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Nine Perfect Strangers / Äĺâ˙ňü ńîâĺđřĺííî íĺçíŕęîěűő ëţäĺé (by Liane Moriarty, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

×ňîáű óáđŕňü đĺęëŕěó ńäĺëŕéňĺ đĺăčńňđŕöčţ čëč ŕâňîđčçóéňĺńü íŕ ńŕéňĺ

Nine Perfect Strangers / Äĺâ˙ňü ńîâĺđřĺííî íĺçíŕęîěűő ëţäĺé (by Liane Moriarty, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Nine Perfect Strangers / Äĺâ˙ňü ńîâĺđřĺííî íĺçíŕęîěűő ëţäĺé (by Liane Moriarty, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Îňäűő â ńŕíŕňîđčč ďîěîćĺň čçěĺíčňü âńţ ćčçíü – ń ňŕęčě óáĺćäĺíčĺě îňďđŕâë˙ëŕńü íŕ îňäűő ăëŕâíŕ˙ ăĺđîčí˙ Ôđýíńčń Âýëňč. Ďčńŕňĺëüíčöŕ, ÷üč čńďîëíĺííűĺ đîěŕíňčęîé đŕáîňű, ńäĺëŕëč ĺĺ óńďĺříîé č îäíîé čç ńŕěűő âîńňđĺáîâŕííűő ďčńŕňĺëüíčöĺé, ďĺđĺćčâŕĺň ńďŕä â ňâîđ÷ĺńęîé č ëč÷íîé ćčçíč. Ń đŕçáčňűě ńĺđäöĺě č őóäűě çäîđîâüĺě îńîáĺííî íĺ äóěŕĺňń˙ î ęŕđüĺđíîě đîńňĺ. Íóćĺí îňäűő. Ńţäŕ ďđčáűëč ĺůĺ äĺâ˙ňü ÷ĺëîâĺę. Îäíč îçŕäŕ÷ĺíű âîďđîńîě ďîőóäĺíč˙, äđóăčĺ őîň˙ň ďĺđĺçŕăđóçčňü ćčçíü č ďîďűňŕňüń˙ íŕ÷ŕňü ĺĺ ń ÷čńňîăî ëčńňŕ, ŕ íĺęîňîđűĺ č âîâńĺ íĺ ěîăóň îňâĺňčňü íŕ âîďđîń, ďî÷ĺěó îíč ńáĺćŕëč čç äîěŕ â îňäŕëĺííóţ ěĺńňíîńňü. Äĺń˙ňü äíĺé đîńęîřč, ěĺäčňŕöčč č ďîęî˙ – íŕ ňŕęîé čńőîä îňäűőŕ đŕńń÷čňűâŕĺň ęŕćäűé. Íî ńëĺäóţůčĺ 10 äíĺé îęŕćóňń˙ íĺâűíîńčěî ńëîćíűěč äë˙ ęŕćäîăî. Őŕđčçěŕňč÷íűé č íĺěíîăî ńňđŕííűé âëŕäĺëĺö äîěŕ Ňđŕíńęëčí çŕčíňđčăîâŕë âńĺő ďîńňî˙ëüöĺâ. Ôđýíńčńč đŕçěűřë˙ĺň íŕä ňĺě, ŕ ńňîčň ëč ĺé îńňŕâŕňüń˙ çäĺńü, ńňîčň ëč ďîăđóćŕňüń˙ â íîâóţ ŕňěîńôĺđó, ÷ňîáű çŕáűňü î ďđîáëĺěŕő čëč ëó÷řĺ áĺćŕňü îňńţäŕ čçî âńĺő íîă.

Đĺéňčíă:
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Íŕçâŕíčĺ:
Nine Perfect Strangers / Äĺâ˙ňü ńîâĺđřĺííî íĺçíŕęîěűő ëţäĺé (by Liane Moriarty, 2018) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2018
Ŕâňîđ:
Liane Moriarty
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Caroline Lee
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
ńîâđĺěĺííŕ˙ ďđîçŕ, ôŕíňŕńňčęŕ, đîěŕí
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
19:01:08
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
64 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí Nine Perfect Strangers / Äĺâ˙ňü ńîâĺđřĺííî íĺçíŕęîěűő ëţäĺé ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ liane_moriarty-_-_nine_perfect_strangers.doc [937 Kb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 32) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  liane_moriarty-_-_nine_perfect_strangers.pdf [1.76 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 53) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü audiobook (MP3) áĺńďëŕňíî ń ôŕéëîîáěĺííčęŕ.


×čňŕňü ęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě îíëŕéí:

(×ňîáű ďĺđĺâîäčňü ńëîâŕ íŕ đóńńęčé ˙çűę č äîáŕâë˙ňü â ńëîâŕđü äë˙ čçó÷ĺíč˙, ůĺëęŕĺě ěűřęîé íŕ íóćíîĺ ńëîâî).


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chapter one Yao ‘I’m fine,’ said the woman. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’ She didn’t look fine to Yao. It was his first day as a trainee paramedic. His third call-out. Yao wasn’t nervous, but he was in a hyper-vigilant state because he couldn’t bear to make even an inconsequential mistake. When he was a child, mistakes had made him wail inconsolably, and they still made his stomach cramp. A single bead of perspiration rolled down the woman’s face, leaving a snail’s trail through her make-up. Yao wondered why women painted their faces orange, but that was not relevant. ‘I’m fine. Maybe just twenty-four-hour virus,’ she said, with the hint of an Eastern European accent. ‘Observe everything about your patient and their environment,’ Yao’s supervisor, Finn, had told him. ‘Think of yourself as a secret agent looking for diagnostic clues.’ Yao observed a middle-aged, overweight woman with pronounced pink shadows under distinctive sea-green eyes and wispy brown hair pulled into a sad little knot at the back of her neck. She was pale and clammy, her breathing ragged. A heavy smoker, judging by her ashtray scent. She sat in a high-backed leather chair behind a gigantic desk. It seemed like she was something of a bigwig, if the size of this plush corner office and its floor-to-ceiling harbour views were any indication of corporate status. They were on the seventeenth floor and the sails of the Opera House were so close you could see the diamond-shaped cream and white tiles. The woman had one hand on her mouse. She scrolled through emails on her oversized computer screen, as if the two paramedics checking her over were a minor inconvenience, repairmen there to fix a power point. She wore a tailored navy business suit like a punishment, the jacket pulled uncomfortably tight across her shoulders. Yao took the woman’s free hand and clipped a pulse oximeter onto her finger. He noted a shiny, scaly patch of reddish skin on her forearm. Pre-diabetic? Finn asked, ‘Are you on any medication, Masha?’ He had a chatty, loose manner with patients, as if he were making small talk at a barbecue, beer in hand. Yao noticed that Finn always used the names of patients, whereas Yao felt shy talking to them as though they were old friends, but if it enhanced patient outcomes, he would learn to overcome his shyness. ‘I am on no medication at all,’ said Masha, her gaze fixed on the computer. She clicked on something decisively then looked away from her monitor and back up at Finn. Her eyes looked like they’d been borrowed from someone beautiful. Yao assumed they were coloured contact lenses. ‘I am in good health. I apologise for taking up your time. I certainly didn’t ask for an ambulance.’ ‘I called the ambulance,’ said a very pretty, dark-haired young woman in high heels and a tight checked skirt with interlocking diamond shapes similar to the Opera House tiles. The skirt looked excellent on her but that was obviously of no relevance right now, even though she was, technically, part of the surrounding environment Yao was meant to be observing. The girl chewed on the fingernail of her little finger. ‘I’m her PA. She . . . ah . . .’ She lowered her voice as if she were about to reveal something shameful. ‘Her face went dead white and then she fell off her chair.’ ‘I did not fall off my chair!’ snapped Masha. ‘She kind of slid off it,’ amended the girl. ‘I momentarily felt dizzy, that is all,’ said Masha to Finn. ‘And then I got straight back to work. Could we cut this short? I’m happy to pay your full, you know, cost or rate, or however it is you charge for your services. I have private health cover, of course. I just really don’t have time for this right now.’ She turned her attention back to her assistant. ‘Don’t I have an eleven o’clock with Ryan?’ ‘I’ll cancel him.’ ‘Did I hear my name?’ said a man from the doorway. ‘What’s going on?’ A guy in a too-tight purple shirt swaggered in carrying a bundle of manila folders. He spoke with a plummy British accent, like he was a member of the royal family. ‘Nothing,’ said Masha. ‘Take a seat.’ ‘Masha is clearly not available right now!’ said the poor PA. Yao sympathised. He didn’t appreciate flippancy about matters of health, and he thought his profession deserved more respect. He also had a strong aversion to spiky-haired guys with posh accents who wore purple shirts a size too small to show off their overly developed pecs. ‘No, no, just sit down, Ryan! This won’t take long. I’m fine.’ Masha beckoned impatiently. ‘Can I check your blood pressure, please, ah, Masha?’ said Yao, bravely mumbling her name as he went to strap the cuff around her upper arm. ‘Let’s take that jacket off first.’ Finn sounded amused. ‘You’re a busy lady, Masha.’ ‘I actually really do need her sign-off on these,’ said the young guy to the PA in a low voice. Yao thought, I actually really do need to check your boss’s vital signs right now, motherfucker. Finn helped Masha out of her jacket and put it over the back of her chair in a courtly way. ‘Let’s see those documents, Ryan.’ Masha adjusted the buttons on her cream silk shirt. ‘I just need signatures on the top two pages.’ The guy held out the folder. ‘Are you kidding me?’ The PA lifted both hands incredulously. ‘Mate, you need to come back another time,’ said Finn, with a definite edge to his barbecue voice. The guy stepped back, but Masha clicked her fingers at him for the folder, and he instantly jumped forward and handed it over. He obviously considered Masha scarier than Finn, which was saying something, because Finn was a big, strong guy. ‘This will take fourteen seconds at the most,’ she said to Finn. Her voice thickened on the word ‘most’ so that it sounded like ‘mosht’. Yao, the blood-pressure cuff still in his hand, made eye contact with Finn. Masha’s head lolled to one side, as though she’d just nodded off. The manila folder slipped from her fingers. ‘Masha?’ Finn spoke in a loud, commanding voice. She slumped forward, arms akimbo, like a puppet. ‘Just like that!’ screeched the PA with satisfaction. ‘That’s exactly what she did before!’ ‘Jesus!’ The purple-shirt guy retreated. ‘Jesus. Sorry! I’ll just . . .’ ‘Okay, Masha, let’s get you onto the floor,’ said Finn. Finn lifted her under the armpits and Yao took her legs, grunting with the effort. She was a very tall woman, Yao realised; much taller than him. At least six feet and a dead weight. Together, he and Finn laid her on her side on the grey carpet. Finn folded her jacket into a pillow and put it behind her head. Masha’s left arm rose stiff and zombie-like above her head. Her hands curled into spastic fists. She continued to breathe in jerky gasps as her body postured. She was having a seizure. Seizures were disquieting to watch but Yao knew you just had to wait them out. There was nothing around Masha’s neck that Yao could loosen. He scanned the space around her, and saw nowhere she could bang her head. ‘Is this what happened earlier?’ Finn looked up at the assistant. ‘No. No, before she just sort of fainted.’ The wide-eyed PA watched with appalled fascination. ‘Does she have a history of seizures?’ asked Finn. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know.’ As she spoke, the PA was shuffling back towards the door of the office, where a crowd of other corporate types had now gathered. Someone held up a mobile phone, filming, as if their boss’s seizure were a rock concert. ‘Start compressions.’ Finn’s eyes were flat and smooth like stones. There was a moment – no more than a second, but still a moment – in which Yao did nothing as his brain scrambled to process what had just happened. He would remember that moment of frozen incomprehension forever. He knew that a cardiac arrest could present with seizure-like symptoms and yet he’d still missed it because his brain had been so utterly, erroneously convinced of one reality: This patient is having a seizure. If Finn hadn’t been there, Yao may have sat back on his haunches and observed a woman in cardiac arrest without acting, like an airline pilot flying a jet into the ground because he is overly reliant on his faulty instruments. Yao’s finest instrument was his brain, and on this day it was faulty. They shocked her twice but were unable to establish a consistent heart rhythm. Masha Dmitrichenko was in full cardiac arrest as they carried her out of the corner office to which she would never return. chapter two Ten years later Frances On a hot, cloudless January day, Frances Welty, the formerly bestselling romantic novelist, drove alone through scrubby bushland six hours north-west of her Sydney home. The black ribbon of highway unrolled hypnotically ahead of her as the air-conditioning vents roared arctic air full-blast at her face. The sky was a giant deep blue dome surrounding her tiny solitary car. There was far too much sky for her liking. She smiled because she reminded herself of one of those peevish TripAdvisor reviewers: So I called reception and asked for a lower, cloudier, more comfortable sky. A woman with a strong foreign accent said there were no other skies available! She was very rude about it too! NEVER AGAIN. DON’T WASTE YOUR MONEY. It occurred to Frances that she was possibly quite close to losing her mind. No, she wasn’t. She was fine. Perfectly sane. Really and truly. She flexed her hands around the steering wheel, blinked dry eyes behind her sunglasses and yawned so hugely her jaw clicked. ‘Ow,’ she said, although it didn’t hurt. She sighed, looking out the window for something to break the monotony of the landscape. It would be so harsh and unforgiving out there. She could just imagine it: the drone of blowflies, the mournful cry of crows, and all that glaring white-hot light. Wide brown land indeed. Come on. Give me a cow, a crop, a shed. I spy with my little eye something beginning with . . . N. Nothing. She shifted in her seat, and her lower back rewarded her with a jolt of pain so violent and personal it brought tears to her eyes. ‘For God’s sake,’ she said pitifully. The back pain had begun two weeks ago, on the day she finally accepted that Paul Drabble had disappeared. She was dialling the number for the police and trying to work out how to refer to Paul – her partner, boyfriend, lover, her ‘special friend’? – when she felt the first twinge. It was the most obvious example of psychosomatic pain ever, except knowing it was psychosomatic didn’t make it hurt any less. It was strange to look in the mirror each night and see the reflection of her lower back looking as soft, white and gently plump as it always had. She expected to see something dreadful, like a gnarled mass of tree roots. She checked the time on the dashboard: 2.57 pm. The turn-off should be coming up any minute. She’d told the reservations people at Tranquillum House that she’d be there around 3.30 to 4 pm and she hadn’t made any unscheduled stops. Tranquillum House was a ‘boutique health and wellness resort’. Her friend Ellen had suggested it. ‘You need to heal,’ she’d told Frances after their third cocktail (an excellent white peach Bellini) at lunch last week. ‘You look like shit.’ Ellen had done a ‘cleanse’ at Tranquillum House three years ago when she, too, had been ‘burnt out’ and ‘run-down’ and ‘out of condition’ and – ‘Yes, yes, I get it,’ Frances had said. ‘It’s quite . . . unusual, this place,’ Ellen had told Frances. ‘Their approach is kind of unconventional. Life-changing.’ ‘How exactly did your life change?’ Frances had asked, reasonably, but she’d never got a clear answer to that question. In the end, it all seemed to come down to the whites of Ellen’s eyes, which had become really white, like, freakily white! Also, she lost three kilos! Although Tranquillum House wasn’t about weight loss – Ellen was at great pains to point that out. It was about wellness, but, you know, what woman complains about losing three kilos? Not Ellen, that’s for sure. Not Frances either. Frances had gone home and looked up the website. She’d never been a fan of self-denial, never been on a diet, rarely said no if she felt like saying yes or yes if she felt like saying no. According to her mother, Frances’s first greedy word was ‘more’. She always wanted more. Yet the photos of Tranquillum House had filled her with a strange, unexpected yearning. They were golden-hued, all taken at sunset or sunrise, or else filtered to make it look that way. Pleasantly middle-aged people did warrior poses in a garden of white roses next to a beautiful country house. A couple sat in one of the ‘natural hot springs’ that surrounded the property. Their eyes were closed, heads tipped back, and they were smiling ecstatically as water bubbled around them. Another photo showed a woman enjoying a ‘hot stone massage’ on a deckchair next to an aquamarine swimming pool. Frances had imagined those hot stones placed with delightful symmetry down her own spine, their magical heat melting away her pain. As she dreamed of hot springs and gentle yoga, a message flashed urgently on her screen: Only one place remaining for the exclusive Ten-Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat! It had made her feel stupidly competitive and she clicked Book now, even though she didn’t really believe there was only one place remaining. Still, she keyed in her credit card details pretty damned fast, just in case. It seemed that in a mere ten days she would be ‘transformed’ in ways she ‘never thought possible’. There would be fasting, meditation, yoga, creative ‘emotional release exercises’. There would be no alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten or dairy – but as she’d just had the degustation menu at the Four Seasons, she was stuffed full of alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten and dairy, and the thought of giving them up didn’t seem that big a deal. Meals would be ‘personalised’ to her ‘unique needs’. Before her booking was ‘accepted’, she had to answer a very long, rather invasive online questionnaire about her relationship status, diet, medical history, alcohol consumption in the previous week, and so on. She cheerfully lied her way through it. It was really none of their business. She even had to upload a photo taken in the last two weeks. She sent one of herself from her lunch with Ellen at the Four Seasons, holding up a Bellini. There were boxes to tick for what she hoped to achieve during her ten days: everything from ‘intensive couples counselling’ to ‘significant weight loss’. Frances ticked only the nice-sounding boxes, like ‘spiritual nourishment’. Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time. The TripAdvisor reviews for Tranquillum House, which she’d looked at after she’d paid her non-refundable fee, had been noticeably mixed. It was either the best, most incredible experience people had ever had, they wished they could give it more than five stars, they were evangelical about the food, the hot springs, the staff, or it was the worst experience of their entire lives, there was talk of legal action, post-traumatic stress and dire warnings of ‘enter at your own peril’. Frances looked again at the dashboard, hoping to catch the clock tick over to three. Stop it. Focus. Eyes on the road, Frances. You’re the one in charge of this car. Something flickered in her peripheral vision and she flinched, ready for the massive thud of a kangaroo smashing her windscreen. It was nothing. These imaginary wildlife collisions were all in her head. If it happened, it happened. There probably wouldn’t be time to react. She remembered a long-ago road trip with a boyfriend. They’d come across a dying emu that had been hit by a car in the middle of a highway. Frances had stayed in the passenger seat, a passive princess, while her boyfriend got out and killed the poor emu with a rock. One sharp blow to the head. When he returned to the driver’s seat he was sweaty and exhilarated, a city boy thrilled with his own humane pragmatism. Frances never quite forgave him for the sweaty exhilaration. He’d liked killing the emu. Frances wasn’t sure if she could kill a dying animal, even now when she was fifty-two years old, financially secure and too old to be a princess. ‘You could kill the emu,’ she said out loud. ‘Certainly you could.’ Goodness. She’d just remembered that the boyfriend was dead. Wait, was he? Yes, definitely dead. She’d heard it on the grapevine a few years back. Complications from pneumonia, supposedly. Gary always did suffer terribly from colds. Frances had never been especially sympathetic. At that very moment her nose dripped like a tap. Perfect timing. She held the steering wheel with one hand and wiped her nose with the back of her other hand. Disgusting. It was probably Gary vindictively making her nose drip from the afterlife. Fair enough too. They’d once been on road trips and professed their love and now she couldn’t even be bothered to remember he was dead. She apologised to Gary, although, really, if he was able to access her thoughts then he should know that it wasn’t her fault; if he’d made it to this age he’d know how extraordinarily vague and forgetful one became. Not all the time. Just sometimes. Sometimes I’m as sharp as a tack, Gary. She sniffed again. It seemed like she’d had this truly horrendous head cold even longer than the back pain. Hadn’t she been sniffling the day she delivered her manuscript? Three weeks ago. Her nineteenth novel. She was still waiting to hear what her publisher thought. Once upon a time, back in the late nineties, her ‘heyday’, her editor would have sent champagne and flowers within two days of delivery, together with a handwritten note. Another masterpiece! She understood she was no longer in her heyday, but she was still a solid, mid-level performer. An effusive email would be nice. Or just a friendly one. Even a brisk one-liner: Sorry, haven’t got to it yet but can’t wait! That would have been polite. A fear she refused to acknowledge tried to worm its way up from her subconscious. No. No. Absolutely not. She clutched the steering wheel and tried to calm her breathing. She’d been throwing back cold and flu tablets to try to clear her nose and the pseudoephedrine was making her heart race, as if something wonderful or terrible was about to happen. It reminded her of the feeling of walking down the aisle on both her wedding days. She was probably addicted to the cold and flu tablets. She was easily addicted. Men. Food. Wine. In fact, she felt like a glass of wine right now and the sun was still high in the sky. Lately, she’d been drinking, maybe not excessively, but certainly more enthusiastically than usual. She was on that slippery slope, hurtling towards drug and alcohol addiction! Exciting to know she could still change in significant ways. Back home there was a half-empty bottle of pinot noir sitting brazenly on her writing desk for anyone (only the cleaning lady) to see. She was Ernest frigging Hemingway. Didn’t he have a bad back too? They had so much in common. Except that Frances had a weakness for adjectives and adverbs. Apparently she scattered them about her novels like throw cushions. What was that Mark Twain quote Sol used to murmur to himself, just loud enough for her to hear, while reading her manuscripts? When you catch an adjective, kill it. Sol was a real man who didn’t like adjectives or throw cushions. She had an image of Sol, in bed, on top of her, swearing comically as he pulled out yet another cushion from behind her head, chucking it across the room while she giggled. She shook her head as if to shake off the memory. Fond sexual memories felt like a point for her first husband. When everything was good in Frances’s life she wished both her ex-husbands nothing but happiness and excellent erectile function. Right now, she wished plagues of locusts to rain down upon their silvery heads. She sucked on the tiny, vicious paper cut on the tip of her right thumb. Every now and then it throbbed to remind her that it might be the smallest of her ailments but it could still ruin her day. Her car veered to the bumpy side of the road and she removed her thumb from her mouth and clung to the steering wheel. ‘Whoops-a-daisy.’ She had quite short legs, so she had to move the driver’s seat close to the steering wheel. Henry used to say she looked like she was driving a dodgem car. He said it was cute. But after five years or so he stopped finding it cute and swore every time he got in the car and had to slide the seat back. She found his sleep-talking charming for about five years or so too. Focus! The countryside flew by. At last a sign: Welcome to the town of Jarribong. We’re proud to be a TIDY TOWN. She slowed down to the speed limit of fifty, which felt almost absurdly slow. Her head swivelled from side to side as she studied the town. A Chinese restaurant with a faded red and gold dragon on the door. A service station that looked closed. A red-brick post office. A drive-through bottle shop that looked open. A police station that seemed entirely unnecessary. Not a person in sight. It might have been tidy but it felt post-apocalyptic. She thought of her latest manuscript. It was set in a small town. This was the gritty, bleak reality of small towns! Not the charming village she’d created, nestled in the mountains, with a warm, bustling cafe that smelled of cinnamon and, most fanciful of all, a bookstore supposedly making a profit. The reviewers would rightly call it ‘twee’, but it probably wouldn’t get reviewed and she never read her reviews anyway. So that was it for poor old Jarribong. Goodbye, sad little tidy town. She put her foot on the accelerator and watched her speed slide back up to one hundred. The website had said that the turn-off was twenty minutes outside of Jarribong. There was a sign ahead. She narrowed her eyes, hunched over the wheel to read it: Tranquillum House next turn on the left. Her heart lifted. She’d done it. She’d driven six hours without quite losing her mind. Then her heart sank, because now she was going to have to go through with this thing. ‘Turn left in one kilometre,’ ordered her GPS. ‘I don’t want to turn left in one kilometre,’ said Frances dolefully. She wasn’t even meant to be here, in this season or hemisphere. She was meant to be with her ‘special friend’ Paul Drabble in Santa Barbara, the Californian winter sun warm upon their faces as they visited wineries, restaurants and museums. She was meant to be spending long lingering afternoons getting to know Paul’s twelve-year-old son, Ari, hearing his dry little chuckle as he taught her how to play some violent PlayStation game he loved. Frances’s friends with kids had laughed and scoffed over that, but she’d been looking forward to learning the game; the storylines sounded really quite rich and complex. An image came to her of that detective’s earnest young face. He had freckles left over from childhood and he wrote down everything she said in laborious longhand using a scratchy blue ballpoint. His spelling was atrocious. He spelled ‘tomorrow’ with two m’s. He couldn’t meet her eye. A sudden rush of intense heat enveloped her body at the memory. Humiliation? Probably. Her head swam. She shivered and shook. Her hands were instantly slippery on the steering wheel. Pull over, she told herself. You need to pull over right now. She indicated, even though there was no-one behind her, and came to a stop on the side of the road. She had the sense to switch on her hazard lights. Sweat poured from her face. Within seconds her shirt was drenched. She pulled at the fabric and smeared back strands of wet hair from her forehead. A cold chill made her shake. She sneezed, and the act of sneezing caused her back to spasm. The pain was of such truly biblical proportions that she began to laugh as tears streamed down her face. Oh yes, she was losing her mind. She certainly was. A great wave of unfocused primal rage swept over her. She banged her fist against her car horn over and over, closed her eyes, threw back her head and screamed in unison with the horn, because she had this cold and this back pain and this broken bloody heart and – ‘Hey!’ She opened her eyes and jumped back in her seat. A man crouched next to her car window, rapping hard on the glass. She saw what must be his car pulled up on the opposite side of the road, with its hazard lights also on. ‘You okay?’ he shouted. ‘Do you need help?’ For God’s sake. This was meant to be a private moment of despair. How deeply embarrassing. She pressed the button to lower the window. A very large, unpleasant, unkempt, unshaven man peered in at her. He wore a t-shirt with the faded emblem of some ancient band over a proud, solid beer belly and low-slung blue jeans. He was probably one of those outback serial killers. Even though this wasn’t technically the outback. He was probably on holiday from the outback. ‘Got car trouble?’ he asked. ‘No,’ said Frances. She sat up straighter and tried to smile. She ran a hand through her damp hair. ‘Thank you. I’m fine. The car is fine. Everything is fine.’ ‘Are you sick?’ said the man. He looked faintly disgusted. ‘No,’ said Frances. ‘Not really. Just a bad cold.’ ‘Maybe you’ve got the proper flu. You look really sick,’ said the man. He frowned, and his eyes moved to the back of her car. ‘And you were screaming and sounding your horn like you . . . were in trouble.’ ‘Yes,’ said Frances. ‘Well. I thought I was alone in the middle of nowhere. I was just . . . having a bad moment.’ She tried to keep the resentment from her voice. He was a good citizen who had done the right thing. He’d done what anyone would do. ‘Thank you for stopping but I’m fine,’ she said nicely, with her sweetest, most placatory smile. One must placate large strange men in the middle of nowhere. ‘Okay then.’ The man straightened with a groan of effort, his hands on his thighs to give himself leverage, but then he rapped the top of her car with his knuckles and bent down again, suddenly decisive. I’m a man, I know what’s what. ‘Look, are you too sick to drive? Because if you’re not safe to drive, if you’re a danger to other drivers on the road, I really can’t in good conscience let you –’ Frances sat up straight. For heaven’s sake. ‘I just had a hot flash,’ she snapped. The man blanched. ‘Oh!’ He studied her. Paused. ‘I always thought it was a hot flush,’ he said. ‘I believe both terms are used,’ said Frances. This was her third one. She’d done a lot of reading, spoken to every woman she knew over the age of forty-five, and had a double appointment with her GP, where she had cried, ‘But no-one ever said it was like this!’ For now they were monitoring things. She was taking supplements, cutting back on alcohol and spicy foods. Ha ha. ‘So you’re okay,’ said the man. He looked up and down the highway as if for help. ‘I really am perfectly fine,’ said Frances. Her back gave a friendly little spasm and she tried not to flinch. ‘I didn’t realise that hot flashes – flushes – were so . . .’ ‘Dramatic? Well, they’re not for everyone. Just a lucky few.’ ‘Isn’t there . . . what’s it called? Hormone replacement therapy?’ Oh my Lord. ‘Can you prescribe me something?’ asked Frances brightly. The man took a little step back from the car, hands up in surrender. ‘Sorry. It’s just, I think that was what my wife . . . Anyway, none of my business. If everything is okay, I’ll just be on my way.’ ‘Great,’ said Frances. ‘Thank you for stopping.’ ‘No worries.’ He lifted a hand, went to say something else, evidently changed his mind and walked back towards his car. There were sweat marks on the back of his t-shirt. A mountain of a man. Lucky he decided she wasn’t worth killing and raping. He probably preferred his victims less sweaty. She watched him start his car and pull out onto the highway. He tipped one finger to his forehead as he drove off. She waited until his car was a tiny speck in her rear-view mirror and then she reached over for the change of clothes she had waiting on the passenger seat ready for this exact situation. ‘Menopause?’ her eighty-year-old mother had said vaguely, on the phone from the other side of the world, where she now lived blissfully in the south of France. ‘Oh, I don’t think it gave me too much trouble, darling. I got it all over and done with in a weekend, as I recall. I’m sure you’ll be the same. I never had those hot flushes. I think they’re a myth, to be honest.’ Hmmph, thought Frances as she used a towel to wipe away her mythical sweat. She thought of texting a photo of her tomato-red face to her group of schoolfriends, some of whom she’d known since kindergarten. Now when they went out to dinner they discussed menopause symptoms with the same avid horror with which they’d once discussed their first periods. Nobody else was getting these over-the-top hot flushes like Frances, so she was taking it for the team. Like everything in life, their reactions to menopause were driven by their personalities: Di said she was in a permanent state of rage and if her gynaecologist didn’t agree to a hysterectomy soon she was going to grab the little fucker by the collar and slam him up against the wall, Monica was embracing the ‘beautiful intensity’ of her emotions and Natalie was wondering anxiously if it was contributing to her anxiety. They all agreed it was totally typical of their friend Gillian to die so she could get out of menopause and then they cried into their prosecco. No, she wouldn’t text her schoolfriends, because she suddenly remembered how at that last dinner she’d looked up from her menu to catch an exchange of glances that most definitely meant: ‘Poor Frances.’ She could not bear pity. That particular group of solidly married friends was meant to envy her, or they’d pretended to envy her anyway, for all these years, but it seemed that being childless and single in your thirties was very different from being childless and single in your fifties. No longer glamorous. Now kind of tragic. I’m only temporarily tragic, she told herself as she pulled on a clean blouse that showed a lot of cleavage. She tossed the sweaty shirt into the back seat, restarted the car, looked over her shoulder and pulled out onto the highway. Temporarily Tragic. It could be the name of a band. There was a sign. She squinted. Tranquillum House, it said. ‘Left turn ahead,’ said her GPS. ‘Yes, I know, I see it.’ She met her own eyes in the rear-view mirror and tried to give herself a wry ‘isn’t life interesting!’ look. Frances had always enjoyed the idea of parallel universes in which multiple versions of herself tried out different lives – one where she was a CEO instead of an author; one where she was a mother of two or four or six kids instead of none; one where she hadn’t divorced Sol and one where she hadn’t divorced Henry – but for the most part she’d always felt satisfied or at least accepting of the universe in which she found herself . . . except for right now, because right now it felt like there had been some sort of cataclysmic quantum physics administrative error. She’d slipped universes. She was meant to be high on lust and love in America, not pain-ridden and grief-stricken in Australia. It was just wrong. Unacceptable. And yet here she was. There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to turn. ‘Goddamn it,’ she said, and turned left. chapter three Lars ‘This one is my wife’s favourite.’ The vineyard manager, a chunky, cheery guy in his sixties with a retro moustache, held up a bottle of white wine. ‘She says it makes her think of silk sheets. It has a creamy, velvety finish I think you’ll enjoy.’ Lars swirled the tasting glass and breathed in the scent: apples and sunshine and wood smoke. An instant memory of an autumnal day. The comfort of a large, warm hand holding his. It felt like a childhood memory but probably wasn’t; more likely a memory he’d borrowed from a book or movie. He sipped the wine, let it roll around his mouth, and was transported to a bar on the Amalfi Coast. Vine leaves over the light fitting and the smell of garlic and the sea. That was a bona fide happy memory from real life with photos to prove it. He remembered the spaghetti. Just parsley, olive oil and almonds. There might even be a photo of the spaghetti somewhere. ‘What do you think?’ The vineyard manager grinned. It was like his moustache had been perfectly preserved from 1975. ‘It’s excellent.’ Lars took another sip, trying to get the full picture. Wine could fool you: all sunshine and apples and spaghetti and then nothing but sour disappointment and empty promises. ‘I also have a pinot grigio that might appeal . . .’ Lars held up his hand and looked at his watch. ‘I’d better stop there.’ ‘Have you got far to travel today?’ Anyone who stopped here would be on their way to somewhere else. Lars had nearly missed the small wooden Tasting Cellar sign. He’d slammed on the brakes because that’s the sort of man he was: spontaneous. When he remembered to be. ‘I’m due to check in at a health resort in an hour’s time.’ Lars held the wineglass up to the light and admired the golden colour. ‘So no alcohol for me for the next ten days.’ ‘Ah. Tranquillum House, right?’ said the manager. ‘Doing the – what do they call it? – ten-day cleanse or some such thing?’ ‘For my sins,’ said Lars. ‘We normally get guests stopping in here on their way home. We’re the first vineyard they drive by on the road back to Sydney.’ ‘What do they have to say about the place?’ asked Lars. He pulled out his wallet. He was going to order some wine to be delivered as a welcome-home treat. ‘Some of them seem a bit shell-shocked, to be honest. They mostly just need a drink and some potato chips and they get the colour back in their cheeks.’ The manager placed his hand around the neck of the bottle, as if for comfort. ‘Actually, my sister just got a job working in the spa there. She says her new boss is a bit . . .’ He squinted hard as if trying to see the word he wanted. Finally, he said, ‘Different.’ ‘I’m forewarned,’ said Lars. He wasn’t concerned. He was a health-retreat junkie. The people who ran these places tended to be ‘different’. ‘She says the house itself is amazing. It’s got a fascinating history.’ ‘Built by convicts, I believe.’ Lars tapped the corner of his gold Amex against the bar. ‘Yeah. Poor buggers. No spa treatments for them.’ A woman appeared from a door behind him, muttering, ‘Bloody internet is down again.’ She stopped when she saw Lars and did a double take. He was used to it. He’d had a lifetime of double takes. She looked away fast, flustered. ‘This is my wife,’ said the vineyard manager with pride. ‘We were just talking about your favourite semillon, love – the silk-sheets semillon.’ The colour rose up her neck. ‘I wish you wouldn’t tell people that.’ Her husband looked confused. ‘I always tell people that.’ ‘I’m going to get a case,’ said Lars. He watched the wife pat her husband’s back as she moved past him. ‘Make it two cases,’ Lars said, because he spent his days dealing with the shattered remnants of broken marriages and he was a sucker for a good one. He smiled at the woman. Her hands fluttered to her hair while her oblivious husband pulled out a battered old order book with a pen attached by a string, leaned heavily on the counter and peered at the form in a way that indicated this was going to take some time. ‘Name?’ ‘Lars Lee,’ said Lars, as his phone beeped with a text message. He tapped the screen. Can you at least think about it? Xx His heart lurched as if at the sudden scuttle of a black furry spider. For fuck’s sake. He’d thought they were done with this. His thumb hovered over the message, considering. The passive aggressiveness of the ‘at least’. The saccharine double kiss. Also, he didn’t like the fact that the first kiss was upper case and the second was lower case and he didn’t like the fact that he didn’t like this. It was mildly OCD-ish. He tapped in a rude, boorish upper-case reply: NO. I WILL NOT. But then he deleted it, and shoved his phone back into the pocket of his jeans. ‘Let me try that pinot grigio.’ chapter four Frances Frances drove twenty minutes down a bumpy dirt road that jolted the car so hard her bones rattled and her lower back screamed. At last she came to a stop in front of what appeared to be an extremely locked gate with an intercom. It was like arriving at a minimum-security jail. An ugly barbed-wire fence stretched endlessly in either direction. She had envisaged driving up a stately tree-lined drive to the ‘historic’ house and having someone greet her with a green smoothie. This didn’t feel very healing, to be frank. Stop it, she told herself. If she got into that I’m a dissatisfied consumer mode everything would start to dissatisfy her, and she was going to be here for ten days. She needed to be open and flexible. Going to a health resort was like travelling to a new country. One must embrace different cultures and be patient with minor inconveniences. She lowered her car window. Hot thick air filled her throat like smoke as she leaned out and pressed the green button on the intercom with her thumb. The button burned from the sun and it hurt her paper cut. She sucked on her thumb and waited for a disembodied voice to welcome her, or for the wrought-iron gate to magically open. Nothing. She looked again at the intercom and saw a handwritten note sticky-taped next to the button. The writing was so small she could only make out the important word ‘instructions’ but nothing else. For goodness sake, she thought, as she went through her handbag for her reading glasses. Surely a good proportion of visitors were over forty. She found her glasses, put them on, peered at the sign and still couldn’t make it out. Tut-tutting and muttering, she got out of the car. The heat grabbed her in a heavy embrace and beads of sweat sprang up all over her scalp. She ducked down next to the intercom and read the note, written in neat, tiny block letters as if by the tooth fairy. NAMASTE AND WELCOME TO TRANQUILLUM HOUSE WHERE A NEW YOU AWAITS. PLEASE PRESS THE SECURITY CODE 564–312 FOLLOWED IMMEDIATELY BY THE GREEN BUTTON. She pressed the security code numbers then the green button and waited. Sweat rolled down her back. She would need to change her clothes again. A blowfly buzzed near her mouth. Her nose dripped. ‘Oh come on!’ she said to the intercom with a sudden spurt of rage, and she wondered if her agitated sweaty face was appearing on some screen inside, while an expert dispassionately analysed her symptoms, her misaligned chakras. This one needs work. Look at how she responds to one of life’s simplest stresses: waiting. Had she got the damned code wrong? Once again she carefully punched in the security code, saying each number out loud, in a sarcastic tone, to prove a point to God knows who, and gave the hot green button a slow, deliberate push, holding it for five seconds just to be sure. There. Now let me in. She took off her reading glasses and let them dangle in her hand. The baking heat seemed to be melting her scalp like chocolate in the sun. Silence again. She gave the intercom a fierce, hard look, as if that would shame it into acting. At least this would make a funny story for Paul. She wondered if he’d ever been to a health resort. She thought he’d most likely be a sceptic. She herself was – Her chest constricted. This wouldn’t make a good story for Paul. Paul was gone. How humiliating for him to have slipped into her thoughts like that. She wished she felt a surge of white-hot anger instead of this utter sadness, this pretend grief for what had never been real in the first place. Stop it. Don’t think about it. Focus on the problem at hand. The solution was obvious. She would ring Tranquillum House! They would be mortified to hear that their intercom had broken and Frances would be calm and understanding and brush away their apologies. ‘These things happen,’ she’d say. ‘Namaste.’ She got back in the car, cranked up the air-conditioner. She found the paperwork with her booking details, and rang the number listed. All her other communications had been by email, so it was the first time she’d heard the recorded message that immediately began to play. ‘Thank you for calling the historic Tranquillum House Health and Wellness Hot Springs Resort, where a new you awaits. Your call is so important and special to us, as is your health and wellbeing, but we are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls at the moment. We know your time is precious, so please do leave a message after the chimes and we will call you back just as soon as we can. We so appreciate your patience. Namaste.’ Frances cleared her throat as wind chimes made their annoying twinkly dinging sounds. ‘Oh yes, my name is –’ The wind chimes kept going. She stopped, waited, went to speak and stopped again. It was a wind-chime symphony. At last there was silence. ‘Hello, this is Frances Welty.’ She sniffed. ‘Excuse me. Bit of a cold. Anyway, as I said, I’m Frances Welty. I’m a guest.’ Guest? Was that the right word? Patient? Inmate? ‘I’m trying to check in and I’m stuck outside the gate. It’s, ah, twenty past three, twenty-five past three, and I’m . . . here! The intercom doesn’t seem to be working even though I’ve followed all the instructions. The teeny-tiny instructions. I’d appreciate it if you could just open the gate? Let me in?’ Her message finished on a rising note of hysteria, which she regretted. She put the phone down on the seat next to her and studied the gate. Nothing. She would give it twenty minutes and then she was throwing in the towel. Her phone rang and she snatched it up without looking at the screen. ‘Hi there!’ she said cheerfully, to show how understanding and patient she really was and to make up for the sarcastic ‘teeny-tiny’ comment. ‘Frances?’ It was Alain, her literary agent. ‘You don’t sound like you.’ Frances sighed. ‘I was expecting someone else. I’m doing that health retreat I told you about, but I can’t even get through the front gate. Their intercom isn’t working.’ ‘How incompetent! How unsatisfactory!’ Alain was easily and often enraged by poor service. ‘You should turn around and come back home. It’s not alternative, is it? Remember those poor people who died in that sweat lodge? They all thought they were becoming enlightened when in reality they were being cooked?’ ‘This place is pretty mainstream. Hot springs and massages and art therapy. Maybe some gentle fasting.’ ‘Gentle fasting.’ Alain snorted. ‘Eat when you’re hungry. That’s a privilege, you know, to eat when you’re hungry, when there are people starving in this world.’ ‘Well, that’s the point – we’re not starving in this part of the world,’ said Frances. She looked at the wrapper for the KitKat bar sitting in the console of her car. ‘We’re eating too much processed food. So that’s why us privileged people need to detox –’ ‘Oh my Lord, she’s falling for it. She’s drunk the Kool-Aid! Detoxing is a myth, darling, it’s been debunked! Your liver does it for you. Or maybe it’s your kidneys. It’s all taken care of somehow.’ ‘Anyway,’ said Frances. She had a feeling he was procrastinating. ‘Anyway,’ said Alain. ‘You sound like you’ve got a cold, Frances.’ He seemed quite anguished about her cold. ‘I do have a very bad, persistent, possibly permanent cold,’ said Frances. She coughed to demonstrate. ‘You’d be proud of me. I’ve been taking a lot of very powerful drugs. My heart is going at a million miles per hour.’ ‘That’s the ticket,’ said Alain. There was a pause. ‘Alain?’ she prompted, but she knew, she already knew exactly what he was going to say. ‘I’m afraid I am not the bearer of good news,’ said Alain. ‘I see.’ She sucked in her stomach, ready to take it like a man, or at least like a romance novelist capable of reading her own royalty statements. ‘Well, as you know, darling,’ began Alain. But Frances couldn’t bear to hear him hedging, trying to soften the blow with compliments. ‘They don’t want the new book, do they?’ she said. ‘They don’t want the new book,’ said Alain sadly. ‘I’m so sorry. I think it’s a beautiful book, I really do, it’s just the current environment, and romance has taken the worst hit, it won’t be forever, romance always comes back, it’s a blip, but –’ ‘So you’ll sell it to someone else,’ interrupted Frances. ‘Sell it to Timmy.’ There was another pause. ‘The thing is,’ said Alain, ‘I didn’t tell you this, but I slipped the manuscript to Timmy a few weeks back, because I did have a tiny fear this might happen and obviously an offer from Timmy before we had anything on the table would have given me leverage, so I –’ ‘Timmy passed?’ Frances couldn’t believe it. Hanging in her wardrobe was a designer dress that she’d never be able to wear again because of the stain from a pina colada Timmy had spilled on her while he had her cornered in a room at the Melbourne Writers Festival, his voice hasty and hot in her ear, looking back over his shoulder like a spy, telling her how much he wanted to publish her, how it was his destiny to publish her, how no-one else in the publishing industry knew how to publish her the way he did, how her loyalty to Jo was admirable but misplaced because Jo thought she understood romance but she didn’t, only Timmy did, and only Timmy could and would take Frances ‘to the next level’, and so on and so forth until Jo turned up and rescued her. ‘Oi, leave my author alone.’ How long ago was that? Not that long surely. Maybe nine, ten years ago. A decade. Time went so fast these days. There was some sort of malfunction going on with how fast the earth was spinning. Decades went by as quickly as years once did. ‘Timmy loved the book,’ said Alain. ‘Adored it. He was nearly in tears. He couldn’t get it past acquisitions. They’re all shaking in their boots over there. It was a hell of a year. The decree from above is psychological thrillers.’ ‘I can’t write a thriller,’ said Frances. She never liked to kill characters. Sometimes she let them break a limb, but she felt bad enough about that. ‘Of course you can’t!’ said Alain too quickly, and Frances felt mildly insulted. ‘Look, I have to admit I was worried when Jo left and you were out of contract,’ said Alain. ‘But Ashlee seemed to really be a fan of yours.’ Frances’s concentration drifted as Alain continued to talk. She watched the closed gate and pushed the knuckles of her left hand into her lower back. What would Jo say when she heard Frances had been rejected? Or would she have had to do the same thing? Frances had always assumed that Jo would be her editor forever. She had fondly imagined them finishing their working lives simultaneously, perhaps with a lavish joint retirement lunch, but late last year Jo had announced her intention to retire. Retire! Like she was some sort of old grandma! Jo actually was a grandmother, but for goodness sake that wasn’t a reason to stop. Frances felt like she was only just getting into the swing of things, and all of a sudden people in her circle were doing old-people things: having grandchildren, retiring, downsizing, dying – not in car accidents or plane crashes, no, dying peacefully in their sleep. She would never forgive Gillian for that. Gillian always slipped out of parties without saying goodbye. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Jo’s replacement turned out to be a child, because children were taking over the world. Everywhere Frances looked there were children: children sitting gravely behind news desks, controlling traffic, running writers’ festivals, taking her blood pressure, managing her taxes and fitting her bras. When Frances first met Ashlee she had genuinely thought she was there on work experience. She’d been about to say, ‘A cappuccino would be lovely, darling,’ when the child had walked around to the other side of Jo’s old desk. ‘Frances,’ she’d said, ‘this is such a fan girl moment for me! I used to read your books when I was, like, eleven! I stole them from my mum’s handbag. I’d be like, Mum, you’ve got to let me read Nathaniel’s Kiss, and she’d be like, No way, Ashlee, there’s too much sex in it!’ Then Ashlee had proceeded to tell Frances that her next book needed more sex, a lot more sex, but she knew Frances could totally pull it off! As Ashlee was sure Frances knew, the market was changing, and ‘If you just look at this chart here, Frances – no, here; that’s it – you’ll see that your sales have been on kind of a, well, sorry to say this, but you kind of have to call this a downward trend, and we, like, really need to reverse that, like, super-fast. Oh, and one other thing . . .’ Ashlee looked pained, as if she were about to bring up an embarrassing medical issue. ‘Your social media presence? I hear you’re not so keen on social media. Neither is my mum! But it’s kind of essential in today’s market. Your fans really do need to see you on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook – that’s just the bare minimum. Also, we’d love you to start a blog and a newsletter and perhaps do some regular vlogs? That would be so much fun! They’re like little films!’ ‘I have a website,’ replied Frances. ‘Yes,’ said Ashlee kindly. ‘Yes you do, Frances. But nobody cares about websites.’ And then she’d angled her computer monitor towards Frances so she could show her some examples of other, better behaved authors with ‘active’ social media presences, and Frances had stopped listening and waited for it to be over, like a dental appointment. (She couldn’t see the screen anyway. She didn’t have her glasses with her.) But she wasn’t worried, because she was falling in love with Paul Drabble at the time, and when she was falling in love she always wrote her best books. And besides, she had the sweetest, most loyal readers in the world. Her sales might drop but she would always be published. ‘I will find the right home for this book,’ said Alain now. ‘It might just take a little while. Romance isn’t dead!’ ‘Isn’t it?’ said Frances. ‘Not even close,’ said Alain. She picked up the empty KitKat wrapper and licked it, hoping for fragments of chocolate. How was she going to get through this setback without sugar? ‘Frances?’ said Alain. ‘My back hurts a great deal,’ said Frances. She blew her nose hard. ‘Also, I had to stop the car in the middle of the road to have a hot flush.’ ‘That sounds truly awful,’ said Alain with feeling. ‘I can’t even imagine.’ ‘No you can’t. A man stopped to see if I was alright because I was screaming.’ ‘You were screaming?’ said Alain. ‘I felt like screaming,’ said Frances. ‘Of course, of course,’ said Alain hurriedly. ‘I understand. I often feel like screaming.’ This was rock-bottom. She’d just licked a KitKat wrapper. ‘Oh dear, Frances, I’m so sorry about this, especially after what happened with that horrendous man. Have the police had anything new to say?’ ‘No,’ said Frances. ‘No news.’ ‘Darling, I’m just bleeding for you here.’ ‘That’s not necessary,’ sniffed Frances. ‘You’ve just had such a bad trot lately, darling – speaking of which, I want you to know that review had absolutely no impact on their decision.’ ‘What review?’ said Frances. There was silence. She knew Alain was smacking his forehead. ‘Alain?’ ‘Oh God,’ he said. ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.’ ‘I haven’t read a review since 1998,’ said Frances. ‘Not a single review. You know that.’ ‘I absolutely know that,’ said Alain. ‘I’m an idiot. I’m a fool.’ ‘Why would there be a review when I don’t have a new book out?’ Frances wriggled upright in her seat. Her back hurt so much she thought she might be sick. ‘Some bitch picked up a copy of What the Heart Wants at the airport and did an opinion piece about, ah, your books in general, a mad diatribe. She kind of linked it to the Me Too movement, which gave it some clickbait traction. It was just ridiculous – as if romance books are to blame for sexual predators!’ ‘What?’ ‘Nobody even read the review. I don’t know why I mentioned it. I must have early onset dementia.’ ‘You just said it got traction!’ Everyone had read the review. Everyone. ‘Send me the link,’ said Frances. ‘It’s not even that bad,’ said Alain. ‘It’s just this prejudice against your genre –’ ‘Send it!’ ‘No,’ said Alain. ‘I won’t. You’ve gone all these years without reading reviews. Don’t fall off the wagon!’ ‘Right now,’ said Frances in her dangerous voice. She used it rarely. When she was getting divorced, for example. ‘I’ll send it,’ said Alain meekly. ‘I’m so sorry, Frances. I’m so sorry about this entire phone call.’ He hung up, and Frances immediately went to her email. There wasn’t much time. As soon as she arrived at Tranquillum House she would need to ‘hand in’ her ‘device’. It would be a digital detox, along with everything else. She was going ‘off the grid’. SO SORRY! said Alain’s email. She clicked on the review. It was written by someone called Helen Ihnat. Frances didn’t know the name and there was no picture. She read it fast, with a wry, dignified smile, as if the author were saying these things to her face. It was a terrible review: vicious, sarcastic and superior, but, interestingly, it didn’t hurt. The words – Formulaic. Trash. Drivel. Trite – slid right off her. She was fine! Can’t please everyone. Comes with the territory. And then she felt it. It was like when you burn yourself on a hotplate and at first you think, Huh, that should have hurt more, and then it does hurt more, and then all of a sudden it hurts like hell. A quite extraordinary pain in her chest radiated throughout her entire body. Another fun symptom of menopause? Maybe it was a heart attack. Women had heart attacks. Surely this was more than hurt feelings. This, of course, was why she’d given up reading reviews in the first place. Her skin was too thin. ‘It was the best decision I ever made,’ she’d told the audience at the Romance Writers of Australia Conference when she gave the keynote address last year. They’d probably all been thinking: Yeah, maybe you should read a review or two, Frances, you old has-been. Why did she think it was a good idea to read a bad review directly after she’d just received her first rejection in thirty years? And now something else was happening. It appeared and, gosh, this was just so fascinating, but it seemed she was losing her entire sense of self. Come on now, Frances, get a grip, you’re too old for an existential crisis. But apparently she wasn’t. She scrabbled hopelessly after her self-identity, but it was like trying to catch water rushing down a drain. If she was no longer a published writer, who was she? What was the actual point of her? She wasn’t a mother or a wife or a girlfriend. She was a twice-divorced, middle-aged, hot-flushing/flashing menopausal woman. A punchline. A clich?. Invisible to most – except, of course, to men like Paul Drabble. She looked at the gate in front of her that still would not open and her vision blurred with tears and she told herself not to panic, you are not disappearing, Frances, don’t be so melodramatic, this is just a rough trot, a bad patch, and it’s the cold and flu tablets making your heart race, but it felt like she was hovering on a precipice, and on the other side of the precipice was a howling abyss of despair unlike anything she’d ever experienced, even during those times of true grief – and this is not true grief, she reminded herself, this is a career setback combined with the loss of a relationship, a bad back, a cold and a paper cut; this is not like when Dad died, or Gillian died – but actually it wasn’t that helpful to start remembering the deaths of loved ones, not helpful at all. She looked around wildly for distraction – her phone, her book, food – and then she saw movement in her rear-view mirror. What was it? An animal? A trick of the light? No, it was something. It was too slow for a car. Wait. It was a car. It was just driving so slowly it was barely moving. She sat up straight and ran her fingers under her eyes where her mascara had run. A canary-yellow sports car drove down the dirt drive slower than she would have thought possible. Frances had no interest in cars, but as it got closer even she could tell this was a spectacularly expensive piece of machinery. Low to the ground and shimmery-shiny with futuristic headlights. It came to a stop behind hers and the doors on either side opened simultaneously. A young man and woman emerged. Frances adjusted her mirror to see them more clearly. The man looked like a suburban plumber off to a Sunday barbecue: baseball cap on backwards, sunglasses, t-shirt, shorts and boat shoes with no socks. The woman had amazing long curly auburn hair, skin-tight capri pants, an impossibly tiny waist and even more unlikely breasts. She teetered on stilettos. Why in the world would a young couple like that come to a health retreat? Wasn’t this sort of place for the overweight and burnt out, for those grappling with bad backs and pathetic midlife identity crises? As Frances watched, the man turned his baseball cap around the right way and tipped his head back, arching his back as if he, too, found the sky overwhelming. The woman said something to him. Frances could tell by the way her mouth moved that it was sharp. They were arguing. How delightfully distracting. Frances lowered her window. These people would pull her back from the precipice, bring her back into existence. She would regain her self-identity by existing in their eyes. They would see her as old and eccentric and maybe even annoying, but it didn’t matter how they saw her, as long as they saw her. She leaned clumsily out the car window, waggled her fingers and called out, ‘Helloooo!’ The girl tottered over the grass towards her. chapter five Ben Ben watched Jessica walk like a baby giraffe towards the Peugeot 308 – overpriced piece of crap – parked at the gate, engine running. One of the Peugeot’s brake lights was gone and the muffler looked like it was bent, no doubt from that dirt road. The lady behind the wheel was leaning halfway out her window, practically falling out, waving wildly at Jessica as if she couldn’t be more pleased to see her. Why didn’t she just open her car door and get out? It looked like the health resort was closed. A burst water main? A mutiny? He could only hope. Jessica could hardly walk in those stupid shoes. It was like she was on stilts. The heels were as skinny as toothpicks. She would roll an ankle any minute. Ben squatted down next to his car and ran his fingers over the paintwork, searching for stone chips. He glanced back at the road they’d just come down and winced. How could a place that charged eye-watering rates have a road like that? There should have been a warning on the website. He’d thought for sure they were going to bottom out on some of those potholes. No scratches that he could see, which was a miracle, but who knew what damage there was to the undercarriage? He’d have to wait till he could get it back up in the workshop, take a look. He wanted to do it right now, but he was going to have to wait ten days. Maybe he should get the car towed back to Melbourne. He could call Pete’s guys. It wasn’t the craziest of ideas, except that he’d never hear the end of it if any of his former workmates saw that he’d driven this car down that road. He suspected his ex-boss would cry, literally cry, if he saw what Ben had done. Pete’s eyes had got suspiciously shiny after the scratch incident last month. ‘Scratchgate’, they all called it. ‘Jealous fuck,’ Pete said when Ben showed him the long deliberate scratch left by some evil person’s key on the passenger door. Ben couldn’t work out where and when it had happened. He never left the car in public car parks. It felt like it had to be someone they knew. Ben could name multiple people who might resent him and Jessica enough to have done it. Once he would have found it hard to name a single enemy in his life. Now it seemed they had a nice little collection. He knew Jessica thought it was Ben’s sister who had done it, although she never accused Lucy out loud. He could read her mind by the thin fold of her lips. Maybe she was right. It could have been Lucy. Pete had fixed the scratch with the same care as if he were restoring a priceless painting, and Ben had been vigilant until right now, when he’d put the car at huge, unforgivable risk by driving down that hellish road. Ben should never have given in to Jessica. He’d tried. He stopped the car and told her, calmly and without swearing, that driving a car like this down an unsealed road was negligent and that the consequences could be catastrophic. They could, for example, rip out the exhaust system. It was almost like she seriously didn’t care about the exhaust system. They’d yelled at each other for ten minutes straight. Proper yelling. Spitballs flying. Their faces red and ugly and contorted. The head-exploding frustration he’d felt during that argument was like something half-remembered from childhood, when you couldn’t express yourself properly and you had no control over your life because you were a kid, so when your mum or dad said you couldn’t have the new Star Wars action figure you wanted with all your heart you totally lost your shit. There had been a moment there when he’d clenched his fists; when he had to tell himself, Don’t hit her. He hadn’t known he was capable of feeling the desire to hit a woman. He folded right then. He said, ‘Fine. I’ll ruin the car. Whatever.’ Most guys he knew wouldn’t have even stopped for the yelling. They would have just done a U-turn. Most guys would never have agreed to this crazy idea in the first place. A health resort. Yoga and hot springs. He didn’t get it. But Jessica had said they needed to do something dramatic and this would fix things. She said they needed to detox their minds and their bodies to save their marriage. They were going to eat organic lettuce and get ‘couples counselling’. It was going to be ten days of pure torture. Some celebrity couple had come to this place and saved their marriage. They had ‘achieved inner peace’ and got back in touch with their ‘true selves’. What a load of crap. They may as well have handed over their money to Nigerian email scammers. Ben had a horrible feeling the celebrity couple might have got together on The Bachelorette. Jessica loved celebrities. He used to think it was sweet, a dumb interest for a smart girl. But now she was making too many life decisions based on what celebrities did, or what it was reported they did; it was probably all crap anyway, they were probably getting paid to support products on their Instagram accounts. And there was Jessica, his poor innocent, hopeful Jessica, soaking it all up. Now it was like she thought she was one of those people. She was imagining herself at those trashy red-carpet events. Every time she got her photo taken these days she put her hand on her hip, like she was doing the actions for ‘I’m a Little Teapot’, then turned side on and thrust out her jaw with this maniacal smile. It was the weirdest thing. And the time she took setting up these photographs. The other day she had spent forty-two minutes (he’d timed it) taking a photo of her feet. One of their biggest fights recently had been about one of her Instagram posts. It was a photo of her in a bikini top, leaning over, pushing her arms together so her new boobs looked even bigger and pouting her puffy new lips at the camera. She’d asked what he thought of the photo, her face all hopeful, and because of her hopeful face he hadn’t said what he really thought – that it looked like she was advertising a cheap escort service. He’d just shrugged and said, ‘It’s okay.’ Her hopeful face fell. You’d think he’d called her a name. Next thing he knew she was screaming at him (these days she could go from zero to a hundred in a second) and he felt sucker-punched, unable to understand what had just happened. So he’d walked away while she was in the middle of yelling and went upstairs to play the Xbox. He thought walking away was a good thing to do. A mature, manly thing to do. To disengage and give her time to calm down. He kept getting these things wrong. She ran up the stairs after him and grabbed the back of his t-shirt before he reached the top. ‘Look at me!’ she screamed. ‘You don’t even look at me anymore!’ And it killed him to hear her say that, because it was true. He avoided looking at her. He was trying really hard to get over that. There were men who stayed married to women who were disfigured by accidents, burns or scars or whatever. It shouldn’t make a difference that Jessica was disfigured by her own hand. Not literally her own hand. Her own credit card. Wilful disfigurement. And then all her stupid friends encouraged her. ‘Oh my God, Jessica, you look incredible.’ He wanted to yell at them, ‘Are you blind? She looks like a chipmunk!’ The thought of separating from Jessica was like having his guts ripped out, but these days being married to Jessica was like having his guts ripped out. Whatever way you looked at it: guts ripped out. If this retreat worked, if they got back to the way they used to be, it was even worth the damage to the car. Obviously, it was worth it. Jessica was meant to be the mother of his children – his future children. He thought of the day of the robbery, two years ago now. He remembered the way her face – it was still her own beautiful face back then – had crumpled like a little kid’s, and the rage he’d felt. He’d wanted to find those fuckwits and smash their faces. If not for the robbery, if not for the fuckwits, they wouldn’t be at this place. He wouldn’t have the car, but at least he wouldn’t be stuck here for the next ten days. On balance, he still wanted to smash their faces. ‘Ben!’ Jessica beckoned him over. She was all social and smiley, like they hadn’t just been yelling at each other. She was so good at that. They could drive to a party and fight all the way, not say a word to each other as they walked up someone’s stairs, and then the door of the apartment opens and – bang – different person. Laughing, joking, teasing him, touching him, taking selfies, like they were so having sex tonight, when they were so not having sex tonight. Then, back in the car on the way home, she’d restart the fight. It was like flicking a switch on and off. It freaked him out. ‘It’s just good manners,’ she told him. ‘You don’t take your fight to a party. It’s no-one else’s business.’ He straightened up, adjusted his cap and went over to stand beside Jessica to perform like her monkey. ‘This is my husband, Ben,’ said Jessica. ‘Ben, this is Frances. She’s doing the same retreat as us. Well, probably not exactly the same . . .’ The lady smiled up at him from the driver’s seat. ‘That’s a very fancy car, Ben,’ she said. She spoke as if she already knew him. Her voice was snuffly and hoarse, the tip of her nose bright red. ‘It’s like something from a movie.’ He could see straight down the huge chasm of her cleavage; he couldn’t help it, there was literally nowhere else to look. It wasn’t bad, but she was old, so it wasn’t good either. She wore red lipstick and had a lot of curly gold-coloured hair pulled back in a ponytail. She reminded him of one of his mum’s tennis friends. He liked his mum’s tennis friends – they were uncomplicated and didn’t expect him to say much – but he preferred them not to have cleavage. ‘Thanks,’ he said, trying to focus on her very shiny, friendly eyes. ‘Nice to meet you.’ ‘What sort of car is it?’ asked Frances. ‘It’s a Lamborghini.’ ‘Ooh la la – a Lamborghini!’ She grinned up at him. ‘This here is a Peugeot.’ ‘Uh, yeah, I know,’ he said, pained. ‘Don’t think much of the Peugeot?’ She tilted her head to one side. ‘It’s a heap of shit,’ said Ben. ‘Ben!’ said Jessica, but Frances laughed delightedly. ‘I love my little Peugeot,’ purred Frances as she caressed her steering wheel. ‘Well,’ said Ben. ‘Each to their own.’ ‘Frances says nobody is answering the intercom,’ said Jessica. ‘She’s been sitting out here waiting for twenty minutes.’ Jessica was using her posh new voice, where she made each word sound as fat and round as an apple. She was using it almost exclusively now, except when she really lost her temper or got upset, like last night, when she forgot to be posh and yelled at him, ‘Why can’t you just be happy? Why are you ruining this?’ ‘Have you phoned them?’ he said now to the cleavage lady. ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with the intercom.’ ‘I’ve left a message,’ said Frances. ‘I wonder if this is like a test,’ said Jessica. ‘Maybe it’s part of our treatment plan.’ She lifted her hair up to cool her neck. Sometimes, when she spoke normally, when she was just being herself, he could forget the frozen forehead, the blowfish lips, the puffy cheeks, the camel eyelashes (‘eyelash extensions’), the fake hair (‘hair extensions’) and fake boobs and there, for just a moment, was his sweet Jessica, the Jessica he’d known since high school. ‘I thought that too!’ said Frances. Ben turned to look at the intercom. ‘I could hardly read the instructions,’ said Frances. ‘They were so tiny.’ Ben could read them perfectly well. He punched in the code and pressed the green button. ‘I will be absolutely furious if it works for you,’ said Frances. A tinny voice sprang from the intercom. ‘Namaste and welcome to Tranquillum House. How may I help you?’ ‘What the hell?’ Frances mouthed in comical disbelief. Ben shrugged. ‘Just needed a man’s touch.’ ‘Oh you,’ she said. She reached out of the car and flicked his arm with her hand. Jessica bent down next to the intercom and spoke too loudly. ‘We’re here to check in.’ It was cute, like Ben’s grandma on the phone. ‘The name is Chandler, Jessica and Ben –’ There was a burst of static from the intercom and the gates began to creak open. Jessica straightened, tucked her hair behind her ear, worried as always about her dignity. She never used to take herself so seriously. ‘I promise you I pressed that code correctly, or I thought I did!’ said Frances, as she buckled her seatbelt and revved her tappety little engine. She gave them a little wave. ‘I’ll see you in there! Don’t try to race me with your fancy-schmancy Ferrari.’ ‘It’s a Lamborghini!’ protested Ben. Frances winked at him, as if she knew that perfectly well, and drove off, faster than he would have expected, or recommended, on this road. As they walked back towards the car, Jessica said, ‘We’re not telling anybody, right? That’s the deal. If anyone asks, just say the car isn’t even yours. Say it belongs to a friend.’ ‘Yeah, but I’m not as good a liar as you,’ he said. He meant it as a joke or even a compliment, but he was leaving the interpretation up to her. ‘Fuck you,’ she said, though without much heat. So maybe they were okay. But sometimes the embers of a dying argument sparked without warning. You never knew. He would stay alert. ‘She seemed nice,’ said Ben. ‘The lady. Frances.’ That was safe. Frances was old. There could be no possibility of jealousy. The jealousy was a fun new development in their relationship. The more Jessica changed her face and body, the less secure she got. ‘I think I recognised her,’ said Jessica. ‘Really?’ ‘I’m pretty sure she’s Frances Welty, the writer. I used to be crazy about her books.’ ‘What sort of books does she write?’ asked Ben. He opened his car door. She said something he didn’t catch. ‘Sorry, what?’ ‘Romance.’ Jessica slammed the passenger door so hard he winced. chapter six Frances That’s more like it, thought Frances when she got her first look at the Victorian mansion emerging majestically in the distance. The road was sealed now, thankfully, and the bushland became progressively greener and softer. Tranquillum House was sandstone, three storeys, with a red corrugated-iron roof and a princess tower. Frances had the delightful sensation of time-travelling to the late nineteenth century, although the sensation was somewhat spoiled by the yellow Lamborghini purring along behind her. How could those kids afford that car? Drug dealers? Trust-fund kids? Drug dealing seemed more likely than trust fund; neither of them had that creamy entitled look of old money. She glanced in the rear-view mirror again. From here, with her hair blowing in the wind, Jessica looked like the pretty girl she was meant to be. You couldn’t see all the procedures she’d had done to her young face. The thick layer of make-up was bad enough, but oh goodness me, the blinding white teeth, the enormous puffy lips and the work, it was such bad work. Frances was not opposed to cosmetic procedures – in fact she was very fond of them – but there was something so sad and garish about this sweet child’s plumped-up, smoothed-out face. Surely all that jewellery she was wearing couldn’t be real, could it? Those massive sapphires in her ears would be worth . . . what? Frances had no idea. A lot. The car was obviously real, though, so maybe the jewellery was real too. Up-and-coming mobsters? YouTube stars? The boy, Jessica’s ‘husband’ (they seemed too young for such grown-up terms), was cute as a button. Frances would try not to flirt with him. The joke might wear thin after ten days. Possibly even bordering on . . . sleazy? Possibly bordering on paedophilia, darling, Alain would say. It was awful to think of lovely Ben shuddering over Frances the way Frances had once shuddered over the behaviour of older male authors at publishing parties. They used to be particularly hideous if they’d recently won a literary prize. Their dialogue was so powerful and impenetrable it didn’t require punctuation! So naturally they didn’t require permission to slip-slide their hairy hands over the body of a young writer of genre fiction. In their minds, Frances virtually owed them sex in return for her unseemly mass-market sales of ‘airport trash’. Stop it. Don’t think about the review, Frances. She’d marched in the Women’s March! She was not ‘a blight on feminism’ just because she described the colour of her hero’s eyes. How could you fall in love with someone if you didn’t know the colour of his eyes? And she was obliged to tie everything up at the end with a ‘giant bow’. Those were the rules. If Frances left her endings ambiguous, her readers would come after her with pitchforks. Do not think about the review. Do not think about the review. She dragged her mind back to Ben and Jessica. So, yes, she would remember to be age-appropriate with Ben. She would pretend they were related. She’d behave like his aunt. She certainly wouldn’t touch him. My God, she hadn’t touched him already, had she? The review was making her doubt everything about herself. Her hands tightened around the steering wheel. She had a habit of touching people on the arm to make a point, or when they said something that made her laugh, or when she felt in any way fondly towards them. At least talking with Ben and Jessica had calmed her down. She’d scared herself for a moment there. Loss of self, indeed. What a drama queen. The road circled up towards the house. Ben politely kept his powerful car at a respectable distance behind Frances, even though he probably longed to floor it on the curves. She drove up a stately driveway lined with towering pine trees. ‘Not too shabby,’ she murmured. She’d prepared herself for a seedier reality than the website pictures, but up close Tranquillum House was beautiful. The lacy white balconies glowed in the sunlight. The garden was lush and green in the summer heat, with a sign helpfully proclaiming THIS PROPERTY USES RAINWATER so no-one could criticise the lushness. Two white-uniformed staff members, with the floaty, straight-backed postures of the spiritually advanced, emerged unhurriedly from the house onto the wide veranda to greet them. Perhaps they’d been off meditating while she was stuck outside the gate trying to ring them. Frances had barely come to a complete stop when her car door was opened by the man. He was young, of course, like everyone, Asian, with a hipster beard and a man bun, bright-eyed and smooth-skinned. A delightful man-kid. ‘Namaste.’ The man-kid pressed his palms together and bowed. ‘A very warm welcome to Tranquillum House.’ He spoke with a tiny . . . measured . . . pause between each word. ‘I’m Yao,’ he said. ‘Your personal wellness consultant.’ ‘Hello, Yao. I’m Frances Welty. Your new victim.’ She undid her seatbelt and smiled up at him. She told herself she would not laugh, or attempt to imitate his yogic voice, or let it drive her mad. ‘We’ll take care of everything from here,’ said Yao. ‘How many bags do you have?’ ‘Just the one,’ said Frances. She indicated the back seat. ‘I can carry it. It’s quite light.’ She didn’t want to let the bag out of her sight because she’d packed a few banned items, like coffee, tea, chocolate (dark chocolate – antioxidants!) and just one bottle of a good red (also antioxidants!). ‘Leave your bag right there, Frances, and your keys in the ignition,’ said Yao firmly. Damn it. Oh well. Her slight embarrassment over her contraband, even though there was no way he could tell just by looking at the bag (she was normally such a good girl when it came to rules), caused her to hop out of the car awkwardly and too fast, forgetting her new fragility. ‘Ooof,’ she said. She straightened slowly and met Yao’s eyes. ‘Back pain.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Yao. ‘I’m going to arrange an urgent massage at the spa for you.’ He took a small notepad and pencil out of his pocket and made a note. ‘I also have a paper cut,’ said Frances solemnly. She held up her thumb. Yao took hold of her thumb and peered at it. ‘Nasty,’ he said. ‘We’ll need to get some aloe vera on that.’ Oh God, he was gorgeous with his little notebook, taking her paper cut so seriously. She caught herself studying his shoulders and looked away fast. For God’s sake, Frances. Nobody had warned her that this would happen during middle age: these sudden, wildly inappropriate waves of desire for young men, with no biological imperative whatsoever. Maybe this was what men felt like all their lives? No wonder the poor things had to pay out all that money in lawsuits. ‘And you’re here for the ten-day cleanse,’ said Yao. ‘That’s right,’ said Frances. ‘Awesome,’ said Yao, causing Frances to fortunately lose all desire in an instant. She could never sleep with someone who said ‘awesome’. ‘So . . . may I go inside?’ asked Frances snappily. Now she felt quite ill at the thought of sex with the man-kid, or sex with anyone for that matter; she was far too hot. She saw that Yao was distracted by the sight of Ben and Jessica’s car, or possibly by Jessica, who was standing with one hip cocked, slowly curling a long strand of hair around her finger while Ben talked to another white-uniformed wellness consultant, a young woman with skin so beautiful it looked like it was lit from within. ‘That’s a Lamborghini,’ said Frances. ‘I know it is,’ said Yao, forgetting to put the tiny pauses between his words. He gestured towards the house, stepping aside to let Frances cross the threshold first. She walked into a large entrance hall and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The soft hush unique to old houses washed over her like cool water. There were beautiful details wherever she looked: honey-coloured parquetry floors, antique chandeliers, ornately carved ceiling cornices and leadlight windows. ‘This is so beautiful,’ she said. ‘Oh – and look at that. It’s like the staircase from the Titanic!’ She walked over to touch the lustrous mahogany wood. Flecks of light streamed from a stained-glass window on the landing. ‘As you may know, Tranquillum House was built in 1840 and this is the original red cedar and rosewood staircase,’ said Yao. ‘Other people have commented on the resemblance to the Titanic’s staircase. So far we’ve had much better luck than the Titanic. We won’t sink, Frances!’ He’d clearly made this joke many times before. Frances gave him a more generous laugh than it deserved. ‘The house was built of locally quarried sandstone by a wealthy solicitor from England.’ Yao continued to recite facts like a nerdy museum guide. ‘He wanted a house that would be “the best in the colony”.’ ‘Built with the help of convicts, I understand,’ said Frances, who had read the website. ‘That’s right,’ said Yao. ‘The solicitor was granted five hundred acres of good farming land and assigned ten convicts. He got lucky because they included two former stonemason brothers from York.’ ‘We have a convict in our family tree,’ said Frances. ‘She was transported from Dublin for stealing a silk gown. We’re tremendously proud of her.’ Yao gestured away from the staircase to make it clear she wasn’t to go up there just yet. ‘I know you’ll want to rest after that long drive, but first I’d like to give you a quick tour of your new home for the next ten days.’ ‘Unless I don’t last the distance,’ said Frances. Ten days suddenly seemed like a very long time. ‘I might go home early.’ ‘No-one goes home early,’ said Yao serenely. ‘Well, yes, but they can,’ said Frances. ‘If they choose.’ ‘No-one goes home early,’ repeated Yao. ‘It just doesn’t happen. No-one wants to go home at all! You’re about to embark on a truly transformative experience, Frances.’ He led her to a large room at the side of the house with bay windows overlooking the valley and one long monastery-like table. ‘This is the dining room where you’ll come for your meals. All the guests eat together, of course.’ ‘Of course,’ said Frances hoarsely. She cleared her throat. ‘Great.’ ‘Breakfast is served at seven am, lunch at noon and dinner at six pm.’ ‘Breakfast at seven am?’ Frances blanched. She could manage the communal meals for lunch and dinner, but she couldn’t eat and talk with strangers in the morning. ‘I’m a night owl,’ she told Yao. ‘I’m normally comatose at seven am.’ ‘Ah, but that’s the old Frances – the new Frances will have already done a sunrise tai chi class and guided meditation by seven,’ said Yao. ‘I seriously doubt that,’ said Frances. Yao smiled, as if he knew better. ‘There will be a five-minute warning bell before meals are served – or smoothies, during the fast periods. We do ask that you come promptly to the dining room as soon as you hear the warning bell.’ ‘Certainly,’ said Frances, with a rising sense of horror. She’d quite forgotten about the ‘fast periods’. ‘Is there . . . ah, room service?’ ‘I’m afraid not, although your morning and late-evening smoothies will be brought to your room,’ said Yao. ‘But no club sandwiches at midnight, hey?’ Yao shuddered. ‘God no.’ He led her past the dining room to a cosy living room lined with bookshelves. A number of couches surrounded a marble fireplace. ‘The Lavender Room,’ said Yao. ‘You’re welcome to come here any time to relax, read or enjoy an herbal tea.’ He said ‘herbal’ the American way: erbal. ‘Lovely,’ said Frances, mollified by the sight of the books. They walked by a closed door with the word PRIVATE stencilled on it in gold letters, which Frances, being Frances, felt strongly compelled to open. She couldn’t abide member-only lounges to which she didn’t have membership. ‘This leads to our director’s office at the top of the house.’ Yao touched the door gently. ‘We do ask that you only open this door if you have an appointment.’ ‘By all means,’ said Frances resentfully. ‘You will meet the director later today,’ said Yao, as if this were a special treat she’d been long anticipating. ‘At your first guided meditation.’ ‘Awesome,’ said Frances through her teeth. ‘Now you’ll want to see the gym,’ said Yao. ‘Oh, not especially,’ said Frances, but he was already leading her back across the reception area to the opposite side of the house. ‘This was originally the drawing room,’ said Yao. ‘It’s been refurbished as a state-of-the-art gym.’ ‘Well, that is a tragedy,’ Frances proclaimed when Yao opened a glass door to reveal a light-filled room crowded with what appeared to be elaborate torture devices. Yao’s smile faltered. ‘We kept all the original plasterwork.’ He pointed at the ceiling. Frances gave a disdainful sniff. Marvellous. You can lie back and admire the ceiling rose while you’re being drawn and quartered. Yao looked at her face and hurriedly closed the gym door. ‘Let me show you the yoga and meditation studio.’ He continued past the gym to a door at the far corner of the house. ‘Watch your head.’ She ducked unnecessarily beneath the doorjamb and followed Yao down a flight of narrow stone stairs. ‘I smell wine,’ she said. ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ said Yao. ‘It’s the ghost of old wine.’ He pushed back a heavy oak door with some effort and ushered her into a surprisingly large cave-like room with an arched wood-beamed ceiling, brick walls lined with a few chairs, and a series of soft blue rectangular mats laid out at intervals on the hardwood floor. ‘This is where you will come for yoga classes and all your guided sitting meditations,’ said Yao. ‘You’ll be spending a lot of time down here.’ It was quiet and cool, and the ghostly smell of wine was overlaid by the scent of incense. The studio did have a lovely, peaceful feel to it, and Frances thought she would enjoy being here, even though she wasn’t that keen on yoga or meditation. She had done a transcendental meditation course years ago, hoping for enlightenment, and every time, without fail, she’d nod off within two minutes of focusing on her breathing, waking up at the end to discover that everyone else had experienced flashes of light, memories of past lives and rapture or whatever, while she’d snoozed and drooled. Basically, she’d paid to have a forty-minute nap at the local high school once a week. No doubt she would be spending a lot of time napping down here, dreaming of wine. ‘At one point, when the property operated a vineyard, this cellar could hold up to twenty thousand bottles of wine.’ Yao gestured at the walls, although there were no longer any facilities for keeping wine. ‘But when the house was originally built, it was used for storage, or as somewhere to secure misbehaving convict workers, or even to hide from bushrangers.’ ‘If these walls could talk,’ said Frances. Her eye was caught by a large flat-screen television hanging from one of the beams at the end of the room. ‘What’s that screen for?’ It seemed especially incongruous after Yao’s talk of the house’s early colonial history. ‘I thought this was a screen-free environment.’ ‘Tranquillum House is absolutely a screen-free environment,’ agreed Yao. He glanced at the television screen with a slight frown. ‘But we recently installed a security and intercom system so we can all communicate with each other from different parts of the resort when necessary. It’s quite a large property and the safety of our guests is paramount.’ He changed the subject abruptly. ‘I’m sure you’ll be interested in this, Frances.’ He ushered her over to a corner of the room and pointed to a brick almost concealed by the joinery of one of the arched beams. Frances put on her reading glasses and read out loud the small, beautifully inscribed words: Adam and Roy Webster, stonemasons, 1840. ‘The stonemason brothers,’ said Yao. ‘The assumption is that they did this secretly.’ ‘Good for them,’ said Frances. ‘They were proud of their work. As they should have been.’ They silently contemplated the inscription for a few moments before Yao clapped his hands together. ‘Let’s head back up.’ He led her up the stairs into the house and to another glass door featuring just one beautiful word: SPA. ‘Last but not least, the spa where you will come for your massages and any other wellness treatments scheduled for you.’ Yao opened the door and Frances sniffed like Pavlov’s dog at the scent of essential oils. ‘This was another drawing room that was remodelled,’ said Yao carefully. ‘Ah well, I’m sure you did a good job retaining the original features.’ Frances patted his arm as she peered inside the dimly lit room. She could hear the trickling sound of a water feature and one of those ridiculous but divine ‘relaxation’ soundtracks – the kind with crashing waves, harp music and the occasional frog – piped through the walls. ‘All spa treatments are complimentary, part of the package – you won’t receive a scary bill at the end of your stay!’ said Yao as he closed the door. ‘I did read that on the website, but I wasn’t sure if it could be true!’ said Frances disingenuously, because if it wasn’t true she would be making a complaint to the Department of Fair Trading quick-smart. She made her eyes wide and grateful, as Yao seemed to take personal pride in the wonders of Tranquillum House. ‘Well, it is true, Frances,’ said Yao lovingly, like a parent telling her that tomorrow really was Christmas Day. ‘Now we’ll just pop in here and get your blood tests and so on out of the way.’ ‘I’m sorry – what?’ said Frances, as she was shepherded into a room that looked like a doctor’s office. She felt discombobulated. Weren’t they just talking about spa treatments? ‘Just sit right here,’ said Yao. ‘We’ll do your blood pressure first.’ Frances found herself seated as Yao wrapped a cuff around her arm and pumped it enthusiastically. ‘It might be higher than usual,’ he said. ‘People feel a little stressed and nervous when they arrive. They’re tired after their journey. It’s natural. But let me tell you, I’ve never had a guest finish their retreat without a significant drop in their blood pressure!’ ‘Mmm,’ said Frances. She watched Yao write down her blood pressure. She didn’t ask if it was high or low. It was often low. She had been checked out for hypotension before because of her tendency to faint. If she got dehydrated or tired, or saw blood, her vision tunnelled and the world tipped. Yao snapped on a pair of plastic green gloves. Frances looked away and focused on a point on the wall. He buckled a tourniquet around her arm and tapped her forearm. ‘Great veins,’ he said. Nurses often said that about Frances’s veins. She always felt momentarily proud and then kind of depressed, because what a waste of a positive attribute. ‘I didn’t actually realise there would be a blood test,’ said Frances. ‘Daily blood tests,’ said Yao cheerfully. ‘Very important because it means we can tweak your treatment plans accordingly.’ ‘Mmm, I might actually opt out of the –’ ‘Tiny ouch,’ said Yao. Frances looked back to her arm, and then quickly away again as she caught sight of a test tube filling with her blood. She hadn’t even registered the prick of the needle. She felt all at once as powerless as a child, and was reminded of the few times in her life she’d had to go into hospital for minor surgeries, and how much she disliked the lack of control over her body. Nurses and doctors had the right to prod at her as they pleased, with no love or desire or affection, just expertise. It always took a few days to fully reinhabit her body again. Did this young man currently helping himself to her blood even have medical expertise? Had she really done her due diligence on this place? ‘Are you trained as a . . .?’ She was trying to say, ‘Do you know what the hell you’re doing?’ ‘I used to be a paramedic in a previous life,’ replied Yao. She met his eyes. Was he possibly a little mad? Did he mean he was a reincarnated paramedic? You never knew with these alternative types. ‘You don’t mean, literally, a previous life?’ Yao laughed out loud. A very normal-sounding laugh. ‘It was about ten years ago now.’ ‘Do you miss it?’ ‘Absolutely not. I’m passionate about the work we do here.’ His eyes blazed. Maybe just slightly mad. ‘Right, that’s that,’ said Yao, removing the needle and handing her a cottonwool ball. ‘Press firmly.’ He labelled her test tube and smiled at her. ‘Excellent. Now, we’ll just check your weight.’ ‘Oh, is that really necessary? I’m not here for weight loss; I’m here for, you know . . . personal transformation.’ ‘Just for our files,’ said Yao. He removed the cottonwool ball, pressed a circular bandaid onto the tiny red pinprick and indicated a set of scales. ‘On you hop.’ Frances averted her eyes from the number. She had no idea of her weight and no interest in learning it. She knew she could be thinner, and of course when she was younger she was indeed much thinner, but she was generally happy with her body as long as it wasn’t giving her pain, and bored by all the different ways women droned on about the subject of weight, as if it were one of the great mysteries of life. The recent weight-losers, evangelical about whatever method had worked for them, the thin women who called themselves fat, the average women who called themselves obese, the ones desperate for her to join in their lavish self-loathing. ‘Oh, Frances, isn’t it just so depressing when you see young, thin girls like that!’ ‘Not especially,’ Frances would say, adding extra butter to her bread roll. Yao wrote something on a form in a cream-coloured file marked in black sharpie block letters with her name, FRANCES WELTY. This was starting to feel too much like a visit to the doctor. Frances felt exposed and vulnerable and regretful. She wanted to go home. She wanted a muffin. ‘I’d really like to get to my room now,’ she said. ‘It was a long drive.’ ‘Absolutely. I’m going to book you into the spa for an urgent massage for that back pain,’ said Yao. ‘Shall I give you half an hour to settle into your room, enjoy your welcome smoothie and read your welcome pack?’ ‘That sounds like heaven,’ said Frances. They walked back past the dining room, where her darling drug dealers, Jessica and Ben, stood with their own white-uniformed wellness consultant, a dark-haired young woman who, according to her name badge, was called Delilah. Delilah was delivering the same spiel as Yao about the warning bells. Jessica’s plastic face was filled with worry, so much so that she was almost, but not quite, pulling off a frown. ‘But what if you don’t hear the bell?’ ‘Then off with your head!’ said Frances. Everyone turned to look at her. Ben, whose cap was now the wrong way around again, raised a single eyebrow. ‘Joke,’ said Frances weakly. Frances saw the two wellness consultants exchange looks she couldn’t quite read. She wondered if they were sleeping together. They’d have such aerobic, flexible sex with all that wellness pumping through their young bodies. It would be just so awesome. Yao led her back towards the Titanic stairs. As Frances hurried to keep pace, they passed a man and two women coming down the staircase together, all three in olive-green robes featuring the Tranquillum House emblem. The man lagged behind to put on glasses so he could closely examine the wall on the landing. He was so tall the dressing-gown was more like a miniskirt, revealing knobbly knees and very white, very hairy legs. They were the sort of male legs that made you feel uncomfortable, as if you were looking at a private part of the body. ‘Well, my point is that you just don’t see craftsmanship like this anymore!’ he said, as he peered at the wall. ‘That’s what I just love about houses like this: the attention to detail. I mean, think of those tiles I was showing you earlier. What’s extraordinary is that somebody took the time to individually – hello again, Yao! Another guest, is it? How are you?’ He took off his glasses, beamed at Frances and thrust out his hand. ‘Napoleon!’ he cried. It took her a terrifying second to realise he was introducing himself, not just yelling out a random historical figure’s name. ‘Frances,’ she said in the nick of time. ‘Nice to meet you! Here for the ten-day retreat, I assume?’ He was on the stair above her, so his height was even more pronounced. It was like tipping her head back to look at a monument. ‘I am.’ Frances made a tremendous effort not to comment on his height, as she knew from her six-foot friend Jen that tall people were well aware they were tall. ‘I most certainly am.’ Napoleon indicated the two women further down the stairs. ‘Us too! These are my beautiful girls, my wife, Heather, and daughter, Zoe.’ The two women were also notably tall. They were a basketball team. They gave her the restrained, polite smiles of a celebrity’s family members who are used to having to wait while he is accosted by fans, except that in this case it was Napoleon doing the accosting. The wife, Heather, bounced on the balls of her feet. She was wiry, with extremely wrinkled, tanned skin, as if she’d been scrunched up and then spread smooth. Heather skin like leather, thought Frances. That was a really mean mnemonic but Heather would never know. Heather had grey hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and bloodshot eyes. She seemed very intense, which was fine. Frances had some intense friends; she knew how to cope with intensity. (Never try to match it.) The daughter, Zoe, had her dad’s height and the casual grace of an athletic, outdoorsy girl. Showy Zoe? But she wasn’t showy at all. Not-showy Zoe. Zoe certainly didn’t look like she was in need of a health resort. How much more rejuvenated could you get? Frances thought about the young couple, Ben and Jessica, who also seemed in sparkling good health. Were health resorts only attended by the already healthy? Was she going to be the least healthy-looking person here? She’d never been bottom of the class, except for that one time in Transcendental Meditation for Beginners. ‘We thought we’d explore the hot springs, maybe have a quick soak,’ said Napoleon to Yao and Frances, as if they’d asked. ‘Then we’ll do a few laps of the pool.’ Clearly, they were one of those active families who threw their bags down on the floor and left their hotel room the moment they checked in. ‘I’m planning a quick nap before an urgent massage,’ said Frances. ‘Excellent idea!’ cried Napoleon. ‘A nap and a massage! Sounds perfect! Isn’t this place amazing? And I hear the hot springs are incredible.’ He was an extremely enthusiastic man. ‘Make sure you rehydrate after the hot springs,’ Yao said to him. ‘There are water bottles at reception.’ ‘Will do, Yao! And then we’ll be back in time for the noble silence!’ ‘Noble silence?’ said Frances. ‘It will all become clear, Frances,’ said Yao. ‘It’s in your information pack, Frances!’ said Napoleon. ‘Bit of a surprise; I wasn’t expecting the “silence” aspect. I’ve heard of silent retreats, of course, but must admit they didn’t appeal – I’m a talker myself, as my girls here will tell you. But we’ll roll with the punches, go with the flow!’ As he talked on in the comforting way of the chronically loquacious, Frances watched his wife and daughter further down the stairs. The daughter, who wore black flip-flops, put one heel on the step above her and leaned forward as if she were discreetly stretching her hamstring. The mother watched her daughter, and Frances saw the ghost of a smile, followed almost immediately by an expression of pure despair that dragged all her features down, as if she were clawing at her cheeks. Then in the next instant it was gone and she smiled benignly up at Frances, and Frances felt as though she had seen something she shouldn’t have. Napoleon said, ‘It wasn’t you who arrived in that Lamborghini was it, Frances? I saw it from our room. That’s one hell of a car.’ ‘Not me – I’m the Peugeot,’ said Frances. ‘Nothing wrong with the Peugeot! Although I hear those jackals charge like wounded bulls when it comes to servicing, right?’ He mixed his metaphors most delightfully. Frances was keen to talk more with him. He was someone who would answer any question with candour and vigour. She loved those sorts of people. ‘Dad,’ said his daughter. Not-showy Zoe. ‘Let the lady pass. She’s only just got here. She probably wants to get to her room.’ ‘Sorry, sorry, I’ll see you at dinner! Although we won’t be chatting then, will we?’ He tapped the side of his nose and grinned, but there was a trapped, panicky look in his eyes. ‘Lovely to meet you!’ He clapped Yao on the shoulder. ‘See you later, Yao, mate!’ Frances followed Yao up the stairs. At the top, he turned right and led her down a carpeted hallway lined with historical photos that she planned to study later. ‘This wing of the house was added in 1895,’ said Yao. ‘You’ll find all the rooms have original fireplaces with marble mantelpieces of Georgian design. Not that you’ll be lighting any fires in this heat.’ ‘I didn’t expect to see families doing this retreat,’ commented Frances. ‘I must admit I thought there’d be more . . . people like me.’ Fatter people than me, Yao. Much fatter. ‘We get people from all walks of life here at Tranquillum House,’ said Yao as he unlocked her room with a large, old-fashioned metal key. ‘Probably not all walks of life,’ mused Frances, because come on now, the place wasn’t cheap, but she stopped talking as Yao held open the door for her. ‘Here we are.’ It was an airy, plush-carpeted room filled with period furniture, including an enormous four-poster bed. Open French doors led to a balcony with a view that stretched to the horizon: a rolling patchwork quilt of vineyards and farmhouses and green-and-gold countryside. Flocks of birds wheeled across the sky. Her bag sat like an old familiar friend in a corner of the room. There was a fruit basket on the coffee table, along with a glass of green, sludge-like juice with a strawberry on the side. Everything except the juice looked extremely appealing. ‘That’s your welcome smoothie there,’ said Yao. ‘There are six organic smoothies a day, prepared specifically for your changing individual needs.’ ‘They’re not wheatgrass, are they? I once had a wheatgrass shot and it scarred me for life.’ Yao picked up the glass and handed it to her. ‘Trust me, it’s tasty!’ Frances looked at it doubtfully. ‘The smoothies are mandatory,’ said Yao kindly. It was confusing because you’d think from his tone that he’d said, ‘They are optional.’ She took a sip. ‘Oh!’ she said, surprised. She could taste mango, coconut and berries. It was like drinking a tropical holiday. ‘It’s quite good. Very good.’ ‘Yes, Frances,’ said Yao. He used her name as often as a desperate real estate agent. ‘And the good news is it’s not only delicious but brimming with natural goodness! Please make sure you drink the entire glass.’ ‘I will,’ said Frances agreeably. There was an awkward pause. ‘Oh,’ said Frances. ‘You mean now?’ She took another, larger sip. ‘Yum!’ Yao smiled. ‘The daily smoothies are crucial for your wellness journey.’ ‘Gosh, well, I want to keep my wellness journey on track.’ ‘Absolutely you do,’ said Yao. She met his eyes. There was no irony as far back as she could see. He was going to shame that snark right out of her. ‘I’m going to leave you to relax,’ said Yao. ‘Your welcome pack is right here. Please take the time to read it because there are important instructions for the next twenty-four hours. The noble silence that Napoleon mentioned will be beginning shortly, and I know you’re going to find that so beneficial. Oh, now, speaking of silence, Frances, I’m sure you can guess what I need next from you!’ He looked at her expectantly. ‘No idea. Not more blood, I hope?’ ‘It’s time to hand over all your electronic devices,’ said Yao. ‘Mobile phone, tablets, everything.’ ‘No problem.’ Frances retrieved her phone from her handbag, switched it off, and handed it to Yao. A not unpleasant feeling of subservience crept over her. It was like being on an aeroplane once the seatbelt sign was turned on and the flight attendants were now in charge of your entire existence. ‘Great. Thanks. You’re officially “off the grid”!’ Yao held up her phone. ‘We’ll keep it safe. Some guests say the digital detox is one of the most enjoyable elements of their time with us. When it’s time to leave, you’ll be saying, “Don’t give it back! I don’t want it back!”’ He held up his hands to indicate someone waving him away. Frances tried to imagine herself in ten days and found it strangely difficult, as if it wasn’t ten days but ten years she was imagining. Would she really be transformed? Thinner, lighter, pain-free, able to leap from her bed at sunrise without caffeine? ‘Don’t forget your massage at the spa,’ said Yao. ‘Oh – and that nasty paper cut!’ He walked to a sideboard, selected a tube from an array of Tranquillum House-branded cosmetics and said, ‘Let’s see that thumb.’ Frances presented it to him and he placed a dab of soothing cool gel on her paper cut with tender care. ‘Your wellness journey has begun, Frances,’ he said, still holding her hand, and instead of smirking Frances found herself close to tears. ‘I’ve actually been feeling very unwell lately, Yao,’ she said pitifully. ‘I know you have.’ Yao put both his hands on her shoulders and it didn’t feel silly or sexual; it felt healing. ‘We’re going to get you well, Frances. We’re going to get you feeling as well as you’ve ever felt in your life.’ He closed the door gently behind him as he left. Frances turned in a slow circle and waited for that inevitable moment of solitary traveller gloom, but instead her spirits lifted. She wasn’t alone. She had Yao to take care of her. She was on a wellness journey. She walked out onto her balcony to admire the view and gasped. A man on the balcony next to hers was leaning so far over it he looked in danger of falling. ‘Careful!’ she warned, but only under her breath so as not to startle him. The man turned in her direction, lifted his hand and smiled. It was Ben. She recognised the baseball cap. She waved back. If they raised their voices they could probably hear each other perfectly well, but it was better to pretend they were too far away to chat, otherwise they’d feel obligated to talk every time they happened to see each other on their balconies, and there was going to be enough obligatory chatting at every meal. She looked in the other direction and saw a row of identical balconies stretching to the end of the house. All the guestrooms shared this same view. The other balconies were empty, although, as Frances watched, the figure of a woman emerged from the room at the furthest end of the house. She was too far away to distinguish her features, but Frances, keen to be friendly, gave her a wave. The woman instantly spun around and went back inside her room. Oh, well, perhaps she hadn’t seen Frances. Or perhaps she suffered from tremendous social anxiety. Frances could handle the dreadfully shy. You just needed to approach slowly, as if they were little woodland creatures. Frances turned back to Ben, and saw that he’d also gone back inside. She wondered if he and Jessica were still arguing. Their rooms were adjoining, so if things got heated Frances might overhear. Once, on a book tour, she’d stayed in a thin-walled hotel where she had the pleasure of overhearing a couple argue passionately and descriptively about their sex life. That had been great. ‘I don’t get the obsession with strangers,’ her first husband, Sol, once said to her, and Frances had struggled to explain that strangers were by definition interesting. It was their strangeness. The not-knowing. Once you knew everything there was to know about someone, you were generally ready to divorce them. She went back inside her room to unpack. It might be nice to have a cup of tea and a few squares of chocolate while she read her information pack. She was sure it was going to have rules she would prefer not to follow; the ‘noble silence’ that was beginning shortly sounded foreboding and she would need sugar to cope. Also, she hadn’t exactly followed the suggestion about reducing her sugar and caffeine intake in the days leading up to the retreat so as to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Frances couldn’t be dealing with a headache right now. She went to pull out her contraband from where she’d carefully hidden it right at the bottom of her bag, underneath her underwear, wrapped in her nightie. She’d laughed at herself for hiding it; it wasn’t like they were going to be checking her bag. This wasn’t rehab or boarding school. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she said out loud. It wasn’t there. She emptied all her clothes onto her bed with a growing sense of fury. They wouldn’t, would they? It was unconscionable. Illegal, surely. It was very bad manners! She turned the bag upside down and shook it. The nightie was still there, neatly folded by invisible hands, but the coffee, tea, chocolate and wine were most definitely gone. Who had been through her bag? It couldn’t be Yao; he’d been with her the whole time from when she arrived. Someone else had rifled through her underwear and confiscated her treats. What could she do? She couldn’t ring reception and say, ‘Somebody took my chocolate and wine!’ Well, she could, but she didn’t have the requisite chutzpah. The website made it clear that snacks and coffee and alcohol were all banned. She’d broken the rules and she’d been caught. She would say nothing and they would say nothing and on the last day they would hand it all back to her with a knowing smirk as she checked out, like returning a prisoner’s personal effects. This was deeply embarrassing. She sat on the end of her bed and looked dolefully at the lovely fruit bowl. She laughed a little, trying to turn it into a funny story her friends would enjoy, and selected a mandarin from the bowl. As she plunged her thumb into its fleshy centre, she heard something. A voice? It didn’t come from Ben and Jessica’s room. It was the other room adjoining hers. There was a thud, followed immediately by the unmistakeable sound of something breaking. A male voice swore, loudly and forcefully. ‘Fuck it!’ Indeed, thought Frances, as the malevolent beginnings of a headache crept slowly across her forehead. chapter seven Jessica Jessica sat on the four-poster bed and tested the mattress with the palm of her hand while Ben stood on the balcony, one hand shielding his eyes. He wasn’t enjoying the beautiful view. ‘I’m sure they haven’t stolen it,’ she said. She meant to sound funny and light-hearted but she couldn’t seem to get the tone of her voice to come out right these days. A hardness kept creeping in. ‘Yeah, but where have they parked it?’ said Ben. ‘That’s what I don’t get. I’d just like to know where it is. Have they got an underground bunker somewhere? Did you notice that when I asked if it was parked undercover, she sort of avoided answering the question?’ ‘Mmm,’ said Jessica noncommittally. She couldn’t bear another fight about the car, or about anything. Her stomach was still recovering from the last screaming match. Whenever they fought she got instant indigestion, and that meant that these days she nearly always had indigestion. Their arguments were like submerged rocks they kept crashing up against. They couldn’t be avoided. Wham. Wham. Wham. She lay back on the bed and looked at the light fitting. Was that a spider web near the globe? This house was so old and dark and depressing. She’d been aware it was going to be a ‘historic’ house, but she thought they might have, you know, renovated. There were cracks all over the walls, and a kind of damp smell. She turned on her side and looked at Ben. Now he was leaning dangerously over the balcony railing, trying to see the other side of the house. He cared about that car more than he cared about her. Once, she saw him running his hand along the bonnet and for just a moment she’d felt envious of the car, of the way Ben was touching it so gently and sensuously, the same way he used to touch her. She was going to tell their counsellor that. She’d written it down so she wouldn’t forget. She felt like it was a really profound, powerful thing to mention, quite significant and telling. It made her eyes prickle with tears when she thought of it. If the counsellor ever wrote a book about her experience as a marriage counsellor she would probably mention it: I once had a patient who treated his car more tenderly than he treated his wife. (No need to mention the car was a Lamborghini; if they did, all the male readers would say, ‘Oh, well, then.’) She wished the ‘intensive couples counselling’ part of this retreat would hurry up and start but ‘Delilah’, their ‘wellness consultant’, had been annoyingly vague about when it would begin. She wondered if the counsellor would ask them about their sex life, and if she (Jessica assumed she would be a she) would be able to hide her surprise when she heard they were down to having sex, like, once a week, which meant their marriage was officially in dire trouble. Jessica didn’t know if she could talk about sex in front of the counsellor anyway. The counsellor might automatically assume that she was sexually unskilled or that there was something wrong with her, in a very personal, gynaecological kind of way. Jessica was beginning to wonder that herself. She was obviously prepared to get more surgery (even down there) or do a course. Read a book. Improve her skills. She’d always been prepared to improve, to listen to the advice of experts. She read a lot of self-help books. She Googled. Ben had never read a self-help book in his life. Ben came back inside from the balcony, lifting up his t-shirt to scratch his stomach. He didn’t bother with crunches or planks and his stomach still looked that good. ‘That author we met is in the room next to us,’ he said. He picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and tossed it from hand to hand like a baseball. ‘Frances. Why do you reckon she’s here?’ ‘I expect she wants to lose weight,’ said Jessica. Like, duh. She thought it was kind of obvious. Frances had that padded look middle-aged women got. Jessica herself would never allow that to happen. She’d rather be dead. ‘You reckon?’ said Ben. ‘What does it matter at her age?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘What are her books like?’ ‘I used to love them,’ said Jessica. ‘I read them all. There was one called Nathaniel’s Kiss. I read it in high school and it was just really . . . romantic, I guess.’ ‘Romantic’ was too ineffectual a word to describe the feelings Nathaniel’s Kiss had provoked in her. She remembered how she’d cried big heaving shuddering sobs, and then she’d kept rereading that last chapter for the pleasure of more crying. In some ways, it felt like Nathaniel was the first man she ever loved. She couldn’t tell Ben that. He never read fiction. He wouldn’t understand. But was that one of the problems in their marriage? That she didn’t even bother to try to communicate how she felt about things that were important to her? Or did it not matter? She didn’t need to hear him talk about his passion for his car. He could talk about his car with his mates. She could talk about her memories of Nathaniel’s Kiss with her girlfriends. Ben took a giant bite of the apple. Jessica couldn’t do that anymore, not with her new capped teeth. The dentist wanted her to wear some sort of a mouthguard at night to keep her expensive crowns all safe. It was annoying that the better the stuff you got, the less relaxed you could be about it. It was like the new rug in their hallway. Neither of them could bear to walk on something so astoundingly expensive. They shuffled down the sides and winced when their guests marched straight down the middle in dirty sneakers. ‘That smoothie was pretty good,’ said Ben, his mouth full of apple. ‘But I’m starved. I don’t know if my body can cope without pizza for ten days. I don’t see why we even have to do that part! What’s that got to do with marriage counselling?’ ‘I told you,’ said Jessica. ‘It’s, like, a holistic approach. We have to work on everything: our minds, bodies and spirits.’ ‘Sounds like a load of –’ He cut himself off and walked over to the row of light switches by the wall and started playing with the one that made the ceiling fan work. He put the fan onto cyclonic speed. Jessica put a pillow over her face and tried to go for as long as she could without saying, ‘Turn it off.’ Once, she wouldn’t have thought about this. She would have just yelled, ‘Oh my God, turn it off, you idiot!’ and he would have laughed and kept it on, and she would have tried to turn it off, and he wouldn’t have let her, and they would have pretend-wrestled. Did they laugh more before? Back when she was working in admin and he was a panel beater working for Pete, back when Ben drove a V8 Commodore that didn’t make anyone look twice, and she had B-cup boobs that didn’t make anyone look twice either, back when they thought going to a movie and the local Thai restaurant on the same night was splurging and when the arrival of the credit card statement each month was, like, really stressful and even once made her cry? She didn’t want to believe it was better before. If it was, then her mother was right, and she couldn’t stand it if her mother was right. Ben turned the fan down to a gentler breeze. Jessica removed the pillow from her face, closed her eyes and felt her heart race with fear of something unnamed and unknown. It made her think of the vertiginous fear she’d felt the day of the robbery. It was two years ago now that she’d come home from work to discover their ground-floor apartment had been robbed, their possessions strewn everywhere with aggressive, malicious abandon, every drawer open, a black footprint across her white t-shirt, the glint of broken glass. Ben arrived home just moments later. ‘What the hell?’ She didn’t know if he immediately thought of his sister, but she did. Ben’s sister, Lucy, had ‘mental health issues’. That was the euphemism Ben’s lovely, long-suffering mother used. The truth was that Ben’s sister was an addict. Lucy’s life was an endless rollercoaster and they all had to take the same ride, over and over, without getting off. Lucy was missing. No-one had heard from her. Lucy had turned up in the middle of the night and trashed the house. Ben’s mum had to call the police. They were planning an intervention! But they were going to handle this intervention differently from the last intervention; this time it would work. Lucy was doing well! Lucy was talking about rehab. Lucy was in rehab! Lucy was out of rehab. Lucy had been in another car accident. Lucy was pregnant again. Lucy was fucked up and there would never be an end to it, and because Jessica had never known the Lucy of before, the Lucy who was supposedly funny and smart and kind, it was hard not to hate her. Lucy was the reason for the underlying tension at every event with Ben’s family. Would she turn up demanding money or screaming insults or crying crocodile tears because she ‘just wanted to be a mum’ to the two children she was incapable of bringing up? Everyone knew Lucy stole. If you went to a barbecue at Ben’s place you hid your cash. So it was perfectly natural that Jessica’s first thought when she walked into the apartment that day was: Lucy. She’d tried so hard not to say it but she couldn’t help it. Just that one word. She wished she could take it back. She hadn’t made it sound enough like a question. She’d made it sound like a statement. She wished she’d at least said, ‘Lucy?’ She remembered how Ben shook his head. His face was drawn tight with shame. She had thought, How do you know it wasn’t her? But it turned out he was right. The robbery had nothing to do with Lucy. She was on the other side of the country at the time. So it was just an ordinary happens-to-lots-of-people house robbery. They hadn’t lost much because they didn’t have much to lose: an old iPad with a cracked screen, a necklace that Ben had given Jessica for her twenty-first. It had a tiny diamond pendant and it had cost Ben something like two months’ salary. She’d loved that necklace and still mourned it, even though it had just been a crappy little necklace with a smidge of a diamond, like a quarter-carat. The thieves had rejected the rest of Jessica’s jewellery box, which she found humiliating. Jessica and Ben had both hated the feeling of knowing that someone had walked through their home, sneering, as if browsing through an unsatisfactory shop. The insurance company paid out without much fuss, but Ben and Jessica had to pay a five-hundred-dollar excess, which they resented because they hadn’t asked to be robbed. It was just an ordinary robbery, except that it ended up changing their lives forever. ‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ asked Ben. He stood at the end of the bed, looking down at her. Jessica’s gaze came back into focus. ‘Like what?’ ‘Like you’re planning to cut off my balls with a cheese knife.’ ‘What? I wasn’t even looking at you. I was thinking.’ He kept chewing the remains of his apple and raised an eyebrow. The very first time they ever made eye contact in Mr Munro’s maths class he did that: a cool, laconic lift of his left eyebrow. It was literally the hottest thing she’d seen in her entire life and maybe if he’d raised two eyebrows, instead of one, she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him. ‘I don’t even have a cheese knife,’ said Jessica. He smiled as he threw the apple core into the bin from across the room and picked up their welcome pack. ‘We’d better read this, hey?’ He ripped open the envelope and papers went flying. Jessica managed to stop herself from grabbing at it and putting it all back in order. She was the one in charge of paperwork. If it were up to Ben they would never file a tax return. He opened what looked like a covering letter. ‘Okay, so this is a “guide map” for our “wellness journey”.’ ‘Ben,’ said Jessica, ‘this isn’t going to work if we don’t –’ ‘I know, I know, I am taking it seriously. I drove down that road, didn’t I? Didn’t that show my commitment?’ ‘Oh, please don’t start on the car again.’ She felt like crying. ‘I only meant –’ His mouth twisted. ‘Forget it.’ He scanned the letter and read out loud. ‘Welcome to your wellness journey, yada, yada. The retreat will begin with a period of silence lasting five days, during which there will be no talking, apart from counselling sessions, no touching, no reading, no writing, no eye contact with other guests or your own companions – what the?’ ‘This wasn’t mentioned on the website,’ said Jessica. Ben continued to read out loud, ‘You may be familiar with the term “monkey brain”.’ He looked up at Jessica. She shrugged, so he kept reading. ‘Monkey brain refers to the way your mind swings from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from branch to branch.’ Ben made a sound like a monkey and scratched under his arm to demonstrate. ‘Thanks for that.’ Jessica felt the tug of a smile. Sometimes they were fine. Ben read on. ‘It takes at least twenty-four hours to silence monkey brain. A period of nourishing silence and reflection settles the mind, body and soul. Our aim will be to discover a beautiful state that Buddhism calls “noble silence”.’ ‘So we’re just going to spend the next five days avoiding eye contact and not talking?’ said Jessica. ‘Even when we’re alone in our room?’ ‘It’s not like we don’t have any experience with that,’ said Ben. ‘Very funny,’ said Jessica. ‘Give me that.’ She took the letter and read. ‘During the silence we request that you walk slowly and mindfully, with intention, heel to toe, about the property, while avoiding eye contact and conversation. If you must communicate with a staff member, please come to reception and follow the instructions on the laminated blue card. There will be guided meditation sessions – both walking and sitting – throughout each day. Please listen for the bells.’ She put the letter down. ‘This is going to be so freaky. We’ll have to eat with strangers in total silence.’ ‘Better than boring small talk, I guess,’ said Ben. He looked at her. ‘Do you want to do it properly? We could talk here in our room and nobody would ever know.’ Jessica thought about it. ‘I think we should do it properly,’ she said. ‘Don’t you? Even if it sounds stupid, we should just follow the rules and do whatever they say.’ ‘Fine with me,’ said Ben. ‘As long as they don’t tell me to jump off a cliff.’ He scratched his neck. ‘I don’t get what we’re going to do here.’ ‘I told you,’ said Jessica. ‘Meditate. Yoga. Exercise classes.’ ‘Yeah,’ said Ben. ‘But in between all that. If we can’t talk or watch TV, what will we do?’ ‘It will be hard without screens,’ said Jessica. She thought she was going to miss social media more than coffee. She looked again at the letter. ‘The silence begins when the bell rings three times.’ She looked at the clock in the room. ‘We’ve got half an hour left where we’re allowed to talk.’ Or touch, she thought. They looked at each other. Neither spoke. ‘So the silence shouldn’t be too hard for us then,’ said Ben. Jessica laughed, but Ben didn’t smile. Why weren’t they having sex right now? Wasn’t that what they once would have done? Without even talking about it? She should say something. Do something. He was her husband. She could touch him. But a tiny fear had trickled into her head late last year and now she couldn’t get rid of it. It was something about the way he looked at her, or didn’t look at her; a clenching of his jaw. The thought was this: He doesn’t love me anymore. It seemed so ironic that he could fall out of love with her now, when she had never looked so good. Over the last year she had invested a lot of time and money, and a fair amount of pain, in her body. She had done everything there was to do: her teeth, her hair, her skin, her lips, her boobs. Everyone said the results were amazing. Her Instagram account was filled with comments like: You look so HOT, Jessica! and You look better and better every time I see you. The only person without anything positive to say was her own husband, and if he didn’t find her attractive now, when she was her very best self, then he must never have found her attractive. He must have been faking it all along. Why did he even marry her? Touch me, she thought, and in her head it was an anguished wail. Please, please touch me. But all he did was stand up and walk back over to the fruit bowl. ‘The mandarins look good.’ chapter eight Frances ‘When did the pain start?’ Frances lay naked on a massage table, a soft white towel draped over her back. ‘Everything off and then under this towel,’ the massage therapist had barked when Frances arrived at the spa. She was a large woman with a grey buzz cut and the intimidating manner of a prison guard or a hockey coach, not quite the soft-voiced, gentle masseuse Frances had been anticipating. Frances hadn’t quite caught her name but she’d been too distracted following instructions to ask her to repeat it. ‘About three weeks ago,’ said Frances. The therapist placed warm hands on her back which seemed to be the size of ping-pong bats. Was that possible? Frances lifted her head to see them but the therapist pressed against Frances’s shoulder blades so her head fell forward again. ‘Did anything in particular set it off?’ ‘Not anything physical,’ said Frances. ‘But I did have kind of an emotional shock. I was in this relationship –’ ‘So no physical injury of any sort,’ said the therapist tersely. Clearly she hadn’t got the Tranquillum House memo about speaking in a slow hypnotic voice. In fact, she was the opposite: it was like she wanted to get any speaking over and done with as quickly as possible. ‘No,’ said Frances. ‘But I feel like it was definitely connected. I had a shock, you see, because this man I was dating, well, he disappeared and – I remember this very clearly – I was actually phoning the police when I felt this kind of sensation, like I’d been slammed –’ ‘It’s probably better if you don’t talk,’ said the therapist. ‘Oh. Is it?’ said Frances. I was about to tell you a very interesting story, scary lady. She’d told the story a few times now, and she felt that she told it quite well. She was improving it with each telling. Also, she didn’t have long before she had to stop talking for five days, and she wasn’t sure how she was going to cope with so much silence. She’d only just avoided that terrifying abyss of despair in the car. Silence might tip her over again. The therapist pressed her giant thumbs on either side of Frances’s spine. ‘Ow!’ ‘Focus on your breathing.’ Frances breathed in the citrus-scented essential oils and thought about Paul. How it began. How it ended. Paul Drabble was an American civil engineer she met online. A friend of a friend of a friend. A friendship that turned into something more. Over a six-month period, he sent her flowers and gift baskets and handwritten notes. They talked for hours on the phone. He’d Facetimed with her and said he’d read three of her books and loved them, and he talked expertly about the characters and even quoted his favourite excerpts, and they were all excerpts that made Frances feel secretly proud. (Sometimes people quoted their favourite lines to her and Frances thought, Really? I thought that wasn’t my best. And then she felt weirdly annoyed with them.) He sent her photos of his son, Ari. Frances, who’d never wanted children of her own, fell hard for Ari. He was tall for his age. He loved basketball and wanted to play it professionally. She was going to be Ari’s stepmother. She’d read the book Raising Boys in preparation and had a number of brief but pleasurable chats with Ari on the phone. He didn’t say much, understandably – he was a twelve-year-old boy, after all – but sometimes she made him laugh when they Skyped, and he had a dry little chuckle that melted her heart. Ari’s mother – Paul’s wife – had died of cancer when Ari was in preschool. So sad, so poignant, so . . . ‘convenient?’ suggested one of Frances’s friends, and Frances had slapped her wrist. Frances was planning to move from Sydney to Santa Barbara. She had her flights booked. They would need to get married to secure her green card, but she wasn’t going to rush into things. If and when it happened, she planned to wear amethyst. Appropriate for a third wedding. Paul had sent her photos of the room in his house that he’d already set up as her writing room. There were empty bookshelves waiting for her books. When that terrible phone call came in the middle of the night, Paul so distraught he could barely get the words out, crying as he told her that Ari had been in a terrible car accident and there was a problem with the health insurance company and that Ari needed immediate surgery, Frances didn’t hesitate. She sent him money. A vast amount of money. ‘Sorry, how much?’ said the young detective who carefully wrote down everything Frances said, his professionalism slipping for just a moment. That was Paul’s only misstep: he underplayed his hand. She would have sent double, triple, quadruple – anything to save Ari. And then: terrifying silence. She was frantic. She thought Ari must have died. Then she thought Paul had died. No answers to her texts, her voicemail messages, her emails. It was her friend Di who made the first tentative suggestion. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Frances, but is it possible that . . .?’ Di didn’t even need to finish the sentence. It was as if the knowledge had been lurking away in Frances’s subconscious all along, even while she booked non-refundable airfares. It felt personal, but it wasn’t personal. It was just business. ‘These people are getting so smart,’ the detective had said. ‘They’re professional and polished and they target women of your age and circumstances.’ The sympathy on his handsome young face was excruciating. He saw a desperate old lady. She wanted to say, ‘No, no, I’m not a woman of age and circumstance! I’m me! You’re not seeing me!’ She wanted to tell him that she had never had any trouble meeting men, she had been pursued by men all her life, men who truly loved her and men who only wanted to have sex with her, but they were all real men, who wanted her for herself, not con artists who wanted her money. She wanted to tell him that she’d been told on multiple occasions by multiple sources that she was really very good in bed, and her second serve caused consternation on the tennis court, and, although she never cooked, she could bake an excellent lemon meringue pie. She wanted to tell him she was real. The shame she experienced was extraordinary. She had revealed so much of herself to this scammer. How he must have sniggered, even as he somehow responded with sensitivity, humour and perfect spelling. He was a mirage, a narcissistic reflection of herself, saying exactly what she so obviously wanted to hear. She realised weeks after that even his name, ‘Paul Drabble’, was probably designed to begin the act of seduction by subconsciously reminding her of Margaret Drabble, one of her favourite authors, as she had posted for all to see on social media. It turned out many other women had been planning lives as Ari’s stepmother too. ‘There are multiple ladies in the same situation as you,’ the detective said. Ladies. Oh my God, ladies. She couldn’t believe she was a lady. That sexless, gentrified word made Frances shudder. The details of each scam were different but the boy’s name was always ‘Ari’ and he always had a ‘car accident’ and the distraught phone call always came in the middle of the night. ‘Paul Drabble’ had multiple names, each with a carefully curated online presence, so that when the ladies Googled their suitors – as they always did – they saw exactly what they wanted to see. Of course, he was not the friend of a friend of a friend. Or not in the real-world way. He’d played a long game, setting up a fake Facebook page and pretending an interest in antique restoration furniture, which had got him accepted into a Facebook group run by a university friend’s husband. By the time he sent Frances a friend request, she’d seen enough of his (intelligent, witty, concise) comments on her friend’s posts to believe him to be a real person in her extended circle. Frances met up with one of the other women for coffee. The woman showed Frances pictures on her phone of the bedroom she’d created for Ari, complete with Star Wars posters on the wall. The posters were actually a little young for Ari – he wasn’t into Star Wars – but Frances kept that to herself. The woman was in a far worse state than Frances. Frances ended up writing her a cheque to help her get back on her feet. Frances’s friends spluttered when they heard this. Yes, she gave more cash to yet another stranger, but for Frances it was a way of restoring her pride, taking back control, and fixing some of the trail of destruction left by that man. (She did think a thankyou card from her fellow scam victim might have been nice, but one mustn’t give only in expectation of thankyou cards.) After it was all over, Frances packed away the evidence of her stupidity in a file. All the print-outs of emails where she’d spilled her foolish heart. The cards that accompanied real flowers with fake sentiments. The handwritten letters. She went to shove the folder into her filing cabinet and a sheet of paper sliced open her thumb like the edge of a razor blade. Such a tiny, trite injury and yet it hurt so much. The therapist’s thumbs moved in small, hard circles. A liquid warmth radiated across Frances’s lower back. She looked through the hole in the massage table at the floor. She could see the therapist’s sneakered feet. Someone had used a sharpie to doodle flowers all over the white plastic toes of her shoes. ‘I fell for an internet romance scam,’ said Frances. She needed to talk. The therapist would just have to listen. ‘I lost a lot of money.’ The therapist said nothing, but at least she didn’t order Frances to stop talking again. Her hands kept moving. ‘I didn’t care so much about the money – well, I did, I’d worked hard for that money – but some people lose everything in these kinds of scams whereas I just lost . . . my self-respect, I guess, and . . . my innocence.’ She was babbling now, but she couldn’t seem to stop. All she could hear was the therapist’s steady breathing. ‘I guess I’ve always just assumed that people are who they say they are, and that ninety-nine per cent of people are good people. I’ve lived in a bubble. Never been robbed. Never been mugged. Nobody has ever laid a hand on me.’ That wasn’t strictly true. Her second husband hit her once. He cried. She didn’t. They both knew the marriage was over in that moment. Poor Henry. He was a good man, but they brought out something terrible in each other, like allergic reactions. Her mind wandered off down the road of her long and complicated relationship history. She’d shared her relationship history with ‘Paul Drabble’ and he’d shared his. His had sounded so real. It must have had some truth to it? So says the novelist who makes up relationships for a living. Of course he could have fabricated his relationship history, you idiot. She kept talking. Better to talk than to think. ‘I honestly thought I was more in love with this man than any other man I’d met in the real world. I was quite deluded. But then again, love is just a trick of the mind, isn’t it?’ Just shut up, Frances, she’s not interested. ‘Anyway, it was all very . . .’ Her voice trailed off. ‘Embarrassing.’ The therapist was completely silent now. Frances couldn’t even hear her breathing. It was like being massaged by a giant-handed ghost. Frances wondered if she was thinking, I’d never fall for something like that. The sharpest knife-point of her humiliation was this: before, if Frances had been asked to pick the sort of person likely to fall for an internet scam, she would have chosen someone like this woman, with her bulky body, buzz cut and questionable social skills. Not Frances. Frances said, ‘I’m sorry, I missed your name before.’ ‘Jan.’ ‘Do you mind me asking, Jan, are you married . . . in a relationship?’ ‘Divorced.’ ‘Me too,’ said Frances. ‘Twice.’ ‘But I’ve just started seeing someone,’ offered Jan, as if she couldn’t help herself. ‘Oh. Great!’ Frances’s mood lifted. Was there anything better than a new relationship? Her whole career was based on the wonder of new relationships. ‘How did you meet?’ she asked. ‘He breath-tested me,’ said Jan, with a laugh in her voice. The laugh told Frances everything she needed to know. Jan was newly in love. Frances’s eyes filled with happy tears for her. Romance would never be dead for Frances. Never. ‘So . . . he’s a policeman?’ ‘He’s a new cop in Jarribong,’ said Jan. ‘He was bored sitting on the side of the road doing random breath-testing, and we got chatting while he waited for another car to come along. It took two hours.’ Frances tried to imagine Jan chatting for two hours. ‘What’s his name?’ asked Frances. ‘Gus,’ said Jan. Frances waited, giving Jan the opportunity to wax lyrical about her new boyfriend. She tried to imagine him for herself. Gus. A local country cop. Broad-shouldered, with a heart of gold. Gus probably owned a dog. A lovable dog. Gus probably whittled. He probably had a tuneful whistle. He probably whistled while he whittled. Frances was already half in love with Gus herself. But Jan had gone silent on the subject of Gus. After a while, Frances kept talking, as if Jan had actually shown interest. ‘You know, sometimes I think it was almost worth it, the money I paid, for the companionship over those six months. For the hope. I should email him, and say, “Look, I know you’re a scammer, but I’ll pay you to keep pretending to be Paul Drabble.”’ She paused. ‘I would never really do that.’ Silence. ‘It’s funny, because I’m a romance writer. I create fictional characters for a living, and then I fell for one.’ Still nothing. Jan mustn’t be a reader. Maybe she was just embarrassed for Frances. Wait till I get home and tell Gus about this loser. Gus would give a long, low (tuneful) whistle of surprise and sympathy. ‘That’s what happens in the big smoke, Jan.’ Frances managed to stay silent for a few moments as Jan kneaded her knuckle into a spot on her lower back. It hurt in a glorious, necessary-feeling way. ‘Do you work full-time here, Jan?’ ‘Just casual. When they need me.’ ‘You like it?’ ‘It’s a job.’ ‘You’re very good at it.’ ‘Yup.’ ‘Extraordinarily good.’ Jan said nothing and Frances closed her eyes. ‘How long have you worked here?’ she asked sleepily. ‘Only a few months,’ said Jan. ‘So I’m still a newbie.’ Frances opened her eyes. There was something in Jan’s voice. Just a shadow. Was it possible she wasn’t quite sold on the Tranquillum House philosophy? Frances considered asking her about the missing contraband, but how would the conversation progress? ‘I think someone went through my bags, Jan.’ ‘Why do you think that, Frances?’ ‘Well, some things were missing.’ ‘What sort of things?’ She was too ashamed and too vulnerable without her clothes on to confess. ‘What is the director like?’ asked Frances, thinking of the reverence with which Yao had looked at that closed door. Silence. Frances watched Jan’s feet in their chunky sneakers. They didn’t move. Finally, Jan spoke. ‘She’s very passionate about her work.’ Yao had also said he was passionate about his work. It was the theatrical language of movie stars and motivational speakers. Frances would never say she was ‘passionate’ about her work, although she was in fact passionate about her work. If she went too long without writing she lost her mind. What if she was never published again? Why would anyone publish her again? She didn’t deserve to be published. Don’t think about the review. ‘Passion is good,’ she said. ‘Yup,’ said Jan. She chose another spot for knuckle-digging. ‘Is she possibly too passionate at times?’ asked Frances, trying to understand the point, if any, that Jan was trying to make. ‘She cares a lot about the guests here and she’s prepared to do . . . whatever it takes . . . to help them.’ ‘Whatever it takes?’ said Frances. ‘That sounds –’ Jan’s hands moved to Frances’s shoulders. ‘I need to remind you that the noble silence will begin in just a few moments. Once we hear the third bell we’re not allowed to talk.’ Frances felt panicky. She wanted more information before this creepy silence began. ‘When you say “whatever it takes” –’ ‘I only have positive things to say about the staff here,’ interrupted Jan. She sounded a little robotic now. ‘They have your best interests at heart.’ ‘This is sounding kind of ominous,’ said Frances. ‘People achieve great results here,’ said Jan. ‘Well, that’s good.’ ‘Yup,’ said Jan. ‘So are you saying that some of their methods are possibly a little . . .’ Frances tried to find the right word. She was remembering some of those angry online reviews. A bell rang once. It reverberated with the melodic authority of a church bell, clear and pure. Damn it. ‘Unorthodox?’ continued Frances hurriedly. ‘I guess I’m just cautious now, after my experience with that man, that scammer. Once bitten –’ The second bell, even louder than the first, sliced through the middle of her clich? so that it hung foolishly in the air. ‘Twice shy,’ whispered Frances. Jan pressed her palms down hard on Frances’s shoulder blades as if she were performing CPR and leaned forward so that her breath was warm against Frances’s ear. ‘Just don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. That’s all I can say.’ The third bell rang. chapter nine Masha The director of Tranquillum House, Maria Dmitrichenko – Masha to everyone except the tax office – sat alone in her locked office at the top of the house as the third bell rang. Even from all the way up here she could sense the silence fall. It felt like she’d walked into a cave or cathedral: that feeling of release. She bowed her head towards her favourite fingerprint-shaped whorl in the surface of her white oak desk. She was on her third day of a water-only fast, and fasting always heightened her senses. The window of her office was open and she breathed in great gusts of clean country air. She closed her eyes and remembered how she’d once breathed in all the strange, thrilling scents of this new country: eucalyptus, fresh-cut grass and petrol fumes. Why was she thinking about this? It was because her ex-husband had emailed yesterday, for the first time in years. She’d deleted his email, but just seeing his name for even an instant had infiltrated her consciousness, so that now the merest scent of eucalyptus on a breeze was enough to transport her back thirty years to the person she’d once been, someone she could barely remember. And yet she did remember everything about that first day, after those endless flights (Moscow, Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne); how she and her husband had looked at each other in the back of that little van, marvelling at all the lights, even in the middle of the street. They’d whispered to each other about the way strangers kept smiling at them. It was bizarre the way they did this! So friendly! But then – it was Masha who first noticed this – when they turned their heads, their smiles shrank to nothing. Smile, gone. Smile, gone. In Russia, people didn’t smile like that. If they smiled at all, they smiled from the heart. That was Masha’s first-ever experience of the ‘polite smile’. You could see the polite smile as a wonderful or terrible thing. Her ex-husband smiled back. Masha did not. Nu naher! She did not have time for the past right now. She had a health resort to run! People were depending on her. This was the first time she’d begun a retreat with a period of silence, but she knew already that it was right. The silence would give her guests clarity. It would frighten some of them, they would resist, and people would break the silence, accidentally or deliberately. Couples might whisper in their beds, but that was fine. The silence would set the right tone going forward. Some guests treated this place like summer camp. Middle-aged women got overexcited at not having to cook dinner each night. All that high-pitched chatter. If two men became ‘mates’, you could be sure rules would be broken. In the early days, when Masha first opened Tranquillum House to the public, she’d been shocked to discover an order for a family-sized meatlovers pizza being delivered at the back fence. ‘Nu shto takoye?’ she shouted, scaring the life out of both the poor delivery boy and the guest. What’s going on here? She had learned the funny ways of her guests. Now she took precautions. Security cameras around the property. Regular monitoring. Bags were checked. All for their own good. She turned sideways in her chair and lifted one leg, pressing her forehead to her shinbone. She occupied her body with the ease of a ten-year-old boy and she liked to say that she was only ten years old, because it was coming up to the tenth anniversary of the day it happened. Her cardiac arrest. The day she died and was born again. If not for that day, she would still be in the corporate world, and she would still be fat and stressed. She had been global operations director for a multinational producer of dairy products. She had been taking Australia’s most trusted cheese to the world! (She no longer ate cheese.) She remembered her office, with its views of the Sydney Opera House, and the pleasure she once took in ticking off tasks, formulating policies to streamline procedures, bringing a room full of men to heel. Her life then had been spiritually void, but intellectually stimulating. She especially loved new product development and seeing the company’s entire product line laid out on the boardroom table: the lushness of choice, the brightly coloured packaging. In a strange way, it fulfilled the yearning she’d felt as a child when she flicked through illicit shopping catalogues from the West. But the pleasure she took in her corporate life had been like a polite smile. There was no substance to it. Her mind, body and soul had operated like different divisions of a corporation without a good flow of communication. This nostalgia she felt for her old job was as fraudulent as fond thoughts of her ex-husband. The memories her mind kept throwing up were nothing but computer glitches. She must focus. Nine people were depending on her. Nine perfect strangers who would soon become like family. She ran her finger down a printout of their names: Frances Welty Jessica Chandler Ben Chandler Heather Marconi Napoleon Marconi Zoe Marconi Tony Hogburn Carmel Schneider Lars Lee Nine strangers who, right now, were settling into their rooms, exploring the property, nervously reading their information packs, drinking their smoothies, perhaps enjoying their first spa treatments, worrying about what lay ahead. She loved them already. Their self-consciousness and self-loathing, their manifest lies, their defensive jokes to hide their pain as they cracked and crumbled before her. They were hers for the next ten days, hers to teach and nurture, to shape into the people they could be, should be. She found the file for the first name on her list. Frances Welty. Aged fifty-two. The photo she’d submitted showed a woman wearing red lipstick holding a cocktail. Masha had treated a hundred women like Frances. It was simply a matter of peeling back their layers to reveal the heartache beneath. They longed to be peeled, for someone to be interested enough to peel them. It wasn’t hard. They’d been hurt: by husbands and lovers, by children who no longer needed them, by disappointing careers, by life, by death. They nearly all loathed their bodies. Women and their bodies! The most abusive and toxic of relationships. Masha had seen women pinch at the flesh of their stomachs with such brutal self-loathing they left bruises. Meanwhile their husbands fondly patted their own much larger stomachs with rueful pride. These women came to Masha overfed and yet malnourished, addicted to various substances and chemicals, exhausted and stressed and experiencing migraines or muscular pain or digestive issues. They were easy to heal with rest and fresh air, nutritious food and attention. Their eyes brightened. They became expansive and exhilarated as their cheekbones re-emerged. They wouldn’t shut up. They left Masha with hugs and tears in their eyes and bright toot-toots of their car horns. They sent heartfelt cards, often with photos enclosed showing how their journeys had continued as they applied Masha’s lessons to their day-to-day lives. But then, two, three, four years later, a good proportion came back to Tranquillum House, looking as unhealthy as they’d been at their first visits – or even unhealthier. ‘I stopped my morning meditation,’ they would say, all wide-eyed and apologetic, but not that apologetic; they seemed to think their lapses were natural, cute, to be expected. ‘And next thing I was back drinking every day.’ ‘I lost my job.’ ‘I got divorced.’ ‘I had a car accident.’ Masha had only reset them temporarily! In times of crisis they returned to their default settings. That was not good enough. Not for Masha. This was why the new protocol was essential. There was no need for the strange anxiety that was waking her up in the dark of the night. The reason Masha had been so successful in her corporate career was because she had always been the one prepared to take risks, to think laterally. It was the same here. She tapped her fingertip against the bleary, bloated face of Frances Welty and checked to see which boxes she had selected for what she wanted to achieve over the next ten days: ‘stress relief’, ‘spiritual nourishment’ and ‘relaxation’. It was interesting that she hadn’t ticked ‘weight loss’. It must be an oversight. She seemed like the careless sort. No attention to detail. One thing was clear: this woman was crying out for a spiritually transformative experience, and Masha would give it to her. She opened the next file. Ben and Jessica Chandler. Their photo showed an attractive young couple sitting on a yacht. They were smiling with their teeth but Masha couldn’t see their eyes because of their dark sunglasses. They had ticked the box for couples counselling and Masha was confident she could help. Their problems would be fresh, not calcified after years of arguments and bitterness. The new protocol would be perfect for them. Next up, Lars Lee. Forty. The photo he’d attached was a glossy corporate headshot. She knew this type of guest very well. He saw attendance at health resorts as a part of his grooming regime, like a haircut or a manicure. He would not try to smuggle in contraband but he would feel that inconvenient rules did not apply to him. His reaction to the new protocol would be interesting. Carmel Schneider. Thirty-nine. Mother of young children. Divorced. Masha looked at her photo and clucked. She heard her mother’s voice: If a woman doesn’t look after herself, her man looks after another woman. Poor little bunny. Low self-esteem. Carmel had ticked every single box on the list except for ‘couples counselling’. Masha felt lovingly towards her for this. No problem, my lapochka. You will be one of my easy ones. Tony Hogburn. Fifty-six. Also divorced. Also here for weight loss. That was the only box he ticked. He would become grumpy and possibly aggressive when his body reacted to the changes in his self-medicating lifestyle. One to monitor. The next file made her frown. Could this be her wildcard? The Marconi family. Napoleon and Heather. Both aged forty-eight. Their daughter, Zoe. Aged twenty. This was the first time a family group had booked in to do a Tranquillum House retreat. She’d had many couples, mothers and daughters, siblings and friends, but never a family, and the daughter was the youngest guest ever to come. Why would a perfectly healthy-looking twenty-year-old choose to do a ten-day health retreat with her parents? Eating disorder? That could be it. They all looked underfed to Masha’s practised eye. Some sort of strange family dysfunction going on? Whoever filled in the questionnaire for the family’s group booking had ticked only one box: ‘stress relief’. The photo the Marconi family had submitted showed the three of them in front of a Christmas tree. It was clearly a selfie, because they had their heads at funny angles trying to get into the camera frame. They were all smiling but their eyes were flat and empty. ‘What happened to you, my lapochki?’ chapter ten Heather As soon as the third bell rang, Heather Marconi felt the silence fall, as though a blanket had been gently dropped over Tranquillum House. It was remarkable how palpable it was. She hadn’t been especially aware of any ambient noise beforehand. She had just come out of the bathroom when the bells began to ring, much louder and more commanding than she had anticipated. She had been of two minds as to whether she’d bother to go along with this absurd ‘silence’ – if they’d wanted a silent retreat they would have booked a silent retreat, thank you very much – but the religious sound of the bells froze her on the spot. Ignoring the silence now felt disrespectful, even in the privacy of their own room. Her husband sat on an antique sofa in the corner, his finger to his lips like a schoolteacher, because Napoleon was a schoolteacher, a beloved schoolteacher in a disadvantaged area, and you couldn’t spend twenty-five years teaching geography to recalcitrant boys without bringing home some teacher-like habits. Heather thought, Don’t shhhh me, darling. I’m not one of your students. I’ll talk if I want to talk. She met his eyes to give him a wink and Napoleon’s gaze skittered away as if he had something to hide, but he was always the one with nothing to hide, he was the open bloody book, and the reason he was avoiding her eyes was because the paperwork had specified ‘no eye contact’ for the next five days and Napoleon would never forget a rule or regulation, even one as pointless and arbitrary as this. What possible good could come of avoiding eye contact between husband and wife? But Napoleon was deeply respectful of road signs and tiny clauses on bureaucratic forms. For him, rules were about politeness and respect and ensuring the survival of a civilised society. She studied him as he sat in his too-short dressing-gown, his long hairy legs entwined. He had a feminine way of crossing his legs, like a supermodel being interviewed on a talk show. His two shorter, chunkier older brothers gave him hell about the girly way he sat, but he just grinned and gave them the finger. His hair was still wet from their visit to the hot springs and swim in the pool. The hot springs were an easy walk from the back of the house, down a generously signposted walking track. There had been nobody else around. They had found the Secret Grotto, a rocky shaded pool just big enough for the three of them to sit in a semicircle and enjoy the views of the valley. Heather and Zoe had listened as Napoleon talked on and on about how the minerals in the water would help their circulation and reduce their stress levels and so on and so forth; she couldn’t really remember what he’d said. Napoleon’s conversation was like background noise in her life, a radio permanently on talkback, only random phrases making their way into her subconscious. He had obviously been panicked at the thought of five days of silence and had been speaking even faster than usual, without pause, his voice bubbling endlessly, like the frothy, warm, sulphuric-smelling water that bubbled about their bodies. ‘Sweetheart, of course I can cope without speaking for five days!’ he’d reassured Zoe, who had looked at her father with genuine concern on her beautiful young face. ‘If you can cope without your phone and your mother can cope without caffeine, I can cope without conversation!’ Afterwards, the three of them had cooled off in the pool; the relief of the cold blue chlorinated water had been magical after the hot springs. Heather watched Zoe try to race her dad: he swam butterfly, she swam freestyle with a five-second head start. He still won, even though he didn’t want to win, but he couldn’t get away with pretending to lose like when she was a kid. Then they sat by the pool and Zoe told them a funny story about one of her university tutors that Heather didn’t quite get, but she could tell by Zoe’s face that it was meant to be funny, so it was easy to laugh. It had been a rare and special moment of happiness. Heather knew they would all three have noted it, and hoped it was a sign of something good. And now they had to spend the next five days not talking. Heather felt a burst of powerful irritation – or perhaps it was simply her body demanding a macchiato – because this so-called ‘holiday’ was not meant to be about suffering. There were undoubtedly multiple other health resorts that offered the same peaceful environment without these draconian deprivations. None of the three of them needed to lose weight. Weight was just not an issue for Heather! She weighed herself every morning at six on the dot and if she ever saw the needle move in the wrong direction she adjusted her diet. Her BMI was in the ‘underweight’ category, but only by a kilo. She’d always been lean. Zoe sometimes accused Heather of having an eating disorder, just because she was kind of picky about when and what she ate. She didn’t put just anything in her mouth – unlike Napoleon, who ate like a vacuum cleaner, hoovering up whatever was around him. Napoleon