THE WOMAN IN THE PURPLE COAT

A Novel

© 2020 Paula Robinson

Chapter One

 

Catherine. London, July 2018

The windscreen has shattered like ice crystals on a frozen lake. The jackknifed lorry blots out the sun from my driver’s window. I can smell diesel.

    Something warm and thick is trickling into my right eye. I blink and try to raise my hand, but I can’t move.

    I’m drifting…

    Back to the Battersea council estate. Up the steep concrete stairs that smell of urine. Through the blue front door, calling:

    “Eudora! I’ve got a special treat for you!” 

    I put the kettle on. Open the pouch of Sheba and arrange fish in gravy onto my best china plate—the one with sprigs of roses and that worn, gold rim. My mouth waters: Eudora’s food looks so much more appetising than the frozen fish fingers and mushy peas I’ll have for my own supper later.

    Tea mug and plate of cat food in hand, I hobble to the bedroom. 

    In the middle of the single bed Eudora lies curled, her silver grey fur offset against the purple eiderdown. She hasn’t touched her furry toy mouse.

    “Look, sweetheart! I got your favourite—”

    A cracking, popping sound jars me back. A fireman is cutting the passenger door open with a strange looking instrument.

    “Eudora… needs…help,” I plead softly. 

    “Hang on, Eudora. We’re nearly there.”

    He is in the car now. I hear the click of my seatbelt releasing. He calls urgently to someone behind him then turns back to me: “We’re getting you out, Eudora. Taking you to hospital.”  

    “Eudora… Home… Very ill… Nobody…” I whisper, but the firemen aren’t listening. One of them covers my nose and mouth with a clear plastic mask. It’s easier to breathe now. 

    “Eudora… Alone… Home…”

    “What’s she saying?” a woman’s voice asks.

    The mask lifts.

    “My… cat,” I rasp.

    The mask lowers. They don’t understand.  

    I must get home. Help Eudora. 

    It’s surprisingly easy to sit up. 

    To drift through the ambulance’s doors. Away from an elderly woman’s inert body. 

    

I’m in my bedroom again. Taking down the first of twelve small oil paintings of New York from the wall. 

    “Our favourite story will make us both feel better,” I say to Eudora as I settle beside her on the bed. “Look how young I was in my little black dress,” I hold the unframed canvas in front of her. “In those days, I was a good artist, wasn’t I?”

    She purrs.

    I pick up my reading glasses and the blue cardboard folder from the bedside table and take out pages yellowed by time. On them, my precise handwriting—the letters neatly formed but slightly square in shape—flows all around my sketches.

    “I took an unsteady step back onto the pavement,” I begin my story in the usual place, but something about it unsettles me this time. I read on regardless.

    “I thought about putting on my coat, but it was heavy with rain. The white wool was dirty where I’d covered the woman lying in the road. The right lapel and shoulder were streaked with the stranger’s blood.”

    There’s a pain growing in my chest, but I disregard it. I have to focus on the story for Eudora’s sake. 

    “I tilted my umbrella to shield myself from the crowd that still lingered, even though the ambulance was long gone. All I wanted was to blend back into the multitude of umbrellas battling an unseasonal September wind. To be just another New Yorker in the evening rush hour. Most of all, I wanted to forget the woman in the purple coat.”

Chapter Two

Catherine. New York, September 1970

My first impression was a flash of shimmering purple fabric—the colour of African violets in full bloom—billowing around slim legs as the woman bolted across my path, jostling my umbrella. 

Seconds later, a man running after the woman almost collided with me.

A horn blared. Someone cried out. There was a dull thud.

      As I stepped off the curb, I saw the man bending over the purple coat lying limp over legs curled up in the foetal position. 

“Someone call 911!” he yelled. 

The driver was shouting that he hadn’t seen the woman. That she’d run out in front of him. That he’d tried to stop.

