Silent Retreat – short story by Michael Botur
Winner – Short Story Land Award 2019
Me and Mickey are under the moon in the freezing mountains above Delhi, awaiting permission to enter ten days of silent retreat in a golden temple. The silent running-away thing is just in time, honestly, cause if I don’t find shelter I’m going to scream.
Standing on tired legs in a queue of shivering backpackers watching the vultures and the squirrels, 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 bump of coke or a piece of ass. He’s in a singlet; I’m the only one who researched the weather up here and brought Merino and Gore-Tex clothes. I lean into him to share my warmth, stamping my feet, puffing into my palms. My head tucks into his armpit. He rubs my scalp then pushes me away. I need my man cause I’m super-vulnerable right now. I should be with my Mumsy but she’s two and a half continents away. I Skyped Mumsy a week ago and she told me she’d been given a month to live. She 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, all this 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 is a saint. She captures spiders with a tumbler and a piece of paper and shakes them out the window. My Mumsy puts music on for pot plants. 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 you know what that jerk in the sky gifts her? Leukaemia. No words in the universe can express my frustration so here we are, beginning ten days of vipassana so I can at least learn to control my feelings.
Dhamma Salila Vipassana Centre of Light is a group 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 gorges 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 volunteer henchmen guarding the door would let us get on with it. The sahayaks, as the volunteers are called, are half a dozen pimply Indian young men in button-up shirts. They take their job way too serious. They roam the line, reminding people in accented English that this is a non-denominational centre. Religious symbols must be put away. I see a Malaysian-looking girl unfasten her headscarf and fold it up. Some Sikh guys shake their heads and trudge back down the driveway. 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. It’s all emotional highs and lows until we get to ask a question on the second to last day and get a profound answer. Maybe I’ll ask if these sahayak wankers 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 been one big party to Mickey. Cape Town, Patagonia, Rotorua… we’ve worked in orphanages, ranches, WWOOF farms and 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. Urgh. I brought in most of the money. Sometimes we were students, sometimes apple pickers; a couple times I was an au pair. Mickey got us deported out of Monaco for weeing in the street and filming the snake of urine wriggling downhill, Go piss, go! I told him he was a foolish child. He got in a tizzy and embarked on Operation Globetrotter, having little affairs in four or five countries, four or five jobs, Sri Lanka, Agra, Nepal, and now we’re here, we’re engaged to be married a month from now once our troubles are behind us and, hurrah, the line is finally moving, shuffling away from the sucky world outside, away from all the friends criticising me over Facebook for sticking with Mickey. Away from my Mumsy’s limp voice and wet cough and letters that smell like her.
We file inside a concrete temple painted white and decorated with pollen, bunting, prayer flags, pink and gold paint. A cow watches us enter, chewing a stick. We settle on a floor of flagstones polished smooth from a hundred thousand bums. We face the front like kindergarteners, adjusting our spines. One Norwegian-looking girl, a metre away from me, has hair as bright as a 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 Indian 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. He also has gold circlets around his long white wizard-beard, and gold rings on his fingers. Jeepers. Considering all the gold our money is sponsoring, there’d better be a good breakthrough at the end of this thing.
Parking themselves in positions around the hall, guru-ji’s sahayak-helpers drizzle their hands downwards and give us the SHHHHHH gesture, though they make zero sound. The rules we’ve agree to are no talking, no mime, no sign language. No reading, no writing, no texting.
Our guru-ji launches into a monologue, rubbing his heart and smiling. He has a poster of himself behind him, explaining his name: G. G. Nirmal, Escort To Peace. 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 the next ten days. I’m tuned to Mickey more than myself 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 pull 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 to improve myself. I still have my stretch marks. I’ll forgive him a thousand times.
I try to listen to the front, get my two thousand Euros’ worth. I paid for Mickey to attend; he really ought to get his money’s worth too. It’s not as if our relationship will automatically heal and this is some hotel: we have to sleep in separate male/female dorms. I need to let him go for the next week and a half. He’ll come back a better man, surely.
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 90 minutes by counting one Mississippi sixty times a minute, sixty times an hour… We pass the two hour mark – no break – and I keep losing track but judging by how the sun’s baked the blue night away, we’re three hours deep into noble silence. Guru-ji hops down off his barrel, reminding us we’re allowed to prepare a single essential question for the afternoon before we leave. I’ll ask why my life is amazing while Mumsy’s life has broken down and which God I can scream at.
