THE NEXT STEP (44)

‘As much as I like working at the retreat centre, I miss doing practical work with those in need’, Ted told Laura as they walked along the cobbled streets on Taipei. Thy had decided to come into town for the afternoon. First they had visited a couple of exhibitions and then had late lunch at an American diner. There were days when they both missed Western food. There was only so much and rice and noodles that one could eat. Laura certainly wasn’t used to eating noodles for breakfast.

‘I feel that the retreat centre is more of an elitist place’, Ted continued. ‘Like those who have the money can come there. But when I was at the monastery, I really felt like I was making a difference and I could see the impact every day in my work. ‘

‘Yes, I know what you mean’, Laura nodded. They were walking through a park that had pretty statues of animals scattered all around it. There were always small artistic touches in different places around Taipei, which was refreshing.

‘Sometimes I feel like a snob spending all this money on a retreat when I know that I could be doing something more useful with it’, she said thoughtfully.

‘You shouldn’t feel bad about spending some money on yourself’, Ted said firmly. ‘Your own well-being comes before anything else and it does sound like you desperately needed a break. We can’t compromise ourselves for others. We have to look after ourselves first. If you are not feeling well, you can’t help others either.’

‘That’s true’, Laura said thoughtfully. ‘We could find somewhere to volunteer once a week though. It would be nice to have something else to do at least once a week, to meet other people and to do something useful.’

‘That’s a great idea’, Ted agreed. ‘It might help me in figuring out what I want to do once I leave this place as well. Right now I’m not so sure.’

‘It will be helpful for me as well’, Laura said. ‘It would be good to find something to do with people so that I can brush up my social skills again, in particular if I am planning on working with people again soon.’

‘They don’t need any brushing up’, ted laughed. ‘But yes let’s see what we find.’

THE NEXT STEP (43)

Laura didn’t see much of Annie for nearly a week. Annie seemed to be spending all her free time with Darky. She even seemed to be skipping some yoga and meditation sessions in order to be with him. This was a new side to Annie that Laura hadn’t been aware of before. Even at university, Annie had always been sensible, never letting any guy come on her way and her studies.

‘He is just so intriguing’, Annie told Laura. The two girls were having breakfast together on a Sunday morning, admiring the view of the mountains. ‘He has so many interesting stories to tell. He is laidback. He listens to me. We have a laugh together.’

‘Yes, he is charming in his own way’, Laura admitted as she sipped her tea. ‘But just be a little bit careful with him. He might no be all he seems to be. He does have a bit of a mysterious side to him.’

‘But that’s part of his charm’, Annie laughed nervously. ‘If he wasn’t mysterious, he wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing.’

Laura thought of Darky’s confessions to her. ‘Just be a little bit cautious. That’s  all I’m saying.’

The two girls sipped their teas in companionable silence. How life could change in a short period of time, Laura thought, as she looked at the content smile on Annie’s face.

THE NEXT STEP (42)

Annie smiled back at Darky and sat down on the cushion next to him.

‘So you are the famous musician’, she said slowly, and looked slightly star-struck. Laura shifted uncomfortably on her cushion. It wasn’t like Annie to look impressed by someone. Normally she didn’t care who she spoke to and Laura had had no idea that Annie somehow admired Darky.

Darky laughed. ‘Famous is questionable. And I thought that no one here at the retreat centre really knew who I was.’ He glanced at Laura.

‘We only found out later on’, Ted offered to save Laura from feeling embarrassed. ‘Actually it was me who figured it out recently when I saw a glimpse of you.’

Laura squeezed Ted’s hand appreciatively.

‘This is my friend Annie who lives here in Taipei’, she said to Darky. ‘We were friends at university in London and now we are here together.’ The two girls smiled at each other.

‘That is nice’, Darky turned to Annie again. ‘If you are local, why don’t you show me some cool places in Taipei this weekend? I would like to get to know the place better.’

Annie fluttered her eye lashes and flicked her hair. Really, Annie was behaving like this with Darky, out of all people? Laura was surprised.

‘I’ve love to take you to some of the best places in Taipei’, Annie smiled. ‘How do cocktails in a hot tub sound? Or a hot spring and then a traditional wine bar?’

Was Annie really suggesting to take her clothes off with Darky? Laura didn’t know hat to say; she was so surprised.

‘That sounds fabulous’, Darky lifted his bottle of beer. ‘Let’s have a toast to new friendships!’

