The Olive Oil Man
She scowled as her mother dragged the trolley from under the stairs. It had once been a smart, sponge-down plastic shopper with a neat buckle fastener. It could have graced the streets of Paris, led purposefully by a chic Madame, who filled it with plump cheeses, fresh green beans and artichokes, a jaunty baguette too long to fit beneath the cover.
But this trolley was destined for a grey town in northern England; a town of soft rain, wet pavements and grit. It had run through puddles, been hauled onto the rear platform of double-decker buses, shoved into the luggage space under the stairs to fall on the ankles of a slouching conductor. Years of over-filling with bottles and tins, and vegetables that wept juice into the lining, had stained the red tartan, split the seams, bent the flimsy axle.
Dad had rescued it with masking tape and staples so now, the person dragging this monstrosity was not only guilty of a flagrant lack of style, they were also displaying the inability to buy new.
‘I’d rather go to football with Dad,’ she protested.
‘No, you wouldn’t,’ Mum said, reaching for her coat.
‘Or stay here on my own.’
‘I need you to help, love. Let the boys go off to football.’
It was a token gesture of defiance, played out every week, feeble in the face of her mother’s determination and the unwritten rule that on Saturday afternoons girls went shopping, boys went to the match.
Francesca had grown up with a strange sense of separateness, but as the only girl after three boys, it was hardly surprising. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it gave her a sense of uniqueness in the family. Yet it came with a notion that there was more to unearth, and one day, if she was patient, she would understand.
But why did her parents choose such an exotic, unusual name for her after John, Michael and David? She loved her name, loved the sound of the soft c and the s and then a hard c before the final ah. It stood out in the register after Jill Garth and before Susan Jones. Francesca Elizabeth Hunter; an author’s name, a singer, someone special, someone to be discovered.
She didn’t resemble the rest of her family, although Granny once said she had her mother’s high cheekbones. In fun, Grandad called her a little cuckoo – but only once. She remembered laughing, making cuckoo noises, then realising there was tension between the adults and no one else was laughing, not even Grandad.
Tall and strong, with rough blond hair and blue eyes, her parents and brothers were impatient, loud-voiced, confident. The boys played football, Dad refereed, Mum stood on the side with flasks of tea and sandwiches pulled out of the shopping trolley. Francesca was slight with narrow bones and a thin face. She was dark-haired, hazel-eyed and hated sport.
When Mum ranted at the side of the pitch, she lost herself in a book; as her brothers trained, she drew in her notebook; as they all watched the local team on television, making enough noise to have the neighbours banging on the wall, she sat upstairs and wrote stories.
But she always, always felt loved.
Her brothers teased her gently, looked after her and protected her. Dad never shouted at his daughter, as he often did at the boys. He read to her when she was small, took her to the cinema, checked homework and encouraged her to work hard at school and she loved him unreservedly, claiming his attention in the quiet, patient way she did everything.
Her parents both worked, but money was tight. Every Saturday afternoon, Mum took Francesca to the market on the bus. They took the old shopping trolley as it was the only way to cart everything home.
Blackburn had an indoor market hall, high-ceilinged, cold in winter, stuffy in summer. Francesca was in awe of the stallholders with their red faces and hands, who added up in their heads and shouted across to each other in a loud and confident way. They were masters of their world and they knew it. Her mother was at home in this place of noise and sharp humour, playing one trader off against another to get prices reduced.
When Francesca was little, she was handed morsels of cheese from the cheese man, an apple from the fruit man, a boiled sweet from the sweet lady. Cold, rough hands touched her cheek. When she grew older and learned how to set her face in an expression of boredom, the fussing stopped and her task was to pull the trolley. She would keep her hood up or hang her hair over her face.
Yet in a quieter row, behind a wall of fabric bolts and curtaining, the sounds of trade were absorbed in the dusty air and the smell of old vegetables and fish was replaced by garlic and herbs and spiced vinegar. The Italian stall, its high counter heaped with pastas in cellophane packets, always fascinated Francesca. No boiled ham or tripe or piles of pink flabby sausages here. Jars of green and black olives lined the shelves and strings of dried salami the colour of blood hung from silver rails. Olive oil was displayed in litre bottles, green and mysterious, the labels beautiful, the writing bold with names and places she struggled to get her tongue round.
‘What’s that for?’ she asked.
‘Well it’s not for frying chips,’ her mum had said with a laugh.
They visited this stall every other week, and Mum usually bought some slices of garlic sausage. It was passed across in two separate packets. The man worked alone, offered no joke or pleasantries. He would glance at Francesca without smiling.
He never offered her anything.
