Ruby by Simon Barker

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In the chaos following the nightclub bombing the story of Ruby’s disappearance never travelled beyond her immediate community. Ruby had been the daughter of one of the ill paid native porters at the American hotel and during the year in which she turned sixteen two local men had begun fighting over her. One happened to be the chief of police while the other was the chief’s former friend and associate, the organiser of an illegal lottery. This pair had vied in their ambition to have Ruby as a mistress. Ruby’s father, insignificant as he was, did his best to fob them off by spinning some yarn about his daughter’s betrothal to her cousin, the son of the headman back in his home village on the slopes of the volcano. He did this not so much to spare Ruby the policeman or the lottery owner—they weren’t such terrible fellows—but to leverage his daughter’s position. In response the lottery fellow threatened to have the head of the son of the village headman separated from his body and the policemen threated to have the next volcanic incineration of the man’s village brought considerably forward. Ruby’s father sensed they weren’t joking. Certainly not the policeman. So the bombing came as a welcome diversion. But once Ruby’s father had seen off the airport minibuses evacuating the expats and returned to the snarl of shanties at the rear of the now deserted hotel he discovered Ruby had vamoosed. When she hadn’t returned by the next day he guessed either the policeman or the lottery owner had taken advantage of the chaos to make off with their prize.

But apparently not. There was an interlude of mistrust between Ruby’s father and the suitors, during which the son of the headman was forced to lie as low as the mating call of a bull elephant and the village to increase their bribe to the fire brigade, but when it became clear Ruby’s whereabouts were genuinely unknown, both rivals offered stacks of US dollars for any leads. Briefly the remaining hotel staff forgot the chaos and joined the scramble for Ruby in hope of getting their mitts on some of the gangsters’ cash or, in the case of the young men, of getting their mitts on some of Ruby.

Eventually suspicion fell on one of the foreigners. The native staff recalled that the hotel’s lawyer had hung around, anxious to make some special arrangement after the advice to evacuate. They knew him well—an agreeable chap, in his late thirties, educated, possibly unmarried, rich by local standards and therefore universally acknowledged to be in want of a mistress. Unlike his compatriots he muddled through the local language and was interested in music, especially the music of the hotel’s in-house orchestra. Most evenings he dined in the hotel restaurant where guests were entertained—or not—by this elaborate ensemble. The lawyer had even had himself taught by the orchestra leader and had become proficient enough to don an oversized batik shirt and substitute for orchestra members on nights they went AWOL to witness the drawing of the almost legal alternative lottery. Could this man have snaffled Ruby? Ruby’s father dismissed the possibility because the man, amongst other things, was sightless. He’d been guided about the hotel by one of the ancient bellboys and in his office he’d had a secretary to read and take dictation. A kidnapper? No. A sightless man would have been pushing it just to get himself out of the country, without arranging for a hostage.

So, released from suspicion, the lawyer flew back to Sydney leaving behind the troubles of a foreign nation. While these misfortunes concerned him, what could he do? His attention was instead focussed on the several crates whose packing and shipping arrangements had delayed his departure. Inside was an item so special, so dear to his heart, he’d risked his neck for it. It was a complete Gamelan Jegog, something just as large and elaborate as the more common gamelan but fashioned entirely from bamboo. There was the Jegog itself, its bamboo keys the size of logs. There were the two Kuntung and the two Undir on which the melody was played. And there were nine additional Barangan, Kanci and Suir. Finally there was the crate containing mallets, stands and carved decorations.

The lawyer had always been musical. As a schoolboy he’d worked his way through all eight grades on the piano and successfully auditioned for the national youth orchestra on violin. Early on he’d recognised in himself a passion for musical sounds pure and simple and had started to collect instruments. He loved to compare the sounds of one piano with another, one fiddle with another. There was so much in a single note! In fact the sounds themselves were the true object of his collecting. So how could he resist the Gamelan Jegog? Even before the bombing he’d been planning to repatriate with one. A trader he’d deputised to look out for an instrument, having offered him several that were incomplete—missing their eponymous Jegog—at last came good with an intact specimen. He’d had the packing cases specially constructed. Shaped blocks of foam had been inserted to cushion the components, which had then been sealed from the atmosphere with plastic wrapping.

Once the consignment had been shipped—and this took place while the minibuses were zipping back and forward from the airport—the lawyer abandoned his other possessions. All his western clothing, other than what was on his back, his monogrammed luggage, his electrical appliances, his keyboard, even most of his toiletries were left behind. When he took his seat on the flight to Sydney he had with him one small suitcase on wheels and nothing else. Nothing else, that is, unless you counted his unanticipated travelling companion. Ruby had slipped onto the final airport minibus and without ever being challenged had accompanied the lawyer on board the unscheduled flight along with the stretchers bearing the critically injured and the consular staff consoling the walking wounded.

Ruby sat next to him for the entire trip. Of course he knew who she was. He knew everyone connected with the hotel staff. But still his acquaintance was superficial and he assumed her presence on the flight was intended, she must somehow belong to one of the expat families scattered willy-nilly in the plane’s ad hoc seating. It was pleasant enough having her as a companion. She wasn’t talkative but she helped him with moving round the cabin and adjusting his air-conditioning vent and connecting his headphones. At the end of the trip the able bodied passengers were made to wait while the stretchers and the injured were removed. It was during this interval Ruby led the lawyer off the plane and through the immense rabble of medical staff, distraught relatives, media representatives and overwhelmed and distracted immigration authorities. Outside the airport she’d taken him by the hand and made a simple and direct request. She had nowhere to stay. Could he possibly help her? Well, that was an easy matter to resolve. He’d given his tenants notice to vacate six weeks before. His flat was empty and there was a spare bedroom. He was used to living with housekeepers and other staff. She was quite welcome to stay.

The lawyer’s scheme had been to offer private lessons on the gamelan, establish a school of players and give public performances. After fifteen years he’d grown tired of the world of commercial law. He’d only taken up the profession in the first place because it had offered security. As someone without sight he’d had restricted options and justice, after all, was also sight impaired. He’d expected to meet people in the law and make friends. But it hadn’t worked out. Most of his colleagues were not the sort of people he found congenial. To tell the truth he’d been hoping to find a partner, get married and start a family. It didn’t seem an unreasonable expectation. But it hadn’t happened. Even foreign travel had failed. The only real social contacts he’d had in his five years overseas were the gamelan players at the hotel. It was sad, he reflected. But he’d come to a contractual arrangement with sadness.

Thus had arisen his plan to teach gamelan. He knew there were a few of these instruments in the country. The old museum in College Street owned one. But it was of the common sort, not the Gamelan Jegog. He anticipated there’d be considerable interest in his acquisition. It’d be a chance to meet people outside the law. And who knows? He might find someone sympathetic, someone whose expectations would harmonise with his. How lonely his life had been. His parents had shown great kindness, but it was a distant, anxious kindness. They’d been sufficiently alarmed at having a sightless child to abandon the idea of having others. His early years had been difficult and isolated. But people interested in another culture might be more receptive, more open, than the professionals in commercial law. For this reason he was pleased Ruby had settled in as a houseguest. Not only was she helpful but she offered him a chance to practise the language, learn more of the customs and appear more cosmopolitan. Wouldn’t this add to his attraction? Ruby was nice. He supposed she would probably make her own way when she sorted out whatever it was she had come to Sydney for. In the meantime she was something of a comfort. She had a pleasant aura.

Once the gamelan arrived it had to be retrieved from customs, a much more difficult job, it transpired, than importing Ruby. How did legal laypeople manage the passage of their goods through customs? Ruby ticked off the inventory of each box. All arrived safely—except the giant crate containing the Jegog itself, which seemed to have vanished before shipping. It was a pity in one way, but then again where would the three metre long bamboo poles have fitted in his flat, and there were the notes of course, so low they might possibly have affected the masonry. He would just have to manage without it. Perhaps a recording could be played on speakers while the rest of the instruments joined in. The fumigation treatment given to the crates by customs seemed to affect some of the keys more than others. But once the remaining items were in his possession he had them assembled in his living room. Ruby followed his directions patiently. It was a large room but the remainder of the gamelan consumed the entire space. He played each instrument thoroughly over the next week. Like their missing friend, the Jegog, the Kuntung and Undir had pairs of pitches, one of each pair slightly detuned to the other so when played together the notes produced a beat. Ruby took up a set of mallets and faithfully followed his instructions so he could hear the beat for himself. She demonstrated surprising skill, he thought. The clonking sounds of the bamboo keys brought an exotic atmosphere to his Bellevue Hill flat and made him feel cultured and worldly. He dressed himself in foreign garments he’d bought from a Paddington boutique, sat at the instrument and imagined himself surrounded by keen students who’d find him stimulating and inspiring. He had a web site constructed with what he was told were excellent images of the instrument in his lounge room. He sat at the gamelan and waited for someone special to come into his life. The students appeared in dribs and drabs, some purely out of curiosity. He enjoyed their surprise on first seeing the instruments. But they were fewer than expected, too few at first to form an orchestra. He cut his fees but still they came and went. He began to use Ruby as an assistant. She learned rapidly and could play some of the parts better than his students. For several weeks during the first winter he was bedridden with flu and Ruby saved his fledgling business by conducting the beginners’ lessons herself. Forcing Ruby to accept payment for this proved difficult.

Gradually the lawyer altered his approach. As his students fell short of the ideal he’d created of enthusiastic, gifted, inspiring devotees and began to appear slightly nutty and dim-witted he himself became less of a guru and more a task master. It was necessary to urge them to practise, something which, as a childless person, he had not anticipated. The instrument itself began to suffer at his pupils’ inexpert hands. The weather also failed him. Dryness and low temperatures began to affect pitch so some pairs of keys went back into tune. His fingertips detected splits. He unwisely leant an Undir to a primary school teacher who was taking lessons and it returned minus one of its keys. But he did obtain some excellent recordings and he was able to sit and play along and imagine he was back in the restaurant of the hotel with the real ensemble surrounding him.

None of his students was unpleasant but the relationship he had with them never blossomed into anything beyond instruction. There was one occasion though that was somewhat out of the ordinary. Through a female student he was contacted by a film producer keen to use the gamelan in a movie. The instrument impressed the man mightily when he came to the flat and so more or less on a whim the lawyer allowed him to borrow the entire kit and caboodle. The film was being shot in Sydney but certain scenes were meant to take place in foreign locations.

The lawyer thought he would like to see something of the business of film production. The producer agreed and then to the lawyer’s surprise asked Ruby if she would like a part in his next production, a major part. It struck the lawyer as a very strange request and Ruby had no hesitation in declining. The lawyer was puzzled at the producer’s insistence she would make a very attractive actress. “No, no, I just ordinary girl,” the lawyer heard her tell him in her laughing, embarrassed voice. But the producer insisted she would look wonderful on screen. Everyone would pay to see her. She wouldn’t have a bar of it. And when the film’s director appeared he too made an offer to Ruby, asking her to appear in his next directorial assignment. Carried away, the two men—the producer and his director—vainly tried to outbid each other with film offers. What strange characters they appeared to the lawyer. How could they run a business like that, offering jobs to people they’d just met who had zero experience? But then again what did he, a commercial lawyer, know about movie making? Not much. In movies people usually met someone special, fell in love and lived happily ever after. He couldn’t quite see how that happened.

Simon Barker

 

Banner Image: One of Gamelan Instruments of Bali Juli, 2005
インドネシア、バリ島のガムラン楽器
Source: Photo by Copyrighted by

 

2 thoughts on “Ruby by Simon Barker

  1. Delightful reading Mr Barker. I was drawn into this perfect story by the first sentence, loved the comic aspect and the way the story of the lawyer grew out of the initial setting, the detail of the jegong and the way it all led to Ruby’s situation at the end. Fantastic writing!

    Like

  2. Hi Simon,
    It’s weird but any story that makes me look up the references means I’m more interested in the story than the facts!!
    A well constructed and very interesting short story.
    I look forwrd to see what else you can come up with!!
    Hugh

    Like

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