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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Winter Blogfest: Madeleine McDonald

This post is part of Long and Short Reviews’ Winter Blogfest. Leave a comment for a chance to win a digital copy of Enchantment in Morocco.

What’s in a Name?

Several Christmases ago, the gift from my beloved was a small bottle of an iconic perfume. The one that Marilyn Monroe wore to bed. The one that was handed out free to American GIs entering Paris in 1945, in the heady days of victory and liberation. The one that became a legend in America when those same GIs took it back to their wives and girlfriends.

For almost a hundred years, its stark black and white packaging, and the simple bottle with a square glass lid, have been a byword for Parisian elegance.

I was charmed by the thought: less so by the perfume. Chanel No. 5 has a robust, in-your-face presence, which on me was overpowering. When I entered a room, it wafted before me.

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Which I did. Do you think he took the hint? Of course not. A couple of years later, I unwrapped my Christmas present to discover a larger size bottle. My husband beamed. “I remembered what you said and bought you the eau de toilette this time.”

It’s the thought that counts.

Stranded in Morocco, Emily Ryan accepts a job offer from a stranger. Entranced by her new life in the sleepy coastal village of Taghar, she struggles to resist widower Rafi Hassan’s charm – but also clashes with his autocratic ways and respect for tradition. As she attempts to persuade him to allow his teenage daughter Nour more freedom, Emily refuses to acknowledge her own errors of judgment. As the seasons turn and the olives ripen, Emily dares to dream of winning Rafi’s heart – until danger threatens from an unexpected quarter.

Madeleine McDonald lives on the east coast of England, where the cliffs crumble into the sea. She finds inspiration walking on the beach before the world wakes up.


Buy the book at Amazon.

Winter Blogfest: Madeleine McDonald

This post is part of Long and Short Reviews’ Winter Blogfest. Leave a comment for a chance to win a digital copy of A Shackled Inheritance.

The One Resolution Worth Keeping

New Year resolutions? I gave up on them years ago.

For me the year begins at the winter solstice. Lacking the skills of ancient Babylonians or Greeks, I am unable to pinpoint the moment when the sun stands still in the sky, but I am certainly able to detect the extra few minutes of daylight the following day. Daylight that filters through the curtains and seduces me out to patrol the beach at dawn, welcoming a sunrise that will come earlier and earlier.

One of the few advantages to growing older is the realisation that however many New Year resolutions I fail to keep, the earth will keep turning and the cycle of the seasons will continue.

We humans are naturally optimistic, and often unrealistic. Forty years ago, as a new mother, my ambition would have been to snatch back some semblance of sanity from the fog of sleep deprivation. That happened through the passage of time, not through any act of will on my part.

For a New Year resolution to succeed, our behaviour has to change. Yet the other great advantage to growing older is that I have learned to forgive my weaknesses. Having preferred slurps of coffee to an exercise programme, 365 days a year, year in, year out, I know that a formal vow to start doing sit-ups and lose my tummy will be no help at all.

As for grandiose resolutions to write a bestseller, learn to play the piano, or even declutter the house from top to bottom, my brain shrieked “overload” and shut down. Sanity, snatched back from the fog of exhaustion, told me that as a working mum I was stretched to my limits already and that a restorative cup of tea would do me more good.

The big one, becoming a nicer person, forget about that too. My family long ago informed me that crabbiness is part of my nature.

Nowadays I prefer to dilute my essential crabbiness by yoking my spirits to the slow return of light and warmth. Human beings’ reaction to the awesome power of the sun must go back to caveman days, when our ancestors emerged blinking into another dawn, safe from nocturnal predators.

Once past the solstice, my ancestral genes tell me that the earth too is stirring. Despite doing my food shopping in a supermarket, I am still programmed to feel a surge of hope and thankfulness on the appearance of the first snowdrops, with their promise that, come spring, food will no longer be rationed.

Over time, my resolutions have shrunk to a single, modest vow: to take each day as it comes, and to enjoy the small miracles of life, like snowdrops.
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When downtrodden spinster Abigail Carrick inherits one third of a sugar plantation, she defies convention and crosses the ocean to meet two unknown sisters. Yet it is her new sister Desiree who threatens the burgeoning romance between Abigail and idealistic lawyer Euan Sinclair.






About the Author: Madeleine McDonald lives on the chilly east coast of England, where the wind whistles up through the floorboards.


Buy the book at Amazon.