THE MOUNTAIN WAS a sheer volcanic core that rose improbably from the lush plain. It had been named Mount Trepidation by the early explorers, those anglophile pessimists, blighting the map with monuments to their leech bites and sunstroke. Some people claimed to see the face of a skull in the mountain’s western cliffs, a feature that had become conflated, over the years, with its reputation for falls and suicides. This was despite the fact that thousands of people climbed the mountain every year without incident. This was Corinne’s go-to line, one that she had repeated to the members of the support group. Their hike up the mountain – the culminating event of the weekend retreat – would be perfectly safe, whatever they might have heard.
Corinne could not contain her distaste for the tourists, many of them wearing skull-face souvenir T-shirts, who swarmed the mountain during weekends and holidays. There was something emotionally stunted about people who sought out the cheap thrills of the macabre. Her bedroom window was deliberately uncurtained, so that the sun on the mountain’s peak was the first thing she and Ted saw each morning.
As she rode her horse down their driveway, she saw the white sails of their house framed against the green paddocks. Their son was shooting hoops outside, and Ted was visible through the kitchen window, preparing dinner for the guests who would soon arrive. Despite its name, she could only see the mountain as a benevolent presence. After all her hellish years, it had watched over them in this unhoped-for period of grace.
In the stables, she hung up the saddle and refilled Jupiter’s water trough. Maybe there was a flowering plant along the road, or the rain had brought out spores in the damp straw underfoot, because she felt a rawness in her throat that had not been there only a minute before. She cupped her hand and drank from the stable tap, but the cold water only made the pain sharper. After the feeling of transcendence, almost, that riding brought, it was demoralising to be so abruptly earthed to her body.
Unable to resist the compulsion, she wiped the smudges from the dusty mirror above the tap and inspected her face. She found nothing, of course, but was angry with herself for the relapse. Old habits. It was probably a cold, that was all.
IF TED NOTICED her boil the jug and make herself a lemon and ginger tea, he knew better than to say. His first instinct, she knew, was to shower her with concern, but she hated any kind of fuss. After five years, they were finally approaching the sort of rhythm that seemed to come naturally to other couples, the ones who had met early and grown up together. Although it might seem strange to an outsider, his self-restraint was a declaration of love.
‘Hold on, your zip’s down.’
She had bought a new dress for the occasion – figure-hugging red satin, with one of those zips that were apparently designed for a contortionist.
‘Oh, I’ve got garlic on my hands. Hey, Eli!’
The boy got up and dealt skilfully with the zip, with none of the awkwardness or resentment Corinne knew she should expect from a thirteen-year-old stepson. Stepson. She’d hated the word at first, but now it had a tender ring. Between the two of them, they had avoided all the clichés.
Not that it had all been rosy. She and Ted had had a terrible time with Eli a few years back. He had started hand-washing obsessively, refused to sit on their toilet seat, and would not eat or drink anything Corinne had touched. When they got to the bottom of it, the child psychologist’s tentative diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder had to be revised. It turned out that the boy was simply acting on the instructions of his hysterical mother. Later that year, in a truly awful court case, the ex-wife’s bid for full custody had been rejected.
‘Someone’s here.’ Eli went to look out the window.
Corinne ran up the stairs, pulling the towel from her wet hair. She hoped it would be Jeff, whom they hadn’t seen for six months, since he left to ride his bicycle across Africa. She wanted a few minutes before she had to share him with the other guests, although she would still have to compete with Ted – they would chew each other’s ears off about politics – and Eli, who, thanks to his discussions with Jeff, had written a prize-winning essay about the injustices of apartheid. It was heartwarmingly progressive, Corinne thought, that her robustly heterosexual stepson should have a gay man as a role model.
‘It’s Laszlo and Bronwyn.’
Corinne could tell that Eli, too, was disappointed. She composed her warmest smile and went out to greet both guests with a hug. The hugging was something she had picked up from Jeff. She had never been a touchy-feely person in her old life, but Jeff would say that after being treated like pariahs, what they all needed was the healing power of touch.
‘Wow, check out this van,’ said Corinne ‘Amazing!’
Bronwyn blushed. ‘Thanks. Would you like the tour?’
Bronwyn and Laszlo had customised the old Kombi so they could sleep in it at medieval fairs and mock battles.
‘We found this guy to replace the windows with stained glass – except the windscreens, ha! And one of our blacksmith mates did the chimney.’
‘It’s so cute.’
The chimney of the miniature potbelly stove protruded through the roof of the van in a series of crooked elbow bends, like something out of a fairytale. It was not really to Corinne’s taste, if she was honest, but you had to give them credit for effort.
‘Yeah, we wanted a really witchy vibe.’
Outside, Laszlo stood and looked up at the mountain. He put his hands on his hips and took a long, theatrical breath of fresh air. ‘Ahh. That’s quite a sight. Bron and I always say you can really feel the healing powers of nature here.’
‘It’s such a weird name, though,’ said Bronwyn. ‘Mount Trepidation. They could have come up with something nicer.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘By the way, these are for you – for hosting us.’
Bronwyn gave Corinne a slightly limp posy of flowers, obviously from someone’s garden, wrapped in aluminium foil and tied with a purple ribbon.
‘Aw, thank you. They’re lovely.’
Just a few months ago, she and Ted had attended Laszlo and Bronwyn’s wedding at a theme park that boasted a besser-block castle. They had clinked goblets with the other members of the medieval combat group, who had attended in full costume, and had even taken off their shoes to join in the maypole dancing. Corinne had been surprised and humbled at the easy warmth with which she was welcomed into the fold by these people, who, in her former life, surrounded by her former friends, would barely have flickered across her radar.
Inside, Ted poured glasses of kombucha and served up the spinach and pine nut dip, while Corinne put Bronwyn’s flowers in a vase on the windowsill. Eli chatted to their guests. Like most only children, he knew how to talk to adults, but unlike so many of them, he was not at sea with other kids, and did not regard the grown-ups as his natural flock.
Laszlo lay back on the couch to admire the high, timber-lined ceilings and the plate-glass windows that each gave a different, artfully framed view of the mountain and surrounding rainforest. ‘Wow! I know I say this every time, but this house is so beautiful. You guys are so blessed.’
Corinne had come from family money. She had always felt the need to unpick this sort of compliment, dissecting the various undertones of envy, disdain or latent predatory intent. It stung her to think that people judged her as someone to whom material things were important. She knew that if she’d been dealt a different hand, she could have been perfectly happy with very little.
Yet Laszlo and Bronwyn seemed to say this sort of thing in complete innocence, as if they were merely happy for her good luck. Though they must have had at least a vague idea of how much her house had cost, their admiration was offered as the equal of her praise for their van, as if they saw little difference between the two. Despite Corinne’s residual unease, she was learning to embrace this refreshing lack of guile.
They heard the crunch of another vehicle in the driveway.
‘Well, that’s definitely not Jeff,’ said Laszlo, laughing.
Jeff was famously attached to his bike, and would cycle the day-long journey down the highway. It could only be one person, then. Corinne braced herself. Dean bounced into the room, the one rough edge to the weekend. He punched Ted playfully on the arm as they shook hands.
Ted laughed through clenched teeth. A few days earlier, in private discussion, he had referred to Dean as an arsehole. Usually, Ted was the one to talk her down from an angry rant over someone’s carelessness. Once, at the beach, they had witnessed a cigarette being ejected from the window of a parked car, and Corinne had picked up the still-smouldering butt and posted it back into the lap of the stunned litterbug. Ted had averted his gaze, later commenting, You’re pretty harsh on people. In Dean, his measured homilies seemed to meet their match. It was Corinne who played the voice of reason, arguing that for someone who had been through what she and Dean had, showing strength was the first step to recovery. That was something to be celebrated, she explained, even if that display of strength was, she had to admit, misdirected.
She watched Ted now, standing up straighter and squaring his shoulders. He was an amateur at this sort of game, and he gave himself away.
Dean shook Laszlo’s hand and leant over to kiss Bronwyn on the cheek.
‘Hey, I peeked into your van on the way in. Looking good! The chimney just makes it.’
‘Yeah, I got Bronwyn to sketch her fantasy Kombi, and she said “The chimney is a fantasy only, it’s too difficult.” But I said “No, it has to happen!” Our mate Don spent weeks getting it right.’
Dean was a personal trainer. Corinne had noticed him looking at people’s bodies, evaluating strength, muscle tone, weaknesses, flaws. She sometimes wondered what he made of Laszlo and Bronwyn, both pale, round individuals. But he was unfailingly polite, and listened attentively to their battle stories. Perhaps, she thought, this was Dean with his guard down, in the presence of two people who posed no threat.
Ted brought out a tray of flatbread crisps.
‘Looks like we’re just waiting on Jeff.’
Bronwyn clapped her fingers together.
‘We can’t wait to see him and give him a big hug! Can we?’
‘What a champion,’ said Laszlo. ‘We read all his articles. We loved the one about the women’s sewing collective.’
Dean stretched his arms along the back of the couch, displaying his well-sculpted torso.
‘If he’d gone on a motorbike, he could have done it in less than half the time.’
Ted’s conciliatory chuckle abruptly turned earnest.
‘Well, I think the idea was that using his own body power was a powerful symbol. You know, to people who might write him off as being weak.’
When Dean had first joined the group, Corinne had thought he and Jeff would be natural allies, or even, despite the age gap, something more than friends. A year on from a bad break-up, Jeff still hadn’t met anyone new. But Dean seemed alert to any opportunity to score points at Jeff’s expense, and smirked through Jeff’s increasingly contorted efforts to find common ground.
He shrugged. ‘It was a joke.’
‘We know, mate,’ said Laszlo. ‘But I’m serious about him being a real inspiration for us. And not just in an abstract sense.’ He looked at Bronwyn. ‘Why don’t we just tell them now?’
‘You say it.’
Even before Bronwyn spoke, Corinne knew what was coming. It was the hands clasped across the belly, the misty Bambi eyes.
‘Well, we weren’t sure when to tell everyone. But as you know, we just got married.’
She faltered, beaming.
‘So we thought it was about time we had a baby. It’s due in October.’
Laszlo put his arm around her. ‘That’s our big news.’
There was a silence, not long, but too drawn out for the circumstances. Corinne felt winded, as if the two of them had punched her in the chest. In the end it was Dean who got up to shake Laszlo’s hand and kiss Bronwyn on the cheek. Corinne managed to step forward and offer her congratulations, holding in her grief like a lungful of water. She excused herself and then, perched on the lid of the upstairs toilet, allowed herself to cry.
