The Retreaters, page 18
She packed suitcases full of their belongings: her mother’s shoes which, even to this day, are too big for her; photo albums; books. Two white-bloused women from DOCS came to help her.
She flicks through the album until, on page five, she makes her first appearance. Liv in a baby bonnet. Liv working a pretend cash register (in the right of the photograph her father’s hand can be seen, playing the role of customer). Liv in her school uniform. Liv dressed as a convict for a school play. There is a gap, in her teenage era, of several years, until the album resumes with a photograph of Liv on her last day of school at Hatton River High, where she chose to be photographed not with her friends, but with her teachers. What Liv finds fascinating is that in comparing the last photo taken of her in Sydney with the first of her taken in Hatton River, she looks changed by nothing other than time. There is no telltale look of grief, no sadness in her posture to alert the onlooker as to what took place in the years between the pictures. She looks entirely happy, which just goes to show the falsehood of pictures; only words can be trusted.
She flicks to the more recent snaps, including one of her at Mrs Bourne’s birthday party last year. Shelves of books in the background. The same bobbed, dark brown hair as always. She looks at each photo of herself over and over, as though she aims to piece herself together like a jigsaw, as though she might discover some truth that escapes her, every day, in the mirror.
Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. James Joyce, Ulysses. Longest way round is the shortest way home.
‘You smoke?’ Liv asks.
It’s late afternoon and the back entrance to the dining hall is steeped in shade. Ben sits on the bottom step, a cigarette in his mouth. He looks sheepish, as if he hadn’t expected to get caught.
‘No,’ he says. He loosens his apron around his middle and blows a steady stream of smoke from his lips. He winks one of his blue eyes. ‘I’ve never smoked, actually. But then Robert left this little lady on the kitchen bench, and, well, one thing led to another and here I am. I’m not doing the drawback, though.’
Liv dwells on his accent. She can see his pronunciation, the clearer diction, the rounder vowels. ‘I’m sure one won’t hurt.’
‘Don’t encourage me,’ he says. ‘Smoking’s an awful habit, especially on me.’ He takes one more mock draw, then stubs the cigarette out on the step and holds the butt up as evidence. ‘There, not even going to finish it. How’s that?’
‘Good,’ Liv says. Her nose feels cold, her legs too. Without the sun to warm her exposed shins (her uniform only reaches her knees), her skin prickles with goose bumps. Regardless of the weather, she never deviates from her prescribed attire. Her uniform — even her cardigan — bears the retreat’s name over the left breast pocket, and the emblem of a stylised cottonwood tree seems to legitimise her existence here. If she were a piece of livestock she would veer toward the branding iron with a glint in her bovine eye, she would remain unflinching when the letters scorched her hide. To be branded is to belong. And she does feel a strange sense of belonging, now.
Ben rubs his stubble — stubble that, if the rest of him weren’t so clean, would possess a hint of the haggard. He looks up at the sky, takes a deep breath, and shivers. ‘Another hour and the evening star’ll be up. Look at those clouds, all wispy.’ He shakes his head. ‘Sometimes I can’t believe my luck, living here.’
Liv folds her arms under her chest. At the foot of the nearest hill, the silhouettes of grazing kangaroos blend in with the brown terrain. She looks back to Ben.
‘How long have you been at Cottonwood now?’ he asks.
Liv pulls the sleeves of her cardigan to cover her cold hands. ‘Five months.’
‘Do you ever think of leaving, the town, I mean?’
‘Me neither. And I’m not even from here.’
‘Neither am I, really.’
On the step, he grinds the discarded cigarette butt with his shoe. ‘It’s a weird thing, to feel at home in a place that’s not your home. I can’t explain it. In England, I’d started to feel like I couldn’t breathe.’ He leans sideways and bumps his shoulder against hers. Cool-scented aftershave fuses with cigarette smoke. ‘Stop me from rambling whenever you like. You’ve just got this look that makes me think you’re really listening. People must spill their guts to you all the time.’
