A deep voice that sounded exactly like something off a movie trailer rang out over the tannoy. ‘In a time, when lives were once peaceful, a danger—’
‘Just give me the bloody time, will you?’
‘Five o’ six pm. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’
‘No thanks.’ I sank into my black, leather office chair and stroked Mr Squiggles. What a day it had been: lunches, lunches and more lunches. The workload around here was intense. However, for all my hard work, I’d uncovered nothing that would help Operation Squirrel, and the working day was nearly over. I stepped out of my office and looked around the main office; everyone was already gone. ‘Lazy flakes,’ I muttered as I made my way to the cafeteria.
As I was brewing myself a chai latte, I noticed, through the clear windows of the cafeteria, a face flash past that I instantly recognised: Donna. My mouth immediately opened and I screamed out for her as I charged out of the room, but by the time I’d made it to the hallway she was completely gone.
Was I imagining it? Maybe I’d been looking too hard? Maybe I’d drunk too many lattes and the caffeine had surged to my head. I took a seat and supped my latte. Maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t going to solve the mystery after all. I was going to have to go to our leaving party tonight, play the piano and leave a failure. Mr Nutty McNutnut would be safe when I boarded the plane tomorrow, but those poor squirrels at the reserve—I’d really let them down.
That evening, I sat glumly in the gratitude room as everyone gathered. Eric had laid on a vegan spread but, what with High Mistress Breeze still missing, the mood at the party was pretty sombre. One by one, the guests got up and began their performances, as myself, the guests at the lodge and everyone from the Squirrel Reserve watched on.
Anna McHappy kicked things off with a whistling-only song, which I was super pleased about, and I’m pretty sure her husband would have been too, except I think he’d popped to the loo and missed it.
Next up was Dotty and Delilah, who did some uncomfortable looking yoga poses. And I couldn’t have been positive, because I was sulking so much, but I thought I saw them both crack a smile at the end of it.
Chad read a poem about spending more time at home rather than working, whilst Mia discussed the complexities of organising and running a household.
Felicity and Poet performed a play as a pair of mime artists, which I was sure had to mean something, but I was honestly not paying that much attention.
And finally, Barry from London got up and opened up to us all about his busy life. I held my hands over my ears for that.
I sighed as I whipped out a straw and supped on my smashed avocado. They all seemed so perfect, their lives so incredibly together, all except Anna and Scotty McHappy, that is. As I took centre stage, armed with a keyboard, I took a quick glance over in Eric’s direction; even he looked perfect in his silky red kaftan, with his slim frame and wavy dark hair. He really did look like James Dean. Then something struck me.
‘Come on, Grace!’ Miguel shouted. ‘What did you do for us? A song?’
I rubbed my head. Both sides of my brain seemed to synchronise at once. Memories came flooding back to me from our stay: titbits of gold, words that didn’t make sense, small clues that kept popping into my mind. This was it … I suddenly felt my whole life had been building up to this very moment. The problem was so obvious, everything was far too perfect. It was like a film, our whole stay, like the set on a film. I shouted out, ‘I should eat more avocado.’
‘Well, I’m glad you like my cooking,’ Eric said.
‘No, no, Eric, I’ve got it! To the Squirrel Reserve!’ I yelled.
After a lot of grumbling, especially from Gladys, we all stood in the clearing at the Squirrel Reserve. Amos fired up the floodlights and lit the steps of the wooden hut where I stood. All around us, a thin mist wandered through the black trees in the forest. I didn’t feel scared one little bit.
‘Thank you for being here,’ I said. ‘I’ve had a lot of time to think about what’s been happening around here, what with Gopzilla, Donna, High Mistress Breeze and the squirrels going missing. A ghost turning up and a squirrel-hunting gorilla.’ I paced the floor as a sea of bewildered faces gazed back at me. ‘At first, I was terrified. Gorillas really are my worst nightmare, especially gorilla ghosts, but now I realise exactly what has been going on.’
Gasps rang from the crowd as I continued. Even Gladys looked shocked.
‘You see, the big thing that really got me suspicious was the fact that everyone was so perfect. So perfect in fact that I have deduced that the lodge must be a set up. Take Dotty and Delilah here, who I discovered dancing in the Hollywood Z Club.’ The crowd gasped and Dotty and Delilah covered their faces. ‘Completely out of character, don’t you think? In fact, the only two I would say are not faking it are Anna and Scotty McHappy. Everyone else at the lodge is a bunch of fakers.’
