Unbeknown to her, Ruth’s pupils dilate. The threadbare reclining chair in her field of vision unseen as her mind reels off painful images like a kaleidoscope. A mask of horror replaces her usual scowl.
Gordon notices this. He is not known to be a man of any real insight, but the flash of dread across her face is interpreted, only to be misinterpreted. “Are you alright? Is it one of your headaches?” he asks. A migraine that will confine her to bed for three days is the culprit, he decides.
Ruth does not reply. If only this were a mere headache! Something inside her has snapped this time and like a broken rubber band, she cannot repair it. She is unable to trundle on, make the best of it. Ruth lingers in this pose while Gordon opens a newspaper and soon forgets to care about what ails her.
There must be another way, she reflects. How to leave a man without totally crushing his assistance. Was there a book of that title available from WHSmith’s? If so, she could do with it now. Ruth’s reservations are as basic or as complicated as an outside observer cared to evaluate them. For one, Gordon can not cook. His idea of cuisine is an un-sliced slab of cheese and an entire uncut tomato wedged into a folded slice of white bread (no knives necessary)! Tea-making had somehow been mastered and he had gone as far as to become a wizard with the electric tin-opener. So, she ascertains, he would never be short of a hot drink and the cats would not starve.
Gordon hasn’t had a job since the early 80’s. He had played some minor role for the Epping branch of the post office, running errands, conveying messages, she recalls. He had never been important or trustworthy enough to deliver letters. In fact, Ruth has never really understood the ins and outs of what he actually did because Gordon is never entirely honest about anything. All too soon Gordon cried off sick with his ailment of the week, on this occasion a suspect excuse of ‘back pain’. This particular illness proved to be permanent, at least until the postal job had fallen by the wayside. The children had been very young then and for the remainder of their working years, the family survived on social security payments and the odd secretarial job Ruth had attained. That was until computers arrived to humiliate her out of the work place forever.
When retirement had come along, Gordon had secretly rejoiced and welcomed it with open arms. No more having to prove anything at the job-centre. He had become adept at filling his days with nothing for the last thirty years, so boredom was never a problem. The children are now long gone and they are some way through their ‘pension years’. More of the same looms ahead of her.
So what will Gordon do? Spend his weekly rations on trips to the local cafe, the betting shop, then amble home with a trolley full of cat food, tea, bread, tomatoes and cheese to spend the afternoon watching Channel 4 racing? Well that was no different to the life he lead now. But what about the complexities of paying bills, cleaning and the general business of coping? Who would he drone on and on to about the inane facts he had memorised from the newspaper? It was becoming too unpleasant to think about.
Ruth inevitably considers how she got into this, the way she has a million times before. Just a chance meeting on the lower deck of the 42 bus destined for the mental hospital. She on a visit to her schizophrenic mother and he on his weekly excursion to see his manically depressed (soon-to-be-ex) girlfriend. She remembers feeling an underlying sense of pity for him even at the time. Ruth should have heeded the alarm bells and run away screaming. Oh yes, a beautiful, romantic beginning to a relationship.
“Tea?” Gordon asks, mulling over one of his most pressing decisions of the day. Ruth shakes her head, her gaze unbroken and Gordon returns to the sports pages. Ruth has to leave, yet it is virtually impossible to do so. Impossible for Gordon anyway. Were there any institutions that cared for men too young for geriatric homes yet too poorly skilled for the real world?
Gordon’s only crime is being a pathetic man – not an abusive man, not a cruel man. Can she truly leave him to fend for himself, entirely alone? Entirely. She fiddles nervously with her brittle hair, sprayed into the fifties style she has worn since childhood. Her tarnished wedding ring irritates her finger as though it were burning and becoming hotter still.
Of course Ruth has to consider where she will go, what she will do. She mustn’t neglect those vital plans. Perhaps one of the children will put her up for a while, until she has sorted somewhere permanent to stay. God, they should understand! Or would they? Their hateful feelings towards their father mellowed as they matured and moved away. Now he was just a sad figure, not the stupid ogre he once represented – the man that held them back. It was easy to mist over your memories after escaping. Only Ruth is still here, living the same old nightmare. This whole gruelling merry-go-round of intense irritation, contempt and boredom has to stop. Her anxiety begins to choke her, the actuality of it jams the cogs and seizes up the mechanics of her brain.
The severed rubber band begins to rebind. Ruth can go no further along this line of thinking. Not now. She watches her pitiful husband mentally devour the newspaper pressed against his nose, learning parrot-fashion his conversation pieces of the day. Ruth will pretend to listen to them today as is customary. Whether she will tomorrow is another story.