“That’s seventeen pounds and forty-three pence, Mrs Hartridge.”
Margaret flipped open her purse, where she found two ten-pound notes. One of them was of the older kind, the ones they were phasing out, which she recognised as the one she’d found in a pair of Harry’s trousers as she’d emptied his wardrobes. Her eyes paused briefly over it, but quickly held it out together with the other one. Mr Tennison, however, remained motionless behind the counter, save for an apologetic shake of his head.
“I’m afraid we don’t take cash anymore, Mrs. Hartridge. Only credit card. Contactless is easier, but we do have a chip and pin machine.”
“What do you mean you don’t take cash? That’s absurd! I’ve been shopping here for over forty years and never have I been unable to pay in cash. Why would that stop now?”
“I know, and I’m sorry, but ever since the break-in three years ago we’ve been wary of keeping too much cash in the store. When the recent spate of break-ins in the neighbourhood started, we decided to nip it in the bud.”
“Well don’t keep cash in the premises at night-time and you won’t have any break-ins.”
“We did that for a while, even had a sign out front saying so, but other stores in the area that had done the same thing were broken into anyway. It seems that people don’t really believe what the sign says.”
“I still don’t see the problem. If you don’t keep cash in the store, it won’t get stolen, even if they do break in.”
The man smiled stiffly at her, an eye on the growing queue of customers waiting behind her.
“When they broke into our store a few years ago, we had to pay for a brand new lock, as well as for the repairs on the door. The cash register was also rendered useless by those who broke in, who also turned half the store inside out, as if we were hiding notes under the kiwis. We’d rather avoid that situation again and it seems switching to card-only has worked for other stores, so I’m afraid it’s the only payment method we accept.”
She thrust the notes back into her purse in a grumble and searched for her credit card, deliberately taking her time, knowing the man would be glancing back at the queue nervously as she did. However, as she reached the compartment where she usually kept it, she found her credit card wasn’t there. It was then that she remembered why she didn’t have it with her.
Earlier that morning, she’d sat crying on Harry’s side of the bed, the telephone still in her hand. She’d just spoken with the funeral home over some last-minute changes they’d had to make over the cremation and the urn, which she’d had to pay for over the phone. She’d been able to keep her voice steady during the call, but as soon as they’d hung up the tears had sprung up on her.
Giving herself a few minutes to let it all out, she wiped her face with her handkerchief and stared through salty eyes at her reflection on the wardrobe mirror before her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried.
As her vision cleared up, she noticed the reflection of a shimmer somewhere behind her. As she focused her eyes on it, her heart skipped a beat. Harry, standing right there. Well, a vague image of Harry, like a sheet of paper whose ink has been washed off, leaving only hazy blue tones behind. His outline not quite solidifying, the only thing that really identified him was his face, where the lines were all well marked. His eyes were staring back at her, a familiar expression of frustration on his face, one she’d seen many times before when he watched his team playing. His mouth opened and shut, but no words reached her.
Realising that she couldn’t hear him, he jammed his hand into his trouser pocket and squirmed in place as he pried something out of it. Triumphant, he held his hand up towards her, his thumb and forefinger holding onto something small, no larger than a stamp, which she couldn’t quite identify from the reflection on the mirror.
She turned around to get a better view of it and confirm her suspicions over what it was, but as she did so, he’d disappeared.
Margaret looked up, blinked. Her bedroom dissolved away and the grocer’s reappeared. Mr Tennison was watching her with frustration and concern both perched on his furrowed brow. After several seconds during which she merely stared back at him, he spoke again.
“Do you have a card with you or not?”
“No, I don’t. I know where it is, though. On my husband’s bedside table, where I forgot about it after seeing his ghost materialise in the room.”
The man’s eyebrows jumped, but he said nothing. The little chit-chat there had been in the queue behind her died out, only the distant sound of some country song on the radio confirming she hadn’t just become deaf.
“So will you take my cash or not?”
He hesitated. Then, “No, no. You’ve been shopping here for many years and I wouldn’t want you to go home empty-handed. This one’s on us.”
Before she could protest, he’d bagged her groceries and placed the bags in her shopping trolley. As he deposited the last one, he murmured his condolences, maintaining eye contact as he did.
She thanked him with sincerity and wheeled the trolley away towards the exit, the other sounds in the store resuming as soon as he called for the next customer.
Outside, the winter cold slithered under her clothes, wrapping around her skin and making her shiver. She hurried over to the car, loaded the bags into the boot in a rush and fought against the trolley’s rogue wheel as she rolled it back with the rest of the carts. There, she pushed her trolley into the back of the last one and clicked the latter’s lock chain into her trolley’s lock, making the coin pop out from the other side. From her point of view, it looked like the lock was teasing her, sticking out its metallic tongue at her.
