All Stories, General Fiction

Forked Tongue by James McEwan


My expectations and excitement were dampened by the cold coffee and replaced by a creeping realisation of an inevitable disappointment. I kept glancing around as people rushed along the pavement, but it was late – she wasn’t coming. We agreed to meet at the Café at half past six and in my jacket pocket I had an envelope with five hundred Euros in fifties, which I promised for the final payment for her painting. A piece of art that I found hypnotic, it was a scene depicting a battle of female sexuality and a vision of erotic conjecture. I couldn’t help myself, I had to have it. Last night, I paid her a deposit of three hundred Euros.

The waitress looked up at me from where she was clearing the opposite table, her smile was a pleasant distraction from my fidgeting with a napkin. I gave a brief nod in acknowledgement.

She came across with her tray. ‘Noch einen Kaffee?’ she said, and collected up the four empty cups.

‘No thanks,’ I said and folded the napkin. ‘Could I have a Becks instead.’

‘Of course, ein Bier.’ She took my napkin and wiped the table. ‘Ich komme gleich wieder.’she said and left.

I sipped the cool beer and sat back, accepting that I had been conned out of buying a painting and all because of my inept skill at bargaining in the presence of a professional. I laughed out loud. A waiter looked up from the bar and stared for a moment.

Was it really possible that the three hundred Euros was only for the cost of her company, a charming temptress who magically lured me into her bed? Although, I admit, I was willingly manipulated while in a hazy trance of heightened, lustful desires. Yet, all the time I was transfixed on the idea of owning a unique piece of art and was oblivious to her slick manoeuvring. Should I have been flattered? She was a beautiful woman, and I was so easily blinded by her soft sultry eyes.

I ordered another beer.

I had been in Berlin for a week and yesterday I took the opportunity to relax by having a coffee in this open-air café on the Ku-dam. I stirred my latte macchiato and absorbed the atmosphere of the street bustle while enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. I watched as a violinist in 17th century period custom, complete with a chalked wig, meandered around the tables playing the tune to Three Blind Mice. His performance was entertaining a group of elderly ladies who were clapping along, and oblivious to the yellow petals from the linden tree drifting down onto the frothy cream in their cups and into their schnapps glasses on the table.

‘Ist heir noch ein Platz frei?’ A woman stood at my table shading her face from the sunlight.

‘No. Please. Bitte sitzen Sie,’ I blurted out startled, as she had approached me from behind. ‘Bitte.’

Moving around the table, she pulled out a chair. She remained standing and waved for a waiter before she sat down in the shade.

A waitress, in a starched white blouse with ‘Café Kempinski’ embroidered in gold letters on her chest pocket, came and took her order.

I watched as the woman rummaged in her handbag and then placed it on the ground by her feet, she looked up at me. I looked away.

‘Are you English?’ she said and sat back in her chair.

‘No I’m…’ I sat up from my slouch. “No I’m from Scotland.’ I noted her olive complexion, firm cheeks, straight nose and black hair held back in a ponytail.

‘Scotland!’ she shouted, ‘Schotte!’ she leaned forward on the table and lowered her voice. ‘You know, we Berliners know about your reputation of tight money and whiskey.’ She laughed. ‘We say in German, die Schotten sind geizig mit ihrem Geld.’

‘It’s not true.’ I chuckled. ‘Don’t believe that, we aren’t all so tight with our money.’ I watched as she narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips, then shrugged and gave a slight nod.

‘We Berliners think it is true,’ she stated.

The waitress delivered her order of a slice of apple torte topped with a peak of thick cream, a glass of corn schnapps and an expresso coffee with an amaretto biscuit.

The woman picked up the fork and leaned forward to eat, and as the top of her mauve silk blouse opened forward I stared at her semi-exposed cleavage. There appeared to be a tattoo running above the top of her right breast and under the lilac brassiere.

‘Do you like apple torte?’

