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The retreaters, p.16

The Retreaters, page 16

 

The Retreaters
 


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  And for a moment all his worries leave him. He forgets about growing tall, about the river and his sister, about getting into trouble for talking to Liv in the gazebo. Somewhere down there, in the crisscrossed grass, an ant is returning to its nest, to its family. It is feeling its way in the dark.

  LIV

  She rides again with Mason. She says as little as possible, given Jake’s recent observation that her voice sounds odd. It is a problem not limited to the deaf, she thinks: how to be alone with someone and not talk.

  They ride through the hills by a different route this time, until the stars burgeon above and the lights of Cottonwood dance in the clearing below. The air feels vaporous, breath-like. A pang of anticipation ripples in Liv’s chest. Does Mason know, finally, how much time she spends watching him, how she could stare at him from any angle and never feel she has stared enough, how she wants something of him to rub off on her?

  At the bottom of the hill, darkness forces them to bring the horses to a halt. Mason motions for her to dismount. He leads the horses one by one down the small drop into the clearing below, then comes back to lift her down.

  And it feels not like he is lifting her down by her underarms, but like he is holding her up, and with the advantage of being face to face a few freckles become visible on his cheeks — the first, and only, sign of imperfection she’s seen. While she is at his level, while his hands are under her arms, she takes his face in both hands and kisses him, because she can, because he is right there, because if he protests she won’t hear him anyway.

  But he kisses her back. And he smells like machine oil, and his mouth is anything but mechanical. And he does not put her down for a long time and she is glad of it.

  When they do finally separate, they stare at each other and the breeze blows between them like a song, making up for all the words they are not saying.

  Ben bangs a spoon against a small saucepan, purely for effect: the entire staff is already here, crowded around one table for what management promises will be a very brief summit about the annual staff luncheon, a yearly celebration — held in winter because Christmas time is too busy — where all the staff gather in the dining hall to eat as though eating together is not something most of them do every day anyhow.

  Robert the shuttle bus driver — signature pack of cigarettes fitted squarely into his shirt pocket — looks happy enough. Not being a live-in worker, he never eats in the dining hall. ‘I’ll finally get to sample this cooking of yours,’ he says to Ben. He starts to light a cigarette, then thinks better of it. Management wouldn’t approve.

  Mason, who’s standing at the foot of the table, hands in his jeans pockets, remains aloof. He is assigned the task of decorating the outside of the dining hall with fairy lights, and he nods. Liv steals regular glances at his mouth, in case he speaks, which he doesn’t. He looks briefly in her direction, and her face fills with colour.

  Grace, her blonde hair growing dark at the roots, her lips dry, volunteers to clean up after the lunch, which leaves Liv and Evelyn in charge of decorating the hall. ‘Mind you,’ Evelyn says. ‘I won’t be going to all the trouble I went to last year. No one even looked at the wall decorations — all they cared about was the party poppers on the table.’

  Ben takes it upon himself to suggest a gift-giving ceremony. ‘I thought we should all buy a gift for someone else,’ he says. ‘To get in the spirit. Just something small, like a ten-dollar present for another staff member. We’ll draw names out of a hat to determine who buys gifts for whom.’

  Only Evelyn looks peeved. Pen and paper is passed, and the torn segments piled into an Akubra hat.

  ‘Remember, folks, don’t tell anyone whose name you draw out — it’s supposed to be a surprise. Liv, you’re up first.’

  Liv delves her hand into the hat and retrieves a folded scrap. She unfolds it, and the name on the paper comes as no surprise to her. It’s as if she willed it. Black ink on white paper.

  Mason McAllister.

  A dark, half-moon night; the kind of night that makes people, introspective or not, look skyward and feel their heart open like a flower. Liv sits on the step of her villa, one tiny person consumed by night. If sounds exist she does not hear them, nor does she need to. Wrapped in her cardigan and a wool-lined jacket, she is porous to all around her, she absorbs. Her hearing may never come back — in her experience, lost things never do. And though she wants to feel normal again, she feels quite strongly — and without knowing exactly why — that she’d rather live with her condition than revisit Dr Bennett.