IT WAS THE bathroom she had retreated to seven years before at her parents’ house, her moment of private despair interrupted by the grotesque strains of her mother’s Christmas album and the electronic beeping of some game played by her sister’s children. A few months before, she had finally broken up with Rick, who had sucked her in with his jokes and mad spontaneity, but whose endearing devil-may-care attitude, it turned out, was expressed in the domestic sphere by him leaving wet towels on the hallway carpet and borrowing large sums of money from her. But it wasn’t Rick she was crying about.
She had met someone new – someone very unlike Rick – through work. When she suggested they both get tested, she had mostly been protecting herself, but had made an appointment too as an act of good faith. When the doctor offered her the new test they had, for HIV, she took it not because she had any cause for concern, but because, as the former school captain and an up-and-coming corporate lawyer, she was responsible by nature and liked to do things thoroughly.
When the test came back positive, she was sure there had been a mix-up, and she was still unconvinced by the second positive test. There must have been some mistake. The third test came back a few days before Christmas, when she was expected to spend the season ensconced en famille, and she was forced to tell the man she had been seeing. His tests had come back clean, on all fronts. He had made an awkward show of concern, then promptly vanished, taking with him a secret that she could not be sure wouldn’t trickle through mutual networks to friends and enemies alike.
She had soldiered on through the awful Christmas carols and the fucking turkey. Later she contacted the friend who introduced her to Rick, and discovered that Rick had dabbled in heroin for ‘a while’, something neither he nor any of their mutual acquaintances had ever mentioned, but that she guessed might explain his mysterious need for large sums of her cash. By that time, Rick was hard to track down. Someone who claimed he was in Mexico had given her a phone number, but when she rang it seemed to have been disconnected.
The fact that her body was still in perfect health made the diagnosis seem unreal. Yet there was still a sense of her every action being rendered meaningless, any progress she made soon to be obliterated. Despite this, she threw herself into her job, spending long hours at the office in the hope that by narrowing her focus myopically to her work, she might force it to seem important. Perhaps it was the hangover of having been a clever child, but she ploughed on with the vague notion that diligent labour would be rewarded, and that, having been blessed with a potent mind, her powers of concentration alone might be enough to ward off the inevitable. For a time, this strategy seemed to be effective. Her dedication won her praise at work, although she wondered if her superiors noted privately that she did not seem to take any real pleasure in her achievements.
Eventually it came all crashing down. Within weeks she had the rashes, the night sweats, the gastrointestinal troubles. Her doctor had been putting off prescribing zidovudine, weighing the benefits against the side effects, but the time had come. If she had thought being sick was bad, the treatment nearly killed her.
It was only then, when her hand was forced, that she had told her parents. If they had already noticed anything wrong, they had not said so, acknowledging that there was a problem not being one of their strong suits. Her mother had fussed over her like she was an infant – her independent, uncontrollable daughter had returned tame and reliant on her. Under different circumstances, she would have enjoyed this, but instead, as she changed Corinne’s sweated-through bedsheets wearing rubber gloves, she gave off the air of someone so personally wounded that she would never recover.
Corinne’s father, who had once called her his little mate, reacted with a rage that was not directed at Corinne personally, but at the television, their incontinent old dogs and the world at large. Both parents seemed to be disappointed in her for precipitating these unfamiliar emotions, ones they had not expected, at this safe point in their lives, to have to feel.
For Corinne, there was still a feeling of unreality to the whole turn of events – not the symptoms, which were all too brutally real – but the sense that none of this was ever meant to happen to her, that somehow she had ended up being assigned a fate intended for somebody else.
Most of the friends she had told reacted well, if slightly incredulously, with hugs and tears, and told her to ask if she needed anything. Then, like the man she had been seeing, most of them had disappeared. Six months later she had run into a group of them at a café. They had looked at her like they had seen a ghost, apparently because they had expected her to have died by now. After a beat they had invited her to join them, but she invented an urgent appointment and abruptly left.
Just as she had begun to feel that death was perhaps not the worst thing imaginable, merely the logical next step in the complete annihilation of the person she had been, her body began to bounce back. Perhaps it was the adjusted drug regime, or just the natural ebb and flow of the disease, but she could now go out in public without vomiting or shitting herself. A miracle, clouded by the knowledge that whatever had caused the reprieve was likely to be temporary. The thought that she was going to take forever to die depressed her.
She had booked a trip to India, after which – the trip would afford her the space to decide – she was seriously considering suicide. It had been only an afterthought to pack the book that her psychotherapist had given her. The AIDS Fallacy, by Dr Hubert Pietersen, had been sitting unopened on her bedside table for months. Reading it on her hotel balcony in Goa, looking over the ocean views that she had selected knowing they might be one of the last things she ever saw, Corinne had a revelation.
She should have trusted her own intuition when she had felt that her diagnosis was a fate not meant for her. Instead, she had allowed herself to be taken in by a colossal hoax. Dr Pietersen’s book revealed that HIV was a harmless passenger virus, unable to reproduce in the body. The deaths attributed to it – from diseases that had been killing people for millennia, mind you – had different causes: the abuse of party drugs by gay men, contaminated clotting factors given to haemophiliacs or malnutrition borne of poverty in Third World countries. The idea that they were all symptoms of the same ‘disease’ only served the pharmaceutical companies who stood to profit from creating drugs to ‘treat’ it.
Everything made sense now. Her initial symptoms were simply due to stress, from all the work she had done to distract herself, and from the social stigma and existential terror of living with an axe hanging over her head. That she had felt so much worse after taking the medication fit exactly with Dr Pietersen’s description of zidovudine as a toxic poison, the effects of which cruelly mimicked the symptoms of the supposed disease they were meant to treat, and that, when they finally killed the patient, reinforced society’s expectations of a terrible end. Corinne flushed her medication down the toilet. Within a week, just as Dr Pietersen had predicted, she began to feel better. For the first time in years, her body was her own again.
On her return home, she had shocked her parents by moving out into her own flat, beginning a regime of exercise and wholefoods, and buying a horse – her first since she was a teenager. She ‘broke up’ with her GP and treating specialists and found a good naturopath, who helped her to heal from the medication’s toxic assaults on her body. She quit her job in the law firm and, although she had no prior business experience, began researching the market for imported Indian clothes.
None of these things were the actions of a person facing imminent death. Her mother saw Corinne slipping out of her control again, and reacted to this display of strength and optimism almost as if Corinne were doing something obscene. Her family had been sceptical when she explained the situation to them, as if having already accepted her death, having to shift their feelings again was too much of a strain. Between the people who couldn’t accept that she was sick and the ones who now could not accept that she was well, she had separated herself from almost everyone in her old life.
While she was not superstitious, Corinne did believe, on some level, in natural justice. When she met Ted at a meditation retreat, the appearance of this man who was so calm, and who listened so intently to what she was saying, seemed like her reward for working so hard on herself. They had kept things low key at first because Ted had only recently separated from his wife. When Corinne finally divulged her diagnosis, he had been kind, but confused, still parroting the orthodox line. She gave him a copy of Hubert’s book to read, and he seemed to grasp the situation in a way that no one else in her life, up to that point, had ever done. As things progressed, Ted had come to meetings and conferences with her, and read every one of the newsletters.
Her family had been horrified, as if it were now only appropriate for her to behave like a nun. Her mother, thinking Corinne must be keeping everything from Ted, or assuming that he was seeing Corinne out of charity, referred to him as ‘that poor man’. Yet Ted never expected Corinne to be grateful to him for taking her on. If anything, the opposite was true.
Between her former circle and Ted’s ex-wife, home was full of people they definitely wouldn’t have wanted at a wedding. Eloping to India was the natural choice because it allowed her to take care of some business while they were there. Eli, their ring bearer, had strewn marigolds as they walked along the beach towards the celebrant. Corinne was just getting to know this little boy. She was taking things slowly, conscious of not being seen to compete with his mother.
Anyway, she did not need him to be her child. She knew she had lost her most fertile years to her diagnosis, but as she and Ted moved into their beautiful house under the mountain and settled into peaceful domesticity, the sense she had of balance being restored, of being compensated for the horror she had endured, made it easy to believe that her own baby would be a given. She ate well and exercised, and she was a former school swimming champion – her body would provide.
But whether the toxic drugs and the trauma had permanently damaged something, or her body contained its own, more organic flaws, it had never happened. They had been happy, of course. They had each other, and Eli was under their roof every second week, but the absence was always there. When Bronwyn made the announcement, it had been hard to shake the old feeling that the natural order of things had been overturned.
She was hurt and furious that these two pale lumps of people – who, for all their endearing quirks, were not what anyone would classify as society’s winners – had been chosen ahead of her. And in the same breath, she was ashamed to think that after all the work she had done on herself, her mind could still produce thoughts like these, her mother’s deeply ingrained snobbery seeping out, no matter how hard she tried. She washed her face and composed herself, ready to face her guests.
COMING DOWN THE stairs, she heard another car in the driveway. It couldn’t be Jeff, surely, without his bike? She opened the front door, expecting to see someone lost or having car trouble. For some reason this stranger had struggled out of the car with his bags and was heading towards her as if he had recognised an old friend. It was Jeff, she saw, but he had grown a beard and his skin was tanned deep brown.
Maybe her memory of him had faded over the months he had been away, but even his eyes looked different, larger and more intense, as if the trip to Africa had stripped him back to his essence. As he got closer, she saw that what she had mistaken for a spiritual transformation was in fact a physical change. As she hugged him, she felt how much leaner his whole body had become.
Inside, Jeff did the rounds of the living room, hugging everyone, even Dean, who returned the gesture stiffly. Jeff’s face lit up when he saw Eli. With typical class, he passed no comment on the fact that Eli had recently shot up like a beanpole, instead offering his hand for a high five.
‘We thought it was someone else, mate,’ said Ted. ‘No bike?’
‘Aha, yeah, I thought that might throw people. I do own a car, believe it or not! I barely drive it, I just…’
‘Well, if anyone’s earned a break, it’s you, right?’
‘Yeah, I just thought with the rain – and to be honest, riding like that gets pretty hard on your body…’
‘Hey, no need to explain,’ said Laszlo. ‘We were just saying how much we enjoyed your articles. I don’t want to embarrass you, but what the hell, I’ll say it anyway – you’re an inspiration to us. Hey Bronwyn?’
‘Yeah, we’re your number-one groupies.’
‘Well, that’s very kind of both of you, but I don’t want…’
‘Three cheers for Jeff.’
‘Yeah, go Jeff!’
Laszlo led the cheering. Jeff, never one for the limelight, kept rubbing his forehead, where a half-moon of hair had thinned noticeably since they last saw him. His clear-eyed, boyish good looks, which had persisted into his late forties, were now almost gone.
‘Oh look, we have embarrassed you.’ Bronwyn patted Jeff gently on the wrist.
‘No, no, I appreciate the gesture, it’s just…it seems like it was all such a long time ago.’
‘How long have you been back?’ asked Laszlo. Six weeks?’
‘Plenty more time to rest on your laurels!’
‘I don’t know, Laszlo. If you say so.’
They all laughed.
‘Well,’ said Laszlo, ‘Since we’ve just told everyone else, we should probably tell you our news too.’
This brought on another round of hugs from Jeff. He held Bronwyn tightly for a long time, only letting her go to wipe away his tears. Corinne had seen, as he bent over, that he hadn’t bought new clothes since he’d been back. His belt had been pulled so tight that his pants bunched around his bony arse.
‘You can take some of the credit for it, Jeff,’ said Laszlo.
‘Woah,’ said Dean, smirking. ‘Jeff, you sly dog.’
Eli laughed loudly, to show he had understood the joke.
‘No, I mean for showing us that we can ignore what people say and follow our truth.’
‘We’re doing this our own way,’ said Bronwyn. ‘No doctors, and we’re doing a home birth, breastfeeding, the whole lot. The authorities won’t find out until it’s weaned.’
‘It’s a bit different to riding across Africa, but we like to think of it as our big adventure.’
‘Well, that’s…I’m honoured. That’s great.’
Jeff wore the pained expression of someone who felt he had been praised too highly. As they filed in to the dining area, Corinne was careful to herd him to the head of the table, putting a healthy gap between him and Dean.
Things between the two of them had turned sour during one of their early meetings, when Jeff had delivered a passionate monologue on the pernicious myth that Australia was a classless society. Then, realising he had monopolised the conversation, he had apologised for talking Dean’s ear off. He was embarrassed, he said. Here he was lecturing Dean about the evils of the class system when Dean had firsthand experience of being working class.
When Dean asked how Jeff would define ‘working class’, Jeff replied that traditionally the definition would be based on income, but had expanded to include anyone without a tertiary education. Dean, bristling, had informed Jeff that he had a diploma in business management and was a qualified personal trainer. Since then, he had been like a wounded bull around Jeff, seeing slights where none were intended, often striking pre-emptively with a barbed remark. Though he would sometimes humour Jeff’s attempts at conversation, he would do so without meeting Jeff’s eye.
Ted brought out the dishes for the main meal: nut loaf with cranberry sauce, and chickpea salad topped with roasted seaweed. The group applauded. Corinne lifted her glass of kombucha and proposed a toast: to good friends, and the blessing of continued good health.
‘To survival,’ said Laszlo.
‘To life.’ Jeff’s eyes were moist again.
After the blow she had been dealt, Corinne felt things coming together as she had imagined them. Here was the warm glow of good feeling that had defined their last weekend retreat a year ago.
‘So, Jeff,’ said Ted. ‘We’re dying to hear more about your trip.’
Jeff pulled a face that was half smile, half wince.
‘Ah, well…I don’t know where to start.’
‘What did you eat?’ asked Ted.
‘Dean would be proud of me. I ate a lot of goat meat.’
Dean, an evangelist for the life-giving properties of red meat and raw fish, had often cracked sly jokes about Jeff’s vegetarianism. Now he seemed to think Jeff was making fun of him. He folded his arms and rocked back in his chair.
‘Yeah,’ said Jeff, ‘my philosophy is, when you’re travelling, you have to put some values aside and go with the flow. The first few weeks were tough, just feeling like I was in this totally foreign environment. But it’s so rich, culturally speaking, and the landscape – I mean, we’re all from Africa originally, aren’t we?’
There was a weariness in his voice, Corinne thought, as if he seemed to no longer feel the sentiments he expressed.
‘It’s hard to sum it up, I guess,’ he said. ‘It seems like a long time ago.’
‘Hey, don’t worry,’ said Laszlo. ‘We’ve read all about it anyway. Those articles were so well written, we felt like we were there with you.’
‘I’m glad you enjoyed them, but they weren’t like journal entries. I was writing for an audience. There were a lot more ups and downs, probably, than come across in the articles.’
Laszlo’s smile faded as he tried to square the Jeff of the articles with the thin, tired man at the end of the table.
‘There was one important part you never mentioned,’ said Corinne. ‘How was your meeting with Hubert?’
The final leg of Jeff’s trip had been a visit to the Johannesburg lab of Dr Hubert Pietersen, renegade scientist and the author of the book that had saved them all.
‘Yeah, I had a few hiccups towards the end, so I didn’t end up writing about that. But Hubert is, well, he’s quite a character.’
‘Oh, I bet he is,’ said Bronwyn. ‘Laszlo and I have this joke. You know, I was brought up full-on Christian, but after I got diagnosed, especially, I lost my faith. But when I read Hubert’s book, I felt like I’d really been born again. So when I told Laszlo that, he hung a picture of Hubert above our bed.’
‘Yeah, we call him our saviour. I mean, it’s not even a joke, really.’
‘I’ve always had the feeling that he’d be a very warm person, and – this is probably silly – my mother always used to say you can tell a good doctor because he has warm hands. So I’ve always imagined Hubert would have these big, warm hands.’
Jeff hesitated, searching, it seemed, for a diplomatic answer.
‘Jeff, did you ask to feel Hubert’s hands?’ said Dean. They laughed, even Bronwyn, who blushed. But Jeff, still considering his reply, seemed oblivious.
‘Well, Bronwyn, he’s like many highly intelligent people – they’re so focused on their work that other attributes tend to take a back seat. I guess you can see that he cares about people by looking at the work he’s doing, not by the things you might look for in the average person.’
There was an awkward silence as they considered what was missing from this painfully constricted account. No one seemed willing to press for details. Bronwyn’s fixation on Hubert’s hands was embarrassing. But when Corinne looked at the woman’s face, she saw her own artfully concealed disappointment.
‘So yeah,’ Jeff went on. ‘He’s really been through the wringer in the last few years, with all the backlash he’s got from the establishment. That has to have an effect on a person.’
Laszlo shook his head and clucked loudly in disapproval. Here, at last, was something he could grab hold of.
‘That makes me so angry, the way he’s been treated. I mean, even if you disagree with someone on an intellectual level, you don’t have to treat them like dirt. Cutting his funding, restricting his teaching work – what are they going to do next? The authoritarian machinery kicks in and crushes anyone who stands up for themselves. It feels personal, you know, just this brutality on a deep personal level.’
Laszlo took a deep breath, but the exhalation came out as a choked sob. He bent forward with his head in his hands, and his big shoulders heaved silently. Bronwyn leaned over and rubbed his back.
‘He’s had a lot of trouble with his family in the last few weeks,’ she said. ‘They’re trying to emotionally blackmail him into taking the drugs.’
Laszlo spoke from behind his hands, something like it’s just so painful, although it was difficult to make out the words. It was not the first time he had cried in front of them. Corinne sometimes thought that he misunderstood the concept of a support group. As far as she was concerned, it was not a forum where the usual social requirements, such as restraint and emotional continence, could be dispensed with.
Laszlo dug a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose.
‘Sorry about that, guys. This kind of thing just brings up some very difficult stuff for me.’
‘Don’t worry about it, mate,’ said Jeff. He closed his eyes and massaged the hollows of his temples.
IN THE MIDST of all the trouble with Ted’s ex-wife, Corinne never once heard him say anything against the woman in anger. Even when Eli was out of earshot, he would strain for the most diplomatic words, torturing himself with some high-minded idea about the sanctity of his son’s mother. Corinne knew this was an admirable trait, in some ways. But Ted’s true feelings came out in the headaches and stomach trouble he had experienced before every court date during the custody battle. The fact that he had put misplaced loyalty to his ex-wife above sharing his emotions with her made her feel excluded, and like an imposter.
Her husband could be blind like that. At no point in the evening had he pulled her aside to ask why she’d suddenly left the room, or given any sign that he recognised the hurt the announcement had caused her. He seemed to think they carried equal parts of the pain, but having a biological child already was a buffer against grief – one that she could not fall back on.
Alone in the kitchen, cleaning up, Corinne took off the bracelet Jeff had given her and put it on the windowsill. Everyone had received either a bracelet or a necklace, all made from thousands of tiny coloured beads. A gust of rain slapped against the windows. Their guests had dispersed for the evening: Bronwyn and Laszlo to their van, Dean to the guest room. Jeff was outside, probably setting up his swag in the paddock.
There was a knock at the door. Bronwyn’s wet fringe hung limply under the hood of her raincoat. She grinned, as if she had enjoyed the adventure of running through the rain, but Corinne found herself deeply irritated. Why, having only just left the house, did the woman think it was necessary to knock in order to be readmitted? Bronwyn’s pyjama top depicted a bear exhaling a string of cartoon Zs. A garment for a child, but here it was in adult size, making her unrestrained breasts, with their visible nipples, look even more obscene.
‘It’s just me again. Sorry to disturb you, but Laszlo gets this rash under his arms, and he forgot to pack the cream for it. Would you have some Vaseline we could borrow? Sorry, you’re probably about to go to bed…’
Bronwyn’s overly deferential manner only made things worse. ‘I don’t think we have anything like that.’
‘Or just moisturiser or something. It’s just, it keeps him awake…’
‘Moisturiser will probably just irritate it further.’
‘Oh, well, okay.’
‘Corinne, I’m sure we’ve got Vaseline upstairs.’
She hadn’t heard Ted come into the room.
‘Come in and wait,’ he said. His kindly tone, she knew, was an attempt to compensate for her own frostiness. ‘I’ll get it for you.’
Bronwyn, probably not blind to hints of marital discord, stepped over the threshold, but was not willing to enter further. She stood stiffly, unsure of what to do with herself.
‘You can sit down,’ said Corinne.
‘Um, my raincoat’s wet.’
Ted returned with the Vaseline.
‘Thanks. I’m so sorry to disturb you.’
‘Oh, it’s no problem. Anything you need, just ask. It’s a treat for us to have you both here.’
Bronwyn beamed with relief. Corinne knew that every platitude was a hidden reprimand for her.
‘You two sleep tight out there.’
‘Thanks, you too.’
Ted turned around, but would not meet her eye. Perhaps, with Dean on the other side of the guestroom door, he was saving the argument for later. From the kitchen, she heard Jeff come inside, and Ted asking if he was going to be alright sleeping out in the rain.
‘Oh, sleeping under the stars is my default setting now.’
‘Well, I mean, the couch is right there, so just say the word…’
The rain, which had petered out, returned with a new heaviness.
‘Um, actually Ted, I might take you up on that offer, if that’s alright.’
‘Sure, I’ll show you how it folds down.’
