The Retreaters, page 26
The air is bitter, yet beyond the shopfronts, beyond the petrol station and the pie shop and the local park, sunlight pools above the mountains. At the head of the street, past the railway line, the old wheat silos stand, tall and all-seeing as lighthouses.
The wind blows under Evelyn’s buttoned cardigan, makes it billow like a tent. She pushes her way through the door of the St Vincent de Paul, preparing herself for the usual pesky onslaught of Ada Miles, and for a moment, she is disoriented. With the rising water has also come a flood of donations. Boxes of tinned food and folded clothing are being packed by a small team of people, each appearing to have their own job: packing, folding, labelling, taping.
‘Have you come to donate something?’ a woman asks. She’s small and birdlike with dark hair and a hard, flat chest.
‘No,’ Evelyn says. ‘I’ve come to buy some things. Most of my belongings are … gone, you see.’
‘The flood? Terrible, isn’t it. I must say, though, it could have been worse. How much have you lost?’
‘Not everything,’ Evelyn says.
‘Feel free to browse around. Just yell out if you need me,’ the woman says, and she returns to her crew of packers, leaving Evelyn to go about the shop unattended, on her recovery mission. Any items she recognises, she takes back. Her old radio, her china cup, a few seersucker day dresses, now smelling of disuse. When she is quite certain there is nothing more of herself to find, she takes her bundle to the front counter and begins counting the required money.
‘Where’s Ada?’ she asks, when the woman comes to the counter to settle the bill. ‘Busy volunteering elsewhere?’
The little bird-woman, her hair pulled back into a scarcely secured ponytail, looks at Evelyn and quiets her fingers over the calculator. ‘Did you know Ada well?’ she asks.
And of course Evelyn knows what’s coming. She hardly needs to be told by this new, hard-faced volunteer that Ada has died with the flu, that it is a shock, that most people thought she’d go on living until she was a hundred.
‘But what’s going to happen to her dogs?’ Evelyn asks, and the answer is hard to face and difficult to imagine, and altogether obvious.
The river remains dirty; froth gathers at its edges like the dregs of a beer. The smell of soil fills Liv’s head. Like everyone else who rode out the flood, she’s come to wander the diminished waterline like some kind of fisherwoman, waiting for the true low tide. Her white sneakers sink into the muddy flats, and even this far from the current, which still carries enough momentum to create a breeze, she steps cautiously, as though one slip will see her slide right into the river flow.
To the west, the afternoon sun filters through the mountains, casts her in a yellow light. Silently, the mud sucks at her feet. When she reaches the river’s edge the water laps coyly, almost apologetic of its recent performance, of the still-grandiose tug at its centre. It is not far, now, from being the river it was.
A cockatoo flies overhead, toward town. From this distance, the community of Hatton River is visible only as a hollow between two hills, a space where lights will soon begin to twinkle. Downstream, a small crowd gathers. Whatever has caught their attention is worth their slipping and sliding on the silty flats, to get a closer look. Liv follows the gaze of the onlookers to a place on the opposite side of the river.
She had thought, until now, that the boy was upstairs in the library, watching over Evelyn’s possum, and now that she can see that he is here, involved in some kind of commotion in the water, she blinks with disbelief. She puts her hand up to shield her eyes from the light that bounces off the river’s surface.
There, in the rush of the river bend, a girl is in danger of drowning. Her pale arms grasp the slippery upside of a log whose trunk-end is submerged in the torrent. Periodically, she goes under and comes up again, gasping for air. It’s the girl — the one Jake’s been seeing. And right next to her, clinging to the same log, is Jake.
Liv moves as quickly as the mud will allow. On her side of the water, one of the SES men says, ‘Get them out.’
She joins the small cluster of people, all of them rendered incapable of bravery by the too-strong current. On the other side, Mason has shown up; he’s yelling something at the children and they’re nodding back.
The SES man turns to Liv and shakes his head. ‘That boy ran past all of us and swam right in,’ he says. ‘Soon as he saw the girl in trouble. She fell in upstream and they both ended up over there, caught on the log, thank God. Otherwise they’d be halfway to Bourke by now.’ He clutches a handful of his beard. ‘It’s a bloody wonder that poor girl hasn’t come to harm before this, with those hippie parents of hers, letting her run around wherever she pleases.’
‘Who is she?’
The man shakes his head again, his eyes returning to the water. ‘I forget their name. Funny people. They school the kid at home.’ He cups his hands around his mouth, and shouts something.
On the opposite bank, Mason has tied one end of a rope around his waist and the other end around the trunk of a eucalypt. He seems to yell something above the river, and then he wades into the brown water toward the children, who are both still clinging to the log, their hair slick like otters. For all his effort, Mason makes little progress.
And then it happens, like someone flicks a switch. The sound of sound is so powerful it almost knocks Liv over. If her hearing left her peacefully, it does not return so. It comes back all at once, so that she has to block her ears against the onslaught. She hears everything: the river, the rush of the wind through the gum trees, the yelling of the men beside her, the birds, the yelps of the children.
