A Bit of Chapter Twelve

 1973 – Heading for Kaslo B.C.

In April 1973 another new epoch of my life was starting. I had reunited with my family in England for three weeks, caught up with friends, satisfied myself that home was still the same, and jumped on an aeroplane back to Calgary.

Great service from Wardair in the 70's

I felt very free. I had no job and no relationship to tie me down, the horizon was open and

the world was my oyster. I was twenty-five years old.

I had a mind to head for the Yukon, to Whitehorse, it was supposed top be beautiful up there, rugged and wild, although I was also harbouring thoughts of Mexico. But first I wanted to go to Kaslo and catch up with my old buddy Joyce who I had met in Calgary the previous year. She had quit her job at the riding stables and was living near her brother in Kaslo in the West Kootenays. I intended to head west out of Calgary along the trans Canada highway and turn south at a place called Revelstoke. In 1969, before I left England I had ogled greedily the pictures on some brochures of this section of the Trans Canada route as it wound through the Rockies. From the first moment I had seen it one of my dreams was to be standing on the side of that road with my thumb out. I felt so excited that I was about to do it.

First I had to get rid of my suitcase. I couldn’t feel really free and ‘on the road’ dragging a suitcase along with me so I paid a visit to my old landlord in Calgary who was the type of person that never threw anything away. Sure enough, stuffed at the very back of his garage under various boxes and golf clubs and other bric-a-brac was an old army-type rucksack. It had a wire frame and was made of a heavy green canvas, and had pockets. It was great. He happily traded it for my good suitcase.

Next I needed a sleeping bag. I figured you just never know where you’ll end up when you’re on the road. There was a small problem. I only had fifteen dollars in my pocket. But I did have a Hudson Bay charge card. So I purchased said sleeping bag – down-filled, and tied it to the top of my rucksack. Now I was ready.

Looking back I’m quite amazed at the pure optimism that I must have possessed to arrive back in Canada with no job and only fifteen dollars. I think the optimism was partly due to the expectation of a tax refund, but it still seems a bit brave now. Back then however I just never had a problem getting a job: maybe because I was willing to turn my hand to just about anything.

I stayed a couple of nights in Calgary with an old acquaintance called Shary McNeil and then one bright April morning I headed out. It was one more of those moments (on my long list of moments) that I’ll never forget. I guess it’s not often in life that one feels so utterly unfettered. I hadn’t a commitment in the world. No one to answer to. Joyce was expecting me to turn up in Kaslo but even then I had made no promises.

 

I stood on the side of the trans Canada highway, the main route from Calgary to Vancouver, eight hundred miles away. I could see the Rockies eighty miles in the distance; a blue-grey skyline of jagged peaks capped with white. I could almost hear them calling. I started walking, thumb out, peering behind me once in a while to see what cars were coming. I’d hardly been walking ten minutes when I heard a truck slowing down behind me. It pulled up with a squeal of brakes and blew on me with its hot engine breath. The driver pushed open the passenger door. He was black and had a big smile.

‘I’m heading for Revelstoke,’ I shouted over the noise of the engine.

‘Hop in!’ he called.

I shoved my rucksack up ahead of me and he grabbed it and bundled it into the sleeping compartment, then I clambered up into the cab. With much growling and gear changing we were off.

A few hours later we stopped in Golden for a bite to eat. By now the landscape was utterly different. We had left Alberta and its gently rolling cattle country far behind and were now in the heart of the Rockies, surrounded by famous national parks like Banff, Jasper and Glacier. It was breathtaking. I stared in wonder at the magnificent spectacle of snow-capped mountains and endless evergreens. Such grandeur, such splendour! It was so exciting to be here at last drinking in this cool clean B.C air.

We had about another hundred miles to go to Revelstoke where I needed to leave the trans-Canada and turn south. In the meantime I still had a feast of fantastic scenery before me. Fifty miles ahead was the Rogers Pass: four and a half thousand feet at its highest point and one of the great mountain crossings in B.C. Reputed to be the trans Canada highway’s crowning glory. My friendly truck driver told me that the pass was first used by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, and then the highway was completed in 1962. Apparently a lot of rail road workers had been killed by snow avalanches during the first thirty years, but now there were five tunnels to help protect traffic. I was very glad to hear that as we rolled on through the wild mountain wilderness and got closer and closer to the pass.

Eventually we arrived in Revelstoke, set on the massive Columbia river and nestling between the Selkirk and Monashee mountains. Here I had to thank my lovely friendly trucker for the lift. Looking down at me from his cab, as I pulled on my rucksack he grinned.

‘Sure you don’t wanna come to Vancouver?’

I laughed and thanked him for the offer but said I had a friend to meet. You somehow never forget little kindnesses. That lift through the Rockies was thirty-four years ago!

Kootenay Lake

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Parlez-vous le français ?

I may be this old before I can speak French!

When I wrote the memoir it concluded at our arrival in our house in France in 2004. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, including my attempt to learn the language!

Upping sticks and dashing off to pastures new has always filled me with excitement, and letting go of the old has always been as easy as embracing the new. I have always eagerly welcomed new challenges and experiences. So in January 2004, when Bob suggested that we move to Spain and live on his extremely small RAF pension, it couldn’t happen fast enough for me. We had only known each other for two weeks. It was Easter 2004 when we set off for Spain on our motor-bikes on an information-gathering trip, stopping overnight in the Dordogne, in southern France. When we got up the next morning and started taking in the beauty of the surrounding area neither of us wanted to go any further. The Spanish dream faded and the French dream was born, and by November 2004, ten months after meeting, we had cut all ties with the U.K and moved into a small isolated house on the side of a wooded valley in the Dordogne.

