Text Box: Short Story 2018/2019 — First Place

 

Hot Chocolate for One by Catherine Hokin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Black coffee and a small piece of fruit.”

Not a glance at the menu or at the pastries heaped in sticky pyramids beneath their beckoning glass domes. Black coffee and a small piece of fruit: it would be his epitaph. He ate the same frugally-constructed breakfast wherever they travelled, no matter that there were always more heart-warming choices. Even this budget hotel half closed-up for winter had its treasures: panettone studded with fruit, bigne alla crema, brioche split and waiting to drip sweet honey and thick yellow butter down greedy fingers. Mary lingered at the counter, lips softly parting.

“Perhaps you should pick something lighter.” His mouth pinched with distaste as he eyed her new layers. Muesli then. The waiter delivered a beige-filled bowl, Mary stuck on a smile. Derek segmented his orange and ignored her. It was only breakfast.

She worked through the dusty layers, steadfastly munching. It wasn’t worth making a fuss about, not here when she was finally in Venice, a place she’d dreamed of for years and never seen. Not that she’d seen many places, not properly. Her small circle of friends were always off on this jaunt or that, city breaks here, cruises there. They are tourists, Mary, not travellers. Try to remember the distinction. That tone, as if Frank and Sue ran round Europe grave-robbing.

The only trips traveller Derek would countenance were dictated by work, were conducted out of season, and were not to be sullied by anything as unsavoury as sightseeing. Mary ploughed on, encouraged by the discovery of an almost-plump raisin. She was in Venice. Even in January’s freezing fog, it was still Venice.

“Will we be visiting San Marco?” She tried not to sound eager. “Surely they must have paintings in there worth seeing?”

His eyebrow flew up, his hand shot out and there it was, thrust between the not-to-be-touched sugar pot and the cream-shorn milk. The List. As much a part of their travels as his pleasure-free breakfasts. She didn’t read it, whatever the city they were always the same: a neatly numbered collection of churches and museums rarely touched by tourist feet and usually for good reason.

“Can’t we reach anywhere you want to go via the Piazza? We could at least walk that way, see the front if not the inside.”

A shrug. I should leave him to his nonsense, go marvel at the Basilica; wander sighing across the bridge. She wouldn’t of course: her venturing out alone was one of the many things he disapproved of. One ill-judged wander away from his moods through a frozen Budapest had taught her that. The afternoon’s peaceful pleasure wasn’t worth the Derek she came back to.

Still, Venice. Mary bundled into her hat and coat and headed for the door determined to snatch what crumbs she could, only to stumble at the first hurdle. Spingi or tira: push or pull. English, Italian, whatever the language the instruction was in, she always called it wrong. A common enough confusion, but his sigh sliced through her.

Outside the world was tipped in ice, the wind damp with fog, its bite tugging at scarves and gloves. She ran into it head down, scurrying to match Derek’s longer strides. The sky was more gunmetal grey than Canaletto blue but there were canals and gondolas, albeit most of them covered, and surely that tall finger of a shadow beckoning her forward was the Campanile?

The deserted Piazza finally reached, she forced him to a stop. The wind was an assault, her eyes too full of tears to make horses out of the dark shapes huddled along the Basilica’s ridges. It wasn’t a disappointment though, how could it be? Such grace, such elegant lines and there, on the other side of the square’s rain-slicked stones and shuffling pigeons: Florian’s. How many pictures of its baroque delights had she devoured? Its red banquettes, its mirrored walls and yards of gold; its thick hot chocolate clouded in cream.

“Perhaps we could …”

But Derek was already striding away, his body’s lean edges honed by the same years that had blurred and rounded hers.

The walking was harder now. They twisted in and out of winter-emptied alleys that had her clinging to her purse, along steep-edged canals whose pungent waters gleamed thick as oil. There was too much weight of history, too many damp and toppling walls.

Mary cursed the winter’s cold and longed for the reassurance of the tourists Derek hated. Her feet ached in new boots that gripped her calves too tightly. She should have gone to the gym not just claimed to, but it was hard to enter its metal-gleaming rooms when the girls who thronged it were so young and so impossibly lithe. When the café down the street was all soft sofas and cinnamon-scented welcomes. One pastry to power the coming workout, that was all she ever intended, but how to stop at one when there were so many luscious choices? And how to face the trainer’s sweaty shouting when the next table offered a new mum with a grinning baby, eager for company, happy to let her play granny for half an hour? Not that she was old enough to be granny, not quite.

Her eyes were streaming again, the city dissolving. Are we nearly there yet? A toddler’s cry but how she longed to use it.

“A few more minutes, keep up.”

Thank God. The command thrown across his shoulder as if she really was a whining child. His description, never hers. Another twist and finally they were on a wider street, the air washed clean and salty with the scent of the ocean. Derek stopped in front of a grubby ivory façade. A church then their destination but why this one, so out of the way, when Venice’s every other building was a church?

