Fire Destroys The Royal Clarence Hotel In Exeter

Posted at 13:47pm on 28th October 2016

Shock, horror, I've just heard on the BBC News that there's been a fire in Exeter's Cathedral Yard and that it's spread into the Royal Clarence Hotel.  Because my novels in the Evie Adams' series are set here, I have copies of the books in the hotel.  Here are some excerpts from them. The descriptions are factual.  In the first excerpt, Evie, a counsellor and divorcee, has just received some difficult news.

First from: Time to Shine       

We cross The Green and head for The Royal Clarence Hotel.  Built originally as Assembly Rooms in the 18th Century, it became England's first ever hotel soon after.  Someone once told me that at the time it was under the management of a Frenchman and, given its continuing charm and elegance, I'm not surprised.  Even in my current state of distress, I'm overwhelmed by its splendour.

Leading me to a table in the window, Guy orders tea - Earl Grey, no less.  With his untidy facial hair and tired clothing, his appearance seems completely out of place; yet, at the same time, he is clearly at ease.  For the first time since I set eyes on Bosomy Barbara on the bus, I find a smile on my face.

'That's better,' he says.  'No need to talk unless you want to.  But I have time on my hands.  No clients beating down my door.'

'I've just been to see one,' I explain when the waiter has brought the tea, served in a silver pot, real china cups and saucers and - sneaked in for Guy's benefit, I suspect - a naughty plate of muffins.

'I thought Thursday was a non-contact day for you?'  Guy indicates that he's happy for me to be mum.

'It is!' I reply, lifting the teapot while marvelling at how unused I am to the concept of wielding a tea-strainer and such posh receptacles. 'Long story'

Guy nods, evidently unwilling to quiz me further; but the pain inside me swells to bursting point.

'I had to go and see a client on the other side of town.  Terrible history.  Shared the bus journey home with the wife of my ex.  She's pregnant.'

To my horror I find that simply saying the word out loud has reduced me to tears.  Through my mind flashes the whole scenario of her swelling stomach, the child developing in that secret place within her, her labour, the adoring expression on Pete's face as his baby comes into the world, its first steps, first words, first day at school...  It's all too much.  Way too much.  The teapot wobbles in my hand and I bang it down harder than I intended on the table. 

'I'm so sorry.'

Struggling to stifle my sobs in my hankie, I'm acutely aware of the embarrassment I must be causing Guy.

'Nothing to be sorry about,' he says, with such kindness he sets me off again.  'We have the lounge to ourselves.  Everyone's out enjoying the sunshine.'

It's true.  Mercifully, we're alone.  When I have my tears under control, Guy passes me my cup.

'Drink up,' he says.  'There are medicinal properties in tea, said to calm frazzled nerves.'

I gulp down the hot scented liquid and Guy pours me a second cup.

'It was such a shock,' I explain, knowing that he's cognisant of the full story of my miscarriage and divorce years later.  'Silly, really, because I always knew it was me that was unable to conceive, and not Pete's fault.  Why would I not expect Barbara to be pregnant?  But it just seems so unfair.'

Guy purses his lips in empathy.  'It's hard when those who've wronged you cause you such distress.  You're not alone in finding it unfair.'

'It's the thought of what might have been.  What will never be.  The child I can never cradle in my arms.'

I'm off again.  Guy puts a hand on my arm, sits in silence until my tears are spent.

'They say time heals,' he says, offering me a muffin and tucking into one himself, 'but that's a fallacy.  Grief - especially when it's for the loss of a child - is never done.'

There's a sadness in his voice that tells me he's not speaking as a counsellor-observer of such loss, but as one who has experienced it.

'Has it happened to you, too?'

He nods.  'We lost our little girl in the car accident that put Nancy in a wheelchair.'

Did I know that?  Have I forgotten? 

'I'm so sorry.'

He shakes his head.  'As I say, the grief is never done with.  You learn to manage it.  But it's like a hidden spring.  Liable to burst forth when you least expect it.  It's hardly surprising that your encounter this morning would be a trigger.'

