Who was the lady Mr A was writing love notes to?
When I went round to Mr Nicolas Anatassiades’ flat on my first day as his part-time housekeeper, he explained straight away the real reason he’d hired me.
“My daughter Toulla’s busy with work and family and can’t watch out for me like she thinks she should. So I hired you to keep Toulla from being a headache.
“You vacuum the flat and help with the laundry, but you also keep Toulla from nagging me about a retirement home. You understand?”
I nodded my head.
“I’ll spend the rest of my life in my own place – and then ‘the end’. No nursing home, no hospital for me.”
I didn’t care for his arm-waving, rather dramatic “the end”.
“Sir –” I couldn’t get my tongue round his last name – “the end wouldn’t involve a large quantity of pills, would it?”
“What?” He looked at me as if I were crazy. “No! Toulla would give me such a headache.” He laughed at the absurdity of his observation and patted my arm. “Not to worry. No, no. Nothing drastic.”
As he turned from me to begin the tour of his flat, I thought I heard him say, “I have other plans.”
Which plans were these? I wondered.
Mr A’s flat consisted of two bedrooms, one of which he used as a study – his computer dominating a desk – a combined kitchen-dining-sitting area, a bathroom and a small separate room for the laundry. He introduced me to his cat, Olive.
“Sometimes I’ll ask you to run errands,” he said. “I don’t drive any more so you can use my parking space at the rear of the building.”
When we returned to his kitchen he asked me if a twice-a-week arrangement was acceptable.
“That’s fine,” I agreed, happy to have my first contract in my new endeavour.
“OK, then,” he said rubbing his hands together and broadly smiling. “That’s the business end, Julie. You sit down, I’ll make coffee. We’ll eat Greek biscuits and become friends.”
Those crescent-shaped cookies dusted with icing sugar were so good. When I told Mr A I was addicted already, he laughed.
“They’re my favourite, too,” he admitted, hand cupped under his chin to catch the crumbs.
I settled nicely into the routine of cleaning his flat. Olive the cat began greeting me at the door. Mr A and I shared coffee, those biscuits and a chat every time I came.
His daughter phoned Mr A daily.
“Julie!” he called during one call. “Yell ‘hello’ so Toulla knows you’re not a figment of my imagination.”
“Hello!” I hollered.
“Satisfied?” Mr A asked into the phone.
As I returned to my dusting, I passed his open study door. His computer was as he had left it to answer the phone.
On the screen, I couldn’t help but notice, was a love letter, it seemed. How he longed to see her again, he’d written. He referred to her exquisite beauty and that his sketches didn’t do her justice.
Which sketches? I wondered, my curiosity piqued.
Then I heard the telephone receiver clatter and hurried to the bedroom before Mr A caught me nosing into affairs that weren’t my concern.
It was two weeks later, on the first occasion Mr A and I conspired, that I accidentally discovered those sketches.
“I’m taking a cab to my friend Oscar’s. We play a little game of chess,” he explained as he shrugged into his scuffed leather jacket. Then he laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Julie, I give you a warning. You work hard. I like you. It doesn’t matter to me if you put your feet up and read a book while I’m out.
“But today I think Toulla’s giving a surprise inspection. If you hear a key in the lock you scramble to look busy, OK?
“Otherwise Toulla complains you take advantage of an old man.
“Then, in your place, she hires some cousin who reports back to her. Neither of us needs those kinds of headaches.”
Despite his warning, I didn’t hear the key in the lock. I was halfway under Mr A’s bed attempting to retrieve an overturned book from the far corner with the vacuum hose when the vacuum cleaner suddenly shut down and a voice above me called, “Hello…”
I jerked my head up so fast that it slammed against the underside of the bed. When I wormed my way out rubbing the growing goose egg on my crown, the woman standing over me said, “Sorry.”
She wasn’t that sorry, I thought.
“I’m Nicolas’s daughter, Toulla. You must be Julie.”
“Yes. Nice to meet you,” I said.
“I dropped into see Nicolas,” she explained, glancing around.
“He’s visiting Oscar,” I said.
As you well know.
