“That’s the woman I was telling you about.”
I always occupy the seat facing the door in a restaurant. That way I can see who’s coming in. I’ve been keeping an eye out for the woman because last night she pissed me off more than anyone has in a while. I won’t lie: I spent most of last night awake, pushing pins into her waxen image with the fingers of my mind.
Frank turns and looks, pretending to brush his gaze over the breakfast buffet that’s in the far corner of the peach-painted room. Because of the pandemic, only five at a time are allowed up to collect their food; we’ve been waiting for a lull. A waiter dressed in a Benedictine habit – the hotel is a former monastery – stomps in loose-fitting sandals between tables, splashing coffee from a jug. So far, he’s ignored us, squashed as we are into a nook behind a screen of desiccated cacti and bedraggled spider plants. The ceiling presses down.
“The fat one,” I say.
“Your voice carries,” Frank says with a smile that’s tight at the corners.
She has that same not-quite-there look she wore last night in the lobby, like someone swimming lengths under water without goggles. She also wears the same orthopaedic sandals, floral leggings and draped peach t-shirt. She rocks like a buoy on water as she floats by. I stare, willing her to meet my eye.
“Is it me,” I ask Frank, “or have I become invisible?” I wave at the waiter who is passing. “Frank, get the waiter.”
People see Frank. It helps that he’s six-five with the physique of an Olympic rower. The glossy spade beard also adds gravitas. I, on the other hand, seem no longer to exist, except to myself.
Yesterday it rained from lunchtime. The whole of the previous fortnight, we’d been sweating in the mid-thirties and so we were dressed only in light clothes for the journey. The sky didn’t seem to take any enjoyment from its performance. By the time we got to the hotel, we were shrunken with cold.
We booked the hotel because, after a year of unemployment, my husband has – hallelujah – found work in a neighbouring country. Since he’s nervous about his new job, having been fired from the last, I decided to travel to the new country with him and stay during the first week. I am on holiday, so I have time. Even though he had a managerial position in his last workplace, he was bullied, which led to a nervousness, which led to him losing the job. I missed or ignored the signs – him vomiting before work every morning, the constant sweating, the grey look of his face – and I want to keep an eye on things in the new city, which neither of us knows. We noticed on the map that the hotel lies halfway between home and the city of which he’ll now be a resident, and is conveniently just off the Autobahn, close to a town known for being romantic.
The carpark is potholed, the stone walls of the hotel are a jaded pink, and, as we arrived, insects congregated around the lanterns set on the tables on the damp patio. Shivering, teeth clenched against the icy wind, we rushed our overnight bags inside. A fake monk in a black habit thrust a room key at Frank and slammed the door to the stairwell behind us. Up in the room, which is decorated – if that is the right word – with a mural of St Sebastian bristling with arrows, I realised I had no change of clothes. Back down into the rain to fetch my suitcase. The gravel resisted the wheels of the heavy case; shirt sucked to my skin, I tugged the Rimowa as speedily as I could towards the hotel entrance, where a woman blocked the way. She was looking past me into the rain, which sparkled in the light from the lamp above the door. She must be waiting for someone, I thought. Her husband, parking the car: that might be him in the red BMW. She tugged anxiously at a corded gold necklace.
“Entschuldigung-Sie!” I shouted, still some metres away, judging that, if she moved to the side now, I could make it into the hotel without breaking pace.
Legs planted wide, she remained immobile, gazing into the weather beyond. Now I was forced to slow down. I repeated my request with less of a smile but the old bitch didn’t budge.
“Don’t you worry about me,” I said sarcastically in English as I tugged the suitcase through the narrow space to her right. But she kept on turning her necklace and staring into the storm.
“Maybe she didn’t see you, Angie,” Frank says now from across the breakfast table.
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“Excuse me,” I blurt as the waiter in the habit swishes past once more.
I used to not be invisible. Walking down the street in my leopard print coat, my long dark hair flying on the wind, men on building sites whistled and made cat noises. It was all a big play. They’d miaow, because they were expected to; and I’d ignore them, because that was my role. I was known for having presence. Friends tell me that, when we first met, I intimidated them. But these are friends from my own country. Here, in this other country, I am nothing special and, because my grasp of the language remains uncertain, I have become uncertain – and that is when invisibility begins.
Being invisible is irksome, especially when I’m the one sustaining us. Last week, for instance, saw the arrival of a letter from the fire insurance company, addressed to Frank, even though I pay the bills. The letter said it had been advised by the cantonal authorities that Frank was moving countries, and suggested that it transfer the insurance policy to ‘your wife’s name with your permission’ and that ‘she’ should take over payment. “What a bloody cheek,” I said, and Frank agreed. If I write to complain though, I expect they’ll just write back to Frank, who never complains about anything.
