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2020 Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize Winner: THE RETREAT - Toby Litt

Updated: 5 days ago


They had already done names.

But when they’d all sat in a circle, comfortable on their black cushions, Phillip asked them what they wanted from the week – for themselves.

It was Friday evening, February, dark.

‘Just, I suppose,’ said Corinne, who was to die midway through the Sunday afternoon, ‘just peace.’

Some of the seven other attendees smiled at her words, and some of them nodded, and two of them did both. One of these two was next to speak.

She was a red-faced woman who’d asked to be called Spike. She had one leg, the left, and used crutches. ‘I have some private issues I’m trying to deal with,’ she said, then paused. ‘My uncle Ross died, and I was very close to him, growing up in Gateshead, in the 1970s. I’m an alcoholic, too. You should know that. But that’s quite enough from me.’

This was to be the last Spike spoke all week.

Her voice did not fit her, thought Lucas, who wrote scripts for comic books. Someone who looked like that, and was called Spike, shouldn’t sound girly. He coughed, then said, ‘I’d like to get to know some new people.’ He glanced across at the two thin young women wearing black niqabs. ‘I’m very sociable,’ he said, which was a lie. ‘So I’m looking to meet new—’

‘Oh, you will,’ said Phillip, not meaning to interrupt.

‘—friends,’ said Lucas.

‘Sorry,’ said Phillip. ‘You’ll be surprised how much communication there can be, without words.’

Juno thought this was obvious, and wanted to say so. Already Phillip and his aggressive gentleness was vexing her.

‘We don’t know what we want,’ said Aoife, whose auburn hair and freckles had been on the cover of Russian Vogue twice. ‘We’re here to find out.’ She and Juno, her wife, were in the niqabs. They’d bought them online a couple of months ago, before Aoife came out of hospital. ‘Juno here decided she wouldn’t speak from when we left home til when we got back again.’ Aoife gestured gracefully to her left. ‘Which is a shame, because she’s much better at speaking than I am.’

Juno was very aware how differently this introduction would have gone, without their niqabs. Aoife had terrible facial scarring, from an acid attack. Juno had been the target, but Aoife had stepped in front of her – stopping Will from doing the damage he’d wanted to. Between the two of them, they had agreed not to mention any of this. No-one here need know.

Phillip started looking around the group, aware of who hadn’t spoken.

‘I would like to practice lovingkindness meditation,’ said Dafydd, a moment too early. Phillip knew him well, and liked him, because Dafydd had been here twice before, and had been no trouble. Dafydd, immediately to Phillip’s left, studied animal psychology for a living. Chimpanzees, mainly. Their intercommunication. Dafydd was to find Corinne, dead, but was to keep quiet about it – to begin with.

‘Good,’ said Phillip.

Corinne had competed in her twenty-third and final ultramarathon two days earlier.

Justine, a realtor, here with her husband, Radoslaw, said, ‘Well, I would like to achieve enlightenment, of course. I mean, why not?’ Everyone laughed. She turned to Radoslaw, who was here because of his wife. ‘What would you like, Radoslaw?’ They had married four years earlier, and still didn’t know one another very well. English was a problem.

‘I like not run out cigarettes,’ said Radoslaw.

Everyone except Phillip laughed. He was an ex-smoker, before yoga, tai chi and the rest.

‘Good,’ said Phillip. He spoke as if they had already achieved something – city-dwellers who had climbed a reasonably small mountain. ‘Good,’ he employed one of his trademark repetitions, for emphasis, then left one of his signature pauses. Tomorrow morning’s pause would last almost a week. ‘We don’t have rules, as such, here at the Manor – but there are certain conventions which we’d ask you to respect.’

Lucas stopped listening as the better-looking man began to speak about bathrooms and men and women and all other genders.

Instead, Lucas wondered whether you could love a woman whose face you had never seen? He looked at Aoife’s legs, which were very white and skinny and ended in tartan sock slippers. Aoife’s voice had been liquid Dublin.

