Written by Rosie Storey
This week’s Stylist Short Story is Wildfire by Rosie Storey, a compelling tale of wellness culture colliding with reality for one woman on a remote yoga retreat.
On the first day, they sat in a circle in a long room with glass doors that looked out over mountains and every shade of green. The teacher asked them to introduce themselves and give one word to say how they were feeling. Most of the other guests – the retreat goers – were young women who were ‘grateful’ and ‘pumped’ and ‘blessed’.
Layla was exhausted and sad and anxious, but when it was her turn she said, ‘Layla, grateful,’ then spent an hour in meditation feeling like a fraud.
On the second evening, Layla sat on the steps of her cabin watching an ant carry a piece of orange rind fifteen times its size. She had just FaceTimed home, said goodnight to the boys. The youngest had been crying.
‘Daddy will make you pancakes for breakfast if you go to bed like good boys,’ Layla said. Her life was a series of bargains.
‘Daddy make pancakes?’ the youngest clarified, through blinking crying eyes.
‘Well, I guess I will be now!’ Layla’s husband said, with reverberating notes of annoyance, before putting down the phone.
The door of the next cabin opened and a man stepped out. Yesterday, he had introduced himself as Farid, before using the word ‘alive’ to describe how he was feeling – prompting the room to crack open and laugh. Farid had a face that Layla found too attractive to look at directly, like staring at the sun.
‘How are you doing?’ he asked, as he sloped down his steps with bare feet. In his left hand was something that looked like a joint.
‘Just watching an ant,’ Layla murmured shyly, feeling a fool.
Farid stood by her, he sucked smoke in through his mouth and exhaled through his teeth with a long hiss.
They were quiet then, for a time, with a thousand leaves dancing behind them.
‘You know how the ant feels, I think,’ Farid said. The tone he used was gentle, like he was talking to a child.
Layla nodded through a tiny gurgle of laughter. She stayed with her head facing down towards the ant, but up through her eyelashes she was looking at Farid’s forearm; the stick and poke tattoos, the hair, the muscles, the skin.
In the afternoon on the third day, they basked under the sun, on the terrace. One of the young women shouted in an upper-class English accent: ‘Layla, I can’t believe you’re nearly fifty! You look so good!’
‘Thanks,’ Layla said into her novel, though she was not yet forty-six. News of her age had spread like wildfire; it had ripped through the younger women, making their faces burn gold.
‘I bet your husband is a fox?’ another girl asked from a hammock.
Layla lay her book down and lifted a hand to shield her eyes, ‘Not really!’ Her chin was raised to the sun, the skin on her chest prickling with needles of heat.
The first girl laughed and rolled over on her sun lounger, adjusting her bikini bottoms. ‘How old are you, Farid?’ she asked; for him her voice was honey.
‘Twenty-nine.’ Farid was sitting in the shade at a small table next to an orange tree. He held his pen, poised, above a leather notebook. For a long time now, Layla had been trying to imagine what he might be writing.
‘Oh my God, same!’ said one of the girls. ‘Oh my God, same!’ said another. Layla stood up and tried to walk away as inconspicuously as possible. Sleeping in the day was glorious. It was worth all the money, just to be allowed to rest.
On the fourth day, the teacher said they would do something a little different. ‘Two hours of ecstatic dance!’
Someone asked what the rules were, and the teacher said only to do what the body wants. ‘To move in a way that is free.’
Layla looked at the door. She would go and call the boys. She was slipping on her sandals when Farid reached out his arm and touched her, she looked up at him accidentally, right into the centre of his eyes. ‘You like dancing?’
‘Two hours is quite long,’ Layla said, by way of an excuse. She gathered her hair into a ponytail.
‘Stay,’ he urged, ‘Just try it.’
The music started. Layla went and stood in a corner and turned so that she was facing the windows. She swayed and closed her eyes. Tried not to worry about what she looked like. Tried to move in a way that was free. When she opened her eyes, she saw glimpses of girls leaping and gyrating and crawling on the floor. Layla swirled and twirled and only stopped when she got dizzy.
Afterwards, she walked alone back to her cabin, crying privately with an emotion that she’d never felt before, though the taste in her mouth was grief. When she turned on her phone, she had seven missed calls. The boiler had broken. Robbie had chickenpox. Could she come back a couple of days early? Her husband had a big meeting to prepare for and his mother wasn’t able to help. He understood they had agreed six days but she could have the other two another time. Things would be quieter in the spring.
On the fifth day, Layla woke up to knocking at the door. It was half dark, and for the first few seconds, she thought she was at home and it was one of her children, needing her to soothe.
She stood up. She had been sleeping in a vest and a pair of knickers and wrapped the scratchy blanket around her shoulders.
Farid was in a black hoodie and a pair of shorts, holding a towel, his dark hair messy and falling in one eye. ‘Fancy a sunrise swim? There’s a lake, like, twenty minutes away.’ He started walking backwards down her steps: ‘It’s beautiful.’ He brought a hand to his temple, then shot out all his fingers – it would blow her mind.
The air was so fresh it felt to Layla like she could drink it. The sky was on its way to pink. She didn’t take a swimming costume or a phone or lock her cabin. She followed Farid with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The earth shaped itself to her feet.
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