Your voice

It haunted like a nightmare, the memory of you that morning.

Distorted face and empty vessel; a ravaged crepe frame lying where a bear had once stood.

 

Days and months lingered, and sore eyes watched while the world continued to live.

Every dawn stabbed with your absence.

Every moon whispered the close of another day without you.

 

Then by chance, I stumbled upon it, locked within a whirring box without the heart to know the treasure it held.

A snatch of a summer passed, on the beach we all loved.

A brief moment when generations had collided and rejoiced, happy to be part of what we were.

 

And it wasn’t just the speckled green and gold of your laughing eyes, or the strength resting behind that familiar smile.

But, falling from your lips like a bed-time story, your voice filled my grateful ears with echoes of my beloved past. Chased away the betrayal of you that numb December morning.

And gave back the truth of what you were to me.

Our cornerstone. Our champion.

My dad.

Open to persuation

I was never a fan of beards. Growing up in the 70’s, I have a lasting memory of my usually clean-shaven father donning a style I later discovered synonymous with films of a certain genre; the ones that often included dubious music… and a wicker chair. I was glad when dad’s beard went. Even as I grew older, beard-wearers remained a mystery to me. In addition to forsaking their razors, many appeared to have abandoned their dress sense. Often congregating at high-tech conferences, their chosen attire was such that on-lookers could be excused for mistaking them for pilgrims. In fact, until recently, there were only two people for whom I considered beard-wearing acceptable. One, a dear friend, who spent a whole day next to me at Trent Bridge explaining what was going on (and in my opinion, that degree of kindness entitles him to wear what-so-ever he likes), and the other, Father Christmas.

Then something happened.

Thirty or so minutes into the film, the fingers on my right hand – the ones that had been shovelling fistfuls of popcorn into my mouth – stilled. I blinked, and stared at the screen. Long, dark hair, beautiful eyes… Based on my past record, there was nothing about his appearance I wouldn’t have found attractive. Nothing, at all… Apart from his beard.

That first encounter was hugely significant. The actor in question went on to become the inspiration behind one of two male protagonists in The Huntsmen of Nethermoor. Some months later I stumbled across the inspiration for his counterpart. Equally as beautiful, this actor’s role also demanded he wore a beard. As my pen flowed on paper, and Rodriguez’ and Stephano’s characters evolved, I remained true to their muses; kept the things about them that had inspired me the most. Their eyes. Their physique… And their beards.

My change of heart certainly isn’t universal. Despite his cuddly appearance, Rubeus Hagrid would still be held at arms-length. And though Mr Mc grows a winter beard every year (and I‘ve never quite fathomed why, and can only surmise that his great height exposes his face to temperatures my shorter frame will never endure), I prefer his cheeks to be smooth, and consequently, mine blotch-free. Yet beards are no longer exclusive to the mid-lifers and those in sandaled feet. Younger men are favouring bristles, and wearing them with conviction. My PT, trendy, and 21, has a beard.

Clipped and manicured, the new beard is an item of fashion; an extension to a great haircut rather than a handy place to store food. And it is to this change in attitude to the beard’s function – the unashamed admission of personal grooming that says “I also know where my nasal-hair trimmer is” – that I attribute my change of heart. Turn on your TV, and many of the beautiful males adorning our screens are sporting well-groomed whiskers. Yes, the vast majority of them are still wielding weapons, (so the cave-man hasn’t quite lain down his club), but take a closer look at those gritted teeth, and you’ll notice they are all very white.

Faced with the opportunity to embrace lips surrounded by a prickly jaw, I, like so many of my peers, still fear for my complexion. But when there’s every chance that the mouth behind them has tasted as much Listerine as it has lager, I’m willing to pucker up to Aragorn or Aramis, Dorean or Da Vinci, and to give a close encounter another try!

As an aside

According to The Guinness Book of Records, ‘The beard of Hans N. Langseth (Norway, b. 1846), measured 5.33 m (17ft 6 in) at the time of his burial at Kensett, Iowa in 1927.’

That’s three times longer than I’ll ever be. Bugger!

 

…And I still ‘aint hearin’ no fat lady sing…

I was born to an amazing family; a lineage-cocktail of gin-sharp English, brandy-warm Spanish, and champagne-refined French. Being together was normal. Summer holidays were spent sprawling across “our” beach, and special occasions were marked by the type of celebrations only Disney films are made of. When my grandparents died, my beloved father took up the family reins. Even after the arrival of our spouses, my siblings and I continued to gravitate “home”. Our lives evolved, and the miles between us grew, but still it was desire rather than duty that pulled us back together. I thought life would always be this way… Then daddy died.

