By Clara Challoner Walker
Colm McFie’s establishment, “The Clean Café”, clings precariously to the corner of a street in Leith, Edinburgh. Haphazard pricing and an accidentally acquired bo-ho reputation attracts clientele ranging from nouveau-wharf flat-owners to street girls. Colm’s lack of any skill normally associated with stewardship of a business, renders the café’s survival from week to week a pleasant surprise to its growing cadre of regulars.
Mary had shrunk into the café’s remotest corner. She had sipped two mugs of sweet tea as her harvest mouse eyes darted to reassure herself of her continuing invisibility. She gripped a train-spotter’s notebook and bit the end of a blue biro. A sticky sensation reminded her that the urgency of her escape from the house that Saturday morning had again prevented attention to matters ablutionary.
At exactly eleven o’clock, the flimsy door emitted an orchestral rattle and showered condensation onto the most proximal patrons. The equine power of the woman’s entrance stirred a warm wind around the interior, which created a silvery icing-sugar cloud above the plate of doughnuts on the counter.
Colm’s eyes flicked towards the woman, an invisible thread lifted his face into a smile and they momentarily shared a vector. Even by the eclectic standards of Leith, she was striking. Her clothes embraced the spectrum from moss green to rich ruby and swirled in heavy, Bedouin swathes beneath the pierce of her sweeping gaze.
A clammy fist gripped Mary’s heart as the woman approached her corner. Her oesophagus constricted and her stomach emanated a colossal growl. She hid the unmarked notebook under the table lest the intruder recognise the full extent of her failure.
A rich smell of caramel rose as the woman approached.
“My name is Gabrielle,” she said. “May I sit down?”
“If you like,” answered Mary, without looking up.
Mary’s exclusion zone had been under painstaking construction throughout her eighteen years. She was only child and biggest disappointment to Big-Mary and James. Big-Mary’s family tradition dictated that first borns (disappointments included) took their parents’ names; a perennial reminder that Mary was a valueless adjunct to the mountainous matriarch.
Big-Mary’s life skill was bullying her diminutive husband. As every evening struggled onwards, the concentration of alcohol rose exponentially in Big-Mary’s bloodstream. She devilled out fresh inadequacies, until James, a rusty wire of a man, creaked upstairs to bed. She then realigned her razor-sharp beak in her daughter’s direction to peck at old sores; Mary’s weight and lack of job being the current favourites.
As Gabrielle’s swathes folded over her chair, Mary realized with horror that the newcomer intended to converse.
“What are you writing?” she asked.
Mary’s deception was to be exposed. Despite weeks trying to squeeze the disconnected ideas which ricocheted inside her skull down her arm and out through the end of her biro, she had not written anything.
“Nothing,” she replied truthfully.
Even in desperate circumstances, Father Hepburn’s homilies on the hideous suffering to be visited upon even the whitest of liars, guided Mary.
As Mary’s head buzzed from the tension of human interaction conjoined with jangling stimulus of sugary tea, Gabrielle’s handsome features slipped into contemplative peace. Mary inhaled, filling her lungs’ unfamiliar fullest capacity, inhaling the scent of Gabrielle. Her shoulders dropped, her body settled gently into unfamiliar, secure relaxation.
The scream of tyres from outside was followed by a murderous shriek.
“What the…?” exclaimed Colm, emerging from behind the counter, packing his tobacco tin into the kangaroo pouch of his overall. His clientele assumed a simultaneous, vertical trajectory. Only Gabrielle remained seated, her gaze following Mary before she rose.
The witnesses disgorged to form a jumble-sale rabble on the pavement, surrounding the still body of a large, black dog. A trickle of crimson emerged from flaccid jowls and traced a wavering path towards the gutter.
The concrete faced driver rose from his vehicle. Mary smelt her mother’s stale, morning breath as he moved towards where she crouched next to the corpse.
“I didn’t see him run out,” he implored, his voice crushed under the steely disapproval of the crowd.
“You were driving too fast and you were on the pavement when you hit him.” Mary’s voice involuntarily assumed a new, controlled cadence. Gabrielle, now emerged from the café, looked down at her, kneeling beside the dog. A warm energy passed between them.
“I can see the length of your tyre marks,” Mary went on, “they’re longer than forty metres, in a 30 MPH area, and you have drink on your breath.”
A supportive rustle ran through the swelling crowd and Mary looked around for Gabrielle. She had melted like chocolate on her tongue. Only her faint, sweet smell remained.
A fluorescent pride of police arrived, delighted to find a sensible young woman already in control of the easily prosecutable offence. They breathalysed the driver and, at the young woman’s suggestion, measured the tyre marks. They tidily packed the driver into the rear of a police car and dispatched him to the station well in time for the end of their shift.
The victim had been forgotten, but as the crowd dispersed, Mary noticed that someone had laid a ruby, woollen cloth over the body.
As she re-entered the café, the inhabitants raised their heads in animated admiration. She guided her new, controlled physique towards her chair, sat down and started to write.
Colm approached her with the third tea of the day.
“Mary, I need to go away for a while. You couldn’t mind the café for a few weeks, could you? You can use the flat upstairs,”
“Yes, that would be great,” Mary smiled.
Gabrielle sat and watched the fresh delivery of night from her bench in Princes Gardens, reflecting on the day. The black dog approached her and pressed his head against her thigh. She reached down to wipe the small trickle of blood from his tender mouth. Colm emerged through the dusk to sit beside her and share the bliss of the moon slipping silver from behind a cloud.