It always began the same. The apples would be round and firm, just soft enough so that a thumbprint left a soft mark on the red husk.
Then the knife, smooth and grey like the Napoli bay, hard against the smooth curves that echoed against the wooden board below with a calm thud. Faster, but never too fast, like those gauche chefs on the small box television by the window sill. Until the round flat fair disks lay flat, laced in red skin.
She’d blend them with the market vegetables, chopped the same, tearing oregano and rosemary from the planets above with smooth small nails. Look up at the spices, don’t pull down the belladonna that grows into the window in thick soupy pods. Add, and taste, add and taste, add and taste. A quiet ritual. Something on the radio, the weather, an unfunny comedy with shrill forced laughter, the news. Nothing extraordinary; so and so was filming this in Florence, this politician had screwed that actress, the government were thinking about some plan that would fade into nothingness come spring. Add, and taste. A little of the olive oil, a little bit of the salt. You always salt the pasta first, then the water, you see, or it just absorbs the water. Sieve it, across not up and down. Than makes a mess. Good, you are getting it now, piccolo uno, you will be a great cook one day.
Her mother’s voice was always in her head as she cooked, passing her the black peppercorns and tightening her apron strings, smoothing her fly away hairs and humming to music that no longer played. Oh Mio Babbino Caro was her favourite, sung by Maria something or another- the one with big dark eyes and a nose a little too large for her face. Held the microphone a little too phallically. Her mother loved that song, oh how she’d turn up the radio until it buzzed and send the birds nesting in the roof fluttering away. She’d mouth along in appalling shrill falsetto, as her daughter tried to hide a smile. No one had laughed at Mamma, not out loud, unless they wanted to feel the end of the rolling pin. It was a recipe of taste, of process, of silent wordless passing down. It was a ritual to get out the recipe, covered in every meal since 1950, even if she never looked at it any more. She didn’t need to. It was in her mind, as fragrant and stitched in as her wedding day.
Frank ate in silence with her at the small plastic table, they never talked these days, he didn’t like to see her so drained. Cooking was the one thing she could do without wheezing like an old kettle. They’d given her medication, of course, dubious half red pills and a large ugly inhaler that reminded her of some post modern trumpet. But there wasn’t much left to do. Sometimes she lay in bed listening to Frank’s easy breathing and wonder if she’d wake up. Or maybe she’d wake up to realise she couldn’t breathe.
The thought frightened her. So she didn’t dwell on it. Cooking was normal, mundane, healthy, and she found comfort there. She’d apply rouge and fasten her hair, wear her pinny starched white like the women of the olden times. And she’d smile, perform, placing his favourite food on the table, hiding her shrinking frame behind a wash cloth to keep the illusion of normality alive. Frank was a quiet man of no false sentiment, but there was magic in that recipe and she knew it. His eyes would light up, and he’d glimpse up at her, quickly laying his rough well-loved paw over her small bony fingers. They wouldn’t speak, but he didn’t need to. He loved her, still, for all the sadness and waiting for black ties and suits.
She’d die a few months later, by then, too ill to cook. She retreated to the old blue print bedroom between soft linen covers, no energy left to clear her lungs of whatever it was that lurked there. Frank would be kind, patient, silent. He’d held her hand, brought her water and badly made soup. The clucking hens of floor 3 brought up sweetmeats she had no appetite for, and he’d accept them in his gruff manner before asking her softly if she cared for one. She never did, but she appreciated his gesture. Then one grey day, it got worse, and three days later, she just slept. She’d wake to hold his hand, and drift off. That’s how she went, peaceful, barely 43 but content in what she had done.
As she slipped away quietly behind blurred eyelashes, she wondered which of the hens would marry Frank. It didn’t bother her, she wouldn’t be here, and he’d hardly do it for love for so much as a meal on the table. As long as this woman made him happy, on her mother’s soul, she wished them well. Perhaps Victoria, with her fiery auburn hair, but then again Frank despised large women. Not Guilia, she had eyes like a musk trout and sniffed into her handkerchief when she felt awkward. Nor Rosalba, too tall. Bella, yes. It would be Bella Manzoni. She was the only one as quiet as Frank. The birds in the roof were twittering away, the radio must be on again- they really needed to fix the roof before the damp got in the walls and it all collapsed-
Two years later, she was proved right about Bella. Bella wasn’t pretty by any means, a rail like woman of her late thirties, with black wiry hair pulled up in a bun and a bulbous nose that sat in an ugly fashion between two very close thick eyebrows. But she was of a good family of solicitors, dressed demurely and always spoke exactly as she was needed to, never a word more. The other hens of the apartment block viewed her with a slightly fearful respect and unease. She was a little suspicious, somehow, in her lack of opinions and seclusion on the top floor. She’d been married once, to an officer, much older than her, and he’d died of heart failure a decade ago.
