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The retreaters, p.14

The Retreaters, page 14

 

The Retreaters
 


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  ‘I hope you don’t mind me sitting with you,’ Vesna says.

  Liv looks away long enough to watch Mason depart across the lawn, gardening shears hanging from his belt like a weapon. Beneath the back of his shirt, his broad shoulders are flexed. His dark hair shines. She turns her attention back to Vesna. ‘Not at all,’ she says.

  Vesna rearranges her sandwich on the plate. ‘At least the weather’s fine,’ she says. She picks up the sandwich and takes a small bite. ‘I want to ask you a question,’ she says. ‘I want to know what you think about someone moving here, to Hatton River. To live. House prices are cheap. And with my divorce settlement I could afford something nice. A real house, not a unit. I want to know what you think.’

  Liv is cautious. She’s not sure she should even be sitting with a guest, let alone advising them on real estate. Besides, she doesn’t know what to say. It would be inappropriate to voice the fact that when she first arrived in Hatton River all those years ago, she’d thought it the most leave-able place on earth. And yet here she is.

  Vesna pulls a loose thread from the seam of her skirt and holds the cotton between her fingers. ‘You think I’m too much of a city person, don’t you?’

  Liv says: ‘And though home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke.’ She does not mean to sound profound in quoting Dickens, she only means to convey a point.

  Yet Vesna looks at her with astonishment, an expression she holds until, out the window, a cloud passes over the sun. ‘Oh, no. It was supposed to stay sunny,’ Vesna says, eyelashes clumping under the burden of her mascara. ‘This just proves my theory that the more days we go without a storm, the more likely one is to occur.’ She eyes the clouds nervously. ‘And I’ve just booked in for another month, too, until I decide what to do.’

  ‘It won’t rain again for a while,’ Liv reassures. ‘Not so soon after the last storm.’

  ‘How can you be sure?’

  ‘I just am,’ she says, and she is.

  A cold wind blows over the retreat, its sharpness partially absorbed by the surrounding foliage, the native gum trees and imported elms. Winter now, no question, yet Liv persists in sitting in the staff garden in nothing but her uniform and a cardigan, an attempt to let the sun onto her pale legs. The breeze blows over her, raising the hairs on her arms. She feels, sitting here in the garden, as though she is waiting for something or ignoring something, she can’t tell the difference.

  The late-afternoon sun hovers above the mountains, the world still more yellow than blue, the sky corrugated. On the river flats several kangaroos have come to graze, and in the trees, a host of birds jostle for position. Grass parrots pick amongst the newly mown lawn; a willy wagtail alights on the rump of a kangaroo and dances, tail twitching.

  In her lap, a copy of Patrick White’s Voss lies open. Words were not the servants of life, but life, rather, was the slave of words. She’s read the book before and loved it, yet today, she grows tired of it. Or does she tire of herself?

  Before her, the world is alive. Yellow light. A rash of cockatoos in the gum trees. She leaves the book on the chair and tightens the laces of her sneakers.

  She takes the path along the riverbank, welcoming the fresh air and the movement of her limbs. At a sandy outcrop on the riverbank, she stops. A dead branch stretches across the width of the clear water; tiny birds use it like a bridge, hopping to the far side and back again. At her presence, the birds escape to the treetops. The water trickles over logs and around bends. On the opposite embankment, blackberry vines spread like wildfire, the dark beaded eyes of their buds concealing their thorns.

  Liv crouches. Persuaded of her benevolence, the tiny birds resume their business, puffed feathers shielding diminutive torsos as they promenade from branch to branch and court insects between smooth riverside pebbles. Stilt-legged insects use the water’s surface as a playground, and the occasional ripple reveals the shadow of a ruddy-lipped fish. According to Ben, only carp, an inedible freshwater fish, occupy these waters. Liv had been going to go fishing with him until he said anything they caught they would kill, even if they weren’t going to eat it. Carp were considered a pest, he’d said. Several locals had told him so.

  ‘Yes, but are there any animals locals don’t consider a pest?’ Liv asked.

  He’d said, ‘Cattle, I presume.’

