Tag Archives: new writing

Little Blue Angels

I dreamed I was dying.

My mother lay across me

crushing my chest,

studying my eyes with interest

as I watched the little blue angels

fly out of my mouth.

Stretching carbon fiber wings,

gaining altitude,

swept up on my last. Gasp. Then.

‘Breathe,’ she said.

And so I did.

Shifting her dead weight,

she put her lips close to my ear,

and with a soft breath, whispered.

‘That’ll teach you to have mommy issues,’ she said.

‘The Pelican Tree and other poems’ by Marnie Devereux is now available from Amazon, worldwide!

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Notes From a Broad: The American Embassy, November 2015

us-embassy

So I’m sitting in the waiting room at Taunton railway station, about to embark on the biggest journey of my life. This time tomorrow, I shall know whether or not my visa application has been approved. I haven’t slept properly in two weeks, ever since the letter arrived inviting me to the interview at the US Embassy in London. In 24 hours my entire life may have changed course. I am nervous, and excited. Trepidatious, if that’s a word. I check with my software package and it suggests changing it to ‘Cretaceous’ or ‘streptococcus’. Tempting, but I decide to stick with ‘trepidatious’. I have told one or two friends about the interview, not many. I couldn’t bear the disappointment that would be magnified so many times if the answer is ‘no’.

It is a major difficulty to get to London for a 9am appointment. No train runs early enough, and I don’t fancy my chances of sleep on the sleeper train that takes almost three times as long to get to Paddington as the normal trains.

I have scraped together enough money for an overnight hotel stay, a single room close by Paddington Station, not too far to walk in the dark.

I am up at six o’clock the next morning after a fitful night. I head sleepily to the bathroom and turn on the tap. No water. I turn on the shower. No water. The room was cheap by London standards, but I’m pretty sure water was included. After giving it a couple of minutes I ring down to reception. No water. An external problem, they assure me; not the hotel’s responsibility. I negotiate the use of a basement room which does have water (how did Thames Water manage that, I wonder?) to be allowed the use of a bathroom very recently vacated by another patron, evidenced by the unmade bed and the dirty towels littering the bathroom floor. I select one small, seemingly – and hopefully – unused hand towel and tentatively dab my face dry. On the biggest day of my life I am unable to shower first. The poor duty manager has been working all night, and now has to deal with a constant stream of complaints. He advises me to come back at lunchtime if I wish to speak with the manager. I explain that actually I have a REALLY, REALLY important appointment which may take up the entire day, and resolve to follow up with Days Inn customer services by email instead. Therein lies another long story, suffice to say I was eventually given a refund ‘by check, in US dollars. We don’t have the facility to credit’ after almost two months and a barrage of emails.

So, at 7am, map in hand, I head off on foot through Hyde Park in the general direction of the American Embassy. According to Mr Google I should be at the Embassy in 23 minutes.

Which is why I eventually arrived there an hour and a quarter later.

See, I don’t have the best sense of direction. But, I was having a lovely walk through Hyde Park on a beautiful autumn morning. It was cold, but with that lazy winter sun which makes everything look pretty. Before I knew it, I was at the far end of the park, and, as I thought, still heading in the right direction. Until I looked at the map and realised that by now the park should be on my left, and not on my right. I passed quite a few Embassies, but not the American one. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I was, quite simply, a bit lost. My saviour arrived in the form of the tallest man I have ever seen, a doorman dressed in a red hunting jacket and black top hat, on duty outside some hotel or other. I explained where I was going. ‘Oh, the American Embassy? That’s over in Mayfair!’ He said, in a broad London accent. He pointed with his huge hands off into the far distance. ‘See that roundabout? That’s Hyde Park Corner. You wanna take a left there, then turn right at the donkey. Past the Dorchester then you’ll see the Embassy’. ‘Let me check I’ve got this right’ I said, slightly confused by the sudden introduction of livestock into the conversation. ‘I turn left, then head for the donkey’. So, I retraced my steps back to Hyde Park Corner, past the Dorchester Hotel. I never did find the donkey, but worked out that it must have been the War Horse memorial to animals lost in the Great War.

