002 Orders From Above: Episode 2 ‘be careful what you wish for’

To read previous episodes, click on the links: Episode 1

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Episode 2: be careful what you wish for

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Perched at his desk, hands busy turning steel paperclips into straight pieces of wire, Nigel grew irritated by the buzzing of a couple of fat bluebottles beating themselves to death against the grimy window. “You got in, so why can’t you get out the same way?” he grumbled. “I can’t open the window for you.” He wished he could, both to rid the office of flies and to let in some fresh air, but they had long been sealed shut by grime and layers of sloppily applied gloss paint.

The printer continued to spit out copies of the photographs he’d taken during the previous night’s surveillance. There was a ‘ping’ and Nigel groaned to see a warning flash up on the laptop screen informing him that the printer was running out of ink. He just had to hope and pray that there would be enough to finish this job, because he didn’t have any more cartridges.

He loosened his tie, undid the top two buttons of his shirt, and wiped his face with a tissue. It shredded into tiny flecks on a patch of stubble on his left cheek, and, not for the first time, he wished he’d remembered to put a proper handkerchief in his pocket. Would this heatwave never end?

He uncapped a black felt-tipped pen to write the name ‘Bingley’ across the front of a grey folder. The pen had dried up. Less than half an hour into the day and he wondered if things could get any worse. A new felt pen he could just about afford, but print cartridges, essential for his job, were so blasted expensive. The water and electricity bills would arrive any day, as would the rent demand. His credit card was racking up ridiculous interest fees, and, worst of all, the monthly maintenance payment to his ex-wife was a week overdue.

“Damn it,” he said out loud to the room, “So much for a new start. I hate this heat, I hate this job, I hate not having any money-”

“But you love me, I hope.”

Nigel gave a rueful grin as his wife of one glorious year and one month strolled in, a vision of fresh loveliness in her strappy lime-green summer dress and white sandals, her dark-chocolate hair swept back in a glossy, swinging ponytail. Her flawless skin positively glowed, and if he weren’t so horribly sweaty he would cheer himself up by taking her slender body in his arms and kissing her oh-so-kissable lips.

“I bring iced lemonade to cool your fevered brow.”

“Are you going to throw it in my face, then?”

“Ah, wry humour! That’s good. You were looking so gloomy I was worried you were beyond help.” Amelia set the glass of lemonade down and watched Nigel spread out the newly printed photographs. The last one was a bit stripy.

“Mr. Bingley, I presume?”

Nigel nodded. “You know, it’s one thing having to take pictures like these, at least then I’m concentrating on getting the light and the camera angles right rather than on the subject, but it’s quite another having to study them in full-blown colour. This poor chap’s soon going to be in very deep doo-doo with the terrifying Mrs. Bingley.”

He shuddered as the image of Mrs. Bingley wormed its way into his head, her flabby face a deep, mottled red, chins wobbling with indignation, her mean, mud-brown eyes piggy with righteous rage.

“Still,” said Amelia, picking up one of the pictures, “it looks like he had a good time last night. She’s a stunning woman, I must say; goodness knows how she can even move in those heels and, and … goodness, what is that she’s wearing? I bet she charges quite a bit for her services.”

“She does. And that’s how Mrs. Bingley got suspicious, because she checks the bank statements and noticed how much cash was being taken out every Tuesday.”

Truth was, Nigel felt rather sorry for Mr. Bingley, because his wife truly was a frightful woman, with no social graces whatsoever. However, it was Mrs. Bingley who was paying him and he desperately needed the money, so he gathered up the evidence of Mr. Bingley’s adulterous escapade, scribbled a quick note about hours worked on the case, and put everything in the file.

The phone warbled and Amelia reached across him to answer it, pressing the loudspeaker button so Nigel could hear both sides of the conversation.

In a bright, musical voice that made him smile, she said, “Good morning, Hellion-Rees Detective Agency, how can we help you?”

A woman answered with equal brightness, “Good morning, dear, it’s Dora Dash. I’m just calling to tell you that you can stop following my husband. This time I caught him red-handed myself!”

“Oh, Dora, what happened?”

She chuckled, “The silly sod had too much to drink at the Hunt Ball and bragged to everyone about his latest conquest. I had to save face, of course, so I hit him over the head with a champagne bottle – vintage Dom Perignon, naturally. He promised never to stray again and to replace the practically priceless Aubusson rug that was covered in blood from the gash on his forehead, and I get a brand spanking new Mercedes.”

Nigel rolled his eyes as Amelia replied, “Um, well, we’re glad that’s all sorted out, Dora.”

“Now be sure and send me your bill, and I’ll be in touch the next time some daft floozy catches the ever-roving eye of Mr. Dash. I hope it won’t be too long, because I need to replace my entire wardrobe. Goodbye now, dear, and do please give my warmest regards to your husband.”

Nigel leaned forward, wincing as his shirt stuck to the back of his chair then peeled away to damply and unpleasantly reaffix itself to his skin. “We really needed more money from that one, Amelia, we’ve got nothing else coming in. It’s just getting worse and worse.”

“I know. But Dora will settle up quickly, she always does, and she’ll probably include a small retainer for next time, so it’s not a complete loss.”

Nigel pushed both hands through his hair, and blinked with irritation as it flopped forward again into his eyes. “Do you remember when we first met Dora? She swept in here, swathed in furs and jewellery, that tiny little dog peeking out of her handbag, stopping dead in her tracks because she hadn’t known we’d taken over the business.”

“I’ll never forget it. You know, I asked her why she didn’t divorce her husband if he couldn’t be faithful for longer than a week.”

“Oh? You didn’t tell me. What did she say?”

“She said that she had no intention of leaving him, only of enjoying herself with his money. I was appalled at her mercenary attitude, but she said-” Amelia paused while she puffed out her chest and raised her chin before continuing in a voice that was a perfect rendering of Dora’s breathy, little-girl voice, “It may sound callous, my dear, but it’s all a game with me. When I was young love broke my heart and poverty almost broke my spirit, so I decided that it’s easier not to be in love and to have lots and lots of money. You know that song that says diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Well, believe me, sweet girl, they certainly are, and I’ve got lots of them!”

Nigel laughed, but he couldn’t stop himself giving a wistful glance at his wife’s engagement ring, its tiny diamond chip the one and only precious stone she owned. It couldn’t even begin to compare with the lowliest of the many rings that adorned Dora’s fingers, nor with the enormous square-cut emerald chosen by his first wife even before he had proposed. His shoulders drooped and he said, “Perhaps you should divorce me and marry a rich man.”

“Oh, Nigel, really! I won’t even grace that stupid comment with an answer.” She marched out, closing the door firmly behind her.

