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The retreaters, p.2

The Retreaters, page 2

 

The Retreaters
 



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  He bends over to rub at a mark on his bony knee, and when he stands up, he makes sure that he is straight-backed. He cannot afford to slouch. Already, the wall behind his bedroom door is a train track of pencil lines measuring his height, all of them too close together for Jake’s liking. This last six months have not been good in the height department. Deep down, he worries that he might never grow again, but then hope takes over. A growth spurt is coming, he can feel it.

  His bones clink, readying themselves. He wants to be like the tree his mother planted on the riverbank after his sister died. For a while, the twiggy branches didn’t grow at all, and then — just when it, too, seemed to be dying — it upped and grew taller than anybody thought possible. Just like that.

  On the path that leads to the main building, one of the garden lights is still on, and a bug zooms toward the globe, hits the glass with a dull thud, a slapping kind of sound, and drops to the ground. Jake hardly has to look at all to find the bug’s body, and he’s careful not to pull off its wings as he picks it up. Near the fence, beneath the vine that smells of honey, he digs an oval-shaped hole a few centimetres deep, places the bug at the dirty bottom and gently replaces the soil. Brown collects in his fingernails.

  Yesterday, he accidentally walked inside his villa with dust on his hands. His mother, asleep on the couch, woke for as long as it took to look him up and down. ‘How many times have I told you to wash that rubbish off before you come inside this house?’ she said. Then she’d fallen asleep again.

  In the garden, he stares at his dirty hands. His stomach wells with something that feels like starvation but isn’t because he ate his toast for breakfast. The empty feeling is hard to ignore. Even harder to ignore is the picture in his brain of what his mother used to be like, before she was like this. He thinks that this is probably how she feels too, when she’s awake.

  LIV

  Quietness has a smell, like rain. It is not unpleasant; still, Liv makes a pact with herself that if the impairment does not improve by day’s end, she will see a doctor. Though all three doctors in Hatton River know her by name (a result of Aunt Rosa’s illness), her own life, as yet, has been lived free of the need for medical attention. Free of the need for any attention, for that matter. She is not the attention-grabbing type. At the library, whenever she restocked the lower shelves, she came perilously close to being stepped on. People just didn’t see her.

  And for the most part she liked it that way.

  She locks the house behind her, leaving the keys, as promised, in the mailbox for the real estate agent. Out the rickety gate and over the grassy footpath, she wheels her suitcase to the corner, where the school bus, her regular lift to work, will shortly pass. Across the street, Mr Dunn comes outside in his pyjamas to collect his garbage bin. When he sees Liv, his face takes on a perplexed expression that seems to incorporate both his embarrassment at his state of dress and his observation of the suitcase at her feet. ‘I hope you’ll come back and visit us,’ he’d said last week, when Liv informed the neighbours that Aunt Rosa’s house was up for sale. ‘We need more young people in this street.’ By ‘young’, Mr Dunn meant under seventy. After Mrs Glasser, who died of a stroke, and Mr Kirk, a heart-attack victim, Aunt Rosa was the third Welborne Street resident to die in as many years.

  Liv waves, and Mr Dunn waves back. ‘Goodbye, Mr Dunn,’ she whispers. ‘Goodbye street.’

  She doesn’t hear a word she says. She holds her nose and tries to unblock her ears, but if a blockage is her problem, nothing shifts. Don’t panic, she thinks. She steadies herself against a momentary attack of imbalance, tells herself that the clogged feeling in her head is a good sign, indicating as it does a virus or a head cold, something curable.

  The bus, on time as always, pulls up near the kerb, and Mr Riggs, noting Liv’s suitcase, steps down to haul the case onto the bus. He wears sandals and socks. He is of retirement age but his body is still beefy; it’s his mind that’s losing muscle. ‘Rather large bag for school, isn’t it?’ he says, then, ‘Where’s your uniform?’

