I walked back to the flat in a daze, mind on a loop trying to work out how I’d missed Adam and how fast you would have to walk to disappear that quickly, unless he was going round behind the farm along the river, perhaps that was it, I’d have to check, when I nearly ran into Jonah. He was hanging about on the corner opposite The Ship, wrapped up in his duffel coat and evidently waiting for me.
‘Took your time,’ he said.
‘It was a long one today. Lots to talk about.’
He took my hand and started walking up the street, pulling me along behind him. This narked me a little, then I remembered we’d made a date, and I’d been late, and now he was annoyed.
‘Sorry,’ I said, and caught up with him. ‘I forgot you were waiting.’
He kissed the side of my head and we ambled into town, my concerns over Adam still ferreting around in my head. I felt Jonah squeeze my hand so I glanced up at him.
‘You look worried,’ he said.
‘It’s just Adam.’
‘What d’you talk about?’
‘How things are going. Mainly, he just keeps showing me how little I actually know about anything. All the stuff you take for granted, like who you think you are. But that’s not the problem.’
‘So, what is?’
‘He keeps disappearing. Well, I can’t work out where he goes when we’re done. It’s nothing really.’ I felt silly saying it out loud.
‘Just ask him.’ He put his arm around my shoulders. ‘I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.’
We had lunch at the Tyneside Cinema, getting lucky with a corner table so we could spread out on the softer seats and make a plan. Jonah had been saving what he could from his stingy public sector pay packet over many years, inching his way toward fulfilling a dream he’d had since he was a child. He wanted to go home and visit the city where his mum was born, walk the streets and smell the air.
Grace Nelson had lived in San Fernando in Trinidad, along with her three sisters. She fell pregnant and came to England with her boyfriend to get married and start a new life. But the boyfriend vanished within months, leaving Grace to cope alone in an alien country with a growing bump. Her sisters soon arrived in solidarity, celebrated the birth of Jonah, and then stayed.
Jonah never knew his dad’s name. His mum refused to discuss it and his aunts pretended they didn’t know. He had never even seen a photograph.
‘And now Mum’s gone,’ said Jonah, ‘and I want something solid, something real, something I can touch, to connect me to them.’
He looked so forlorn and lost surrounded by the bold art deco furnishings, I didn’t have the heart to ask what had happened to his mother. He’d never mentioned her before and it obviously cost him to think about it. I guessed an illness, probably cancer, and didn’t want to spoil our veggie burgers and chocolate cake by bringing that up.
We left the café and trawled the travel agencies to pick up brochures. None of them had what Jonah was looking for. While he wandered off to speak to an ultra helpful woman with a huge cloth bow tied around her neck, I flicked through the holidays on offer. Superficially, they were all the same. Page after page of ultramarine sea and sapphire sky, immaculate beaches and palm trees. And no people. The resorts were deserted. It didn’t seem to matter where you went, wherever you were, you got the same stuff. Rows of loungers in regimented blocks on the sand or in lines around sculpted swimming pools, overlooked by great slabs of hotels. It was paradise tamed, rendered safe and stylish. I’d expected to feel drawn to the tropics, the heat and the sunshine, but I was repulsed. It was too fake.
I couldn’t imagine Jonah in any of these places. He reappeared at my side and I slung the fraudulent brochure back on the stand.
‘I’m gonna need to grow my own,’ he said.
We walked through the Sunday shoppers burdened with bags crammed with late January sales, and ducked into Trailfinders. These brochures didn’t freak me out quite so much. I sat in a bucket seat and waited, while Jonah grabbed all the information he needed to build his own holiday – island hopping between Trinidad and Tobago.
Walking back down Northumberland Street, he looked over the collection of printouts listing hotels, flights and prices, doing calculations in his head, his lips moving with the effort.
‘Have you got a passport?’ he said.
I stopped walking and stared at him, mouth hanging open like someone had removed my brain.
