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I was battered and bruised, but getting the brown belt was a huge achievement and I felt on top of the world. Well, almost, for there was one major thing dragging me down day after day: I simply wasn’t happy at home. It was now obvious that my marriage could not endure. We had, like so many couples, simply grown apart. Since my brother’s death I had changed dramatically, we were spending less and less time in each other’s company, and when we were together we either had very little to say or we argued.
The premonition I’d had standing on the concrete foundation in February came true in September, when I packed my personal things in black bin bags, left a letter on the mantelpiece, and fled to my mum in Wales.
All the way along the M4 I kept saying to myself that I should turn back while there was still time to tear up the letter before my husband saw it. But each time I approached a junction and tried to decide whether to take the exit, there was an answering voice urging me to keep going. “Look ahead to your life at 40, 50 and how it will be if you go back,” the voice said. “To be the person you want to be you must be free.”
Eventually I accepted that there was no going back, and I crossed the old Severn Bridge and kept going for another 120 miles.
My mum was so shocked to see me on her doorstep, but she and my stepdad helped me through those first miserable days, allowing me time and space to gather my thoughts and my resolve for when I returned to deal with the fallout.
On my second day there I went to one of my favourite places in the whole world, Marloes Sands in Pembrokeshire. It’s a long climb down on a narrow cliff path to reach the sands and rocks, and this was a very windy day so the sea was wild and beautiful, just as I like it – and I was completely alone.
As I walked I allowed my thoughts to wander, and, as in quite a few occasions in my life, I was somehow allowed to know a few things about my future: I would not return to my husband; I would marry again; I would not have children; I would find supreme happiness.
I felt sad about never becoming a mother, but if the choices I made now led to ‘supreme happiness’ then that would do for me!
My husband pleaded with me to move back in and go with him to Relate. I agreed to the counselling, but was adamant that I wanted a divorce. I was very lucky in having a little one-bedroom flat to live in at my dad’s house. He had built it in the 1970’s for my gran, and it had been empty since her death the year before my brother died. Dad was happy for me to stay there while I sorted myself out, and I was immensely grateful for it.
I had expected my family and friends to be shocked that I had walked out on my husband, but it surprised me to discover that they had merely been wondering what had taken me so long!
And no-one wondered more so than my dad.
Imagine this scenario. You’re standing at the church door in your wedding finery, ready to make your grand entrance. Your father, who is about to walk you down the aisle, turns to you, clasps your hands, and, looking deep into your eyes, says, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Now, looking back, I laugh to think what would have happened if I had gathered up my dress, turned on my white satin heels and fled, leaving Dad to make the announcement that there would be no wedding!
The marital home sold quickly, we managed to keep things amicable while we dealt with solicitors and came to an agreement that allowed a clean break. The divorce was granted in August 1990. On the day I received the decree absolute, a rather stark and boring piece of paper considering its importance, I reverted to my maiden name.
In the meantime I had also come to the end of my karate journey. I was extremely underweight and emotionally drained, and just didn’t have the strength or the will to go on training at such a high level. My concentration was so bad that I risked injury every time I entered the Dojo, and that wasn’t fair on my sparring partners. It was hard to concede, but knowing that a black belt was truly beyond me, I had no choice but to give it up.
Over the next two years I settled into life as a singleton, working as a PA, enjoying my social life, meeting new people. I bought a new flat within walking distance of my dad’s house, and I found love again.
Throughout it all, the highs and the lows, I took comfort from knowing my brother watched over me, just as he’d always looked out for me when we were children. But then, just as I was feeling settled for the first time in ages and thinking I had my life sorted, something weird and totally unexpected shook me up all over again!
I was driving home from an evening out with friends. It was dark. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, but a sudden sensation, like walking through thick, sticky cobwebs made me squirm in my seat. Without warning, my brother’s voice, clear as day, spoke into my left ear: “I have to go now, Sis. You’ll know me when you see me again.”
Staggered, I gripped the wheel and whipped my head to the side, certain I’d see my brother sitting in the seat beside me. There was no-one there, but I knew I’d heard him.
“Stephen,” I begged, as I tried at the same time to concentrate on the road, “What do you mean?”
But there was no reply. The feeling of being smothered in cobwebs was gone and I was left frustrated and struggling to understand what had just happened.
It wasn’t my imagination, I am positive about that. I hadn’t even been thinking about him. So why, now, had I been able to hear him? In the seven years since his death I had not once heard his voice; he had communicated only through psychic mediums. The shock of hearing his voice this way had jarred me to my soul, and I wondered if I’d missed something, some vital clue to this brief and enigmatic message.
With relief, I arrived home safely and parked in front of my flat. For what felt like an hour I just there, stock still, staring out of the window, my mind spinning and racing with possibilities. I didn’t know much about reincarnation back then, but I wondered if this was a possibility. Would Stephen come back as a different person in my lifetime and somehow I would recognise him as my brother?
I was left with nothing but tantalising questions: Why and where was he going? How would I know him again?
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.