It was probably the meditation. I was five days in and everything seemed slower and more vivid, both more and less real. I lay in a field, grass bleached to straw under the late August sun. On the hill opposite, fire flicked through an acre of stubble, moving across in a ragged line. It was like watching something ancient, and I gazed, mesmerised. Had I known it the practice would be banned within a year. But at that moment, to my eyes, it seemed beyond the laws of time.
I saw Helen following the worn grass path towards me, her figure slightly blurred in the heat haze. She had taken to seeking me out after the second day, when she’d come into my room to clean, without realising I was there. We’d found ourselves talking for the best part of an hour, how she’d travelled to England to find something, how the lama had cured her epilepsy.
‘He just said you don’t need that,’ she told me, shaking her head at the wonder of it.
Now she drew near and sat beside me, and we both looked on in silence at the burning hillside. She pulled up her dress to feel the sun on her legs, and without thinking I put my hand on her foot, as if we’d known each other all our lives. She waggled her toes and, realising what I’d done, I took my hand away. Saying nothing, she reached across and put it back. It was, perhaps, the gentlest moment I’d ever experienced. We sat there till the fire burned itself out.
Ashingdean was one of those villages that seem to have no buildings. I’d turned off the M11 at Saffron Walden, then struggled across a succession of hills in my patched-up Ford Escort. Eventually I saw a postman pressing hard into the pedals of his bike, and drew up alongside at the moment he conceded defeat and dismounted.
‘Looking for Gotama Lodge?’ He’d bent down to window level and was peering in.
‘Please,’ I said. Perhaps something about my appearance prompted the assumption.
‘Go straight on up the hill, then left once you’re over the top. It’s a path, not a road. There’s a sign, but you might not see it at this time of year.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, as he nodded and straightened up stiffly. Glancing in the rear-view mirror I saw him raise his hand in salute as I pulled away.
The path, when I reached it, was indeed not a road, more a tree-lined clearing just wide enough to turn into. Twenty yards along it opened into a gravel forecourt, and I found myself in front of Gotama Lodge, probably once a farmhouse, but with an annexe grafted on whose deep eaves and curving roof suggested a stab at something more Tibetan.
‘We meditate at seven, eleven, three, and six-thirty.’ Kallie, the secretary, had a slight South African accent. ‘Meals are at eight, twelve, and five-fifteen. Apart from that your time’s your own.’
‘You know I’m not a Buddhist, don’t you?’ I thought it best to be clear. ‘I’ve done some meditation though.’
She smiled. There was a briskness about her that appealed to me.
‘All sorts of people come here. As long as you keep to house rules that’s fine.’
‘Could you remind me what they are?’ There’d been no mention of house rules when I booked.
‘No alcohol, no stimulants, no cigarettes, no drugs other than prescribed medication. No phones, no radios, a respectful attitude to everyone, including animals, and mandatory attendance at meditation except for those in full retreat.’
As she said this I felt something loosen: follow the timetable, commit to let a few things go, and all I had to do was be there. She spent several minutes showing me round, then led me upstairs to a small, single room at the rear of the house.
‘This is yours for the next ten days,’ she said, before closing the door to leave me.
I put my bag down and sat on the narrow metal-framed bed that bisected the room. Plain white walls, a wooden pegboard with some hangers, and a sweeping view through the sash window: this was the place I’d come to, uncomplicated and beguilingly soporific. I lay back on the bed and, without intending to, fell asleep, waking just in time to wash my face and make my way downstairs for the three o’clock meditation.
In the hallway I joined a straggle of eight or nine people walking quietly towards the prayer room. When we reached it, the atmosphere inside was stuffy but palpably still, as though the room itself emitted silence. Flecks of dust floated through the afternoon sunlight in front of tall French windows, beyond which lay acres of arable fields. Purple, red and yellow stripes ran horizontally at dado height around the room, arching above a dais containing a shrine of flowers and Buddhist statuary.
As a newcomer, and presumably the only non-Buddhist, I watched and copied. We sat on the floor in a semicircle before the shrine, some using cushions. Despite the warmth of the day, three of the group draped thick blankets across their shoulders, as if shielding themselves from Tibetan snow. Before closing my eyes, I looked round and saw a small young woman with clear, plump skin and straight brown hair. There was a simplicity about the way she sat waiting. This, I later discovered, was Helen.
Once we were settled, Kallie struck a singing bowl with a small hardwood baton, and everyone began to chant. A low growl, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum,’ was gradually augmented by eerie floating harmonics, like voices from other realms, then after several minutes both sounds tapered into silence.
Being here, in this company, lent permission I would have struggled to give myself. I observed the flow of my breath as it quietened, and gradually the act of breathing became a conscious pleasure. With no sound or duty to intrude, time began to feel spacious. All the city-life detritus my body had made its own started to fall away. As minutes passed the silence deepened, like a shared thing. A thought floated into my mind that we were each contributing a private silence to that moment, and place.
