Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Clairvoyant chapter VI

Waving away the protests of the nurse, Joyce pulled her shawl tight around her and bid me wheel her into the hospital grounds. Refilling her pipe, she talked me through the jobs she wanted me to sort out.

Joyce was fretting about her garden. Positively bosky when she was taken away, her plants had soon fallen into unkept yellows and scattered browns. I declined to expand on the current condition of her grounds. There were so many other jobs that needed my attention. My list, expanding by the second, necessitated a notepad and pen. The vegetable patch, the bill from the butchers, the ground rent to the estate manager, the tobacconists account. The longer the list grew, the more I realised that Joyce knew she wasn’t coming home.

I parked Joyce at the top of the municipal garden. A patchwork of scruffy lawns and scrubby borders that suggested a half-hearted groundsman. The gardens abutted the park, where, beyond the rusty railings lay the duck pond. I looked over to the little sanctuary and saw a fat man in a tight-fitting tweed coat kicking gravel at the squirrels. Wearing grey slacks and plimsoles, he had the distracted, earnest countenance of a homeless person.

Joyce meanwhile, was still in the middle of her list.
“And the coal merchant will need paying, and the arborist, and the taxidermist, oh and don’t forget the herbalist, the homeopath and the crystal maker.”
“The crystal maker?”
“He makes my crystals. A lot of the old dears like that kind of tat.”

Tat? Joyce hadn’t used that word before. Tat – cheap, shoddy, valueless. This strange, imprecise word, especially in relation to her dear clients, shocked me. Why did she say it?
“Auntie Joyce, I’ve seen you use those crystals loads of times. Aren’t they useful? ”

“Oh they are very useful. Not as good as the Cards, but useful just the same. Any more shag in that pouch?”
She passed me her pipe. As I fumbled with the tobacco, I felt as though she was building up to some kind of revelation. The nurse was behind us at the opening to the conservatory, staring at her watch. I looked first at her, then down at the tramp by the pond. He seemed to be attempting to entice a duck into a sack. The blue plumes of sweet-smelling smoke wafted away in the cold early evening air.

“Oh yes the cards, they loved the cards. You could make them say anything.” Joyce chuckled to herself, her rheumy eyes sparkling momentarily, like the dying embers of a coal fire.
“But Auntie Joyce, people swear by those cards, they swear by you, they hang on your every word.”
“I know they do. The Fools.”

I did not like her tone one bit. I thought of the thank you cards, the hugs, the tears, the secrets, the confidences. Were all these people fools? Was I a fool? Auntie Joyce looked up at me. Placing a cold wrinkled hand on mine, she began.

“There’s two ways to do this job Tom. You can cold read or you can hot read. Most people do both. Doris Stokes was a good friend of mine. She made good money hot reading.”
“I heard of Doris Stokes, she was in the telly a lot. What is this Joyce? What do you mean?”

“Hot reading is when you find something out about the person before you meet them. Sometimes it’s a friend or relation who has been before who’s let something slip. They forget what they said and you can use it when the new client arrives. You need a good memory for that though. Doris hired halls and had stooges in the audience, listening out for gossip in the foyer. That’s the oldest trick. Works well though. ”

Joyce chatted away like she was talking about the vegetable patch, something mundane. I was so shocked I struggled to speak. Hot reading ? What was this tomfoolery?

“But Auntie Joyce, so many people swear by your wise counsel? What is this hot and cold reading?”

“Cold reading is just the questions you ask. Half the time they just tell you what’s going on and you just repeat it back to them. If they’re young they want to know if their boyfriend loves them, if they’re old they want to know if their husband ever loved them, or is their mam ok up in heaven? Or something like that. Everybody’s different, but everybody had the same fears, hopes, dreams. People just want to be happy, and they want to be told they’re going to be happy. That’s my job, no matter what tragedy has befallen them, one day, they are going to be happy.”

“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe you. What about that man just now with the drip? You knew his name, you knew his wife’s name, you knew she had passed, how did you know all that?”

“I heard a nurse call his name last week. I had a feeling his wife had passed. I could have been wrong. But when you’ve been doing the job as long as I have, and before that sitting at mother’s knee learning off her, you’re talking about sixty years nearly. You just get a sense, a feeling. If I’ve got any kind of skill, then that’s it. The old name for it is Shuteye.”
“Shut eye?”
“That’s it. Shut eye. I can do this job with my eyes shut.”

