As it’s a blessedly quiet time in politics, I thought I’d do something completely different this week.
Some readers might remember a short story, called The Minister I published here the Easter before last. It received favourable comments so, time for another.
Most TV detectives have deep-seated character flaws. They are often hopeless alcoholics, depressive, and usually totally disorganized.
Why not a detective who is perfect in every way? A Holmes without the drug habit, a Watson with an incisive intelligence, a Rebus who is not endlessly shambolic? You are about to meet him:
The Grain of Things
A short story by John Evans
Lama Gampopa looked around calmly, sniffing the air, finding it warm, despite the January chill. His expression was one of benign repose, and he moved with a grace that belied his middle years.
The lama checked in at a modest hotel in Sussex Gardens aware that he was the object of much curiosity. Gampopa was always aware. That was his training, to be conscious of all that was going on around him down to the smallest detail.
He had been sent to London to trace and recover some of the lost treasures that had been looted from the monasteries of Tibet and were now appearing on the art markets of the world. He possessed modest funds to buy back whatever he could, but even the Council knew that the haul would be limited.
One particular artefact was the reason for his present visit. It was a codex — an early form of book — called The Treasure of the Dharma Eye. Hand-printed from wooden blocks onto thick, leathery parchment, the manuscript was said to contain the ultimate secret of Enlightenment from one of the Buddha’s closest disciples.
His contact was Jeremy Richardson, a member of one of the many Tibetan support groups that flourish now in the West. Richardson was a former police inspector with CID and knew his way around the London art scene. He was still relatively young and possessed an affable manner, which pleased Gampopa.
“I’m told you have trained as a detective, Lama?”
“Indeed, that is why I am here.”
“With the Indian police force, no doubt?”
“Oh no, it was less formal than that.”
Richardson’s eyebrows lifted.
“Sherlock Holmes, Inspector.”
The ex-policeman’s eyes widened further.
“I have studied the works of that great detective in meticulous detail,” said the lama earnestly. “I have analyzed his distinctive principles and assimilated them thoroughly.”
Richardson held back a smile, but Gampopa spotted it at once.
“You think I am a little naive, perhaps, learning from books of fiction?”
“Oh, no, Lama. It’s just that we’re not taught that at Hendon.”
“Our training college for the Metropolitan police in England.”
“Ah!” Gampopa inclined his head in that peculiar way of his, signifying that he understood. “You will realize by now that our ways are different. We do not distinguish between genres, merely between different degrees of usefulness.”
“Yes, of course … admirable.” said Richardson, only half convinced.
“Holmes has now become part of my method.”
“I follow the grain of things. Everything has a grain, Inspector: life, history, human nature. Try tearing a piece of newspaper. In one direction you can tear a straight line. In the other, you have no control. I follow the grain. I look for the flaws in the thoughts of others … and all things become apparent.”
* * * * *
A trawl around the auction houses produced little enlightenment. There were few Tibetan items for sale in any of them. Moreover, a threat of European taxes had frightened off many potential sellers who had decamped to New York. Some were holding fire until the financial climate was clearer. It seemed a lost cause.
Over coffee in the Strand, Richardson sounded bleak. “I hope this hasn’t been a wild goose chase for you, Lama?”
“If a goose is not wild, there is no need to chase it, Inspector.” And he sat back in his chair as if all the time ever created was at his disposal.
Richardson watched him closely. He was fascinated by this throw-back from a past age who yet seemed to have such effortless mastery of the modern world. He treats it, Richardson thought, as if it doesn’t exist. He passes through it, notes its variations, and passes on, with that invincible serenity as his trade-mark.
“What would you do, Jeremy, if you had a priceless artefact for sale and were here in London now?”
The ex-inspector noted the first name terms. “Well … it’s hard to say … go to New York … or Switzerland.”
“But would you? Would it not be easier to arrange a private sale? Say through agents. After all, these dealers know the people who would want to buy, and one Tibetan piece is very much like another.”
“You may be right. There are underground auctions, but they are fiendishly difficult to approach.”
The lama was thoughtful: “But as a bona fide buyer would I not be welcome at such gatherings?”
“You might. But I’m too well known; there’s no chance for me.”
Gampopa smiled. “Then you will give me the contacts, Jeremy, and I will do the rest.”
* * * * *
Richardson spent the afternoon with some old colleagues at the Met, making a list of those who might be able to help Lama Gampopa. But independent enquiries through the known sources proved fruitless. He met up with the lama at his hotel after supper.
“We’ve hit the wall, Lama,” he said wearily. “There’s nothing stirring in the undergrowth.”
The lama smiled slowly. “I think I have had better luck Jeremy, my friend.”
“Don’t tell me … you’ve been following the grain!”
“Think for a moment … who would have his ear to the ground? Why, the best known Tibetophile in the world. If the codex is up for sale in London, don’t you suppose he would be here?”
Richardson was intrigued. “Who are we talking about?”
“Hiram B. Wannamaker the Third.”
“He is known to be a great collector of artefacts. But more than that, he has a genuine interest in our culture, which means more to him than mere objects. And being an American, if he were here in London, the Embassy would almost certainly know about it.”
“That follows. So we must go there first thing…”
“I have already been,” the lama twinkled. “He is staying at Claridges.”
“I visited him at once. Luckily, I caught him at afternoon tea.”
Richardson cast a rueful glance at this surprisingly mercurial lama. “And the upshot?”
“The codex is being auctioned at a private house off Park Lane tomorrow morning. Hiram, naturally, is going. And, Jeremy, I am to go as his adviser on the Tibetan language.”
* * * * *
Richardson waited impatiently in the bar at Claridges for the return of the two men. It seemed an age, and he was beginning to feel distinctly left out of things. Eventually, he was asked to go up to Mr Wannamaker’s suite, where Hiram and the lama awaited him. On a small coffee table rested the precious codex. It was almost two feet in length and had an air of great age about it.
“Jeremy, we have it. Hiram has been successful in his bid. But you can’t imagine how much he had to pay.”
Wannamaker seemed overjoyed. “Worth every cent, Mr Richardson. If this document contains the secret of Enlightenment, what possible earthly price could you put on it.”
Lama Gampopa gingerly opened the codex leaf by leaf, examining the sometimes faded script in a gentle rocking movement of his head, like a speed reader.
“It is all here, gentlemen. Everything we expected.”
Richardson could contain himself no longer. “But Lama, doesn’t this mean you’ve lost the codex. Won’t it go to the States now and be buried forever in a private collection?”
“You underestimate me, Mr Richardson,” the American interjected. “Lama Gampopa and I have a deal. He will translate the document for me and tell me the secret of Enlightenment, and I’ll gladly present the codex to the Tibetan community as a gift.”
Richardson gasped. Gampopa had done it, and without even dipping into his funds.
“And now Lama,” said Hiram urgently, “as a down-payment, just read out in English the part which contains the treasure — the greatest secret of all.”
Gampopa drew in an audible breath. “Very well, Hiram, my friend. I have already found the passage. I should warn you it is very profound and may seem a trifle obscure. But I assure you it contains the very essence of life itself.”
“But what does it say?” Hiram could barely restrain himself.
“It says: ‘Thus have I heard: there is a grain in all actions and in all things. Know the grain and follow it. Enlightenment will walk with you every step of the way.”
Gampopa smiled inscrutably.
Copyright © John Evans 2010.
John Evans is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face?
Available from Amazon and all good book sellers.