Nigel knew he’d have to apologise. Amelia hated it when he went on about how he couldn’t give her the things he’d been able to give Tansy. He knew absolutely that she loved him regardless, and he was damned lucky to have her. But just for a minute, maybe two, he wanted to wallow in self-pity. He pictured Dora Dash swanning around the showroom picking out her new car, the salesman fawning over her, as she demanded every extra gadget and gewgaws available. Maybe even gold cup holders and a mink-lined bed for her puffball of a dog.

He’d had a Mercedes once. Silver. With dark grey leather seats, walnut dashboard, rain-sensitive headlight wipers, a roof that folded majestically up and down at the touch of a button …

He stopped the thoughts in their tracks. What was the point in going over what he no longer had? What was the loss of a mere car compared to the gain of the most wonderful woman in the world, who in about seven and a half months time would be the mother of his first child?

Shame-faced, he went to Amelia’s desk and said he was sorry.

She smiled and his heart skipped a beat as she laced her slender fingers with his. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed each finger and the underside of her wrist. Her skin smelled of vanilla.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

She nodded. “Yes, Nigel, I do. And you know I love you too. More than anything. But you really hate this business, don’t you? I know you thought it would be more about searching for missing persons than chasing after cheaters and thieves. If there’s anything else you’d rather do, you know I’ll always support you.”

“But what else can I do? The only career I want is closed to me, at least until Tansy remarries and her father stops using his money and influence to keep me out of property development. I’m an architect, Amelia, I want to design buildings and then see them get built.”

Amelia wiped the bits of tissue from Nigel’s cheek and affectionately brushed his floppy fringe out of his eyes. “Well, according to the gossip columns, your ex-wife has someone very firmly in mind, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, but we’ve been there twice before, remember? No, I’ll believe I’m rid of her when she actually has another man’s wedding ring on her finger. Just think, Amelia, I’d be able to get a job that would actually pay the bills. And there would be no more maintenance payments!”

As if on cue, the door crashed open and there was a cheerful “Hellooooooooo there!” as a large man barrelled into the office, followed by two even larger men in brown overalls.

“Greetings from the ex-wife, Nige, me old mate! You’re a week overdue; I don’t suppose you have the money?”

This was a monthly ritual that always played out the same way. Nigel shrugged and the big man shook his head in mock sadness. “Dear oh dear! So what shall we take in lieu this time, eh?” He looked around the tiny reception area, and then signalled to his cohorts to follow him into Nigel’s office.

Nigel and Amelia stayed where they were until the men trooped out again, the burly man wishing them a cheery goodbye until same time next month, the other two grunting under the weight of Nigel’s desk.

Standing together in the doorway of Nigel’s office Amelia said, “We could always bring in the kitchen table.”

“And, what, eat off the floor?” With a resigned sigh, Nigel dropped to his knees and started to gather up the files, papers and general detritus from his desk drawers that the men had strewn all over the grubby, worn carpet. The laptop had been unplugged and lay in one corner with the printer next to it, the digital camera perched on top. Nigel supposed he should be grateful that they could take nothing that would prevent him doing his job.

“This is ridiculous! I can’t keep on like this, we’ll soon have nothing left. She only takes it out of spite. And it’s high time we had a bit of cash to spend on ourselves.” He stood up and took Amelia in his arms. “I want us to have a decent house, Amelia.” He raised her left hand “I want to give you a proper engagement ring.”

Amelia laughed and said brightly, “Oh Nigel, all that will come in time, you know it will. And don’t you dare try and replace my precious ring, do you hear me?”

She covered it up well, but Nigel knew that she was dreadfully disappointed that the aftershocks of his short, disastrous marriage to Tansy just kept on rumbling, affecting her as much as it did him. And soon they would be a family of three.

He sighed. “We won’t be free of her until she finds herself another husband, and she seems in no hurry to find one, does she? Two broken engagements in less than a year! How many more, I wonder?” Nigel pushed his fringe out of his eyes; it flopped straight back down.

His ex-wife was ruthless and her father even more so. Nigel had begged for a clean break settlement, but he could not afford to hire a lawyer savvy enough to take on his father-in-law’s legal team and win. When they’d been married, Nigel had had to work longer and longer hours designing exclusive health complexes and mansions for multi-millionaires to earn the money to pay for his wife’s extravagant spending. When he’d discovered that Tansy had been unfaithful to him with her personal trainer, their gardener and the young chap who mucked out the stables where she kept her horse, he had, with some relief, demanded a divorce. She’d agreed on the condition that Nigel allowed her to divorce him on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour so that her reputation would be untainted. If he’d only known what giving Tansy her own way meant for his future, he would have fought her tooth and nail, and told her doting daddy the truth. He would still have lost his job, most likely, but his integrity would have been intact.

The only good thing to come out of the whole mess was Amelia, who had been his PA at the time. She had known the whole sorry story and had resigned in support of Nigel on the day he was fired. They’d ended up in the nearest pub together, two cardboard boxes of their personal effects from their desks on the floor at their feet. It had been her cousin who’d sold his PI business to Nigel, assuring Nigel that he’d make pots of money just like he had. However he’d made his money, Nigel soon learned, it hadn’t been through honest means. In the early days after he’d taken over and had his own name painted on the door, Nigel had had to turn away some very shady people. The cousin, meanwhile, had fled to a country that didn’t have extradition arrangements.

He’d had some very frightening moments, but those were forgotten every time Amelia popped in to see how he was getting on. He had eventually won her heart, and for that he’d be eternally grateful.

He forced his mind back to the present and looked at her. “I’m so sorry, Amelia, I seem to have made rather a mess of things.”

“Oh, don’t go all maudlin on me.” She kissed him and stroked his fringe out of his eyes. “We’ll get there, you’ll see. Now, I’m going to fetch a pair of scissors and cut that blasted fringe of yours.”

Nigel picked up a paper clip to unbend while Amelia went to fetch a pair of scissors. Truth was, in career terms, he was broke, trapped, bored and terrified. He loathed having to follow adulterous husbands and wives with his camera and recording equipment at the ready, writing reports about their seedy goings-on. This rundown office and his second-hand suits and worn out shoes depressed him. Not being able to buy for Amelia all the things he’d so easily and thoughtlessly bought for Tansy depressed him even more. And now there was a baby on way, and he was terrified that he’d fall short as a father just as he had in everything else. Tansy had taken everything from him, everything, and even though she didn’t need a bean from him she was still determined to bleed him dry.

Amelia returned and told Nigel to sit down. As she snipped at his fringe, Nigel closed his eyes tight and said, “I just wish something would happen to take us away from all this.”

