The Black Coat
A short story by Mehreen Ahmed
One black, wintry night, Piccolo -Xavier bumped into someone while crossing the boulevard Peripherique. Once he was across, the person on the receiving end was not visible anymore and it seemed as though, in this Parisian dark alley, this someone simply dissolved into thin air. When he peered further, he saw a black coat disappearing around the corner. Piccolo-Xavier stepped up his pace gradually until he found himself running. However, the more he ran, the further the person moved away. Breathing heavily, he stopped to rest. His gaze shifted towards a shiny object that appeared on an uneven, asphalt footpath. As he stooped to pick it up, the form was gone.
It was a locket with a broken clasp. In the insufficient street lamp, he saw that it contained a picture of a girl. This object could be of sentimental value, Piccolo-Xavier thought. However, 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. His mind drifted away, thinking about this stranger. Where did the bearer of this object live? How far away was he or she from him? And, who could the girl be in the picture? Piccolo-Xavier began to imagine the wildest of 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. It seemed that this mystery person had a woman’s gait rather a man’s. She was 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. A woman of this description existed perhaps, but was it only as a figment of his imagination? Could she somehow materialize for him someday? He looked at his girlfriend lying next to him and thought about how she would react if she heard about all this. He wandered 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 downstairs from the other side of the alley. She made fresh coffee, poured him a cup, bit into her croissant, and watched him help 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. If Lorna knew the truth, the entire truth, would she be able to trust him again?
“Oh, no just a little headache and a bit nervous about my exhibit, I’m afraid.”
“Have you thought of anything yet? You do have a deadline, yeah?”
“Yeah I do. Haven’t really done much and that’s bugging me quite a bit.”
The thought of the deadline and the woman in the black coat appeared simultaneously. He could not separate the two thoughts. They were entangled in a way that made him more pensive than ever. Lorna did not press him for an explanation. Whatever was going on in his mind was only his to share, with the muses alone and not with her.
It had always been like that. Lorna was able to see the end product only, the art itself and was never a part of the process or the stream of consciousness. She loved him regardless for the person he was and for the artist that he aspired to become one day. Critics always found the portrayal of his women was not life-like, 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 Piccolo-Xavier’s narrow forehead as he delved into artistic thoughts. On his way into the studio, Piccolo-Xavier stood at the station, looking at all the women in black coats. They came in all sizes and shapes. His dream woman was not amongst them.
On the train, he took the window seat 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 so much that it now hurt. She was there, and yet, not closely enough. Was he cheating on Lorna? Being this way? Thinking this way? Could he help himself? Now, there was a question.
The train stopped at central station. As he got out, he felt that this was his life now. This life that he was going to lead enslaved to his imagination. He could not forget her, a mere stranger, a faceless phantom with whom he conversed, loudly at times, had dinners at twilight, drove out together into the sunset, and 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, and he jolted back to reality. He had left his studio far behind. He retraced his footsteps, brooding that he could do so much better with Lorna if only he could love her with the same intensity.
As time passed slowly, Piccolo-Xavier saw himself painting the snapshots. On the canvas, he furiously painted eyes, nose, and mouth, then the hands and the legs, until a slender shape began to take form. It didn’t look quite real, but a bit like Picasso’s cubism perhaps. Eventually, a full-bodied figure appeared and he covered it in black coat. Although not intended, the portrait looked quite surrealistic, more so because the model was but a delusion. Every detail, as far as his imagination stretched, was done to perfection, compensating for the lack of the living individual down to the unclasped locket dangling from her tapering fingers. The life-like portrait of the little girl peeking through had not gone amiss either. He called it, Le Habit Noir.
He sat in front of it and stared at it for a long while. His disheveled dark hair showed signs of age, especially on the side burns. His ponderous eyes penetrated to see more than what was visible. He put the brush away on the round table beside the canvas. A radiant smile of satisfaction spread across his face. He cloaked the painting and deemed it ready for the exhibit.
On his way home, he went to the same place. His eyes searched here, there, and everywhere, hoping to find her somewhere. Suddenly, the awareness struck him that he did not even know what she looked like. It left him empty, but still he felt that he knew her somehow and smelled the perfume she wore in the air. Overcome with desolation, he sat down on a bench by the lamppost. He supported his head against the palm of his hand with the elbow on his lap. It started to drizzle; rain followed soon after, skewing down the street lamp under the dark, starless sky.
Soaking wet, he got up and walked back home hoping that one day, maybe he would meet her in person. With the exhibit being only seven days away, his obsession grew for this unknown, unseen human creature. He was concerned that it was getting out of hand, but he could not help it. This pent-up emotion made him mad at times. He needed a let-up.
On the day of the exhibit, Le Habit Noir hung on 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 towards the direction from where the cry had come. He stood frozen in the middle of the room. Time suspended momentarily.
The compliments people paid, the autographs that they desired, or even the potential buyers, who flocked towards 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. They were there. Once that dumb-founded moment had passed, he decided to introduce himself to her.
