‘Come on, love, you’re holding up the queue.’
The driver-conductor was waiting, tapping a coin on the ticket box. She glanced round. Half a dozen people were pressing in behind her.
‘Starly and Starly Tor via Dimper, Harnham, Bransby, Lockerton Wood, Little Lockerton, Fretfield, Shrimfield and Up Starly. Plenty of choice, only make up your mind.’
Someone pushed against her back and to save herself, Debbie had to put her foot on the bus step.
‘Thank goodness for that. Where to?’
She swallowed and her throat had a hard dry lump of coke stuck in it, she could neither speak nor breathe.
‘Single or are you planning on coming home?’
‘Return. Please.’ The lump dissolved but her fingers shook, holding the white roll of ticket.
She had forgotten how beautiful the countryside round here was, even in January, how the hills sloped and unfolded one after another, with small clumps of woodland between, and streams running along the bottom of the hills, ribbons of silky grey drystone walls, sheep scattered as if they had been thrown down on the fields at random, like confetti. There was a lemony winter sun, low above the fields, and the light was wonderful, soft and clear, picking out a barn roof, a crown of oaks, a wooden gate, or slanting suddenly across an open meadow. Once, she saw a hunt streaming across, each horse jumping a long scribble of hedge, red coats and black hats and manes and tails pouring over and on.
Just looking at everything lifted her mood and calmed her. She ought to come out like this more, travel about anywhere, looking, looking, peaceful and cocooned in the warm bus. Her dark loathing of herself and her own unattractive face and overweight body seemed to have been left behind in Lafferton. Now, she was someone else, or no one else, content, unworried, happy even, in a pleasant trance of enjoyment.
She did not mind the slowness of the bus or the roundabout route, the stopping and starting, all of it pleased her and kept her safely away from herself. In her pocket, the blue card was safe, a talisman, a promise and not, for the moment, anything to fear. What lay ahead, did, what was going to happen, would, and it was all meant to be.
The sun was warm on Debbie’s face through the bus window. A heron, long legs dangling, flew down into a field beside a stream, and stood, erect, elegant, uncannily still. A hare raced suddenly up a slope and out of sight. She fell into a half-doze.
‘Starly … Starly … all change please.’ She started and for a second couldn’t remember why she was sitting with cramped legs and stiff neck on an emptying bus.
‘Late night, was it?’
She stood on the pavement watching the bus turn round and pull up at the stop on the other side of the street. The engine died and the driver climbed out.
Everything went quiet. The rest of the passengers had vanished and a Tuesday afternoon in January was not a day when a place like Starly bustled with people.
The little town was set on two steep slopes that formed a T, with the main shopping street on the long side. The houses were small, and all of a piece, plain stone with tiled roofs and a few white- and pink-painted eighteenth-century cottages similar to those in the old part of Lafferton. She looked round. Starly Primary School was opposite to her, next to a small car park which was almost empty. Baptist chapel. Bank. Post office. Starly Books and Stationery.
She wandered slowly past them. A small all-purpose grocer next to a butcher. These were the normal shops. At the junction of the T, the road went even more steeply downhill and at once she saw that everything that made Starly the centre of New Age interests was clustered here. Every building had either a shop or some sort of centre … Feng shui. Crystals. Vegetarian, vegan and wholefoods. Herbalist. The New Age Book Centre. The Starly Community Meeting House … Indian saris and North American Indian tribal beads, candles, incense burners, wind chimes, tubular bells, nuts, alternative lotions and remedies, beauty products not tested on animals, ecologically safe washing powders, recycling depot. In between were doors with signs to the consulting rooms of healers, herbalists and psychics.
The street was quiet, the shops mainly empty. She wandered into a couple. They smelled of incense and dust and her feet sounded loud on the wooden floors. Behind a counter a girl sat knitting. A woman talked to another about a homeopathic animal clinic. Debbie had expected to find the place exciting but it just seemed sad and run-down. Notices were tatty and stock looked tired, everything had a dispirited air.
She found a small wholefood café with tables and chairs in bright pine, and a noticeboard of cards for therapists and posters about meetings. They served only decaffeinated coffee and organic tea, so she had the coffee and a piece of hard flapjack. The coffee tasted odd and the girl who served her had a cold.
