Writing Matters #8: from puppy dogs to angels

My fundraising book ‘Born to be a Life Changer’ is patiently waiting for the cover and the e-versions to be done, but this is no time to relax. As the title of this blog says, I need to move on from puppy dogs to angels!

My next novel is a new edition of my humorous fantasy ‘Orders From Above’, first published in 2012. It received terrific reviews, but the publisher wasn’t doing much with it so I took back the rights in 2018 to bring it under my own imprint, just as I’ve done with ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’ and ‘Walk in the Afterlight’. Rachel Lawston of Lawston Design, who designed the gorgeous covers for my previously mentioned books, has created yet another fabulous work of art.

Publication date is 1st June, by which time the paperbacks will be available to order from Amazon and all retail outlets, and e-versions will be available from Amazon and Smashwords to cover all e-readers. LiterallyPR, who did such wonderful things for the first edition of ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’, will once again be doing wonderful things with ‘Orders From Above’.

I spent most of the lockdown time last year editing and publishing the new editions of work already written, which is relatively easy because the hard work is done, but now it’s time to turn to a brand new work, the sequel to ‘Orders From Above’ which is called ‘Orders From Below’. I very much admire all the prolific authors out there, and wonder how they manage to write so many books, because at this stage, when I’m embarking on a new story, I always think I’ll never be able to do it. Write another 100,000 words with coherent plot lines that flow and weave together to their conclusion, believable characters who use realistic dialogue, then go through interminable revisions and edits, while throughout the process my mood flips between pleased-with-myself and doubting-myself. Impossible! But not impossible, of course.

So there will be another book about mischievous angels Gabe and Nick wreaking havoc by the end of this year, and there will be a third paranormal drama featuring psychic medium Alex Kelburn after that. But ‘Orders From Below’ is first in the queue, because having delved so deeply into the story lines and characters of ‘Orders From Above’ in the past few weeks, it’s all fresh in my mind. Added to that, the characters are furiously nagging me to carry on telling their stories in this sequel! As of today, I know the beginning, I know the end. I know bits of the filling in the middle. And I know that the rest will come to me over the coming weeks during long dog walks with my dog, frantic typing at my laptop, and frequent sleepless nights. The sleepless nights have already started, in fact, for last night I just could not shut my mind down and get to sleep – the characters were having a party in my head! Not only that, when I did eventually fall asleep around 4am, I dreamt they were partying on my driveway and I came wide awake again at 4.30am knowing I had to get up and fetch my notebook to scribble everything down. Deciphering my scrawl is going to be challenging.

I look forward to being able to tell you about the PR campaign for ‘Orders From Above’ as it rolls out, about how the fundraiser ‘Born to be a Life Changer’ is doing once it’s released for sale, and my progress with ‘Orders From Below’.

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Writing Matters #7: writing a fundraiser

Alongside my humorous fantasy novel Orders From Above, due for publication 1st June, I’ve been working on a fundraising book to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. This is my 5th year as a volunteer for this charity, so it’s dear to my heart.

Back in November 2015 a Guide Dog Puppy aged 7 weeks was placed in my home for one year for socialisation training before going on to Early Stage and then Advanced Training to shape him into the excellent Guide Dog he is today. A Labrador/Golden Retriever cross he had a very expressive face, and I took hundreds of photographs throughout his time with me. Occasionally I added his “thoughts” in a speech bubble, and posted them on social media. When the puppy had completed his time with me I put a collection together just for my fellow local Puppy Raisers, so the bare bones of a book were there.

When he left me for Early Stage Training I decided not to take on another puppy full time as there was building work going on in the house and I was busy writing, but I became instead a Boarder. This means I have the joy of looking after puppies for lengths of time varying from a day visit to a three-month stay or more, and so far I’ve had more than twenty dogs of different ages and breeds in my home. I’ve looked after a working Guide Dog too. Bliss!

So now to the fundraising book. Being in this third lockdown has given me all the time needed so I contacted Guide Dogs for the Blind to make sure they were happy for me to do it and that I adhered to their own guidelines and HMRC rules and regulations so we didn’t run into any taxation snags. We agreed that the puppy would be given a pen name, so he became Buddy.

I spent a couple of weeks sorting through and selecting the best photographs and honing the text. That didn’t take long, but oh my goodness, once I started to format it so it was suitable for both paperback and e-books there were times I wondered if I’d ever get there! I’m glad I haven’t kept count of the hours I’ve spent hunched over my laptop cursing Word! I’ve had to learn how to insert the pictures so they were centred to the page margins and stayed put whenever I made an alteration. It’s not the ideal package for such a project, but as this is the only book of its kind that I shall do there’s no point in buying new software that I’d then have to spend time learning.

The only hitch in this little enterprise is that the paperback will have to be in black & white, as Print on Demand colour printing would pitch the book price very high, and with a low royalty. Fortunately there are no such issues with Kindle and other e-readers, and it has been sent to the States for formatting for those platforms.

But I’ve taken the work as far as I can go for now, as I wait for the e-formatter and for the cover designer to do their thing. The wonderful Rachel Lawston of Lawston Designs, who designed my covers for Flight of the Kingfisher and Walk in the Afterlight, is donating her fee!

I hope to publish by the end of March and Guide Dogs for the Blind will receive 100% of the profits.

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Writing Matters #6: a change of genre

In ‘Writing Matters #1: Starting Over’ I wrote about how two of my previously published novels ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’ and ‘Walk in the Afterlight’ were given new life by a thorough edit, new covers and, in the case of ‘Walk in the Afterlight, a new title (it was originally called ‘The Waiting Gate’ but the story underwent enough changes to warrant a change of name). These two books have family dramas at their hearts, encompassing the topics of bereavement, near death experience, dementia, afterlife, ghosts, and psychic mediumship and are classified as supernatural fiction.