‘No, no, it’s fine as is. And I’m completely self-sufficient for bedding and everything.’
‘We don’t want you waking up in a puddle!’
‘I really appreciate it. People were so welcoming in Africa, but it’s not the same as being among friends. And to be honest…I didn’t want to mention it, but I seem to have picked up a little stomach bug that I’m having trouble shaking off, and it’s good to be near a toilet.’
‘Have you gone to the doctor?’
‘I’m treating it homeopathically. You know, my experience with the so-called medical profession…’
‘Of course. Sorry – force of habit. Is there anything else you need?’
‘No, I’ll just get my swag out of the car.’
Corinne had never told anyone, but the moment she knew someone else was sick, she would start to feel the symptoms in her own body, as if she had been instantly infected. Now she felt her dinner turn over and the beginnings of a cramp. She thought of Jeff hugging them all, thoughtlessly, and had a sudden urge to wash her hands.
Coming out of the downstairs bathroom, she bumped into Jeff, who had returned with his swag.
‘Phew,’ he said. ‘It’s pouring down.’
‘Yep,’ said Ted. ‘Let’s hope it clears for Sunday, hey?’
By the time Corinne got into bed, Ted was facing wall, pretending to sleep. All week, she had looked forward to being in the warm embrace of people who understood each other on a fundamental level. But when she considered the members of the support group individually – even Jeff, who did not seem at all like the person she remembered – this feeling slipped out of her grasp. All they were was an assortment of people drawn together by the same phantom diagnosis. She rolled over and threw back the blankets. The downside of having no curtains was that the bedroom was lit at night by a faint red pulse. It was the light on top of the mountain, sending a warning to low-flying aircraft. During restless nights, it seemed to blink in time with her heartbeat.
BY MORNING, THE rain had cleared. When Corinne went downstairs, Jeff was still asleep on the couch. He had crossed his arms across his chest to fit the narrow space. Swaddled in his sleeping bag, and with his gaunt, tanned cheeks, he reminded her of an Egyptian mummy. Corinne went out onto the deck.
Jeff appeared, closing the sliding door behind him. He wore a beanie pulled low over his forehead.
‘I got here too late to see this view last night. I just have such a reverence for this mountain.’
‘Come inside, I’ll make you some tea.’
‘Ah, great. You know, I think it’s so true that the modern mind hasn’t caught up with the pressures of urban living. We need to get back to nature to reconnect with our primitive selves.’
Filling the kettle, Corinne smiled to herself. This spiel was classic Jeff – he sounded like himself again, and she loved him for his ability to dispense with small talk and skip straight to weighty matters. They sat outside and watched the clouds lift from the top of the mountain.
‘You know,’ said Jeff, ‘I was thinking about you last night.’
She wondered if he had overheard her exchange with Bronwyn – or had someone blabbed? She had behaved badly, she knew, and she regretted it this morning. It was mortifying to think that Jeff, her voice of reason and moral compass, had seen her in such a light.
‘I was thinking about Laszlo and Bronwyn’s news – it’s great, of course. But it hit me afterwards that hearing it might have come with some pain for you, and that none of us really acknowledged that.’
Corinne hardly ever cried in front of other people, not even Ted, but now she found she was unable to stop. Jeff had a way of grasping a situation when no one else could. He put his hand on her shoulder.
‘Ted doesn’t get it,’ she said. ‘He thinks it’s something painful that we’ve been through together, and if he can cope with it, I should be able to as well. But he already has his own biological child, and he doesn’t have a diagnosis. And it’s different for women, people judge you differently.’
‘I hear you. It can be hard to understand something when you haven’t been there. But Ted might get it more than you think. I mean, he obviously cares about you.’
‘I know it’s not ideal, with a house full of people. But you should talk to him, when you get the right moment. You have to give people the chance to show you their best side.’
‘I know. Most of the time I’m fine, it’s just sometimes something will get under my skin…’
‘You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. You know the thing I love about this group? I have the privilege of seeing people face difficult things head on and meet them with such grace. And I see that in you now.’
He put his arm around her, and she hugged him back, even though she felt that the grace he spoke of was less an observation than a kind of hopeful prophecy.
AS THE OTHER guests began to emerge, Corinne dusted off Eli’s old chalkboard and wrote a schedule of the weekend’s activities. As everyone gathered on the deck for breakfast, she made a point of asking Bronwyn and Laszlo whether they had lit their wonderful stove last night, and ushered Bronwyn towards the most comfortable chair.
‘Jeff, mate, take a seat,’ said Laszlo, patting the place next to him. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you – you spoke to this American woman, what’s her name, who’s making the documentary?’
‘Yeah, what’s she like?’
‘Ah, she seemed very pleasant.’
‘So she interviewed you?’
‘Yeah, we met up in Botswana. She wanted to take all this footage of me on the bike, which was – well, I put up with it – ha!’
‘She’s a journalist, right?’
‘You reckon we can trust her?’
Jeff had pulled his beanie even further down around his face and tucked his hands inside the sleeves of his jacket.
‘Um, yeah. Elaine’s really on board with the movement. She sent me a big feature article she did on Hubert for an American magazine. That got her sacked, actually, which is why she’s set up this independent film company.’
‘So you think we should do it?’
‘Well, that has to be your decision. Obviously you’d be sacrificing your privacy.’
‘Hmm. We saw the ad in the newsletter, and we thought: what better argument could we offer against orthodox medicine than a healthy baby?’
‘That’s a great point. You just have to remember that you’re potentially exposing yourself to criticism…’
‘Yeah, but by the time it comes out, the kid will be too old for them to do anything.’
‘Sounds like you’re pretty keen, then.’
‘Yeah, I mean, we figure if you’re doing it, it’s good enough for us. Arrgh, it’s so good to have you back, mate.’
Lazslo leaned over to grab Jeff in a bear hug and almost lifted him off his seat.
‘Yeah, I…it’s really good to see you all again. Cheers, everyone.’
As Jeff lifted his glass of wheatgrass smoothie, his eyes welled up once more.
The first item on the chalkboard was Workout with Dean on the lawn. They started with some warm-up stretches. Dean offered chirpy words of encouragement, especially to Bronwyn and Laszlo, who were self-conscious in their makeshift exercise clothes. Seeing him for the first time in professional mode, Corinne caught a glimpse of someone sunnier and more magnanimous than the person they were accustomed to. Midway through a calf stretch, though, his face changed.
Jeff had missed the start of the session, fussing with something in his car, but then joined the back of the group. He had changed into brief running shorts and a singlet that exposed his biceps, and wore sweatbands around his wrists and forehead. He and Dean, the sporty types, were the only two to have dressed in serious exercise gear. In fact, their outfits were almost identical.
Jeff’s clothes showed clearly what they had only glimpsed last night. His body had been stripped down to its elements. The sweatbands fitted loosely around his wrists, and he had tucked his singlet into his shorts, perhaps in an effort to hold them up. Dean, standing opposite, looked like a man regarding his distorted reflection in a carnival mirror.
‘Sorry I’m late. Are we up to calves?’ Jeff flung himself into the stretch with gusto, and as his body contorted it was painfully obvious that he had not only lost weight, but also – more alarmingly – muscle. As they moved through the rest of the stretches, and on to star jumps and push-ups, his face took on a clammy sheen, and dark patches of sweat showed on the fabric under his arms and on his back.
Yet he launched himself into every exercise with a manic energy, proclaiming Ooh, I need this one and That really hits the spot, as if unaware that anything was amiss. He seemed oblivious, too, to the effect of his presence on the group – the silences, the sideways glances while his head was down. This was the man who, only a few hours before, had displayed his almost supernatural ability to grasp the emotional subtleties of a situation, when even Corinne’s own husband had failed to notice her distress. How, she wondered, could this be the same person?
At the end of the session, Jeff lifted the bottom of his singlet to wipe his forehead, facing away from the group for modesty. As he turned, Corinne caught a glimpse of his concave belly, and the pale skin stretched across his ribs. She looked away.
‘Hey Dean,’ said Jeff, ‘Maybe I missed it, but how about something for the quads? We need to toughen them up for tomorrow.’
However cheerily put, this was an encroachment on Dean’s territory, and would inevitably be interpreted as a play for dominance. But Dean’s face was mask-like, devoid of the irritation Corinne had expected to see.
‘Yeah, okay, mate,’ he said. ‘How about this one?’
Perhaps, she thought, Dean had matured enough to stop seeing a challenge when none was intended. Only later did she understand that Jeff, with his diminished frame, was no longer a worthy opponent.
WHEN THEY ASSEMBLED on the deck for morning tea, Jeff was missing again. They heard his car doors open and shut. Corinne found herself wondering when, during the course of the morning, she had developed such a heightened awareness of his location.
Ted brought out a sugar-free fruitcake and lemongrass tea. It was a glorious morning, still crisply cool, with the sun on the side of the mountain, but the chatter around the table was muted. Corinne could not escape the feeling that everyone was going through the motions of the weekend, trying and failing to re-create the spontaneous warmth of the last retreat.
‘Hey Dad, can I ask something?’
Eli had donned his basketball uniform to join them for the workout. His hair stuck damply to his forehead with sweat.
‘Of course you can, mate.’
Corinne knew that these tender moments of parenting, which were becoming increasingly rare, warmed Ted’s heart.
‘What’s wrong with Jeff?’
Ted’s gaze, scrupulously steady, did not meet anyone’s eyes but Eli’s.
‘Nothing’s wrong. He’s just the same old Jeff!’
Given Ted’s frank and early discussions with his son about human sexuality, the abortion debate and racism, it was only natural that Eli would greet this chirpy avoidance with scepticism.
‘Oh. Because he looks really skinny.’
‘Well, he rode across Africa for one thing, and that kind of intense physical activity – your body survives by eating into your fat and muscle.’
A teaspoon clattered through a gap in the boards of the table. Their guests scrambled to retrieve it.
‘He looks sick.’
‘Well, he’s also’ – Ted’s voice dropped to a whisper – ‘he’s got some, you know, diarrhoea-type thing that he picked up over there. It’s very common in developing countries. Don’t say anything to Jeff, he’d be embarrassed.’
‘Oh. May I please be excused from the table?’
Eli turned around.
It was true; Jeff made his way across the paddock, wearing his ordinary clothes now and walking stiffly, as if his joints had fused. At first glance, from a distance, Corinne had mistaken him for an old man.
‘Hey,’ Ted called out, too loud and too soon, ‘You’re missing out on the cake.’
Jeff grinned and waved. The conversation already in motion, they had to wait, with fixed smiles, while he got close enough to reply. He clasped the rail to climb the stairs. Ted had already cut a slice of cake and was putting it on a plate, but Jeff held up his hand.
