by Paulette Smythe
I don’t know Simon. He doesn’t know me. He’s just the tall, shadowy fellow who left his spectacles behind on a rickety wooden table in one of those cramped arcade cafés I generally make a point of not frequenting. Too noisy. Too crowded. Too dark. Not the oases of calm I seek when I want to cool my heels after a hard day’s shopping in the city. And the worst possible place in which to dip into page 288 of my latest murder mystery and discover who done the dirty deed.
But it was into just such a café that I ventured one afternoon, too footsore and weary to trudge the distance to one of my usual haunts. Besides, the coffee smelt as Melbourne coffee does — heady and seductive — and there was an empty stool right by one of those always appealing window counters. I could turn my back on the chaos around me and do what I’d come to do: relax and open the page at Chapter 11.
The waiter was one of those smooth, self-assured types who feel obliged to flirt. I tittered at his wisecracks and got my coffee fast.
And so to Chapter 11. I opened my handbag, groped impatiently for my spectacles, found the case and flipped it open. The glasses were almost on my nose before I realised my mistake: in my hand were sunglasses where my prescription lenses should be. I’d done this often enough not to be surprised, but at that particular moment I experienced the kind of exasperation that demands immediate action.
Page 288 floated before me, an indecipherable blur. I knew who had killed Professor Hartley and why. I was only bothering with Chapter 11 at all to confirm the details, as one does, but to be denied the satisfaction of knowing I had puzzled the whole plot out correctly was not to be endured.
From my window seat, I spotted a chemist’s shop opposite. A display of magnifying glasses in a range of bright primary colours stood just outside the entrance. I knew the decent thing to do was to walk out, cross the road and buy a pair. But something about the café seemed to encourage behaviour of the underhand variety.
Closer to hand was a table, at that very instant being vacated by a tall, shadowy man with a preoccupied air. And on that table lay a pair of sleek, horn-rimmed spectacles partly obscured by an open newspaper.
To describe them as striking would be sorely understating their charms. They were, quite simply, dazzling. Clearly the flawless handiwork of a master designer, for the rims were exquisitely fashioned and the lenses seemed to glint and sparkle as though ground from some rare and precious form of glass.
The café was busy and I knew the object of my desire would be seized within a matter of seconds, if for no other reason than to clear the table quickly for the customers congregating around the entrance.
It was now or never.
Needless to say, there was a risk that the spectacles would be of no use to me — who knew from what deficiency of vision that long, lanky gentleman suffered? — but I was content to put form before function in this particular case.
The table was within arm’s length of my stool and I reached across as though to avail myself of some sachets of sugar bulging out of a glass container. At the same time I slid my right hand surreptitiously between the newspaper sheets and scooped up the spectacles.
But what if the thin man returned?
I slipped the glasses onto my nose and page 288 came into focus, clear and sharp. At the same time I caught my reflection in the window before me. I looked as I had never looked before. An enviable creature — alluring, poised, sophisticated. And yes, almost beautiful.
I would fight him if he tried to take them, I decided.
Five lines into Chapter 11 and I knew I had fingered the wrong man for the crime. It was a humiliating moment, but I had never liked the writer much and decided he had made a shoddy case for the guilty man. My own choice of killer had been far more fitting.
The book had lost its charm, so much so that I could not bring myself to finish it. I felt let down and a little disoriented. True, the spectacles gave my vision an unaccustomed clarity. Did this account for the faint giddiness I was experiencing? Without doubt these lenses were far stronger than my own. Everything about them seemed more finely delineated, as though up till then I had been viewing the world through a kind of haze.
The waiter brushed past me, noticed the coffee dregs pooling in the bottom of my cup and asked me if I’d like another. It was hard to tear my gaze from the cup for looking into it I had the oddest sensation that someone in there was looking back. Someone sly-eyed and repellent. Seeming to beckon me in.
“Leave it!” I snapped.
Too late. The waiter had seized the cup with its astonishing contents. He gave the counter a rough wipe and headed for the back of the café.
