The rest of the outfit must have cost a year’s ration coupons and twice my annual income. Though twice nothing is nothing I reminded myself. And the suit bore the same relation to an off-the-peg Utility dress as men to apes. It was likely a pre-war ensemble cut short to the knee. Quality lasts. This woman was top drawer. And what was Philip Marlowe wearing? A worn cardigan with elbow patches.
“Mr McRae?” The vowels matched the classy outfit, soft but beautifully shaped. I wanted to hear her say it again.
“Danny McRae. Can I help you?”
“I hope you can, Mr McRae. I hope you can.”
“Take a pew, Miss…?” I waved grandly, as if she had a choice of seating.
“Graveney. Kate Graveney. How do you do.” She lifted a languid hand towards me. I leaned over my fourth-hand typewriter and took it. It was sheathed in white leather so fine you could have sworn it was her own skin. The handshake was short, almost perfunctory, but it left a sensation, as if I’d been stroked. I imagined her bare fingers touching my face.
She sat down, parked her bag in her lap and crossed her legs. I realised how long it had been since I’d heard the sound of real silk sliding on silk. The everyday stuff rasps, like sandpaper on wood. A faint but distinct perfume reached me. I’m no connoisseur, but I know what I like. I liked this smell of warmth and undiluted femininity. It raised an echo in me, then drifted away tantalisingly, like so many memories since I got back.
I shoved the typewriter out of the way so we had clear space between us. I made a play of ripping out the report I’d been typing: another stray husband. I removed the carbon and slid the thin sheaf into my in-tray. My only tray. I straightened my new phone. Its shiny black curves said I’m here for you, you just have to call. It said commitment, I’m here to stay – for as long as I can pay the rent. I was the pro, busy, tidy and ready for business in my model office.
“Now, what can I do for you? It’s a funny time of year and I’m just closing up. Don’t you have better things to do?”
“It is a funny time.” She smiled, and that made the time perfect. “Do you mind?” She was already reaching into the bag and pulling out a silver cigarette case. She took one out and waited. I got the message and dug out my matches. She pulled off her gloves and leaned forward with the cigarette perched between those red lips. There was a ring, but on her right hand. She drew deeply and pursed her mouth and blew the smoke out in a steady stream. It unfurled and floated out of the cone of light, to add to the tidemarks on the ceiling.