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The retreaters, p.15

The Retreaters, page 15

 

The Retreaters
 


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  The car chugs into the carport and Evelyn switches off the engine. Five o’clock, and already it’s dark. She fumbles for her keys and a thumping sound echoes on the roof, a doonck, doonck, like someone knocking on wood. Evelyn looks up to see the culprits — several brushtail possums — jumping between the rafters and onto the roof of the laundry, backsides swaggering.

  She marches to her cottage, lets the door bang behind her, and emerges seconds later waving a broom as if it were a flag and she a mad patriot. ‘You filthy bastards,’ she says, and the possums begin to disperse. ‘You’re vermin.’ She tramps along the footpath until only one possum remains. It sits up on the rafter, doe eyes watching her. She stops waving the broom.

  ‘What are you looking at?’

  The possum stares, unblinking. Frustration rises in Evelyn’s throat like bile. From the corner of the laundry building, she drags an old wooden chair and places it beneath the rafter. Standing on the rickety pedestal, she finds her balance, extends the broom, and takes jabs at the defiant little creature, but her poking effects no more injury than a finger dabbing at a cake.

  She hoists the broomstick higher. ‘Bloody little beast,’ she says.

  When the chair gives way beneath her, she feels the thud of impact as her limbs connect with the ground. A splinter of shock. A loud crack. The sound of a fracture reverberates through the air, and it takes a moment for Evelyn to realise that the breakage belongs not to her bones but to the broomstick, which lies in two pieces on the concrete, its shaft snapped down the middle like a twig. Wood fragments scatter in the breeze.

  Evelyn’s breath returns to her lungs. Stars, real ones, peer down on her from above the mountains. The possum, too, glares at her, triumphant. It swooshes its tail and lets out a stream of urine, a victory rite. The pee smells like something brewed, something fermented. Evelyn sits up. She is in one piece; at worst she has some bruising and a tear in her pantyhose.

  She curses — at the possum, at the bruise on her arse, at life. She is too old for this crap. Too old for chasing nocturnal animals with a broom, for being asked to run a pathetic stall at the local fete. She wipes at a drop of marsupial urine on her skirt, before the stain takes hold.

  LIV

  Aunt Rosa distrusted nature. That is, she showed an aversion to anything natural. At the B.K. Country Clothing store in Hatton River’s main street she chose polyester over cotton, synthetic over leather, and at the supermarket, she gave preference to foods that contained preservatives. Additives, she said, helped preserve a person’s insides, they prolonged. Liv once tried to sneak a punnet of organic berries into the shopping cart, and Aunt Rosa lectured her for a full five minutes on the benefits of pesticide. ‘Trust me,’ she’d said, ‘if you’ve ever tried to grow a garden, you want all the pesticide you can get.’ This single-mindedness also surfaced on the subject of recreation: too much fresh air did strange things to the lungs. A person was better off watching television, Aunt Rosa said.

  Her approach to grief was similarly single-minded. Life went on, and a person must also go on as if nothing had happened (this belief, Liv thinks, must have made it difficult for her to incorporate Liv into her ideology, since Liv’s very presence was a constant reminder that Aunt Rosa’s brother had, in fact, died, which in turn would have roused thoughts of the husband and his ill-fated tractor ride). Liv soon realised that her Aunt’s moods were at their best when Liv made her presence unknown, when she was as inconspicuous as the wireless that quietly hummed all day long on the kitchen bench. She learned to leave Aunt Rosa alone during the afternoon soapies, to remember that if she ever tuned the kitchen radio to a top forty station, she must reset the dial to Radio National before she left the room. She learned to monitor her use of bathwater so that — when the water bill came — Aunt Rosa wouldn’t be reminded that a second person lived in the house.

  It was youth, and nothing else — no other particular gift of resilience — that enabled Liv to adapt. She relied on books as a source of comfort. She worked hard at school; it would have been an insult to her teacher parents to let her marks slip. She always had her nose in a book (quite literally, since she loved the smell of paper above all else), and when school finished, it was one of her teachers who suggested that Liv apply for the job at the library.

  She might have moved out of the house then, if Aunt Rosa hadn’t got sick, if she hadn’t stayed sick for years.