We lost dad the week before Christmas; the worst, and yet, because we weren’t punished with months of preceding dread, probably the best time we could have. We faced our first December 25th without him in a daze of numb grief, feeling and tasting nothing. The celebration of his life took place in early January. Marked by the clearest of West Sussex mornings, I was thankful I had seen dad’s body – an empty vessel no longer animated by the incredible life-force that had driven it – the previous day. Letting it go was just bearable. As family and friends emerged from the ceremony, gulls silently circled above us. Two vapour trails had formed a kiss in the blue expanse beyond. Had he been there, dad would have been bemused by the vast numbers paying their respects.

We are only guaranteed one thing from this life; that, eventually, it will end. Yet when death touches us, it comes as a huge shock. A bolt of gut-shattering, life-changing indifference, bringing with it an emotional anguish out-weighed only by physical pain. And yet, for me, death brought with it something else…

When the first months of consuming grief had subsided and mother-nature handed me back the heart she had taken temporarily into her own care, I sensed my world had changed. I felt a small, yet significant part of something larger than I could ever have imagined. The first time I spoke to daddy in my sleep, I woke sure that the encounter had not been a dream. As I faced personal challenges, I sensed a champion by my side. Yes, I have always been a believer, and in the early days of grief, when I looked for robins and collected white feathers, I knew my siblings watched on with a degree of scepticism. But even they now admit that the certain aspects of their lives have been steered along a heading only dad could plot.

Like so many other parents, grandparents, siblings, and partners missed every day, my dad loved and protected his family in a way only the best of human-kind ever could. And to use his words, I don’t believe that ‘the small matter of death’ would ever prevent him, or any of them, from continuing to do just that.

As an aside

According to statistics, the average life expectancy of a woman in the UK is 81. So, providing I have not inherited our crap family genes, I still have 38 years left in which to fulfil a teenage ambition and to meet Simon Le Bon. Assuming, of course, he doesn’t pop-off before me… Bugger!

Prologue to ‘The Huntsmen of Nethermoor’

Misjudged

 

You laughed as I wept. Said I only had my naive heart to blame for trusting yours.

Yet in spite of your lies, I let you back into my bed,

desperate my kisses would persuade you beyond that night.

But you gorged yourself on my love for you.

Devoured every last drop of my failing respect.

And excused your greed with empty compliment – that other encounters failed to compare.

 

So our past became no more than satisfied hunger.

Memories discarded, like payment, by the bed that we’d shared.

The truth of the nothing I had been to you, confirmed only by the betrayal haunting another’s eyes.

 

An unfamiliar reflection stared back at me.

By your hand, the blood of another stained mine.

And mistaking my heartbreak for weakness you turned your back, and turned the page.

And you believed I would forgive you.

And you assumed I would forget…                                                                              R.V

It’s a mum thing

It’s a mum thing

Recently, a number of TV documentaries have tackled the subject of adoption. Anyone who knows me might be surprised to learn that I haven’t watched a single one…

I was something of late-starter when it came to ambition. My earliest “when I grow up, I want to-” memory, is of an unequivocal desire for motherhood and wifedom. I became the latter in 1997. (Our wedding day was an amazing day – a true celebration, achieved on a tiny budget and with a heavy reliance on support from close friends and family. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing). When it came to motherhood, however, mother-nature had other ideas. Investigations were followed by hormone tablets, and eventually IVF. The day I was told I would never have children was the day I was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure; essentially early menopause. With extras. Bugger!

I grieved for months. Every woman I met appeared to be pushing a pram. Every friend I knew seemed to be pregnant. I questioned why my Scottish husband – whose blood line was a thing of great pride – hadn’t traded me in for a fully-working model. And I questioned my own femininity. Constantly. At a point, almost two years later, when I had wistfully accepted motherhood wouldn’t be my path to follow and was making happy plans for an alternative future, my husband suggested adoption.