One Saturday afternoon when she was fifteen, worrying about O-levels, and if she had enough money to buy the latest T. Rex single, Mum produced a list and told her she was on her own with the shopping that week. Dad was at Ewood Park for a league match with the boys and she was suffering with a twisted ankle.
Francesca was beside herself, aghast at the prospect of bartering to get a few pennies knocked off.
Mum saw her face and smiled.
‘Just get what’s on the list, love,’ she said. ‘I’m not bothered if you don’t get the best price.’
She handed over her purse. ‘Don’t miss out the olive oil man. He’ll give you an extra packet with the meat. It’s not important, I know what it is.’
Francesca took the bus alone, wondering if she could make a wheel fall off the trolley on the way back so that it would be consigned to the bin.
She bought her single from the record shop, pretending not to notice some girls from school squashed together in one of the booths. Following the list, she trailed around the market and finally, the only thing left was to visit the olive oil man.
He had a customer, but he nodded to indicate she should wait. As the woman left, he reached for a cloth and wiped his hands.
‘A quarter?’ he asked.
She looked at the list. It just said salami.
She watched him slice the sausage, weigh it and wrap it. From under the counter, he took another packet, and passed it over with the meat.
‘Did your mother tell you not to look at that?’ he said gruffly.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re nearly an adult, now, and it’s for you anyway.’
She paid, pocketed the change, then left. At the bus stop, she joined the queue, and without any hesitation, any thought, pulled the packet out of her coat pocket.
Inside the waxed paper were four ten pound notes.
When Francesca arrived home, she unpacked the shopping, threw the trolley under the stairs and gave her mum the envelope.
‘He said it was for me. Why did he say that?’
Her mum stared. ‘You’ve opened it?’
‘But he said it was for me.’
She tried to read Mum’s face. It was as if her thoughts were tied in a knot that she was struggling to unravel.
‘Sit down,’ Mum said, ‘and I’ll tell you, but before I do, remember that your dad and I love you very much.’
Francesca sat on the very edge of the sofa and placed her hands on her knees. She felt nauseous, her mouth dry, her fingers fizzing with pins and needles.
‘I think you know what it means when a man and a woman have an affair,’ Mum said.
Francesca waited, alarmed by the creasing in her mother’s voice.
‘Well, a long time ago, I had an affair.’
Francesca still didn’t speak, so her mother said, ‘You understand, don’t you?’
‘It means you …’ she hesitated, ‘you went with another man.’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘What did Dad say?’
‘He was angry, upset, we both were. I regretted it and realised it was very wrong.’
‘So, what happened?’
Mum hesitated, took a breath.
‘We decided to put it behind us. Dad did his best to understand. But I found out I was having a baby because I slept with this other man. That baby was … is, you.’
Traffic passed the house, someone shouted a name, the sound of running feet came and retreated. For a moment, silence wrapped itself around them, a cushion between what had been said and what could happen next.
Francesca realised Mum was crying. Mum never cried.
‘So, Dad isn’t my real dad?’ she asked softly.
‘No. Your real father lives in Italy. He sends money for you, always has. His brother is the olive oil man.’
She wiped her face, and sat up. Francesca knew the tears were over.
‘It was time to tell you,’ Mum said. ‘There would never be an easy way to do it.’
Francesca thought about this. She just wanted her world to stay the same and she wasn’t sure it could ever be the same, so she started to cry. Mum waited patiently, her arm around her daughter’s shoulder.
‘Did you love him, my real father?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve only ever loved Dad. At the time, it felt like a terrible mistake, but if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have you, would we? And Dad loves you so much, as much as the boys. He’s a very special person, your dad.’
Mum handed her a tissue. ‘What happens next is your decision,’ she said.
Francesca took a breath, ragged by a final, uneven sob. ‘Well I’m not going market shopping again.’
Mum smiled. ‘You don’t have to. We’ll go to the new Tesco. But I didn’t mean that when I said you can decide what to do. You could write to your father in Italy?’
Francesca pushed her hair back.
‘I could, but not until I’ve thought about it.’
Emotion surfaced like a bubble and she knew exactly what needed to happen next.
In the hall, she wrenched the trolley out, pulling it into the back yard. She jumped on the wheels, bent the frame, ripped the red tartan plastic from the metal.
Dad and the boys, back from the match, watched in disbelief.
When she knew it was damaged beyond repair, she looked up, her body heaving.
‘What’s the matter?’ Dad said, alarm in his voice.
Her anger vanished. From now on there would be no cheese man or fish man or olive oil man, and no trolley.
She left the mangled frame and wrapped her arms around her dad, the scent of his old duffle coat familiar, a toggle pressing into her cheek, and for the second time that day, her world flipped, then readjusted itself and settled into its rightful place.
‘Nothing’s the matter, Dad, ‘Francesca whispered. ‘Nothing at all.’