2. The Chinese Girl’s Umbrella
All his life he had been telling stories. First to the Great Khan in his summer tents out on the steppes. Then to the children of Venice in those first hard years when he had come home to find himself forgotten. And then to his Genoese jailors after the ill-fated Battle of Curzola. But compared to all these audiences she was by far the trickiest. He had married her in the years when he had grown prosperous by trading on the rubies that the Great Khan had given him. She was a merchant’s daughter, a little thing and Venetian through and through, with pale skin, dark hair, long eyes and pale, small lips. She had a high bosom and narrow hips, and she had terrorised his suppliers, fought with his creditors, entered the figures every day in the big ledger book.
She was mightily unimpressed by him, with no time for poetry and not much time for fashion and so it was all the more surprising that on cold winter nights, when they lay together in the big double bed, dressed in the wolf-skin robes, courtesy of the Khan, and with bed socks and night caps as well, she would stretch out her hand across the double bed, which was as wide as the Silk Road, and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ And the story that she asked for more than any other was the story of the treasures in his museum.
All night he talked as the mists came in across the lagoon. Sometimes he fell asleep in mid-story and when he woke it was daylight and the first rays of the sun were shafting through the mists and turning them into heaps of vaporous-looking laundry – whilst downstairs in the kitchen he could hear Donata dishing out the grief to the scullery girls.
After a while he saw what she was up to. Although he had never said anything she must have guessed that the owner of the umbrella was someone who had been dear to him. And so, as fast as she tried to lead him towards the Chinese girl’s umbrella, he tried to lead her away from it. He thought he would die before her and he feared for the fate of the delicate umbrella. But he got it wrong. Donata died before him, giving birth to their third child. ‘You never asked me for my story,’ she told him and he was stricken to see the tears in her eyes. Afterwards he realised that the Chinese girl was dead as well. Somehow in those long nightly battles when he had tried to protect her he had lost the vivid image on his inner eye, and the Chinese girl had died as well.