Among the Olive Groves – a short story set in Florence

The 14th century Tuscan villa came with its own olive grove and views over Florence. Linda could hardly believe their luck when they spotted the house in an estate agent window while touring Chianti. They had been celebrating Robert’s retirement and making plans for the tax-free lump-sum. It was destiny, she thought.

The owner, Angelo, was a young, handsome man that had inherited the property from his grandfather. He lived in the city and was disinterested in the villa, which was crammed with artefacts from a forgotten era. A golf trophy from Gleneagles, antique furniture, books with yellowing pages, tea sets in dusty cabinets and paintings on every wall.

‘You can have it fully furnished,’ he said. ‘It’s just a pile of old junk.’

To the young, with their monochrome furniture and their smart technology, it probably was, but Linda thought the house was a treasure trove. She wandered around the generous rooms, admiring the ornate ceilings, picturing the families that had made this house their home, the children who had played in the garden underneath the walnut trees and the layers of love that had seeped into these walls.

Robert was asking the owner questions about letting rates in the area and resale values and seemed satisfied with his answers. Linda could imagine Robert overseeing a cottage industry of home-grown olive oil, perhaps joining a co-operative with other small farmers in the region. Their children had grown up and were living their own lives. Italy wasn’t too far for family holidays and return visits, and Robert needed a rest after a lifetime in business management. They took it.

Six months later, they arrived at the villa in the dead of night, after a delayed flight to Pisa and a near-miss on the busy Italian highway. They were hungry and tired and everything was her fault. Linda was accustomed to Robert taking out his frustrations on her; it had been the same throughout their marriage. She let his vitriol wash over her as she stared out of the window, looking for sign posts to guide them to the villa.

‘Bloody sat-nav,’ Robert shouted, as the device’s cheerful voice told them to turn left where there wasn’t a junction.

The villa hadn’t seemed so hard to find in the light.

‘Bloody Italians!’ Robert shouted, as a white Fiat overtook him on a blind corner. His cheeks were flushed with rage, his eyes glistening and alert, his fingers turning white as he gripped the steering wheel.

Robert had a temper but he had never hit Linda. He had come close, several times, and she sometimes wondered what would happen if he did. It would be over then, wouldn’t it? No-one would question a wife leaving a violent husband. Linda thought back to the early days of their marriage when Robert had been so loving and kind. The years had changed him; he had lost his enthusiasm for life, replaced it with stress and worry. She had hoped, with his retirement and the move to Italy, that he could relax now and she could get the man she married back.

‘We should never have come to this god-damn country!’ Robert’s words jolted her from her reverie.

It was approaching midnight by the time they arrived at the villa. They left their suitcases in the car and just took in the bare essentials. Robert struggled with the rusty lock. Inside, Linda flicked the switch for the light but the bulb spluttered and extinguished, plunging them into darkness.

They scrabbled around for candles and matches but couldn’t find either. Defeated, they crept their way to the main bedroom, feeling the walls and stumbling over steps. In the past, Robert would have held her hand and they would have laughed about their misadventure, but he was too wound up for humour. Moonlight flooded through the open shutters in the main bedroom and, without even bothering to change the sheets, they gratefully fell into the bed.

Linda woke up to bright sunshine pouring through the window. Unable to get back to sleep, she pottered around the house which looked so much more benign in the morning light. She discovered a moka pot and some fresh coffee. They had bought bread the previous day at a small bakery on the way to the villa and they could eat it for breakfast with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar she found in the pantry. It would do until they could go shopping.

She opened the wooden shutters and sunshine warmed the stone walls. It was early and the day felt fresh. The back door was unlocked and she slipped barefoot into the garden area, feeling the wet dew wash her feet. She looked across to the Duomo, its shadow emerging from the morning mist.

At the top of the garden was the olive grove. Linda had a fleeting image of leading Robert by the hand into the dappled sunlight underneath the silvery trees. They could take a blanket and make love with the cool breeze dancing on their limbs. The thought was absurd. Robert was strictly a once-a-week with the lights off kind of lover.

