She had made him a better person.
No – he had become a better person – he used to always get that wrong.
But he had learnt. To think. To anticipate. To feel what she might feel.
Because of Ruth, he had become a person someone might be proud of.
But now there wasn’t anyone. Now he was alone.
He knew she was still with him but he couldn’t hear her footsteps and, some days, it took a moment to remember her sweet face.
And the more he felt her absence, the more difficult it became to treat other people with the gentleness she had found in him.
There were days when he could think only of her – the music she had brought, the softness, and then the quiet pain. And in those days, there wasn’t room for imagining what others might be feeling or what effect his words might have. Because for him, there was only Ruth.
Sometimes he thought of how she would have frowned at him in that way she had, but he couldn’t be thoughtful and caring when he was so filled with anger and so empty of purpose. He couldn’t even try. Because he had done it all for her, for Ruth. And now that she was gone, there was no reason to use ten words when two would do, no reason to use his waning energy to smile or make banal chatter. No reason to waste his time on people who knew nothing about him and the void he wandered through.
He knew that people had thought of him as the hard one, the distant one. But anyone would have seemed that way beside her, he thought. She was so full of light and smiles and easy empathy that even his softer self was brittle in Ruth’s shadow.
Perhaps they had thought him brooding, sullen even, as he walked his solitary stroll. Back then, he had hoped not. Now though, he felt angry. He had lost precious time with her. And now he wished it back.
But it was too late.
At least in those days before, he had wandered with a purpose but now there was no focal point to draw him back. He was just ambling aimlessly, contributing nothing – not even to his own existence.
They saw him at the letterbox, in the street – the people whose eyes brushed across him and then looked at other things. They saw an old man who did nothing, who had nothing – if they considered him at all. And sometimes that was what he was, what he felt beneath his skin. Sometimes he felt that the best of him had gone with Ruth. And those feelings brought the darkest times.
But when he looked up at the sky and, for a moment, saw its blue without the clutter of his loss, he knew that he had been someone before she came. He remembered games and teams, workmates and easy banter, noisy pubs and lively people. And he missed those too. They had slipped away with Ruth’s arrival. But he had never blamed her. He had made the choices on his own and he would have to wear the scars of his own blunders, if that’s what they were.
The people from those days had all disappeared now and their threads were well out of his reach. The only faces that he encountered now were masks, not real people. Just public skin and voices, nothing deeper. Not the fragile souls or tender beliefs that could be bruised by thoughtless behaviour that Ruth had illuminated for him. Over time, she had brought those sorts of things to his attention – feelings, vulnerability – and he had grown careful not to mention any physical irregularities or blatant acts of stupidity after she had led him to see the sensitivity that could lurk beneath the surface. He had come to see people not just as obstacles in his path or tools to achieve his ends, and he had found that things like respect and selflessness were used by some. And often expected.
But he didn’t encounter people who required such consideration any longer. There were only the sculptured dispensers who, though frequently in his path, didn’t require his careful manoeuvring. He made his way through them all until he could be alone again to feel his pain in peace.
Sometimes Ruth’s voice would come to him. Words he had heard but never really held quite close enough. Times that had long disappeared that he now wished back for their intimacy.
“Before I met you, no one had put their hand on my back and stroked me with their thumb,” she had said.
“Before I met you, I had never felt another person’s neck and let their hair loop around my fingers.”
“Before I met you, no one had ever taken my side in an argument – not when it really mattered.”
He had wanted to fight for Ruth. To stroke her, to feel her fingers on his neck.
Once, when they had lit the first fire in their hearth, she had stared into the flames and let her arm rest across his leg.
“When I would start a new job,” she had said, “all the girls would talk about their boyfriends, their husbands, their sweethearts. And then they would say … ‘So, Ruth, do you have someone?’ … and I would have to say ‘No’. But now I have you. You are my someone.”
Ruth had said many things that had slipped into the nights and mornings and the darknesses of time. But now they haunted him like a sweet poison. He tasted the words over and over and then felt an ache that lingered deep inside him.
“Before I met you, no one had ever been at home waiting for me. No one had wondered if I was on the bus or still at work. No one had given me a thought.”
Sometimes he could feel her sadness. The sadness that had disappeared from her in their time together and had now somehow found its way to him. It sat like a small cold stone nestling in a pocket – always there, so smooth and cool – that could, with a touch of recognition, bring loneliness so quickly to the surface.
