FIRST CHAPTER SERIES: The Modigliani Girl by Jacqui Lofthouse

The Modigliani Girl

By Jacqui Lofthouse

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

‘This is what I find encouraging about the writing trades: they allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.’

 Kurt Vonnegut

I have often wished that I had been born at the turn of the nineteenth century, in Paris. It seems unfair to me that those lucky enough to be born in the right place at the right time had the opportunity of living a truly bohemian lifestyle, whilst those of us brought up in the eighties in Billericay are conditioned to a life of material acquisition that is hardly compatible with the pursuit of art for art’s sake.

That thought again, tormenting me. I brush it aside and focus on what I see. I’m sitting before a mirror in a white dressing gown, gazing at my face but not quite recognising it. My hair is in foam curlers and my make-up is half complete: my kohl-rimmed eyes and Barbie-doll false lashes make me an airbrushed version of myself. The rest of my face is ghost-pale; even my lips are not yet painted. The mirror is rimmed by opaque light bulbs and – yes, I admit it – there’s something of the Moulin Rouge about the scene and I ought to appreciate it, but somehow can’t. I laugh out loud only there’s no hint of jollity in the sound. I am not myself and I am definitely not in Paris, though the cabaret is about to begin.

Where the hell is the make-up artist, that’s what I want to know? She was telling me her name is Ruby and she can’t afford a down payment on a flat in Kentish Town. It was a distraction, at least, but now she’s vanished to take a call and I’m left alone, staring at this new creation in the mirror, wondering what I’m doing here. In a few hours, everything should fall into place. Everything I’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true. If I win, I’ll have it all (all the shallow stuff that is): fame, glamour and the kind of success that I always thought I wanted. My mascara is running down my face, cutting vertical lines across the pancake, but it’s OK. Really, it’s OK. It’s only natural to cry on an occasion like this. It’s stage fright. Last-minute nerves. Panic. The whole story is spinning in my head and threatens to spill out and I’m trying to keep it inside, but it’s like an out of body experience. I am at once in front of the mirror and above it, watching myself, like a player in a bad farce that has become quite frighteningly real.

There’s a knock at the door behind me and I stand to open it, half here and half lost in memory. Behind the door there’s a young woman, pushing past me. She’s holding a coat-hanger from which hangs a crumpled cream-coloured dress that looks a bit too much like a wedding frock for my liking. She’s looking at me as if she wants something but I have no idea what it is that she wants.

‘Well?’ she says. She hangs the dress in the corner and stands back to admire it. When I don’t reply, she forces the issue. ‘So what do you think?’

‘Of the dress?’

‘Isn’t it stunning? I’m beside myself with envy.’

‘Why?’

She rolls her eyes as if I’m having her on. ‘It’s vintage Balmain?’ The inflexion in her voice makes me wonder if she is Australian. Either that or she thinks I’m extremely stupid.

‘Is that eco-friendly or something?’

‘Sod the eco-credentials – it’s a one-off piece. You’re going to look incredible in this.’ She is Australian, but she also thinks I’m stupid.

‘It looks a bit like a doily to me.’

‘Trust me. You’ll own the stage.’

I try to pull myself back into the room, to really get this moment and make it meaningful. This is it, Anna Bright. Sadly I don’t believe my own PR. It’s your time. What does it matter how you got here and what you feel inside? When you put on that dress, you can do exactly what she says: walk onto the stage and work the audience. You can become Fahy and Brown’s next big thing.

But even as I say these words, I am thinking of a girl standing before a high window in Paris. I can’t get her out of my mind. She has lost the only thing that matters to her and she is gazing down at the pavement far beneath, wondering if she will do it, whether the act she is about to commit is one of bravery or one of cowardice. And what would she make of me, that girl?

You are a liar and a thief.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Ruby is back. She takes me by the shoulders and sits me down on the stool. ‘What did you say to her?’ she asks the wardrobe girl.

‘Nothing. She’s just been insulting the dress. Does she have any idea what it cost us to borrow that for the evening?’

‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what Anna makes of the dress. What matters is that she wears it!’ She turns to me. ‘Anna – are you OK?’

‘I’m fine,’ I say, though my voice is no more than a whisper.

Ruby leans forward, puts a hand on my shoulder and picks up a sponge pad from her kit, repairing the pancake, before applying more glitter to my eyelids.

‘Don’t cry,’ she said. ‘It would be really helpful if you could do “internal” nerves rather than “external” ones. That way, you know, it won’t mess up your face.’

If I can’t cry, perhaps they will allow me to scream. I hold back, bite my lip quickly and nod. I realise it doesn’t matter really. I’m not quite here any more. I’m somewhere else, driving my car, a whole year ago now. I can hear the music, the voice of Ian Dury playing my town’s theme tune Billericay Dickie and Dury’s voice takes me right back to the evening when all this madness started.

*

I was stuck in a traffic jam, en route to the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. It was a drizzling June evening, the sky was low and a summer rain threatened. The driver’s window was open and I was smoking, inhaling deeply, perhaps believing that if I inhaled quite hard enough, the nicotine rush might take away the memory of my argument with Will. But even nicotine would not do it. I kept going over the issue in my mind, trying to understand his point of view, but failing. I could not get over the fact that he had chosen to go to the Telegraph party rather than coming with me to support Hilary on her big night. Had I been too obnoxious? Quite possibly I had. Now, as well as having fallen out with my fiancé, I was also late and likely to embarrass Hils.

That was when Dury came on the radio … His lyrics were out of tune with my thoughts, but against my will I began to laugh. I tossed the burning cigarette stub from the window and listened. Dury’s voice made me think about my sister Lois: a memory of her pogoing about the kitchen to the strains of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, tossing her head furiously to the beat, while Mum – the original Dury fan – was busy cooking our fish fingers.

The traffic ground to a halt.

It was odd to think that Hilary was about to join the ranks of the Essex glitterati. Hilary – the same girl I met at the Mayflower School. It didn’t seem real or even right that she was appearing on stage that night with the much-lauded Meryl Wainwright, Grande Dame of British Letters. In typical Hils fashion, she had tried to play it down. ‘It’s just in the studio theatre, Anna. It’s not such a huge deal.’ But it was impossible to miss her excitement. This was a fund-raising event for The Reading Trust and Hilary would be reading an extract from her recently published novel, alongside five other authors, including Wainwright, the notorious Harish Devan and the man that I considered the wildcard, the latest bestselling guru, James Loftus.

