Slipping Away

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Automat by Edward Hopper (1958)

Des Moines Arts Centre Permanent Collections, purchased with funds from Edmunson Art Foundation, inc, 1958.2

Creamy froth sprinkled with powdered chocolate. China warmed by hot cappuccino thaws her hands. A thin haze of steam rises above the cup. She stares down at the speckled foam and contemplates what she is about to do. Behind her, the vast expanse of glass has blacked out the city like a safety curtain. Only a reflection of the cafe lights can be seen through the rain-streaked window. Marielle uncrosses her legs, swirls the coffee then takes a sip. The liquid is tepid and she wonders just how long she has been there. She hasn’t even bothered to take off her coat and hat. 

   On the neighbouring table, a woman with faded blond hair and wearing a baggy beige cardigan is engrossed in a tattered book and behind the counter, a waitress is tuning in a Bakelite wireless. Its arched brown frame crackles with distant music. The tune is jolly. Marielle preferred the sound of clattering cups in the sink. A low rumble from the metro below creeps up through the table legs and rattles her cup. She stifles a yawn and tenderly touches the bruise she tried so hard to cover up on her cheek. 

    The door clunks and the bell jingles above it. Marielle opens her eyes and looks around to see a middle-aged man enter the cafe. He pulls down his umbrella, takes off his trilby and doffs it at her. He is tall and slender with silvering hair and warm dark eyes that twinkle in the mellow light. He shakes out the umbrella and slides it into the tub at the base of the coat rack. She watches as he takes off his waterlogged coat and hangs it neatly on a hook, settling his hat there after it. He smells of damp wool and cold air. He goes to the counter and places an order. Marielle notices how the waitress flirts with him. The cash register tings and coins tinkle as he makes his payment. Is he the one?

    The clipped voice on the wireless introduces another tune. Marielle pushes away her empty plate. Crumbs from the macaroon litter the white china like dirty snow. She licks the end of a finger, presses it onto the coconut flakes and picks them up. She is about to eat them when she notices the man is coming towards her. For a moment she thinks he is going to sit with her but then he veers off at the last step and sits down at the table by the door. Marielle notices him shiver slightly and considers why he chose to sit in the only draughty seat in the house when so many are free. She eats the crumbs and looks away.

    Time passes in relative silence. The woman with the book pushes her fluffy sleeve up her arm and checks a leather strapped watch. Marielle dares herself to ask her the time.

    “Quarter after seven,” is the reply. The woman’s voice is surprisingly low and soft. Marielle thanks her and wishes she hadn’t left her own watch on the nightstand. It was a gift from her father for her twenty-first birthday. She shall never see it again now. Annoyed at herself for forgetting to put it on she also remembers the silk stockings she left drying on the towel rail in the bathroom. Well, she will have to live without them. Frank will be home by now, she can’t go back. At least he was good for something. If he didn’t have such illicit connections she wouldn’t be sitting here with a way out. 

    The woman with the book closes the cover and picks up her bag to leave. Marielle looks up in surprise when she makes her way over to her table and places the book before her. It is a tatty paperback with a creased spine and a bent back cover.

    “I’ve finished it. It’s very good. You may have it if you like.” The woman’s face is blank but her grey eyes are telling her a thousand things. First, they look directly into Marielle’s gaze and then down at the book. Suddenly Marielle understands. It never occurred to her the contact would be another woman. She is cross with herself for making such an assumption.

    “Thank you, I do like to read,” she replies, hoping her voice is smooth and calm. The woman tugs her bag onto her shoulder and with no umbrella, she vanishes out into the wet Parisian night. Not daring to open the book in such a public place Marielle stuffs it into her handbag and tries to steady her heart. She risks a glance back at the window but all she can see is her own reflection and the fruit bowl on the sill. 

    When she turns back around she realises the silver-haired gentleman is watching her with curiosity. He takes a sip from his cup without taking his eyes from her face. She smiles but she knows she looks false. If only it would stop raining, then she could leave. Perhaps if she ignores him he will stop. 

    Minutes later and he is still watching. She flickers a glance in his direction. He doesn’t look like the police but how can one tell. She has never done anything like this before. Panic rises in her chest. She is about to leave when a thought strikes her.

    “Would you care to join me Monsieur?” she asks with daring that beggars her own belief.

    The gentleman is startled as though waking from some kind of trance. With a tilt of his silver head, he rises and comes over to her table.

    “Would you like another coffee?” he asks politely. Marielle can’t think for a moment. His gaze is roving towards the bag that hangs over the back of her chair. “Hmm?” he adds. Marielle swallows to moisten her throat. 

    “Thank you, that would be nice.” 

  He observes the remnants of the foam.

    “Cappuccino?”

    “Yes, please.” 