‘Are you from Berlin?’ I looked up into her face and saw she was grinning. I was flustered at being caught staring. ‘It’s just that I would guess, you were perhaps Italian.’


‘Your olive complexion and black hair, maybe Mediterranean.’ I reached for my latte macchiato to avoid direct eye contact. ‘But…your hair is nice…it’s lovely.’ I looked back placing my cup on the table.

‘Thank you.’ She puckered a small kiss towards me and smiled.

‘I always thought most German women…’ I said, and looking across at the group of elderly ladies, ‘Have blond hair – ‘

‘And big bosoms,’ she interrupted. ‘All you Englishmen think the same.’ She smirked.


‘Oh yes, Schotte. No, I am from Berlin.’ With her napkin, she wiped some crumbs sticking to her glossed lips. ‘My family is descendant from the Huguenots of France. We speak French, German and some Russian. My sister is married to a Greek man who was born in Berlin. I also have an uncle, who lives in the Ukraine.’

‘And your English is excellent.’

‘Are you a tourist?’ She lifted her schnapps glass to her mouth.

‘No, I’ve been here a week, ready to start a new job.’

She moved her chair sideways towards the sun shining through the branches of the tree and reached over to pick up her expresso. She leaned back, and pulled on her skirt to expose her bare legs to the sunshine. I saw a tattoo spiral around her upper thigh and reach under her lingerie. I looked away and was then jolted by a sudden screech.

The violinist stood behind me and had started to play the tune to “That’s Amore”. In unison the group of elderly ladies erupted singing, “When the moon…hits your eye… like a big…pizza pie…that’s amore.”

I scrambled some coins out of my pocket and pushed them into the violinist’s leather cup on his belt. I waved him away. Groans came from the ladies, followed by a few tut tuts and they shook their heads towards me.

‘Das is aber Schade!’ I heard someone say. ‘Sie sind scheone Liebespaare.’ The group all nodded together, they called to the violinist to come over and they reached for more schnapps.

‘German ladies love romance.’ The woman at my table said, and sat forward to look directly at me. ‘Do you have someone special?’

‘No, not like that…’ I said. ‘I just –.’

‘Can I ask, what is your job?’ she interrupted me.

‘It’s a post in the Chamber of Commerce, developing German and British relationships.’

‘But today you sit in a café watching people.’ She grinned and nodded. ‘You are learning the Berlin way fast.’ She called across to a waiter for her bill. ‘I must go. Enjoy your stay in our city.”

‘Thank you.’ I stood up. ‘Ah yes, I need to go as well. I want to buy some pictures for my flat.’

‘Do you need a painting?’ She placed her hand on my arm. ‘Come with me. I will take you to a wonderful gallery. Come it is only over the street.’


We entered the Galleria Brusberg where a young blond woman, in black trousers and shirt wearing a white bow tie, handed us each a flute of Champagne. In the hall was a poster supported on an easel, which simply stated; “Austellung von Marie Heldegard”. The polished oak floor reflected images of the paintings hanging around on the white walls.  Along the top of one wall a quotation was painted in large black letters. The artist is a provocateur. If you want to express yourself, you must present something tangible. Joseph Beuys.

A group of men in jackets and ties, and some women in cocktail dresses gestured towards us. The woman with me waved back.

‘Look around, you may find something,’ she said to me and indicated with her glass towards the paintings. ‘Please you must excuse me, I am wanted.’

I sauntered around casually examining the vibrant oil paintings, most of them were of nude figures wrestling or else in a repose taking in the sun and bathing by a river.

At the rear of the gallery was one depicting a figure in a tussle with a snake, which was half-coiled around her naked body. I felt a sudden ripple of shock at the closeness of the illuminated central scene framed by a dark background merging away into the shadows. The girl lay on her back with her hips raised and she held the end tip of the snake’s tail above the pubic hair around her pelvis. The reptile was coiled around her thigh and its body of green, yellow and black scales in a diamond pattern was wrapped further around her waist. Its large head was held back by the girl gripping the boa around the neck with her right hand. The creature appeared to be in pain, its jaws were open exposing the pin like fangs, and its black forked tongue flicked towards the girl’s right breast.