Sure enough, I finally arrived at the American Embassy, a vast, imposing building crowned with a huge gilded bald eagle. By this time it was raining, and the armed police on duty at the perimeter were looking bored. So too were the 150 other people who formed a long queue reaching back down the street. I approached a lady and asked if this was the queue for the visas. ‘This is the 8.30 queue’ she replied. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Then I’m guessing I need…the 9 o’clock queue???’ She pointed off to one side where another queue stretched away into the distance. I went to the back of the line, and resigned myself to a long wait. The whole of humanity was there: students, families, mothers with babies in their arms, seasoned travellers, tourists clutching travel itineraries, would-be migrants like myself, many of them clutching Indian passports and bundles of paperwork. I felt nervous, and excited. I craned my neck to look up at the huge eagle at the top of the building. It is an extremely effective symbol of the might of America. I dearly wanted to photograph it, but couldn’t be certain that my camera wouldn’t be confiscated by the cops – photographing the US Embassy would probably amount to espionage, or spying, resulting in several years’ incarceration in Guantanamo.

After an hour, an official came along the line encouraging us to get our papers ready for when we reached the front of the queue. She spotted mine and said brightly ‘Oh! You’re a K-1, you can jump the queue’. Not being sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I meekly followed her, glad of the opportunity to move so that I could get some feeling back into my frozen feet. I was then handed over to a security guard who put me in line for checking through security. This is an arrangement just like at an airport, and equally as thorough, and gets you through the perimeter fence to the outside of the Embassy. Then you have to walk all the way around to the main entrance, and to a very polite receptionist. He explained I should take a seat in the waiting hall and handed me a sheet of paper covered in identical barcodes. ‘And this is your number for the day’. I guessed I was going to be there for some time.

At that moment, the doors to the waiting hall swung open and a young woman made her way down the steps. She had obviously been crying, her mascara had run in little channels down her cheeks and she wore the washed out, lost look of someone who has just had their hopes and dreams dashed. I shivered, hoping this was not an omen of bad things coming my way.

The waiting hall resembles an airport departure lounge and seats 300 people. I know this, because I had plenty of time to count them all while I was waiting for my number to be called. At the front of the hall is a snack bar selling coffee and sandwiches. A minor panic erupted when it was announced over the tannoy that the coffee bar would be closing early today. I didn’t move from my seat, for fear of missing my number being called. The system works a bit like in an Argos store. A huge display board flashes up numbers roughly every 20 seconds or so, accompanied by a loud, discordant bleeping noise. But here’s the thing. The numbers are displayed in RANDOM order, so there is no chance of reading the book you might have taken with you to stave off the boredom, or of having a little walk to stretch your legs, because once your number’s gone, it’s gone. Next to the random-number-generator display board is a screen silently showing scenic views of the great American outdoors, to remind you what you’ll be missing out on when your application is refused. And just occasionally, an explanation of the procedure we are all here for today. My gaze wanders to the window. Outside it is still raining. People are still queueing. And this goes on all day, every day. Hordes of civilians, standing in line for a new life. I’m glad I’m inside now, away from the cold and the rain. There is no need for armed police officers in here. The hours of boredom, watching random numbers flash before our eyes, is enough to keep us subdued. The notion of a 9am appointment, indeed any definite time for an appointment, is long gone, but no-one seems to care. Some families talk quietly amongst themselves, most of us are silent, watching the flickering numbers. There is a strong, inexplicable smell of mothballs.

Two and three-quarter hours after I arrived, my number comes up and I am instructed to go to window number eight. The hall is lined with booths, like at the post office or the bank; perspex screens dividing the public from the officials, and microphones that make everything unintelligible.

I am greeted by a kind Italian gentleman who sports a magnificent Civil War moustache. I hand him my papers and he checks them over, saying that everything looks OK to him. ‘But’ he says advisedly, ‘It’s the Americans who will decide’. I am told to take a seat back in the waiting hall for my number to be called a second time.

After another hour, I am directed down a corridor to another booth where the atmosphere is decidedly cooler. By this point I have been waiting most of the day and I’m emotionally exhausted, hypertense, hungry and thirsty. This is the deciding moment which will affect the course of the rest of my life. I am feeling sick with anticipation. I daren’t think about being turned away. I smile confidently and greet ‘The American’ politely. He’s an innocuous looking man in his forties, and he will decide my future. ‘And who is your sponsor?’ he asks. Once I’ve translated this into a sentence my overloaded brain can interpret, I realise he means Nick. ‘Dr Nicholas Devereux’ I reply. He considers me for a moment, then says, ‘I’ll just go and get your file’.