My next novel, ‘Orders From Above’ also has supernatural elements, but the genre this time is humorous fantasy. This is the back cover blurb:

I had such fun working on this book as part of my Masters in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and I was over the moon when it was published in 2012 by an imprint that’s part of a large publishing house. However, as I was very naïve about the publishing world back then, and despite getting fabulous reviews, it didn’t make much of an impact. After seeking advice I decided to take back the rights and put it on the back burner while I worked on my other projects.

Now the story has been professionally edited and proof-read and I’m working with talented cover designer Rachel Lawston of Lawston Designs to give it a whole new look, as she did for Kingfisher and Afterlight (that’s one wonderful aspect of being an independent author, I can choose my own covers!). I’ve also teamed up once more with LiterallyPR to run a marketing campaign, which I’m very much looking forward to.

I shall be excited to show you the cover when it’s done, and a little while after that to tell you when the book is available (I’m hoping early-mid March). In the meantime here are a few of those early reviews:

“This novel is full of warm, traditional humour, depicting a cast of colourful characters with fondness and affectionate criticism. One of the central concepts – the bestowal of a virtue and a vice on a village’s least and most popular characters respectively is a great one, as is the idea that Nick and Gabe previously made an agreement to share the pain of running Hell. They were, after all, both Archangels once and it seems only fair that Nick isn’t banished to the hot place forever.”
Cornerstones Literary Agency

“Author J M Forrest has had a lot of fun writing this book. You can just tell from reading it. The whole cast of characters are delightful, but I adore Nigel and his wife Amelia, particularly Amelia… sweet, but tough and smart too. However my favourite characters have to be the di Angelo brothers Gabe and Nick. Think about that for a minute… The story is so much fun it reads like a breeze… Definitely give it a read.”                                                                                                                               Geekygodmother.ca

“A lovely story full of well-defined characters and a very original take on the archangel hierarchy. I found myself wanting to spend as much time as possible in Ham-under-Lymfold, the quaint little village in which Gabriel and Lucifer set about renovating a mill into a restaurant while they decide who to temp into a range of virtues and sins, all to a mysterious and quite innovative end. I would recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone with a taste for angelic figures turned on their heads. J M Forrest writes crisp and wonderful dialogue, carving clearly distinct characters throughout her story. A delightful read!”  
Nicolas Forzy, Producer/Director/Writer

“Brilliant… I actually cracked up at parts of it. The characterisations are so good you can almost see them – and as I read it I thought it would make a brilliant film. The angels are a riot.”
J A (5* Amazon review)

“Orders From Above is a book that will keep you entertained from the first to the last page! It is impossible not to become involved with the characters in this strange, but beautiful village of Ham-Under-Lymfold. I desperately wanted to help Lorelei on the one hand, at the same time as give the mean-hearted Violet Cattermole a good talking to on the other! I also loved the sibling rivalry between Gabe and Nick, who stole the show for me. J M Forrest writes with a great wit and insightfulness of human behaviour – you just want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.”
PJ (5* Amazon review)

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jmerrillforrest.com

Writing Matters #5: communication with the dead

Last week I watched a Netflix documentary called ‘Surviving Death’, covering subjects that are extremely hard to believe unless they are experienced first-hand. There were five episodes: Near Death Experience (NDE); Mediumship; Signs From The Dead; Seeing Dead People; Reincarnation. It’s well worth seeing, because they illustrate reasons for belief and scepticism for each subject. I found every episode fascinating, especially as I’ve drawn on elements from all the subjects bar reincarnation in my novels ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’ and ‘Walk in the Afterlight’. The hero of my books, Alex Kelburn, is a psychic medium who sees and hears dead people, and he has a Near Death Experience in ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’. I haven’t had a NDE, but I have had signs and I’ve seen and heard some people who have passed over.

For instance, I have heard the voices of my late brother and father. In each case it was very brief, but the few words were deeply meaningful. My brother, who passed in 1984, often communicated with me through mediums – in fact it was Stephen that started me on my quest for information and evidence of the afterlife – but he spoke to me directly just once, and that was about eight or nine years after his death. He said, “I have to go now, sis, but you will know me when you see me again.” I had no idea what that meant, but wondered if he was going to reincarnate, something I didn’t and still don’t understand. Whatever it was, I had no communication from him for many years after that, but then, not long after my father passed, he came back through a medium friend. Even before she’d spoken his name I had known he was there, so it was just as he’d said: he wouldn’t be around for quite a while, but I would recognise him once he returned. I never thought to ask what he’d been doing in the intervening years.

When my father died not long after Stephen’s reappearance, I assumed he had returned to help Dad cross over. (I was later to find out I was wrong about this, but that’s another story!)

Dad passed when his life support was switched off following a catastrophic heart attack. The decision had been mine, as his next of kin, and although most of my heart knew it was what he had wanted me to do, there was a small part that still wondered if I had done the right thing. Only thinking that he and my brother were together again gave me some cheer (I was later to find out this wasn’t true, but that’s another story). Not long after his funeral I was out walking in the fields with my dog, my thoughts churning about his death and desperately wanting to know if he was OK. Then I heard his voice. A man of very few words, I almost laughed out loud that he could impart such an important message to me in just one short statement: “I’m OK, kid”.

So that was hearing dead people. What about seeing them as well?

When I was a very small child I used to see and hear an elderly gentlemen. I only ever saw his head and shoulders, which seemed very high above me as I lay in my cot. He was bearded, had a sparse covering of hair on his head, and he spoke with a deep voice with a distinctive timbre. If I ever knew his name I’ve forgotten it, nor can I remember what he said, but I’m sure I’d recognise that voice if I heard it today, some sixty years later!

I was at a mediumship demonstration in a town about ten miles away from my home. I went alone and, not recognising anyone else in the audience, I took a seat at the front. Within a few minutes two women, who looked like sisters, took the chairs to my right, and the rest of the row soon filled up with excited and expectant people. As you do in these circumstances, we smiled at each other, but there was no time for introductions or chit-chat as the medium came onto the stage as soon as everyone had settled.

