Local writer Kate O’Grady was invited to be a part of this year’s line-up for our short story readings because we knew from seeing her at Stroud Short Stories that she’d be a terrific addition to our programme. At the end of her post, you will find the story she wrote especially for the event. Many thanks to Kate for kindly giving us permission to share her story here. The story remains her copyright.
I feel really honoured to have been part of this year’s HU Lit Festival and was delighted to be asked to read a short story at the Methodist Chapel along with five other local short story writers.
From Audience to Speaker
This is my second time attending the festival, and my first time as a participant.
When I attended the festival as an audience member in 2017 I loved every minute of it. It was a gorgeous day and, as a reader and a writer, there really isn’t a better way to spend an afternoon than strolling around listening to talks, and hearing authors share their work. The fact that you can do that in a beautiful village for free, and eat cake and drink tea in between all the talks and readings is heaven!
Short Story Readings Report
The audience in the lovely Methodist Hall for the short story readings was attentive, and it really was a pleasure to be there this year in the company of other writers and people who love the written word.
I was able to be at the Official Opening in the School Hall, and also able to attend the Best of British Authors reading and panel, and the talk on Katherine Mansfield in the Village Hall.
Thanks Debbie and everyone in HU for putting together such an amazing literary festival. It’s a very special, local event. I loved listening to the young poets from Hawkesbury Primary School read their work, and as a fan of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, learning more about her life via Dr Gerri Kimber’s informative talk enhanced my appreciation of this great writer.
Congratulations on Five Years of HU LitFest.
At This Present Moment
by Kate O’Grady
At this present moment Charlotte is sitting cross-legged on a mat on the floor with her eyes closed and her palms resting on her thighs. She is trying to pay attention to her breath as it comes in through the tip of her nose. At this present moment she is trying to be “mindful”, she is trying to be “In The Now”. At This Present Moment, This is Very Hard.
The twelve day silent meditation retreat had sounded like a grand idea when Charlotte first heard about it. Increased self awareness, insight into the nature of reality, freedom from suffering. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that? Charlotte had signed up immediately and spent the two days before the retreat imagining what her new more aware and insightful self would look like. She was sure it would be a very different self from the current one, who stole The New York Times from strangers’ doorsteps, binge watched The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and lusted after her sister’s husband. “If nothing else, it will be an escape,” she told herself as she was packing to go.
The retreat is located in the Sierra Foothills on a 109-acre estate with oak trees and a lake. Charlotte had shared the ride from Santa Barbara with three other women named Tania, Betty and Linda. Tania, the driver, was a yoga instructor. She ate gummy bears throughout the four-hour journey and drummed her fingers constantly on the steering wheel. Betty, who insisted she had to be in the front passenger seat because she was liable to get nauseous and throw up if she didn’t, was a prison guard. No one knew what Linda did for a living, as after she told them her name, she didn’t say another word. Charlotte could only assume she was getting a head start on silence.
An hour into the journey they all got quiet and settled, looking out the windows and watching the hills and trees pass by, a steady stream of green and gold and red. It was fall and nature was shouting “Look At Me!” Charlotte tried to think deep thoughts, but mostly she just hoped she’d remembered to turn the gas off before she left the apartment.
The rules of the retreat are simple but strict: No talking for the duration of the retreat. No reading, no writing, no phones and, most importantly, they must remain within the designated boundaries of the retreat site at all times.
By Day 3 Charlotte is ready to punch someone between the eyes. Perhaps the doe-eyed female meditation teacher who sits at the front of the room, her legs neatly folded in the classic, full lotus position. Or maybe the woman to the left of her, wrapped in a mauve silk pashmina, who relentlessly clears her throat and does downward dog yoga postures in between meditation sessions. Charlotte is ready to slap any one of the 120 human beings surrounding her, all coughing, and sniffling, and seeking enlightenment.
On Day 4, after a night of bad dreams, one in which she is being chased by huge drooling black dogs who snap at her ankles as she runs screaming into a stream of oncoming cars, Charlotte spots Linda in the dining room. This is the first time she has seen her since their arrival at the retreat center. Linda is sitting alone facing a blank wall and she is crying. Her shoulders are shaking and she is taking in small, rapid gulps of air through her mouth. The image of Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” comes to Charlotte’s mind, along with the words “abject sorrow.”
Someone has made a smiley face in the frost that covers the bench outside the dormitories. It is the morning of Day 6, and it is icy cold. Charlotte can see her breath as it leaves her mouth. Instead of going into the meditation hall with the others, Charlotte turns and walks to the path that surrounds the lake. She has seen Linda heading that way and decides to follow. For the last two days Charlotte has thought only of Linda and what the source of her grief might be. Is it disease, divorce, death?
Linda has stepped off the path now and is walking down a small, steep hill. She stops at a barbed wire fence, in front of which is a sign that says “Retreat Boundary. Do Not Go Beyond”. Beyond consists of hundreds of trees. Beyond is a forest. Beyond seems to be a great unknown.
As Charlotte makes the descent down the hill, Linda turns, and their eyes meet. Linda’s eyes are red and wet with tears. She stares at Charlotte, but she does not seem startled by her approach. Charlotte stares back at Linda and takes in the anguish on her face. She tries to convey to Linda, through her facial expression, that she is friendly. This is done with half smiles, nods, and a head tilt towards the wire fence. Charlotte has understood in a flash that Linda is trying to escape. In one quick move she steps down to the fence, and with her right hand grabs hold of a piece of wire and pulls it up so that there is now space to crawl out. With her left hand she grasps Linda’s palm and motions for her to step through. Linda does so immediately and Charlotte follows.
They are still holding hands when they are standing again at the other side. Charlotte turns to look at Linda and nods her head in the direction of the forest in front of them. Then together, in silence, they proceed towards the trees, towards the interior of the woods, towards whatever lies beyond.
© Kate O’Grady 2019