He had felt like someone when he had become her someone. And now that she was gone, he was more no one that he had ever been before.
Nobody had given her a second look when she had walked into the pub. The other girls had all been a little taller, blonder, more even, more sparkling or smooth. But he had looked again. He had thought he had seen something behind the crooked smile, the flushed red cheeks … something that was more than a button nose or wavy blonde curls.
People liked having Ruth as a friend – she was generous and funny, she knew what made each person laugh. But no one had ever looked at her the way he had. He could tell that from the first. Because she covered herself with advice and stories and questions and never showed that there was something softer underneath that shell. He didn’t know what had made him see her in that way, different to the others. He just knew that he did. From that first time. The others all glanced at her, listened and laughed, but he had looked. Really looked. And though it had taken time, she had finally let him see.
“I waited for you for years and years,” she had said, “without even knowing that I was. … I waited for you, and then you were there.”
And from then on, he had waited for her. To meet him at the station. To stay with him through the night. To walk up the aisle towards him. And still there was waiting. Time slipped by as he waited for her to come home from work. To come in from the garden. To come to bed. And now his life was only waiting. Until the time they would be together again.
Her friends had come around for a while but now they mostly stayed away. He didn’t want their dishes of food and their pitying eyes draped over him. And with Ruth gone, he couldn’t find a reason not to say so. At first, their voices had become even more clammy and sickening when he had told them to leave him to his loneliness but after a time, their faces became pinched and their dishes just scraps and leftovers and then they didn’t come again. Some had muttered as they walked their last walk down the pathway about not knowing what Ruth had seen in him, and worse, but he had been glad to see their pink backs and clopping shoes shrink and disappear.
So the days stretched out like empty deserts and he was a prisoner in a world full of crusts and shells and nothing.
It was a cooling afternoon when Ellanora came.
She arrived with a sharp bang on the back door.
He shuffled his way there and there she stood with beaming teeth and soft friendly upholstery.
“Here. A stew. I bake just now to say hello. To say welcome to this place.”
He stared at her. “But I’ve been here for years. What are you talking about?”
“No, me. Is me who is welcome. I just here. And husband. Just now in house behind.”
“Oh, right. Well … welcome then.” He turned to go.
“No, stew. Take stew.” She pushed the earthenware dish at his chest and showed more of her teeth. “We visit too, very soon. We friends now. Nearbys – that the name? We nearbys and friends.” There was no question in her last remark. She decreed that it was so, and so it was.
She stopped by every few days with a plate or pot of something, she would call out as he made his way down the path to collect the mail. And her voice could be heard through many hours of the day and night intoning its way through recounted revelations, greetings, personal observations and more.
Her husband was a quiet man. Quiet but not slow or unproductive. He spent the first weeks after their arrival carrying boxes (first full, then empty), fixing drainpipes and fenceposts and freeing their neglected garden from its cage of dead branches and weeds. His face gave no indication that the constant soundtrack of Ellanora’s voice was anything but the gentle rhythm of his life. Bayel went about his business with his soft half smile and seemed, in his own way, to be as happy to have found this new home as his more animated wife.
They were a vigorous addition to the neighbourhood. Their presence was regularly felt, especially that of Ellanora. She made welcome visits, stew visits, soup visits. She called across fences and gardens. She waved and smiled and stomped and banged, and the street – and others adjoining it – began to feel the changing vibrations.
After a few weeks, Bayel’s work around his house changed to evening maintenance and some early morning minor repairs. He went out to work at night and slept most of the day – perhaps a little more deeply during the times that Ellanora undertook her visiting. He would water his own garden and then give those next door a generous dousing. He would gather up leaves that had accumulated in the gutters along several local streets. And he would collect the rusty remnants and the useless junk that leant against people’s sheds or beside their loaded rubbish bins and make a trip in his old truck to the local dump on his days off. And he did it all as if it were nothing. As if sweeping the pavement along the length of the street was his assigned task and one that sat lightly on his shoulders. As if pruning both sides of the shrubs that overhung his fence were something he found satisfying. Everything he did was done with the same tone – innate, natural, fundamental. He ate, he breathed, he did what needed to be done.
Some people looked at Ellanora and Bayel with tight lips and sent them only silence and perhaps a polite head bob. Others kept their heads down and their back doors shut. But no response could dilute the couple’s community spirit. Or Ellanora’s enthusiasm.
She would arrive carrying a dish with something spicy or aromatic lapping dangerously inside and she would pound on a door in such a way that made it sound as if it were one knock away from splintering. And when, inevitably, she made it past the barricade of the dirty dressing-gown or the silent stony face, she would find her way quickly to somewhere that she could tweak at cushions and straighten furniture. And she would exclaim about the glories of her new home, the love of her new friends and the richness of her life.
“The sun …”
“… so rich and juicy …”
“My dear new friend …”
Ellanora was filled with colours and boldness and a thick sweet syrup that bubbled out of her as if she had never had a moment of sadness. As if she had never lost anything or looked back on anything with regret or pain. Her footsteps marched with a jolly kind of purpose and her days were full of food and songs and cheerful constancy.
But loneliness could still exist in a place of noise and activity. And there was still an emptiness that only Ruth could fill.
What would Ruth have said? To Ellanora? About Ellanora? Would she have welcomed the intrusion in the garden, the invasion of the house?
Perhaps she would have. To a point. Perhaps she would have drawn the line at the tidying but smiled and waved across the fence with genuine friendliness. He didn’t know. Because now things were happening that were beyond Ruth. A life was springing up that she would never step inside and unique experiences were being born that she would never have.
He sat inside the house and picked up the framed photograph of Ruth that lived beside him on the table.
He looked at the picture and it was just a flat shiny piece of paper. He thought back to the pub that first time but there was no smell of smoke and after-shave and no surging waves of sound bubbling around him. Ruth was fading. He was moving out of reach.
The door shook yet again, one step closer to its inevitable demise. It was destined to make the journey on Bayel’s truck to the rubbish dump … and relatively soon.
“Hello! Just Ellanora … Just Ellanora with some nice bread for you!”
He sat silently, and still.
Another battering and the door rattled its pleas for the punishment to end.
“Hello, I know you inside. I hear the flashing … the loo flashing down the drain, little while ago.” Her voice boomed across the neighbourhood.
He didn’t move. He realised that he was holding his breath.
“Hell-o! I have bread … from oven just now. Lots of good things in my bread!”
He blocked out the noise and thought of Ruth. He tried to bring in her eyes, her smell, her fingers on his neck.
“I see weeds down here. I send Bayel to fetch them later. They spoil your grass. … Hell-o!”
The door knob quivered and turned. “Oh, you didn’t lock.” Her voice dropped very slightly as she spoke mostly to herself. Then it broke the inside air. “Hello! You didn’t lock … usually you lock! Take care – maybe burglars one day, not just me.”
She strode into the living room. “Here you are! Sitting all quiet. … Hot new bread!” She held it out and gleamed her endless grin. Then she looked at the photo in his hands and her voice became a voice that he had never heard.
“Oh, your … your love is with you.” Soft. Soothing almost. A gentleness that was warm and knowing.
Ellanora looked for a moment with eyes that were as deep and rich as her voice had become. Then she turned around and with a few purposeful strides and the sounds of bread on the kitchen table and the clunk of the back door, she was gone.
And suddenly there was the kind of silence he had never felt before. A kind that filled his ears – the emptiness pressing deep inside and still expanding all around him. And Ruth was nowhere in the quiet. She was gone, truly gone.
The photograph wasn’t her. Her shawl over the armchair wasn’t her. And the memories he had of her were a part of him. Just him. All he could hear, if he listened through the hollow calm, was his own breath. The soft rustle of his shirt across his chest as it moved just slightly in and out. He fingered the fabric – it was a shirt he’d bought himself a week or two before.
He couldn’t stop it.
The moving on.
Later that day, he made a sandwich with the bread. It had cooled but it was still moist and fresh. When he stepped outside, he found Bayel pulling weeds from the lawn just near the back stairs. Ellanora’s husband looked up as he dropped the discarded plants into a bucket and smiled.
The sandwich was good. The bread had a kind of nutty taste.
Ellanora was hanging washing on the other side of the fence and as he ate the last crusty mouthful, he walked down the stairs and took a few steps in her direction. He nodded at her.
“Good bread,” he said.
“Yes,” she smiled, “lots of good things in my bread.”
He nodded again. “Before I met you, I don’t think I ever had bread like this.”