009 Orders From Above: Episode 9 ‘STARdust’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Reverend Hartley Cordwell turned up the volume so the music and words of Linden Lea, one of his favourite Vaughan Williams songs, surged into the small vicarage study and filled the room with beauty. Hartley filled his lungs, opened his chest, and sang along in his rich baritone voice, relishing every word:

Within the woodlands flow’ry gladed / by oak trees mossy root / the shining grass blade timber shaded / now do quiver on the foot

He was sitting at his leather-topped bureau, polishing with a soft, damp cloth the coin Topps had found in the churchyard. It was a very fine piece of work, and as he scraped and buffed the grime away he was getting more and more certain and more and more excited that what he held in his hands was gold. The one side he’d already cleaned was exquisitely patterned with a fantastic bird of paradise perched on a branch of a blossom tree, wings outspread, long tail plumed with curling feathers. Now he was working on the other side.

The dirt on this surface was well ingrained, so he had to use his thumbnail through the cloth to loosen it. Eventually the image emerged of another bird … no … not a bird at all, more like a … yes, it was like a pterodactyl, with a horned head and bat-like wings outstretched, ending in sharp talons. Not a pleasant thing, thought Hartley, singing louder as he turned the coin to polish its smooth edge.

Let other folk make money faster / in the air of dark roomed towns / I do not dread a peevish master / though no man may heed my frowns / for I be free to-

The words abruptly caught in his throat as the coin suddenly started to vibrate, sending a startling sensation swiftly from his thumb to his hand then through his whole arm and into his chest. Hartley cried out and the coin fell, bouncing off his desk and onto the floor. Eyes wide and shaking and flexing his still-tingling hand in an effort to get rid of the pins and needles, Hartley followed its progress as it rolled across the floorboards until it came to rest in front of the filing cabinet.

Gingerly, he rose from his chair and walked the three paces to the cabinet. Hands on hips he stared down at the coin, the gargoyle creature upwards, as still as an inanimate object should be, then bent down and touched it with his fingertip. A low humming sound started to emanate from it as soon as Hartley’s skin made contact and Radio 3 crackled with static which was painful to the ears. Terrified, Hartley dashed to switch the radio off, hardly daring to take his eyes from the gold piece that now seemed to be talking to itself.

It said:

“Heads, I stay.”

in one voice, and at the exact same time, a different, lighter voice said:

“Tails, I stay.”

There was a long silence, then a gentle tingling sound followed by a short silence. Then first voice peevishly exclaimed:

“Damn and blast!”

Hartley stood with his finger still pressed on the off button of his radio. After a few seconds of silence, he carefully lifted his hand and cocked his head. Nothing. He looked around the room, but all was as it had been before.

Before what, exactly?

He lowered himself onto the chair, all the while staring at the golden disc. It lay on the carpet like a … well, like it was an ordinary coin that had fallen from a pocket, not at all like something that hummed and talked and hurt when you touched it.

It clearly was not a valuable artifact, like he had hoped, but a modern and sophisticated device. Some kind of electronic toy perhaps. Yes, that made sense. A toy that when you played with it vibrated and hummed and said ‘heads’ and ‘tails’. Remarkable technology, really.

Disappointed that it wasn’t gold and probably worth very little, he bent to pick it up again. It scorched his fingertips and he snatched his hand back. It started to vibrate again. Fascinated and wondering what else it could do, Hartley waited to see what would happen next. A continuation of the heads and tails game perhaps?

But the coin seemed to grow bigger and bigger and blacker and blacker, until the… the… creature burst from it with an ear-splitting screech, making Hartley yelp in terror and throw his arms over his head in protection.

Like a cat-sized, horn-headed bat it flew around the room, coming so close to Hartley that he felt the breeze from its leathery, rustling wings ruffle his hair. Heart pounding, he grabbed the back of his chair to keep himself from fainting.

At that moment the telephone rang. The noise seemed to distract the creature, and it flew down towards the coin. Hartley watched in disbelief as the creature was sucked back into the coin, feet first.

He let the telephone go through to the answering machine.

