22. "Now my girl, you’re so young and pretty…’
I suspect we all had little sleep that night – or rather, morning. Caro and I lay awake for some time, unspeaking. At one stage I saw the glistening of tears on her cheeks, but I could think of nothing to say. I supposed she was recalling how close she had come to losing him.
We breakfasted together, all a little pale and subdued, but there was an odd kind of intimacy there. I felt that these people were my best friends. Previously that honour would have gone to Dennis and one or two others – people I now realised I hadn’t seen for months in some cases.
Blackman made one last attempt to persuade me to join Caro and Guy – then delighted them by saying that he would probably fly over himself in the second week of their trip. I felt tempted – much more than previously – but somehow I still couldn’t make that final jump. Barbara tried to reassure me, but I still felt like a coward.
‘Something in you knows it isn’t right,’ she said. ‘At least, not for you – not now. Sometimes we can’t explain these things.’
Caro at least, no longer seemed to give it any thought; I think her father’s decision would have made up for anything. We seemed to have become inseparable over the course of the last few days; there was hardly a moment when some part of our bodies wasn’t in contact, however lightly. I wasn’t complaining.
I felt a surprising pang of genuine regret when Barbara and I were dropped off by Guy. I would see Caro again soon, of course, but I found myself already missing Vee, Roxie and Guy. And Blackman. Barbara took my arm as we walked up the path.
Life settled down into a pattern, at least for a while. At Mrs Muller’s insistence Barbara adopted a fairly easy-going approach to hunting for somewhere else to live – or perhaps she was thinking of what might happen when Ian came back. It was clear that Mrs Muller enjoyed the company, and as she didn’t care about the rent it took a lot of the pressure off Barbara. She did go searching for a job, but waitressing seemed to be about the only profession open to her with the gap in her past, and she decided she wasn’t prepared to give up on the hope of something better just yet.
Living under the same roof, we found a great deal of time to talk. She told me about the rest of her adventures with the Doctor; incredible stories of ancient Rome, Revolutionary France and planets so far away they had never seen human beings. She talked about jumping a track in time, of seeing herself preserved in a museum – this caused a long discussion, because it did appear that she and her companions had changed their own future, and what would Bhagavan have said about that? – of strange jungles with living plants on a world ruled by robots, of Susan’s decision to remain behind on the earth of the next century, after it had been delivered from the Daleks, and of Vicki, an orphan from far in earth’s future who regarded the Beatles as classical musicians. On my advice she wrote the stories down; I wasn’t sure now if anything could, or even should be done with them, but it gave Barbara something to do while she waited for Ian to return.
She began to receive letters from him, about a week after he had left. I must admit to a few tiny twinges of the heart when I saw how happy they made her. But mostly I was glad; I had my own source of happiness.
I saw Caro as often as I could, which worked out at three or four times a week. Away from her father the slightly acerbic side of her character re-emerged, and I found I had missed it. I felt challenged by her again, and I knew I needed that.
I found out what her other activities were. She had been writing poetry for some time, but had never shown it to anyone. I was the first, and despite my difficulties with the form I was impressed. Perhaps with the work of the ones we love we can make that extra effort.
And she was on the brink of a career as a model. Guy had set up sessions with a photographer friend and the pictures had come out extremely well. The man had somehow managed to turn her narrow face into an asset. I ended up with several of the shots on my wall, arranged around my favourite – the snap of her and Barbara from the party. There was an obscure kind of pain seeing Barbara in that dress, but the image was too attractive for me not to have it where I could look at it. In their very different ways, they had both made my life really worth living.
I still saw Dennis occasionally. He had stepped forward to take the vocals, but Caro didn’t seem to bear him any grudge, for which he was helplessly grateful. He kept talking about trying to persuade the others to let her back, but nothing came of it. And Sally went back to her boyfriend – Dennis wouldn’t say why, but Barbara confided to me that she had found him rather immature. I wondered if he’d tried to get her to read The Silver Surfer.