‘I’m not going on my own,’ he said. ‘What? Are you having another-’
‘Jonah, I can’t afford to go somewhere like that. I can barely afford to go to Scarborough.’
‘Don’t matter,’ he said, and kissed me. ‘You make me happy. God knows why.’
I punched him playfully on the arm, and we carried on down the street.
‘Who would you’ve taken if you hadn’t met me?’ I said.
‘She didn’t know I was planning this, it was going to be a surprise, and I reckoned she would’ve changed her mind about-’
‘About dumping you.’ I could feel a massive sulk coming on and knew I was being childish, but what the hell. ‘So it doesn’t matter that much who you go with, so long as they’ve got a pair of tits.’
‘Zoe, I didn’t mean… that’s just what I thought before I fell…’
He stopped walking and gave me a sidelong glance. I knew what he was about to say but I wasn’t going to make it easy for him by leaping to the rescue. We stood there in the middle of the busiest street in Newcastle, creating a blockage on the pavement, bodies swerving to avoid walking into us. The swirling crowds faded to a blur; we were the eye of the storm.
‘Before I fell in love with you,’ he said.
Monday was a quiet day, cleaning wise, so as soon as I was done I made for the posh new library in the city centre. I often came in to read the paper or find a good story to distract myself from the dull tedium of my existence, although there had been less of that soul-destroying boredom since I’d met Jonah. I was happier now, but didn’t know if that was down to him or the meditation.
The sheer glass walls diffused light through the building. It was more like a church than a library. I zigzagged between lines of bookshelves searching for religion and suppressing a grin. Something very peculiar was happening to me: here I was, the ultimate atheist, looking for religion. It was all I could do to stop myself erupting into giggles.
I was flicking through a book about beginner’s mind by a man who sounded like a motorbike, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. Standing behind me was Professor Harrison, smiling like he had Alzheimer’s but was dimly aware somebody somewhere may have offended him.
‘Hello Charles,’ I said. ‘Did you have a good Christmas? Doctor Felix wasn’t too much of a handful, I hope.’
‘Yes, yes, he can be rather…’ His eyes kept wandering to the book in my hands and a small frown was gathering strength on his forehead. ‘Listen, Zoe. Good to see you again, by the way. I just wanted to say, you don’t need to avoid me.’
I tried to look as innocent as possible. ‘What makes you think I’m avoiding you?’
‘Yes, of course… well… What is that you’re reading?’
‘Zen. It’s a classic, apparently.’
He nodded, a deep furrow carving itself between his eyes. ‘About Felix. Have you called him yet?’
I shook my head. I could tell from the look on his face he was about to warn me off but I was in fighting mood. Since met Adam and started meditating I’d found a new sense of purpose: I was taking control of my life, of my mind. I was no longer the passive victim of an unfortunate genetic inheritance and I wasn’t about to have my experience rebuffed.
‘You don’t think I should get involved,’ I said.
‘It’s up to you, of course, Zoe. I just think you should be careful. All this…’ He indicated not just the book I was holding but the whole shelving section before us.
‘Mystical eyewash,’ I said.
Charles cleared his throat and looked at me steadily. ‘Felix can be very persuasive. He is blessed with great charisma and energy but that doesn’t make him right.’
‘I am capable of independent thought, professor.’
He frowned at the Zen book again and nodded. ‘Of course. I just don’t want you chasing off after metaphysical flimflam when you could be making real world contributions.’
‘You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen what I’ve seen,’ I said, sticking my chin out in defiance. ‘Do you really want to get into a debate about what constitutes the real world with a mystic?’
The M word was out of my mouth before I’d realised. Charles looked as surprised as I felt.
‘It was you who compared me to Jung,’ I continued before I lost my nerve. ‘He was a mystic. I assume that’s what you meant by it. You can’t deny the truth of something just because you haven’t experienced it. It would be like me denying the existence of quarks or the Higgs boson because I haven’t seen them and can’t understand the maths.’
