Read Nine Perfect Strangers Online

Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (10 page)

Silence.

“It's funny, because I'm a romance writer. I create fictional characters for a living, and then I fell for one.”

Still nothing. Jan mustn't be a reader. Maybe she was just embarrassed for Frances.
Wait till I get home and tell Gus about this loser.

Gus would give a long low (tuneful) whistle of surprise and sympathy. “That's what happens in the big smoke, Jan.”

Frances managed to stay silent for a few moments as Jan kneaded her knuckle into a spot on her lower back. It hurt in a glorious, necessary-feeling way.

“Do you work full-time here, Jan?”

“Just casual. When they need me.”

“You like it?”

“It's a job.”

“You're very good at it.”

“Yup.”


Extraordinarily
good.”

Jan said nothing and Frances closed her eyes. “How long have you worked here?” she asked sleepily.

“Only a few months,” said Jan. “So I'm still a newbie.”

Frances opened her eyes. There was something in Jan's voice. Just a shadow. Was it possible she wasn't quite sold on the Tranquillum House philosophy? Frances considered asking her about the missing contraband, but how would the conversation progress?


I think someone went through my bags, Jan.


Why do you think that, Frances?


Well, some things were missing.


What sort of things?

She was too ashamed and too vulnerable without her clothes to confess.

“What is the director like?” asked Frances, thinking of the reverence with which Yao had looked at that closed door.

Silence.

Frances watched Jan's feet in their chunky sneakers. They didn't move.

Finally, Jan spoke. “She's very passionate about her work.”

Yao had also said he was
passionate
about his work. It was the theatrical language of movie stars and motivational speakers. Frances would never say she was “passionate” about her work, although she
was
in fact passionate about her work. If she went too long without writing she lost her mind.

What if she was never published again?

Why would anyone publish her again? She didn't deserve to be published.

Don't think about the review.

“Passion is good,” she said.

“Yup,” said Jan. She chose another spot for knuckle-digging.

“Is she possibly too passionate at times?” asked Frances, trying to understand the point, if any, that Jan was trying to make.

“She cares a lot about the guests here and she's prepared to do … whatever it takes … to help them.”

“Whatever it takes?” said Frances. “That sounds—”

Jan's hands moved to Frances's shoulders. “I need to remind you that the noble silence will begin in just a few moments. Once we hear the third bell we're not allowed to talk.”

Frances felt panicky. She wanted more information before this creepy silence began.

“When you say ‘whatever it takes'—”

“I only have positive things to say about the staff here,” interrupted Jan. She sounded a little robotic now. “They have your best interests at heart.”

“This is sounding kind of ominous,” said Frances.

“People achieve great results here,” said Jan.

“Well that's good.”

“Yup,” said Jan.

“So are you saying that some of their methods are possibly a little …” Frances tried to find the right word. She was remembering some of those angry online reviews.

A bell rang once. It reverberated with the melodic authority of a church bell, clear and pure.

Damn it.

“Unorthodox?” continued Frances hurriedly. “I guess I'm just cautious now, after my experience with that man, that scammer. Once bitten—”

The second bell, even louder than the first, sliced through the middle of her clich
é
so that it hung foolishly in the air.

“Twice shy,” whispered Frances.

Jan pressed her palms down hard on Frances's shoulder blades as if she were performing CPR and leaned forward so that her breath was warm against Frances's ear.

“Just don't do anything you're not comfortable with. That's all I can say.”

The third bell rang.

9

 

Masha

The director of Tranquillum House, Maria Dmitrichenko—Masha to everyone except the tax office—sat alone in her locked office at the top of the house as the third bell rang. Even from all the way up here she could sense the silence fall. It felt like she'd walked into a cave or a cathedral: that feeling of release. She bowed her head toward her favorite fingerprint-shaped whorl in the surface of her white oak desk.

She was on her third day of a water-only fast, and fasting always heightened her senses. The window of her office was open and she breathed in great gusts of clean country air. She closed her eyes and remembered how she'd once breathed in all the strange, thrilling scents of this new country: eucalyptus, fresh-cut grass, and petrol fumes.

Why was she thinking about this?

