Water and Bridges.
Slotting his briefcase into the space behind his desk, he unknots his tie and goes to change his shirt. Casual wear. A beer, time for a beer. He looks out the kitchen window and down the street, but no car. Might as well check the mail: not that there ever is anything much, outbox or inbox. Used to be he'd get through a book of stamps in a week; these days, he doesn't even buy the things.
The dog is sprawled by the gate, asleep as usual; can't even be bothered to look up. He pulls a stash of circulars from the mail box: can't they read? Maybe they should put "advertising material" instead of "junk mail." He flips through the circulars: there's a letter. Now, he could easily have missed that ... He frowns. Ruth Gray: handwritten. Calligraphy, that's what they call it ...
It's postmarked Perth. Graham looks up and around and then down at the dog, at the fly crawling over its nose. He realizes the dog is dead.
Too many times, too many times ... Ruth turns the car radio up. Good song: fits, too. Too many times she's driven up and down this highway: Canberra / Sydney, Canberra / Melbourne. Why couldn't their kids have chosen the same city to live in? She flexes her fingers round the steering wheel: stupid question. You go where the jobs are, don't you?
Accident prone, their Sam. Ever since he was little. Those Melbourne bike lanes are a menace, though, motorists simply don't see the cyclists ... still. He's OK. That's the main thing.
Once Graham retires, they should visit more often. See what's on in the city, stay in some hotel/motel; dinner, a show, why not? Then they could drop in, meet his house mates; get him to show them this studio he talks about. Graham could rejoin his old golf club. He's always saying he reckons he could be more competitive.
He says she needs to let go. He tells her their kids have both got jobs, places to live. They're not in and out of Centrelink like some of their friends' kids? They're fine. Maybe she does. But how do you know if they're not fine? Job, house: and? She used to know, they used to call. They hardly ever do now. What d'you expect, says Graham. Got their own lives, haven't they? See them at Christmas, don't we? Birthdays?
Duty calls. She doesn't want duty calls, calls that are just ... perfunctory. Good word. Per--funct--ory: funct as in defunct ...
Her son at the gate of his Brunswick share house: the jut of his adam's apple, the monosyllabic answers, the fly by kiss before he limped back up the path. Fine?
She flexes her fingers and sighs. She's filled out retirement forms as well. Then what is she going to do? What are they going to do? They could join the grey nomads, get out of Canberra, see more of Australia. Except she can't see Graham letting go in a caravan.
Sisters ... are doing it for themselves ... They really are churning out the oldies: goldies as well. Alice's theme song.
Her golden oldie friend. Who still hasn't replied to her last email. Though she did say she was full on at work. Dear Alice: never known her when she wasn't full on.
Ridiculous, really. A week and she's scrolling though her inbox in case she's missed it. What's a week after thirteen years?
Enough to make you believe in Fate, really; Fate with a capital F. Thirteen years; then that one name, out of all those interstate promotions: the more she stared, the more she knew it had to be Alice. Her Alice. She bit her lip; what did she do now? Ignore? Pretend she didn't know? Been there, done that. No: not been there. Not done ... anything much.
Pulling out her mobile, fingers hovering, hesitant: then jab-jab-jab. Eyes closed, waiting ... for the sound of her voice, its throaty warmth, the utter familiarity of it; aware of the ridiculous prickling behind her eyes, tears for God's sake, like in some soppy soap ...
Email? Sure, Ruthie. Why not?
OK: no putting off. Go for it, wasn't that what Rosie was always telling her? Last time she was home, Rosie had taken Amy's drawing of her as a little girl off her wall and said she was taking it back to Sydney with her, it was just so good. She'd said she remembered the way it just appeared on the page, like magic. Amy ... and Alice, wasn't it? Were they lovers? Rosie had gone straight into automatic, consciously offhand. Why would you think that? How would I know? Rosie had tipped her head to one side and said for fucksake, Mum, of course you know. It's no big deal.
No big deal. Not now, OK. But then ...
