A Murderous Meal With RC Bridgestock

The wind had an edge that night.

It cut and scraped round the guttering; sliced leaves and serrated trash against walls and tarmac.

Then it stopped dead.

Silence: the sort of soft, husky stillness that cloaks a killer as he brushes his fingertips across a hidden blade.

I pulled my coat around me, locked the car and moved quickly through the orange streetlight to my destination, Tramezzini. The Italian restaurant was empty, bar one couple who stood up to leave as I opened the door. Brushing past them, I nodded to Giancarlo, then slipped into the booth by the window. Folded my coat. Took a deep breath.

“Drink?”

“Red. Thanks.”

Heart pulsing a little faster than usual, I took out my phone and set it up to record. My hands were shaking a little. With the voice recorder set, I placed the phone discreetly on the chair, then laced both sets of fingers, releasing them only to pick up the glass and swallow another mouthful of red. I was on my second glass by the time the door jerked open and RC Bridgestock sauntered in …    

If I had to be arrested and handcuffed, I’d want Robert Bridgestock to do it.

His size (both in height and personality) are tempered by an instant feeling of calm, even handedness and authority; qualities that seem to have infused his career, both as SIO in charge of high profile murder investigations and then as co-bestselling author of the DI Dylan series.

His wife Carol (the C in RC Bridgstock) is as petite as Bob is tall. She gives me a warm hug, kisses my cheek and by the time we’ve settled back into our seats and I’ve activated the voice recorder, I’m already itching to know how this high calibre couple have ended up on the Isle of Wight.

“To understand how it happened, you have to understand what my job involved,” Bob explains in his deep Yorkshire accent. “In the past three years before moving here, I was in charge of 26 different murders. I was also a negotiator for hostage kidnappings and suicides. The stress levels were tremendous. An eighteen hour day was considered a good day. Often I could be dealing with three different murder cases, and then receive a call on my way home to ask if I could check out a suspicious death that happened to be enroute.”

Carol says, “When Bob had time off we needed to go somewhere far enough to get away from everything. I’d always loved the island. In fact, I used to holiday on the south coast lots when I was little. Me and a group of friends used to borrow a boat and often gaze across to the Isle of Wight.” She pauses, casting her mind back. “We used to think that this was some sort of Wonderland; where the fairies and pixies lived! It looked so lovely and I always wanted to come here.”

When I met Bob, I told him about the island and suggested we come here on holiday. At first Bob was reluctant and thought we would need passports,” she laughs. “The moment we got onto the ferry we felt that feeling though – the one where the stress just falls away.”

Carol then relays how Bob picked up the County Press – the island’s main newspaper – and the front page headline was a story of a shopping trolley that had been stolen and left on a beach. “Baring in mind what I’d been dealing with the day before, I thought, “this place is my Utopia!”

Bob laughs, then turns as Giancarlo brings us drinks and menus. “For the next ten years we came here on our holidays. Every time we got onto that ferry, we experienced the same feeling. The island was close, but far enough away that we couldn’t be called up by in emergencies. For once I was actually off-duty.”

Unsurprisingly, when Bob retired, the island was where they came.

For five years Carol and Bob focused on renovating their new home.

They got rid of the pagers and mobile phones and instead spent time walking on the beach and socialising as a couple for the first time in years.

Carol planned to do some charity work, whilst Bob had nothing else on his mind but relaxing.

“We kept quiet about what we used to do,” says Carol, who also worked in the police force for 17 years. “But a lady called Karen Eeles – who at that time was the face of the Earl Mountbatten Hospice – discovered what our past jobs were and she asked if we’d do a talk for their volunteers.”

“I was shocked!” exclaims Bob. “I couldn’t understand why she’d want us to do a talk, but she said that people were curious to know what it was like to be the person in charge of a murder investigation.  She said, “you must have some stories!”

“What did you say?” I asked, making space on the table as our meals were served;  Glazed Pork Belly, with Apple and Dolcelatte Risotto for me and Bob and Roasted Tuscan Vegetables and Bean Cassoulet with Fried Polenta for Carol. Bob picked up his knife and fork.

“I said “no”! She said, “you must!” The talk was tremendous. We were supposed to be there for half an hour to forty minutes. We were still there four and half hours later.”

During that talk, Bob explained from start to finish what it was like to be the man in charge of murder inquiries and he told it “how it was.”

Unlike the hyped up drama so often shown on TV, Bob’s account of some of the things that had happened were honest, down to earth, clear, often painful and sometimes bizarrely funny. He told of what it was like to do the job as a policeman, but also how it was as a man, a husband and a father.

Up until that point, Bob’s experiences had remained in his head, despite Carol encouraging him to write it all down as a memoir.

