Tuesday, 27 November 2018


Dad always asked why I never wrote any comedy. He thought that our family would have made perfect sitcom material, but it’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy.
I’ve been looking at an old photo that I recently unearthed from the attic, stuffed and creased in a box of mixed papers; bereft and forgotten.
It’s got that faded, almost sepia look typical to old polaroid’s and it’s a family scene; another forgotten childhood snapshot. A pantomime of hollow smiles and lying eyes; and as I tracked through the estranged and easily forgotten members of my family I came across one person who had been cut out, erased from history; the scissored line clinical and tight to the edge. This wasn’t done out of rage but an anger that goes far beyond. What’s more I can’t quite place who it might have been.
I’m intrigued but unfortunately there’s no one I can ask about it now. My parents are no longer –both passed away within months of each other, perhaps the only truly loving couple I’ve ever known.
It’s taken me months to pluck up the courage to come back to their home; let alone clear it out, which is why I started in the loft –it has the least memories attached to it.
I took the photo downstairs to see it in the daylight and, whilst making myself a cup of tea I look around and it feels like mum and dad are still with me.
I don’t see the house as it is now, but as it was when I was a child. In the dining room there used to be an old gas fire; wooden boxed, metal grated, whose top served as a small shelf come Christmas time. I would create a little nativity scene with cotton wool, angel hair and cheap plastic models of the manger and shepherds. The fire has gone and plastered over and a large painting of sunflowers is mounted in its place.
In the lounge I sit on the nearest sofa which seems more uncomfortable now that they’re both gone –almost as if the house is telling me that I’m no longer wanted there. I stare at the photo, trying to remember who each of the characters in it were; hopefully through a process of elimination I can figure out who was ignobly cut out.

Uncle Jerry and Aunt Jane, kneeling together, faux smiles plastered on their faces. For Jerry, a rare moment of sobriety. Out of all his siblings he could have actually made something of his life. He had a special knack when it came to playing cricket, both as a batsman and a bowler. He had total command when batting; no one could bowl him out unless he wanted them to… (or later, if he was drunk enough). He was a demon bowler as well and had the nickname of the sniper.
But drink became his only friend, the only support in his life. Aunt Jane could never see what was so important about his gift and moaned at him constantly to give it up. Uncle Jerry drank to drown her out; his biggest fear was that maybe she was right; maybe cricket was the only thing in his life. His sense of self-esteem was more tenuous than what we thought….
About a year after the photo was taken he was involved in a nasty car accident, thankfully he was fully sober and was a passenger besides, but he had to have his foot amputated; it had been crushed in the wreckage. Both he and Jane survived otherwise but it meant that he could never play cricket again.
On the outside it was impossible to tell whether this was a problem and to the rest of us it seemed as if he was getting better, and had even changed his outlook. He had quit drinking and even Jane nagged at him less.
How wrong we all were. He waited until Jane had gone round her mother’s and bought himself the most expensive bottle of whiskey he could afford. He took an overdose of pain killers and drank the whole bottle. Jane was inconsolable and never recovered from his death; she blamed herself for the accident and in the end inherited her husband’s mantle and became an alcoholic herself. She was found dead one evening, clutching a photo of Jerry in his cricketing whites, grinning at the camera for all it was worth.

Next to Jerry and Jane in the photo, on one of the badly made dining chairs , sat the grand matriarch herself, Doris –my Great Grandmother. Every inch the Victorian schemer, the ultimate puppeteer. Born poor, she worked hard for her money and had been known to do anything for it when she moved down South. Of course, one never questioned what that might have entailed…. Indeed, as I grew so did my understanding of its ramifications.
She died about five years after the photo had been taken, her body had given up although her mind and tongue were still just as sharp, may she rot in hell for all the pain she inflicted on others.
When I was a child she seemed a jovial but brusque woman always cracking cheap jokes, often at other’s expense, but also very quick to turn if given a chance.
As an adult I found that she had been a manipulative bitch often playing one daughter against each other. Often changing alliances, making each compete against each other for the paltry rations of her love (which was never worth that much in the first place).

In the photo Doris has an almost triumphant glint in her eye, her hands folded neatly in her lap as if to say “job well done”. Behind her stands Auntie Ann, her hand claw like grasping Doris’s shoulder; pain so evident in her eyes despite the glassy smile. At that time she was the most hated member of the family. No one liked her much except for mum, who somehow saw the good in everyone. Anne had always been good to mum, despite being held in such contempt by the others; and it was mum who invited her to that Christmas party. It was the last time we were all together like that. Doris had made Anne out to be a money-grabbing whore and had spun such tales of spite and venom that it was difficult not to believe her.
After Doris’s death it came to light that she had been doing the same to Anne; saying that all her sisters were insanely jealous of her and that none of them liked her. Anne never forgave her for that but neither could she reconcile with her sisters; the hurt ran too deep. The only person she ever kept in touch with was mum, and even left her a sizeable chunk of money in her will when she died.

At the other side of the kitchen table stood Uncle Geoff and Auntie Victoria, almost embracing; eyes seemingly only for each other. Sitting in front of them were their children Jack and Rose. Geoff and Victoria were the model couple and seemed straight out of Hello magazine. He was a minister of a popular congregation and Victoria was the faithful, dutiful wife.
“Why can’t you be more like Geoff and Victoria” was Doris’s favourite retort to mum and dad who led very unorthodox lives –well, at least, to her.
On the surface their marriage was the picture of bliss: a cottage, two cars, two dogs and two healthy, happy children. But looking at the photo again with the bonus of hindsight I saw that there were cracks starting to show even then.
Rose was sitting in a very uncomfortable position, almost perched on her knees trying to lean on Jack who looked at her askew with something more than brotherly concern. He was older than Rose by four years and could now look after himself.
Victoria always wore lots of make-up, dark blouses with full sleeves and high neck lines. It could be said that, being a preachers wife, she was modest; but what we didn’t know then was that Geoff had not only been beating her but had also been abusing Rose for many years in the worst ways imaginable.
It was no surprise when John moved out as soon as he could and even married an Australian lass he met on holiday; he emigrated as soon as he could. Rose had a string of abusive relationships growing up and is now seeking her own path as a preacher. Is she trying to atone for her father’s mistakes?
Victoria was always the enigma though. None of the sisters knew their father and it had affected them in many ways; ways that they never reconciled. For Victoria, Geoff had become the father she had never known. His love was straight from God after all. There’s only one thing that I still wonder: did she know about the abuse on Rose or not? In my more generous minutes I pray that she didn’t –on her own she could be sweet and thoughtful; an archetypal auntie. I would hate to think that she knew about it and allowed it to happen.

