by Kirsten Heysen, Altitude, Volume 1, Creative 1, 2001.
PDF Version: Leaving
For one week Ruth watches her neighbours. It is a hot week and when she pulls the horizontal plastic blinds apart they bend easily beneath her hands. The blinds, she thinks, could be moulded in this heat and then Jim would know she had been watching. There are things to do and when Ruth pulls her fingers away the blinds spring easily back into shape as if she had not been looking at all. Across the room she lifts a shirt from the washing basket. One of the arms is twisted back inside the body and looking at it makes her feel odd, as if the shirt does not belong to Jim but to some large unknown man sawn off at the shoulder.
There is the life being lived across the road and then there is her own. The life across the road, the one she watches through the blinds, belongs to Eric and Nan. Eric and Nan’s life is fifty years older than Ruth’s own and it is Eric who holds it together. Eric has a pale wooden ladder, which he props up against the trunk of a peach tree. He climbs the ladder to wrap green netting around the fruit. Ruth has watched Eric collect the mail and noticed that he does not look hopefully at the letters as Ruth does when she collects her own mail, but instead glances left at his wrapped up fruit tree. The letters, white, standard, dull, he holds in his large palm and then he disappears inside behind the screen door.
Every afternoon when the peach tree’s limbed shadow falls across the footpath, Eric, who is tall, holds the screen door open. He presses his back against the right-hand side of the doorframe and extends his arm across to hold the screen door open. Nan passes beneath him, like he is one half of Oranges and Lemons. Say the bells of St Clement’s Ruth thinks she hears her hum. Nan wears white bobby socks like a cheerleader and looks at the sky as if she is seeing it for the first time. Eric walks Nan to the end of the street and then back again. She holds her husband’s hand and her walk is frail, but deliberate. With each step she is pinning the sunlight to the footpath. Eric is airing his wife, Ruth thinks. And this thought which is funny and awful at the same time, makes her laugh and will not leave her head. She imagines passing Eric and Nan in the street and Eric saying “Arvo! Just airing the wife.”
Ruth doe snot know the sound of Eric’s voice. They have waved to each other once, on a hot day, when she was unloading the car and Eric was watering his garden and water was hissing across the asphalt into her cement driveway.
There are other lives on the street. Ruth has watched them and then left them alone. Once fence away is a dentist and his wife. Once, on a corner, they were unavoidable. The four of them: the dentist and his wife and Rut hand Jim faced one another and then the dentist said “How do you pass your Sundays?” and walked off leaving the question behind him. His wife remained.
“He is used to people not responding,” she said. But there had been other times, on the street, at the shop, when Ruth noticed the dentist’s wife did the same thing.
And on the other side a wife and her husband who does something or other with computers. These were not the lives Ruth watched. They were familiar. They were television lives; the way the husband straightened his tie as he walked out of the front door and kissed his bride and yelled at the dog to get out of the way and filled the air with the blip of a car alarm. Sometimes the wife would signal for him to wait while she dashed inside to grab the lunch he had forgotten. As the car backed out of the driveway, Ruth wanted to clap at the flawlessness of the performance. “Wave to your studio audience!” she wanted to call out.
That morning the computer husband had seen Ruth bringing in the washing. “Alright?” the husband called to her. “And Jim?” “Jim’s leaving.” The blip of the car alarm cut across her words.
“But you were always laughing,” he said and then looked embarrassed. Ruth was thrown by his words and noticed his soft hands opening the car door and felt mean that she never liked him.
“C’est la vie,” she said to him and then walked inside with the noise of his car behind her. She realises it is not everyone else filling the air with cliches; it is only her who does this.
Across the road Eric opens a door. Ruth puts down the basket she is carrying.
Nan sees the edges of things. She grasps at the wholeness of an idea, of a memory, but the details tip and slide away from her. A clock ticks and then chimes heavily; the room is weighted. From outside comes a shuffle and scraping. Nan looks at the clock.
It was a wedding present that came in a large green box with Brunhorst stamped on the lid. Nan remembers surely and firmly the box being handed, not to her, but to Eric. It is him, Eric, outside, and the scraping sound is that of a ladder being shifted.
Outside, across the road, Nan has seen a girl. Only once or twice, only briefly. The girl wears jeans low on her hips. She hunches into herself and moves quickly.
“Straighten your shoulders girl!” That’s what Nan’s mother would have said. Nan used to hunch like that, over the piano. The clock ticks. That girl needs to sop climbing on the roof at night! Nan is angry now. She has seen that girl scamper high; tearing her heart on the guttering, sobbing at the moon. The anger Nan feels is not at the girl. It is an old remembered danger, when her own body was lithe and wild, like the girl’s. With a straight arm, Nan once threw a soup bowl against the wall. She used her teeth like needles to draw blood from the cushion of her sister’s skin.
Amongst the red of her thoughts a door opens. There is a human light and a voice that carries with it the warmth from outside and Nan feels the anger fall away.
“I have something for you!” Eric comes towards her. He is holding out a peach. Nan accepts it; she loves its perfect velvety weight and the way the sun has crept beneath the flesh. She smiles at her husband. In her hands she feels she is holding everything that is between them.
Ruth is used to moving. There were eleven houses when she was a child. Eleven houses and six schools. Jim wanted to know more.
“I can’t imagine shifting around like that,” he said.
He had been to Thailand, to some beaches there, but that was before they met.
“The buses are so crowded people hang from the doorways,” he told her. “It’s as if the bus has arms and legs.”
Ruth and Jim left Melbourne once and raced the daylight along the Great Ocean Road as far as Port Fairy. Jim’s shoulders, Ruth remembers, slumped when they turned inland. The house when they returned was airless. They threw the windows open and wished they lived by the ocean. One Saturday morning, she was cool and wrapped in a towel after a shower and he chased her around the house. She tripped and they laughed as he caught her. Jim kicked around an old soccer ball and said he wouldn’t mind travelling somewhere again, like Thailand. He threw a terracotta pot across the lawn. He grinned at the pot’s flight before it shattered against the fence.
Jim said he hated the stillness of the street. Ruth began watching the movement of other.
“I have to get moving,” Jim said. “There are things�”
Jim is in a room, on his knees, taping up a box. He leans over the box and then straightens up and folds his shoulders in and stretches his arms out in front of him. He pulls at a loose piece of rubber on the heel of his sneaker. Ruth watches him from another room. The distance between them makes her generous and she feels for him the same uncomplicated love she felt when first seeing a photo of him as a child.
She turns away from the screech of packing tape and walks to the window. The afternoon is stretched long and bright and Eric and Nan are out there. An icecream truck, faded and out of place, sings along the street. It passes Eric and Nan, and Ruth is pleased by the way its song crowds out the noise of the packing tape. Eric raises his arm and Nan, still clasping his hand, spins once beneath him.
Ruth leaves the window and moves outside. The van carries its song down another street and Eric and Nan keep walking.