t the end of that little alley, just there, out of the sun, away from the bustle and bluster of the square, is a café. No sign. You have to know it’s there. There is no menu. You eat what the kitchen provides.
You push open the door, walk in with a few dead leaves. A small man in a white shirt shows you to a table facing the door, asks if he can take your coat. You say no. It’s verging on cold; you might keep it round your shoulders. There’s no one else here. Tables waiting like empty stages, chairs neat. Glasses glinting in the half light.
Your table is not perfect; a small brown stain on the cloth. You wonder if you should move. After all, you are not alone now, there’s the space left in the air by the maker of that brown stain.
The discomfort is slight. No matter. You order a demi-carafe of red.
Just then, the daylight flickers as when a memory marches over your thoughts.
The door is flung open. A man… late middle age… greying, sweating, thin… long raincoat, clutching a trilby to his chest in one hand, in the other a bunch of roses wrapped in brown paper. His shoes are dusty. The door slams shut behind him and he leans against it, breathing fast, his breath making the briefest of clouds. He glances over his shoulder.
The waiter approaches. "Monsieur…?"
The new arrival reaches out, grasps the waiter by the shirt sleeve.
"Still they line them up, Maurice. Still they ask for volunteers to take rifles and shoot them, those in the lines."
"Monsieur, it is quiet here. If Monsieur will permit…?" and he takes the shaking man by the elbow, leads him to a corner table, where the poor man sits, his back to you, still holding his hat and his roses. He looks up at the waiter, wipes his eyes on his sleeve like a child.
"I must be in the line at two thirty-five, Maurice."
You look at the door. Surely the man is mad. Talking of such things and on a day like today, when the sun is shining and the church bells ring out over Paris, sending flocks of birds skyward with each peal?
You want to say to the waiter: look, this is meant to be a good café. I am here on recommendation. But the door opens again.
There is a blast of warmth, as though the sun has thrown a blazing hoop round the earth and it ends rolling on the cobbles of this alley, just here. A woman enters, followed by two more. Dressed in feathered costumes, headdresses askew. Heels clicking on the tiled floor, their laughter making a thick layer in the air. And two more. Five women in feathers. Bringing with them a smell of resin, perfume, sweat… their colours brilliant and wicked. Their painted nails flashing, long and sharp.
"Garcon..?" someone calls.
The waiter appears with a carafe of red for the thin man.
"Ah, Maurice…" calls one of the women… the one who has pushed to the front, whose laugh is a little louder then the others. The brood fall back to allow her space.
"Madame. Ca va?"
"Maurice. Such a fine procession… but exhausting! Did you hear the bands? The crowds were so thick we could not get through to you. We are so late. Did you keep our table?" Her nails seem to drip, ooze. You blink.
The waiter makes a show of directing the women to a large table. It has a plastic sign, "Reserved."
They descend on the table in their feathers, squawking, and make an ostentatious play of taking off their headdresses, placing them carefully on the table next to yours. You raise your head, but they do not acknowledge you. You do not want to sit surrounded by plumage. It moves. The fronds move like seaweed. It disturbs.
"Du vin…" someone says and the air relaxes. The feathers are still, but they must be watched.
The thin man watches the window, shaking. Holding his roses and his hat in one hand, now. He takes frantic sips of wine as though it were the source of his salvation.
You smooth the white cloth. You look round for the waiter. After all, you were first here, you do not yet have a drink, you would appreciate an excuse to move a glass over the brown stain.
There is such a noise; a twittering from the women, a plangent moaning from the thin man. You feel righteous not to be adding to the noise, and therefore you cannot call for Maurice.
Even this disturbs. Why could he not stay "a waiter"? Now he has a name. Without you wishing it, he has become part of your theatre. Part of your cast, not merely your audience, which was his place.
The door opens again. Two men with two dogs, slim-hipped dogs with muzzles. One man, barrel-chested and short, the other dressed as a judge, long wig, buckled shoes.
"Who won?" they ask. No one answers.
Beyond the limp half-curtains the brickwork on the wall is a mass of creeping shadows. The women look up. The thin man moans.
You wait for the waiter.
The two men find themselves a table and the dogs sink to the floor, shivering. One dog has a crusted eye.
"I will put this dog down tomorrow," says the judge, removing his wig. He is almost bald underneath. The dog looks up at him, its crusted eye watering, running. It shivers in spasms, as though an electric current is already pulsing through it.
"I wonder if it is chitterlings today," says the barrel-chested man. He belches.
Were it possible to just eat, were it possible to just have sustenance, you would stay. As it is, there are far too many demands made on one in this place.
The light will keep changing. Were it possible to forget this feeling you have, this sense of revulsion such as you get when you lift a heavy stone that has been embedded in the earth for years, uncovering the walkways and meeting-places of small dark creatures that may feast on corpses, you might find peace. But it is not here.
So, with a little reluctance, you get up; you leave a few coins for the waiter by way of thanks, and leave.
As you pull the door to behind you, you hear the thin man call out to you… "Mind. Aim straight for the heart. It is quicker that way…."
Vanessa Gebbie's work has been widely published. Her recent competitive successes include prizes at Fish International and Bridport. She is Assistant Editor of Cadenza, a small press literary magazine. She teaches Creative Writing and founded The Fiction Workhouse, an online collective for writers. Her novel-in-progress won a first prize at the recent Daily Telegraph Novel Competition. Her debut collection Words from a Glass Bubble is forthcoming in March 2008 from Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK. Her story "Three Stages in Learning to Fly" appeared in Issue 21 of The Cafe Irreal.
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story copyright by author 2007 all rights reserved