Eve is busy setting the long thin tables – fork knife fork knife fork knife – and doesn’t see him approach.
“Do you want some help?”
She thinks it is Max, the American meditation teacher, so she holds out a bunch of knives without looking. He takes them and follows her around the table. She’s moving fast now, with only the forks. She glances back, to see if he is keeping up. Usually they turn it into a race.
But it’s not Max. It’s another guy, his dark head bowed as he plods around the table, placing the knives with their blades all facing out, as if he’s never seen a table setting before. His hands are pale but the skin of one arm is almost black with tattoo ink.
The evening sun saunters into the room, still hot, and Eve waits for the man to lift his head. She will be patient. She won’t be sarcastic, though she wants to say, what, like you’ve never set a table before? Perhaps he’s one of the rich Americans who come to the retreat for something to do, to tick off their lists, but who sit in their rooms playing Angry Birds instead of actually meditating.
And then he looks up. Eve has one of those moments of recognition, where her vision bulges for a moment and resettles. It is someone she went to school with. “Oh hi!” she says. No, that’s not it. She is staring, smiling, but her back teeth are grinding together and she knows it doesn’t look pleasant from where he is standing.
His eyes crinkle. “I’m Phil,” he says. He moves the knives to his left hand and sticks out his right.
Phil. Phil Thomas. P Rock. Oh shit. Shit shit shit. She takes his hand and her face floods with heat. She’s going to be sick. No she’s not. She takes her hand back and clears her throat. I can do this, she thinks. The fire in her cheeks subsides. She is breathing; in through her nose, out through her mouth, imagining Max’s voice in her head. It’s working.
It’s really working. She shouldn’t be surprised, should she? She’s been here two weeks now, and she’s been paying attention.
“Nice to meet you, Phil,” she says. Her voice is calm and cool, tra la la, like a bell. P Rock is standing, looking at her, not knowing how to set a table, and she is at peace.
The meditation centre sits in a valley, surrounded on all sides by hills, pink in the setting sun and etched with goat tracks. The night brings a welcome breeze that slips down from the mountains and blows away the day’s cloying air. After dinner, and the communal washing up – the only time they are allowed any kind of unbound conversation – the residents are expected to go back to their rooms and prepare for an early start. Eve stands outside hers – a hut with white walls and painted white wooden floors – watching the swifts dive and twist in the failing light. A nip of whiskey would go down quite well. One more week here, and then back to New Zealand, and back to her life.
At dinner, Eve watched Phil on the far side of the room. He didn’t interact with anyone, beyond the odd nod and smile, and the other residents left him alone. They knew the rules. She doubted that most of them even knew who he was; his brand of hard rock mixed with hip-hop was hardly meditation music. He didn’t stay to do the dishes and she felt a prickle of annoyance. Sure, he’d paid big money to be here, but throwing a few knives on the table – the wrong way around – didn’t really fulfill the work expectation. She’d had to go around turning the blades in after he’d wandered off to the shower block.
She’s standing there, stretching her fingers, thinking about P Rock, about a nip of whiskey and maybe even a little cigarette, when the grass swishes and he’s there, in front of her, his face white in the gloom.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He laughs. “Your face!”
“That’s okay,” Eve says, standing up straighter, flicking away her imaginary cigarette.
“Do you smoke?”” he asks her.
Is this a trick question? “Sometimes. But not now. You know. Rules.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I know. I just wanted to find someone else and see how they’ve coped.”
“Oh,” she says. “Fine. Talk to Max. He’ll help you out. Take your focus away from it.”
She waits for him to move away. She wants to talk to him but knows anything she says will probably be wrong.
“I like your music,” she says. Damn. He’s probably here to get away from rabid fans. “I mean, not that much. I haven’t got any of your albums or anything.”
He laughs, and rubs his arm, the one covered with ink. Fish scales.
“Thanks, I think.” He looks relieved. Like he doesn’t want to get away from his fans at all.
How did she end up here? The residents aren’t supposed to share beds. They’re supposed to be here to escape this kind of thing, cravings of the flesh. They both have their clothes on and he is kissing her gently. It’s not sexual, she thinks, if we keep our clothes on. It’s sweet, is what it is.
“I’ve never kissed a New Zealander before,” he says.
“Yeah?” Maybe he hasn’t been to New Zealand. She can’t imagine him holding back on tour if this is how he behaves at a meditation retreat.
He pulls her closer so his whole body presses against hers. He sighs. It’s not a soft, whimsical sigh. It’s laced with something a bit dirty.
“Oh. Oops. Sorry,” he says. “I should go.”
When she meditates, when it’s really quiet and her mind is about to empty, she hears his sigh again. Her eyes snap open and she is back in the physical world. She is supposed to be letting herself go here. She is supposed to be going home refreshed, ready to face her life, and instead her mind is flickering and it’s as though she’s a teenager again, mooning over some pop star. Every now and then she smiles and thinks I kissed P Rock, but then she remembers the sigh, how quickly he left afterwards.
The dirt in that sigh starts to rub off on her. Eve busies herself in the vegetable garden to cover it up, but when Phil avoids her, keeping to himself, she can feel it there on her skin. Nobody else mentions him or his band. She’s beginning to think she’s made a mistake, and that he’s just some slacker called Phil from Portland or Seattle, come to France to find himself.
When they make a visit to the local village, she sits next to him on the minibus and waits for him to make conversation, but he mostly stares out the window. At the market, he strolls around the dusty streets with his hands behind his back. Nobody looks at him twice.
Eve pulls Max to one side.
“You know who that is, don’t you?” she says.
“That’s Phil,” says Max. “You’ve met him haven’t you?”
“It’s P Rock,” says Eve. “You know that don’t you?”
Max looks at her with pity. He sighs and pats her shoulder. “He’s just Phil while he’s here. I don’t know who he is out in the world, but here, he’s just Phil.” He smiles. “You get that, don’t you?”
“Yes, I get all that,” says Eve. “But you do know, right?”
“I think this conversation is over,” he says, and sidles away from her, towards the fruit stalls.
“Thanks!” she calls to Max, and he glances back at her before picking up an apple and inspecting it.
It’s Eve’s last day and she yearns for the serenity she felt before P Rock showed up. She waits near his room until the gong sounds for the afternoon mediation class. None of the rooms have locks. His bag is small – you don’t need much when you come here. Inside, she finds an i-Phone with earbuds attached. A passport, belonging to one Phillip Thomas. A copy of Eat, Pray, Love. That’s it. No diary. No P Rock albums loaded on his phone, no photos of the band on tour, leering into the camera and giving it the fingers, just a lot of snaps of vegetarian food, made moody with Instagram.
As she slips the phone into her waistband, she’s already composing the story she will tell when she gets home. “I kissed him,” she will say. She won’t mention that it might not have been him at all. She’ll remember his sweet breath on her cheek, the feel of his lips. She won’t mention the sigh.