Category Archives: Literature

Nice V

The train ride along the Riviera coast is one of the most beautiful in the world. Hugging the very edge of France, the route forces you to look out to sea and then down at the surf breaking on the light grey rocks below.

Fauna of all types and varieties skim past, as do many hues of blue – the sky, the sea and the flowers – a riot of colour and gorgeousness. Of course, more interesting than the vista outside are the passengers, forced to endure this quotidian exposure to paradise as they commute to work.
The stick-thin hotel maid nursing her chubby baby, the fat businessman clutching his battered briefcase, the ground- worker; his ochre, Auden-lined face glumly staring at the scratched gun metal bulwark of the carriage, whilst to his right Nirvana flashes by. No matter, it will still be there tomorrow for him to ignore all over again.

The gaggle of young italian students – backpacks, sunglasses, bright orange skinny jeans; all falling over themselves to chatter the loudest. One buck-toothed ingenue stares up at the line of stops, simultaneously gossiping with a friend whilst tugging at the shirt of another as she realises that they have missed their station. As the cacophony of their voices rattle along, the realisation that they have overshot their target is firstly met with carefree indifference, then nervous hilarity (hands over mouths in mock horror) followed by mock scolding, until finally hugs of instinctive, platonic affection spread amongst the group.

They all stream out at the next platform, their volume fading as they exit the carriage, accompanied by the ground worker with the sun-ravaged face, who does that universal pause/push-past that commuters do when negotiating infernal, dawdling tourists.
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Finally, the long TGV train pulls into Ventimiglia Italy. If pristine Monte Carlo is for millionaires, then Ventimiglia is for ordinary normal Italians. Down at heel, tatty and unkempt, Ventimiglia feels relaxed, at ease with itself. We took a stroll down one of the roads. I began to wonder if I was an Italian and I didn’t own a cafe or restaurant or a little fashion shop, what on earth would I do? Food and clothes. There didn’t seem to be anything else to sell or do in this sleepy coastal town.

We strolled down to the scruffy beach, the dust from the pebbles throwing a haze into the late afternoon sun.
Then I saw some nuns skimming stones. Dressed in black habits with a white band above the head, they stood in the early evening sun laughing and joking.
The elder nuns took photographs as their postulant charges skimmed pebbles across the waves.
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After the excesses of Monte Carlo, the contrast between the two communities could not have been greater. What must it be like to eschew material possessions, have no money, no love or physical contact with the opposite sex? But then I stopped thinking about my first marriage and went back to contemplating the nuns.
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Dusk began to fall and so we headed back to the train station, said goodbye to Italy and sped towards Nice. The next day would be our final 24 hours on the Riviera.

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The Clairvoyant Chapter X

It was the scruffy trainers that gave away his identity, as the acrid smoke hid his face, all I could make out were the hands scrabbling with the rope and the dirty white footwear.

Dragging me outside into the garden, my saviour collapsed at my side. Both coughing and spluttering, I looked up, first to see the black smoke billowing out of the back door, then towards my rescuer, who I half seemed to recognise. A wild unkept ginger beard, a shock of white hair, broken yellow teeth and the unmistakable sweet-sickly aroma of a tramp – was this wild-man one of Joyce’s secret beneficiaries?

“Well, first thing we wanna do here Tom, is put out that blaze.”

Wondering how he knew my name, I jumped up and followed the Vagrant back inside. The fire was spreading, but it hadn’t yet caught hold. Taking the hose from the scullery (Joyce used it to wash down the stone floor in the kitchen) he turned it on full and attacked the base of the fire. Soon the flames relented. The place was a mess, but we had saved the cottage.
I watched as this strange, heavily built man, wearing layers of odd clothes, cleaned up as best he could. Eventually, he stopped and attempted to make good the window that he smashed to gain access.

“Listen, thanks for saving my life, but how do you know my name?”

“Because you know mine Tom, don’t you?”

I stared hard at his face. Then it hit me.

