(from The Piranha Dances)
Another Wednesday. Another afternoon with the Postcard Ladies. Mrs Trudovic liked her routine – better to have pleasant things planned than to be subjected to spontaneous drama, she thought.
“Oh, Emily, that’s a lovely dress. Such striking colours.” Mrs Angethorpe always started with enthusiasm and energy but could develop a little cattiness as she tired so Mrs Trudovic was relieved to get her dose of attention as they met on the pathway.
“Thank you, Patricia. It’s an old favourite.” She didn’t have clothing preferences but such a comment was expected.
The Krank’s house was different from the others in the street. And in the neighbourhood. It had probably blended in with all the others once but when Martin Krank had retired and indulged his passion for all things European, he had taken time to transform the simple two-bedroom bungalow into his interpretation of a villa in wine country. Unfortunately, the Krank’s house was timber and in excellent condition, so Martin had applied his ingenuity and covered the exterior with a stone-look veneer complete with artistically positioned cracks and the occasional cobweb for a look of authenticity.
“He did some with a stencil that he made and the rest are just freehand … with a paintbrush of Evan’s,” Janice said, catching Mrs Trudovic’s gaze at the faux ageing above the front door.
“Mm,” Mrs Trudovic replied. “That must have taken him a while.”
Janice Krank ushered the ladies inside past some terracotta vases. “Ages. Any longer and they’d have appeared by themselves,” she said quietly to Mrs Trudovic with a raised eyebrow.
“Emily! Patricia! So good to see you. Isn’t this good? Like being in France or somewhere.” Mellora Hedson was already inside with a small entourage of the more acquiescent ladies.
Mrs Trudovic set her plate of chocolate caramel slices on the table and looked around. She didn’t mind in the slightest how others chose to live their lives but she had realised some time ago that inquisitiveness and appraisal was required. It was an effort, but it took more energy to explain her non-conformist behaviour, so she copied the rituals of interest, examination and comment.
She looked around for an appropriate subject. “Oh!” she exclaimed suddenly, without any artifice. “Are those real grapes?”
The ceiling was strung with vines that appeared to have bunches of succulent fruit dripping from them.
Janice arrived with a pot of tea and glanced up. “Some are. Not the vines, though. They’re cloth and string I think.”
Mrs Trudovic looked confused. “What do you mean, ‘some are’?”
“Martin buys new bunches every week and puts them in the prime positions. The others are plastic, I think.”
“He really has taken this … gone to a great deal of effort, hasn’t he?”
“Oh yes,” Janice replied. “There’s always something to be done – something that never would have occurred to me. But it keeps him busy. And I never want for a snack.”
Mrs Trudovic laughed. The other ladies, though, seemed to be distracted. There was some muttering in the area of Mrs Trudovic’s chocolate caramel slices.
“Emily, dear?” Mellora seemed to have been elected spokesperson.
“Mm? Is something wrong?”
“Well, these look very good, dear, very good – but do you think they’re right for us? We should probably all be having something with fruit. Something like … the bun loaf Katrin brought the other week. Or Janice’s apricot-sultana slice?”
Mrs Trudovic sighed to herself. Why was it so often thought that people of a certain age should treat themselves with dried fruit bread or jam sponge? Why couldn’t they have chocolate cheesecake or mint-chip ice-cream sundaes? “Well, I thought this would be nice for a change,” she said, smiling sweetly at Mellora and her chorus.
“That’s a good thought, dear, in its way … but some of us might find these quite rich, I think.”
“Well, those that do, can leave them to those that don’t,” Mrs Trudovic answered practically. “And I see that you’ve brought your lovely scones, Mellora, so I’m sure those’ll suit everyone beautifully.”
“They are gluten free so they’re good for you,” noted Mellora with some pride. “Healthy eating’s something we all need to be keeping in mind, I think.”
“Well, my slices are probably thick with gluten – I really couldn’t tell you. I don’t think they’re anything-free, but I’ve got this far so I’ve decided I might as well eat what I feel like from now on.”
