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The retreaters, p.4

The Retreaters, page 4


The Retreaters

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  ‘Yes,’ Liv says. ‘But only because I’m watching your lips, and because you’re standing so close.’

  Dr Bennett frowns. ‘Lip-reading, you mean?’

  She’s not explaining herself very well. She wishes she hadn’t said anything. The doctor is looking at her differently, now. ‘I can hear a tiny bit, like an echo,’ she adds.

  Dr Bennett moves back to his desk and instructs her to get down from the bed. He opens her file, and applies a small, hand-held date-stamp to its one and only page, then places the wooden stamp back into the mug on his desk. A flock of pens and pencils sprout from its brim. This won’t hurt a bit, the mug reads.

  ‘You’re Rosa McIlthwaite’s niece?’


  ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’

  From the matter-of-fact expression on his brow, Liv thinks for a moment that he is referring to her hearing. Or possibly the library. Then she realises he means Aunt Rosa.

  She thanks him. She wonders how much he knows of Aunt Rosa’s condition, since he wasn’t her primary doctor. It’s why she chose to see him today over the other doctors in town.

  He pops another breath mint, offers her one, and takes out his prescription pad. ‘Well, I’d say what you’ve got yourself is some fluid in the ear, some blocked wax maybe. More common than you’d think.’ He wets his thumb and tears off the written prescription. ‘We’ll see if some eardrops don’t rectify the problem. But, I want you to call me right away, if they don’t seem to make a difference.’

  He passes her the piece of paper. On his desk, he places one hand on top of the other, and she is dismissed.

  She’s been reading a small, locally produced book on the history of Hatton River.

  Cottonwood Retreat, she’s learned, is named after the huge Cottonwood trees that hold assembly along its perimeter, their massive trunks lining up along the stretch of lane that must be passed through to get to the driveway of the estate. The bus, now carrying not only Liv but two tourists whom Robert collected from the train station, passes through the tunnel of trees, and the tourists — a husband and wife duo — comment on the trees’ size. That is, they look tree-ward and point.

  At the edge of the property, black fence posts and wrought-iron streetlights extend out of the earth like scrawny saplings, stark and angular against the plump hills and leaf-laden trees that surround them. The red post box, an addition of convenience, stands out like a red rag to a bull — it’s only there for Cottonwood guests, and for those nearby farmers who are too lazy to drive their mail all the way into town.

  The main building, according to the book, used to be an English-style homestead, the grounds part of a large cattle farm. By the time management bought the property, most of the acreage had been subdivided and leased to adjoining landowners; the paddocks nearest the house had gone to seed.

  The current set-up took two years to complete.

  So well hidden are the villas and so extensive are the grounds that even guests with a good sense of direction require a map to aid in their explorations. Twenty hotel-style rooms fill the main building and thirty self-contained villas sit at various points throughout the gardens. Paths weave like ribbons throughout the property; there is a swimming pool, a rose garden, tennis courts, and on the grassy slope that leads to the riverfront, several timber gazebos sit at equal distances from one another, giving guests a framework from within which to contemplate the landscape.

  Liv steps off the shuttle bus, leaving Robert (a packet of cigarettes bulging in his front shirt pocket) to help the guests off with their luggage.

  She goes to her little cedar-smelling villa, and changes back into her Cleaner-self. She tilts her head first to one side, then the other, administers the prescribed eardrops. She will have to work late, to make up for the doctor’s visit. She consults her work list, and smiles at the annotation that reads, Clean library. Not a library really, just a room full of books. A couple of large chairs, a fireplace. Still, she had asked for the job. The other cleaner, a drained-looking woman named Grace (who is the mother of the boy and who might, Liv thinks, have once been beautiful) had — when Liv asked to be on library detail — looked at Liv with weary-eyed suspicion. ‘You know you have to dust every one of those books, don’t you?’ And Liv said yes, and Grace just shrugged.