From the reactions of those to whom she gave readings she seemed to be doing very well with her accuracy and evidence. She was entertaining too, managing to keep the atmosphere light and happy even when people cried when they got messages. During the interval we all gathered at the back of the hall for some refreshments and I spotted someone I knew. She said she had a spare seat next to her near the back, but as I’d left my coat on the chair at the front and we were being asked to sit down again so the medium could continue, I said I would go back there.

When the medium came to the end of her demonstration she invited questions from the audience. There were many! As I’ve researched mediumship for a few decades I was content to listen, but then I became distracted by a little girl to my left. She was softly humming a tune, skipping and dancing in in front of the two women sitting next to me. She was about eight years old. Her blond hair was long and braided into plaits. She wore a pretty blue dress with ribbons on the sleeves and black patent shoes, the kind of outfit a girl of her age would wear to a party. Because she was in front of the two woman nearest me I assumed that one of them was her mother, and as I hadn’t seen her until then, I thought she had probably been brought along by her dad to collect her mum at the end of the evening.

But something about this little girl didn’t seem right to me. If I looked at her head-on she seemed to fade a little, it was only by looking at her through the corner of my eye that I could make out the detail of what she looked like. I went hot and cold. I felt my skin tighten and tingle. And I knew, I can’t explain how or why, but I absolutely knew that neither the two women nor anyone else in the hall were even aware of her.

I put my hand up to attract the attention of the medium, and when she came to me I nervously said, “I want to tell you that there’s a fair-haired little girl in a party dress dancing around just to my right here. I’m not a medium, but I think perhaps she has a message for one of these two women?”

The woman furthest from me from gasped as the medium turned her gaze to where I was indicating and confirmed that she could see the girl too. The hall went absolutely silent as medium and child had a short conversation that no-one else could hear, then the medium said the little girl’s name and gave many details, including her age, how and when she’d died, that she was wearing her party dress because her birthday had been just two days before. By now the woman was crying, both with sadness and with joy, because this was her daughter and all the details given by the medium were correct. The little girl had come that evening to let her mum know that she was happy, she didn’t feel ill any more and she was being taken care of. It clearly gave the mother great relief, which is what these messages are all about.

I was stunned by the whole event, and it wasn’t until I was back home that I realised how fortunate (or fated) it was that I did not change seats, otherwise that lovely reunion of mother and daughter might not have happened.

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Walk in the Afterlight: extract

“Your mum is a patient here?” asked Beth with sympathy. “Gosh, she must be young.”

Kallie smiled. “She’s not far off seventy. She was nearly forty when she had me. But dementia can strike at any age, even in children, so I understand. Mum’s in great health physically, so she could be here for a long time.”

Beth asked where Kallie’s mother was now and she explained again about the safe room.

“I won’t see her again today, because she’ll walk herself to exhaustion and they’ll put her straight to bed. She was only here a matter of weeks before her memory became severely affected and it wasn’t long before she didn’t recognise me any more.” Kallie looked rueful. “Sorry, you don’t want to hear all that when you’re probably going through the same thing. It was nice to meet you, though I’m sure we all wish it was under better circumstances.”

Kallie gathered up her coat and bag and left the lounge, giving Alex, Beth and Anna a small smile and a wave of her fingers. Alex followed her with his eyes.

“I know that look,” said Beth. “Does she have someone with her?”

“Two people,” he replied. “Her grandparents, I think. I could sense them when she and I were talking, but either they weren’t aware of me or just didn’t want to communicate. I think they’re just watching out for her.”

“Maybe Kallie’s mum is their daughter and that’s why they’re here, watching over both of them?” Beth squeezed his hand. “Why don’t you go outside for a bit, Alex?”

He set off to find his favourite bench, the one hidden from the lounge windows but with a good view of the striking water sculpture.

Once past the area that had been laid out as a giant checkerboard, Alex was pleased to find there was no-one else around. He sat down and contemplated what he’d just witnessed inside, allowing the gentle, musical sound of running water and the little tinkling bells to soothe him. He decided he didn’t know nearly enough about dementia in general and Simon’s condition in particular, and needed to do some research. If only he had the time! He shouldn’t even be here now, but he’d come for Beth’s sake and he was glad that he had.

“Would you mind if I sit here?” a friendly voice asked, bringing him out of his reverie. “It’s my favourite place as it can’t be seen from the house and I can get a precious few minutes uninterrupted.”

Alex looked up at the slender figure in front of him, delighted to see that it was Erin, and invited her to join him.

She sat down beside him, her knees audibly clicking. “Sorry about that.” She laughed. “My knees have always clicked and the years of bending and lifting takes a terrible toll on the joints, even when you’ve been trained to do it right. Shame Simon had to go into one of his strops just as you and Beth were walking in. Is Anna okay?”

“She’s fine and you were marvellous, as always. It amazes me how you stay so calm. Would you like to be alone? I’d say you deserve some peace and quiet after what you’ve just had to deal with, but I suppose it’s all part and parcel of the working day for you, isn’t it?”

He made to rise but Erin placed her hand on his arm and gently but firmly prevented him from leaving.

“Actually, Alex Kelburn, I’ve been stalking you!” She laughed, making her face look years younger. “I’ve seen every episode of your TV show, I’ve read your book, and whenever you’ve come to the hospice to give one of your inspirational talks I’ve been sure to be there. Everything about you is absolutely fascinating to me and since your wife’s grandfather came in I’ve been waiting for an opportunity just to talk to you! Can I ask you a question?”

She bit her bottom lip and a slow blush rose from her neck upwards as she waited for his response. He assumed she was going to ask if he could give her a message from a late member of her family or a friend, so he nodded, more than willing to help someone who worked as hard and as compassionately as she did.

Everyone noticed how kind, how gentle she always was with the residents, and the dementia lounge seemed a much duller place when she wasn’t on shift. She asked her question but it wasn’t at all what he expected.

“Where do they go, the patients who no longer seem to be aware of themselves or their surroundings? I mean, take Simon. One moment he’s angry and shouting, the next it’s as if he’s simply left his body behind and gone somewhere else. Some of the patients are like that all the time, never having lucid moments at all, and I’ve always wondered… where do they go?”

