Category Archives: Story

The Intervention

For husband and father Tom Hughes, last Sunday morning began like any other. Hot Tea and warm toast to the ready, I sauntered into the lounge looking forward to a double helping of Broadchurch on catch up only to discover my dear wife Sarah and my teenage daughters Hannah and Emily sat in wait. Wearing a benevolent, concerned expression on her face, Sarah gently relieved me of my steaming mug and buttered Hovis, sat me down and said,

“Tom, What we are about to say is said out of love and concern, nothing else.”
Then I realised what was happening, it was a family intervention! But an intervention about what? Was my customary Friday night pint of mild down the Paraffin Lamp getting out of hand? Was my chocolate habit becoming a cause for concern? What could it be? I decided to confront the issue head on.
“Listen, if anyone is wondering why all the cream eggs keep disappearing, I want you all to know that from now on I promise to share the value pack with everyone else.
A confused silence descended. My three precious girls all stared at each other. Chocolate Eggs it seemed, were not the issue. Sarah pressed on.
“We are gathered here today Tom to tell you that, well, you are a bit of a scruff.”
“A what?”
Next to pipe up was Hannah.
“Yes Dad, look at that jumper, look at those jeans?”
“What’s wrong with them? ”
“Dad, who wears hiking socks, walking shoes and a snood to the gym?
“Yes Tom, the girls are embarrassed. Their friends are talking. You need a new wardrobe, urgently.” Said Sarah.
“Well ok, I’ll go through my stuff and – ”
“Too late we’ve done it for you.” Then, to my dismay, Sarah produced a black bin liner full of my precious old clothes. My sweatshirts, my jeans and – horror of horrors- my Bruce Springsteen 2005 tour t-shirt.
“Not the Boss ! Please?”
“No Tom this lot is off to the charity shop in the precinct. Now, grab your coat and let’s go shopping! Er, on second thoughts, leave the coat, let’s just go.”
In the vast Outlet clothes store I wandered aimlessly around, fingering the rails without a clue what I was doing. Eventually I held up a pair of jeans with the pleasing price tag of £24.99.
“Sarah, what about them?”
Sarah examined my choice suspiciously.
“You haven’t just grabbed the cheapest have you?”
“Not at all I-”
“Right put them back and go try on these.”
I examined the pair picked by Sarah. To my untrained eye, they looked identical to the jeans I had just chosen. Identical that is, except for the price. Sarah’s were fifty pounds dearer .
“Why would I pay seventy-five pounds for something I can get for twenty-five, I don’t- ”
Grabbing the seat of the expensive jeans, Sarah pointed to a yellow logo stitched onto the rear pocket.
“Look! That’s why. They are designer!”
“So, they sew a little squiggle onto the pocket and they charge you treble the price? Are you being serious?”
The look from Sarah told me that yes, she was indeed being deadly serious. She picked out a second pair from the rack, handed both of them over and pointed in the direction of the changing rooms. I sloped away to the curtained off area where a glum-faced child gave me an orange circle on which was printed the number two.
I battled with the first pair for what seemed like an age. Eventually I gave up, deciding that, in the words of my Auntie Joyce they “wouldn’t go near me.” The second pair I actually managed to heave myself into. And a more uncomfortable pair of pants I couldn’t imagine. Baggy round the crotch and barely covering my posterior – clearly this particular “Designer”, in his hurry to stitch on the magic money squiggle had stamped them with the wrong size.
Outside I informed Sarah of the manufacturer’s error.
Sarah shook her head in defeat and flung back at me the cheap pair I had originally chosen. I tried them on. Of course, they fitted perfectly.
The next day Sarah arriving home from work, found me sat in my new jeans and sporting another, different purchase.
“Tom! What are you doing wearing that tatty old Bruce Springsteen t shirt? I thought I gave that away?”
“It’s very simple darling, yesterday afternoon, decided to go and do my bit for cancer research…”

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 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 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