The Cannelloni Night
Laura told herself it was the onion bringing tears to her eyes; she was not crying because she was finally making one of Bruno’s recipes. Somehow, she’d never thought this day would come and now it was here, it seemed that even the simplest task was beyond her. In any other circumstance, Laura was an excellent cook. Her soufflés always rose to the occasion, her pastry melted in the mouth, and if any of her family or friends ever needed a celebration cake, they need look no further than Laura.
But when it came to Italian cuisine, she’d always been happy to leave that to Bruno. Many times he’d offered to show her how to cook the food he loved, but she’d never taken him up on his offer; she knew her limitations. Bruno’s mother had been Italian and she’d passed her love of cooking down to Bruno; along with olive skin, thick black hair and beautiful dark eyes the colour of the walnuts that grew in the Umbrian farmlands of her childhood.
Bruno knew just what herbs to use, what tomatoes would make the best sauce and how to choose the right wine to accompany each dish. Eating a meal prepared by Bruno was a delightful, sensual experience; the taste of the warm Mediterranean sun in every luscious mouthful. How could Laura hope to compete with that?
In recent years, as middle age had thickened Laura’s waistline and sprinkled Bruno’s black hair with a light dusting of silver, he’d repeated his offer of cookery lessons at regular intervals.
‘What if I die before you?’ he’d said. ‘Women nearly always outlive their husbands. You should learn how to make your favourite dish, at least.’
Laura’s favourite dish was Bruno’s cannelloni, not just because she loved the taste but because it held a special place in her heart. Her memory was shocking nowadays; only yesterday she had bumped into an old neighbour and was mortified when she couldn’t remember his name. Yet, by closing her eyes she could remember the first time Bruno had made cannelloni for her as vividly as if it was a film she had watched every day of her life.
She remembered going to his flat, how the first thing to hit her as she’d walked through the door had been the alluring smell of tomatoes, garlic and fresh rosemary. Then he’d shown her into the living room where he’d brought in the Formica table from the kitchen, disguising it with a starched white linen cloth and matching napkins. He’d added candles and a jug of white roses and then served her with home-made cannelloni, freshly baked bread still warm from the oven, and a rich Italian red wine that tasted of cherries. She’d turned up wearing combat trousers and a Madness t-shirt and she’d told him that she felt underdressed and that she wished she’d made more of an effort for the occasion. He’d told her she looked beautiful in whatever she wore and then he’d asked her, would she consider wearing a small solitaire diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand?
The next time he’d cooked cannelloni had been in their new flat; and, while he was working his magic in the kitchen, she’d gone to their bedroom and slipped into silk underwear, lace top stockings and a backless dress. That was the night the dining-table had been christened, she remembered, her throat constricting at the memory.
From then on, whenever Bruno cooked cannelloni, she’d dressed up for the occasion, wearing a glamorous dress and sexy underwear, and, throughout the course of their marriage, cannelloni night had become something of a euphemism for a night of passion.
After twenty-five years of marriage, the passion might have dwindled for some couples; but Laura had never stopped being attracted to Bruno and never more so than when he was in the kitchen. He cooked with a curious mixture of passion and finesse, one moment sprinkling olive oil and scattering herbs with wild abandon, and the next, gently teasing the skin from a sweet San Marzano tomato like a lover peeling a beautiful woman from her dress. And always leaving the kitchen looking like a bomb had gone off, she remembered fondly.
He’d always made his own bread to accompany the food he cooked. Watching him, savouring the sight of him, sleeves rolled up, kneading and coaxing the dough firmly but patiently in his powerful hands, she would inevitably find herself thinking of the way his hands felt on her body, sensual yet commanding, moulding her to his desires. She would go over to him and, wrapping her arms about his waist, she would rest her cheek on his broad back, all her appetites whetted by the smell of the food and the sight of her man in his element.
She sometimes thought all her fondest memories of Bruno involved food. Their last holiday, a second honeymoon to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, had been spent in Italy, on the Amalfi coast. They’d started at Naples where they’d stayed at a little hotel with views across the bay. In the evening they’d sat on the terrace watching the water sparkling with a million diamonds as sunset reddened the sky behind Vesuvius. A waiter had brought a huge bowl of fresh briny tasting mussels with tomatoes, lemon and crostini, which they’d devoured as the sun disappeared behind the great volcano. Then they’d sat up for hours, drinking the local red wine, and Bruno had kissed her hand and told her she was still as beautiful as she had been on the day of their wedding.
Then in Sorrento, they’d visited a farmhouse up in the hills, where they’d sat in the cool shade of a lemon tree at a table with a red checked cloth. They’d eaten crusty bread with mozzarella, tomatoes and olive oil, followed by lemon cake, moist, sugary, and sharp with the juice of fresh lemons, and all washed down with a dark smoky red wine. Everything they had eaten or drunk had been grown by the farmer or made by his wife in her huge shady outdoor kitchen. Afterwards the farmer had brought them tiny ceramic glasses of limoncello and Laura had said, wouldn’t it be lovely if they could retire somewhere like this. Bruno hadn’t replied, he’d just taken her into his arms and held her tightly.
He’d already known he was ill but he’d kept his fears to himself; he hadn’t wanted to spoil their second honeymoon. When they got home he went straight to his doctor who’d ordered tests immediately and that was when they’d found the cancer.
It was shortly after his diagnosis that Bruno had made the recipe book. In it he wrote down recipes for all the meals he had ever made for Laura; the pasta dishes, the pizzas, the sweet pastries and of course, the cannelloni. She’d cried and told him she would never want to eat Italian food if he wasn’t there and he’d held her and kissed away her tears and told her that one day she would feel able to move on.
And now here she was making Bruno’s cannelloni. She squinted through her tears at the words he had written. Had she done everything right? Had she followed his instructions to the letter? She was sure she had but she was just as sure it would taste nothing like Bruno’s cannelloni. She assembled the pasta tubes, filled them with the meat filling; beef mince, pork mince and Bruno’s extra ingredient, a little Italian sausage. Then she poured over the sauce, sprinkled on some parmesan, and put it into the oven, gas mark six, setting the timer for fifty minutes.
While it was cooking she showered and dressed. She put on her black silk bra, black silk cami-knickers and suspender belt with black glossy stockings then she slipped on her favourite little black cocktail dress, the one that she’d bought for that last holiday. She noticed that it no longer clung to her curves; she’d lost quite a bit of weight; but that was only to be expected, she supposed.
When she heard the buzzer she went downstairs and carefully lifted the huge earthenware casserole from the top shelf of the oven. It looked like Bruno’s cannelloni; it smelled like Bruno’s cannelloni. Would it taste like Bruno’s cannelloni? She cut up some crusty bread, shop bought unfortunately; making bread was beyond her at the moment, and then she took everything into the dining room where the table was set with candles and white roses. Then she went into the living room where he dozed in his favourite armchair. It would take time to recover from the operation, the doctors had said. And of course the chemotherapy had taken it out of him. There was no guarantee that the cancer wouldn’t come back, they’d said, but at least they had this time now.
Gently she shook him awake.
‘Bruno. Wake up, darling. It’s cannelloni night.’