Tag Archives: Longreads

Nice VII

And so after dinner at The Windsor hotel we strolled for the last time along the Promenade des Anglais towards the venue of our final night in Nice – the Casino Ruhl.
Sarah, excited to be stepping foot inside a gambling house for the first time, examined my denims.
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“Tom, do you think you’re dressed appropriately? Don’t you need a tie at least?”
“As long as I’m not naked and I have some cash, they’ll let me in, don’t worry.”
If the gaudy lights and red carpet outside the Casino Ruhl were an attempt at sophistication and glamour, they failed. The Casino’s facade was tack, brash, at odds with the rest of the City. It was as though, half apologetically, the casino was trying to ape its natural counterparts in Las Vegas. Up close, the red carpet and decorations had a tired, end of the pier look, as though the casino was saying, ok we know the whole thing is seedy, but come in any way and hand over your money.

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At the kiosk we showed our passports ( a sop to money laundering) and headed to the bar.
My first surprise was the cost of the drinks. Not only were they not free (ok I’m no high roller) – they were eye-wateringly expensive.
We sauntered past the slot machines – big heavy-duty machines each with their own leather chair bolted to the floor – and headed for the tables for a game of 21.

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I slipped into a seat next to a leathery looking man in his sixties. The croupier wordlessly slipped him two cards. Lifting the corners, he glanced at their value and tossed a couple of chips at the dealer. A sour faced woman in her early thirties, dressed entirely in black, she wordlessly tidied his stake and awaited instructions.

With a micro tap of his index finger the man requested another card. The croupier snapped a card on top of the existing hand, this time face up. A pause, then with a tiny shake of the head he indicated that he was happy with his position. The croupier then turned over her own two cards. A Jack and a two. Without hesitating she slipped a third card from her shoe and snapped it perfectly on-top of her existing pair. Seven of hearts. So to beat the house our friend with the grey slicked back hair and gnarled fingers needed twenty or twenty-one. He flung his hand away and cursed under his breath while the croupier scooped the chips into a round little hole to her left, a hopper containing the broken dreams of a thousand gamblers.

The next hand began. Now as well as the two cards dealt to my friend on my right, I was given my own pair. Mimicking the pro, I lifted the corners. An ace and a three! Immediately I panicked, whenever I played pontoon at home on the carpet in front of the fire with my older brother (the last time I’d actually played the game) an Ace had the twin values of either eleven or one. The embarrassment of ploughing on with card after card when I was already bust was terrifying. What should I do? Sarah, toying with her hair and looking around to see if anyone had noticed that she was hanging round with the Cincinnati Kid, waited for my shrewd gambling decision. I nodded for another card. The croupier turned over a three. So now I had seventeen (or possibly seven).
I decided to stick, as did my fellow player. The croupier flipped over her hand – a five and a ten. She flipped over another – a nine. She was bust! My ten euros were now twenty! I was a winner, I was a success! I turned to my comrade in arms, hoping for a high-five of victory, but he didn’t look up, instead he growled the same curse that he had uttered when he lost the previous hand.

Flushed with success I decided to transfer my fantastic winning streak to the roulette table. This time the table was surrounded by punters. We bought twenty Euros of single white chips and played red or black. At one point I had doubled my money. My head told me to walk away. But of course I didn’t. Six minute later I was five euros down. We decided to play on the numbers part of the baize. Casually, I threw a chip onto number 33, I reckoned that one last throw might bring us a jackpot.
Sarah shrugged her shoulders, assuming that I knew what I was doing. The croupier, a young man with a thick-set forehead and sallow cheeks watched me place my bet, then disdainfully throwing my stake back at me!
Sarah whispered, “Why is he doing that?”

To which I replied. “I’ve got no fucking idea.”
Obviously there was some unknown gambling protocol that I had failed to adhere to.
Realising that really, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we decided to people watch.
The pontoon guy had sauntered over to the roulette table. He was doing his same stern-faced curse at the result of every spin. Then I spotted a very glamorous lady playing the wheel.

