A couple of days ago the words ‘dream home’ sprang into my mind. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a bit like J.K. Rowling on that train journey when she was gazing out of the window day-dreaming and she thought ‘Boy wizard – doesn’t know he’s a wizard – gets invited to wizard school.’ Anyway, these words ‘dream home’ came into my mind as I was driving along in my car. And then I thought, Whoever first came up with the idea that any of us might, or indeed should, aspire to one day living in a ‘dream home’? And what gives some of us the right and the privilege to live in a ‘dream home’, whereas thousands of others are constrained by money, location, convenience and so on, and end up in a home which is OK for them to live in but in no way constitutes a dream home and never will?
Of course there are those in this world for whom ‘home’ is an improvised shack in a slum or on a rubbish dump. But who says such people don’t also have ‘dream homes?’ Or is the very concept ‘dream home’ one that our consumer society has invented so they can attach dream lifestyles to it and then attempt to sell us the products that will somehow propel us into those dream lifestyles?
In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” you will find a house that qualifies to be my own personal dream home. Ever since I was a young child, my dream home has involved flagstone floors, whitewashed walls, secret staircases within the thickness of a wall, exposed beams, inglenook fireplaces and diamond-paned windows. Perhaps I was first influenced by a lovely English country pub which somehow got associated in my mind with warmth, happiness, belonging…
So why on earth do I think that a fifteenth century English timbered cottage (beautifully restored and renovated of course) or farmhouse or indeed an Elizabethan hall-house qualify to be my dream home? Because they remind me of things from childhood, because such houses contain idiosyncratic corners and minstrels’ galleries and sloping ceilings and uneven walls, and probably because these things are the stuff of children’s stories, (or the sort I read anyway). Houses that may provide entrances to other worlds… perhaps this in itself provides the definition of my dream home.
C.S.Lewis was first inspired for “The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe” by the house he and his brother explored when they were young children. An unused room with a mysterious wardrobe… This was a concept that turned out to be powerful and fertile, as did that of the boy wizard dreamed up on the train journey. There is a rich tradition in children’s literature of houses that somehow become portals to another dimension – consider the world Lewis Carroll projects Alice into through the looking glass in her house, wait for the clock to strike thirteen and see what follows in “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce, or step with Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” into the chilling parallel world of the Other Mother and the Other Father.
Having written this, I have now convinced myself that the only qualification dream homes need is portals to other worlds. What do you think? What is your idea of a dream home? Have you too been inspired and influenced by the stories you read as a child?
In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” I explore the interpersonal relationships to be found in the hothouse atmosphere of a New Age commune. This is a place where relationships and liaisons flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly. The group I describe is based in an idyllic farmhouse in the Cotswolds. It is a “closed environment” in the sense that all the people in the group spend a lot of time together, having to deal with all their emotions and feelings about each other, their conflicts, their doubts and fears. I also explore what people in these situations do about their baggage from the past. This particular group teaches its members to let go of their past. But is this, in fact, possible?
Extract No. 1 from ” Mystical Circles”:
For several moments then, they stood in silence, gazing at the Severn Vale spread out before them.
“Almost as good as the view from Beaumaris,” he observed wistfully.
“Looking across the Menai Strait to Snowdonia, you mean?” she said. “Beautiful.”
He regarded her warmly, clearly touched by her empathy.
“I might be a Londoner,” she said, “but I do appreciate the countryside. And I loveNorth Wales.”
“I’m so happy to hear that,” said Llewellyn.
A companionable silence fell between them, as they turned their attention back to the landscape. It was broken by the Welshman. “I wish there was more contentment among the others down there in the valley.”
“Yes, peace seems in short supply, doesn’t it?”
“It’s inevitable you’ve noticed, Juliet. I dread to think what you’ll have uncovered by the time you leave.”
She chuckled but made no reply. Her stomach still felt twisted. Craig… Craig… she thought.
“You probably wonder why I defended the group when we first met,” he said, “and I persuaded Don and you to come to Dynamic Meditation. It’s because I believe in the principles behind it all.”
“Maybe. But do those principles work out in practice? I certainly didn’t expect to find this level of frustration, anxiety and anger. I’ve found it in Oleg, Zoe, Sam…” She would certainly not mention Craig’s name.
“I don’t deny that,” Llewellyn said. “But, for my part, I’m convinced I’m in the right place. OK, we’ve all brought our hang-ups with us. And that prevents it from being paradise. But would paradise inspire me as much?”
“Surely it would.” She liked his grin. “It was good enough for Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson, wasn’t it?”
“No. Poets need this imperfect world. What sort of effect d’you think La Belle Dame Sans Merci had on Keats? Hardly the ideal relationship, was it?”
“No,” she admitted. “I’ll take your word for it, Llewellyn.”
But what she really wanted to know was who wrote that letter to Craig.
Llewellyn didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then he said, “Let’s talk instead about your part in this, Juliet.”
“Mine?” She was immediately on guard.
