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Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (7 page)

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“Don't get your hopes up,” said Yao. “It's the ghost of old wine.”

He pushed back a heavy oak door with some effort and ushered her into a surprisingly large cavelike room with an arched wood-beamed ceiling, brick walls lined with a few chairs, and a series of soft blue rectangular mats laid out at intervals on the hardwood floor.

“This is where you will come for yoga classes and all your guided sitting meditations,” said Yao. “You'll be spending a lot of time down here.”

It was quiet and cool, and the ghostly smell of wine was overlaid by the scent of incense. The studio did have a lovely, peaceful feel to it, and Frances thought she would enjoy being here, even though she wasn't that keen on yoga or meditation. She had done a transcendental meditation course years ago, hoping for enlightenment, and every time, without fail, she'd nod off within two minutes of focusing on her breathing, waking up at the end to discover that everyone else had experienced flashes of light, memories of past lives, and
rapture
or whatever, while she'd snoozed and drooled. Basically, she'd paid to have a forty-minute nap at the local high school once a week. No doubt she would be spending a lot of time
napping
down here, dreaming of wine.

“At one point, when the property operated a vineyard, this cellar could hold up to twenty thousand bottles of wine.” Yao gestured at the walls, although there were no longer any facilities for keeping wine. “But when the house was originally built, it was used for storage, or as somewhere to secure misbehaving convict workers, or even to hide from bushrangers.”

“If these walls could talk,” said Frances.

Her eye was caught by a large flat-screen television hanging from one of the beams at the end of the room. “What's that screen for?” It
seemed especially incongruous after Yao's talk of the house's early colonial history. “I thought this was a screen-free environment.”

“Tranquillum House is absolutely a screen-free environment,” agreed Yao. He glanced at the television screen with a slight frown. “But we recently installed a security and intercom system so we can all communicate with each other from different parts of the resort when necessary. It's quite a large property and the safety of our guests is paramount.”

He changed the subject abruptly. “I'm sure you'll be interested in
this
, Frances.” He ushered her over to a corner of the room and pointed to a brick almost concealed by the joinery of one of the arched beams. Frances put on her reading glasses and read out loud the small, beautifully inscribed words:
Adam and Roy Webster, stonemasons, 1840
.

“The stonemason brothers,” said Yao. “The assumption is that they did this secretly.”

“Good for them,” said Frances. “They were proud of their work. As they should have been.”

They silently contemplated the inscription for a few moments before Yao clapped his hands together. “Let's head back up.”

He led her up the stairs into the house and to another glass door featuring just one beautiful word:
SPA
.

“Last but not least, the spa where you will come for your massages and any other wellness treatments scheduled for you.” Yao opened the door and Frances sniffed like Pavlov's dog at the scent of essential oils.

“This was another drawing room that was remodeled,” said Yao carefully.

“Ah well, I'm sure you did a good job retaining the original features.” Frances patted his arm as she peered inside the dimly lit room. She could hear the trickling sound of a water feature and one of those ridiculous but divine “relaxation” soundtracks—the kind with crashing waves, harp music, and the occasional frog—piped through the walls.

“All spa treatments are complimentary, part of the package—you
won't receive a scary bill at the end of your stay!” said Yao as he closed the door.

“I did read that on the website but I wasn't sure if it could be true!” said Frances disingenuously, because if it wasn't true she would be making a complaint to the Department of Fair Trading quick-smart. She made her eyes wide and grateful, as Yao seemed to take personal pride in the wonders of Tranquillum House.

“Well, it
is
true, Frances,” said Yao lovingly, like a parent telling her that tomorrow really
was
Christmas Day. “Now we'll just pop in here and get your blood tests and so on out of the way.”

“I'm sorry—what?” said Frances, as she was shepherded into a room that looked like a doctor's office. She felt discombobulated. Weren't they just talking about spa treatments?

“Just sit right here,” said Yao. “We'll do your blood pressure first.”

