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.

view of rhul quad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong I was!

~~~

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

~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five or six sessions on just one poem? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Forrest …….. Pass …….. 2:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future looked bright.

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

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

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Reason to Believe Episode 9: a dream come true

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever you prefer,” replied Dr Martin.

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

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

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

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

What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

~~~

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.

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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!

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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?

~~~~~~

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 7: the inner voice that would not be silenced

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

~~~

Our new home was finished and ready for occupation at the beginning of July, 1989. I was so ready for the move, to leave the house that held the unhappy memory of our moving-in day being also the day my brother died.

We closed the door for the last time and my husband went off in his car to deliver the keys to the estate agent and I set off in mine to collect our new keys from the sales office and to await the arrival of the removal van.

Half an hour later I was opening our new front door and stepping into the empty, echoing hallway.

bramley green

I tried to feel excited, but knew that the butterflies fluttering inside me were really due to the feeling I had had when standing on the foundation slab just a few months ago. If the premonition, if that’s what it had been, was correct, I would not long be resident in this house.

In my heart I knew the why it could prove to be true, but I just didn’t want to focus on that, or contemplate the possibility that there would be a when.

The house was one of five built in a horseshoe shape in a snug little close on the edge of the small housing estate, and we were the last to move in. It turned out we were all like-minded people, so soon we were visiting each other’s new homes, having drinks in our yet-to-be-landscaped gardens, and getting to know each other. I loved the house and the area: beautiful countryside for rambles and picnics, lovely neighbours, useful shops and a pretty pub nearby — but the nagging sensation, the ‘knowing’ I couldn’t talk about or explain, the overwhelming feeling that I was in the wrong place in so many ways was getting stronger day by day.

My stomach was in a constant state of ‘churn’, my turmoil not helped by the awful, gut-wrenching knowledge that I was keeping inside. I was rapidly losing weight.

The bitter truth that I was trying so hard to fight – that I no longer loved my husband – could not be denied, but facing up to the consequences of leaving, the appalling upheaval and misery that decision would cause, was too much. I knew I didn’t want to be married any more, but the alternative, so soon after moving into our beautiful new home, was just too much to handle. I continued to keep silent, hoping my feelings would change.

I needed a distraction and, thankfully, karate fit the bill perfectly. I continued to go to the club twice a week and the discipline and focus needed throughout each two hour session silenced my thoughts. There were comments about my weight, though, and my karate trousers had to be tightened and tightened so they didn’t fall from my waist and puddle round my ankles!

Two months after moving, the day dawned to draw on all my courage and take the brown belt grading. I had completed the other grades with relative ease, but I was warned by those who had already achieved it that the brown belt was going to be much, much harder. By now I was a mess emotionally with everything I was keeping inside, so I entered the Dojo (training hall) with trepidation.

This is what I had to do to pass the elite brown belt test: five hours of gruelling exercise, non-stop punch bags, running, star jumps, sit ups and examinations — when you weren’t in front of the examining Sensei you had to keep moving – so it was seriously hard going. I performed all my katas (set-pattern movements) successfully, and every one I completed correctly moved me on and up to the big moment: sparring with two men at the same time who wore the coveted black belts. I was already exhausted by the time I stepped up and bowed to my opponents, but I would simply have to overcome it because these two huge black belts were still fit and raring to go! I weighed less than 8 stone, they were enormous, barrel-chested and, if not for the sparkle of humour and goodwill in their eyes, very intimidating.

But karate is not about hurting people, it’s about discipline in defence, so even though you get bruises on shins and forearms, the movements should flow like a dance so that any potentially harmful blows can be blocked. I thought I was doing pretty well, fending off the other two and getting some good moves in. But suddenly I was caught off guard and an unseen kick jabbed me in the stomach and completely knocked the wind out of me.

Down I went, like the proverbial sack of potatoes.

I could hear the black belt who had kicked me whispering ‘sorry,’ but that wasn’t helping. I was in a heap on the floor, in pain and gasping for breath, and my Sensei was counting me down. If I didn’t stand up and complete the grading, I was OUT!

Could I do it?

