By Andrew Peers
Matt rinsed his mouth out and looked in the mirror.
His eyes, still narrowed by sleep, made his bald head seem oriental. He leaned forward and slightly to the right to see his reflection. The rural long house was decorated in a ‘simple chic’ style, but his height hadn’t been calculated in. As slow comet tails of thought stretched across the inner sky of his skull, he remembered driving in his car the day before, the roof folded down and the air tickling his ear hair.
Yesterday Matt was happy. His first weekend retreat had gone well.
He’d stopped off to do some shopping in town. After perusing the new summer collection in a clothing store, he was on his way out again when he heard a dull thud and squeak of suspension. In one of the passages between the mannequin-inhabited islands, a baby had just been rudely dumped into a buggy. The angry glare of its young mother was directed towards the other child standing there. The woman’s lips articulated exaggeratedly but her voice was muted to a hissing whisper, almost drowned out by the in-store music.
The older sister remained motionless, her face partly hidden in the rag doll she was clutching. Her left foot was making gentle circles, the top of her shoe a compass point on the ground, as she received mother’s lava-flow of emotion. Eyes peeked through the long hair of the doll, hollow eyes looking about, briefly meeting Matt’s.
The mother’s mouth stopped moving and her daughter threw her arms down against her sides and looked down at the floor. The mother then turned the buggy and the girl marched out of the shop, one hand clamped onto the pram. Her gait was like a that of a stamping soldier.
Matt watched her go and felt his heart pounding in his chest. For the rest of the day the scene replayed in his mind, and that night he was suddenly woken by it.
Matt took the soap from the edge of the sink and washed his face, putting it back by feeling for the side of the sink. Hearing it plop back into the water made him jump. Irritated, he dried his face and put the soap back again on the side of the sink. After an impressive pirouette-like spin, it plopped for a second time into the water. Matt fished it out again and slammed it back down on the sink. It shot through his fingers and off across the floor. A penetrating inner scream pierced him. “You will do what I say! Stay there and don’t move! ”
The house is silent.
A housefly kick-starts in the sudden sunlight, buzzes a zigzag path towards the adjoining bedroom and straight back to where Matt is still facing the mirror, transfixed. Is someone calling?
Lara, the boxer dog, too nervous to climb up the steel ladder to the first floor, is pacing in the hall below, her nails clattering on the ceramic tiles. Her orange-brown coat is the only splash of color in the black and white decor of their home. The screaming sound Matt thought he heard had been high-pitched and faded as soon as he turned his attention to it. Like someone suddenly turning off a radio that a moment before had filled the ears. On the second floor, where his only daughter had her own room, all seemed quiet. His pupils turned in their orbit around his nose and met themselves again in the mirror.
Yesterday afternoon, while he was driving home, Matt had sung his favorite verse from T.S. Elliott’s poem East Coker. The lines, ‘Love is most nearly itself, When here and now cease to matter’ freed up the physical stiffness of long hours on the meditation cushion—hours of here and now.
Not that he was always aware of what was going on inside him, but in recent months he had felt good; never so clearly felt he was a human being, with a unique story quite incapable of explaining who he had become.
A reluctant lecturer, he had been made redundant by the teacher training college in the 90s, and subsequently tried his hand at various small businesses, becoming a hair salon owner, a business partner to a butcher who later shafted him, then an owner of a primitive sawmill in the corner of a field, which he later sold for a modest profit. With the money he’d bought a few drinks machines, installing them at strategic locations in the city—a job that gave him more time to invest in his meditation training.
He was totally unaware of the hidden anger during these years of his life.
He didn’t want to know anything about love and relationships. Love was a traitor. Never would any woman get that chance again. After a series of short-lived relationships he had begun to treat others like furniture that could be maneuvered into corners. Sex was a surreal movie divorced from reality and in which he starred as both actor and director. Even the rage had finally frozen over into a cold indifference. The sensitivity in his hands and feet had retired to the middle of his body and all power lines to the heart were down. He had been living in an ice cave and all he could do was sit it out.
Matt picked the soap off the floor, put it back on the side of the sink. It skidded straight into the water again. Buddha anger burst in his blood and suddenly he heard the sound again. A high wail, like a child’s voice calling almost drowned out by the roar of his silent rage. A child crying out as she marches through the whirlwind of his inner turmoil. “But Mama, I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me, mama, please, I love you and hate your monster face that scares me so!”
The meditation training had become a life where he could hide himself and shut out his own darkness with the concept of emptiness. The message of his teacher had been one of “Destroy your ego!” and “Die on your cushion!” rather than one of self-acceptance. Any sign of love or affection from others often physically startled him. To be loved, he needed a face, but the porcelain plate of his face had been knocked from the mantelpiece of his shoulders a long time ago. It had fallen to the ground and shattered to a thousand pieces.
Matt scanned the house mentally. He saw the hall downstairs where Lara is now snoozing in her box under the stairs, through the walls to the first floor with its kitchen island and matching cupboards and suddenly it all seems as if he is looking at his life from a seat on a passing train. A life in which everything goes smoothly, the soap always stays where it should and children are never disobedient, nor mothers angry.
Sitting regularly in meditation on his cushion had become a strategy for survival, like straddling the saddle of an invisible horse and riding through landscapes he no longer understood, until the recent diagnosis of prostate cancer.
There the wall of an early death had stopped the horse in its tracks, exhausted but also somehow expectant. Matt knew he had to get off. He wanted to dismount and to bow—bow low down to the ground, as if for the first time, this time sincerely, from the heart.
If he couldn’t love himself for his own sake, then he had learned to do so because of his red-haired wife. She knew nothing about meditation, but the way she looked at him was a clear refreshing stream beyond his understanding. It was as if she looked beyond the veil to who he truly was, in all his innocence and beauty.
And Matt longed to feel for himself what she saw in him.
His left foot swiveled spontaneously outward to the left, as his muscles hooked up his entire skeleton like railcars to step to the bedroom doorway and gaze at his wife’s face still asleep in bed. Love is something of the face, he thought. Love is something of her face.
He turned back to the mirror behind him and knows himself as still one coherent whole, a man who has learnt to return the look of love in his wife’s eyes, and so now can look back at his own reflection.
No more pieces are missing from the jigsaw of his features, all shards have finally been gathered up again. The morning is tranquil, the sun illuminating a hesitant smile on his face.
It is the face of a child.
Editor: Dana Gornall