King Arthur and the New Age

This is an article I wrote more than 20 years ago for the Journal of the Pendragon Society (Vol XXIX, No. 1); I hope to follow up on some of the themes and ideas in this piece in later essays and YouTube videos.

The popularity of Arthur arises from diverse sources; there is the historical aspect, the mythological, the cultural, the psychological, and the literary. There seems little hope of ever discovering the ‘true’ Arthur, in the sense of identifying him conclusively with a real past individual, and what difference would such a discovery make? In terms of the continuing interest in Arthur it may perhaps be better for his identity to be untold, even if somehow known.

The human race may be moving into its most significant era, with our economy and technology threatening our survival and the survival of most higher forms of life on the planet. As a society we must become more responsible and mature, or we shall most likely perish. It is in this context that the future of Arthur may be decided.

There seems to have been a general rise in interest in Arthur since World War Ii, and over roughly the same period there has developed the ‘New Age’ movement. I do not think this is a coincidence. The ‘New Age’ philosophies represent a widespread search for a more spiritual view of life than that provided by the materialistic hegemony of modern capitalism. The appeals of Arthurian myth to such a search are obvious: not only is there the quest for the Holy Grail (the pursuit of truth) and the construction of Camelot (the foundation of Utopia), but the whole background to the stories is significant. The Arthurian myths are set in a world suffering from decline – the collapse of Rome and the barbarian invasions – and in this picture Arthur and his knights heroes of cultural renewal.

At a time of crises and transformation everything becomes uncertain. When social norms change, the sense of what is sane and meaningful disappear, so that everything seems crazy and futile. It becomes difficult to act rationally, as the consequences of behaviour are less predictable. Myths can help to guide individuals and society in such times by serving as a model. Obviously, it is important to choose a good model, otherwise problems may be increased rather than overcome.


There are limitless directions in which our society can develop, but if it is to continue for more than the next fifty years then the path it must choose is only one of a limited number. The Arthurian myths can provide us with a model that corresponds to one of the positive directions our society can take.

What the world needs to become is unified (that is to exist as a single society rather than a multitude of squabbling countries) and to become just (that is to function in an egalitarian and co-operative way rather than an elitist and exploitative manner). Legends attribute Arthur with the unification of the British kingdoms against the Saxon tribes, and the establishment of a rule that was based on justice and equality. Furthermore, the tragic events that bring down Arthur can serve as a warning, may urge us to find a way to learn from history rather than to continue repeating it.

Of course, the Arthurian mythology could be interpreted quite differently, and (mis)used to back a nationalistic, conservative, authoritarian and regressive ideology. This would bring doom to Arthur, for he flourishes only while we live; the end of our species will see the death of all our myths.

Part 4: Nightmares and Dream-Quests

Chapter 13

It is hot; abominably so.

The sky is an ominous, ugly red, like drying blood; it makes my eyes sting. There are no clouds, no sun; just an empty burning expanse, extending from horizon to horizon.

Beneath my feet is a fine, grey grit, halfway between sand and dust.

I am dressed in a drab robe, thin and shabby. For some reason, there is a blanket over my shoulders; I’ve no idea why this should be, and consider throwing it away immediately – it seems insane to bear a blanket in this blazing land – but perhaps there is some reason for my keeping it, some need I may later find it fulfils.

I look around me; the land is almost as featureless as the sky: a flat, dreary blankness in three quarters, like a duneless desert. In the fourth, the outline of a distant mountain dares to intrude into the sanguineous heavens.

It is still; nothing stirs, nothing moves, there is not even the gentlest of breezes. And nor is there any noise; no sound at all. A grave could not be quieter.

I don’t know what I’m doing here, if there is any purpose to my presence in this torrid place, but with no other option presenting itself, I tie the blanket around my waist and start pacing toward the far-off mountain.

The grit is abrasive, and somehow too solid; I leave no footprints in my passing.

I walk, and I walk, and I walk. The only way to measure my progress is by the slow swelling of the mountain. But, not knowing how far away it is, nor its size, it is difficult to know how long it will take to reach it.

There is no escaping the thick red air, the endless grey ground, and the pervasive, alien heat.

My head aches, my feet are sore, and my mouth is dry.

I hate it here.

I consider giving up, just sitting down and waiting for something else to happen. But I get the impression that nothing has happened here for a very long time. The mountain seems to hold my only hope, and so I drudge on.

The landscape starts to lose its flatness, and I am soon surrounded by mounds that are strangely regular in shape and separation; I navigate my way through the wide, criss-crossing channels that run between them.

The mountain starts to loom. I notice the highest reaches begin to darken, and a gloom is spreading above my head. A freezing gust of wind, like a bucket of ice-water, strikes my back, nearly bowling me over.

I gasp and glance behind me.

Heaving itself up from beyond the horizon is a bloated, black sphere which stains the sky the colour of an old bruise – a livid purplish brown. It sheds dark rays that leach the warmth from anything they touch.

I untie the blanket, wrap it around me, and hurry, stumbling, on, desperate now to reach the mountain, where shelter might be found.

As the darkness consumes everything, an anti-shadow appears before me – a bright patch etched by my body into the air and onto the earth. It helps pull me forward.

I come to the base of the mountain. It is much eroded; the peak rounded, the sides softened. I search about frantically, and count myself blessed when I discover a small cave, little more than a crack in the rocks amidst the mountain’s roots. I crawl inside; although hardly comfortable, it does give relief from the black, frigid fingers of the unholy hell-sun.

I pull the blanket around me to protect me from the now chilly air, and fold my arms into a pillow on which to rest my head. I sleep fitfully. Eventually the gloom recedes, the horrendous heat returns, and, almost regretfully, I exit the cave and start to climb the mountainside.

Although the ascent is not difficult, the going is arduous; I feel drained and wretched. I’ve never been so thirsty. I abandon the blanket; I hope it is no longer needed.

I push myself, clambering, upwards. At last, I arrive at the top; an ashen stony plateau hanging in the red sky. Sitting in the middle of this barren place is a figure, as grey and still as the land itself. A statue, apparently; but it disconcerts me.

With a sense of trepidation, I approach.

It is the figure of a female, sat cross-legged, hands resting, cupped, in her lap. Her eyes are closed. Her grey hair hangs loosely down to her shoulders, blending into the rest of her motionless, monochrome form, which itself is one with the earth. I kneel down before her, gaze into the harsh, yet delicate, lines of her face. There is something familiar about her features, and a name swims some-where beneath the surface of my consciousness.

Not knowing what else to do, and more to satisfy my own wish to break the relentless silence than out of any expectation of an answer, I crack apart my parched lips and ask: “What are you doing on this lonely mountaintop? And why am I here? What’s the point of all this?”

Her eyes suddenly snap open and stare at me with a severe, uncompromising gaze.

Shocked, I scramble backwards.

She speaks, her pitiless vehemence tempered only by a note of utter weariness: “Desist your questions and depart this place! Lost spirits receive no welcome here!”

I wince, cut to the quick by the disdain and lack of sympathy in her voice. I want to retreat, to run away, but force myself to stay, to make a reply; “I am sorry to have disturbed you, and believe me, I would gladly leave if I could – but I don’t know how I came to be here, and don’t know where to go. You see, I am not a spirit, but I am lost.”

Of course you are a spirit, ignorant one, for I am the last being that lives; all else perished an aeon ago.”

I shake my head. “No, that cannot be true. This cannot be real.”

Enough!” she shouts. The word is a thunderclap, knocking me to the floor. I cower, covering my ears. “You dare call me a liar? Deluded ghost, do you not realise that you could have saved this world? It is because of you the land is dead; there is no-one else to blame for this desolation. Now, begone!”

A fierce wind erupts from her body and sweeps me up, hurls me aloft. As I tumble through the air I see, far below me, the area of mounds and channels I had passed through – which, from this height, look like nothing so much as the street-plan of a city: a city worn to dust by the passage of a million merciless years.

I scream.

* * * * * *

The scream was still tearing itself from my throat when I hit my bedroom floor and woke up.

I lay there on the carpet, my duvet tangled around me, panting with relief, while the sheen of sweat that covered my body turned cold and clammy.

What was that about?’ I asked myself.

It was still the middle of the night, so I picked myself up and got back into bed.

I couldn’t fathom what the nightmare signified. Was it a warning, a prophecy, or a reflection of things going on in the depths of my mind? Was that dull, lifeless land an image of my soul? I shuddered at the thought, shuddered again when I considered the possible meaning of that obscene black sun which consumed warmth and light rather than gave them.

There was one thing I was certain of, however; the statue-woman had been Ellie, or a version of Ellie that had been drained of love and kindness, emptied of colour and compassion. It could not be the real Ellie (I was not due to see her again for another three weeks), but was, rather, a twisted version of her created by my own imagination.

I had no idea why it would want to do that.

I was reminded of the first dream – nightmare – I’d had in which Ellie had featured, before she’d appeared to me properly. That had been a warning; it had been telling me not to carry through my murderous, suicidal plan. Was I being warned of something now, and if so, what?

Enough!’ the nightmare Ellie had commanded me. I agreed; it was time to rest. I could leave my investigation until another time.

I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep, but my efforts were in vain and eventually I decided that I might as well get up. The office doors opened at seven-thirty, so I got out of bed at half six to have a wash and prepare myself some sandwiches for lunch, then walk in at a leisurely pace.

It was cold, windy and drizzling outside, which encouraged me to set a brisker pace than I had intended, with the result that I arrived at the office before the doors were open, and I had to huddle in the doorway to hide from the weather. I stood and shivered, watching a ragged plastic bag fluttering and tumbling along the street.

It was only a few minutes wait before I could enter the building, but the cold had nevertheless bit into my flesh, making my nose run and ears burn. I navigated my way to the bathroom with foggy glasses, before heading to my desk.

The lack of sleep and chill made me feel feverish. I drank coffee after coffee to try and keep myself awake and functional, but instead became jittery and on edge. The day passed slowly.

I left the office as soon as I reasonably could. Too tired to face the walk home, I got a bus, which passed by the shops near my house, so when I got off it wasn’t much of a diversion to pop in and pick up a bottle of wine.

I got in and took off my shoes, coat, hat and scarf, before sitting down in front of the telly with the wine. I drank a glass with an unsteady hand, hoping the alcohol would calm my nerves, but instead it just made me feel worse. Too exhausted to worry about food, I decided to have an early night, so I brushed my teeth and stumbled up the stairs to my bedroom.

I sat and regarded Ellie’s shrine. I had neither the energy nor the inclination to light candles and kneel on the floor.

My head drooped, and I muttered to myself in a poor impersonation of a French accent; “Not tonight, Josephine!” I focused on the shrine again, and said. “I’ll make it up to you tomorrow, Ellie – I just need to get to bed, now. I’m so, so tired!”

I dragged myself to my feet and across the room, turned off the light, and shuffled back to the bed, removing and discarding clothes as I went. I collapsed on top of the covers and had a struggle to get underneath them.

“Goodnight, my angel,” I murmured, my eyes already closed. “Goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow!”

Despite the torment of the day, I nonetheless went to sleep that night with a smile on my face.

Chapter 14

I find myself standing in a bare room of stone. The air is musty, with a hint of wax and incense. I get the impression that I am in an old place, perhaps a church, although a large, double-glazed window suggests the building is more modern, or has been modified. I approach the glass and see, outside, a small town, where a normal day is underway; people walk about the streets, go in and out of the shops, drive around in their cars.

A heavy shadow stretches over the scene, and I peer up through the glass at a cloud of whirling white.

It is snowing.

Only this it not ordinary snow; I watch in amazement as the first fat flakes float gently past the window and see that they are not what they initially appeared to be. What they are, are notes: five pound notes; ten pound notes; twenty pound notes; fifty pound notes.

A vast fortune drifts down from the heavens to settle on the land below.

The reaction of the townspeople caught in this bizarre blizzard is instantaneous. They leap out of their cars, and stream out of the shops and houses, to collect as much cash as they can. Some reach their arms above their heads to pluck the money from the air, while others fall to their knees to grab armfuls from the ground. Shrieks of joy fill the swirling sky.

The strange snow stops after only a few minutes, but within this time so many notes have fallen that they form a thick layer over everything. People stumble through the streets as though drunk, laughing and kicking the notes up into in the air like leaves.

Just as suddenly as the snow had started, and then stopped, it begins to rain.

Only this is not ordinary rain; it is not raining drops of water, but raining coins. And they do not drift down through the air like snowflakes, but hurtle like bullets shot from the barrels of a billion guns.

The windscreens of all the cars shatter in unison, and the noise of the coins striking the road, the pavement, and the roofs of the buildings, almost manages to drown out the screams of the people who, all caught out in the open, are reduced to a shredded mass of flesh and splintered bone in a matter of moments.

The rain is over even quicker than the snow, leaving a dreadful silence and stillness in its wake. The streets of the town are a mess. The notes still cover everything, but blood is soaking into them, creating a pink, soggy shroud. The cars are wrecked, and many of the buildings have been reduced to rubble by the metal deluge.

It looks like the aftermath of a war.

Behind me a door opens. I turn round and there, dressed in dark ragged robes, with lank, black hair, an ashen face, and a murderous look in her bloodshot eyes, is Ellie.

Oh, useless child!” she spits scornfully at me. “Art thou happy now? Is all this death and destruction pleasing to thee? Thoughtless, uncaring, spiteful, wretched brat! Why didst thou stand and watch? Why didst thou not stop this tragedy?”

I take a step away from her. “What could I have done?” I ask. “How could I have stopped it?”

She advances on me, her eyes burning with hate and anger. I try to keep a distance between us, but my back comes up against the wall. She is upon me, screaming into my face; her hot, rancid exhalations rasp against my skin, penetrate my airways. “Brazen, trothless villain! Dost thou deem me witless? Fie on thee, knavish churl! Did I not warn them of thy feckless nature?”

I shut my eyes and try to turn my head away, to escape her burning breath and stinging accusations. “I’m sorry,” I wail; “But I don’t know what you want of me, what I could have done. Please, have pity on me!”

There is no response.

Gingerly, I open my eyes.

She is gone.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and glance back out the window. It is growing dark, and I’m thankful that the night is coming to hide the view. But then I hear the howling of wolves, and in the twilight see their sleek forms prowling through the streets, searching through the paper for the fresh meat beneath. I can hear them feeding on, fighting over, the corpses; the sound is sickening, chilling.

* * * * * *

The next instant I was sitting bolt upright in my bed, heaving in air. My skin was slick with cold sweat. Snarls still echoed in my ears, and the sight of mangled bodies haunted my vision.

Slowly, I eased my breathing.

My bedroom was illuminated by thin streaks of dull, dawn sunshine. I looked over at Ellie’s shrine. Her picture was just visible in the gloom; the only feature of her face that could be made out was her smile. I took some comfort from this, and drew upon our shared love to calm me further.

What’s going on?’ I wondered to myself. The previous nightmare had been sinister and disquieting; this one had left me shocked, confused and dismayed. There had to be some reason behind them; they were too vivid, too tangible, to be ordinary, everyday fictions of the brain.

But they were surely not visions sent to me by Ellie, regardless of her apparent appearance in them. She had told me I would not see again her until a month had lapsed; therefore, it couldn’t really be her.

There was, however, something about the character her simulacrum had adopted that touched a part of my subconscious; I almost recognised what she was symbolising. It had something to do with the archaic way she spoke, with how she looked.

I had no further time to consider the matter, as I had to get up. At least I was better rested than yesterday; this nightmare had come later, and I’d gone to bed early, so I’d managed to get a full night’s sleep.

One should be grateful for small mercies.

* * * * * *

Three quarters of an hour later I opened my front door, then just stood there, trembling. It was cold, but today that was not what made me shiver – it was the thick clouds scudding overhead. They were ominous; threatening. A sense of panic gripped me, and I considered not leaving the house; I could call in sick and go back to bed.

No.’ I told myself sternly. ‘You’re going to work.

If I took much more time off sick, I’d hit a trigger point and have to go through the whole attendance management process. Joan being Joan, I’d probably end up with a formal warning, which I’d find very upsetting. It was exactly that kind of black mark against my name that had made me leave my last job, which had been at the City Council, and re-join the Civil Service.

I simply could not bear any kind of dishonour. My dependability, efficiency and integrity were of utmost importance to me – they justified my existence; without them, I would consider myself unworthy of life.

Therefore, there was no question of staying home.

I forced myself out the door, fought against the urge to run for the nearest cover and hide there. But I compromised by getting a bus, minimising the amount of time I spent out in the open air.

The day went by at a snail’s pace. I was obsessed by the weather, and couldn’t stop looking out the window. I nearly screamed when it started raining. I had, before opening the front door that morning, intended to go out at lunch to get something to eat, as I didn’t have much in at home – but I cancelled that idea. I wasn’t going to go outside unless I absolutely had too; I wouldn’t even venture out for a cigarette.

As I hadn’t eaten dinner last night, I became more and more hungry. Frustratingly, it rained on and off throughout the day, keeping me trapped in the office until just after six, by which time the sky was relatively clear. I rushed to the bus stop before more clouds could gather.

Getting off the bus, I hurried to the shops and picked up a bottle of wine and, to satisfy my rumbling belly, a chicken and vegetable pie, two medium sized potatoes, and other supplies to restock my cupboards, fridge and freezer.

I ran home with my shopping. Once inside, I drew the curtains as soon as my shoes were off, and turned on the telly to drown out the sound of any rain which might fall that evening.

I was about to open the bottle of wine I’d just bought when I noticed the one from the previous evening, still mostly full. “Waste not, want not,” I told myself, and put aside the new bottle to finish the old.

I poured a glass and took a gulp, but my hunger was urgent, so I started preparing my dinner, taking occasional sips as I worked. When the potatoes were peeled, chopped and simmering away in a saucepan, and the pie was in the oven, I retreated to my living room to relax. I drained the dregs from my first glass and poured myself another, then rolled a cigarette.

While I sat, drinking and smoking and waiting for my dinner to cook, I brooded on the nightmares I’d had over the last couple of nights. “Will there be another tonight?” I wondered aloud. My gut instinct said ‘yes’ – that a third would follow those of the previous two. I worried about the impact on my state of mind of a further night of horror, destruction, and blame; I had already developed a fear of the weather (and what would that be called, I pondered. Meteorophobia? Or is that the fear of rocks falling from the sky? And, in my case, is there much difference?), what reaction might I have to another nightmare? A complete mental breakdown? Had I been mistaken in my earlier analysis, when, sat in the shrine room at the Buddhist Centre for the first time, I’d concluded that I should just accept Ellie’s presence in my life and not question it? Had that decision brought me to this situation? Should I instead have resisted her in some way? But the mere thought of rejecting Ellie in any manner caused an upwelling of pain that flooded through me like a wave of pure, cold agony. I felt trapped by mysterious forces that were far beyond my knowledge or control; caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

By the time the pie and potatoes were done, I’d finished the first bottle of wine. I drained and (after adding a dash of milk, a knob of butter, a light sprinkle of salt, and a much heavier one of black pepper) mashed the potatoes, transferred the mash and pie to a plate, and carried my dinner through to the living room.

Despite my earlier hunger, the sour mood that had washed over me had robbed me of my appetite, and I could only manage a few mouthfuls before pushing the plate away. My mood had done nothing, however, to reduce my thirst, which I proceeded to slake by opening the second bottle of wine and carry on drinking until I was merrily drunk, and my worries had been carried away on a tide of vino. “Mission successful!” I declared with a hiccup. I looked at my empty glass, and the nearly empty bottle. ‘Might as well finish it off,’ I thought to myself, but, as I reached forward, changed my mind and, with the back of my hand, knocked the glass across the table. It dropped over the edge and rolled in a circle on the carpet. I was almost disappointed it hadn’t smashed.

My gaze wandered and I noticed my cold dinner. I burst out laughing as the memory of a series of adverts I’d seen in my childhood surfaced, and I announced; “For mash get smash!”

I hiccupped again.

With an effort, I got to my feet. “It’s all getting very, very silly,” I said. “And I’m not standing for it! Hic! No, I’m not – well, I am standing, but I’m not standing for it, I’m just standing. Hic! And that’s the last you’ll hear from me on the subject! Now, if you’re excuse me, I must be going to bed. Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen!”

With a final hiccup, I turned out the light.

I couldn’t be bothered with brushing my teeth, so I staggered straight upstairs. I wanted to go directly to bed, but remembered I had made a promise to Ellie the previous night, and, regardless of everything else, I was not going to break it.

In consideration of my drunken state, I lit the candles with care, before turning off the light and kneeling down. The foolish grin that was on my face slowly transformed itself into a frown. The tide of my emotions had apparently turned, and my worries were floating back to me like so much unwanted jetsam.

“Oh, Ellie,” I said, after making the sign of the cross and bowing. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why I’ve been having these nightmares.… I wish I could speak with you about them, that you could tell me what they mean. They seem… so morbid. Death, destruction, despair – why, just when I’ve found such happiness, do these haunt my mind? Is there anything I should be learning from them? Are they part of the journey?” Images from the dreams whirled through my consciousness: the city of dust beneath a black sun; the townspeople killed by falling coins; Ellie’s dark twin telling me it was all my fault, that I was to blame for everything.

It was just too much.

“Am I doing something wrong, Ellie? Am I being punished for something? If I only knew what to do, I’d do it. Truly, I would. It’s the not-knowing that’s so difficult. The uncertainty.” I sighed. Things had been so much easier when I’d just been existing, when I’d given up on life and was just enduring each day with a disciplined nonchalance. I hadn’t suffered so much then; there had been no questions nor challenges, and with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I’d experienced a kind of sullen, joyless peace – or, at least, the conflict within me had been so muted that it was below my everyday awareness.

It hadn’t been much fun, but it had, in hindsight, been bearable. That’s how I’d managed to live that way for so long.

How many people are living like that right now?’ I suddenly wondered. ‘How many other zombie people are there in the world? Just living out of a sense of duty, or fear, rather than out of any joy, or passion, for life. Without any hope.

It was a sobering thought.

“I’m sorry, Ellie,” I said, staring at her picture again, although I was having trouble focusing. “I’m so lucky to have you in my life. I know I am. But I don’t feel so good about things now. I don’t know what to do, what’s wrong with me. I’ve been given a great gift, but at the moment it just feels like a massive burden. I’m sorry, but that’s how I feel. I do love you, and I am grateful… but I’m also lost and alone, and don’t know where to turn. Please help me; please comfort me and guide me, help me to see the light again. I know it’s there – I know it’s always there – but I just can’t see it.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I was exhausted, and could barely remain kneeling; I was swaying so much I feared pitching forward and breaking my nose on the floor. I sighed; “Thank you Ellie; thank you for listening, for being here with me – though I can’t sense your presence as strongly as usual, I know you’re here. So, I thank you. I do love you, Ellie; I really do.”

I made the sign of the cross and bowed again, climbed cautiously to my feet, then sat on my bed while taking off my clothes. I considered leaving the candles burning whilst I slept, but thought better of it, and blew them out.

“Goodnight, my angel, my love. Watch over me, keep me safe.”

I got into bed. Completely forgetting about the nightmares, I visualised Ellie as I’d seen her standing by my bedroom door, haloed in glimmering, silver light. This happy image stayed with me as I drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 15

When I entered the forest I was riding on a Roman road that was still in reasonable repair, but the further I travelled, the more broken it became, until was just an overgrown track with occasional cobbles peeking out of from between the weeds. The trees closed in, and I had to dismount and lead my horse, Caval, or risk being knocked from my seat by the over-hanging branches.

Eventually the road faded away altogether, and we now follow animal trails, picking our route as best we can. So that I do not exhaust my supplies, I forage for food as we go, and make simple snares when we rest each evening.

It is dank and fusty in the deep forest; no breath of wind winds this far within. It is dark too; the thick canopy allows only a dappled gloom to reach the ground, so that each day is but a waxing and waning of twilight, and the starless nights are pitch-black.

Aside from the noise made by Caval and myself, which echoes eerily around us, it is silent.

Time starts to lose its meaning. Everything seems disjointed, lacking a proper context or reference. For all I know, we might be going round in circles; there is too little variety to discriminate one part of the forest from another.

I cannot guess how long ago it was that I left the castle of my lord and set out for Camelot, before becoming hopelessly lost in this forest. A month? Two months? Three? Surely, no longer than that – I would have noticed the change in the season. Even so, I begin to imagine that I will spend the rest of my life wandering within this wooden prison.

But, after countless days, we find an old path; we follow it, and the foliage thins and, finally, the way ahead emerges into glorious sunshine. Caval smells the grass growing beyond the bounds of the trees, and surges forward with enthusiasm.

I let go the reins and follow in his wake; breaking from beneath the entwined branches, I stop for a moment, the bright morning light causing me to blink after the forest’s murk. It is a fine day, with a deep blue sky dotted with brilliant white clouds; the air is sweet and full of birdsong.

Before me the path splits, giving a choice of direction. I can go either left, along the forest’s edge, or to the right, in the direction of distant grey-blue mountains.

I have no way of knowing which way to go, but the mountains beckon, promising adventure, or at least a view over the land I’ve been travelling through.

Ho, Caval!” I call. “Time to stretch those long legs of yours!”

Caval ignores me and continues to crop the grass. I indulge him; there is no rush. When he has eaten his fill, I climb into the saddle and we set off at a canter.

After a few miles we’re in the foothills, heading up towards the heights.

We arrive at a ravine; below a river rumbles betwixt rock walls. Dismounting, I lead Caval to a stone arch that spans the water-cut crevasse. Cautiously, we cross.

There is a sudden, subtle shift in the light, in the very fabric of the air. The sun starts to tremble, as if afflicted with vertigo. The clouds travel at odds to each other; one going this way, another going that. They condense and disperse at random; whole banks of them appearing in one heartbeat, disappearing in the next.

I don’t like this. I don’t want to be here – but nor do I want to turn back. Gritting my teeth, I push forward.

We travel along a precipice, a thin margin around the mountains’ midriff. We walk carefully; scattered boulders warn of rock-slides.

Rounding a bend, I halt to take in a new panorama; a huge expanse of seething sky hovering over hills that stretch to a hazy horizon. The day is well advanced; I would like to hurry us on, but the footing is unsure, and the path narrow, so I have to be content with a considered pace.

I almost miss the cave-mouth, nearly mistake the man sitting therein for a mass of motionless stone. Caval’s senses are keener; he whinnies and nods in his direction.

I stop and stare at the man; he sits cross-legged on a blanket, has long white, wispy hair, wrinkled, weather-beaten skin, and wears a worn, ragged robe. He regards me with a wary, worried look.

I raise a hand in salute to him. “Hail, friend. How fares the day with thee?”

He glances down at a bowl set beside him, before bringing his attention back to me. He seems to be assessing me in some manner.

He opens his mouth, but instead of words he makes only a dry, croaking noise. He coughs and tries again. “Greetings, stranger. Who art thou, and why hast thou come to disturb me in my sanctuary?”

I am Sir Timotheus, a Knight Errant,” I tell him. “And I ride to Camelot, to ask King Arthur if I may join the quest for the Holy Grail.”

The Grail, thou sayest?” He raises an eyebrow in either surprise or amusement, I cannot tell which. “For what purpose wouldst thou seek such a thing?”

King Arthur has decreed finding the Holy Grail an issue of great importance – the fate of the whole kingdom depends upon it.”

Then ’good luck and Godspeed’ say I to thee.”

I get the impression that he would rather I leave, but there is the chance that he knows something that will be useful to me on the road ahead – though he does not seem keen to converse. I decide on a gentle approach, calling on his better nature and, should he have any, his pride. “Tell me, good hermit, do travellers come to thee, seeking guidance and wisdom?”

He answers my question with a question of his own; “Dost thou come to me, seeking guidance and wisdom?”

Yea, I do.”

Then ‘yea’ say I, too.” He seems pleased with this exchange, and smiles. I wait for him to say something further, but instead he closes his eyes and gives every appearance of having forgotten my presence.

Canst thou, then, assist me?” I ask, doing my best to keep any note of impatience from my voice. I am not sure whether this man is playing me straight, nor whether he is entirely sane.

He replies without opening his eyes. “Assist thee? Nay, I cannot. Give thee good counsel? Certes, that I can do. But I wonder if thou wouldst thank me for it? Art thou ready to hear what I wouldst teach thee?”

I will harken to thy words, and thank thee for them, whether I like them or not. Whether I understand them, or not.”

I can ask no more than that.” He opens his eyes again and fixes me with a deep and demanding gaze. ”Thou hath no need to go to Camelot. No need to search, nor to seek. No need to go anywhere, nor to do anything. If thou wert to stop, now, give up, now, be done with everything and desire nothing evermore, then all would be achieved, and the Grail would be revealed to thee.”

He is watching me intently, but I do not know how to respond as I can make little sense of his advice. How can anything be achieved by giving up? How can a quest be completed before it is even begun? “It would seem,” I say carefully, “that were I to act as you suggest, I would have no reason to leave this cave. I would just sit down here, and have no motivation to move again.”

Aye, thou hast the gist of it – but doth thou hath the stomach for it?”

Nay, my friend. I am a knight, and it is my duty to strive; to protect the weak and defend the vulnerable. I am honour-bound to uphold justice; to fight for peace. I cannot sit idly by and watch as the world turns to ruin.”

Then my words are wasted on thee.”

Though they seemeth of little use to me, as promised, I thank thee for them. Perchance there is other counsel thou couldst givest me? Such as directions to Camelot?”

To get to Camelot, just continue to travel. Thou wilt meet opposition and hardship, and, when thy way is blocked, thy wouldst be better served by turning back, but doubtless thy honour will not allow this. Keep going, and to Camelot thou shalt come – and sooner than thou might reckon. I pray only that thou hath learnt something by the time thou arrivest there, and thou hath not caused too much harm during the journey.”

I am very relieved to hear that I will make it to Camelot, and in my relief I miss the warnings being given to me. “I am sure, once I arrive at Camelot, that King Arthur will not refuse me the chance to take up the quest. His generosity is renowned, and it is said that he always grants a boon when asked, should it be in his power to do so, and not be contrary to the code of honour.”

Aye, it is so. Honour and chivalry flower at his court, but these blooms will one day fade, and intrigue, greed, envy, hatred and ignorance will bring crashing down all that he and Merlin hath built. The old order changeth, yielding place to new. That is the way of the world; nothing is permanent, all things that come about, pass away again. The light shines forth on a clear day, but then storm clouds come, and darkness falls over the land.”

But would not that light last longer, would not those storm clouds be blown away, if the Holy Grail is found? Is that not, then, the goal of the quest?”

And what dost thou wit of the Grail? What hath thou heard?”

The story told me is that the Holy Grail appeared at Camelot where King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were gathered together in celebration. But it was so fulgent and bedazzling that no-one spied it surely. Some said that it were like a chalice, others a platter; one claimed to have seen an ornately crafted cauldron, another, a great gemstone. There is no agreement as to its appearance. This is one of the mysteries that surround the Holy Grail.”

The hermit nods, indicating this is no news to him, which assures me that he does know something of the matter. He sneezes violently, before asking; “So, then – what of its resting place? Hath thou any idea where it might be?”

From what I have heard, it was kept at the Castle of King Pelham of Lambor, but now that castle has vanished, and the surrounding area for many leagues has been wasted and cursed. It is said of that land that it is now hard to find one’s way int’, and harder still to find one’s way out. Whether the Holy Grail remains within the castle, or King Pelham fled from there and took it with him, is another issue on which there is no agreement. Suffice to say, none have stepped foot within the castle, nor seen King Pelham, and returned to report it. That, at least, is what they say.”

And thou hast met this King Pelham – thou art familiar with him?”

Not as such,” I tell him, “but I have heard him described, and wouldst recognise his coat of arms.”

And if he chose not to wear his coat of arms, couldst thou be certain of making him out?”

Not certain,” I answer, a little stiffly; he seems to be implying that my attempting the quest would be nothing more than a wild goose chase. “Unless you can advise me further.”

The hermit shrugs his shoulders. “I’ve never been introduced to him, nor has he been pointed out to me, so how wouldst I know what he looks like? As for where he may be – I’ve been living in these mountains for some years, and have heard naught from any other man until thine arrival, so how canst I help thee find him?”

I cannot argue with that.

So,” the hermit continues. “It seemeth that thou desireth to go in quest of something that thou cannot readily identify, and that is in the possession of someone thou wouldst not necessarily recognise.”

I sigh and sit down, with my back to the cave wall. “It is a fool’s errand, in other words.”

In sooth, thou hath summed up the matter perfectly,” the hermit says with a laugh that turns into a fit of coughing. When he’s recovered, he carries on. “I am sorry that I cannot help thee, but, if this matter is so grave, ‘tis certain Gawain, Lancelot, or one of the other Knights of the Round Table, will persevere and win the day. Someone always does – for the world keeps on turning, despite all the perils it has faced.”

Thou speeketh wisely, yet I shall not stray from my intent. I left my home behind in order to ride to Camelot and take up the quest. Mayhap there is news I have not yet heard; perchance someone has gained some piece of knowledge that might unravel these mysteries, and allow someone to succeed where so many have failed.”

The hermit does not reply to this, and there is silence between us for a minute or two. Despite the discouraging conversation, it is nonetheless pleasant to rest in the cool cavern, and enjoy the presence of another human being after so long with only Caval for companionship.

I start to feel hungry again; I fetch my pack and see what food I have remaining. “Art thou hungry, hermit?” I ask. “Wouldst thou like to share my repast?”

He smiles and nods eagerly. I divide between us the last of my provisions – a couple of handfuls of berries and a few strips of dried meat. We sit and eat.

Thank thee, Sir Knight,” he says, munching away. “Bless you for this provender.”

Thou art welcome. Wouldst thou like some water?” I unhook the flask from my belt, prise off the stopper, and take a swig, then offer it to the hermit.

Nay, friend – keep it.” He gestures to the bowl on the floor beside him. “It rains often in the mountains, and I use this to catch the drops.”

I peer at it. It is simple in design, and made of black, varnished metal. Moreover, and more to the point, it is empty.

Thy bowl is void, friend hermit.”

Aye,” he replies. “But I wit it will rain later.”

I look out the cave-mouth at the churning clouds. “I cannot tell how thou couldst make sense of this wode weather. What is this place, and why does the sky seem broken?”

This is a thin place, where different worlds meet. Things bleed from one realm to another here, but nature acts to screen such doorways, and so these places are hard to find. Which means that they are excellent places in which to hide.”

I feel sympathy for this poor man; whether he is crazy or not. “Tell me, hermit, art thou content here? Wouldst thou not prefer to return to civilisation? Sitting all alone in this cave – it cannot be good for thee.”

He gives me a fearful look, as if I were about to attack him, before answering in a voice full of resignation; “I’ll have none of thy pity, good sir knight! And I wit of no other place I shouldst rather be. The cares of the world are behind me, and I have no wish to return to them. Instead, I strive for liberation. Now, ‘tis time you are getting on your way. Thy horse cannot come within, and ‘twould not be safe to leave him overnight on the slender ledge.”

He speaks truly. I get to my feet, and bow to him. “Thank thee for sharing thy shelter and counsel. May peace be with thee.”

Thou art welcome, Sir Timotheus,” he replies. “Until we meet again, fare thee well.” He then shuts his eyes and reverts to a stony demeanour.

I leave the cave and Caval and I continue our journey.

Soon the path descends, coming down from the mountains into heathland. I re-mount Caval and we travel on.

As the sun starts to set, we leave the heathland behind and, passing through copse-topped hills, come to a wide, fast-flowing river – perhaps the same river we had crossed earlier in the mountains. On the other side are meadows, with forest beyond.

A wooden bridge spans the turbulent flow. It would have once been a fair and sturdy structure, but is now old, its planks covered in moss. Yet it does not seem so decayed that it would collapse beneath us.

Caval balks as we approach; he shakes his head, snorts, stamps his hoof.

What worries thee, my trusted steed? Dost thou think it unsafe? Though it has seen better days, the beams of the bridge are broad. They will take our weight, I’m sure.” I try to calm him, encourage him on, but he remains resolute and will not budge.

I am about to dismount and attempt to lead him across, when a monstrous, misshapen figure climbs up from under the bridge. Its bent body is twice the size of a man’s, its limbs are long and twisted, and it gives off a putrid stench that pollutes the air.

I pull Caval back a few strides whilst unslinging my shield from my back.

Although I have never encountered such a creature before, it matches the description of a troll too closely to be anything else. It bellows and shakes a brutish, clawed hand at me. I respond by drawing my sword, raising it above my head, and shouting; “Come, hell-spawn! Come, taste my steel!”

It does not advance, but keeps its ground, grimacing and gesticulating.

I am at a loss what to do. The troll stands too close to the bank for me to charge at it; Caval and I would end up in the river if we tried that. I could dismount and battle the beast on foot, but given its stature and the length of its arms, I would be at a severe disadvantage fighting it toe-to-toe. My only hope is to lure it away from the bridge and engage it on horseback in the open.

I start to strike my sword upon my shield, and, as I had hoped, the sound annoys it. Growling angrily, It takes a step forward.

Directing Caval with my thighs, I get him to slowly back away, while I continue my clamour. “What art thou waiting for, thou overgrown hobgoblin! Come and fight me!”

The creature takes another step forward, then one more.

It’s enough.

I spur Caval forward, then pull sideways on the reins. Caval reads my intention, digs his hooves into the ground and lunges ahead at an angle. We charge at our assailant, who reaches out to pluck me from my saddle. I raise my shield defensively and the troll tries to grabs hold of it, but I had anticipated this and sweep my blade across my shield’s face; it connects with the troll’s hand, severing one of its clawed fingers. We rush close by its flank, and I pull again on the reins and we wheel sharply around. I catch the beast flat-footed as it tries to turn to face us, and I swing my sword at its throat; it flashes, slicing flesh.

My blow is not quite enough to behead the beast, but it does open a large gash on its neck. Roaring in rage and pain it staggers hurriedly away, blood pouring from its wound. I let it go, content to watch It stumble toward the bank some distance downriver. With a helpless, hopeless wail it dives in, and disappears beneath the water.

I clean my sword, return it to its scabbard, then pat Caval’s neck. “Good work, my faithful friend! Now, onward! The day will soon be done, and we should make camp some distance from the river – in case our injured foe should seek us out in the night.”

Caval starts over the bridge without further fuss. The light, which had been fading fast, vanishes as we reach halfway; thick, dark clouds have suddenly spread across the whole sky.

Riding onto the far bank, there is a split second of stark blue-white brilliance, followed by a rumbling boom of thunder. A wave of water descends from the heavens.

We race along the path, which curves as it traverses the open land, until it runs beside trees.

We arrive at a junction; we can continue straight on, or turn and head into the forest. To escape the weather we seek shelter amongst the boughs and branches.

We have not travelled far when I spy a flicker of flames from a small fire. The offer of warmth, and the hope of hot food, pulls me toward it.

I dismount and lead Caval towards the firelight. I come to a clearing, but it appears to be deserted. The fire has been built within a ring of small stones, to stop it spreading through the twigs and leaves that litter the ground, and close by (but not too close) is a stack of sticks to keep it fed.

I step forward.

A violent shove sends me sprawling. I roll and try to get back to my feet, but a hand presses me down into the earth, and a pair of burning eyes bore into mine.

Shameless fool! This very day the quest could have been achieved, but thou hast failed! Why, varlet, why? Why didst thou not ask him the question?”

Before I can recover my wits and offer a reply, I am hefted into the air and flung into a tree-trunk, banging my head and knocking the breath from my body. I fall to the ground in a heap.

A shape moves toward me; at first glance it looks like a woman dressed in fine brocade, but her visage is malformed; her black eyes are rimmed with red, a pair of yellow tusks protrude from her mouth, her nose resembles a dog’s snout, and her hair is coarse and spiky, like the bristles on a boar’s back.

Witless ne’er-do-well, thou sat before the king and did nought! Was his suffering, his sickness, not evident to thee? The Grail was there, also, before thy very gaze, and still thou didst nought! Why didst thou not ask him? Why?”

The king?” I gasp, when I’ve managed to get some air in my lungs. “I’ve not seen any king; ‘twas only an old hermit, living in a cave, that I saw.”

Oh, blind and boorish villain, that was the king! Time flows weirdly in the wasteland; the king has been hiding there for more than a dozen winters, and thou hast spent fully half that length of time in useless wandering, while the land withers.”

No,” I say, shaking my head. “That cannot be true – it cannot!”

Doubt me not, knave. Hie thee to King Arthur’s court and inform him of thy short-comings; let him wit the quest continues, thanks to thine ignorance.”

I try to object, to defend myself, but everything is spinning too fast, making me feel nauseous.

The harridan leans over me, about to spit more words into my face; but I close my eyes and everything fades away into darkness and silence.

* * * * * *

I woke up with a banging headache, and for a moment attributed this to hitting my head against a tree, but then I remember that the real reason was drinking the best part of two bottles of wine the previous night.

I lay for a few minutes recollecting the dream I’d just had. Although it carried on the general theme of the previous two, I didn’t find it so negative. Indeed, I took a measure of cheer from it; I finally had a handle on the images, which would help me interpret their meaning, and see how things fitted together.

That handle was the Holy Grail.

I had read a number of books about the Holy Grail in my younger years, when I had been fascinated by all things relating to King Arthur. I was familiar both with the apocryphal Christian versions of the story of the Holy Grail, and also a number of pagan myths concerning magical cauldrons and strange quests.

The dark, ugly figure who took Ellie’s form is a character that appears in several versions of the grail-quest, under various names and guises. She often has a close connection to the Grail, and from what I could recall, her role is to admonish the hero for his early failure, and spur him on to renewed effort and, ultimately, success.

Therefore, despite her blame and antagonism, I regarded her presence in my dream as a confirmation that I was going in the right direction.

The king in the cave was a different matter. According to all the stories I’d read, the Wounded King stays in his castle, and waits for the hero to come to him. The hero has to ask the king a particular question, and when he does the king and the land are both healed. Why in my dream the king should have ventured out of his castle, and why he didn’t bare the traditional injury – often delicately referred to as an injury to his thigh – I couldn’t be sure. But I assumed that I would find out in due course.

There was another mystery; the appearance of the Grail itself. Apparently, the metal bowl the hermit-king used to collect water in, was in fact the Holy Grail. Why did it take this particular form?

The final thing I wondered at was the actual experience of being Sir Timotheus, the Knight Errant. I had, during the dream, wholly felt myself to be this character; Sir Timotheus was both me, and not me. We shared the same ideals and passions, the same sense of justice, and aspiration to be and do good, but our knowledge and personal histories were separate.

Although I would have liked to have stayed in bed and mused over these things further, I had no such leisure to do so; it was time to get up for work.

I went through the usual morning ritual; a cup of coffee as I prepared my lunch, brushing the teeth, shoes and coat on – all the while wondering how I was going to feel when I opened the front door.

The answer was: not so bad. I stood and looked out at the world, and the world appeared to be its normal self. Today, it seemed, the sky was not my enemy, and reality regarded me indifferently.

It was the most I could have hoped for.

I went to work not with a spring in my step, but I did sport a sly smile. I thought that I had a better grasp now on the game that was being played. My role had become clearer, even though the goal toward which I was making my way was still obscure.

It’s just a matter of time,’ I told myself. ‘Hang in there; things will get better.

* * * * * *

I didn’t get much done that morning; I was too pre-occupied to focus on things, and kept drifting off into daydreams. I couldn’t stop thinking about the three nightmares, particularly the final one, which I hoped would give me the key to understanding them all. But it was the battle with the troll that my thoughts returned to most frequently; even though it had just been a dream, the way I had bravely faced and defeated the monster, filled me with confidence in my character and ability. I was not a coward, nor was I weak and incapable.

I felt like I could face anything, that I could conquer the world if I must.

Who knows?’ I thought to myself. ‘Maybe I will.

I opened the drawer beside my desk and looked at the picture of Ellie I kept there, and added; ‘With your help, of course, my angel.

I went to the Buddhist Centre at lunch-time for the Friday afternoon drop-in meditation. Gita wasn’t there, but Jo and Rajagaha were. I had a brief chat with both of them before the meditation (we did the mindfulness of breathing), but didn’t stay afterwards. I didn’t wish to prolong my working day.

I was better focused when I got back to the office, which was useful as I’d not achieved much throughout the week. I worked dutifully until quarter past five, when I suddenly decided that I’d had enough.

But before I left the office, I did one last thing – I searched on the internet for local martial arts classes. I found a few, but one interested me keenly; it was called Lishi (which, I later discovered, is pronounced ‘lee-shur’) and was based on Taoist principles. I entered the contact name and number into my mobile phone.

When I got home I noticed first the virtually untouched plate of pie-and-mash from the previous evening, then the glass which I had knocked off the table, laying on the floor. The dregs had spilled out during its journey, leaving three small, dark stains on the blue carpet. I stood and looked at those blotches, feeling that they indicated something meaningful, but which I lacked the means to interpret. After a few seconds of staring I shrugged, picked up the glass and took it through to the kitchen – together with the still-laden plate, which I put in the microwave, to re-heat later. Then I went upstairs and meditated for half an hour.

When I came back downstairs, at around half-past six, I called the number I’d taken down at work. A cheerful-sounding man with a local accent answered. “Hi! This is Martin.”

“Hi Martin, my name’s Tim – I’m ringing about the martial arts class? I found this number on the internet.”

“Yeah, I run the class. What do you want to know?”

“I’m interested in starting martial arts training again after a break of a few years, and wanted to try something new.”

“What did you practice before?”

Aikido, and Jujitsu before that. They’re the two I’ve most experience of.”

“Well, Lishi is not just a martial art; it includes breath-exercises and patterns of movement similar to some forms of yoga. The class is divided in two; the first half is sort of like Tai Chi, and the second part is a bit more like Kung Fu.”

“Sounds good to me, just the sort of thing I’m after. When and where are the classes held?”

Martin confirmed that the classes were held on Monday evenings at a community room at a church about a mile from my house.

“Would it be okay for me to come along to the next class?” I asked. “And, if so, what should I wear?”

“Sure, come along. Loose clothes are all you need – track-suit bottoms and a t-shirt are fine. You can train barefoot, or in plimsolls.”

“Right, I think that’s about all I need to know. I’ll be there on Monday.”

“Great! See you then.”

My evening continued after that along its usual course. I went out and bought a few beers, and then I ate, drank, and was merry.

Bedtime came and I retired for the night, after dutifully giving praise and thanks to Ellie at her shrine.

My sleep that night was, thankfully, deep and, so far as I recall, dreamless.

