The Retreaters, page 19
She steps forward, mouth limp, and though no one would believe it, the baby possum takes full advantage of Evelyn’s moment of weakness and leans forward, chews a tiny corner right off her toast.
Dr Bennett has been trying to call her. After Sean passes on the third phone message in as many weeks, Liv decides she will have to revisit the doctor or risk him making an impromptu trip to the retreat. She feels sick at the prospect of sitting once again on the examination bed. What if he insists on sending her elsewhere, on getting a second opinion? She cannot afford an operation, cannot afford time off work, cannot afford to be told, outright, that there’s nothing wrong with her.
She boards the retreat’s shuttle bus and waits for Robert to finish his cigarette. He stubs the butt into the gravel of the driveway and then spits — two fire-able offences, she thinks. But he doesn’t seem to care. Since his dream of working as a professional athlete was taken away from him years ago, he seems to believe that any employer is lucky to have him. He rubs his shoulder and leaps up the bus’s three steps in one single jump — his legs, at least, are undamaged by history. He nods at Liv, and puts the bus into gear.
Green paddocks roll by. The town shows up, like a little oasis. Liv’s stomach churns. She considers lying, considers telling Dr Bennett that she feels fine, that her hearing is back to normal, but that would be like recommending a book she doesn’t believe in, or worse, one she hasn’t even read. It would feel like the time during last year’s library stock-take, when she told Mrs Bourne she liked classical music, and then Mrs Bourne caught her blocking her ears during the loud crescendo.
When Robert sets her down in front of the doctor’s surgery, the surgery door is slightly ajar. Once again her stomach rolls. She considers turning back: past the newsagency, up the hill to the one-horse train station where Robert will still be parked, waiting for the morning train from Sydney, and then back to the retreat, where there are beds to be made, work to be done. She cannot shake the feeling that in his continued search to uncover the reason behind her hearing loss, Dr Bennett will uncover something else, something she doesn’t want known.
And yet. She doesn’t turn back. She pushes the open door and enters the small waiting room, with the cracked leather chairs and three-year-old magazines. Mrs Connelly, the receptionist, looks up from behind the counter and motions for Liv to take a seat.
The heating is turned up way too high, which might explain the propped-open door. An old woman — the only other patient in the waiting area — fans herself with a magazine. Liv chooses the seat nearest the door, and sits down to wait.
A half-hour passes, during which the old lady is called in and sent back out, prescription in hand. Dr Bennett, in all his grey-haired tallness, emerges from the hallway and beckons for Liv to come in. To her relief, he does not immediately ask about her ears; he just talks. He asks about the retreat, he talks about the weather, and then, with the chitchat aside, he asks her why she hasn’t been back for a check-up.
‘There’s been no change in my hearing,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want you to think I was crazy.’
‘Why would I think you were crazy?’
She shrugs. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Liv,’ he says, ‘your voice seems to have undergone a mild change. Is this something you’re aware of?’
A moment passes before she answers yes, she’s been told.
He folds his sterile-looking hands on the desk. He hasn’t even asked her to get up on the examination table yet. ‘I still don’t think you’re reading lips. It’s just not possible.’
She thinks: anything is possible. People in perfect health can die, people predicted to die can live. Aunt Rosa was told she only had twelve months, and she lived for years. Liv sits without moving. Unlike the waiting room, Dr Bennett’s room is cold. She shivers. She thinks: I never said goodbye to my parents.
‘Your aunt had a difficult illness, didn’t she? She died at home, yes?’
Liv thinks for a moment that the doctor means to trick her. Why else would he ask a question to which he already knows the answer?
He continues. ‘There’s one other possible cause of your problem, one that we haven’t really talked about. I’ve been doing a little reading on the subject. It’s called conversion disorder. Have you heard of it?’
She takes a deep breath and watches Dr Bennett’s face. She thinks: my father’s hands had chalk in the creases. She thinks: at the library I used to read books to children every Wednesday. She thinks: I never wanted much, and yet the things I wanted were precisely the things I didn’t get to keep. I can’t cry, not even at funerals. I’ve always been afraid of my voice, too timid to sing hymns or the national anthem or a birthday tune, happy to let the voices of others mask the absence of my own. ‘No,’ she says.
‘Well, a conversion disorder is something that occurs as a response to strain, the body converts your stress into a physical symptom. It’s not intentional, I want to make that clear. It’s an unconscious reaction, and it’s especially common in people who’ve been in carer situations, who’ve been under pressure to look after a loved one.’ His smile seems practised, overly reassuring. His one blind eye squints.
‘But … I don’t understand.’
Dr Bennett leans forward in his chair. Grey eyebrows. Etched frown. ‘You might really be deaf, Liv. But if you won’t go for further tests, we’ll never know. I do have to tell you, though, that your comprehension of speech would suggest to me that, at least on some level, you can hear. I think you should talk to someone. I can recommend —’
Liv shakes her head.
‘You don’t have to talk to me about it if you don’t want to,’ Dr Bennett continues. ‘But I think you should see someone, someone who has experience with this kind of thing, even if it’s just to rule it out. These types of illnesses can be quite complex. Sometimes, the sufferer might even feel quite serene, quite reluctant to part with their symptoms.’