Phillip mentioned the washing up.

Corinne, with only one full day left her, was soothed by every word. This was just what she needed. ‘We will speak quite a lot this evening, I expect, over the delicious dinner prepared by Esther – who comes in from the village. But from when we wake up on Saturday morning until Friday lunchtime, we must maintain an absolute silence. And that is both inside and outside the house.’

Justine had driven with Radoslaw up from Brockley, and had been excited by all the evergreen trees surrounding the Manor and its small carpark. She hadn’t been scared by the isolation – although the nearest village was five kilometers, and the nearest town twenty.

‘Please respect and preserve and treasure this precious silence,’ said Phillip, who some weeks said ‘precious silence’ and some weeks said ‘delicate silence’. ‘After all, it is the reason you are here. To discover what you find in the silence. If you wish to communicate something important to me, please put a note in the comments box. It’s outside the Office, which you’ve all just seen, under the stairs. I sleep in the small room beside the Office, if you ever need me. Hopefully not.’

The mix of mindfulness and admin was funny to Aoife, who’d grown up Catholic-Communist. She turned her laugh into a cough. Juno and she had a private double room. They would be able to whisper at night, when everyone else was safely asleep – although as it turned out they didn’t, not even after Corinne was discovered dead.

‘There will be meditation sessions every hour, starting from eight a.m. But not at twelve, that’s lunch, and not at four, that’s teatime. Two before supper and one after. These are not compulsory.’

He told them, fighting weariness, they could go for walks in the grounds. He had been cleaning and making beds since the previous group had left. They had been a full twelve for yoga, so his body was tired. He remembered to mention the roe deer.

Corinne was getting ready to ask a question about leaving the grounds. But then she thought about Phillip naked. She imagined him as having a circumcised penis that dangled blithely when he showered. He would shower frequently. Corinne pursed her lips. She didn’t want people to hear her thoughts in her voice.

Radoslaw turned around to glance out of the floor to ceiling windows. The lawn had his shadow on, and Justine’s.

When Phillip asked if there were any questions, nobody spoke – and then everybody laughed.

Phillip concluded, ‘I can see you’re all going to be wonderful.’

They went through to dinner, which was vegan. They munched and talked, apart from Spike and Juno. Lucas spoke to Aoife – too much and too obviously, Juno felt. Aoife should have mentioned they were married. Dafydd found himself telling a crowd of faces anecdotes about chimpanzees, again.

Soon after nine, most of the attendees went to bed. Phillip had just taken their phones away in eight ziplock bags. Lucas stayed up, in disappointed hopes. Aoife did not come back downstairs. Corinne did, but avoided the drawing room.

She went and stood at a distance from the house, on the dewy lawn. She liked to do this, get perspective, whenever she stayed somewhere new. Corinne couldn’t see herself reflected in the floor to ceiling windows of the meditation hall.

The Manor was large and she wanted to find it beautiful. She wanted to be able to tell her workmates at the bank, who had paid for this week, that it was beautiful. If she had had her phone, she would have sent them a video message. Although she did not know it, Corinne had already spoken her last human word. It had been Thanks, after Lucas passed her the quinoa.

As usual, Dafydd could not sleep, so he did an hour of meditation on the floor beside his bed, then lay awake until three a.m. He heard owls, and wished he could look up what kind of owls they were. He didn’t like not knowing.

Everyone was present in the meditation hall at eight o’clock Saturday morning. They had weaved around one another in the kitchen and the dining hall, remembering not to say sorry. Spike found herself humming instead of speaking words. She wondered if humming was banned, and if humming was banned was nodding? She wished someone had asked Phillip.

Phillip was very tall, so Radoslaw was glad when they had all sat down on their black cushions. Spike’s crutches clicked as she laid them aside.

People got comfortable in their own way, all facing out from the centre of the circle – apart from Phillip. Dafydd lifted himself into full lotus. Lucas lay frankly on his back.

The day outside was still dark.

When Phillip was sure everyone had settled, he rang a small bell three times. The sound, Juno felt, lasted longer than sounds normally do. Then the large white room was quiet. Birdsong emerged from the nearest trees. Someone’s stomach rumbled – Corinne’s.

Justine was extremely worried about Radoslaw farting. She had hoped to become very zen, very quickly, but she thought how humiliating it would be if her husband did one of his cigarette-smelling farts.

They were all silent.

During the third session, Corinne smelled toasting cheese.

Esther had arrived from the village, on her delivery bicycle. In the kitchen, Esther tipped salads out of tupperware and slid quiches off baking trays. These, she left on the kitchen table. Then she went to hide in the office. She didn’t meet the attendees until Friday.

At twelve, Phillip rang the bell once. He was pleased with how the morning sessions had gone. This seemed a reasonably dedicated group, apart from Lucas. Lucas had been dozing during the third hour. Phillip decided to work with his annoyance at this.

People avoided eye contact as they ate.

After lunch, Radoslaw found himself thinking of his father. He wanted not to, but some of his father’s comments began to speak themselves.

‘You are not the son I would have chosen.’

In Polish.

Radoslaw became angry. He said to himself that if it had only been raining, he would have gone for a walk. But ahead of him, through the wall of windows, it was sleeting.

A deer walked across the lawn. Radoslaw could not draw the attention of the others to it.

Corinne, for her own reasons, began quietly to weep.

Phillip stood up and left the meditation hall. He had remembered an email he had to send. It was the first time he’d been absent from them. Three of the attendees thought about whispering something, but all of them stayed quiet until Phillip returned. Then they stayed quiet some more.

The deer came back, and this time they all became aware of it. Heads turned. It seemed completely unafraid. Up to the big window it came, looking through at them without curiosity. It did not seem bothered by the sleet. Corinne stopped crying. She went and stood at the window, looking out. She and the deer made eye-contact, and she realised something about love. For some reason, this made her shake her head as if a wasp had been at her ear.

Startled, the deer turned away at this movement. It went gliding across the lawn and into the dark of the tree line.

As Aoife looked at her, pale in the winter light, she was sure Corinne was praying. Corinne wore a black moth-holed cashmere jumper, her favourite. Aoife was in very expensive and comfortable exercise gear, bought especially. She fancied eating a hard-boiled egg with its tip dipped in sea salt. Corinne was Afro-Caribbean, from St Lucia, and had beautiful smooth skin. Aoife turned away and tried not to feel hate.

Beside Aoife, Juno’s spine hurt. A fairground ride she’d been on for her thirteenth birthday treat had collapsed, and she had spent six months in plaster. The pain had never entirely gone away. In her silence, she negotiated with it.

Spike was content. She was getting exactly what she wanted, every moment. The deer had been another gift. She was alive, sober. The others were a bit young but they seemed respectful. They did not try to help her up from the floor. Spike thought of the lyrics to ‘Solsbury Hill’.

The day continued quietly into evening and night.

At lunch on Sunday, everyone was aware of how loud their chewing was – particularly those who were eating watercress and radish salad.

Justine wanted to say, ‘Mmmm.’ Instead, she gave Dafydd a thumbs-up, which was shyly returned. A moment before, Justine had touched Radoslaw on the thigh, beneath the table. That night, they would have silent and brilliant sex. If Justine had known, she would have been looking forward to it. Instead, she would recall it in great detail and with great fondness the following afternoon. By then Corinne would have been dead for exactly twenty-four hours.

‘I want to go for a run,’ Corinne thought, again and again. Most days she ran 40k. She glanced out the window. The weather was no better. It was snowing. Then something twanged inside her, and she felt very unfocused.

Aoife almost choked on a piece of carrot, but Lucas patted her back. Her eyes watered and she was not grateful but angry. Even Lucas could tell.

