I’m awoken by someone mowing, or at least that’s what it sounds like. Sonia is not beside me, which panics me momentarily, but then I detect the tiny sounds of careful activity in the kitchen below. I guess she’s making coffee but all I can smell is cut grass spiced ever so slightly with a hint of fuel ethanol. I know that smell from somewhen way back. I used to do that too – cut grass. I wonder what’s happening. I don’t think I own a lawn, do I?
Sonia tells me they’re working in the orchard behind my place. I’d assumed it was a woodland but no, apparently not. My place backs onto one of the town’s fruit farms. I’m still slightly shaky so she carries the coffee things up onto the patio. Ross’s hammock is empty. ‘He’s made an early start’ she says, putting the tray down on the table. I see her glance apprehensively at me, as if she wants to ask something but thinks maybe later. I pull up a chair and look around. It’s still very early and pleasantly cool. Even so, the scent of crushed grass is powerful and the noise makes conversation difficult. Whoever is mowing must be just the other side of the wall. She’s looking at me funny again.
‘What is it?’ I say, taking a sip. She doesn’t answer immediately. She’s thinking about it.
‘You were talking in your sleep’ she says at last. ‘You kept me awake half the night with it.’
‘Oh’ I say. I feel I should ask what I said but I’m not sure I want to know.
‘That place you talked about. Were there children there?’
I feel horribly awkward answering, although I tell myself I have nothing to be ashamed of.
‘I’m not sure’ I say eventually, which is the truth, sort of. ‘They said they weren’t really children. They just looked...young. Why? What did I say about them?’
The expression on her face tells me it’s not good. I know there are no dreams as such here, just memories that come in the night. She looks into my face, then suddenly away. ‘Did you ever... take part, you know, join in?’ she says.
‘I don’t think so’ I say. ‘No. I’m sure I didn’t.’
But the truth is I don’t really remember. I’ve forced myself back there from time to time, briefly, in my memory but I can hardly bear it.
I can still see that clearing – the group around the fire place, sitting about, tapping irregularly on some drums, or kneading clumsily at each other’s shoulders or doodling in henna on each other’s hands. Not one of them shows any real talent whatsoever. I watch bemused as yet another monotonous drumming session falls apart as soon as someone tries to make a more interesting rhythm.
And then toward dusk the children began to gather and to associate themselves with one or other of our little community. I wondered where they all came from. Perhaps they were the spirits of lost street children, trafficked here from Bangkok or Rio. I wondered if they were lost souls, or perhaps old souls. I never saw the same faces from one night to the next. I sat for much of the second night next to a girl in awkward silence and then crept away to sleep. She followed me but I politely put her off. I wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved. It seemed that in some way they wanted to be with us – for the warmth perhaps, or the comfort. Perhaps the things that were done to them seemed like a fair price. I have no idea.
The next day some of the guys chided me about my lack of performance and reassured me that I should ‘Get in there. They love it.’ I tried to smile politely but they knew, and their suspicions increased nightly.
One man, the one I came to refer to as the Apple Man because of the shape of his body, which he never even attempted to cover up, tried to reason with me.
‘If you don’t, somebody else will, somebody less... considerate’ he said. I sat there trying to sort out a coherent response. As time went on it became increasingly difficult to arrange ideas in any real order at all – something in the air...
‘But if nobody does it’ I began weakly, knowing already that this argument wasn’t going to work. Heartbeat sat nearby. She was rocking slightly and talking to herself as she chewed. ‘Calmer, not calmer, you’re calmer...’ she mumbled, as if trying to convince herself that it would all be alright. ‘Not calmer, am I calmer, not you’re calmer...’ I didn’t realise until later she was actually saying karma – ‘My karma, not my karma, not your karma...’ as if trying to work out how we’d come to be in this situation.
‘Don’t worry yourself about them’ continued the Apple. ‘Relax. It’s never going to change. It’s the way it is. You’re weak. We all are. It’s what everybody wants, deep down and it’s up for grabs here. Go with it. Let yourself go. They don’t know any different anyway – look at them.’ I do look and they all look vacant and aimless and yet somehow knowing. He offers me a handful of crushed red petals. I bury my face in them and breathe deep as he suggests, and fall backwards. It occurs to me as I lose consciousness that if I can just stay comatose all the time I might not have to...
Falteringly, and with much prompting I tell Sonia some of this but I can’t tell what she’s thinking.
