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The retreaters, p.21

The Retreaters, page 21


The Retreaters

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  ‘I’ve never been married,’ Liv says.

  Vesna pulls out her pocket mirror and wields a powder-puff over her nose. ‘I just want to do something with my life, you know. It can’t all be over just because I’m getting divorced.’

  Liv thinks of Jane Eyre: women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation. She reaches into the small tote bag that hangs from the corner of her cleaning trolley, and pulls out her own beaten copy of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. ‘Here,’ she says, passing the book to Vesna. ‘If you’re going to be indoors for a while, you might want something to read.’

  Vesna wipes a blotch of mascara from under one of her eyes, and reaches out to take the book from Liv. She flips the book over and reads the back.

  ‘My parents were teachers,’ Liv says. ‘That’s one of the books they taught.’

  For once, Vesna doesn’t say anything.

  Liv walks along the path, daisies leaning toward her like a crowd of onlookers. She passes several guests — a middle-aged couple, a woman with glasses, a male wine critic whom she’s seen here before — and she nods and smiles and they nod and smile back. She thinks about sound, and its absence. The right front wheel of her cleaning trolley — if its skewed angle is anything to go by — must squeak, and yet she cannot hear it. When a female guest in an oversized winter coat walks by, the swinging of her arms must be accompanied by a swishing sound, but Liv hears nothing.

  When a flock of galahs flies overhead, she tries to imagine the sound of wings. This, she thinks, might be the only kind of sound she ever hears from now on: imaginary. But at least she needn’t miss words; she can see those.

  She pushes her trolley onward, and blinks at the sun. She passes rose bushes, all neatly pruned. The soil is dry. There are dead leaves. She stops her trolley and reaches out to touch the cotoneaster bush, which has lost its greenery but retains its red berries. Up close, tiny specks of emerald poke from the twiggy branches. New leaves, waiting for the last frost before they’ll fully emerge. The whole world is on a schedule. Everything, always, on the verge of becoming something else.

  She closes her eyes and breathes deeply. She can smell the melting frost, can smell the citrus scent of her uniform, the ammonia odour of the cleaning products in her trolley.

  She wills herself to smell even more, to make up for her hearing. She imagines she can smell the powdery scent of a feather as it floats to the ground, the vinegary smell of the ants on the path. The smell of river and the odour of bulbs yet to sprout from the ground; the perfume of nearby grapes being made into wine. And the smell of books, always, in the air, on the wind, in the wood.

  When a butterfly flickers past her, two feet away, she imagines she can feel the tiny breeze it creates, can smell the faint honeycomb scent its amber-coloured wings put out. The butterfly exists — she does not go so far as to imagine the butterfly in its entirety.


  She also knows that the butterfly has no smell, causes no perceptible breeze.

  She is filling a void. In a way, she has performed some kind of void-filling all her life.

  At the rear of the dining hall, she leaves her trolley in the shade and slips through the back door. In the far corner of the kitchen, Ben forages about in the huge refrigerator. His hair is black. His body is shorter, a different shape. It’s not Ben.

  ‘Hello?’ Liv says.

  The stranger extracts himself from the fridge. ‘Hiya,’ he says. It’s Mark, the part-time apprentice. ‘You’re looking for Ben? He had to go away for a day. To Redden, I think.’ He holds up a piece of chuck steak. ‘Hope you like beef. It’s Italian beef casserole for dinner. Artichoke risotto for lunch.’ He points toward a huge pan on the stove.

  ‘I eat anything.’

  Mark nods. He’s skinny in an adolescent kind of way. ‘My kind of customer,’ he says.

  Liv slips out the way she came in, and, noticing a smudge of chocolate icing on the right lapel of her uniform (a remnant of the traces of chocolate cake she cleaned from Vesna’s bench) she goes back to her villa to change into another uniform. When she gets to her door, there’s a note from Ben stuck to the wood.

  Have gone to Redden for a day or so. Will explain later. Beware of the apprentice’s risotto — it’s more like a pilaf.


  The static-ridden clock radio bleats and Evelyn rolls over in bed. She lets the alarm bleat on. The sound comes as no shock to her, she’s been awake since before dawn. She’s just been waiting for a sign that she should get up. That she should peel back the covers and bother to put slippers on her stone-cold feet.

  On her windowsill, the frost gathers in tiny icicles and the grass outside is as silver as a fish. She sighs, watches her breath take life in the frigid air.

  She gets out of bed, groaning, and pulls on her chenille dressing gown, which she thankfully remembered to throw into the wash this week so that it no longer smells like shed skin. Can the possums in the roof hear her moving about, the same way she hears them late at night? She opens and closes cupboard doors for no reason other than to announce to her fellow inhabitants that she is awake, that she is up.

  She thinks: if I died in the night they would be the first to notice.

  Lately, all she can think about is dying. She lists all her complaints: hiatus hernia, cataracts, high blood pressure, acid reflux. The blood pressure is perhaps the only real threat to her immediate existence, and even that’s doubtful — the last three times she’s had it checked it’s been perfect. ‘You have the veins of someone half your age,’ Dr Bennett had said, and Evelyn had thought: splendid, all the younger attributes I could have, and I get young veins. Everything else acts its age, or older.

  Still, she might live for another ten years. Or more. She saw just last week that the average age for women is well into the eighties now, a fact that encouraged and depressed her in equal measures. In all likelihood, since her life has been so indisputably average, she will live to see an average death. And yet she keeps waking in the night, keeps feeling her heart give little off-beat thumps as though it’s trying to tell her something. She goes to bed every night picturing the possum as a poor starved little thing, as it surely will be when she fails to show up with its daily smorgasbord. But then, every morning she wakes, even before the alarm.

  She thinks of all those who have passed before her. There was her oldest brother, Hugh, barely out of his teens when he went off to war and never came back. He’d been so sure, too, in his letters, that he would make it home. Evelyn, the youngest, was only seven at the time. It was the only time she ever saw her father cry. If he cried over Timothy, her other brother, when Timothy’s weak heart finally gave out, she didn’t see it. Even Evelyn found it difficult to cry for Timothy — he drank like a fish even though his doctor had warned him against it, and when none of the pubs in town would serve him, he simply drove to other towns.

  Her father, God rest his soul, had been the real shock. There was no warning, no war or weak heart. A burly, stocky man who never drank or smoked and could chop wood like a twenty-year-old, he was not far into his fifties when a stroke took him, mid axe-swing. She found him slumped by the woodheap, as if life and the wooden handle of the axe had slipped from his grasp at the exact same moment. Evvie, he used to call her. He used to bring her bars of fragrant soap that an old lady down the street made by mixing lye and vegetable fat with the lavender from her garden.

  When she found him, he was already turning stiff. She’d laid him out flat so that he wouldn’t be eternally curled, and she’d called the O’Grady boys to come and carry him into the house, so that he at least had a dignified place to lie while the ambulance came.

  She finds herself thinking of him, lately. More than fifty years after she last laid eyes on his gentle, oversized hands. That she cannot stop thinking about him makes her think that the fall of the proverbial axe might
soon be coming her way.

  But then she wakes up every morning. She boils the kettle while unseen possums sleep in the rafters above her.

  She showers and dresses and the day crawls on, as usual. After her morning laundry collection and towel delivery, she pulls a note from her pocket. Her own handwriting. Don’t forget Ben’s away. She adds bad memory to her mental list of ailments, and wonders if poor recollection can kill a person. Probably not, unless the failed recollection involves a gas stove.

  She shuffles through the dining hall, which is already crowded with people eating lunch. Near the entrance to the kitchen, a small flock of businessmen are questioning poor Mark about the local wineries, using words like full-bodied, varietal, and berry-like, when Mark would hardly know the difference between red and white. He looks relieved when Evelyn calls him away.