*

“Gentlemen, we have a problem.” The Boss regarded his two top agents, one fat, one thin. They stood to attention, hands behinds their backs, their booted feet apart and firmly planted on the deep-pile carpet of his office.

“The DISC has been exposed. This is completely unexpected; we thought there would be time for Nick and Gabe to retrieve and replace it, but somehow the vicar managed to break the protective seal while cleaning it. Fortunately for us, only he has seen it so far, so we need to go in fast and undo the damage.”

“Isn’t Uri on site?” asked the thin man, “Couldn’t he get it back?”

“Yes, he’s there, but he can’t risk doing this in case his position is compromised.”

He pushed an envelope and a burgundy velvet box across the surface of his desk. “Fortunately we have a valid excuse to gain access to the vicar’s house. This is the plan for the DISC’s retrieval and the replacement coin. Sort it out, please, gentlemen, and sort it out now.”

The fat man picked up the box and both men bowed low as they backed out of the office.

*

Hartley’s first thought when the knocker sounded along the hall to where he was still frozen in place in his study, was how he was going to get past the coin to go and answer it. His second thought was to wonder if he was going mad.

Another knock, louder and longer, galvanised him into action. He scooped his leather-bound Bible from the desk drawer and, holding it up in his right hand, he swept the coin up with his left hand and threw it clear across the room and into the open door of the safe. Any other day he would have missed at such a distance.

Two men were on his doorstep, one fat, one thin, wearing blue sweatshirts that carried a gas company logo. The thin man thrust a laminated identity card in front of Hartley’s face.

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but can you confirm that you are Reverend Cordwell and your boiler was recently serviced?”

“Yes, indeed. Is something wrong?”

“I’m afraid, sir, that we’ve been informed by the manufacturer that a faulty part may have been used. We need to check it out and, if necessary, change it. No charge, of course.”

The thin man put his foot on the threshold, “I’m sure you don’t need telling, sir, that gas boiler faults can be deadly.”

Hartley let them in, showing them into the kitchen. “The boiler’s behind that cupboard door. Would you both like a cup of tea?”

The thin man started to say no, but the fat one intervened. “That would be very nice, sir, thank you. Milk and two sugars for us both.”

Hartley set about making a pot of tea, while the thin man removed the cover from his boiler. He hummed and ha-ed for a bit, then said, “Yep, you’ve got one of the faulty valves all right.”

The fat man announced he needed to fetch the replacement part from the van, excused himself, and left the room.

“Well, that’s a relief, I must say.” said Hartley, pouring out the tea. “It’s very good that such a thing can be put right so quickly.”

“Oh, there’s no time wasted when it comes to gas, sir.”

His colleague returned and the two men set to work. Hartley’s telephone rang, and although there was a handset in the kitchen, he didn’t want to take the call there in case it was a private parish matter. He hurried to his study to take it there.

He paused when he saw that the safe was slightly open, for he was certain that he’d closed it. His scalp prickled and, feeling shocked to the core yet again, Hartley spun round to find the two men coming slowly into the study, looking like menacing burglars now instead of cheerful boiler repairmen.  He exclaimed, “You’re not from the gas company! Who are you? How dare you-”

The thin man darted forward and grabbed Hartley, pinning his arms to his sides. He demanded of his colleague in an urgent whisper, “How could you be so careless?”

The fat man, clearly rattled, whispered back, “I wasn’t! The safe mustn’t have locked properly.”

“The Boss is going to be furious. We’ll have to use the Dust, it’s the only way to salvage the situation. Quickly.”

The telephone stopped ringing at last, and Hartley’s answering machine clicked on.

The fat man, looking extremely unhappy now, sprinkled something resembling a shiny blue pepper pot onto a large white handkerchief. When the cloth was clamped over Hartley’s nose and mouth, he was forced to inhale a sweet smell he couldn’t put a name to and the last thing he heard before everything went black was, “I’m so sorry about this, sir, but it’s only STARdust. It creates an alternative reality and is really quite harmless in small doses. You’ll wake up and not remember that any of this happened.”

