The Orange Grove
A love story
Hello and welcome to this week’s Rosy’s Reading Room.
I wrote this short story after returning from a holiday in Formentera del Segura with my daughter and a friend. The week slipped by quickly and I can understand why so many people want to make Spain their forever home in retirement. The slower pace of life, warmer weather (compared to the UK), and some outstanding scenery and cultural sites to visit, not to mention the incredibly reasonable cost of living, all have an allure. It also has a romanticism about it and I would love to visit again.
I hope you enjoy this week’s romantic short story, written especially for you, Linda. Remember that day I went out for a bike ride on my own? Just kidding!
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to press the heart if you enjoyed it and please share with just one person.
Have a wonderful week.
The Orange Grove
Kitty peddled as hard as she could feeling a rush of excitement as she veered off the wide chalky path which ran alongside the Rio Segura, taking the narrow offshoot leading down to the orange groves, eventually coming to a shaky halt and straddling the bicycle to admire the breathtaking view. A backdrop of mountains gave way to acres of arable land, fields planted with artichokes, others with broad beans and others she didn’t recognise. In between were olive trees and in the forefront and surrounding her, orange groves. Rows and rows of evenly planted trees laden with fruit.
Pushing her bike, she stopped to pluck an orange that was overhanging the fence, remembering from way back that this was allowed, and propped her bike up before peeling the succulent fruit, savouring the juicy flesh, leaning to one side to avoid the juice dripping onto her white pedal pushers. She was wearing a straw hat to protect her from the fierce heat and a loose, floaty top and was grateful for the thirst-quenching treat which tasted like no other orange she had ever eaten since leaving this special place in 1982. Enjoying the sweet, sunshine-infused flesh of the fruit, Kitty was transported back thirty-five years, when she and Paolo had first met. He had been a student on an exchange visit that was only supposed to last for a year but, like most visitors to Spain, he had fallen in love and found the pull to stay strong. But it wasn’t just the country that had won his heart. The youngsters had caught each other’s eye while working during the holidays in the orange groves and after working long days, they would while away the sultry evenings on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, where the ancient church clock tower, its centuries-old façade crumbling and cracked, would watch over them and all the other patrons who sat whiling away the evenings over coffee and brandy in a convivial atmosphere. The clock was famous for being twenty minutes slow and the locals thought it hilarious, like some private joke between them, never sharing it with tourists or forasteros. People who didn’t belong. Her iPhone rang, jerking her back to the present.
“Hi! How are you?” she asked breezily, seeing Bryan’s name come up on the screen with a photo of him looking rather dapper in a dark green fedora. She wedged the phone between her chin and shoulder as she struggled with a tissue trying to wipe her sticky fingers to avoid getting juice all over the screen.
“I’m fine, darling. How are you? How’s it all going? Have you managed to track down your Spanish friend yet?”
Kitty winced inwardly as her husband of thirty-two years asked after her in his usual caring and loving way, oblivious to the real reason she had wanted to come back to this pretty little Spanish village.
“Erm, not yet. I’m still getting my bearings,” she lied. “How’s everything there? Have you put the green bin out yet? Don’t forget that Wednesday is recycling day.”
“Yes, I followed your notes to the letter and I haven’t starved yet. I see the freezer is stuffed to the gills with your home cooking, all neatly labelled and idiot-proof.”
Kitty smiled. She knew Bryan was perfectly capable of rustling up a decent meal but had felt guilty for leaving him on his own.
“So, what are you up to?” he continued in his jaunty voice, and Kitty imagined him sitting cross-legged in his favourite chair in the conservatory, The Times newspaper folded up neatly beside him and a mug of coffee by his side.
“Oh, I hired a bike and I’m just cycling through an orange grove. Well, I was, until I stopped to eat an orange and then you rang so now I have terribly sticky fingers. Hang on a minute.” Kitty put the phone on speaker and laid it gently in the basket on the front of her bike.
“Carry on talking, darling,” she said in a loud voice, “I’m just going to rinse my fingers off with my drinking water,” and she fished around in her rucksack for her water container and poured it over her hands, one at a time, and then wiped them on a clean tissue which she took from a small travel pack in her bag.
“Well, I just wanted to hear your voice, that’s all. I got your text to say you’d arrived safely but you know me, I’m an old worry wart.” Bryan laughed feebly and she could tell that he was missing her.