‘No we are not!’ shouted Chad. ‘Are you drunk, Grace?’
Mia threw her hands in the air. ‘Have you lost your mind? What are you suggesting here?’
I pointed straight at Mia. ‘I am suggesting that you are not who you say you are. That is what I am suggesting here.’
Felicity butted in. ‘Grace, this is ridiculous.’
‘Most fun I’ve had in ages.’
‘Be quiet, Poet! Grace, that’s enough, this is ridiculous. Don’t you have a song or something?’ Felicity said.
I slammed my foot into the wooden boards. ‘This is my song and you must listen.’ I scanned the crowd with a fire in my belly that rose from my stomach and shot from my eyes. I continued. ‘Not that any of you may have realised, but I have spent the last few days infiltrating Lone Ideas Entertainment undercover, where I discovered a few pieces of damming evidence. Firstly, many of the staff were missing … where could they be?
At first, I thought they were just a bunch of crystal- loving flakes. I didn’t connect the fact that you lot were too. Then I discovered none other than Donna walking in the corridor today, perfectly healthy. And then, the final piece of evidence that led me to solving the mystery was that I found out Gopzilla was slim with dark hair.’ I pulled out a cigar and lit it. ‘I put it to you all that you are all actors who are playing the part of guests at the lodge, and that Gopzilla and High Mistress Breeze are here with us tonight. It is you lot who are stealing squirrels to drum up publicity, as the lodge is struggling for business. How else can you explain all those reporters? You are exactly like the tech companies, writing their own articles online to get good staff. I know your tactics.’
‘Told ya it wasn’t ghosts,’ Gladys said.
‘Rubbish, Grace. So, who is Gopzilla then?’ Felicity shouted over.
I pointed straight at Eric who immediately threw his hands over his mouth and wailed. ‘What? As if, Grace. Why do you think it’s me?’
Everybody stepped away from Eric as I continued. ‘Because it is you who fits his description and there ain’t no way a twenty-one-year-old should give marriage advice to anybody.’
Eric crushed his eyebrows together and stared at me. ‘Says you. Grace, how could you blame me?’
‘Mystery solved!’ I shouted, flinging my arms in the air and sending my handbag flying to the floor. As I stood, smugly looking back at everyone, I noticed them looking down at the floor beside me. I looked down and there, lying in open view next to my handbag, was Mr Nutty McNutnut. I leant down, picked him up and casually placed him back in my bag.
‘You! It was you stealing the squirrels, Grace!’ Chad shouted over to me.
‘Hang on, hang on—’
‘Grace, what the hell have you done? You’ve been killing squirrels!’ Felicity shouted.
‘He’s mine, I brought him from Britain and I didn’t know he was real,’ I shouted back.
‘Grace, why did you do this?’ Mia shouted.
Gladys stepped forward and held out her arms. ‘Now hang on, I was with her when she brought—’
‘I don’t need your help, Gladys. Thank you very much.’
‘Is that how it is, really?’
‘Yes.’ I raised my voice and shouted over everyone’s talking. ‘I can prove it was all a set up. That everyone at the lodge is a fake, that they are the staff from Lone Ideas Entertainment pretending to be guests, that that’s why the place was quiet, that Donna, Gopzilla and High Mistress Breeze going missing is all a set up too to drum up publicity. This makes a great story, right? And it was all concocted by High Mistress Breeze. Donna and Gopzilla going missing didn’t draw much attention, but if High Mistress Breeze went missing, then that would be the final straw.’ Everyone quietened down. ‘I realised that the last place anyone would think of looking for High Mistress Breeze would be this wooden shack, which is why it’s the best hiding place for her. Give me a minute.’
The crowd stood quietly as I ripped the door to the wooden shack open and searched the place in the dark. I tugged open a cupboard door and the shadow of an arm flopped out. ‘There you are,’ I shouted as I gripped High Mistress Breeze and dragged her out onto the porch and dropped her at my feet. ‘See, High Mistress Breeze,’ I said, pointing at her.
Everyone stood perfectly still as High Mistress Breeze lay at my feet, not moving a muscle. I gave her a small kick. ‘Come on, jigs up, High Mistress Breeze. Get up now.’
