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The retreaters, p.13

The Retreaters, page 13

 

The Retreaters
 


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  She watches her tutor. Now, as ever, she intends to prove herself an apt student. Nothing escapes her attention. When Mason halters the mare and fastens the lead to the rail, she notes that his eyes, in the afternoon light, hold hints of both green and brown. An unusual trait, eyes that cannot decide on a colour. It has meaning, she’s sure.

  He says something to her.

  She raises her eyebrows, tries to pretend that she heard a little of what he said, when in fact she heard nothing at all.

  ‘Still keen?’ he asks.

  Yes, she tells him. She would not watch his mouth any less intently if her hearing were perfect.

  He goes to the storage shed and returns with a saddle on his shoulder. ‘You really should invest in a pair of riding boots if you want to learn how to ride,’ he says, looking at her sneakers. He motions for her to tuck her laces inside so they can’t get caught in the stirrups.

  She does so, and gets a nod of approval. He saddles up, and she inhales the animal smell that surrounds him — a smell that seems to belong neither to him nor to the horse, but to both. When the mare is ready he shows her how to mount up. ‘Put your toe in the stirrup,’ he says. ‘And hold the saddle here.’ He places his fingers under the mound and tugs to convey its sturdiness, then mounts up with such ease that she thinks she has never seen anyone so competent, so able.

  He dismounts in an equally graceful motion, and positions himself to help Liv. When she places her foot in the stirrup, she feels no fear, only the presence of his hand in the small of her back. She gets on the horse. Between her thighs — which now seem even smaller, wrapped as they are around the saddle and the horse — the mare remains motionless. Mason picks up the slack of her reins and hands them to her, corrects the position of her fingers, adjusts her stirrups. He walks to the railing and unties his gelding. ‘Let’s go, then,’ he says.

  Liv nudges the mare with her heels and the horse takes a moment to respond, as if it, too, senses the animal supremacy of the duo in front.

  They abandon the river flats and head up into the hills, Liv surveying the scrubby entanglement of bush around her, ducking every now and then to miss the sweep of a pine branch. Trails have been forged amongst the scraggly trees and rocky outcrops, the result not of horses’ hooves but of the kangaroos that come down from the slopes to drink at the river.

  Up ahead, Mason is all but indistinguishable from the bush that surrounds him. He climbs expertly forward, moving with his horse between the gums and stolid pines. Liv imagines the guests he has brought up here, imagines they, too, have found themselves staring at his arms, his back. Were she a guest and not a resident employee, he would still be the thing she noticed the most, not the hills or the distant vineyards or the sunset.

  She blows the hair out of her face.

  He shows no obvious interest in her advancement, yet she can tell from the slant of his shoulders that he listens for her position. She is content back here, where she can stare at him unhindered. From this angle, his hair looks the exact same colour of the horse he rides — so brown it’s almost black — and the spot where his hair meets his neck is bronzed. As a figure on horseback he is more daunting than ever — his muscular arms, his dark hair, the litheness of him. His childhood was no doubt filled with animals and trees, with red dirt and rainwater, and not for the first time, she wonders about his origins. There is talk of a woman and a child somewhere in his past, but the talk doesn’t come from him. He speaks only of plants and animals, of the weather.

  When he reaches the ridge, he waits for Liv to catch up to him. He points to a red roof on the other side of the river. His house.

  Liv stretches her legs in the stirrups, elevating herself. ‘Is that the town?’

  Mason nods. ‘Those are the wheat silos you can see at the northern end.’

  From this height, it all looks so sleepy, inconsequential but appealing, the way it might to a visitor. A winemaking valley with an open blue sky, with rows of vines and throngs of gum trees, a framework of hills. This is where she has ended up. An orphaned teenager, a library assistant, a cleaner. She is all those things. She is a woman on horseback.

  Resuming her position in his wake, Liv breathes in the cool, antiseptic smell of the pine trees. The saddle rubs her inner thighs, but she does not stop. Mason is accustomed, she is certain, to people who cannot keep up with him. She will differentiate herself that much, at least.