Now, I spend every day in my job making up big bundles of evidence for Court. I’m quite good at it; it’s what I do. The bundle of evidence I sent to Homeland Security in the States has been forwarded to the US Embassy in London, and this is what I expect to see. A wad of papers approximately three inches thick, containing the many forms we completed, together with a copy of every email we have ever sent each other (only slightly censored for smut), a log of all our Skype conversations, photographs of holidays taken together, copies of both our passports. What ‘The American’ returns with, however, is a pile of papers a foot thick. A MASSIVE bundle of documents, and it’s all about me. As a Case Builder for the police I can appreciate the beauty of a well-compiled dossier, and I really, really want to know what’s in the bundle. But when you’ve travelled halfway across the country, slept in a strange bed, woken up to no running water and possible smell a little questionable, walked the length of Hyde Park (twice) and turned right at a donkey, queued up for most of the day with half of London and might possibly have omitted some vital piece of information from your application, you really, really don’t ask. This is a boat that must not be rocked. So I content myself with raising one eyebrow and prepare to be questioned.

I had brought with me, as instructed, not only essential documents like my birth certificate, medical records and police certificate, but also duplicate copies of all the additional evidence in support of my application. Two reams of paper in a briefcase. It weighs a ton. ‘The American’ didn’t ask for any of them, and again, I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not. He asks me how Dr Nick and I met, and I brighten up at the prospect of telling him The Big Old Love Story. ‘Can I tell you the big old love story?’ I ask. ‘Just the short version ma’am’ is his reply. So I keep it short. He asks how often we have visited each other, and about Dr Nick’s work. Where I intend to live, and whether we have been married before. ‘Not to each other’ I consider saying, but remember my best friend’s advice when dealing with bureaucrats: never, ever, try to be funny.

‘Well,’ says The American, ‘Your application is approved’ and picking up a big stamp, begins stamping the word ‘APPROVED’ on my application. Just like that, it’s all over. Before I know it, I have clamped my hand to my mouth and hot, salty tears of relief roll down my face. ‘Oh! Thank you! Thank you!’ Is all I can manage to say. ‘I can’t even shake your hand because you’re behind this big perspex window!’ The American nods inscrutably, murmuring ‘Take care on your way out ma’am’ and with that, I am dismissed. I scramble my papers together, pages slipping to the floor as I am blinded with tears, and somehow make my way back to the waiting hall, where strangers, awaiting their turn, ask me if I’m OK. ‘I’m very, very happy’ I explain, and pull in vain at the door, trying to get it open. A young woman points silently to the large sign marked ‘PUSH’ and everyone laughs. I’m back at the reception desk, and pause to wipe my eyes and pull myself together. I’m getting concerned looks from the reception staff, so I tell them The Big Old Love Story, seeing as how I was denied the opportunity with The American. ‘Oh, that’s really luvvly’ says the lady at the desk ‘I’m gonna tell my mum that story when I get home. It’ll make her day’. I make my way out into the late afternoon sunshine, and take the first breath of the rest of my life.

Notes From a Broad, June 2016: A piece of cake

This time last year, Dr Nick and I were travelling in Europe. We spent two weeks in Italy, where he delivered a lecture at the University of Bologna, and then we moved on to Serbia for a week-long conference. This year, by way of contrast, we are more or less confined to barracks. A radical hysterectomy means that the furthest I can travel at the moment is, by means of a very tentative stagger, to the end of the road and back, and this can take half an hour or so. The last ten days have passed in a fog of (prescribed) narcotics, sleep and frustration as I take small steps, literally, back to fitness. I have learned that I am a very impatient patient. It’s not that I was a super-active person prior to having what feels like half my internal organs removed, but being unable to accomplish simple tasks such as putting on a pair of socks, or reaching up to take a plate out of a cupboard makes me feel old and helpless. Dr Nick has, of course, been an absolute angel. The night before I went into hospital he brought a dish of honeysuckle petals to my bedside ‘to help you sleep.’ The yellow, green, and white petals infused the air with invisible clouds of icing-sugar sweetness, and I felt truly loved.

