She sat at the desk in the window. The light was scarcely good enough to write, that hour of dusk when a startling blue flame seems anxious to consume the remnants of day before succumbing to the extinguishing flood of night. A beautiful wistful time, too soon to draw curtains and build a different sort of contentment in a closed room by lighting a lamp, putting a match to the fire, unstopping the decanter, resigning oneself to a lighted kitchen to brew up something with a good smell to be a welcome to the footsteps which might or might not louden on the path. A kiss reeking of sherry would follow, the butt of the fag would be crushed out in the saucer with the mouldering half-lemon on the kitchen window-sill, and she would call brightly ‘Sit up. I’m ready now’. And they would eat speechlessly as usual, some nameless play burbling on the radio. Then a sweet, while she toyed with the flowers on the dining-table, improving the position of a primrose which tended to droop its face, or picked at the heart of a rose, feeling the pollen on her fingers which had always been open to such minute sensualities.
But none of these routines tonight, plenty of time to fiddle with a pen, improve the wayward letters she had already written, blackening the flourish of the capital D of Dear, add a more definite dot to the comma, lengthen its tail, turn the postcard over again and wonder what sort of riposte one could provide to ‘having a wonderful time’. The zig-zaq lines like black and white lightning which danced implacably about four inches in mid-air from her left eye were by now a familiar accompaniment to her desultory thoughts and she disregarded them with patience as she chewed the pen and tried out phrases in which to frame the news she was sure it would be easier to write than speak. But at that moment the telephone rang, a mincing nasal tone announced a locality to the far north, some noises like distant mosquitoes set the stage, and then the voice broke through, masculine, forcedly breezy: That you darling? How goes it? Oh fine she said, how are you getting on? Enjoying yourself? Oh splendid. Fit as a fiddle, best holiday I’ve had for years I think. Marvellous these outback pubs, great fellows you meet, you know. Wouldn’t read about them. I’ve got some priceless stories to tell you. Actually, Jack and I have been talking about taking the coast road down, by easy stages you know. The car’s running like a bird. Will it make any difference if we take a couple more days over it? We thought we’d call on old Terry at Coolabar, you know that chap who came as a reinforcement to the regiment just before we disbanded. Jack says he’s farming up here. I’d like to have a crack with him, sand in your eye, you know, the old times. You still there dear? Yes she said. That’s all right. I’m O.K. Thought I’d go to a film tonight. There’s a new Bergman at the Berkeley. I’ll ring Mother or try and get Pam perhaps. The pips interrupted her. Well I must finish now he bawled jovially. Oh wait on, how did your eye test go? Oh she said, all right. He was a bit non-committal. Said perhaps I’d better see someone else. Oh no, I’m not worrying. Migraine probably. Goodnight dear. See you Thursday. Bye.
An hour later she sat in the city train, eyes closed against the penetration of a naked globe. She still clung to a stale hope that one day she would close her eyes and the zig-zags would go to sleep, that perhaps they existed only on air. But it appeared that their home was in the head where they had settled down cosily for the night, playing cards to pass the time, shuffling black and white cards with skill and rapidity, a game of chance in which she was not expected to hold a hand. Dummy, that was her endless and fearful part to play. Such a kind chap, that specialist, attractive as a man in the way all doctors seemed to be, suave with the knack of pleasing women with a tenderly benign glance which seemed to say, this is my job you know, but if we could meet some time in different circumstances there would be a sympathy perhaps not quite so kindly. It was a help to be well dressed, she had crossed her legs, her one real asset, and seemed to be deep in admiration of the pretty shoes as he had spoken of a few days in hospital for tests. It will be uncomfortable he had murmured with a practised nonchalance, but not too bad I assure you. Then we will be able to have an exact measurement of the trouble for future reference and when your husband comes home we will make arrangements for an operation which will give you considerable relief for some time. Meanwhile you will find these tablets help you to sleep. He wrote gracefully while talking. She noticed the impeccable nails and the signet ring. She supposed he took it off to scrub up. A small vanity acceptable in a man of the world. He looked up, straight in her eyes, or as straight as it was possible for her to see anyone these days. Pain made all objects crooked, the world was a crooked mirror in a giggle-palace. Have you someone at home to look after you? Oh yes she lied brightly, a friend is slaying while Bob’s away. And don’t drive, will you, the pressure on the optic nerve is not marked at the moment but it may increase unexpectedly. I don’t drive she said. I lead a quiet life, books you know, and I paint a little, but that’s out now of course. But it’s beautiful weather, I’ll lie about and enjoy the sun and try to fatten up a bit. He looked up. You have great … she saw ‘courage’ frame itself in his healthy brain, but she hoped not, feeling the sweat trickling down her thighs, soaking the pretty underwear, worn for the occasion, the best, you never knew, they were so thorough without apparent reason, there might have been a general examination. But he switched his words. You have great aplomb, Mrs Grove. A quality I admire. I always know at once the patients it would be an insult to fob off with half-truths. I assure you I will make things as comfortable for you as is humanly possible. Get your husband to ring me directly on his return, won’t you. He took her hand at the door, smoothly. She had walked briskly down Collins Street and bought violets from a barrow, and sniffed them deeply, perfume, the great feminine comfort, the olfactory extension of sex.
