The British, for as long as anyone cares to remember, have loved vacationing on the island of Majorca, one of four Spanish isles in the Mediterranean Sea. The history of making marvelous chocolates in Spain dates back to the days of Christopher Columbus. Today’s story is about thoughtfulness, and perhaps an absence thereof . . . (Featured Image courtesy of Spanish Abores.com)
It took Robert almost five hours to travel from his house on the outskirts of Dunfermline to his old house in Lancashire. By the time he reached the house, he was exhausted and in a bad mood, not least because his favourite restaurant, where he used to have brunch, was closed due to a broken pipe. He felt that Justine, his ex-wife, would immediately sense his bad mood and react with her own bad mood, as this was what she was always good at – sulking, or at least this was how it always turned out.
When Justine was away, Robert always used the opportunity to visit his old house to spend time with their son, run errands in the area and take some of his stuff to his new house. He didn’t take too much each time, because his car was rather small and he didn’t like to be overwhelmed by unpacking. He needed to think what to put where. He travelled back and forth like this for almost two years, taking advantage of his ex-wife’s frequent travels abroad. Recently, however, she showed some impatience about his unwillingness to finish his moving out, maybe prompted by his confession that he had a new girlfriend or maybe because he was unable to coordinate his visits exactly with her absences. There was always two-three nights when his stays overlapped with the days following her return from somewhere and these weren’t the most pleasant days, to put it mildly. She grumbled about his stuff being everywhere and him not doing anything around the house. The truth was his stuff took a lot of space because he moved everything which used to be in the loft to the sitting room and the guestroom, so he didn’t need to continually keep climbing up and down to go through his things. As for housework, he felt like there was no need for him to do it, seeing as this wasn’t his house anymore. Besides, he had enough work to do in Alice’s garden, which was even more overgrown than Justine’s. However, seeing his ex-wife’s constantly angry face and listening to her sarcastic remarks about his behaviour made him angry too. The only consolation was that this unhappy chapter of his life was behind him and the new woman in his life was easy-going and almost incapable of holding a grudge.
To appease Justine, every time he visited he’d bring her a small present. The presents weren’t particularly bespoke or even to her taste, usually a box of chocolates or some cheap ‘antique’ he found in one of many boxes his deceased father left him (the more precious possessions he reserved for Alice and her children), but good enough to show he still cared. He believed this would suffice because aside from their son, no other man cared about her, as far as he knew anyway. Robert imagined that with her sulking face incapable of a smile and her piercing eyes, she would repel even the most persistent suitor (and where to find them?). Her sharp intelligence wasn’t exactly an asset either, given that she used it mostly to criticise other people.
Usually, he didn’t see his presents again – a sign that Justine put them in another box of things to forget. More concerning for Robert was that she never wore the jewellery he gave her in their best years, even though often it wasn’t cheap stuff – some necklaces or brooches he found in galleries in the south of France, Portugal or Greece, which they used to visit in April or October, to escape the long English wet season. If he had the courage, he would ask her to return these items to him, so he could pass them to Alice, who would appreciate them more. But he didn’t ask, as this would only cause her anger. On reflection, it would have been better to keep Alice a secret from Justine, but this would be difficult given that their son, David, was meant to visit him in Scotland for the first time since his parents splitting up.
This time Robert brought Justine a box of chocolates which he bought on his last cycling trip to Majorca. It was a nice ornamental box with chocolates filled with raisins and dry fruit, one of several he bought on this occasion. She said ‘thank you’ as he placed it on the kitchen table, but without looking at it. When he returned to the kitchen a couple of hours later, the box was still there, untouched. He moved it to the cupboard in the pantry, so that the food he was eating wouldn’t dirty the nice box. By this point Justine and Robert usually ate alone, although she prepared more food when he was visiting and there was always something on the stove or in the fridge when he came: vegetable stew or a pot of soup. He quite liked it, as it provided a nice contrast from the heavier, meatier stuff cooked by Alice or himself. On this occasion, however, it was the remnants of shepherd’s pie, a sign that she had guests the previous day. The unusually clean house also pointed to this scenario. Who had visited her, he wondered. This shouldn’t be his business, but the thought that she’d made an effort to entertain some strangers, while she mostly ignored him, upset him. Still, he didn’t say anything as he didn’t want to aggravate the situation by showing his anger. Besides, he had to eat his (humble) pie alone, as Justine had her supper already and David wasn’t even at home, suggesting that he was avoiding his own father. He would ask her in the right moment why she permitted David to visit his friend when his father was coming home, even though, admittedly, not only to see him, but attend some work-related meetings.