  And even though Liv’s insides sometimes swirled with desires for a different life, she also craved routine, wanted this first phase of adulthood to be characterised by a feeling of familiarity. And the fact that she stayed living with Aunt Rosa also provided her with the sense of something coming full circle: Aunt Rosa had cared for her when no one else would, and so she cared for Aunt Rosa. There was a symmetry to it. A completeness. Any acrimony Liv felt toward her indifferent guardian evaporated like the water she wiped onto Aunt Rosa’s clammy forehead. In those final months, all that mattered was kindness.

  And Liv was kind. She never sighed or furrowed her brow when her aunt asked for a glass of water or a second pillow, never grumbled when the breathing monitor woke her in the middle of the night. Even when her eyes blurred over with fatigue, she still read aloud each night from books that Aunt Rosa hadn’t read since childhood. Television, with its pomp and its dazzling lights, had become too much for them both. Aunt Rosa, in particular, could stomach only the quietest of company. Any words spoken within ten feet of her had to be, like her food, soft.

  Liv stops herself from delving further into the memory. There is no point: she knows how the story ends, and it’s not a story she wants to revisit. She’s in the business of removing things that are unpleasant to look at, and she wills herself to apply the same standards to her mind.

  She’s standing in Villa 17, mop in hand.

  She takes a sturdy grip on the handle (which, when held upright, is a good foot taller than her) and forces the excess water from the mop head, then starts swiping the floor, back and forth, back and forth. She has noticed, lately, since she and Grace are on an alternating roster, that the rooms which have previously been cleaned by her counterpart are sub-par when it comes to spotlessness; there is dust swept under the rugs, there are marks on the water glasses. Liv picks up the slack — neither of them will fare well if a guest complains about the state of the accommodations, since she doubts management will hold an enquiry into whose work is lacking: hers or Grace’s. She re-wrings the mop, swipes it across the floor again, this time in an S-pattern, to avoid streaks.

  She takes some pleasure in the knowledge that her own work is impeccable. Whenever she happens upon a villa that she herself has most recently cleaned, her work is cut in half. She sometimes has time to sit for ten minutes on one of the sofas and read a page or two of a book. But not today. Today unswept hairs hitch a ride on the strings of the mop so that it takes several wrings and passes to get the floor clean. There’s a note left by the departing guest to say that the bedside lamps aren’t working, which Liv discovers is due to the electrical cord not being plugged back in after Grace used the socket to vacuum.

  Liv makes the beds (folded ends, well-defined creases, tucked sides) and pulls the bedspreads as flat as the downy fabric will go. She aligns her line-of-sight with the level of the mattress, searching for imperfections, and when she is sure none exist she moves on to the bathroom. She sprays the wall tiles with an anti-mould agent, blocks her nose off to the ammonia smell.

  She again thinks of Aunt Rosa, of the odd, cheese-like odour she’d taken on in those last few days, a smell that would not be banished no matter how much Liv and the regional nurse bathed her limbs. She tries to think of other smells: the woody smell of books, the lavender aroma of Mrs Bourne, and when this proves unsuccessful she unblocks her nose and settles for the ammonia. Her head fills with it. She sprays and wipes. Sprays and wipes.

  She repeats this process in three other villas, and at just after four p.m., returns her cleaning supplies to the utilities closet
and exits the main building. The gloom of twilight has already begun to descend. Trees, grass, hills, sky — all the same shade of blue-grey, like a picture with the contrast turned down. Huge cottonwood trees waver in the breeze, their trunks mottled yellow, patches of paper-thin bark sloughing off like shed skin. In the distance, the mountains stand, a frontier above which the evening star already glows, the pioneer.

  Liv walks toward the river, to an empty gazebo. She is breaking a rule, apparently: she’s been told that she should take her uniform off outside of work hours, but she will only stay a minute. From the gazebo, she looks back at the main building, at its pattern of lights. Lots of lights; lots of guests. The guest car park is an array of sedans and four wheel drives.

