“France wouldn’t have ice cream if it wasn’t for the Italians,” Emilio teases Blanche as he places generous helpings of gelato in front of her seven elderly clients. “Catherine de Medici of Florence took ice cream to the Parisian court when she married Henry II in 1533.”
Still oblivious to their real names, Emilio gives each client an affectionate nickname in his notepad—Snotty, Snoozy, and Blushful included—but such names would never pass his lips in front of Blanche. He double-checks his scribbles to ensure everyone’s got what they ordered…everyone except one.
He strides back to the counter and returns carrying a bowl of fragola and cioccolato gelato, topped with whipped cream and a waffle biscuit. Leaving Blanche ’til last delays the pleasure of seeing her face light up—if only he could capture it on video to play on repeat for the rest of his life.
Blanche’s cheeky smile widens. “But the French invented mayonnaise!”
Emilio grins, spins on his heels, and marches back to the counter to serve takeaway cones. His assistant Leila’s staring at him. “Stop blushing!” she hisses. “You look ill—you’ll scare all the customers away!”
Emilio takes his time soaking the napkins on Friday evenings after close. Perhaps this chocolate stain here, or that swab of cherry lipstick there belongs to Blanche. He’d thought his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian fruit trees would stand him in good stead in the Big Apple, but he’s yet to lead a woman by the hand through the neon lights.
“Hurry up and ask her out, will you?” Leila cries, making him jump.
He throws her a stony glare.
Leila laughs. “Thought Italian guys were meant to be dark and cocky? Not saying you haven’t got any of that, but you can’t love a woman if you don’t like yourself.”
“You make it sound like I’m letting down the Italian race.”
Leila twists her lucky ring, a sign of mischief at hand. “I know someone who can help.”
So that’s how Emilio finds himself wandering into Chinatown on a Friday night, following a makeshift map on “Emilio’s Gelato Parlor”–headed notepaper. The building’s easier to find than he expected, as if the signposts were erected specially for him. He enters the door with a jangle.
“Can I speak to Mrs Lang?” he asks the boy at the counter he’s located amongst an array of paper lanterns.
The boy bows, disappears through a beaded doorway, and returns shortly to lead Emilio through a maze of red corridors. It’s not until Emilio’s sitting cross-legged, rotating Baoding Balls in his palms opposite a gnarled-faced old lady, that it hits him what’s happening, and how little he knows about it. He can’t even trust Leila to send a search party.
“This spell is for love, not pain,” Mrs Lang announces, sensing his tension.
Emilio’s head lolls as the chanting enters his earlobes. He doesn’t believe in magic, but an extra boost of confidence couldn’t do any harm.
He leaves with a lighter wallet and a list of “gifts” through which the spell can weave its magic.
Blanche always manages to read the menu like she’s never seen it before. “I’ll just have two scoops of vanilla gelato without toppings,” she says, patting her imaginary bulge. “Better watch the waistline.”
“You’ll be pleased to know gelato’s less fattening than ice cream,” Emilio reassures her. “There’s no cream involved.”
His cheeks feel more inflamed than usual, as if the necklace is radiating energy through his palm up to his face. He returns to the counter and wraps the tissue-paper package in Blanche’s receipt. Once he’s served her table, he focuses on the takeaway cones to stop his facial fires exploding.
“Emilio?” comes a sweet-smelling whisper from the side of the counter. “Is this for me?”
Emilio’s still serving a customer, so he simply throws Blanche a quick nod.
“You shouldn’t have; you’re so sneaky!”
When Snoozy and the gang arrive the following Friday in the company of a woman Emilio’s never seen in his life, the gelato vendor suddenly feels more confident in Blanche’s absence, and steps forward to inquire after Blanche.
“She developed a nasty rash,” the woman mumbles listlessly, scratching her neck. “Suddenly discovered she’s allergic to nickel.”
How could he hurt her, that milky skin? He’s about to kick himself, then grins. This is a great excuse for his second “gift.”
Emilio gives Blanche a minute to peruse the menu before approaching her table. “I’m so sorry about the rash — I hope you’re…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Blanche dismisses, studying the menu more intently.
Emilio juggles the parcel from hand to hand. “To make up for it, I’ve bought you this.”
“You shouldn’t keep giving me gifts,” Blanche whispers sternly. Now she’s the one blushing, trying to resist, but the first gift’s got under her skin, enticing the second. Suddenly her fingers have destroyed the bow, now the paper’s parting…
“I hope your hair hasn’t got allergies,” Emilio jokes, but he’s struggling to smile. How serious can this get? Should love involve pain?
“Don’t be silly,” Blanche says, cocooning the paper round the hair clip. “It’s beautiful.”
Two weeks pass, but Blanche still hasn’t worn her gift.
“Can I take your order?” Emilio mumbles.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” Blanche answers, clearing the frog from her throat. “Please don’t think I didn’t like the present—I loved it so much I wore it everywhere, which is how I lost it. One day I left the house wearing it, and by the time I got home it was gone. I don’t know how—it was so firmly secured, and I should have heard it clatter if…”
“I’ve the perfect antidote,” Emilio pants. “You shall be the official taster of my new Big Apple Sorbetto.”
Three scoops of blended ice, sugar, and apple puree are soon delivered to Blanche with a cinnamon stick and blue cocktail umbrella. She places a dainty spoonful between her ruby lips, the creamy neck swallows, and an enormous eye-sparkling smile fills her face. Another, more generous, spoonful quickly disappears down the hatch.