“But what about hearing voices? Talking to the dead?”
“What about it?”
“Are you saying you can’t really hear from anyone who has passed?”
“Of course I can’t, no one can, it’s impossible.”
“Are you saying non of it is real?”

“The only thing real about this game Tom, is the fucking money. Now listen, there isn’t much time, I need you to do something for me.”

And so there in that hospital garden, I as young man of twenty-five, listened to Auntie Joyce’s final instructions….

To be continued..

The Clairvoyant Chapter V

I said my goodbyes to Frank and half ran, half walked back to the hospital. Breathless, I reached the ward only to find the most stern-faced Sister imaginable barring my way.
“Visiting is over young man.”
“But it’s urgent.”
“That’s as it may be, but you will just have to wait. Thank you.”
And with that the sister turned on her very sensible heel and retreated to the sanctuary of her ward.

There is a park opposite the hospital in the middle of which sits a duck pond. Even though this is one of the toughest parts of a tough city, the ducks generally get left alone. Sitting on a bench thinking about Frank, Joyce and her horrible offspring, I watched as a Mallard approached and began nosing at one of Joyce’s grapes. Then a grey squirrel appeared and made off with more of the fruit that had fallen from the hole in my brown paper bag.
The grey squirrel, an American import, had all but wiped out the indigenous English red squirrel population. Bigger, more aggressive and greedier, they bullied themselves into the red squirrel’s habitat until they became the top dogs (or squirrels, if you like).
Was this the natural order if things? Nature’s way of sorting out the strong from the weak? Ten years previously, did I not myself turn from bullied to bully? Big Pete was never the same again after the curse. With that spell, did I ruin his life?

I didn’t really believe it was a curse. Or maybe I did. Maybe, the force with which I threw that phial , the desperation in my voice, maybe it tricked everybody into believing it. Kids are so gullible and the event fell quickly into the lexicon of school legend. So often, rumour acquires the patina of truth.
The squirrel hopped silently to collect the last grape. I took a handful of gravel and sent it scurrying back up its tree.
The chill of early evening sent me back to the ward. It was there that I found Joyce sat up drinking black coffee. They say those near death sometimes enjoy a brief rally before succumbing to the quicksand of eternity and so it was with Joyce, who greeted me with a wide crinkled smile.

“Tom! That’s a sight for sore eyes! Come here, sit down next to me and tell me what you know. You didn’t bring me any grapes did you?”
Cursing the squirrels, I was about to confess my lack of discipline regarding the fruit when Joyce said, “I wouldn’t thank you if you had, I bloody hate them. More importantly, have you brought me, er…”
Joyce looked up and down the ward. I had read her mind. Carefully, from inside my bag I produced her pipe and tobacco.

When Greta and Martin fetched her into hospital, they took charge of the packing and promising to include her pipe, did not include it. As non- smokers, they rightly concluded that smoking was ‘a bad thing’, which indeed, for children and the young, it is. But for an old lady at the end of days to give succour in her last hours? The sneaky way they deceived her came from a meanness of spirit that the buttoned up, tight-lipped siblings possessed in abundance.
They were generous with their parsimony, displaying their austere, cold way of existing at every opportunity. The burrowing in the purse for change for the bus, the fingering of cloth-eared coupons at the till to save twopence off soap powder. Their teetotal approach to pleasure of any kind, ultimately displayed by their decision to co habit, demonstrated their need to conserve heat, money, water and affection.

Although maybe that particular arrangement was designed to conceal the most abundant, flagrant, proscribed excess of them all. I tried not to dwell on that particular scenario.
We managed to negotiate a wheelchair and trundle to a large conservatory at the rear of the wing. An emaciated man with a large bandage around his throat appeared. Connected to a drip on wheels and smiling a toothless smile, he produced a Zippo lighter and lit a skinny rolled up tube of loose tobacco.
Joyce smiled back at him. Leaning slightly out of her chair she said “listen Billy, don’t worry about Margaret, she’s in no hurry to see you, you’ve got a bit longer yet. Trust me.”
On hearing this, Billy’s eyes filled. He thanked her and embarrassed at his overt display of emotion, retreated back to his ward, his drip following faithfully behind.
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t. Old habits die hard.”
“Was Margaret his wife? Has she passed? ”

Nodding, Joyce lit her pipe. Sat in her wheelchair, she suddenly looked weary, worn down, old. Her advice to the elderly man, dispensed with a tired, off-hand manner, seemed to me an almost unconscious act, done without any thought, any effort, something she’d done all her life, something she could do with her eyes shut. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to ask her and so little time to do it.
But what Joyce said next not only threw me completely, it opened the door to a secret world, the world of the medium.

