The retreaters, p.20
The Retreaters, page 20
Away from the stables there’s a line of pine trees. He takes cover behind them and walks toward the river.
He scrambles down the riverbank and starts toward the tree stump, which is starting to look smaller every time he inspects its crevices for some kind of message from his sister. Sure enough, his piece of paper, still wedged into the crack, contains no reply. The cat’s-eye marble is still there too, staring out from its hidey-crack like an all-seeing Cyclops. He takes back the note and the marble and heads upstream.
He swings his arms by his side, as though he’s trudging, marching forward. When the grass gets too tall, he sends his arms out in front, like Frankenstein. He thinks he might be the only boy in the world who’s shorter than grass.
Under a gum tree where the river bends northward is a makeshift hut, a teepee style shelter put together with stray branches and old wheat sacks for a floor. It’s not the best cubby house he’s ever constructed, but it’ll do. The wheat sacks he found on the ground near the stables, and the branches he dragged from all over — gum trees drop limbs all the time.
In the grocery bag that’s shoved up the back of the teepee is a collection of Ruth’s favourite snacks, which haven’t spoiled because the weather is still cold. The chocolate bar still feels hard to the touch and the cheese-sticks are still the right colour inside their plastic casings. There’s a packet of chips, too. It’s been weeks since he’s seen Ruth, but he is not above trying to tempt her back into this world with food. He sets the treats out on the hessian surface of the wheat-sack floor.
From the inside of the cubby, only a triangle of world is visible. He lies down on his belly and rests his chin on his hands. He waits.
A sound makes him sit up. He’s not sure what it was. He thinks maybe it was the wind, that maybe a branch fell from the tree above and landed in the nearby grass. But then comes a swooshing sound, like a breeze through the trees, only there is no breeze. There’s a grey feather on the ground outside, and it’s not moving.
‘Ruth?’ he says, and he hears nothing back, only the sound, which he now thinks is someone walking through grass, someone short like him because the swooshes are close together. He stays frozen inside the cubby. He thinks he should have made something to block the opening, something to cover up the entrance so that he can’t be seen. The swooshing gives way to crackling: feet on twigs and dead leaves. He waits for whoever it is to enter his triangle of world.
Big eyes, grey muzzle, stocky legs. The gardener’s dog. Jake’s seen the dog a few times since their first meeting, but never this high up-river, this far from home. The animal does not share Jake’s surprise — in fact, he looks quite pleased with himself at having sniffed Jake out. He barks, once.
Jake moves the chocolate bar and the other unopened snacks to the back of the cubby, and pats the floor. The dog rushes in, tail wagging, backside dislodging one of the inner branches, which Jake quickly fixes so that the whole structure doesn’t fall down.
‘We’ve met before,’ Jake says, watching the flecks of brown in the dog’s grey eyes. ‘I’m Jake. You’re Slim.’
The dog lies down. Saliva drips from its tongue onto the wheat sack. The sound of its panting fills the small space. The dog seems happy to wait, but looks to Jake for instruction, as though it has no idea of what or whom they’re waiting for. And neither, any more, does Jake.
Evelyn’s next donation is a clock that’s been on her mantelpiece for ten years. Even after she packs it in a box, its shape remains on the ledge, a dirty brown outline that refuses to budge from the paint. Serves her right for leaving it there so long. God knows why she ever bought it in the first place, it’s not the prettiest clock in the world and the colour of the wood has never matched any of her belongings. It’s never even kept the correct time, and no amount of fiddling or trips to the watchmaker has done any good. The hands always fall back into their own pace, making the time in Evelyn’s cottage perpetually slow, so that when she adjusts the clock to the right time she feels robbed of life, as though days, years even, have been stolen from her.
At the St Vincent de Paul, she hands over the clock to Ada Miles. If Ada notices the clock’s hands are wrongly placed, she says naught about it. ‘What a beautiful old face,’ she coos, gazing at the faulty clock as though it bears human qualities. She blinks several times in close succession and puckers her lips.