As he was finishing the meal, Justine came downstairs in her unusual house clothes (black leggings and a black sweatshirt) to make herself a cup of tea and said, matter-of-factly, that she’d gotten another consultancy job, this time lasting two years – longer than any such job in the past. Since their divorce she had been moving slowly away from the academia to commercial work, where she was better paid. She also claimed it helped her self-esteem, as at her old work she was always pushed around, doing what other colleagues didn’t want to do. This, again, shouldn’t concern him, and he was still happy that he was to retire by the end of the year. However, the boost of energy in her middle-age, along with the suggestion that she needed more money to support David and herself, felt like an accusation that he and Alice were sloths or even that he decided to take early retirement to avoid contributing to David’s maintenance. Indeed, whatever she said, got on his nerves, so he was glad to finish his meal and retire to his room, from where he tried to phone Alice. Unfortunately, he got her answering machine, which made him wonder where she was. He decided to phone his sister, to complain about Justine’s passive aggression, but she cut him short: ‘Stop visiting her and the problem will be solved.’ But it was easier said than done, not only from a practical, but also a psychological perspective. This had something to do with the fact that in this house, where he lived with Justine and David, he didn’t need to make an effort. This was unlike when he was with Alice, when he had to be always on guard, making sure that she got the best impression of him. Even when he was by himself in his house near Dunfermline, he was cleaning and rehearsing for meetings with Alice and her friends, which drained his energy. By contrast, here, in Justine’s house, he could do as he pleased. He could get angry, tell David off for his lack of ambition (he chose to work in an Amazon depot, rather than going to university), get on his exercise bike (which he kept there, despite Justine’s repeated requests to take it away) and relax, all while telling himself what a stroke of good fortune it was to leave this dysfunctional, inward-looking and untidy family behind. He needed it, to appreciate the contrast with his current life. As he was thinking it, he noticed that his room had been cleaned since he was there last: the rug was hoovered, the floor was mopped and even the curtains had been changed. He wondered if Justine had gotten a professional cleaner in, as she was barely capable of noticing a shit in the middle of the room. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t mind staying in an untidy room, again because of the contrast with his current abode and the sense that he could trash the room even more and nobody would mind.
The next day Justine was at work and Robert was doing the errands, which were the main reason why he came back to his old house. When he returned, she was still out. He hesitated whether to eat supper by himself or wait for her to come back. He decided that he would wait as it would be impolite to eat on his own. However, as he hadn’t eaten anything since the morning, he felt very hungry. To appease his rumbling stomach, he checked the freezer, finding a ready-made baguette with cheese and pepperoni. He put it in the oven and it tasted very good with tomatoes and lettuce, of which there was plenty. It was a good decision, as Justine returned from work unusually late and smelled of alcohol. When asked about it, she replied that she went to the pub with some friends for somebody’s birthday. She wore a yellow-green dress and yellow stockings, somewhat too young for her age, but at the same time, making her look younger.
Eventually they sat at the table and finished the vegetable stew and couscous she cooked the previous day. There was no dessert or wine, as she stopped eating desserts, mindful not to put on any extra weight. As they were eating, she said that several people in the village had signed up to Airbnb and were renting their spare rooms. ‘I want to do the same, when you finally leave. It will help cover our expenses when David goes to uni, which he plans to do next year.’ Robert felt as if she was trying to blackmail him to give a date for when he would take the rest of his stuff and stop visiting, but he didn’t say anything, as the main thing to do when one is blackmailed, was not to give in. There wasn’t much to talk about, as they had so little in common these days, having different views on almost everything. And if they started any new subject, there was always the danger that it would lead to a conflict or a silent accusation that he didn’t provide for his offspring. ‘Where did you get this dress from?’ asked Robert, to break the silence.
‘Here, in the village charity shop,’ she replied. ‘Why are you asking?’
‘It suits you.’
‘Thanks,’ replied Justine, smiling, showing her slightly discoloured, but straight and strong teeth, which he once enjoyed when they were together in bed. The poor cow was so easily flattered and hence in danger of falling prey to some unscrupulous man, who would take advantage of her. This was another reason for him to keep returning, as in this way he could keep an eye on her, preventing her from getting into trouble.
Justine waited till he finished eating and then said: ‘I go to work tomorrow morning again, so I won’t see you before your departure. Have a good trip.’
‘Thank you. I will let you soon know when I will come again.’
‘Okay,’ said Justine and went upstairs.
The next day Robert spent several hours choosing things to move to his Scottish house. He took more than usual, but still many things remained, not least because he hesitated whether to take them or not. When sorting through his stuff, he realised that he had no present for friends whom he decided to visit on the way back. He checked the pantry, the box of chocolates from Majorca was still there, as he left it two days before. He put them back in the plastic bag in which he’d brought them and packed them into his rucksack. Given how absent-minded his ex-wife was, most likely she would overlook their absence or would assume that she put them somewhere and forgot where. Besides, the pantry was full of different sweeties, some probably older than ten years – it was in fact pure waste to give any more to Justine.
It turned out a good idea to give the chocolates to his friends. They opened them after dinner and commented on their unusual taste which they remembered from their once frequent trips to Spain. The whole trip would have been pleasant, if not for the text message he got from Justine the next day. She asked him whether he ate the frozen baguette with pepperoni which David had bought for himself to take to work, because the van with sandwiches wasn’t operating for a week. ‘Yes, it was me,’ replied Robert.
Returning to Fictional Cafe with a new story, Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music, and an author of over fifty short stories, published in literary magazines. She is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, ‘Neighbours and Tourists’ (New York, Adelaide Books). The book received Grand Prize for published books in the Eyeland Book Awards competition for a published work. In 2022, she published her second collection of short stories, Cycles of Love (London, Terror House Press). Ewa was born in Poland, and lives in Lancashire, UK, and Lodz, Poland.