Sitting on a couple of chairs in front of the dining table were my nan and granddad; an unlikely pair. Granddad, salt of the earth; a worker off the land and nan; a beauty pageant winner with a heart of gold and low self-esteem to match. Nan was Doris’s favourite target and became the subject of countless ridicule and scorn but this only fuelled her attempts to better herself,  in an attempt to win back the maternal love she felt she was missing, much to granddad’s disbelief.
I have no doubt that granddad loved nan but he could never show it; it was totally alien to him. In his own way he was just as emotionally stunted as her; I know that he did find it hard keeping up with her whimsy. He was happiest walking his dog, Maz, whom he doted on. Maz’s love was safe and he could understand her; but when Maz passed away the light in his eyes died too.
I’m still too close to nan and granddad to really understand them properly, or to see them in a truly adult way. There are some illusions that I want to keep hold of.

The same applies to mum and dad. It was very rare to see mum in a photo, she was normally behind the camera; she inherited nan’s lack of self-confidence (which has now been passed on to me). Dad stood to the far side in the photo, a sheepish smile and a knowing look.
Dad was my rock, one who I looked up to; a compass – there were so many times where I thought I’d lost my way, but he could always steer me straight. In some way I owe it to him to find my way through this current crisis I find myself in.

In between Geoff and Dad stood Leonard and… well, that must mean it was Gina who had been cut out of the photo!
Leonard was a decent bloke and doted on Gina, who was stunning (even in that photo). She had been a model before they met and she quickly adopted to a corporate life after that as his secretary; but she never lost her looks. I confess to having several fantasies revolving around her whilst growing up. It always made me especially embarrassed when I met her, often blushing which was, luckily, put down to being a shy child.
Gina was so health obsessed though that she was actually OCD before it became fashionable. Her sofa’s all had plastic covers over them; slippers had to be worn at all times in the house and she constantly washed her hands. The house itself was cleaned daily; top to tail; and one can only wonder how Leonard put up with it all. They had two children, Pete and Dawn, and it always seemed strange to think that Gina would have allowed Leonard that near her, let alone have any kind of physical congress with him.

But none of that explains why she would be missing from the photo like that. There was no real love lost between any of the sisters… strangely Gina is the only one of them still alive and, if it really mattered, I suppose I could always drive over and ask her…  but I dread to think what kind of crap I’d be dredging up.  Some things are best left undiscovered.
One cynical thought occurs though: as Gina was so disgustingly clinical in her approach to life maybe she even cut herself out of the photo!

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Picking up the pieces

If something seems too good to be true then there’s a reason to be mindful. Cliché? Quite possibly, but it doesn’t make it the less true, and woe betide those that don’t have the sense to heed it.
I’d travelled to Glastonbury to escape; to find sense out of my life again. I’d reached a turning point where the last ten years of my life had been deemed worthless by, in no discernible order, my place of work; my wife and the rest of my family. You want cliché’s? The house of cards had nothing on me .
My place of work had found me surplus to requirements and grown tired of my form of ‘specialisation’, believing that anyone could be a Training Manager. My wife couldn’t understand why I found it so difficult to get another job; she helped undermine by sense of worth, her attempts of ‘buoying me up’ tantamount to emasculation.
My family shared her disillusions: I was the elder son and the constant disappointment. My younger brothers had a template to learn from, a complete list of things not to do and it had gotten to the point where they were already to disown me.
And I saw no reason to disagree with them. The back-breaking straw was the last argument: my wife, supportive as ever: “You make it impossible for me to love you. At least when you were working you had some worth; it’s almost a shame you don’t have life insurance…” In all the years we’d known each other it didn’t get any clearer than that; I was dead to her.
I’m not a violent or confrontational man and saw no need for retaliation. I simply picked up my car keys, got into the car and just drove. I had nowhere in mind, I just knew that there was no reason to turn back; there was no longer any home for me.
It was past midnight when I realised that I’d need to find somewhere to sleep. I pulled into one of the many faceless service stations and managed to find a cashpoint. I knew that first thing in the morning she’d try to freeze me out of the joint account –I only prayed that she hadn’t thought of it already.
As luck would have it I still had access to it and withdrew all but £100. She had her own account so wouldn’t be too hard up, but now I had some money to live on; at least until I figured out what I wanted to do next.
I spent the restless night in a Holiday Inn and it was over a hearty breakfast that I tried to orientate myself. (I’m blessed with an appetite that defies depression; one of the few things that I am, in fact thankful for.) I was actually near the A303.. Now, before I was married, I’d spent a glorious week at Glastonbury; it was as if my stars had come into alignment. I found companionship there, openness, laughter and happiness; everything that was lacking in my current life. I desperately needed somewhere I could take stock, and if ever there was a place more ideally suited then I’d never heard of it.  Renewed with a sense of purpose I headed to Glastonbury and the next chapter of my story.