After taking a sip of the cool water, Kitty packed the pretty container away and picked up her phone to resume the conversation with her husband off speakerphone. When they finished and had said their customary farewells of “Love you. Love you too,” she slid her phone into the zipped pocket on the front of her rucksack, slipped the bag onto her back, picked up the bike and carried on with her journey, feeling slightly uncomfortable and just a tad guilty. Villa Aranceto was just over two miles away, according to the instructions Paolo had sent her, and she smiled at the Italian name of his house which translated to The Orange Grove.
She didn’t know why she had looked him up, but one morning after a particularly fitful night’s sleep when Paolo had invaded her dreams yet again, she had felt compelled to lay his ghost to rest and set about tracking him down. Was it possible that she still had feelings for him after all these years? Surely not. She and Bryan had been happy enough, not ecstatic, firework starburst happy, but bumbling along, middle-of-the-road kind of happy and certainly not unhappy. But every now and again, Paola would enter her dreams and stir up emotions inside her that had lain dormant for decades. Sometimes, she awoke with an ache in her heart; an ache for him, and a longing to go back to her past.
Youth is a wonderful thing, she reflected, but the trouble was that when you have it in the palm of your hand, you let it slip through like quicksilver allowing it to seep away instead of savouring every single, precious moment. Pedalling as fast as her legs would go, Kitty felt lighter, happier, and more carefree than she had in years and felt like a teenager again, excited at the prospect of seeing Paolo. He was such a handsome young man with dark, brooding eyes and smooth olive skin, and a strong, muscular body with which she had been familiar with every single contour.
Kitty had never been a FaceBook fan and only had an account to keep track of the boys when they had gone on their travels to India or Botswana or wherever there happened to be a humanitarian crisis. They were good sons and had grown into compassionate and caring men, both becoming doctors, Tim studying further to become an Ophthalmic Surgeon and Will trained to be a Nephrologist, specialising in Paediatric Nephrology. They both volunteered in their spare time and took holidays to places most people would avoid, but it was what they both wanted to do, despite Kitty worrying about them catching some awful disease or meeting a grisly end in the backend of nowhere, and she was incredibly proud of them and hoped that they would settle down one day and produce some grandchildren for her and Bryan.
When she had messaged Paolo, having tracked him down through an old mutual university friend on FaceBook, she wasn’t sure if he would respond and if he did, how would she react? But as soon as she saw his message, her face lit up and after a wobbly start, they exchanged e-mails and started messaging fairly frequently, the messages becoming more and more intimate, each filling the other in on the years that had slipped between them.
Paolo had married a Spanish lady called Sofia and they didn’t have children. Kitty wasn’t sure whether they chose not to have them or whether it was because they couldn’t have them but she detected a tinge of sadness when he told her. She told him all about her two boys, Bryan and her life in England.
Eventually, after mulling things over in her mind for a long time, Kitty announced to her husband that she was going to Spain to meet up with an old friend. She knew that he wouldn’t mind - he was very easy going - and besides, since she had retired at the beginning of the year, she was determined to do all the things she had been putting off because of work. Now that the ‘boys’ were off her hands, it was time for her. To do all those wonderful things she had dreamed of doing when she was constrained by the day-to-day routine of working full-time while juggling a young family and supporting a busy husband.
Villa Aranceto was clearly one of the better houses in the area and had white-washed walls and a beautifully tended garden. Kitty couldn’t help thinking how very Paolo it was. He was always a stickler for being neat and tidy, and was one of the many things that she liked about him. She cycled slowly down the track which led to the property and stopped when she reached a wrought iron gate which led to the back of the house and propped her bike up against the wall. Suddenly she was overcome with nerves and wondered what the hell she was doing. Standing by her bike with her rucksack on her back, she felt very foolish. What was she thinking? She was about to get back on her bike when a voice startled her, “Catherine?”
She spun round and there he was. Just as she had imagined him. He had aged, of course, like her. A few wrinkles here and there and his once jet-black hair was now a wonderful silver-grey. His dark, brooding eyes sparkled mischievously and he had kept in good shape. He was wearing navy blue shorts, a pale blue linen shirt, and navy and cream leather deck shoes. He looked relaxed and was very tanned.
“Paolo?” was all she could manage as they stood there, drinking each other in for the first time in almost four decades.
“Bellisimo!” Paolo opened the gate and stretched out his hands which she tentatively took and placed her hands in his. Her heart was racing and in that instant, time fell away, and they were back in the summer of 1982 when Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” had been the soundtrack of their lives as they spent long, lazy afternoons in bed, surfacing only to shower and eat before returning to spend the night in each other’s arms once more, never seeming to get enough of each other. They had been so in love and as she stood there, holding Paolo’s hands, she suddenly felt like that young woman again. So much had happened since they were last together; they both had families and lives that neither of them had been a part of, but at that moment, it was as if they had never been apart.
