The theme that forms the basis of my novels, indeed most of my writing, is the continuance of life after death. I was a sceptic until events following the death of my brother, Stephen, in 1984 changed the direction of my life. He was 30 years old, I was 27. Following mysterious happenings in my home that just couldn’t be explained, I began my journey into the realm of the paranormal. Through psychic mediums I made contact with Stephen in ways that utterly convinced me it was him, communicating with me from the Other Side. When I reached the exact age he had been when he passed away, I knew I had to make some big changes in my life. Some of them seemed impossible, but Stephen had given me reason to believe that you can do anything you set your mind to. In the following years I got divorced and met and married the love of my life, I went to university and achieved a BA in English and a Masters in Creative Writing. I wrote three novels. This blog is about what happened from the time of my bother’s cancer diagnosis to the present day.
Episode 1: a devastating diagnosis
In 1982 my brother was diagnosed with cancer. Stephen had been suffering leg and back pain for months, but X-rays, physio and pain killing drugs had provided neither answers nor relief. He was sent for CT scans. Then for exploratory surgery. A tumour was found in his thigh and he almost lost his leg on the operating table, but on further investigation the surgeon found the cancer had spread to my brother’s pelvis and spine. He was stitched up and the family was told the incomprehensible prognosis that he had just months to live.
When I heard the news I was numb. How could my big brother be dying, for heaven’s sake? He was only 28 years old. Married, with two young children. My mind whirled with disbelief. At home I wandered aimlessly around trying to make sense of it.
And a very strange thing happened. I had a vision. It was not a dream, nor was it like a dream. It was like having a short film projected directly into my mind. I couldn’t stop it. I had to stand still and let it run.
I was at a crematorium. Bewildered and horrified that I was seeing a vision of my brother’s funeral – making the awful prognosis true – I looked around to see who else was there. I saw my mum and dad, my aunts and uncles, my cousins – this was indeed a family funeral. Surely it had to be Stephen’s?
But wait, there was more…
I glanced over my shoulder and there was my brother! My gaze swung back to the flower-bedecked coffin. Who did it contain? Frantically, I scanned the faces in the room to identify who was missing, but the vision dissipated and I was none the wiser. What I was certain of though, was that I would be attending a family funeral soon, and it wouldn’t be Stephen’s. I was left dizzy and shaken by such a powerful revelation, but I spoke of it to no-one.
Stephen embarked on a rigorous course of radiotherapy and chemo, some of it experimental as his particular cancer was rare, particularly in adults. He wasn’t willing to accept his prognosis without a fight. He had indelible black marks drawn on his skin, crosses and arrows as targets for the radiotherapy. The chemo was dreadful, making him so sick and very quickly stripping him of his thick, curly hair. He lost weight and vitality. He told me that he’d been complaining to a nurse at the hospital about how awful he was feeling, but then had been humbled by walking through the children’s cancer ward. After that he endured it all and I never heard him complain again, except to say he didn’t know which would take him first, the disease or the treatment.
During this time my maternal grandmother, a life-long smoker, died from lung cancer. How it must have hurt my mum to go through that, knowing at the same time that her son was dying.
Another blow to the family came when my other grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Now both my parents were going through the same heartache, but having divorced six years earlier, they could not comfort each other.
I felt helpless. Simply helpless.
Gran passed away in April 1983, and her funeral service was held at the crematorium. My brother was seated behind me, and I realised with a jolt that everything was just as it had been in my vision two years earlier.
Why had I been given that vision? Was it designed to teach me something? Would I experience such a thing again?
My life was about to undergo a profound change.
Episode Two – can a newly-built house be haunted?
12th November 1984, moving day.
When I saw my dad’s car approaching I thought he’d come along to help. I waved at him through the window and waited for him to come inside. The look on his face froze the smile on my own and my cheerful greeting caught in my throat.
I really have no memory of his words, maybe I didn’t even hear them through the buzzing in my ears, but he’d come to tell me that Stephen had died.
The removal firm had just started carrying in our furniture and boxes so I left my husband to deal with things and went with Dad to Stephen’s house.
I was asked if I wanted to see him before the funeral director came. I did not. I really didn’t. I’d never seen a dead person before. But something propelled me up the stairs and into his bedroom and although the curtains were drawn, there was enough light seeping through the gaps round the edges.
His eyes weren’t quite closed, blue irises, silvery and paler than in life, were just visible beneath the lids. I kissed his cold cheek and whispered my goodbyes.
In the close huddle of family and friends we got through the awful next few hours together. The shiny black hearse arrived and left swiftly with its burden. People came and went. The kettle boiled endlessly for cups of tea. Some of it got drunk, much of it was left to grow cold.
Eventually it was time to separate, time for everyone to go home.
The next ordeal would be the funeral, the cremation, the wake.
Stephen was gone and all too soon only memories of him would remain.
At the wake, it was a tight crush in every room downstairs; there were so many people I hardly knew. I caught snippets of conversations, heard a group of his friends sharing stories about him and laughing. Their laughter jarred me – how could there be happiness at such a time?
The days that followed are hazy in my memory. I organised things in my new home. Cooked meals. Dealt with the chores. I went to work.
Within a short time, my husband insisted that everything return to ‘normal’. But what is normal when you are heartbroken? When you are grieving beyond anything you could ever have imagined, nothing seems right with the world.
The days and weeks passed. A brand new house has its settling down issues, and we had a few to deal with: a cupboard that wouldn’t close and small cracks appearing above a door. A leaking tap. Then we started to have electrical problems.
Lights flickered on the landing. The television changed channels unbidden. When that happened we would scowl at the remote control sitting on the coffee table, raise our eyebrows at each other and shake our heads.
The electrics were checked and no problems were found.
Then, one evening, I was ironing on the upstairs landing. My husband had gone out ten minutes earlier, but suddenly there he was at the bottom of the stairs. “Have you forgotten something?” I called.
He started up the stairs, peering at me. But it wasn’t my husband.
My heart leapt into my mouth. An intruder! But as I thought this, the figure just faded away to nothing. I almost passed out, but luckily had the presence of mind to put the iron down before I collapsed to the floor.
What was going on? Was I so grief-stricken I was hallucinating?
Then a week or so later, my husband was already in bed, and when I entered from the bathroom, I was in time to witness a small china pot fly from the window sill to the centre of the bed. And I mean fly! Its contents, mainly safety pins and small buttons along with a lock of my hair, were scattered all over the duvet.
Had it been a gust of wind? No, the windows were closed. Could the cat have knocked it off? No, she was nowhere to be seen.
And besides, our later experimentations with the pot showed that even a hard shove would not have been able to propel it the distance from window sill to bed.
Incredibly, my husband dismissed it as just one of those things, but I knew something very strange was happening.
I just didn’t know what.
Episode 3: 1985, entry into a new world
“It could be your brother, you know. You ought to talk to my mum, she’s a medium.”
All eyes which had been glued on me while I was recounting the strange things that had been happening in my brand new house, swivelled to my work colleague.
She laughed at the expressions on our faces and asked me if I’d like her to call her mother and arrange for me to go and talk to her.
I wasn’t sure. I mean, a medium? Someone who gathered a circle of people in the darkened back room of a spooky house and called out, ‘Is anybody there?’ and then supposedly talked to the dead?
Well, I might be sceptical, but how could I not be curious? I loved ghost stories and had never doubted the existence of psychic abilities – I possess some sort of sixth sense myself – but I had never given any credence to the existence of an afterlife.
My visit was arranged and I parked in the driveway of an unassuming semi-detached house, wondering what I was getting myself into. I was expecting to be swept into a candle-lit parlour by a heavily made-up lady wearing a billowing, brightly-coloured dress, an exotic turban on her head and multiple rings on her fingers. Instead I was ushered into a brightly lit kitchen by a motherly woman called Joan in a pleated skirt and pastel pink twinset. I took a seat at the table and Joan made a pot of tea and offered me a freshly-baked and still warm shortbread biscuit.