At the picture theatre she sank exhaustedly into anonymous gloom, but the Bergman film proved to be an insufferable extension or her own sense of fragmentation and even its shadowy scenes hurt her eyes more than could be considered remotely worthwhile. Wandering through streets to the station the Cathedral bells began to ring, a glorious sonority which was the first real alleviation of despair she had been accorded for weeks. She stood in the Cathedral yard, where a few cars were parked, belonging lo bell-ringers no doubt. Wednesday night must be their time for practice. Head back. The great tower was illumined faintly with amber light from the belfry windows, behind a wild sky of sombre cloud. It went through her gloriously. As she stood there she became conscious of a man at her elbow, tallish, decently dressed. He spoke suddenly, as though compelled by some rough desire for communication. The breath was redolent of liquor but not offensive. Do you belong to this church he asked. She answered without thinking, Yes, remembering the cool cave of refuge she occasionally had sought out on shopping days in the city. I want a clergyman, the man said. I spoke to a bell-ringer but he says there’s no one here. No I don’t think there would be at this time of night, she said. I want to see a clergyman, he said again doggedly. I’ve got a problem. A strong face with a twitch of the jaw. Is it your church, he asked again. Yes she said. Is it yours. No, R.C. he said. Oh well, why don’t you go up to St Pat’s. There will certainly be someone in the presbytery ready to see you. Oh they’ve had their say, he said. I want another opinion. I’ve got a problem, see. Well if you’re desperate, the only thing I can suggest is for you to find a phone book and ring Bishops court, the Archbishop’s residence. Someone there will tell you if there is a city mission available, she finished lamely, picturing perhaps a dinner party in progress in the august bluestone mansion in East Melbourne. I’m not desperate, he said firmly, but once again I’ve got a problem, I want a clergyman. Can I help you, she asked recklessly, smelling the breath, but with only a little qualm. He looked cleanly at her, nothing happened. If you can wait till tomorrow she said, I suggest you ring the Cathedral offices, the Dean and Precentor will be there and there are always priests on duty for private consultation. Thanks he said, and she walked vaguely away, without aim, towards the traffic lights at the corner. The bells had stopped. Suddenly he was at her side again. What time tomorrow he said. Oh about ten I suppose, she said, they’d be there then. Thanks he said. They continued to the corner. He crossed on the green. She turned back. The bells started again on another exercise. She tried the door. Perhaps to pray. For herself, and others. A cleaner was jangling keys. Just shutting up I’m afraid he said. She climbed the worn flight of beautiful shallow steps under the arch to Flinders Lane. A book shop was lighted brightly. Titles went into her mind and out by a process unconnected with intelligence. Bonhoeffer beamed from a dustjacket. A saint. She had warmed once to his philosophy. Religion without God. We have outgrown god. We are learning to be our own gods. We are learning to solve our own problems. We are learning to listen to bells and to die gloriously on the wave of a sound, on a pure sound in the mind where someone is filling in time with a piffling game of poker with greasy cards, riffling the cards, the blacks and the whites, the endless fans of cards zig-zagged by a sharper whom you have never seen and do not wish to know. Sweet God, darling silly old God, thanks for the bells, the big loud virile muddled scales which carry you down shallow flights of steps with a dancing measure, keep your head high and the breath even and deep, deportment so important you know, a straight back throws the bust up, not tired yet, lightly up over the opposite steps to a crude concrete attempt at a park over the station yards. At last seats in the dark, one in a private corner where you may rest unseen. But this desirable seat is occupied by a handbag. Behind the seat concrete tubs of shrubs, behind the tubs a couple, young, clasped in a furtive embrace, poor children. Respect their moment, don’t turn the head. Proceed to the concrete wall which supports the chin and affords an interesting landscape of mazed train lines, buffers, a train shuffling in slowly, not fast enough, too far away for even a determined angel to reach in time. No wings, not a courageous woman, the tangled overhead wires seem too close to be even adventurous, the concrete wall is too high for graceful deportment, it would be a graceless scramble. Along the line a large blue light shines, it seems familiar, friendly, like the light at the door of a country police station, the blue night-light that glimmers at the desk in a great public hospital, Ward 7 West, hushed for