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The retreaters, p.23

The Retreaters, page 23


The Retreaters

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  Liv follows. She smells of many things now: of Mason, the leather of Ben’s car, of Grace’s spit-up.

  For the lack of cars in the parking area, the inside of the ward is surprisingly peopled. There’s an Aboriginal man with soupy eyes and grey hair, and a younger woman, his daughter perhaps, holding his hand. His slouched position in the chair suggests he’s been waiting a long time. Next to him is a young boy with a huge gap between his front teeth and a t-shirt whose original message can no longer be read. He has a cast on his right arm. His left arm — the good one — seems also to have suffered a breakage. The protruding elbow is marked by a large, bruised bump, a bump pulled taut by the bone that’s pushing at it from the inside. The boy’s mother and father are next to him, reading magazines.

  There are several other outpatients — in other chairs — whose ailments Liv cannot identify.

  In one of the beds on view, a beefy man sporting football socks and an engorged knee is hooked up to some kind of traction system. There’s an old red-haired lady with wire monitors taped to various parts of her body. There’s a frail-looking little girl who’s just been given a tablet to put under her tongue, while her mother sits at her bedside. A nurse helps the red-headed lady to stand by holding her under her arms, as Liv used to help Aunt Rosa, when Aunt Rosa was still able to get up.

  Ben carries Grace to the counter and is directed to a spare bed, where he lays her down. She looks like some kind of discarded doll; her hair, unbrushed, hangs over the side, her hands loll and look artistically placed, like a mannequin’s. Her eyes are closed. Her lips together.

  There is a minor flurry of activity as her vital signs are checked. The sick and injured watch the goings-on with interest, as if Grace is justification enough for their having to wait. Dire emergencies, like car accidents and heart attacks, get taken straight to Redden Base hospital, or are sent direct to Sydney on the air ambulance. Before Grace was brought in, each of the patients here thought themselves as badly off as the next person, but now — Liv can see it in their eyes because she feels it in her own — they realise how lucky they are to be capable of waiting.

  For a moment, a curtain is pulled around Grace’s bed, and Liv and Ben sit with the rest of the waitees, like relatives keeping a vigil.

  Relief flushes Liv’s cheeks. Grace is here in the hospital. Anything that can be done will be done.

  After Grace vomited on the floor of her living room, she’d grabbed Liv’s arm and asked that she not call an ambulance. ‘I can’t lose my job,’ she said. She managed to sit up, and Liv had run to the next villa, hoping that Ben was back from his trip to Redden. His car was in the parking area, she saw that much, and when she knocked on his door he opened it within seconds. His round face lit up, until she said, ‘Get your car keys, we need to go to hospital.’

  He carried a moaning Grace to the car, while Liv hurriedly checked Grace’s villa for empty bottles but found only a near-full packet of aspirin. Outside, the retreat looked so peaceful, a sleepy little village of twinkling windows.

  ‘She’s worried about management, about losing her job,’ Liv had said, while she scrambled into the backseat.

  ‘She’s going to lose more than her job if we don’t get her to the hospital,’ he replied.

  The highway seemed endless. Several times, Liv thought she sensed the life leaving Grace’s body, her colleague felt so weightless, but then Grace would exhale — or spit — onto Liv’s lap, and Liv would let her own body exhale, in relief.

  Now, in the hospital, Grace is brought out from behind the curtain and is wheeled through a doorway and into a wide corridor that leads to the operating rooms and the general wards. Liv knows where all the corridors lead in this hospital — she’s been here many times, with Aunt Rosa. She is one of the un-sick who somehow knows a great deal about hospitals, like, unless she’s mistaken, the weary-looking daughter of the Aboriginal man, or the mother of the girl with the tablet under her tongue.

  When the doctor appears, Liv is relieved to see it’s neither Dr Hanley (who was Aunt Rosa’s doctor) nor Dr Bennett, but Dr Gupta, who moved to Hatton River two years ago with his wife, a dainty woman who makes jewellery for the local gift shop. She used to borrow books on flower arranging from the library.

