Category Archives: short story

The Gown

I knew from Sarah’s desperate call that the situation was urgent.
“Tom, has it arrived or not?”
“Yes, the courier’s just been.”
“Right, let’s just hope it fits. We have to be there for seven!”
The Chairman’s annual dinner dance is the highlight of our social calendar (the other important dates being Christmas and my Mum coming for Sunday tea) so what to wear is a stress known only to the fairer sex. I on the other hand have no such conundrum, needing only to dust down my penguin suit (Although sometimes the previous twelve month’s over-indulgence can result in a fight to the death with the trousers).
So my problems were as nothing compared to Sarah’s. Rushing in from work, she ran upstairs to our bedroom, where on the bed lay her nemesis – the ball gown. I was half way up the stairs when an ear-piercing scream froze me to the spot.
“Tom!”
I burst in to see my beloved stuck inside an oversized merengue.
“They’ve sent the wrong dress!”
Immediately I went into damage limitation mode. “It’s not too bad. Here, can I pin it?”
“Since when did you become a seamstress? It’s ok, I’ll just wear the black one. Thank goodness you never stuck it on eBay.”
My grimace gave it away. “…Tom?”
“If it’s any consolation, My feedback score is excellent.”
Right well that’s it. I’m not going. I can’t go.”
“I’ll tell you what, let’s ask our daughter.”
I shouted Hannah, our sassy, fifteen year old fashionista. My eyes bored into her as I nodded furiously and said,
“Doesn’t that dress look lovely on your Mum?”
Hannah, glancing up momentarily from her smart phone, took one look at her Mother and said, “Have you not got anything else? What about that black one?”
Dragging the Apple of my Eye out onto the landing I said,
“Word of advice, don’t ever apply to be a diplomat, will you?”
As Hannah rolled her eyes I heard Sarah call from the bedroom. “Right that’s it. I’m not going, you can go on your own.”
Disaster loomed. I had to think quick.
“Look, let’s see what Debi says.”
Debi was Sarah’s best friend and my last hope. Hurriedly, I took some pictures.
“You could at least smile darling.”
“Listen David Bailey, there isn’t time.”
With Sarah in the bathroom, I seized my chance as Debi’s messages pinged through. “Sorry hon, that dress is awful!” (delete) “Is there nothing else? What about that gorgeous black -” (delete).
Beep! The taxi arrived. Bustling Sarah into the back of the cab, I handed over her phone.
“Debi hasn’t replied, but I’m sure she loved it.”
Outside the hotel, Sarah made a final adjustment to her dress as she looked me up and down.
“Have those trousers shrunk or something?”
“Let’s just go in shall we?”
Shuffling into the lobby, we were greeted by a glitter ball on legs – The Chairman’s Wife.
“Mrs Hughes, don’t you look…nice?”
“There you go, she loves it.” I whispered through my fixed grin.
“You’ve a lot to learn about women.” Replied Sarah through gritted teeth.
The night wore on. We danced and drank our way through it. Eventually it was late enough to make our excuses and leave. Sarah poured me into the taxi and we headed home.
“Be honest. Do I really look nice?”
“You look absolootelee dee-vine dahling (hic!) and I down care what Debi said.”
“Why, what did she say? You said she didn’t reply. Tom?”
Then, our chauffeur, a skinny young man with a pierced nose decided to chip in with his two penneth. “Take no notice love, my wife has the exact same dress and it looks great on her. Mind you, hers isn’t white, it’s bla-”
“Just here thank you!” Testily, I cut him dead.
Sipping coffee in the kitchen, I saw Sarah busy on my phone.
“What are you doing?”
Im just ordering myself a new LBD online. It’s a bargain, only £200. And isn’t PayPal so convenient?”
“But you haven’t got a PayPal account.”
“I know. But you have.”
And so, the wheels of married life turn endlessly onwards….

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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 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.