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Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (8 page)

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
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“Will do, Yao! And then we'll be back in time for the noble silence!”

“Noble silence?” said Frances.

“It will all become clear, Frances,” said Yao.

“It's in your information pack, Frances!” said Napoleon. “Bit of a surprise; I wasn't expecting the ‘silence' aspect. I've heard of silent retreats, of course, but must admit they didn't appeal—I'm a talker myself, as my girls here will tell you. But we'll roll with the punches, go with the flow!”

As he talked on in the comforting way of the chronically loquacious, Frances watched his wife and daughter farther down the stairs. The daughter, who wore black flip-flops, put one heel on the step above her and leaned forward as if she were discreetly stretching her hamstring. The mother watched her daughter, and Frances saw the ghost of a smile, followed almost immediately by an expression of pure despair that dragged all her features down, as if she were clawing at her cheeks. Then in the next instant it was gone and she smiled benignly up at Frances, and Frances felt as though she had seen something she shouldn't have.

Napoleon said, “It wasn't you who arrived in that Lamborghini, was it, Frances? I saw it from our room. That's one hell of a car.”

“Not me—I'm the Peugeot,” said Frances.

“Nothing wrong with the Peugeot! Although I hear those jackals charge like wounded bulls when it comes to servicing, right?”

He mixed his metaphors most delightfully. Frances was keen to talk more with him. He was someone who would answer any question with candor and vigor. She loved those sorts of people.

“Dad,” said his daughter. Not-showy Zoe. “Let the lady pass. She's only just got here. She probably wants to get to her room.”

“Sorry, sorry, I'll see you at dinner! Although we won't be chatting then, will we?” He tapped the side of his nose and grinned, but there was a trapped, panicky look in his eyes. “Lovely to meet you!” He clapped Yao on the shoulder. “See you later, Yao, mate!”

Frances followed Yao up the stairs. At the top, he turned right and led her down a carpeted hallway lined with historical photos that she planned to study later.

“This wing of the house was added in 1895,” said Yao. “You'll find
all the rooms have original fireplaces with marble mantelpieces of Georgian design. Not that you'll be lighting any fires in this heat.”

“I didn't expect to see families doing this retreat,” commented Frances. “I must admit I thought there'd be more … people like me.”

Fatter people than me, Yao. Much fatter

“We get people from all walks of life here at Tranquillum House,” said Yao as he unlocked her room with a large old-fashioned metal key.

“Probably not
walks of life,” mused Frances, because come on now, the place wasn't cheap, but she stopped talking as Yao held open the door for her.

“Here we are.”

It was a large, airy, plush-carpeted room filled with period furniture, including an enormous four-poster bed. Open French doors led to a balcony with a view that stretched to the horizon: a rolling patchwork quilt of vineyards and farmhouses and green-and-gold countryside. Flocks of birds wheeled across the sky. Her bag sat like an old familiar friend in a corner of the room. There was a fruit basket on the coffee table, along with a glass of green sludgelike smoothie with a strawberry on the side. Everything except the smoothie looked extremely appealing.

“That's your welcome smoothie there,” said Yao. “There are six organic smoothies a day, prepared specifically for your changing individual needs.”

“They're not wheatgrass, are they? I once had a wheatgrass shot and it scarred me for life.”

Yao picked up the glass and handed it to her. “Trust me, it's tasty!”

Frances looked at it doubtfully.

“The smoothies
mandatory,” said Yao kindly. It was confusing because you'd think from his tone that he'd said, “They

She took a sip. “Oh!” she said, surprised. She could taste mango, coconut, and berries. It was like drinking a tropical holiday. “It's quite good. Very good.”

“Yes, Frances,” said Yao. He used her name as often as a desperate real estate agent. “And the good news is it's not only delicious but brimming with natural goodness! Please make sure you drink the entire glass.”

“I will,” said Frances agreeably.

There was an awkward pause.

“Oh,” said Frances. “You mean now?” She took another, larger sip. “Yum!”

Yao smiled. “The daily smoothies are crucial for your wellness journey.”

“Gosh, well, I want to keep my wellness journey on track.”

“Absolutely you do,” said Yao.

She met his eyes. There was no irony as far back as she could see. He was going to shame that snark right out of her.

