The Lemon Grove by Maria Clark

Photo by Steve Doig on Unsplash

Bruschetta aglio, due insalata capresa, pizza marinara.

That’s the last table.

Tourists, definitely. You’d never get hair that messy on un’italiana. A mother and two daughters, playing it safe.

The restaurant is full, but the queue keeps extending, sliding around the corner and along la terrazza to the bit where the tourists take selfies with the bay.

I love it when that happens. Sometimes it’s difficult not to just stop and watch them: the parents fidgeting, checking their watches to catch the last train; the children, eyes wide, mouths open, as they stare at the diners twirling spaghetti and tagliatelle around their forks.

It never seems to occur to them that there are a thousand other restaurants they could go to. They reach the main square, see Marco’s red and white tablecloths, and decide that it’s the one, and the only, restaurant in town.

Not that Marco’s complaining, of course. He pays one of the highest rents to be on the edge of the square, and has to make profit somehow.

And the tips for me are fantastico, of course.

Bruschetta aglio, due insalata capresa, pizza marinara.

Table 6 is finished, except for one elderly man raising a shaking hand to his mouth and spraying breadcrumbs across the table. Mariana’s on tablecloth duty today. With the man who knocked over his red wine this afternoon and the child who broke a brand-new snow globe in the corner, I don’t envy her.

I’m on plates.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is worse: taking the dishes from the kitchen – the cheese of the pizzas gently steaming, the oil on the focaccia still bubbling from where Francesca took it out of the oven just on time – and watching the diners eat them, or taking half-finished meals back, knowing we can’t have them.

When Marco’s not looking, of course, Francesca likes to sample the pizza, testing the crunch of the crust and the softness of the mozzarella. Mariana loves the little pots of savoury crisps and nuts, left on the table before the antipasti, and her fingers dart in and out of those bowls even quicker than the tip jar. And me? There’s nothing better than a piece of bread, still warm, still soft, swirled through pomodoro sauce.

“Gabriel! Sei nelle nuvole! Table 7, per favore!”

Marco’s head whips around inside the restaurant, his hands flapping towards where I’m standing on the terrace. He pretends that a full restaurant gives him enough stress to last a lifetime, but he definitely enjoys it. Before I can even nod, he’s gone, clutching two jugs of water.

Bruschetta aglio, due insalata capresa, pizza marinara.

Table 7 is Signora Romani. It’s right in the corner, tucked in with the best view of the sea, and you’d think that Marco would reserve it for the richest customers. Sfortunamente, not.

Signora Romani comes every Friday evening with a different man. She’s not young – her hair is the colour of the seagulls perching on the edge of the terrace – but her eyes still contain the fire of youth, and it’s impossible to resist her smile.

When she comes in – sweeping through the maze of tables, clutching her polished cane – it’s hard not to laugh at the indignant expressions of the people in the queue outside. Her, and not us?

If they take anything back from Italia, it’s that tradition comes before everything else.

I bow before Signora Romani and her companion – he’s quite young today, not as young as me, but maybe only a year older – and she tilts her head so I can kiss her cheek. The scent of her powdered skin mingles with the vanilla from the candle on the table, and the hint of the lemons from the grove behind the restaurant.

“Gabriel, caro, the stars are bright tonight, no?”

I fill up her water glass. “Nothing shines brighter than you, signora.”

Her friend glares at me. That must have been one of his lines.

Bruschetta aglio, due insalata capresa, pizza marinara.

Marco doesn’t allow us to use notepads for the orders. I’ve told him that some restaurants even have iPads now, but he just looks at me with that expression of complete bewilderment. Why did I employ a boy? His eyes say. A year at l’universita di Roma and he thinks he’s the boss.

He has to admit that he’d be lost without me, though. The day I came back for the summer, he was waiting at my house, eating mamma’s biscotti.

Luckily, Signora Romani always orders the same. Prosciutto e melon, scallopina di vitello al limone, three glasses of Aglianico and a limoncello to finish.

Her friend goes for pizza margherita.

English, obviously.

I take the orders to the till, and slide the receipts into the kitchen. Francesca pauses, rubbing her wedding ring, and reads them.

“Romani?”

“Always, signora.”

The kitchen smells of fresh basil, chopped tomatoes, chicken. Francesca turns from the receipts to her pizza base, her forearms sprinkled with flour.

“Tell mi marito stupido that we’re running out of prosciutto,” she says, and then scans the wall of bottles behind her. “And limoncello.”

“I’ll get it,” I say, trying to keep my voice calm.

Francesca gives me a hard look. “No dawdling. I know how much you like it there.”

I clasp my hands together and slip past her, going through the back door to the edge of the terrace. There are three two-people tables wedged down here: one couple hold hands over the candle; the other, clearly bored, sit in silence, staring at the darkening sea.

Francesca knows me too well. The limoncello is kept in my favourite place in the whole world – the one place I would happily hang up my apron, settle beneath the trees and watch the stars for eternity.

The lemon grove.

For a country that prides itself on lemons, we only have three groves in the town. One is perched high above the cliff road, the tree roots sprawling over the brick wall. The other is a private residence, and you can only glimpse it from the right side of the house, the lemons flashing like orbs of light.

Marco’s lemon grove is the best place in the world.

I slip through the small, black gate – no greater security needed – and the perfumed air greets me. The breeze stirs my hair, the leaves whispering, shadows dancing. From the branches, the lemons hang: plump, soft, glowing gently in the twilight.