I shuddered at the sight of the snake’s bulging eyes, which stared directly at me with a devilish menace. My shirt became damp under my armpits and felt cold. My heart was racing. I wanted to shout something to help the girl, but my mouth was dry. I took a drink and choked on the champagne as if the snake was constricting my throat, tighter and tighter. My breathing became rapid and erratic and my stomach was knotted by an irrational panic. I was being emotionally pulled into the painting. The girl’s mouth was partially open, her lips moist, face flushed, hair thrown back, and her eyes half open towards me as if beckoning for a kiss. I lifted my hand up to touch her cheek. I was mesmerized and my mind switched the scene back and forth. Was the snake trying to escape? Was the girl really in danger of being crushed or was it an object of her sexual fantasy?

A shadow slid across the painting and the black tongue seemed to flick upwards, the girl smiled -.

‘If you like it, buy it.’ A warm breath whispered in my ear.

My whole body involuntarily jumped and I shook, spilling my drink over my shoes.

‘Sorry,’ said the woman who had brought me into gallery.

I stepped back and took a long hard breath. ‘It’s my fault, I didn’t hear you coming.’

‘Well you must like the painting.’ She wiped at my shirt with a napkin. ‘You have been fixed on it for nearly thirty minutes.’ She pushed the napkin into my empty glass. ‘My friends were watching you.’

I read out the information card on the wall, ‘Adam and Eve, the Corruption of Man. – Three thousand five hundred euros. Whoa!’

‘Too much?’ she smiled. ‘Why not make an offer?’ Then she mumbled. ‘Typisch Schotte.’

‘It’s fantastic, is there a religious theme?’

‘Depends…Are you religious?’

‘I don’t see Adam.’ I pointed to the painting.

‘You only see what you believe.’ She turned and looked into my eyes. ‘What do you think you see?’

‘Are you suggesting the snake is Adam?’

She touched the end of my nose with a finger and took hold of my hand. I felt a release of tension as she bumped against me with a friendly familiarity.

‘Pity, this one is already sold, sorry. Come Schotte,’ she said and linked her arm in mine. ‘Let’s go to my studio, we will find a painting to fit into your tight wallet.’ She walked me towards the door. ‘Tschuss,’ she called to her friends. The young woman in black took the champagne flute from me before we exited the gallery.

She introduced herself as Marie during the walk along the streets, I had no idea where we were in the maze of side lanes and alleyways that she led me along. The most expensive of all her paintings were in the gallery, she told me, and so far on the last day of her exhibition all had been sold. However, she also had a small version of the Adam and Eve in her studio and was convinced I would want to buy it.

We turned into a close and then through to a hallway where an old man was sitting smoking a pipe. He nodded towards Marie and ignored me, but then just shook his head. His aromatic smoke followed our echoing footsteps up the five levels of the dank stairwell.

Marie’s studio was bright with the natural light coming through the windows at the side and from the balcony at the back, which had pots of blue lobelia, lavender and small evergreen shrubs. Picture frames were piled in a corner and through a half opened door into a large room I saw a white crumpled duvet on a bed. The smells of paint and a faint familiarity of percolated coffee lingered in the air of the flat.

‘Here we are,’ Marie said and lifted a picture onto an easel. ‘This is exactly what you want.’

I stared, speechless. In the natural light the illusion of movement from the menacing eyes and forked tongue of the snake gripped my concentration. The girl’s expression of sexual ecstasy was pronounced. I had to have it.

Marie came up close against me, she touched my nose with her finger and I felt her warm breath on my ear like a flick of a tongue. ‘One thousand,’ she whispered, ‘Euros…cash.’ She placed her cheek against mine and held my hand. I kept my attention on the painting, my heart was racing. I had to have it.

