen when the final one was smoked? How long before the joy of being clean was overcome by gnawing need? I wanted to be free of anxiety on this front, yet I felt the impending nostalgia of finality.
Time had flown and I had to get back to my hotel to pack my bags. I made a beeline and walked apace. I took a gratuitous extra shower, freshened up, packed and left right on the stroke of eleven. Once outside I took stock of how to spend the afternoon before the train and plane and coach ride home. All along I had been avoiding the obvious; I aimed myself towards the Piazza di San Marco to see how the floods had taken hold.
The Basilica sat on the shore of a tidal lake, rain-stained and murky gold. The walking platforms had been erected around the piazza, one line of which led directly into the church. The smooth-worn and deceptively soft marble shone with wetness and reflections. Under the cloisters the scrape of steps echoed; the air was sewn by the whispered gasps of voices and a ceaseless lap and plop. I stopped just before the entrance; the hot damp of a present congregation exchanging its breath with the outside cold. My interest was unfocussed; bemusement and preoccupation with the presence of water. I wanted only to sit undisturbed on a wet marble step and listen to the drops and ripples.
I turned straight around and headed back out, walking on the platforms to the side of the piazza. The three steps to the arcade were sufficient to keep it above the height of the water. I had missed the tide at its peak and cursed.
Walking to the opposite end of the square, I sat on the steps and opened up my cigarette packet. The moment was dawning and the ludicrous significance I’d attached to it filled me with the melancholy of pointlessness. Was my life so devoid of purpose or meaning that I had to resort to conceits such as this? On the other hand, should I not be pleased that I was able to take such a curiously indulgent holiday? One cigarette, one joint, that was it.
The time beyond smoking seemed like darkness. It was a significant step towards death; like losing my hair or being forced to give up dairy products. Yet, it was a good while since I’d smoked without guilt; the casual unconcern of youth had long since left me. I knew I would live more comfortably if I accepted the inevitable.
I fired up the joint. There weren’t too many people about and I figured they would be none the wiser. The smoke curled roughly into my lungs; harsh, dry tobacco; sweet, oily hash. I had taken the music out of my ears to be alert and watched the people around me. Only one person seemed to have an inkling of what I was up to; a lithe and pretty girl with long dreadlocks, in hipster jeans and a colourful, striped top. She was facing perpendicular and our lazy stares must have met somewhere out on the shallow water.
As the hash came on, I closed my eyes and breathed. I wanted some music that kicked me with its pith and began spinning the dial on my iPod. I loved all these songs but was growing tired of them. Then my eyes lit on something so apposite I could have wept. Fate was guiding me, lending this moment a whole new grandeur; Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks.
The loud, echoing snare timed me into six minutes of heart leaps. I rocked back and forth with the slow grind of the intro, till Page’s spanking riff had me breathing in tears. The basilica rippled at the end of the square, mirrored in the flood.
The song built and built, up and up so my hair stood on end. Yes, this was the moment – the moment to finish with smoking. The levee was broken, the pigeons shat hard from the columns and pilasters; the heavy sky was threadbare with blocked silver light. My heart was full; rich with excitement and the anxiety of uncertain yearning. I held the moment as tightly as I could; sweating in it, rocking with it.
My eyes locked to the centre of the piazza, I noticed a break in the water where the tide was receding and the land revealed its uneven shape. Had the weight of the buildings pushed down the edges of the piazza, leaving a hump along the centre?
The song was drawing to a close, petering into repetition. I turned down the volume and smiled through its coda. Perhaps now was the time. The longer I waited, the more anxious I would become about commencing the final smoke. I picked up the packet and withdrew the cigarette.
It was in my fingers, ready to be applied to my lips, when I heard a scuffle to my left. As I turned my head, a bright, cheery face leaned into view, introduced by a waving hand. It was the girl with the dreadlocks.
“Hi,” she said.
I smiled; startled, embarrassed, and pulled out my earphones.
“Hello,” she said, “sorry to disturb you.”
“No problem.” I hadn’t had a conversation in English for four or five days and was surprised at the sound of my voice.
“I don’t suppose you have a spare cigarette?” she asked.
“Well, actually,” I began, but then my heart sank. How could I explain?
“It’s my last cigarette,” I said, “really my last one.”
Knowing just how old and tired this excuse was, I added, “It really is genuinely my last cigarette.” I showed her the empty inside of the packet.
“Oh, that’s cool,” she said, but she did not leave immediately.
I was not sure what she was waiting for. Did she want to share it with me? Did I really want her to go away?
“I guess you can have it if you like,” I said a moment later. “I’m supposed to be giving up.”
“Oh, no,” she smiled, “I couldn’t take your last cigarette.”
“No, go on,” I said. “Seriously. You can have it, I suppose. I don’t see why not. Or we could share it, if you like? I guess a little company’s a fair price.”
“For sure,” she said, beaming. She sat down beside me, closer than I could have hoped.
“I’ll start it, if you don’t mind,” I said.
“Go right ahead.”
She was English, probably from London, though I couldn’t be sure.
I put the cigarette to my lips and stoked it up. My final cigarette! The very last one! And here I was, completely distracted from my mission to savour it. I’d been dragged kicking and screaming from detached, heroic edginess into thoughts of lewd acts following an imagined pissed-up luncheon. Never could I have predicted such a dilemma. This would be a cigarette to remember – that much was certain, but how, how, how could I explain?
I passed the cigarette to her and she took her first toke. I watched her technique; it was practised and sure. She drew the smoke smoothly, without grimacing. She took three tokes then passed it back to me.
I was pleased to find the filter dry. I took my drag, thinking of things to say. There was so much from which to choose that I said nothing at all.
“Any plans for the afternoon?” she asked.
“Not especially,” I said. “How about you?”
“Nothing really. Just more sightseeing I guess.”
“Cool, me too.”
I passed her the cigarette.
“Are you here by yourself?” she asked.
“Yes. And you?”
“I am now,” she said, “my sister went home yesterday.”
“Cool,” I said, not really knowing exactly what was cool.
“Well, in that case,” she said, taking a drag and passing the cigarette back to me, “we’d better get some more cigarettes.”
I laughed and smiled at her. I liked the sound of “we.”
“Yes, I suppose we should,” I said.
The floor was falling away beneath me. Was I really about to get lucky? This had happened once before in Turkey; a grand opportunity arising just prior to my departure. I gave a woman my jumper – she was worried about being cold – and she smelled it saying it had the scent of a real man. I left and caught my flight on that occasion, yet here, already I was calculating the cost of skipping tonight’s. I had often joked about heading back to England overland. I felt an awkward, bowel-shaking mix of despair at the impending failure of a sacred mission and the longing to succumb to a rare romantic possibility. It would need some thought, it would need some good fortune, it would definitely require more cigarettes.
“Yeah, fuck it,” I said, exhaling out the side of my mouth, “let’s go get some more fags.”