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The retreaters, p.3

The Retreaters, page 3


The Retreaters

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  ‘Buxus sempervirens,’ he says again.

  The inside of the hedge is a warren, a jumble of branches and beetles and surprising space. There is room enough for a boy his size to move around. He’s crouched here, inside the hedge, when he hears the clipping.

  At first he thinks it must be Mr Graham, the usual gardener, who’s always very nice and who gave Jake the most important piece of information he’s ever learned about plants — that the proper way to water them is via the roots, not the leaves. But the man responsible for the clipping is someone else. This man has dark hair and dark eyes. Dark everything. He smells like a lawnmower. He clips the hedge not far away from where Jake squats.

  Distracted by a graze on his knee (a graze he got yesterday, when he’d fallen during a particularly cruel game of tunnel-ball at school), Jake takes his eyes off the gardener for only a second. When he looks up through the cloak of hedge, two khaki-trousered legs are standing right in front of him. Jake’s heart begins to thump inside his stick-out ribs. He’s done for. He will get in big trouble for being out here, in the main garden. He will get in big trouble for missing school. But the man doesn’t rouse on him, doesn’t yell at him and tell him to come out, he just clips the hedge and moves on. Does the man have bad eyesight? Or has Jake, some time between this morning and now, actually managed to achieve what he dreams of and become invisible? He holds his hand up in front of his face: all five fingers, visible.

  The sound of the gardener’s clippers gets softer.

  In the hidey-hole, a silverfish crawls over Jake’s desert-boot, then crawls over the unmoving shell of another silverfish in the dirt. Jake adjusts his crouch. Through the hedge, he spies a dead magpie over near the base of a gum tree, on the stretch of lawn between the river and the big house. One of the bird’s wings flaps in the breeze, which makes Jake think the poor thing is pretending to be alive, but it is definitely dead. It is crumpled, open-beaked. It is the same magpie, Jake’s sure, that flew into his living room last week as he’d held the door open for his mother. For a moment the bird just stood, stunned, on the carpet. Jake didn’t move. He wanted to say something, but before he could open his mouth, the bird went mad. It flew and squawked and banged against the windows as though some other invisible bird were pecking it to death. Feathers floated to the floor. Jake blocked his ears against the noise, and then as quickly as it came in, the bird flew out the open door. Jake had laughed with relief, but his mother remained close-lipped. The bird would probably die anyway, she said. For a creature that fragile, the shock would be too much.

  The image of the magpie takes roost in Jake’s chest and for a moment the whole world splits open. Things die. Birds, beetles, siblings. Right now he is a boy in a garden, but one day he will die. He will, his mother will, everyone will. It happens.


  She wakes to the beat of her own fingertips as they type dreamed-up catalogue numbers onto the cotton top sheet. At the library, there were always new books arriving, fresh titles to be entered into the system, always new mysteries or new old-classics to be shelved and recommended.

  Waking to a day of slow scrubbing and vacuuming does not have the same ring to it, so she lets herself wake slowly.

  Dawn, thankfully, is a subtle event at Cottonwood Retreat, a shift change when daylight slips through the window like a night worker come home. Languid shafts of sun fall onto Liv’s face. She listens intently, hopes that her problem has righted itself during the night. But no. There’s only the faintest whirring, tiny glimpses of sound, rather like a radio finding and losing a signal. She rolls over, has the fleeting yet distinct feeling that she’s losing her mind.

  This quietness instils in her a feeling of separateness from the world. A divide. Could deafness, in her case, be an outward reflection of the silence she carries on the inside, an expression of her aloneness? She doesn’t know if she can ask the doctor that question. Sean, who works on the front desk, made an appointment for her after she explained that she was incapable of making a phone call. The earliest spot she could get was in the lunch hour, today.

  She lets the dawn light hit the whole of her pale face. Now is the only time sunlight won’t produce a full-blown constellation of freckles across her nose and cheeks.

