Holding a cup of coffee in one hand Sofia ran her free hand over the perfectly smooth surface of the wall, and then rested her back against it and looked at the room. It was a large, square lounge with whitewashed walls, extending from the American kitchen, with its lacquered red and black units and granite-surfaced island, to the two black, four-piece sofas, where shadows of plants shivered, transported there by sunlight through a large frosted glass skylight above the room.
For two months she and Xavi had lived in rented accommodation in the city of Murcia, while the house was built. It was based on Xavi’s plans. As he had an interest in architecture, they had decided when they arrived in Murcia they would buy some land and build their own home. For six months labourers worked to build the house. She walked to a sliding door, pulled it open and stepped outside, feeling the sharp, cold, winter light on her face and hands. She pulled the seam of her cotton polo neck up so it touched her ears and chin and rubbed the coffee mug, enjoying its warmth on her hands.
Every day since the house had been completed she would linger in every corner of it, looking with satisfaction at each detail which had begun as talk, then become designs on a page, and now housed her life. Xavi had originally insisted on a patchwork effect combining stone, timber and brick, but she had argued against it, preferring the simplicity of bare, whitewashed walls.
The house was comfortable and stylish. She was proud of it and quietly enjoyed it whenever she was alone there, particularly while Xavi trained in the morning, before she went to work at the restaurant.
Xavi was a fixture in the team. Meanwhile, Sofia had found a job as a maitre at one of the area’s finest restaurants. She loved her job, but he cared little about his, she thought, looking down on one of his dozens of pairs of trainers, which were neatly placed beside the sliding door. He had little interest in football anymore. If anything Sofia took more of an interest, following it closer than he did. She liked to read match reports, talk about the games, and join in with the banter of the other players, while he was content to treat it like an office job. He was a model professional, disciplined, sensible. He was so different to when she first met him. She had difficulty tracing him back to the awkward child who would follow her around El Born. Now he was a loving boyfriend, who lived for her, and wanted nothing more than to please her. He brought her gifts home all the time and would take her on surprise trips to isolated places in Cabo de Gata or Granada where they could be totally alone, which is when he was most happy. At home even the thought that someone might telephone her was a distraction he wished to avoid. All he wanted was to make her happy, and she was, though at times she found she was dissatisfied and could not tell why.
Is this all of it?
The phrase often popped into her head. But then she remembered her life in Barcelona. Her grandmother’s flat. The days spent hawking around the market. And she felt ungrateful.
Throughout her childhood she had looked after other people. She had devoted every day to her family. To taking care of her friends, and she had become a keystone for many characters who were weaker than herself. Now, she was the one who was taken care of.
Xavi’s attention to detail concerning her had no limits. He remembered everything she aid, everything that made her happy, all the things that she didn’t like, and strove to please her in every way.
This new role had an uneasy effect on her. I am nothing without helping others, she thought. So she encouraged the idea of taking an active part in the community, something Xavi was only too willing to do, running a photography workshop at a local youth centre, and supporting local charities.
Even so she enjoyed being on her own, when she could try new recipes in the kitchen, walk along the beach and speak to her family and friends in Barcelona on the phone.
She looked out at the sea. The rollicking waves were sending up a frothy sea air and it caused her mild nausea. Suddenly her legs felt heavy and her head light. She turned, clutched the handle of the sliding door, feeling slightly faint. She pulled it open, with a jolt of desperation and went inside. She eased herself onto the couch. Her head was spinning. If she had stayed another moment on her feet, she thought, she would have fainted. She open out her body and lay on her side.
Shortly she felt better. She was comfortable now. Maybe she had just had a sugar rush from the coffee. Now her thoughts were rushing around like cars at a crossroads junction. She could hold none of them for a moment. Among them were dishes she had been preparing, fleeting images of cliffs on a recent car trip with Xavi, unknown faces at the community centre, the crowd at the football stadium, Xavi, a figure on the pitch in his football kit, controlling the ball, passing it, not more than 50 metres away, and yet in another world.
Is this all of it?
She picked up the telephone on the coffee table and began dialing. The voice that answered was unnaturally high-pitched for a man’s. ‘Hello? Hello, Antonio. Yes it’s me, Sofia. No. No. Yes. Look, I don’t feel too good….No, I don’t know what…look I’ll phone later and let you know. What time is it? Ten? Ok, I’ll see if I feel any better and let you know. Okay, no, no. Don’t worry. Goodbye.’ She hung up and rested her head on her arm. Maybe she should call the doctor. She thought about phoning Xavi, but realized she didn’t want to, and was relieved to remember he would be on the training pitch now. She imagined what his reaction would be. He would get in the car and would rush home as soon as he heard, no matter how much of a trifle it was. And she found to her surprise that she hated him for it.
