By Anna Mae Kaine
‘Trifles light as air are, to the jealous,
Confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ’
– ‘Othello’ (William Shakespeare)
The rain was thrashing down in Melbourne but Tom Robbins was safely inside a café drinking a steaming cappuccino. Absent-mindedly, he watched the fat droplets snaking down the window outside. His face creased with a smug smile: he was indoors warming by the radiator, whilst beyond the glass, grey blurs darted about, jumping puddles and clutching wilted newspapers over their heads. The storm had come on suddenly, as they so often did in the city, and Tom noticed it was getting darker by the minute.
The lazy jazz playing in the café set a deliberately urbane tone and everything from the hum of the coffee machine to the fizz of lively conversation seemed to immerse the cramped little café in warmth and light. Tom bathed in the luxury of it all, thinking of where he should be at that moment.
That morning, Tom had dressed in his normal suit and as usual had caught the 8:01 train to Flinders Street station. He’d made a quick call to the office on his mobile, using the best sick-voice he could muster; it was surprisingly good. He hadn’t pulled a ‘sicky’ in all his eight years at the Bingham and Lester firm so if anyone had a problem with it today, or tomorrow for that matter (when he would also be “ill”), they could stuff it. He checked his pocket once again and reassuringly felt the oblong outline of his passport.
Before hauling his new suitcase down the station steps, he had purchased a bouquet of burgundy peonies, the colour of blood, from the florist at the mouth of the station. Feeling that heady mix of freedom and rebellion at being out of the usual routine, he had generously tipped the florist and dashed out into the rain without a hood or umbrella. It took him a good ten paces across the street to even realise he was getting soaked to the skin, not that he cared in the least.
Instead of merging into the regular throng of dark suits marching towards Collins Street, he quickly vanished down a side alley. He had a strange, liberating feeling that he could do anything; he could climb the Eureka Tower if someone asked him to. He hadn’t felt this free in years. He knew the sneaking, the lying, the deceit should feel wrong. He knew he should be getting those familiar pangs of guilt and self-loathing that had been ever-present for the past four years. But suddenly the self-disgust was melting, washing away like rain-water down the gutter. This finally felt right.
Resisting the urge to order a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, he’d settled for a more modest cappuccino at a cramped little place down Degraves Street, the tiny lane opposite the station. This row was second-to-none for hip Melbournians to satisfy their lust for caffeine, cake and, when necessary, concealment. Ancient, smudgy signs glowed wearily over the shop fronts and vast umbrellas lined the pavement like great fabric vultures, craning over the customers. This was why Tom had chosen it for their meeting place.
He stowed his suitcase in the corner behind his stool and deliberately positioned the peonies on the table for her to see as soon as she walked in. He cradled the cup in his palms to thaw his fingers. Each time a new customer entered the café and the bell sounded its tinkling laugh, he spun around to see if it was her. He checked his watch again: ten-fifteen. He downed the dregs of his coffee. Another customer came in, stamping and spluttering rain-water. Another watch check. Another coffee ordered. His euphoria was rapidly turning to anxiety, like burnt bark crumbling to ash. She was late. He decided to try her mobile. No answer. He tried again. Voicemail.
He had just dropped a handful of change into the barista’s tip cup and was dithering at the counter, eyeing the desserts, when something made him turn around. And there she stood.
“Tom darling, I thought it was you!”
She strode towards him, shaking rain-water from her umbrella and obliviously scattering customers with droplets as she passed them. An elderly man angrily turned around to confront her but after seeing her swollen belly he turned back to his own discussion. Tom simply stood there, rooted to the spot, speechless. She didn’t seem to notice she was hugging a statue but then she hadn’t noticed Tom’s stoniness, or indeed much else about him, for a very long time.
“I saw you through the window and was sure it was you! Then I saw you ogling that trifle and I knew it must be you, what are you doing out of the office at this time?”
An answer; he needed an answer. Quickly. But all he could do was gawp at her, his mouth slightly open. She beamed back at him, unaware of his inner turmoil.
“I was…just getting some coffee for…”
“I suppose you’re on a morning break, you lucky thing. I remember those days,” she laughed, rubbing her belly tellingly, “I used to escape the office any chance I got; we used to meet up for a sneaky rendez-vous some mornings, do you remember? One tea,” She ordered over his shoulder, “and two portions of the trifle, please,” she added gleefully to the barista.
“Leonie, I can’t…”
“Fine. Just one portion. But two spoons, please.”
Reluctantly, he ushered his wife over to his corner seat where, just five minutes before, he had been enjoying his new-found freedom. He returned to his stool trapped, a prisoner once again.
“What are you doing here?” He croaked finally. He was half looking at her but his eyes kept drifting out to the street again.
“Just shopping, a few things for the baby. It’s not all that strange that we’ve met, Tom!” She looked at him quizzically, “It’s easy to bump into people in the city. It’s just coincidence.”
His leg was twitching with nervous energy. She rested her hand soothingly on his knee and it stopped.
“I thought you were meeting your mum this morning at the Emporium,” he continued.
“I am; I’m meeting her for lunch at 1. My feet were starting to hurt so I thought I’d stop for a break before I caught the tram. It’s not light work you know, this pregnancy lark!”
“I know, Leonie, you’ve made me perfectly aware of that for the last nine months.”
His wife looked a little taken aback, her expression wounded. He hated that wide-eyed façade, the way she always played the victim if he snapped.
They sat in silence, Tom simmering, seething, panicking, his mind racing 100 kilometres an hour. What should he do? What could he do? Any minute now…
The barista brought Leonie’s tea over and carefully positioned the trifle on the table between them. Two spoons. Leonie quietly sipped at her drink then seized one of the spoons and dug in. A blot of cream clung precariously to her upper lip as she beamed at him, her eyes closed in ecstasy. God, he couldn’t stand her.
The bell tinkled again and a woman with a shock of short blonde hair tottered into the room in stiletto boots. She lugged behind her a heavy-looking suitcase the handle of which she leant on, catching her breath, as she peered around the café. The barista caught her eye and gestured to the coffee machine. She declined and her gaze fell on Tom. Then it fell on Leonie. Then her eyes turned back to Tom, then to the barista.
“Sorry, wrong café,” the woman mumbled before clattering out as swiftly as she had entered. The barista shrugged and got back to heating a jug of milk.
Leonie, who had briefly turned to look at the woman, swivelled back to Tom, smiled sweetly and shovelled another spoonful of trifle into her mouth. She tried to tempt him with a dollop off her spoon but he stubbornly shook his head. Before long, the bowl was empty; Tom’s spoon sat idly on his napkin, unused. He felt sick and his eyes wouldn’t meet his wife’s.
“Shall we go then?” Leonie announced after a short while, “I’ll walk you back to your office.”
Tom didn’t have the will to resist her. It was all over now anyway. He left some notes on the table and slowly rose to his feet, neatly shuffling his stool under the table.
“That isn’t your case there, is it?” Leonie asked nonchalantly, nodding at Tom’s new luggage. Tom glanced at the barista and he knew.
“No, that was there when I arrived,” Tom replied, flatly, “Someone must have left it here.”
Tom held Leonie’s coat for her and she shrugged it on, fastening the belt over her protruding bump. The rain was starting to ease off as they departed the warmth of the café.
As they passed the front window, Leonie took one last glance inside.
“Don’t forget your flowers, Tom. Peonies are my favourite.”