Dear Alice. She still started her emails like letters. Nothing wrong with that. But then what? How did you even begin when there was so much water under the bridge ... bridges ...
Inhale. Position fingers. O.K. Still married to Graham. Enter. Like the man said, till death did them part. Still working at the library. Home away from home it was now. She was in special collections, that's how come she'd seen Alice's name. Graham was still in the Tax Office. Winding down, both of them winding down. Filling in retirement forms. Enter. Rosie and Sam are both fine. Rosie's with Westpac in Sydney; doing well. Sam's in Melbourne: barista. Taking a year out. Into all this digital media stuff, she doesn't really understand it. Both single. Nobody special with either of them, or not as far as she knows.
Which isn't far. Enter. Enter.
Believe it or not, she still has a Tess. Tessa, rather, daughter of Tess; she's as arthritic and grizzled as her mother now. That same white stripe on both their faces, getting hazier and hazier. The same droopy brown eyes and they've got cataracts now too. Remember walking Tess round and round the lake? Kept it up with Tessa as well, right up till about six months ago. Not up to it any more, rather be sleeping. But she's still lovely to come home to, scrabbling on to her feet, panting, pressing up against you.
What else? Rock'n roll classes, how about that? Saw the notice on the board about a month ago. Needed something, no fun walking on your own. Third one next week. All the good stuff, Motown, Stones, heard it through the grapevine ... Amazing how it all comes back, that big front room, remember? Whoever was home first, turning the radio up loud ...
Take a deep breath: Send.
She might not reply. Too long ago, too long ago ...
But first thing next morning, there the email was. Ruth sat smiling at her inbox until her neighbour asked if it was her birthday.
A month they've been emailing now. Making up for lost time, said Ruth. Lost, said Alice, or let go? That was what she'd always said: don't know how to let go, do you? Don't know how to just let yourself go! In her last email, she'd suggested skyping. Ruth had stared at the words blaring at her from the screen, suddenly queasy. Face to face, after all these years? Could they do that? Could she do that? That evening, she'd pulled out her old album.
First uni tutorial: light years ago. Her country hick, sensibly shod self, sitting alongside batik prints, beaded shirts, jeans flared and fringed ... even the thongs had attitude. Like the bright red pair peeping from the scarlet tent worn by the enormous girl on the other side of the room. Some professor's daughter, she heard her neighbour whisper, some ace student. Didn't stop her looking like the back of a bus: a red bus.
She winces. But that was what she had thought. That was how she had thought.
The enormous girl planted caftaned knees wide and started to talk, hands waving, conducting herself like a one piece orchestra. Hegemony: Ruth had never heard of hegemony. Nor of literary determinism in Western literature, predicated upon patriarchal hegemony, nor of such a word as phallocentricity. The rest of them must have, the row of heads was nodding like clowns at the show. Dear God, what was she doing here? The tutor leaned forward; who'd like to respond? Anybody like to tackle the ... what did you say, Alice? The phallocentricity of Banjo's bush?
Phallocentricity? "As in the fallacy of p-h-a-l-l-u-s-s-y?"
When she finished spelling it out, there was a pause: the raised eyebrows of the group turned towards her. An embarrassed moment: then the slap of a scarlet knee and that throaty, irresistible chuckle. Alice's eyes twinkled into hers.
"Hey, finally! Somebody who knows a piss take when she hears one!"
Bums shifted on seats; throats were cleared. Moving right along, said the tutor. At the end of the hour, the others crowded round him, suddenly chatty.
"Fancy a cappuccino?"
"Yeah," said Ruth. "Yeah, I would."
In their emails, they've been trying to remember what it was they got so hot and bothered about over all those cappuccinos, all those deep and meaningful conversations. Why did everything have to be so life and death, so Eve of Destruction ... that song, remember? Think of all the hate there is in Red China / Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama / You may leave here for four days in space / but when you return it's the same old place ...
Feminism. Capitalism. Socialism. Penis envy, womb envy. Envy plain and simple of this brave new university world that had such people in it.