I looked back again at the crowd and noticed a look of sheer horror sweeping over everybody’s face. ‘High Mistress Breeze, come on, get up,’ I said as I kicked her again, this time a lot harder, but she never moved a muscle. Then I let out a scream, the likes of which Hollywood had never heard before and jumped back. ‘She’s dead! She’s actually bloody dead! Why … how has this happened?’
Eric ran over and checked for a pulse. ‘She’s dead, she really is dead. What have you done?’
I pointed at myself. ‘Me? What the hell? I never did this. I, I thought she would be alive. I thought she was doing this for publicity because you told me that business had been slow.’ I looked around at everyone. Gladys had her hands on her head, Dotty was phoning the police, and people were shaking their heads at me and covering their mouths. ‘It wasn’t me, honestly.’
Eric sprang to his feet. ‘It wasn’t you.’
‘I said, it wasn’t you. I know exactly who it was.’
I gripped Eric by the kaftan. ‘Tell us, tell us who it is then. Before the police get here and I get arrested.’
Eric lifted his hand and pointed straight at Amos. ‘It was you. This is your shack and here she is. You must have known.’
The crowd parted from Amos. ‘No, no, I didn’t know at all. I can tell you who it was though … it was …’, Amos lifted his hand and pointed at Lion Heart, ‘… him.’
The crowd then parted from Lion Heart who crossed his arms and glared in my direction.
‘He folded his arms!’ I shouted. ‘It was him. Folded arms is never a good thing.’
Gladys stepped forward and stared at Amos. ‘Amos, is this true? Did you have something to do with this?’
Amos removed his cowboy hat and rested it on his chest. ‘Yes, but I never hurt her—’
‘Shut up, shut up will you, you’re under contract!’ Lion Heart shouted.
Amos ignored Lion Heart. ‘Gladys, I’m so sorry, but I never meant anyone to get hurt. I thought High Mistress Breeze was missing, not hurt. I thought it was part of the plan.’
‘She’s been found dead in your wooden shack, Amos. How isn’t this you?’ Gladys said.
‘No, Gladys, it wasn’t. This is a set up. You see, everyone at the Squirrel Reserve, including me, is a worker from Lone Ideas Entertainment. We were hired by Lion Heart to set up this Squirrel Reserve and run it as if it was real. I thought the same as Grace, that we were doing this to drum up business for the lodge. You know, a mystery that would make the papers and the place would get busy. Maybe they’d turn it into a film and the lodge would go down in history. Except you and Grace turned up, digging around. We were told by Lion Heart to scare you away, you know, with the person in the gorilla costume. Lion Heart had overheard Grace say she was scared of gorillas in the seance and knew you were snooping around. He wanted you gone. That’s how we knew. Then you stopped by this week. The minute I saw you walk into the Squirrel Reserve, Gladys, I couldn’t help myself. It’s been the best week of my life. Gladys, I swear, we never hurt anyone.’
Miguel, Lucy and Stevie all gathered around Gladys. ‘Honestly, it’s true,’ they said. ‘We thought the same as Grace is saying, that this was just about making some publicity for the lodge because the business was failing. Then suddenly High Mistress Breeze goes missing. We thought that it was just part of the plan, but it had nothing to do with us.’
Lion Heart ripped Amos’ hat from him and slammed it into the ground. ‘You did this! You absolutely did this. I never killed anyone. So, I set this up—fine!’ Lion Heart gripped his fists. ‘But I never killed my wife.’
Lion Heart looked out into the dark forest and wiped his perspiring forehead. In the distance we could hear sirens wailing as they made their way towards us. ‘Fine, fine. So maybe I did set this all up but I never killed my wife. You see my wife and I haven’t been getting on for years. We set the yoga business up together but it’s been failing from the start. The lodge was built for fifty guests at a time but we’ve barely held more than ten at any one time. Just over a year ago, we ended up in so much debt but she wouldn’t sell up. We went over it and over it but she completely refused. Just for the land alone we could have made millions. All she cared about was making it work. Then one day, Lone Ideas Entertainment approached me, wanting to build film studios here, and offered me fifty million. I knew from our previous conversations that she wouldn’t budge, no matter the price, so I came up with a plan. I encouraged her to rent the land here on the Squirrel Reserve, making out that we would stay here permanently and earn some rent from it, and then worked with Lone Ideas Entertainment to set up this fake Squirrel Reserve without her knowing. Saving squirrels was an idea she absolutely loved because it meant preserving nature and the land. Then I set about making High Mistress Breeze look bad. I thought I could drive her out. I planted guests at the lodge and then they went missing, I checked Gopzilla in so no one would meet that guest, I spread rumours about High Mistress Breeze arguing over the land with the Squirrel Reserve and made her look like a squirrel hater by stealing squirrels so it looked like it was her. I could see this was deeply upsetting her and to be honest I really thought she would crack, especially when I pretended to bring the ghost of Gopzilla back at the seance. I thought we could drive her out, you know, she’d have enough and say ‘that’s it, let’s go’. Once the land was sold for fifty million then I could finally divorce her and take half the money. Then she went missing. I thought it was a joke at first, maybe she’d run away, you know, she couldn’t take anymore. I was actually kind of glad. But not dead. I didn’t do that.’