*

Hartley sat up in bed and opened his eyes to utter darkness. His bedside clock glowed 3 am.

He had a dull headache and a strange, perfumey smell in his nostrils. He sneezed twice. Then again. He had no memory of going to bed. Or of having any dinner before going to bed. He searched his memory and was dismayed not to be able to remember much about the previous day at all. There were fragments, vague foggy images, of what he had done, who he had spoken to, but nothing concrete.

He fought it, but sleep took him back into oblivion, and when he woke up again at his usual time of 6.30, he leapt out of bed full of vitality, his earlier confusion forgotten.

After a hearty cooked breakfast, Hartley settled down in his study. There was one message on his answering machine from yesterday afternoon, which surprised him as he’d been home so how could he have missed it, but it wasn’t of great importance. Once it had been dealt with, Hartley switched on the radio, and set about cleaning the coin that Topps had found with a soft, damp cloth. The grime came off easily and as he buffed away he became more and more certain and more and more excited that the coin was gold. He fetched his Antique & Collectible Coins and Medals from bookshelf and flipped through it until he spotted a picture that very much resembled the coin in his hand, Double Florin from the reign of Edward III. It was exceptionally rare, he read, and could be worth a lot of money. He could barely breathe with excitement, thinking what he could do with the windfall the coin might bring.

He heard the back door open and close, followed by footsteps on the tiled kitchen floor. He smiled at the sounds of the kettle being filled at the tap, then moments later Lorelei popped her pretty head round the door.

“Hello, Uncle. Kettle’s on and I’ve brought some scones and clotted cream.”

“Wonderful,” answered Hartley. “I’ll be right there.” He put the coin back in the safe.

By the time he entered the kitchen, Lorelei had placed a pot of tea, jug of milk, plates, knives and spoons on the table with the scones, and was pulling off the lid of the cream carton.

“Lorelei-”

“Have you got any jam, Uncle?”

“Um, no, only marmalade, I’m afraid. Look, Lorelei, there’s somethi-”

“Oh, marmalade’s no good. Let me have a look in the fridge.” Lorelei crossed the kitchen to the huge, ultra-modern American-style fridge, so out of place in the old-fashioned kitchen with its mismatched drawers and cabinets. She moved a few jars about, muttering, “Ploughman’s relish… pesto … tomato puree … mustard … ah, this’ll do!” She pulled out a jar of cranberry sauce and peered at the label. “This isn’t from Christmas, is it?”

He decided he’d have to wait until she was less distracted to tell her about the coin. “No, no, it’s quite fresh. I like it with ham.”

“Ah, well, it’s sweet so I can’t see why it won’t go with scones and butter too. Tuck in, Uncle, I’ll pour the tea.”

Hartley took a scone. He didn’t think he’d have an appetite after the sausage, eggs and bacon he’d had, but found he was ravenous and devoured one of the scones in short order. He drank some tea, then reached for another scone and liberally coated it with butter and a spoonful of cranberry sauce. “I must say, this makes an excellent substitute for strawberry jam.”

Lorelei was still nibbling at her first scone. She was always popping round with cakes and goodies, but she barely ate any of them herself. Lorelei interrupted his thoughts as she said, “Something’s up, Uncle, I can see it in your aura.”

“My aura? Oh, Lorelei, really!” Hartley frowned as he always did at Lorelei’s new age notions.

“Well it’s true! I can see auras, you know.” She narrowed her eyes and traced the outline of his head, “And yours is most definitely excited. I’m right, aren’t I?”

He grinned. “As it happens, I am rather excited about something, but you don’t need to see auras to know that, Lorelei, I’ve been trying to tell you since I came in here.”

She laughed. “Sorry, Uncle, you have my full attention now. Tell me what it is that has your aura glowing so beautifully?”

She fixed him with her beautiful green eyes, and Hartley decided not to get into one of their debates. They had opposing ideas, and sometimes it was easier to each let the other believe what they believed. “I think the coin that Topps dug up may be gold – and very valuable, if my book is anything to go by.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I do hope you’re right, Uncle, it would please Topps no end, and give you some money for church repairs.”

