Nina pulled her thin cardigan around her cold body but warmth evaded her. She turned on the gas to have the hot jets warm her hands for a moment, wasting precious gas, of course. She so hated this time of the month. Down to her last few dollars. Waiting on a cheque from Joe, her ex. Always tardy with the payments now that he had a new woman in his life, a younger version of herself, someone had told her. Someone could have kept that piece of information to themselves, thank you.
Not that she even wanted to rely on him in any manner, form or shape. He’d divorced her, meaning they had sold their home. He, of course had needed half the proceeds to house his new love. And Nina, to find a much smaller place, the repayments exorbitant. How could she ever get ahead? Then there was that awful accident at the cinema where she had misjudged the escalator, tripped and fallen heavily on her hand and knee, both of which took so long to heal. Hospital bills, chemist bills, tiresome waits at the doctors’ surgeries and outpatient clinics. Nina had lost her job due to the accident.
So, things weren’t looking all that rosy, but she refused to go down. She could smile and hope it would get better. Scrounging in the pantry for food, any food, she found a tin of tuna, a good stand-by in times of need. Often when the little tins of tuna were on special, Nina would buy a dozen or so at a time.
She’d learned of the many ways one could serve tuna. This morning she would have it ‘au naturel’ that is, straight from the tin, on toast and with just a touch of lemon. With a cup of coffee, Nina felt she had breakfasted well. But who was she kidding? It was such a strain, all this scrimping and scraping. She felt she was fast becoming the mistress of the make-do, of getting by, stretching it a bit to make ends meet. It did weary her.
Draining the last mouthful of coffee, Nina decided to drive over to the little store in the larger shopping complex, a pre-loved clothes store where, if visited at the right time, one could pick up a real bargain. She had seen a rather nice winter coat in a lovely shade of lilac. Fortunately, fashion goes in cycles. If you wait long enough those very items that you were about to put in the charity bin or take to a pre-loved clothing store became fashionable again, the coat in question, an example. Such a nice colour for winter. She only hoped it would still be hanging there. Nina had tried to push it to the back of the racks of clothing, hoping others wouldn’t see it. I suppose, she thought, I could have asked them to hold it, but at the time she’d had only enough money for food and petrol.
So, Nina donned her best winter clothes … a soft pink sweater that still did things for her complexion, a classy oldish jacket left behind by a daughter and her soft check trousers with a nice cut, all of which lifted her spirits somewhat. Venturing out into a grey miserable day, she would first buy flowers at the little flower shed next to the garage where she also needed to buy some petrol. Her little yellow ‘beetle’ Volkswagen barely maintained and on the verge of complete collapse, needed an overhaul she could not afford. She would trust her luck today.
Pulling into the petrol bay, buying the least amount of petrol she could, trying not to feel or look embarrassed as she handed over the paltry amount, Nina then drove the few metres to the flower shed.
Her friendship with the owner, Jill had blossomed over the past year as Nina would not give up her habit of buying herself flowers once a week. Such a luxury and sometimes it was only the one bloom. Flowers and their beautiful perfume always gave her hope. Outside the stand was a small pine tree in a half-barrel tub, a bonsai tree not doing what it was supposed to – not miniature, but not tall either, rather squat looking. It had been that way for as long as Nina had been buying flowers. They called it the ‘wishing tree’ and people could donate, throwing a coin into the little rockery and making a wish.
Inside an older man, the only other customer, browsed. Being winter, colourful blooms were not plentiful, but there were camellias, beautiful pale pinks with soft stripes of white, one of which Nina chose. While Jill wrapped her purchase, Nina stood thinking about making a wish. Oh, she could wish that the seal on her fridge could be repaired, or her muffler adjusted so she didn’t sound like a log-hauling truck as she putt-putted along. Or just wish everyone a happy day. Easier. Meanwhile, Jill had just put up a sign, ‘Help wanted, part time, apply within’.
“What hours does the job entail?” Nina asked. Jill replied: “I need someone three days a week. I’ve been offered a position doing the flowers for a hospitality inn. I’m so excited. Would you be interested?”
“Well. Yes, I could manage that. Could I sort it out with you on the way back?” As she walked out, Nina threw a coin into the well of the wishing tree and made her wish, at the same time picking up a shiny folded card from the floor and pocketing it without any thought.
Over at the shopping centre, she decided she would have another coffee. Sipping it slowly, hand wrapped around the warming heat of the cup, Nina people watched for a while.
Ahh, the coffee and the warmth of the centre was comforting, the crowds of people grew, probably all shopping in the heated complex to beat the winter cold. Having finally finished the coffee, walking over to the pre-loved clothing store from which drifted the mellow aromas of lavender, rose and patchouli, she saw her lilac coat being tried on. The coat looked so nice on the woman, it suited her colouring and was the right size.