“Yes, you, of course, Juliet,” he said impatiently. “You’ve changed everything.”
She threw a glance at him, and stumbled over a tree root, which nearly winded her. “How so?” she said, regaining her balance. “I’m only here as a journalist, Llewellyn.”
“No, you’re not,” he said unexpectedly.
“Last night,” he added, “was a step in the right direction.”
“A step in what direction?” she asked.
“In the direction of getting to know you better.”
“I hope you haven’t misunderstood me,” she said. “I enjoyed reading and talking about your poems, but…”
“Come on, I want to know what you really feel; not just about the poetry but about many things.”
She shook her head. “That’s not in my plan, Llewellyn.”
Extract No. 2 from “Mystical Circles”:
“The tank? What’s that? And what happens in it?” asked Juliet.
Conversation halted. James, Craig and Sam all swivelled their eyes to her face.
“Let me explain, Juliet,” said Craig. “I teach my students to seek their answers in the unconscious mind. A tried and tested way of doing this is in the isolation tank.”
“How?” she enquired.
Craig wore an enigmatic expression. Opposite, Zoe threw her a sharp glance. “The answers will come,” said Craig, “as you float. The tank’s filled with a thick, warm saline solution. You climb in, close the lid, and you’re in total blackness.”
Juliet shuddered. “I should hate that.”
Craig gave a tolerant smile. “Many love it. They find bliss there. It all depends on your viewpoint.”
“Where is the tank?” she asked.
“In a cabin of its own. The former cart hovel. Halfway between the barn and the goose house.”
“Ah yes, I’ve seen it.”
Craig waited a few moments. “Some of my methods may appeal to you more than others.”
They regarded each other slowly. “I doubt it,” she said.
Extract No. 3 from “Mystical Circles”:
Edgar said, “You don’t like things getting out of control, do you, Juliet?”
She felt stung. How dare he? But relaxing her professional mask, she laughed. “I admit it’s not a nice feeling, Edgar.”
He regarded her with a sardonic eye. “You won’t continue here for much longer and remain in control.”
“But that’s exactly what I propose to do.” She had no desire for a battle of wills. But if he wanted one, so be it.
However, when he next spoke he used a softer, more conciliatory tone. “I understand how you must feel, Juliet. Desire for self-determination; that’s true of each person here. When we first come we all intend to stay in charge of our lives. Look at Llewellyn, for example.”
“Llewellyn? What of him?” Juliet felt her jaw tighten.
Edgar now slipped into a more bantering style of speech. “Well, I understand he’s thought of little else but you, Juliet, since you both chatted together in his room on the night before last.”
She gripped both sides of her laptop. So he was leaping to conclusions about her and Llewellyn. She stayed quiet, but her face burned.
His eyes remained on her. He went smoothly on. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Since you first came, he’s quizzed me about you several times. It’s plain he’s got his eye on you. Go for it. You can’t stand back for ever.”
Extract No. 3 from “Mystical Circles”:
She experienced a pang of wistfulness. The farmhouse looked very peaceful: a visual representation of everything Juliet felt a community like this ought to be. Loving, tranquil, harmonious…
And yet, here she was, being eaten up by all sorts of worries. Zoe, and her infatuation with Theo. The doubts over Theo’s background. Then the fact that she still hardly knew who Craig was, and what he was about.
Was he hiding something? What really lay behind his dysfunctional relationship with his father? And was it any business of hers anyway? But the answer to that, she knew, was yes. Because she cared about it – despite all her best intentions, she cared deeply. And she still hadn’t resolved the mystery of who wrote that letter to Craig. The writer clearly loved Craig, longed for him to come quickly, had felt guilty about him in the past, but had now been forgiven by Craig. Juliet wanted to know who that person was. She felt she had a right to know. And she wanted to be rid of this terrible feeling in her stomach whenever she saw Craig. Was it yearning? No, impossible! All she knew was that it was tearing her apart.
And then there was the question of Rory and his unpredictable outbursts of aggression. Juliet knew Rory needed to be locked up. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not while Craig, for some twisted reason of his own, allowed him to run loose in this community.
A US reviewer says: “What Juliet finds when she reaches the ranch is an oddly charismatic and dysfunctional group of people…. there are strange things happening in the commune, and when a priest shows up it further traumatizes the group… This loving and freedom-believing cult, while wonderful on the surface is a cauldron of deceit and depravity on the inside… keeps you in suspense… deals with how relationships are formed and how the smallest of happenings can shatter lives… Skillman is a deft hand at creating characters. If you are interested in people and their foibles, you will enjoy this book.” Read the rest of the review on www.amazon.com.
In “Mystical Circles” I explore the conflict between two sisters Juliet and Zoe. Juliet, the older sister, aged around 30, is worried that the impetuous Zoe, age 22 and fresh out of university, has fallen in love with charismatic New Age guru Craig McAllister, and rushed off to join his esoteric spiritual group in the Cotswolds, where she seems determined to stay forever. How can the more sensible, responsible Juliet make Zoe see otherwise, and rescue her from this unsuitable man?