Several of the ladies looked a little shocked. Mellora had a disapproving expression. “Well, I want to be around for my grandchildren so I’m glad I don’t have that attitude. That’s something you don’t have it worry about I suppose, Emily dear.” Then she took it upon herself to ‘gracefully’ change the topic. “So, Janice, where did you get that donkey? It’s really very lifelike.”
The model stood in the corner next to the dining table. It was grey – flocked fuzz on something else distinctly artificial –but having become a little balding in places, Martin had obviously touched those areas up with some darker grey paint.
“Martin picked it up at an auction. He says that they use them in places like Spain to transport the produce to market. I used to find it a bit distracting but I’m used to it now,” Janice shrugged.
“Did they keep them in the house though?” Mrs Angethorpe voiced the discrepancy many of the ladies had been considering.
“No, but when we had it outside, all the dogs in the neighbourhood used to come around and bark at it. So Martin did that mural in the corner so that it would look at if was outside.”
“The scenery’s very good,” complimented Mellora. “Are those grapes again, growing by the river?”
“I think they’re olives,” noted Janice. “But they’re far away.”
“Such a good idea to start coming to other people’s houses,” Katrin McIntyre commented unexpectedly from her traditional silence. “It’s fascinating to see other people’s decorating ideas.”
“Well, they’re not mine. Except for the curtains. And Martin thought they probably weren’t antique or sun-kissed enough so he used some bleach and cold tea to authenticize them.” Janice glanced towards Mrs Trudovic. “I hadn’t heard that word before Martin retired and now I hear it every day,” she murmured.
Mrs Trudovic liked Janice. She had seemed a little quiet when they’d first met. And when she’d begun to speak up a little more, her comments had been of the conventional variety – weather, food and health, prices and the like – and of the expected perspective – ‘not the way it/they used to be’. And, as a result – stupidly, she now realised – Mrs Trudovic had assumed that Janice was a mini-Mellora or a more chatty Katrin. In the last few months, however, Mrs Trudovic had seen more that had made her tut-tut silently at herself for judging from the few exterior pieces of information. Having mentally sneered at others for just that crime, she had blithely sashayed along committing it herself. So Janice had become a reminder not to make assumptions. And an admonition that Mrs Trudovic herself was as flawed as anyone. And would continue to be.
“I can’t believe the price of fruit at the moment,” Mellora was exclaiming.
“Ridiculous,” mumbled Katrin in agreement.
And so it went, through bites of scone and slurps of tea while Mrs Trudovic nodded and frowned appropriately and wondered why donkeys – even artificial ones – seemed to have such long eyelashes. Perhaps the dusty continental roads and breezy English beaches had led to the survival of the dewy-eyed lash-batting variety. But then English beaches weren’t renowned for their sand so donkey eyes were unlikely to suffer from the infiltration of small particles.
“I call her Machiavelli,” whispered Janice, catching Mrs Trudovic’s gaze yet again. “She looks a bit evil with those unblinking eyes … and she’s got power over Martin, I can tell you. He spends more time grooming her than himself!”
“She is a bit eerie,” agreed Mrs Trudovic. “You must feel like you’re being watched all the time.”
“At first I put a bucket over her head. And then Martin came in and said that was cruel – that if I had to do it, a scarf or a hat would be better.” Janice rolled her eyes. “But it keeps him happy – all this ‘authenticizing’. And it does no harm.” She smiled. “One night a week, he makes pasta and on Saturdays we have tapas and sangria. … So I pick the odd grape from the ceiling and let him get on with it.”
After all the scones were scoffed and a quite a few of the chocolate caramel slices has surprisingly disappeared, the ladies got out the postcards and the list and did their duty.
