The séance had not gone well. All the way home Michael had been burning with rage, barely suppressed for the sake of his wife, Angela, who lay like a shipwreck in her corner of the taxi. If the little bitch (meaning the psychic) dares to chase me for the rest of the payment I’ll decorate that hovel with her skin, he thought. The very idea of the séance had been abhorrent to him, and he had sniffed when he saw the dingy flat above the bookmakers’ where the woman lived.
She had worn her hair in a greasy bandanna and from her neck hung a cheap jangling necklace, the costume, he guessed, purposely chosen to exaggerate her age and connection to the gypsy community, when in fact she was just an actress paying her way through school with this scam. He pictured her sitting in that filthy flea-market armchair (in whose bouquet of stuffing her natural consort, the rat, made house) reading the obituaries, those long red nails gathering around a pen once she had found a likely mark. Were the names of Michael and Angela Hughes encircled with red biro in a stashed newspaper somewhere in the flat? Michael knew it. Tomorrow, on his way to work, he’d slip a few quid to those ne’er-do-wells who hung around at the end of her street and really teach her a lesson.
‘I can’t think why she did it’ he said to his wife as he poured her a drink in their living room, though he knew quite well – hook ’em early, reel ’em back. ‘All those terrible things she said, pretending it was Matthew.’ The living room, which Michael avoided when he could, was suffocated by pictures of their late son. His infancy filled the mantelpiece like decorative cherubs, his early school days regimented the piano lid, while his teenage years were scattered about the room on various little tables designed for ashtrays and coasters.
Angela accepted the drink, and Michael stood uneasily by the fireplace, unwilling to lean on it lest he disturb a photograph. His wife, he saw, was borderline comatose, and would have to be forced to drink her whiskey, which looked like it might fall from her grasp at any moment. Seeing his avenue, Michael took advantage of the moment. ‘And another thing, I want all these photographs moved to the conservatory, like I suggested at Easter. Remembrance is one thing, Angie, but we can’t live in the past forever, and I would like to host in here again’.
That seemed to bring his wife back to the present, and she slowly placed her glass on the coffee table, parting the waves of pictures. She made eye contact with her husband, weary more than angry. ‘Why are you so eager to forget our child?’ she asked. Michael bristled and gave her what he hoped was a disapproving, authoritarian stare. ‘I want to do no such thing’ he said, ‘but it’s been a year, Angela, and people are starting to think you’re not right.’
‘So it’s diseased for a mother to be torn apart by the death of her only son, is it?’
‘Don’t put words in my mouth, Angela. It’s not just the… grief. It’s all this nonsense about séances and those ridiculous seer-stones you’ve strewn about our bedroom. Frankly, I regret even beginning to humour you about that stupid woman who took our money just so she could spew filth at us. You were there, you heard her. Aren’t you as offended as I am by what she claimed our son was saying to us?’
Angela looked at him, then sighed and raised herself up from the sofa. She picked up her drink and, to Michael’s surprise, gulped it down. She returned the glass to the hostess trolley and said ‘if you want to move the pictures do it yourself, I’m going to bed.’
Emily Paget couldn’t speak to the dead, didn’t even think that the dead could be spoken to. But she could lighten the hearts of sad women, women who might have done harm to themselves if left alone with their grief and cosmic dread, and with that she justified her psychic side-line. That side-line had begun three years ago, after a housewarming party at which she was a guest, and half-noticed the hostess, a greying middle-aged woman worrying prayer beads through her fingers, watching her. Eventually she gathered the courage to approach Emily, and said without preamble: ‘excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but it’s just that I’ve been noticing you tonight and, well, maybe I’m wrong, but you seem to have an old soul…’ A man in the group Emily was stood with laughed and said, ‘my mother is one of these New Age types. Knows all about crystals and energies and chakras.’