Her nose crinkles at the faint grotesquery of his comment, and she shakes her head. They sit for a while. She wants to ask him about the pill bottles — like the one with the child-proof cap that’s poking out of his apron pocket right now — but instead she asks about Rebecca, the girl who left him to be a singer.
‘I spoke to her once,’ he says. ‘A couple of years after she left me. I rang her on impulse. Didn’t really expect her to have the same number, but there she was answering the phone.’ He lays his hands flat on his thighs, as though he expects someone to trace the edges of his fingers. ‘She was married,’ he says. ‘She had a baby. It was bizarre. I realised I didn’t even know her, you know. I might as well have dialled a random number in the phonebook.’
Liv makes a noise (she thinks) like a breathed-out huh.
‘Sometimes it’s funny, how life works out,’ he says.
At that moment, Vesna — the jewellery woman — appears, power-walking along the fence line in her exercise gear. Both Ben and Liv watch her as though she might be some kind of exotic animal in action, as though, if they sit very still, they might not interrupt her natural momentum.
Lately, whenever Liv cleans Vesna’s villa, the woman hangs around, talking to Liv while she polishes the furniture or makes the bed. Vesna even mops the kitchen floor while Liv scrubs the benches, which Liv is fairly certain she could get into trouble for: letting a guest mop their own floor. But Vesna insists, all the while talking about her ex-husband, her gambling problem, her desire to stay in Hatton River, to find a proper house here. Liv never catches every word, but Vesna doesn’t seem to mind. She talks on, oblivious.
Liv is glad, for the meantime, that Vesna doesn’t see her sitting on the step; it would demand too much of her attention to converse with the woman and Ben at the same time.
Vesna strides on. ‘There’s more to that woman than meets the eye,’ Liv says.
‘I don’t know,’ Ben says. ‘Maybe there’s less.’
‘No,’ Liv says. ‘There’s always more.’
Ben left to continue preparing tonight’s dinner, and Liv, with an hour or more to fill before mealtime, walks along the riverbank, all the way down to the concrete cattle-bridge, where she crosses the river.
She doesn’t even really know what she’s doing here. She’d been going to begin a re-reading of Tender Is the Night, but that idea had been overtaken by another.
She walks along the dirt path, all the while watching the sun; these days, the twilight, once it comes, is short-lived. The red roof of Mason’s house flickers through the gum trees. His old dog ambles down the road, tongue hanging out, to greet her.
‘Hey,’ she says. She pats the dog’s head.
Mason’s ute is parked at the side of the house. His riding boots are on the front porch, near the doormat, and he (it’s the back of him she can see) is standing on a concrete slab near the unused chook house, wearing jeans and gumboots. Her chest flutters. The dog sniffs her palm. Having not decided what exactly it is she wants to say to Mason, she does not announce herself. Besides, he seems to be in the middle of something. Between his knees is a sheep, and by the stillness of the animal’s back legs, it has progressed beyond the struggling stage to accept its fate.
The silver blade in Mason’s hand shines, and Liv has never been more glad of her affliction than she is right now, that she is spared the slicing sound the blade surely makes when Mason applies it to the animal’s throat. The blood flows with disturbing thickness. The dog, perhaps smelling the iron-like aroma even more keenly than Liv, leaves her side and runs to the scene, where it obeys a command to stay off the concrete. The sheep spasms.
Oh, Mason’s muscled back, his dark hair, the nonchalant way in which he wipes the blade on the grass.
Liv should not be shocked. She overheard (no, oversaw) Mason telling Ben that he buys all his meat direct from a nearby farmer. She had not been fool enough to imagine that the meat came in plastic packets. And yet, the scene before her does bother her. It’s not even so much the poor sheep — she’s lived in the country sixteen years, and this particular sheep, finally motionless on the slab, has received a more dignified end than any it would at an abattoir.
It’s the metaphor that bothers her. Her bookish mind cannot help but interpret what she’s seen as a sign. This unknown life he leads outside the retreat, these unknown capabilities. She tries to limit her reaction. It’s a matter of timing, that’s all. She’s just not meant to be here at this moment.