Fate / karma… however you want to label it; but it was still with me, or so it seemed. I managed to remember the B&B I’d stayed at all those years ago and, not only was the same lady running it but she remembered me AND still had a room available for as long as I needed it. Again, this seemed too good to be true, but I was so elated in my sudden change of fortune that I snapped it up.
Hannah was now a High Priestess of some sort or another; I didn’t really go for all the mumbo-jumbo but she was as warm and open I remembered her. It took just one cup of her camomile tea for me to spill my heart out to her. All my frustrations, inadequacies and confidences lay bare –never had I been so open to anyone but it felt so right. In retrospect she played everything brilliantly and I never suspected anything. All she did was listen and sympathise, coax where necessary and I was none the wiser that my hole was getting deeper and deeper and she would be ready to fill it back in.
Three hours later I sat in my room and felt unburdened; lighter somehow. I felt as if I’d hit rock bottom and that there was nowhere to go now but up. Boy, how wrong could I be?

I bummed around Glastonbury the next day, visiting all the place that I remembered: the shops and coffee houses and everything still seemed the same; and, as before, I felt as if I belonged.
I ended up at The King Arthur pub in a state of blissful tiredness. Wife, job and family seemed like a different life; one that I had now left behind. All had made it clear that I had no place in their lives anymore so I had no need to inform them where I was. They could list me as presumed dead for all I cared.
I was nursing my third pint when someone caught my eye. Glastonbury attracts all sorts and more than its fair share of beautiful women. Whether it was the spiritual allure of the place or my own inebriation but there was an Earth Goddess vibe about her. She wore long flowing robes of the deepest amethyst which would have looked pretentious anywhere else, but just looked natural in the Isle of Avalon. She was six foot and every inch oozed sensuality. She had a voluptuous quality and her auburn hair seemed to float in my gaze. He looked at me and smiled, I smiled back expecting to wake up at any second. It was then that I noticed her two friends either side of her who were also gazing at me. I resisted the urge to pinch myself. Captivated, I almost didn’t realise what was happening until they were standing at my table. “Do you mind if we join you?”

This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me; I’ve no illusions about myself. I’m not handsome, not even slightly interesting in appearance or in personality. My wife always made a point that she never actually found me physically attractive and only loved me for what I did for her; so being faced by three sirens left me breathless and in a state of confusion.
I almost melted into a stammering mess and thankfully they didn’t wait for me to answer, simply sat down opposite me –or should I say, surrounding me. I had purposefully sat at the back of the pub at a circular table so I wouldn’t attract undue attention so there should have been no reason for one, let alone three, beautiful women to look in my direction… that should have been my first clue.
But three there were; live, in the flesh and very beautiful to boot and I thought that lady luck was finally shining, not shitting, on me. Hannah had spoken to me about the change of Karma and she was right. (again, if I’d had more wits about me then I might have been able to put two and two together quicker.)
Abby was blonde, stunning in the extreme: voluptuous, long flowing hair… Beatrice was brunette with piercing eyes, which made it difficult not to get tangled in them. Ygrainne was a red head; like the surface of the sun; heart-breaking in intensity. My words, I know, do not do them justice. I’m no writer, but this was how women should look and dress: show their femininity rather than be ashamed of their bodies…
I could hear Beatrice talk to me, the others joining in and I guess that I must have been answering, albeit in monosyllabic grunts and must have said something witty for Abby and Ygrainne were laughing which encouraged me to talk more; to become almost daring. The more they talked, the more I joined in. I didn’t think about what was happening or, indeed, how unlikely things were. I didn’t want to burst the bubble and wake up. I knew that it could come to an end all too soon and, I wanted to savour it. Imagine my surprise then, and I must admit horror, when Ygrainne suggested that we all go back to their commune, which was in the grounds of the Goddess temple.
“I’m not to be sacrificed, am I?” I joked, but there was a knowing chuckle that came from them as a reply. So the options were: spending an amazing night with three beautiful women and get murdered as part of some weird pagan ritual or go home on my own. Not much of a choice really so, of course, I went with them.
The night so far had been everything I had ever hoped for. Again, I only wish I had the language to convey how I was feeling… or the memories… I have to be honest here; what else do I have to gain or lose at this point?
I must have drunk more than I thought for I don’t remember much after we’d gotten back to their rooms. We were kissing and undressing each other. Even at that stage I was having trouble taking my clothes off and eventually fell on one of their beds dreamily giggling as they helped me. I remember closing my eyes briefly and then nothing.

Morning woke me with birdsong and headache; a pickaxe residing in my temples; too late a warning against drinking heavily.
I looked around me. I was lying in the centre of the bed, three girls lying around me. What a wonder stud I was… I’m just thankful they didn’t kick me out last night after I fell asleep or try to steal any of the money I had on me. Funny… in the morning light they looked a little younger than they were last night; make-up does that I suppose. I didn’t dwell on it and just got up as carefully as I could, got dressed and left. None of them even batted an eye lid; I was probably just another of their many conquests.

Glastonbury takes on a different sheen first thing in the morning when there’s no one else around; one can get a glimpse behind the magic and see it for what it is: a lone street, faded and alone. With the shops shut and no one else around it’s bereft of glamor and just feels bankrupt.
I carefully let myself into the B&B but Hannah was already up despite it being just Six o’clock. Surprisingly, she was all ready with a cup of coffee and a conspiratorial glint in her eye.
“Busy night?”
“Yeah.. no… well…” I stumbled. I was actually embarrassed to be talking to her about this; I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it all, to be honest. It was a night that initially showed so much promise and then fizzled out entirely; which summed up my life up until that point, actually.
I started to explain what had happened when she interrupted me.
“Did you fuck them?” I was obviously stunned by this; I’d never known Hannah to swear before and it seemed so out of character. “Four words, one question, not difficult: did you fuck them?”
“Well, obviously…” I stammered; it felt wrong to lie, yet she was backing me into a corner. She looked at me askew with an unreadable expression, partway between contempt and amusement.
“Liar.” She said it so matter-of-factly. “But your secret is safe with me.”
I’m actually a terrible liar and would make the worst spy in history, but to be called out like that was almost intolerable. I was about to say something back but she just stuck her hand out to me; palm facing me. “I don’t want to hear any of your shit or excuses; some of us actually have things to do; lives to lead. We can’t all afford to run away like you did. Some of us actually have responsibilities.”
With that she got up and walked out to her garden leaving me stunned. I couldn’t believe what had just happened; what she said was uncalled for –as true as it was. I went up to my room and just sat on the bed staring out the window. I was hurt by what she’d said, especially after she’d offered me so much support the day before.