‘That looks spectacular as always, Ted, but I’m still full from breakfast.’
He accepted a small cup of tea and sat with hands his clasped around it. The group found themselves looking up at the mountain. Its steep rise, so close, looked almost unnatural. There was an occasional flash of colour as walkers passed through clearings along the track.
‘So,’ said Jeff. ‘Mount Trepidation. Is everyone excited?’
On the chalkboard schedule, the next day was set aside for them to climb the mountain. Only now, as they tried to imagine Jeff making the climb in his present state, there was an awkward silence around the table.
‘Yeah mate,’ said Dean eventually. ‘I’m stoked.’
THE NEXT ACTIVITY of the morning was radical embroidery, facilitated by Bronwyn. She gave them all a small piece of tapestry fabric, a needle and a list of slogans to choose from, although they were free to choose their own, of course. Corinne glanced at the list.
Fire your doctor
Disempower the whitecoats
Eventually she settled on Hope is realistic, accompanied by the outline of a galloping horse. Laszlo decided to go off script. He held up his pencilled design to the group: I’m only as sick as you make me, accompanied by a skull and crossbones. This made them laugh, and Dean whooped, but the joke seemed to pass Jeff by.
He couldn’t seem to settle, shifting his position on the living room carpet and changing his mind about what to embroider. As they were packing up, Corinne glanced at his piece of fabric. He had drawn a rough bicycle, with one wheel tentatively picked out in red thread. The space for a slogan was blank.
At lunchtime, he patted the seat beside him for Eli to come and chat. Six months was a long time in a kid’s life, Corinne thought, noting Eli’s reticence and monosyllabic answers. Even when Jeff prodded him for his opinions on the upcoming free and democratic South African elections, he seemed disinclined to engage. Maybe Eli found himself suddenly shy. Maybe, having practically grown into a new person during the time Jeff was away, he needed to form a new friendship, from scratch, with his favourite surrogate uncle, before the two of them could talk in the easy way they had before.
But shyness had never been a problem for Eli in the past. Rather, he seemed coolly distant, and distracted by Dean, who had left the table to skim stones across the surface of the dam.
‘Hey,’ Eli shouted. ‘I know where to get better rocks.’
He disappeared across the yard and returned with his pockets full, passing increasingly large and more improbable stones to Dean and egging him on with new tests of skill. When Dean managed to skim a large stone all the way across the water and onto dry land on the other side, they both cheered.
The boy had always possessed an uncannily advanced social awareness, but Corinne was surprised at the speed with which he had grasped the situation and transferred his allegiances. This was not an occasion for pride, though. Rather, it was chastening to see her own behaviour reflected back at her in a crude, youthful form that sharply underscored its cruelty.
IN THE EVENING, as she headed up to the stable to feed Jupiter, she heard Jeff call out to her.
‘Corinne! I feel like I’ve hardly had the chance to talk to you properly – you know, one on one.’
He trotted stiffly across the paddock, one hand on his waistband to stop his pants from slipping.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Sorry, it just gets so hectic.’
‘Hey, don’t apologise. You’re amazing, putting the whole thing together.’
They had to stop for a moment so Jeff could catch his breath. His characteristic perky optimism had begun to seem forced. He had struggled on through the afternoon’s activities – Laszlo’s presentation on the healing powers of herbal remedies, Ted’s on the ‘wonderful world of kombucha’ – but his regular outbursts of praise had begun to ring hollow. His old personality did not fit his altered appearance, Corinne thought, but the transformation had been so rapid that he had no choice but to feign his old self, with less and less conviction. ‘I’m just feeding Jupiter.’
‘Jupiter! He’s such a character. Remember that ride we did last year? That was something special.’
At the last retreat, Corinne had taken Jupiter for his evening ride and Jeff had joined her on the bike, keeping pace almost all of the way.
‘Yeah, he loved that. Come on, you can give him some pony pellets.’
As she drained and refilled the water trough, Jeff put his arms around Jupiter, rested his head against the horse’s neck and closed his eyes. Jupiter, normally skittish and intolerant of strangers, remained calm.
‘You know,’ said Jeff, ‘I’ve been thinking of getting riding lessons. Horseriding. I just, well, I feel like the bike is getting hard on my joints. I’m not getting any younger – haha! And they’re just such beautiful animals, the way they move. Aren’t you, Jupiter? Aren’t you a beautiful boy?’
‘They’re also expensive. Where would you keep a horse?’
For a moment Jeff was stunned into silence, as if she had slapped him.
‘Of course, you’re right. It might be a bit of a pipe dream. I blew all my savings getting to Africa. But I thought maybe I could keep it here – I’d pay, of course. I’d love us to do a big ride together – pick a different continent this time.’
His eyes shone, unnaturally bright against his hollowed-out face, and she wondered if he had a fever.
‘I don’t know, Jeff. I can’t just walk away from work.’
‘Of course. Have a think about it, though. There’s always a way around things, if you really want something.’
More than one person, over the course of Corinne’s life, had described her as confrontational. But although Jeff’s plan was clearly ridiculous – not just the logistics, but the idea of him, in his current state, attempting something so gruelling – she could not bring herself to say anything. There was another conversation, a shadow of the current one, that she did not want to begin.
‘Actually, I didn’t come up here just to talk horses.’
‘No. I just thought – I didn’t want to bring this up in front of the others, but this visit to Hubert was…not what I was expecting. At all.’
‘So, I’d arranged things with his secretary – who it turns out is actually his wife – and we’d had it lined up for months. But when I get there, there’s no one in his office, and I wait in the street for ages before someone, the cleaner I think, comes and tells me he won’t be back for an hour. And then when he does show up, he doesn’t seem to have a clue who I am.’
‘So he’s an absent-minded professor.’
‘Ha, yeah. But it wasn’t just that. It’s funny about what Bronwyn was saying, about his hands, because do you know what? He wouldn’t even shake my hand. As in flat-out refused. I was flabbergasted. I thought, this is the guy who told me I don’t have a disease, so what the hell is he doing? And he said he never shakes anyone’s hand. Apparently it’s a habit he picked up during his medical training, to make sure he never cross-contaminates his patients.’
‘It’s not a crime to be a bit eccentric.’
‘No, it isn’t. Something just felt a bit off about it, though. He took me for this tour through the building – which is a mess, the roof leaks – going on about how he needs money to get it fixed up and put his own lab in, now that no one will fund his research anymore. He was saying I should make a donation – he gave me all these brochures so I could fundraise for him when I got back. And I was on board with that, you know, but when I left I saw he was in a BMW with a driver.’
‘But being successful, or having money, doesn’t make you a criminal. Some people choose to make more so they can give more away.’
Corinne dumped an armful of lucerne in front of Jupiter. She had not wanted to be like this, churlish and stubborn, arguing Jeff’s every point.
‘That’s true,’ Jeff conceded. ‘But there were other things. Like when I started telling him about my ride and why I was doing it, he just seemed blank, like he had absolutely no interest. So then I told him what an inspiration he’d been to me, and asked him to autograph my book – and suddenly he springs to life and he’s all friendly, getting the cleaning lady to take a photo of us. But it was weird, like he suddenly felt like he was in front of an audience and just switched on the charm. Then he gave me this pep talk about looking after my health, but it was a spiel, you know – really impersonal. Like he’d already said it a thousand times.’
‘He probably has, but so what? If you’re a public figure, everyone wants a piece of you. You have to put on a persona to survive. Plus Hubert has copped so much criticism, it’s not surprising if he’s a bit slow to warm to people.’
Some childish part of her wished that just once, Jeff would lose control of his peace-loving, diplomatic self and they could have an all-out, screaming argument. There was a distance to his polite manner.
‘I’m trying to explain it properly. You know, maybe it doesn’t sound that bad when I describe it, but it was more of an intuitive thing – a feeling. I think the thing I found really off-putting was the way he talked to his staff. And he made these offhand remarks about how black people don’t want to work, and how it’s related to the shape of their skulls. Oh, and the other thing, he talks about “the homos”. I know English isn’t his first language, but you have to wonder.’
Corinne was scraping up damp straw with a shovel, a task that could easily have waited until the weekend was over, but she needed to keep her hands busy. She knew Jeff was desperate for her to be an ally in the wrong that had been done to him, to commiserate and laugh it off in the way they had always done. But she refused to give him what he asked for.
‘I guess maybe the lesson is: it’s a mistake to meet your heroes,’ he continued. ‘Maybe I should see if Ted needs a hand with the barbecue?’
He headed for the doorway, then stopped and turned.
‘And I mean it, you know, about doing a big ride together. Maybe somewhere in Mongolia – they’ve got a big horseriding culture there. I’m ready to go somewhere cold. We should get together in a few weeks and talk about it.’
Corinne sat on the edge of the water trough and watched him hobble back to the house. He must have known, on some level, the idea of the two of them riding on horseback over the steppes of Mongolia was a fantasy. She wasn’t yet sure how deliberate a concoction it was, and whose benefit it was meant to serve.
TED HAD BUILT a bonfire in the paddock, and everyone sat around it to eat the jacket potatoes he’d cooked in the coals. Dean and Eli set fire to sticks and threw them like spears, still burning, into the dam. As the night-time chill set in, the guests peeled away, but Corinne remained at the fire, gathering the last dirty dishes. Jeff and Bronwyn sat on the couch inside, their heads bowed together in a conversation that looked intimate and serious.
The bouncing beam of a torch approached from along the road, accompanied by male voices. It was Dean and Laszlo.
‘What are you two up to?’ Corinne asked.
‘Just went for a walk. Laszlo’s been bringing me up to speed on the science. This guy knows it all!’
‘He certainly does.’
Corinne knew, on an intuitive level and from her own experience, that Hubert’s theories made sense. But sometimes, when she tried to read articles in the newsletter, she would get bogged down in the terminology and find her mind wandering. Laszlo was their resident boffin, and the way he spoke with such confidence and certainty lifted her spirits.
‘Um,’ said Laszlo, ‘there was something we wanted to ask you.’
‘Yeah. We were talking about Jeff.’ Laszlo’s voice dropped to a whisper.
‘We were wondering, since you two are so close, what he’s told you?’
‘About, you know, what’s going on with his health,’ said Dean. ‘Because – I know no one wants to say anything, but he looks friggin’ terrible.’
‘I know as much as you do.’
‘I saw you two go up to the shed – did he say anything then?’
‘Not really, no.’
Their conversation about Hubert was something she would hold close, out of public view.
‘Because do you know who this reminds us of?’
Corinne did not want to say the name, or admit that it came to her so readily.
