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The retreaters, p.9

The Retreaters, page 9

 

The Retreaters
 



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  He was probably going to pawn it himself, Evelyn thought. ‘It looks a whole lot nicer than it’s worth,’ she said.

  Satisfied that the watch was of sufficiently low value, Mr Richards nodded his ridiculous head and put the timepiece in the jewellery counter. Evelyn wanted to point out that, as far as she was aware, charity organisations did not place a ceiling on the value of items that could be donated. But she said nothing. She didn’t want money, either. Besides, the watch was worth fifty dollars at best — hardly enough to change her situation.

  Today, she’ll just go to the welfare bin behind the church in town and spare herself the third-degree. She can get rid of whatever she likes, no questions asked.

  In her wardrobe, a dark grey suit stands out for the taking. The suit she wore to her father’s funeral. 1955. More than fifty years, gone, just like that. If anyone were in the habit of listening to her, she would tell them this: life can slip through your fingers like a handful of powdered bleach.

  She pulls the suit from the hanger and irons it carefully — lapels first, sleeves last — and then begins unpicking the nametag. She was a strong seamstress at one time, and the inscription of ‘E. Harper’ does not budge readily from the inner rim of the collar. Why, pray tell, had she insisted on sewing her name onto all her damn clothes? Nobody ever shared her closet. She picks until she can feel her heartbeat in her fingertips and, finally, the threads begin to come loose. She is determined that people not know where the suit came from — she doesn’t want to be seen as some kind of do-gooder.

  She removes the last stitch of cotton — the rather stubborn loop of the P — and smoothes the trail left by her moniker. There. Hers no longer.

  She pulls a paper bag from under the sink, stows the suit inside it and folds the top like a lunch bag. Outside, the sun clocks over to mid-morning glare. In the carport, Evelyn lets her old Mitsubishi idle for a full ten minutes so it will go into gear without stalling. She shouldn’t be driving. The doctor has told her so. You’re past all that now, were his exact words. But she can see well enough — well enough to make the short journey into town, at least.

  She hunches over the steering wheel, sticking to sixty kilometres per hour, even in the hundred zone. Cars pass her. Someone honks.

  Once in town, she ignores the new red roof on St Cecelia’s Primary School, ignores also the huge sign that simultaneously announces the closure of the town’s oldest gift shop and the opening of a sandwich-based fast food chain. Nothing stays the same. Even the hills that border O’Brien’s Park seem to have changed shape. She finds it easier, these days, not to look.

  She parks at the rear of the church, next to the large blue welfare bin. Inside the church, a service is in progress and the sound of hymns dribbles out onto the pavement, voices rising and falling on the breeze. Intertwined with the sound of song is Evelyn’s own raspy breath, a breath no longer capable of quietness. She listens to the hymn and grunts involuntarily — another habit of her old age.

  She lugs her parcel to the disposal unit. For a charity bin, the opening is nonsensically small, hardly bigger than a mailbox. She has to crumple the paper bag to make it fit. By the time she shoves the last of it through, segments of the paper are fluttering off in the wind like dead skin. The suit hits the bottom of the bin with a soft thud. She needn’t have bothered ironing it. She grunts again, this time on purpose.

  No sooner is she back in the security of her car than the congregation comes spilling out of the church, people gathering into small clusters like iron filings drawn to a charge. Do-gooders, thinking they’re better than the next person just because they’ve been in there, praying to God. And there’s Ada Miles, President of the Catholic Women’s Association, volunteer extraordinaire, adopter of stray dogs. Local saint. Decades ago, the nuns of St Cecelia’s Catholic Primary School had called Ada a little angel, the opposite of what they called Evelyn. If Ada sees Evelyn she’ll get stuck here forever. Ada considers Evelyn a challenge of some sort, she’s always trying to convince Evelyn to join a church committee or bake a cake for a good cause.

  In her haste, Evelyn crunches the gears and pulls out onto the street. A flash of red whips her eyes and a loud horn honks as a car speeds by, barely missing her.