Hartley replied. “Oh, yes, he would be delighted. Well, I think he would be, I’ve never actually seen him display a happy emotion. Remember those bits of pottery he found last year? He hovered over me while I cleaned them, and then I found a maker’s mark, which clearly said, ‘Made in China’. I couldn’t help laughing, but he just stomped off in a huff.”

Lorelei giggled. “I can just imagine it. Can I see the coin, Uncle?”

“Of course, my dear. Let me fetch it from the safe.”

He returned with it and the book and handed them to Lorelei, holding his breath as she compared the coin to the photograph he pointed to.

“Gosh, yes, it might be. Oh, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? Such a shame there’s only the one, though.”

“Topps explored all around the area where he found it in case it turned out to be a hoard of buried treasure, but this was it. The Heritage Centre will be able to tell us what it is and what it’s worth. When will you be going?”

“Thursday afternoon.” Her eyes gleamed with humour as she held the coin up to the light and said, “Hey, do you think I’ll need an armed guard?”

“Heavens, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were that valuable? We could get something done about the damp in the vestry. Now, how about another cup of tea, is there enough in the pot?”

While Lorelei poured, she asked, “How’s the replacement Topps getting on? He seems very friendly – I saw him outside digging up the rose bed and he called out hello.”

Hartley smiled, “I must say, I rather like him. He plays chess, for a start, and very well at that; I haven’t been able to beat him yet. He has his own set – a beautiful thing of all kinds of wood that he said he’d made himself. And he talks.”

“Ah, well, that’s certainly different to old taciturn Topps.” She sipped her tea. “What’s his name again?”

Hartley chuckled. “Uri. Sounds Russian, doesn’t it? I’ve asked him about himself, but he’s rather adept at not give much away, so I don’t know where he’s from or if he has family other than Topps. He wears these blue-tinted glasses that make it difficult to see his eyes – that makes a person very hard to read, don’t you think, if you can’t see their eyes?”

“I’ll have a close look at his aura – you can’t disguise that, Uncle.”

Hartley ignored her. “But he’s very well read. I was talking about Sunday’s sermon with him last week, and it turns out he knows as much about the Bible as I do. And he has some fascinating ideas on all sorts of subjects – history, science, art. I must say, I’ll miss him when Topps comes back from his holiday.”

“I’m glad it’s worked out, then; I know you were worried about losing Topps even for a short while.” Lorelei glanced at her watch. “Oh no, look at the time! I really must be going. I’ve got someone coming about a pet portrait – an eighteen-foot python, of all things – and I want to get to the shops first.”

“A python? Good heavens, Lorelei, mind you don’t get too close!”

“I’ll make sure it’s been fed before I go anywhere near it! Now then, what about the coin?”

“Just let me wrap it up. Mind you keep it safe, now, it could be worth a lot of money.”

Lorelei looked affronted and Hartley apologised.

She kissed him on the cheek, and he watched her while she walked the short distance to her cottage by the green.

Hartley’s attention was then caught by the arrival of dozens of colourful and noisy birds landing on the beautiful feeders that Uri had brought with him. He’d told Hartley that woodwork was his hobby, and, if the vicar didn’t mind, he’d like to set up a workshop behind Topps’s cottage. Having seen the bird-feeders and the garden bench fashioned from a single piece of burr oak, Hartley had had no hesitation in agreeing.

Uri was still out there, at the bottom of the long garden, his back to the vicarage, digging the borders with a large fork. Birds were cheekily hopping on the newly turned soil, pulling up worms. As if he knew Hartley was looking, he turned and touched his forefinger to the flat cap perched on his thatch of black curly hair. For no reason he could discern, Hartley shivered.

