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The retreaters, p.11

The Retreaters, page 11


The Retreaters

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  Foxtail burrs grab onto his laces as though he is some kind of animal on which they can hitch a ride. Pine needles fall into his hair. He makes it to the pebbled edge of the water, where large puddles mark the bank. He kneels by such a puddle and watches tiny fish dart within the warm pool. Hundreds of them have been stranded as the storm water receded. He should have brought his jar with him, then he could scoop up the fish and pour them back into the river. He tries to use his hands but the fish are too quick. He will come back tomorrow, with his jar, on a salvage mission.

  Along the bank, kangaroo prints are etched in the sand. The hairs on his arms stand up and his ears turn icy. A cloud covers the sun and all of a sudden the sky seems very dark, but he is not afraid. He is not afraid of the river or the trees or the animals waiting in the foothills to come down for an evening drink, because Ruth watches over him. She’s been here. He can feel it. She may have seen these same kangaroo prints, may have trodden on the same crunchy pine needles. He makes his way along the bank, looking for signs of her but finding only more animal prints. Why is she acting like this? She wasn’t so shy in life. At least Liv, the cleaning lady, had seen her, which proves that she exists. That was a breakthrough.

  Using tree roots as a foothold, he climbs up the bank to the stump where he left the chocolate bar. He stares at the stump in wonder. It’s more than he hoped for. Not only is the chocolate bar gone, but wedged into the stump’s side is a piece of white paper, folded into a tiny square. Jake takes a twig and pries the paper out of the fissure.

  He unfurls the page and his heart skips a beat. One word, scribbled in charcoal.



  The only time Liv visited Hatton River, before the events that brought her here permanently, was the year she turned ten. The ‘holiday’, as her parents called it (rather optimistically, she thought), came to fruition for several reasons. First, there was no money for a real holiday, at least not one that involved paying for accommodation. Liv’s mother, being an only child whose parents had passed away before Liv was born, had no one to visit. And Aunt Rosa, Liv’s father’s sister, had lost her husband several months earlier in a farming accident. She might appreciate some company, her parents said. Liv learned later, of course, that Aunt Rosa never appreciated company.

  ‘What was he doing on a tractor?’ Liv’s mother asked, referring to Liv’s dead uncle. ‘I thought he was a shearer.’

  ‘I don’t know,’ her father said. ‘Trying his hand at farming, I guess.’

  They drove through the Blue Mountains and followed the path of the sun.

  Aunt Rosa’s house, when they finally arrived, appeared very small and insignificant for a dwelling that took four hours to get to. During the journey, Liv had dreamed up a glamorous homestead with a verandah right round and a herd of grazing kangaroos. What she saw, when she got out of the car, was a squat little house with a white fence and a hose on the front lawn and cobwebs around the porch light. Indistinguishable from the suburban houses of western Sydney. The only difference was that in Hatton River the afternoon light was too bright, the plants too wilted. And there were flies. Lots of them.

  The house itself was cold and dark, designed for earlier settlers who wanted nothing more than to get out of the heat and the light and away from the flies. Liv’s parents slept on the twin beds in the front bedroom, Liv in a sleeping bag on the living room floor.

  They stayed for four days. They’d planned for six, but in a conversation between her parents, that number was soon revised. On their second-last day, all four of them went to the river, to a place her father called Plum Trees, named after the few scraggly fruit trees that kept company with the eucalypts. Aunt Rosa wore a straw hat and a t-shirt over her swimming costume. When she got out of the car, she looked like some kind of refugee who’d been forced to put together an outfit from a charity box. Her pale face flushed pink in the summer heat, and after sticking one toe in the water, she chose to stay on the bank, in the shade of a yellow box tree.

  Liv — even though she thought the water was too cold, too unpredictable — forced herself to go in, preferring the browny depths to being stranded on the bank with Aunt Rosa.

  ‘Watch out for snakes,’ Aunt Rosa yelled.

  It hadn’t occurred to Liv that snakes might inhabit the water as well as the surrounds.

  ‘Snakes like a cool dip too, you know,’ Aunt Rosa added.