Once more she looked around the house to move her mind on from these thoughts. She took pleasure in the clean lines of it and the blueish spots of light shimmering on the walls, the gleaming surfaces of the kitchen. To her relief she found her uneasiness passing, her head began to return to normal. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
She hated missing work. She loved to be in the centre of the action in the restaurant, taking orders, fooling around with her colleagues. Though it was the most stressful part of her day, it was also where she was happiest, in her element, in control of the situation, of other people, being of service to others. She was nothing without that feeling. She got up slowly and felt a rush of animation. She had thought she was coming down with something, but she was allright after all.
She went to the bedroom and into the walk-in closet. She paused in front of the mirror, noticing she was a little paler than usual ‘but apart from that, you look okay.’ She took her long coils of glossy hair and tied them back into a ponytail. She liked her angular her cheeks looked when her hair was tied back. Of late she had put on weight, and she didn’t like the extra curve around her waist, but her face didn’t show it. She took black lycra trousers from the hanger and pulled them on, without feeling dizzy from bending over and then standing up sharply. ‘I’m fine,’ she said happily and pulled a scrunched-up face in the mirror as she pulled the polo neck over her head. She picked a bra from the wardrobe and clasped it on, humming to herself.
Then she made herself another coffee, made a couple of calls and went out of the back door, pulling her bicycle from the garage wall and opening the gate, she went out onto the cactus-edged road which wound round the barren hill.
The restaurant was on the side of a small embankment, where a dried-up stream ran out into the sea. It had once been a cottage, and retained part of the original façade, with modern blocks and a tall glass conservatory added. She passed under two olive trees which always struck her rather as sentinels guarding the place, and then skirted the conservatory along a white, tiled path to the staff entrance. There, a tall, mousy-haired man with a narrow, eager face was writing on a clipboard, with a delivery man in a cap and overalls. Antonio groaned and made a dramatic rolling of his eyes when he saw Sofia approaching with her bike.
‘When are you going to buy a car and turn up late like the rest of us. You’re in Andalusia now you know, not Barcelona.’
Sofia dismounted her bike and once again, like on the terrace, she felt light-headed. The colours of the scene before her compressed and turned a darker shade. She struggled to control her sudden anxiety. It’s okay, it’ll pass just like before. That didn’t last, did it?
‘Oye,’ she said in her discouraging, maternal tone, putting her hands on her hips in mock offence. ‘Maybe I should just have stayed at home after all..’
Antonio sought the delivery man’s approval. ‘Isn’t she a wonder of nature? She’s just like us. Just like a guy. And yet she’s as holy as the Rocio. And much prettier.’
Sofia left her bike beside the exit, and wandered into the kitchens. This was normally the favourite part of her day, greeting everyone and trading friendly insults, but today was different. She was eager to get it out of the way. It was hot and torpid, with gusts of smoke rising from the griddles, chefs rushing to and fro, and assistants at work chopping vegetables and meat. She felt irritable, and didn’t want to talk to any of them.
As she passed each of the staff greeted her happily. Bathed in steam from a dishwasher was a small woman, in her thirties, her hair frizzy from the humidity. ‘Hello, fox!’ the woman said, and growled like an animal. Sofia was usually full of talk, but all she could manage was a snort of laughter. ‘Patricia,’ she said, ‘you look almost sexy in all that steam.’
She continued on into the bar area, pleased to be out of the kitchen. She placed a hand on the long, cherry wood counter. A tourist couple, Dutch, judging by their hoarse voices and marmalade faces, were arguing. Three well-dressed locals were enjoying a boisterous chat over coffees. A waiter was engrossed in a crossword, with his back to the customers. The waiter, who was new, sensed he was being looked at, turned, and began looking busy. Once again Sofia was overcome by a whitening levity. A bout of nausea passed over her. The toilet was close by, and she walked straight to it. Inside, she locked the door, and turned on the taps. She could feel beads of perspiration on her forehead, unusual because she never perspired.
The clinic was almost empty but for an elderly, sickly looking woman with purplish hair and a South American man with an arm in a sling. The man’s sleepy eyes turned frequently to Sofia who fidgeted anxiously in her chair. The receptionist was typing. With a series of furtive glances he kept an eye on the South American, who Sofia was beginning to believe was drunk. The man’s head drooped forward and lulled momentarily sideways towards her, revealing glassy eyes. When his eyes met Sofia’s his lips formed a clumsy smile, and then he pulled his head away, and his mouth quickly transformed into an unpleasant sneer. The receptionist gave Sofia a questioning look, which Sofia took as a ‘is he bothering you?’ to which Sofia quickly shook her head.