  Gone are the familiar surrounds of her dim little room at the front of Aunt Rosa’s house. Gone is that small window facing the telephone wires. For now, this is her home: Villa 2 in the staff section of Cottonwood Retreat, one of a cluster of dwellings placed at the back of the resort like an afterword; the staff quarters are much smaller than the guest villas but with the same cedar floors, the same bush setting, the same woody smell.

  A good deal, this employment package. A far better deal than poor Mrs Bourne, who has had to give up her rental house to board in the flat above the fish shop. Liv wonders if Mrs Bourne’s nights now smell of crumbs, of hake-infused oil. She hopes not.

  Under the sheet Liv stretches her slight legs, one this way, one that way across the double mattress, a ritual that makes this bed the same as every other bed she’s ever slept in: the too-soft ensemble of the front room at Aunt Rosa’s, the almost-forgotten bunk bed of her Sydney childhood.

  Already, she has spread her books around like a nesting bowerbird, marking unfamiliar territory. On her bedside table lies The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. A farewell gift from the library. ‘Take any book you want,’ Mrs Bourne had said. ‘They can do without a whole branch, let them do without a few books when they come to take stock.’ So Liv, wishing that she could condense the whole library into one gigantic text, had taken the thickest volume she could lay her hands on. The book is old, with pages like crepe. Its crisp smell permeates the room.

  She stares at the exposed cedar beams of the ceiling, at the cream-coloured panelling and simple light fixtures (the fittings in the guest villas are entirely more ornate). Through the open bedroom door she can make out the contours of the small living area, with its plain beige sofa and pastel cushions. She sits up and looks out the window, toward the river. Even when viewed through a slivered blind, the landscape lays itself before her with such daunting sincerity that she battles a feeling of unease, of not belonging. Undulating hills. Trees everywhere.

  She thinks again of the brochure that sat on the library’s main counter.

  Cottonwood Retreat … Three-time winner of the Central Western Tourism Award … secluded villa-style accommodation in idyllic wine country … experience the tranquillity and quietude of the Australian countryside. Private, luxurious accommodation and spa facilities for those seeking second-to-none relaxation.

  She’s never thought of the retreat as a real place. None of the inhabitants of Hatton River do. It is one of those places that visitors come, not locals. Like Ayers Rock, Uluru. She doesn’t know anyone who’s been to Uluru.

  Yet here she is.

  The retreat — she has to admit — looks as beautiful in real life as it does in the brochure, with its eucalypts, its panoramic horizon framed by yellow box trees, its jade-coloured hills. Is Hatton River, with its pubs and its empty shopfronts (mournfully, she counts the library as one such shopfront) really only twenty minutes away?

  Sunlight paints the tops of the eucalyptus trees and, in the background, the mountains glow like something just born. Liv turns away. She will not look out again until the quasi-light of daybreak has been replaced with a more agreeable, confined light, something more like the light of town.

  In the natural scheme of things, she would never have ended up here. For her, Cottonwood Retreat is one more place in a string of places she was never meant to be. But accidents happen. Children get left with aunts they’ve never met. Aunts get sick and need taking care of. Years come and go. Libraries close. And a fourteen-year-old girl somehow becomes a thirty-year-old employee of a country retreat, not because she planned it, but because her new employer was the only place hiring.

  So, Aunt Rosa is in a box and Liv is here, with her back to a window. Life goes on. And this ne
w life of hers will, she knows, hold daily honesties far greater than having to look at an unfamiliar sunrise.

  She makes her bed with the same attention she bestows on the guest beds: folded ends, well-defined creases, tucked sides. Patterned side of the sheet facing down at first, then folded back to reveal its true self.

  In the small kitchenette, she eats breakfast alone. She has not yet warmed to the idea of taking breakfast in the communal dining hall, as she has been told she should, since meals are included in her employment package. She brushes her teeth, takes a white cleaning uniform (she has a choice, white or blue) and pulls it over her small frame. She puts her coffee mug in the sink, wonders how much she’s going to use her hearing anyway, if her days are to be spent this way, cleaning her own personal space and the space of others. Perhaps she is like a deep sea creature that, through a series of evolutions, keeps only the senses it needs to get by.

