I speak about the dead in the present tense. This unsettles many people. Most, it turns out, prefer to ignore death altogether. They certainly don’t want it dragged into the here and now. The past perfect suits them very nicely, thank you. Over time, I have come to terms with this tension. Now, I mind the gap. It’s not often I meet others who also understand, but it does happen. Now and then…
One day, at a postgraduate lecture, I met a woman who understood as she, too, spoke about the dead in the present tense. She told me she was researching bereavement and that, as part of her work, she’d met a woman who was a medium. This woman, she said, was highly gifted. Would I like to be introduced? I was certainly curious. I was raised by open-minded parents in a reputedly haunted house in Britain’s oldest recorded town so, yes, it did seem interesting.
But I didn’t care enough to follow up, then. However, about a year later, I decided I would – for two reasons. A friend, newly widowed, wanted to talk about her bereavement. It had happened in an untimely, unexpected fashion, and she needed to air her anger, frustration and incomprehension. No-one else wanted to listen – the funeral is over, she’s got to move on. I wanted to help. So I listened and it didn’t take long for me to realise that so many of the questions she had, I did, too. Forget the dead, I thought, at the very least this medium must be used to consoling the living.
And then, while I was mulling over the medium, my house decided to act up. My lodgers became nervous of being in the house alone. They claimed the lighting switched itself on and off (it did), the heating had a mind of its own (it did), doors opened unaided (not sure about this one) and that they could hear footsteps at night when no-one else was home (again, not sure). The electrician and the heating engineer came round (together – which the lodgers duly noted), sighed, shook their heads (y’know how it is with these old houses), and asked if I’d be paying cash. I tried to reassure the lodgers, they weren’t convinced. They knew of my increasingly troubled dreams as I’d started to wake (shouting) in the early hours of the morning.
So, that’s when I decided it was time. I contacted the researcher and asked for that medium’s number. Before the medium would accept my call, however, I had to be recommended. I needed a reference. That given, we spoke, on first name terms only while we arranged a day and time to meet. The instruction was to arrive at the small railway station nearest to her on the day, and then to call again for directions. I was never given an address. She was intensely private. I admired her for it. She did not charge for her work, only met with people she believed she could help, and certainly did not want media attention or time wasters.
The train journey was just long enough for me to reflect on my questions and shroud my misgivings. On arrival at the railway station, I called and was given precise, effective instructions to find the house. I did, easily, in about 15 minutes. I didn’t need an address. Now, I’ve wracked my brain to find adjectives to describe the home inside and out, and come back with not much more than ‘neat’ and ‘clean’. As Gran used to say, you could have eaten your food off the floor (except that this one was carpeted, wall to wall so, no, not really).
She opened the door to the bungalow as I walked up the path, and smiled at me. She was a well-built woman in her 70s, and extremely well turned-out. I smelled talcum powder and rosewater as I brushed past her in the door way. ‘I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, dear. Please take your boots off as you come in. Thank you. No, no you can keep your socks on! (they always came off with my boots). There’s a lot to talk about but, before we start, would you like a cup of tea?’ And with that, she showed me into the kitchen.
‘That would be lovely, thanks.’
‘Just milk, please.’
‘Ah, it’s still solid! I’m sorry, I forgot to take it out of the freezer in time.’
‘That’s not a good advert, is it?’
‘No, it certainly isn’t!’
‘Never mind, I’ll drink it black’.
And so I carried my cup of black tea steadily through to her magnolia front room. I sat – as directed – on a small, well-upholstered sofa. I tucked my stockinged feet underneath me. I put that cup of black tea on a coaster, next to a box of tissues and a glass of water on an occasional table. She sat her small, well-upholstered frame down on an upright hardwood chair. Sliding back on the seat cushion until her slippered feet barely touched the deep-pile carpet, she positioned her arms on those of the chair and smiled at me.
‘Thank you for coming here today, dear. I have so much to say to you. Shall we begin?’
‘I believe we already have’
‘Yes, yes, we have. Haven’t we?’
The room smelled of furniture polish with splashes of her perfume and dustings of her talcum powder. Her pink, powder-fresh, marshmallow face was crowned by a motionless, silver beehive and underscored by a double string of pearls. Her outfit of thin-rimmed spectacles, twin set, and tailored trousers, all added to the impression of a pleasant, yet strict, retired primary school teacher. She and the room were so tidy, I felt messy in my jeans and sweatshirt. Never mind, I was on my best behaviour. I edged sideways on the sofa to be closer to the tissues.