One of the women, whom I called Mango, took me further up the creek to what they called the tree of life. It was just up around a bend – a huge baobab like thing – big swollen trunk and leaves of many colours. When we got there the woman dropped her gown and pressed herself against the trunk and hummed at it. I looked up and saw that the branches were in fact leafless but festooned with all sorts of bits of cloth and strings with beads and other bits of plastic tied on. ‘Listen’ she said, ‘It’s breathing.’ I went up to it and touched the trunk. The bark was dry and loose and the wood underneath was also lifeless – spongy and dry and riddled with worm. Parts of it look like they might be held together with fibreglass, or a resin of some sort.
‘The bark has extraordinary properties’ she said dreamily and peeled a piece off to chew on. I didn’t know if I should tell her I thought the tree might be dead. I wasn’t sure in fact if it had ever been alive. I settled for asking her why it had no leaves, only rags and she told me it was not spring yet. I looked around at all the flowers and butterflies and chose not to say anything about it. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t take my clothes off and rub myself against it or chew the bark and she grumbled about it all the way back to the camp.
‘Did you find out what all the screaming was about?’ says Ross.
I have my back to the house so I don’t see him arrive and his voice makes me jump. I feel terribly on edge.
‘Screaming?’ I say.
Sonia looks at me slightly guiltily. Evidently she hadn’t got to that part.
‘Ever since you arrived. Every night. You didn’t know?’
‘Something about the lizard men – am I right?’
I feel faint and can’t say anything at all. I shake my head. It’s coming back to me, just all rolling in. I feel myself getting swamped by it and have the sensation of dropping into a cess pit and drowning even as I sit there in the sun looking at them looking at me. At least they look worried. I couldn’t stand it if they looked disgusted or scared. I have images of some very dark places – before I found the Nirvana place – some sort of devastated city or industrial complex. It was always night but always lit by fires and always there was the sound of gunfire and yelling, and everywhere was littered with bodies – bodies in terrible states of injury and yet still alive. I can still smell them. It was just horrible, all of it. How did I end up there?
At length Ross gets himself up off the ground and says to Sonia ‘Well, we’d better get going’ and she immediately starts busying herself with the tray and it suddenly hits me that these people could well decide they don’t want me around any more and decide to throw me out, back into the dark and the thought of that is so terrible I almost break down begging and pleading with them right then and there. Instead I get awkwardly up to my feet and touch Sonia’s sleeve as she is about to go down the steps. Ross is already at the door. She turns and looks into my face, still inscrutable and I say ‘Sonia, please. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. But I was just so scared...’
She puts the tray down on the ground and calls to Ross that she’ll be along in a while. She leads me back to the table, all patience and understanding. We sit down. I’m waiting for the worst to happen – for her to break the news to me. But instead she just says ‘I know’ and takes my hand.
After a little while, waiting for me to calm myself and go back to breathing normally she says ‘Come into town with us’ and I really don’t want to but I don’t really see how I can refuse.
Back at the house now, alone in the bed I feel this odd bubbling sensation just under my diaphragm that makes me want to giggle. It takes me a moment to realise this is not some kind of gastric problem but happiness. It’s been a really good day. Sonia’s friends seem to be very nice but the main thing was the town itself. At one point, after I’d finished the little crab meat things I had for my starter, while I was toying with my wine glass, I looked about me, the conversation carrying on among the others, oblivious and I watched a small mauve pigeon take off from the flagstones with a strand of straw in its beak. It turned and rose up over the gold and purple awning at the front of the café, past the big glossy leaves of the fig tree that hung out over the crumbling honey coloured stucco wall, up into the sharp hot air, to flutter up to join the others among the hazy columns and sills of the bell tower beyond. In the cobalt sky a wisp of cloud hung motionless and as I sat there my hearing passed from the animated conversation at our table to the murmur of the people strolling about, accompanied by a van or scooter, to the calls of the market vendors and their animals, to dislocated snatches of guitar and trumpet and then back to the gurgle of the pigeons. The place smells of jasmine, wine, garlic and something else, something I remember from somewhere in the past – something rich and sexy...
I suddenly realise they’ve been trying to get my attention.
‘Sorry?’ I say. They’re all looking at me, smiling politely, Miguel, Ross, Cleome – the girl from the other day, Leo, Mo, Phoebe, and some others who’s names escape me (although I was only introduced to them all about a quarter of an hour ago). Two guys at the adjoining table go back to what they were talking about.
‘Leo wanted to know what you do, for a living’ says Ross. ‘I told him we thought you were a gardener. Leo works with the fruit trees.’
‘Ah’ I say, ‘it wasn’t you with the mower at stupid o’clock this morning was it?’ He looks confused and I’m afraid I might have offended him. ‘I’m not really a morning person’ I say, lamely. I feel like I should apologise.
‘Leo’s trees are over the other side of the valley.’