Like Alice. Her friend. Even though Alice's home had wall to wall carpet and books where Ruth's had creaky floorboards and a dunny out the back. Alice's mother had a feminist library: Friedan, Rich, Daly, Greer. The Female Eunuch had never made it to Finlay. Alice shared a house with five other students; Ruth boarded with her uncle. Alice's housemates slept on mattresses and didn't wear watches or anything else half the time. Ruth grins reminiscently; her former self flashes up on her mindscreen, how she must have looked that entire first term: eyes like a spotlit possum's, ears flushing pink.
After the holidays she moved into Alice's share house; so much closer to uni than her uncle's. She went to her first demonstration, not that she mentioned it to Mum and Dad. She met Alice's girlfriend; not that she mentioned that either. Parallel worlds, keep them that way. But then the bank foreclosed. Her Dad sold up. Forget uni, she had to get a job.
Alice showed her the advertisement for the vacancy in the university library, encouraged her to apply. Amazingly, she got it. Amazingly again, they made allowances so she could keep studying. She's been there ever since.
Ruth glances at her watch; she'll be late. She considers texting Graham, telling him to go to the club without her. But that'll put him in a bad mood, and she wants to tell him about Sam. She accelerates to the speed limit.
In the photo, Alice looks much the same. She wonders what Amy looks like now. If they skyped, she could find out. Alice would call her, would say hey Amy, come say hello ... reach out her arm ... but then what if Graham came in ...
They've never talked about it. As if that wiped it out, made it not have happened. No harm done, he said.
She emails from her office. The other librarians notice. She's suddenly full of anecdotes, reminiscences: about some old tutor's toupee, or some tattoo parlour Alice had taken her to, or finding this shivering puppy curled up on a pile of old newspapers: Tess of the Underlines. This game they had; historical or hysterical? The other librarians even start asking her what the latest from Perth is.
Your face, Ruthie, the day l offered you a smoke, just try, I said. Just once ... see where your head goes. Ruth hadn't want her head going anywhere, thank you very much. Somebody had to collect the rent, somebody had to put out the bins and pay bills and rescue stray puppies. Stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Staying alive because of Alice. The weekend they went to the Entrance.
Swimming, but the beach no closer ... don't be silly. Keep swimming. Still not any closer: further in fact. Further. Going out like the, going out with the ... Alas, alas, what pain, methinks, to drown ... stop it. Swim. Breathe, just keep breathing.
Salt up her nose, gasping. Jaws. Swim. Arm up, forward, back. Up, forward, back. Rest. Tread water. Wave, not waving but drowning ... toenail scraping against sand, yes, yes ... no. Gone. Panic reflux ...
Somewhere in her pert bikini brain, she'd always felt so sorry for her friend: big fat Alice, the weight of her, all that too too solid flesh. But that day those heavy arms ploughing through the water, those gloriously buoyant boobs, were the most beautiful things she'd ever seen.
Such good times. Dancing times. Walking home, too many times, too many times blaring down the street. Knowing Alice was in the back yard, dancing on her own. Not fat, not clumsy: heavy. As in sexy.
Alice taught her to jive. Ironically, as it turned out, Alice got her with Graham: somebody's birthday, rock'n roll records, who could jive? After two years of being a deb ball partner, Graham could. One dance, he told her on their honeymoon, and he knew she was it. She's never told him he's got Alice to thank. First comes the wedding and then comes the house; then comes the couple, the parents, the spouse: end of jive.
So many things I've never told him.
That's it: first person. Why do you keep talking about yourself like you're someone else all the time?
Alice's last email: she's never thought of it like that.
I mean, academic, professional stuff, fine; but emails, for chrissake ... rabbiting on about everybody having their little ways; why not just "he annoys the hell out of me sometimes?" As in first person, I, me? How do you stay I if you never say it?
I don't know. It's all so silly now. Much ado about nothing. Or something: I'll never know now.