EXTRACT No. 1 from “Mystical Circles”:
“How are things going with Craig?” she asked.
“Fantastic. Couldn’t be better.” Zoe scuffed her trainers against the gravel, then pointed in a northerly direction. “Come on. Let’s go round the house to the front garden. We can sit there and talk.”
“Sure.” Juliet hurried after her sister. How she hoped Zoe would be reasonable, and at least understand her feelings.
Unlatching the gate, Zoe went through, and Juliet followed. Before them appeared the uppermost of a flight of stone steps leading down to a sunken lawn with a water
“This is stunning,” she said in awe.
“Isn’t it?” Zoe indicated the Scots pines and the blue cedars over to the north of the sunken garden. The two girls went towards these. Scattered beneath were a number of white cane chairs, set amid clumps of purple delphiniums.
As soon as they sat down, Zoe burst into excited speech. “So Juliet, what do you think?” Her eye fell on Juliet’s pocket. “You already have the brochure.”
“I’ve started reading it. Craig makes big promises, doesn’t he? They certainly lead you to expect huge rewards.”
“And you’ll find them,” declared Zoe. “Wait till you meet him. He’s out of this world.”
Juliet’s confidence began to fade. How would Zoe cope with her objections? “I already have met him, Zoe.”
“No! But that’s wonderful. So you’ll already know. He’s perfect.”
Juliet fought to hold onto her patience. “Well, I’m not quite sure about…”
“Whose side are you on?” Zoe’s expression had chilled.
Juliet leaned forward, and took hold of her by both shoulders. “Hey, I can see why you’ve fallen for him. He’s the best-looking guy I’ve ever met.”
Zoe visibly relaxed.
“If he feels the same about you as you do about him,” continued Juliet, “then that can only be good news.”
A smile of relief spread over her sister’s face. Juliet hated to spoil the mood. But she felt compelled to push home her point. “You’re here for the best of reasons, Zoe. And I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Let’s suppose that Craig is everything you believe he is. But even so – what’s with the Wheel of Love? Sounds a bit dubious to me.”
“We’re not like that Heaven’s Gate sect, you know,” Zoe protested.
Certain key words hammered into Juliet’s brain. Sharpen your subtle knife…cut a window into heaven…freedom you’ve never dared dream of… “This heaven stuff he goes in for… the bit about freedom you’ve never dared dream of, and him reaching into your spirit… What’s that all about?”
“You’d need to live as one of us to understand,” said Zoe.
So she was going to be evasive. Juliet flared up. “Give me a break, Zoe. I won’t do that.” She saw her sister bite back a swift retort.
Juliet is a freelance radio journalist. And while she’s here at the Wheel of Love she takes the opportunity to do interviews for a radio documentary about the group – with Craig’s permission of course. It’s a useful cover for her true motive of rescuting Zoe. But can Juliet stay objective?
Extract No. 2 from “Mystical Circles”:
It was probably best to concentrate on her lunch. But she couldn’t resist pushing Edgar further on the subject. “I’m not a member of the group, and have no plans to join. I’m here as an impartial observer. And there are various guidelines that I have to observe…”
“The broadcast media has the highest code of conduct…” murmured Edgar. A titter passed between the other three at this.
“What you suggest is impossible. If you’re to achieve anything here, you’ll have to take part, and live as one of us,” said Laura.
Juliet swallowed two or three times to control her sense of panic. Deep down she knew Laura was probably right. And that was exactly what worried her. Could she pretend to go along with their beliefs without compromising herself? Weren’t they all nuts, in one way or another? She shrank from it. And yet she knew she wasn’t the only one here who felt like that. Surely Don did too.
What is dream yoga? Does it really exist? The answer is yes. It is one of the practices of Craig’s group The Wheel of Love, which I describe in my novel. I have investigated dream yoga myself in the past. It originates in Tibet, and through it one aims to achieve wholeness and self-knowledge by mastering the art of “lucid dreaming”.
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
When the group gathered around Craig at the back door at six a.m., Juliet was encouraged by the brightness and freshness of the sky. A steady heat, enlivened by a crisp breeze, ensured that most walkers had chosen T-shirts and shorts this morning.
Craig, in bushwalking khakis, swept his arm out over to the north west, where a fence separated the car park from a thick stand of horse chestnuts and field maples. “That’s where we’re going today.”
Juliet spotted a footpath accessed by a stile. Beyond the trees, the side of the valley rose steeply through pasture to a wooded ridge. Her concentration returned to Craig, who was now telling the group that the first part of the walk was to be conducted in silence.
So that meant she wouldn’t get the chance to quiz Zoe further on what she really felt about last night.
Craig led his followers along a track that disappeared among the trees. Zoe walked way ahead of Juliet, who couldn’t see whether or not her sister was sticking close to Craig. Beth, she noticed, seemed to be missing, though Oleg was present. Everything about him suggested depression, even his tired-looking floppy beige hat. So much for the effect of last night’s Dynamic Meditation.