It had taken a while for me to adjust to Hilary’s success. If I said I wasn’t envious, I’d be a liar. Who wouldn’t be envious of a school friend who’d just secured a six-figure publishing deal? If it had been anybody else, I’d say it was enough to make you vomit. But Hilary is my oldest friend and I was beginning to see there was some price to pay for this break. Every insecurity that ever haunted her before she signed that contract was now magnified tenfold. If she was a perfectionist before, now she was bordering on OCD. I had never known anyone more hardworking than Hilary but these days I hardly saw her; until very recently, she’d been working all hours on the sequel to her novel in a desperate bid to meet an impossible deadline. Tonight, at least, was her chance to enjoy what she’d achieved and I was furious at myself for being late.

But I was even more furious at Will. Because if Will had come along that night, I would not have been late in the first place. Will is never late. The word isn’t in his vocabulary. He was certainly not going to be late for the Telegraph party. Having decided it was more important to network in his own little circle than in mine, he was in his dinner suit and favourite Fornasetti tie before I even got home from work.

But I had to put my bitterness behind me. It wasn’t often that I fell out with Will and I vowed we’d make it up later that evening. It was likely I was being selfish. Will had been a freelance cartoonist for a couple of years now, but he got a lot of work from The Telegraph and if he didn’t suck up to the editors at these events then somebody else would suck up in his place. In any case, I should possibly have thanked Will for his absence because being late was what caused me to bump into Meryl in the first place.

When I arrived at the Lyric, the foyer and bar were deserted. The audience had already gone into the theatre. I tried to sneak in quietly but as I stepped into the darkness of the auditorium, an usher followed me.

‘You have to wait at the side,’ she said. ‘It’s started.’

Keeping close to her, I shuffled forwards in the darkness. As I approached the stage however, I realised that Hilary was standing immediately in front of me. Harish Devan was on the podium and had just begun his reading.

‘What are you doing here?’ I whispered. ‘Aren’t you meant to be up there?’

‘They screwed up,’ Hilary said. ‘They were meant to put out six chairs on stage but they forgot. The stage manager’s in a right strop, so we’ve got to take it in turns.’

‘Where are the other writers?’

‘They managed to find a couple of reserved seats in the front row. But the others were all taken. It’s full up, so I have to wait here until it’s my turn to read.’

‘Fabulous,’ I said. ‘Star treatment.’

As I spoke, I sensed that somebody was now standing behind me. I turned around and the person seemed so familiar that I greeted her.

‘Oh – hello!’

She laughed and I immediately realised my error. I recognised her now, even in the gloom. It was impossible to mistake her trademark craggy features. I had seen that face in Sunday supplements, on book jackets and on TV. Yet Meryl Wainwright was smaller in the flesh.

‘I’ve lost my damn umbrella,’ she whispered. At first I thought she couldn’t be talking to me, but Hilary’s attention was focussed on Devan and the usher had returned to the foyer. It seemed incongruous to hear a literary legend talking about something so banal. I had only ever heard her pontificating on cultural artefacts. The umbrella clearly mattered to her. ‘I put it down in the caff and now it’s gone. Do you think I’ve got time to find it before I go on?’

‘Um. I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Do you want me to have a look?’

‘Would you? Oh sod it. We’ve probably got hours yet. Harish is always so up himself. I’m gasping for a fag.’

‘Me too,’ I said. My forwardness took me by surprise. If it hadn’t been so dark I might have been more circumspect. ‘I couldn’t cadge one, could I?’

In the end, we found the umbrella behind a sofa and I suspected its loss had been nothing more than a ploy for nicotine. We nipped out the back via a fire door and stood outside, huddling beneath a small canopy. There was a light drizzle but not enough to distract Meryl from important business. She sheltered the flame beneath her coat and ensured that mine was lit before her own. I found myself trying not to count her wrinkles; it was simply a nervous reaction, a distraction from the fear of not knowing what to say. I was determined not to sound pathetic but the sycophantic stuff must have been on the tip of my tied-up tongue because without quite knowing how it happened, I found myself praising her latest novel.

‘I thought the characterisation of Ethan was so accomplished…’ I said. ‘Your prose is so tight. And there’s something…  elastic about it.’ Elastic? How can it be tight and also elastic? What was that supposed to mean? My inarticulacy was killing me. Meryl must have thought I was a total prat but she was very nice about it.

‘Thank you, my dear. That was a terrible nuisance about the umbrella. And how kind. Do you write?’

I hesitated. I had been considering the idea of writing seriously for some time. I had written fragments in notebooks, then torn them out and thrown them away. Sometimes I would scribble ideas on scraps of paper and I occasionally gathered images and kept them in an attractive polka-dotted box folder marked ‘Novel’, but it was not something that I ever spoke about. It had been years since I had admitted such an ambition. In our early twenties, when Hilary was at Cambridge and I at Warwick, we would write long letters to each other, professing our love of Hardy and the Brontës and our desire to write great works, but Hilary had made that desire concrete and I was still at the back-of-an-envelope stage. My answer to Meryl’s question must surely be a resounding ‘No’.

‘Not yet,’ I said.

I suppose it just slipped out.

‘Fool’s game, of course,’ she said. ‘But you could do worse than listening to this Loftus fellow.’

She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow as she spoke, as if to say ‘don’t underestimate the chap’. She was looking directly at me, as if issuing a challenge. I had expected her to be patronising or dismissive or abrupt but she was none of these. Meryl appeared entirely serious. The look might even have been called encouraging. And something about this made me feel uncomfortable. It reminded me of a look my father used to give me, a look he gave me on the day Hilary and I went up for interview at Cambridge. I did not want to remember it.

It’s possible that Meryl noticed the impact of her expression. If she did, she passed no comment. I attempted to laugh it off and to continue the conversation without crying.

‘You think he has a serious message?’ I said.

I’d read all about the silver-haired guru in The Observer at the weekend (Will called my newspaper habit treason). Loftus was not such big news then as he is now, but his work was already a hit in the States and he was beginning to cause noticeable ripples here in the UK. His book, How to Be a Literary Genius was, as far as I could make out, an invitation to would-be writers everywhere to abandon self-doubt and to believe that they had a book inside them. I could not think of anything more depressing. The man appeared to be on a single-minded mission to convince us that “everyone is creative”. It was nothing that had not been said by a thousand other gurus before him, but no one could deny the power of his marketing machine. Loftus’s holiday company Genius Vacations had just expanded to take over half the Greek Island of Ouranos.

Yet here was Meryl Wainwright giving him a plug and challenging my cynicism. Was it possible I was missing something? According to the article, Loftus had a strong fan-base. Tens of thousands of people had used his methods to overcome chronic writer’s block but that didn’t give him any intellectual credibility. I had pretty much dismissed him out of hand. The last thing the world needed right now was more unblocked writers. The net result of that would surely be more bad literature. Hadn’t Meryl thought of that?

‘There’s only one serious message in the end,’ Meryl said. She stubbed out her fag on a railing.

‘What’s that?’

‘Get black on white,’ she said. Then, after a brief silence added, ‘Guy de Maupassant. No one ever became a writer by thinking about it.’ She shivered then, and pulled her raincoat closer across her chest. ‘Come on. Devan’s probably still droning on, but we’d better not miss the rest.’

We arrived back in time to see Hilary walking onto the stage. She glanced in my direction and I wasn’t sure if her expression was one of relief or reprimand. I smiled back, as if to say ‘of course, I never would have missed you’ but I don’t know if she believed me. Beneath the brilliant light, Hilary appeared at once brittle and vulnerable. She wore a black Ghost dress, just on the decent side of transparency, the kind of dress that I could never carry off. Her hair was newly cropped and bleached. If you didn’t know her, you might think her composure unnerving. Though she fixed her eyes on the audience and raised her chin and did not allow her jaw to quiver even a fraction, the small fluttering movements of her hands to her face revealed her fear to me.

Hilary need not have been afraid however. Her novel was a deeply serious one, an apocalyptic vision, rooted in science and conveyed in crisp, elegant prose. I had read a previous draft and the opening moved me now as much as it did the first time. As Hilary read, I watched Meryl leaning forward, her hand resting on her cheek, frowning and absorbed. Afterwards, Hilary told me, when she came off the stage, Meryl had whispered ‘Bravo, my dear’ in her ear. I had seen that moment, as Meryl placed her hand on Hilary’s shoulder, her mouth to her ear and I experienced that closeness as a small stab of pain beneath my ribs.

When Meryl read, the Meryl I had always imagined reappeared. The distracted woman who had lost her umbrella receded and once again she was the literary diva, reading her work aloud in her trademark gravelly tone. Meryl spoke with authority and her talent for combining intricate research with a gripping narrative astonished me. It did not seem possible that I had just shared a cigarette with this woman. She was a legend and my friend had been on stage beside her. I remember her words in a fragmented way; perhaps I was distracted by the memory of our encounter beneath the canopy and the apparent encouragement she had given me. I was waiting for Loftus to come on; I began to anticipate his appearance as something significant. Whilst I attempted to remain calm, some small, neglected part of me would not be still; a buried voice that was now yelling out, like a spoilt brat sporting ringlets.

But I did not anticipate what happened next. The host walked to the centre of the stage, kissed Meryl on both cheeks and waited until she was seated again. He approached the microphone.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘My thanks to Meryl Wainwright for what I’m sure you’ll agree was a remarkable reading. We are honoured to have you here and deeply appreciative.’ He paused for more applause, cleared his throat. ‘I’m afraid, however, that I’ve just learned that due to unforeseen circumstances, our fourth reader, James Loftus, is unable to attend this evening’s event. He sends his sincere apologies, but he has been waylaid by – a family emergency.’

My disappointment took me by surprise. There was something unconvincing about this absence. The brat inside my head wanted something and threatened to yell if she did not get it. I shook her off. I didn’t really understand this feeling, nor where it came from but I knew I did not like this part of myself. I would send the brat to her room and lock the door until she came to her senses.

*

Afterwards, the foyer was packed. Hilary was on the other side of the room, at a table with Meryl, Devan and the others, signing books. I did not want to be disloyal, but the idea of queuing up to have my best friend sign a book was not remotely appealing. In any case, Hilary had already inscribed a copy of the novel for me. “For Anna” – she wrote – “Your turn next! With love and thanks for all your support, H x”

Hilary knew that I wanted to write. I denied it sometimes but she had known me long enough to see beyond my protests. Now as I looked about the room, I recognised a few familiar faces. These were exactly the faces I did not wish to see, the people that Hilary wanted me to meet, though I had no inclination to know them. There was the novelist Julia Claiborne, standing at the bar and laughing like a horse, surrounded by her acolytes, the small clique of women Hilary now belonged to: “the Martini Girls” they called themselves, all published novelists with varying degrees of success; their group seemed impenetrable and alien to me.

It would have been easier if Will were there. We could have found a quiet corner and had a glass of wine together. He would have made me laugh and put everything into perspective. Without Will however, I was like an uninvited guest, wondering how I might make myself inconspicuous.

In the end, I was rescued by a small display of books. There was a separate table where one could purchase the books prior to having them signed and as it was fairly crowded it was easy to browse and remain unnoticed. Though James Loftus had failed to show this evening, the display included his work. The bold lettering drew me: How To Be A Literary Genius. It was a crazy promise yet one which had made the man a small fortune. Will had laughed out loud when he first heard that title. ‘I’m sure it must be ironic,’ I said. ‘If it was ironic, nobody would buy it,’ he replied.

Certainly nobody about this table now seemed concerned at the stigma of the title. All around, people were handing over their cash and debit cards, as if the very fact that the book occupied the same table as novels by Wainwright and Devan made this purchase quite respectable. Yet it did not seem respectable to me. The brat inside me craved a copy but I was not about to be controlled by my alter ego. I told the brat that if she wanted one of those absurd books, she had better wait until I ordered it online, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to be seen dead buying one.

I glanced in Hilary’s direction. I tried to catch her eye but she didn’t see me. She was speaking to a woman whose book she was signing; her eyes were shining and her cheeks lightly flushed. Then she laughed, handed over the signed book and turned her attention to the next person in the queue.