None of them had known Sheila well, but they had all met her at conferences. Corinne had a mental image of her that she could not expunge, of Sheila wearing a flowing dress and brown sandals, her long, greying hair parted in the middle, a passionate gesture revealing a luxuriantly bushy armpit. Always, even in meetings and when standing to give a keynote address, Sheila had had her toddler son hanging off her hip, or cradled sleeping in her lap.
The boy had been forcibly removed from her at birth, pumped full of drugs, pricked with needles and made a ward of the state until Sheila’s milk had dried up and she was deemed to no longer pose a risk of infection to her child. This incident, widely reported in the papers, had made Sheila an inadvertent face of the movement. She and the boy, a sweetly photogenic child with long blond curls, appeared on the covers of several alternative magazines.
At a conference last year, Sheila had been noticeably thinner and walked with a cane, her son carried instead by his father, who walked solemnly, a few paces behind. It had been a shock, a few months later, to read her obituary in the newsletter. Sheila had been a pioneering campaigner who had paid the ultimate price, the article said. The removal of her child, and being hounded by the authorities, had caused the mental and physical exhaustion that led to her premature death.
‘You’ve heard what really happened, right?’ said Dean.
‘I’ve heard what people are saying.’
In the last few months of her life, the rumour went, brought low by a stubborn winter infection, Sheila had lost her nerve and begun taking zidovudine. The toxic drugs had acted quickly on her already weakened system, killing her.
‘That’s what makes me wonder about Jeff.’
‘Jeff wouldn’t do that.’
‘I was shocked too, when Laszlo first suggested it. But to look at him, you have to admit it’s possible.’
Corinne wondered where their conversation in the stables might have gone if she had not been so pugnacious, beating Jeff into retreat. She had not welcomed whatever revelation he might have planned to share, but she hadn’t guessed it might be this. The possibility hit her now – of course! She had been stupid to miss it.
‘It’s not just how he looks,’ said Laszlo. ‘His whole attitude seems to have changed. I just get this vibe that he’s not really on board with us anymore. I mean, this is someone I looked up to – he’s been in the movement longer than any of us, and that makes it tough, but we can’t just sit here and watch him kill himself.’
‘We were thinking maybe the three of us should confront him about it,’ said Dean. ‘Like a – what do they call it? An intervention.’
Corinne knew they were tacitly asking for her permission. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah. If Jeff’s decided to poison himself, he needs protecting – from himself.’ Dean spoke with the missionary zeal of someone who had themselves been saved.
‘And it’s not just for his sake,’ said Laszlo. ‘Bronwyn has been really upset about the way he looks. This afternoon, in the van, she was sobbing about it. The last thing she needs in her condition is stress.’
‘It’s just… I’m not sure that a lynch mob is the right way to go about it.’
‘No, absolutely not a lynch mob,’ said Lazslo. ‘We want to do it the right way. I know he’s your friend, so of course you’re on his side. But we can’t just do nothing.’ He turned to Dean. ‘Tell her about what you were saying before.’
‘Um, I don’t mean this to sound uncaring, but what Jeff does affects all of us. He’s in this documentary, presumably looking terrible, so now the mainstream media will know all about him. And if he…if he dies, you know what they’re going to say.’
In the weeks after Sheila Martin’s death, the newspapers had run her photo on the front page – Denialist mum dead of AIDS – and written mockingly about her use of juicing and urine therapy. Her death had been reduced to a punchline.
‘We can’t pretend it’s none of our business,’ said Laszlo. ‘He won’t be around to deal with the fallout – that’ll be our problem.’
Corinne had always thought of Laszlo as a hapless innocent, wrapped up in his medieval fantasy world, but she saw now that she did not know him at all. He was more assertive, and shrewder, than she had realised.
‘I just don’t think it’s the right time or place,’ she said. ‘It’s the retreat, our son is here. I don’t want a scene.’
‘Sure, that’s understandable. Maybe we need a different approach. You’re the closest to him – I’m thinking the obvious solution is that you speak to him, on your own.’
This was a sensible suggestion, but one that irritatingly made Corinne the envoy of two men she would not have chosen to take orders from.
‘Okay, but only if the right moment comes up.’
‘You’re right,’ said Laszlo. ‘We have to be sensitive about this.’
After they left she lingered at the bonfire. Inside, Jeff and Bronwyn were still absorbed in conversation. Jeff had what could only be described as a bedside manner – a talent for getting you to unburden yourself. She and Jeff had a special bond, or so she had thought. Watching him through the window, she could see him using all the same moves with Bronwyn: the understanding smile, the sympathetic touch of the wrist. Was she so shallow that it took a pang of jealousy to remind her of the things she had missed about her dear friend?
But later, tiptoeing past Jeff as he slept on the couch, she steeled herself against close physical proximity. The odd new smell that came off his body, a musty aroma with an undertone of something sharp and bitter, the wet sounds of his mouth-breathing as he slept, the memory of his white ribs flashing – all this made her want to keep away.
Once, when Corinne was young and bulletproof, she had judged harshly the badly dressed, the awkward or unattractive. She had snubbed unworthy men who made clumsy advances. The unexpected course of her life, with its compounding humiliations, had soundly razed such notions. Not that it had all come naturally – she had worked hard to become a better person, in a way that most people, living under the illusion of endless time, did not. This weekend seemed cruelly booby trapped, designed to make a lie of her hard-won spiritual progress. Worse, as she lay in bed, she found she was trying to talk herself out of her heartless thoughts using Jeff’s words, spoken in Jeff’s voice.
IN THE MORNING, a thick mist wrapped around Mount Trepidation, lifting higher with every minute until the peak of the mountain was revealed – so strange to think that in only a few hours they would all be climbing up there! Corinne made remarks of this kind as she brought out breakfast, trying to lighten the mood. There had been glances between Dean and Laszlo. As Jeff sat down at the table, refusing everything but a few pieces of fruit, the two of them had each tried to meet Corinne’s eye, but she had ignored them.
The entrance to the track was only a short walk from the house, but at some point Jeff seemed to have fallen behind. They stood waiting as the other walkers began to pour in.
‘Hey, Dean,’ said Eli. ‘You should watch your step, because last year this dude fell off the mountain and died.’
‘It was this German dude, and they couldn’t tell if he slipped or if it was suicide, but he fell down this cliff face and they had to send a helicopter to scrape him off the rocks.’
‘Yeah, we saw the helicopter. They winched him up in a body bag.’
‘Okay, that’ll do,’ said Ted.
Mercifully, when Jeff arrived, he was not wearing his singlet and shorts, as Corinne had feared, but a tracksuit.
‘Hey, mate,’ said Ted. ‘We were worried you wouldn’t show. It’s not too late to pull out, if you’re not feeling up to it.’
‘Oh no, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.’
The first part of the track snaked through dense rainforest, before rising quickly above the tree line. As they walked, Corinne could hear Jeff and Ted talking behind her.
‘I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to this walk,’ Jeff said. ‘You know, I love living in the inner city – it’s so vibrant, all that complex human endeavour. But you really can’t beat being around trees!’
He paused at a gap in the trees to admire the view. He was sweating already, despite the mild morning, and breathing heavily. As they climbed higher, Corinne began to suspect that his frequent stops to take in the vista below were a cover for the trouble he was having.
She caught up with Dean and Eli, who were leading the way. They took the short detour to see the bat cave, and Dean and Eli spurred each other on climbing up a rock face, taking it in turns to stand at the bottom and call out the nearest footholds. Dean’s spontaneous physicality was something Eli, a naturally sporty kid, instinctively related to. Some of the older tourists shot disapproving looks – going off the path was prohibited – but Corinne pretended not to notice.
‘Corinne! You guys are speeding along!’
This was said cheerfully, but Corinne detected an undertone of complaint. Jeff’s face was dripping.
‘So, how’s it going?’ Jeff gave her that serious look he had, inviting her to bare her soul.
‘Good. That’s good.’
The idea that he wanted to discuss her welfare, as he stood there sheet-white and drenched in sweat, was absurd.
‘Ah, just after the other night, you know, the baby thing. I don’t know, you just seem a little…not quite yourself.’
‘Did you and Ted get a chance to talk things over?’
‘Look, that’s our business. It’s private. I don’t know why you’re so interested in this. Or why you think you’re qualified to give advice on relationships between men and women, which is clearly something you know nothing about.’
Her anger had come from nowhere. For the second time that weekend, Jeff looked at her, stunned.
‘Yeah, of course. You’re right, it’s none of my business. I’m sorry.’
Infuriating, the way he always had to one-up her for the moral high ground.
‘Are you coming, or what?’
Jeff wiped his forehead with an oversized bandana.
‘Um, I might just sit and rest for a bit.’
THE PATH WAS higher now, with gaps between the trees, so that at regular intervals you could see through the canopy to other walkers zigzagging their way upwards. Every few minutes, Corinne would look down and catch a glimpse of Jeff. At some point he must have met up with Bronwyn, because at the next gap the two of them were walking side by side.
Last night, she had been ashamed that her friend had become physically repellent to her. But now she wondered if her discomfort around Jeff ran deeper. Perhaps it was a flash of intuitive understanding for which she had misidentified the cause.
It had always been odd, she thought, the way Jeff seemed so interested in her personal life, but rarely gave away anything about his own deeper struggles, as if he saw himself as her counsellor. There was something simultaneously submissive and power hungry about it. He may have let their conversations centre on her, but in extracting her secrets, encouraging emotional reliance on him, he was taking power for himself. It seemed obvious now that someone who had trouble being assertive would crave this sort of soft power. It was the only kind he was capable of wielding.
CORINNE, DEAN AND Eli stopped at the lookout they had agreed on for morning tea and waited for the others to arrive. When Bronwyn showed up, she explained in a stagy whisper that ‘poor Jeff’ might take a while.
‘He’s having trouble with his bowels,’ she said. ‘He has to keep stopping to go to the toilet.’
The use of the word toilet was symbolic – there were none along the track – and this unsavoury image cast a grim pall over the morning tea. When Dean asked if Eli would like some of his cocoa energy bar, Eli replied, Does Jeff shit in the woods?, which elicited a high-five from Dean.
By the time Jeff arrived, they had finished eating. He didn’t mention what had transpired on his jaunt through the bush, although his muddy shoes and the sprigs of lantana clinging to his clothes told the story well enough. Instead he talked in an over-animated way about all the different birds he had seen.
‘I guess that’s the great thing about being at the back of the pack – you get to see all the wildlife that a big group would scare off.’
‘Yeah, nice one,’ said Ted. ‘I’ve always meant to keep a birdwatching record for this place. Just never got around to it.’