Alex smiled at the question, glad that it was one he could answer. It might even help her.

~~~~~

Want to know more? ‘Walk in the Afterlight’ is available in paperback and kindle formats from Amazon, for all e-readers from Smashwords.com, and to order from all bookshops.

(This is a revised and re-edited version of ‘The Waiting Gate’, published 2017)

Flight of the Kingfisher: extract

the full cover

1951, Chapter 1

“Come on, sweetheart, up you come.”

Though she weighs next to nothing, and he is as gentle as can be as he gathers her into his arms, she gasps in pain as he eases her up from the pillows. Gently, oh so gently, he persists, moving her little by little until she is sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I’m sorry, love, so sorry.” He brushes away the beads of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip with his fingertips. “I’m trying not to hurt you, but you know I have to get you dressed and downstairs.”

Her clothes are already laid out: underwear, petticoat, tights, her smartest, warmest dress, cardigan, her favourite low-heeled shoes that she’s always worn for going out somewhere a bit special. Tenderly he places each garment on her tiny frame, hiding his distress at how nothing fits her any more. Even the shoes are too big. He brushes her hair, so fine now her scalp shows through the strands of white in narrow lines of shiny pink.

“I think we can do without make up, eh, love? I don’t think I’d do a good job. Smear your lipstick and get more powder over me than on you, most likely. Anyway, you’re beautiful as you are.”

He steps back so she can see him. “And look at me, in my best suit and tie. I’ve even pinned on my medal and my shoes are so shiny you can see your face in them.” He lifts up his right foot, but her gaze doesn’t leave his face. She starts to slip sideways and he has to dash forward to catch her.

“OK, my darling girl, we’re ready as we’ll ever be. Let’s do this.”

Carefully, slowly, acutely aware of the sharpness of her bones and the sweet-sour scent of her skin, he raises her to her feet and wraps the thick quilt from the bed around her. She manages a few shuffling steps and it’s obvious she cannot make it on her own.

Can he carry her? He has to, despite being old and weak, with probably less than half the strength of his youth.

“Well, my love, we’re going to have to do this the hard way. Remember how I carried you over the threshold on our wedding night? I nearly took a tumble and you grabbed hold so tight you almost wrenched my neck. Remember that? I’m sure you do.”

He can’t risk the extra weight of the quilt or the possibility of tripping over a trailing piece of it, so he removes it from her body and tosses it on the bed, still talking all the while to distract her.

“It’s like yesterday to me, our wedding day. You looked like an angel in your white dress, you know. Fair took my breath away. And that little suit you wore afterwards, showing off your tiny waist. A hat, too, I remember, perched on your shining hair, which was all pinned up at the back so fancy. I thought I was a lucky, lucky man that day, and I’ve thought it every day since. Can you put your arms round my neck, love?”

He pauses, making sure the weight of her, slight as it is, is securely balanced against his body. Her head rests on his shoulder, and her feet dangle so that both her shoes slip off and land on the floor with a dull thud, thud.

“I’ll come back up for your shoes, don’t you worry. And the quilt. We must keep you warm, now, mustn’t we.”

He’s at the top of the stairs now, already nervous about how he’s going to make the descent safely.

After each downward step, shaking with effort, he has to pause and steady himself before taking the next one. He almost smiles at the bitter irony of not wanting to trip;

What if she were to survive the fall and he didn’t? It didn’t bear thinking about. He had a huge responsibility here, and he couldn’t afford to mess up.

“I have to be very careful, my love. I know this is uncomfortable for you, but you need to hold tight. Now, then, let’s take it really slow and steady.”

The narrow stairway means he has to turn slightly sideways to get them both down. He can’t hold onto her as well as the banister rail, so must take it one step at a time.

Right foot down.

Shift her weight a little to keep his centre of balance.

Left foot down onto the same tread.

Steady.

Steady.

Pause and breathe.

Down and down, step by step, until he is at last standing on the hall floor. His breathing is laboured and his arms tremble with the effort he’s made, but he has to carry her just a few more steps to the kitchen.

Once there, he lays her down on the thin mattress he’d placed on the floor earlier. Her skin gleams with sweat and has a ghastly yellow hue. He knows bruises are already forming on her arms and thighs where his hands have so firmly held her.

“I’m going back up for the quilt and your shoes, love. I’ll be very quick.”

When he returns, she is shivering and weeping, mewling like a newborn kitten. Quickly he covers her with the quilt and with a clean handkerchief wipes the tears from her sunken cheeks and kisses her forehead. His own face is wet, his throat tight, but he must not waver now. This is something he must do, a promise he must keep.

A promise he wants to keep, with all his heart.

His voice just above a whisper, he tries to reassure her as he once more puts on her shoes and covers her with the thick pink and white quilt. “It’s alright, sweetheart, it’s alright, my love. Very soon now you won’t be suffering, I promise, and everything will be wonderful again. For both of us. Just wonderful.”

Her huge, once-beautiful eyes fasten on his face and his throat catches to see the tears well up again and tremble on her sparse lashes. She has no voice now, hasn’t been able to speak for quite a time, but everything she is thinking shines from those eyes.

“Now, now, don’t you be worrying about me. My mind’s made up, and there’s no changing it. Since the day we met, you’ve meant the whole world to me, and I couldn’t go on without you. You know that, love, I’ve told you often enough. And this way I won’t have to.”

Satisfied that she is warm and as comfortable as he can make her, he bustles round the tiny kitchen, checking for the hundredth time that the sash window is securely taped up. It is so cold, ferny fronds of frost pattern the glass on the inside.

“Just got to do the door now.” His words plume in the freezing air.

From the wooden draining board, he grabs the roll of duct tape and the large knife he’s had since his army days.

In minutes, the door is sealed to his satisfaction, and he puts the tape and knife away in a drawer, wanting the kitchen to be tidy. He has spent the past few days cleaning every nook and cranny of this house to be sure that it is immaculate.

There’s a warning note taped to the outside of the front door and the letter to his sister-in-law, their only living relative, is propped against the clock on the mantelpiece. There’s hardly any money for her, but Mavis can have any of their possessions she wants, including a pearl brooch that he knows she admires. He’s sorry, though, that she will have to deal with the fallout on her own, and that plays on his mind constantly.

She’s been so good, helping out, has Mavis. Many times he’s wanted to confide in her as they sat drinking cups of milky tea after she’d changed the bed linen and done some

baking so he’d have something wholesome to eat. But feeling sure she wouldn’t understand, would certainly try and talk him out of it, he’s kept silent and, he is sure, has put on a good act so she has no suspicions.

Besides, what possible alternative is there to the plan he is determined to carry out this day? He would be nothing without his wife. Nothing. Only war has ever separated them, and on either side of those terrible times they haven’t spent a single night apart. He has no intention now or ever of sleeping without her by his side.

So this is the way it has to be.

He kneels beside her, croons softly, “Just one more job, my darling, and I’ll be right beside you. It’ll be just like we talked about; we’ll simply drift off to sleep. Yes, we’ll go to sleep and then we’ll wake up on the other side, and everything will be wonderful.”

Grabbing two corners of the mattress and trying not jolt her fragile body any more than he has already, he positions her so that her head is a little closer to the open oven door.

He turns all the gas jets full on and quickly burrows under the thick quilt, stretching himself out beside her, his beloved, his dearest friend, his soul mate.

Wraps his arms around her and tries to still her shivering body, even though his own hands are numb with cold.

Plants a gentle kiss on her dry lips.

Puts his lips close to her ear, and whispers. “Breathe deep, my love, and if you get there first, wait for me.”

