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Published October 2001Become a subscriber
In the Botanical Gardens, opposite the big double doors of the old exhibition building, Ruth stood waiting for the Maidmonts.
Beneath her bronze umbrella, she stood and watched the crowd of mothers and children waiting for the double doors to open. The Maidmonts were late.
The rain was merely a gauze, a softening of the early autumn air, but now and again Ruth saw a young mother dart out from her avidly talking group to bend over her child, to pull up and settle a hood of yellow, scarlet, or cobalt blue.
Though these mothers were themselves unprotected, still in their summer cottons or supple synthetics.
The doors were opening. The crowd clustered, and was beginning to mount the steps, when in her side vision Ruth saw the Maidmonts, Clive and Stella, emerge from a narrow path, out of the darkness of tree ferns.
Ruth, shocked, stared. It was only a year since she had seen them. How, in one year, had Stella become obese, and her spine so cruelly bent that she almost faced the ground? Ruth quickly composed her face. They hadn’t seen her; they were immersed in some conflict – anyway, concerned only with each other. Clive seemed unchanged. Still a tall thin straight old man, he inclined sideways above his wife’s tottering figure, matching his nibbling steps to hers, cupping with one hand her nearer elbow, and with the other sheltering her head with a small pink umbrella.
He was talking, Ruth saw, quietly but with intensity. She put down her umbrella and went forward, rehearsing a greeting. Well, hello, you two.
They wore the clothes they had brought home from Europe fifteen years ago, when Clive had retired from the Government Architects Office. These, they had merrily announced then, would see them out. Today Stella wore the pleated tartan skirt, the Liberty blouse, the Burberry, and Clive wore his Scotch tweed jacket and the little matching hat. But as Ruth went forward she saw that his shabby trousers disproved that old cheerful prediction, and that both wore dirty canvas shoes.
‘Well hell-oh, you two!’
She and Stella had always been of a height, but now she had to bend at the waist, and twist sideways, to kiss Stella’s cheek, while Stella stood unmoving, and Clive pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and said loudly, ‘Stella’s got to sit down.’
‘I don’t,’ said Stella in a soft little voice, while Ruth said, ‘Yes, Clive. But where? They’ve cancelled our exhibition.’
Clive pushed back his hat. He wiped his sweating forehead and shouted. ‘She’s got to rest now.’
‘But not in this rain. And not in there, because – listen – they’ve postponed our exhibition.’
‘What! But it was you – you who rang and suggested –’
‘I know. But they cancelled. There was a little notice in the Herald, they told me. I didn’t see it.’
‘School holidays. See?’ Ruth pointed to the few mothers and children still on the steps. ‘They’ve put on something for the children instead.’
‘I don’t care,’ said Clive. ‘She’s got to rest now.’
‘The gallery isn’t far,’ said Ruth. ‘The Magnum exhibition is on. We could have a quick coffee first.’
‘And cake,’ said Stella.
But Clive thrust the little pink umbrella into Ruth’s shoulder bag and strode to the exhibition building, indignantly swinging his arms, while Stella said in her small voice, ‘It was you who gave us that pot of crimson azaleas.’
‘Yes,’ said Ruth, ‘a year ago.’
‘That lovely crimson. Almost transparent.’
‘Yes. Just before I went to Italy.’
‘Chiuso, chiuso. That was Italy.’
Clive came rushing out of the exhibition building. He leaped down the steps. ‘They’ve put out a chair,’ he shouted. ‘Come on!’
The chair was just inside the entrance. After their nibbling shuffling ascent of the steps, Stella obediently sat, and at once directed her strained glassy gaze, her little private smile, at the last few children filing into the exhibition room. Ruth moved to Clive’s side and said quietly, ‘Stella’s been ill?’
He had set back the tweed hat and was wiping his forehead again. ‘Stella’s never ill,’ he said curtly.
‘But Clive, her back – ’
‘Back? Her back? Well, there’s a bit of trouble with some vertebrae. But it’s her memory. Her memory. It just bloody well collapsed. You mean to say you didn’t notice?’
‘Before I went away? Oh, little things, maybe – ’
‘Then you’re pretty bloody unobservant.’
Ruth laughed, startled. She had received the usual number of angry epithets from husbands, lovers, and teenaged children, but nobody called her unobservant before. She said, ‘I gave her a pot of crimson azaleas – ’
‘Ah yes, and I suppose she remembers it. Random things. Things like that. Great! But that’s not the point. She can never be left alone. That’s the point. Or she scalds herself. Or wanders off. A police job one time.’
Stella’s plaintive voice reached them. ‘What am I doing here?’
Both went to her chair. Both bent to her level. ‘You’re resting,’ Clive fiercely told her.
‘You said – someone said – cake.’
Ruth heard Clive’s intake of breath, heard the soft aaaahhh as he rose to his height and let it out. He slightly raised his tweed hat, then pulled it firmly down. More than fifty years ago, the three of them had been art students together, at Sydney Tech. Clive now bent over his wife and said with gaiety, ‘Coffee and cake in the gallery, dear. I’ll meet you two in the portico. In ten minutes approx.’
In three big paces he reached the door. Ruth watched him disappear down the steps. I haven’t the least idea,’ Stella was saying, ‘what I’m doing here.’
‘You were resting,’ Ruth told her. ‘Are you better now?’
‘I was perfectly all right before.’
‘Then we’ll go, shall we?
‘Go where? Where is Clive?’
‘Gone ahead, to the gallery. You and I are meeting him there.’
‘Oh yes, cake. Well, if you’ll lend me an arm, as the saying goes.’
But on the steps she said, ‘You’re no good at this, Gwen.’
‘I’m not Gwen,’ said Ruth. ‘I’m Ruth. Ruth Plummer.’
Lately, Ruth had begun to consider seriously the accusation of her children (and even of one grandchild) that she was selfish and egotistical, and had always been selfish and egotistical. ‘I am Ruth Plummer,’ she said gently. ‘And this is the last step.’
‘Oh look, it’s raining.’
The rain was heavier. ‘Never mind,’ said Ruth. ‘We have my big umbrella.’
She put it up. It was a beautiful umbrella, and she had expected it to be admired. ‘I bought it in Italy,’ she said.
‘Now, we take this path.’
‘Wait. I had an umbrella. Pink.’
‘This one’s bigger.’
‘But wait – wait – where is mine?’
‘In my bag. It’s easier if we share mine. Come on, Stell, it’s not far.’
But when they left the shelter of the building, they walked into a wind that whipped the rain about, so that Ruth was forced to bend from the waist, and to twist sideways, to keep them both under the shelter of her umbrella. She could and did reject the charges of egotism and selfishness, but had to admit to impatience, though adding that she had developed a method of controlling it. She would, she explained, project. She would mentally concentrate on a future where the irritant, whatever it was, was absent. When Stella tried to pull away into the rain, Ruth heard herself saying, courteously though rather loudly, as she roughly pulled her back, ‘Shall we have coffee and cake first? Or see the Magnum exhibition first?’
‘Mag what? What is that?’
‘Magnum. It’s a group of photographers.’
‘But Clive said – said an exhibition of woodcuts.’
‘That was the one we just left.’
‘It was postponed. Clive will take you another day. One of yours is in it.’
‘One of mine? I don’t believe it.’
‘True. That’s why I rang and suggested it.’
‘The poinsettias, I suppose. Does Clive know? Where is Clive?’
‘No, the frangipani. Clive’s gone ahead. And yes, he knows. I told him on the phone. If he didn’t mention it – ’
‘ – it must be because he wanted it to be a surprise.’
‘The frangipani. That’s good. That was my best. Someone once told me it was subtle.’
‘I told you that.’
‘Subtle. I was so pleased. I wasn’t often called subtle. You were supposed to be the subtle one. Ruth gets those subtle effects. Remember that?
‘Clive was always saying that.’
Clive had said that about her early woodcuts, though never about the painting that had since made her a minor celebrity. He had said it, she used to suspect, to annoy Stella. She said, ‘I wish this bloody rain would stop. Try not to pull, Stell.’
‘Yes,’ said Stella, ‘subtle effects.’ Then abruptly she halted, and with a strong grip dragged Ruth’s arm down. The spokes of the umbrella struck the path. ‘Clive! shouted Stella. ‘Where is Clive?’
‘Let go!’ Ruth spoke through clenched teeth, and tugged with all her strength until she could raise the umbrella into place. Anger rushed into her. It clutched at her breastbone. ‘Project!’ she told herself. ‘Project!’ And she brought up an image of herself sitting alone in her new silver car. There she was – soon, very soon – slowly, at peace, driving out of the Domain carpark, yes, and perfectly making the turn. ‘Clive,’ she was then able to say, ‘has gone ahead to the gallery.’ She changed the umbrella to her left hand and put her right arm firmly round the hump of those shoulders. ‘Maybe there’s a queue, and Clive has gone ahead to save us a place.’
‘In the queue. What would you like first, Stell? Coffee and cake? Or the exhibition?’
Stella’s voice became roughish. The young Stella had been known for this roughishness. ‘You know me! Guess!’
‘Coffee and cake?’
‘A nice big slice of naughty rich chocolate cake.’
‘In that case, said Ruth in a pleasant steady voice, ‘I may have to skip the exhibition. I didn’t count on so much delay. You were rather late arriving, and now – well – I’m picking up Susanna at three-thirty. Susanna? You know? My grand-daughter?’
‘We have those. We have four of those. Where are we going?’
‘Not that we ever see them. We don’t see much of the biggies. But the littlies, never.’
‘Oh, they’re the busiest little creatures in the world.’
‘If you don’t serve them, you don’t see them. That’s what Clive says.’
‘Does he indeed? Then it can only be gospel truth. Where are you two parked?’
‘Oh wait – wait – yes, that’s right, we’re not. There was that fuss, you know. And Clive lost his licence.’
‘He didn’t mention that on the phone.’
‘He doesn’t. He won’t. He flies into rages. He gets those now. Those rages. He never used to. Sarcastic, he was sarcastic, but always a gentleman. People used to say that. Always a gentleman.’
‘Yes,’ said Ruth, recalling the various inflections – of praise, of weariness, of a sarcasm like Clive’s own. ‘I am sure,’ she said, ‘that he still tries to be.’
‘Always a gentleman. That’s what held me back, you know, what you used to call his bloody respectability. Not that it matters, in the long run. Still, the frangipani, that’s nice.’
‘When did he lose his licence?’
‘Not long ago. I suppose you were in England.’
‘Chiuso, chiuso. Did you paint?’
‘No. Nothing. It’s over. Infantile of me to imagine an Italian miracle. It’s over.’
‘Well, join the club.’
‘Oh look, Gwen, there’s a nice seat.’
‘A nice bloody wet seat. Come on.’
‘Dear, I need to sit down for a bit.’
‘You don’t. Clive will be waiting for us.’
‘I expect he’s gone for one of his runs.’
‘What runs? We are meeting him in the portico of the gallery. And listen, listen, we have only to get past this fountain, look, and then turn that corner, look, and we’ll see the big gates.’
‘The dear old garden gates.’
‘Exactly. And we go through those, and then we have only that nice bit of flat road. And we’re there.’
So they did hobble on. Ruth held Stella firmly to her side and tilted over Stella’s head the big umbrella, while calculating that the time she could now spend at the gallery would be, at most, forty minutes. Again she saw herself in her new silver car, and then saw her granddaughter waiting at the door of the dancing school, her shapeless white legs emerging from her dark school uniform. She had painted Susanna once, and had had a success with those sweet silly ragdoll legs. When Stella said, ‘There they are, the big gates,’ she soothingly agreed, but did not look up.