‘Don’t be afraid to use them, dear, most people cry, but they’ll be happy tears. I never give anyone sad news.’
I looked at her, gave her a fixed smile, and nodded.
She explained to me, clearly and simply, how our meeting would work and that she had no control over what she learned. (I nodded – understood). She asked that I made no recordings and took no notes while we were together. (I nodded – agreed). She had a guide who helped her and a no-nonsense attitude which helped us both. While she spoke, she moved her head very slightly, tilting it from left to right as if tuning in. She remained undeterred by my monosyllabic scepticism – there were messages for me and she was going to see I got them. No names were offered, no guessing games played. She gave clear descriptions of character and appearance. She also told me cause of death, though this clearly strained her. I had the distinct impression of Gran, Ruby and Ando. Of him, certainly, I was left in no doubt.
‘Oh! Such pain! It’s in his heart, then his head and…everywhere. This is terrible. I have to ask him to stop, it’s too much for me. He doesn’t realise, of course. Right, that’s better…I think. Oh, he’s all over the place! He just can’t stay still, can he? He’s waving his arms around and using his hands to talk, too. Loving but tiring, let’s say. He’s telling me you were very angry when he left. You were, weren’t you?’
‘Yes. I was furious.’
‘But you’re not now.’
‘Good, good. That’s such a relief to him. You’re strong, but you have your limits. He keeps saying thank you, thank you. He’s so grateful to you, it’s overpowering. Breathe deep. Just be yourself. I’m having to tell him to back away, he’s very forceful and has so much to say. I know there are other messages for you, but he’s drowning them out. Ha! (she smiled and looked straight at me). Well, he sees himself as your guardian angel – he travels with you everywhere. Bit of a mixed blessing with that energy! Beware little accidents, eh? Tell me, now, what can you smell?’
‘Lavender water and, maybe, freesias.’
‘So, you know who’s here then.’
‘I think so. The lavender’s not you, is it?’
‘No, dear, it’s not. Not my thing. It’s her. She’s over here by me, and knows you’re expecting lavender as it’s her favourite. Now, let’s talk about colours. She’d like you to go and sit in the garden room to relax after our meeting, it’s the shade of green you both like. We can also see pink around you, yes, I can see you don’t like it (I’d grimaced). Anyway, it’s there and it’s a very positive sign. Very healing. She says the past is dealt with now, you need to move on! Focus, eh?’
Another hour passed, during which she spoke and I listened (every now and then adding a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, when asked for a response). It had the feel of a long-distance telephone call, on a poor line – as if she were on the receiver straining to listen, then covering the mouthpiece with her hand before speaking to me. By the end, we were both drained; her, of energy, me, of tears. I’d not expected to cry, but I had and had no idea why. I told her this.
‘As I said, dear, most people cry. It just happens. Didn’t you want to hear from these people? Are you disappointed?’
‘No, no, far from it! I can’t imagine having nicer company. I just… feel sad it’s over.’
‘Over? It’s never over! They won’t leave you. They love you.’
The hard water in my untouched, now cold, tea had filmed over and two damp tissues were crumpled in my left hand. She drew a deep breath, sighed, stood up and stretched as I drained the glass of water. ‘She brought white freesias for you, though you know she prefers the coloured ones.’
She showed me into the garden room, to sit alone, while she prepared lunch for her husband. By this time, the milk had defrosted so I took the cup of tea she offered as we passed the kitchen. This cup I did drink. I tried so hard to understand what I’d been told and how I felt about it that I drove my thoughts and emotions away. I looked out through the full-length windows, onto garden shades of deep green – the verdant display in midwinter a wonder. In time, I got up and took my cup to the kitchen, where her lunch was almost ready. I offered money for her time, she refused to accept it. I knew she would. Instead, she asked that I donate to charity. She knew I would.
She took me out into the hall to put on my coat, gloves, scarf and boots. Then, ready to face the outside world, I turned to thank her again. She opened the front door and held it for me.
‘I’m just the messenger, dear. I only hope that what I pass on to you, you can make sense of. I’m quite confident you will, given time.’
‘Yes, I believe I shall.’
‘Love is always present.’
‘Yes. Yes, it is.’
We shook hands and smiled. I turned away and stepped outside. She closed the door behind me.
This text started life as part of my #FLFiction16 course – the task was to write a piece of no more than 500 words. The basis for the story was to be taken from the first line I heard when I switched on the radio. It was BBC Radio 4: ‘A fantasy with a dead woman’ (from 15-Minute Drama, November Dead List, episode 3).