10 October 2017…
It was early August 2016, a few days after I put all my worldly possessions in a storage unit at Cambridge’s Newmarket Road industrial estate and watched the Frenchman drive away in his vintage Citroen station wagon, hauling a now-empty trailer and bound for the ferry at Newhaven, alone.
I was at Peter and Rafael’s flat in Cambridge, wondering what to do, where to go next. I had with me one big, red suitcase (‘Big Red’) and a blue backpack (‘Little Blue’). I had a good pair of brown leather Timberland hiking boots, only two months old. My urge to leave Cambridge was strong. The urge was composed of embarrassment, a sense of failure, a desire to hide and a longing for somewhere quiet, beautiful and solitary. The streets of Cambridge felt too full of memories, associations and people. It also felt like I was still being propelled by the course I had been following so eagerly: go, start a new life in a different place. This was like a tatter, still active, still readable, from the old story I had been living, recently thrown into a fireplace and slowly burning up.
The Frenchman owned an eco-house and smallholding in South West France, and he often hosted people who were traveling on the Workaway programme. This is a low-budget way of traveling, where travellers stay with a host and are provided with food and board in exchange for a few hours of work every day. It seemed like a good way to go somewhere, and I knew God was looking after me. I knew wherever I went, it would be okay.
Sitting at Peter and Rafa’s kitchen table, I logged onto the Workaway website, created a profile, thought to myself, I want to go somewhere in the UK by a beach, and applied for four different situation postings in coastal towns. Only a few hours later, I heard from Deborah in Branscombe, Devon, offering for me to come and stay with her for two weeks.
I started to breathe more easily as soon as I was on the train west from Cambridge, and my solar plexus was humming with a vibration of rightness. I enjoyed seeing the big, green, round hills of the West Country appear after a couple hours of traveling due west. Past Teignmouth, there are sea views from the train. Deborah, Debbie, met me when I got off the train, and we loaded my bags into her station wagon with the seagulls screeching around us in the parking lot and the sea in the distance. She exuded a nearly palpable aura of love and kindness. She was a similar age to me, but a couple of years older, and petite, with gently curling brown hair and a very beautiful face. She told me that she had turned down something like 15 applications for her Workaway advertisement, but knew right away that I was the right person when she saw my message and profile.
I was in two minds about telling Debbie what had just happened in my life, but my instinct urged me to tell her in the car, on the way to her house. This only caused a deeper outpouring of kindness from her. She made a delicious, healthy meal for dinner, and as she handed a laden plate to me on that first night, she said Feed your soul with love, Joy. And I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing, with the right person.
She lived in a huge, rambling old stone house on a hill that was an eight-minute walk from Branscombe Beach. She showed me to a self-contained room with its own door and key set into the hill just below the main house. It had a big double bed, pretty views from the windows and floor space for yoga. The job she had for me to do was to scrape, sand and paint a black iron staircase winding up the outside of the house, which had been weathering the salty sea air and south coast storms for too long. There were white, fluffy sheep grazing on the green hills on either side of the house, and from the top of the staircase, I could see the sea.
I was ready for the hard work. I learned on the first day that the rusty old paint scrapings from the staircase would land on my hair and skin and become fused to the layer of sunscreen I wore, forming a black, dusty paste, so that I looked like a coal miner, or some creature from the bowels of the earth. This felt good, correct, satisfying. Like I had shed my old Cambridge skin, pretty clothes, culture job and persona. I was something primal, raw and earthy now. It also felt good to begin working the tragedy out of my system using my muscles. It took a full 40 minutes and an actual scrub brush to clean myself at the end of each morning of work. After lunch, I would spend time weeping in my bedroom and talking to God about everything, and then I would go to the beach in the late afternoon. I was still in a state of shock and turbulence, and the work each morning, beach and Debbie’s love were the healing agents at play during this first painful stage of the pilgrimage.
