Sunday, 3 March 2013

After Life (short story)

English: Painting of Gautama Buddha sitting in...
English: Painting of Gautama Buddha sitting in Dhyana, unharmed by the demons of Mara. Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Nalanda, Bihar, India. Circa 700-1100 CE. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Will you be leaving immediately,” he asked. His response was not what I hadexpected. I guess I thought he would try to persuade me to stay.
I don’t have much to take with me,” I answered, glancing up for the first time at the little monk I had once called master. He looked as serene as the Gautama statue in the monastery shrine.
Then you are free to leave in your own time,” he said. And for a moment I felt a pang of anger. Was this to be the end of it? Ten years as master and student and this is how he would let us part?
Don’t you want to know why? I asked, trying to keep the emotion from my voice.
Your reasons are your own,” he said.
His calmness infuriated me as much as it had eluded me. Didn’t he understand how hard I had tried? Didn’t he know how hard a choice it was for me to be giving up?
Very well,” I said standing up to leave and just then, for just a few seconds, he raised his head and looked straight at me. No words came, he didn’t need them. The placid little faced asked the question, “Are you sure this is what you really want?”
I paused for a moment feeling my breath rise and fall and knew that it was. And with that I walked away from my old life and old vows.

I left the Monastery alone. There would be no one there to meet me. I felt like a convict leaving a prison and it was true, I was a reformed character. There had been so much ego then when I had first entered the gates. I was going to become a monk and find enlightenment. I would leave my poor friends behind with all their worldly concerns. I hadn’t expected it to end in humiliation.
Now where was I? A failed monk wearing donated clothes and carrying the handful of cash they’d given me to see me on my way. I pulled out the notes I had crumpled into my pockets as I left. When I had first entered the monastery it would have been enough for a couple of days. Now I had no real concept of what it was worth. I would just have to make do.
I took one last look at the monastery building. It seemed odd in its Scottish country side setting. It’s semi-eastern design looking foreign against the misty hills, in a way I’d never noticed that before.
I started to walk down the country road that led to the village. Yet, despite my lack of funds and my wasted years, I started to smile. I felt light and the sun seemed brighter than it had in years. Birds few past, insects skittered, trees grew and I paid heed to none of them. I simply absorbed them all, breathing them in with each step. I was free. After ten long years I was free.
I’d been to the village before of course. The rules had not been so strict that we had been locked away in cells. Yet, as its little buildings came into view from the hills above, I felt like a conquistador coming across a new civilisation. What would I do there? Where would I sleep? All of these were unknowns, yet they didn’t seem to bother me.
The village was small, little more than a single main street with a few public buildings and several smaller roads darting of into short rows of housing on each side. The first building that caught my eye was the pub. It was a quiet little place made of old stone with a few picnic benches out the front. The sort of place where families could stop for a meal and beer after a long days walk.
I felt the cash in my pocket and decided I would take a look.
The inside of the place was much as I expected. There was a large fire place around which there were sets of tables and chairs. A few groups of tourist were eating their lunch. A couple of young waitress, possibly sisters, moved among them distributing and collecting plates as they went. At the far side of the room, through another little door, was a small bar. I could make out the mirror and the upturned whisky bottles waiting to be drained. Clearly the clientèle were the traditional sort who went for quality over price.
I made my way into the room, sitting down at one of the tall stools in front of the taps. Two older men, sitting in cramped table over on one corner, didn’t seem to notice me, but one man sitting at the bar gave me a half nod, before taking another sip of his beer.
A youngish boy appeared behind the bar and I ordered a random ale from the tap in front of me. The name had sounding appealing. He sat amber filled glass in front of me and I paid what he asked with one of the notes from my pocket. If the prices here were anything to go by, then the money I had wasn’t going to last me long.