“I'm going to leave you to relax,” said Yao. “Your welcome pack is right here. Please take the time to read it because there are important instructions for the next twenty-four hours. The noble silence that Napoleon mentioned will be beginning shortly, and I know you're going to find that so beneficial. Oh, now, speaking of silence, Frances, I'm sure you can guess what I need next from you!” He looked at her expectantly.

“No idea. Not more blood, I hope?”

“It's time to hand over all your electronic devices,” said Yao. “Mobile phone, tablets, everything.”

“No problem.” Frances retrieved her phone from her handbag, switched it off, and handed it to Yao. A not unpleasant feeling of subservience crept over her. It was like being on an airplane once the seatbelt sign was turned on and the flight attendants were now in charge of your entire existence.

“Great. Thanks. You're officially ‘off the grid!'” Yao held up her phone. “We'll keep it safe. Some guests say the digital detox is one of the most enjoyable elements of their time with us. When it's time to leave, you'll be saying, ‘Don't give it back! I don't want it back!'” He held up his hands to indicate someone waving him away.

Frances tried to imagine herself in ten days and found it strangely difficult, as if it wasn't ten days but ten years she was imagining. Would she really be transformed? Thinner, lighter, pain-free, able to leap from her bed at sunrise without caffeine?

“Don't forget your massage at the spa,” said Yao. “Oh—and that nasty paper cut!”

He walked to a sideboard, selected a tube from an array of Tranquillum House–branded cosmetics, and said, “Let's see that thumb.”

Frances presented it to him and he placed a dab of soothing cool gel on her paper cut with tender care.

“Your wellness journey has begun, Frances,” he said, still holding her hand, and instead of smirking Frances found herself close to tears.

“I've actually been feeling
unwell lately, Yao,” she said pitifully.

“I know you have.” Yao put both his hands on her shoulders and it didn't feel silly or sexual; it felt healing. “We're going to get you well, Frances. We're going to get you feeling as well as you've ever felt in your life.” He closed the door gently behind him as he left.

Frances turned in a slow circle and waited for that inevitable moment of solitary traveler gloom, but instead her spirits lifted. She wasn't alone. She had Yao to take care of her. She was on a wellness

She walked out onto her balcony to admire the view and gasped. A man on the balcony next to hers was leaning so far over it he looked in danger of falling.

“Careful!” she warned, but only under her breath so as not to startle him.

The man turned in her direction, lifted his hand, and smiled. It was Ben. She recognized the baseball cap. She waved back.

If they raised their voices they could probably hear each other perfectly well, but it was better to pretend they were too far away to chat, otherwise they'd feel obligated to talk every time they happened to see each other on their balconies, and there was going to be enough obligatory chatting at every meal.

She looked in the other direction and saw a row of identical balconies stretching to the end of the house. All the guest rooms shared this same view. The other balconies were empty, although as Frances watched, the figure of a woman emerged from the room at the farthest end of the house. She was too far away to distinguish her features, but
Frances, keen to be friendly, gave her a wave. The woman instantly spun around and went back inside her room.

Oh, well, perhaps she hadn't seen Frances. Or perhaps she suffered from tremendous social anxiety. Frances could handle the dreadfully shy. You just needed to approach slowly, as if they were little woodland creatures.

Frances turned back to Ben, and saw that he'd also gone back inside. She wondered if he and Jessica were still arguing. Their rooms were adjoining, so if things got heated Frances might overhear. Once, on a book tour, she'd stayed in a thin-walled hotel where she had the pleasure of overhearing a couple argue passionately and descriptively about their sex life. That had been great.

“I don't get the obsession with strangers,” her first husband, Sol, once said to her, and Frances had struggled to explain that strangers were by definition interesting. It was their
. The not-knowing. Once you knew everything there was to know about someone, you were generally ready to divorce them.

She went back inside her room to unpack. It might be nice to have a cup of tea and a few squares of chocolate while she read her information pack. She was sure it was going to have rules she would prefer not to follow; the noble silence that was beginning shortly sounded foreboding and she would need sugar to cope. Also, she hadn't exactly followed the suggestion about reducing her sugar and caffeine intake in the days leading up to the retreat so as to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Frances couldn't be dealing with a headache right now.

She went to pull out her contraband from where she'd carefully hidden it right at the bottom of her bag, underneath her underwear, wrapped in her nightie. She'd laughed at herself for hiding it; it wasn't like they were going to be checking her bag. This wasn't rehab or boarding school.

“You've got to be kidding,” she said out loud.

It wasn't there.

She emptied all her clothes onto her bed with a growing sense of fury. They wouldn't, would they? It was unconscionable. Illegal, surely.

It was
bad manners!

She turned the bag upside down and shook it. The nightie was still there, neatly folded by invisible hands, but the coffee, tea, chocolate, and wine were most definitely gone. Who had been through her bag? It couldn't be Yao; he'd been with her the whole time from when she arrived. Someone else had rifled through her underwear and confiscated her treats.

What could she do? She couldn't ring reception and say, “Somebody took my chocolate and wine!” Well, she could, but she didn't have the requisite chutzpah. The website made it clear that snacks and coffee and alcohol were all banned. She'd broken the rules and she'd been caught.

She would say nothing and they would say nothing and on the last day they would hand it all back to her with a knowing smirk as she checked out, like returning a prisoner's personal effects.

This was

She sat on the end of her bed and looked dolefully at the lovely fruit bowl. She laughed a little, trying to turn it into a funny story her friends would enjoy, and selected a mandarin from the bowl. As she plunged her thumb into its fleshy center, she heard something. A voice? It didn't come from Ben and Jessica's room. It was the other room adjoining hers. There was a thud, followed immediately by the unmistakable sound of something breaking.

A male voice swore, loudly and forcefully. “Fuck it!”

, thought Frances, as the malevolent beginnings of a headache crept slowly across her forehead.




Jessica sat on the four-poster bed and tested the mattress with the palm of her hand while Ben stood on the balcony, one hand shielding his eyes. He wasn't enjoying the beautiful view.

“I'm sure they haven't stolen it,” she said. She meant to sound funny and lighthearted but she couldn't seem to get the tone of her voice to come out right these days. A hardness kept creeping in.

“Yeah, but
have they parked it?” said Ben. “That's what I don't get. I'd just like to know where it is. Have they got an underground bunker somewhere? Did you notice that when I asked if it was parked under cover, she sort of avoided answering the question?”

“Mmm,” said Jessica noncommittally.

She couldn't bear another fight about the car, or about anything. Her stomach was still recovering from the last screaming match. Whenever they fought she got instant indigestion, and that meant that these days she nearly always had indigestion. Their arguments were like submerged rocks they kept crashing up against. They couldn't be avoided.
Wham. Wham. Wham.

She lay back on the bed and looked at the light fixture. Was that a spiderweb near the globe? This house was so old and dark and depressing. She'd been aware it was going to be a “historic” house, but she thought they might have, you know,
. There were cracks all over the walls, and a kind of damp smell.

She turned on her side and looked at Ben. Now he was leaning dangerously over the balcony railing, trying to see the other side of the house. He cared about that car more than he cared about her. Once, she saw him running his hand along the hood and for just a moment she'd felt
envious of the car
, of the way Ben was touching it so gently and sensuously, the same way he used to touch her. She was going to tell their counselor that. She'd written it down so she wouldn't forget. She felt like it was a really profound, powerful thing to mention, quite significant and
It made her eyes prickle with tears when she thought of it. If the counselor ever wrote a book about her experience as a marriage counselor she would probably mention it:
I once had a patient who treated his car more tenderly than he treated his wife.
(No need to mention the car was a Lamborghini, otherwise all the male readers would say, “Oh, well, then.”)

She wished the “intensive couples counseling” part of this retreat would hurry up and start, but “Delilah,” their “wellness consultant,” had been annoyingly vague about when it would begin. She wondered if the counselor would ask them about their sex life, and if she (Jessica assumed she would be a
) would be able to hide her surprise when she heard they were down to having sex, like,
once a week
, which meant their marriage was officially in dire trouble.

Jessica didn't know if she could talk about sex in front of the counselor anyway. The counselor might automatically assume that she was sexually unskilled or that there was something wrong with her, in a very personal, gynecological kind of way. Jessica was beginning to wonder that herself.

She was obviously prepared to get more surgery (even down there) or do a course. Read a book. Improve her skills. She'd always been prepared to improve, to listen to the advice of experts. She read a lot of self-help books. She Googled. Ben had never read a self-help book in his life.

