‘Um, excuse me,’ he said quietly.
She stopped, surprised, and turned to him. He had assumed from her clothing, a heavy woollen coat almost sweeping the ground and a headscarf tucked in around her neck, that she was an older woman; but her face was much, much younger than he had thought, maybe even younger than himself. She was, he thought, beautiful.
‘Yes?’ she said, looking directly at him, a blank look in her eyes
He was flustered now. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘it’s nothing,’ and he went to turn away. She caught his elbow as he did so.
‘What?’ she asked him, a look of concern on her face now, her head cocked slightly to one side as though suddenly needing an answer.
‘I...’ he started, but he could’t say it, wanted instead to escape.
One hand still on his elbow, gripping tight. ‘You wanted to say something to me.’
He lowered his face, looking at the ground. ‘Yes.’
‘You must tell me.’
People passed them on the pavement, unaware of the drama that Peter was experiencing. ‘Um,’ he said, and that was all he could admit to.
She shook his elbow slightly, as though insisting that he do as she wanted.
‘You saw what?’
He had gone that far. Surely he could continue? ‘You took it.’
She sighed loudly and let her hands fall, her head to lower. ‘Oh.’ she said. She seemed to be thinking for a moment. Then: ‘What are you going to do about it?’
If only she had been an old woman, he thought. If only she had been ugly and bent with age, so that he could have simply said that he had seen her and that would be the end of it, a warning, so that she would steal no more, and he could feel honourable and good, having helped mend her ways. He might even have given her a tenner, to reduce her need.
But she was young and beautiful and clearly intelligent. It wasn’t the same. What would he do now?
Peter was a good man, a responsible man, a man who believed that there was right and that there was wrong, that there was black and there was white. He was on the side of truth, of goodness.
He should take her back into the shop and make her admit her theft, and leave it to the manager to deal with her. That was the right way.
He looked at her, her clear eyes, her perfect, glowing skin, her lips slightly parted, her high cheekbones, a soft wave of black hair slipping from the confines of the scarf, and he knew that he didn’t want to do the right thing. ‘I don’t know,’ he told her.
She hesitated, then drew her head up. ‘Come with me,’ she told him, and returned to the shop. Peter followed.
It was a small supermarket. A short queue of customers waited at the three checkouts, and she joined them. Peter followed, embarrassed and anxious. What would she do?
When it was her turn she took the small, tightly-wrapped joint of beef from her pocket and put it on the register. ‘I’m sorry,’ she told the assistant. ‘I forgot this as I went through just now.’ The assistant looked at her oddly, and bent and pressed a button under the bench. A bell rang loudly some distance away. She stood tense, and Peter, behind her, was no less tense.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked the assistant.
She continued staring at the woman before her. ‘I’ve called the manager,’ she said.
‘She tried to steal this meat.’
Peter thought desperately. This was all his fault. ‘No she didn’t. I slipped it into her pocket, and forgot to tell her. It wasn’t until we got outside…’
The woman turned to him and smiled. ‘Don’t,’ she said, and put her hand on his.
The manager, a very young man, stood beside the assistant. He looked at them both. ‘Well?’
‘I forgot I had this, and returned to the store to pay for it.’
‘She was going to steal it,’ the assistant insisted.
The young manager’s eyes moved from one of them to the other. ‘Well, she’s here now. Take her money.’
The assistant tossed her head and gave a slight snort. She scanned the package of meat and held out her hand. ‘Eighteen dollars twenty,’ she demanded.
Peter relaxed. It was going to be okay.
The woman opened her wallet. After a moment she said ‘I’m afraid I don’t have that much.’
The assistant turned to the manager in triumph. ‘See?’ she seemed to be saying.
Peter took his wallet from his pocket. ‘No, that’s okay. I’ll get it,’ and he handed over a fifty dollar note. The assistant took his money and rummaged in the till for the correct change.
Outside in the sun, he apologised. ‘That was all my fault,’ he said. I’m sorry.’
