‘He said, “Welcome home.” I don’t remember anything much else he said.’
‘It sounds like a nice friendly place’ observes Ross.
I’m not so sure. ‘It felt wrong though somehow – presumptuous. Like he was taking a liberty. Do you know what I mean? Maybe I’m just too English...’
Ross and I are lounging out in the garden. It rained heavily in the night and the soil is hot and steaming in the sun – just right, apparently, for sowing coriander and pak-choi. Miguel found some very colourful net hammocks in the pantry (a tiny store room opposite the shower, to the left of the door to the garden) and hung one of them up for me between the mango tree and the chimney. Ross put the other one up today and now sprawls out of it, hanging his leg over the side, bending his big toe on the cobbles to make it swing. My legs aren’t up to that sort of fine-scale manoeuvre just yet but I’m getting there. Two mornings ago I woke up and discovered my foot had turned its self around to face the right way during the night. I can’t say how much that cheered me up.
Ross is a friend of Sonia’s. He has lots of mad curly hair and the kind of long nose and feet and loping hare-like way of getting about that makes me think that women probably find him very satisfying in bed. He’s brought me tomato and basil seedlings to grow on and plant out. I seem to remember something of how to do this stuff from somewhere and apparently I was muttering about remembering to earth up the potatoes and cut back the raspberries when I was out of it. It’ll come.
‘You think he was after you in some way?’ he says.
‘Maybe...’ I really don’t know now. I’m probably being excessively suspicious. ‘I was just so happy to find somewhere to stay. I was in pretty bad shape. I don’t know how long I’d been out there on my own. All my belongings were ruined or lost.’
I look over at him, eyes closed, hat over face. I’ll leave it. I’ve noticed that no one here is especially keen to talk about anything other than the very day-to-day stuff. In some ways it’s good because it stops me brooding but I still don’t feel safe. I feel like there’s something they’re not telling me.
That guy who welcomed me; I remember his weathered bristly face and his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a faded and ripped Hawaiian shirt hanging off his bony frame, his manhood barely covered by a pair of too-tight cut-off denim shorts. I knew his type from before – a man too fond of the booze to hold on to a job, fallen in with well-meaning and too trusting new-agers. I looked at the others seated on the ground behind him, smiling benignly at me or at him, or else ignoring us completely – about twelve of them. I looked at the ground – a sandy path winding among cushions of bottle green mossy fuzz, here and there spangled with tiny pink and white flowers that seemed to glow out unnaturally in the violet evening light. And there was the stream winding among the cushiony banks, flowingly palely, silkily, mauvishly, around the cobbles, as if milk (or milt) had been spilt into it. All around and rising too high to see over, banks of vegetation leaned in like God’s own herbaceous borders, heavy with flowers of poppy and Datura, arum and tobacco, too flawless and plentiful to be natural, and mixed with enormous ferny, velvety or rubbery leaves, emerald green or stained with red. The whole assemblage buzzed and flittered with insects and birds and stank overpoweringly and vegetatively rank.
I remember I’d been following the stream up through a stunted and sickening thorn forest for what seemed like weeks until I found a place that was open to the sky. The stream oozed through the leaf litter and grit beneath the low branches. Then the path opened out into a narrow, winding space with the stream trickling through it. There was tiny tinkling music coming from somewhere. I remember remarking to myself about the ultra-violet glow that everything had – the delicate fluttering wings and the veins in the flowers.
That was the thing – the light. I’d almost forgotten what it was like. For as long as I could remember I’d been in a place where the sun never rose above the escarpment and nothing grew properly – the valley of the shadow of death. Now, here, this narrow place was lit apparently by its own radiation, for the sky was still as dark as ever. I remember, that first day, looking at a lily flower hanging over my head, radiant orange, and a bell flower of so deep an indigo it almost vanished in the shadows, and thinking I’d finally found paradise. I touched the leaves and they were warm and aromatic and slightly sticky. The water was silky to the touch and fleetingly fragrant. I sat on the bank and took my clothes off for the first time in what seemed like months and anointed myself in the waters.
I came across the little community the next day and they told me I was home - I’d found Nirvana.
Sonia arrives as the day begins to move toward dusk. She and Ross greet each other warmly and then she comes over and gives me a hug.
