Her Pink Rose Teacup

Steve was just another in a long line of men. But he was kinder somehow. So Gemma married him. She felt nothing on their wedding day and just went through the motions. Steve could have been anybody, really. He was simply the first to propose.

Gemma had been to the library that afternoon, straight after work. She knew Raymond would be there.

“I kept this aside for you,” Raymond smiled over the counter.

It was a book about living in Italy; Gemma had told him only last week she’d had a dream to return there. She accepted the book without really looking at it. Instead, she looked at Raymond.

* * *

Washing the dishes back at home, Gemma handed her favourite pink rose teacup to Steve, who wiped it methodically. She stared out the window. The sea was in darkness.

“Such a pretty cup,” said Gemma. “I’ve always loved it.”

“I remember when I bought it for you. I knew you had a special spot for it,” winked Steve.

A final dinner plate and the sink emptied noisily. Gemma sat at the kitchen table and watched Steve as he put the dishes away. His reliable tidiness, the clink of plate upon plate.

Steve turned to find her eyes on him and responded with a bow and a dramatic flourish of the tea towel. He folded it perfectly in half and hung it inside the cupboard. Gemma considered his big teeth grin. How could she tell him?

That night, when Steve was asleep, she printed her ticket.

Gemma’s mother had always told her that a good man was hard to find, and only the most beautiful women could catch one. Gemma knew she wasn’t beautiful; her mum had made sure of that. But even though her mother had been gone for five years now, Gemma still needed her. She needed her approval and advice, however skewed.

Most of Gemma’s twenties were spent avoiding men, or trawling with a net so wide she was destined to catch creatures she was never meant to catch. So when she hit thirty and Steve got snagged in her net, she didn’t throw him back. She held onto him; he was a wonderful man. Probably not meant for her.

Gemma put the ticket in her handbag. She pictured Raymond in his corduroy jacket. He was a would-be writer working in a library. Okay. So he was a cliché. But there was a definite spark between them—just another thing she didn’t want to start. She would leave him behind. Twisted in her net.

* * *

Guilt rose through Gemma when Steve kissed her goodbye that final morning. He had no idea she would not be there for dinner. There would be no meal waiting for him. It would be their tenth anniversary the next day, and she’d be gone.

A note for Steve waited blankly on the kitchen table. Gemma imagined him coming home from work, sneaking in his special bag of ingredients, only to find it waiting for him. There’d be none of his night time escapades to make their anniversary cake. No tiptoeing to the kitchen while she was asleep. No pink rose teacup waiting for her in the morning. She’d never told him the scent of his rich, chocolatey baking had woken her every year.

Gemma sipped from her pink rose teacup. She felt sick; she hadn’t expected that. Then she sobbed, hard and desperate. Almost choking. She was fed up with Steve and their stupid cabin. He was never going to fix it. It was damp and the paint outside was peeling. It was no longer a romantic notion to live with him by the sea.

She was sick of everything. Her life, her job. She wasn’t a teacher, she was a babysitter—a surrogate parent, raising kids for people who shouldn’t have had them in the first place. She was over her friends—if that’s what you could call them. They just wanted her to fit in, have husbands and babies just like them.

Gemma got on her flight and headed off into the sky. As she leaned back in her seat and looked out to the blur of civilisation below, the world seemed tiny to her. She was glad she was alone, away from Raymond—she’d made enough mistakes. She collapsed into the darkness of the plane and cried hot, quiet tears until nothing was left of her. She didn’t exist, and that was how she liked it. She knew no one; that’s how she liked it, too.

* * *

By the time Gemma arrived in Florence, she was a wreck. Her hotel looked as dated as it had on the internet, but it was clean and affordable. She took a shower; it was a tiny cubicle with a small step in it—a kind of seat. Gemma slumped, knees bent, with the water scalding her skin, her feet wrinkling in the small, rising pool. She’d never really been alone before. She was not sure if she could do it, always moving from one man disaster to the next. There was barely a breath between them… sometimes no air at all.

That night, Gemma walked the Piazza del Duomo. It was crowded and the heavy beauty of Florence was more lovely than she remembered. Il Duomo Di Firenze, the huge gothic cathedral, stood in the centre of the piazza like an enormous white wedding cake, its intricate panels trimmed in pale green, pink and gold.

Gemma remembered coming here with her best friend, Fran. They’d been so excited about their first overseas trip, they thought they’d come back to live in Florence one day. Marry sexy Italian men, grow grapes—make fine Italian wine. Fran would have been forty-two this month.

After a consoling pasta, eaten standing up at a rustic take-away, and a free wine in a plastic cup, Gemma made her way back to her hotel. It was wonderful to hear snippets of Italian from passers-by. But there was no talking for her. No explaining. No pretending. And no bumping into anyone. Only a hungry street cat or two—

A memory of Steve suddenly intruded. Their holiday to Queensland. The stray cat on the mat outside their hotel room. Steve had picked up the sickly, skinny thing, cleaned it up and fed it till it nearly burst. Mat Cat, Steve had called him. By the time they left, Mat Cat had recovered and the hotel owner decided to keep him.

Gemma checked her emails. Mostly junk. And one from Steve. She could not bear to read it. Not on her first day here. She created a new folder; everything from Steve’s email address would automatically go there. That way, she wouldn’t have to face him.