My surgeon’s mantra, when I saw him this morning, was ‘small steps’, and he’s right. Each day I am growing a little stronger, although a brief bout of over-confidence yesterday resulted in my baking a fruit cake and going for a walk, with the inevitable result that by the evening I was exhausted and very, very sore. Today Dr Nick made me promise to rein it in a bit and take it easy, hence the reason why I am now sitting in a shady spot in the garden, watching the birds and applying a healthy dose of positive thinking towards getting better. It helps that I now have cake to speed my recovery.

My beloved’s kitchen is poorly equipped for adventures in baking. I doubt that he has ever baked a cake, so this combined with the fact that I was botching an English recipe using American measurements and ingredients, means that the resulting fruit cake tastes even more delicious.

Now, baking a cake would normally be a pretty straightforward affair. However, I hadn’t anticipated the several ways in which this simple venture would highlight, once more, the differences between England and America. It’s impossible to buy cake as we know it in the UK. Ask for ‘cake’ in Arizona and you are offered either deep-fried and heavily glazed donuts, or blousy confections smothered in artificial whipped crème. I was a woman on a mission, to make a good, old-fashioned fruit cake, the sort of cake which would accompany a lovely cup of strong British tea. My first challenge came when shopping for ingredients. After much searching, I was able to track down a bag of ‘self-rising flour’, a bottom-shelf novelty item at my local Walmart, and I managed to cause further confusion by asking if they had sultanas. The humble, juicy sultana is another thing which is clearly not ‘a thing’ in Arizona. Nor is the glace cherry. Or mixed spice. Who’d have thought? Some serious improvisation and substitution took place, with finely-chopped apricots and cranberries going in the mix with the raisins (yes, I found those, although not in the baking aisle at Walmart; raisins are strictly ‘snacking goods’, apparently).

My beloved possesses neither mixing bowl nor, until today, a cake tin, but with a few work-arounds I was able to turn out a jolly good almost-British fruit cake. I bent, gingerly, to the oven and lovingly lifted the pan to pride of place on the worktop. Warm, spicy, and crammed with fruit (the cake, that is), Dr Nick looked on in wonder as if unable to comprehend how on earth his kitchen could produce such a thing. Mind you, this relatively simple task had taken me most of the day, if you count the time it took to buy the ingredients and equipment. As far as I was concerned, it was a major achievement. My child-bearing days might be over, but I can still create, cajole and nurture something beautiful into existence. It might not be another European ‘Grand Tour’, but, as my surgeon would say, it is a small step to recovery.

The Hummingbird Garden

Alone, Marguerite sits in the cool shade of the cherry tree, pondering today’s problem. Above her, glass vases brim with nectar; they are garlanded with bright red ribbons. The perfect temptation for hummingbirds. Yet they do not come.

Frowning, she considers this conundrum.

Marguerite knows she is perfect. Her slight frame ageing, yet scalpel-thin, her apple cheeks Botox-plump and rosy, skin tucks no more noticeable than paper-cut scars. She has starved herself to be every man’s wish, an example to her failing, fat friends in the WI whom she secretly pities. Shifting slightly in the warming afternoon, she remains puzzled as to where the elusive hummingbirds could be hiding. She has provided everything they could possibly want: sugary, syrupy goodness, bright colours, the perfect quiet of an English garden. She has seen the photographs; back home in Ecuador her dull little friend Daniela has them visiting in swarms, and look at the state of her! Surely if she can attract these rare beauties, Marguerite should have no problem. No problem at all. Perhaps she needs to add some more scarlet ribbons to the swags now knotted to the tree branches above her head. In Marguerite’s experience, if you want something badly enough, you get it. After all, that mantra has always worked when it comes to attracting the opposite sex. Youth and beauty is all, and she has paid hard cash to her surgeon to ensure, absolutely, that she will always be young and beautiful. She squints up through the dappled sunshine at the glass bowls; she knows she has filled them with just the right proportions of sugar and water. She has peppered the cherry tree with every scrap of red ribbon she could find – raided from Christmas decorations, her sewing box and dressing table. She will have the biggest, the most colourful and the best hummingbird garden of anyone she knows. As soon as she saw those photographs, those delicate, brightly-coloured Sunangels (Sun angels! how perfect!) she just knew it was her job to attract the brightest and the most. Feigning interest in poor, dowdy Daniela’s achievement, she had gleaned the knowledge that hummingbirds love a strong sugar solution, and the colour red. So, naturally, the cherry tree with its under planting of crimson camellias was the perfect spot to attract attention. Marguerite has positioned herself here, on the love seat under the cherry tree, every morning for the past week, and willed those beautiful, delicate creatures to come to her. No larger than bees, apparently, though bees were the only creatures that seemed to be attracted so far, and their numbers were growing. They buzzed incessantly just a few feet above her head, and Marguerite wondered vaguely if that was the reason the birds were keeping away.