‘How are you feeling today? You look better’ she says and I show her my newly obedient foot and she gasps and squeaks as if it’s the best thing she’s ever seen.
‘Now you can come into town with us’ she says, excitedly. I demur as strongly as I can but she says ‘Tomorrow. We will go out for lunch, all of us’ and she nods around to Ross and another girl I hadn’t noticed, standing in the doorway at the foot of the steps behind her. They all nod and smile and discuss where would be the best place to go. I don’t know anything about it so I watch the girl come up the steps and sit quietly by the cistern. It occurs to me that I might be being fixed up.
‘You haven’t used your bed’ says Sonia after the sun has gone down, coming up into the garden from the kitchen. ‘Can’t you get up there?’ I shrug and hope she’ll leave it but I suspect it’ll come up again. The truth is, all the while I’m on the sofa, I can kid myself I’m just a guest, not staying for very long. It’s nice – they’re all being nice to me. I feel welcomed and tended, like one of the vines here. I like the informality of it. I like being a stranger. I can move on any time I like – they’ve said as much. The truth is I don’t know what to do, or rather, I know exactly what is going to happen, because I can’t face moving on again. I know, once I go up there at the end of one of these days, and lie down on those sheets under that roof, and look at the lamp hanging above me, swinging a little, and at the philodendron sneaking in under the eaves, and the little table beside me with my book and my mug on it – then I’ll know this will be it. This will be my house and my garden, and no doubt, these will be my friends, possibly forever.
I don’t really know if I can accept that yet. Something is missing.
Back in Nirvana, I remember waking up in the morning in some sort of shelter – what they used to call a bender I think, back in the world, but open along one side so I could see the clearing where we’d been sitting the night before. The campfire still smoked placidly, surrounded by mats and cushions. The day was pearly grey out and not too warm. I looked about me. There were at least ten of us curled up under various rugs and shawls. In the daylight it all looked stained and faded where the night before, when I’d arrived it had seemed warm and spicy. I noticed the little light flowers had gone out. I couldn’t move without disturbing everyone so I lay back on a cushion (now somewhat cold and clammy) and thought about everything for a while. A girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve rested her head on my leg, apparently sound asleep. Like everyone else she seemed to be wearing nothing but a bit of cloth that hardly covered her at all. Behind me, the man who’d kissed me lay with his head back and snored. I could feel his leg against my buttocks and I tried to move away. They had insisted this was a place of peace and harmony but I didn’t feel either of those things. I wanted to get up, look around, maybe eat something. I moved my leg out from under the girl’s head as carefully as I could, sliding a pillow under in its place but she looked up at me as if she’d been awake all along. It was like having a cat about the place rather than a human being. There seemed to be quite a lot of these voiceless human pets about the place – boys as well as girls all with the same unknowing pre-pubescent lewdness about them. They always stopped smiling and chatting when they saw we were looking at them. Then they smiled as if they understood everything completely. I stood up and tried to arrange the toga thing they’d given me. I wasn’t feeling “uptight” as they later told me, just exposed. I didn’t feel safe.
Once out of the shelter I stand up and look about. It only occurs to me then that this is the first morning light I’ve seen for a very long time. I later discover that this hazy twilight is as bright as it ever gets here and everything remains misty and indistinct until it gets dark again. I remember thinking ‘Not out of the woods yet then’ but the mist seemed to suit everyone else. I looked around at our campsite, at the little burnt out fire in its pit, and the discarded bits of cloth, candles and small coloured bottles around the perimeter. I looked at the wilted ivy and flowers woven into the frame of the shelter, and discovered that the tiny luminous flowers were actually fairy lights strung together on a wire. Elsewhere the vegetation was bruised and broken and some of the flowers were artificial. I found cheap plastic butterflies and birds mixed in among the real plants. In short it all looked pretty tawdry in the thin light of day.
As it got warmer the others gradually began to move about. I was sitting at the fire, trying to prod it back into life, feeling, if anything, more depressed than I had been wandering around in the dark. There seemed to be some semi-sexual, semi-narcotic activity going on in the shelter across the way but I didn’t want to get involved. At one point another one of the men (squat, bearded, naked) brought me over one of the flowers and told me to try it out. I gave it a sniff and it made my head spin but I politely declined any more thanks. He didn’t seem especially put out and headed back to the shelter he’d just come from.
