She didn’t see Maisie to start off with. She had come to buy a new tablecloth for Saturday. Ella was coming for lunch with her friend from university, Yuzuki, a Japanese student who had arrived a few weeks after the start of the semester. Ella had said that the timid student had been left to fend for herself in the middle of the campus, with very little knowledge of French or English. To top it off, the poor girl had caught the flu only days after her arrival in France, and Ella had run errands for the poor sick girl all week. Katrina felt it was only fair to invite her daughter’s friend over too. She couldn’t bear to imagine the girl spending her weekend locked away in a forlorn university dorm with nobody to talk to. It was the perfect opportunity to upgrade her dining room equipment, and it was early afternoon in mid spring. She was off work this afternoon, the shop was almost empty; she would browse for a little while, and then go for a coffee on the third floor of the department store.
To her right, an array of tablecloths were wrapped around cardboard tubes, and hung up, one behind the other. Most of the fabrics on display were loud and waxy-looking. She fondled a few pieces of cloth without great conviction, and turned around to look at those that were not on sale. That was when she caught a glimpse of Maisie. She was standing by the bay window, looking at pillowcases. From where she stood, Katrina was able to see without being seen. Her legs wobbled a little, and she had to hold on to a tube of waxy Vichy red and white kitchen tablecloth fabric. The last time the two women had met was twenty-five years earlier, in her kitchen; it was the way she stood, one leg crossed in front of the other, her large head hunched forward. Yes, it was unmistakably Maisie.
Feeling calm and composed this time, she decided to get a good look. A pair of jeans, and a short grey leather jacket; a pink t-shirt peeked out from the jacket opening, and Katrina caught sight of a ring of blubber shaping the t-shirt at the belly. She felt guilty for smiling, but still couldn’t control her legs. In her memory, Maisie was a blur of falsely naive smiles, clothes that were ostentatiously made in China, and always being five years behind when it came to books, music, and en-vogue activities on that side of town. She had, accessorily, also taken an interest in Katrina’s husband five years into their marriage, and won the war, despite her general blandness and her taste for coats that looked waxy, like the roll of cloth Katrina was holding on to. It had taken a few years to recover from that blow to the head, but her life after that had been blissful. The last time the two women had met was in Katrina and Michel’s old kitchen. Katrina had brushed past her to reach the set of crystal wine glasses in a top cupboard she had not had time to collect before, and – though she could not say exactly how, she had suddenly found herself propelled to the ground out of nowhere. Maisie swore it was an accident. Katrina had got up immediately, and left without the glasses. Michael had followed her sheepishly, and uttered something about how in time she would see that it was all for the best, and that she was welcome to come by for coffee whenever she wished, and that he wasn’t sure he’d stay with Maisie anyway.
She had never re-married, but had found love again in the arms of Frédéric, whom she had met one day at the swimming pool. Ella and Flyn had come along several years into their union, and all was well that ended well, so she often thought. Her legs wobbled, but she dragged herself over to the counter, and paid for the off-white embroidered linen she had saved from the sea of gaudiness in see-through plastic pouches on display. Maisie still had her head turned.
“My God, she’s going bald!” Katrina exclaimed as she stood for a moment, staring at the back of the other woman’s head. The cashier turned around to see whom on earth she was talking about, but Katrina did not notice that she had interjected out loud. “Right. Coffee,” She smoothed her trench coat, shook the mass of chestnut hair that had gathered on her shoulder until it cascaded down her back, and walked confidently up two flights of stairs to the coffee place on the third floor.
The room was empty, save for two elderly ladies by the staircase, and a middle-aged man, sitting with his back to the walkway. She opted for the table behind the palm trees, out of sight. For a while, she stirred her coffee, her eyes riveted on the steaming cup. Behind the plants that were camouflaging her nicely, the man was writing on a newspaper, possibly filling in the crossword grid. Behind him, two young women appeared on the scene, chatting loudly. Their hands were full of bags of all sizes. They came to sit on her left, and seemed engrossed in a conversation about those FEMEN girls who had been arrested outside Notre Dame for having entered the church half naked, with the words “fuck God” tagged on their breasts in white-board marker. She had heard the news at midday, but she had no recollection of hearing about that incident, oh well, her phone rang. Fumbling in her bag to silence the device – the two shoppers and the man behind the plants swivelled around. Ignoring them, she got up and moved away from the tables.
“Sweetheart,” It was Ella.
“That’s fine,” In the end they would like to arrive on Friday instead of Saturday.
“No, Dad will pick you up at the station after work,” They had logistic questions.
“No go on,” They wanted to ask if they could… but perhaps it wasn’t a good idea in the end…
“Well, what is it?” They… well, Yuzuki, well, both of them…were… um… feeding a stray kitten on campus, and… um… Yuzuki had taken it in. It needed food and water, and a whole weekend away would be a long time for it to survive alone in a dingy dorm.
“You want to bring a kitten,” Katrina didn’t see why they couldn’t bring the poor animal.