Sofia looked at the clock on the wall. Twelve thirty, she said. She had been there an hour and six minutes now. She regretted having neglected to bring anything to read. There was a buzzing sound and the receptionist picked up her desk phone. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, Mr. Montolivo.’ She put down the phone and then said to Sofia: ‘Miss Pons, the doctor won’t be able to see you until three 0’clock now, so I suggest you go and get some lunch and then come back.’ She smiled apologetically.
Sofia drove out of the clinic car park. She then remembered the conversation she had had with Samudra. Wasn’t her house near here, somewhere? Los Molinos. That was the name of the village. Although she didn’t know Samudra well, she felt an urge to take her up on her offer. She drove out of the town north along the highway and saw a sign for Campo Alto y Los Molinos. The decision made up in her mind, Sofia indicated, changed gear and turned, before long she found herself rattling up a dirt road. The sun reflected fiercely on the windscreen and she had to hold a hand over her eyes for a second to keep out the bright light. She opened the glove compartment and pulled out a pair of sunglasses. She waited until she had completed two sharp winds of the road and then when it had leveled out, put on the sunglasses. A road sign appeared, partially hidden by the stooping branches of an acacia. She removed the sunglasses and squinted to make out the letters of the sign. Los Molinos, it said. Then she saw the ruined watermill, where Samudra had told her she must turn to the right. She turned into the shade of pine trees and the road began a series of dizzy u-bends up a steep ascent.
A small hamlet appeared, houses spread out beneath a small whitewashed church. She stopped at a three-way crossroads. There was a drive-in restaurant on the left hand side of the road, where several Harley Davidson bikes were parked. She looked around for the name of the restaurant but could see nothing. A small, fit-looking old man carrying a basket on the road leading up to the church. She drove up to him. When she wound down the window and greeted him, the man stopped, but didn’t look at her. She looked into his basket and saw it was filled with chestnuts.
‘Could you tell me the name of that restaurant over there?’ She pointed, but the man did not follow her movement. He pulled at the front of his beige woolen jumper and continued staring blankly into the distance.
‘You’re looking for the retreat?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Sofia. ‘Do you know where it is?’
‘’Left,’ said the man. ‘Left and right.’
Sofia followed the older man’s instructions and came to a large villa, surrounded by pines and cacti. She could see Samudra’s BMW parked outside, as well as several other cars and motorbikes. She parked the car beside the gate and got out. Her eyes followed the line of the descending mountains to the blue glimmer of the sea in the far distance. But for a slight breeze there was silence, stillness. She stood lost in thought for a moment, looking at the sea. Then she turned and opened the gate. Almost immediately dogs started barking, and she was greeted by a plump, fluffy terrier- and a little mutt. The front door of the house opened and a silver-haired man appeared, dressed in black jeans and shirt. ‘Gimpy! Ruso!’ the man snapped. ‘Come here!’
The dogs turned on their heels and ran back to the man. ‘Hello,’ he said, approaching. ‘Samudra has gone down to the waterfall with Jaia. She should be back anytime.’ He offered a hand. ‘I’m Atman.’ His cool demeanour and American accent, a gravelly tenor, suggested a Hollywood actor. His hand, when it took Sofia’s, retreated just a little too quickly. She was startled by this abrupt action and looked in his eyes, but found no answer.
He offered her a seat on the porch and the two dogs wagged happily around her chair. She was about to make polite conversation when the dogs began barking furiously and ran over to the gate, where a strong, muscular blonde woman appeared. Her broad, smile-worn face and confidence air suggested a woman in her late thirties. ‘It’s the reception committee!’ the woman laughed, leaning down and patting each of the dogs. Her accent was unusual, and Sofia surmised she must be from either Australia or New Zealand, as she looked English, but had a healthy, tanned glow. ‘This is Gaia,’ said Atman, ‘and there’s Samudra and Jaia.’
There was a powerful engine roar as two black leather-clad riders came through the gate on a motorbike. The first rider turned and began to edge away with the bike. The back rider hopped off and pulled her helmet off to reveal golden shoulder-length hair. The tall, slender figure of Samudra strode happily towards them. ‘I had a feeling you might come up here!’ she said, and gave Sofia a warm embrace. ‘How have you been?’
‘Fine’, said Sofia, though she winced.