‘Well so long as it’s only my soul that’s old!’ Emily joshed, and they all laughed. The woman smiled, laughed along. ‘I know it sounds silly’ she said, ‘but I really do get these feelings about people, and something about you makes me think that you have what we call “the gift”.’ “The gift”, as Emily learned, was the ability to see beyond the curtain of surface reality, to a deeper, more magical reality where the spirits of dead humans and animals, among other things, walked.
The woman invited her to a meeting of her spiritualists’ circle, which Emily, always game for a laugh, attended, and was startled when her new friend introduced her as a psychic. ‘I wouldn’t say that!’ she had protested, startled and feeling suddenly alone in the draughty church hall. ‘Mrs. Buxton’s gift is for spotting her fellow gifted’ said the group leader, a tall and preposterously thin man in a felt suit, ‘so I am inclined to trust her judgement.’
The circle held a séance that night, and Emily was invited to speak to the ghost of a dead priest, Father Dawlish, who had been the church’s incumbent official before his death five years ago. Emily didn’t ask why a priest should have to linger so long in purgatory. After some initial hesitation she got into the swing of the charade (for that was how she saw it) and began questioning the ghost about his experiences in the afterlife, how many Christian souls he’d escorted to Heaven, and which of the archangels he had spoken to.
Having impressed the circle, Emily was sought by people to whom she had been recommended, people seeking solace about the fate of their beloved dead. Mostly it was old women wanting to make sure their husbands were well and not having affairs in the Elysian Fields. (The notion of an eternity wherein wedding vows still had to be honoured horrified Emily.) Once she had consoled a young man that his childhood sweetheart, who had been killed in a car crash, was waiting for him on the other side. (Personally, Emily would have made a beeline for James Dean and forgotten the drippy mortal she’d shacked up with on Earth, but she kept that to herself.)
These “clients” took for granted that Emily would expect to be paid, and before she had begun her first sitting the old girl who had found her was opening her purse. Emily had moved to London to be an actress after six years waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant. Though a girl of her attractiveness rarely had to pay for drinks, the cost of socialising strained her budget and she couldn’t expect her parents to fund her lifestyle forever, supportive as they were, so this unexpected income was more than welcome. She wouldn’t have to find work in-between acting jobs, which meant she definitely wouldn’t have to waitress again. Her psychic side-line kept her comfortably accommodated in her tiny apartment above a bookmakers’, down a street her grandmother would have called cheap, and she couldn’t see herself doing any harm to anyone; quite the opposite.
Then came the Hughes’s. A middle-class couple, the husband an art dealer, the wife a schoolteacher-turned-homemaker who’d found Emily in The Psychic Directory (a quarterly magazine). She was reluctant to accept the job because this wasn’t just a case of a dead spouse or sweetheart, some grieving lover to whom she could give the usual bland reassurances. Their teenage son had died of cancer the year before, and Mrs. Hughes wanted to speak to him again, to know that his personality survived somewhere, and she would meet it again one day.
Fooling a dotty widow or a love-struck boy was just about acceptable, Emily thought, but exploiting a wracked parent’s torment strayed too close to evil. After the introductory phone call, however, she agreed to meet them in a café near her home, and she could tell almost instantly that this was the wife’s idea. The husband, though superficially polite, regarded and handled her with the disdain one would a discarded condom. Emily wore her characteristic tight red mackintosh – which exposed her long legs – red felt heels, and black plastic necklace. Her rich blond hair was restrained by a red felt band. She saw Mr. Hughes admiring and evaluating her with infinite condescension.
The money he proposed – he was clearly a man who, though disdainful of needless expense, had been rich long enough to have forgotten the worth of many things – was, she feared to confess, the deciding factor. With it she could quit her non-role as Lady Godiva in a seedy, stupid play that was doing the rounds of the nightclubs. She could bid her sleaze-ball director adieu and buy her way into parties where the influential people would be. She could push her dream that one inch closer to fulfilment.
