Umbrella people


Rain patters on the flagstones that pave the square. Rivulets of water converge forming ever growing puddles, till the place resembles an immense lagoon bordered by a forest of pillars curving upwards, arching protective over tables huddled like bedraggled lambs.

A poster clings to a pillar flapping like a trapped bird in the wind. In a moment’s respite, a sketch of an umbrella unfurls, beneath which is scrawled in childish script: Derided by our fellows, cast out by our parents, hounded by the police, we protest by exhibiting our beautiful bodies, so abhorred by those who fear that which is not like them.

Under the arcades, in the warmth of fizzling gas fires, faded enchantresses sip tea and nibble cakes, their fur stoles wound tight round wrinkled necks. With bright red lips, they murmur powdered cheek to powdered cheek. “No! Really?” Waiters stand stiffly in the shadows, trays at hand, while beyond, within, enthroned at her cash register, Madame sees all.

Not to be out done, San Marco surges upwards, arch upon arch harbouring sacred scenes, topped by spires and saints that stand stolid against the storm. From within, trebles soar above tenors and basses amid a haze of incense and candle smoke. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Response and counter response in an ordered procession, a celestial counterpoint composed centuries before.

Outside, like an archipelago of tiny, colourful islands in the rain-spattered square, we children crouch, each concealed beneath a rainbow umbrella, naked and shivering. Droplets rebound from puddles and splash our tiny feet, our ankles, our calves, our private parts. Icy rain-water drips from goose flesh and our young teeth chatter. Will people ever accept us as we are?

Amid the faded onlookers, a woman gets to her feet, abandoning her tea and cake, and with her left hand cupped over her mouth, her eyes wide in horror and distaste, she points a trembling finger in our direction. A flock of words rises squawking beneath the arcades. “Shocking!” “Disgusting!” One after another the women rise, their dresses fluttering in the wind, one hand outstretched, till an armoury of accusing fingers aims in our direction.

A whistle slices through the clamours of indignation and a body of Carabinieri trot into the square, their boots squelching in step, their truncheons dancing at their hips. Fanning out, they rain blows on our umbrellas sparking screams and cries for mercy. In a flurry of dark blue and silver braid, they bludgeon the difference out of us and with it our lives. Order restored, they regroup and trot away. The echoes of our pleas die down and quiet returns, even the lamb of god is silenced. Dazed, the women sit and stare, betwixt fear and fascination, unable to resume their whispered commerce.

In the square, rain continues to fall on the rods and riders of umbrellas twisted almost beyond recognition and the tatters of colourful canopies float on a growing sea stained red.

(Many thanks to the members of the Geneva Writers Group, whose critiquing of this story helped me see what was creating difficulties in an earlier version.)

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