Ben came back inside from the balcony, lifting up his T-shirt to scratch his stomach. He didn't bother with crunches or planks and his stomach still looked that good.

“That author we met is in the room next to us,” he said. He picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and tossed it from hand to hand like a baseball. “Frances. Why do you reckon she's here?”

“I expect she wants to lose weight,” said Jessica. Like, duh. She thought it was kind of obvious. Frances had that
look middle-aged women got. Jessica herself would never allow that to happen. She'd rather be dead.

“You reckon?” said Ben. “What does it matter at her age?” He didn't wait for an answer. “What are her books like?”

“I used to love them,” said Jessica. “I read them all. There was one called
Nathaniel's Kiss
. I read it in high school and it was just really … romantic, I guess.”

“Romantic” was too ineffectual a word to describe the feelings
Nathaniel's Kiss
had provoked in her. She remembered how she'd cried big heaving shuddering sobs, and then she'd kept rereading that last chapter for the pleasure of more crying. In some ways, it felt like Nathaniel was the first man she ever loved.

She couldn't tell Ben that. He never read fiction. He wouldn't understand.

But was that one of the problems in their marriage? That she didn't even bother to try to communicate how she felt about things that were important to her? Or did it not matter? She didn't need to hear him talk about his passion for his car. He could talk about his car with his mates. She could talk about her memories of
Nathaniel's Kiss
with her girlfriends.

Ben took a giant bite of the apple. Jessica couldn't do that anymore, not with her new capped teeth. The dentist wanted her to wear some sort of a mouth guard at night to keep her expensive crowns all safe. It was annoying that the better stuff you got, the less relaxed you could be about it. It was like the new rug in their hallway. Neither of them
could bear to walk on something so astoundingly expensive. They shuffled down the sides and winced when their guests marched straight down the middle in dirty sneakers.

“That smoothie was pretty good,” said Ben, his mouth full of apple. “But I'm starved. I don't know if my body can cope without pizza for ten days. I don't see why we even have to do that part! What's that got to do with marriage counseling?”

you,” said Jessica. “It's, like, a holistic approach. We have to work on everything: our minds, bodies, and spirits.”

“Sounds like a load of—” He cut himself off and walked over to the row of light switches by the wall and started playing with the one that made the ceiling fan work.

He put the fan on to cyclonic speed.

Jessica put a pillow over her face and tried to go for as long as she could without saying, “Turn it off.” Once, she wouldn't have thought about this. She would have just yelled, “Oh my God, turn it off, you idiot!” and he would have laughed and kept it on, and she would have tried to turn it off, and he wouldn't have let her, and they would have pretend-wrestled.

Did they laugh more before?

Back when she was working in admin and he was an auto-body mechanic working for Pete, back when Ben drove a V8 Commodore that didn't make anyone look twice, and she had B-cup boobs that didn't make anyone look twice either, back when they thought going to a movie and the local Thai restaurant on the same night was
and when the arrival of the credit card statement each month was, like, really stressful and even once made her cry?

She didn't want to believe it was better before. If it was, then her mother was right, and she couldn't stand it if her mother was right.

Ben turned the fan down to a gentler breeze. Jessica removed the pillow from her face, closed her eyes, and felt her heart race with fear of something unnamed and unknown.

It made her think of the vertiginous fear she'd felt the day of the
robbery. It was two years ago now that she'd come home from work to discover their ground-floor apartment had been robbed, their possessions strewn everywhere with aggressive, malicious abandon, every drawer open, a black footprint across her white T-shirt, the glint of broken glass.

Ben arrived home just moments later. “What the hell?”

She didn't know if he immediately thought of his sister, but she did.

Ben's sister, Lucy, had “mental health issues.” That was the euphemism Ben's lovely, long-suffering mother used. The truth was that Ben's sister was an addict.

Lucy's life was an endless roller coaster and they all had to take the same ride, over and over, without getting off. Lucy was missing. No one had heard from her. Lucy had turned up in the middle of the night and trashed the house. Ben's mum had to call the police. They were planning an intervention! But they were going to handle this intervention differently from the last intervention; this time it would work. Lucy was doing well! Lucy was talking about rehab. Lucy was
rehab! Lucy was out of rehab. Lucy had been in another car accident. Lucy was pregnant again. Lucy was fucked up and there would never be an end to it, and because Jessica had never known the Lucy of before, the Lucy who was supposedly funny and smart and kind, it was hard not to hate her.