Around forty, she wore an expensive, multi coloured blouse and white designer jeans. I deferred to Sarah for an estimation of the quality. She confirmed that they were very expensive clothes. Then the ice. She wore three diamond rings, the most impressive of which was on her engagement finger, a luminescent stone with an internal fire that shone even in the subdued lighting of the casino. Wearing the same surly look as my pontoon friend, she peeled off one €50 note after another from an ever reducing wad as she gambled bigger and bigger. The croupier relieved her of her money by placing it over a slot in the table and pushing it down with a clear plastic cleaver, consigning the note to its fate with a sharp snap of his wrist.
After a while Sarah whispered to me, “Theres something about this place I don’t like. What is it?”

“It’s obvious. Have you noticed something ? Nobody talks and everybody looks so serious? There’s one simple explanation. We are on a room full of addicts.”
Sarah looked around. Of course, that’s why everyone looked so miserable, they were all feeding an addiction. That’s why victory and defeat were greeted in the same desperate, slightly aggressive manner – they didn’t care if they won or lost, they just wanted the buzz of the bet.

We left shortly afterwards, breathing in the cool fresh air of the Mediterranean that crashed up onto the pebbles on the other side of the road.

Nice VI

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The next morning we awoke to the sound of mopeds buzzing along the streets below. Opening the white shutters I stood for a moment to consider early morning Nice.
Bread vans, stylish ladies in rain macs, cafés taking their first customers of the day. A busy town, but not Manchester or Liverpool busy (endless car jams, miserable crammed busses) rather bustling thoroughfares mainly – like Italy – revolving around food and cafés. Everything is centred around the commercial concerns of eating and drinking.

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We ventured into the vieux ville, the oldest quarter of Nice. Terracotta and orange buildings jammed along old narrow streets, most of the shops selling in one way or another things to do with the consumption of food and wine.
The local delicacy is Socca – a pancake served with coffee or, if it’s not too early (for a weary English palate at least) wine.

We wandered down the alleys, weaving in and out of the queues for Socca and other local delights. Then it struck me – where were the supermarkets? Where were the fast food outlets? The Tesco Expresses ? The Mc Donald’s ? (I think one British chain tried to expand into France and were given short shrift) There were big stores out of town (Carrefour) but they don’t get a look-in in Nice town centre. At the edges of the old town we sat at one of the many cafés that borders one of the many squares in Nice. Then a busker arrived. I like buskers – not the annoying sponsored musos that stand on corporate logos in London tube stations- I prefer the impromptu, talented performers that invite you to appreciate their talent.

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That morning, Nice didn’t disappoint. Instead of a bearded student strumming a badly tuned guitar we got an opera singer, with her own accompaniment ! She belted out O Ma Babbina Caro , seemingly indifferent to the occasional clink of cents into her cup.

After our restorative cappuccino we wandered off to the largest open space in Nice, the Place Massena. A vast open area bordered by pink civic buildings with a long double tram line bisecting the open civic space.

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By this time it was near enough to lunch as to make no difference, so we decided on a light repast (how I never came back the size of De Nero’s corpulent Jake la Motta I don’t know).

I plumped for a salad together with a slug of the house white. A word to the wise, don’t bother getting anything but the house grog in Nice – it’s always vastly superior to any screw top bottle of vinegar peddled by Supermarkets back home. The wine in Nice is invariably clean, rounded, with fragrant bouquets (that’s enough wine wanking. Ed.) and is invariably a perfect accompaniments to most dishes.

I can do that, honest!

I can do that, honest!

After our lunch we chanced upon some more street performers. This time it was a group of lads throwing themselves up in the air propelled by what seemed to be secret spring hidden under the stone slabs.

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Perfectly in synch and full of youthful exuberance, I was reluctant to dawdle lest Sarah spent too long comparing these boys abs to my own poor excuse for a wall of iron, but captivated as we were by the athleticism and joy de vivre of the performance, we dawdled a few moments longer.

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Our final experience of impromptu street theatre was back on the Promenade de Anglais, where roller bladers slalomed up and down the walkway.