But it had all gone terribly wrong. She had meant to say just that poor little Matthew Hughes was alive and well in the spirit world, walking hand in hand with his guardian angel, all the usual tripe, when she suddenly took on his voice and launched into a schizophrenic torrent of abuse at the boy’s father, sat opposite her. Words she had only heard the cheapest of men and women use gushed from her mouth like water through a split dam. Sickening accusations, insults, threats. A stunned Mrs. Hughes howled in despair, and this was the impetus for her husband to leap up and slap Emily, hard, across the face. She didn’t blame him. If she had been in his position, she thought, the offender would be lucky to have left with nothing broken.
Why did she do it? What, if she could honestly use the word, “possessed” her? She didn’t know, and she was terrified. She knew vaguely of a great aunt who had gone mad and been committed in the Edwardian years, but she had been old, and Emily knew of no genetic predisposition to insanity on either of her parents’ sides. ‘Just bad teeth and rickets’ she joked to herself while shakily clutching a brandy glass – after Mr. Hughes had pulled his wife from the premises – but without much humour.
The next day she was violently mugged within sight of her flat by a gang of street kids, who took her purse and gave her two black eyes. Staggering to her door, she wondered if it was karma.
Angela Hughes happened to be passing Gaia’s Health and Bookshop, a homoeopathic boutique, as the shopkeeper was kissing Emily Paget goodbye. Angela paused and Emily saw her. They didn’t quite make eye contact because Emily was wearing enormous tinted sunglasses, but they recognised each other, and to Emily’s surprise and relief Angela waved her over like an old friend. ‘Well isn’t this is a coincidence!’ cried Angela, and crushed her red Mack in an embrace. Angela, a much taller woman than the diminutive other, bent down to do this. She wore a long brown corduroy coat and cap, the second almost hiding her forehead. ‘Are you busy? Can we have lunch?’
‘I suppose so’ said Emily, too taken aback to lie, ‘The Vineyard?’
‘Absolutely! We’ll call it a homecoming’ laughed Angela, and they returned to the place where they had met, though their table was by the window this time. After they had ordered tea and sandwiches Angela asked ‘was that your boyfriend I saw you with?’ Emily laughed. ‘James? Not a chance. The man’s a fairy. That’s why he does so well in that shop. The women he sells to know that he really is interested in their auras. I even suggested he print business cards calling himself “The Homo Homoeopath”!’ Angela smiled politely at this. A pause ensued, then Emily confessed, ‘I’m surprised you’d want to see me, after what happened…’
Angela glanced about her. The Vineyard was a small café, too sophisticated for its home in a shabby side-street; the tables were clean white plastic, unclothed, and to support the establishment’s name vines were attached to the walls, draped across blackboard menus and generic still-lives of fruit, country kitchens etc. Angela studied these surroundings as if she was collecting strength. Finally, she said ‘I don’t blame you. I don’t think you’re depraved, and I know you’re not a fraud.’ Emily’s heart ached. ‘That was my son’s voice I heard, regardless what he said, whether I’d suspect him of knowing even half those dreadful words, or the import of his accusations…’ She took a tissue from a pocket and wiped her eyes. She looked at Emily’s glasses. ‘I read the papers this morning. I’m dreadfully sorry, and I hope the police catch them. This has been a horrible week for both of us.’ Emily smiled. She flinched and almost knocked her cup when Angela’s hand grasped hers across the table. ‘Come back with me’ she pleaded, ‘you don’t have to worry about Michael, he’s in Germany for the week.’
Propped against the wall in the Hughes’s living room was a portrait of the Catholic Saint Ursula, surrounded by her martyred virgins in a lush medieval bedchamber. The virgins’ heads and headless bodies were scattered, and Ursula, stood just beyond the light pouring in from a barred arch-window, eyes downcast, hands outspread, expression vague, was an angelic ambassador to this scene of mortal horror. Emily observed the portrait while Angela fetched her a drink. She didn’t care for it, could tell it was painted by a man. Men always had a need to impress themselves with blood and vulgarity. A woman would have made the virgins as dignified as the saint, not caught in a grotesque parody of pain and fear, eyes wide open with hair spilt across faces, limbs and in one case a buttock exposed.
