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The retreaters, p.22

The Retreaters, page 22


The Retreaters

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  He goes to her side. Her cheek is pushed against the arm of the lounge and she’s swallowing as if she’s trying to get something down her throat, or trying to keep something from coming up. She’s not awake. Beneath her eyelids, her eyes dart about like puddle-trapped fish.

  Jake’s chest tightens.

  ‘My baby girl’s down there,’ she murmurs. Her words are slow. ‘In the water. She’s down there.’ She closes her mouth. On the couch, she turns to face the other way and lets out one long sigh before her body falls back into quietness. Her legs overhang the end of the couch, and her feet are pointed like she’s diving.

  Her chest rises and falls.

  Jake sits on the edge of the sofa, on a part that’s not taken up by her long body. Out the window the pale light fades into dark blue above the mountains. He wonders if his mother means that Ruth is down at the river now, waiting.

  He scurries down the hall to his bedroom, rummages through his cupboard until he finds an old canvas backpack, his schoolbag from three years ago. He is glad he never throws anything away. The bag is dirty and still dotted with the various buttons and tags he pinned to the front flap when all the other children went through a phase of doing the same. He cringes now, at how babyish the bag looks, and yet he is made still by the memories the bag dredges up: there is the navy blue button Ruth gave him after it fell off her school uniform. There is the safety pin from when the sewing lady pinned his first pair of school trousers up to be hemmed. At the time, it had seemed to him that the length of material she cut off was equal to that which she left behind.

  He rubs his fingers over the rough canvas of the bag, and when he undoes the buckles the still-strong aroma of banana comes out, a smell that lives on from the summer he accidentally left a piece of fruit at the bottom of his backpack for the entire school holidays. The banana and the awful smell it oozed by the time he dug out the bag the day before school was due to go back is the only reason he has a different backpack now.

  He opens the bag and lets the banana-air disperse, then takes the torch from under his bed and places it inside the bag. The torch is a heavy thing he bought from a neighbour’s garage sale when they lived in town, and it near fills the kindergarten-sized backpack. He grabs a packet of matches (he doesn’t know why, apart from the fact that he knows they are important when camping) and his school drink bottle, filled with water.

  He takes a sip and the water tastes funny because he forgot to rinse the traces of today’s cordial out before he filled it. He puts the bottle in the backpack anyway.

  He bites his lip, thinking. He is fairly certain he has all the supplies he needs. He plans only to be gone for a few hours, maybe less. He wants to be back by the time his mother makes the move from couch to bed.

  He sneaks through the living room and quietly out the door.

  It’s still light enough to see his way down the path, so he leaves the torch in the backpack for the time being. When he hears voices, he stops and hides in the hedge until the voices pass. It is not difficult, in this half-light, to go unnoticed. He has spent his entire life going unnoticed. He is pleased when — in situations like this — his semi-invisibility can be put to use.

  The wind blows. It’s a lot colder than it was when he got home from school and the sky is streaked with clouds. Night dew already wets the grass. He shouldn’t be out here. And yet he feels confidence take over. Of course he should be out here, his mother said it herself: out here somewhere, is Ruth. In the growing darkness, all he can hear is the wind in the gum trees and the scratching of creatures even more determined than he to stay hidden. Creatures with even bigger eyes.

  He passes the fence line that signals the end of the retreat’s property, and the grass becomes a haven for weeds both short and tall. Weeds like Bathurst burr (Xanthium spinosum) and Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium). He thinks about how much work the gardener must do to keep the weeds out of the retreat’s grounds, if this is how quickly they grow outside the fence. Last week the lavender-coloured heads of the Scotch thistles were at eye-level (a particularly dangerous height, given their bristles). Now, like everything else, they’re well above his head.

  When he gets to the cubby house he crawls inside and turns on the torch. The wheat-sacks are still in place, and so is the stashed bag of treats, except that something has torn a hole in the grocery bag and a half-eaten chocolate bar lies on the ground. There’s also a hard pellet of animal poop near the wall. He picks up the gnawed chocolate bar and the poop and tosses them out into the night.

