The retreaters, p.1
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font   Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Retreaters, p.1

The Retreaters


  Dedication

  For two men in a million,

  my father,

  always with us,

  and for Chris

  Epigraph

  Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.

  WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

  Contents

  Cover

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Hatton River

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Evelyn

  Jake

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Liv

  Jake

  Liv

  Jake

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Evelyn

  Jake

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Jake

  Evelyn

  Liv

  Reference List

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Copyright

  HATTON RIVER

  It’s old Mabel Markley who first puts a voice to the whispers. She says morphine, overdose, and mercy all in the same sentence, her words timed to the exact moment Liv passes her in the street. There’s something reverential in her tone, something accusatory, also. Well, Liv thinks, morphine is a mercy. That much she’ll admit.

  LIV

  When the silence comes, it comes overnight. The air turns hot — too hot for late March in this little hollow of Central Western New South Wales — and as Liv tosses beneath her single sheet, she dreams that she is back at the library, that state funding has been renewed and she is behind her old desk, reading a particularly weighty volume of nineteenth-century poetry, the pages turning themselves so that all she has to do is sit, glasses on, and wait for one page to flip to the next. In the dream, she begins to recite the poems by heart, and when she gets to the last one — an eleven-verse ode by William Wordsworth — someone applauds, and Liv looks up to see that the person applauding is her aunt, which is how Liv knows it’s a dream: Aunt Rosa never applauded anyone, least of all Liv.

  She continues to toss, not quite awake, the usual thoughts of library cards and ISBN numbers beginning to inhabit her consciousness until she remembers, as she does every morning around this time, that the library closed a month ago, that she now works as a cleaner. Cleaning she never dreams of.

  She blinks, and listens for the beep of Aunt Rosa’s breathing monitor, another symptom of her drowsiness, since Aunt Rosa died a week ago, and the breathing monitor — along with almost everything else in the house — has already been taken away.

  In the same moment that wakefulness reminds her of her situation (Aunt Rosa gone, library closed), Liv realises that something else, some harder-to-pinpoint sensation, makes this morning different to all the others that have come before it. The sound of her aunt’s long-suffering breathing monitor is not the only sound absent from the airwaves. Liv can’t hear a thing.

  No newcomer to quietness — she has, after all, spent ten years in the most hushed of workplaces — Liv at first believes she has woken too early, that she has stumbled upon some interval of pre-dawn silence the likes of which she always misses due to sleep. But then she draws the blind and sees the sun sitting well above the telephone wires, sees the metal arm of the garbage truck across the road reach out to empty the contents of Mr Dunn’s wheelie-bin, and she knows something is wrong. There should be birdcalls. There should be clanks and bangs from the open mouth of the garbage truck. But there is nothing. Not even a hint of noise. Not even a seashell kind of sound. She puts her fingers in her ears and pulls them out again. Nothing.

  Her town is never soundless, not like this. There are hues of quietness, yes, but always the rustle of a breeze through the eucalyptus trees, the banter of galahs, the faint gearing-down of a semi-trailer as it slows (but doesn’t stop — there are no traffic lights) and passes through town. She cranes her neck: no late-summer crickets, no far-off lawnmowers.

  And yet she is awake. She blinks to confirm it.

  When news broke that Hatton River Library was closing, a small but sincere public outcry resulted in a petition being signed by over two-hundred locals — most of whom were either pensioners who couldn’t afford to buy books, or mothers who used the afternoon Story-Time sessions as a babysitting service. Regardless of the petition, the library closed, and Liv began to read the local paper, to peruse the small shop windows for signs of opportunity.

  In Hatton River, the unemployed are divided into two groups: those who sit on pub barstools, and those who push weary-looking strollers down the main street. Neither option appealed to Liv. So she nursed her disappointment at the library’s closure briefly and intensely, and then got on with the job of finding a job. She knew, well before Aunt Rosa’s passing, that no money would be left to her — even if there had been the possibility of a monetary sum, it would never have amounted to enough to save her from employment. Besides, Liv wanted to work, and since working at the library was no longer an option, she took a job at the only place in town that was hiring. The only place out of town, actually.

  She cleans rooms at the resort-like Cottonwood Retreat, fifteen kilometres outside the town limits.

  Today, she becomes a cleaner-in-residence. She will join ranks with the percentage of people for whom there is no division between workplace and home. She will leave this house, a house whose morning groans and creaks — normally enough to make her jump — this morning fall on deaf ears. She kneels on her bed and places her ear against the wall, cheek to plaster. Nothing, just coldness. Odd, that on the very day she planned to savour the last familiarities of home, the house — devoid of sound — is making itself into a premature stranger.