She turns around, and takes herself home. She refrains from drawing any comparisons between herself and the sheep, tries not to believe she is likewise resigned to some pre-determined fate, tries not to think about what it means to end a life.
The first day of August arrives starched and cold, much like the bundle of laundry Evelyn drops on the kitchen bench for Ben. ‘There’s your damn aprons, all the stains removed. You might try and not get them so dirty this week.’
And the rude bugger places his hand over his heart and says, ‘But Evelyn, I’m an artist. I can’t compromise my food by trying to stay clean all the time.’
She clicks her tongue, shuffles to the breakfast buffet and takes a poached egg. She takes another, for strength. She is seventy today; she hasn’t told anyone, nor does she intend to. She takes her Post-It notepad from her pocket and writes the number down, seventy, so that she can see its parameters, so that she can believe it.
In the dining hall, only two other tables are occupied. There’s a grey-haired man sitting at one, his narrow shoulders hunched over an open newspaper. He wears a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a pair of corduroy slacks. He’s probably Evelyn’s age, though he looks younger. His joints look flexible. He looks like someone who’s accustomed to being waited on. Evelyn grunts. When a grey-haired female companion joins him, the woman sighs loudly and declares she ‘doesn’t much feel like any of what’s on offer at the buffet’. At least she’s awake enough to be worn out by her own fussiness. Most of the other guests, lazy sods, are still sleeping.
At another table, by the window, sits Liv, eating berries from a small ceramic bowl. Her dark brown hair is so shiny that when she turns to look at Evelyn her mane sends out a glint of light, like a mirror.
Evelyn sits down nearby, nods. ‘Morning.’
The lass smiles her usual sweet smile, and goes back to eating her fruit. Evelyn might have been wrong about her. She might actually be deaf. The other day Evelyn bellowed right in her ear and the action didn’t incite so much as a flinch. You never can tell about people. Why, just the other day, as Evelyn was leaving the post office, Mabel Markley pulled her aside to tell her that young Liv, this demure little being sitting by the window, gave her aunt a lethal injection of morphine. Turns out crabby old Rosa McIlthwaite wanted Liv to do it, at least that’s what Rosa told her bridge cronies the month before she died. And the funny thing is — even though Evelyn waved Mabel and her nasal-sounding gossip away — the story made her see her colleague in a new light. Anyone who would do such a thing for their aunt (who was a bitter old pill if ever there was one) might do it again for an elderly colleague, if that colleague was to get to the point where neither her eyes nor her mind worked at all.
She finishes her breakfast, wipes her mouth and walks over to Liv’s table, sits down in the empty chair.
‘Can you believe there’s only two other people at breakfast? What’s wrong with all these people, best time of day is in the morning.’
The girl returns her gaze. ‘I like afternoons better.’
She wears a white uniform which, Evelyn cannot argue, remains impeccably clean. She almost wants to thank her, as if her spotlessness is somehow a show of respect.
Evelyn inspects the clogged salt shaker, bangs it against the table to separate the contents. ‘I’m seventy today.’ She hadn’t meant to say it but there it is. She can’t tell whether her colleague has understood her. Her almond eyes look unchanged.
‘Happy birthday,’ the girl says. From the bowl in front of her, she takes another berry. ‘I’m thirty,’ she says.
‘Thirty. Good Lord. So young.’
Evelyn works on the salt shaker some more. ‘Well, I should get started for the day. I have towels that need taking out of the dryer,’ she croaks, and puts the salt shaker down.
Liv, eating the last berry from her bowl, nods.
In the laundry, Evelyn takes the bundle of towels from the huge jaw of the industrial dryer and holds them to her bosom, tries to absorb some of the heat into her bones. She folds and folds. She stacks the towels on a trolley, ready for delivery.
The day passes like any other.
