Sheila Innis took the opposite chair, her back to the French windows and the light. There was a grandmother clock set against the wall beside her. It was a lovely room, Iris Chater thought, a peaceful room. It had what felt like an air of contentment about it. She could have lived happily in this room, she thought, and not missed her own. There was nothing to make her nervous, nothing odd or worrying, there were no strange objects or pictures. She took a deep breath and leaned back. The footrest did indeed spring forward. She felt more relaxed than she had done for weeks. If nothing else at all happened, it would have been worth coming for this alone.
‘Mrs Chater, have you ever visited a medium or any kind of spiritualist before?’
‘Oh no. No, never.’
‘I don’t want you to tell me anything else about yourself. I wanted to know that because obviously, past experiences do affect people and every medium is different, we all work in our own way. So I’ll just tell you briefly about what to expect. Are you comfortable there?’
‘I might drop off to sleep. It’s lovely.’
‘Good. Now, first of all, we will both continue to sit here like this. I shan’t draw the curtains or light any candles or anything of that sort. I don’t work with a spirit guide either, as some mediums and clairvoyants do. I wouldn’t find that helpful. I don’t use tarot cards or crystals. I don’t hypnotise you or put you into a trance, and nor do I go into a trance at individual sessions. But I will close my eyes to allow me to concentrate better. I’d ask you to answer any questions but only those questions … it’s better if I’m not prompted. The other important thing is that nothing may happen. There may be no one from the other side who comes forward, no one wanting to make contact with you through me. That is quite possible, though it isn’t usual, and if it’s disappointing, I can understand, but there really is nothing I can do. I don’t make things up. I won’t do that. If someone – or several people – speak to me, trying to make contact and if they have messages for you, I hear them, and I can usually see them … it’s just like a picture coming into my mind. If you close your eyes now and try and imagine, say, a tall, dark, handsome young man with white teeth and sparkling eyes … well, a picture will come into your mind. That is what happens to me … the difference is, of course, that I have no idea who I will see. Or hear. Sometimes, several people come to me together, a bit like children, jostling for attention, and then I can’t hear them, I have to make out who is speaking most clearly and it isn’t always easy. Am I making sense?’
Iris Chater looked across and saw the woman smile again, that warm, attractive, lovely smile. She felt wrapped in the smile and made safe by it. It was a smile she trusted.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I think so.’
‘Do you have anything else to ask?’
‘No thank you.’
‘Fine. Just relax then, Mrs Chater.’
The grandmother clock had a gentle tick. The cat stirred in sleep and its paws twitched. Through the window, Iris could see the patch of deep purple crocuses.
For several minutes, Sheila Innis sat, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes closed, silent and still. Iris waited, pleasantly at ease in the chair with the footrest. Perhaps this would be all and Harry would not come. She wondered how much she would mind.
‘Nina,’ Sheila Innis said. ‘I have someone here called Nina … she’s asking if you remember the blue … just a minute … she’s holding something up … oh, it’s a comb. The blue comb. You and she had a joke about a blue comb?’
It meant nothing at all. Iris tried to picture a blue comb but there was nothing.
‘I’m sure it’s Nina … no, is it Nita? Yes, I’m sorry, it’s Nita.’
‘Nita Ramsden? Goodness, I’d forgotten her, it’s donkey’s years ago.’ Why would Nita Ramsden want to talk to her?
‘She’s laughing now. She’s about … eighteen or nineteen with short curly hair and she’s wearing an apron …’
‘An overall … it’s an overall. Dear God, it must be Nita. We worked together … it’s more than fifty years ago. What does she say?’
‘She’s not speaking, she’s just laughing. She looks so happy. She’s pretty, isn’t she?’
‘Nita was ever so pretty.’
‘She’s got several young men there with her … one nice-looking young man is standing behind her. He says … I can’t get his name, but he says you were all friends in a gang together. He says, what a surprise, Iris. He’s quite a cheeky young man.’
‘Is that it? He’s wagging his finger. He says he isn’t going to tell me.’
‘He was Nita’s fiancé.’