  In the main building, Liv climbs the stairs to the second floor, collects her cleaning supplies from the utilities closet, and carries her bucket down the hall. Like a cartoon pie-on-a-windowsill, the smell of books — the homeliest of smells, to Liv — wafts through the corridor and finds its way to her nose. She transports her rags and spray bottles into the high-ceilinged room, where the books are divided into three sections: the permanent collection of hardcover literature (not to be removed from the room), the guest section (paperback novels that guests may borrow if they wish), and the local interest section (including a collection of local newspapers and history books).

  A dark-haired woman stands in the corner. She is older, with dyed black hair and she’s wearing a sun visor. Villa 9. The woman who makes her own bed. Every morning — save for the days when the sheets are changed — all Liv has to do is apply the finishing touches.

  The metal bucket swings in Liv’s hand and she tries to halt its momentum. She never worries about her own ability to be what management calls ‘unobtrusive’; it is the bucket that won’t be stifled. It swings with Fantasia-style animation, and the woman turns at the motion. ‘Oh,’ the woman says, or some other O-shaped word. She looks lost.

  ‘The TV room is down the hall,’ Liv volunteers. The bucket decides to behave.

  The woman removes her sun visor and fluffs her enormous mane. ‘Oh, I’m not a television person,’ she says, and her bracelets jangle.

  Liv wills herself to hear more than just the bracelets, to no avail. How can she hear inanimate objects, but not people? She must ask Dr Bennett. At least this woman’s lipstick, a bright red, makes her words easier to see.

  ‘No, I was looking for a book,’ the woman says. ‘One of the other guests recommended it, said they’d seen it here, in the library.’ She holds an adorned hand to her chin. ‘I can’t remember the name now, something about a man trying to teach a dog to talk?’

  Thin lips, feathered lipstick.

  ‘The Dogs of Babel,’ Liv says. She points to the back wall. She hopes, with minor desperation, that her words come out right. She could be saying anything. To her, her voice sounds like the indistinct murmur of someone talking through a door. ‘On the left, second shelf from the bottom.’

  The jewel-lady walks to the bookcase, her hair forming a lacquered halo around her head. She says something — some kind of exclamation — and pulls the book from the shelf.

  Liv glances at the work list in her pocket. The woman is booked in for a month. Single occupancy. Liv waits, bucket at her feet, while the woman runs her finger along the spines of the nearby books, then turns to face Liv. ‘Well, I think this should tide me over for a while.’

  ‘Enjoy your day,’ Liv says. She has been told to say that, or something to that effect, whenever she interacts with guests.

  The woman departs, and a rivulet of eardrops trickles into Liv’s outer ear. Have they made any difference in there, the drops? She lingers amidst the small maze of shelves. She finds a D book wrongly filed amongst the C authors, and she rearranges it. Books — and the manner in which they are arranged — should be lessons in order, in contained worlds, and she cannot abide the anomaly of a mis-shelved text. A library, a bookshelf, a book, must portray the very opposite of the world itself: order, sense, wholeness.

  Lovingly, she dusts the shelves, polishing the wood with the plainly labelled but highly effective spray bottle of Wipe-Clean. The work invigorates her. She avoids making eye contact with any of the medical texts; she doesn’t want to scare herself senseless by reading about all the things that might be wrong with her, all the things that were wrong with Aunt Rosa.

  She holds her nose and swallows again, fee
ls a pang of fear at the thought of all the mechanisms that might, at this very moment, be failing inside her. She pictures the possible spaces — the tubular canals and quivering hair follicles — where sounds might get lost.

  From the shelf, she pulls a beaten copy of Jane Eyre. The cover is worn, the spine so damaged that patches of glue and string gape forth. She flicks to a page somewhere near the middle and holds the book to her nose, inhales the smell of words on paper: rich, aged. She turns the page, and reads. It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection, uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached …

  She walks to the window and turns the brass handle, lets in a gust of air. Outside, the towering cottonwood tree nearest the front gate has begun to surrender to the season: leaves the size of small dinner plates float to the ground.

  At the western edge of the grounds, the river flows by with calming regularity. Like a zipper it mends and stitches and holds together. It has not the expanse of other inland rivers, but is a force nonetheless, an undulating, curving flow that carries with it signs of the weather upstream: there’s been rain somewhere, but not here. Over near the tennis courts, a guest swims in the more knowable waters of the retreat’s pool.