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Then it was time to head off back to our hotel to ready ourselves for Sarah’s initiation into the glamorous world of the casino…

Nice IV (Ok, Monte Carlo really)

To access the principality of Monte Carlo from the train station involves a two hundred meter walk through a tunnel clad entirely in Italian marble. It’s as though the intimidation of wealth begins before you turn a corner.

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What strikes you first is the paucity of civil infrastructure, i.e. hospitals or schools or council buildings – I didn’t spot one. The only structures that Monte Carlo has room for are apartments. Squeezed around the marina or up on the hills, hundreds of little boxes all crammed together, bunched up in their desperation to avoid unpleasant things like common people, society and worst of all – taxes.

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There is actually a hospital in Monaco, The Princess Grace. Boasting a generous 120 beds, this particular infirmary specialises in free medical care for the poor, the disenfranchised and the terminally ill. Don’t believe me? Ok, you’re right, it doesn’t do any such thing. Anyway, let’s not concern ourselves with people who are sick, let’s go and have a gawp at the boats instead.

I once took a trip on a motor yacht. A friend of a friend hired one to show off to his mates. I remember the excitement as we cruised out of the bay and headed out onto the open sea. We marvelled at deep blue of the Med and the fresh bracing air.
After about half an hour I was of course, bored to death. The endless chugging along to nowhere in particular, the faint sickly stench of diesel fuel and the nausea of the rolling swell made for a tedious, ultimately pointless trip. Don’t get me wrong, the teak poop deck (or whatever it’s called) was very nice and the chandelier was pretty, and they don’t call them gin palaces for nothing. But if you want to get pissed and talk shit it’s easier and cheaper to stroll down to your nearest Yate’s Wine Lodge.

What do you mean ostentatious?

What do you mean ostentatious?

So the demographic of the boat owners in Monaco is Oil-rich Arabs, go-getting Captains of Industry desperate to preserve their hard-earned wealth and eighties pop stars. If you are one of those types, Monte Carlo is the place for you.

We decided to have a relaxing lunch quayside. Sarah perused the menus of the various eateries located around the marina.
“How about this one dear?” I asked.
“Hmm, it’s a bit pricey. And the one next door is too.”
“Sarah darling, we are in Monte Carlo, they’re all pricey.”
“Good point.”
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And so we settled down to a plate of pasta, a glass of grog and watched the world go by. The boats themselves were all a hive of activity, cleaners, chefs, people wearing deck shoes, stern oriental types dressed in white, tanned gorgeous people sporting ray bans, all scurrying up and down gang planks looking busy and serious.

The only thing missing were the owners. They are probably as disinterested in sailing as me, it’s just that they bought one because, well, they just can.

And if tedium takes hold, they could always go to the Casino to throw their money away.

It's the laughing gnome!

It’s the laughing gnome!

After lunch it was time to jump back on the train and journey over the border to Italy.

The man who broke the bank.......

The man who broke the bank…….


It was then, just before we left, that I met one- an owner that is. Deciding to take one last stroll down the dockside, we paused in front of a particularly large specimen. A sleek beauty, gleaming in white and chrome, becalmed in its bay with the sparkle of the sea reflecting on its pristine hull; she was indeed an impressive craft. I stopped next to a squat little man with slicked back silver hair and the usual deep perma tan worn mainly by the super rich and hoboes.

His teeth – white as the boat he was stood next to gleamed at me as he smiled his “Please ask me if this is my boat” smile.

Too impatient to wait for my inquiry, he announced in a grating Texan drawl, “She’s a beauty, huh?”
I turned to him and smiled back.
“She certainly is, is it yours?”

The little fat man seemed to grow an inch as he replied, “You betcha buddy.”

“Yes it’s very nice, there’s only one thing wrong with it old chap.”

The American’s face fell as he spun round to scan the haunches of his pride and joy for blemishes.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Well it’s just that White is the wrong colour, if it was mine, I’d have painted it blue.”

And so we left the little chap steaming on the quay, as we bid adieu to the ostentatious excess of Monaco and made our way to Italy.

