On a cold and rather miserable spring day just over two years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in a rather pretty village in the Pennines. I was tired and rather low. I had been working rather hard that week, up in the North East. I had been doing an intense and stressful job, and rather than the long drive back home exhausted through the Friday traffic I elected to stay an extra night in my decidedly average motel and drive back on Saturday morning. As I drove back on the Saturday the nagging feeling that the job had not – through no fault of my own – been a great success began to grow. I felt disconsolate. Things, on the whole, were not great. I had no great urge to go home, where nothing of note awaited me, other than some unpaid bills. I felt depressed. So I dropped off for lunch in the little village nearby in the low Pennines. The grey sky and cold rather added to my disconsolate mood, and I started to idly fritter the afternoon away over another coffee in the café run by Mark and Irene, whom I would come to know as kind and gentle people.
Now, across the road was what I called then “The Old Curiosity Shop”. It was a tiny place, part of a small row of Georgian or Victorian stone house buildings, with a slate roof and a single window, adjoining the tiniest second hand book shop in the world, which I sometimes frequented. The Old Curiosity Shop was a curiosity in itself. Its tiny window was crammed with an eclectic mix of wares: postcards, second hand books about travel or cooking, or a Love Spells kit, a second hand framed water colour print of an owl, antique rings and bangles and so forth. A rather wonky sign on the door announced the name of the shop – “Pieces of Paradise”. Below this was written the words: “Tarot Card Readings. Mini £6. In depth: £10. Full £15”.
I had been eying this up for some time on my regular trips to the coffee shop. To be honest I was feeling rather lost, and I suppose for all sorts of simple psychological reasons I wanted …what? Comfort? Hope? Some sense of direction? All of the above. Maybe I was just curious. So that afternoon I decided to take the plunge and book an appointment. So I finished my coffee, left the coffee shop and crossed the road, dressed, I should say, in my most comfortable and probably scruffiest “travelling” clothes; a huge red gortex walking anorak, grey sweat pants and the most battered but also most comfortable training shoes in the world. Gok Wan, eat your heart out.
I opened the old wooden door and peered curiously inside. It was a tiny, one room shop, no larger than an average living room, and it contained a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of objects tasteful, eccentric, old and new. Lamps, jewellery, books, old pictures and scarves, memorabilia, paintings, “antiques” and goodness knows what.
In the near corner to my left, behind a small old round table with a mug of tea on it, a woman was sitting in a huge high backed wicker chair, which was rather like a throne. She was quite small, in her late fifties or early sixties I guessed, and had a fine boned, rather cheeky face with bright eyes. But her most noticeable feature was a mass of long grey-gold hair, which framed her face and extended down her back in a way which was both unruly and quite charming. A veritable White Witch.
She peered at me curiously, with an intelligent look, and asked if she could help me. I stumbled out something about having a reading and booking a time next week.
“I’m not busy,” she said brightly, “What about now?”
I considered this. I was not busy either. So, I agreed. She seemed pleased. She asked me what length of reading I wanted. I decided to take a measured approach and go for the “full” version, but not the “in depth”.
I settled down in a chair by her table, and she shuffled her old battered deck of Tarot cards, explaining in a rather traditional Lancashire accent something about how she worked and the deck, and how not to be alarmed by some of the cards (like “Death”) which should be taken literally, but as metaphors for change, new starts and so forth. She then asked me to shuffle the pack, and pick two cards at random. She told me her name. It was Dominic. I wasn’t sure if I had misheard, and assumed it must be Dominique, or some such.
The cards were big and heavy and I shuffled them rather clumsily, and then picked out two at random which I passed to her, and she placed them face up in the centre of the table.
She looked at the two cards quite hard. And then she looked at me quite hard, with the bright blue eyes. She looked at the cards again, and appeared to be pondering something. I wasn’t sure this was entirely a good omen. But then I had to pick more cards which were spread around the others in a pattern, and she explained these would govern past and future events, and various branches of interest in the reading. It took a few minutes. When all the cards were laid out, she began, tapping the two cards that I had first picked out.
Bearing in mind my shambolic dress, I thought the first question wasn’t a half bad guess.
“Does your profession” (her words) “involve giving a lot of advice?”
I confirmed that it did.
She then asked something very pertinent to what I do, which I will not reveal. Well, well, well…
She went on to discuss the meaning of the two cards in the centre of the table. These were my “defining” cards, she explained, which defined or governed my qualities in work and in personal life. She explained that they were respectively The King of Swords and the King of Cups. She seemed pleased, and fixed me again with a quizzical look, and explained a little about what they meant.
It was cold in the little shop. There was a heater, but it appeared to have run out of gas. I was glad I had my walking jacket. To cut a long story short, the little woman whom I came to know as Dominic or Dominique talked a lot, long into the afternoon, and I am sure I got more than my allotted £10’s worth. I even fetched some more tea for us both from the obliging Mark at the café across the road. What we discussed, and what she said, doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that harsh, stand-offish, shy and socially indifferent as I can be, by the end of the afternoon I had found a friend. She left me her number and asked me to keep in touch.