Jeff stood at the railing to admire the view. He struck up a conversation with two young women who were taking a photo and offered, through some crude charades, to take a portrait of the two of them. This was a reflexive response, a classic move of the old Jeff, who, with his non-threatening, clean-cut looks and winning smile, had almost always been responded to in kind.
He had no idea, thought Corinne, how much things had shifted. Two young women, approached by a lone man festooned with mud and leaves, and whose gaunt face shone with too much perspiration, would worry that they had been cornered by a creep. Perhaps they only accepted his offer out of fear, she thought. But as they walked away, clutching their cameras, they were beaming. Maybe her own perception was at fault, stuck on a few startling before-and-after images and swayed by the sense that something was deeply off-kilter.
IT WASN’T THAT they made a conscious decision to leave Jeff behind. It was just something that seemed to happen naturally, as he struggled at the back of the group. When they set off again, Corinne found herself at the head of the pack with Dean and Laszlo. Not that she relished being a part of this conspiracy of three. The two men seemed overinvested in their little brotherhood of secrecy, full of the sort of zealousness that made delicate situations implode. By unspoken agreement, they walked in silence, but Corinne knew what was coming.
‘Man,’ said Dean in a whisper. ‘Have you seen what he looks like? Does he think if he just pretends everything’s fine, we won’t notice?’
Laszlo, himself struggling with the pace they had set, wiped his forehead. ‘I just hope we’re not going to have to carry him off the mountain,’ he said.
‘Well, he won’t be heavy,’ said Dean. ‘Fucken…skin and bones.’
As they spoke, all three of them occasionally found it necessary to glance at the track behind them.
‘So,’ said Dean, ‘have you talked to him?’
Corinne did not take kindly to being delegated to.
‘Sorry, Corinne, I probably shouldn’t bag him out in front of you. I know you guys are best friends.’
‘I don’t know. Best friends by default, maybe.’
‘Really?’ said Laszlo. ‘You guys always seemed to be joined at the hip.’
‘We were, for a long time. But you know how sometimes you can look at someone and wonder what exactly it was that you ever had in common?’
An outburst like this, especially to a loose cannon like Dean, was not Corinne’s style at all. Perhaps it had been Dean’s description of Jeff as her best friend, in a tone scornful not just of the relationship but the concept itself, as something saccharine and infantile. She had taken the bait. Whatever happened now, she had chosen a side.
‘To be honest,’ said Dean, ‘I always thought Jeff was kinda weird. I wondered why no one else saw it. He puts up this front of being this great guy who everyone loves, but underneath you don’t know what he’s thinking. Like he makes a big show of being really humble and selfless, but he’s just overcompensating because deep down he thinks he’s better than everyone else. It’s…what-do-you-call-it. Passive-aggressive.’
Corinne’s first instinct was to defend Jeff, just as she had tried to shield him from Dean’s crude one-upmanship in the past. But Dean, with his inarticulate recourse to pop psychology, had put his finger on exactly what it was that bugged her about Jeff. Whatever Dean’s flaws, he had seen clearly what the rest of them had missed.
Movement on the path behind them caught Corinne’s eye. It was Bronwyn and Ted, with Eli following close behind.
‘I don’t know where Jeff’s got to,’ said Ted. ‘We stopped and waited for a while, but he must be having some more…difficulties. Poor guy.’
‘Did he say anything to you?’ Dean asked Bronwyn.
She faltered, taken aback by the interrogative tone.
‘Um, he just talked about how he’s a bit burnt out from teaching and wants to take some more time off.’
‘He didn’t just happen to mention that he’s decided to go back on medication, did he?’
‘What? Of course not.’
‘Hey,’ said Ted. ‘Jeff would never…that’s crazy talk.’
‘You reckon? Have you had a look at him? The guy’s a walking, talking ad for zidovudine.’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing sinister,’ said Ted. ‘I mean, there’s a pretty clear explanation.’
There was a long silence.
‘He’s been back for six weeks,’ said Corinne. ‘It’s not just fucking Africa.’
DURING THE PERIOD Corinne had come to think of as her rebirth, she had become a prolific reader of what she supposed would be referred to as self-help books. Jeff had been the catalyst, lending her books by Louise Hay and Deepak Chopra and others based on Buddhist philosophy. She remained noncommittal on Jeff’s theory that everything happened for a reason, and that the hardships they had both endured were meant to lead them to wisdom, but she was open to wringing some sort of meaning from those dark times.
She had branched out in her own reading, coming across a book that had explained succinctly what she had not realised, until then, were her problems. What made people unwell, she read, was being a people pleaser – constantly putting your own needs last and feeling unable to say no. You had to give yourself permission to assess all of your relationships with a clear and honest gaze, make strict rules for the time and energy you gave to others, and jettison those who took more than they gave.
Energised by her discovery, she had lent the book to Jeff. She had been eager to discuss it with him, but each time she mentioned it, he was still getting to it, or had started but stalled. Finally he had returned it without comment, placing it quietly on the kitchen bench while Corinne was distracted elsewhere.
Tired of waiting, she had prodded him.
‘Didn’t you find it interesting? It’s such a radical approach, to give yourself permission. I used to bend over backwards for people at work, and for my fucking mother, and look where that got me.’
Embarrassed, Jeff would not meet her eye. She knew from prior experience that this was how he expressed scepticism.
‘I just think once you try some of the techniques, they’ll make much more sense. Like it says, it’s really hard to overcome your conditioning.’
As she attempted to convince him, flipping through the book to quote salient passages, he looked away, and tried a few times to redirect the conversation. The words that had seemed so wise and empowering when she read them on the page now struck her as selfish and callous, distorted through the lens of Jeff’s sensibilities.
Eventually, Jeff had offered, Well, you should do whatever helps you, but even in those words she could hear his judgment. It was exasperating – he wasn’t giving her a chance!
This discussion had blown over, becoming a tiny blip in their friendship – in fact, Corinne had barely thought about it, but it came back to her now with a renewed sting. The unspoken disapproval, Jeff making her feel like she wasn’t good enough for refusing to join him in martyring himself. She had not forgotten.
THEY STOPPED FOR lunch. The next section of the track would be rough, with chains and ladders drilled into the rock. As they finished eating, Ted wondered aloud if one of them should stay behind and wait for Jeff, in case he was in some kind of trouble.
‘Let’s just go,’ said Corinne. ‘At this rate, we’ll catch him on our way down.’
‘Or maybe you could wait, Eli,’ Ted said.
‘Or maybe I couldn’t, Dad.’
‘Come on, you’ll be fine. People who go bushwalking tend to have good values.’
‘I’m not scared. I just don’t want to.’
‘Come on, Jeff’s your friend too.’
Ted liked to cultivate the idealistic notion that all of their adult friends were Eli’s friends as well.
‘He’s your and Corinne’s friend.’
‘He’s a friend of the whole family.’
‘Oh, forget it,’ said Corinne. ‘I’ll wait.’
As the others vanished up the ladders, she sat on a bench at the bottom, watching the other hikers come and go. She waited so long, in fact, that she began to draw curious stares from people who were seeing her again on their return journey. When Jeff finally arrived, he kept a polite distance between them as he took a seat on the bench.
‘Ah, it’s good to sit. How’s it going?’
‘I’m fine. You’re the one who seems to be having a hard time.’
He nodded, conceding.
‘We can see you, Jeff. I mean, we can see you’re sick. You must be able to see it yourself?’
Were her hands shaking? She gripped her knees so he wouldn’t see.
‘I know. Everyone’s been too polite to say anything, but I know what I look like.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘Ha, I wish I knew. I picked up this thing on my trip, but it wouldn’t clear up, so I went on this detox. My naturopath warned me the side effects are similar to the original problem – it’s the toxins leaving your body. But now that I’ve stopped the detox, the side effects haven’t cleared up. So I don’t know.’
‘Are you taking zidovudine?’
‘Are you kidding? Of course I’m not.’
‘You don’t want to end up like Sheila Martin.’
‘God no! Poor Sheila. And you know those rumours are bullshit, don’t you? I was in touch with Sheila and Michael right up until a few days beforehand, and as far as I know, all she was taking were high doses of vitamins. I just…I’m sorry. It upsets me when people blame her, especially people from our own community. She was such a sweet soul.’
This unexpected piece of news was unsettling, but Corinne swallowed the bad taste it left and pushed on.
‘It just seems like, and we’ve talked about this – people in the group think you’ve changed. I mean, changed your views on things.’
‘Corinne, I haven’t…’
‘Was it your visit to Hubert? He was a bit of arsehole, so you don’t trust him anymore?’
She was poking an ant’s nest, reluctantly, bracing for an unpleasant onslaught. Jeff gave a long, slow exhalation.
‘So you’ve all been talking about me?’
‘What did you expect?’
‘I guess I’ve noticed that everyone goes quiet when I show up.’
‘Well, tell us what’s going on then.’
Jeff rubbed his forehead, and Corinne noticed how frail he looked up close. The veins in his temples stood out against the bones of his skull.
‘Have you read Ashton Manning’s work about psychological contagion? I know Hubert isn’t really into that kind of thing, but I think it’s worth considering.’
Corinne was vaguely familiar with the writer he was referring to.
‘He talks about epidemics of mass hysteria in the past, and how in some cultures they use bone pointing – someone points a bone at you as a curse, and just the belief that it can kill you is enough to actually do it. In our society it’s called the nocebo effect – like the placebo effect, only if you expect something bad to happen, it will. Your mind produces the symptoms.
‘For the first few years,’ he went on, ‘I completely swallowed the orthodox line. And it’s difficult to get that out of your head. You know, whenever I’ve had an infection or something. That doubt is so corrosive, especially when our whole culture is sending us messages that we’re sick.’
‘But surely if you know what’s happening, you can stop it?’
‘I’ve tried to stay healthy,’ said Jeff. ‘But it must be in there, you know, in my subconscious – it’s the power of suggestion. That’s the only explanation I have right now, that I’m too psychologically weak to fight it. And he says that people who have suffered some kind of psychological wound in their past are more vulnerable. That’s why people like drug addicts and gay men are disproportionately affected.’
It was unusual for Jeff to throw out statements that demanded follow-up questions, or in fact to share anything about his past.
‘I know Dean and I don’t always see eye to eye,’ said Jeff. ‘Ha, that’s an understatement! But in a lot of ways, I admire him. You look at him, you can see he’s got no doubts, he’s absolutely sure of himself and he’s just grabbing life with both hands. And I can see that in you as well. You’ll be fine because you’ve got that same mental strength. I just wish I had it too.’
Corinne thought of her sore throat a few nights before, and the countless other occasions when a minor symptom had thrown her into panic. She should confess, and reassure him that his doubts were normal and human, but she did not. To do so would hint at the possibility that the two of them might not, after all, be on such different trajectories.