I tried not to think of it as I lifted the glass to my lips. It would be my first drink in over fifteen years. I don’t know what I expected, the lightning bolts of my Catholic upbringing maybe? Instead there was just a pleasant but slightly bitter taste that brought back memories of old friends that I had long forgotten. I was suddenly nostalgic for my youth and all those unmet ambitions I’d had. Would I have achieved any of them had I not dropped out all together? Was there still time? There was a sense of possibility in the air.
Wife kicked you out?” asked the man beside me. I’d thought he was older, but now that I could see his face he seemed around the same age as me, maybe a little closer to forty than I was.
“More like I left her,” I said.
“Oh that’s not a good way to go. You’ll regret that in the end. God knows I did,” he said, taking a long drink of his beer. “What’d she do that was so bad?”
“I don’t know really,” I said, “It seemed right at first. I mean things really worked out at the start. I learned a lot, but we just hit a rut. The last few years, it’s just not been the same. In fact that’s the problem. It has been the same. Everyday has been the same. Nothing’s moved on. Nothing’s changed. Is there any point in staying together if you don’t grow?”
“Companionship?” he asked. “God know I miss my missus.”
“I’m not sure that’s enough.”
He stopped and examined me for a bit.
“We’re not really talking about a woman here are we?” And I have to admit, I was surprised at his intelligence.
“Not exactly, how did you know?”
“I don’t know, but something about you says you’re not a man who’s had to have a woman put up with him. There’s something single about you. That and your lack of hair. From the monastery?”
“I was.”
He glances at the ale on the bar.
I shruged.
“You know I’ve always wanted to know what goes on up in that place. I mean we’ve never had any trouble down here like, but you know, we wonder.” It was the first time I’d ever thought about the people in the village thinking about us. I’d always thought we were far away from the community, something separate.
It’s nice. Meditation, reading, chanting.”
“If it’s nice then what you doing here?” he asked. It was a good question.
“Like I said. Things just hit a rut. Is it any different from anything else in life?” I asked. “What do you do?”
“Farmer. There’s not much else around here to do. Farming and a bit of tourist stuff.”
“So would you be happy if things weren’t going anywhere on your farm?”
“They’re aren’t,” he answered. “I plant stuff, it grows, then I harvest. There’s not really anywhere to go with that. Cash is breaking even, so no chance to expand. Can’t say I have a problem with it though. Seems it takes a certain type of person to do what you did.”
“You mean join the monastery?” I asked.
“Aye. Giving up on love and life like that, takes a kind of commitment that I could never understand. I mean you’d have to really believe.”
“You have to really hope.”
“Well that as well.” he said, “So how long have you been out?”
“Since today,” I said, and he nods as if it’s a common situation. How many other failed monks had made the same journey I had, I wondered. I tried to remember a few of the names of people that had left before me and couldn’t think of one. Would I be forgotten in the same way?
“Stopping in here then heading back home? Got a family or something?”
“Not really, at least, no one I could stand right now. I didn’t leave on the best of terms with most of them. I think it would be best to describe my leaving as less than magnanimous. I got a bit caught up in things. I’m not sure I could take going back on my hands and knees just yet.”
“A man’s got his pride,” he said nodding, “So what you going to do then?”
“Who knows?” I said. “Today I had to leave. Tomorrow I can start thinking about the rest.”
He looks into his beer as if it’s going to answer the questions in his head.
“Tell you what,” he said, “I could do with a hand on the farm, wouldn’t pay much, but there was a girl staying in an old caravan out back. She left to go off to India or Thailand or something like that and left the old thing to pay her rent. Would take a bit of cleaning mind you, but you could move in there.”
It’s my chance to examine his drinking, but he seems sober enough.
“Well it seems too much like good fortune to say no,” I said. “I thought I was going to be spending the night in the open somewhere.”
“Well it’s not charity. It’s going to be hard work, but at least it’ll be something until you can get yourself back on your feet. By the way, my names Jim.”
“Padma..1” I started to say then stopped. “Craig,” I said for the first time in years. “My name’s Craig.”