“Jesus Christ, Is that you? Big Pete?”
The toothless grin spread wider. It was him, my nemesis from my school days was standing here in front of me.
Grabbing me in an unwelcome bear hug, his vast frame enveloped me like some large smelly Grizzly. Standing back to look at me he said,

“I suppose I better tell you my story…”

After the curse you put on me, I never had no more luck. I know you said you lifted it after I give you that money but I never felt right after it. I left school and went to London, but I got no luck there, so I went travelling. Spain Italy, Greece, I went all over. I was happy in them places, But when I got home, that feeling, that feeling of things not being right, well that comes back, doesn’t it? Anyway, I falls in with a bad lot and I goes to prison, doesn’t I? It don’t matter why. Ok I’ll tell you. I was doing some check book fraud, pension book stuff too, you know, cashing in stolen pensions and the like. Don’t look at me like that, I knows it was bad. Anyways, I got out with no money, no home, no family, nothing. Then I gets to thinking, if it’s that curse that’s not gone, maybe, if I find the old bag what did it, maybe she can get rid of it for good, and maybe I can get everything back on track, so to speak.
Anyway, In my hostel in Liverpool, I heard off this tramp about this lady in Wales who his mother used to swear by, that she guided her and she was proper good. Now, I remember us laughing at you about you going to Wales to see Joyce and I guessed it was the same old bint.
Well I gets there and of course it is her. I explains my plight and she proper laughs, I mean proper chuckles – you can see her doing it can’t you, Tom? Anyway, she takes me into her confidences, gives me money and sends me back to Liverpool to keep an eye on you, doesn’t she? Anyways, she takes ill and I’m beside myself. You didn’t see me at the Church, did you? I was hiding, made sure you never seen me.
Any how, I don’t think her lifting the curse did me no good, cos I’m still a bit of a mess, ain’t I? But things are gonna change from now on.

I looked at Pete, one of the many lost souls who slip through the grid of life and descend into the darkness of sub-existence, the underground. But he was still smiling, still happy.
“How are things going to change Pete?”
“You know that letter she left in her will? The one that was addressed to you? Well she left me one too. But I was not to tell a soul. Apart from you of course. You know she mentioned taking as much rhubarb as you wanted? Well she told me the same. Here, grab this.”

Pete handed me a shovel. We walked over to the rhubarb patch. He started digging and I followed his lead. After half an hour I hit on something hard and metallic, buried about four-foot down. Pushing me out of the way, Pete lifted out a battered old black metal box.

Cleaving off the lock with his spade, he wiped his hands down his old tatty jacket and slowly lifted the lid. Inside, wrapped in neat plastic bundles, were packets of cash, I reckoned there was about five grand in each package. Pete started to stuff them about his person, looking around him all the time, as though there might be eyes on him in this deserted spot in the middle of nowhere. After he had emptied around half of the tin, he began throwing the remaining bundles at me.
“Pete, is this-”
“Frank’s money? Oh yes. You better believe it matey. Now fair’sfair, halves each, like I promised Joyce.”
“But how did you know it was here?”

” ‘take as much rhubarb as you want’ ? ” What did you think she meant? You didn’t think Joyce would just let all that money go back to that thieving bastard did you ? How did you think he got all this in the first place? He’s a bigger thief than You, me and Joyce all put together.”

“Listen Pete, I’m not a thief, and neither is Joyce.”
Pete stopped throwing the money at me.

“Ok then, give me back them bundles and I’ll keep them, or maybe you wanna ring Frank and let him have it? Joyce wasn’t a thief? Did she not tell you how she done it? All that cold reading and stuff? Listen, there’s one thing Joyce loved more than her cottage and her garden, and that my friend, was money. Now, do you want this Wonga or not?”

I said goodbye to Pete at the bus stop. I reckoned he had about fifty thousand pounds on him. I wished him luck and hoped he would make good use of it, but feared that maybe it would do him no good at all.
Before I left, I went up to my tiny room, where I found an old rucksack into which I placed the last of my belongings.
On the train back to Liverpool, I fingered the rucksack nervously, hoping that Frank wasn’t waiting for me at the station.

That tramp by the Duck pond near the hospital, that must have been Pete. He was there keeping an eye on us. Such loyalty, but was he just about the money? The big pay day? No, I reckoned on him loving Joyce as much as I did, don’t you?

**********

Now, today, you find me happy in my own house (with no mortgage on it, thankfully).
I work from home now, my clients come and see me in my front parlour, where I dispense tea and sympathy. Mrs Parker is due in at half past, she is desperate for news of her Mother, who I believe, sadly passed away not three months previously….

The End

The Clairvoyant Chapter IX

We drove down the Welsh coast in silence. There was no need to ask where we were going. We bumped up onto the kerb by the bus stop to walk the last four hundred yards to the cottage. The path, long overgrown, dipped and yawed so violently only the hardiest land rover would attempt to navigate.