Episode 3: introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold

I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to see this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and comments.

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one blog two books flash

001 Orders From Above: Episode 1 ‘discovery’

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The pre-dawn light still washed the headstones in charcoal and dove-grey hues when Topps arrived to begin his first job of the day. Many people, he knew, would find it spooky, but he’d never been frightened by anything in his life. He hooked his canvas satchel over the wing of a small, sad-faced stone angel and strolled over to the shed, looking behind it to check if the vixen had eaten the nightly feast he left for her. She had cubs to raise, and Topps had been lucky to see them, just once, playing rough and tumble until the vixen had smelled his scent and ushered them through the hedge and away. The dish was empty, licked clean.

He unlocked the shed and quickly loaded up the wheelbarrow with all the tools and paraphernalia he would need. Whistling tunelessly, he bumped the barrow over the uneven grass to the opposite end of the churchyard, eager to get started. With a short break for breakfast he could be done by lunch time. Never mind that the job would take a tenth of the time with an excavator, Topps preferred hard, manual labour to taking the easy way with power tools. And he liked to work alone.

Flat cap pushed to the back of his head and shirt sleeves rolled to above his elbows, he spat into the palms of his huge, calloused hands and flexed his muscles. Raising the spade high, he brought it down hard so the the sharpened edge sliced cleanly through the grass into the top few inches of packed soil. Then with booted foot, the veins and sinews of his arms bulging, Topps worked it all way in and so began the task of digging a new grave.

It wasn’t long before his entire body dripped with sweat, but Topps, lost in the steady rhythm of digging, didn’t pause even to wipe his brow. He dug deeper and wider, only becoming mindful of his surroundings again when the sun broke over the crenelated church roof in a blaze of scarlet and gold. It was going to be another scorching day.

Figuring he was about halfway done, Topps decided to take a break and eat. He rinsed his hands at the standpipe, gasping as the cold water hit the heated skin of his face and the back of his neck. He retrieved his satchel from the angel and carried it over to the cooler shade of the yew tree. With a sigh of pleasure he dropped to the ground and quickly made himself comfortable, leaning his back against the old stone wall, propping his feet on the grave of Gladys Edwina Ashburton. According to the lichen-covered headstone she had been born in 1817, died in 1901, and had ‘dedicated her life to Nature’. Topps felt some affinity with Gladys because he also liked the natural order of things. The only downside to Nature, he thought, was people. He didn’t like people.

Ravenous after his labours, he made short work of two thick slabs of white bread smeared liberally with lard and wrapped round two mustard-covered cold pork sausages, washed down with swigs of dark, sweet tea. He contemplated eating the two blackened bananas he’d brought along, but decided to save them for later and get back to work.

In another four hours the digging was done and the mound of freshly-dug earth had been covered with artificial grass. Topps was preparing to lay out the webbing straps that would support the coffin as it was lowered by the pall-bearers, and something caught his eye. It was a mere glimmer in the packed, dark soil in the floor of the hole, but he wondered how he’d missed it when he’d smoothed the surfaces.

Curious, he jumped nimbly down to investigate, and used his old penknife to prise the encrusted object free. He spat on it and cleaned away the dirt with the ball of his thumb, revealing a smooth-edged coin, a raised pattern on each of its faces. It was surprisingly heavy and he wondered if it could be gold. But no, probably not. It was more likely to be something worthless, if his previous finds were anything to go by. He’d once uncovered a beaded necklace, which had caused a lot of excitement, until the Heritage Museum in the city said it was modern and not at all valuable.

Topps slid the coin and his penknife into the back pocket of his shabby moleskin trousers and grabbed the spade to dig around a bit, but there were no more coins to be found. Disappointed that he hadn’t discovered a treasure trove, he once again smoothed out the sides and floor of the grave. It took another hour to finish preparing the grave, clean and put away his tools, lock up the shed and grab his satchel. He was headed for the vicarage as the clock struck two.

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Reverend Hartley Cordwell answered his knock, his white hair like a dandelion clock atop his long, thin, jovial face.

“Good afternoon, Topps! Another fine day, isn’t it?”

“Aye, sir, that it is. Just came to tell you that Jack’s grave be ready, and I found this.” He retrieved the coin from his pocket and held it out. “Couldn’t find no more, though.”

“Thank you, Topps. We’re not destined to find riches in our churchyard, are we?” Hartley peered at the coin. “I’ll put it in the safe until I’ve got time to have a proper look at it. Now, would you like a cup of tea? I’ve half an hour before I have to go out.”

“No thank you, Reverend Cordwell, sir. I’d like to get the green watered, right parched the grass is.”

“Well, if you’re sure?”

“Aye, thanks all the same. I’ll be getting back to work.”

Topps wondered if the vicar would ever stop offering him refreshments. They must have been through this ritual hundreds of times, and, although he actually liked the vicar, never once had he accepted an invitation to tea. He simply loathed small talk or chitchat. The solitary nature of his job as village handyman suited him well; he did a good job for whoever paid him a fair wage and neither offered nor expected any conversation in return. After all his years doing odd jobs around the village everyone had learned this and so left him well alone.

He touched a forefinger to his flat cap and walked down the vicarage driveway, his mind on the village green and the grass turning brown and unsightly in the relentless heat. He caught a flash of something red ahead of him and narrowed his eyes at what he thought was someone half-hidden among the rhododendrons. It was someone! A man, wearing bright red trousers, staring hard back at him. Topps assumed he was on his way to see the vicar, but the figure suddenly vanished and by the time Topps reached the spot, there was no trace of anyone. Puzzled, he could only wonder if he was suffering from too much sun.

For the rest of the day he tried to put the red-trousered man out of his mind, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was being observed. Time and again he couldn’t stop himself looking over his shoulder, but there were no more flashes of red, no mysterious figures diving into shrubs or behind garden sheds.

His last task was to put food out for the vixen and it was still light as he headed home, but during the short walk to his cottage the feeling of being watched grew ever stronger and he looked back over his shoulder four times before telling himself off for having fanciful notions. Who would want to spy on the likes of him? But the uneasy feeling persisted while he prepared and ate his dinner of rabbit casserole with peas and tiny new potatoes grown in his own vegetable patch, and he kept glancing at the window, half expecting to see a face peering in at him.

He passed the rest of the evening hand-washing his shirt and underwear in the sink and polishing his boots and then, at almost midnight, he put a pan of milk on the stove to heat it for his bedtime mug of cocoa. A tawny owl hooted, and Topps, spooning cocoa powder into the milk, listened for its mate to reply; they were probably hunting and Topps wished them luck.

