WHEN RUBY FIRST moves to town she stays with the Miss Wrights on Prospect Road, on the recommendation of her Aunt Maude. Aunt Maude is a frequent visitor, and if Ruby is spending the weekend in town, she joins them in the parlour for afternoon tea. The Miss Wrights have a horror of drafts, of catching a chill on the kidneys, but the atmosphere in the parlour – with the heavy drapes drawn to protect the furniture – is the closest of all. Occasionally a ray of light steals through a gap in the curtains, illuminating the room like a diver’s torch. Cat dander glitters and somersaults in the air like plankton.
‘I’ve been warning everybody for years to avoid tomatoes, haven’t I, Ethel?’ says the elder Miss Wright.
‘Tomatoes never used to repeat on me but now they do,’ laments Aunt Maude. ‘It’s a shame really, because I used to enjoy a tomato chopped up on my toast in the morning, just so, but those days are well beyond me now.’
Miss Wright takes a final, conclusive slurp of tea. ‘At our age, we have found, time and time again, that regardless of how thoroughly you chew, tomatoes will repeat.’
Ruby is not sure how old the Miss Wrights are, but estimates they must be at least forty. On the mantelpiece, amidst the doilies and trinkets, stands a framed photograph of a young man in uniform, posing before a trompe l’oeil garden. His legs are bound up to the knees in puttees, and his arms are clasped firmly behind him, forcing his belly out like a petulant toddler’s. The strap of his slouch hat looks uncomfortably tight across his chin. But he is a fine-looking man, and Ruby’s eye is frequently drawn to him. She has never asked which of the Miss Wrights he belonged to.
‘We’ve found mutton to be a more reliable offering,’ ventures the younger Miss Wright.
‘You can’t go wrong with mutton,’ agrees Aunt Maude.
In fact, of all the challenges of boarding with the Miss Wrights, mutton has proved the most formidable. Not only the eating of it, although this does require a concerted act of will: a suppression of the gag reflex and conscious deployment of the swallowing muscles, in order to expedite its removal from the mouth. At least such violations are transient. Of more lingering concern is the smell. When Ruby first moved in, she often woke gasping in the night in the room she shared with the younger Miss Wright, as though drowning in mutton stew.
How she longed to be back at the farmhouse! To think she had once been vexed by Mother’s mania for fresh air!
She fears the smell has permeated her clothes to the extent that she now avoids sitting next to strangers on the tramcar, particularly if they are well turned-out themselves. At National Mutual, she prefers to take a constitutional at lunchtime rather than squeeze into the kitchen alongside the other girls. Only last week at morning tea, Agnes whispered something about mutton dressed up as lamb and Ruby almost jumped out of her skin, before realising it was a reference to Mrs Wagner’s attempt at the Mainbocher silhouette.
‘And of course one must take proper time over one’s meals,’ offers the elder Miss Wright. ‘The world’s gone mad. Everybody in a hurry, running hither and yon. No one with the time or care to chew properly.’
The eyes of all three women alight upon Ruby.
‘How are you getting along with that night school? Not overdoing it, are you dear?’
‘I’m getting along well enough, thank you Aunt Maude.’
‘She certainly keeps herself occupied, practising her shorthand and what have you.’
‘I paid good money for that course. And I’m determined to make the most of it.’
Aunt Maude winks at the Miss Wrights. ‘No doubt keeping busy with those typewriting machines and whatnot.’
As if she knows anything about it.
In fact, Stott’s Business College could scarcely be further removed from the house on Prospect Road. On Tuesday and Friday evenings, Ruby catches the trolley bus along Grenfell Street after work, gratefully clasping the ham sandwich in a paper bag that marks a furlough from mutton stew. As she climbs the steps into the Remington Building and takes the lift up to the third floor, she feels she is ascending to the future. Everything at Stott’s speaks of modernity: the efficiency of shorthand; the percussive pleasure of typing; the mechanical sweep and shudder of the return key, clearing away the past and making space for the new. And then there is Miss Stetson, formidable and angular in Dior’s new look, emphatically not the sort to dwell upon her own digestion.
A quiet and orderly office is an effective one.
In typewriting, as in life, speed follows mastery.