Gladys glared at Lion Heart. ‘Why didn’t you just divorce her?’
‘Because as the lodge stands, it’s worth a lot less than Lone Ideas Entertainment were offering. If I simply just divorced her then there was every chance she would never sell to a big corporate company like that—she hates all that corporate stuff. Unless I was there, pushing her along, I know she wouldn’t do it. I would have lost out on millions. Also, I was worried she would find out about … em …’
Gladys placed her hands on her hips. ‘About Donna, you mean?’
‘Yes, about her.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ I said. ‘Something has actually … I think I might have worked something out.’
‘Donna is Gopzilla. Gopzilla is Donna. Donna is slim with dark hair. It wasn’t Eric at all. Wow, that crap receptionist could actually be psychic.’
Gladys continued, ‘Gopzilla only turned up for one night. High Mistress Breeze wouldn’t have even met her because Lion Heart checked her in. We all presumed Gopzilla is a man because that’s what Lion Heart led us to believe. It’s actually Donna who works at Lone Ideas Entertainment.’
I threw my hands in the air. ‘I don’t believe it. That’s why I couldn’t find any HR files on Gopzilla, because he doesn’t exist. And that’s how nobody knew who Gopzilla was at the firm.’
Gladys walked over to Lion Heart and looked him up and down. ‘So, about Donna, anything else you want to add?’
Lion Heart hung his head. ‘Yes, yes, we fell in love when we met. She approached me with the fifty-million-pound offer. I wanted out from my marriage from the second I met her. I know I’ve done some bad things and I was actually pleased when I thought she’d run away, but I never laid a finger on her, I swear.’
‘Well, you’re a bloody fool if you think Donna is in love with you. She used the oldest trick in the book to get hold of this land and you fell for it.’ A sickening voice echoed through the forest.
I felt my legs go from underneath me as High Mistress Breeze rose to a standing position. ‘ZOMBIES ARE REAL, GLADYS, RUN.’ I leapt off the steps and ran in the direction of the others and hid behind Chad, changed my mind and hid behind Felicity. ‘She’s gonna eat us!’ I wailed.
High Mistress Breeze folded her arms and snarled in Lion Heart’s direction. ‘Thought I was dead, did you? I worked your sick little plan out the moment Eric told me about Grace’s squirrel pad and how you’d been missing from all of the morning sessions. If only I’d talked about it all sooner. I never questioned the fact it could be you for a second before that. Then it fell into place—all those morning meetings. I really have been so stupid.’
I waved my trusty squirrel pad in the air and smiled.
‘The ghost of Gopzilla, then Donna, the squirrels, then you’d been missing all those sessions. Then it all fell into place. You conniving low life, you. Obviously, getting you to admit you’ve done anything wrong was going to take some great acting, but thanks to my trusty employee, Eric, here …’
‘… we came up with a plan. And boy did it work.’
‘Hold the phone,’ I shouted over to Eric. ‘You bloody lied all along. You sneaky, little—’
‘Sorry, Grace. Sorry, Gladys. Not all along though. When I saw your squirrel pad it just started falling into place. I finally talked to High Mistress Breeze about it and that’s when we put our heads together. Well, we didn’t want to risk letting you in on it.’
‘But how did you know I was going to blame the guests and get everyone here on my last night?’ I said to Eric.
‘I didn’t, I thought you were going to play the piano and leave me to do the Columbo reveal. Then you got up and did it. It was brilliant.’
‘Well, kind of,’ I said. ‘Maybe I had a few details wrong. Does this mean you actually give marriage advice?’