Nina watched hopefully. She might put it back. But the woman did a little twirl, more or less to say, ‘Lovely, I’ll take it, thanks’. Nina was disappointed but made her way into the large, bustling supermarket to do her food shop. She was assailed by the smell of food, and though she had eaten her tuna just a short while ago, she felt a sudden hunger. The food smelt tantalising. Nina joined the line of people sampling little vegetarian sausages on warm flat breads, then rejoined the queue for seconds.
At the fruit and vegetable market little thimblefuls of fruit and juice were being offered. After sampling a number of these, she wrote her result on the cards provided, along with her phone number. Hopefully free samples could be in the offing and a case or so of drinks or fruit might be deposited on her verandah.
After wandering a while longer, Nina began her shopping. Just at that time the girl with the mark-down gun started zapping items of food. Nina followed behind her, as did other customers, all snapping up bargains. Moving to the check-out aisle, an overfull trolley pushed by an impatient shopper ran over her foot, the owner ignorant of the mishap. Nina was momentarily overwhelmed. Now her toe hurt, her knees ached and her hand spasmed, her good humour flown out the door. For a moment, she felt wretched. To make her feel worse, all the trollies around her were piled with so much food it made her envious.
Peering around, she surreptitiously began putting food into her shoulder bag. Not much, some dark chocolate, nuts, biscuits, indiscriminate items.
Then she felt mortified. ‘My gosh, what have I come to?’ she wondered.
While the check-out girl scanned the honest items, fear rose up through her body and Nina felt her skin turning red, and she began to shake. Then she noticed two store detectives heading her way.
“Oh, and these items, I nearly forgot,” Nina hurriedly retrieved the items from her bag and even volunteered to show the inside of the bag. The detectives turned away or maybe they were just ordinary shoppers. The check-out girl was oblivious to it all.
Departing the store, Nina was not happy with her situation. In her car, resting her now sore leg and foot, she took stock, thinking about the state of her life and what had nearly happened. So far out of character she shocked herself. So, no money coming in, no job yet, but maybe Jill’s offer would work out. Joe’s cheque should surely be in the mail today. If not, perhaps Jill could give her the first week’s wage as a favour to tide her over. Moreover, the reason for the trip to the shops in the first place, the lilac coat, was sadly not to be hers.
Outside, the sky was still grey and threatening to rain, thunder rumbling around. Nina hoped she could get home before the cloud burst. Fortune smiled on her. Home, inside the house, the flickering light indicated a message. A brief one from Jill. “Job’s yours, if you want it. Can you start Monday, and would you pop down and sign the forms?” Saved, Nina thought.
Her little car sounded so much better as it chugged down the hill. More life in it yet, maybe. She met Jill with a hug, sorted out the necessary details and signed the relevant papers. An older man appeared, obviously looking for something.
“Excuse me miss, I wonder if you happened to pick up a Scratchie?” he asked. “I’m sure I dropped it when I pulled my wallet out. You were buying a camellia and so was I. I like to go home and sit with a cup of tea, take my time scratching my ticket. But when I got home, I couldn’t find the ticket. Came all the way back here retracing my steps.”
“Oh yes,” Nina remembered slipping it into her pocket. After a quick feel in both pockets, she brought the folded ticket out and handed it over. Jill hadn’t had many customers that morning and so remembered the man.
It hadn’t been scratched and the man, rather than wait until he got back home with his cup of tea, scratched it with a 20-cent coin while Nina and Jill looked over his shoulder. As they watched, they all realised he had won a jackpot. Not huge but certainly enough … and no-one could quite believe it.
He grasped Nina’s hand: “Thank you for returning it to me.”
“My goodness, fancy it being in my pocket all that time. I was wealthy for a moment and didn’t know it. Well, what will you do with all that money?” Nina asked.
He didn’t pause, just said, “I’d like to share it with you two ladies. You could have claimed it as yours and I would have no way of proving it was mine. I have no family to share it with.”
They began excitedly chatting together. Friendships made.
At home, there was a cheque from Joe – six months payment and some extra. It was the last, he wrote, so cutting their ties forever. And what had started as a grey, cold day ended in sunshine – Nina with a job, finality with Joe, and quite a bit of money … but of course no lilac coat, and possibly no more tuna for a while. Perhaps with her newfound wealth, she could choose another coat from any store of her liking or even a pre-loved clothing store.
Perhaps a little bit of magic was woven at the wishing tree on that cold winter’s day.
Author: Marion Smith
Being an avid reader from an early age gave Marion a passion for words and writing and a curiosity about people, things and ideas. She now finds writing each day keeps her anchored. After her husband’s death, she wrote about grief as a way of dealing with her sadness. She finds pleasure in writing about everyday life with all its ordinariness, its quirks, its humour and its kindnesses. In 2019 she became a member of Karrinyup Writer’s Club in WA.