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.”
“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..