But what hurt more: she was right. I was, in fact, imposing on her. I’d come unannounced and unburdened myself and she’d listened patiently and offered me this very room to stay in until I’d sorted myself out. This wasn’t a holiday, I needed to find myself a job; make myself useful and start paying my way properly.
Yet by five o’clock that afternoon I’d hardly moved; never underestimate the depths of self-pity. I prevaricated and procrastinated: my wife was right, so were my family. Every time I tried to come up with a solution to my problems –a job I might want to do- I blocked it with the “Yes, but..” followed by empty excuses. The truth was: I’d lost my power (if I ever had any in the first place).
A knock on the door snapped me out of my maudlin stupor. “Are you coming down for something to eat or not?” Hannah asked, as if she was talking to a petulant child, which wasn’t far wrong…. But I was hungry so I followed after her.
“So…are you going to look for a job or not?”
“Yes.. tomorrow.”
“Liar.” She bated me again.
“What would you have me do?” I snapped.
“Be a man!” She snapped back. “Dear God! You are pathetic. Ok… so you’ve lost your job, so what? Get another!  Your wife left you? So what?!” I just sat there, taking it in; unblinking. Her voice, where once it was calm and almost musical, was harsh and unforgiving. “Stand up for yourself! I mean, look at yourself… sitting there like a five year old whose just had his legs slapped. How old are you?” She didn’t even wait for me to answer. “Well act like it.” She sighed for a second before continuing. “Look… you’re in luck. I’m holding a development circle tonight; we’ve helped many people like you. Become part of it; we need another male energy.”
“Well… I don’t know…” I didn’t hold with all the spiritual love-dovey crap. I liked Glastonbury for the peace and openness but this was starting to make me feel uncomfortable. “It’s not really my cup of tea.”
“That’s how it is? You come to me for help but as soon as it’s offered you snub me.”
“It’s not like that at all…” I tried to explain, but my heart wasn’t in it.
“So how is it? You don’t want to get better… Don’t want to find a way out of it?”
“No… it’s…”
“Ok…” I sighed; what was I really trying to fight against? She was right, damn it.
“Don’t go doing me any favours!”
“No… please, I want to come.” She knew exactly what buttons to press because the more she pushed back the more I wanted to come… was it ever my choice?
“As long as you’re sure, and this is a conscious decision, not just another reaction.”
“Please. I want to do this… I want to come. Thank you for thinking of me.”
“Good. We meet at 7.30 then… tonight.”

I had no idea what to expect from one of these meetings… or development circles, as Hannah put it. I half-expected long flowing robes, chanting and incense and I was prepared to look like a complete berk in just jeans and shirt; but as each person appeared I was relieved that they were dressed normally.
That sense of relief was short lived when Abby, Beatrice and Ygrainne walked in and sat opposite me across the living room. We were in an informal circle with a small table in the middle made into an altar of some kind. There was a sweet, dreamy smelling incense burning and around the burner were pine cones and wild flowers.
The girls looked at me without any form of recognition but as Hannah joined us she looked at them before raising her eyebrow to me. That was my first inkling that things weren’t how I’d initially perceived them. If I had any more sense I should’ve just left that very night and gone back home. As it was I felt extremely embarrassed and couldn’t even look at them.
Hannah introduced me to Sandra, a middle-aged woman with what looked to be a retro, almost beehive hairdo. She looked completely stuck in the wrong decade and was almost the exact opposite of Hannah; far too meek to associate herself with someone as blustery and blunt as Hannah… But Sandra had delusions of grandeur, saw herself as being above the rest of us and had been with Hannah ever since her husband had passed away. She was so grateful for the support; I heard later, that she pretty much bankrolled Hannah’s lifestyle.
Hannah was, amongst other things, a gifted medium, healer, angel card reader and Tarot teacher. She had read for Sandra on a weekly basis, as well as given her messages from her dear departed husband.
“And, of course, you know Abby, Beatrice and Ygrainne already.” Hannah said after introducing me to Sandra. Left with no other recourse I simply said Hi to them but there was little enough acknowledgement from any of them in reply. “This is the inner circle of our development group. I run groups of varying sizes every night that cover lots of subjects and I expect you to come to all of them initially.” I just nodded. Hannah sat in front of a candle, the flame flickering in time with her words, the diffuse glow making them more captivating. Her eyes never left mine for an instant. “Most of the groups are to bring to people up to speed on things like Tarot, but this group is for clearing our egos. Each of the women you see all run their own classes, either during the day or in the evening.
“In order to clear ourselves for reading the cards we meet up and discuss our egos. Now, our egos are the parts of us that get screwed up over the meaningless things in life; those insecurities and doubts that stop us from realising our own potential. Here we don’t allow that and we’re merciless, never letting it gain a foothold.”
All the other women looked at Hannah, nodding in agreement. I really didn’t have a clue what she was going on about so just nodded as well.
“What brings you to Glastonbury?” Sandra asked, her voice limp but kind.
“He’s run away.” Hannah replied, interrupting me even before I had chance to draw breath.
“What are you running from?” Abby asked bluntly.
“He’s a fuck up; lost his job, his wife said he was worthless and he isn’t even man enough to sleep with three beautiful women even when it’s offered to him on a plate.”
“Now wait a minute!” I said, getting up. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.
“Sit the fuck down.” Hannah said, not batting an eyelid. She wouldn’t even look at me I was so beneath her contempt. I sat down without further protestation. “We tell you why we’re here, what the ego’s about and you still try to lie to us? We don’t play games here. You want to fuck around then do it elsewhere. You want to change then prove it and man up. This is the truth –you can’t handle it then go elsewhere. Pack your bags and fuck off.”
I looked around for support, this was turning out to be a nightmare; I felt more alone than ever. The three girls just looked to Hannah, only Sandra looked at me and shrugged. Something told me that she’d been through something similar. The trouble was, I had nowhere else to go. If I went back then I’d just be proving everyone right. I had no choice; I had to make a go of it.