  She swallows, opens her jaw wide. No change. Perhaps she should be glad that silence has come to hamper her sentimentality; easier to leave, this way. Through all the years of Aunt Rosa’s illness, and the years have been many, Liv has known that the two-bedroom house in which she has resided would be bequeathed to Aunt Rosa’s two grown sons. No matter that, in sixteen years, neither son has come to visit; they are still Aunt Rosa’s kin, more deserving, in blood terms, than Liv. And Liv understands the power of blood connections, even if those connections now intend to sell the house before her aunt is cold in the ground.

  So, after today, no more house.

  She ponders again the silent garbage truck and the seemingly voiceless birds outside, and her heart beats out of sync. Something is wrong, she has done something that cannot be reversed. She leaves her bedroom to sit in the cool of the laminex kitchen. Aunt Rosa’s old radio — if the red light still functions correctly — is on, yet no sound flows from its lone speaker. She makes her morning coffee, and only the urgent billow of steam from the kettle alerts her to the fact that the water has boiled. She picks up the phone, intending to listen for a dial tone, until she remembers tha
t the service, in preparation for her departure, has been disconnected.

  A wave of panic, now, beneath her breastbone. She swallows hard, experiences a whooshing sensation inside her head and a feeling of pressure, of fullness. No ear-popping relief, though. No sudden clarity. She tells herself to stay calm. She must not panic.

  ‘Liv,’ she says. There’s the tiny puff of air her name makes on her bottom lip, but no sound. ‘LIV,’ she shouts, until the air in her lungs is gone.

  Could this deafness be one more of grief’s little tricks? Hasn’t she had all kinds of weird sensations this past week? Sweats, shivers, nightmares. This might be yet another loss-related occurrence.

  Reading, then — her ever-faithful barometer, her cure for all things — will provide the answer. From the mantelpiece she pulls a beaten copy of The Great Gatsby (she must remember to pack it, with the last of her belongings) and reads aloud a passage —

  I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

  — which proves inconclusive, since she cannot distinguish between reading the words in her mind, and hearing them via her ears.

  She emits a small cry, but the sob brings her no comfort, no sense of respite, because there’s no one in the house — including her — to hear it. This can’t be happening. There is too much to do today, too much that’s already different in her life, to face another misfortune. She tries to focus on what’s normal about this morning: this kitchen, the coffee cup in her hands, the bright light outside the window.

  She attempts to empty her mind, instead finds herself thinking about gossip-monger Mabel Markley and her narrow brows; she thinks of the way Mrs Markley, in the week since Aunt Rosa’s death, has started to look at Liv as though she knows what she’s capable of. She thinks, too, of all the whispers she doesn’t want to hear; couldn’t hear, right now, in this state.

  And then she thinks of old Mrs Pritchard, the local spinster and avid book reader who’d visited Hatton River Library every day, sometimes twice a day in hot weather. One day last summer (or was it the summer before?) Mrs Pritchard, seeking refuge amongst the air-conditioned aisles of books, had looked up from the open page of a Helen Keller novel and said, ‘What would you rather be, deaf or blind?’ — her question expressed in the squinty-eyed, raised-voice manner of someone who anticipated that they might soon be stricken with one, or both, conditions.

  Mrs Bourne, the librarian, who normally restricted her mode of speech to the same whispers she expected of visitors to the library, spoke freely — apart from Mrs Pritchard, there were no other patrons to disturb. ‘Why, blind I should think. I couldn’t live without my music.’ Her answer came as no surprise to Liv. In her younger days, Mrs Bourne had been a cellist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and, although she’d given up playing due to an arthritic hand, she still listened to classical music at every opportunity. Many a year Liv — who had no particular penchant for music of any kind — had stacked shelves to Bach or Brahms or Strauss, updated catalogues to Mozart.

  Mrs Pritchard then turned her spectacled gaze to Liv. ‘What about you, dear?’

  And Liv, who was taught by Aunt Rosa to speak when spoken to, stared out at all the glorious books around her, many of which she hadn’t yet read, and answered by giving the only alternative she could begin to imagine. ‘Deaf,’ she said. ‘I’d rather be deaf.’

  JAKE

  Jake plans to stay in Hatton River forever. When he thinks of leaving, even if he’s sort of required to leave, like for the class day-trip to the Western Plains Zoo (where his teacher said he was almost certain to be safe, on account of all the high fences), he gets a hunger pain that no amount of food will fix, and since the school can’t make him go on excursions, he is the kid who always stays home. His classmates think his absence has something to do with money, which is probably better than them thinking it has something to do with his stomach.

  There is so much that’s not right about him on the outside, he doesn’t want to bring his insides into it.