.Dear Aziz I hope you and your family are well and time is passing easily for you. One day I hope too that you’ll have the opportunity to visit one or two of the places on this postcard – if you’d like to. I saw something recently that made me think of you – I know painting is your passion but this was a dance. It was a beautiful story about waiting and finding the joy in the things along the way. At least I think that was what it was about, I’m afraid I’m not an expert. I know it must be harder than I could ever imagine for you but I hope there are some spots amongst it all that give you something close to happiness. You are in my thoughts often. Emily . . . Dear Manineia My name is Emily and I’m writing to you because I heard that you might like to have a friend to write to you from another country. The map on this postcard shows where I live and where you live. At first I thought we were far away from each other but now I see that you’re just a thumbnail away so suddenly I feel as if we’re very close. I hear you like football so I think I will start watching it a bit more. My husband George and I met playing sport but my knees have got a bit creaky since those days so I’m in perfect form for watching it now. I hope your family are well and that you are enjoying school. From Postcard Lady Emily .
“Do you have any of those painting ones left, Emily?”
Mrs Trudovic looked up. Janice was looking through the selection of cards on the table. The other ladies had disappeared.
“Oh, I’m not sure. I think I put them all out so whatever’s there’s what we’ve got left.”
“The others are brewing a fresh pot if you want some more tea,” Janice commented while they scanned the postcards.
“Here’s a Gaugin. Would that do?”
Janice examined it. “I’m not sure. Might the prison authorities frown on it, do you think?”
“Maybe a landscape?”
“Might be better,” Janice nodded.
“There’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ but that’s depressing.”
“Well, it’s open to interpretation … and it’s better than those floral things Mellora sends. They’re not even proper paintings.” Janice looked up, instantly apologetic. “Sorry, I’m starting to think I might be becoming a bit of a postcard snob.”
“Oh, I’ve been one of those for ages,” reassured Mrs Trudovic. “But my grandmother always said that you’ve got to have standards. That’s my justification.”
“More tea?” Mellora and the rest returned carrying the pot of tea into the room as if it were to be presented to a monarch.
“Thank you, Mellora,” Mrs Trudovic said. “That’d be lovely.” Regal power and excessive responsibility were things Mrs Trudovic had never coveted. She had found herself beginning to wonder if those that did were, in fact, the least equipped to deal with the burden. To be so self-focussed as to be ambitious surely meant that your ability to think of others’ needs was already impaired. She took a sip of tea to settle her thoughts. It was becoming a habit to dwell on weighty matters as she wrote postcards. The circumstances of the recipients often led Mrs Trudovic to ruminate on serious issues and she wasn’t sure if she was well-informed enough to even be musing over them.
.Dear Manfred This is a pelican. It’s a big bird that can fly as well as paddle through the water like a duck. Its beak is not just long but the lower part is very stretchy so the pelican can hold lots of fish in it before it swallows them. Then the beak looks like a big bag sagging down towards the ground. I hope your mother is getting much better and that your sisters are enjoying going to school with you. From Postcard Lady Emily
When the other ladies had each written their card and finished their third or fourth cup of tea, they began to pack things up. Mrs Trudovic scooped up the remaining cards and slid them into her bag. She removed the lid from the postage fund tin and did a cursory count of the contents.
“We might be a bit short, ladies,” she said gently. “Should we all put in another donation?”
“Oh, are you sure, Emily? I thought we’d done that last week,” Mellora queried.
Janice looked up from piling saucers onto a tray. “No, that was weeks ago. We’re due to top up.” She went to her handbag by the door and extracted her purse.
After the tin was restocked, everyone was ready to leave.
“Another useful afternoon,” decreed Mellora as they swarmed towards the door.
“Such an interesting house,” nodded Patricia Angethorpe towards their hostess. Then she turned to Mellora, looking darkly from under conspiratorial lids. “Those cobwebs would put me off,” she muttered. “I’d be dusting them interminably.”
“Thanks, Janice,” Mrs Trudovic smiled brightly, ignoring the whispers. “Hope Martin doesn’t mind but I ate a few grapes when everyone was in the kitchen.”
* * *