Mike sat in the community hall and tossed up whether to tell the truth. It was shocking, he knew, that he was so debased that he could callously, pointlessly, explicitly ask himself whether he would lie to a bunch of friendly strangers. He justified it with a mental shrug. It was no wonder that he had come to this, given the daytime world he inhabited in those glass and mirror castles in the sky.
While his mind roamed around the meeting rooms of the day just passed, his eyes were fixed on his feet. His brown brogues on the parquet tile floor. A pattern of jenga bricks arranged in squares, badly scuffed by the metal legs of the stackable plastic chairs. Those chairs, once a cheering egg-yolk yellow and aquamarine, were now returning to the same grimy dun colour of the square parquet tiles. Though he had never been here before, the hall was familiar. Something about those floor tiles and that smell. He tried to decode the bouquet, as if for a wine. Not so much deep plum with cinnamon undertones, as spores of mould, floor cleaner and a sugary scent, perhaps from years of Arnott’s biscuits left to soften in open packets on thin white plates.
The group he had joined was at the getting-to-know-you stage of the meditation course, and Mike would have to say something soon. The convenor, the guru, Frank, had challenged them to share something interesting or surprising about themselves to break the ice.
Frank had gentle eyes and shoulder length fair hair, going grey around the temples. A long time since he’d been into an office building, Mike thought, though maybe Frank would surprise him by turning out to be a futures trader. He tried to imagine Frank in the 10am he’d had that morning. All those sharp suits, all that money talk and everyone wanting more. The energy in that room had been acid. Frank was no trader. He would have been appalled.
Mike imagined him exiting the room, invisible no doubt to the sharks, given his lack of lucre. Frank probably would have used transcendental superpowers to float up over their heads and out through the walls, leaving them to get on with the business of tearing each other to shreds. Mike hope he would learn something like that from Frank. How to absent himself and avoid ending up spiritually void.
Someone was talking. A woman was telling them her surprising snippet. Her voice was reedy, her face wrinkled, and she demanded her audience’s attention.
“You look at me now,” she said, calling them to look her over with a sweeping gesture of her hand. “The most exciting thing I do these days is go to Coles. Or come here.” Frank acknowledged the compliment with a nod. She was enjoying her command of the room.
“Try to imagine me 40 years ago. Now imagine me pregnant.” She paused to let the mental image take shape. “I won’t ask you to imagine me giving birth – hoot! – but I will tell you that when I had my first child I was totally alone. Yep. A-lone. Alone, a long way from anywhere. No phone, no internet of course, just me. And the dog.” She stopped abruptly, and the silence deepened with every slow second.
“Beat that,” she suddenly said vehemently, looking intensely around the room, daring each of them to meet her beady eyes.
Mike’s neighbour shifted his weight on his aquamarine chair and the metal grated loudly on the wood. Nobody said anything. Nobody asked if the baby had turned out ok – what if it hadn’t? Noone asked why she had been alone in the first place. The girl sitting across from Mike looked anxious, but she was mousy and polite and wasn’t about to say a thing.
Mike himself was back to his original question. Truth or lie? The old lady had raised the bar pretty high for shock value.
Finally Frank broke the silence. “I’m not sure what’s more surprising, Heather. That you went through that, or that you shared it with our group.” His soft eyes and wavy hair were made for compassion. “I hope you and the baby were alright.”
“Oh yes, yes, all fine” Heather cut in dismissively. “Hardly worth mentioning.” She actually cackled.
No life-long scar there, obviously, Mike thought.
“Right. Who else would like to tell us something surprising?”
Mike guessed that the mousy girl would go next, and she did. Afraid of long silences, he divined. A pleaser, nervy, good in school back in the day. He wished she would say: “I’m a dominatrix at the club you never knew was there, just down the road. Come along after class and I’ll give you all a fine surprise.” That would have been astonishing. Instead, she played it as expected. More or less.
“I love animals, and I like baking dog biscuits to sell at the markets”. Her voice was more bubbly than he would have thought. “Makes a change from my work,” she said with a self-effacing smile.
“Hey! I’ve seen you!,” said a guy in a flannel shirt, who had given no previous signs of life. “At the markets on Saturday. Yeah! I’m going to try your treats next time, I mean, for my dog. Uh, that’s also my surprising story,” he added, and slumped back into his chair, inert once more.
Frank was nodding and smiling, gently encouraging them all to speak. Mike came to the realisation that this was no place for him. These people were far too nice. He’d have to take his meditation with a death metal soundtrack or his head would explode. It was time to speak. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and lifted his head. He had their attention, even inert, flannel-shirt guy. He cleared his throat.
“I lie all the time,” he said. “I lie for work, I life for fun. You might even think I am lying now. Is that surprising? I don’t know. Maybe you guessed it as soon as you saw me walk through the door.”
Frank, from his position leaning against the table at the front of the room, shook his head and smiled wryly, his eyes fixed not on Mike but on the middle distance between them, like some kind of seer focused on another world.
“Whoa,” he said. “You’re opening up a real twisted pathway here, Mike man. So I’m going to ask you, is that why you’re here? Do you want to stop lying and start living with the inner strength of your mind?”
Mike knew that if he said “No” he would be lying.
“Yes,” he said.
And that was a lie, too. Mike knew that once this class ended, he wouldn’t be back.