Eventually the chime of the singing bowl sounded again, and, opening our eyes, we began to stretch and bring life back to our folded legs, before rising to file out of the room.
I was still emerging as we sat down to tea, set out on a broad oak table in what was probably the living room of the original farmhouse. Before us were two loaves of bread, freshly baked that morning, cheddar and goat’s cheese, a bowl of fruit and several types of home-made jam. I was soon to realise that every meal followed an identical format. There were also two huge pots of infusions made with herbs from the garden. I was already experiencing caffeine withdrawal, and Kallie caught my expression when I took my first sip.
‘Think of it as homeopathy,’ she said.
As we sat together eating and chatting I learned a little more about the place I’d come to, pretty much on a whim. Each of the four permanent residents had a role – cook, secretary, gardener, cleaner – bestowed by the lama for reasons unspecified, perhaps to teach them something he thought they needed to learn. Apparently I’d arrived during a quiet period, and I was one of only three people staying for the daily practice, though another four were in full retreat and various locals came up from the village to take part in one way or another.
‘Most people need a few days to acclimatise,’ John, the gardener, said. He spoke very quietly, and I noticed a particular kindliness about him. A few days later, as we bent side by side weeding, he told me he’d once been convicted of armed robbery.
‘Near the end of my spell they let me come here on day release.’ His voice was almost a murmur.
‘And you just stayed?’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’
I nodded. I could understand how easy that decision would have seemed, even though I knew I’d never be able to make one like it.
‘Take your pulse,’ Kallie said. She remained seated next to me after one of the evening meditations.
I put two fingers to my wrist and was surprised by the even, leisurely beat.
‘Fifty-three,’ I said.
She grinned. ‘Your breathing will be slower too. Now the trick is to remember how this feels when you leave.’
‘I don’t want to think about that yet,’ I said.
I really didn’t. The rhythms of Gotama Lodge were seeping into me. I read in the morning or helped in the kitchen or garden. In the afternoon I walked the empty sun-scorched lanes, or wandered sleepily in the fields.
A day after Helen had come into my room, a jam jar full of wild flowers appeared on my windowsill, the stems spread artlessly, as in a child’s drawing. I thought of what she’d told me, how she’d travelled through Europe from Australia, looking for something she could recognise as truth.
‘My path is about sight,’ she’d said as she stood up to leave. ‘Seeing things clearly, no illusions.’
‘Must admit I’m partial to a little mystery.’ I smiled at her, but she looked back at me seriously.
‘This place dissolves mystery,’ she said. ‘Mystery is just a cloud in the way of the sun.’
It seemed strange to hear her say that. What was the fact of her healing if not a mystery?
‘This is Gerald,’ Kallie said, at breakfast on the fourth day of my stay. ‘He’ll be with us today and tomorrow.’
Gerald acknowledged us with his eyes, but didn’t seem to feel the need to interact. His beard was short, sparse and very black, sprouting incongruously from the chalky skin beneath. With his blue velvet jacket and his thinning hair pulled tight with a rubber band, he struck me as one of those people who want attention so they can take pleasure in deflecting it. I disliked him immediately.
I wouldn’t have given him any more thought, except that an hour or so later, while I was helping John in the garden, I overheard a voice, new to me, from around the front of the house.
‘No-one can heal anyone else. All that happens is that karma is diverted temporarily. Your consequences are yours alone.’ I realised the speaker must be Gerald. I knew all the other voices, and anyway, I felt sure that no-one else I’d met would have said something like that.
‘But he did heal me.’ Now it was Helen speaking. She sounded insistent, even angry, and then the conversation seemed to end.
John paused for a moment, and I could tell he’d heard it too. In a short time we’d developed a companionable silence. I’d estimated he was at least sixty, and I could see his back hurt as he bent to pick out weeds, but he never mentioned it.
‘Helen’s a very true girl,’ he said, after a while. ‘She was in all sorts of trouble when she came here, but she’s found herself, and now look at her.’
He glanced at me and smiled. Not much gets past you, I thought.
I was glad when Gerald wasn’t present at the eleven o’clock meditation, and I wondered if he’d entered silent retreat in one of the cells in the extension. Kallie hadn’t said anything about that. Helen sat with eyes cast downwards. When I first saw her I was struck by how smooth and childlike her face was, but now I noticed a vertical crease in her brow. There was a particular stillness at this time of day, and during meditation I became very aware of her presence, and that I wanted everything to be well with her. Specifically I hoped that whatever she needed to believe could remain intact.
‘Gerald is not with us anymore.’ Kallie had waited until we’d settled for lunch before making the announcement.
