Shavasana – Dead Man’s Pose
Early morning light was slinking around the buildings of Surry Hills. Elaina Williams stood on her yoga mat, hands relaxed along her sides, eyes closed, concentrating on the stillness and sound of her breathing. Finding inner peace and teaching the mind to be totally calm instead of ‘always doing’ was still a work in progress. Her class had spread their mats around her, distributing the red, purple, orange and blue patches of colour across the dewy grass. The mats resembled bright splotches of material resting on a green wallaby-grass quilt on a narrow parkway at the dead end of Cooper Street, Surry Hills.
A familiar voice came from over her shoulder. ‘I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it today,’ Mario Vincente said, huffing a bit as he walked up to her mat. ‘May I talk with you a moment, Elaina?’
She opened her eyes. Mario was short, a little portly, with hair that was evaporating from its current location. ‘It’s important,’ he added, his brown eyes widening and his brow slightly furrowed.
‘Morning, Mario,’ Elaina said. She often had a few words with students at Yoga Boronia before a session began. Mario had been a student of hers for over ten months. Previously, he’d rarely ventured outside his accounting office for any type of exercise or even contemplation of anything but numbers. She had admired his determination and dedication to progress in the yoga poses.
She glanced at the worn watch strapped on her wrist. ‘Let me treat you to a coffee right after this session, Mario. We’re almost ready to begin.’
He seemed anchored to the ground next to her purple mat like a ship in dry-dock unable to return to sea. He hesitated and appeared ready to blurt something out, but then he stopped. ‘Si, un caffè, coffee would be good,’ Mario murmured.
‘Perfect,’ Elaina laid a hand on his arm. ‘I enjoy our coffees. Let’s chat then.’
Mario headed to the grassy area amid the other students and began rolling out his blue mat.
When attending Elaina’s classes, he tried to form his body into positions other than sitting. Developing the ability was a slow process, similar to unfurling an ancient parchment scroll. It took time, patience, science and gentle guidance. But whatever Mario lacked in flexibility he made up for in perseverance. Yoga transformed his relationship with his body, and his initial spotty attendance soon gave way to regular sessions.
Elaina had started having coffee with him after class, encouraging him and talking about their mutual interest in classical literature and impressionistic art. Mario was usually the first to roll out his mat for a yoga session. This morning he had arrived later than usual.
Many students had come early to this morning’s session, getting a jump on the rays of the sun still waking up the grass. They began moving into a sitting position. Elaina always started with Easy Pose, Sukhasana. Sitting with legs crossed, aligning the head and back, hands resting on the knees.
Ric Peters was last to the class, as he always was. He couldn’t help but draw Elaina’s eye. He was tall, almost two metres. She’d heard that Ric practised both yoga and martial arts, which seemed somewhat of a conflict to her. The combination of the two disciplines, however, accentuated his toned body and his strength, beyond merely fitness. With his dark, slightly curly hair and tanned features, he stood out. He looked for a space among the students spread across the grassy area. He always seemed at ease, but he scanned the crowd of students, then the park, his eyes ever watchful.
The hour passed quickly as Elaina’s mellow voice floated out over the mass of multicoloured yoga mats. Either her voice, or the intoxicating cloud of blooming jasmine fragrance (or perhaps a passionate embrace of both), lulled the class into a semi-hypnotic state of relaxation.
Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia was not as rural as its near-namesake in England. But it did have a local parkway, wedged in between the cookie-cutter terrace houses and a meandering pedestrian walk that led up towards Crown Street. The parkway was popular to the patrons of the yoga studio, as well as the local dogs. It afforded all of the clientele the opportunity to get outside, have a stretch and a bit of relief, while still communing with nature.
Elaina was tall, tanned and limber. She had long, flowing, sun-streaked hair, loosely pulled back into a ponytail. Strands of some of the unruly strawberry blonde hair framed the high cheekbones on her oval face. She stood barefoot, perched on her purple mat, elegant in black tights with mesh vents and a black tank top. The outfit appeared to have been airbrushed on shortly before class. She shifted into the yoga position of Plank, her blue eyes surveying the early morning class. The sea of multicoloured stretch pants undulated above the mats in a variant of the Festival of Colours, an Indian holiday.