Conversion disorder. It sounds so scientific, so straightforward. And though Liv likes the momentum of the title — the idea of something becoming something else — she can’t see how it applies to her. How could her mind possibly be converting stress into a lack of sound? Her problem is a real, physical one, even if Dr Bennett can’t find anything wrong. And she’s certainly not going to go for further testing if they’re simply going to tell her that this is something she’s doing to herself.
She does not mean to be rude when she stands up — rudeness, like lying, is beyond her. She simply wants to leave. If he objects, she doesn’t see it. At the front desk, she signs the necessary Medicare form and walks out. And because Robert has already left the train station, she pays for a cab to bring her home.
She gets straight back to work. She will not ask for any more time off for doctor’s appointments (or anything else, for that matter), lest she find herself inexplicably deaf and unemployed. As a result of her outing, she finishes her cleaning an hour later than usual.
Your aunt had a difficult illness. Had Dr Bennett meant the words as a statement or a question? She should have answered him either way, in case he thought her affliction was connected to an unwillingness to admit that Aunt Rosa was gone; she has never had any such illusions when it comes to loss.
The sky begins to fade. She walks through the garden and sits in one of the gazebos. She is the only person who ever seems to make use of the structure — guests seem to prefer the privacy of their villas, or else they are out visiting the wineries, out buying jars of local produce to make their city kitchens look more rustic, more authentic. A cold breeze blows against her cheek and she is grateful for it. She sits there, not wanting to move until she has absorbed enough of her surrounds to feel calm. On the days when Mrs Bourne would leave her to lock up, she used to perform a similar ritual at the library, sitting amongst all the books until their quietness infiltrated her mind. Now all she has is quietness. In the last of the afternoon light, kookaburras perch in the gum trees. She conjures their
And here is Jake, making use of the twilight to walk around the grounds. He climbs up the steps and sits next to her. His knees have scratches on them. He pushes up the sleeves of his school parka to expose his skinny little forearms. ‘What are you thinking about?’ he asks.
But for his size and the way his legs swing under the bench, he might be her peer. ‘I come here to think about nothing, too.’ He carries with him a glass jar, an empty one. ‘I’m going down to catch some of the fish in the river,’ he says. ‘Want to come?’
There is a hint of desperation now in the light the sun throws over the mountains. ‘Better hurry,’ Liv says. ‘It’s going to be dark soon.’
They walk along the bank, passing no one, and he leads her down the slope to an inlet where several residual pools of water lie separate to the main river, stagnating. ‘I do this all the time,’ he says, skimming his jar through the silty water. He holds it up, happy with the number of moving creatures captured in the glass. He crab-steps to the edge of the river flow and empties the jar into the water.
‘Do you think they’re grateful?’ he asks, repeating the salvation process from the same pool.
Strands of weeping willow trace patterns in the wind. Liv walks over to get a closer look at the jar, in which minuscule fish swim about, their silvery bodies lulled by the too-warm liquid from their puddle. ‘I think you’ve caught them just in time,’ she says.
Shadows deepen across the water. Liv shivers with something other than a chill, though her surrounds reveal nothing untoward. Eucalypt branches stream westward with the breeze, and the tall grasses and blackberry vines of the opposite bank sway in the wind. Any number of birds (she can’t see what kind, silhouetted as they are above the horizon) fly between the trees. They all look alike. They fly in threes and fours, soaring low, stretching their wings, gliding.
And then she sees her. She’s standing under a river gum, her scrawny frame obscured by the tree’s trunk, her blonde hair blowing wild. She does nothing to imply that she is aware of, or wants, Liv’s attention.
Jake waves at Liv. ‘Liv,’ he cries, ‘I got a big one. Look!’ He runs over to show her the minnow-sized fish taking asylum in his jar.
‘Well done,’ she says. She looks at him with genuine admiration. Every creature deserves to be helped. She believes that. She makes no mention of the girl, half because she does not wish to interrupt his rescue mission, and half because, when she looks back, the birds and the girl are gone from the landscape. ‘Jake, we should go, it’s getting dark. You can liberate more fish tomorrow.’
She walks him back to his villa, catching what she can of his natterings about fish and the shrinking river. She waits until he’s inside, and then instead of heading straight to her own quarters, she slips in the back entrance to the main building and goes up the stairs to the library room. Only one guest sits in the corner of the room, in one of the huge armchairs, reading a Peter Goldsworthy novel. The guest, a young woman in an expensive-looking tracksuit, acknowledges Liv’s entrance with a nod, then goes back to her book, perhaps assuming that Liv (who is still in uniform) has entered the room on official business.
Liv goes straight to the cabinet that houses the collection of local papers. She pulls out one of the drawers and begins flicking through all the papers from last year, noting only the front pages, for it would certainly have been front page news. The search is easier than she expected: the drawer offers up the article in less than five minutes.
LOCAL GIRL DROWNS NEAR MCMAHON’S BRIDGE.