For several moments, then, Sheila Innis was silent. Her eyes were tightly closed and she seemed to be listening intently. Nita Ramsden and Donald. How strange, when you thought of all the people since who might have come through. Why them? But thinking about it, how could she be sure it was them? She’d answered the questions, the medium had given hints and she herself had picked them up. It could all be rubbish. It wasn’t what she wanted. But then Sheila Innis began to talk again rapidly.
‘She’s come much closer now. She has really unusual eyes … a greeny grey. Lovely eyes. She’s saying she’s sorry you had to wait for her and she couldn’t tell you what had happened. You waited for such a long time in the cold. Now she’s showing me a bicycle … I’m getting a picture of her on a bicycle riding over a bridge … is that a bridge?’
Iris Chater felt her neck prickle. Her hands were very cold. The room seemed cold, so that she pulled her silk scarf back up round her.
‘She says it was all over in a minute but there was a second when she knew what was happening and everything seemed to go still. She knew she couldn’t do anything and then it was over. She saw you waiting for her. She says … just a minute … no, is it … she says you had brought the biscuits. Is it that? Biscuits?’
‘Yes,’ Iris barely whispered. ‘We took it in turns. It was my day for the biscuits … we used to pinch a handful out of the biscuit barrels at home.’
‘She’s showing me the bicycle again … the wheel’s completely buckled, and the handlebars are forced round.’
‘She was killed on her bicycle. We used to meet on the corner and that day I waited twenty minutes for her but she didn’t come so I went on to work … and she’d been killed, she’d swerved under a tram. Oh, Nita … Poor little Nita. Is it really you?’
‘She’s saying you had good times. Didn’t we have good times, Iris, you and me and Donald and Norman. Didn’t we have good times?’
‘Yes,’ Iris whispered, her mouth dry, ‘yes, Nita, we had good times.’
‘Now I’ve got someone else. Ella … Ella, no, sorry, it’s Ellie. Yes. She’s wearing a special brooch, a ship, yes … on a dark dress.’
‘That’s my grandmother.’
‘She’s frowning. She says everything was hard. She’s sorry she didn’t have more time for you when you were young but she had a hard time with your grandfather. Was he ill? I’m sensing he was ill for a long time.’
‘He had mental problems … a lot of it was kept from me.’
‘She says she wanted to leave you her box of treasures but she didn’t have time to make a will. She passed over very suddenly. She says you’d always liked to look through it but she didn’t think. She keeps telling me she’s very sorry. There’s a dog here … a dog. A small brown dog, yes. Do you know it? It’s barking at you as if it’s greeting you.’
‘No. I don’t know any brown dog.’
‘Well, it’s a friendly little dog and it definitely says hello, it’s jumping up and down trying to attract your attention. It’s a little terrier … a Yorkshire terrier?’
‘No,’ Iris said sadly. She ought to know the dog, surely, if it had come to greet her.
Sheila Innis was silent again now, her hands still resting together in her lap. The sun had moved round and the cat had moved with it.
‘Is … is there someone who says he’s Harry?’
The medium did not reply. Perhaps she ought not to have spoken. She waited, wondering about Nita, from fifty years ago, pretty little Nita killed on her bicycle. It was Nita’s Donald who’d given Iris her first cigarette. They’d all started up then. They’d been friends, pals, but not really close and it had all been long before Harry. Why should Nita have come through when Harry hadn’t?
‘Come and talk to me,’ he’d said and Iris had come but now he wasn’t here, didn’t seem to want to talk. She wanted to know if he was all right, just that, and for him to say something, anything, that would be proof to her, willed him to come through and say something only the two of them knew. That would be proof. Like only she and Nita knew about the biscuits.
The grandmother clock ticked on.
After a few more minutes, the medium opened her eyes, and then quickly made a gesture with her hands, running them down her body from the top of her head as if she was brushing something away.
She smiled across at Iris. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘there’s no one else this afternoon. I sense I’ve disappointed you. You wanted someone to come through and they haven’t. Was it your husband? Did he pass over quite recently?’
‘Harry. My Harry died just before Christmas.’
‘That’s very soon, Mrs Chater. It might be too soon. Sometimes it does take a little longer … but not always. No, not always. I can’t make them come, you see, and I won’t pretend. I could make up all sorts of things to give comfort but that would be cheating and I won’t cheat people.’
