(A story, for a change, while I am preparing my next blog…)
Simon’s architectural work was killing him. He ate too little, drowned in a stream of office coffee, and slept and dreamed and woke in a turmoil of incomplete projects.
Unfortunately for his wife, she still shared their bed.
‘For God’s sake, can’t you lie awake quietly?’ This, followed by her speech about how impossible it was to get back to sleep, before seguing instantly into rhythmical breathing.
‘Must do something,’ he said one Monday morning, pushing aside a bowl of remedial muesli. His wife silently chewed on her own spoonfuls of bowel-grist.
‘Caroline. I saw this in the paper.’ He slewed it round to let her read it. She didn’t, but nor did she not listen, as he read: For peace of mind and body. Hatha yoga… experienced teacher… village hall, Thursdays, 7.30. How about we give it a go?’ She munched on, resolutely.
Simon was reminded of how attractive his wife was as she approached the door of the village hall. She had a new tracksuit for the occasion, shaped but not too shaped, comfortable and subtly coloured, various blues with a hint of lilac. She hadn’t wanted to stand out, but she need not have worried. In the front row of five mats, a bright red figure that they recognized even from the back was teasing her tobacco-coloured hair. Next to her, a younger woman in lemon manipulated her ankles. Caroline chose the row farthest from the front and sat, sniffing the floor’s wax polish.
‘Is this all there are?’ she whispered, indicating the single minute before the seven-thirty mark.
‘Looks like it,’ said Simon, just as a sizeable group of local women, the stalwarts of every village event, pattered respectfully in. A faint cough sounded from behind the kitchen
shutters. The women quietened. A small man appeared, straggle-haired, glasses, tracksuit bottoms, scruffy jumper. He seemed abstracted, and Simon scrutinized him for signs of spiritual depth. He smiled, welcomed everyone, conjured up a meditation cushion and sat, cross-legged. Not quite the lotus posture, though. Could this teacher be pukka?
‘Let us simply sit for a moment,’ he said, in measured rhythm. ‘Let us be still, and discard the noise of the outside world. Let us attend to the restlessness within ourselves, aware that all our distractions, sorrows, anger, yearning, gossip, our thoughtless thinking, are exactly what we are. They are us.
‘Let them appear, don’t push them away. Let them drift out again, without holding on.
‘When they lie in the spotlight of our attentiveness, they are the food that will nourish us. How so? Because they are the only thing we can work with. Without this compost, we cannot grow. Now, quietly and mindfully, observe your breath.’
He fell silent, as though he had woken up into a dream in which he was addressing a group of Yoga practitioners, and had dropped off again. Simon found some purchase in his words. They intrigued him just enough. But he was slightly, habitually, anxious. What exactly was he supposed to do? Then, after what seemed like a day, the teacher got up, a little stiff-kneed, and stood before them, palms together in a Namaste.
He smiled. ‘Although it is evening, let us begin with the Surya Namaskar, our homage to that sun which gives us light and life. Thank you.’ Everyone rose. From the back, Simon
and Caroline could see the degrees of smoothness and awkwardness with which people assumed their positions. Some spines were arched to an impossible degree, others were twisted, arthritic. In truth, though, the idea of consciously shaping the human body appealed to his sense of form. He adjusted his posture and mirrored the teacher. Their first evening sped by, slowly.
‘I felt so…energized!‘ said Simon. ‘I felt like I’d been cleansed.’ Caroline was checking her handbag.
‘I need to go shopping,’ she said. ‘Can you clear out the dishwasher?’
Simon waited for the front door to slam, opened the French windows and inhaled the spring’s promise of warming air. He took one of the plumper cushions from the settee, placed it near the sill, lowered his forehead onto it, formed a tripod of head and arms, and launched himself carefully upright. For a second or two he swayed a little off-centre, then was still.
With the blood filling his head, breathing deeply, he thought that this must be the best self-help system ever invented. He couldn’t imagine or plan, otherwise he would fall over. So he breathed and kept upright. Then he let his legs down in controlled fashion and sat on his heels. As the heat drained from his head, Simon experienced the sense of elation that accompanies this kind of activity and duly noted it. His body felt light, his brain washed through with breezes. Roll on Tuesday.
He was peering into a definitive Hatha Yoga manual when he heard the rattle of crockery. Caroline was back and emptying the dish-washer.
‘Been rather busy, have we?’ she said, somewhat coldly.
‘I’ll make us a cup of tea,’ he said.
Buoyed by the possibility of salvation from his job’s quotidian turbulence, and signed off by his GP, Simon increased his one night a week by three afternoons. He travelled several miles for these classes, run by the same teacher in different towns. At first, he was disappointed that, as a regular, he was not accorded a friendlier greeting; then he accepted it
as a lesson in ego-deflation, and was satisfied that he had begun mastering the appetites that preoccupy most human beings. Caroline stopped going.
‘Always the same,’ she said. ‘Start something one week and it becomes all-consuming the next. Then you drop it and go onto something else. Another little addiction.’
She had been peeved because he spent whole lessons practising, without acknowledging her at all. She had felt like a stranger. That was how she had begun to feel, much of the time, with him.
