Hope you enjoy reading this short story ‘Alfresco’ first published in May-June Quadrant 2017. It took me a year of rewrites until finally reaching a publishable standard. What gave me the idea for the story was that I’d booked into a yoga retreat in Queensland and thought I’d probably get some creative writing ideas when there. But what happened was the retreat was cancelled due to lack of bookings. As I’d written a beginning for the story already I had to make the rest up. It had amused me that you could make a booking for a room with an ‘alfresco’ bathroom:
She remembers the exact moment she agreed to go to the mid-winter yoga retreat. Her friend Vivian had been there before and said she would come back a new person. Transformed.
According to the brochure, The gentle trilling from an orchestra of insects interspersed with the croaking of frogs and the occasional haunting cries of owls will be a soothing and entirely natural symphony to fall asleep to.
They’d sleep in secluded forest huts nestled in the tropical rainforest canopy. She was ready to pack her bags when she read that an optional extra was to book an alfresco ensuite. Alfresco ensuite? Better than no ensuite, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a jungle.
The sun is shining when they take a logo-painted van from Cairns airport to the retreat. On the way everything looks picture-postcard perfect. Clear blue skies, white-sand beaches, rows of palm trees. Tropical north Queensland. Exactly what she had in mind. A 4WD vehicle transports them from the car park across the delicate forest floor to a natural clearing where they are ushered in to Reception. A few loosely-robed yogis are in a glass-walled, timber-floored restaurant. Beyond it, a beach beneath the rainforest canopy and an unsettled sea. Watch the moon appear out of the ocean from the elevated balcony.
Accessed by a boardwalk, her hut, with its lack of solid walls, at first glance seems filled with the cool, green light of the rainforest, a cubbyhouse in the trees. The timber structure is screened on all four sides with curtains. Her cold water bathroom is on a deck that extends from the hut with shower, basin and toilet sheltered by the foliage of the forest. Cold water? Maybe the middle of winter wasn’t such a good idea. The bed, however, with its bright white linen cover and matching plumped up cushions, looks huge and inviting. She takes off her shoes and enjoys the bounce as she flattens out on her back. Next door Vivian is changing into lycra tights for a quick jog before the Welcome Meetup. She leans back on the down pillows, sleepy already.
At five o’clock all new yogis are invited into a light-filled studio with mirrored wall. American Matthew, their dedicated Buddhist and meditation guru, says they can choose their level of postures to strengthen and limber their bodies: strong and dynamic or gentle and restorative. She knows Vivian, with her over-achiever personality will choose the hardest option. She’ll go for the easiest.
‘Be daring and push your limits,’ says Matthew, with his generous nose, astonishing white teeth and bitten-to-the-quick nails.
Not what she had in mind.
Before heading back to their rooms Matthew warns them that if they hear a loud noise during the night that sounds like a bomb dropping, don’t worry. It could be a male owl inflating the skin around his neck to create a booming sound. Just like a bomb falling.
Amazingly, she sleeps well, considering the cacophony of strange noises in the night and the challenge of using the outside loo. No sound of bombs dropping so far. Surprisingly, the cold water in the shower is warm.
Their first practice of the day is to align their chakras before meditation: the push up of the brain. A Tibetan bell announces the commencement of class.
‘Leave your egos at the door,’ says Matthew. ‘No comparing yourself to others.’
So here she sits, on a mat imagining a piece of string running from the base of her spine up her back and out the top of her head, pulling her upright. She’s tuning into what is going on outside the room—people walking past, birds chirping, the sound of the wind through the forest.
And all around, the colourful birds hop among the tree branches calling out to each other: she could swear they are trying to warn them about something.
That evening, after a salad of slow-cooked lamb smothered in caramelised onion, they treat themselves and order a bottle of Beaujolais. It’s the first drink they’ve had since leaving Sydney apart from water with mint leaves thrown in and a green smoothie. Caffeine and alcohol are freely available. She drinks carefully, aware of the disintegration of the bottle’s cork and possible cork crumble in the wine. The glass is small and she takes pleasure in the fine clear red of the Beaujolais, telling herself not to let its vinegar aftertaste plunge her into negativity.
The biting midges drive her crazy. At 5a.m. she wakes from a heavy, fear-filled sleep, feeling frantic after having lost sight of her children in the dream as they cycled away and out of view. She hadn’t known how to use her new mobile, so was unable to make contact with them. What would her grownup children, the products of an early marriage, say about her being here? ‘You mean you’re on one of those crazy retreat things again?’ Should she have spent all this money on herself? What was she thinking? Transformation? A bit late in the day for that.
Each day is basically the same but her thinking is spiralling inwards and downwards. She longs to retreat to her room and just read a book.
Some people do extra stretching on the beach, others are attached to their devices on the free WiFi near the restaurant. This whole ‘alfresco thing’ with no walls to the treehouses, the billowing curtains letting in the bugs, is a challenge. Roll-on repellent, mosquito coils and anti-itch cream don’t help.
Matthew has been doing his best to guide them through the Buddha’s teachings. He doesn’t need to tell them the first two of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:
Dukkha: Suffering Exists
Samudaya: There is a cause for suffering.
The warm inner glow that he talks about has not enveloped her. In fact, his new-age-speak is grating on her nerves.
If another person says, ‘How’s your day been going so far?’ she’ll scream. On the way to her treehouse she notices Matthew as he steps out of the alfresco shower to the edge of his balcony partially covered by a towel. He turns to face the sun and dries his toned naked body. He describes himself as a ‘nomad’ and talks about his life spent travelling in search of deeper spiritual meaning and ‘the stillness’. His seductive movements with the towel remind her of one of those male strippers in Magic Mike. She makes a mental note to keep her eyes open in the yoga class when he says to shut them and then walks around making ‘adjustments’ to their poses.
