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

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

I lasted precisely one year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong I was!

~~~

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

~~~~~~

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

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Reason to Believe Episode 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.

rhul card

~~~~~~

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.

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?

~~~~~~

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:

~~~~~~

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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Reason to Believe Episode 3: entry into a new world

To read the introduction to this blog and previous episodes click on the links:

Introduction Episode 1 Episode 2

Episode 3: 1985, entry into a new world

“It could be your brother, you know. You ought to talk to my mum, she’s a medium.”

All eyes which had been glued on me while I was recounting the strange things that had been happening in my brand new house, swivelled to my work colleague.

She laughed at the expressions on our faces and asked me if I’d like her to call her mother and arrange for me to go and talk to her.

I wasn’t sure. I mean, a medium? Someone who gathered a circle of people in the darkened back room of a spooky house and called out, ‘Is anybody there?’ and then supposedly talked to the dead?

Well, I might be sceptical, but how could I not be curious? I loved ghost stories and had never doubted the existence of psychic abilities – I possess some sort of sixth sense myself – but I had never given any credence to the existence of an afterlife.

My visit was arranged and I parked in the driveway of an unassuming semi-detached house, wondering what I was getting myself into. I was expecting to be swept into a candle-lit parlour by a heavily made-up lady wearing a billowing, brightly-coloured dress, an exotic turban on her head and multiple rings on her fingers. Instead I was ushered into a brightly lit kitchen by a motherly woman called Joan in a pleated skirt and pastel pink twinset. I took a seat at the table and Joan made a pot of tea and offered me a freshly-baked and still warm shortbread biscuit.

She told me that she knew from her daughter that my brother had recently died, but she could not sense him at that moment. I didn’t really know what this meant, but she went on to say that I was to tell her nothing at all about him so that if he did start to communicate with her, she would be able to prove it was him.

While we waited we drank tea, ate her delicious biscuits and talked about all sorts of things. I sensed she was trying to put me at ease, because I was very tense waiting and hoping something amazing would happen, and I really warmed to her.

But Stephen did not make an appearance.

As I was leaving, Joan squeezed my hand. “Just because I can’t see or hear him,” she said, “doesn’t mean he isn’t with you. His passing is fairly recent so he may be finding it difficult to connect with me. I know another medium who is much more experienced than I am, I think you should meet him.”

She invited me to return to her home on 11th May, for a group meeting, or séance, which would be led by this other psychic medium. I drove home wondering if I was wasting time chasing rainbows, but of course I went back.

This time I was shown into the living room where seven other people were already waiting. The sofa and armchairs had been pushed back against the walls and a circle of chairs placed in the centre of the room. It was daylight and the floral-patterned chintz curtains were open and lacy net curtains provided privacy from the street.

I took my seat and glanced quickly at the other guests as introductions were made. The medium, whose name was Bob, immediately started to relay messages.

As he talked I was able to study him. In his late fifties or early sixties he was a large man with sparse, grey hair, pale blue eyes and sallow skin. His trousers had shiny patches, his shirt cuffs were frayed and his pea-green cardigan had holes in the elbows. I guessed from his threadbare appearance that the rusty old banger I’d parked next to was his.

He didn’t go into a trance, his voice didn’t change, it was as if he was having an everyday conversation with the people I could see in the room, as well as several that I couldn’t see.

After a while of listening incredulously to what their late relatives supposedly had to say, I gathered that everyone else in the circle was familiar with Bob and each other. One message that stands out in my memory was an aunt speaking to her niece, telling her that she was worried about her niece’s husband balancing on a ladder as he hung wallpaper in their bedroom.

Really? I thought. Is that the kind of thing dead people concerned themselves with? It seemed so trivial, and not at all the kind of communication I had expected. Surely they had better things to do than watch people decorate?

There was no message for me, so at the end of the séance we had tea and sandwiches in the kitchen and I asked the other guests if they really believed in mediums and how often they went to séances. They were all happy to offer glowing testimonials for Bob and to regale me with their stories. The woman who had received the message about the ladder placed her hand on my arm and said, “I didn’t believe any of it not so long ago, but when my aunt was dying she said she’d come back and prove to me that there is an afterlife, and so she did. I sincerely hope you find out for yourself one day.”

I must admit that by now I was envious of the others who were so firm in their beliefs and obviously comforted by the messages they had received. But as there had been nothing for me, my scepticism remained, and I was ready to finish my tea and go home.

I had placed my cup and saucer beside the sink when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned my head to see Bob beaming at me.

My answering smile faltered and the blood drained from my face as he said, “Your brother’s here.”

stephen ghost

~~~~~~

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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