Our House

The biggest challenge without a doubt (for me) has been the language. I never learned French at school, and had never yearned to learn it, and when we got off the ferry at Calais in 2004 I was uncomfortable attempting so much as hello and thank you. The first stop at French motorway services was positively embarrassing. I stood in the small queue looking up at the menu board unable to understand a thing. Had I understood the words I couldn’t have pronounced them! I remember pointing pathetically at a piece of chicken and nodding dumbly at whatever vegetables the serving lady waved her spoon at. A good thing I eat almost anything. It was a most uncomfortable experience. I was sure the lady would see me as the classic Brit’ who expected all ‘foreigners’ to speak English. She probably didn’t think that at all and more likely it was my feeling of being caught wanting that was the problem.

It really is helpful if you speak the language when you move to a new country. Bob speaks fluent German; little help when moving to the Dordogne where many villages were destroyed by the Germans in the war! Some of the French have long memories. I also speak a bit of German, gleaned from my first (German) husband and his family; and a bit of Spanish from many holidays in Mexico. I would have been a thousand times more comfortable with either of these languages. French for me was a baffling blank canvas, a mysterious flowing tongue where words all ran into each other like a river and became indistinguishable and inseparable. German and English seem more like a train with a row of railway carriages; words separated by spaces.

I am convinced that some have a better ear for languages than others, and Bob’s ear was infinitely more tuned when it came to understanding people. Although he had never learned French he seemed able to pick up enough of what they were saying to somehow get the picture. My picture however was a blur caused by seriously bad reception. My satellite receiver just couldn’t pick up the signal. I’ve since been told by my French teacher (a brilliant lady called Jane), who has taught a lot of couples who have retired to France, that it always seems to be the case: one finds it easier than the other. Based on all the ex-pat couples that I’ve met here Jane seems to be right. The problem with this can be that the one who finds it difficult leaves it all to their partner and avoids dealing with situations. This I have been guilty of, and not due to laziness but rather the fear of looking gormless and taking on that glazed look when I don’t understand.

Sometimes I think my frantic determination to hammer this new language into my brain has not helped. My brain goes stolidly at its own pace and ignores my screams of frustration. I want to learn. I want to know it all yesterday. But I find it so hard. I’ve taken French lessons, listened to a course on CD, listened to courses on the internet, tried reading books, listened to French radio, been to French conversation class, and now we also have French TV. I’m still not a lot further along after six and a half years – well, not when it comes to understanding what people are saying. As far as speaking goes my grammar is pretty dreadful, but I’ve learned loads of vocabulary and can happily construct all sorts of sentences. The trouble is when I ask a question there’s an eighty percent chance I won’t understand the answer! I’ve recently told myself to give myself a break. Considering I knew nothing six years ago I’ve actually learned an enormous amount. I can even make a hair appointment, or book a table for a meal over the phone! Having said that the last booking I made for a meal I requested for demain (tomorrow) which happened to be a Saturday. I didn’t know the café was closed on Saturdays. Thierry, the proprietor, who knows me, must have assumed I was trying to say Dimanche (Sunday). The pronunciation isn’t too dissimilar – especially the way I probably pronounced it! So off we went on a fairly long drive to our wedding anniversary meal only to find the café closed. We quickly worked out what had gone wrong, and phoned on the Sunday to cancel because we had other plans. Sure enough Thierry had booked us for Sunday.

Many people tell me I should get out and socialize more in order to improve my French, and they may be right, but I wouldn’t go to social events wherever I lived – unless dragged kicking and screaming. I love being a hermit in the woods, and draw the line at having to become something I’m not. I believe I’ll understand French in time, at my brain’s own pace. Bob’s brain is ten years younger than mine – which of course must be why he’s better at it!

He's obviously trying to learn French!

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A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

1994

I thought it might be fun to expand on certain parts of my story, which at the time would have made things too lengthy. The police force was a brief, but particularly memorable interval, in my life which put me through a whole gamut of emotions.

I was forty-four at the time and had gone through another of those miserable periods, wondering why I stayed in my now five-year-going-nowhere relationship with Brian. It was him that set me off on the idea of a career by mentioning the possibility of joining the police force when he left the army. The idea popped into my mind like a bright light, and the question followed: ‘Am I too old?’ I made enquiries the very next day and found that I wasn’t; the cut-off age was fifty. I felt energized by the whole idea. Something for me! A career, and a decent wage. I would take control of my life and go forward.

My vision of the police force was all positive. I’d always been an optimist. It would be exciting, something different every day, and a huge challenge. My sister, brother-in-law and niece had all been police officers. Why shouldn’t I follow in their footsteps? I threw myself into my application with gusto and spent hours perfecting my application form. I was told it was the neatest they had ever seen. I started an exercise regime in readiness for the fitness test; running regularly and doing sit-ups and push-ups. And I researched and devoured every bit of information I could about the job in readiness for my interview. I couldn’t have been more prepared. What I was never really prepared for were certain aspects of my personality which I had overlooked, and which didn’t fit with a copper’s character.