~~~~~

Want to know more? ‘Flight of the Kingfisher’ is available in paperback and kindle formats from Amazon, for all e-readers from Smashwords.com, and to order from all bookshops.

(This is a revised version, the ISBN number is 9780956795410)

A Dog Called Donut – a true story (part III)

A lovely day in our favourite place, Marloes Beach, Wales

Quick links to previous episodes: Part I ; Part II

Darcy was showing his age. His beautiful golden eyes were a little milky, his muzzle had turned grey, he slept twice as long, he was slow to get up. When I noticed a couple of lumps on his body my heart sank and a trip to the vet confirmed that he had cancer. At around fourteen years of age, and because he’d always been fearful of the vet, we decided we didn’t want him treated with steroids or anything designed to prolong life, but just keep him comfortable for the months or weeks he had left.

When he didn’t want to eat much or go out for even the shortest of walks any more we agonised over when would be the right time to have him put to sleep. We all know it’s a kindness, but I wanted desperately for Darcy not to need that last, painful visit, I wanted him to pass away in his bed. To just go to sleep and not wake up. I would lie on the floor with him, stroking his velvety ears, telling him gently that it was time for him to leave us. I told him to go to my father because I was sure he’d be waiting for him as they’d had a very special relationship.

(Mind you, when we told Dad we were adopting a problem dog called Donut from Battersea he thought we were, quote, “mad”!! Why, he demanded to know, would we take on a dog with such issues rather than get a puppy with a known pedigree that we could train from the beginning. But when he met him on the day we took him out of Battersea Old Windsor, he adored our Donut-renamed-Darcy from the start and always wanted to look after him when George and I went away on holiday. When Dad died and we went with Darcy to his house to sort some things out, Darcy sniffed all round the Dad’s armchair, and then went off as if looking for him.)

So, that’s why I begged Darcy to just let go and cross over to Dad, but Darcy would not make it easy for me. He did not die in his bed, and then came the day that he looked at us with that unmistakable plea in his wonderful, black-rimmed eyes that told me I was to stop being selfish because he needed to be helped on his way.

Darcy loved going out for a drive, so we decided to take him out for a last little jaunt before going to the vet, and we arranged it so that he would be put to sleep in our car. I was in bits even before George lifted Darcy into the car, and couldn’t stop crying as we drove around for a while before parking up and letting the vet know we’d arrived. George, who had heard and been so determined to answer Darcy’s plea to take him away from Battersea all those years ago, held him while the injection was administered and took hold. While I held Darcy’s paw, George held Darcy across his lap, whispering that he could let go now, that we loved him and had been privileged to have been chosen by him. Darcy visibly relaxed in George’s arms and took his last breath. It was over.

From there we took him straight to the pet crematorium, a lovely place called Charlies Parlour in Bradford-on-Avon, where the owner, Paul, was waiting for us. Paul couldn’t have been kinder. Obviously used to distraught people arriving on a daily basis, he helped us deal with what had to be dealt with, and we knew Darcy would be treated with dignity throughout the cremation process. We left him in Paul’s care, arranging to return the next day to collect the ashes, which would be in a prettily-decorated cardboard tube. I was also presented with a packet of forget-me-knot seeds and a paw print. The paw print broke me all over again!

We buried Darcy’s ashes in our garden, next to the red and white ‘Nostalgia’ rose we had planted for Dad, with a little metal dog on a wooden plinth marking the spot.

Oh, how different the home is when the companion animal has left it! How heart-breaking to put their bed, toys and food dishes away. How sad the familiar routes when your beloved four-legged friend is no longer walking alongside you, sometimes running ahead and coming barrelling back again in the hope of getting a treat.

Every day I wondered if he visited us and, if he did, why I couldn’t sense it or see him, because I’d once had a strange experience at a friend’s house. Back then, many years ago now, we’d both had cats called Pepper. My friend had made coffee and I was seated in an armchair by the door. Pepper came strolling in and rubbed herself against my legs, I put my hand down and stroked her head. When I looked up my friend was staring at me with a perplexed expression, and asked me what I was doing. Perplexed myself by the question, I looked down again and Pepper was no longer there. My friend then told me she’d been put to sleep the previous week, and she’d been about to tell me!