“Oh. In that case I’ll let you carry on.”
“You’ll let yourself out, then,” I said, pounding the switch on the cleaner, roaring it once more into life.
She narrowed her eyes at my impudence and then turned on her heel.
Once she’d left in a supposed huff, I finally snagged one of the pages of the book and drew it out from under the bed. I wouldn’t have examined it had I hadn’t been ticked at Toulla and in need of distraction.
I switched off the cleaner, flipped the book over and came face to face with… me.
My eyes were closed in exquisite pleasure as I nibbled one of Mr A’s biscuits. It was a pencilled sketch of my head, shoulders and hands, with Julie munching kourabeides printed underneath.
The portrait wasn’t good enough to hang in a gallery. Yet it was drawn with affection, and it made me smile.
As I flipped through the pages, I found sketches of Olive, one of her dancing on her hind legs batting at a feather. Portraits of his two grandsons, his late wife and of Toulla – he’d captured her imperious air very well.
Then there were the two portraits of her, the woman to whom his email letters had been addressed. Persephone.
The way in which Mr A had captured her elicited a gasp.
She was beautiful in the classic sense. High forehead, thin straight nose, large dark eyes, a generous mouth. Tightly curled hair cascaded to her shoulders, framing her heart-shaped face.
Her pose was regal in contrast to Toulla’s imperiousness. Yet there was also a sense of sorrow about her, even in the smile that curved her lips.
However Mr A had captured her eyes – there was a disturbing depth to them – I found I could not look into them for long.
One of the portraits was entitled Persephone offering a pomegranate. In the palm of her extended hand rested a round fruit with a closed crown of leaves at the top.
I knew nothing about pomegranates and assumed the fruit was native to Greece.
Had Persephone once offered a pomegranate to Mr A? Had he accepted?
I closed the book and tucked it under the pillow from where I assumed it had tumbled. My discovery of the sketches remained secret, and I never asked about Persephone. I didn’t want Mr A thinking Toulla had persuaded me into becoming her spy.
As the weeks slipped past I became increasingly aware of two things. That Mr A was spending more time at his computer drafting letters to his Persephone. That their tone, those I happened to glimpse over his shoulder while working around him, had switched from longing to a sense of urgency.
His thoughts were often with her now, he wrote. He couldn’t wait to see again. When would she come?
My other observation was that Mr A seemed to tire more easily, would fall asleep in his chair, that his chats over coffee were less energetic. He wasn’t getting younger, I thought.
Not long after our first conspiracy, Mr A and I entered into our second. I was re-shelving books in his study, his computer shut down, when he hurried breathlessly into the room.
“Julie, I forget today is my doctor’s appointment. I’ll be late if I wait for a cab. Will you drive me?”
“Sure,” I said, grabbing my handbag.
His appointment was at the hospital, which meant he was seeing a specialist, not his GP. Miraculously I found a parking spot steps from the entrance and insisted I accompany him.
Once he’d registered with the receptionist he told me not to wait.
“I’ll take a cab home.”
I waited all the same and was glad I did. When he reappeared from his appointment his expression was grim. Until I stood up and waved.
“Julie!” He took my arm as if he were a gentleman escorting his lady. As we made our way to the elevator, though, he leaned his weight against me.
“Let’s have coffee in the cafeteria,” I said, wanting to give him time to recover. He smiled, grateful for my concern.
“A coffee would be nice,” he agreed.
Once we’d sat down at a table near the window he made a request.
“We don’t tell Toulla about my doctor’s appointments, OK? Or we have all kinds of headaches.”
Appointments? I thought, distressed. Were his visits with Oscar subterfuge?
“Nothing can be done and I want to be at home,” he declared. “My wife’s experience in hospital wasn’t good.”
I reached for his hand.
“Mr A. I’m so sorry. Won’t you need someone to care for you, though? I have no training as a nurse.”
He gave me a reassuring smile.
“No. My plan, OK?”
That uneasiness I’d felt for some time was now accompanied by a ghost-walking-over-my-grave sort of chill.