It took nearly two years to go through the six stages of the application process, so by the time I joined I was forty-six. I’ll never forget going to my final interview, waiting to be called upstairs, a bag of nerves, and then walking into a room where a panel of four awaited. They were various ranks, crisp uniforms, sharp creases, and unwavering gazes. I don’t remember much about that interview, other than the last question, asked by the main man: ‘If there was something you could change, a law you could bring in, or bring back … what would it be?’ And I heard myself say in a determined tone: ‘I’d get tough with the buggers and bring back hanging!’ And immediately afterwards thought shit – should you really have said that!’ My forthright approach must have impressed them because a short time later I was called back upstairs and told I had a job. I was over the moon.

From day one I have to admit that the insidious little worm of self-doubt was with me. I used to beat it back into the shadows, but it still whispered its worries. And maybe the biggest clue that I would never fit the role I was preparing for was when I first put on my uniform at headquarters and looked in the mirror. I remember grinning at the reflection in a sort of disbelief and thinking to myself ‘That’s not you!’ It was as though I was an imposter – a sheep in wolf’s clothing – as opposed to the reverse. The reflection in the mirror was a sham and didn’t fit with the ‘me’ inside at all. But by then I had put in far too much work to be having second thoughts.

Training was arranged in modules and took place either at headquarters, police training college, or at the station where I would eventually be working. Most was at college at a place called Shotley. Most of the training was fun, but certain elements I hated – particularly the self-defence classes – which was some form of judo. I took an instant dislike to the instructor which didn’t help, and sensed the feeling was mutual. On one occasion he told me to look like I was enjoying myself, at which point I prepared a fixed grimace for him. From the start I just couldn’t see how any of us were going to remember all these specific steps and arm movements when we were up against some drunken thug in a dark alley. I figured a sharp whack with my truncheon or a swift kick in the goolies would work much better. However, I eventually scraped through the training and gained my certificate.

What was really good fun was riot training where we donned helmets, masks and shields, and tried running through a building while being pelted with pieces of brick and bits of wood. Following this there was the suppression of the mad man in the cage, where three of us went into a cage wearing full riot gear and were promptly attacked by a baseball- bat- wielding nutter (in the form of one of our instructors!) while our colleagues looked down from above and cheered.

Of course the main part of the training was police law, a lot of which was learned by way of role-playing and video. This was to bring my greatest phobia to the fore – having to stand up and speak in front of a group, and see myself on a video. I would have preferred the old-style blackboard and chalk method of teaching followed by exams, which they no longer had. It was good to be forced to confront this age-old fear, but unfortunately it never lessened and caused me huge stress.

During training I had at last found the gumption to split up with Brian. I just couldn’t go on the way we were, and although I felt relieved I also felt horribly alone, and very down. At the end of training we had a week’s holiday, and to cheer myself up I went to Greece with a colleague and soaked up some sun.

When we got back we had a driving course to look forward to. For some ridiculous reason I had always seen myself in the role of a beat-bobby, and had never considered having to blast around in a police car. How could you join the police force and not expect to have to drive! Or maybe it did cross my mind and I blithely ignored it. Either way I now had no choice and was thrust into an intensive course. The main instructor shouted at us like a regimental sergeant major during our introduction: ‘You will do this! and ‘You will do that!’ and ‘You will get it right!’ and ‘You will not cock it up!’. My hackles rose and my stomach churned. But it appeared that this line of address was purely to get our attention and after that all the instructors were great. I passed my driving test, but failed my van test. I was extremely happy to fail the van test, having never wanted to drive the dam thing anyway. It was far too big (generally used for transporting prisoners). During my test I was attempting a right turn on an almost blind bend, waiting for oncoming traffic to pass, when a fire engine came roaring up behind me with a fanfare of horns and bells. I had nowhere to go. The fire- engine driver, apparently oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t get out-of-the-way, pounded his horn in frustration and just about deafened me, at which point I panicked and stalled the van’s engine. My instructor made various disapproving gestures at the fireman, and I re-started the engine and shot across the road in a quaking sweat. I never did retake my van test.

During that six months of intensive training I was starting to realize that I lacked one vital characteristic: leadership qualities. It was starting to show more and more. I was great at support but always avoided taking control, while others seemed to vie for it. I had excellent people-skills, diplomacy, communication-skills, guts, determination, and could handle myself in almost any dodgy situation; but I didn’t want to be in charge; up front; leading. Whenever I worked with other officers I left the decision-making to them, and when I was double-crewed I avoided driving. I also realised that I wasn’t pro-active. Not because I was lazy, far from it, but because I was uncomfortable with a lot of the job. Cracks were definitely starting to show.

With our driving course over we headed off to our respective stations and joined our shifts. For the first two weeks I was crewed with another officer, and then the big day came, and I was sent off in a car on my own. To say I was crapping myself would have been an understatement. I was equipped with a radio and an A to Z map of the city, and it was about then that I discovered yet another vitally important skill in which I was completely lacking: a sense of direction! My knowledge of the city up till then had been from a shopper’s eye-view. I knew very well how to get to Marks & Spencer and Debenhams etc, and my favourite little cafe that did great wholemeal scones, but I hadn’t a clue about the rest of the city. Of course I could always ask the radio operator for basic directions, but that was embarrassing. For example if I was sent to St John Street, and asked for a clue as to where it was I’d be told it was off Queen’s Lane. How did I then say ‘And where the hell is that?!’ And so I would pull over and check the map, and consequently always take ages to get somewhere, often having got lost on the way.

