15. "One kiss before we part…"
We made some more tea and took it back to the sitting room. I made a point of seeking out Mrs Muller, as I was fairly sure she’d want to hear this. She knew nothing about the Doctor or the TARDIS, of course, but Barbara had said those elements needn’t really affect the telling of the story.
The four of us settled into our chairs. Barbara looked around at her audience a little nervously. ‘I hope you’re not expecting some grand adventure, because this is really nothing but an account of a meeting, a conversation with a remarkable man. I can’t even claim that it had an immediate effect on me, because, in common with many other people, I forgot the example I had been given soon after I moved on. It wasn’t until I found a book that reminded me of what I had witnessed…that was less than a year ago, and it brought me up short, made me realise what an opportunity I’d missed.’
She sipped her tea. ‘This meeting took place in early 1946, in India. To be precise, the location was the Sri Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai, a town built at the foot of a holy hill called Arunachala.’
I glanced at Mrs Muller. She was looking at Barbara, not with the scepticism I had expected considering the date, but with a kind of suppressed excitement. Barbara seemed to notice and looked towards her. ‘Yes…I visited Sri Ramana Maharshi.’
‘Bhagavan,’ breathed Mrs Muller. ‘There was a time I wanted nothing more than to go to Arunachala. But my husband was ill – I could not leave him. That was near the end of Bhagavan’s life. When I was free to go, he was no longer there.’
Barbara looked seriously at Mrs Muller. ‘He might have asked you where you thought he’d gone.’
Mrs Muller gave a tiny smile. ‘Forgive me. The desire to see divinity manifest was so powerful within me…of course, only his body left.’
This was beginning to sound a bit metaphysical already. I risked a glance at Caro; she arched an eyebrow at me.
But Barbara was nothing if not sensitive to her audience. ‘To fully appreciate what it meant to meet this man,’ she said firmly, ‘you would have to have done so. To be in his presence, if you were receptive, was to realise…to realise the real potential inherent in human beings. The divine potential, for want of a better term.’
‘Who was he?’ asked Caro.
‘He was the son of a middle class Brahmin family, who lived a perfectly ordinary life until he was seventeen. Then he had a remarkable experience. He was ill, and he was seized by a sudden overpowering fear of death. So he acted out the experience of death – lay on the floor, held himself rigid, thought to himself "All right, the body is dead – completely inert. But I still exist within." This thought led him to the realisation that his true nature was deathless spirit.’ Barbara paused, looking around. ‘Now, this is not such an unusual thing; it has happened to others. Many people who meditate or study the scriptures have flashes of this feeling. But in Ramana’s case the realisation was so powerful that it never faded. Throughout the rest of his life he was always aware of the eternal spirit within him. He could do anything in the physical world – eat, talk, walk – but he never lost the awareness of his true nature.’
‘Deathless spirit,’ repeated Caro, deadpan.
Barbara smiled at her. ‘Take away every external detail, strip off all personality, memories, habits – and what’s left? Simple consciousness, the knowledge—no, the sense that you exist, that things are. That is common to all of us. That, at heart, is what we are – not any of these things that go on in the physical world, which come and go, appear from nowhere and vanish without trace – just the simple "I am".’
‘Okay,’ said Caro slowly. ‘I can just about accept that. But – so what? What good does it do to know that?’
Barbara shook her head. ‘If you really knew, you wouldn’t ask. It’s everything. The point is, ultimately, nothing that happens affects you in the least. Not the real you. Things don’t happen to you – they simply happen. Nothing is good or bad – it just is.’
‘Sounds more than a little dull.’
‘To us in our present condition, yes, it does. Possibly nothing I say will dispel that feeling. We’re so used to identifying ourselves as a personality, an individual, that we resist anything that threatens that. It’s the mind trying to hold on to its illusions.’
‘We seem to be getting off the point,’ I said. ‘You were telling us about this Indian, this…Ramana?’
‘Yes. Well…after his realisation he lived his ordinary life for a while, although he’d lost all interest in what actually happened to him; he was just going through the motions. The people around him resented his lack of interest in worldly matters, so he left them and made a pilgrimage to Arunachala, the holy hill. And he never left. An ashram, a kind of spiritual centre, grew up around him, and he spent the rest of his life talking to people, answering their questions – or sometimes, communicating simply by silence. It was said that this was how he responded to the most advanced seekers – teaching without words.’
