Mrs Morelli came into the living room while Martin was waiting for Yvonne to get ready. Yvonne had left the door open on the way upstairs, but her mother closed it over. She went to the fireplace and lowered the gas fire. A packet of Embassy Number 1 was in its usual place on the top of the mantelpiece, and she lit one with the chunky green lighter. Clamping the cigarette in her mouth, she fixed her hair in the mirror, squinting an eye against the smoke and pulling pins out then placing them back in the same places but tighter. Martin watched discreetly, without turning his head, fascinated by the intricacies of the process, wondering if Mrs Morelli had noticed him sitting there. When she’d finished, she gave the hair a few satisfied pats and then took the cigarette from her lips. She smiled at him in the mirror so that he almost jumped.
The television was already turned down low, but she switched it off and sat on the arm of the sofa, right next to Martin. Her nylons whispered as she crossed her legs. She balanced a clear cut-glass ashtray on her knee.
She suggested that Martin take off his coat. He shook his head. They’d be going out again just as soon as Yvonne was ready. But Mrs Morelli insisted. Yvonne would take ages getting dolled up, as usual. Heaven knew why it took her such a long time. And she said it was unsettling when people wore coats indoors. It had an air of waiting for bad news.
So Martin shrugged out of his parka. His elbow became caught in one of the arms, and it was a struggle to get free. She took the coat from him and fingered the fur around the hood, making a comment about its softness. The fur would carry her perfume when he wore the coat later. She draped the parka gently over the other arm of the sofa.
She asked him how school had been that day. She was close by, above and side-on, and the angles were awkward. Citrus hints hung sharp and fresh, and tobacco fizzed and burned as she dragged deep and slow on her cigarette. In the palaver with his coat, Martin’s underwear had twisted and his vest had come untucked beneath his shirt. Everything was awry, but he couldn’t consider adjusting himself with her sitting next to him so composed. He looked to the television for comfort and familiarity. If only she hadn’t turned it off, he might have made some easy remark about the afternoon show.
Mrs Morelli smiled, eyes large and dark and hooded with makeup. He’d always thought she had a sad faraway look, even when she smiled, and even when she was laughing. It was as if she were always looking beyond. She said that maybe it hadn’t been a very stimulating day at school, and she placed a hand onto his knee. He’d been jigging his leg up and down without realising. He felt the dry coolness of her stilling touch through the fabric of his trousers. Her hands were always cool and always gentle and dry. When he was much younger, she would touch the sides of his face as she bent to talk to him, and he used to wince at the sudden chill of her fingers at his cheeks. It used to amuse her. She told him one day that there were benefits, that cold hands meant a warm heart, and were the perfect tools for crafting delicate pastry.
She said she’d tell him about her day instead. That afternoon she thought she might go and watch a film at the Odeon. She was standing in the foyer looking at the listings, but nothing was taking her fancy. It was quiet in there. She’d noticed another customer standing at the cashier’s desk. He was about her age, perhaps a little younger. Neat hair, classic black shoes. Quite an appealing get-up. He clearly took care with his appearance. He put her in mind of one of the Italian film directors.
The man appeared to be buying a ticket for a film, but there was some issue with the transaction. Although she was intrigued, the voices of the man and the ticket seller were low and too murmurous to follow what was happening. Suddenly the man turned and loudly asked if Mrs Morelli had any change she might be able to spare. He was a little short of funds for his ticket. She asked him how much he needed. It was a small amount, but she was certain that she had no coins in her purse. She’d spent her change on a coffee at the train station on the way into town, and left the remaining coins on the table for the waiter. She didn’t mention the coffee to the man at the cinema.
The man asked her to check. She didn’t know what to say. She looked inside her purse. There was no loose change. She apologised, told him she had no money. There was a five pound note in there, but she didn’t tell him this as she wasn’t thinking in terms of notes. The man turned back to the cashier, and they continued to converse. The cashier glanced over a couple of times. And then the man left the cinema. Mrs Morelli considered approaching the cashier, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to ask him.
She left the cinema and searched for the man outside. But he must have walked away quickly. She’d lost her appetite for seeing a movie, and so she went and bought another coffee, this time at the place opposite the cinema. She paid with the five pound note. From her table at the front of the café she was able to watch for the man. She had a feeling that she’d see him again, that he’d merely gone to get hold of some cash.
By now she’d finished most of her cigarette, although much of it had burned down of its own accord. She ground out the stub, delicately, slowly, holding it into the base of the ashtray for much longer than was necessary. And then she stood and replaced the ashtray on the mantelpiece. She came back and sat down again. That soft whisper once more. Martin waited. He wasn’t sure if she’d arrived at the end of the story about the man at the Odeon. His neck ached from turning to look at her.
She coughed softly, and asked him if he’d like anything to drink while he was waiting for Yvonne to finish getting ready. But he was fine. She made a low affirming sound, and then said it was time to get back to the baking. She was making a plain sponge. A simple recipe, but it was surprisingly difficult to make a decently textured cake.
She patted his knee lightly and left the room. She left the door open, and the smell of baking came into the room. Martin adjusted his clothing. He was suddenly hungry and listless. He stared at the distorted shapes and muted colours of reflections in the blank television screen.