The Retreaters, page 24
Jake looks at her uncertainly, as if he cannot fully discern the nature of her words, but can feel the gravity of the sentence nonetheless.
‘Charles Dickens,’ Liv says.
The boy blinks once and finishes his breakfast. Ben smiles.
In the library, a musty smell laces the air, a mixture of dampness and warmth. Liv glances out the window. Below, State Emergency Service workers are scattered across the grounds, mapping the edges of the waterline like ants around a honey drop.
‘Good, we’re all here,’ Ben says. He nods toward Robert, Sean, Evelyn, and Liv, and then toward Leanne and Marie, the part-time floor-cleaners who don’t live here but who’ve been stranded during their overnight cleaning shift. ‘For anyone who’s worried about our absent colleagues,’ he says. ‘Grace spent the night in town, and I spoke to Mason on the phone this morning. He’s stuck on the other side of the river, of course, but as of this morning his place was still on dry land.’
Ben’s face changes. Although she cannot hear his voice, Liv knows that he has switched to a tone of solemnity; seriousness, when it arises in him, is easy to read.
‘So, down to business,’ he says. ‘Management tells me that most of the guests have taken up the offer of alternative accommodation in Redden, though there’re still a few guests who’ve chosen simply to be moved to a room in the main building, and we’re to attend to them as normal. There’s no formal orders to evacuate yet, but the SES has recommended that those of us who live here pack our furniture as high as it will go, and for tonight at least, sleep up here in the main building. As of this morning the road to town is blocked, so unless anyone wants to try the highway to Redden, we’ll all be staying put.’
Robert, the shuttle bus driver, rubs at his shoulder and asks a question. Something about sandbagging.
‘Yep,’ Ben says. ‘Anyone who’s able can get to work sandbagging. So far the radio reports have the water peaking at about ten p.m. tonight. So we have quite a ways to go before we’ll know how much trouble we’re in.’
Outside, right on cue, more clouds roll in. ‘The rain’s holding off for the time being,’ Ben says, eyeing the clouds. ‘Besides, the main threat is the water coming from upstream. They’ve had bucket-loads in Dussleton. So, we’ll just have to do what we can.’
There’s that seriousness again; it makes Liv frown. As if reading her mind, Ben winks. ‘I’m sure everything will be fine,’ he says, and he seems to believe it.
Even the smallest sandbags make Liv’s arms ache. Her shoulders hurt, but not so much, it seems, as Robert’s; he winces every time he lifts a bag, but keeps working nonetheless.
By late afternoon, the water has lapped slowly up the grounds so that the current line of defence is now twenty-five metres from the main building. The slope on which the main building rests might prevent a catastrophe, but the villas will not be similarly spared. Already, the two villas nearest the river’s usual southward bend are water-ridden, and the rest are under immediate threat.
Every living creature seems to have migrated to drier ground. There are no kangaroos on the flats, no cows in the nearby paddocks. Even the galahs, ever present in the gum trees, have seen fit to evacuate. The only visible animal-life are the horses, which have been set free from their stables and are now grazing in the foothills behind the retreat, away from the river, their ears folded back with apprehension.
Liv looks out over the water. She thinks: I am to lose a second employer. She imagines herself standing over the deep fryer at the local fish shop, next to Mrs Bourne, and she thinks: Well, okay.
‘More sand over here,’ one SES worker says to another. ‘Back that truck up.’
Jake, perched as he is in the tray of the truck, cups his hands to form a miniature bulldozer and pushes sand into the waiting bags.
‘Do you really think it’ll be all right?’ Liv asks, when Ben comes up beside her, smelling of wet hessian. ‘The retreat, I mean.’
‘Who knows?’ Ben says. Out in the middle of the water, an entire tree floats past, its gnarly roots exposed to the world. ‘If we’re lucky the water will flow around the main building.’
Liv points to the long, curved line of sandbags. ‘If this were viewed from the air,’ she says. ‘It would look like a frown.’
