The Black Coat
One black, wintry night, Piccolo-Xavier bumped into someone while crossing the boulevard Peripherique. Once he was across, the person he hit was not visible anymore. It seemed as though, in this Parisian dark alley, this someone simply dissolved into thin air. When he peered further into the darkness, his gaze shifted towards a shiny object that appeared on an uneven, asphalt footpath. He picked it up and thought he must return this to its owner. But since the black coat was long gone, he would step up his pace and look for the person. Piccolo-Xavier had a glimpse of a shape in a black coat, fast disappearing around the corner. He stepped up his pace until he found himself running. However, the more he ran, the further the person moved away. Breathing heavily, he stopped to rest.
He realised that he held a locket with a broken clasp in his palm. In the insufficient light of the streetlamp, he saw that it contained a picture of a girl. This object could be of sentimental value. However, there was no way he could return it to its owner now.
Back in his apartment, looking at the girl’s picture in the locket-frame, the thought of the elusive, dark figure provoked all kinds of questions, where did the bearer of this object live? How far away was he or she from him? And who was this girl in the picture? Piccolo-Xavier began to imagine the wildest of dreams about the bearer of the locket, who was perhaps the little girl’s mother, father, or even an older sibling.
It gave him immense pleasure to think that it could be an attractive young woman, with whom he could form a relationship. Flashes back to the encounter encouraged his fantasy. It seemed that this mystery person had a woman’s gait rather than a man’s. She was elegant, slender, and tall. He envisioned that short dark curls framed her face. Her tilted nose rested just above full, red lips, and an oval-shaped chin. Her tiny, dimpled cheeks came alive every time she grinned. A ravishing set of white, even teeth flashed across the rounding corners of her lips. When she looked up at him, it was an indifferent gaze; her large, greenish-blue eyes peeped through the long curly lashes of partly opened lids. She was a poet’s inspiration.
Piccolo-Xavier felt dizzy. He could not think any longer. He went into slumber, shallow and peculiar, somewhere between real and surreal. A woman of this description existed perhaps, but was it only as a figment of his imagination? Could she appear in person, someday? He looked at his girlfriend, Lorna, lying next to him, and thought about her reactions if she heard about all this. He wandered off to a land full of dreams and even more visions.
For breakfast the next morning, Lorna bought two croissants from the bakery downstairs, from the other side of the alley. She made fresh coffee, poured him a cup, bit into her croissant, and watched him help himself to milk.
“You were restless last night.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you not well?”
It was frustrating to think that he was participating in a conspiracy against himself, against them. If Lorna knew the truth, the entire truth, would she be able to trust him, again?
“Oh, a bad headache and general nervousness about my exhibit, I’m afraid.”
“Have you thought of anything yet? You do have a deadline, yeah?”
“Yeah, I do. Haven’t really done much and that’s bugging me.”
The thought of the deadline and the woman in the black coat merged seamlessly. They were entangled in a way that made him more pensive than ever. Lorna did not press him for an explanation. Whatever was going on in his mind was only his to share with the muses alone, and not with her.
It had always been like that. Lorna was able to see the end product only, the art itself, but never partnered his stream-of-consciousness. She loved him regardlessly for the person he was. And for the artist that he had aspired to become one day. Critics always found his portraits two-dimensional: dim eyed wooden bodies, flat personalities, without a perspective. Through it all, he persevered.
Lorna cleared the table and went into the shower to get dressed for work. Deep character lines appeared on Piccolo-Xavier’s forehead. He delved into artistic thoughts. On his way to the studio, he took a train. He came into the station before the train had arrived. He stood on the platform momentarily, looking at all the women in black coats. They came in all shapes and sizes. His dream woman from the road was not amongst them. But then, he didn’t even know what she really looked like.
When the train rolled in, he embarked. And walked towards an empty window seat. He closed his eyes. There she was, again. This woman appeared in his mind; the face he had been painting since the saga of the lost locket began. He started dating this lady through fragmented snapshots; holding hands at the park; kissing her full lips beneath the weeping willow tree; making passionate love on the snow-white sheets of heavenly bliss. It now hurt. She was there, and yet, not close enough. Was he cheating on Lorna? Being this way? Thinking this way? Could he help himself? Now, there was a thought; this newfound dark lady consumed him. He couldn’t block her out of mind. He didn’t know why or how this unseen woman came to invade his thoughts.
The train stopped at the central station. He got out on the platform. He knew he wasn’t going to forget her anytime soon, a mere stranger, a faceless phantom with whom he conversed, loudly at times, had dinners with at twilight, drove out together into the sunset, and danced with her in the silence of the night. He looked into her deep eyes and kept looking. Someone honked; he snapped out of thoughts. He had left his studio far behind. He retraced his footsteps, brooding that he could do so much better with Lorna, if only he could love her as passionately.
Piccolo-Xavier forgot to sleep; he forgot to eat; he even stayed away from making love to Lorna. He felt somedays that he was completely in the grips of this phantom. Who was she? An idea perhaps, an idea of abstract love. One which shackled his mind. He was not in the possession of it anymore. It belonged to some else. He began to paint isolated images. First he painted eyes, nose, and mouth, then hands, a rounded elbow and bony knees and knotty ankles, legs until a slender shape took form. It didn’t look like a real person, but a bit like cubism perhaps. Eventually, a curvy figure emerged. He scowled at it, holding his chin on the left palm and the paint brush in the other hand. He added more colour to the eyes, making them to penetrate.
This portrait looked quite surrealistic. All the more, because the model was a delusion. Every detail, as far as his imagination stretched, was done to perfection, down to the unclasped locket dangling from her tapering fingers. The life-like portrait of the little girl peeking through the locket frame had not gone amiss either. Shrouding it with a black coat, he winked at it, and named it, Le Habit Noir.
He stood back and stared at it for a long while. His eyes wishing to see more than what they could. He put the brush away on a round table beside the canvas, a radiant smile spreading across his lips. He cloaked the painting and deemed it ready for the exhibit.
On his way home, he went to the same road where he had picked up the locket. His eyes searched for this fantasy everywhere. It left him empty when he felt that he knew her somehow and could even vaguely smell her perfume in the thin air. He sat down on a bench by the lamp-post. His elbow was on a hand-rest, and palm on his forehead. It started to drizzle; rain followed soon, skewing down the street-lamp under the dark, starless sky.
Soaking wet, he walked back home hoping that one day, maybe, he would meet her in person. The exhibit was only seven days away. He waited impatiently to show his dark lady to the world. On the day of the exhibit, Le Habit Noir hung on one of the walls of the Taiss gallery; people were milling about and looking at this art. Some sat down in front of it, lost in quiet musing. It was hard to know from their expressions what they were thinking. Some smiled, while others frowned at it critically, but generally speaking, surrealism sat well with art lovers. Then, serendipitously a girl cried out in the midst of this urbane, arty crowd. People looked at her sharply. Piccolo-Xavier startled. He stood frozen in the middle of the room. Time had suspended.
All those compliments people paid, the well-deserved attentions, the autographs that fans desired, or even the potential buyers who flocked towards him, didn’t seem important anymore. At that moment, what had mattered was this resounding cry cutting through the space of that room. This was not a dream. The lady in the black coat and the little girl, from the picture in the locket, stood in the room. There they were. Right here before him. The girl’s lips had parted, while her adult companion stood pointing her index inadvertently, towards the painting, her lips rounding in total amazement. She did not have dark hair the way he had imagined. It was much longer and flowing. The gaze was not penetrating. Her eyes were, small and beady. She was attractive too but not exactly the image he had imagined. Disappointed? No, he was not. He proceeded towards her thinking that he owed her an explanation.
“Hello,” Piccolo-Xavier said.
The lady turned around, taking his hand into hers and said,“Hello.”
“I am Piccolo-Xavier. You must be wondering where I got all this.”
“Actually I was, and this picture, it’s not me, but she is.”
She blurted out in a shrill, angst-ridden voice, pointing at the little girl.
“I know,” he replied.
His chest heaved, but his speech was measured.
“Would you care to join me for a coffee? I fear I have a lot to explain.”
“Sure, where would you like to go?” she asked.
Piccolo-Xavier led her to the Jewish café, the Boulanger Patissier, right across the road from the gallery. It was popular with artists and poets. What an incredible moment for Piccolo-Xavier that he held the arm of the woman in the black coat? She showed up at last. They sat down, at a corner table.
“You know my name, but I don’t know yours?” he asked, as they sat down.
“It’s Julia,” she said. “And this is Chevon, my own.”
“Hi, Chevon,” he smiled.