Episode 10: the most expensive coffee in the world

~~~~~

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008 Orders From Above: Episode 8 ‘Angel Falls Mill’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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The mill had more holes than tiles in its roof and nature had all but taken over its interior, but Nigel fell instantly in love with it. As he photographed the old building, noting that the water wheel still looked pretty sound, plans for its renovation and eventual resurrection as a restaurant set his mind spinning with possibilities. He could hardly believe that he’d landed the job of buying and restoring it! But he told himself he mustn’t jump ahead, he had yet to make the purchase, and there was a long way to go before he’d have the joy of drawing up plans and hiring builders.

He knew from his mysterious client the name of the woman who owned it, but thought it would be imprudent to say so to his sharp-eyed, self-appointed tour guide. Still clicking away with his camera, he said, “Stanley, do you know who owns this?”

“Oh, aye, sir, that be Miss Violet Cattermole.”

Nigel didn’t miss the disdainful curl in the old man’s lip as he said the name, but it didn’t dim his excitement.

“Could you tell me where she lives, is she in the village?”

“Aye, she still be ’ere. I’ll take you back to the green and show you ’er ’ouse, if you like?”

Hardly able to believe his luck, Nigel grinned and replied, “That would be excellent, Stanley, thank you.”

The old man whistled for his dog and the trio retraced their steps to the village green. Stanley strolled over to the bench and swiftly strapped his sandwich boards back on. When they were settled on his shoulders he said, “I’ll leave you ’ere, sir, if I may. That there be Miss Cattermole’s place, the one with the green door.”

Nigel, his mind bent on what Violet Cattermole might have to say to his proposal, put out his hand to offer a friendly shake but remembered in time the unhygienic state of Stanley and hastily shoved both hands in his pockets. “I’m so glad we met, and I’m sure we will meet again as I’m certain to be back again soon.”

The old man, making no move to bid Nigel farewell and walk away, pursed his lips and fixed his beady eyes on Nigel’s face. Digby daintily stepped forward and pushed his long nose into Nigel’s thigh, as if reminding Nigel of something important.

“Oh! Oh, I do apologise, my mind was … well, sorry …” Nigel pulled out his wallet, not sure how much to give his guide. He had very little change and only £10 and £20 notes, so it would have to be a tenner. It would go on his expenses, anyway. “Perhaps you could get a tin of something nice for Digby?” Nigel said, leaning down to stroke the dog’s ears. The dark black coat flecked with grey and ginger was rough, but the ears, almost black in colour, were like velvet. Digby gruffled with pleasure as Nigel scratched, then as if hearing an unspoken word from Stanley, he ran to his master and Nigel walked them amble in the direction of the church.

Before going to see if Violet Cattermole was at home Nigel decided a large glass of something cold would be just the thing after his long walk round the village. But when he got to the Blacksmith’s Anvil, a fine old building with two bay windows either side of the half-glazed double doors, he was disappointed to find it closed. He read the black-edged sign on the door announcing the pub would re-open the next day, and remembered that the recent funeral had had some connection to the landlord.

It would have been a pleasant place to while away an hour or so before seeing Miss Cattermole, and also a great place to meet a few of the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold, but clearly that would have to wait for another time. In the window were several notices, one of them saying that they had rooms to rent, shared bathroom, meals extra. Nigel made a note of the telephone number then read the printed menu: chicken and chips, ham and chips, pie and chips, sausage and chips, ploughman’s lunch with Stilton or cheddar cheese, chips an optional extra. Such simple fare certainly wouldn’t offer any competition to the high class restaurant Nigel envisaged his client would offer at the Mill.