  His mother is perfect on the outside. He asked her once if she thought he was going to grow up to look like his father, and she just pulled her mouth into a thin line that said, fat chance. So that’s it then, he’s never going to look like anyone but himself. He does have his sister’s smile, though. The same square-shaped teeth. He smiles into the mirror to remind himself.

  He smiles at other things, too, like the leaves falling from the plum trees — which is one of the reasons his classmates think he’s weird, because he doesn’t know when to smile and when not to. Apparently not even kindergarteners smile at leaves and he is eight, which is far from being a kindergartener. He smiles at the river, too, smiles even though it frightens him the way the water slithers by like a giant reptile, the way it widens beneath McMahon’s Bridge as though it plans to swallow the road and the school bus and everyone on it. He smiles even though he can’t stop his head from making pictures of all the things, living and dead, that a river like that can hide.

  The river and what it hides are part of the reason he’ll never leave Hatton River, not for a school excursion, not ever.

  The older kids at school say that anyone who lives here by choice is a loser, but Jake loves this town. In the afternoons, as he waits for the bus, his own short shadow is absorbed by the bigger shade of the mountains, and when he stares at the ground (a habit his mother says will one day get him into trouble) he knows every crack in the pavement like he knows the back of his undersized hand.

  Besides, for Jake there’s his mother. If he ever left town no one would be there to watch her while she sleeps and no one would be there to make sure she wakes up. Every morning he checks on her and every morning she is so entangled in the sheets that his job seems not so much waking but unwrapping. She would sleep all day if he let her.

  He doesn’t let her.

  Maths has never been Jake’s strongest subject, but he knows at least one equation: if his mother loses her job, they lose their home. And even though some of the kids at school tell him it’s a strange place to live, Villa 4 in the staff section of Cottonwood Retreat is the only home he has. So every morning he wakes his mother, even when she wants to stay asleep, and every morning before he leaves he makes sure she’s wearing her blue uniform. The one that’s the exact same colour as the dresses the girls wear at school. Today, she’s harder to wake than usual.

  He doesn’t understand why she sleeps so much. It doesn’t matter how much rest she gets, she wants more. Even in the afternoons, when her shift has finished, Jake always finds her in one of two places: under a blanket on the couch, or in bed. This morning, she lies in bed with the sheet pulled up to her chin, and the sun that comes through the blinds is giving her animal-stripes. Jake goes out to the kitchen and eats his toast, looks at the clock.

  All this sleep gives him an uneasy feeling in his gut, like when his pet mouse, Larry, died because Jake thought he was sleeping when really he was sick. When Larry keeled over in his cage, his pink nose bone dry, Jake hadn’t wanted to believe he was gone. Now Larry lies buried under one foot of dirt near the gum tree by the laundry.

  Jake’s mother has seen Dr Bennett and been told there’s nothing wrong with her, but that does not make Jake feel better. Dr Bennett is blind in one eye and he once told a kid at school that he had a sprained ankle when really the kid’s leg was broken.

  So Jake always wakes his mother up in the morning, and he always comes straight home after school. He never misses the bus, never goes to the hamburger shop or the basketball courts, never stops to skim stones from the riverbank. Which doesn’t mean he sits at his mother’s bedside and watches her eyelids move. He chooses, most days, to complete his homework and spend the rest of the afternoon in the small garden of the staff quarters, where he has a clear view of both the mountains and the front door of his villa. An in-between zone, halfway between his mother and the open world, a place where he is both a waker-upper and a person in the universe.
<
br />   He finishes his toast and goes back to her bedroom, and finally, half an hour after she should have, she gets out of bed. Jake kisses her cheek and takes her uniform from the cupboard. ‘What are you still doing here?’ his mother asks. She yawns.

  Jake grabs his schoolbag. ‘See you after school,’ he says.

  She nods.

  He takes the back pathway from his villa to the driveway, and stands near the gates that open out into the laneway. He can’t remember the last time his mum walked him to the bus, but then he doesn’t need supervision. His school report card said so. He knows not to loiter near the main building or the other villas, knows not to play in the main garden — the retreat is a world of adults, and a wandering child draws unnecessary attention.

  As he waits for the bus, the quietness of the garden calms his stomach. All he has to do is stand still and here it is: the driveway, Cottonwood Retreat, Hatton River, Australia, The World. Small birds flap in nearby branches and other winged things chart the airwaves between the trees and the ground. In the thick lawn, grey moths teeter on the tallest blades and little brown ants make crisscross patterns in the undergrowth. Jake likes the ants the most. They always look so busy, and while he can’t say for sure if they look happy, they definitely look interested. Those antennae never stop moving. The fact that the ants dare to venture out across the path when a strong breeze could come and blow them away forever gives Jake a good feeling.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll