• Time to read 9 minutes

It hasn’t helped, her being ill. That’s to say it hasn’t altered in any way the strange mood that earlier began hanging around. Exactly how long the mood has been with her she doesn’t remember. Everything about it is vague.

Lying in bed with her eyes open but unfocused, she now thinks that maybe it has helped; it has brought the vagueness to her attention so that it is not just background but distinct in its own right.The sick feeling in her stomach and the memory of the sour smell of her watery shit in the toilet has given contour to what had been an interplay of confused emotions.

A large, white cloud drifts across the frame of her bedroom window.She makes no connection between herself and the sky-born shape straying past. A thing. A movement in space.

Her eyes close. Thoughts enter and exit of their own accord. They too bear no relation to her.

Eventually her waking awareness is folded away and gently replaced by a dream. In it she is at home alone. It feels like daytime, but later is revealed to be evening. Strangers begin to arrive, well-dressed ones who seem to be showing up for a party. They do not knock or ring the bell. When they enter, they don’t greet Ruth, but simply make themselves at home as if it were theirs. They arrive singly, in pairs and in small groups, and quickly the house fills with people she doesn’t know and who do not notice her. She wants to immediately halt this drift of events but finds her will paralyzed. A sense of panic grips her until she is on the verge of screaming.

She wakes and checks her watch - ten-thirty in the morning. She questions why she should be ill. Perhaps she’s caught a tummy bug or eaten bad food. In either case explanations often provide solace, and so she tells herself that since Richard is fine, it must be that somewhere along the way she has picked up a bug.

There’s knocking on the bedroom door. Richard sticks his head in.

“How are you going?”

“Surviving.”

“Do you want anything, a drink?”

“Maybe some mint tea with honey.”

The head disappears, and ten minutes later reappears accompanied by a moderately overweight, middle-aged body holding a cup of honey-sweetened peppermint tea.

“Thanks, Richard,” her voice ironed flat by the weight of her mood.

...her voice ironed flat by the weight of her mood

Richard sits down on the side of the bed. Ruth feels the mattress sag under his weight, and, bum first, slithers sidewise to where it is more level. Richard interprets her serpentine motion away as another small defeat in his campaign for greater closeness. A familiar shadow falls between them, distorting their vision of each other and foregrounding what is not there. In their different ways they both have learned to adjust to an insufficiency in their relationship that each has contributed to, she by avoidance and deceit and he by a preoccupation to win her love. It is a state that neither is happy in. Richard is kind and cuddly, but she often finds him boring. From their first meeting five years ago at the fiftieth birthday party of a mutual friend, their relationship has been founded on realism and compromise, which has allowed abundant space for independent living within their marriage. It is a contract she drew up and he agreed to.

He reaches out and places a hand on her shoulder saying softly, “I’d like to call a doctor.”

She feels resistant, and if she were her usual self, she certainly would decline the offer, but today she is not the decisive, self-assured woman she has worked hard to become. Today she is unwell.

“That’s fine,” she answers in a muted voice. A pause ensues and then she adds by way of closing the conversation, “Thank you for the tea.”

Richard understands, rises and exits the bedroom feeling disappointed in this his third marriage.

In the late afternoon, Dr. Elliot Ramsay, a tall man, appearing to be in his early fifties, with bones that seem disproportionately large for the body they scaffold, arrives in response to Richard’s call to a Sydney home doctor service. By the time of his arrival, Ruth is already feeling better.

Richard offers Dr. Ramsay a chair that he places beside the bed and then quietly disappears.

Ruth watches Dr. Elliot Ramsay, which is how he introduces himself, as he takes a folder from his black, leather case and a silver pen from the pocket of his blue dress shirt. His actions are unhurried and economical, the movements of a man familiar with what he is doing. Ruth observes him with amused admiration; she is well aware of her own little mannerisms that unobtrusively reveal her professional accomplishments.

Dr. Elliot Ramsay asks questions about her symptoms and past medical history. Ruth answers wondering awhile what Dr. Elliot Ramsay looks like without clothes.

“Any known allergies, food intolerances?”