  My little feline, her father used to call her, a nickname born when — at the age of five — Liv fell off the front porch of her parents’ Ashfield house and landed in the garden, unscathed. Her father — his chalky hand outstretched — had patted her head and said, You’ll always land on your feet. Perhaps he knew, even then, that she would need to rely on her own devices, that he wouldn’t always be around to protect her.

  How foreign Hatton River seemed that first day, when the train deposited her on the dinky train station. Dry fields all around her, the light so stark it made her green eyes water. Standing on that platform, her suitcases beside her, Liv felt an unbearable ache. There was no going home. She’d had to close her throat to stop from crying as her aunt walked toward her. Dry fields. Stark light. Then her aunt’s house — the antithesis of all things dry and stark. Difficult for Liv to balance the glaring light of her new surrounds with the dimness of her new abode. She pined for the cramped but breezy rooms of her parents’ terrace house. The mellow Sydney light.

  She thinks of Charles Dickens: That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been.

  She blinks now, in the darkness, and contemplates the constellations. The Milky Way. The Southern Cross. The closer constellation of the retreat’s main building. The scattered lights of the villas amongst the bush. Ten feet away, the kitchen light in Grace’s villa goes out. Ben’s villa, third along in the staff section, is already in darkness. He keeps baker’s hours, he says, early to bed, early to rise.

  The wind drops. It is dark but not so dark that Liv can’t see. Even now, in the night, there is a shadow of light on the horizon, a hint of the sunlight gone and the sunlight to come.

  Through the step beneath her she feels the faint vibration of footsteps, far away, getting closer. A wandering guest, perhaps, someone else out enjoying the cold, compressed air. The footsteps keep coming, and Liv huddles into herself. Always — especially in her aunt’s house — she has tried to be invisible, and here in the darkness, she feels similarly non-existent, a silent observer. She stares into the night, waits for the owner of the footsteps to take shape. Her heartbeat slows.

  She doesn’t see him until he’s almost upon her. ‘Mason,’ she says.

  He stops short, his belt buckle shining. He says something she can’t quite see.

  Assuming his words were some kind of question, she says, ‘I wanted to sit outside for a while.’

  He sets something down on the ground, and crouches before her, at eye level now. ‘I brought you an azalea,’ he says. ‘To replace the one that was ruined in the storm.’ He runs a hand through his hair, lets his fingers rest at the back of his neck. The dark, tapered leaves of the plant shudder in the breeze. He looks at the ground as though he’s a professional tracker, inspecting patterns in the dirt. Those long legs. Jeans stretched over bent knees. Moonlight on his dark hair. He might be yet another constellation.

  No words come to her, which is what always happens once Liv has kissed someone. It is why she kissed him in the first place.

  And yet he talks; he says something about the azalea, about coming back to plant it for her tomorrow.

  She places her finger over his lips. He takes both her hands in his and holds them. His palms are surprisingly soft, only the knuckles are abrasive. She leans into him, inhales the smell of his
work shirt. He kisses her not on her lips, but on her right earlobe, once, and then he stands up.

  ‘You know,’ Liv says, while the moonlight still illuminates him, ‘I pulled your name out of the hat.’

  Dark. But his mouth — oh, that mouth — is visible. ‘I thought that was supposed to be a surprise,’ he says.

  ‘Surprise,’ she says. And he disappears into the night.

  JAKE

  Jake pulls back the blinds and looks out at the pale blue sky. No clouds. No wind through the trees. A perfect day for exploring the riverbank. He lets his hand drop and the blinds go back to their job of blocking out the light. It is Saturday, his mother’s morning off, and she is still in bed. The living room smells like fruit, or more specifically like his Fruit Loops, which Jake has eaten by colour: green loops first, pink second, so that the only thing left in his bowl is a weird-coloured puddle of milk. He puts his cereal bowl in the sink. He has a lot to do. Yesterday he’d written a note to his sister and poked it between the cracks of the tree stump by the river (along with a cat’s-eye marble, as a gift). Today he must check for a reply.