  Liv feels something, a rattling. Evelyn, the laundry lady, has wheeled in through the door from the adjoining common room. The old crone brings her trolley to a halt. On her feet are odd-coloured socks. ‘Bloody crazy,’ she says.

  Liv closes the book, and tucks it under her arm. She watches Evelyn’s mouth; no lipstick on this one. Not a scrap of make-up on her whole face.

  Evelyn eyes her for a moment, and then shakes her head. ‘These are the new towels,’ she says, her brittle grey hair framing a fissured face. She holds up an offending dark blue item. ‘For some reason nobody thought to consult me before putting in an order for hundreds of the bloody things.’

  Evelyn has lost, along with all her real teeth, the trappings of politeness. Her constant state of discontent with management seems to include a deep-rooted suspicion of all her fellow staff members. She narrows her eyes and keeps on talking, complaining. Liv doesn’t catch every word. She doesn’t try.

  On the windowsill, a bird alights and lets out a shrill, joyous whistle, a whistle Liv hears quite clearly (another question for Dr Bennett). She rubs her temple. She would prefer to give her attention to the bird, with its bright eyes and pronged feet, but she instead looks to Evelyn.

  The old woman’s mouth puckers. With a hefty thump, she throws the towel onto the trolley.

  Liv thinks: is this what will become of me, if I stay a cleaner? The old lady waits.

  ‘What’s wrong with blue?’ Liv asks.

  The coils of Evelyn’s permed hair shrink closer to her scalp. ‘Well, I can’t put navy towels in with white sheets. They’ll have to be washed separately to all the other linen, won’t they?’

  ‘I suppose so,’ Liv says. She takes off her glasses.

  Evelyn resurrects the towel from the trolley and presents it to Liv for closer inspection. ‘Look at this,’ she says, plucking at the towel’s fibres with her thumb and forefinger. ‘These things will shed fluff for months.’

  ‘I —’

  ‘Don’t tell me. Blue will show fewer stains, I know. But if you’re going to have white linen you may as well have white towels.’

  Liv has nothing to offer. Oh where is Mrs Bourne, with her commonsensical manner, her air of calm? There’s a sense of entrapment, now, to this room. It makes Liv think of Aunt Rosa, of the way the house seemed to close in around both of them in the final months of her illness.

  The breeze courses through the open window, blowing the curtain and Liv’s hair with it, and a sudden sadness rises within her, a sadness that seems to encompass everything: her un-hearing ears, the library, the towels, the bird on the windowsill (the bird itself, though, looks somehow happy, free to fly wherever it chooses). Liv sighs. ‘Why don’t you talk to management about the towels?’

  ‘It’s too late now, isn’t it? They’ve been paid for.’

  A strand of Liv’s hair falls onto the sill, and escapes into the open air.

  ‘I like to eat cake,’ Evelyn says.

  A misreading of the lips, surely. ‘What?’ Liv asks.

  But the old woman is already wheeling her trolley off toward the hallway, one of the wheels letting out a low, protracted moan, like that of a child who’s been crying too long and has grown accustomed to being ignored.


  Unfashionable nowadays, to work in the same place for ten years. Nobody has staying power any more, nobody has grit. Evelyn doesn’t have much to her name but she has plenty of staying power and grit. Never afraid of a hard day’s work, which is more than she can say for the young ones these days.

  Today she caught young Sean on reception reading a magazine (her eyesight stopped her from making out the title of the publication, but it was no doubt something to do with cars or girls, something he shouldn’t be reading at work), and then she walked into the library and caught the new lass staring out the window, cleaning rags at her feet. She’d had to bellow to get the girl’s attention.

  Well, if she has to yell, she will yell. She does not believe for one iota — as people are saying — that the girl has a hearing problem. Why, Evelyn is almost in her seventies and her hearing hasn’t given out yet! Her eyesight — pocked as it is by the presence of cataracts — is another story, but what can she expect? She’s almost in her seventies. She has to accept that.