She told me that she knew from her daughter that my brother had recently died, but she could not sense him at that moment. I didn’t really know what this meant, but she went on to say that I was to tell her nothing at all about him so that if he did start to communicate with her, she would be able to prove it was him.
While we waited we drank tea, ate her delicious biscuits and talked about all sorts of things. I sensed she was trying to put me at ease, because I was very tense waiting and hoping something amazing would happen, and I really warmed to her.
But Stephen did not make an appearance.
As I was leaving, Joan squeezed my hand. “Just because I can’t see or hear him,” she said, “doesn’t mean he isn’t with you. His passing is fairly recent so he may be finding it difficult to connect with me. I know another medium who is much more experienced than I am, I think you should meet him.”
She invited me to return to her home on 11th May, for a group meeting, or séance, which would be led by this other psychic medium. I drove home wondering if I was wasting time chasing rainbows, but of course I went back.
This time I was shown into the living room where seven other people were already waiting. The sofa and armchairs had been pushed back against the walls and a circle of chairs placed in the centre of the room. It was daylight and the floral-patterned chintz curtains were open and lacy net curtains provided privacy from the street.
I took my seat and glanced quickly at the other guests as introductions were made. The medium, whose name was Bob, immediately started to relay messages.
As he talked I was able to study him. In his late fifties or early sixties he was a large man with sparse, grey hair, pale blue eyes and sallow skin. His trousers had shiny patches, his shirt cuffs were frayed and his pea-green cardigan had holes in the elbows. I guessed from his threadbare appearance that the rusty old banger I’d parked next to was his.
He didn’t go into a trance, his voice didn’t change, it was as if he was having an everyday conversation with the people I could see in the room, as well as several that I couldn’t see.
After a while of listening incredulously to what their late relatives supposedly had to say, I gathered that everyone else in the circle was familiar with Bob and each other. One message that stands out in my memory was an aunt speaking to her niece, telling her that she was worried about her niece’s husband balancing on a ladder as he hung wallpaper in their bedroom.
Really? I thought. Is that the kind of thing dead people concerned themselves with? It seemed so trivial, and not at all the kind of communication I had expected. Surely they had better things to do than watch people decorate?
There was no message for me, so at the end of the séance we had tea and sandwiches in the kitchen and I asked the other guests if they really believed in mediums and how often they went to séances. They were all happy to offer glowing testimonials for Bob and to regale me with their stories. The woman who had received the message about the ladder placed her hand on my arm and said, “I didn’t believe any of it not so long ago, but when my aunt was dying she said she’d come back and prove to me that there is an afterlife, and so she did. I sincerely hope you find out for yourself one day.”
I must admit that by now I was envious of the others who were so firm in their beliefs and obviously comforted by the messages they had received. But as there had been nothing for me, my scepticism remained, and I was ready to finish my tea and go home.
I had placed my cup and saucer beside the sink when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned my head to see Bob beaming at me.
My answering smile faltered and the blood drained from my face as he said, “Your brother’s here.”
Episode 4: first contact
Bob asked everyone if they’d return to the other room so he could concentrate and make a clear connection with my brother. Bewildered, tearful with shock and, it must be said, fear, I trailed behind the other guests and once again took my seat in the circle. Everyone could sense how I felt and offered smiles and words of encouragement. Someone pressed a clean handkerchief into my hand. Determined to keep my expression neutral yet with my heart full of hope, I levelled my gaze at Bob, determined to hold onto a little scepticism so I wouldn’t be taken in by him ‘fishing’ for information or cold-reading me.
With a big grin he started by saying, “I can see Stephen very clearly. You look alike.”
An easy assumption to make, I thought, but I said nothing.
“But he’s laughing and telling me that your eyes are different and there’s something significant about your hair. It’s a bit of an in-joke between you.”
OK, now that caught my attention! I waited for Bob to elaborate.
“Your brother’s eyes are blue, yours are brown. His hair is very curly and you, I can see, also have curly hair, but he’s telling me that your hair is naturally straight. He’s saying that he tried to straighten his, and you have yours curled? Is that the joke?”