  He is excited at the prospect of an answer, but is also aware that the longer he waits, the more likely it is that she will have responded (in case she doesn’t have her own writing materials, he left his HB pencil poking out of a second crack in the tree stump). He checks on his mother, who is still rolled in her blankets, one arm hanging off the side of the mattress as though she started to reach for something and then forgot what it was that she wanted. He takes a pen from her bedside drawer and leaves a note. Gone outside to play. He could get used to this note-writing business. It’s so much easier than talking.

  Into the garden and across the lawn he goes, wishing for a moment that he’d grabbed his jacket, but then the sun beams into his dark hair and down to the rest of his body and he is warmed. He runs down the fence line to the grassy bank, fallen leaves nipping at his heels. ‘You run like a girl,’ Jimmy Wheeler had said during yesterday’s game of tee-ball. Ms Buckley said for Jimmy to concentrate on his own game instead of trying to distract the other children with insults, but of course Jimmy hit a home-run, which only made him tease his team mates more, especially Jake, the shortest (and therefore slowest, when it comes to tee-ball). The runt, as Jimmy put it. But as Jake runs now, he smiles. A note from his sister, even if it’s just one word, will make up for all of yesterday’s embarrassments.

  But as soon as he reaches the riverbank his heart wrings with disappointment. He can see, even from here, that his wedge of paper is unmoved. He goes to the stump and pulls the paper out, just in case.

  How long are you staying? His words. The rest of the page is still blank, smudged by bark and dirt. He folds the page and crams it back into the crevice. This does not mean she is gone. It does not mean that. It just means he has to wait. He needs to give her more time. He sits down, cross-legged, and toys with his shoelace. In the small clearing around the tree stump’s base several tiny lizards sun themselves, their teeny throats pulsating, their tails sawn-off stubs from spats with larger wildlife. For whatever reason, the lizards don’t consider Jake a threat. They go on with their sunbaking.

  Above, a lone cloud floats through the air. Cumulus. The puffy kind, Jake’s favourite. The job of clouds, he believes, is to break the sky up into smaller, more manageable chunks, or in this case, into two blue halves. He lays his head back and looks at that one cloud, floating. In its curves he sees all kinds of faces — an old man with a beard, a woman with big hair, a sleeping puppy. A kindly dragon.

  Then a thrashing sound breaks through his daydream, the sound of legs through grass. Jake sits to attention and sees the gardener, trailed by his blue heeler.

  ‘Hello,’ Jake breathes. The only greeting he can think of, though he is overcome by a desire to say something clever, something different.

  ‘Hey,’ says the gardener. The dog sits on its haunches, tongue out. ‘He won’t hurt you,’ the gardener tells Jake.

  Jake stands up and brushes the dirt from his backside. The gardener is tall and strong and he does not say a lot, which makes Jake think that perhaps the way to earn his respect is to also say as little as possible. ‘Is the dog a boy or a girl dog?’ he asks.

  The dog looks up at its owner, wags its tail.

  ‘Boy,’ the gardener says. ‘I call him Slim.’

  ‘My mum says we can’t have a dog, not in a rented house in town and definitely not out here, with no yard of our own.’

  The gardener puts one hand in the pocket of his jeans. ‘Your mother’s probably right,’ he says. The dog lies down and shows its belly, which the gardener rubs with the sole of his boot. ‘Come and pat him if you like. He doesn’t bite.’

  Jake crouches and pulls up his sleeve. He lays his fingers on the dog’s belly, and moves his hand in small circles, like he’s washing something. The fur feels more wiry than he expected.

  ‘Would he bite me if you weren’t here?’

  ‘I doubt it,’ the gardener says. ‘He’s not much of a biter.’

  When the dog sits up, Jake stays crouched, and the dog sniffs his shirt.

  The gardener throws a stick and the dog chases it and brings it back. The man does this several times and the dog never gets sick of it. Not even when the stick goes in the water. ‘Chasing things is in his blood,’ the gardener says. ‘It reminds him of rounding up cattle.’