  He crosses a small creek and waits at the top of the slope. His shadowed face, mouth curving slightly, seems to reveal something as she approaches — interest, amusement? He could come back down and escort her up, but instead he waits, leaves her pausing at the bottom of the incline. It is the way of it, it seems, that people come to him, never the other way around.

  Liv looks up at him. Hoof prints — evidence of his climb — tarnish the hill’s slick surface.

  ‘It looks steeper than it is,’ he says, pointing to the slope. ‘Just loosen the reins a little and lean forward, she’ll take you up on her own.’ He keeps his sentences matter-of-fact, to-the-point, a habit that seems to have nothing to do with any knowledge he might have of her condition. If anything, he speaks even less to others.

  Liv squeezes her thighs against the saddle and the mare moves forward, metal shoes cracking against the rocky bottom of the creek. Icy water splashes onto her trouser-legs and the horse heaves her upward. For a moment she loses all sense of where or who she is. She is breathless now. Her legs ache. Her jeans are melded to her skin.

  Mason smiles. ‘Well done,’ he says. He kicks on.

  A sulphur-crested cockatoo flies overhead and to the right of the trail a small rabbit flattens its ears in the hope of making itself invisible in the uncertain light. The sky darkens. In a small clearing, grazing kangaroos hold their ground, resting on their tails, waiting for the horses to pass. Mason points out an echidna burrow, an empty bird nest, the web of a golden orb weaver. He does not, however, point out the blonde-haired girl who watches their progression from behind a lightning-seared tree trunk; he does not seem to see her. The girl peeps her pale face out from behind the tree and retracts it just as quickly, and Liv, blinking, wonders whether what she saw was something real or a vision of something extinct.

  Can she not trust her eyesight, either? For the rest of the ride, she keeps her gaze fixed in front.

  The pine trees consume the remaining light, and in the twilight, Liv can barely make out the trail as it becomes narrower and descends. Mason has edged farther ahead of her, and when she’s almost halfway down, she pulls her horse to a halt and realises that nowhere, in the darkness below, can she see him. ‘It’s too dark,’ she calls, ‘I can’t see you.’ Her jeans suck at the skin of her calves. He might already be too far ahead; he might be yelling something back to her that she can’t hear.

  He will never bring her out again, if she is this hard to take care of.

  Below, she senses only stillness, and then something else, a moderate luminance.

  She blinks. In the darkness he has removed his shirt to reveal the white glow of his undershirt; he means for her to follow it, the glow. So she does, she spurs her horse onward, toward him. She in the darkness and he in a white t-shirt. He will freeze, Liv thinks, but it’s she who shivers.

  EVELYN

  Can you tell a person by the slant of their shoulders? Evelyn thinks yes. Posture tells all: what a person’s left behind, what they’ve carried, how hard they’ve worked, how much they’ve slouched, how well they’ve slept. Shoulders tell more than a face (at night, her own shoulders ache out a whole autobiography). When she looks at herself, she sees a body ravaged not only by time but by industry, a body bent from years of labouring after other people. She didn’t end up with a spine like this by sipping tea and playing bingo (although there was that one time she put her neck out after Bill Higgins called legs-eleven). This back took years to develop, years of stooping to clean other people’s floors, years of lifting things the wrong way, years of leaning into the wash tub
to retrieve that final blasted sock.

  A back like this took work.

  She takes pride in her arthritis, feels a strange contentment at the bow of her vertebrae. She can no longer straighten her shoulders, even if she tries, and it doesn’t bother her, this inability to carry herself upright. In fact, she likes it.

  People with square shoulders cannot be trusted. They haven’t worked hard enough. They carry no baggage. Always, the people Evelyn dislikes the most are the ones who walk around with a proud chest and a raised head. Years ago, when Evelyn worked as a maid on the largest sheep farm in the district, Mrs Halliday, the lady of the house, had always walked tall, shoulders straight. The woman seemed to wake up with her hair done and her heels on — pious old bitch she was, even then.

