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The retreaters, p.5

The Retreaters, page 5


The Retreaters

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  She drums her fingers on the arm of her rocker-recliner. Outside, the possums scratch. One of these days, she’ll catch that Pommy chef feeding them. She writes a reminder on her notepad (Catch Ben feeding possums), just in case she wakes up tomorrow to find her mind as deteriorated as the rest of her.


  The heat of summer fades like the tail end of a dream. In the surrounding paddocks, cut lucerne lies, waiting to be baled. Storms rumble around the mountains, making even well-watered plants stand tall in the hope of fresh rain, but none comes. Above the mountains, lightning backlights the clouds. Every day, the sunrise inches slightly farther north.

  Leaves fall. On the lone plum tree, the last of the fruit turns a deep purple.

  Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Keats.

  Liv sits in the garden, reading his anthology. It is Saturday morning, before breakfast, and she has the lawn to herself. She might be a guest, doing some weekend reading. She might be anyone.

  Around her, trees make the intrinsic pilgrimage from green to fox-coloured. Only the potato vine is flowering, but the papery white petals have, at best, a fragile hold, and they float away every time the breeze brushes past them.

  Have the plants in Aunt Rosa’s garden died? Does it matter? Aunt Rosa’s garden, with its measly spattering of impatiens and native shrubs, is no longer her responsibility; nothing is. The oddness of having no one to please but herself lingers, spirit-like. It feels wrong, indulgent. It feels like her doing.

  All she has to do is make beds and clean rooms, and in her spare time, read. She does each of these things to the best of her ability.

  Last night she had read in her bed until grey moths started flickering around the overhead light. When she did sleep, she slept well, save for a recurring dream of falling (not her, someone else). In the dream, she could hear perfectly. In wakefulness, she cannot. The eardrops have brought about no noticeable improvement. She closes her eyes and hears only hints of things, a bird, the bellow of a nearby cow. It is odd and she knows it — this hearing of some things and not others. She should call Dr Bennett. But she is torn, now, haunted by the way he’d looked at her in his surgery. If inanimate sounds have come back to her, mustn’t it only be a matter of time before the rest of her hearing returns? She will wait. Doctors don’t always know best, anyway. They couldn’t do much for Aunt Rosa.

  When she opens her eyes, the boy is before her. She does not startle.

  ‘Hello,’ she says.

  He says hello back. That much, she can read on his lips.

  He watches her intently. She closes the book in her lap. Even with her seated and him standing, he seems to be looking up. His brown eyes are unblinking, and much too large for his small face. He would be intimidating, she thinks, to anyone who harboured a secret. He has that look, common to some animals and children, of being able to see right into a person.

  ‘What’s your name?’ he asks.

  ‘Liv,’ she says. Her voice seems to travel up her body from somewhere deep inside. ‘What’s yours?’

  ‘Jake,’ he answers. His name, at least, he seems to say with conviction. He surveys the book in her lap, and turns his head so that he can read the upside-down title. ‘Is that your favourite?’ he asks.

  ‘I don’t have a favourite. I like too many.’

  He stands with a straight-backed posture that is peculiar for his age. ‘I know what you mean,’ he says. ‘I used to have a favourite when I was little, but I don’t any more.’

  ‘What was your favourite, when you were little?’

  He shrugs. ‘The Cat in the Hat. That was before I went to school.’ He looks at her and squints. ‘You’re …’

  She sits forward, suddenly pleased that he might tell her something about herself.

  ‘My mum says you can’t hear properly,’ he finishes.

  Liv pauses. He is not like a boy at all, but like an adult in a boy’s body. ‘That’s true,’ she says.

  ‘Have you always been deaf?’

  ‘I’m not deaf,’ she says. ‘Well, not completely.’

  ‘How come you can hear me now?’

  ‘I’m watching your lips.’

  His lips quiver, as if — by her mentioning them — he has just now become aware of their position on his face. ‘Okay,’ he says. Then, ‘We live in the villa behind yours.’