  Liv swam farther out, closer to where her mother and father stood up to their necks in river water, cuddling. Her father let go of her mother long enough to demonstrate a dive off a tree trunk on the opposite bank. He used to jump off this very tree trunk as a child, he said. And it hit Liv, right then, that he had been a person before he was a teacher, before he was her father, and the realisation gave her a strange feeling, a slipping away feeling, like the shifting silt beneath her feet.

  The next morning when she got into the car, still smelling of river water, she waved goodbye to Aunt Rosa’s house and felt relieved. Relieved to be going back to her real life, where her father was her father and not a boy on a riverbank. Still, she’d felt some kind of inkling, some kind of fear, at the thought that — save for Aunt Rosa’s sons who were older, and estranged — this Aunt Rosa person was her only living relative. It had made her ten-year-old heart beat faster. Some would call it a premonition.

  All that you see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.

  She wakes with the words of Edgar Allan Poe swimming in her brain. The night has been full of dreams, the exact dimensions of which she can’t recall. Vague anxieties stir within her. She takes a deep breath. She feels better.

  A collection of short stories lies on her bedside table, still open at the page where sleep claimed her. She puts on her glasses and sits up in bed, reads until she reaches the end of last night’s story. She puts the book back on the bedside table, no bookmark, and a whirring sensation finds its way to her bed sheets: her alarm clock. She hears nothing of the accompanying sound.

  She moves in her silence as others might move within a room; it has become something of a construction between her and the world. There’s safety in it. She feels wide-eyed but secure; it is, she thinks, almost identical to the feeling she has when, each night, she looks out from her bedroom window and finds herself grateful for the wall between herself and the unending blackness outside.

  All day, she pushes her cleaning trolley around, she dusts, she folds, she wipes. And all day she thinks of rivers and of ghosts and, more importantly, of people being ghosts of themselves even while they’re alive; ghosts of former selves, ghosts of who they might become. She thinks of her father and of how he looked that day on the riverbank.

  She passes Jake, sitting on the step of his villa, writing in a notebook, doing his homework. He doesn’t speak to her (he has no doubt been warned about speaking to his mother while she’s on her rounds, and is employing similar restraint with Liv). Was the girl on the riverbank really his sister? It does not seem likely. Nor does it seem impossible.

  Evening descends. She stores her trolley in the main building and walks down one of the garden paths. The cool air pinches her skin. She plucks a waxy gum leaf from an overhead branch and strings it like a bean, rubs the medicinal scent into her fingertips. This is who she is — a deaf girl who likes the smell of eucalyptus on her fingers, who strolls along with books and ghosts and the remnants of cleaning fluids mingling inside her head.

  She looks up at the stars and imagines that the world beyond those needle-pricks of brightness is, like this one, soundless. She finds herself at the stables, with her arms folded across her chest. In the quickening darkness, she is surprised to find the animals standing up, alert; somehow she’d imagined them already sleeping.

  In the last stall, the dark mare is only an outline, a warm-blooded silhouette in the night. Liv steps up to the barrier. Her breach of the mare’s night-time space invites the stomp of a hoof in the dirt, like a question.

  Liv’s pupils adjust.
  Like liquid around a landmass, twilight moulds the animals. She lowers herself beneath the middle rung of the fence and approaches the horse, runs her hand along its neck, feels all the blood and heat beneath, inhales the rich, polished scent of the mare’s coat — a smell like wood cracked open. Her own heartbeat slows to meet the pace of the animal’s, and she wraps her arms around the mare. It feels good, to fold herself into a body so much greater than her own.

  She quotes Dickens:

  ‘… when the horses were unyoked; beyond, a quiet coppice-wood, in which many leaves of burning red and golden yellow still remained upon the trees.’

  The silence is so complete it starts to sound like a sound.

  Near the water trough, the huge eucalyptus tree — its stringy leaves shifting and fluttering in the quiet — becomes something moved from the wings to centre stage; it starts to take on its own aura of mystery.

  The mare pricks her ears in the opposite direction, and Liv realises she is not alone. She turns to see a slow, human puff of air disperse. Mason, or a wandering guest? The boy? The girl perhaps?

