Happy Sunday everyone! I've got a little story for you today. It's based on the theme of "memory". Like the piece I wrote for Discorder, The Sun and The Moon, it explores how the things we always thought we knew might not be as reliable as they seem.
It's fairly long, so grab a cup of tea and enjoy.
A few things stand out about the photograph. Firstly, the woman. Her head is thrown back in laughter, and her red-rimmed mouth reveals two rows of white teeth, straight as soldiers. Her curls bounce around her shoulders.
Next, the man, who you would assume is the cause of her laughter. He is wearing an expensive-looking tux and a bow-tie, and on his head is balanced a tall chef's hat. He has one hand wrapped around the woman's small waist, while the other grips something that's half out of shot.
The last thing you’d notice, if you noticed at all, is the third figure, who stands in the background. She is shadowy and out of focus. She never expected the story to be about her – although, of course, it is.
Ella didn't particularly want to go out for dinner. It was cold; she was tired. She'd stopped commemorating – or even remembering – her birthdays years ago, but Ben, her grandson, always insisted on doing something.
“Lucio’s,” his voice crackled down the line, fighting the bad connection.
“Sorry?” Ella held the phone closer to her ear.
“Lucio’s,” Ben repeated, more loudly. “On Kent Road. Dad said it’s been open since you lived around there?”
Lucio’s. The name alone was enough to send Ella’s nerves quivering. She felt old memories waking up, like long-dead animals threatening to resurrect themselves.
“Yes,” she heard herself reply. “It’s been there a long time.” Could she really go back to Lucio’s? After all of these years?
"Ok, cool. I'll pick you up at six-thirty tomorrow," Ben told her, then hung up.
Ella replaced the phone with a shaking hand. It didn’t seem like she had a choice.
Ben was always punctual. The next evening, he turned up at Ella's flat at 6:29 pm. Ella had spent the day trying to find things to do, but her mind kept returning to the restaurant, setting the memories prowling, snarling, like hungry hyenas.
“You look lovely,” Ben told her as they climbed into his car.
Ella had taken great pains over what to wear, a fact which amused and saddened her in equal parts. Who was she planning to impress? Finally, she'd scolded herself, caged the hyenas and chosen a plain black dress.
As they drove to the restaurant, Ben chatted away about this and that; his university, his job in the coffee shop, his girlfriend. He is such a good kid, Ella thought. Sweet, gentle Ben, taking his lonely grandmother out for dinner on her birthday. She almost felt sorry for herself.
That was, until they pulled up outside the restaurant. Then Ella felt nothing at all, before the details slowly filled her up, building a new woman. Or, perhaps, just reviving an old one.
Lucio’s didn’t look any different now to how it had fifty years earlier. It was still wedged between two bigger shops on either side so that it looked almost comically squashed, and the sign still hung slightly crooked, “Lucio’s” beaming out in pepperoni-red neon.
When Ella stepped out of the car, she could have been young and auburn-haired again, clutching her gift to her chest as she had done on the restaurant's opening night, all those years ago.
She blinked. The hyenas were stealthy tonight, creeping up on her in the dark. If she wasn’t carefully, they might steal her away. She took Ben’s arm, and together they walked into the restaurant.
“I had them reserve the best table, for your birthday,” he was telling her. “That one.”
He pointed across to a little booth by the wall, the only one upholstered in plush red leather. It was in the centre of the other tables, like a roaring fireplace, or a beating heart. On the wall above it hung a photograph – greying and old, but it didn’t matter. A woman. A man, wearing a chef’s hat. And another figure in the background, who no one ever noticed. She’d never seen the photo, but she knew the exact moment it had been taken.
“Are you ok, Grandma?” Ben’s face was swimming in and out of her vision.
They took their seats in the booth, and a young waitress brought them their menus. She was pretty, with hair the colour of liquorice and eyes like the insides of kiwis. She looked like him, Ella realised – she looked like Lucio. She could be his granddaughter. There would be something almost lovely about that; about their grandchildren meeting fifty years after they did.
She let her eyes trickle down the menu, all the while very aware of the picture above her. Finally, she glanced up.
And there he was. Lucio. There was no point resisting the memories any longer because here she was in his restaurant, basil, oregano, and tomato - the very scent of his skin - playing at her nostrils. She let herself slip back into the past, surrendering to the hyenas as, finally, they devoured her.
She’d met Lucio two weeks before opening night. She was working in a painting and decorating shop, but business was slow. So, when a handsome Italian chef marched into the office and offered a healthy sum if they could paint his new restaurant within the week, it had seemed like almost mythical good fortune.
“That man is an omen of good things,” Mr. McDonald, the owner, had said. Ella would remember that for a long time after. She would also remember the way Lucio’s sparkling eyes pinned her to the spot and let loose every wild thing inside her.
The next day, Lucio returned to the shop to choose paint colours. “Rosso Valentino,” he whispered, his finger tapping the fiery scarlet sample. He caught her eye. “That’s the one.”
The day after that, he returned as Ella locked up the shop. When he kissed her, it felt like a storm of stars was trapped inside her chest. His fingers played with her red hair.
"Rosso Valentino," he'd smiled.
Coming to his opening night was intended to be a surprise. He hadn't invited her, but she'd assumed that was out of humility. She brought along a gift – a vase, hand-painted in Rosso Valentino, streaks still visible on the ceramic. She clutched it to her chest as she passed under the neon sign of Lucio’s for the first time.
She spotted Lucio quickly, circling the room wearing his chef’s hat. When he turned, she was so excited that she bumped into him, almost dropping the vase. She caught it, but he still looked startled.
Someone called his name, and he spun away from her.
Everything happened quickly, then. A beautiful woman appeared from nowhere, and at the photographer’s request, Lucio’s arm snaked around her waist. The woman repositioned his chef’s hat and threw her head back just as the flash popped. Lucio was still holding the vase.
That is another thing no one notices about the picture. The vase in the man’s hand, only the thin neck visible in the shot. Ella wondered if anyone ever looked closely enough to see it, and if they did, what they made of it.
“They’re a handsome couple, aren’t they?” Ben is saying, trying to bring some life back to Ella’s eyes. “Did you know them, Grandma?”
"No, no, not a couple," the waitress interjected. She'd returned to take their order. "That is Lucio. This is his restaurant. The woman, I don’t know. A journalist. We say in Italian, avvoltoio. Vulture, sniffing around for scandal.”
Ella felt her every nerve stand to attention. She'd run from the restaurant that evening without saying a word, the truth seeming as obvious as the night sky. She didn't go back to the paint shop, and shortly after, she left London for Oxford. She killed the memories like the wild animals they were, and moved on.
They’d stayed peacefully dead for many years. But now, fed by this new knowledge, they grew from hyenas to lions. They roared in her ears. You were wrong, you were wrong, you were wrong.
"I always wondered why Lucio put up this photograph," the waitress continued. Her eyes peered up at the picture, and she shrugged. "Maybe there was something else he liked about it."
He’d kept it up, all this time. The roar in Ella’s ear died down, slowly, and became a soft lullaby. The lions dozed, no longer a threat.
“Is he still here? Lucio?” Ben asked the waitress.
“He died a couple of years ago now. But he’s still here. In every dish. Every ingredient,” She gave them a sad smile. “So, do you know what you’ll have?”
Ella’s eyes returned to the menu, but she already knew what she’d order. She'd noticed it from the second the waitress had handed her the menu. A dish of pasta, rich with tomato and threaded with oregano and basil. But she would have had it based on the name alone.
“The Rosso Valentino, please,” she told the waitress in a quivering voice. “I’ll have the Rosso Valentino.”