Ruby takes these pithy remarks down in shorthand, transcribes them into her calligraphy book and then types them out, until they have become her own. Afterwards, she catches the tramcar back to Prospect Road and lets herself into the house. The blackout curtains are drawn, but she switches off her flashlight before creeping into the bedroom, where the younger Miss Wright is already snoring. She removes her clothes in the darkness and drapes them over the back of a chair. If Miss Wright wakes up she will likely ask Ruby to help settle her over the chamber pot, and some nights this seems more than she can bear.
THE VERY FIRST evening of night school, Mr Singer kept her late at the National Mutual, even though she had expressly told him she needed to leave on time. So that when she arrived, Miss Stetson had already begun the introductions.
‘To be early is the first sign of organisation,’ Miss Stetson observed.
‘My name’s Florence,’ whispered a dark-eyed girl in the back row, shuffling over to make room for her. ‘Florence Myer.’
It would have been rude not to reply. ‘Ruby Whiting. How do you do.’
‘No businessman seeks a chatterbox for a secretary,’ remarked Miss Stetson.
Ruby had started the course with no intention of making friends, but Florence now saves a seat for her every week, and she finds she enjoys her company. Florence is no beauty, and yet she has a boyfriend whom she talks about constantly, always referring to him as Dale Rogers – never just Dale – as if he were a matinee idol. Sometimes, as Ruby sits in the parlour on Prospect Road of a Sunday afternoon, pondering tomatoes, she imagines the Hollywood weekends of Florence Myer and the glamorous Dale Rogers: tennis parties, cocktails, jazz bands at the Palais. A wonderful life, surely, and she is glad that someone is living it.
Sometimes Florence invites Ruby to join her for a milkshake after class, but there is always a reason not to – some darning that can no longer be put off, or a letter overdue to Mother. But on a whim, one balmy evening at the end of March, Ruby agrees.
She is still intimidated by town, by the industry and noise and the sheer existence of so many strangers. Amidst these chic shop girls and purposeful businessmen, she feels like a strapping, overfed farm girl. She marvels at the way Florence seems able to parse it all – the office workers hurtling past with their suitcases; the sullen girl at the milk bar taking their order; even the soldier kissing his sweetheart in the adjacent booth – without interrupting her conversational flow.
Dale Rogers has a dear friend Harry Phillips who already has a girlfriend, which really is a crying shame because none of our set is the least bit keen on her and Dale Rogers and I both agree that you and Harry Phillips would simply be perfect for each other.
Ruby sucks the cool liquid through the paper straw, and as the paper becomes soggy in her mouth she wonders what Dale Rogers could possibly know about her. And yet it is not unpleasant to be discussed. She absently catches the eye of a man striding past the window, and he grins and tips his hat, and she feels a sudden, unexpected joy. Here she is, Ruby Whiting from the farm, sitting in a milk bar with a new friend in a town that finally seems to be making room for her.
‘You do get us a lot of attention,’ Florence observes. ‘You should be one of those model girls.’
‘For goodness sake,’ she laughs. ‘There are much lovelier girls out there.’
‘I don’t know about that. And I have news. Dale Rogers is having a twenty-first birthday party at the Palais on Saturday.’
‘And I’d love you to come too.’
There were countless reasons why she could not. She had promised Mother she would return to the farm on the weekend to help her with the fowls. And she only has her debutante dress, which – much as she loved it at the time – she now sees betrays her as country. Most crucially, there is no swain, nor any prospect of there being one.
‘I still think you’d be perfect for Harry Phillips,’ laments Florence. ‘But he’s already accounted for, at least for the moment. But Harry does have another friend who is also nice – you really could do much worse – and he doesn’t have a girlfriend, and wants to go to the dance anyway. And Dale Rogers and I both think you should go with him. Do say yes, Ruby! I have it all arranged!’
There is something about the evening – the warm air rising up through the open window, with its metropolitan bouquet of asphalt and gasoline; the voluptuous vanilla milkshake in her mouth; the extended silences and sudden laughter of the lovers in the adjacent booth – that induces recklessness. Back at home that night, Ruby sneaks her debutante dress out of the wardrobe in the darkness, and hangs it in the sunroom to air.