They ordered two short blacks and a milkshake for the girl. Piccolo-Xavier noted silent wonderment in the girl's wide eyes. He handed her the drink. An odd feeling came over him. He had the most unusual emotional transformation as he described the events of that night to her. Strangely, he felt more connected to the faceless black coat than this woman, this young, attractive woman sitting before him. The affections he had been harbouring hitherto were then for whom?
“What do you do?” asked Piccolo-Xavier.
“Oh, I’m a student of visual art at the Academy of Fine Arts. Did you try to look for me?”
“Yes,” he answered.
They sipped their coffee. Neither of them knew what to say next. Then to break this, Julia looked up and said in all sincerity.
“I feel like sharing something with you.”
“What might that be?” he asked.
“We broke up.”
“How do you mean?”
“My partner and I, of course.”
“Oh, I see,” said Piccolo-Xavier.
“Well? Aren’t you going to ask why?”
“It’s not my place, I guess,” he said, quietly.
“Why don’t we have dinner together one evening?”
“How about next Sunday? My place.?”
There was an element of almost juvenile candidness in her behaviour. Julia was taking him for granted. He felt rushed, pressured. The conversation was not going anywhere, really. This left him disenchanted.
“Look, can we talk about this later?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want.”
She scribbled her phone number and her name on a serviette that she’d pulled from the silver holder. Handing him her details, she suppressed a giggle like a cheeky teenager. However, he didn’t notice her amusement because his thoughts roamed elsewhere, back to the dark lady. He realised that the magic, as far as Julia was concerned, was lost. It was far too mundane, far too sullied, for his artistic taste to carry on this affair. He had Lorna in his life too.
“Call me,” she said as he nodded.
They rose to leave. They exited the cafe together, smiled at one another, and went their separate ways. Piccolo-Xavier walked aimlessly down the street; the thought of the phantom crept. He wondered if he had committed himself to unrequited love, because in the lead up to the exhibition, he couldn’t forget her even for a moment. She followed him everywhere. Even at this moment, he had a mad desire to woo her right here on the street. But he continued to walk and returned home to Lorna instead; a woman of flesh and blood waited. When night fell, they went to bed.
In the early hours of the morning, Lorna and he lay entwined, like a pair of Siamese twins. Lorna had Piccolo-Xavier all to herself. He was a celebrity at last as she had imagined him to be. In a way, she was famous too. Her exultant pictures splashed across the newspapers on this momentous occasion; yet, the muses smiled at her predicament.
Julia was quite taken by his charms. His non-committal responses made no difference. She was not dissuaded when they said goodbye. A few days later, she went to the Taiss gallery, to look for Piccolo-Xavier. He was not there. But, she was able to get some information by showing them her Student ID card. Now that she knew where he lived, she decided to pay him a visit at his apartment on 57 Grand Avenue. Piccolo-Xavier made no attempt to contact her; he did not even know that she was seeking him.
The next day he left for the studio, steeped in drunken enchantment and still under the spell of the dark lady, in body and in spirit. He grew paler by the day and gradually lost his appetite. Had Lorna not noticed, it would have been different. But since Piccolo-Xavier’s malady was starting to show, she could not help but become aware of it. Nevertheless, she could not give him a remedy either. His constant distractions were impinging on their relationship. Every attempt she made to ask him about it, failed, simply because he brushed her aside and gave her a broad smile, telling her that it was nothing too serious. Lorna did not believe him. She thought that the malaise, if anything, was not physical, but mental. In her wildest imagination, however, she never thought of the existence of a phantom.
That morning, soon after Piccolo-Xavier left, the bell rang. Lorna heard it from the shower. She quickly came out and wrapped herself with a towel. She thought maybe it was Piccolo-Xavier, come back to pick up something. He had been increasingly unmindful lately. She walked through the scantily decorated lounge-room and looked through the peephole, but had not recognised the person standing outside. She opened the door, anyway.
They eyed each other up and down. After a quick bo’jou, Julia asked if she could speak to Piccolo-Xavier. Lorna told her that she just missed him.
“Would you like to come in?” Lorna asked.
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No, of course not, it’s my day off,” Lorna said.
Who was this woman? Lorna thought. What did she want from Piccolo-Xavier?
“I’m Lorna, Piccolo-Xavier’s girlfriend.”
Julia grimaced, sizing her up.
“How do you know Piccolo-Xavier?” Lorna asked.
“It’s a long story. I’m an art student. And, after that smashing exhibit, who wouldn’t know him?”
“So true. Did you want me to give him a message?”