It was like being laid bare every night; everything I did, everything I said was scrutinised and dissected, then I was taken apart without anaesthetic. A good example of this:
We were watching a countdown of the best horror films of all time and they ranked A Nightmare On Elm Street in their top 10, which pleased me too as it was a favourite of mine as well. For a split second I felt as if maybe I did have good taste after all and said (maybe a tad naively) “I love that film; it’s brilliant.” Hannah leapt on it as if I was a piece of bloody meat.
“You’re fucking kidding me; it’s a piece of shit!”
“In your opinion, maybe.” I regretted the words as soon as they left me.
“How fucking dare you. Don’t patronise me; what the fuck do you know? Do you know what the word actually means? The actual fucking definition?” I shrugged, just wanting the Earth to swallow me whole. “Go get the dictionary.” I thought she was joking at first, but I should have known better. “Get the fucking dictionary!”
I felt like a naughty school boy being chastised for wetting the bed but I wasn’t! I was 29 for Christ’s sake; I should have been able to stand up to her but I just couldn’t. I found the dictionary and read the definition aloud.
“Now; what part of that lends itself to a Nightmare On fucking Elm Street? That’s the trouble with men; they think they know everything and depend on their bluff and bravado when they actually know fuck all!”
I didn’t know what to say, I never knew she hated men so much; she’d been so loving and supportive when she first opened her doors to me, but that was just to lull me in. Each day I spent with her I became more beholden to her, more under her control. She knew what buttons to press to make me feel tiny, worthless.
You may be reading this, thinking me pathetic; and you may well be right, but think about how strong your sense of self really is; just how much you take for granted.
I had gone to Hannah an already broken man and through our initial chats she had found out everything about me and used it. She was canny; she knew that if she kept taking me apart by the incessant bullying then one of two things would happen: I’d either snap or crack.
So she would allow a few days and be impossibly kind and so thoughtful that I could be reduced to tears by her generosity; but this just brought me closer to her and therefore made it all the more painful when she turned on me.
I could never predict quite what would make her turn on me and just what form the assault would take. Don’t get me wrong, she never laid a hand on me; she knew that even I wouldn’t stand for that, but her temper was frightening. But the worst part of it was that there was a part of me that knew she was justified in the things that she said; that she was actually trying to help me; that my ego needed to be stripped bare so I could grow in order for me to find the light again and find love.
The things we do for love…

I’d been staying at Hannah’s for two weeks when she raised the subject of employment again; of paying my way like a man should.
I couldn’t find a job but it wasn’t for want of trying. I’d gone to every shop, every business in the area and put myself forward; all seemed hopeful at first but they all rejected me. Maybe Hannah was right, after all.
What I didn’t know was that by making Hannah my only reference I’d again given her the keys to my ruin. Each and every time she’d been asked to give a character reference she’d done so; but with specifically loaded phrases that would give every employer cause for concern: “I’m sure that he’s very dependable in the work place but I couldn’t possibly comment on someone who leaves his wife in a blink of an eye just because things got a little tough.”
Of course, I knew none of this and the net result just added to my sense of despair. It was then that Hannah threw me a lifeline.
“There is an alternative: you could work for me.” I raised my eyebrow. “Figuratively speaking, of course; I could teach you the Tarot. I’ve already got a storefront in the high street that’s used by others in the group. It’s a very lucrative business and for the training and use of my shop I’d take three quarters of your profits to start with.” I looked at her almost dumbfounded; it was preposterous that her margin was that steep. What was to stop me from learning on my own? “Good luck on becoming established; you’d never make it without me. We’re a tight knit community; without my support the other vendors would squeeze you like a blackhead.
“Yes, I’ll take most of your profits to start with; but you’ve got no outgoings apart from those that are already covered… and it’s not as if you do much with your life. You hardly even drive anymore.”
So I agreed; it seemed like the path of least resistance and; once again, she was right. I could be paying off my debt to her but by agreeing I was actually becoming hers body and soul.

“The key to Tarot is to tell people what they want to hear.” The first thing that Hannah said to me in her teachings and in doing so actually laid the framework to our whole relationship; if only I’d paid more attention to the ramifications. “That’s not to say that you lie to them, but the Tarot is highly interpretative and goes far deeper than any of the other moron’s who practice it realise. The trend today is to give intuitive interpretations of the cards rather than put the hard work in. It takes time and effort to understand. At its simplest Tarot incorporates colour theory; symbolism; numerology; body language and by understanding this can give you a deeper and more accurate reading. This is why so many people keep coming back to me rather than those that I’ve taught.”
I sat and made notes, ever the attentive pupil; but I was confused because her statement seemed to run contrary to each other.
“Notice how my ambiguous statements lead you to wanting to know more? That’s the key. The Tarot, like the I-Ching, is not necessarily a tool solely for divination but for preparing the self so it can realise the chosen goal.” I looked blank again so Hannah explained further, now the soul of openness and patience, whereas before she’d called me an ineffectual child because I hadn’t vacuumed the stairs properly and almost knocked over a vase. “Let’s say your goal is to be a published writer.” She continued, “Or to fall in love. If you’re not ready in yourself you might waste the opportunity if and when it approaches. In fact, you might not even recognise the opportunity. By using the Tarot properly one can prepare and work towards those goals so you are ready….”
“So.. with the readings…”
“Yes; with the readings we understand the person and prolong the journey; give them enough rope to hang themselves and be there to pick up the pieces.”
I sat there and tried not to react; I knew that whatever I said would be launched upon; torn to shreds; but inside I was stunned. This was wrong, manipulation of such magnitude was unheard of; but was it any different to the other Tarot readers? Was the intuitive interpretation purer? Of course not, but I still wondered.
That night I kept going over her last sentence: “Give them enough rope to hang themselves but be there to pick up the pieces. Is that what was happening to me?