The afternoon is growing much warmer now, and Marguerite begins to feel drowsy. She takes a sip from the wine glass on the table beside her, absentmindedly shooing away an inquisitive bee with a flick of her hand. The lack of avian attention is beginning to trouble her; she doesn’t like being ignored, either by men or animals. It makes her snippy.

Rummaging in the carpet bag she brought with her from the house, she pulls out a few more reels of scarlet ribbon. Carefully, she winds them around her wrists and neck, the blood-red streamers rising gently in the afternoon breeze. She garlands yet more around her head, tying makeshift bows in her carefully-coloured blonde hair. She knows she looks magnificent; no bird would be capable of resisting. Why, they might even come and land on her hands; if she could tempt them to drink from her fingers that would be a definite one-up on her loser friends!

Grabbing her phone, she takes a quick selfie ‘Me in my Hummingbird Garden!’ and posts it on Instagram. ‘That’ll show them’ she sniggers to herself. ‘I’m the one with the rich husband and the good looks. I’ll prove who’s best at attracting attention.’ Setting her phone to record, she positions it on the table so that it will capture what she does next. Standing on tiptoe, Marguerite grasps the bottom of one of the glass bowls above her head, tilts it gently and lets the cool, sweetened water run over her face and arms, giggling in delight as she does so. Now she is a living, breathing, hummingbird feeder! Giving what she considers her most adorable pout to the camera, she raises her glass to the lens and polishes off the last of the Merlot. Arranging herself delicately on the grass beneath the tree, in what she hopes is a pose attractive to wildlife, and to the camera silently recording her every move, she turns her face to the sun and lets her eyes close, just for a few minutes. Then, at last, she hears it. A distinct hum, growing louder, filling her ears and hovering around her head. Keeping her eyes closed, she can feel their gentle caresses on her skin, tickling her arms and hands as they kiss her beautiful unlined skin. A smirk of deep satisfaction on her expensively-tucked face, she drifts off into a self-satisfied slumber just as the first of the swarm of worker bees lands on her mouth.

 

A Big Old Love Story

In the mid-1970s, Nick and I were at school together in a small town in the south-west of England. Nick was my boyfriend Simon’s best mate. We were all the same age, and were a very close-knit little group of friends. Nick was the coolest kid in school. Always immaculately dressed, always had the beautiful blonde girlfriend. A bit of a bad boy, cheeky grin, black leather jacket, curly black hair, Italianate good looks. We used to call him ‘The Fonz’ after a character in a popular TV show of the time. Nick and Simon were inseparable.

Simon, my boyfriend, died, in very tragic circumstances, when we were twenty years old. When things like that happen, it either brings you all closer together, or splits you all up. It split us up. Nick moved to Hawaii to do his PhD; I got married way too young, and we lost touch.

Fast forward forty years, and I’m living in a different town in Somerset, and by complete coincidence, living next door to Nick’s step-mum, Lorna. I was managing the local public library, and Lorna would come in and tell me news about Nick: how he was a big, important Professor of astrophysics, how he worked for NASA, how he had got married, been awarded a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Ireland, got divorced, moved back to the USA. I never bothered to get back in touch with him; after all, he was a high-achiever and I had done nothing with my life, and there was no way he would remember the shy girl from school who wasn’t very bright.

