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#41 An Unsavoury Scene In A Café
Welcome to #41 of Story Press. This week, a story inspired by a painting by Degas, called In A Café. I do hope you enjoy it.
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#41 An Unsavoury Scene In A Café
There was no reason at all for me, or anyone else, to speak to her. She was sitting on the other side of the café next to a grizzly man smoking his pipe, looking more solemn than anyone I had seen in years. She rested her hands on her legs which were spread out wide, as though to distribute her weight evenly across her body, doing everything she could to make easier the task of holding herself up. She was a ghostly pale; the skin around her face hung from her cheekbones like melted wax to a candle.
She had a milky-looking glass in front of her. Absinthe, no doubt. And she sipped from it regularly, closed her eyes, sighed, and then returned to her resting position, staring at the table in front of her. It was most peculiar.
The grizzly man had a thick black beard that wrapped around his chin and met the hair on his head by his ears. He wore a little bowler hat askew at the back of his head, like it had blown that way in the wind. The pipe clung to his lips like an oxygen-filled lifeline. His arm rested on the table and held up his body weight, but unlike his companion, he stared not at the table but at the door. His eyes followed the bohemian faces that poured in and out of the door, as though he were seeking some old friend. After a while observing the grizzly man, I realised that he was looking at the faces of the women who passed in and out. Really? With your lady right there beside you? Have you no shame?
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I was there with my own friends: Ellen and Marcellin and Edgar, so there was really no need for me to be observing that pair, but the more I looked the more I wanted to look. Questions I had only bred further questions. I did not mention this to my friends. I only stole brief glances here and there through Ellen and Marcellin’s shoulders. They themselves were discussing something about the subjects of paintings, for which I had exhausted my brain and was idly listening while preoccupying myself with this unbecoming duo.
After perhaps twenty minutes of observation, I had only just noticed that the glass of absinthe had run down to nought, and she was reaching for the bottle beside her to refill it. The grizzly man rapped his knuckles on the table in front of his glass as he continued to stare at the door, and the woman reached over and refilled his glass too.
I thought then that he held such an oppression over her. She was tending to his needs without so much as an exchange of words, and not in a romantic, read-your-mind sort of way. He grunted and thumped his way to what he wanted. And I thought, maybe I could help her. Maybe I could take her from him and put her up in the studio for a few days until she figures out where she can go. It’s not that I was in love with her, I didn’t fancy her my type anyway. But there was something about her that pulled at my heart. It was empathy and it was like a cat clawing a carpet, just not letting go. How sad it must be, stuck in a cycle of alcohol and abuse and subjection.
As though by divine intervention, the grizzly man beside her took a big gulp of his absinthe, stood up and drifted through the doors at the back, to the toilets. I looked at the woman who only continued her deathly stare. This was my moment.
‘Excuse me, I won’t be a minute.’ I approached the woman. In all honesty, right up to the moment I spoke, I had absolutely no thought as to what words I should choose to approach the topic.
‘Hello there. I couldn’t help but see you and your… partner… from across the café. How do you do?’ She didn’t even look up at me as I spoke. She continued staring at the grain in the wood of the table, so much so I actually looked down at the table in front of me, as though there might actually be something there - a black hole, an alien creature, or some magnificent work of art I hadn’t seen. It wasn’t until I finished speaking that her head lifted and her dark eyes fell on me. It sent a shiver down my spine.
‘What do you want?’
‘Oh, no, nothing. It’s only, well, let’s be honest, I couldn’t help but notice you and your partner from over there, and truthfully, you look positively miserable. You haven’t spoken a word to each other, he communicates with you by thumping the table, and all you do is suck the absinthe out of that glass there and stare at this table. It pains me to see it. A woman, young and pretty like yourself, you should have a smile on your face, enjoy the company of friends and have the world to look forward to in life…’ I paused to give her an opportunity to respond, but she didn’t take me up on it. ‘Look, all I’m saying is this. Your man is in the bathroom now. I’d bet all the money in my pocket that he doesn’t treat you right and your better off without him. I’m not offering to whisk you away. Frankly, I’ve got my own things going on in my life. But if you want, I thought, well I have this studio… I’m an artist… You can sleep there a few nights if you want. He doesn’t have to know. You can stay there as long as you want, so long as I can work there during the day, and you can figure out how to right your ship, so to speak. What do you think?’
She stared at me for a long while, and then she smiled and I thought, Wow, you’ve really done it. You’ve correctly identified a social issue and you’ve taken steps to resolve it. You’ve done a good thing!
‘I think… I think… You should mind your own damn business! You can’t have my absinthe, it’s mine! And as for Lucien, you’ll stay away from him too. Stay away from the both of us, you devil!’
I stumbled back in surprise, so vicious was the vitriol pouring from her mouth. Then, the next thing I know, Lucien the grizzly bear was walking towards us from the toilets, and she shouted at him about how I’d tried to steal their absinthe and how I offered her to come and live with me and that I needed a good lesson in broaching women.
The man roared some incoherent sentences at me, grabbed my shirt by the collar and threw me out into the street!
Before his fists could rain down on me, Edgar and Marcellin came running out, pushed the man away from me, grabbed me by the arms and led me away.
I tell you, that’s the last time I try to help anyone. No one appreciates it and the chances are you’ll end up with a black eye!