“You are just as beautiful as ever,” Paolo said, taking in every inch of her as he spoke, his voice soft and throaty. Then, noticing her bike propped up against the wall, he said, “Why did you cycle here? I could have come to you.”
Kitty looked down and didn’t know what to say. When Paolo had told her his wife was going to be away visiting family in Madrid, she was curious to see where he lived. Now that she was here, in his home, the home that he shared with his wife, she wasn’t sure that it had been such a good idea after all.
“Come. Let’s find some shade. Would you like a drink?” Feeling slightly awkward she let Paolo lead her round to the back of the house where there was some tasteful garden furniture arranged under an enormous beige parasol on a pretty paved terrace which had huge terracotta pots full of dark pink bougainvillea dotted all around. She sat down on one of the cream sofas and slid her rucksack off and put it at her feet and then she took off her hat and ran her fingers through her hair.
“What can I get you to drink? Are you still a fan of dry Martini and soda?”
She laughed. “Goodness, no! I can’t think why I drank it back then. Probably because I thought it sounded sophisticated. What are you going to have?” she asked, looking up at him not quite able to believe that he was standing there right in front of her.
“Well, I have a very nice bottle of Rioja. Can I tempt you?”
“Sure, but can I have a glass of water as well, please.”
“Certainly, madam,” and Paulo made a small bowing motion which made her laugh and he disappeared through some French doors into the belly of the house. It was a beautiful place, rustic and charming with a classy, homely feel. There was a small swimming pool and another seating area further down the neatly mown lawn. Garden birds were chirping in the surrounding trees and suddenly, Kitty felt as though she was intruding into somebody else’s life.
Paolo returned with a wooden tray containing a jug of iced water, a bottle of Rioja and four glasses, two water tumblers and two very elegant wine glasses. He poured a glass of water and handed it to her and she took a few sips before placing the glass on a side table next to her. Then he handed her a glass of wine and poured himself one. He sat opposite her so that their knees were almost touching and she could smell his aftershave. He raised his glass, chinking it with hers, “Here’s to…what shall we drink to Catherine?”His voice was like velvet and she felt her stomach lurch. Nobody ever called her by her full name but Paulo used to say that he liked the way it rolled off his tongue.
“Let’s drink to friendship,” she said smiling and taking a sip of the full-bodied red, detecting notes of cherry, plum and vanilla. “Good choice,” she said, setting the glass down on the table next to her water.
Paolo was looking at her intently.
“My God I had forgotten how beautiful you are.”
Kitty blushed. “I read all about your successful business,” she said, changing the subject. “You really did enjoy working in the orange groves!”
“It’s been a team effort. I have some great people who work for me and it hasn’t been easy but, like any business, if you work hard eventually, the rewards will come. Sofia and I built it up together.” He smiled. “Oranges have provided me with a very comfortable living.”
He was as modest as ever, Kitty thought.
“What about you? Are you enjoying your retirement?” He sipped his wine while he waited for her answer.
“Well, it’s too early to say really. I only stopped working a few weeks ago. Bryan retired some years ago when he sold his commercial landscaping business but he spends most of his time on the golf course. He keeps asking me to take it up but…”
“But what?” Paolo urged.
“Well, I’m not sure it’s for me. Besides, I think it’s good to have separate hobbies from your partner.”
“Well, I guess it depends on whether you enjoy their company enough. My wife and I play Padel twice a week with friends and I think it keeps us young at heart and the exercise is good too.” That smile again which had always melted her and she felt a tiny stab of jealousy at the thought of Paolo and his wife being so close, which was silly and utterly nonsensical, but it stung all the same. Feeling the effects of the wine, she wondered fleetingly what it would be like if they made love. Would the magic still be there?
Paolo topped up her glass and she was so happy, sitting in his garden in a sleepy Spanish village on a hot, sunny afternoon, sharing a bottle of wine in the company of the man she thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with. Tuscany was Paolo’s family home and it would have been a toss-up between living in Italy or Spain. She wouldn’t have minded either.
After he poured more wine for himself, he looked at her pensively.
“What is it? Are you going to suggest that we re-kindle our relationship?” Kitty teased, sparring with him, just like old times.
But his face was deadly serious. He didn’t answer her straight away but looked down into his wine as if looking for inspiration.
“I have cancer. The doctors have told me it’s terminal.”
Kitty couldn’t process the words at first. “Paolo,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said with a crooked smile. “It’s a very aggressive brain tumour.”
Kitty felt numb. She looked at him more closely this time; he looked a picture of health; tanned, lean and strong. How could it be?