  Which makes Jake wonder what, exactly, is in his own blood. Looking at trees? Studying ants? Leaving notes for sisters who can’t reply? He has been wondering, lately, what he wants to be when he grows up. All the other kids at school seem to have a clear idea (or if they don’t, they at least have some kind of standard answer prepared). There are lots of would-be doctors and zoo-keepers. A couple of farmers. Several astronauts. And then there’s Kellie Payne, who always sucks up to Ms Buckley by saying she wants to be a teacher, when she can’t even get her ten-times-tables right.

  Jake picks up the stick and throws it. He looks at the man. ‘How did you know you wanted to be a gardener?’ he asks.

  The man shakes his head. ‘I didn’t,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to work outside.’

  Jake nods. The gardener shows him how to throw the stick to make it go farther. ‘Your mother know you’re down here by yourself?’ the man asks, to which Jake nods again.

  ‘All right. Well, we’d better get going, then,’ the gardener says, and he whistles the dog.

  ‘Bye,’ Jake says, and he watches the man and dog walk off. He waits for a few minutes on the riverbank, and then he goes back to his villa. He wants to be like the gardener and he doesn’t know why. He tries to whistle like him, whistle the way the man whistled the dog, but all he manages is a sound like the air coming out of a blow-up mattress.

  His mother is up. She’s standing at the door, blowing cigarette smoke into the morning. ‘Where’ve you been?’

  She didn’t find his note, then. Jake shrugs. The hem of his tracksuit bottoms is wet with sand and river water.

  ‘You must have been somewhere?’

  Jake shakes the sand from his trousers and stays quiet.

  ‘I’m making some cheese on toast, if you want,’ his mum says. ‘I thought we’d better eat something now, so that we’re not starving before the staff lunch.’

  The lunch? Jake had almost forgotten. And besides, he’d thought it impossible that they would go. ‘Can I have tomato on my toastie?’

  She shrugs. ‘Suit yourself.’

  In the kitchen, she lights another cigarette and makes two toasties under the grill. She cuts his into quarters and puts it on a plate on the table, like a mother. You see, sometimes she wants to be normal. She tries.

  LIV

  Some winter days belong elsewhere on the calendar. Galahs frolic in the treetops, kangaroos laze on the grass in the nearby paddocks, gum leaves flicker in the breeze, and the sun, hanging above all, reels itself in on its axis for a closer look. Bright light finds its way through every window in the retrea
t’s main building. Officially, the dining hall is closed until the dinner hour, leaving a three-hour window in which the staff will enjoy an afternoon of Ben’s cooking; management offered to have the event catered, but Ben refused. He wanted to do the cooking himself. Twice, he has ferried spoonfuls of things for Liv to sample. More stock? Too much salt? She shook her head on both counts. In the kitchen, the young apprentice chef mans the preparations of tonight’s regular buffet, so that Ben can focus his efforts on his British-style three course meal.

  Through the divider that separates the kitchen from the dining hall, he gives instructions to the apprentice, just as Sean, when Liv passed by reception, had been giving instructions to the fill-in receptionist. There are, however, no fill-in cleaners; after lunch Liv will have to don her uniform and make up for lost time, but for now, she stands in the dining hall wearing a v-neck pullover and a woollen skirt which, along with her dark-rimmed glasses, makes her feel very librarian-esque, very Mrs Bourne-ish.

  The apprentice chef, on a trip back from the buffet table, drops an empty metal bowl; the bowl swivels and rolls around on its base as if, even detached from the mixer, it knows its function. A small punishment for Liv: she goes deaf all over again when she sees that bowl, when she sees anything that makes a sound she can’t hear. And the silence, newly obvious, acts like a magnet — it pulls all her other losses into focus.

  Memories twinge like phantom limbs; she aches.

  She pulls the lid off a box of party decorations. The box is full of things made bright by the overhead lights. She holds up a small disco ball, lets the string twirl between her fingers. Silver and red patterns spin back and forth. And those are her childlike fingers holding the string. And she is here in the dining hall of a country hotel, and she is part of the staff, about to attend a party.

 
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