  Every morning, the same question. Liv has never owned a car; she walks everywhere. But since the retreat is fifteen kilometres from town, she’s been left with no choice but to catch the empty school bus which — unlike the sporadically timed local bus that makes the run out to the wineries only on weekends or holidays — coincides perfectly with Liv’s work hours. She catches the bus on its early-morning route to collect out-of-town students, and then catches it again in the afternoon, when the last of these students has been dropped home. And though she’s caught the bus every work day for the last month, the driver, Mr Riggs, asks her each and every morning why she isn’t wearing her school uniform.

  So this morning, it’s not the content of his query that surprises her (at thirty, she is well accustomed to people assuming she’s younger, especially poor Mr Riggs), but something else that takes her aback — the fact that she saw, rather than heard, what he said.

  She blinks. Her mind is playing tricks on her, surely? Will her own speech make its way clear of her mouth? ‘Mr Riggs,’ she says, ‘I catch this bus to work, remember?’ Her words disappear from her radar the instant they leave her lips, but they must have reached his ears intact, because he shakes his head in self-reprimand, and smoothes his cowlick of white hair.

  ‘Right you are, right you are,’ he says. ‘Just a young face, hey?’

  Yes, she’s definitely seeing his words. To answer his question, she nods.

  Midway down the aisle, she takes her usual seat and props her suitcase next to her, noting with embarrassment her bitten-down fingernails. She hears nothing of the usual groan the bus makes as it pulls away. Something very strange is happening to her. I have slept wrong, she thinks. I have slept wrong and broken something. Overriding the swell of anxiety is a feeling that she somehow wants this, that she has brought this silence on herself. She tilts her head, winces at the thought of seeing a doctor. She had thought — after Aunt Rosa’s death — that it would be a very long time before she saw a medical practitioner of any kind. Perhaps, she hopes, this loss of sound is not really a loss but is like the cloud that drifts in the sky above: a passing disturbance, a glitch that can be resolved. All part of the same daze of grief. Years ago, after her parents died, hadn’t she experienced an inability to think? Hadn’t she walked around for weeks with a feeling of tunnel vision, of not being able to look at anything that wasn’t right in front of her?

  The window, marred by childish fingerprints and bubbles in the tint, projects its imperfections onto the town, and for a moment the fibro cottages and red-brick dwellings take on a worn, smudged look, until Liv blinks, and reminds herself that the blemishes belong to the flawed window, not the town. With no soundtrack — no car engines or barking dogs — the streets seem curiously devoid of meaning, like a film reel with no voice-over, no music to tell her how she should feel.

  She knows this much: she is glad to be leaving these streets and the clingy miasma of Aunt Rosa’s death behind. Aunt Rosa is gone. And it was expected. And Liv must start over.

  The bus — its own little cocoon of soundlessness — heads out of town, and out the pockmarked window the rows of houses give way to a great expanse of land reined in here and there by fences. In the distance, the river, shrouded by trees, winds ahead, homesteads blooming along the waterline like colourful, groundbreaking mushrooms. Closer to the road, less fortunate houses take on a pioneering look, as if, given the vastness of the countryside around them, they are crouching, hunkering down against the elements. Tractors labour in the grid-like paddocks.

  The land, penalised long ago by falling wheat prices and salvaged by the rather recent uptrend in grapes, has the appeal of something fortified, something reduced to its essentials by sun and air. Not for the first time, Liv thinks the scene would make a good cover for a book. A text about survival, perhaps. About trees and animals and people on the brink of giving up but somehow persevering, thriving even.

  Her gaze set
tles on those paddocks farthest from her, from this bus and this road.

  Straw-coloured wheat fields, the wheat reduced now to stubs, mesh against the broader expanse of brown. To the east, the morning sun stretches and purrs like a cat won over, and a single cloud, slow-moving as a sailboat, marks the otherwise clear morning sky. Liv suddenly wishes to see all of it — the cat-like sun, the sailboat cloud — not just for herself but for those who are gone, who can see no longer. For Aunt Rosa, yes, but also for those who’ve been gone so long Liv has to strain to remember their faces.

  She blinks only out of necessity.

  Mr Riggs makes the turn onto the road that leads to the wineries. Now leaving Hatton River, a sign reads. Population 3,600. Big enough to matter, small enough to care.