I never had an experience like that with Darcy, the first message from him came in the form of a butterfly. I was walking across the fields to the next village, a walk I’d done with Darcy almost daily, and I was missing his presence every step of the way. As I approached a hedgerow that marked the gate that took me across the boundary into the next village, I noticed a little golden-brown butterfly. The colour was similar to Darcy’s eyes, so perhaps that’s what made me stop to take a closer look, and I saw that it had a piece of its wing missing, like something had taken a bite out of it. I think I murmured something to it about hoping it could fly all right, then, thinking no more of it, I carried on to the local shop and then walked home again, a round trip of forty five minutes.

It was a lovely August day so when I got home I decided to sit on the swing-seat in the garden, close to the rose bed where Darcy’s ashes were. Out of the corner of my eyes something fluttered and landed near my feet…

I looked down…

There on the ground in front of me was a golden-brown butterfly with a piece missing from its wing. It had followed me all that way, and I felt a shiver travel up and down my spine because it was so incredibly like Darcy’s eyes.

A very poor image of the photograph. I was taken by surprise and fumbled my phone

But one question still remained: was he with my dad?

In January the following year I had a reading with a medium at her home. I hadn’t told her anything, in my research for my writing I always go along to such meetings offering no information and with no specific expectations. About half way into reading she asked if I had a puppy. I said yes, I had become a volunteer Puppy Raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind and we had a 4-month old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross. She said, “When he was tiny he slept in a cage or a crate at night and he never cried did he?”

I confirmed that he hadn’t disturbed us during the night at all, that from the day we’d got him the previous November, he’d always settled in the puppy crate very quickly. “Well,” the medium said, “he’d had a companion that came at night to keep him company for as long as it was needed. It’s a fairly large dog, with a black and brown coat.”

I told the medium that it must be Darcy, who’d died a couple of months before the puppy arrived, and I asked, “Can you tell me where Darcy is now?”

The medium seemed to consider for a while and then she said, “Your dad is here. I see that black and brown dog by his side. I’m being shown an image of your dad lying on a deck chair in the sun, with this dog underneath. Your dad is telling me that there is a photograph of this.”

This photograph sits on the sideboard in the dining room of my dad’s partner’s house. Dad was a sun-worshipper, and she had taken the photo while he was sleeping in his deck chair in the garden, Darcy snoozing beneath him.

I’d had all the evidence I needed. Darcy, that dog once called Donut and who’d had such a miserable start in life, was safe and happy in spirit with someone who’d loved him as much as George and I had.

The end.

A Dog Called Donut – a true story (part II)

The Day We Adopted Him

This blog should now be called a Dog Called Darcy’, as he rarely heard ‘Donut’ once he’d been given his noble new name. Training and professional assistance had helped turn him into a wonderful companion and also helped us become worthy guardians (at least I hope he thought us worthy!). But despite his being much more relaxed, something of Donut was always there. He mistrusted so many things, including people wearing hats and/or backpacks, people with walking sticks, pushchairs, random people would set him growling or pulling away.

While I was writing this piece, George reminded me of a time he was getting changed in the bedroom and Darcy was in there with him. Everything was fine and calm until George started to undo his belt. As soon as Darcy become aware of it he went mad, growling, barking and trying to get out of the room. Wild eyed he fled into the kitchen and stood there, trembling, until we managed to calm him down.

We also found he hated to be tied up, when one day we wanted to put a long rope on him while our garden gate had to be propped open for a while. He was fine with a lead when we went for a walk, so we thought there would be no problem with a rope that allowed him to wander but not get out through the gate. It was to keep him safe. But as soon as it was tied on to his collar Darcy went absolutely berserk, rearing up, snapping, and trying to bite the rope. It was frightening and distressing to watch, so we quickly took it off.

And this leads me in to the first psychic event that happened around him (or maybe the second, as I believe there was some kind of psychic communication between him and George at Battersea). Those of you who know me or about me know of my deep interest in all things paranormal, so it’s no surprise that I have a lot of contacts in the world of psychics and mediums. This event happened when a psychic friend of mine met Darcy for the first time a couple shortly after we adopted him. She reached out to stroke him and stopped before she touched him, her hand hovering over the back of his neck. Darcy looked a little fearful for a moment, but he didn’t move away and I wondered what was going on.

“He’s had some trauma round his neck,” she said. “I can feel heat coming from this area, so I’m asking him to tell me what happened.”

I watched, fascinated, as friend and dog seemed lost in a mutual trance for a few moments, and then she told me, “He was born in some kind of outbuilding, like a farmyard barn. Always dark. Not many in the litter, and the mother not well because she hadn’t been kindly treated. His mother, brothers and sisters disappeared, and he was alone. He was tied up so tightly he was almost hanging by his neck. He was possibly beaten. That’s all I can get from him, but it’s no wonder I can feel this heat, this discomfort emanating from his neck. It’s a residual memory he still holds. ” I had no way of corroborating this, so could only take it as a possible explanation for his extreme fear of being tied and his other reactive behaviours and I filed it away in the back of mind.

Skipping forward quite a few years later, I read a book by Madeleine Walker* about animal communication. I was spellbound, and decided to ask her for a reading for Darcy. Maybe she could identify the cause of his continuing reaction to certain situations. No matter that Darcy had been with us for about nine years, I felt there were still some feelings of fear deep inside him, and I’d never forgotten what my friend, who sadly had passed away by then from cancer, had said about his beginnings. It is recognised that adult humans with emotional issues can sometimes trace the cause back to childhood traumas, so why not animals? If Darcy still carried deep-seated fears from his puppyhood, then I wanted to know.

Madeleine asked for a photograph that showed Darcy’s eyes clearly. She wanted no other information about him beforehand. Following are some extracts from her report.

“Confusion/Fear/Reaction. I always ask for a word or phrase to underpin the whole reading and this is what I get for Darcy. It seems to be a chain reaction that of course stems from fear and bad memories that he has never quite let go of. The worst thing for him is the paranoia of traumatic change occurring again. It’s like it has a vice-like grip on him and however settled he is with you on the surface, he can never let go of the feeling that it could all change in a heartbeat!

