And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.
–William Shakespeare As You Like It
Chapter 1 – Waking Up
In the light between wakefulness and sleeping, the young bride saw the woman in white who stood by her wedding bed. She watched as the apparition then lay at her side, dissolving into weeping. Amy held the secret visit close in the long years that followed, never forgetting the melancholy of the woman’s movement nor the words she had no way to tell.
From on high, the river was a gold thread winding through the valley. The January floods had gone and the alluvial flats were green blankets of growth. From the plane’s wingtip, Amy could see the main cottage surrounded by smaller cabins. Wide verandas fanned out from each building like open parasols parading their promise. This was The Retreat, where Amy imagined that the wash of loss she’d been carrying, might lift and melt away into the river and the forest beyond. But it was not a weekend solution of massage oil and wild rice which could heal a broken heart. What it could be, perhaps, was a step into something beyond herself into sanity. At least she hoped so.
Amy’s own private war played out in the single room of memory of her ex-husband’s philandering and her negligible status at investment firm, Goldworth and Finch. It led her to accept the special offer that popped up on the net. After all there was not a lot of promise to be had this Easter, only more broken promises to herself that she’d be alright. Here in the timber cottages spread out from the main house and meeting area, she hoped that even for a brief respite, a place was set aside for her to unwind the threads that had built to knot and strangle her insides.
The world she’d come from in Sydney, with its white knuckle competition and throwaway relationships, was a world away from the forest retreat that might reveal Amy to herself. She could trace her affliction back to childhood: not really understanding the motivation of others, not quick enough to duck and weave to get herself out of trouble. She looked back now and thought that maybe she was born without a protective shield. That somewhere in the DNA, some chromosome had cut loose and she was born into a world where lack of protection was dangerous, perhaps even deadly. Her attempts to communicate with her husband Mark were shut down before they had begun. The finalising of the divorce papers, was the final punctuation mark on his path to freedom and on her descent into self-abuse.
Mark had left with a, ‘It’s not you … it’s me’ excuse. It was so clichéd it hurt even more than the truth. It took a while to see the patterns which had been building for months before he left: the new suits, the early leaving and late returns with the excuse of work demands. ‘You know how it is, Darling. There are no clocks at work. We stay until it’s finished.’ And that could be two in the morning if necessary, when a new case was underway. Amy understood the reality of the corporate world but what she couldn’t fathom, was how the word ‘Darling,’ had become a weapon of deceit. A warming soother while the cat played the fiddle and her marriage broke apart. The sound of his new BMW echoed away down the drive and she found herself buried in work accounts, until the sight of the office sent her into palpitations and the strange looks of her co-workers signalled burn-out.
The main house looked like a timber Tardis, with its lighthouse cupola and its secret world inside. French doorways opened like cuckoo clocks into private spaces, with seatings for one. She wasn’t sure that a wind down was possible for a mind imploding like hers. She remembered the final note from Mark which ended with ‘Ciao.’ So casual in its infidelity. And then the seismic market shifts that led her trading decisions in the firm to be off centre and into high risk territory. Amy was free-falling without a parachute, no longer able to deny the tidal wave on the horizon that had accelerated with Mark leaving her.
The facilitator was serene, which accentuated Amy’s own wrinkled forehead and darting eyes. Beth had that look of exposure to vitality: the skin glowed along with her smile. In comparison, Amy’s inner resolve was shattered. She guessed the receptionist had seen it before: the wringing hands on the desk as she answered the Welcome Questionnaire, the hollow smile that gestured defeat. ‘You’ll be in Cabin 3. The fire’s on and there’s purified water in the jug. We don’t want you eating anything until dinner, so drink plenty of water, relax and we’ll meet you back here in the common room at six.’
That was three hours without her usual sugar hit or afternoon alcohol fix and the panic felt ridiculous that it was so immediate and so intense. She guessed the food restriction was to expose just what it was she had stuffed down with her usual grazing of the fridge and the use of the key to the liquor cabinet. Layers of anxiety had become synonymous for normality as she pushed down her fears into a casual look around the centre. Cut timber was neatly stacked in a copper cauldron beside the fireplace, ready for the evening lighting. She felt drawn into collapsing into one of the leather armchairs that sat around the hearth. ‘To sleep perchance to dream.’ But not even the death of sleep would be enough to soothe the mind which ran amok, bouncing off self-doubt and ricocheting down corridors of why she’d let herself come here in the first place.