They tramped for several minutes, sometimes through dense undergrowth that contained a lot of bramble, and eventually emerged on the top of the ridge. A glorious panorama of hills and fields spread out before them. But Craig didn’t allow them long to admire it. He instructed them to gather round.
“This is where it gets interesting,” murmured Zoe to Juliet, before Juliet moved forward to put her mike in front of Craig’s mouth.
“Now, in a moment I’ll ask you to start walking again,” said Craig. “But this time I want you to walk backwards. Don’t turn round. Just trust me. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Juliet shot him a look. He seemed serious. And they were all obeying. She had no option other than to join them, sticking close to Craig so she could be ready with the mike for his next utterance.
After about ten minutes of this, Craig’s voice rang out again. “That’s it, everyone. Stop. Who found it difficult to trust me? Who struggled with an urge to look behind, to check they weren’t going to crash into anything, or fall over a sheer drop? Laura? Sam? Zoe? As I expected. And who thought it was extremely silly? Juliet? Good. You’re here to unlearn everything you’ve been taught to believe about the world and how to behave in it, from the moment you were born.”
Juliet caught sight of Oleg. He was in deep gloom.
She stepped aside with her mike. “You don’t look enthralled, Oleg,” she said. But before he could reply, Craig’s voice cut in again and she swung round once more.
“See that beech tree? Look at the very topmost branch. Concentrate on those leaves. Next, imagine a spot in the centre of your forehead. Visualise a silver cord extending from it, reaching out, further and further, and finally connecting you to the leaves at the top of the tree. Keep your eyes on them. Now walk very slowly toward it, never letting your eyes drop.”
Juliet joined them, unable to notice the reactions of the people around her until they’d completed the exercise. Then Craig seated himself on a fallen trunk, and asked how they’d felt when asked to do it, and during the walk; and whether those feelings had changed now they’d stopped. Juliet could detect no sign of dissent among them, apart from Oleg, who continued to look miserable. He seemed to be weighed down by some heavy problem; she resolved to get him to open up about it as soon as she had the chance.
Craig sprang from the fallen log. “I want you to do this every day. As you walk around, think: This is a dream. Whatever you’re doing, say to yourself: I’m dreaming this. Any questions?”
Juliet looked around, mike at the ready. Silence. Surely, someone other than herself must have doubts? But nobody expressed any. Were she and Don the only people in this community who still saw things from the perspective of the outside world?
“This,” said Craig, “is part of my strategy to teach you all the art of lucid dreaming. Remember, if you master this art – the art of knowing you’re in the middle of a dream, and then taking command of the dream at that point – I tell you, if you master this art, death will be a breeze.”
Not one of his followers spoke, or moved. A dreamlike quality had settled upon them all.
Craig spoke again. “If you follow what I’ve taught you this morning, lucid dreaming will become second nature.”
What is “Dynamic Meditation”? I describe this in my novel, as Craig leads a session for the members of his group The Wheel of Love. I observed this supposed “emotional release therapy” myself in the past, whilst investigating the practices and beliefs of the sannyasins who followed the guru Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh.
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
Dynamic Meditation took place that evening in the barn.
Surely, thought Juliet, as she stood at the rear of the spacious meeting room, with her portable recorder and mike, the original builders of this glorious sixteenth-century tithe barn would never have imagined that such use would ever be made of it. She gazed at the roof, a dazzling criss–cross of beams and wooden vaulting. Yes, the tenant farmer may well have held barn dances; but surely nothing of the nature of what Craig was leading his followers into right now.
By nine o’clock the lights had been dimmed, and the sound of heavy metal music echoed up to the roof trusses, ricocheted off the hayloft and rebounded all around the stone walls. The hayloft, or upper room, could be accessed by two spiral staircases, one at the west side, and one at the east. Juliet had positioned herself beside the foot of the west one. She was trying to make herself heard as she explained her digital recording equipment to Don. Following Llewellyn’s words, he’d clearly felt sufficiently emboldened to try this session, but meant to stay at the back watching and listening.
He moved closer to Juliet in order to hear her words.
“This machine is a Nagra Ares BB Plus,” she said. “I record on flashcards. Each has only about one gig of memory, not that much, so I’ve brought several for all my interviews.”
“And your mike? Will it cope with the noise levels?”
She laughed. “It’s omnidirectional. I’ll hold it as close as possible to Craig when he’s speaking, if I get the chance. Must admit I’m a bit doubtful whether I’ll pick up any speech.”
“Me too,” he said cryptically.
“However,” he continued, “Craig dropped me a few hints. So I steeled myself.”
“Certainly looks and sounds chaotic.” She gazed at the scene in front of her. She suspected that tonight would yield nothing her listeners could make sense of. But her concern for Zoe was far greater. What would her sister get up to with Craig in an atmosphere like this? And as for Craig himself, she’d be watching him very closely; for she found it impossible to believe he wouldn’t take advantage of his position, especially with the women, in such circumstances.