Of course, I buckled down in no time, and before long I was giving my own readings; what surprised me was I actually had an aptitude for it. It was learning a new system, like learning a new language –maybe the terminology was different, maybe more archaic but it had its own strict rules. But what gave me more of a buzz was I realised that I could read people. Hannah gave me plenty of pointers; we used to sit in parks and café’s and read people; strike up conversations with random strangers and then compare notes on what we observed.
All through this time Hannah was exactly how I remembered from when we first met: extremely supportive and good fun to be around. She encouraged me and very rarely showed her nasty side and I almost forgot the fact that I was doing all this under duress.
But that’s the strange thing. Initially I felt pressured into the Tarot readings but the more I learned the better I felt; and when I actually started bringing home money I felt almost whole again; like I was actually contributing to life again,  not sponging off Hannah’s generosity.
This was Glastonbury in peak season so both of us were busy every day; so many lonely people needing to find understanding but too scared to find it out for themselves; it being far easier to ask someone else for the answers. The problem being is that you can never guarantee the validity of the answers and it certainly never occurs to you that the Tarot reader has any ulterior motive… and that was exactly what Hannah preyed upon.
A good percentage of people booked up to see her for two or more sessions, even when they were on holiday, and often signed up for email correspondence and courses –at a cost, of course. All readings were deliberately ambiguous to provide total satisfaction but even so, this only accounted for forty per cent of her trade. It was the workshops and retreats where she really made the money; the development circles that predated and exploited peoples weaknesses.
Watching her work was like watching a mosquito suck blood; the host is never really aware of what’s been taken until it’s too late. Worse; there’s a chance they’ll come down with malaria! In Hannah’s case the ‘customer’ would leave with a feeling of bliss; feeling that they had achieved something; but it would be short lived.
True change is painful, it requires dedication but the fools who dogged Hannah’s footsteps didn’t know this and so the learning’s never stuck; the euphoria died down and they needed her to make them feel better… and now I was part of it all.

Occasionally the reality of my situation swept over me in waves of self-loathing but, like all good pimps, Hannah knew exactly how to abate this. Sometimes she would placate me and make me feel that, actually, I was doing people a great service in giving them meaning that was sadly lacking in their lives. But otherwise she’d say:
“Who the fuck do you think you are? How dare you criticize me and what we’ve achieved! You were nothing when you visited me, a pathetic child who fucked up everything! Your wife, your job; you were a failure. And you have the audacity to question me?! I should only throw you out on the streets and then you’d really have nothing. Is that what you want? You can’t go back to your family; they never wanted you in the first place. You can’t go back to your wife; she’s probably already shacked up with another bloke, one who can really satisfy her needs!”
And so I’d go back to my room and lick my wounds. And what was so wrong about telling people what they wanted to hear? The whole advertising industry was based on this and they were actively exploiting peoples weaknesses before feeding on them like vultures. And so for weeks I lived in this make-believe world, doing what was expected of me; I never bucked her system and never questioned her motives again and the world became routine again….
..until Lucy.
Since living at Hannah’s and screwing up my life I had no thoughts about romance, picking up women and certainly not love. So when Lucy walked into my life for a reading I was totally unprepared.
It was as if heaven had found all the beauty in the world and poured it into her diminutive frame. Her eyes exuded gentle kindness and a hint of sadness; her hair flowed with poetry mirrored in the way she held herself. In anyone else this might have seemed contrived and egotistical but it was as if she had no conception of just how beautiful she really was. To her it was a natural state of grace, as natural as breathing; but this made her vulnerable.
She’d just moved to Glastonbury, escaping a series of train wreck relationships and she came to me in the hope of understanding why she kept making the same mistakes. She wanted to make a completely new start.
All my appointments were screened by Hannah and at the time I never thought much of it. To me it made sense; Hannah needed to make sure whether I could handle the client and give them what they needed. She handled the more complex cases, or the ones she thought she could milk effectively. She could tell at a glance what the customer needed and could either keep them for herself or assign them to me as she saw fit; so I never batted an eyelid until I first laid eyes on Lucy.

The first card drawn was the lovers and I couldn’t have been more embarrassed and she found it hard to hide her amusement. I felt uncomfortable as I found her extremely attractive and struggled with not blushing. However Lucy left feeling pleased and reaffirmed with what I told her and even gave me a generous tip. Even Hannah gave me a large pat on the back afterwards, genuinely pleased with how I handled myself.
“Well, it was bumbling in places and still very amateurish but you had a distinct charm about you… I don’t think it will be too long before we see her back again. Well done!”
“Why are we going to see her again? She just wanted a straight forward reading; that’s why you gave her to me, right?”
“Well… she’ll want to see you again, I’m sure… and she’ll think of some reason or other… probably in the next couple of weeks.”
I thought she was having a joke at my expense and laughed along with her, but in her eyes she wasn’t laughing.