She sways, her balance blunted by all the noise. To steady herself, she plants her gaze on the opposite bank.
Little waves bob toward Jake’s head, dousing him. The girl splutters. Their fates seem inextricably linked, as if both will survive or neither. They seem to be blinking as much against the water as to finally get a good look at one another. Mason almost reaches them. He backs into the assault of the current and the water inches over his shoulders. His face is obscured, half turned away. He’s speaking to the children the whole time. They’re nodding.
He reaches some kind of sand bar that boosts his height and allows him to gain traction. He is almost upon the children when he loses his footing — or whatever is beneath him gives way — and for a moment all three of them go under, the log and the children dragged under by the weight of his fall. There is barely time for Liv to hear herself gasp before all three of them come up again, coughing grey-brown water. The children hang off him, their clothes swathed to their bodies like bandages. Mason holds them both with one arm, his other still holding firmly to the rope that will bear them back to shore.
It is at this moment, just as it becomes apparent that the rescue effort is successful, that Vesna, three people down from Liv on the spectators’ side of the bank, steps forward into the murky shallows.
Liv takes her hands away from her ears. The blitz of sound is less painful now.
‘Vesna?’ She’s been wondering where Vesna’s been through all of this, had imagined her holed up somewhere as far from the storm and its aftermath as she could get. Yet here she is, stepping into the water, saying something about conquering her fears. There is a moment of raw beauty as the setting sun turns the river pink, and a flock of galahs flies over Vesna’s head.
‘Vesna?’ Liv says again. ‘Don’t be —’
But Vesna wades in. She seems convinced that she can make it to the other side, that she can be of some assistance to the children — who by now are all but safe — but she does not know the water’s muscular pull, or its winter coldness, and her made-up face barely has time to record her surprise before her legs are tugged from underneath her.
Liv makes a lunge for Vesna’s arm.
Even with the rushing water and the voices of the other bystanders, Liv’s ears register the splitting of Vesna’s bracelet as it comes apart in her hand; the woman is carri
Mason — who has secured the children on higher ground — Liv, and the scattering of bystanders watch without hope, the words taken from their mouths, as Vesna is taken away from them toward something else, something unthinkable. And then, in a display of timing so perfect it will later seem like a miracle, Evelyn’s lime green car comes chugging across the concrete cattle-bridge fifty metres downstream, and as the tiny car crawls through the tyre-high current of water, Vesna — too bewildered to catch her footing even in the shallower waters that run over the bridge — gets caught against Evelyn’s driver’s door like a leaf strained from tea.
Liv’s sigh of relief is so loud it seems to come from a being much larger than herself, and the clapping that erupts from the group of bystanders sends seismic aftershocks through her for hours to come.
Close up, the girl is smaller than he thought, closer to his age than he imagined. He’d known immediately — as soon as they were face to face in the river and he saw that her eyes were blue, that she had a light dusting of freckles across her nose — that she was not his sister.
On the bank, he extracts himself from the clutches of his wet skivvy and removes one sodden sneaker (the other one is gone forever because he saw it swirl downstream and go under). His body seems to have forgotten how to work properly. Like the body he has in his dreams, he is temporarily weak-limbed. He shivers and some of the life comes back into him. He is lucky.
He smiles, and for once he seems to smile at the right time, because the girl smiles back. She has a new eye-tooth nudging through her top gum.
The gardener wraps both Jake and the girl in the same blanket, and as they huddle on the bank, Jake thinks it’s as good a time as any to start calling her — as he does everything else — by her real name. ‘Hi,’ he says, teeth chattering. ‘My name’s Jake. What’s yours?’
She rubs the blue out of her lips. ‘I’m Astrid,’ she says. And when she shivers her arms go all goose-pimply, as if he needed any more proof that she is a real, live girl.
In addition to the ten unplugged washing machines and dryers, the almost-dry laundry building is decked out with four mutts of varying sizes and colours, each with their own towel to lie on. The room smells like wet dog, as Evelyn well supposes it might. Standing in the doorway, the sight of those four sets of eyes gives her a jolt. The list of living things that now depend on her adds up to more than she thought. She thinks: poor Ada, who two days ago was petting her dogs and divvying out the canned food to be fair to each animal; Ada who then went to sleep with a blocked nose and a congested chest and never woke up.
She thinks: I wonder if Ada would rather me have her dogs than have them go to the pound. And then she resolves to ask herself no more stupid questions.
Outside, the weather takes a turn toward warmth. She enters the kitchen via the back door, and there’s Ben, tying his apron around his middle in preparation for a quieter-than-usual dinner hour. ‘You got any meat scraps?’ she asks.
He goes to the fridge and comes back with a packet of minute steak, still well within its use-by date. ‘You can take this, if you like. And there’s some plain sausages in the freezer.’ He hands her the packet. ‘What are you going to do with those dogs? After tonight, I mean?’
Evelyn takes a pen from the bench and writes herself a note: Don’t forget to buy dog food. She shrugs. ‘Don’t ask me. Find a place that will allow pets, I guess.’