Spot on! Stephen hated his thick curly hair and at night used to put strips of Sellotape on it and a tight-fitting knitted hat over his head in the hope that he could straighten it. I, on the other hand, have fine, straight hair and spent a fortune having it permed! I was pretty jealous of his blue eyes, too.
Bob went on to provide little glimpses into our childhood, such as board games like Monopoly played with red dice (Monopoly was one of our favourites) and having fun with friends in a nearby park. That I loved school and reading while he only wanted to play football. Then he followed up with details about my brother’s illness, his home and family, the chair in which he felt most comfortable, the caged birds he kept, the bottle of lemonade that was always to hand.
I was spellbound, but there was more to come. Bob started to rub his head with the fingertips of his left hand, in a gesture that was exactly like my brother’s.
“All those curls fell out because of the chemotherapy,” he said. “Your brother is showing me at his worst now. Very thin. Skin almost yellow. He needs a wheelchair.” Bob hesitated, his head on one side as if listening. “He tells of a cricket bat kept in an under-stairs cupboard. Now he’s showing me a chocolate cake. He says this means something to you.”
By now I am sobbing my eyes out. Everything Bob is telling me is so accurate. I might have mentioned Stephen’s curly hair and blue eyes to my work colleague, and she might have told her mother who in turn told Bob, but I hadn’t spoken about us playing Monopoly when we were little, or the games of cricket in the back garden. Nor had I ever mentioned Stephen’s dislike of school, his love of birds, or that he always kept a bottle of room-temperature lemonade to hand when he was ill. And the significance of the chocolate cake? We shared one the last time I saw him alive. It made Stephen feel a little sick, but he’d enjoyed the indulgence.
How could Bob know so much? Either he was reading my mind – quite a talent in itself – or he truly was communicating with my brother. And he wasn’t finished yet.
Bob said that I’d asked Stephen to promise that he would come and see my new house.
“He didn’t make it in life,” Bob said, “But he has been there. Oh yes,” he chuckled when he saw the look on my face. “It was your brother moving things and doing things to get your attention. He tells me as additional proof that he has visited your house and he’s seen that you have a red plant on your window sill.”
Astonished, I confirmed that there was, indeed, a pot plant on the window sill of the dining room. I didn’t know what it was called, but it did have red stems and leaves.
I had been shaking my head in awe and wondering if there might be even more evidence forthcoming when Bob surprised me yet again. “There’s someone else here, a young man who died in the war.” I didn’t recognise this person and assumed this was for one of the others in the group. I have to admit I was a little resentful that he was interrupting my brother’s communication!
But Bob insisted he was a relative of mine and identified him as Benny. Bob thought it confusing that Benny had appeared wearing a sailor’s uniform yet was showing him an aircraft.
“I see bombs on trolleys. He was shot down over the sea during a mission. His headstone is in another country but his body was never found. If you don’t know about him you’re going to have to ask your family. He wants you to learn all you can about him.
“And now your brother’s back. He wants me to tell you that he’s healthy and he doesn’t mind the curls now they’re back. He’s very amused by your expression and he’s saying that he understand why you’re struggling with all this. It’s a huge surprise to him too! He wants you to know that he really is here and is communicating through me, but he knows you don’t really believe it – you’re looking for a rational explanation! He brought Benny through as his story is something you’re going to have to find out for yourself. It will bring you the proof you need.”
At that extraordinary point, Bob ended the reading. I was advised to stay for a strong cup of tea; I was trembling too much to drive! The other participants hugged me and smiled encouragingly before wishing me well and saying goodbye. I eventually drove home wondering what other revelations would be coming my way!
Episode 5: I learn about my great-uncle Benny, and a spur of the moment visit rocks my world
“Dad, is there a Benny in the family?”
Dad poured me a glass of wine. “Yes, I had an uncle called Benny. Why do you ask?”
I’d spent some time considering how I would reply to this inevitable question and had my answer ready, I’d say that Grandad had talked of him last time we’d visited. I wasn’t yet ready to tell of my meeting with the psychic medium – my imagination ran riot when I thought of Dad’s reaction to that! No, I would wait until I’d got more evidence that my brother Stephen really was communicating from the Other Side before saying anything to Dad, or anyone else in the family.