And as if to confirm Juliet’s worst suspicions, Laura, her hair wilder than ever, was already tearing off her cotton print dress. Juliet feared Zoe would soon follow her example. She and Beth, however, had so far both kept their lycra leotards on. But, to Juliet’s confusion, Zoe was curled up in a foetal position in the corner, sobbing as if her heart would break. Should Juliet go over and comfort her? Or was this all part of the Dynamic Meditation and meant to serve a cathartic purpose?
Her instincts told her it was the latter. The other members of the group were scattered across the available floor space, in a variety of postures and states of undress. Several danced; some had curled themselves into tight balls, and others writhed across the flagstone floor like snakes. Juliet followed Craig with her mike, as he strode around amongst them, looking authoritative and crackling with sexual energy, in a bottle–green leather jacket and Levi‘s, shouting at each in turn.
She recorded him as best she could, whilst trying to keep an eye on Zoe. But her sister, it seemed, won no more from him than anybody else; and neither did Laura or Beth. To Craig’s credit, and Juliet’s mystification, he seemed to share his attention equally.
His attention consisted largely of a verbal lashing. With each person he varied his remarks, depending, as he explained to Juliet a little later, upon their emotional situation. At Beth, who clearly had a problem with self-esteem, he hurled personal abuse; when Sam confessed fear and timidity, he compelled him to imagine the kind of exposure he most dreaded; finding Oleg full of anger, he provoked him to an even higher level of rage. The Slav then strode over to Beth and accosted her. Juliet watched closely. She’d already picked up emotions simmering between these two. What would happen now, in this overwrought situation?
But before she could satisfy her curiosity, her attention was distracted. Laura, in a desperate attention-seeking measure, had finally peeled off her lacy knickers. But even this failed to win a special response from the group leader. However, the same could not be said of Al. Laura then gave herself over to what looked like a Dionysian frenzy. Edgar rolled around the floor giggling hysterically, creating a surreal effect with his monastic appearance. James, too, added to the madness of the scene by kicking his legs in the air and screaming like a child having a tantrum in a high–street store, without any regard to the state of his tailored trousers or natty cravat.
The only question in Juliet’s mind was at which point one of the men would snap, leap onto Laura, and sexually assault her. Or settle for Craig instead, as some, in her view, might well do. She’d already begun forming opinions about their sexuality. It was when she began to focus on Craig’s, that she felt ambivalent. He was supposed to love her sister. But… Her mind went foggy beyond this. All she knew was it was a big but.
Meanwhile, miraculously, here in the feverish atmosphere of the barn, no assault, sexual or otherwise, ever happened.
Oleg now seemed to be performing t’ai chi; James was grinning inanely and blowing bubbles, and Al, who’d begun the evening in a benign frame of mind, was beating his head against the wall.
At this point Craig turned the music off, and Juliet hurried across to him with the mike. Before she could speak he plunged himself into a lotus posture, and apparently into a state of deep meditation. Meanwhile, the participants lay around weeping or working out their distress in whichever way seemed best, or emerging slowly from hysteria. So Juliet moved among the group members instead with her mike, though there seemed no need to ask any of them to describe their feelings to her. Eventually all sounds faded into silence. Juliet set her Nagra on automatic voice-activated recording. Craig allowed stillness to reign for several minutes. Then he opened his eyes, stood up, and, looking around among his followers, began to speak.
“This Centre has been going for exactly fourteen months tonight. Fourteen months from the day James and I moved in. In the time that’s elapsed since then, the Wheel of Love has become a tribute to the dynamic power of change.”
“Who has changed?” asked Juliet. “And in what way?”
“Guilt has gone,” announced Craig. “Feeling bad about yourself because of the negative messages you once received, is in the past. Your former life can no longer hold you. All that matters is now.”
His glance swept once more around the meeting space. “By coming here and joining us, you’ve shown you correctly identify your longing. You recognise your birthright. And you want to regain your inheritance. You seek spiritual experience in your own bodies. We all do. I’ll guide you to a place where you can say, not I believe but I know.”
Absolute concentration gripped the members of the group.
Then he said, “Remember, we create our own reality. That’s what I taught you. And what I stand by.”
The expression in his eyes intensified, as for a moment they settled on Juliet. Then they moved to the middle distance again. “What you give out, you receive back. Simple as that, once you’ve learned to understand and harness the universal system. Your new life starts here.”
With that he dismissed them all.
Beth doesn’t really know why she’s here; she’s edgy, tense, anxious. Is she searching for the healing that Craig promises? And is she prepared to do the mysterious “work” on herself that Craig requires? She doesn’t want to tell Juliet about her past. She hero-worships Craig, but he’s inaccessible. There is one in the group who would love her in the way she longs for… but is she able to respond to him? She is in a spiritual community where all members are supposed to “share love equally” yet Beth feels unloved and unloveable.
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
Juliet exchanged a wave of acknowledgement with Laura, seated opposite the American, before turning her attention to the next diner, beside Laura.