  The water is narrow enough to cross, not much wider than a creek. In places it threatens to dry up completely. She holds up the bottom of her uniform and steps in, lets the shallow water cover her sneakers. Freezing. Much colder than expected. The skin of her ankles turns bright pink, hypothermic. When she reaches the other side, her sneakers leak small puddles of silt-coloured water from their soles.

  She walks along the bank, staying adjacent to the path of the river. The last of the blackberry vines disappear and the embankment becomes steeper, the earth falling away in parts to form mini-cliffs that separate her from the water flow. Weather-beaten trees lean tentatively over the bank, like children learning to dive, and toward the setting sun, green paddocks divide into squares, mountains fall into one another in a domino line leading to the horizon.

  Out of the short grass a dirt road materialises. Liv follows the tyre tracks, not entirely a whim — the tracks belong to Mason. Those diagonal marks, like everything else about him, are distinctive.

  Two huge yellow box trees, one on either side of the track, form a gateway to his property, and a small grove of pine trees all but blocks his house from her view; the red appears first, the same roof she saw from the mountaintop during their horse ride. Mason’s ute is in the driveway, and on the wide front verandah, a blue cattle dog sleeps.

  She circles the house from the cover of foliage.

  Twilight sets in. On her ankle, a mosquito alights and she slaps it away. The dog, awake now, stands up and pricks its ears forward. Light glows in Mason’s kitchen window. Smoke rises from the chimney. This place looks lived-in, it looks like a home. The persistent insect lobs again and Liv feels the sting of penetration.

  She stays here, crouched in the same spot, until her presence becomes too much for the dog. The stocky canine steps to the front of the verandah, wags its tail, and then begins to open and close its jaw repeatedly, snout raised. Mason will soon come out to investigate, surely. Liv lingers one more moment amidst the pines. On the scaly trunk of a nearby tree the husk of a summer cicada grips the bark, an empty shell holding on to the shape of life. A skin waiting to be inhabited.

  She retreats. This time, the shock of the shallow river takes her breath away. Her ankles look raw.

  To alleviate the numbness, she walks briskly. Wood smoke fills the air. She breathes in, senses the faint taste of eucalyptus against her throat, watches coldness dust her exhalation like a fingerprint.

  Her next inhalation comes up short. Farther down the riverbank stands Jake, alone amongst the grass. He doesn’t see Liv, his attention is too fixed on something on the opposite bank. He’s smiling like a Cheshire cat. She can’t see what captures his attention, but whatever it is, he seems to be waving at it — a tentative, closed-hand wave. Wind sweeps the grass in different directions. Liv scales to higher ground and weaves her way through the gum trees. Next to a towering stringy bark she stops, and follows Jake’s gaze to the other side of the river where there, under a fir tree, stands the girl. The girl seems also to be waving.

  Ten or eleven years old at most, she is inappropriately dressed, given the weather, given the brown-dirt surrounds, yet her white dress bears no stains and she shows no signs of shivering. The breeze offers one last gush through the fir trees, bending branches toward the already gone sun. The girl’s pallid little face — a circle in the dusk — forms a smile (a smile intended for Jake, for she hasn’t seen Liv) and then she turns and disappears behind the trees. Jake steps forward as if he means to follow her, then stops. The river is fuller here, too deep to be crossed by such a small boy. His wide-eyed face stares at the far-side trees, and even from thi
s angle the word on his lips is unmistakable. Wait.

  JAKE

  Two years ago the school principal, Mr Norman, called an assembly in the middle of the day, right before the lunch bell rang. At first the air of the school hall crackled with anticipation, because any disruption to normal class routine was cause for excitement, and a school assembly meant something big. A surprise concert maybe. Or an educational presentation like the time the travelling Shakespeare-for-kids came through town. Or maybe something less interesting, like a school-wide lice check or a dental hygiene inspection.

  Three rows ahead of Jake, Ruth sat with the rest of the fifth years, her long blonde braids dangling down the back of her checked uniform. Watching her made Jake feel better. Ever since kindergarten, he’d navigated the school grounds according to his sister’s whereabouts. He felt safer when he could see her. Keeping his sister’s braids in his line of vision, he dreamed up reasons for this surprise assembly: perhaps an afternoon of free play was about to be announced, or a half-day early mark. But when Mr Norman began to speak, his normally solid voice sounded weirdly out of tune. Becky Davies, he said, would not be returning to her classes at Hatton River Primary.