  ‘Watch where you’re going, you old bat!’ a young male driver yells. His van is out of sight before Evelyn manages to restart her stalled vehicle, a wave of disappointment washing over her. A car accident would have been so quick and, quite possibly, painless.

  She could have died right there in front of the church, a building she’s not seen the inside of for more than fifty years.

  LIV

  The retreat is nestled in a wide valley of sorts. On the western side it is divided from the plains by a stretch of mountains that seems to bulge out of nowhere and digress. To the east, long slopes rise and fall in a formation that eventually leads to the sea if you follow it far enough, and on some nights, Liv can smell the salt air on the breeze that blows through the valley, even though the nearest coastline is hours away. The wind blows the chimes in the garden and nips at her nose. When she looks up at the sky the stars brighten before her eyes, as though they are made of water and are freezing, turning white.

  Evening settles in, turns a deep mixture of shadows and light. A night owl flies to the top of a poplar tree and at the edge of the estate, the first of many wallabies makes its way out of the wooded slopes and down into the grounds, nuzzling at shoots of nut grass and wild oats that grow around the boundaries. Guests on their balconies crane their heads to see the last of the sun as it disappears. The lights of the cabins in the hills begin to twinkle and flutter in the twilight like embers.

  In the day and a half since her handshake with Mason, Liv’s seen him only once, when he was crossing the lawn headed for the stables. He waved, and she waved back. She fought the urge to follow. But now she can’t seem to round a corner without wondering if he’s going to be on the other side of it (he never is — all she finds around any corner is another breeze). Thoughts of his tanned skin infiltrate all others. Not being on the live-in employment package, Mason doesn’t take any meals in the dining hall, nor does he stay behind for an after-work cigarette like Sean from reception or Robert the shuttle bus driver. Liv’s read enough books to recognise him for what he is: a loner.

  She lies on her bed. None of the novels on her bedside table can hold her interest. Not The Great Gatsby, not Wuthering Heights.

  When someone rings the bell to her villa, she hears it as a dull, delayed chime. It takes her a moment to respond.

  She opens the front door to find Evelyn, who, even though she finished work hours ago, still wears her pale blue cleaner’s uniform. ‘I need your help,’ Evelyn says, her face wrinkling.

  ‘What’s wrong?’

  ‘One of the bloody washing machines went mad. You should have heard the racket it made through my wall,’ Evelyn says. ‘Damn thing chugged so hard it unplugged itself and skipped halfway across the laundry floor. Benjamin’s still busy in the kitchen, and I can’t move it by myself.’

  Liv puts on her cardigan and walks with Evelyn down the poorly lit garden path to the laundry, where the offending machine stands adrift on the concrete floor. The air smells of dampness and detergent. The single ceiling bulb shines uncovered, tiny insects buzzing around its aura, mesmerised by the light, and a huntsman spider, its movements made slow by the cool night air, sidles into a crack behind one of the dryers.

  Distributing her measly weight evenly between both legs, Liv takes hold of the machine’s corners. ‘You direct it from that side, and we’ll inch it back toward the wall,’ she says. Evelyn complies. They push and pull, first one corner, then the next, until the machine is almost back in place. Liv points to the stray electrical cord. ‘You might want to plug it in, before we put it flush up against the wall.’

  Evelyn curses, and bends down to fiddle with the cord. After much fumbling, the old woman pushes the plug into the powerpoint. She puffs, out of breath. H
er lips — slackened by a momentary absence of words — bunch loosely around her teeth. ‘Blasted machines. They all want throwing on the tip, if you ask me. When I was a kid, washing machines used to last for twenty years or more. Now you’re lucky to get six months out of them before they need fixing.’ She looks down at her varicose-veined legs, and wheezes.

  ‘And I hear they’re thinking of building a McDonald’s in Hatton River,’ she continues. ‘Right where the old mill used to be. It’s disgraceful.’

  The strain of heavy-lifting has been too much for her, Liv thinks. Despite her stoutness, Evelyn looks about ready to topple over.

  ‘Well,’ Liv says. ‘Maybe it will bring more tourists.’

  ‘Tourists?’ A speck of Evelyn’s spittle flies across the room. ‘Who the hell wants more tourists?’

