Short Fiction - Gillian Brown
Second prize, Strands international Flash Fiction Competition -4
‘You’ll never succeed,’ the chief monk said, eyeing me up on arrival, ‘as long as you hold onto your possessions.’
‘But I have almost nothing. The bare minimum.’
‘Minimum is too much.’
I roll off my sleeping mat as I remember that first conversation. I’d learned basic Mandarin in preparation for this, more than enough to understand his meaning.
It is winter now in western China and the cold seeping up from the stone floor chills my bones every night. The reward at daybreak comes with a rush of adrenalin. Outside, forests garlanded with snow cover the mountainsides. The mist evaporates, revealing a sapphire sky. Zero pollution. Almost-heaven, but not quite.
My aim is to reach nirvana – the state of perfect happiness and enlightenment. Few attain this in a lifetime, and I’ve only been here a few months. The tiniest obstacles – gigantic in the mind of Buddhists – keep blocking my path.
‘You don’t need that.’ Their eyebrows jam together. Their heads shake.
My suitcase is modest; very small, bought cheaply in a charity shop for its potential longevity. Its rigid brown leather exterior has already survived many knocks whilst travelling here overland.
‘Whatever is in it?’ they ask.
I shrug. ‘Basics.’
I open it up now thinking no-one is watching and take out the photo of Gemma. I can
smell the jasmine conditioner in her hair, feel the softness of her skin and hear her infectious laughter. ‘I’ve met someone else,’ she said.
A shadow falls beside me. My heart jumps.
‘Desire clouds the brain. Love is irrelevant.’ The novice monk walks on, the swish of his orange robe a hushed whisper in the silence. Then, over his shoulder, ‘Every item in that suitcase carries a history, recalls painful moments or awakens old desires.’
His words send prickles of guilt down my spine. The Buddhist way is more demanding than I ever imagined. My shoulders sag. I am never going to attain nirvana with my current mind-set.
Spring arrives. The snow melts. Mountain streams gurgle and trickle. With a heavy heart, I gather my possessions and head for home. Down, but not out.
On the way, strangers give me shelter, feed my groaning stomach and soothe my blisters. One night, I collapse by the roadside, overcome with exhaustion. A boy jumps out from nowhere and snatches my suitcase. Seized by a wild panic, I scream. He trips and drops it, running away.
What’s it to him? Nothing. What’s it to me? Good question.
I stagger towards it and sleep clutching it to my stomach, as if it were a pot of gold.
Back home, my family and friends avoid me. I’m bone-thin. My trainers are scuffed and stained, my jeans frayed and my down jacket torn. I don’t fit into polite society. I’m hungry. Nobody feeds me. Job interviews end before they begin.
I flop down in the disused doorway I call home. My mind flashes back. When I first reached the monastery I used to dream of an inner-sprung mattress. Then I learned advanced meditation. Stretching out on the concrete ground, I free my mind from my body. For a brief glorious moment, I rise above my physical self and look down. A car roars past. The spell is broken. I zip up my down jacket and rest my head on the suitcase, more for safety than comfort.
Closing my eyes, familiar words in Mandarin whisper in my ear. ‘Belongings cause stress.’ I shove this thought aside with an irritated shake of the head, instead making a mental list of what I have left.
1. My photos of Gemma.
2. A cell-phone with no sim-card.
3. My Post Office savings account book – balance £1.00.
4. Paul Brunton’s classic: ‘A Hermit in the Himalayas’.
5. A Mandarin dictionary.
6. Shaving gear.
7. My harmonica.
8. My passport.
Next day, the sun shines. It makes people generous. They appreciate my music. Soon I have enough coins in my cap to buy a hamburger and some extra-strong lager. Satiated, my eyelids start to droop.
Lying on my side, the hard leather suitcase under my head, I twist back and forth before angrily tossing the case behind me. I make a softer pillow with my down jacket, settle back and close my eyes.
My body lies rigid. I can’t sleep.
The monk’s words reach me as clearly as if he were standing beside me. ‘Your mind is clouded with anxiety. And thoughts of thieves.’ My muscles tense further. ‘Possessions are an obstacle.’
This truth is harder to dismiss, but with a shiver of defiance I reach into my case. I grab both my harmonica and my passport and stash them in my back pocket.
At dawn, a train thunders into the nearby station. I sit up with a jolt. My head is groggy from the lager and I decide to have a shave in the public toilets before the commuters arrive. The pink light of sunrise peeking over the rooftops raises my spirits, sending a wave of wellbeing through my veins. I smile as I reach over for my shaving gear.
The suitcase is gone.
I scratch around wildly in the empty space. My hands fly to my back pocket. Both my harmonica and passport are still there. I slump back, jingling in my hand the loose change I have left. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth for several minutes.
Then I revise my list.
1. Gemma is the past. Nostalgia is a wasted emotion.
2. I’ve no-one to call on the phone.
3. I can earn a quid in less than an hour.
4. I’ve read Brunton’s book six times. I know it almost by heart.
5. There’s little need for Mandarin here.
6. What’s wrong with a beard?
The last two items – my harmonica and my passport – are essential for my survival. If holding onto them means I can never attain nirvana, so be it. I can live with that.
Gillian Brown started out as a travel writer but now concentrates on fiction. Her inspiration often comes from her travels or real life experiences. Motivation comes from short story competitions, for which she has a mild – but enjoyable – addiction. She has had stories published in magazines, in anthologies and online and won and been shortlisted in various competitions.