The Retreaters, page 6
‘Whatcha doing?’ she says, and her voice is all clear and happy, not like her voice at all.
‘Nothing,’ he says. He collects the pine cones and again stacks them into a pile, prepares them for another collapse.
She looks at him the same way she always does when she’s just got out of bed, like she can’t quite figure out if he belongs to her or if she has dreamed him up during the night. She inspects the concrete beneath her (probably for ants, she hates ants), and wipes her eyes. Uncombed hair dangles around her face and her pale eyes look empty, but still pretty. ‘What do you feel like doing later, honey? We can do whatever you want.’
It is Saturday. A rostered day off. Would a trip to the service station down the road be too much to ask? ‘Can we get a video from the servo?’ He squints one eye, and waits for the no.
‘Sure, sweetie,’ she says. ‘What one do you want to get?’
He hadn’t thought that far. ‘I’ll pick one when we’re there.’
‘Okay,’ his mum says. She yawns.
Knowing that he will lose her to more sleep if he doesn’t act, he runs to her, nearly tripping on a pine cone. He hugs her on the step, his ear against her chest. Her heart beats, a solid thump-thump that seems to be doing more than just pumping the blood around her body. His ear turns hot.
She roughs up his hair. ‘You need a haircut.’
No argument from Jake. He likes Mr King, who always talks non-stop while he cuts Jake’s hair, and always tells the same old story of when every boy in town had the same haircut, made by someone sitting a bowl on your head and cutting around it. Jake is glad Mr King doesn’t cut hair like that. He barely survives at school as it is.
His stomach growls. He nudges closer to her. ‘I’m hungry, Grace,’ he says, using her first name as though she’s a normal person, not his mother.
‘You’re always hungry,’ she says.
He stays there a moment longer, under her wing. He tells himself there is nothing to be afraid of in this world, not a mother who sleeps too much, not a girl who hides behind a tree. The sky is too blue, his mother’s shoulder too warm, for anything bad to happen. With thoughts of safety swirling in his head, he turns and looks bravely toward the hill, preparing himself for how he will feel if he sees his sister’s face, thinking of what he will say. He opens his eyes wide, forcing himself not to blink, and there, behind the spindly trunk of a eucalypt sapling, is no one.
When the end arrived, it was neither better nor worse than Liv expected. Her aunt’s illness had been so long, so drawn out, that by the time the actual dying part came, it felt to Liv like a deception, a poorly devised ending to an otherwise epic novel.
Her journal contains lists of such books. Anyone happening upon her records might, at first glance, assume that she is given to rating books highly, when, in fact, she is quite prudent with her evaluations. The letter A, far from being a mark of greatness, stood for average. Or, more specifically, anticlimactic. All too often, an otherwise drama-filled, well-developed novel falls apart at the end, or the climax bears no resemblance to the one anticipated, or worse, feels not like an ending at all, but like some sort of fizzling, a fading out. Sometimes — and Liv feels particularly cheated on these occasions — she reaches the end of a book only to discover that the real ending happened pages ago, when she wasn’t looking for it.
That’s how it was with Aunt Rosa.
Her quiet, dignified departure from this world bore no resemblance to the loud, disgruntled way in which she inhabited it. Her death, to Liv, had all the markings of something written as an afterthought, a neat way to close, a convenience. It ended like this: Aunt Rosa died, and her thirty-year-old niece, whose pale face and almond eyes might give the impression of a girl inclined to emotion, didn’t shed a tear. Why? Because she knew, like any good reader, that the real ending happened a long time ago, when no one was looking.
It happened in a car, when she was barely fourteen.
But she must stop this. She can’t imagine Mrs Bourne — while manning the deep fryer at the fish shop — allows herself to daydream like this. Though daydreaming, by definition, involves imagining, visualising something that hasn’t yet happened. Dwelling on the past wouldn’t qualify.
She thinks: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. F. Scott Fitzgerald.