On Saturday evening, Harry Phillips comes to Prospect Road with a man called Wilf Bryson. It is immediately clear – both to Ruby and the Miss Wrights – that Wilf Bryson will not do, but when Ruby arrives at the Palais she notices a young man sitting across the table, with a serious, broad forehead and a steady gaze. After she has danced with Wilf, and with Harry, the serious-looking man approaches her, and introduces himself as Arthur. He has a delicate, pencil-thin moustache, and when they dance, the moisture beads there like dew. She feels an unfathomable urge to touch it, to wipe it dry. The band plays ‘Embraceable You’, and Arthur holds her tighter. He doesn’t seem to object to the smell of mutton at all.
LATER THAT YEAR, her sister Daisy comes to town to join her, and they move into a boarding house on Buxton Street in North Adelaide. It is altogether a more cosmopolitan affair than the house on Prospect Road. Ruby is out a lot now – not only at work and night school, but also with Arthur or Florence and Dale Rogers’ set – but is always glad to return home. There is Daisy of course, who is reliable company; and Mr Wells, forever listening to the war report in the sunroom. And then there is Mr Bell, Arthur’s boss, occupying the large room at the front, though they keep such different hours she rarely sees him.
Their landlady, Mrs Weston, is a divorcee, a fact Ruby has chosen not to relate to Mother; nor has she mentioned the frequent visits of a Dr Fletcher, with whom Mrs Weston appears to have some sort of understanding. But she has reported that Mrs Weston runs a very tight ship, and that meals are resourceful and varied. Occasionally Mr Bell joins them for tea, though he tends to take his time returning home after work, stopping off in town somewhere for a drink, and no doubt meeting up with a certain type of woman.
One evening, as she was leaving the insurance company, she saw him waiting out the front for Agnes from the typing pool. The foolish girl brought her new silk stockings into work the following week, and stroked them in front of the other girls as if they were a kitten. No doubt they were supposed to feel envious. Instead Ruby felt a triumphant contempt, though she still freshens up before going down for tea, especially on a Monday and a Wednesday, when she knows Mr Bell will be there.
The boarding house is quiet this evening, apart from the drone of the war report. Ruby has overdone it lately with her mauve gown, so she brought out her debutante dress on the weekend and Daisy helped her renovate it. A more racy cut of the décolletage; a yard of material shorn from the skirt. All traces of the 1930s removed, and of her old country self. As she is admiring their workmanship, there is a knock on the door. Of course it is Arthur. He is always over-punctual.
But as she opens her bedroom door, her heart starts pounding, as if her body knows first.
He is holding a sprig of jasmine from the side garden. Back from work early, evidently.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Bell.’
Technically it is evening, but afternoon sounds more proper.
He bows, presenting her with the garnish. ‘For the charming Mademoiselle Whiting.’
‘Why, thank you. You’re too kind.’
She remembers carrying on like this with her father sometimes, at the farm. It’s just a bit of fun, after all. Nothing that would trouble Arthur, if he knew.
But then Mr Bell moves in closer, pinning the jasmine to her dress, so that she can smell the alcohol on his breath, and something else beneath. The scent of his skin. It is too intimate, and she holds her breath.
He steps back and appraises her. ‘A fetching picture. Aren’t you going to invite me in?’
‘Perhaps we could join Mr Wells in the sunroom. I could make you a cup of tea.’
She curses herself immediately for sounding old-maidish. Why didn’t she suggest a port?
‘I don’t think so,’ says Mr Bell. ‘I think I’d rather come in here, with you.’
And he walks into her room and sits down on Daisy’s bed, just like that.
She busies herself at her dressing table.
‘All alone this evening,’ he observes.
‘Daisy has gone home for the weekend. I mean, back to the farm. To help Mother. You know, with the spring cleaning and with one thing and another.’
She has warned Daisy, in the vaguest of terms, to be careful around Mr Bell. Though this was probably unnecessary. He has never shown much interest in Daisy.
‘No young ladies staying overnight either.’
‘None of Dr Fletcher’s “patients”.’
She would like to ask him who they are, these anonymous young women who pass through her room some nights, and the spare bed stripped so quickly the next morning they might never have been there. But to ask would put her at a disadvantage.
Mr Bell loosens his tie and settles back on to Daisy’s bed.
‘It’s been a long day at the munitions works. I’m sure your young paramour will tell you the same. I’m talking about Arthur.’
‘Yes, I know who you mean. He’ll be here shortly.’