Frank turned to face me from the front seat. “Don’t even think about doing a runner.”
“Frank, I’ve no idea where your stash is.”
It was all I could do to stop myself fingering the Mr Goldstein’s letter hidden in my pocket.
“I know you don’t lad. Because if you did you would have said. You’re not stupid.”

Frank’s barrel chested Goon sitting next to him looked disappointed, like he was looking forward to beating me up.

“So if you know I don’t know, which I don’t – why are we here?”
I decided that if things got out of hand I would show Frank the letter and let him take the money – if that’s what it revealed. But of course it could mean something else completely, I had no idea.

The path, pebbly and overgrown, wound it’s way through the woods until the cottage came into view.
Although I had visited not three weeks previously, Joyce’s home of forty years was unrecognisable. Overgrown gardens, dusty windows, rubbish in the porch, free newspapers half-shoved in the letterbox. But there was no time to clean up, Frank was in a hurry. He got my attention with a shove.
“How do we get in?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t a key.”
The cold slap warmed my Cheek.
“Don’t fuck with me. I know you know.”
Miserably, I led them round to the side of the house where I lifted the latch on the side frosted side window and hopped up. I was in.
The house smelt damp and spicey. Aromas filled the hallway. The stuffed Pine Martin stared down from the plate shelf. Kicking away the pile of junk mail from the thick wooden door, I pulled the latch and let them in.

Frank pushed past and with a nod to his fat-faced accomplice, began to ransack the place. Tables cupboards, draws, desks, shelves – all cleared, upturned or emptied.
“What the hell do you think you are doing? You have no right!”
Frank pushed past. He was like a demon, possessed by some wild spirit. He stopped in mid ransack and turned to me, his face contorted with rage.
“You better hope I find the cash, or else it’s your head on the block next.”

The turmoil continued. Of course, Frank found nothing. In a rage, he grabbed me, sat me down on the chair in the hallway while his accomplice produced some rope and tied me down into the seat. Next, Frank grabbed the newspapers lying in the hallway, scooped them up in a pile and produced a lighter from his pocket.

“Now, either you tell me where the money is, or I’ll set fire to this place and burn it down with you in it!”
The life drained from me. I knew this was it. There was nothing else to do.
“Ok, ok. Untie me and I’ll tell you what she said.”
Frank loosened the rope and I dug around in my pocket and produced the letter.
Before I could open it Frank grabbed the letter and tore it open. The paper stretched and tore in his hand as his knuckles went white. He flung the paper at me. I scanned the words, desperately trying to make sense of what it said.
Below the usual dry solicitor instructions was a letter from Joyce.

My Dear Tom.
Unfortunately, I have nothing to leave you. The house I have left to the Welsh people as a thank you for the wonderful years that I have spent at the foot of this ancient Celtic mountain.
I know Frank has been giving you a hard time about the money I hid for him, but that has gone too. I either spent it or gave it away to the tramps and vagrants who live in Colwyn Bay. Their need is greater than mine, or yours (or Frank’s!).
So there we have it. I don’t want you to feel disappointed, because we both know I have given you something more precious than money or objects. Take care Tom and be careful of what you wish for!

Joyce.

Ps If you want, you can take all the rhubarb. You know how to make the pie by now, you watched me enough times!

“What the fuck does that mean? She’s given it away to the tramps?”
I shrugged my shoulders, that was news to me too. More importantly, I felt relief that I didn’t have any of Frank’s cursed money. I was free now to go. I had nothing more to give him. But I was wrong, dead wrong.
“Tie him back down.”
I was back in the chair, only this time the knots were tighter. They burned my wrists.
“I’ll tell you something Tom, you don’t know where my money is? That’s fine, you can go and see Joyce and see if she’s telling the truth!”

Frank’s sidekick grabbed all the newspapers, put them into a heap, then from the kitchen produced some paraffin oil, poured it on the papers and set light to them. In no time the acrid smoke filled the hall. Frank called out through the smoke as he exited the front door.
“Say hello to Joyce for me!”
The flames quickly took hold, they spread up the dry walls, licking up towards the plaster work. The ancient wiring began to spark and catch fire. I tried to bump myself along in the chair to smother the flames but the chair was too heavy and the bounds too tight.

