“You dropped this, madam.”
Claire turned. A man was holding her umbrella towards her, canopy unfurled, his hand wrapped around the shaft as if he were presenting her with a bouquet of flowers.
A jolt of gratitude shot through her. How many steps had she taken without it? Ten? Twenty? If it had been a flimsy black thing that turned itself inside-out at the first hint of a strong wind, she would have left it on the ground to be trampled underfoot, but no. This umbrella was special.
“This is a beautiful piece of work, madam. May I ask where you got it?”
“My fiancé gave it to me.”
The man’s eyes strayed to Claire’s bare left hand. She flushed. When Claire thought of Martin, it was not the set of his eyebrows or the texture of his skin that she recalled; it was her engagement ring, nestled in his outstretched palm. The ring, a solid carat in a princess cut, had delighted her at first, but as matters between them deteriorated, she began to see it as an emblem of Martin’s essential stolidity. Wearing it made her feel that she was yoked to some dull ruminant beast, and when they were apart she slipped it off. At the climax of their final thunderous fight, she wrenched it from her finger and threw it at him. She knew that there was nothing left between them when his eyes registered neither shock nor outrage, just a kind of weary bemusement. An hour later she put the ring back in its blue velvet box and formally handed it back to him. He accepted it, kissed her on the forehead, and left. Claire supposed that he would have been within his rights to ask for the umbrella back too, but there was no way that she was going to give that up.
Thinking back, Claire marvelled that such an unimaginative man had hit upon a gift like the umbrella. For a month before her twenty-ninth birthday, he had teased her with cryptic clues and enigmatic smiles, until she was as full of anticipation as a seven-year-old who has been promised a pony. When she was finally allowed to liberate her present from its swaddling of wrapping paper and ribbons, she felt a sharp pang of disappointment. An umbrella? It was only when she lifted it and held it to the light that she saw what a finely wrought thing it was. The handle was crafted from teak polished to a lambent shine. When she ran her fingers down it and pressed the button at its base, the canopy opened in a glorious burst of blue, green, white, purple, like a flock of varicolored birds alighting from treetops. As she turned the umbrella, the panels shimmered and shifted; cool moonstone became warm cream, lavender became violet. Martin sidled in next to her. “I thought opening these things in the house was considered bad luck,” he said as he leaned in for a kiss.
Claire learned to identify the thick, moist air that presages rainfall. She learned to love sudden, violent summer storms and sleety autumn days. While those around her huddled miserably in their overcoats, she held her head high, secure under the shelter of the umbrella. Sometimes she stopped in the middle of the street and twirled the handle between her hands. As she looked up, the umbrella’s colored panels transformed themselves into a whirring kaleidoscope. Viewed through them, even the most monochromatic gray sky became a gauzy watercolor.
And now the umbrella was in another’s possession. The man showed no signs of relinquishing it. He was no longer presenting it to her, but had transferred it to his other hand and was holding it stiffly at his side.
“Um … Can I have that back now, please?” Claire tried to hold firm, but she could hear the quaver of entreaty in her voice.
“Well that really depends, madam.”
“Depends on what?”
“On your character, madam. I know that such considerations are considered old-fashioned these days, but they are important, nevertheless. Take the man who gave you this handsome parapluie. Where is he now? Should he not be at your side? You dropped him by the wayside. You scraped him off your shoes like dirt. And you dare to ask for this umbrella back?”
Before Claire had realized it, the man had started walking and she was trotting after him, her legs struggling to match his longer strides. Stealthily, she stretched out her hand to wrench the umbrella from the man’s grasp, but he parried her attempt, delivered a slight shove to her chest, and set off at a loping run.
For a moment, Claire stood still, mouth agape. Then she was after him, at full tilt. Though she was hobbled by her high heels, she covered the ground between them quickly. Soon she was so close that her fingertips brushed his back. It was a narrow back, and Claire threw her entire weight at it, bringing both the man and herself crashing to the ground. Claire straddled him and pummelled him with her fists, chanting, “Give it back! Give it back!”
Before long, Claire realized that the man could not return her umbrella as long as he lay face down in the dirt, her knees pressed into him. She moved off him, giving him a monitory scrape with her fingernails as she did so. “Turn over,” she ordered.
The man obeyed. His eyes were trained on her, the umbrella clutched tightly in his arms. Claire scrutinized him closely for the first time. He was younger than she had expected, perhaps no older than herself. His quaintly formal manner of speaking had fooled her into thinking he was some wizened graybeard. There was something familiar in his open, boyish face, but that was no matter; her only goal was to prise the umbrella away from him. As she leaned in, he reached for her and caught her wrist, pulling her close so that their noses almost met. A barb of recognition pricked the back of her neck. “Martin …,” she whispered.
“Ha! The very same,” the man chortled. He pushed her away and rose to his feet, holding the umbrella aloft. The canopy bellied out, filled by a wind that seemed to have arisen from nowhere. As Claire fought to keep her feet planted on the ground, she saw that Martin had risen a few inches in the air, his legs performing an involuntary jig as he strove to ride the eddies that propelled him upwards. Once he had passed Claire’s shoulder, she called out to him.
“Martin, don’t go!”
“Too late!” Martin hollered as he rose. “You had your chance! Tell me, Claire, which did you love more—me, or the umbrella?”
Claire made a desperate grab for Martin. For a brief, exhilarating moment she found purchase and was propelled upwards, before Martin kicked her off and she fell back to earth with a heavy thud.
Sprawled on her back, Claire watched her former lover’s ascent. Up, up he floated, careening this way and that. Claire was sure that his progress would be halted somehow—he would collide with a building, or become enmeshed in telephone wire—but nothing arrested his trajectory. Soon he would be a black dot on a sun-embossed horizon; he would be lost to her, and the umbrella with him.
Martin was some distance from her now. He was no longer being buffeted back and forth by billowing gusts; he hung suspended in the air. He was too far away for her to make out his face, but she felt, rather than saw, his gaze fixed upon her.
Martin released the umbrella and plummeted. His trip to the ground was swift and sure. The umbrella did not follow him. It meandered in the breeze, as if tugged by an invisible string.
Claire knew what she had to do. Martin was now no more than a greasy lump on the pavement, but the umbrella, ah, the umbrella! It would play among filmy, spun-sugar clouds before making its way back to earth. If she was quick enough, she could find it before it came to rest in a duck pond or became entangled in someone’s washing line.
She began to run.