The Retreaters, page 7
Jake lies on the floor in his bedroom, tracing a picture of a monkeynut tree for his ‘Trees of the Amazon’ project. The tree has edible seed pods and also (he was thrilled to discover) grows in Australia, even though its habitat — the Cape York Peninsula — is about as far away from the retreat as a tree can get without leaving the country. Sterculia quadrifida, he writes, in the neatest handwriting he can muster. He traces his pencil firmly over the branches and dark green leaves. He wants to get the detail exactly right, but his grip on the HB pencil fails. All he can think about is the girl behind the tree.
He’s managed to come up with two possibilities: either the girl is his sister (Ruth had blonde hair, and so did the girl who’d watched him), or he has wished so hard for a friend that one has appeared. The problem with both possibilities is that they require that friends and sisters can be brought to life out of thin air, which is highly unlikely, but it’s an idea Jake is willing to think about. He wonders with a jolt if the girl has been testing him, to see if he is special enough to see her, and instead he has acted like a scaredy-cat. He has failed.
Earlier, he sat out in the back garden, but no one showed up. He came back inside and started his Amazon project, which is not due for a whole week. He traces more leaves, and an oval-shaped seed pod, and when his mother leaves to do her Sunday afternoon shift, he has an idea. Last week, as he’d collected pine cones from the riverbank, he’d thought he’d felt someone watching him. So, giving his mother ample time to get away from the staff area, he packs up his pencils, puts on his old sneakers, and sets out along the path past the laundry. This way, he can round the trees near the stables and get to the river without anyone seeing him.
He passes the huge ghost gum (Eucalyptus papuana), a tree which is at least a hundred years old and the tree whose roots are home to the body of his pet mouse Larry. He practises his speech. ‘Now,’ he says, talking to himself, ‘I didn’t mean to ignore you, and I’m not afraid any more. I am ready to talk to you.’
In front of him, two legs. He looks up and sees Miss Harper, the lady who lives near the laundry. She’s just standing there, holding two rocks, one in each hand. Miss Harper is not very kind. Jake’s seen her throw rocks, like the ones she’s holding now, at the possums that come down from the trees on dusk. Lucky her aim is bad. And she never throws rocks at people, at least not that Jake has seen.
Her old lips are scratched with lines, like tree bark. ‘You all right, son?’
Jake scuffs his shoe on the path. He has made more than one mistake here. He should have known better than to walk past her cottage, and he should have known better than to practise his speech out loud. ‘Yup,’ he says.
Her hands shake, an old person’s wobble. ‘You shouldn’t be back here, sneaking around. In fact, you shouldn’t be out here without your mother.’ Her cloudy eyes blink. She seems to be trying to decide whether to rouse on him further or just detain him altogether. ‘Well, off you go then.’
He doesn’t wait to be told twice. He makes off at a run.
He sneaks past the stables and along the boundary fence to the riverbank. The bank is steep, grassy. No guests ever come here, because they stick to the banks near the villas. He stands there looking at the river, listening to the sounds of the day becoming the sounds of night. A small bird whistles three times and a frog croaks. A low-flying currawong makes a noise like someone clearing their throat. Larger bugs — night bugs, Jake calls them — begin to fly above his head, their buzzing a signal that children should be indoors and that the night sky should be left to things with wings or things with eyes big enough to see through blackness. People say that Jake has eyes like that, and when he hears these comments he pretends that his ears, which are small at the best of times, have shrunken so tiny that they are no longer any good for listening.
He takes a big breath. He feels passages — both real and imagined — expand inside his chest. He is ready. He sits down in the grass and the sturdy blades scratch his legs. He closes his eyes, covers his eyelids with his hands.
He takes a moment to gather his thoughts. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘If you can hear me, I’m sorry. I’m not afraid any more, so if you want to come out, you can. I won’t tell anyone. If you want to talk to me, you can.’
He counts to ten, and hears nothing, only the sad little peep of a silvereye.
