Head down, she hurried past the window I was painting. There was a day and an age when I would have thought the inclination of her head had something to do with me, but I haven’t been the centre of the universe for quite some time now.
Perhaps it was my preoccupation with Central Europe in the 1930s, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that the woman was seeking refuge. Not that the 1930s had a monopoly on refugees, but that’s a preoccupation for you. If you have one, it taints everything you do or think.
I was about to turn my attention back to the exceedingly well-made window, which I was in the process of painting exceedingly badly, when rapidly approaching footfalls distracted me. Clearly, the woman’s situation was not as precarious as, say, a Jewess’s would have been 80 years previously. She was making her way back to her front door.
“Shall I count how many times you go by?” I asked not unhelpfully.
“I’ve forgotten my backpack.”
“But you need it!”
There was a hint of self-recrimination in her voice which I liked, and she gave off a little laugh that pleased me even more. It showed that she was happy having me – a complete stranger, after all – upbraid her in this way.
“That’s why I’m going back!”
And go back, she did.
A few seconds later, she passed my window again. This time, the straps of a backpack were hugging her shoulders.
“I think so.”
“Well, have a good journey.”
And there it was again: the woman’s little laugh. It showed that she was not only aware of the strange figure she was cutting, but also far removed from anything which could remotely be linked to travel.
And why shouldn’t she be? After all, it’s hardly a categorical imperative that carrying a suitcase equates with going on a journey to rival Marco Polo.
This impression must indeed have been accurate. I saw the woman a few days later. This time, she was walking towards me.
“Got everything?” I asked again.
As she passed me, I was struck by her lack of perfume.
I didn’t turn round to catch her reply. However, her little laugh bounced back and forth in the narrow alley for the rest of the morning. Sometimes, it can be an advantage to forget something.