On one occasion I couldn’t even remember the name of a small street smack in the middle of the city centre. My sergeant and I had been driving slowly through the city centre and had attempted to stop a suspicious young man who had promptly legged it. My sergeant (who was fat and unfit and older than me) had jumped out of the car and run after him. I took a few seconds trying to decide whether to lock the car or not – since it was a busy Saturday in summer and crowded with people. I didn’t want anyone liberating anything from the car while we were away. I was later berated for not dropping everything and instantly joining the chase. I did lock the car, then charged up the alley and threw myself into the fray on the ground. The young guy was obviously on drugs and fought like a wild thing, and the sergeant hollered at me to get my cuffs on him. He appeared to have forgotten his! It was when I was radioing for assistance that as usual the name of the street was evading me! I managed to spit out that assistance was needed at … er … uhm … ‘ And I heard the voice at the other end say patiently: ‘Come on Jude … come on Jude … where are you?!’ The name did pop into my head thankfully and help arrived. But I’m sure I was the joke of the shift with my driving and hopeless sense of direction.

My vision of exciting police work faded relatively quickly. There were too many negatives. The amount of paperwork was literally mountainous, and pressure was huge. The pressure didn’t come from the street, from dealing with situations or people; the pressure came from above. They wanted figures. No doubt about it. I was expected to give out a certain number of tickets on a regular basis. And I was supposed to come up with regular self-initiated arrests. This did not include making an arrest after one had been sent to a situation by control. I had to somehow find my own arrests. It wasn’t easy and I know that at times the guys would wind up a drunk on purpose and then nick him for drunk and disorderly. I felt it this was morally wrong and didn’t have the heart to do it. But as a probationer I had to be seen to be achieving, and achieving meant figures on paperwork and handcuffs on criminals.

The more I saw of police work (on the level I was dealing with) the more disillusioned I felt, and the more stressed I became. The greatest and most worrying conflict was paperwork versus pro-active policing. If I was getting paperwork done at the station I wasn’t out there looking for arrests – and vice-versa. And on top of everything else I wasn’t coping well with shift work. Nights played hell with my stomach which objected bitterly to adjusting to meals in the middle of the night. And I found sleeping during the day almost impossible. I’d get to bed at maybe eight o’clock in the morning and be awake again at 12.30, cursing the daylight outside and all the daytime noises that went with it. It wasn’t a good combination: accumulated tiredness, stress, and depression over Brian.

I often think of a quote by Garth Brooks: ‘The greatest conflicts are not between two people but between one person and himself.’ And for me this is so true, and was particularly true during my short career as a copper. My heart and my gut shouted ‘I hate this job’ and my conscience and reluctance to ‘fail’ shouted ‘Don’t be a wimp! You can’t quit now. You need this job and the tax-payer has coughed up a fortune to train you. So bloody well get on with it!’ The two sides regularly vied for dominance and the ‘Don’t be a wimp’ side brow-beat me into trying even harder to do better.

I have always hated getting things wrong, as far back as school days. Mistakes made me feel like a hopeless idiot. I could accept them in others but not in myself, and with police work there were a thousand procedures to get right. I made a couple of grand cock-ups that were so awful that afterwards I just had to laugh. On one occasion I had been sent to an incident involving domestic violence and drugs. My inspector was already there and asked me to take a very upset woman back to the station for interview. He also gave me two items of evidence: a knife, and a small saucepan containing a suspect substance. The woman was so fraught and distracted that I had to help her into the car, and in so doing placed the saucepan and the knife on the roof. Ten minutes later I drove into the station and before I could get out of the car I was greeted by two of the guys coming out. ‘Hey Jude!’ shouted one, ‘You’ve got a saucepan on the roof!’ Had I been quick-witted I would have come back with, ‘Well doesn’t that just show what a careful driver I am!’ But instead I went beet-red and pleaded with him not to tell anyone. Lord knows what members of the general public had thought, seeing a police car sailing through the city crowned with a saucepan! Thankfully it was at night and I had come from some of the back streets where there weren’t too many folk about.

I really didn’t realize until I joined the police force just how soft I was. In fact I don’t think I considered the negative aspects of the job at all. I had seen it as a positive way of helping society, which technically it is, but on the other hand your daily bread and butter tends to be unpleasant repeat offenders who go to court, get a slap on the wrist, and then do it all over again. Lord had I ever seen the job through rose-tinted spectacles.

By the middle of 1995 I was about as low as I could get. I had started to dread going into work. I was stressed to the eyeballs and walking around with so much tension that my shoulders seemed to be up around my ears. My stomach pains became worse, and one morning I felt so bad that I called in sick and went to my doctor. She asked me what was wrong and I burst into tears. After discussing my symptoms, my lifestyle, and my feelings about Brian, she told me I was stressed and depressed, and if I carried on the way I was going I’d end up with ulcers. She then signed me off sick for six weeks. Half of me felt a huge relief at not having to go back to work, but the other half was terrified of what my superiors would think. It was not a good thing to be off sick with stress and would not be looked on well.

I decided to have a holiday and went to Greece. It was wonderful. I sat by the sea and wandered the beaches, and hired a motor-bike and went up into the mountains. It was so peaceful and just what I needed. After ten days I felt ready to go back and really get stuck into the job again. I felt I could do it. I wanted to do it. My enthusiasm lasted about two weeks, and then once again I was told that I was not bringing in enough self-initiated arrests. My superiors told me they wanted me back in on Monday morning with an action plan. My heart sank into my boots. I drove home after that shift feeling sick and devastated. I phoned Brian in tears and he came straight over, and between him and my wonderful son, Pete, who was only seventeen, they convinced me that if the job was making me feel this dreadful then I should quit. They didn’t seem to think I’d failed even if I did. Deep down I knew they were right. I had gone into the job utterly positive and I had given it my all, but at the end of the day it just wasn’t me. By the end of the discussion I felt something shift inside me, something that pushed that persistent inner conflict heavily into the balance: allowing it to fall on the side of quitting.