“I don’t know much about him, so your grandad is the best person to talk to,” Dad replied, topping up his own glass. “Benny was his brother. He died in the war, but as far as I know his body was never recovered.”
I gulped the cold white wine to cover my excitement. Bob had told me that much, and I was excited to have it confirmed. I wrote a letter to Grandad as soon as I got back home, this time saying that my reason for asking about Benny was because Dad had mentioned him and I was curious to know if we had a war hero in the family. Yes, I’d lied twice, but they were white lies and I hoped I’d be able to come clean eventually.
The response was swift and to my delight Grandad included some photographs and a couple of poems Benny had written. I studied the black and white picture of my Great-Uncle; so handsome and proud in his sailor’s uniform. So happy.
I quickly scanned Grandad’s letter and my jaw dropped when I found out that Benny had been in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. That explained the sailor uniform and the plane, but how could Bob possibly have known these things? It couldn’t have been fishing for information or cold-reading, which I’d been warned to be wary of, because I hadn’t known anything about Benny.
After a lot more correspondence with my Grandfather and also another of Benny’s brothers, and various military organisations, I had more information about him. When the Internet became more accessible many years later I added even more.
I learned that Benny had been a real live wire character, ‘a cheeky chappie’ according to Grandad, with a wonderful singing voice. He joined the Royal Navy and qualified as a wireless operator and air gunner in the Fleet Air Arm. He first served in Alexandria in March, 1942, taking part in Montgomery’s advance, and then to Malta in December of the same year. Malta had been one of the launching pads for the Allied invasion of Sicily.
As a member of 828 Squadron, he had been a rear gunner in a Fairey Albecore aircraft: a British single-engine biplane torpedo bomber popularly known as the ‘Applecore.’ Designed for spotting and reconnaissance as well as level bombing and dive bombing, Benny would have sat facing away from the other two members of the crew, the cockpit above his head open to the skies, manning the gun. During the night of the 12th and early hours of 13th March, 1943, the day before the Sicily Landings, his plane was shot down during a mission off the coast. The other two crew members were aged 29 and 39. Benny was just 20. The others were listed as “Killed,” but Benny is still listed as “Missing Presumed Killed.” Their graves are side by side in the Catania War Cemetery, Sicily.
I was fascinated to uncover all this information about a man that, if it hadn’t been for the medium, I probably would never have known anything about.
But all this was information I had collected myself. Bob had provided Benny’s name and some detail about his sailor’s uniform, planes and bomb cradles, that he was shot down over the sea during a mission in WWII and that his headstone is in another country.
Was this and the information about my brother enough evidence for me to believe that he had been communicating with Stephen and my great-uncle Benny?
What else did I need to do to be sure?
During that reading there had been talk of Spiritualist churches. I knew of one in Windsor as I had often passed the sign for it when driving into town, but I’d never given it much thought. I’d had no reason to before, but now I was on the edge of something truly mysterious and possibly quite wonderful, I was curious.
What was such a church about? When filling out forms that required such information I had always written ‘Church of England’ under the heading RELIGION, but I’d never been religious and had only attended services for weddings, christenings and funerals. Would a Spiritualist Church be the same? Sermons, prayers and hymns I clearly remembered from childhood? There was only one way to find out. I studied the local paper and found advertisements for services held on Sunday evenings — 6.30 start.
I told no-one about my intention, but I held the information in my mind. A couple of Sundays passed, however, and I didn’t go. Another Sunday dawned and still I dithered. What would I be getting myself into? What if there were weird rituals and they’d try to draw me into a cult? All day I couldn’t decide, but when the time approached to leave or risk arriving late, I decided to head that way and make up my mind about going inside when I got there.
The narrow streets near the church were choc-a-bloc with cars and I thought that not being able to park would be the perfect excuse to turn around and go home. Just as this thought entered my head though, a car pulled out and I had a spot just yards from the building.
From the outside the church was rather charming: narrow facade, single storey, white-painted brick, an oak door in the centre, two tall frosted-glass windows on either side of it.