The Clairvoyant Chapter IV

“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see, soon enough.”

I watched as housewives, hoodies, workmen, all of Liverpool flashed past the passenger window of Frank’s Mercedes. We turned down one side street, then another, then another until eventually we arrived outside a grey roller shutter at the bottom of a dead end street. Slowly the gate clicked upwards, rolling itself up into a tight tube of steel. The car, negotiating a tight turn, swept into a small cobbled builders yard. Surrounded by high walls with an iron staircase in the corner, it seemed more of a prison than a place of work.

The car door opened as the shutter rolled back down, trapping me inside the yard. Already out of the car, Frank waited as the goon with the bald head, in a perverted gesture of chivalry, ran round the Mercedes to open my door.
Tall and lean in his late fifties and dressed immaculately in designer clothes designed for men twenty years his junior (skinny jeans, baggy linen shirt), Frank glared as I emerged from the back of his car. He gestured for me to follow him through the red steel door tucked away under the iron fire escape.
I was led inside a disused workshop, the musty metallic smell of damp rags and oil almost making me gag. The fat bald ‘assistant’ pushed me onto an old office swivel chair. Frank placed one foot against a work bench, lit a Marlboro and blew smoke into my eyes. He’d obviously seen to many crappy gangster films.

Making fun of him in my head was the only thing I could do to stop myself shaking. A pause while he stared at me. Eventually Frank said,
“She’s not got long. Sad, she was a great help to me Joyce was. You were always there though, weren’t you? Creeping around in the kitchen?
“Excuse me but why am I here? ”

Frank stubbed his cigarette out. He leaned forward.
“You are here lad because, over the years, I have trusted her with all sorts of information, all sorts of secrets, and ever since the government, the police and the ex-wife have gotten too nosey, I have trusted her with a lot of my money. Now that she’s about to pass over to the other side, I need to know where she’s hid it.”
“Well why don’t you ask her?”
Frank looked over at his fat accomplice. They exchanged looks of exasperation.
“She says to me, ‘ don’t worry Frank, I’m not going nowhere, wait till I get out and you’ll see where it is.’ Now, as you and me both know lad, the old lady ain’t going home, but how can you say that to her?”
He looked straight at me. For a second, and if I didn’t know better, I thought I detected Frank’s eyes welling up. This was my chance.
“Frank, do you want me to have a word with her ?”

“Would you? Just ask her where it’s hidden. And then, if she comes home, you and me, well we can look after her, yeah?”

“Yeah, of course. But there is always the hope that if she does pass, she could tell us from the other side?”
“Well you know I was thinking that too. But just in case yeah? And don’t worry ’bout them two snivelling kids of hers, crawling round looking for money. I’ll sort them out. We are her real family, you and me kid.”

Frank approached, I stood, then we sort of hugged. An awkward, strange embrace that told me he was as upset as I was. We exited the yard and headed back to the hospital. I needed to speak to Auntie Joyce. But how to tell someone they might not be coming home?

**********************
Lying in bed on the Sunday night before the first day back at school was one of the worst feelings any fifteen year old boy could have. All the familiar faces from the year before, older, harder, more accusing. And the questions, like – where have you been all summer, you unsociable bastard? Been to see that weird witch in Wales have you?

And then of course there was Big Pete.

Everyone hated and feared Big Pete in equal measure. Even some of the more timid teachers were wary of him. The fact I was singled out to suffer most of his opprobrium came as a relief to his other potential victims. A sort of lightening conductor, I drew the flashes of temper away from the bespectacled, the geeky and the weak.

I didn’t have long to wait. First break he was there, seeking me out near the H Blocks near the canteen. Big Pete wasn’t particularly tall, more big and stocky – huge legs, a barrel chest, a shock of almost alabaster blond hair and a sneery, scowly face.
And everywhere Big Pete went, his little gang of cronies went with him. Smaller lads from the bottom classes, they laughed at his jokes,squabbled amongst themselves for his favour and did all his dirty work.

