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The retreaters, p.12

The Retreaters, page 12


The Retreaters

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  ‘Full capacity,’ Ben says. ‘Not one room free.’ He takes a seat next to her and drags two wine casks, wine used primarily in his cooking, across the bench. He taps the casks. ‘Red or white?’

  Liv doesn’t really know her preference. She points white. Beyond the wine cask, at the corner of the bench near the Mix-Master, her gaze falls on three or four pill bottles huddled against the wall, their labels hidden. She can’t make out their inscriptions. The only readable word is suppressant.

  ‘I always have red, myself,’ Ben says. ‘Better for your health.’ He takes two plastic measuring cups from the drawer. ‘I may be the only person alive who thinks wine tastes better out of plastic. Now, if management comes in, we pretend this wine is about to go in the beef casserole, okay?’

  Liv signals her collaboration by smiling. Beneath her, the chair wobbles. She rests her shoes on the stool’s metal rung to steady herself, halting her immediate vertigo but not the deeper, more enduring sense of inertia she feels at her core. It is the basis of much of her thoughts these days, that she belongs nowhere, that she is bound to nothing. No one knows much of anything about her (which is, in most ways, a blessing — at least she’s not just the girl with the sick aunt), and in return she knows even less about them. There are no shared childhoods, no years of colleague-ship to keep strangeness at bay, and thus she must find new ways to declare herself, to make herself up as she goes, to pin herself to the page. She resigns herself to the fact that, uncomfortable as it might be, she will have to familiarise herself with the art of small-talk. She considers querying Ben on the meaning of the word suppressant.

  Ben, though, speaks first.

  ‘How was your day?’ he asks, filling up her cup first, then his own. On the bench, the incontinent wine cask lets out a pale dribble, and he places a serviette under the valve. ‘No improvement in the hearing department?’

  She smooths the easy-wash cotton of her uniform, and shakes her head. She summarises, for Ben, the information given to her by the doctor. ‘It’s a mystery,’ she says, meaning herself, meaning life.

  Ben loosens the collar of his uniform. ‘You know the saying,’ he says. ‘Things get worse before they get better. Give it time.’

  His lips, surrounded by a dusting of pale stubble, move differently to everybody else’s, his British accent in motion. Liv takes another sip of the chardonnay. She finishes her risotto and lays her fork to rest across the shallow bowl. Ben sits, pinching his stubble as if to gauge its exact length, and in the dining hall someone drops a plate. The floor rattles. Liv starts.

  ‘See,’ Ben says, sitting to attention. ‘You heard that, right? I told you, give it time.’

  His blue eyes err so far toward hopefulness that she doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she didn’t hear the plate drop, but felt it.

  The metallic coldness of the seat leaches into her legs, and she shifts her position. ‘Was it hard,’ she asks, changing the subject, ‘to leave England?’

  He takes another mouthful of his wine. ‘Not so hard. I’d always wanted to travel, and I figured I could always go home, if things didn’t work out. Plus’ — his lips falter for a fraction of a second here — ‘it was a good time to move on.’


  He runs his hand over his abbreviated hair. ‘Stuff. There was an ex-girlfriend. Her name was Rebecca,’ he says. ‘She wanted to move to the city, wanted to be a singer. I thought about going with her, but the plan was she’d go for a few months, give it a go, and come back if things didn’t work out.’ He shrugs. ‘Things worked out, I guess. She got a gig in a jazz club. Singing was everything to her.’

  Liv’s aunt, like Mrs Bourne (and this represents the only similarity between the two), was never one to ask personal questions, never one to offer a hug or a consolatory pat on the back, a trait which Liv had always thought herself to possess. But here, in the kitchen, she finds herself thinking of the ways in which she might touch Ben, of the ways in which a tap or a hug might seal the friendship. Outside, the garden lights of the retreat begin to twinkle. She reaches over to touch Ben’s shoulder. Touches instead the cool metal side of the back of his seat. ‘What about you?’ she says.

