Vasant 2024 Stories - Ian Douglas Robertson

 

A Basketful of Vegetables

By Ian Douglas Robertson

 

Petros Artakis parked his pickup truck under the fig tree. In summer, it provided shade from the heat but was now bare and straggly. It needed pruning, he knew, but it served a more useful purpose as a natural canopy than a provider of fruit, though it did produce some deliciousfigs, dark blue on the outside and deep red in the middle. The only problem was in early September,when they started falling all over the bonnet of his Nissan, which, despite its age, was in remarkably good condition. He believed in looking after things, the things that mattered, that is, the truck, the cottage and the four acres out of which he scraped a living.


He threw a glance into the back of the truck to assess the day’s sales. Not great, he concluded, which wasn’t surprising, considering that it was the end of February, the coldest month in Greece. The winter vegetables were coming to an end. He still had some cabbages, broccoli, carrots and potatoes, and lettuce that he grew under cold frames. These were enough to keep him in business till the summer produce started coming in.


He pushed his hand into his pocket, took out his wallet and looked inside. After paying the Municipality for the space and the workers to clean up,as well as the petrol from Marathon to the Marousi market, he was left with just enough to keep his head above water. He never complained though. He felt lucky not to have a family to support.At the coffee shop in Marathon,he heard all aboutwives and theirdemands. On the other hand, he could put up with a bit of nagging if it meant returning home to a warm house and a hot meal in the evening. He wouldn’t say no to sharing a bed with a woman either, especially on a cold winter’s night.


He had never had much success with women. He was not sure why. It may have had to do with his height, as women tended to like tall men, but he suspected it had more to do with his mother, who made it abundantly clear to any prospectivewife that she was not good enough for her son. Petros did try to defend his girlfriends, though rather half-heartedly, it must be said. “She may not be all that bright, Mother, but she would make a good wife.” His mother believed that her son, like all men of his age, had only one thought in mind andhad completely lost sight of the broader picture. “It’s quite obvious she’s a slut. She was practically naked. She’s just after our money.

 

”Petro refrained from asking the obvious question, ‘What money?’


Petros or Petroulis, as his mother affectionately called him, never went counter to his mother’s wishes. He understood the sacrifices they had made to send him to a technical college to study something he had absolutely no aptitude for. He detested plumbing and found working in confined spaces frustrating and unhygienic. Many of his ex-classmates made a fortune ripping off desperate housewives but his heart wasn’t in it. So, when his father got old and needed helpon their small farm, he didn’t go back to unblocking drainpipes and changing washers.


Petros took the unsold vegetables off the back of the truck and put them in the shed. Then, he religiously chose the best and placed them as decoratively as he could in a basket. It was Friday night, the only night in the week when heyielded to self-indulgence. Being the end of the week, he usually had some moneyand would go into Marathon town. It had become asort of ritual with him;first, a visit to the OPAP betting office for a little flutter, then on to Martha’s café. This was the highlight of the week because he liked to believe he had been courting Martha for years, though they had never actually been out together.


As for the bet, he knew he hadonly one chance in three million of winning but he enjoyed the acceleratedpounding of his heart on Sunday night, as he listened to the numbers being called out on the radio. Once he got three numbers right and nearly had a heart attack, alerting him to the dangers inherent in winning large sums. Not that he ever considered what he would do with the money, if he did win the Jackpot.


The truth is he was content with what he had. He lacked for nothing. Even if he could have afforded a fifty-inch TV or a Mercedes, he would have no use for them. First of all, he preferred the radio. You could do things around the house and not have to go rushing over to the TV whenever something of interest was being shown. As for the Mercedes, he was perfectly content with his slightly battered Nissan. He knew it didn’t impress the ladies but he didn’t think Martha was one to turn her nose up at a vehicle that wasessential to his trade.


He put the basket into the back of the truck and went into the house to get ready for his weekly outing. When he had shaved, he looked a good ten years younger. He slapped on some aftershave and rubbed oil on his hair to give it gloss. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw a distinct resemblance to Al Pacino.He put on a shirt and tie and his best suit. He knew he was ratherover-dressed but he wanted to look his best. He was going to ask Martha to marry him.


