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The retreaters, p.25

The Retreaters, page 25


The Retreaters

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  The lamplight flickers.

  On his mattress by the bookcase, Jake lies on his belly, perusing the titles at his eye level. He selects something to do with fish — Liv can’t make out the fine print on the dust jacket — and flips the book open.

  After a while, Evelyn rolls over in bed, to better face her audience. ‘I was alive for the last big flood, you know,’ she says. ‘In ’57.’ Her false teeth are in a container on the shelf beside her, and without them her mouth looks slack, her consonants unsteady. ‘I was a young woman then, and they said it would never happen again. What with the dam being put in up river. Makes you wonder what purpose a dam serves, if the blasted river’s just going to go ahead and flood anyway. But then I factor we might all be washed away by now, if there was no dam.’ In between her words, she moves her mouth as if she’s chewing something over. ‘But then Redden doesn’t have a dam, and it never floods in Redden. I reckon it likely has something to do with the fact that this town is built on the junction of two rivers, really, what with the Bundenong River merging into the Hatton River ten miles out of town, and Wheatley Creek flowing into that.’

  Liv adjusts her head on the pillow. ‘Maybe it’ll be all right. Maybe the water won’t come any further.’

  Evelyn waves her hand at the air. ‘If it comes, it comes,’ she says. ‘Nothing we can do about it.’

  The windows rattle again, and the whole room vibrates. Raindrops spatter against the glass. Liv pulls up her blanket.

  They lie there, each of them in their beds, none of them sleeping, except for Jake who seems to have let fatigue claim him. The book he chose remains open at page one, and his little face is smooshed against the lower half of his pillow. Ben, still half sitting up, thinks about something that makes his eyebrows furrow, and then he speaks. ‘I guess now is as good a time as any,’ he says. ‘In case either of you are wondering why my box over there contains a whole pharmacy of pills.’

  Evelyn looks to the box, and her lips firm at the prospect of a revelation. Liv waits.

  ‘I have somebody else’s lungs,’ Ben says. ‘That’s why I went to Redden. For a check-up.’

  ‘What?’ Evelyn says, grey hair springing to life. ‘You mean to tell me you’re sitting there with someone else’s lungs in your chest?’ She taps a hand on her own chest for punctuation. ‘You could have dropped dead and none of us would have been any the wiser as to what was wrong with you?’

  Not one hint of indignation makes its way into Ben’s face. He just laughs. After a moment he says, ‘Your concern touches me, Evelyn, it really does. I’ve had the lungs for six years. I don’t make a big deal about it. I’m certainly not in the habit of bringing it up in general conversation. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I moved to this country in the first place, to get away from being the transplant guy. But you know,’ and he points outside, ‘a flood makes a person want to reveal things.’

  ‘I don’t think anyone could reveal anything to match that,’ Evelyn says, still perturbed.

  Liv looks at Ben’s bristled face and his calm eyes and she says, ‘What was the problem with the other lungs, your first lungs, I mean?’

  ‘Cystic fibrosis,’ he says. ‘Which I still have, but it’s not really affecting the new lungs.’

  For a moment, no one says anything.

  ‘What’s the life expectancy with those things?’ Evelyn asks.

  ‘Transplanted lungs?’

  ‘What else would I mean?’

  Ben makes a so-so motion with his hand. ‘It varies. Five years was the turning point. Now it’s anybody’s guess.’

  Each of them lies motionless in their bed. Liv watches the flame of the kerosene lamp. Ben gives a slight cough. When it becomes clear that he would like the topic changed, she speaks. His confession has made her own chest feel freer. But even now, when she decides to speak, the words she wants to say won’t come out. Like a star that can only be seen by looking at the space around it, she cannot say what she means; she must first say everything else. ‘My aunt,’ she says, ‘was sick for years.’

  Her colleagues watch her.

  ‘In the end she was bedridden, she couldn’t do anything for herself. It was hard, for her. It would be hard for anybody but it was especially hard for her — she didn’t like people doing things for her. She was a real stickler, a real stalwart.’ Liv pauses. ‘When I think about it now, it must have been so difficult for her to ask me to do everything for her.’

  Evelyn’s chin retracts; she has made some kind of snorting sound to accompany the action, no doubt. ‘Not as difficult as you having to do it,’ she says.

  ‘No,’ Liv says. She looks at Ben — he’s still propped up on one elbow. She hears the rattle of her aunt’s oxygen tank. ‘What she asked me to do, eventually, was to give her an overdose of morphine.’

  Neither of her colleagues seems surprised. Ben simply nods. Nothing medical, it appears, can shock him. ‘What did you do?’ he asks. His gaze is steady, his face holds nothing but concern. No spark of gratuitous curiosity, no appetite for scandal; just concern, for her. And because of that look, all the guilt and remorse begins to seep from her. Her hands take hold of the blanket, she savours its hardiness against her fingers. It takes a moment for her words to arrange themselves. ‘I pretended I couldn’t hear her,’ she says.

  There. It is said.

  Evelyn’s mouth looks even slacker than usual. ‘So you didn’t do it? You didn’t give her the needle?’

  Liv shakes her head. ‘No.’

  ‘And then you went deaf?’ Evelyn says. She slaps her thigh. ‘Well, that’s just about the worst case of cry-wolf I’ve ever heard of. That’s like —’

  Ben’s look, immediate and undeniable, makes Evelyn hold her tongue.

  ‘You couldn’t have done anything differently,’ he says.

  ‘I don’t know. Maybe I could have.’

  ‘No,’ he says. His face is firm.

  Liv gets out of bed and goes to the window. She stares out at the night. Has the water risen further? All she can see is blackness. She thinks: why didn’t I do as Aunt Rosa asked? And the looming answer is not the obvious one, the one to do with not taking a life, but is instead linked to the doctor and the authority in his voice when he’d said that Aunt Rosa could live on like that for weeks, months even. The fact that Aunt Rosa had already lived so long was indication enough that she was capable of enduring. And so Liv came to crave her nightly groans, her hallucinations, her wet sheets and her odours, because they reminded her that no matter how diminished Aunt Rosa was, she was still there. She still needed someone to feed her and turn her. And for as long as Liv could sustain her shell, she wouldn’t be alone.

  The floorboards in the library are cool beneath her bare feet. ‘I ignored her request,’ she says. ‘So I wouldn’t have to be by myself.’

  If her colleagues have anything to say, Liv can neither see nor hear their comments, and it is of no consequence, because on this occasion, the only words that matter are her own.

  In the rain-smeared glass, her reflection is muted, her edges softened. ‘She died two days later,’ she says. ‘And then a week after that my hearing went.’

  She wipes her eyes. The moon, of which only a quarter is visible, comes out from behind a cloud and hits the water just right, and below, the river gathers like a calm sea, come to wash over them.


  ‘What about you, Evelyn?’ Ben had said. ‘Anything you want to share?’ He’d looked at her with that mischievous twinkle of his, but she was too stupefied by the idea of the second-hand lungs in his chest to say anything further. And then it hit her. The possum. How could she have forgotten? Her memory was far shoddier than she thought. She flew out of bed, stopping only to put on her dressing gown before she was out the door and on her way down the stairs, her papery old hand gripping the banister lest she fall over and crack a hip.

  She forgot to put her teeth back in, but it doesn’t seem to matter much now. She needn’t have bothered wearing her
fleecy Hush Puppies, either — where she’s going, they’re only going to get wet. She could have done with a torch, though. The downstairs hall, when she reaches it, is lit only by the odd candle here and there. At the end of the hallway, where sleeping bags are lined up like a packet of jam rolls, one of the SES men snores and the emission sounds to Evelyn like the death rattle of a large, beached whale.

  She pushes through the double doors and into the empty dining hall, church-like in its wide, brown darkness.

  As a little girl Evelyn was afraid of the dark. In the small house she’d shared with her father and her brothers, she wouldn’t even walk as far as the bathroom without switching on the lights. Hugh, being several years older than her, had often teased her about this, even though she knew that Hugh turned on the lights just the same as she did. Not that Evelyn was afraid of monsters or ghosts or the other things children were often scared of. She was simply afraid that, without light, her house didn’t exist, that she would get up to go to the bathroom and end up in some other world, like the little ones in novels.

