Maria the baker’s wife watched Petros’ Scania truck wheeze to a stop outside Pandora’s bakery. When he jumped from the cab, leaving the engine on a low rumble, she scooted over to the till, shooing Antigone, her ever-so-simple niece, away.
‘Go put the fresh bread on the shelf. I’ll take care of this.’ The morning’s intelligence rattled her teeth with eagerness to spill like a box of dominos on a wooden table.
Petros, called kali mera and headed for the chiller cabinet. He stoically ignored the sugar-laden pastries, piled on the bakery counter, assaulting his nose – his Mirabelle would be hurt if he bought one. He grabbed the bottle of redtop milk she’d asked him to pick up took it to Maria, waiting, waiting at the till.
‘One Euro-fifty, please Petro mou.’ Maria put the bottle of milk in a green plastic bag. ‘You know, ever since high school, I’ve admired the way you thumb your nose at what others might say.’
Petros handed over two Euros. ‘What are you talking about?’ Shit, he shouldn’t have said anything. Whatever it was he didn’t know, he also knew his not knowing would fuel her tongue further.
‘Mirabelle’s new butterflies.’ Maria’s tongue snaked across her lips. ‘They’ll look lovely against the pink, Petros.’
‘Maria, for the love of God, stop talking in riddles. Against what pink?’
‘The new house. I hear she’s chosen an interesting shade of pink for it.’
‘Pink?’ He’d just left the building site. Lenin hadn’t mentioned it.
‘More heavy on the cochineal coconut-ice pink than a delicate shell, if I understand correctly.’
‘What the hell is coch…coconut-ice and what has it to do with the colour of the house?’
‘It’s the shade. Of pink. Dark pink. You mix carmine dye from the cochineal insect –’ Petros stared, open-mouthed. Had she gone mad? ‘– to condensed milk and coconut, with some icing sugar and vanilla and you get a lovely dark pink mix.’
‘Maria, forget the cooking lesson, just tell me what you’ve heard.’
‘Antigone! Get back to here,’ Maria shouted.
As Maria walked him to his truck, Petros stooped to catch the barrage of her whispered exclusive.
Grim-faced, he gunned the engine and drove off, showering Maria and her smile with gravel.
Ten minutes later, his brakes hissed to a shuddering stop outside the crumbling mud-and-wattle house he and Mirabelle had endured for thirty years.
‘Pink?’ he said barging into the kitchen.
‘Petro mou,’ Mirabelle dusted her floury hands on her apron. ‘What is it?’ her fingers fluttered to his cheek, leaving flecks of dough impaled by his stubble. ‘What is it my darling?’ She prised the plastic bag from his clenched hand and put the milk in the old fridge behind the backdoor. Mirabelle finished patting the dough on the wooden table, slid it into a white enamel bowl and covered it with a butterfly-print tea towel. After placing the bowl next to the hot oven to prove, she smiled at her husband, a man as malleable as bread dough in her hands and said, ‘Sit, my love and tell me what’s bothering you.’
‘Pink. They say you want to paint the house pink.’
‘Who says, my darling?’
‘Maria. She says –’
‘Maria? The Village Gossip?’
‘Yes. She says that Antigone –’
Antigone? The Village Idiot?’
‘Well, yes. Antigone says that Stella –’
‘Stella? The Village Tart?’
‘Stella told Antigone,’ Petros said, ‘that you’ve ordered pink paint for the house. Dark pink.’
‘Does she? Interesting.’
‘How would Stella know that? Don’t you think that’s interesting, my love?’
Petros looked at his darling Mirabelle. Thirty years and still he hadn’t figured her, or any woman, out. But he had learnt it wasn’t worth the effort to try. They never made sense.
Mirabelle, washing her floury hands, was still his raven-haired Aphrodite, even at fifty. He knew the men in the village envied him. Mirabelle never nagged, never scratched his tired mind in their feathered bed for snippets of gossip and never complained when he went hunting or fishing. He watched her lovingly rinse tomatoes and cucumbers in the running water. She was as soft and sweet as candyfloss. She never flirted, never ever gave him a moment’s trouble. He smelt the walnut cake working its magic in the oven and eyed the pyramid of freshly fried keftedes flecked with parsley on the kitchen table. God he loved those little meatballs. Her cooking was truly a gift from the gods.
‘Is it true?’ He was sitting perilously close to the meatballs.
‘Is what true?’
‘That you want to paint the house pink.’ Saliva dripped like a waterfall in his mouth. He swallowed. ‘Bright pink.’
Mirabelle walked over to him, her plump moist hand reached out, plucking a keftede from the top of the pile. She popped it in his mouth. ‘Let me get you a beer, my darling, you look worn out.’
Petros closed his eyes and chewed slowly, savouring the shards of flavour detonating in his mouth. The cap from the Keo hissed. He opened his eyes as Mirabelle poured the liquid gold into the chilled glass she kept in the fridge.