She stands in Villa 18, a two-bedroom suite behind the tennis courts, her last room for the day. The apartment, one of the largest in the complex, feels oddly small. The villas have a way of doing that, making her feel cramped. It is something to do with the thought that she might be stuck cleaning them forever, that her entire reality might now be limited to this. But then what was so expansive about her reality at the library? She must remember: she is lucky to have a job.
Besides, there is something calming, too, about these vacated rooms: the quietness of the rumpled linen, the just-right temperature of the conditioned air. Even the lamps and scattered brochures and drinking glasses do not ask much of her, only to be wiped clean and returned to their rightful configuration.
On the villa’s dining table is a tray with a soggy pancake on it. She covers the food with the metal lid provided, hears the clang of the metal lid, the swish of her cleaning rag across the table. Each day, it seems, she hears a little more, and each day she convinces herself that she won’t have to revisit Dr Bennett at all. She can go on like normal. She can comprehend enough to get by until everything is right again.
Wet towels embellish the bathroom floor. She removes them. She mops the floors. She makes the beds. Folded ends, well-defined creases, tucked sides. She organises the pillows into an arrangement that, in her opinion, shows some artfulness, and places a single flower on the fold of the bedspread. The flowers, which vary according to availability, are given to her in one big bunch at the beginning of each day. Today it’s gerberas. Orange.
Outside, the light begins to fade, a curtain call. Fallen leaves blanket the lawns and crackle along the paths. Sunlight is becoming a visitor with more pressing commitments elsewhere. But there is, even on a grey day like today, some colour to be found in that moment when the day clicks over to night.
She heads back to the main building, pushing her trolley. She takes the back entrance, thinking already of the Dorothy Parker collection she will re-read tonight, and wheels her trolley into the waiting utility closet. Her hopes of making an inconspicuous exit begin to evaporate when, as she locks the storage room, Sean lopes down the hallway from reception.
‘Sorry to bother you,’ he says. His shirt collar is slightly askew. ‘But there’s a lady in reception, the woman from Villa 9, and she wants to know if she can use the yoga studio after hours.’
Liv looks blank. This is not her domain. She is just a cleaner.
Sean shifts his weight from foot to foot. One offhand request and his confidence is shattered. He taps his ear. ‘Did you hear me?’
Liv nods to indicate that yes, she has understood him.
‘See, management’s in a meeting, and I don’t have keys, and the yoga instructor’s left for the day.’ He chews his lip. ‘And she’s already wearing her exercise gear. The guest, I mean.’
Past Sean, down the hallway in the large reception foyer, is the dark-haired jewel-lady, reading a magazine. Her hair is pulled back with an animal-print sweatband.
‘Okay,’ Liv says. She smooths the front of her blue uniform, feels the pinch of her nurse-like shoes against her heels, and follows Sean to the foyer. The woman, who seems to be checking her long black hair for split-ends, wears a leopard-print leotard to match her sweatband.
Liv clears her throat. She wishes, rather absurdly, that she were wearing white, so that she might feel more confident, more professional.
The woman jumps up and wipes a smudge of mascara from beneath her heavily made-up eyes. ‘Oh, hi, it’s you. We met in the book room? I’m Vesna, from Villa 9. Last name Vale,’ she says, and she spells it out. ‘Pronounced valet. Lik
‘Ms Vale —’
‘Please, call me Vesna. As I told the young bloke here, I was hoping to use the yoga studio.’ She makes a little prayer sign with her palms. ‘I can’t go a day without practising my sun-salutations.’
Liv retrieves her keys from her pocket, and motions for Vesna to follow her.
On the second floor, the yoga studio overlooks the blue-tinged mountains, a view replicated in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the back wall. Liv points to the mats. ‘Help yourself,’ she says, switching on the overhead lights. ‘Just flick this switch when you’re done.’ She retreats toward the door.
Under Vesna’s arms, small rolls of skin escape the clutches of her spandex leotard and she tries, unsuccessfully, to tuck herself back in. She is a woman intent on spilling out. ‘How long have you worked here?’ she asks.
