Free Short Story: Lunch at the Italian Plaice by Madeleine McDonald

I had not eaten properly for months. On the day Sam died, a neighbour made me sit down at her kitchen table and swallow a bowl of hot soup. Among many kindnesses, that simple gesture stands in my memory as the most practical form of help. Helen, my neighbour, did not tiptoe around the finality of death. “You must eat,” she told me. “You’re in shock. You will be in shock for months. Your body needs food to cope.” Over the next few months, she made me more meals and nagged me to look after my own health.

I always promised to heed her advice and forgot that meaningless promise as soon as the words left my mouth. My health no longer mattered. Nothing mattered. Day after day, I waded through treacle. The children did what they could, but a mass of paperwork still awaited my attention, and I put off making decisions. It took an effort of will to shower every day and dress in clean clothes. Clean, but mismatched. My appearance no longer mattered.

Food became a necessary evil. Before Sam died, we had enjoyed cooking together. Long before it became fashionable, the two of us cared where our food came from. We shopped for plump vegetables on market stalls and filled the freezer with meat purchased from the farm gate. After the funeral, I lost interest. Helen’s meals tasted of wet flannel. Frozen meals reheated in the microwave tasted of wet flannel. Occasionally, on the days when Helen’s nagging registered, I remembered that I should eat fresh produce and bought a bag of apples.

About six months after Sam’s passing, I had to sign some papers at the bank. When I emerged into autumnal sunshine, the street was busy. People swirled around me, walking with purpose, the clack of heels on the pavement announcing their haste. I had a choice. Grab a sandwich and a coffee or go home to another solitary meal of reheated flannel. Home to an empty house.

On a whim, I decided to take a bus out to the docks and have lunch at The Italian Plaice. When Sam and I first discovered it, forty years ago, it was the only restaurant in town which served proper espresso coffee from a hissing, steaming machine on the counter. With time, and cheap air travel, our town became more cosmopolitan, but we stayed faithful to The Italian Plaice.

Back then it was called The Lemon Tree, a name redolent of sunshine and the south. In so many other ways it reminded us of our Italian holidays. An aperitif of dry white wine was served with a little dish of mixed olives. The tables had paper tablecloths. Nonno Guido had scrubbed the premises inside and out when he moved in, but his son never saw the need to update the facilities.

It was Guido’s wife, Nonna Doreen, who was responsible for the restaurant’s incongruous name. Way back when, a newly arrived Guido had patrolled the docks area on foot until he spotted a run-down fish and chip shop called The Battered Plaice. He invested his savings, repainted the facade, and named his new kingdom The Lemon Tree. Word of mouth soon won him discerning customers, but the taxi drivers who brought them to the door persisted in calling it The Old Battered Plaice, as did the locals. Then Guido married his English waitress and in the first flush of love suggested renaming the restaurant in her honour. Doreen suggested a compromise between Latin pride and English stubbornness, and The Italian Plaice was born.

Outside the restaurant, I hesitated. Of course I had eaten there on my own. This would be different. Instead of enjoying my own company for an hour while Sam was occupied elsewhere, I would be killing time in another empty day.

I took a deep breath and entered.

A cautious sip of chilled wine and a bite of olive catapulted me back to our continental wanderings. The days when I dressed to please myself and the world, the days when I pirouetted for Sam’s approval before we went out.
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Reality dealt me a sledgehammer blow. What would Sam say if he saw me now? I even heard his voice. You can’t go on like this. I was a mess. A dejected, careworn, shapeless mess. Why would any café owner want me under his roof, oozing despondency and putting other customers off their meal? I had forgotten that we all owe the world the courtesy of a pleasant face.

Yet the staff had welcomed me like an old friend. I took another bite of tangy green olive, seeing Sam’s smile across a pavement table. Many tables, for we explored a country through its food.

The sudden radiance of Italian sunshine and the reassurance of that smile fizzed through the room and through my veins. Come on, love, you can do it.

Nonno Guido and Nonna Doreen had retired, but pride in their hard work permeated every corner of the restaurant. Their legacy still attracted customers. I too had a legacy to maintain. For a start, I would stop driving our children mad with worry.

It was time to take myself in hand. When Guido’s son stopped at my table and asked after Sam, I managed to explain his absence, with dignity, without tears.

He brought over a tiny glass of liqueur to accompany my coffee. “I am sorry for your loss, signora. It was a pleasure to see your husband enjoy his food.”

Time melted away. Yes, he did enjoy his food. And so would I, beginning from today. I sat up straight and held each forkful of pasta in my mouth, savouring chicken, thyme, pine nuts and garlic. A wholesome dish. Perhaps I could cook something similar when the children next came to visit.

The carapace of misery had split and a fragile, vulnerable creature had crawled out into the sun. A new human being bewildered by a world in which the rules had changed. But one who could look life in the face.

About the Author: Madeleine McDonald writes romance novels, poetry and radio pieces. She finds inspiration walking on the beach before the world wakes up.

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  1. Sad yet uplifting, well-written and realistic.
    A really nice read. Thanks.

  2. Beautiful story, Madeleine.

  3. Such a sad story, but one with hope. Nice details to really put one in the setting.

  4. Madeleine McDonald says

    Thanks for the encouraging comment, Lara.

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