Short Story - The Black Coat - Mehreen Ahmed
By: Mehreen Ahmed
One black wintry night, Piccolo -Xavier bumped into someone while crossing the road. Once he was across, the person on the receiving end was not visible anymore. It seemed that in the Parisian dark alley, it had just melted into darkness. When he peered further, he saw a black coat disappearing around the corner. Piccolo-Xavier started to run; however, the more he ran, further the person moved away. Breathing heavily he stopped to rest when his gaze shifted towards a shiny object that seemed to appear on an uneven asphalt footpath. As he stooped to pick it up, the lead was gone.
It was a locket with a broken clasp. He opened it to see what was inside. In the insufficient street lamp, he saw that it was a picture of a girl. This object could be of sentimental value, Piccolo-Xavier thought. But the black coat was long gone and there was no way he could return it to the owner.
Back in his apartment looking at the girl’s picture, the thought of the elusive dark figure provoked all kinds of questions. Where did the bearer of this object live? How far away was he or she from him? Who was the girl in the picture? Piccolo –Xavier began to imagine the wildest of the dreams about the bearer of the locket who was perhaps the little girl’s mum, dad or even an older sibling. It gave him immense pleasure to think that it could be an attractive young woman with whom he could form a relationship. Flashes back to the encounter encouraged his fantasy which did not seem that his mystery person had a man’s gait rather a woman’s – elegant, slender and tall. The face he envisioned was framed in dark short hair with curls falling over her smooth white narrow forehead. Her tilted nose rested just above full, red lips and an oval shaped chin. Her tiny dimpled cheeks came alive every time she grinned. A ravishing set of white, even teeth flashed across the rounding corners of her lips. When she looked up at him with a shy gaze of indifference, her luminous large greenish blue eyes peeped through the long curly lashes of partly opened lids.
Dizzy from the thought Piccolo-Xavier could go on no longer. He went into slumber — shallow and peculiar, somewhere between real and surreal. The woman of this description existed perhaps, but is it only as a figment of his imagination? Could she somehow materialize for him, someday? He looked at his girl friend lying next to him and thought how she would react if she heard about all this! He drifted off to a land full of dreams and even more visions.
At breakfast next morning his girl friend Lorna had bought two croissants from the bakery and made fresh coffee. She poured him a cup biting into her croissant as he helped himself to milk.
“You were restless last night.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you not well?”
It was frustrating to think that he was participating in a conspiracy against himself — against them.
“Oh, no just a little headache — a bit nervous about my exhibit, I am afraid.”
“Do you know what you want to do? You do have a deadline, yeah?”
“I haven’t and that’s what’s been bugging me.”
He thought of the deadline and the woman in the black coat at the same time. It was hard to separate the two thoughts. And as Lorna observed his pensive mood, she did not press him any more. Whatever was going on in his mind was his to share with the muses alone, not with her. It had always been like that. Lorna was able to see the product only, never the parts of the process. She loved him nevertheless for the person that he was and for the artist that he aspired to become. Critics always said that the portrayal of his women was not lifelike; eyes too dull, bodies too wooden. Through it all he persevered.
Lorna cleared the table and went into the shower to get dressed for work. Deep character lines appeared on his narrow forehead while he delved into artistic thoughts.
On his way into the studio Piccolo-Xavier sat at the station looking at all the women in black coats: they came in all sizes and shapes. But no body walked like his dream woman.
On the train, he sat next to the window and let out a sigh of despair. He began to see himself dating this lady through fragmented snapshots; holding hands at the park, kissing her full lips beneath the weeping willow tree, making passionate love on the snow white sheets of heavenly bliss. He imagined her in every possible way he could, so much so that it now hurt – she was there and yet not close enough. Is he cheating on Lorna? Being this way? Thinking this way? Can he help himself? Now there’s a question!
The train stopped at central station. As he got out, he felt that this had become a big issue in his life, him being a slave to his imagination. He could not forget her, a mere stranger – a faceless phantom! He conversed with her — loudly at times, had dinner at restaurants, drove together into the sunset and then danced with her in the silence of the night. He looked into her deep eyes and kept looking as though there was no tomorrow. Someone honked when he jolted back to reality. He had left his studio far behind, now retraced his footsteps. He walked into the studio brooding that he could do so much better with Lorna.
As time passed slowly, Piccolo-Xavier saw himself painting the snapshots. On the canvas, he furiously painted a collage of eyes, nose and mouth. Then the hands, the legs, until a slender shape began to take form; eventually, he painted a black coat over the figure. Although not intended, the portrait did look quite surrealistic. Every detail was done to perfection down to the unclasped locket dangling her tapering fingers, including the lifelike picture of the little girl peeking through. He called it, The Black Coat.
He sat in front of it looking intently. His disheveled dark hair showed signs of age, especially on the side burns. On the canvas his penetrating dark deep eyes tried to see more than what was visible. As he put the brush away on the round table beside the canvas, one radiant smile of satisfaction spread across his face. Then he cloaked the painting and deemed it ready for the exhibition.