  The undertone of his voice — the only element of his speech she has any sense of — sounds similar to her own: muffled, with the same childlike inflection. ‘I know. I’ve seen you around.’

  ‘My mum’s not out of bed yet.’

  ‘It’s still early.’

  He nods. His attention moves back to the book in her lap. ‘What kind of book would you be, if you could be a book?’

  Liv considers saying something cryptic, like, I am a book, but she decides against it. As wise as he looks, he is still a boy. ‘I’d be a book starting with the letter A, or else the letter Z, something to position me at the beginning or end of a bookshelf — where people look the most.’

  He takes this in. ‘I’d be a book about trees,’ he says. And for a moment he seems poised to say more, but then, like an animal catching a scent on the breeze, he turns his head. ‘My mum’s calling me,’ he says. ‘I gotta go.’

  He has the same kind of space inside him, Liv thinks, the same hole at his core, as her. He waves at her.

  ‘Okay,’ she says.

  Along the paths of the retreat a few early-rising guests stroll their way toward various endeavours, each of them looking enlightened — as though they have just now cast off their shackles and are free to pursue the remainder of life unhindered. In the dining hall — a beautiful room of dark wood and high ceilings — Liv assesses the buffet, where all kinds of things are laid out for people to choose from. Pumpkin bread, apricot jam, muesli, hot croissants, fresh fruit.

  It is too much. It is too perfect.

  Ben, the chef, carries a tray of fresh-baked bread rolls to the buffet. He’s early thirties, maybe older, with full cheeks and blue eyes. His skin looks as though it would, if poked, hold the indentation for moments afterward.

  In an effort to save money, this is Liv’s third meal in the dining hall. Her meagre salary, much less than the library, will not allow her to indulge in eating privately, not when she can eat in the dining hall for free. Yet she suspects she has become something of a challenge, in culinary terms. Ben, with his round face, does his best to tempt her with everything from Eggs Florentine to pancakes with berry coulis. She declines. He smiles. It has become their routine.

  She makes her cereal and takes her usual seat by the window. The surrounding bush gives off the impression of both seclusion and unbearable exposure. In the crisp morning light, the mountains outside have shed the pinkish hue of dawn and adopted instead a blue-green tinge under full sun. Like any good minder, the hills seem at once omnipresent and very nearly unnoticeable — the retreat ensconced in their realm like a small domestic pet burrowed into the fold of a warm blanket.

  She flicks through the morning paper, paying particular attention to the employment section (with her hearing as bad as it is, she’s certainly not going to overhear if, by some stroke of luck, the library is reopened). But there’s nothing. She will be happy then, making beds, removing empty wine bottles, replacing toilet rolls, vacuuming.

  She finishes her cereal, and takes her plate up to the kitchen counter.

  The chef says something to her, and she asks him to repeat it. ‘If only everyone was so well trained,’ he says, relieving her of her plate. He puts it into the industrial dishwasher, rinses his hands, and returns to rolling dough on the floured bench.

  He flips the ball of dough between his hands, then flattens it, rolls it into a perfect circle. His fingers are slightly clubbed, the fingertips somewhat larger than his slender fingers would suggest. ‘You know we’ve got a corporate group arriving today? About twenty of them, management tells me. Here for a weekend “workshop away from work”. Team building and
all that.’

  ‘I’m making up their rooms this morning,’ Liv says. Already, she’s wearing her white uniform. It makes her feel professional, qualified to do what she must do.

  Ben wipes his face against the shoulder of his t-shirt, leaves behind a smudge of flour. ‘Good for business, these groups. City people can’t get enough of wineries these days. You drink much?’

  Liv shakes her head. The last time she had a glass of wine was when Mrs Bourne, the librarian, turned fifty. Liv got tipsy and recited Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ by heart.

  ‘It’s good for you, they say.’ He pats his chest. ‘Good for the heart.’

  Liv looks around the near-empty hall. ‘Where is everyone?’ she asks.

  ‘Sleeping in,’ Ben says. ‘I’ve got a dozen orders for room service. Saturday, I guess. No one wants to wake up.’ He retrieves a tray of cooked loaves from the nearby oven, and deposits them into the waiting basket with bare hands.