She managed to keep the filter on her mouth to not actually articulate Shakespeare but her stomach wouldn’t comply and the gurgling continued as she made her way self-consciously towards her cabin. The room was cosy, if somewhat hermitage like. A single bed sat against the wall in the one room which held a friendly fire that welcomed her in. A timber bath beside the fire held the possibility of a soothing collapse into its warm waters. You came as an individual, which suited her. Couples were required to hire separate cabins. She considered that might heighten the tension for some. Still, it made sense to ‘meet yourself’ in a place structured for solitude, even if at the same time, there was no promise that whoever you might meet would be friendly or even safe.
Amy had always considered that danger lurked outside her control: the boss who ignored you after you turned forty, the last year’s outfit which looked so yesterday today, the chemical infiltration that you have no control over when you don’t know it‘s there when it’s everywhere … in everything. Isn’t it? The outside felt like it was invading even here. She checked as she felt her breath quicken and her head start to hurt. The junk inside seemed to understand that the zoo gates were abandoned and it was time to come out. No wonder Jerry at work had that look on his face that warned, ‘Traders who burn out rarely return.’ This wasn’t a weekend retreat; it was a lifeboat and she was grabbing for the rope.
As she stared into it, the fire began to mirror the assault. She watched in the rising embers as the stories stirred into life and danced upon the coals in awakened fright. The agitation had been building, etching its way invasively into who to trust and how to act. She could sense the panic she couldn’t suppress when it was time to sell at work. Jerry had said there was no room for negative emotion, just the high from a successful bid. But her emotions had failed her and now her baggage case was open and she felt she could lose control.
She unpacked recklessly, throwing jeans into drawers where cuffs curled out in unfinished business. A lamp stood by a wicker chair which she sat in for a few seconds before standing again to pace without purpose, except perhaps to lessen the agitation. When in doubt, do something even if it’s meaningless. The alternative was to feel the clammy hands, the shortened breath, the round and round voices of accusation, ‘You did this to yourself!’ She succeeded in censoring, ‘Loser’ and ‘Fool’ as they surfaced but beyond that, the voices continued to fold into the cupboards of her memory along with her hopes.
From the seat by the window, Amy watched the other cabins’ smoke lifting in the updrafts. She imagined each individual’s breath inside, blowing away the reasons why they’d come here, rising in the smoke to settle in a haze above the valley. She imagined the river nearby, might capture that sediment as it fell and then wash it away. The river had burnt gold from the plane but now the sunset had it mirroring purples and crimson, the colours of the valley already starting to weave a tapestry of longing that was new to her.
It was autumn but she was resolved that she’d get in tomorrow and have a swim anyway. Wash away the blues. She knew there were platypus. Maybe this mixed-up creature might let her be part of its wild world … if she was quiet about it. But this was her Achilles, she knew. Being quiet had held her dumb when Mark had swum each morning at the Bondi pool with the co-worker stroking beside him. She could have queried the co-incidence as she sat sipping lattes. ‘Is there something I should know, Mark? Would you even care if I swam beside you myself?’ But it was all too late at the ending of her marriage and it was the silence of the apartment that greeted her when she’d return from work alone.
Mark’s company, Harrison and Partners at Law, had a habit or unwritten policy, that the front woman was young and beautiful. She didn’t need to be experienced. Mark would come home and share with Amy how amazed he was that Sarah was so quick to learn. How good she was with the clients. How she had even solved the computer problem which had infiltrated the files. Amy called her ‘WonderWoman.com’ as a joke but he didn’t laugh and she felt stupid that her cut-off remark had seemed so petty.
She contemplated how a woman of Sarah’s age could make a woman of Amy’s age seem so infantile. But it was the same old music that had been played forever. The secretary knew it with the red Lycra swimsuit which clung to her wet nipples. Amy knew it too with the Scholl inserts and the promise to return to the gym tomorrow. Everyone knew it and particularly Mark, who saw his real chance to stay young. And why not after all those laps up and down to keep him looking like he deserved it? So, it was inevitable. But that birth defect she had where she wouldn’t know a truck was bearing down until she stared into its high beam on impact, just kept it from her view.
