Welcome to my Free Short Story. I’ll be putting a new one up every month so be sure not to miss it.
Here’s the story for January 2022:
Dinner for Three
“My mother wants to meet you,” Rick said and my past life flashed before my eyes.
I looked at my swashbuckling hero, his dark hair curling on the collar of his pristine white shirt, his eyes blue as cornflowers in a summer meadow. “Why?” I asked, seeing my dreams turning into nightmares.
“I just think it’s about time you met her,” he cajoled, enveloping me in the persuasive warmth of his embrace.
Dinner for two in our favourite Vietnamese restaurant had become the highlight of my week, and Rick my reason for living. I’d never tried Vietnamese food before I met him, but Rick loved it so I learned to love it too. He enjoyed classical music, visiting old houses and foreign holidays so they became my favourite things. Everything he loved I loved. Like bread and jam we were better together than apart.
Six months ago he came into my world like a tornado crossing the desert, picking up everything in its path, swirling it around, then dropping it back to earth. He was a photographer and a free spirit, capturing him was like catching a jewel-bright, tropical bird. I thought I’d won the lottery.
Now he wanted to include his mother.
My ex-boyfriend, John, had a mother. I remember the first time I met her. I was a wide-eyed innocent in love, she welcomed me like a five-year-old welcomes a dose of chicken-pox.
“Mother, this is Claire,” John said.
I felt the chill as her gaze rose and fell, yo-yoing over me, like I was fungus growing on a piece of cheese. Not so much a chill, more like a blast from the Arctic. Still, he had chosen me and we were happy and so in love that nothing else mattered. We were closer than two coats of paint on a wall, nothing could come between us, or so I thought.
I hardly noticed it at first, it happened so gradually, like the green slime that creeps across crystal water. “Mother thinks this,” and “Mother thinks that.” I soon found that Mother had an opinion on everything, an opinion that she was more than willing to share.
I heaved a heavy sigh at the memory. “What’s she like, your mother?” I asked Rick as we snuggled up together on the sofa, resolving to reserve judgement until I knew more about her.
“She’s wonderful,” he said. “You’ll love her, and she’ll adore you.” He kissed my nose.
Wonderful! John thought his mother was wonderful but she frowned on everything I did. She didn’t like my clothes, said I wore too much make-up, commented on the shops I used and the food I cooked. She even questioned my choice of washing powder.
I found it unnerving. I began to wonder what she’d think before I could do anything. I couldn’t even buy a lipstick without speculating about her opinion.
Fearful of finding myself in a similar situation, I decided to check Rick’s mother out. I looked her up on the internet. She appeared in several glossy magazines. In her photos, exquisitely styled grey hair framed an ageless face that radiated serenity. She had an ethereal quality about her. Seeing her picture doubled my gut-wrenching insecurity. An American socialite, she’d married an Italian Count. How could I, a humble copywriter working for a small press magazine, compete with that?
“Let’s invite her to dinner,” Rick said.
“Why don’t we take her to a restaurant?” I suggested.
“Mother eats in restaurants all the time,” he said. “A home cooked meal would be a real treat and make her feel welcome.”
There was no escape. My heart sank faster than a rock in quicksand. I groaned. “What sort of food does she like?” I asked, determined to make an effort.
“She’s lived in Italy, she loves Italian food,” he said. “Do one your fabulous pasta dishes, she’ll adore it.”
My heart sank even further. My fabulous pasta meals were rustled up from ready-made sauces courtesy of our local Italian deli. Easy to please someone like Rick, who’d happily live off Chinese take-a-ways, but a sophisticated woman of the world? That was a different matter.
I worried about it for days, wandering round, looking at recipe books. I took a trip into town to peruse the aisles in Harrods Food Hall and Fortnum & Masons. I thought about contacting one of those expensive catering firms that advertise in the glossies but my budget wouldn’t stretch to it. I canvassed my friends for ideas. They just laughed. “It’s you she’s coming to meet, not Marco Pierre White,” they said.
In the library I found an Italian cookery book thicker than an encyclopaedia. I might as well have borrowed a book on nuclear physics.
In desperation I went to our local Italian deli to see Rosa. She ran the deli and if anyone could produce a meal to compare to something you’d get in a five star hotel she could. She’d been like a mother to me since I moved into my flat, feeding me up and keeping me cheerful. I knew she’d be able to help out.
“Is Rosa about?” I asked Georgio, her son who stood behind the counter looking every inch the Italian Stallion that he was.
“Mamma Rosa? No, she’s in Italy visiting family. But I can help, yes?”
My heart took another tumble. The heavy stone in my stomach rolled over. “Well,” I said. “It’s a bit difficult you see. Rick’s mother is coming to dinner on Saturday and I have to produce a fantastic meal for her. I was hoping Rosa could help.” Tears sprang to my eyes. Without Rosa’s help I knew the meal would be a disaster. My heart buckled at the thought of Rick’s disappointment.
“No problem,” Georgio said, his face lighting up as if a bulb had been switched on. “I will cook for you. Leave it to me, piccolina, I will prepare a feast fit for the Queen herself. It will be magnifico.” He touched the tips of his fingers to his lips and sent a kiss spiralling into the air.