No-one asked why, but I remembered the house rules.
‘Fuck him,’ Helen said, half an hour later. We were alone together in the kitchen. She was washing up and I was drying. ‘We get people like that every now and again. They think they’re some sort of guru.’
I’d mentioned that I’d overheard her conversation – somehow it felt important to be straight with her.
‘Is the lama a guru?’ It was probably a risky thing to ask under the circumstances, but I genuinely wondered.
‘He wouldn’t call himself that.’ I noticed the quality of attention she was giving to cleaning and rinsing the plates and cutlery. John was the same when he was gardening.
‘But the people here do what he says?’
‘He’s very liberal and he likes us to learn from within, but when he says something we listen. Wouldn’t you take guidance if you knew that only good would come from it?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve never been in that position.’
Helen rinsed the last plate.
‘I’ll show you some photos,’ she said.
A few minutes later we sat on a bench in front of the retreat wing, the deep eaves shielding us from the sun. She passed me a colour print, and out of it looked a Tibetan man of indeterminate age, narrow shoulders sloping away from a face shaped around the most unequivocal smile I’d ever come across.
‘There’s a feel-good factor, for sure,’ I noticed she’d held the picture by the very tips of her fingers, and I did the same.
She bent close to me and we stared at the picture together. I glanced at her and again noticed the simplicity of her expression as she looked at the picture, which looked pretty much like love.
‘His name’s Chime.’ She pronounced it “Chimee”. ‘He’s chosen to stay here to help us.’
‘Do you mean at Gotama Lodge?’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen him. Does he live in the retreat wing?’
Helen laughed. ‘No – I meant he’s chosen to stay in this realm. He’s a Bodhisattva, he doesn’t need to be in a physical body. He splits his time between us and other places. He’s in Germany at the moment.’
‘Will I get to meet him?’
‘Not in person. He isn’t due back for another month. You’ll feel his presence though. He leaves a lot of himself wherever he goes.’
I don’t know if it was Chime’s presence, but I was certainly feeling something. Perhaps it was acceptance. Or perhaps, as Helen sat close, passing photos, it was something else.
‘Kallie told me he hardly ever spoke or looked at anyone for the first few months he was here.’ It was a couple of days later, after we had watched the burning field, and Helen was talking about John.
‘He’s still quiet,’ I said. ‘But now he seems very at ease with himself.’
‘He’s a rock.’ She nodded in affirmation. ‘He’s always the same. Chime thinks the world of him.’
‘Do you think he’ll always be here?’ I was thinking that I myself would be leaving in less than four days.
‘I can’t imagine him anywhere else – he’s given his heart to this place.’
And what about you? I wanted to ask. But I didn’t.
I wasn’t alone in my reticence. No-one questioned me about my life away from there, although their forbearance felt more like respect, even tenderness, than absence of curiosity. I had begun to wonder if it was their way of allowing me the space I needed to catch up with myself. Certainly I was becoming very aware of my breath, and heart: the way one would follow the other, like children taking turns to lead a game. If I chose to breathe slowly, my heart quietened too, until both seemed full of silence, a silence that allowed things to settle, and to be whatever they happened to be.
When the moment came to take a final walk, on my last afternoon before travelling back to London, I heard footsteps slapping behind me in the lane. I turned. It was Helen in her flip-flops, trying to run. She was wearing a loose cotton dress, sleeveless, blue-checked and faded. I stood and waited for her.
‘Can we find somewhere?’ she said, when she reached me.
I looked around. The lanes and fields to either side were empty.
‘There’ll be shade in the copse over there,’ I said.
She nodded. We walked together up the lane, her bare arm brushing mine. When we turned right along a path of flattened grass she slipped off her sandals and walked barefoot. The air was scorching and lightly scented. As we reached a thick cluster of beech trees, their branches almost overlapping, she turned and pressed herself against me and we kissed in the flickering green light. Her mouth was very wet, and hot, and I stroked her hair, feeling the warmth of her scalp beneath. She began to sway slightly, moving her breasts against my chest, and I could feel the heat of our bodies merging. Holding her, being with her in that moment, was like having everything I’d sensed made tangible, in a fragment of time containing nothing but the present. Then, as if from another world, I heard the sound of a church bell echoing across the fields. It made me think of the singing bowl, and I pulled back for a moment.
‘Is this okay?’
‘Of course it’s okay.’ She lifted her face towards me again.
She just shook her head and began to unbutton my shirt. The carefulness of her fingers, and the way her eyes focussed on each button, made it feel like she was opening my heart. Between kisses I lifted away her dress, and beneath it her skin was flawless and pale. We crouched, still holding each other, then tumbled back onto the pallid grass, and as soon as I began to touch her, her breathing became fast and shallow.