In 2014, Nick’s step-mum passed away, and Nick was over in the UK arranging her funeral; staying in the house next door to mine. I had been separated from my husband for two years at this point, and had been through an extremely difficult time. But I couldn’t let my old school chum disappear back to the United States without letting him know I was thinking of him, so I plucked up my courage and knocked on his door. I had convinced myself he would have absolutely no idea who I was, so was completely taken aback when he cried out in surprise and recognition and gave me a great big bear-hug! The next evening we went out for dinner and caught up on more than thirty years of ‘So what have you done with your entire life, then?’. It turned out that Nick lived in a small desert town in Arizona, and I had stayed in that town for one night the previous year as part of a road trip whilst visiting my son who had studied in California for a time. Nick and I could have passed each other in the street and not recognised one another. ‘Come and visit me in Arizona!’ was the invitation I received, though an air fare was the last thing I could afford. I was just moving out of the marital residence and buying my own house for the first time, and money was tight. But a voice in my head told me never to turn down an invitation, and I scraped together the money for a plane ticket. Nick had said I could stay with him for a couple of weeks, or he could help to pay for a hotel, whichever I preferred. The last thing on my mind was a relationship. I was still trying to piece myself together after a 25-year controlling marriage, and had no thoughts of getting into a relationship with anyone. So, a few months later I was on a long-haul flight for only the second time in my life, for a much-needed holiday in the sunshine. Nick had agreed to meet me at the airport in Phoenix, and as we drove the two hours north to Prescott, he told me a little about his life in the States and how he had been through a difficult year. I had found him to be quite a private person, and wasn’t even sure if he was gay, straight, married or had a partner waiting to greet us at home.

Well, waiting to greet us was the girl with whom Nick had shared his life for the past fifteen years. Her name was Sooty, Nick’s elderly black-and-white cat. Nick and I talked long into the night about our schooldays, our precious friend we had lost, and the paths our lives had taken. We laughed, and cried. I realised then that here was, quite simply, the sweetest, kindest man I had ever met. We are a lifetime older, and have our fair share of grey hair and wrinkles, but I look at him and see the boy I knew forty years ago. Nick Devereux. The Fonz. Nick Devereux from school. Wow.

 

Two years later…after too long apart, we jumped through the final hoop for me to be granted an immigration visa. As I write this I’m looking out over the banks of the creek where we live in northern Arizona, and I wonder if that terrible time we went through as teenagers happened so that, a lifetime later, we could find each other again. Nick and I are getting married next week, just after Valentine’s Day. We may not have a lifetime left to share, but we will treasure every moment.

Great British icons: six of the best

Which one do you miss? I expect every ex-pat has their own list of goodies they would take to their desert island (or, in my case, northern Arizona). Here are a few of mine:

 

PG Tips

pg_tipsOh how I miss a decent cuppa! OK, you can get them in the USA – if you’re willing to pay $13 for a small box, which I’m not. I shall certainly be stocking up on these next time I visit the UK…

 

Marmite

Marmite

Love it or hate it, it’s been a British breakfast staple for several generations. Dr Nick and I were both raised on Marmite-on-toast and Marmite sandwiches for tea…

 

Bird’s custard

InstantCustardI admit to cheating on the custard front – I much prefer instant. But whether you make it the old-fashioned way or like me prefer to boil a kettle, it’s still the ultimate in comfort food.

 

Bisto

BistoFavorites

Gravy as we know it. Order gravy in the USA and you’ll get something white and glutinous, triggering one of those ‘spit or swallow’ conversations…

 

Fray Bentos steak & kidney pie

Fray

Dr Nick’s favourite. Don’t ask me why, but there are some things a man just can’t go without.

 

Walkers cheese & onion crisps

WalkersNo other crisp even comes close. Why does the cheese and onion crisp not exist in America? Discuss.

 

Which Great British Icon do you miss? Which food items would you miss if you lived away from your home country? I’d love to know!

 

The Psychic Art Festival

It was all a bit trippy. I’d never been to a ‘psychic art festival’ before, but when my girlfriend Naomi invited me along to an event in Glastonbury, I thought it would be churlish of me to refuse.