The two women stand, old. I used to sit next to you at school, Evelyn thinks, and now the skin on my hands looks like crepe paper and your arms are so age-spotted they’re starting to look more brown than white.
‘Have you thought any more about helping out at the annual fete?’ Ada asks.
Evelyn grunts. She thought she’d got Ada off her back about the fete. ‘I don’t give thought to questions I’ve already said no to,’ she says.
Ada smiles. ‘That’s a shame,’ she says. ‘We could definitely use the help of someone like you.’
Someone like whom?
Ada smiles again, but her eyes water a little. She coughs. ‘Oh, I wish I could get rid of this cold.’ She daintily wipes her nose on a pale blue handkerchief, then pats the clock on the head.
Evelyn’s attention is momentarily caught by the cabinet containing china and tableware. The cabinet is full of cutlery and baby spoons and soup dishes, but one particular article of crockery declares itself to Evelyn: a small blue coffee cup with green edging. That very cup — until earlier this year — had sat in her cupboard, always unused; it was too small to hold Evelyn’s coffee the way she likes it, strong with lots of milk. Still, she feels a jab of something when she sees the cup. Not regret, surely, just recognition.
She wishes she hadn’t seen it. She won’t look, then, at the racks of clothes (including a god-awful orange frock for which she feels no remorse) arranged according to price, two dollars and up, or the bookshelves or the shoe rack, in case she realises just how many of her bibs and bobs reside here, homeless.
‘How are things out at the retreat?’ Ada asks. Her hair is pulled into a bun that looks like a farmhouse loaf, and her hand reaches around to assess that all is still in place. ‘I hear business is booming out there.’
Evelyn places her hand on her chest. She thinks she felt some kind of flutter (her acid reflux, playing up, no doubt). ‘Same as always,’ she says. ‘People coming and going.’
A breeze comes through the open door and blows several dog hairs from Ada’s cardigan. Evelyn does not comment on the dog hairs, not today, when she is on her way to buy day-old bread for a possum. She can barely admit it to herself, let alone Ada.
‘I’ll walk out with you,’ Ada says, pulling her cardigan closer to her non-existent bosom. Unlike Evelyn, who shrinks by the day, old age seems only to make Ada taller, as though her soft bits are being sucked inward to sustain her bones. ‘A little breath of fresh air might do me good. Clear the sinuses.’
But as soon as she’s out the door, Ada shivers. ‘Ooh, that wind’s got a real chill in it. I hope you don’t have too far to go.’
‘I don’t,’ Evelyn says. She flinches. She’s not even sure the bakery’s a good idea any more — at her age, to start feeding a possum, when she’s likely to drop dead at any time and leave the poor animal with no clue of how to find its next meal. Perhaps she should only feed it every second night, just to be safe. Yes, that’s a sterling idea.
In the wind, Ada’s elaborate bun begins to fray at the edges, strands of hair drifting sideways, feathering her pale face. ‘My legs have been aching dreadfully,’ she says. ‘There must be rain on the way.’
‘My legs ache all the time, rain or no rain,’ Evelyn says, louder than necessary. She pulls at the neck of her skivvy and wishes she hadn’t worn a long-sleeve spencer underneath it; she has entirely too many layers to feel comfortable.
Ada dabs at her nose, the tip of which turns pink in the wind. ‘I’ll have to go back into the heat, I’m afraid,’ she apologises, and she bids goodbye with a little wave, hanky still in hand, l
For less than two dollars, she gets a whole bag of sliced bread and a few stale buns on the house. She stops at the fruit shop, too, and buys the fruit that’s gone soft.
In the afternoon, she resumes the second half of her laundry shift. If she’d bothered to be more specific when Ada asked her about the retreat, she would have said that twice as many people are burrowed into the various rooms, which means twice as many towels, twice as many sheets, and twice as many clothes to bunch into the washing machines. She would have mentioned that she’s never understood why the mere thought of spring (and it is still just a thought, the wind is evidence enough of that) brings people to the country in droves. If they had any sense they’d come in summer when it’s half the price, heat or no.