       The man yanked off his suit jacket and the left cuff snagged on his watch. He ripped at it, turning the sleeve inside-out, and covered the woman tenderly. His shirt was drenched and clung to his torso as if he’d been standing out in the rain.

       I took off my coat and crouched down beside them. “Take this. It’s dry—” My breath caught in my throat as he lifted his jacket. The woman’s hands were resting protectively around the vast swell of her belly and her knees were drawn up as if to safeguard her unborn child. As I tucked my coat’s hem around a bare foot, I noticed a shoe lying a few feet away in the road. 

      “The ambulance will be here soon,” I said with a calm that I didn’t feel. I held my umbrella over the couple, the ground cold and hard against my knees. 

       The man wiped rain from the woman’s cheeks. His fingers were long like a pianist’s and he had a well-worn platinum band on his ring finger. His right hand moved in a slow circular motion over the bulge beneath my coat. He leaned over his wife and spoke to her in an accent that I couldn’t place. It was American, but with the singsong lilt of another land. The wind snatched away most of his words, but the few that I caught made me blink back tears and look away. The crowd pressed closer. 

       If I was the one lying in the road, what would Serge be doing right now? I thought back to the hotel room in Greece two months ago, the ceiling fan whirring over the bed. The doctor probing my sore abdomen, shaking his head and saying that he suspected appendicitis. My lover at the far end of the room, leaning against the open door, his face impassive.

The sound of a siren rose in the distance and the man’s head jerked up. His eyes fixed on mine for a second. Everything around me seemed to blur, grow suddenly hushed.  

He looked away again and the effect vanished.

      The siren was drawing closer. 

I thought that he was about to lift his wife in his arms, but he laid his cheek against hers and closed his eyes. He didn’t open them, even when the paramedics came alongside with a stretcher.    

I touched his shoulder tentatively. His muscles tensed.

“Let them help her.”

       He slid backwards as far as the car’s front tyre. I held the umbrella over him, the rain trickling down the back of my neck. He answered the paramedics’ questions in monosyllables. Each time they blocked his view, he shifted his position so he could still see his wife. 

I studied his face as if I were about to paint it. The strong jawline, the laughter lines around the eyes, the way the mouth— 

       His head hit the umbrella as he jumped up, knocking it out of my hand. The paramedics were wheeling the stretcher towards the ambulance and he almost ran into them as they eased it into the cramped interior. He leapt in after it and one of the men tried to stop him. 

       “You can’t come. You’ll have to—”

       “I can’t leave her.” He knelt down and felt underneath the blanket for her hand. 

       “There’s a taxi right here,” I called. “You can follow the ambulance to the hospital.”

        He turned at the sound of my voice and his eyes focused on the cab. He looked down at his wife again and bent to kiss her forehead. 

        “Don’t let anything happen to her!” he said to the paramedics as he left the ambulance.

        I had to run to keep pace with his strides, my arm stretched high to hold the umbrella over him. 

        “Don’t forget this.” I pushed his jacket through the taxi door as he was pulling it shut behind him.

        “Thanks—for everything.” There were tears running down his face.

         The siren filled the air and the taxi lurched forward. I watched the two vehicles disappear down the street and turn the corner. 

         I stood in the rain with my coat in one hand and my umbrella held to one side, as if still sheltering him. My limbs felt weak and my right arm was shaking. I lowered the umbrella. 

An officer was speaking to me, but I found it difficult to focus on his questions.

Chapter Three

The receptionist at Lenox Hill Hospital’s emergency room shuffled paperwork while I made a halting request for information about the victim of the Central Park South traffic accident.

“Name?” The woman didn’t look up.

“Catherine Slater.”

“Are you a family member?”

“No. But I helped her husb—”

“We only give out information to family.” 

“But I have her shoe and—”

       “Next!” The receptionist rolled her chair slightly to the right. “Can I help you?” She was addressing someone wheezing heavily behind me. “Yes, you. Step aside, Miss. This is the E.R. Not a news desk.” 