I often popped to the village just to get out and about and have a cup of tea and reflect, and would always pop in to the shop and say hello. Sometimes I would find her in Mark and Irene’s café, and share a tea or coffee with her (way too much sugar, Dominic! No!) or buy her one and bring it to her in the shop. We would natter about life. I could talk to her when I was down, and she always had a ready smile and a warm word for me. She was a delight. I made a point of buying a few items from the shop to help turnover (I have some gorgeous cufflinks), and she would always refuse to let me pay full price, so I just bought a few more. She offered me advice on many matters, and even tried a bit of matchmaking on my behalf. She was always kind.
I found her delightful. Born and brought up Catholic in my Lancashire town, she had suffered some of the indignities which my faith used to inflict on small children via its nuns and priests – being locked in cupboards and humiliated in front of the class for wetting herself because she was frightened and so forth. When she reached teenage years and rebelled the Irish priest came round to harangue her, she yelled back at him and told him to get on his way. Despite this, she got on very well with the priest at the Catholic Church which now adjoined her shop. Her present beliefs were as I understood them more towards what I understand to be Hindu or Krishna based, and her son was very big into that. We would have long discussions on matters spiritual and esoteric. She became, by the way, a fan of the blog.
She had lived a colourful life. She had departed these shores and gone to live in Ireland. She was something to do with the early rock scene and Thin Lizzy, before they were Thin Lizzy. She had been a theatre manager in London and mixed with playwrights and authors and agents. She ran antique shops and small business, in a Bohemian style. She had married Henry, and all this seemed to involve lots of flared pants and wide brimmed hats and other period fashion. They had had children, a son and a daughter, and then divorced but they remained friends. But when Henry got sick with cancer, she cared for him until he passed away about three years ago.
She ran the little shop on a shoestring; she didn’t have a car, and lived in a tiny cottage. I don’t think she really cared about money in the way most people do.
Now, my most beloved friend is Dr. Pesta, a woman of great kindness, insight, and strength, a veritable miracle worker in her chosen profession, and a very devout Catholic too. When she came to visit from the USA last December we went for tea and cake in the village, and we called in on Dominic. They hit it off at once. There is no higher accolade I can give Dominic than that.
One Monday lunchtime not long ago I popped by the shop to say hello. Unusually it was closed, but I put this down to Dominic having a day off, or having gone to the bank or some such, and I went across the road to the café. There Mark greeted me with one of “those” looks, the looks you don’t want to see, and I knew straight away.
Dominic had collapsed suddenly the day before. She has suffered a sudden and massive stroke, and was in hospital, but the prognosis looked very bleak.
That evening I went to the hospital at the request of her children. I was met by what I will call a bereavement counsellor who it appeared was expecting me. She greeted me by name, and rightly told me straight away, in clear and sympathetic terms, that Dominic was in reality dead, although her organs still functioning. She was being kept breathing whilst her family came to terms with the decision to switch off the machine. The counsellor and care for the family were superb, by the way. Kind, supportive and patient.
They let me see Dominic, all surrounded by tubes, and beeping Krishna stuff played out by her son. I knelt and said my prayer, rosary beads in hand, kissed her forehead and said goodbye.
This week we said our final goodbye to Dominic. It was quite an affair. First there was a full on Hindu ceremony around the coffin in the living room of her house. It was, I have to say, quite a beautiful affair, conducted by a monk (of “British” ethnicity, if that is at all relevant) with great compassion and an air of deep spirituality about him, as he explained the various rituals in which the coffin was anointed with various gifts signifying spiritual matters; oils, holy waters from the Ganges, sacred earth from a special part of India, as well as masses flowers, rice cakes, even coconuts, which are a symbol of purity and nourishment from Heaven. Hari Krishna verses were sung, incense and fire offerings were made. Prayers were made in Christian terms too, and songs song by her daughter. There was a little presentation of photographs of Dominic through the years. They made me cry.
Then the funeral procession set off by car to the crematorium and passed through the village at just after three, stopping in tribute by the shop, where mourners and friends had gathered in tribute, flowers were placed and – in properly eccentric fashion – mourners blew bubbles in the air and decked themselves with flowers. This caused the merry hell of a traffic jam in the narrow but busy village high street, which she would have loved. I talked to her friend from school days. She recounted how Dominic had always been notable, and had an eccentric and flamboyant mother who would drive Dominic to school in a pink open top car. Dominic would stand up in the passenger seat, blond hair streaming out behind. I could see it in my mind’s eye.
And from there to the crematorium, on a bright early summer afternoon, where the ecumenical theme continued. Together with Mark from the café I was honoured to be one of the pall bearers.
The Hindu monk sang 5,000 year old verses in Sanskrit and translated them in English. They seemed profound. The Lord’s Prayer and other Christian prayers offered, and tributes paid. And then it was time to say a final goodbye to Dominic, and I walked out into the warm sunny air. Her niece and great niece had been there. Both had the trade mark long and unruly blond hair, particularly her great niece, who was about 15 and rather beautiful. She had more than a touch of Dominic’s features, and it made me glad.
It had been a fitting goodbye, a sad day and yet a good day.
She was eccentric, funny, kind and warm hearted. She was my friend.
Rest in piece, my lovely friend. I shall miss you when I go for tea and your ready smile is not there.
Dominica May Bell, 1953 – 2014.
Gildas the Monk.