  Dr Gupta, like his wife, carries with him an air of calm. He is thin, with a pot belly that pushes against his white coat. He looks more like an accountant or a lab technician; he has none of the apathy that Liv has witnessed in the eyes of other doctors. Perhaps he has seen much worse than anything this country has to offer. There is a rumour in town that, before moving to Hatton River, Dr Gupta worked for UNICEF in Papua New Guinea. He makes it clear, just by his manner, that nothing in the emergency ward — including the newly admitted Grace — is cause for alarm.

  Ben talks to him and Liv is grateful for his initiative — her deafness seems to have returned; since Grace’s call for help she’s heard nothing. Dr Gupta nods reassuringly. He crosses his arms, and then uncrosses them to illustrate some kind of pumping procedure. Ben says something else, and the doctor says something else back. The doctor’s next question Liv sees clearly enough.

  ‘No,’ Ben’s lips answer, ‘we don’t know what she took. She’s been vomiting. We checked the cabinet in her house but there was only aspirin.’

  Before he leaves to attend to Grace’s polluted stomach, Dr Gupta touches Ben’s arm, assuming perhaps that his connection to Grace is punctuated by kinship, and when Ben sits down he passes the reassuring arm-pat on to Liv. His blue eyes hold only a hint of surprise at how his weeknight has turned out.

  ‘You’re so good,’ Liv says. ‘I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.’

  ‘You would have called an ambulance,’ he says. ‘Whether she wanted you to, or not.’ He offers another smile and places his hand over her grey-cardiganed wrist. ‘The doctor says she’ll be okay.’

  They wait, in the chairs, until Dr Gupta re-emerges through the plastic-flapped doorway to tell them that Grace is now in recovery, and that they should go home for the night. Since neither of them knows anything of Grace’s relatives, he takes their details as next-of-kin.

  Outside, the mist falls low like a blanket. Ben turns the car onto the main road, and the mist flutters and disperses. Ahead, the highway runs parallel to the enveloping blackness of the mountains. On the roadside, a combine harvester sits idly in the front paddock of a farmhouse, and a small cluster of brown-and-white cows is camped along the fence line, just within reach of the headlights. Liv catches a glimpse of their wet nostrils, shining.

  ‘That was awful,’ she says. ‘Finding her like that.’

  Ben’s face is lit by the limey controls of the dashboard. ‘She’s had a rough year. Losing her daughter the way she did. Getting off drugs. She’s bloody lucky you came along when you did.’

  Outside, cottonwood trees frame the road, their branches leaning over the car. Moonlight slips in through the windows. Liv runs her hand down her seatbelt and static crackles against her fingertips. The taste of hospital-grade disinfectant is there, in the back of her mouth.

  ‘I heard something,’ she says. ‘When I found Grace. I heard her yell for help.’

  Ben glances away from the road for long enough to give her another of his smiles, a straight-out cheerful one this time. ‘That’s great,’ he says.

  Liv shakes her head, she feels unfastened. Like the churn of a theme-park ride, being at the hospital has dislodged something inside of her. ‘I don’t know. I can’t hear anything now. I think I might be crazy.’

  ‘You’re not crazy.’

  She winds down her window and lets in a brief rush of cold air. A solitary bundle of clouds hangs directly in front of the car. To the right, the moon moves behind the flank of the nearest hill and a set of rabbit-eyes appears on the road ahead. Ben takes his foot from the accelerator, lets the rabbit escape into the wayside grass.

  ‘Trust me, you’re not crazy,’ he says.

  Several droplets spatter hal
f-heartedly at the windscreen. ‘Is that rain?’ Liv asks, and then another thought occurs to her. ‘Oh my goodness,’ she says, ‘where’s Jake?’


  Wetness from the soil of the riverbank soaks through the wheat sacks and onto Jake’s knees. He is in trouble now whatever way he looks at it: if his mother remains sleepy enough to overlook the knee-stains, the laundry lady certainly won’t. Miss Harper is always in a crabby mood and she will likely take him by the ear and make him scrub his pants himself. Or worse, she’ll make him give her back her marbles.

  There’s a little stab in his heart.

  He worries about the bag of marbles, about the other treasures that lie under his skinny pine bed. He can feel it all slipping away: the world maps, the stone Ruth gave him, the Encyclopaedia Britannica: Volume B, the bed itself. It will all be gone and rented to some other family if his mother keeps sleeping the way she does. If Ruth has become water, then his mother is becoming the couch, the bed sheets, she is becoming sleep.

  He shivers. He should have brought a blanket.

  If you ever get lost, Ruth used to say, just stay put, and someone will find you. Her advice seemed to go against every instinct Jake had. He considered himself an explorer, and explorers kept going until they found something to point the way. He used to say this to Ruth and she would shake her head, and say, No, when you’re lost, everything starts to look familiar.

  So how come Ruth got lost in the invisible belly of the river? How come Ruth had to wait too long for someone to find her?

  In the teepee interior of the cubby, Jake is breaking another of Ruth’s rules: never walk out of the house without telling someone where you’re going. And right now only the swaying trees and the wide-eyed creatures that inhabit the branches have any idea that he sits here, alone in the dark.

  He has never been out this late, never seen a night this close up. In an act of bravery he turns off the torch and when he gets over the initial shock he realises that he is safer this way, with no light to draw attention to himself. In the dark, he is just one more silent creature beneath the big moon and the tiny stars, one more creature nutting out a habitat, burrowing for cover.

  Somewhere in the tree above, an animal squawks, a loud, frightening sound that Jake cannot pin to any particular species. A possum, maybe? It might even have been a bird. Whatever the creature is, Jake is grateful it doesn’t live on the ground. Down here, at river-level, he seems to be the only thing breathing. His knees get colder, his arms too. His feet are warm, though, bundled as they are into massive socks and tight sneakers.

  The banana backpack reeks.

  With each blink of his eyes, the sky gets more visible. There is the moon disappearing behind a cloud, there is a star being swallowed. A sound begins, a sound like very light rain, though for a moment he can’t tell if it is rain, or just gumnuts being dropped from the treetops.

  There’s another shrill call, and the sound bounces out into the blue night.

  And then the river starts to have a voice. It starts to sound like something in a hurry. He senses its growing speed and he lets out his own little squawk of distress. He fumbles for the torch but can’t find it.

  The rain starts coming down really heavy, and every other sound gets drowned. The roof of his little hut leaks immediately and he wipes the drops away from his face.

  And here, then, is a torchlight. Not his. The beam shines across the swollen river, which is full of twigs and flotsam now, and comes to rest at the entrance of his hidey-hole. He squints into the light and looks up at her face: Liv, the cleaner. ‘Well, here you are,’ she says.

  He gives a slow, water-logged blink. ‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘Here I am.’


  The clock reads midnight. Liv moves from the half-lit hall of her villa into the unlit living room, where the boy sleeps peacefully on the pull-out bed against the wall. He took the news about his mother well; in fact, he seemed pleased that Grace was in hospital, that she was being taken care of. The only question he had was whether or not she’d been awake when Liv found her.

  ‘Yes,’ Liv answered. ‘She was.’ She left out the part about the vomiting.

  Jake nodded, his little hands folded in his lap. Over his shoulder a faded backpack was still slung, as if he were maintaining a certain readiness, a preparedness for survival. ‘Am I going to live somewhere else?’

  Liv shook her head. She and Ben, after cleaning the floor of Grace’s villa and gathering Jake’s pyjamas from the end of his bed, had already decided that the best course of action was for Jake to stay with Liv. She had her doubts, given that she knew nothing about children, given that if he yelled out in the night, she wouldn’t be able to hear him. Still, she had stuck to the plan. ‘No. You can stay here with me, until your mum is better. If you want to.’

  ‘Last time Mum was in hospital, I had to go to a big house with bars on the windows,’ Jake said. As he spoke, he seemed to be assessing Liv’s villa, if not for signs of bars, then at least for the differences it contained compared to his own small home. ‘You have lots of books,’ he said.

  She’d made the spare bed up for him, and before he relinquished the backpack and went to sleep, she said, ‘Your mum’s doing well. Ben called the hospital again and she’s going to be fine.’

  He’d looked at her like some tiny creature whose features appeared even larger now that he’d been brought inside and coddled.

  Now, with only the hall light to throw a pale shadow over his sleeping form, she finds herself checking to see that there really is a boy under those blankets, that he hasn’t slipped back into the night while she wasn’t looking. She prods the bed, gently, and yes, he’s there. She goes to the window and looks westward toward the mountains. If earlier there was a moon, it’s gone now, consumed by the rain clouds that have taken up the whole of the sky. In the next villa, a light flickers. It is a hampered light, broken by the rain and the leaves of the gum tree that separates her dwelling from the next. The light wavers and is gone: Ben, retiring for the night. ‘Try and get some sleep,’ he’d said earlier. ‘It might be hard, with the rain and everything.’

  The boy, at least, has taken his advice and is sleeping soundly.

  Through the trees, the rain falls aslant. It is not the usual scattered shower, it is intent rain. It is rain with a purpose.

  Puddles are already forming on the ground, and in her mind, too, questions pool. How could Grace do that? How could she even think of subjecting her child to another loss? And then this: how had her own hearing come back for that instant when Grace called for help? Sporadic hearing is not consistent with any of the literature. But then, she thinks, looking at the milkily lit bookshelves, nothing is consistent with literature.

  Literature is its own self.

  In the semi-light, Jake stirs and then pads out of bed, comes to the window to join her in an evaluation of the weather outside. ‘It’s really coming down out there.’ On his lips, the words look like something he might once have heard an adult say. His pyjama bottoms drag on the floor.

  Looking at him, Liv feels like an adult. Realises she is one.

  Through the closed window, rain-driven air leaks in, cold and insistent. The night sky, usually crammed with stars, now looms above, grey and silent. The leafless cottonwood trees bend in the wind.

  She touches the boy’s shoulder, lightly.

  ‘Let’s get you back to bed,’ she says. ‘I’ll be right in there.’ She points to the bedroom. ‘If you need me.’

  He nods, clambers back up on the bed, and resumes his sleeping position. ‘Goodnight,’ his little mouth says.

  Her ears burn.

  By morning the rain — which has for the time being given way to an intermittent sunshine — has altered the landscape beyond recognition. When she opens the door, Liv’s first thought is not one of shock but of pleasant surprise. Where once the green lawn stretched lazily toward the riverbank, the expanse is now more in keeping with a lake than a garden, the morning sunshine
twinkling and bouncing off the water’s surface, blinding Liv with brightness. She takes Jake’s hand; his mouth, too, is open in wonderment.

  They weave their way down the slope from the staff villas, through the rain-battered hedges and beaten-up rose bushes to where, halfway down the normal garden area, the river laps at the lawn and seems to be getting a taste for it. Right before their eyes, the water progresses a little further. Way out in the centre of the water, in the place where the usual river flow resides, the current is a sight to behold. It bubbles. Entire logs twirl past like twigs. River oaks that ordinarily tower over the banks now seem too short to save themselves, their heads poking out of the water like poor swimmers who’ve suddenly found themselves in the deep end of a pool. The main gazebo is either completely underwater or completely gone. A dead sheep floats past, its body turning in circles, pulled by the current.

  The retreat is a hive of human activity, the grounds full of men and women wearing orange overalls, working in production lines, filling hessian bags with sand from a truck. An emergency worker nods politely at Liv and Jake as he walks past, his shoulders straining under the weight of a sandbag.

  She looks at her watch. Eight a.m.

  She tightens her grip on Jake’s hand and leads him to the dining hall, which is empty but for several rescue workers filling their coffee mugs, and one guest eating a plate of eggs. In the kitchen, Ben stands over the grill of the gas stove. ‘Sausage?’ he says, when he sees Liv.

  ‘As long as you didn’t kill the cow yourself,’ Liv says.

  ‘You think sausages are made from cow?’ he asks, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. ‘That’s optimistic.’

  He serves up the sausages, and the three of them eat at the kitchen counter. ‘We’ve got ten minutes,’ he says. ‘Then everyone’s meeting in the library.’ He shakes his head. ‘Can you believe this? It never rains, it pours.’

  Liv lays her fork down for a moment and says, ‘As it got to be flood-tide, and the water came nearer to them, noises on the river became more frequent, and they listened more.’

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