  It is part of her job here, she believes, to ensure that the young ones learn the meaning of hard work, that they learn their place. Evelyn does her complaining out of the earshot of both guests and management, and if there is any wistful staring to be done, it must not be done out of a window one’s supposed to be cleaning, a lesson she must pass on to the deaf/not deaf girl.

  There’s something funny about that lass.

  These young ones, she must keep an eye on them. She takes her small notepad out of her pocket and with the small stub of pencil, writes: Watch new cleaner. Then, Keep an eye on Sean and his magazines.

  She locks the laundry door (Lord knows why — nobody ever comes back here anyway) and walks the four paces to her small, three-room residence. Unlike other staff members of the retreat, she lives not in a villa but in the old cottage next to the laundry. It looks — with its stone walls and white wooden sills — like a replica of the cottage in which she grew up. How did her father (God rest his soul) ever drag up three children in such a place?

  All gone now, the father and the siblings. All lost, over the years. She sits on the edge of her bed and stares out the window.

  By way of sunlight the days are contracting, but to Evelyn, they are also stretching to a point beyond which she no longer knows how to fill them. The new washing machines complete their toil in record time (it makes Evelyn suspicious, actually, so she often puts the sheets and towels through a second cycle, just to be sure). But there’s no satisfaction there, because every night she still finds herself on her lonesome and idle by six p.m., with nothing but hours of darkness to pave the way between work and sleep.

  Her cottage is damp and the light inside is grey at best. Now, in the late afternoon, sepia shadows form on the cold stone fireplace, and dust particles settle on the elaborate wood-veneer sideboard that’s nothing but chipboard underneath. Twice, management has offered to modernise Evelyn’s rooms when other renovations have taken place, but Evelyn has refused. What would she want with wool carpet and granite bench tops? She feels out of place enough already.

  Back when she’d applied for the job, she’d thought of the position as some kind of interim between her previous situation (at the financially doomed chicken factory) and old age (or worse, what comes after old age). She’d been too old to be employable doing anything but run-of-the-mill labour, not yet deteriorated enough to be past all use. In that regard, nothing has changed. She ha
s no intention of retiring, of declaring herself officially useless. Not until she has to.

  Darkness closes in on the single window and the guttering above the laundry rings out — a clattering like the first drops of a north-wester rainstorm — and the possums begin to scramble down the tree next to the roof, their claws scratching grooves into the bark. Dirty little beasts. When Evelyn was a girl, a brushtail possum found its way into her bedroom and peed all over her quilt. No amount of washing ever removed what the possum had deposited, nor could Evelyn’s father afford to buy a new bed cover. From that moment Evelyn’s nights — and her feelings toward animals of any kind — have been permanently stained.

  Guests (naive city folk that they are) ooh and ah over the possums whenever the animals have the hide to parade along the balconies of the main building. Most of the time, however, the creatures limit themselves to the trees nearest the kitchen and the laundry. Evelyn suspects that the chef, in direct opposition to her instructions, leaves scraps out to attract all things marsupial. One of these days she will catch him in the act, and there’ll be trouble.

  In the meantime she uses whatever means necessary to put a damper on the little buggers. She hoses them, she sprinkles camphor-smelling naphthalene flakes along the banisters, all to no avail. During the day, she collects rocks from around the grounds of the retreat. People think she’s tidying up when really she’s collecting ammunition. She carries her arsenal in her skirt, the way she used to carry eggs as a girl, and deposits the rocks in a bucket outside her door.

  This evening, when the possums start their scratching, she fills both hands with stones and pelts her missiles into the tree. That if anyone were to see her they would think her mad, a real live scarecrow, doesn’t bother her. She just keeps on throwing stones until the bucket is empty, and with the possums neither quieted nor defeated she goes back inside.

  Her cottage smells barren, unlived in. Its empty corners — corners she can’t see into, thanks to the cataracts — stare back at her. She’s had to get rid of anything on which she could snag a foot or bang a hip. A floor lamp. A potted plant. The pointy-edged side table. So, there’s not much to look at. Not much at all.

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