  ‘Got any leftover bread?’ she asks. ‘Or fruit? Ben normally gives me the stale stuff.’ She doesn’t give a reason, doesn’t even feel slightly guilty that Ben gives her no such handouts, that he would, in fact, laugh his head off if he found out that Evelyn had joined ranks with him as someone who feeds scraps to the native animal population. But apprentice Mark, with his one silver earring and his acne-free skin, knows nothing of that; he’s already handing her half a cob loaf and three soft-looking apples.

  ‘Good lad,’ Evelyn says. She sticks the loaf under her arm and the apples in her pockets. ‘Better give me that peach there, too. It looks like it’s on the way out.’


  Her mind will not clear. A feeling takes over, almost as if she’s trying to see something in her peripheral vision, something just out of sight. She makes a silent wish that she’s not losing her vision, too. She does not sleep so much as dream. The dreams, though, are less fantasy and more memories: her father sitting behind a desk, her mother with a red pen in hand, a bed-ridden Aunt Rosa rigged up to all kinds of contraptions. She wakes up and shakes the images from her head as a water-logged creature frees itself of excess moisture.

  She puts her glasses on, and brings things into focus.

  Outside, the winter sun shines. She cleans rooms and makes beds while guests eat their breakfast in the dining hall. She ponders the mysteries of life. Ponders the mysteries of books, also. Like the purpose of the white cockatoos in Voss. Do they symbolise race relations, or transcendence from an earthly life? Are they merely decorative? What stance might her parents have taken on such questions? Mrs Bourne didn’t like Patrick White’s writing; she found it difficult, she said. Liv had asked her, once, about the purpose of birds in White’s work, and Mrs Bourne had replied that she couldn’t remember there being any birds in his work. Mrs Bourne wasn’t one for metaphors.

  In the kitchen of Villa 11, Liv fills the sink with soapy water and washes the used coffee cups, the dirty knives and forks. Once dry, she files the items into the cupboards and drawers with the same meticulousness she used to shelve returned books at the library, and with each shelved item, she organises something within herself. Clean plate: her parents are gone. Clean glass on top shelf: Aunt Rosa no longer suffers. Clean fork in drawer: she thinks the cockatoos in Voss symbolise outer turmoil vs. inner peace.

  At the end of her shift, she watches the last leaf fall from the lone plum tree. It’s been hanging on for days, that leaf, hanging on for a whole season. And yet the instant it lands, it seems more a part of the earth than it ever was of the tree.

  The breeze circles her. Mason, over near the hedge, packs his gardening tools into a wheelbarrow and pushes off toward the stables, where he always stores his things before going home.

  And here’s Grace, coming out of Villa 14, dragging her trolley rather than pushing it. They never see one another, she and Grace; it’s almost a condition of their employment, burrowed as they are into separate rooms, cleaning separate tiles, making separate beds. Grace looks terrible. Her hair is lank. Her grey eyes pale as the fading sky. She looks so diminished that, even though she is a foot taller than Liv, she somehow takes up less space. For a moment they just look at one another.

  They stand there, not talking.

  After a time, Grace wipes her nose, and with her other hand, she touches Liv’s arm. ‘I want to tell you something,’ she says. She seems to be in some kind of waking slumber, her eyes vacant. ‘I took a test once,’ she explains. ‘Way back in first year at school, I think. Anyway, the test was on the alphabet. The teacher went round the class, one by one, and asked us to recite the alphabet from beginning to end, and I couldn’t wait for it to be my turn, because I knew the alphabet. I knew it.’

  She might be drunk.

  ‘But I got it wrong,’ Grace says. Her eyes blink.

  ‘That’s easy enough to do,’ Liv says.

  ‘No,’ Grace says, her words looking slurred. ‘No, I knew the alphabet. What I’m saying is that I got it wrong on purpose. Why would I do that?’

  Liv takes in the breathy words, the pale, remote eyes.

  ‘My kids never do that.’ Grace rubs her face. ‘Kid,’ she says. ‘I mean kid.’

  When Grace walks away, still speaking words that Liv can’t see, Liv waits for a few minutes on the path before she returns her trolley to the utilities closet in the main building. In the hallway, she passes an old lady who walks with her head facing straight down, her spine having constricted to the point where she can only focus on the impediments that lie in her immediate path. Liv steps out of her way, says hello when the lady almost walks over her. She can’t hear whether the old lady says anything back.

  She locks the cupboard, lets the keys fall into her pocket. I need to get off these grounds, she thinks, just for a while, just to clear my head.

  Five minutes into the nearest track and the surrounding bushland seems almost untouched, beautiful despite its inherent harshness, unapologetic of its prickles, its spiky gum trees and spindly bottlebrush bushes, its alien spiders and red-tailed foxes. Bush like this accepts anything — native or otherwise — and doesn’t ask questions.

  At the banks of the river, birds come to roost in the trees and a cool draft of air envelops Liv. She crosses the water using the concrete overpass.

  In the surrounding paddocks, lopsided kurrajong trees send branches out at all angles. During the last drought, every kurrajong tree in town was stripped of its branches in order to feed starving stock. Liv had read about it in the paper. Even those trees lining the main street of Hatton River were lopped and left to grow new limbs from their stubs. For months, she and Mrs Bourne had stared out at the armless torso of the kurrajong tree that grew in front of the library. It had seemed like the ultimate symbol of regeneration when it finally started to shoot new branches.

  The red roof of Mason’s house is visible through the trees. In the front yard, he works on his ute. Liv’s cheeks flush. By the time she emerges through the thicket of pine trees, his car stands unaccompanied on the patchy lawn. She waits for a moment, then walks to the front verandah. On the step, his dog sleeps.

  Her arms tingle. Nearby trees stop swaying. She feels like someone who has looked at themselves for too long in a mirror, until their reflection becomes something foreign, until they realise they don’t know themselves at all.

  The door opens. There he is. Black long-sleeve t-shirt. Dirty jeans. ‘You weren’t going to knock?’ he asks.

  Liv’s hand travels to her chest. ‘I was trying not to wake your dog,’ she says. The dog, now awake, looks at Liv in bewilderment.

  Mason reaches out and touches her cheek. His finger is rough. There are two tiny holes in his shirt, and his feet are bare. He steps back, into the hallway.

  ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ she says.

  ‘I do,’ he replies.


  Jake pushes a piece of potato around his plate. When he walked past the kitchen after school, Mark-the-fill-in-cook had given him some wrapped-up leftovers to bring back to his villa for dinner. Mark’s cooking is almost as good as Ben’s, and Jake had felt hungry when he sat down to
eat, but now he can’t seem to swallow. He feels like something is stuck in his throat.

  He mashes the potato to a paste and tries to eat it that way, but all he does is hold it in his mouth until it starts to feel like a wad of oatmeal. He spits it back out onto the plate, scrapes it into the bin, covers the rest of the plate with cling wrap, and puts the food back in the fridge.

  It’s still early — not even dark yet. Maybe he’ll feel like eating later.

  On the bench, a clock ticks. Every time Jake looks at it more time has passed. He picks up his unused spoon from the table and taps it against the table’s edge, but his mother doesn’t stir. She’s on the couch and she’s sleeping the kind of sleep where she doesn’t make any noises — no loud exhalations, no sniffles. He checks to make sure she’s still breathing.

  He wonders if she took something, to sleep like this. Natasha Haze’s mother takes pills to sleep. At least that’s what Natasha had said at school when Ms Buckley yawned one afternoon. ‘Miss,’ Natasha had said, raising her hand. ‘If you’re not sleeping well, you should take a pill. It really works, you know.’ Later Natasha told Jake that Ms Buckley had called her mother to make sure the pills were kept out of Natasha’s reach.

  ‘As if I need a sleeping pill,’ Natasha said. ‘I’m young.’

  Just to be sure, Jake checks the bathroom cabinet, but the only tablets he finds are the water-soluble aspirin, which he is allowed to take if he ever gets a headache. There’s three missing from the packet, but Jake isn’t worried. He popped them himself, not for a headache but just to watch them fizz in a glass of water. The idea of dissolving fascinates him.

  He walks back into the living area. The air smells of potato.

  ‘Sweetie,’ his mum whispers from the couch.

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