Later on a woman came over (I’d moved over to the stream by now and was watching some insects swarming on a rock) and squatted in front of me, not bothering to keep her legs together. She was short and pink and her breasts rested on her thighs as she leaned forward to look into my face. I tried not to look like I was encouraging her. ‘You’ve been seeking your reflection’ she said, swaying a little ‘and wondering who it is that looks back at you.’
I wanted to say ‘Nobody is looking back at me. It’s just a reflection, you moron’ but for some reason I didn’t want to upset these people. It wasn’t politeness. I was scared. I was scared and irritable and alone.
‘And yet the reflection is an illusion’ she went on. ‘You cannot step in the same river twice.’
I couldn’t resist it. How often had I heard that one? ‘Yes you can’ I said, as if talking to a particularly dense student. ‘It’s the same river, or stream in this case. It’s just the water that’s not the same.’
‘But the river is the water’ she said, as if it’s completely simple and obvious.
‘Erm, no’ I say ‘“River” is a more complex notion than just the water it contains, or that passes through it rather. A river is a place, for example.’
I know I’m being pedantic but I can’t resist it.
‘But the river is an illusion.’
‘What? I thought the reflection was the illusion’
‘Everything is an illusion’
‘So why focus especially on the river?’
And with that she gives me what I guess is supposed to be an enigmatic smile and backs away. Later on I discover that the scented milky quality that the water has is from people washing in the waterfall upstream.
It’s dark. Everyone else seems to have gone home (everyone except Ross who has settled into the hammock). I stand in the space between the kitchen and the lounge facing the front door, facing the night, unsure what to do. The cunnilingus frog as I’ve come to know it, calls intermittently outside. I assume it’s a frog. It might be a gecko. I hear a small sound behind me. I’ve not lit the lamps and it takes me a moment to work out that it’s Sonia standing there with some dishes she’s brought in. She goes over and puts them in the sink.
‘Are you ok?’ she says. I don’t know how to reply. I want to cry but I can’t. She comes around and looks up at me.
‘I feel really lost Sonia. I don’t know where I am.’
She nods and leads me over to the sofa. We perch on the arm. I look without focus at the door. I know she is watching me. I know she is worried and I’m touched but I can’t respond.
‘Come on’ she says. ‘Time for bed’ and I think for a moment that she means us, together, but then I know she obviously doesn’t mean that. It’s that other place – the so-called Nirvana, poisoning everything. She stands up, takes my hand and leads me over to the steps. I pull back a little.
‘Why not?’ she says but I don’t want to explain. It sounds ungrateful.
‘Wouldn’t it help if I stay with you tonight?’ she says.
I guess she sees the shock on my face because she laughs and says ‘Not for that. Not for sex.’
I relax visibly and now she pretends to be offended that I don’t want to have sex with her. ‘What about Miguel?’ I say, feebly.
‘Oh he’ll understand. Come.’ She leads me over to the ladder and follows me up. My legs are almost completely healed but still weak and aching and it’s a while before I can stand at the top. I still can’t bring myself to look at the bed. She squeezes past and collapses down on top of the thin cotton covers, still in her day clothes. I look around at her. She’s just lying there, looking about. Maybe it’ll be alright. I go around to the other side and lie tentatively down without looking at her. ‘Is this alright?’ she says ‘Which side do you normally...’
‘It’s fine’ I say, lying stiffly down, avoiding contact at any point along our lengths. I look at the fine workmanship in the roof. It’s actually rather beautiful – the way the laths have been interwoven and tessellated between the beams. After a while it becomes obvious that neither of us is ready to sleep.
‘You’ve been very hard to talk to you know’ she says at last. I say nothing. ‘We can’t understand what you want. We’ve been trying to help but...’
‘And you have – you and Miguel and Ross and the others. I’m really grateful.’
She shakes her head impatiently. ‘It’s not about gratitude. Actually what we want is for you to start getting yourself together and pulling your weight around here.’
It takes me a while to realise she’s only half joking.
