By Leonie Weaver
It was a time of drought. Ruth longed for the smell of rain, for the build up of clouds on the horizon, the sudden sweep of cold wind blasting in from the south-west, the sound of it on the tin roof of her inner-city Californian bungalow. She remembered the perkiness plants had after a good rain, how when it continued for days, dampness seemed to permeate every corner of the house, its smell as musty as old dishrags. She recalled leaving her umbrella at a restaurant, or in a doctor’s waiting room, remembered struggling while she wrestled with a car door in the rain. And dashing through the wet, hating the way her hair would straighten and die. She thought of all these inconveniences now with nostalgia.
Climbing out of bed, Ruth put on her robe and made her way to the bathroom. The light through the east windows dazzled. Another winter day, sunny and dry. Not a cloud in the sky. She peered into the mirror at the bane of her life. If only her hair had some body, some curl. But there it sat, straight, unflattering and long. Should I cut it? Ruth wondered. But she hated the severe bobs some older women favored. She began to comb her hair slowly, carefully, falling into a daze. Her reflection disappeared in a barely perceptible haze of sparkling light, purple and bright, that formed and re-formed in front of her gaze.
She didn’t notice the sun disappear and a restful dimness settle over the city. As the last leaves from the elms in the park skittered along the gutters, a gentle breeze began to flurry along the streets. Still she combed, unnoticing, like a cat grooming and licking its fur in hypnotic, repetitive strokes.
Startled by a sudden gust of wind rattling a piece of loose tin on the roof next door, Ruth looked up, shocked to see that the sky had darkened. A shaft of lightning preceded a low growl of thunder and rain began to hit her window in slanted streaks. She shook her hair out behind her in delight. A crack of thunder overhead, another flash, and down came the rain in a torrent. The gutters filled with swirling water and debris. The houses across the road disappeared in the sudden fall. Ruth’s hair looked full and flattering and she gathered it loosely in a clip. The rain eased, the houses became visible again and the gutters gradually emptied. The mist of rain gave way to watery sunshine, the clouds became white and melted away.
Standing at the window, Ruth felt strangely disappointed. That was weird, she thought as she dressed and prepared to face the day, gratified that her hair now looked smooth and smart, as if it was well pleased with the combing it had received.
Despite occasional money problems, Ruth was happy where she worked as a psychotherapist in rooms shared with several others in a tall city building. She loved the view, which overlooked the rail yards, the Botanical gardens and Parliament House, the bridge, and more distantly, the sparkling water of the bay with a reach of sky beyond. Today she met colleagues for lunch, a weekly ritual. After she’d eaten, she took leave of her table and her three friends and went to the bathroom.
Washing her hands at the basin, Ruth glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Was she imagining things or did she look particularly attractive today? Her eyes seemed to have developed a deep glow and her hair positively shone. For sheer pleasure, she pulled out the comb. One wash, she thought, and it will become messy again. She began to comb, and once more fell into a kind of daze. Little sparks seemed to flash in front of her eyes, and again purple swirls moved across her vision. She combed and combed, entranced.
Suddenly the bathroom door flew open. It was her friend Emily. ‘You’ve been here for ages. Are you OK? It’s bucketing outside. We’ve moved inside. ' Ruth hurriedly pinned up her hair. By the time she joined the others the rain had eased.
That night, Ruth climbed slowly upstairs, and thoughtfully pulled out her comb and looked at it. It was just an ordinary comb, black plastic, bought at a local chemist. She turned on the bathroom light, pulled up the blinds, and began combing out her hair. Soon the waxing moon disappeared and spots of rain gashed across the windows.
Next day, as Ruth left for work, a thought occurred to her, utterly ridiculous, utterly audacious, but one that would not leave her alone. At lunchtime, she entered the street thronging with lunchtime crowds, crossed the road with the lights by St Paul’s, and made her way to the tram stop. Several stops up St Kilda road, she alighted and made her way past the Shrine to the Botanical Gardens. The lawns were dry and patched with yellowing grass. The fountains were all dry. She could smell the dryness in the soil, hear the snap and fall of a dead branch from one of the overhead trees as it tumbled into the dry-leaf bed beneath. The draught had lasted for years, and had taken its toll.
Ruth chose to sit alone at a table by the lake, well away from the diners in the garden restaurant. Her table had a large umbrella above it, and she moved as close as she could under its shelter. The sun glinted off the water, and three black swans and some ducks loitered around the muddy edge of the lake, drying through lack of rain. She gazed out across the lake to the island, where more ducks were standing around or sitting quietly, heads under wings in the shade.
A man was watching her. She angled herself so she wasn’t in his line of sight. But he wouldn’t be put off, and came over to her. Damn she thought, watching him approach. ‘May I join you? I know this is forward of me, but I've flown in from the States on business, and I know no one here. It would be nice to at least talk to someone in this lovely city of yours before I leave this evening.’ Ruth was uncomfortable. She didn’t welcome this intrusion. ‘I am waiting for someone’ she said.
‘Well, that’s all right isn’t it? Maybe I could join you for a few moments, and then make myself scarce when your other friend arrives’ He smiled. His teeth were very white, and his eyes were empty and blue.
‘I’d rather you didn’t’ Ruth said. She frowned, annoyed. But he had already begun drawing up a metal chair.
‘I’m sure you can’t mean that. You look far too kind.’
At this point, Ruth decided to carry out her plan anyway. She smiled slightly and said nothing. He looked uncertain as she undid her hair clasp, and let her hair fall about her shoulders. She removed her comb from her bag, and began to comb her hair.
At the first stroke, the ducks and swans began crying and honking and flapping their wings. Her eyes lost focus, but she was aware of fluffy clouds suddenly forming like cauliflowers over the trees on the other side of the lake. She combed some more, and the clouds built, and a little wind came up and ruffled the still waters. The undersides of the clouds darkened, and they drifted overhead, and there was a splash of rain. Ruth was aware of the sparks and melting purple snow in her vision, but also conscious of the first splashes of rain. She continued to comb, and the man looked at her, dazed.
Then it was pouring rain. The man seemed to come to his senses, cursed, pushed over the chair as he got up and ran for cover in the restaurant. Ruth, safe under the generous shelter of the large sun umbrella, laughed, and shook her hair. A crack of thunder followed a jagged gash of lightning. She moved closer to the table. The cacophony of bird voices rose from the lake. The surface of the water was pocked as falling rain began to sheet down. Ruth could no longer see the far side of the lake. The man was nowhere to be seen.
She ceased combing. Her hair, now lustrous, and full of sheen, was like a living entity, pleased with the outcome it had created. It lay sleek and sly and she caught the naughty stuff up in her clip. A film of rain was still falling, the sun began to shine, and a large rainbow stretched across the sky. The breeze settled and the sky was again clear and blue. It was now innocent of the dark clouds that had hosted the downpour and washed through the gardens minutes before. But the grass gleamed with wetness, and steam began to rise from the paths. The ducks and swans resumed their drifting, diving and fossicking for food in the deeper water, turning heads backwards to rustle and preen their feathers.
Ruth looked behind her. The man had gone. She picked up her shoulder bag. Slowly, she walked to the tram stop, her hair gathered in her clip, neat, wicked, and gleaming silver in the sun.
(Image by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash)