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The retreaters, p.10

The Retreaters, page 10


The Retreaters

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  He walks away, and once he’s out of sight she flips a wet garden stone with her bare toe, marvels at the dry, unturned soil beneath.

  At the bookend of the day, when the sun is about to set, she walks along the riverbank.

  On the opposite bank, wild blackberry vines show the watermarks of this morning’s uprising. The trees, too, seem to be part of some strange eclipse, their trunks half light, half dark, the high branches pale and brittle, the bases dark and seeping. Moist air — air that’s cold in patches like water in a lake — pools around her. She draws her cardigan closer, and looks back at the massive main building of Cottonwood. Each day, the pattern of lit windowpanes changes with the arrival and departure of guests. She blinks, and memorises tonight’s blueprint of twinkling lights.

  It could be that she is settling in here, that behind the facade of tourists and wine-lovers and travelling businessmen, beyond the making of beds and the vacuuming of carpets, she likes it here. She doesn’t dislike it, she has to admit. It is not so different to the library. People come and go, they borrow beds instead of books. Nobody looks at her strangely. Nobody knows her.

  She stands on the bank and looks west. The old Millbrook place is less than half a kilometre from here. Over the nearby low-level cattle bridge and through the pine grove, and she could be there. Mason rents the smallest house, he has said, the one that used to be a workman’s cottage, before the original farm was subdivided. She could walk there in ten minutes.

  On the telephone wires, dozens of pink-breasted galahs line up to watch her, and in the grass, a frog croaks. The day dims, pale blue blending itself into the darkness above the treetops. The sky holds its breath.

  She thinks of a Sylvia Plath line. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel …

  ‘Hi,’ a boy’s voice says.

  She turns to see Jake. Did he sneak up on her? She certainly didn’t hear him coming.

  ‘Hi,’ she says.

  His little frame, small at the best of times, is further dwarfed by the tall shards of grass at the river’s edge. He states, in a very coy manner, that he has something he wants to ask her.

  ‘What is it?’

  He stubs his sneaker in the dirt, a regular practice of his, given the worn look of his shoe-end. ‘Have you ever done something you felt guilty about? Like something that maybe wasn’t your fault but you started to wonder if it was?’

  His words have a curious effect on her; they make her feel as light as paper, almost comical, like a cartoon character that, once steam-rolled, becomes wafer thin and floats to the ground. She gathers herself. ‘Whatever you’re talking about, I’m sure it’s not your fault.’

  ‘I’m not talking about me,’ he says. ‘But do you think that, maybe, if someone did something wrong, something that ended with someone dying, that this person could ever forgive themselves?’

  A shudder runs through Liv’s body. She’s quite sure she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and yet something comes over her. A dreamlike feeling. For a moment she finds herself unable to speak. And then she manages, ‘I’m sure the person did all they could.’

  He nods. He seems relieved by her words.

  In the water, just beneath the surface, a platypus — bill skimming the warm top layer of the river’s edge — slips by. Liv has never seen one in the wild, in fact she’s always thought the creature to be a myth, a creature belonging to some older, more ancient Australia. ‘Amazing,’ she whispers.

  The boy is not distracted by the platypus. His dark hair flops in a happy curl over one eyebrow, and his eyelashes seem to have the singular purpose of slowing the rate of his blinking. ‘Do you believe that when people die, they don’t really die?’

  And at this exact moment, Liv’s hearing gives out. That is, whatever portion of her hearing had recovered after her initial loss, disappears. She feels it go the way one feels a blanket slide off in the middle of the night. A certain weight, a density of perception is there, and then it is not. The sounds stop — the galahs, the insects in the grass, the chug of a nearby irrigation pipe, all gone.

  She looks to the boy as though he might be the culprit, as though he might have snatched her hearing on purpose. But he looks as innocent as the leaves that sway in the breeze.

  ‘I have something to show you,’ his mouth says. ‘A test.’

  Between them a leaf, borne high into the air, furls its corners and travels skyward with the buoyancy of a creature made for the sea. Jake points to the other side of the riverbank.

  ‘Do you see her?’ he asks.

  Liv’s heartbeat moves to her ears.

  She squints and holds her hand up against the fading sun, and there, on the opposite bank, is a girl, the same girl she caught a glimpse of two nights ago. ‘Why yes…’

  She looks back in time to see Jake’s small face contort into an expression that, without the sense of sound, takes Liv a moment to label as delight. His big eyes get bigger. He points again. ‘That,’ he says, ‘is my sister.’

  ‘But …’

  Jake nods.

  Liv lets out a ragged laugh (she doesn’t hear it, but her throat feels it). Her face turns cold. When she again looks to the opposite bank the girl is gone, and so, in a way, is she.

  And how shall you punish those whose remorse is already greater than their misdeeds?



  The storm system has gone but the weather remains unpredictable, shifty, adolescent. The river recedes but the banks stay saturated. Once regal paperbarks — now stripped of their outer shell by the recent wind and rain — look half naked, their exposed root systems clawing further into the dredged-out soil for traction. A grimy fish flips on the bank, scales roughed against the grain, eyes wide with shock, and in the soil nearest the water flow, minute blowholes erupt as worms come up for air, their inebriated noodle bodies inching across the lawn in search of dry ground.

  Liv reads four books in two days. A Farewell to Arms. The Bell Jar. Catcher in the Rye. Sense and Sensibility. She carries books with her on her cleaning route, she even brings one with her to the doctor’s office. She can see its curled back poking out of her bag from where she sits on the examination table. Oscar and Lucinda, the original cover.

  She closes her eyes. Two days ago — on the day when the girl, whoever she was, ran off — Liv’s hearing departed again, and it hasn’t returned. She opens her eyes and every inanimate thing in the doctor’s brightly lit room — a cupboard door, a chair, a swivelling lamp — seems larger than life, as if the objects realise they must announce themselves in ways that don’t require sound. She stays stock still on the bed. She folds her hands in her lap. Tries to close her nostrils off to smell. She imagines hearing to be a portal that, if she shuts off every other sense, might reopen.

  She had realised — as soon as this relapse hit — that her problem wasn’t going to fix itself, that she must see the doctor. But, as she sits here, she’s more certain than ever that she’s losing her mind, and she’s not sure if Dr Bennett is the kind of doctor who can fix that. ‘I don’t understand,’ she says to him. ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me.’

  Using an array of instruments, he tests her hearing; he uses terms like low-frequency and bilateral. He frowns a lot. ‘I’m certain it’s not anything as serious as sensorineural hearing loss,’ he says. ‘That happens over a matter of hours, and it’s almost never in both ears. And the drops have made no difference, you say? No difference at all?’

  Liv sees the words as they come from his mouth. It’s not just lip-reading, she thinks, now, but more like a completely new sense, or a banding together of her remaining senses. She watches his lips (which, peculiarly, are the exact same colour as the surrounding skin), she smells the peppermint exhalation that comes with his words, feels the papery touch of his old fingertip against the cartilage of her outer ear, and when she puts it all together, she knows what he’s saying. ‘My hearing had improved,’ she says. ‘And t
hen it went again.’

  ‘How are you feeling? Generally?’ he asks.

  ‘I don’t know. Strange.’

  He nods in a quiet sort of fashion, as though her condition is nothing new, as though he sees this kind of thing every day (which he doesn’t, he’s already said so), as if it’s easily treatable (which it isn’t, obviously). He inspects her ears some more. He checks her throat, too, then stands back to view her as though she might be a puzzle, the solution to which will be seen only from the right distance. ‘I’m still interested in how it is that you can hear me talking?’

  She explains, somewhat imperfectly, her ability.

  Dr Bennett furrows his brow. ‘I have to tell you, Miss Hamilton, that the skill of lip-reading takes years to attain. It’s highly unlikely that’s what you’re doing. I think a more likely scenario is that on some level, you’re hearing me, even if it’s subconscious.’

  But she can’t hear. She can’t. ‘There’s no obstructions?’ she asks. ‘No blockages that you can see?’

  ‘I’ve not found a single problem, but I strongly recommend that we send you to Redden for further tests, just to rule out some of the more obscure possibilities.’

  She shakes her head. She won’t take time off, won’t lose another job. She says as much to Dr Bennett and he looks concerned. ‘I’m sure your employer will understand,’ he says. ‘We should send you for an MRI.’

  ‘I don’t want to,’ Liv says. Since he hasn’t instructed her to do otherwise, she stays seated on the examination table.

  He says, ‘Miss Hamilton, it’s highly unusual for a girl your age to experience this kind of deafness.’

  The term girl, on his lips, possesses none of the shine it had when Mason said it. ‘I’m not a girl,’ she says.

  He looks at her file. He flicks through some kind of medical manual. ‘Well, it’s unusual for anybody to experience this.’

  ‘Will I start to sound deaf?’ she asks. ‘When I speak?’

  ‘I doubt it.’ His eyebrows, one thicker than the other, bunch together. ‘There is one other possibility we haven’t discussed. Sometimes when we’re under stress, the body can do strange things. Your condition makes me wonder if —’

  ‘Aren’t there some stronger eardrops?’ Liv puts the tip of her pinkie in her ear. ‘There’s a blockage somewhere, I can feel it.’

  He signals for her to hop down. ‘You shouldn’t be putting your fingers in your ears, for a start,’ he says.

  In the time it takes her to settle into the chair opposite his desk, he seems to come to some kind of conclusion.

  ‘I’ll give you some more drops,’ he says, ‘and if the problem hasn’t righted itself in a week, I want you to come back and see me. Then we can …’ He opens both his palms, like the mime for opening a book. ‘Well, then we can have another chat.’

  Another chat is not going to bring her hearing back. And the strangest thing is, she’s not sure she wants it back anyway. It is too much. All this thinking. All this worry. She’s lived through times more silent than this, and she’s come out the other side. She will get through this, too. For now, she returns to work.

  In the late afternoon, she goes to the main building to clean the TV room. The air in the room smells old, faintly stale, like the breath inside a balloon. She opens the windows, and leans against one of the sills, inhales smells of cut grass and eucalyptus leaves. A yellow leaf hits the window with last-minute vigour, then falls to the slate below. Wrens flutter in the branches of the cottonwood tree, fluffing their feathers against the breeze. As Liv looks at the tree (trying, in vain, to catch the eye of one of the squinting little birds) she feels movement in the floorboards. She turns.

  Vesna, the black-haired woman from Villa 9, sits cross-legged near the back-wall mirror, her fingers poised in a meditative position.

  I’m sorry, Liv waves.

  ‘The yoga studio was locked. I didn’t think I’d bother anyone by coming in here,’ Vesna says.

  Liv takes a cleaning cloth from her pocket and starts dusting the static-charged screen of the television. ‘I’ll be done in a minute.’ She is quite glad to find herself unalone (it is one of the benefits of working in such a populated establishment), but she is nervous, also, of being in a room with someone and not being able to hear. While she cleans, she steals sideways glances at Vesna. Instead of her usual leotard, the woman wears loose pants and an oversized cardigan, the excess wool of which hangs under her arms like redundant wings.

  Vesna locks her legs into the lotus position and closes her eyes. When Liv next looks at her, the woman’s mouth is on the tail end of a sentence. Is she talking or chanting? Impossible to tell. ‘I’m sorry, did you say something?’

  Vesna, still with her eyes closed, repeats herself. Her words run together, song-like. Something about the weather, about not liking storms, about being so glad to see the sunshine back again. About how storms seem to follow her, about how she can’t believe her bad luck that it stormed here, of all places, where it hardly ever rains.

  The skill of lip-reading takes years to attain, Dr Bennett had said. But here Liv is, lip-reading. What do doctors know? She doesn’t want to be prodded any more, doesn’t want to be told that what’s happening to her is impossible.

  Her glasses leave indents on the bridge of her nose; she can feel the little marks forming and they give her a headache. She is trying to pay attention to too much, all at once. Here is this woman, Vesna, in her cardigan; here are the books on the shelves, and the air coming in through the open window; here is the swaying of the cottonwood tree and its falling leaves. And she can comprehend none of it, not fully. ‘Why?’ she asks. ‘Why are you so frightened by storms?’