‘Or a smile,’ Ben says. ‘Depending on which way you were looking.’ He stands like that for a moment, hands on hips, the wind buffeting over his blond stubble haircut. Under the cover of clouds his pale skin reflects hints of grey.
In the shallows of the encroaching water, a mouse swims toward the relative safety of the sandbags and then, disoriented and confused, turns right back around and swims off into the unknown depths.
He stands with his back against his bedroom door and feels the cool of the wood against his spine. If he had a pencil he’d mark a line, just to see if he’s grown in the last twenty-four hours. He thinks he might have.
He’d expected the floor inside his villa to be wet, but it’s not — it’s dry as a scalp. The water hasn’t come this far yet, but it wants to. It wants to come inside and lap at everything like a pet.
Jake gets down on his belly and pulls his treasures out from underneath his bed. His encyclopaedia, the bag of marbles, the red model truck he’s had since he was little. Ruth’s stone. He piles all the items into his schoolbag, along with some clean underpants, a pair of socks, and a rain jacket (which the SES man said he won’t need because the worst of the rain is over, but which Jake packs anyway, just to be safe). He grabs his pillow, too — his rescue effort is not limited to that which can fit in the bag, only to that which he can carry.
He lugs the bag and the pillow out to the kitchen table, and from the windowsill he takes the pink plastic cat that Ruth won at the show. He puts it into one of the front pockets of his bag. He agonises, for a minute, over what his mother might want saved. Photos, documents, money? He knows they don’t have much of any, so he instead packs the wonky ashtray he made for her at school. She’s always seemed to like it. She used it, at least.
Back in the bedrooms he does as instructed and folds all the sheets away from the floor and onto the mattresses. Anything he can lift goes on the beds too: an old suitcase, a box of his mother’s shoes, the smelly rug that normally lies on the floor. He brushes his hair away from his face and checks under her bed, just in case that’s where she keeps her special things, too, but there’s nothing, only dust. In the bathroom he takes his toothbrush and the tube of toothpaste and adds them both to the bag in the kitchen.
It’s almost dark. He should leave now while there’s still enough light to see where he’s going, but he sits for a minute on the couch, running his fingers over the tweedy fabric. He likes this couch. But he is too small and he cannot lift it, cannot even manage to push it farther away from the villa’s entrance, in case the water does the polite thing and comes into the house via the front door.
But water has no manners and he knows it.
The last of the afternoon light slides in the window and then everything turns dull. The sun has gone behind the mountain, looking very tired after a day of trying to dry things up.
Jake pulls his schoolbag onto his shoulders and cuddles his pillow to his front.
He stands at the open front door and stares at the grounds of the retreat. There are no garden lights tonight, only the whirring generator-lamp on the back of the SES truck.
He breathes in the murky air and watches the water as it waits down there, where the gardens and the normal river used to be. It rushes. His poor cubby house will be gone. And if the water under McMahon’s Bridge is anything like it is here, then all traces of Ruth’s drowning will be washed away. He closes his eyes and listens to the sound of moving water, like a wave, and even though it is most definitely the wrong time, he smiles, because he thinks this must be what it’s like to live near the ocean.
He closes the door behind him and runs down the path toward the main building, pillow against his chest, bag bang
She’d started to pack even before they told her to. Her bones knew what a flood felt like. She’d woken up in the middle of the night with an ache in her right hip and the sound of rain beating down on the sheet-tin roof of the laundry. When she’d pulled back the curtain she was flabbergasted at the might of the water flowing from the drainpipe, at the little funnels it was carving in the garden.
She half expected to feel floodwaters beneath her feet right then, but for that moment, the rain had somewhere else to go. Her fingers clenched the curtain. She went back to bed and tried to doze but her eyes stayed open. The rain drummed. Her hips ached, both of them now. She went to the window at one a.m., and again at two. Nothing. There was no change at three, either. And yet she still couldn’t sleep; all she managed in the hours between three and five was to toss and turn and drool onto her pillow.