Chapter 16

I was glad the weekend had arrived and the nightmares had stopped, but remained unsure how to interpret them, and there was still more than another fortnight until I’d see Ellie again and be able to discuss them with her.

So I did some research.

I started with the dictionary; I was curious to know the exact etymology of the word ‘grail’. What I learnt was that it had been come into English via a French word that was derived from a mediaeval Latin one, gradalis, meaning ‘dish’, which itself was a borrowing from Greek, krater, which referred to a bowl.

I guessed that I must already have known the etymology, which is why it appeared in my dream in the form of a bowl. A bit literal, I’d agree, but that’s the way the mind works – or so I reasoned at the time.

But why was the king hiding in a cave half-way up a mountain? This was the part that was puzzling me. The only explanation I could think of was that it was essential to the structure of the quest that I first fail – that I should meet the king and not recognise him. If I’d met him in a castle, I doubted that I would have been fooled so easily.

I next turned to the two previous nightmares. The first, with its hell-like desert, had some similarities with the last one. They both included a journey, a mountain, and an encounter with a dark, rueful Ellie. They shared also a sense of other-worldliness. Whether or not I should see them as essentially the same, or whether they needed to be interpreted differently, I wasn’t sure.

The middle dream, the most disturbing of the three, was the most perplexing. The blizzard of notes, which had enticed all the people out into the open, and the hail-storm of coins, which had killed them all, were not images I could recall ever having heard of or seen before. Taken at face value, the scene could be taken as a prophetic vision – that humanity, or maybe the world in general, would be destroyed by money, by capitalism. But this seemed a bit too obvious; a touch banal, even. And I didn’t have any idea why I should particularly be to blame for either the existence of capitalism or its impact on the planet. So, I figured there had to be a deeper, allegorical meaning.

To try and find some answers I went to the library, returning The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and then spending a couple of frustrating hours going from section to section, picking up books and flicking through them before putting them back. I looked at volumes of psychology, dream analysis, mythology, symbolism – but couldn’t find anything that addressed my specific questions.

I decided to put the matter aside and do something else, so I returned home and meditated for a while, but was in a restless state of body and mind, and soon gave up.

I turned to reading The Power of Now. Whereas The Way of the Peaceful Warrior was written as a novel, The Power of Now was written in a question and answer format. However, I saw similarities in their messages after reading only the first few pages – that one’s mind is, in effect, one’s worst enemy, and we need to learn to reduce its hold over us in order to escape the almost constant worrying, make-believing, and misinterpreting that is its delights, and that keeps us anxious and unhappy.

Both books emphasised the importance of being in the moment – being aware of one’s self and what one is doing – rather than dwelling in either the future or the past, or drifting along with one’s head full of fantasies. And the latter, I thought to myself, is something I’ve been doing for far too long.

On that note, I put the book aside and got on with the business of the evening; eating, drinking and smoking, followed by worship of Ellie, and then bed. For a second night, my sleep was blessedly dream-free.

* * * * * *

My state of mind throughout Sunday was mostly calm and even; I felt neither joyful nor anxious. In this state of mind I got on with some housework in the afternoon, and in the evening read for a few hours, meditated, and contemplated my recent experiences.

I went to work on Monday morning intending to spend the day with as much presence – as much focus on the here and now – as I possibly could. It went quite well; with my mind clear and emotions in balance, I could maintain my concentration on what I was doing rather than thinking about other things.

By the time I got home it had just gone six pm. I had a quick wash, put in some contact lens, changed into suitable clothes, then headed out again. I arrived at the church where the Lishi class was held at quarter to seven, or thereabouts. It was dark, but a street light gave enough illumination for me to see a few people gathered close to a door at the end of the building.

A car pulled into the car park, and a man of medium height and slightly stocky build got out. Salutations were called back and forth, confirming that this was the person I had spoken with on the phone; Martin. He went round to the back of the vehicle and removed a large bag, then went over and unlocked the door.

The gathered people went inside as I approached. Martin had noticed me, and waited for me to reach him. “Tim, is it?” he asked, holding out his hand.

I shook it. “That’s right,” I replied.

“Come on in,” he said.

The room the class was held in was a little on the small side compared to other places I had trained in the past, but there were only five of us there that evening, so it wasn’t a problem.

The training started with a number of stretches, most of which I was already familiar with, then moved on to breathing exercises, most of which I weren’t. This was followed by a kind of game where we formed into a circle and went through a succession of stances, each person adding a stance in turn until we’d gone round the whole group twice.

The next part of the class was concerned with the development of what I can only call ‘gentle power’. These exercises contrasted the use of strength and muscle-power, which tends to be tense and strained, with the use of this gentle power – a relaxed, harmonious and subtle power, which was more effective than that delivered by might. I had touched on such training in Aikido, but in Lishi it seemed to be given a much more central place in its practice.

The half-way point of the class was reached, and we took a short break while Martin and the regular attendees changed from blue tops to yellow ones, signalling the change from yin to yang training.

The second half of the class consisted of exercises that were more obviously martial in character, including footwork and patterns of evasive movements.

I enjoyed the training, and was in a good mood when we finished. I was grateful the class had not been as intense and tiring as I was used to – I’d not done anything strenuous in so long I’d feared that I’d collapse from exhaustion if I pushed myself. Even so, I had built up a sweat and the walk home gave me a good warm down.

My journey was via the off-licence; there’s nothing quite hits the spot after exercising like a beer or three.

I didn’t feel particularly hungry that night, so I just had some toast. There were more than enough calories in the beer to keep me going.

It was with a warm feeling of satisfaction that I went to bed that night, after giving praise and thanks to Ellie. Though I had not been charged with joy that day, nor had I been filled with doubt or despair. Everything seemed to be going well, and I had another night of undisturbed rest.

Chapter 17

Tuesday started much the same as Monday. To begin with, I felt like I was sailing on an even-keel, that I was heading into new waters in a stately and mindful manner. But as the day progressed my sense of calm slowly gave way to one of listlessness. I found myself wondering if I was actually going anywhere or if I was merely drifting along, without having any real destination, or any choice in what was happening to me. I thought that I might be a mere passenger rather than the captain of this ship.

My mood sunk. I became dispirited, and my work bored me beyond belief. I didn’t want to be in the office, yet, when it came to lunch-time, I didn’t feel like going out either. There was a drop-in meditation at the centre, but I decided not to go as I was intending to attend the Introduction to Buddhism course that evening, which included a period of meditation.

I went through the afternoon in a state of ennui. Time crawled along, appearing to go slower and slower. My patience finally wore through when it reached four thirty, and I decided enough was enough. I left work and walked home under a darkening sky.

When I got in, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself until returning to town later. I wasn’t hungry and didn’t fancy reading, so ended up turning the telly on by default.

I flicked through the channels in a desultory search for something to rouse my interest, but it was a wasted effort. Annoyed and restless, I switched it off and paced silently around my living room, trying to think of something to do.

I realised that I wanted a drink. A few beers would definitely take the edge off and allow me to relax. But I didn’t want to turn up at the Buddhist Centre with the smell of alcohol on my breath.

I checked the clock; it was close to quarter to six. That gave me just over an hour to kill. I paced about some more, which did nothing to settle my mind, and took up very little time.

With a curse I put my coat on and went out. I thought a longish walk would do me some good, but it was cold and my resolve rapidly dissolved; my feet turned by themselves towards the off-licence.

I purchased four bottles of beer and a packet of mints, and returned home. I sat in my living room, slowly, sullenly, supping ale. Try as I might to eke out the first bottle, it was soon empty, and there was still a quarter of an hour to go before it was time to leave for the Buddhist Centre.

Sod it, I thought to myself, and got a second one out of the fridge. As seven o’clock approached, I was half-way through the bottle, and I briefly considered not going to the class; instead I could go out and get some more beers, then get properly drunk. I turned the idea over in my head; although it sounded like fun, I knew that I’d regret the decision within a short while, so I put my coat on again and walked into town, munching mints as I went.

* * * * * *

The format of the class was the same as the previous week; meditation followed by a tea-break, then a lecture followed by questions and discussion.

I was feeling okay until I started meditating. The one and a half bottles of beer I’d drunk was, for me, a relatively small dose of alcohol, and I didn’t feel at all tipsy until I got into my posture and closed my eyes. I then discovered that my thoughts were flying all over the place, and, while trying to focus my mind on my body and my moment-by-moment experience, I began to feel quite queasy. I had to open my eyes and just sit quietly until the meditation came to a close.

Neranjara took the lesson again, which began with an outline of the Buddha’s identification of the key factors that prevent people from making spiritual progress and attaining enlightenment. These factors, commonly referred to in Buddhism as ‘the three poisons’, are: aversion, craving, and ignorance (alternatively translated as hatred, greed, and delusion).

I wasn’t particularly impressed by this; I equated the first poison, ‘aversion’, with the perception of things as being negative in some way: horrible, threatening, wrong or contemptible. In judging something to be negative, one’s reaction is going to be negative: disgusted, fearful, angry, or hateful. The second, ‘craving’, was just the opposite of the first – the perception of something as being positive; lovely, delicious, worthy, or beautiful, leading to a positive desire to possess the thing being perceived. The last poison, ‘ignorance’, seemed to be a sort of catch-all for any other unenlightened behaviour that didn’t arise directly from the first two.

After describing the three poisons, Neranjara presented another three-fold list, ‘the three marks of existence’, which are: impermanence; lack of a fixed nature; and the quality of being unsatisfactory.

The three marks appeared to me as three aspects of the same insight – the temporary nature of all things. Nothing lasts for ever, and so all things are impermanent. Because things are impermanent, they cannot have a fixed nature, for this would mean that there was something that was unchanging (the ‘nature’, which is ‘fixed’). So, due to the constant flux of reality, everything is changing, and nothing will last for ever. This results in everything being unsatisfactory, because things cannot be relied upon; they will not endure, and so even if they produce happiness and hope while they persist, one day they will fail and be lost, and this will cause unhappiness and despair.

Following the three marks of existence, we were told of the three gateways to liberation. These gateways correspond to the marks, so for each mark there is a gateway, and the gateways are accessed when the marks are ‘seen through’ or transcended in everyday experience.

Transcending impermanence, one attains to the ‘signless’, a state of being where one realises that discriminatory thought is incapable of describing reality, that our language is inadequate and inappropriate for the task of directly apprehending what is real. Therefore nothing can be said, in absolute terms, about anything – all descriptions and explanations are partial, relating to a particular viewpoint, and have no ultimate truth. When the state of signlessness is reached, one drops all ideologies and metaphysical speculation, having realised these are hopeless and futile.

The mark of lacking a fixed nature is matched to the gateway of emptiness. Once one realises that nothing is fixed, that everything relies upon everything else for its being, and therefore no individual thing could be considered to have an identity (a nature or essence that is separate from other things, and therefore unique), then one sheds the notion of ‘self’, and dwells in emptiness – a state where one does not perceive in terms of self or not-self, and has therefore attained selflessness.

The gateway that corresponds to unsatisfactoriness is that of the unbiased, or ‘aimless’. Realising that all things are unsatisfactory, and that it is pointless to seek for any particular state of affairs (as it will, sooner or later, end), one accepts the present, and does not worry about what might happen. One no longer chases particular outcomes, nor seeks to avoid others, hence one is unbiased and without an aim.

Although the discussion was interesting, I found it difficult to concentrate, and spent most of the talk wanting it to be over. When it did finally finish, I hurried out the door and headed home.

When I got in I was feeling out of sorts, and considered going straight to bed, but there was that beer I’d opened earlier to finish off. It vanished in a few gulps, and I went immediately to the fridge for the third bottle, and the fourth followed a little while later. It was getting close to midnight by the time I eventually retired for the evening.

My final act before getting into bed was my usual ritual of praise and thanks to Ellie, but as I knelt in the soft candle-light, I found that I was bereft of words. All I could do was stare mutely at her image. Her joyful, smiling face blurred as my eyes misted, and a surge of pain and loss made it difficult to breathe.

What I was doing no longer made any sense to me. I couldn’t see any point to my efforts; the classes at the Buddhist Centre, the Lishi training, meditation, honouring and worshipping Ellie. As for the Quest for the Holy Grail, it now seemed such a puerile and fantastical subject, a completely deluded diversion, that it sickened me to think about it.

Nothing I was doing, nothing anyone could do, would bring Ellie back, would make her live again. Even if it was, truly, her spirit that was with me, which had visited me in my dreams, what possible good could my actions do her? She should be in heaven, not wasting her time here, watching over me. The fact that I wasn’t sure whether heaven existed or not was beside the point; if it didn’t, she’d still have far better things to do than this.

Self-disgust erupted within me. ’I am pulling her down,’ I thought. ’If it weren’t for me, she would be at peace now.’ It suddenly occurred to me that what she’d said about how she needed me, and about how we could help each other to become the best that we could be, were lies. Not malicious lies, these; they were, instead, the whitest of lies. She had been giving me reasons to live, telling me things that would give me a sense of purpose and joy. She just wanted me to be happy; that’s why she had lied to me, why she’d been so evasive on some issues, why she had refused to tell me certain things; she couldn’t answer my questions truthfully without contradicting her deceits, and she was wise enough not to make her web of untruth too tangled. It seemed so obvious now I thought about it; how could anything I do make any difference to her? She had died, and so had passed beyond the constraints of blood, bone and flesh. She was a different order of being, and surely no mere mortal could change her, could add anything to what she had become. So, in her unending compassion and love, she had come to me and told me what I needed to hear; to save me, and to stop me committing murder and suicide.

I couldn’t believe how stupid and naive I’d been. I’d bought her story hook, line and sinker. I had questioned her post-humus existence, had wondered if I’d lost my mind, but I hadn’t thought to analyse what she had actually said to me.

I was a total fool.

Shame tore at me, made it impossible to look at Ellie’s image. While my love for her was only increased by the insightfulness of her deception, my sense of self-worth was destroyed by my realisation of the truth.

I was useless, and my existence was robbing an angel of her place in heaven.

I had no right to be alive, nor had I now any desire to keep on living, but I could not kill myself without betraying Ellie. I had promised her that I would not.

That was it; I’d had enough for one day. It was time for bed.

Without having said a single word to Ellie, I stood up and, with my eyes averted, blew out the tea-lights.

The darkness comforted me; it was where I belonged. I undressed and clambered into bed, where I curled myself into a ball. Trying to put everything from my mind, I waited for sleep to take me away.

Chapter 18

Wednesday was awful. I got up and went to work like a man who didn’t know who he was, what he was doing, nor where he was going. Nothing made sense to me any more, but there was no choice other than to carry on with the whole pointless business.

Everything seemed to be going slowly, like the world hadn’t been wound-up properly. At odd moments my mind would just go blank; at one point I found myself standing in the middle of the office with a cup half-full of cold coffee, and wondered what I was about.

Am I going to empty my cup and wash it out, or refill it? I asked myself. If I hadn’t drunk the last cup, what was the point in getting another? I didn’t know. If I’d been at home, I would have hurled the cup across the room with all my might, but I wasn’t at home, I was in the office. I suppressed the grimace of self-contempt that tried to take possession of my face, and deliberately returned to my desk and sat down, placing the half-empty cup beside my monitor where it sat like a mute judge..

The day wore grindingly on, like a cliff being progressively eroded by the sea, until, eventually, all that remained was rubble.

Having lost track of time, when I left the office it was late. The sun had long set, and a cold, dark, cloudless sky hung over my head.

I wandered home, moving only by habit and a lack of an alternative. I realised that I was paying little attention to where I was putting my feet; instead, I was desperately starring up at the sky. I wanted to see the moon; I needed to look upon that bright, heavenly face. Then, somehow, everything would be okay.

But I couldn’t find it. Stars twinkled mockingly in the depths of space, but of the moon there was not even the slightest sign.

The thin sliver of hope that had arisen in me turned to ashes and dissolved in an ocean of despair.

I dropped into the off-licence and picked up a bottle of wine. I briefly considered buying two, but was already feeling tired and hadn’t eaten dinner the night before. Something told me that I wasn’t going to eat any tonight, either.

I sat glumly and silently in my living room, and knocked back the wine as quickly as I could. By 8pm the bottle was finished, and I was done for the night. Without bothering to brush my teeth, I headed for bed.

I wouldn’t turn on my bedroom light; I didn’t want to see Ellie’s photo, smiling away, regardless. So I groped blindly across the room until I found my bed, shed my clothes and crawled under the covers.

I could almost feel Ellie’s eyes upon me in the darkness. Her gentle, ubiquitous presence was with me, whether I asked for it or not. How I loved her, but at the same time, how I hated her! I hated her for killing herself, and I hated her for getting me to promise that I wouldn’t. Why couldn’t she have left me alone? Why did I ever have to meet her? How dare she bring such light into my life, then cast herself away into the darkness? And how dare she come back to me, to fill my heart with love and my head with lies?

* * * * * *

The next day at work was an even greater trial than the previous one. Lost and beyond hope, I swum through a nightmare of mundane events that were meaningless to me. I wanted only to lay on the floor and cry, but I couldn’t see the point, and knew that no tears would come anyway.

Like a robot with faulty programming, I switched between an automatic functioning and a catatonic drifting. I spent nearly an hour sitting in a toilet cubicle, doing nothing, thinking about nothing. When I realised how long I’d been in there, I hastily returned to my desk – where I sat, staring through my computer screen and pretending, unconvincingly, to work.

I was nauseous with hunger; I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since the weekend, but still I couldn’t face food. I felt sick and empty; physically, emotionally, mentally.

How long can I keep going like this? I wondered vaguely, not really caring what the answer might be.

I’d asked the same question of myself on many occasions in the past. What I was going through was not a new experience; I had been in this state a number of times before.

I tried to tell myself that it was different now. I had in my life someone who loved and cared for me; not just someone, an angel. The irony of the situation was that this just made it worse. Because I had every reason to be happy – aside from the lies told to me, which I could understand, though not forgive – the fact that I was so desperately unhappy seemed to me a further revelation of how contemptible I was. Despite the blessings I had been given, I remained essentially cursed; a miserable, whining, discontented thing, unworthy of redemption or love. That I was loved, and loved greatly, was surely an injustice, an unsatisfactory state of affairs; like pearls being cast before swine.

Cautiously, I opened myself to Ellie’s love, to check that it was still there, that I could still feel it. I could; it was like being submerged in a pure, gentle river. And the current of her love did not pass by me, flowing on to some place else; as a river empties into a sea, so her love poured directly into me.

It was too much; something so wonderful and precious should not be given to someone as base and common as myself. It was like pouring holy water into a befouled, unflushed toilet. My skin itched and crawled as it had at Ellie’s wake, when it had wanted to dissociate itself from the black clothing I had worn. Now it was trying to escape the soothing, liquid joy that coursed through my sullied being.

I turned my mind away from Ellie, shut myself off from her, and something shifted in me. The boggy, heavy depression that weighed upon me was being driven away by a fiery, flashing anger that sent sparks flying in every direction. I was angry with myself; angry with Ellie; angry with the world.

A sudden desire took hold of me; I wanted to get drunk. Very drunk, and very soon.

I had had enough of work and wanted to stomp directly out of the office, but it was only 3pm and Joan would be cross with me if I left this early without getting her permission. I glanced over at her desk; she was in the middle of a telephone call.

I started to get ready to leave. I went and washed my cup, tided my desk, and powered down my computer.

Joan was still gabbing away.

I popped to the toilet, washed my hands and my face, and went back to my desk and put my coat on.

Joan’s conversation continued unabated, but I was finished with waiting. I strode over to her desk; she saw me coming and swivelled her chair to turn her back on me.

Already angry, her casual disregard incensed me. I wanted to walk straight up behind her and push over her chair. I imagined her falling to the floor and the chair toppling on top of her, pinning her in place. I wondered whether I should then kick her whilst she lay there helpless.

Before I could indulge any of my violent fantasies, I marched past Joan’s desk and kept going until I was out the door.

I exited the office and my feet took me down the road to the nearest pub. I ordered a beer, drank it in swift gulps and left the empty glass on the bar.

My journey home was in the manner of a pub crawl. It was nearly 7pm by the time I got to my front door, by which time I’d drunk five pints.

But I was only getting started.

My last port of call before I arrived home had been the off-licence, where I purchased another four beers.

I got in, took off my coat and shoes, and then sat down with the bottles lined up before me – I couldn’t be bothered with the slight inconvenience of putting them in the fridge and fetching them one at a time as need arose.

“Just you and me, guys,” I said to the bottles. “Let’s see who’s still standing come the end of the night!”

I opened the first bottle and took a prodigious swig. Beer overfilled my mouth, and dribbled down my chin. Annoyed, I slammed the bottle back down, causing it to froth and spill out onto the table.

“Oh, wise guy, eh?” I said to the bottle. “I’m going to enjoy turning you into piss!”

I laughed heartily, then realised my bladder was already full. I got up and pointed at the bottle, “I’ll be back!” I threatened it, and staggered to the toilet, sniggering and quoting lines from random films and TV programmes.

I seemed to be enjoying myself. Anyone watching me would have confirmed that I appeared to be in high spirits, laughing and joking. But, really, I was torturing myself. Not knowing what else to do, my thirst for self-destruction was being satisfied with alcohol and a dark, nihilistic humour. But, while I stood, swaying, at the toilet, frustration and anger displaced everything else, as if my current mood were leaving my body along with the urine I expelled.

What’s the point of this?’ I thought to myself. I decided I’d had enough to drink. Much more alcohol on an empty stomach was almost certainly going to cause me to throw up, and leave me with a horrible hangover in the morning. What I really wanted to do was confront Ellie. Although another twelve days remained until she would come to me again, I couldn’t wait that long.

I stormed upstairs, turned the lights on and sat on my bed, glaring at Ellie’s shrine. She smiled happily at me; I wanted to see that smile as mocking, condescending, deceitful. But my wish was vain; her smile was open and joyous, without any hint of arrogance or ill-will.

My anger fell away, leaving behind only a feeling of utter disdain for myself. ’How dare I judge her?’ I thought. ’How dare I even question her, after all the love and kindness she’s shown me? She’s just trying to do her best.’

Meekly, I lit the candles on her shrine and turned off the light. I knelt, crossed myself, bowed. Crossed myself again, bowed again. And, for a third time, crossed myself and bowed.

I stared at her, not knowing what to say.

Her beauty stung like a slap, was as sharp as a rebuke. It put my ugliness into stark relief.

Self-hatred, raw and jagged, exploded within me. I wanted to pull out my hair; smash my head against the floor; bite open my wrists. I didn’t deserve to live; should never even have been born.

An incredible pressure of contradictory motivations and emotions built up within me, and I started to rock back and forth on my knees, grizzling continuously. I knew that, despite the urge to self-harm, I could not cause myself the least injury in Ellie’s presence. It would be an unforgivable offence, an unholy insult, an act of evil. No matter how wretched I felt, I could not do that – it would be like spitting in her face.

But she had deceived me. She had mislead me into believing that I deserved her kindness, that I could in some fashion help her. That simply could not be true. I did not merit her love, and she was wasting her efforts on someone as hopeless as me.

‘What if I ignore her?’ I suddenly thought. ‘If I refused her? Would not acknowledge her in any way? Surely she would, eventually, go away?’ How else could I get her to leave, to either ascend in glory or move on to somewhere else, where she could do some real good?

But what would I say to her when she appeared to me again in my dreams, once the twenty-eight days were up? Could I really look her in the eye and tell her that I didn’t want her in my life, that she should just depart?

I imagined myself doing so, and a bolt of grief, guilt, and despair, and a pure and overwhelming pain, tore through me. I collapsed to the floor; gasping, sobbing, spent.

I’d rather die, I thought. I had given Ellie my word that I wouldn’t kill myself, but, given the circumstances, could I break it – could that oath, made under duress and extracted by lies, be seen as given under false pretences?

Then, as I lay there, drained and dizzy, thinking about how I might rid myself of the promise I had made, something happened within me. An unwavering resolve, distantly familiar, was stirring in the inchoate vacuum of my soul. I knew that, due to my honour, there was no way back from this situation, nor any way out. But was there a way forward?

Slowly, I regathered myself, resumed my kneeling posture, wiped the wetness from my eyes, brought my hands together, and fixed my gaze on Ellie.

“O Ellie, my angel,” I said slowly, clearly, purposefully. “You are to me the eidolon of the divine. You represent and symbolise that which is the most sacred, the most good, and the most lovely. Therefore, I vow myself to you; to your guidance, to your care. I give myself to you, utterly. I will serve you dutifully, praise you daily. I will do all I can to repay the kindness you have shown me, and the joy you have brought into my life. I am yours, until the day I die. I will follow the path you light for me, and I will not allow self-hatred or despair to sway me from it. Somehow, I will become worthy of you; I will work on myself until I am deserving of your love. I will not shirk this task; I will not give in; I will not walk away. This I swear to thee, mine angel. I praise thee; I thank thee; I worship thee; I love thee.”

A magnificent feeling of relief and peace arose within me. I crossed myself, bowed, and stood up. I could not look away from Ellie’s picture, and nor would I blow out the candles and pitch us both into darkness. So I retreated into bed, my eyes not leaving hers. I opened myself fully to her love: it flooded into me and washed my heart clean.

I laughed with joy, and whispered; “It’s done. I’ve vowed myself to you, Ellie, for the rest of my days. So, that’s it – you’re never get rid of me now!”

That hard, dark object within me, that I had become aware of when Ellie had appeared, shining, in my bedroom and I had given her my promise that I would neither kill Tony nor myself, seemed to weaken a little further – its hardness turning brittle, its darkness becoming dull.

Tiredness enveloped me. I yawned and, reluctantly, closed my eyes. Sleep came, and another day was done.

Chapter 19

I woke up on Friday morning bursting with happiness. I lay in bed for a minute, full of contentment, before the hollow, ravenous void in my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten in almost three days.

I started to get dressed, but had to pause to look at Ellie. “I love you,” I whispered to her, but this didn’t satisfy me, so I repeated the words at my normal speaking volume. This still seemed somewhat short, so I shouted them.

Too much. I blushed and apologised.

I finished getting dressed and rushed downstairs to make a cup of tea and some toast. Lots of toast.

* * * * * *

I walked to work in a daze, lost in wonder at the oath I had given to Ellie. It had freed me from, or, rather, had superseded, the vow I had made as a teenager, when I had given up on my own life and swore to live only to make others happy. I had, so far as I could see, failed in that endeavour; but I would not fail Ellie.

Joy bloomed in me whenever I thought of her, and the unstinting love she lavished on me.

I did not yet know how I was going to fulfil my promise to become worthy of her regard and affection. But I did know that hurting myself – either physically or emotionally – was not going to help. Far worse; it might also be upsetting to Ellie. She wanted me to be happy, so by being unhappy, I’d been acting contrary to her wishes.

I got into the office and set to; I’d hardly got anything accomplished throughout the week, and had plenty to do. Being busy was useful; it distracted me from thinking too much about things. It was much better to do as The Power of Now advised – to dwell in one’s centre and be present, free from the interference of thought.

* * * * * *

To make up for leaving early on Thursday, I worked late, and when I left the office it was with a sense of satisfaction. I’d completed many tasks, and was looking forward to the weekend.

On my way home I visited the supermarket to pick up some ingredients; I’d decided to make myself a curry for dinner. I bought onions, peppers, chillies, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and a couple of chicken breasts. I didn’t need to buy any alcohol; I still had the beers I’d purchased the previous night.

I drank one of the beers while I cooked, and then another as I ate. By the time I had finished my meal, which was quite delicious if I do say so myself, I was feeling fairly tired. But I perked up after brushing my teeth – it was time to worship my angel

I went through the usual ritual of lighting the candles on her shrine, turning off the light, kneeling, crossing myself, bowing, then focusing my attention on her picture.

For a moment I just stared at her in silence, grinning; happy and at peace.

“Dear Ellie,” I eventually said. ”I’m so sorry for the way I’ve behaved recently. It was wrong of me to indulge my dark side, to curse and berate myself. But it can be difficult, sometimes, to accept your love; it is such a great honour, a priceless gift. How can I ever repay such a debt?”

I paused. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. We’re past the half-way mark; less than two weeks to go! I’ve been through so much over the last couple of weeks; my life has been turned upside down several times – I feel like I’m in the spiritual equivalent of a washing machine!”

I guffawed, but then remembered the nightmare that had featured a washing machine, when a blood-soaked shirt had been thrown at me by a twisted version of Ellie. A sudden connection occurred to me, and the symbolism of that dream became clearer – in it Ellie had taken the guise of a Washer at the Ford, a type of ghostly faerie woman, or banshee, who appears when someone is soon to die. This was followed by a second insight; my original interpretation of the nightmare, that it had been a warning to me about the guilt I’d feel if I murdered Tony, was wrong. Ellie had told me that if I had carried out my plan in toto then she herself would somehow end up suffering horrendous consequences. The true message had been about that; warning me of the harm that my actions would bring to Ellie.

What the more recent series of dreams meant, I had no idea. I turned my attention back to the present; I could speculate about the interpretation of dreams at another time.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Ellie, but I guess it doesn’t matter that much at the moment. If I’m making any mistakes, aside from the obvious ones I’ve noticed myself, you’ll put me straight when we talk. Until then, I’ll try to remain calm and positive, and keep on meditating, learning and training.”

I couldn’t think of anything more to add, so just repeated the last words I’d said the previous night. “Mine angel; I praise thee, I thank thee, I worship thee, I love thee.”

I crossed myself, bowed, and blew out the candles. Once I’d undressed and got into bed, I imagined myself floating on a raft in the ocean, with the sun beating down on me. I was rocked gently to sleep by the rise and fall of the water.

Chapter 20

I am brought to consciousness by something hard knocking against my side. I open my eyes and am rewarded with a pungent blast of horse-breath in my face.

“Caval!” I mutter ruefully, pushing his hoof away from my ribs. “That’s a rude way to rouse a man!”

I pull myself to my feet, aching all over, and peer about me. I’m still in the small clearing where I encountered the hideous harridan. There is no sign of her, and ashes are all that remain of the fire that tempted me here.

I groan as I realise I’ve returned to the forest in which I had been trapped for endless days. The path I had found that had led me out was a dead end; the road it delivered me onto went only in a wide loop. I had ridden it up into the mountains, down to the river, and finally across the open land and back to where I had started.

I am tempted to try and find the path again, ride once more into those mountains, and confront the hermit, king, or whoever he is, and get to the truth of the matter regarding the Holy Grail.

But, somehow, I know that I will not be able to find him again. And I have been given a task; to ride to King Arthur’s court and tell him of my adventure, and my failure.

I have no idea what direction to head in, and I am sick of trees; sick of being hemmed in, unable to see the horizon, to travel in a straight line, or even ride on horseback. I sit down on a log and put my head in my hands; lost and helpless.

Caval snorts, drawing my attention, and I look up.

At the edge of the clearing, watching me, is the largest rabbit I’ve ever seen. Its fur is white, apart from that covering its ears, which is bright green. It sniffs the air, and puts its head on one side, regarding me with curiosity.

“What is thy desire, my furry friend?” I ask. “Hast thou come to gloat at my misfortune, or dost thou offer aid to this weary traveller?”

The rabbit ducks its head slightly, as if flinching at my question, but then hops toward me. It approaches within an arm’s reach, then retreats again.

“What is thy game? Shouldst I follow thee?”

The rabbit nods its head, and scampers forward and back.

I shrug, and stand. “Well, Caval, there is nought else to do. Let us see where this fluffy fellow wants us to go.”

The rabbit sets off and I march in pursuit, with Caval trailing after.

The sun rises, spreading its warmth and light through the air, and lifting my mood.

We travel through the forest, and I’m encouraged that we seem to be heading in a particular direction, rather than wandering at random. In a short while, we break through the trees and come to a wide, well-used road, cobbled and clear of vegetation.

“Marry, and thank goodness!” I cry in relief, then address the rabbit. “And bless thee, my emerald-eared guide!”

The rabbit runs in a circle, stops briefly to look at me and, satisfied that he’s done his duty, dashes into the undergrowth on the other side of the road.

I lean briefly against Caval. “Come on, old friend,” I say to him. “We must hie us to Camelot.” I climb into the saddle, and we set off at a trot.

After riding for an hour or so I hear the sound of people ahead, and I see a small crowd of common-folk by the roadside. They are engaged in a rowdy debate, and fail to notice me.

As I draw nearer, I spot what I assume must be the reason for their gathering – a girl of around ten years of age, standing upon the stump of a tree trunk. Her hands have been tied together, and there is a rope around her neck, which passes over a hefty branch a few feet above her head. Despite her unfortunate predicament she displays no indication of alarm, and, noticing my attention, she smiles warmly at me. Her demeanour is wholly ingenuous, and I wonder if she is simple of mind.

I draw my sword and spur Caval into a short gallop before pulling sharply on the reigns so that he rears up and neighs. His hooves thud down heavily on the road, and abruptly the chattering stops and all eyes turn to me.

“Tell me,” I shout, my gaze sweeping back and forth, my blade held aloft. “What takes place here? Why dost that young lady wear a noose?”

I look down on the startled, fearful faces, and for a moment there is no answer. Then a solitary, wavering voice replies; “She’s a witch, sire, and we means to ‘ang ‘er – as the good book commands.”

“Art thou wode? She’s but a girl; how could one so young hath come to learn the dark arts?”

“Satan cares not for age, sire; anyone as can speak, can swear an oath. And who knows if she’s really a girl? Perhaps she’s just used her magic to appear so.”

There’s a muttering here and there in support of this statement. I’m aware of an air of unease, of suppressed violence. I do not wish to harm any of these people, but I will not allow them to murder a girl out of sheer suspicion and superstitious fear.

I look at her again. She is a willowy thing, slender and pale. Her curly, shoulder-length hair is somewhere between red and brown, and her bright eyes sparkle. She wears a fine dress, the lower-half of which is green, the top half blue, and is embroidered with a white and purple floral pattern. She has the appearance and bearing of a nobleman’s daughter, and clearly does not belong amongst her current company. Perhaps that is the real reason they’ve decided to kill her; because of an envious and surly aggression towards those who are more fortunate than they.

“Where art her parents?” I demand.

“She‘s none that we know of, sire,” the self-elected spokesperson for the villagers informs me. “She just appeared one day, out of the mist. Made ‘ersen at ‘ome in an old, empty cottage. That’s not natural, is it, sire? A wee thing like ‘er, all by ‘ersen, with no ma or pa, nor aunt or uncle, nor sister or brother.”

“That may be unusual, but hardly maketh her a witch. Doth thou hath any evidence for thine accusation?” I ask, then add sarcastically, “Hath she, for example, turned anyone into an ewt?”

There’s more muttering, and a restless shifting and shuffling in the crowd, but nobody speaks up.

“It seems ye have no proof,” I tell them. “So I offer ye this; I will take the girl with me to Camelot, and there she can be judged – Merlin will be able to tell, one way or another, whether she is a witch.”

A few faces show relief at this suggestion, but more express discontent and mistrust, and I get the impression they wish to settle this themselves. I am vexed that my word is not taken as a final resolution of the matter – I am, after all, a knight, part of the nobility, and they are mere peasants. I grip my sword, ready to force my way through them to the girl’s side.

“Good Sir Knight, hold!” the girl suddenly cries to me; her voice is dulcet and, unexpectedly, has a strong Hibernian accent. “Put away thy sword! I am in no danger.” And with that she steps to the edge of the tree-stump and leaps forward.

My breath catches, and there are gasps and exclamations from the mob. Those standing nearest try to move away, seeking to distance themselves from what is happening, while those behind try to get closer, to get a better view.

I watch as the girl seems to float for an instant in the air; then she drops, landing lightly on her feet. The rope, I see, did not halt her descent as its other end had not yet been secured to anything.

I take advantage of the momentary confusion and charge through the throng to her. Taking hold of the rope, I slice through it with my sword, then cut through the twine binding the girl’s hands. I sheath my blade and reach down, she grabs hold of my arm, and I pull her up onto the saddle in front of me, shifting backward to accommodate her.

There are some oaths and curses from the crowd, but nobody lifts a hand to stop me. Without a further word, I direct Caval back to the road, and we ride off.

When we have travelled a little distance, the young girl turns and addresses me. “Thank thee for my deliverance!” she says.

“Thou art welcome. ‘Twas nothing,” I reply distantly; I am distracted by her fascinating hair – I see now, up close, that it is not a reddish brown, but rather contains strands of many different hues: gold and ginger, ochre and umber, vermilion and russet, chestnut and fawn, hazel and auburn.

“So, what is thy name?” she asks expectantly. “And that of thy fine steed?”

“I am Sir Timotheus, Knight Errant, and my warhorse hight Caval.”

She exultantly whispers my name to herself, before addressing me with a question. “Well, Sir Timotheus, my Champion, wilt thou stop a second to rid me of this irksome noose? ”

“Forsooth!” I exclaim. “Where hath my manners gone? Please forgive me, young lady – in the heat of the moment I appear to have forgotten all courtesy! ‘Tis unusual to get the chance to rescue a damsel in distress so early in the day!” I halt Caval and rid her of the rope around her throat.

The introductions unfinished, I ask her, “And what, fair child, is thy name?”

She giggles. “I doubt thou couldst say my real name properly, so please, I pray thee, call me Maiden Meara.”

“Well then, Maiden Meara, what am I to do with thee? And where art thy family? Art thou an orphan?”

“Nay, Sir Timotheus, my family are safe and sound, I assure thee. I was sent here in order to accompany thee; to give thee guidance on thy quest. As to what thou shouldst do with me, I thought that that had been decided – thou art going to take me to Camelot with thee, art thou not? Is that not what thou didst tell the people back there?”

“Yes,” I concede, unsure whether she is being serious. “That I did. But there’s really no need – I believe that thou art no witch, so why should I force thee to travel all the way to Camelot?”

“Isn’t a knight supposed to be honest? Once he’s given a promise to someone, shouldn’t he keep it?”

“Of course he should, under normal circumstances. But I swore no oath, and, in any event, that rabble hardly deserves the honour of my word.”

“Shame on thee!” Meara scolds, laughing. “A good knight should always be honest, and try and keep his word no matter to whom he has given it. As it happens, it would please me to visit Camelot, and thereto shall I guide thee. We shall arrive on the third day of travel.”

“Very well, Maiden Meara; to Camelot we both shall go. But I can hardly believe that we are as near to Camelot as that we shall reach it in three days, even if we rode at full gallop – and I see no reason to risk Caval so. Unless there is a particular reason to make haste?”

“Oh no, there’s no need to hurry. But we shall be at Camelot three days hence.”

She sounds very certain of herself, and I decide to change the subject. “Tell me, Maiden Meara; what were the villagers arguing about when I arrived? Didst some of them have second thoughts about what they planned to do to thee?”

“Yes, they were some that did – they weren’t sure whether hanging me would be sufficient, so they were wanting to burn me instead. Others thought that a waste of good firewood.”

“Such savages!” I remark. “It’s just as well I arrived when I did! If they had harmed thee, I would have been full wroth with them, and may have deemed it meet to chastise them with my sword.”

Meara sighs. “Thou art too hasty with that weapon, Sir Timotheus! And such a sentiment is itself ignorant and misguided, showing that thou art barely more civilised than they. As a knight it is thy duty to serve and protect the common people, not boss them about or herd them like sheep! Beside which, it was me that put the thought into their heads – I needed some way to delay things until thine arrival.”

For one so young, thou art very confident and wise, and seemest very sure as to the manner in which a knight should behave!”

Appearances can be deceptive and, though I am exactly as thou seest me, I am far older than thou wouldst think. The crossing of our paths was no accident, Sir Timotheus, and I have been given clear instructions as to how to advise thee, for it is my task not just to guide thee safely to Camelot, but to instruct thee, so that thou mayest complete the quest for the Holy Grail.”

Maiden Meara, thou art a marvel,” I tell her, “though I find some of what thou sayest taxing to my sense! For one so short, thou seemest to hath a fondness for tall tales!”

“I can assure thee, Sir Timotheus,” she responds in a tone that is both haughty and playful, “that I have not said a single dishonest word to thee. And it ill-beseems thee to cast aspersions on the integrity and good name of maidens such as myself! Especially as thou art my Champion – for the nonce, at least.”

“Maiden Meara, please accept my apology. I did not mean to cause offence!”

She giggles. “Apology accepted. Now, if thou couldst stop a moment by that oak there, that would be grand.”

“As thou desireth, my lady. Dost thou wish to relieve thyself?”

She laughs fit to burst. “Sir Timotheus! While it behoves a Grail Seeker to inquire about things he fails to understand, thy question is most impertinent!”

We reach the indicated tree and Meara slides down from Caval’s back and disappears into the foliage, then returns carrying a bulky basket. I dismount to assist her.

The basket appears to contain the contents of a small pantry. There are loaves of bread, a block of cheese, some apples, a pot of honey, another of oil, a flask full of clear liquid, a bag of flour and a small sack of oats. There’s also a change of clothes for Meara, a couple of large, colourful blankets, a saucepan, and a satchel.

“Whither hath all this come?” I ask.

“Oh, I put it here yesterday; I knew we’d be passing this way, and imagined we wouldst be needful of supplies.” Meara replies. She reaches into the basket and pulls out the satchel. Slipping its strap over her head, she rummages within. “Ah!” she exclaims, producing a ring. She holds it out to me; “Here, Sir Timotheus, a gift for thee, to repay my rescue. Wear it proudly!”

I lean forward to inspect the ring. It is silver, and adorned with three jewels; the first red, the middle one white, the last green. The third of the gemstones seems to gleam and glimmer with its own light.

“This is a fine and precious thing,” I say, shaking my head. “Far too rich a reward for my meagre efforts.”

“Nay, Sir Timotheus;” she says, her tone amused but serious, “I have chosen to give this ring to thee. To refuse it would be ungracious, and give me insult. Art thou not my Champion?”

I hold up my hands to indicate surrender. “Once again, my lady, I apologise. ‘Tis an honour to be thy Champion.” I doff my gauntlet and hold out my hand for the ring, but Meara closes her fist around it.

“Now, all joking aside, dost thou truly swear to be my Champion, to serve and respect me, and follow mine advice?”

I hesitate. I had never imagined I would one day swear myself to a child, but this is clearly no ordinary girl. She knew to expect me, knew that it was my aim to seek the Holy Grail, and claims she can help me achieve that task. Perhaps I am being tricked; perhaps Meara is a witch after all. But I cannot believe she is evil, and although I have only just met her, I feel a kindly affection toward her already.

I sigh, kneel before her, and offer my finger. “Maiden Meara, I doth swear to serve, respect and protect thee. I shall do thy bidding, and follow thine advice. I am thy Champion.”

Meara slips the ring on, claps loudly and then clasps me in a brief hug, before returning her attention back to the basket. “Hast thou breakfasted yet, Sir Timotheus?”

“Nay, Maiden Meara – my provisions are exhausted.”

“Well, let us eat now. It will also be easier to talk while sitting by the roadside, rather than sharing Caval’s back.”

The matter decided, we sit down on one of the blankets to share a light meal of bread, cheese and apples.

My curiosity about this uncannily canny young lass, and my incredulity at some of her assertions, prompts me to question her. “Maiden, I am puzzled by some of the things thou hast told me. If thou were sent to guide me, then how is it that thou didst not know my name? How canst thou be sure it was not some other knight thou wert supposed to encounter?”

Meara finishes chewing a mouthful of food before answering. “I know that thou art the knight I should guide because thou appeared at the right time. It was not necessary for me to know thy name beforehand, and sometimes such prior knowledge can be more of a hindrance than a help. It is also better to get somebody’s name from their own mouth rather than from another’s.”

I’m not sure what she means by her final remark, but see no sense pursuing it. “Thou also said that thou art to advise me how to complete the quest for the Holy Grail. Is it my fate, then, to do this – to restore that hallowed object, and heal the land? I have but recently seen Kind Pelham and the Holy Grail, though I recognised them not. If thou had advised me prior to then, I may have succeeded in the quest. But now? Surely, another such opportunity will not present itself.”

“Wherefore? If it rains today, dost that mean it will not rain tomorrow? Nay, say I; that which hath happened once before can surely happen once again. And everyone deserves a second chance.”

“I hope thou art right, Maiden Meara. And, if thou hast wisdom to share, I would be grateful to hear it.”

“Realising that one is ignorant, and desiring to escape that condition, is itself a sign of wisdom.” She pauses for a moment. “Tell me, Sir Timotheus: why dost thou wish to join the quest for the Holy Grail?”

“Because King Arthur deems it to be of the utmost importance, and almost all the Knights of the Round Table have set off to find it. I aspire to join their ranks, so it seems the right thing to do – to take up the quest. Should I succeed, I am sure to be offered a place in that august order.”

“Oh, Sir Timotheus, if thou wishes to achieve the Grail, thou needest a better reason than that! Only someone with a pure heart, who seeks selflessly, diligently and devotedly, can complete the quest. The wrong motive – whether it is a desire for fame, wealth, status or success – will lead one only to disaster.”

I nod my head. “Putting it that way, Maiden Meara, maketh perfect sense. How could someone impure of heart, and searching with selfish aims, hope to satisfy such a sacred undertaking? Now, if it pleaseth thee, kindly instruct me how to purify my heart, and to find the proper motive.”

“The motive thou must find thyself. As to the purification of thine heart, all thou must do is rid thyself of evil; all selfishness, meanness, conceit, hatred, anger and greed, all ignorance and arrogance. Let go of darkness and embrace the light; then will the quest for the Holy Grail be realised.”

“That is easy to say, but hard to do, I wager. How am I to proceed? How does one go about purging oneself of selfishness, meanness, and the rest of them?”

“The first thing thou needeth to address is thine anger, which stems in part from thine hatred of evil, but also from thine arrogance. Both these attitudes have their origin in ignorance.”

“But is it not right to hate evil, to seek to destroy that which opposes the good?”

“Nay, my Champion, for hatred is evil in its truest form. Evil cannot be vanquished by evil – for then one evil just supplants another. One does not put out a fire by feeding it more fuel.”

“Tell me, then, what I must do, to purge anger, hatred, arrogance and ignorance from my heart.”

“In order to leave darkness behind thee, thou must first cease to do evil unto thyself. Too easily do those who seek to become good judge themselves ill, and treat themselves harshly, endlessly whipping and chastising themselves. Such behaviour does not lead to goodness; it more frequently leads to bitterness, resentment, and, finally, disgust for one’s self and all living things. That is not the way. Instead, thou shouldst be a friend unto thyself; treat thyself kindly, acknowledging thine own efforts and resources, thy triumphs, and thy good qualities. This does not mean being self-indulgent, conceited or lazy, rather thou shouldst be honest and respectful with thyself. Just as thou wouldst be supportive and helpful to a friend, offering comfort and encouragement rather than injury and damnation, be so to thyself. Learn from thine errors, but forgive thyself them also. This is the manner in which thou shouldst proceed.”

“I shall try to follow this instruction, though I must say it seems counter to much of what I have been told in the past. The priests, particularly, are fond of encouraging self-castigation, and remembering one’s wretchedness and sinful nature, as a means of promoting virtue.”

“’Tis true; many would think that kindness to others is dependent upon unkindness to one’s self, and so they practice self-flagellation. But causing suffering to any living being is wrong, no matter what being it is – thyself or another. By promoting the happiness of all, so is happiness increased.”

“I shall meditate on thy words and the wisdom therein.”

“As thou shouldst,” Meara says. She stands up and brushes crumbs from her dress. “Come, ’tis time we were on our way.” She starts emptying the remaining items from the basket and passing them to me. I distribute them amongst my packs and saddle-bags.

Soon, we are back on the road and continuing our journey. I consider the advice Meara has given me, while she amuses herself by singing little songs to Caval, stroking his neck, and plaiting his mane.

Late in the afternoon the road passes beside a lake fringed by grass and ferns; a bright oasis standing out from the forest’s gloom.

“Oh, what a delightful spot – let’s stop here awhile!” says Meara, and then adds with a laugh, “It’s a pleasant enough place if one wishes to relieve thyself!”

I do not argue, nor respond to her gibe, and Caval is more than happy to step off the road and onto the lush grass, which he immediately starts to eat.

Meara and I dismount. She frolics along the lake’s shore, while I start to remove my armour – the day is pleasantly warm, and it has been some time since I last bathed.

I have stripped down to my undergarments, and am preparing to wade into the water, when I hear a sound echoing faintly through the trees; a distant commotion, coming closer. I see that Meara has heard it too, and is heading to investigate.

“Careful, Meara!” I cry. I grab up my sword by the hilt, leaving its sheath on the ground behind me as I rush after her.

The volume of the noise increases, resolving itself into the baying of a pack of hounds. I assume they are part of a hunting party, but I cannot hear the horns which the huntsmen should be blowing.

I am still some distance from Meara, and call to her again. “Meara – come here, young lady! Thou art putting thyself in danger! Whatever animal is being hunted might trample over thee, or the dogs in their excitement might attack thee.”

She glances over at me, and says, “Don’t be silly, Sir Timotheus! Put down thy sword; there is no peril here.”

I have no time to reply: something has suddenly emerged from the forest’s edge. It is the size of a pony, has the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, and the hooves of a deer. When it sees Meara stood in its path, it stops – its attitude seemingly one of surprise rather than anything else. But then it catches sight of me, approaching with my sword, and it crouches; ready either to leap to the attack or recede back into the trees. The noise of the dogs is loud, but also muffled somehow, as if they were howling from within a heavy sack.

Meara quickly steps between the two of us, making soft, encouraging sounds to the monster. Out of the corner of her mouth she hisses at me, “Put down thy sword!”

The way between the trees and the lake now clear, the beast steps hesitantly forward, then trots quickly past Meara down to the water. Astonishingly, the sound of the hounds goes with it – but then starts to diminish as the creature lowers its head and starts to drink thirstily.

“Maiden,” I whisper. “What is that thing? Are you sure it offers us no threat?”

“That is Glatisant, the Barking Beast,” she replies. “He will not harm anyone. Watch.” She approaches it careful, all the while murmuring subtle syllables in a liquid language I cannot comprehend. She reaches its side and gently strokes its feline flank as it gulps down mouthful after mouthful of water. I see now that it has the tail of a lion, which twitches happily as Meara pets it.

I cautiously join Meara. Glatisant seems unperturbed by the two of us. I have to admit that, despite its chimerical form, it is a fine animal: well-proportioned, sleek and healthy. I run my hand down its back; its fur is soft.

It takes a few minutes for Glatisant to drink his fill, by which time the yelping noise has ceased completely. He raises his head and looks in all directions; flicks out his snake’s tongue to taste the air. He turns to depart, and I step back, but Meara throws her arms around his long neck and hugs him. He responds by resting his head on hers; they stay like this a moment, then Meara lets him go. He walks a few paces, then pauses, gazing back on the girl with an almost mournful expression on his ophidian face. A second later, he sets off – moving at an incredible speed, he bounds along the lake’s edge, then disappears into the forest.

Meara is wiping tears from her eyes. I am about to ask her why she has become upset by the encounter, when we’re distracted by the sound of something else coming through the trees, from the same direction in which Glatisant had arrived.

A man on horseback rides into view. Apart from lacking a helmet, he is fully armoured, though like me he rides with his shield slung on his back, robbing me of the chance to identify him by his heraldry. He is going on in years, and looks worn and haggard by his travails. I’m sure I’ve never met him before, but yet there is something very familiar about him.

He catches sight of the pair of us, and promptly draws his sword and spurs his horse forward.

“Villain!” he shouts at me. “Drop they blade and step away from the maid!”

I realise that I am stood beside Meara on the lake’s bank, wearing only underwear, and holding my sword. It is not difficult to understand how the situation could be misinterpreted.

Meara puts herself between the two of us, and curtsies to the new arrival.

“Thou must be King Pellinore, and thou art well met. Glad am I to see thee! But things here are not as they might seem – this man here is my Champion. He is Sir Timotheus; a good knight and true.”

King Pellinore reins in his horse, but regards me suspiciously. I realise now why he seems familiar – he bears a striking similarity to the hermit I meet in the mountains. And so he should: King Pelham and King Pellinore are brothers.

I drop to one knee, putting my sword’s point in the earth and resting my hands on its pommel. “Hail, King Pellinore!” I say. “It is as the maiden said. I was just about to bathe in the lake when I heard the noise of hounds approaching through the forest. Uncertain if danger was on its way, I armed myself, ready to protect this young lady if need be.”

“Ahh,” he says and nods. “And did a strange beast appear?”

Meara answers his question; “Iwis, he did! Glatisant stopped for a drink at this lake, then departed through the trees over there.” She points across the lake to where we last saw the Barking Beast.

“Hmmm, is that so?” King Pellinore muses. He remains sitting on his horse, pondering.

Meara turns to me. “If thou doth not object, I would suggest we stay here tonight and invite King Pellinore to join us. It will not delay our journey.”

“As thou wishes;” I reply, then address King Pellinore. “Your highness, Maiden Meara and I are to camp here for this evening; wilt thou join us?”

“Aye, gramercy for the offer. As Glatisant has filled his belly with water, he’ll stop his noise for some time, and will be almost impossible to follow – for he moves as silently as a shadow, and as swiftly as a swallow. Best that I rest and pick up the chase on the morrow.”

I nod. “Now, if ye wilt both pardon me, I shall return to my forestalled ablutions.”

As I bathe, Meara goes into the forest to collect firewood, and Pellinore dismounts from his horse and removes his armour.

I come out of the water and dry myself; Meara returns from the forest, laden with sticks, and goes for a swim while I prepare the fire. Pellinore has produced a makeshift fishing rod and is selecting a spot on the bank from which to cast.

Half an hour later, the fire is blazing and, on a simple spit Pellinore and I have constructed, roast two good-sized fishes.

“King Pellinore,” I say as our dinner cooks. “It behoves me to tell thee that I recently met with thy brother – King Pelham.”

He gives me a sharp look. “And didst thou…?”

I understand his half-question. “Nay, King, I did not. He seemed to me only a hermit, living in a cave. I had no idea of his true identity, and he was content not to disillusion me. In any case, I am still uncertain as to what I needed, exactly, to do to complete the quest; I was told that I had failed to ask a question – but what question? To that question, I know not the answer.”

Pellinore shrugs. “Ahh, well, ‘tis the way it goes. How was he?”

“His health was not so good; he coughed a lot. He also seemed somewhat disturbed in his mind; anxious, fearful, even.”

“Hmm; but he had the Grail with him? Did thou see it?”

“He had with him a metal bowl, varnished black. I learned later that it was the Holy Grail – though I’ve not previously heard it described as such.”

“When it was shown to me, it appeared to be made of beaten tin – I thought it an unremarkable and homely thing. My brother, on the other hand, was much impressed by it; to him, it was fashioned from silver, and decorated with many images and symbols.”

“King Pellinore, what canst thou tell me about the Holy Grail? About its history, and why thy brother chose to take it into the wilderness?”

“I know but little. The Grail was once the possession of a great holy man, who lived hundreds of years ago in a far distant land. For some reason, it was brought to this island, and served a small community of monks for a while, but then – due to the Roman invasion – it was removed to the realm of the gods. There it stayed until Merlin fetched it hither, and was given into the care of my father, until the time came for it to be passed to King Arthur. Alas, the Grey Emissary, a servant of the Enemy, found out where the Grail was, and has done all he can to destroy my family and obtain it for his master. Because of him my younger brother and sister were vilely slain, and my father grievously injured. I can only think that Pelham feared that he would find a way to enter our castle and steal the Grail; that is why he fled with it, to keep it out of the Enemy’s hands. Whether he acted wisely, or rashly, it is not for me to say. As for myself, I saw my sister die as the Barking Beast tore itself from her womb – and I swore that I would hunt down that devilish abomination and kill it. That was close to a dozen years ago, and a merry dance it has led me since…” He pauses for a moment, and his expression changes from one of bitterness to one of wonder. “Ahh, but the things I have seen, the places I have visited, the encounters I have had, during those years! I’ve chased that beast from one end of the country to the other; it has even led me to other realms, to strange and fantastic lands, the likes of which thou couldst barely imagine!” He stops and stares raptly into the distance, no doubt recalling one of his many adventures.

I speak, to try and keep him focused. “Truly, King Pellinore, I am sorry to hear of the deaths of thy brother and sister, and the harm done to thy father. I hope that thy fortunes and those of thy family improve. Should I get another chance to solve the Grail Quest, I will do my utmost to achieve it.”

“I’m sure thou wilt, though it seems a most difficult task. Rescuing damsels, slaying giants – these are not always easy to accomplish, but at least they are straightforward!”

Meara, wrapped in a blanket, comes and join us. After warming herself by the fire for a few minutes, she slips away and returns fully dressed and bearing the saucepan we’d recovered earlier from the basket, which she’s filled with water. She rests this on the fire’s edge, then busies herself making cakes.

We eat the fish as the cakes bake on a flat rock close to the fire.

Meara carefully removes the saucepan from beside the flames, adds a handful of herbs, stirs, and returns it to the fire’s side.

Before long we are tucking into the cakes – which are delicious – and passing around the saucepan, sipping the hot, herbal infusion.

I’ve not eaten so well since I left home for Camelot.

We talk for a little while but are all tired and we soon settle down to sleep for the night, our bodies making a triangle around the fire.

* * * * * *

I woke up on Saturday morning full of excitement at the continuation of Sir Timoetheus’s adventures, and thrilled by his finding a guide and companion in the shape of Meara, the merry maiden. She was obviously another reflection of Ellie, but rather than being a rueful and angry manifestation, she evidently represented her in a pure and innocent form; one that was full of wisdom, understanding, compassion and kindness.

I reviewed the episodes of which the dream had consisted: awakening in the forest; being guided by the rabbit; coming upon the lynch mob and Meara with the rope around her neck; the discussion Meara and I had had as we ate by the roadside; and stopping by the lake and encountering Glatisant and King Pellinore.

I was disturbed by the manner in which I had met Meara; that she should have been on the point of being hanged. Although Ellie had not killed herself by this method, it was still a very unsettling scene – especially when Meara had jumped off the tree-stump, which had appeared to be a suicidal action.

I decided not to think about it. Instead, I called to mind the lesson Meara had given; the instructions regarding how to purify one’s heart. Her teaching could not have been more relevant: be a friend unto thyself; treat thyself kindly, acknowledging thine own efforts and resources. She had also confirmed that which I had realised; that to berate and punish one’s self due to a sense of unworthiness was wholly misguided: causing suffering to any living being is wrong, no matter what being it is – thyself or another. By promoting the happiness of all, so is happiness increased.

There were more things she had said and done that set me pondering. I was particularly intrigued by the ring she had bestowed upon me. She had said; a gift for thee, to repay my rescue. Wear it proudly! ‘Tis the Ring of the Champion.

What did it represent? All I could think of was some kind of commitment, like an engagement. Ellie Had told me that she would be with me, for as long as I needed her, and I had now given her my oath that I would serve and praise her for the rest of my life. The attempt to return the ring was perhaps a reflection of my ill-advised plan of ignoring her, of turning away from her love, to try and get her to leave. Art thou not my Champion? Dost thou spurn me? I winced at the recollection. I had wanted her to go for her own good, I had thought, but then I remembered what Ellie had told me herself, about how she had come to the decision to take her own life: I’d convinced myself that whatever it was that I was doing, it was for the best, for everyone. Depression can make even murder and suicide seem reasonable, even honourable, and I would have to be extremely wary if I fell into one of these states again. The dark ideas and twisted plans that arose during such periods were not to be trusted.

There was another comment she had made, that set me thinking: I have not said a single dishonest word to thee. Was this referring to my belief that Ellie had lied to me? That she had, with kindness, tried to deceive me? Was it possible that I had been mistaken – that, in some sense, she did need me, that I did make a difference to her?

I could have spent the whole day lying there, thinking about the dream and what messages there were hidden in it. But I had things to do, and it was time to get up.

* * * * * *

I did a few household chores, and then went for a walk into town. I needed to get some more tea-lights and some fresh flowers, but I also wanted to find something to add to Ellie’s shrine; something fitting and beautiful.

I trawled through the charity shops and although I saw many nice things, none of them seemed quite appropriate. A little disappointed, I headed for a store I knew did a good deal on tea-lights. On my route I came across a shop I’d walked past many times but never entered; Evolution – which seemed to me another of those new-age places which sold all kinds of statuettes, picture-frames, candles, incense, cushions, dream-catchers, jewellery, and other odds and ends. I went inside and spent almost half-an-hour browsing the range of wares: eventually I bought a small glass globe on top of which an angel knelt; a diminutive metal figurine of a faerie, brightly painted (which reminded me of Meara); and a little green statue of the Buddha.

After that I went and got the tea-lights, and finally picked up some flowers from my local florists on my way home.

I got in and eagerly set to work, replacing the flowers on Ellie’s shrine, and seeing where best to put the new items I’d purchased. I decided to put the faerie and the Buddha in front of Ellie’s picture, one on each side. The angel on the globe went in the very centre of the shrine.

Pleased with my efforts, I had a bath, ate some brunch, and meditated for a while. As evening came I turned to reading; I finished The Power of Now but didn’t then start another of the volumes I’d borrowed from the library; instead I went and searched through my own stacks of books.

I assumed that the dream I’d had the previous night was the first of three, and that the following two would continue Sir Timotheus’s quest for the Holy Grail. I therefore thought it a good idea to re-read some of the works I’d collected on the subject many years before. The first I found was King Arthur & The Grail: The Arthurian Legends and their Meaning by Richard Cavendish. I sat down with a coffee and started to read, only stopping a couple of hours later when I became too hungry to concentrate.

There was a fair measure of curry left over from the night before, so all I needed to do was re-heat it and cook some fresh rice.

After dinner I popped out and got a bottle of red wine. I sat in my living room, sipping wine and turning things over in my mind, until the time came to worship my angel.

I completed the opening ritual of lighting the candles and kneeling, crossing and bowing, then said; “My dearest, my Ellie, thank you for all the happiness you’ve brought me this day, and I hope you like the additions I’ve made to your shrine.” The flames of the tea-lights twinkled and danced in the glass globe, while the Buddha and the faerie sat in their places, one radiating a supreme serenity, the other, a softly mischievous sweetness. They all seemed to fit, and gave a broader picture of the meaning and symbolism I associated with Ellie. Although Christian, she had not been bigoted nor sectarian in her faith, and now she represented to me an all-embracing spirituality, beyond any particular creed or ideology. She supported any tradition that preached universal love, forgiveness, kindness, compassion and wisdom.

“I’m really looking forward to adventuring again in my dreams with the delightful and fearless Meara. She’s an utter joy – so jolly and wise! I wonder what she’ll teach me tonight? I just hope that I can get to sleep okay, that my excitement doesn’t keep me awake!” I laughed, then lapsed into silence. For a few minutes I simply knelt there, with a contented heart and a mind at peace, before uttering the series of words that had come to be the closing ritual of my worship; “Mine angel; I praise thee, I thank thee, I love thee.”

Despite my apprehension that I wouldn’t find it easy to fall asleep, it wasn’t long before I drifted off. With a smile on my lips, I slept.

Chapter 21

The sun is shining strongly when I wake. As I get up and dress I notice that King Pelinore, his equipment and his horse, are gone, and Meara’s bedroll is empty. For a horrified moment I fear he has taken her with him, but then I see her – my eye drawn by her hair, which blazes like fire in the brilliant sunshine. She is stood some distance away in the shallows of the lake, talking to a woman waist-deep in the water.

The woman moves towards Meara, and abruptly she is not wading through the water, but walking upon it. She starts to sing. I am too far away to make out any words; I hear only a rising and falling sound that tugs at me strangely. Meara adds her voice to the woman’s, although I get the peculiar impression that they are not singing the same song.

She reaches Meara’s side, then turns around. They both stand facing across the length of the lake, a pure note flowing from them across the water, spreading out through the air.

I look in the direction they are facing, wondering if they have seen something. There’s nothing there, so I start to turn back to them, then notice a movement on the water’s surface. There is a swell, a growing wave, which is travelling from the far end of the lake toward the pair.

The wave rears up as it approaches the shore, becomes concentrated, and then breaks. Meara and the woman step away from each other as something emerges from the crashing water; a white pony, with sapphire blue points, strides from the surf to stand between the two.

The pony shakes its head, shedding droplets of water. Meara produces something from her satchel and offers it up; the pony takes a cursory sniff before eating it.

Maiden Meara and the woman exchange a few words and a sisterly embrace, then the woman walks back into the water. Deeper and deeper she goes, until her head disappears beneath the rippling surface.

Meara hugs the pony, before leading it to our camp.

“Morning, sleepyhead!” she greets me.

“Good morning, Meara,” I reply. “And who’s this with thee?”

“This is Tonn,” she says proudly. “The Lady of the Lake was kind enough to allow me his service.”

“That was good of her, and I’m sure Caval will be pleased that he doesn’t have to carry us both any more.”

“Yes, and it’s more seemly that we ride separately, dost thou not think?”

“Iwis, I do.”

“Then let us get packed up and off; we hath some distance to travel today.”

The two of us put everything away, aside from one of the loaves and some of the honey, which we share for breakfast, and one of the blankets, which Meara uses in lieu of a saddle.

It is a glorious morning; warm and clear, and we ride through a region of grassland and gentle hills.

Well, Sir Timotheus, my Champion – didst thou learn much from King Pellinore yesternight?”

“Aye; he gave me an outline of the Grail’s story – where it came from and why it was taken into the wilderness. I wonder if it would hath been better if it had never come to this country, for woe seems to follow in its wake. Much suffering has been visited upon King Pellinore and his family, due to their guardianship of the Grail. Now I have a question for thee, Meara; what dost thou wit of Glatisant, and why were thou upset yesterday to see him? Plainly, thou hast some affection for the creature, but that doesn’t explain why he should sadden thee.”

“Because he suffers. He may have the body of a monster, and in his birth he may have slain his mother, but still he is an innocent being. He means no harm, and he is not to blame for any of the sorry events that have surrounded his life, yet he has been cast out by his kith and kin, and hunted all his days. I do not know how one could know his story, and not feel sympathy for him.”

I am moved by the account. “If that is so, why didst thou not tell King Pellinore to stop chasing him, to let him be?”

“Because King Pellinore has no more choice in hunting Glatisant than Glatisant had in being born in the first place. It is their weird. Nobody knows what will happen for sure, but the resolution of their story rests on whether the quest for the Holy Grail is achieved. If thou canst finish the quest, thou canst put an end to Glatisant’s misery.”

“Then tell me how.”

Meara laughs. “I can give you guidance, Sir Timotheus, but if thou art to complete the quest, thou must look inside thyself. Knowledge cannot unlock the mystery of the Grail, only wisdom and experience can. I can point the way, but thou must walk the path.”

There is something familiar about Meara’s words, though I cannot recall ever having had such a conversation before.

She continues. “It would help if thou couldst tell me of your experiences prior to our meeting.”

I oblige. I describe to her how I had left the castle of my lord to ride to Camelot, to seek to join the quest for the Holy Grail, and became lost, ending up in the seemingly endless forest, before finding the track that led out. I tell her how I’d chosen to take the road that went up into the mountains, and how Caval had drawn my attention to the cavern wherein King Pelham sat, then detail the conversation that took place between the king and myself. I mention that I shared food with the king, and how he had declined the offer of water and indicated the bowl to me – the bowl which was, apparently, the Holy Grail, but which had seemed to me hardly worthy of note.

Meara interrupts me here by clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Well done, Sir Timotheus! Thou did excellently well, and came very close to success. But, as they say, if thou misses the target by a hair’s breadth, ‘tis the same as missing it by a thousand leagues. But, prithee, continue.”

I relate my leave-taking from King Pelham, the journey down from the mountain, and the battle with the troll at the bridge. I expect Meara to be impressed by my skill and bravery, but instead she seems upset.

Oh, Sir Timotheus, one day thou wilt regret those blows. He meant thee no mischief – he was, in fact, trying to help, to get thee to turn around, to go back to the king and complete the quest.”

I am disturbed by Meara’s words; I replay the fight in my head and see that perhaps I had misunderstood the monster’s intentions.

Go on,” says Meara. “Finish thy tale.”

There is not much left to tell. After crossing the bridge, I came back to the forest I had so recently departed, and there encountered a loathsome woman who rebuked me for my failure, and who told me to journey to Camelot and let King Arthur know what had happened – that the quest for the Holy Grail could have been completed, but, due to my ignorance, it continues.”

That was the Lady Cundri. Do not be disheartened by her sour attitude. Things are not easy for her; she is tormented by the Grail’s loss. At times it maketh her bitter.”

We ride on for a while in silence, but there is something I must know. “What is the question, Maiden Meara? What is the question that I should have asked the king?”

That I cannot tell thee, my Champion.”

Cannot, Maiden, or will not?”

She doesn’t answer, and again we travel without conversation for a space, Until Meara pears up. The sky, which had been empty of clouds when we set out, has become over-cast, and a fine drizzle begins to fall. “This weather will worsen” she says, “we would be wise to hie onward, ere the heavens open and drench us.”

I nod and we start to trot. The land here is open and offers no respite from the rain which, as predicted, slowly increases in intensity until we’re riding through a downpour.

I peer from one washed-out horizon to another, hoping to see something that will serve us as a shelter, but notice nothing.

Meara, however, calls, “Quick, Sir Timotheus – this way!” and, encouraging Tonn into a gallop, races along the road and then turns off, to rush across a field.

I spur Caval after her, and discern in the distance a broad smudge; as we ride closer, I see that it is a wood.

We reach the trees much sooner than I expect to, but they are stunted and leafless, providing little protection. We dismount and forge between them, seeking a suitable spot in which to find refuge from the rain.

Penetrating into the depths of the wood, we come to a large, irregular mound, atop which a vast and ancient beech tree looms, its crooked branches reaching high and wide.

We’ll find no better place to rest than this, Sir Timotheus.” Meara informs me. “We should build a fire to dry us out. I’ll fetch some tinder.”

Very well, but do not venture too far, my lady. There is something unnatural about this place.”

I’ll be fine,” Meara remarks, laughing. “It’s thee that worries me – thou hast a knack for getting into awkward situations!”

She heads off as I commence circumambulating the small hill on which the beech tree stands, searching for an appropriate site for our camp; a level spot out of the rain but not too close to the tree’s trunk.

I come upon a gaping hole in the hillside; a dark, dank tunnel sloping into the soil. An unpleasant smell of decay wafts out.

Not one to turn my back on an adventure, I unsling my shield and cautiously edge down the inclined passageway. I can barely see my hand in front of my face, and am considering whether it would be wiser to withdraw and return once I’ve got a fire going and can bring a brand with me, when I hear a faint, sighing sound coming from ahead of me.

I pause, giving my eyes time to adjust. A few footsteps before me the tunnel opens into a chamber. Roots have pierced the roof, creating jagged holes that allow a few sparse shards of light to stray within, as well as a steady drip of rain water. I squint into the gloom, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it is that resides in this unwholesome place.

There, lying on the floor, I can just distinguish the side of a face, a shoulder, and the curve of a breast, gently rising and falling.

A naked woman slumbers upon the bare earth.

But that is not all; there is something else in here. I behold a length of scaly flesh, like a dragon’s tail, languidly sweep between two shadows.

Intending to rescue the lady before whatever monstrous thing lurking in the darkness has a chance to dine upon her, I draw my sword and advance with an oath.

Awoken by the sound, the woman turns over, shrieking like a banshee. Suddenly she is no longer prone, but rushing at me. Her eyes are yellow, hate-filled orbs, and her horribly distended mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth. In the dim light, her forked tongue is black.

I stumble backwards in confusion, my sword held out in a futile attempt to keep her at bay. She brushes it aside, then rams into my shield with her shoulder. I’m knocked, spinning, backwards, and have to drop my sword in order to steady myself against the wall.

She moves with frightening swiftness. I can see now that she is only a woman from her bloated belly and above; below that, she has the legless body of a serpent.

Unarmed and terrified, I fling my shield at her and attempt to flee back up the passageway and out into the woods.

I almost make it, but my foot slips in the mud and a coil wraps around my legs, stopping me in my tracks. Another winds around my waist. I struggle, and with a mighty effort manage to twist myself to face my attacker.

Her breath stinks worse than a cesspool. I try to get my right hand around her throat, while swinging my left fist into her stomach.

She pulls away, rears up, then arches forward and spews a vile torrent of vitriolic vomit all over me. It burns my skin like quicklime, and the smell is so awful I cannot stop myself retching. There is no fight left in me, and I collapse within her constrictive embrace, heaving and chocking.

Sir Timotheus!” I hear Meara shouting. “Lady Erra – let him go!”

Abruptly I am free, and fall to the floor.

Meara grabs my arm and pulls me out into the open. I wonder at her strength; although she appears to be a young girl, she is nonetheless capable of dragging across the ground a grown man wearing armour.

I shall return ere long,” she whispers to me, then rushes over to my assailant. “Oh, Lady Erra, are you injured at all? He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Her voice recedes as she accompanies the snake-woman down into the heart of the mound

I sprawl on my back in the pouring rain, giddy and exhausted. After recovering somewhat, and with the worst of the caustic filth washed from me, I climb to my feet and stagger over to a pile of wood which Meara must have collected. I gather it up and retreat to the other side of the mound, where Caval and Tonn wait, huddled under the beech tree’s outstretched boughs.

I struggle out of my cold and besmirched mail, which I drape over a stout branch, then busy myself getting a fire going. I sit and shiver as I wait for the flames to grow.

Meara comes rushing up, evidently excited about something. “Quickly, heat some water! Erra’s close to giving birth!” She stops and regards me for a second, then bursts into laughter. “Oh, thou art a sorry sight! But how many times have I told thee about being too eager with thy sword? Really, bursting into a sleeping lady’s bower, with thy weapon in thy hand – how disgraceful! Perchance this time thou hast learnt thy lesson!” With a final giggle and a shake of her head, she collects a blanket, takes a burning branch from the fire, and hurries off.

Muttering a series of obscenities under my breath, I dig the saucepan out, fill it from my flask and set it to warm in the flames.

I hear Meara singing below; the song sounds eerie, echoing up out of the earth, yet enchanting at the same time. I find myself falling into a trance, and lose track of where I am and what I’m doing.

Then the song is finished. I notice that the rain has stopped as well, and steam is starting to rise from the saucepan. I take it around the mound and down the tunnel to the chamber.

Meara has planted her makeshift torch in the mud, providing a flickering illumination to the foetid, detritus-strewn den, and fusses over Erra, who lies on her back, breathing heavily, while her sinuous lower half writhes in distress. I’m disturbed to see, amongst the litter and piles of animal bones, several scraps of armour. Before I can take a closer look, Meara takes the water and shoos me out. I retrieve my abandoned sword and shield on my way to the surface.

As I make my exit from the passageway, a small flock of tiny figures, glowing green, purple and white, fly by me on gossamer wings. They carry miniature, shining wands, and a tinkling, chiming noise accompanies them through the air. I watch them with wonder as they speed past, and am tempted to follow them – but I doubt this would meet with my lady’s approval.

So, I return to the fire and, having little else to do, sit down and munch on a lhunk of bread. I feel somewhat put out by Meara’s behaviour; her failure to warn me about Erra in the first place, and then the way she left me lying in the rain and tended instead to her fiendish friend. I wonder if there is a single giant, dragon, goblin, ogre, boggart or werewolf, anywhere in the country, whom she doesn’t know personally.

Feeling hard done by, are we?” Meara asks. I nearly jump out of my skin – I hadn’t sensed her approaching.

I cover my surprise with a rather testy reply: “It would have been useful, young lady, to have been informed about that earthen cavern and its… unconventional inhabitant. I had no idea what was down there, and thou put both Erra and myself in danger by failing to mention her.”

Oh, did I now?” Meara says quietly. “Or was it thy own impetuosity that got thee into trouble? Who asked thee to go exploring, when thou shouldst have been preparing our camp? And why is it that, as soon as thou encounters a situation thou art unsure of, thou immediately reaches for thy sword? Thou art just like King Pellinore; fight first, ask questions later!” Meara’s voice becomes strained, as if she is close to tears. “I shall not be around to watch after thee much longer, thou knowest, to make sure thou dost not go hacking off any innocent’s head in a moment of misunderstanding!”

Meara’s words cut me to the quick, and I attempt to defend my actions. “I investigated only to make sure that we were safe. When I caught sight of Erra in the dark, I thought I saw a woman and something hideous that might attack her. I didn’t see that they were two parts of the same being. My actions may not have been fitting, but my intentions were good and honourable.”

And what is they say about good intentions and the road to Hell?” Meara shakes her head. “And as for going into a gloomy grotto that reeks of death, ‘tis clearly a case of a fool rushing in where an angel would fear to tread!”

Abashed, I turn away. “I am very sorry, Lady Meara, to have disappointed thee so.”

She steps in front of me, takes my head lightly in her hands, and kisses me on the forehead. “Oh, Sir Timotheus, thou art no disappointment – ’tis just that thou knowest no better! Thou art a knight, and knights have a tendency to aloofness and suspect honour. Being part of the nobility, and granted all the privileges that go therewith, fosters within knights an inappropriate pride, and a tendency to see those who art of a lowly status as being ignoble and inferior. All too commonly do those who have been given great gifts see this as a sign that they are more worthy than those who hath not. This is arrogance and ingratitude indeed! Those who are gifted should be humble, and generous with all that they have been given. They should realise that they are fortunate, and so look upon the unfortunate with compassion and mercy. They should share as much as they can, and use their gifts wisely, to benefit everyone, rather than selfishly hoarding their unearned plenitude. Also, as a knight thou hast been primarily trained for combat, and so when a challenge presents itself, thy first thought is to fight it. But few problems are ever solved by might of arms, and violence cannot answer a question; it can only silence the one who asks it. With patience and compassion, towards thyself as well as all other living things, thou wilt, in time, gain wisdom. In the meanwhile, remember: I am thy guide, so seek my counsel before setting thyself upon any rash course of action.”

I look into her green eyes; they are full of love, kindness, and sympathy, and I suddenly feel very childish. I realise how reckless and unworthy I am; how quick I am to judge, and how short my temper is. I also realise how lucky I am to have the company of this joyful and jubilant, merry and magical, wise and wonderful little lady. “Thank thee, Maiden – I will follow thine advice.”

She smiles. “Good!” she says. “That is all I ask. Now, come on – if thou wert to apologise to Lady Erra, I’m sure she’ll show thee her babies.”

I’m not certain I wish to see them. “One moment, my lady. Canst thou tell me Erra’s story? Is she another innocent, like Glatisant?”

Innocent? Not quite, but still she is a living creature and so deserves our compassion and kindness. Once she was the lady-in-waiting to King Pelham and King Pellinore’s younger sister, whom she was tricked into betraying. She was seduced by the Grey Emissary, a servant of the Enemy; he promised her land of her own and the attention of many noble knights. Of course, she did not realise that the land she was to be given would be an accursed wood, and the attention she was to receive from those noble knights would be less than friendly. Because of her selfishness and vanity, she hath lost everything, and caused much suffering to those she loved. Such is the reward of greed and conceit.”

So, it was she that betrayed King Pellinore’s family? Due to her, Glatisant was born?”

In part. But, as I say, she was misled and deceived. The Grey Emissary is a great tempter, and a master of manipulation. Few are be able to resist him.”

I nod my head and get to my feet. “Very well. I’m ready to give my apology.”

Hand-in-hand, we head back to Erra’s lair, where another surprise awaits me. In the half-an-hour or so since I last saw within, the place has been transformed. No longer a dark, dirty pit, it is now a clean, stone-lined, fully furnished domicile: the roof has been repaired and the invading tree-roots plaited together; the floor is set with coloured tiles arranged in a pattern, and in one wall is a grand fire-place, in which a blaze is already alight, filling the room with warmth and illumination. There is a table and a sizable tub, and, most amazing of all, an alcove beside the fire-place shelters a small well, complete with rope and metal bucket.

Erra, dressed in a resplendent gown of green silk, reclines on a large and luxurious four-poster canopied bed. She cradles in one arm a mewing monstrosity which has a barbed tail and the green, leathery skin of a lizard, while suckling at her breast is an abomination with a baby’s head sprouting from the body of a giant spider.

Doing my best to keep my disgust hidden, I bow. “Please forgive me, Lady Erra – I apologise for my earlier intrusion into thy dwelling, and meant no disrespect. I was not aware of thy residence here.”

I accept thine apology,” Erra replies, her voice is a husky hiss. “And I, also, am sorry to have attacked thee. I was alarmed to awaken and find a knight in my chamber; thou wouldst not have been the first to try and slay me whilst I slept.”

I do not comment on this observation.

Erra continues. “I have pleasure in introducing thee to my children; here is little Lizzy,” she indicates the green-skinned one, then pats the other. “And this is Coesau.”

Lizzy and Coesau – two very nice names,” I haplessly remark.

Neither of us can think of anything more to say, and Meara rescues us both; “I’m glad the pair of you have made up. Now, Sir Timotheus, Lady Erra has kindly offered to let us lodge here this evening. So, if thou couldst be a dear and fetch our supplies, and see to our steeds, I’ll prepare us some supper.”

A good idea,” I respond, eager to escape a situation I was finding awkward.

I go outside, remove the saddle and packs from Caval’s back and ferry these inside before rubbing him and Tonn down, and then feed them from our stock of oats. Finally, I collect my armour and return to the refurbished cavern to find Meara filling the tub with water drawn from the well and heated by the fire.

Excuse me, my Lady,” I say to her. “If thou art going to bathe, I’ll wait without until thou hast finished and re-robed thyself.”

I thank thee for thy consideration,” Meara replies. “But this bath is not for me, it is for thee. Thou hast been dirtied by thy labours and the scuffle with Lady Erra.”

Kind though thy thought is, it would ill-beseem me to bathe in the same room as two ladies.”

Fie and nonsense,” Meara responds. “Lady Erra’s bed has a curtain that can be drawn about it. Thou needs not fear for thy modesty.”

I am too exhausted to raise any further objections. Meara provides me with a piece of soap, a blanket, and a clean shirt and pair of hose. She has made cakes again, and leaves these to cook on a griddle over the fire, before climbing onto the bed with Erra and the babies, and pulling the curtain around.

Still feeling a little embarrassed and exposed, I quickly undress and get into the bath. The water is warm and welcoming; I sigh, and wallow contentedly, feeling my aches and bruises ease.

Whispers and giggles from the bed remind me that I am not alone in the room. Hurriedly I scrub myself with the soap and massage lather into my hair, then submerge myself. After that, I’m about as thoroughly washed as I’m going to be.

Slowly and gently, so as not to splash the bath water, I stand up and step out of the tub. I quickly rub myself down with the blanket and then bask for a few moments by the fire.

Refreshed and invigorated, I pull on the hose and shirt and call out to let Meara and Erra know that I have finished bathing and am decent again.

The curtain is drawn back and Meara comes over to inspect the cakes, and shortly afterwards we are relaxing and eating.

By the time we’ve finished supper, I’m so tired I can barely stand, and Erra has already retired for the evening. I prepare a place to sleep by the fire, and Meara indicates that she’ll share the bed with Erra and the new-borns. “But first,” she tells me, “There is something I must do.”

And what duty, pray tell, is this?” I enquire.

I must dance with the trees in the pale moonlight,” she replies.

I look around for my sword. “Then I shall accompany thee, to ensure thy safety. Mayhap some fell fiend stalks the darkness without.”

Meara laughs. “Dost thou doubt me yet, Sir Timotheus?”

I open my mouth to object, but she puts a finger to it. “Hush, my Champion. I know that thou seeketh only to keep me from harm, but hast thou not learnt that I have knowledge beyond thy wit? There is no danger to me in this place. If there were, I would sense it. Thou art weary; rest is needful to thee. And thou dost not wish to arrive at Camelot tomorrow half asleep.”

A thrill passes through me at the thought of finally reaching Camelot. “Very well, Maiden. I shall lay me down to rest.”

I settle down as Meara leaves. Despite her words, I feel anxious at her absence, but then the sound of her singing reaches me; while I hear her voice, I know that all is well, and her song soothes me like a lullaby. Soon, I am sleeping.

* * * * * *

On Sunday I again lie in bed for a time, recollecting and contemplating the dream from which I’d just awoken. Despite Meara’s kindness and gentleness, she had been critical of Sir Timotheus’s attitude and was obviously trying to assist him in developing a better one. Of course, all that she had said to Sir Timotheus was also relevant to myself. In my adolescence, when I had determined to become somebody capable and effective, the archetype of the knight had been my model. In trying to make myself into a person that possessed all the virtues of a perfect knight – the commitment to honour, loyalty and justice; the ability to fight; the desire to serve and protect others, particularly women and children, even at the cost of one’s own life – I had at the same time inevitably embraced a view of the world that mirrored this model. My perceptions were shaped by the belief that people should be respectful, honest, loyal, just, kind, caring, and generous, and when they failed to meet these expectations, my response was to disparage, despise or dehumanise them. My attitude to others was inherently confrontational, and if they did not abide by virtues similar to those I had espoused, I dismissed them.

I squirmed during this analysis, but did not let it upset me too much; I knew that that wouldn’t help the situation. What I should do was to focus on how I could leave behind these negative traits and develop the positive ones I wanted. And the way to do this was to follow the advice Meara had given to Sir Timotheus.

An image from the dream suddenly inserted itself into my thoughts; Sir Timotheus stood in the passageway, wrapped in Erra’s coils, punching her in the belly with one hand whilst reaching for her throat with the other. Erra who was, it transpired, pregnant at the time. I cringed and a wave of self-revulsion shuddered through me.

It was a shook to realise I was not the open-minded, tolerant, rational and sympathetic person I had believed myself to be. I was, instead, opinionated, arrogant, judgemental, and clung to a naive and simplistic ethical standard: my personal code of honour. I had on occasions in the past wanted to analyse and define this ‘code of honour’ and see whether I could construct from it a system of ethics that was philosophically valid. But I never got around to this task, perhaps from a fear that it would end in failure, perhaps due to Socrates (the father of western philosophy, not the character in Way of the Peaceful Warrior), who had consistently shown that people had no real understanding of the ideals by which they lived their lives – when he asked someone to explain what virtue was, for example, he was given answers that proved to be contradictory, led to absurd conclusions, or were circular. My code of honour simply meant too much to me to risk discovering some fatal flaw in its structure, and so destroy my faith in it – for that would also mean the loss of faith in myself. It was by my honour that I lived; if it was shown to be worthless, then so too was my life. I also knew that modern philosophy had proved that there can be no clearly defined logical or mathematical system which does not produce paradoxes or unanswerable questions, and I could only imagine the same would be true of any ethical system. The task of trying to define my system of honour, therefore, was too dangerous to carry out.

Perhaps this was why I often felt that my life actually was meaningless and without value; it was based not on solid foundations, but on sea-mist and empty ideology. But now I had been offered a new way; the path of which Ellie had spoken. Guided by her, surely I could let go of my juvenile adherence to honour, and embrace in its place a more mature, humble, compassionate, and accepting philosophy?

It was with this question circling in my mind that I got out of bed.

The day went smoothly; I washed and cleaned, meditated and read, shopped and cooked, ate and drank, praised and worshipped, and then I was back in bed. A mix of anticipation and trepidation kept me awake for a little while, for I knew that Camelot and King Arthur awaited me in my dreams.

Chapter 22

Something is gently shaking me.

Time thou woke up,” Meara whispers into my ear. Her warm breath tickles my neck, and for a moment my sleep-befuddled mind imagines a strange scene: I’m floating in a clear blue sky and Meara is dancing around me, flying through the air on giant butterfly wings that bear the pattern of a peacock’s tail.

I open my eyes, sit up, and yawn, covering my open mouth with the back of my hand. “Good morning, my Lady,” I say, blinking at her.

Good morning, my Champion,” she replies, ruffling my hair, as if I were the child and she the adult. I realise that, in many regards, this is probably the truth of the matter. “Art thou well rested? For today we shall reach our goal; Camelot.”

Aye, my Lady; rested and ready for the road ahead.”

Then get up and join Erra and I for breakfast.”

We dine on porridge sweetened with honey, and once we have finished eating Meara presents me with some gifts; a set of rich clothes, and a gleaming suit of armour, complete with embroidered linen surcoat.

Why, I thank thee, my Lady – such splendid finery! There are few knights, I’d wager, that can boast better!”

Thou art welcome, Sir Timotheus; I wouldst not have my Champion arrive at Camelot attired like some bebeggared vagabond!”

I dress in my shining new armour and surcoat, then start to transport our gear outside, where night is just beginning to give way to day; the air is fresh, and the indigo firmament is being invaded from the east by streaks of pink and orange. Despite the early hour, Caval and Tonn are happy to see me, and seem eager to get going. I re-saddle and re-load Caval, then return to the chamber.

Shortly after, we are poised to depart. Erra glides forward and sweeps Meara up in a fulsome embrace. “I have not the words,” she says in her hoarse yet sibilant voice, “to fully express my gratitude for all thou hath done for me. Thou hath restored mine humanity, for if one is forced to live like an animal, like an animal one becomes. Now I have a home; secure and warm, providing condign conditions in which to raise my children. Thou hath given me, and them, a future.”

Oh, shush,” says Meara, once she’s deposited back on the ground. “’Twas nothing. My friends, the faeries and gnomes, did almost all of the work. I only hope thou remaineth safe, and that the curse holding thee to this form is soon broken.”

I step forward and bow. “Lady Erra, thank thee for thy hospitality. I wish thee and thy children well.”

Erra makes a sinuous approximation of a curtsy. “Take care, Sir Timotheus; serve the Merry Maid well, and follow her wise counsel. I hope, for my sake and the sake of my children, that thou succeedeth in thy quest and restoreth the Grail.”

So shall I endeavour,” I respond.

Meara and I walk up the passageway for the last time.

Caval and Tonn crowd around us, and I turn to Meara and ask; “Well, then, Maiden – which way Camelot?”

She simply smiles and says, “Follow me.”

We leave, with Meara in the lead, and our steeds ambling after. We travel south, with dwindling darkness on one side and burgeoning light on the other.

We weave through the trees; the day before they had seemed mostly dead, with denuded branches, but this morning buds and leaves have appeared. I assume this change is due to Meara’s moon-lit sorcery of the previous night.

As if she can hear my thoughts, Meara starts singing. At first her voice is low and soft – little more than a whispered chant – but it grows higher and louder, the ringing notes rebounding from the surrounding boughs.

As dawn gathers pace, the forest abruptly burst into bloom. I gaze around in wonder, my breath catching, until a nudge from Caval brings me back to myself, and I hurry after my maiden guide.

The rising sun is welcomed by a sudden swell of birdsong which, rather than drowning out Meara’s voice, harmoniously blends with it. Blossom starts to tumble from the trees, carpeting the ground before and behind us in tiny petals of white and blue, purple and green.

And then we have stepped out of the forest and onto a broad, well-used, and well-maintained, road, its path perpendicular to the one in which we had been going. Meara ceases her singing, and I clap my hands. “Amazing, maiden!” I say to her. “How thou found thy way here, I cannot guess.”

Oh, I didn’t do any such thing, Sir Timotheus,” she replies, laughing. “I just sang to the trees, and it was they that brought us hence! Erra’s home is not called ‘the Wandering Woods’ for no reason.”

I don’t know if she is joking with me or not, but it doesn’t matter; Camelot awaits. I climb into my saddle and Meara hoists herself onto Tonn’s back, and turns his head westward.

Keen to continue on to our destination without delay, I wish for haste, but Meara sets a slow pace. “Sir Timotheus,” she says, “we are now very close to the end of our journey together. Soon our paths will part, and thou shalt go in one direction, and I another.”

I had been so looking forward to arriving at Camelot, meeting King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and starting in earnest the quest for the Holy Grail, that I had forgotten that this would be the end of my time with Meara. Reminded of this fact, my mood is tinctured with melancholy. “Sorry will I be by the loss of your companionship and counsel,” I remark softly.

Regrets benefit us nought,” Meara says gently. “Be not downhearted, for we shall see each other again ere long. The birds may migrate in one season, but they return in another.” He voice then assumes a tone of pedagogical authority, “Now, harken to mine advice.

To achieve the Grail thou must, as I hath already told thee, cease to cling to evil. There are many forms of evil; arrogance, anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, vanity, despair, ill-will – all the various guises of violence, selfishness and ignorance. In thee, it is arrogance, anger and hatred that are most prominent. Know that an arrogant mind is an ugly mind; full of hubris, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Know that to indulge in anger is one of the vilest of vices, for it causeth strife. Know also that to succumb to hatred is to repudiate goodness entirely, and pleaseth only the Enemy. Be mindful and aware of thine emotions; safeguard thyself from these perfidious states! Learn patience, compassion, and humility, and, most of all, foster kindness and good cheer. It taxes thee little to be friendly and polite, whereas a single moment of aggression or rudeness can have very costly consequences! Aye – thy very life, and all the good thou hast done throughout thy days – can be ruined by a solitary act of spite.

Even when provoked, resist any negative reaction. Do not dwell on any harm nor on any insult given to thee, for it is only from beings that suffer and are ignorant that such actions arise. When ignorance in another presses them to treat thee ill, it is thy own ignorance which responds to reproach them. So, it is ignorance that gives rise to unkindness, and ignorance that takes offence at it! Therefore, thou shouldst respond to insults with equanimity, and to violence with compassion; otherwise, thou wilt just perpetuate misery and malice.

Seek to keep thy mind ever calm. When one is able to maintain a kindly disposition even when under duress – when taunted and belittled, when beaten and abused – then one hast made true progress. When one can smile at one’s persecutors, wish them well and hope for their happiness and welfare, then does one approach the heights. When one can abide in unbreakable peace, offering compassion and love to all beings without discrimination or prejudice, no matter how much they injure and revile thee, then hast one completed the path, reached the summit, crossed the river. Only then will the Grail be truly revealed to thee.”

Meara stops talking and looks at me for a response, though it takes me some time to marshal one. “Thine advice, as ever, is meet and wise, clear and uncompromising. But, though I hear the truth of it, I wonder at the practice. How can one encounter animosity and antipathy without reacting with rancour? Should someone defame and vilify thee, is it not more seemly to take them to task for their false and unworthy words rather than permit such lies to go unchallenged? To allow another to wound thee, whether the damage is done to thy body or thy honour, and make no complaint nor seek any reparation, would surely give people cause to believe that the violence against thee was justified. Didst thou not tell me the other day that to causeth suffering to any living being is wrong? And wouldst it not make thee complicit if suffering was inflicted on one by another and thou didst nought in response?”

Meara ponders her reply. “It is good that thou hath considered my counsel, but thy conclusions are false. To retort to harm will only prolong and multiply it; how many feuds and wars are waged because of one unfortunate incident that was not allowed to pass? By graciously forgiving any wrong done to thee, thou wilt show others an alternative to the endless tip-for-tap that a stray insult can engender. Those who act in a churlish and surly manner expect to evoke hostility and sourness from those they mistreat; it would give them pause for thought were their victims to react with gentleness and understanding instead. And, as for a lack of complaint being seen as an acceptance of just deserts for some previous wrongdoing, didst thou assume I was guilty of being a witch when thou found me on a tree-stump with a rope around my neck, because I did not object to the way the villagers were treating me? Nay, my Champion, instead thou saw the injustice of their actions all the more clearly.

What I have been teaching thee is how to attain liberation, insight and true happiness. It is for thine own good that thou shouldst practice forgiveness, that thou shouldst abstain from judging others; it is the only way to overcome thy surquedry, and to obtain wisdom. Once thou hast discovered the truth, thou wilt no longer require guidance. Until then, be assured that to comport thyself other than in the manner I have described will only mire thee deeper in ignorance and suffering. Think thee further on mine advice; if thou taketh it into thy heart, it will nourish and protect thee, and make thee glad.”

Certes I shall, Maiden Meara, for I hope not to let thee down. And, should I not get the chance later, I will tell thee this now: I have a new motive for finding the Holy Grail – to relieve the misery of Glatisant, and of Erra and her children, and of all the other beings that suffer due to the Enemy’s actions.”

Meara beams at me. “Oh, Sir Timotheus – happy am I made by thy words! Now thy quest has at least a hope of success! But answer me this; dost thy new motive entirely displace the old? Art thou still set on becoming a Knight of the Table Round?”

I reflect for a moment. “’Tis surely the ambition of every true knight, and I would be lying if I said that this was no longer my goal. I have heard thy admonishments, and wit that thou wisheth me to change my ways, but I do not know how to be anything other than what I am, and what I am is a knight. I laboured hard to become one, and nor, I confess, do I wish to be anything else.”

Meara gives me a look full of sympathy. “I understand, and please believe me when I say I do not ask of thee to stop being a knight. It is clear that thou remaineth caught in the conditions of thy class and culture, and fixed in the fantasies of thy youth. But they will not serve thee on the journey thou must undertaketh. Only by sacrificing thy desire to join the ranks of the Round Table wilt thou be able to make the relief of the world’s suffering thy sole aim, and only then wilt thou be able to find the Grail. Wit thee well; thy current path will lead thee nowhere. It is hopeless. It will achieve nought.”

Howso, Meara?” I ask, a sense of unease and panic arising in me.

Only those who are worthy are chosen to join Arthur and his Companions. Obviously, it is thy belief that thou art unworthy; otherwise, thou wouldst not believe that thou hast a need to find the Grail in order to be offered a seat at the Round Table. However, if thou truly art unworthy, thou wilt seek the Holy Grail in vain! But, conversely, were thou to accept that thou art indeed worthy, then thou wouldst have no need to prove it, either to thyself or anyone else, and it would make little difference to thee whether thou art a Knight of the Round Table or not!”

I realise that she is right, and halt Caval. “Why, Meara,” I exclaim bitterly, “thou hast confounded me! What sense is there in my travelling to Camelot now?”

Oh, my Champion,” Meara says proudly, stopping Tonn beside me, “there is always good sense in paying Camelot – or, more correctly, Caer Mȇl a Ŷd, the Fortress of Honey and Corn – a visit! ‘Tis a very grand and noble place, the equal even of ancient Cnoc na Teamhrach – the Hill of Tara!”

I barely hear Meara’s words; I am full of disbelief and a growing disappointment. My misguided motives have robbed me of all purpose.

Meara is not blind to my distress, but it seems to amuse her. “Oh, come, Sir Timotheus – why so crestfallen? Soon we shall arrive at Camelot, where thy quest will start in earnest!”

What quest?” I mutter back at her, irritated. “As thou hast so eloquently stated, my wayward desires assure only my failure. I would prove myself a fool were I to ask King Arthur to join the quest for the Holy Grail now.”

Meara’s laughter is unaffected and infectious. “Then, my Champion, go forth and be a fool! A wonderful, glorious fool! Knowing the hopelessness of thy task, realising that thou lacketh the necessary confidence, compassion and wisdom to complete the quest, is the only way to begin it! Most knights who sally out to seek the Grail never come close to such understanding! They believe that by merely venturing about, going hither and thither, wandering here, there and yonder, they might one day stumble upon it, like a misplaced hat or a lost shoe! Bless them, comical creatures that they are!”

I cannot help but chortle at the picture Meara paints. Where it not for her, I would have gone about searching for the Holy Grail in exactly this manner. If nothing else, she has saved me much time and energy.

We are now in a rolling countryside of fields and coppices. Half a league or so ahead of us is a magnificent sight; a vast, steep hill which has been crafted into a mighty fortress. The sides of the hill have been sculpted into a series of giant ramparts and deep ditches, and tall, whitewashed walls with battlements and towers guard a hill-top which must cover a huge area – large enough to house an entire city.

The hill commands the whole landscape, and the brilliant fortifications, refulgent in the bright, early afternoon light, dominate its summit. It is a vision to capture the eye and lift the spirit.

There can be no mistaking this place; it is Camelot.

So,” Meara asks, “Shall we proceed?”

I nod.

Good!” she says, and suddenly sets off at a gallop, yelling; “To Camelot!”

I charge in pursuit, and we race along the road, hooting and shrieking like a couple of children. Of course, only one of us is a child, but I remain unsure which.

We slow down and adopt a more stately and civilised demeanour as we draw closer. Knights on patrol, and merchants driving laden carts, give a friendly greeting as they pass.

We ascend the hill; the gateway that gives entry to Camelot is high, but not very wide; the gates themselves are open, but guarded. The walls are even more impressive when seen close up; mighty war machines would be needed to breach them.

As we approach, the gate commander steps forward. “Hail, and welcome to Camelot!” he cries. “I am Sir Portus. Pray, tell me thy names, and what brings thee hither?”

I am Sir Timotheus, Knight Errant, come with a message for his Majesty, King Arthur Pendragon, concerning the Holy Grail. With me is the Maiden Meara; a young lady of otherworldly wisdom.”

If thou barest tidings of the Holy Grail, thou must continue within forthwith.” He remarks, stepping aside, then turn and calls, “Garconus, attend upon this knight and lady, conduct them to the castle, and inform the steward of their arrival and that they bring news of the Grail.”

Aye, Sir!” a young voice replies as Meara then I ride through the entrance. The area immediately inside is hemmed in by further walls, to form a barrier to any attacker who had achieved the apparently impossible feat of penetrating the outer defences. A lad in the livery of a page meets us and bows. “If ye would follow me, my lord and lady, I shall lead ye to the castle.” He mounts a small horse and together the three of us ride out into the open. Before us is a wide, bustling lane, with many buildings – houses, taverns, workshops, stalls, smithies and the like – on either side. We ride down its length and come to a large flat field, broad and deep enough to assemble an army upon. The grass is churned and shows other signs that a tournament has been held here recently. Beyond the hosting ground I can see crops of corn, and then trees.

Beside the field looms the most magnificent castle I have ever seen. Its outer walls join up with those that encircle the whole hill-top. We ride over the bridge that spans the dry moat and through another set of gates into the main courtyard.

We all dismount. Garconus says, “Prithee, tarry here a moment and I shall find the steward.” He darts away.

Meara and I start to remove what baggage and items from the saddle packs we will require. A stable hand comes over, ascertains our names, and then leads Caval and Tonn away.

I can hardly believe that I have finally reached King Arthur’s court. I gape, trying to take it all in; the shining walls, the towers, and the multitude of people – from low to high – going about their business. After the length of time I’ve spent in the wilderness, I find it a noisy and confusing place.

Well, my Champion,” Meara says, “we have arrived at Camelot. How dost thou feel?”

I take a deep breath. “It has taken me a long time, and much travail, to get here, and were it not for thee, I would still be lost and wandering in the wilderness. Truly, Maiden Meara, I admit to being a brash and headstrong fellow, yet thou hast made me thy Champion, shown me kindness, and given me guidance, despite my many faults and failings. Thou hast honoured me above and beyond all mine expectations, though I have neither earned nor do I deserve the gifts thou hast bestowed upon me. I would be the most ungrateful and ill-mannered of men if I did not with humility give thee thanks and praise, and judge myself fully fortunate and very blessed to have been in thy service. Were I wiser and purer of spirit, I would have no need of any other accolade than thy good regard. I will strive to abide by the instructions thou hast given me, and I strive also to let go of my desire to be esteemed, and to hold a high station.”

Meara claps her hands. “Well said, Sir Timotheus! The path ahead of thee will at times bring disappointment and discouragement, but if thou remindeth thyself of the sentiments thou hath here proclaimed, then thou wilt not lose hope. Keep thou thy faith, and all thy worries will be eased.”

There is no time for us to talk further; a tall man with greying hair, wearing rich, sober clothes, a sword in a scabbard, and a scornful expression, accosts us. “Art thou the knight with word of the Grail?” he demands. He carries a staff of office that distinguishes him as a high-ranking member of King Arthur’s retinue, and is attended by a young man in servant’s uniform.

I bow. “Yes, my Lord. I am Sir Timotheus, and have indeed been been charged with the duty of informing His Highness King Arthur with news pertaining to the Holy Grail.”

By whom?” he asks brusquely.

Lady Cundri,” I reply. “A woman not to be trifled with!”

The man arches his eyebrows. “Never heard of her,” he says dismissively.

Then that is to thy shame, Seneschal,” Meara chides. “For she is the Handmaid of the Holy Grail.”

The man, whom I now realise is Sir Kay, King Arthur’s foster brother, scowls, and he does not deign to reply. Instead, he glances at Meara with distaste, and asks me, “Where is thy squire, and why dost thou travel in the company of this barbarian wench?”

I do not like the pitch of his question, but keep my manner civil. “I do not have a squire, my Lord – as soon as I was knighted, I set forth to seek King Arthur’s permission to join the quest for the Holy Grail. As I understood matters, a knight who seeks the Holy Grail must do so alone, so I refused the service of a squire. As for the youthful Maiden Meara, I encountered her on the road after becoming lost, and she said she could guide me here. And here we are.”

I see,” Sir Kay remarks with a sneer. “Though I do not know what we are to do with her; a room in the castle has been assigned for thy use, but ‘twould not do for thee to share it with a girl – especially one of such tender years.”

Meara laughs. “Worry thee not, Senseschal, for I have here a friend, a well-disposed lady, whom hath promised to share her accommodation with me.”

Very well,” he responds, dismissing her from his concern with a slight gesture of his hand. He looks to his servant. “Take Sir Timotheus to his room and then bring him to the Hall of the Round Table.”

Yes, my Lord.”

Without a further word, or even the vaguest hint of courtesy, Sir Kay about-turns and marches away.

The servant bows to me and introduces himself. “I am Gwas, Sir – please, allow me to carry thy things, and I shall conduct thee to thy quarters.”

Thank thee, Gwas,” I say, then address Meara. “It seemeth, maiden, this is where we say ‘goodbye’.”

Nay,” she responds. “Not so soon. I shall see thee later, after thou hath spoken with King Arthur. Tomorrow morning will we be our time of farewells.” Nevertheless, she gives me a brief hug before Gwas escorts me away, leading me into the castle and through a maze of hallways, staircases, and corridors until we final reach a door sporting a picture of a stag with large antlers. He opens the door, and stands aside to let me enter first the plushly furnished room.

After depositing my things, we retrace our steps until we reach a hallway leading to the castle’s entrance, but then Gwas guides me into a side-passage and through a door that takes us out into a walled off section that appears to be used for combat training and battle drills. We cross this area, pass under a broad archway, and enter another courtyard dominated by a circular building, grand in both scale and design. We head towards its ornately crafted double doors; they are tall and wide enough to permit the passage of a pair of knights riding abreast.

We enter. There is a short entrance hall, at the end of which is another set of wide doors, and half-way along its length are a pair of smaller doors, facing each other. I notice that the floor is decorated with a mosaic depicting two dragons fighting; one is red, the other white.

Gwas approaches one of the side doors and ushers me inside. “This is it, Sir – please wait in here until thou art summoned,” he says, gives a final bow, and departs.

The room is surprisingly Spartan and unadorned; it hosts a bench, a table, two chairs and a small fireplace. A narrow window, the shutters standing open, provides light and fresh air.

I take a seat on the bench and try to compose my thoughts. I am anxious about what I have to say to King Arthur, and what his reaction to my news might be. I hope that I will be judged fairly, and, despite Meara’s earlier words of warnings, be given permission to join the quest for the Holy Grail. I cannot imagine what I will do if this is denied to me. I review the last few days of my journey, and ponder all that I have experienced and learnt.

Half an hour or so passes before the door is opened by a tall man with long, fair-hair. He is attired in the latest courtly fashion, though he has the bearing of a warrior. He bows before speaking; his voice is sonorous and carries the ghost of a Gallic accent. “Good afternoon to thee Sir Timotheus. I am Sir Lancelot. Please, if thou wouldst, accompany me, and I shall take thee to King Arthur and those Knights of the Round Table that are currently to be found here in Camelot.”

I follow Sir Lancelot down the short corridor and into the chamber of the Round Table.

The large, circular hall is dominated by the massive table; it is at least twenty yards across. Although round, the table does not form a closed circle; the middle area is empty, so the tabletop is like a hoop rather than a disk. There are four gaps in the table, spaced around its circumference, to allow access to the central area.

Had the table been fully seated, there would have been one hundred and fifty knights in attendance, but this is not the case – the majority of the Knights of the Round Table do not live at Camelot; many rule their own lands (some rule entire kingdoms), and, of course, many are engaged in the quest for the Holy Grail, or off attending to other matters. I estimate, from the proportion of empty seats, there to be less than a third of the full company present.

I look around the table and my eyes fall on one figure. Although middle-aged, he is still a great bear of a man; an imposing and commanding figure, even if his thick red hair and bushy beard are starting to turn dull. He wears no crown, but I immediately know that this King Arthur.

He rises to his feet, and all the other knights jump up.

Sir Lancelot introduces me; “My noble king and honourable companions, this is Sir Timotheus.”

I bow.

King Arthur speaks; his voice is rich and warm, but with the hard edge of someone used to giving orders. “Welcome art thou to Camelot and my court. If it pleaseth thee, step into the centre here before me, and tell us the news thou bringest.” He sits back down, as do the rest, and Lancelot strides around the table to take his own seat.

I stand in the spot indicated by the king, briefly clear my throat, and then address the assembly.

Thy Majesty, kings, lords and knights of great Britannia, thank ye for the kind welcome ye have given. I shall endeavour to tell ye, straight and true, that news which I have been asked to deliver to ye.” I recount again the sequence of events which had caused me to seek Camelot in the first place, and which had resulted in my meeting with Meara. I then describe our adventures together, up to our arrival at Camelot.

King Arthur queries me on various points as I relate my story, and much is made of my conversation with King Pelham, my description of the Holy Grail, and the words spoken to me by the fearsome Lady Cundri. More still is made of my meeting with Sir Pellinore; he has not been seen at Camelot for some years, his pursuit of Glatisant having taken him to wild and remote places, and I am asked to identify the location of the lake where our encounter occurred.

I am sorry, my lords, to disappoint ye, but I know not where this lake can be found – I had been lost a long while before arriving there, and we travelled onwards by way of the Wandering Woods, which moves itself about the land in a manner most mysterious. I would not be able to retrace the path that brought me here. Perhaps Maiden Meara couldst tell ye more.”

There are some murmured discussions amongst the knights, and King Arthur raises his hand to silence them. “Thank thee, Sir Timotheus, for the news thou hast brought us. Thy story marketh thee as a knight of great promise. Now, is there aught that thou desireth to ask of me?”

Yes,” I reply, standing as tall and firm as I could. “Should it pleaseth thee, thy majesty, I ask thee to grant me thy leave to depart Camelot and go in quest of the Holy Grail.”

King Arthur regards me solemnly. “Ahh, Sir Timotheus, thou asketh me something that I cannot give to thee, for only to a Knight of the Round Table can I grant such permission. As it is, more than half of the Round Table went off to seek the Grail; of those, a dozen are dead already, and another forty are still engaged in the quest. If every knight in the country were allowed the right to seek the Grail our armies wouldst be depleted of their best warriors, and our castles wouldst be barely manned. So, please asketh me for something else – a boon that I am able to bestow.”

For some seconds I am stunned and speechless, unable to reply. My worst fear has been realised; I have been denied the quest. I wet my lips, and in a slightly quavering voice, ask; “Then, thy Majesty, I can only ask that thou set me some challenge or task, the completion of which will prove my worthiness to be invited to join the Round Table, so that then I may be allowed to undertake the quest for the Holy Grail. Forsooth, to go on this quest is all that I wish, whether I achieve it or not. Truly, my king, I cannot conceive of any other venture or course of action that I desireth.”

King Arthur sighs heavily, his countenance showing chagrin. “Again, thou asketh me for something that is beyond my power to give. No person decideth who has a place at this table, unless that person is Merlin, for it was by his subtle arts that this table was fashioned. The names and devices of the knights chosen appear on the seats without intervention; it is the table and chairs that maketh the choice, not myself.” He pauses, studying me for a moment; my unhappiness and sense of humiliation are clear to see. “But taketh this not to thy heart, young knight! Join my court and serve me, and I am certain that thou wilt be chosen ere long. There are at this time five places vacant – the knights that sat in them have died, and their names and coats-of-arms have faded; but are not yet replaced. With patience, courage, and loyal service, the table will recognise thee, and a seat shall be thine.”

My hopes all thwarted, my face coloured by shame, I am at a complete loss. Meara had been right, and I have revealed myself to be naïve and vainglorious, an embarrassment and a laughing stock. One thing is for certain; I cannot stay at Camelot. I bow awkwardly. “I apologise, thy Majesty, for mine ignorance is asking thee for favours thou canst not grant, and I thank thee for thy kindness, but I cannot linger. I will away on the morrow, in search of honourable adventure.”

King Arthur shrugs his mighty shoulders. “If that be the case, then thou hast my leave, and my blessings, to go, and I am regretful that I can only offer thee the hospitality of my court for a single night. ‘Twas once the case that the knights of Britannia saw no higher honour than to serve me and reside here at Camelot, the greatest of castle in the greatest of kingdoms. Now, knights are restless, and seeketh always for their own glory; the old order changeth, yielding place to new.” The king sighs again, then banishes the wistful look that had crept onto his face. “If I have no chance to see thee before thy departure, I wish thee success in thy endeavours. I hope that, once thy task is accomplished, thou wilt return to my court.”

I bow once again. “Thank thee, thy majesty, and were it not for the lure of the Holy Grail then thy court wouldst indeed be the home of my desires. I can only hope the quest is achieved some day, and we shall be released of its burden.”

I am dismissed, and make my exit from the Hall of the Round Table.

I am in a gloomy frame of mind; I feel that, somehow, everything I have been through is for nothing. Although King Arthur had assured me that the Round Table would before long detect my quality and deem me worthy of a seat, I do not favour my chances. Surely, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of knights across the kingdoms of Britannia that could boast more ability, experience, and valour than myself. What had I achieved to date, and in what way had I demonstrated virtue in my actions? I had shown only recklessness, misdirected ambition, a lack of astuteness, a knack for getting lost, and a propensity for being beaten senseless by hags and she-monsters. I remembered my one small victory – the battle with the troll – but then recalled that it had, apparently, been trying to help me, and, for its troubles, I had cut off one of its fingers and come close to beheading it. A hollow, Pyrrhic victory, if there ever was one.

Meara is suddenly at my side. “I hope thou art not too disappointed, Sir Timotheus,” Meara she says in a conciliatory tone. “I know thee must be sorely grieved that thou hast not been allowed to go aquesting the Grail.”

“It was an unpleasant occasion, though thou had prepared me for it. Still, thou were in error in one regard; thou told me that I should give up the idea of becoming a Knight of the Round Table, yet, in order to be given permission to seek the Holy Grail, that is what I must first do.”

“Nay, my Champion, if thou remembers aright, I told thee thou must relinquish thy desire to be a Knight of the Round Table.”

“Hmm,” I reply, not quite convinced.

Let us stroll around the castle grounds, Sir Timotheus. This is our last chance to talk.”

So, are we to part company so soon? Am I,then, no longer thy Champion?”

“I am sorry, Sir Timotheus, but I have my own tasks to complete, and I have instructed thee as far as I can for the nonce. But fear thee not, for tomorrow another Lady wilt ride with thee, and thou shalt her Champion be.”

I turn to her, and she stops and looks up at me; her eyes reveal both hope and sorrow.

“O, my maiden,” I say, “I will miss thee greatly.”

“I’ll miss thee too,” Meara replies. “But we must not let sentimentality stand in the way of our path, nor our duties obscure.”

Our conversations lulls as we wander side by side around the marvellous gardens. They are full of bright flowers and verdant bushes with beautiful foliage, and the air hums with the buzzing of bees.

I can’t help but be delighted by the grandeur and elegance of Camelot, and my worries have soon been pushed to the back of my mind.

“It is not the first, thou knowest,” Meara comments, apropos of nothing.

“I beg thy pardon, my Lady, but what is not the first?”

“The Round Table. The one thou saw earlier was made by Merlin, and was given to King Arthur on the occasion of his marriage to Queen Guinevere. The first Round Table was constructed by Queen Mongfind. She was the second wife of Tara King Eochaid Mugmedón, sister of the King of Mumhain – Crimthann Mor mac Fidaig – and Chief Druidess of all Eire. She wished to confuse King Uther and his companions, when they journeyed to Tara.”

“This is a tale I have not heard. I did not know King Uther, King Arthur’s father, ever visited Hibernia.”

“He went there to assist his sister, Queen Carina. Vortigern had managed to capture her, and had given her in marriage to King Eochaid, in order to gain respite from his frequent raids on Britannia’s shores, but Uther did not know this – he thought she had been a prisoner in Vortigern’s tower, and assumed she died when it burnt to the ground. He only found out the truth when Niall, Carina’s son and the future King of Tara, came to Britannia to seek help for his mother; Mongfind had displaced Carina’s position at court, and in King Eochaid’s bed, and was abusing her terribly. Carina feared that Mongfind would kill Niall in order to ensure that one of her own sons would take the throne, so Carina asked the Chief Bard of Eire, Torna Ecces, to foster and look after Niall. Torna eventually brought Niall to Britannia and asked King Uther to restore him to his rightful place at Tara, and to put an end to the suffering of Carina and the wickedness of Mongfind. And that is what King Uther did – with a lot of help from that old thief, Merlin, naturally.”

“Why dost thou call Merlin a thief?” I ask, in perhaps a harsher voice than I’d intended.

Meara laughs. “I am but jesting; according to the stories, following the events at Tara, Merlin used his magic to steal a stone circle – the one you call the Giants’ Dance – and transported King Uther and his whole company back to Britannia within it.”

“Truly, a marvellous feat!”

“That it may be, but the story-tellers are mistaken; Merlin did not move a stone circle, that’s nonsense. What he did was move by means of a stone circle. Or, rather, two – one in Eire, the other here. And, even if he had, in sooth, stolen it, I should not be too concerned; my people have moved on from the Fertile Land – or moved under it, if thou wouldst believe those same story-tellers who talk of flying stones!”

“Who art thy people, Lady Meara? Art thou not Hibernian?”

“As I have said, my people did dwell there, but no longer. I am of the Tuath Dé, an ancient race. Some call us gods, others, fallen angels.” Meara’s tone is wistful, her eyes downcast. But then she she sighs and shakes her head, and recovers some of her usual spirit. “Listen to me, harkening on about the past! The times changeth, the wheel turneth. All ’tis not so bad; and who knows what tomorrow may bring? Whilst there is still life and love in the world, there is still hope.” Meara takes my hand and squeezes it. “Well, ’tis close to the dinner hour, and ‘twould beseem us to wash and change out of our travelling clothes.”

We walk together back to the castle.

I go to my room and prepare myself for supper. It’s a relief to be out of my armour, and a visit to the bath-house (which I had noticed whilst touring the grounds) is a balm for my road-weary body. Dressed in the rich new clothes Lady Meara had presented me with that morning, I head to the dinning hall.

Once I’ve sat down, I begin to feel out of place, and my mood becomes subdued. I sit and listen to the conversations going on around me – about the rising and falling fortunes of the Roman Empire, the exploits of various knights, the blighted wasteland that is slowing expanding year by year across Britannia, and Merlin’s worryingly long absence – but take no part in them.

The food is finer than anything I have before eaten, but I barely taste it. I imbibe a flagon of strong ale, and it goes straight to my head. Tired, and out of sorts, I excuse myself as soon as I can, and lock myself away in my room. But, after undressing and climbing into the bed, I sigh with contentment – I’ve been slumbering on the ground for so long that a mattress is a luxury I’d nearly forgotten. Warm and comfortable, I sleep.

* * * * * *

The next morning was Monday, so I didn’t have the chance to lay in bed for ages thinking about my dream. My mood was hesitantly positive; although Sir Timotheus had failed to join the quest for the Holy Grail, he was, it seemed, to receive further guidance – at some point in the future, I assumed, rather than continuing that night. I could ponder the individual details, try to determine the meaning of each episode of my latest dream, at a later time. Now, I had to get to work.

I got to the office slightly earlier than usual, but found it difficult to concentrate; my job was humdrum, unchallenging, and my mind kept wandering. But I refused to get frustrated or bored, and lasted out the day as a test of mindfulness and concentration.

I went home and had a bite to eat, then left the house again to go to Lishi training. I returned from that in a good mood, with a bagful of beers picked up my way back. ‘All in all,’ I reflected as I sat drinking a rather nice pale ale, ‘a good day‘. Of course, I thanked Ellie for every minute of it when I praised her at her shrine that night.

As I’d predicted, I slept the night through without any adventures, or at least any that I could remember when I awoke the following morning.

Chapter 23

Tuesday followed a similar plan to Monday, though instead of doing martial arts in the evening I attended the next part of the Introduction to Buddhism course.

This week’s class started with a brief outline of the Buddhist path, consisting of three ‘pillars’: ethics, meditation, and wisdom. The lesson went on to take a close look at Buddhist ethics; meditation and wisdom would be studied in detail in the following weeks.

When Siddhartha Gautama ‘awakened’ to become the Buddha, he realised that the normal human experience of life is unsatisfactory and full of suffering – but only because of our ignorance, partiality and selfish viewpoint. This understanding is captured by his Four Noble Truths, which are, more or less, as follows:

1. The truth that life is experienced as being unsatisfactory.

2. The truth that unsatisfactoriness arises from particular conditions.

3. The truth that the conditions that give rise to unsatisfactoriness can be overcome.

4. The truth that the overcoming of the conditions that give rise to unsatisfactoriness can be realised by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The reason why the Four Noble Truths are set out in this format is due to the medical tradition current in India at the time of the Buddha – the standard method by which a doctor would proceed when faced with an ill patient would be: firstly, to identify the disease; secondly, to identify its cause; thirdly, to identify whether or not the disease can be cured; and, finally, to outline the treatment for the disease, to return the patient to health.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the course of treatment the Buddha proscribed for overcoming suffering. It contains both a system of ethics and the practice of meditation, the two together fostering calmness, clarity, and eventually insight – a transcendent vision of reality freed from the delusions of craving, aversion and ignorance. The eight limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path are usually set out as the following:

1. Right Understanding (or Right View)

2. Right Intention

3. Right Speech

4. Right Action

5. Right Livelihood

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness

8. Right Concentration

It should be noted that the word translated as ‘right’ in each limb can alternatively be rendered as ‘proper’, ‘thorough’, ‘complete’, ‘whole’, or ‘perfect’, and should not be treated as simply meaning ‘right’ as opposed to ‘wrong’. It should also be noted that, although set out in a list, they are meant to be followed simultaneously, not sequentially.

Without going into detail, the Noble Eightfold Path can be looked upon as a outline of how to live in accordance with the Dharma. It provides the practitioner with an easily memorised guide of the basic areas where consciousness should be focused in day-to-day life, covering the afore-mentioned three pillars of Buddhism – wisdom (right understanding and right intention), ethics (right speech, right action, right livelihood) and concentration (right mindfulness (meditation) and right concentration).

The symbol for Buddhism is the Wheel of the Dharma, which has eight spokes, referring to the Noble Eightfold Path.

Aside from the Noble Eightfold Path, which positively encourages certain ways of acting and thinking, there are also the Five Precepts, which are, essentially, vows to abstain from certain behaviours. The Five Precepts are:

1. To abstain from taking life (or causing harm or suffering to any living being)

2. To abstain from taking the not-given (that is to say, taking what isn’t one’s own)

3. To abstain from sexual misconduct

4. To abstain from false speech

5. To abstain from intoxicants

I couldn’t really understand why the Buddha produced these two separate lists, but, on the face of it, I couldn’t see any contradictions between them. Perhaps the issue with the Noble Eightfold Path was that, due to the way it is stated, it calls for the initiate to achieve the impossible – how can you have ‘Right Understanding’ if you don’t already know what this means? How can you have ‘Right Concentration’ before beginning to practice meditation? Therefore, it may have been necessary to establish the Five Precepts as a way for beginning Buddhists to approach the Noble Eightfold Path. After all, in theory at least, if one had mastered the eightfold path – was virtuous in every thought and action – one would have reached enlightenment.

I was familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the outline of the Noble Eightfold Path, but nonetheless found the details and the discussion fascinating. I was particularly impressed with the Buddhist concept of ‘skilful action’, which is an appropriate, beneficial response to a situation, one that has happy results for all concerned. The idea that ethical action was based on skilfulness I found original, and opened up, for me, a new way of looking at ethics. Previously, I had seen ethics as founded on principles, and ethical behaviour as reliant upon rational understanding and action in line with such principles. The Buddha had provided principles in the form of the Noble Eightfold Path and Five Precepts, but had also made it clear that being ethical was not just about following rules, but considering consequences, and becoming skilled in understand situations and how to respond to them positively, so as to bring happiness and harmony.

I have previously mentioned how important ethics are to me; I see them as the foundation of a good life – one that you could look back on without being overcome by guilt and self-disgust. There are a number of different ethical systems, but my analysis had lead me to conclude that there are three main approaches to judging whether actions are good or bad. The first approach is to examine the action itself, and determine whether it was good or bad according to a set of rules (for example, the Ten Commandments), and this I call ‘rule-based ethics’. The second approach is to examine the consequences of the action, and see if they are positive or negative. An action with positive outcomes is a good one. This is ‘consequence-based ethics’. The third approach is to try to examine the motive behind the action; if the action was made with a good intention, it was a good action. This is ‘motive-based ethics’.

There are pros and cons associated with each of these approaches; rule based ethical systems are simplistic, narrow, blinkered and robotic, ones based on consequences can be irrational, brutal and completely unfair, whilst motive-based approaches are mired by the issue of how to accurately determine what someone’s motives were when they committed a particular action, and whether there are actions which are unjustifiable in any circumstance, no matter what the intention may be in committing them. Not one of the three systems proves to be satisfactory alone.

The Buddhist approach, relying on certain rules, identifying certain attitudes, and being mindful of consequences, embraced all three. The fact that this inevitably results in a certain amount of contradiction was not, so far as I was concerned, a major problem – it just means that one must prioritise, and have a great deal of discernment. To regard ethics as a skill fosters the idea that people can practice and become better at it, rather then being stuck as either a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ person.

When the class finished I walked home, pondering all that I had heard. Broadly, I agreed with it all, but there was one bit that had me somewhat troubled; the fifth precept – to abstain from intoxicants. It wasn’t that much of an issue; I wasn’t a Buddhist, so didn’t need to worry about the precepts, but, in the broader picture, was consuming alcohol going to stop me making spiritual progress?

It didn’t bother me for long, though; after drinking a few pints and switching on the telly, it receded to the back of my mind. I did, after all, have plenty of other things to think about, and it was hardly a pressing issue.

If Ellie had any comments on the subject, I was sure I’d get to hear them when she visited me.

Chapter 24

On Wednesday I found myself becoming increasingly restless. I was counting down the days to Ellie’s visit; by my reckoning, this event would take place on Tuesday night of the following week. There were many issues I wished to discuss with her, mostly relating to my vow and my dreams, and had thought it best to put off thinking about these subjects until we met, but now I wondered if that was the right idea – perhaps I should see what sense I could make of them first, to allow a fuller discussion, and to test my own analysis and understanding. It seemed a wiser approach than just passively waiting to be told the significance of my actions and experiences by somebody else, even if that somebody was a divine being.

I finished reading King Arthur & The Grail, and was frustrated by how unhelpful I found it. Not that it suffered from any particular faults in itself – I thought it generally well written and well researched – it was just that it didn’t really assist me with the interpretation of my grail dreams. I realised that I was probably hoping for too much by reading it; I needed to approach my reflections with a fresh view and a more open mind, and to consider the entire context in which they had occurred.

I decided it would help if I wrote down all the seven dreams (the nightmare I’d had before Ellie had first come to me in my dreams, and then the two sets of three dreams – which I referred to as the ‘apocalyptic set’ and the ‘knightly set’ respectively – that had followed Ellie’s visits) in turn, including how I’d felt when I’d awoken after having each, and also note my emotional response to putting them down in writing. This process, useful in itself, would supply me with records I could compare and cross-reference, in a way that cannot easily be done with bare memories.

This project took me the rest of the week to complete. I tried not to let it interfere with my job, with limited success; on occasions a minor detail from one of the dreams would arise in my thoughts while I was sat at my desk, and I scrambled to jot it down in the back of a notepad. Guiltily, I would tear out these pages at the end of the working day and take them home with me.

By the weekend I’d finished this primary stage, and I was ready to begin the analysis. I figured the studying I’d done over the years into mythology, psychoanalysis and dream interpretation (I became a fan of Carl Jung in my teens and had read anything by him I could lay my hands on) had been adequate preparation for the task of trying to fathom out what was going on inside my own mind.

So, I sat down on Saturday afternoon with a cup of coffee and the write-up of the seven dreams before me.

I felt fairly certain I’d more or less worked out the meaning of the first, and it was good to use that as a reference as I started to look at the themes, symbols and incidents that appeared in the following six.

I could see certain links – like developments in a narrative. What tied the Washer at the Ford dream to the apocalyptic set was the encounter with a distorted Ellie-like figure, full of rue and wrath. What tied the apocalyptic set to the knightly set was the Quest for the Holy Grail.

I looked at the apocalyptic set in more detail, considering the locations in which they had taken place – the desert in the first, the musty church-like building in the second, and the forest and mountains of the third. These all seemed to suggest isolation; being away from, or outside of, normal human society. They could represent my sense of being an outsider, an outcast even: somebody who didn’t fit into (or was unfit for) the company of others. An alternative interpretation was that these were all places connected with holy people – those seekers who inhabit the wildernesses or lock themselves away in monasteries, in order to reach the truth and become one with the divine. There was certainly a part of me which had always wanted to live the holy life, to retreat from the worries of everyday existence into a simpler and more refined state, though I had thought this a somewhat selfish desire.

I pondered which of these two interpretations was more likely to be correct, and then asked myself why it had to be one or the other; why couldn’t both be true? After all, they would be mutually supportive; my perception of myself as someone who is unwanted by society, would naturally give rise to a reaction, a desire to reject that world which had already rejected me, and seek instead another one – a world that lay beyond the mundane, shallow, grubby, uncaring and unimaginative version of reality that is life in the ‘civilised’ modern western world. Likewise, my search for truth, secular and spiritual, would cause my mismatch with others to intensify, would make it more obvious that I had no place amongst ‘normal’ people, who mostly accept what is before them without question, or wait for some authority figure to supply an answer when one is required. My habit of raising questions, and desiring to find my own answers, could be labelled audacious, or worse.

I moved on to a consideration of the climaxes of the apocalyptic set. In the first, I had been accused of destroying the world; in the second, I was blamed for not preventing a catastrophe in which a whole town full of people were killed; in the last, I was held accountable for failing to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail. The common theme here was evident; because of me, disaster and destruction had been visited upon the world. What I had done, or what I had failed to do, had resulted in widespread ruin, misery, and death.

To a certain extent, these messages chimed with something I already knew about my own psychology – that I had a saviour complex. This was the reason I so wished to be a knight in shining armour, someone who could heal the world’s hurt. This was the origin of my adolescent vow; to die to myself, and live solely for the benefit of others.

Ever since a young age I had found witnessing the pain of others to be an awful, excruciating experience, and I wanted to take it away, take all the pain of the world into my own self, allowing everybody else to be free from suffering. I well knew that all that pain would destroy me, that it would end my life, but it seemed entirely worth it. After all, by the time I’d reached adolescence I saw myself as being weak, worthless and ugly, without any chance of love or happiness, so the only thing I’d be giving up was a life I didn’t want to live in the first place. It would be a win-win situation, a deal with the devil I’d make any day of the week.

The devil never turned up, though, so I was left to get on with trying to figure out a way to make a difference on my own, a struggle I continued with for over two decades before I finally gave up entirely, and began the long wait for death.

I reflected on all this, and wondered what conclusions I should be drawing. If the messages of these dreams was just a reference to my saviour complex, then they were telling me something I already knew, and so I dismissed that option. My mind wouldn’t have gone to so much effort, created such elaborate, surreal, horrifying visions, in order to deliver old news. There had to be something else, another, more insightful, meaning.

I next looked at the last three dreams. Although they continued the adventures of Sir Timotheus begun in the last of the previous set, they were very different in form and content. They were less dream-like, more coherent and complex in their structure. And they were mostly positive; they did not suggest that I was a complete failure, who had allowed calamities to occur without challenge. Instead, they were saying that I could make progress, become a better person, if I followed the guidance given to me and gave up my arrogance, my conceited sense of honour, and learnt to live without judging others; without being angry at the shortcomings I believed they possessed.

Sir Timotheus himself was an interesting alter ego. In some ways similar to me, in other ways, the complete opposite. He was a man of action, a knight – and therefore a part of the nobility. I, on the other hand, was a thinker and daydreamer, and considered myself working class, from the lower-end of the social order.

Sir Timotheus’s objectives also seemed different from my own. He wanted to find the Holy Grail in order to receive recognition and status, to be seen as worthy. I, on the other hand, framed my desires and ambitions in terms of selflessness, aimed at improving not my own lot, but those of others. I now wondered if this had been a case of self-deception; perhaps I was trying to achieve a sense of worthiness, a feeling of self-respect, which I believed could only be gained through self-sacrifice.

I investigated this further, tried to trace and untie the various threads that had shaped my social, psychological and moral development, and which had resulted in the mess that I called my life.

Childhood was the place to start. If I could project myself back, see how I had been in those early years, and then follow forward those factors that had impacted upon and influenced the formation of my character, I might get a better understanding of how I had ended up here.

But there was a problem; I hardly remembered my childhood. All I had were a few fleeting scenes, disarticulated images which were difficult to put into their proper, chronological sequence. It was like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with the majority of the pieces missing, and no clue as to what the finished picture should look like.

The reason why my memory of those early years is so poor, I believe, is not due to any particular event that happened at that time, but what followed. I think I must in fact have been a happy child, well-disposed, but also sensitive and thoughtful. By the time I reached adolescence, however, the happiness had gone, along with any shred of self-confidence, and my mind had filled with despair. I stopped caring about myself, and about my past, and so my memories started to fade – I hadn’t a need for them, didn’t want them, wouldn’t look at them. Unused and unconsolidated, the connections between my brain cells that constituted my memories broke down, were re-wired, and my childhood slowly disappeared from my mind.

But this I knew; I had wanted to be good. It was the most important thing in the world. And I had wanted to be a hero; I wanted to be kind and courageous, competent and clever. I wanted to redeem myself.

And that was as far as I could go with that line of enquiry.

Next I turned my attention to the Holy Grail itself. Given my youthful delight in the tales of the Quest for the Holy Grail, it was an obvious motif to emerge in relation to my aspiration to live a spiritual life. But it equally obviously couldn’t be the Grail as described in the ancient myths and medieval legends – even if they were consistent, which of course they are not. I had rejected Christianity, so I felt I could dismiss the idea that the Holy Grail, as it appeared in my dream, directly represented the Cup of the Last Supper (especially as it didn’t take the form of a chalice), although there could be an allegorical or symbolic link. I had, in my late adolescence and early adulthood, taken an interest in paganism, shamanism, and ritual magic. From my research into these areas I had absorbed a fair amount of ‘occult’ knowledge, which could be influencing the appearance and meaning of the Holy Grail in my dreams.

I needed to try and get some handle on this subject, and reasoned that I had to try and distinguish the personal and the mythological elements; what in my dreams was based on the stories I had read and studies I had made, and what was purely the product of my own mind. This would not be easy, as the two were bound to intertwine, but I had find some way to break into these mysteries and work out what they meant.

What does the Holy Grail mean to me? I asked, and waited for my mind’s response:

The pursuit of truth.

The quest for perfection.

The hope of the world’s salvation.

The finding of true love.

An impossible dream.

I made a note of these thoughts, and then yawned. There was also the question of what question Sir Timotheus would be required to ask in order to achieve the quest – an element that was common to many versions of the Grail’s story. But I was growing tired, and outside it was growing dark; the afternoon has passed into evening. I got up, turned on the light, and closed the curtains.

Enough analysis for one day, I decided. It was time to start making dinner.

Chapter 25

The following morning, Sunday, after breakfast and a quick visit to the shops, I sat down again with my dreams and continued my investigation.

I reviewed the work of the previous day. The Holy Grail had been the focus of my final deliberations, and I returned to this subject.

It occurred to me there were two parts to the question of what the Grail might represent; there was, on the one hand, the Holy Grail itself, and, on the other, there was the quest to find it, to discover its meaning and purpose. Perhaps it was the questing that was the more important; perhaps the Grail isn’t supposed to be discovered, just pursued, like the Barking Beast, Glatisant. Although the two quests were completely different – the search for the Holy Grail was a spiritual journey, in which one had to purge oneself of all sin and darkness, whereas the hunt for Glatisant was a pursuit of vengeance linked to family honour – they could both be hopeless, in the sense that they might never be achieved.

I realised I was idly speculating without referring to the material of my dreams. The first mention of the Holy Grail had been in the last dream in the apocalyptic set, where I had encountered the old king, Pelham, living as a hermit in a cave, where he used the Grail to catch rainwater to drink. This did not fit in with any legend of the Holy Grail I had read, so there had to be a particular reason for this situation.

Given my prior analysis, it seemed likely to me that King Pelham represented a part of my own psyche; he was the archetypal figure of the wise old man. The fact that he wasn’t particular helpful, and behavioured somewhat oddly, was probably due to my own ambivalence about the holy life.

I read over my record of the conversation I’d had with him. The advice he had given me, and that I had found puzzling at the time: ”Thou hath no need to go to Camelot. No need to search, nor to seek. No need to go anywhere, nor to do anything. If thou were to stop, now, give up, now, be done with everything and desire nothing evermore, then all would be achieved, and the Grail would be revealed to thee” made perfect sense when one realised that the the Grail was actually present in the cave. Of course, if the Holy Grail is sitting on the floor before you, to go off looking for it elsewhere would be totally insane.

I wondered next about the question that Sir Timotheus might be required to ask to complete the quest, should he have the good fortune to find King Pelham and the Holy Grail again. This was a feature of many versions of the quest, but inconveniently for me, the question was not always the same. Sometimes the question was about the Holy Grail itself – such as, ‘Who does the Grail serve?’ – but in other accounts it was a question addressed to the Fisher King about his ill-health – such as ‘What ails thee?’. I had no idea if any of the questions I was familiar with would be the correct one; it could be a completely different one, relating specifically to my spiritual quest, or to Sir Timotheus’s.

My musings took me this far, but despite references to the Grail in later dreams, and the information about its history supplied by King Pelinore, I didn’t seem able to proceed further, so I gave up on this issue again and turned to a much more cheery topic: my guide, Maiden Meara.

Meara evidently represented Ellie in some form, which was confirmed by the similarity between her name and Ellie’s middle name, Marie. I knew that ‘Marie’ was the French version of ‘Maria’ (the English version, of course, being ‘Mary’), but I had no idea of the origin of ‘Meara’, so I went and searched through my stacks of books until I found A Dictionary of Traditional First Names, by Eric Partridge – a volume I’d purchased many years before. I turned to the appropriate page, and at first couldn’t see an entry for it, but then I found this: Meaghar (now rare), MEARA, m. From Celtic mear, ‘merry’. Given Meara’s personality, the etymology fitted – she was a merry person – but I was puzzled to see that the name was apparently masculine (indicated by the m.), even though it sounded feminine. I pondered this, and checked through my record of the dream in which I’d first met Meara. I (or rather Sir Timotheus) had asked her what her name was, and she’d replied: ‘I doubt thou couldst say my real name properly, so please, I pray thee, call me Meara‘. Did this mean that her real name was ‘Meaghar’ (which, indeed, I did not know how to pronounce), or something else? Then I began to wonder how a character who existed only in a dream could in any way possess a ‘real name’.

Another oddity was her link to Ireland; perhaps Ellie’s family had an Irish connection of which I was subconsciously aware. I wasn’t sure, and maybe it was irrelevant; certainly, I couldn’t for the moment think why this should be particularly significant, and I had been exposed to a fair amount of Irish mythology in my studies of the Arthurian Romances and legends of the Holy Grail, so maybe it was just a reflection of this. It was intriguing, however, that she should proclaim herself to be one of the Tuath Dé, whom I guessed to be the same as the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was by this declaring herself a child of the Celtic pagan deities of ancient Ireland.

Of most importance, I had to assume, wasn’t her name, nor her fantastic ethnicity, but what she had said to me – the advice she had given Sir Timotheus. And there was plenty of that; I went through each of the three dreams she had been in, and noted the instructions she had provided.

To begin with, she had chastised me for not being wholly honest with the villages, and then accused me of being almost uncivilised as they, when I had called them ‘savages’ for the way they had treated her. The next thing she criticised me for was my reason for wanting to go on the grail-quest – she had said that my desire to find the Holy Grail in order to be granted a seat at the Round Table would lead me to disaster; I had to have a purer motive, and rid myself of evil, which she associated with greed, hatred, anger, arrogance and ignorance, if I was to have a hope of success. She then told me that, in order to achieve this, I should first practice being my own friend. I should develop a kind and supportive attitude towards myself, rather than a harsh and critical one. She had also scolded me, on more than one occasion, for being too eager for combat, for assuming that situations called for a violent solution when, instead, the proper response involved patience, understanding and compassion.

I wondered if Meara’s guidance was just a basic mishmash of various spiritual teachings, or if they served as an introduction to something more profound. There were definitely echoes in what she said of things I had heard, or read, before. Whether this was a coincidence or not I wasn’t sure. But I thought that what she was telling me must be relevant and important.

I read through the most recent dream again, and came across a few remarks that caused me to pause. For the most part, the world in which Sir Timotheus lived seemed very much to fit in with the most commonly know Arthurian narrative, the Morte D’Arthur of Sir Tomas Mallory. But there were some notable differences; King Pelham sitting in a cave being the more obvious. But here and there were odd asides that did not match any legend I was familiar with. Meara had referred to Camelot as Caer Mȇl a Ŷd, which she translated as ‘Fortress of Milk and Corn’ – I’d never heard Camelot called that. And Camelot’s location was evidently Cadbury hillfort, rather than the city of Winchester. She had also recounted a tale concerning an earlier Round Table than the one owned by King Arthur, involving a foray by Merlin, King Uther, and his knights, into Ireland. The story seemed to mix together elements of semi-mythical ancient Irish history with early medieval Welsh legends; a combination of the tale of Tara King Naill Noigiallach (‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’), and the story called Branwen the Daughter of Llŷr in the Mabinogion.

It was most confusing.

By this point I was feeling drained, and my head was swimming. I thought about having a bite to eat, but wasn’t feeling that hungry. Instead I went out for a stroll to allow my thoughts to settle and get some fresh air.

The walk did me some good, and on the return leg I popped into the off-licence and bought a bottle of Merlot, which I hoped would assist my analysis by lubricating my mind.

By the time I got home my appetite had awoken. It was a little late for lunch so I thought it would be best to get on and cook my dinner, and maybe get an early night.

I didn’t really get back to my task after that. Once I’d finished my supper, and the bottle of wine, I felt lethargic and uninspired. I had barely enough energy left to brush my teeth, climb the stairs, and fall to my knees in worship of Ellie.

After I’d finished and blown out the candles, I got into bed, contented and happy. It was only a couple more nights until my angel’s visit.

Chapter 26

Monday again. I awoke before my mobile’s alarm went off, brimming with energy. I rushed to the office and threw myself into my work, hoping, in this way, to speed through the day. For a few hours things went fine, but then I started clock-watching and daydreaming, and time started to drag.

I wanted the day to be over, for tomorrow to come, bringing Ellie with it. I felt like a bride awaiting her wedding; in a dizzy state of anticipation, and with a belly full of butterflies. I used up a couple of minutes searching on the internet for the proper collective noun for butterflies, and, found the following alternatives: flight, flutter, kaleidoscope, rabble, and swarm. I thought that ‘flutter’ and ‘kaleidoscope’ were the best, both poetical and descriptive: the way a butterfly flies is fluttering, and a mass of them does create a kind of kaleidoscopic effect, with their translucent, brightly coloured wings creating shifting rainbows and flashes of iridescence as they beat against the air.

Amused and curious, and with my love of words egging me on, I began to browse through further lists of collective nouns, chortling at some of the odd, and often humorously apt or ironically otherwise, names for groups of various animals. I was delighted by ‘a lounge of lizards’, confused by both ‘a sloth of bears’ and ‘a sleuth of bears’ (bears being, so far as I knew, neither particularly lazy, aside from their winter hibernation, nor regularly engaged in crime-solving), and pondered how it came to be that you could have ‘a walk of snails’ – a slime, a slither or a squirm, seemed better options. However, after thinking about it, I did remember that the part of the body on which a snail moves is called its foot, so perhaps a more, and somehow less, fitting term would be ‘a hop of snails’ (how else can you get around on only one foot?), although, there again, perhaps ‘walk’ did fit after all, as a group of snails would, indeed, have more than one foot. There was another, fancier, alternative: an escargatoire of snails. Aside from ‘a walk’ and ‘an escargatoire’ there was also ‘a rout’ of snails, with which I was nonplussed, unable to decide whether it was at all appropriate or not.

I was surprised by the number of collective nouns associated with ducks – they could be called a flock, a flash, a badling or badelynge, a bunch, a dopping, a paddling, a plump, a raft, a skein, a string, a team, or a waddling, although some of these are only applied to ducks when they are in flight, others when they are in water, and a final group when they are on land.

I did notice, included in several of the lists I browsed, that there were usually three different terms given for baboons – a congress, a troop, or a flange. I laughed out loud when I noticed this; so far as I was aware the phrase ‘a flange of baboons’ had come from a comedy sketch show called Not the Nine O’Clock News. It had, apparently, made it into everyday use.

Good for them, I thought, and then wondered, were I to be offered the choice of creating a new collective noun, what it would be. I checked to see if I could find an obvious absence – some ordinary animal that, as yet, didn’t have a collective noun applied to it. None of the lists I’d found had an entry for ‘octopus’, but perhaps this was due to disagreement over what the correct plural form of ‘octopus’ should be: is it ‘octopuses’, or ‘octopi’ or even ‘octopodes’? I had a vague reason to believe that it was the last, due to the word being of Greek rather than Latin origin, but I wasn’t sure, so I carried on looking.

I noted that the rather dull collective terms for badgers are a ‘cete’ and a ‘colony’ of badgers, but I couldn’t find any mention of honey badgers, also known as ratels – which are not actually badgers, despite their attitude and appearance; I think they are part of the weasel family (which also includes the renowned wolverine). Anyway, they are one of the most aggressive and fearless mammals on the planet. Despite their relatively small size (less than a foot in height at the shoulder, up to about two and a half feet in length), they will attack anything – including lions, hyenas, and even rhinos – that annoy them. And they have a very short fuse; just looking at one the wrong way and will get its back up. They are also quite intelligent and will target the softest part of other animals when they attack, sometimes castrating their unfortunate male victims. All in all, then, not an animal to be trifled with. More than one of them? Run for your life would be my advice.

So, what collective noun is appropriate for this wee, vicious beastie? My suggestions: either a rampage of ratels or a horror of honey badgers. If you think that one of them sounds right, spread it around; in a few years time, it might appear on one of those lists.

I realised that I’d been involved in this distraction for almost an hour. I felt both guilty, for wasting time at work, and happy, for exactly the same reason; I’d managed to make it to lunch-time without going mad. I exited the websites I’d be looking at, then got my coat and went out. I simply couldn’t sit at my desk any longer.

I wandered randomly around the city centre, and on a whim went into a charity shop and began to blankly browse its wares. I wasn’t looking for anything, other than something to do that would eat up a little more of the day.

Inevitably, I ended up at the shelves of second-hand books. I panned along the spines, noting the titles and authors, until my eyes fell upon The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong. The authoress’s name was familiar; I was sure I had seen it recently. I racked my brains for a moment and then remembered where – at the Buddhist Centre’s library, I had noticed a slim volume, called, simply, Buddha, which had been written by Karen Armstrong. I had recognised the name then; I possessed a copy of another book she had written, The History of God. From what I could recall, it had been a masterful work, excellently written and researched, combining intellectual rigour with an insightful sensitivity. I pulled The Spiral Staircase from its place and gave it a brief inspection; it was a memoir, and on the back of the book was a short outline of the writer’s life. I read the first paragraph:

After seven years of hoping but ultimately failing to find enlightenment, Karen Armstrong left her early life as a nun. Se knew almost nothing of the changed world she was entering, and was tormented by panic attacks and inexplicable seizures, existing somewhere between the mildly eccentric and the tragically certifiable. Her attempts to reach happiness seemed doomed to fail repeatedly.

I felt a definite twang within me as a chord was struck. Although we had taken different paths, we appeared to be have some issues in common – spiritual yearnings; a fear of going, or actually being, insane; and endless disappointment and heartache. I hoped that Miss Armstrong’s experiences, her struggles, and the conclusions she had come to, would help me gain a new perspective, and cast a new light on the problems I faced.

I bought the book, and returned to the office.

* * * * * *

It was Lishi training that evening, and I was grateful for something to do that got me out of the house. I’d had enough of my research; sifting through my dreams, searching my feelings, studying my soul. I needed a break, and physical exercise was exactly the right thing.

On my way home afterwards, with a faint sheen of sweat on my brow and an easy smile on my lips, I was confronted by the moon. It was big, in its final waxing, shining brightly. It stopped me in my tracks; I gazed upward at it in awe and wonder. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, it would reach fullness.

Something tugged at me then; a subconscious alarm, warning that I’d missed something. But I was tired, and wanted to go home – via the off-licence, of course; the training had given me a thirst.

Ten minutes later I was sat in my living room, drinking beer. I turned the telly on to distract myself, and watched a satirical news-based comedy panel show, followed by an old episode of QI.

My beers emptied, I turned the telly off, brushed my teeth, and eagerly went up to my bedroom.

Candles lit and the light off, I knelt down, crossed myself, and bowed, then fixed my attention of Ellie’s picture, my palms together before me.

I found myself suddenly lost for words; my mind was blank. I wanted to laugh at this, but stifled the impulse. Instead, I knelt there, quietly, looking upon her face. Her love flowed through me, filled me to the brim.

I realised no words were required; silence is an appropriate response to the presence of the divine.

A powerful atmosphere built within the room. My heart thumped; I was somewhere between apprehension and ecstasy.

Without thinking about it, I shifted from kneeling to sitting cross-legged, and shut my eyes. Focussing on my breathing, I calmed myself, and started to meditate.

Soon I was in a state of gentle devotion, feeling at ease and happy.

My concentration deepened, and my thoughts faded. A profound sense of peace arose in my mind, and I lost track of time.

When I opened my eyes again, one of the candles had gone out, and the other was spluttering. I decided to leave it; it would not burn for much longer. It seemed appropriate to have new candles on the shrine for Ellie’s visit. I made a mental note to get fresh flowers as well.

I stood up, bowed, took off my clothes, got into bed and lay on my side, gazing at Ellie’s picture on her shrine, until the remaining candle finally died, whereupon I rolled over and went to sleep.

Part 3: Chiaroscuro

Chapter 8

The next day I wasn’t quite so positive. The thought of not seeing Ellie again for a whole month put me in a melancholy frame of mind.

I got into work a little later than usual, and tried to go on with things calmly and quietly. It might have appeared that I was ‘back to my old self’, but my actions later in the day would undermine any such belief.

I noticed that Tony had returned to the office, although he didn’t look too good. There were dark rings around his eyes, and he had a distracted, out-of-sorts air about him, as if he wasn’t sure if he was awake or not.

I could certainly empathise with that, and I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel any anger toward him, but rather a degree of sympathy.

I approached his desk and asked, gently, “Hey, Tony – are you okay?”

He look up. “Hmm?” he murmured.

“Are you okay?” I repeated.

He shrugged his shoulders and said; “I’ll be fine.” His tone did not support his assertion.

Compassion moved me to say something that might comfort him. “I saw Ellen the other night,” I started, and he gave me a shocked look, so I quickly qualified my statement; “In a dream. I saw her in a dream, and she told me that she was alright – more than alright. But very sorry. She’s very sorry for … what she did. She just wants people to know that; that she’s okay, and she doesn’t want anyone to be upset or sad.”

Tony glanced away, stared into a silent, inner distance, then pulled open a drawer in his desk. “Here – would you like this?” he produced a colour photograph and handed it to me. “I just can’t look at it any more.” The picture was of Ellie, sat at a table in a restaurant, drink in hand, wearing a red, sleeveless top and a bright happy smile. The sight of her, relaxed and cheerful, gave me a rush of joy and delight, and the sense of her presence grew stronger.

“Thank you,” I said, automatically, not knowing what words would properly convey my gratitude at this precious gift. I carried the photo back to my desk, handling it as if it were the most holy icon in the whole world.

A brainwave suddenly struck me. The office was equipped with multifunction machines that could scan, print and copy, and I used one of these to make a digital version of the photo. I was then able, after quarter of an hour manipulating the image on my computer, to print out a number of copies of the picture in various sizes. I laminated these, then used a pair of scissors to cut them out. One of the smaller ones went into my wallet; the rest I stuck up about my desk. Half-a-dozen images of Ellie were simultaneously smiling at my; I was over-joyed. “I love you,” I whispered to her.

I realised that it was lunchtime, and decided to go out and search through the second-hand shops for a suitable frame to put the original photograph in. I checked in one and didn’t see anything that was quite what I was after, and was on my way to another when I passed the library. I remembered then a snatch of my conversation with Ellie the previous evening: ‘you must find and walk the path yourself’, she had told me.

I turned around and went into the library, where I spent almost an hour perusing the shelves. I left with a small selection of books that had caught my eye; The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer; Fifty Eastern Thinkers, by Diané Collinson, Kathryn Plant and Robert Wilkinson; Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now; and Ben Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior. These four volumes, I hoped, would give me some direction and allow me to find the path that was right for me.

I returned to the office, leaving the purchase of a photo-frame for another time.

I had just got myself a coffee and was ready to get back to work, when Joan came stalking towards me, a look of thunder on her face. “What on earth d’yer think yer doin’?” she demanded, pointing at the pictures of Ellie I’d put up. “Poor Emma; she walked by ‘ere earlier and burst inta tears! She were so upset she ‘ad to go ‘ome.”

My mood plunged, and the room started to swim. I feared that I might faint. “I’m so sorry, Joan,” I said, sitting down heavily. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”

“What were yer thinkin’?”

“I don’t think I was thinking, Joan. I’ll take them down.” But I couldn’t even reach across my desk to do this. All the colour, I was sure, had drained from my face. I probably looked in a worse state than Tony did.

“Are yer sure yer okay?”

“No, I’m not sure that I am.”

“Yer been acting queer t’ whole week; mabbe yer should take a few days off, sick, like.”

“You know what, Joan? I think you’re right; a couple of days rest will do me some good.”

“Well, it’ll be weeken’ b’then, so yer’ll ‘ave a bit more time to get yoursen straight.”

“Yes; that’s the thing to do – I’ll take it easy and clear my head, get a fresh start on Monday.” I started to feel better as soon as I’d made the decision. I took down all the pictures; one went into the drawer in my desk, the rest went in a plastic bag with the library books. I tidied up, turned off my computer, emptied the coffee down the sink and washed my cup, and then left the office.

On my way home I popped in to a supermarket to get some milk, and took advantage of a special offer – two bottles of Merlot for the price of one. ’That’s serendipity’, I thought.

Somewhat weighed down with books, milk and wine, I reached my house and managed to open the front door without dropping anything. I had been planning on making a cup of tea and starting one of the books, but instead I opened one of the bottles of wine and sat down with the pictures of Ellie spread out before me.

I gazed at her many images, each smiling happily up at me, and said; “I don’t know what’s going on, Ellie. Are you really with me, or am I having some kind of breakdown?” I sighed, swigged my wine, then leaned back and shut my eyes.

I could sense her presence; was aware of her love for me. But did this prove anything? Even when she had appeared to me in my room, after I had awoken from our first talk – even that did not provide completely compelling evidence that she was real. I could have been hallucinating, or still dreaming. Would I be convinced if someone told me that they were being kept company by the spirit of a deceased loved one, whom only they could perceive, and who spoke to them in their dreams? No, I wouldn’t. I’d think that they had lost the plot.

“But does life even have a plot?” I asked myself out loud. “Isn’t it just a series of more or less random events? Or is there more to it? Is there some meaning behind it all?” Before any of this had happened I had been miserable, only able to plod through each day because I knew that there would eventually be a final one, the day of my death, and it would all be over. Was that a rational way to live? Given the choice between reasoned despair and insane delight, wouldn’t you be crazy to choose despair? Aren’t happiness, hope and love sufficiently valuable to be worth a little madness? Or is it more noble to endure pointless suffering, to face a loveless life, staunchly holding to the narrow, jagged truth, no matter how painful and wretched that might be?

I didn’t know, so I drank more wine and pondered.

I finished the first bottle, but hadn’t found any answers, so opened the second and continued my musing.

My thoughts went round and round, and the wine went down and down. I was frustrated, confused, lost, and drunk. I bent forward so that my head was nearly resting on the table before me; I wanted nothing so much as to cry, to poor out my pain in a flood of tears, but none would come, as they hadn’t for the past twenty-five years. I didn’t know what to do; couldn’t find any answers to my questions.

It was at this moment that I became aware of a slight pressure across my shoulders, as if someone were sitting close beside me, with a comforting arm around me. I gasped and opened my misty eyes. There was nobody there, of course; nobody I could see. No body, but someone.

“Thank you, Ellie,” I said, as my negative, stormy emotions became calm and positive. “Thank you so much.”

I realised then that I’d had too much to drink and was about to vomit. I staggered hurriedly to the toilet, careening off the walls and barging into furniture. I made it just in time; a purple deluge cascaded from my mouth into the bowl. I was grateful then that I hadn’t eaten any dinner, although if I had done, maybe I wouldn’t have thrown-up. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter; what had happened had happened. I clambered unsteadily up to my bedroom, clumsily extracted myself from my clothes, and collapsed on top of my bed.

I lay there for a while, with the room spinning around me, and hoped desperately that I wouldn’t vomit again.

“Goodnight, Ellie!” I croaked into the darkness. “I love you.”

Shortly afterwards, I was sleeping soundly.

Chapter 9

I awoke on Thursday with a raging hangover. “Oh, Ellie,” I moaned. “Why did I drink all that wine?”

I experienced then something I didn’t often feel; a sense of gratitude towards Joan, for suggesting I take the rest of the week off sick, so I could just lay in bed – which I did until nearly noon, when the distress of my bladder and bowels persuaded me it was time to drag myself out, pull on some clothes and stumble downstairs.

After visiting the toilet, I disposed of the wine bottles from the previous night, then made some coffee and sat in the living room, wondering what I was going to do with the day. Multiple Ellie’s smiled up at me from the table; I smiled back at them and felt a little better – or, rather, felt slightly less awful.

I decided to have a look at the books I’d got from the library, and which were still sat in the plastic bag I’d brought them home in. I fetched them out and spread them on the table. Casually picking up The Power of Now, I turned past the title page and was confronted with the following:

You are here to enable the divine

purpose of the universe to unfold.

That is how important you are!

– Eckhart Tolle

That caught me by surprise; I was intrigued, but not yet in the right frame of mind to be grappling with such a heavy message. My hangover demanded something lighter, so I put The Power of Now aside and selected The Book of Chuang Tzu. I had picked this volume up because it was, according to the back-cover, a classic text of Taoism (more commonly known as Daoism these days), and I had read and greatly admired the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Ching) in my late teenage years. Flicking past the long introduction, I was caught by three lines of text that seemed to jump out at me:

The perfect man has no self;

The spiritual man has no merit;

The holy man has no fame.

I laid the book down and pondered this while I drained the last of the coffee from my cup, then took it into the kitchen and turned the kettle on. In my delicate state, tea seemed less likely to disturb my stomach than more coffee, so I put my used cup in the sink and got a fresh one from the cupboard.

A few minutes later I returned to the living room, resumed my seat, had a mouthful of tea, and opted to save The Book of Chuang Tzu for another time, and try instead (third time lucky, as they say) Way of the Peaceful Warrior (subtitled: A Book That Changes Lives). It had been recommended to me by a friend at university, and had immediately recognised it when I came across it at the library. I skipped past the preface; before the story began there was a quote:

Warriors, warriors we call ourselves.

We fight for splendid virtue, for

high endeavor, for sublime wisdom,

therefore we call ourselves warriors.

– Aunguttara Nikaya

Okay…, I said to myself, and turned the page:

“Life begins,” I thought, as I waved goodbye to mom and dad….

I quickly became engrossed in the story, and only realised how long I’d been reading when I paused to take a sip of my tea and found it completely cold.

I checked the time; it was nearly two o’clock. I was still feeling rotten, and wondered if having something to eat would help my condition, or make matters worse. I delayed deciding by taking a shower.

After I’d dried and got into fresh clothes, I returned to the thought of food. I reasoned that I should eat something; something simple and easy to digest.

I opted for a couple of slices of toast, thinly buttered, and another cup of tea. My condition improved, and a breath of fresh air seemed like a good idea.

I didn’t go far – only to the shop round the corner to pick up some more bread, having almost reached the end of the last loaf.

Back indoors, I found myself at a loss. I tried to carry on with Way of the Peaceful Warrior but couldn’t concentrate. I turned on the telly and jumped from channel to channel to find something worth watching.

After a couple of hours had rolled by and evening had come, I was feeling close to normal, so I headed out again, returning home with salad and chips wrapped in a naan bread, and three bottles of beer.

I ate, drank, smoked, and watched more telly, until it was time to go to bed.

Switching off the set, I grabbed my empty glass to take through to the kitchen, and looked at the pictures of Ellie lying on the table top. I took one of the largest copies with me, and left it on the stairs whilst I brushed my teeth; I collected it again on my way up to my bedroom, and placed it on her chair.

I gazed into her face for a few moments, sighed, turned out the lights, got undressed and climbed into bed.

“Good night, Ellie – I love you,” I said, repeating yesterday’s words, before shutting my eyes and drifting off to sleep.

Chapter 10

Friday morning found me feeling fine. I thought about going into work, but decided that another day off would do me good. I seemed to be okay, but was wary of suffering another mood swing. And, if I went in, I faced the possibility of Joan having a go at me, which I could well do without.

I was also eager to carry on with Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The story seemed so familiar that I wondered if I had read it previously. I was already aware that there were a number of parallels between my experiences and those which Dan, the story’s protagonist, had had with his larger-than-life mentor, whom he had nicknamed Socrates.

By noon I was most of the way through the book. I thought about pushing on and finishing it, but decided instead to go into town to buy the frame for Ellie’s photograph that I’d failed to get on Wednesday, and had been too hung-over on Thursday to attempt.

Outside it was bitter; the brief warm-spell that had arrived a couple of days previously had abruptly left again, as if it were a poor actor who, entering onto the stage before his cue, steps back behind the curtain, hoping no-one had noticed his mistimed entrance.

I’m not usually one for either the heat or the cold, but on this day I found myself rather enjoying the bracing conditions, and even the keenest gust of icy-wind elicited only a slight shiver.

Rather than follow the same route I took when going to work, I chose to walk a more scenic way, keeping to tree-lined avenues and avoiding the main roads. Consequently, I arrived in a part of town I didn’t know too well.

I went down an alley I thought would bring me to a familiar area, but instead it delivered me to an odd little square. Old industrial buildings, mostly converted into student accommodation, enclosed a large part of the space, and a new, unused structure that appeared to be purpose built (although it was unclear what that purpose might be), hemmed in the rest.

A former-factory, now put to some new function, grabbed my attention. It was made of red brick and had frosted glass windows on the ground floor, and some kind of pattern on the windows above. Its door was painted blue, and had a notice of some kind stuck on it; intrigued, I strolled over to have a look.

Two women, chatting merrily, entered the square and headed toward the same building I was approaching. Both appeared to be in their mid- to late-twenties, but they otherwise contrasted; one was tall, blonde, her movements elegant, her overall demeanour one of calm and poise, the other was slight, had dark skin, curly black hair, and seemed full of exuberant energy.

The pair came closer; they both smiled at me, and, as all three of us arrived at the doorway together, the second woman asked in a friendly tone, and with a delightful soft Indian accent, “Oh, are you here for the drop-in meditation?”

Some meditation might help, Ellie had told me. I grinned and answered, “Why, yes, I believe I am.”

“Oh, good! I’m Gita, and this is Carol.”

“Hello,” Carol said, her voice amiable and educated.

“Nice to meet you both. I’m Tim.”

Gita gestured towards the door. “Oh, don’t just stand there – it should be open, so go in! It’s too cold to be standing about outside!”

“Please – ladies first,” I said, and gestured for them to precede me. I didn’t get the chance to read what was written on the sign.

On the other side of the door was a narrow entrance area. Gita and Carol removed their coats and hung them on hooks, and took off their shoes. I did the same.

We moved on into a large, open room, where a dozen or so chairs, most of which were unoccupied, had been arranged in a circle. There was also an area for making tea and coffee, beyond which were several shelves stacked with books. Painted directly onto one wall was a large, stylised image of a man sat meditating in the lotus posture; his eyes were closed, his expression serene. I also noticed a couple of pictures which featured a prominent figure in the middle – one red, sitting, the other black, standing – with various smaller figures arranged around the periphery.

Gita turned to me and asked, “Is this is your first time at the centre?” I nodded. “I’ll introduce you, then.” She guided me over to a casually dressed, middle-age man. “Hi Rajagaha,” she said. “This is Tim; we found him on the doorstep. Tim – this is Rajagaha.”

“Hello,” he said, extending his hand. “Good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I shook his hand, wondering at the meaning of his odd name.

“Have you meditated before?” he asked.

“Yes, I used to meditate almost every day – but that was years ago. I’d like to get back into it.”

He smiled. “Well, we can certainly help with that. What kinds of meditation have you tried?”

“A few, although the one I recall doing the most was a simple, breath-focused meditation.”

“Ah, good, good. We teach two forms here, and the one we’re going to do today is called ‘the mindfulness of breathing’.”

By this time, more people had arrived and the seats were nearly all taken. Rajagaha checked his watch. “We’ll start in a few minutes,” he told me. “Stay after for a drink and a chat if you like.”

“Thanks – I might do that.”

He gave me a wink and went over to talk to one of the newly arrived people.

Like a moth drawn by a flame I headed over to the shelves to look at the books. They all related to Buddhism: Theravada; Mahayana; Tibetan; Zen. I breathed a sigh of relief; I had been worrying that I’d accidentally stumbled upon some kind of cult that might try to brainwash me, but I figured it was very unlikely that Buddhists would attempt anything like that. It would be bad for their karma, for one thing.

Not that I knew a huge amount about Buddhism. When, at the age of twelve, I had rejected Christianity because it seemed to offer no real answers to the problems that worried me, I had searched elsewhere for truth, and, having heard about Buddhism, looked it up in an old encyclopaedia. The entry was quite short; just a page or two, but seemed to explain the fundamentals. What I had taken away from that brief description was that the Buddha had preached that life is full of suffering, and the only way to escape it was to attain enlightenment, which was achieved through living ethically and by meditation, study, and spiritual practice. These activities would free the individual from their karma (created by their own negative actions in this and previous lives), and from their very self, and so liberate them from the wheel of life and death.

My thoughts on Buddhism after reading this was that it was all very nice, but as I didn’t believe in rebirth, the whole thing made little sense. According to my world-view, I didn’t need to be enlightened to extinguish my existence, I just needed a sharp knife, a rope, or a bottle of pills. I was more interested in ending the suffering of others, rather than my own, and so the goal of enlightenment – to seek one’s own release from the pain of the world – seemed selfish. Although I had respect for the ethical side of Buddhism, I had little time for its cosmology, for the picture it painted of reality, which seemed negative and world-rejecting. I wanted to make the world a better place; Buddhism hadn’t looked like it could help me with that task.

Due to this early brush with Buddhism, and my rejection of it, I had more or less ignored it from then on (aside from a brief fascination with Zen Buddhism during my twenties). But perhaps I’d been too quick in my judgement. Although I had no wish to join any organised religion, and couldn’t see myself blindly accepting the tenants of any particular faith, Buddhism might have some valuable lessons about living a spiritual life. If I was to find a path, as Ellie told me I must, I would have to be open to ideas and practices that would get me going in the right direction. I needed whatever help I could find.

“Okay, everyone,” Rajagaha suddenly said loudly, drawing the room’s attention. “I’m Rajagaha, and I’ll be leading this afternoon’s meditation. Before we get started, I’ll just mention the dhana bowl,” he indicated a large black bowl stood on a small table close to the entrance area. “We don’t make a charge for any of the activities we run here, but we do rely on donations to keep the centre going. If you can’t afford to give, then don’t, but if you have a few quid spare, we’d be grateful for it, and if you’re flush, you can give a bit more. Right; moving on, do we have any beginners today – anyone who’s not sure what meditation’s about, how to sit, that kind of thing?”

There was no response.

“Good, we’ll stay as a single group then; I’ll give a quick intro and guide us along. Everyone to the Shrine Room.”

The seats were vacated and we headed through a door and up some stairs, then through another door, into the Shrine Room. It was a large room, with a stepped dais at the far end on which was sat a nearly full-sized statue of the Buddha, flanked by flowers and candles. Along the side walls were chairs, and beside the door were stacked mats, blankets and cushions. People helped themselves to these and settled themselves down about the room. I took a mat and a blanket, found a space, and adopted the meditation posture I’d used in the past – the cross-legged half-lotus.

Rajagaha lit the candles each side of the Buddha, and then wrapped a blanket around his middle before sitting on a chair. There was a small table beside him with a clock, a metal bowl and a small, hammer-like implement.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s take a minute to arrive and get in touch with our body. We’ll be doing ‘the mindfulness of breathing’.”

I closed my eyes and internally checked my posture to make sure that I had a straight back and my limbs were comfortably arranged. I relaxed and waited for the next instructions from Rajagaha, which duly came.

“I’ll ring the first bell in a moment. During the first stage we simply breathe in, breathe out, then count ‘one’. Breathe in, breathe out, count ‘two’, and so on up to ten, then we start again. When you find your mind start to wander, simply bring your attention back to the breath.” He then struck the hammer-like implement against the bowl, creating a clear, ringing sound.

I attended to my breathing. In, out – one. In, out – two. In, out – three.

I experienced an inner glow; after my last conversation with Ellie I had expected it to be a challenge to get going again with meditation, but here I was, only a couple of days later, sat in meditation with a bunch of Buddhists. I hadn’t even put any effort into finding the centre, I’d just stumbled upon it, as if by accident. But was it an accident? I asked myself.

It was as this point that I realised that I’d lost my count. Concentrate! I told myself, pushed my thoughts aside, and started again. Breathe in, breathe out – one. In, out – two. In, out – three.

By now, I was ready for my mind to start wandering, so I held my concentration, focused on my breath.

In, out – four. In, out – five. In, out – six.

This was better. I followed the air entering my nose, flowing into my lungs and causing them to expand. Innnnnn. My lungs were full; I held the air there for a moment, then slowly expelled it, the used air escaping back out my nose in a smooth stream, lungs deflating. Ouuuttt.


A slight pause, then the cycle started again; air drawn in, held, and released.


My awareness expanded through my body; I noticed that I was sitting rather stiffly. While maintaining my concentration on my breath, I gently relaxed my posture again.

Breathe in, breathe out – nine. In, out – ten. In, out – eleven.

The tension in my muscles started to dissipate. I was enjoying this; it seemed almost too simple. In, out – twelve.

Damn, I thought to myself as I remembered we were only supposed to count to ten, then go back to one.

I re-focused, but as I did so I became aware of a loud argument going on between some people passing by outside the building, distracting me, and then I noticed all sorts of other sounds: the breathing of myself and the other meditators; a rustling as somebody shifted around on their cushion; muted traffic noises; faint snatches of birdsong.

How was I unaware of all this noise? I wondered to myself, before realising that I’d stopped counting altogether. Shocked at how easily I’d lost track of what I was supposed to be doing, I tried to bring complete attention to my breath. Keep on it! I ordered myself.

In, out – one. In, out – two. In, out – three.

This time, I got all the way to ten and started back at one. All was going well, and I continued on, but as I reached eight, the bowl was rung again.

“Stage two of the ‘mindfulness of breathing’,” said Rajagaha. “Now we count before the breath. So, count ‘one’, then breathe in and breathe out. Count ‘two’, breathe in, breathe out, and so on up to ten, then repeat the process.”

I tried to follow these new instructions, (one) but had difficulty working out what the difference (two) was between counting after the breath cycle, and counting before the breath (three) cycle. As a result of this confusion, my breathing slowed down and I found myself pausing for longer (four) and longer between breathing out and breathing in again.

I felt deeply calm (five). Drawing in air, slowly, holding it, slowly letting it out again; slowly, slowly. Empty lungs; mind watching the body, waiting for signs that the cycle is about to being afresh. Lungs still empty; mind still watching.

Six, I counted, as my body desperately sucked in oxygen. I’d over-analysed the process; lost my natural breathing. I attempt to let go and allow the cycle to get back to a regular, normal rhythm.

Seven – breathe in, breathe out…

Eight – breathe in, breathe out…

Nine – breathe in, breathe out…

I began to wonder how long the meditation would last; we had got to the second stage, but how many stages were there? And how long did each last? I tried to estimate how long the first stage had been; I guessed at it being around ten minutes.

I don’t know how much time I wasted on these queries and calculations, before I remembered that I was meant to be meditating. I re-focused once more.

One – breathe in, breathe out…

Two – breathe in, breathe out…

Three – breathe in, breathe out…

The bowl was rung for the third time.

“In the next stage, we keep our focus on our breath, but we stop counting.”

At first I was relieved that we didn’t have to count any more, but soon found that my thoughts were wandering far more than before. I brought my attention back to my breathing and my body, and became conscious that my posture had once more become stiff, and that the lower parts of my legs were hurting.

I tried to relax myself, to gently ease the tension in my limbs and get comfortable once more. But the relief from the pain in my ankles, calves and thighs didn’t last long.

I then tried to just be aware of the sensations I was experiencing and not let them distract me; make them a part of my meditation. This worked for a brief while, but the pain gradually increased, until it threatened to became intolerable.

So I sat there, teeth gritted, trying to ride out the session. I wasn’t meditating now, just enduring. Surely, I thought, we must be nearly finished. But another minute rolled slowly by and the pain became too much; I had to admit defeat. I opened my eyes and, as quietly as I could, untangled my lower limbs. My left foot had gone completely dead; I shook the leg and it waggled around like a rag doll’s.

The bowl was rung for the fourth time.

“In the last stage, we focus on the air coming in and out of the nose, as it enters and leaves the body.”

I was thankful that this was the final part of the meditation. I sat there, hugging my knees as Ellie had done the night she first visited my dreams. I glanced around the room, but it seemed rude to look at people as they meditated, unaware that they were being observed, so I shut my eyes again and waited for the signal that the meditation was finished.

My thoughts drifted back to my concerns of Wednesday evening, and I found that my thinking seemed much clearer and flowed easier. I understood that the mere fact that I had doubts, and was concerned about my mental health, showed that I had not lost all reason. The incident of that day – when I had put up all those images of Ellie around my desk – was an unfortunate lapse of consideration. I had simply become so absorbed in what was going on in my own world that I hadn’t thought about how other people would respond to seeing her picture. If I had paused to think about it, I’d have realised that it was a course of action likely to cause upset, and I would have therefore not gone ahead with it. In order to ensure I didn’t make such a mistake again, I just needed to be aware of how my actions might impact on others, and maintain a sense of perspective. And anyway, I thought to myself, wasn’t I plotting, just before Ellie’s spirit entered my life, to murder Tony? Shouldn’t I be more worried and guilty about planning to end another human being’s life than about putting up some pictures of a dead person?

I realised that it was counter-productive to doubt the reality of Ellie’s presence, as this would make me vulnerable to angst-ridden introspection and increase the chances of my behaviour becoming erratic. It didn’t help at all, and caused problems. Far better to take her on trust; wasn’t that, after all, what faith was all about? So I should just accept her – accept that she was with me, that we were united in some way, and take things from there.

A surge of joy erupted from deep within me; I opened my inner senses to Ellie, and warmth and kindness suffused my being. Surrendering myself to her love, water welled up in my eyes, and a single tear of happiness trickled down my cheek.

I forgot where I was and what was happening. I lost track of time entirely. I floated somewhere beyond myself, somewhere that transcended thought and identity.

I was pulled back from this distant place by the bowl being rung three times in quick succession, scattering the atmosphere of silent stillness. One by one, each person opened their eyes, stretched, got up, put away their mat, cushion and blanket, and made their way out the door. I noticed that some bowed to the Buddha before leaving; from my martial arts training I was used to continual bowing to show respect and attention, so I merrily joined in the practice.

Returning to the room downstairs, around half the people headed straight off, while those remaining milled around, chatting in pairs or small groups, while kettles were switched on. I went back over to examine the books again. Amongst the many titles some particularly caught my attention: The Gem Ornament; The Priceless Jewel; The Wheel and the Diamond; The Light of Wisdom; The Myth of Freedom; Returning to Silence; and, The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna.

Rajagaha came up to me and asked, “How did your meditation go?”

“Okay,” I replied. “As I’m out of practice, my posture became painful after a bit, so I couldn’t quite manage the whole session. But once I’m back at it regularly, I’m sure I’ll be able to sit longer without any trouble.”

“Have you tried different ways of sitting? Perhaps a cushion would help. A lot of people just sit in a chair. Whatever’s comfortable – without being so comfortable that you fall asleep!”

I laughed, but wasn’t completely convinced; I’m sure I’d read somewhere that some postures were better than others. “I’ll see how I go,” I responded.

We were interrupted by Gita. “Would you like a drink?” she asked, looking back and forth from Rajagaha to myself. “Herbal tea? Fruit tea? Green tea? Ordinary tea?”

Rajagaha replied first. “Thank you, a lemon and ginger tea would be lovely, Gita.”

“Yes,” I added. “The same for me, please! Thank you very much, Gita.”

I turned back to Rajagaha, and indicated the books. “Can I borrow any of these? I’d be interested in finding out a bit more about Buddhism.”

“We ask that people complete the introductory course before they take any books out of the centre. It’s easy for someone to turn up at the centre one lunchtime, do some meditation and pick up a book, completely intending to come back another lunchtime and return it, but they never quite get round to it.”

“Fair enough. Just one question – what’s the introductory course?”

“It’s a broad introduction to Buddhism, starting with the Buddha’s life, then looking at the main points of Buddhist philosophy and practice. The course lasts eight weeks, and the classes are held on Tuesday evenings.”

“Right,” I said, nodding as I absorbed the details. “And when’s the next course start?”

“That will be in eight weeks’ time. Week one of the current course was this Tuesday, just gone.”

“Fair enough,” I said once more, no alternative comment coming to mind.

Gita appeared again, filling the lull in the conversation, and gave us our teas.

“Do you not have a drink?” I asked her.

“Oh, I’m just about to get one,” she replied.

During this brief interlude, Rajagaha had stepped away to join a nearby discussion, so I followed Gita as she went and made herself a peppermint tea.

I searched for something to say. “Have you been coming here long, Gita?”

“Oh, about seven years. I started coming here when I was at university. When I finished my studies, I kind of just hung around.”

We talked about our experiences at university, and what we had done since.

The room started to empty as people finished their drinks, gave their goodbyes, and drifted off. I helped wash up the used cups, then, preparing to leave, remembered the dhana bowl. I dropped a five pound note in, then put my shoes and coat on and stepped outside. I took the opportunity to read the notice on the door:

Buddhist Centre

Drop-in meditation classes: Tuesday, 1-2pm; 7:30-8:30pm

Friday, 1-2pm

At the bottom there was a web address and a telephone number.

I was just about to turn away and resume the task which had brought me into town in the first place, when Gita exited the building.

I smiled at her and said, “Thanks for the tea and the chat, Gita. It was very nice to meet you.”

“Oh, it was my pleasure too. I hope to see you here again.”

“Well, then I’ll do my best to return. But before you go, could you give me a little help? I’ve managed to get myself a little lost; could you point me in the direction of the town centre?”

“Oh, sure – come on, it’s this way.”

She lead me to the alleyway she and Carol had appeared from earlier, and I was soon back in familiar territory.

“Thanks again, Gita. Take care of yourself!”

“Oh, don’t mention it. You take care too, Tim.”

I headed in the direction of the nearest charity shop, determined to find a frame worthy of the photograph of Ellie.

The first one I went into didn’t have any that were the right size or colour, but a couple of tea-light holders caught my attention. They were heart-shaped, and made of red glass; although not the kind of thing that would usually interest me, I had a sudden urge to buy them. I thought about the candles and flowers that had decorated the Buddha’s shrine, before which I had been sat only half-an-hour ago, and a thrill of devotion and joy swept through me as I decided to honour Ellie with something similar. So I purchased them, together with a large rectangular cloth decorated with a gold and green pattern.

Moving on to another shop, I found a small statue of the Virgin Mary. I remembered then that the church where Ellie’s funeral had been held was called ‘The Church of the Immaculate Heart of the Holy Mother‘, so I thought it appropriate to go on the shrine I was planning. I bought the statue, and a wooden crucifix which bore the suffering Christ – somehow, it would have seemed odd not to get both, even though I had no particular interest in Jesus, nor any desire to worship God.

The third and final charity shop I went into had a perfect photo-frame; it was bright red and sparkled brilliantly.

I now had everything I needed, so headed home, humming vigorously.

Once indoors, I went to work. From my spare room I liberated a side table that I man-handled into my bedroom and placed against the wall opposite my bed. In order to accommodate it, I had to move the chair I’d brought up the other evening, which still had Ellie’s picture sitting on it from the night before.

I spread the patterned cloth over the table-top, put Ellie’s picture in its frame and placed it centre-rear, close to the wall, then added the statue of the Virgin Mary to her right. I fetched up the vase of flowers and these went to her left. The tea-light holders were added next, toward the front of the table, one before the Virgin Mary and the other in front of the flowers. Lastly, I hammered a nail into the wall above Ellie’s photo, from which I hung the crucifix.

Happy with all that I’d done, I had a bath, then went out again to buy some tea-lights, matches, food and drink.

I barely tasted my dinner, and only drank one bottle of beer while I ate. It had been a long day, and I was tired and ready to retire for the night. So, I took a couple of the tea-lights I’d bought and the matches upstairs, lit the candles and put them in the holders, then turned off the bedroom light and knelt down in front of Ellie’s shrine.

It looked amazing in the soft glow of the candles, and a haze of water blurred my vision as I sat and stared.

Solemnly, I put my hands together as if in prayer, made the sign of the cross (knowing no other way to make a formal gesture of worship), and bowed down until my forehead nearly touched the floor. Coming back upright, I focused my gaze on Ellie’s picture.

“Thank you, Ellie.” I said gently. “Thank you for such a wonderful day. I’m so glad to have attended the meditation at the Buddhist centre. They seem like a nice bunch; especially Gita – she reminds me a little of you! So helpful, and kind, and funny! I’m sure you must have guided my footsteps there; I’d never have thought of going along myself!” I chortled, then paused for a moment, becoming more serious.

“I hope you approve of what I’m doing… It’s going to be a long twenty-five days until I speak with you again! But, in the meantime, this will help. You told me to have faith in you, and I do, Ellie; complete faith. Thank you so much for all you’ve done for me so far. It’s been so long since my life had any meaning, since I looked forward to another day, but now everything’s fantastic – thanks to you.”

I couldn’t think of anything more to add, so I simply stopped talking. I knelt in silence before her for a little longer, but it wasn’t comfortable and my legs were still complaining from meditating early in the day.

I sighed, bowed again, and stood up. I got undressed, then, ready to go to sleep, blew out the candles and climbed into bed.

“I love you, Ellie,” I said into the darkness. “Goodnight, my angel.”

Chapter 11

When I woke up the next morning, I felt profoundly alive and well – at peace with myself, and the world, and brimming with energy.

I sat on my bed for a while and stared at the shrine I’d made to honour Ellie. It was beautiful, and she deserved no less.

“Good morning, my angel,” I said to her. “I love you, and thank you for being with me, and sharing my life.”

I noticed that the flowers, which I’d brought home on Tuesday, were starting to look a little tired, and I resolved to replace them.

I went downstairs and had a cuppa and a bite to eat, then decided to meditate for a while. I took a cushion from my sofa up to Ellie’s shrine, and sat for twenty minutes; I had hoped to last longer, but became restless and thought that a walk would be a good idea.

It was cold again outside, but I didn’t really feel it. There was a park a mile or so from my house, and I gave it a quick circuit before pausing to take in a view of trees and drifting clouds, with the city in the background. I opened myself to Ellie’s presence, and imagined her standing close beside me. Gently, I cupped my hand, as if holding hers; I felt – or imagined – a light touch of warmth on my palm.

I shivered with delight, then turned my feet homeward, envisioning Ellie soaring above me on white wings. I remembered my earlier resolution, and popped into a florist’s where I purchased her a rather extravagant bouquet.

I admit that my mood was a little silly, sentimental, possibly even romantic, but I couldn’t see any harm in this, and had nobody else to share such moments with.

Over the course of the weekend I carried on imagining Ellie being physically with me; I chatted to her, laughed with her, and even put some music on and danced around my living room for her entertainment. Instead of eating take-aways I cooked for myself, although when I sat down to eat I pretended that she had made the meal, and I toasted her with bottles of beer one night, glasses of wine the next.

And, to finish each happy day, I bowed before her shrine, which was now somewhat dominated by the new floral arrangement, and thanked her for every wonderful minute.

The pictures I’d brought home with me from work I stuck up about the house, so I could see her smiling face in every room – apart from the bathroom; I didn’t feel quite so comfortable with her presence when I was sat on the toilet, or soaking in the tub. I am, you see, at heart, a modest man.

Monday came around all too quickly, but in my positive state of mind work didn’t seem like anything to be bothered about, and I arrived at the office early. I got on with things, until around ten o’clock, when Joan came marching towards my desk.

“We need to ‘ave a word,” she said dramatically. “I’ve booked t’ one-to-one room. Get a coffee if yer like.” And with that, she strode off.

I shook my head. Standard procedure dictated that, after a sickness absence, an employee must sit down with their manager to have a ‘return to work’ discussion, and I assumed it was this that Joan was talking about. It was typical of her to make a mountain out of a mole-hill, so I didn’t think too much of her tone or attitude.

When I got into the one-to-one room (which was the size of a walk-in cupboard) Joan was already there, paperwork spread out on the tiny table. I squeezed myself into the vacant chair, and waited.

Joan looked up; her expression hostile and angry. “Well then,” she demanded. “’Ow do yer explain yoursen?”

I had no idea what she was talking about. “Explain what, exactly, Joan?” I asked.

“Explain why, when yer were off sick, and should ‘ave been resting at ‘ome, yer were seen Friday lunchtime in town. Shoppin’!

I stared at her in disbelief.

“If yer well enough to go paradin’ round shops, yer well enough to come to work!” she remarked stridently.

I had to nip this in the bud before she started quoting bits of the Red Book at me, and knew that the fact that she had suggested I take the time off work in the first place would make no difference to how she saw the situation. “Joan – if I may? I had come into town for a meditation lesson, at the Buddhist Centre. On my way back, I stopped to pick up some things to help me start meditating at home. As you’ll aware, I wasn’t physically sick, it was more an emotional issue I was dealing with. I did some research and it seemed that meditation would be useful, that it would improve my situation, and help me to sort out the stuff going on in my head. Does that explain things sufficiently for you?”

“Oh,” she replied, quite caught off guide by my cogent and completely convincing response. It was mostly a pack of lies, but I had no qualms about using deceit to counter her craziness.

I carried on. “Isn’t it the responsibility of each staff member to do what they can to maintain their health and well-being? You wouldn’t rebuke somebody for going to see the doctor, or for visiting the chemists’, while they were off sick, would you? I was taking the steps that seemed most appropriate to facilitate my return to work as expediently as possible.” I had to stop there; I was close to bursting with laughter at all the management-speak tripping off my tongue.

“I can understan’ that,” said Joan, very much deflated. She looked down at the paperwork. “So, yer feelin’ better now? There’s no adjustments we need t’ make t’ ‘elp yer settle back in, like?”

“No, Joan, I can’t think of any. Thank you for your concern, but I’ve got a number of emails to get through after my absence. Can I go now?”

“Okay, yer go on, then. I’ll just fill in t’ paperwork – ‘ere, just sign this first, t’ say we’ve done t’ ‘return to work’. I’ll do t’ rest, and give yer a copy later.”

I signed the document. “Thanks, Joan,” I said, extracting myself from the room.

Back at my desk I shook my head and, to sooth my iritation, opened the drawer in my desk with Ellie’s picture in it so I could look upon her face. “You see what I’m dealing with here?” I asked. “You’re lucky you didn’t have Joan for a manager – she could drive anyone to suicide all by herself!”

The smile dropped from my face as I took offence at my own joke. I took a gulp of lukewarm coffee and got on with my work. That’s what I was being paid to do, after all.

* * * * *

When I got home that evening, I sat and read the last of Way of the Peaceful Warrior. I noticed a number of similarities in the experiences I had had and those which Dan had been through, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the two. More than this, the book had inspired me and provided suggestions as to how I should live – the path that I should follow. What seemed best would be a simple life consisting of meditation, the study of the great spiritual masters, and the practice of martial arts. And where Dan had had his guide, Socrates, I had mine, Ellie, whom I was sure would correct me, were I making any mistakes in my choice of direction, when next we spoke.

A simple life didn’t sound like something very difficult to achieve, which I suppose is the point of it. I thought that all I really had to do was keep meditating regularly and pick up martial arts again. I considered returning to Aikido, which I had studied for many years and had reached first kyu (the belt before black belt, which is called first dan) but eventually decided to try something different; not another Japanese art (I’d also studied Jujitsu and a very little Karate when I was young); perhaps something Chinese. Being limited to walking or public transport, I’d see what was available locally, and then decide.

I wondered what to do next. I was looking forward to returning to the Buddhist Centre the following afternoon for the Tuesday drop-in meditation session, and recalled that in the evening they would be running the second week of the Introduction to Buddhism course. Although I’d missed the first session, I wondered if they might let me join the course if I made my own study of the Buddha’s life, covering what I assumed I’d missed in the first week. Accordingly, I reached for another of the books I’d taken out of the library; Fifty Eastern Thinkers. I went to the contents; sure enough, the Buddha was listed there, so I turned to the appropriate page and started reading. The entry was quite short, and contained only vary basic biographical details, but it was a sufficient introduction to give me some things to think about. For one thing, I discovered that re-birth, in Buddhist terms, was a great deal more subtle than I had held it to be, though I could still not account for the idea in scientific terms. But, then, I didn’t whole-heartedly trust these any more – there was no scientific explanation which could account for Ellie’s presence in my life, other than one which involved me having lost my mind. I was reasonably certain that I hadn’t, so there had to be something else, something that transcended science. Something about which science either had to remain silent, or drastically alter its basic metaphysical assumptions in order to investigate.

I considered what I had read while eating dinner and drinking red wine, before heading upstairs to sit at Ellie’s shrine for a time. I thanked her for everything good that she had brought me, and went to bed with a light and hope-filled heart.

Chapter 12

The next day I worked through the morning, but when it reached noon I surreptitiously accessed Wikipedia on my computer to get more information on the Buddha’s life. At twelve forty-five I officially broke for lunch, to give myself quarter of an hour to walk to the Buddhist Centre.

I arrived with a few minutes to spare, and looked around for Rajagaha. He didn’t appear to be there; there was no sign of Gita either, or even Carol. There were a few people I recognised from the Friday session, but I hadn’t spoken with them, didn’t know their names, and wasn’t forward enough to introduce myself. So I returned to the shelves of books.

A youngish man with a beard, baring various tattoos on his arms, approached me. “Hello,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I’m Neranjara.”

“Hi,” I replied as we shook hands. “Tim. I came here for my first time on Friday.”

“And you’ve come back again. That’s a good sign.”

“I hope so!” I said with a laugh, then asked; “I assume from your name that you’re involved the centre?”

“Not necessarily the case, although it does happen to be true. Do you have a question?”

“Yes – I was wondering something about the introductory course that’s running this evening?”

He nodded for me to continue.

“I realise that I missed the first part of the course last week, but I’ve read up a little about the Buddha and his life, and wondered if I could join in? I’m keen to attend.”

“It’s good that you’re enthusiastic, and I’m sure that would be okay. I’m running the class this evening.”

“That’s a relief. I didn’t want to wait for the next one.”

“Any particular reason for the hurry?”

“Not really; as I say, I’m just keen. And I’ve been told I need to do the course before I can borrow any books from your library.”

It was his turn to laugh. “I see!”

“I’m trying to find a spiritual path,” I explained. “So I’m looking for pointers.”

“Good luck with that, and I hope you find what you’re looking for. Right, I think we should be making a start.”

He walked over to the circle of seats. Beside one of the chairs was a stool, on top of which sat a bowl similar to the one in the Shrine Room above. He struck it to gain the room’s attention.

“Right, you lucky people, it’s time to meditate! Is anyone completely new to meditation, or want a re-fresher?” Nobody responded. “Okay then; today we’re doing the Metta Bhavana. Does everyone know this one?” He looked in my direction, and I shook my head.

“No problem, I’ll give a quick run-through before we start, and give a re-cap for each section. Everyone, upstairs.”

We all filed up to the Shrine Room; I grabbed a mat and found a place, then got into my posture.

“Right,” said Neranjara once everyone was seated and the candles had been lit. “The meditation we’re going to do is the Metta Bhavana, which means ‘development of loving-kindness.’ It has five stages, and we cultivate this sense of loving-kindness toward a different person in each: ourself during the first stage; a good friend in the second; a neutral person in the third; somebody you find difficult, or you just don’t like, during the fourth; and, in the final stage, everyone in the world. Simple enough?”

There were a few sniggers from around the room.

“I’ll wait a minute before starting the meditation to give everyone time to settle and to choose the people they want to put into stages two, three and four. During each stage we aim to develop an attitude of loving-kindness toward the particular person we’re focussing on; the traditional way of doing this is to wish them well and recite in one’s mind: ‘May they be well, may they be happy; may they be free from suffering; may they make progress in their life’. But, if that doesn’t work for you, feel free to try something else that helps you attain this kind and loving attitude. Just a couple of quick tips on your choices; for the second stage, choose a friend who’s of the same gender as yourself, or at least one that you’re not attracted to; you don’t want any romantic thoughts distracting you from the meditation! And, for the ‘difficult person’, don’t choose someone you really hate or has hurt you very badly, until you’ve developed this meditation to the point where you can handle thinking about them without producing a strongly negative emotional response.”

I’d not heard of such a meditation before, and initially it seemed somewhat strange – my understanding was that the aim of meditation was to quiet the mind and the emotions, to foster an experience free from the self and all attachments. But I thought I’d give it a go; I certainly couldn’t see anything wrong in becoming more kind and loving. I pondered on who to choose as a good friend, a neutral person, and a person I didn’t get on with.

“Right, let’s begin. Metta Bhavana, first stage – yourself. May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering, may I make progress in my life.” Neranjara rang the bowl.

I shut my eyes and started to repeat these phrases. It seemed, on the one hand, easier than the mindfulness of breathing to keep focused on the meditation, but, on the other, more difficult to know if I was getting it right. I found myself to be merely calm and peaceful, rather than becoming full of loving-kindness as was the aim.

Several minutes went by, and I began to get frustrated. I would say to myself: ‘May I be well’ – and another part of my mind would respond: ‘You’re not ill, are you?’

“May I be happy’ – ‘How could you be any happier?’

‘May I be free from suffering.” – ‘What suffering?’

‘May I make progress in my life.’ – ‘Aren’t you making progress? Isn’t the fact that you’re here progress in itself?

I thought about making some changes; maybe bring Ellie into the meditation somehow, but I wasn’t sure if that would lead me to develop the wrong kind of feelings, or develop the right ones but in the wrong way. Another idea was to change the wording, make up different phrases that would be more personally relevant, but, again, I wasn’t sure if I’d be doing the meditation properly – even though I’d been told to try something else if the traditional method wasn’t working, I felt that I should at least bear with it for my first attempt.

May I be well.’‘Whatever you say.’

May I be happy.’‘If that’s what you want.’

‘May I be free from suffering.’ – ‘Yeah, okay, why not?’

‘May I make progress in my life.’ – ‘Why don’t you go suck an egg?’

I nearly burst out laughing at this semi-sequitur, and had to desist with developing loving-kindness and instead bring my attention to my breath until I had myself under control.

Neranjara rang the bowl for a second time, and said, “Entering the second stage, bring to mind a good friend. May they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they make progress with their life.”

I chose for this stage Dicey. ‘May you be well and happy, Dicey,‘ I thought, and did feel a spark of kindness come alive within me. ‘May you be free from suffering. May you make progress in your life.

It was pleasant thinking about Dicey, wishing him well and hoping for the best for him. I repeated the phrases, imagining him smiling and happy and everything being good in his life. But then I started to recall some of the many surreal conversations we’d had, and came close to laughing again.

When the bowl rang for the third time, Neranjara instructed; “in the third stage, we turn to someone neutral – someone we don’t know and haven’t developed any particular attitude towards. It might be someone you see but don’t really interact with; a bus driver, postman, or your local shop-keeper. So; ‘may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they make progress with their life’.”

I brought my attention to a colleague, Nigel, who kept himself to himself to an even greater degree than I did. Despite working in the same office for several years, I could not recall ever having spoken with him – our positions were in completely different business areas, so there was no reason for us to interact so far as our respective duties went.

Carrying some of the positivity I had developed while thinking of Dicey over to thinking of Nigel, I got off to a good start. ‘May you be well, Nigel,‘ I thought, ‘May you be happy and free from suffering. May you make progress in your life.’

A warm feeling of magnanimity grew as I iterated and re-iterated the phrases, but this made me somewhat blasé and my attention drifted, until I realised I was becoming self-satisfied; my imagination created a picture of me walking through the city and beaming out joy and happiness in all directions, while people lined the streets and cheered and clapped as I passed. Guiltily, I let go of the image and re-focused my attention.

The bowl was rang for the penultimate stage. “Now we concentrate on a person we find difficult; it might be somebody you don’t get on with, or somebody who’s upset you. ‘May they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they make progress in their life.’”

I said goodbye to Nigel and drew to mind the ‘difficult’ person I had chosen. ‘May Joan be well and happy,” I said to myself, not noticing my teeth gritting. ‘May Joan be free from suffering,‘ I thought, while there arose in my mind an image of her being run over by a bus. ‘May Joan make progress in her life,‘ I added, and accompanying this wish was the hope that she’d get a new job, elsewhere, and leave.

I tried repeating the phrases, but found myself getting angry, which made my body tense. My lower legs – mostly the calves and ankles – were sending me stronger and stronger signals of pain. I did what I could to relax and shift about a little to find a more comfortable posture, but it wasn’t enough, and I decided to ease off. Slowly, gently, I untied my legs and savoured the relief this brought, while reflecting on my experience of the stage; I hadn’t realised, until now, that I actually hated Joan.

The bell was rang once more. “In the final stage, we remind ourselves of the people we’ve meditated on, wishing them happiness, freedom from suffering, and progress in their lives, and then extend this outward. Include all the people in the room here, then all the people in the city, all the people in the country, all the people in the world. If you find that easy, bring your loving-kindness – your metta – to all living beings; every being that lives anywhere throughout the universe.”

My arms around my legs, I rested my head on my knees and imagined myself, Dicey, Nigel and Joan stood together, as if at the four points of a compass. We hold hands, and light shines out from us. Then my perspective shifted to a bird’s-eye view and drew upwards; standing in a wider circle around the four of us were the meditators sitting with me. They joined their hands together and light pours forth from them. Up again and another circle, composed of colleagues, neighbours, and people I knew from around the city. As my perspective rose ever higher I could no longer make out individual people; all I saw were progressively wider and wider rings of light, stretching across the world.

I enjoyed this scene, and let it play out in my mind. The Earth receded, covered in glowing circles, and my sight now took in the whole galaxy. Here and there planets pulsed with life, and this life emitted light – a special, spectral light that outshone the stars.

It was a glorious view, and, when the bowl was rung three times to indicate the meditation was finished, I was almost sorry to let it go.

* * * * * * * *

I didn’t bother staying for a cup of tea this time, but hurried back to the office. I didn’t want to have so long a lunch-break that Joan would have another reason to ‘have a word’ with me, or that I’d have to stay late in the office to make up my hours.

I felt calm and compassionate after the meditation, and realised that I had an apology to make – to Emma.

She was sat at her desk; I walked over and stood nearby until she noticed me.

“Uh, hi, Tim,” she said in a flat tone.

“Hi, Emma,” I responded. “I just wanted to apologise to you – for sticking up those pictures of Ell… of Ellen, around my desk last week. I’m so sorry; I’d kind of lost the plot a little. I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”

“It’s been difficult for all her friends,” Emma remarked, her voice touched by a note of sympathy. She looked down for a moment, then back at me. “There’s counselling available, you know. Just contact HR and they’ll arrange it. It might help.”

“Thanks… I’ll think about it, but I’m not sure it would do me much good. A psychiatrist might be more useful, though I’d probably end up in a straight-jacket if I talked to one of them!”

A brief, wry smile flashed across Emma’s face.

“Anyway, I just wanted to say ‘sorry’ and that it won’t happen again. I hope… I do hope you’re okay, Emma. Ellen didn’t mean to hurt us; she wouldn’t want us to be sad.”

Emma shrugged. “Thanks, Tim, and I’m sure you’re right, but it doesn’t stop the pain. I’ll never understand why she did it.”

I hesitated for a second, a number of possible replies occurring to me, but I didn’t want to risk putting my foot in it, so I just smiled sympathetically and walked away.

* * * * * * * *

I left the office early, rushed home, had a bite to eat and relaxed for a bit, before returning to town for the introductory course.

I arrived at the centre just before seven thirty. There were many coats and pairs of shoes in the entrance area; I added mine to them.

I walked through into the room; there were maybe twenty people already there, chatting in pairs or small groups, or just milling around. I went and got myself a cup of water and noticed Gita chatting with Neranjara. I sidled up to them.

Gita saw me and grinned. “Oh, hi, you,” she said. “Good to see you again.”

I smiled back at her. “Good to see you, too, Gita. How’s it going?”

“Oh, it’s going very well, thank you. Have you met Neranjara?”

“He has,” said Neranjara. “This is the eager young man I mentioned.”

I nodded and laughed; “I’ll admit to being eager, but I’d say that ‘young’ is a little wide of the mark. I’m just about middle-aged.”

Gita giggled. “Oh, we’re only as old as we feel. And you don’t look middle-aged.”

“Thank you,” I said, “But, if it’s the case that we’re as old as we feel, I’m probably closer to eighty than eighteen. Grown old before my time.”

“Oh, I think I’m the opposite,” said Gita. “I’m still about eight – just a little girl, not even a teenager!”

“Well,” Neranjara remarked. “It’s good to see the aged and the young getting along so nicely. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to lock the door and get this evening’s proceedings under way.”

A few minutes later we were all in the Shrine Room.

“Okay,” said Neranjara, as everyone sat down, whether on a chair, a cushion, or cross-legged on a mat, ready to meditate. “This evening we’ll be doing the ‘mindfulness of breathing’ meditation. For those of you on the introductory course, this is the same meditation we did last week.”

Neranjara gave guidance during the mindfulness of breathing, as Rajagaha had done on Friday. I’d been practising this at home, so was quite comfortable with it, although was still finding it difficult to manage more than half-an-hour without succumbing to pain in the legs and ankles. I was sure though, that after a few weeks, I’d be able to last longer.

After the meditation had finished we went back downstairs, and I helped Gita with making cups of tea. She didn’t get one herself; “Oh, I’ve got to go,” she explained. “I only come along on Tuesday evenings for the meditation – I completed the introductory course years ago! I do usually stay and chat for a bit, but my husband wants to go out tonight. I think we’re going to see a film.”

“I hope you enjoy it,” I told her.

“Oh, thanks,” she replied. “And I hope you enjoy the lesson. The Dharma truly is amazing!”

“See you next time.”

“You too. Take care!”

It was not only Gita who left, but almost half the people present. A dozen of us remained.

Chairs had been set out, not in a circle as was usual for the afternoon drop-in meditation sessions, but in rows, like a classroom. We settled ourselves with our drinks and Neranjara stood at the front, beside a flip-chart.

“Okay,” he began. “This week we’re going to be looking at the five spiritual faculties, which are – in no particular order – faith, wisdom, concentration, vigour, and mindfulness.” He indicated the flip-chart, on which had been drawn a cross; in the middle was the word ‘mindfulness’, at the top was ‘vigour’, at the bottom ‘concentration’, to the left was ‘faith’ and to the right, ‘wisdom’.

“I’ll explain briefly what the terms mean in this context. ‘Faith’ in this regard isn’t about having particular beliefs, or having a particular conviction, but refers to having a sense of devotion and a deep response to spiritual things, such as nature or religious works of art. It could also be extended to intuitive, as opposed to reasoned, understanding.

“’Wisdom” is used here in much the same way as ‘sophia’ is meant in the Greek word ‘philosophia’, from which we get ‘philosophy’ – meaning, literally, ‘love of wisdom’. So, it refers to rational, logical thought. Some might include scientific thinking and study as part of wisdom.

“Next, ‘vigour’, means having energy, doing things with a certain intensity. Someone with a lot of vigour tends to be quite active. Although it is possible to have vigour and not be rushing around; one can take things slowly but at the same time approach them with energy. One can even meditate vigorously.

“’Concentration’ refers to having mental focus and not losing sight of what one is doing. It’s more or less what we usually mean by the word.

“Finally, we come to ‘mindfulness’, which is subtly different to ‘concentration’. Mindfulness means having awareness of what you are doing, being aware of yourself and your surroundings, and of other people. Whereas with concentration you might lose track entirely of your environment – be so focused on something that you forget everything else – mindfulness keeps us in the present and in touch with what is going on around us.

“As you can see from the diagram, four of the five faculties are put in opposed pairs – faith and wisdom, and vigour and concentration – which most people lean to one or the other side of. For example, somebody might have a lot of vigour, be very energetic and always up and about, doing things, but they may not have much in the way of concentration, and therefore be prone to getting distracted or starting something and then moving on to something else without finishing what they were doing originally. Or someone might have a high level of concentration, be able to think things through very thoroughly, but not have much get-up-and-go; they might tend to think about things rather than do them, and be rather lazy.

“Likewise, faith and wisdom. Most people would tend to favour, tend to be strong, in one or the other.

“Mindfulness is found in the middle because it doesn’t have a positive opposite; it is an end in itself. You can’t have too much mindfulness.

“Now, according to the Buddha, in order to develop ourselves spiritually, we need to cultivate all five of these faculties. Instead of seeing faith and wisdom as being in conflict, as being a choice between one or the other, Buddhism says that you need both. Faith without wisdom can lead one to believe in any old superstitious nonsense, whereas wisdom without faith can lead one to reject all meaning, and leave one without any purpose in life. This is the position typical of what one might call ‘scientism’ – the misunderstanding of science and its methods, and its misuse as a general philosophical position, as an approach to life which lacks all context and meaning.

“So, we need to balance our faith and wisdom, and our vigour and concentration. We shouldn’t get too one-sided in any of these. Developing our mindfulness will help us with this; the more mindful we are, the more balanced we will become as we realise our lopsided nature and work on it.”

I listened to the lecture with interest. I hadn’t known what to expect from the course, and thought I might find it rather dull and not tell me much that I didn’t know already, but instead I was intrigued. I regretted not having brought a notepad and pen with me.

The class finished at ten o’clock, and I walked home in the cold and dark, pondering what I’d learnt. In many ways it had confirmed that I was more or less on the right track, that the path I was contemplating was a spiritually fulfilling one, in that it included all these spiritual virtues. Faith was covered by my devotion to Ellie; wisdom through my studies, vigour through martial arts training, and mindfulness by meditation. I already had good concentration and was sure that, through my various activities, I could improve it further.

I got home and had a couple of bottles of beer while thinking some more, then brushed my teeth and went up to my bedroom.

I lit the candles on Ellie’s shrine and gazed lovingly on her picture, illuminated by the warm glow. Then I knelt down, crossed myself and bowed.

“Praise to you, Ellie!” I said. “Thank you so much for guiding me to the centre. I enjoyed tonight’s lesson, and look forward to the next one. Finally, after so many years, I feel like I’m starting to get somewhere! And it’s all because of you, Ellie. You’ve given me a direction, you’ve given me hope, you’ve given me love. You’ve given me everything that’s valuable; everything that’s worthwhile.

“I just hope that I’m making you proud, that I’m doing the right thing by you.”

When I got into bed, and whispered into the darkness my final ‘thank you’ and ‘goodnight, my angel!’, I was in a good mood. It’s a pity it didn’t last, that while I slept my whole world would be turned upside down.

But that’s life for you.

Symbiotic and Convergent Cultural Evolution: An Archaeological Perspective, with Two Examples

Another essay written for my undergraduate degree in Archaeology – at this time I was getting into evolutionary theory and seeing how it could be used for theory-building and explanation in archaeology.

Romans in Britain and Celts in Thrace

Speculation on how one culture affected the development of others has always been a part of archaeology, and often a leading part. In a number of well-documented cases archaeology forms the main evidence for issues of cultural identity and change, domination and resistance.

In this study I wish to examine cultural interchange through an evolutionary model, and then examine how this model aids our interpretation of the past through the use of two examples, the Romanization of Britain and the invasion of the Scordisci, a Celtic tribe, into the area of the Triballi, a Thracian tribe.

Cultural Change and Evolution

The concept of evolution has found variable favour with archaeologists, usually in accordance with contemporary theoretical paradigms found in the broader context of the social sciences. A sharp division has in fact existed from time to time between those archaeologists espousing cultural evolution and those upholding historical particularism (which argues that culture is ‘a unique product of its own largely fortuitous historical development (Trigger 1993, 2). Put another way, theories are divided as to whether it is the differences or the similarities between cultures which are important (ibid.). Both stances are partially right, partially wrong, a fact which is increasingly being acknowledged, along with many other shortcomings in the approach of the social sciences. By taking a closer look at how evolution is described in biology, it can be shown that the adoption (or adaption) of this term by the social sciences have previously misused and/or misunderstood it. (Harris 1998, 2-3)

As I have argued elsewhere, the theory of evolution applies as much to human cultures as to animal species, and that evolutionary processes can satisfactory describe cultural change. For the present study, I will be focusing on two forms of co-evolutionary processes, symbiotic and direct convergent evolution.

Before I begin the discussion of cultural co-evolution I will explain some important details of the interpretative framework of evolutionism applied to human cultures.

Firstly, I follow a view of evolution proposed by the philosopher Karl Popper who advocated a Darwinian theory. Briefly, his theory is that evolution occurs through problem-solving; the situation an organism finds itself in will consist of certain problems (e.g. survival, food procurement, reproduction) and the physical (biological) and behavioural (cultural) inheritance of the organism represent past solutions to these problems. Survival of the fittest, in these terms, is survival of the best problem-solvers.

Secondly, I feel it important to note that evolutionary processes are a discourse between species- (or cultural-) level alteration and the actions of individuals; ‘At the heart of evolution is a paradox; for evolution “is absolutely a phenomenon of populations. Individuals and their immediate descendants do not evolve. Populations evolve, in the sense that the proportions of carriers of different genes change through time” (Wilson 1993, 75). However, the population of the next generation of a species is (under natural conditions) composed only of the genes of those individuals in the present population who manage to successfully reproduce. Thus evolution takes place on the level of the species level but is dependent upon individuals’ (Harris 1998, 4). Seen in the context of human cultures, this distinction becomes more complex; the place of concepts such as ‘species’ becomes vague when analyzed in human terms. I suggest a system of cultural cladistics which recognises a range of definitions, from the broadest level of biological species (Homo sapiens) to the opposite extreme of the single organism (human individual). Between these two, we find (from top to bottom), culture groups, cultures, and various group levels according to internal cultural divisions. The more socially stratified or complex a culture is, the greater the number of groups it is likely to contain. Each group is symbiotically united with the others (a single culture is interdependent) but will have its own interests and may therefore act as a distinct evolutionary unit. A single individual may be a member of many different groups relating to political, economical, ideological, and kinship divisions within their culture. An individual will make choices in their behaviour given the context of the situation and the role in which they enter the situation. An individual may react very differently in an intra-cultural situation to an extra-cultural one.

Finally, it must be pointed out that this evolutionary model provides only a description, not an explanation, of the past. It is a way of viewing cultural change within an epistemological framework. From the description provided by evolutionism, however, we can move to make a better informed interpretation, based on our understanding of individual behaviour (psychology) and cultural behaviour (anthropology and sociology).

Symbiosis is broadly defined by biologists as ‘the intimate association of two or more species’ (Wilson 1993, 176). Such associations are formed as part of usual evolutionary processes, or, in terms of the evolutionary view adopted here, during the course of finding solutions to situational problems. Convergent evolution exists in two forms; indirect and direct. Biologists use the term only in the indirect sense, where it means ‘the occupation of the same niche by products of different adaptive radiations, especially in different parts of the world’ (ibid,, 95). Direct convergent evolution is a term created here to describe the evolutionary uniqueness of human cultural change; unlike biological species, which once totally distinct will always remain distinct (evolution cannot be reversed, it cannot ‘go backwards’), two distinct human cultures can merge to become one, regardless of their relative difference at the time of first contact. Thus, two cultures can show indirect convergent evolution only when they are not together; the term highlights a similarity between cultural forms due to ecological (environmental and cultural) similarities. The two cultures remain distinct. With direct convergent evolution two cultures through interaction become one; a symbiosis taken to its conclusion with the distinction between the two groups vanishing – there are no longer interdependent but the same.

Seen in cultural terms, co-evolution occurs between neighbouring cultures or expanding cultures meeting and inter-penetrating cultures pre-existing in the area expanded into. The relationship which forms between two meeting cultures, and the result of this relationship, will be determined by the structure and character of the respective cultures.

I will give two examples of cultural co-evolution, one of symbiotic and one of direct convergent evolution, explaining the difference by reference to the particular cultures involved in these relationships.

Romans and Britons to Romano-British

The ‘romanization of Britain’ has a long history in archaeological thought, although presently such terms as ‘romanization’ are disfavoured due to the imperialistic cultural bias implied by their use (e.g. see Hingley 1996).

Caesar landed twice in Britain, in August 55 BC and July 54 BC, although the formal conquest of Britain did not really begin until the Claudian invasion of AD 43 (Ellis 1990). The conquest was never completed; the most northern parts of the country may have suffered Roman invasion but Roman control was not formally achieved in these regions. Britain’s part in the Roman Empire varied through time as the fortunes and rulership of Rome varied, and as the internal dynamics of Romano-Britain and its specific relationships with non-Romanised outsiders (e.g. Irish and Germanic raiders) varied. Roman rule is formally acknowledged to have ended around the turn of the 5th century AD.

To understand the relationship between the Romans and the British one must understand these cultures. It should be immediately noted that while the Romans were unified under a Republic and later an Empire, the British had no such unity, but instead consisted of a number of similar but distinct groups, generally termed tribal. A second point which follows from this is that the interconnections between these tribes extended across the channel to Gaul. Furthermore the British tribes were entwined in trade networks which linked them to the Mediterranean. The Romans and British were therefore interacting (if only through mediaries) long before any Roman had stepped foot on British soil.

Conflict between Rome and Britain was not unavoidable, although the country did harbour Gaulish enemies of Rome (Ellis 1990). The impetus for Roman expansion was not ‘a simple one derived from a systematic expansionist design. It was rather a complex of motives, the roots of which lay in the highly competitive system of power within Roman society; a system where instability was endemic and power concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy. Moreover, the personal political and economic fortunes of this group were closely bound up with their success in the military sphere’ (Millett 1990, 2-3). Although the Roman army was composed of thousands of individuals with a range of social and ethnic backgrounds, they constituted a unified group (an evolutionary unit) under the leadership of a centralised elite (or an individual member thereof).

The British tribes were divided between pro- and anti-Roman groups (Ellis 1990). ‘Conquest offered new opportunities to some members of the elite for domination and social control, but may have provided a threat to the liberty and security of some agricultural producers. Conversely, some members of the elite may at times have felt threatened by changes in society, and the Roman army certainly provided an escape from agricultural drudgery for some native males’ (Hingley 1996, 44). Within a particular tribal unit feelings could be split between individuals in accordance with what they stood to lose or gain by the Romans. The Romans encouraged collaboration by granting favourable terms to allied tribes and punitive terms to tribes which resisted their rule.

Once the Romans had succeeded in dominating an area they preferred to maintain control through the native elite, leaving basically intact the indigenous power structure. The cultural changes which followed incorporation into the Roman Empire – the process referred to by the term Romanization – were a reflection of a re-orientation of cultural identity and the modified political, economical and social horizons which were the consequence of this incorporation. Seen in this way, it becomes clear that the British Celts did not really become Roman (they did not move to Rome) but they adopted aspects of Roman culture (language, dress, architectural, prestige statements) as it suited them. Likewise the conquest of Britain must have been felt in Rome, both in terms of political, social and economic consequences and in terms of the cultural identity of Rome, but Romans did not become British. ‘Romano-British’ does not therefore mean ‘Roman’ and ‘British’ but a distinctly Roman Britishness, or British Romanness.

Once peaceful control of Britain had been achieved, the Romans and the British were involved in a symbiotic relationship, so that the eventual collapse of one (Rome) may have resulted in disaster for the other (the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England), and certainly led to a drop in ‘Romanness’.

Celts and Thracians to Thraco-Celts

Around 300 BC a Celtic army, probably consisting of a number of Celtic tribes, moved down the Balkan peninsula towards Greece (Ellis 1990). Later, components of this army were to sack Delphi

(ibid.), but it is not this event which concerns us here. What is of relevance is the Scordisci (a Celtic tribe) and their co-evolutionary relationship with the Thracian tribe, the Triballi.

Initially the Scordisci settled beside the Danube, and their territory stretched from southern Hungary down into Yugoslavia (Kaul 1991). Conflict between the Scordisci and the native inhabitants appears to have taken place but ended after a while, and ‘there was rapid integration of Celtic features into the local culture’ (ibid., 37). ‘Archaeological finds show that in the first half of the 2nd century BC, the Celtic culture from Yugoslavia made inroads into neighbouring northwestern Bulgaria’ (ibid.). This area was the homeland of the Thracian tribe, the Triballi.

The archaeological record from this area, at this time, witnesses the ‘Padea-Panagjurski Kilinii group…. [in which is found] burials containing typical Celtic warrior’s equipment, but lying under barrow according to the local tradition and with Thracian pottery and harness bit-types… Some graves show predominately Celtic features, whilst others have a much more pregnant mixture which makes it difficult or impossible to define the individual graves as either Thracian or Celtic (Kaul 1995, 25). From an archaeological point of view, at this point the two cultural influences had become indistinguishable; there was no longer two recognisably distinct influences. In the historical records we find that the Scordisci and the Triballi ‘had a legend about a common mythical origin’ (ibid., 26), that the Scordisci ‘to a certain extent took over the Triballi’s name in the eyes of the classical authors’ (ibid., 25), and also that the Scordisci were reported to follow the Thracian tradition of using skulls as drinking cups (Rankin 1996).

Similarities existed between Celtic and Thracian cultures (Rankin 1996), both in the form of social customs, such as inter-elite marriages, and in their ’embedded’ social structure wherein social relations were not able to be separated into distinct economic, ritual or kinship categories (Hodder 1979), which would have aided their acculturation – direct convergent evolution – into a single ethnic group. The term ‘Thraco-Celtic’ can appropriately be applied to this culture in the same way as the term ‘Romano-British’ was used above. One of the most intriguing and discussed artefacts of the archaeological record has been attributed to this Thraco-Celtic culture; the Gundestrup Cauldron (Kaul 1995, Taylor 1992).


I have presented here a general argument for an evolutionary model of human cultural change, and illustrated how such a perspective can be applied to the archaeological record by reference to two examples, the Romanization of Britain and the Celtic invasion of Thrace (or, rather, a particular episode thereof).

I have used different evolutionary terms to describe the events which occurred in each case; the first example demonstrated symbiotic evolution and the second direct convergent evolution. The distinction between the two is due to the different nature of interaction between the groups involved in the two situations.

The expanding Roman Empire was a state-level society, and its expansion was the result of internal impetus at the elite level, and was carried out in the context of the ambitions and motivations of individuals within the ruling elite. The Celts were not a state level culture, and their elites were concerned as much with intra-cultural rivalry as extra-cultural threats. The two were not committed to necessarily separate ends, and were able to offer each other mutual benefits. Therefore they were able to coexist and evolve separately but together – hence, ‘symbiotic evolution’.

For the second example, the situation was markedly different. The Celtic expansion undoubtedly contained similar motives to the Roman one (personal status and wealth), and were thus likewise expression of internal values and social relationships. The Thracian culture they intruded upon was of an analogous social form and organisation, and they both shared a common Indo-European ancestry and similar histories involving contact with Greece. However, as opposed to the Romans, once the Celts had settled in an area they replaced the local elite, claiming the area as ‘sword-land’. They did not seem to have eliminated the general population, however, and one can imagine that life for the Thracian peasant was as little affected by the change in rulership as that for the British peasant by the Roman conquest.

Whereas Romans maintained their identity after the annex of Britain, the Scordisci became irrevocably altered through their settlement on the Triballi’s land. The reason for this is due to their different social structure and expression, or in other words the different kinds of problem which cultural interaction posed. Following conquest, the Roman Empire seems to have taken a minimal interest in the economy and politics of the conquered. The British, in turn, re-aligned themselves to the new situation, and demonstrated their status as members of the Roman Empire through appropriate social and economic discourse, but to what depth this ‘Romanness’ penetrated is debatable. For the Scordisci to have taken such an indifferent attitude to their conquered territory would have resulted in a less stable and potentially weaker hold upon it. The Celts had no empire (the title of Ellis’s book is ‘intentionally ‘mischievous’ (p.1)), no central rulership to sustain social conventions. In these conditions, a certain amount of assimilation into the existing social networks of the region would have to be made. That the Celtic and Thracian peoples were similar in many respects would have allowed this to occur fairly rapidly, and ideological propaganda – such as the creation of a common origin myth – legitimized the intrusive foreign presence by denying that any ‘foreignness’ existed. The Celtic reluctance to make written records (ibid.) fits into a social system which must maintain a fluid past to allow for future instability.

I hope that this short report has highlighted the usefulness of the application of an evolutionary model to specific archaeological questions.


Ellis, P.B. (1990). The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History c. 1000 BC – 51 AD Guild Publishing: London.

Harris, T.D. (1998). The Evolution of Cities and States (Unpublished Report). University of Bradford: Bradford.

Hingley, R. (1996). The ‘legacy’ of Rome: the rise, decline, and fall of the theory of Romanization. pp. 35-48 in J. Webster. and N. Cooper (eds). Roman Imperialism: Post-Colonial Perspectives Leicester Archaeology Monographs No. 3. University of Leicester: Leicester.

Kaul, F. (1991). The Gundestrup Cauldron – Thracian, Celtic or Both?, pp. 7-42 in Kaul, F., Marazov, H.B. and De Vries, N. (1991). Thracian Tales on the Gundestrup Cauldron, Najade Press: Amsterdam.

Kaul, F. (1995). The Gundestrup Cauldron Reconsidered, Acta Archaeologica 66, 1-38.

Millett, M. (1990). The Romanization of Britain: An essay in archaeological interpretation Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Popper, K.R. (1979 (Revised edition)). Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Rankin, D. (1996 (paperback)). Celts and the Classical World, Routledge: London.

Taylor, T. (1992). The Gundestrup Cauldron. Scientific American, March 1992.

Trigger, B. (1993). Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context, The American University: Cairo.

Webster, J. and N. Cooper (eds) (1996). Roman Imperialism: Post-Colonial Perspectives, Leicester Archaeology Monographs No. 3. University of Leicester: Leicester.

Wilson, E.O. (1993). The Diversity of Life. Allen Lane (The Penguin Press): London.

Part 2: Something Blesséd This Way Comes

Chapter 5

Something is pressing against, gently rubbing, my arm, bringing me back from sleep. I open my eyes and there, leaning over me, wan and tear-stained, but wearing a fragile, hopeful smile, is Ellen.

I gasp in astonishment and sit up as she retreats to the end of my bed, where she seats herself. Her hair and clothes are dishevelled, and she wears an odd expression that suggests both elation and despair.

“Ellen!” I exclaim, staring at her wide-eyed. “O, Ellen! I… I don’t know what to say – is it really you?”

She nods. “Yes,” she says softly. “It is.”

A part of me knows she is dead, but her presence is too real to doubt. She is gone; she is here. Whatever the case is, my joy at the sight of her is overwhelming. “Ellen,” I breathe reverently, “I love you.”

She looks searchingly at me. “Really?” she asks, “truly?”

“Yes – truly,” I tell her, while adding to myself; madly, deeply.

She hugs her legs to her chest and, resting her head, sideways, on her knees, regards me silently. Then she asks; “Will you do something for me?”

“Of course!” I reply. “Anything! Whatever you want, Ellen. Just name it.”

She fixes me with a stern gaze. “What you are planning – don’t do it. Promise me you won’t.”

“What, you what me to promise not to kill Tony?” I ask incredulously.

“Yes!” she exclaims. “Don’t kill Tony. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill anyone. Promise?”

“But Ellen, he deserves to die! He betrayed you, destroyed you! He’s an evil, adulterous bastard! Who knows how many other women he’ll misuse, has misused throughout his pitiful life? I want to avenge you, Ellen; I want to be your knight in shining armour. I want to ensure that justice is done. And, as for myself, I’ve had enough. Why shouldn’t I end my life, like you did? Why can’t I join you in death?”

“Because it’s wrong, Tim, it’s all so wrong!” Ellen’s voice is strained, wavering, and tears stream down her face. “Tony’s not evil, he doesn’t deserve to die, and he didn’t cause me to kill myself – that was my own stupid idea. It was wrong of me, Tim; so, so wrong! I just wanted the pain to end, but it didn’t; it didn’t solve anything! It was a huge, horrendous mistake that I wish I could undo – but I can’t. There’s nothing I, nor you, nor anyone, can do to put right what I did. But what you want to do will make everything far, far worse. You have no idea the harm it will cause, not just to Tony and his family, and yourself and yours, but also to me. Damned by my own hand, I would be double-damned by yours, and we would both be locked in pain and suffering for longer than you could possibly imagine.”

Her tears are distressing enough to behold, but her words are devastating. “What can I do, then, Ellen?” I ask quietly. The thought of going back to living how I had been, working in the same office, continuing the same pointless routine day after day, year after year, leaves me feeling utterly sick. “All my hope is gone. I don’t want to live any more. I don’t know if I can.”

“I’m sorry, Tim,” she says gently. “I know it’s difficult, and I know that what I have done has hurt you a great dealt – and I’m so sorry for that – but you have to be strong. Have faith, and things will get better.”

“Faith? Faith in what?” I ask, a little testily. “I’m an atheist, Ellen, not a believer. What am I supposed to have faith in?”

She sighs. “Things may appear hopeless now, but, if you take the right steps, that will change. In the meantime, if you do love me, then have faith in me, and know that I’ll be with you, every moment of every day.”

My heart nearly leaps from my chest. “You’ll be with me?”

“Yes, I will. Though you may not be able to see me, I’ll be there. And, come tomorrow night, we will talk again.”

“If you’ll be with me, Ellen, I’ll be able to face anything. I will fear nothing.”

She smiles at me then, smiles her most beautiful smile – a smile of love and empathy, joy and triumph. “I hope so,” she says.

* * * * * * * *

I woke up, again – really woke up this time, not dreamt I had.

I was alone, and there was no trace of Ellen, no sign of her at all; no rumple on my duvet, no lingering scent in the air.

I was emotionally torn; ecstatic at the sight of Ellen, at hearing her tell me that she was with me, but also dismayed by the extent of her suffering, which her suicide had apparently only exacerbated.

I had been able to disregard the nightmare I’d had on the day following Ellen’s funeral, but this dream I couldn’t dismiss; Ellen’s distress had been tangible, and I had to respond to it.

My turmoil made me restless, and my room seemed suddenly stifling and oppressive. So I got out of bed, stepped over to the window, pulled wide the curtains, and opened the window a crack to let in some cold winter air. The full moon was low in the sky, shinning directly into my face. Conflicting emotions surged within me, but, as I stood before that celestial orb, a sense of peace fell upon me. I remained there for a minute, allowing my mind to calm, until a monstrous cloud, crawling slowly across the sky, engulfed the moon – yet, somehow, my bedroom was still washed with radiance.

And then I realised that the light was not coming from outside, but from within my room; from behind me. I turned around and there, standing near the door, watching me with the same brilliant smile she had been wearing at my dream’s end, was Ellen. She glowed with a silver luminescence, and I dropped to my knees in awe and wonder. Happiness filled my heart to over-flowing; it poured through my body and brain.

“I promise, Ellen,” I vowed to her then, “I promise not to kill Tony. Or myself.”

Something dark and hard within me, within the core of my being, something clenched, like a granite fist, suddenly loosened; became less dark, less hard. At the same time, the light beaming from Ellen intensified, became almost dazzling, and, for a second, it seemed that a pair of great, white wings had sprouted from her back, and a shimmering halo had appeared above her head.

Then the cloud passed, and the moonlight streamed again through my window, and I was once more by myself in my bedroom.

But I knew I was not alone.

Chapter 6

Monday morning I awoke, clear-headed, deliriously happy, and full of love, but not knowing quite why.

Then I remembered.

“Thank you, Ellen!” I called out and gazed around my room, trying to catch sight of some ethereal indication of her being. There was, naturally enough, none, and I laughed at myself for imagining that there might be, as if an intangible spirit could be perceived, like a special effect in a movie. A scene from the film Predator popped into my mind, and I laughed harder.

Once my mirth had subsided, I jumped out of bed, threw some clothes on and hurried downstairs to my living room. I sat down in front of Ellen’s picture and grinned like a maniac. I whispered to the picture, “I love you.” She just smiled knowingly back at me. I could sense her close presence; it was as if she were sitting right next to me, the two of us side by side on my sofa.

I skipped breakfast – my stomach was too full of joy to fit food in as well. I walked around the house, unsure what to do with myself but unable to sit down. Then I saw the envelope containing the letter I’d written to my mum, and started laughing again. Giggling like crazy, I ripped open the envelope, extracted the letter, and tore it to shreds.

That was satisfying. I wondered what I should do next, then remembered I was supposed to be going to work. The idea was preposterously funny, and I started laughing again as I got myself together, put on my shoes, coat, scarf and hat, and headed out the door.

Outside, everything seemed so much brighter and more beautiful than normal. The air itself seemed alive; everything pulsed with vitality, as if lit from within. I walked down the street in a daze, staring at the trees, the houses, the people. It was all wonderful.

Arriving at the office, I was all smiles and cheery greetings. This was not my usual behaviour, and my open, upbeat mood attracted some comments.

“Why,” said Joan to me in the early afternoon. “Aren’t we t’ cat who got t’ cream?”

“Joan,” I replied, “If I was a cat, I’d be purring so loudly the building would shake.”

“Nice for some, I’m sure,”

“Nice doesn’t do it justice, Joan.” I told her. I knew she was just fishing, trying to find out what had happened to me for such a drastic change of behaviour to occur, but I wasn’t about to let any cats out of any bags, or, indeed, set them amongst any pigeons – whether they were purring or not. So I changed the subject, and asked; “Where’s Tony?”

“Oh, ‘e called in sick; not surprisin’ really, ‘e – now, what’s so funny?”

I was laughing so hard I could barely remain standing. In all my murderous planning, I hadn’t once considered the possibility that Tony might not be in the office on the day I turned up to end his life. It seemed rude of him, somehow. I could just imagine the panic that would have filled my mind if I’d posted that letter, only to get into work to discover that Tony was absent. What would I have done then? It didn’t bear thinking about.

It was all too amusing. Joan gave me an odd look and wandered away, muttering under her breath.

* * * * * * * *

“Hi honey, I’m home!” I shouted, stepping through my front door.

It had been quite a day; my ribs were hurting from laughing so much, and I was famished, as I’d not bothered with lunch and so hadn’t eaten anything since the previous night.

However, before doing anything else, I went and sat in front of Ellen’s picture. “Thank you, Ellen,” I said to her. “Thank you so much. I love you.”

After a few minutes I was calm and relaxed. “Hmm, what to have for dinner?” I wondered aloud. As there wasn’t much to eat in the house I decided to treat myself. I went to the off-licence and bought myself a very nice bottle of Merlot, then popped in to the local take-away to pick up some fish and chips.

Sitting down again before Ellen’s image, my feast laid out before me, I raised a glass to her. “Cheers!” I said, and then got stuck in.

It was delicious.

After I’d finished eating and washed up, I felt quite exhausted, and an early night seemed the order of the day. Before I retired I stood at the window and regarded the moon, and a thrill of hope and elation shivered through me. “Thank you,” I said, and, leaving the curtains open to allow the moonlight to bathe me whilst I slept, climbed into bed.

* * * * * * * *

A soft, moist pressure on my forehead rouses me.

I smile, and open my eyes.

“Hi, sleepy-head,” Ellen says as she moves away and sits on the floor, her back against the wall facing my bed.

“Hi, Ellen,” I reply. “Thanks for coming to see me.”

She chuckles. “You’re welcome. But please, call me Ellie. All my friends do.”

My heart feels like it is going to burst with happiness. “Okay, Ellie,” I say meekly.

I notice that she looks completely normal now. She is simply herself; radiant and beautiful, with a warm and ever-so-slightly mischievous smile on her lips. Her eyes twinkle with mirth and joy. She is the most lovely sight I have seen in all my life.

I sit up in bed, gathering my duvet around me, and for a minute or two we just look at each other.

I decide to break the silence. “Oh, Ellie, it was so funny today – I went to the office and Tony wasn’t in! I wouldn’t have been able to… to do as I planned, anyway.”

“I know,” she says lightly. “I was there.”

“Oh, of course,” I say, a little ashamed. “I know you were, but…” I let the sentence trail off.

We lapse into silence again for a few seconds, before I realise I have some questions I want to ask her. “How did you know that I wanted to kill Tony?”

“I was there, at the funeral, and I saw you… I saw your pain and hopelessness, saw that your life had become unbearable to you, and then, as you walked home, I saw the anger and hatred toward Tony grow within you, knew the course of action you were choosing.”

“Does everyone attend their own funeral?”

She doesn’t reply for a moment, then shakes her head. “I can’t say. I don’t know. What makes you think that I would?”

I’m unsure how to respond, and, despite my delight at her visible presence, feel somewhat frustrated by the conversation. “Ellie – how is any of this possible? I don’t believe in any such thing as ghosts, or spirits, or an afterlife. I don’t feel like I’m losing my mind, but I’m sure if I told anybody about this, they’d think I had.”

“I can’t explain it to you, and it probably wouldn’t help if I could. Just accept the situation for now; don’t worry.”

“But weren’t – I mean, aren’t – you a Christian? Shouldn’t you be… somewhere else right now?” I don’t want to name the options.

She laughs once more. “Very discretely put! But, again, I’m afraid I can’t give you any answers; they would just cause you more confusion. In order to comprehend these things, you must walk a path.”

“Any old path, or a particular path?” I respond jokingly. “Is it nearby?”

She assumes a mock expression of anger. “Don’t be irreverent! I’ll tell you more tomorrow. No more questions tonight.”

“So, you’re going to keep on visiting me every night?”

Her mock anger turns to sham fury; “Isn’t that another question?”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry!” I say, raising my hands defensively. “It’s just that you make me so happy. I don’t know what I’d do if you went away again.”

All pretence drops from her face and she regards me in a maternal manner. “You don’t need to upset yourself on that score. As I promised yesterday, I’ll be with you, every single second of every single day. You are in my care now, for as long as you need me. I will not abandon you.”

It’s nearly more than I can bear, and it’s a struggle to speak, but I manage to blurt out, “Thank you, Ellie, thank you so much. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve your attention.”

“Well, then,” she says gently, “why don’t we see if we can find out? Tell me about yourself – about you and your family.”

“Okay,” I say hesitantly. “But it’s not an interesting story, nor a happy one. Are you really sure you want to hear it? I can’t think of anything worse than a story that’s dull and depressing!”

Laughing, she commands, “Just get on with it!”

I spend a minute or so composing myself, thinking about where to being. I decide to start with my father; a very practical working-class man, who always kept himself busy with one thing or another. He had worked as a mechanic and bus driver, and had served in World War II. He reached retirement, then his health deteriorated and he died of cancer not many years later; I was fifteen at the time. He had married twice; his first wife had died when he was in his forties, and then he had met my mum, who was then in her early twenties. He already had four kids by his first wife (two boys, two girls – my half brothers and sisters), and my mum produced another six (five boys, one girl). I was the last boy, his seventh son, and my sister followed me to complete the family.

My father hadn’t liked me, mostly for the simple fact that we were very different from one another, as I took more after my mother than after him. I was sensitive, and a thinker rather than a doer, preferring to read books than play outside, and quite happy to sit on my own and day-dream rather than find some activity to engage in – all of which convinced my father that I was a lazy lay-about. What seemed to put the icing on the cake was my being left-handed, or, as he called it, cack-handed. He made no attempts to conceal his disdain for me, and I was left in no doubt that, so far as he was concerned, I was thoroughly useless, worthless, and wrong; a misfit – unwanted and unneeded; the black sheep of the family. Unsurprisingly, his attitude resulted in me becoming more and more withdrawn and thoughtful, which exaggerated the very qualities that he found displeasing.

My mother was a loving and caring woman. She adored children, particularly babies, which is why she had so many. Because of this, although she did love me, she didn’t have much time to spare for me. She had two children with severe health problems; the first, my brother Ed, born mentally and physically disabled due to an illness my mum suffered during the pregnancy, and the other, my brother Ken, born with a hole in his heart. Therefore, her hands were quite full, and, as she told me years after my childhood had finished, I appeared to be bright and able to amuse myself without causing, or getting into, any trouble, so she didn’t see any need to get involved. I appeared to be doing okay by myself.

How deceptive appearances can be.

You might think, with such a large family, I’d be very sociable and used to being in a crowd, but nothing could be further from the truth. I did my best to avoid my father wherever possible, so I’d sneak off and find somewhere to hide by myself. I was also five years younger than my next older brother, Terry, so not really of age to take part in the games he played. My sister, Mary, was only two years younger than me, and we got on together for the most part, but still, she was a girl and wanted to play with other girls. Consequently I spent a lot of time on my own, and socialised very little. The impact of this was that when I came of an age to go to school I had little idea how to interact with the other kids.

Alone and marginalised at home; alone and bewildered in the classroom.

My sensitive nature, coupled with the caring disposition I’d inherited from my mother and the lack of self-worth my father had instilled in me, had brought me to despair by the time I’d reached twelve years of age. By then, I was aware enough to know about the immense suffering in the world, intelligent enough to realise that for the most part it wasn’t necessary, and convinced that I was too pathetic to do anything about it. I hated myself, and hated the society in which I lived; I wanted to die, or, better still, to have never been born.

I tried to be patient, to convince myself that I didn’t know everything, that things could change, even if I didn’t see how; that one day I might have a more optimistic understanding of the world, and that it might become a better place without my intervention.

But then, after a couple of years of this grim existence, came the straw that broke the camel’s back; love. There was a girl in my class, Katherine, who was beautiful and intelligent, had a lively sense of humour, and who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. How could I not love her? I’m sure some of the teachers thought she was a mischief-maker, and she certainly had a rebellious side but, nonetheless, to me she was a wonder and a delight.

Such a girl would, I was sure, never be interested in someone like me.

I had been able to withstand the daily nonsense of life until then. I could cope with the stupidity and meaninglessness of it all, but being in love with someone who would never return that love – this was just too much to deal with at that tender age. The bitter, heart-destroying joy of seeing her every day at school, wanting to be with her but knowing that she would reject me if I asked her to go out with me, started to rip me apart.

I was crying myself to sleep every night at this point – crying very softly so that I wouldn’t disturb any of my family – and I grew very tired of this. I became ever more disgusted with myself, and eventually I’d had enough. All the arguments I’d come up with to stop me committing suicide seemed flawed and hollow; cowardly even. So, one night, after I’d run out of tears but hadn’t fallen asleep, I got out of bed and went to my desk, where I kept a Bowie knife, purchased for a school camping trip the previous year.

I took the knife, sat on my bed, and put the blade against my wrist. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ I asked myself. ‘Why shouldn’t I kill myself? My life is hopeless, I am unloved, and will always be unloved, so what is the point of living? Wouldn’t the world be a happier place without me?’ I searched for a single reason not to sink that blade into my flesh, to let my blood pour forth and my life flow out.

And a reason, indeed, came. I realised that I had a choice; I could simply kill myself, as I wanted, and so succeed in confirming the complete failure of my life, or I could just give up and forget about myself, forget any idea of being happy, of wanting to be loved, and instead devote myself to the happiness of others. Perhaps, if I dedicated myself selflessly, I might become something positive; perhaps I could make a difference to someone, somewhere, somehow.

It might work. I had to try at least, and if I failed, I could take my life at a later date.

So, sitting on my bed, knife in hand, I vowed to regard myself as being already dead; my life would no longer mean anything to me. The reason for my existence was now to help others. I would find a way to do something to make the world a better place, and so make amends for the insult I’d paid it by being born.

I returned the knife to my desk and got back into bed, filled with a strange and dispassionate sense of purpose.

After that night I never cried again – even if I wanted to, the most that would happen is my eyes would fill with water and a couple of weak, lonely tears would dribble down my face. I had vowed my life away, and with it went my capacity to weep; to express fully the depths of loss and sorrow.

I break off my story at this point. All the time I’d been talking, I had had my head bowed, had focused on my hands resting in my lap. Now I look up, look at Ellie to see how my story is affecting her.

Lines of grief are etched onto her face, and her eyes display a tortured empathy and a limitless compassion. I can sense that she shares my pain, knows it completely.

“Oh, Ellie, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to upset you.” I tell her. “I’ll stop there if you like.”

She shakes her head. “No, please go on. I want to hear the rest.”

“Okay,” I say, and resume.

The vow I had made, although it allowed me to step back from my own suffering for a while, did not address my negative feelings much. I still hated myself, and I realised that to do any good for anyone, I’d need to become someone who was confident and capable, rather than being crippled by self-doubt and despair.

I drew inspiration from the tales of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. I yearned to be like one of the knights in those stories; a brave, honourable, self-sacrificing hero who protects the weak and the poor, especially women and children. Adopting the archetype of the noble warrior, I began to study martial arts.

I worked hard to transform myself. I read countless self-help books, philosophical texts, spiritual manuals. I’d abandoned Christianity years before, as I simply couldn’t square the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God with the miserable, wretched world in which we live, but I still searched for some meaning and purpose to the universe. I was a thinker; perhaps I could contribute to the human intellectual endeavour – help to create a new, rational, life-affirming philosophy.

Another option was to be a writer. I loved reading, and wanted to give back some of the wonder and magic I’d found in books. But I didn’t know what to write; I had too many ideas. As soon as I’d written a few pages of one thing, I’d think of something better, so I just kept starting novels but never completing them.

By this time I’d finished school, and had gone to college and done my ‘A’ levels. I wanted to go straight from there to university, but my grades weren’t particularly good (I didn’t really care about exam results; I was more interested in finding out about the subjects themselves, and my studies would usually take me far away from the prescribed syllabi), and I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to study for my degree. My first thought had been philosophy, but I had visited some universities and had interviews with their philosophy professors, and I hadn’t been impressed by any of them. So I stayed on at college for another year, learning secretarial skills. With these I was able to get a job in an office, working for a solicitor.

Another year passed before I re-applied for a place on a university course. By this time my interest in King Arthur had led me to explore the history of the Dark Ages and the preceding Roman and Iron Age periods in Britain, and also the culture and mythology of the Celtic people who inhabited the country throughout these times. This gave birth to a desire to study archaeology, both to investigate these particular areas more but also to understand human evolution and the cultural processes that had brought us to the present world we live in, with all its many faults. And this is what I did.

The gap between college and university proved very useful. I had gained some maturity, and discovered that I was competent enough to get work and keep it. This helped me feel secure, but I wanted to find out how I would cope living away from home, and studying at degree-level. It was something nobody in my working class family had done, so far as I was aware, so it seemed like a large step.

I also hoped that my time at university would resolve for me the question of what I was supposed to be doing with my life; to find out what direction I should be going in, in order to make whatever contribution I could for the good of the world. And, if there was nothing, if in the face of all the world’s suffering there were no solutions, just the grind and toil of daily life, then could I release myself from my vow? Could I just walk away from it, seek out happiness and love for myself?

The answer to that question I got soon enough. Surrounded by intelligent young women, I feel in love with one after another, but none of them wanted a romantic relationship with me. I was asked: “Can we just be friends?” time and time again; each iteration was like another nail going into my coffin, dooming me to loneliness. I began to despair again; I didn’t know what I should be doing, and what I wanted to happen didn’t look like it ever would.

Then I had an experience that altered my perspective – at least, for a while. It was outside of term-time, and I was with my family. Things were stressful, and I was particularly worried about one of my friends. I can’t recall the exact circumstances; all I remember is that one night endless joy, wonder and illumination were revealed to me. I understood, there and then, that what we take for reality is a delusion, that all things are one, that everything is made of light, and the name of that light is love.

For several months I was full of spontaneous happiness. Everything seemed so simple; life no longer seemed like a chore, it was more like a dance. I read with new enthusiasm religious and spiritual texts, seeking to understand the experience I’d had, and discovered that, although uncommon, it was by no means rare – the mystical experience; the direct perception of the non-duality of existence.

However, my good mood did not endure. The harsh elements of life, even if they were delusional, continued to impact my friends and family. I had, ironically, found happiness for myself – but I wasn’t interested in it. I wanted either to inspire others to joy and self-fulfilment, or to bring the utmost love to one person. It seemed somehow selfish and contradictory to be perfectly happy in oneself, and not endeavour to promote happiness to everyone.

Then university was over and I was back with my family. I got a job in the Civil Service and joined the rat race; I couldn’t think of anything else to do. But after a few years I decided to move on. I wanted to get away from my situation, live life on my own and try once more to contribute something to the world, to make it a better, happier place. Another motive, darker and more selfish, was the belief that if I didn’t leave my family and find a home elsewhere I would inevitably end up looking after Ed, my physically and mentally disabled brother – and such a prospect filled me with dread. I was sure that it would be a fate worse than death, that it would prevent me both from doing anything constructive for society, and from finding love. It would be a living purgatory, preceding a heaven-less death.

So, once I had saved up some money, I upped sticks and moved to another city. To start with I was happy, and filled with fresh hope, sure that I could turn my life in the direction I wanted it to go. But after a while I realised that I hadn’t changed anything, and I was soon working in the Civil Service again, spending my time wandering through the empty maze of modern-day life.

The years rolled by and my hope drained slowly away. I drifted into myself; gave up practising martial arts, lost contact with friends. I couldn’t seem to do anything, or think of anything that I could do, that would help anyone. It had all been a waste of time. I contemplated suicide once more, but decided to put off the question of whether to end my life or not until after my mother passed away. If I could not do anything to bring happiness to another human being, then at least I could refrain from doing anything that would cause another human being to suffer; and I knew my mum loved me, that she would be heart-broken if I took my own life.

There was only one bright thing in my life at this point… a woman I worked with, by the name of Ellen,whom I loved without being fully aware of the fact.

“And you know the rest,” I finish, and look up again.

Tears are rolling silently down her face, a vivid reminder of the hushed weeping of my early adolescent years. I can’t stand to see her cry, and my first thought is to leap out of bed and hug her, tell her that everything’s okay now, because she’s here. But then I remember that I’m naked under the duvet, so I stay sitting where I am.

“Oh, Tim,” she says. “I’m so sorry for all the suffering you’ve been through. You’ve been very brave, very patient and resilient. You didn’t deserve any of it.”

“Please don’t cry, Ellie,” I respond. “That’s all in the past. Now you’re with me, none of it matters. The story’s got a happy ending, you see?”

Her tears abate and she manages a smile. “I hope so,” she says.

I realise that the moonlight has gone and a soft glow, heralding the approaching dawn, suffuses the room. “You’re going to have to go now, aren’t you?” I say.

“Yes,” she replies. “Until the night.”

“Thanks for listening, Ellie. It was good to talk about it all.”

“You’re welcome, Tim. Now sleep well, and have a good day.”

“With you watching over me? It’ll be a wonderful.” I yawn, and shift about in my bed, resuming a horizontal posture, lying on my side, looking at her. “I really can’t explain what you mean to me,” I say. “It’s like I’ve been waiting my whole life for you. I’ve fallen for so many women, hoping that I could be that someone who could make them happy, but my love has always been unrequited. And maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s the way it had to be, because I don’t know what would have happened if a woman had received my heart, and had given hers to me, and then things had gone wrong. What if she had tired of me and left? What if she had an accident, or caught a disease, and died? How would I have been able to carry on, having been loved, and then lost that love? I don’t think I could have. But you’re not going to leave me, are you? You’re not going to grow old. You’ve already died; what can harm you now?”

At some point during this monologue I had shut my eyes, and then, a few moments later, my mouth – continuing the words in my head, knowing that she’ll still be able to hear them.

Chapter 7

The following morning I went to work with a spring in my step. And spring seemed to be in the very air; an early touch of warmth, signalling winter’s waning.

I felt like whistling, but this is an ability I simply do not have, so had to content myself with humming as I walked to the office.

The day passed in a blur. My colleagues remained nonplussed by my jolly mood and merry-making, and I offered them no explanation – what, exactly, could I tell them? They wouldn’t accept the truth, and I wasn’t prepared to lie.

I realised that my behaviour was ruffling a few feathers, but I didn’t care. I’d spent so long keeping my head down and trying to be invisible that I’d surely earned the right to make a spectacle of myself.

I dropped in on the shops on my way home, to pick up dinner and also buy some flowers. When I got in, I flourished the flowers and put them, together with the rest of the shopping, on the kitchen table while I searched for a vase. I knew I had one somewhere, but I couldn’t quite remember where I’d put it. I was about to give up and rescue from the recycling bin a few empty wine bottles to distribute the flowers amongst, when I thought of somewhere I’d not looked. I dashed up to my spare room, crossed the no-longer-cluttered floor and pulled wide the curtains. There, on the window sill, sat the vase I knew I owned, but couldn’t recall ever using. It had an oriental look; elegant, slender, plated in brass or bronze, with an etched abstract pattern. I’d purchased it in a charity shop, with the idea of giving it to a friend as a Christmas present, but had later found something else that suited her better. So I’d put it to one-side, and forgot – almost – all about it.

The flowers went into the vase, and the vase went behind the picture of Ellie on my sitting room table. “I hope you like them,” I whispered to her. Then, moved by whimsy and devotion, I carried a chair from my kitchen up to my bedroom. “Somewhere for you to sit tonight,” I said to the not-so-empty air.

I decided to treat myself to another curry, this time opting for a chicken tikka masala, then went to the off-licence and bought myself a selection of fine real ales.

Half an hour later my dinner arrived, and I had another fine repast, commencing with a toast to Ellie.

That day had been one of the happiest of my life. I went to bed smiling, looking forward to a visit from my angel.

* * * * * * * *

Someone is singing softly; I can’t hear the words clearly, but the melody is sweet and haunting.

I open my eyes. “Hi, Ellie,” I say, rolling onto my side; she is sat in the seat I provided for her, her hands folded on her lap.

She stops singing, and smiles at me. “Hi, Tim – and thank you for the flowers. And the chair; I appreciate the thought.”

“You’re more than welcome,” I reply, blushing with joy.

“I’ll do my best to answer your questions tonight… as this is the last time you’ll see me for a while.”

My heart sinks, and all I can say in response is, “Oh.”

“You have a difficult time ahead, but try not to be down-heartened. This is the beginning of your adventure; you still have time to achieve what you have sought for, for so long.”

“Achieve what? Other than you, I don’t care about anything any more. You make my life complete; what else could I want? What else matters?”

“Ah, if things were only as easy as that! But, I’m afraid, they’re not. You may be happy with things now, but, if you do not change yourself, the old issues will return. You’ll never be happy without knowing the truth, and the only way to know the truth is by experiencing it. It can’t be explained.”

I ponder her words, but can’t think of much to say in response to them. “I was full of questions yesterday, but now I don’t know what to ask. Last night you mentioned a path – tell me about it.”

“You will discover that yourself. ‘Seek, and ye shall find.’

“That’s from the Bible, isn’t it? Do you want me to return to Christianity, Ellie? I’m not sure that I could.”

“No, Tim, I’m not saying that. You must find a path that suits you. I’ll say no more about the subject, other than some meditation might help.”

I had practised meditation many years earlier, after I finished university. I had enjoyed it, but had dropped out of the habit at some point and never picked it back up again.

I nod my head. “Okay. I know what I want to ask now; I told you about my life – will you tell me about yours?”

She does. Her story is not given as a straightforward narrative, as I’d tried to present mine, but rather as a series of anecdotes, full of touching details about her life: her childhood desire to be a ballerina, her employment at a veterinary surgeons’, her travels. Given her general good humour and wit, I’m not surprised that there is a lot of laughter in the telling, but what does catch me out is the sadness and sorrow she reveals. I had, prior to this point, thought we had little in common – now I discover that she, too, suffered with depression; a deeper, darker, and more disabling depression than my own. By her last, heart-broken days, she had come to feel completely lost, and was filled with a sense of hopelessness. No matter what she did, it seemed to her, she would continue to cause pain and misery, both to herself and to those around her.

“I just couldn’t face making any more mistakes,” she explains to me. “So I committed the biggest one of my life, and killed myself.”

Her story done, we sit in solemn silence for a space. Eventually, I ask, “Didn’t you realise how much it would hurt everyone who knew you?”

She shrugs her shoulders, then shakes her head. “Yes. No. I’m not sure – I wasn’t thinking straight. My mind had become… fragmented. I didn’t know what I was doing any more; nothing seemed quite real. But I’d convinced myself that, whatever it was that I was doing, it was for the best, for everyone. That it was better for me to take myself away, to a place where I could neither cause further suffering, nor experience any. And, of course, I was completely wrong – on both accounts.”

I grapple with a thought that has been lurking at the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to come forward into consciousness. “Could we have become friends, Ellie? While you were still alive? Would it have made any difference?”

“Oh, we could have been friends, but it wouldn’t have stopped me. I had many friends, and my family too; if all of them together didn’t dissuade me from my course, what makes you think that you could have? No, think it through, Tim – what do you think would have happened if we’d been friends?”

“I would have probably known more about your situation, and been even more distraught by your death. I might not have waited for the funeral; had I been aware of what went on between you and Tony, I might have decided to kill him sooner. And you might not have been able to stop me.”

“Yes, that’s probably right. We three would now be dead. We’d be three lost souls: lost to the world; lost to love; lost to hope. The chance of our being redeemed would be remote indeed.”

I stare at her as she gazes out the window; her face is composed, but sombre.

“What do you mean by ‘our being redeemed’?” I query.

“Simply, our liberation from suffering. Our escape from the woes of the world, into a state of serenity.”

I think about this for a minute. “I’ve been there before, Ellie – as I told you last night. It didn’t last; it didn’t solve anything. And doesn’t life inevitably contain suffering? Surely, if you’re beyond suffering, aren’t you sort of dead already? I had believed that death was the only way to escape from this horrible world… and now, it seems, I was wrong about that as well.”

“So, what do you believe now?”

I consider my beliefs, and how they have been challenged by the events of the last three days. “Now, I don’t know what to think. I was hoping you’d be able to give me some clues.”

She laughs. “You’ll understand, in time. And know that the experience that you had during your university days was not the full experience; it did not include the whole insight. That is why it didn’t last, why it didn’t satisfy you completely. But, for now, just know that it is only because of your love for me, and your wish to help others and not to cause suffering to them, that I have been able to reach you. You are a good person. Though you might have conceit and hatred in your heart, you are nonetheless not a person of ill-will. It is, in fact, your sense of justice and empathy that have caused you to become bitter. But there is hope for you, and in that hope, there is hope for me. You said last night that you didn’t know what you had done to deserve me; well, I could say the same about you. But together, we can help each other, and become the best that we can be.”

I marvel at her words; I’m filled with a delightful sense of pride and purpose, but at the same time realise that there is very large weight resting upon my shoulders. “What do I have to do?”

“I cannot – will not – tell you what to do. That is not my role. I’m here for you, will give you what guidance I can, but you must find and walk the path yourself. That’s part of the adventure.”

“Adventure – that’s the second time you’ve used that word! And it’s been a long time since I felt my life would hold any of it!”

“It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it. You’re both sensitive and resilient. You’ve got a good brain and a good heart. As well as all that, I know you don’t want to let me down, that you’ll strive harder for my salvation than you would your own. In that, there is both merit and danger.”

“What danger?”

“You’ll discover that if it arises. Being pre-warned against it will not help; it will only make it worse.” She looks at me searchingly, as if she wants to say something more but isn’t sure she should. Evidently she decides against it; gives her head a little shake. “Ask me about something else.”

I realise that this is one thing that had been nagging at the back of my mind. “Just over a week ago I had a dream and you, or what seemed to be you, were in it. You threw a blood-stained shirt at me. Was that actually you?”

She looks away from me. “Yes and no. I was trying to contact you, but neither of us was in the right frame of mind. I had to wait a while, become clearer and more focused, before I could get through to you properly. What you experienced was only a touch of my consciousness, not real communication.”

“And, after tonight, I’m not going to see you for some time. Can you explain why, or at least tell my how long it will be?”

She pauses before answering. “Four weeks,” she says gently. “You’ll see me again in twenty-eight days. I won’t tell you the reason… It will be better if you work it out for yourself.”

“Okay, I’ll try. And thank you for telling me that much. It will be tough, but at least I know how long I’ll have to wait before I see you once more. It’s so nice, just to sit here and talk.”

“I like it too.” She says. “Whether we’re talking or not. You’re pleasant company.”

I blush joyfully once more, and happily abstain from further conversation. We stare at each other in the cool, silver light, enjoying the moment.

The moment stretches out into a minute, and I start to become lost in her; lost in her beautiful face, with her shining eyes and her half-moon smile – lips slightly parted, revealing perfect, pearl-like teeth. Then her individual elements seem to blur and merge, and I feel like I’m falling down a well toward a bright circle of water. I can hear waves lightly breaking on a beach, as if the sea is lovingly caressing the land, whispering: Hush… hush. This is followed by a playful tinkling sound, like the laughter of faeries. A sense of wonder and elation fill me, though I’ve no idea what’s happening.

Then I’m back in my bedroom, and Ellie is getting up off her chair. “Well, I must go now. Take good care of yourself over the next month, and remember all I’ve said.”

“I will, Ellie.” I say. “And, one last thing… I love you.”

She shimmers, radiantly, before me. “I love you too,” she replies, before fading from my sight, leaving behind an after-image that remains trapped on the inside of my eye-lids. It disappears only when I’ve returned to the depths of sleep.

Part 1: A Heart of Darkness

Chapter 1

The day of Ellen’s funeral was a living nightmare – but at least, by the end of it, my existence had a purpose.

A group of people from work were attending the service, travelling directly from the office, but I’d decided to take the whole day off (as well as the rest of the week) and so I made my own way there. When the taxi I was in pulled up outside the church, I saw that a crowd had already congregated. I stared at in disbelief; each and every person assembled there was dressed brightly, presenting a riot of colour in the midst of a typically grey, English winter’s day. My attire, on the other hand, was completely black: black shoes, black socks, black trousers, black shirt, black tie, black jacket, black gloves, black hat, black scarf, black overcoat. Even my underwear was black.

For a moment I didn’t know what to do; part of me wanted to ask the taxi driver to turn around and take me straight back home. But then I noticed Joan, my manager, emerge from the gathered host and hurry over toward the taxi (despite being close to retirement she was still fairly spry). I closed my eyes and groaned inwardly, but I knew it was too late to try and escape now, so I paid and got out.

“Why, look at yoursen, Tim!” Joan exclaimed in her heavy Yorkshire accent, laughing. She was wearing a smart sunflower-yellow suit with a fancy broad-brimmed pink hat, and would not have looked out of place at Ascot. “Didn’ yer get t’ message? I wa’ sure I’d told everyun at t’ office what were coming that ‘er mum asked for folk no’ to wear black; she thought Ellie would like ’em t’ dress colourful, like. But then, yer always wear black, don’ yer? So I don’ think anyun’ll mind!”

I wondered how Ellen’s family, whom I had not previously met, would know that I habitually wear black, and therefore not take offence at my disregarding the request not to come dressed in it. I also found it ironic that Joan’s assertion that no-one would mind was falsified by my own reaction as, if I’d known this had been asked, I wouldn’t have worn a single stitch of black, and was horrified that I was, instead, covered in it from top to toe. I’d have rather spent my last penny buying a whole new wardrobe (and I’m none too fond of shopping for clothes at the best of times), than have done anything to upset Ellen or her family.

“Yer no’ lookin’ too grand,” Joan commented as we approached the church.

“No,” I replied, “I’m not feeling too great, either. I think I’ll just go straight in and find a seat – I’m not in the mood for conversation.” What I was in the mood for was a cigarette, but I felt it would appear disrespectful to smoke in the church grounds (and my black clothes were already insult enough for one day), so it seemed best to remove myself from temptation and head inside.

“Aye, get in ‘n’ set down – yer don’ wanna be standin’ out ‘ere, catching yer death!”

I cringed at Joan’s choice of words, but nodded my head and weaved my way through the clustered groups. The church was only marginally warmer inside than out, but at least there were fewer people. I walked down the central aisle between the rows of pews, seeking to get as far away from the door, and the possibility that someone else might try to converse with me, as I could.

With my head bowed, lost in thought, I didn’t noticed that I’d almost passed down the whole length of the church; I glanced up and came to a shocked stop as I saw, directly before me, the coffin, resting nonchalantly on a pair of trestles. It was only a footstep away; I could have reached forward and touched it from where I stood. Abruptly my consciousness contracted so that all I was aware of was that innocuous looking box, wherein Ellen’s cold corpse lay.

Until then the reality of Ellen’s death had not hit home. A part of me had held out the tenuous hope that there had been some kind of mistake or misunderstanding, or perhaps the whole thing was a sick joke that had been taken too far. But, alas, it was true; she was no more.

There was a rushing in my head and everything started to go dark. I leaned against the back of the first row of pews and took a seat in the second, then sat bent double, eyelids squeezed shut.

I remembered back to hearing about the death of Ken, one of my brothers, some eighteen months before. I’d been at work, and Terry, another of my brothers, had phoned to give me the sad, bad news. I was left feeling completely numb by the call, and not sure whether to tell anyone or to just carry on working as if nothing had happened. But I realised that the numbness might go, and I might snap, so I got up and went to inform Joan. She told me to go home; I returned to my desk and finished off what I’d been doing. That done, I set my computer to shut down, and then, while waiting for it to turn itself off, fell into a sort of thoughtless reverie. While sitting there, pondering vacantly, word of my bereavement had spread, and I suddenly became aware of a gentle pressure against my arm. I looked round, and there was Ellen, standing by my side, looking upon me with sympathy and concern.

At the time I had been too distant, too empty and lost in myself, to respond. Now, in the presence of her dead body, I wished that I had jumped up and hugged her, had told her how grateful I was for her kindness.

I was drawn back to the present by people bustling about, taking their places, getting ready for the funeral to start. I reluctantly opened my eyes. Along each pew had been strewn programmes for the service, and I picked up the one beside me. On the cover was a black and white photo of Ellen; she was dressed in a white, sleeveless top, and sat casually at a table, smiling into the camera. As I gazed on the picture my eyes misted with water (which is as close as I can ever get to actually crying) and a fog of grief filled my mind, obscuring everything else.

I could not understand why she had committed suicide.

They say that you don’t know what something means to you until it’s gone. I knew that I had found Ellen to be one of the most adorable, caring, joyful and good-humoured people I’d ever met. Just seeing her about the office, hearing her laughter, had filled me with happiness. I knew that I liked and admired her very much, but what I hadn’t realised is that I loved her, and did so deeply; so deeply, perhaps, that I had buried the fact, had hidden it from myself. For what good could have come of it? Only now, when it was too late to do anything about it, did my mind let me know the truth.

My life, for more years than I cared to calculate, had been scarred by periods of depression and despair, and I was firmly in the middle of one such episode now. Over the last few years my world had become a dismal dungeon, and my faith in humanity had been drained to the dregs. But, after Ellen had started working in the office, some of that faith had been restored. She was – had been – to me a bright lamp shining in a dark place. Despite all this, or, more likely, because of it, I hadn’t tried to get close to her, to become her friend. I told myself that we didn’t have much in common, that our interests didn’t match. And she was (unlike me) a very sociable person who had many friends already, so what could I contribute to her life?

My positive perception of Ellen was clearly shared by many others – I looked around and saw the church was packed. The grief was palpable, and barely a moment of the service went by without the sound of a suppressed sob coming from some part of the church. The eulogies were heart-rending; it was clear that during her life she had inspired much love and brought much happiness, but then, by her ending it, she had caused such pain and brought such distress. The world had been a better, more wonderful one whilst she was upon it; now she was dead, it seemed mundane and meaningless.

The funeral lasted for what felt like several life-times. I endured it stoically, barely paying any attention, just copying what those around me where doing – standing when they stood, sitting when they sat, kneeling when they knelt. When it was finally over, I staggered outside, struggling through the throng, desperate to get out into the air and under the sky. It had clouded up during the service, and now a soft rain fell, as if the very heavens wept in tender lamentation.

I quickly put the programme into my largest over-coat pocket for safe-keeping. It was the only image I had of Ellen, and, so far as I was concerned, it was the most precious thing I owned. But I did not hide myself from the rain-drops; the physical sensation of them striking me was a welcome distraction from the dark thoughts that mustered in my head.

I wandered off of church property onto the pavement by the roadside, where I rolled a cigarette and stood smoking. But I didn’t have peace for long; Joan turned up again. “Are yer comin’ for a bevvy?” she asked. “Frank’s about t’ set off, if yer wanna lift.”

“Sure,” I said, desiring nothing so much as to get away from the church, and the mute coffin it contained. But, when we got to the pub, I felt just as uncomfortable there. Every time I caught sight of my reflection in one of the many mirrors hung up around the bar-room I was reminded of the inappropriate hue of my garments. My skin crawled, trying to avoid contact with the offending cloth.

There were around dozen staff members at the funeral, but only five of us – Joan, Frank (from IT), Emma (an admin officer), Milena (the office cleaner) and myself – went on to have a drink, rather than return to work. I, with nothing to say, sat sipping at my pint, until something Emma said caught my attention.

“I’m surprised that Tony wasn’t at the funeral,” she commented. “I thought the pair of them were close.”

“Don’ yer know?” Joan asked in a whisper that was loud enough for the whole pub to hear. “’Er family told him never t’ come; they blame ‘im for Ellie killin’ ‘ersen. ‘E’d moved in wiv ‘er, told ‘er he was gonna divorce ‘is wife – but then ‘e changed ‘is mind, went back t’ ‘is missus!”

“No!” said Emma, shocked. “When did that happen?”

“Couple of months back. She were devastated, as yer can imagine. But no-un realised quite ‘ow badly she took it.” Joan shook her head mournfully. “Such a shame. They ‘ad some ‘istory, yer know – when they were both young; they went tut same school, or some such. She mustta been carrying a torch for ‘im for all those years.”

I was so stunned that I nearly dropped my pint. I carefully put it down, and absorbed this new information. I now had a reason for why Ellen had taken her life; it was because Tony had broken her heart. The feelings of grief and loss that gripped me were suddenly burnt away by an eruption of anger and hatred.

I stood up and, as casually as I could, said, “Thanks everyone, but I’ve got to go.”

“You must be joking, mate!” Frank exclaimed. “You live miles away. Wait up for half an hour and I’ll drop you off.”

“Nah, you’re alright,” I responded. “I could do with the fresh air, and the exercise!”

“Fresh air? Freezing air, more like!” Joan remarked. “Why, ’tis perishing out – ’twill be like goin’ out on Ilkla Moor b’aht ‘at!!”

“I’ll walk quickly, then,” I replied. “See you all later.”

Outside it was dark, and even colder than it had been earlier. The rain had given way to snow, but I didn’t much care; I marched on, defiant. I can’t recall most of the journey, but of one thing I am certain: by the time I reached my front door, I had made a decision.

I was going to kill Tony.

Chapter 2

I woke up the next morning feeling calm and decisive. I had booked the rest of the week off work (it was now Wednesday), originally with the idea of going on a massive three-day binge and well and truly drinking my sorrows away, and then considering, very carefully, whether or not I too should take my own life. This was not the first time that the idea of committing suicide had come to me; that had happened when I was twelve years old, and it had re-occurred many times again since. But I had always in the past persuaded myself that it would be wrong, selfish and cowardly to do so, because it would cause suffering to my family and those people who cared about me. If I was just patient, if I just stoically persevered, nature would eventually do the job for me. I could only justify killing myself if, for whatever reason, my continued existence was itself a cause of suffering to others or would likely become so (if, for example, I started to go insane and thereby became a source of concern for, or danger to, others), or if I had done something utterly disgraceful, that had caused unforgivable unhappiness and distress. Then suicide would be the only honourable course of action left to me. However, Ellen’s suicide had challenged all this; I couldn’t condemn her, accuse her of selfishness or cowardice. And her death had resulted in so much more suffering and anguish than mine ever could – it was laughable to consider the two side by side. If my life ended today, I wondered, how many people would attend my funeral? I estimated about a dozen; my remaining family members and two or three friends. There had been at least twenty times that number at Ellen’s service. So, if Ellen could kill herself, why couldn’t I?

All this was now irrelevant; obviously, once I’d murdered Tony, I’d be guilty of an unforgivable act, and therefore my sense of honour would demand my death. That would tie up all the loose ends; Ellen and I would both be at peace, and the villain would be slain. The whole sorry sequence of events, it seemed to me, would be transformed into a tragedy, and bring a dramatic end to my otherwise humdrum life.

I didn’t think it would be difficult to dispatch Tony. Until a few years previously, I had been a keen martial artist, and had practised a number of different styles for various lengths of time. If I attacked with surprise, I doubted Tony would be able to effectively defend himself against me, and, assuming I could readily knock him unconscious, or otherwise incapacitate him, I’d be able to choke him to death fairly quickly. Things might get complicated if somebody tried to interfere while I was about my task, as I didn’t wish to hurt anyone else, but it would be easy enough to arrange a one-to-one meeting with Tony to discuss some work issue. There was an interview room which would be ideal for the purpose; out of the way, with thick walls, a fire-proof door, and a heavy table which could be used as a barricade.

My planning didn’t get much further than this, as I couldn’t think of a sure-fire method of committing suicide that would ensure I died quickly enough not to be found and revived. I thought of a number of options, but they all left the door open for someone to find my unconscious body and get me to a hospital before I was actually dead. I’d considered suicide many times in the past, and thought I knew how to do the job properly, but I’d always envisioned I’d be able to choose a place and time when I would not be interrupted. I doubted that I’d have that luxury in the office; I didn’t think I’d be able to kill Tony silently or swiftly enough that nobody would notice, even in a sealed interview room. I briefly thought about somehow making my way to the top of the office building to hurl myself from the roof (as the office windows couldn’t be opened), but there was a chance that I’d land on some innocent passer-by. And, even if that didn’t happen, I’d make a god-awful splat on the pavement, which some poor soul would have to scrape up. A final, but far from inconsequential, factor was the distress I would cause to any witnesses; such a horrifying sight I would not wish to inflict on anyone.

So, I decided not to worry about it. The worst case scenario was that I’d get captured by the Police and taken into custody. But even then, I was sure I could find a way to kill myself, starving myself to death if necessary. It might also happen that, while incarcerated, I’d find some other good-for-nothings who deserved to die – such as rapists and child molesters – and I could kill them too. I laughed hysterically at the idea of becoming a mass murderer.

I turned my thoughts away from the future to the present. I had the best part of a week to prepare myself for death, and put my affairs in order, and I decided that the best way to begin would be by tidying and cleaning my home. After popping to the shops to get some supplies, I started on the ground floor, which included the living room, kitchen and bathroom.

Not normally house-proud, I was filled with a strange sense of tranquillity as I mopped and scrubbed, washed and vacuumed. I looked forward, with an odd satisfaction, to leaving behind me an immaculate and uncluttered house. Only occasionally during all this activity did I remember the reasons behind what I was doing; then pain would squeeze my stomach, and grief and anger would battle in my heart.

By the end of the day I was weary, dusty and sweaty. Too tired to cook, I had a sandwich and settled down to listen to some music, have a few cigarettes, and drink a couple of glasses of red wine – and then a couple more.

In an old photo-frame I’d placed the funeral programme bearing on its cover the picture of Ellen. I toasted her, and she smiled statically back at me.

Later, when the bottle was empty and I was good and drunk, I turned out the light. “See you soon,” I said into the darkness, staggered upstairs, and dropped into bed.

* * * * * * * *

I get up.

This is not my bedroom. Or, rather, it’s the bedroom I had when I was a child. But there doesn’t seem anything odd in this, and I go downstairs.

I find myself in my kitchen; from the next room I hear a woman wailing.

“Mum? Are you okay?” I query, opening the door which should lead through to my bathroom, but find instead the utility room of the house I lived in when was a teenager – although it now does, somehow unsurprisingly, contain a bath.

An unkempt woman kneels between the washing machine and the bath-tub. She holds an armful of blood-soaked clothes, over which she weeps.

“Mum?” I repeat, though this woman is obviously not my mother; she’s too short and slim for starters. “Are you okay?”

Ignoring me, she gets to her feet and, in a sudden frenzy, starts to fling the sodden garments into the bath.

I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to leave this crazy woman – whoever she is – to her sorrow. But her pain is distressing to me, and I want to do something to relieve it, so I ask, “Can I help?”

This gets her attention; she turns on me, snarling venomously. “Out, damn spot!” she screams, and hurls an item of clothing into my face. It is a long-sleeved shirt with a collar, and although it’s drenched red, I somehow recognise it. It belongs to Tony.

I recognise the woman also. It’s Ellen.

* * * * * * * *

I woke up, gasping for breath, my heart racing and my skin clammy.

“Just a dream,” I muttered to myself, and repeated this mantra until my breath and heart rate had returned to normal.

My thoughts, however, took a little longer to get back under control. The dream had been very vivid, and just recalling it I felt an urge to duck when the blood-soaked shirt flew towards my head.

The words the nightmare Ellen had shouted at me, “Out, damn spot!”, I recognised as a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; if my memory served me rightly, it’s a line spoken by Macbeth’s wife, after she had persuaded her husband to murder the old king. Once the deed had been done her conscience drove her mad; she believed she had a blood-stain on her hand that could not be washed off – this was the ‘spot’ she wanted ‘out’.

There was an obvious interpretation; I was being warned that if I carried through my plan to kill Tony, I would regret it, and would not be able to live with myself. But I knew this already; I had no desire to ‘live with myself’ even at the present, let alone after taking another human being’s life, and my plan was to commit suicide after I had committed murder. The dream’s message, therefore, was hardly revelatory, and lacked any real insight, which I found surprising in itself, and I wondered if I was missing something, or drawing the wrong conclusion.

Then I decided not to bother thinking about it further; the nightmare had just been a dark fantasy created by my mind. It reflected things going on inside my head, and had no more meaning than that. I shouldn’t read anything into it, nor, indeed, worry about it at all. Considering recent events, and what I was planning to do, it was natural for morbid fantasies to disturb my sleep – even though I don’t usually remember my dreams at all.

I didn’t question my intention to kill Tony. The code of honour I lived by demanded nothing less than his death. Adultery by itself I considered deeply disgraceful and repugnant, but to deceive a lady, lead her on and then abandon her – that, in my book, was pure evil. And for causing such a person as Ellen to kill herself? Death was not punishment enough.

But it would have to do. I may not have been the most forgiving person around, but, every now and then, I could be merciful.

Re-assured, I returned to sleep.

Chapter 3

The next morning, after a judicious lie-in and a cup of coffee, a couple of slices of toast, and a cigarette, I continued with my house-cleaning. With the downstairs already completed, all that remained was the stairs and upper floor, where could be found my bedroom, a spare room and the landing. I thought it best to leave the stairs and landing until last, which left me with a choice of the two rooms. Of these, the spare room would undoubtedly require the greater effort to clean, so this seemed the best place to begin.

I rarely entered my spare room; it was quite small and very cluttered, being full of things that I either no longer needed or for which I’d never found a need in the first place. The room was dusty, and deeply dim as the curtains were drawn and the day outside was depressingly dull. I turned on the light and surveyed the chaos. Against one wall was a bed, covered by a mound of spare linen and clothes that I either didn’t wear any more or which were not mine to start with but had nonetheless ended up in my house. Beside the bed was a small table on which was a fair collection of old electrical items, including a lamp with a tatty shade, a computer keyboard whose ‘e’ and space bar failed to function, a digital alarm clock that produced no alarm, and a small stereo system with a sluggish tape deck and an erratic CD player. In the corner was an old wooden chair on which sat a shaky stack of board games – Risk at the bottom, Scrabble at the top, and Monopoly nowhere in-between. Cardboard boxes loaded with paperwork were squeezed beneath the table and the chair, and along the wall by the door were several towers constructed from countless issues of New Scientist magazine. The rest of the remaining floorspace was occupied by columns of books, some piled up as high as my waist.

I sighed, my spirits dropping. In order to clean the room I’d first have to remove everything and work out what I was going to do with it all. What was still serviceable could go to a charity shop, the rest would need to be recycled, scrapped or binned. The task appeared Herculean, and hardly seemed worth the effort. But I girded my loins; this was my mess, and I wasn’t going to leave it for somebody else to sort out.