The relief which came with that decision was amazing. Freedom! I headed for my meeting on Monday with a heart that hadn’t been so light in two years. The superiors asked sternly for my action plan.

‘I haven’t got it!’ I said with a smile.

‘Why not,’ came the reply along with a puzzled frown.

‘Because I have another plan.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘I’m giving three months notice as of today!’

It was the best decision I ever made. It would be hard earning less money, but I could cope. Three months later I had a job working nights filling the cheese counter at Tesco. It wasn’t totally mindless. I had to rotate the dates. After two years in the police force I could cope with that.

I think the moral of this story is ‘know thyself’. As ridiculous as it may sound, I had no idea that so many parts of my make-up would not fit with police work. I don’t see my giving up as a failure. There were a number of people who told me at the time that they would leave too – if they could afford to. It actually took courage to admit that the job wasn’t me, and to quit. Sometimes when you follow your heart it doesn’t always lead you down the right path. But when it consistently tells you that the path you’ve chosen is wrong, then it’s time to listen.

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A Bit of Chapter Ten

Heading West

1971

Heading West

On the afternoon of May 1st 1971 Ray and I drove into the Circle M. We had sold everything, terminated the let on the flat and said goodbye to friends, work colleagues and the city of Toronto. We had even arranged to sell the car to a guy at the Circle M. I was glad to be escaping the city, and keyed-up with anticipation and excitement: eager to get started on our three-thousand mile trek. But I was nervous as well at what we were taking on.

When I look back now I see how badly we had planned things; how our optimism and enthusiasm had carried us along and how a lot of basic practicalities and necessary research had been overlooked.

It started with loading certain items onto my horse, George, when George wasn’t used to them. Things like a brightly coloured sleeping bag and a glaringly-yellow slicker. George spooked, snorted, blew and side-stepped, and who could blame him, he wasn’t used to them. God knows why we hadn’t had some trial-runs. Why had we just assumed the horses would be OK with all these strange new things attached to them.

George eventually settled down and I felt a bit more relaxed, but I was still worried. He had one trait that I was extremely nervous about. If he got really spooked he would rear. He hadn’t done it that often but I knew the habit was there, and with me wearing a heavy rucksack I had visions of both of us going over backwards. People get killed like that. Ray did his best to encourage me and waylay my fears but it didn’t help.

Ray’s horse, Rebel, was not prone to any such bad habits, but we were worried about him for different reasons. He had been boarded and looked after well enough over the winter at the Circle M but hadn’t put on much weight and didn’t look anything like as fit as George. Doubts about this whole thing were starting to nag at my mind. We should have had a third horse to pack our gear. Although we had honed our personal rucksacks down to a minimum it was still a lot of extra weight for our horses.

Eventually, late on that afternoon of May 1st we set off, waving goodbye to the Circle M gang and Ray’s great friend Bernie who had driven out specially to take a photo of us as we left. He later sent us the photo which I still have.

I lived the dream that day. I rode off into the sunset on my lovely chestnut horse, in my western saddle, wearing my new dark-blue Bailey cowboy hat, my fringed leather chaps, and my best Tony Lama cowboy boots. I had all my possessions on my back, the open road in front, a heart full of expectant excitement and a head full of dreams. And whatever happened I wasn’t going back!

Cowboys had filled my dreams as a kid. I had watched every western possible: Rawhide, Laramie, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Wells Fargo, and my favourite, Bronco, to name but a few. I was always drawn to the drifters who had no roots or ties. I guess this was the closest way I could come to being like them.

We literally ‘rode off into the sunset’. I remember laughing to myself and thinking how apt as the sky in front of us turned beautiful shades of red and pink. For me there has never been anything to equal the excitement of setting off on a journey with no return ticket. I should have been a gypsy.

Our big adventure, well, the horseback bit, lasted about ten days. I didn’t keep a diary, I was probably too damp and cold and worried about falling off George if he flipped out. We had come to realise two things very quickly: Rebel wasn’t fit enough to undertake such a long journey, and we had set off too early in the year and weren’t equipped for the colder weather as we headed into northern Ontario. No excuses, we had bogged it through bad planning and lack of research. We discussed our options and both agreed – no turning back. We would look for a farm en-route and see if we could get some temporary work with room and board. We were lucky. We stopped at a farm owned by Hazel and Lydle Johnston in Coldwater, northern Ontario. They welcomed us and seemed enthusiastic and happy for some help. I would help Hazel in the house and Ray would work on the farm. We wouldn’t get paid but they would feed us.

Although we were there for six weeks I don’t remember a lot; only that the Johnstons were very kind to us and fed us well and made us part of the family – unlike my experience working for Mrs Milburn. Hazel and Lydle were farming people, salt of the earth, no pretences, no silver candlesticks or table-legs for me to polish.

We had decisions to make. Should we try to carry on with the ride, and if not what should we do? It didn’t take long to agree that continuing was not an option. We had to abandon our dream, but not all of it. We would ride a different horse out west … the iron horse as the Indians used to call it in the old days: better known as the Canadian Pacific Railway. Sadly we sold Rebel and George back to George’s previous owner who came up and collected them. At least they were going to a good home.