When lunch was finished, Corinne went up to her room – because she was very tired. She had expected to feel the benefits of silence almost immediately. It didn’t seem usual, the tiredness, but it didn’t seem unusual enough to tell anyone. Certainly, her sudden faintness was not an emergency. No-one – as far as she knew – had posted Phillip a note, and she was not going to be the first.

After brushing her teeth, she took off her jumper, lay down on the bed and five minutes later she very gently stopped breathing. Then there was a shocking gasp, had anyone been there to be shocked. Her final thought was of her niece, Beatrice.

Dafydd was the first to notice Corinne was absent from the circle. Her nose had whistled slightly, and he wanted not to be glad the sound wasn’t over to his right anymore. He thought of her with lovingkindness.

Phillip felt the 2-3 session was the best so far.

People glanced at one another, during teatime, sending silent questions. No, I haven’t seen her either.

The snow let up at four-thirty, and Justine skipped two sessions and went for a long cold walk. She wanted a hill but the surrounding countryside was flat. She was back by supper, but Corinne had not reappeared.

The clouds were very beautiful at sunset, with upwards flickers of orange and pink. Four people – Aoife, Juno, Lucas and Spike – stood and looked at them. Three out of four were thinking red sky at night. Lucas was thinking how close he was standing to Aoife.

Monday was clear and chilly.

The bell rang three times.

Aoife wished she’d gone up to the window to commune with the deer, as Corinne – who hadn’t been at breakfast – had done. What had Corinne experienced, in that moment?

By nine, Radoslaw was restless. He went outside to smoke. He was thinking Corinne might be dead. But then he always expected everyone who wasn’t with him in the room to be dead. When he opened a cubicle door in a public toilet, he expected to find a dead body.

Juno touched his elbow and mimed two fingers touching her lips. He tapped a cigarette out for her, then lit it once it was in her mouth, around the side of the veil-thing. He was careful not to set fire to the black fabric. They stood on the steps, looking at the wet cars.

Radoslaw blew his smoke down across his chest, both nostrils. Juno tipped her head back, opened the corner of her mouth and sent a thin stream diagonally up. Radoslaw had been feeling gladder about coming, after the sex the night before. But the thin young girl in the veil-thing was a whole head taller than he was. This depressed him.

Everyone left Corinne alone the whole of the Monday. Her body became very cold and rigid. It gave off a slight smell of melted ice. A moth loose in the room landed on her black cashmere jumper and laid some eggs.

Nine days later, Corinne would be buried in the unwashed jumper. It had been her favourite, her sister knew. The moths hatched into the coffin and, with the jumper to feed them, survived for two entirely dark generations.

Dafydd found Corinne during Tuesday afternoon – just over halfway through the week. He had been on seven retreats before and, for some reason, Corinne – who had spoken first when Phillip asked what they wanted – Corinne did not seem to him the stay-in-her-room sort. She seemed the attend-every-session sort, like him.

He knew she was dead when she did not reply to the third knock on her door. It was tea-time. The others were downstairs eating Esther’s homemade oatcakes.

Dafydd closed the door quietly behind him and went and stood over the body. He did not want to touch the brown hand because he did not want to feel how cold it was. Corinne had not been beautiful before she died, but she was now – that was his thought. It seemed very unfair.

He looked calmly around the narrow room. There was no suicide note, no diary in evidence. Uneven footfalls came up the stairs, creaking, reached the landing, stopped. There was a soft knock. Dafydd guessed it was Spike. And it was Spike, though he was never to confirm this. Dafydd didn’t speak up. He waited, in-breath held. If the door opened, he would be seen.

The knock was repeated, then the footfalls went away. Dafydd didn’t know why he’d done that – not let whoever in. He didn’t think anyone would suspect him of having killed the woman. He had a moment of not being able to remember her name. He had forgotten it. Quickly, he looked in her purse – which was on the bedside table. Her credit cards said Ms Corinne Andrewes-Kingloss.