He repeats himself, waits, then spreads his hands and peeks through the gaps in his fingers. There’s movement on the other side of the river. In the light it’s hard to see, but near the gum trees along the opposite bank, something flickers. There, beneath the low-hanging branch of a river gum, stands a girl. She seems to summon him, or at the very least offer some kind of wave. He is so shocked that he slides down the embankment and the loose dirt crumbles after him. When his feet find firm ground, it’s as though he can feel gravity. He treads along the pebbly waterline.
Above the river the mist rises like a puff of smoke, and Jake breaks into his short-legged run. He tries to keep his gaze on the girl but the mist steals her from his sight. Only when he wades knee-deep into the cold water does the mist go away and he sees, staring back at him from the opposite bank, not a girl but a fallen branch, its twigs held out like arms, leaves looking a lot like hair, blowing in the wind.
His teeth begin to chatter. His bones seem to shrink with the cold. Through the fir trees a breeze hums and pine needles drop to the ground. Night-time damp settles on Jake’s shoulders and he frowns at the extra weight, frowns at the mind’s ability to play tricks. There was no girl.
He’s almost right.
He watches the tree — the tree he had mistaken for a girl — for quite some time, until his shins begin to ache from coldness and his eyes well with disappointment. Just when he considers crying (he is young, he is allowed), from behind the flailing tree a real girl steps. In the darkness he sees only her hair, long and blonde, and her skinny legs. Her feet are bare, which bothers him because the air is cool. ‘Ruth,’ he yells, and he doesn’t even have to try to make his happy face come, because his smile’s already there. And the girl pauses a moment, gives a funny little wave and runs off. His heart pumps faster. All his memories of her are good. Even those final memories, the ones nobody ever lets him talk about, aren’t horrible. In many ways they are great, as harmless as that day was, before everything changed. She’d said Jake, watch this, and she’d done a dolphin dive down to the bottom of the river to collect a stone, a favourite act she’d performed a hundred times. He’d waited. The surface crinkled with her departure. When she didn’t come up he’d had a horrible feeling in his gut, like something in him was sunk too, and he’d run for help. She came up eventually, of course, but by that time the men were pulling her out of a place from which no one ever came back. Until now.
The whole dining room smells like wine, the cooking variety, a deep, blueberry smell that rises to the rafters and stays there, mingling with the wood. In the kitchen, Liv replenishes the cutlery tray while Ben adds another splash of burgundy to the huge pan on the burner. This is how he cooks, by feel. A dash of this and a dash of that. She’s never seen him use a measuring spoon.
He has told her that he’ll try anything once: a hint of paprika in the apple pie, lemon myrtle in the gravy. The best food they’ve ever eaten, guests say, though many are disappointed when Ben cannot give them a recipe, when he can’t remember the measurements. He sings along to the radio while slabs of rosemary-crusted foccacia expand to fullness in the oven. Something expands within Liv, too. To be in Ben’s kitchen is to be cheerful by osmosis.
The little jig he does — the radio has switched to something up-tempo, something with a staccato beat that reverberates through the bench top — is, she knows, danced for her benefit.
In the half-hour before the dining hall opens its doors to guests, Ben allows the staff to eat their dinner alone, which is what Liv chooses to do. Wherever possible, she limits the opportunities for conversation; it gives he
Tonight, he gives a huge pan one final stir and wipes his brow with a linen cloth he keeps tucked in his apron. From the steam, his fair skin flushes pink around his buzz-cut hairline. His hair would, if he let it grow, form a blondish widow’s peak.
He carries the pan out to the buffet and ladles its contents into one of the heated trays. His lower lip plumps with concentration. ‘Right, dig in,’ he says.
Liv serves herself.
Ben takes a seat opposite her and waits for her to take a bite. ‘Too much salt?’
She shakes her head and tells him no, just enough. She stops short of saying that his cooking is by far the best she’s ever tasted; Aunt Rosa’s food had to be cooked with no salt at all, and Liv was forbidden from cooking anything that required the use of more than one pan — an unnecessary extravagance, Aunt Rosa thought.