  Someone watches her. She can feel it. She looks around but sees no one. That is, no one other than the usual spattering of guests: a young couple returning from the tennis courts, rackets in hand, an older man carrying a case of wine toward one of the two-bedroom villas. None of the guests look at her (thank goodness — management wouldn’t like them seeing her idle and in uniform).

  Then she sees him. Jake, over near the hedge. He looks cautious, as though he’s gauging whether or not he should make a run for it, as though he can’t just walk to her, like he lives here. In the end, he does just walk to her, but he still looks furtive.

  He scampers up the steps into the gazebo, holding a notepad. ‘Hi,’ he says. Big eyes. Mop of dark hair.

  ‘Hi.’

  His small chin presses down toward his chest, his mouth a little circle, a punctuation mark on his face.

  ‘What have you got there?’

  He looks confused. She points to his notepad.

  He holds the book for her to see. A drawing — not the usual stick figure variety but a well-shaded pencil portrait of two children holding hands. Siblings. Brother and sister. One sibling substantially shorter than the other.

  ‘Is that you?’ Liv asks.

  He shrugs.

  That his sister might roam the grounds of the retreat in a white dress seems possible to Liv, it seems comparable even to her sudden deafness; if senses can drift in and out of the world like memories, then why can’t people? Yes, it is far more likely that the girl is a flesh and blood girl, but Liv understands the boy’s need to believe differently.

  She brushes her finger over the girl in his drawing. ‘You’re not making her up, Jake. I’ve seen her too.’

  His eyes light up. ‘You think she’ll come back again?’

  Liv nods maybe. ‘Have you talked to her?’ she asks.

  His nose twitches. ‘Not yet.’ He looks at her quizzically. ‘Has your hearing got worse?’

  In a nearby gum tree two kookaburras throw their heads back in their laughter-like birdcall, and Liv sees only the pulsating of their kingfisher throats. Jake looks at her with such earnestness that she almost laughs like the birds. ‘It’s not getting better,’ she says. ‘Why do you ask?’

  His shoe, when he scuffs it, leaves a mark on the wooden boards of the gazebo floor. ‘You sound funny, that’s all,’ he says. ‘When you talk.’

  Which Dr Bennett said wouldn’t happen.

  JAKE

  In his mother’s bedroom the air smells like blankets and stale breath. She’s asleep in her bed. Or is she just lying there with her eyes closed, unsleeping? There’s something secretive about the way her chest rises and falls, as though she’s doing something Jake shouldn’t be watching. And anyway he’s not really watching her, he’s just checking on her. If he couldn’t see her chest moving (which he can) he would take her wrist between his finger and thumb and feel for a pulse — he learned how to do it in a school class on first aid. He watches her chest a while longer, just to make sure, then looks away. To block out the night she has closed the slats of the vertical blinds and left the overhead light on. On her bedside table there’s a coffee mug with her name on it, and the dregs of its contents are congealing into a dark brown lump in the same way blood congeals (except for Tim Hedge’s blood, which doesn’t congeal, so that if he ever cuts himself at school he has to go straight to the hospital). Jake pulls the mug from the table and it leaves a perfect coffee-coloured mark behind.

  ‘I’m not asleep,’ his mother says, without opening her eyes. She rearranges her feet under the blankets and lets her head loll to the side. ‘Come over here.’ She beckons him closer. ‘I see you’ve got a new little friend,’ she says.

  Jake’s heart gives a jump. She knows about Ruth. His mind fills with all kinds of explanations as to why he hasn’t told his mother about her sooner.

  ‘You’ll get us both in trouble if you sit around talking to employees, like that.’

  His brain is a scramble until he realises that she means Liv, the girl who says her words like she’s swallowing them. ‘I like her,’ Jake blurts. ‘She’s my friend.’

  ‘She’s not your friend, Jake. She just works here, that’s all. She’s only being nice to you because you’re a kid.’

  Jake doesn’t say it, but he thinks his mother might not be the best judge of friendships. She’s never had any. There was that woman named Rita, the one who’d been in the same program as Grace, the one who, like Jake’s mother, had to take a small bottle of pee to the local hospital every once in a while. At Jake’s old house Rita used to hang around smoking and talking like she owned the place. For a month or so, Jake had come home every afternoon to find Rita at the kitchen table, helping herself to cheese sandwiches like she was part of the family. Until one day he came home and found no Rita, and no microwave or video player, either.