Debbie sat under the noticeboard. The blue of Dava’s card shone out from the clutter of others. Debbie stared at it. The colour worked its magic at once, lifting her mood and the dull atmosphere of the café, exciting her all over again. She had no idea why a colour and the printing on a piece of card should seem like a voice talking directly and intimately to some place deep within her.
‘Could you tell me where that is, please?’ She pointed to the card.
‘What’s it say?’
‘The Sanctuary, Pilgrim Street.’
‘Oh yeah, the little side alley that runs behind here, turn up by the candle shop.’
‘Thanks. It’s difficult in a place you don’t know.’
‘I think I’ll have another cup of coffee. My appointment isn’t till twelve.’
She wanted to tell the girl all about it, talk about herself, tell her things she had never told anyone. The girl pulled the coffee jar towards her and spooned out the brown powder with a sigh. The urn glugged as the water heated up.
Debbie probed at her side tooth to extract a lump of the flapjack, and said nothing after all.
She was far too early. She walked up one side of the lane to the top, but did not find anything advertising itself as Dava’s Spiritual Sanctuary.
Her calf muscles ached as she crossed and began to go carefully down the opposite side. Halfway down, she suddenly caught sight of the blue – her blue, as she thought of it now, a patch of it that seemed to glow in the dim lane. It was set into the wall of a cottage which otherwise had nothing else to distinguish it from the rest. Dava. There was the same dusting of gold stars. But it was not yet twenty minutes to twelve; she was afraid of looking too eager.
She was tired by the time she had walked twice round the grid of sloping streets. There were very few people about, the shops were empty. A faint smell of patchouli or musky incense drifted out of one of the doors. It was cold.
If it had not been for the blue card in her pocket, Debbie Parker would have cried, and then fled back to the bus stop and then the haven of her bedroom in Lafferton. But she did have the card.
At five to twelve, she rang the bell under the blue sign.
There was no sound and no one came. A sudden cold wind came skimming down the lane. She tried to push open the door but it was closed and locked. What were they fooling about for?
A church clock somewhere struck twelve and as the last note faded, the door opened. A woman in a long skirt and with a scarf tied round her head let Debbie in.
‘Dava likes his appointments to begin exactly on time.’
They went into a hall into which coloured light came dimly through a stained-glass panel.
‘Dava would like quiet now.’
She opened a door and held it open for Debbie to go inside.
There was a round table and two chairs, and the walls were hung with some sort of softly draped fabric.
‘Please come in, Debbie.’
He was sitting at the table, wearing a collarless velvet coat, like a clergyman’s cassock. He had long brown hair and his fingers were decorated with rings. There was a chain with a plain silver Celtic cross round his neck.
Debbie’s heart thudded.
‘Don’t be nervous. Please – come and sit down.’
Candles were burning, giving off a sweet smell; an elaborately framed mirror reflected their flickering amber flames.
He waited in silence for Debbie to unbutton her jacket, and put her rucksack down. She fidgeted, nervous and uncertain. But then, she looked up and into his eyes. They were steady on her face, large eyes with thick lashes and they were blue, a blue as deep and magnetic and beautiful as the blue of the card. They lacked only the gold dust. Debbie felt herself drawn down into them and gave a great, shuddering sigh of relaxation; it felt like a giving up of part of herself. She was no longer anxious, no longer afraid. She was here and that was enough.
‘Good,’ Dava said. His voice was rather ordinary. ‘Welcome to the Sanctuary, Debbie. Whatever troubles and problems and fears you have brought to me today, we will look at them carefully and I will begin to heal you and give you some new perspectives on your life. Whatever pain – mental, physical or spiritual – is lowering your energy, depleting you and dragging you down, whatever negative forces are draining you and trying to hold you back, we will deal with. Not all at once, not all today. But gradually you will begin to feel renewed and revitalised. That I promise. You will feel balanced and in harmony with yourself and the world, you will be freer, you will be in tune with your own inner being. That I promise. Some things can be sorted out very easily, others go deeper. Everything I say and do, every treatment I suggest, all the energies I will devote to helping you, are positive and good. You will come to no harm. Let me tell you how the hour will progress, Debbie.’