This was a sharp-faced young woman with dark hair pulled tightly back in a French plait, which emphasised the severity of her expression. She gave Juliet a frosty stare. “I’m Beth. Beth Owen,” she snapped. “I prefer not to say anything else about myself.”
Well, thought Juliet, Beth wasn’t very friendly. How had Juliet managed to earn her hostility so soon? Beth continued to look tense and suspicious. Perhaps she misunderstood what Juliet was trying to do. But if she didn’t say anything, Juliet couldn’t put her mind at rest.
Juliet shifted position so she could also observe Beth, who’d so far remained silent. She wanted to see if Beth was reacting to Oleg in any way. But no, her eyes were on Craig. Beth was in love with Craig, Juliet had no doubt about that. Poor girl. What prospects did she have, with Zoe so ahead of the game? Her sister was chatting animatedly to Craig. Sparkling and pretty, Zoe had everything going for her to win first place in Craig’s affections.
Suddenly Beth leaned back as Don became caught up in a conversation with Rory. She faced Juliet in a conspiratorial manner. Her eyes hardened, and she spoke in a low, tight voice. “When you interview us, Juliet, do hold off from asking us about our past won’t you?”
“Why?” asked Juliet.
“Because none of us here are supposed to remember it. Craig teaches us to cut ourselves off from that.”
“But your background’s one of the first things my listeners will want to know about.”
The colour of Beth’s face deepened. Juliet guessed that to be the effect of the wine. She decided to try the direct approach. “How do you feel about Craig, Beth?”
Cold hostility glimmered in the girl’s eye. “What’s that to you?”
“I’ve been invited here to ask questions,” said Juliet gently.
Beth drained her glass of wine and refused to look at her again. Instead she switched her glance to Oleg, who’d left his seat at the end of the table, and come up to speak to her. She gave him full attention for the first time during the meal. He leaned down towards her, and laid his hand on hers. She jumped as if someone had laid hot metal on her bare flesh.
He spoke in a low, urgent voice. “Why so nervous when I touch you, Beth? Relax.”
Instead of having the desired effect, this seemed to destabilise her further. She pushed her chair back and sprang to her feet. “Goodbye, everyone.” With that, she headed round behind Juliet’s chair, whirled past The Lady and the Unicorn, and vanished through the doorway into the sitting room.
Craig has a strange and unsettling habit of changing his appearance in front of Juliet’s eyes. What is this all about? It is certainly a gift that he has, and a skill that does come from an arcane body of knowledge. You will have to read “Mystical Circles” to find out exactly how Craig does this, and what it means. But it is a phenomenon I have myself witnessed in the past.
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
Then she dropped her fork. Craig’s features had changed. She wasn’t at all sure how, but his face was unrecognisable. She stared. Her fingers had turned cold. All the charm of his handsome features had melted away, and now she saw something that looked to her like an ancient face, like a stone carving on a rock in the rose-red city of Petra in Jordan.
Most creepy of all, Zoe appeared totally unaware of it. So did Rory and Don.
Juliet continued to stare at Craig, dumbstruck. As she did so, his former identity returned, shifting back into place like the next frame on a movie reel.
“Thank you, Rory, that’s enough.” Craig now evidently considered it time to insist upon a change of subject.
But Juliet could barely continue eating. Her fingers were trembling too. What had she just witnessed? Or had she imagined it? Had somebody spiked her wine? Certainly, nobody else seemed to have noticed Craig doing anything untoward.
At this moment, Craig caught her eye. She read in his glance, Don’t worry. You’ll understand, later.
Zoe had now clearly noticed something. She looked suspicious.
Taking a grip on herself, Juliet lifted another forkful of food, trying to push down her disbelief at what she’d seen. She determined to find out later what had happened. But most definitely she couldn’t think of Craig in the same way again.
“I can change my appearance at will,” Craig said.
Juliet felt a jolt in her abdomen. “You mean suddenly look like a different person?”
He nodded, keeping her within his gaze. “Completely different. It’s all about having a fluid and flexible ego. The shamans have mastered it. Once you’ve learned the skill, it’s like a classic sorcery tale. Shapeshifting. Close friends will fail to recognise you.”
A creepy sensation travelled up her spine. He released her. She flexed her shoulders and arms for a few moments, trying to calm her breathing. She didn’t trust herself to pursue the subject further. “Shall we sit down again?” she suggested.
She struggled to settle her inner turmoil. But, instead, whilst groping towards some kind of exit from the fog gathering around her, she slipped further in. Now she felt a curious instability, as if she was on a jetliner that had flown into an air pocket. In the next moment she received the impression that Craig’s features had melted and re-aligned themselves.
Instead of looking at him, she believed she faced someone infinitely old and wizened, and Peruvian in appearance. The image of an ancient carved face on a rock in an Inca city, presented itself to her. It shifted again, and a new face emerged, that of a shabby, travel-stained New Age traveller.