‘But if you like mowing...’ says Leo, grinning broadly. I smile and make vague demurring, modest noises, not wanting to cause any further upset. Actually I’d like something physical to do but it took us nearly twice the time we expected just to get here with Sonia having to support me a lot of the way and take a lot of breaks. Eventually Ross came back to find out where we’d got to and he helped me along the rest of the way. I guess it was only about a mile in all, so that’s embarrassing.
‘I’m a painter actually’ I say, surprising myself. I don’t know where the information came from, but suddenly there it is.
‘You never told me’ says Sonia. She looks upset, like I’ve been deceiving her.
‘It just came to me’ I say, shrugging. She’s sort of possessive.
‘What sort of painting?’ says Phoebe, ‘because we really need our hall ceiling done, don’t we.’ She looks at the chap beside her and grips his hand. Simon I think his name is.
‘Um... ok’ I say vaguely, not wanting to put her off as well as Leo.
‘Do you mean portraits and things?’ says Sonia
‘Portraits, landscapes, life studies...’
‘Murals?’ says Mo.
‘Er... possibly. I think so...’ I say, wondering what I’m letting myself in for. They all look knowingly at each other, like they’ve suddenly realised something important. It transpires that there’s need for something for the entrance to the main hall of the sanctuary.
‘Something lush, big, colourful.’
‘Not too colourful.’
‘Something with flowers.’
‘Maybe some trees.’
‘You and your trees...’
‘You should talk to the warden. We’ll introduce you.’
I feel a little overwhelmed. Sonia notices and puts her hand on mine reassuringly. I look at Miguel and see him look at it, then at me, then away. I think I’m going to upset everyone today.
‘What do you normally paint?’ says Cleome. ‘I mean, on canvas or paper, water colours?’
‘Normally oils, or acrylics. I don’t mind really. It depends on the subject’
‘Could you paint me perhaps?’ says Sonia and I feel Miguel’s uneasy gaze on me again. I say maybe. I hope she doesn’t mean nude.
The conversation moves on, about another painter they know and a painting of hers that hangs in the sanctuary. I drift in and out again until the conversation comes to an abrupt halt for the arrival of the fish course.
On the way home we get a lift on a small mule cart. It’s been a long day and none of us can be bothered to walk. After a fabulous dessert and some more sitting around over coffee we had a look around the market stalls to see what was on offer. Sonia pointed out a set of elegantly designed hand-blown glasses, a neat little leather wallet, some almond and honey cakes and a tray of tree seedlings, grown from seed collected locally in the forest. Anything like this back in life would have been unaffordable but ‘no’ she said ‘we can buy them, if you like.’ No ‘executives’ here to drive prices up apparently. I shrugged. I couldn’t really imagine wanting anything much but even in my addled state I could tell it was all beautifully done. I smiled and nodded at the stallholders and they smiled back, happy apparently just to have their wares admired. After that we went to another place, a bar-cum-coffee shop in a basement up one of the side streets – a low, cool, shady cellar with broad leather seats. We spent the late afternoon drinking coffee and brandy, watching a couple of guys practising on mandolin and tablas, and playing with a tame lemur-like animal with a taste for salted cashews.
I have so many questions but it can wait. The cart bumps heavily along the way we came, a broad rutted track (virtually a river in the rainy season I’m told) past fields of fruit trees and beehives, sheep and sunflowers. The sun is now low in the sky and the hills glow like coals. I look up into the palms that line the road and see hornbills battling over the fruit. A ghostly moon emerges from behind what I’m told is a tamarind tree – a huge thing, towering over everything. It occurs to me I’ve not seen the moon for a long time, nor a sunset for that matter. Crickets tune up for the evening concert.
‘Do you want to go and see those guys at the weekend?’ says Ross vaguely from his position with his back to the driver.
‘Huh?’ I say.
‘The musicians we saw rehearsing. They’re part of a band. There’s a marimba and a clarinet. It’s very cool.’
I feel I want to ask about money. I know someone else paid for the food and drinks today. I say ‘That’d be good’ in a vague way and hope I get the chance to ask Sonia about all this at some point. I don’t even know what day it is, let alone when the weekend is.
Back at the house Ross heads off, leaving Sonia to help me get settled for the night. My legs are aching and shaking badly after the day’s exertions and I suggest it might be better to stay on the sofa. I don’t want to share the bed with her again. She won’t hear of it however and helps me up the ladder and onto the bed. She’s changed the sheets. Then she kneels down and takes my sandals off, inspecting my previously ruined toes as she does so and then lifts my legs around. I look up at her, now silhouetted against the ceiling. I can’t see her expression.
‘We should visit the beach tomorrow’ she says before turning the lamp out and going downstairs. I hear the door open and close and although I miss her I’m happy to be alone. I lie there grinning, looking at the ceiling, thinking about everything, not believing my luck, ignoring my fears.