With a sigh, Nigel decided not to return to the cafe and more of Debbie’s breathless and unpunctuated speech so he trudged to Violet’s cottage. Maybe she would invite him in and offer him a cup of tea.

It was a handsome cottage, slate-roofed where it must once have been thatched, original diamond-paned windows, oak-timbered, the planes and surfaces of the walls charmingly uneven. Just the sort of cottage Amelia would love, Nigel thought, as he rapped sharply on the dark green door and waited.

And waited.

Deeply disappointed, he glanced around, but there was no-one to ask where Violet might be. He rooted in his pockets for pen and paper to write her a note.

“Would you be looking for Miss Violet Cattermole?”

Startled, for how could someone have appeared so suddenly, Nigel fumbled and dropped his pen. “Er, yes. Yes, I am.” He retrieved the pen and smiled sheepishly back at the grinning man in the sharply creased red trousers and plaid shirt who had addressed him. There was something familiar about him, something in his stature and bearing, the curly dark hair and perfect teeth… only Nigel couldn’t place it. The eyes were hidden behind blue lenses, but Nigel could tell that the man was amused by something. By him? Gosh, that expression, that feeling, was so familiar, but try as he might, Nigel couldn’t remember where he’d experienced it before.

“She’s in the shop,” the man informed him. “She’ll be gossiping, knowing Violet, so you might want to go and meet her rather than wait on her doorstep. I’m on my way there myself.”

Nigel thought the little village store and Post Office would be a good place to go, not only in the hope of meeting Miss Violet Cattermole, but he could also buy a local newspaper and some sweets for the journey home. He fell into step beside the man.

When they entered the shop the woman behind the counter glanced with curiosity at Nigel, then beamed at the other man and cheerily greeted him, “Hello, Uri! How are you?”

Nigel watched Uri stroll to the back of the shop to get whatever he’d come in for, still racking his brain as to why he found him so familiar. It was like a brain-itch he just couldn’t scratch.

A poke in the ribs brought his attention back and a gravelly voice wrapped out, with strange clicking noises that reminded him of Scrabble tiles in a cloth bag, “You’re not from around here. I saw you walking about with that tramp Trout. Where you from, eh?”

Nigel looked a considerable way down onto a black straw hat with a large pink flower on one side. Beneath the brim two eyes, as small and black as currants, glared up at him. He smiled and gave his rehearsed speech that he was searching the locality for a property to develop, and he’d just seen the old ruined mill.

The woman pursed her thin lips, as if she’d just sucked a lemon. “Is that right?”

Nigel had an uncanny feeling that this was the woman he sought. “You wouldn’t be Miss Cattermole by any chance, would you?”

In the face of an implacable stare, much like Stanley’s, Nigel waffled on, “Only I was told that the mill belonged to a lady called Violet Cattermole.”

“Well, some would question that she’s a lady,” the woman cackled. “Interested in my mill, then, are you?”

“Well, I’d certainly like to discuss the possibilities.”

By now two more women had come into the shop and they and the shop owners behind the counter were listening with interest to this exchange.

“And just what would you do with it?” The old lady rummaged in the large brown bag looped over her elbow and pulled out a wrapped toffee. She removed the paper, popped the sweet into her mouth and started ferociously chewing and sucking on it with a lot of unpleasant noises.

Nigel baulked at doing business with this formidable old biddy, but, just like dealing with the dreadful Mrs. Bingley, it was something he would have to do. He said, “Well, as I said, I’m a developer. I’ve been hired to locate a suitable building for a top-class restaurant with a few luxury bedrooms. I’d need to do some surveys, of course, but from what I’ve seen so far the mill has lots of potential and is in a magnificent location.”

“A restaurant!” the old lady barked, as if he’d said he was going to open a brothel. She swallowed the remains of the toffee, but there were remnants of it stuck around her front teeth.