Of course, there are guests who come here and act as though they’re never going to leave, like that lacquer-haired woman in Villa 9. When Evelyn goes back through the laundry register, she determines that Vesna has been at the retreat for almost five months. If she stays much longer, Evelyn will hand her the washing powder, show her the machine and say, there, do your own dirty work.
In the laundry room, she bundles all the sheets together in the huge hamper and begins to load them into the machines. On a day like this, she’ll have to do at least ten loads before all the sheets are done. Once all of the machines are loaded, she measures out the laundry powder into each one, an action which has become so automatic she sometimes can’t remember whether she’s done it or not. More than once, she has set off the machines with no powder in them at all, or worse, added the powder twice and had to wash everything a second time just to get rid of the suds.
With the washing under way, Evelyn takes several sets of clean sheets and towels from the linen closet and delivers them to the rooms that are being made up for guests arriving at the retreat. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to make the beds; her back is too wrecked for that. All she has to do is make sure the rooms are supplied with clean sheets and towels. She lets herself into each room and puts the sheets on the bed and the towels in the bathroom, where it always strikes her as ridiculous that the cleaners are instructed to fold the first square of toilet paper into a triangle. As though people aren’t going to use it to wipe their behinds, triangle or no.
Darkness begins to fall, and for the first time in many years, Evelyn welcomes the dusk. It does not escape her attention that, in the past, she has been the one to holler the loudest about getting rid of the possum population at the retreat. Several monthly staff meetings have seen her name next to the agenda item listed as ‘possum problem’, and last winter — upon her instruction — a colony of eight possums was removed from inside the roof of the main building. And not by one of those wildlife operations, either, but by Bob Shickle, whom everybody knows is more likely to make possum stew than see the creatures re-released into their natural habitat.
Now, sunset sees her standing on the path outside her cottage, calling to the wind as though to a domestic pet.
She lines the slices of bruised fruit and morsels of bread up along the narrow railing next to the carport. And here he comes, the little creature, alone for the third night in a row now, his mother having either abandoned him or abandoned life altogether (probably the latter, Evelyn thinks, given the state of her that first night).
He scrambles down the post and runs along to where Evelyn stands. He sits, clinging to the wooden rail. His eyes are as big as a bug’s. His little claws are still soft, incapable of doing damage. ‘Well, good evening,’ she says.
His fur parts in the wind. He has no idea who she really is, he’s all wide-eyed trust. When he leans out and sniffs her fingers, he does so as if the traces of everything good in the world can be found there.
Jake’s mother blames herself, because she wasn’t there, because she was sleeping off a hangover while he and Ruth went down to the river to play. He wonders how he should feel, he who was there but couldn’t do anything to help. In his bed he squirms. He hates that Ruth has become just one more person he’s not allowed to talk about, like his father, whom he can’t talk about anyway, because he knows nothing about him. It’s as if his father never existed, and he doesn’t want it to get that way with Ruth.
More than anything he wishes that his mother would wake up and be upset, or be angry, or be loud the way she used to be, anything but quiet. The silence turns her into something weightless, so that every morning he is surprised that she hasn’t floated off to someplace else during the night.
He reaches under the bed and wraps his hand around the stone that Ruth gave him. It is smooth and shaped like a heart, which is why she took it from the riverbank in the first place.
He sleeps with the stone in his palm in the hope that if for some reason he ever starts to float off during the night, he will be weighed down, he will be anything but hollow.
The last four mornings the gardens have been covered in a layer of frost so thick that only the midday sun has been able to melt it, and today is no different. With the sun creeping toward a higher perch, the morning frost saps the green from the garden, like a dusting of ash. Liv’s lips reverberate with cold. Wind stirs the fir trees at the river’s edge. Gum leaves fall. Clouds blow in from the east.
Ben has predicted — many a time, and with startling accuracy, given that he is a foreigner — that clouds from the east never bring any rain. Still, the cold air feels ever so slightly more humid for the clouds’ presence. Liv hopes the clouds hold off — if they roll in now, the frost will never melt.
She wheels her trolley down the path and stops in front of Villa 9. Vesna, the ever-present inhabitant, seems to have given up all notions of an outdoor life, at least while ever the clouds linger. The door to her villa is slightly ajar, and she’s there in her pyjamas, beckoning for Liv to come inside.
Today, Vesna wears a puffy coat over her pyjamas. Various bangles and necklaces — seemingly every item she owns — hang from her arms and neck. It’s as though she dressed to leave in the middle of the night. She sits huddled next to the stereo, which she’s tuned to the radio setting. The farmers’ channel, she tells Liv. ‘I’m listening to the sheep graziers’ alert,’ she explains. ‘They seem to know more than the normal weather report.’
Liv pulls her trolley all the way inside, and shuts the door behind her. ‘I don’t think the farmers are worried,’ she says. ‘All the sheep are still out in the paddocks.’
She points out the window, where, across the river, grazing sheep can be seen, little dots of wool against the grey-green pastures. She gestures a lot lately, in case people don’t understand her.
Vesna, though, understands her just fine. She shakes her head. Tiredness and a thinner than usual layer of mascara have deepened the hazel of her eyes. ‘Have you seen the ants?’ she asks. She points toward the kitchen bench. ‘The ants are going crazy. I left a piece of cake out last night, and they just about carried it out on the plate.’
Liv takes out her bottle of Wipe Clean and starts clearing the trail of crumbs left by the ants, and Vesna, when she glances at her, seems to have forgotten about the weather and is already onto the topic of her husband, Harry, who, as she puts it, traded her in for a newer model.
‘I got divorce papers delivered to me yesterday,’ she says. ‘Delivered to me right here at the retreat. Can you believe it? He didn’t even have the courtesy to send the papers to my home address.’ She shoves an ornate bracelet up her arm.
Liv puts two used water glasses in the sink. The dark outline of Vesna’s lips is still visible around the rims. ‘But you’re not at home,’ Liv says. ‘Why would you want the papers to go there?’
Vesna frowns. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing here any more. The word tourist no longer describes anything about what I’m doing here.’ She scratches her head and her black hair fluffs to even greater proportions. ‘Added to which there’s storms forecast, and I seem to be una
Liv washes the glasses, dries them with a clean tea towel from the drawer. She doesn’t know if she should talk or refrain from talking. She chooses the latter, but takes periodic glances at Vesna to show she’s paying attention. There is nothing as awful as revealing your deepest fears and then finding that the other party hasn’t really heard you. She remembers, distinctly, telling Aunt Rosa that she’d always felt — against all logic — that her parents’ death was somehow her own fault, that she’d somehow brought it on herself by being a child who was happy being alone, and Aunt Rosa responded by saying that she couldn’t hear the television with Liv nattering like that.
In the living room she flicks a feather duster over the picture that hangs above the couch. It’s a framed print entitled The Bright House. In the lemony light the painting looks just as the name implies it should: bright, cheerful. Up close there’s a hair caught between the glass and the print. That hair always annoys Liv, because no amount of dusting can dislodge it.
Vesna stays by the radio. This morning, her bed is already made, so all Liv has to do is co-ordinate the pillows into their proper layout, and smooth the bedspread. She asks Vesna if the vacuum cleaner will bother her, if it will interrupt the radio too much.
‘No, no. Go ahead,’ Vesna says. ‘Look at me. I’m sorry! Here you are, trying to do your job and I’m sitting here moping over the farmers’ radio channel.’
‘It’s okay,’ Liv says. And Vesna waits until the vacuuming is over before she moves her mouth again. She’s taken on a deflated look. ‘Sometimes I wish he’d died,’ she says. ‘My husband. Rather than left me, I mean. That’s awful, isn’t it?’
by Sharlene Miller Brown have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes