Silent Retreat

Short story by Michael Botur

 

Me and Mickey are kneeling under the moon on a dusty concrete floor in the mountains above Delhi, awaiting permission to enter ten days of silent retreat in a freezing temple painted gold and the silent running-away thing is just in time, honestly, cause life in the outside world is flipping unfair and if I don’t find shelter I’m going to scream.

Standing on tired legs in a queue of shivering backpackers, I squeeze my fiancé’s hand. Mickey, the big lanky wildman with his dirty mullet, ignores me as he chews, bouncing his big shoulders, fidgeting, wishing he had a drink or a pill or a piece of ass. He’s in a singlet; I’m the only one who researched the weather up here and bought Merino and Gore-Tex. I lean into his warmth. I’m short, he’s massive and my head tucks into his armpit. I need my man cause I’m super-vulnerable right now. I should be with my Mumsy I’m two and a half continents away from her. I Skyped Mumsy a week ago and she told me she’d been given a month to live reached through the webcam to stroke my fringe away from my eyes and my face melted cause she told me FLIPPING LYMPHOCYTES are making my precious Mumsy’s flipping BLOOD dissolve into runny clear pus, totally degrading my mother, and all while me and Mick are having the time of our lives, romping around Asia.

Unfair doesn’t even begin to describe it. GOD. My Mumsy captures spiders with a tumbler and a piece of paper and shakes them out the window. My Mumsy puts music on for pot plants. My Mumsy sponsors kids in Cameroon. She’s been a primary school teacher for 39 years, on her feet for 6 hours a day, she’s only just got her pension and that stupid bugger in the sky gifts her leukaemia. No words in the universe can express my frustration so here we are, waiting for ten days of Vipassana so I can at least learn to control my feelings.

Dhamma Salila Vipassana Centre of Light is a series of concrete huts painted gold with a quiff of snow piled on the some of the domes. It’s a 10 kay trek north of Shivpuri, this cluster of huts on a cliff over the coldest, northern-est ribbons of the Ganges. Uttarakhand is this state held up on the cold shoulders of mountains north of Delhi. The Beatles hung out here, apparently. Did they last ten days? Me and Mick have to last ten, though I’m not sure if this induction counts as a day, since it’s 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s actually rather important to have control over precisely when this experience will conclude as I’m expected to telephone Mumsy in Bolton as soon as I return to civilisation, and I would return a lot sooner if these silly henchmen guarding the door would let us get on with it. Volunteers known as sahayaks, they’re half a dozen pimply Indian young men with polo shirts buttoned up, but they take their job extremely seriously. They roam the line, telling people in accented English that this is a non-denominational centre and religious symbols are not permitted. I see a Malaysian-looking girl unfasten her headscarf and fold it up. Some Sikh guys pack their turbans away. My silver cross necklace goes in my pocket.

Keeping 100 French and Germans and Japanese standing still on stone steps with heavy luggage while the sun rises over the Garhwals is part of the vipassana spiritual journey, apparently. We get to ask a question on the second to last day. Maybe I’ll ask these wankers if they get off on torturing Westerners.

Mickey’s stamping his feet to some private rhythm, looking around for some action, his huge shaggy head towering over everyone. Our whole OE, our whole trip around the world, it’s just one big party to Mickey. Cape Town, Patagonia, Rotorua… we’ve worked in orphanages, ranches, orchards, offices, hopping from visa to visa. Mickey guzzled and snorted our wages, spent thousands on football bets, Champion’s League tickets, gifts for his female “friends,” some of whom felt obliged to hit on him right in front of me. I brought in most of the money. Sometimes we were students; a couple times I was an au pair; Mickey worked a jackhammer or a tour boat. He got us deported out of Monaco, for crying out loud, and piddled over the border from France into Monte Carlo, holding out his phone and filming the snake of wee wriggling downhill, forcing the police to retreat. I told him he was a foolish child. He got in a tizzy and went and carried on with Operation Globetrotter, having little affairs in four or five countries, four or five jobs, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and now we’re here, we’re engaged to be married a month after we get out of here and our troubles are behind us and the line is finally moving, shuffling forward away from strife, away from my crowded country, away from all the friends criticising me over Facebook for sticking with Mickey. Away from my Mumsy’s limp voice and wet cough.  

We file inside the temple, concrete smeared with plaster, painted white and decorated with pollen, bunting, prayer flags, pink and gold paint. The sahayak guad-volunteers bash a gong with a stick as we each mutter a few last words then settle on a floor of flagstones polished smooth from a hundred thousand bums. We face the front like kindergarteners, adjusting our spines. One girl, a metre away from me, has hair as bright as lightbulb and sharp breasts. Mickey shunts his bum away from me and whispers something to Miss Pointytits and I’m about to break my silence to interject when our guru-ji shambles out of some side-passage and hauls himself atop a cushion on top of a barrel. He is a little man with a black afro scorched white. He wears a three-piece suit wide around the shoulders. The cuffs of the suitjacket are too long, but he’s by far the neatest-dressed here. I spy the gold links of a pocket chain, and gold circlets keep his long white wizard-beard contained. He positions his fingers on his nipples and ribs and throat as he launches straight into a monologue, rubbing his heart. He has a poster of himself behind him, explaining his name: G. G. Nirmal, with a subtitle saying Escort To Peace. Parking themselves in eight positions around the hall, guru-ji’s sahayak helpers drizzle their hands downwards. It’s a physical instruction and we all fold our legs and get our backs straightened. Each person in the room who grunts shifting their bent joints into place is given the SHHHHHH gesture, but the sahayaks make no sound.

Our guru-ji begins speaking immediately. I’m amazed the people down the back can hear his subtle, moist voice, the clacking tongue, the tiny emphasis on every fourth word. He’s telling us to scan our bodies to identify what pain we’re going to address over our ten days. I’m tuned to Mickey more than myself though because Mickey’s pulled his big sweaty brown bear-paw off my buttermilk hand and he’s leaning towards the Nordic-looking woman. About to stray again, the bugger. We went to Antarctica on this protest boat and he managed to finger this girl from flipping Korea who didn’t even speak flipping English. Mickey’s always been my rock, though. I used to be fat; he gave me a chance. I still have my stretch marks. I’ll forgive him a thousand times if he forgives my wet cheeks on his shoulders.

I try to listen to the front, get my two thousand Euros’ worth, focus on why we’re here. I paid for Mickey as well; he really ought to get his money worth. The 4000 Euros is a “donation” to take care of “the paperwork,” because vipassana involves no capitalism.

It’s agony, at first, listening, straining, feeling the sulphur in my throat, stinky hungry breath, sore vulva, petrified thighs. I’m quietly trying to keep track of the time. I guess our guru-ji’s been talking for three hours by counting one Mississippi sixty times a minute, sixty times an hour… I keep losing track but judging by how high the sun’s climbed in the sky, we’re three hours deep into noble silence. They remind us we’re allowed to ask a single essential question on the afternoon before we leave. I’ll ask why my life is amazing while Mumsy’s life has broken down, and whose decision it was.

 

*

Roosters wake us at dawn. The air is thin and blue. With finger gestures and tilted heads from the polo shirt nerds, we’re invited to shuffle – in our pyjamas and singlets – towards the temple. Men file along the path first, women after, and I intentionally step towards Mickey, hoping to brush against him, though I notice he’s preoccupied with another boy and has his fingertips under the boy’s nostrils and the boy is smelling Mickey’s fingers for…. DAMN IT.

MICKEY, YOU ABSOLUTE KNOBHEAD. Mickey’s fingered that little white-haired harlot, presumably. I sidle up to him and kick his ankle. He makes a show of squishing a mosquito on his hand then winks at me and wipes his fingertip on his shorts.

This place is the size of a small country. After a long sitting-session with another endless speech from guru-ji, describing the life of a breath, we have a lunch of porridge and jam and water at wooden trestles in the kitchen. As soon as everyone’s had a bowlful, the sahayaks beckon us out onto the lawn. Guru-ji Nirmal leads us in a long sprawling tour, a flock of 100 of us corralled by the sahayakon keeping us in line while guru-ji, wearing a white suit for a change, points to the sky, the mountains and talks about the atmosphere. There are thin paths which are sometimes just planks of wood over springs of natural cold water bursting out of the pebbles. Out the back of the farthest corrugated iron I can see there’s a dull grey glacier. Apparently China is three passes over, and you can see its mountains if you climb the cherry tree.

I turn to Mickey prepared to say, ‘A GLAY-ci-uh, honey, d’you hear that?’ and the sahayak puts his hands on my shoulder. It’s a gentle scolding.

Silence, Amelia. Don’t waste your words.

Later, we return to the stone floor. Our guru-ji is demonstrating how to eat more slowly each time we dine in our lives, going forward, stroking his fancy suit-buttons as he mimes swallowing a spoonful of imaginary porridge. It’s insulting, and I retrieve Mickey’s hand, but he pulls out of it. Looking across his big chest, I can see he’s fiddling with the rings of his little side-project girl. The two of them are giggling discretely into their cupped palms, trying to duck the attention of the sahayak. God Mickey’s a bastard.

G. Nirmal chews through my 2000 Euros and as I descend into a half-asleep trance, I’m feeling fundamental changes trickle through my veins, into my toes, my fingertips. Guru-ji talks about ‘butterfly thoughts,’ how when a person is truly relaxed and receptive, thoughts will settle between our ears and we should simply stand back and admire those thoughts instead of treating them like instructions.

    ‘A thought is merely a thought,’ Guru-ji Nirmal tells us. ‘A thought is not an order, nor is it a command.’ My rotunda, July 15 2020, my bridesmaids, Jasmeet and Ashley and Deeya, the catering, my chocolate cheesecake with truffle butter. ‘A thought has no substance. A thought is a buttefly made of air.’ Mumsy’s cheque, fifteen thousand bloody quid she says she’s popped into Western Union because she can’t use it, but Mumsy, you can’t talk like that, you can’t give up, Mumsy, I need you, you’re my MUM. ‘My children: blow on the butterfly. Let this butterfly alight into the wind and drift over to China.’

Everyone’s eyelids descend. I listen to the air flow in my nostrils, and out, and in. I hear the engine of my heart. I watch vultures climb columns of warm air. I hear the crick of Mickey stretching some cartilage. I hear the gloop of blood swimming through my arteries. My pulse vibrates in rhythm with the cicadas chirping in the bamboo. I smell the salty musk on my man. Whatever’s not gone quite-right with my Mickey, we’ll mend it. If we were doing couples’ therapy, we’d presumably be screaming at each other. But this is a god-given reprieve. Every Mississippi is a moment of peace between us.

Time is a river, children. Dip a toe; let your consciousness flow. Don’t count the litres of water. Don’t attempt to stick a stake in the riverbed.