She takes her gloves out of the drawer and places them on the dressing table. Proof of her imminent departure.
‘He’s a very lucky man. And, I must say, a fine accountant.’
She had once suggested to Arthur that his boss had quite a reputation. That she was not only going by what she heard at the boarding house, but that girls at work were implicated too, though she didn’t actually mention Agnes by name.
Arthur didn’t seem to understand, or to want to understand, and she had felt gossipy and small-minded and left it at that.
‘There are outside pressures, of course. Especially with the Japs coming into the picture. But I’m doing my best to protect his place on the reserved list.’
The last thing she wants is Arthur going off to war. She likes having him around, for one thing. And it would hurry things up between them too much.
‘As I said, he’s a fine employee.’ He studies her for a moment. ‘And I’m sure you’d do your bit to keep him here.’
She glances at him. He is a nice man, really, despite his weakness. Surely he is not making a threat.
He offers her a cigarette in her own bedroom. The cheek of it!
‘I’ve seen you in that gown before. But you’ve altered it. It’s very becoming. You’re a credit to womanhood at this time. Very resourceful.’
Despite herself, she blushes. Arthur would never have noticed, but Mr Bell has calculated her secret vanity. Not her looks: she doesn’t feel that she owns them, particularly. They came on so quickly, like an attack of something. But her resourcefulness: this she has worked on.
‘Though I suspect you could do with a few extra luxuries once in a while.’
She is not sure if she has heard him correctly, but her body jumps to its own conclusions.
‘Oh I make do,’ she says, feebly.
And then there are voices in the hall, and a loud knock at the door, and it is Arthur. Of course he is early; he is always over-punctual.
And she is only partly relieved.
ARTHUR DRIVES THE entire length of O’Connell Street in silence and parks the car on North Terrace, staring glumly out at the Palais.
‘Turn off the headlights, dear,’ she suggests.
The inside of the car smells like spring, and she remembers the jasmine on her dress and discreetly removes it. On the other side of the windscreen, eager couples make their way to the Palais. The men are sober and grown-up in their dinner suits; the pale-clad women seem to flutter under the gas lamps.
It all seems a little frivolous, really, when there is a war on and all.
‘That was inappropriate, that was,’ Arthur says finally. ‘And I trust it will not happen again.’
‘Arthur dearest,’ she tries. ‘Nothing happened.’
This is not entirely true. For one thing, Arthur came bursting into the room, flushed and handsome in his dinner suit, and bore down upon Mr Bell on the bed before the poor fellow even had a chance to stand. They shook hands vigorously, too vigorously, and volleyed each others’ names back and forth.
Mr Jenkins. Mr Bell. Mr Jenkins. Mr Bell.
And then – and this is what feels irrevocable – Mr Bell had stumbled as he tried to stand. And reddened, and righted himself.
‘Well, I don’t know what happened, but I trust it won’t happen again.’
He steps out of the car, and when he comes to her side to let her out, she can scarcely bear to look at him. He is too beautiful, with his grave face framed by his white bow tie. Part of the problem tonight was that he had looked too splendid.
‘Off dancing, are we?’ Mr Bell had asked, after he had regained his footing.
‘Yes, indeed,’ Arthur had replied. ‘Off to the Palais.’
As if that settled everything. And he had put his hand in the small of her back, and steered her out of the room before she had a chance to say a proper goodbye.
‘If nothing happened, we will not speak of it again,’ he says magnanimously, and takes her arm and guides her across the street. They enter the wide swing doors and are engulfed by sound. Harry Boake Wright and his band are playing ‘Cheek to Cheek’, and everybody seems to be laughing, never mind the war.
‘Look! Florence and Dale Rogers already have a table!’
She waves more vigorously than she might have otherwise, and they make their way through the crowd.
‘How are you, Florence darling?’
‘Ruby, you are enchanting!’
‘Haven’t you two done well, finding such a table as this!’
These are fine and ordinary words, the type of words they have spoken many times before. And a little later, Arthur leads her out to the dance floor, and they dance well together, as they always have.
They will not speak of it again, and perhaps nothing happened.
Except that as Arthur guided her out of the bedroom, she had turned to take her gloves from the dressing table, and caught sight of Mr Bell’s unguarded face in the mirror. This was the moment of intimacy. There was a resolution in his smile, and it was all she had been afraid of.