  The children remained unmoved. Becky Davies, a fifth year student, had been off sick for the last two days, and even though news of her absence had travelled through the school population, it seemed impossible that her non-attendance had anything to do with illness or trouble — Becky was one of those girls whose hair always shone, the kind of girl who won competitions and was liked by everyone. Maybe that was it, Jake thought, maybe she was so bright she was being fast-tracked to high school? Or maybe her family was moving. Families did that.

  ‘Where is Becky?’ one student ventured, an outburst that would normally be reprimand-able but was, on this day, allowed.

  Jake squirmed. Whatever the reason for Becky’s absence, it had numbed the usually well-honed disciplinary skills of the staff. The teachers, all of them standing in their usual positions to the side of the student population, stared straight-faced at Mr Norman on his podium.

  Jake blinked. Three rows ahead, Ruth’s plaits were still there. One of her hands was feeling the braids for inconsistencies.

  ‘As some of you know,’ Mr Norman continued, ‘Becky has been sick with what we thought was the flu …’ He cleared his throat. ‘Her parents want you all to know how much she loved her classmates, how much she loved school.’ He began to list the various school awards of which Becky had been the winner: the mathematics prize, the science fair certificate, the best-and-fairest trophy in the girls’ netball competition.

  At this point, several fifth year girls burst into tears, and Jake heard only bits of what Mr Norman said next. Bacterial meningitis. Unexpected. Our thoughts are with the Davies family. Any child who’s been in contact with Becky should report to the school nurse immediately. Mr Norman never used the word dead, he didn’t have to.

  When the assembly finished, the children were dismissed into a playground much bleaker than the one they’d played in that morning. Jake located Ruth by the bubblers. She stood with three of her classmates, all of whom had red eyes and sniffly noses (which Jake hoped came from crying and not from sickness). Ruth, though, looked fine. She didn’t seem worried at all.

  ‘Does this mean people can die from the flu?’ Jake asked.

  Ruth shook her head and her plaits swung. ‘You heard Mr Norman, it means that people can die from meningitis.’

  She said meningitis with horrifying self-assurance, as though she’d always known its name and what it could do.

  Jake’s heart beat so fast he thought he was going to keel over, right there. Why was she being so calm? Then a more urgent thought struck him. ‘You’ve been near Becky, haven’t you? You have to go and see the school nurse, you have to make sure you didn’t catch it.’

  His sister tilted her head and touched his shoulder. Three years older than him, she had a way of looking at him that illustrated all the things he didn’t know. ‘I sat in her class last week, like everyone else, so we all have to see the nurse.’

  She looked okay. But so had Becky Davies. How could someone just die like that? How could someone be at school one week and not the next? Maybe Becky had something else wrong with her. Maybe she’d been ill since birth. ‘What do you think it’s like,’ Jake asked, ‘being dead?’

  Ruth looked at him and the ribbons in her hair fluttered. ‘Do you remember being in Mum’s belly, before you were born?’

  Jake shook his head.

  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’ll be like that.’

  Maybe she knew, even then, that one year later, in that stuffy school hall of Hatton River Primary, another assembly would be taking place, and this time, the name on Mr Norman’s lips would be hers.

  LIV

  No one even asks about her parents any more. She supposes she is past the age where it is unusual to have parents who’ve died, or departed in other ways. The myriad anecdotes, the bits and pieces, the family memories that Liv once kept on the very surface of her tongue for easy retrieval, are sliding from her grasp now in the same way their car slid from the road; besides, the larger truths — the I miss them terriblys and the yes it was a tragedys — once uttered, always have a way of sounding like a lie, or worse, an apology.

  EVELYN

  Ada Miles — or ‘volunteer extraordinaire’, as Evelyn likes to call her — adopts stray dogs (sometimes even stray people), she does the rounds of Hatton River in the meals-on-wheels van, she makes prescription deliveries on behalf of the local pharmacy, she is a friend to all: animals, the elderly, the immobile, the just plain lazy. She bears judgment on no one. In fact, Evelyn’s never heard Ada say a bad word about anybody, and vice versa. Suspicious, if you ask Evelyn. No one is that agreeable.

  Back in their school days at St. Cecelia’s, Ada — with her milk and honey voice — had all the nuns wound around her little finger. Even now, all these years later, the sound of Ada’s sickly sweet voice can make Evelyn cringe. In life, as in school, the melody of Ada’s drawl makes Evelyn want to shut her own craggy trap for good, or else let fly with a few choice expletives. No in between.

  She’d hoped, being a weekend, that Ms Thomas would be manning the desk at the St Vincent de Paul. Ms Thomas used to be a headmistress at the local public school, and though she’s been retired for years, she still barks orders as if the world were a schoolyard. Evelyn had been looking forward to the usual argumentative exchange in which Ms Thomas shouts instructions — electricals go over there, not here! — and Evelyn tells her where to shove her electricals. But instead, it seems, she will be subjected to Ada.

  ‘Good morning,’ Ada calls, when Evelyn steps over the threshold of the thrift shop. She flits out from behind the desk and pushes her glasses up to the bridge of her nose. ‘Come in, come in.’

  ‘Don’t get excited,’ Evelyn says. ‘All I’ve got is an old electric blanket.’

  ‘Nonsense,’ Ada says, her sing-song voice rising an octave. She claps her hands together as if Evelyn’s donation is cause for celebration. ‘Are you sure you can do without it? These nights are getting awfully cold.’

  Evelyn grimaces. She assesses the state of Ada’s spine. No curve. No hump where her back meets her neck. ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ she says. The shop is immaculate. ‘Where’s old Ms Thomas, anyway?’

  Ada takes a pencil from her pocket. The top of her blouse is secured with a cameo brooch. ‘She’s come down with the flu, poor dear. Us oldies have to watch ourselves at this time of year,’ she says. ‘I hope you’ve had your flu shot, there’s a deadly new strain going around.’

  ‘The cables are here, too,’ Evelyn says, dumping a plastic bag full of electrical cords onto the counter. ‘Won’t work without those.’

  Ada jots down a name on a piece of paper and sticky-tapes it to the blanket. ‘I’ve already got a family in mind,’ she says. She spears the pencil into the knob of her tightly wound bun. ‘Honestly, Evelyn, you’ve been so generous thi
s year. I just don’t know what we’d do without people like you. I wish you’d consider joining us at the spring fete. Running a stall is a fabulous way to meet some of the people who’ve benefited from your charity.’

  Evelyn stares at Ada’s worn woollen skirt, at the old knitted cardigan marred by dog hairs. If the truth be told, Ada is in need of charity herself. But Evelyn declines to feel sorry for anyone who’ll let four stray animals live inside their house. ‘You smell like dogs,’ she says.

  Ada retracts her chin, seemingly more on her dogs’ behalf than her own, and shrugs off the accusation. ‘I guess it’s like what they say about perfume,’ she says. ‘Once you’re used to it, you can’t smell it on yourself.’

  Poor Ada. She was like this at school, too — unable to separate a compliment from an insult. Too bright and too well-meaning for sarcasm to do its work. And where did her good marks get her? Nowhere. All she did was marry early like everyone else. No children, though, which explains her penchant for stray dogs. Never worked a day in her life until her husband died ten years ago; still hasn’t, if you ask Evelyn.

  Evelyn clucks her false teeth. ‘I’ve never met a dog that smelt like perfume,’ she says.

  Ada flinches, but doesn’t bite. ‘Somebody will get a lot of warmth out of this,’ she says, patting the blanket. She tries, one more time, to steer the conversation toward Evelyn’s untapped talent as a volunteer. ‘Honestly, Evelyn, we need more people like you. We’re in a prime position, at our age, to give back to the community. I wish you’d reconsider joining the fete committee. We meet every Thursday night at the Civic Centre, if you ever want to come along.’

  ‘You can shove your committee,’ Evelyn says, and Ada finally — Hallelujah! — looks rebuffed.

  But all the way home, Evelyn’s insides squirm. Run a stall? Attend committee meetings? It was a joke. Evelyn wants to be rid of her belongings, not preside over them at some half-baked bric-a-brac stand. ‘Bloody ridiculous,’ she mutters under her breath. She tries to push Ada’s wounded-bird look out of her mind.

 
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