The Retreaters, page 17
A tiny gust blows against her ear, feather-like. She turns and almost jumps, so close is Evelyn’s face to her own. The old lady’s expression bears the mark of enquiry. ‘Sorry?’ Liv asks.
‘I said,’ Evelyn shouts, her loose lips opening wide. ‘WHAT ARE YOU READING?’
Liv looks down at the copy of Pride and Prejudice that now lies face down next to the box of decorations. She thinks: No — I cannot talk of books in a ballroom; my head is always full of something else.
‘Jane Austen,’ she says.
Evelyn grunts — that is, she makes a face like she’s grunting. ‘Let’s get this over with,’ she says. The old woman pulls a chair over to the wall, and insists on being the one who stands on it. Liv looks at her with concern; if she falls, those crepey legs will bruise like old fruit. She suggests trading places, but Evelyn motions for her to pass her something, anything, to pin to the wall. Liv hands her several tassels of coloured tinsel, one at a time, and then a paper-chain that takes Evelyn several attempts to pin from a nail. By the time the meagre decorations are in place, Evelyn looks almost wistful, though wistful is the wrong word to describe her wizened face. She looks far-off, mislaid. She gets down from the chair, and rubs her back.
‘I remember I thought I’d never get old,’ she says.
She waits to see if Liv has anything to say, which Liv doesn’t, so they move on to the table decorations. Place cards, streamers, whistles. Evelyn’s mouth seems constantly to be trailing off from a sentence, and several times Liv simply ignores her, until one particular utterance makes her ask Evelyn to repeat herself.
Evelyn holds up Grace’s place card. ‘I said, she used to be on drugs, you know.’
At the mention of the word drugs all Liv sees is a morphine drip, and the bruised inner crease of her aunt’s elbow, where the line went in. You’re a good girl. The last words Aunt Rosa spoke. She picks up a plastic rose, and the artificial thorn imitates a real barb and pricks her palm.
‘Oh?’ Liv says. Or maybe she says Ow, because Evelyn snatches the rose from her and puts it into the waiting hollow of a silver vase.
At the luncheon, Liv takes her seat next to Evelyn, who’s already wearing a party hat that makes her look like a dog made to wear human accessories. She looks pained yet resigned, willing to make a mockery of herself.
The other employees of Cottonwood Retreat take seats around the table, all of them wearing the same ridiculous hats, all waiting for their champagne glasses to be filled.
Ben, looking decidedly civilian without his usual apron, stands up to make a toast. ‘To a successful year passed and another one ahead. We have such a great team working here, as you all know, and this place couldn’t run without us. So cheers, to everyone.’
And Liv feels herself swept up in the arc of his glass.
Marie and Leanne, the part-time cleaners who polish the floors of the main building, make use of the party poppers and send ribbons of paper flying across the table, countering their abandon by gathering as many fallen streamers as they can, knowing that they will have to do it later if they don’t do it now.
Mason is late. His chair sits empty.
Ben serves the first course — steamed turkey and apple dumplings — and resumes his place opposite Liv. With the food served, Evelyn gives up on trying to work one of the party whistles, and instead spears one of her dumplings with a fork. Farther down the table Jake sits, his position on the chair bolstered by a cushion. Next to him is Grace, her wary gaze suggesting both the expectation of unrest and the willingness to cause it. But all she does is sit there. Next to her is Sean, from reception, and Robert, the shuttle bus driver. Robert talks, gesturing with his good arm and leaving the damaged one tucked by his side like a wing, while Shauna, the yoga teacher, sits beside him; the proximity of her shapely forearm to his injured limb suggesting a closeness that goes beyond that of colleagues. Shauna munches on her first course and talks at the same time — an act that seems more to do with efficiency than bad manners, but one that makes it near impossible for Liv to understand anything she says.
So Liv just eats her dumplings, feels the slight zing of pepper against her tongue (she must remember, later, to compliment Ben on his creations). As she eats, she looks around the table, and imagines these people, all of them, as characters: Evelyn the crusty old crone, Grace the recovering drug addict, Robert the failed athlete, Jake the wide-eyed child, Ben the comic relief. And here he is: Mason the loner, the tall dark one.
