Appetite for life

(Or, how a good Italian meal can mend a broken heart.)

We were walking down a medieval, cobbled street that was crammed with so many fascinating shops you didn’t know which way to look next. Helen and Alexa ran from side to side with shrieks of delight every time they saw a boutique featuring clothes by designers whose names they recognised.

My daughter-in-law, Helen, is a size 8 and my daughter, Alexa, a size 10. As long as they forgot about the price tags, all the clothes in the windows were potential purchases for them. But I couldn’t share their excitement as I was realistic enough to accept that none of the garments on display would be going home in my suitcase.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help noticing every food shop we passed. There were some spectacular window displays of bread, cheeses, hams and local specialities such as oddly-shaped, stuffed pasta and enormous cakes. It all looked hearty and substantial and somehow comforting. This was surprising because I hadn’t been eating much recently. In fact, that morning in the hotel had been the first time I had eaten any breakfast for ages. The fresh bread roll with ham and cheese and the orange juice had actually tempted my appetite.

This girlie holiday in Italy had been Helen’s and Alexa’s idea to try to cheer me up. And although I had been reluctant to come at first, I had to admit that it seemed to be working. For a start, I was actually getting up, showering and dressing every day, which I hadn’t been doing at home when left to my own devices.

I had not been going about my day with any purpose ever since the night I had turned my car into the drive of my house and seen Steve loading boxes of his possessions and suitcases full of his clothes into his car.

“It’s not going to be permanent, I just need some space. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you,” he had said and then he’d gone before I could take in exactly what was happening.

He hadn’t given me chance to tell him that I had been made redundant from my job that day. When I had received the news at work that my job was going to be axed it had felt like the end of the world. But after he had driven off leaving me standing alone in the dark and the rain in our driveway, I had started to really understand what the end of the world felt like.

Of course, Steve hadn’t been telling the truth. He had met someone else. That was why he left me and needless to say he didn’t come back. I wondered for a while afterwards why he had lied to me. Was it because he was just trying to let me down gently after 25 years of marriage? Or, was it because he couldn’t bring himself to own up to the fact that he had been having an affair with another woman for ages?

I eventually found out that all the while I had been going through hell at work, when my life was being made uncomfortable but I daren’t complain to anyone because I was scared I might lose my job, he had been seeing someone else. It was a cruel irony that two of the most important things in my life had been taken away from me on the same day.

My daughter, Alexa, my son, Gavin, and his wife, Helen, had been the only people that I had left in the world and they had somehow kept me going. I had tried to put on a brave face for their sakes, to make them think I was coping, but inside I had felt empty and without any hope for the future.

As I stood outside one of the shops while the girls looked round inside I caught sight of my reflection in the window.

It was shapeless and indistinct, almost as though I didn’t really exist any more. All this bright, vibrant life was going on in the street around me and it was as though I wasn’t really there any more.

Alexa came out of the shop and looked at me anxiously. “Do you want to stop for a drink, Mum?” she asked.

We went to sit at a table outside a bar in a beautiful old square and had a glass of wine. While Alexa went to the toilet, Helen put her small, thin hand over mine and said: “For what it’s worth, I think you’ve been incredibly brave. I wouldn’t say this in front of Alexa because she’s bound to want to be loyal to her Dad, but he’s been an idiot. Gavin has said to me more than once that he doesn’t think his Dad will ever find anyone as good as you and that he will regret leaving you one day.”

A few days ago her kind words would have moved me to tears and I knew from experience that once I let them come they were difficult to stop, so I just took a big gulp of wine and started cramming crisps and pretzels into my mouth.

When Alexa came back to the table, Helen said; “Why don’t we have lunch here? They seem to do nice salads.”

But Alexa said: “No, Mum wants to go to see that old chapel before it closes, it’s only just round the corner.”

Soon we were in the pretty, pink and white marble Chiavenasca Chapel looking at the tomb of Isabella Chiavenasca, a 15th century, female Italian poet. I had read about her life in a book I had at home and had mentioned to Alexa that I would like to see the chapel during our trip.

Isabella had been beautiful, rich and talented but had died in childbirth while still a young woman, leaving her devoted husband, Francesco, alone and distraught.

Life had come to an abrupt end for her one day and it hadn’t just been a tragedy for her family but also for the world, which had been denied any more of her wonderful poetry.

“It just shows, you can seem to have the lot and yet still not be able to prevent something like that happening. No one can really know what the future holds for them,” Helen said quietly as she looked at the tomb.

“But childbirth is a lot safer for women these days,” I said quickly, anxious not to put her and Gavin off the idea.

I looked at the pale, lifeless stone figure of Isabella draped across the top of the tomb. Her cheeks, carved out of white marble were rounded and youthful, her hair a riot of curls framing her beautiful, oval shaped face.

“She could have gone on to be the most talented poet of the Renaissance but she died before she had the chance to fulfil her early promise,” I read to the girls from the little travel guide about the area that I was carrying in my handbag.

“Her husband never got over her death and because he was so wealthy he was able to have this beautiful chapel built to house her tomb so that he could visit her every day.”

When we came out into the bright sunshine again I saw that there was a small restaurant opposite the chapel, which was advertising that it served local specialities, so we went over to give it a try.

I chose a pasta dish that I had read about in my travel guide. It was a dish that the city was famous for and it more than lived up to my expectations, taking me only minutes to devour. I followed it with a succulent dish of meat braised in wine served with polenta.

The meat was cooked to perfection and melted in the mouth and again my meal took only a short time to disappear, helped by a few more glasses of the delicious local white wine. Amazingly I found that I could taste and enjoy food again.

I ate better than I had done in ages and when I had finished I sat back in my seat feeling full and contented. Although the restaurant had looked small from the outside I saw that there were doors at one end of the room leading out to a large terrace. While the girls finished their meals, I went outside for some fresh air and to have a moment to myself.

It was like stepping into another world after the interior of the restaurant. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and I was surrounded by pretty, flowering plants and vines. Although it was only early in March you could tell Spring was well on its way in Italy.

I looked out at the beautiful medieval city spread out in front of me with the backdrop of green hills and mountains in the distance. It was such a clear day that you could even see the local airport in the distance with the planes on the runway.

I thought back to Helen’s words about Isabella having everything she could wish for and her whole life in front of her when she suddenly died. I realised that what she had said applied to me too. I had everything I really needed, now I thought about it, and I still had plenty of years of life in front of me. I realised that now, with Steve out of my life, I could go anywhere and do anything, whenever I felt like it. I could get another job, perhaps one that would make me happier than I was before and I could travel, which I had always wanted to do.

I suddenly felt determined not to waste another second thinking about my ex-husband.

At the other end of the terrace, a gardener was pruning the plants. He had thick dark, curly hair and a body like Michelangelo’s David, although it was covered up by jeans and a tee-shirt.

He turned round and when he caught sight of me, he smiled and gave me a friendly wink.


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