The first thing I felt was a shove in the back setting me off balance. As I fell forward I felt my bag sent flying by a kick. Turning round, I saw Big Pete and his gang. Forced to watch as one of Pete’s acolytes unzipped my school bag and emptied the contents onto the floor, my school books, pens, and games kit now scattered across the asphalt. I tried to retrieve my stuff but big Pete’s size ten boots blocked my way. Cornered, I had two choices, either take it or fight back.
“So where you been all summer? Not very sociable are you? Not coming onto the fields to see your mates? ”
“He goes to see that mad woman in Wales.”
“Yeah, isn’t she a witch? Doesn’t she talk to dead people or something?”

“Is that why you got no mates? Cos you like old women? Pervert!”
The first shove was a little too close to my jacket pocket. There was no more time. I had to do something, and quick. Procrastination meant another year of misery.
“Funnily enough Pete, that’s exactly what she is, she’s a Witch, and she’s….she’s-”
Pete got even closer, intrigued that I may actually answer back.
“She’s what? Go on, tell us what she’s gonna do?”
Another shove. I had only one shot at this, so I had to make it good, I had to make it dramatic. I grabbed the phial out of my jacket and held it over my head
“This is a spell, a spell made just for you, and -”
I saw Pete nod to one if his men to grab whatever was in my hand. No more time. Snapping off the end, I shouted-

Pigs do as pigs think
Bully no more.
Least you…stink!

I let him have it. Sure enough, the glass flew through the air and smashed against Pete’s jacket. Immediately, the most horrendous smell surrounded him. A dense cloying aroma, like a smog, a chemical choking pong that made everyone gag. Pete’s crew turned away, holding their noses. Like a pepper spray, it disabled Pete. Desperate to punch my lights out, Pete was overcome with the stink that clung to him like napalm. A gaggle of girls approached. One cried out, “Fucking hell, who stinks?!”
Everyone pointed to Pete. The introduction of girls completed Pete’s humiliation. Everyone ran off. His coterie of hangers on dissipating like rats on a sinking ship. Pete cloyed at his uniform, desperate for the smell to go. But if anything it got worse. The bell sounded and Mr Roberts appeared. His nostrils flaring, he demanded to know what the smell was. Of course immediately nobody knew anything
“Is that you Peter Phillips? Go and get cleaned up at once! You bloody stink? What the hell is it?”

Girls laughed,boys smirked. Hugh, a tiny boy with red hair and glasses who everyone assumed was nuts, was the first to confirm the rumour.
“Mr Roberts sir, he’s been cursed, a witch from Wales has cursed him for being a bully.
“Well good, because you are a bully Phillips, it’s about time someone cursed you, now listen everyone, the bell’s gone. Jesus what a stink.”

The playground cleared. Then something really strange happened. I didn’t witness it, but when it happened, it flew round school like wild fire.
On his way down the steps to the boy’s cloakroom to try and clean up, Pete slipped, fell awkwardly, landed on his elbow and broke his collar bone. Carl, his trusted lieutenant and the only one to remain loyal said, “Fuck me Pete, what if you really have been cursed ?”

The episode with Pete was the talk of the school. Everyone had an opinion, a theory. And of course, as rumour begat rumour, it gained renewed drama with each re-telling. Pete, now with his arm in a sling, cut a lonely figure. His gang had deserted him. Girls held their noses round him. He was a broken man. Now, Carl his last loyal acolyte approached me. He wanted to broker a deal.

“Listen, Pete wants you to take this curse off him. He can’t cope with it, it’s really stressing him out, ”
“Well he should of thought of that before he went round bullying everyone, shouldn’t he?”
“What can he do? He promises he won’t give you a hard time again.”
“Tell him I’ll think about it.”
“Here, will this help?”
Held in Carl’s hand was a tight wad of notes. I looked, then looked again. “How much is there?”
“Forty five quid.”
“Forty five quid ? Fuck-”
I stopped myself just in time . Coolly, I eased the money from Carl’s grip.