She had told Xavi nothing about her recent poor health, concealing her hemorrhages, faint spells. In the evenings especially she was unusually listless and sleepy. She often curled up on the couch and quietly drifted into unconsciousness. Xavi found it hard to rouse her and get her to bed, so some evenings he covered her and left her there. She knew he suspected her behavior and distance from him were signs that she was falling out of love with him. He was driven to distraction by the idea but tried to control his feelings, fearing driving her further away. If he could give her the space she needed the spell would pass and she would come full circle back to him. During she avoided making love with him and this only compounded feeling that she was drifting from him. He became anxious she was having an affair and began to suspect his friends at the club, the ones with whom she had always been more friendly. He settled on the idea of making himself increasingly absent in the hope she might miss his presence and seek his affection but it only served to widen the gulf. She understood all of this, out of instinct, and it upset her, but she couldn’t control it. It was beyond her control.
'I'm fine,' Sofia said.
‘Well,’ said Samudra, ‘I’m going to show you around.’
Samudra led Sofia by the arm to an office where an attractive pale girl with black eyes rose from a desk to greet Sofia shyly in northern Spanish, followed by a chubby lady with a Mexican accent.
‘Don’t get too excited,’ said Samudra as they continued on through a cool, tiled hallway, ‘but Yojianna, the girl you just met... the Basque. well, she’s a virgin.’
Sofia put a hand to her mouth. She knew that, despite her belonging to the movement here at this retreat, Samudra was gossipy.
‘She’s 30 years old, Sofia.’
Sofia stopped in her tracks. She had been only fourteen when she had lost her own virginity.
‘But don’t tell anyone, okay?’ giggled Samudra.
‘Her, a virgin?’
‘I know, I know. I don’t know why it is!’
‘Childhood trauma?’ suggested Sofia.
Samudra opened a door and they went out into a sloping garden, surrounded by evergreen oaks. The sight of them in the dry Murcian climate was a shock to Sofia. Acorns lay strewn over the grass. Samudra shook her head gravely, her pupils thinning at the centre of her pale-green eyes. ‘No, nothing of the kind. Get this. She’s never even been on a date.’
Sofia was surprised that Samudra, who she hardly knew, was talking to her in this gossipy way.
‘Has she ever kissed anyone?’ asked Sofia as they followed a rock path down through the garden.
Samudra nodded. ‘One guy. And he was…yuck.’
Samudra opened a wooden gate. They went into another garden, where rubber inflatables lay around a swimming pool. A short, dark-haired man was talking to his child, while they gently bounced up and down on a small trampoline.
‘Here’s the meditation centre,’ said Samudra, pointing to a one-storey building with floor-to-ceiling windows. A woman in red approached the two of them and Sofia experienced a huge rush of fear which left her breathless. The woman said hello and exchanged kisses with Samudra, but avoided Sofia. Samudra carried on telling her about the centre, and Sofia tried to recover her poise after the sinking, desperate feeling that being in the presence of the woman had given her. It was very unusual, almost as if the woman in the red dress had poisoned her for a moment, on purpose. Now she was gone she felt relieved.
Through floor-to-ceiling windows she could see people dressed in white performing slow deliberate movements. She watched their bodies, some young and athletic, others older and overweight, move in graceful synchronicity, their bare feet sliding over the parquet flooring.
She followed Samudra into the room. The people stopped their yoga, and began to assemble chairs in lines. Samudra beckoned Sofia to take a chair, and everyone sat down in silent unison.
There were thrity people there, all dressed in white. they seemed relaxed, chatting amiably. Samudra turned and smiled at her, as if sharing some telepathic joke between the two of them, and she noticed, not for the first time, how clear and light her eyes seemed. They seemed brighter than those of most people. It was strange to be here, as if it had been arranged, and yet she hardly knew Samudra. it was a strange thought, but not one which discomforted her.
Suddenly everyone stopped talking, and several people entered the room. One of them was dressed in a black robe. Sofia was surprised to see it was Atman, the confident American she had met earlier. He entered and took his place beside a cream armchair at the front of the room. Sofia turned and saw Samudra still smiling at her still. Atman bowed to the room and said, 'namaste.' Everyone in the room bowed, and hummed. He slotted into the chair, and linked his hands together, looking around the room.
‘Your mind is a 2 year old child,’ he said to the assembly. ‘We spend our lives going backward and forward, when all we need is right here. The past is gone and the amount of time we still spend there is absurd. And then we’re worrying about what we’ve got to do. About what hasn’t happened yet. I’m here to tell you that what has gone no longer matters. I'm here to tell you that all you need...all you need is right here. Now.’ Every time Atman looked directly at Sofia, she felt a little rollercoaster rush, as if he could see inside her.