The coat had been hanging there in the window for over a week now. He couldn’t walk by without stopping and staring enviously at it.
It was made of a thick, warm Harris Tweed, the colour of rich amber, the lining was a shimmering two‐tone silk, held up to the light it appeared red, but hanging in the window it was a more subtle bronze.
By Wednesday of that week, Charles had worked himself up into quite a frenzy over the coat. His best friend Louisa had met him for lunch on Tuesday in town and she had declared it most swanky. (It was all very platonic with them, though Charles didn’t want to rule it out quite yet. Built like a ‘50s matinee idol, curvaceous in all the right ways, she favoured the wiggle skirt and twinset combination that seemed to be so ‘in’ right now. No, he had not ruled it out...)
The moment he slipped the coat on over his black suit he knew he had to have it. He’d always considered himself a devilishly attractive young man, but it seemed to bring out his tall, dark and handsome colouring even more. He told the assistant he would wear it home.
On the walk back down Rochester High Street the sky suddenly became very overcast, glowering even. Charles developed the most raging thirst. He wondered if Louisa was free. But then he remembered she had her Italian class tonight.
He noticed a little wrought iron gate with a sign above that he couldn’t remember seeing before. Above it a black sign with slightly glowing writing, red, was it? The sign said Shades Bar – but the ‘S’ was not lit as brightly in the glow. Maybe that was just his eyes, it was dusk and the light was fading.
As soon as he stepped through the door he knew this was his kind of place. A warm glow from a massive open fireplace filled the room, there were round tables with spotless white cloths on them, red velvet curtains providing privacy for a series of booths. Louisa would love this, thought Charles, he’d have to text her as soon as he sat down.
Charles took a seat at the bar as he sipped his perfect martini. He got out his mobile to text Louisa but he had no signal.
‘Can I take your coat, sir?’ A glamorous black woman wearing a sailor‐suit was standing beside him. ‘It gets awfully hot in here later,’ she smiled. Charles noticed that she had perfect white teeth, slightly pointed incisors, against her blood red lipstick.
‘Sure, thanks.’ He handed her his coat and she gave him a little ticket in exchange, disappearing off with his new coat.
She was right, it did get awfully hot, awfully quickly, or maybe it was the four martinis. He looked at his watch and saw it was later than he’d thought. He’d go outside and text Louisa. But first he’d get his coat, it was going to be chilly out there after the really quite stifling heat down here.
He looked for the coat‐check girl but he couldn’t see her anywhere. He asked the bar‐man.
‘No, we don’t have a cloakroom.’
Sure enough, people’s coats were hanging over the back of the chairs. In his martini‐fuddled brain, Charles began to see what had happened; the girl had been round the room, looking for the most expensive coat and when she saw his beautiful new coat, she recognised the hand‐stitching and had stolen it. Charles hit his head in anger. What an idiot.
He shivered as he stood outside by the gate. The sign definitely needed an electrician. The S was hardly visible at all.
Charles got his phone out of his inside jacket pocket, as he did so, he noticed the ticket the girl had given him. It was more like a business card with an address on it.
He called Louisa from the taxi as he was driven to the address.
‘Charles, don’t be mad, you don’t know what you’re walking into.’
But they were pulling up at the door and Charles felt he had come too far to lose the coat now.
‘I’ll call you as soon as I get my coat.’
‘... Please be careful. I don’t know what I’d do if... Just be careful, ok?’
Charles stood outside the big black door with a door knocker shaped like a grinning satyr’s head. The fake coat‐check girl answered the door before he had a chance to knock.
‘Look, I’m willing not to call the police, I just want my coat back.’
‘That coat was erroneously sold. It was made for, and is, the property of my master. However, he realises that you have become, understandably, attached to it, so he is willing to discuss the matter with you.’
Charles’ booze‐addled brain was telling him this was a mistake, but how often does anyone listen to their booze‐addled brain? He followed the beautiful woman in the sailor‐suit into the dark hallway. It was like they walked for about half an hour, which didn’t quite seem right. The gas lights flickered and it was unbearably hot. Too many martinis and the stifling heat were making Charles feel quite giddy. Finally they reached a door.
The room was even darker, lit only by the flickering glow from a small fire. A short man, dressed in a coal‐black suit, with the air of James Mason about him, turned towards Charles, the firelight seemed to flicker in his eyes.
Charles felt his head begin to spin and suddenly he felt very, very giddy. He reached for an armchair and sat down with a plop.
Even years later, Charles could not be sure that the next thing happened, the man seemed to be talking to him but Charles would swear that he didn’t see his lips move.
‘It is a regrettable situation we find ourselves in. You purchased the coat in good faith but it was made for me. I am not as difficult a man as people would have you believe. I wonder if there is a compromise here to be made. How old are you Charles?’
Charles stammered... ‘28’.
The little man looked into a ledger he had on a table. He leafed through it.
‘Mmm... congratulations, you keep yourself healthy. We’re not due to meet for 50 years, more if you give up smoking... so, I am prepared to loan you the coat.’
The martinis and the heavy heat in the room had made Charles bold.
‘That’s not fair! How can you say you’re going to loan it to me? It’s mine in the first place!’
The man looked at him and his eyes were once again the colour of the flickering flames in the fire. Charles found himself go icy cold as sweat poured down his body. He was going to be sick. He sat back down.
The man’s eyes glinted, as if something occurred to him, ‘Sometimes I encounter certain outstanding individuals, and they are able to, shall we say, impress me very much. I am not as I say, a difficult man. When I come across such a person I am willing to bend the rules. Sign this and you can have the coat on permanent loan. Do you understand me Charles?’
Charles did not really understand what the man was saying, but sure, he thought, he had always thought of himself as outstanding and he loved that coat with its glistening red lining. He nodded.
Charles found the contract in front of him, a long scroll with ornate lettering. He found a pen in his hand. The man approached him with a small dagger glinting in his hand. Charles pulled back.
‘I would send it to your i-phone, but we have to do these things the old fashioned way I’m afraid.’
The bloody signature glistened in the light of the fire. Charles picked up the coat and looked back at the man holding the contract in his hand, smiling a satisfied smile. As Charles was leaving the house, a taxi pulled up, Louisa got out, dressed up to the nines.
Charles held his arms out in relief... but she ignored him, her eyes intently staring at the big black door with its grinning satyr.
In a trance, Louisa went up to the door which was opened before she had the opportunity to knock. The little dark man stood there. Charles tried to follow her up the steps. But at the bottom it was as if an invisible wall had formed.
The little man looked at him and shook his head. Louisa entered and didn’t look back once. Charles tried again and again to follow her up the steps, but all to no avail. The man was looking at him, disinterestedly. And as he closed the door after her, Charles heard that voice again in his head: ‘...a certain outstanding individual whose soul was always yours to sign away though you may not have known it.’
And then Louisa’s voice in his head: Louisa's beautiful, soft voice, that he would never hear again, no matter how many times he returned to the house with the big black door, no matter how many times he tried to find the bar with the ‘S’ missing, a soft voice that he would remember all his life,
‘I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.’