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.
Craig McAllister leads the New Age spiritual group “The Wheel of Love”. Here, he promises, “you may take your subtle knife and cut a window into heaven.” (with apologies to Philip Pullman). Personally, when I was investigating New Age philosophies, groups and lifestyles, I would have found it hard to resist that promise. I heard many alluring promises during my years of spiritual research. And I discovered that inspirational speakers, gurus & esoteric teachers are, first of all, skilled in the use of words.
EXTRACT FROM “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
The buzz of conversation from the other side of the inner door increased. Juliet knew the group were already taking their seats at the dining table, ready to start the meal. She glanced through the doorway, entranced by the many candle flames. How sensuous the room looked in this light; the gleaming timbers held even greater depth and richness. And the fragrance of the roses and apple logs in the fireplace seemed more intense.
At that moment, Craig appeared before her, hand outstretched, a smile of greeting on his face. She stopped short, disconcerted by a tingling sensation in her stomach. If not for the evidence of her eyes, she could have sworn she’d just brushed against a lightly charged electric fence.
“Welcome to your first evening meal with us, Juliet.”
“Come in, come in,” he said robustly. He took her arm. “Do sit here, close to me.”
Juliet was still recovering from her initial reaction to his appearance. She wondered whether her being invited to sit near Craig would upset Zoe. But not at all. Instead, her sister touched her shoulder. “I’ll slip in, opposite you.”
“Sure,” said Juliet. She looked for Don. Perhaps pinpointing his location would ease her mind and her nerves. Then she saw the Yorkshireman, near the top of the table. Zoe was already seating herself.
Juliet followed Craig past The Lady and the Unicorn. Craig moved with a fluid grace. For her part, she hoped her manner gave no clue to the insecurity she felt. This would be her first official introduction to the group. As she glanced around those sitting at the table, it suddenly occurred to her that the only non-speaker was the large, hand-carved wooden Buddha which sat in the chair opposite where she stood. How bizarre, she thought.
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
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–frame. His hand had risen, perhaps to admonish Craig, but had then been arrested in mid-air. He wore a glazed expression.
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.
This is the first in a series of character studies from my mystery romance novel Mystical Circles.
Meet James Willoughby, a shady academic with a dual personality, signalled by unexpected appearances as a tramp. In James’ “socially acceptable” personna he has high social status; a don at Edinburgh University, and Craig’s former PhD supervisor, he is an imaculate dresser, urbane, charming and turned out in Saville Row tailoring. But when will James swap this personna for the reek of the gutter? When will he descend into the ranks of the squalid, the hopeless, the marginalised? Meet someone for whom Jung’s theory of “The Shadow” is a reality:
EXTRACT no. 1 FROM NOVEL “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
“Come in,” called Edgar. The door banged back, and a dishevelled figure lurched through the doorway, dumping a well-stuffed plastic carrier bag down onto the quarry tiles.
“James!” cried Laura. “Why must you do this at meal-times? Every time you do, I swear you get filthier and filthier. It’s a good thing Craig never saw you in this state up in Edinburgh. Otherwise, I’m sure none of us would be here now.”
Being Drawn In
James wore a filthy, tattered gabardine coat, and his hair hung in oily dreadlocks. He seemed to have smeared his face with greasepaint. His teeth were a sickening mixture of black and yellow. The eyes he turned upon Juliet were filled with undisguised curiosity.
It was those eyes which gave him away. Despite being bloodshot, they fizzed at her, keen and intelligent – totally out of keeping with the rest of his image.
“So you’re Juliet Blake, our radio interviewer?” His tone was unmistakeably cultured.
“Yes,” she said, astonished.
“James Willoughby. We’re all on first-name terms here, so call me James. I used to teach Craig at Edinburgh.”
Teach him? She was appalled. But, controlling her feelings, she remained cool. “How do you do, James?”
“Excellently, thank you.”
She tried not to flinch as they shook hands – especially as his needed washing. “Would you mind telling me why you’re dressed like that?”
“Ah,” he said. “You haven’t had the chance to meet me in my socially acceptable persona yet have you?”
She shook her head. Did he have a socially acceptable persona? It seemed barely believable.