  ‘I don’t want you talking to her, Jake,’ his mother says, propping herself up on one elbow. She sighs through her nose like she’s already asleep. ‘I work here. These people aren’t our friends.’

  Jake’s heart jumps again. The room becomes so quiet that he can hear his own breath. His mother closes her eyes. ‘You’d better get to bed, Jake,’ she suggests.

  He says nothing. He will stay up for hours yet.

  He switches off her light and crosses the tiny hall to his own room. Once inside he shuts the door and stands with his back against the wood. He takes the pencil from his pocket and holds its point against the wall above his head to make a dot. When he turns, he sees that the new dot is only a hair’s width above the old mark, but the distance is enough to give him hope.

  He might grow tall. And Ruth is back.

  He has so many questions: where does she sleep at night? Why can’t she stay with him all the time? And why (his biggest question) doesn’t she talk? So far, the only word to pass between them has been ‘Thanks’, and that was written, not said. By mistake, he had put the note in with the wash, and yet it came back neatly folded into the pocket of his pyjamas. Amazing. It was then that he’d had the idea that perhaps she couldn’t talk, that perhaps she wrote the note to show him that her only available method of communication was writing. Which is why he now carries a pen and paper with him everywhere he goes, so that he is prepared.

  Bugs hit against his bedroom window, attracted by the light. On the other side of the glass a praying mantis maps a stick-legged path. Slow-motion steps, steps that seem well thought out. Jake moves closer and studies the insect. The only non-angular part of the creature is its eyes. Huge, bulging eyes that seem to take in the whole world — a seeing, moving twig. Jake presses his finger up against his side of the window and the praying mantis walks on, unbothered. Using his breath, Jake makes a patch of fog on the glass. This, he recently learned from Ms Buckley, happens because his breath is warmer than the window. He drags his finger through the frosty residue, and the mantis takes flight.

  Across the hall, his mother’s slow, sleepy breaths continue.

  Jake wanders out to the kitchen and refills his glass from the tap. He stands at the sink and takes individual gulps, trying to track the water’s progression down his oesophagus, but somewhere mid-chest the sensation slips away. On the narrow windowsill above the sink, various knick-knacks are lined up
along the ledge. A tiny pot of fake flowers, a magnet the shape of a koala, a misshapen ashtray Jake made in art class (those are his fingerprints, baked into the clay). Resting up against the metal track of the window is a small plastic cat. A pink, perfectly shaped but cheap-looking cat, a seam visible down its feline back where two halves of a mould were pieced together. Ruth won the figurine at the local show, a prize for rolling ping pong balls into the gaping mouth of a moving clown head. Or maybe it had been for shooting tin ducks. He plucks the cat from the windowsill and turns it over in his hand. She once held this. Her skin once touched this same plastic. It will bring me good luck, she’d said, when she first held the bright pink cat in her palm, but it brought her no such thing.

  He puts the cat back on the ledge, places it so that it may look out on the world. Ruth’s cat. Ruth’s prize. Old memories like these are the only kind this villa holds. She never lived here, never ran down this hall during a game of chasies, never sat bundled in the linen closet waiting for Jake to find her. Those memories belong to another house, another time.

  He worries that his memories of her grow thinner by the day. They drift in and out of his mind like sleep-dreams. Ruth in a pair of glitter-wheeled roller skates, Ruth laughing at something Jake said, Ruth putting him to bed when Grace couldn’t. He worries that Ruth’s recent reappearance is her way of saying goodbye, this time for good.

  He must ask his questions of her now, before it’s too late.

  On the windowsill a single ant scurries back and forth, retracing its steps over and over, lost. Jake holds his hand against the wood and the ant climbs on, trekking restless loops across his skin. Over the knobbly wrist bone it goes, then left, then suddenly right, then back down to his palm. Cupping his hand, he opens the back door and steps out onto the frosted grass. Beyond the gum trees lies pure blackness. He guides the ant onto his pointer finger and holds his finger to the ground and waits for the ant to disappear into the maze of lawn.

 
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