Barbara and Mrs Muller continued to baffle Caro and me with theological discussions; it was almost like a tennis match sometimes, watching them bat ideas back and forth. It all seemed a long way from the directness and simplicity of Bhagavan’s approach, but Barbara said it helped her to remember and to keep her ideas focussed. It also reminded her, she said with a wry smile, how useless all discussion was, which was valuable in itself. I doubted that Mrs Muller felt quite the same; I could see she was going to be almost as sorry as I was when Barbara moved out.
The sexual frisson between us continued to simmer, in an odd sort of way. We never referred to it, and I felt no temptation to do anything, but there was definitely something there. I remembered my father’s words on the subject. Perhaps these friendships are never entirely neutral, whatever we may tell ourselves. As it no longer interfered with my feelings for Caro, I stopped worrying about it.
I saw Vee and Roxie quite often, Guy less so. I was introduced to David, his other half, and if I’d had trouble seeing the girls express affection it was nothing compared to what seeing Guy and David together did to me. I knew it was a stupid prejudice – perhaps I felt slightly threatened by them. Vee and Roxie often asked after Barbara, and one day I even managed to get them all together. Far from being a follow-up philosophy lesson, it turned into an examination of the school experience from both sides of the desk, and I came to the conclusion that I’d never have learnt anything with Vee or Roxie in my class. They’d both started rebelling early. It was good being together with them all, though. I could tell Barbara had enjoyed it as well – and Vee and Roxie extended an open invitation for her to come to the house.
Work continued much the same, although Mr Stephenson got very enthusiastic about the "I’m Backing Britain" campaign, and was a bit impatient with my indifference to it. The Beatles made their own contribution to British business with the Apple boutique; being one of the few who could afford to, Caro insisted on buying several outfits there. We kept our eyes open, but there was no sign of any of the Fab Four. I was slightly relieved, as I would have had to confess to Harrison that I hadn’t been able to make much of the Gita. Assuming he’d have remembered me at all.
The first week of February came to an end, and the day of departure loomed. Caro and I spent an emotional evening and night, and when it came to it we were both so distraught at the prospect of parting that she agreed to come back past the house on the way to the airport.
That morning I waited with Barbara in the sitting room. She didn’t attempt to distract me, just sat there reading. I was grateful for her presence. Every car made me start; after a while Barbara settled herself next to me and took my hand, holding lightly between both of hers.
‘I should be going with them,’ I muttered.
‘You’re not,’ she said softly. ‘Staying here is what you were meant to do. There’s a reason. Think of me, for a start; I’ve still got over a fortnight until Ian comes back. How would I get through it without you?’
A car horn sounded outside. I came to my feet with a jerk; I looked at Barbara for a moment, then dashed outside.
She was standing at the gate. We clung to each other so tightly we both had trouble getting our breath. Guy and David sat patiently in the car. Music was coming from inside; I thought it was the radio, but after a few seconds Caro pulled me to the window and pointed in. ‘Look; eight track, specially installed. We had to take some decent music with us – how else would we survive?’
She turned to me. ‘Look after yourself – and get something done. Something worthwhile. I shall want to read it when I get back.’ She kissed me. ‘Oh, and practice making drinks.’ One last meeting of our lips, and she stepped back. ‘Gotta go. They’re playing my song.’
The track was The Animals – ‘We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. As the chorus came up Guy and David added their voices to it, their tones insistent. Caro ducked into the back of the car, wound down the window, and hung her head out. Her lips puckered. Guy groaned, but I bent down and kissed her quickly.
‘I love you,’ I said. I could hardly get the words out of my swollen throat.
There was a look of slight shock on her face as they pulled away; she almost forgot to wave. She shouted back; I couldn’t catch the words, but I know what I wanted them to be.
Barbara was waiting for me on the doorstep. Without a word she put her arms around me and I let it all out.
I felt wretched for about two days. I knew I should have gone with them; all the reasons I’d given myself were just excuses to avoid risk. I remembered how I’d felt at the end of Billy Liar; the film left me with a sour taste because he decided to stay at home. How could anyone not want to run away with Julie Christie, I’d thought at the time. And now I’d done the same thing. But at least Caro was coming back; and in the meantime I was supposed to be getting down to some serious writing.
For that first forty eight hours I was too distracted to think clearly. It wasn’t until the morning of February 11th, a Sunday, that I felt able to consider my options. And even then, with the thought of Caro as an incentive, I couldn’t come up with anything. I sat at my desk for three hours, doodling and writing down scraps of plots, names, ideas for characters – but I couldn’t make the thing come together. I began to wonder about my aborted fantasy book; even if it was derivative at least I’d be writing, and one thing might lead to another.
At about one there was a knock on my door and in answer to my call it opened to reveal Barbara. ‘I was about to heat myself some soup for lunch,’ she said. ‘Would you like some?’
For a moment the offer had me confused until I remembered that Mrs Muller had gone out for the day – some sort of church outing, visiting the shrine of a saint in Norwich. I considered. ‘Why not? Thanks.’ I stood up. ‘In fact I’ll come and watch you heat it up. It’s got to be more worthwhile than sitting here.’
‘What are you trying to do?’ she asked as we went down the stairs.
‘What I was told. Write something meaningful. Fat chance.’
‘In that case, you won’t want to hear that I’ve finished the last of the accounts of my adventures.’
‘I would rather you kept that to yourself, thanks.’
We went into the kitchen. Barbara busied herself with the soup, and I sat at the table, hunched over, my head supported by my hands. After a few moments Barbara looked round and said: ‘Do you want to see if there’s any bread?’
The request was delivered in a pointed manner, and I realised I was overdoing the doom and gloom. I looked in the fridge and found half a loaf. I sorted out two slices each and put them on plates. Then I sat down again.
‘Have you heard from Caro since they left?’
‘Yeah. She called when they landed, just to let me know they were safe. She sounded excited.’
‘Why shouldn’t she be? It’s a fascinating part of the world; I wouldn’t mind three weeks there myself.’ Almost immediately she seemed to realise what she had said; I saw her give me a surreptitious glance as she got out the bowls.
‘What do you do,’ I asked her, ‘on days like this, when even breathing seems like too much effort?’
‘I try to remember that I lack nothing that I need to be happy.’
‘Well,’ I mused, ‘it might work if Caro wasn’t hundreds of miles away. Next idea?’
She gave me a mildly amused look and poured out the soup. She set a bowl and my bread in front of me and then sat down facing me with her own. She picked up her spoon, but paused before she started to eat. ‘Seriously,’ she said, ‘think about it. You’re comparing again. Instead of concentrating on what is here, you’re expending a lot of energy dwelling on what isn’t – Caro. I thought I’d at least persuaded you of the virtue of facing up to what is. Remember the cold cup of tea?’
‘As Caro said, it’s fine unless you happen to want your tea hot.’
She tested the temperature of her soup, raising the spoon gingerly to her lips. She put it down again. ‘But the tea is cold,’ she said, and smiled briefly. ‘Even if the soup isn’t. Caro isn’t here. Nothing can change that. You’re allowing your mind to make you miserable.’ She frowned. ‘No, not even that. Your mind is making itself miserable.’
‘Sure as hell feels like I’m moping in there somewhere.’
She blew on her soup and took a mouthful. ‘Eat up. You don’t want to be skin and bone when Caro gets back.’ She shook her spoon at me. ‘It’s amazing how we become so dependent on external things for our happiness. We have to have certain experiences, certain people near us, certain comforts…’
‘But that’s the whole point of life, surely?’ I objected. ‘That’s what being in a free country means; being able to go where we want, see who we want…’
She shook her head. ‘The point of life is what is in front of you at any given moment. This civilisation is geared to avoiding the present; we save for our old age, wait eagerly for the weekend, plan holidays – all for a tomorrow which may never come.’ She jabbed the spoon at my bowl. ‘The point of your life at the moment is not Caro. It’s that soup, which I’ll eat if you don’t make a start on it.’
