The Happiest Widow in the Village
2nd Oct 2020
How did I amuse myself during COVID lockdown and self-isolation…?
Welcome to the first chapter of my fourth novel… and the first written in first and thirds person. We’ll skip seco9nd person, far too hard!
A little teaser. When our protagonist, Irini, returns to Melbourne, she discovers that the car accident may not have been and accident, because her daughter and son-in-law were connected to the underworld…
The Happiest Widow in the Village
I’m known as the happiest widow in the village.
The village of Lefkes. On the Greek island of Paros.
Hunched widows, wearing black as they move through the laneways.
I refuse to wear black.
And I refuse to hunch. It looks like defeat. Walk tall and carry a big smile!
Whitewashed houses with bright blue doors… a blaze of burgundy bougainvillea… stubble-chinned fishermen tending their nets… pelicans… loping cats… wicker chairs… the slap of dice on a tavli board… cloudy ouzo in a shot glass… plates smashed at weddings… the Zorba dance… olive groves… feta and tomato… tethered donkeys and children laughing.
All of those were part of my decision to leave Melbourne and retire here. I paid my taxes so I figured it was up to me where I spend my pension and my days. Salad days are my days. Dance like there’s nobody watching. Age like there’s nobody watching.
But, the best laid plans…
Now I’m heading back to Melbourne.
My daughter and son-in-law died in a car accident yesterday. The Easter long weekend. Someone has to look after their teenagers. My granddaughter is still in hospital, and my grandson is staying with his grandfather.
His grandfather is Theo.
You see, I’m not really a widow. Pretending to be one seemed the easiest thing to avoid the questions. Far easier to say he died rather than I caught him having an affair. Well, a number of affairs really. He’s a serial pest. And I was just sick of it. Living in a house without love in the middle of suburbia. Posh suburbia, sure. Toorak. But it is still a suburb, not a community like Paros.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Theo. We get on fine. He settled fairly on the house and he transfers me money regularly because I still have a slice of the business.
Theo is a good man. He’s just no longer my man. He’s a good grandfather, but he wouldn’t be a good father replacement.
Sophie and Max need a mother.
Theo’s married to his work, his mates and his mistress of the day. Heaven help him if her husband finds out. But good luck to them. What happens at the Holiday Inn, stays at the Holiday Inn. Guess he could be taking her home now that I’m off the scene, but I have a feeling that sleazy hotel rooms by the hour might be part of the fetish.
I’m only 67, by the way. I reckon that’s a totally acceptable age to become a widow through natural causes and a totally acceptable age to be starting a new life in my new community.
But that’s fate for you.
As the saying goes, life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.
Or, in this case, death.
Theo Papadakis received a phone call from the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The doctors were ready to bring Sophie out of her induced coma. A precautionary 24-hour coma because of brain haemorrhage. Theo requested that he be there to break the news.
Max had been released after observation. He only had a few cuts and bruises.
It was hard to know how Max was handling the situation. He was numb. A bit zombie-like. The doctor had prescribed diazepam to mask the grief for now. Theo’s head was spinning. A lot needed to be done. The autopsies, the police investigation into the accident, the funeral arrangements, the estate, the caring for the kids.
There were three other patients in the ICU ward. Not a lot of privacy, but there was no alternative. Sophie wouldn’t be up to relocation or walking for several days.
One of the nurses appeared with an additional chair for Max and drew the curtains closed.
Theo pulled his chair closer to the bed and held Sophie’s hand. This was not a time for social distancing. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that bad news is never worse than the first time you hear it. He squeezed her hand gently. Sophie opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling.
“Can you hear me, darling?” Theo asked.
She tilted her head on the pillow. On seeing her grandfather and brother with a doctor and nurse hovering, just behind them, her eyes flashed fear.
“Yes, darling Soph. It was the car accident. Your Mum and Dad didn’t make it.” He lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. “They died in the accident, love. You’ve been in a coma.”
Her eyes welled with tears.
They all felt helpless, raw and empty.
“We’re here for each other, darling. It’s all we can do.”
I chose Paros because it is simply a lovely island.
It’s not as touristy as Mykonos and Santorini but gets enough visitors to justify some good restaurants and lively nightlife. Most of that happens in Parikia, where the port is, and where I’m sitting now, waiting for the ferry.
My sister, Anna, lives just out of town. She operates a tour company from her little office opposite the wharf. She’s out on a tour at present. Probably Petaloudes, the valley of the butterflies.
Of course, Anna was a big part of the Paros decision. I told Anna I would be back soon after the funeral, but that’s probably not going to happen for a while.
I am so glad travel restrictions have been lifted and flying is now possible. I could have hopped a domestic flight to Athens, but I like the ferries. Plenty of time to think. And there’s no rush. Planes never leave early.
The flight to Melbourne is long enough. Too much time to think in some ways. But with a few meals, a few movies and a bit of sleep, time will fly. Pardon the pun.
