Growing up my mum taught me that volunteering was the most valuable thing you could do with your time. In grade eleven she took me to a nursing home and signed me up for a six month buddy program. She said as long as I kept it up, each week she’d buy pizza for my friends and I. And she did, because I did. I’d spend one day a week reading to a man named Henry Celvenor.
In the beginning, I would count the ticks on the clock. Each one would arrive slower than the last. At the end of every session, Henry Celvenor would look over at me and recite a single quote from one of his favourite novels. I’d smile, rush a goodbye and race out the door. But things changed and I stopped caring about the ticks of the clock. I grew fond of Henry Celvenor, the man whose name was on the sheet I signed. Then he became Henry. Then we became friends.
Once the buddy program ended we kept in regular contact. School finished and I moved an hour away, but every Friday night at seven I would call. We would sit on the phone and talk and laugh for ten or fifteen minutes. Occasionally, I would schedule visits and catch two trains and one bus to see him for half an hour. Then I went to law school. I graduated and landed a high-paying role at a firm people know the name of. I only got the job because my uncle was on the board, but I’d never whisper those words to anyone. During my first year things got busier and busier. I lost weight and stopped going to the gym and started eating shitty reheated meals from corner stores. But at seven every Friday, my whole world stopped for Henry. And I know that was about the time his world started to move again.
One Friday my boss held me back late and I missed my call with Henry. I tried to ring him again and again but there wasn’t an answer. So instead I just sat on a park bench for an hour and stared at people with places to go. Then a girl with pretty hair asked me for the time, and I would have responded, but I was busy falling in love.
Emilie was her name, a painter, two years younger than me. After a week or two we had coffee together and her hands shook when she took sips from the mug. She told me she didn’t get paid very much money and lived in a small brick home with her mother and her aunty. I told her about my job and she sunk back into her seat. I told her I’d never let her buy me coffee as long as she’d continue to have it with me. She smiled and said yes.
Over the next three months we moved through the stages. We had coffee then brunch, lunch then dinner. Eventually we woke up next to one another. She was in love with Oscar Wilde and would read me passages from his books. There wasn’t a quote of his she didn’t know. She was to Oscar Wilde what lawyers were to clauses. But that part of her sat somewhere in the shadow of her personality. Emilie was the kindest, most selfless human on the planet. There are no words for just how beautiful her insides were.
But sometimes she was sad and I was yet to learn how to fix perfect. “I wish I’d accomplished more,” she would say. I’d tell her I wish I had done less. Sometimes I would tell her stories of Henry, the happiest man in the world. I’d speak of all his memories, the cherished ones he passed onto me. Henry never spoke of his work or his money or the house he bought for his late wife that sat right by the sea. He spoke of simple things, like the time they first met or the time they were broke in Italy and busked together so they could buy a loaf of bread. I’d tell her just enough of Henry’s tales to see her smile, but not a single one more. I wanted to keep as many as I could. I wanted to keep them so the next time she was sad, I’d have a story to tell that might fix perfect.
I left my wallet and phone on my desk at work in a rush to see Emilie. I met her on the same park bench that we saw each other for the first time. We walked hand in hand to the station, faster than we usually would. I stuffed all the coins in my pocket into the palm of a ticket officer at central. He gave me ten cents change and we darted for the 508. On the train ride there Emilie told me she spent her last five dollars on a second hand copy of The Picture of Dorian Grey. She said it was a present for Henry, because I’d always talked about how much he loved to read. Eventually a familiar station appeared, then familiar rusty gates, then a familiar door, then a familiar face.
“Henry, this is Emilie.” He rose halfway from his chair and shook her hand.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Henry.”
“You too, especially after all the stories.” Emilie blushed and we sat down around a coffee table too small for dwarfs. “You know, every time he calls me he speaks of you for a while?”
A moment of silence passed. “There’s really not much to speak about.”
“No, there really isnt.”
“Tell me why.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me why there’s not much to speak about.”
“I don’t really know what to say.”
“Surely you have a reason for thinking like that.”
“I just feel like I’m going backward, I guess.”
“Impossible, life only moves forward.”
“Well, I feel like I’m losing value, if that makes any sense.”
Henry let out a small sigh and sat back in his chair. I put my arm around Emilie for a moment then put the kettle on to boil. I heard her shuffling around in a bag behind me. She pulled the stained copy of The Picture Of Dorian Grey out and passed it across the table. “I got you something,” she said. I saw Henry fumble around with his reading glasses.
Eventually he glanced down at the book and paused. He didn’t react at all, but then his jaw unhinged a centimeter or two. He opened the cover slower than I walk to work, then he slammed it shut. Then Henry began to cry. I’ve never seen him anything but happy. Then I realised he was.
“Have I done something wrong?”
He shook his head. I walked over and put my hand on his shoulder. “Everything okay?”
“My wife and I – I – I.” He paused. “We used to stay up late and read from this book.”
“You were a fan of Oscar Wilde?” Emilie asked.
“Just this particular book.”
“Well, I’m glad I picked it.”
“I paid four dollars for it back then.”
“It didn’t cost me much more.”
“But that’s money, not value,” he said. “The right thing to the right person is priceless.”
“I think I’ve been mixing the two up a bit lately.” Emilie looked down at her feet.
“I’d give everything, my house, belongings, the clothes on my back, just to sleep on the street and read this book and remember our memories. Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
“So you do know your Oscar Wilde?”
“Here and there,” Henry said, then pointed to her heart. “Just never forget the value of your kindness.”
Emilie smiled the whole way back to the train station. “I never knew five dollars could be worth so much,” she said. And I think it was around that time she realised her kindness didn’t have a price tag. It would never be sent to auction, but only because it was far more valuable than my salary or Henry’s old beach house. She had something money couldn’t buy. She had a gold heart, and while it couldn’t be traded for a shitty reheated meal from the corner store, it could give a normal heart like mine a life worth living.
So when we remembered that I didn’t have my wallet and she had no money, we just laughed and got on the train. We couldn’t pay the fare, but the worst they could do is take our money. And we didn’t have any. But they couldn’t take Emilie’s kindness.
We had ten cents between us, but we were the richest we’d ever been.
“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde.
– Originally published in 2014. Photo by Marie-lou Ise