Friday, July 3, 2009

Theft in a cafe

I wrote this short piece quite a few years ago but it’s never been published, so I thought I’d give it an airing here.

There was wood everywhere: stick-like chairs, honey-coloured pine floors with the oily flatness derived from thousands of footsteps, slim wooden venetians, and redwood stairs that went up past the counter to the toilets. My fat morone wallet was gone; the small café was hugely empty, and so was my black shoulder bag: it felt too light.

My father said, frowning, “I wish I’d been more vigilant.”

My mother said, “I saw the woman tripping down the stairs. She fell in a very strange way.”

The waitress, who had a heart-shaped face and delicate features, said: “They both looked very odd. They looked like they were on something.”

They had been sitting behind us. The chairs of the woman and I had their backs to each other. The consensus was that the woman had pretended to trip down the stairs on the way back from the toilet. As she landed, throwing her arms wildly forward, she had pulled out the wallet from my bag, which lay next to my chair. The zip of the bag had been open. This was what my mother had seen: that strange lunge, which must have ended in a neat, successful operation.

“They left very quickly,” said the waitress. “They hadn’t ordered anything.”

The afternoon melted away in an instant. We would go back to the house, and cancel the cards.

We went back to the house and cancelled the cards. As I talked into the phone my father, perched on the edge of his chair, began to sketch in pencil a profile of the woman my mother had described. “Is that about right?” he asked my mother. “Kind of – the nose was more pointy.” He kept sketching, adding length to the nose, more detail to the long, straggly hair.

Then he and I drove down to the police station, which was round the corner from the café.

“Where next?” my father kept saying at each corner, “where next?”

The reception area with its wide, bare counter was empty and silent. The policeman who appeared was young and reedy, with a long, smooth face and knowing expression. He was so tall he had to lean down awkwardly on the dirty green counter to fill in the form. I signed it and started to leave. “Would this be any use to you, constable?” said my father, holding out the sketch he had made of the woman. The policeman looked bemused; my father’s hand dropped, and he turned and opened the door for me.

We parted to hunt the alleyways. I peered at skips, and through grills into drains; I stared into the bowels of litter bins. I wandered past bulging green garbage bags full of rotten food, piled up in the corners of lanes. As I searched, people sat chatting on outdoor tables, or walked in and out of the shopping mall with their gelati. Ostensibly I wanted to retrieve the spare front door key I’d foolishly left in the wallet, and my numerous cards; but I chiefly yearned to see the rectangular shape I knew so well, its exact tinge of faded morone.

When we got back the cottage smelt of brewing coffee. There had been no phone call to say the wallet had been found. We decided I should wait to change the locks until the following day. There was a small bolt at the bottom of the front door, and my father lay on his side and hammered away at it. My mother and I sat in the adjacent lounge, sipping coffee and eating biscotti as he worked.

“It was my fault,” I said. “Leaving the zip of my bag undone. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“Nonsense,” said my mother. “She stole it from you. She was an awful woman.”

“She’s an addict,” I said, staring at the sketch of the woman’s profile, which now lay on the coffee table between us. “Her life must be hell – always having to scramble for her next hit.

“If heroin was legal this would never have happened,” I added, warming to my theme. “Did you know that methadone’s more damaging than heroin because it’s a synthetic drug?”

“What?” said my mother. She looked as if she was torn between complete disbelief and a desire to have the statement properly explained. My father sat up and put the hammer down. There were tiny flakes of white paint on the carpet under the place where he had shifted the socket of the bolt. “That’s a lot of bull,” he said. “The Salvation Army says we need more detox and zero tolerance. Sweden tried your idea and now they’re back to zero tolerance.”

I didn’t know whether he was right about Sweden so I kept quiet.

When my parents left they asked me what I would do that evening. I said I was going to sip camomile tea and watch a bit of tele. My mother told me she had recently seen herbal tea served in a little coffee plunger. “It makes just the right amount,” she said. “About one and a half cups.”

As soon as they had gone I lay down on my bed in the darkness. It felt as if the blood was slowly seeping out of my veins and spreading through my entire body. I got up and went back into the loungeroom. I grabbed my father’s sketch and started jabbing at it with a pen until it started to tear. I tore the larger bits into small pieces with my fingers.

Later, getting ready for bed, I imagined waking suddenly in the dark, cold steel against my throat.


The next day I put the money my father had given me into my makeup bag and took the tram into the city. A woman and a four-year-old boy got on at Johnston St. The woman sat down at a right angle to me, so that I could see her profile. She was young-looking, with straggly blonde hair and pinched eyes.

“Are we in the city?” asked the four-year-old. “Not yet,” his mother replied, “but we will be soon. You sit over there.”

He started to climb onto her lap. “I want to press the button,” he said, straining to reach the bright red button on the steel pole beside her. “No, Cameron,” she said. “It’s not time to get off yet.”

But he persisted, giggling and protesting at the same time, moving his hand up towards the button as she simultaneously pushed it away. His eyes weren’t looking at her at all; he seemed to know he did not have a chance but felt compelled to ritualistically repeat the action.

“Get away from me,” she said. “I don’t want you near me. Go and sit on the other end of the tram.”

She tried to push him off her lap but he continued to reach for the button, alternating between frustrated sobs and mirthless laughter.

“I’ll ring Glen,” she said. “And he’ll get you. You know what Glen’ll do to you.” She reached into her bag, took out a mobile and began dialling.

The boy’s face puckered. “No,” he wailed. “Don’t call Glen.” He began punching her legs, then threw his head back, sobbing and swinging his torso back and forth. “He’s not there,” said his mother, putting the phone back into her bag. “But I’m going to tell him how naughty you’ve been.”

It was time for them to get off. Reluctantly she let him push the red button, then she walked firmly down the steps of the tram ahead of him. He cried and laughed, and strained to put his hands around her disappearing waist.

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