A change occurs, one Liv can only describe as a mild alteration in frequency, a change in the atmosphere. A vague aroma — grass-like — hangs in the air. He has combed his hair back; he has folded up his shirtsleeves rather than rolled them.
‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you to be on time for dinner?’ Ben says.
Mason takes his seat, three away from Liv. She set the place cards herself, and she planned it this way so that she wouldn’t have to look right at him. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he says to Ben. ‘I got waylaid.’
Conversations resume, most of which Liv can’t follow. She looks over and sees Grace looking at her, her face as expressionless as a face can be. Her eyes the colour of ash. No one else, thankfully, seems to be listening when Grace says, ‘So, you’re deaf?’
It’s not the bluntness of the question that takes Liv aback, but the timing. All these months, she and Grace have orbited each other with their cleaning trolleys, never attempting conversation. And now, with Mason at the table and with Liv wanting to appear as normal as possible, Grace points out her abnormality.
‘Jake tells me you can see what people are saying?’ Flat bottom lip. Ash-coloured eyes.
Poor Jake squirms. He says the word sorry and Liv gives a little shake of her head.
Grace picks a shred of turkey meat from the corner of her mouth. ‘That’s weird,’ she says. The closure of her eyelids lasts a fraction too long to be considered a blink, as though she is in some way hindered; her champagne, the glass largely untouched, appears not to be the culprit.
Grace turns to Jake and tells him to sit up straight, though he is already as upright as a child his size can be.
‘Jake, did you hear me? I said sit up straight. Are you deaf too?’ Then she looks at Liv. ‘No offence.’
Liv looks down at her plate, admires the leaf pattern that weaves an everlasting circle around the edge of the china. She’s looking forward, now, to her afternoon tasks, to the vacuuming and bed-making that will make everything wrong look right again.
She sits through the main course — perfectly roasted chicken with gravy and baked vegetables — without speaking at all, save for telling Ben that the meal is wonderful. He winks at her. Mid-dessert, he sneaks a small white tablet into his mouth with a sip of water, then stands up and announces that it is time for gifts. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘I want you all to find the person whose name you drew out of the hat. And remember, it’s mandatory to act happy when you receive your gift. All unwanted gifts will be gratefully accepted by me at the end of the day.’
A pause, and then people begin to pass parcels. For a few moments, Liv simply watches.
From Sean, Evelyn receives a small china bowl, an ornamental piece about the size of a coffee cup, with dark blue birds painted all the way around it. Mason hands Jake some kind of ball, unwrapped — a rubber ball with a logo. ‘In case you ever get a dog,’ he says. ‘Or you can just throw it for mine.’ He is not made for the indoors. He seems to have the opposite problem to young Jake: his legs are too long to be housed comfortably under a table, and he is — with some discomfort — trying to compact himself to fit the dimensions of the room, the table, the chair. Under her own chair, Liv’s legs swing, not touching the floor.
From across the table, Ben waves to get Liv’s attention, and hands her a tiny package tied with a gold bow. She pulls at the ribbon, looks at Ben’s face for clues but gets none. Inside the small box is a silver bracelet that shines in the light. She takes it from the box and drapes it
Ben says, ‘Jewellery is cheap in the country.’
Liv turns her wrist. The silver loops twinkle against her pale skin. ‘I love it. No one’s ever —’
From the head of the table, Robert breaks her thought by waving to Ben. ‘Oy,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a parcel here with your name on it.’ Ben looks at Liv apologetically. ‘Hold that thought,’ he says.
With the table full of exchanges, Liv refolds the paper from Ben’s gift, fastens the bracelet firmly to her arm, then walks around to the other side of the table and taps Mason on the shoulder. ‘Come with me,’ she says.
He puts his napkin down and waves for her to lead the way, and she takes him out into the garden, where, underneath one of the rosebushes, she’s hidden her gift. She points. At the foot of one of the shrubs is a scrawny seedling in a pot. A scrap of a thing.