       Uncertain of what to do next, I headed back towards the main doors. A wave of exhaustion came over me. I slumped down on the far end of a row of seats, away from the cluster of people waiting to be treated. 

       I’m not sure how long I sat there, hoping that the man might come out. In the end, I decided to go back to my godmother’s where I was staying. As I picked up my handbag, something sharp grazed the side of my hand. I had the fleeting impression of a thin blue cotton blanket. A stretcher’s handrail. A series of lights moving rapidly overhead—

I snatched my hand away and stared down at the sole of a stiletto, its heel tip broken.

 

* * * *

    

The grandfather clock greeted my arrival with a mellow quarter-hour chime and the hall reverberated to the sound. Margaret Langdon’s brownstone on Ninety-first and Lexington was like something from a bygone era: a film of dust flecked treasures that had been accumulated over a lifetime; an elaborate gilt over-mantle, its original mirror speckled and cloudy, hung above a mahogany console table dressed with an impressive pair of bronze candelabra, their candles burnt down to stumps. Around the mirror, the wall—covered in a faded, pale green silk—was strewn with battered straw hats that looked as though their owner had cast them there, aiming roughly for the hooks. A cricket bat, a putter and an old broom that would make a fine witch’s broomstick leant precariously against a wrought iron umbrella stand, devoid of umbrellas. The scent of oriental lilies and eucalyptus hung in the air, along with a hint of cinnamon and something baking.

    Aunt Maggie came up the back stairs in a red silk blouse, tailored black slacks and her favourite red leopard slingbacks. I’d never dared to ask her age. She could be sixty, ninety or anything in between with her stylish grey bob and twinkling eyes that always made me think of Father Christmas.

    “I just took a batch of cookies out of the—” Aunt Maggie stopped and stared at me. “What happened, dear? You look terrible!”

    “A woman got hit by a car. I stopped to help.”

    Aunt Maggie rushed forward and wrapped her arms around me. It reminded me of being hugged by my mother.

    “You’ll catch your death in these wet clothes! Go and have a nice hot bath then come and sit by the fire in the kitchen and tell me all about it. Have you eaten?”

    “I’m not really hungry.”

    “Lucky I saved you a plate. I’ll warm the food while you go upstairs.”

As a child I used to love running up and down this staircase where African and Indonesian masks kept company with pastels of lazy summer afternoons and a lone sombrero vied with Greek Orthodox icons and a pair of swords. Aunt Maggie’s house always made me of think of myths and fairytales, Mum and New England all rolled into one.

     My godmother and mother had been friends for years. They’d met at one of Mum’s art shows and shared a love of many things, especially books and the feminist movement. They were both fey and talked about fascinating things: Tarot cards, reincarnation and ghosts. One of my earliest memories was tea at the Plaza’s Palm Court when I’d shyly volunteered my own ghost story about the boy I sensed in the attic at our colonial farmhouse.         

Aunt Maggie had smiled and whispered, “I get the distinct feeling he isn’t the last ghost you’ll see, dear!”

    

I went into the bathroom and stopped short. The woman staring back at me from the mirror didn’t look anything like the elegant twenty-two year-old who’d left to catch a Broadway show a few hours ago. Long blonde hair clung in wet clumps to a pale face. Mascara streaked the cheeks below blue eyes. 

I look as if I was the one who got hit by that car.

    While I waited for the bath to fill, I removed my makeup and pulled my hair into a makeshift bun. I kept thinking about the woman who'd lain inert in the road. She’d reminded me of a princess from The Arabian Nights asleep in the imaginary softness of a bed, her dark hair fanning out on an asphalt pillow. 

    I studied my face. It was so unlike hers, my skin tone pale instead of that rich olive; my lips less full. My face would be easier to paint but much less interesting, I decided as steam consumed my reflection.