I am in Mumsy’s arms. Her frizzy Christmas jumper tickles my nose. Her boobs warm my face. She carries me like a basket down the hall from the Christmas party where I’ve fallen asleep watching telly with a coat for a blanket.
A cry of agony. Squealing car tyres and fingernails on a blackboard. The dream disintegrates. Someone’s bleating for hel…. Roosters! That’s all: you’re on a farm on top of a mountain, girl. You paid to be here, far from Christmas. Get up. Get hurt. God’s unhappy with you. That’s why he’s taking Mumsy. In this discomfort is a lesson. You’d better listen.
With finger gestures and tilted heads from the sahayaks, my tribe of sleepy backpackers is invited to shuffle – in our pyjamas and singlets – towards the temple. The air is cloudy and wet. Someone’s chasing a stray goat. My teeth tremble. 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 some Russian-looking boy and has his fingertips under the Russian’s nostrils and the boy is smelling Mickey’s fingers for…. DAMN IT.
MICKEY, YOU ABSOLUTE KNOBHEAD. Mickey’s fingered that lightbulb-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.
After a long sitting-session with another unending speech, this one describing the life of a breath, we have a lunch of porridge and jam at wooden trestles in the dining hall. Everybody winces, trying to adjust their spines and tailbones. As soon as everyone’s had a bowlful of prison food, the sahayaks beckon us out onto the lawn. Geese mutter and waddle away. Guru-ji Nirmal leads us in a long sprawling tour across the estate, 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 cold water murmuring between the pebbles. Out the back of the farthest corrugated iron shack I can see there’s a dull grey glacier. Apparently China is three passes over. You can see its mountains if you climb the cherry tree.
I turn to Mickey. ‘A glacier, honey, how cool is that?’
A sahayak puts his hands on my shoulder. It’s a gentle scolding.
Silence, Amelia. Don’t waste your words.
Around noon we’re sent out across the fields to collect firewood, bundle hay, pluck handfuls of spinach. We sweep the cobwebs out of sheds, scrape moss off the bridges. This place is the size of a small country. I listen to the birds talk. I watch a rumour of wind run through the wheat. Cicadas chatter in the trees.
Later, we return to the stone floor. Guru-ji is demonstrating how to swallow food more slowly each time we eat, going forward. He strokes his fancy suit-buttons as he mimes ingesting a spoonful of imaginary porridge, chewing like a baby. It’s insulting, demeaning, and I pick up Mickey’s hand for a sympathetic squeeze but he pulls out of it. Looking across his big chest, I can see he’s busy with his pointy-titted side-project. The two of them are giggling discretely into their cupped palms, trying to duck the attention of the sahayakon. Probably they sneaked out of their dorms for a midnight rendezvous. God Mickey’s a bastard.
- Nirmal chews through a few more hundred of my 2000 Euros while I fantasise about coffee. 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 without pouncing on them.
‘…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 made of wind.’ The thought that settles on me is the little receipt with my bank balance, Mumsy’s fifteen thousand bloody quid she popped into Western Union saying she couldn’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 cheeldren: blow on the butterfly. Let this butterfly alight into the weend and dreeft over to China.’ I listen to the air flow in my nostrils, and out, and in. Mumsy’s laughter, unwrapping the photo frame I made her with popsicle sticks and glue. Spice Girls on the stereo. Iraq on the TV. I hear the engine of my heart. I watch vultures climb columns of warm air. Mumsy fainting on the far end of the phone. Dialling an ambulance from eighty countries away. 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 salt leaking from my man’s armpits. Whatever’s not quite right with my Mickey, we’ll mend it. Couple’s therapy. Spend the last of Mumsy’s money stifling the animosity.
Time is a river, children. Dip a toe; let your consciousness flow. Do not stick a stake in the riverbed.
My river, the Wharfe, ebbing past the abbey, cool bronze, liquid shade. Stinking summer. Lawn baked brown. My Mumsy is excited that exams have ended and she gets to hang out with me, not realising I only want a boy. I can’t have an old lady killing my cred. Mumsy yanks her dress over her head and runs, cream knickers, faded bra, 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 ruins looking over us, and I’m still refusing to go in, I’m far too cool, I have to bury myself under the picnic blanket and text back this crazy Irish boy I met at this disco 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 water 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 drag me into the Wharfe and I can’t help laughing and scratching and fighting as she forces me into the river and dunks my head under and I’m sure, amongst the gold and olive bubbles, I’m sure I spot a 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 F*R*I*E*N*D*S and I always wished my relationships were like Rachel and Ross, and that weird coffee guy who’s obsessed with Rachel who looks a bit like an albino 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 apeman from Muine Bheag whose boat was ashore and needed a bed for the night, telling him my bed was his and I’d leave the back door unlocked for him, yeah, Derren Brown talking about the stoics and my Mumsy putting down a nice cuppa tea and 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. Picture me howling sorries in the street. Imagine Mumsy’s eyes closing forever, her funeral, everything she carefully collected summed up in a so-called estate, her teaching pension, one 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 could pull out her hair without scissors, the hair I’ve always kept in my purse, my purse in a suitcase in a locker in a temple in the Himalayas.