In another two days the crossing runs dry and the river resumes its rightful flow beneath, not over, the concrete bridge. The river flats remain brown and thick and not entirely safe to walk on, but elsewhere, farther up the bank, the earth has bounced back. There, the only traces of the flood are the mud still caked on the tree trunks and the fence posts, the bailing twine caught in the barbed-wire, like streamers still sailing in the direction of the water flow. The lucerne crops, too, bear the imprint of water, green tufts all flat and sullen, all combed in the same direction.
Through the trees, the wind blows high and light, the kind of wind that will bring only more good weather. White-plumed honeyeaters return to the airwaves, their tails twitching as they land and sparrow-hop through the undergrowth, catching insects too small for Liv’s eyes to perceive. Up the slope, the hill paddock is dotted with lambs that bunt at the teats of their wool-heavy mothers, their tails shaking with delight.
The breeze blows warm on Liv’s face, and she is, quite suddenly, enveloped by a feeling of regeneration. Spring is here, announcing its arrival via the new shoots of grass poking up through the dirt, giving the older lambs something to chew. Overnight, whole paddocks have changed colour.
Somewhere a cow bellows, and her ears catch the sound in waves; her hearing is strong but scratchy, not quite fine-tuned. When the main road opened yesterday, she’d driven into town to see Dr Bennett. He wasn’t smug or superior; he spared her that. She reported her returned sense of sound and he simply nodded and said, ‘I’m pleased to hear it.’
‘So am I,’ she said.
He examined her to make sure all was in order, and she listened to him breathing through his nose as he shone a light into her ears, heard him rolling a mint around his mouth as he took her pulse and blood pressure. She plucked at her stockings through the thin material of her uniform.
When the examination was over, there was a brief, ringing silence. From the waiting room came the echo of the front door, the next patient arriving. ‘I really was deaf, you know,’ Liv said. ‘I couldn’t hear.’ In trying not to sit so still, she picked a stray piece of cotton from her thigh and let it fall to the floor. She re-crossed her legs.
‘The mind does things the body can’t understand, and vice versa,’ Dr Bennett said. ‘We may never know exactly how or why your hearing left. The main thing is that it’s back.’
Liv chewed her lip. His words made more sense to her than anything he’d ever said before, and she resolved that it was as good a note as any on which to leave. The patient in the waiting room had started jangling their keys.
The Hatton River sun, when she stepped into it, was warm on her face. Driving down the main street in Ben’s car, she’d passed Mrs Bourne, and when she beeped the horn she startled herself as much as she did her former colleague. Several other townspeople — in addition to the brown-suited Mrs Bourne — turned and waved, on the off-chance that the honking was meant for them. Liv honked some more when she drove past the library, and the Senior Citizens Hall, and Aunt Rosa’s old house, even though no one was in any of the buildings to hear her.
Now, in the midday light, she takes the path that leads through the pine grove to the farmhouse, her dark hair blowing against her lobes. In the lower section of the grove, an old car seat is wedged between two pine trunks, a relic of the flood left to lie at the spot where it became too heavy for the water to carry.
Mason’s rented house, built several feet off the ground, is undamaged. She steps up onto the verandah, runs her fingers along the wooden railing that, with too many coats of paint and too much rain, has begun to blister. From a hook on the railing a pot hangs, empty, and the remnants of some long-gone plant gather in its base like ground coffee.
No car in the driveway, no dog. He is gone, and she is not surprised. She had heard, via Ben, that Mr Graham had made a full recovery and would be returning to the gardening role, and she had known that Mason would not stay.
The front door is open, a country habit. Inside, the house barely looks any different without him. In the bedroom, the bed has been made without sheets, the doona pulled up, the pillows neatly placed. The wardrobe is open, empty. In the kitchen, the bench is bare but for a dish-rack containing one bone-dry coffee mug, and in the liv
When she re-crosses the river with the book in hand, she is glad of the extra weight. Glad that — in physical terms, at least — she returns to the retreat’s grounds with more than she left with. While she walks, the sun moves higher in the sky and the warmth of the day reaches its peak. The grounds are scattered with more workmen than guests. Those villas that were damaged — only six, in the end — are being re-floored and repainted; lumber is carried and hammered.
She climbs the stairs to the second floor of the main building. She enters the library and opens the windows, inhales the sweet scent of eucalyptus. In the garden below, Jake hides in the hedge; Liv can see his shoes (and a second, smaller pair of shoes, she thinks) poking out of the foliage. He is waiting, no doubt, for his mother to emerge from one of the northern villas with her trolley. The school bus, due to several minor roads remaining closed, will not resume its route until tomorrow, and so far Jake is making good use of his extra day off — he’s been trailing his mother all day.
Five yards from the open window, a magpie darts for a dragonfly and misses, and when a kookaburra in the nearby cottonwood tree lets fly with a medley of calls, it sounds to Liv like a round of applause: applause for the dragonfly, she thinks, and its escape. Applause for all the things worthy of ovation. This room and everything in it. This life.