Frances found herself seated as Yao wrapped a cuff around her arm and pumped it enthusiastically.

“It might be higher than usual,” he said. “People feel a little stressed and nervous when they arrive. They're tired after their journey. It's natural. But let me tell you, I've never had a guest finish their retreat without a significant drop in their blood pressure!”

“Mmm,” said Frances.

She watched Yao write down her blood pressure. She didn't ask if it was high or low. It was often low. She had been checked out for hypotension before because of her tendency to faint. If she got dehydrated or tired, or saw blood, her vision tunneled and the world tipped.

Yao snapped on a pair of green plastic gloves. Frances looked away and focused on a point on the wall. He buckled a tourniquet around her arm and tapped her forearm.

“Great veins,” he said. Nurses often said that about Frances's veins. She always felt momentarily proud and then kind of depressed, because what a waste of a positive attribute.

“I didn't actually realize there would be a blood test,” said Frances.

“Daily blood tests,” said Yao cheerfully. “Very important because it means we can tweak your treatment plans accordingly.”

“Mmm, I might actually opt out of the—”

“Tiny ouch,” said Yao.

Frances looked back to her arm, and then quickly away again as she caught sight of a test tube filling with her blood. She hadn't even registered the prick of a needle. She felt all at once as powerless as a child, and was reminded of the few times in her life she'd had to go into hospital for minor surgeries, and how much she disliked the lack of control over her body. Nurses and doctors had the right to prod at her as they pleased, with no love or desire or affection, just expertise. It always took a few days to fully reinhabit her body again.

Did this young man currently helping himself to her blood even have medical expertise? Had she really done her due diligence on this place?

“Are you trained as a…?” She was trying to say, “Do you know what the hell you're doing?”

“I used to be a paramedic in a previous life,” replied Yao.

She met his eyes. Was he possibly a little mad? Did he mean he was a reincarnated paramedic? You never knew with these alternative types. “You don't mean, literally, a previous life?”

Yao laughed out loud. A very normal-sounding laugh. “It was about ten years ago now.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Absolutely not. I'm passionate about the work we do here.” His eyes blazed. Maybe just slightly mad.

“Right, that's that,” said Yao, removing the needle and handing her a cottonwool ball. “Press firmly.” He labeled her test tube and smiled at her. “Excellent. Now, we'll just check your weight.”

“Oh, is that really necessary? I'm not here for weight loss; I'm here for, you know … personal transformation.”

“Just for our files,” said Yao. He removed the cottonwool ball, pressed a circular Band-Aid onto the tiny red pinprick, and indicated a scale. “On you hop.”

Frances averted her eyes from the number. She had no idea of her weight and no interest in learning it. She knew she could be thinner, and of course when she was younger she was indeed much thinner, but she was generally happy with her body as long as it wasn't giving her pain, and bored by all the different ways women droned on about the subject of weight, as if it were one of the great mysteries of life. The recent weight-losers, evangelical about whatever method had worked for them, the thin women who called themselves fat, the average women who called themselves obese, the ones desperate for her to join in their lavish self-loathing. “Oh, Frances, isn't it just so
depressing
when you see young, thin girls like that!” “Not especially,” Frances would say, adding extra butter to her bread roll.

Yao wrote something on a form in a cream-colored file marked in black marker block letters with her name,
FRANCES WELTY
.

This was starting to feel too much like a visit to the doctor. Frances felt exposed and vulnerable and regretful. She wanted to go home. She wanted a muffin.

“I'd really like to get to my room now,” she said. “It was a long drive.”

“Absolutely. I'm going to book you into the spa for an urgent massage for that back pain,” said Yao. “Shall I give you half an hour to settle into your room, enjoy your welcome smoothie, and read your welcome pack?”

“That sounds like heaven,” said Frances.