She’d lived opposite Frank Miller for that long since, eyeing him up with her soft green eyes and demurely touching his arm to wait for the lift up. He’d never noticed, nor had his wife. She was much too well thought of for those sort of games. Her first husband would have been 64 on her wedding day. She wore grey, not white, as was the done thing, a neat suit with a small white bouquet of roses and lilies. Roses for love, lilies for remembrance of the love before. Both seemed some cruel oxymoron placed together in her gloved hands, sterilised and controlled, away from her touch, her soul.
Frank had asked her to marry him in a muttered fashion in the doorway after a rather poor performance at the theatre, and she’d agreed demurely. It was the right thing to do. They both needed company. He was still a handsome man, mid fifties, slim but solid, respectable in his business. She was an intelligent respectable woman, respectably widowed. It was the natural move to make.
Unlike his first wife, Bella was not a magician of the cooking pan. She followed her predecessor’s books desperately, perfectly, measuring everything and every slice to the letter, every spice and salt to the corner of the spoon, but it tasted ash like, emotionless, dead in their mouths. As the marriage rolled on, the inadequacy of her cooking began to irritate her. Nothing else would rouse him, not a smile, not a lustful kiss on the neck. She’d only seen the light come on under Signora Miller’s own cooking. She needed to break the spell, wake him up, find the open sesame in the rough torn pages of that witch’s book.
She decided upon a casserole. It took all week, waking up at 2 in the morning to be the first at the market for the reddest apples, working all day at the perfect technique of the cutting and grating, seasoning for hours in empty pots until she knew how to find the exact concentration. She performed it not as an art, but as a chemist, a perfumer, dissecting every element, hungry for the secret for success. Eventually she got it, late on a Thursday night as the rain-clouds breezed in on thunder over the bay. She served it triumphantly before him, with a flair of her dishcloth. He didn’t look up from the newspaper. She coughed, annoyed. He looked up at her with confused, blue eyes.
“Oh, not tonight dear. Perhaps you could just get some bread and cheese. I think it’s best if you don’t cook any more, you are looking so tired.”
She froze, trying to untangle his words.
“I’ve asked Señorita Basquez, to come in from now on. She’s a wonderful cook. You’ll be impressed with her dumplings.”
For the first time in a decade, Bella Manzoni-Miller felt her throat tighten with rage. It was something so silly, so trivial, but her rejection after all her hard work seemed not the dismissal of her cookery, but the dismissal of her very purpose in the marriage. Damn him. She’d show him. He’d never love her, he saw her as a failure, a dumb stupid plain failure who couldn’t arouse anything in him, or hell, even make a casserole. Well, she wasn’t his servant, here to wait on him and please him.
She shoved the bread on a plate, ripping an ugly mound of cheese off the wheel at the top of the larder. Then something caught her eye. Belladonna, growing up in wild clumps from the pot below, snaking past the apples she’d left to harden in the cold. She pulled the berries off angrily, squeezing their juices over the bread until it sank away, stinging at her hands. Shaking with adrenaline, she entered the room, placing the bread and cheese next to her unassuming husband. He thought her cooking was poison? She’d give him poison all right. Same as before, heart attack, stress, old age. Such a sad accident.
Smirking, she sauntered back to the window in the kitchen. The radio crackled away, some dumb old opera song. She couldn’t make out the words. Oh meo something. Maria Callas, was that the name of the singer? Her nose was too big for her face. She listened, allowing her breathing to settled, leaning out against the smooth grey Napoli sky and soft, crumbling brick. It was cool, almost ice like. The room was too cold, suddenly. The scent had long cleared of the casserole but somehow it was overbearing, choking, intoxicating, thick like smoke. Perhaps she was imagining it, but something tugged hard against the back of her apron strings, sending her jolting to her palms on the window sill, unable to breathe.
Somewhere, a woman was laughing, louder and louder over the radio. Something moved beneath her palm, and she felt the window sill fall forwards with wet bricks. She fell, screaming, forwards, down through the belladonna and shower of red apples. The radio fizzed to a stop, sharply. Frank stood up in shock, abandoning his food. The wall and the second Señora Miller had vanished into the rumbling grey sky and down to the tarmac underworld below.
In the roof above, the birds sang.