  Over by the buffet table, a woman walks up to the coffee machine and makes an espresso. Liv recognises her as the dark-haired lady from Villa 9, the one with the loud voice and jewellery. The woman looks up and smiles a brassy smile. In return, Liv’s smile is modest, employee-like. I make your bed. I am a cleaner. I have no living relatives.

  Ben taps her on the hand. He has just asked her a question, it seems. ‘Can you do me a favour?’ he repeats. From behind the counter, he takes a handful of sliced apples and puts them into a paper serviette. ‘Take these down to the stables? Mick used to come in every morning and get the leftover apples. The replacement guy’s taking care of the stables, but the horses are missing their sugar rush, I bet.’

  Liv is aware that the retreat offers twice-weekly trail rides through the surrounding hills — it’s right there in the brochure — but she’s not yet been anywhere near the stables. She bites her lip. ‘I don’t think I’ll be very good with horses.’

  ‘C’mon,’ Ben says. His smile is wide, full of the residue of past smiles. ‘Anyone bearing apples is good with horses.’

  Having no further argument in mind, Liv gives in and takes the parcel.

  Past the laundry and the small flock of pine trees, she carries her stash, apple juice seeping through the paper napkins and onto her hands. The stables, four of them, are nestled behind the trees, hidden from the guest villas.

  This whole place seems designed to maximise staff invisibility.

  The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. Virginia Woolf.

  The horses stare at her, expectant. She is an impostor in their equine world and they know it. Each of them stands in their square yard, waiting. Lines in the dirt show that someone has recently raked the ground clean.

  She starts at the nearest yard, carefully holding out a piece of apple for each horse until she gets to the last horse, and unwraps the final serviette. When the mare’s furry lip brushes against her palm, she lets out an involuntary yelp (she feels it in her throat, but does not hear it), and the smell of grass — like cut lawn — drifts from the horse’s mouth. With relief at finding herself unbitten, Liv exhales, as does the horse — a bauble of apple froth splutters onto her uniform. She dabs at her chest with the serviette.

  A man emerges from one of the stables, carrying a rake. The man from the hedge. Since that first day, she’s not seen him. She’s come across his work — a freshly mown lawn, some newly bedded bulbs — but never him. Amongst the staff, there’s talk about him. He’s not from here. She steps backward, wipes her hands on her trousers. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone was here.’

  He leans the rake against the fence. ‘Why would you?’ his mouth says. ‘Besides, I’m just finishing up.’

  Even with an unobstructed view, she perceives him in fragments. Strong cheekbones. Olive skin. Thick upper arms. An unshaven jaw line. She wishes she could hear more of his voice than just its deep tone.

  He beats an empty wheat sack against the fence and the dust disperses. He has a particular way of moving, a long stride, a pause between actions.

  Liv shields the back of her neck from the sun, apple juice stinging the cracks of her palm. He hauls a bag of horse-feed into the storage shed. And then another. ‘Do you like it here?’ she asks.

  He shrugs, as if his satisfaction is of little importance, and empties the sullied water from the trough. His jeans stretch around his thighs. ‘Be nicer if we could get some rain.’

  ‘It never rains.’ She corrects herself: ‘Almost never.’

  He looks up, his eyes half obscured by his dark hair. ‘I didn’t say it would rain, I just said it’d be nicer if it did.’

  It happens then, in the time it takes for a sparrow to dart overhead, that they share a look. They seem to understand one another. She thinks: Charlotte Brontë. She thinks: I knew you would do me good in some way, at some time: I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you.

  She asks if he has taken a room in town. The composition of the staff villas — with Liv, Grace and the boy, Ben, and Evelyn in the cottage — remains unchanged by his arrival.

  ‘Nope. I’m renting a small house across the river. On the old Millbrook place.’

  She can think of nothing else to say, so she comments on the freshness of the breeze.