‘Good, isn’t it?’ said Angela as she gave Emily her drink. ‘Brilliant’ Emily agreed. ‘Where Michael finds such talented young men I don’t know.’ Angela dropped backwards onto the sofa, feeling at ease with and un-obliged to impress her battered charlatan, she of the gaudy red Mack. Emily sat beside her. ‘Don’t worry’ said Angela, ‘I don’t expect a repeat performance. Nor am I sure I even want one. Isn’t that terrible? That I no longer want to speak to my own child?’
‘I can’t say I blame you’ Emily replied, ‘after all those terrible things I said.’
‘Yes, dear, but you didn’t say them, did you? It was him. Whatever he’s become, he’s not the boy I knew. Matthew was such a sweet child. I loved him more than I ever loved Michael. Now that is terrible! But it’s true, and I can be honest with you, dear. That’s why I wanted to see you again. Maybe that’s the real reason why a lot of people visit you psychics. They can tell them things they’d never dare tell their families.’
‘We’re cheaper than shrinks, anyway.’ Angela laughed. ‘Absolutely! My husband sent me to one of those chaps when Michael died. He’s always one to avoid rumours, but he knew I needed the kind of support he couldn’t provide. He’s not an expressive man. He loved Matthew as much as I, yet he didn’t quite invest as much… Does that make sense?’ Emily sipped her drink. ‘I think so’ she answered. She noticed there were no photographs in the room, just that tacky portrait. The room, in fact, looked exquisitely styled. They sat on a white sofa with a pink-budded yew branch design, and before them was a coffee table framed in polished brass. The fireplace was ornate, absurdly so for its small size, and the carpets held barely an impression of footsteps. The room looked like one you would see in a furniture catalogue.
Angela launched herself up, startling Emily, and walked to the painting. She stared at it for a few moments, then said, ‘I know it’s silly, because how would we have met if you did, but I wish you’d known Matthew. He wasn’t like Michael or I. He was small, even smaller than you, and he loved sports. It broke his heart when had to give all that up. His old football team stayed in touch, though, bless their hearts. I was at his bedside in the hospital one day when four boys in dirty football uniforms came in carrying a ball, and they played catch. He was so pleased, I don’t think I ever saw him happier, and I hugged each of those dear, sweet young men hard enough to put them in the hospital!’
Emily returned her empty glass and stood beside her. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ Angela turned to face her, as if seeing her for the first time. ‘Of course’ she said, smiling. ‘Forgive me, please, it’s really not my place, but… are you and your husband happy? I mean, happy together?’ Angela picked up one of Emily’s hands and held it in both of hers. ‘We women see straight through each other, don’t we? Michael was a sweetheart when we met. He once spent a week’s wages buying me the most absurd, extravagant bouquet you could imagine. Another time he bought me a three thousand pound painting from his auction room just because I said it would look good in our bedroom.’
‘But then he changed’ said Emily, then wondered how she could dare such a remark. Angela still held her hand, caressing it, though she looked elsewhere. ‘He put all his romantic feeling in the acquisition, I suppose, though he was still very generous. And he loved Michael… We conceived him in a B&B on the Essex coast. You could see the sea from our bedroom.’ Emily felt Angela tremble. She placed her free hand on the other three, capturing all four in a sisterly embrace. She had had the kind of premonition which made her wonder if she was a little bit psychic after all. ‘Was he… rough with you?’ Angela closed her eyes. ‘It doesn’t really count, does it? If you’re married, I mean.’
‘Of course it matters, Angela. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re owned.’