He mustered enough courage to walk towards them. The girl had an expression of sheer surprise on her face, while her companion stood staring at the picture in utter amazement. Piccolo-Xavier coughed a little as he approached. Once within their line of vision, he noticed that she did not have dark hair the way he had imagined. It was much longer and flowing. Those eyes were neither luminous nor shy. They were much smaller, black and sharp, and they looked at him; still very attractive, but not exactly the image captured in his soul.
Disappointed? No, he was not. He proceeded towards her with the same passion he had cherished all these days. As, he came closer, she almost left.
“Hello,” Piccolo-Xavier quickly extended a friendly hand.
“Hello,” 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 her index finger in the air and pointed towards the portrait inadvertently.
“I know,” he replied.
His chest heaved with excitement, but his speech was measured.
“Would you care to 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.”
“Shall we?” Piccolo-Xavier led her.
They went to the Jewish café, the Boulanger Patissier, right across the road from the gallery. This cafe was quite popular with the people of his kind. They crossed the road together. It was an incredible moment for Piccolo-Xavier as he held the arm of the woman in the black coat. She showed up at last. They sat down, at a corner table inside the café.
“You know my name, but I don’t know yours?” he asked as they sat down.
“It’s Julia,” she said, slightly embarrassed for not introducing herself earlier. “And this is Chevon, my own.”
“Hi Chevon,” he smiled.
They ordered two short black and the girl had a milk shake. Piccolo-Xavier noticed her curious, wide eyes. He handed her the drink. An odd feeling came over him. He had the most unusual emotional transformation as he described the events of that night to her. Strangely, he felt more connected to the faceless black coat than this woman, this young, attractive woman sitting before him. The affections he had been harboring hitherto were then for whom?
“What do you do?” Piccolo-Xavier asked her.
“Oh, I’m 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 silently. Neither of them knew what to say. Then to break this, Julia looked up and said in all sincerity. “I feel like sharing something with you.”
“What might that be?”
“We broke up.”
“How do you mean?”
“My partner and I, of course.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Well? Aren’t you going to ask why?”
“It’s not my place, I guess,” he said quietly.
“Why don’t we have dinner together one evening?”
“How about next Sunday? My place,” 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, really. 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 her name on one of the serviettes that she pulled from the silver holder. Handing him her details, she smiled like a friendly teenager. His thoughts roamed elsewhere, back to the dark lady of his dreams. He realized that the magic, as far as Julia was concerned, was lost. It was far too mundane, far too sullied, for his artistic taste to carry on this affair. He had Lorna in his life too.
“Call me,” she said as he nodded.
Julia was taken quite by his charms. His non-committal responses made no difference. She was not dissuaded when they said goodbye.
Piccolo-Xavier was in love he knew, not with this woman of flesh and blood, but with the phantom. Committed to an unrequited love and a dual life, he would perhaps, share her with Lorna, the phantom that is, whose shy luminous looks would haunt him forever, and forever he would woo her. In the early hours of the morning as they lay entwined, 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 as her exultant pictures splashed across the newspapers on the momentous occasion. Yet, the muses smiled at her predicament.
Julia, however, never gave up. She went to the Taiss gallery, a few days later, and looked for Piccolo-Xavier. He was not there of course. But, she was able to get some information by showing them her Student ID card. Now that she knew where he lived, she decided to pay him a visit at his apartment on 57 Grand Avenue. Piccolo-Xavier made no attempts to contact her; he did not even know that he was sought after.
One day when he left for the studio, steeped in drunken enchantment and still under the spell of the dark lady, in body and in spirit, Julia decided to go to his flat. He grew paler by the day and gradually lost his appetite. Had Lorna not noticed, it would have been different. But since Piccolo-Xavier’s malady was starting to show, she could not but become aware of it. Nevertheless, she could not give him a remedy. His constant distraction was impinging on their relationship. Every attempt she made to ask him about it, failed, simply because he brushed her aside and gave her a broad smile, telling her that it was nothing too serious. Lorna did not believe him. She thought that the malaise, if anything, was not physical but mental. In her wildest imagination, however she never thought of an existence of a phantom.
That morning, soon after Piccolo-Xavier left, the bell rang. Lorna heard it from the shower. She quickly came out and wrapped her wet body with a towel. She expected him to be coming back. She thought that perhaps, heedlessly, he had left something behind, for he had been increasingly unmindful lately. She walked through the scantily decorated lounge-room and looked through the peephole in the door, but had not recognized the lady standing outside. She unbolted the lock by twisting the doorknob. She opened the door.
Julia eyed her up and down, and after a quick bo’jou asked, if she could speak to Piccolo-Xavier. Lorna told her that she missed him by just a couple of hours.
“Would you like to come in?” Lorna asked.
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No, of course not, it’s my day off.”
Lorna was curious. She wanted to find out who this woman was. What business had she with Piccolo-Xavier?
“I’m Lorna, Piccolo-Xavier’s girlfriend.”
Julia’s expression suddenly waned as her smiled transformed into a mere grimace, sizing her up. It was noted by Lorna, who asked with interest. “How do you know Piccolo-Xavier?”
“It’s long story. I’m an art student. And, after that smashing exhibit, who wouldn’t know him?”