Nice II

What differentiates Britain from Europe? Is it the culture? The climate? The conversation? Possibly. Here’s one – passport control. After your trip to sunnier, more pleasant climes, compare the stress of re-gaining entry back into Blighty with strolling into France, Spain, Greece or Italy?

We joined the queue at Nice airport with our IDs open at head height like a pair of wannabe Special Branch cops about to barge into a Drug Baron’s mansion. We approached the booth, in which sat an unshaved swarthy looking policeman slouched at his tiny desk wearing a powder blue short sleeved shirt. Gold epaulettes signified his status as a lawman (the other giveaway being the granite like shine of his Beretta connected to his belt by a curly wire). After a few seconds in the swiftly moving line-up, it was our turn to gain entry to his homeland, La Belle France. Sarah whipped off my cap,

“He can’t see your face properly, he might think you’re a terrorist.”
“What, in these shorts?”
Cap doffed, I prepared for entry. The guard looked up at me while his head remained absolutely still. He glanced at my passport for a tenth of a second, glanced at my face for another tenth, then indicated that I had passed all the stringent, post 9/11 security measures by grunting and lifting his left eyebrow.

That was it, we were in.
Travelling light with our little suitcases on wheels, we made for the automatic doors and the familiar waft of exhaled cigarette smoke from the taxi rank outside.
It was time to practice my pidgin French.

Nous sommes en vacance et nous voudrons aux Hotel Windsor?”
The driver nodded, then replied in his superfast indecipherable mother tongue.
“Er… pardon?”
“Tom, just show him the voucher with the hotel’s name on and let’s just get there, please.”
Our driver nodded and eased his brand new Mercedes into the traffic.
The short journey to the centre of nice is negotiated along a four mile stretch of the Promenade des Anglais, a road typified by the palm trees that line the central reservation. We were in fast-moving nose to tail traffic as the broad sweep of the Nice sea front came into view. I let down the window, allowing the noise of the city and smell of the sea into the cab. Then we passed the biggest casino in Nice.

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“Tom, can we go in there one night?”
“Of course, but you wont like it.”
“Why?”
“You”ll see.”

A few hundred yards further on the cab swung violently to the left as our driver gunned the engine and the Mercedes growled at an unnecessary rate of knots towards our hotel – The Windsor.
Recently updated in a quirky artistic theme, each room has been styled individually by a range of different artists.

http://www.hotelwindsornice.com/lhotel-2/chambres-dartiste/

Our chambre was a compact square, the highlight of which were dozens of red beaded necklaces draped from the ceiling, as though a hundred grand-dames had been kidnapped and their jewellery hung up as trophies.

But my favourite is the lift, which announces its journey to ones floor with a recording of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral circa 1972. we heard that tape at least 4 times a day and never tired of it.

Changed and refreshed, it was time to venture onto the streets and seek out dinner.

Two things typify Nice. The first are the scooters. Everyone has a scooter, they buzz around you like angry mechanical gadflies weaving insouciantly in and amongst the traffic. The second are the restaurants. There are restaurants everywhere. They hang around street corners, they wedge themselves up against each other in the middle of streets.

They fight for space on the promenade des Anglais. Trying to chose one is like trying to choose a diamond ring out of a tray of thousands.
Eventually we a chose a stylish-looking eatery just off the main drag. Of course it was packed. I pushed thought the sealed double glass doors to be greeted by a slim waitress ( is there any other kind in France ?) who through her gallic shuteye deduced that we had rocked up at her gaff sans reservation.

She squeezed us in under the stairs and swivelled a blackboard around to face us, on which was offered a thin selection of plates.
I plumped for the salmon fishcakes and Sarah chomped on scallops. Just delightful.

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I was struck by the volume and intensity of our fellow diner’s conversations. Everyone was talking. Of course, people talk in restaurants but the volume and intensity is often dictated by the poshness of the eatery. A quiet piano bar in London doesn’t have the same noise levels as a trendy American-themed diner in Shoreditch but in France, no matter if you are in a tiny cafe or a plush hotel, everyone chatters, everyone gossips.