They walked back past the dining room, where her darling drug dealers, Jessica and Ben, stood with their own white-uniformed wellness consultant, a dark-haired young woman who, according to her name badge, was called Delilah. Delilah was delivering the same spiel as Yao about the warning bells.

Jessica's plastic face was filled with worry, so much so that she was almost, but not quite, pulling off a frown. “But what if you don't hear the bell?”

“Then off with your head!” said Frances.

Everyone turned to look at her. Ben, whose cap was now the wrong way around again, raised a single eyebrow.

“Joke,” said Frances weakly.

Frances saw the two wellness consultants exchange looks she couldn't quite read. She wondered if they were sleeping together. They'd have such aerobic, flexible sex with all that wellness pumping through their young bodies. It would be just so
awesome
.

Yao led her back toward the
Titanic
stairs. As Frances hurried to keep pace, they passed a man and two women coming down the staircase together, all three in olive-green robes featuring the Tranquillum House emblem.

The man lagged behind to put on glasses so he could closely examine the wall on the landing. He was so tall the dressing gown was more like a miniskirt, revealing knobbly knees and very white, very hairy legs. They were the sort of male legs that made you feel uncomfortable, as if you were looking at a private part of the body.

“Well, my point is that you just don't see craftsmanship like this anymore!” he said, as he peered at the wall. “That's what I just love about houses like this: the attention to detail. I mean, think of those tiles I was showing you earlier. What's extraordinary is that somebody took the time to
individually
—hello again, Yao! Another guest, is it? How are you?”

He took off his glasses, beamed at Frances, and thrust out his hand. “Napoleon!” he cried.

It took her a terrifying second to realize he was introducing himself, not just yelling out a random historical figure's name.

“Frances,” she said in the nick of time.

“Nice to meet you! Here for the ten-day retreat, I assume?”

He was on the stair above her, so his height was even more pronounced. It was like tipping her head back to look at a monument.

“I am.” Frances made a tremendous effort not to comment on his height, as she knew from her six-foot friend Jen that tall people were well aware they were tall. “I most certainly am.”

Napoleon indicated the two women farther down the stairs. “Us too! These are my beautiful girls, my wife, Heather, and daughter, Zoe.”

The two women were also notably tall. They were a basketball team.
They gave her the restrained, polite smiles of a celebrity's family members who are used to having to wait while he is accosted by fans, except that in this case it was Napoleon doing the accosting. The wife,
Heather
, bounced on the balls of her feet. She was wiry, with extremely wrinkled, tanned skin, as if she'd been scrunched up and then spread smooth.
Heather skin like leather
, thought Frances. That was a really mean mnemonic but Heather would never know. Heather had gray hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and bloodshot eyes. She seemed very intense, which was fine. Frances had some intense friends; she knew how to cope with intensity. (Never try to match it.)

The daughter,
Zoe
, had her dad's height and the casual grace of an athletic, outdoorsy girl. Showy Zoe? But she wasn't showy at all.
Not-showy Zoe
. Zoe certainly didn't look like she was in need of a health resort. How much more rejuvenated could you get?

Frances thought about the young couple, Ben and Jessica, who also seemed in sparkling good health. Were health resorts only attended by the already healthy? Was she going to be the least healthy-looking person here? She'd never been bottom of the class, except for that one time in Transcendental Meditation for Beginners.

“We thought we'd explore the hot springs, maybe have a quick soak,” said Napoleon to Yao and Frances, as if they'd asked. “Then we'll do a few laps of the pool.”

Clearly, they were one of those active families who threw their bags down on the floor and left their hotel room the moment they checked in.

“I'm planning a quick nap before an urgent massage,” said Frances.

“Excellent idea!” cried Napoleon. “A nap and a massage! Sounds perfect! Isn't this place
amazing
? And I hear the hot springs are incredible.” He was an extremely enthusiastic man.

“Make sure you rehydrate after the hot springs,” Yao said to him. “There are water bottles at reception.”

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