  She combs her hair, and puts on her glasses.

  Summer, with its endless heat, is officially over, and is giving way to autumn, the season of wine-lovers and romantic weekenders. Peak time, at the retreat. She will soon have to make twice as many beds, fold twice as many sheets, fluff twice as many pillows.

  Outside, the sky is southern-hemisphere stark, a pure, radiant blue. Liv takes the path from the staff area to the large, Moroccan-inspired foyer of the main house (a recent addition to the more Victorian innards). Sean, who up until recently was a builder’s apprentice but is now — thanks to the completion of a one-year business diploma at the local TAFE — trying his hand at hospitality, hands Liv an updated work list.

  ‘Here you go,’ he says. She reads his words, but senses, somewhere in the air, the deepness of his voice, his male tone. A slight improvement, then. Perhaps this condition of hers really is some strange twenty-four hour bug, some flu-like fog that is lifting. She smiles at Sean.

  Only four years of age separate them, but the years are crucial ones. Toward him, Liv feels almost motherly. He has a lanky innocence which, coupled with only average intelligence, seems to put him in a constant state of bewilderment.

  ‘Thanks,’ she says, waving for good measure, in case her word fails. And — confused by her action — Sean waves back.

  On the counter, a copy of Hotelier Magazine lies open. He takes his job seriously. He lopes out from behind the desk. He is well and truly an adult, yet his limbs have the look of a yearling foal: not yet grown into. ‘Busy day ahead?’ he asks.

  Again, Liv doesn’t hear the words, but the undercurrent of sound beneath them. The base notes. Sean repeats his question, and she wants to voice how strange it is to be lip-reading; but it’s too odd an idea to say aloud, even to poor Sean, who seems to accept most things without question.

  ‘We’ve got a few new arrivals today,’ Sean says, pointing to her work list. ‘Mainly in the villas near the river.’

  Liv can tell from the shape of his mouth that he’s shouting. Her fault, for revealing her inability to make a phone call. She nods. Hearing impairment or no, she finds conversation draining. At the library, she and Mrs Bourne would go for days without speaking, their communication limited to the sharing of poetry or prose from whatever books they were reading or re-shelving. With so many words to be borrowed, there was no need to make their own.

  She looks down at her list, and nods again. ‘Okay,’ she says to Sean. ‘See you.’

  ‘Yep, see you.’ He gives a casual salute, as though she is a vessel about to set sail, and she drifts on.

  In the garden, she savours the smell of roses, feels the breeze as it carries her hair away from her face. A leaf falls to the ground, its pointy green edges a blur as it spins and eventually lands, skeletal side up on the grass. It is small and unevenly shaped, far from perfect. Still, Liv picks it up. Braille-like veins form an intricate arrangement on the leaf’s underside; it feels warm, alive, glowing with the knowledge of its own expiration.

  She thinks: To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else. Emily Dickinson.

  The wind kicks up and removes the leaf from her possession (amazing, the leaf will not be kept from falling) and as Liv’s gaze follows the windswept leaf, she sees, out of the corner of her eye, the boy. He’s standing near the cotoneaster bush — standing under it really, he’s so small — waiting for the bus. He wears grey socks, and a school uniform of blue shirt and grey shorts. Should she talk to him? She decides against it. It would feel like an interruption of some kind, to walk over to the shrub. She will talk to him another time, some time when her hearing has corrected itself, when there aren’t beds to be made (by her) and school buses to be braved (by him).

  She leaves him to himself.

  Hemmed in on either side by tall hedges, she takes the south-western walkway that leads to the villas by the river. Halfway along the walkway are two topiary trees sitting either side of a large bench like would-be companions forced apart, their rounded tops blighted by several renegade shoots. Since Mick Graham — the usual groundsman — went in for emergency bypass surgery last week, the gardens have been largely neglected.