‘Interesting point,’ he said, nodding as if he was thinking about it, even though we both knew he thought I was talking nonsense. ‘Just be careful, Zoe. You know where I am if you ever need to talk.’
Charles eventually wandered off and left me to my flimflam. I had come armed with a robust shopping bag, and filled it with every book I could find on Buddhism, practically cleaned them out. The short walk back to the flat seemed to take twice as long, laden as I was with a ton of books and my backpack full of sprays. I collapsed onto the sofa with a cup of coffee, and dove into the first book.
By the time Jonah got back from work, I was at the desk in the corner surfing the internet and downloading every pearl on Zen I could unearth. I was so engrossed I didn’t hear him come in. The desk was disappearing under reams of scattered paper, the books stacked up beside me, while the printer clattered, firing out pages like bullets. I was peering at the computer screen, pen clenched in my teeth, trying to decipher a series of Japanese line drawings of a man befriending an ox, when he appeared beside me.
I spun round in the chair, clumps of paper in each hand, surprise turning to pleasure as fast as ice cream melting on your tongue. I grinned at him and the pen in my teeth stuck out like a cigar. Jonah scrunched his fingers into my messy hair. I had been yanking at it while I worked, so it was probably in a right old state, jutting from my head in mad tufts. His eyes twinkled with amusement, then shifted abruptly into an intense smoulder, and I knew what was on his mind. I pulled the pen from my mouth.
‘Don’t you ever think about anything else?’
‘No.’ He leaned over and kissed me, then reluctantly pulled back, a tiny moan sounding at the back of his throat. He ruffled my gravity defying hair and straightened up, turning towards the kitchen.
‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ I said, leaping out of the chair and planting another kiss on his dumbfounded lips. I sashayed into the kitchen.
‘I know I said it was cool when you did that, but babe, have some mercy.’
I poked my head back round the corner. ‘Come off it, Joe, that’s not psychic. You always have a cuppa when you get in. And I like making it for you. There’s you, slaving away all day, unappreciated. It’s the least I can do.’
I ducked back into the kitchen and poured his tea. Jonah worked at the big civic building in Gateshead. Open plan hell, he called it. Every office and corridor looked the same, and he’d spent his first months getting lost, wandering up and down the lurid green carpets holding important looking documents so people would think he was working. I could imagine him prowling the corridors like a wild animal, or when he wore his bright orange or red shirts, like a caged bird of paradise searching for an open window and freedom.
I brought his tea through and plonked it on the coffee table, then returned to the desk and burrowed deep into the mound of information I’d accumulated.
‘So, how’s the research going?’ he said.
‘Dunno. It’s all a bit baffling, to be honest. I think I should be meditating, but I don’t know what I’m looking for.’
Jonah sank onto the sofa and kicked off his shoes, plopping his feet onto the table. He warmed his hands on the mug cradled against his belly.
‘Fancy a takeaway?’ he said. ‘I can’t be arsed.’
‘You love cooking,’ I said, feeling disappointed.
I loved watching Jonah cook. He had a reverence for the ingredients and the process of transmogrifying them into feasts. I threw stuff together and slapped it on a plate. It was edible and it did the job, but I didn’t have inspiration. Jonah’s mum had taught him, standing him on a chair at the stove when he was six. She sang as she cooked, and so did he, following her recipes, her melodies; the flavours nothing to do with the spices and everything to do with home. The home he had never visited. Limes and mangoes fattened by sunshine, steel pans rattling the windows loose, and deeper than deep sub-bass dissolving the foundations of the house. I couldn’t wait to see him come alive in Trinidad.
‘I’ll cook,’ I said.
‘Beans on toast?’
Jonah rested his head on the wall behind the sofa and closed his eyes. His stomach growled.
‘Food of kings,’ he said.
