Ruth Ortis lives alone at sixty-seven Sallymount Road. Winding steadily down life’s last corkscrew her brain’s passengers sit patiently and wait for the end, or at least this is what Sally Ortis said to me earlier in the week over a quick, thick milk Latte with four sugars.
Sally said something along those lines. She wasn’t clear.
Sally’s note says I should get to Ruth’s at around nine or ten am although it’s currently half past seven and I have nothing else to do. The bag of hair is stuffed in the pocket of my brown adventure coat, an emblem of this new beginning, and it rustles reassuringly as I turn the corner of Sallymount Road. The house is set a little back from the pavement and a rusted golden Sixty Seven is embossed on the turquoise door – a fridge is laying in the garden buttock side up and its coiling radiator tubes have faded to an oily green. Stagnant water has collected in its gutters. I’ll have to move that. She might have forgotten it’s there. Stale roses drip with their stench from unkempt bushes by the door, which opens.
“Hello?” she asks and her translucent eyelids retract. An insect, if they had ears, would be able to hear them squelch. She has a moist face, dewy. The deep rivulets run with the streams of sweat from the source pores beneath her wispy hair. Not as flaky as I had expected for someone nearing eighty five.
“Ruth? Ruth Ortis?” I ask as sweetly as I can.
She flinches and pulls back behind the door. Carefully, carefully. Not too abruptly. She should be dealt with like a spot. A spot too enthusiastically and pre-emptively pinched. Is this the onset of paranoia or a worthy fear?
“That’s me. You want to sell me something? I don’t want it.” There is a sharpness to her voice that is blunted by her saggy chin and twig figure under the dwarfing purple dress.
“No,” I laugh, “I’m Edward. Edward Lock. We spoke on the phone. Sally recommended -“
“Edward. It’s nice to meet you. She didn’t say you had no hair. Freshly cut and shining, too.”
“Well, I trust you. Not many people knock on this door. But-” she says with a sudden viciousness, “if you try and steal anything I’ll scream.”
I nod. Her anger disappears as rapidly as it developed. She smiles and enters the porch. I follow her into the small house and she waves at the sofa wrapped in blankets, some worn thin to their patchy thread. “I’ll be back in just…a…” She moves with a bumbling limp into the kitchen through the only interior door in the room. The ambiguous murmur of a radio mingles with a bubbling boiling soup in the kitchen: chicken soup, or beef or –
“Coffee?” Her call was barely audible from where I sat.
“Yes…however you like it.”
A spring gouges at my legs. I want to adjust the blankets but a stank of the elderly arises at every movement. Pressed musty butterfly wings in a museum attic, watched over by a man with owl-glasses whose own dank scent merges with the dust. Foetid flowers. Apart from the sofa there are two red leather armchairs which both have sunken seats, evidence of a young and plumper age in the Ortis household. Hanging in a frame above the bread-brown electric radiator there is a white pressed shirt. On the mantelpiece and bookcase there are photographs of a young man and a younger Sally. An empty beach. The packed boot of an old Rover. A grotesque wedding cake.
“Here,” Ruth says, handing me a blue mug.
She must have stood at six foot in the days when her skin wasn’t stretched and worn like used bongo drums. Now her neck protrudes from stooped shoulders. She doesn’t sit in the closest chair and instead crosses to the one on the other side of the room.
“Roo’s chair,” she says, “My late husband.”
“Thirty years. Don’t ask why. He was killed in a car accident. It wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t even drive. No one else sat in that chair since. Not me, not Sally, not no bald-headed man,” she says with a smile.
“The sofa will do. How long -”
“As long as I can remember and memory comes and goes these days. I wasn’t born here but it feels like it. Ask me where the light switch is and I’ll find it blindfolded. One push of the finger, no groping.”
She clicked her tongue, “Never ask a woman-”
She nods, “That’s right.”
Got it. I look at the framed white shirt, “This -?”
“That was Roo’s work shirt. He owned two coffee shops. One of them still exists but it’s owned by a conglomerate now. There was a lot of potential there. He could make a nice coffee.”
“As can you,” I say, I take the appropriate sip and make the obligatory lip smack. The coffee is actually too sweet but it complements the stale aromatic heaviness of the air.
“I’m old but my mind is still in good shape,” she says, nodding vigorously, “I used to work on the trains.”
“Oh?” I say, finding it hard to judge what tone was suitable for my response.
“On the platforms. Mind the gap. That was me.”
“Yes, they’ll -” – replace you with machines one of these days, “- I mean, how long have you been retired?”
“Since Roo. He left me and Sally a good bit, hence the shirt,” she points to it and wipes a tear.
“Churchill has one,” she smiles.
There is a momentary quiet whilst we both contemplate Churchill. Enough. I sit up, lean forwards and take a preparatory sip.
“Ruth do you know why I’m here? Why Sally said -”
“About her baby. Christian is the man for her, I can tell you that. I saw him roll up in that car of his. Have you met him? Christian Lake, what a name. What a name,” she sighs.
Sally is pregnant. Does Kit know? – Of course Kit knows. You can’t escape. There are babies everywhere.
“I’ve never met him,” I say.
“Ha, well, you could probably -”
I interrupt, “Ruth, why would Sally send me here to talk about the baby?”
She doesn’t respond.
I wave my hand at her but she pays no attention. “Ruth…Ruth. Mrs. Ortis.”
She drinks her coffee and shakes her head, “I’m sorry Ted, it gets a bit much when Sally comes here talking about the baby.”
“Sally isn’t here right now.”
“Yes…she doesn’t come as often as she used to,” she says quietly.
“Sally’s been pregnant for a while. I don’t know how long but that baby has a face now. I saw it. She wasn’t keen on it, Eddie. She wasn’t keen on Christian, either. Though when I saw that baby’s scan I knew it was meant to be. Too late to abort it, she can’t, don’t let her abort it. She has to keep it and she has to keep that man on board,” she says and her final words sound like she is demanding it of herself.
“Christian?” I ask, “What’s he like?”
“His name is Christian Lake. What a name.”
She nods her head. Her hair moves like feathers in a breeze.
“I -” I begin.
“Christian. You can’t beat a strong name like that. Roo was a strong name but only because it came from Ronald. Did you know that? I added the ‘O’. It stuck, it still sticks, it’s sticking. Once Roo died it wasn’t easy for us. Sally. She. She listens to me as if I was…as if I was…” She trails off, looking past me towards the curtained window, “As if I was him.”
“What have you said to Sally, Ruth?” I ask slowly.
She looks away from me again. Her words are softly solemn, “I told her to keep it, that’s all. That’s really all I have said. I told her to get on with it. Life has been given to her. Hold on to that life. It’ll be gone soon. Hold on. That’s what I said to her.”
“Yes. Hold on to it,” there is a lump in my throat, “that’s some solid…solid advice.”
“So you can tell her that. Tell her that she is blessed and lucky to have such a strong, nice man to care and fund her baby. I already did say that to her. You should try it, it might sound…it might sound different if you say it to her. Understand?”
I can’t talk, so I nod.
“I thought so. Drink your coffee. I am going to go upstairs,” she looks to the wall as if there was a clock hanging there, “I always sleep at this time.”
Slowly she gets up from the chair and with a thin smile and a wave more like a dismissal she leaves the room. I hear the whir of a stair lift and the thud of a door upstairs.