‘Let’s move from Plank into Downward Dog. Your hands should already be a shoulder-width apart. Make sure your fingers are spread wide. Press your hands into the mat, gently tuck your toes under and take a deep breath.’
Mario had forgotten what attracted him to yoga in the first place. Was it the fitness regime? Or perhaps watching all the people contort into animal- and plant-named positions? Downward Dog was one of Mario’s favourite positions because he could actually accomplish the pose. His mind was now in a different place from the normal kaleidoscope of accounts, ledgers, books, spreadsheets and secrets not mentioned in any of the footnotes.
Out of class, Mario Vincente was a man of precision and regularity. Socially, personally, even biologically, he functioned like clockwork. From his father and grandfather before him, Mario inherited his shortness in stature, along with Mediterranean olive skin. However, his complexion was not enhanced by the Australian sun; it was somewhat blanched because of his hours of indoor work. He was slightly rounded due to the lack of vigorous exercise and his great passion for pasta in all its many variations.
With the early warmth of the sun, Mario’s mind drifted like the blubbery white clouds above him as he remembered his past interactions with Ric and Elaina, talking about art, history and music. He reflected: there’s family and then there’s family. His focus was becoming increasingly difficult as time slipped away from his consciousness. He was not as agile today and felt warm and tingly, though that could have been the smell of the wallaby grass and sound of Elaina’s voice. Still, he always felt better during and after yoga. This lasted a few brief moments, before he plunged back into a revolving whirlpool of numbers that he constantly had to rearrange into a purposeful order.
Standing now, Elaina policed everyone’s form, making sure they held the pose correctly and for the requisite amount of time. Form and timing were important, but so was a little ‘zest’, she was always fond of saying. Mario figured she knew the value of garnish to any meal.
‘Okay, everyone, I want you to take three deep breaths. Now on the last one – hold it, hold it, hold it. Now breathe out gently and continuously, and let’s transition slowly into Shavasana.’
Mario turned his large frame to his side and rolled onto his back, getting ready for the end of the session and coming into a pose that was simply lying flat on the mat with arms alongside. He listened to Elaina taking in all the lovely air and expanding it into that very lovely chest. It was often said (at least in Florence) that an Italian’s blood was ninety percent infused with passion and love. The other ingredients were purely superficial.
He felt a tightness in his chest, but then that always happened when he was on his back; it made him feel like a beached whale struggling for breath. The tightness gave way to weightlessness. He was relaxed. Elaina was describing exactly what he was feeling, as though a giant weight was falling away; all of his body was lightweight and then melting into the ground. Maybe he was at last achieving his pursuit of true relaxation, which he had long been struggling for in the yoga class. He was breaking free from gravity like an astronaut leaving lunar orbit.
‘Everyone, we’re going into a deep and tranquil state now as we transition into the final relaxation pose. I want you to take ten deep breaths and let the air out slowly and purposefully. Listen to your breath, the sound of your breath moving in and out of your body, rhythmically flowing, flooding and ebbing like the tides.’
Elaina’s voice magnified the deep tonal quality that yoga teachers and hypnotists possess. ‘You’re feeling your arms and legs tingling as you meld into the earth below your mat. You’re feeling light, drifting, floating, your mind is open, focusing only on the emptiness, clearing all thoughts. This pose gives your body time to process all the information and benefits received during class.’
The class was good. Elaina saw most people concentrating on their breathing. A few had drifted off. It was key to focus on relaxation techniques in Shavasana, instead of people simply going to sleep like one giant slumber party. Moments passed while she took in the beginning of another sunny Sydney day and the clouds scudding in gleeful anticipation across the sky.
‘Okay, in your own time come back to now. We’re grounding ourselves in the present moment. Slowly come back with a nice, long stretch. When you’re ready, slowly move to your right side. You’re on your right side now and coming to an easy seated position. Keep your eyes closed, holding a moment, breathing in and momentarily holding the breath, then purposely breathing out. Nice deep breaths. Gently open your eyes slowly in your own time.’
When most of the class had returned to a sitting position, Elaina smiled and clasped her hands together. She bowed, saying ‘Namaste’, while thinking, I bow to you, thank you for your time, thank you for your light.