We meandered back out onto the streets of Nice and decided to walk back to our hotel. We could have been in the nicest part of town or the roughest. But no matter where we were, we felt safe. Apart from the cacophony of the perma buzz of scooters, the streets were quiet.

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Tomorrow was going to be a day to explore. Tomorrow we planned the promenade, the beach and the train to Monte Carlo.

Nice

The Story of Our Five Days in Nice (France).

We flew to the South of France on an Easyjet Boeing 737. The desperate shuffling of passengers to get to the front as the ground staff announce the start of boarding has always baffled me. I think it’s the English urge to get “settled”. Why rush to get on? They wont leave without you.

Anyway, after shouting at Sarah to hurry, I was pleased to find us at the front of the queue (Well, I like to get comfy you see).

Our seats were at the rear of the plane. I read somewhere that the back of an aircraft was the safest place to be (apparently, planes don’t reverse into mountains).
As our fellow travellers boarded, my breathing became shallower, my hands felt clammy, my heart began to race. But it wasn’t the terror of being entombed in a silver tube burning gallons of kerosene in an illogical attempt to defy gravity, rather it was the fear of my ultimate flying phobia – a brat in the seat behind me.

Sarah was settled in next to me debating which variety of microwaved toasty she would like to scald her mouth on as I fidgeted and craned my neck to scan for the dreaded infant. She bid me to remain still.
“Tom, just relax. We will be off in a minute.”
“Look, there’s one coming now, it’s getting nearer.”
“Tom, just calm down, they look a perfectly nice family.”
“The parents seem ok, it’s the red faced urchin I don’t like the look of.”
The smiling thirty-somethings parents scanned the row numbers as they squeezed themselves inexorably nearer. Twenty eight, twenty nine….thirty two, thirty….three – there, perfect. And where do you think they ended up? You know it sister.

The smiling cabin crew snapped the overheads shut and fussed everyone into their places as the Irish burr of the pilot reassuringly purred our route over the PA system.

I closed my eyes. Maybe the kid with the E numbers smeared over his sticky intemperate mush would be perfectly behaved, maybe he would just nod off in his mummy’s arms? What did it matter that he was directly behind my head? The flight was short, it didn’t – thump! Oh god, we hadn’t even taken off and it had started. Thump!

It isn’t the actual kick that drives you insane, it’s the anticipation of the tiny toes tapping the back of your seat that’s unbearable.
“Tom, just ignore it, we’ll be there before you know it, read your guide to Nice.”
“I am trying to ignore it (thump), but it’s not easy when you’ve got parents who can’t control their bloody kids (thump).”
“Tom! shush, they’ll hear you!”
“Good! “(thump).
As the big tin bird eased herself into the stratosphere, the blonde terror behind succumbed to fatigue and fell into a fitful slumber. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, the racket from the fat lady to my left shattered my attempted cat nap. Her vast paw swirled inside her plastic cashew tub, like Trevor Brooking choosing the FA Cup quarter finalists.

After a moment or two, the pasty white claw pulled another catch of nuts out of the tub, her elbows nudging me with each swirl like a JCB digger excavating a drain. The chubby old dear then daintily threw them into her pie hole with the skill of a serial grazer. This might not have been so bad if she hadn’t been forced by some unknown sinus condition to to breath exclusively through her mouth.
This dual use of her gob meant her mastications were amplified by fifty percent.
I leaned over to Sarah and whispered
“Do you think she’s coming to Nice to sample the gastronomy?”
“Shush Tom, she’ll hear you.”
“Good!” (Nudge)
To make a point I put my fingers dramatically in my ears . Sarah dragged them back out.

Then thankfully, my ears did some popping as our pilot pointed the nose towards the Med and we began our descent. The aircraft banked steeply to the left and, just above stalling speed dropped altitude in ever greater increments until tarmac began rushing past my window.
Do you hold your breath just before the undercarriage smacks onto the blackstuff? There is always that two second moment when I think – is he going to make it? then there is the bang! another smaller bump then a final little skip before the anti locks and reverse thrust decelerate us into taxi speed. And there we were – Nice.
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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 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..