We roll up at Glastonbury Town Hall. Back in the day this venue was host to bands like Fleetwood Mac, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Elton John when he was still Reg Dwight. Now it has degenerated from hosting the innovative and ground-breaking to housing the predictable, and some might say manufactured, ‘alternative’. Next to the man collecting the entrance fee is a sign which declares ‘Open the doorway to manifesting abundance. Each artwork is created by channelling universal energy’. There is a strong aroma of bodies. Perhaps the use of deodorant would interfere with the channelling.

I browse the artists’ work on display, each one weirder than the last. They run the whole gamut of alternative iconic images. Glastonbury Tor features quite heavily in these paintings, as do wolves and hummingbirds, hares and bears. Badgers, antlered Green Men and standing stones are in abundance. Jade sells crystal jewellery which is guaranteed to ‘amplify learning from lifetimes’. Quite whose lifetimes she does not specify. Nor does she explain exactly what that meaningless phrase, well, means. I begin to smell snake-oil laced with a generous dose of codswallop. I briefly consider purchasing a pair of earrings made with ‘totally vegan polymer clay’. Just in case I got peckish, or bored, and was considering eating my own head.

I could have my soul portrait painted. Soul portraits take one hour, and with a ‘soul reading’ cost only £30.00. A medium hugs the woman to whom she has just given a reading and I realise there are some truly touching moments here. In a box I spot the top half of a painting sticking up from behind some others. It looks like Keith Richards in his Pirates of the Caribbean phase. At least this is something I can relate to on a non-astral level. I lift it out and discover it is actually meant to be an aborigine. On reflection perhaps this isn’t the right place for Keith to put in an appearance. On another stall is a selection of ‘channelled Chakra swirls’. A Chakra Swirl, rather than being a type of holistic breakfast pastry, is a 15cm square canvas with a single swirl of colour. A bargain at £15.00 each or two for £20.00.

I begin to develop a distinct feeling of ‘down the rabbit hole’ when I meet Hannah, a lady in her mid-60s with the compulsory hennaed red hair, who makes shrines decorated with beads, glass, gold spray-painted daleks, pictures of Superman, madonnas. ‘Chaos shrines represent with archetypes what’s going on in our inner selves’ she explains, in a high-pitched voice reminiscent of a stressed-out mouse on helium. The shrines are a riot of colour and sparkle, beautiful, chaotic, yes, and decorated with a hedonistic mix of images: The McDonalds golden arches. Marmite and Spiderman. Tiny toy record players and remembrance poppies. Cut-outs of comic book characters from the 1950s.’They are portals into otherworldly realms, or at least that’s how I see them.’ Cupcakes. Marbles (that’s where they went, I think). ‘There’s a lot going on there’ she whispers ‘on all levels – psychic, spiritual…everything.’ Her voice trails off as I inspect a 2” rabbit in Victorian dress which stares out at me from one of the shrines, one of its paws patting a pink alarm clock as tall as itself. Part of me, the part of me that would really love for a few moments to be inside Hannah’s head, wants to buy one of these portals, if only to see which otherworldly realm I would be transported to next time I drive past a McDonalds sign. Sadly, at £25.00 each, shrines are rather out of my price range. I don’t notice anyone buy one all day.

A beautiful young woman with maroon-coloured hair, arms sleeved with tattoos, wearing a tiger-print dress and sporting a pair of cat ears hovers hopefully next to her display of painted shamanic drums. On the next stall is a book of mandalas ‘inspired by Bridport’ for you to colour. It’s good to know that West Dorset is a hotbed of spiritual inspiration from the far east.

Mostly the Festival is full of mediocre paintings by people probably more spiritual than talented. A lady sits patiently having her portrait drawn in pastels by Steve, a spirit artist who sports a broken nose. Those spirits definitely pack a punch. He has cleverly painted a wash background in the same shade of pale blue as the T-shirt his customer is wearing, thereby, I imagine, creating a feeling of empathy. The customer looks slightly disappointed when she sees the result, but these are portraits guided by divine spirits; they see the inner you, which doesn’t necessarily look like the ‘you’ you would see in the mirror. She chats to the artist about the spirit guide who visits her regularly. ‘she comes to me fairly often; she wears lots of jewellery in her hair.’ I imagine it must be a little like receiving a visitation from the Queen Mother, but maybe I’m just being cynical.