“I can feel just how hard you have worked to help Darcy, but his unpredictability with new faces and places is all to do with the fear that he might be moved on again and have his one stable home uprooted again. I think his trust was really shattered at a very young age and so any new situation will pose a perceived threat to his security. It’s such a shame as he has so much love to give and really hates feeling this way – he so wants to just enjoy the security of his forever home and really totally accept that is is forever in this incarnation!

“I feel that his mother went through a lot of trauma when carrying him and I keep getting the feeling of being wrenched away from her? I can see him being shut in somewhere very dark, which is actually really making my heart pound, just tuning into the residual fear from this – I don’t think his mother or all of his litter mates survived. He’s showing me a very shabby farm. I also feel he may have had a couple of short-term homes before coming to you where his reactive behaviour will have been a problem. I feel that there are many layers to his desperation and feelings of abandonment… I also feel he’s been tied up and will have reacted very badly to being on a lead. I still feel tightness around his neck and am being shown a video-like clip of some very rough treatment… I can feel him yelping and almost dangling from his lead or rope or whatever it was he was attached to. In the picture you sent me I keep being drawn to the area between his collar and his shoulders along the spin – it feels that he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

Isn’t that absolutely heart-rending? Now I had been given the same story by two different people, six years apart. I had read widely on the subject of animal communication. I believed it. Maybe if more people with “problem dogs” would seek help from animal communicators and training professionals there wouldn’t be so many pets in rescue centres. To quote Madeleine once more, “Unfortunately us humans have the ability to make decisions without any consideration to the emotional ties or feelings of these beautiful creatures!”

Madeleine went on to recommend some natural flower essences to benefit Darcy, which we were happy to try and, as you know from Part I, we worked hard always to give Darcy a happy, stable, secure home for the twelve years he was with us.

Click here to go to Part III, where I talk about Darcy’s crossing that rainbow bridge when he was 14 years old, and some wonderful psychic events that happened afterwards. Have your tissues ready!

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*Madeleine Walker, Animal Communicator and Spiritual Empowerment Coach https://www.madeleinewalker.co.uk/

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Another fascinating story about an animal being helped by an animal communicator is ‘How Diablo Became Spirit’ by Anna Breytenbach, about how she worked with a dangerous leopard at a conservation park. The owner of the park was sceptical about Anna’s work, but by the end he’s in tears at what she achieves. It’s an astounding and very moving story, so do please take a look when you have fifteen minutes to spare. This is the link to the YouTube video (skip the adverts at the beginning): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvwHHMEDdT0

And if you enjoy it as much as I did, there’s an update: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmlL7Q8nzbs

A Dog Called Donut – a true story (part I)

There have been articles in the media about animal rescue charities being concerned that some people are rushing to adopt a dog during the pandemic. Many are working from home and so feel it’s a good time to get a four-legged companion, without thinking through the implications of perhaps being required to return to the workplace, or for not realising just how much time and energy is needed to settle an adult dog into a new home. Especially a dog that might have issues from being in rescue. In the light of this, here is a story I’d like to share with you about a dog we adopted from Battersea Cats & Dogs Home in 2003.

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A Dog Called Donut – Part I

I will never get over my down-to-earth, completely unsentimental husband telling me in all seriousness that he’d had a one-to-one conversation with a mutt called Donut. Donut had begged, “Please take me home,” and George had promised that we would. It’s the kind of thing I would admit to, but not George

It was me who desperately wanted a rescue dog and he wasn’t really sold on the idea, so we’d agreed that he would choose. Okay, I said, let’s consider Donut. It looks like there’s German Shepherd and Collie in there, among other breeds, he’s the right size, though a bit skinny, and the poor boy has a torn and bloodied nose because he’s rubbed it raw on the bars of his kennel. He’s certainly handsome and, oh, and he has the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. Soulful, compelling eyes, rimmed with black like carefully applied kohl, the pupils surrounded by irises flecked with gold.

We went to the desk and were taken to a private room where we were thoroughly and rightly grilled about our dog knowledge and experience, the suitability of our home and lifestyle. At the end of it, though, we were firmly rejected as suitable adopters of Donut because he had “issues”. He’d proved himself a problem dog with previous owners, and Battersea were adamant that he had to go to experienced people. Sadly, we were considered to be pitifully underqualified for him. Not having the heart to go round the kennels again we went home dejected and dogless.

One Saturday, about three weeks after our disappointment, we were at Battersea again, and as we did the round of the kennels, we were stopped in our tracks by a German Shepherd/Collie/Something Else mongrel with golden eyes. It was Donut! He was back!

Still skinny, nose once again skinned bloodied, he retreated to his kennel and turned his back on us. How could we blame him? We’d promised to take him home, and he’d been taken by someone else. Clearly that hadn’t worked out for him, so what now? He looked so downcast we knew we just had to try again.

This time, we were prepared for the interview and we said we wanted Donut. It was explained that he’d been brought back because he was so destructive and hated to be left home alone, how did we think we could handle him? We insisted we would do whatever was necessary. He was brought to the interview room so we could meet him, but it was easy to see he didn’t trust us, and easy to understand why. When he looked at us I’m sure he was thinking, “You will be my fourth home since I was born, how can I be sure you’ll be my forever home and not reject me as I’ve been rejected before?”

We promised that we would immediately enrol on a training class, get whatever extra professional help was needed, and it was Donut or no dog for us. This time, we won the day.

While he was taken for a bath, we rushed to the shop and excitedly bought all the bits: collar and lead, water and food dishes, food, chews, treats, toys, bed, more toys. Then we sat in the car park discussing a new name, because such a handsome boy could not possibly be called Donut! Battersea may have marked him down as, quote, “not the sharpest tool in the box”, but we’d seen real intelligence in those extraordinary eyes.