It happened in every class. There was always one or two lost to a deeper sleep. Most of the participants got up and used the mat-cleaning time as a transition to get ready for the reality that was a bustling Sydney day ahead. A few lingered, trying to maintain the feelings of aliveness generated by the class, but knowing a return to reality was perhaps a train or a bus ride away.
Elaina did the rounds of the two figures still in repose. She put her hand softly on the shoulder of the woman lying peacefully. ‘Chloe, how are you? Class is ending. It’s time to come back to the surface.’
Chloe’s eyes fluttered like a fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty arising from a long sleep. She stretched her left hand out and rolled to her right side.
Elaina turned towards the remaining figure. ‘Mario. It’s time to come back. Take a deep breath. In your own time, stretch and roll to your right side.’
Mario didn’t move. Elaina laid her hand on his still body.
‘Mario. It’s time to wake up.’ She knelt down to his left side and gently shook his shoulder, then touched the side of his head. He didn’t stir. There was something funny about his colouring. It wasn’t a normal colour. And where was his breath? He wasn’t deep-breathing. He wasn’t even shallow-breathing. She leaned close to his nose, listening. His ‘tidal breathing’ seemed to have ebbed away. His breath was out to sea for good. She needed to act. Fast. She assessed Mario’s condition and she was worried.
She turned quickly to the two people closest to the exterior door.
‘Help! Clare! Josh! Get to a phone! Call triple zero!’ One of her staff, Trishell, had just opened the door to the side of the studio. Clare and Josh looked over towards Elaina. Then together they pushed through the doorway, with Trishell following them back in.
Elaina, still on her knees beside Mario, rapidly tried to find a pulse. There was none. Her initial concern flashed to anxiety. She felt hyperaware. Her head was pounding. She began resuscitation, using thirty compressions followed by two mouth-to-mouth breaths. Counting. Counting. Still no response.
‘Mario! Mario! Wake Up!’ She squeezed his thumbnail trying to get him to wake up.
Ric was rolling up his mat. His head snapped when he heard Elaina yell for help. He rushed over and dropped to his knees next to Elaina, taking over the compressions, pumping rhythmically on Mario’s chest. Press. Release. Press. Release. While he worked on Mario’s chest, he counted out loud to thirty.
‘Come on, Mario, breathe! Damn it! Breathe!’ Ric’s voice was commanding.
In sequence, Elaina moved towards Mario’s head, covered his mouth with hers and, pinching his nose, blew in two breaths. Thirty ... two. Thirty ... two. It was like a percussion duet. But they never achieved a trio. After six sets Mario was still not breathing and there was no pulse. Elaina was desperate. She was panicked that her actions weren’t making an impact.
Mario’s body was pale and cold. Ric knew he was pumping the heart of a corpse. But he did not stop. Mario was not coming back to the yoga class.
Mario’s fists were clenched tightly, as if there had been a pain or spasm, maybe even a heart attack. His left hand grasped a small brown twig and some soil. It seemed Mario had been engaged in a tug of war with death, his hands digging into the soil near his mat. It was a tug of war he had lost.
The paramedics arrived with their ‘take charge and take over’ hustle. The futile effort continued. Ric and Elaina stood by. A police patrol-car siren was heard in the distance, its wail becoming more insistent.
Ric, ever the photojournalist, got his phone from his backpack and discreetly took a few images of Mario lying on his mat. Legs outstretched. One fist clenched as if in defiance. After the initial quick assessment and attempts at resuscitation, a gurney was brought over.
The paramedics put Mario on oxygen, following a checklist of hospital procedures in a repeatedly practised triage technique. There was no pulse, no respiration, no blood pressure, the cardiac monitor was flatlined. The man was dead and the oxygen was going nowhere.
When the police duo arrived, Ric and Elaina gave their statements. Elaina was surprised that Ric remembered so much detail. She couldn’t remember anything, except that Mario couldn’t get up. The taller of the constables said that they would be contacted for additional information, as needed. Elaina was still operating on automatic. The park seemed different. The autumn leaves in the trees and on the ground had turned up the brightness of their colours. Everything was more intense, as if she hadn’t seen anything quite right before.