The process moved very quickly. In comparison to IVF, I found our adoption journey a relative walk in the park. I was in control, and, more importantly, wasn’t being sent bonkers by synthetic hormones that didn’t have the decency to render me oblivious. I knew exactly what was going on; that my husband never turned his back to me and I could no longer find our Sabatier knives. That he agreed with me – about everything. And, that he was spending a lot of time “working in London”. No, the extensive, borderline-intrusive questioning of the adoption inquisition felt like jumping from the fire back into the frying pan. And (although I never acknowledged this when I began IVF) I knew I had far more chance of becoming a parent this way.

Our son “came home” when he was eleven months old. I won’t lie and say that the first year was easy. But now, almost five years later, I can’t imagine my life without him. And I am so proud. Not of myself. Good lord, no – adoption was my choice. But of him. Of my loving, happy, full-of-life little monkey, who, unlike the sometimes-possessive me, is able to differentiate between his 2 mummies (one birth, one forever), and yet for whom, adoption wasn’t a choice.

And it is here that I return to why I haven’t watched any of the adoption documentaries. Motherhood does funny things to you. It evokes emotions you never knew existed – brings out the tigress where you had always assumed the tabby; instils an overwhelming need to protect and a desire to make things better. If I had watched any of the adoption documentaries, I know, without any shadow of doubt, that I would simply sob from beginning to end. And not because I don’t acknowledge the vital place adoption has in our society. And not because I am ashamed to admit that I, too, have “used” adoption to fulfil a lifetimes’ ambition. But, because, for the innocent, amazing little-star that my wonderful son is, the circumstances of his birth still meant that adoption was the only option. And this is how his life began. And loving him as deeply as I do, I can’t help but to feel that, quite frankly, he, like all adopted children, deserved more.

As an aside

When I underwent ICSI, I was warned that the likelihood of birth children inheriting my genetic defects was very high. The thought of watching a birth-daughter endure the same infertility heart-ache as I did, was a very sobering one. However… on the upside, not having birth children has its advantages. For one thing, I still have pretty good boobs for a forty-something year old!

Footnote:

According to recent Adoption UK figures, there were 68,110 looked after children in England alone, at the end of March 2013. Of these, only 3980 were adopted in the same period.

 

Do what thou wilt

XXII

XXII

Plan of the Caves

Plan of the Caves

When, in 2004, the wonderful Yvette Fielding chose High Wycombe, and in particular, the West Wycombe Caves as the setting for a Most Haunted paranormal investigation, I knew I had found the perfect meeting place for my trilogy’s two male protagonists. Earlier this week (and ten years, and my first novel later), I finally headed south to investigate the caves for myself…

The caves were the brainchild of Sir Francis Dashwood. Following three successive harvest failures in 1748, 1749 and 1750, the caves were excavated to provide the raw material for a new main road between West and High Wycombe. According to the current Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt, ‘the project was very much in keeping with proposals (his ancestor) had already introduced into parliament for stimulating the creation of work to relieve rural unemployment.’ However, the symbolic design of the caves could suggest that, in their excavation, Sir Francis was working towards more than one goal. In 1733, Sir Francis had founded the Dilettanti Society to encourage interest in classical art. In 1744, he founded the Divan Club for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. The progression of these clubs, counting amongst its members, politicians, physicians, poets and painters, was The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe. This later became known as the notorious Hell-Fire Club.

It is late morning when I eventually arrive in West Wycombe. My journey has been plagued by heavy rain and glaring sunshine, making visibility difficult and slowing the M40 traffic to a crawl. I follow the request of the Caves’ web site, and, like the dutiful citizen I am, park in the overflow car-park. After grabbing my coat, my gloves, and my scarf, (winter wardrobe), and donning my sun-glasses (summer wardrobe), I alight.

No sooner have my booted-feet hit the ground, than I spot the fleet of Movie Makers’ tractor units and trailers. I nod at the group of extras suspiciously watching me, and, donning an unconvincing, “a film crew? Oh, we get lots of those in my village,” expression, I head off to the caves, praying that the crew’s set for the day isn’t my chosen destination.

When I arrive in the caves’ courtyard, I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists. At the small admissions office (which doubles up as a café), I acknowledge the two grounds-men drinking coffee, purchase my entrance token and a guide book, and ask about the next departing tour. There won’t be one, ‘but there are plaques throughout the caves which should explain everything.’ The friendly admissions lady then turns back to her colleague and they continue their conversation… No tour? No film-crew? In fact, no-one? I resist the urge to punch the air, push my sunglasses to the top of my head, shove my guide-book into my bag, and stride forward. I have the caves all to myself. Yey!