  ‘Me?’ he says, eyes playful. ‘I can’t hold a tune.’


  This is what Jake remembers of his old house in town: it was fibro and it had a crawl space underneath where, if he inched on his belly, he could lie and listen to the sound of his mother walking around on the floorboards above. It had a rainwater tank hooked up to the roof so that when it rained, tin-tasting run-off would fill the tank. It had a big yard where birds came to hide in the overgrown trees and where ants built their nests in the shade of a shrub that smelled like bubblegum. It had a blue roof, the only blue roof in the whole street. But he and his mother hadn’t owned the roof or the house, and after Ruth died, when his mum got back into ‘the program’, they’d moved out here to the retreat. Which is hands-down the best place they’ve ever lived.

  But Jake still thinks of his old house.

  At the old house, whenever he misbehaved (which wasn’t often — he was never truly naughty, not like Jimmy Wheeler who has been in trouble with the police twice), his mother would make him stay out in the backyard, leaving him out there for hours while they both forgot what he’d done wrong in the first place.

  Apart from counting ants and memorising birdcalls, Jake had always used this time to spy on his neighbour, Mr Lombardi. To spy on his yard, at least. The dividing fence was made only of chicken wire and steel posts and anyone could look through and see the dead lawn and the rusted shed and the weeds growing through the woodpile. Jake had only seen Mr Lombardi in his yard once, and that was when someone came to cut down the old gum tree that looked like it was going to fall on Mr Lombardi’s house (and on Jake’s house as well). Otherwise Mr Lombardi was never outside, except for when he urinated in his garden after a night at the pub.

  Mrs Rogers, on the other side, did not pee in her garden (at least not that Jake had ever seen) and she never sang. Hers was a quieter method of disturbance. She put unwanted junk mail into other people’s boxes and complained about a dog that barked three streets away. She chopped the limbs off neighbouring trees and flung the branches back over the fence. In fact, she threw all kinds of things over the fence: weeds, strings of windblown Christmas tinsel, dead mice.

  Whenever he saw her round face staring out through the curtains of her kitchen window, Jake stared right back. He tried to spy on her while she gardened, but that required him to stand in the wheelbarrow and lean over her fence, and he’d been so frightened of what she would do if she looked up from her flowers that he’d never peered over again.

  No holes or gaps had existed in her fence because it was made from solid metal, and if a hole did appear anywhere along the base, she stuffed it with a rock so that nothing, not even a beetle, could see its way into her block. Only her small front yard was unprotected, and she watched it like a hawk. The instant poor Goonie (a scrappy-looking dog that belonged to a house up the street) set foot on Mrs Rogers’ lawn, she would run out in her dressing gown and hit the animal over the head with a rolled-up newspaper. And even though he is embarrassed to admit it now, Jake twice removed Goonie’s poop from a patch of lawn up the road and put it back on Mrs Rogers’ lawn. If anyone had caught him, his only defence would have been that a dog that scrawny deserved to poop wherever it liked.

  And it wasn’t just other people’s pets that Mrs Rogers treated cruelly — she handled her own animals the same way. When her cat rubbed up against her ankles she kicked it out of the way, and when she clipped the wings of her chickens, Jake heard squawks so terrible that he was forced to block his ears. She was not a nice lady. Which is why Jake was surprised when she invited him over to see the henhouse.

  He’d been bouncing a ball in his driveway when she called to him through her kitchen window.

  ‘I see you listening to the chickens through the fence,’ she’d said, her voice crac
kling like fat in a frying pan. ‘Why don’t you make yourself useful and come and collect the eggs?’

  He should have known better, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to meet the hens. They weren’t afraid of him the way they were of Mrs Rogers. When he entered the pen they circled around him and clucked like foreigners who’d found a translator.

