THE RUIN • by Alan Whelan

Singleton is a country town in New South Wales, with about sixteen thousand residents, but on a Monday lunchtime during the Covid lockdown not one of them was on the street. Amelia, lecturer in philosophy of history at Sydney University, was on the street but not a resident. She was staying with her friend Gail, who lived on her farm in a place called Roughit, where about a hundred people lived.

Singleton exists to sell ice cream and new jeans and cigarettes and paint to the farmers who live round its hub. There was no traffic, and only three cars parked on the town’s main road. Amelia left the truck in splendid isolation outside Burdekin Park Pharmacy, put a mask on and went in, to study creams and ointments.

It was 21 March, and summer had finally come in, though leaves were already falling before the first warm, dry days had arrived. Amelia had used those warmer days to swim and walk and garden with Gail. They were courting, slowly and perhaps romantically, but suddenly and unromantically Amelia had sprouted an angry red rash on her ankle. It itched and stung like it was under attack from fire ants and mosquitoes and bees, so she’d borrowed Gail’s truck and driven to town to get anti-fungal creams.

She already felt better once she had her potions in her purse, so she looked about, wondering if she wanted a coffee and the use of the coffee bar toilet to rub the stuff onto her ankle. She decided coffee was a good idea, and went to get cash from the nearest bank with an ATM.

Someone shouted at her. He wasn’t clear, so it took her a couple of seconds to realise that he’d shouted that she was a bitch. She’d have thought he was strange even if he hadn’t shouted that: he was wearing brown corduroy pants and a green sleeveless jersey with nothing underneath. He was in his sixties, Amelia judged, with longish, greying red hair. She hadn’t seen a man wearing cords in years. And she was sure she’d never seen him before.

She wasn’t afraid of him. He was unsteady on his ancient Reeboks and he’d fall over if she pushed him even lightly. But he was coming closer, and she kept her mask on because he didn’t have one and he obviously intended to shout at her.

So when he was close Amelia said, “Good afternoon.”

“You absolute bitch, I never thought I’d see you here.”

She said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ve met.”

At least she was going to say that, but he interrupted when she got as far as ‘think’ and shouted, “You ruined my bloody life!”

She looked closer at him, to be sure she’d never seen him before. She saw there were tears in his eyes, not yet running but formed and ready to fall. He looked like a man who was always sad. So she asked him, speaking quietly, “How did I ruin your life?”

“That bloody helicopter — It was the only thing I knew how to do. I loved flying. Even apart from it being my living. You — you knew what reporting me would do. My licence. Bitch.”

Amelia guessed she — the woman he’d mistaken her for — would have reported him for flying drunk. He smelled of cigarettes and stale whisky, but his walk was a giveaway. He drank more now, but he’d been drinking too much for a long time, which must include when he was still a pilot.

Now that she was staying on a farm, away from light pollution, Amelia had taken to watching the stars at night. There’s nothing to see in an equinox, but she was aware of it: 21 March was the autumnal equinox. It meant that winter was coming, but also that this was a day of balance, midway between summer and winter. The ruined pilot was already in winter and something in his ruin made her more sorry for him than repelled. If he thought she was the woman who’d ended his career, it cost her nothing if he went on thinking it. She said, “I’m sorry. There were probably ways I could have handled it better. I didn’t mean to ruin your life.”

He stopped then. He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He just stared at her. She wondered who the woman who’d cost him his licence had been. Was she a wife or lover? No, surely not. He wouldn’t mistake a former partner’s identity, even one wearing a mask. She must have been a customer who’d had an unexpectedly scary ride.

He was still angry. “You’re sorry?” But he faltered. His shoulders slumped. “No, you were probably right. Or maybe not, but of course you’d report me. I shouldn’t be hating you.” Amelia said nothing. Then his body shook. He was deciding something difficult. “I forgive you.”

She said, “I’m so sorry,” again. Then, because he was still staring at her, she said, “You — I hope you don’t mind me saying this — you should forgive yourself too. And, please, you should see a doctor. Talk to one.”

She’d gone too far. He said, “Huh. Yeah, well.” He turned away as if he’d forgotten her and set off towards the Caledonian.

Amelia watched him walking away. She didn’t think he’d take her advice, and of course she’d never know. She doubted that he’d get his life back on track just because of a conversation.

Still, she suspected it was probably magical thinking, but she could swear it was real: as he left, a man who’d forgiven what he thought was a great wrong against him, his walk away from her was straighter than his walk towards her. The bar was a block away, and at least for as long as his walk towards it he seemed steadier, better balanced.

Alan Whelan is a novelist, poet and short story writer living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia. He has been a community activist, mainly on housing and unemployment issues, and an adviser to government. The government stopped taking his advice, and now he writes full-time.

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