When the corridor outside was completely quiet, Dafydd snuck away. He shut Corinne’s – Corinne’s – door. He walked straight into his room, then rejoined the meditation when the bell rang three times.

Dafydd went completely normally to the evening sessions, 5-6 and 6-7. He hoped someone else would find Corinne, then all he would have to do was act shocked. That would be easy enough. He’d seen lots of people look shocked, and chimpanzees too.

As he meditated, he found his thoughts were clearer and, when there weren’t thoughts, his mind was emptier. He saw a flat black lake, completely circular. He’d never seen anything like that before.

Phillip worried about the bookings for the following week. Only four were signed up to do laughter yoga.

Hail hit the floor to ceiling windows.

Radoslaw farted, everyone flinched, and Justine was mortified. She smelled it for five minutes. Her face felt sunburned.

After supper, Dafydd went and stood over Corinne again – as if to check. She was beautifully still. He drew up a chair and sat beside her. The vibe in her room was even better than downstairs in the meditation hall. He felt changed by it, more than by his previous retreats.

At half past eight, Dafydd went downstairs, to light and warm bodies. He was worried someone would spot the death on him, somehow. At least he knew no-one could ask him any questions.

Aoife and Juno were playing table tennis. Radoslaw headed out for another cigarette, his tenth of the day, and was disappointed when Juno did not join him.

Aoife won, 21-19, although they had not been able to speak the score.

Lucas offered Aoife a game, swatting his hand in the air like a bat, but she shook her head and rested her head on her steepled fingers.

Meanwhile Spike was in the drawing room, reading a book by the Dalai Lama she had found. And Justine was doing stretches by the bright fireplace. She could not forget the fart.

There was a grandfather clock, which ticked.

Dafydd waited until he was sure everyone else was asleep, then he posted a note in the comments box. It said what it needed to.

Not until after the first two morning sessions on Wednesday did Phillip check the box. He went straight to Corinne’s room at the top of the stairs. He felt certain she had been like this for some time. Everyone had passed her, coming and going. Justine and Radoslaw had slept in the next room.

Unlike Dafydd, Phillip did not close the door behind him. Spike had come up for her eye-drops. She saw Corinne through the gap as she swung past, and knew she was dead, but did not stop. She turned and went downstairs as quietly as she could. This was for other people to deal with, and she was glad of that. Aged fifteen, she’d been forced to help her grandmother lay out Uncle Patrick.

Phillip led the next two sessions, ringing the bell to start and finish them. Dafydd was sure by now that Phillip had found the note, and found Corinne. Dafydd admired Phillip’s calm. He listened to the older man’s breathing. Phillip was fifty years old, Wikipedia had told him.

During lunch, Phillip phoned the emergency services. To do this, he took a walk along the road away from the Manor. The mobile signal was always better there, anyway. He looked around for the deer, but did not see it. Someone answered.

Phillip had Corinne’s details, including her next-of-kin. Everyone filled out a card on arrival. No-one had died during a retreat before, but he’d had to call mental health services several times – and the procedure was basically the same. The nearest hospital was an hour away.

The ambulance arrived during the 3-4 session. It didn’t have its siren on, but the lights flashed orange across the windows. Phillip stood up.

As with the deer, the second time, everyone noticed the lights. Phillip went away from them, down the tiled corridor to the front of the house. Spike remained seated. All the others got up to follow. Most of them who didn’t already know suspected it was something to do with Corinne. Aoife looked at Juno and Juno looked back. Their fingers interlaced and squeezed. Lucas saw this and finally understood. Radoslaw put his hand on Justine’s shoulder. He had an image of Corinne hanging from a rope in the ceiling. Dafydd held a shocked expression.

These six attendees stood and silently watched. The paramedics spoke to Phillip, who spoke back. The police would arrive soon, they said. They were two young-ish women. They wore heavy boots and went loudly upstairs, following Phillip. Justine felt the house and the week had been violated. The floorboards creaked down through the ceiling. Everyone listened to the sounds. Then one of the paramedics went out again to the ambulance, and returned carrying a hi-tech trolley. She had spoken briefly into the radio on her shoulder.