  ‘I —’

  ‘Do you know,’ Evelyn says, ‘there’s not one shop on the main street that was there when I was a girl? Not one.’

  Liv shakes her head. She didn’t know. A cool breeze blows in through the open door, sending balls of lint rolling across the un-tiled floor like tumbleweed.

  ‘I might have a cup of tea before bed,’ Liv says. ‘Would you like one?’

  ‘No,’ Evelyn says. ‘If I drink tea now, I’ll be peeing all night.’

  Liv dusts a grain of washing powder from her cardigan, and follows Evelyn out the door. From behind, the old lady’s hair isn’t combed properly. Tufts stick out in all directions and a couple of knots look slept-on. Beyond the mountains, thunder rumbles, low and heavy, though the sky above remains lit by stars. Liv scans the horizon for signs of lightning, and instead she sees a girl dart from behind a gum tree and down toward the riverbank. A flash of blonde hair and the billow of a white dress, child-sized. Liv stares, wide-pupilled, into the dark garden. ‘Did you see that?’ she asks. She nudges Evelyn.

  The old woman’s stare is blank, her eyes milky as the moon, on this moonless night. ‘See what?’ she says.

  JAKE

  Jake lies awake. It’s dark out, and the wind sounds like it’s chasing something, like something is chasing it as well. He pulls the covers up over his head, leaving a hole just big enough to breathe through. The light in the hallway brightens then goes really pale. If a power surge blows the fuse, he won’t know how to fix it. He should learn. When the light surges again, he gets up and switches it off. Like his mother, who turned out her light hours ago, he’d rather choose darkness than be forced into it.

  While ever the storm hangs around, the guests at Cottonwood Retreat will stay indoors and order room service. The wind sweeps so much dirt from the nearby roads that a dusty cloud hangs over the whole place, and even though Jake’s mother shut the windows to their villa the minute the storm hit, they will probably wake in the morning to find millimetres of dust collected inside the sills. Storms like this have a way of getting inside.

  Behind the staff block the claret ash trees (Fraxinus oxycarpa, according to the encyclopaedia) hold steady, their roots stretching further into the ground for a better grip. Down by the river, the bare cords of willow trees lash out into the night like lost fishing lines, tendrils cracking, and the rush of the wind through the river oaks sounds more like a howling voice. From the farms on the other side of the river, only the bravest of dogs howl in reply. Jake hears their calls and he imagines their extended throats, their eyes searching the sky for the invisible competitor.

  He gets out of bed and treads as quietly as he can into his mother’s room. In the darkness, he can barely see the shape of her body beneath the covers. He waits for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. There is her shoulder, and the stripe of her pyjamas. There is her golden hair on the pillow.

  Important that she gets her sleep, so that she can work, so that they can stay here. Jake likes it here. Plus, now there’s Ruth. He can’t leave now that she has returned. There are several steps he must take before he tells his mother that Ruth is back, the first of which is to make absolutely certain that the girl is not a figment of his imagination (he is prone to imagining, after all). He must devise a plan to test her existence.

  Like a beast awaiting the next gulp of air to its lungs, the wind outside goes quiet. In the stillness, his mother’s velvety exhalations spread to all four corners of the room. She sleeps calmly. She hadn’t been so calm earlier, when she’d burned the dinner and yelled at Jake for not waking her up when the kitchen timer went off. Well, he’d wanted to say, that’s why we should eat Ben’s cooking. But all he’d said was, ‘I didn’t hear the timer. I was doing my homework.’ Thinking back, he had heard the timer, but he’d thought his mother was in the kitchen until he’d smelt the burning meatloaf, and by then it was too late. They’d eaten tinned soup instead.

  ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ his mother said, as she scraped the meatloaf into the bin.

  Jake had never thought it was.

  A pine tree scratches against the window and his mother moans in her sleep. ‘Ruth,’ she whispers, and she rolls onto her back. Jake looks toward the rattling window — nothing there, only the wind, tapping softly. Earlier, when no one had shown up at the riverbank, he’d left the chocolate bar on a tree stump as an offering, to show his sister that he remembers her, that he remembers what she likes.