“No, no, it’s absolutely fine by me, but you’ll need to check with Dad first!” By this time, Katrina had made her way over to the stairs, and was pacing up and down by the snack bar.
“OK, sweetheart. No, darling, we’ve discussed this before. If you want to know if Dad’s OK with something, you ask him yourself.” Of course the girl’s father would rant, but Katrina knew how to put the situation to him so that he would most certainly accept their child’s whim. They would probably then keep the animal, since the two girls would more than likely have trouble looking after it on campus; she was anticipating; he wouldn’t agree to that idea, but kittens don’t need humans to argue in their favour; one glimpse and he would be besotted.
“OK, sweetheart, let me know what he says.” She hung up, and began to walk back towards her table. As she passed by the elderly women, the man facing the wall grabbed her wrist. She gasped, instinctively, and he loosened his grip.
“Kat?” He cleared his throat. “Um… hi.”
For a moment, Katrina stood there without answering. She barely recognised the balding man. He was holding a pen. He looked back down at his newspaper.
“Scared the bloody life out of me!” She shook her head, smoothing down a crease on the sleeve of her shirt.
“I… er… I saw you when you came in, but… um… I didn’t want to bother you. I thought you might not…”
“No, no, nonsense.” She saw that the two shoppers were looking in their direction. “Mind if I have a seat?” She stared back, and the two women immediately looked back down at their mugs.
“Course not.” He wiped the table-top for her with a paper napkin. She sensed that he was nervous.
“How are you, Mike?” She looked at the stranger across the table from her, and could barely believe that she had known him at all. She was also surprised that she had not recognised him to start off with. He had the same features, the same dark eyes, and the same nervous way about him. But he had aged considerably. He was somewhat overweight now, and his eyes looked tired.
“I’m well.” He said quietly. “Well… er… you know, not as well as I was.” He chuckled to himself.
“You look well.” She lied, and smiled kindly.
“Speak for yourself!” He grinned. “You look really well, Kat.”
There was silence.
A ray of sunlight poured through the glass window over the stairs, and the cafeteria was illuminated. Small circles of light danced on the wall opposite. The two shoppers were giggling loudly in the far corner. Katrina looked down at the crossword on the table.
“Good going!” She saw that all the boxes had been filled in.
“Oh er.” He nodded.
“How’s Maisie?” Katrina dared to ask the fatidic question.
“She’s well, she’s well.” He answered mechanically, fiddling with his pen. “And, you? I mean… um… unless of course it’s… er… none of my business?” He looked up briefly to catch her gaze.
“No, it’s fine Mike, no harm done.” She felt kindness in her heart. “I met someone a year or so after… you know. We have two children.” She looked towards the snack bar, and then at the window to the far left. “Ella’s at university, and Flyn is in high school.” She smiled.
“That’s wonderful, Kat, really wonderful.” He chewed on his lip, and smiled painfully.
“How about you?” She felt soft and elegant. It was an elating feeling.
“We weren’t so lucky.” He looked back down. “We lost our boy in a car accident seven years ago.”
“Oh God, Mike! I had no idea! I’m so terribly sorry!” She covered her mouth with her hand, and sobered up instantaneously.
“It was awful, Kat. It would be beside the point to go into detail here, but it would be understating to say that it’s cast a shadow on our lives, yeah.”
Katrina shook her head. The dancing circles of light on the wall were playing with the rim of his cup. Half of his face was in the shadow, and half of it was bright white.
“What was his name?” She stared at the wrinkled brow opposite her.
“Thomas,” He nodded, adding, “He was twelve.”
A catering woman was hovering over by Katrina’s initial table behind the plants, and Katrina had to excuse herself for a moment to inform the woman that those were her things on the chair. She collected her coat and shopping bags, and brought them back over to Mike’s table.
“Sorry about that.”
“You probably have things to do, Kat.” Mike folded his newspaper twice over until he could no longer get it to lie flat on the table.
“Of course, but it was nice seeing you.” She smiled.
“You probably think it serves me right.” He gazed out of the window, and the whole cafeteria went dark as a cloud smothered the sun.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” She felt the most overwhelming sense of sympathy. “Nobody deserves that!”
“I was unfair to you, Katrina.” He looked up at her. Now she recognised him very well.
“Maisie and I are not good, Kat, if it makes you feel better.” He sat upright in his chair, and unfolded the newspaper.
“We were never good, but I couldn’t see it back then.” Katrina wanted to run, but she felt that he needed to say these things.
“You weren’t to blame for any of it.” He pushed the button on the top of his biro in and out, and gazed out of the window at the car park. It was perhaps the biggest car park Katrina had ever seen. To lose oneself in a car park like that was an easy mistake. It had happened to her once. She had been negligent about jotting down the alley number, and had spent hours trying to find her car again.
“Mike, this is pointless.” Katrina inhaled her irritation.
“No, it’s the truth.” Mike looked small and frail in the cool light.
