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Jul/Aug 2009 Fiction

The Greatcoat

by James Terry


Once every few months Audrey took a ferry across the channel to buy cigarettes for her nan, who couldn't go herself on account of her condition. She didn't mind the trip. In her secret heart she imagined meeting some handsome Frenchman who would sweep her off her feet and take her back to his flat where they would make love and drink wine and fail to communicate in any language but touch.

It was with such hopes in her heart, however obscured by the exigency of her excursion, that Audrey embarked early one morning for the continent. The day had begun wet and gray, the waters of the channel dark as dirty lead, the sky a pale, uniform haze made luminous by a platinum sun that gave no warmth. Shortly after the ferry passed into French waters (the cue for bargain hunters to head en masse to the on-board shop for their quotas of alcohol and tobacco), the clouds dispersed and the water turned silvery blue.

In time the familiar band of hazy green appeared on the horizon, then the high tower of the Hôtel d'Ville, tiny cars inching along the quayside road, cattle in the fields. Near the harbor, the seagull that had followed the ferry all the way across the channel without earning so much as a crust of bread for its trouble banked away and joined a battle over a stale baguette on the quay.

Audrey disembarked with the rest of the passengers and walked up the sunny side of Rue Republique. She was wearing her long, green, velvet coat and her floppy black hat, which concealed all but the bangs of her best feature, her long red hair. Her handbag, deep enough to hold a box of eight hundred cigarettes, was empty but for her small purse, her passport, and a paperback novel titled The Newsagent's Daughter.

The doors of the cafés stood wide open. The pavement beneath their awnings was already crowded with tables and chairs, if not yet with people to fill them. The odd shopkeeper, sweeping the walk or washing his windows, acknowledged Audrey with a smile.

Bonjour, she said, the extent of her French.

She walked up Rue Republique, through the Place d'Armes, past the Hôtel d'Ville, then turned off into the narrow residential corridors that led to the Jardin Richelieu.

She walked through the cool shade of the ash trees to her favorite bench. There she sat and listened to the birds and felt again, as she always felt here, that her life was going nowhere, surrounded day after day by old helmets and old rifles and old love letters and all the old people who came to gaze at them in glossy-eyed remembrance. The very things that had drawn her to the job at the museum were now the things she could no longer stand. At her age, Nan had been out on the streets of London dodging German bombs to haul the wounded into the tunnels. Where was Audrey's war? Where was her chance to be needed? Was this it? Storming the beaches for cigarettes?

She took her novel from her handbag and resumed where she'd left off. She'd only been reading for a few minutes when she began to have the distinct impression that she was being watched.

Without raising her head, she glanced to the left and noticed the man in the greatcoat standing outside the tobacconist's at the far end of the park, tapping a pack of cigarettes against his palm. She'd seen him on the ferry. He'd been standing at the railing near the prow, staring down into the water, his jet-black hair raked portward by the wind. Something about his greatcoat had caught her eye. It was fashioned of a coarse, woven material, wool most likely, had a wide rounded collar, and hung clear down to the tops of the man's boots. Audrey couldn't tell what color it was, black or very dark blue or very dark gray or some conflation of all of the above. Whatever its color, something about this man's greatcoat appealed to her.

Audrey took off her hat and set it in her lap and ran her fingers through her hair.

The man in the greatcoat removed a matchbook from his right pocket and lit a cigarette and tossed the spent match to the ground after shaking out the flame. He stood smoking for a while, then crossed the street. Audrey pulled her hated ankles beneath the bench.

He was long in coming, the smell of his cigarette smoke preceding the quiet swish of his boots through the grass. In that space of time, Audrey invented a variety of identities for him. He was a spy. An artist. A murderer. A flasher. On his way back to his home deep in the heart of Europe. He had spotted Audrey on the ferry and was instantly smitten. He had followed her to the park to make her acquaintance.

"Spare a fag?" she said as he began to pass.

The man in the greatcoat stopped and looked at Audrey oddly, as if startled to discover he wasn't alone. He was younger than he had seemed from a distance, which made the greatcoat, or rather his wearing of it, seem to Audrey like some kind of statement or posture. Of what, she could not say. The same could be said, to a lesser degree, of the way he held his cigarette, artfully angled between the second and third fingers of his right hand. As for the rest of him, nothing was visible save his pale, gaunt face, which reminded Audrey of a picture of André Malraux in the France exhibit at the museum.