I nodded. ‘You said that words couldn’t express the ultimate…’
Caro glanced at me. ‘Sounds like an excuse to dodge awkward questions to me.’
‘In any argument, the rationalists will always win, because their entire world is constructed of words and ideas – it can be taken apart and analysed down to the last detail. Nothing I can say will win you over by the reason and logic of it. Remember, even Wittgenstein knew that words have a limit. I can’t persuade you. Perhaps five minutes in the company of Ramana Maharshi might have done.’
‘According to your theory,’ said Caro, ‘he’s still around. Perhaps you should whistle him up.’
I looked at Caro uneasily, but Barbara put up a hand before I could speak. ‘It’s all right. She’s right, of course – Bhagavan didn’t go anywhere. He’s here, within all of us.’ She put a hand to her forehead for a moment. ‘In a way, of course, it wasn’t even he that was remarkable – because everything that was individual to him, to that body, had been absorbed into the Eternal. To speak of an enlightened individual is a kind of contradiction in terms.’
‘Tell us about the meeting,’ said Caro with a trace of impatience. ‘Who was with you?’
‘It was just after Susan had left the TARDIS.’ Barbara glanced at Mrs Muller, but obviously decided not to elaborate. ‘It was just the Doctor, Ian and myself. We were having a sort of holiday after a particularly arduous adventure. I think perhaps the Doctor had made another determined attempt to get us home, and he’d only missed by a little this time.’
Less than twenty years, I thought. I looked at Mrs Muller but her face gave nothing away.
‘We found ourselves a little way from a town, which turned out to be Tiruvannamalai. I’d never heard of it, neither had Ian, and even the Doctor seemed to only vaguely recollect the name. We had a look around the town and then, as we were about to return to the ship, we came upon the Ashram.’
The phone rang. Mrs Muller excused herself and went to answer it.
I nodded after her. ‘What d’you think she’s making of this?’
Barbara looked at the half-open door. ‘I think her interest in Bhagavan is too great to—’
I grimaced at Mrs Muller’s call. ‘I’ll be back in a sec.’
Mrs Muller seemed mildly amused by something as she handed me the receiver.
‘Conrad, we were expecting you for lunch. I was going to serve it up in about forty-five minutes. But Wiltrud tells me you have guests. Did we make a mistake?’
‘Mum…!’ For a moment my brain refused to work. It was already Christmas Eve. I was supposed to be spending the day with them, so we could have our dinner here tomorrow. ‘I…I’m sorry. There’s been a lot going on. I…I…I’ll be right over.’
‘I don’t want you to be rude to your guests, but we were hoping—’
‘Yes, yes, it’s all right, I’ll be there. As soon as I can. I’m sorry.’
I put down the phone, took a moment to pull myself together, then went into the sitting room to tell them what had happened. ‘I’m really sorry. I want to hear what happened – but I really have to go.’
‘Perhaps tomorrow.’ There was a trace of amusement in Barbara’s smile, too. And Caro looked strangely pleased, as if having me out of the way was some kind of unexpected bonus.
I dashed upstairs to retrieve my presents. I was shoving them into a bag when I realised there was someone in the doorway.
It was Caro. She put a finger to her lips and came up to me. I simply looked at her for a moment; then she put her head on one side and pulled my face down to hers.
After thirty seconds I decided to let the bag fall. Still she clung to me. When she eventually released me I stared at her in perplexion. ‘Not that I’m complaining – but what was that for?’
‘Sort-of an apology.’
‘Well, you saw, didn’t you? In a funny way I was quite pleased you had to go.’ She kissed me again, quickly, as if to reassure me. ‘Nothing to do with not enjoying your company – I just want to talk to Barbara alone.’
‘I think it might produce different results to a three-way conversation.’ She smiled. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what we say – unless she swears me to secrecy, of course.’
The pressure of time was weighing heavily. I couldn’t think. ‘Look – I’ve gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’
When I got downstairs Mrs Muller was waiting by the door. ‘I have called you a taxi.’
‘But I can’t afford—’
She held out three pound notes. ‘That will cover it, I think.’