‘And just look at Clive.’
Ruth did look up then. On that nice bit of flat road, Clive was running. He ran through the rain, knees high, head erect, elbows circling. First they saw him through the tall railings, then in full view as he passed the wide open gateway. Hunched together under Ruth’s umbrella, they stood and with strained raised eyes watched him disappear up Art Gallery Road.
‘Clivey was always a good runner,’ said Stella then, contented.
‘And obviously,’ said Ruth in a careful, light voice, ‘still in training.’
‘Oh, not like in the days when they were all doing that – you know – that – ’
‘Yes, not like then. But he runs every day. He makes sure he does.’
‘By hook or by crook.’
‘Well, what he says is,’ said Stella with her roughishness, ‘that he makes bloody sure.’
‘I see,’ said Ruth. ‘Well, do come on now.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Cake,’ said Ruth, curtly. ‘Chocolate cake.’
Clive was waiting for them, not in the portico, but standing at the head of the steps, anxiously craning his neck. He saw them; he ran down the steps; he grasped Stella’s free arm. Then all three of them, heads lowered, climbed slowly up to the shelter of the portico.
Here, at once, Ruth took the little pink umbrella from her bag and gave it to him.
‘But hey, Ruthie,’ he said, ‘you’re coming with us.’
In a wonderful gesture of liberation, Ruth brought up her left arm and looked at her watch. ‘I think not. I am to pick up Susanna. Which hardly leaves me time for the exhibition, and certainly not for coffee and cake as well.’
‘Then let’s do the exhibition first.’ He looked at his wife. ‘Stell?’
‘You know me! Cake first.’
‘She needs the sugar hit,’ said Clive to Ruth.
‘Well, so sorry,’ said Ruth.
‘Clivey should take off that wet jacket, shouldn’t he, Gwen?’
‘Yes, Clive, you should. And look, do understand why I can’t stay. We’ve lost so much time. I’m sorry. I could have given you a lift to your train. But there’s a good bus service. And taxis. Phone in the foyer.’
Clive looked at her steadily for a moment. Then he said, ‘They wouldn’t have postponed that exhibition like that. Without notice.’
‘All the same, they did.’ Ruth reached out and touched Stella’s arm. ‘Stell, goodbye now. I’ll ring you.’
‘They didn’t,’ said Clive. ‘They wouldn’t.’
But at least she was free simply to turn and leave them. His raised voice followed her across the portico.
‘They didn’t! They wouldn’t!’ And as she ran down the steps he shouted, ‘You bungled. Bungler!’
She could see the entrance to the underground carpark. Half-blinded by tears of anger or sorrow, she put up her umbrella and hurried downhill towards the concrete hood sheltering the steps. But the surface of the grass surprised her. Thick, coarse, wet, resilient, it made her stumble, it forced her to slow down. She was halfway down the slope when she heard from behind the shouts, the hoots of laughter. And in only a few seconds she was overtaken by five running children in brightly coloured slickers, red, cobalt blue, yellow, the hoods fallen, the wet heads exposed, and immediately following them, two young women, these running entwined under one umbrella, and shouting expostulations at the children as they ran.
In her tear-blurred vision those seven figures seemed to be hurtling, all slightly, eerily, airborne, above the slope of shining green. They disappeared, one by one, beneath the concrete hood, and by the time she herself reached that hood, she was perceiving that vision of their flight as wonderful, perfect, or exactly what she wanted.
On the steps, beneath the hood, she stopped. She put down her beautiful umbrella and stood flicking the water from its folds while rather quickly, though without panic, she reassembled them, those seven (or eight?) bright blurred hurtling shapes against that swathe of pocked and lustrous green.