"A cigarette," Audrey said when he made no response, verbal or otherwise. She pointed at his hand.

He parked his cigarette between his lips, patted both greatcoat pockets, and pulled the pack from the correct one. He shook it upward and held it out for Audrey. Gitanes. She took one.

"Ta," she said and waited for him to find the matches. She'd never seen such delicate fingers on a man.

He struck the match and held it to the tip of Audrey's cigarette. She took a shallow drag.

"Ta," she said again.

He continued on his way without so much as a word, the hem of his greatcoat swabbing the dew from the grass.

He stopped at the end of the park and stood looking up at a casement window on the second storey of the yellow ochre flats across the street. The paint on this building had peeled in places, and there the wall was raw and gray. The window in question was partially open, or, depending on the intentions of the tenant, partially closed.

The man in the greatcoat dropped his cigarette, crushed it with his boot, and walked across the street to deliver three sharp raps upon the door.

Whoever opened the door remained hidden in the shadows within. The man in the greatcoat stepped in, and the door closed behind him.

What an odd creature, Audrey thought. She watched the window on the second storey for a long time. No one appeared. She dabbed the cigarette out against the armrest of the bench, put on her hat and moved on, her head dizzy with smoke.

 

She spent the rest of the morning wandering around town, trying to shake the queer feeling of vulnerability that her brief encounter with the man in the greatcoat had caused her. She stepped into a florist's and sniffed freesia and roses. She flirted with the old flower seller, then left without buying anything. She walked up to the burned, then restored, then bombed, then restored castle and walked around it on the footpath atop the narrow rampart. She read again, or tried again to read, the words on the obelisk, a memorial to a slaughtered Canadian regiment. She visited the cemetery behind the ruins of an eleventh century abbey and walked among the crooked, blackened gravestones, seeing in her mind dusty raiment and bones. Hunger drew her back to the living.

The cafés and bistros along Rue Republique were in full swing now, the tables cluttered with green wine bottles and white dishes, the sounds of French pop music pouring over the patrons into the street.

Audrey walked past two bistros and found a seat in front of a third. Café du Globe. A young waiter with a narrow, pocked face and bony wrists came to take Audrey's order. A bowl of mussel soup, bread and butter, a glass of the house wine. Her food was delivered without a smile. She ate it absentmindedly. She put a crust of bread in her coat pocket to throw to the seagulls on the return crossing.

It was a while before she noticed the shadow of someone's head lingering in and around her empty soup bowl. She looked up, saw the greatcoat, closed her novel.

Hands in pockets, he looked at the empty chair beside her, and without invitation pulled it out and sat down with an air of fatigue. He placed the pack of cigarettes and the matches on the table midway between himself and Audrey.

"Come 'ere often, love?" he said in a thick London brogue that made Audrey cringe. She hesitated, trying to decide how best to send him the signal that she wasn't interested.

"Yes, actually," she said. "I do."

He held the pack of cigarettes out for Audrey. She raised her hand. He took one for himself.

"And you?" Audrey said.

"Me?"

"What brings you here?"

"Me old man lived 'ere," he said and lit the cigarette.

"Oh?"

"Want another?" he said, pointing at Audrey's empty wineglass.

"Thank you, no," she said.

"Karl," he said and offered her his hand. The impression it made on Audrey's palm as she shook it, as if she'd grabbed a sort of soft, dry crab, was at once pleasurable and unsettling.

"Lydia," she said and felt a tingle behind her knees.

Karl waved the waiter over. "Do us a favor and order me a glass of wine, love," Karl told Audrey. "Whatever you're 'avin."

Audrey ordered the wine despite her indignation at being ordered about. Karl waited to speak again until the wine had come and he had taken a sip.

"Yeah, me old pot," he said. "Bleedin cunt. Pardon me French. I came over the once with me mum. Never 'eard from the bastard. Last week I get a letter from the old pot's wife. Says 'e's dead. 'Eart attack. Says she 'as something she wants to give me."

Audrey nodded. Smoke rose from the ashtray in a long, unperturbed ribbon. It wrinkled and scattered above Audrey's and Karl's heads.