The door was open and I could see people milling about inside. I joined those walking in from the street and quickly assessed the situation. Rows of chairs were set up either side of a central aisle and there was a small stage at the far end. I figured it seated about 60 or 70 people.
People were taking their seats. I wanted to sit as close to the exit as possible to give me a quick escape route, but the end seats were quickly taken in all the rows because they gave the best view of the speakers on the platform. I found myself in the middle of the back row, between charming strangers who greeted me with smiles.
The service began with prayers and a hymn, then the medium was introduced. I cannot remember her name, but I remember she was tall and slim, dark-haired and quite softly spoken. Someone in the congregation asked her to speak up.
Much like Bob had during the séance I’d been to the previous month, she gave messages to various people that seemed to be well received. I was beginning to enjoy it by now, but then she said something that made me go hot and cold: “I have a brother here looking for his sister.”
Could it be?
No, of course it couldn’t! I’d never been to that place before, no-one knew I was there – I hadn’t even been certain myself that I would step through the door that day, let alone sit through the service!
“It’s someone’s first time here. Someone sitting right at the back.”
She was actually pointing in my direction! I just didn’t believe it could be Stephen looking for me, but no-one else claimed to be a sister to a brother who had died.
“Just speak up and I’ll be able to make the connection.”
The silence went on until at last, I croaked, “I’m here for the first time.”
The medium immediately launched into a stream of information. His name was Stephen. He’d died from a wasting disease. He’d hated the wheelchair and worried he’d never walk again. But it was a relief to go, the treatment was just too much and he knew he couldn’t beat it. He was sorry for his wife, his children, missing him. He was worried about Mum and Dad and wanted me to talk to them. He was so happy to see me!
I was shaking, my hands trembling around an already-soggy ball of tissues. The man to my right patted my arm and whispered words of encouragement. A woman in front of me turned round and said, “Your first time here? How wonderful for you!”
The medium finished by saying that Stephen could not believe his survival. He wanted me to research it, look into life after death. He knew I could, and would. She ended by mentioning a cricket bat, just like Bob had, and said Stephen knew it evoked special childhood memories of playing in the garden with all our friends.
Once the service had ended, several people came and told me how thrilled they were for me. They patted my back, hugged me and smiled their wishes for ongoing communications.
I tottered to my car as if in a dream. I don’t know how long I sat there in wonder, before turning the key in the ignition and setting off for home.
These extraordinary events had impacted me dynamically, and I was reeling from it all, but little did I know just how much they would totally change the direction of my life.
Episode 6: 30, a life-changing birthday, a new hobby, a big question
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:
Episode 7: the inner voice that would not be silenced
Our new home was finished and ready for occupation at the beginning of July, 1989. I was so ready for the move, to leave the house that held the unhappy memory of our moving-in day being also the day my brother died.
We closed the door for the last time and my husband went off in his car to deliver the keys to the estate agent and I set off in mine to collect our new keys from the sales office and to await the arrival of the removal van.
Half an hour later I was opening our new front door and stepping into the empty, echoing hallway.
I tried to feel excited, but knew that the butterflies fluttering inside me were really due to the feeling I had had when standing on the foundation slab just a few months ago. If the premonition, if that’s what it had been, was correct, I would not long be resident in this house.
In my heart I knew the why it could prove to be true, but I just didn’t want to focus on that, or contemplate the possibility that there would be a when.
The house was one of five built in a horseshoe shape in a snug little close on the edge of the small housing estate, and we were the last to move in. It turned out we were all like-minded people, so soon we were visiting each other’s new homes, having drinks in our yet-to-be-landscaped gardens, and getting to know each other. I loved the house and the area: beautiful countryside for rambles and picnics, lovely neighbours, useful shops and a pretty pub nearby — but the nagging sensation, the ‘knowing’ I couldn’t talk about or explain, the overwhelming feeling that I was in the wrong place in so many ways was getting stronger day by day.
My stomach was in a constant state of ‘churn’, my turmoil not helped by the awful, gut-wrenching knowledge that I was keeping inside. I was rapidly losing weight.