We thanked Hazel and Lydle for caring for us so well, threw our saddles and bags in the back of Lydle’s old pick-up and headed for the station. I was gutted at the failure of the trip … but on the other hand I loved the idea of riding the Canadian Pacific across Canada. Sometimes I amazed myself at how quickly I let fall one dream only to slip smoothly onto the back of another.

With our baggage on the train we waved goodbye to the Johnstons and headed west, bound for Calgary. I think it was a four-day trip and we had a cabin with two small bunks. Ray slept on the bottom one and I remember him singing to me one night and making me laugh. I’ll never forget the motion of the train in the dark, the clack of the wheels, and Ray’s singing as I lay snug in the bunk, too excited to sleep.

The train wound up through northern Ontario past Sault Ste Marie; taking in names like Thunder Bay and Kenora. We pushed on into Manitoba, past Winnipeg and then into the massive open flat expanse of the prairies and the province of Saskatchewan, through Regina and Moose Jaw. I loved the names. Finally we were in Alberta – known as cattle-country; stopping briefly at Medicine Hat before going on into Calgary.

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Bike Test Day

I looked nervously at my examiner who was unsmiling. Not a vestige. He simply said a formal ‘Good Morning’ and remained utterly po-faced while gazing at me intently with small piercing eyes: intelligent and calculating – cold. He was bordering on short and the wrong side of fifty. The unwavering gaze brought the name Hannibal Lecter to mind.

He checked paperwork on his desk and asked me for my driver’s licence. I handed it over and attempted a disarming smile. Not a word. This bloke was by the book. No extras, no smiles, just clinically precise. My tension escalated from nervous to terrified. I wanted a big warm welcoming ‘Hi,’ and a ‘Don’t worry, you’re sure to pass!’, followed by an arm around the shoulder reassurance. Instead it was Hannibal Lecter handing me a radio-linked headset. I half expected him to ask me if I’d like some raw chopped liver before we started!

He spoke in a clipped tone: ‘The test will take approximately forty minutes. Afterwards I will ask you some questions.’ Then he walked straight over to a small mirror strategically placed on top of a filing cabinet. He produced a comb from his top pocket and proceeded to carefully arrange about ten tendrils of limp locks across the top of his balding head. That done he donned his helmet and turned to me. I was obviously meant to don mine too. I did so, fumbling to keep the headset in place. He came over and checked the wires and a crystal clear and clipped ‘OK?’ reverberated through the system. I nodded dumbly as he continued explaining what he would ask me to do and how I should do it. He would be following a short distance behind (watching my every move). The intercom system was one-way: he could speak to me but I couldn’t speak to him. Just as well – he wouldn’t hear the profanities when I suddenly realised I had left my indicator on for the last three miles.

He checked his watch, pulled on his gloves and marched out of the office. I followed, heart pounding clutching my keys in a sweaty palm. I pulled on my gloves, straddled my bike, pushed the ignition key in and pressed the start button. Nothing! What? I pressed again, still nothing. Cold sweat and confusion coursed through me. What the hell was wrong? And then out of nowhere a little voice whispered Side-stand! Fool! Of course! If the side-stand was down the bike wouldn’t start, it was a safety feature. I flicked it up with my foot and pressed again. The bike burst into life and relief flooded through me. Had Hannibal noticed? I imagined the first line on my test sheet: Ability to start her motorcycle? Followed by a big red X.

I would like you to leave the test station and turn left,’ he was saying. This was it! I took a big breath, made an obvious point of checking my mirrors and pulled smoothly away. He followed. Soon we were out in the traffic and negotiating roundabouts, junctions, and every other obstacle including numerous Japanese students wobbling erratically on bicycles. I started to feel OK, warmed up, my mind razor-sharp, cancelling indicators, checking mirrors, doing life-savers. He took me to a lovely wide quiet road to do my emergency stop. No problem. And then my dreaded ‘U’ turn. I did it! No dabbing of feet! Then we headed out of the city into country roads, passing through villages and along a section of dual-carriageway.

In no time at all it was over and we were back parked outside the test station. He got off his bike and walked into the office. I followed, racking my brain to try and think of anything I could have got wrong. I perched on the corner of the chair in front of his desk and took off my helmet. Hannibal took his off too and pawed at the grey strands which had escaped and were now dangling over his forehead. There’s no doubt about it crash helmets wreck a comb-over. He sat down opposite me and I waited for the questions that I knew were coming as the last part of the test. Chris had been right, they were all on riding with a pillion. I had the answers down pat.

Heart in mouth I waited and watched while he bent over my test paper making marks here and there. The anticipation was agonising, my whole world focused on this moment, like some criminal waiting for the judge to past sentence. Was he going to put on his black cap? Not a word was spoken. It was so quiet in the room all I could hear was the scratch of his pen across the paper and the sound of my own heart beating. Suddenly he got up, walked over to the filing cabinet, picked up a note-pad and on the way back said absently: ‘I am going to pass you.’

I HEARD IT… I DID! HE SAID PASS! The blessed ‘P’ word! Bells rang, trumpets sounded! I danced around the room yelling and squealing, did a polka across his desk, turned three cartwheels and let out a huge ‘WHOOOPEEE’ … all without moving a muscle. I didn’t even speak. He wasn’t the sort of chap you leapt over the desk and hugged. While the enormity of what he’d said was still sinking into my brain he started speaking again.