“Naturally, it would be sympathetically restored and renovated by local craftsmen. The water wheel looks as if it could easily be restored to working order. It would offer employment, and bring visitors to the village who might also spend their money in the shops here.” Nigel found himself getting excited just talking about it.

A man introducing himself as Arnold Capsby, owner of the store, spoke up, “The café does food, and so does the pub, as well as bed and breakfast. You’d be taking business away from them.”

“Well, I’ve eaten in the café and I’ve seen from the pub menu that it provides good, basic food, which I’m sure is wonderful, and which many people will continue to want. But the restaurant would offer a very different kind of menu. And the café is closed in the evenings, so there would be no loss of customers to them. There’d be just a few rooms, which would suit tourists who want to visit all the wonderful places around here – after all, Bath isn’t very far away, or Salisbury – but there will still be those who’d prefer bed and breakfast in a pub.”

There was a murmur of agreement, then Arnold said, “Violet, why don’t you tell this nice gentleman what he needs to know.”

Violet folded her arms across her chest in an adversarial posture, which didn’t quite come off because of her tiny stature, and declared. “I am indeed Violet Cattermole, young man, and I own the mill. A restaurant, eh? Well it won’t come cheap, I can tell you that.”

Nigel, trying to ignore the over-large, toffee-covered dentures, bowed his head slightly. “Well, I’m delighted to make your acquaintance Miss Cattermole.”

She said nothing, and Nigel tried not to feel rattled by her black, rather calculating gaze. She didn’t even blink.

“Er… right, then. My name is Nigel Hellion-Rees. I have to get back to my office in London now and consult with my client, but perhaps you would be kind enough to give me your telephone number so I can telephone you to discuss things further?”

“Well, you’re polite, I’ll give you that.” Violet turned to the plump woman standing next to Arnold at the counter, “Olive, write down my address and phone number.” She did not say please or thank you, that clearly wasn’t her way, but Olive did as she was asked. Everyone followed the piece of paper as it was handed to Nigel and stowed in his wallet, then Violet harrumphed and stalked out of the shop. It seemed to Nigel that the atmosphere immediately lifted with her departure. Nigel selected a local newspaper, a bar of chocolate and a small bag of pink and yellow pear drops and took them to the counter. Olive took his money and counted out his change.

“A restaurant?” she said, with a friendly smile. “It would certainly be nice to see that old mill brought back to life, wouldn’t it Arnold?”

Her husband nodded, “Aye, that it would.” He turned to Nigel. “It’s one of the oldest buildings in the village, apart from the church. Violet and her sister were born and raised there. Violet never married, and when Hilda moved to Merryvale’s Farm, it was agreed that Violet should have the mill.”

Olive finished the story: “Unfortunately its upkeep was beyond her, and Violet felt isolated on that side of the river, especially when the bridge all but collapsed. Then the mill was so badly damaged in the hurricane of 1987, Violet had to move out, and she bought a cottage in the centre of the village. Since then the mill’s been left to nature, sorry to say.”

Arnold took up the story. “I don’t think she’s ever been back there since she moved out. We’ve all said at one time or another what a shame it is that a piece of history should be allowed to decay, but no-one’s actually done anything about it. Too expensive, I suppose.”

Olive leaned forward on the counter. “And you really think you could make something of it?”

“Oh yes,” said Nigel, making a mental note to check out the hurricane and all the other strange disasters that had befallen this little village, “Something wonderful could most definitely be done with it. So I’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure.”

As he left the shop, someone grabbed the door before Nigel could close it and Uri stepped out into the street close behind him. He was so close Nigel could just about see his eyes through the blue lenses, and knew for certain that the man found something – probably Nigel himself – rather amusing. If only he could remember where he’d encountered something like this before!

Next episode: stardust

~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