It occurred to me that if I bought a copy of this book nobody would even notice. If I took a copy of the Wainwright too, the cashier would see that I was a serious reader; she might think I had bought the Loftus as a gift – for a deluded friend perhaps. Before I could change my mind, I picked both up and paid for them. I did not look the cashier in the eye. I stuffed them in my bag and walked quickly away from the table.

As I turned, I could see Hilary still, leaning towards Devan who touched his hand to her shoulder, smiling. I felt like a bulimic who had just stuffed an entire chocolate cake into her mouth and now must find the lavatory and be sick. 

 

c. Jacqui Lofthouse 2015

 

 

Available as an ebook and paperback on Amazon and to order from bookshops worldwide. ISBN: 9780993092213

Amazon US    Amazon UK

 

 Jacqui Lofthouse's author website: https://jacquilofthouse.com/

The best books that capture the spirit of the Ukranian people

Diane Chandler's passion for Ukraine and its incredible people began when she managed a European Union aid programme there in the 1990s. Ukraine had just become an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and DiFD, the UK government department she worked for, was supporting its path to democracy.

 

She travelled throughout this stunning country umpteen times and met thousands of warm, welcoming people, who quickly found their way into her heart. The Road to Donetsk is her tribute to Ukraine. It won the 2016 People’s Book Prize for Fiction, an award she dedicated to the Ukrainian people. Today, her memories of all those she met weigh heavily on her mind. 

 

Ben at Shepherd.com asked Diane to pick and review 5 books that capture the spirit of the Ukranian people. 

 

Discover her book picks here at Shepherd.com. 

 

US Readers are Discovering Diane Chandler's Prize-winning Novel Set in Ukraine

US readers are discovering Diane Chandler's prize-winning debut novel set in Ukraine. Diane is a former programme manager of the UK's overseas aid to Ukraine.

 

The Road To Donetsk is a novel full of love for Ukraine & the spirit of the Ukrainian people. It won the 2016 People's Book Prize for Fiction. 

 

All past and current author & publisher income is being donated to aid for Ukraine.  

 

More details: smarturl.it/roadtodonetsk

 

 

Back in 2016 we had the honour of featuring Diane's novel in the Kyiv Book Festival. We spent a memorable week in this beautiful city.

#prayingforpeace #prayingforUkraine 

#Ukraine #Istandwithukraine

#ukrainianpeople

#peopleofukraine

#slavaukraine

#supportukraine

#uniteforukraine

#solidaritywithukraine

FIRST CHAPTER Series #9: Famous Cat Lovers Through the Centuries by Christina Hamilton

Introduction

 

The story of the domesticated cat covers many centuries and ranges from adoration to hatred and back full circle to mostly love. 

      Recent speculation seems to confirm that domestic cats are descended from one species; a Middle Eastern wildcat that lived 12,000 years ago. As the fertile crescent of the Middle East flourished, farmers began to store their grain and the mouse population expanded rapidly. The wildcats came out of the woods to hunt and so the familiar tale of the cat and mouse began. The cat was welcomed as the perfect solution to pest control, and thus began its domestication and the enduring relationship between humans and cats.   

Whilst I am sure the farmers were happy that the mice were under control, all cat lovers know that cats bring far more than just an instinct for hunting small rodents. 

      In the US in 2017/18 nearly 32 million households owned a cat and in the UK in 2019 the PDSA estimated 10.9 million households owned a cat. This book aims to bring you surprising, interesting, and astonishing stories of that relationship. Whether they are the humble moggy or the highest pedigree, cats have always inspired and endeared themselves to people. It’s not surprising that some of our most distinguished historical public figures in literature, art and politics fell in love with cats. This book ranges across the centuries and brings you the personal, private cat stories behind the public faces. I hope it will surprise and delight you as I reveal what happened behind closed doors between these famous owners and their cats. 

 

Chapter 1 – BC/CE and 1st Century

 

The cult of the cat began thousands of years ago. It has been established that Egyptian culture from as early as 450BC worshipped the cat. The penalty for killing one was death and when a cat died the household would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. 

      These were some of the observations of Herodotus, the Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC.

He wrote The Histories, the first narrative record of the Ancient World. It is in his second book that he writes about Egypt and although scholars of this period have doubted his methods and authenticity he has come to be known as ‘The Father of History’. 

      It wasn’t only the cat which was worshipped by the Egyptians. Their religion was animistic; the belief that natural places, objects and animals were spiritual. Bast, or Bastet was a cat goddess and one of the most popular. The temple at Bubastis was dedicated to her and dead cats were brought to the temple to be mummified as an offering to her. 

      When Cleopatra arrived in Egypt from Macedonia, she adopted not only the language but its culture. It would therefore be entirely possible that she owned a cat. Some sources name her cat as Charmain, whilst others say it was called Tivali. It was not common to name a cat. They were usually called ‘mui’ or ‘muit’ perhaps relating to the noise they make.

 

EMPEROR ICHIJO, Emperor of Japan

980AD-1011

 

The invention of cat cafes in Japan has given rise to many more around the world. The Japanese love cats, some even worship them, but lack of living space and long working hours prohibit many from owning them. This yearning for cat love has been satisfied with the cat café where you pay to spend time with the cat of your choice. 

      There were no such restrictions for Emperor Ichijo, the 66th Emperor of Japan, who ruled from 986-1011. The high status of cats in Japan is credited to this Emperor because when he was 13 years old, in 999AD, a litter of five white kittens were born. The Emperor’s favourite kitten, Myobu No Omotu was given a rank at court; Lady of the Fourth Court. A banquet was held in honour of the cat’s birth and special rice cakes were made. The Emperor was so enchanted by his favourite that he decreed she was to be treated like a Royal Princess. She even had her own lady in waiting. 

 

MOHAMMAD, Prophet of Islam

570 CE – 8 June 632 CE

 

In Islamic culture the cat has a special place in the hearts of its followers. This is due largely to the Prophet Mohammad and his favourite cat, Muezza. A particularly famous story relates how Mohammad rose from his bed as he heard the call to prayer and saw that Muezza was lying on the sleeve of his robe. He cut off the sleeve rather than disturb the cat. Such was Mohammad’s devotion to Muezza that he allowed her to rest in his lap during his sermons. He also drank from the cat’s water and washed himself with it. Legend also says that the ‘m’ marking on the forehead of a tabby cat was made by the Prophet resting his hand on its forehead. 