  Exactly what they said, he couldn’t figure out. It was the eggs that talked to him. Eggs with shells so smooth he thought they might be stones from the bottom of the river, some of them still warm as he plucked them from their straw beds. He filled the small yellow bucket, carried it not by the loose handle but by the rim, with both hands. He was careful, but when Mrs Rogers’ cat ran in front of him he’d had no choice but to lose his balance — he wasn’t going to tread on the poor cat. Only one egg toppled from the bucket and broke with a clean-sounding crack. Mrs Rogers, who’d been watching through her kitchen curtains, came outside and mopped it up with a paper towel. ‘If hens so much as smell their own eggs, they’ll start cracking them on purpose,’ she said. ‘Too stupid for their own good.’ And she’d looked at Jake as if he belonged in that same category.

  Her face wrinkled. When she took him by the chin his throat closed up. ‘Hard to tell which one of them fly-by-night-Johnnie’s you belong to,’ she’d said, squinting at his face. ‘You could be anybody’s, knowing your mother.’

  The words didn’t make sense to him, but he knew enough to know that she wasn’t being nice, enough to decide that, in his experience, old ladies were best avoided. And for the most part, he’s managed to do just that.

  Here in his villa at the retreat, he sits at the kitchen table, eating a cheese sandwich, thinking about old ladies and old houses. He’s still thinking about these things when his mother walks in. ‘I’m going out,’ she says.

  Jake puts down the second half of his sandwich, starts to look for his shoes.

  ‘You can’t come,’ she adds.

  He’s disappointed, but not too much. When Ruth was alive, his mother went out all the time.

  ‘I mean out out,’ she repeats. And for the first time since Jake can remember, she paints her lips to match the red of her skirt. She looks pretty, but dangerous, also. His stomach grumbles.

  ‘Don’t stare at me,’ she says.

  ‘I’m not.’

  ‘Good. Don’t.’ She brushes her hair and it crackles.

  He tries to focus on what he will do while she’s gone, and the first thing that pops into his mind is that he will drizzle honey next to the ant’s nest in the staff garden, so that the ants have something to eat. He’s still thinking about the honey when his mother surprises him again. ‘You’ll be staying with Miss Harper until I get back.’

  Jake’s mouth drops open. He is too shocked to argue.

  Miss Harper, when he arrives at her little cottage by the laundry, seems even less happy with the arrangement. ‘Is this because I gave you those bloody marbles?’ she says. ‘Now all of a sudden I’m the resident babysitter?’

  He opens his mouth to tell her that he hasn’t told anyone about the marbles, that he’s sorted them by colour and size and stowed them in a small cardboard box under his bed, next to a stone his sister once gave him, but the words don’t come out.

  And the worst part is, it’s already dark, so he can’t even escape to the garden, but is instead trapped in Miss Harper’s airless living room, which smells like a mixture of wet hair and beef stew. He sits on the floor and plays his Game Boy (an old model from the second-hand shop in town), and keeps an eye on Miss Harper as she sits in her huge leather chair and turns the pages of a magazine by flicking them with a ballpoint pen. She doesn’t appear to be reading, just flicking.

  Across the river, a fox cry rings out and several other sounds come chasing after it — a caterwaul, a frog croak, the mournful hoot of a mopoke. Ninox boobook, Jake thinks, otherwise known as the spotted owl. He wishes he were out there with the owl, instead of in here, captive. Captive like a hen in a laying box. He clicks the controls of his computer game and makes firing noises under his breath. He does it a little louder, loud enough for Miss Harper to look up.

  She clucks her tongue. ‘You want me to take that game away from you?’ she says.

  Jake says nothing. He doesn’t exactly want to test Miss Harper’s patience. He’s seen the way she treats the possums — throwing anything she can find at them. He stares at the screen of his Game Boy and watches the graphics fade. The grey rug on which he sits smells like a closed-up lunchbox. It itches his legs.

  All of a sudden Miss Harper looks at him funny. ‘You’re an odd one, aren’t you?’

  Jake keeps his face as blank as possible — the same face he uses at school when he pretends not to know an answer. Even though the batteries have died, he keeps flicking the buttons on his Game Boy.

  ‘You’re not a screw loose like your mother, are you?’ Miss Harper adds.