At the end of her afternoon shift, she finds herself again in the laundry room, breathing in the humid air put out by the dryers and the churning machines. She leans against one of the empty washers, feels the cold metal shoot straight to her hip; she switches, leans on one that’s in the middle of a warm cycle. She likes standing here, listening to the sounds of machinated labour. Waiting. She sometimes thinks the machines are the only things in the world that truly require her services. She must turn their dials and add the detergent, she must unload them and, for their own safety, switch off their power overnight. They could not perform without her, without someone.
Her tailbone niggles and she rubs at it, mentally maps all the aches and pains that have taken up residence in her joints. She leans more heavily into the warm flank of the washer; the heat helps. She snorts at the fact that, at seventy, this is what she has been reduced to (and she means reduced — she seems to shrink with each passing year): a woman who relies on the heat of a washing machine to sooth her arthritic hip, and who is glad of the responsibility of having something to turn off each night, something to check, to monitor.
When the last machine finishes its cycle, Evelyn tends to the main power switch, marking the end of her duties.
In her cottage, she takes a jar of tiger balm from the cabinet and hoists up her uniform to get at her hip. She rubs the fiery ointment into her skin and a patchwork of broken blood vessels squirm under her fingers.
She rubs more balm onto her veiny hip. Truth be told, the ointment does no good, but the burn at least distracts her from the ache. Every night it befuddles her to think how much her once-capable body betrays her (could she not, in her younger days, carry as much wood as any man? Could she not spend all day up a ladder?). Now all she has to do is stand on tippy-toe once during the day and she pays for it all night.
She rinses her embalmed fingers under the tap, and digs a tin of baked beans from the back of the cupboard. She cannot suffer the indignities of the dining hall tonight, cannot risk that the little cleaner lass will be there and will point out (it is Evelyn’s fault for divulging the information) that it is Evelyn’s birthday, that the lass and the jolly chef might stick some kind of candle in a bowl of ice-cream and demand that Evelyn blow it out and make a wish. She could not abide that. Nor could she abide the alternative: that she show up in the dining hall only to realise that tonight is no different to any other.
From the tiny freezer section of her bar-sized fridge, she pulls a serving of frozen bread, which she pops into the toaster, icicles and all. The kitchen drawer — sparsely furnished with a motley crew of mismatched utensils — relinquishes a rickety, corroded can opener that leaves the bean-can lid looking chewed, not cut. Perhaps a little restraint would have been in order when, last Christmas, she’d surreptitiously stowed her electric can opener beneath an array of tinned goods to be donated.
Her toaster — one of the few appliances she hasn’t yet parted with — begrudgingly spits out her toas
Evelyn crowds the baked beans onto the toast and takes a bite. Not bad. But then nothing tastes like it used to, especially the little things. Take butter, for example. Evelyn can’t stomach the bland, salty taste of butter nowadays, but when she was a girl, she would lick butter right off the serving knife because it tasted so good. Those were the days.
She settles into her rocker-recliner, ignoring the renegade beans that spill onto her uniform (what’s she going to do, chastise herself?), and puts her feet up. A screech and a guttural growl erupt outside. A possum. Native animals be blasted, Evelyn would get rid of every single one if she had a pellet gun. She struggles out of the armchair, toast still in hand.
Two sparring possums sit on the railing outside. They stop fighting as Evelyn opens her door.
‘Scat!’ she yells. ‘Go on, scram!’
The larger of the two slinks away, bushy tail swaggering. The other remains and sits back on its hind legs like a monkey.
‘Go on, you filthy creature!’ Evelyn says, noting the patches of missing fur and the scars around the possum’s eyes. When it doesn’t see fit to move, Evelyn seizes a rock from the bucket outside her door and raises her arm.
She is about to hurl her projectile when out of the pouch of the possum comes one of the smallest creatures she’s ever seen. With her failing vision, she has to squint to see it. Hardly bigger than a hamster, it clambers out of the safety of its den and clings to the fur of its mother, sniffing the air, oblivious to Evelyn’s raised hand and the poised missile. Of course — she is not a monster — she lowers her arm. Her irritation with life has never extended so far as to include the world’s truly defenceless things, its babies.