  A sparrow flutters from the hedge, and Liv senses the echo of some kind of clicking. She peers through the tangled foliage of the hedge, and spies a man on the other side. Tall and olive-skinned, he holds a pair of secateurs and is trimming back the new growth. Through the shrubbery only fragments of him can be seen. A strong jaw. Dark hair that curls at the base of his neck. Tanned arms. The smell of him drifts to her. Aftershave and the sweetness of severed leaves. Something else. Sweat?

  His face is disguised by the greenery. His hands, which due to a scant patch of hedge remain clearly visible, are deeply tanned, more slender than his muscular forearms would suggest. The knuckles, though, have a hardened look. Working hands. The man stops his clipping and Liv’s breath catches in her throat.

  He doesn’t move, nor does she.

  She inhales the sweet and sour scent of the nearby eucalyptus trees and grasps a handful of hedge, feels the jagged leaves cut into her palm. The hole in the foliage is such that she could reach right through and poke him, if she wanted to. She takes another sharp breath (loud enough for him to hear?) and turns to continue down the path. On her way to make the beds of strangers, Liv, white-uniformed in a sanctuary of green, feels the breeze against her skin and tries to remember what it sounds like through the trees, finds herself thinking about all the things she’s not hearing, about Aunt Rosa and the look on her face when she died, and finally, about this man, about what he might look like as an unobstructed whole.


  He sees her in the garden, the new girl, the one who shares the cleaning with his mother. She’s really small for a woman, for an adult, so he likes her immediately. He can’t help it. He doesn’t know her name but he will have to find out; he wants to know what to call her. She walks like there is something close behind her, and he thinks for a moment that he might follow her, but then he realises that would mean missing the bus again, and he won’t do that. The sun gets bigger and goes up over the gum trees. The sky is straight-out blue, and in between the galahs and the breeze, there’s big chunks of silence. It’s like this every morning, while he waits for the bus. The emptiness of the long gravel laneway that leads to school and other places, the swooshy grass along the roadside, the mountains. The paddocks full of sun. Him with his big eyes and small ears. Everything quiet.


  The otoscope is cold in her ear.

  She sits perfectly still, legs dangling over the side of Dr Bennett’s examination table. Robert, the driver of the retreat’s own shuttle bus (a bus normally reserved for guests) dropped her here on his way to the train station, and will collect her on his way back. Robert used to play rugby for the local team, until he ripped the ligaments in his shoulder. She’d read an article in the local paper about it, years ago. Now he drives for a living. When she’d boarded the bus, she’d noticed that his right shoulder still looked misshapen, compromised. Was it her imagination, or d
id he look at her as though she, too, bore some equally obvious sign of disadvantage?

  Dr Bennett, with his grey nose hairs and his one blind eye and his minty breath, removes the investigative instrument from Liv’s ear and stands to face her. Whatever her ear has revealed, he seems unbothered. ‘How long have you had this problem?’

  ‘Since yesterday morning,’ she says.

  ‘Any ringing sensations? Any dizziness?’

  ‘A little of both,’ Liv says.

  He writes his deductions on a notepad. All she knows of him, she realises, is that he used to borrow large-print mystery novels, novels which he always returned on time.

  ‘Well, there’s no sign of infection,’ he says. ‘And you say you woke up like this?’


  ‘And your hearing fluctuates, gets better and worse, fades in and out?’

  She nods. ‘Yes. It’s like I can almost hear things. Really faint things. But I can’t hear what anyone’s saying.’

  From one of his cabinets, he pulls out a laminated diagram of an ear. ‘Right, well, fluctuating hearing loss is usually a symptom of fluid in the ear or some kind of infection, or allergy. The sound,’ he points to the middle of the diagram, ‘is not being conducted from the outer ear canal to the eardrum. Are you on any medications? Been swimming a lot?’


  ‘Exposed to any loud noises in the workplace?’

  She almost laughs because she thinks of the library, and then she thinks, too, of all those months of quiet spent at Aunt Rosa’s bedside, and once again it occurs to her that perhaps her affliction is the result of all that silence, compounded. Her own quietness catching up with her.

  ‘You can understand me now, can’t you?’ Dr Bennett asks.

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