The two black belts were quietly imploring, their lips barely moving, “Come on, Jane, come on. Don’t give up! Just another minute to go! Get up and finish it! GET UP!”

My Sensei announced, “Five seconds…four…three…” His voice was measured and calm, but I could feel his eyes boring into me, willing me to find the strength to get up before my time ran out.

I could sense the energy in the Dojo, I could feel the other students willing me to move, to stand up and carry on, and for the first and only time in my life I literally saw red. I had not come this far, trained so hard, to fail in the last few seconds of the grading. I convinced myself I didn’t really need breath to haul myself up, so I got to my feet using the ‘red in my head’ to fuel my determination and I launched a roundhouse kick at the black belt to my left. He parried and blocked, but with low voices, both men encouraged me and guided me through the remaining time until at last we were called to a halt.

Exhausted, every muscle trembling and my face flaming with exertion, I stood between the black belts, a skinny, five foot nothing 32-year-old between two giants. The man who had kicked me held me steady with a firm grip on my belt at my back as we made our bows.

All that was left was the Award Ceremony. Had I made it? We all sat cross-legged on the wooden floor and, demanding the torture of patience, the awards started with the lower grades and worked upwards. As each name was called, the person stood and bowed while the decision was given and I cheered with everyone else as every pass was announced.

I could hardly breathe waiting for my own name, and when at last it came I struggled to my feet again.

I felt rather sick from the winding, my ribs aching, but I bowed low, keeping my back straight. When I came upright again and looked at Sensei he was grinning as he announced that I had done it!

The brown belt was mine and I think the cheers that greeted my achievement was the loudest of the day, because everyone had witnessed just how hard I had fought for it!

brown belt certificate name obscured

But the euphoria could only carry me so far, and as I drove home in high elation my heart was telling me what I really needed to do.

And I needed to do it soon.

~~~~~~

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 6: a life-changing birthday, a new hobby, a big question

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

~~~

The weeks and months following that visit to the Spiritualist Church slid by. I finally plucked up the courage to tell Dad about the messages from Stephen and how I’d first learned about my Great Uncle Benny, and after a short silence, he said he wanted to see a psychic medium himself!

I was so surprised by his reaction. I had expected anger, disbelief, even ridicule, but now I was tasked with setting up a reading for him. I chose a woman in Maidenhead who had been highly recommended by quite a few people, and booked a reading for both of us. When we arrived at her red brick maisonette in Maidenhead, a large woman with dyed red hair looked from me to Dad and back again and, pointing to Dad, said “You first.” As she led him into another room she turned to me and said, “Go for a walk and come back in an hour.”

When I duly returned I entered the maisonette expecting to have my reading, but Dad was sitting, silent and white-faced, in the tiny hallway and the medium suggested I take him straight home. “You don’t need anything from me,” she said, “but your Dad has a lot to think about.”

Dad never told me what went on in that reading.

Saying that life goes on has become a cliché, but it’s true. Suddenly, it was 1987. My husband and I were settled in the house, I was busy at work and having a fun social life, but my mind was in a constant whirl about supernatural matters. I was enthralled, totally hooked by the subject, and I was reading every book about life after death I could lay my hands on. I went back to the Spiritualist Church a few times and visited psychic fairs and similar events, places I could talk to mediums and learn more about their world.

Everything I read and experienced cemented my new belief that there is an Afterlife, and that our loved ones can communicate with us if they so choose and if we are in the right environment for them to do so. They would do their part if they could but we had to do ours too. However, nothing much more was happening directly to me. After the exhilaration of those first few astonishing messages from my brother, he seemed to grow silent and everything felt like a giant anti-climax. I felt flat, and in truth, disappointed and let down. How selfish that sounds! But a milestone birthday was approaching and I knew I had to find something else to focus on. My best friend Jane was concerned that I was too wrapped up in it all, to the point that she insisted on coming with me to various meetings and events as my protector! Clearly I needed something that would keep my feet firmly on the ground while I digested all I had learned, even though I was still secretly yearning for more.

The answer came in an advert in the local newspaper. It was something I’d always wanted to try: karate. That would focus my mind and steady me!