I arrived at Ella’s house early and found it deserted. I wandered through to the large, designer kitchen and switched on the coffee maker: a ludicrous contraption covered in esoteric buttons, lights and nozzles, bought for Ella by her errant husband. Of the three of us, I was the only one who knew how it worked, achieved by randomly pressing buttons until something resembling coffee materialised.
While the apparatus sputtered and coughed, I began loading the dishwasher. Lying on the breakfast bar I discovered a note addressed to me. Ella, it seemed, was out getting her nails done and didn’t want the bedroom cleaned. It was a week since I’d given this house a thorough scrub and I felt sure the bedroom would be in a desperate need of one by now.
I dropped the note into the bin, then froze, hand extended, as a thought I actively didn’t want shouldered its way to the front of my mind. The certainty of it hit me like a migraine, screaming through my brain as I ran up the stairs. I threw open the bedroom door to see my worst fear made flesh.
‘Jesus, Zoe. Fuck,’ shouted Danny. He was lying on the bed, naked save for a pair of silky boxers covered in pink lipstick prints, his hands cuffed behind his head to the bedposts, eyes wide with terror.
I leaned on the doorframe. I expected to feel angry, but all I could muster was mild amusement. Danny squirmed and yanked at his handcuffs, embarrassment seeping in to replace the fear. I suppressed a giggle, my eyes alighting on his swanky, if cheesy, underwear.
‘Are those new?’
‘What the fuck, Zo? I thought you were Martin.’
The giggle escaped and shot out of my mouth before I could catch it. Danny relaxed and grinned at me. I gazed back at him: my beautiful, hopeless, impossible brother. We had been closer to each other than anyone else; how had we ended up so far apart?
‘Let me go, sis. The key’s up there.’ He nodded at the chest of drawers.
I decided to milk the moment, slowly considering my options, eyes flitting from key to Danny and back again, index finger tapping my chin. The air in the room was toasty; Ella had obviously left the heating turned up – she didn’t want her plaything to freeze. Danny looked healthier than usual; his pallor banished in favour of a rosy glow, and he had definitely put on weight, in a good way. I made up my mind.
‘Ella would be terribly disappointed if she came home to find you’d escaped, and besides, I don’t want to spoil your fun.’
I chortled and closed the door. I could hear Danny shouting all the way down the stairs. He didn’t give up until I’d finished cleaning the kitchen and poured myself a second cup of coffee.
Jonah put down his chopsticks and rested his chin on his hand, elbow jammed against the tabletop. Ray, Linda and Robin were shovelling rice into their mouths as if in a race, while Henrik helped himself to more crispy seaweed. Morgan had returned to Oslo to await the birth of his first child, so the Village had decided to celebrate in advance with a gargantuan Chinese feast.
I sat opposite Jonah chasing a battered prawn round and round my plate with my chopsticks. I could sense everyone around me as my mind spun, turning in on itself, as crazed as the poor prawn. Jonah watched me, his eyes drilling into my skull. All week I had worried about my question, my koan. Tomorrow was Sunday and I was going to have to give Adam an answer and I didn’t know what to say.
‘What’s up, babe?’ said Jonah.
‘Darling, I thought you simply didn’t care,’ said Robin.
Jonah slung a mini spring roll at his drummer, then went back to staring at me. I glanced up and smiled at him.
‘I wish I could climb inside your head,’ he said.
‘Be careful what you wish for. It’s carnage in here.’ I tapped my head with my chopsticks, then went back to tormenting the prawn, getting more exasperated by the second. ‘I’m going to starve to death at this rate.’
‘You’re squeezing too tight,’ said Henrik. ‘Here…’ He leaned across and took my hand. His was so large it made mine look like a child’s. He guided my fingers into the right position. ‘Relax your grip, like so, yes?’
I scooped up some rice.
‘You worried about tomorrow?’ said Jonah.
I nodded, rice balanced precariously over my plate. ‘He’s going to ask me again and I don’t understand it.’