She pulled the coin out and examined it with pensive eyes. His lucky coin. That was what he’d taken out of his pocket, she was sure of it.
The first time they’d met each other, all those decades ago during the summer fair, Harry had been bold enough to ask her on a date not three minutes into their first conversation. Taken aback by his forwardness, she’d hesitated – not out of shyness, but out of habit. She never made decisions if she didn’t have enough information to assess the situation and three minutes was not enough time to gather as much as she would have liked. Who was this young man who walked around like he owned the fair when it was obvious he couldn’t afford to own a decent pair of shoes? Sure, he was handsome, she’d give him that, and his smile could charm the buttons off a bobby, but those were just superficial things. Where was he from? What did he do for a living, was he working or studying? Where did he live? Who was his family? Did he like to travel? Did he like animals?
As the unanswered questions stacked up in her head, friends from both sides gawped at the two of them – at him for being so daring and at her for hesitating over whether to date such a catch. The gorgeous smile never left his face during her inner ponderings and, before she could reply, he spoke once more.
“Tell you what,” he said, producing a shiny coin from his pocket, “you can flip for it. Heads, you go on a date with me. Tails, you keep the coin and I never bother you again.”
She smiled at the memory, shaking her head at Harry’s rashness and letting out a soft chuckle.
Back in the car, she settled into the seat, rubbing her hands to bring some feeling back into them. The side-view mirrors were still in their correct positions, but the rear-view one no longer offered her the angle she needed. As she adjusted it, however, she saw him again. There he was, sitting in the back of the car, next to the left-hand side door. The blurry wisps that were his arms were crossed tightly over his chest, although she could still see the car seat through him. Once again, his immaterial body had a much more unstable look than his face, where the delineation of his furrowed brow and drooping lower lip was sharp and clear, remind her of their daughter Sharon at the age of seven or eight, sulking at the window after being told off for having done something or other to her younger brother.
Remembering how he’d disappeared the last time she’d tried to look directly at him, she kept her gaze on the mirror, watching him mumble away like the old man he’d been. To her surprise, this time she could hear his growling.
“Well?” she snapped. “Are you going to huff and puff for the rest of your death or are you going to solve whatever unfinished business it is that you have left? You always were one to leave things until the last minute, I’m not sure why I was so surprised to see you in our room earlier this morning.”
Harry looked at her, but simply shrugged. “No point in trying to reply, is there? She can’t hear me, anyway.”
“The last time I checked, you were the one who needed a hearing aid, not me.”
His eyes became the size of saucers.
“You can hear me?”
“Yes, Harry,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Finally! I thought I was doomed to never be heard again! Now,” he said, thrusting his hand into his ghostly pocket, where, thanks to his clothes being as immaterial as the rest of him, she could see his hand groping around blindly. There was nothing in his pocket that she could see, but his fingers seemed to home in on something, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the coin was there pincered between his thumb and index.”As I’m sure you remember, you buried me with my lucky– damn!”
The coin escaped his grasp and rolled under the front passenger seat. He ducked down to look for it, only the ridge of his back visible to Margaret, who kept her eyes on the mirror.
“Don’t you dare leave otherworldly gunk in the car, you hear me? I got it cleaned the week before you died and I intend for it to last until the end of the year at the very least.”
He emitted a grunt of acquiescence without interrupting his search.
“Ha!” he exclaimed after half a minute of searching.
“What is it?”
She almost turned around to look, but resisted the instinct at the last second, not wanting for him to disappear quite yet.
“My hearing aid! So that’s where it was! I spent ages looking for it. Not much use to me now, is it? Probably would have heard the bus if I’d been wearing it, though. Ah well, what’s passed is past.”
Another half minute had passed before he sat back up again, the coin held tight and a smug look on his face. Suddenly, though, he seemed to remember something, and the smile vanished from his translucent lips. He looked at Margaret, gesturing at her with the coin.
“As you very well know, my dear, this coin has been bringing me luck ever since we met all those years ago. Alas, it would seem even luck expires, and now I’m stuck.”
“Stuck? Where? Here in the car?”
“No, not in the car, don’t be silly. On Earth. I can’t tell you much about what happens immediately after you die – you know how it is, NDAs, all that stuff –, but I can tell you what’s keeping me here. It’s that damn Ferryman.
“Ferryman? What ferryman?”
“The Ferryman. The one who takes you across the river once you’re dead. Whatsisname. Doesn’t matter what his name is, the important thing is that you pay him and he takes you across the river. No problem, I think. You buried me with my lucky coin – thank you, honey –, so I can use it to pay him. I’d hoped to keep it, but I figure I won’t be needing luck where I’m going. Besides, it was lucky to have the coin then and there in the first place – or so I thought at the time. Anyway, I hold the coin out to him, to pay for the trip, and you know what he says to me?”
“He only takes contactless!”