    I stretched out in a bath full of bubbles and began to relax in the warmth. I took a deep breath, luxuriated in the smell of roses. I hadn’t realised how tired I was. My eyes closed and I began to drift off. 

    A tingling sensation ran through my body and a sound enveloped me. A thousand leaves rustling on a wind were pulling me away from the bathroom into something that felt like a dream—although it wasn’t my dream. And the dreamer wasn’t me.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

The light is so bright. Fierce like the sun in the desert, but without its intense heat. I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m not sure I can. 

    There are voices all around me, although it’s difficult to make out what they’re saying. The words are muffled as if spoken through masks. 

    The constant clatter of metal on metal is jarring. Footsteps come and go. 

    Music is playing in the background. Aretha Franklin. Chain of Fools.

    I want to ask where I am, but my lips won’t move. The question stays trapped in my throat. The smell of rubbing alcohol makes me think of Mama cleaning my grazed knees when I was little and handing me a homemade Date Maamoul to stop my crying. What I wouldn’t give for its creamy sweetness now. My strength is ebbing. I want to sleep.

    “What are you doing?” A man’s voice. Loud and reproachful.

    A woman apologises.

    Another reproach.

    Is it him? No, it’s not his voice. But it reminds me of him shouting so loud that it rose above the traffic and the rain. I ran faster, my feet swollen in my shoes, my toes pressing against the leather of their pointed tips. My right shoulder brushed against something soft and pliable. An umbrella. I had the briefest impression of a white coat and a woman. It was like running through a pocket of warm air on a cool day. But my feet kept moving. Then something hard slammed into my left side and then blackness.

    A song is running through my head now: Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools. I’m not an Aretha fan and the refrain is irritating me. But it won’t stop. 

    Who are all these people around me and what are they doing?

    Somewhere to my right, an alarm is going off.

    For a second, another sound rises above the others. It’s a cat crying—No, not a cat. A baby. My baby girl! I want to hold her. To look into her face. 

    I rise. But I’m not standing. I’m floating. Several feet above an operating table. Masked figures are rushing an incubator through automated blue doors. I lunge forward. I can’t lose another baby.

    “Clear!” The man’s voice shouts.

    Something yanks me backwards like a taut rubber band being snapped. I am motionless on the table once more. Powerless to reach my child. It takes all of my strength to rise again. To follow her, arms outstretched. 

    But I get lost. There’s a sound in my ears like the ocean’s roar. I am running. Barefoot this time in a hospital gown.

    The snapping sensation happens again and I am back in the operating theatre with people working frantically over me. There is blood everywhere. Several alarms are going off. I have to get away from here. 

    The scene melts like a mirage and I am in a small room, standing over my husband, calling his name. His face is in his hands.

    “They’ve taken our daughter away. I can’t find her. Help me!” 

    He doesn’t look up.

    “We must find her! Now!” 

When he still doesn’t respond, I curse him in Arabic and go in search of our child alone.

As I wander the corridors, listening for her cry, something distracts me. A familiar warmth draws me. I follow it as I would an unravelled ball of string leading the way out of a maze. I find myself in a large waiting area full of people. 

At the back sits a woman, her hands folded in her lap. I know her. I’m not sure from where. I sit beside her. “I’ve lost my daughter. Can you help me find her?”

She gets up. Looks at the doors that I have just come through. Hesitates for a moment.

“Is that my shoe in your bag?” I ask. “Why do you have it?” 

I follow her out into the night. She hails a taxi and I slip in beside her. She lowers the window, turns her face to the breeze and we watch the city flying past in a steady stream of lights. Everything fades and I have the impression of being free, of belonging to nothing and nobody as if I might simply go on driving through the night without ever coming to a stop. 

© 2020 Paula Robinson

 

Selma by Stéphanie Lecomte
Oil painting by Stéphanie Lecomte for the novel OIL ON CANVAS by Paula Robinson Rossouw. Monochrome oil of man on balcony.

THE WOMAN IN THE PURPLE COAT

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