Constance has returned to Venice, the same hotel as half a century ago. The room seems so much darker this time round, as though it might have lost a window. She wonders if her memory’s playing tricks, and then she realises they’ve carved out an en suite. She stands in the doorway and takes in the bundle of desiccated towels, the single tumbler in its plastic bag. Unpacking her things, Constance catches sight of herself in the grand curlicued mirror that faces the bed. She turns away, and slides the scarf from round her neck. She launches it at the mirror, but the silk just flutters to the floor. She keeps on trying until eventually it catches on a gilded tendril and hangs there limply. She is calmer now. Without a reflection, she is herself again. The real Constance is still so very young.

The day is beginning to disappear, draining off into the lagoon. She doesn’t care to eat downstairs alone, and so she has them send up cold cuts and pickles that are served with ancient, tasteless bread. She drags her case onto the rickety stand, lays out her crepe-soled shoes, her gloves and hat. She needs to check the metal detector still works after travelling out-of-gauge with all the push-chairs and skis. She holds it two-handed and scans beneath the bed, relishing the bleep as it finds a bottle-top the cleaners must have missed. It’s awkward to carry, its weight unevenly distributed, until she works out that it’s easiest just to clutch it to her chest.

The Giardini are on the other side of the city. She’s planned the route, of course. Has spent the last month deciding how best to get there. But now that she tries to visualise it, her mind’s eye can’t see farther than San Pantalon, just a street or two away. She takes out the map again and memorises all the lefts and rights. Once she’s done a final practice run from bed to door and back again, she lays out the metal detector on the vacant bed beside her. Then she sets the clock for four am, and switches off the light. She shuts her eyes against the blare of memories, but even so, she doesn’t sleep.

Flat on her back in the dark, Constance raises her knees, then rocks them gently from side to side. Twenty times, then another twenty. Her hips are seizing up, her lower back too. Before long, parts will need replacing deep in her machinery. Some day soon, this adventure might not be possible at all. She tears open three sachets of not-quite-coffee and adds a dribble of boiling water from the kettle. It’s foul but effective, and once she’s slipped it down, Constance is shockingly alert.

On the staircase, she is careful not to overstep the narrow treads. She clings tightly to the handrail. Outside, the air is hushed and strings of Christmas lights, Venetian icicles, crisscross the street. It’s ten past four and everything looks different with the awnings in and the racks of postcards pulled inside. By day she could find her way by remembering the colours of the café chairs, but now the streets are almost featureless. She seems to walk for miles, and yet she encounters just a smattering of people—a young man scribbling on a wellhead, another pissing into a canal, a couple who heave and sigh against a wall. Somehow, after sixteen lefts and rights, she reaches the lagoon. It is black and barely there at all. Just the merest slip and slap against the quay.

The metal detector feels heavier than before. From time to time she needs to put it down to rearrange the load. She spots a rubbish bag, its black skin split and reeking, and can’t resist a trial run. Once she switches on the machine it yaps at anything at all—ring pull, bottle top, scrap of foil. She is hoping for a little more discrimination when she gets to the Giardini, because the thing that she has come here to retrieve is small and gold. Someone may already have recovered it, but chances are that, even after fifty years, the ring lies undiscovered, somewhere in the ratty undergrowth.

She checks her watch and finds it’s almost five. The air is bitter, whipping in from the lagoon. It slices through her gloves so that every finger bone is chilled to snapping. As for the ring, she stops a moment just to laugh at herself. Mad as a hatter, she is. No wiser now than then. The engagement was on impulse—met and matched in six weeks flat. Soon after, he returned to Spain while Constance stayed on in London to finish her training at the hospital. She’d always thought a marriage would have lasted, but who’s to say?

There are dark shapes at the heart of the Giardini, shadows moving through the trees. She thinks of tomcats and bogeymen, flick knives and dirty needles. Her sensible self says come back next year when the festival is on. Just buy a ticket with the rest of them and walk right in. But Constance might not have another year. These days she has to pluck the flower when first she sees it.

Now that the Biennale has ended and the ticket booths are gone, the site is littered with its leavings: scraps of old packaging, slats from abandoned crates. She tries to get her bearings, walks up the central avenue with its boarded-up buildings. There are cities where, after plague, the inhabitants just upped and left. The Giardini feels like that. A deserted empire, made up of all the countries grand enough to have a building here. America, of course, and France. Britain, Sweden and Japan. She recognises Germany from the heft of its pillars. Germania, the inscription says, as though the Roman Empire never fell. But where is Spain? That’s where they were standing when it happened. She remembers the strange mockery of that.

It was a rare weekend together, and yet he’d invited friends to join them, colleagues from the university in Madrid, a couple she barely knew. Constance was out-of-joint with him that morning, and the day was already so hot. As the others chatted away amongst themselves in Spanish, she felt gauche, excluded. She had her eye on the refreshments stall, its Coke bottles buried shoulder-deep in crushed ice, and walked a step or two ahead. She was only half-listening when she caught a change in the pitch of his voice. It lowered to barely a whisper. Nathalia. She turned and watched the shadow flit across the dull-day blue of his eyes. She knew then. She remembers the others growing silent, the woman glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. He had cut off all contact with Nathalia, or so he’d said. She was nothing to him now. But his open, honest, ridiculously handsome face told her right away that wasn’t true.