Listening to Dava was like listening to running water or swishing waves or breezes riffling softly through leaves, his voice was soothing and comforting. As he spoke, he looked at her steadily and the power of his eyes was so great that she was forced to look away, down at the table, covered in its deep red velvet cloth. It was like not being able to stare into the sun.
‘First, I will take you through a short simple meditation to relax you and free any tensions. We will have silence together as I tune into your energies and sense the strength or weaknesses of your chakra. Then, I will read you. Once I am tuned into you, I can discover what your problems and anxieties – even illnesses – are. But you can also tell me what in particular you have come to consult me about. Are you happy with all of this, Debbie? Have you any questions or worries, before we begin? Please feel free to ask anything at all.’
He sat with his hands folded in front of him on the table. She had never known anyone sit so still. He seemed scarcely to be breathing. She remembered the heron, standing still as a carving beside the stream.
‘No.’ Her mouth was dry and her voice sounded unfamiliar. ‘No, thank you. I’m – I’m very happy with everything.’
‘Good. Good, Debbie. Then close your eyes and let me begin by focusing your mind on light and peace.’
She was lying down and she was warm; her body felt light. She was floating somewhere above the ground surrounded by a soft violet-blue haze and she was careless of everything that troubled her now or had ever done so. She was listening to soft sounds that were like music but were not, they were natural sounds, birdsong and running streams, waves hushing over sand and wind in trees … The music of the spheres, she thought, the music of the spheres.
She had been talking about her childhood, when her mother had been alive. Her mother’s voice had been clear to her, her mother’s face had been before her. She had talked about her mother walking with her through leaves in a golden wood, her mother laughing with her as they threw snowballs, her mother singing her to sleep. She had talked about her mother lying in bed pale and hideously thin, with the bones showing white through an almost transparent skin and her eyes dull.
‘I was afraid of her,’ she heard herself say, ‘she was not my mother.’
She talked about the death and the funeral, the empty bedroom and the quietness of their house and how she had gone out and sat in the garden or walked round the streets, rather than listen to her father’s weeping. She talked about her new stepmother and how she had hated her in those early weeks.
Now, she found herself floating upwards, like a deep-sea diver coming gently to the surface of the water.
‘Good, Debbie … Rest there. Rest quietly.’
Tears were streaming down her face. She was lying on a couch and the ceiling above her was blue and dusted with tiny gold stars. She had no recollection of how she had got there.
Dava sat on a stool beside her.
‘When you’re ready, sit up. Take your time.’
‘Have I been asleep? Was I dreaming?’
‘We call it a trance sleep … a waking sleep. It is deeply healing. You were safe. Quite safe.’
His voice was soft and lilted a little, so that she felt she might lie down again, be rocked by it back into the wonderful other world.
‘Sit up, Debbie.’
Dava got up with a swish of his long coat, and went back to his seat at the round table. ‘When you feel ready, come over here again. Don’t stand too suddenly, you might feel faint.’
Her head was so light it might have floated off her shoulders. She swung her legs carefully over the side of the couch and waited for a moment.
‘Now, you will go home and you will sleep better than you have slept for months. But there are one or two things we should discuss … one or two problems to clear up.’
When she walked across the room, her legs felt full of water, so she was glad to sit down.
‘You will be well. You will be very well. You have a bright shining path ahead of you, but there are obstacles in the way. You know what they are, Debbie. Tell me about them. You know what it is about yourself that you want to change.’
‘I’m fat. I hate my spots. I hate the blackness that comes down.’
She had never imagined being able to speak so openly; she heard herself listing the things that she was ashamed of, as if they were items on a shopping list.
‘After this consultation, I will be sending you written instructions and some prescriptions. A diet sheet – but that is so simple. Eat only vegetables and fruit. Drink only water or herbal teas. Eat nothing which is not organic. Eat only wholefoods. Eat as much of these things as you wish. Eat no animal products. No dairy, no bread, no sugars. Drink no alcohol or caffeine, no coffee or tea or chocolate. Take the vitamins I will send. I will also make up a herbal ointment for your skin. I will send this to you in a few days. The black moods will lift slowly, slowly. At first they may become worse as may the headaches. Just rest. And walk as much as you possibly can in the fresh air. Walk and dance and run in the fields, in the woods … wherever you feel moved to. Walk anywhere and let your soul sing, Debbie. Listen to me and listen to your inner voice.