The Night Guest

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane Read Free Book Online

Book: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane Read Free Book Online
Authors: Fiona McFarlane
Tags: Fiction, Literary
and Phillip telephoned; these things filled the time, but were not extraordinary.
    There was, however, the matter of the car. Ruth disliked driving and was frightened of Harry’s car; she peered at it through the kitchen windows; she worried over it at night. She began to live off Frida’s gifts of fruit and bulk canned goods, all sourced from some inexplicable friends of George’s, so that it was no longer necessary to drive or even take the bus into town. She lost weight. She ate the last of the pumpkin seeds, and they went straight through her. Once a week, under Jeffrey’s orders, she went out to sit in the car and run the engine; doing so, she experienced a busy, practical sense of renewal followed by the disquieting feeling she was about to drive herself to her own funeral.
    One day, while Ruth sat in the driver’s seat, Frida’s head loomed at the window like a sudden policeman’s. Ruth’s heart jumped but she kept her hands on the wheel; she was proud of this, as if it indicated that, counter to her own belief, she was a good driver.
    “You never drive this thing,” said Frida. “You should sell it.”
    Ruth was afraid of the car, but she didn’t want to sell it. That seemed so irrevocable. “I couldn’t,” she said.
    A week later, Frida raised the matter again. “I can think of three or four people who’d buy that car off you tomorrow,” she said.
    “Driving means independence,” said Ruth, quoting Harry, who used to make her drive at least once a week. He called this “keeping your hand in.”
    Frida shook her head. “Not if you don’t actually drive.” She promised that her brother’s taxi would always be at Ruth’s disposal, free of charge. “After all, you’re family now,” she said, with unusual gaiety.
    She also offered to take over Ruth’s shopping, to buy stamps and mail letters, to pay bills, and to arrange house calls from the doctor if necessary.
    “You can’t eat tinned sardines every night,” said Frida. “If the government’s paying me to do your shopping, you may as well let me do your shopping. That’s what I’m here for.”
    Frida liked this phrase, if using it regularly indicated a preference. It seemed so adequately to sum up the melancholy importance of her willingness to serve. Still Ruth resisted the idea of selling the car. What if, alone at night, she heard an intruder and needed to get away? Or had some kind of medical emergency and the phones weren’t working?
    “How would you drive in a medical emergency?” asked Frida.
    “It might just be a burst eardrum. Or maybe there’s a problem with the cats and I need to drive them somewhere. You can’t call an ambulance for a cat, can you. Can you?”
    What actually worried her, she was surprised to realize, was the tiger. Which was ridiculous, of course. But what if he came back some night on which she’d forgotten to close the lounge-room door? She would hear him coming down the hallway to her bedroom, intent on his agile paws, and her only escape would be the window. Ruth pictured climbing into the garden and crouching in the bushes waiting for the tiger’s superior nose to smell her out. As if, with her back, she could still climb and crouch! Or there might be a short moonlit dash over the beach with the tiger’s hot breath on her heels, the car meanwhile slumbering in the comfortable driveway of a more fortunate stranger.
    “I won’t sell it,” she said, and turned the key to kill the engine, which was the wrong gesture if her intention was to prove her resolve. The car shuddered and wheezed before falling silent, the way a much older car might.
    “Suit yourself,” said Frida, shrugging her round shoulders. “I’m only trying to help.”
    After this discussion, Frida’s hair entered a dormant period of brittle French rolls. She spent more time with the floors and her eucalypt mop, and she made noises as she moved: sighs, soft grunts and groans; everything required some effort, some complaint,

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