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean get out of the house, be a part of things. Get your hands dirty. There’s so much to do.’ She turns on her side and leans her head on her hand, looking intently at me. ‘You’ll feel better for it too. Look, we know you’re not completely mended yet. That will come, but you need to get about more. Are you coming into town tomorrow?’
‘I’ll think about it’
‘Not think about it. Yes or no?’
‘Good. Everybody wants to meet you. You’d better not let us down. Now we should get some sleep’ and with that she reaches down and pulls a bed spread over us, turns over and apparently falls fast asleep, just like that. I don’t. I lie there awake. I have this image of the whole town clamouring to get hand-fulls of me as I make my entrance tomorrow. Bloody hell.
As I lie there my mind drifts, as it usually does, back to “Nirvana”. I have the clearest image now (Sonia’s proximity must have effected me at some level) of standing naked under the waterfall and two naked girls coming over to wash me, rubbing small cakes of soap over my tired battered body and giggling, lingering, passing comment in some chuckling sub-language of their own. Only when they actually touched my erection did I ask them to please leave me alone and I rinsed myself off and went somewhere private to dry. They’d looked about thirteen and I felt dirtier than ever. One of “the guys” then came over with a small boy and stood there grinning knowingly at me while the boy lathered him up. I looked down at the litter of soap wrappers on the ground. They all had ‘Beacons Motel’ printed on them.
‘Hey man’ he said, ‘Don’t look so lost. It’s early days yet. It takes a little getting used to but these guys’ll do anything for you - you ask nicely.’
‘I don’t think I...’ I said feebly and sloped off, still not wanting to cause trouble.
Later on, near the fire, two or three of them are discussing my ‘problem’ or rather, are musing in a vague way about how good life is here and how no one in their right mind would ever want to be anywhere else, or do anything else. The children hang around eyeing us apprehensively, apparently waiting for something. I stare into the embers and draw a tie-dyed sarong around my shoulders.
‘Man, if you can’t dig this you are truly a dead man’ says the first man and he passes me a long tubular white flower, shaped like the trumpet from an old gramophone. The other’s noses are still running from their last blast and they sit there sniffing and giggling to themselves. A woman sits down close to me – too close, chewing some leaves she’s found. Chewing and sniffing the undergrowth seems to be the main recreation around here – that and talking crap. I’d overheard them earlier discussing the guy with the pony-tail I’d met at the beginning. They said he’s always got six or seven of them servicing him at any one time. I assume they mean six or seven of our little hospitality workers. Apart from anything I’m getting sick of the fact that everyone seems to talk about exactly the same things every day as if they’re the most new and amusing things ever. I suppose there isn’t much new to discuss here, that or they have very short memories. I want to ask about the guy with the ponytail but realise of course I don’t know his name, or anyone’s names for that matter. I ask about it.
‘Names are like flags’ says one of them.
‘Or shields’ says another.
‘Names are irrelevant. They’re like prisons.’
‘My name is Heartbeat’ whispers the woman to me.
‘No it isn’t. It’s Astrophysics’ jeers one of the others and they all laugh. The woman looks ashamed and goes back to her bowed position, concentrating on her leaves.
After they’ve all calmed down the guy who kissed me says ‘You have to try to speak without words man, without symbols’
‘Without meaning?’ I suggest.
‘Exactly’ he says, evidently thinking I’ve said something very profound indeed when actually I was just being sarcastic.
‘You mean be silent’ I say, playing along.
‘Absolutely not. Quite the reverse’ he says and someone across the way farts luxuriantly. Everybody grins beatifically. The kiss guy raises his eyebrows to me as if to say ‘Now do you get it?’
‘I have no idea what any of this means’ I say.
‘Exactly’ he says again, as if I’ve finally understood everything. They all go into some sort of meditative trance and all the while the children move about, touching here, conferring there. I note they tend to avoid me, but Heartbeat, or Astrophysics or Brainsplatter or whatever her name is beside me seems to think she’s in with a chance and slides imperceptibly closer. I feel like screaming and running away.
I look over at Sonia beside me, now lying on her back and snoring quietly and feel a huge relief.
The trouble is, now I’m not sure I’ll ever want to sleep alone up here again.