I congratulate myself on my good fortune as I pass under the arched entrance, through the turnstile, and along the informative first passageway. And I continue to do so – right up to the tool store. The intermittent conversation from the café has faded, as has the natural light. In the relative gloom lurking behind me, I can hear the echoed drip of fresh water through the chalk walls. Mumbled voices from static exhibition displays, distorted by their surroundings and the distance travelled to reach me, remind my over-sensitive ears of the kind of mono-syllabic chanting synonymous with horror films. I slowly turn. Oh dear… Now, I am a believer in the afterlife. But as someone who avoids confrontation with the living at all costs, I immediately question my sanity. The caves, more like tunnels, are arched, low, and narrow. Lights are dotted, at intervals, along the stone walls, but they do little more than take the edge off the threatening black. Restoration work, which began in the 1950’s, has seen the treacherous stone floors covered with gravel.   I inhale, and order myself to “man-up”. If I want the prequel (“The First Portrait”) to my first novel (“The Huntsmen of Nethermoor” ) to be realistic, I have to experience the caves first-hand. I tentatively step forward, and instantly wish that the gravel wasn’t so noisy under foot – I’d rather not know I was being followed. “Whenever I feel afraid…”

The first break in the tunnels is Whitehead’s Cave. Circular in shape, it parts, and re-joins as the caves continue onwards. Following his death in 1774, Paul Whitehead is said to have left his heart to Sir Francis. It was later stolen, and rumour has it that Whitehead’s ghost now roams the caves in search of his lost organ.

The air around me feels damp and suddenly very cold. I shudder, and push on.

XXII, ‘probably a measurement in poles of the distance from the entrance,’ is the caves’ longest passage. The ceilings appear taller, but the descent, sharper. The walls are covered with curious etchings, impossible to fathom. I crunch forward, trying to focus on the gloom at the end of the tunnel, and dismissing the flecks of white that dance across my mobile screen as I snap away, as nothing more than dust.

At the end of XXII, the caves make a 45 degree turn. Brief respite from my growing fear comes in the form of the Children’s Cave, followed by the truly magnificent Banqueting Hall. I stay a while in here, admiring the vast ceiling, and wondering what hilarity – and otherwise – these walls have witnessed.

As I leave the banqueting Hall, my descent again steepens. I am certain that the ceilings are lower, and I suddenly feel very far away from the caves’ entrance. I arrive at the Triangle, and for the first time since entering the caves, experience a sense of real disorientation. The light is minimal, turning the triangle’s turns a shadowy black. One can only imagine what it must have been like to navigate these caves by candlelight.

Having taken one side of the triangle’s tunnels, I edge around its corner, meet its other side, and continue downwards. The Miner’s Cave – another static exhibition with more audio – lies beyond. Unable to decide if the audio is a comfort or not, I do my best not to listen to it, for fear of hearing something else altogether.

I am nearing the end of the caves, and the one area above all the others – the Inner Temple – I yearned to experience. But, prone to flooding, and without electricity, it has been cordoned off. I turn, and head with determination, back towards the admissions desk. Minutes later, having explained why I am here, and having promised to take care, (and to not blame anyone else for my own clumsiness), I return. I step over the red tape, and into the black. With only the flash of my mobile to provide intermittent light, (I have a torch app, apparently, but god only knows where), I glance down into the depths of the River Styx – said to divide this world from the underworld – before inching towards the temple. Despite the locked iron gate blocking my entrance, I peer inside. My heart pounds with a mixture of utter excitement and abject fear. I can see nothing but the illuminated images caught on my mobile, yet I continue to snap away, anxious to capture even a hint of the caves’ incredible atmosphere.

When, minutes later, my senses are utterly spent, I turn and begin my ascent. At the Banqueting Hall, I again pause, hoping that when the time comes, my novel does this wonderful cavern justice.

I almost skip past the Children’s Cave and back along XXII. Only at Whitehead’s Cave, do I hesitate – and glance back. The hair at the back of my neck is on end, and the air temperature has again fallen. Immediately, I scurry away.

When I emerge in to the warmth of the May afternoon, the sun is shining. I slump down onto one of the café’s wooden benches, lock my trembling hands between my knees, and giggle.

I explored the Hellfire Caves… All by myself. And I have the photos to prove it!

 

As an aside…

Before moving to Hertfordshire, the Hellfire Club held its meetings at the George and Vulture Inn, in London. The Inn is also famously mentioned in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. The Inn still stands proud today.