  In a roadside paddock, a man rides a motorbike. A red cattle dog is perched expertly between the man and the handlebars of the bike. They are rounding up sheep. The dog barks, or so it seems.

  Liv hears nothing, and in the same instant that another bout of distress wells up in her, so too does the desire to suppress it. She must go to work today. She won’t lose another job. She will get through the day, and then she will see a doctor. She centres her attention on the view from the bus, on her perfect vision.

  The countryside rolls by, most of it the same flat farmland until they get nearer to Cottonwood Retreat, where the flats give way to gentle hills, and grapevines begin to cover the slopes like plaits. Now entering Hatton River Wine Country, a newer, brighter sign declares. A large, up-market hotel, Cottonwood Retreat is perfectly situated amidst the cluster of wineries that brings more money to Hatton River than farming ever will. Before Liv applied for the job, the retreat was — and still is — somewhat of an enigma, a place for tourists, a place for people who drink wine while watching the sun set, as the woman in the long-running ad campaign does.

  A brochure for the retreat, along with an array of pamphlets highlighting Hatton River’s wine-related attractions, had sat for years in the display on the library’s counter. Looking at the accommodations pictured in the pamphlet, Liv never imagined she would one day be cleaning those very floors, making those very beds. But that’s what happens in small towns. Mrs Bourne, the ex-librarian, now works part-time at the local fish and chip shop. For the people-contact, she tells Liv.

  Liv tries not to think of Mrs Bourne standing over a deep fryer. To Liv, Anne Bourne will always be the town librarian, and all evidence to the contrary is to be ignored. Insofar as Liv’s own identity as the librarian’s assistant has been shattered, cleaning, she tells herself, is not so dissimilar to library work as she had once feared. Both jobs, in the simplest of terms, involve putting things back where they belong. Something she has always been good at. And there are days when — while placing a clean coffee cup on the in-room tray or folding a hand-towel to look like a fan — Liv is able to close her eyes and imagine that she is back at the library, shelving a copy of a newly arrived book, wiping dust from the spine of a leather-bound encyclopaedia, emptying the basket of wasted photocopier paper. Perhaps, in a broad sense, she has always been a cleaner.

  The bus turns down a tree-lined laneway, trundles through the set of open gates and into the retreat’s grounds, which, though parched by months of unrelenting sunshine, still look green. The main building — a mansion-like structure two storeys in height — sits at the peak of the driveway, overlooking the valley. The dwelling is old-worldly, other-worldly, its beige exterior fractured by the Virginia creeper that has been trained to climb the sandstone walls. Its white-painted windows — the kind that open only outward — suggest both the history kept within and the world kept out. Across the garden, the slender river is visible. There are glimpses, too, of the dozens of redwood villas that are scattered throughout the bushland. At this hour of the morning, none of the guests have surfaced.

  Liv stands, drags her suitcase to the front of the bus.

  ‘I believe this is your stop,’ Mr Riggs says. He lets the engine idle, and helps Liv down with her bag.

  The wind picks up, carrying on it the faint aroma of livestock, and the even fainter smell of gum leaves. Liv’s pale hands move to discipline her bobbed hair, to discipline also her flapping skirt, the hem of which has turned up to reveal a row of hand-sewn stitches.

  Mr Riggs taps his temple with his forefinger, and his wiry brows rise and fall as he tries to get his doddery memory into gear. ‘So, let me get this straight. You won’t need picking up this afternoon?’

  Liv nods, is once again struck by the fact that she seems to be seeing Mr Riggs’ words, not hearing them; she might be reading him like a book. ‘That’s right. I’ll be staying out here for a while.’ She surveys her surrounds. No sign of the young boy — the son of the other cleaner — who normally catches the bus after Liv has alighted. He’s only a little fellow, as prone to being stepped on as she. She always has to really look to see him, but this morning he’s not here at all.

  She turns back to Mr Riggs. He blows his nose into his handkerchief. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘they have a name for people who work out here.’ He gives his nose a second wipe and deposits the hanky back in his front pocket. ‘Retreaters,’ he says, reminding Liv of the term coined by locals to describe Cottonwood’s employees.