It was because her ex-husband had emailed yesterday, for the first time in years. She'd deleted his email, but just seeing his name for even an instant had infiltrated her consciousness, so that now the merest scent of eucalyptus on a breeze was enough to transport her back thirty
years to the person she'd once been, someone she could barely remember. And yet she
did
remember everything about that first day, after those endless flights (Moscow, Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne); how she and her husband had looked at each other in the back of that little van, marveling at all the lights, even in the middle of the street. They'd whispered to each other about the way strangers kept
smiling
at them. It was bizarre the way they did this! So friendly! But then—it was Masha who first noticed this—when they turned their heads,
their smiles shrank to nothing
. Smile, gone. Smile, gone. In Russia, people didn't smile like that. If they smiled at all, they smiled from the heart. That was Masha's first-ever experience of the “polite smile.” You could see the polite smile as a wonderful or terrible thing. Her ex-husband smiled back. Masha did not.

Nu naher!
She did not have time for the past right now. She had a health resort to run! People were depending on her. This was the first time she'd begun a retreat with a period of silence, but she knew already that it was right. The silence would give her guests clarity. It would frighten some of them, they would resist, and people would break the silence, accidentally or deliberately. Couples might whisper in their beds, but that was fine. The silence would set the right tone going forward. Some guests treated this place like summer camp. Middle-aged women got overexcited at not having to cook dinner each night. All that high-pitched chatter. If two men became “mates,” you could be sure rules would be broken.

In the early days, when Masha first opened Tranquillum House to the public, she'd been shocked to discover an order for a family-sized Meatlovers pizza being delivered at the back fence. “
Nu shto takoye!
” she'd shouted, scaring the life out of both the poor delivery boy and the guest.
What's going on here?

She had learned the funny ways of her guests. Now she took precautions. Security cameras around the property. Regular monitoring. Bags checked. All for their own good.

She turned sideways in her chair and lifted one leg, pressing her forehead to her shinbone. She occupied her body with the ease of a ten-year-old boy and she liked to say that she
was
only ten years old,
because it was coming up to the tenth anniversary of the day it happened. Her cardiac arrest. The day she died and was born again.

If not for that day, she would still be in the corporate world, and she would still be fat and stressed. She had been global operations director for a multinational producer of dairy products. She had been taking Australia's most trusted cheese to the world! (She no longer ate cheese.) She remembered her office, with its views of the Sydney Opera House, and the pleasure she once took in ticking off tasks, formulating policies to streamline procedures, bringing a room full of men to heel. Her life then had been spiritually void, but intellectually stimulating. She especially loved new-product development and seeing the company's entire product line laid out on the boardroom table: the lushness of choice, the brightly colored packaging. In a strange way, it fulfilled the yearning she'd felt as a child when she'd flicked through illicit shopping catalogues from the West.

But the pleasure she took in her corporate life had been like a polite smile. There was no substance to it. Her mind, body, and soul had operated like different divisions of a corporation without a good flow of communication. This nostalgia she felt for her old job was as fraudulent as fond thoughts of her ex-husband. The memories her mind kept throwing up were nothing but computer glitches. She must focus. Nine people were depending on her. Nine perfect strangers who would soon become like family.

She ran her finger down a printout of their names:

Frances Welty

Jessica Chandler

Ben Chandler

Heather Marconi

Napoleon Marconi

Zoe Marconi

Tony Hogburn

Carmel Schneider

Lars Lee

Nine strangers who, right now, were settling into their rooms, exploring the property, nervously reading their information packs, drinking their smoothies, perhaps enjoying their first spa treatments, worrying about what lay ahead.

She loved them already. Their self-consciousness and self-loathing, their manifest lies, their defensive jokes to hide their pain as they cracked and crumbled before her. They were hers for the next ten days, hers to teach and nurture, to shape into the people they could be, should be.

She found the file for the first name on her list.

Frances Welty. Aged fifty-two. The photo she'd submitted showed a woman wearing red lipstick holding a cocktail.

Masha had treated a hundred women like Frances. It was simply a matter of peeling back their layers to reveal the heartache beneath. They longed to be peeled, for someone to be interested enough to peel them. It wasn't hard. They'd been hurt: by husbands and lovers, by children who no longer needed them, by disappointing careers, by life, by death.