‘Drink that Petro mou, I’ll make a salad and then we can eat.’
‘But Mirabelle, everyone calls it “The Palace.” When the village hears you want it pink…’ Already he was imagining the smirks and sniggers in the village coffee shop. Tension returned, knotting his shoulders.
‘I don’t understand you, Petro.’ She turned away from him and began chopping a fat red tomato. ‘You come charging in here like a bull because of something a whore told an idiot who told a gossip. Village prattle never bothered you before.’
‘But a “Pink Palace?”’
Petros eyed the delicious pulsation of the dimple nestled in her pudgy elbow.
Maria’s rhythmic chopping action speeded up. ‘If any of them had won as much as you on the lottery, do you think they would even stay here? In the village.’ The dimple became furious. ‘Oh no. They’d be off to the bright lights of Nicosia or Limassol, moving into an apartment in one of the new towers by the sea so they could say they’re neighbours of Elton John and his fancy man.’ Mirabelle turned aiming a glossy cucumber at him. ‘And they’d be driving there in their fancy new German cars, wearing fancy Gucksi sunglasses and carrying fancy Louis Button handbags.’
‘Calm down, my sweet.’ Petros’ fingers edged towards the meatballs. Before he could snare one, Mirabelle stood over him, planting her hands, one still clutching the cucumber, either side of the dish.
‘Haven’t I been a good wife? Mother? I’ve never asked you for anything. I’ve given you three fine sons. And Christina.’ Petros looked up abandoning the meatball, his eyes transfixed by the brilliant butterfly clip in her hair; a plastic corpse pinned against the enhanced black sheen of Mirabelle’s hair. ‘I go to church on Sundays; slave day in and day out to keep this crumbling house clean and to put good food on your table in this miserable kitchen.’
Petros looked around at the peeling cream plaster, the chipped enamel sink and winced when, as if on cue, their twenty-five-year-old Frigidaire compressor cranked to bronchitic life. She had a point.
Mirabelle went back to the sink and sniffed loudly. She fumbled with her butterfly-print apron and dabbed her eyes.
‘Mirabelle, agapi mou, my love, I didn’t mean –’ Petros rose and folded her in his arms, carefully moving the knife away.
‘All I’m asking is a nice new house, Petraki mou, with room for the children, and God willing, grandchildren to live.’ Her voice dropped with a soft hiccough and her eyes filled with tears. ‘After all you’re getting the new trucks. So, I want it pink. My darling Petey-poo, is that too much?’
‘Of course it’s not too much, my angel.’ Thirty years and she still made his heart crumple.
‘And Lenin told me you said I can’t have the columns.’
‘Don’t you think six columns are a bit much, Mirabelle mou?’
‘But I’ve dreamt of living in a house with columns since I was ten.’ She gasped loudly, fighting back the tears. ‘Like in Dallas.’
‘I know.’ Shame filled his heart. She was right. She never asked for much, not really. ‘Perhaps we could have two small ones, in the front porch, eh?’
‘Can we?’ Mirabelle trembled and sniffed loudly into his chest.
‘I’ll call Lenin in the morning and tell him.’
‘You’re such a good man. Finish your beer, the pourgouri is almost ready. I’ll finish the salad, then we can eat.’
‘I’ll tell him to cancel the paint order as well.’ Petros sneaked another meatball into his mouth.
‘Whatever you think best, Petro mou.’ Mirabelle spooned the bulgur pilaf into a Pyrex dish and laid a terracotta pot of sheep’s yoghurt next to it. She slid the glistening salad, speckled with rigani and coated with thick green oil pressed from their own olives next to the pilaf and meatballs.
‘Where are the kids?’ he asked.
‘They’ll be in later. Let’s eat now and then we can watch the news and Greek Idol.’
The long-awaited rain arrived in the night. The next morning, Petros left to pick up a container from Limassol. Mirabelle watched him stop to pick up Yiayia Katarina. The wizened old crone flagged him down with her knuckled oak stick every Friday to hitch a ride to see her grandchildren in the next village. No one, not even Grandmother Katarina Hajicostas herself with her nut-brown face, ravined by wrinkles and the tufts of cotton-wool hair slipping from her black headscarf, knew how old she was. For forty years, she had worn widow’s black, head to toe since her husband went down with his ship in the South China Seas. Petros jumped down to help Katarina into his cab, his great hands cushioning her scrawny bottom until she got a toehold. The truck drove towards the old Limassol Road, but Mirabelle was watching another widow. Every morning, for the past six months since her husband died, Aglaia Papasavva made her pilgrimage to the church. And every morning she looked that bit thinner, her widow’s dress billowing a bit more and her black stockings sagging deeper around her ankles.
Dear God, Mirabelle thought, Aglaia must be the first and only sixty-two-year-old anorexic in the world. Mirabelle turned her gaze to the far side of the field where their new house was rising like Aphrodite from the seas.