As his wife and mother of their children, she had experienced a husband who often worked over 18 hours a day and who would eventually return home –  possibly having been in a mortuary looking at the body of a young child whose the same age as their child at home – feeling exhausted and preoccupied.

She’d looked after the children, organised the home and been the one to sit with their girls when Bob had appeared on national television doing a press conference.

On one occasion, having not seen their father for a week, one of the girls looked up and asked, “Mummy, why does Daddy look so cross? Why doesn’t he ever wave at us?”

After this their daddy invented a little signal to his family at home; a straightening of the knot in his tie meant that he loved them and was thinking of them.

“When I retired, Carol kept saying that I should write a book. She felt it was important that our kids really understood what I’d been doing as they were growing up. They understood I was a policeman, but what they didn’t know was the reality behind my job. Following the talk that we did at the Earl Mountbatten Hospice, Karen also suggested that we write the stories down as well. And then Fate decided to step in.”

The Hospice talk took place on Thursday. On Friday Bob opened the County Press and saw an advert for the Isle of Wight College’s 6 week course “Write Your First Novel”.

“Fate plays a part in everybody’s life,” Bob says. “And, you can either grasp the opportunities that are laid out before you, or you can spend your life wishing that you had done things differently. To the latter, I’d like to ask “well what stopping you?” Some people just don’t have the nerve to do what they are called to do.

I know full well that my ability is not the English language! If you look at my school reports … my English teacher did not believe I could even write an essay. I’m a lad from a council estate that is not well educated. In fact, I’m not a great believer in exams. I believe that your success comes from what you bring to the table.” He pauses and laughs, “In fact, when we started writing neither of us even knew what a genre or a verb was! Nowadays, our publisher will ask us to write a synopsis and then turn around and add, “actually, don’t bother!”

When Bob announced to Carol that he’d booked them onto a novel writing course, she was amazed. The course was two hours a week for six weeks. By the end of six weeks Bob had written 120,000 words. For a man who had once had to appear in the same Crown Court for three separate murder cases, in one day and whose compassion for the families meant that fear of even saying the wrong name in court was giving him anxiety, to release these stories onto the page was a deeply cathartic experience.

He then promptly gave the manuscript to Carol.

“When Bob originally gave me Deadly Focus, it was like reading a police procedure! As I read it, I understood what he was saying, but it was more a statement than a story. I then began to work with that skeleton, bringing in emotion and characters and fleshing it into something that the readers could identify with. I particularly wanted to bring the home life into the story. In so many crime stories the central character is a maverick or womaniser. We wanted this story to be based on something normal.”

It is here that Bob and Carol’s combined qualities came together to create something incredible. Like the two hemispheres of the brain, Bob focused on the left brain, linear step-by-step plot, whilst Carol – like the right brain – breathed life, colour, emotion and humanity into the story.

“Bob will have written a scene – say in a mortuary,” Carol says, “and I will then ask him “how do you feel? What do you smell?” The reader is literally taken step by step through the whole process as it really happens.

Once the first manuscript – Deadly Focus – was completed, Carol and Bob asked themselves the question “what next?”

“Whilst the manuscript was not a memoir and had become a fictional story, we still wanted to  have it in book form so we could give it to the children,” Carol explains.

After contacting a number of big publishers with no luck, Carol and Bob decided to self publish. They describe the process as being very trial and error and “fumbling in the dark”.

“We’d only really wanted a few books for each of the children,” Carol adds, “and once they’d been given some, we had hundreds of copies left. We passed the remaining stock onto three hospices and said that if they could sell them and make any money, they’d be welcome to keep it. Within two months all of the books had sold and they were asking for more. So we thought, well, perhaps we can tell a story!”

Following this, Bob and Carol then headed up to London to meet an agent, who asked them, “Are you just doing this as a hobby or are you serious, because if you are serious, we need the second book.” That particular agent didn’t take them on, but as a result of the meeting they did write a second book which was promptly picked up by another agent.

The DI Dylan series was born!

Having a book picked up by a publisher is notoriously difficult. In Bob’s words it’s “easier to get into a drug dealers house than it is to get published.”

Yet establishing a following and making sales on a book is twice as hard.

“When the first book was published we decided to launch it in West Yorkshire. Back there all of the radios and TV knew us due to Bob’s former life. We had also known lots of junior reporter and by the time the books were published many of them had been promoted and were now editors of newspapers! They all invited us to come and talk to them. We already had a media profile, so we utilised it.

Once the books went onto the shelves in places like Waterstones, we made sure that we did signing and talks. We’ve had loads of interviews on local TV and had interviews in Best magazine and Yorkshire magazine amongst others.” Carol grins and adds proudly, “We’ve been put into the Dick Tracy Hall of Fame.

