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Short Story: “It Might as Well Be”

Businessman Nathan Norrie calls upon a spiritual guide to help improve the atmosphere among his work colleagues. The guide offers three pearls of wisdom.
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February 04, 2024 02:44 EDT
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Something to consider when reading/listening: If a message is true, does it matter if the messenger is dishonest? 

The invitation was from Nathan Norrie, asking me to run a retreat for him and his colleagues at his country mansion. I’ve met some deep thinkers in my time. And I’ve met some kind, compassionate souls. Nathan Norrie is neither of these things. We were at university together, where his only concern was being stronger, better looking, funnier, more successful, a better drinker than everyone else. Life was a competition and he was determined to win.

And despite his best efforts, the contents of his email invitation did little to suggest the years had softened him in this regard. He spoke about being a deeply spiritual person, telling me he meditated longer and harder than anyone he knew. He also had a successful business and a seven-bedroom house in the country with an acre of land, with acres of spiritual opportunity. But these material things, he said, are not the route to happiness. “I’ve watched all your videos,” he said. “I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita three times. But my colleagues don’t get it at all. They’re so stressed and uptight. I think you could really help.” 

I’ve always quite liked material things, so I agree. He sends a car to pick me up and ferry me the five and a half hours to his isolated house. It’s dark when I arrive but some carefully positioned floor lights illuminate his Maserati and stone water feature. 

Only he and Andrea, his iPhone-addicted wife, are home. He’s very pleased with her but no more so than with his poured resin floor or his tap that gives him instant hot water. 

At ten o’clock I ask to be excused to go to my room and from there listen to the Norries screaming at each other into the early hours until they slam separate doors and go to bed. 


The next morning, the employees arrive. Ten of them. I know a harmonious team when I see one. And this is not a harmonious team. Nathan gathers them all in the cinema room and gives a long introduction about the purpose of the retreat and the wisdom he wants to impart, which has changed his life and made him value the things that are truly important. And how his very good friend, a world-renowned spiritual leader (his words not mine) has come here especially to help him out, as a personal favor. 

Throughout the charade, Nathan seems particularly annoyed with one employee. Gavin. Tall, handsome. He, as far as I can see, is the most attentive of the whole group but Nathan chooses to interpret this as belligerence. “And you can take that smug look off your face, Gavin,” he says, the vein in his forehead throbbing, just before he mentions some of my relaxation techniques that are apparently a regular part of his daily routine. 

When I address the group, I keep things brief. Enjoy yourself, don’t worry about learning anything, have fun. Gavin nods throughout. Some of the others look at me now and then. Nathan’s wife, Andrea, spends the whole time staring at her phone. 


During lunch, where a hired chef has made rice and fava beans, Nathan calls to me across the table. “How do you do it?” he says. “How do you remain so upbeat and happy when they’re not listening to a word you say? They don’t want to be here. My missus is pissed off about the whole thing. It’s cloudy, it’s cold. And there you are, looking like you’re surrounded by your closest friends.”

Alcohol is banned for the duration of the weekend but we all suspect Nathan has made an exception in his own case. 

I don’t bother to quibble with the assertion that they aren’t listening. In any case, they’re certainly listening now. 

“There was once an old man on his deathbed,” I say. “He was hours, maybe minutes, from the end. And he was full of regret over various things. A spirit appeared and offered him a bargain. It could transport him into the body of his younger self, still with half his life to go. The only condition was he had to appreciate every single moment. The old man accepted the bargain and was transported, back in time, into the body of his younger self. That old man was me.”

At this, all eyes point in my direction. Even Andrea briefly turns her phone face down. 

“You serious?” says Nathan.

I nod. 

“You were an old man?”

I nod again. 

Most of the group are willing to take me at my word.

“You hear that?” says Nathan. “Wisdom, huh? That’s what we’re dealing with here. This is what I’ve arranged for you, ok. This is the level of insight I’m providing you with.”

At this, they shrink back into themselves and Andrea returns to her iPhone. 

“How could you possibly remember?” It’s Gavin. If anyone was going to challenge me, I suspected it would be him. 

“Shut it,” says Nathan. 

“It’s ok,” I say. “Go on.” 

“If you made that deal,” says Gavin, “and you were transported back into the body of your younger self, well, you’d have no memory of being old, would you? You’d be in your younger mind too, right? So how would you know?”

“He told you he knows,” says Nathan. 

Andrea pushes her phone away from her and leans forward. 