After three weeks in Florence, Gemma visited the Basilica di Santa Croce, the burial place of such eminent Italians as Michelangelo, Galileo and Rossini.She and Fran had studied them in school and it had been a thrill for them to visit their tombs.

Walking through the church alone now, headphones on, the story of Michelangelo’s nephew secretly transporting Michelangelo’s body from Rome to Florence penetrated Gemma’s ears. She stopped before his tomb and felt the ice cold of marble all around her. The excitement that she and Fran had felt here, their love of history and its stories, suddenly escaped her. It felt quiet now. Impersonal. Michelangelo lay close, but he was gone. Like Fran.

By next evening, Gemma was in Venice. She ate dinner alone, as usual. But this time she chose a romantic restaurant. It was by the Grand Canal and, even though it was still light, candles flickered gently on each table. For a treat, she ordered the Risotto al nero di seppia, a seafood risotto. It was thick and jet-black, courtesy of a squid and its ink. It was delicious.

Gemma surveyed the couples at each table and wondered if she could ever be like them. Even the odd ones looked beautiful to her. Happy. She imagined how they met and fell in love. She’d never really been in love. She had loved Fran, more than anyone. She’d chosen her as her best friend and Fran had never let her down. Gemma hadn’t chosen anyone else in her life. Not even Steve.

After two full weeks in Venice, Gemma finally caved in and paid the extortionate fee for a gondola ride. In preparation, she purchased a cup of the darkest-of-dark chocolate gelato. She scooped a taste and the heavenly weight of cacao filled her mouth. The flavour was so intense, she thought she’d never need a man again!

Giovanni, the gondolier, in his red-and-white striped shirt and straw hat, was a handsome Italian, who (of course) called her bella several times. He took Gemma’s hand to help her on board, swathed her in a soft blanket and glided her away between the damp stone walls of the narrow canals.

Giovanni manoeuvred the gondola past pretty boats and under balconies bursting with bright red geraniums. They drifted by beautiful old buildings, their entrance steps completely submerged. Terracotta, egg yellow, and musk pink façades gave way to the elements, leaving paint peeling and handsome brick exposed.

“Okay, bella? Cold?” Giovanni enquired, looking back at Gemma.

Gemma nodded, smiled. She pulled the blanket around herself, grateful for its cosy reassurance. She was glad for Giovanni’s company. But for the first time since leaving, she felt completely alone.

Gemma stared down at her gelato. It had melted into a delicious, oozing pool. She stirred it slowly into a thickshake consistency and tasted a dripping scoop; she’d always loved eating gelato this way. She swirled its luxury around her tongue. Then stopped.

An abrupt tear spilled down her cheek… The gelato. It had the same rich, chocolatey flavour as Steve’s special anniversary cake. The one he had made for her every year since they met, its muddy texture concealed in layers of thick, dark chocolate. She suddenly missed Steve so badly, his big teeth grin and his secret midnight baking—even the way he always folded their tea towels perfectly in half.

The liquefied gelato sat in Gemma’s mouth. She thought of Steve going to bed without her, his plastic bag of ingredients hidden somewhere in the house. She wondered if he’d still woken in the night to make an anniversary cake for her. Or if he’d set out her pink rose teacup and saucer, like he’d always done.

Water passed by ancient doorways. Life was passing. More swiftly than Gemma had ever imagined possible. Mascara ran down her face.

“Alright, bella?” asked Giovanni.

“I’m okay,” she sniffed. “I just miss my husband.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” comforted Giovanni.

Gemma didn’t dare tell Giovanni that her husband was alive and well. Somehow, away from Steve, her love for him had grown without her consent. Or perhaps it had been growing quietly all along, like an arranged marriage, where love sometimes grows from the beginnings of nothing.

Back in her hotel room, Gemma’s hand trembled over her computer. She opened Steve’s folder; she hadn’t touched it since arriving in Italy. Her entire screen filled with messages. Thirty-eight. One for each day she’d been gone.

* * *

Gemma arrived at the old beach cabin, its paint still barely hanging on. The sea mist felt soft on her skin, familiar. A butcherbird called out from between the paperbarks; it was a sad flute-like call that reminded her of her mother. Gemma unlocked the door and brought her suitcase inside. Steve would not be home till late. Gemma hadn’t wanted to meet him at the airport; she didn’t want an emotional scene.

When Gemma walked into the kitchen, her favourite teacup was waiting for her, a fresh slice of Steve’s chocolate anniversary cake on a matching plate beside it. Gemma immediately devoured several mouthfuls—Steve’s cake was as thick and rich and good as always—and as she waited on her pot of tea, she consulted the fridge for a second slice.

Gemma stood by the kitchen window and sipped soothing heat from her pink rose teacup. The last of the sun beamed through. The beach was empty. Only a dog and its owner in the distance. Gemma watched as the dog chased a stick into the sea—just seeing it brave the waves was enough.

She was glad to be home. She loved Steve. And she couldn’t wait to see him.

Lisa Reily is a former literacy consultant, dance director and teacher from Australia. Her poetry and stories have been published in several journals, such as Amaryllis, London Grip, The High Window, Panoplyzine, Riggwelter, The Fenland Reed, Wanderlust and River Teeth Journal’s Beautiful Things. You can find out more at lisareily.wordpress.com