Hit in the heart, she clutched at the fine gold band, felt for its tiny stone. She waited for him to say something, or even to look her way. But he gave her nothing. She swivelled the ring back and forth on her finger until she had slithered it off. Then, on an impulse she didn’t know she had, she flung it as far into the undergrowth as she could manage. A woman with a pram turned away as if embarrassed for her. And then, Constance just blundered off, with no idea where she was going.

All she really wanted was to run away, so he could follow and cajole her into coming back. He called after her, but he didn’t follow and she didn’t stop. When her eyes had cleared, she found a café. She sat there for hours knocking back a bright orange concoction she’d seen the locals drink, oversweet yet strangely bitter. She toyed with the discarded cocktail sticks, the half-bitten olives, imagined him scouring the little streets around the Giardini, frantic with worry. It was only a matter of time before he had his arms around her, and she buried herself in him. By now, the alcohol had softened her. She convinced herself that if they could only get to bed it would all be resolved.

When she got back to the hotel, he had already checked out. He’d paid the bill and left her bag, neatly packed, at reception. And that was that. They’d known each other so short a time that it was easy for him just to disappear. He simply never got in touch again, and the letters in which she abandoned all self-respect and begged him to return went unanswered. People moved away, back then, and so you lost them.

In the Giardini, the metal detector has only just begun to skim the ground when it gives a sharp beep of recognition. Constance takes out her floral-patterned trowel, a Christmas present from a niece. She scrapes the surface of the earth, extracts another ring pull. By now dawn is revealing the naked branches overhead—a dense tangle of broken veins. In the distance where the sky is lightening, a man in uniform and boots is standing, hands on hips. Someone official, she decides. His partner joins him, and together they blot the sky that is beginning to separate itself from the lagoon. She thinks they’re facing her, but she can’t be sure until they move in her direction. She wonders if they’ll tell her that she’s trespassing. In Italy, she’s heard, a permit is required for almost anything at all.

‘I came here fifty years ago,’ she starts. ‘I threw away my ring.’

She raises the metal detector to show them. But they obviously aren’t interested. They don’t say anything, and their eyes don’t change. She wants to talk to someone, anyone. Has scarcely spoken to a soul since she arrived. ‘Do people ever find?’ she tries again. ‘I mean, perhaps it’s customary to ask permission first?’

One shrugs, the other looks past her shoulder to where more interesting transactions are taking place, deep in the shadows.

She wants to ask if people ever hand things in. If there’s a book maybe, with items listed in it. But even framing the question in her mind is sufficient to provide the answer. ‘I suppose,’ she says, ‘it’s not very likely, is it? After all this time.’

The officers move off without making any comment on the prospects of retrieval. They don’t even say goodbye. Meanwhile, the sky is spreading blue and white from out of the lagoon. Constance feels suddenly weighed down by the burden of all the skies between that day and this one. If there was someone waiting for her back at the hotel, she might give up now. She might hold up her hands and say, you’re right. Let sleeping rings lie. Instead, she wills herself the strength for one last attempt.

She decides on the fourth tree along, selects a patch of ground in front of it, and goes to work. In the space of half an hour, she finds a fragment from a pair of spectacles, a pile of tacks and nails and picture hangers, one battered silver bracelet. She gathers these things and places them in a little pile by the side of the path, ready for rediscovery. Then she packs away the trowel, and makes her way back to the hotel.

She should eat, but her stomach is too raw for coffee and sweet pastries. Instead she fills the bath and lies there listening to the trundling of the carts that will provision the city for another day, the shouts of the deliverymen as they shunt aside the tourists. Then the bathwater has gone cold and the chambermaid is knocking on the door.

She should sleep, but she won’t. She thinks about the uniformed men in the Giardini. She tries to name the expression on their faces, but can’t quite place it. Not pity, not even disinterest. And then their blankness strikes her. They thought she was demented—a bag lady, a madwoman. And Constance is satisfied with that. She is pleased to be outside the general run of people, even now.

She takes out the notebook she bought all those years ago in Dorsoduro, and never dared to use. Bending back the floppy leather binding, she smoothes her hand across the thick cream paper and begins.

1. The Hotel Fiore’s stairs are very steep. Consider other options.
2. The Spanish pavilion is nowhere near the German one.
3. Investigate machine that only bleeps for gold.
4. There are twenty-seven suspect trees.
5. Next time start fifth from left
6. Buy warmer gloves.

Constance stands by that preposterous mirror, its surface still hidden by the scarf. She peers through the gauzy fabric until she glimpses the outline of her younger self, a half-finished sketch behind the glass. ‘Poor thing,’ she tells the girl. ‘What did you know? You didn’t have a clue.’

Her ears are humming with exhaustion, and her arms ache. And yet, for that girl’s sake—so very young and waiting still—Constance will be up again at four.