“Gavin’s right,” I say. “I do have no memory of making the deal. There is no way of knowing it ever happened. And nor is there any way of knowing it didn’t. So I go with the one that serves me best.”

“So hold on,” says Nathan, “the spirit, the old man… it’s not true?”

“Probably not,” I say, “but it might as well be.” 


I try to lead the group on a silent walk but Nathan breaks it every five minutes to comment on how great this is and how lucky his team are to have a boss like him. 

We return to the cinema room, where on the big screen there is now a stilted photograph of Nathan and his team. Nathan is wearing a captain’s hat, and the image of a large ship had been superimposed behind them. As we take this in there are some suppressed laughs and sniggers but nobody dares tell him that the ship is the Titanic

I do a quick Q&A. Gavin has some interesting questions. 

Then dinner. Which is also rice and fava beans. Nathan is so drunk he can barely stand. He and Andrea spend the whole time taking little snipes at each other. “Who are you texting,” he keeps saying. “Your whole life on that bloody phone.”

“How do you do it?” he calls across to me. “How do you keep smiling? This whole time. It don’t matter what stupid nonsense Gavin asks you or the complete disrespect my wife and others show towards you. I’m yet to see you catch someone’s eye without smiling. How do we get a bit of that in our lives, huh?”

Unsure at first what to say, I smile. Then I let the words come of their own accord. “No matter how cloudy the reflection, if you smile into a mirror it smiles back. Some more clearly than others but none will frown.”

Gavin gets it. There are a few other nods from around the table. Andrea doesn’t look up from her phone.

“You what?” says Nathan. 

“A few years ago,” I say, “I discovered that everyone I ever met was a mirror. Some were crystal clear, others were cloudy. But everyone, to a lesser or greater extent, reflects your emotions back to you. An angry person will be surrounded by anger. A sad person by sadness. A grateful person by…”

“Come on,” says Nathan, “that works?”

I nod. 

‘You walk around smiling and everyone else smiles?”

“That’s my experience.”

He stands up and walks around the outside of the table, grinning at every person in turn. None return it. 

“Is it a state of mind?” says Gavin. “The mirrors won’t necessarily smile back but if you carry happiness in your heart it will feel as though they do.”

Nathan scowls. I smile. 

“So it’s a trick?” says Nathan. “It’s not actually true?”

Andrea puts down her phone. The whole group looks at me expectantly. I sense they know what my answer will be but they want to hear me say it anyway. 

“Probably not,” I say, “but it might as well be.” 


Next morning, Nathan corners me before I’ve made it to the breakfast table. “You’re a genius,” he says. “I don’t know how you did it but you’re a genius. My wife…” he looks around to check no one’s listening. “You might have picked up on the fact we’ve been having difficulties but… this morning, I go into her room, we sleep in separate beds but it’s only temporary… and she is… she’s happier than I’ve ever seen her. She kisses me, she hugs me. She says she feels wonderful. And she told me it was all down to this retreat, she wants us to do it again, as many times as possible. Honestly, she’s made up. Thank you,” he says, “thank you so much.”

I nod and join the rest of the group at the table. 

Andrea is the last to join the party and when she does, she’s a different woman. She bounces into the room, smiles, says good morning to everyone, and there is no iPhone in sight.

Nathan grabs her and pulls her into him for a long kiss. 

There are some sniggers around the table but even this doesn’t blunt our hosts’ mood.

“Nothing makes you uncomfortable does it?” says Nathan, speaking to me across the table but, for the first time, without shouting or spitting. “Me and the mrs kissing… or screaming at each other. You just sit there peacefully. How do you do it?”

“I am a ghost,” I say. 

“Is that right?”

“I can wander anywhere without being seen. I am either missed altogether or seen and forgotten. In your memories of this day, this retreat, your mind will create an impression but it will not create me. How could I be uncomfortable when I am but a ghost?”

Nathan pulls his wife into him and kisses her all over her neck. She giggles.

He looks at Gavin expecting him to ask me a question but Gavin is staring down at his food.

Nathan turns back to me. “Go on then. You’re a ghost but I can see you?”

“Yes.”

“We’re all looking at you right now.”

“So it would seem.”

“So you ain’t a ghost, are ya?” He’s wearing an enormous smile. And now everyone is smiling. You can tell they’re waiting almost to mouth the words along with me as I say them.

“Probably not,” I say, “But your wife didn’t seem to notice when I snuck into her room last night and watched her having sex with Gavin.”

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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