The teachings of Islam state that Muslims must not trade or sell cats for money; they can drink the same water as cats as their saliva is harmless, unless impurities are visible in its mouth. They are free to live with cats so long as they feed and water them and treat them well and allow them to roam freely. 

 

c. Christina Hamilton 2020

All rights reserved

Paperback: £4.99

Ebook: £1.99

FIRST CHAPTER Series #8 Only Human by Diane Chandler

What were the odds that I would spot them that day from the top of the 94 bus? Sitting up front like a child to bagsy the best view, enjoying the warmth of the year’s first sunshine on my face. Ironic that I was en route to buy him a birthday gift too, one of his favourite polo shirts. My husband, down on the pavement, in the secret shadow of a pub doorway, tenderly kissing another woman. The way it had wrenched them when they’d pulled apart, the way it had punched me in the gut. And it was I who had felt criminal, loping off the bus, stomach on slow spin, and into a furtive black cab home.

That evening, Ollie had been hosting a wine tasting at the shop, Sophie was sleeping over with a friend, and so I sat in the darkening kitchen tormenting myself – that look between them. Play, misery, rewind, play. When he was finally home, my face must have glowed white in the gloom. At first, he’d thought I was ill and sat down concerned by my side, a caring hand at my shoulder, while my belly roiled on; all out of vomit, it offered only limp spasms.

‘What’s her name?’ I said, quite calmly.

‘Who?’

‘You shit.’

Ollie flinched, his own face drained of colour, but still he said nothing, still he must have hoped.

‘I saw you,’ I said. ‘On the way to Westfield.’

He grasped my hand. ‘She’s just a friend.’

A dizziness took hold then. At some point, I was going to have to stand and stomp off, but my body was denying me that triumph.

‘Kiss all your friends like that, do you?’

He was nicked. A plaintive sigh and he released my shoulder, slumped into his chair.

‘How long’s it been going on?’

He hung his head, it was a good minute before he spoke.

‘Christmas.’

‘Since Christmas?’

My mind hurtled back through the months; snatches of days, events in our diaries, Ollie’s business trips. Nearly five months and I’d not had an inkling – how had he pulled that off?

I really did try to leave the room. Had I been in a film, I would have risen with dignity and glided, turning at the door with a damning, ‘Finish it now or you’ll lose me.’ Truth is that I didn’t dare challenge him like that. Truth is that a tear bobbled onto the rim of my eye and, against my vehement command, slid down my cheek. I watched it plop onto my shirt. It was he who had stood and left the room.

A wave had smashed me off my feet. I found myself tumbling, rolling and spiralling. Where was the surface? Where were the depths? What would I do if he left me?

It never occurred to me to leave him.

 

Nearly two weeks on and I was still reeling. Any hopes he may have harboured at finding himself still in our bed were skewed; it was crucial that Sophie remained oblivious, and so there we slept, back-to-back, stony-to-sheepish. Some mornings he’d attempt a sickening hand to my shoulder as we passed in the kitchen, a lopsided smile, grotesque in its meekness. While I sustained the ice treatment.

Why had he done it? We were still having sex, weren’t we? – true it was same old, same old – but what ancient marriage had not slid into the comfort of a fleeting missionary every now and then? What was he not getting from the marriage? From me? My own shortcomings unfurled before my eyes like a magician’s handkerchief, endless and garish, but I remained frozen by shock, by fear. Unable to confront him again.

‘I hate seeing you like this,’ said Scarlett as I sank into her sofa, cowed like a rescue dog. ‘You’ve got to have it out with him. Don’t let the bastard off scot-free without telling you everything.’

Sound advice. Scar was one of my dearest friends, and the only person I’d confided in, but whenever I sought to muster that anger I found only vulnerability, my once exuberant confidence shattered. She too must have been stunned by the depth and speed of my unravelling, a ship’s cable whipping from its spool. The fury did bubble, finding release at odd times – and on unlikely victims – but I had not yet gathered the courage to unleash it upon him. In case he did indeed tell me everything?

Instead, I’d been scrabbling to fortify myself, to restore the old Anna, so that I might cope with whatever the consequences of that everything would be. And the way forward, as I saw it then, was to flee backwards to a time when Ollie and I had been equals, to unearth my corporate self. I might now be a product of the school gate, but I used to be somebody.

So, after a spontaneous email to a former colleague, I was sitting once again in a slick meeting room at my old firm, a city investment bank. But what was I thinking? Sixteen years since I’d left, much longer since I’d last been interviewed, and the nerves were tap-dancing inside my chest, breaths coming in staccato bursts. Was I really up to this? At least, outwardly, the Max Mara suit was bestowing some of the old swagger. Black wool with a soft chalk stripe, and classic I thought, plus the fact that it fitted me again after the recent weight loss – every cloud and that.

Nice,’ Sophie had said that morning. ‘Don’t let the fashion police see you, Mum.’

‘I need to impress on them that I was once a professional woman. Can’t wear anything too funky.’

That sing-song voice I now assume to appease my tricky teenage daughter.

Funky?’

That eye roll she’d recently perfected.

I cast her from my mind, thoughts of Ollie too, and fixed a smile for the man across the desk, middle-aged, white, alpha – all that privilege in one human being – and then for his sidekick, a young Asian woman. My email had fallen upon good times. They now had this diversity scheme, a drive to recruit women returners, to harness the experience and perspective that evaporates once we leave to have our kids. Not an opening at my previous level, of course, but still.

‘Research suggests that women are better at spotting opportunities, at inspiring others, even that they are more strategic than men.’

From his smug tenor, I knew that he believed otherwise, and already I disliked the man; flashes from my past, of a thousand other chauvinists.

‘Oh, I’m very strategic,’ I said, with a firm nod.

Even if, at home, I was being buffeted like a dingy in a perfect storm.

His eyes narrowed, did he sense that?

‘So, can you flesh out the qualities you would bring to this position?’

Qualities? The word flitted, my mind unable to pin it down. I rummaged for those lines I’d rehearsed in the mirror, lamenting how the face above the suit was now more crêpe de chine than porcelain, shaking my hair forwards to hide what it could.

Qualities, qualities… How do you vocalise the expanse of life you’ve encased yourself, infused yourself with, during all those years at home as a wife and mother? And make it count? Not those weekend mornings I’d dragged Sophie out of bed to engage in every activity under the sun. Not those playground drop-offs spiked with testosterone-pumped women. Nor those evenings of playing wifey at wine events, or poring over recipes with ingredients I’d never heard of.