As soon as we arrived at the flat, Mr A went straight to his computer. I took a carton of soup that Toulla regularly provided from his fridge freezer and began heating it. I wanted to make sure he had some lunch.
When I went to his study to alert him soup was ready, I found him drafting another letter to Persephone.
After my scooter accident, when we first met, I couldn’t go with you. My plans to emigrate were in place, my fortune to be made, you understand. Yet I never forgot you. I long now for your embrace.
Was she a former girlfriend he’d left in Greece? Was he asking her to come and care for him? He couldn’t possibly be thinking of going with her anywhere.
My conspiracy with Mr A had me worried. His “plan”, whatever it was, even more so. Before I left for the weekend I had his promise he would consult his daughter.
Was it coincidence or fate that the greengrocer’s where I shopped for groceries on Saturday morning had a delivery of pomegranates?
I balanced the grapefruit-sized fruit in my hand, its skin leathery to my touch. My thoughts never far from Mr A, I bought two of these odd fruits, one to sample myself and one as a treat for him.
The number of seeds inside the fruit surprised me. I’d no idea which part I should eat so I looked on the Internet.
Pomegranate. The table of contents listed a section on the symbolism of the pomegranate in Ancient Greece. A name linked to the fruit – Persephone.
Icy fingers gripped my heart. Surely Mr A didn’t mean that Persephone?
My regular working day was Tuesday, but I couldn’t wait. On Monday morning I let myself into Mr A’s flat.
“It’s me, Julie.”
I found him in bed, Olive beside him. I didn’t like the tightness around his eyes and mouth, nor the bluish cast to his lips. This seemed a sudden change for the worse. I knew he hadn’t told Toulla.
“Mr A, I’m sorry, but I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No, no,” he protested. “My plan. Persephone’s coming. My computer.” He waved in the direction of his study.
Displayed on the screen was a reply to Mr A’s missives.
My dearest Nicolas, I have not forgotten. I will soon come.
Persephone. His former girlfriend, right? Flying from Greece?
My hands trembled as I searched his contact files for an email address that didn’t seem to exist.
“Mr A, does your friend know your street address? Where is she travelling from? How soon will soon be?”
I found myself trying to stay rational, rooted in the real world.
“Come, sit down.” Mr A. beckoned. “Soon, she said, soon. Hmm? Not to worry. After her visit, you do whatever.”
He took my hand in his thin frail one as I sat on the chair beside his bed.
“I wrote you a formidable reference, OK? Hard working, loyal, brave.” Brave? “You’ll have to lie a little to Toulla. Or she gives us many headaches.”
At that moment the bedroom door swung open on its hinge. A draught, right? But Olive was instantly awake, sitting up, her eyes and ears focused on the doorway. She mewed the welcome she usually gave people she recognised.
Mr A’s face broke into a smile.
“Persephone,” he whispered, his eyes lit with delight. “I knew you’d come.”
At first I hoped he was hallucinating. Then I heard the soft rustle of fabric as if someone approached from across the room. Fear of the unknown clamped me immobilised to the chair.
“Nicolas” was a breath on the air.
Mr A closed his eyes and raised his head.
As their lips touched, she became for an instant visible, more beautiful than any of Mr A’s sketches. A shimmering image clad in diaphanous robes. I dared not look into her eyes.
As Mr A rested his head on his pillow he breathed a sigh of contentment, then grew still. Olive licked his face and curled up at his shoulder. My eyes brimmed with tears as I checked for a pulse.
And there in his cupped hand lay pomegranate seeds. The pomegranate, fruit of the dead, according to Greek mythology.
Persephone, the Greek goddess of death.
Once Toulla got over the worst of her grief – she really did love her dad – she entrusted Olive to me. I also kept the sketch book, of which only I seemed to be aware.
I often turned to Mr A’s sketch of me and to the one self-portrait he’d done.
Very rarely did I search out his drawings of Persephone, which I found too unsettling to look at.
I did take comfort that Persephone was also associated with the change in seasons, the return of spring, of rebirth and resurrection.
Perhaps sometime in the future Mr A’s path will intersect with mine again. I look forward to that.
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