The formality of the examination reminds Ruth of the stilted dialogue of T.V soaps. To keep herself engaged she silently begins an examination of her own to establish what more there is to Dr. Elliot Ramsay than his broad knowledge of disease and his unusual bone structure. She doesn’t know him or what his erotic preferences are, but she is interested.

“It’s very kind of you to pay a home visit. I know most doctors no longer do that.”

“I like being invited into patients’ homes; it gives me a sense of who they are beyond their illness.”

“You’re a doctor interested in people,” Ruth comments as if attesting to the appearance of an unexplained light in the heavens. “Isn’t that unusual?”

Using her privately selected vocabulary to structure her vision of the way the world works, Ruth catalogues this conversation under Interview, a label applied to interactions that position one participant of a dialogue in the limelight, where, she believes, men feel most at home.

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t think so. I think most in the medical profession are interested in those they’re helping,” he answers looking down at the paper where he is still making notes.

“Ah huh.”

He is the serious sort, Ruth reckons. That means hard work. At the same time she fears that his solemnity at any moment will make her explode into laughter. She gathers herself and searches for something more to say. She is keen to continue in the direction of their current chat and not return to the subject of her unappetizing symptoms.

“You may be projecting your own motivation.”

For an instant she feels like a cat observing a heedless mouse.

“Maybe.”

She senses her old life returning along with all its strength, daring and excitement.

“Are you married?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Children?”

“Two teenagers.”

“A difficult stage.”

He nods. “They’re okay.”

“And you and your wife? You’re okay?”

His recoil is observable. She was too abrupt. She must learn to slow down.

Is she disappointed? In herself…the situation? A little.

Dr. Elliot Ramsay writes a prescription, gives some brief instructions without looking at Ruth, returns his pen to his shirt pocket and the folder to his bag and stands preparing to depart.

“I’m sorry you have to leave.”

Her words hang in the room as though delicately blown from a looped wire attached to the lid of a small, plastic bottle of liquid, creating bubbles of refracted sunlight that as a child enchanted her with intimations of otherworldly beauty.

The tall Dr. Elliot Ramsay, already on his way to the bedroom door, turns to face her as she gazes up at him from her pillow. From his height, silent, focused as though his eyes were holding her, all of her, within the scope of his accumulated knowledge, he considers her statement and what it means for him. The quality of shading and light at play in his irises changes as if signaling a re-evaluation of what his eyes are taking in. Behind his outward gaze, he is slowly dropping down through levels of his being until eventually he is standing in a room housing a glass case, the kind you come upon in museums and art galleries. Displayed in the case, and softly illumined from within, is an ancient belief, which he recognizes as one of his own, the one that reminds him that at his core he is defective. He walks round the case, examining this belief from different angles. Throughout his life he has sought to understand the feeling of shame that accompanies his interactions with certain women whom he believes are mocking him. Even now, still, he doesn’t get it—and then, as if all those years of futile effort to understand were now revealing themselves as a preparation, suddenly…he sees! It is she who is defective. At the very least as much as he is. Time seems to slow and unravel in one long exhalation so that at last it is free to stop mercilessly driving itself forward. Dr. Elliot Ramsay smiles, turns and leaves the room.

Ruth is left. She thinks she hears humming.

By late afternoon, in contrast to the bright sun beaming its rays into the bedroom and her physical condition much improved, the unsettled feeling remains. She has allowed this man, whom she doesn’t know and who means nothing to her, to get the better of her. She wants to scream her shame and anger at him, at his back as he disappears out the door, at his superior smile, at his cold, medical knowledge, at the stupidity of his bones and their impenetrability.

She wants to scream her shame and anger at him, at his back as he disappears out the door, at his superior smile, at his cold, medical knowledge, at the stupidity of his bones and their impenetrability.

She should have known, she tells herself, though she is not sure exactly what she should have known. She senses that she should not have played the seductress with the doctor simply because she thought it would be entertaining to witness either his keenness or his stammering. However in the end, the doctor was neither keen nor awkward. To the contrary, it was she who felt compromised.

Did he find her pitiable? A middle-aged—he may have even seen her as an old woman trying to crack on to him, he who had come out of compassion, for no other reason than to care for her—and, of course, for his fee. The humiliation of the encounter simultaneously surrounds and from the inside gnaws away at her.

Richard enters the room.

“What did he have to say?”

Ruth is relieved that he is not referred to by name.

“He wasn’t sure. He wrote a prescription for some medication in case I am still feeling bad tomorrow morning.”

At first Ruth is pleased when Richard finally leaves the room. Then a heavy dread of being alone settles though it is not the alone she felt before Dr. Elliot Ramsay’s visit. That earlier alone had a feel of nothing, an emptiness that she was used to, felt safe with. This alone is threatening.

When the day passes and another arrives, Ruth is considerably improved, and by late that week she is back in her normal work routine. But still the mood that preceded her illness lingers.

It is dusk when she stands at the rear door of the house and through the glass watches the sunlight spread gold traces over the back lawn. The rinse of light patterning the grass in streaks, reminding her of the sheen that flares in the hair of young women who pass her on the street, conjures memories of her own youth and its longings that rise from her chest, reach her throat and then abruptly fall away. We can go no further, her thoughts seem to say. It then dawns on her, just as with the light now faltering in the face of night, that her understanding has reached its limits.

Later that evening, Richard has already gone to bed while she, feeling too unsettled for sleep and relishing some time alone, remains in the lounge to watch a program that proves disappointing. The news follows, and when the reportage of world events is done, she wearily takes herself off to the bathroom for her last pee of the day. Then to bed.

Richard is not yet asleep.

They talk, planning for the weekend, her mother’s birthday that is coming up in a few weeks, and should they think about replacing the lounge sofa. The talk is comforting, easy and faintly musical as though some melodious undertone below their words, like an invisible current, were carrying the conversation along on the gentle rising and falling of a song. Ruth needs this. It is familiar, known. Richard is known. She does not know Dr. Elliot Ramsay.

She feels Richard’s index finger stray along the inside of her leg. She is relaxed, clearer now. Her lungs slowly fill and then exhale into the dark room. A memory of Dr. Elliot Ramsay, sitting comfortably beneath his professional halo, fills her mind, which after some effort she is able to turn toward her husband’s fingers gliding lightly over her thigh. The delicacy of his touch is endearing, exciting too in the shyness of its request. For sex and, less obviously, for that which is the source of the life they share, dream and never speak aloud together.

Richard’s fingers explore her pubis and spread her lips, entering and inviting her, as if she were a spectator in a box at the theatre, to descend and engage the actors onstage. There is hesitation, but it is quickly countered by a stronger feeling of being pulled down to a place of banished tears that, for the sake of a possible life, have been left to accumulate behind a barrier of hard wisdom. In this realm of exiled emotions, there is no option but to submit to the inevitable, which finds her pushed, pulled, pinched, punched, kicked, pricked and tickled; she receives it all without complaint while the faint sounds of devilish laughter swirl in the air.

Of course, she has not of her own choice arranged things so: far from it, she doesn’t understand these grotesque imaginings that intrude on her pleasure and strongly resents them.

Ruth has never had patience for bearing witness, for allowing herself the luxury of waiting quietly for the unconnected events of her life to organize into words that one day might cohere into a story. She must straight away intervene. Action alone has power against the debilitating passivity and apathy she sees everywhere. She has learned that a decisive act, any act, like the sharp, sudden pounding of a fist, protects her from losing herself in a rush of alien beliefs and opinions. Nevertheless, for all her success in actively expressing opposition, she finds that she must continuously endure self-interrogations into her character, which at times she despairs of ever bringing to a close. A desperate hopelessness eats at her like larvae within a ripening fruit. Against its dark hunger, resolve is not enough. Pressure builds and pushes out from inside her chest, rises to her throat then stops short. There is nothing she can do to expel the sense of futility in her efforts. Words that might suggest a more accurate description of her situation and a more nuanced response to it collapse before they take shape.

She grasps her husband’s erection and holds on as though it were a buoy bobbing on the surface of a welcoming harbor and she in danger of drowning. Its promise of survival, within easy reach, is irresistible.

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