A sudden and loud thumping on his front door took him so completely by surprise that he jarred the pan and a stream of hot cocoa spewed out onto the back of his hand. He turned off the burner beneath the pan and went to see who could possibly be bothering him at this time of night; it was unlikely to be the vicar as he only ever knocked very gently while calling Topps’ name. Besides, he always went to bed early.

Feeling very angry at being disturbed, not to mention scalded, Topps yanked the door open, to find a tall man, wearing bright red trousers, grinning at him.

“You!” he barked, curling his fists at his sides. “I saw you skulking around earlier. Who are you and what do you want?”

With a cheeky wink, the stranger replied, “You would not believe me if I told you who I am. But what I want, my dear chap, is for you to take a little holiday.”

“What? What are you talking about, you stupid man? Go away!”

Topps went to slam the door, but the stranger swiftly pushed his way into the cottage with surprising strength. Topps, rooted to the spot, could only utter a strangled protest as the stranger walked around the tiny room, his eyes roving from the stained armchair to the scratched pine table to the single bed in the far corner. The man studied the damp clothes hung to dry, then pulled on the rope that worked the pulleys to raise and lower the airer from the ceiling, seeming to find it amusing. Then he picked up Topps’ very shiny boots, and laughed out loud at the rounded reflection of his face in the toecaps. Finally, the stranger swung his gaze to the stove and exclaimed, “Oh, is that cocoa I smell! Wonderful!”

He turned the full force of his grin on a paralysed Topps and said, “I’ll make some for both of us, shall I?  Nice and sweet? Then we’ll talk about your little holiday.”

Episode 2: be careful what you wish for

I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to see this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and comments.

~~~~~

one blog two books flash

 

Reason to Believe: next of kin, part 1

dad & me last photo

It took a few seconds for me to comprehend what I was hearing. Thelma, my dad’s partner, in tears and choking on her words, was on the phone telling me that Dad had been rushed to Wexham Park Hospital ICU and I needed to get there. Fast.

The hospital was a two hour drive away. In a daze I grabbed my bag and jacket, left a brief explanatory note for George, and headed for the M4.

As I drove, dashing away the tears of worry, my mind was whirling. What had happened? Why was he in intensive care? Had something gone wrong with the triple heart bypass he’d undergone a couple of months earlier?

How bad was it?

It was November, a month Dad especially disliked because it was the 12th November that his son, my brother, had died. Every year around the anniversary of Stephen’s death Dad had tended to withdraw a little, and he didn’t fully recover until the following spring. Aside from the fresh grief each November brought him, winter had always depressed him. He loved the sun, the hotter the better.

Thinking of Stephen, I begged the Universe not to take my beloved Daddy too, and as I exited the motorway and waited at a set of traffic lights, the Universe replied. At least, that’s how it seemed. There, in my mind’s eye, I was given a clear vision of Dad. He was sitting in his blue armchair, a large, grey oxygen tank to one side, a clear plastic tube snaking from it and looping around his ears to secure the two prongs that blew air into his nostrils. He looked too thin. Diminished. And so, so sad. A soft but firm voice – I don’t know whose voice or where it came from – asked, “Is this what you want for him?”

The lights changed to green and I forcibly reined in my emotions so I could concentrate on the road and find the hospital. I couldn’t possibly risk an accident now. But the question went on echoing in my mind, over and over. Was this the future Dad faced, his last years hooked up to an oxygen machine as his life-force, his energy, slowly drained away? How he would hate that.

At last, after what had seemed like a drive of 290 miles instead of the actual 90, I turned into the crowded car park, praying that I would find a space.

wexham park sign

I was forced to circle the car park several times, like the planes above me waiting for a landing-slot at Heathrow, and panic rose as I began to think I’d never find a space. Other cars were arriving but none seemed to be leaving. Then I spotted reversing lights just ahead of me. Yes, they were leaving! With an exhalation of relief I parked, fumbled coins into the ticket machine, put the ticket on the dashboard, all the while cursing those extra minutes keeping me away from my dad.

At the reception desk, chest heaving with the exertion of running full-pelt, I gasped out that I needed  the ICU and was running again almost before the receptionist had finished telling me which way to go.

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I slammed through the double doors of the unit and immediately spotted Thelma and Dad’s younger sister, Esme huddled together, their faces pale and drawn. They didn’t know much, they told me, but they’d briefly seen Dad and he wasn’t conscious. When the nurse had asked about his next of kin, they’d explained that I was on my way.

Hearing that, my knees all but gave way. His partner of twenty years was there, his sister was there, and yet they had to wait for me.

I went to the next set of doors that led into the ICU. I pushed then pulled, not realising the doors were locked, then impatiently stabbed at the bell to my right. A nurse came and I gave my name, expecting to be admitted immediately to Dad’s side, but she explained they were giving him some treatment. She would let the consultant know that I had arrived, but in the meantime we were to go to the family room where we could have privacy.

The wait seemed interminable, but the consultant arrived, accompanied by another doctor. She was, a tall, thin woman in her forties with wavy, dark blond hair, with a slight accent. German, I thought, my mind straying to inconsequential detail because I so dreaded what she was going to say.

Thelma and Esme sat side by side on the settee, I had taken an armchair. The consultant took the one opposite me and the other doctor, looking so young in his fresh white coat, remained standing behind her, a thick file with orange covers clasped to his chest as though it were a shield. My eyes blurred at the sight of Dad’s full name written on the front in black felt pen.

The consultant looked at the three of us in turn while we confirmed our relationship to Dad, and then she fixed her pale-blue gaze on me. “Well now,” she said, “You are Mr Forrest’s next of kin. That being the case I will explain the situation to you all but I can only take decisions from you.”

Esme stifled a sob and from the corner of my eye I saw Thelma drop her head into her hands, but I didn’t turn to look at her. I don’t think I could have commanded a single muscle to move at that point even if I had wanted to.

The doctor handed Dad’s case notes to the consultant and she opened it on her knees. As she cleared her throat and started to talk, that odd part of my brain that had taken in her appearance and wondered at her accent now speculated how often in her career she’d had to face anxious relatives in this very room and others just like it. How had she learned to deliver such news, such life-changing news, so calmly and with no emotion? But when she came to the end of what she had to tell us and closed Dad’s file, she looked at me with red-rimmed, watery eyes.

“You can all come and see him now,” she said, “and then we’ll talk a little more.”

The facts had been laid out before me and a decision would soon be required. A decision that only I, as next of kin, could make.

The burden of what lay ahead rested heavily on me, but I stood up, took a deep breath, and went to talk to my dad.

 

Next episode: next of kin, Part 2: The Decision

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reason to Believe Episode 12: the dog with the golden eyes and a troubled mind

In my previous blog, Reason to Believe Episode 11: the dog with the golden eyes, I describe how a dog called Donut came to be adopted by us from Battersea Old Windsor and renamed Darcy. Now he’s home with us and an unexpected battle begins…

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Darcy did not settle. He reminded me of a caged bear, pacing endlessly from end to end of whichever room he was in. He did not respond to the most basic commands and if we left him in the house we returned to mayhem and a distressed, exhausted dog. He chewed and destroyed so many things – including my treasured recliner chair! No more could I come home from work and settle in that chair with a cup of tea before making dinner!

In an attempt to alleviate the anxiety issues we bought a large dog crate and covered it with blankets, hoping he would see it as his safe haven. He hated it even if we left it open, and if we closed it he whimpered and gnawed at the wire until the top of his nose was raw and sore again.

One day, we were working in the garden so we tied Darcy to a long rope to stop him running out into the road. To say he went berserk is an understatement! You’d think the rope was burning him as he desperately writhed and bit at it to release himself. We managed to calm him down and as soon as we’d unknotted the rope he was panting, his pupils dilated with fear.

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Taking him for walks was an ordeal too because he reacted badly to anyone walking behind us, people wearing hats and backpacks, people with walking sticks, pushchairs and wheelchairs. He growled at other dogs.

As if dealing with all that wasn’t hard enough, within a very short time we were to be tested even more.

One Friday, George was away and dad couldn’t have Darcy until the afternoon so I had to take him to work with me. I was setting up a business centre for start-up IT companies on the university campus and I parked my 6 month old car in front of the small, single-storey building where I could see it from my office. Darcy was in the boot, which we’d made cosy with an old duvet, and I gave him some chews to keep him occupied. I went out every half hour to check he was OK, and I took him for walks around the large car park. All seemed fine and I was pleased with him for settling down.

When lunchtime came and I could take him to Dad’s, I strolled out to the car, smiling in at Darcy who was lying curled up in the boot.

I unlocked the driver’s door, took my seat, put the key in the ignition, started to pull my seatbelt down, and …..

Wait a minute. Why was the seat belt damp and slimy?

Come to that, why was there drool on the steering wheel and dash board? Oh good grief! Surely those won’t teeth marks on the indicator stick and handbrake?

With dawning horror I turned my head to see that the dog guard behind the rear seats was askew. Sweat prickled on my brow at the sight of one of the rear seat belts chewed almost all the way through.

In the space of half an hour Darcy had pushed through the barrier and jumped into the front of the car and wreaked havoc. Then he’d had the presence of mind to climb back into the boot and lie down as if nothing had happened!

I was too shocked to be angry, and once I’d made the barrier secure again, I drove out of the car park with my mind whirling.

He’d caused so much damage already, how could we possibly keep him now he’d done this to my almost-new car?

But we’d promised him he would not go back to a rescue centre. We’d promised that we’d do anything it took to turn him around.

A short while later an acquaintance of mine came for coffee and met Darcy for the first time. She stunned me when she said she was psychic and could ‘read’ that Darcy had been tied up in a dark place, probably a shed or a barn, when he was a puppy. He was, she said, strung up by a thick rope, which rubbed his neck sore. She said he’d been left alone, with his litter mates disappearing one one by one and his mother being taken away too until he was on his own in the dark.

I was horrified at the scenario she painted, but of course I had no way of checking if what she said was true. But she piqued my interest in the possibility of communicating with animals and I bought a book on the subject. It made a fascinating read and I got in touch with author, sending a close-up photo of Darcy’s face and eyes and asking for a reading. Her report contained the same details that my friend had given me, plus a direct plea from Darcy not to give up on him.

Two people who didn’t know each other had given me the same story, so surely it was more than a coincidence? The weekly training class was helping quite a bit, but with this information I felt we needed specific help with Darcy’s emotional state.

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I found a dog behaviourist and put in a call to him. When Simon* arrived Darcy, who would normally be barking furiously and trying to jump up at any visitor to our door, came skittering in from the kitchen and stopped in his tracks. He then came slowly the rest of the way and sat down in front of Simon, something I’d never seen before.

While Simon asked me questions Darcy’s beautiful golden eyes stayed fixed on him and I figured that he was one of those people who was shy and awkward with people but had a very commanding presence to dogs. When I’d finished describing everything that had happened, including Darcy’s reluctance to return to me on command when he was off-lead, Simon stroked Darcy’s velvety ears and addressing him rather than me, said:

“I think I know your problem. You don’t understand the hierarchy of this household and you’re assuming you’re the alpha. But you don’t want to be, do you? It’s too big a responsibility and you want to be relieved of that burden.”

The next four hours were spent leaving and coming into the house without Darcy. I was to say nothing when I left or when I came back, just behave as if all was normal and nothing was expected of Darcy.

Then we took Darcy for a walk and Simon fitted a remote-controlled collar that gave a puff of air into Darcy’s face if he didn’t respond when he was called to return. It wasn’t painful, it wasn’t punishment, it just broke Darcy’s concentration from sniffing the ground so he would hear me calling. He got it quickly, and came lolloping back happily when heard his name.

When we got home after the free run, Simon asked to be alone with Darcy for a few minutes. I waited outside and have no idea what went on between them, but when Simon called me back in, Darcy was gazing at him with adoration. I was exhausted, but it was obvious that a change had taken place in my dog. He was calm and relaxed and no longer in the ‘fight or flight mode’ he’d been in since we’d adopted him. The set of his body and even his face seemed different, softer.

I don’t know how Simon did it, but from that day on we could Darcy at home and know he would sleep in his bed until we came home. We could take him out and know that he would behave well and come back when called if he was off lead. He particularly loved visiting the beaches near my mum’s house in Wales, where we’d walk for miles on the sands and amongst the rocks.

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Everyone who met him adored Darcy. He was still wary of some people, and he loathed sticks being thrown anywhere near him, but he was a wonderful companion. My dad loved him so much he was glad when we went on holiday and left Darcy with him for two weeks at a time, and was most unhappy when we moved from Farnborough to Wiltshire because we were now an hour and a half’s drive away.

But George and I were happy to make that drive often, taking Darcy with us to spend a Saturday or Sunday with Dad.

I’m glad we made the journey as often as we did, because Dad, now in his seventies, was soon to become seriously ill and I would need all the strength I had to face the hardest decision of my life.

 

*Simon is not his real name. I was sad to learn about a year later that he’d died of cancer. 

~~~~~~

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.

