It was my turn to make the bread today. I like doing chores. I concentrate while mixing up the flour and water and adding the yeast. Otherwise it can go wrong. While I am waiting for the dough to rise, I usually go and collect some wild garlic from the woods around here. Rubbed into butter, it makes a delicious spread.
I am a relative newcomer to the monastery. Some people have been here for years. It all depends when the spirit takes you, I suppose. Mine was a convoluted path. I started out in life studying engineering at Oxford. My family had great hopes of me going into the family business. I must have been a great disappointment to them when, after finishing my studies, I went off travelling and ended up living in Australia.
This afternoon I’ve come to sit on the bench by the woods. There aren’t any distractions here, apart from the birds fluttering around in the trees and the odd field mouse darting underfoot. I wanted to be alone to think over the incident at breakfast. It was playing on my mind.
We are not a silent order but there are certain times in the day when we don’t talk. One of these is mealtimes. Then we communicate by sign language. I signalled for George to pass the butter, and just for a split second, I had the distinct impression that he recognised me. It came as something of a shock. They had told me, when I first arrived, that he had lost his memory. I wouldn’t have stayed otherwise. I wanted to get away from the past. At least, that past.
I first met George in Australia. He was a young man like me, searching for himself. I was getting away from my parents’ ambitions for me. I had told my father I wanted to become an actor and judging from his reaction, he was most displeased. I knew not to mention it again. George said he knew people in the industry and offered to introduce me to his contact. The only catch was I had to commit to his organisation. I was happy enough to go along with it at the time. I didn’t realise I would be selling my soul.
I landed some minor roles in a few low-grade films, but as time went on, it became clear I was never going to make the big time. I wanted to get out but by then it was too late. I was part of the set-up. George talked me into staying. He put me in charge of recruitment. That way, he said, I could work my way up the hierarchy and become one of the top bods like him.
We all did as we were told there. They told us what to think, how to behave, what to believe. I soon started having my doubts about the whole thing. I didn’t want any part of it but somehow or other, I couldn’t find a way out. It was like being held in a vice. George was ruthless in his dealings with people. He whipped them into shape, whenever he saw them wavering. His speciality was making people feel small, as if they were nothing, nobody.
It took me years to summon up the courage to get out. There weren’t any walls stopping me, not the physical kind, anyway. Just the walls inside my head. They tried every trick in the book to get you to stay. They played on your fears.
‘What makes you think you’ll be able to cope in the world?’ they would say.
‘Just think what you’ll be leaving behind. We are your family now. We are your friends. Nobody will give you a job. You will have nowhere to live. Once you leave, there will be no coming back.’
Eventually I reached rock bottom. Then I made my move. I proved them wrong. I did find a job and a place to live. And I started making friends. Naturally I wanted to get close to people, so I confided in them. I told them exactly what had happened to me. I just wanted to warn people, in case it happened to them one day. Some people believed me. Some didn’t. There are some secrets that people just don’t want to hear.
If there was one thing that organisation couldn’t stand, it was whistle-blowers. It was bad for their image and they needed the funds. After I left, people would turn up on my doorstep, telling me to keep schtum, or else. They would hound me until I had to move on and start over. No matter where I was living, they tracked me down. Finally, I had nowhere left to run. That’s when I came here.
You can imagine my shock on finding George already living here. My first reaction was to run for it, to get the hell out. But since he couldn’t remember anything, I thought it might be alright. I got to wondering how he came to be here. He had seemed so entrenched in that other organisation. I won’t mention their name. I want nothing more to do with them. He must have come to the same conclusion as me. He must have realised it was all a con.
We live a life of silent prayer here and are happy to abide by the rules. Talking is overrated, anyway. I can think my own thoughts, live in the here and now. I have taken up carpentry of late. It doesn’t feel like a chore. It is a pleasure. One of the pews over in the church needs fixing. It shouldn’t take me long. Then I might try my hand at wood-turning. We’ve got a new lathe and I’ve been waiting all week to try it out.
There’s still one thing that puzzles me, though. I’ll probably never know the answer. Has George really lost his memory or is he faking it?