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Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (11 page)

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
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10

 

Heather

As soon as the third bell rang, Heather Marconi felt the silence fall, as though a blanket had been gently dropped over Tranquillum House. It was remarkable how palpable it was. She hadn't been especially aware of any ambient noise beforehand.

She had just come out of the bathroom when the bells began to ring, much louder and more commanding than she had anticipated. She had been of two minds as to whether she'd bother to go along with this absurd “silence”—if they'd wanted a silent retreat they would have booked a silent retreat, thank you very much—but the religious sound of the bells froze her on the spot. Ignoring the silence now felt disrespectful, even in the privacy of their own room.

Her husband sat on an antique sofa in the corner of their room, his finger to his lips like a schoolteacher, because Napoleon
was
a schoolteacher, a beloved schoolteacher in a disadvantaged area, and you couldn't spend twenty-five years teaching geography to recalcitrant boys without bringing home some teacherlike habits.

Heather thought,
Don't shhhh me, darling. I'm not one of your students. I'll talk if I want to talk
. She met his eyes to give him a wink and Napoleon's gaze skittered away as if he had something to hide, but he was always the one with nothing to hide, he was the open bloody book, and the reason he was avoiding her eyes was because the paperwork had specified “no eye contact” for the next five days and Napoleon would never forget a rule or regulation, even one as pointless and arbitrary as this. What possible good could come of avoiding eye contact between husband and wife? But Napoleon was deeply respectful of road signs and tiny clauses on bureaucratic forms. For him, rules were about politeness and respect and ensuring the survival of a civilized society.

She studied him as he sat in his too-short dressing gown, his long hairy legs entwined. He had a feminine way of crossing his legs, like a supermodel being interviewed on a talk show. His two shorter, chunkier older brothers gave him hell about the girly way he crossed his legs, but he just grinned and gave them the finger.

His hair was still wet from their visit to the hot springs and swim in the pool.

The hot springs were an easy walk from the back of the house, down a generously signposted walking track. There had been nobody else around. They had found the Secret Grotto, a rocky shaded pool just big enough for the three of them to sit in a semicircle and enjoy the views of the valley. Heather and Zoe had listened as Napoleon talked on and on about how the minerals in the water would help their circulation and reduce their stress levels and so on and so forth; she couldn't really remember what he'd said. Napoleon's conversation was like background noise in her life, a radio permanently on talk-back, only random phrases making their way into her subconscious. He had obviously been panicked at the thought of five days of silence and had been speaking even faster than usual, without pause, his voice bubbling endlessly, like the frothy warm sulfuric-smelling water that bubbled about their bodies.

“Sweetheart, of course I can cope without speaking for five days!” he'd reassured Zoe, who had looked at her father with genuine concern
on her beautiful young face. “If you can cope without your phone and your mother can cope without caffeine, I can cope without conversation!”

Afterward, the three of them had cooled off in the pool; the relief of the cold blue chlorinated water had been magical after the hot springs. Heather watched Zoe try to race her dad: he swam butterfly, she swam freestyle with a five-second head start. He still won, even though he didn't want to win, but he couldn't get away with pretending to lose like when she was a kid. Then they sat by the pool and Zoe told them a funny story about one of her university tutors that Heather didn't quite get, but she could tell by Zoe's face that it was meant to be funny, so it was easy to laugh. It had been a rare and special moment of happiness. Heather knew they would all three have noted it, and hoped it was a sign of something good.

And now they had to spend the next five days not talking.

Heather felt a burst of powerful irritation—or perhaps it was simply her body demanding a macchiato—because this so-called “holiday” was not meant to be about suffering. There were undoubtedly multiple other health resorts that offered the same peaceful environment without these draconian deprivations. None of the three of them needed to lose weight. Weight was just not an issue for Heather! She weighed herself every morning at six on the dot and if she ever saw the needle move in the wrong direction she adjusted her diet. Her BMI was in the “underweight” category but only by a kilo. She'd always been lean. Zoe sometimes accused Heather of having an eating disorder, just because she was kind of picky about when and what she ate. She didn't put just anything in her mouth—unlike Napoleon, who ate like a vacuum cleaner, hoovering up whatever was around him.

Napoleon stood. He lifted his suitcase onto the bed, unzipped it, and removed a beautifully folded T-shirt, a pair of shorts, and some underpants. He packed like a soldier whose kit bag would be inspected. He took off his dressing gown and stood in all his skinny white hairy naked magnificence.

His uncharacteristic silence made him suddenly a stranger.

The muscles on his back moved in unison like an exquisitely engineered machine as he pulled on his T-shirt. Napoleon's height and nerdy demeanor disguised his sexiness.

The first time they had sex, all those years ago, Heather kept thinking to herself, “Well,
this
is a surprise,” because who knew that a guy like
Napoleon
would have the moves? She'd
liked
him well enough, he was sweet and funny and attentive, but she'd kind of thought sleeping with him would be like doing community service. It was meant to be polite, friendly “thanks so much for dinner and the Kevin Costner movie” sex, not mind-blowing sex. She knew Napoleon's memory of their first date was different from hers. His memory was wholesome and sweet and correct, the way the memory of a first date between a future husband and wife should be.

Napoleon zipped up his shorts and buckled his belt. He slid the brown leather through the silver metal clasp with irritatingly quick, efficient moves. He must have felt her eyes upon him, but he didn't look at her; he was so determined to follow these silly rules, no matter what. He was such a good man, so fucking perfect in every fucking way.

The rage hit her with the power and momentum of a contraction during active labor. There was no escaping it. She saw herself punching his face with a closed fist, crunching his cheekbone, the diamond cluster of her engagement ring breaking his skin, over and over and over and over, blood dripping. The rage wrapped itself around her body, almost lifted her off her feet. She had to grip her toes to the floor to stop herself lunging at Napoleon as he zipped the bag back up and placed it on the floor in the corner of the room where nobody could trip over it.