At five-thirty, she got up and started to pack. There wasn’t much to organise. She stood in the middle of her cottage, looking around at what little she had left. Anything that was still in the bottom of the cupboards she moved to the bench. She took her three pairs of shoes from the bottom of her wardrobe and put them on the bed. She took her small brown port and filled it with clothes. She put her spare uniforms on top. Only her old armchair remained on the floor, purely because it was too heavy for her to move. Good, she thought. If the water came in, the chair might act as some kind of sponge.
Outside, it wasn’t yet light; she had to sit on the bed and wait for another hour before she could open the door and see that she was right: the river was breaking new ground.
She was an old lady, but she could still move when she had to. She went straight to the main building and told management that they better get the SES out here, quick smart.
And for once, management listened. The men in orange overalls showed up in less than an hour, and by that stage the water was already two metres farther up the bank.
Evelyn had gone to work as usual, pushing her trolley along the paths of Cottonwood, collecting what was left for her. People had still left their laundry out, not knowing that in a few hours any uncollected clothes would likely be swept away by water. Like any other day, she’d marvelled that people didn’t have a clue how to separate light from dark; like any other day, she went to the laundry and washed and folded until, by lunchtime, the electricity was off and there was nothing more to be done. Most of the guests collected their clothes and left.
The last time it flooded like this Evelyn was just a girl, working as a maid for the Hallidays. Due to its situation behind a pine grove, the Halliday homestead was spared, but the staff had to pack up every piece of furniture, just in case. Evelyn spent the entire night sleeping under the Hallidays’ huge dining room table. The family cat, being kept safe in a cat-box until the floodwaters receded, mewled all night. At the first sign of daylight Evelyn let it out, floodwaters or no.
Most of the houses in Hatton River survived the flood of ’57. Only the shops in the main street were plundered by water. Evelyn has a picture somewhere (or has she thrown it out, over the years?) of a man and his son rowing down the main street in a dinghy, waving at the local photographer. The shops were filled with two inches of mud for weeks afterward.
That was fifty years ago, and though the river has threatened to break its banks many times since, it’s never gone through with it until now.
Now, Evelyn sits in the dining hall, her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. Outside, darkness falls and the river runs. At the next table a man with dark hair and broad shoulders leans over a small handheld radio, listening to reports on the weather. Next to him three of his colleagues sit, one of them making light work of a huge sandwich. Across from Evelyn, the boy sits, doing his homework in a notebook.
Evelyn looks down at her crinkly hands. Those hands — or an earlier version of them, at least — had packed furniture in the last flood, fifty years ago, and here they were, all these years later, wrapped around a coffee mug, waiting for the weather outside to choose its path. ‘I was there, you know,’ she says to the boy. ‘In the last flood of ’57. I was there.’ She bites down on her dentures. ‘It seems like so long ago.’
The boy looks up from his book, and he recites something he learned at school. He says, ‘The past is last time, the present is now, and the future is next time.’ And by Jove, he’s right. This young lad and the emergency workers will likely live to see another flood, just as she has lived to see another. And she might live to see a third. Who knows?
She nurses her coffee for a few more minutes, appreciating its heat. The brown port sits at her feet, metal clasps buckling around its bowed middle. She sighs. She wishes the suitcase were filled with more than just a few dresses and a few folded uniforms. She wishes she had more to take with her. She has miscalculated, to give so much of herself away. The humid air fills her lungs. She thinks: you just never know. Here I am with a suitcase at my feet and a coffee cup in my hands. Life goes on and then it goes on some more.
The sparsely attended dinner hour is over, and Liv remains at one of the long wooden tables, a table already cleared of its empty plates and used cutlery, but not of its people. A few SES men sit, still drinking coffee by candle and lamplight. In a show of determination, several of their comrades have taken up camp in the downstairs hallway of the main building, as if a flood can be outlasted, out-willed.