I dipped my spoon into the bowl. ‘You’re very bossy today.’
‘You need taking in hand at the moment. You can’t afford to let your happiness depend on Caro’s presence. What would you do if she fell madly in love with some Turkish boy?’ She saw my face and added quickly: ‘Don’t worry, I’m quite sure she won’t. But nothing lasts forever, you know. Except…well, except—’
‘Actually I was going to say the Self. But it comes to the same thing.’
‘But what good is the Self? According to you it can’t even do anything. We – it – watches, and things happen around it. That’s not life, that’s…’
She jerked her spoon at my bowl again and I took another mouthful. Her brow creased in thought; then she looked at me. ‘Will you try an experiment with me?’
I shrugged. ‘If you like.’
‘Right. We’ll start with a spoonful of soup. Eat it; but when it’s in your mouth, don’t think about Caro, or me, or how you can’t write – just taste the soup. D’you think you can manage that?’
I shrugged again. I lifted my spoon and took it into my mouth.
‘Feel it,’ she told me. ‘Feel the heat, the texture of the liquid, the taste – concentrate.’
I had already swallowed it. ‘I’ll try again,’ I said in response to her slightly impatient look. I took another mouthful. This time I slowed myself down, tried to focus on my tongue and the inside of my mouth.
She watched me carefully. ‘How is it?’
‘Like tomato soup. Yours will get cold,’ I told her. She took some, then closed her eyes and swallowed slowly. Her eyes opened. ‘Now take a mouthful of bread.’
I broke off a piece.
‘Don’t gulp it down,’ she warned. ‘Taste it.’
I did as she asked. When I had swallowed she reached across the table and placed a finger on the back of my hand. The pressure was very gentle; barely perceptible. ‘Now focus on that sensation. Put everything else out of your mind.’
I closed my eyes. I could feel the slight warmth on the skin just below my knuckle.
‘That,’ she said softly, ‘is the point of your life at this moment.’
I opened my eyes. She took her hand away. ‘Do you understand?’
‘I’m not sure…’
‘Your mind is just a tool,’ she said. ‘It helps you organise things, that’s all. The trouble is, it isn’t content with that; it tries to take hold of every aspect of your experience and organise that. Things are sorted into good and bad, desirable and undesirable, boring and interesting…you don’t taste one mouthful of soup because you’re thinking about the next one, or about something else altogether. In itself perhaps it seems a fairly harmless thing, but it prevents us from seeing the incredible truth – that life is perfect as it is, every moment. Soup doesn’t taste different because Caro isn’t here – nor does bread. The touch of my finger is just the same. Your life isn’t three days ago, or two and a half weeks in the future – your life is here and now. Yesterday doesn’t exist. Tomorrow doesn’t exist.’
‘Unless you have a TARDIS.’
She nodded slowly. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. The ship does seem to contradict the teachings, which say that the present is the only reality, but…it occurred to me that the mind of God might well be able to experience every moment that has been or ever will be, all at once. After all, what is eternity to an eternal being? And if the Doctor’s people somehow found a way to tap into something like that, the secret, the essence of creation…then perhaps they found a way to make every moment equally real, equally accessible. We know so little about time, really – we measure it by change, movement, but what does time mean to something that never changes? If the universe falls in on itself, as they say it might, what will happen to time then? How would it be measured? There could be nothingness for thousands of millions of centuries and it would pass in the blink of an eye…’
‘I think I’ll stick to tasting soup,’ I said.
She smiled, but said: ‘Of course you’re right. Soup is the thing at the moment, not the fate of the universe.’
We finished our lunch in silence and she put the kettle on. I watched her standing by the cooker, reflecting how familiar she seemed, as if I had always known her. ‘I do feel better,’ I said. ‘Maybe you’ve just taken my mind off things, but I feel sort of…at peace.’
She acknowledged this admission with a slight smile. ‘Amazing what tomato soup can do.’