They all clicked their bottles, including the homeless men who everyone seemed to have forgotten about. Annie and Darky’s flirting had driven them to distraction.

‘Well, I should get back to the reception’, Ted said eventually. ‘After all I’m supposed to be manning the desk.’

‘I also want to go and get some ret’, Laura said and got up with Ted. ‘Annie, are you coming too?’ She looked at her friend who looked very cosy sitting next to Darky.

‘I’ll stay and finish my beer before coming’, Annie said and glanced at Darky. ‘I’ll be up in a while.’

‘Okay then’, Laura said. She started following Ted out of the door and turned back to look tat Annie and Darky one last time. They did look very cosy together indeed, but Laura still felt slightly nervous to leave Annie there on her own with the guys. Ted took hold of her hand and pulled her gently along.

‘They’ll be fine’, he whispered to Laura.

THE NEXT STEP (41)

‘Come and sit down with us’, Darky gave a wave towards some more soft cushions placed on the floor. ‘I have enough beers here for all of us.’

Ted looked at Laura who nodded slowly. What harm could there be in having a beer with the guys before going back to bed? She sat down next to Ted and took the beer that Darky handed to her.

‘We thought that you were up to no good’, Ted admitted as they were all comfortably sipping on their beers. ‘But still, you are not allowed to bring strangers into the building and certainly not in the middle of the night.’ Ted gave Darky a stern look.

‘I know, I know’, Darky said dismissively. ‘It’s just this once for today and then tomorrow we will find them a proper shelter for the coming nights.’

‘Okay, I won’t tell anyone then’, Ted agreed. ‘As long as I don’t see you doing anything similar again and as long as you do such things for a good cause.’ He nodded at the guys who were quietly sitting following the exchange and sipping their beers.

‘Thanks, I appreciate that’, Darky said with a warm voice, which made both Laura and Ted feel slightly guilty. Here they were doubting Darky and suspecting that he was up to no good when in fact he had been helping homeless people all along.

‘But, Darky, there is something else’, Laura said after a short companionable silence. She looked at Ted for approval who nodded his agreement. ‘Didn’t you take the big golden Buddha statues from the reception area and sell them at the market?’

Darky shifted slightly on his cushion and looked down at his hands. ‘Yes. I thought that no one had noticed or knew what had happened to them.’ He looked at Ted and then at Laura searchingly. ‘Even the money that I got from them, I gave to the homeless. That is why I did it. Right, guys?’

The two men nodded eagerly. This is odd, Laura thought. Could it really be that Darky was doing all this for the homeless, even if it still meant that he was sneaking around behind other people’s backs and stealing goods from others?

All of a sudden, the door opened with a bang and startled them all.

‘Oh there you are’, Annie said and rushed to Laura. ‘I was worried about what happened to you. I thought that maybe you were not feeling well or something, and felt like I had to come and check up on you.’

Then Annie turned around and looked at all the men sitting around the room.

‘Is this some kind of a midnight gathering that I have not been informed of?’

‘You could say that’, Darky said and a slow smile spread across his face. ‘Come and sit down here on this cushion next to me and I will crack open a beer for you too.’

THE NEXT STEP (40)

Ted tiptoed along the corridor to Laura’s room. He peeked through the letter box in the front door.

‘Laura’, he whispered and knocked softly on the door. ‘Laura, are you awake?’

After a while, Ted heard Laura’s footsteps, and then she opened the door with a sleepy look in her eyes.

‘I saw Darky creep in through the back door with two rough looking guys’, Ted explained. ‘I thought that we should go and find them and see what they are up to.’

All of a sudden Laura was fully awake.

‘Let me just pull a jumper on and we can go,’ she said as she disappeared back into her bedroom. Soon they were walking quietly but fast down the corridor. Ted gave Laura’s hand a squeeze. Laura felt a flutter in her stomach. Somehow this adventure had a romantic feel to it.

They walked through the reception area and followed the corridor connecting the back door to the main building. Soon enough they heard talk and laughter coming from behind a closed door.

Ted looked at Laura. ‘I’ll go and have a look. Wait here’, he whispered to her. Clutching his mobile phone and torch tight in one hand, he tiptoed to the door and pushed it slightly open. He could see the three men sitting comfortably on cushions on the floor, drinking beer and laughing loudly. They seemed to be having a good time.

Ted motioned to Laura with his hand to come closer. As she did, Ted pushed the door completely open. The three men turned to look at them in surprise.