Amy had been staring into the past for quite a while, when she realised that two eyes across the way in Cabin 2 were watching out as well. She wasn’t sure who jumped into awareness first but there was embarrassment and then an acknowledgement that they had been both offloading thoughts and hadn’t really seen each other until that moment of connection. She noted how his ginger hair matched his pale complexion, so unlike Mark’s dark eyes and demeanour. He nodded and turned back from the window but she’d seen a flash of recognition in him that was more than the nod he gave on the airport bus getting here.
No-one came to The Retreat without reason, she thought. It wasn’t a health farm for weight loss, not that that would hurt. Mark would catch her looking in the mirror sighing away and say she would look beautiful if she just lost a few kilos. She had to admit she wasn’t as disciplined as he was but he would ignore her anyway when she dressed to please. So, where was the motivation? The black silk lingerie she bought too late was a second preference to the bottle of red he’d befriended and she’d find herself in bed with a good book instead.
Dinner was in the common room of the main house. They’d been asked to refrain from talking and to not make eye contact with anyone. ‘For mindful eating,’ Beth had said. That sealed the intent that Amy might be able to dodge any serious thoughts with casual remarks about the weather. She imagined the long hours ahead, without conversation, without TV or her phone which she had been required to leave at the desk at check-in. The weight of the emptiness to come was scary. She had tried to reassure herself, ‘Just go to bed and sleep it off.’ Habit had taught her that sleep was an uncertainty though and dread had turned the walls of her cabin into a prison like vice, squeezing her mind to mush.
With her eyes cast down and no alcohol allowed, what sprang to consciousness was what she had replied to Mark when he checked her about the third glass of wine at the Barrett’s Christmas party, the night he had left her. ‘I’m just keeping up with you.’ She’d spoken as if it was a competition that they’d drink each other into the ground, or grave … whichever came first. It had only been the first five minutes into the evening at the retreat and the witchery of the weekend was already beginning to bubble. She wondered whether the people running the sessions were skilled enough to handle the machinations of the mind though, particularly when the vegan menu lacked any sophistication.
After dinner, Beth drew them to the fire. The three participants, smiling anxiously at each other, arranged themselves in the leather armchairs. There was an uncertainty to sit forward at attention or back to relax. Amy noticed that she had positioned herself at the edge of the chair in anticipation. One chair was empty and Amy had noted that four cabins made up the estate. She wondered if someone was late or if they had given up before they’d begun. It was understandable that to lift yourself out of the city and into the country with its wilderness extremes could heighten anxiety, not cure it. The man she’d seen from her cabin smiled at her but she turned, embarrassed at being recognised. What did he see in her? Was this any different to her past relationships? Who she was had become what someone else needed her to be, she realised. The sign above the fire read, ‘Simply Me’. But now she questioned how simple could that really be?
Beth had urged them not to censor their thoughts and to simply let their minds run free. At The Retreat, participants were encouraged to discover parts of themselves through letting nature be their guide. She looked like she was an expert herself in self-management with her healthy glow. Amy wondered if it came naturally or if she had overcome bad habits herself. ‘The space has been created to nurture and unfold, and the time over the long weekend at Easter, is given to allow you to be comfortable with what you find.’ Beth spoke carefully to bring them into a place of calm, which had been missing for so long. Beth noticed that Amy’s shallow breathing overshadowed any possibility of discovery so she tried to reassure her that she was safe. ‘We hope you can accept and trust the process of discovery we have developed here. We are not here to give advice but to allow you to be a witness to your own feelings and to get to know your own identity. It’s simple but it’s also profound. We know it can help to change your life.’
Amy dwelt on any changes that would help but where and how these changes might occur she had no idea. Dreams that night consisted of a cave in which Mark and Sarah had locked her. She had loved Mark but couldn’t equate his snide comments about, ‘Letting herself go,’ with their wedding vows to honour each other for better or worse. Amy felt she had kept to her promise but an insistent voice knocked on the cave door shouting, ‘Wake up!’ Not that she could hear it as a shout, as the rock face she thought, was obviously solid and interfering with the volume. But the repetitive urgency was sufficient for it to be the words in her consciousness that woke her in the morning, just as the bell was ringing for breakfast. What had changed, was that she had slept through the night for the first time since she could remember, and that alone held promise.