  She has always, she realises, carried that fear, even in the daytime; she has never felt wholly a part of this world, has always felt that she might slip out of it at any time. It occurs to her now that she might not.

  At the back exit to the dining hall, she feels her way along the wall, finds the doorknob and turns it. Even before the door is open she can hear the lapping of water on the path outside. Shallow but persistent.

  Behind the clouds, the moon plays hide-and-seek and the rain all but stops. The wind, too, pauses for breath. There’s a smell in the air like wet clothes, and the odour reminds Evelyn of the time she left a load of wet towels in one of the washing machines for a whole week. By the time she lifted the lid the towels smelled like dankness itself.

  She sloshes down the path to the laundry, sticking close to the wall, the water soaking through her slippers, inching up her ankles toward her knees.

  When she reaches the front door to her cottage, the water is well past her shins. It would serve her right if she slipped over and drowned. What a story. A crazy old lady drowning in two foot of water, in her nightgown no less.

  The wind picks up, blowing her grey hair, tugging at the edges of her gown. I’m nothing but an old woman, she thinks, and a foolish one at that. She starts laughing and the wind carries the sound up into the rafters. And with that, what she is looking for comes running.

  The possum, wet and ragged from the rain that’s seeped into the roof, sniffs her eagerly and clambers onto her as though she is a living raft. She tucks the poor little devil inside her nightgown, against the warmth of her singlet. Its fur is damp and cold against her heart, which, she reminds herself, is still beating.


  The clouds have come down heavy again, like someone got cold and dragged them closer to earth during the night. From his spot on his mattress, Jake can see only a square of sky and it’s all swirly like the inside of a marble.

  Everyone sleeps but him.

  He peels the blankets back and rubs at his eyes. A scary feeling gurgles in his belly. If he looks out the window and finds the river on its way back to normal, then everything will be fine: his mother will come home from hospital, their villa will have been spared, he will get to return to his normal bed and re-stow his treasures. If the river’s still flooding … well, he can’t put into words what that will mean. It won’t be anything good.

  He wishes something would happen to distract him from the river and his growling stomach and his worry. He shivers, and the hairs on his arms stand up.

  He breathes out and his breath hangs in the air like smoke. Dull grey light fills the library and his newly opened eyes see spiralling patterns on the walls. He gets up and tiptoes across the floor, stepping over the sleeping body of Ben. The floorboard beneath his right foot gives out such a creak that Jake thinks he might fall right through and take Ben with him.

  But the floor stays put, and the breathing sounds keep going. Until Miss Harper says, ‘You like animals, don’t you?’

  Jake jumps, and turns. He is used to people who sleep more heavily than this. He tries not to show his surprise. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers, trapped in a robber-like position near the window.

  Miss Harper sits up in her bed and takes her false teeth from the shelf. She tosses her blankets back and her nightgown rides up high enough for Jake to see that her thighs are covered with long pale hairs and blue veins. ‘Do you like animals or not?’ she says.

  ‘Yes,’ Jake says.

  The old lady nods. ‘Good. Then perhaps you can take a pillowcase off one of those spare pillows over there, and pass it to me.’

  Jake does as she asks.

  She points. ‘Now bring me that box over there.’

  When Jake picks up the old grocery box, he can tell that it no longer contains Ben’s bottles (those are lined up near the magazine rack), but something heavier and more alive. The thing in the box shuffles its weight, and a pink nose pokes out of the oblong-shaped gap in the box’s side.

  ‘I’ll put him in here,’ Miss Harper says, making a mouth out of the pillowslip. ‘He’ll be happier to be carried around in here. It’ll remind him of his mother’s pouch.’

  Jake hands her the box and she lifts the lid and pulls out a tiny possum, an animal not much bigger than Jake’s foot, its night-eyes huge with daylight. When Miss Harper cuddles it to her chest, the animal’s claws make plucking noises on the fabric of her nightie. She slips it into the pillowcase. ‘Now, he’ll be happy here, while I go into town.’ She hangs the pillowcase from the coat-rack on the wall.