After dusting and wiping (so that I didn’t transport dirt around the house) I set to ferrying the books down to my living room. This took numberless trips, and I was getting very weary by the time I’d finished, but I pushed on regardless and brought the cardboard boxes down as well. This done, I stopped for lunch. While waiting for a cheese and tomato pizza to heat in the oven, I had a cuppa and a cigarette, and, as I sat enjoying these on my sofa, I couldn’t resist opening one of the boxes to inspect its contents, and pulled out a handful of papers to flick through. There were pages covered in metaphysical speculations and philosophical theories, together with a couple of short stories, the outline for a novel I’d never got around to writing, and a collection of morbid, adolescent poems about pain, rejection, loneliness and loss, with titles like Darkness and Why?

My mood turned sour. I knew there was no point in going over this stuff; all my thoughts, my creative scribblings and my idle musings, were soon to be completely irrelevant. Once, I had hoped to build a career along the lines these papers represented – to be a philosopher and a writer, a man of ideas and letters. But it had never happened; perhaps due to a lack of courage or confidence, or, more likely, simply because I was too lazy, too much of a procrastinator.

A sense of bitter self-reproach took hold of me. “I’ve wasted my life,” I said aloud. “I’ve completely wasted it! What an arse-hole! What a miserable, useless wanker!”

Disgruntled and surly, I suddenly wondered why I was bothering to clean my house – who, after all, was going to thank me for it? And was this really how I wanted to spend another of my few remaining days on earth?

No, I decided, cleaning my house was not what I wanted to be doing, not by a long shot. So, what did I want to do? The answer came without pause; get drunk. And how drunk did I wish to get? Very drunk!

I rejected the idea of getting a load of beers in and drinking them in my home; I would get drunk sure enough, but I might also get pathetically maudlin or destructively angry and end up doing something stupid. No, it would be better to get out of the house and seek some company to distract me from myself.

And I knew just the fellow to contact, a guy I’d known for the best part of a decade. He had not, to the best of my knowledge, had a job during that time, and probably not had one before that either. He survived on unemployment benefit (or whatever they were calling it these days) supplemented by selling potent home-grown marijuana, known commonly as skunk. And, as tradition demands that someone who sells drugs is not to be called by their actual name but by some peculiar nickname, this friend was known to me as Dicey.

How Dicey had come by this moniker was a matter of debate. Some said it was just because he had, in bygone days, been in the habit of using the term at every opportunity, and so it became natural to refer to him by it. Others, that it was because he ran table-top role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, which require a variety of different dice to play. A third group maintained that the word had been applied to him in an ironic sense, as, despite his drug dealing, he was generally very laid-back – not at all edgy or paranoid, as many dealers become. I didn’t know which to believe, and didn’t see a need to choose in any case; a rose by any other name, as the bard said.

I checked the time; it was coming up to two pm, and I figured Dicey would probably be up and about by now. I sent him a text: Hiya mate – hope all’s cool. Are you about? Would be good to see ya. Cheers!

While I waited for him to get back to me I ate some pizza and ran a bath (if I wasn’t going to finish cleaning the house, I could at least clean myself). I relaxed in the hot water and thought about things. As today was Thursday, and I was due back at the office on Monday, I had four days; if I used this one to get drunk – to get absolutely slaughtered and utterly wrecked – that would leave me with Friday to recover, then the weekend to do anything that I really needed to do. That worked for me.

I got out of the bath, and, as I rubbed myself dry with a towel, stared at myself in the mirror. My eyes, unscreened by my glasses, looked slightly larger than usual, and somewhat lost, peering out from beneath shaggy, over-hanging eyebrows. I considered my face with a degree of both good-humour and self-contempt; it simultaneously amused and disgusted me. It is a face I found it hard to connect with; I didn’t see how it was a reflection of me. Its length always surprised me, for one thing, which was a characteristic it shared with my body in general; they both seemed unduly elongated, as if they had been stretched beyond their natural shape. The condition of my skin is poor; it is mostly too pale, but affected by psoriasis, which causes red, flaky patches to appear. My forehead is unremarkable save for a slight indentation roughly in its middle (where I had, when a self-hating teenager, stubbed out a cigarette). My ears have detached lobes and don’t stick out much more than they should, but they do get rather full of wax. My nose is a bit too big, and slightly bulbous; it is also has a noticeable purple tinge – a result of excessive drinking, I assume. My mouth is wide, but not large, and that’s all I can say for it. My chin is weak and usually covered in tiny spots, but these facts are mostly hidden by a straggly beard, which encircles my mouth to join with an equally unkempt moustache. It is, to put it bluntly, not a handsome face. One might go so far as to call it ugly. And, I thought, it’s one which the world will be far better off without. By ending my life, I would, effectively, be increasing the attractiveness of the population – but by killing Tony, a fairly good-looking fellow, I would have already made it uglier. Swings and roundabouts, I told myself.

I got dressed and checked my mobile; Dicey’s response had arrived: All IS cool. Come over and bring some cans!

I sent him back a message to let him know I’d be on my way shortly, scoffed another slice of pizza (leaving the rest for later), had a glass of water, got on my shoes, coat, hat and scarf, and headed out. The weather was cold, but the snow that had fallen on the night of Ellen’s funeral hadn’t lingered for long, so the streets were mostly clear and dry.

The walk to Dicey’s was through one of the less salubrious sides of town, but I wasn’t worried; in my current mood I might have relished a confrontation. Who’s Dicey today? I asked myself.

En route I went into a convenience store that sold booze and purchased four four-packs of Red Stripe lager (Dicey favoured variety). I figured that would be sufficient to last us through the afternoon and evening.

I arrived at Dicey’s place; it offered an unappealing prospect to the street, its paintwork dirty and flaking, but most of the other houses along the row were in much the same state. I knocked on the battered door – three sharp raps, a pause, then two more.

After waiting a while (for Dicey never rushed) the door swung wide and there he stood in his faded jeans and lumpen jumper. “Hey, man. Come on in.” He moved aside to allow me ingress.

I crossed the threshold, which delivered me directly into the sitting room, and rapidly relieved myself of my coat, hat, scarf and shoes. I then followed my friend up to his bedroom.

“So, how’s it going?” he asked, sitting on the edge of his king-sized bed.

“It’s been better,” I admitted, pulling a can from one of the four-packs and offering it to him.

“Thanks,” he said, accepting it.

I broke a second can free, cracked it open and took a long swig, before settling into a monstrous, fluffy brown bean bag that inhabited a corner of the room.

“What’s up then, man?” Dicey asked.

“This and that. I went to a funeral a couple of days ago, and I’m still dealing with it.”

“Shit, sorry to hear that, man. Was it for that lass you worked with?”

“Yeah, Ellen,” I replied, then added after a pause. “She was a good woman.”

“Isn’t it always the way?” Dicey remarked with a wry grimace. “The good one’s end up dead before their time, while the bastards thrive and prosper. There’s just no justice, man.”

“No, not much of it, not in our society at least – which isn’t a surprise. When you have a small minority of people controlling all the resources, and doing all they can to ensure the rest are either deluded, downtrodden, or both, justice doesn’t really get a look in.”

“You’re right there,” he rejoined, then leaned across with his can outstretched. “Here, a toast – to Ellen.”

“To Ellen,” I agreed, knocking my can against his, then taking another long swig.

Our conversation stalled, and we sat for a bit, quietly drinking and musing over our thoughts, until Dicey spoke up again. “Ruth should be over soon,” he told me.

I didn’t know how to reply to that; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see Ruth, Dicey’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. They had first got together some six years ago, and the three of us used to hang-out regularly. All went well for a year or so but then things kind of exploded between them, and the situation was very acrimonious for a time. During this difficult period I conceived a pathetic affection for Ruth, and a month after their break-up appeared final, I asked her out. She rejected me gently, and we remained friends, but it had still hurt terribly. A couple of weeks later Ruth and Dicey had healed the rift that had grown between them and were back together. I, on the other hand, didn’t recover, and as a result of this episode had decided to never again seek a romantic relationship, and to actively avoid the company of women to whom I might become attracted. Ruth and Dicey had continued to have their ups and downs since then (they seemed to fall out every month or two), but my resolve had remained firm and true. This was probably another reason why I had not tried to become Ellen’s friend; I had feared falling for her. All this left me somewhat conflicted where Ruth was concerned. I did like her, but she called to mind unpleasant associations. Her sense of humour also sometimes grated; playing on my prior infatuation, she couldn’t resist ‘accidentally’ exposing herself – usually her breasts, but on occasion her whole body – to me, nor did she waste any opportunity to make a shamelessly suggestive remark or an outrageous double entendre, causing me endless embarrassment. Dicey, knowing the score and finding it fantastically funny, conspired with her to compound my chagrin.

“How are her grand-parents?” I asked, as much for something to say as out of any real concern.

“They’re doing fine. She’s over there now.” Ruth’s grand-parents were both into their eighties and, although they managed to carry on in their own home, required a certain amount of care to keep their independence, which Ruth provided.

“And how is she?”

“She’s alright – probably got something to complain about, but she wouldn’t be happy if she didn’t.”

I finished the can. “Wannanuva?” I asked, getting up.

“Sure, thanks,” he answered, tipping his head back and draining the dregs from his.

I extracted the last two from the first four-pack, threw one to Dicey and returned to my semi-recumbent seat with the other. “So, what’s it all about then, Dicey? Has life a meaning, a purpose? Or is it all just a joke?”

“Damned if I know, man,” he replied, and turned the question back on me. “What do you think?”

“You know what? I thought I knew, once. I thought that life didn’t have a meaning, as such, but yet it was inherently meaningful, if you lived it right. I thought the point was to do something noble, or great, or simply useful; to make the world a better place in some way. I thought that just by loving someone, and making that one person happy, that would be enough. But none of it worked out for me; I tried to live a worthwhile life – no, I wanted to live a worthwhile life, but it didn’t happen; I never answered my calling, because I couldn’t figure out what that calling was. I couldn’t even find one person to love me. So, now, none of it makes sense. It all seems pointless, mate; totally pointless.”

“I understand where you’re coming from, man; it can all get you down at times, especially when someone you care about dies. I don’t know what it all adds up to, but I do know that reality is strange and mysterious, and there’s shit that goes on out there that nobody can explain – nobody I know of, anyway.”

“’There’s more in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’ eh?”

“Something like that, but it’s a bit early in the day to be quoting Shakespeare.”

I recalled my nightmare of the previous night, with its line from MacBeth, and considered mentioning it, but decided against doing so – it could result in my letting slip my murder-suicide plan, which I most definitely didn’t want to do. Instead, I went for a humorous reply. “You can say what you want but, whether you like it or not, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

“Geez, man, why you gotta bring the Danes into this? What have they ever done to you?”

“Nothing personal, but you can’t forget the Danelaw – those bloody Vikings, coming over here and stealing our jobs.”

“That was a thousand years ago, man! Let it lie, won’t you? Who you gonna pick on next, the Romans?”

“The Romans?” I exclaimed. “Why not the Romans? What have they ever done for us?”

“No,” Dicey said pleadingly. “No, not Monty Python, I’m begging you.”

“Okay, okay, no Monty Python,” I said, then added under my breath, “Splitter.”

“Hey, just remember that blesséd are the cheese-makers. And I’ve got some serious cheese right here,” he said, holding up a bag of skunk, and I inferred that the particular strain he was growing at the moment was one of the ‘cheese’ varieties.

I tutted. “Can’t even stick to his own rules.”

“It’s my house, and I make the rules – but that doesn’t mean I have to follow ’em.”

“Anything you say, boss.”

“Whatever, man. I just don’t need any distractions right now – I’m doing something creative.”

He was rolling a joint. “I’ll not say a word,” I promised.

“You don’t need to go that far,” he protested.

“Boring conversation anyway.” I muttered dismissively.

Dicey groaned. “Now it’s Star Wars.”

“You just can’t please some people.”

“And other’s are beyond help.”

“Touché,” I said. “By my reckoning, that makes the scores about even.”

“You’re not counting this,” Dicey said, holding up the now completed spliff. “I get double points.”

“The house always wins,” I moaned.

“You better believe it,” he replied, sparking up. After a deep inhale he leaned back, then lifted his head and blew out a great plume of smoke.

I glugged lager as Dicey chuffed away, and silence returned to the room for a while, before being broken by the sound of someone walking up the stairs. The door opened and a tall, shapely woman with bushy ginger hair entered; Ruth. She noticed me, smiled and said, “Hiya, Tim.”

I returned her smile. “Hi, Ruth.”

She bent and kissed Dicey, and he held out the joint to her.

“No thanks, I’m going to have a shower first,” and she glanced over at me. “I might need someone to scrub my back; Tim, are you free?”

I blushed. “I’m sorry, Ruth – I forgot to bring a towel with me. I’m sure Dicey will oblige.”

He grinned at me. “No can do, man – I’m busy!” he said, indicating the joint. “And we’ve got spare towels you can use.”

“Well?” asked Ruth, looking at me inquiringly. I turned away from her gaze, and she grumbled peevishly, “you’re no fun.”

“Hey, sweet-thing, can your shower wait just a minute?” Dicey asked, “I need to take a piss.” He then looked over to me, holding out the reefer. “Man – do you want some of this?”

Ruth plucked the joint from his fingers and said, “If you’re going to make me wait, I think I’ll have a bit now after all.”

“Sorry, man,” Dicey apologised to me. “It was intercepted.”

“No worries,” I replied. “It’s probably for the best – I’ve not had a toke in ages, so I’d be completely stoned in all of about five minutes. I’ll have some later.”

Dicey left the room, and Ruth took his place on the bed. “Did you finish work early today?” she asked (it was round about four pm at this point).

“No, I’m on leave. I was at a funeral earlier in the week and figured I’d have a break from the office for a few days.”

“That’s rough. Anyone close?”

“Not close, exactly – a colleague. But one I admired and respected a great deal. She was a wonderful woman.”

“That’s such a shame. What happened? Had she been sick, or was she in an accident?”

I shook my head. “Suicide,” I said.

“No! That’s awful,” she said with feeling, her eyes suddenly welling up.

I envied her those spontaneous tears, and a surge of emotions – pain, anger, resentment, and bewildered bereavement – burst within me. “Yes, it is awful. It’s fucking awful, in fact. It’s one of the most fucking awful things I can think of ever fucking happening,” Nearly choking, I tried to calm myself, but could not resist a final comment. “I wish it was me that was dead, not her.”

Ruth put the joint down in an ashtray, got off the bed, rushed over and threw her arms around me (which was no easy feat, as I was lodged somewhat lopsidedly in the bean bag). I hugged her back, all teasing and embarrassment forgotten.

“She was a lovely person, Ruth,” I explained. “Too good for this world.”

“I’m sorry, Tim,” she murmured sympathetically, then went to retrieve the joint. “Are you sure you don’t want some of this?” she asked.

“What the hell?” I replied. “In for a penny, in for a pound!”

She passed it over, then picked up a lighter and gave me that too. “You’ll need to re-light it.”

“Thanks,” I put the spliff in my mouth, applied flame to its end, and drew in a lungful of thick, pungent smoke. Coughing, I expelled it again. “This is the stuff,” I said.

“Dicey only grows the best,” was Ruth’s response.

As if summoned by the mention of his name, Dicey’s heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. He entered the room and, noticing that I was smoking the joint, remarked gleefully. “Gave in to temptation, did we?”

“Yes, he did,” Ruth interjected, a saucy smirk on her face. “In more ways than one… and now I really need a shower!”

My flushing cheeks and pained expression were enough to make Dicey bellow with laughter.

* * * * * * * *

Dicey and I continued our banter, becoming steadily more inebriated as we did so. As I had predicted, the skunk hit me quick and hard; the room span and my brain melted. By the time Ruth had finished her shower and re-joined us (fully clothed, I’m happy to report), I was giggling like an idiot.

The evening disappeared in a haze of booze and smoke. Too drunk and stoned to walk home, Dicey called me a taxi. When I got in I was suffering with a severe case of the munchies, and was overjoyed to discover the remains of the pizza I’d cooked for lunch. This I demolished, then stretched out on my sofa and fell asleep.

Chapter 4

I came to the next morning feeling predictably rotten, and also a little disorientated by finding myself lying fully dressed on my sofa. But fragments of the previous evening floated slowly into my consciousness and I was soon able to piece together what had happened.

Aching and hungover, I rose and made myself a coffee. I thought about having a shower but lacked the energy, and decided instead to go to bed until I recovered somewhat, and there I dozed through the afternoon.

It was hunger that eventually forced me to get up again; I hadn’t eaten properly since the day before Ellen’s funeral. I went into the kitchen to take stock of what food I had. Rummaging through my cupboards I discovered the following: a potato and an onion (both of which had seen better days), two packets of curry-flavoured instant noodles, a box of long-grain rice (unopened) and one of conchiglie pasta (almost empty), and a selection of tins (including baked beans, tomato soup, and tuna chunks). In the freezer was a bag of frozen sweetcorn and a plastic container full of some darkish matter the origin of which I could not recall.

I decided to have some noodles as they required a minimal amount of effort, but, once they were done and I’d put them in a bowl and taken them into the living room to consume, I could only manage a few mouthfuls.

The box of papers I’d started to look through the previous day still sat beside the sofa. Its presence taunted me in a subtly sinister fashion. When my house had been built (some hundred years ago) it had been furnished with fireplaces, but these had been sealed up long before I’d bought it, no doubt at the same time central heating had been installed. If they had still been accessible, I might well have burnt all those papers there and then.

Depressed, agitated, and still hungover, I decided to return to clearing out my spare room – as much for something to do as out of any commitment to the task. So, throughout the early evening I occupied myself by bringing down all the old issues of New Scientist. My living room was now looking somewhat untidy with all the boxes, books and magazines, undoing some of my efforts of the first day of cleaning.

Tired out, I sat down again and tried to eat some more noodles, but they’d gone cold and were completely unappetizing, so I pushed the bowl away. Unable to think of anything else to do, I switched on the telly. This distracted me sufficiently to while away the rest of the evening, but when it came time to turn in I realised that I no longer felt queasy and that my head had cleared. I climbed into bed feeling more awake than I had at any point during the day, and consequently couldn’t sleep. The hours crawled by, and I tossed and turned frustratedly.

Eventually, I gave up on sleeping. I decided to read instead – although it was hardly the time to begin a novel (I might not get the chance to finish it), I’d noticed a slim volume of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, called ‘A Universal History of Infamy’, amongst the books I’d transported downstairs the day before, which I must have purchased at some point and forgotten about. Slipping into T-shirt and underpants, I got out of bed and went to fetch it.

Returning to my bedroom, book in hand, I undressed again and snuggled back under the covers. I spent the rest of the night absorbed by Borges’s tales of assorted legendary villains – which, in the circumstances, I deemed apt company, for was I not soon to be a murderer (however briefly)? True, the crime I was going to commit was motivated by a sense of justice, to punish a wrongdoing and prevent its recurrence, rather than by greed or glory-seeking, yet all the same I did not consider it ‘good’, only ‘right’. There might be some people who would see my intended action as courageous, but I would not allow myself to hold such a self-serving conceit.

After several hours of reading, my eyelids started to drop and my concentration wavered. I put down the book, turned out the light, and went to sleep.

* * * * * * * *

On Saturday I awoke late in the afternoon. At first groggy, the realisation that I probably had less than 48 hours (either of life, or of freedom) remaining to me soon brought me to full alertness.

I got up and, while drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette, considered what to do with the day. I decided that cleaning my house was now a secondary issue; my priority must be to sort out my affairs, to make things as easy as possible for those who would have to deal with the aftermath of my actions. A key issue was that I didn’t have a will, and had now left it too late to correct this deficiency. But perhaps this was not so much of a problem; as I was unmarried and without offspring, all my meagre goods and chattels would pass to my mother (my father already having died). I could therefore just leave some instructions for her as to how I wished things to be divided between the surviving family members.

So, I sat down to write a letter to my mother. At first I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but after a couple of sentences I rejected what I’d written and started afresh. The second attempt didn’t go so well either, nor the third. Two hours (and half a dozen sheets of paper) later, frustration and hunger persuaded me to take a break. With limited food stocks, and not wanting to cook in any case, I made the decision to get in a take-away. I dug out a menu of a local curry-house, called them up and ordered for delivery a chicken madras and three chapattis. I then put down the phone, put on my shoes and coat, and headed out to the off-licence – feeling that a quick breath of fresh air and a stretch of the legs would be beneficial, and that a drink might loosen my mind a little and help make the words flow more easily.

I picked up some ales (beer, to my mind, being the proper accompaniment to curry) and returned home. I opened the first bottle straight away, and had almost finished it when my food arrived. I paid the man, unpacked my dinner and started eating, not bothering with either crockery or cutlery.

Once I’d had enough (which wasn’t much, as I have a small appetite) I licked my fingers and sighed with contentment. I put the remaining curry in the kitchen, re-sealed in its container, washed my hands, cracked open another beer, and returned to my task.

It was after midnight by the time I felt I’d produced a satisfactory letter:

Dear Mum,

I write to you with a very heavy heart, for I have some awful news. Something terrible has happened; a grave wrong has taken place, and I feel duty-bound to take drastic action in response. The situation is this: a woman I loved has committed suicide because a man broke her heart. The man in question is an adulterer, an egotistical, self-serving scoundrel, and I do not think it right that he should be allowed to simply walk away, so that he may go on and repeat his crime. Therefore, to prevent him causing further injustice, and to avenge the death of a sweet, kind and caring lady, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and do away with this worthless individual – and then, myself.

It is not a decision I have made lightly. It is with a great deal of sadness and grief that I venture on my chosen course, but I do not know what else to do. The death of this woman, Ellen, has destroyed what little light remained in my life. I don’t know how aware you are of the depression that has, for the most part, been my lot since I was a boy. I did try my best to persevere, to weather the storm, but nothing ever worked out for me. I feel cursed; all my efforts have been in vain, and I can see no reason to continue this charade I call my life. I had hoped that, by being patient and philosophical, by adopting a stiff upper-lip, I would have been able to carry on going until after you had passed on, for I know that my death will be a cause of sorrow for you. Out of love for you, and a wish not to cause you harm, I have continued living, year after year, decade after decade, in despair and anguish – but I can do it no more. I had hoped to do something useful and constructive with my life; it is a great shame that, instead, I should end up murdering a fellow human being, and then myself. But these are the cards I’ve been dealt, and I’m not going to waste what little time I have left by complaining about things. I may have regrets, but this does not mean I have to indulge in them.

I love you, and I am so grateful to you for all you have done for me. Though I have not had a happy life, still, I thank you for it. If things had gone differently, if I had found a woman who loved me, then I might have been well pleased with my lot. As it is, I look forward to finding whatever peace death provides.

Assuming I’ll carry out my plan successfully, I have enclosed with this letter a number of documents which I hope will make it easy to deal with my affairs. I ask that my house be sold and, after all relevant costs and disbursements for the sale and my funeral are met, the remaining money to be divided equally between yourself, Vic, Terry and Mary. Please say ‘goodbye’ to them all for me, and pass on my love.

Your son,

The letter signed I let out a sigh. On the morrow I’d give it a final read through, but I was done with it for now. I had a final cigarette and finished off the last beer, then retired for the night.

* * * * * * * *

I didn’t sleep well. I drifted in and out of consciousness until I could barely tell the difference between the two states.

Late the following morning I realised that I had been awake for a good while, but my mind was blank and felt oddly alienated from my body, as if the two were strangers whom circumstance had suddenly thrust together without even the courtesy of an introduction. I felt neither happy nor sad, excited nor bored, hopeful nor apprehensive. I was without motivation, had no desires; nominally aware of what was going on around me, but at the same time completely divorced both from the world and myself, unable to engage with anything. This almost trance-like, catatonic condition lasted for a couple of hours. By the time I emerged from it, the sun was setting in the west.

I rose from my bed and got dressed, went downstairs, made myself a coffee and rolled a cigarette. I lit it, took one drag and started coughing and spluttering so violently that I immediately stubbed it out. I had a mouthful of coffee and it tasted so utterly disgusting, like mud mixed with ashes, that I ran to the sink, spat it out, and poured the rest away.

I tried to re-read the letter I’d written the previous night, but found that the words just swum around on the page. I gave up, realising it was a pointless exercise anyway as I certainly wasn’t going to re-write it – I lacked the energy and concentration. Instead I went through my official documents (which weren’t to be found in the boxes littering my living room, but resided separately in a file in a drawer in my bedroom) and extracted those I wished to supply my mother with: my most recent bank and mortgage statements, Council Tax demand, and utility bills (all paid and up-to-date). I found an envelope, wrote my mother’s address on it, and stuffed the documents inside. I added the letter, but then pulled it out again and made one final attempt to check through it, and this time succeeded. I was not completely happy with it, but decided, with one small addition, that it would do, and so I wrote at the bottom:

PS. Mum, I am so sorry for this. I hope you can forgive me.

I returned the letter to the envelope, sealed it and affixed a stamp. And that was that; all that remained was to wait until the following morning, when I would post the letter on my way to work – where I would meet my doom-laden destiny.

I sat back in my chair, not knowing what to do with the rest of the day. None of the activities I’d usually opt to do to while away an evening, such as watching telly or reading, had any appeal to me then. Even the idea of masturbating, which could usually be counted on to produce a spark of interest when all else failed, seemed a very dull, tasteless and unrewarding enterprise. I was completely devoid of enthusiasm, and my mind started wandering without direction. Images and scenes from my childhood, memories I’d not visited in decades, began to spontaneously surface in my consciousness. I recalled a visit to a park which contained a prominent water feature; a gurgling artificial spring, feeding a small meandering stream the course of which took it tumbling over rocks to drop into a large pool. I had assumed the stream was not very deep, and had attempted to find out if I was correct by standing sideways on the bank and lowering one of my legs into it, to see if I could touch the bottom – as I was wearing wellingtons, I didn’t anticipate getting my foot wet. My assumption was wrong, however, and as my leg went deeper the flow of the stream against my welly managed to toppled me in. I saw the sky above me wash away as the water closed over my sinking head. Luckily, one of my older brothers was on hand to drag me out again, so I hadn’t drowned that day.

Another memory; an outing to some outdoor event where I had become separated from my family, then lost in the crowds. After a frantic and fruitless search I had become frightened, fearing that I wouldn’t see my mum ever again, and started crying. My plight attracted the attention of some kindly strangers and I was taken to the event organisers, who put me on a stage and made an announcement, asking my family to come and collect me, and we were duly reunited.

I came back to the present, shook off my recollections of the past. They were not helpful; indeed, they were making me doubtful, and had stirred a sense of unease and anxiety within me. I started to question whether I was, after all, planning to do the right thing. Do I really have sufficient reason to kill Tony? I asked myself, but then my mind turned to Ellen lying dead and buried in the earth, her once beautiful body decomposing, and the brutal pain and injustice this image evoked confirmed that I did.

“Enough cogitation,” I muttered to myself. I decided, like Hamlet, not to waste my time ‘thinking too precisely on th’ event… I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do ‘t!” There was no point thinking about it anymore but, in order not to do so, I needed to find a distraction. My options were limited, but my choice was obvious – it was time for a drink.

I put on my shoes and coat, strode out into the night. High in the sky there was a full moon shinning brightly, and I stopped to stare at it. A sense of calmness and acceptance stole over me, and I continued on my way with a lighter step. But when I got home with my bottle of wine I faced a dilemma. If I got too drunk, I’d wake up with a hangover, which would interfere with my ability to carry out my plan. But if I didn’t drink, I would find it difficult to get to sleep, and a night without rest would leave me feeling just as bad, if not worse, than a hangover. So I decided to drink only half the bottle; enough to get me sleepy, but not so much that it would result in a hangover.

Of course, after I had drunk half the bottle I couldn’t see any virtue in leaving the rest to go to waste, so drank the rest, polishing off the cold remains of the curry from the night before as I did so.

Despite the wine, when I got into bed my body was tense and my mind racing. This would be the last time I slept in my own bed. It might well be the last night of my life, and I had to struggle to stop myself sniggering at this absurdly amusing idea. Eventually, however, I did succumb to slumber, and the world dissolved in darkness.

Novel: The Light of the Silver Wheel (or: A Present Darkness, A Distant Light) An Introduction

This novel tells of the spiritual experience which resulted in me becoming a Buddhist. It is a work of semi-fiction; mixing real life with flights of fancy. I decided to write the novel this way, rather than as a ‘straight’ re-telling of my experiences, to paint a more cohesive and interesting story. I’ll do a post-script once it is finished providing details of exactly which bits are historically accurate and which are fantastic invention (unfortunately, I can’t offer any prizes to anyone who successfully guesses!).

My original title for the novel was ‘The Light of the Silver Wheel’, but as there is already a book with the title ‘The Silver Wheel’, I created the alternative title to avoid confusion between them.

Dedicated to, and in loving memory of,
Ellen Marie Arbuthnott –
my gratitude and devotion are endless.

Dedicated also to my mother and my sister –
blessings to you both.

Prologue: The Light of the Heart

When you are destroyed – when all that to you seemed good and holy is gone, when who you are ceases to matter, and you find yourself in the inner chamber of your heart, and watch with dismay as the candle that burns there goes out, leaving you utterly alone and forsaken in the darkness – then might something extraordinary happen.

It feels like you are completely lost and isolated; there is no-one here to care for you, nothing to catch hold of you and bring you out of yourself. All your senses seem undone, for there is nothing to see here, nothing to hear, touch, taste or smell.

But wait; the darkness is not total. There is the faintest glimmer in the air, a near formless glow. You realise that there is a curtain in the chamber; a large, heavy drape that allows just enough light through to turn the pitch black of the chamber to a deep gloom.

Suddenly the curtain drops, and the full light of the sun streams into the chamber, into you. It is a million times brighter than your candle was, and the joy and brilliance of it are too much; the light vaporises, it smashes through you like a tidal wave. Everything stops, disappears, vanishes, in that light, which is pure love.

Then you come back to yourself. Time has moved on; day has given way to night, and all is dark again. For a terrible moment you think that it has all been a fantasy, an hallucination, that there was no curtain and no sun, that you are alone in the darkness, and always have been.

But wait; the darkness is not total. There is another source of light, coming not from the candle, which has been blown out, nor from the window, which is itself now one with the darkness – but from yourself. And you see now that you have been remade of light and love, and that you no longer have need of a candle, for that light and love will shine through you, wherever you go.


(Another poem written at the Nottingham Buddhist Centre’s Writing Group, c. 2013.)

The Moon peeks briefly
From between the clouds –
Just to let me know
She’s still there.

Fly my love – fly!
With your shining white lamp.
Swiftly gliding,
My Goddess on high.

In Murias she dwells,
Her City of Glass.
Revolving endlessly,
Above the weary World.
Downward gazing,
Her face amazing;
Guiding and guarding
Those who look up.

Brilliant her beauty,
And bright is her eye.
Joyful her teaching;
She’s the Jewel in the sky.

The Letter

(I’m guessing I wrote this in 1996 (from internal evidence!); I can’t recall if there was any particular inspiration for it.)

“Damn,” muttered Carl, switching the over-full cup from his right to his left hand. He set the cup down on the lounge table and flicked scalding coffee from his fingers.

A band of sunlight fell across the surface of the table and bisected the morning paper. Carl stared at the front-page headline, but had no desire to read it. Near the edge of the table closest to him was the letter; the torn envelope lay, where it had fallen, on the floor.

In Carl’s mouth was a bitter, metallic taste; abruptly and irrelevantally he wondered if it was the taste of death. The thought annoyed him.

“I’m going out,” Carl commented, realising as he did so that he was speaking out loud despite the fact there was nobody in the flat to hear him, and this annoyed him too.

He collected his jacket from the back of a chair, then retraced his steps back to the table, snatched up the letter and pushed it into his trouser pocket. Turning, he made his way out of the door, resisting the temptation to slam it behind him. The stairs were dusty and the heavy sound of his shoes on the bare wood set his teeth on edge.

Outside the air was close to being warm, but a light, chill breeze occasionally brushed down the street. Small clouds moved slowly across the sky, like a group of nomads, and the pale spring sun glared weakly at them as they passed by.

Carl found himself going into Dorian’s, a cheap café where he sometimes broke his fast. The furnishings were plain and not particularly comfortable, and the decor was bland, but it was clean and the food was okay. After ordering, however, and sitting down, he regretted entering; today the place felt like a train station restaurant: austere, uninviting and full of people waiting to go somewhere else.

When the meal came he ate half of it quickly, then left the rest, finding that he lacked an appetite completely. He stayed a little while longer to finish his cup of tea.

Next, Carl headed to The Peacock. It was dim and cool inside, and after he had got a pint and gone to his preferred table in a niche between the fire and a window, he found that his mood had improved somewhat.

He drank leisurely, and the thoughts which had been bothering him all morning slowly drifted away. A calmness settled on him, and he listened with a detached interest to the distant conversations and random noises which reached his consciousness.

His glass was eventually empty and he went back to the bar. He realised that he was now hungry and so, along with another pint, got a packet of roasted peanuts.

He ate and drank tranquilly and time passed until it was suddenly afternoon. Carl looked up as the door opened and several people walked in. Helen was amongst them, and after getting half a pint of cider she came over to join him.

Helen was in her mid twenties and worked as a secretary in a local legal firm. She was of medium height, slim and wore a plain but elegant grey skirt and a pale blue blouse under a dark jacket. Her hair was cut fairly short and styled in a suitably business-like fashion. She had high cheekbones (which, for some reason, made Carl think she had French blood in her) and large brown eyes flecked with black. When they had first met, Carl had considered Helen as being good-looking but nothing special; since then, after becoming aware of the expressiveness of her eyes and the warmth of her smile, he had progressively found her more and more attractive. Carl supposed they had been going out together for a month or so now, but he found it difficult to calculate exactly how long as he wasn’t sure when their ‘first date’ had been as opposed to the two of them simply spending time in each other’s company as friends.

Carl became aware of the letter in his pocket again; a hot, uncomfortable, crumpled shape which pressed against his thigh.

“Hi ya,” said Helen as she sat down and began searching through her purse.

“How are we?” Carl asked, trying to make his voice sound easy.

Helen looked up momentarily from her rummaging. “Oh, fine. Fine.”

She produced a packet of silk cut and a lighter. Before offering the cigarettes to Carl she took one herself.

“Thanks,” Carl said, accepting first a cigarette and then a light. Although he had quit several years ago he smoked when he was with her as he knew it made her feel less self-conscious.

Helen breathed out smoke and looked at Carl quizzically. He wasn’t sure if there was something she wanted to say to him or whether she realised he had something to tell her and was waiting for him to say it. After a few seconds had passed and she hadn’t spoken but instead reached for her drink, Carl decided the latter might be the more likely. Knowing that if he delayed the moment further he might decide against it all together, Carl pulled out the letter.

“This arrived today,” he said by way of explanation as he handed it across to her.

Helen unfolded the letter and held it at an angle to catch the light. She smoked as she read, her inhalations and exhalations marking the punctuation.


28th March 1996

Dear Mr Atkins

I am pleased to inform you that, after careful consideration of all the applications for the post of test engineer, we have chosen to accept yours. I apologise for the delay in contacting you with this news but the number and quality of the applications was very high, which has caused us to take longer than normal to arrive at a decision. The terms and conditions of your employment will be as discussed:

1) the hours of work will be 9.00 am to 5.30 pm from Monday to Friday inclusive, with a lunch break of one hour.

2) the salary for this position is £18,000 per annum with a review after six months.

3) you must not either during your employment or after communicate or disclose any confidential information about the Company, its affairs or its employees to any person outside the Company or use such information for your own private benefit.

Please report to my office at 9.15 on Monday, 8th April, to sign and collect your contract of employment. If you have any problems during or prior to your employment please do not hesitate to contact me or Leslie Adams, Manager of the Electronic Services Department. On behalf of the Company I extend a warm welcome to you and hope that you enjoy working here.

Yours sincerely

Rachel Beattie

Personnel Co-Ordinator


“Congratulations,” Helen said as she finished the letter.

“Thanks,” said Carl dryly, placing his empty glass on the table. He could not tell whether the frown which creased her forehead was because of the implications of what she had read or because she was confused by his attitude.

“The eighth,” Helen remarked, crushing her cigarette into the ash tray. “Just over a week. Have you’ve got a place arranged?”

“Not quite, but I’ve got relatives who live in the area and will put me up if I can’t get something sorted out in time. I don’t think there’ll be much of a problem, though.”

“Good,” said Helen. “Things seem to be working out for you after all.”

“Yeah, it seems so, doesn’t it?” He searched her eyes and realised things would never be the same; things would be different between them now, even if he didn’t accept the job. Their relationship had been characterised by a lack of obvious commitment and the pleasure he had derived from going out with her had come from the fact that they didn’t seem to be really going out – it had all felt so casual and natural but there was an undertone of something more, something deeper, which had excited them both. If he didn’t go, it would be a direct statement of what he felt for her, and such a statement was beyond the unspoken agreement of what they held to be proper and expected behaviour from each other. Maybe they would become closer and more serious if he did choose to stay but the fact that the change would have been prompted by an outside event, rather than a free decision, would devalue it.

“Back in a sec,” Carl said, getting up. His stomach was churning and the smoke which still hung in the air stuck in his throat.

The stark bright walls and smell of disinfectant in the toilet disorientated him and he realised he was slightly drunk. As he stood with his downward turned head hovering inches from the wall while expelling colourless piss into the urinal, he wished that Helen would not be there when he got back. He wished that he would never see nor think of her again. “How fucking morbid,” he muttered as he did up his flies.

Helen was, however, still sitting at the table when Carl returned, and he stopped on the way to get another pint for himself and half for her.

“Thanks,” Helen said as he set the drink down before her. “I shouldn’t really have another as I’m back to work soon, but just today…”

Carl ignored the remark. He knew he was being childish and self-pitying, but at the moment he didn’t give a damn. He gulped down half his pint to prove this to himself.

Helen had lit another cigarette and was staring at him with a hurt expression. “This is what you want, isn’t it? I mean, if…”

“No. No, I’m sorry,” Carl interjected when he heard the concern and pain in her voice. He realised that he didn’t care for self-pity or childishness at all. “It’s just that I didn’t expect it. I’d thought that I wasn’t going to get the job and I had started to make plans believing that. I’d started to enjoy the fact that I didn’t have the job.”

“I’m sorry,” Helen said.

Carl shrugged, and they drank in silence for a few minutes.

Helen finished her cigarette and looked at the time. The people she had come in with were already leaving. “I’ve got to go,” she said. “See you tomorrow night?”

“Yeah, sure.”

She touched his hand and stood, taking a final sip from her drink. Carl looked up and could see worry and what he felt was sympathy in her eyes. He felt embarrassed and humbled.

Once she had gone Carl slowly drained the quarter pint he had left and thought about getting another drink, but decided not to, fearing that he may end up spending the rest of the day in the pub if he did.

Back outside he found that the weather had changed for the worse. The breeze had become more forceful and less occasional; the clouds now dominated the sky, hiding the angry but ineffectual sun and threatening rain.

He arrived back at the house where he rented his flat. As he drew the keys out of his pocket and was about to insert them into the lock, the door opened.

“Hi there, Carl,” said David. “I’d just given up hope that you weren’t going to show up. I’ve been talking to Mr Freeman for the past half hour.”

“Mr Freeman – that reminds me, I suppose there’s something I should tell him.”

David raised his eyebrows quizzically but didn’t say anything.

“Come on up,” said Carl. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

By the time he had reached the top of the stairs, with David following, Carl wondered why he had made the invitation. Before he got his keys out again he recalled that he hadn’t locked his door when he had left that morning.

“Do you want some tea or coffee?” Carl asked as they went in.

“No thanks, Mr Freeman made us a cup.”

“Well, I’m in need of coffee. Have a seat.”

Carl collected the cup which he had left on the table that morning, took it into the kitchen, poured its cold contents down the sink and put the kettle on. He returned to the lounge and sat down heavily on the sofa.

“Shall I turn the light on?” David offered.

“Na, I like it gloomy.”

“What have you been doing today?”

“I’ve been in the pub mostly. Haven’t been up to anything exciting. I did get a letter this morning though; here, take a look.”

David took the offered letter and sat at the table to read it.

“Very good,” David remarked enthusiastically. “I told you you’d get it.”

“The thing is,” Carl explained. “Do I want it?”

David gave him a sharp look, then put the letter onto the table and rested his arms on his knees. “Well, that puts a new light on it. Helen, I suppose…”

“Oh, it’s not just Helen. It’s the fact that I’d adapted. I was enjoying living here, without a job, without an agenda. Certainly, Helen may have been a part of it all but it was not just her. I had been, for a while at least, free.”

“Then turn the job down.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why not?”

Carl shook his head. “Well, I’ll need to get money somehow sooner or later. I’d be a fool to turn this down.”

“You’d be a fool to end up slaving away for years at a job you didn’t like doing.”

Carl was about to reply when he heard the kettle boil. He went into the kitchen and tried to gather his thoughts while he made his coffee.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy the work,” he said as he settled himself, more gently this time, on the sofa.

“Then what is it?”

“I had seen myself as having a different future. I don’t know what future, but not one where I ended up working as a test engineer.”

“Then don’t do it. Find something else.”

“But that’s just it. I had nothing else in mind, I was just waiting for something to happen.”

“Then carry on waiting.”

“I can’t, don’t you see? Not now. If I turned this down I’d have to start thinking about alternatives, I’d have to look around. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“It sounds to me as if you had no clear idea of what you were doing. You can’t live in a dream world for ever; reality always catches up with you sometime. That sometime was today.”

Carl sipped his coffee. “That’s not a lot of comfort.”

“I’m trying to help you face facts, Carl, not encourage you to believe that if you can forget about the world then the world will forget about you.”

“Maybe I don’t like such facts.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not, they’re still there. Don’t make a hasty decision on this, it’s an important thing. But don’t think you can avoid making a decision, or that you can ignore it and it will go away.”

“You’re right, I suppose. Everything you say makes rational sense, but at the moment rationality isn’t an important factor. I’ll be okay in a few days, I’m sure.”

“Right. Well, I hope that if I haven’t been a comfort I’ve at least been a help, but I’d better be making a move. Give us a call when you’ve made up your mind, eh?”


“See ya, Carl.”

“See ya, mate.”

Carl sat, sipping his coffee and staring vacantly at the wall. The sound of David’s footsteps on the stairs finished abruptly when he got to the bottom, and Carl realised that instead of being alone with silence he could hear the sound of rain striking the roof and the window.

He put his cup down and went over to the window to gaze at the dull, wet world, but found that, instead of focusing on the view outside, his vision stubbornly fixed upon the pane of glass itself. It struck him how strange it was that there should exist such a substance which should have both the characteristics of being solid and being transparent at the same time. He thought that maybe the universe, or life, or both, were like this; real, material, but lacking depth, structure or significance. Did anything really matter, and if it didn’t, did it matter that nothing mattered? Surely, thought Carl, if nothing mattered then there was no need nor reason for guilt or pain, or to regret the past or fear the future. And therefore he was ultimately free and it was his choice whether he was to see things positively or negatively. Maybe this was the one thing that mattered, this choice.

Carl laughed, switched the light on and sat down to read the paper.

How to waste an afternoon

(I wrote this short story while on a family holiday in Cyprus, c. 2007. I picked up a book of short stories written by an American writer whose name I have since forgotten, but found them frustrating in that the stories didn’t seem to go anywhere. This is my attempt at writing such a story, but I think I failed…)

I’ve read some books. Some people would say I’ve read a lot of books, but I know of others who’ve read more. When I was a kid I read quite a lot, then as I got older, into my twenties, I read less. Now I’m in my thirties and I’m starting to read more again. That’s just the way it goes.

It’s a hot, cloudless day; the afternoon’s heading into evening, and with nothing else to do, I decide to pick up a book and read for a while.

I select a book of short stories and sit in the garden. The stories are very short, most of them just a few pages long. Not much happens in them, and they don’t go anywhere – they don’t end, they just stop. According to the cover they are original and true, masterpieces even, but I don’t like them. What’s the point of a story that doesn’t go anywhere? Maybe that’s why they are original, and true, and therefore masterpieces. But as I say, I don’t like them. I carry on reading regardless, hoping I’ll come to one that I do like.

The pages turn, and the sun sinks a little lower in the sky. I decide to have a break – stretch my legs, and find the beer I left laying around someplace.

I wander into the house. My sister’s cooking chicken in the kitchen, where it smells of garlic and wine, with a slight lingering odour of fish from the previous night.

“It’ll be another hour or so,” my sister says, glancing at me as I walk in.

I nod to feign interest. I see my beer on the table, pick it up, and head back outside.

“Damn flies,” my sister says I leave. I nod again, but she’s not even looking in my direction, so the gesture’s wasted.

I sit back down in the garden and sip my beer. It’s no longer cold, and doesn’t taste too good, but it’s the last one so I don’t want to throw it away.

I pick the book back up and flip through to the next story, which is longer than the previous ones and actually has an element of drama. It’s about a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks because the husband has cheated on his wife. The wife wants to leave him, or kill herself, and the husband is trying to convince her that she should give him another chance, that they can get back on track. He doesn’t seem guilty about cheating on her, though. Then the story finishes, with no resolution, no indication of whether the couple stay together or not.

I read another, which is back to being about nothing in particular and going nowhere, till it terminates from a lack of further words.

I put the book down and pick up my beer. It’s nearly empty, and I decide to have a cigarette while drinking the remainder. I like to have a drink when I smoke, and when I smoke I like to have a drink. Sometimes I’ll feel like having a smoke, but realise I’ve got nothing to drink with it, so I don’t bother.

I feel inside my pocket, but my tobacco isn’t there. I must have left it someplace, like I’d done with my beer. I get out of my chair with a sigh and go inside, finding the tobacco in my bedroom. I sit on the corner of my bed while I roll a cigarette. I can’t stand the cigarettes that come in packets, readymade. I’m sure the filters in them contain worse chemicals than those in the tobacco. I don’t use filters at all, just a bit of rolled up card to stop the tobacco getting into my mouth.

I take the cigarette outside so I can smoke it with my beer.

The sun sinks further in the sky as I puff on the cigarette and sip from the beer till they’re both finished.

My sister steps out into the garden. “The chicken will be ready in half-an-hour,” she says.

I nod, and pick up the book again.