Filling my lungs, I turn away and stare through the window.  The cathedral looms large, its Gothic beauty supposedly a monument to the glory of God, but in reality, for people like me, more of a tribute to the ingenuity, dedication and skills of the craftsmen who brought it into being.

'It's not that I'm jealous,' I begin, then I see Guy looking at me over his glasses and retract.  'Well - yes I am, jealous.  Why couldn't it have been me all those years ago?'

Guy wipes his mouth free of muffin crumbs, crumples his paper serviette, and drops it on his plate.

'Thing is, there are tens of thousands of men and women who will never have children, and millions more who have them and lose them.  Often in horrific circumstances; wars, disease, violence.'

I lean forward to speak but Guy has anticipated my protest.

'I know.  I know,' he says.  'I'm not putting that forward as a comfort, nor as a reprimand; merely as fact.  In my day, we were brought up to count our blessings.  Sometimes it's hard to find any.  But it does help.  I count the fact that Nancy still lives and loves me a blessing; the fact that I work in such a beautiful place and have you as a colleague; the fact that I know, from the feedback I receive, that my work has a positive effect in the lives of others.

'You are a person of great worth, Evie.  Just as you are.  With or without a partner or offspring.  So don't let the enemy - the voices-off stage - tell you otherwise.'

I'm crying again, but they're tears of gratitude; gratitude that I have a friend in Guy; thankfulness that I have a life, and that it's a good and fruitful one.  He's right.  Years of therapy for myself, and training to help others have taught me that.  It may not always feel like it, but I am a person of merit.  And I won't let anyone tell me differently.  Lifting my cup to my lips, I avail myself, again, of the medicinal qualities of the tea Guy has bought me.

And then from the second book in the series, a story of adoption: Chosen?

Matt tugs at his hair.  I’ve noticed him doing so from time to time as he’s recounted his story - a habit from childhood, perhaps?

‘Would you like another coffee before I get on to that?’ he asks.

‘How about we walk around the Cathedral Green instead?’  I make the suggestion more as a statement than a question.  This is not, after all, a formal counselling session.  Only me satisfying my curiosity about an interesting man who’s sought me out.

Matt summons the waiter, pays the bill and we leave the hotel.  Outside, the air is warm, and vibrant with the sound of people’s voices.  The grassy spaces surrounding the great cathedral are a natural gathering place.  It’s as if the building and statue of Richard Hooker - co-founder with Thomas Cranmer of Anglicanism, following the Reformation - contains some other-worldly magnetism that draws people to it.  Even I, with hardly a religious bone in my body, feel the energy of this place each morning when I arrive for work.  There is something about it that is empowering.

Matt lifts his head and breathes in the atmosphere.

‘Great architecture,’ he says, looking up at the flying buttresses.  ‘What is it?  Twelfth, thirteenth century?  We have nothing of this age in the States.’

We begin a circular tour, away from the coffee houses, restaurants and boutiques of Cathedral Yard, and down past the half-timbered houses of The Close, towards the Bishop’s Palace and Roman city wall.

‘I reckon Sam’s letter to her grandmamma was, actually, intended for me to see,’ he says, pensively.  ‘I think she just didn’t want her mom to know she was writing to her dad.’

I nod, but keep looking down at the cobbled road beneath my feet.  Often, I find, a lack of eye-contact makes it easier for people to unburden themselves.

‘And what, exactly, do you think your daughter was trying to convey?’

 Matt flings his head back, and I sense the depth and gravity of his emotions.

‘It seems there’s no evidence of epilepsy in my ex-wife’s family.  And there was certainly no sign of Sam having seizures in infancy.

‘Of course, that doesn’t mean a thing.  I don’t know what type of epilepsy Sam has.  But from what I understand from my own research, there’s a syndrome that can be inherited, even though it may not appear until later in childhood.  Sam, apparently, had her first seizure on her fourteenth birthday.’