The police arrived, two officers in a large white car. They went upstairs without asking the way. Half an hour later, they came out again and drove off. Everyone was surprised they weren’t going to conduct an investigation. Or perhaps they already had.

The six were still in the entranceway, looking inwards, as the paramedics carried the body down the stairs. Phillip followed them, carrying Corinne’s case. The paramedics’ bright uniforms went vpp-vpp when their legs touched. Aoife crossed herself as the zip-bag went past her. No-one else found any appropriate response. Instead, magnetised, they followed the paramedics out into the carpark.

Dafydd, who would never in the rest of his long life be suspected of murder, admired the way the trolley had been designed to slide into the back of the ambulance.

One of the paramedics came to speak to Phillip, and all the attendees listened to her language.

The ambulance drove off without flashing lights, as if the situation were less urgent now. They watched it until it was gone behind trees, and then listened until they couldn’t hear its engine.

Phillip made a hand gesture halfway between invitation and command, and everyone returned to the meditation hall. None of them seemed to want to speak, though all – except Spike and Dafydd – wished someone else would make an issue of it. However, they were on a silent retreat, weren’t they?

The six sat back down in their positions – Corinne’s black cushion still where it had been.

Phillip rang the bell three times, and they carried on roughly as they’d been before.

The room was very quiet. Dafydd tried to use the situation to think about transience, as Phillip – who had recognised Dafydd’s handwriting – breathed in and out with admirable calm. Phillip was imagining smoking a red Marlboro. He thought he would probably go bankrupt now, when people heard, but he turned out to be wrong in that.

Juno’s spine hurt. By the time she was fifty, she would need an orthopaedic corset.

Aoife felt it would all mean something now that it wouldn’t have meant before. She wasn’t sure what, but she felt she’d get closer when she’d been able to tell her brother.

Juno decided to break up with Aoife, then changed her mind. Juno needed to feel loved.

Lucas wanted to search up Corinne as soon as he had his phone back, and was alone. He wanted to know who she had been, although she wasn’t his type. In the event, he forgot – although he did look up Aoife and Juno, and found out about the acid attack. This gave him the idea for a comic, which they heard about and successfully sued him for. He had been foolish enough to use their real names. Even so, he was glad to see Aoife every day in the courtroom.

Spike promised not to promise herself a drink, once she got back to civilisation.

Radoslaw wanted to know why no-one was weeping. In his parents’ village, in the voivodeship of Łódź, someone would have wept.

That was Wednesday, and then there was Thursday.

Radoslaw left on Thursday afternoon. He had had enough. He had run out of cigarettes.

He drove away, speeding. Justine watched him go, knowing he would come back for her, if not that day then Friday.

In the service station, Radoslaw wanted to tell someone what had happened, but he couldn’t find the first words.

‘Thank you,’ he said to the woman whose name badge read Gitta. He picked up the five packs.

‘They’re still there,’ he wanted to tell her. In Polish. ‘They’re still just sitting there.’

He went and sat in the eating area, listening unbelieving to the people who were alive.

When he got in his car, he drove on, but at the next exit he pulled off, crossed the bridge and headed back the way he’d come.

Toby Litt was born in 1968 and grew up in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. He is the author of eleven novels and four short story collections. His most recent book is Patience (Galley Beggar Press). Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. When he’s not writing, he likes to read, swim, play guitar and do nothing.

A note from Short Fiction: Our judge Jon McGregor and the Short Fiction reading team chose ‘The Retreat’ as the Winner of the 2020 Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize. It’s such a well-crafted story, in which every sentence earns its place. We admired its balanced pace and shape, and the success with which it pulls off multiple and fast-changing points of view – this is extremely difficult to do well. And most of all, we appreciated its humour, which never comes at the expense of compassion for the characters. Congratulations to Toby Litt for this excellent story.