Liv totters. Most guests don’t talk to her. Or perhaps they do, and she doesn’t hear them. In any event, it’s easier if they don’t. ‘Just over a month.’
Vesna blinks several times in close succession. ‘Good for you! It’s such a beautiful place. I just love it here. Before I came I couldn’t get excited about anything. But now, I just feel so positive. Must be the fresh air.’
‘We’ve got plenty of that,’ Liv says. An echo of the gardener’s words. If there’s one thing you’ve got plenty of, it’s fresh air.
‘I’m in the middle of a divorce, you see,’ Vesna says. She points at Liv’s unadorned ring finger. ‘Dreadful business. Don’t ever get married.’
Liv looks at her hands. She wishes she had something to say on the subject of marriage. On any subject.
Vesna plucks one of her lockets from her chest and opens it — no easy task given the length of her coral fingernails. One finger, though, has lost its fake nail, leaving a soft little creature in a row of hardened shells. ‘This thing is empty,’ she says, holding the locket. ‘Hasn’t had a photo in it since my husband left me twelve months ago. I always have this dream that when I die, someone will open the locket and find nothing. What do you make of that?’
‘I try not to think about dreams,’ Liv says.
Vesna brushes her hair away from her face, and her dark eyes flutter. ‘But what do you think it means, if you were to take a guess?’
Liv’s own dreams never involve lockets so much as falling, the sound of metal meeting wood, the screeching of brakes. ‘I don’t know,’ she says.
Bracelets seesaw down Vesna’s arm as she reaches for an exercise mat. ‘You know,’ she says, ‘I was so lonely before I came here that I had a gambling habit. I’d go to the local RSL club and play the poker machines all day long. I knew it was time to do something when I started dreaming of cherries.’ Her laugh is dry, more like a cough. She spreads the mat on the floor. ‘Neat little bunches all lined up in a row! What do you think of that one?’
Only the barest hint of sunset left outside now, behind the gum trees. Liv wishes she could offer Vesna an interpretation of the cherry dream, just to appease her. She cannot keep this up, this straining to hear, this lip-watching. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I have work to do.’
Vesna looks somewhat crestfallen that the staff–guest barrier she aimed to dismantle has been rebuilt. ‘Not to worry,’ she says. She stretches her arms over her head. ‘Thanks for the chat.’
Liv closes the door behind her and takes the back staircase, bypassing Sean lest he make any more requests of her. In the garden, she walks down the path to the riverbank, arriving at the water’s edge just in time to see the last of the colour vanish from the horizon.
Her chest feels odd.
Between herself and the horizon, the river flows by, its surface showing not a ripple. In the tallest branches of the eucalypts, cockatoos swing and flutter, their yellow crests rising indignantly against the coming night. Amidst the chatter of the birds (which sounds to Liv like the clatter of a far-off typewriter) comes the squeak of a laundry trolley, getting closer. Liv turns, expecting to see Evelyn but finding instead, Grace. Grace doesn’t look up from her task. If Liv is intent on watching the sunset, then Grace is just as intent on looking away from the river, and can anyone blame her? Liv remembers the story from the local paper, last year, remembers someone telling her, when she first started work at the retreat, that Grace was the mother of that girl who drowned. According to the paper, Grace’s daughter was found not far from McMahon’s Bridge. The family had been on a picnic, the newspaper said, yet later reports claimed Grace hadn’t been there at all, that only the boy, who was too small to rescue anything, had been there to witness his sister’s misfortune.
It took less than an hour to recover the body. A tragedy, the paper said. Grown men — seasoned rescue workers no less — cried when they pulled her slender frame from the water.
Liv steps into one of the nearby gazebos. Shaped like a rotunda, the gazebo has timber flooring and white-washed walls; cushioned seats line the circular interior, and in the centre is a small, tiled table. Liv sits at the table, facing the river. How mild the water looks, how totally incapable of claiming a life. A common misconception, of rivers and roads. People disappear, taken in circumstances so ordinary it seems like a mistake.