He shoves his hands in his trouser pockets.

‘I’m convinced she wanted to know if the cause of her seizures could possibly be laid at my door.  I suspect, with good reason, that her mom is trying to convince her that this is Bad Dad Syndrome, yet again.  Which, of course, it might be.’

Matt’s voice breaks and, despite my professional training and the fact that he is a stranger, I find the urge to squeeze his arm in a gesture of comfort almost overwhelming.

‘And you think this Phoebe Hamilton may be your mother’s sister?’ I ask.

We’ve reached the end of The Close and turn right, back towards the West Door of the cathedral.  A burst of organ music assails our ears, a Rachmaninov concerto I recognise but can’t name.

‘I expect they’re rehearsing for a concert,’ I explain to Matt.  When he fails to respond, I glance towards him.  His head is down and he looks as if he’s fighting with something inside himself.

‘I’ve since uncovered evidence that leads me to believe my birth mother was Phoebe Hamilton’s niece,’ he says, at last.

Of course, there is no way I can disclose that Mrs Hamilton is a client of mine but I’m curious to know how his search has led him to me.  Has she told him something about our preliminary counselling session?  I rack my brains, failing to see what this could be.

‘Matt, I can see how painful this is for you and I want to help, I really do.  But I can’t quite understand where I fit into this story?  What are you expecting from me?  What brought you to me in the first place?’

We’ve reached the front of the cathedral again, the West Door, and Matt stops beneath the gargoyles; eyes me, quizzically.

‘My mother was Elizabeth Rae.’

He waits for my response.

‘So?’ I shrug my shoulders.  The name means nothing to me.

‘Elizabeth Myers, as was.  Or more recently, Elizabeth Gore.’

I feel myself sway.  The trees, the crowd, the buildings on the periphery of The Green - everything swirls before me.  Matt takes my arm to steady me.  The music inside the cathedral swells to a crescendo.

‘Libby Myers?  She was your mother?’

Matt’s eyes are locked on mine.  ‘Yes.’

‘That was her maiden name?’

He nods.

‘And her married name was?’

 ‘Rae.  My name, apparently, before my adoption.’

His eyes remain fixed on mine.  I stare back at him. 

‘And then Gore?  But that was -  That was -’  I’m trying to say that was my maiden name.  My parents’ surname.  But the words elude me.

‘Yes,’ he says again, and I can see, before I look away, that he’s willing me to jump to the only possible conclusion.

My mind is reeling.  Steadying myself against the cathedral wall, I grapple with the ramifications.  If Libby Myers became Libby Rae -  And Libby Rae was Matthew McEwan’s mother -  And Libby Rae became Libby Gore -  And Libby Gore was my mother.  Does that mean this man - this Matt McEwan - is my brother?  Or at least, my half-brother?

His grip on my arm tightens.  I glance up at him.  Is it possible?  I can’t believe it!  But there’s no getting away from it.  I can see it now.  No wonder his face looks so familiar.  Apart from the hair colouring -  And the fact it’s a male version - the image of Matt that swims before me is -  Well, it could be -  It’s almost the same as the one I see of myself in the mirror each morning.

Your Comments:

30th October 2016
at 6:38pm
These excerpts become even more poignant in the light of what has happened, Mel. The photos are of lovely, happy days in Exeter. Thank you, and on a more positive note, they are sending me straight off to order one of your books!
Mel Menzies
30th October 2016
at 7:08pm
Thank you Prue. You're so right! This historic location in Exeter is fabulous. So many people are attracted to The Green and the wonderful buildings that surround it. The Royal Clarence was one of my in-laws favourite places to meet as far back as the 1960's. It's tragic that we've now lost it, especially given the dedication and commitment of the firemen. Thankfully, there's been no loss of life.
Thank you so much for purchasing a copy of one of my books. It would be great if you feel that way inclined, if you'd put up a review. Thanks so much.

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