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Reason to Believe Episode 11: the dog with the golden eyes

With my CV updated to include my newly-minted Honours degree it was time to return to the world of work. After a rigorous round of interviews with a computer company, I  was highly chuffed to be the chosen candidate. Setting aside my student-wear of jeans, sweaters and trainers, I had my trouser suits dry-cleaned, pressed my blouses and polished my high-heeled court shoes. I was now an executive with a good salary, an expense account and a company car!

I lasted precisely one year.

Having previously worked for Honeywell, 3M and Hewlett-Packard I expected teamwork and respect between management and employees, but the managers in this company preferred to divide and conquer. It was a toxic environment (maybe literally so as it was next to a large household waste centre!) with blatant instances of misogyny and homophobia. Staff turnover was understandably high. I happily took a lower salary and gave up the silver Golf GTi – throwing the keys down on my manager’s desk and telling him just what I thought of the company – to take up a new job at my beloved university. I was overjoyed to return there, with the bonus of an amazing and uplifting view from my office window.

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A year later George and I moved from our small flat to a three bedroom semi-detached house. It needed a lot of work, and we spent evenings and weekends transforming the interior of the house and landscaping the garden.

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I had a job and a home I loved, but there was a growing need in me for something else. I really, really wanted a dog! I had grown up with dogs, had always wanted one of my own, and I thought we were now in a position to adopt from a rescue centre. George wasn’t as keen on the idea as I was, but my wheedling, cajoling, pleading and downright blackmail eventually won him round – or perhaps I should say wore him down!

Battersea in Old Windsor was just a half hour drive away.

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I was so excited when we made the journey over there for the first time, but the reality of seeing so many dogs desperate to be adopted was heartbreaking. Blinking back tears, I walked along the corridors with George, thinking that I’d know the right dog as soon as I saw it. I didn’t want a small dog or a very large one, and pictured in my mind one that was the size of, say, a Border Collie.

The place was very busy, and as I trailed along with the crowd I hoped with all my heart that every family, every couple and every individual would go home that day with a new pet. At some point I realised that George was no longer with me. I retraced my steps and found him staring intently into one of the kennels, the palm of his right hand pressed against the wire, looking at a dog lying disconsolately in a plastic bed. The information sheet pinned to the door informed us that the dog was male, approximately 2 years old and called Donut. He had the black & tan coat of a German Shepherd and I almost laughed when I saw that he was a Border Collie cross! He was the right size and age for us and we liked the look of him so went to the office to get more information. “Donut is a problem dog,” the administrator told us. “He’s not the sharpest tool in the box, and he needs experienced owners to manage his behaviour.”

We could not claim to have the appropriate experience so our offer to adopt him was point-blank refused.

A little despondent at not finding ‘our’ dog we returned home, and it wasn’t until a couple of days later that George – my practical, very down to earth husband, who wasn’t particularly keen on dogs – made a revelation that completely astounded me.

Donut, he said, had locked his black-rimmed golden eyes onto him and he had distinctly heard in his mind the words, “Please take me home“. In response George had promised that he would!

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I could not credit it. It’s the sort of thing I can believe happening, but not to George. He just didn’t think that way. However, he was adamant it had happened, that he and the dog had had some kind of psychic connection, and as we hadn’t been able to bring Donut home, he felt very guilty and wasn’t interested in returning to Battersea any time soon.

I went back on my own and was really pleased to learn that Donut had been rehomed the very day we had seen him. I told George the good news and said, “Of course that dog was desperate, they all are, so maybe whoever has adopted him had the same weird psychic connection that you did. Anyway, he’s sorted but we still don’t have a dog, so please let’s keep looking.”

Convinced he needn’t feel guilty about Donut any more, George came with me the following weekend. About halfway round he stopped in his tracks, grabbed my arm, and pointed at a dog lying right at the back of the kennel. A skinny dog with the black and tan coat of a German Shepherd and the face and ears of a Border Collie. Surely it couldn’t be Donut?

It was.

On seeing George he got up and came slowly forward, head down and ears drooping, but with a slight wag of his feathery tail. His nose was bloody, probably from rubbing it on the wire of the kennel door. We couldn’t believe it; he’d been rehomed just a couple of weeks ago, presumably by someone suitably experienced. What was he doing back here?

As Donut and George locked eyes once again I asked if he still wanted to take him home. “Remember,” I cautioned, “they said he’s a problem dog. If he’s back so quickly  something must have gone horribly wrong.”

We went to the office to find out what had happened. Apparently Donut had wrecked the home of his new owners and they’d returned him because they couldn’t cope. With that news I thought George would say we should forget about him, but what he actually said was, “It’s that dog, or no dog!”

Thinking fast, I pledged there and then that we would go to training classes and get professional advice. “We will do anything and everything necessary to turn him round, because we are certain he’s the dog for us.”

We were taken to a room where we could be properly introduced to him. Despite his skinned nose and rather uptight demeanour he was a handsome boy, and his eyes were truly captivating. Within a very short time we had signed the documents and paid the adoption fee of £90.00.

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We also spent a small fortune on a new lead, collar, bed, lots of toys, treats and food. We piled these goodies in the car and sat on a patch of grass with Darcy firmly attached by his new lead to take in what we had just committed to. A problem dog. A dog who had wrecked someone’s home. And two others before that. We would be his fourth home!

“The first thing we need to do,” I said, “is change his name. Donut makes him sound stupid, so he needs a noble new name to mark this fresh start.”

By the time he jumped into our car, he was called Darcy. Why?

Well, some years earlier the BBC had shown an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth. The scene where handsome Mr Darcy emerges from a swim in the lake, his white cambric shirt made transparent by the water, caused quite a stir!

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Darcy had reacted to the news of his adoption by rolling in his own pee in the kennel so had been shampooed and wrapped in a large white towel. For some reason the Pride & Prejudice scene sprang into mind, and as we discussed a new name I remembered it again. If I hadn’t thought the name should begin with D, so the switch from Donut wouldn’t be too confusing, we might have called him Colin!

We didn’t go straight home but instead called in on my dad, who lived nearby in Windsor. Darcy ran around the garden with his new tuggy, no doubt relieved to be out of the kennel once more.

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When we told Dad what we’d learned about Darcy he thought we were crazy to take him on. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was right, but I kept that inside.

We had made a promise. No matter what happened in the coming weeks or months, Darcy was NOT going back to Battersea!

I had high hopes that because of the understanding on some strange, psychic level between him and George, Darcy would understand that he had a forever home with us and would show his gratitude with good behaviour.

How wrong I was!

~~~

Next time: we have to call in a canine psychiatrist, and two separate animal communicators tell me the same story about Darcy’s beginnings

~~~~~~

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.