  Barely in her twenties when she’d started working at Fairmont Park, Evelyn — stupidly, naively — thought the job an achievement. Only thing she’d ever been good at, hard work, and with her father not long in his grave she’d needed to believe that hard work mattered, that a life of labour meant something. Plus, she’d needed a place to reside, and Fairmont Park seemed as good a place as any. Better.

  At the Halliday house, the staff quarters alone were bigger than any abode Evelyn had ever seen. In the huge two-storey homestead, Evelyn had her own quarters and one day off per week, which, even at a young age, was too much spare time for her to fill. She used her day off to get a head start on her chores for the week: the washing, the ironing, the mopping of floors. She was paid no extra for this, of course.

  Mrs Halliday already had one child, and when it came time to give birth to her second, Evelyn stood by with towels and pans full of hot water, watching as the midwife delivered little John Halliday into the world. Afterward, Evelyn was ordered to dispose of the afterbirth and clean the sheets by boiling them in a huge copper pot. It took a whole month’s supply of washing soap to clean those sheets, and even then the stain lingered. These days, Evelyn would use Sard’s Wonder Soap or Napisan or Clorox Gel to rid the sheets of the tinge of blood, but in those days she’d done her best with huge blocks of soap.

  For nearly thirty years, Evelyn slaved over such things for them. Too late, she realised how little her presence meant in that cavernous house; she wasn’t even a housekeeper, really, but an invisible employee, a workhorse given little more consideration than the attention-starved farm dogs. The Hallidays didn’t believe in treating employees, man or animal, too kindly; it lessened productivity, they thought.

  And then one year, in the middle of a drought, the family just upped and moved to the coast to be closer to little John, who was by that time married with his own children. The staff — Evelyn, the farmhands, and the gardener — were ‘let go’, and though no law existed, it was expected that some kind of redundancy money might be paid to them for so many years of service. But on her last day on the farm, Evelyn was given her normal monthly pay cheque and a milk jug worth twenty dollars. She remembers, vividly, the self-righteous slant of Mrs Halliday’s neck as she dispensed what she clearly considered to be a generous severance gift.

  That was the moment, right then, when Evelyn stopped expecting anything in return for hard work or kindness, though she has long stopped practising the latter.

  Why dwell on these things now? What, exactly, is she trying to make sense of — her need to work, her need to be useful, even if she goes unnoticed by those she serves? She doesn’t work for the money, that’s for sure. She could survive as well as anyone on the seniors’ pension. Yet she dreads retirement, dreads being pronounced useless long before she is pronounced dead. Here she is at the tail end of her life (can there be any question, given her deteriorating mind and her declining body, that she is on the way out?) with no way to know if she will be able to work up until the last. No way, either, to quell this sudden fancy that she do more with her life. Preposterous. It is done, whatever it amounted to.

  In the frigid laundry of Cottonwood she shuffles to the hamper, plucks a pair of underpants from the top of the pile — a pair of stupid, lacy things belonging to Villa 14 — and begins sorting clothes according to colour and room number. Lights, darks, towels and linen, and the other dreaded category: hand wash, a category Evelyn mistrusts almost as much as ‘straight-spined’. And there is one guest who fits both: Vesna Vale, the mutton-dressed-up-as-lamb woman from Villa 9. Her clothes are all fancy wool blends with unpronounceable brand names, clothes so clean they look as if they’ve never been worn.

  It irks Evelyn to dissolve the detergent in the hand-wash tub, to have to rinse each item separately, to lay a cashmere pullover on a towel so that it won’t dry out of shape. It irks her even more to pluck dozens of black hairs from the delicate wool. And yet if she doesn’t do it just right, there’ll be hell to pay. The only time management talks to her is when she’s done something wrong, like the incident three winters ago involving a shrunken lambs-wool shawl, which to this day Evelyn insists was the fault of the care label, not her work. She inhales the soapy perfume, until her nostrils become immune to the smell.

  She abandons the soaking garments and moves on to the pile of staff laundry: Ben’s chef uniforms, which need to be washed separately with a capful of bleach added to the load; Liv’s cotton uniforms (the same blue and white shifts as Evelyn’s, only several sizes smaller), Grace’s cleaning garb and the boy’s school shirts and shorts, his navy pyjamas.