All of the furniture on the ground floor has been elevated. The office, when Liv passed it on her way to dinner, had the look of a classroom at night: the chairs lifted onto the desks, the wicker bins raised from the floor and placed on the bookshelves. The larger or more expensive items in the foyer — the vases and suede sofas — all gone, hauled upstairs for safekeeping.
At ground level, only the people remain.
At the other end of the table, Evelyn sits, her head bent over a copy of the Hatton River Times, her bifocals pressed hard up against her loose cheeks. Without knowing she’s being watched, she periodically pushes her dentures out and pulls them back in again, an action that appears to Liv to be much like the exposed-teeth look of a horse when it experiences an unwelcome flavour. She looks away, leaving her colleague to cluck her teeth in unobserved peace.
Opposite Liv, Ben pulls off his shoes and rubs Savlon ointment onto two large blisters, one on each heel. He winces at his own touch. ‘Apparently,’ he says, ‘these shoes weren’t made for fighting natural disasters.’
The wind buffets against the windows. Liv sees the panes move, her own faint reflection warped in the shaking glass. Outside, the leaves fly by, dead ones, taken from the ground because the trees have none left to give. The flailing eucalypts act as weather vanes, their arms bending westward, their boughs lit by the beams of light put out by the SES’s flood lamps.
Due to fears about breaking glass, Liv calls the boy away from the window where he has his nose pressed to the pane like a pet inside a vehicle. He moves back, watching in awe as the world outside whips itself into a frenzy. Leaves twirl in the greyish light. The building shudders but holds firm.
After a time — when sitting in the dining hall no longer seems to be achieving anything — the four of them, Liv, Ben, Evelyn, and Jake, make the climb to the second floor. Most of the rooms are already taken, so they go to the library and set about making it their own for the night. Jake takes a plastic cat and an encyclopaedia from his backpack and plants them on one of the bookshelves. He lays his pillow on the floor. Liv unpacks her own bag of books, and wedges the volumes on the shelf above the cabinet of local newspapers; she brought her ironed uniforms with her, too, and she hangs the coat-hanger off the back of the door. Ben stows his one box — a simple cardboard affair that contains more pill bottles than anything else, as if he has packed only the contents of his bathroom cabinet — in the
Ben departs and comes back dragging four foam mattresses from the utilities closet. Together, he and Liv push the armchairs and rugs out of the way, and arrange the mattresses into a configuration that suits everyone; they unfold blankets that smell of mothballs.
Evelyn makes use of one of the bookcases to block herself from view, and re-emerges wearing a fleecy nightdress and slippers. It takes a series of gradual movements for her to get down to the floor-level mattress, after which she piles her pillow against the wall and drapes a blanket over her legs. She turns up her nose, presumably at the mothball smell. In the light given out by the kerosene lamp, her face looks somewhat hollow. Her grey hair glows.
Ben, too, gets into bed, still clothed, and props himself up on one elbow; his blue eyes catch the lamplight. ‘Everyone warm enough?’ he enquires.
Liv and Jake nod. They might be campers around a fire, the four of them. They might be some kind of family.
Evelyn, not one to let a question go unanswered, chimes, ‘I’m never bloody warm enough, but I’m as comfortable as I’m going to get.’
Ben glances at Liv, and smiles. The window panes tremble. In the pasty light of the single lamp, the old wooden clock on the wall reads after ten. How long a night can feel, with nothing electric to steal the time. Liv lies in the semi-dark and knows she will not sleep for hours yet. She thinks about this building, about the century-old sturdiness of it, about the terrifying beauty of the weather outside. She thinks about her parents and about coming to live with Aunt Rosa and about Aunt Rosa dying and the library closing: all the things that brought her to this place where she lies on a thin foam mattress, waiting for water to either sweep her newfound home away or leave it alone.