Sure enough Lucy returned, just over two weeks later to find out about work prospects; once again the reading went well and she was pleased by what I told her. I felt guilty for lying to her, but Hannah confided in me: “If she comes back you’ll know to ask her out.”
I was genuinely shocked by this, as strange as it may seem I hadn’t even thought about her in that way. “It’s obvious that she likes you.” Hannah continued. “Otherwise she wouldn’t have returned.”
I laughed again and just put the idea from my mind, but Hannah wasn’t done with me and raised the matter with the group.
“Who think it’s a good idea for him to start dating again?”
“Most definitely.” Sandra replied, her voice exuding sympathetic resonance. “You’ve got to get yourself back out there.”
“What’s happened?” Ygrainne asked.
“He’s met someone through the Tarot readings; she’s been back already and it’s not on the strength of his reading ability.” Hannah smiled craftily, spinning her web tighter around me. “I’ve said to him that if she comes back he should ask her out… but he won’t.”
“Why not? Don’t you like her?” Beatrice asked, placing her hand on my knee.
“Well… yes… but…” I blushed.
“He thinks that he’ll be taking advantage of her if he asks her out, exploiting her weaknesses.”
“Well; I can understand that.” Sandra agreed, but a scowl from Hannah shut her up.
“But what?” Abby stepped in. “It’s obvious that’s what she wants otherwise she wouldn’t have come back. She must feel comfortable with you! Give yourself a chance at happiness… you deserve it.”
It is with words such as these that the deepest holes are dug; don’t think that all cutting words are nasty. Remember, it’s the sugar coating that hides the poison and before long you’ve swallowed it and then it’s far too late.

Buoyed by the resounding positivity of the group it took me three more of Lucy’s visits to ask her out and she said yes straight away, as if she’d been expecting it. On our first date, in the pub where I met the three girls earlier, she said: “The way I see it, you owe me about £80.”
“In what way?”
“Well, it took you long enough to ask me out, I was unsure at first… I mean, to be honest, I thought you were gay… There aren’t that many straight guys that read Tarot.” She winked at me and laughed. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. She was infectious and just by being in her presence I felt re-born.
“So how’s the best way for me to repay you?” I asked.
“I’m sure we can think of something. A kiss would be a good start.”
“As good a kisser as I am, I’m not sure even I know what a £80 kiss would be like!”
“Settle down, stud…. You’re not that good.” She placed her hand on my thigh. “But I like that. I like a man I can teach.”

We’d been dating for six weeks and the time with Lucy just got better and better. Each time we met I found another reason to fall in love with her: The way her nose wrinkled when she had a mischievous thought; her generosity to everything to everyone –she seemed aware of everyone else’s pain first and put them in front of her own happiness. “That’s why I have you.” She’d say when I worried about her lack of self-preservation. I knew she hurt and hurt bad. I sometimes caught her after she’d been crying and she always made light of it. She had this wonderful singing voice that sounded so pure, so soulful. She would never sing karaoke with me, but when she sang in the car or the shower she’d take me to heaven.
And for those six weeks I felt a new man; even Hannah was treating me well, almost maternally. Then the bubble that had become my life suddenly burst. It was in the development circle.
“So.. fuck her yet?” Hannah, talons out, took me by surprise; but the rest of the group seemed to be expecting it.
“Not sure that’s any of your business.” I replied matter-of-factly. Since being with Lucy my confidence had increased; I was able to stand my ground more. In one stroke Hannah showed me that the bedrock I thought I’d been standing on was nothing but quicksand.
“How fucking dare you. When I ask you a question I expect an answer. Who do you think you are?”
“What happens between Lucy and myself stays with us.”
“Without me you would never have met her; don’t you fucking forget!”
“And I’m eternally grateful.”
“Don’t fucking patronise me; do you really think I put the two of you together for your benefit? Christ; your ego knows no bounds! You’ve learned nothing in your time here.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?” She mocked, claws raking me deep now. “Your main purpose in reading Tarot is to recruit people to the group. So far you’ve done a tolerable job. You’ve had repeat readings but now we want you to bring Lucy in to the fold. Whether you’ve noticed it or not but she’s minted and could be a great asset to us.”
“But that’s monstrous!” I replied. This was getting out of hand, but one thing was sure: this was the real Hannah. “I won’t do it!”
“It’s a bit late to develop a conscience after what you did!” I assumed that she was referring to my wife and leaving her the way I did but I’d had enough. I didn’t care now and was about to get up and leave when Hannah showed me four polaroid’s.
Sifting through them it took me a few seconds to realise what I was looking at: the light was poor, the composition amateurish to be truly titillating. Three women in various positions with…. No, it couldn’t be. How the hell could they have taken the photos? I’d been dead to the world, and then I smiled.
I threw them back at her and said, “Nice try. Sick and twisted though it is, it’s not going to work.”
“They’re 16.” Hannah replied.
“Fuck off… no way!” But then I looked at them again and with no make-up on…. My world fractured around me. I sat back down, staring at the girls. None of them could look back at me, tightening the noose I felt around my neck. I looked at Hannah, saw the victorious glint in her eyes, a dark predatory look that chilled me. How could I have been so blind? “But nothing happened! I told you the next morning! I fell asleep and couldn’t actually do anything!”
“Explain the photos then.”
“I can’t… they were obviously staged. You’re sick and twisted!”
“And, of course, the police are going to believe you. Why wouldn’t they? You can have these, of course, as I have several others that are far more incriminating.”
“But what if I go to the police myself?”
“It will still be your word against theirs; and then there will come my own testimony. I carry a lot of weight around here.. I’ll be forced to say, under duress of course, how depressed and angry you were after your wife humiliated you. In your mind you were getting even with her and damn the consequences.”
I just looked at her, not quite believing what was happening to me. It was crazy, surreal almost.
“So… have you fucked her yet?” I just nodded to Hannah. “You must be good for her…. She keeps coming back for more. See what you missed out on, ladies?” Hannah said to the girls. I was numb and couldn’t even voice my disgust; too far down the rabbit hole to return. “And so..” She continued, looking at me now, “You’re going to ask Lucy to join the group, aren’t you?”
Lucy seemed genuinely flattered to be offered the chance to join the development group. She’d heard a lot about the group from me in previous weeks and was actually hoping to be invited; but inside I just felt sick at heart –a puppet to Hannah’s strings.
Strangely enough, Lucy joining the group was one of the best things that could have happened, for two reasons. Lucy appeared far stronger in her self and happier. It was rare to see her crying any more.
Of course, I had no idea that she was seeing Hannah on an individual basis, and even if I had done I was still dangerously naïve, never thinking about the consequences until it was far too late.
The other benefit was that Hannah was on her best behaviour to me; she now had an image to maintain; all the time she wanted Lucy to be part of the group she had to be benevolent to me…. But she was now anyway; things couldn’t be going any better for her, it was all going exactly the way she wanted so she could afford to be kind to me now.
And for the next few months things went smoothly. I had almost forgotten about the photos; about the blackmail. Lucy was happy, Hannah was happy and therefore, so was I.
Then the paper castle I had constructed around me crumpled and burnt to the ground. It took just two words from Hannah: “Lucy’s pregnant.”

There are ways to start a morning conversation: Good morning; sleep well? Even just saying hello would do, but Hannah cared nothing for tact or diplomacy. I nearly choked on my rice crispies.
“She told me first because she didn’t know how you’d take it… she was afraid that you’d leave her the same way you left your wife. She didn’t want the same thing to happen to her.”
I can’t remember how I responded, how I could even begin to translate the whirlwind of feelings into comprehensive thoughts, let alone vocalise them. I was going to be a father; something that had never been on the cards before, certainly not in the loveless marriage. But it cut to the core that she couldn’t tell me herself, I thought that what we had was special, that we could have told each other anything. I’d always been supportive to Lucy during our time together and now this. I can’t remember how the conversation finished but it was interrupted by a text from Lucy: “Need to see you, my love.  Have the most amazing news.”
“As you wish.” I texted back, but my heart wasn’t in it; the seed of doubt had been carefully planted by Hannah and was now starting to take root.

By the time I reached Lucy’s it was budding and when she told me the good news all I could say was “I know. Hannah told me.”
Lucy just looked at me strangely. “But I haven’t told her that How could she know?”
“She said that you did tell her.”
“But I haven’t! I haven’t spoken to anyone about it yet. I’ve just seen the doctors and I wanted you to be the first to know!”
“So you’re saying Hannah’s a liar?” Poor and deluded, even then I couldn’t see it.
The argument, which was ironically our first, was all the more violent for it, not in actions but intent. All our pent up hatred and repressed anger at the injustices that had been heaped upon us came out in force, directed at each other. Emotional blood was drawn and old scars opened up.
I left, slammed the door and walked out; far better than laying a hand on her; something I could never have done, even in my darkest days.
I didn’t get far. The sobering light of the sun made me realise what I was throwing away. Regardless of whether she had spoken to Hannah or not I was actually proving her worst fees about me. This was a game changer. In amongst the venom and harsh words I had forgotten the truth: she was going to have my child.
I didn’t hesitate but rush back inside; the penitent tears stinging my eyes. She hadn’t moved from where I’d left her, still shocked by my rebuff. Falling to my knees at her feet I begged her to forgive me, so fearful was I to have lost the miracle.
She looked at me through her own tear streaked eyes, put her hand on my head and said, “Only if you can forgive me. Oh my sweet man, only if you can forgive me.”
I never thought about the reasons why Hannah manipulated us with such efficiency. It didn’t even occur to me that was what she was doing. I was so grateful that Lucy forgave me that I didn’t give it a second thought that it was actually Hannah who started it all. In fact I hadn’t the slightest inkling what was happening until it was too late.

Then came the email from Ygrainne:
“Things have gone too far, I never thought she would see it through to the end, but I’m afraid for you, for Lucy; but more importantly for the baby she carries.
“Neither myself, Abby or Beatrice are 16; we’re all in our early twenties. I need to tell you this so you’ll trust me. I need to see you tonight… imperative that Hannah not know of this otherwise we’ll all be in danger.
“Meet me at Norwood Park at 10pm.”
This chilled me, cut through me like a scythe. It was inconceivable that Hannah had set me up so completely; played me like a fool for so long; but it made a perverse sense. There was also a tangible sense of relief: she no longer had any leverage over me. The three girls were actually women, I was free now to leave; but how was this to impact on Lucy and the baby?
I wanted to confront Hannah now but Ygrainne was right; it was too dangerous until I knew more. Hannah was away at a Goddess conference with Sandra, Beatrice and Lucy as well.
Lucy? What was going on? I tried ringing Ygrainne for I was now fearful for Lucy, but there was no answer; it was just diverted straight to voicemail. It was now just 2pm. The next eight hours were going to be the most tortuous of my life.

Ygrainne was already there waiting for me when I reached Norwood Park and I was early; anxious to find out what she had to tell me. The fear blotting all out except for Lucy and the baby otherwise I might have been more observant. There were other cars in the car park and, despite the cold Ygrainne was dressed in long flowing robes.
I started to speak but she just put her finger to my lips. “Not here, there are other people around… she’ll find out that I spoke to you. Follow me.” I followed on blindly. Despite living in Glastonbury for nearly a year now I was still unaware of much of the area around me, or the significance of where I currently was.
Soon I became aware of the presence of five other people. Lucy was amongst them.
I ran to her, worried out of my mind, still blinkered to the danger that was now all around me.
I didn’t see the dagger that Lucy wielded, just felt it enter me. I staggered back, the disbelief and shock numbing the pain. Sandra was next, stabbing me in the back; the unkindest of blows, when she had shown me nothing but empathy and understanding. Ygrainne, Beatrice and Abby took turns, actually making it into some kind of game, stabbing at me even when I was prostrate on the ground. Finally they stopped and all I could see was Hannah standing over me with a bronze sickle sickly glowing, almost absorbing my life as it bled from me.
She placed the blade against my trachea, the cold sharpness all I could feel now.
“Your purpose is fulfilled now.” She said. “The broodmare is no longer needed and so the king is dead.” She looked to Lucy, to the child that now grew inside of her.
“Long live the king.”