The experts are right, he thought, Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone. Their heels made a ringing sound on the pavement and the rain splashed from the gutterings above. A fine ending to an evening that had started with brave hope, with innocence.
When they came to their hotel Laura made straight for the lift, and John turned to the desk to ask the night-porter for the key. The man handed him a telegram at the same time, John stared at it a moment. Laura was already in the lift. Then he opened the envelope and read the message. It was from the headmaster of Johnnie's preparatory school.
Johnnie under observation
suspected appendicitis in city hospital here.
No cause for alarm but surgeon thought wise
He read the message twice, then walked slowly towards the lift where Laura was waiting for him. He gave her the telegram. 'This came when we were out,' he said. 'Not awfully good news.' He pressed the lift button as she read the telegram. The lift stopped at the second floor, and they got out.
'Well, this decides it, doesn't it?' she said. 'Here is the proof. We have to leave Venice because we're going home. It's Johnnie who's in danger, not us. This is what Christine was trying to tell the twins.'
The first thing John did the following morning was to put a call through to the headmaster at the preparatory school. Then he gave notice of their departure to the reception manager, and they packed while they waited for the call. Neither of them referred to the events of the preceding day, it was not necessary. John knew the arrival of the telegram and the foreboding of danger from the sisters was coincidence, nothing more, but it was pointless to start an argument about it. Laura was convinced otherwise, but intuitively she knew it was best to keep her feelings to herself. During breakfast they discussed ways and means of getting home. It should be possible to get themselves, and the car, on to the special car train that ran from Milan through to Calais, since it was early in the season. In any event, the headmaster had said there was no urgency.
The call from England came while John was in the bathroom. Laura answered it. He came into the bedroom a few minutes later. She was still speaking, but he could tell from the expression in her eyes that she was anxious.
'It's Mrs Hill,' she said. 'Mr Hill is in class. She says they reported from the hospital that Johnnie had a restless night and the surgeon may have to operate, but he doesn't want to unless it's absolutely necessary. They've taken X-rays and the appendix is in a tricky position, it's not awfully straightforward.'
'Here, give it to me,' he said.
The soothing but slightly guarded voice of the headmaster's wife came down the receiver. 'I'm so sorry this may spoil your plans,' she said, 'but both Charles and I felt you ought to be told, and that you might feel rather easier if you were on the spot. Johnnie is very plucky, but of course he has some fever. That isn't unusual, the surgeon says, in the circumstances. Sometimes an appendix can get displaced, it appears, and this makes it more complicated. He's going to decide about operating this evening.'
'Yes, of course, we quite understand,' said John.
'Please do tell your wife not to worry too much,' she went on. 'The hospital is excellent, a very nice staff, and we have every confidence in the surgeon.'
'Yes,' said John, 'yes,' and then broke off because Laura was making gestures beside him.
'If we can't get the car on the train, I can fly,' she said. 'They're sure to be able to find me a seat on a plane. Then at least one of us would be there this evening.'
He nodded agreement. 'Thank you so much, Mrs Hill,' he said, 'we'll manage to get back all right. Yes, I'm sure Johnnie is in good hands. Thank your husband for us. Goodbye.'
He replaced the receiver and looked round him at the tumbled beds, suitcases on the floor, tissue-paper strewn. Baskets, maps, books, coats, everything they had brought with them in the car. 'Oh God,' he said, 'what a bloody mess. All this junk.' The telephone rang again. It was the hall porter to say he had succeeded in booking a sleeper for them both, and a place for the car, on the following night.
'Look,' said Laura, who had seized the telephone, 'could you book one seat on the midday plane from Venice to London today, for me? It's imperative one of us gets home this evening. My husband could follow with the car tomorrow.'
'Here, hang on,' interrupted John. 'No need for panic stations. Surely twenty-four hours wouldn't make all that difference?'
Anxiety had drained the colour from her face. She turned to him, distraught.
'It mightn't to you, but it does to me,' she said. 'I've lost one child, I'm not going to lose another.'
'All right, darling, all right…' He put his hand out to her but she brushed it off, impatiently, and continued giving directions to the porter. He turned back to his packing. No use saying anything. Better for it to be as she wished. They could, of course, both go by air, and then when all was well, and Johnnie better, he could come back and fetch the car, driving home through France as they had come. Rather a sweat, though, and the hell of an expense. Bad enough Laura going by air and himself with the car on the train from Milan.
'We could, if you like, both fly,' he began tentatively, explaining the sudden idea, but she would have none of it. 'That really would be absurd,' she said impatiently. 'As long as I'm there this evening, and you follow by train, it's all that matters. Besides, we shall need the car, going backwards and forwards to the hospital. And our luggage. We couldn't go off and just leave all this here.'
No, he saw her point. A silly idea. It was only-well, he was as worried about Johnnie as she was, though he wasn't going to say so.
'I'm going downstairs to stand over the porter,' said Laura. 'They always make more effort if one is actually on the spot. Everything I want tonight is packed. I shall only need my overnight case. You can bring everything else in the car.' She hadn't been out of the bedroom five minutes before the telephone rang. It was Laura. 'Darling,' she said, 'it couldn't have worked out better. The porter has got me on a charter flight that leaves Venice in less than an hour. A special motor-launch takes the party direct from San Marco in about ten minutes. Some passenger on the charter flight cancelled. I shall be at Gatwick in less than four hours.'
'I'll be down right away,' he told her.
He joined her by the reception desk. She no longer looked anxious and drawn, but full of purpose. She was on her way. He kept wishing they were going together. He couldn't bear to stay on in Venice after she had gone, but the thought of driving to Milan, spending a dreary night in a hotel there alone, the endless dragging day which would follow, and the long hours in the train the next night, filled him with intolerable depression, quite apart from the anxiety about Johnnie. They walked along to the San Marco landing-stage, the Molo bright and glittering after the rain, a little breeze blowing, the postcards and scarves and tourist souvenirs fluttering on the stalls, the tourists themselves out in force, strolling, contented, the happy day before them.
'I'll ring you tonight from Milan,' he told her. 'The Hills will give you a bed, I suppose. And if you're at the hospital they'll let me have the latest news. That must be your charter party. You're welcome to them!'
The passengers descending from the landing-stage down into the waiting launch were carrying hand-luggage with Union Jack tags upon them. They were mostly middle-aged, with what appeared to be two Methodist ministers in charge. One of them advanced towards Laura, holding out his hand, showing a gleaming row of dentures when he smiled. 'You must be the lady joining us for the homeward flight,' he said. 'Welcome aboard, and to the Union of Fellowship. We are all delighted to make your acquaintance. Sorry we hadn't a seat for hubby too.'