The coughing began. At first it was a sweet sickly taste at the back of my throat, then as the flames increased, I wretched and swung violently about, like a condemned man in the execution chair.
I couldn’t see a thing. It was unbearable, the heat scalded may hair and choked my throat. I cursed Joyce, I cursed my own greed, I cursed the cottage. This was it, my last day on earth. Sat in an old horsehair chair, choking to death.

It was then I heard it. The sound of smashing glass. Had Frank got second thoughts? Was he fearful of a murder charge?
But it wasn’t Frank. It was someone else. Someone who was there to save my life and in doing so, change theirs forever.

The Clairvoyant Chapter VIII

In the year Joyce died, the year I was twenty five, there were no mobiles, no internet, no wifi, nothing. So on the morning of Joyce’s funeral, I wondered at just how many of her old clients knew to turn up at the church to say goodbye.

Martin and Greta followed Joyce through the wide double doors. Although in her final years I was the closest to her, I merged into the throngs of women dressed in black to become just another face in the pews.

When the Priest (who Joyce never met) stood to deliver the eulogy, I wondered what this cold draughty building and this fat red-faced man dressed in White had to do with Joyce and her life.

He droned on about God’s comforting arms and paused more than once before saying her name to look down at a card. As the service drew to a close I realised that no one was going to speak about this remarkable old woman. I wanted to stand up and announce that she had duped everyone sat there in the church and they had all been fools for believing her. And that what she had given me was more real than any tarot card rubbish. That she had freed me from bullies and given me the confidence to live my own life. But I didn’t. I bowed my head to pray to the fat priest’s imaginary god and kept my mouth shut.

As we all trooped out to shake the priest’s clammy hand and make our way to the crematorium, I spotted Frank amongst the mourners, he didn’t say hello, he just stared.

One week later, I received a letter in the post from a firm of solicitors. There was to be a reading of Joyce’s will and I was to make my way down to Water Street in Liverpool on Monday morning at ten am sharp.

From the town hall, Water street drops down to the Liver Buildings that stand next to the Mersey. Full of beautiful grade I listed banking halls and solicitors chambers, it is the heart of Liverpool’s commercial district. The offices of Goldsmith and Kettle were in a building called West Africa House, no doubt named after Liverpool’s dubious links to the slave trade.

Clutching my letter, I sat in reception and was soon joined by Martin and Greta. They glared at me as they muttered to themselves socco voce. Just before the awkward silence became unbearable, a tall middle aged man with curly grey receding hair and glasses perched on his forehead appeared and led us to a side room.

We sat awkwardly on mismatched chairs as the gangly man folded himself behind his desk and produced a thin buff file wrapped in purple ribbon.

“Now, I am Mr Goldstein and we are here to witness the reading of the last will and testament of Joyce. Your mother I believe?”
I shook my head. Mr Goldsmith ignored me and looked down to begin the reading. As he did so his glasses swung forwards from the top of his forehead to land perfectly on the bridge of his nose.
Greta and Martin leaned forward together, their eyes locked on Goldsmith. This is what he read.

This is the last will and testament of me Joyce Katrina Millicent Joan Pryce. I direct my executors to dispose of my estate in the following way. Any money in any bank accounts held by me at the time of my death I leave to the North Wales wildlife trust charity number 334433.”

I leave my cottage, The Windy Gables, old colliery road Colwyn Bay to…..”
At this point, I thought the twins were about to faint with expectation.
To….the….

Mr Goldsmith paused. He looked up at the twins. Steeling himself, he pressed on.

To….the Welsh National Trust, charity number 3445-

Martin jumped up. “Come with me Greta. We must listen to no more of this tomfoolery! And as for you Goldsmith , you can swing for your bill!”

“But what is this idiot going to get off her?” Greta pointed at me.
“What the hell do we care?”
Mr Goldsmith held up his hands. “Please, Mr Pryce. I have not finished.
To my children I leave – “

The twins paused. They leaned forward. Maybe mother had left them something really good –
“…My collection of pipes”

I tried to hide my sniggers. I looked at Mr Goldsmith. His deadpan expression was unchanged.

The twins fumed in silence. Linking arms, they stormed out. I never saw them again. Mr Goldsmith waited until he was sure the twins were out of the building. Only then did he turn his attention to me.

“Now, Mr Hughes. Joyce didn’t mention you in her will I’m afraid. But she did ask me to give you this.”
The solicitor leant forward and handed me a sealed buff envelope. “I have no idea what it contains, but she said you would understand.”
I looked at the envelope. On the front it just said ‘To My Tom.’

“Is that it ?”
“Yes that is it. ”

I shook his hand and made my way back out to Water Street.
Outside the Grey Mersey moved swiftly past behind the imposing Liver Buildings.

What was in this envelope ? Wary of onlookers, I secreted it in a secret pocket inside the lining of my jacket.
Just then I heard a screech of tyres, I turned round. It was Frank.
“Get in.”

The Clairvoyant Chapter VII

Joyce’s last day on earth began with an almighty row. Frank, frustrated with my reticence to press her further on the location of his cash, dragged me back to his yard.
“Where the fuck is my stash?”
“Frank, shouting at me won’t help matters.” My cheek felt as though I had just returned from the dentists. Raw and tender, gingerly I fingered the contusion.
“Do you want another one? No? Well get back to the hospital and quiz her some more. Now go!”
Examining my face in the window of a parked car, I reckoned that a trip to hospital might actually have a duel benefit.
The curtains were around Joyce’s bed.
“Excuse me, but is Joyce ok? ” the nurse looked up from her desk.
“Who put the screens around?” She said. I followed her as she walked briskly to Joyce’s bed.
“Can I help you ?”

Jumping back from the bed, Martin and Greta attempted a smile. The nurse, eyeing the unwelcome visitors suspiciously, pushed past them to examine Joyce.

“Who has messed with this drip?
“We’ll see you soon Mother. Take care.”
The two dumpy siblings retreated, scowling as they shuffled past. The Nurse fussed around as Joyce tried unsuccessfully to sit upright.
“Those two ungrateful buggers wanted me to sign this.”
Joyce held up sheaves of yellow paper. “It’s a new will, leaving everything to them. When I wouldn’t sign they got angry. I’m glad you’re here Tom.”
Using the unsigned document to wave away the nurse, Joyce beckoned me closer.

“I feel it draining out of me.”
“What’s draining out of you?”
“Life. It’s ebbing away. I can feel it.”
“You’ll outlive us all Auntie -”
“Don’t say foolish things Tom!”
Her outburst seemed to tire her further. She looked up at the red mark on my face.
“You tell Frank if he lays one more finger on you I’ll haunt him from the grave.”
She touched my cheek. “And he can whistle for his cash.”

“But it is his money, Auntie Joyce. And anyway, I thought you said -”
“Never mind what I said. He is a thief and a crook. Anyway I have plans for it. The money is -”
But before Joyce could continue, she was overtaken by an horrendous coughing fit. The nurses rushed over and told me to leave.
Sat in the corridor, I watched the business of the hospital pass by in front of me. Chattering Nurses wearing little blue cloaks, porters idling along pushing hospital beds containing grey looking patients. The same Porters returning with their beds empty. Visitors holding flowers. Eventually, I was allowed back in.
“Goodbye Tom. Bugger. So much to do, so little time.”
She was fading fast. I placed my ear to her mouth. She whispered something indistinct. A doctor raced towards us. I had seconds left.
“Auntie Joyce. If you pass over before I can speak. Give me a sign from the other side.”
Joyce shook her head. But the nurse and the doctors surrounded her. It was pointless. The heart monitor raced to 140, then 180, then 34. Soon all the machines gave off warning beeps, like the instrument panel of a stalling aircraft.

Her life flashed in front of me. Joyce and my Nan laughing. Sitting in her kitchen watching her gut rabbits. The pigs head, the spells, the old dears handing over money. The memories intensifying as life dribbled out of her body.
Eventually, the nurses turned off the machines, their frantic buzzing now redundant. Only the heart monitor remained, silently calling out random numbers, like some morbid lottery contraption. 28, 39, 70….then, nothing.
Almost immediately her face fell in on itself and turned a dark shade of brown. Then her lips went black. It was as though some invisible spiritual make up artist was preparing her for the trip up to heaven, or the crossing of the Styx.
Her offspring, despite their skepticism over her powers, used some of their own to magically re-appear just as their Mother breathed her last.
“You here again? You have no business here.”
“Here.” I shoved the unsigned testament back into Martin’s hand. “You might as well have this back.”
A doctor approached. “Who is next of kin ?”
“We are!”
“Ok if you come with me I can complete the paperwork and release the body to the undertakers. Have you contacted anyone?”
They looked at each other. Undertakers. That meant final expenses and Money. Muted sullen nods followed by a shuffling away to an office.
Now I had to report back to Frank. I turned my collar to the wind and pressed on into the night.

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.