  ‘Who’s there?’ she asks. Liquid shadows. Eucalyptus leaves. If there is a response, she doesn’t hear it.

  The lamp above the first stable goes on, and there’s Mason, stepping out of the darkness. He holds up a hand. Greeting or surrender?

  ‘You scared me,’ Liv says, and her skin dusts itself with goose bumps. ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ And she feels instantly stupid. He might have said many things, she wouldn’t have heard.

  He leans on the railing, and the lamplight — even the multitude of stars above — does little to illuminate him. His form is one long shadow, flanked by the night. He tilts his head toward her, and his lips are moving.

  Liv moves closer, to the left of him, the lit side. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t …’ She cuts herself short. She can see his lips now, barely. Never has she wished for all her senses to be intact more than she does now.

  ‘I didn’t want to disturb you,’ he says.

  ‘I spoke to the horse,’ she says.

  His words come out like a smoke ring. ‘I heard.’

  He wears only a thin cotton work shirt, but if he’s cold, he doesn’t show it. The curl of his hair is camouflaged, even darker than the dark, and the line where the olive skin of his neck meets the white cotton of his collar seems like some kind of exercise in contrast. Here they are, two employees at a fence.

  They stay like that for a moment, both of them leaning on the railing. Her arm briefly brushes against his, and Mason’s movement is quick, his hand firmly around hers in an instant, an immobile handshake.

  She thinks that he won’t let go of her, thinks how long it’s been since someone touched her, thinks the absence of touch is a greater absence than the absence of sound.

  His mouth says, ‘What’s your story? Most people who come to work out here want to get away from something.’

  She shakes her head, meaning she has no story.

  It seems to be the answer he expected. He gives a small, almost imperceptible nod toward the horse. ‘You want to learn to ride that animal?’

  She says yes. He says nothing. His grip is far from gentle. ‘I said yes,’ she repeats.

  ‘I heard you,’ he says.

  She nods.

  ‘Friday. Four o’clock.’

  She nods again.

  He releases her hand and walks into the blackness of night. She shakes her arm, tries to convince her blood, which has all rushed to her head, to flow back into her deadened wrist. Her fingers have gone numb, the way they used to at the library when she thumbed too many books, turned too many pages in too short a time. She looks at the horse, and this much is clear: there’s the animal in its yard and Liv in her silence, each of them fenced in.


  On Wednesday afternoon the poor lad steps off the bus near the front gate of the retreat, his shoulders seeming to slouch less as a result of the mammoth backpack he carries and more as a result of the throng of onlookers that stare at him from the bus windows, their faces like moons suspended at the glass.

  ‘You’d better not slouch like that,’ Evelyn chides when he gets close enough. ‘You’ll give yourself an injury.’

  He simply looks at her, brown eyes huge on his pale face. In the front of his grey school shorts his shirt remains tucked in, but in the back it works its way loose. He smiles at something on the ground, and scuffs his shoe in the dirt. Evelyn thinks for a moment of telling him that his mother would’ve paid good money for those shoes, and that he has no business wearing out the toes; instead she squints and says, ‘You kids still play games in the playground these days?’

  The boy appears to think (is he slow, or what? In Evelyn’s day, if you were asked a question, you answered), and he lets the backpack slide off one shoulder. ‘You mean like handball and stuff?’

  Evelyn clacks her dentures and scours around in one of the pockets of her uniform. This goes beyond her normal routine of giving things away, no doubt about it. And if the truth be told, she should’ve just taken what’s in her pocket down to the Salvo’s with the rest of her goods and chattels, but she didn’t; she’d set the small cloth bag aside for the boy who slouches before her. ‘Ever heard of marbles?’ she asks.

  He peers at her through a dark fringe of hair. ‘You mean like cat’s-eyes? Those kind of marbles?’

  ‘Cat’s-eyes, swirls, onionskins. All kinds.’ She hands him the bag. ‘Don’t ask me how to play, I’ve forgotten.’

  The boy fidgets. He seems to be wondering whether to open the bag of glass baubles in her presence. He finds a pocket for the marbles in the front of his backpack. ‘Thank you,’ he says.