‘What a day,’ Ben says. ‘I was rushed off my feet at lunchtime. And that woman from Villa 7 sent her steak back three times before it was cooked enough for her. Three times. I mean, really. How well-done can a steak be?’
This is Ben’s favourite topic, the eating habits of guests, and he has an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes.
He rubs his hands together. ‘Geez, I can’t get warm today. Personally, though, I think it’s sacrilege to overcook a steak. Sometimes people don’t know what’s good for them. What about you? You had any requests you don’t want to deal with?’
Liv shakes her head.
‘I’ve got nothing against fussy people,’ Ben says. ‘But the retreat seems to get more than its fair share.’ He winks, and scratches at a dab of yellow on his apron — egg, perhaps. ‘So, how’s the job working out?’
Liv pushes her glasses higher up on her small nose, and blinks. ‘Okay.’
‘What’d you do before this?’
‘Oh. I worked at the library.’
He nods. ‘I can see you doing that, definitely. You’ve got that academic look.’
She smiles at this. She adjusts her glasses, even though they don’t need adjusting again so soon.
Above the entrance, the wooden clock chimes (Liv hears the chimes not as gongs but as dull thuds, like books hitting carpet) and in shuffles Evelyn. Ben leans back and projects his voice in the old lady’s direction. He says, ‘Here comes trouble,’ or something to that effect.
Evelyn waves him away. ‘Bugger off you Pommy bastard, and stop giving me grief.’ She picks up a spoon and starts serving herself from the buffet.
‘I was worried you were going to miss out on the Beef Bourguignon.’
Evelyn shrugs, and her whole uniform — a pale blue zip-up dress the same as Liv’s — rises and falls with her shoulders. ‘I’m not saying I like your food any better than what’s usually in my cupboard,’ she says. ‘There’s just nothing in my cupboard.’
‘No, no.’ Ben wags his finger. ‘I know a compliment when I hear one.’
Evelyn, still grumbling, sits down at the next table. ‘Beef Bourguignon and Crème Brûlée. What’s this, French night?’
Ben puts on a serious face, and pats his belly. ‘They say the French don’t get fat, you know. And I’m on a bit of a diet. I’ve lost two kilos already.’
‘Two kilos is nothing,’ Evelyn says.
And Ben just smiles. He is flame-retardant, Liv thinks. She looks away from the conversation. The more her ears strain, the more other people’s words confuse her. So she finishes her meal without trying to hear, and when she looks up again, they are still going at it.
‘Well, Evelyn,’ Ben says with a grin. ‘I’m going into town tomorrow, if you want to restock your cupboard. So that you don’t have to eat my cooking all the time, I mean.’
Evelyn finishes her mouthful. Her grey eyebrows, no more than a single line of hairs above each eye, rise. ‘I’ve got my own car, you know.’
‘That old thing parked by the laundry?’
‘It runs fine. If any of the bloody guests here stopped needing their laundry done, I might have time to take myself into town every once in a while. It’s not good for a person, spending all their time stuck out here.’
Ben pulls a toothpick from the pot on the table. ‘What about you?’ he says to Liv. ‘I see on the roster that you’ve got the morning off.’
Liv tucks her hair behind her ears, traces the contours of her lobes. It’s not good for a person, spending all their time out here. But she feels wary of town, of seeing her old house, of seeing Aunt Rosa’s friends (well, not friends, peers). She dreads running into Mrs Markley and her nosy-parker Bridge Club cronies, dreads seeing them string words into sentences like, ‘If I was that sick, I’d want someone to help me leave this world too.’
Because they’re wrong. They wouldn’t.
And she has no desire to run into Dr Bennett, either. The dismay first induced by her condition has settled inside her and become something else — she’s convinced, now, that she has reached some kind of plateau whereby if she goes on as she is, everything will be fine. She brushes a crumb from the table. The supermarket is nowhere near the doctor’s surgery, or her old street, or the Senior Citizens Hall where Aunt Rosa’s old Bridge Club meets. She nods.