You were a borderline pass,’ he said in a monotone. ‘There were three instances where you could have got up to sixty miles an hour but you didn’t.’

Oh!’ I gabbled, ‘Well I think I was a bit nervous because I’ve only ridden the five-hundred once, before today that is … yesterday in fact … and I think I’d … I’d be much faster with more practise …’

He frowned at me over his glasses. I panicked. No! Please God don’t change your mind. He couldn’t change his mind – could he? He wouldn’t be allowed to – would he? Just give me the piece of paper and let me go! Silent prayer as I held my breath.

He suddenly seemed to thaw. No more comments about the sixty-mile-an hour thing. He started chatting amiably about this and that while he made out official bits of paperwork and told me what to send to DVLA. He had become quite a different person. Jekyll and Hyde maybe rather than Hannibal? Paperwork finished, he got up, went to his mirror and carefully combed his tendrils back into place ready for his next victim

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The Start of it All

Chapter I

2004

‘Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.’
–Ovid

Thursday January 15th

The phone rang. It was Jeanne’s but she was away on annual leave so I picked it up.

‘Good afternoon, personnel, Jude speaking,’ I said brightly. I always tried to sound bright, as though I was really interested in what I was doing, even though I was usually anything but. Six months earlier I had changed jobs and gone from being a ward clerk on a busy hospital ward, full of life and colour and crisis, to being an admin’ assistant in personnel in the Ministry of Defence. The biggest crisis in my life now was finding the correct form for the job, and there seemed to be thousands of the bloody things, all with different numbers. I’d got burned out at the hospital and needed the job change. I mean there’s frenetic and then there’s completely mental. My predecessor and great friend Dacia, whose job I took over, did warn me.

The pace of the job combined with a sixty-five mile round trip every day, getting up at five-thirty every morning, beat me in the end, even though I had loved it. So, here I was at RAF Wyton. Now I could set the alarm for six-thirty and have a blissful extra hour under the duvet, and when I finished at four o’clock I only had an eight mile drive home – great! And the job offered flexi-time which was fantastic. But God I missed the hustle and bustle and hassle of life on the ward.

The softly spoken male voice at the other end of the phone was sounding surprised.

‘Oh, so where’s Jeanne today?’

‘Ah,’ I said, ‘She’s lucky, she’s on annual leave, she’ll be back on Monday.’

‘Oh, OK. This is Bob Thompson in Tornado, I … ‘

‘Ah!’ I found myself blurting out before he could finish, ‘You’re the chap who wants to sell his motorbike aren’t you? I’ll give you fifty pence for it!’

I had recently overheard various conversations between Jeanne, who sat opposite me, and this Bob chap concerning a job that he was applying for in Marseilles. Apparently he was threatening to sell his house, his car, and his bike before he had even got the job; a wind up of course.

‘It’s worth a bit more than that. I don’t think you could afford it.’ There was a challenging edge to his voice.

‘What sort of bike is it?’ I asked.

‘A BMW R1150RT.’

‘A BMW,’ I snorted, and then giggled. ‘I’ve got a much better bike than that.’

There was a pause as he considered. ‘So what sort of bike do you have?’ It was asked with casual interest.

‘I’ve got a Blackbird.’ I couldn’t help the hint of self-satisfaction in my voice, and waited for this impressive piece of information to sink in. I mean, I only owned the fastest road bike currently on the market, a fantastic black 1100 cc machine with a supposed top speed of 186 mph.

‘Mm.’ He was considering again. ‘That’s one of those old-fashioned things with a chain isn’t it? You have to adjust it and oil it?’

‘Cheeky bugger!’ I squeaked, unable to come up with a smart technical retort. ‘It’s a fantastic bike.’

‘Hmm.’ He was contemplating again. ‘Does it have heated grips and a heated seat?’

I had a good reply for that: “Nah, I don’t need those, they’re for wimps.”

He ignored the quip. ‘So how long have you had a bike?’

‘Only about five years,’ I said. ‘Have you been riding long?’

‘Since I was fifteen. I gave up for a couple of years when I took up micro-lighting. Sold the bike to buy a microlight.’

‘Oh I’d love to try that,’ I said. I liked the idea of whizzing around up in the sky on what appeared to be a kitchen chair with wings.

‘I flew one half-way across Canada in ’96 when I was still in the RAF,’ he said. ‘We were doing a sponsored charity flight. My mate and I flew the leg from Vancouver Island to Winnipeg, through the Rockies, right past Mount Robson.’

‘Canada? I was there in ’96 … in British Columbia! I was probably sitting on a beach by Kootenay Lake when you flew over!’

‘I waved but you didn’t wave back,’ he sighed, feigning disappointment.

‘I love Canada,’ I said enthusiastically, my mind throwing up film-strip of my old life. ‘I lived there for fourteen years, it was a brilliant lifestyle. I skied and windsurfed, played ice-hockey, rode horses, did all sorts out there.”

‘Skiing’s great,’ he said. “I love it. We used to go in Germany. I like climbing as well, and canoeing.”

This chap was definitely someone after my own heart.

‘I had to give it all up when I came back to the UK,’ I said, ‘So I took up scuba-diving instead, it was more accessible than winter sports.’

He sounded a bit amazed: “I did a British Sub-Aqua Course at Portsmouth, Fort Bovisand.’