“I do hope so,” I said, but didn’t hold out much hope. Doubt nibbled my stomach like a piranha.
By five-thirty on Saturday my tiny flat sparkled. Not one speck of dust remained. I set the table with a white linen cloth, borrowed from Georgio, and my best glasses and cutlery. Pink roses overflowed the crystal vase I’d dug out from the cupboard under the sink and scented candles wafted yang-yang and jasmine into the air.
Only the kitchen showed any signs of chaos. Haphazardly placed jars of herbs and spices spilled out alongside a liberal sprinkling of flour on the worktop. I propped the heavy library book open at the page for pasta sauce and left it in a prominent position, hoping that the carefully assembled disarray I’d created would convince my guest that I’d spent hours in culinary preparation. Saucepans stood ready for the pasta and pasta sauce.
Then I made a huge bowl of crisp green salad and a tomato and onion salad together with my special recipe dressing. It had a tang of lemon that reminded me of an idyllic holiday spent in sunny Sorrento. I hummed as I worked and even threw a couple of flour bespattered bowls into the sink and left the gouged out lemon peel in plain sight, along with the juice extractor, for good measure.
At six o’clock I was in Bertelli’s Delicatessen picking up the meal we would eat that night.
“Antipasto,” Georgio said. “Parma ham, salami, pepperoni. Serve at room temperature. Do not put it in the fridge. Si?”
“Si,” I repeated, feeling like a first year student talking to the headmaster.
“Tortellini. Into boiling water – three minutes only, add a dash of olive oil. Capisce?”
“Pasta sauce. Simmer gently, like a lover’s caress. Do not boil!” He glared at me as if boiling his sauce would bring an end to all things good in his life.
“No boiling,” I said.
“Parmesan – slivers, not grated. Fine curls of cheese and a little black pepper. Nothing else.”
“Then tiramisu, the crowning glory. She will fall at your feet when she tastes this. Be prepared.”
I giggled. “I’m ready,” I said.
“What wine you serving?” He looked at me, his eyebrows knitted into a frown.
I shrugged. “I’ve got red or white.”
He gasped and slapped his forehead. “Chianti,” he said handing me several bottles.
“Chianti,” I said.
“Fine. Now go. And if this doesn’t work out I will come marry you myself.”
I laughed. “I may have to hold you to that,” I replied backing out of the door with my purchases.
On the drive home doubts began to set in. Who was I trying to kid? His mother ate in the most expensive restaurants in the world and here I was offering her tortellini in a heated up sauce. Not even Rosa’s heated up sauce. I didn’t know if Georgio could cook, I hadn’t asked. He was good looking and had the sort of sex-appeal that should be restricted to small doses, surely it was too much to hope for that he could cook as well. A leaden weight settled in my stomach and tears filled my eyes. My dream of life with Rick was slipping away faster than an eel released into the sea. It was going to be a disaster. My face burned at the thought of the humiliation I would suffer at the hands of Rick’s mother and the hurt in his face when my deception was exposed. There was nothing I could about it so I took a deep breath and ploughed on.
By the time Rick arrived with his mother at seven-thirty I had slipped into the slinky midnight-blue dress I’d bought specially. It had silver trimmings and I hoped that I looked so amazing no-one would notice the food.
“Mother, this is Claire. Claire, meet my mother Sophia.”
“Sophia,” I said. I almost curtsied. She was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Even more glamorous than I had imagined, but I did see a twinkle in her grey-blue eyes.
“Charming,” she said. “I’m so delighted to meet you.”
I took her soft cashmere wrap and lead her into my cosy living room. It suddenly looked shabby and dull in her presence. Rick poured aperitifs while I disappeared into the kitchen, wishing I could disappear into the wall.
All through dinner butterflies ricocheted around my insides. I could hardly eat anything myself but Sophia was as gracious as she was beautiful. I could see where Rick got his impeccable manners. She complimented me on the antipasto. “Delicious and so refreshing,” she said. When she tasted the pasta sauce, she said “Hmm. Oregano, basil and… is that a touch of anchovy paste?”
I didn’t have a clue so I nodded, stuffing a bread roll into my mouth, my face as crimson as the Chianti.
“It’s lovely,” she said. “I can taste the sunshine of Italy melting on my tongue.”
After the tiramisu she said, “Rickardo, you should marry this girl, she cooks like an angel.”
He smiled. “I intend to,” he said. “If she’ll have me. You will, won’t you Claire, marry me that is?”
Of course I said yes.
After the champagne that Rick produced to celebrate, Sophia helped me clear the dishes.
In the kitchen she said, “You have great taste. Bertelli’s Deli make the best pasta sauce outside of Italy. I never could see the sense in cooking when someone else does it so much better.” Then she winked at me.
She must have seen the shocked look on my face. She laughed. “I saw the Bertelli bag as I came in,” she said. “I never shop anywhere else when I’m in town.”
That’s when I knew I had made a friend for life.
If you enjoyed this story there are many more in my Short Story Collections here.