  She checks the pockets of each garment. In the pocket of one of her own dirty uniforms, she finds a note that reads: Liv is not really deaf. Ah, yes! She’s not yet caught her out, but what kind of person (at such a young age) can hear one minute and is deaf the next? Evelyn salvages the note, tucks it into her current pocket. She pulls at the pockets of the boy’s blue pyjamas until they poke out like tongues, and, like something spilling from a mouth, a piece of paper falls to the floor. The note is folded into quarters, the paper smudged. Writing big enough even for Evelyn’s eyes. One word, all alone on the page.

  Thanks, it says.

  For a moment Evelyn thinks the note is intended for her — a thanks for her babysitting effort, or the marbles, or perhaps even her care with the laundry. But while the script is certainly childlike, it doesn’t belong to Jake. She’s seen his handwriting before (on a page of homework he once left in his shorts) and his penmanship looks nothing like this. This note seems almost scrawled, the letters fashioned out of something resembling charcoal.

  Evelyn’s chest flutters, a side effect, possibly, of her recent disregard for her blood pressure medication. She reads the note again, then folds it and places it on the shelf next to the washing powder.

  She checks all the other pockets — after all, the last thing she can afford is white paper in a load of darks. But her hands come up empty.

  LIV

  The garden beds of Cottonwood Retreat have a damp, dark aroma — like that of soil beneath a turned stone — and the scent is so powerful that Liv can tell whenever Mason works nearby. From her lunch table in the dining hall, even with the window closed, she catches the earthy bouquet of his labour and, sure enough, there he is, working a shovel into a nearby garden plot, turning over fresh soil. He has his back to her. She’s always watching him from behind, it seems.

  He is at his finest like this: when he’s being watched and doesn’t know it.

  He plants a rose bush, deposits the young shrub into the prepared cavity and baptises it with a spray of water. He frees it of its botanical tags. Liv chews her lip and would-be hives flare under her skin, a thousand tiny pin-pricks preparing for combustion until, with a deep breath, she coerces them into subsidence. She’s never looked at someone and felt, for lack of a better word, sick. With James — the high school boyfriend who lingered in her life until the University of Sydney called him away — she’d felt fondness, genuine interest even (he knew more about the world, geographically, than anyone she knew, and his desire to map the globe was matched only by his desire to navigate her body). But once he moved to Sydney no amount of letters could ke
ep him in her mind, proof enough, she said in her last letter, that their relationship would not survive distance. Even her romance with Mac, the blonde-haired relief teacher who frequented the library during a three-month hiatus in Hatton River, failed to transform into anything more than an interlude. When his transfer came through — a history position in Alice Springs — he asked Liv to come with him. But her aunt’s demands had become too insistent, even more insistent than Mac’s: he’d begun to leave her notes hidden all around the library. So she was much relieved when, after delaying his trip by two weeks in the hope she would change her mind, he finally left town.

  For months afterward, she found notes pressed amongst the shelves, notes addressed only to L and signed M. How many unsuspecting library patrons had carried such notes home with them in the pages of a book?

  Now, staring out the window at Mason, time feels like something charged, something pulled taut. If only he would leave her notes, something to decipher, something to paw over.

  There is a tap on her shoulder, and she turns to find Vesna, plate in hand, gesturing toward the spare seat on the opposite side of the table. A request to sit down. Liv cannot say no — it doesn’t seem within her rights as an employee. She nods.

  Outside, Mason washes his hands under the hose.

  Inside, Vesna takes a seat. She sets up her sandwich plate, her cutlery, her serviette. She moves her chair as close to the table as it will go. Her make-up looks like a mask.

  Liv recognises the look on Vesna’s face — she’s seen it a million times in library patrons who came to the library not for the books, not even for the quietness, but for contact. Old ladies, bachelors, unpopular kids, all of them would come to the library not to read, not to talk (since talking was frowned upon) but just to be around people, to orbit the well-organised aisles in the knowledge that through every gap was a glimpse of a fellow human being, a fellow reader.

 
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