  ‘Yes,’ she says, watching his lips. ‘Retreaters.’ A pink-breasted galah flies overhead, grey wings outstretched. Liv looks again for the boy, but he’s nowhere to be seen.

  Mr Riggs, satisfied that he has given Liv something to call herself, seems to remember that he has other passengers to collect. ‘I better get going,’ he says. He climbs up the stairs of the bus and takes his seat behind the steering wheel. The bus, as it departs, lets out a puff of exhaust.

  Liv waits for the familiar clank as the vehicle crosses the ramp, but today the ramp makes no sound.

  JAKE

  Jake likes school. It is the only place where he gets to be around other children (even if the other children call him a runt and steal his hat from him in the playground). He’s a fair bit shorter than most of his classmates and that’s including the girls, but he is smarter than all of them, girls and boys. His gold-star tally (the one kept on the blackboard by Ms Buckley, his teacher, who has hair like something on fire) has so many chalk-notches that Jake has started to bite his tongue even when he knows the answer, and Ms Buckley seems to understand this idea because her look of disappointment is always followed by a flicker of approval. She knows the laws of the classroom.

  It is a new lesson for Jake, this idea that he likes going unnoticed even more than he likes being smart.

  This year, not only does he have to pretend to not know all the answers, but he has to find a real friend. He is eight (eight and a half, really). It is time he had a companion. There have been several near-misses, because no one wants to catch the bus all the way out to the retreat and no one’s parents want to drive Jake home if he stays in town after school. There’s Johnny Hartley, who catches the same bus as Jake, but Johnny’s family lives a half-hour from the retreat, plus Johnny attends the Catholic school, not Hatton River Primary, and so their friendship is limited to sharing a seat and the occasional bag of chips on the rattly bus. Things were looking up a couple of months ago when a Chinese boy named Hui-Lee showed up in Jake’s class. Not only was Hui-Lee smart but he was short as well, and Jake had so badly wanted to claim Hui-Lee as a kindred spirit that he’d had to stop himself from shouting ‘dibs’ or ‘bags’. But he knew that when it came to friendship, dibs-ing would do no good because Hui-Lee would have to agree. He would have to dibs Jake back. Then the restaurant Hui-Lee’s parents opened went broke, and with it went Hui-Lee.

  So there was no dibs-ing of any kind. And there are still no friends.

  Jake scuffs his shoe in the dirt. He can’t make friends if he’s stuck at the retreat on a school day, can he? But he couldn’t help but miss the bus this morning. He’d run back to his villa to check on his mother and had found her in the bathroom, crying. He’d held out her unifo
rm and waited while she put it on. ‘You know, you’re a wet rag, kid,’ she’d said, which was something new. He’d never been called that before and it confused him.

  And then he’d missed the bus — he’d arrived back at the retreat’s front gates just in time to see the bus’s tail lights in the distance. So he’d decided to trail his mother on the early part of her cleaning shift. Her morning schedule, he knows, always starts with Villas 8 through 12. A risky business, following her, but he is careful not to be seen. His mother is golden-haired and Amazon tall. She delivers towels and sheets, she nods when spoken to, she comes back to her trolley for cleaning supplies. There are bottles and wet rags (rags he now examines to see the ways in which he might resemble them) and the same tiny squares of soap that his mother brings home for them to use in the bathtub. When she wheels her way into the main building, Jake stays behind in the garden. She won’t come out for hours now.

  He finds a space where he can crawl, flat-bellied, into the hedge. ‘Buxus sempervirens,’ he whispers. The Common Box Hedge. Despite what his classmate Jimmy Wheeler says (Nerd, Jimmy snickers, whenever Jake pulls an encyclopaedia from the shelf), Jake likes to know things by their real name. Even plants, even weeds, belong to a family.

  Carly Robinson, who often sticks up for Jake for no clear reason (she makes it obvious she doesn’t want to be friends with anything that isn’t female, even all her pet cats, which she talks about non-stop, are girls), says Jake isn’t a nerd, he’s an intellectual, which Jake thinks is a nice way of saying he can’t run or punch or do anything sporty.

 
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