“Wait!” I shouted, leaping from my stool. I caught up with him just before he reached the swing doors that led into the kitchen. The cup was poised precariously atop a swaying stack of dirty plates and bowls he had balanced on one arm. I saw it tremble uncertainly as though it knew its fate and reached out to rescue it. For a split second I even held it in my hand but then it slid through my fingers and tumbled to the ground, shattering into pieces.
“Damn!” I swore, seeing what was without doubt the most intriguing experience of my life thus far come to such a banal end.
A small brown puddle was forming on the worn timber floor at my feet and, for a moment or two, hope flared. I gazed into it expectantly. Nothing returned my stare. The liquid was already being absorbed into the dry old floorboards, creating an ugly dark stain. I almost turned away then, but something held me to the spot, compelled me to look closer.
The stain was spreading rapidly. Too rapidly. Within seconds it was haemorrhaging deep into the floor and lapping perilously close to the café walls. Looking into it now was like teetering on the rim of a vast black crater that had surely swallowed everyone and everything in that small café, except for me.
I could not afford to lift my gaze, for I alone remained standing on the brink of the precipice overlooking what was now a yawning abyss. Someone down there was calling me, pleading with me, and the urgency in that sad and poignant voice was strangely seductive.
And then I slipped. Or so I’ve been told. I will always believe that some lonely faceless presence pulled me down. As I lurched forward, the spectacles fell off and the world rearranged itself before my naked eyes. Here was no abyss but an innocuous little coffee stain on a floor warped with age and badly in need of sanding.
Someone took my arm and, as she steered me towards a chair, I heard utterances of concern from the patrons nearby. The very ordinariness of the scene before me made my head spin.
The disgruntled waiter was on his hands and knees brushing shards of glass into a dust-pan.
“This comes out of my wages, you know,” he grumbled. His large brown eyes looked genuinely aggrieved.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. And I was. I could imagine what a pittance the poor man took home in his pocket. But I had other things on my mind right now. I got to my feet and looked down at the spectacles. They glinted back at me in a fashion I could only describe as knowing.
“You could make it up to me...”
He caught me off guard. The wink. The smile. The brash charm.
“Are you busy tonight?”
I knew the type. Almost any woman would do. He must have asked three, four, maybe even five other women today before he got to me. The knock-backs wouldn’t bother him. Sooner or later one of them would say yes and he’d get lucky.
“I’m always busy,” I snapped back. I saw the surprise on his face. Of course. Someone like me should be grateful just to be asked. He slunk back to the kitchen. At any other time I would gladly have given him a piece of my mind, pointed out how singularly unimpressed most women were with that kind of come-on, made it absolutely clear that his lover-boy looks didn’t work on me. But not now.
Still shaken and confused, I bent down to pick up the spectacles and placed them gingerly on the table before me. There are some, I know, who would believe that I’d been the unfortunate victim of some unpleasant but entirely explicable optical illusions, mere tricks of the light, distortions of perspective, artificially induced tunnel vision — the kinds of disorientation not uncommon when trying on someone else’s glasses.
But I was convinced that what I’d witnessed was as real as the table on which my hand was now resting. This other dimension — for I could find no other word for it — might be invisible to mortal eyes but it was most assuredly there, hovering just below the surface. And some extraordinary being had fashioned the tools that could usher me in — these spectacles.
I knew I would have to return them. I had no appetite for the kinds of journeys they would have me take. But not yet.
They had shown me the terrifying realms that lay beneath the veneer of everyday life. But hadn’t they also revealed to me the innate beauty that lay beneath my own bland, pedestrian appearance? I had had only a fleeting vision of that loveliness seen through my reflection in the café window. Before I relinquished the spectacles, I wanted to inscribe every detail of it on my memory.
I picked up the spectacles from the table with great care and walked purposefully towards the sign that said ‘Ladies.’ As in so many of these old cafés, I was obliged to make my way along a long, narrow, ill-lit passage, past drums of oil, crates of empty bottles and a motley collection of mops, brooms and buckets.