It has been a long, hard twelve months. Greece and Australia did remarkably well with pouncing on COVID-19 early. Not like much of the world that went to hell in a handbasket.
We are still practicing social distancing, but I reckon those grandies could do with a hug. I know I could.
Anna’s hubby, Alex, drove up the hill to Lefkes to get me and run me back to Parikia. I could have caught the bus, but it was his way of showing he cares. Alex is the quiet type. The type who wishes you well with his eyes rather than words. He grows olives and likes the work. I doubt whether he has ever been away from Paros. And that’s just fine. What you don’t know, you don’t miss, and what he’s got is wonderful.
So, just waiting on that ferry.
Here’s a life tip for you.
Learn to enjoy waiting.
There’s a lot of waiting in life.
Waiting for a doctor’s appointment, waiting for public transport, waiting to be served. Whatever.
Who knows, my ferry might not appear.
So, I might as well enjoy the wait.
Watch the passing parade.
Imagine the back story of total strangers.
Enjoy my own company.
Theo doesn’t enjoy his own company that much. Or waiting. He needs to have people around him and be busy. That’s why he spends so much time in his restaurant.
Theo calls it a restaurant. I call it a licensed café.
To me, the difference between a café and a restaurant is tablecloths. Theo preferred cane and timber to tablecloths. To Theo, the difference between a restaurant and a café is status. To him, Greek cafés are burger joints or milk bars with names like The Paragon, The Niagara or The Olympia.
It’s a moot point anyway. Our place is a taverna by name and nature. It is The Little Greek Taverna. Lygon Street in the city. Open seven days, lunch and dinner.
Theo had arranged to meet Judith Hathaway from Hathaway Funerals in The Little Greek Taverna at eleven o’clock. Through the front window he watched her feed the parking meter and unlocked the door.
Inside, the chef and a kitchen hand were busy prepping and a waitress was setting tables.
Theo opened the door.
“Come in Judith. Good to see you.”
“How are you doing, Theo?”
“As well as can be… trying to keep busy.”
“How are the kids?”
“Also, as well as can be… I dropped Max off at a friend’s place. School holidays. Sophie is out of her coma. She knows what happened. She should be out of hospital on Friday, so funeral Saturday or even Monday will work.”
“As long as the police have finished their investigation.”
“Yes. They are seeing me and the kids this afternoon. Now that Sophie is awake.”
“Well, let’s get some of those finer details worked out…”
“Sure. We don’t open for another hour. Let’s go out the back to the courtyard. It’s quiet out there.”
The waitress approached them.
“How you doing Kirstin?” Theo asked.
“Fine, Mr Papadakis. Can I get you anything?”
“Coffee, Judith?” he asked.
“No thanks, Theo, I’m good.”
“We do good Aussie coffee. It’s not all Greek. Latte, cappuccino?”
“Water? Iced water?”
“Well, yes, thank you. A water would be nice.”
“Iced water and an espresso, thanks, Kirstin.”
Theo ushered Judith into the courtyard and to a table next to a fountain. He switched the water pump off and took a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.
“Like a cigarette?”
“Mind if I do?” Theo asked, pulling the ashtray towards him. ‘Too bad if you do,’ he thought.
“No, go right ahead.”
“Ta. They’re Karelia. Greek.” He lit the cigarette with his zippo lighter. It was part of his image. “I buy them online.” Other parts of Theo’s image were his waistcoats, gold chain jewellery and always polished Cuban-heel boots. They gave him a couple of inches in height and an audible presence when walking on floorboards.
Judith opened a folder and picked up her pen.
“I’m so glad we can now have more than ten people at a funeral. I have a feeling this one will be a big one…”
“Oh yes,” Theo said. “There’s family. John’s parents from Sydney. His brother and sister and their families, and we have a large extended family here. Friends. They have lots of friends. Work colleagues. Other people in real estate, Zoe’s work. Then there’s John’s work. Gosh. Sophie and Max’s friends, and their families…”
“And when it is sudden and a tragedy like this, you can get what we call a ‘fringe’ turn up.”
“Acquaintances, work colleagues and the like who may not have been as close as some people. I think it is a way of dealing with shock. And thoughts of mortality. Probably an order of service print run of 200. Maybe 250, hardly any difference in cost. We need to decide what goes in that. Photos, words… I can help with suggestions…”
“How late can we go with that? I’d like Irini’s input.”
“My wife. Well, ex-wife. Zoe’s mother. She is living back in Greece. She will be arriving early Thursday.”
“Late Thursday or first thing Friday will be fine. You still want to go with the church service and private cremation, rather than use our chapel?”
“That’s fine. I made a tentative booking for Saturday morning at the Greek Orthodox, South Melbourne. Eleven o’clock. The service will be about forty to fifty minutes. The priest sounded very nice. He said he knows your family.”