  His mother groans again. He climbs onto the bed and touches her hair, lets it slide through his fingers like sand. It’s so soft, so alive. If only Ruth would appear, right now, and tell Grace that everything is all right.

  Outside, the rain begins to drop. ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Jake whispers to his mother. He’s not talking about the meatloaf.

  LIV

  The morning is quiet. So quiet it seems as if the world outside might not exist any more, might never have been there at all. Liv opens the curtains to find the normally immaculate lawn speckled with twigs and stray branches, uprooted plants strewn from one end of the estate to the other, as though during the night a giant hand has picked up the garden and shaken it. From the sliding door of her villa, the river — barely visible before — is now a vast and muddy thing. It flows by with daunting slowness.

  Most of the local wineries will be in clean-up mode; there will be tours to rearrange; flights in and out of Hatton River will be disrupted. But for her, the storm’s effect will be one of lessening. People will change their plans. She won’t have as many rooms to make up.

  At the edge of the staff garden Mason appears, pushing a wheelbarrow full of sticks and other rubbish. She steps outside, feels his dark-eyed contemplation of her. Operating in her own private world of bed-making and dusting, wearing (as she does already) the uniform that renders her shapeless, she rarely piques the interest of others, at least not in the physical sense. But this — this glance of his — takes in her body in a way that brings colour to her skin. She smooths her hair.

  ‘Morning,’ he says. He picks up a potted plant that didn’t survive the night and lays it inside the wheelbarrow. ‘I thought you said it never rains.’

  ‘Pardon?’

  ‘When we first met, you said it never rains.’

  His voice, now that she can hear it more clearly than before, is even deeper than she imagined. Under his arms, small arcs of sweat leach through his cotton shirt. His dark hair hangs; it needs cutting, needs washing too. She can smell him. Motor lubricant, grass, and a trace of some kind of soap; not shampoo, obviously. ‘I said hardly ever,’ she corrects. The gutted plant lies slumped in the barrow. ‘What was that?’

  ‘An azalea,’ he says. He searches the garden plot for other fatalities. ‘I’ll plant another one for you next week.’

  A sound — like the whirr of wind through trees — permeates the air. The sound of a swollen river. Every now and then, something floats by on its surface. A log, a small tyre. ‘It will go back to normal, won’t it?’ Liv says, eyeing the water flow. She pulls her hair back away from her face, and holds it there.

  ‘What?’

  ‘The river.’

  Mason leans over a flowerbed and re
distributes the loose dirt with a brush of his palm, blows the hair out of his face. ‘I’d say so. Pretty soon it’ll seem like nothing ever happened.’

  She strains to hear him (her hearing won’t seem to mend completely), while at the same time trying not to show any signs of the effort it takes to interact with him. She wants to stay whole for him, to appear whole, at least. He looks at her for a moment, and his measured gaze thrills her, but so, too, is it understudied by an ever-present flicker of absence.

  He saws a sizeable fallen branch into segments for the wood heap.

  ‘Well,’ he says, bundling the wood, ‘much as I’d like to stand around talking to girls, I’ve got ten more acres to clean up.’

  ‘Girls?’ The word slides across Liv’s tongue like something taking flight.

  He retrieves a sprinkler fitting that has been flushed out of its poke-hole during the night and twirls it through his fingers like a baton. ‘That’s what you are, aren’t you?’

  The morning sky opens up, becomes starker. Some kind of eagle circles overhead. ‘I’m thirty,’ she says.

  He picks up the handles of the barrow. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but you’re still a girl.’

  No indication of tone. He might be joking. He might even be teasing her. Still, she feels his words in her body, as though his statement conveys something she didn’t already know. She is a girl, a female. There is no reason why such a small word, such a small label, should mean so much to her. And yet she feels recognised, if at only the basest of levels. She wants to ask if he, too, feels that words are the only thing keeping him from sliding into oblivion. Girl is not nothing. She could call him a man, and it would mean something. She is not wrong, she is certain, in thinking they are more alike than anyone would guess. She waits for him to say, ‘I know you.’ But he does not.

 
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