‘I was a virgin when he took me. The thing I remember is that he kept saying “don’t be stupid”. “Don’t be stupid, Angie, it’ll all be over soon…”’
The two women had held each other for a long time, then Emily had given Angela her phone number. She may not have wanted to be a part of this particular domestic tragedy, but she was responsible now. She had taken a couple’s money under false pretences and in return desecrated the wife’s memory of their son. The husband knew she was a charlatan as well as she knew it herself, despite how bewildered she was by her actions. But the wife believed, and the wife was a sad, lonely woman who needed a friend, not a psychic.
On the night of her husband’s return Angela Hughes wandered the house in her nightdress, randomly arranging ornaments and cleaning what was already clean. When she finally entered her bedroom she felt suddenly sick and clutched her stomach, bending double. She felt like she’d swallowed a spider, a spider that was now crawling around inside her, playing with her wires. Her brown eyes lightened a shade as her pupils dilated, and just as she thought she was about to be sick the sensation left. She stood erect, her arms hanging limply at her sides, her head at an angle, which she righted. Her eyes were wide open, and she seemed to be surveying the room – large double bed below a portrait of Ophelia, asleep and floating through lily-pads; two enormous wardrobes on either side, like observing doctors – as though she had just returned to it after a long holiday.
For reasons she couldn’t explain her right hand decided to explore her body, starting just beneath the breasts and ending on her crotch, at whose feel she smiled. She heard a key turn in the front door and spun around, eyes narrowing and smile growing predatory. She walked to the head of the stairs and looked down. Michael stood there in a glistening black raincoat and hat. He hung the hat and his umbrella on a stand then, as he started unzipping the coat, saw Angela. He smiled warmly. ‘Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise? I didn’t think you’d have waited up.’ She walked down the stairs, put a hand on his wet coat shoulder, and stared at him with a faint coquettish smile. ‘Come into the living room’ she said, then walked away.
‘I’m all wet, darling, and the Fosters are stopping by tomorrow. We don’t want to dirty the furniture.’ Angela paused in the doorway and turned. ‘Don’t we?’ she said, then turned back and entered the dark room. Bemused, Michael hung up his coat and followed her. ‘We’re in a funny mood, aren’t we-’ he petrified when he saw her again. Her arm was raised above the portrait of Saint Ursula, an ice-pick from the hostess trolley in hand. It stayed there a moment, then swooped down and tore a gash through the Saint’s serene face. ‘What are you doing?!’ He ran to her, but she turned and slashed his cheek with the pick. He felt flat on his backside, stunned. ‘For God’s sake, Angela, what’s wrong with you?!’ He tried to stand and knock the ice pick from her hand, but she kicked him in the face. He heard a crack. It felt like he’d been hit with a hammer. His nose, he realised, was broken, and blood trickled down his face into his shirt collar. His face was alive with pain, he was almost faint with it and the surprise.
Angela straddled him, and although he was normally several times her weight, he couldn’t shake her off. With the ice pick she tore off each of the little buttons on his shirt, exposing his chest. The pick circled the breastplate guarding his heart. ‘Do you really want him back as much as I do?’ said Angela.
‘What are you talking about?!’
‘Michael. If it was possible, would you bring him back?’
‘I don’t know what you mean-’
‘I mean would you make our dead son alive again?!’
‘Yes, yes! Of course I would! A thousand times over, please…’
Gratified, Angela smiled. She unbuttoned and unzipped his trousers. Using his last burst of energy he lifted his torso and tried to push her away. She head-butted him in the place where his nose had broken, and he screamed. The neighbours, he thought, the neighbours would have to hear something soon… But his wife was too strong. A new and unholy energy burned through the wires in her skin, and she subdued her well-built, ex-athletic husband with ease. Tears gathered in his eyes, and one fell down his face. She pulled down his pants and grasped him. ‘Please, Angela, I can’t…’ He felt like a girl in the lair of a beast. Then he heard words he had long since forgotten, as his wife removed his belt and pinned him with a weight she couldn’t have possessed. ‘Don’t be stupid, Michael, it’ll all be over soon…’