   Marielle chews on her thumbnail and watches as he goes to the counter. As soon as his back is turned she almost gets up to run but stops herself. He would hear the chair and then the door. He would catch her before she made it to the end of the street, never mind down into the depths of the nearest metro station. She will have to sit it out. Praying in her head, she awaits his return.

    “What was the book?” he asks as he settles himself in the chair opposite her. Marielle can feel beads of sweat forming beneath the rim of her hat.

    “I didn’t really look,” she says, hoping the next question won’t come. But it does.

    “May I see?” 

    “Of course.” Marielle’s stomach tightens and a sick feeling rises in her throat. She reaches for her bag and slips her hand inside. With unpractised deftness, she feels around the book and finds an envelope taped inside the back cover. To her relief it pulls off easily and drops into the bottom of her bag, disappearing beneath her purse and makeup case. She extracts the book and hands it to the man. He flips it over and reads the title. Marielle almost laughs out loud when she sees which book it is, ‘La Pierre de Lune.’ The man clearly doesn’t know the novel. He runs a long finger over the dusty orange cover.

    “The Moonstone, by Willkie Collins,” he translates. “English?”

    “I believe so,” Marielle replies feeling more at ease. He pushes the book back in her direction.

    “Do you know it?”

    “It’s a detective story I think.”

    “Ah, you like crime stories?”

   She drops the book back into her bag and finds she is smiling at the irony.

    “Not especially, but I’ll give it a try.” 

   The man narrows his eyes at her and for the first time, she sees they have cooled. She takes a sip from her cup and sets it down. She can hear from the lack of pattering on glass that the rain has eased. He is looking at the bruise on her face. She twists the gold band around her wedding finger and stands. Wood scrapes on the linoleum as she pushes back her chair. 

    “Forgive me, but I must go. It’s getting late and my husband will be wondering where I have got to.” The man stands and politely watches her pull on her gloves. She is glad she stored her suitcase in the left luggage at the station.

    “Have a good evening,” he says at the same time as her,

    “Thank you for the coffee.” 

   As the door clicks shut behind her she can still feel his eyes on her back and as she slips down the stairs into the metro station she is sure he is following her. But he is nowhere to be seen, not as she boards the night train at Le Gare Saint Lazare, nor as they pull away from the platform. And hours later in Le Havre as she waits to board her ship she scours the faces of her fellow passengers on the dockside, but he isn’t there.

    The indigo sky begins to brighten with silvery dawn light as the ship departs. Gentle waves lap against steel. The liner rocks her like a nanny rocks the cradle. Marielle locks the door to her cabin. A meagre box in the bowls of the ship but she is grateful for the comforts it contains. A washbowl adorns the nightstand and there is a small closet behind the door for her clothes. There is even a lamp on the bedside table. Pulling open the drawer she sees there is a bible inside. She shuts it again and sits down on the hard bed. Turning her handbag upside down she tips out the contents. Her tired old purse, her make-up case, the tattered book, the now-empty brown envelope that had been taped to it and finally her new American passport that had been its contents. She opens the passport and glances at her new name then sets it aside. She opens her make-up case and extracts a small compact. She is about to flip it open when there is a knock on the door. Freezing to the spot she is unsure whether to answer. 

    “Madam, your luggage,” a young man calls through the door.

   Untrusting, she forces herself to open it a crack and answer him.

    “I was about to wash,” she says in English in her well practised American accent. “I’m not decent.”

    “Then I shall leave it just outside for you.”

    “Thank you,” she says.

    She waits for a moment, listening intently for a knock at the next cabin. It comes. Slowly she opens the door a little further. Seeing her case on the floor she hurriedly brings it inside. Her whole life in one bag, she considers as she returns to the compact. 

   She flips it open and takes out the pad and digs at the tiny hole in its side. The stone sparkles like a tiny Christmas light as it falls onto the palm of her hand. A glimmering white diamond cut to perfection and stolen from god only knows where. It is the last of the set, kept out in case of an emergency, or so she tells herself. The truth is she just wants to be able to look at it. The rest are safely hidden. All she has to do is keep them that way until they reach New York, where they will be gone from her possession once more and she will be paid a handsomely for her troubles. She recalls her husband’s angry face when he had discovered the broken bathroom window and empty packet in his secret drawer. She smiles at the memory of his outburst when he had blamed her for going out and leaving his illegal acquisition alone in the apartment. It had never occurred to him that she might be the thief. 

   She reaches down, lifts up her skirt and runs her fingers around the lumpy hem of her under-slip. Her smile broadens as she recalls two days earlier when her husband was out “doing business”. She had broken into the secret drawer and taken the diamond. She made a small incision in the hem of her under-slip and dropped the twelve stones inside one by one, tugging them through the narrow fabric pipe until they were evenly spread, and then she had stitched it up again. She had paid an errand boy to smash the window while she was out. For the next ten days, she will be wearing the most valuable underwear in the world and then finally, she will be free.  

(C) 2011 Liah S Thorley, all rights reserved