By Julie Thorndyke
She nearly walked straight into him, coming around the street corner, walking purposefully on the narrow footpath, he just closing the gate in the low white picket fence, still showing the tide mark of recent floods.
Their simultaneous apologies, in broken half-sentences, were polite and automatic.
You’re Tom’s wife, aren’t you?
She was startled to hear her husband’s name slide so glibly from a stranger’s tongue.
How did you…
How do I know Tom? We often have a chat or walk to the station together. And I’ve heard you together.
Yes. OK. Got to rush.
She knew this man by sight; recognised his square, well-shaven jaw. His short-cut, spiky, optimistic hair. The too-careful, almost child-like presentation of his well-ironed shirt, the knife-crease in his pants.
Tom hasn’t been around much lately. Is he away?
No. have to…
Oh, don’t go! The fingers of his left-hand grazed the thin cotton over her right nipple. She suddenly understood the purpose of his coke-bottle glasses, the loosely-held white cane.
Sorry, she said. And felt obligated somehow, by his downcast face, to explain. Tom never came home. After the floods. OK? He never came home. I don’t know where he is, or which sodden veranda of which stinking house his corpse is rotting under. I just don’t know.
She stood, motionless, emptied of this information, emptied of life.
This time his fingers found her arm, held it, above her elbow, stroked it upwards, patted her shoulder. She did not pull away. Was strangely reassured by the touch of his warm, dry hand on her shivering skin.
Why don’t you come in?
He opened the gate and led her up the steps, across the splintery veranda and opened the screen door. The front door he unlocked with a key on a chain which he deftly pulled from his pocket.
You weren’t flooded, then? she asked politely.
No, these old Queenslanders are built high enough. My grandad knew what he was about.
She looked around and saw the furniture, a mix of old and new, sentimental and practical. A new computer with various peripherals spread over an oak dining table in the middle of the room. Without asking he boiled the kettle and made two mugs of instant coffee.
You live alone?
Yes. Dad died eight years ago.
He had a good innings. Sorry about Tom. No one tells me the local gossip. I mean the local news. I’m well informed on international affairs, though, he quipped.
She sipped the coffee. Too sweet, but hot.
You knew Tom, you said?
Yes. We often walked from the station together.
He never said.
Were you flooded out?
Just downstairs. Not that bad. Car ruined.
Went out to help, never came home.
They’ll find him.
But he won’t be alive, will he, after all this time.
There was no answer to that, even for a resourceful blind man, so they sat in silence as the light dimmed, afternoon shadows lengthening, the sunset moving higher up the patterned wall with a rose-shaded glow.
After a while she put her feet up on the vinyl couch and rested her head on the square arm rest. Later, when she woke, she had been covered by a crocheted rug, such as your grandmother might have stitched, in long-past days. There was a moth-hole in it, and she poked her pinky through it, idly, as she remembered how she came to be in this unfamiliar place.
I cooked, he said. Do you like sausages?
Not hungry, she said. I’ll be going now.
She let herself out the front door, opened the gate in the picket fence, and walked to the river, where swollen banks still throbbed with unusual force, and wildlife had deserted the normally tranquil reed-ponds and mangroves. She thought of Virginia Woolf, but could find no stones.