Read Nine Perfect Strangers Online

Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (4 page)

4

 

Frances

Frances drove twenty minutes down a bumpy dirt road that jolted the car so hard her bones rattled and her lower back screamed.

At last she came to a stop in front of what appeared to be an extremely locked gate with an intercom. It was like arriving at a minimum-security jail. An ugly barbed-wire fence stretched endlessly in either direction.

She had envisaged driving up a stately tree-lined drive to the “historic” house and having someone greet her with a green smoothie. This didn't feel very
healing
, to be frank.

Stop it
, she told herself. If she got into that
I'm a dissatisfied consumer
mode everything would start to dissatisfy her, and she was going to be here for ten days. She needed to be open and flexible. Going to a health resort was like traveling to a new country. One must embrace different cultures and be patient with minor inconveniences.

She lowered her car window. Hot thick air filled her throat like smoke as she leaned out and pressed the green button on the intercom
with her thumb. The button burned from the sun and it hurt her paper cut.

She sucked on her thumb and waited for a disembodied voice to welcome her, or for the wrought-iron gate to magically open.

Nothing.

She looked again at the intercom and saw a handwritten note sticky-taped next to the button. The writing was so small she could only make out the important word “instructions” but nothing else.

For goodness' sake
, she thought, as she went through her handbag for her reading glasses. Surely a good proportion of visitors were over forty.

She found her glasses, put them on, peered at the sign, and
still
couldn't make it out. Tut-tutting and muttering, she got out of the car. The heat grabbed her in a heavy embrace and beads of sweat sprang up all over her scalp.

She ducked down next to the intercom and read the note, written in neat, tiny block letters as if by the tooth fairy.

NAMASTE AND WELCOME TO TRANQUILLUM HOUSE WHERE A NEW YOU AWAITS.

PLEASE PRESS THE SECURITY CODE 564–312 FOLLOWED IMMEDIATELY BY THE GREEN BUTTON.

She pressed the security code numbers then the green button and waited. Sweat rolled down her back. She would need to change her clothes
again
. A blowfly buzzed near her mouth. Her nose dripped.

“Oh come
on
!” she said to the intercom with a sudden spurt of rage, and she wondered if her agitated sweaty face was appearing on some screen inside, while an expert dispassionately analyzed her symptoms, her misaligned chakras.
This one needs work. Look at how she responds to one of life's simplest stresses: waiting.

Had she got the damned code wrong?

Once again she carefully punched in the security code, saying each number out loud, in a sarcastic tone, to prove a point to God knows
who, and gave the hot green button a slow, deliberate push, holding it for five seconds just to be sure.

There. Now let me in.

She took off her reading glasses and let them dangle in her hand.

The baking heat seemed to be melting her scalp like chocolate in the sun. Silence again. She gave the intercom a fierce, hard look as if that would shame it into acting.

At least this would make a funny story for Paul. She wondered if he'd ever been to a health resort. She thought he'd most likely be a skeptic. She herself was—

Her chest constricted. This wouldn't make a good story for Paul. Paul was gone. How humiliating for him to have slipped into her thoughts like that. She wished she felt a surge of white-hot anger instead of this utter sadness, this pretend grief for what was never real in the first place.

Stop it. Don't think about it. Focus on the problem at hand.

The solution was obvious. She would
ring
Tranquillum House! They would be mortified to hear that their intercom had broken and Frances would be calm and understanding and brush away their apologies. “These things happen,” she'd say. “Namaste.”

She got back in the car, cranked up the air conditioner. She found the paperwork with her booking details, and rang the number listed. All her other communications had been by email, so it was the first time she'd heard the recorded message that immediately began to play.


Thank you for calling the historic Tranquillum House Health and Wellness Hot Springs Resort, where a new you awaits. Your call is so important and special to us, as is your health and well-being, but we are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls at the moment. We know your time is precious, so please do leave a message after the chimes and we will call you back just as soon as we can. We so appreciate your patience. Namaste.

Frances cleared her throat as wind chimes made their annoying twinkly dinging sounds.

“Oh yes, my name is—”

The wind chimes kept going. She stopped, waited, went to speak, and stopped again. It was a wind-chime
symphony
.

At last there was silence.

“Hello, this is Frances Welty.” She sniffed. “Excuse me. Bit of a cold. Anyway, as I said, I'm Frances Welty. I'm a guest.”

Guest? Was that the right word? Patient? Inmate?

“I'm trying to check in and I'm stuck outside the gate. It's, ah, twenty past three, twenty-five past three, and I'm … here! The intercom doesn't seem to be working even though I've followed all the instructions. The teeny-tiny instructions. I'd appreciate it if you could just open the gate? Let me in?” Her message finished on a rising note of hysteria, which she regretted. She put the phone down on the seat next to her and studied the gate.

Nothing. She would give it twenty minutes and then she was throwing in the towel.

Her phone rang and she snatched it up without looking at the screen.

“Hi there!” she said cheerfully, to show how understanding and patient she really was and to make up for the sarcastic “teeny-tiny” comment.

“Frances?” It was Alain, her literary agent. “You don't sound like you.”

Frances sighed. “I was expecting someone else. I'm doing that health retreat I told you about, but I can't even get through the front gate. Their intercom isn't working.”

“How incompetent! How
unsatisfactory
!” Alain was easily and often enraged by poor service. “You should turn around and come back home. It's not
alternative
, is it? Remember those poor people who died in that sweat lodge? They all thought they were becoming enlightened when in reality they were being cooked.”

“This place is pretty mainstream. Hot springs and massages and art therapy. Maybe some gentle fasting.”

“Gentle fasting.” Alain snorted. “Eat when you're hungry. That's a
privilege
, you know, to eat when you're hungry, when there are people starving in this world.”