The pull of tasks resurfaced. Elaina went into her yoga studio and cancelled classes for the rest of the day and the next two. She held the hands of the staff for a few moments as they all dispersed. Trishell, Elaina’s number two, said she’d sort out the schedule for the classes when they resumed.
Mario’s mat remained orphaned among the sycamore trees – a lone, navy-blue mat, out of place, abandoned, without an owner. Even the local dogs must have sensed something strange had happened in their domain and stayed away from the mat.
Ric resisted but could not stop himself. This time he hauled out his Canon camera and instinctively snapped a few more images of the mat and the surrounding park. It was what he did. Record. Reflect. Documenting something made one remember, though there were a few things he preferred to forget. But he never knew which ones until long after the pictures were taken.
Elaina came out the side door of the studio and, seeing Ric with a camera, she flushed with anger. ‘What are you doing? Why are you taking pictures? A man has died here.’
‘I’m sorry, it’s a ... habit,’ Ric said. He gestured at the mat. ‘Besides, I keep wondering why the police didn’t tape this area off. We don’t know what happened here.
And we won’t know until the coroner establishes the cause of death. No one should be wandering around the park, trampling all over the place, until some basic questions are answered. And his mat is just lying there.’
Elaina looked at the mat and closed her eyes. Ric came over and put both hands firmly on her shoulders. She opened her eyes and he looked directly into them.
‘Elaina, you are going to be okay. First step. Do you have any of those orange pylons or cones and plastic tape that you use to surround this area of the park? You know, like when you have those demonstration classes?’
Ric’s grey eyes were calm. In control.
‘I’m going on gut instinct here,’ he added. ‘Mario’s death was rapid and silent. We need to keep people out of this area until we know what happened to him.’
‘What do you mean? He had a heart attack or something, right? He was overweight. Probably didn’t eat well. Probably ...’ She lost the train of thought and shook her head.
‘Look, Elaina. All of what you said is likely true. But we can’t be totally sure. I’m going to call a friend of mine, a mate I know with the police. He owes me a favour. If you have those traffic cones, please put them out around this area. At least for a while.’
Ric hit the recent list on his phone and pressed the mobile number for Jack. It was listed as ‘Gelato Chocolate Chip’.
Jack McMasters was a detective inspector within the Homicide Squad of the State Crime Command. He was one of those Aussie straightshooters, both figuratively and professionally. He was from Alice Springs. Simpler was better for most things. Honest and blunt were the only two options that came from his mouth.
Ric had learned the hard way not to call office phones or direct dials to someone’s smart phone or business, particularly when something was truly important. In the era of little privacy anywhere, real privacy only occurred in person – face to face.
While he waited for Jack to pick up, Elaina headed back to the studio office to get the cones, but he wasn’t sure when she’d be back, so he’d make this quick.
Jack answered Ric on the seventh ring. The two of them had an acquaintance that had matured over the years into a friendship. Ric had shown he had an uncanny way of finding information and filling gaps in on cases. Most of the time Jack didn’t ask Ric about the ‘how’. It was easier that way. In the outback, solid information or even good intuition had value. In Sydney, it was rare for data to come through without the undercurrent of someone’s ulterior motives or political slant. Ric was the exception in Jack’s politically charged world.
‘G’day, Boysenberry, howzit goin’?’ ‘Boysenberry’ was Ric’s label on Jack’s phone. ‘Actually, a bit crook. Maybe it’s something I ate.’
‘Should see a doctor about that stomach.’
They had worked out a patter a few years ago, mainly for Jack to respond to a call at the office. Translated, Ric was saying something was up and Jack replied they should meet.
Jack asked, ‘Have you taken two Panadol?’
‘Yes, I’ve taken two. Hope that will work out okay.’ Ric ended the call.
Jack ducked out of the office and headed towards Crown Street. Number two was the park across from the Surry Hills Library, Shannon Reserve. He knew Ric would be there in a few minutes. They had worked out several locations in Sydney to meet up. It saved time and avoided details that were best left unsaid.
The park was normally packed with kids performing near-riot activities. During autumn afternoons they jumped on the colourful leaves accumulated in mounds stacked high around the swings and jungle gym. But now, before school started, it was an empty and quiet spot, with more dead leaves descending slowly like snowflakes. Ric was sitting on the bench near the back entrance of the park and Jack joined him.