  He smiles at her then — at her quaintness, she assumes — and swings himself over the railing with daunting self-assurance. ‘If there’s one thing you’ve got plenty of,’ he says, ‘it’s fresh air.’

  She knows, in the same way that she knows herself to be alone in this world, that he is not the type to look back, not even for a moment, but she is nonetheless disappointed that he proves her right.


  Jake squats on the patch of lawn behind the staff block, assembling a model truck. It’s red, and has been his favourite since he was small. Since he was smaller. Many times, he has sat in this exact same spot and worked through the assembly procedures (which he knows by heart) only to pull the finished truck apart and start again. It’s the putting-together bits, not the result, that he likes. He knows the dangers of being idle (he sees, every day, the person his mother turns into when she’s not kept busy), so he is an expert at keeping himself entertained.

  This is how he plays now: alone. It wasn’t always so.

  He pushes the truck along the ground, making what he hopes are the right noises. He’s never been in a real truck, so he doesn’t know for sure. He honks at an imaginary obstacle.

  Imagining is one of his gifts. Like a lot of ideas he has about himself, this was confirmed on his school report card. Jake has an excellent imagination, though he is prone to daydreaming. He’d looked up prone in the dictionary and found that it meant to lie flat or likely to suffer, which he’s been meaning to ask Ms Buckley about since he does most of his thinking sitting up and it doesn’t cause him any pain.

  He makes mental pictures of all kinds of things, most of which he keeps to himself. He imagines that the ground, including the dirt and the ants and everything else, is one huge living animal, and that he walks on it the way a bird rides a cow. He’s learned from the encyclopaedia that on the human body, the skin is the largest organ, and he thinks of dirt in much the same way.

  He hopes that, just as a bird stops the insects from annoying a grazing animal, he is of similar use to his small section of the world, that he does some good just by being, by doing what comes naturally to him.

  That there is life he cannot see excites him. He knows there are some things he will never understand. Like it’s useless for him to stand in front of the bathroom mirror trying to catch a glimpse of one of the thousands of organisms that live in his eyelashes (he saw a show about this once on the ABC, and he’d almost sent himself cross-eyed trying to look at his own lashes). He is not made to see such things, and to try is pointless, like trying to hear like a dog, or see like an owl.

  In the garden, he thinks about fairies. Not as much as he did when he was younger but the idea is still with him. He dreams of tiny little people with wings, d
ancing amongst the blades of nut-grass and hovering within the branches of the eucalypts. He imagines whole communities of pixies, living parallel to people, unseen but watchful.

  And then there are the closer-to-home daydreams. Like the idea that his sister can still see him. In fact, the daydream has become such a part of him that it doesn’t seem like a daydream any more. He does not think he’s being unrealistic. He has a heart that pumps blood around his body, doesn’t he? Anything is possible.

  Lately the thought that Ruth watches him from afar, from some secret place, has changed into the sensation that someone really is watching him. Here, in the real world. Whether it’s her or not, he can’t tell.

  The person watches him now. At the back of the retreat, at the base of the hill (the one he likes to roll down when no one’s looking), the person stands behind a silky oak, a Grevillea robusta. He can’t quite bring himself to look. Whoever it is, they’re small, not much bigger than him. Long blonde hair, he sees a flash of it out of the corner of his eye.

  It could be her, it could be. The girl’s not a guest, that’s for sure. The retreat is not prone to children.

  He stacks the model truck with pine cones, and holds the last cone to his nose. He thinks: river, river and air. Then he places the cone atop the others and the pyramid crumbles. Leaving a gap between each, Jake arranges the cones across the ground — a line-up that looks like a track of clues, a path to be followed, a trail like the ones left by characters in fables to stop them from getting lost. He makes a trail all the way to the door of his villa, then counts the steps back to the starting point of his red truck.

  His mother appears at the door, still in her robe. She wobbles on her long legs like a baby giraffe. Barefoot, she opens the screen door and sits on the step. For once, she actually looks awake. Every morning he’s faced with the same possibility that, this time, she has truly woken up. He smiles at her from this distance (ten paces, if he counts correctly).

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