Miguel flung his hand up in the air from the back. ‘Oh, oh, does this mean that I helped too, when I accidentally wrote the amount wrong on Grace’s charity form? Grace wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me.’
Amos folded his arms. ‘Well, I suppose, indirectly, Miguel. You had one job, to be fair, to set up a fake donation page and pretend to run the reserve like a charity. Then you mess it up on Grace’s form, spend all the money on top of it, and then we had to try to cover it all so all of us didn’t lose our jobs at Lone Ideas Entertainment. You literally work in accounts too, I’m not giving you too much credit here.’
‘Accounts? Em, em, maybe I’m from HR?’
* * *
Back at the lodge, everyone gathered in the gratitude room. ‘I can’t thank you enough, Grace. If you hadn’t shown up then I hate to think what would have happened.’
‘That’s all right, sorry you found out that about your husband though.’
‘Fine by me. If I never see his sorry face again it will be too soon. I can’t believe I never saw it. The business had been failing and when the guests and squirrels started going missing, and everyone was gossiping and blaming me, I felt so upset and ashamed. I really thought I could trust him. Yet it was him all along. If I never see his face again …’
‘That’s the spirit,’ I said with a smile.
I looked up to see Gladys taking a seat in the middle of the gratitude room. She pulled out a piece of paper and began to talk to everyone who had gathered around her. ‘Grace, will you listen to my poem?’ Gladys shouted over.
‘I know you hate poems, Gladys, but I suppose I can.’ I pulled up a chair and got comfy.
For the first time ever, I could see a sadness steeped in Gladys’ face. I watched as she unfolded a piece of paper, all the while her hands shaking, and then began to read her poem.
‘Grace I am sorry,
I never told you the truth,
You see I made mistakes that were all in my youth,
I never stepped up and that I regret,
I ran away from everything and I owe you a debt,
I’ve tried to be there,
To love and to care,
To make up for being shtum,
Grace, I am your mum.’
My hands dropped to my side and I tilted my head. ‘Gladys, what are you talking about? I have a mum, she’s dead, remember.’
Gladys wiped tears from her eyes. ‘No, Grace, your real mum.’
‘My real mum left me when I was five. She isn’t my mum. It wasn’t you, don’t tell me that! You’re joking, right? You’re joking? I never wanted to see her again for what she did. I told you that. I TOLD YOU THAT.’
Gladys reached out her hand towards me. ‘I know you told me that, but now I have to tell you before it’s too late. I have tried to make up for it. I found you and I have always tried to be there for you, but it’s been so hard. I knew it would upset you. First me leaving and then your foster mum dying when you were sixteen. It affected you so much and I never knew how to tell you.’
‘Gladys, you can’t be my mother. This just isn’t happening. I’ve known you since I was twenty-five.’
‘I found you and I have tried to be ther—’
‘This whole time, everything, lies. I told you I didn’t want to ever see my mum. All along it’s you. No, Gladys, no …’
Gladys stood up and walked towards me. ‘I couldn’t leave you, though. I could see how much you struggled to cope with it all, how much it affected you. Please forgive me, please …’
Gladys touched my shoulder and I pulled away. ‘All this time, I thought nobody wanted me, I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was cursed, that somehow some witch had put a curse on me, that anyone or anything that I touched would be destroyed, I was so angry that—’
‘That’s why I got so upset when you said you believed in ghosts. I brought you here to tell you, but then you start going on about ghosts and ridiculous stuff that I know isn’t true. You need to know the truth, you need to face reality, I need you to know how sorry I a—’
‘Stay away from me! JUST STAY AWAY FROM ME.’ I ran from the room, tripping over chairs and slamming the door behind me. I could feel my world crashing down as I ran to my bedroom and dived into my hammock. A churning cycle of pain that kept running on repeat in my head as I lay rocking side to side. This had to be the worst life-creep ever to exist. This was the penultimate life-creep, the life-creep of all life-creeps. All this time, Gladys had been my mother. I really thought nobody wanted me, that somehow, I had been born with a curse hovering over my head. To know that my real mother didn’t want to keep me and then go through the pain of losing my foster mother to cancer at sixteen left me feeling so angry at everything. That night had to be the worst sleep of my life; I tossed and turned until finally, at six o’clock in the morning, I woke with a jolt. Unlike most mornings, I was wide awake.