  At least he has manners, then. ‘Off you go,’ Evelyn says. ‘I haven’t got all day.’

  And he runs off before she can correct herself and say that, actually, she does have all day (and all bloody night, too). In the laundry the machines are mashing away at the last of the towels and sheets, and she has naught to do but wait: wait to load them into the dryer, wait for them to dry, wait for the morning.

  She shuffles back to her cottage, and lowers herself into her recliner. On the kitchen bench a cup of coffee sits, full to the brim. The cup she made after lunch. Did she really forget to drink it? Skin has formed on its surface.

  She takes her notepad out of her pocket and writes, Don’t forget to drink your coffee, tacks it to the arm of the chair, and looks around her small abode. With each possession she gives away, her cottage gets a little colder. Not in a homely way, but physically colder. She should fire up the heater — after all, she is old, and the retreat covers all her electricity bills — but she doesn’t. Her breath lingers in the air like an apparition. She slips her shoes off and her feet, once exposed to the cold air, begin to turn a dull purple colour. Lilac with blue veins. The moons in her misshapen toenails are pale and on the rise.


  After losing both her husband and her brother to accidents involving machinery (one a tractor, one a normal car), Aunt Rosa gave up travelling via any form of transport other than her own two feet, and she soon gave up travelling on those. She became more and more housebound, or perhaps a more appropriate word is reclusive, since housebound implies no choice in the matter. Dirty plates were left unwashed until Liv put them in the sink, tea cups were left beside chairs until the milky residue sprouted little colonies of mould. Aunt Rosa would ask Liv to ‘throw some water on the garden’, and when she did so, Liv would watch the impatiens respond to the hose by raising their happy little faces, and she would think: there is no better metaphor for life than a garden.

  Upon her arrival in Hatton River, at fourteen, Liv’s role of caregiver was so instant, so immediate, she hardly had time to grieve. She paid the bills with the money from Aunt Rosa’s widow’s pension, she bought groceries, she called her old friends in Sydney until they stopped asking how she was and started telling her about all the usual things, like boys, or the new PE teacher, or
the party where a classmate got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs only to find themselves miraculously unhurt. After that, Liv, like Aunt Rosa, started to ignore the phone.

  For a while, she simply went to school and came home. She ate, she read. She compiled a list of every single book that had been on the school’s curriculum the year her parents died, and she read each of those books over and over, knowing that her parents would have read those very words, would have assisted their students in dissecting the meaning behind the prose.

  The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald

  Antony and Cleopatra — William Shakespeare

  Brave New World — Aldous Huxley

  Persuasion — Jane Austen

  Voss — Patrick White

  Catch 22 — Joseph Heller

  Selected Poems — William Wordsworth

  Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

  Ariel — Sylvia Plath

  Great Expectations — Charles Dickens

  Oscar and Lucinda — Peter Carey

  And the list went on. And she read every one.

  Aunt Rosa, who seemed to view Liv as some kind of book-obsessed helper, one day turned away from the afternoon soap operas for long enough to say, ‘It’s very unlucky, you know, to lose a husband and a brother, all in the space of a few years. Very unlucky.’ She’d looked at Liv as though Liv didn’t yet know grief, as if she still had something left to lose.

  The aromas waft down the hall from the dining room: seafood bisque, pork with tamarind, tarragon lamb shanks. Liv can smell, she thinks, not only the obvious aromatics of the food but the fundamental elements within the ingredients: the magnesium, potassium, and sodium.

  She arrives in the crowded dining hall to find almost the entire guest population seated, their inaudible words drifting toward the ceiling like heat, their conversations a fire she warms herself by but cannot stoke. To insert herself into a group conversation would make her look like a half-wit, since she can only concentrate on one mouth at a time. She carries her bowl of mushroom risotto to the kitchen and Ben waves hello, gestures for her to sit down. He throws a dishtowel toward the sink, where it lands on the metal edge as if by design. She takes one of the barstools near the countertop. She angles her bobbed hair in the direction of the dining hall. ‘Busy,’ she says.

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