I glance at my programme: ‘Clairvoyance with Sheila Blackburn’ runs for fifty minutes. Some workshops are included in the ticket price — I arrived early and did Crystal Healing to pass the time — but this one cost another tenner. Every seat in the hall is taken, and the programme says Sheila’s books are available for purchase, with private sittings arranged on request.
The last painting I sold was an acrylic of a derelict St. Paul’s Cathedral being reclaimed by nature. It took me three weeks and went for £300. Sheila’s hourly rate puts mine to shame.
I skim the rest of the entry. It reminds attendees that mediumship isn’t scientifically proven and we should therefore consider what we’re doing as participating in an experiment. My sister would have loved that one. “Welcome to the Arse-Covering Age,” she’d have said. “No promises, no guarantees. And definitely no refunds.”
Ros used to come with me, but she never even attempted to believe. She just didn’t want me left on my own. It’s the artistic temperament that worries people, I think. I’m a painter. My father was a painter. My father killed himself. Two plus two equals don’t let Marcus out of your sight in case he does something stupid.
Ros was far closer to Dad than I was, but nobody worried about her like that. Biologists don’t kill themselves. Scientists are sensible people, it takes sensible things to kill them. Cars, for example. It turns out that car crashes kill them just fine.
Sheila takes her place on stage. She’s about fifty, with brown hair in a short, bouncy cut. Mediums don’t have a common style, from what I’ve seen. Some go for approachable granny, some for ageing hippie, some for sharp-suited businessman. Most could be anyone or anything — a librarian, an electrician, an accountant. Probably not a biologist, though.
“I have the name Robert,” she says, getting straight down to business. “Robert… Rob… Bob…”
She has a lovely voice, smooth and lilting. A girl raises a tentative hand from the second row and is rewarded with a warm, crinkle-eyed smile. “There you are, my love,” Sheila says.
Ros would’ve been shaking her head already. “This is too easy,” she’d have said. “Young men don’t call themselves Bob, so it’s not a brother. She’s in her twenties and looks affluent, so statistically speaking her father’s not dead. Nobody in London cares about their extended family any more, so it’s not an uncle. Since there are already tears in her eyes, I predict that we have very recently deceased Grandfather Bob.”
Sheila holds out her hand towards the girl in the second row. “He’s your granddad, my love, yes? And he hasn’t been gone long at all.”
The girl nods vigorously, and gives her a tearful smile. The audience claps.
If Ros were here, she wouldn’t be clapping. “What exactly do you think is going to happen?” she’d be asking me. “One of these people is going to channel Dad’s spirit and tell you that he loves you, he’s proud of you, he respects your work? He couldn’t say any of that when he was alive, do you really think he’s going to make more effort once he’s dead?”
“No,” I say softly. “No, I don’t.” The woman in the next seat gives me a strange look.
Sheila is working her way through Bob’s cause of death. She starts with heart disease (the most common cause of death, Ros would have reminded me), swiftly moves through cancer (the second) and gets the hit with a stroke. “He had trouble with his breathing, didn’t he darling, towards the end?”
More nodding, more clapping. Ros would be snorting. “The poor bastard was dying,” she’d say. “Having trouble breathing is pretty much the definition of the word.”
Sheila tells us about Anne next, who’s here for her husband — a balding chap three rows in front who doesn’t say, or even nod, much. It doesn’t give Sheila a lot to work with. Anne tells him that she loves him, that she’s happy now, that her pain is all gone. We clap.
At this point Ros would roll her eyes, offer her opinion on trite, meaningless platitudes and walk out. She never did last a whole session.
I get up, mutter an apology to the woman next to me and slip past her into the aisle.
Sheila moves on to Gerald, who’s looking for his son. He’s pulling her towards the left of the hall.
The left side of the hall was my side. Gerald was my father’s name.
“Where are you, darling?” Sheila calls. “Your father’s looking for you, my love.”
I carry on walking. I can picture Ros waiting for me by the door, arms folded. “You know this is all bollocks,” she’d say. “At best you’ve got some well-meaning but deluded people using cold reading without realising that’s what they’re doing, at worst you’ve got outright premeditated fraud. So why the hell are you still coming to these places, Marcus? What can you possibly be getting out of it?”
On the way out, I stop at the front desk. It’s covered in brochures for forthcoming events: psychic fayres, mind/body/spirit festivals. Ros would try her best to talk me out of taking any. I know exactly what she would say; she was never more passionate than in the defence of rationality and reason.
And she’s never more real to me, never more alive, than in these moments — when I can imagine her glaring and calling me a fool as I stuff my pockets with leaflets. I can see her face, hear her voice, so clearly. We never had much common ground before, but now we do. Now we have this.
The woman at the desk gives me a bright smile. “Did you find what you were hoping to, honey?”
I smile back while in my mind’s eye, Ros prepares for battle once more. “Yes,” I say, “I always do.”
Michelle Ann King lives in England with her husband and stuffed penguin. Her stories have previously appeared online at Daily Science Fiction, The New Flesh, MicroHorror and others.