My river– the Wharfe – cool like liquid shade on a stinking summer baking the lawns brown. My Mumsy is excited summer exams have ended and she gets to hang out with me, not realising I’m spending every night getting close to Mickey The Sailor. Mumsy yanks her dress over her head and runs, all knickers and bra and dough-coloured flesh, into the river and I’m aghast with embarrassment, but no, there are a couples, families, toddlers all piling into the river under the spell of the Bolton Priory looking over us, and I’m still refusing to go in, I’m far too cool, I have to text back this crazy Irish boy I’ve had my eye on, and my Mumsy hauls her wet laundry body out of the river with a whoosh of dripping hair, her eyes stretched with glee and she’s collected riverwater in her dress like a dribbling bucket and she dumps water all over me and I scream YOU SLAG, YOU ALMOST GOT MY PHONE WET and she’s trying to wrap her arms around me and lug me like a baby into the water and I can’t help laughing and scratching and fighting as she forces me into the green ooze and dunks my head under and I’m sure, amongst the golden rocks and olive, I’m sure I spot a little stickleback and a flurry of tadpoles, little beads of joyous life to match the happy miracle of Mum. We should BE like a river, actually – Derren Brown said, that, weirdly, on one of his specials. Derren Brown, mentalist philosopher, yeah, his show used to come on after Friends and I always wished my relationships were like Ross and Rachel, and that guy who’s obsessed with her who looks a bit like Derren Brown, that’s right, I remember his specials about the power of the mind on TV as I watched the screen upside down on the sofa out of one eye, texting the Irish boy whose boat was ashore and needed a bed for the night, telling him my bed was his, yeah, Derren Brown talking about the stoics and my Mumsy asking me if we’d studied the stoics in Greek and me responding with a PFBBBT, blowing my fringe out of my eyes. This ancient Greek grandpa called Seneca – or was he Roman? No, surely Greek – said you should envision losing everything to make you more appreciative. Picture your house being burgled and you’ll appreciate your assets more. Envision Mickey being run over by a tram; I’ll howl sorries in the street. Imagine Mumsy’s eyes closing forever, her funeral, her meagre estate, her teaching pension, two hundred grand all for me, money I’ll take to a bioresearch company in Oxford and beg them to clone my Mumsy back from that clump of hair I picked up off the bathroom floor when she shaved her head cause the nurses were fitting her with a wig, the hair I’ve always kept in my purse, my purse in a suitcase in a locker in a temple in the Himalayas where on a hard floor in a grid of people stiff and silent as the terracotta army.

Mickey shagged our fertility coach in London.

Huh. A butterfly thought settles then it’s gone again.

Mickey beat up that poor African-American poet boy in Tangier, the sensitive kid who massaged my feet on the deck of our backpacker lodge overlooking the ocean.

Thought here, thought away.

Thunderclap. Purple storm in the distance. Spears of light thrust down from titans, stabbing the mountains. Burning mosquito repellent. Pollen in my nostrils. The tickle of a cockroach running up my leg. Swallowed shriek. I hold the wriggling cockroach up against the sun. Its body is bronze. I look through its wings. They turn the sunlight gold.  

A voice, coming from the cassette player on the barrel beside Guru-ji, is telling me to think of my nostrils as passages from earth to heaven. There is no life without breath. Controlling other human beings doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Food, sex, sports cars, mobile phones, sitcoms with gorgeous New York singles sipping coffee and laughing: all pointless detail without breath.

Stop doing everything in life except breathing, Amelia. That’s it.

Meditation is over. It’s supper time. We eat plain rice and ghee-fried vegetables for dinner. It’s all delicious and desperately-needed. Already my senses are becoming attuned. I listen to my stomach kneading the food. Steaming dhal is being slopped into little bowls, and we’re given plastic jugs of water decorated with frangipani. Mickey bends over and gives me a quick peck on the cheek before going over to sit with a group of good-looking people.

In the blue dormitory, I’m positioned next to the Nordic beauty. Everybody sleeps easily – except Miss Norway. I listen to the tiny slap of her feet on the concrete as she creeps to the toilets to suck my fiance’s diddle while I stroke my boring brown hair and ask the moon to help me find someone to blame for everything.  

 

*

 

Days pass, days of roosters, cold bucket showers, porridge and potatoes for breakfast, mushy soup, sweet tea. I pass Mickey in the food hall. Where I sit, Mickey has scratched into the soft wood of the breakfast bench, with his spoon or his fingernail, ‘Ur on the rag I dont blame u Mick xoxo.’

And it’s true. No need to take it as an insult. My period makes my guts churn like a washing machine. Occasionally, my vulva itches and I need to scratch. I’m destroying my good knickers, the peach ones. Let things flow, Amelia. Don’t stick your stake in the stream. I want to vomit and smash, rage and cry. Understand the thoughts knocking on your brain are just that: thoughts.

Not premonitions. Not instructions.

Unfurl your fists, girl. Eat your breakfast. Meditate. Accept that today is a day of breathing, and tomorrow. Don’t anticipate leaving, Amelia. Don’t wish you were somewhere else.