“Well, let me tell you,” James said, “I dress very smartly when I’m in that guise.” He dragged back the seat next to her, and slouched into it. Juliet tried to avoid recoiling.
“I “I first started dressing up like this,” he continued, “shortly after I was appointed to my position at Edinburgh.”
“Why was that?”
“I saw that everyone around me hunted honour and prestige. So it seemed a good idea to try shame and squalor instead. My plan was to do it every few days.” He paused. “And then, well, I must admit I got hooked.”
“That sounds fascinating, James, but I still don’t see how…”
“The Shadow,” interrupted Edgar. “That’s what you call it, don’t you, James?”
“Exactly.” James seized upon the prompt Edgar offered. “The Shadow is Jung’s term for the dark side of ourselves. And in my case, it’s had one or two extra advantages. I’ve picked up a few cameo roles from film production companies – and not least when the BBC’s been filming up my way.”
“Isn’t that cheating?” Juliet asked. “Earning money from it?”
“Not if you’ve got an Equity card it isn’t.” He leered at Juliet, displaying his ghastly dentures once more. She could only speculate that he must have a very well-stocked stage makeup kit.
He grabbed the cheeseboard, smearing it with grimy marks.
“No, James,” cried Laura. “Wash your hands first.”
“If you say so, lady.” He scraped his chair back, lurched to his feet, and sloped across to the sink, where he began to run the hot water.
“So,” Juliet said, when he returned with cleaner hands. “You were Craig’s mentor, were you?” She struggled to suppress the laughter bubbling up in her.
“Oh yes,” James said, becoming serious. “I met a need in him, one of the many unmet by his father, I might add.”
EXTRACT no. 2 FROM NOVEL “MYSTICAL CIRCLES”
A current of approval rippled up and down the table. Over the other side of the Beaujolais, next to Zoe, a smartly-turned-out man in his forties banged on the table with his spoon. “Well said, Craig.”
“Thank you, James. Why don’t you start the introductions?”
James! Juliet could barely believe it. He was so different from the vagrant at the lunch table, she would never have identified him as one and the same.
From his neatly-combed hair, distinguished features and elegant bearing, to the shiny brass buttons of his navy blazer, he looked like the sort of person who might command respect anywhere.
She quickly recovered from this slightly troubling reflection. “I met your alter–ego at lunch, didn’t I, James?”
“Indeed you did, Juliet.”
She glanced at the dark smear from his collar up to his cheekbone. He evidently hadn’t washed all traces of his disguise off.
She wondered when he got his Equity card. Presumably he’d fitted his drama training in prior to acting as Craig’s PhD supervisor.
This is the first in a series of extracts and character profiles from Mystical Circles.
Juliet was trembling. It had all happened so fast. The explosion of anger between the two men. The rush for the car park. The engine roaring into life. As the rear lights picked her out, she dodged aside just in time. The next thing she heard was a loud bang. And the sickening crunch of metal giving way. And a fountain of fragmenting glass.
He’d slammed on the brakes too late.
And it was all her fault.
Ten days earlier
Juliet’s palms were slippery on the steering wheel; she wiped the sweat away from her upper lip. The air conditioning might offset the strong heat of this June day, but not the burning anxiety she felt. Even the spectacular beauty of the high limestone hills and deep valleys as she headed west from the A417 had failed to calm her. A sign half hidden by the trees proclaimed that she’d found ‘The Wheel of Love’. She turned in at the entrance.
Further down the valley, she could see the two steeply pitched gables of the farmhouse with its mellow honey-coloured stone. It looked idyllic. But that held no pleasure for her; her stomach twisted with apprehension for Zoe.
She drove round the house to the gravel parking area at the back. A Bentley and a Saab were parked up against the woodland fence. She was about to nose her Renault Mégane in between them then realised there wasn’t quite enough room, and reversed into the space on the other side of the Saab. She drew to a halt and turned the engine off.
She pulled a copy of an email from the door pocket. A few phrases leapt out at her with the same force as when she’d first read them.
Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds…massive change of plan…I’m in love…Craig invited me out for supper…got to know him a whole lot better…gorgeous, sexy, intelligent…all I ever dreamed of…moved to his place…fantastic farmhouse a few miles from Cirencester…group called Wheel of Love…changes people’s lives…won’t be coming back…glad to leave London…paradise here…staying for ever…why not visit?… Material for a documentary here!..I’ll tell Craig you’re ringing…know what you’re like with a story.
See what you think!
Juliet bit her lip, folding the sheet of paper. Zoe’s tone still needled her as much as when she’d first read it. Zoe knew her sister wouldn’t be able to resist coming to find out what was going on. And the suggestion about a documentary had worked out just as Zoe had proposed. Still, Juliet didn’t like it, not one bit.
She was deeply suspicious of this Craig guy, for a start.
This morning I was listening to Howard Jacobson, comic novelist and Booker Prize winner, on Desert Island Discs, and among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this, “I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.” He gave this reply to the interviewer’s question, “Now you’ve won the Booker, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”
What a wonderful response she received to this question! And this seemed to me a true writer’s response. I identified with it absolutely. This is what I have spent my life doing. When I was researching for my newly-published novel Mystical Circles, I was an observer. I was on the outside looking in. I investigated many New Age spiritual groups and lifestyles and philosophies, and I always saw myself as being on the outside looking in – just as Juliet does in my novel. How anxious Juliet is not to get involved, not to be drawn in, to keep her objectivity as a journalist. It almost seems a personal threat to her to get involved. Yet as more than one character says to her, “You have to come alongside us to truly understand.”
My character the Rev. Theo sees this clearly. “I’m all about people on spiritual journeys,” he says. “I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.” It is no contradiction to him, a young clergyman, to enter a New Age spiritual group and to come alongside the members of the community and to live as one of them.
So you, my readers, will probably have spotted the apparent contradiction here. Do I believe in being an outsider looking in? Or do I believe in getting involved, coming alongside? The truth lies in paradox. And this is the paradox Howard Jacobson embodies. Of course he is on the inside! Of course he has arrived! And yet – he has the soul of a writer. And so he feels always on the outside looking in.
Do you identify with Howard Jacobson at all when he describes himself feeling like this, despite being successful in the eyes of the world?
Today Ezine Articles have published my article on “What can we learn from the sacred places of other religions?” (see below). I wrote this after a visit to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Central Australia, back in 2009. The thoughts expressed in this article feed into the content of my new novel “A Passionate Spirit”. I am working on this now, and it is a sequel to my first published novel “Mystical Circles”.
I am particularly fascinated by the relationship between spirituality and place. Last night I was reading “The Spiral – Crop Circle News” published by the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group. What stood out for me was the crop circle enthusiasts’ idea of places “where the Otherworld prevails and the veils are thin.” This connects to the awareness of the Celtic Christians that some places are “thin places” where the veil between this world and the spiritual world is thin. This applies to all sorts of places which have numinous quality e.g. Lindisfarne/Holy Island, or Iona, or St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral, or Cheddar Gorge, or Wells Cathedral, and there are many other examples that readers of this may already be well aware of.
I am reminded of something Rabbi Lionel Blue wrote: “Eternity is all around us. Part of us inhabits it already.”
Read my article on Uluru here:
This was my live interview with Liz Kershaw of BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire on Sunday 7 November 2010. Liz clearly understood the struggles of a writer and asked some very good perceptive questions. I greatly appreciated the opportunity she gave me to talk about my writing journey on live radio.
This is new territory for me – though I’ve written lots in my life I’ve never written it “nearly live” (apart from Facebook of course)! Usually I correct what I write over and over again – even emails. Yes, I still long for those far-off days when Mr Darcy sat down and composed carefully-thought-out letters to his little sister Georgiana and impressed the watching Lizzy Bennett with his devotion. I love the radio programme in which celebrities read from and talk about their teenage diaries. I enjoyed listening to Meera Syal’s weight loss miseries at the age of 13. Surely the very essence of the personal diary is that it is private and totally honest and never going to be read until after you die and it is unearthed from an attic (if you’re lucky). So this is “nearly live” writing, and a very exciting departure for me!