In a far corner of the Town Hall, Dave offers interactive encaustic art sessions. Encaustic art uses coloured wax which is applied to paper, then melted with a tiny hand iron to form patterns. Dave collars a potential customer ‘You choose the colour, I will iron it, then you can take it to a Medium (there’s one over there) and they will give you a reading from it.’ With each stall-holder charging around £20.00 for each reading/portrait/channelling, I momentarily think about rushing home, grabbing my ironing board and some of the kids’ old wax crayons and setting up shop myself.

Darryl, a man with a feather apparently growing out of his forehead and wearing a striped waistcoat, obligatory ponytail and a strong layer of BO specialises in cosmic light language artwork. He proudly displays his qualifications in a folder next to his paintings, which consist of many coloured dots on pieces of hardboard. These qualifications include a Diploma in remote viewing (theory and practice) from the London College of Management Science, Institute of Applied and Theoretical parapsychology. He has letters after his name and everything: Dip. Ppsy. Psych, Dip. RV Dip. ST But it’s OK, it has the word ‘science’ in there, so it must be totally Kosher. He offers light language readings and universal soul activation.

When I get home I activate my soul into Googling the London College of Management Science. From its chaotic and poorly-constructed website I learn that I too could become a psychic practitioner. For only £325.00 I could gain a qualification in Remote Viewing, Psychic Healing or Electronic Voice Phenomenon. So if all else fails, I could presumably be well-qualified to get a job as a Dalek. What the heck, with the ‘enrol for 3, pay for only 2’ offer, I could get a certificate in Sex Therapy and the Science of Alternative Universes (Dip. SC.) as well.

Steve, the artist with the bent nose, has several of his one-dimensional portraits on display. All have bent noses. They are all, basically, the same person, it’s only the hairstyle or the hat that changes from one portrait to another. For his customers, the one-hour session provides a chance to talk. ‘I’m unemployed, I’ve had a lot of epilepsy recently. I’ve been in an emotionally stressing relationship.’ says one man having his spirit guide painted. He is delighted with his portrait, and shyly asks Steve if he wouldn’t mind posing for a photograph with him. £20.00 for a reading and a spirit portrait. For half an hour’s counselling, it’s actually quite good value. The only issue I have is that it’s unqualified, albeit probably well-intentioned therapy inadequately dressed up as ‘art’.

Mark, another ‘spirit artist’ explains that each painting is channelled ‘using the universal energies.’ The universal energies are so busily being demonstrated here today they must be completely exhausted.

Naomi wins first prize in the raffle. Her prize consists of a one-hour session where five artists ‘read’ her and do a drawing. For the next hour a lady whose skills include womb clearing sits next to my friend and plays a shruti box, an Indian instrument that looks a bit like a melodeon, and which sounds astonishingly beautiful. She sings a haunting melody as the artists begin painting. Then I hear a ringing in my ears, and just when I think my tinnitus is playing up again I notice she has put down the shruti box in favour of a Tibetan singing bowl, which she is making ring loudly, like we used to as kids with wet fingers on the rim of a wine glass. The session rolls on. The artists are busily focussed on Naomi. One now has four paintbrushes in his mouth and one behind each ear. Another, wearing a garland of flowers in a circlet on her head paints Naomi as a goddess cradling the world in her hands. I realise Naomi has tears rolling down her cheeks. She is deeply moved, and so am I. Later I ask Naomi what the lady was singing. ‘Naomiiii, you are freeee’ she answers.

As I wait for my friend I notice a picture, blu-tacked to the wall, of a spirit guide dressed as a Tibetan monk. The monk has a broken nose. I realise it is the spitting image of Steve the artist. At the end of her session, Naomi gets a round of applause. She is glowing, and smiling. And wiping away her tears. It has been a therapy for her. Among the charlatans and the hangers-on, this is a moment where a human soul has been touched by art, music and above all, kindness.

It would be very easy to be dismissive of the psychic artists, but instead I think they are simply ‘artists’. Some are good, some are not so good, some are possessed of a real talent and others are obviously along for the ride. What struck me though, was the sense of fellowship, or community. Call it oneness with the universe, if you will.

‘It’s all about networking, this game’ Darryl the cosmic light language artist mutters to a friend as I pass. Apparently his feet are rooted more firmly on planet earth that at first it would appear.