‘Gladys, are you there?’ I looked over to Gladys’ hammock but she wasn’t in it. I decided to get up and see if I could dig out a coffee from the gratitude room.
‘Morning, Grace.’ It was High Mistress Breeze. ‘Maca Tea?’
‘No, sorry, just tea.’
‘Thanks. Have you seen Gladys? She’s not in her hammock.’
‘She’s out there on the rustic bench. Probably couldn’t sleep. You know she was quite upset last night when you left. Eric spent hours comforting her.’
‘Yeah, I was pretty mad. I get like that sometimes. I’ve calmed down a bit now.’
‘You should try meditating, you know. Gladys is getting pretty good at it.’
‘Em, I meditate.’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘Okay, maybe I don’t.’
High Mistress Breeze leant in towards me. ‘Grace, are you okay?’
‘She’s my mum. She. Is. My. Mum. I can’t believe it. All this time and I didn’t see it. I feel so angry, she never told me.’
‘But she’s telling you now. And as far as I gather, she’s done everything she can to help you over the years.’
‘I suppose …’
‘You know, Grace. My father was never around, he never bothered with me, never once tried to contact me or be part of my life. So, I had two choices: be angry or don’t be angry. And I chose not to be angry. I don’t ever waste my time being angry at him, because ultimately it will be me who pays the price. Instead, I chose to be grateful.’
‘Not grateful … seriously, of all the—’
‘Grace, listen. When we are angry, especially about things that even we cannot control, then we start searching for blame. We blame our parents, we blame ourselves, we blame society, we blame everyone around us. The only person this blame affects is us. We miss out on the good things in life, we miss out on moments of happiness, on opportunities to be happy. I know Gladys should have told you, but I just see a woman who has tried her whole life to set things straight with you. If she had told you sooner you may never have got to spend so much time together all these years. Your anger would have pushed her away. Am I right?’
‘I suppose …’
‘And all that time you did get to spend together, as best friends, surely you must be grateful for that?’
‘Well, she has been my best friend, I suppose …’
‘You can’t change what has happened, neither can she. But I promise you, if you don’t find something to be grateful for out of all of this mess, then you will only hurt yourself. Did you ever wonder why she brought you to this lodge, out of all the places you could have chosen to stay at?’
‘I, well I thought we came here because I always wanted to see Hollywood, because of the Squirrel Retreat too. She did pick this hotel, now I think about it. I wasn’t really listening at the travel agents. I was so excited, when I get like that I never listen.’ I rubbed my forehead. ‘You know, she was the one who said yes to it, now I think about it.’
‘Exactly, Grace. It would be my guess that Gladys knew all about this place before you both even stepped foot in that travel agents. It sounds to me as if she had this planned all along. You see, this business of mine is not quite your average yoga retreat. Our sole purpose is to help troubled souls and we don’t do that by simply pulling yoga poses and meditating. It’s part of it but there’s a lot more to it than that. I market this place to people to bring a loved one who they deeply care about and want to help.’
I felt a shiver down my spine. ‘Life-creep,’ I whispered.
‘Didn’t you wonder why Eric was so close to you both all of the time?’
‘Well, Eric is actually our resident life coach.’
‘He’s twenty-one though, seriously?’
‘That he may be, but he is easily the smartest, most switched on person I have ever met. There is not a single soul he hasn’t helped since he started work here at the start of summer last year. And he only learnt that because he has his own troubles. He watched his mother go through three messy divorces growing up, with no help from anybody, so at sixteen he vowed to help people work through their relationships and make the world a better place. He studied psychology and now he works here. Gladys told him all about you and her predicament when she arrived. He realised that you two needed the help most, and he has spent much of his time getting to know you both as much as he could, then working out a plan so that she can tell you with the least amount of upset, whilst supporting her through it. Gladys really thinks she might lose you and she can’t cope with that. Obviously, the whole Lion Heart thing sprung up in the middle of it, but Eric said it might actually help if you were both in a situation like that so that you can work together towards a shared goal. He thought if you could overcome your fears and realise that you can deal with problems, then it might help your frame of mind and accept the truth without completely freaking out and never speaking to Gladys again. And you did do it, Grace. You did brilliantly, despite how scared you were. Obviously, all of the reasons why Gladys felt unable to tell you that she was your mother came out, but that just means that you both have something you can learn from.’
