SEND HER AWAY
Karl, still wearing his stained overalls and grimy boots, stepped into Liberty department store just before closing time. He lifted the white coat off the rack and ran his hand down the front, admiring the row of dark wooden buttons. The wool was soft, lamb’s wool, nothing fake about it. Beth noticed that kind of thing. He dug the price tag out from the broad lapel. It would cost him a week’s wages. He’d do it though, and make Beth happy. He called her earlier to see if she was free that evening. She said yes, and that it would be good to talk.
Last Saturday morning, walking through Borough Market, they’d met Ed and his Italian wife, Irene. Ed, Beth’s colleague from work, said that he’d heard much about Karl and shook his hand with a firm grip. Beth was quiet. Karl noticed how she kept staring at Ed’s wife’s coat. It was white and looked soft, cashmere perhaps, probably Italian; its cut was slim, ending just above the knee. It was a fine coat. They stood in a close circle and spoke about the weather: how strange it was to still enjoy the sun so late in October; and the market, the good food, the rise of the independent coffee shops; Ed’s preference for herbal tea. When they said goodbye, Irene kissed them both on the cheek – Karl feeling the softness of her coat against his cheek as he embraced her awkwardly. Ed stood aside, close to Beth. Then he shook Karl’s hand once more before taking his wife by the arm and slipping away into the crowd.
At the cash desk a sales assistant with big arms folded the coat into a bundle and stuffed it in a red plastic bag. Karl counted out the money from a brown envelope and paid. Then he tucked the envelope back into his back pocket. With the few pounds remaining, he’d have enough to buy them dinner. Sure he’d be broke for the rest of the week, but he’d take it easy – stay at home for a change instead of going down to the pub with the guys from the site.
He left the department store and sauntered down the main street, the big red shopping bag swinging with the bounce of his gait. People stared at him, but he didn’t let it get to him. He felt good and looked forward to seeing Beth. She was going to love it. He quickened his step. Instead of taking the bus, he decided to walk. But he’d not gone far when dark clouds crept in low across the sky. He crossed the street and started to cut across the park.
Then he stopped.
On a bench at the far end of the park sat Beth and, beside her, Ed. At first, Karl thought of calling out to them, but then he saw how she laid her head on his shoulder and how Ed’s hand moved down to her knee. Karl tightened his grip on the bag and ran towards a row of trees. They stayed like that for a while, holding each other, till it began to rain. Then Ed raised his umbrella, and the two of them fled as the rain fell harder.
Upstairs, in his room, Karl sat on the end of his bed staring at the coat hung over the back of a chair in the corner beneath an old lampstand. His muddy boots left dark stains on the carpet and his wet clothes stuck to his skin. The radiator began to wheeze and hum. It would be a while before any heat filled the room. He heard the buzz at the front door. A minute later his landlady knocked at his door. Your girlfriend’s downstairs.
Just a minute, he said. He pulled off his boots and pushed them under the bed.
His landlady opened the door. You shouldn’t keep a woman waiting, she said.
I’m not quite ready.
She switched on the light. You don’t look well at all.
Got caught in the rain.
I see that, she said. God, you look pale.
It’s nothing, he said, reaching for a towel.
Maybe I should send her away.
Karl thought for a moment. He dried his hair and stared at the coat.
No, he said. Send her up.
As his landlady heavily descended the steep staircase, he closed the door behind her and switched off the light, casting the coat once more beneath the penumbral glow of the lamp. He undressed and quickly put on clean clothes and then listened to the soft steps rising up the stairs. He opened the door before she could knock and stood behind her as she entered the room. He closed the door and placed his hands on her shoulders, positioning her in front of the chair.
It’s yours, he said.
What is? What’s going on?
The coat. It’s for you. A gift.
Beth tried to turn towards him, but he held her, forcing her forward, closer to the chair.
Take it, he said. Feel how soft it is.
What’s this for? she said. It looks expensive.
Won’t you put it on?
She twisted out of his grip, and turned towards him. Karl I want us to talk, she said.
And we will. I’m taking you out – my treat, he said.
Can’t we just stay here?
He advanced towards her till she had no choice but to sit in the chair.
Put it on, he said. He raised the coat and set it on her shoulders.
Karl please, I can’t, she said. It’s beautiful, but I can’t.
Wear it, he said, moving closer. I picked it just for you.
You’re scaring me a little, she said.
Wear it, he said. Wear it and we’ll talk.
I can’t, why are you making me? I just can’t. She began to sob, but slowly slipped her arms into the coat. Karl watched her in silence. When it was on, he raised her from the chair. He fastened the buttons down the front, from top to bottom, and adjusted the collar. Beth’s sobs became incessant. He ran his hands down the length of the coat and then held her to him, pushing her head down to his shoulder, caressing her hair, damp from the rain.
There, he said. Now, let’s talk.
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