By Michelle Chan
It was an unseasonably warm winter afternoon. The sun was the sole inhabitant in the sky, casting a bright cerulean blanket over the concrete fortress, city of Florence. The normally mundane Monday afternoon was enlivened by a multitude of people thronging the tourist infested Piazza della Signoria, leaving a pervading trail of good spirits through the side alleys, and into the Cherry Blossom Restaurant.
Ilaria sat alone at a table set for two near the entrance. Her face locked with tension as she checked her watch. It was already two o’clock. Robert never had lunch this late. After being married to him for two years, she knew that he abhorred tardiness and hardly ever strayed from his rigid timetable. She sat through the busy lunch hour, and the crowd began to thin. She wasn’t sure how much longer she should wait. Behind the curling steam of her hot chrysanthemum tea, she could see Uncle Lim’s disapproving eyes from the cashier’s station.
On the same day three winters ago, Ilaria and Robert sat at this very table celebrating his thirtieth birthday. The mood was different then. Ilaria was smiling, and Uncle Lim was pleased to have another table occupied. Robert, a Eurasian, was scratching his head as he tried to make sense of the special ‘catered for Chinese only’ menu. He wanted to impress Ilaria with his knowledge of Chinese culture and language, but failed miserably. Uncle Lim was growing impatient with Robert’s exotic façade, and decided to take control of the situation.
“You two look like a pair of Mandarin Ducks, very much in love,” said Uncle Lim confidently as he stared at the diamond ring on Ilaria’s finger. “Let me recommend the lovers’ set that goes by the same name.”
Robert put down the menu, grateful for the intervention, and urged Uncle Lim to continue.
“In Chinese culture, Mandarin Ducks mate for life. They are potent symbols of romance, conjugal bliss and fidelity. This special, scrumptious, five-course meal is specially tailored for loving couples like you.”
Intrigued, Ilaria and Robert leaned closer to learn more.
“We’ll start with Peking Roast Duck for fidelity, followed by Chicken and Lotus Seed Soup so you’ll be blessed with numerous offspring. Then we’ll have Sweet and Spicy Fish for abundance and prosperity. Next is Five-Flavour Noodles for longevity, and lastly, there’s Pomegranate Panna Cotta dessert for a life rich with sweetness. This also comes with a free flow of chrysanthemum tea. All these for just €59.90.”
“Wow, food that bestows good-wishes. That sounds beautiful. Robert, let’s get this,” said Ilaria, giddy with excitement.
“I agree,” he nodded, turned to Uncle Lim and asked, “But can we change the soup?”
“Sorry, no substitution,” replied Uncle Lim courteously.
“But I don’t like lotus seed.”
“Sorry, no substitution.”
“It’s my birthday today. Maybe just this one time?”
“No substitution,” repeated Uncle Lim sternly.
Robert drummed his fingers on the table glumly while he contemplated.
“Young man, these dishes are picked for specific reasons. They are made to bring a lifetime of love and happiness to lovers. You shouldn’t change the menu for it will destroy the essence and purpose it possesses. You need to take it as it is. If not, there will be no Mandarin Ducks,” explained Uncle Lim.
Ilaria reached for Robert’s hand from across the table and nodded her head profusely.
Seeing that, with reluctance in his voice, Uncle Lim offered, “Since it’s you’re birthday, I’ll add a big chicken drumstick into the soup for you.”
“Ok… but give me the biggest drumstick you have,” he told Uncle Lim.
Despite the initial tension between Robert and Uncle Lim, the lunch went wonderfully. The soup was more delicious than expected. Robert decided that they would return every year for his birthday.
Today, the same five-course meal was laid out in front of Ilaria. It remained untouched while she waited anxiously for Robert. He was a creature of habit and routine, this was very unlike him. But then, he had been acting differently of late. He started taking a different route to work, changed gyms, and stopped going to his usual hangout spots. Suddenly, she realised that he was becoming more unpredictable, and that worried her deeply.
Right then, the door opened, and Robert walked in. A wave of relief overwhelmed her. Her plan would go on. She looked at the perfectly sculpted face, and her heart began to ache. She wanted to reach out and hold him, but he had dethroned her and found a much younger woman to be his new queen. Carla was holding the hand that was once hers to hold.
“This is an ambush! You’re not supposed to be here,” shouted Robert.
Uncle Lim rose from his chair and tried to interfere, but Robert ignored him.
“I knew you’d come here today. I’ve something special for you,” said Ilaria with an unusual composure.
“You have to stop stalking us. You’re scaring Carla.”
“Look at that smug grin on her face. She’s not scared of me,” said Ilaria as the women stared at each other icily.
“Please, just leave. Don’t make me call the police again,” he pleaded. He bowed his head and hid his face in his hands. He was clearly very upset.
“We’re a pair of Mandarin Ducks. We belong together,” said Ilaria as she bent down to take her handbag.
“You’re so pathetic. Just pay and get lost,” hissed Carla.
Ilaria stared at Carla with disgust. She reached into her handbag and pulled out a metal object and drew it across Carla’s throat. Seconds rolled by before someone screamed. Carla’s body hit the floor, and blood spread rapidly in the cracks of the old tiles.
Ilaria looked down at Robert who was cowering by the table, and said, “No substitution.”