“Tell him to meet me outside the bike sheds after school.”
The ceremony to lift the curse was brief, solemn and not a little nervy. Joyce never bothered telling me how to lift a curse, so I had to wing it slightly. I got an old rag and some water and did a little ceremony. I drew a symbol on his cast, touched his forehead and mumbled some Gaelic Joyce taught me last the summer.

That evening I spent a sleepless night fretting that I hadn’t lifted the curse at all and that I had condemned Pete to a life of ill fortune. I consoled myself with the money and in the morning I went into town to buy myself the smartest leather jacket in the shop.

Years later, I heard that Pete had fallen into bad company and spent most of his adult life either on the streets or in prison.

The Clairvoyant Chapter III

I was walking along the high street outside the hospital thinking about Joyce and how bad a state she was in when I heard someone behind me say,

“Listen, I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but don’t think we don’t know what your game is.”

Like a verbal tap on the shoulder, immediately I knew those words were meant for me. Turning around, I saw a man and woman, both in early middle age, with the same short pudgy build, the same flared nostrils, beady eyes and agitated demeanour. Instantly, I knew exactly who they were.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”
The little fat woman spoke next,
“No, but we know you. You’re the young man pestering mother.”
“Auntie Joyce ?

“Look she’s not your Auntie, she’s our Mother.”
“No ones saying she isn’t.”
“Me and Martin haven’t said anything up to now, but when things, you know, come to a head, we don’t want you anywhere near.”
“Anywhere near what?”
Now Martin decided to throw in his two penneth.
“You’re not entitled to anything you know, me and Greta, we are her only blood relatives, her blood… relatives!”

Martin blurted it out triumphantly, like he was announcing it from the steps of the Coliseum. His declaration complete, he and Greta began to shuffle nervously, like a pair of fat sprinters about to settle into the blocks.

“Listen, I don’t want anything from your mum. She’s been good to me. I just want her to get better.”
The word better seemed to set off a violent attack of nodding.
“Oh of course we want her better too, of course we do, don’t we Greta?
Greta’s nodding intensified as she bravely attempted to squeeze out a tear.
“Look, you’ve upset Greta now !”
“Why, because I want your Mum to get better?”
“See Martin? He’s twisting things!”
“Come on let’s go. And young man, whatever is in that will, don’t think we wont fight it every step of the way. Ok?”

“I don’t care what’s in her will, I haven’t given it a seconds thought.”
“And you expect us to believe that? Always up there, listening to all that psychic nonsense? Don’t tell me you actually like being in that grotty cottage? A young man like you? Come on, pull the other one!”

We were standing outside a Greengrocers. People were starting to stare. Martin linked his sister’s arm, the two fat biceps entwining like hemp rope on a dock.

“Come on Greta, we’ve better things to do than stand here bickering like fishwives.
“This a Greengrocers.”
“What?”
A pause as they examined the rows of onions and parsnips inside the shop, as though the answer to their agony might lie somewhere amongst the vegetables. Then after one final sneer in my direction, they waddled off together, muttering to themselves in that impotent, obsessive way self-centred people often have.

I looked inside the greengrocers. Debating whether to buy some grapes or flowers for my evening visit, I was just about to step inside when a silver Mercedes pulled up by the kerb. The rear door fell open, almost scraping the pavement, so sharp was the camber of the Tarmac. From inside, looking like he was about to spill out onto the pavement, a fat man with a shaved head glared up at me. Then, from the passenger seat I heard a familiar, chilling voice.
“Tom? Fucking get in here. Now.”

************

Ten years previously, my summer at the cottage was drawing to a close. The leaves were just beginning to swirl around the garden and the smoke from the chimney, instead of blowing east on the prevailing wind, was now being sent west.

My bag was packed. Mother was picking me up from the station to take me into town for my last ever uniform. A sick, Sunday night feeling seeped through me, like a wet cold fog. Sitting at the kitchen table Auntie Joyce, surrounded by spices and chopping boards rubbed away at the pelt of some unknown wild animal while I pretended to clean down the dresser for the third time that afternoon.
A knowing smile playing around her mouth, she glanced up at me from over her tiny glasses. Putting some not inconsiderable effort into scraping the red flesh away from the fur she said,

“Tom? Do you like school? Are you looking forward to going back?
“School? Yeah I think, yeah it’s ok.”