He resembled a block of granite that had been carefully chiselled away revealing a tall, lean and lanky man. He had dark hair with an edging of premature grey at the temples. Brown eyes with flecks of gold. He walked with an outback swagger not seen much in Sydney. He was a ‘battler’ – one who persevered through any difficulty, battled on despite any adversity.
‘G’day, Ric,’ Jack said. ‘Thought you’d be at brekkie with some beautiful new interest about now.’
‘I wish. But then again, I don’t have the attraction that a police detective inspector has.’
‘Are you sure you weren’t born Irish with all that blarney?’
‘Don’t say that to my mother. She has her own legends, which are equally imaginative.’ Ric changed the subject. ‘Thanks for meeting with me. It’s about a recent death.’
‘How recent? Kingswood shooting?’
‘No. A man who has been going to a yoga place I use. Been there for about the past ten months or so. He died on his mat this morning.’
Ric paused, watching the foot traffic along Crown Street picking up as the restaurants, organic food shops and historic bars filled with customers.
‘Something about this death seems unusual. It could have been natural. Or maybe not.’
‘Crikey. A guy carks it at a yoga studio and you get ... what, curious?’
‘I chatted with this man, Mario, a fair bit in the last few months. And today it wasn’t as if we were doing a strenuous part of the program. It was odd. Odd is always curious to me.’
‘So, is there anyone we should start tracking from this morning’s episode? The owner or staff of the yoga studio? Students? Passing dog walkers?’ Jack grinned. ‘You know, anyone who needs to be told to postpone an out-of-town holiday?’
Ric realised Jack was asking about Elaina, or anyone else with greater knowledge of the incident, already formulating a suspect list. ‘Not that I know of. But I’ll let you know if that changes.’
‘Hang on a tick. What was Mario’s last name?’
‘Vincente. Mario Vincente. Why?’
‘Mario Vincente was on one of our lists.’
‘What list? What are you talking about?’
‘Various lists,’ Jack said. ‘Depending on their talents. Those most likely to knock over a bank, for instance. Or drop a body in the harbour. Mario was on one of the finance lists. It’s a long list. But even so, there’re some blokes I think should be added. They haven’t made it to the roll call as yet.’
‘Why Mario?’ Ric asked. ‘He was some type of accountant, a CPA. Knowledgeable and expressive. Knew a fair bit about Italian art and red wines.’
‘It’s not the art or wine part in his life we’re interested in, mate. We’re looking into one or two of his clients. Wanted to see what he was doing for them, or maybe with them. Following up on things we get interested in now and again. You know, like illegal: gaming, numbers, laundering money from Asia and the Middle East, prostitution, hacking, human trafficking, drugs. Those sundry activities that the commissioner of police or the mayor get bushy-tailed about. Not sure of Mario’s involvement in these criminal endeavours. Perhaps an unimportant offshoot without much concern. Or, then again, maybe a part of the trunk, with clear lineage connections to tax evasion or money- laundering.’
It was rare to hear complete sentences from Jack. Ric pegged it as topics chatted about in the office on a regular basis. Though he wanted to know more, he shifted to higher ground. ‘It’s always about the connections, isn’t it?’
Jack gave his classic Cheshire-cat grin. ‘I’m headed back to the station. No social life these days. Case notes ought to hold the information we have to date. Back to ya in two ticks.’
‘Thanks, and Jack ...’ Ric stood up. ‘You need to get some barriers and tape around the east side of the yoga studio, on that grassy knoll they occasionally use. I asked Elaina, the owner, to put some cones up if she had any in the studio.’
‘Why is it always a grassy knoll? Those Blue Heelers didn’t do that? Who’s running that show? I’ll get it done.’ Jack quickly started texting. ‘I think these days police work is being taught by getting them to watch B-rated television crime dramas.’ He waved to Ric as they parted, heading in different directions.
Mario left this world much as he had entered it. Born at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, naked, he had now been delivered back to his creator via the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, once again naked. There was a certain symmetry to it.
Mario’s death was inconvenient, and not only to Mario.