"Aren't you hot?" Audrey asked. She hadn't intended it to sound like a rebuke.

"Is a bit warm, init," he said. He unfastened the big, black buttons and pulled open the greatcoat. It fell back and swallowed up his entire chair.

He was wearing a black Sex Pistols T-shirt so old and worn it was transparent in places. His skinny, milk-white forearms were a tangled mesh of veins and tattoos. The tattoos were not so much symbols or icons as they were abstract art. Lines and dashes and squiggles. Solid circles and squares. A silver crucifix hung from a thin chain around his neck. A surge of something, fear or disgust or lust or all, shot through Audrey at the sight of this piebald creature robbed of his pelt.

"So," Audrey said, nothing else forthcoming, "where'd you get that coat? It looks old."

The tower bell counted out the hours of noon in long heavy blows.

"Me gramps bequeathed it to me. He was a 'Ungarian gypsy, before the war. Got banged up in Berlin with 'Itler and 'is mates. Me mum says 'e 'ad a sister was raped and left for dead. Lovely lot, the SS. You right there, love?"

Audrey forced a smile.

"Yea, the bugger shined shoes round the side of the fuckin Reischstag. Right up 'Itler's bottle. One of 'is customers was a right stinkin toff as well. To 'ear me gramps tell it, 'im and this geezer was bloody twins separated at birth. Like lookin in the mirror, me gramps used to say. This geezer was a real mouthy git. Any bleedin thing what came into 'is loaf. 'E'd stand there and gob 'is bloody life story while me gramps scrubbed and buffed 'is shoes."

Karl told Audrey the entire story, in exasperating detail, of how his grandfather had acquired the greatcoat. The gist of it was that Karl's grandfather and the German whose shoes he shined looked enough alike that passersby would often make jokes about them being twins. This coincidence, and the fact that the German had a tendency to talk about himself in great detail, convinced Karl's grandfather to follow the German home from work one night, where somehow he managed to get himself invited in to discuss 'a delicate matter.' Once inside, Karl's grandfather clobbered the German over the head with a bronze cherub lamp and tied him up with a sash and threw him into a closet. Karl's grandfather spent the rest of the night getting into character (Karl didn't elaborate). The shock came when he tried on the German's clothes and they were all too big. Karl's grandfather was on the verge of abandoning his scheme to flee to Paris (disguised as the German) on the next morning's Nord Express - for weeks the German had been telling Karl's grandfather all the details of his business trip - when he saw the greatcoat hanging on the stand by the front door. There was a tense scene at the train station when the stormtrooper stared a little too long at the German's passport, but in the end, thanks supposedly to the greatcoat, Karl's grandfather made it to France and eventually to England where he enjoyed a long career as a milkman.

Karl laughed and took a sip of wine, as if embarrassed by the silence that greeted his story. Audrey hoped he was about to leave. She didn't like that story one bit. Karl excused himself to use the toilet.

"Jesus," Audrey sighed when he had gone.

She looked over at the greatcoat, sleeve holes gaping, frail lining torn in places, and wondered how much, if any, of the story was true. Curious to feel the fabric, she reached over and picked up a sleeve. It was soft and warm. She ran her fingers over the worn lining. She tried to imagine what it would have been like brand new. She saw the German businessman trying it on in a posh Berlin men's shop circa 1940. She smiled. Holding this piece of history in her hands, Audrey felt Karl's story come to life in a way his yobo speech hadn't been able to convey. Again she felt the tingle behind her knees.

Twenty minutes later, when Karl had still not returned, Audrey began to get worried. She asked the waiter if he'd seen Karl leave the toilet. The waiter didn't know. Audrey went into the bistro and called through the door of the toilet. No one answered.

She waited some more.

Eventually the waiter brought Audrey the check. She paid for Karl's glass of wine. She stood beside the table, looking up and down the street for Karl, imagining and rejecting all manner of possibilities for his peculiar disappearance. She waited some more.

She stared at the greatcoat for nearly five minutes.

"Bloody hell," she said at last.

Grabbing it at the shoulders, Audrey heaved the greatcoat off the chair. It was heavier than she'd imagined. It stank as well, the sweet reek of the unbathed.

She slung it over her right shoulder in the manner of a fireman's carry. She hiked back up to the Jardin Richelieu, now host to more than one siesta, and went to the door of the yellow ochre flat and knocked.