She turned over the pelt and in doing so flipped the head upside down. I stared at the eyes. They stared back.

“You’re not getting…. bullied are you?”
I snorted a laugh of derision. Standing up taller I said, “Bullied? Me? Ha!”
She went back to her rendering. “Tom, pass me my pipe if you would.”
Smoothing my hands down my apron, I scurried to the pipe draw to retrieve her smoking paraphernalia. Placing the wild animal’s coat to one side, Joyce set about rolling some rough shag.
“That’s good. That’s good. If, I mean if, anyone you know is being bullied, you know what to do, don’t you? ”
“No, Auntie Joyce, what?”
“You tell them to come and see me, and I’ll put a curse on who ever it is that’s bullying them.”

My next words came out a little too eagerly
“Well they won’t be allowed over here so you tell me what to say and I’ll tell them.”

Joyce, her grey bun now invisible behind a blue fug of smoke, eased her wide beam off her chair and went to a shelf above the range. Moving the hemlock carefully to the next shelf down she produced a heavy wooden box from a space behind the chimney breast.
Manipulating the stem of her pipe from one side of her mouth to the other, she carried the heavy wooden box to the table.
“Here, move that Pine Martin over there. Don’t worry, he won’t bite you now Tom.”
A space now cleared, the box sat squarely in the middle of the oak table, directly under the glow from the paraffin lamp.
Joyce undid the latch and produced two glass phials, each containing bright purple liquid.
What’s in those little glass things?
“You remember when I was boiling that pigs head? Well I wanted the meat off the cheek for our stew you see. Don’t look at me like that, you gobbled enough of it up. But I wanted the skull boiled so I could grind down the teeth, see the little flecks in the potion? Now, this has a right high stink to it, and no mater how hard they scrub they’ll not get it off for weeks, and it will remind them that they been cursed as a bully. And bad things will happen. So, snap it open like this and say-

Pigs do as pigs think,
Bully no more –
Lest you…stink!

And when you says stink, throw it like this and it will smash on him and it will stick like you won’t know what.”
“Won’t I get into trouble?”
“Do you want avoid trouble or do you want to get rid of a bully?”

On the train home, I spent most of the journey rolling my fingers over the little parcel concealed in my chest pocket

The Clairvoyant II

I was just twenty six when Auntie Joyce died. During that long cold winter the hospital, two bus rides away from my house, became my second home. Agitated, cantankerous and grumpy, Auntie Joyce discouraged all visits except mine. At first her son and daughter made an almost daily pilgrimage. But after the greetings and the giving of flowers, a silence descended, punctuated only by occasional small talk about the weather, or the state of the roads. When the clock watching became unbearable the gap between visits grew longer, until they were replaced with phone calls, then messages, then finally a forwarding number, ‘In case something happens.’
“I know what their game is Tom, they’re just fretting about the money. And the cottage.”

Auntie Joyce missed the view from her kitchen window. She missed the little gate at the end of her path, she missed the fire, the old pewter kettle. I missed picking the rhubarb, washing the cabbages, shovelling the coal into the scuttle. More than anything I missed listening to her readings, I missed the cards and the Ouija board, and I missed the people.
Then one day Auntie Joyce received a new visitor. It was Joyce’s best client, the rich businessman from Liverpool, the one who consulted Joyce about every decision. I saw him leaning over her bed as I entered the ward. A nurse approached and asked him to leave. Red faced, he brushed past me on his way out. Screens were around Joyce’s bed. I wasn’t allowed to see her, she had taken a turn for the worse. What had the businessman said to so upset her? Blazing inside, I ran out to the car park, just in time to see his Mercedes pulling away.
They stabilised her enough for me to sit quietly next to the bed. Under strict instructions not to say anything to agitate her, I placed my ear as close I as could to to listen to her croaky, distant voice.
“That was Frank. He’s going bankrupt. Not only that, his wife’s cleared off and left him and she’s taking him to the cleaners. Everybody is after him. I don’t know what he’s been up to, but he’s in the shit with money. Why did the come to see me? Because he’s worried that if I snuff it he’ll wave goodbye to his stash.”

Never before had I heard Auntie Joyce use that kind of language. Why would she use it now, on her death-bed? And what had she got to do with Frank’s money?