She focused on a point on the wall where there was a small island-shaped scratch in the wallpaper and used the variable breathing method she taught mothers to use during the transition phase of labor: pant, pant,
blow
, hee-hee-
hoo
, pant, pant,
blow
.

Napoleon walked across the room and stepped out onto the balcony.
He stood with his legs apart and his hands clenching the railing as if he were on the deck of a lurching ship.

The rage eased, receded, vanished.

Done. She'd got through it again. The oblivious object of her rage bowed his head, exposing his defenseless white neck. He would never know. He'd be horrified and so deeply wounded if he ever knew the violence of her secret thoughts.

Heather felt shaky. Her mouth tasted of bile. It was as though she'd just vomited.

She opened her own suitcase and found shorts and a tank top. Later this afternoon, after the “meditation,” she would need to run. She wouldn't be relaxed after sitting and focusing on her breathing for an hour; she'd be on the verge of madness.

Coming here was a mistake. An expensive mistake. They should have gone to a big anonymous hotel.

She tied the laces on her sneakers with vicious tugs and opened her mouth to speak. She was definitely going to speak. This silence was
unnecessary
. They wouldn't speak in the presence of the other guests, but there was no need to maintain this awkward, weird, and unhealthy silence in the privacy of their own room.

And what about poor Zoe, alone and silent in the room next door? Heather and Napoleon both panicked if she was alone in her bedroom at home for too long, which was hard because she was twenty years old and needed to study. If there had been no sound for a while one of them would make an excuse to go and check on her. She never complained and she never closed her door. But there were no family suites at Tranquillum House. They'd had no choice but to book her a single room.

She said she was fine, she constantly reassured them she was fine, she was happy; she understood their need to be reassured. But she'd worked so hard this year, much too hard, tapping away grimly on her computer as if a “media studies” degree was a matter of life and death, and she deserved a break.

Heather looked at the wall above their bed that separated their room from Zoe's and wished she could see straight through it. What was she doing right now? She didn't have her phone. Twenty-year-olds
needed
their phones by their sides at all times. Zoe found it stressful if her battery power dropped below eighty percent.

They shouldn't be risking their daughter's mental health like this. Zoe didn't sleep alone in a bed until she was ten years old.

Had Zoe
ever
stayed in a hotel room on her own before?

Never. Zoe had been away on holidays with her girlfriends but they would have always shared a room, or so Heather would have thought.

She just broke up with her boyfriend and now she is alone in her room with nothing but her thoughts
.

My God. Her heart raced. She knew she was catastrophizing.
She is an adult. She's fine.

Napoleon turned from the balcony, caught her eye, and once again dropped his gaze. Heather felt her molars grind. He'd be so disappointed in her if she spoke only five minutes into “the noble silence.”

Jesus. This was unexpectedly hard. The silence made her thoughts scream. She hadn't realized how much distraction Napoleon provided with his incessant chatter. How ironic if
she
was the one who couldn't handle silence, not him.

They didn't need silence or fasting or detoxification. They just needed a refuge from January. Last January they'd stayed home and that had been a disaster. It was even worse than the year before. It seemed that January was a cruel-eyed, clawed vulture that would terrorize Heather's tiny family forever.

“Maybe we should go away this time,” Napoleon had suggested a few months ago. “Somewhere peaceful and quiet.”

“Like a monastery,” Zoe had said. Then her eyes brightened. “Or, I know, a health resort! We'll get Dad's cholesterol down.”

Napoleon's school had offered all the teaching staff free health assessments back in June and Napoleon had been told his cholesterol was high, and his blood pressure was becoming worrisome, and it was
great that he exercised, but he needed to make dramatic changes to his diet.

So Heather had Googled “health resorts.”

Are you in need of significant healing?

That was the opening line on the home page for the Tranquillum House website.

“Yes,” Heather had said quietly to her computer screen. “Yes, we are.”

It seemed likely that Tranquillum House targeted people of a socioeconomic status a few income levels higher than those of a high school teacher and a midwife, but their last proper holiday had been years ago, and Napoleon's inheritance from his grandfather had been sitting there in the bank. They could afford it. There was nothing else they needed or wanted.

“Are you sure you want to be stuck with your parents at a health resort for ten days?” she'd asked Zoe.

Zoe shrugged, smiled. “I just want to spend this holiday sleeping. I'm so tired.”

Normal twenty-year-old girls shouldn't be spending that much of their summer break with their parents, but then Zoe wasn't a normal twenty-year-old girl.

Heather had clicked
Book now
and instantly regretted it. It was strange how something could appear so attractive and then, the very moment you committed to it, become wildly unattractive. But it was too late. She'd agreed to the terms and conditions. They could change the time they went, but they couldn't get their money back. The three of them were doing a ten-day “cleanse” whether they liked it or not.

She'd spent days kicking herself. They didn't need to be “transformed.” There was nothing wrong with their bodies. Everyone always said the three of them were exercise fanatics! This wasn't the place for the Marconis; it was the place for people like that woman Napoleon had accosted on the stairs. What was her name?
Frances.
You could tell just by looking at her that she filled her life with lunches and facials and her husband's work functions.

She looked vaguely familiar to Heather—probably because Heather knew so many women just like her: wealthy middle-aged women who hadn't worked since before their children were born. There was nothing wrong with those women. Heather
liked
them. She just couldn't be with them for too long without succumbing to rage. They were utterly unscathed by life. The only thing they had to worry about was their bodies, because all that lunching didn't help their figures, so they needed to come to places like this to “recharge” and to hear the experts tell them the amazing news that if you eat less and move more, you will weigh less and feel better.

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