“We go back a way. We’re only Christmas and Easter types but John and Zoe married there… and the kids were christened there. He’s also quite progressive, so we can add some personal touches.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“A photo montage to a favourite song… Maybe You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban? Something that is positive for the kids.”
“Of course, the caskets won’t be open, for obvious reasons.”
He choked back a tear.
“You might want to think about music before the service,” said Judith. “Something reflective and thoughtful. And maybe something for when the caskets leave the church.”
“There’s a nice instrumental version of Wind Beneath My Wings… and maybe Over the Rainbow? The Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version is a nice one.”
“Don’t know that.”
“I’ll email a couple of suggestions to you.”
Kirstin put the water and coffee on the table with a small plate of nibbles.
“Thanks, Kirstin,” Theo said, pushing the plate towards Judith. “Koulourakia. Easter bikkies. Bit late for yours, a bit early for mine, but still tasty.”
“Ta.” Judith scribbled a note. “We will need the photos for the montage by Friday morning latest, too.”
“No problem. We’re going to have the wake here. On the music front for that one, I think Mikis Theodorakis might get an outing. Zorba’s Dance. That was Irini’s thought. We talked last night. She is one for celebrating their lives.”
“And I’d like Irini to be emcee. Is emcee the right word for a funeral?”
“Yes. That’s fine. Emcee or officiant.”
“She can work in tandem with the priest. He will have some words and prayers. Together they will make it a dignified celebration of life. Irini’s good. You’ll like her.”
“I’m sure I will. What about the eulogy?”
“I asked John’s business partner and friend, Malcolm, if he would do it. He said he would be honoured. John is… was an architect. Quite a large firm.”
A tear rolled down his cheek.
“No man could wish for a better daughter.”
Theo lit another cigarette.
He closed his eyes and saw a little girl on a swing.
Surprisingly, the ferry arrived and departed on time. I like to sit outside, up the bow. If it is a little rough you get a bit of sea-spray. If it’s calm, it’s all about the view and moving forward. You should always go to something, not away from something. I’m going to Pireus. Then to the airport. Then to Australia. Then to my family.
Naturally, a lot of my thoughts have been about those poor kids.
Sophie is seventeen going on thirty. Like a lot of teenagers, she knows everything, but she can be a delight. She’s funny and caring. She turns eighteen in September, just before her final exams. She’s got a boyfriend. I hope she isn’t too distracted from her studies.
And Max. He’s a good kid. Not too goody-goody. I smelt cigarettes on him when he came back from the cinema with some mates. It’s not hard to snaffle a few ciggies with a visit to Granddad. There are opened packets all over the house. Theo’s hopeless.
Max is fourteen going on fifteen and, like a lot of boys bolting through puberty, he thinks too much. Gets bullied too much. Worries too much. He probably thinks he’s the first kid adolescence ever happened to.
Important years for them coming up.
I’m thinking they should do a few hours work each week at The Little Greek Taverna. A bit of work for their pocket money and pick up some life skills. Give them an interest. A sense of belonging and contributing to family. Sophie would make an excellent waitress. She’s efficient and friendly. It would be a good part-time job while going to university, too.
Max could be a kitchen hand or bar useful.
I’d keep them away from upstairs though. Away from the illegal card games. Blackjack and poker. Not that I have any personal opposition to illegal card games. They paid off our first house.
I was never interested in learning to play cards. Tavli was more my speed – you know, backgammon. In Greece it is mostly a man’s game but I think Theo is the only bloke who could beat me. He’s very competitive.
No, I never played cards but I know how to memorise a deck. It’s a good party trick and the young ones can be spellbound to see such a skill. It doesn’t take memory as such, or even skill. It is a trick. Imagination meets reality.
Here’s how it works.
First you rename every card after a person or people… for example, there are four jacks… I made mine famous Jacks. The Jack of clubs is the one-armed golfer, Jack Newton… see, golfers use clubs… diamonds mean wealth so that suit has a common thread. That’s why I went for a rich Jack in Jack Nicholson… hearts mean love, so my Jack Lover-Boy is Jack Thompson, he was the first Cleo centrefold and he had a fifteen-year love affair with twin sisters. Jack with his Jills. That’s how I visualise him. And spades are used to dig graves so most of my spades are either dead or killers… And that’s why my fourth Jack is Jack the Ripper.
Then you need a journey of 52 steps where you can put your cards, or in this case, people. My journey goes from Flinders Street Station, up Swanston Street between St Paul’s Cathedral and Young and Jackson’s pub then right into Collins Street and on to Parliament House. The cards, or people, flip into place at the stops along that journey.
There are lots of landmarks along the way.
Who knows, Jack Thompson and his babes could be lying naked on a couch outside the tea room in the Block arcade with his hand tastefully covering his privates. Bold, beautiful and a little hairy.
Why am I telling you this?
Because the two of hearts card belongs to my grandkids, Sophie and Max, the two people I love most on the planet. Now.
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