Ruthin Gardens

©robcullenEdinburgh2004

Ruthin Gardens

Driving through the city late at night he’d become aware of the vehicle following — and its increasing closeness. The car had gradually become so close, almost bumper to bumper. It was dangerous. The line of vehicles in the next lane prevented him from pulling over to let the car overtake. He looked repeatedly in the rearview mirror. His attention moved from the close proximity of the vehicle to the driver. He noticed that the man’s face had an extreme pallor — a yellow ivory whiteness in spite of the glow of his rear lights. After five possibly six times viewing the driver he realized that the driver’s eyes appeared to be closed. He repeatedly checked the vehicle in front as he stared back in the rearview mirror. He lightly touched the brake pedal so that the car behind was lit up by the red light and he could see the driver more clearly. His eyes were definitely closed. Was he asleep? Or looking down at something? He decided the driver’s eyes were closed.

As he looked in the rearview mirror checking the car behind he realized he’d seen the man before. It was just a fleeting thought of recognition. He saw that a gap had opened in the stream of vehicles in the next lane and he moved the Volvo into the slow lane. He watched with a mixture of relief and something close to horror as the vehicle that had followed him so closely continued to drive on until it was sitting bumper to bumper behind the next car. He watched the flicker of brake lights as the cars speeded ahead of him and then disappeared

As he drove on in the slow lane he remembered when and where he’d seen the man. He’d been sitting in the launderette on North Road in Brighton. It was a sunny evening and he’d been impatient to get the washout of the drier so that he could then walk down to the seafront. He remembered staring at the drier wondering how much longer it would take to finish. Sitting next to the window of the launderette, he looked out at the Lighthouse Pub on the other side of the road. But he could also see reflected in the window the other two people sitting behind him. The woman sitting nearest to him had been crying the entire time he’d been sitting there. He hadn’t known what to say. Or whether he should say anything. She’d been staring ahead without acknowledging his presence, without saying a word. After a while, he realized that she didn’t have a wash in one of the machines or clothes in a drier. She just sat there quietly crying, occasionally dabbing her cheeks with the scrunched-up handkerchief held in her left hand.

He found himself watching her reflection. He noticed that she was dressed in a style from the 1930s or ’40s. The dress was cut in a way that was never seen these days apart from second-hand clothes shops that specialized in what were euphemistically called vintage clothes. The clothes the woman was wearing reminded him strongly of his mother’s dresses when he had been a young child — the particular soft blue that she loved and a color one rarely saw these days. A high straight neckline and a waist cut high below the breasts.

The woman was in her sixties. But she may have been older. He couldn’t be certain about that. She wore no makeup. No lipstick. Her blond hair was cut just above the shoulders. He listened to her speaking.

“I’m still waiting. I’ve waited for so long for him to return.”

She spoke in a soft crisp English accent, that clear pronunciation sounding as if it had come from a previous age. He listened as she said to no one.

“When will he come back? He promised he would. I promised I would wait. I’m still waiting.”

He turned and asked her — “Who are you waiting for?”

He immediately regretted it.

“My husband” she answered without turning to look at him.

“He said he would come back”.

“Where’s he gone?”

She replied — “He’s a pilot. He promised he’d be back. I’m still waiting.”

“Can’t you phone the airline? Who does he fly for?”

“He’s in the RAF. He flies spitfires.”

Before saying another word he studied her more closely.

“The war is over,” he told her.

“What did you say? The war is over. Why hasn’t he come back? Where is he? I’ve been waiting for so long.”

“What year is it?” He asked.

“I’ve been waiting for so long.”

Another voice took his attention. The man sitting at the far end of the launderette said something he didn’t quite hear. But he repeated it again more loudly.

“She doesn’t know”

He looked at the man. He was sitting there with his eyes closed. His face was pale ivory yellow.

He spoke again — “She doesn’t know”.

The dryer stopped. He stood to empty the clothes into his old green parachute bag.

“What am I going to do? I’ve waited for so long.”

He left the launderette. He took one look at the man sitting there with his eyes closed. The man sat there unchanged. Before the door closed behind him he heard the woman again — “I’ve waited for so long”.

He walked across the road to the Lighthouse — John Lennon was singing “Working Class Hero” on the jukebox. He ordered a pint of Guinness and sat in the window seat watching the launderette. He could see the woman sitting there. Not moving — just sitting — staring straight ahead. He couldn’t see the man.

His hands shook as he lifted the pint to take a sip and he realized that he’d been shaken by the incident. He wondered whether there were women so traumatized by the loss of a husband that they were unable or refused to believe that it had actually happened. It was 32 years since the war had ended — how had the woman survived in such a state. Was she insane and been kept in a hospital for all this time and somehow got out?

His thoughts shifted to the strangeness of that man who’d just sat there the entire time with his eyes closed. He slowly realized that he recognized him from some time before. Was it him? Was it really that man? What was he doing here?

The sound of John Lennon singing ‘Working-class hero’ came on the jukebox again. He stood at the bar waiting for another Guinness to be poured and settle. He realized that this must be the fourth playing of the same Lennon record one time after another.

When the pint was brought to the bar he asked the reason Lennon was being played.

“He’s been assassinated. It was just announced on the News.”

©robcullen24072021