Contextual Material

Clare Watson

Clare Watson

The Character of Color

I chose the small table in the corner by the window, set down my cup and plate and sat looking out into the cafe. I had never been here before and it seemed to be very popular. Some god awful jazz music was playing, thankfully mostly drowned out by all the happy chatter. There were crumbs on my table. Why is it that people don’t clean properly these days? I got a paper hanky from my handbag and swept up the debris. I folded it carefully and put it to one side.

I had chosen a slice of the biggest, best looking cake and a large cappuccino dusted with chocolate. It was going to be my last, so I intended to take half an hour over it and savor every sip and every bite. As I ate I took in the decor. It was a mixture of ‘70s-style pine cladding, 1930s travel posters, a messy magazine rack, and an ornate French patisserie counter. Not my style, in the least. As a middle-class professional I usually frequented coffee houses and wine bars fitted out in steel, glass, and mirrors. The kind of place where you could both spy on your neighbors and admire yourself at the same time. Places with next to no character of their own. Normally, that’s what I preferred but today, being the last, was an exception.

I looked down to take a forkful of cake but was disturbed by the door crashing open. I watched the colorful young woman march up to the counter. She was wearing a green suede coat and a multicolored orange knitted headband that kept the halo of dark hair from her eyes. An orange skirt hung down below her coat and her shoes were green brogues. Now, that was character.

I looked back at my forkful of cake and slipped it into my mouth. Delicious. Probably. These days it was often hard to really experience good things. I took a sip of cappuccino and looked up to see the young woman heading my way with a tray full of cakes. She plonked it down on my table.

“You don’t mind me joining you, do you?” She was taking off her coat and hanging it on the back of the chair opposite.

“I. . .” was all I managed to say in the short gap before she continued.

“It’s just that I always sit at this table and I come here every Wednesday. They normally keep it free for me, but I’m late today so perhaps they thought I wasn’t coming. It’s okay, I don’t mind sharing it. Actually, it’s really nice to talk with someone. ‘Specially after the morning I’ve had.”

As she chattered on I watched, fascinated. She folded her orange skirt under her as she sat down. It sort of stuck out like taffeta and had three tiers. Her lipstick was a pale, pinky orange as was her silk blouse, and she wore her green scarf tied in a large bow by her right shoulder. She had six pieces of cake arrayed on the tray in front of her.

“First of all I couldn’t find the key. I had to empty my bag onto the pavement. The whole thing and, of course, the last thing to come out was the key! Thank God it was dry. Next, the heating wasn’t working and it can get really cold in the shop as it’s on the dark side of the street. So I had to call the plumber. Fortunately, she was able to come straight away.”

“She?” That was very unusual.

“Yes, she. Isn’t it spiffing?”

Did she really say spiffing? She was looking at me with a rather mischievous smile.

“I’m undertaking the resurrection of words. Not all words. Definitely not. Arras, for instance, has an uncomfortable feel in the mouth but friendly, happy ones that make people smile. Spiffing made you smile, didn’t it?”

Well, yes, it had and I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember the last time I smiled like that—spontaneously, rather than politely.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use that word,” I said. “Nor have I met someone using the word she in relation to a plumber.”

The young woman laughed. “I have to admit I relish saying it. She’s really a very good plumber. She got the boiler working in next to no time, so that sorted out the heating. Once it’s on, the shop warms up pretty quickly. But, have you noticed, that if a day starts off badly it just doesn’t stop? Well, the next thing was most of the gloves had been eaten. Not the leather ones, the cotton ones in the suitcase. All nibbled through by mice and I thought I’d got rid of them all! They are genuine 1950s. The gloves. Not the mice.” She laughed again.

She carried on speaking and laughing while, somehow, at the same time, managing to eat cake. I listened very attentively enjoying everything about her. Her animated face framed by the knitted headband, her rapidly disappearing lipstick and a dimple in her left cheek. Her ability to wear color so brightly, so effortlessly. She was such an expression of herself. I felt something changing inside as I sat and let her wash over me.

She had placed her bag on the table and was rummaging through. Incredibly, all six pieces of cake were gone. She pulled out a silvery compact and her lipstick. She then applied it while continuing her chatter.