No, I knew he was after the soft skills I’d apparently acquired in that role of homemaker which would see me well back in the corporate world. And, thankfully, they came to me just in time – the critical thinking, the time management, the resilience. I held forth at length, added a joke too, well that was my intention, one that might capture a skill he would appreciate.

‘And I chaired the PTA at my daughter’s primary school,’ I said. ‘Put me in a room full of tiger mums and I’ll emerge alive and kicking!’

A slow nod, just the one, but no smile – I guess the tiger mum bit was lost on him. (Of course, I was one of those pushy mothers myself, most of us seemed to be these days, even if as a tribe we’d be shocked to be considered such.)

As the man made a few notes, my clammy palms found the rough wool of my skirt with a surreptitious clench; so nervous, but did I really want to subject myself to this life again?

‘How would you feel about getting up to speed on the new technologies, which will have transformed themselves twice over since your day?’

Helpless. But that was ageism – even if I must have been one of the oldest potential returners.

As if in tacit agreement, the sidekick uncrossed and re-crossed her legs; a silent signal, and he did clock it.

‘I mean, change has been especially rapid in our business,’ he added, shifting in his seat, a hint of weakness which bolstered me – and also brought a sudden memory.

As a young graduate I’d once been advised to imagine all interviewers sitting naked in the bath, a rubber duck floating between their legs. So that’s what I did. Stripped him off, paunch and all, steering that duck clear from his stub of a modesty, and my shoulders sank a little.

‘Well,’ I said, with a deep breath and a more relaxed smile, ‘I understand that these days emotional intelligence is just as valuable as technical ability.’

And I happily added two more qualities to my list: empathy and intuition. Not that I’d intuited my husband’s affair, had I?

A flicker of smile. Steepled fingertips. And then he floored me.

‘An impressive track record while you were with us.’

‘Thank you.’

I felt myself flush, surprised tears springing in gratitude.

Because, yes, I’d been bloody good at my job, had been valued, on other people’s radar. And yet here I was, Anna Bond, in my mid-forties, in the prime of life, and floundering. The female term for a cuckold, I’d read, is a cuckqueen, and that felt perfectly apt.

 

On the Tube home, I stared through the pages of the Evening Standard. They’d said they’d be in touch but, whatever their decision, I’d known. Even as I’d sat gazing at the abstract swirls of colour on the walls in reception, as I’d been led through the open plan, with its splash of screens and the stench of callow greed. Let’s face it, I’d known even as I’d dressed that morning. I had moved on. The corporate world which had once given me meaning would no longer rouse me, and if offered the job I wouldn’t take it; there would have to be some other route back to me. The interview, however, had fortified me – I was still in there somewhere. Perhaps the way forward was philanthropic, some form of charity work, even if the thought of sorting fusty second hand clothes or stuffing envelopes left me cold.

I nearly missed my stop. Dashed to the closing doors and out onto the ground I loved. Chiswick, my one constant. Down on the pavements of Turnham Green Terrace, the heatwave which was to smile upon the nation that summer was already warming itself up, and the yeasty scent of Fuller’s Brewery steeped the air, a deep breath of it heightening my sense of home.

Hanging back, I glanced in at Ollie’s shop on the other side of the road, its frontage painted in Plummet Grey, the lettering a deep charcoal, Oliver Bond Esq. Purveyor of Fine Wines. He stood planted at the oak desk, frowning down at his phone, one hairy arm outstretched, hand resting on the layers of tissue paper. Pillar of the community, so he always joked. Still a thick crown of hair, still sandy too, and cut to perfection by the guy opposite – all the local businesses enjoyed the fruits of barter and Burgundy was a heady commodity.

A woman entered and Ollie looked up with that winning smile. Expecting the sight of his face to bring misery, I found instead that it stirred a surge of defiance. An impressive track record, the man had said. Who was this bastard to have an affair on me? He fetched down a bottle from the wooden shelves, holding it with reverence, stroking it. Not unlike he once used to hold and stroke me. Did I still love him? I had no idea. We just were. Anna and Ollie a solid couple, married now for nearly twenty years. A slide into marital oblivion so steady that the moment when I’d no longer caught my breath, when my insides had no longer flipped was indiscernible.

‘Leave him,’ Scar had said. Simple words for such a terrifying act of dismantlement.

I crossed over to the deli in search of something quick for dinner.

 

At my front door I assumed that cape of super-motherhood which smothered all fragility of my own. I’d been slipping it on since Sophie was born, and it now draped itself automatically in her presence.

In our hallway I found a bike propped against the wall, heard her chatting to someone in the kitchen and smiled with relief, it was easier these days when we were not alone, just the two of us. Cocking my head to gauge which of her friends she’d brought back from school, I was pulled up short. A male voice, rich and deep, suffused with a particular joyous-come-cheeky resonance, which I recognised from my own youth. They were flirting. I wandered through to them.

The boy was sitting at the island opposite my daughter, and he didn’t look up immediately. Between them sat our pet tortoise, Horace, whom the boy was feeding, leaf by leaf. Cocky then. Finally, he glanced at me, his eyes a startling pewter grey, luminous with his laughter, with enthrallment.

‘Hi,’ I said, bearing down on Sophie with a quizzical smile, unable to hide my initial shock.

‘Hi Mum. This is Jack.’

Her tone towards me was warmer than usual, right from the start I was aware of that. Her smile shone half euphorically, half sheepishly, and our eyes remained locked while the impulses leapt between our synapses – why didn’t you tell me? Why should I? And then I looked away, softly rueful of her inevitable slide towards independence. She’d been pulling away for some time now and this was a further step. For a moment I felt completely alone, abandoned by husband and daughter, the two truths of my life.

The boy stood up from the bar stool, causing it to rock on its legs, and I pretended not to notice the face Sophie pulled at him, mocking his stumble, but was heartened to see that she held such power.

‘Hello.’ I strolled over and held out my hand.

‘Nice to meet you, Mrs Bond.’ A chunk of dirty-blond hair flopped onto his forehead as if by remote control. ‘You have a lovely house.’

‘Thank you, Jack. Cup of tea?’