Lorna could have easily given her address to the studio. However, she did not feel that this person could be trusted.
“Yes, that would be great, actually. If you could get him to call me?”
“May I have your number?”
“He has it.”
“Yes, I gave it to him at the café where we had coffee.”
“You had coffee together?”
“Oh yes, didn’t he tell you?”
“No. What’s there to tell?”
“Why, the story of course?”
“What? What story?”
Lorna was fidgeting. She tried to stop it. And suppress the anxiety in her voice.
“Oh look, I shouldn’t tell you anymore,” Julia said, looking at her obliquely.
She grimaced again and said she would be back soon to have a chat with Piccolo-Xavier. Then, she turned towards the door.
“But, what was your name?” Lorna asked.
“Please tell monsieur Piccolo-Xavier that Julia dropped by. He’ll know.”
“Really? How does he know you, again?”
“Ask him,” Julia said. “Au revoir.”
Lorna pursued the conversation no more. She felt hot, in spite of the shower that she had a short while ago. A brook flowed nearby; its lilting murmur gave her no respite. She wiped off the perspirations springing on her upper lip. She wanted to know more about this woman. She thought, what was she doing, meddling in their life? Who was she?
Julia stepped outside. Devious as it was, she entertained the sadistic pleasure that Lorna was perturbed. Suppressing another giggle, she felt she had done enough damage for one day and she deserved praises. This was a brilliant plan. Once Lorna moved out, Julia with Chevon could move straight in.
In the studio that morning, Piccolo-Xavier tried to clear the phantom out of his head. He painted one picture after another on different canvasses. They were images of faces and images of faceless bodies; singular portraits at times, and other times dual, the dark lady and the artist. He decided to call her, Eve. On one canvas, a story started to emerge as he painted a collage of pictures. Eve was in the brawny bind of a serpent which tried to devour her. Piccolo-Xavier painted himself as Eve’s saviour trying to rescue her from the serpent. The painting was like Michaelangelo’s Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel. Eve stood out as an emblem of chastity whom no evil could touch, gazing at him with a shy smile.
Eve haunted him. His paintings in the studio revealed how he was gradually becoming mad. The studio had become a rendezvous, the playground of the lovers, in which he had Edith Piaf records singing Les Amants De Paris. Besotted by the melodic passionate crescendos, the mad ariste did everything with Eve and painted her as he wished: nude lying on the sofa, seated, or standing up. He painted her fully dressed and dressed her up and down, sometimes in short skirts, sometimes in frocks, pink, purple, and brown. With or without an umbrella on morning’s afterglow, here she was with the sun streaming in through the picture window. On wintry evenings, she was covered in the black coat, alongside the fire, mellowed. It was quite mesmerising. But, she was his lover, the model, and his life. There was no other life apart from her.
When the artist was in the thick of it, there was a sudden faint knock on the studio door. It disrupted his lovemaking. First, he thought he would ignore it. But he couldn’t, because the knocks were becoming more insistent, loud, as if the knocker was going to rip the door apart. Reluctantly, he rose from his stool and disengaged himself from the canvas portrayal of Eve’s red, pouty lips.
His held the brush handle between his middle and the ring finger. The paint from the brush touched his palm and smeared it. He saw it; it was milk and honey. He walked up to the door, droopy eyed. His lips were parted; there was also a noticeable bulge in the crotch. He opened the door and saw a woman. Not just any woman but … it was her, the phantom, his Eve. She stood here in the light of the sun. Eve smiled and walked right through him while he watched her.
She took his hands in hers.
“You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this moment! You came. You finally came!”
Piccolo-Xavier whispered into her ears. His words dribbled out of his lips inaudibly like sleep talk. His eyes were half-closed in a trance.
“Yes, I have,” Eve said looking at him.
“But for how long?” he asked.
“For as long as you want,” she answered. “Breathe with me, my love.”
Her long gown fell to the floor. Piccolo-Xavier sat down near the hem of her dress. She sat too, by his side. He looked up at her quivering red lips and her swelling breasts. It was her, Eve, the phantom in the flesh. She bent down and kissed him with her full, sweet lips. Once that prolonged kiss was over, she cupped his face in her palms and placed it gently on her lap, caressing his cheeks. She stroked through his hair with her long tapering fingers. He felt her breathing soft on his face. His fantasy and reality were fused. Piccolo-Xavier felt no anguish. He was one with his dream.
“Sleep, my love,” said Eve. “You and I are one now