On his way home, he went to the same place as his eyes searched here and there and everywhere hoping to find her somewhere. Suddenly the awareness that he did not even know what she looked like left him empty but still felt that he knew her somehow, smelled her perfume in the air. Overcome with desolation, he sat down on a bench by the lamp post supporting his head against the palm of his hand with elbow crux placed on his lap. It started to drizzle and then rain followed soon skewing down the street lamp under the dark starless sky. Soaking wet, he got up and walked back home hoping that one day, may be one day he would meet her in person.
The exhibition being only seven days away, his obsession grew by the day towards this unknown, unseen human creature. He was concerned that this was getting out of hand, but he could not help it. This pent-up emotion made him mad at times, felt he needed a let-up.
Thereof on the day of the exhibition, The Black Coat hung in one of the walls of the Taiss gallery. It received much attention, more than what Piccolo-Xavier thought it would; surrealism sat well with art lovers. Then in the most serendipitous manner there was a cry — a girl cried out in the midst of this urbane arty crowd.
Piccolo-Xavier turned around toward the direction of the cry. He stood frozen in the middle of the room. Time seemed to have come to a hasty stop. The compliments that people paid, the autographs that they desired or even the potential buyers who flocked around him went into listless oblivion. All that mattered was the resounding cry cutting through the space of that room. This was not a dream. The lady in the black coat and the child, no less than the manifestation of the picture in the locket, stood in the room. Once that dumb-founded moment passed he decided to introduce himself to her. He mustered enough courage to take himself to them.
The girl still had the expression of sheer surprise on her mouth while her companion stood staring at the picture in utter amazement. Piccolo-Xavier coughed a little as he approached. Once within the line of vision, he noticed that she did not have dark hair the way he had imagined but much longer and flowing. Those eyes were neither luminous nor shy, in fact much smaller, black and sharp as she looked at him, still very attractive, but not the image captured in his soul. Disappointed? No, he was not. He proceeded towards her with the same intensity that he had cherished all these days and as he came closer, she had almost left.
“Hello,” Piccolo-Xavier quickly extended a friendly hand.
The lady turned around taking his hand into hers. For one unbelievable moment he had her skin against his.
“I am Piccolo-Xavier, you must be wondering where I got all this.”
“Actually I was, and this picture, it’s not me!”
She blurted out in a shrill, angst-ridden voice with that index finger still in the air pointing towards the portrait inadvertently.
“I know,” he replied.
His chest heaved with excitement but his speech was measured.
“Would you join me for a coffee? I fear I have a lot to explain.”
“Sure, where would you like to go?”
“There’s a cafe downstairs.”
“Okay then, shall we?” Piccolo-Xavier led her.
They went to the Jewish café right across the road from the gallery. This cafe was quite popular with the people of his kind. And as they crossed the road together it was an incredible feeling that Piccolo-Xavier held the arm of the owner of the black coat. She had showed up at last! They sat down at the corner table inside the café.
“You know my name, but I don’t know yours?”
“It is Julia,” she said slightly embarrassed for not introducing herself earlier. “And this is my daughter Chevon.”
“Hi Chevon,” he smiled.
They ordered two short black and a milk shake for the girl. Piccolo-Xavier noticed her curious wide eyes, as he handed her the drink. Overcome by an odd feeling, he had the most unusual emotional transformation as he described the events of that night to her. He felt, somewhat, more connected to the faceless black-coat than this woman, this young, attractive woman sitting before him.
“What do you do?” Piccolo-Xavier asked her.
“Oh! I am a student of visual art at the academy of fine arts; did you try to look for me?”
“Yes,” he answered.
They sipped their coffee and there was an awkward silence as neither of them knew what to say, and then, suddenly Julia looked at him.
“We broke up,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“My partner and I of-course!”
“O, I see.”
“Well! Aren’t you going to ask, why?”
“It’s not my place, I guess,” he said quietly.
“Would you like to have dinner with me at my place?”
“May be,” he said.
“How about next Sunday?” Julia asked.
There was an element of candidness in her behavior that was almost juvenile. Julia was taking him for granted! He felt rushed, pressured. The conversation was not going anywhere. And this left him disinclined.
“Look! Can we talk about this later?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want!”
She opened her bag and groped for a pen. When she found it, she wrote him her phone number and name on one of the serviettes on the table. She then handed her details to him smiling like a friendly teen-ager, while his thoughts roamed elsewhere to the dark lady of his dreams as he watched her scribble. He realized that the magic as far as Julia was concerned was lost. It was far too mundane and sullied for his artistic taste to carry on this affair.
“Call me,” she said.
Julia was quite taken by his charms; his non-committal responses as they said goodbye did not seem to dissuade her at all. Piccolo-Xavier was in love he knew, not with this woman of flesh and blood — but with the phantom. Committed to an unrequited love, a dual life he would lead perhaps sharing her with Lorna, the phantom whose shy luminous eyes would haunt him forever, and forever he would woo her. And when in the early hours of the morning they lay entwined in bed like a pair of Siamese twins, Lorna had Piccolo-Xavier all to herself; he was a celebrity at last as she had imagined him to be. In a way, she was famous too when her exultant pictures splashed across the newspapers with him on that momentous occasion; yet! The muses smiled at her predicament.