On the fifth day after I arrived at Debbie’s, I got an email from the Frenchman saying that he had made a mistake and wanted me back. Going through the fire of losing everything had burned my vision into a state of greater clarity, although I was still shocked and emotional. I wanted a relationship built on the rock of truth, and although it was painful to sift through the broken illusions of my relationship with him, I could begin to see now that maybe I had been a salve for his loneliness. I began to wonder whether he had loved ME or just loved my presence in his life, attentive and female, but not necessarily specific. I wondered if I were just a somebody to him, rather than Joy. I began to wonder What is love, anyway? What is a relationship? What did we have, and what did we lose, for real? I was suspicious, in a good way, a new way…I felt awakened to a deeper interrogation of the true nature of love. I felt that the Frenchman, having arrived back in France and realising that now he was single again, wanted to be un-single. It was impossible to imagine getting back together with someone who had bombed my life to rubble so thoroughly. I said no, with many questions in my heart and mind about what had happened, about him, myself and love in general.
My pilgrim path was still glittering with serendipity and magic, all around me and ahead of me. One afternoon at Debbie’s, I had said to the Universe, Please show me the way. If it is best for me to keep going like this, show me how and where… The Universe answered through the Workaway website again, immediately: I saw an advertisement for a four-month situation, house and dog-sitting in the Lake District of England, from November to March. It would be just me and the dog, in peaceful, beautiful surroundings. Perfect for writing. I applied and was immediately accepted. I knew this was the answer, the path, the way to go forwards.
The Universe had another helping of magic for me in Devon. I learned on the first day that Branscombe is only a couple of harbours along the south coast of England from Lyme Regis. I did my Masters’ degree research on Jane Austen, totally adore her writing and have read all her books multiple times. There is a passage in Persuasion where she, very unusually, pauses for a moment in her authorial narration to describe a place of natural beauty and exhorts the reader to visit it. This place is Lyme Regis. I have written about the scenes in Persuasion which are set on the seafront at Lyme Regis, called ‘The Cobb’, in my research. When I learned how close I was to Lyme Regis, I reflected that on the list of things I have always wanted to do, visiting Lyme Regis was right at the top, the first thing. And then it occurred to me that this list had been sitting dusty in the far archive rooms of my mind, for years. I couldn’t remember the last time I had checked in with my List of Dreams.
I had forgotten entirely that a person should have a List of Dreams and be working their way down it, making the dreams come true, small ones and big ones. I had lots of lovely experiences during my time living in Cambridge, but I realised that I was often tagging along with other people on their lists of dreams.
So it was exhilarating to catch the double-decker countryside bus from Branscombe to Lyme Regis the next Saturday and to be living out one of my dreams. Amusingly, I climbed aboard, and the bus was totally occupied by men and women in 18th century clothing, as there was a Town Crier competition afoot in nearby Axminster. It was a beautiful day, with blue sky and sunshine, and hot enough for a sleeveless dress. I felt like I was traveling into the novel Persuasion as the bus drove into Lyme Regis. I walked the Cobb on the seafront, looked around the town, had fish and chips for lunch, then sat on the beach and basked in the sun during the afternoon, before catching the bus back to Branscombe.
I marvelled at the loving way the Universe had brought me to Devon, given me Debbie for two weeks, an Earth Angel if ever I saw one, and shown me the path forwards. I was glad my illusions about love with the Frenchman had been shattered, because the truth is so precious to me. And even though I felt raw in body and spirit, I could feel God’s love shining everywhere around: in the rocks, trees, streams and sea, in Debbie, in the serendipity of running away in pain totally at random and finding that I had run back to myself in some crucial and temporarily forgotten way…back to my list of dreams.
Featured Image: ‘Aquamarine Cobb’ by Hilary Buckley. Please visit her website here.
Serendipity Story #3 Coming Soon…
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Originally published on mirrorlamp.co.uk on 10 Nov 2017