There have only ever been four UK detectives featured and we were contacted to go in! Bob was told, “you’ve done so well. You’ve really served the community and now here you are doing this. You are a best selling crime author and have managed to make it in the really tough world of publishing.”

As our conversation continues, it is clear that Bob and Carol are still fully committed to serving the community.

From the very first seeds planted in the Earl Mountbatten Hospice  and Carol’s intention of beginning charity work after they moved to the island, the DI Dylan series has provide a powerful platform from which to conduct a whole range of charitable auctions and money-raising events.

Reaching into her bag, Carol shows me one of the knitted “Dylans”. These lovely soft toys, created by a police officer friend, are auctioned and the money raised goes to charity.

“We get updates and pictures from people to let us know where our little Dylans are and what they are doing,” says Carol. “One lives in the Isle of Skye. Another went to Australia. He goes all over the world on cruises. Another one lives in Arizona with a little boy. We have another PC Bob who is with Gate films and he goes around with a film crew. They are very naughty because they give him bottles of wine. He goes to the gym and sits on girls shoulders and goes on the exercise bikes.”

When we published Reprobates we bought in an inspector who wears a flat cap, so the next minute we’ve got one that’s knitted with a flat cap.

By this time we had raised about £300 for charity.  One of these knitted dolls lives with a Fire Brigade in Yorkshire and another one has gone off with a make up artist who takes him all over the place. Then we got a knitted Vicky Hardy who is the side kick of Dylan in the books. She went to Australia.”

Another branch of the Bridgestock’s charity tree is the having people pay to appear in an upcoming book. To have your character appear in a DI Dylan book costs around £1000 and is another wonderfully innovative way that the couple are able to funnel their good fortunes towards the less fortunate.

“Right now we’re talking to someone about getting some audio books for the Society of the Blind. We realised that the Society of the Blind have very few books in their audio library, which is a real shame. When I told this, I said, “wouldn’t it be nice to get some real celebrity author books though?” And the chap looked at me and said, “you are celebrity authors! Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves because we still don’t see ourselves as writers.”

Hearing Carol’s humility, her fondness for the characters in their book (and their knitted counterparts) as well as her heartfelt passion for doing charity work is overwhelming.

Hearing Bob’s compelling stories of being a normal bloke doing a horrendously abnormal job and the importance of being a good leader (because imagine you are on a crime scene for maybe 20 minutes, you’ve got your suit and mask on and then the body suddenly sits up … and then everyone looks at you because you are the boss and you think, what do I do? Do I run? Or laugh? What do I say? And if you run out, or if you go to a body and it smells so much you are sick, everybody else would run or be sick too. You realise very quickly that you have this unwritten following that is so real, that they will just follow your every word. You have to leader. You have to be a good leader) … is humbling.

From where I am sitting, I can see that the qualities that have made these two an extremely high calibre husband and wife team whilst in Yorkshire, have not curled up and gone into retirement here on the island. In fact, their sense of partnership, teamwork, co-support and service that they arrived here with have grown, flourished and blossomed.

It’s late.

Outside, the wind is still loitering and buffering up against brick and cars. Giancarlo is looking ready to go home.

I switch off the voice recorder and feel that somewhere … amongst the laughter and stories, good wine, good food and acts of goodness that we’ve danced through that evening … there is evidence of how to live well and create beautiful adventures in a sometimes ugly world.

Saying goodbye to the Bridgestocks, paying our bills and capturing a quick selfie before we leave, I hurry to the car and sit there for a few moments – thinking about the two polarities of human experience.

We have the ones who take lives through cruelty and murder.

We have those who do everything they can to help others live.

We have those who steal from the people around them.

We have those who do what they can to give.

We have those who commit hateful crimes against humanity.

And we have those who commit charitable acts of complete and utter love.

We have those who give and those who take, those who radiate and those who drain, those who trawl through the shit to salvage some good and justice and probably end up with PTS because of it.

And we all have a choice as to whether we will retire quietly and accept those things that have happened, or whether we will continue in our journeys with a heart full of love, generosity and enjoyment of life.

Ultimately, what governs these things are the laws that we consciously set for ourselves, how we decide to conduct our living. I’m not talking about those laws that are enforced by people in uniforms … but the ones that we’d live by even if there was no law.

Because at the core of everything, each of us are just a law unto ourselves.                                                   

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Bethan Christopher is the author and artist behind the beautiful Grow Your Own Gorgeousness Adult Colouring Book and Grow Your Own Gorgeousness (featured in Elle Magazine and the Times Ed.) Both books, as well as happiness posters, prints and coaching packages are available at her BOUTIQUE.

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