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The weeks and months following that visit to the Spiritualist Church slid by. I finally plucked up the courage to tell Dad about the messages from Stephen and how I’d first learned about my Great Uncle Benny, and after a short silence, he said he wanted to see a psychic medium himself!
I was so surprised by his reaction. I had expected anger, disbelief, even ridicule, but now I was tasked with setting up a reading for him. I chose a woman in Maidenhead who had been highly recommended by quite a few people, and booked a reading for both of us. When we arrived at her red brick maisonette in Maidenhead, a large woman with dyed red hair looked from me to Dad and back again and, pointing to Dad, said “You first.” As she led him into another room she turned to me and said, “Go for a walk and come back in an hour.”
When I duly returned I entered the maisonette expecting to have my reading, but Dad was sitting, silent and white-faced, in the tiny hallway and the medium suggested I take him straight home. “You don’t need anything from me,” she said, “but your Dad has a lot to think about.”
Dad never told me what went on in that reading.
Saying that life goes on has become a cliché, but it’s true. Suddenly, it was 1987. My husband and I were settled in the house, I was busy at work and having a fun social life, but my mind was in a constant whirl about supernatural matters. I was enthralled, totally hooked by the subject, and I was reading every book about life after death I could lay my hands on. I went back to the Spiritualist Church a few times and visited psychic fairs and similar events, places I could talk to mediums and learn more about their world.
Everything I read and experienced cemented my new belief that there is an Afterlife, and that our loved ones can communicate with us if they so choose and if we are in the right environment for them to do so. They would do their part if they could but we had to do ours too. However, nothing much more was happening directly to me. After the exhilaration of those first few astonishing messages from my brother, he seemed to grow silent and everything felt like a giant anti-climax. I felt flat, and in truth, disappointed and let down. How selfish that sounds! But a milestone birthday was approaching and I knew I had to find something else to focus on. My best friend Jane was concerned that I was too wrapped up in it all, to the point that she insisted on coming with me to various meetings and events as my protector! Clearly I needed something that would keep my feet firmly on the ground while I digested all I had learned, even though I was still secretly yearning for more.
The answer came in an advert in the local newspaper. It was something I’d always wanted to try: karate. That would focus my mind and steady me!
My husband laughed when I’d said I wanted to try martial arts and scoffed that I wouldn’t last more than a month. He could have been right, but how would I know if I didn’t try?
The club met twice a week, and I loved it from the very beginning. It felt wonderful to don my Gi (the suit of white jacket and trousers) every session, wrapping the obi (narrow fabric belt) twice around my waist and tying it in the required way before stepping barefoot into the Dojo (training hall). I loved the rituals: bowing on entering and leaving the dojo, bowing to the Sensei (leader) and my fellow students, a clenched fist of the right hand into the open palm of the left. We always did these respectful rituals before commencing practice fighting or performing katas, which are patterns of movement performed solo or with a partner. We had to learn several Japanese words, terms and numbers in order to follow the Sensei’s commands.
How proud I was that by the end of that first year I had passed the first two gradings, earning the right to sew first one then two black bands, called tabs, onto the ends of my white obi.
While my karate was keeping my mind and body busy and active, other things were going on at home. By the end of the year we had decided to place our house on the market, and had put a deposit down for a detached house, still to be built, on a much smaller estate twelve miles away. I looked forward to once again choosing the tiles, kitchen cupboard doors and carpets of a brand new home, and watching it rise from the ground until it was ready for us to live in.
But before then, it would be my 30th birthday, and this really turned my thoughts inward, for this was the age my brother had been when he died. In fact, he’d lived for exactly 30 years and 57 days.
Fifty-seven days after my birthday happened to be Christmas, and while I joined in the family celebrations, a very difficult question was going round and round in my mind and would not be silenced: if I were to die this day, would I die happy?
The conclusions I came to did not sit comfortably with me at all, but I kept them to myself and cheered with everyone else as 1987 rolled into 1988.
I kept my focus on the sale of our house, gradually packing our possessions into boxes, and planning new furniture and furnishings when we moved. In early February, we learned that the foundations and ground floor slab had been laid and we went there immediately to have a look. My husband had some questions about the build, but I wanted to see the spaces we would live in, the views we would have, and feel the energy of the new place. He went to the sales office to ask his questions, and I walked alone to the concrete rectangle that was the footprint of our soon-to-be new home. Other houses around ours were rising rapidly from the ground, like mushrooms after rain, and the site was filled with the noise of hammers, saws, builders calling to one another, whistling and singing along to a radio that was playing pop music full blast.
I turned a slow circle in the centre of the slab, my breath pluming in the wintry air. It seemed so small, but I knew that was deceptive and I tried to imagine the rooms built, the walls, doors and windows in place, our furniture neatly placed.
Then, as if by divine request, the opening bars of a favourite song of mine* blared across the building site. I stood stock still, the hair inexplicably rising on my neck and my arms inside my thick coat. I stood facing where the front door would be and raised my eyes to a line of trees in the distance, their bare branches stark against the grey sky. Thoughts I’d been suppressing for a very long time careered into the forefront of my mind, and I had to stop myself from crying out.
I closed my eyes tight, willing the thoughts and images to go away, but when I opened them again it was as if a thick fog had descended and formed an unbreachable wall around me. All sound was muffled except for that song, and two particular lines seemed to echo over and over again, as if the singer of the band was sending me a message: ‘It’s the final countdown’ and ‘Will things ever be the same again?’
All at once I knew. I just knew without a shadow of a doubt, that I would not be living in this house for very long.
*The song is ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe and this is the official video of it on youtube:
J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.