  A bracelet the size of a handcuff loses its grip on Vesna’s forearm and slides down to her wrist. ‘I’ve never been struck by lightning, if that’s what you mean.’

  Liv shakes her head. She’d meant to allude to something less obvious, some subtler association.

  ‘I see your logic,’ Vesna continues, her fingers maintaining their meditative stance. ‘But I’ve never been bitten by a cat either and I can’t go near the things. My throat swells up. I get welts all over my arms.’

  ‘An allergy,’ Liv says. ‘My aunt was allergic to cats.’

  ‘I don’t know what you’d call it,’ Vesna says. ‘But it’s the same with storms. They just don’t agree with me.’

  The afternoon sun dips out from behind a cloud and enters the room like a beam, dappling both women with light. The air coming in through the open window is thin and cold, not the kind that brings any rain. Liv pulls the window closed. In the garden below, Mason pushes a lawnmower along the western edge of the grounds. He treats the lawn as if it were a grid. His movements are focused, unrushed, his stride lanky. Liv turns back to Vesna, who has rolled up her mat and is taking a swig out of a water bottle.

  Orange lipstick creeps into the lines around Vesna’s mouth. ‘Do you know,’ she says, ‘that Hatton River had the lowest recorded rainfall of anywhere in the state last year? That’s why I came here, to Cottonwood. Well, that and the fact that all the televisions in this place have cable.’

  Liv’s face is blank, and there’s no remedy for this particular blankness, given that she has no idea what Vesna is talking about.

  The scent of Vesna’s citrus perfume drifts across the room. ‘The Weather Channel,’ the woman explains.


  ‘Can’t you go outside and do that?’ his mother asks.

  He’s sprawled on the living room floor, his pens and pencils and tracing paper laid out around him, and she’s on the couch.

  ‘I can’t sleep with you scrunching all that paper, tracing a picture of God knows what.’

  ‘It’s a map of Australia,’ he says. Just not a very good one. Even though he’s done the map over and over, he can’t seem to get the coastline of Victoria right. Tasmania, too, looks too angular, and too far from the mainland. He needs to start again. He gets up and hands his mother a book
on trees, one he borrowed from the school library. ‘Test me,’ he says. ‘You read out the easy name of a tree and I’ll tell you the hard name.’

  ‘This book looks old,’ she says, and she picks at a hole in the plastic jacket. ‘The light in here’s no good. I’ll test you later, baby.’ She sighs and gets up and goes to her bedroom, taking the book with her. She doesn’t come back.

  She never seems to care about his homework. She knows he will get it done no matter what, even if it means tracing by torchlight under his bed covers.

  At the old house, the house they lived in before this one, he once completed a maths assignment by candlelight after men in overalls came and took away the electricity. He is not fussy when it comes to light sources. He makes do. He improvises, which, according to Ms Buckley (who gives the class a new word for their vocabulary each week) means to compose or construct using materials not intended for that purpose. Based on Ms Buckley’s alphabetical pattern, next week’s word will begin with the letter J. Already, Jake has consulted the dictionary. His bet is judicious, meaning sensible, prudent.

  With his mother holed up in her bedroom, he gives up on his tracing project. He wants to finish it when she’s awake, so that when it comes out perfect he can show her. He ties the laces of his sneakers into double knots, shuts the door behind him, and walks to the fence line, where he follows the posts until he gets to the riverbank.

  Except for the signs of the storm, the riverbank is like always, like his own private place, a cubby house in the open. Here, he might be the only boy in the world.

  The river runs muddy and the tree trunks are still messy. The grass on the bank has been squashed flat and the air smells like water out of a drain. Jake bunches his nose. Any strands of grass that have managed to stay standing up are all splattered with dirt. In places, the dirty strands are almost as tall as Jake — the gardener doesn’t come this far with his lawnmower, and even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to mow the uneven bank. Jake walks through the grass, parting it with his hands.

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