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Reason to Believe Episode 10: a wobbly start ends in success

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My introduction to university life was a real shock to the system. In the first year we were required to study six mandatory subjects: Approaches to the English Language, Old & Middle English, Critical Practice, Shakespeare, Rise of the Novel and Four Twentieth Century Poets. So many books, plays and poems to read, so many essays to write to deadlines, and so little time to get it all done and still do my part-time job. But I was so, so proud to be there!

My heart soared every time I drove through the main gates and gazed upon the facade of the magnificent Victorian building.

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I loved it, too, that you could look as if you had got dressed in the dark and no-one would notice! But, much as I enjoyed having multi-coloured nails and wearing Doc Marten boots, my wobbly start with the academic side of things quickly and starkly made it apparent that I was totally out of my depth. Apart from the 6 week Access taster course I had not studied at all since leaving school, and now I was being challenged to rise to a whole new level. From what I remembered of school essays the requirement was to regurgitate what had been learned, but university required in-depth critical analysis of a kind I simply didn’t know how to do.

All but one of my first essays came back with so-so marks, but the Shakespeare – my favourite subject – was handed back unmarked. “All you have done,” the tutor said, “is describe the plot. I know the plot. Everyone knows it.” She smiled sympathetically at my crestfallen expression. “I’m giving you a second chance because the way you speak up in the seminar discussions makes me believe you can do better than this. Show your engagement with the play, make sure you address the topic of the paper, and give me a new essay by the end of the week.”

She was doing me a kindness, but I had to hold back my tears as I took my sorry little essay from her. At 3 o’clock I left the campus and dashed to my office in Bracknell where I had a part-time job, wondering how I’d find the time to rewrite the essay and keep up with the incredible amount of reading I had to do.

My evenings and early mornings were now totally swallowed up in study, I wasn’t sleeping well, and it soon became apparent that something had to give.

I discussed it with George and, as usual, he offered the very solutions I needed. The next day I offered my resignation to my employer and they delighted me by saying I would be welcome to work there during the university holidays. I also found a local private tutor to give me a crash-course on how to raise my game to degree level.

The tutor was an elderly lady called Miss Durham, an Oxford scholar and retired teacher. She lived in a Victorian semi-detached house in Ascot, the front of which was almost obscured by foliage. The first time I went there I had a hard time finding the small wooden gate in a very dense privet hedge! Tall weeds grew through cracks in the path leading to the half-glazed door, the dark green paint of which hung off in strips around the unpolished lion-head brass knocker. I was led through the narrow hallway into a small room at the back, which was  stuffed with furniture, books and ornaments, and very gloomy because the back garden was as overgrown as the front. She told me her disabled sister lived with her, but I didn’t see her on any of my visits, I only heard the creaking floorboards, shuffling of feet and the opening and closing of doors elsewhere in the house. Really, it was the perfect house for a horror movie!

By the time I had my first lesson in that creepy, unlit house I had rewritten the Shakespeare essay and been given a credible mark for it, but not as high as I’d have liked. Sitting opposite Miss Durham at a small round table, a pad and pencil in front of me, I explained exactly why I needed her help. She grinned, her fierce blue eyes almost obliterated by deep wrinkles, and said, “Don’t think that you can’t do the work, because that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, think only that you haven’t yet understood what is expected of you, and that will henceforth change.” She placed a pair of tortoiseshell half-moon spectacles on her nose and looked at me over the lenses. “You’ll be studying the poetry of T S Eliot, of course, so we will spend five or six sessions deconstructing The Wasteland and that will teach you all you need to know.”

Five or six sessions on just one poem? Really?

Well, as it turned out I had five lessons with her, and to say she opened my mind to the joy of English literature is an understatement. Her gift was not to tell me, but to guide me to my own conclusions. With patience and her faultless method of teaching she made me work everything out for myself and articulate it in a satisfactory manner. For instance, she’d ask me to read some lines of The Wasteland:

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Then she would ask questions like “Why does Eliot say that April is the cruellest month? Why not December or January when it’s deep winter? Why is the snow forgetful, the roots dull?”

Now, I’ve been scribbling poems almost from when I learned to write, but I had never thought about how I constructed them, why I used certain words and not others. In just a few sessions this wonderful lady opened a whole new world for me.

She also taught me how to break down the given titles of each essay paper so I could be sure I had addressed every element of it. This would be invaluable when faced with exam questions too.

Miss Durham’s parting words to me were: “Even if your tutors don’t agree with your analysis of any of the texts you study, as long as you can put forward a cohesive and well-reasoned argument for your viewpoint they will award you top marks. If you remember nothing else, please remember that.”

I won’t say I found university easy, but I studied hard, particularly enjoying Middle English, Victorian fiction and Shakespeare, and my efforts paid off with steadily rising marks and my input during seminars being well received. I began to believe that I actually deserved to be there! I loved every aspect of being a student, I adored every brick and blade of grass of Royal Holloway, and I especially relished studying in the gorgeous library. I’ve always loved the musty smell of old books, and some of books on the shelves were very old indeed!

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The first year flew past, then the second. I did well in the end of year exams, and went into the final year with high hopes of getting at least a Lower Second degree. All too soon it was time for the last challenge: the dreaded Finals.

Each day I would take my place in the exam room with my pens in a plastic bag and a bottle of water with a few drops of Rescue Remedy in it to help me keep calm. Some of the exams were held in the Picture Gallery, a grand and beautiful hall containing 70 or so famous Victorian paintings. There is a popular myth that one of them, an Edwin Landseer painting called ‘Man Supposes, God Disposes’, would cause a student sitting beneath it to fail. It is therefore tradition to cover it up with a huge Union Jack flag during exam times, and I did indeed sit some of my finals within sight of this flag-draped work of art.

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When the day came to collect the results I drove to the college, my heart fluttering with both hope and dread. But I knew I had done my very best.

After I’d parked the car I met up with my friends, mature students like me, and we headed into the faculty building together. The lists had been posted on the board in Reception.

So many students had gathered there, and the room echoed with the shouts and screams of the successful. I waited my turn to step up to the lists. I swiftly located my name, then, hardly daring to breathe, moved my eyes to the right to read my result.

Jane Forrest …….. Pass …….. 2:1

Oh my gosh, I had an Upper Second!! With Honours!!! I would now be able to update my CV to restart my career and, if I felt so inclined, put BA(Hons) after my name!!!!

One of my friends had her expected First, the others had the same result as me. We congratulated each other and celebrated with a coffee in the cafeteria. Our three years together had come to an end, but we had the graduation ceremony to look forward to, when we would wear with pride our graduation robes and mortarboards. We didn’t know it then, but we would be awarded our degrees by Princess Anne on a gloriously sunny day.