He looks at her. ‘A eucalyptus,’ he says. In his jeans and his belt and his riding boots, he reaches down to touch the sapling like a leader anointing a child. The plant leans toward him. So does Liv. He brushes his thumb against the plant’s skinny trunk as if looking for, and finding, some hidden measurement of worth. His face, in profile, is as sternly handsome as any of the faces Liv has dreamed up in all her years of reading. ‘A blood gum,’ he says. It’s not a question. ‘Did you know,’ he says, ‘that the smaller the life form, the less people know about it? It’s always the smallest things that are the most complex.’
He stands up, towers over the sapling, over her.
For fear she will reach out and touch him in a manner less perfect than the way in which he touches the plant, she slips her hands into the pockets of her woollen skirt. She wants to tell him that she is entirely alone, that her mind swims with books and poems and prose and memories, and that behind all those words and pictures is something that feels like a secret. She wants to tell him that every line and every chapter comes together inside her to form some kind of whole, that even though she is suddenly deaf she is starting to hear in a way she never thought possible. She wants him to know that she thinks of him in ways he might not guess.
‘It’s for your own garden,’ she says. ‘Not for here.’
The tiny leaves — already hardened to the world despite their infancy — brighten in the sun. ‘Not common in these parts,’ he says. ‘But it’ll do okay once it gets a foothold.’ He is so much taller than her that when he speaks, his words must be read at an angle. ‘Like you,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ Liv says, ‘like me.’
Fact: You will — no matter the number of precautions taken to ensure the contrary — run into those people you most wish to avoid. A trite little rule, but a rule nonetheless, one that Evelyn has experienced from both sides. That is, she has, at different times, been both the avoider and the avoided. She once (to evade a particularly unappealing young saleswoman who was in the habit of shouting Evelyn’s pension number to the pharmacist as if it were a prison code) switched chemists and started frequenting the Amcal down the road, only to find the saleswoman in question had redirected her services to the competition. So, Evelyn switched back. The lesson being she should never have switched in the first place.
Then there was the incident, three years ago, where Betsy Watkins (tight as a fish when it came to money, was Betsy) side-stepped Evelyn for months on end, all to avoid paying the twenty dollars she owed Evelyn for her meal at the RSL club’s annual senior citizens’ dinner, a meal which, at the time, Betsy claimed to have forgotten needed to be paid for. After devouring every single one of the three courses (and two mini-puddings), Betsy promised to give Evelyn the money the very next week. But the cheque never came, and for the next few months, Betsy seemed hell bent on blotting Evelyn from her mind. If Evelyn arrived at the supermarket at the same time as Betsy, Betsy would get right back in her car and pull away. And if Evelyn tried to catch Betsy’s arm at the chemist, Betsy would run off (as fast as a seventy-two-year-old could), claiming she had to pick her grandson up from a doctor’s appointment. In the end, long after Evelyn had given up on her twenty dollars, Evelyn ran into Betsy inside the bank, where, from a newly withdrawn wad of notes, Betsy frowned and handed over the outstanding sum without saying a word.
So, yes, sometimes the avoidance-never-pays rule worked in Evelyn’s favour, but not today.
Today, she wants merely to a) check last week’s lotto ticket, and b) buy a new ticket (provided she doesn’t hit the jackpot on the first). She does not want to stand around making idle chitchat with other newsagency patrons, or run into Ada Miles. Which is exactly what happens: there is Ada, bursting with chitchat before Evelyn is even wholly through the door.
‘Don’t say it, Ada,’ Evelyn says. She makes a bee-line for the counter of Hatton River Newsagency, where a dazed young thing stands reading a magazine, the cover of which claims, in huge letters, to have discovered the Top Ten Ways To Drive Him Wild. Whoever him might be. Evelyn clears her throat and hands over last week’s ticket, which the girl obligingly swipes before shaking her head. No luck.
‘Say what?’ Ada asks. ‘I was only going to say that’s a lovely blouse you’re wearing. A lovely shade of brown.’
A lovely shade of brown? The only reason Evelyn ever wears brown is because brown is the ultimate all-purpose colour — it doesn’t run like red, it doesn’t show lint like black, it hides a multitude of stains. ‘Blouse or no blouse,’ Evelyn says. ‘I know you’re just dying to start up about that fete business again. Run a stall for this. Bake a cake for that.’ She taps the counter to attract the girl’s attention back from the magazine. ‘I’ll take an auto-pick in Thursday night’s draw,’ Evelyn says, and she frowns. Up until a few weeks ago, she’d always picked her numbers herself, until it became clear that filling in those tiny circles was now beyond her. She counts the coins from her purse and gives the girl the exact change.