~~~~~~

J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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

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

I lasted precisely one year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong I was!

~~~

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

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five or six sessions on just one poem? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Forrest …….. Pass …….. 2:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future looked bright.

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

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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Reason to Believe Episode 9: a dream come true

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever you prefer,” replied Dr Martin.

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

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

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

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

What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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Reason to Believe Episode 8: no going back and an enigmatic message

To read all of the previous episodes please go to Reason to Believe

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I was battered and bruised, but getting the brown belt was a huge achievement and I felt on top of the world. Well, almost, for there was one major thing dragging me down day after day: I simply wasn’t happy at home. It was now obvious that my marriage could not endure. We had, like so many couples, simply grown apart. Since my brother’s death I had changed dramatically, we were spending less and less time in each other’s company, and when we were together we either had very little to say or we argued.

The premonition I’d had standing on the concrete foundation in February came true in September, when I packed my personal things in black bin bags, left a letter on the mantelpiece, and fled to my mum in Wales.

All the way along the M4 I kept saying to myself that I should turn back while there was still time to tear up the letter before my husband saw it. But each time I approached a junction and tried to decide whether to take the exit, there was an answering voice urging me to keep going. “Look ahead to your life at 40, 50 and how it will be if you go back,” the voice said. “To be the person you want to be you must be free.”

Eventually I accepted that there was no going back, and I crossed the old Severn Bridge and kept going for another 120 miles.

My mum was so shocked to see me on her doorstep, but she and my stepdad helped me through those first miserable days, allowing me time and space to gather my thoughts and my resolve for when I returned to deal with the fallout.

On my second day there I went to one of my favourite places in the whole world, Marloes Sands in Pembrokeshire. It’s a long climb down on a narrow cliff path to reach the sands and rocks, and this was a very windy day so the sea was wild and beautiful, just as I like it – and I was completely alone.

marloes sands

As I walked I allowed my thoughts to wander, and, as in quite a few occasions in my life, I was somehow allowed to know a few things about my future: I would not return to my husband; I would marry again; I would not have children; I would find supreme happiness.

I felt sad about never becoming a mother, but if the choices I made now led to ‘supreme happiness’ then that would do for me!

My husband pleaded with me to move back in and go with him to Relate. I agreed to the counselling, but was adamant that I wanted a divorce. I was very lucky in having a little one-bedroom flat to live in at my dad’s house. He had built it in the 1970’s for my gran, and it had been empty since her death the year before my brother died. Dad was happy for me to stay there while I sorted myself out, and I was immensely grateful for it.

I had expected my family and friends to be shocked that I had walked out on my husband, but it surprised me to discover that they had merely been wondering what had taken me so long!

And no-one wondered more so than my dad.

Imagine this scenario. You’re standing at the church door in your wedding finery, ready to make your grand entrance. Your father, who is about to walk you down the aisle, turns to you, clasps your hands, and, looking deep into your eyes, says, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Now, looking back, I laugh to think what would have happened if I had gathered up my dress, turned on my white satin heels and fled, leaving Dad to make the announcement that there would be no wedding!

divorce pic

 

The marital home sold quickly, we managed to keep things amicable while we dealt with solicitors and came to an agreement that allowed a clean break. The divorce was granted in August 1990. On the day I received the decree absolute, a rather stark and boring piece of paper considering its importance, I reverted to my maiden name.

 

 

In the meantime I had also come to the end of my karate journey. I was extremely underweight and emotionally drained, and just didn’t have the strength or the will to go on training at such a high level. My concentration was so bad that I risked injury every time I entered the Dojo, and that wasn’t fair on my sparring partners. It was hard to concede, but knowing that a black belt was truly beyond me, I had no choice but to give it up.

img20180619_12483652Over the next two years I settled into life as a singleton, working as a PA, enjoying my social life, meeting new people. I bought a new flat within walking distance of my dad’s house, and I found love again.

 

Throughout it all, the highs and the lows, I took comfort from knowing my brother watched over me, just as he’d always looked out for me when we were children. But then, just as I was feeling settled for the first time in ages and thinking I had my life sorted, something weird and totally unexpected shook me up all over again!

I was driving home from an evening out with friends. It was dark. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, but a sudden sensation, like walking through thick, sticky cobwebs made me squirm in my seat. Without warning, my brother’s voice, clear as day, spoke into my left ear: “I have to go now, Sis. You’ll know me when you see me again.”

Staggered, I gripped the wheel and whipped my head to the side, certain I’d see my brother sitting in the seat beside me. There was no-one there, but I knew I’d heard him.

“Stephen,” I begged, as I tried at the same time to concentrate on the road, “What do you mean?”

But there was no reply. The feeling of being smothered in cobwebs was gone and I was left frustrated and struggling to understand what had just happened.

It wasn’t my imagination, I am positive about that. I hadn’t even been thinking about him. So why, now, had I been able to hear him? In the seven years since his death I had not once heard his voice; he had communicated only through psychic mediums. The shock of hearing his voice this way had jarred me to my soul, and I wondered if I’d missed something, some vital clue to this brief and enigmatic message.

With relief, I arrived home safely and parked in front of my flat. For what felt like an hour I just there, stock still, staring out of the window, my mind spinning and racing with possibilities. I didn’t know much about reincarnation back then, but I wondered if this was a possibility. Would Stephen come back as a different person in my lifetime and somehow I would recognise him as my brother?

I was left with nothing but tantalising questions: Why and where was he going? How would I know him again?

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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