‘You’re kidding – I dived at Bovi’ as well!’ This was uncanny. I had never talked to anyone that I had so much in common with. We chattered on for ages at a great rate of knots feeding on common interests and enthusiasm.

‘We should meet for coffee,’ he said suddenly. ‘We’ve got so much in common. It’s like talking to a soul-mate.’

I was completely thrown by the sudden suggestion and instantly uncomfortable about it. It was one thing to chat on the phone – but meeting? I wasn’t used to meeting men, even for coffee. Me and men were past history. My future was sealed as far as I was concerned.

‘Next week sometime?’ he was saying.

My stomach did small back-flips.

Fine,” I said lightly, with more enthusiasm than I felt, and unable to think of any quick and reasonable excuse. I could hardly say I had to wash my hair in my lunch hour. “Next week would be good.” I attempted a casual tone. With any luck he’d forget about it. ‘I’ll tell Jeanne you called,’ I said, hurrying to change the subject, “And I’ll get her to give you a ring back on Monday.’

‘OK, talk to you soon.’

‘Bye,’ I said, and put the phone down in relief.

I had a quick glance round the office to see if any of the girls had noticed. Noticed what? My flustered, probably guilty expression? Guilty? But I hadn’t done anything! (except be on the phone a very long time talking about non-work stuff). I had made a temporary arrangement to possibly meet a chap with a few common interests for a casual, friendly cup of coffee in the staff restaurant. Hardly sex behind the bike sheds. God your imagination really does overtime. But if word got out they’d be bound to make something of it, they always did. The joys of working with eighteen other women. They’d assume something was going on. Oh for Christ’s sake don’t be so bloody stupid! Why was I so uptight? I knew why, I was scared. The idea of meeting this chap was pushing me out of my comfort zone; pushing me into areas I was no longer used to. I lived in a nice safe little world, in a small castle surrounded by a deep moat and I was in total control of the draw bridge. I had a steady routine and a nice new secure job – boring but secure. I had a permanent relationship; a partner – sort of, of fifteen years (Brian) who had been working in Saudi for the last four years and who I now only saw for nine weeks of fifty-two, when he came home on leave. I was a month away from my fifty-sixth birthday and had completely resigned myself to my lot. Relationships were inevitably disappointing, painful and emotionally draining and I had nothing left to give and no intention of ever considering a new one, even if mine was far from ideal.

My life was good I told myself. I had forty-three weeks a year of space and freedom. I lived in a lovely house with wonderful views across the fens. I had some great, long-standing friends, albeit none local, and good family – all eighty miles away, plus bags of time to myself. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. My free time was definitely encroached upon by a full-time job, a huge garden to look after and a big four-bed detached house to keep clean for Brian. On top of that was his paperwork and motorbike to sort out; my car and bike to look after, and the letting of my own little one-bed cottage. In fact I was about as affluent with time as I was with money; especially since my new job at the MOD was only paying me a paltry ten thousand, eight hundred pounds a year! Barely survival stakes.

And so what if Brian didn’t really want a future with me – a fact that I had determinedly ignored for fourteen years and two months. He was still with me wasn’t he? So what if we had lived like brother and sister for the past seven years? Affection is far more important than sex I told myself. I was lucky to have so much freedom and at least our relationship was honest. He never lied to me, I respected him for that, and he said he thought the world of me. In fact he’d once even given me a mug that said: Best Friend in the World on it. Yes, we both knew where we stood. We had an ‘open’ relationship and carte-Blanche to do whatever we wanted, with whoever we wanted, when-ever we wanted. The trouble was I didn’t want to.

Above all, at nearly fifty-six, gravity was creeping up on me insidiously but surely, and nothing was going to convince me that I was still attractive to the opposite sex. No, I had come to a big full-stop in my life and I didn’t see it as the end of a sentence, more like the end of the book.

So why the panic at the idea of meeting this Bob chap merely for a cup of coffee? For some stupid reason it felt a bit like a date, that was why, and dates were a thing of the past for me. The trouble was, on some deep dark level, that had been denied for far too long, he had generated a spark … a spark where I had assumed there wasn’t even an ember.

I told myself to stop being pathetic and to see it for what it was: an enjoyable hour of light-hearted conversation about shared interests, nothing more than that. And anyway he was sure to be married.

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1970

At the Circle-M riding 'Ma'

That Saturday was the start of a new chapter. Ray and his friends at the Circle ‘M’ welcomed me into their life; into a world that I felt warmed by. Ken was delighted to get some extra help and we worked hard all day; tacking-up, grooming, cleaning, sweeping and feeding. We didn’t get to eat much ourselves and in the evening went off for a big feed of burgers at a local restaurant. I was unbelievably happy. I had found a place where I fitted in.

To top it all Ray said they slept-over at the ranch and I was welcome to stay too. It wouldn’t be fancy: they had a bunkhouse over the stable, and sleeping bags. Would I like to stay? Was a pig’s bum made of pork? Did squirrels eat nuts? Just try to stop me!

That night over the stables was wonderful. I felt snug and safe in my bunk-bed with the clump and thump and contented sounds of horses below. I lay awake for a while luxuriating in the peace of it and when I did sleep I slept like a log. No need for chairs to be jammed under door-handles here.

We were up early on Sunday feeding and watering, and then some good strong coffee out of the old tin coffee pot for ourselves. I loved the physical work and all the good stable smells. The best bit was Ken wanted me to take out trail rides. Free riding for taking the dudes out: I had become a wrangler in three days!

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