‘You sound like you’ve given up,’ she said.
‘That’s not true. I still have hope – you have to. I fight it every day, but sometimes you reach the point where that’s not enough.’
Jeff’s voice remained steady. His emotional control and sense of resignation were disturbing. Here was someone who had already separated himself from the trivial to-and-fro of human relationships.
‘It’s not just about you, though,’ Corinne pleaded. ‘It’s the whole community. Whatever one of us does affects everyone. People are going to see you in this documentary, and if anything happens to you we’re going to be the ones copping the backlash.’
Her freewheeling brain, grasping at straws, had come up with this. She recognised it, wincingly, as the argument made by Dean and Laszlo earlier that weekend.
‘Well, I certainly don’t want to harm to anyone else,’ said Jeff. ‘For a long time I believed that if I tried hard enough, I could think my way out of this. Like if I just concentrated harder, I could beat it. I was so stupid! But eventually you have to accept that you’re not in control. Whatever’s going on, it’s not something I can change.’
It had not been the discussion she thought they would have. For all the ways in which this weekend had highlighted Jeff’s flaws, what she had really wanted was to scare an admission out of him. Afterwards, with teary apologies, they could have charted a course to recovery. She had not expected to become the keeper of this piece of news – neither Sheila nor Jeff had touched the drugs – that was so bewildering, so potent and dangerous, that she knew she could not mention it to anyone else. Perhaps that was why she said the awful thing that she did. She stood, walked towards the ladder at the base of the climb and then turned to face him.
‘It’s your fucking funeral, Jeff.’
SHEILA MARTIN HAD made an almost biblical impression at her last conference, miraculously parting the crowd as she went. Ostensibly, people had given her space to negotiate the crowded conference room with her walking stick, but even at mealtimes, Sheila and her husband and child sat alone at their table. Perhaps the other participants told themselves they were keeping a respectful distance – clearly, Sheila was dealing with something big. For Sheila, once the darling of the movement, the averted gazes, the wide berths afforded, must have been crushing.
Corinne had never warmed to the woman, even when she had been lauded by the group. It was the ungroomed armpits, the wounded self-righteousness and wholesome, brown-rice mothering style that had the overtones of a public statement. She had not joined in the eulogising after Shelia’s death, although of course it had been a nasty shock, losing one of their own, and it was terrible to think of that little boy without a mother. Remembering the rumours that had started – Sheila brought it on herself! – and the parting of the crowd, Corinne wondered if she hadn’t been the only one to feel a sense of guilty relief. Sheila’s death had spared them the awkward complication of her presence.
ON THE SUMMIT of Mount Trepidation, Corinne picked out Eli and Ted, then the other members of the group, among those clambering over the rocky cairns. She made her way up to the base of the light tower and leaned against the grey industrial metal, where decades worth of names had been scratched into the paint. Ted had spotted her.
‘Down the bottom.’
‘Is he okay?’
‘You just left him on his own?’
‘Shh, don’t freak out.’
‘Is he going to come up?’
‘I suppose so. He didn’t say.’
Corinne noticed Eli scaling a section of rock that led to the highest point of the summit. She went to help boost him up, but she had forgotten how much he had grown recently, and he ended up extending his hand to her. It was a relief, and such a contrast, to be in the presence of someone so young and full of life. Then there was the fact of the outcrop’s inaccessibility, the presence of someone who, despite his height, was still child enough that difficult adult matters could not be raised in his presence.
When they climbed down, there were noticeably fewer people, and dark, bruised-looking clouds had blown over, even though none had been predicted this morning. The others were huddled at the base of the light tower, trying to stay out of the wind.
‘Still no sign of him,’ said Ted. ‘Maybe we should wait a bit longer – don’t want the poor guy coming all this way and not making it to the top!’
They waited until the summit was almost deserted and the wind had got up enough to produce a discordant humming in the metal wires that anchored the tower. There must have been a sensor somewhere, because the red light at the top clicked on.
It began to rain – just a few drops, a warning of what was to come. When they did not meet Jeff coming up the ladders, they agreed that he had probably seen the clouds coming and sensibly turned back. He was not waiting for them at the bench where Corinne had last seen him, but that was not entirely unexpected. After struggling on the way up, he had probably tried to get a head start.
The rain now moved in vertical sheets, no longer just misting their clothes and hair, but soaking them to the skin. Their descent below the canopy felt like dropping abruptly into dusk. Ted began stopping other walkers to ask if they had seen our friend Jeff, whom he described tactfully as about my age, kind of a thin build. Trying not to slip, and irritated at being waylaid even for a few seconds, the other walkers paused only briefly and shook their heads.
‘I guess we probably shouldn’t worry too much,’ said Ted, shouting above the wind. ‘He survived Africa, he can handle a little thunderstorm!’
Not long afterwards, Bronwyn slipped, and for a tense moment careened unpredictably towards the edge of the track. She came to a stop uninjured, but was shaken, cupping hands around her precious cargo. As she hauled herself up, brushing away wet leaves, she began to sob.
She seemed unable to stop crying, oddly still charging ahead down the track in a determined, businesslike way, her legs carrying on as though independent from her distressed upper portion. Perhaps it was the shock that had started her off, but as they got further down the track with no sight of Jeff, it seemed that her anguish had found another cause. The noises she made, loud and unrestrained, like a paid mourner at a funeral, seemed to express the anxiety no one else was willing to admit to.
It was night now, or the storm’s premature version of it. When they reached the road, Laszlo drew Bronwyn close to him and pointed out the house lights visible through the trees, a sign that Jeff had made it home already and was probably sitting, warm and dry, waiting for them. Corinne knew that his bearings were off, and that the lights were almost certainly coming from their neighbours’ property.
As they made their way down the driveway, the house was dark. Inside, the empty rooms were still warm and stuffy from being shut up all day. Ted fumbled in the kitchen drawer, trying to find batteries that would work in the torch. He kept threatening to go back out there and look for him, but as the storm intensified and he began emptying the linen cupboard in search of the first-aid kit, his increasingly elaborate preparations seemed to a be a cover for his reluctance.
Bronwyn was crying again.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Corinne asked, by which she meant, Please be quiet now. ‘Did you hurt yourself when you fell?’
‘No.’ Bronwyn was hyperventilating, like a small child.
‘Jeff’s probably fine out there,’ said Ted. ‘He’s got survival skills, and he’s tough.’
‘It’s not that.’
‘What is it, babe?’ Laszlo patted her on the back.
‘Just some of the things Jeff’s said this weekend.’
‘Like what?’ asked Laszlo.
Corinne thought of all those private conversations between Jeff and Bronwyn, the things he had told her about Hubert and Sheila Martin, about himself, everything that she had been holding close – all this would now be let loose.
Bronwyn wiped her face roughly on her sleeve.
‘He said he knows him being here is difficult for people, and he can feel everyone turning away from him. And he said that really hurts him, but he can understand that you’re doing it for your own protection. He said he needs to be put in quarantine.’
Bronwyn blew her nose.
‘He said it was a mistake to come here, but he came because he wanted to see everyone and have some good memories of walking up the mountain together. He said that if he’s really sick, his greatest fear is being alone.’
‘Jesus,’ said Ted. ‘That sounds bad. Look, we should really go back and search for him.’
‘Fine,’ said Corinne. ‘Are you waiting for permission? Just do it, if that’s what you want.’
‘Don’t bother,’ said Laszlo. ‘I’m calling the cops.’
NOT ONCE DURING their friendship had Jeff ever confided in Corinne in anything like the way Bronwyn had just described. In fact, Corinne had found it difficult to imagine Jeff speaking those words. As they waited for the police to arrive, she could conjure up his face and mannerisms perfectly, but the sound of his voice, which she had heard only a few hours before, was blank.
They were still in their wet clothes, as if they needed hard proof that they had denied themselves all comforts while their friend was still in danger. When the policeman finally arrived, brushing the raindrops from his jacket, pulling out his notebook, he seemed immune to the tense atmosphere. He was probably a veteran of numerous dramas on the mountain.
‘So you set off this morning as a group. What time was that?’
In appointing himself the group’s spokesperson, Ted seemed to have designated himself the least guilty party.
‘And when did you become separated?’
‘Well, Jeff wasn’t feeling well, so we think he waited just below those ladders to the summit. When we got back he was gone.’
‘Did anyone attempt to look for him?’
‘We kept thinking we’d catch up with him on the way down – maybe he’d come home early. It started raining, and–’
‘Does Jeff have any health conditions?’
‘Ah, he just got back from riding his bike across Africa, and he picked up this stomach bug. He seemed – not in great shape, actually.’
‘Okay. What about his state of mind?’
‘Um, apparently he’s been feeling a bit down. About his health, mostly.’
‘About the stomach bug?’
‘Yeah. Listen, maybe some of us could help with the search? Get back up there with torches…’
‘Better leave it to the professionals at this point, mate. We don’t want to end up looking for you as well.’
‘Right, of course.’
‘Anything else we should know?’
‘Are you going to send a helicopter?’ asked Eli.
The policeman didn’t say anything, only held up his index finger. At first Corinne thought he was asking for silence, but then they heard the rotor blades in the distance, getting closer until the glass in the windows began to shake, and then, as the machine roared over the top of them, they all looked up, as if they expected to be able to see it through the ceiling.
Then it became visible, through the large windows, as a cluster of lights. They were used to the sight of searchlights on the face of the mountain. Several times a year the family would gather to watch a search-and-rescue mission, Eli in particular excited by the noise and action. Watching him now, pale and serious, Corinne wondered whether this night would become a seminal moment in the boy’s life.
The policeman turned away from them and spoke into his radio. It was purely a symbolic courtesy, because they could hear him – if not every word, then enough to detect the faint accusation of neglect that hummed beneath his matter-of-fact delivery, and his private, weary exasperation at the mammoth and mundane failings of humankind.
‘Yeah, he’s been missing for about five hours. He’s got some mental health issues apparently, and a stomach bug. What? Stomach bug. Yeah, I don’t know. They left him at the ladders near the summit. No one’s searched for him yet.’
As he stepped out the door, there was a startled Hello! of the man breaking character, and shouts of another voice before Jeff stumbled in, muddy and dripping, with raw scratches and welts along his limbs, knees grazed and bleeding where his pants had torn. Corinne’s first thought was that he was shouting in anger, but once she could decipher the words, what he was saying was ‘I made it, I made it’.
As he came towards her, smelling of torn vegetation and the sweat of animal terror and another, earthier smell that might have been soil or shit, his arms were outstretched, and she found that already, out of instinct, she had raised her own arms to meet him.