  He turns off the torch and finds that, during the few seconds in which he has relied on artificial light, night has fallen. He switches on the torch again, and shines the beam outside, lets the light fall across the brown water of the river. Night bugs flutter.

  Jimmy Wheeler’s voice fills his head: Your sister who died.

  In the cold (he did not think to build the cubby house for warmth) his nose begins to run. He has nothing to wipe it with but his sleeve. He tries to breathe through his mouth. He shivers. He wonders if the dead feel the cold. He wonders if temperature is one of the things that last beyond life.

  Because they are touching the ground, his knees are the coldest, even with tracksuit pants and hessian bags to separate them from raw earth. If Ruth is in the ground she must be freezing. If she’s in the river, as his mother said, then she’s surely worse off. He thinks of her the day she went under. Is it possible that she dissolved? There’s something beautiful about dissolving, he thinks. Something magical. If Ruth dissolved, then she is everywhere. She has become water.

  Ruth, who rode a bike with pink streamers on the handlebars, who would sit at the base of the oak tree in the backyard and pretend to beckon fairies from the garden. Ruth, who caught the school bus with him and wore butterfly clips in her hair. He misses her, and he has the feeling that tonight, more than ever, her continued lack of being in this world is the reason for his mother’s sleep. If Ruth were to show up now in his torchlight, it might put some kind of end to his mother’s never-ending tiredness, or maybe an even better end will be reached if Ruth doesn’t show up, if she never shows up again. Then he can stop thinking about her. He can think about her only when he wants to, instead of all the time. He can be a kid and his mother can be a mother.

  He breathes into the hand that holds the torch, to warm his fingers. He is a dot of nothingness here, sitting on the riverbank, but not as big a nothingness as the river water, as Ruth.


  It is warmer, inside the old farmhouse, than she expected. In the kitchen, Mason offers her a glass of water, and she shakes her head, watches him draw a glass of cloudy liquid from the tap, watches the water clear as the bubbles disperse. He drinks it all in one go. For a moment, rather than stare at each other, they stare out the kitchen window, and the outlook calms her: the lit backyard and its sparse lawn, the towering gums. A stringy bark is in full winter flower, a mat of fallen spindly white blossoms around its base.

  Mason sets the empty glass down on the metal sink, next to a lone cereal bowl that he’s already rinsed clean. He reaches around himself and pulls his dark shirt over his head. His white undershirt starts to come with it, exposing his stomach and his chest, which has more hair on it than Liv imagined. He pulls the undershirt back down.

  She had hoped that this was the beginning of some kind of de-robing ritual, but his remaining clothes stay put. He walks through the arch into the living room, and she follows.

  The room is big, dark. He flicks on the overhead light and takes a seat on the huge, brown leather couch. There’s no television. Just a large floor rug, a coffee table, and several bookcases. The bookcases are filled with books, a fact that surprises her. She scans the titles: War and Peace, A Fortunate Life, My Brilliant Career, For Whom the Bell Tolls. A rare edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

  She turns to him. ‘Yours?’

  He sits forward on the couch, elbows resting on his knees, hands loosely clasped together. ‘What do you think?
he says. ‘No. Old man Millbrook rented the place to me already furnished, and the books were included.’

  She is glad he refers to the books as an addendum, rather than as part of the furniture. ‘I used to work at the library, you know,’ she says, letting her fingers review the shelved books. She doesn’t touch the spines too firmly, for fear they’ll disintegrate with the heat in her fingertips.

  ‘I can picture you as a librarian. That book’s mine,’ he says, pointing to a worn hardcover on the coffee table. The Complete A-Z of Australian Birds.

  ‘You’re a bird watcher?’

  ‘I move around a lot. Wherever the work is, you know. I see a lot of different birds. Sometimes I like to look them up. There’s an Indian koel that wakes me here every morning. And yesterday I saw a red-tailed black cockatoo up the mountain. Must have escaped from somebody’s aviary.’

  His riding boots sit side by side next to the doorway, and next to one of the bookcases a saddle rug rests, folded in half. She’s not quite sure what to do now. She had thought, when she first stepped over the threshold, that he would absolve her of responsibility, but it appears not; it appears he means to wait for her to make the first move. He watches her, his eyes registering a faint amusement at this courtship: her inspecting the bookshelves, him manning the expanse of the couch.

  He makes no attempt — other than that gaze — to lure her closer. But when she does sit down next to him, he looks at her. Their knees touch, side by side. She is so much smaller than he that she feels innately, exquisitely female. She thinks only of the heat of his leg against hers; she doesn’t think about her parents, or the library, or Aunt Rosa.

  She points to his book. ‘Are the female birds always plainer?’

  On the floor, his bare feet are set squarely. ‘The men are just noisier, that’s all, in colour and behaviour. It’s all about sexual selection.’

  ‘So the women get to choose?’

  ‘More often than not.’

  ‘The men aren’t fussy?’

  He shakes his head. ‘On the contrary. They know exactly what they’re looking for, so it takes them less time to decide who they want for a mate.’

  He reaches for her hand, inspects her fingers as if he’s studied them before and is appraising them for signs of change.

  ‘I sometimes see you pushing that trolley around the retreat,’ he says. ‘And I think you look like a little garden fairy, come to life.’

  She wishes she’d said yes to that glass of water, because her mouth has gone dry. His lips, too, have a slightly parched look, and yet they seem inherently soft. His face is dark with stubble, washed clean but somehow still rugged. His hair falls across his forehead. ‘I think about you,’ he says. ‘I don’t know why.’

  She says nothing. It is enough that he has said it. She wishes he would go on to explain how he’s thought about her, and where, and why. She places her hand on his thigh, feels the square width of skin beneath the jeans. This is as good as it gets. Nothing that comes after will feel as good as the two of them on the couch, him holding one of her hands, her hand on his thigh.

  And yet she is propelled forward.

  She stands, and guesses correctly where the bedroom is. It is empty, except for a bed and a cupboard, and a box in the corner on which a laundry basket rests. She takes off her cardigan, and when he appears in the doorway, having followed her, he immediately pulls his undershirt over his head. His chest is dark and when she places her hands on it she can feel his heart, the steady, unfaltering beat of it. Her fingers trace the contours, the soft circle of his belly button.

  She slips her uniform over the edge of the laundry basket; his jeans stay on the floor. When she gets into bed, the sheets are surprisingly crisp; they smell of soap.

  He does not take his eyes from her. She wonders if she is what he expected, since he is not what she expected at all. He is unhurried and focused — she had imagined something more straightforward, had wanted him regardless.

  When he eventually allows the full weight of himself to move over her, she still wants more: more weight, more skin, more everything.

  She lies beside him, her hand on his shoulder blade, fingertips over bone. It is too dark to see his face and so she is content with his beautiful broad back. She traces and traces, then kisses his skin once, and slips out from under the covers, finds her uniform where she left it. Her exit creates a disturbance in the bed. He turns on the bedside lamp.

  Sheet lying on his waist. His naked chest. The rumpled beauty of him.

  ‘I have to go,’ she says.

  He looks surprised, and if she’s not mistaken, vaguely impressed. He doesn’t ask why, nor could she explain that it would be too much, to start with, to let herself sleep and wake up in this strange house. She has only ever woken up under a strange roof because someone has died.

  ‘I have to do something back at the retreat,’ she says, and when the words leave her mouth they feel true.

  He moves to get up and she tells him to stay put. He looks out the window. ‘There’s a torch under the kitchen sink,’ he says. He stays propped up on one elbow. ‘You better take it.’

  She nods, and walks over to the bedside to kiss his forehead. He smells so much like himself that she wants to leave some kind of stamp on him, some trace of herself so that she has something to come back for. She finds her cardigan and her shoes, finds the torch under the sink, shuts the door behind her and goes into the dark.

  The night air wraps around her, closer than her cardigan. She doesn’t need the torch at first; when her eyes adjust, there is enough light given out by the sliver of moon for her to see the difference between the pale dirt of the road and the darker grasses by its side. Through the trees and across the river, the lights of the retreat twinkle. She resorts to the torch only when she reaches the concrete overpass. The river below is a dark, silent coolness. She feels invulnerable, alive, as if the heat of Mason’s body has welded something within her, pulled her closer to the marrow. She smiles in the eager darkness and inhales the smell of gum leaves, of night-time damp, of the mechanical smell of him on her skin.

  She crosses into the grounds of the retreat where, thanks to the lights along the pathways, she can turn off the torch. When she reaches the less-lit staff area, a light shines from the window of Grace’s small villa.

  Why would I do that? Grace had said this afternoon. She most certainly wasn’t talking about the alphabet, but some larger, more pervasive ability to mess things up. Liv stops on the path. There’s something about the light in Grace’s window that seems like a summons. She climbs the few steps and knocks on Grace’s front door. She cannot intrude further than to knock, can she? She has to work with this woman, has to respect boundaries. And yet a feeling of urgency presses against her breast, a feeling that she must do something. The worry brews, the same feeling she used to get whenever she stood in the hall and listened for the sound of Aunt Rosa’s breathing monitor. She knocks again. Where is the boy, at least? Even if the mother sleeps, Jake should be somewhere inside.

  And then she hears it, muffled but audible. Help. How on earth did she hear that? She must be imagining things. She looks around. Only trees. And darkness. She turns her hand around the doorknob, and even as she is worrying about invading someone’s privacy, there is Grace, on the floor on all fours, retching. Her hair obscures her face. On the floorboards, a small pool of vomit begins to thicken. ‘Get me to a hospital,’ Grace’s voice says, scratchy with effort.

  Liv runs to her colleague’s side to help her up, to help her vomit, and a crowd of thoughts run through her head, not the least of which is this: that Dr Bennett was right, she can hear.

  The past is never dead. It’s not even past.



  A fog hangs over Hatton River, a membrane between earth and sky. It crawls up from the hollows of the river and settles above the rooftops like a cloud, its ghostly form glowing orange under the influence of streetlights. On the wide stree
ts, red brick houses cough smoke from their chimneys and front doors are locked to keep in the warmth. Windows flicker with mini-detonations of television light. On the corner, a stray dog circumnavigates a telegraph pole and cocks its leg to pee on the cluster of dandelions at the pole’s base, and a tabby cat, unseen by the dog, slinks low-backed across the road, disappears over a wooden fence.

  At the northern end of the town, past the wheat silos, Hatton River Bowling Club comes into view, its pale green exterior glowing like a nightlight, its brown stained-glass windows gazing sleepily onto the street. On the concrete path, fat-stemmed potplants sit in oversized tubs and guide patrons both toward the front door and away from the delicate grass of the bowling greens. Above the threshold the L is missing from the welcome sign so that it reads: ‘We come.’

  ‘$7 Steak Nite!’ a blackboard proclaims; Liv’s eyes widen at the boldness of the declaration, the inaccurate spelling.

  Farther along the street, the telephone wires droop to meet the highest branches of the unkempt oleanders that line the pavement in front of the local hospital, and the bulb in the emergency sign falters. Liv shivers. She’s in the back of Ben’s car, with Grace’s head on her lap. Grace, for the time being, has fallen into some kind of un-wakeable slumber. She’s not dead, though — the heat of her breath warms Liv’s thigh.

  In the front seat, Ben drives. He slows for the speed hump at the entrance to the hospital’s grounds and parks in an area that’s empty but for a green sedan with a coat hanger as an aerial. The whole place looks deserted, like a business park where everyone but the cleaners has gone home.

  Ben opens the back door of the car, unclips the seatbelt that clinches Grace’s waist, and hoists her arms around his neck — a position she somehow manages to hold while he lifts her out of the car and carries her through the automatic doors and into the emergency ward.

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