I didn’t have any more success with my efforts to write in the next few days. Barbara showed me her written accounts of the other stories she had told me, perhaps in an attempt to inspire me – or just to shame me – but it didn’t seem to help. I felt oddly as if I was waiting for something, and even a couple of calls from Caro did little to shake me out of my apathy. My mind was empty. Barbara said that perhaps my real life had just become too interesting for me to need fiction as an escape – and it was certainly true that I was also having trouble reading. Driven by guilt from another direction I went back to the Gita, but it continued to baffle me. Barbara encouraged me to read Day By Day With Bhagavan, which was interesting but almost as opaque to my understanding. It did, however, introduce one useful analogy into our conversations.
‘Bhagavan compares the life we live to an actor playing a role,’ I said.
‘Yes, I’d forgotten that,’ she admitted. ‘Perhaps that was the approach I should have used all along. At the moment,’ she told me with a smile, ‘you’re playing in Romeo and Juliet.’
‘Very funny. So what are you in?’
‘Well, for a while there you were setting me up as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. But it is a useful comparison. If you think of the Self as the actor – in fact all the actors – and everything else as part of the play, it might help you to understand what Krishna talks about in the Gita.’
When this conversation took place we were actually in my room. Here Barbara looked around at the walls, until her eye fell on the photograph of herself and Caro. ‘Oh…I haven’t noticed that before. Is that really what I looked like in that dress? Mutton dressed as lamb…’ She shook her head. ‘Anyway, what I was thinking was: have you ever considered that you created the universe?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Well, in a sense nothing exists until you know about it. The seer and the seen arise simultaneously, Bhagavan said. If you’d never heard of Bob Dylan, as far as you were concerned there’d be no such person.’
‘Except that half the world knows who he is.’
‘Well, maybe he’s not the best example…but you don’t know half the world, anyway, do you? Even I wasn’t real until you saw me.’
‘You were real to yourself.’ I couldn’t see where this was going.
‘Yes, but that’s a whole other universe; mine.’
‘But we live in the same universe.’
‘Do we?’ She stood up and wandered over to my poster of Raquel. ‘I dare say what you see when you look at this differs from my perception of it. And even I, looking at it, am simply a part of your universe. As if I was a character in a book you were writing.’
‘With the very important difference that I don’t control what you do.’
‘No?’ She looked at me. ‘No, I suppose it doesn’t feel like that. That’s the biggest obstacle in some ways; the illusion of free will. The trouble is that you think you actually do control some things in your life.’
‘Now we’re back to Guy and pouring the coffee.’
‘Yes.’ She smiled at the memory. ‘Someone once asked Bhagavan, if the whole world was just a projection of the mind, couldn’t he – Bhagavan – just wish wars out of existence? He laughed, and pointed out that the Bhagavan who was being asked to do that was also just a mental projection.’
‘It’s way beyond me.’ I tried to formulate my objections. ‘Apart from the fact that I can’t, I really can’t get behind this idea that I have no individual existence, no free will, the problem is, as far as I can tell…that I just don’t want to. Okay, I was mooning over Caro for a few days, but just at the moment being an individual feels pretty damn good. Why should I want to lose this? I’m excited about being me; I have been for the last two months. For the first time in my life, I can hardly wait for the next day. Things are kind of on hold at the moment – okay, I should try to put her to the back of my mind ‘til she gets back – but in general, everything is great.’
‘And the Vietnam war?’ she said softly. ‘The riots in Mauritius and the United States? Murder, starvation, rape…all these things have power over us as individuals. How can you say everything is great?’
‘What am I supposed to do, feel guilty about being happy?’
‘No. Happiness is our natural state. We are happy in the midst of even our greatest suffering, although we never know it because the mind insists that we’re miserable.’
‘Like you were so happy over Ian?’
I felt an immediate twinge of guilt; my tone had not been gentle. In the silence I heard the phone ringing downstairs. She only pressed her lips together and nodded. ‘Yes…it’s the inevitable fate of the unrealised person talking about the perfect state to sound like a complete hypocrite. I’m sorry.’