‘Awesome, thank you.’

I turned to fill the kettle. Her first boyfriend. But this was not a boy, he must have been six-foot tall, his chest was as broad as Ollie’s, his wrists were muscled for Christ’s sake! As I unloaded my bag of food into the fridge, I could feel the energy dancing between them and finally I swung around, arms folded.

‘What are you up to, then?’

‘Revising together. History. We’re in the same set.’

‘The rise of Hitler.’ It was Jack who spoke, his smile disarming. ‘And the causes thereof.’

Thereof. Clearly from an educated family.

‘Sounds like a plan. Biscuit?’

I took the tin over, it felt good to have a prop.

‘Awesome, thank you.’ He dug out two chocolate digestives and slipped one whole into his mouth.

Again, I contemplated Horace, now abandoned on the island to feed himself, and I shared a further lingering look with Sophie. My hygiene rules were strict, no tortoise on eating surfaces, but we both knew I wouldn’t nag. I wandered back to pour the teas.

‘How was the interview, Mum?’

I turned with a bright smile but her own eyes were on Jack, her radiant face carefully framed by a mass of blonde, and my heart leapt out in protection – take it slowly Sophie.

‘Great,’ I said, watching the boy as I placed his mug of tea down. His smile oozed filmic confidence. ‘If wanky bankers float your boat.’

‘Mum!’

I was pleased to see him blush; not so cocky then. ‘Hope your father doesn’t work in the City?’

‘No, er, he’s a garden designer.’

‘Creative, I like that. Anyway, been a long day, I’m off for a bath. Nice to meet you, Jack.’

I slunk from the kitchen, mug in hand and stopped on the first stair to catch Sophie’s words.

‘Parents, hey?’

I waited, leaned into the banister.

‘She’s mad,’ said Jack.

 

I’d intended to soak off the interview but instead I was fending off thoughts like missiles. Ollie. Why had he had the affair? I was going to challenge him while that post-interview defiance was still fresh; the Max Mara suit alone had restored a bundle of confidence. But I had been counting on a return to my old firm as the way forward, it would have allowed me to walk away from my marriage – if that was the path I chose – or to cope if he were to leave me. I saw again that woman in the doorway, the look between them. What was I going to do now? Where next would I search for that elusive someone I used to be?

And now there was Jack. This stranger lounging in my kitchen, a boy-man whose presence hung in the air. The space he took up was disturbing, a mass of limbs and flesh, a trace of earthy aftershave too, whereas most teenage boys smelt of baked beans.

The bath water had cooled so I topped it up with hot and plunged beneath the foam of raspberry bubbles (I still bought Sophie’s childhood favourite) wallowing until my breath burst. Sweeping back up, I scooped a palmful of froth, squeezed until the bubbles had vanished and reached for another. What had just happened in my kitchen? Well it seemed that, totally out of the blue, a rite of passage was underway for my daughter, an emotion in her eyes I’d not yet seen. Had I warned her enough about sex? About the privilege of her own body? What if Jack were to coerce her into it? You can’t tell a teenager not to do it, I myself was younger than she is now, but somehow, at fifteen, I seemed older than my daughter, more street-wise.

A gale of laughter from below and I sank again beneath the water, losing myself in its cocoon. Mad, he’d called me. And I knew that mad was teenage slang for cool – it didn’t mean loopy or unhinged.

By the end of that summer, however, I would be unable to fathom quite what I had become.

 

c. Diane Chandler 2020

All rights reserved

 

Paperback £8.99 Waterstones smarturl.it/waterstns

Ebook: £2.99/$3.99

Amazon: smarturl.it/onlyh

 

FIRST CHAPTER SERIES #7 The Spirit of the Horse by Pam Billinge

Introduction

 

 

The promises

 

In 2008, a small brown Quarter Horse called Coop changed my life. Lost and anxious after a destructive marriage, divorce, redundancy and multiple bereavements, I needed to get away. I signed up for an intensive two-month course in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to learn natural ways of interfacing with horses. Coop reconnected me to myself in the most affirmatory way possible. I learned how to be fully in the moment, to let go of fear and to dare to dream. The ways in which I saw horses, my work as a therapist and coach, and indeed myself, were changed forever. I write about this transformational experience in The Spell of the Horse.

In my final days at the ranch I made myself two promises. The first, that I would find a way of integrating the healing power of horses into my work as a psychotherapist and a leadership coach. I had no idea how I would do it, with no facilities to work at and only one horse at home in my ‘herd’. Yet excitement bubbled under my skin in a way it had never done before. However crazy it seemed I knew this was what I must do. I vowed I would find a way – if one horse could change me so much, then why would others not be able to do the same for my clients?

The second part of my vow was that I would one day have my horse, or horses, living with me at home. Since I bought my first, Delilah, 18 years earlier, I had always been obliged to use livery yards. If I was lucky, my horse would be a few miles away from home, but sometimes they were much further. I fitted into someone else’s rules and decisions about their care, and tolerated the fallings out and judgemental opinions of my human stable-mates. In Colorado I lived alongside Coop for 6 weeks, lodged in a log cabin a stone’s throw from where he was kept. I had come to know the closeness which is possible when sharing the same space and interacting throughout the days. Being a daily visitor to my horse on someone else’s terms didn’t feel enough anymore.

The great surprise was that it was the first of my commitments which had been the easiest to manifest. Within a year of returning from my adventure in the mountains I was running successful leadership development programmes for my corporate clients centred around experiential interaction with a herd. I was also offering horse-led psychotherapy to private clients of all ages and walks of life. (I describe what I do as being ‘horse-led’ rather than ‘equine assisted’ because I feel it is I who assist the horses in their healing work, not the other way around.)

As this business grew, I developed a collaboration with a farm based in Wiltshire to host programmes and formed a team of like-minded professionals around me. The materialisation of this collective seemed almost miraculous such was the synchronicity of events. There was an indisputable ‘rightness’ to the enterprise. Changes in my personal circumstances left me needing a new base, so I relocated to a beautiful county in South West England to make my home and start afresh.

Wiltshire immediately felt like the right place for me to be. But with land prices beyond my reach the second promise faded into a daydream, gathering dust on the ‘if only’ shelf. When in idle moments I browsed the internet looking at equestrian properties which I could afford, in far-flung parts of the United Kingdom or in France, it was with the longing of a window shopper who feels she will never be able to step into the shop. It was the same feeling I used to have as a child when I would ask my parents for a pony, knowing that they would never buy me one. My mum would always say kindly, ‘Yes of course you can have one … one day … when we are rich.’ And I got used to that day never coming.

Being able to see my herd from the garden, being able to create an environment for their optimum health, whilst building a therapeutic workspace which suited the way I wanted to welcome my clients – all this became a fantasy. I stopped believing that it would be possible, at least for me.

 

Don’t stop believing

 

These patterns which we grow up with, whether it is expecting that you will never have what you long for, that you are not good enough to deserve it, or that you will fail so it is better not to try, stay with us into our adult lives without us even realising it. We receive in life what we expect to receive, and these often-undetected belief systems limit our ability to be happy.

The important thing to understand is that if your dream doesn’t go away, if it still beckons from the shelf you have put it on, then it is more than a wistful fancy and you close your ears at your peril.

And this promise of mine, it did keep calling. The Spirit of the Horse tells the story of where it took me, what I learned and am still learning on that path – about myself, the profound nature of horses and about life, love and leadership.

Along the way I have worked with many inspiring people. They have often left me wiser and always left me feeling blessed. I thank them for trusting me and my horses to walk beside them for a little while. I share, too, some of their stories with you. To protect their anonymity identities have been fictionalised, but what happened between the person and the horses are just as described. Individuals whose personal stories are featured have given permission for, and many have contributed to, the narrative.

 

You may be a horse-lover who simply wants to lose yourself in the deep affection for the species which lives in these pages. You may be asking questions about the nature of your relationship with your own horse or be interested to learn about my professional approach. You may not know horses at all, but are exploring our bindings to nature and how it might save us, the human race, from ourselves. Or perhaps you are a business person, parent, teacher or spouse looking for new ways to love and lead those for whom you are responsible. For whatever reason you come to The Spirit of the Horse, know that I held you in my mind when I wrote it. I created this book, which soon I will set free to find its way to you, for the joy of sharing the many gifts which my life yields. It is a privilege and pleasure to be a small part of your journey, and I am grateful to you for inviting me in.

1

Moonlight Escape

 

 

Late October 2018

 

The lorry had been left a quarter of a mile up the rural track to facilitate a nocturnal departure. In the full moonlight the autumnal canopy running its length shone in sepia tones and the stones beneath my feet glistened. It was so bright I didn’t need the torch bulging in my pocket. The horse transporter and his assistant were already at the gate waiting for me to arrive with the key. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or not to see them. In some way I hoped that I would have time on my own with the herd to ask them once again if I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t sure if I would bitterly regret this one day or be eternally grateful.

The three horses were more than surprised to see us emerge from the shadows at 2am that October morning. I had no time to reconsider my decision or say a silent goodbye to this beauty spot and the memories it held. The transporters were cheerful, efficient, swift. They didn’t say much which was just as well because I couldn’t have spoken through the wad of emotion in my throat. Before I knew it the doors of the large lorry were creaking shut with the horses inside. This chapter in my life was closing, the next had not yet begun.

 

 

2

The White Horse Watches Over

 

 

December 2012

 

 

The incessant rain forced me into my car rather than my walking boots to go out exploring. Gingerly I drove, the water lying on every bend concealed potholes and soft verges which I knew could really spoil my day. And then, teetering over the crest of the single-lane humped-back bridge, I saw it. A huge prancing equine figure, dug into the hillside, rising before me.

I had seen pictures of the various chalk horses which adorned the rolling downs in this part of the country but I had not realised that there was one so close by. This turf carving had graced the Pewsey Vale for two hundred years, emblematic of the tranquility which oozed from the landscape. Commissioned by a Victorian landowner it was not archaeologically significant in itself, but it piaffed on the site of a Neolithic long barrow, guarding the souls who had walked there four thousand years before.

 

A new home

 

A failed relationship and a year of grief following the unexpected death of my older brother had set me adrift. I needed to throw down an anchor and chose this verdant corner of South West England, known for its ancient history, pagan roots and swathes of hill and heathland. I had the beginnings of a network in the area to support my transition and a venue where I would be able to develop my horse-led learning business. What did I have to lose?

I settled in a hamlet a few miles from the great white horse which seemed to have called me that day. I bought a small house which with love would become pretty. When I heard of a field coming up for rent a mile away I made sure that I became the next tenant. My herd of four, Winston, Ruby, Dawn and Ellie, would dwell in the heart of this exquisite vale, watched over from afar by their symbolic counterpart.

To access the field where the horses were soon installed involved a long walk along a track. It was lined with hedge and copse, stony in some places and muddy in others. It took me away from the village into farmland abundant with wildlife. In March there was enough wild garlic to keep me in pesto for a year and in September there were blackberries for jam. Occasionally walkers passed along the footpath but most days I would be alone there with the herd. It was a place where I would find healing, quietude and space, where melancholy dispersed and appreciation took its place. For the first time since I had owned horses I was able to create an environment which I didn’t need to share and soon this five-acre field became an extension of my home.

 

Belonging

 

In the Liverpool suburb where I was raised neighbours often visited each other uninvited, sometimes even in their slippers, whether to drink tea, feed pets or monitor children. It had taken me a long time to grow used to the privacy (or might I say distance) maintained in other places I had lived. Over the years there had been few of my neighbours I could have called friends. 

 

    But here under the eye of the White Horse it was different. I found a bag full of home-grown lettuce leaves on my step. A jar of marmalade followed, then runner beans and soon an invitation to a Meet your Neighbours gathering. This was a locality with heart and in the following months I was enfolded within it. Companions came forward for dog-walks, rides, shared meals and drinks. Lifts were offered when cars broke down and shovels emerged when the snow fell. Here I felt looked after. There was a giving and taking of care founded on common humanity and kindness. This was a place I felt safe. ‘Here I will stay’ I vowed quietly to myself. Why would I ever leave?

 

 

 

c. Pam Billinge 2021

All Rights Reserved

RIP MICHAEL LAWRENCE

Very sad news from Hydra, Greece. Blackbird author, the artist Michael Lawrence has died. He passed away peacefully after a long illness suffering from heart complications and diabetes. RIP, Michael, your art and your writing will live on. Michael Lawrence 1943-2021.