My husband laughed when I’d said I wanted to try martial arts and scoffed that I wouldn’t last more than a month. He could have been right, but how would I know if I didn’t try?

The club met twice a week, and I loved it from the very beginning. It felt wonderful to don my Gi (the suit of white jacket and trousers) every session, wrapping the obi (narrow fabric belt) twice around my waist and tying it in the required way before stepping barefoot into the Dojo (training hall). I loved the rituals: bowing on entering and leaving the dojo, bowing to the Sensei (leader) and my fellow students, a clenched fist of the right hand into the open palm of the left. We always did these respectful rituals before commencing practice fighting or performing katas, which are patterns of movement performed solo or with a partner. We had to learn several Japanese words, terms and numbers in order to follow the Sensei’s commands.

How proud I was that by the end of that first year I had passed the first two gradings, earning the right to sew first one then two black bands, called tabs, onto the ends of my white obi.

karate passport

While my karate was keeping my mind and body busy and active, other things were going on at home. By the end of the year we had decided to place our house on the market, and had put a deposit down for a detached house, still to be built, on a much smaller estate twelve miles away. I looked forward to once again choosing the tiles, kitchen cupboard doors and carpets of a brand new home, and watching it rise from the ground until it was ready for us to live in.

But before then, it would be my 30th birthday, and this really turned my thoughts inward, for this was the age my brother had been when he died. In fact, he’d lived for exactly 30 years and 57 days.

Fifty-seven days after my birthday happened to be Christmas, and while I joined in the family celebrations, a very difficult question was going round and round in my mind and would not be silenced: if I were to die this day, would I die happy?

The conclusions I came to did not sit comfortably with me at all, but I kept them to myself and cheered with everyone else as 1987 rolled into 1988.

I kept my focus on the sale of our house, gradually packing our possessions into boxes, and planning new furniture and furnishings when we moved. In early February, we learned that the foundations and ground floor slab had been laid and we went there immediately to have a look. My husband had some questions about the build, but I wanted to see the spaces we would live in, the views we would have, and feel the energy of the new place. He went to the sales office to ask his questions, and I walked alone to the concrete rectangle that was the footprint of our soon-to-be new home. Other houses around ours were rising rapidly from the ground, like mushrooms after rain, and the site was filled with the noise of hammers, saws, builders calling to one another, whistling and singing along to a radio that was playing pop music full blast.

I turned a slow circle in the centre of the slab, my breath pluming in the wintry air. It seemed so small, but I knew that was deceptive and I tried to imagine the rooms built, the walls, doors and windows in place, our furniture neatly placed.

Then, as if by divine request, the opening bars of a favourite song of mine* blared across the building site. I stood stock still, the hair inexplicably rising on my neck and my arms inside my thick coat. I stood facing where the front door would be and raised my eyes to a line of trees in the distance, their bare branches stark against the grey sky. Thoughts I’d been suppressing for a very long time careered into the forefront of my mind, and I had to stop myself from crying out.

I closed my eyes tight, willing the thoughts and images to go away, but when I opened them again it was as if a thick fog had descended and formed an unbreachable wall around me. All sound was muffled except for that song, and two particular lines seemed to echo over and over again, as if the singer of the band was sending me a message: ‘It’s the final countdown’ and ‘Will things ever be the same again?’

All at once I knew. I just knew without a shadow of a doubt, that I would not be living in this house for very long.

 

*The song is ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe and this is the official video of it on youtube:

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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 4: first contact

To read previous episodes click on the links:

Episode 1     Episode 2     Episode 3

Bob asked everyone if they’d return to the other room so he could concentrate and make a clear connection with my brother. Bewildered, tearful with shock and, it must be said, fear, I trailed behind the other guests and once again took my seat in the circle. Everyone could sense how I felt and offered smiles and words of encouragement. Someone pressed a clean handkerchief into my hand. Determined to keep my expression neutral yet with my heart full of hope, I levelled my gaze at Bob, determined to hold onto a little scepticism so I wouldn’t be taken in by him ‘fishing’ for information or cold-reading me.

With a big grin he started by saying, “I can see Stephen very clearly. You look alike.”