I hesitated. ‘I…shouldn’t…’
‘I do this for Eva and your father.’
I took the money.
We all know where Tony Bennett left his heart; I’d left most of myself in that sitting room. It was almost impossible to concentrate on where I was going. It did occur to me that this was an excellent opportunity to see if I could stop my mind running after irrelevant thoughts, but a few minutes of effort convinced me to let the thoughts spin as they wished.
It took just over half an hour to get to my parents’ house. By the time I was walking up the path I was comparatively calm, although still wishing I was back with Barbara and Caro.
My mother opened the door before I got there; I guessed she’d been darting nervously back and forth between the window and the kitchen. She gave me a more than usually effusive greeting, partly I suspect because she’d had doubts I’d turn up at all. In contrast, my father was his reserved self; he kind of grunted a greeting from behind the paper. The only way I could have produced a more enthusiastic reaction would have been to walk in dressed in the uniform of an army officer, but he had resigned himself to the reality of my ambitions by now.
My parents are nice people; intelligent, decent, and all that. But their ideas about life had always struck me as a bit limited. They’d made no effort to keep up with the tide of social change that had been rising throughout the decade; my mother’s investigations into about my love-life always framed themselves as an enquiry as whether I was "courting". If my father had any more progressive ideas he kept them well-hidden; he just about tolerated The Beatles (excepting Lennon) but he made it clear that he thought the Stones and many others would have benefited from a period spent in uniform.
This dinner was a little different. Not only had Mrs Muller informed them of Caro’s existence – they also knew Barbara was staying there and was a friend of mine. The conversation was general at first, but it soon came around to my two new female friends.
‘So who is she, exactly – this…this teacher person?’ asked my father as my mother cleared up the first course. ‘How did you get to know her?’
‘Uh…she was doing that survey…you know, of the young people in our area. Their work, their lives, etcetera.’
‘But you weren’t part of that. I remember you saying you didn’t want people poking into your life.’
Of course there was no way I was going to tell him the truth about my introduction to Barbara. ‘She… she was talking to some friends of mine – you know, Dennis and the others – and they invited her to hear the group play. We got talking, and found we had some things in common. She reads science fiction.’
‘Small wonder she can’t find a teaching job, then, if she fills her mind with that sort of thing.’
My mother had come back in time to hear this last remark. ‘Wiltrud is very taken with her. She says Barbara is a remarkable young woman.’
‘Well, Eva, your friend has some funny ideas about what can be considered remarkable.’ My father cocked an eyebrow at me. ‘How old is she, exactly, this…Barbara?’
‘Um…I don’t know. About thirty, I think.’
A look passed between my parents. My mother put a Christmas Pudding on the table and said: ‘And what of…Caroline, is it?’
‘How old is she..? Dunno that, either. About my age.’
Another look. My mother sat down. ‘And what sort of girl is she? Wiltrud says she seems very intelligent, but she is not quite sure what she does.’
‘She’s…an art student.’
A small grunt from my father.
‘Her family’s quite rich, though,’ I couldn’t resist putting in.
Signs of interest from my father. My mother busied herself with the pudding. ‘So what will she do with herself when she has finished her studies?’ she asked.
‘Well, whatever she wants, I expect.’
Another grunt. ‘Sounds like she has a sight too much freedom.’
‘She’s…very independent.’ The whole conversation was irritating me. None of things we were saying seemed to come close to the reality of either Caro or Barbara. And yet I felt I couldn’t defend them properly without giving too much away.
We carried on talking in similar vein for the rest of the meal; then we sat in front of a film for a couple of hours. I kept thinking about what might be happening back at Mrs Muller’s. How long had Caro stayed to talk to Barbara? Was she still there even now? What were they saying to each other? Suddenly I was wracking my brains to remember what I had told them both about myself.
We exchanged presents – although we couldn’t unwrap them, of course, it being a day early – and then my mother went "to visit a neighbour". My father and sat in silence for a while, watching the news. After a while he sat forward.
‘Conrad, you are at least nominally an adult now, so this is technically none of our business – but I hope you’re quite clear about what you’re doing.’