  ‘What if the road’s not open?’ Jake whispers.

  Miss Harper points her grey head toward the window. ‘Why don’t you look out there and tell me what you see.’

  Jake is more frightened of disobeying Miss Harper than he is of the flood, so he treads softly to the edge of the room and turns the metal handle of the window. The air is warmer than he expected. He has a view of the whole garden and the river and the paddocks and none of it looks anything like itself. On one of the small islands of lawn a man in orange overalls drags what looks like a dead animal, but turns out to be a wet piece of driftwood.

  Jake searches the river for other signs of life.

  The wall of sandbags has fallen. The green lawn has been replaced with a brown expanse of muck. Jake’s never seen a brown quite like it and he thought he knew every shade. The huge gum trees along the riverbank look like they can barely stand up and their lower branches are all muddy. The river runs even faster now that it’s not so wide.

  On the top step of the stairs to the main building is a watermark, a map-edge of leaves and dirt.

  ‘Miss Harper?’ Jake says. He turns.

  ‘Yes?’ Evelyn says. She squints. On the coat-rack, the pillowcase squirms, then goes still.

  ‘It’s gone,’ Jake says. ‘The water is gone.’


  She shouldn’t cross the river the way she does, in a car with tyres that can barely hold the road let alone a flooded byway, but she does, and somehow the tyres grip. The concrete cattle-crossing that leads to the back road to town is far from being declared open, but unlike McMahon’s Bridge and the main highway, nor is it officially barricaded. The only resistance she meets is the two SES men who wave their arms and watch in bewilderment as she flattens her foot on the accelerator and guns her little automobile to the other side without getting so much as a drop of water on her windscreen. ‘Don’t worry,’ she yells back through her open window, ‘if I’d got into trouble I wouldn’t have expected you to come and save me.’

  One of the men looks at her and shakes his head. Fair enough. He is right. But this is a trip she has to make. She works the gearstick and pulls the throttle and the old Mitsubishi trawls along the gritty back road toward town.

  She drives past the reservoir, which is full to brimming, the mountain run-off trickling over the reservoir’s huge cement wall; she passes the showground,
desolate on a morning that would normally be made busy by horse events or other farm-related exhibitions. When she putts into the main street, the scene is one of near miss; wet sandbags line up along the shopfronts, doped and heavy, but effective nonetheless: the shops themselves remain dry. Not a rowboat in sight. There’s mud and plenty of silty debris, but no water. Shop owners are sweeping and hosing while handfuls of townspeople stand around in groups, pointing and talking and not knowing quite what to do with themselves now that the threat seems to have passed.

  Already, Hatton River has bounced back. Already, the owner of the fruit shop is using a long-handled duster to brush the cobwebs away from the awning at the front of his store, and his message is mimicked all down the length of the street: Hatton River is open for business. No flood or drought or recession has ever managed to completely shut the place down.

  Evelyn parks her car in the side street in front of the National Bank. She wears the same clothes she wore yesterday, and in the cool air she pulls her cardigan closer around her chest. Cars go by, each of them filled with adults and backseat children assessing the damage, or lack of it, that has been done to their shops, their livelihoods. Outside the church a flock of cars implies that, already, the Anglican ladies are conspiring as to how best to help those townspeople who haven’t come out of the storm unscathed.

  Evelyn turns north onto Harper Street (a street whose name has nothing to do with her own), and walks past the small brick office of the Hatton River Times, inside which cadet journalists are no doubt busy with the responsibility of writing about something other than sheep and cattle prices, past the café where the specials board is already out on the street: ‘Lamb Cutlets or Seafood Basket’, it reads. She passes the hardware shop that doubles as the only furniture store in town. In the window is a leather recliner that Evelyn makes a mental note of — it will, she thinks, make a good replacement for her old armchair. But first things first; there are other belongings, old ones, that she must reclaim before she can think of buying anything new.

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