He wasn’t lying about the work. In the monastery we had little jobs, or “practices” as we called them. It might have been some gardening or sweeping around the complex. Sometimes things would require a bit more work and we would have to paint or redecorate a shrine room, but everything was done calmly and mindfully.
On the farm it was about speed and timing. Everything had to be done in the right order and at the right time. The tasks Jim gave me at the start were simple enough. Most of them involved lifting things from one place to another. At first I tried doing it mindfully, by paying attention to each movement and touch as I lifted the sack or barrel and feeling the weight and texture in my hands.
Come on, what you doing?” Jim yelled from up at the farm house. “We’ll never be finished by lunch time if you keep that up!”
He was right. I wasn’t a monk any more. Now I was a farmer and farmers didn’t do mindfulness. Instead I just got on with it, getting things done as fast I could and let my thoughts flow however they liked.
It took weeks for me to be of any real use on the farm. I’d come to suspect that most of the jobs that Jim was giving me were more physical training than of any real use to him. Each night after work Jim and I would sit drinking a couple of beers together, before I clambered of to my little caravan and passed out from exhaustion. It felt great. There was something nice about doing a hard day’s work and earning my rest that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
It was a Friday lunchtime when Jim decided that we needed a break.
“Let’s go to the pub,” he said. “I think I owe you a decent meal and a pint.”
I think that Friday might have been the most satisfying meal I ever had. There’s something about a chunk of beef that no amount of soy beans is ever going to match. The beers and whiskeys that flowed after that were quite a treat as well and my head started to dance. Steadily, locals piled in and joined in the night of revelry. Lunch tables were put away and the restaurant section became more like a club.
Jim wasn’t much of the social type, but he had a couple of close friends that he found himself talking to and while I didn’t begrudge him their company, I felt lost in the detailed farm talk. So I walked around, drunk enough to introduce myself and make a little small talk with my neighbours.
Then I met Erin.
She must have been ten years younger than me. A pretty little girl with dark hair and constant smile. She wasn’t beautiful in the traditional sense, at least not like a model, but she looked homely. She wasn’t the woman that most men dreamed about, she was the woman they saw themselves marrying.
Now I am not the most handsome of men and nor was I at that time. But not being a local and my odd history did give me something of an exotic flavour. Or at least so the whisky in me told me and I walked over and introduced myself.
So you’re the reformed monk I’ve been hearing about,” she said as we found a place to set out of the way of the main revelry that was starting to border on boisterous in places.
“That I am.”
“Must be quite a shock being out here,” she said, “all those temptations that you have to resist.” For a moment her face was placid then she followed it up with a wicked smile. “Go buy me a drink.”
I rummaged in my pockets pulling out the last of my notes. The wages Jim gave me were little more than pocket change. I’d been hoping to make enough to sent back to cash the monastery had given me when I left, but there was always something to pay for, little places to where to cash was drawn before you had a chance to save it. Still at least I had enough for a glass of wine and another beer for myself.
We left the place shortly after that, stumbling together up the pitch black country roads towards Jim’s farm. It must have taken us hours, but it only felt like a few minutes.
Erin was not what I had expected. She was more than I had expected: smart sassy, confident. She had me double drunk.
Now I don’t normally go home to any boy’s caravan,” she said. “But it seems like it’s a girl’s duty for someone so recently back in the fold.” And with that she kissed me, then took my hand and led me inside.
I woke to the bright morning sun to find Erin already gone. She left a little note that said:

It was followed by a scrawl that I took to be her signature and her number.
As I got washed and dressed, I thought about her and how fantastic we would be together. I’d missed years of this and here was my chance to make it up again, maybe even a chance at a family.
It was a strange thought. I’d always said to myself that I’d never wanted a family or children. But suddenly it was all I wanted. It was the whole world. I’d put aside all my high minded attainments and rather than feeling empty, I felt full. I felt happy.
When I got out of the Caravan Jim was already working.
“Someone had a good night,” he called across to me. “Don’t worry I gave her a lift back to her folk’s house.”
I tried not beam a smile and failed. He just laughed at me. Then it hit me that if I wanted to see Erin I wasn’t going to be able to do it on the wages that Jim paid. Sure a caravan was quaint at first for a girl, but long term?
Jim,” I said. “You’ve been great to me, so I feel bad asking but…”
“You want to know if I can raise your wages?” he asked, “I wondered when it would happen. A girl seemed a likely time. Well you’re a hard worker so I can give you a little more, but to be honest with you Craig, you’re not going to get any more than that working as a farmhand. I’d be sad to lose you, but have you not got a trade you could go back to?” I’d been a bank clerk once, but who wants to hire someone more than ten years out of the job? In my days most of the filing had been on paper and I suspected things had moved on from there.
“Not really, at least nothing I could do now. Still thanks for the offer, it’ll help a bit.” It was a lie, the raise he was talking about would maybe let me buy an extra couple of beers on the weekend. It certainly had no long term future.
The thought riled me. Ten years for what? Nothing worthwhile, certainly nothing usable. Still at least things were getting better. At least I had a job and a girl. That was a start. Little steps, I told myself. Little steps.
When you’ve got some repetitive work to do there’s lots to fill your head with. Most times it’d be the voice on the radio or thinking over something Jim had said the night before. But after that night out, there was only one thing I could think about: Erin. She dominated every thought in my life. Every moment I worked, I was working for her and the few times I wasn’t thinking about her I was thinking of ways to get money so we could be together.
It was the following Tuesday night while Jim and I were drinking our beers that he handed me a couple of twenty pound notes.
“Alright you love sick puppy. Go and see her,” he said.
He didn’t need to tell me twice. “Thanks Jim,” I said. “I owe you.”
“That’s right you do.”
I pulled the paper out of my pocket and went to the phone and dialled her number. A woman’s voice on the other end answered.
“Oh she’s down at the pub I think,” said the older lady. She never asked who I was, but I could feel the curiosity.
“Thanks, no need to tell her I called.”I said, “I’ll go down there and see her.”
“Well tell her not to be late,” the woman warned. I guessed the warning was as much for me as it was her.
I walked, in fact half ran, down to the village, springing in through the door to find the place much quieter than I expected. I remembered it was a weekday and that there would be no party tonight. Quickly I scanned to room and spotted her. She was sitting at the bar by herself with a glass of house red.
“Erin,” I said, walking over to her. Her reaction wasn’t what I expected.
“Craig,” she said, glancing over at the bathroom and fiddling with the bag on her lap. “What you doing down here?” I notice the other drink beside her, an ale of some sorts.
“I came looking for you. I called, but…” I didn’t need to say any more, the look on her face gave me all the answers I needed.
“Craig, look I don’t know what to say. I’d had a fight with my boyfriend down in my uni in Leeds. I came home. He came up here to find me. Look I’m sorry I don’t know what to say.”
It was like a knife to stomach. I felt so stupid. A girl I had met once in a bar! I didn’t even know she was a university student. Who was this person I was talking to? Who was the person I had made in my head?
I understand,” I said, then walked through the little door at the back and into the little bar. I didn’t want to see him. Somehow I knew he would be nice. Someone I would like. That would make it all the harder.
Finding a corner by myself where I couldn’t see into the other room, I ordered as much whisky as I could drink with the money that Jim had given me.
I woke up the next day with a screaming headache. Somehow I had got back to the caravan. I remembered vaguely walking up the road in dark and yelling at the stars. I hoped I hadn’t woken anyone up or done anything real stupid. What an idiot I was.
I got up, washed, and changed my clothes and made my way out to start work. Once again Jim was already out and about. He never seemed to sleep much. He didn’t say a word, just gave me a nod and then pointed over at halve a dozen oil drums that he would need me to move into the store room.
What a fool I had been. How could I have made so much over one night of drunken sex?
I picked up the first drum, laden with the weight of my own thoughts and shambled into the store room with it. When I got to the second one, I moved slower. Feeling its real weight and feeling the touch of the metal against my hand. With the third one I moved slowly, watching all my movements and feeling everything that came in contact with me.

“And with craving pain follows.”

It came from somewhere inside me. Somewhere I had locked up when I left the monastery. But it was right wasn’t it? When I’d had nothing, wanted nothing I’d been happy. I’d been content to sleep at the roadside. I’d been content working away on Jim’s farm. It had been with me all the time. But I was losing it. Something I’d had all along, something so precious, I was starting to lose it.
I sat down on the muddy ground and started to meditate. It had been a long time, but it came back to me as naturally as breathing. My thoughts were gone. I was there, I was content and I understood. I had thought I was making progress in the monastery, but every day it had been there. It hadn’t been the raging river of change that I had hoped for. It had been the steady dripping of water that would, in time, wear away mountains. My time had not been wasted.
When I opened my eyes, Jim was sitting next to the barrels smoking a cigarette.
“So have you figured it out yet?” he asked.
“I figured something out,” I said
“Well that’s better than most manage in a life time,” he said letting out a puff of smoke. “So, when you going back?”
“Back?” I asked.
“To the monastery.”
“What makes you think I’m going back?” I asked.
“Well you’re not going to get much work done sitting around here like that,” he said, trying to hold back a grin, “Look the grass is always greener. That’s what I thought when it came to my missus, now she’s gone. And I don’t blame her. It took me too long to see what I was missing and to see what we had. Took me too long to work up the guts to go tell her I was sorry. Sometimes you’ve just got to admit that you were wrong.”


When I arrived that the Monastery I asked to see the Master. I was pointed to a seat where I could wait and I knew it would take some time. I smiled at the fact that I knew the place so well. I sat down to meditate while I waited and when my eyes opened, my old robe and an apple were sitting on the chair next to me. I put it on and walked into the meditation hall to join my brothers.

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