‘Um…I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘Well…I don’t know about what’s happening with this Caroline girl, but…well, young men of twenty don’t form "friendships" with women of thirty. They just don’t. It’s never that simple.’
‘I told you, she reads Science F—’
‘And I know when you’re not telling me the whole truth. You forget I’ve been trained to spot when people are lying. Perhaps you have your own good reasons for keeping these things to yourself – as I said, you’re an adult now – but I still get the feeling you’re venturing into dangerous territory. Wiltrud may not always have both feet planted firmly on the ground, but she’s no fool. She sees things. And what she’s been saying has worried your mother a little.’
‘She has no right t—’
‘To be fair to her I think your mother pressed her a little; she sensed something odd was going on. Try to remember that we don’t exist to make your life more difficult. If possible, we want to help – if you feel you need help.’
‘All right.’ He sat back. ‘I can’t pretend I’ve ever found myself in a similar situation to the one you’re in now, but if you should feel the need to talk it over….well, I can listen.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind. Thanks.’ I wanted to tell him he was wrong, that it was perfectly possible for me to have Barbara only as a friend – but of course I couldn’t. At the same time I was impressed; it was the nearest thing to a heart-to-heart we’d ever had.
He looked across at the clock on the mantelpiece. ‘I dare say you’ll be off again soon. Just remember what I’ve said – and don’t make too much of a fool of yourself.’
‘Thanks.’ I followed his stare to the clock. It was half-past eight. Incredibly, I had been here nearly seven hours. I wondered if Barbara and Caro had been talking all this time.
I waited until my mother returned, then wished them both a good Christmas and made my escape, burdened with a bag of presents for myself and Mrs Muller. I could tell my mother was a little tearful at the idea that I would be spending Christmas Day elsewhere, but she bore up bravely.
My mind was strangely blank on the bus ride home. Too much had happened, perhaps; I found myself aimlessly watching the passing cars and the few people who were still out, wishing I had brought something to read.
Caro was not there when I arrived, at about quarter to ten. I was both relieved and disappointed; I had toyed with the idea of asking Mrs Muller if she could stay overnight. Mrs Muller herself had gone to bed – she always went early – and Barbara was in front of the fire in her dressing gown, still deep in Siddhartha. I was surprised she hadn’t finished it, but as I came back into the sitting room and sat down with the drinking chocolate I’d made for the two of us, I had a sheaf of papers waved in my face.
‘Your Christmas present,’ smiled Barbara.
I looked at the paper in the flickering light.
‘After Caro had gone, I decided to write it all down. It is in some ways the most important story, after all.’
‘This is the meeting with, um…’
‘Ramana Maharshi – Bhagavan – yes.’
‘Can I take it to bed – read it later?’
‘Of course.’ She picked up the chocolate. ‘How were your parents?’
‘Oh, fine. Fine.’
She looked at me as if sensing there was something I was not saying. ‘But…?’
‘No, there isn’t a but – not really. It was odd.’ I took a sip of my drink. Then I told her about the conversation with my father. ‘You get to a stage in your life where your parents no longer control you, no longer have any power over you, and you sort of shove them into a corner and assume they don’t have much to do with your life any more. It’s as if they wouldn’t understand, or something. I mean, I knew my Dad wasn’t stupid, but the way he read the situation…’
‘I wonder if my father might have surprised me in the same way – if I’d been able to talk to him about the Doctor?’
‘After today nothing would surprise me.’ But this reminded me of something. ‘So…what did you and Caro talk about? Did she stay long?’
Barbara smiled. ‘About four hours, I suppose.’
‘You told her and Mrs Muller the whole story about Maharshi – you finished it off?’
‘Well, it seemed unfair to make them wait. And I thought I could easily tell you another time.’
‘How did they react to it?’
‘Isn’t that question better left until you’ve read the account?’
‘I suppose.’ I looked at the paper. ‘Did…you talk about anything else?’
‘You mean did Caro and I discuss you?’
‘Uh…’ I took refuge in my chocolate for a few moments. ‘No, that wasn’t quite what I meant. This is a funny situation, and I wasn’t sure how Caro was going to take the fact that you’ve moved in here.’
‘Oh…we got on very well. She told me a great deal about herself.’
‘What, like the fact that she’s the daughter of Robert Blackman?’
‘Ah.’ Barbara looked thoughtful. ‘She wasn’t sure if you’d worked that out. I think she was a bit worried it might change your attitude to her.’
‘It did make me wonder why she was…well, living the way she does. Has her father disowned her or something?’
‘I think it’s more like she’s disowned him.’ Barbara raised a hand in reassurance. ‘Oh, there’s no great rift between them – just the opposite, from what she said – she just doesn’t want to rely too heavily on the advantages that come with being part of that family.’
Barbara seemed to guess what was in my mind. ‘You must understand – she doesn’t mind you knowing, but she was terribly afraid it would make you see her in a completely different light. She didn’t want to spoil what you two have.’
‘And what do we have? I hope she has some idea, ’cos I don’t think I do.’
‘I think it’s another one of those things better not expressed in words. Don’t you?’ Barbara’s lips were pulled together tightly for a moment. ‘She did ask me, point blank, if I had any interest in you.’
‘I said no.’
I looked at her. There was a tiny smile there – of sympathy? ‘I took the question to mean, did I have any interest that would conflict with hers? The answer to that was no. Sorry if I disappointed you.’
I shrugged helplessly.
Barbara leaned forward and laid a hand on mine. ‘She sees a great potential in you, you know. She can’t define what it is, but she says she spotted it from the very start. Just a kind of honesty—’
‘Honesty?? Christ, I feel like I’ve been lying to her left, right and centre…’
Barbara’s hand tightened on my fingers. ‘I think that’s what she means. You’re honest with yourself, at least. Not everyone is…in fact I think hardly anyone is.’ She leaned forward a little more. ‘Do you know how rare it is for people to really talk? I mean, to communicate properly, without all the playing of games and saving of face that usually goes on? We – you and I – have had a few moments like that. I’d guess that it happens with Caro, too. That’s what she treasures.’
Barbara let go of my hand and I sat back.
‘She needs someone like you,’ she added seriously. ‘She’s…a little lost, I think. She puts a brave face on it, but she doesn’t really know what she wants. Apart from someone like you – perhaps to keep her honest.’
‘Sounds like a big responsibility,’ I muttered.
‘I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. You have a lot to give each other.’
I nodded. ‘And what about you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You seemed to think that we’d helped you to a better understanding of your own situation. Do you still feel that? Does it still seem so important to get someone to listen to you?’
‘I have, haven’t I?’ she said gently. ‘Perhaps that really was all I needed, to be properly listened to by just one person, one person who had no reason to believe me. And now Caro – she’s more sceptical than you, but she’s told me she doesn’t doubt me, personally. That means a tremendous amount to me. You know how much.’
‘So,’ I spread my hands, ‘are you ready to ring Ian?’
There was disquiet in her face. ‘I…I suppose I ought to be. But I was thinking, just an hour ago, about how my desire to get my stories heard had blotted out everything else, made it impossible for me to function properly in the world…and how that conflicts so strongly with what I believe about the nature of existence – that everything happens as it should.’ She wrapped her hands around her mug. ‘I suppose I’m worried that if I go to Ian now, his practical—his wonderfully practical approach will rub off on me. I’ll get lost in the everyday business of living, and I’ll lose sight of what I was shown by Ramana Maharshi.’
‘And what was that, exactly? In words of one syllable…’
She smiled and shook her head. She tapped the paper on the table between us. ‘Read the account. Then you can ask whatever questions you like.’
‘I think I’ll do that now.’ I stood up and gathered up the paper. ‘Sorry – I haven’t got you a present.’
She looked at me a moment. Then she levered herself out of the chair. ‘Well, there is one little thing you could give me.’ Before I could even ask she had stepped up to me and stretched her face up to mine. Our lips met; I knew I should break away, but I couldn’t help but respond. But the moment my arms started to curve around her she broke it off and stepped back.
‘Thank you,’ she said softly. ‘Now, the rest of those are for Caro.’
‘Are you trying to drive me crazy?’
She let out a long breath. Her hand came up to touch my cheek. ‘I’m only human –’ she smiled ‘– at least at the moment. Now go to bed. I want to spend the rest of Christmas Eve with Herman Hesse.’
I went upstairs, but I had little hope of concentrating on what I was about to read.