She sighed, and it sounded to Peter as though she did a lot of sighing. ‘No,’ she said, ‘you were right. I stole the meat.’
‘Do you mean why did I steal?’
‘It’s a long story.’
She looked at him, then turned away. ‘I have to get home,’ she said, and started walking.
He watched her, bewildered, then hurried after her. ‘No,’ he said, ‘listen. I want to help.’
She stopped and turned to him, scepticism in her eyes. ‘How do you think you can help?’
‘I want to understand.’
She turned and started walking again. He fell in beside her. ‘Please?’
Another of those deep, hopeless sighs. ‘You’d never understand.’
‘Are you married?’
A pause. Then: ‘Is that why you stole?’
Another sigh, as though all this was a waste of her breath. ‘Yes,’ she said in an exasperated tone. ‘I stole to feed my children.’
‘But your husband…’
‘Can’t feed the children. Won’t, I should say.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I told you you wouldn’t.’
They were passing a café with tables on the footpath. Het took her arm. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I really want to know. Please. Please sit and I’ll get coffee.’
She could see he wasn’t going to let it rest, so with another of her long sighs, she sat, resting the shopping bag on the ground beside her. He sat opposite her until a waiter came and took his order. ‘Do you want something to eat?’ he asked.
She shook her head.
‘Do you have to wear that scarf?’
‘The scarf. Are you a muslim or something?’
She looked bemused. ‘Do I look like a muslim?’
‘Well, yes. Perhaps.’
‘I’m not,’ she said, and un-knotted the scarf at her throat. Her hair was shoulder-length and gleaming black, very wavy. Luxurious, Peter thought.
The coffee came, and she sipped it.
‘Tell me,’ Peter said.
‘There’s nothing to tell.’
‘Why did you steal?’
‘Perhaps I’m just a thief?’
He looked at her and hoped that she was lying. ‘I don’t want to believe that.’
She dropped her head. ‘We’re broke,’ she said. ‘Broke and in debt.’
‘How? And how much?’
‘Coke. And more than you could imagine.’
He stared at her. She didn’t seem the type. ‘You mean drugs? Cocaine?’
‘Amongst other things.’
He head snapped up. ‘I don’t look the type? Is that what you were going to say? What type is that? What, a lawyer? A banker? A stockbroker?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Yes, I didn’t think you would know. Yeah, I’m the type alright. But it’s not me, it’s my husband. It’s Max.’ And she started to cry, her head shaking a little as she sobbed.
He could think of nothing to say. He reached across the table and put his hand on hers, but she pulled it away with a jerk as though electrified. She glared at him. ‘Look, I know you think you did me a good turn back there… well, you did, I can’t argue with that. But nothing you can do will help. Just piss off and do your do-gooding somewhere else, okay?’
He didn’t move. This was a bloody sight more serious than he could ever have imagined.
She looked at him again. ‘Go on, piss off.’
‘Can’t you leave him and start again?’
She stared at him. ‘Leave him? I love him.’
‘Oh.’ He was out of his depth, and he knew it. He shrank back.
She clearly despised him. She leaned forward across the table. ‘D’you know what our latest plan is?’ she hissed. ‘I’m going to have to go on the game, and the bloke we owe the money to is going to be my pimp. This’ll go on until we pay off what Max owes him. Years.’ She sat back, satisfied that she had shocked him, sure now that he would, at last, piss off and leave her alone. But saying it, too, had shocked herself, and the realisation that she had no options, and no hope, finally burst upon her. She was beyond sobbing now, sat back with tears rolling down her beautiful face.
He was silent for a while, watching her. When she seemed to have calmed a little, he asked ‘What’s your name?’
She turned to him slowly, and a hardness stiffened her face. ‘Why d’you want to know? Want to be first, do you, before I get too fucked up?’
He didn’t answer her. He took a card from his wallet and wrote his mobile number on the back. He put it beside her on the table. ‘If you ever change your mind and think I can help after all, ring me, eh?’
She got to her feet, bent to pick up her shopping bag and walked away.