“What do you do with yourself all day Jennifer?”
Now, there’s a question I’ve heard a few times over the last couple of years.
“Oh, you know. Keeping busy.”
The conversation continued as my friend tightened her grip on her husband.
Being a widow is a bit like being young and single.
The other females either pity you, feel sorry for you or think you have designs on their man.
Being single you appeared to be footloose and fancy-free.
I’m a bit beyond my prime, so I don’t think that the ‘cling tightly to my husband’ reaction had anything to do with that.
To some people, being a widow is seen as a type of disease.
It might be catching; so better to keep your distance.
Of course, this only exacerbates the loneliness.
“I’ve been helping out at the local Thrift Shop — sorting through donations, that kind of thing. It’s boring but fun at the same time. The people are nice.”
The people are a bit strange.
And not just the customers.
I work Tuesdays and Thursdays, mostly because no one else wants to work with Beryl and Anne.
They aren’t related except that they are ‘sisters in dislike.’ No one will work with them, and the place is too big for just two workers to manage.
Beryl was Head Mistress at a posh private girls school, and her husband won’t have her in the house during the day. He says that she frightens the hens so she’s not allowed home until it gets dark and the chickens are asleep.
At least, that’s the story she tells us.
Beryl has a habit of giving our customers the third degree.
Tuesdays and Thursdays have the lowest turnover of any of the seven days.
Personally, I don’t care.
Life’s too bloody short to worry about the Beryls of this world. We get along reasonably well. I let her do whatever she wants, and she leaves me alone.
I eat my lunch watching the kids playing on the school ground or I walk down to the creek and feed the ducks or the occasional magpie.
Afternoons are the worst.
Time drags, I get a bit sleepy, and it dawns on me that Alan won’t be there when I get home.
I pass the time by going through the donated clothes.
No one wants this job.
“How could you go through other people’s clothes? They might be dirty. You never know what they have been up to.”
“Most people wash the clothes before they donate them.”
“Even so. I don’t think I could.”
Well, you don’t have to do you?
Besides, to do anything useful you would have to loosen that grip you have on your husband. I think you are cutting off the circulation to his hand.
Obviously, I don’t say this bit, but I am thinking it.
“Sometimes I find money in the pockets.”
That made her loosen her grip.
“How much money?”
“Not much in one go, but there does seem to be a constant stream.”
Not exactly correct, but there had been the odd occasion.
“I found twenty dollars in a pair of Fletcher Jones slacks just last week.”
“Did you keep the money?”
“Of course not. What do you take me for? This is a charity Thrift Shop after all.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No offense taken but I do have to get back to work.”
That twenty came in handy.
Normally I bring a sandwich with me from home but not that day.
I went to the local pub for lunch and had an excellent Penne Calabrese. The chef who works at that pub used to work at one of the top restaurants in Melbourne.
He got sick of all the traveling and the late nights, so he established a little cafe up here in the Hills. It was breaking even, but the workload got him down, so he took the job at The Royal. A massive waste of talent, but he is happy, and as I’m a regular customer from back in the day, he does special dishes for me when I come in. He and Alan played basketball together when they were young. He tries not too, but he looks at me with sad eyes.
On that ‘twenty dollar day’ after my delicious lunch, I resumed my duties and attacked the pile of clothes that still needed sorting.
Most of the clothes were ordinary, but a very old gentleman’s suit caught my eye. The cut told me that the suit was ancient, possibly ninety years or more. The label was to reveal that the suit came from one of Melbourne’s top tailors in the early nineteen hundreds.
The suit had that dusty smell that old clothes get when they have been locked away for a long time, but the moths had not been feasting.
My instinct was to put the suit aside for a particular client who works for a costume designer. She also does a bit of costumer hiring for smaller production houses, particularly those that produce television period dramas.
She was going to love this suit.
Normally suits that survive from that era are a bit on the small side, but this one was for a man of slightly over six-foot.
If only there were hats to go with it.
I searched around, just in case, and sure enough, ‘The Sisters of Dislike’ had put out three old men’s hats that matched the era of the suit. I asked them if the hats came in at the same time as the suit but they just looked blankly at me.
I smiled and collected the hats.
There was a bit of protesting, but I pretended not to notice.
The hats were in good nick and the size told me that they belonged to a big bloke. All three were 7 and a quarter in the old measurement.
I put labels on the suit and the hats that told all staff not to sell them to anyone other than Shani Mischke, from ‘Curtain Call Costumes.’
The suit was heavy, probably because of the generous woolen fabric. But even so, it weighed a lot. I decided to look through the pockets to see if there was any hint as to the owner’s name.
I found an old coin in the coin pocket of the pants, but it would not be worth much these days. It was dated 1909 but was also very well-worn, so the suit was most likely younger than this.
The jacket produced the most exciting find.
A bundle of five handwritten letters tied with a blue silk ribbon. The letters were compressed, giving the impression that they had been carried in that pocket for a very long time. The envelopes were yellow with age, and the top of each had been torn open rather than cut, as you would expect with a letter opener.
I was reminded of the letter opener Alan bought when we were finally starting to get on our feet. We had struggled for so long and finally we were earning more than we were spending. It was solid silver with a large piece of amber as part of its handle. The handle also had handmade silver leaves. We thought it was the most beautiful thing we had seen, and it came in handy when we started our own business. Even now, I walk into the room where it is kept and use it to unseal the gas and electricity bills. When I hold it and use it, I remember Alan and those exciting times.
I didn’t need a letter opener, but I did approach the bundle of letters with great care. The blue ribbon was still in good condition and came undone without any damage. The letters were postmarked in Australia but were addressed to different French addresses, and at least, one seemed to be to a town in Belgium.
My heart stopped.
These were going to be letters addressed to an Australian World War One soldier; probably on active service. The letters were all dated 1917 or 1918.
The letter on the bottom of the pile proved to be the hardest to read.
It was in a different handwriting and informed a young soldier that his betrothed had died of Spanish Influenza.
I should not have opened that letter first.
I had to sit down.
I needed a cup of tea.
The ‘Sisters Of Dislike’ asked me what was wrong.
I showed them the letter.
They went very quiet.
Having been fortified by a large cup of tea, I sat down to read the other letters. They were so full of hope, particularly the later 1918 letters. I guess that even back here they were anticipating the end of the War.
“Don’t put yourself in danger dearest; the end is so near.” As if our soldiers had any say in the matter, both sides went on killing each other right up to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
How did this soldier survive the final months of the war and how did he cope when he got back home?
When I got home that night, I looked him up.
He was very brave and like all Australian troops in that war, he volunteered.
He was twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the DCM for an action in Belgium in 1916.
There were two other soldiers with the same unusual surname, and both were listed as lost in action.
When Shani Mischke arrived to collect the suit I told her the story and I could see the tears forming in her eyes.
She promised to treat the suit with the respect it deserved.
We didn’t know if the letters should stay with the suit or not.
In the end, we decided to send the letters to the War Memorial in Canberra.
The young soldier and his betrothed were together now, and I wondered if they would approve of my actions, but I guess it is the living who make those decisions and the dead just watch patiently.