The Warm Grey Overcoat
“Memories, light the corners of my mind…”
I hate Barbara Streisand. I hate memories. They light dark corners. Corners that should never be illuminated.
Strange things, memories. You can push them to the background, keep them supressed- until something sets them off and unleashes the guilt that you have tried so hard to forget.
Like the coat. How could such an innocuous garment harbour such awful memories? Yet each time I see someone wearing a grey woollen overcoat, my own unconscionable behaviour still haunts me.
I can still picture it. I was so proud of that coat. The coat I wore only once. Light grey, fine wool, full length, a wide collar that you could turn up to keep out the cold. I still remember the satin lining and beautiful stitching, the shiny black buttons and the luxurious feeling when I first put it on- a friend to hold me and protect me from the extremes of a New York winter. Such beauty, and such regret.
I had come to New York in the summer to pursue my dream of becoming an actor but Green Cards are no guarantee of regular work in the Theatre. Low paid jobs waiting in restaurants or packing shelves in supermarkets maybe, but not Broadway. Or even off Broadway. I lost count of the unsuccessful readings, auditions and call-backs. As I lurched from disappointment to failure, I marked off the days on the calendar- a countdown to the expiry of my work permit. Without a long term contract, there was little chance of an extension. Finally, I did land a theatre job- working in the cloakroom at the New Amsterdam. I could smell the greasepaint, but it was frustrating, being so close to the stage and not on it. Besides, it wasn’t going to extend my stay.
And then I saw the coat.
It was late, everyone had collected their possessions and most of the staff had gone home. But a coat was still hanging there, splendid, calling out to me. I knew it was wrong, but I just had to try it on. No one was watching. I carefully placed one arm, then the other, into the sleeves. As pulled it around me it enveloped me like a warm glove. I fastened the buttons and glanced in the mirror. Magnificent. I could NEVER afford a coat like this. Would the person even miss it? I looked around. Still no-one in sight. Without thinking of any consequences I strode out of the building, pausing only to clock off, and stepped into darkness.
Next evening, everything seemed normal. The excited pre-show buzz of the crowd was the same as last night, people queued patiently to check their bags, hats…and coats. I barely looked up to address the person waiting at the counter. “Next.”
“Excuse me. Last night my wife’s coat was left here. I wonder if you still have it.”
I felt like I had been shot. I couldn’t look up and pretended to continue with my record keeping.
“Sorry, don’t remember seeing one. I’ll ask.”
I disappeared into the cloak room, trying to take enough time to make it look convincing, but also to compose myself.
“No, no-one remembers seeing a coat that was left here.” I hoped my face didn’t give me away.
His voice quivered. I knew it was a beautiful coat, but he looked like they could easily afford another. I wasn’t ready for what came next.
“It doesn’t matter. You see, my wife fell ill during the show and we had to leave early.” Suddenly I noticed he was holding back tears. “She died last night and I wanted to get the coat back if I could.”
My heart raced and I felt my cheeks redden, but I tried to look calm and sympathetic. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Can I take your name and address so that if it turns up I can contact you?”
He scribbled the details on a check-claim and handed it to me before turning on his heels and walking disconsolately away. When he was out of sight I screwed it up and threw it into the waste bin. I never saw him again…except in my dreams.
The coat was hanging on a rack inside my apartment door. Its expensive style looked out of place among my few grimy possessions. Or was it my guilt? But there was no going back now, I had to keep it, reassuring myself that she no longer needed it and that I was as worthy as the next person. I imagined how ridiculous a homeless person would look in that coat. How easy it was to rationalise what I had done and push it to the corners of memory.
I slept fitfully. I kept seeing his face and sad, red eyes. I imagined the coat looking at me in judgement. I imagined her putting it on before going to the theatre, not knowing it would be the last time that she would ever wear it. I couldn’t stand it, I had to put it away in the closet.
I stumbled out of bed and groped for it in the darkness. Then I noticed the smell- a sweet mixture of perfume and perspiration. Everyone has a characteristic aroma that insinuates itself into their garments. I can still remember my father talking about Mum’s “smell” being preserved in her clothing, and his distress as it gradually faded. Here I was denying that man the same chance, to bury his face in the coat and immerse himself in his wife’s fragrance.
Night after night, the same dreams- his face, the coat strangling and suffocating me. Like Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” I began to hear it speak to me, accuse me, threaten to betray my secret. And all the while the calendar counted down towards my imminent departure.
The cleaner rummaged through the empty apartment. Opening the closet, she saw it hanging there, splendid, calling out to her….