‘Just be honest,’ he said.
‘I know, but it seems like it should be obvious and I feel like an idiot, like I’m missing something right in front of my face.’ I froze and stared at the rice poised on the end of my chopsticks. ‘Relax your grip,’ I said to myself.
Jonah watched and waited. The room was hushed, all eyes on me as I sat, seemingly transfixed by a nugget of sticky rice.
Linda nudged Jonah’s arm and whispered: ‘Is this to do with the strange gentleman?’
He nodded, his eyes never leaving my face.
‘Relax your…’ The rice fell and I looked up, acutely aware everyone was watching me. My face flushed hot. ‘Um…’
‘I love it when an epiphany comes together,’ said Robin.
‘So?’ said Jonah. ‘Have you figured it out?’
I shook my head. ‘I can feel it, it’s right there, hovering on the edge of my mind. Like when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue.’
‘Maybe we can help,’ said Ray. ‘What was the question?’
‘Apparently, it’s the ultimate koan,’ I said. ‘If you can crack this, you’re sorted, your troubles are over.’ All faces were turned expectantly in my direction. I doubted they’d be able to help. The answer to this question was the goal of enlightenment, and there were no Buddhas at this table.
‘Who am I?’ I said.
A burble of chuckles travelled around the table. I could feel everyone falling into the same trap I had, thinking it’s an obvious question, thinking they know who they are, thinking it’s obvious so why would you even think about it.
‘I’m a drummer when I’m drumming, an engineer when I’m recording, an eater when I’m eating.’ Robin bit a chunk from a spring roll. ‘And a lover when I’m loving.’ He waved the remaining roll. ‘Like an army of me’s, a self for every occasion. Am I wrong?’
Yes, I thought. Yes, you are. But I don’t know why.
‘I’m a process,’ said Linda. ‘A process of being. An evolving soul on a journey to self-knowledge.’
Better, I thought. But what’s a soul?
‘Yeah, but what’s a soul?’ said Ray, and I beamed at him. ‘Is it the same thing as a self? You got to define your terms, Lindy. Am I a bass player when I’m at the office, listening to Hairy Margaret telling me about her verrucas? I would say I am.’
‘The music never leaves me,’ said Jonah. ‘It’s in my soul.’
‘Right,’ said Ray.
Hang on, I thought. We still haven’t defined soul.
‘So I’m a musician, even when I’m not playing,’ continued Ray. ‘It’s what I do. Even when I’m not doing it.’
‘What?’ said Robin.
What? I agreed, and beamed at Robin.
‘I like what Daylight says,’ said Henrik. ‘I am a scientist in the lab, a father with my children, a lover with my wife. But then, Cosmic has some truth, I think. I am thinking like a scientist even at home, on the bus, in the shop buying Chinese food.’
Are you really a scientist while making love to your wife? I thought. I doubted it, but Henrik hadn’t finished.
‘So some things are the same and some things are changing, so it is also as Linda says, a process.’
I couldn’t take anymore.
‘Okay, okay. This is all fascinating, but here’s the thing,’ I said. ‘What is a process? What is the self? That’s what I’m trying to get a hold of. When you say: I’m a musician, who is saying it? We say: I think such and such, I feel happy, sad, whatever, I do this, I don’t do that, but what exactly is this I? The thing doing and feeling and thinking. I remember doing things yesterday so that must’ve been me doing it, but what happens if you lose your memory? Are you still you if you go senile? Or insane? If half your memories from childhood are false, where does that leave you? Something is giving you that sense of continuity. What is it? I mean, I still feel like me from one day to the next, even when everything else changes.’
Everyone nodded thoughtfully.
‘It’s your self, surely?’ said Linda. ‘The self feels and thinks and does things. Who else?’
‘That’s just it, though,’ I said. ‘Every time I look for it, try to catch it in the act, so to speak, I can’t find it. There is no self. There’s nothing there.’
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Image: Ox Herding