The thought of this Frank character speaking harshly to Auntie Joyce burned me up inside. How could anyone talk like that to such a sweet old lady? And after all she’d done for him? After all she’d done for everyone she’d met?

****************
Ten years previously, I prayed for the start of the summer holidays. Summer meant an escape from my tormentors at school and a train trip down the North Wales coast to see Auntie Joyce.

That summer was the best summer of all. The burning sun turned the mountainside a deep ochre, the cabbage patch exploded into a dark green forest and Joyce was as busy as ever. No longer banished behind the curtain, I was now employed as Joyce’s assistant. Fetching tea cakes or hankies as required, I became a familiar face to the regulars. I removed their coats or helped them back into them, eased them in or out of the chair, took phone messages and arranged the diary. I made sure the tarot cards were to hand, I brushed up, tidied round and made endless, countless cups of tea.

I ran errands into the village, collected parcels, brought home rabbits from the butcher. I had my own room, a low space in the attic just big enough to squeeze in a tiny bed. One morning I awoke to a most terrible smell. I padded down the tight staircase to be met by an acrid, greasy stink emanating from the kitchen. It wasn’t Joyce’s pipe, she only lit up her tobacco in the evening after the last client had gone home. The smell came from something cooking on the range .
Standing over her stove, Joyce was carefully skimming grease off the liquid bubbling away inside .
“Auntie Joyce? What’s in there?”
She reached inside the pot with a hook. Slowly, from out of the bubbling brine appeared a pig’s head. When she saw my face she started laughing in her big deep guffaw.
“What’s that for?”
“Wait and see young man, wait and see.”
And for the first time since visiting auntie Joyce I felt not a little unsettled

The Clairvoyant

My Great Auntie Joyce was a medium. I don’t mean she took a size twelve in jumpers, rather that she was a fortune teller, a scryer, a clairvoyant. She told strangers what they wanted to hear and also sometimes what they didn’t. She told them about their families, their love lives, their hopes and dreams. She warned them of impending danger, or congratulated them on a future success.

She lived at the bottom of an ancient Welsh mountain in a tiny cottage with a real fire and a little vegetable patch in the garden. Her clients were drawn from the local villages and from the larger towns and cities that lay further afield. Housewives, plumbers, doctors, binmen, businessmen, pilots, nurses, the bereaved, the lonely, the desperate, the hopeful, the credulous and the gullible – all came to see Joyce.

They sought reassurance, or guidance, or comfort, or sometimes all three. They sat patiently, waiting to hear from from long-lost mothers, fathers, grand mothers, aunties, brothers, sons and daughters. Joyce passed on messages from the other side -just like a “lady on a switchboard”. And through her ‘switchboard’ the spirit world heard stories from the land of the living. They heard about affairs, bankruptcies, births, deaths, betrayals, coincidences; in fact every possible combination of the weird, the dramatic and the absurd. What those who have passed thought of the behaviour of their living relatives, I couldn’t begin to think.
Her clients came to value her opinion, her judgement, her wise counsel. They trusted whatever her ouija board, tarot cards, or palm readings revealed. One very powerful, successful businessman would not make an important decision without consulting Joyce. He drove from Liverpool to sit by her fire, drink her tea and talk through the intricate details of each potential deal.
Auntie Joyce didn’t pretend to understand commerce, but she did understand people. She understood the cards and she understood the future and what it would bring. And, more often than not, she was proved correct.

In the long summer holidays I would take the train down from Liverpool to Colwyn Bay, then an old green bus up into the mountains to the little white cottage by the foot of the old hill.

Auntie Joyce, a small rotund lady with grey hair and tiny thick glasses perched on the tip of her nose, was always at her gate post, ready to greet me. How she knew the exact time I was due up her path I never managed to work out.

She allowed me to sit behind a curtain in the kitchen, just out of view of the front parlour. I listened to the tears, the rapt silences, the laughter, the hushed chatter between old friends. I heard the farewells, the promises to return and the vows to take heed of what was being said.

Eventually, I grew to love my Auntie Joyce even though she wasn’t really my Auntie. She was just my Nan’s best friend. Practically sisters, they grew up together between the wars. When Joyce’s children were evacuated to Wales during the blitz, after the capitulation of Nazis Joyce decided to stay in Wales and start a new life. Her own Mum gave readings and Joyce learned the skills from her, who in turn had learned them from Joyce’s Grand Mother.