A door stood open at the end and within was a tiny room into which a hand-basin, mirror and toilet had been crammed. It was to the mirror that I now turned. It was a tawdry thing hanging from a nail on the peeling wall but its oval shape framed my face to perfection. The room was so cramped that I found myself almost nose to nose with my own reflection.
I saw at once that the café window had lied. I was not beautiful.
This was, indeed, the face of Charlotte Stanton, but divested of all that made it commonplace. The same eyes danced a different, more sublime, shade of blue behind those spectacles. The same lips, nose and cheekbones were now disposed to reveal their natural grace and sensuality. I was mesmerised by my own image. This was not mere beauty — it was utter resplendence.
Meeting my own gaze in the mirror, I read the quiet triumph there and began to trace the wondrous outline of my face on the glass, my index finger lovingly lingering over the faultless line of the chin, the elegant curve of the ear, the smooth arc of the forehead, and finally coming to rest between the perfect symmetry of the eyebrows — the place the mystics call the third eye, the site of true insight.
It was then that I felt the tug — something gently pulling on my finger from behind the glass. My first reaction was to laugh, for nothing, I felt, could mar the happiness I was feeling at that moment. I heard a strange, mocking sound — the echo of my own laughter — and found myself gazing again into the lovely eyes before me.
A cold hand closed over my heart. Something had changed. The eyes that now looked out at me were sly and repellent, the very same eyes that had lain in wait for me at the bottom of my coffee cup.
Panic makes fools of us all. This was the moment I should have flung the spectacles from my face and fled. But I had first to wrest my finger from the glass where it had somehow lodged itself in the body of the mirror. I struggled desperately to set it free, but it refused to budge, gripped by some powerful force from within. All the while the eyes continued their hideous, triumphant stare.
I did something then I was to regret for years to come. Hoping to release my finger with the pressure of my free hand, I flattened my open palm against the mirror and, in so doing, obliterated my own reflection. There was a bone-chilling moan as my hand met something soft and viscous where the glass should be. I had done harm.
For a moment I allowed myself to believe that I’d dealt the benighted thing a death blow, but I had underestimated its power, for neither hand was free now. Before my eyes the mirror was melting into a churning black pool into which I now felt both of my arms being violently pulled.
It was useless to resist, for whatever had hold of me was weightless, limbless, impossible to grasp. I was wrestling with wildly thrashing currents of air, being drawn irresistibly into a deep vacuum from which I knew there would be no escape.
I only learned afterwards that I had been sobbing throughout the whole ordeal. Well, wailing is a more apt description, if Travis, my gallant waiter, is to be believed. It was the wailing that alerted him to my presence at the end of that long, dark passage. He ran down its length, knocking over two drums of oil, a crate of empty bottles and an old tin bucket in the process.
What had possessed me to lock the door I don't know, but from where he stood behind it, Travis was convinced there was a murder in progress as, in fact, there was. He hammered on the flimsy door so forcefully that his fist flew through it, knocking me sideways and sending the spectacles hurtling onto the concrete floor.
And then everything came to a stop. It was as though the universe had paused to draw breath. Even Travis, standing by the now open door, did not move, as though something nameless held him back.
As the seconds passed, my eyes adjusted to the improbable calm around me. The cheap and cheerful mirror swaying slightly on its nail reflected a face altogether unremarkable. Looking down at my hands, I saw no evidence of the frenzied struggle I had just survived.
It was Travis who broke the silence. “Simon’s been looking everywhere for these,” he said, bending down to pick up the spectacles at my feet.
He gave me a rueful look. “They didn’t suit you, anyway.”
“No,” I conceded, with a deep sigh. I didn’t resist when he placed one strong arm around my shoulders and led me back along the passage. By the time we had picked our way through the empty bottles and upturned drums obstructing our way, the café was closing up.
There was a tall, shadowy man standing by the entrance.
“There you are, Simon,” Travis addressed him briskly. “I think you were looking for these.”
The man slipped the spectacles swiftly into his jacket pocket, looked furtively from left to right and turned to leave.
“Take a little more care next time, Simon.” And with that Travis closed the door behind him.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Smythe