They nearly all loathed their bodies. Women and their bodies! The most abusive and toxic of relationships. Masha had seen women pinch at the flesh of their stomachs with such brutal self-loathing they left bruises. Meanwhile their husbands fondly patted their own much larger stomachs with rueful pride.

These women came to Masha overfed and yet malnourished, addicted to various substances and chemicals, exhausted and stressed and experiencing migraines or muscular pain or digestive issues. They were easy to heal with rest and fresh air, nutritious food and attention. Their eyes brightened. They became expansive and exhilarated as their cheekbones reemerged. They wouldn't shut up. They left Masha with hugs and tears in their eyes and bright toot-toots of their car horns. They sent heartfelt cards, often with photos enclosed showing how their journeys had continued as they applied Masha's lessons to their day-to-day lives.

But then, two, three, four years later, a good proportion
came back
to Tranquillum House
, looking as unhealthy as they'd been at their first visits—or even unhealthier. “I stopped my morning meditation,” they would say, all wide-eyed and apologetic, but not
that
apologetic; they seemed to think their lapses were natural, cute, to be expected. “And next thing I was back drinking every day.” “I lost my job.” “I got divorced.” “I had a car accident.” Masha had only reset them temporarily! In times of crisis they returned to their default settings.

That was not good enough. Not for Masha.

This was why the new protocol was essential. There was no need for the strange anxiety that was waking her up in the dark of the night. The reason Masha had been so successful in her corporate career was because she had always been the one prepared to take risks, to think laterally. It was the same here. She tapped her fingertip against the bleary, bloated face of Frances Welty and checked to see which boxes she had selected for what she wanted to achieve over the next ten days: “stress relief,” “spiritual nourishment,” and “relaxation.” It was interesting that she hadn't ticked “weight loss.” It must be an oversight. She seemed like the careless sort. No attention to detail. One thing was clear: this woman was
crying out
for a spiritually transformative experience, and Masha would give it to her.

She opened the next file. Ben and Jessica Chandler.

Their photo showed an attractive young couple sitting on a yacht. They were smiling with their teeth but Masha couldn't see their eyes because of their dark sunglasses. They had ticked the box for couples counseling and she was confident she could help. Their problems would be fresh, not calcified after years of arguments and bitterness. The new protocol would be perfect for them.

Next up, Lars Lee. Forty. The photo he'd attached was a glossy corporate headshot. She knew this type of guest very well. He saw attendance at health resorts as a part of his grooming regime, like a haircut or a manicure. He would not try to smuggle in contraband but he would feel that inconvenient rules did not apply to him. His reaction to the new protocol would be interesting.

Carmel Schneider. Thirty-nine. Mother of young children. Divorced. Masha looked at her photo and clucked. She heard her mother's voice:
If a woman doesn't look after herself, her man looks after another woman.
Poor little bunny. Low self-esteem. Carmel had ticked every single box on the list except for “couples counseling.” Masha felt lovingly toward her for this. No problem, my
lapochka
. You will be one of my easy ones.

Tony Hogburn. Fifty-six. Also divorced. Also here for weight loss. That was the only box he ticked. He would become grumpy and possibly aggressive when his body reacted to the changes in his self-medicating lifestyle. One to monitor.

The next file made her frown.

Could this be her wild card?

The Marconi family. Napoleon and Heather. Both aged forty-eight. Their daughter, Zoe. Aged twenty.

This was the first time a family group had booked a Tranquillum House retreat. She'd had many couples, mothers and daughters, siblings and friends, but never a family, and the daughter was the youngest guest ever to come to Tranquillum House.

Why would a perfectly healthy-looking twenty-year-old choose to do a ten-day health retreat with her parents? Eating disorder? That could be it. They all looked underfed to Masha's practiced eye. Some sort of strange family dysfunction going on?

Whoever filled in the questionnaire for the family's group booking had ticked only one box: “stress relief.”

The photo the Marconi family had submitted showed the three of them in front of a Christmas tree. It was clearly a selfie, because they had their heads at funny angles trying to get into the camera frame. They were all smiling but their eyes were flat and empty.

“What happened to you, my
lapochki
?”

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