Whenever I was being bullied at school, or if I was lonely or scared or sad, I would take myself off to Auntie Joyce’s for some of her home made pies and some crumble made from the rhubarb she let me pick from her vegetable patch in the garden.
She became more than a surrogate Auntie, she became someone with whom I could share my secrets with. For a young teenage boy being bullied almost daily, with no real friends to call his own, Joyce became exactly that, a friend.

But she never once read me, she never once predicted what would become of my life or those around me. Whenever I asked her to, she would just smile, put a warm hand on my arm and say, “Not now my dear, later.”
Later, always later.

But how did she do it? What was her secret? Everyone swore by her powers, and not just the batty old dears from the spiritual church in the next village – professional, intelligent people sort her counsel.
When, in the final months of her life, she finally revealed to me the knowledge behind her craft, it changed how I viewed people, reality and the world around me.

To be continued…

The Opticians

“Tom, I’m sick of wearing glasses, I want my eyes lasered. You should get them done too.”
“Listen, the nearest I’ll get to a laser is watching Star Wars.

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Anyway, have you seen how much they charge?”
“Ok what about contact lenses then? And I’ve booked us a double appointment tomorrow at the opticians.”
Opticians give me the creeps. Sitting in the dark with all that equipment, I always think of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

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Walking into the opticians we were greeted by a pleasant young man in reception. I shook his hand and said,
“Hello. I’ve just been next door to Co-Op Travel asking about my eye test and they told me to come in here.”

“Tom stop it, he won’t get your silly joke.” Said Sarah.
“Very we’ll sir have you an appointment?”
“Yes. Mr and Mrs Hughes.”
“One moment please.” Sarah took her seat while I went to examine some frames.
” What do you think of these darling?
“Put them back, you look like “Michael Gove.”

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(For anyone outside the UK Michael Gove is an unpleasant member of our Government.)
Then a chubby little man with a built up shoe limped into reception “Mr Hughes ?
I nodded, gulping nervously. A fat index finger beckoned me inside.
“Come with me dear.”
Dear? I looked at Sarah, who urged me to follow saying,
“Go on in, we haven’t got all day….dear.”
He paused at the door to his torture chamber, looked me up and down and said, “I’ve not….tested you before, have I?”
“I don’t think so.”
“No. I’d have remembered. Come in then.”
Through his enormous lenses his big saucer eyes bored into me. Sat in the hot seat, I watched as he removed his glasses and began cleaning them with his tie. He looked up at me once more. His eyes had disappeared! Then back on went the glasses and…zoom! The huge pupils returned.
“Now relax while I dim the lights…”
If I wasn’t nervous beforehand, I was now.
Letters appeared on the whiteboard opposite. My torturer settled in besides me and, I have to say, a little too close for comfort.
“Now can you read left to right, top to…bottom.”
I’m sure it wasn’t the right way to do an eye test but I just started guessing
“K no, R”
“Now Tom, don’t guess.”
Then he did something really weird. He grabbed a hand held light, put his face right next to mine, as in right next, and shone it in my eyes. All I could hear and feel was his breath on my cheek. When, for a second, our noses touched it was all I could do to stay seated.
Outside in reception I found Sarah, relaxing after her ordeal.

“Well I won’t be going in there again . I nearly chinned him. I thought he was going to throw the lips on me.”
“Tom, he uses an ophthalmoscope to test for high blood pressure, you dope.
“Oh…. Well he could have told me.”
Then it was time for our contact lenses. The nice lady demonstrated the technique for putting them in. We followed suit. After handing over a fortune we both stumbled outside, now with our twenty-twenty vision supposedly restored.
As we groped our way to the car park, I could hear people tutting and oh-dearing as we passed.
One elderly lady stopped me and taking hold of my hand said,
“Whatever tragedy has happened my loves, remember, time is a great healer.”
I looked at Sarah, she looked at me. Our eyes were both red and streaming.
“I can’t see a bloody thing.”
” Neither can I.”
“Look this is ridiculous, let’s go back.”
We retraced our steps down the high street, doing our best to avoid the lamp posts.
“Listen mate, can we change our minds? We just need to buy some normal glasses.”
“That’s no problem sir, but I think you’ll have to try next door, er this is Co-Op Travel?”