At last he was brought outside, slightly damp and smelling of apple shampoo. We put on his new collar and told him that henceforth he would be known as Darcy, a lovely, proud name for what would be, we hoped, a lovely, proud dog!

We took Darcy home.

He went on a wrecking spree.

Battersea had been perfectly frank with us about his problem behaviour. At the tender age of around 18 months to two years (his age wasn’t certain as he’d originally been picked up as a stray), he’d been in and out of homes and kennels. He’d been with the last people who’d adopted him less than a week! Although we knew all this, it soon became apparent that we really did have our work cut out if we were to turn Darcy from a destructive, stressed animal to the happy boy we so wanted him to be. It was fortunate for Darcy and for us that we hadn’t an inkling that it would take eighteen months to sort out his issues, as we might not have been so keen to take him on.

We began by signing up to a 6-week dog training programme that started about two months after Darcy came home with us.

It was a stressful eight weeks. Left alone for more than five minutes, he howled and chewed whatever he could get his teeth into. We’d find holes in carpets and chunks taken out of door frames and furniture. Sleep? No way. He whined all night and scratched at the door. If we left him in the garden he excavated the flower beds, he destroyed the water feature, upended the recycling bin so papers were strewn all over the place. My favourite rocker/recliner chair was chewed so badly it had to be thrown out. We bought a large dog crate, hoping it would make a secure retreat for him, but he hated it, absolutely panicking if we closed the door when he was inside it.

At training he proved himself a quick learner and was quite the star, blotting his copybook only when he took a dislike to a perfectly amiable Boxer and turned the ‘sit and stay’ practice session into a tangle of barking dogs. The trainer asked to take Darcy outside to work with him for a while. When he brought him back he said it was clear he’d had no training before and so had no idea how to behave, but he showed every sign of being very smart. We just needed to hold our nerve and keep going, and he would help us. Not only did Darcy pick things up super-fast, we also learned a great deal about our responsibilities towards him, and life became a little easier.

The one problem that lingered was his separation anxiety. So, if he hated being left at home so much, could we take him out and leave him for short periods in the car? Well, yes, as long as we didn’t object to him breaking through the guard, gouging teeth marks into the handbrake, the indicator stick and wing mirror control knob. Oh, surely we didn’t need two functioning rear seatbelts? And all in my not-even-a-year-old Corsa!

The cost of property damage was mounting up and the stress levels, both canine and human, remained high. But we weren’t quitters. No way was this dog going back, yet again, to a rescue centre because, despite all the problems we were having, we knew there was an adorable dog lurking in there somewhere, just desperate to show himself.

It was clear that we needed professional help of a special kind, and I found an animal behaviourist willing make a two hour round-trip to come and help us. He came to our house, studied the dynamics of us and Darcy together, then worked his magic. I don’t know how he did it, and at the end I asked him if he’d someone managed to swap our Darcy for a lookalike! But the how didn’t matter, because from then on Darcy seemed to understand that being left alone meant he could take the time to rest, to sleep, and we always come back.

He swiftly filled out and his fur, which had fallen out in clumps due to stress, grew thick and glossy, and his sore nose healed completely. He understood all the commands and his destructive behaviour stopped. He slept peacefully through the night outside our closed bedroom door, usually curled up in his bed in a crescent shape or comically upside down with his back legs up the wall.

What we could never know about him was his beginnings. He started out in Manchester, and had been abandoned there, so how did he end up in Battersea Old Windsor? What had been done to him that he was in such a state?

So, the big question is, was it all worth it? That’s a resounding yes! Thanks to training, a little doggy psychoanalysis and our love, patience, tolerance and persistence, we had the most wonderful, loving companion for twelve years. Everyone who met Darcy adored him. And, very importantly, Darcy taught us that a loving animal/human companionship is based on mutual trust. We are not and should not try to be their masters.

At the age of fourteen, Darcy became ill with cancer, and so began the saddest part of having a companion animal. But, as with all my stories, there is a psychic twist to this one. Click here to read Part II.

J Merrill Forrest, December 2020

Writing Matters #3: the hospice patient

Real life events inspire my writing, and here is an example from ‘Walk in the Afterlight’. Rainstones House in the novel is a fictional place where one wing is a hospice and the other a residential dementia care home. The hospice scenes in the story are from my experiences being a volunteer at a local hospice a few years ago. I occasionally assisted in the Day Patient Unit, but my main role entailed visiting a patient with a life-limiting illness at their own home. I was assigned to a delightful elderly lady, many years a widow, whose life expectancy was about one year due to stomach cancer. When I started visiting her she was a lively person. Always beautifully dressed, with her nails painted, her hair immaculate, she would sit on the sofa and tell me stories about her life and give her opinions on current events. I so enjoyed our conversations and debates on all sorts of topics. Of course she was frail and the physical changes in her in the time I visited were all too apparent, but after a couple of months I began to notice mental changes too. These were so rapid it seemed that one week she was the lady who looked forward to my visits and the next she seemed not to know me at all. She kept asking who I was and if she owed me money. I had been advised to answer her questions each time as if it was the first time she’d asked me, so I would tell her my name, explain that I came every week, and she didn’t owe me any money. She would accept what I said for a short while and then ask me again. And again. And again.

All too soon she was bed-bound, not knowing who and where she was. Clearly she had dementia, and this could have been the result of the cancer reaching her brain. Whatever caused it, the vibrant lady I had known had completely disappeared and I found myself wondering: ‘where has she gone’?

I was not sad when she died for she had told me early on in our acquaintance that she knew her husband was waiting for her to join him, and she was looking forward to dancing with him again. When the hospice contacted me to tell me of her passing, this is how I chose to think of her.

I never forgot her and as the idea for this novel began to take shape in my mind, the experience with her was the trigger-point. Through extensive research I learned of some intriguing and wonderful theories about what might happen to us when the mind no longer functions but the body goes on living, and this is what the story is about.

ISBN 9780956795441

(Previously published as ‘The Waiting Gate’)

Jane, 28th October 2020