A woman who couldn't have been much older than Audrey opened the door. She had a high forehead and wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses. More surprising was the tattoo of barbed wire around her neck. The woman looked from Audrey's face to the greatcoat and scowled.

"Karl," Audrey said much too loudly. "The English man who was here earlier? He left this at the café. Do you understand English?"

The woman shot several suspicious glances between Audrey and the greatcoat, looked over Audrey’s shoulder into the distance, then leveled her eyes on Audrey’s. "Non," she said. "Allez! Allez vous en!" She closed the door.

Audrey stared at the door. She raised her fist to knock again, then thought better of it. A few moments later, seeing no other option, she folded the greatcoat in half lengthwise, in half widthwise, and set it on the ground beside the door.

She hadn't made it halfway across the street before she turned around and went back.

 

The dishes and wine glasses had been cleared from the table. Someone else was sitting there now, an older English couple playing backgammon.

Audrey stood before them like a lost child, the greatcoat in her arms. It had been her intention to return it to the back of the chair and have done with it. Now this option was closed to her. She never should have picked it up in the first place. She didn't know what had possessed her.

"Mademoiselle!," the waiter called to Audrey. He gave her an odd smile and handed her a note scrawled on a cocktail napkin.

Lydia,

Thanx for stealing me
gramps's coat, you cunt.
If you have a kind bone
in you, return it to me
on the 1:30 ferry.

Karl

"Unbelievable," Audrey muttered, her heart jabbing her ribs. Her face flushed bright red.

The waiter remained standing beside her, as if expecting a tip.

Audrey looked up at the tower. It was ten after one.

Clutching the greatcoat to her chest, Audrey hurried down the road to the harbor, her loose, sweaty bangs swinging against her cheeks with every step.

The waters of the channel were calm and blue, the ferry white as an iceberg. Audrey composed herself as she walked down the quay, scanning the deck of the ferry for any pale waif in black. The seagulls on the retaining wall swiveled their heads as she passed.

She went up the ramp and looked around the cabin. Karl was not there. Two gendarmes, one tall, one short, both ridiculously handsome, were coming up the ramp as Audrey was coming down. She found their uniforms comforting, the squat, cylindrical caps with shiny black bills, the wide belts, the dangling truncheons. She decided to enlist their aid in returning the greatcoat to Karl. She was just about to speak to that effect when the gendarmes took hold of her elbows.

"Come with us, please," the taller one said.

"What?" Audrey said. The shorter one took the greatcoat from her shoulder. "Hey," Audrey said.

The gendarmes escorted her to their car. The shorter one opened the back door.

"Get in, please."

Audrey looked at this man as if to say, What have I done?

"Get in the car, please."

Nothing in the gendarme's expression indicated that this was a joke.

Audrey did as she was told.

 

By the time they reached the Commissariat, in an ugly gray building not far from the castle, Audrey was on the verge of tears.

They escorted her down a brightly lit hallway to an office where a higher ranking officer was waiting to receive her. The gendarmes left, closing the door behind them.

"I'm Inspector Cioffi," this man said. He had a childish face, a goatee, stubby hands. He looked more like a school teacher than a police inspector. His English was smooth. "Show me your passport, please."

Audrey opened her bag and took out her passport and handed it to the inspector. Her hands were shaking.

"There must be some mistake," she said

The inspector studied her passport.

"Audrey Lynn," he said. "Nineteen years of age."

The inspector closed the passport and set it on the desk. He gestured toward a chair. "Please sit, Miss Lynn."

Audrey sat in the chair in front of the desk. Apart from a little brass date keeper and a black telephone, there was nothing at all on the desk. The inspector sat down. On the wall behind him, two portraits in oil, one of Napoleon Bonaparte, the other of Charles de Gaulle. The tricolor on a pole in the corner. No windows.

"Now, Miss Lynn," he said in a tone obviously meant to reassure Audrey that everything would be fine as long as she cooperated, "where is the man who was wearing the coat?"

The remaining color drained from Audrey's face.

"I don't know him," she said. "There's been a misunderstanding. I didn't steal his coat."

The inspector leveled his small blue eyes on Audrey.