‘Would you like to come again? I’m always glad to go on trying. I don’t give up easily but I just can’t order people to come through if they don’t want to, or are finding it difficult. That’s often true when people first pass over … they find it difficult. They have to get help. I’m sure Harry is doing that. Perhaps leave it a month? It’s entirely up to you.’ She stood. ‘Please don’t be too downhearted. I sense Harry is very close to you and looking after you and that he’s happy.’
It was the first time Iris Chater had felt suspicious. Easy words, she thought.
At the door, Sheila Innis put her hand on her arm. ‘I wonder … I think you might be the sort of person to benefit from one of my evening groups … sometimes, there’s an atmosphere which encourages those in the spirit world who haven’t spoken … haven’t been able to come through. We do get some remarkable results. There are just half a dozen clients. You might find what you want then.’
She wanted to escape. There was something intense about the way Sheila Innis was looking at her, something about her eyes.
‘I’d … I’d have to think about it. I’m not sure.’
‘Of course. Just telephone me. But you will. I have a definite feeling. You would find what you’re searching for.’
‘Thank you. Yes.’ When she reached the top of the path, Iris glanced back and saw that the medium was still looking at her intently, watching her leave.
She couldn’t face going home to be by herself yet, but there was a bus stop on the main road and she only had to wait a couple of minutes until one came which took her into town. She needed the town, people and cars and shops and bustle, she needed to be among things that were ordinary and cheerful and real. She bought some bread and then a bunch of early daffodils from a stall. In the morning, she would take them up to the cemetery. After that, she went into Tilly’s and had a pot of tea and a toasted teacake and spun out the time, looking at other people and listening to their conversations, until she felt normal again, normal and safe.
Pauline was at the window, waving a teacup, but she was not ready to talk to Pauline, who would know at once that she had been up to something. She was not just a nosy neighbour, she was concerned, but Iris was not ready to talk about the visit to Sheila Innis, and she didn’t like to lie, so instead, she hurried inside while pretending to search deeply in her handbag. The house was very still. It was a pleasure now that the nights were lengthening just a little, so that she did not need to put the lights on until after five. She changed out of her suit and went back down to the kitchen. On the window ledge her pots of pink cyclamen glowed gently in the evening light. That had been one of Harry’s few pleasures when he was so ill, seeing the potted plants she always kept up. Now, she looked at them and said his name. But there was silence and emptiness. He wasn’t here, just as he had not been at the house in Priam Crescent.
‘Where are you, Harry? Why didn’t you come to talk to me? If I could talk to Nita Ramsden …’
She might have dismissed it all as baloney now that Harry had not spoken to her, if it had not been for Nita Ramsden. The stuff about her grandmother, even about the brooch like a ship, could have been a lucky strike; anyone of her age was going to have dead grandparents – parents as well, come to that. You could hardly go wrong. But Nita Ramsden, Nita and Donald, the biscuits, the fact that she had been waiting for Nita all that time on the corner on the way to work, and Nita hadn’t come. The bicycle accident … You couldn’t put it down to mind-reading because Nita Ramsden hadn’t been anywhere near Iris’s mind for half a century, and how could the medium ever have known a thing about her girlhood?
But she hadn’t got what she went for, which was to hear from Harry. Come again, Sheila Innis had said, give it a bit longer, then make another appointment. She knew she would have to, that she would never rest until she’d made contact with Harry, but as to the evening meeting, in a group, that was different, mention of that had made her feel very uneasy. Who would the other people be, and why had the medium said things were different, and that there was often better success? What happened there that had not happened this afternoon?
The kitchen darkened gradually and the sky through the window was a deep brilliant violet blue. There would be a frost, a frost and the full moon.
After a while, she heard the signature tune to the six o’clock news coming through the wall from Pauline Moss’s television. She felt a twinge of guilt. She ought to go and see Pauline, she would never want to hurt her. It was only that tonight, she couldn’t have faced questions, eager, probing little questions which she could not have helped but answer. Harry had not come through to talk to her. She was more upset about it than she would ever have wanted to say to a neighbour, however well intentioned.
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