I pretended to be asleep. Breathing deep, breathing slow. Go, go, leave, now, please ... but you wouldn't. You tucked my hair behind my ear, feather stroking fingers ... ear to throat, throat to breast curve, nipple ...
I screamed and sat up. You fell off the bed.
"Nightmare," I said. "Nightmare, sorry ..."
I never ever got nightmares. Not then.
All very well for you, fade far away, dissolve and quite forget, all that; but how could I? What, forget Dad, Mum, the family? Forget Finlay? Forget Graham, who'd just asked me out?
How could I?
Did you know I was pretending? If we skyped, what would you think of me now? It all seems so ... ridiculous now. So much ado about nothing. Gay couples everywhere. Even in the Tax Office; Graham said. What if I'd just let go like I ... stop. Just don't go there.
You got the job in Perth. Long distance silence. Through thick and thin, Ruth. I'll be thick, you be thin. I'll be left, you be right. Or wrong.
I missed you. A lot. That first Christmas, I called.
Your sigh. Yeah, yeah, we could still write. Letters then. Yeah, sure. Why not? My sigh.
Five years we wrote: books, films, Tess and her pups. Chewers of golf balls. You liked that. I fell pregnant, once, twice. You sent bunny rugs, both of them red, bright red. You told me you and Amy had moved in together. Great, I said. Fantastic. Then came your letter about the Conference. You and Amy would be over, could you stay? Well, of course you could ...
I told Graham about the Entrance. Of course you must stay, it was the least he could do. I heard him suck his breath in when you appeared at the top of the plane steps in one of your spectacular caftans. Behind you was Amy, in jeans and an embroidered shirt. Taller than me, bigger.
You haven't changed a bit! Your eyes crinkled, twinkled into mine. I hugged you back.
The kids adored you. And Amy, especially once she took out her sketchbook.
"She's a graphic artist." Your smile was so proud.
She drew our portraits: the kids, Graham, me. Fantastic, said Graham, spot on. They were. Especially the one of Graham. Important. Authoritative: Ah am de judge. He made Amy sign each one and said he would have them framed.
Rosie and Sam stuck theirs up in their bedrooms. Ours are still in my desk.
Graham produced the champagne early. Between cooking and settling kids,
I was the only one still sober by the time we went to bed. He nuzzled, groped, fell asleep. An hour or so later, his hand settled on my thigh, climbed. Afterwards, he stumbled through to the bathroom. I listened, like I had been listening all along. Barefoot padding, giggly whispers: please God, let them have shut their doors properly ...
Toilet flushing. Long, breath held silence.
"What the hell ... "
"Hey, turn the light off!"
"Dykes ... fuckin' dykes! Dykes fucking ..."
"What d'you think you're ..."
"Fucking dykes! In my house!"
"You want us to do it in your garden?"
"Daddy, Daddy! What's wrong?"
"What's fucking, Daddy?"
"Rosie, Sammy, come here ..."
"Is Daddy going to hit Auntie Alice?" Later. Much later.
"What do you mean, you knew? Bloody hell, Ruth? God knows how this'll affect Rosie!"
One last letter from Alice.
"Dear Ruth ... Ruth means compassion. Did you know that? Amy means loved one.
I've no idea what Graham means. We all make choices. If you ever want to come visit us in Perth, you're welcome. Any time. But by yourself. Love Alice."
Three, six, twelve years: not a word. Kids growing up, infants, primary, secondary, bra filling, voice breaking, unis, share houses, L plates, job applications: leaving, like you always knew they would. Her pleasant, predictable job. Pleasant, predictable round-the-lake walks with Tess. Food and wine, friends, colleagues, all pleasant, all predictable. Graham too.
She swerves hard right.
The little dog swerves left, scampers on ahead, ears flapping wildly.
A poodle. A silver grey poodle. Pedigree. Dog show, must be a dog show.
What to do? Alice? Stop the car, try to catch it? Drive on? Somebody's bound to come looking, probably on the way already ... might be dead by then, but. Collar? No. But a show specimen, definitely. Owners probably frantic. What to do? Might bite; aren't poodles nippy dogs? Highly strung?