  Jake closes his eyes. Last year — all through the third term — the door to his classroom had creaked whenever it was opened or closed. The screws are loose, Ms Buckley had said, but no one had come to fix the problem. The rusted hinge became a joke, kids opening and closing the door as slow as they could, making the creak last as long as possible. Some kids even pretended to play tunes by swinging the door back and forth. It was amusing, for a while. Until one cold winter day the door just fell clean off, right in the middle of class.

  Whatever had made Jake’s mum want to go out, she now seems to regret it. She collects him from Miss Harper’s without saying a word, and the black pencil she uses around her eyes is all run like paint. It frightens him, the look on her face. He had hoped that she might come home happy, that maybe all she needed was a night out. Toby Wallace said that whenever his parents had a night out, they always came home and danced to old records. He said that was how you could tell if your parents had been drinking — they came home and pulled out old records. They danced.

  Right now, the possibility of Jake’s mother dancing seems about as likely as her flying to the moon. There’s something weird in her eyes, in her speech. But as miserable as she looks, he is pleased to see her. The last few hours at Miss Harper’s has stricken him with fear that one day his mother will go away and never come back. It’s not the first time he’s felt such fear. The week after his sister died, Jake’s mother was put in hospital and Jake was taken to Hoffman House, a home for children with nowhere to go. He remembers clearly the girl who’d walked around barking like a dog, and the older boy who kept leftover vegetables in his dresser drawer. There were bars on the windows, and even the kind staff members scared him silly.

  Now his mother sits at the kitchen table, mumbling something under her breath as she lights a cigarette. The overhead light makes her face look the same colour as the ash from her cigarette. She sits completely still.

  Jake fidgets, afraid to let her stay silent. ‘What’s wrong, Mum?’ he asks. ‘Are you okay?’

  Her face looks crumpled, the way his backpack does when there’s nothing in it. ‘Nothing, Jake. I thought I could do it, you know, but I can’t.’ She takes a puff of the cigarette, and narrows her eyes against the smoke that blows up into her hair.

  Jake bites his bottom lip. ‘Want a hot chocolate?’ he asks.

  She stares at him. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ she says. She lays her head on the table. ‘I’m sorry, baby. Just go to bed.’

  His lips are quivering now. He walks into his bedroom and closes the door. On the edge of his bed are his pyjamas, neatly folded where he left them. From the pocket, he pulls the piece of paper he found on the riverbank. For the last few nights he’s slept with the note held close to him. Thanks. The single word creased now from all the folding and unfolding. He reaches under the bed and touches the marbles, touches the stone his sister gave him, touches the spine of his lone Encyclopaedia Britannica: Volume B. He has only the one volume, bought from the second-hand bookstore. His mother’s sobs seep through the door, and he blocks his ears. He
tries not to think about hospitals, about homes with barred windows and girls who bark like dogs, about all the unborn chickens that might have been if hens didn’t eat their own eggs.


  With the afternoon comes a drop in temperature and a sharpening of the sky. It is the only time of day when Liv perceives the world as truly spherical, so cosmic are the shades — the coppery horizon to the west, the bright blue dome of sky above, the hazy palette of the east. When she steps outside, the light seems unbearable at first; she shields her face from the contrasting hues and waits for her eyes to adjust.

  She hasn’t seen Mason in the last few days, but she’s thought of him. Or rather, she’s thought about bits of him. A tanned arm, a square jaw, a muscular back. She catalogues his parts in the same way she annotates her favourite lines in her favourite books: methodically, thoroughly.

  When he appears at the edge of the stables, the sight of him — so perfectly pieced together, so whole — disrupts Liv’s balance. She sways.

  ‘You’re here,’ he says.

  She nods.

  He walks to the shed. Jeans, dusty boots. The neck of his plaid cotton shirt is unbuttoned. Liv’s heart beats faster. She reminds herself not to be nervous, that the dark mare has escorted hundreds of guests into the hills and safely back. Then she reminds herself that it’s not the horse she’s nervous of.

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