Liv looks out the window toward the river, now swathed in darkness. She reads on:
Local residents are trying to come to terms with the death of a girl over the weekend. In tragic circumstances, Ruth Reynolds, aged eleven, was reported missing around four p.m. on Sunday after she disappeared during an afternoon swim. Often one to play in the river, her body was later found downstream by search and rescue workers in an area of the river just metres from McMahon’s Bridge. Locals are shocked by her death. ‘She was a strong swimmer,’ said a tearful neighbour. ‘I don’t know how she could have drowned.’
There’s a photo — a school picture — of a smiling blonde girl with a gap between her two front teeth. It could be the girl from the riverbank. It’s not impossible.
From the minute he steps off the bus, Jake knows that today is not going to be a good day. In the playground an empty chip packet rolls around the asphalt, and the towering camphor laurel tree (real name, Cinnamomum camphora) leans too far over the fence, as if it is trying to escape the schoolyard. The pit of Jake’s stomach drops. He considers walking right back out the gate. He can’t walk home, that’s too far, but he could walk to the river, he could find a place to hide until home-time. The only problem is if he shows up to catch the bus again in the afternoon — which he will have to do — someone will tell on him for sure. His thoughts turn to hiding within the school grounds. When he walks past the garden shed near the Year One classroom, he has half a mind to hide under the shelves that hold the dormant sprinkler equipment (the same spot where, last year, three stray kittens took up camp, hissing and blinking at people until Mrs Baker agreed to take them home).
But then the bell rings and the children scatter toward their classrooms and Jake goes right along with them. He hangs his backpack in the corridor and takes his usual seat inside the classroom, where paper cut-outs and other projects cover the windows. The morning progresses like any other. Alison Anderson is accused by Jimmy Wheeler of wetting her pants, even though her skirt remains dry. When Alison goes to Ms Buckley to complain, Jimmy just laughs like he always does. The children work on rhyming poems about monkeys, and Ms Buckley looks at Jake for what seems like a very long time when she sees he’s rhymed the word Rhesus with prosthesis. His is a disabled monkey, he says. She laughs then, and he thinks maybe he was wrong this morning, and that the bad feeling he’d had when he stepped from the bus was nothing more than a bigger version of the same fear he experiences every morning.
But then it happens. After lunch. As the children practise their running-writing technique, a form is passed around about the upcoming spelling contest. The contest itself is not the problem — Jake is the top speller in his year. It is the photo of last year’s winning team, the team that went to compete in the state competition in Sydney, that makes Jake’s knees go weak. There is Ruth, in black and white, standing next to a girl with pigtails whose name Jake can’t remember.
‘That’s your sister who died, isn’t it?’ Jimmy Wheeler says, leaning over and pointing the nub of his pencil at Ruth’s smiling face.
Jake looks out the window and bites his lip. He thinks he might outdo Alison Anderson and wee himself right there in the middle of the class, so strong is the feeling of letting go inside of him. But he doesn’t. He swallows his own saliva and tastes the cheese-stick he ate with lunch. Most of the children have given up perfecting the slant of their cursive G’s and have turned to look at him. Ms Buckley walks over, her gaze set on Jimmy Wheeler, her mouth thin. She puts one hand on each of Jimmy’s shoulders and physically turns him around to face the wall.
The way she looks at Jake makes him fear that she will add to his discomfort by hugging him. He fears he might blurt out the whole reason for the sadness welling inside him, which is that he thought his sister had come back, and now he’s not so sure, now he’s realising she’s really gone. And that his mother might never get over it.
But Ms Buckley simply touches his shoulder and says, ‘You don’t have to decide about the spelling competition now, Jake.’ And she turns her attention to the well-constructed letters in his workbook. ‘Good work,’ she says. ‘Very good.’
He doesn’t feel like doing his homework, which is to finish his monkey poem and to write down five words starting with the letter M, along with their definitions. He thinks the task
His mother, not long finished her cleaning shift, lies sprawled on the couch with her arms folded around a cushion. She stays awake long enough to say hello and to tell Jake to put his school bag in the bedroom so that she doesn’t trip over it like she did yesterday. He does this, and when he comes back to the living room her mouth has fallen open as though she was about to say something that will now have to wait until she wakes up.
She’d warned him, this morning, about staying away from the main villas and the guest facilities. The retreat is busy, she said. She can’t afford to lose her job, she said.
He thinks, for reasons he can’t quite grasp, that if she loses her job it will have nothing to do with his wanderings. But he does try to avoid guests because he doesn’t want to get in trouble, and also because, in the same way that his wandering around might make a guest feel unhappy, so does his seeing a guest spoil the fantasy that the retreat is his house, that he is a rich man who owns all he can see, that the main building is his mansion and all the villas are his.
He quickly changes out of his school uniform and into an old tracksuit top and jeans. He closes the door softly behind him and slips down the service path, the afternoon sun on his back. He walks past the stables, where the horses stand in their yards, tails flicking. He is careful not to get too close to them. Much as he likes animals, he is under no illusions that he is a horse-person. He thinks their long legs could reach through those bars and knock him over, if they felt so inclined. And since he can never tell if they feel so inclined, he gives them a wide berth.