An hour later, when a flatbed truck pulled up outside the yellow container reincarnated as an on-site office, she pulled on her mushrooming boots and waded across the field of dewy mustard flowers and butter-yellow Lazarus daisies to have a word with Lenin Blackeye, owner of Lenin Mavromatis, Construction Inc.
Lenin sat at a metal desk, shuffling blueprints, in a haze of pungent Gitanes smoke.
‘Kali mera, Kyria Mirabelle.’
‘Good morning to you, Kyrie Lenin.’ She swatted the smoky air. ‘Put that vile thing out. Did Petros call you this morning?’
‘He did. Two small columns, in the porch.’ Lenin sipped his muddy coffee. ‘I’m just amending the blueprints.’
‘But your husband said –’
‘Mr Lenin, something strange happened yesterday.’
‘Look Mrs Mirabelle I can’t put six columns on the house. What will Petros say?’
Nothing. He and Lambros are leaving for Sweden tomorrow to pick up the new trucks. He’ll be gone for two weeks.’
“I don’t feel right about this. We hunt and fish together. We’re mates. I can’t go behind his back.’ Lenin’s hairy hand scrabbled like a tarantula across the blueprints. ‘Where in God’s name is my mobile? I’m going to call him.’
‘I really don’t think that’s a good idea Mr Lenin.’ Mirabelle’s hand nailed his hand, stilling it. Lenin looked at her. A logjam of worry furrowed between his eyebrows and his eyelids dropped like slats. ‘Not unless you want me to tell your dear wife Margarita, my best friend, about you and Stella.’
Lenin ossified in his chair.
They stared at each other. Neither blinked.
Three deep breaths, two uncomfortable swallows later, Lenin said, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I think you do.’ Mirabelle lifted her hand and wiped it on her skirt. Lenin had started to sweat. It really was quite unpleasant. ‘I hate to think what it would do to her – and to you. After all, your mayoral campaign would go the way of a lamb at Easter if you were to lose Margarita’s financial and social support.’ Lenin eased another cigarette from the blue pack, even though one still burnt in the ashtray, and lit it. ‘Not to mention your reputation.’
His other hand, reaching for the coffee cup in a show of insouciance, sent a wave of sediment over the plans when Ajmal, a Pakistani labourer, clattered through the door.
‘Hey boss, cement truck’s here. We start pouring?’
‘Mrs Mirabelle, I need to go –’
‘No, you don’t.’ Mirabelle turned to the labourer. ‘He’ll be out in a minute.
Ajmal backed out. Female obstinacy smelt the same in any language.
‘Mrs Mirabelle, be reasonable. Six columns? It’s too late.’ He looked up from the ruined plans. ‘And Petros will kill me.’
‘Pity, Mr Lenin. I hear the DISY people don’t like candidates with any aroma of sleaze. Not to mention illegal labour. You know what hypocrites Conservatives are; they’re almost as bad as the Church. And Father George’s support is always crucial.’
‘You have no basis for such accusations.’
‘Really? You and I discussed the colour of the house on Wednesday afternoon.’ Mirabelle waited. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong.’ Lenin said nothing. ‘Thursday morning Stella tells Antigone who tells Maria, our very own BBC World Service, that I want the house painted pink. Now who, I wonder, told Stella?’
‘It could have been anybody –’
‘But I told you I wanted to tell Petros myself.’ Maria said.
‘Well, I don’t –’
‘And isn’t it Wednesday nights Margarita always stays with her old mother in Larnaca?’
‘You are putting me in a very difficult position, Mrs Mirabelle.’
‘I think you’ve put yourself in a very difficult position, Mr Lenin.’
‘I need to think about this. I really think we should discuss this with Pet –’
‘By all means. Do whatever you wish. Good luck with the campaign, Mr Lenin. Oh, tell Margarita I’m making her favourite for our pilotta session tonight. Loukoumades. She and Maria say my sugar dumplings are the best. Of course, Theodora is more restrained as is fitting for a priest’s wife, unless there’s gossip on the table. Then she eats everything.’ Mirabelle stood and opened the door.
‘Wait, my dear Mirabelle.’ Lenin rose from his chair, head shaking, tongue tutting. ‘Perhaps you’re right. After all a house is a woman’s domain. Six columns it will be.’
‘Thank you, Lenin.’ Mirabelle walked over to him and kissed one cheek then the other. ‘I knew you would understand.’
‘I must go. I promised Petros rabbit stew tonight.’ At the door, Mirabelle stopped. ‘And Lenin?’
‘Yes.’ His smile, which had dropped like a tart’s knickers, did a rapid rewind.
‘Don’t cancel the pink paint order.’
Mirabelle stepped down from the container and walked to where the men waited for Lenin. She looked at the embryonic house. She didn’t see grey concrete, pipes and wires; she saw a pink Dallas mansion alive with a wonderful profusion of the painted metal butterflies handcrafted and painted by Haitians, which she had ordered from Constantina’s gift emporium.