“The Benedictines weren’t a deaf and dumb order, were they?” I ask Frank as the waiter passes by for the third time.
“They’re not Trappists, if that’s what you mean.”
At parties in my twenties, people I still thought of as ‘grown-ups’ affected interest in my work. Wives said to husbands, oh she’s so clever, isn’t she? Older men asked me to send them my work. Men my own age showed me their poems. All were poets. Where have they gone? Sometimes, late at night, when Frank’s killing braincells in front of Netflix, I Google their names. The older men are in trouble for being male, whilst the poets have metamorphosed into agents or editors or publishers. They are increasingly hard to contact because they have secretaries and firewalls. I too have had to metamorphose. I justify it as follows: the teaching job I’ve taken on gives me the financial freedom to be creative.
What a load of bullshit, Angie. You don’t need financial freedom to be creative. Quite the opposite. But I’m no longer just me. I have agreed to be one half of a marriage, and Frank is accustomed to a certain way of living: holidays in north-Italian cities, designer gins, luscious beard waxes shipped by Mr Porter.
Speaking of husbands, the woman seems to be alone this morning. So I was wrong: there was no husband in a BMW. There was nobody for her to wait for last night in the rain. What the hell was she doing?
Snapping on my face mask, I approach the breakfast buffet where I join the queue that is moving in an anti-clockwise direction. Whilst the man in sports kit ahead of me makes his selection, I slide on the plastic gloves and scan the plates of fruits and cheeses, the baskets of rolls and croissants. None of it has seen a human hand before now: the cheeses are red plastic lozenges; the rolls look cardboardy. The least artificial thing here is the Bleu de Bresse that sits surrounded by red grapes on a polished white platter. It will do; and the grapes look plump and sweet. I stretch out my knife to slice a piece of the Bleu de Bresse when I notice that someone has cut the queue – not so much cut as completely disregarded it. A freckled hand glides her fork in front of mine, prongs the entire cheese, and places it on a plate that’s already overloaded with eggs, poultry sausages, three other types of cheese, and now the gorgeous little cluster of ruby grapes.
“No wonder she’s the size she is,” I say to Frank back at the table. I give her the stink-eye as she passes.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?”
“No. She took the only thing I wanted. She could have stopped at a slice, a few grapes. But no, instead she took the whole lot. As if I wasn’t even there. What a hog. You could use her derrière as a shelf in the pantry.”
“Did you say anything?”
“I was flabbergasted. What could I say? Oh, don’t mind me. That fucking bitch.”
My husband’s smile is embarrassed. “Why are you so upset?”
She eats to be visible. That’s what it is. She eats so people will see her.
Back at the buffet, I pile my plate high. Eggs sweating in oil, glistening sausages, great smears of cheese, pyramids of melon, voluptuous blistered caramel croissants. I cut the queue too and, you know what, nobody says anything. But this time it doesn’t matter because I know they can see me and they all hate me, all these people in their clean sports clothes and shiny white trainers, following the correct etiquette. Not one of them comments that I’ve broken the rule. I feast. I don’t give a shit that people walk past staring – that even Frank is staring in a sad, bemused way.
“Would you care for some coffee, madame?” our waiter in the habit asks. I bathe in his obsequious smile.
I see her once more before we leave for the new country where Frank’s job awaits. The rain hasn’t stopped and, later today, we’ll see from the Autobahn that the fields on the outskirts of town have transformed into slurry pits. She is standing in the doorway of the hotel when I go down to pay, staring out into the rain, as if waiting for someone she knows will never come. She twists her gold corded necklace nervously. The necklace doesn’t look like the kind of thing you’d buy for yourself: someone must have loved her once upon a time.
I cross the floor towards the reception desk, then change my mind.
“Are you all right?” I ask, approaching her.
She turns and looks at me, shortening the focus of her gaze until her violet eyes meet mine.
About The Author
Zoë Green is a Scottish writer living in a small village in the Swiss Alps. She’s won the Harpers Orange Prize for Short Fiction, been shortlisted for Vogue New Young Writer, has published short stories and poetry in the London Magazine, Litro, Harpers and Queen, and Cutting Teeth. She’s also written for the Observer, Literary Review, the Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Scotsman. She read English at Oxford and did her MA in Creative Writing at UEA. In Switzerland, she teaches English to teenagers at an exclusive boarding school.
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