“Well, that's the point—we're
not
starving in this part of the world,” said Frances. She looked at the wrapper for the Kit Kat bar sitting in the console of her car. “We're eating too much processed food. So that's why us privileged people need to detox—”

“Oh my Lord, she's falling for it. She's drunk the Kool-Aid! Detoxing is a
myth
, darling, it's been debunked! Your liver does it for you. Or maybe it's your kidneys. It's all taken care of somehow.”


Anyway
,” said Frances. She had a feeling he was procrastinating.

“Anyway,” said Alain. “You sound like you've got a cold, Frances.” He seemed quite anguished about her cold.

“I do have a very bad, persistent, possibly permanent cold,” said Frances. She coughed to demonstrate. “You'd be proud of me. I've been taking a
lot
of very powerful drugs. My heart is going at a million miles per hour.”

“That's the ticket,” said Alain.

There was a pause.

“Alain?” she prompted, but she knew, she already knew exactly what he was going to say.

“I'm afraid I am not the bearer of good news,” said Alain.

“I see.”

She sucked in her stomach, ready to take it like a man, or at least like a romance novelist capable of reading her own royalty statements.

“Well, as you know, darling,” began Alain.

But Frances couldn't bear to hear him hedging, trying to soften the blow with compliments.

“They don't want the new book, do they?” she said.

“They don't want the new book,” said Alain sadly. “I'm so sorry. I think it's a beautiful book, I really do, it's just the current environment, and romance has taken the worst hit, it won't be forever, romance always comes back, it's a
blip
, but—”

“So you'll sell it to someone else,” interrupted Frances. “Sell it to Timmy.”

There was another pause.

“The thing is,” said Alain, “I didn't tell you this, but I slipped the manuscript to Timmy a few weeks back, because I did have a tiny fear this might happen and obviously an offer from Timmy before we had anything on the table would have given me leverage, so I—”

“Timmy
passed
?” Frances couldn't believe it. Hanging in her wardrobe was a designer dress that she'd never be able to wear again because of the stain from a piña colada Timmy had spilled on her while he had her cornered in a room at the Melbourne Writers Festival, his voice hasty and hot in her ear, looking back over his shoulder like a spy, telling her how much he wanted to publish her, how it was his
destiny
to publish her, how no one else in the publishing industry knew how to publish her the way he did, how her loyalty to Jo was admirable but misplaced because Jo thought she understood romance but she
didn't
, only Timmy did, and only Timmy could and
would
take Frances “to the next level,” and so on and so forth until Jo turned up and rescued her. “Oi, leave my author alone.”

How long ago was that? Not that long surely. Maybe nine, ten years ago. A decade. Time went by so fast these days. There was some sort of malfunction going on with how fast the earth was spinning. Decades went by as quick as years once did.

“Timmy loved the book,” said Alain. “Adored it. He was nearly in tears. He couldn't get it past Acquisitions. They're all shaking in their boots over there. It was a hell of a year. The decree from above is psychological thrillers.”

“I can't write a thriller,” said Frances. She never liked to kill characters. Sometimes she let them break a limb but she felt bad enough about that.

“Of course you can't!” said Alain too quickly, and Frances felt mildly insulted.

“Look, I have to admit I was worried when Jo left and you were out of contract,” said Alain. “But Ashlee seemed to really be a fan of yours.”

Frances's concentration drifted as Alain continued to talk. She
watched the closed gate and pushed the knuckles of her left hand into her lower back.

What would Jo say when she heard Frances had been rejected? Or would she have had to do the same thing? Frances had always assumed that Jo would be her editor forever. She had fondly imagined them finishing their working lives simultaneously, perhaps with a lavish joint retirement lunch, but late last year Jo had announced her intention to retire.
Retire!
Like she was some sort of old grandma! Jo actually was a grandmother, but for goodness' sake that wasn't a reason to
stop
. Frances felt like she was only just getting into the swing of things, and all of a sudden people in her circle were doing old-people things: having grandchildren, retiring, downsizing, dying—not in car accidents or plane crashes, no, dying
peacefully
in their sleep. She would never forgive Gillian for that. Gillian always slipped out of parties without saying goodbye.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise when Jo's replacement turned out to be a child, because children were taking over the world. Everywhere Frances looked there were children: children sitting gravely behind news desks, controlling traffic, running writers' festivals, taking her blood pressure, managing her taxes, and fitting her bras. When Frances first met Ashlee she had genuinely thought she was an intern. She'd been about to say, “A cappuccino would be lovely, darling,” when the child had walked around to the other side of Jo's old desk.

“Frances,” she'd said, “this is such a
fan girl
moment for me! I used to read your books when I was, like,
eleven
! I stole them from my mum's handbag. I'd be like, Mum, you've got to let me read
Nathaniel's Kiss
, and she'd be like, No way, Ashlee, there's too much sex in it!”

Then Ashlee had proceeded to tell Frances that her next book needed more sex, a lot more sex, but she knew Frances could totally pull it off! As Ashlee was sure Frances knew, the market was changing, and “If you just look at this chart here, Frances—no,
here
; that's it—you'll see that your sales have been on kind of a, well, sorry to say this, but you kind of have to call this a
downward trend
, and we, like, really
need to reverse that, like, super fast. Oh, and one other thing …” Ashlee looked pained, as if she were about to bring up an embarrassing medical issue. “Your social media presence? I hear you're not so keen on social media. Neither is my mum! But it's kind of essential in today's market. Your fans really do need to see you on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook—that's just the bare minimum. Also, we'd love you to start a blog and a newsletter and perhaps do some regular vlogs? That would be so much fun! They're like little films!”

“I have a website,” replied Frances.

“Yes,” said Ashlee kindly. “Yes, you do, Frances. But nobody cares about websites.”

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