‘I’ve never asked you to bake a cake,’ says Ada. She tucks her already purchased copy of Arts & Crafts Monthly under her arm. ‘We have quite enough cake-bakers in this town, but not nearly enough people willing to give up their Saturday mornings to sell them at the … well, never mind, you’ve made yourself clear.’ Ada straightens her cardigan and points to Evelyn’s lotto ticket. ‘I’ve never been a gambler, myself.’
‘I’ll be sure to remind you of that when I win.’
‘Oh, Evelyn! I’m not reprimanding you, for heaven’s sake. Each to their own, as they say.’
Evelyn deposits her ticket into the inside pocket of her handbag.
Ada toys with her ever-present cameo brooch, and her voice becomes quiet. ‘In some ways I wish I were the gambling type. I imagine it must be quite exciting, to hold a ticket that could change your life.’
Evelyn thins her lips. What exactly is Ada getting at? That Evelyn’s life needs changing? She points to Ada’s hair-speckled cardigan. ‘I see you’re still letting those mutts of yours live indoors.’
‘Well, of course,’ Ada says, and her bony hand settles somewhere above her breastbone, oath-like. ‘Dogs feel the cold too, Evelyn, perhaps even more so than us. They have very little natural insulation, you know, short-haired breeds.’
Evelyn takes out a handkerchief and blows her nose. ‘I’d never let an animal inside the house. It’s as bad as giving them a human name.’ She chuckles, because she’s certain Ada is guilty on both counts. ‘It’s trying to make a dog into something it’s not.’
If Ada is hurt, she doesn’t show it. In fact, her alabaster face softens. ‘Oh, Evelyn,’ she says. ‘A pet can be the most wonderful company. I have this adorable little terrier, and she …’ But then, rather than finish her sentence, Ada seems to decide not to waste her breath. In fact, if the elevation of her left eyebrow is anything to go by, she seems to decide that she is above wasting her breath, that, this time, Evelyn has gon
And much to her surprise, Evelyn feels the glow of regret flooding the vessels of her thinning cheeks.
She is fascinated by herself. She sits down on the small couch in the living area of her villa, in front of the television she never turns on. The villa feels cold. She will shortly switch the heat on, but not yet. She pulls her cardigan around her, tucks her feet beneath her on the sofa cushion, and opens a photo album. Like some kind of worn history text, or a time-weary reference guide to her life, the pages are dog-eared, over-flicked. She thinks she hears a knock at the door, but knows better than to investigate: she hears all kinds of knocks and thuds these days, and the sounds seem to come from within, not without. She hums, the way her mother used to hum when she marked papers. Her mother once said: Everything is better set to a tune, work especially.
So Liv hums, even though her ears perceive nothing of her melody.
There they are, captured on paper: her Mum and Dad. Mum with a beehive hairdo, Dad with a beard. Mum on the ferris wheel at Luna Park. Dad beside his first Holden. They went out, the spring Liv turned fourteen, to attend a poetry recital being held at the school where they both worked. Liv stayed home for no reason other than that she felt like it; there was no pressing homework, no prior engagement with a friend, no boyfriend waiting to sneak inside the house as soon as her parents pulled away. No. She’d simply felt like staying at home. They departed on a day so sunny they had to put on their sunglasses before they left the house.
The car was found overturned on a quiet through road, no trees, no telegraph poles, no other vehicles involved. And they were buried in the cemetery near the old highway, where the traffic sounds were muted in the leaves of the giant oak tree that put their graves in constant shade. Liv thinks (she can’t remember for sure) the last thing she said to them was, Okay. Not goodbye or I love you or anything symbolic, but Okay. Her mother was wearing a yellow dress so pale it looked white, and her father was in his usual short-sleeve shirt and trousers. ‘Back in an hour or two,’ they’d said. And Liv nodded with all the surety of a child who had no reason to suspect the day held other possibilities. No goodbyes.