‘Would you consider six hundred?’ I felt a rush of blood in my ears.

‘No!’ She let go my hand. ‘Typisch Schotte…Nine hundred.’

‘Six fifty.’ Would she send me away? I breathed in her faint cologne and noticed the markings stretch across her shoulder. ‘Is that a tattoo?’

Marie stepped back.

‘I only have three hundred cash with me.’ I had played my last card, perhaps too early

She removed her blouse and dropped it to the floor. She reached behind and removed her bra. ‘Eight hundred,’ she said and waited. She puckered a kiss and smiled; brazen and beckoning like the girl in the painting.

The yellow slit of snake eyes on her tattoo stared at me from her shoulder and its tongue caressed her right nipple. The tattoo continued on round her back and emerged across her waist.

‘Eight hundred.’ She undid her skirt and let it fall to the floor. The tail of the snake coiled around her left upper thigh and disappeared beneath her lilac panties.

I looked at the painting, I had to have it.

She took my hand and pulled me towards the bedroom door and then stopped. She kissed my cheek and said, ‘Eight.’ She rubbed her fingers over my nose. ‘Leave three hundred deposit and tomorrow you can collect the painting.’

Last night, Marie had called a taxi to take me home, and I had said goodbye in a happy euphoric mood without noting her address or telephone number. She hadn’t offered the information nor did I ask. Certainly, I was conned.

A waitress approached my table. ‘Noch ein Bier?’ She had already brought a fresh bottle and a glass.

‘Yes, why not.’ I passed her the empty one. ‘It’s still early. Es ist nur halb seben,’ Pleased with my German, I grinned.

‘You mean thirty minutes past seven,’ she said. ‘In German we say the half to the hour. So now… es ist halb acht.’

‘Ah! That’s why I missed her.’ I said and the waitress grinned at me nodding. ‘I’ve been waiting for someone.’

‘I know,’ she laughed, ‘You are Malcolm, yes?’

‘Yes.’ I looked up at her. ‘Why?’

She placed a business card against the beer bottle and walked away smiling. It was from Marie Hildegrad. I stared at the telephone number.

James McEwan

Banner Image – Courtesy of


8 thoughts on “Forked Tongue by James McEwan”

    1. Hi Doug, I think you are right, the last sentence is not required. In fact it detracts from the moment of realisation, I think – now that you point out the obvious. Thanks for reading.


  1. A new country and an old tale combined with art, lust, money and booze, made an intoxicating mixture. Loved this one, James!


  2. I really enjoyed this James. It had elements – particularly the slightly gothic feel – that I’ve read in other stories from you but it felt like a departure for you and I think you handled it really well. The sense of place was good in both the cafe and the gallery, the dialogue felt very natural and the sexual tension felt realistic and not overplayed. All in all a very good read – nicely done!


  3. Hi James,
    I enjoyed this and Marie was a wonderful character.
    You gradually built on this and the tension came through as his alone which made the reader change their mind regarding the ending many times over.
    I read the comment regarding the telephone number and yes, I can see what Doug is saying but on the other-hand, staring at a telephone number is something that we have all done and can relate too. It is the eternal moment just before you smile that you savour. (Or cry if she has wrote sod off!!!)
    Great to see you back.


  4. Hi James,
    It is great to see this back up.
    Weird thought came into my head when I read the part about your MC ordering a bottle of Becks.
    I’ve never liked Becks. Someone once told me that you could leave an opened bottle on a warm windowsill for a fortnight and it wouldn’t spoil and that isn’t very natural.
    One of my happiest memories recently was being in the German Pub in Glasgow and drinking a few steins of Fustenberg – Now there’s a beer!!
    All the very best my friend.


  5. I love the playfulness and humour of this story. Love, lust – strewn with the possibility for human misconnection as well as human understanding. You could have ended this bleakly, James – I love that you didn’t! On the other hand suspect your protagonist is well out of his depth…

    Liked by 1 person

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