“So true. Did you want me to give him a message though?”
Lorna could have easily given her address to the studio. However, she suppressed the desire. She did not feel that this person could be trusted. She saw how that friendly grin turned into a malicious sneer.
“Yes, that would be great actually. If you could get him to call me?”
“May I have your number?”
“He has it.”
“Yes, I gave it to him at the café when we were having coffee.”
“You had coffee together?”
“Oh yes, didn’t he tell you?”
“No. What’s there to tell?”
“Why? The story of course.”
Lorna was finding it hard to contain herself. She made an effort to stop fidgeting and Julia noticed how this was affecting her.
“Oh look, I shouldn’t’t tell you anymore.”
She rose from her chair unhurriedly as she dragged it out and looked at her obliquely. She gave her a somnolent smile saying she would be back soon to have a chat with Piccolo-Xavier. Then, she turned towards the door.
“But, what was your name?”
“Julia. Just tell monsieur Piccolo-Xavier that Julia dropped by, he’ll understand.”
“Really? How does he know you, again?”
Noting her naked curiosity, she told her mildly.
“Yeah, really,” and the penny dropped. “Ask him. Au revoir.”
Lorna pursued the conversation no more and she saw her out. She bolted the door and felt faint and hot, in spite of the shower that she had just taken. The lilting murmur of the serpentine brook flowed nearby, but it gave her no solace. She wiped off the perspiration springing on her upper lip. Now that the seeds of evil had been planted, Lorna’s suspicion was raised, ‘what was this woman doing, meddling in their life?’
Julia stepped outside. Devious as it was, she entertained the thought that Lorna was perturbed. Pressing her lips together, she felt she had done enough damage for one day and she deserved praises. This was a brilliant plan. Once Lorna moved out, she would move straight in with Chevon. She almost started to visualize her life with Piccolo-Xavier.
In the studio that morning, Piccolo-Xavier tried to clear his head, getting the phantom out. He painted one picture after another furiously on the canvas. They were images of the faces only and sometimes with the body, singular portraits at times, and other times dual. The couple on the canvas was no other, but him and the lady, whom he now named, Eve. And, for all intents and purposes, Eve was painted not just with him, but with the serpent as well, which tried to devour her and whom he endeavored to save from this impending danger. The artist now tried to paint stories about her in imitation of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel. He was enamored by her chastity. No evil ever touched her.
Crazy it was that he became the mad artiste. But then, he was crazy about her too. The studio gradually became their rendezvous, the playground of the lovers, in which he had Edith Piaf singing Les Amants De Paris. Besotted by the melodic passionate crescendos, he did everything with Eve and painted her as he wished, nude lying on the sofa, seated, or standing up. He painted her fully dressed and dressed her up and down, sometimes in short skirts, sometimes in frocks, pink, purple and brown, and with or without an umbrella on morning’s afterglow; there she was with the sun streaming in through the picture window and on wintry evenings, pillowed within the black coat, alongside the fire mellowed. It was quite mesmerizing. But, she was his lover, his model and his life. There was no other life apart from her.
In the thick of it, there was a sudden faint knock on the door of the studio, which startled Piccolo-Xavier. There was someone at the door disrupting his lovemaking. First, he thought he would ignore it. But, the knocks became increasingly louder as if the knocker was going to rip the door apart. Reluctantly, he rose from his stool and disengaged himself from Eve’s red, pouted lips.
He put the brush down on the table. Wiping his hands on a cloth as though they were covered in milk and honey, he walked up to the door with droopy eyes, parted lips, while his other hand covered the bulge, in the crotch, of the pants. He opened the door, and there she was outside, his Eve. She stood, as pure as the daylight and as true as Aphrodite was to the Greeks. Eve smiled and walked right through him while he looked at her in a trance. She took his hands in hers and poured sheer endearments into him.
“You don’t know how long I‘ve waited for this moment.”
“You came. You finally came!” Piccolo-Xavier whispered in her ears.
“Yes, I have.”
“But, for how long?”
“For as long as you wish. I’m yours to keep Piccolo-Xavier, and no one can take me away now. You made me. I’m your creation.”
“No, no one can have you, not even God. I cannot let you go Eve, for you are mine. You are mine and always will be. I, I waited long, too long in anticipation, but now we can be finally together.”
Eve sat down on the stool. Her long gown fell to the floor where Piccolo-Xavier also sat on the ground right next to her. He looked up at her quivering red lips and her swelling breasts. It was her, Eve, the phantom in the flesh. She bent down and kissed him with her full, sweet lips. Once that prolonged kiss was over, she held his face in her palm, put it on her lap, caressing it. She stroked through his hair gently, with her long tapering fingers. He felt her breathing softly on his face. His fantasy and reality were fused. Piccolo-Xavier was at peace and beyond anguish. He was one with his dream.
“Sleep, my love, for as long as you like,” said Eve evenly. “I am as real as you want me to be in your dream world.”
When the phantom’s charm withered away, she stole away and took with her his very heart beyond the sinking stars, leaving none for Lorna. For Piccolo-Xavier was never, quite himself again.