For some time now, he had had the markedfeeling that she wasjust waiting for him to pop the question. Although she had dealings with a lot of people in the café, he was convinced she must be lonely.Her husband had diedsome five years previously and her son was now working in Athens. She needed a man just as he needed a woman.


Petros was excited but also a little apprehensiveas he jumped into the Nissan. How would she react? Would she laugh at his proposal? Somehow he believed she was too kind-hearted to do that and might even be flattered that a man should ask a woman of her age to be his bride.


It was still early when he reached the betting shop, so he was able to park outside. Thanassis, the owner of the shop, greeted him with open arms, as always, kissing him on both cheeks. “Petroulis how are you, my friend? You look as if you were going to a wedding. Your own wedding perhaps?”


Petros tended to take people’s comments at face value. “I’m too old to get married, Thanassis,” he said, though somewhat chuffed atthe thought that it might be possible.


“Not a bit of it, nobody gets married under forty these days.”


“I’m fifty-five.”


Thanassis feigned a gasp, his bushy eyebrows leaping into the air. ”You’re not. You don’t look a day over forty.”


Petros chuckled. He knew he looked younger than his age, especially after he’d shaved.


“I’ve chosen your numbers,” said Thanassis, waving the card triumphantly in the air, as if Petros had already won a few million.“I consulted the Man above and he gave me the nod.”


Petros always let Thanassis choose his numbers and Thanassis invariably made the same comment, but so far the Man above had not given him much inspiration.


Petros handed over the money for his ticket and turned to leave. “You’re in a hurry tonight, Petroulis,” he said with a wicked smile. “Has the sly old fox got himself a date then?” This evoked considerable mirth from the betting shop owner, as the whole town knew Petros was an entrenched bachelor.


Petros said nothing. He had other things on his mind. He quickened his pace as he approached Martha’s café. He had decided he would only propose if she gave him that captivating smile that he believed was reservedfor him.


He felt himself blushing all over when he saw her smiling at him. She was going on fifty but in Petros’ eyes she was still a very handsome woman. She had put on a bit of weight since her husband died but she continued to dye her hair blond, which made her look very glamorous.


“Petros, how are you today?”


Her scarlet lips were as enticing as ever.


“So, so.There isn’t much to sell at this time of year.”


“Will you sit at your usual table or somewhere more private?”


This was an invitation to an intimate conversation, surely?


“I was wondering if I could sit here by the cash desk.”


“Oh, you wouldn’t want to sit there. It’s very noisy.”


“Well, actually I wanted to have a word with you…when you have a moment.”


“Oh, dear, it’s not serious, I hope.”


“No, no, I just wanted to ask you something.”


“Well, now’s as good a time as ever. What is it?”


Petros suddenly felt that it was not a good time at all but he might not have another chance.


“I need you to sit.”


Martha sat down rather hesitantly, with a quizzical look on her face.


All of a sudden, Petros was struck dumb. The words he had been rehearsing just wouldn’t come out.


“Yes?” she said looking at him encouragingly.


Then, he remembered the basketful of vegetables still in the truck. “I’ve got some vegetables for you but I ...”


“Thank you, Petros, but you shouldn’t go to the trouble.”


“It’s no trouble.”


“So, what was it you wanted to ask me?’


“I was wondering…well, maybe it’s not the right time … but I was wondering if you’d consider marr… going out with me.”


Martha looked stunned.


Petros was not sure if this was a good sign or not.


Martha swallowed twice, blinkeda couple of times and then contorted her mouth into a rather unbecoming grimace.


“Petros, I am flattered, but as much as I like you I have never thought of you in that way. You see, I still love my husband.”


Petros thought for a moment, “But he’s dead.”


“It just wouldn’t feel right seeing another man.”


“Aren’t you lonely?”


“I have my café.”


“I would look after you, Martha.”