With a desperate effort of the will, she regained her awareness of Don beside her. But he was set into a freeze
Craig smiled, and as he did so the spell, or whatever it was, lifted. All returned to normal. Don’s hand dropped to his side.
Juliet realised she’d held her breath for several moments. She gasped the air back into her lungs. Her heart was pounding. Craig had done it again. Changed appearance. What was it with him? How did he do it? It frightened her. Her eyes were fixed upon his face. She hardly cared if he thought her rude to stare at him.
Then Don spoke. “Well, Craig? What’s your answer?” It was as if nothing had happened. Hadn’t Don noticed? She was astounded.
Craig interlocked his fingers, and laid them lightly upon his knee. “I believe we must learn to live at a high level of uncertainty,” he said.
Juliet has already heard quite a bit about Theo from various Wheel of Love group members before he first appears on the scene. And what she learns about him raises her curiosity. What exactly is this “wilderness experience” he has only recently emerged from? Why is James surprised he managed to get ordained? What can he possibly have in common with the members of Craig’s group? And what is he doing here anyway?
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
“Before we begin,” said Craig, “I’d like to make an announcement: one I feel sure will delight you all. On Monday evening, we’ll have Theo Lucas with us again. He’s agreed to come and be our guest speaker for the week.”
A buzz ran round the table.
James snapped his fingers. “Excellent. The Reverend Theo Lucas,” he said. “Splendid man. Though I still can’t believe how he managed to get himself ordained.”
There was a good deal of table-thumping and laughter at this, until Craig’s voice dropped into the swell of sound. At once, hush descended. Juliet allowed her eye to skim the diners. Craig’s presence and personal style exerted a powerful effect upon them.
“The Wheel of Love is a tribute to the dynamic power of change,” observed Craig. “And Theo fits in with that perfectly. We all bear witness to it ourselves. Which one of you can say you’re now exactly where you were on your life’s journey when you first arrived?”
The group burst once more into animated chatter, alongside much clattering of cutlery and glasses. But Juliet felt faintly oppressed by her vulnerability. She had no idea what to expect over the coming days. How would she balance her commitment to do interviews with the need to keep track of Zoe?
One thing was for sure. She certainly wouldn’t be seduced by Craig’s brand of healing and wholeness, if that was what it was.
She turned to Don. “Have you met Theo?” she asked in a low voice.
“No. But this lot seem to give him high marks. Doesn’t inspire much confidence, does it?”
Leaning forward, Rory supplied some new information. “I met Theo at a talk Craig gave in Tetbury last November. Chatted to him for twenty minutes. Wondered what he was doing there. Then I discovered he’d had a wilderness experience. Lasted eighteen months. Crisis of faith. And I understood.”
“Yes. Felt I’d met a soulmate.”
This startled Juliet. “He doesn’t sound like a regular sort of clergyman.”
“He isn’t,” said Rory. “Though of course my knowledge is limited.” His lip curled. “Haven’t darkened a church door for years.”
“Theo sounds more than a little unorthodox,” she remarked, “if he’s willing to come here.” She heard Don chuckle.
“Oh?” Rory queried.
“Well, for instance,” she said, “it’s clear from the brochure that Craig believes we’re in charge of our own destiny.”
“Quite right, he does,” agreed Rory. “But Craig welcomes anyone who’s in retreat from the outside world.”
This intrigued her. “What of you, then, Rory? Are you here to renounce the world?”
“You do it in style.”
Before he could reply, Don distracted her, holding out the dish of risotto Beth had passed him.
“Like some, Juliet?” he asked.
“Oh, yes please. That smells and looks very good,” she said.
Rory she noticed had handed the serving dish on without helping himself, and his plate remained empty. She wondered whether he knew something about it the rest of them didn’t. He put his water glass down, and continued. “After Theo was ordained he served for a couple of years, then vanished from the face of the earth for several months. When I met him, I understood he’d not long returned.”
James interjected. “He visited us here in February. Rory missed him that time. You remember that was the week you fell ill, Rory?”
“Oh yes. Dreadful week.”
Laura spoke. “We’ll all be delighted to see him again. Such a dear man. Not a spark of hellfire in him. He knows all about me. He’s very forgiving.”
Rory fiddled with his linen napkin. “I expect you’ll find him interesting, Juliet,” he said. “And you too, Don.”
“Last person to judge.” Don shrugged. “Count me out.”
Before Juliet could say more, Don added, “Put it this way. When Theo shows up, he may need protecting. From my influence.”
She started at this. Rory took upon himself the task of satisfying her curiosity. “Why?” he said. “You’re not tattooed with the number 666, are you?”
When they were ready to set off, Juliet looked straight at the clergyman.
Theo wore an open expression on his face. “What your sister wants,” he said, “is to experience the spiritual reality here on this earth, in her own body.” He opened the door and stepped out.
She followed. “And has Craig delivered on it yet?” she asked.
There was a pause, as she wondered how Theo would take this question, together with all its implications.
Theo smiled. “I don’t think so. If he had, I imagine she would have told you, Juliet.”