“I didn’t want to tell you in a message. Besides, I wanted to see you one last time.”
Tears welled up in Kitty’s eyes and spilled over, rolling down her cheeks. She quickly wiped them away with her fingers. She couldn’t believe what Paolo was telling her. She got up and sat next to him and they held each other close for the longest time, breathing in each other’s smell, trying to memorise every tiny detail, their bodies entwined naturally melding into each other just like before, but only this time, their bodies were old, not pliable and flushed with youth. Embers of their past passion burned deep inside them both.
“You know I still love you, Christine,” Paolo whispered. “And I will always love you.”
“Paolo.” She reluctantly disentangled herself from him, taking a tissue from her pocket to wipe away the tears. She looked down at her pretty sandals, “Why didn’t you meet me in the Plaza that night before I flew back home to England?”
“I told you in my letters. Eduardo was supposed to come and tell you that there had been a fire in the hostel and the police were questioning everybody and wouldn’t let me go.”
Kitty looked at him mystified, “What letters? What fire? I never saw Eduardo.”
Paolo was shocked. “Oh, my darling. Did you think I wouldn’t come to say goodbye? I wrote to you explaining everything. Besides, we agreed we were going to tell our parents and then meet up again. I wanted to marry you and I thought you wanted to be my wife.”
“I did”, Kitty said. Her face clouded over and she put two and two together; her mother or father must have destroyed his letters. Perhaps Eduardo was in on it too; he had always been jealous of Paulo.
“But I thought you had changed your mind. We were so young and once I got back home and never heard from you, I thought you had found somebody else.”
“Catherine. How could you have thought that? I have never loved anybody the way that I loved you. But after so long of not hearing from you, I thought you had changed your mind. I called your home four or five times and each time, your father told me that you wanted nothing more to do with me. What was I to think?”
Now it was Kitty’s turn to be shocked. How different her life could have turned out. She remembered looking at the clock in the Plaza and reluctantly leaving, devastated that Paolo hadn’t come to wave her off as he had promised.
She sipped her wine and smiled across at the man who had stolen her heart all those years ago. She thought she was going to cry again but managed to bite back the tears.
“Will you have chemotherapy?” she asked softly.
“No, and the doctors have told me that it’s too dangerous to operate. So, my wife and I have talked about it and I would rather have a few months of quality time with her than be hooked up to wires and pipes in a hospital. I will stay here with Sofia by my side.” He sounded very matter-of-fact about it all and he and his wife had obviously spent a lot of time talking about it.
Kitty didn’t know what to say and they moved the conversation on and away from the dark place that neither of them wanted to be in.
It was late evening when Kitty decided it was time for her to leave after Paulo had prepared a wonderful tapas of deep-fried Padron Peppers, patatas bravas and calamares fritos, which they enjoyed with their wine, and was absolutely delicious. He was a very accomplished chef.
“Catherine, will you come again? Before you go back,” he asked earnestly.
They hugged each other tightly.
“Thank you so much for coming. I never thought I would see you again.”
Kitty picked up her rucksack and hat. “Goodbye, Paolo.”
“Addio mia bella signora.” [Goodbye my beautiful lady].
Kitty forced a smile and blew him a kiss while trying to freeze-frame him standing there looking as handsome as he ever had.
After a fitful night’s sleep, Kitty got up at dawn and went out to the tiny balcony of the Airbnb which overlooked the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. If only Paolo had been able to come and say goodbye to her, to reassure her that they would spend the rest of their lives together as they had so often talked about. She had been heartbroken and she remembered her mother being cross with her and had called her a ‘silly girl’ for falling in love and told her that it was nothing more than ‘a holiday romance.’ Kitty recalled how much it hurt; the pain of not being with Paolo but worse, thinking that what they had shared together had not been real after all. But after meeting him yesterday, she felt an inner calm she hadn’t felt in years. It was all finally sinking in.
As soon as she got back home, Kitty sat Bryan down in their conservatory and told him everything. He told her that he had a feeling that her trip to Spain was some kind of pilgrimage to do with her past, but he had let her go because he knew that she would come back to him. She realised what a good husband he was, and had been over the years, always wanting what was best for her and the boys.
A few weeks after Paulo’s messages stopped, Kitty found his obituary online which was heart-rending to read. He was, as she knew, a kind and generous man and had been ‘a wonderful husband.’ He was buried in the cemetery high on the hill overlooking Villa Aranceto.
She would go and visit him again, one day. But only the next time, she would take Bryan with her to the beautiful village of Formentera del Segura.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To receive new posts and support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A wonderful piece so descriptive i could almost be there, sounds an idilic village x