“Will you hurry up? It’s only open for another hour. The frescoes here are the key to my next paper.”

His work: some obscure research into the history of pigments and paints. Once the way he described colours and textures had enthralled her, now his pedant’s tone spoiled any canvas he stood her in front of. Poor Mary: she does try, but she’s never learned the difference between pictures and art. A throw-away comment thrown away at too many dinner tables laden with judgement. After a few years of those Mary had stopped asking, stopped looking.

She followed him into the church her face blank, mind drifting. The paintings it sheltered took her breath away. Haloed angels and calm Madonnas; serenely arranged last suppers. Mary wandered spellbound through the nave as Derek’s voice droned.

“This is the one, this is what I came for: The Madonna and Child Enthroned. That shade of orange picked out in the flowers and in her robe, it’s quite remarkable how they did it.”

No. The colour was the colour. What was remarkable was the woman’s eyes, the deep curve of her smile; the way the baby looked up from her knee like he saw heaven in her gleaming face. Mary stumbled, Derek continued his lecture. Such cruelty. To bring her here and show her this and see nothing but pigments and chalks. On and on he went: the techniques, the brush work, the mixing of this and that.

Her throat tightened, her stomach clenched; the air was too thick too swallow. Not yet, dear. It’s come too soon. When I’m established, when I have tenure, when we can do it right. Off to the clinic in a haze of confusion, trusting his certainty that they did the best thing. Next year, things will be more settled. Every year the same refrain. Stop taking the pill, he’ll be fine if it happens. Well-meaning advice from friends she learned not to talk to. If only it had been so easy. Her husband was the last married man wedded to condoms, insisting they were healthier given her nerves and her blood pressure. Funny how easy it is to confuse care and control.

“How long are you going to stand there gawping? I’ve at least three more places to see.”

Mary had forgotten he was there, not the best course of action. She trotted away from the baby without risking a word.

It was darker outside and far colder, the metallic taste of snow in the air. Back they went in to the mess of alleyways cut through with water, the surface so black it drank in the light.

“We could stop for a coffee if you like, a pastry perhaps.”

A sop to her silence. He was good at that, a treat thrown like a life-line just as she sank. One mouthful or two endured and then he would notice a crumb caught in her lipstick, see the bulge at her waist where her belt cut too tight; the frown would come back.

There was no one around. The paths here were crumbling and too narrow, torn ribbons hugging the water. The buildings pressed in on them, shuttered and sightless. Mary scuttled, intent on not slipping, until a splash that rippled on in an echo forced her to stop. She shivered as greasy droplets flew out of the darkness.

“Perhaps it’s a rat, I’ve heard they can be as big as dogs.” Her voice squeaked thin as a whisper.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Derek turned round to peer over the water. It wasn’t much of a movement but his coat, a thick tweed thing almost long enough to touch his ankles, swung like a bell getting ready to chime. It wasn’t much of a movement at all, but the fabric caught against an iron ring set into the cracked cobbles and tipped him off balance. His heavy boots, their tightly wound laces new but their soles sadly old, slipped on the ice. It was the slightest lurch but it danced him to the canal’s sharp edge.

“Mary.”

A question, a command? When she retold the story she was never sure quite how to pitch it. Derek hung in the air oh so briefly, balancing ballerina-like on his toes. He flung out his hand. Mary watched his spidery fingers scrabble in the gloom. Spingi or tira, to push or to pull. A common enough confusion. A moment of stillness and then down he went, tweed and leather and thick rubber soles adding all the weight to his thin body his lips had denied. Down into the darkness without even screaming. That fell to Mary and she waited a while.

Everyone was so kind. The black-bunned woman whose shutters flew open when Mary finally cried out, who took her in and fed her marzipan-scented brandy. The dashing carabiniere who took her, so gently, back to the canal side and sent for sugar-laced coffee to ward off the cold. And the young man from the consul who led her to this hotel that was once a palazzo – “so many rooms vacant off-season, Madame, we really have to insist” – murmuring her story to the staff in just-shocked-enough tones. There were frescoes round the walls here too, filled with cherubs whose fat-bottoms rippled like raspberry ice-cream. Who beamed down at her as the waiter, surely himself just stepped from a Botticelli, presented her a menu which was bound in soft leather and as thick as a book.

“Such a terrible thing, Signora. Can I get you something for you? One of our special hot chocolates perhaps?” Mary nestled into the sofa and let him describe their marshmallow and cream-laden delights.

“Hot chocolate would be lovely.” His smile was syrup-sweet, his eyes were treacle-brown. “It really has been the most difficult day.” Above her head the cherubs winked. “So why don’t you bring me the cake trolley with that.”

Second: Hippo Man

Third: All Roles We Play