“I can’t stop!” Blanche cries with delight. She seriously can’t. In a couple of minutes, Emilio’s back behind the counter curling three more scoops out of the stainless-steel tray.
Blanche leaves the restaurant with her clients an hour later than she’s meant to. “If the boss notices, I’ll say one of the clients was being sick,” Blanche babbles as she leaves Emilio to wash up the bowl she’s already cleaned to a sparkling finish. “Dear Emilio, make sure you save me some of that sorbet for next Friday!”
But Emilio doesn’t have to wait a whole week; Blanche is back in the restaurant the following day. She has all the time in the world to eat sorbet on a Saturday.
“Unfortunately we’re closed on Sundays,” Emilio tells Blanche at five-thirty, “but I’m sure I could make an exception for you.”
Blanche’s eyes catch fire. “You’re such a tease! What time can I come?”
It’s two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, but Emilio isn’t sitting reading a book in the communal gardens below his flat; instead, he’s back in the restaurant, hypnotized by a certified gym bunny spooning an entire tray of Big Apple Sorbetto down her throat.
“Why are you so nice to me?” she asks.
“For a smile like that, who wouldn’t be?”
The care home’s too far away for Blanche to visit Emilio’s Gelato Parlor during her lunch hour, but Leila finds someone knocking on the restaurant door Monday night after close. She’s about to point her polished nail at the “Closed” sign when she recognizes the face. “Come in!” she cries, throwing back the door. “Emilio’s in the kitchen.”
Stepping behind the counter, Blanche gets to survey her regular table from Emilio’s perspective. She stops in the kitchen doorway at the sight of a familiar crop of black hair.
Emilio looks up from the sink, elbow-deep in bubbles. “Blanche! What are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t keep away. I know you’re trying to clean up, but…this is so embarrassing…I think I’m addicted to your sorbet!”
Blanche becomes a regular six o’clock visitor, eating sorbet and sharing work gossip late into the night. With every clink of the spoon hitting the bowl, Emilio prays for the spell’s conclusion: her expanding waistline is making him nauseous.
“Have you kissed her yet?” Leila manages to ask him one night before Blanche’s arrival.
“Are you ever satisfied?” Emilio snaps. “Love takes time.”
“Not time you’re supposed to spend sleeping and eating. You look like Death; take a holiday. I can get one of my mates to cover.”
“Your ‘mates’ aren’t getting within a mile of this place,” Emilio warns, remembering the drunkard who drove though his shop window.
“It’s time you got over my ex.”
Though he’d never admit it, Leila’s planted the seed. Fantasies of traveling across Florida start filling his mind throughout the day, but all confidence vanishes along with the sun, so that they never touch Blanche’s ears.
“I’ve got a training course in Boston next week,” Blanche announces one evening. “It’s only three days long, but I’ll still miss you and your sorbet.”
When Monday morning arrives, Emilio’s already worrying about the evening ahead. He gave Blanche a cool-box full of sorbet at the station, but he can’t remember what it feels like to go to sleep without Blanche’s words soothing his brain. By Tuesday, the loneliness is enough to destroy his shyness. The only way to stop this pain is to make the first move.
“Hi, honey!” Emilio croons down the phone after work.
“Is this Emilio?” asks a gruff voice. “Sorry if it isn’t—the name flashed up on screen. Are you friend or family?”
“Family one day soon, I hope. Can I speak to her?”
“I’m John—I’m on Blanche’s course. She asked me to take her calls while she’s in hospital.”
“Hospital?” Emilio chokes.
“Her blood sugar levels plummeted, but she’s going to be okay. The doctors suspect it’s a severe kind of diabetes.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Sure. I’ll check if she’s awake.”
Emilio follows the sound of footsteps echoing down a corridor until a door opens and closes.
“Hi, Emilio,” Blanche croaks. “I’m still alive. Apparently I passed out, but John gave me mouth-to mouth. Sounds romantic, don’t you think?”
“Not really,” Emilio mutters. “Thanks for letting me know you were in the hospital!”
Silence. “I don’t have to report every step I take, Emilio. I’m the one who cares for people for a living.”
Emilio’s angry, but he can’t stop her voice setting off fireworks across his heart. “I bet a spoonful of apple-flavored sugar would do the trick!”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Blanche whispers bashfully. “They’ve put me on a sorbet-free diet. Turns out I was addicted to the stuff!”
No kidding. “Really? Well, a sorbet now and then never hurt anyone; healthier than gelato, remember? When are you coming home?”
“You’ll be back by Thursday, right? I was going to cook your favorite dinner.”
“Depends how long I take to recover. When the doctors release me, John says I can stay at his place until I’m strong enough to travel home.”
“You can’t stay in some random stranger’s house—you barely know the guy! Come and stay with me—I’ll treat you like a princess.”
Blanche coughs. “Emilio, I really wish I could say this face-to-face. I know how you feel about me, and I thought I felt the same about you, but John’s the prince I’ve been waiting for. You should have seen it—wish I had, too—one minute I was lying unconscious on the floor, the next minute John’s lips were around mine and I was breathing again.”
“I’ll miss your smile,” Emilio says bitterly before hanging up. His angel has fallen.
Some weeks later, when he’s cleaning out his wallet, he comes across Mrs Lang’s list of “gifts.” He’s about to screw it up in anger when he spots some tiny writing on the back:
Gift 4: Seal the deal with a kiss.