Her mother, her father. Both teachers. At their funeral, schoolchildren had formed a guard of honour. She remembers that. The mourners, instead of bringing flowers, donated books to the library at the school where Liv’s parents worked. Here in the gazebo, Liv thinks of the accident that took Grace’s daughter, and sorrow shudders through her. And then, if she admits it, a darker, less speakable emotion follows: the awful glint of relief, that she is not the only one to have lost loved ones to chance.
For the first time in years, Evelyn sleeps past seven a.m., through the racket of butcher birds at dawn, through her alarm clock (does the bloody thing even work?), through the crowing of Mr Millbrook’s rooster on the other side of the river. She blinks, rheumy-eyed, and stares at the oversized minute-hand of the Casio. Bugger it, she’ll sleep in. She rests there for five minutes, alone with her thoughts, but time, like her body, moves too slowly for her liking. She drags herself out of bed and pulls on her chenille dressing gown. It smells sour. Old.
The burner on the stove is weak — the flame a fluttery blue — and the kettle takes an eternity to boil. She drinks her milky tea right down to the dregs, tea leaves and all, and then showers — quickly, as she has done all her life — as though both water and soap are in short supply. Underarms and unmentionables every day. Hair once a week. Under the tap she cleans her dentures and runs a comb through her hair without looking in the mirror.
Winter is no time to be old and tired, no time to be pushing a laundry trolley along the draughty halls and back-breaking paths of Cottonwood Retreat. Evelyn grimaces. Here she goes — it’s barely autumn and already she’s thinking of winter, of coldness that will seep into her bones and frost that will fog up her window panes. Every year the divide between summer and winter shortens: one day she’s got heat rash under her sagging breasts, the next she’s got chilblains on her calluses.
This is how she sees things, in opposites. Hot and cold, light and dark.
She pulls a note out of her pocket and squints at it. The cataracts are blooming like flowers, now.
Keep an eye on the boy.
Ah yes, the boy. He’s alone too much, that lad. It’s not right. More to the point, it’s not allowed. Children are forbidden from wandering around unsupervised, even if he does live here. But there was something else, wasn’t there? Something else she needed to remember? There’s nothing else on the Post-It note.
Her job, monotonous as it is, thankfully requires neither perfect memory nor eyesight. She pushes her trolley down the path next to the tennis courts, a mischievous wind whipping at her legs, stinging her varicose veins like the flick of a dishtowel. She takes the western fork throu
She takes a small bundle of clean laundry from the trolley, and knocks on the door. No response. ‘Laundry,’ she shouts.
A creak from inside. The woman moving about. The woman ignoring her.
It’s always the same. People stay here and think they can fail to behave like normal people. Bile rises in Evelyn’s mouth. ‘It’s a good life for some,’ she mutters, and she takes a second look at her clipboard. Vale, Vesna. Here for a long-stay.
‘Laundry,’ Evelyn shouts again, and she catches sight of her own feet. Odd socks. Damn it. She drops the plastic-wrapped package of laundry at the door, places the mandatory bar of lavender soap on top, and starts off down the walkway. But irritation soon brings her to a halt. Her belly churns (is that her hiatus hernia playing up again?) and she tastes her breakfast in her mouth. Blast it all. Blast floating hernias and guests who couldn’t care less how much oomph she puts into folding their t-shirts, their cashmere cardigans. It wouldn’t hurt if once in a while a guest had to go without. If once in a while everything wasn’t right there, waiting for them.
She retraces her steps to Vesna’s villa, reaches down, and takes back the bar of soap for herself. When she places the soap in her pocket, she finds a Post-It note, pulls it out and reads it, remembers she already read it five minutes ago.
She cleans a room on the second floor, and leaves float past the window, only the wind makes everything wrong. The leaves float up, not down.