An easy assumption to make, I thought, but I said nothing.

“But he’s laughing and telling me that your eyes are different and there’s something significant about your hair. It’s a bit of an in-joke between you.”

OK, now that caught my attention! I waited for Bob to elaborate.

“Your brother’s eyes are blue, yours are brown. His hair is very curly and you, I can see, also have curly hair, but he’s telling me that your hair is naturally straight. He’s saying that he tried to straighten his, and you have yours curled? Is that the joke?”

Spot on! Stephen hated his thick curly hair and at night used to put strips of Sellotape on it and a tight-fitting knitted hat over his head in the hope that he could straighten it. I, on the other hand, have fine, straight hair and spent a fortune having it permed! I was pretty jealous of his blue eyes, too.

steve & me montage

Bob went on to provide little glimpses into our childhood, such as board games like Monopoly played with red dice (Monopoly was one of our favourites) and having fun with friends in a nearby park. That I loved school and reading while he only wanted to play football. Then he followed up with details about my brother’s illness, his home and family, the chair in which he felt most comfortable, the caged birds he kept, the bottle of lemonade that was always to hand.

I was spellbound, but there was more to come. Bob started to rub his head with the fingertips of his left hand, in a gesture that was exactly like my brother’s.

“All those curls fell out because of the chemotherapy,” he said. “Your brother is showing me at his worst now. Very thin. Skin almost yellow. He needs a wheelchair.” Bob hesitated, his head on one side as if listening. “He tells of a cricket bat kept in an under-stairs cupboard. Now he’s showing me a chocolate cake. He says this means something to you.”

By now I am sobbing my eyes out. Everything Bob is telling me is so accurate. I might have mentioned Stephen’s curly hair and blue eyes to my work colleague, and she might have told her mother who in turn told Bob, but I hadn’t spoken about us playing Monopoly when we were little, or the games of cricket in the back garden. Nor had I ever mentioned Stephen’s dislike of school, his love of birds, or that he always kept a bottle of room-temperature lemonade to hand when he was ill. And the significance of the chocolate cake? We shared one the last time I saw him alive. It made Stephen feel a little sick, but he’d enjoyed the indulgence.

How could Bob know so much? Either he was reading my mind – quite a talent in itself – or he truly was communicating with my brother. And he wasn’t finished yet.

Bob said that I’d asked Stephen to promise that he would come and see my new house.

“He didn’t make it in life,” Bob said, “But he has been there. Oh yes,” he chuckled when he saw the look on my face. “It was your brother moving things and doing things to get your attention. He tells me as additional proof that he has visited your house and he’s seen that you have a red plant on your window sill.”

Astonished, I confirmed that there was, indeed, a pot plant on the window sill of the dining room. I didn’t know what it was called, but it did have red stems and leaves.

I had been shaking my head in awe and wondering if there might be even more evidence forthcoming when Bob surprised me yet again. “There’s someone else here, a young man who died in the war.” I didn’t recognise this person and assumed this was for one of the others in the group. I have to admit I was a little resentful that he was interrupting my brother’s communication!

But Bob insisted he was a relative of mine and identified him as Benny. Bob thought it confusing that Benny had appeared wearing a sailor’s uniform yet was showing him an aircraft.

“I see bombs on trolleys. He was shot down over the sea during a mission. His headstone is in another country but his body was never found. If you don’t know about him you’re going to have to ask your family. He wants you to learn all you can about him.

“And now your brother’s back. He wants me to tell you that he’s healthy and he doesn’t mind the curls now they’re back. He’s very amused by your expression and he’s saying that he understand why you’re struggling with all this. It’s a huge surprise to him too! He wants you to know that he really is here and is communicating through me, but he knows you don’t really believe it – you’re looking for a rational explanation! He brought Benny through as his story is something you’re going to have to find out for yourself. It will bring you the proof you need.”

At that extraordinary point, Bob ended the reading. I was advised to stay for a strong cup of tea; I was trembling too much to drive! The other participants hugged me and smiled encouragingly before wishing me well and saying goodbye. I eventually drove home wondering what other revelations would be coming my way!

~~~~~~

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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