‘What are you guys doing here in the middle of the night?’ Ted asked them in a friendly tone, although his heart was beating wildly.

The men were quiet for a moment. Then Darky spoke. ‘Well, I might as well come clean’.’ He glanced at Laura briefly before looking at the guys sitting next to him and then back at Ted. ‘These two are my friends who are homeless at the moment. They don’t have anywhere to go or anywhere to be. I found them on the street one night and invited them to come here for some shelter as that night it was raining. Well, then it became a bit of a habit and they have been coming here often. But we haven’t disturbed anyone and also we have been going to a shelter for the homeless where I have also been volunteering.’ He looked slightly uncomfortable and embarrassed. ‘If you want, we can leave now’, he added and the two men nodded their agreement.

Both Laura and Ted were stunned to silence. Darky was doing something nice for others and they had been thinking he was up to no good. Really? Was this really the case?

THE NEXT STEP (39)

‘Yes, I’m going to work here!’ Ted was smiling from widely. He was sitting outside in front of the retreat centre with Laura. They were soaking up the sun and letting the gentle summer breeze tickle their faces.

‘My time at the monastery seems to be over’, Ted shrugged. ‘There is a new group of European youngsters coming in next week and they are keen to do a lot of the teaching. I feel that I have been there long enough and that it is time for a new challenge. I love this retreat centre and I think that the job as a receptionist here is just what I need before going back to Europe.’

Laura smiled. They had spent a lot of time together with Ted, and it seemed that they had a mutual feeling about their friendship. They both felt completely at ease with each other and felt as though they had known each other for much longer than they actually had. Is this how it feels to meet your soul mate, Laura often thought to herself. She hadn’t felt this way with any other man before, only with some of her female friends. For now, they were both happy to enjoy each other’s company and to discover new things about one another.

‘Well, then I certainly won’t need to be scared of any intruders coming in at night if you will be guarding the reception’, Laura winked at him. They both laughed. Ted was such a gentle soul that it was hard to imagine anyone being intimidated by him.

‘Anyway, it will be a great chance for us to spend some time together as well, before we head off to different parts of the world…’ Ted let the sentence trail off. Unavoidably, the time would come when they would have to say goodbye, even though neither of them wanted to think about that yet.

‘I haven’t seen Darky at all’, Laura said to lighten the mood. ‘Not even once since I went to the concert with him last week. Whatever he is up to, I have no idea.’

‘He will emerge at some point’, Ted pointed out. ‘Mysterious people always do, just to keep the mystery going.’

Laura laughed. She hadn’t told anyone about what had happened at the concert nor how Darky had confided in her. Annie didn’t know and Ted didn’t know the full extent of her exchange with Darky. In a strange way, Laura wanted to keep that personal information to herself. For now anyway.

‘Well, I better be off to do some yoga, and don’t you need to go for your orientation?’ Laura stretched and got up. ‘If I see the mysterious man, I will let you know.’

Ted wandered off to the reception area. He was going to be instructed on the basic duties that he was to undertake at the reception, and then he would be trying out a nightshift that evening so that he would get a proper idea of how the role would be once he started it.

Ted enjoyed spending time with the other receptionists that afternoon and the time flew by. Soon enough it was nine in the evening and time for other to retire. He hadn’t seen Laura in the evening, but he knew that normally after the evening meditation, everyone went to their rooms to relax for the night. Ted sat down behind the desk and started reading the book that he had brought along with him. The other receptionists had told him that night shifts tended to be quiet and nothing much happened.

Ted must have dozed off when he woke up with a jolt. He had heard a bang from the other side of the building where the backdoor was. He checked the time and it was past midnight. Ted took the torch light and, with light steps, approached the corridor leading to the back of the building. He stopped at the corner and peeked towards the back door. The door was slightly ajar. Maybe it was the wind that threw it open, Ted thought, and was just about to go and close it when he saw Darky step in. He was wearing his trademark dark clothes and holding two bottles of beer in his hand.

Ted took a step back into the shadow by the curtains and thankfully Darky didn’t notice him. Darky seemed to checking that the corridor was clear before motioning towards the door with his hand. Two ragged looking men followed him in. Both of the smelled awful and were dressed in dirty, dark clothes. They all looked Western and were also holding beer bottles.

Once the three of them had disappeared, Ted took a deep breath. I need to go and wake Laura up, he thought. This is our moment to find out what Darky is up to.