She tries to share her concerns about Matthew with Vivian, who snaps, ‘Don’t disillusion me. He’s wonderful, and very handsome too.’ No point in arguing with her.
Was it philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who said, ‘Hell is other people’?
Vivian is the more sociable of the two, but gets irritated with Ms Never-Shuts-Up, Tattooist. A skinny, gum-chewing, permanently plugged into headphones ‘woman-who-lives-in-a-van’, in sports bra and tights, a colourful crocheted beanie on top of her copper-tipped blonde hair. While they peruse pictures of her ink designs on her iPad, she tells them she got her first tattoo at seventeen. She was living with her grandparents and wanted to shock them. The tattoo is spread across her chest with a lock at her heart.
‘What about you two?’ she says. ‘Would you get a tatt?’
‘When you get older your skin wrinkles,’ says Vivian. ‘And so does the tatt. So, no.’
Then the colourful Tattooist with the crochet beanie drifts on to another table and leaves them to discuss the merits of living in a van, becoming a nomad, or turning into a hermit.
After breakfast Vivian suggests they go down to the swimming hole, a tranquil pool hidden deep in the forest. They grab costumes and towels and head out.
The walking trail meanders through the rainforest across a trickling creek and through a shielded gully. The banks of the creek flourish with ferns and sweet-smelling white native jasmine and a choir of croaking green-eyed tree frogs.
‘When the frogs croak like that, it means rain is on the way,’ says
‘A walk is so relaxing.’
‘Red wine is relaxing,’ says Vivian. ‘You should drink more of it,’ she adds, in an unpleasant tone of voice.
‘Have you seen yourself when you’re drunk? Not a pretty picture.’
There’s no point in bickering.
Another shocking night. At 4a.m., too early to get up, a long, harsh scream, erupts from the ceiling. Heart thumping, she throws her pillow towards the sound, then sits up in the dark and swears. She can’t go on another day. By concentrating hard on the rafters above her, she can make out a white-lipped green tree frog clinging to the wood. Was it you who was making those horrible noises? she asks it.
At 6 a.m. she meets up with Vivian for an early breakfast. ‘I’m an absolute wreck. I hardly slept. In the night I thought, “I could just throw myself off the balcony.”’
Vivian looks at her wearily.
‘Want to see if we can book an earlier flight home?’
Hesitation. Vivian’s jaw clenches. ‘No. There’s no going back early. And don’t forget, we’re in this together.’
‘Together? You go off each day and do your own thing and I do mine. You like being in the sun, I like the shade. You’re on the beach, I’m in the hut.’
They march in to breakfast.
‘I shouldn’t have agreed to come to this place in mid-winter,’ she mutters to Gerry (pronounced Jeree), a cheeky American know-it-all in his seventies with grey curly hair and thick silver bangles inlaid with jade. He likes to boast that he lives part of the year in Florida and the other half in Kent in the U.K. ‘Bridge, golf and tennis.’ he tells people.
‘Ah,’ his eyes twinkle wisely, ‘if you’d lived in as many countries as I have, you’d know to expect this. You haven’t learnt to go-with-the-flow. You still get caught up in irritability and impatience. A common first-world problem.’
What’s he talking about? She stomps away to the café bar and orders a large latte. Anthony, the cook from New York, tells her the long scream in the night was probably one of the frogs. Yes, she knows that.
In the afternoon, sitting on the beach with Vivian they watch as the colourful Tattooist, her blonde locks splaying on to her shoulders, appears shimmering from a swim in the sea and walks leisurely back to her towel. The young woman lies on her front, unhooks her bikini top, then turns over and sits up so they can see the expanse of her back gleaming in the sun. There, covering the whole area is a giant tiger head tattoo.
‘See,’ says Vivian. ‘A leopard can change its spots. It can turn itself into a tiger—with stripes.’
The art work is so beautifully executed, so lifelike, so spellbinding, the tiger’s head so intricately and boldly defined, so regal and powerful, that they find themselves forgetting their differences and contemplating the transformative power of getting inked.
Departure day is fast approaching. Why not skip the classes and go for a long walk? Walking, she finds, sets just the right rhythm for the sort of thinking she likes to do. She makes her way up to the front gate, past the majestic rosewood trees and an array of multi-coloured birds swooping through the forest. It has rained in the night, and snails, grey and lilac, adorn the sandstone path. She heads out to the swimming hole, but today she takes a different path, not the one toward the little bridge, but one that leads more steeply down the hill, a quicker descent to the bottom of the gully and the deep pool.
The rain has muddied the water but all around her are shallow layers of multi-coloured pebbles. Never has she seen such a variety of stones, shape-shifting beneath her feet as she walks along the water’s edge. She marvels at their diversity, each pebble like the next one—only different. How many years of tumbling has it taken to become so perfectly smooth and round? She glances around and, seeing no-one, undresses and carefully steps across the shiny pebbles. She walks out into the water. It is so much warmer than she expected. When she is waist deep, she sucks in a breath, plunges in and swims toward the other bank. Being here, she tells herself, is exactly what she should be doing in life, right now. She looks up to the sky and gives thanks.
As she strides back through the grey-green wilderness she’s aware of an easing within herself. She can see it. An acceptance of the way things are. And with this acceptance comes the comforting realisation that she is at peace with herself, but the old self, not a new transformed one.
Copyright © Libby Sommer