Lucy was the reason for the underlying tension at every event with Ben's family. Would she turn up demanding money or screaming insults or crying crocodile tears because “she just wanted to be a mum” to the two children she was incapable of bringing up?

Everyone knew Lucy stole. You went to a barbecue at Ben's place and you hid your cash. So it was perfectly natural that Jessica's first thought when she walked into the apartment that day was:

She'd tried so hard not to say it but she couldn't help it. Just that one word. She wished she could take it back. She hadn't made it sound enough like a question. She'd made it sound like a statement. She wished she'd at least said, “Lucy?”

She remembered how Ben shook his head. His face was drawn tight with shame.

She had thought,
How do you know it wasn't her?

But it turned out he was right. The robbery had nothing to do with Lucy. She was on the other side of the country at the time.

So it was just an ordinary happens-to-lots-of-people house robbery. They hadn't lost much because they didn't have much to lose: an old iPad with a cracked screen, a necklace that Ben had given Jessica for her twenty-first. It had a tiny diamond pendant and it had cost Ben something like two months' salary. She'd loved that necklace and still mourned it, even though it had just been a crappy little necklace with a smidge of a diamond, like a
carat. The thieves had rejected the rest of Jessica's jewelry box, which she found humiliating. Jessica and Ben had both hated the feeling of knowing that someone had walked through their home, sneering, as if browsing through an unsatisfactory shop.

The insurance company paid out without much fuss, but that wasn't the point.

It was just an ordinary robbery, except that it ended up changing their lives forever.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” asked Ben. He stood at the end of the bed, looking down at her.

Jessica's gaze came back into focus. “Like what?”

“Like you're planning to cut off my balls with a cheese knife.”

“What? I wasn't even looking at you. I was

He kept chewing the remains of his apple and raised an eyebrow. The very first time they ever made eye contact in Mr. Munro's maths class he did that: a cool, laconic lift of his left eyebrow. It was
thing she'd seen in her entire life and maybe if he'd raised two eyebrows, instead of one, she wouldn't have fallen in love with him.

“I don't even have a cheese knife,” said Jessica.

He smiled as he threw the apple core into the bin from across the room and picked up their welcome pack.

“We'd better read this, hey?” He ripped open the envelope and
papers went flying. Jessica managed to stop herself from grabbing at it and putting it all back in order. She was the one in charge of paperwork. If it were up to Ben they would never file a tax return.

He opened what looked like a cover letter. “Okay, so this is a ‘guide map' for our ‘wellness journey.'”

“Ben,” said Jessica, “this isn't going to work if we don't—”

“I know, I know, I am taking it seriously. I drove down that road, didn't I? Didn't that show my commitment?”

don't start on the car again.” She felt like crying.

“I only meant—” His mouth twisted. “Forget it.”

He scanned the letter and read out loud. “
Welcome to your wellness journey
, yada, yada.
The retreat will begin with a period of silence lasting five days, during which there will be no talking, apart from counseling sessions, no touching, no reading, no writing, no eye contact with other guests or your own companions
—what the?”

“This wasn't mentioned on the website,” said Jessica.

Ben continued to read out loud, “
You may be familiar with the term
monkey brain.

He looked up at Jessica. She shrugged, so he kept reading. “
Monkey brain refers to the way your mind swings from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from branch to branch
.” Ben made a sound like a monkey and scratched under his arm to demonstrate.

“Thanks for that.” Jessica felt the tug of a smile. Sometimes they were fine.

Ben read on. “
It takes at least twenty-four hours to silence monkey brain. A period of nourishing silence and reflection settles the mind, body, and soul. Our aim will be to discover a beautiful state that Buddhism calls
noble silence.

“So we're just going to spend the next five days avoiding eye contact and not talking?” said Jessica. “Even when we're alone in our room?”

“It's not like we don't have any experience with that,” said Ben.

“Very funny,” said Jessica. “Give me that.”

She took the letter and read. “
During the silence we request that you
walk slowly and mindfully, with intention, heel-to-toe, about the property, while avoiding eye contact and conversation. If you must communicate with a staff member, please come to reception and follow the instructions on the laminated blue card. There will be guided meditation sessions—both walking and sitting—throughout each day. Please listen for the bells.

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
12.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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