the night, all asleep, no pains. But more beautiful, a sapphire crystallisation of all the evenings since time began. Sweet Jesus she whispered as she turned away down the steps again, how I have loved the world, the blue flame of the dusk, the innocence. The bells seemed to have tremored to silence at last. The lights in the tower were gone. The seats beneath the Cathedral walls were dark, fewer people passed. One form sat there, a young sailor hunched in his greatcoat, a white cap pushed back, a sullen baby face. She thought of silting down, turning. I have a problem. But not her kind of man. A Yellow Cab cruised, she hailed it. Home she said, sprightly. Where to Lady? Clifton Hill Overpass she said, and then straight on, I’ll tell you as we go. She lit a cigarette, enjoyed the first puff. Follow the footy, she asked after a while and that started him on a monologue, she shut her eyes and let the cardsharpers take over. Do you ever play cards, she said after a time. My husband and I are fond of poker, just occasionally you know, it passes the evenings. I’m an expert. Here we are, just turn in here, the gate’s just round the corner. She opened her bag. Oh I’m so sorry, I’m afraid I’ve left my money in the house, I haven’t enough. Will you come up to the door and I’ll get it. He got out sulkily, as they climbed the steps the huge dog rose sleepily from his bed of sacks by the door, stretched, wagged his tail, sniffed the man’s crutch in a desultory fashion, and slipped into the house as she unlocked the door. Won’t you come in while I get the money, she said. It’s a sharp night. The man stood uneasily. Thanks, I’ll wait, he said. I’ve got a call on the radio, next block. She went into the next room, took the money from her purse and returned to thrust a note at him. Keep the change.
When he had gone she bent to light the fire, the dog hunched with his weight against her side, a nightly ritual, mothering hour. How’s Mum’s fellah, she crooned, stroking the russet satin skull. He keeled slightly, swooning with pleasure as she rubbed his ears and ran her hand lightly up and down the fine polished forelegs. He collapsed with a profound sigh on the hearth, and she drew up an armchair, fetched the whiskey decanter, a glass of water and the new pills from the bedside table. She surveyed the arrangement with love, went for another glass and poured herself a good swig. The radio proffered an unctuous epilogue. Our speaker tonight was Father Costello S.J. of Perth. Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. A very good night to you. Goodnight. She left the highpitched whining signal while she ran a hot bath, scattered bathsalts. Hot water quickens the blood, she thought calmly as she lay and soaked. The zig-zags miraculously abated for at least five minutes. I have a problem she said aloud. It’s not what they think. They often make mistakes, it’s the change, kidney trouble, spots in front of the eyes. She ran more hot water, a faintness and nausea started, she climbed out, draped her hips in an orange towel and through a flattering cloud of steam surveyed in the mirror the small breasts which did not seem to have either improved or worsened since the age of fourteen. With the greatest care and daintiness she powdered her bones, slipped on a dressing gown and returned to the living room where the dog snored in stertorous bliss. A thought struck her and she moved languidly to the phone. To dial the number was difficult, the black and white cardshapes were riffling with dazzling speed but the lateness of the hour never occurred to her. Is that you Pam? Have I woken you, you sound dopey.
Oh I am sorry, but look shweetie, would you do me an enormous favour. I’m in for a real humdinger of a ‘flu, just taken a snorter of a hot toddy and going lo lie low tomorrow. Would you be an angel and get me some dog’s meat, I’m right out. No don’t come in the morning, I want to just lie low and sweat it out. Come about five if you can, he’s fed then. A thousand thanks. Do the same for you some day. Bye.
She poured the pills out onto the mantle piece, sorted them into sevens, always a magic number, nice to be tidy, small pretty ones, jade green. One glass of water didn’t quite finish them. Whiskey; Christ I always did hate the stuff, but warm, certainly warm. Warm, aren’t we, boyo, you and me both. She made it to the door, turned the handle and closed it gently again without latching. For you boyo, to get out when it’s dawn. Her skin felt uncomfortably tight after the hot bath. She returned to the bathroom cup board, applied some lotion, fossicked clumsily for a lipstick and hand mirror. Sank at last into the armchair, filled the glass this time, raised it. See you Thursday she mumbled. Best holiday I’ve had in years. Then as a final slap in the eye to the cardsharpers, held the mirror steady as might be and dyed her deathless smile on.
Anne Elder ( 1918 – 1976) was an Australian ballet dancer and poet.