“I spotted Maisie downstairs.” Kat decided to add. “She didn’t seem me.”
Mike seemed relieved that she was cooperating.
He squinted, as if to try to remember. The events were twenty-five years old. He was so young then, or so he believed.
“It started before I met you, Kat.” He took a deep breath. “It was platonic while we were married, that I promise you. She was the catering lady at work, as you know: a student, from New York. We were close, because she was like that with everyone. It was so easy to confide. I knew you didn’t like me spending time with her, and to be honest Kat, I didn’t feel for her at the beginning. But for some reason, I made you pay for asking questions. The more you asked about her, the more I confided in her. I told her I was unhappy at home. I said you and I were not on the same wavelength. She was a good listener, Kat. She never judged you. But she asked questions a lot. Sometimes, if I’m honest with myself – now I can be, Kat – I knew things were my fault at home. I knew I wasn’t doing my best with you. I knew you were bending over on hand and foot to make me happy, but somehow that just made it even harder to be a good person. I used to make little problems sound like big ones in her eyes. I don’t know why now. And for a long time, I just confided in her, like that, with no strings attached. It could have gone on forever. I wanted it to, and I made sure my friendship with her was kept as far away from you as possible. In fact, I was so convinced that you were the one making my life complicated. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
Katrina listened intently. It seemed so far away. She could feel that he was talking about events that had once left her flat on her back, but it was funny to notice how he remembered the details. She remembered the house, and had vague recollections of parties with friends, and of arguments. It was dream-like in her memory. The sound was missing from the scenes, and they were played in slow motion. She had discovered the affair totally by chance. He had said he would be in London for business, and she had not given it a second thought, but he had left in a hurry. Later, that evening, while she was doing some housework, she realized that he had accidentally left his computer open. She couldn’t believe what she read. There were countless “innocent” messages. Then there was the last e-mail; the logistics of meeting up in Paris and passing it off as a business trip. This was an e-mail address she did not even know he had. He had probably been so cautious up until then. She despised him even more for making such a rookie mistake. But she did not confront him on his return. She hinted a few times, hoping he would confess. She would have forgiven him, if he had confessed. He never did. He said he had initially planned to meet Maisie in Paris, but that it had never actually happened. Kat had not stuck around to hear his far-fetched explanation. The rest was clouded over with bliss and hardship fought hand in hand with the man from the swimming pool.
“Katrina, I was so angry that you found out.” He went on. Katrina half listened. It was a strange monologue, as the clock ticked, and he spilled out his guts. She felt sincere sympathy, as he told her how Maisie had then left him to return to America, because her job had come to an end, and she had no money. She had often asked him for favours, and he had accepted to drive her here and there, to pay for small expenses, which then became larger expenses. It was the price to pay for keeping the relationship covered up. But she had become used to him saying yes, and after his divorce it was very difficult to say no. The shortcomings that had made him feel so lame with Katrina now started to plague his new union with Maisie. Maisie’s flirtatious happy go lucky nature slowly gave way to worry, and jealousy, and before long she was prying into his work situation, and financial affairs. The feeling of elation and surprise he would feel upon opening an e-mail from her soon turned into anxiety and pressure: what had he done wrong now? But he could not leave her, because that would mean admitting that in fact life with Katrina had not been so bad. He wanted a simple life, and for years while he was living with Katrina, he felt that Maisie represented freedom and simplicity. Katrina knew the catering girl was trouble early on into their marriage. She had passed comments about the fact that she did not like how the girl behaved at work parties. But Michael had insisted on making Katrina sound like an evil spy. Maisie was just a friend. It was a losing battle for Kat. There was nothing she could have done.
She watched the poor old man move his lips, and paid attention only to the occasional sunbeams striking his face in an empty cafeteria on the third floor of a shopping mall. She knew Maisie was downstairs, as she had seen her, and couldn’t help deducing that he was probably waiting for her to finish her shopping. The one thing she did remember was that he had often complained of having had to drive her around here and there. The irony was painstaking. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, and said she was not angry with him. He had more to say, but she was having people round at the weekend, and she needed to get back to it.
The car park was crammed with vehicles of all sorts. Women, men, children were calling out to one another across the metallic rooftops. Groups of women pushed babies in strollers down the grid and across into the gaping mall doors. A couple was arguing about a compromise, and the girl was yelling out that he would have to meet her half way. Kat’s car was in Alley F, beside a small maple tree. A gust of wind blew debris across the tarmac, and the sun was out again. There was no frivolity in this life of hers. She did not like the barbarity of shopping malls, and was glad to be leaving when most people were arriving. As she approached Alley F, she noticed an elderly man being helped out of a car by a woman. She could see that they were laughing, but from where she stood the sound of other cars driving past stopped her from being able to decipher their conversation. The car door slammed shut behind her. Silence. A few drops of rain from a passing cloud landed on her windscreen with a splatter. “A new kitten!” She suddenly remembered. “What fun!”