voices from the past


The Coat

by Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946)

. . . the story continues . . .

Now, he was actually speaking, asking if she had lost herself.

Of him she made short work. "Certainly not. I'm just taking a rest."

"And the fog will gradually lift."

"Let us hope so." She meant to leave it at that, but found herself adding: 'What I HAVE lost is the friend I came out with."

"Can I help you?"

"You? How, I'd like to know!"

'Well, if you would perhaps remove your coat. . .

Aha! so that was what he was: a coat thief. She had read of such things happening under cover of fog. Hurriedly she re-did her fastenings. If he was after the coat he'd have to take her too. And she was tall and strong.

But he made no move to attack her. And again some inner urge forced her to go on speaking.

"The very idea of me sitting here without it! I should be much too . . ." "bare" was the word that presented itself, but she choked it back, it sounded so odd, and said "cold" instead, though she was perspiring freely.

"As you will," said the man. And evidently took the hint; for when she looked round next he had gone.

Fool, oh, fool, she with her suspicions. After all he might have known, have been able to tell her what it would be best to do. She raised her handkerchief to her smarting eyes; and as she lowered it saw another figure growing as it were out of the mist: a woman this time, so no cause for alarm. But the be-stringed bonnet, the antiquated mantle COULD only belong to a char-woman or some such person; and again she made to edge away. But was brought up by the end of the seat. And the new-comer plumped down almost on top of her.

Thus wedged in she had to listen to the same fatuous question.

"Can I help you?"

What the hell did they mean by it, all of them? (The next one that came along she'd be beforehand with.) And her reply was as crushing as she knew how to make it.

But a glance shot sideways, to see how the creature took the snubbing, froze the words on her tongue. Round-eyed, open-mouthed, she wrenched herself loose, to turn, to make sure.

"MOTHER! you? What on earth are YOU doing here? In this fog, with your rheumatism? You'll be ill again, you'll be laid up!"

"Don't worry about me, my dear. It's you we have to think of."

Which was Mother to the life. Always ready to belittle herself and her ailments.

"Well, I must say. But oh, it seems too good to be true. For you're just the person I need. I'm in such trouble, Mother, such terrible trouble!" And breathlessly she poured out her tale: the accident, her own lucky escape, her fears for Margaret, her laming uncertainty.

Except for a gentle click or two of the tongue, she was listened to in silence. But when she stopped speaking, in place of the expected sympathy, the sound, motherly advice, all she heard was: "But first take off your coat."

And that was like the stab of the drill on an inflamed nerve.

"Oh, CURSE the coat! Can't you any of you leave it alone? Besides, I never heard such nonsense. How can I possibly take it off? I should be much too " Again she had to fight an impulse to say something she didn't want to, or mean.

"You needn't mind being bare before me, little Katie."

There! the word was out, and said not by her but another.

Though staggered, she managed a mocking laugh. "Bare? It sounds as if I had nothing on underneath. But 'little Katie' how good that sounds! No one has called me Katie since . . . SINCE " The fraction of a second in which her heart stood still, and she was on her feet, her balled fists digging into her cheeks, her eyes wild with fear, all the blood in her body galloping back to her heart.

"MOTHER! YOU? But but how can it be? For you're dead, Mother DEAD! and have been for years and years."

"I will explain."

"Explain? Explain THAT? Oh Christ, what does it mean? Am I going mad?" Her legs abruptly failing her, she fell face downward on the seat, crying and sobbing.

"Quiet, child, quiet. But come now." And by some means or other the coat was undone, loosened, pulled off her: bringing to light, in all its meanness, the shabby, out-of-date dress that was her sole wear. She shivered into herself as though she had been stripped naked. And yet . . . rid of the coat's intolerable drag, the fug of it, the stickiness . . . Now, she could move, sit up with ease, turn her head, look about her. For the man had been right; the fog was lifting, had shrunk to mere whiffs and puffs of mist in the upper air. But this was not Portland Place. No old Lister with his sideboards, no rows of cars and taxis. Nor houses either: just a wide, open, desolate space, with a single seat planked down in the middle of it.

Stupefied she stared round.

"Where am I? What am I doing here?"

"Safe with me, little Katie."

"With you? How can I be? Mother! You don't you can't . . . It was Margaret, I tell you, MARGARET, not me! That bus never touched me, I swear it didn't! Do you think I wouldn't KNOW?"

Again she was on her feet, went raging up and down, her bunched hands shaking convulsively, in defiance, in despair.

"I won't, I won't be dead, I tell you, I WON'T! Besides, it's preposterous, it's insane. Never have I felt so alive! Oh, there's some awful mistake somewhere. Why, I've got years and years of life before me: I'm only thirty-six: I mean to live to be an old, old woman. Oh, do something, say something! Can't you see I'm going mad?" And flinging herself on her knees she hid her face in her mother's lap.

Now, her hat too was off; and she felt the touch of hands on her hair.

"Talk on, my child. You have many things to say to me."

"You're wrong, I haven't, not one! Except that it's all a mistake. Or else I'm dreaming. Yes, that's what it is: just a hideous dream. The shock of seeing Margaret killed was too much for me. I shall wake up, I know I shall I WILL! and be able to laugh at myself."

In her ears there was now a kind of singing, or humming, which added to her confusion. (But which was also a proof that she dreamed.)

"Oh, WHY couldn't the woman have stopped where she was? Why did she need to come to London? I never asked her to, I didn't want her. And this, this is all I get for being kind to her."

"Was kindness your only motive, Katie?"

"What else?" And with a bitter laugh: "Do you think I enjoyed dragging at her heels like a dog on a lead? Watching her fling about with pounds as if they were shillings _I_, who am so poor, so poor? Don't you call that kind?"

To this there was no answer; except from the humming, which seemed to grow momentarily louder. She shook her head as if to chase off a winged pest, stopped her ears with her fingers; but neither helped. To drown it she was compelled to go on speaking.

"In every single shop we went to, her one thought was, to get the best of everything. More money than she knew what to do with, and no one but herself to spend it on. When she bought shoes, Mother, I had to hide mine under the chair. And so . . . when the bus got her and I knew I'd never have to see that smug, self-satisfied face of hers again oh, wasn't it only natural I couldn't feel sorry? You must understand that, you must, you must!"

Here, the humming rose to a wail, like the whine of a high, thin wind among the chimney-pots on an autumn night. (A sound that had always got her down.)

"And you, you're trying to make out it wasn't her but me ME! Oh, what shall I do?"

. . . the story continues . . .

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