It was hot, and raining outside, and he was convinced he’d never sleep, but he was so tired he went to bed anyway, and lay there in sticky discomfort, waiting for exhaustion to overcome him. He’d put on his eye mask and inserted his earplugs, but neither was helping much.
He disliked travelling in the Far East – if it was for business. Business trips always meant being in hot, humid cities filled with the noise of people and traffic and the stink of strange food and pollution.
Perhaps if he absorbed himself in the thought of a cool mountain retreat with pines and a stream bubbling past his room it might help him to relax and find some rest.
Slowly and with intense concentration he built up a picture of the perfect mountain side where two or three small buildings nestled in the shelter of a rocky outcrop and pines scented the cool air. A spring bubbled out of a crevice in the rock and filled a small pool covered in water-lilies. Reeds grew round the edges, and carp slid to and fro in a languid game of hide and seek. At the further edge of the pool the water flowed out over a carved lip and slid quietly through ornamental grasses and bamboos. He placed a bench and a small table under a semi-circle of five delicate silver-barked birch trees. It was positioned to give a perfect view over the distant valley and the further mountainside.
He was so caught up in the creation of this paradise that he did forget the city, its noises and smells, and he was just wondering whether he should hang some bells or wind-chimes outside his bedroom when he heard the croaking toads, and then the bird which called from the top of the pine tree.
How could he hear croaking toads? He was wearing earplugs! He sat up and pulled them out. Yes, there were toads, and now the bird called again. He swung his feet out of the bed, but was startled to feel cool wood rather than the tired hotel carpet under his toes. What was going on?
He pulled off his eyemask and opened his eyes. A cool breath of air from the open doors of his room touched his face, and moonlight made intricate black and white patterns out of the carefully arranged stones in the courtyard garden and glinted on the stream. Rising to his feet he realised he was wearing a long bed robe. He decided to accept the reality he’d somehow created, and without hesitation he slipped his feet into the sandals by the door and wandering outside went to sit on the bench under the birch trees.
This was more restful than sleep. The gentle movement of the air, the sussuration of the bamboos, the music of the stream, and the occasional notes of the bird – he’d no idea what it was, it might not even be an actual bird in the real world – which dropped into the stillness like liquid gold soothed his tired mind and brought a peace to his spirit which he realised he had been longing for most of his life.
As the sky began to lighten and the promise of sunlight brightened the ridges opposite, he heard quiet footsteps coming towards him, and a young woman in traditional clothing placed a tray on the table at his elbow. ‘Your tea, master.’
‘Your tea, sir.’ The voice followed two sharp knocks on his door, and a maid bustled in and put a tray on his bedside table before hurrying out again. Bitterly hurt he reached towards it but before he touched the cup he stopped. . . . He was sitting on the side of his bed, his eyemask and earplugs were behind him on the pillow, and two yellow birch leaves were stuck damply to his right foot.
He covered his face with his hands for a moment and they smelled of pine – not chemical hotel cleaner, but real fresh mountain pine, cool and clear. He sat with his eyes closed for a long minute and the murmur of water filled his ears and the birdsong from the pine tree consoled his spirit. It was as if they said to him, ‘We are here for you whenever you need us.’
Reassured, he smiled, poured his tea and turned his mind to the business of the day.
Originally written as a ten minute exercise under the title ‘Croaking Toads’