She could hear him calling her name now. She turned back reluctantly and returned to the kitchen where Robert was running his hand under the cold water.

‘Bloody coffee pot,’ he declared. The skin on his wrist was scarlet and blistering.

‘The first aid kit’s in the car. I’ll go and get it.’

‘Don’t fuss, woman. It’ll be fine.’ Robert inspected the wound and then wrapped it in a fresh tea towel. ‘What time is it anyway?’

It was early. Too early for unpacking, but they did it anyway. As Linda placed her belongings around the house, she felt an increasing sense of ownership. This was their new home, their happy ever after. Everything would be different now.

‘I’ll go and get some provisions,’ Robert said, surprising her by kissing her on the cheek. She would have liked to have gone to the supermarket with him, wander around the aisles looking at all the different items on sale, but he hurried off before she had chance to stop him.

He would expect her to have the suitcases unpacked by the time he returned, but instead, she decided to potter around the house, making the most of the time to herself to look at the paintings. A piece of artwork in the living room caught her eye. A pastoral scene of workers in an olive grove. Young, bare chested men under the supervision of a farm manager, who looked a bit like Robert.

He had bought Chianti Classico and Limoncello at the supermarket. Wine was part of daily life in Italy but Linda hated it when Robert drank. He had bought the wrong kind of rice for risotto and the wrong kind of cheese for sandwiches. She would have to go herself later in the week.

Robert started drinking at 4pm. It seemed more acceptable here, as if they were on holiday. By 7pm, he was slurring his words and refused to eat the dinner she had cooked. By 9pm, he was ranting about migrants with no sense of irony. Linda tried to concentrate on her novel and ignore him, but that only infuriated him more and he became more and more belligerent, trying to provoke a reaction.

Eventually he passed out on the sofa and Linda looked down at this dribbling mess of a man and wondered how long she could stay married to him. Moving to Italy had been a big mistake. He would never change.

That night, she lay awake staring at the ceiling, trying to figure a way out. They had ploughed all their money into this villa. If she left him, she would have nowhere to go. Yes, the kids would put her up for a couple of weeks, but what then? She would have to rent somewhere, but Robert would make life difficult for her, refuse to sell the villa, and she could hardly go back to work at her age. Besides, this had been her dream as much as his, why should she give it up?

In the morning, Linda reached out for Robert but the bed beside her was cold and unslept in. She pulled on her dressing gown and ambled into the living room but the sofa was empty. Perhaps he was making amends by preparing breakfast? But there was no sign of him in the kitchen and the backdoor was locked with the key still in place.

By lunchtime she was getting worried. She tried his mobile but she heard it ringing in the living room. The car keys were still in the bowl in the hallway and his shoes were beside the front door where he had left them.

By dinnertime she was ready to call the police. But what could she say? Robert was a grown man, with no history of depression. Something must have happened to him. Had he got lost or fallen? But there was no indication that he had even left the house. Had Robert been murdered? Linda was surprised to find she felt no sadness, only an incredulity that anyone would want to kill her husband apart from her.

She made herself some dinner but she wasn’t hungry. Where was he? She supposed she should ring the children but she didn’t want to worry them just yet. She was sure there must be an explanation. He would turn up eventually.

Linda wandered back into the living room and found herself drawn once again to the painting of the olive grove. The young men were still standing by the trees but she could have sworn the supervisor had changed his position. She looked a little closer. He really did look like Robert. In fact, the more she looked the more certain she was. He even had the birthmark on the side of his face that he was so self-conscious about.

Robert never did come back. There was an investigation, there had to be, but there was no evidence of any foul play and Linda never revealed her suspicions about the painting. She thought that Robert looked happy; running an olive grove had been his dream after all.

Meanwhile she could get on with hers. And from time to time, as a mark of respect for the husband she had loved and lost, she turned the painting to face the wall when she got ready to entertain Angelo among the olive groves.

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