One evening, he prodded the television journal he’d been reading.
‘There’s something I’d like to watch at nine,’ he said.
‘Watch away, I’m going out.’
‘It’s about the fakirs of India. The yogis and the holy men, and their feats of endurance. You’re going out?’
‘Don’t sound surprised,’ she said. ‘I told you there was a Ladies’ Night tonight. Don’t
wait up for me.’ He perceived her uncustomary make-up, and her most flattering clothes.
‘What about dinner?’ he said, more edgily than he had intended. Attempts to subdue hurt and dependency tussled for a few seconds with the knowledge that phenomena were empty of self and that all things must pass.
‘What about it? Enjoy your programme.’ And she was gone, neat little evening bag, car-keys in hand.
For the opening minutes of the programme, he exhaled snorts of anger. Off to some ladies’ evening. Then he grabbed a beer, smeared a pork-pie with Dijon mustard, and settled into the screen.
The presenter was strolling in a Kolkata street. People were draping garlands over near-naked sadhus who crawled, hopped, rolled. One had clipped chains through his ear-lobes
and Simon stared, open-mouthed, as the camera focused on the car-engine that he was towing behind him. He absorbed this procession of superhuman beings subjecting themselves to the most painful proofs of devotion. Their very grotesqueness stimulated his appetite. If he, the epitome of rush and burn-out, could flourish on four Yoga sessions a week, perhaps he might show everyone that he was more than just a soft-arsed architect.
Another beer. The programme continued as he sifted possibilities. No piercings, no burning coals, no pulling twenty-ton trucks with improbable body parts. He didn’t actually want to harm himself.
Now they were inside a cave. A yogi had been buried in a box. Normally, said the
voice-over, all oxygen would have been depleted within hours. But he emerged, healthy, after
three days. Implausible, but clearly achievable. Now there was something to aim for. A couple of hours, perhaps, in a tight space. In truth, he balked at the idea of being closely confined, as in a coffin. But that was what, by the end of the third beer, he had resolved to do.
The important thing was, this was not ego-connected. It would demonstrate that he could go beyond normal expectation. Of course, there was no back-up crew, no years of training, nor unusual resources. He would have to press into service whatever was available. What that could be he had no idea until, the next evening, he was tying the kitchen rubbish-bag. The wheelie-bin! Big enough, dark enough. A bearable smell. It put his intention within reach.
A few days’ secret practice with his head in a polythene bag and a holding of breath was preparation enough. He didn’t know how to tell Caroline: she had long since cast his latest obsession into eternal darkness. If he told her he was going to spend the night in their wheelie-bin, she would probably divorce him. But it was necessary. Through mastery of the body’s automatic drives he would become stronger, more effective, in the world.
Caroline—’ She had just entered the kitchen, and was wearing lipstick and her favourite ceramic necklace, not one of his gifts, but bought herself, she said, from a craft shop.
‘Ladies’ Night?’ he said.
‘Ladies’ Night,’ she concurred.
‘Look, Caroline, if you get back and don’t find me in the house, I’ll be in the garage.
Just go to bed and don’t worry about me.’
Caroline shrugged as if she anticipated stupidity. He watched as she walked, self-assured and very upright, to the car. He felt an unusual pang as she drove off, but scotched it immediately. He had to prepare.
In the bedroom, curtains closed, he sat for an hour, breathing deeply from the belly. Then he rose slowly, rubbed his knees, and chose a thick jumper for both garment and padding. He stuck a piece of masking tape over his mouth. One step down from utility room to garage.
It was already gloomy in there, with just enough evening light below the door to illuminate the box he had positioned to stand on.
It was not easy: even against the wall, the stout polypropylene threatened to overbalance; but he shifted his weight, perched on the edge, and dropped in.
He was aware that, in town, homeless people sometimes slept in bins, but this was a tighter squeeze than expected. His knees were pressed against the side, so he could not sit.
This will be agony, he thought delightedly, settling into position
At first, the discomfort in his knees was no worse than an hour’s kneeling. Then the
pain increased. But there was no going back. Simon placed his mind, as practised, into the
most insistent spot and eased into it. Strangely, it diminished, then transmuted into a pulsating
cave. It’s only pain, he thought. It doesn’t matter. And he repeated a short chant he had found on the internet.
He must have dozed, and now awoke, with searing joints. His body knew instantly that it was enough, that more might mean long-term damage. As he slowly, excruciatingly, tried to free his arms, he could feel that he was now not upright, but laid on hip and shoulder. He stretched to raise the lid with his head: it would not budge. Foul odours seared his nostrils. The gag was a football in his mouth. An intense headache competed with another vibration: the engine of their other car, next to him, pulsating quietly. He tried again to shift the lid.
‘Oh, terribly, Caroline!’ A man’s voice, laughter, a dozen miles behind the garage.
Dark crimson under the eyelids.
‘Well, Roger –’
Short, shuddering inhalations of poison.
Two voices together, like the murmur of traffic, or birds, or the gentle burble of a stream.
In the dark, hot, helpless tears; searing limbs; brain and skeleton suspended. Afloat. And submerged. Like drowning.