City of Whitehorse
By Fiona Hardy
Edited by André Dao
On a cloudy Tuesday in October, Coral waited on the platform at Blackburn station in the same salmon-pink pantsuit she had worn to Mac’s funeral six weeks earlier. Though she had worried that someone might tell her it was an inappropriate outfit for the occasion, despite being his favourite colour on her, no one had seen fit to criticise a widow after all and today it perfectly matched the handbag that fit her notebook, a sandwich, a bottle of water and, out of habit, two muesli bars. When the train pulled up and she walked on board, no one put their hand out to steady her when it lurched before she sat down.
It was only one stop to Nunawading, where she walked to the industrial estate, passing the desolate smokestack surrounded by rubble and an expanse of grass and dirt. Every month since he retired, Mac had walked by here with a velvet bag of gems to sell to Graham Northumberland, a man, Mac liked to say, who paid little and gave away less. His store was tucked between two warehouses and had bars on the windows; when she opened the door, the handle came off and she dropped it in surprise.
“You watch yourself now,” came a rough voice from a dark corner. “This is a fragile environment.”
She bent to retrieve the handle, adjusting to the light and finding Graham’s face behind a metal desk, carved into an expressionless mask. “I’m Coral McEwan,” she said. “My husband was Joe McEwan.”
“All right,” he said.
“I just wanted you to know that my h-husband has passed away.” She had practised it, this line, as she brushed her teeth in front of the mirror. “I’m here to take his name off the mailing list.”
“All right,” he said again. “I’ve already done that.” He picked up a tattered clipboard and showed her a thick black line through a name. “I saw it in the paper. You’ll be getting rid of his lathe, I expect.”
“I suppose so,” she said. She hadn’t thought about it.
“Not worth anything,” he sniffed.
Coral, who had lived through months of Mac’s research, said, “I think it might be.”
“Only worth the postage,” he said. “I could take it off your hands.”
“No thank you,” she said.
“I can still reach you at the same number?”
“Please don’t,” Coral said, backing away. “It’s too soon.”
“Tomorrow then,” he called as she left.
The train was quieter this time, and she sat gratefully on a seat. In the three minutes before arriving in Mitcham, she got out her notebook, crossed out 1. Precious Things, and sighed.
Upstairs at Tall & Trim, waiting for someone to answer the bell that rang when she came inside—the door handle stayed intact this time—she wandered to the floor-to-ceiling windows and looked down at the people walking along Mitcham’s main street so carelessly, as if no one had ever died. Eventually, a young man she didn’t recognise came out from behind a doorway she had thought was a change room, and said, “I’m sorry, do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Coral said, and held her breath before saying: “I’m here to let you know that my husband, Joe McEwan, has passed away.” No stutter now, she thought. “Phillip made his suits, so I would like to take our address off your mailing list.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the young man said, his hand on his chest.
“Yes,” Coral said, because it was a statement that had no good response.
He whisked open a laptop so flat she’d assumed it was a placemat. Coral added politely, “He liked Phillip’s suits a lot.”
“I’m sorry that he’s interstate on business this week. I’ll be sure to tell him when he returns.”
Coral pictured this young man telling his boss someday, when he remembered it: “Oh, old Joe McEwan died,” and Phillip saying, “Who?”
“No, that’s fine,” she said, her hand already on the door again. “Just fine as it is.”
After a muesli bar on a park bench out of sight of Tall & Trim’s windows, she caught the train to Mont Albert and walked the long way to Whittaker’s News & Papers, down the leafy streets they used to walk with their children, where they’d play who-lives-in-the-house: princesses in the turrets, dragons in the double garages. Behind the counter at Whittaker’s, a woman with spiky teeth said to her, “Why would we be handling the newspaper delivery for a house in Blackburn?”
Coral blinked. There was a cough behind the post-its.
“Well, we used to live near here,” Coral said.
“Well, you don’t now, do you?”
Coral opened and closed her mouth, unable to answer this question. She thought to ask Mac to speak up for her, but before she could there was a strange whiteness—the shop began to shift sideways—feet scuffling—a gentle hand guiding her elbow—and then she was outside on a park bench, sitting next to a teenager who reminded her of her grandson.
“Barnaby?” she said, even though she knew he wasn’t.
“Thomas,” he said.
“You look like my Barnaby,” she said. “It’s the nose ring. And your pants don’t fit, but it’s on purpose.”
“Did I have a moment in there?”
“A little one. Can I call someone for you?”
“Mac,” she said. “But he died.”
“So I heard.” He smiled at her. “I’ll go in and get you a glass of water.”
“No need,” she said pulling out her water bottle. “I’ve got some here.”
“That’s a relief,” he said to her. “I don’t really want to go back in there again. I stole some TicTacs,” he added. “Would you like one?”
“Very much so,” she said.
Thomas walked her back to the station, but she refused his offer of accompanying her further, and he refused the ten dollars she tried to give him for being kind.
“Your husband died,” he said. “That sucks. Go buy a beer.”