‘You know, I did think that we were both really stubborn, now you mention it.’
‘And you know, this has just as much to do with her as a person as it does with you. You see, many people come here thinking that the other person has the problem, when in fact it is them who needs help as well.’
‘So, hang on, are you saying that the other people at the lodge are really not perfect?’
‘Not perfect, are you kidding? Nobody is perfect, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Dotty and Delilah are a pair of winos who constantly bicker; those two are so angry all of the time, they barely speak to anybody, let alone each other. Chad brought his wife here because her obsessive control over the house upsets him to the point he doesn’t want to go home; he realised that it’s actually him not being there that was the problem. And Mia was just trying to gain control of her life by organising everything. Felicity brought her son, Poet, here thinking she could change his mind about going to university, but realised that her constant nitpicking has dragged him down so much that his self-worth and motivation has really been affected. Barry from London accidentally booked this, turned up alone, thinking that sitting in his room all day meditating was the answer to making him happy, not realising that not opening up to people and working too hard was really his issue. And Anna McHappy brought her husband here thinking he was having an affair with his secretary, but realised that—’
‘Oh, yeah, that chorus.’
‘Yes, that chorus. That he was actually cheating on her, so she left him. We get a lot of marriage ones. Thankfully, Anna was able to whistle her way out of it.’
‘And what about Gladys and me?’
‘Gladys brought you here because you were so unhappy in your life, because you closed yourself off, wouldn’t hold down a job, never took responsibility. She wanted to tell you that she was your mother but she knew that you would never speak to her again and was worried that your life, and your world, would fall apart even more than it already had if you found out the truth.’
‘And what did she find out about herself?’
‘That she is scared. That she never felt good enough, or strong enough, or worth her weight in gold. She had you fostered because she didn’t think she would be able to bring you up to lead a happy life, she never believed that she had it in her. She lost her job when you were five and her life seemed to crumble around her, especially with no parents or a father for you around to help her. She never felt strong enough to tell you she was your mother either.’
I took a deep breath in and looked out to the Zen garden. ‘Okay, High Mistress Breeze, I see what you’re saying. I will go talk to her.’
As I made my way over to the rustic bench, I gripped my hands tightly together. The sun was rising over the Yosemite and the birds danced around the Zen garden as I made my way over the stepping stones. Gladys was sat upright on the bench, staring out onto the Yosemite, no doubt meditating again.
I tiptoed up and hovered behind her. This had to be about the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life. ‘I’m sorry I got so mad at you,’ I said. ‘It’s just that you took me by surprise. It’s just that I have spent so long feeling so worthless and angry. I thought that you had left me. But, but, you know, I’m grateful, Gladys. I’m grateful that you spent all these years with me as my friend.’ I wiped tears from my eyes and continued. ‘If you weren’t in my life then I don’t know how I’d have coped. I know you must have had your reasons for leaving me, and I want you to know that you couldn’t have left me with a more wonderful foster mother. I’m grateful for that too, you see, I do, I do love you, you’ve been the best friend/mum you could have ever been … Gladys? Gladys, can you hear me?’
I stepped forward and gently touched Gladys’ shoulder. Her head suddenly dropped down and that was about all I can really clearly remember. The rest of the events just seemed to blur into a foggy mist of screams. The next thing I knew, a huddle of distraught guests had gathered in the garden: High Mistress Breeze pounding on Gladys’ chest as she tried to revive her, Eric gripping me tightly as I lay on the ground screaming, then the sound of an ambulance wailing through my ears, the paramedics telling me there was nothing more they could do, the doctors at the hospital telling me that Gladys should never have travelled anywhere with a serious heart condition such as hers, and the tears from Eric as I boarded the plane and escorted Gladys’ body home.
I think it would be fair to say that my mind only really snapped into reality when I stepped off the plane and walked through arrivals. My body seemed to thud to the ground as I walked through the gate.
For the first time ever, I noticed how many happy people there really were in the world. They embraced, smiled and shook hands, they cheered when they spotted each other at a distance, held out jolly signs with colourful names written on them.
As for me, they just pushed past my numb body to reach their loved ones as I came to a standstill and looked on. I held Mr Nutty McNutnut tightly to me as the reality of my life dawned on me: no one waiting for me, nobody had missed me while I was gone, I was never going to see my best friend again and the emptiness of my life was the only thing I had really achieved in the last forty-nine years.