‘Just come inside me, don’t wait.’ She was pressing her hands on the small of my back, moving herself against me.
I don’t know which of us came first, it seemed to happen so quickly. She lay with her eyes closed, and when our breath had quietened I lifted myself away and stretched out by her side.
‘How did that happen?’ I said, after a while. I was staring at the dancing sunlight, refracted by the swaying leaves above.
‘It was always going to happen.’
For a moment I saw those words printed in floating colours in the air above me, and then the leaves beyond suddenly took on a kaleidoscopic pattern, twisting and merging into a point of vortex. At the same time a deep, insistent buzzing came from somewhere above the nape of my neck. I thought I was going to pass out, then just as suddenly it cleared.
‘We’d better get back. It must be time for meditation.’
I heard Helen’s voice. She’d raised herself on one elbow, and didn’t seem aware that something had happened to me. I wondered if I’d momentarily fallen asleep and dreamt the experience.
We got up, and I brushed a couple of fronds from her back before she pulled on her dress. I realised belatedly it was the only thing she’d been wearing. I fumbled my clothes on, and we walked back along the grass path then down the lane, a foot of space between us. I was feeling the particular isolation that can follow sex at its most melting. I wondered if she felt the same.
‘You go in first,’ I said, when we neared Gotama Lodge. ‘I’ll just wait a moment.’
She glanced at me, frowning slightly, then went on.
I was left hoping I hadn’t offended her. I had only meant to protect her privacy, in case that was what she wanted. By now I was very conscious that I was the one who would be leaving tomorrow.
We sat in our normal places during my last two meditations, that afternoon and evening. Kallie had suggested I forgo the session the following morning prior to my long drive.
‘Somebody went into a ditch once,’ she said, ‘still spaced out. We don’t want that happening to you.’
I saw Helen at tea, but she seemed distant, and somehow there was no further opportunity to speak. I went to bed that night wondering what would be the best way to leave things. I fell asleep still wondering.
In the morning I showered at the time the others would be meditating, then sat quietly in my room for a while, thinking back over my stay. It surprised me to realise I could feel peace in every part of my body, and the words Chime had said to Helen entered my mind: You don’t need that. Perhaps, I thought, peace is simply the absence of things you don’t need.
Once I’d stripped the sheets from my bed and left them folded on the mattress, I looked round for a final time. The flowers in the jar on the windowsill were in the last phase of wilting. I hoisted the strap of my bag onto my shoulder and, leaving the door open behind me, went downstairs.
When I reached the breakfast table only five people were seated there. They looked subdued, and I realised Kallie and Helen weren’t amongst them. John was, and before I could sit down he rose and beckoned me to follow him into the garden. He stopped by the vegetable patch where we’d worked together, and where at that time we wouldn’t be overheard.
‘Helen’s been taken ill,’ he said, he stood at a slight angle, not facing me directly, and for a moment there was silence between us.
‘Has she had a fit?’ I had no sense of formulating the thought, I just found myself saying it.
‘It looks like it.’ His voice was quiet and as level as usual. ‘She was doing night duty in the retreat wing, and one of the people there heard noises. When they went into her room they found her thrashing around. They came out and got Kallie, and she knew what to do. She settled her, then took her to hospital.’
‘Do you know anything else?’ I asked eventually.
‘The doctor told Kallie she’s okay, but she’s bitten her tongue badly, that’s all at the moment.’
We were silent again. I thought of the brief, strange experience I’d had after we’d made love. I thought again of Helen’s confidence in the fact of her healing. I thought of her pale skin beneath the sheets of a hospital bed, and the confusion she must be experiencing. Then I realised John was looking at me, and that he’d probably brought me outside because he realised more than he felt the need to say.
‘I’ve got to go back now,’ I said. ‘I start work again tonight.’
He nodded. ‘She’ll be alright here.’
I had a disconcerting sense he understood how I was feeling better than I did. He was uncluttered, like the place itself. My bag was still on my shoulder. There was nothing more I could think to add.
I offered him my hand and he met my eyes as he took it. I couldn’t quite read his expression.
‘I don’t need breakfast, I’ll just go now.’
He watched me get in my car. I settled my bag in the passenger seat, started the engine after a couple of attempts, and pulled away. When I reached the beginning of the tree-lined path I glanced back, and he was still standing there. I turned right into the road, and as I gained speed from the slope of the hill, saw the postman heaving up towards me on his bike. Just before we passed he lifted his hand in the slow gesture of acknowledgement I recognised from our first encounter, and I was left with the image of his salute, lingering like vapour in the morning air.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story ‘Breath’, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published in Cōnfingō, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story ‘The Violet Eye’ is available from Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. His website: https://www.polyscribe.co.uk. His Twitter: @polyscribe2.