She uttered what to Petros’ ears was a cruel laugh. “You, look after me, with your four acres?”


“I’m not a rich man, I know, but wealth is not everything. We could be happy together.”


“I don’t think so, Petros. There are certain things you can’t give me. I don’t want to drive around in a beaten-up old truck and I couldn’t live in a shack in the middle of nowhere.”


Did she call his family home a shack?


“I could live with you in town.”


“No, no. What would the neighbours think?”


“We would get married, of course.”


“Married, my goodness, no! Out of the question! My first husband was an educated man.”


“I have a diploma in plumbing, Martha.”


“Yes,” she said with a slight sneer. “And my husband was a tall handsome man. Now, Petros, I must get back to work.”


Petros said no more and slipped out of the café while Martha was busy with another customer, leaving behind the basketful of vegetables. He went down the road to the souvlaki shop, where he ordered two souvlakia and a packet of chips. He ate them in the truck and then drove home. By the time he got back he had convinced himself that it was all for the best. He would not be happy with a woman who considered him beneath her.


That Sunday he came in early, having loaded everything on to the truck for the market in Marousi the following day. He prepared himself a simple supper and then opened the bottle of wine he had planned to have with Martha to celebrate their engagement.


Just as he was finishing his meal, hehappened to glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was nearly nine o’clock. He had nearly forgotten. The numbers! He leaped to the radio and found the right station. “And now this week’s Jackpot numbers.” Petros felt his heart pounding. “Are you ready, ladies and gentlemen?

 

" Eleni, please roll the wheel.”

 

He could hear the balls hopping around on the wheel and then falling downthe chute. “Now, Eleni, please read out the numbers.”

 

It was at this point that Petros’ blood pressure soared. Slowly she read out the numbers. Petros couldn’t believe it. By the fifth number he was convinced that the sixth was going to be right too. It was. His brain was in such turmoil hedidn’t know whether it was reality or just a dream. He checked the numbers once again carefully. They were correct. He had won the Jackpot. Yet, he had still not fully taken in the fact that he had becomea multi-millionaire and what this would mean to him. He was simply delighting in the fact that he had got something rightfor once, or at least Thanassis had.


By the time he reached the betting office the next day, the whole town was buzzing with Petros’ win. Overnight, he had become a man worth knowing. People asked him what he was going to do with all the money but he was unable to provide them with an answer. It was beyond his ken.


Then, he saw Marthahurrying towards the crowd that had gathered around him. She was just as stunning as ever, even more so. She cleaved a path through the mob, took his hand and dragged him to one side. The men cheered because they knew Petros was fond of her. When they were alone, she said, “I’ve thought about your proposition, Petros, and the answer is yes.”


Petros thought for a moment. “Has something changed?” he said naively.


“Of course,” she said. “You’re a rich man now and you can look after me, just as you said.”


“Yes, but I haven’t changed. I’m still the short Petros who lives in a shack.”


“The shortness doesn’t matter and you’re not going to continue living in that shack, surely?”


“Well, as a matter of fact, I am.”


“And all that money?”


“I’ll put it in the bank. From now on, I won’t have to worry if I don’t sell all my vegetables.”


“So, that’s it?”


“That’s it, Martha. I wanted you as you were but you didn’t want me as I was. With all my millions I will still be Petroulis, ex-plumber. That’s who you’d be marrying.”


“I don’t mind.”


“I don’t think so, Martha.”


Without another word, Petros turned, got into his Nissan and drove off. He decidedfrom then on he wouldn’t go into Marathon on Friday nights but to Nea Makri. It was farther away but not much. It would be a pleasant change.

 

Ian Douglas Robertson lives and works in Athens, Greece. He has had poems and short stories published in online and print magazines as well as three books of non-fiction. He has also published several novels, including Break, Break, Break, Under the Olive Tree, The Frankenstein Legacy, On the Side of the Angels, The Reluctant Messiah and The Adventures of Jackie and Jovie. His latest novel The Return of the Dissolute Son will be published in 2024.

 

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