He began to stride across the car park. Juliet had no time to consider her riposte to this evasive answer. She hurried to keep up with him, holding the omni
–directional mike. She checked the sound levels as he walked briskly past the north side of the house, and across into the orchard. It looked as if he’d settled on the same route that she, Al and Laura had taken last night on their trip to the top of the valley to look at the stars.
“Zoe’s told me nothing, Theo. So I’m relying on you. How do your beliefs and certainties stand up against Craig’s?”
“Certainties?” Theo’s tone continued amicable. “I’m human. And God’s God. He doesn’t need me. He chooses me. So sometimes I say: What’s going on? and Why am I doing this? or Why is it so hard?”
“And yet,” she said, surprised, “you seem to have it all together. Mostly.”
He smiled, and headed on through the orchard, toward the gate at the other side. “I’m glad it looks like that to you,” he said.
“If this isn’t the whole picture,” she said, matching his pace, “how come you’re in the position you are?”
“A long story,” he said, “and one my bishop’s probably running through right at this moment.”
“I don’t imagine your bishop’s very pleased that you’re here at the Wheel of Love.”
Theo gave a chuckle in response to this. “I’m a renegade,” he said. “I’m all about working with people on spiritual journeys. I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.”
“How do you find Craig’s teachings?” she asked.
“Some have wisdom in them,” he replied crisply. “And you?”
“I admire Craig’s idealism. I don’t accept all his theories. Nor do I believe in God.” They reached the gate.
“What sort of God don’t you believe in?” asked Theo.
“The Judaeo-Christian one, of course,” she replied, feeling slightly ruffled by this question. “The fire and brimstone one. The one who punishes the children for the sin of the fathers, even to the third and fourth generation. The one who is supposed to be so loving, not even a sparrow can fall without Him knowing about it, but He still lets the good suffer and the evil go unpunished.” She stopped. “You know the one I mean.”
“I certainly do,” he said. “And I’ve known what it’s like to feel very angry with Him.” Theo unlatched and opened the gate. “Are you angry too, Juliet?”
When Juliet first meets Rory Anstruther-Jones, she is intrigued, but doesn’t trust him. He speaks of having a “thorn in the flesh” – but what does this mean exactly?
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
Then Juliet’s glance was drawn on to the next diner. He for his part gave her a watery smile. His pink shirt was teamed with a blue–and–white polka–dot bow tie. Even though seated, he was head and shoulders above his neighbours. How, she wondered, did he manage with all the low ceilings in this farmhouse? She tried to recall the date she’d seen engraved above the front door. Ah yes – 1532. Certainly they must have been shorter in those days.
“Rory. Anstruther-Jones,” he said.
Ah-ha. The one she had to handle with caution. “Good to meet you, Rory,” she replied.
Tall as he was, Rory presumably managed somehow. She observed too that he’d blow-dried his blond hair. He leaned forward, across Don, extending long, slender fingers to clasp her hand. She registered the slippery quality of his touch. She was also struck by the curious unreality of his porcelain complexion.
He drew back into his seat. “I suffer from a thorn in the flesh. Won’t tell you what it is right now. You can guess as you get to know me a bit better. Do I suffer from migraines? Am I epileptic? Or gay, perhaps? I don’t have one leg shorter than the other. You can see I’m not a dwarf. So, each time we meet, you might get a little closer to guessing my problem.”
“Well, Rory, what can I say to that?” murmured Juliet. She was unsure how she felt about his remarks; certainly, she didn’t trust him. But there again, neither did she trust anyone else.
Rory lowered his voice to a confidential whisper and again leaned across Don. “You’d be surprised what fits in with Craig’s teachings.”
She raised her eyebrows, careful not to commit herself.
“Since I arrived here,” Rory went on, ignoring her caution, “many strange things have happened to me. Now, I think that has to do with the effect of being in Gloucestershire, which is renowned for occult activity.”
“Planning to bite her, are you?” said James from across the table.
Craig silenced him with a look. “What kind of occult activity, Rory?” he prompted.
“Such as,” persisted Rory, “the fact that things started going wrong for me as soon as I arrived. You remember?”
“I do. Very well,” said Craig cryptically.
“Last June it was. You told me you had no room.”
“Not true. I simply asked you to commit to a short fixed-term stay.”
Juliet looked from one to the other, alerted. Why had Craig not been keen for him to stay longer? Clearly Rory had ignored this and stayed on anyway. If Craig wasn’t happy about it, why hadn’t he chucked Rory out? She didn’t doubt the strength of his personality. She found it difficult to believe he wouldn’t deal firmly with wastrels and hangers-on, if such Rory was. But for now, the matter must remain a mystery.
She turned back to Rory, who continued unperturbed. “I remember opening my mouth to give Craig a piece of my mind, and my words came out all wrong. I was jabbering incoherently.”
“Yes,” said Craig.
A sharp silence fell. James applied butter to his bread roll in short, terse strokes of the knife.
“Can you account for that experience of Rory’s, Craig?” asked Juliet.