Ruth means compassion, remember? You can't just drive on and leave it.
Ruth slows again, tailing the little dog. She pulls into a truck bay.
"Hey ... little pup!"
The poodle spins, ears pricked, tail erect. Yelps.
Food, thinks Ruth, food: yes! Her sandwich crusts from the "Dog on the Tuckerbox" ...
Dog on the Tuckerbox! Christ, Ruth!
She takes the dog-eared ... there you go again ... scrap of bread from its wrapper and bends down.
One yelp. Two. Finally, hesitantly, sniffing, she comes. Atta baby: there's a rope in the back, should have thought ...
It's OK, give her a moment ...
Her? She looks closer. Yes. Moist black nose nuzzling daintily. Stay still. Sandwich gone, the poodle sits, studying her. Ruth reaches out and scratches behind an ear. The poodle leans into her hand. A small pink tongue flickers.
Check dog shows. RSPCA: phone book.
You might end up keeping her.
Don't be silly. What about Tess? Better keep them separate tonight.
Separate rooms, eh? Doesn't always work.
Gentle little thing. Used to people.
Yeah. Probably house trained as well.
Yeah. Take her anywhere.
Graham starts, almost dropping the glass of Scotch in his hand.
"What the hell is that?"
Ruth strokes the poodle draped over her shoulder. "She was running along the road, right on the motorway. I couldn't leave her."
"Bloody hell, Ruth ... "
One-handed, she takes milk from the fridge, fills a bowl, sets the poodle down. She smiles at the quivering little body, the busy pink tongue. Then she looks round.
"Tessa. Tessa ..." Graham set down his scotch and squared his shoulders. "Right. You'd better sit down, dear. Now, everything looked just as usual when I drove in, she was lying beside the gate as usual, but when I went for the mail ..."
"No. Oh no."
"Yes, dear, I'm afraid so." He lays his hand on her shoulder. "The vet said she wouldn't have known a thing, just ... drifted off. I'm so sorry, my dear, such a thing to come home to! Don't worry though, I wrapped her up and took her to the vet. It's all sorted. You don't need to do a thing." He picks up a photo from the sideboard. "You can remember her the way she was."
She stares at the photo blankly.
"I've made our excuses at the club ..."
The poodle yelps. Ruth looks down, and then her eyes flick to the table. Graham puts out his hand but she's seen the card, seen the carefully slit envelope.
"I remembered the handwriting, you see ..."
Heart attack. Instantaneous. You are invited to a celebration of the life of ...
Calligraphic curves blur. She lowers herself into a seat. Clumsily, Graham pats her shoulder. "So sorry. Such a pity. Only our age, too. She saved your life, after all, you must be ...
She looks up incredulously. "Must be what?"
He drains his glass. "Well. Upset. Of course. Dreadful thing to come home to."
He rubs his balding skull. "Here, I'll pour you a drink."
She shakes her head. In the silence, the little dog looks from one to the other uncertainly.
"Thing is, we didn't know any different, did we? Or any better, that's it, we didn't know any better. In those days."
Ruth traces the curves of Alice's name. Oh yes, we did. We just let it go.
"Flowers, of course. For the funeral. Pity Perth's too far to go."
A silvery flash, a sudden warmth in her lap. She steadies the little dog, lets her circle and nest in her lap. "No, it's not. I'll drive."
"What? All the way across the Nullarbor? Don't be ridiculous, Ruth, no way we can just ..."
"Not you. I said T." Gently, her fingers pull at floppy ears. "Me and Tess."
"Look, you're upset, dear. Of course you are. You're not driving across the desert with a stray dog, that's crazy talk ..."
"Yes I am."
She re-drapes Tess over her shoulder and stands.
"Don't worry, I'll sort it. I'll call Amy now."
"But what about me?"
"You? You'll be fine."
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||May 1, 2014|
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