Instead, she put it on her Myki card and caught the train to Box Hill. At the Town Hall, she sat on the grass and looked over the crisp white building while she ate her sandwich and watched the students walk by, holding hands and laughing. She thought: don’t tell them to savour these moments together. If some old biddy with an egg sandwich had told her that when she was young, she would have laughed at her.
Every week, Mac would come home from the library with an armful of crime fiction and say: “Can’t knock you off until I’ve done more research.” Now, under the air-conditioning, the woman behind the counter cancelled Mac’s card and said the word “sorry” in every sentence. Coral left before the single tear hovering by the woman’s eyelashes fell and ruined her composure entirely.
Later, after a wait and a bus and a hill, at the Burwood caryard where they bought the brown station wagon Coral had christened “Peanut”, the salesman reached for her with icy hands and told her that, taking their customer loyalty into account, he could get her a very good deal on a much smaller car: “An automatic.” While she didn’t actually like driving Peanut very much—it was spacious, but hard to park—she withdrew her hands and told him with the coldness of his that all she required was that he no longer send any leaflets to their address, thank you.
Down the tram line at VicRoads, she waited patiently in her chair, grateful to sit again in a seat that wasn’t moving, stretching as her podiatrist had instructed. When her number was called, she sat opposite a woman with a bright frizz of hair and told her, “I’m here today to change my car’s registration from my husband’s name to mine. I have his death certificate here for you.”
“Oh, honey,” the woman said, reaching past the glass partition to pat her hand. “What a terrible job for you to do. Let’s get this done quick-sticks so you can pop up the road for a big, restorative slice of lemon meringue pie, what do you say?”
Coral didn’t know if it was the woman’s kind face, or her mention of Mac’s favourite dessert, but all the tears she hadn’t cried that day fell then, on her pantsuit, on the desk, on her carefully collated papers. After summoning another employee and instructing them sharply to finish the paperwork, the woman strode around the counter with a packet of tissues and said, “Oh my, what a day it must be. I think you could do with a hug.”
And Coral took it.
A driving instructor named Truong dropped her by the 24-hour Kmart on his way to pick up a student, staunchly refusing the money she offered as payment. She found a café in the complex and, in front of her pie, got out her notepad and crossed out 6. VicRoads, then wrote underneath: send staff recommendation letter to Vicroads. After she picked up the crumbs with her fingers, she crossed out 7. Acorn Nursery. She had never been one for the garden; anything good that came out of the ground was entirely on Mac. Still, they might send some handy advice in those newsletters. At the very least, they would have the number of a good concreter.
A bus to Springfield Road took her to her final destination: the chemist she had been avoiding too long. To get there, Coral had to pass the GP clinic where she had driven an anxious, unwell Mac, and it was there Peanut had sat for almost a week afterwards, abandoned, until she remembered where it was.
The proprietor of the chemist was a triangular woman called Hazel, and as Coral approached the counter Hazel brushed her hands on her front and said to her, “Oh, Mrs McEwan. We were sorry when your doctor notified us that your husband had passed away. We took the liberty of cancelling his prescriptions.”
And that was it. She even used Coral’s own phrase, passing. Coral stared blankly at the counter and recalled, suddenly, the time that Hazel caught Mac sorting through the jellybean packets for the one with the most black beans, and scolded him like a naughty child.
“Well,” Coral said. “That’s that then.”
“I hope we’ll see you soon,” Hazel said.
It seemed, Coral thought, like a curse: who would wish medical misfortune on someone? “You will not,” she said, and crossed her arms. “From now on, I’ll be taking my business to somewhere that doesn’t tell off customers for touching the jellybeans. Good-bye.”
As she stalked away from Hazel’s sharp intake of breath, Coral passed the teddy bear by the front door with the sign around its neck saying “WE LOVE OUR CUSTOMERS!”, and tipped it on its face.
At home, she put her feet in a bucket of warm water and called her local newsagency on the cordless phone. Yes, they handled the newspaper deliveries for this address; yes, they would cancel them; yes, they would send her a bill for the remaining amount. They didn’t ask why, and she didn’t tell them.
She felt buoyed enough by that to listen to the message on her answering machine. “Carol,” Graham’s voice boomed, “Just calling about the lathe. If you tell me when you’re next in, I’ll come pick it up, save you the postage.”
When the throbbing in her feet subsided, she went outside to look at the lathe, and the bench stacked with little drawers. Rough rocks were sorted into a mysterious order, and when she switched the machine on it made such a sound in her home’s longstanding quiet that she jumped. She leaned against Peanut’s bonnet and watched its steady whirr for a while before opening one of the drawers and placing the door handle she had inadvertently pocketed from Precious Things inside.
Inside, she returned Graham’s call. “Listen,” she said, “It’s Coral McEwan here. I’m keeping my husband’s lathe, and you are going to get your thickest texta and cross my number from your clipboard, then never call me again.”
Before she went to bed that night, she checked Peanut’s oil and looked up the weather forecast. There was a gem shop, she knew, up in the Dandenongs; maybe they could put her on their mailing list. Maybe they even gave lessons. Tomorrow, after all, looked like a good day for a drive.