A butterfly thought settles then it’s gone again.
Mickey shagged our wedding planner in London. Huh.
Mickey beat up that poet boy in Tangier, the sensitive kid who massaged my feet on the deck of our lodge overlooking the ocean.
Thought here, thought away. I am not judging the thoughts. I am a conduit for the universe, as Ross said in that joke to Rachel with the barista who looks a bit like Derren Brown leaning between them and …. what was his name, the coffee creep…. Shit.
Thunderclap. Purple storm in the distance. Spears of heaven stabbing the mountains. Burning mosquito repellent. Citronella tang. 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 heaven to earth. Breathe the infinite into you. 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.
We eat rice and dahl and ghee-fried vegetables for dinner. It’s all delicious and desperately-needed. I try to hold each vegetable on the tip of my fork and appreciates its green, its yellow, it orange, though I’m starving, too, and I gulp it down. My senses have become sharply attuned. I listen to my stomach kneading the food. Steaming lentils being slopped into little bowls, and we’re given plastic jugs of water decorated with frangipani. Mickey bends down and gives me a quick peck on the cheek before going over to sit with the good-looking people. I appreciate his tiny gesture. I have resolved to tuck my ego away.
In my dormitory, I sleep next to the Nordic beauty with triangle tits. 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.
Days pass, days of roosters, cold bucket showers, porridge and potatoes for breakfast, mushy soup, sweet tea. I pass Mickey in the food hall. He tries to high five me like I’m some comrade.
At the trestle table where I eat, 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 4 angry. 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. They’re no premonitions, not instructions. They’re just butterflies.
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.
During today’s sermon someone mutters ‘Black Hole of Calcutta,’ and there’s giggling from the back and the sahayakon get in a flap. I ignore it, 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. Canned laughter. Who said that? Jennifer Aniston’s in Central Perk coffee shop and she’s talking to… SHIT! Who’s the interlocutor? That’s a word I haven’t used since I took LAW101 eight years ago. What the heck was that 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 when I used to rest my head in Mumsy’s lap, 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 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 when Mumsy was my age to ‘Learn The Ladyness.’ I can feel Mumsy’s calloused palms 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
My husband, faithful, never strays / I boil the beans / he rakes the hay
She has passed, a voice says, Your Mumsy. She’s dead. 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 being telephone,’ he says. ‘You may leave. You are walking and this bus, it is taking you.’
I ask for my suitcase, go to my room, sit on my mattress, pull my knees up against my chin. What’s a suitcase? A stone on wheels I choose to drag around. 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 spilled ink on, my Mumsy who was sworn-at by council estate rat-people when she dropped off their homework after hours, my Mumsy could have gotten her nails painted with the money I paid for this place. She could have had a Thai girl file the corns off her feet. She could have had cocoa butter rubbed into the grey flesh of her forearms. The money could’ve made her a queen before she died.
Things we hold to be top of importance – life or death – are only as important as rainfall, or the drop of a rotten branch, or a feather falling from a vulture.
I cry til I’m dry, then return to the meditation hall.
A rooster pierces my dreams. My spine complains. The cold stones prick my feet.
Today is not a day of Mississippis. Today we are allowed to line up and one by one ask Guru-ji 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, preoccupied with Mickey?
He’s ahead of me in line, that man of mine is. He’s 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. Mickey high fives the cool kids in line as he passes.
I’m not astonished. He has shamed me, and yet he has not. I let emotion pass through me without sticking.
He sees I’m not high fiving him and pauses his celebrity tour.
‘We’ll catch up soon, derlin,’ he whispers, all confident. ‘Have a heart-to-heart. Fix things between us.’
I ignore him and shuffle up another few 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.’
This is your chance, Amelia.
‘What was the name of the barista in F*R*I*E*N*D*S? 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 float away, full of helium.
Mickey finds me at the back of the line.
‘Babe, I’m thinkin after this we’ll book train tickets to –
‘Mickey, shut the fuck up.’