After a mediocre flat white and a quick flick through the newspaper in a café where the music is too loud, I head out to do some chores.
My wife has given me a list. First stop is to pick up the curtains at Toula’s. Wedged amongst trendy cafes and hairdressing salons, it’s an unpretentious shop. Even the refurbished Cash Converters next door, with pre-loved merchandise and stuff from who knows where, is looking bold and upmarket. In Toula’s, paint is flaking off the walls, and a fluorescent light is flickering and I almost have to shove my shoulder against the door to gain entry. The carpet is well-worn and there are piles of fabric surrounding the sewing machines.
“Beautiful curtains, you have,” Toula says, as she retrieves them from a shelf behind the cash register. “You like them?” she asks, smiling, caressing the fabric as if it was silk, and placing them on the counter. When I struggle come up with a retort, she says, “your wife bought them, yes. I know.” After I hand over the cash we start chatting. She mustn’t be too busy.
She asks why I’m not working. I explain I don’t work on Fridays.
“Ah, you work on the weekends?” She asks.
No. I work part-time, four days a week, I say.
She walks me to the door. Rain is still falling. We stop and watch the traffic sloshing past. She lights a cigarette and exhales.
‘We work too much,’ she concedes.
She tells me that her husband, a mechanic worked six days a week until he was sixty, when he retired. And three weeks later, unbelievably, he was dead. They’d made plans. They were going to spend six months in Greece each year, on the Island of Lesbos. Relatives had organized a cottage in a village with views of the sea. They’d talked about it for so many years.
Toula’s sudden disclosure is surprising. This is the first time I’ve met her. She is speaking without any obvious sign of grief. Her husband must have died some time ago. I’m curious. I want to know more. What had happened to him? “A heart attack?” I probe. She shakes her head. A city-bound tram trundles past.
“Cancer,” she says simply, blowing out more cigarette smoke. A pain in his back was the first sign that something was amiss and by then it was too late to do anything.
Eight months after he died – and when she was ready, she started to sort through his belongings and his clothes. Her daughter had been urging her to get on with her life. She’d decided to give his clothes to the Salvos. She knew she just had to do it. And it was then she found them - rolls of fifty and twenty dollar notes bound with elastic bands that he’d hidden in pockets.
“So much money and all for what,” she says, shaking her head again at the memory. “With no partner, you have nothing,” she says.
And, you still work too? I ask her, smiling, to lighten my question.
“Ah,” she says, laughing thinly, “just something to do, a few short days every week. I can’t sit at home. I’d go crazy. Some work is good. The secret is not to do too much. I still cook for him you know. I can’t stop now, after all these years. I set two places at the table. But not on Fridays, tonight, you know, Fish and Chips.”
Carrying my shortened curtains in a plastic bag I headed on through the morning rain. I started thinking about Toula’s husband fixing all those cars, year after year. I still needed to go to the bank and then the library. I imagine he would’ve had to adapt to changing engine technology, and to learn computer diagnostic systems. He’d have had to scrub the grime off his hands at the end of each day. Was it his responsibility to tidy the workshop and to lock up? I wondered what he’d thought about as he’d edged towards the day when he would at last retire. Had he ignored his back pain? Would it have made any difference if he’d acted sooner? Had they worked out their itineraries and booked their flights?
As I loaded the curtains into the back seat of my car, I imagined Toula easing her husband’s suits from their hangers in the wardrobe and going through the pockets. Did she find betting slips or Tattslotto tickets? Imagining her surprise, her shock on discovering the notes. Counting them carefully after she’d peeled off the elastic bands. All that curled up money, resisting her attempts to flatten out the notes. But it wasn’t what she’d wanted or needed.
We can’t predict the future. Perhaps that too has a mercy all of its own.