“There.” She snapped her bag shut (green, probably 1960s). “Thank you so much. I feel totally cleansed. You are a wonderful listener. Will you be here next Wednesday?” She pulled on her coat.

Before I knew what I was doing I said yes and she left with a swing of the door and a cheery wave. I felt as though she had taken up my life and given it a stir. Her stories about vintage clothing were as bright in my mind as the colors she was wearing. I could see her carefully ironing dresses and the burn mark she had made in one when a customer had asked her a particularly awkward question. It had all been so engaging even though I’d never been interested in the subject before today.

I thought about my own attire. So classy, so grey, so anonymous. I didn’t let my hair grow in such an unruly fashion, easily held back with a retro knit. I had it cut short and neat with my tight curls slicked down close to my scalp as though ashamed. Was I ashamed of my ethnicity? She wore her mixed race like a jewel.

My big decision was shaken and clarity had left the cafe along with my new friend. So I left too and instead of walking towards the river I went in the opposite direction along the high street, diving into the first charity shop I came to. I needed to find a color. I rifled through the scarves and came upon a red and white check with a black border. I stood in front of a mirror and wrapped it around my neck. My face changed immediately; I decided to give myself a week and to wear the scarf.

When I got home I quickly retrieved the letter I’d left on the table and put it in my handbag for next Wednesday. I then spent a good ten minutes tying and re-tying the scarf. The only decision I made was that I definitely wasn’t a bow at the side kind of woman. I felt restless and unsure what to do but eventually found myself opening my wardrobe. Inside was a neat line of smart suits in varying degrees of grey and black. Turning to look in the full-length mirror I saw that I disappeared inside them. There was no sign of me at all. When I draped the scarf around my neck something showed up, but I couldn’t quite catch it.

I hadn’t planned on going back to work so it proved exceptionally hard to get up the next morning. I’d been partially conscious when Martin stroked my cheek as he went off to catch his plane. When the alarm went off I felt the usual crushing weight of inevitability holding me down in the bed. I lay there feeling paralyzed; all I could do was turn my head, but it was enough for me to see the scarf hung over the chair. The red smiled and beckoned to me. I got out of bed to pick it up and run it through my fingers.

That was how I got through that whole long week with Martin away. I clutched onto the scarf and thought about seeing the woman again on Wednesday afternoon. Then I lived from week to week meeting Julietta. Yes, that was her name. Her parents had called her Juliet after Shakespeare’s heroine and she’d added the extra two letters because, she said, if you are going to have a long name you might as well really go for it. She always arrived in a different outfit. We sat at the same table every week and she ate her six cakes. I learned she had a sister who had gone away and it was her shop she was looking after. Oddly, she didn’t let me know where it was. I did ask, but she just waved her hand and said it wasn’t here. The shop was closed on Wednesday afternoons and she escaped to this town for a few hours of sanity.

I gradually, carefully, experimented with color. It was a painful process because I was watching myself return to myself. So long had I been lost. It was a joyful process, too, for the same reason, but it took me awhile to really feel joy. I even negotiated my work hours down to thirty. It was three months before I finally allowed myself to acknowledge that the ice had truly begun to melt. Then I took that three-month-old letter from my handbag and ripped it into tiny pieces. Immediately after that I bought myself a new handbag. Russet red. I got some shoes, too, and a hat of the same color. I put them on with my new poncho wrap (it was black and smart as I’d found I didn’t want to give that up, not yet) and went to meet Julietta at the cafe.

I got there first and sat down with my coffee and cake. It really was delicious. I finished them both and she hadn’t arrived. I had no contact for her so I ordered another coffee and waited. I finished that, and still she hadn’t come. Eventually, I had to leave because they were closing. It was very unusual but these things happen. I’d just have to come back next week.

She didn’t turn up the next week either or the week after that. I asked the cafe proprietor whether she’d seen her at all. I described her and she said, “You mean the bulimic? No, I’ve not seen her for weeks.”

I turned away shocked by the way she described Julietta as though she was a condition and not a person. It was very hurtful. It made me angry. Why, of all the things she could have said did she choose that? Julietta was so many things. She was a colorful person of color. She was a vintage clothes wonder. She was a bright star. She was a miracle worker and the person who saved my life.


This piece won the annual International Short Story prize in the context of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2020 and was first published in the booklet Perspectives. It appears here with the kind permission of the author.