The bitter truth that I was trying so hard to fight – that I no longer loved my husband – could not be denied, but facing up to the consequences of leaving, the appalling upheaval and misery that decision would cause, was too much. I knew I didn’t want to be married any more, but the alternative, so soon after moving into our beautiful new home, was just too much to handle. I continued to keep silent, hoping my feelings would change.
I needed a distraction and, thankfully, karate fit the bill perfectly. I continued to go to the club twice a week and the discipline and focus needed throughout each two hour session silenced my thoughts. There were comments about my weight, though, and my karate trousers had to be tightened and tightened so they didn’t fall from my waist and puddle round my ankles!
Two months after moving, the day dawned to draw on all my courage and take the brown belt grading. I had completed the other grades with relative ease, but I was warned by those who had already achieved it that the brown belt was going to be much, much harder. By now I was a mess emotionally with everything I was keeping inside, so I entered the Dojo (training hall) with trepidation.
This is what I had to do to pass the elite brown belt test: five hours of gruelling exercise, non-stop punch bags, running, star jumps, sit ups and examinations — when you weren’t in front of the examining Sensei you had to keep moving – so it was seriously hard going. I performed all my katas (set-pattern movements) successfully, and every one I completed correctly moved me on and up to the big moment: sparring with two men at the same time who wore the coveted black belts. I was already exhausted by the time I stepped up and bowed to my opponents, but I would simply have to overcome it because these two huge black belts were still fit and raring to go! I weighed less than 8 stone, they were enormous, barrel-chested and, if not for the sparkle of humour and goodwill in their eyes, very intimidating.
But karate is not about hurting people, it’s about discipline in defence, so even though you get bruises on shins and forearms, the movements should flow like a dance so that any potentially harmful blows can be blocked. I thought I was doing pretty well, fending off the other two and getting some good moves in. But suddenly I was caught off guard and an unseen kick jabbed me in the stomach and completely knocked the wind out of me.
Down I went, like the proverbial sack of potatoes.
I could hear the black belt who had kicked me whispering ‘sorry,’ but that wasn’t helping. I was in a heap on the floor, in pain and gasping for breath, and my Sensei was counting me down. If I didn’t stand up and complete the grading, I was OUT!
Could I do it?
The two black belts were quietly imploring, their lips barely moving, “Come on, Jane, come on. Don’t give up! Just another minute to go! Get up and finish it! GET UP!”
My Sensei announced, “Five seconds…four…three…” His voice was measured and calm, but I could feel his eyes boring into me, willing me to find the strength to get up before my time ran out.
I could sense the energy in the Dojo, I could feel the other students willing me to move, to stand up and carry on, and for the first and only time in my life I literally saw red. I had not come this far, trained so hard, to fail in the last few seconds of the grading. I convinced myself I didn’t really need breath to haul myself up, so I got to my feet using the ‘red in my head’ to fuel my determination and I launched a roundhouse kick at the black belt to my left. He parried and blocked, but with low voices, both men encouraged me and guided me through the remaining time until at last we were called to a halt.
Exhausted, every muscle trembling and my face flaming with exertion, I stood between the black belts, a skinny, five foot nothing 32-year-old between two giants. The man who had kicked me held me steady with a firm grip on my belt at my back as we made our bows.
All that was left was the Award Ceremony. Had I made it? We all sat cross-legged on the wooden floor and, demanding the torture of patience, the awards started with the lower grades and worked upwards. As each name was called, the person stood and bowed while the decision was given and I cheered with everyone else as every pass was announced.
I could hardly breathe waiting for my own name, and when at last it came I struggled to my feet again.
I felt rather sick from the winding, my ribs aching, but I bowed low, keeping my back straight. When I came upright again and looked at Sensei he was grinning as he announced that I had done it!
The brown belt was mine and I think the cheers that greeted my achievement was the loudest of the day, because everyone had witnessed just how hard I had fought for it!
But the euphoria could only carry me so far, and as I drove home in high elation my heart was telling me what I really needed to do.
And I needed to do it soon.