The limoncello reserves are kept in the cellar in the corner. As I pass through the rows, I step over the lattice shadows, etched onto the floor in the fading light. The air is thick with citrus, sharp and tangy. Gone is the madness of the restaurant and the hot, bustling crowds needing my attention. There’s no such thing as heaven on earth, my grandmother used to say.

Mio Dio, she was wrong.

It’s just me and the grove, soothed by the whisper of the sea.

Then I see her.

She stands on the edge of the terrace, arms draped over the black railing. They’re long, and thin, sharp angles jutting against the light. Her body is like a strand of seaweed: elongated, moving in the breeze.

In other words, she’s hot.

She mustn’t have heard my footsteps, as she hasn’t turned around. Her head is tilted slightly, gazing at the horizon, and I can see one large eye and a spatter of freckles, hidden behind a wave of blonde.

Mamma mia.

I feel heat rising within me. Has she seen me?

I duck behind one of the poles supporting the lemon trees. I’d better not hide for too long, otherwise Marco will miss me…

Marco. Marco’s grove.

Who is this girl, and what is she doing here?

As if she can hear my thoughts, she turns around, leaning her elbows on the railing, and tilts her head to look at the stars.

How did she even get in? The gate, certo, but why? Everybody knows this is private property. If Francesca knew, she’d be out wielding a pizza cutter quicker than you could say uffa.

The shadows from her jaw drape across her neck like a silken scarf. I press my hand to my heart, feeling it pounding.

She’s the most bellisima girl I’ve ever seen.

Her eyes stare at the stars as if she’s reading their story. Signora Romani was right: it’s a beautiful night, and even more beautiful with the angel standing in front of me.

I open my mouth to speak, but no words emerge. I hear a soft melody, and see that she’s humming, making the hairs rise on my arms.

Why is she here? Nobody is supposed to be in the lemon grove. I’m not even supposed to be here, per l’amor di Dio!

She looks down, almost straight at me. I’m hidden in the shadows, but the pressure of her gaze pounds my skin.

She takes a step forward. Her skirt, long and flowing, ruffles in the breeze.

I don’t want her to go. Not now that I’ve seen her.

Bruschetta aglio, due insalata capresa, pizza marinara.

There’s a clatter of plates from the kitchen. I think about the dishes piling on the side, waiting to be transported to their eager devourers. But I can’t make myself move, no matter how much the guilt is seeping into soul.

Marco will kill me.

The girl is so close now that I can smell her perfume. It’s gentle and mellow, and rubs against the citrus scent like two harmonies blending into one piece of music.

Her hand stretches out. For a moment I think she’s going to grab me, pull me out, demand why I’m spying on her – though only dio knows if any man could resist doing the same thing – but her fingers slip past, into the darkness of the tree. There’s the snap of a branch and I see the lemon, balancing perfectly in the centre of her palm.

Is she stealing? These lemons are for Marco only, and for the restaurant. The limoncello is made from these lemons. We have to wait until they’re perfectly ripe, ready to be transformed, sharpness distilled into shot glasses.

She cups both hands around it, smiling.

I want to say something, but I can’t. I’m so transfixed that I can’t even pull my hands away from the wooden pole, even though splinters are digging into my skin.

There’s a bag on her shoulder. I didn’t see it before, but it’s just the right kind of bag for her to have: medium-size, patchwork, with all the colours of the rainbow.

Maybe she’s getting out her phone. Maybe I can get her number.

Magari!

She draws out an object: long, thin, glinting in the darkness.

A knife.

I’m cold, as if I’d just dived into the night sea. A knife?

She walks back to the terrace, raising it in the moonlight. I have the feeling something bad is going to happen, that she’s going to do something awful, that she’s going to tumble over the rail and fall into the waters below.

There’s a flash of light and a soft whistle as the blade moves through the air. I close my eyes.

Silence. The breeze in the lemon grove caresses my arms and I shiver.

I open my eyes one at a time, squinting as if seeing half of a scene could make it any less awful, and the first thing I see is the lemon. Perfectly quartered, lying in her palm.

She picks a piece and raises it to her mouth. I want to tell her that they’re not quite ready, that the sharpness could make her brain explode, but her lips open and her teeth bite into the fleshy innards. I wait for her face to change – a wince, a grimace, a look of shock and pain tearing across her skin – but her eyes are closed, her face content.

When she’s finished the first piece, having bitten out all the flesh with sharp, small teeth, almost like a vixen, she tosses the peel over the edge. I strain my ears to hear the splash, but there is nothing.

It’s as if she’s taken her knife and carved out a part of my soul. Something’s gaping, flapping in the breeze. The air is somehow sharper, the trees stronger and darker, but there’s a hole in me.

Bruschetta aglio, due insalata capresa, pizza marinara.

The orders echo in my ears. They sound clumsy, out of place, but more persistent than before.

I move toward the gate, staying within the shadows. Francesca is banging about the kitchen, no doubt furious.

The limoncello will have to wait.

I turn back to look at the girl again. She’s almost a shadow now, a dark silhouette against the sea. I watch her hand move once more, fingers sharp against the indigo.

She raises the lemon to the sky, toasting the stars.

About The Author

Maria is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, where she has an excuse to write every day! Having found some success in writing competitions, she dreams of becoming a full-time writer and travelling the world. Away from her desk, she loves singing, exploring new places and spending time with friends and family.

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