Somebody mutters ‘Black hole of Calcutta’ and there’s giggling from the back. I study the mosquito bites on my calves. They are annoying and itchy. I accept this without judgement. Just as cows are a source of food for me, so I am a source of food to a tinier life. A big old cow, girl. Cowgirl. You can ride me sometime if you want, Rach. Who said that? Jennifer Aniston’s in the room and she’s talking to… SHIT! Who’s the interlocutor? That’s a word I haven’t used in years. What the heck was that albino barista guy called … Geoff? Gareth? SERIOUSLY, BRAIN, YOU’RE GONNA FAIL ON ME NOW? It’s on the tip of my tongue… Back to the Nineties, Y2K, 9/11, Gulf War II, Seinfeld, Frasier, Ally McBeal, E.R., Ross, Rach, Monica, Chandler, Pheebs, Joey and, um, what’s his name, all those outstanding minor characters like, SHIT, white hair serious guy… Chandler.. no, that’s been taken.

Buried in the back of my brain is a video – with smells, with sensations – a video of me and my Mumsy weaving Celtic promise knots. Our gran was from a farm in a valley-crag between two cliffs outside Donegal and she would take Mumsy there was Mumsy was my age to learn the ‘ladyness.’ I can feel Mumsy’s callouses palms on my hands as she comes behind me, teaching me how to tie a Celtic heart knot to capture my love, sealed with a rhyming spell.

I promise I will find a man / broad of chest and strong of hand

A man to fill my loins with love / deliver me a babe from ’bove

My husband, faithful, never strays / I boil the beans / he farms the hay

Forever true, my beau, protector / oozing love like lovely nectar.

 

She’s dead, a voice says, Your Mumsy. She’s gone. Just now; today. A red light glowing in my brain. An urgent message from across space.

I beckon a sahayak aside and whisper I’m pretty sure I need to phone my Mumsy.

‘In Rishikesh there is a telephone,’ he says. ‘You may leave. You walk the bus and the bus, it will take you.’

I get my suitcase, go to my room, sit on my mattress, pull my knees up against my chin. For four thousand Euros, Cancer Research UK treats women to a late-life pampering. Women are matched with top quality wigs made from real human hair. My Mumsy, who had to throw away dresses kids had spilled ink on, cause they don’t give you a uniform at public school, my Mumsy who was sworn-at by council estate rat-people, she could be getting her nails painted, could be having a Thai woman file the corns off her feet. She could have cocoa butter rubbed into the grey flesh of her forearms. My money could’ve made her a queen before she dies.

I bury my face between my legs and sob.

 

*

We’re all expecting another day of Mississippis. Instead, we are allowed to ask guru-ji G G Nirmal the most important question in the universe. Our lives are jigsaw puzzles. Restore the missing piece, our lives will be complete.

When I made him put that ring on me in Corfu, did Mickey really promise to be faithful or did I only imagine it?

Did my mum lie about how long she has left to live, or did I mishear her, lying upside down on a couch, attention focused on my text messages.

He’s ahead of me in line, Mickey is, asking guru-ji for – seriously? – the email address of that pretty girl. I’m astonished that the helpers actually bring it out to him, written on paper, and Mickey gets up with a happy clap of his heels, trying to high five me as he passes.

Actually, I’m not astonished. I am a tunnel. Emotions pass through me without sticking. I am no longer in a knot.

‘We’ll catch up soon,’ he goes, all confident. ‘Have a heart-to-heart. Fix things between us.’

I ignore him and shuffle up and stand on the flagstones. 39 people have gone before me; there will be dozens after. I am a drop in the ocean. Unimportant.

‘I have to ask you something, guru-ji.’

‘Please, child.’

This is your chance, Amelia. Fill in the imperfection.

‘What was the name of the barista in Friends? It’s been seriously bugging me.’

The guru-ji nods to his helpers. They disappear into an office, return within 30 seconds with the name written on refill paper.

‘GUNTHER! Thank you!’

I feel full of helium.  

Mickey finds me at the back of the line where we’re all being shushed.

‘Babe, I’m thinkin after this we’ll book train tickets to –

‘Mickey, shut the fuck up.’