We were reluctant to leave the campus and each other, but we were also bursting at the seams to get home and let our families know our results. They, after all, had seen us through so much, and I was mindful that a couple of mature students had left before the end of the first year because their husbands simply hadn’t supported them. It had made me doubly grateful that George had been my rock, every day encouraging me and tolerating the tantrums as each deadline loomed. When my faith in myself waned he would pick me up, dust me off, and tell me to get the hell on with it! And there was my mum, always eager to hear what I was doing at university, and Dad, who had at first been sceptical but had insisted on helping me when I gave up my job. He was not one to display his feelings, so offering financial help had been his way of letting me know how proud he was of me for grasping with both hands this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I knew my friends would be delighted for me too.

I remember so well finishing my coffee and taking my leave of my friends. Returning to my car. Driving slowly out of the dusty car park. Turning left out of those magnificent main gates onto the London Road. Stopping at a traffic light on red. Bursting into tears.

I was crying for so many reasons. Sadness that my student days were over, sadness too that it was the end of my long-held dream and now I’d need something to replace it. But mostly I was crying for the sheer joy and wonder at my achievement. The 16 year old girl who’d left school with four O Levels was now almost 42 years old and had a degree!

I really dared to believe – had reason to believe – that we can achieve incredible things if we want it badly enough and set our minds to it.

Now I could look ahead to a new job with better pay and prospects. We decided it was time to move out of our flat and buy a house with a garden. We talked of getting a dog.

The future looked bright.

Post script: Remember my unmarked Shakespeare essay? I hope you don’t mind that I end this story with a little crow about the 71% I got for my final Shakespeare essay. That’s a First Class classification folks!

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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.

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Reason to Believe Episode 9: a dream come true

The years rolled on. My brother was gone, but although I maintained a keen interest in paranormal matters and continued to read widely on the subject, I felt no need to visit mediums. My ex-husband and I were still in touch, and I was over the moon for him when he called to say he was remarrying. We met for one last time, hugged each other and wished each other well. My own new relationship with George went from strength to strength too, and I knew I’d found the man I wanted to live the rest of my life with.

Things were ticking along nicely. I enjoyed my job as a PA in an international company, although I’d always felt I’d been held back from promotion due to my lack of A Levels or a degree. Most jobs I liked the look of and thought I would be good at required at least 5 GCSE passes or equivalent, but I only had 4 O Levels. I began to wonder if I should upgrade my qualifications, maybe get a couple of A Levels, and that would enable me to progress a few more rungs up the career ladder.

I talked to the local college about courses and it was suggested I do an Access course, an ideal starting point for developing study skills and building confidence for adults who have been out of education for a long time. To help me decide what to do, I registered for a 6-week taster course in Humanities, and I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying it and doing well in the assignments. Once completed, I told the tutor that my plan had been to do A-Levels. She said, and I remember this word for word, “Have you ever thought of going to university?”

With a measly four O Levels, of course I hadn’t! But the tutor explained that the full Access course would give me the qualifications to apply to a University as a mature student.

There was only one university in the world I wanted to go to, a place I had known and loved since I was a child. My next door neighbour was a year above me in secondary school, but we were friends and spent a lot of time together. Her father was professor of botany at Royal Holloway, University of London, and he would often take us there in the holidays. We were allowed to wander through the laboratories, and I clearly remember being fascinated by red-dyed skeletal specimens of small animals in glass jars. I even learned to swim in their indoor pool. I loved that place so much; I was sure its incredible Victorian architecture, the beautiful grounds, the amazing atmosphere would be educationally enhancing – why would I want to go anywhere else?

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But it was just a dream. I discussed it endlessly with George, all the pros and cons of doing the Access course and then three years full time university study. Was it possible?

“Why don’t you give it a try?” he said. “What have you got to lose?”

I laughed, but I began to wonder if it really could be a possibility, once I got the Access course under my belt. Not having the first idea about getting into university, I wrote to Royal Holloway about what I would need to do in order to apply for the English degree. I received a reply very quickly, offering me an appointment to go to the English department. Wonderful, I thought. It still seemed impossible that I could ever get there, but once it was all explained to me I could at least plan my strategy.

Not knowing any other way, I treated the appointment as I would a business one, and arrived at the college in my smart suit, my CV in my bag. I was shown into a small room, crammed floor to ceiling with books, and invited to sit on the other side of a very cluttered desk from a man I guessed to be in his mid-forties. I shall call him Dr Martin. He handed me a book of poetry, open to a certain poem, and asked me to read it.

Taken aback, I asked if I was meant to read it out loud.

“Whatever you prefer,” replied Dr Martin.

Confused, I quickly scanned ‘The Card Players’ and then recited it:

Jan van Hogspuew staggers to the door
and pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
courses in the car-ruts down the steep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
towards the ham-hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!

Dr Martin leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and, fixing his gaze to the ceiling, asked for my thoughts.

What?!

I was completely baffled. I had gone there expecting to be told about the application process. Had there been some misunderstanding? What was I supposed to say? I knew nothing of this particular poem, and my brain felt so addled I didn’t know what my thoughts were! Stressed, I read it through again in my mind and then tried to offer an analysis, but even today I honestly can’t remember what I came up with! I was then asked what I was currently reading, who my favourite authors and poets were, and did I like Shakespeare?

You know that moment when your mind goes completely and utterly blank and you can do nothing but gape like a goldfish? I was there; that was me — goldfish girl! I tried to picture the book on my bedside table, my favourite novels on the bookshelves, but my mind stayed blank. I tried to remember any titles of William Shakespeare’s plays, a single poem that I could offer as evidence that I really did read. I somehow stumbled through the interview, and was further thrown when he asked if I’d applied through UCAS? I didn’t know what this was. Had I organised my grant? Um, no, what grant would that be?

By the time I staggered from that room I thought I’d never set foot in those glorious Victorian halls of learning again. My interviewer must have thought I was a complete ignoramus, and had wasted a valuable hour of his time on that sunny July day.

That evening, I drowned my sorrows in a glass or two of wine, and then decided to put the whole sorry episode behind me. Why even bother to do A Levels? Why not stay in the job I had and not seek further advancement in the corporate world? It was a blow, but hardly the end of the world.

A couple of weeks later I received a letter from the university. During breakfast I opened it, read it, gaped at George across the table, and read it again. Then I handed it to George who quickly scanned it and the pair of us sat there with stupid grins all over our faces: I had been accepted by the Faculty of English at the Royal Holloway.

I was to be an Honours Degree student, starting at the end of September.

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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.

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