"No one accused you of stealing the coat, Miss Lynn," he said. "What is his name?"

"He said it was Karl."

"Karl what?"

"He didn't say."

"Karl Marx perhaps?" the inspector said sarcastically. "And how long have you known Monsieur Marx, Miss Lynn?"

Audrey shook her head. "I only met him an hour ago. He came up and sat at my table at the café. He didn't even ask me. He just sat down and started talking."

Her hands were shaking in her lap.

"What did he tell you?"

"About what?"

The inspector studied her.

"What did he say to you?"

Audrey told the inspector everything Karl had told her, save the story of the greatcoat. The inspector was not satisfied.

"I've seen you here before," he said at length.

"I come to get cigarettes for my nan. They're very dear in England."

The inspector smiled. "Cigarettes for your nan."

Now the taller gendarme came back into the office and conferred in whispers with the inspector. The inspector dismissed the officer and returned his attention to Audrey.

"Mademoiselle," he said. "I will ask you again. Where is the man who gave you the greatcoat? This is a very serious matter. It is not in your interest to protect him."

Audrey suddenly remembered the note. She pulled it from her coat pocket and gave it to the inspector.

"Look," she said. "He said he was going to the toilet, and he never came back. I took the greatcoat, he didn't give it to me."

The inspector read the note.

"Lydia?" he said.

Audrey tried to explain, but everything she said sounded like lies.

The inspector set the note on the desk.

"How much did he pay you, Miss Lynn? Or shall I call you Lydia?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Audrey said. "He didn't tell me to take the greatcoat. I just took it."

"And why did you take a stranger's coat without his permission, Miss Lynn?"

Audrey made no reply, her heartbeat thumping in her ears.

The inspector stared at Audrey. She looked away.

"I want to call my embassy," she said at last.

"I'm afraid your embassy can't help you, Miss Lynn."

"What am I being detained for? I have a right to know that."

The inspector stood up and paced, his hands behind his back. In profile he had a small paunch.

"If you truly don't know, Miss Lynn, then it is best that you persist in not knowing."

"This is absurd," Audrey said.

She didn't like the way he was looking at her. That self-satisfied smirk of his. Those little blue eyes flickering up and down.

"It is not wise for a young woman to travel alone, Miss Lynn," he said.

"I've never had any trouble."

"Why do you not come with a friend?"

"That's none of your business."

"No?"

She was about to say something, but he cut her off.

"But perhaps I am mistaken, and you do not always travel alone. Perhaps you and Monsieur Marx are better friends than you have led me to believe. Am I mistaken?"

"Yes you are."

"Yes, I thought so. You came here all alone today, to buy your nan's cigarettes, and you had the good fortune to make a new friend. Two in fact. Myself and Monsieur Marx. But Monsieur Marx has turned out not to be so good a friend, I'm afraid."

Audrey had never felt so utterly helpless in all her life.

"Isn't that right, Miss Lynn?"

"I've told you everything I know," she began to cry.

The inspector looked away. He sat down. He sighed.

"I'm sorry," she said.

The inspector picked up the telephone receiver and spoke to someone in French. When he was finished he handed Audrey's passport back to her.

"You will catch the three o'clock ferry," he said.

Audrey wiped her eyes. "You're letting me go?"

 

The gendarmes drove Audrey down cobbled streets no longer steeped in charm. When they reached the quay, the taller one opened the back door and let her out with a nod and a smile. The gendarmes escorted her to the ramp and let her go from there.

Audrey glanced warily around the cabin, half dreading, half hoping, to see the man responsible for her humiliation. She took a seat near a window. Her hands were still shaking. The gendarmes stayed leaning against their car, smoking cigarettes and talking casually with one another until the ferry was far enough from the dock to satisfy them, then they got back in their car and drove away.

Audrey stared out the window at the water flowing by, smooth rolling blue. Half an hour out the announcement was made that passengers wishing to buy alcohol and tobacco at French prices should do so now or forever hold their pence.

A cold breeze blew through the cabin. Audrey put her hands in her coat pockets and felt in one of them a dry crust of bread. She took it out and held it in her lap with a quivering hand. She stared at it for the longest time, as if it held at its core the answers to all her questions. Then, putting the crust back in her pocket, she got up, adjusted her hat, and calmly walked to the on-board shop.

 

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