Ruth steps into the pool of warmth ebbing off the tarmac between the beautiful ornate old gates and the high fence that blocks the park from view.
Already, the sounds of the city seem muffled. Stripped of urgency and flattened.
She has a little flush of nerves when she fears she might have left the ticket in her coat back at the staff room in the hospital. But no. It’s there. An old-fashioned paper slip, a thank you from a patient’s family.
The original railings – tipped like arrowheads, all around the grounds – are finished with black paint. She can’t help but think the paint is somehow melted in the sun. It looks still wet and makes her want to touch it. Recalls the hard liquorice she used to covet from her father as a child, small diamonds sticky in her mouth; the way she and her brother Leo used to see which of them could keep one longest on their tongue.
There’s a booth with an actual person, wearing a name badge. So surprising it makes her childish. But then, there’s a warm nervousness just beneath her skin right now. Ever since she lied to Colin. Told him she would be on a late shift and said yes to tonight.
There’s been nothing recently. And every time she thinks about it, she recognises just how long she means when she says ‘recently’.
His mind is always somewhere else. Always with the same excuse, ‘It’s work.’
This business with the Ice Dock. He’s certain there’s some big scandal to uncover. But when is he not? Certain this is his chance to write his breakthrough story. Always, she thinks, something is the chance to write his breakthrough story.
He’s sure other journalists are safe in someone’s pocket.
This piece. The cycling. His love of antique letter openers. He has obsessions. Colin.
She’s realised that’s all she was to him, and that for a few years now, she’s been little more than furniture.
That for a long, long time, every time she goes home, she hopes he will be different. Will have lifted from his bubble.
He was still up when she came in from her actual late shift last night on the ward.
His finger pattering away at his tablet, the way someone would poke another person in the chest if they were angry.
Don’t get cold, she’d said to him. And he’d said, ‘Do you mean emotionally?’ Not even looking up.
Always so clever with his words.
Ruth shows the ticket and is let through an old-fashioned turnstile. It clicks and snaps ingeniously. The bar rotates into her bum. A cheeky bump of encouragement. ‘It’s okay . . .’ Into a different world.
A group of young mothers sit on the grass. Their children bright as flowers.
Couples walk on the paths. Blackbirds toy in the leaf litter, flick up the ornamental bark.
Ruth has never looked up and seen so few people outdoors in this city. Feels a strange sense of vertigo at the unbusy-ness, the space. A nostalgia for the beach she grew up next to.
Remembers watching Leo learn to walk in their parents’ garden by the sea.
She builds up the courage to sit. The give of the ground ever-so-slight. Firm and warm. Rests her hand into the soft nap of grass, uncertain that she should.
It takes her a while to realise the hum is not the city traffic but the sound of insects. Tiny flies displaying, staying in one place in the air.
The lawn is littered with clover. Another plant she does not know. Tiny. A crowd of heart-shaped leaves with tight-grouped yellow flowers that look like knots in thread.
There’s a gentle breeze. That she hears more than feels. That knocks the nearby leaves a little.
Odd-looking alginate bags hang amongst the trees and shrubs, like funny plastic fruit. With the opaque haze of the soundproof pods around the patients’ beds. Leaves bunched up, the bags tied tightly at the neck with string.
She assumes the plants have some sort of infection.
Notices each type of leaf makes a sound all of its own. The rattle of dried peas in a child’s toy; the shush sound in a shell. Respirators. Laboured breath.
She pushes the thought of the ward away.
. . . Breathlessness . . .
A tickle on her skin.
She watches an aphid stumble through the faint blonde hairs of her arm; its curious feelers flittering busily, tasting the paths of her salt.
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