I shook my head. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just—’
‘Conrad!’ It was Mrs Muller’s voice. ‘Telephone for you.’
To my surprise it turned out to be Robert Blackman; he was flying over to join Caro and the others in Turkey that day, and he wondered if I had any message for her. I thanked him and said I’d spoken to her. He then said he’d actually been hoping to drop by on his way to the airport but had run out of time. Then he asked if Barbara was there. I wondered if this was the real reason for the call, but then I reflected that he could have asked directly for her. I got her to the phone and went into the kitchen to remove the temptation to eavesdrop.
She came into the kitchen after two or three minutes. ‘Well…! He wants to come and see me when he gets back. It sounded like he’s been doing quite a bit of reading…I did give him a short list when he asked me for one, but…’
She broke off, looking pensive. Mrs Muller filled up the kettle. Barbara sat down next to me at the table. ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure I like the idea of people looking to me for…some sort of guidance. As you’ve seen, I’m no authority. It’s very flattering, but…’ She looked at me. ‘On the other hand, I can’t really turn my back on him now, can I? That would be even worse.’ Her eyes drifted past me, unfocussed. ‘Do you know he sent me half a wardrobe full of dresses the other day, and apologised for taking so long to get around to it. Of course I have nothing to wear them for, but still…’
‘You will soon,’ I reminded her. ‘Use them to make Ian jealous.’
‘I couldn’t…I’ve put him through enough already.’ Her face brightened. ‘But at least he won’t perceive me as some kind of victim. He’ll be able to see that I’m all right, that I can provide for myself.’
I raised my eyebrows. She laughed. ‘Well, I know that’s not entirely honest…but I told you I have to go to him on my own terms. I can’t use him as a crutch.’
It came to me that even if I no longer wanted to use Barbara’s actual experiences as grist for my writing mill I could take inspiration from them, if she had no objections. Of course she didn’t; I spent that afternoon looking at the accounts. I was particularly struck by her attempts to describe the world of Vortis, where she had encountered giant ants called the Zarbi and other more humanoid creatures, something like a cross between bees and butterflies, called Menoptra. And despite the exotic setting, the part of the story that resonated most strongly was her friendship with one of the Menoptra called Hrostar. I mentioned this to her when she came up with a cup of tea.
‘Yes,’ she said regretfully. ‘I was very lucky, really – so many desperate situations, and I never had to face the loss of anyone really close to me. Until Hrostar. The irony was,’ she sat on the bed, ‘that he was intensely suspicious of me to start with – wanted to have me killed, as far as I remember. I’ve never known anyone braver, or more dedicated. He was my support when I was cut off from all of the others. I’ve thought of him often…perhaps more often than any of the people I met on my travels.’
‘And yet, he had no individual existence,’ I couldn’t resist reminding her gently.
She gave a short, soft laugh. ‘I—’
She excused herself and was gone for about five minutes. When she came back there was a smile playing about her lips.
‘Not your millionaire admirer again?’
‘No; I think you’ll be the only one getting calls from abroad.’ The smile seemed to overwhelm her face, although she tried to keep it under control. ‘It was Ian. They’ve given him a few days off, around next weekend. He suggested we meet.’
I matched her expression. I was genuinely happy for her and there was no prick of jealousy at all. ‘Being an individual doesn’t feel so bad to you at the moment, eh?’
The phone was ringing again. She half-turned to go. ‘Perhaps he forgot something…’
‘He obviously can’t live without you.’
But it was my name that Mrs Muller called. ‘Turkey,’ she said as she handed me the receiver.
‘Conrad…Conrad, this is Robert Blackman.’
‘Oh. You arriv—’
‘Conrad.’ He sounded terrible. I felt something clutch hold of me, inside my chest. ‘Conrad, they…there was a car crash.’
I wanted to ask him. I found I couldn’t say a word. The line was impossibly clear; I could hear the strain in his every syllable.
‘Guy and Caroline, they…Conrad they’re both dead.’