‘Is that a yes?’ Ben asks.
‘Okay,’ Liv thinks, and she must say it, too, because Ben claps his hands together like he’s rolling dough.
‘All right,’ he says. ‘Look out Hatton River, here we come.’
Jake doesn’t like going to the supermarket. The aisles are too full and the light is the weird fluorescent kind that makes him blink. If it were up to him he would shop at the small service station on the highway because its grocery section has only the stuff people need every day like cereal and bread, and the shelves are lit with normal lights. At the service station (which he can walk to from the retreat, and often does) the posters in the window are faded with sun, whereas at the supermarket everything is perfect and unfaded and it doesn’t seem quite right.
But he won’t say no to a trip into town. His mother wants some hair dye, she says, and at the mention of the words hair and dye Jake’s ears prick. Hair dye is something she only buys when she’s feeling well; the rest of the time she doesn’t care what colour her hair becomes.
‘While we’re in town we’ll get some groceries,’ his mother says. ‘Maybe I’ll try cooking something, for a change.’
Jake frowns. He prefers Ben’s meals to anything his mother cooks. The carrots in little slivers, the casseroles tasting nothing like the ones from a can. And even though room service is supposed to be a no-no for staff, Ben often sneaks meals to Jake through the back door of the kitchen because Jake’s mother is not always awake during dining hours. Most nights, Jake braves the dark and goes to the kitchen door, comes back with two separate plates, covered with foil.
‘Your dinner, sir,’ Ben always says, with a little bow.
Jake has told the kids at school about this dinner habit and they don’t believe him. ‘You do not get room service every night,’ Jimmy Wheeler had said. ‘Well, not room service,’ Jake replied. ‘I have to go and collect the food myself.’ Jimmy scowled at that. At above average height, Jimmy scowls at whatever he likes.
If Jake grows tall he will never scowl. He will smile. A lot. Even more than he does now.
At the supermarket, he sneaks a couple of breakfast bars into the trolley. For growing bodies, the wrappers say. And his heart flips with hope. His mother towers ahead, and he wonders if she’s disappointed in him for being so short. He would like to know if his father was short or tall, but he’s too afraid to ask. Whenever he’s asked about his dad in the past, his mum’s face has gone all blank, as if by asking he is switching something off inside her.
In the chocolate section he stops and stares. It doesn’t take him long to remember Ruth’s favourite. He picks up a Milky W
His mouth twitches.
‘Curry flavour or tomato?’ his mother asks suddenly, and it startles him, like when she talks in her sleep (piss off! she’d shouted last week while she dozed in front of the television, and the outburst made Jake drop the remote control). She points again at the baked beans on the shelf.
‘Tomato,’ Jake says. They always get tomato.
‘Fine,’ she says, using her quiet voice.
He chews his lip. ‘We can try the curry, if you like.’
She tugs at the waist of her jeans. ‘No, Jake. We’ll just stick with tomato.’
He scuffs his shoe, leaves a soot-coloured mark on the polished floor, and follows her through the remaining aisles without making the mistake of offering his opinion. When they get to the checkout, the girl behind the register smiles and starts scanning the groceries. Her hair is blonde and she’s put something on her face to cover some spots, but she’s still pretty. Jake smiles at her.
‘Back in a tick,’ the girl says, and she disappears to get a price check.
His mum looks down at him. ‘What are you smiling at?’
Jake shrugs. Whatever’s next, he doesn’t want to hear it.
‘Do me a favour and don’t smile at people you don’t know, okay?’
Jake says nothing. He picks up the hair dye, and looks at the woman on the packet. She looks nothing like his mother. She’s all white teeth and bright eyes.
The shuttle bus picks them up in front of the local park. Two people with suitcases and faces Jake doesn’t know are already on board, sitting up the front near Robert. Jake and his mother take the backseat. Even on a minibus, the backseat is special and it makes Jake feel like he owns something, a feeling he never gets on the school bus.