Beyond Black Hilary Mantel An hilarious and sinister tale of dark secrets and secret forces in suburban England from the critically-acclaimed author of 'Giving Up the Ghost'.Alison Hart is a medium by trade: dead people talk to her, and she talks back. With her flat-eyed, flint-hearted sidekick, Colette, she tours the dormitory towns of London's orbital road, passing on messages from dead ancestors: 'Granny says she likes your new kitchen units.'Alison's ability to communicate with spirits is a torment rather than a gift. Behind her plump, smiling and bland public persona is a desperate woman. She knows that the next life holds terrors that she must conceal from her clients. Her days and nights are haunted by the men she knew in her childhood, the thugs and petty criminals who preyed upon her hopeless, addled mother, Emmie. They infiltrate her house, her body and her soul; the more she tries to be rid of them, the stronger and nastier they become.This tenth novel by Hilary Mantel is a witty and deeply sinister story of dark secrets and forces, set in an England that jumps at its own shadow, a country whose banal self-absorption is shot through by fear of the engulfing dark. Hilary Mantel Beyond Black Dedication To Jane Haynes Epigraph ‘There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.’ H.M. the Queen (attributed) Chapter One Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potters Bar. There are nights when you don’t want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don’t want them and you can’t send them back. The dead won’t be coaxed and they won’t be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results. A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms here are rejects, or anomalies: the cats tipped from speeding cars, and the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel. Beside her, in profile against the fogged window, the driver’s face is set. In the back seat, something dead stirs, and begins to grunt and breathe. The car flees across the junctions, and the space the road encloses is the space inside her: the arena of combat, the wasteland, the place of civil strife behind her ribs. Heart beats, the tail lights wink. Dim lights shine from tower blocks, from passing helicopters, from fixed stars. Night closes in on the perjured ministers and burnt-out paedophiles, on the unloved viaducts and graffitied bridges, on ditches beneath mouldering hedgerows and railings never warmed by human touch. Night and winter: but in the rotten nests and empty setts, she can feel the signs of growth, intimations of spring. This is the time of Le Pendu, the Hanged Man, swinging by his foot from the living tree. It is a time of suspension, of hesitation, of the indrawn breath. It is a time to let go of expectation, yet not abandon hope; to anticipate the turn of the Wheel of Fortune. This is our life and we have to lead it. Think of the alternative. A static cloud bank, like an ink smudge. Darkening air. It’s no good asking me whether I’d choose to be like this, because I’ve never had a choice. I don’t know about anything else, I’ve never been any other way. And darker still. Colour has run out from the land. Only form is left: the clumped treetops like a dragon’s back. The sky deepens to midnight blue. The orange of the street lights is blotted to a fondant cerise; in pastureland, the pylons lift their skirts in a ferrous gavotte. Chapter Two Colette put her head round the dressing-room door. ‘All right?’ she said. ‘It’s a full house.’ Alison was leaning into the mirror, about to paint her mouth on. ‘Could you find me a coffee?’ ‘Or a gin and tonic?’ ‘Yes, go on then.’ She was in her psychic kit now; she had flung her day clothes over the back of a chair. Colette swooped on them; lady’s maid was part of her job. She slid her forearm inside Al’s black crêpe skirt. It was as large as a funerary banner, a pall. As she turned it the right way out, she felt a tiny stir of disgust, as if flesh might be clinging to the seams. Alison was a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn’t in it. She was of an unfeasible size, with plump creamy shoulders, rounded calves, thighs and hips that overflowed her chair; she was soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl, and when she moved you could hear (though she did not wear them) the rustle of plumes and silks. In a small space, she seemed to use up more than her share of the oxygen; in return her skin breathed out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower. When you came into a room she’d left – her bedroom, her hotel room, her dressing room backstage – you felt her as a presence, a trail. Alison had gone, but you would see a chemical mist of hairspray falling through the bright air. On the floor would be a line of talcum powder, and her scent – Je Reviens – would linger in curtain fabric, in cushions and in the weave of towels. When she headed for a spirit encounter, her path was charged, electric; and when her body was out on stage, her face – cheeks glowing, eyes alight – seemed to float still in the dressing-room mirror. In the centre of the room Colette stooped, picked up Al’s shoes. For a moment she disappeared from her own view. When her face bobbed back into sight in the mirror, she was almost relieved. What’s wrong with me? she thought. When I’m gone I leave no trace. Perfume doesn’t last on my skin. I barely sweat. My feet don’t indent the carpet. ‘It’s true,’ Alison said. ‘It’s as if you wipe out the signs of yourself as you go. Like a robot housekeeper. You polish your own fingerprints away.’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ Colette said. ‘And don’t read my private thoughts.’ She shook the black skirt, as if shaking Alison. ‘I often ask myself, let’s see now, is Colette in the room or not? When you’ve been gone for an hour or two, I wonder if I’ve imagined you.’ Colette looped the black skirt on to a hanger, and hung it on the back of the long mirror. Soon Al’s big black overshirt joined it. It was Colette who had persuaded her into black. Black, she had said, black and perfectly plain. But Alison abhorred plainness. There must be something to capture the gaze, something to shiver, something to shine. At first glance the shirt seemed devoid of ornament: but a thin line of sequins ran down the sleeve, like the eyes of sly aliens, reflecting black within black. For her work on stage, she insisted on colour: emerald, burnt orange, scarlet. ‘The last thing you want, when you go out there,’ she explained, ‘is to make them think of funerals.’ Now she pouted at herself in the glass. ‘I think that’s quite nice, don’t you?’ Colette glanced at her. ‘Yes, it suits you.’ Alison was a genius with make-up. She had boxfuls and she used it all, carrying it in colour-coded washbags and cases fitted with loops for brushes and small-size bottles. If the spirit moved her to want some apricot eyeshadow, she knew just which bag to dip into. To Colette, it was a mystery. When she went out to get herself a new lipstick, she came back with one which, when applied, turned out to be the same colour as all the others she had; which was always, give or take, the colour of her lips. ‘So what’s that shade called?’ she asked. Alison observed herself, a cotton bud poised, and effected an invisible improvement to her underlip. ‘Dunno. Why don’t you try it? But get me that drink first.’ Her hand moved for her lipstick sealant. She almost said, look out, Colette, don’t tread on Morris. He was on the floor, half sitting and half lying, slumped against the wall: his stumpy legs were spread out, and his fingers playing with his fly buttons. When Colette stepped back she trampled straight over him. As usual she didn’t notice. But Morris did. ‘Fucking stuck-up cow,’ he said, as Colette went out. ‘White-faced fucking freak. She’s like a bloody ghoul. Where did you get her, gel, a churchyard?’ Under her breath Alison swore back at him. In their five years as partners, he’d never accepted Colette; time meant little to Morris. ‘What would you know about churchyards?’ she asked him. ‘I bet you never had a Christian burial. Concrete boots and a dip in the river, considering the people you mixed with. Or maybe you were sawn up with your own saw?’ Alison leaned forward again into the mirror, and slicked her mouth with the tiny brush from the glass tube. It tickled and stung. Her lips flinched from it. She made a face at herself. Morris chuckled. It was almost the worst thing, having him around at times like these, in your dressing room, before the show, when you were trying to calm yourself down and have your intimate moments. He would follow you to the lavatory if he was in that sort of mood. A colleague had once said to her, ‘It seems to me that your guide is on a very low vibratory plane, very low indeed. Had you been drinking when he first made contact? ‘No,’ Al had told her. ‘I was only thirteen.’ ‘Oh, that’s a terrible age,’ the woman said. She looked Alison up and down. ‘Junk food, I expect. Empty calories. Stuffing yourself.’ She’d denied it, of course. In point of fact she never had any money after school for burgers or chocolate, her mum keeping her short in case she used the money to get on a bus and run away. But she couldn’t put any force into her denial. Her colleague was right, Morris was a low person. How did she get him? She probably deserved him, that was all there was to it. Sometimes she would say to him, Morris, what did I do to deserve you? He would rub his hands and chortle. When she had provoked him and he was in a temper with her, he would say, count your blessings, girl, you fink I’m bad but you could of had MacArthur. You could have had Bob Fox, or Aitkenside, or Pikey Pete. You could have had my mate Keef Capstick. You could of had Nick, and then where’d you be? Mrs Etchells (who taught her the psychic trade) had always told her, there are some spirits, Alison, who you already know from way back, and you just have to put names to the faces. There are some spirits that are spiteful and will do you a bad turn. There are others that are bloody buggering bastards, excuse my French, who will suck the marrow out your bones. Yes, Mrs E, she’d said, but how will I know which are which? And Mrs Etchells had said, God help you, girl. But God having business elsewhere, I don’t expect he will. Colette crossed the foyer, heading for the bar. Her eyes swept over the paying public, flocking in from the dappled street; ten women to every man. Each evening she liked to get a fix on them, so she could tell Alison what to expect. Had they pre-booked, or were they queuing at the box office? Were they swarming in groups, laughing and chatting, or edging through the foyer in singles and pairs, furtive and speechless? You could probably plot it on a graph, she thought, or have some kind of computer program: the demographics of each town, its typical punters and their networks, the location of the venue relative to car parks, pizza parlour, the nearest bar where young girls could go in a crowd. The venue manager nodded to her. He was a worn little bloke coming up to retirement; his dinner jacket had a whitish bloom on it and was tight under the arms. ‘All right?’ he said. Colette nodded, unsmiling; he swayed back on his heels, and as if he had never seen them before he surveyed the bags of sweets hanging on their metal pegs, and the ranks of chocolate bars. Why can’t men just stand? Colette wondered. Why do they have to sway on the spot and feel in their pockets and pat themselves up and down and suck their teeth? Alison’s poster was displayed six times, at various spots through the foyer. The flyers around advertised forth-coming events: ‘Fauré’s Requiem’, giving way in early December to ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Alison was a sensitive: which is to say, her senses were arranged in a different way from the senses of most people. She was a medium: dead people talked to her, and she talked back. She was a clairvoyant; she could see straight through the living, to their ambitions and secret sorrows, and tell you what they kept in their bedside drawers, and how they had travelled to the venue. She wasn’t (by nature) a fortune teller, but it was hard to make people understand that. Prediction, though she protested against it, had become a lucrative part of her business. At the end of the day, she believed, you have to suit the public and give them what they think they want. For fortunes, the biggest part of the trade was young girls. They always thought there might be a stranger on the horizon, love around the corner. They hoped for a better boyfriend than the one they’d got – more socialised, less spotty: or at least, one who wasn’t on remand. Men, on their own behalf, were not interested in fortune or fate. They believed they made their own, thanks very much. As for the dead, why should they worry about them? If they need to talk to their relatives, they have women to do that for them. ‘G & T,’ Colette said to the girl behind the bar. ‘Large.’ The girl reached for a glass and shovelled in a single ice cube. ‘You can do better than that,’ Colette said. ‘And lemon.’ She looked around. The bar was empty. The walls were padded to hip height with turquoise plastic leather, deep-buttoned. They’d been needing a damp cloth over them since about 1975. The fake wood tables looked sticky: the same applied. The girl’s scoop probed the ice bucket. Another cube slinked down the side of the glass, to join its predecessor with a dull tap. The girl’s face showed nothing. Her full, lead-coloured eyes slid away from Colette’s face. She mouthed the price. ‘For tonight’s artiste,’ Colette said. ‘On the house, I’d have thought!’ The girl did not understand the expression. She had never heard ‘on the house’. She closed her eyes briefly: blue-veined lids. Back through the foyer. It was filling up nicely. On their way to their seats the audience had to pass the easel she had set up, with Al’s super-enlarged picture swathed in a length of apricot polyester that Al called ‘my silk’. At first she’d had trouble draping it, getting the loops just right, but now she’d got it off pat – a twist of her wrist made a loop over the top of the portrait, another turn made a drift down one side, and the remainder spilled in graceful folds to whatever gritty carpet or bare boards they were performing on that night. She was working hard to break Al’s addiction to this particular bit of kitsch. Unbelievably tacky, she’d said, when she first joined her. She thought instead of a screen on to which Al’s image was projected. But Al had said, you don’t want to find yourself overshadowed by the special effects. Look, Col, I’ve been told this, and it’s one bit of advice I’ll never forget; remember your roots. Remember where you started. In my case, that’s the village hall at Brookwood. So when you’re thinking of special effects, ask yourself, can you reproduce it in the village hall? If you can’t, forget it. It’s me they’ve come to see, after all. I’m a professional psychic, not some sort of magic act. The truth was, Al adored the photo. It was seven years old now. The studio had mysteriously disappeared two of her chins; and caught those big starry eyes, her smile, and something of her sheen, that inward luminescence that Colette envied. ‘All right?’ said the manager. ‘All humming along, backstage?’ He had slid back the lid of the icecream chest, and was peering within. ‘Trouble in there?’ Colette asked. He closed the lid hastily and looked shifty, as if he had been stealing. ‘See you’ve got the scaffolding up again.’ ‘C’est la vie,’ sighed the manager, and Colette said, ‘Yes, I dare say.’ Alison kept out of London when she could. She would fight her way in as far as Hammersmith, or work the further reaches of the North Circular. Ewell and Uxbridge were on her patch, and Bromley and Harrow and Kingston upon Thames. But the hubs of their business were the conurbations that clustered around the junctions of the M25, and the corridors of the M3 and M4. It was their fate to pass their evenings in crumbling civic buildings from the sixties and seventies, their exoskeletons in constant need of patching: tiles raining from their roofs, murals stickily ungluing from their walls. The carpets felt tacky and the walls exhaled an acrid vapour. Thirty years of freeze-dried damp had crystallised in the concrete, like the tiny pellets from which you boil up packet soup. The village hall was worse of course, and they still played some of those. She had to liaise with village-idiot caretakers, and bark her shins and ankles hauling chairs into the semicircle Al favoured. She had to take the money on the door, and tread the stage beforehand to detect comic squeaks, and to pull out splinters; it was not unknown for Al to kick off her shoes partway through the first half, and commune barefoot with spirit world. ‘Is she all OK back there on her own?’ asked the manager. ‘A large gin, that’s the ticket. Anything else she needs? We could fill the place twice over, you know. I call her the consummate professional.’ Backstage, Al was sucking an extra-strong mint. She could never eat before a show, and afterwards she was too hot, too strung-up, and what she needed to do was talk, talk it all out of her system. But sometimes, hours after she had put out the light, she would wake up and find herself famished and nauseous. She needed cake and chocolate bars then, to pad her flesh and keep her from the pinching of the dead, their peevish nipping and needle teeth. God knows, Colette said, what this eating pattern does to your insulin levels. I’d really like my gin, she thought. She imagined Colette out there, doing battle for it. Colette was sharp, rude and effective. Before they joined up, Al was thrust into all sorts of arrangements that she didn’t want, and was too shy to speak out if things didn’t suit her. She never did soundchecks unless the management told her to, and that was a mistake; you needed to insist on them. Before Colette, nobody had tested out the lighting, or walked out on stage as her surrogate self, to judge the acoustics and the sight lines from the performer’s point of view. Nobody had even checked underfoot, for nails or broken glass. Nobody made them take the high stool away – because they were always putting out a high stool for her to perch on, not having realised she was a big girl. She hated having to hoist herself up, and teeter like an angel on a pinhead: getting her skirt trapped, and trying to drag it from under her bottom while keeping her balance: feeling the stool buck under her, threatening to pitch her off. Before Colette, she’d done whole shows standing, just leaning against the high stool, sometimes draping one arm over it, as if that were the reason why it was put there. But Colette just minced the management when she spotted a stool on stage. ‘Take it away, she doesn’t work under those conditions.’ Instead, Colette asked for an armchair, wide, capacious. Here, ideally, Alison would begin the evening, relaxed, ankles crossed, steadying her breathing before her opening remarks. At the first hint of a contact, she would lean forward; then she would jump up and advance to the front of the stage. She would hang over the audience, almost floating above their heads, her lucky opals flashing fire as she reached out, fingers spread. She’d got the lucky opals mail order but, if asked, she pretended they’d been left to her family by a Russian princess. She had explained it all, when Colette first joined her. Russia was favourite for ancestors, even better than Romany, nowadays; you didn’t want to put anxiety in the clients’ minds, about fly-tipping, head lice, illegal tarmac gangs, or motorhomes invading the green belt. Italian descent was good, Irish was excellent – though you must be selective. In the Six Counties hardly anywhere would do – too likely to crop up on the news. For the rest, Cork and Tipperary sounded too comic, Wicklow and Wexford like minor ailments, and Waterford was too dull – ‘Al,’ Colette had said, ‘from where do you derive your amazing psychic gifts tonight?’ Al had said at once, in her platform voice, ‘From my old great-grandmother, in County Clare. Bless her.’ Bless her and bless her, she said, under her breath. She looked away from the mirror so Colette wouldn’t see her lips moving. Bless all my great-grandmothers, whoever and wherever they may be. May my dad rot in hell, whoever he may be; whatever hell is and wherever, let him rot in it; and let them please lock the doors of hell at night, so he can’t be out and about, harassing me. Bless my mum, who is still earthside of course, but bless her anyway; wouldn’t she be proud of me if she saw me in chiffon, each inch of my flesh powdered and perfumed? In chiffon, my nails lacquered, with my lucky opals glittering – would she be pleased? Instead of being dismembered in a dish, which I know was her first ambition for me: swimming in jelly and blood. Wouldn’t she like to see me now, my head on my shoulders and my feet in my high-heeled shoes? No, she thought, be realistic: she wouldn’t give a toss. Ten minutes to go. Abba on the sound system, ‘Dancing Queen’. Glass of gin held in one hand, the bottle of tonic looped by her little finger, Colette peeped through a swing door at the back of the hall. Every seat was full and space was tight. They were turning people away, which the manager hated to do but it was fire regulations. How does it feel tonight? It feels all right. There’d been nights when she’d had to sit in the audience, so Alison could pick her out first and get the show going, but they didn’t like doing that and they didn’t need to do it often. Tonight she would be flitting around the hall with a microphone, identifying the people Al picked out and passing the mike along the rows so she could get clear answers out of them. We’ll need three minimum to cover the space, she’d told the manager, and no comedians who trip over their own feet, please. She herself, fast and thin and practised, would do the work of two. Colette thought, I can’t stand them now: the clients, the punters, the trade. She didn’t like to be among them, for any purpose. She couldn’t believe that she was ever one of them: lining up to listen to Al, or somebody like her. Booking ahead (all major cards accepted) or jostling in a queue by the box office: a tenner in her fist, and her heart in her mouth. Alison twisted her rings on her fingers: the lucky opals. It wasn’t nerves exactly, more a strange feeling in her diaphragm, as if her gut were yawning: as if she were making space for what might occur. She heard Colette’s footsteps: my gin, she thought. Good-good. Carefully, she took the mint out of her mouth. The action left her lips sulky; in the mirror, she edged them back into a smile, using the nail of her third finger, careful not to smudge. The face does disarrange itself; it has to be watched. She wrapped the mint in a tissue, looked around, and looped it hesitantly towards a metal bin a few feet away. It fell on the vinyl. Morris grunted with laughter. ‘You’re bloody hopeless, gel.’ This time, as Colette came in, she managed to step over Morris’s legs. Morris squawked out, ‘Tread on me, I love it.’ ‘Don’t you start!’ Al said. ‘Not you. Morris. Sorry.’ Colette’s face was thin and white. Her eyes had gone narrow, like arrow slits. ‘I’m used to it.’ She put the glass down by Alison’s eyelash curlers, with the bottle of tonic water beside it. ‘A splash,’ Al directed. She picked up her glass and peered into the fizzing liquid. She held it up to the light. ‘I’m afraid your ice has melted.’ ‘Never mind.’ She frowned. ‘I think there’s someone coming through.’ ‘In your G & T?’ ‘I think I caught just a glimpse. An elderly person. Ah well. There’ll be no lolling in the old armchair tonight. Straight on with the show.’ She downed the drink, put the empty glass on the countertop with her strewn boxes of powder and eyeshadow. Morris would lick her glass while she was out, running his yellow fissured tongue around the rim. Over the public address system, the call came to switch off mobile phones. Al stared at herself in the mirror. ‘No more to be done,’ she said. She inched to the edge of her chair, wobbling a little at the hips. The manager put his face in at the door. ‘All right?’ Abba was fading down: ‘Take a Chance on Me’. Al took a breath. She pushed her chair back; she rose, and began to shine. She walked out into the light. The light, she would say, is where we come from, and it’s to the light we return. Through the hall ran small detonations of applause, which she acknowledged only with a sweep of her thick lashes. She walked, slowly, right to the front of the stage, to the taped line. Her head turned. Her eyes searched, against the dazzle. Then she spoke, in her special platform voice. ‘This young lady.’ She was looking three rows back. ‘This lady here. Your name is —? Well, Leanne, I think I have a message for you.’ Colette released her breath from the tight space where she held it. Alone, spotlit, perspiring slightly, Alison looked down at her audience. Her voice was low, sweet and confident, and her aura was a perfectly adjusted aquamarine, flowing like a silk shawl about her shoulders and upper arms. ‘Now, Lee, I want you to sit back in your seat, take a deep breath, and relax. And that goes for all of you. Put on your happy faces – you’re not going to see anything that will frighten you. I won’t be going into a trance, and you won’t be seeing spooks, or hearing spirit music.’ She looked around, smiling, taking in the rows. ‘So why don’t you all sit back and enjoy the evening? All I do is, I just tune in, I just have to listen hard and decide who’s out there. Now if I get a message for you, please raise your hand, shout up – because if you don’t it’s very frustrating for the spirits trying to come through. Don’t be shy, you just shout up or give me a wave. Then my helpers will rush over to you with the microphone – don’t be afraid of it when it comes to you, just hold it steady and speak up.’ They were all ages. The old had brought cushions for their bad backs, the young had bare midriffs and piercings. The young had stuffed their coats under their chairs, but their elders had rolled theirs and held them on their knees, like swaddled babies. ‘Smile,’ Al told them. ‘You’re here to enjoy yourselves, and so am I. Now, Lee my love, let me get back to you – where were we? There’s a lady here called Kathleen, who’s sending lots of love in your direction. Who would that be, Leanne?’ Leanne was a dud. She was a young lass of seventeen or so, hung about with unnecessary buttons and bows, her hair in twee little bunches, her face peaky. Kathleen, Al suggested, was her granny: but Leanne wouldn’t own it because she didn’t know her granny’s name. ‘Think hard, darling,’ Al coaxed. ‘She’s desperate for a word with you.’ But Lee shook her bunches. She said that she didn’t think she had a granny; which made some of the audience snigger. ‘Kathleen says she lives in a field, at a certain amount of money. Bear with me. Penny. Penny Meadow, do you know that address? Up the hill from the market – such a pull, she says, when you’ve got a bagful of potatoes.’ She smiled at the audience. ‘This seems to be before you could order your groceries online,’ she said. ‘Honestly, when you think how they lived in those days – we forget to count our blessings, don’t we? Now, Lee, what about Penny Meadow? What about Granny Kathleen walking uphill?’ Leanne indicated incredulity. She lived on Sandringham Court, she said. ‘Yes, I know,’ Al said. ‘I know where you live, sweetheart, but this isn’t anywhere around here, it’s a filthy old place, Lancashire, Yorkshire, I’m getting a smudge on my fingers, it’s grey, it’s ash, it’s something below the place you hang the washing – could it be Ashton-under-Lyne? Never mind,’ Alison said. ‘Go home, Leanne, and ask your mum what Granny was called. Ask her where she lived. Then you’ll know, won’t you, that she was here for you tonight?’ There was a patter of applause. Strictly speaking, she hadn’t earned it. But they acknowledged that she’d tried; and Leanne’s silliness, deeper than average, had brought the audience over to her side. It was not uncommon to find family memory so short, in these towns where nobody comes from, these south-eastern towns with their floating populations and their car parks where the centre should be. Nobody has roots here; and maybe they don’t want to acknowledge roots, or recall their grimy places of origin and their illiterate foremothers up north. These days, besides, the kids don’t remember back more than eighteen months – the drugs, she supposed. She was sorry for Kathleen, panting and striving, her wheezy goodwill evaporating, unacknowledged; Penny Meadow and all the terraced rows about seemed shrouded in a northern smog. Something about a cardigan, she was saying. A certain class of dead people was always talking about cardigans. The button off it, the pearl button, see if it’s dropped behind the dresser drawer, that little drawer, that top drawer, I found a threepenny bit there once, back of the drawer, it gets down between the you-know, slips down the whatsit, it’s wedged, like – and so I took it, this threepence, and I bought me friend a cake with a walnut on top. Yes, yes, Al said, they’re lovely, those kind of cakes: but it’s time to go, pet. Lie down, Kathleen. You go and have a nice lie-down. I will, Kathleen said, but tell her I want her mum to look for that button. And by the way, if you ever see my friend Maureen Harrison, tell her I’ve been looking for her this thirty year. Colette’s eyes darted around, looking for the next pickup. Her helpers were a boy of seventeen, in a sort of snooker player’s outfit, a shiny waistcoat and a skewed bow tie; and, would you believe it, the dozy little slapper from the bar. Colette thought, I’ll need to be everywhere. The first five minutes, thank God, are no guide to the evening to come. Look, this is how you do it. Suppose it’s a slow night, no one in particular pushing your buttons; only the confused distant chit-chat that comes from the world of the dead. So you’re looking around the hall and smiling, saying, ‘Look, I want to show you how I do what I do. I want to show you it’s nothing scary, it’s just, basically, abilities that we all have. Now can I ask, how many of you,’ she pauses, looks around, ‘how many of you have sometimes felt you’re psychic?’ After that it’s according to, as Colette would say, the demographics. There are shy towns and towns where the hands shoot up, and of course as soon as you’re on stage you can sense the mood, even if you weren’t tipped off about it, even if you’ve never been in that particular place before. But a little word, a word of encouragement, a ‘don’t hold back on me’; sooner or later the hands go up. You look around – there’s always that compromise, between flattering stage lighting, and the need to see their faces. Then you choose a woman near the front, not so young as Leanne but not so old she’s completely buggered up: and you get her to tell you her name. ‘Gillian.’ Gillian. Right. Here goes. ‘Gill, you’re the sort of woman – well,’ she gives a little laugh and a shake of her head, ‘well, you’re a bit of a human dynamo, I mean, that’s how your friends describe you, isn’t it? Always on the go, morning, noon and night, you’re the sort of person, am I right, who can keep all the plates spinning? But if there’s one thing, if there’s one thing, you know, all your friends say, it’s that you don’t give enough time to yourself. I mean, you’re the one everybody depends on, you’re the one everybody comes to for advice, you’re the Rock of Gibraltar, aren’t you, but then you have to say to yourself, hang on, hang on a minute, who do I go to when I want advice? Who’s there for Gilly, when it comes to the crunch? The thing is, you’re very supportive, of your friends, your family, it’s just give give give, and you do find yourself, just now and then, catching yourself up and saying, hang on now, who’s giving back to me? And the thing about you, Gillian – now stop me if you think I’m wrong – is that you’ve got so much to give, but the problem is you’re so busy running round picking up after other people and putting their lives to rights, that you haven’t hardly got any opportunity to develop your own, I mean your own talents, your own interests. When you think back, when you think back to what made you happy as a young girl, and all the things you wanted out of life – you see, you’ve been on what I call a Cycle of Caring, and it’s not given you, Gill, it’s not given you the opportunity to look within, to look beyond – you really are capable, now I’m not telling you this to flatter you, but you really are capable of the most extraordinary things if you put your mind to it, if you just give all those talents of yours a chance to breathe. Now am I right? Say if I’m not right. Yes, you’re nodding. Do you recognise yourself?’ Gillian has of course been nodding since the first time Al paused for breath. In Alison’s experience there’s not a woman alive who, once past her youth, doesn’t recognise this as a true and fair assessment of her character and potential. Or there may be such a woman, out in some jungle or desert: but these blighted exceptions are not likely to be visiting Alison’s Evening of Psychic Arts. She is now established as a mind-reader; and if she can tell Gillian something about herself, her family, so much the better. But she’s really done enough – Gillian’s brimming with gratification – so even if nobody comes through from spirit, she can just move right on to whoever is her next target. But long before this point Alison has become conscious of a background mutter (at times rising to a roar) situated not there in the hall but towards the back of her skull, behind her ears, resonating privately in the bone. And on this evening, like every other, she fights down the panic we would all feel, trapped with a crowd of dead strangers whose intentions towards us we can’t know. She takes a breath, she smiles, and she starts her peculiar form of listening. It is a silent sensory ascent; it is like listening from a stepladder, poised on the top rung; she listens at the ends of her nerves, at the limit of her capacities. When you’re doing platform work, it’s rare that the dead need coaxing. The skill is in isolating the voices, picking out one and letting the others recede – making them recede, forcing them back if need be, because there are some big egos in the next world. Then taking that voice, the dead voice you’ve chosen, and fitting it to the living body, to the ears that are ready to hear. So: time to work the room. Colette tensed, forward on her toes, ready to sprint with the mike. ‘This lady. I feel some connection with the law here. Do you have to see a solicitor?’ ‘Constantly,’ the woman said. ‘I’m married to one.’ There was a yell of laughter. Al joined it. Colette smirked. She won’t lose them now, she thought. Of course she wanted Al to succeed; of course I do, she told herself. They had a joint mortgage, after all, financially they were tied together. And if I quit working for her, she thought, how would I get another job? When it comes to ‘your last position’, what would I put on my CV? ‘Who’s got indigestion at the back?’ Al’s forehead was damp, the skin at the nape of her neck was clammy. She liked to have clothes with pockets so she could carry a folded cologne tissue, ready for a surreptitious dab, but you don’t usually get pockets in women’s clothes, and it looks stupid taking a handbag out there on stage. ‘This lady,’ she said. She pointed; the lucky opals winked. ‘This is the one I’m speaking to. You’re the one with the heartburn, I can feel it. I have someone here for you who’s very happy in spirit world, a Margo, Marje, can you accept that? A petite woman wearing a turquoise blouse, she was very fond of it, wasn’t she? She says you’ll remember.’ ‘I do remember, I do,’ the woman said. She took the mike gingerly, and held it as if it might detonate. ‘Marje was my aunt. She was fond of turquoise and also lilac.’ ‘Yes,’ and now Al softened her voice, ‘and she was like a mother to you, wasn’t she? She’s still looking out for you, in spirit world. Now tell me, have you seen your GP about that indigestion?’ ‘No,’ the woman said. ‘Well, they’re so busy.’ ‘They’re well paid to look after you, my love.’ ‘Coughs and colds all around you,’ the woman said. ‘You come out worse than you went in – and you never see the same doctor twice.’ There was an audible smirk from the audience, a wash of fellow feeling. But the woman herself looked fretful. She wanted to hear from Marje; the dyspepsia she lived with every day. ‘Stop making excuses.’ Al almost stamped her foot. ‘Marje says, why are you putting it off? Call the surgery tomorrow morning and book yourself in. There’s nothing to be frightened of.’ Isn’t there? Relief dawned on the woman’s face; or an emotion that would be relief, when it clarified; for the moment she was tremulous, a hand on her ribs, folded in on herself as if to protect the space of the pain. It would take her a while to give up thinking it was cancer. Now it’s the glasses ploy. Look for a woman in middle age who isn’t wearing glasses and say: have you had your eyes tested recently? Then the whole world of optometry is at your command. If she had an eye test last week, she’ll say, yes, as a matter of fact I have. They’ll applaud. If she says no, not recently, she’ll be thinking, but I know I ought to…As for the woman who says she wears no glasses ever: oh, my love, those headaches of yours! Why don’t you just pop along to Boots? I can see you, a month from now, in some really pretty squarish frames. You could ask them if they need to see the dentist, since everybody does, all the time; but you don’t want to see them flinch. You’re giving them a gentle nudge, not a pinch. It’s about impressing them without scaring them; softening the edges of their fright and disbelief. ‘This lady – I see a broken wedding ring – did you lose your husband? He passed quite recently? And very recently you planted a rose bush in his memory.’ ‘Not exactly,’ the woman said, ‘I placed some – in fact it was carnations – ’ ‘ – carnations in his memory,’ said Al, ‘because they were his favourite, weren’t they?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said the woman. Her voice slid off the mike; she was too worried to keep her head still. ‘You know, aren’t men funny?’ Al threw it out to the audience. ‘They just don’t like talking about these things, they think it means they’re oversensitive or something – as if we’d mind. But I can assure you, he’s telling me now, carnations were his favourite.’ ‘But where is he?’ the woman said: still off the mike. She wasn’t going to quarrel about the flowers; she was pressed against the back of her seat, almost hostile, on the verge of tears. Sometimes they waited for you afterwards, the punters, at the back exit, when you were running head down for the car park. In the ghastly lights behind the venue, in the drizzle and the rain, they’d say, when you gave me the message I didn’t know, I didn’t understand, I couldn’t take it in. ‘I know it’s difficult,’ Al would say, trying to soothe them, trying to help them, but trying, for God’s sake, to get them off her back; she would be sweating, shaking, desperate to get into the car and off. But now, thank God, she had Colette, to manage the situation; Colette would smoothly pass over their business card, and say, ‘When you feel ready, you might like to come for a private reading.’ Now Alison fished around in the front rows for somebody who’d lost a pet and found a woman whose terrier, on an impulse three weeks ago, had dashed out of the front door into the traffic. ‘Don’t you listen,’ she told the woman, ‘to people who tell you animals have no souls. They go on in spirit, same as we do.’ Animals distressed her, not cats, just dogs: their ownerless whimper as they padded through the afterlife on the trail of their masters. ‘And has your husband gone over too?’ she asked, and when the woman said yes, she nodded sympathetically but pulled her attention away, throwing out a new question, changing the topic: ‘Anybody over here got blood pressure?’ Let her think it, that dog and master are together now; let her take comfort, since comfort’s what she’s paid for. Let her assume that Tiddles and his boss are together in the Beyond. Reunion is seldom so simple; and really it’s better for dogs – if people could just grasp it – not to have an owner waiting for them, spiritside. Without a person to search for, they join up in happy packs, and within a year or two you never hear from them individually: there’s just a joyful, corporate barking, instead of that lost whine, the sore pads, the disconsolate drooping head of the dog following a fading scent. Dogs had figured in her early life – men, and dogs – and much of that life was unclear to her. If you knew what the dogs were up to, she reasoned, if you knew what they were up to in spirit world, it might help you work out where their owners were now. They must be gone over, she thought, most of those men I knew when I was a child; the dogs, for sure, are in spirit, for years have passed and those kind of dogs don’t make old bones. Sometimes in the supermarket she would find herself standing in Pets, eyeing up the squeaky toys, the big tough chews made for big friendly jaws; then she would shake herself, and move slowly back towards organic vegetables, where Colette would be waiting with the trolley, cross with her for vanishing. She will be cross tonight, Al thought, smiling to herself: I’ve slipped up again about the blood pressure. Colette has nagged her, don’t talk about blood pressure, talk about hypertension. When she’d argued back – ‘they might not understand me’ – Colette lost her temper and said, ‘Alison, without blood pressure we’d all be dead, but if you want to sound like something from the remedial stream, don’t let me get in your way.’ Now a woman put her hand up, admitted to the blood pressure. ‘Carrying a bit of weight, aren’t we, darling?’ Al asked her. ‘I’ve got your mum here. She’s a bit annoyed with you – well, no, I’m pitching it a bit high – concerned, would be more like it. You need to drop a stone, she’s saying. Can you accept that?’ The woman nodded: humiliated. ‘Oh, don’t mind what they think.’ Al swept her hand over the audience; she gave her special throaty chuckle, her woman-to-woman laugh. ‘You’ve no need to worry about what anybody here’s thinking, we could most of us stand to lose a few pounds. I mean, look at me, I’m a size twenty and not ashamed of it. But your mum now, your mum, she says you’re letting yourself go, and that’s a shame, because you know you’re really, look at you, you’ve got such a lot going for you, lovely hair, lovely skin – well, excuse me, but it seems to me your mum’s a plain-spoken lady, so excuse me if I offend anybody, she’s saying, get up off your bum and go to the gym.’ This is Al’s public self: a little bit jaunty and a little bit crude, a bit of a schoolmistress and a bit of a flirt. She often speaks to the public about ‘my wicked sense of humour’, warning them not to take offence; but what happens to her sense of humour in the depth of the night, when she wakes up trembling and crying, with Morris crowing at her in the corner of the room? Colette thought, you are a size twenty-six. And you are ashamed of it. The thought was so loud, inside her own head, that she was amazed it didn’t jump out into the hall. ‘No,’ Al was saying, ‘please give the mike back to this lady, I’m afraid I’ve embarrassed her and I want to put it right.’ The woman was reluctant, and Al said to her neighbour, ‘Just hold that mike steady under her chin.’ Then Alison told the fat woman several things about her mother, which she’d often thought but not liked to admit to. ‘Oh, and I have your granny. Your granny’s coming through. Sarah-Anne? Now she’s an old soul,’ Al said. ‘You were five when she passed, am I right?’ ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘Speak up, my love.’ ‘Small. I was small.’ ‘Yes, you don’t remember much about her, but the point is she’s never left you, she’s still around, looking after the family. And she likes those cabinets you’ve got – I can’t quite make this out – a new kitchen, is it?’ ‘Oh my God. Yes,’ the woman said. ‘Yes.’ She shifted in her seat and turned bright red. Al chuckled, indulging her surprise. ‘She’s often with you in that kitchen. And by the way, you were right not to go for the brushed steel, I know they tried to talk you into it, but it’s so over and done with, there’s nothing worse than a dated kitchen when you come to sell, and besides it’s such a harsh look at the heart of the home. Sarah-Anne says, you won’t go wrong with light oak.’ They burst into applause: the punters, the trade. They are deeply appreciative over information about their kitchen fittings: they marvel at your uncanny knowledge of where they position their bread bin. This is how you handle them; you tell them the small things, the personal things, the things no one else could really know. By this means you make them drop their guard: only then will the dead begin to speak. On a good night, you can hear the scepticism leaking from their minds, with a low hiss like a tyre deflating. Someone in uniform was trying to get through. It was a policeman, young and keen, with a flushed face; he was eager for promotion. She worked the rows, but no one would own him. Perhaps he was still earthside, employed at the local station: you did get these crossed wires, from time to time. Something to do with radio frequencies, perhaps? ‘This lady, have you got ear trouble? Or ear trouble somewhere in the family? Slowly, the barmaid lurched across the hall in her platform shoes, the mike held out at arm’s length. ‘What?’ the woman said. ‘Ear trouble.’ ‘The boy next door to me plays football,’ the woman said, ‘he’s done his knee up. He was getting in trim for the World Cup. Not that he’s playing in it. Only in the park. Their dog died last year, but I don’t think it had ear trouble.’ ‘No, not your neighbour,’ Al insisted. ‘You, someone close to you.’ ‘I haven’t got anyone close to me.’ ‘What about throat trouble? Nose trouble? Anything in the ENT line at all? You have to understand this,’ Al said, ‘when I get a message from spirit world, I can’t give it back. I can’t pick and choose. Think of me as your answering machine. Imagine if people from spirit world had phones. Now your answering machine, you press the button and it plays your messages back. It doesn’t wipe some out, on the grounds that you don’t need to know them.’ ‘And it records the wrong numbers, too,’ said a pert girl near the front. She had her friends with her; their sniggers ruffled adjacent rows. Alison smiled. It was for her to make the jokes; she wouldn’t be upstaged. ‘Yes, I admit we record the wrong numbers. And we record the nuisance calls, if you like to put it that way. I sometimes think they have telesales in the next world, because I never sit down with a nice cup of coffee without some stranger trying to get through. Just imagine – double-glazing salesmen…debt collectors…’ The girl’s smile faded. She tensed. Al said, ‘Look, darling. Let me give you a word of advice. Cut up that credit card. Throw away those catalogues. You can break these spending habits – well, you must, really. You have to grow up and exercise some self-control. Or I can see the bailiffs in, before Christmas.’ Al’s gaze rested, one by one, on those who had dared to snigger; then she dropped her voice, whipped her attention away from the troublemaker and became confidential with her audience. ‘The point is this. If I get a message I don’t censor it. I don’t ask, do you need it? I don’t ask, does it make sense? I do my duty, I do what I’m here for. I put it out there, so the person it applies to can pick it up. Now people in spirit world can make mistakes. They can be wrong, just like the living. But what I hear, I pass on. And it may happen, you know, what I tell you may mean nothing to you at the time. That’s why I sometimes have to say to you, stay with that: go home: live with it. This week or next week, you’ll go, oh I get it now! Then you’ll have a little smile, and think, she wasn’t such a fool, was she?’ She crossed the stage; the opals blazed. ‘And then again, there are some messages from spirit world that aren’t as simple as they seem. This lady, for example, when I speak about ear trouble, what I may be picking up is not so much a physical problem – I might be talking about a breakdown in communication.’ The woman stared up at her glassily. Al passed on. ‘Jenny’s here. She went suddenly. She didn’t feel the impact, it was instantaneous. She wants you to know.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And she sends her love to Peg. Who’s Peg?’ ‘Her aunt.’ ‘And to Sally, and Mrs Moss. And Liam. And Topsy.’ Jenny lay down. She’d had enough. Her little light was fading. But wait, here’s another – tonight she picked them up as if she were vacuuming the carpet. But it was almost nine o’clock, and it was quite usual to get on to something serious and painful before the interval. ‘Your little girl, was she very poorly before she passed? I’m getting – this is not recent, we’re going back now, but I have a very clear – I have a picture of a poor little mite who’s really very sick, bless her.’ ‘It was leukaemia,’ her mother said. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Al said, swiftly agreeing, as if she had thought of it first: so that the woman would go home and say, she told me Lisa had leukaemia, she knew. All she could feel was the weakness and the heat, the energy of the last battle draining away: the flickering pulse at the hairless temple, and the blue eyes, like marbles under translucent lids, rolling into stillness. Dry your tears, Alison said. All the tears of agony you’ve shed, the world doesn’t know, the world can’t count them; and soberly, the woman agreed: nobody knows, she said, and nobody can count. Al, her own voice trembling, assured her, Lisa’s doing fine airside, the next world’s treated her well. A beautiful young woman stood before her – twenty-two, twenty-three – wearing her grandmother’s bridal veil. But whether it was Lisa or not, Al could not say. Eight fifty, by Colette’s watch. It was time for Al to lighten up. You have to start this process no less than eight minutes before the end of the first half. If the interval catches you in the middle of something thrilling and risky, they simply don’t want to break; but she, Al, she needed the break, to get back there, touch base with Colette, gulp a cold drink and redo her face. So she would begin another ward round now, picking up a few aches and pains. Already she was homing in on a woman who suffered from headaches. Don’t we all? Colette thought. It was one of the nets Al could safely cast. God knows, her own head ached. There was something about these summer nights, summer nights in small towns, that made you feel that you were seventeen again, and had chances in life. The throat ached and clogged then; there was tightness behind her eyes, as if unshed tears had banked up. Her nose was running, and she hadn’t got a tissue. Al had found a woman with a stiff left knee, and was advising her on traditional Chinese medicine; it was a diversion, but they’d go away disappointed if she didn’t throw in some jargon about meridians and ley lines and chakras and feng shui. Gently, soothingly, she was bringing the first part of the evening to a close; and she was having her little joke now, asking about the lady standing at the back, leaning against the wall there, the lady in beige with a bit of a sniffle. It’s ridiculous, Colette thought, she can’t possibly see me, from where she’s standing. She just, somehow, she must just simply know that at some point in the evening I cry. ‘Never mind, my dear,’ Al said. ‘A runny nose is nothing to be ashamed of. Wipe it on your sleeve. We’re not looking, are we?’ You’ll pay for it later, Colette thought, and so she will; she’ll have to regurgitate or else digest all the distress that she’s sucked in from the carpet and the walls. By the end of the evening she’ll be sick to her stomach from other people’s chemotherapy, feverish and short of breath; or twitching and cold, full of their torsions and strains. She’ll have a neck spasm, or a twisted knee, or a foot she can hardly put on the floor. She’ll need to climb into the bath, moaning, amid the rising steam of aromatherapy oils from her special travel pack; and knock back a handful of painkillers, which, she always says, she should be allowed to set against her income tax. Almost nine o’clock. Alison looked up, to the big double doors marked EXIT. There was a little green man above the door, running on the spot. She felt like that little green man. ‘Time to break,’ she said. ‘You’ve been lovely.’ She waved to them. ‘Stretch your legs and I’ll see you in fifteen.’ Morris was sprawled in Al’s chair when she came into her dressing room. He had his dick out and his foreskin pushed back, and he’d been playing with her lipstick, winding it up to the top of the tube. She evicted him with a dig to his shin from her pointed toe; dropped herself into the vacated chair – she shuddered at the heat of it – and kicked off her shoes. ‘Do yourself up,’ she told him. ‘Button your trousers, Morris.’ She spoke to him as if he were a two-year-old who hadn’t learned the common decencies. She eased off the opals. ‘My hands have swelled up.’ Colette watched her through the mirror. Al’s skin was bland and creamy, flesh and fluid plumping it out from beneath. ‘Is the air conditioning working?’ She pulled at bits of her clothing, detaching them from the sticky bits of herself. ‘As if carnations were anybody’s favourite!’ Colette said. ‘What?’ Al was shaking her hands in the air, as if they were damp washing. ‘That poor woman who was just widowed. You said roses, but she said carnations, so then you said carnations.’ ‘Colette, could you try to bear in mind, I’ve talked to about thirty people since then?’ Alison held her arms in a ‘U’ above her head, her naked fingers spread. ‘Let the fluid drain,’ she said. ‘Anything else, Colette? Let’s have it.’ ‘You always say, oh, keep a note, Colette, keep your eyes open, listen out and tell me what goes right and what goes wrong. But you’re not willing to listen, are you? Perhaps it’s you who’s got the hearing problem.’ ‘At least I haven’t got a sniffle problem.’ ‘I can never understand why you take your shoes off, and your rings off, when you’ve got to force them back on again.’ ‘Can’t you?’ Al sipped her blackcurrant juice, which she brought with her in her own carton. ‘What can you understand?’ Though Al’s voice was lazy, this was turning into a nasty little scrap. Morris had lain down across the doorway, ready to trip up anyone who came in. ‘Try thinking yourself into my body,’ Al suggested. Colette turned away and mouthed, no thank you. ‘It’s hot under the lights. Half an hour and I’m fit to drop. I know you’ve been running around with the mike, but it’s easier on the feet to be moving than standing still.’ ‘Is it really? How would you know that?’ ‘It’s easy, when you’re thin. Everything’s easier. Moving. Thinking. Deciding what you’ll do and what you won’t. You have choices. You can choose your clothes. Choose your company. I can’t.’ Al drank the end of her carton, with a little sound of sucking and bubbling. She put it down, and squashed the tip of the straw, judiciously, with her forefinger. ‘Oh, and the kitchen units,’ Colette said. ‘What’s your problem? I was right.’ ‘It’s just telepathy,’ Colette said. ‘Just?’ ‘Her granny didn’t tell you.’ ‘How can you be sure?’ She couldn’t, of course. Like the punters out there, she could entertain simultaneously any number of conflicting opinions. They could believe in Al, and not believe in her, both at once. Faced with the impossible, their minds, like Colette’s, simply scuttled off in another direction. ‘Look,’ Alison said, ‘do we have to go through this every time? I would have thought we’d been on the road together for long enough now. And we’ve been making the tapes, haven’t we? Writing this book you say we’re writing? I’d have thought I’d answered most of your questions by now.’ ‘All except the ones that matter.’ Al shrugged. A quick dab of Rescue Remedy under the tongue, and then she began to repaint her lips. Colette could see the effort of concentration needed; the spirits were nagging in her ear, wanting to stake out their places for the second half. ‘You see, I’d have imagined,’ she said, ‘that sometimes, once in a while, you’d feel the urge to be honest.’ Alison gave a little comic shiver, like a character in a pantomime. ‘What, with the punters? They’d run a mile,’ she said. ‘Even the ones with the blood pressure would be up and charging out the door. It’d kill them.’ She stood up and pulled down her clothes, smoothing the creases over her hips. ‘And what would that do but make more work for me?’ ‘Your hem’s up at the back,’ Colette said. Sighing, she sank to her knees and gave the satin a tug. ‘I’m afraid it’s my bottom that does it,’ Al said. ‘Oh dear.’ She turned sideways to the mirror, resettled the skirt at what passed for her waistline. ‘Am I OK now?’ She held up her arms, stamped her feet in her high heels. ‘I could have been a flamenco dancer,’ she said. ‘That would have been more fun.’ ‘Oh, surely not,’ Colette said. ‘Not more fun than this?’ She nudged her own head at the mirror, and smoothed down her hair; damp, it lay on her head like strings of white licqorice. The manager put his head around the door. ‘All right?’ he said. ‘Will you stop saying that?’ Colette turned on him. ‘No, not all right. I want you out there for the second half, that girl from the bar is useless. And turn the bloody air conditioning up, we’re all melting.’ She indicated Alison. ‘Especially her.’ Morris rolled lazily on to his back in the doorway and made faces at the manager. ‘Bossy cow, ain’t she?’ ‘So sorry to disturb your toilette,’ the manager said, bowing to Alison. ‘OK, OK, time to move.’ Colette clapped her hands. ‘They’re out there waiting.’ Morris grabbed Al’s ankle as she stepped over him. She checked her stride, took a half-pace backwards, and ground her heel into his face. The second half usually began with a question-and-answer session. When Colette first joined Al she had worried about this part of the evening. She waited for some sceptic to jump up and challenge Al about her mistakes and evasions. But Al laughed. She said, those sort of people don’t come out at night, they stay at home watching Question Time and shouting at the TV. Tonight they were quick off the mark. A woman stood up, wreathed in smiles. She accepted the microphone easily, like a professional. ‘Well, you can guess what we all want to know.’ Al simpered back at her. ‘The royal passing.’ The woman all but curtsied. ‘Have you had any communication from Her Majesty the Queen Mother? How is she faring in the other world? Has she been reunited with King George?’ ‘Oh yes,’ Alison said, ‘she’ll be reunited.’ In fact, the chances are about the same as meeting somebody you know at a main-line station at rush hour. It’s not 14 million to one, like the National Lottery, but you have to take into account that the dead, like the living, sometimes like to dodge and weave. ‘And Princess Margaret? Has she seen HRH her daughter?’ Princess Margaret came through. Al couldn’t stop her. She seemed to be singing a comic song. Nothing derails an evening so fast as royalty. They expect to make the running, they choose the topic, they talk and you’re supposed to listen. Somebody, perhaps the princess herself, was pounding a piano, and other voices were beginning to chime in. But Alison was in a hurry; she wanted to get to a man, the evening’s first man, who’d got his hand up with a question. Ruthless, she gave the whole tribe the brush-off: Margaret Rose, Princess Di, Prince Albert, and a faint old cove who might be some sort of Plantagenet. It was interesting for Al that you got so many history programmes on TV these days. Many a night she’d sat on the sofa, hugging her plump calves, pointing out people she knew. ‘Is that really Mrs Pankhurst?’ she’d say. ‘I’ve never seen her in that hat.’ The man had risen to his feet. The manager – pretty quick round the room now Colette had given him a rocket – had got the mike across the hall. Poor old bloke, he looked shaky. ‘I’ve never done this before,’ he said. ‘Take it steady,’ Al advised. ‘No need to rush, sir.’ ‘Never been to one of these,’ he said. ‘But I’m getting on a bit myself, now, so…’ He wanted to know about his dad, who’d had an amputation before he died. Would he be reunited with his leg, in spirit world? Al could reassure him on the point. In spirit world, she said, people are healthy and in their prime. ‘They’ve got all their bits and whatsits. Whenever they were at their happiest, whenever they were at their healthiest, that’s how you’ll find them in spirit world.’ The logic of this, as Colette had often pointed out, was that a wife could find herself paired with a pre-adolescent for a husband. Or your son could, in spirit world, be older than you. ‘You’re quite right, of course,’ Al would say blithely. Her view was, believe what you want, Colette: I’m not here to justify myself to you. The old man didn’t sit down; he clung, as if he were at sea, to the back of the chair in the row ahead. He was hoping his dad would come through, he said, with a message. Al smiled. ‘I wish I could get him for you, sir. But again it’s like the telephone, isn’t it? I can’t call them, they have to call me. They have to want to come through. And then again, I need a bit of help from my spirit guide.’ It was at this stage in the evening that it usually came out about the spirit guide. ‘He’s a little circus clown,’ Al would say. ‘Morris is the name. Been with me since I was a child. I used to see him everywhere. He’s a darling little bloke, always laughing, tumbling, doing his tricks. It’s from Morris that I get my wicked sense of humour.’ Colette could only admire the radiant sincerity with which Al said this: year after year, night after bloody night. She blazed like a planet, the lucky opals her distant moons. For Morris insisted, he insisted that she give him a good character, and if he wasn’t flattered and talked up, he’d get his revenge. ‘But then,’ Al said to the audience, ‘he’s got his serious side too. He certainly has. You’ve heard, haven’t you, of the tears of a clown?’ This led on to the next, the obvious question: how old was she when she first knew about her extraordinary psychic gifts? ‘Very small, very small indeed. In fact, I remember being aware of presences before I could walk or talk. But of course it was the usual story with a sensitive child – sensitive is what we call it, when a person’s attuned to spirit – you tell the grown-ups what you see, what you hear, but they don’t want to know, you’re just a kiddie, they think you’re fantasising. I mean, I was often accused of being naughty when I was only passing on some comment that had come to me through Spirit. Not that I hold it against my mum, God bless her, I mean, she’s had a lot of trouble in her life – and then along came me!’ The trade chuckled, en masse, indulgent. Time to draw questions to a close, Alison said; because now I’m going to try to make some more contacts for you. There was applause. ‘Oh you’re so lovely,’ she said. ‘Such a lovely, warm and understanding audience, I can always count on a good time whenever I come in your direction. Now I want you to sit back, I want you to relax, I want you to smile, and I want you to send some lovely positive thoughts up here to me…and let’s see what we can get.’ Colette glanced down the hall. The manager seemed to have his eye on the ball, and the vague boy, after shambling about aimlessly for the first half, was now at least looking at the trade instead of up at the ceiling or down at his own feet. Time to slip backstage for a cigarette? It was smoking that kept her thin: smoking and running and worrying. Her heels clicked in the dim narrow passage, on the composition floor. The dressing-room door was closed. She hesitated in front of it. Afraid, always, that she’d see Morris. Al said there was a knack to seeing spirit. It was to do with glancing sideways, not turning your head: extending, Al said, your field of peripheral vision. Colette kept her eyes fixed in front of her; sometimes, the rigidity she imposed seemed to make them ache in their sockets. She pushed the door open with her foot, and stood back. Nothing rushed out. On the threshold she took a breath. Sometimes she thought she could smell him; Al said he’d always smelled. Deliberately, she turned her head from side to side, checking the corners. Al’s scent lay sweetly on the air: there was an undernote of corrosion, damp and drains. Nothing was visible. She glanced into the mirror, and her hand went up automatically to pat her hair. She enjoyed her cigarette in the corridor, wafting the smoke away from her with a rigid palm, careful not to set off the fire alarm. She was back in the hall in time to witness the dramatic highlight; which was always, for her, some punter turning stroppy. Al had found a woman’s father, in spirit world. ‘Your daddy’s still keeping an eye on you,’ she cooed. The woman jumped to her feet. She was a small aggressive blonde in a khaki vest, her cold bluish biceps pumped up at the gym. ‘Tell the old sod to bugger off,’ she said. ‘Tell the old sod to stuff himself. Happiest day of my life when that fucker popped his clogs.’ She knocked the mike aside. ‘I’m here for my boyfriend that was killed in a pile-up on the sodding M25.’ Al said, ‘There’s often a lot of anger when someone passes. It’s natural.’ ‘Natural?’ the girl said. ‘There was nothing natural about that fucker. If I hear any more about my bastard dad I’ll see you outside and sort you out.’ The trade gasped, right across the hall. The manager was moving in, but anyone could see he didn’t fancy his chances. Al seemed quite cool. She started chatting, saying anything and nothing – now, after all, would have been a good time for a breakthrough ditty from Margaret Rose. It was the woman’s two friends who calmed her; they waved away the vague boy with the mike, dabbed at her cheeks with a screwed-up tissue, and persuaded her back into her seat, where she muttered and fumed. Now Alison’s attention crossed the hall, rested on another woman, not young, who had a husband with her: a heavy man, ill at ease. ‘Yes, this lady. You have a child in spirit world.’ The woman said politely, no, no children. She said it as if she had said it many times before; as if she were standing at a turnstile, buying admission tickets and refusing the half-price. ‘I can see there are none earthside, but I’m talking about the little boy you lost. Well, I say little boy. Of course, he’s a man now. He’s telling me we have to go back to, back a good few years, we’re talking here thirty years and more. And it was hard for you, I know, because you were very young, darling, and you cried and cried, didn’t you? Yes, of course you did.’ In these situations, Al kept her nerve; she’d had practice. Even the people at the other side of the hall, craning for a view, knew something was up and fell quiet. The seconds stretched out. In time, the woman’s mouth moved. ‘On the mike, darling. Talk to the mike. Speak up, speak out, don’t be afraid. There isn’t anybody here who isn’t sharing your pain.’ Am I? Colette asked herself. I’m not sure I am. ‘It was a miscarriage,’ the woman said. ‘I never, I never saw. It wasn’t, they didn’t, and so I didn’t – ’ ‘Didn’t know it was a little boy. But,’ Al said softly, ‘you know now.’ She turned her head to encompass the hall: ‘You see, we have to recognise that it wasn’t a very compassionate world back then. Times have changed, and for that we can all be thankful. I’m sure those nurses and doctors were doing their best, and they didn’t mean to hurt you, but the fact is, you weren’t given a chance to grieve.’ The woman hunched forward. Tears sprang out of her eyes. The heavy husband moved forward, as if to catch them. The hall was rapt. ‘What I want you to know is this.’ Al’s voice was calm, unhurried, without the touch of tenderness that would overwhelm the woman entirely; dignified and precise, she might have been querying a grocery bill. ‘That little boy of yours is a fine young man now. He knows you never held him. He knows that’s not your fault. He knows how your heart aches. He knows how you’ve thought of him,’ Al dropped her voice, ‘always, always, without missing a day. He’s telling me this, from spirit. He understands what happened. He’s opening his arms to you, and he’s holding you now.’ Another woman, in the row behind, began to sob. Al had to be careful, at this point, to minimise the risk of mass hysteria. Women, Colette thought: as if she weren’t one. But Alison knew just how far she could take it. She was on form tonight; experience tells. ‘And he doesn’t forget your husband,’ she told the woman. ‘He says hello to his dad.’ It’s the right note, braced, unsentimental: ‘Hello, Dad.’ The trade sighed, a low mass sigh. ‘And the point is, and he wants you to know this, that though you’ve never been there to look after him, and though of course there’s no substitute for a mother’s love, your little boy has been cared for and cherished, because you’ve got people in spirit who’ve always been there for him – your own grandma? And there’s another lady, very dear to your family, who passed the year you were married.’ She hesitated. ‘Bear with me, I’m trying for her name. I get the colour of a jewel. I get a taste of sherry. Sherry, that’s not a jewel, is it? Oh, I know, it’s a glass of port. Ruby. Does that name mean anything to you?’ The woman nodded, again and again and again: as if she could never nod enough. Her husband whispered to her, ‘Ruby, you know – Eddie’s first wife?’ The mike picked it up. ‘I know, I know,’ she muttered. She gripped his hand. Her fluttering breath registered. You could almost hear her heart. ‘She’s got a parcel for you,’ Al said. ‘No, wait, she’s got two.’ ‘She gave us two wedding presents. An electric blanket and some sheets.’ ‘Well,’ Al said, ‘if Ruby kept you so warm and cosy, I think you could trust her with your baby.’ She threw it out to the audience. ‘What do you say?’ They began to clap: sporadically, then with gathering force. Weeping broke out again. Al lifted her arm. Obedient to a strange gravity, the lucky opals rose and fell. She’d saved her best effect till last. ‘And he wants you to know, this little boy of yours who’s a fine young man now, that in spirit he goes by the name you chose for him, the name you had planned to give him…if it, if he, if he was a boy. Which was,’ she pauses, ‘correct me if I’m wrong, which was Alistair.’ ‘Was it?’ said the heavy husband: he was still on the mike, though he didn’t know it. The woman nodded. ‘Would you like to answer me?’ Al asked pleasantly. The man cleared his throat, then spoke straight into the mike. ‘Alistair. She says that’s right. That was her choice. Yes.’ Unseeing, he handed the mike to his neighbour. The woman got to her feet, and the heavy man led her away, as if she were an invalid, her handkerchief held over her mouth. They exited, to a fresh storm of applause. ‘Steroid rage, I expect,’ Al said. ‘Did you see those muscles of hers?’ She was sitting up in her hotel bed, dabbing cream on her face. ‘Look, Col, as you quite well know, everything that can go wrong for me out there, has gone wrong at sometime. I can cope. I can weather it. I don’t want you getting stressed.’ ‘I’m not stressed. I just think it’s a landmark. The first time anybody’s threatened to beat you up.’ ‘The first time while you’ve been with me, maybe. That’s why I gave up working in London.’ Al sat back against the pillows, her eyes closed; she pushed the hair back from her forehead, and Colette saw the jagged scar at her hairline, dead white against ivory. ‘Who needs it? A fight every night. And the trade pawing you when you try to leave, so you miss the last train home. I like to get home. But you know that, Col.’ She doesn’t like night driving, either; so when they’re outside the ring of the M25, there’s nothing for it except to put up somewhere, the two of them in a twin room. A bed and breakfast is no good because Al can’t last through till breakfast, so for preference they need a hotel that will do food through the night. Sometimes they take pre-packed sandwiches, but it’s joyless for Al, sitting up in bed at 4 a.m., sliding a finger into the plastic triangle to fish out the damp bread. There’s a lot of sadness in hotel rooms, soaked up by the soft furnishings: a lot of loneliness and guilt and regret. A lot of ghosts too: whiskery chambermaids stumping down the corridors on their bad legs, tippling night porters who’ve collapsed on the job, guests who’ve drowned in the bath or suffered a stroke in their beds. When they check into a room Alison stands on the threshold and sniffs the atmosphere, inhales it: and her eyes travel dubiously around. More than once, Colette has shot down to reception to ask for a different room. ‘What’s the problem?’ the receptionists will say (sometimes adding ‘madam’) and Colette, stiff with hostility and fright, will say, ‘Why do you need to know?’ She never fails in her mission: challenged, she can pump out as much aggression as the girl in the khaki vest. What Alison prefers is somewhere new-built and anonymous, part of some reliable chain. She hates history: unless it’s on the television, safe behind glass. She won’t thank you for a night in a place with beams. ‘Sod the inglenooks,’ she once said, after an exhausting hour tussling with an old corpse in a sheet. The dead are like that; give them a cliché, and they’ll run to it. They enjoy frustrating the living, spoiling their beauty sleep. They enjoyed pummelling Al’s flesh, and nagging at her till she got earache; they rattled around in her head until some nights, like tonight, it seemed to quiver on the soft stem of her neck. ‘Col,’ she groaned, ‘be a good girl, rummage around in the bags and see if you can find my lavender spray. My head’s throbbing.’ Colette knelt on the floor and rummaged as directed. ‘That woman at the end, the couple, the miscarriage – you could have heard a pin drop.’ Al said, ‘“See a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck.” My mum told me that. I never do, though. See a pin. Or find money in the street.’ That’s because you’re too fat to see your feet, Colette thought. She said, ‘How did you do that thing with the name? When you were going on about mother love I nearly puked, but I have to hand it to you, you got there in the end.’ ‘Alistair? Well, of course, if he’d been called John, you wouldn’t be giving me any credit. You’d have said it was one of my lucky guesses.’ She sighed. ‘Look, Colette, what can I tell you? The boy was standing there. He knew his own name. People do.’ ‘The mother, she must have been thinking his name.’ ‘Oh yes, I could have picked it out of her head. I know that’s your theory. Mind-reading. Oh God, Colette.’ Al slid down inside the covers. She closed her eyes. Her head dropped back against the pillows. ‘Think that, if you find it easier. But you will admit I sometimes tell people things they’ve yet to find out.’ She hated that phrase of Al’s: ‘Think that, if you find it easier.’ As if she were a child and couldn’t be told the truth. Al only seemed dense – it was part of her act. The truth was, she listened to Radio 4 when they were on the road. She’d got a vocabulary, though she didn’t use it on the trade. She was quite a serious and complicated person, and deep, deep and sly: that was what Colette thought. Al seldom talked about death. At first when they started working together, Colette had thought the word would slip out, if only through the pressure of trying to avoid it. And sometimes it did; but mostly Al talked about passing, she talked about spirit, she talked about passing into spirit world; to that eventless realm, neither cold nor hot, neither hilly nor flat, where the dead, each at their own best age and marooned in an eternal afternoon, pass the ages with sod all going on. Spirit world, as Al describes it to the trade, is a garden, or to be more accurate a public place in the open air: litter-free like an old-fashioned park, with a bandstand in a heat haze in the distance. Here the dead sit in rows on benches, families together, on gravelled paths between weedless beds, where heat-sozzled flowers bob their heads, heavy with the scent of eau de Cologne: their petals crawling with furry, intelligent, stingless bees. There’s a certain 1950s air about the dead, or early sixties perhaps, because they’re clean and respectable and they don’t stink of factories: as if they came after white nylon shirts and indoor sanitation, but before satire, certainly before sexual intercourse. Unmelting ice cubes (in novelty shapes) chink in their glasses, for the age of refrigeration has come. They eat picnics with silver forks; purely for pleasure, because they never feel hunger, nor gain weight. No wind blows there, only a gentle breeze, the temperature being controlled at a moderate 71° F; these are the English dead, and they don’t have centigrade yet. All picnics are share and share alike. The children never squabble or cut their knees, for whatever happened to them earth-side, they are beyond physical damage now. The sun shall not strike them by day nor the moon by night; they have no red skin or freckles, none of the flaws that make the English so uncouth in summer. It’s Sunday, yet the shops are open, though no one needs anything. A mild air plays in the background, not quite Bach, possibly Vaughan Williams, quite like the early Beatles too; the birds sing along, in the green branches of the seasonless trees. The dead have no sense of time, no clear sense of place; they are beyond geography and history, she tells her clients, till someone like herself tunes in. Not one of them is old or decrepit or uselessly young. They all have their own teeth: or an expensive set of implants, if their own were unsightly. Their damaged chromosomes are counted and shuffled into good order; even the early miscarriages have functioning lungs and a proper head of hair. Damaged livers have been replaced, so their owners live to drink another day. Blighted lungs now suck at God’s own low-tar blend. Cancerous breasts have been rescued from the surgeons’ bin, and blossom like roses on spirit chests. Al opened her eyes. ‘Col, are you there? I was dreaming that I was hungry.’ ‘I’ll ring down for a sandwich, shall I?’ She considered. ‘Get me ham on brown. Wholemeal. Dab of mustard – French, not English. Dijon – tell them cupboard on the left, third shelf. Ask them for – do they do a cheese plate? I’d like a slice of Brie and some grapes. And some cake. Not chocolate. Coffee maybe. Walnuts. It has walnuts on top. Two at the rim and one in the centre.’ In the night Al would be out of bed, her large outline blocking the light that leaked in from the hotel forecourt; it was the sudden darkness that woke Colette, and she would stir and see Al outlined, in her chiffon and lace, against the glow from the bedside lamp. ‘What’s the matter, what do you need?’ Colette would murmur: because you didn’t know what was happening, it could be trivial, but then again…Sometimes Al wanted chocolate out of her bag, sometimes she was facing the pangs of birth or the shock of a car crash. They might be awake for minutes or hours. Colette would slide out of bed and fill the plastic kettle, jerking its cord into its socket. Sometimes the water remained unboiled and Al would break off from her travail and say, ‘Plug switched on at the socket, Col?’ and she would hiss, yes, yes, and shake the bloody thing so that water slopped out of the spout; and quite often, that would make it go: so temper, Al said, was just as good as electricity. Then while Al rolled towards the bathroom to retch over the bowl, she would forage for dusty tea bags and tubs of UHT; and eventually they would sit side by side, their hands wrapped around the hotel cups, and Al would mutter, ‘Colette, I don’t know how you do it. All your patience. These broken nights.’ ‘Oh, you know,’ she’d joke. ‘If I’d had kids…’ ‘I’m grateful. I might not show it. But I am, sweetheart. I don’t know where I’d be now, if we’d never met.’ At these times, Colette felt for her; she was not without feeling, though life had pushed her pretty far in that direction. Al’s features would be softened and blurred, her voice would be the same. She would have panda eyes from the night’s make-up, however diligent she’d been with the cotton-wool pads; and there was something childlike about her, as she made her apologies for the way she made her living. For the bad nights Colette carried brandy, to ward off fresh nausea and bouts of pain. Crouching to slide a hand into her overnight bag, she’d think, Al, don’t leave me, don’t die and leave me without a house and a job. You’re a silly cow, but I don’t want to do this world on my own. So, after a night more or less broken, they would fight back to wakefulness, somewhere around seven thirty, side by side in their twin beds. Whatever had happened during the night, however many times she had been up and down, Colette’s sheets were still tucked in tight, as if her body were completely flat. Al’s bed looked, more often than not, as if there had been an earthquake in it. On the floor by their slippers they would find last night’s room-service plates, with a pallid half-tomato and some crumbled potato crisps; cold sodden tea bags in a saucer, and strange grey-white fragments, like the ghosts of boiled water, floating in the bottom of the kettle. Colette would put on breakfast TV to swamp the traffic noise beyond the window, the sigh of tyres, the rumble of distant aircraft approaching Luton: or Stansted, if they had headed east. Al would lever herself, groaning, from the wreck of her bed, and begin the complex business of putting her persona in place; then she would go down for her breakfast. Colette would kick the remnants of room service out into the corridor, begin picking up after them and packing their bags. Al brought her own towelling robe, and now it was damp and perfumed after her bath, and bulked out the case; hotel robes didn’t fit her, she would have needed to tie two together in some sort of Siamese twin arrangement. She always travelled with two or three pairs of scissors, and her own sewing kit; as if she were afraid that she might begin to unravel. Colette would pack these items away; then she would put the lucky opals in the case, count the bracelets, fit the make-up brushes snugly into their tabs and crevices, retrieve the hairpiece from where it was lying; pull from the closet her own insignificant crease-free outfits, flop them over her arm and drop them into her bag. She could not eat breakfast; it was because, when she had been with her husband Gavin, breakfast had been prime time for rows. She would forage for more tea, though often the allocation of room supplies was so mean that she’d be left with the Earl Grey. Sipping it, she would raise the window blind, on Home Counties rain or vapid sunshine. Al would tap on the door to be let in – there was only ever the one key in these places – and come in looking fat, full of poached eggs. She would cast a critical eye over the packing, and begin, because she was ashamed of it, to haul her bed into some sort of shape, dragging up the blankets from the floor and sneezing gently as she did so. Colette would reach into her bag and flip over the antihistamines. ‘Water,’ Al would say, sitting down, as if exhausted, among the poor results of her labour. Then, ‘Steal the shower caps,’ because, she would say, ‘you can’t get them these days, you know, and they’re only good for twice.’ So Colette would go back into the bathroom to pocket the shower-cap supplies; they left the shampoos and the slivers of soap, they weren’t cheap or petty in that way at all. And her mind would be running, it’s 8.30 and Morris not here, steal all shower caps, check behind bathroom door, 8.31 and he’s not here, out of bathroom looking cheerful, throw stolen shower caps into bag, switch off TV, say are we right then, 8.32 and Al stands up, 8.32 she wanders to the mirror, 8.33 she is dropping the sodden tea bags from the saucer into the used cups, Al, she says, what are you doing, can we not get on the road please…and then she will see Al’s shoulders tense. It’s nothing she’s done, nothing she’s said: it’s the banging and cursing, audible only to Al, that tells her they have been rejoined by Morris. It was one of the few blessings Colette could count, that he didn’t always stay the night when they were away. The lure of strange towns was too much for him, and it was her job to provide him with a strange town. To stray up to a five-mile range from their lodging didn’t seem to bother him. On his bent, tough little legs, he was a good walker. But reservations at room-only motor lodges were not his favourite. He grumbled that there was nothing to do, stranded somewhere along the motorway, and he would sit in the corner of their room being disgusting. Al would shout at him for picking his feet; after that, she would go quiet and look furious, so Colette could only guess what he might be doing. He grumbled also if to get to his evening out he had to take a bus ride or find himself a lift. He liked to be sure, he said, that if need be he could get back to her within twenty minutes of the pubs closing. ‘What does he mean, if need be?’ she’d asked. ‘What would happen if you were separated from Morris? Would you die?’ Oh no, Al had said; he’s just a control freak. I wouldn’t die, neither would he. Though he has already, of course. And it seemed that no harm came to him on the nights when he would fall in with some other lowlifes and drift off with them, and forget to come home. All next day they’d have to put up with him repeating the beery jokes and catchphrases he had picked up. When she’d first joined Al, she’d not understood about Morris. How could she? It wasn’t within the usual range of experience. She had hoped that he’d just lurch off one night and not come back; that he’d have an accident, get a blow on the head that would affect his memory, so he’d not be able to find his way back to them. Even now, she often thought that if she could get Al out of a place on the dot of eight thirty, they’d outsmart him; hurtle back on to the motorway and leave him behind, cursing and swearing and walking around all the cars in the car parks, bending down and peering at the number plates. But somehow, try as she might, they could never get ahead of him. At the last moment, Al would pause, as she was hauling her seat belt over her bulk. ‘Morris,’ she would say, and click the belt’s head into its housing. If Morris were earthside, she had once said to Al, and you and he were married, you could get rid of him easily enough; you could divorce him. Then if he pestered you, you could see a solicitor, take out an injunction. You could stipulate that he doesn’t come within a five-mile radius, for example. Al sighed and said, in spirit world it’s not that simple. You can’t just kick out your guide. You can try and persuade him to move on. You can hope he gets called away, or that he forgets to come home. But you can’t leave him, he has to leave you. You can try and kick him out. You might succeed, for a while. But he gets back at you. Years may go by. He gets back at you when you’re least expecting it. So, Colette had said, you’re worse off than if you were married. She had been able to get rid of Gavin for the modest price of a DIY divorce; it had hardly cost more than it would to put an animal down. ‘But he would never have left,’ she said. ‘Oh no, he was too cosy. I had to do the leaving.’ The summer they had first got together, Colette had said, maybe we could write a book. I could make notes on our conversations, she said. ‘You could explain your psychic view of the world to me, and I could jot it down. Or I could interview you, and tape it.’ ‘Wouldn’t that be a bit of a strain?’ ‘Why should it be? You’re used to a tape recorder. You use one every day. You give tapes of readings to clients, so what’s the problem?’ ‘They complain, that’s the problem. There’s so much crap on them.’ ‘Not your predictions?’ Colette said, shocked. ‘They don’t complain about those, surely?’ ‘No, it’s the rest of the stuff – all the interference. People from spirit, chipping in. And all the whizzes and bangs from airside. The clients think we’ve had a nice cosy chat, one to one, but when they listen back, there are all these blokes on the tape farting and spitting, and sometimes there’s music, or a woman screaming, or something noisy going on in the background.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Fairgrounds. Parade grounds. Firing squads. Cannon.’ ‘I’ve never come across this,’ Colette said. She was aggrieved, feeling that her good idea was being quashed. ‘I’ve listened to lots of tapes of psychic consultations, and there were never more than two voices on there.’ ‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ Al had sighed. ‘My friends don’t seem to have this problem. Not Cara, or Gemma, or any of the girls. I suppose I’ve just got more active entities than other people. So the problem would be, with the tapes, could you make the words out?’ ‘I bet I could. If I stuck at it.’ Colete thrust her jaw out. ‘Your pal Mandy’s done a book. She was flogging it when I went down to see her in Hove. Before I met you.’ ‘Did you buy one?’ ‘She wrote in it for me. Natasha, she put. “Natasha, Psychic to the Stars.”’ Colette snorted. ‘If she did it, we can.’ Al said nothing; Colette had made it clear she had no time for Mandy, and yet Mandy – Natasha to the trade – was one of her closest psychic sisters. She’s always so smart, she thought, and she’s got the gift of the gab; and she knows what I go through, with spirit. But already Colette was tending to push other friendships out of her life. ‘So how about it?’ Colette said. ‘We could self-publish. Sell it at the psychic fayres. What do you think? Seriously, we should give it a go. Anybody can write a book these days.’ Chapter Three Colette joined Alison in those days when the comet Hale-Bopp, like God’s shuttlecock, blazed over the market towns and dormitory suburbs, over the playing fields of Eton, over the shopping malls of Oxford, over the traffic-crazed towns of Woking and Maidenhead: over the choked slip roads and the junctions of the M4, over the superstores and out-of-town carpet warehouses, the nurseries and prisons, the gravel pits and sewage works, and the green fields of the Home Counties shredded by JCBs. Native to Uxbridge, Colette had grown up in a family whose inner workings she didn’t understand, and attended a comprehensive school where she was known as Monster. It seemed, in retrospect, a satire on her lack of monster qualities; she had in fact no looks at all, good or bad, yes or no, pro or con. In her school photographs, her indefinite features seemed neither male not female, and her pale bobbed hair resembled a cowl. Her shape was flat and neutral; fourteen passed, and nothing was done in the breast department. About the age of sixteen, she began to signal with her pale eyes and say, I’m a natural blonde, you know. In her English classes she was praised for her neat handwriting, and in maths she made, they told her, consistent progress. In religious studies she stared out of the window, as if she might see some Hindu deities squatting on the green mesh of the boundary fence. In history, she was asked to empathise with the sufferings of cotton mill operatives, plantation slaves and the Scots foot soldiers at Flodden; it left her cold. Of geography, she had simply no idea at all; but she learned French quickly, and spoke it without fear and with the accent native to Uxbridge. She stayed on after sixteen, because she didn’t know what she would do or where she would go once she left the classroom; but once her virginity was lost, and her elder sister moved out, leaving her with a room and a mirror of her own, she felt more definite, more visible, more of a presence in the world. She left school with two indifferent A levels, didn’t think of university. Her mind was quick, shallow and literal, her character assertive. She went to a secretarial college – there were still secretaries then – and became competent in shorthand, typing and simple bookkeeping. When the PC came along, she adjusted without difficulty, assimilating successively WordStar, WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. To her second job, in marketing, she brought her spreadsheet skills (Microsoft Excel and Lotus 1-2-3), together with PowerPoint for her presentation packages. Her third job was with a large charity, as an administrator in the fund-raising section. Her mail-merging was beyond reproach; it was indifferent to her whether she used dBase or Access, for she had mastered both. But though she had all the e-skills necessary, her telephone manner was cold and faintly satirical; it was more appropriate, her supervisor noted in her annual review, for someone selling timeshare. She was hurt; she had meant to do some good in the world. She left the charity with excellent references, and took a post with a firm of event organisers. Travel was involved, usually at the back of the plane; and fourteen-hour days in cities she never got to see. Sometimes she had to think hard: had she been to Geneva? Was Barcelona the place where her travel iron blew up, or was that Dundee? It was at an event she met Gavin. He was an itinerant software developer whose key card wouldn’t work, standing at the reception desk of a hotel in La Défense, entertaining the staff with his sad efforts in Franglais. His tie was in his pocket; his suit hanger, slung over his left shoulder, skewed his jacket away from his shirt, and tugged his shirt away from his skin. She noticed the black chest hairs creeping out of the open top button, and the beads of sweat on his forehead. He seemed the very model of a man. She stood at his elbow and chipped in, sorting out the problem. At the time he seemed grateful. Only later did she realise it was the worst thing she could have done: introducing herself at the moment of his humiliation. He would rather have slept in the corridor than be rescued by some bint wearing a photograph of herself pinned over her left tit. All the same, he asked her to meet him after he’d showered, and have a drink in the bar. ‘Well, Colette,’ he read her name off her badge. ‘Well, Colette, you’re not a bad-looking girl.’ Gavin had no sense of humour about himself, and neither did she. So there was a thing, a thing they had in common. He had relatives in Uxbridge, it turned out, and like her he had no interest in getting beyond the hotel bar and into the city. She didn’t sleep with him till the final night of the conference, because she didn’t want to seem cheap; but she walked back in a daze to her own room, and stared at herself in the full-length mirror, and said, Colette, you’re not a bad-looking girl. Her skin was a matt beige. Her beige hair flipped cheekily at chin level, giving her a surrogate smile. Her teeth were sound. Her limbs were straight. Her hips were small. Straight-cut silk trousers covered her tough cyclist’s legs. Her bosom was created by a garment with two curved under-wires, and boosted by padding which slid into a pocket so you could remove it; but why would anyone want to do that? Without taking her eyes from her own image, she cupped her hands beneath her breasts. Gavin would have the whole of her: all that was hers to give. They saw a converted flat in Whitton, and thought it might be a good investment. It was leasehold, of course; otherwise, Colette would have done the conveyancing herself, from a DIY guide. As it was, she rang around the solicitors and beat them down to a price, making sure she got their best offers in writing. Once they had moved into the flat, Gavin said, let’s split the bills. Kids, he said, were not his priority at this time in his life. She got an IUD fitted, as she didn’t trust the Pill; against the workings of nature, some mechanical contrivance seemed called for. Later he would say, you’re unnatural, you’re cold, I wanted kids but you went off and got this lump of poisoned plastic stuck up you, and you didn’t tell me. This was not strictly true; she had cut out an article about the topic from a trade mag passed to her by an ex-colleague who worked for a medical supplies company, and she had put it in the back pocket of his briefcase, where she had thought he might see it. They got married. People did. It was the fag end of the Thatcher/Major years and people held a wedding to show off. They didn’t have friends, so they invited everybody they knew. The wedding took six months to plan. When she woke up on the day, she had an urge to run downstairs, and howl in the streets of Whitton. Instead, she pressed her frock and climbed into it. She was alone in the flat; Gavin was on his stag night, and she wondered what she would do if he didn’t turn up; marry herself? The wedding was designed to be exhausting, to wring value from each moment they had paid for. So they could recover, she had booked ten days in the Seychelles: sea view, balcony, private taxi transfer and fruit in room on arrival. Gavin turned up just in time, his eyes pouched and his skin grey. After the registry, they went out to a hotel in Berkshire with a trout stream running through the grounds and fishing flies in glass cases on the walls of the bar, and French windows leading on to a terrace. She was photographed against the stone balustrade, with Gavin’s little nieces pawing her skirts. They had a marquee, and a band. They had gravadlax with dill sauce, served on black plates, and a chicken dish which tasted, Gavin said, like an airline dinner. The Uxbridge people on both sides came, and never spoke to each other. Gavin kept belching. A niece was sick, luckily not on Colette’s dress, which was hired. Her tiara, though, was bought: a special order to fit her narrow skull. Later she didn’t know what to do with it. Space was tight in the flat in Whitton, and her drawers were crammed with packets of tights, which she bought by the dozen, and with sachets and scent balls to perfume her knickers. When she reached in among her underwear, the faux pearls of the tiara would roll beneath her fingers, and its gilt lattices and scrolls would remind her that her life was open, unfolding. It seemed mercenary to advertise it in the local paper. Besides, Gavin said, there can’t be two people with a head shaped like yours. The pudding at their wedding breakfast was strawberries and meringue stacked up in a tower, served on frosted-glass platters sprinkled with little green flecks, which proved to be not chopped mint leaves but finely snipped chives. Uxbridge ate it with a stout appetite; after all, they’d already done raw fish. But Colette – once her suspicion was verified, by a tiny taste at the tip of her tongue – had flown out, in her tiara, cornered the duty manager, and told him she proposed to sue the hotel in the small claims court. They paid her off, as she knew they would, being afraid of the publicity; she and Gavin went back there gratis, for their anniversary dinner, and enjoyed a bottle of house champagne. It was too wet that night to walk by the trout stream: a lowering, misty evening in June. Gavin said it was too hot, and walked out on to the terrace as she was finishing her main course. By then the marriage was over, anyway. It was no particular sexual incompatibility that had broken up her marriage: Gavin liked it on Sunday mornings, and she had no objection. Neither was there, as she learned later, any particular planetary incompatibility. It was just that the time had come in her relationship with Gavin when, as people said, ‘she could see no future in it’. When she arrived at this point, she bought a large-format softback called What Your Handwriting Reveals. She was disappointed to find that your handwriting can’t shed any light on your future. It only tells of character, and your present and your past, and her present and her past she was clear about. As for her character, she didn’t seem to have any. It was because of her character that she was reduced to going to bookshops. The following week she returned the handwriting book to the shop. They were having a promotional offer, bring it back if it doesn’t thrill. She had to tell the boy behind the counter why, exactly, it didn’t; I suppose, she said, after so many years of word processing, I have no handwriting left. Her eyes flickered over him, from his head downwards, to where the counter cut off the view; she was already, she realised, looking for a man she could move on to. ‘Can I see the manager?’ she asked, and amiably, scratching his barnet, the boy replied, ‘You’re looking at him.’ ‘Really?’ she said. She had never seen it before: a manager who dressed out of a skip. He gave her back her money, and she browsed the shelves, and picked up a book about tarot cards. ‘You’ll need a pack to go with that,’ the boy said, when she got to the cash desk. ‘Otherwise you won’t get the idea. There are different sorts, shall I show you? There’s Egyptian tarot. There’s Shakespeare tarot. Do you like Shakespeare?’ As if, she thought. She was the last customer of the evening. He closed up the shop and they went to the pub. He had a room in a shared flat. In bed he kept pressing her clit with his finger, as if he were inputting a sale on the cash machine: saying, Helen, is that all right for you? She’d given him a wrong name, and she hated it, that he couldn’t see through to what she was really called. She’d thought Gavin was useless: but honestly! In the end she faked it, because she was bored and she was getting cramp. The Shakespeare boy said, Helen, that was great for me too. It was the tarot that started her off. Before that she had been just like everybody, reading her horoscope in the morning paper. She wouldn’t have described herself as superstitious or interested in the occult in any way. The next book she bought – from a different bookshop – was An Encyclopedia of the Psychic Arts. ‘Occult’, she discovered, meant hidden. She was beginning to feel that everything of interest was hidden. And none of it in the obvious places; don’t, for example, look in trousers. She had left that original tarot pack in the boy’s room, inadvertently. She wondered if he had ever taken it out and looked at the pictures; whether he ever thought of her, a mysterious stranger, a passing Queen of Hearts. She thought of buying another set, but what she read in the handbook baffled and bored her. Seventy-eight cards! Better employ someone qualified to read them for you. She began to visit a woman in Isleworth, but it turned out that her speciality was the crystal ball. The object sat between them on a black velvet cloth; she had expected it to be clear, because that’s what they said, crystal clear, but to look into it was like looking into a cloud bank, or into drifting fog. ‘The clear ones are glass, dear,’ the sensitive explained. ‘You won’t get anything from those.’ She rested her veined hands on the black velvet. ‘It’s the flaws that are vital,’ she said. ‘The flaws are what you pay for. You will find some readers who prefer the black mirror. That is an option, of course.’ Colette raised her eyebrows. ‘Onyx,’ the woman said. ‘The best are beyond price. The more you look – but you have to know how to look – the more you see stirring in the depths.’ Colette asked straight out, and heard that her crystal ball had set her back five hundred pounds. ‘And then only because I have a special friend.’ The psychic gained, in Colette’s eyes, a deal of prestige. She was avid to part with her twenty pounds for the reading. She drunk in everything the woman said, and when she hit the Isleworth pavement, moss growing between its cracks, she was unable to remember a word of it. She consulted a palmist a few times, and had her horoscope cast. Then she had Gavin’s done. She wasn’t sure that his chart was valid, because she couldn’t specify the time of his birth. ‘What do you want to know that for?’ he’d said, when she asked him. She said it was of general interest to her, and he glared at her with extreme suspicion. ‘I suppose you don’t know, do you?’ she said. ‘I could ring your mum.’ ‘I very much doubt,’ he’d said, ‘that my mother would have retained that piece of useless information, her brain being somewhat overburdened in my opinion with things like where is my plastic washball for my Persil, and what is the latest development in bloody EastEnders.’ The astrologer was unfazed by her ignorance. ‘Round it up,’ he said, ‘round it down. Twelve noon is what we use. We always do it for animals.’ ‘For animals?’ she’d said. ‘They have their horoscope done, do they?’ ‘Oh, certainly. It’s a valuable service, you see, for the caring owner who has a problem with a pet. Imagine, for instance, if you kept falling off your horse. You’d need to know, is this an ideal pairing? It could be a matter of life or death.’ ‘And do people know when their horse was born?’ ‘Frankly, no. That’s why we have a strategy to approximate. And as for your partner – if we say noon, that’s fine, but we then need latitude and longitude – so where do we imagine hubby first saw the light of day?’ Colette sniffed. ‘He won’t say.’ ‘Probably a Scorpio ascendant there. Controls by disinformation. Or could be Pisces. Makes mysteries where none needed. Just joking! Relax and think back for me…his mummy must have dropped a hint at some point. Where exactly did the dear chap pop out, into this breathing world scarce half made up?’ ‘He grew up in Uxbridge. But you know, she might have had him in hospital.’ ‘So it could have been anywhere along the A40?’ ‘Could we just say, London?’ ‘We’ll put him on the meridian. Always a wise choice.’ After this incident, she found it difficult to regard Gavin as fully human. He was standardised on zero degrees longitude and twelve noon, like some bucking bronco, or a sad mutt with no pedigree. She did call his mum, one evening when she’d had a half-bottle of wine and was feeling perverse. ‘Renee, is that you?’ she said. Renee said, ‘How did you get my name?’ ‘It’s me,’ she said, and Renee replied, ‘I’ve got replacement windows, and replacement doors. I’ve got a conservatory and the loft conversion’s coming next week. I never give to charity, thank you, and I’ve planned my holiday for this year, and I had a new kitchen when you were last in my area.’ ‘It’s about Gavin,’ she said. ‘It’s me, Colette. I need to know when he was born.’ ‘Take my name off your list,’ her mother-in-law said. ‘And if you must call me, could you not call during my programme? It’s one of my few remaining pleasures.’ There was a pause, as if she were going to put the receiver down. Then she spoke again. ‘Not that I need any others. I’ve had my suite re-covered. I have a spa bath already. And a case of vintage wine. And a stairlift to help me keep my independence. Have you got that? Are you taking notice? Bugger off.’ Click. Colette held the phone. Daughter-in-law of fourteen months, spurned by his mother. She replaced the receiver, and walked into the kitchen. She stood by the double sink, mastering herself. ‘Gavin,’ she called, ‘do you want peas or green beans?’ There was no answer. She stalked into the sitting room. Gavin, his bare feet on the sofa arm, was reading What Car? ‘Peas or green beans?’ she asked. No reply. ‘Gavin!!!!’ she said. ‘With wot?’ ‘Cutlets.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Lamb. Lamb chops.’ ‘OK,’ he said. ‘Whatever. Both.’ ‘You can’t.’ Her voice shook. ‘Two green veg, you can’t.’ ‘Who says?’ ‘Your mother,’ she said; she felt she could say anything, as he never listened. ‘When?’ ‘Just now on the phone.’ ‘My mother was on the phone?’ ‘Just now.’ ‘Bloody amazing.’ He shook his head, and flicked over a page. ‘Why? Why should it be?’ ‘Because she’s dead.’ ‘What? Renee?’ Colette sat down on the sofa arm: later, when she told the story, she would say, well, at that point, my legs went from under me. But she would never be able to recapture the sudden fright, the weakness that ran through her body, her anger, her indignation, the violent exasperation that possessed her. She said, ‘What the hell do you mean, she’s dead?’ ‘It happened this morning. My sis rang. Carole. ’ ‘Is this a joke? I need to know. Is this a joke? Because if it is, Gavin, I’ll kneecap you. ’ Gavin raised his eyebrows, as if to say, why would it be funny? ‘I didn’t suggest it was,’ she said at once: why wait for him to speak? I asked if it was your idea of a joke.’ ‘God help anybody who made a joke around here.’ Colette laid her hand on her ribcage, behind which something persistently fluttered. She stood up. She walked into the kitchen. She stared at the ceiling. She took a deep breath. She came back. ‘Gavin?’ ‘Mm?’ ‘She’s really dead?’ ‘Mm.’ She wanted to hit him. ‘How?’ ‘Heart.’ ‘Oh God! Have you no feeling? You can sit there, going peas or beans – ’ ‘You went that,’ he said reasonably. ‘Weren’t you going to tell me? If I hadn’t said, your mother was on the phone – ’ Gavin yawned. ‘What’s the hurry? I’d have told you.’ ‘You mean you might just have mentioned it? When you got around to it? When would that have been?’ ‘After the food.’ She gaped at him. He said, with some dignity, ‘I can’t mention when I’m hungry.’ Colette bunched her fingers into fists, and held them at chest height. She was short of breath, and the flutter inside her chest had subdued to a steady thump. At the same time an uneasy feeling filled her, that anything she could do was inadequate; that she was performing someone else’s gestures, perhaps from an equivalent TV moment where news of a sudden death is received. But what are the proper gestures when a ghost’s been on the phone? She didn’t know. ‘Please. Gavin,’ she said. ‘Put down What Car?. Just…look at me, will you? Now tell me what happened.’ ‘Nothing.’ He threw the magazine down. ‘Nothing happened.’ ‘But where was she? Was she at home?’ ‘No. Getting her shopping. In Safeway. Apparently.’ ‘And?’ Gavin rubbed his forehead. He seemed to be making an honest effort. ‘I suppose she was pushing her trolley.’ ‘Was she on her own?’ ‘Dunno. Yes.’ ‘And then?’ ‘She fell over.’ ‘She didn’t die there, did she? In the aisle?’ ‘Nah, they got her to the hospital. So no worries about the death certificate.’ ‘What a relief,’ she said grimly. Carole, it seemed, was proposing to get the bungalow on the market as soon as possible, with Sidgewick & Staff, who for sole agency charged 2 per cent on completion, and promised unlimited colour advertising and national tie-ins. ‘There should be a good payout,’ he said, ‘the place is worth a few quid.’ That was why, he explained, he was reading the new edition of What Car?; Renee’s will would bring him nearer to what he most coveted in life, which was a Porsche 911. ‘Aren’t you upset?’ she asked him. He shrugged. ‘We’ve all got to go, haven’t we? What’s it to you? It’s not as if you ever bothered with her.’ ‘And she lived in a bungalow, Renee?’ ‘Course she did.’ Gavin picked up his magazine and rolled it up in his hand, as if she were a wasp and he were going to swat her. ‘We went over for our lunch, that Sunday.’ ‘No we didn’t. We never went.’ ‘Only because you kept cancelling us.’ It was true. She’d hoped she could keep Renee at arm’s length: the wedding reception had proved her to have a coarse joke habit, and slipping false teeth. The teeth weren’t all that was false. ‘She told me,’ she said to Gavin, ‘that she had a stairlift installed. Which, if she lived in a bungalow, she couldn’t have.’ ‘When? When did she tell you that?’ ‘On the phone just now.’ ‘Hello? Hello? Anyone at home?’ Gavin asked. ‘Are you ever stupid? I told you she’s dead.’ Alerted by the mutiny on her face, he rose from the sofa and slapped her with What Car?. She picked up the Yellow Pages and threatened to take out his eye. After he had slunk off to bed, hugging his expectations, she went back into the kitchen and grilled the cutlets. The peas and green beans she fed to the waste disposal; she hated vegetables. She ate the lamb with her fingers, her teeth scraping the bone. Her tongue came out, and licked the last sweetness from the meat. She couldn’t work out what was worst, that Renee had answered the phone after she was dead, or that she had answered the phone on purpose to lie to her and tell her to bugger off. She threw the bones down the waste disposal too, and rejoiced as the grinder laboured. She rinsed her fingers and wiped them on a kitchen roll. In the bedroom, she inspected Gavin, spreadeagled across the available space. He was naked and snoring; his mag, rolled, was thrust under his pillow. That, that, she thought, is how much it means to him, the death of his only mother. She stood frowning down at him; her toe touched something hard and cold. It was a glass tumbler, lolling on its side, melted ice dribbling from its mouth on to the carpet. She picked it up. The breath of spirits hit her nostrils, and made her flinch. She walked into the kitchen and clicked the tumbler down on to the draining board. In the dark, tiny hall, she hauled Gavin’s laptop from its case. She lugged it into the sitting room and plugged it into the mains. She copied the files she thought might interest her, and erased his crucial data for tomorrow. In terms of life documentation, Gavin was less than some animal. He routinely misled her: but was it any wonder? What sort of upbringing could he have had, from a woman with false teeth who told lies after she was dead? She left the machine humming, and went back into the bedroom. She opened the wardrobe and went through Gavin’s pockets. The word ‘rifled’ came to her: ‘she rifled through his pockets’. He stirred once or twice in his sleep, reared up, snorted, collapsed back on to the mattress. I could kill him, she thought, as he lies here; or just maim him if I liked. She found a bunch of credit-card receipts in his knicker drawer; her index finger shuffled through them. She found newspaper ads for sex lines: spicy lesbo chicks! She packed a bag. Surely he would wake? Drawers clicked, opening and shutting. She glanced over her shoulder. Gavin stirred, made a sort of whinny, and settled back again into sleep. She reached down to unplug her hairdryer, wrapped the flex around her hand and stood thinking. She was entitled to half the equity in the flat; if he would embrace the car loan, she would continue paying off the wedding. She hesitated for a final moment. Her foot was on the wet patch the ice had left. Automatically, she plucked a tissue from an open box and blotted the carpet. Her fingers squeezed, the paper reduced itself to wet pulp. She walked away, brushing her hands together to jettison it. Gavin’s screensaver had come up. Colette slotted a floppy into his drive, and overwrote his programs. She had heard of women who, before departing, scissored up their husband’s clothes. But Gavin’s clothes, in their existing state, were punishment enough. She had heard of women who performed castration; but she didn’t want to go to jail. No, let’s see how he gets on without his bits and bytes, she thought. With one keystroke, she wrecked his operating system. She went down to the south coast to see a noted psychometrist, Natasha. She didn’t know then, of course, that Natasha would figure in her later life. At the time, it was just another hope she grappled with, a hope of making sense of herself; it was just another item in her strained monthly budget. The flat was two blocks back from the sea. She parked with difficulty and at some distance. She wasted time looking for the street numbers. When she found the right door she rang the bell and spoke into the intercom: ‘I’m your eleven thirty.’ Without a word, the psychic buzzed her up; but she thought she had heard a cough, stifling a little laugh. Her cheeks burned. She ran up three flights and as soon as Natasha opened the door she said, ‘I’m not late.’ ‘No, dear. You’re my eleven thirty.’ ‘You really ought to tell your clients where to park.’ The psychic smiled tightly. She was a sharp little bleached-blonde with a big jaw, common as a centrefold. ‘What,’ she said, ‘you think I should exercise my powers and keep a space free?’ ‘I meant you should send a map.’ Natasha turned to lead the way: tight high bottom in those kind of jeans that act as a corset. She’s too old, Colette thought, for denim; shouldn’t somebody tell her? ‘Sit there,’ Natasha said precisely, dipping her false nail. ‘The sun’s in my eyes,’ Colette said. ‘Diddums,’ said Natasha. A sad-eyed icon drooped at her, from a cheap gilt frame on the wall; a mist washed up from the sea. She sat, and flipped open her shoulder bag: ‘Do you want the cheque now?’ She wrote it. She waited for the offer of a cup of herb tea. It didn’t come. She almost had hopes of Natasha; she was nasty, but there was a businesslike briskness about her that she’d never found in any psychic so far. ‘Anything to give me?’ Natasha said. She dived into her bag and passed over her mother’s wedding ring. Natasha twirled it around her forefinger. ‘Quite a smiley lady.’ ‘Oh, smiley,’ Colette said. ‘I concede that.’ She passed over a pair of cuff-links that had belonged to her dad. ‘Is that the best you can manage?’ ‘I don’t have anything else of his.’ ‘Sad,’ Natasha said. ‘Can’t have been much of a relationship, can it? I sense that men don’t warm to you, somehow.’ She sat back in her chair, her eyes far away. Colette waited, respectfully silent. ‘Well, look, I’m not getting much from these.’ She jiggled the cuff-links in her hand. ‘They’re definitely your dad’s, are they? The thing is, with cuff-links, with dads, they get them for Christmas and then it’s, “Oh, thanks, thanks a bunch, just what I always needed!”’ Colette nodded. ‘But what can you do? What can you get, for men?’ ‘Bottle of Scotch?’ ‘Yes, but you want something that will last.’ ‘So he stuffs them in a drawer? Forgets he’s got them?’ She wanted to say, why do you think men don’t warm to me? Instead she opened her bag again. ‘My wedding ring,’ she said. ‘I suppose you didn’t think I’d been married?’ Natasha held out a flat, open palm. Colette placed the ring on it. ‘Oh dear,’ Natasha said. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’ ‘Don’t worry, I’ve already left.’ ‘Sometimes you’ve got to cut your losses,’ Natasha agreed. ‘Well, sweetie, what else can I tell you?’ ‘It’s possible I might be psychic myself,’ Colette said casually. ‘Certain, really. I dialled a number and a dead person answered.’ ‘That’s unusual.’ Natasha’s eyes flitted sideways, in a calculating way. ‘Which psychic line offers that service?’ ‘I wasn’t calling a psychic line. I was calling my mother-in-law. It turned out she was dead.’ ‘So what gave you the idea?’ ‘No – no, look, you have to understand how it happened. I didn’t know she was dead when I rang. I didn’t know till afterwards.’ ‘So she was dead when you called? But you didn’t realise?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So she came over from beyond?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What did she say to you?’ ‘She said she’d got a stairlift. It was a lie.’ ‘Well, perhaps…she’s got one in spirit?’ Colette considered. Renee had said there was no comfort she lacked. ‘I’m not really bothered about that aspect, about what she said, only that she picked the phone up. That she answered. At first that was what bothered me, about the stairlift – that she didn’t even say the truth – but then when I thought about it, her saying anything seemed to be the most surprising – well, you know.’ Colette’s voice died in her throat. She was not used to speaking her thoughts. Life with Gavin had discouraged her. ‘Nothing like that’s ever happened to me before, but I think it proves I must have a gift. I’m a bit bored with my job and I wouldn’t mind a change. I wondered about this, you know? If there’s much money in it.’ Natasha laughed. ‘Well, if you think you could stand the pace. You have to train.’ ‘Oh, do you? It’s not enough to be able to do it?’ ‘Look,’ Natasha said, ‘I don’t want to sound hostile, but isn’t it possible that you’re being a bit naive? I mean, you’ve got a good career now, I can see that. So why waste it? You’d need to build up your psychic skills, you can’t expect to start cold at your age.’ ‘I beg your pardon?’ Colette said. ‘At my age?’ ‘I started at twelve,’ Natasha said. ‘You’re not telling me you’re twelve, are you?’ With one hand, she lazily shuffled her cards together. ‘Want me to see what I get?’ She began to lay out a spread, her nails clicking on the back of each card. ‘Look, if you’re going to work with higher powers, it will happen. Nothing will stop it. But you’ll get the here-and-now sorted, if you’ll heed my advice.’ She looked up. ‘Letter “M” comes to mind.’ Colette thought. ‘I don’t know anyone of that letter.’ She thought, M for Man? ‘Someone coming into your life. Not yet. An older bloke. Not too keen on you at first, I must say. ’ ‘But then?’ ‘All’s well that ends well,’ Natasha said. ‘I suppose.’ She had walked away, disappointed; when she got back to her car, she had been ticketed. After that she had been for crystal healing, and had some reiki sessions. She arranged to meet Gavin in a new bar called Peppermint Plaza. He arrived before her and when she walked in he was sitting on a pale green leather-look banquette, a bottle of Mexican lager planted in front of him, leafing through Thames Valley Autotrader. ‘Renee’s money not come through yet?’ she asked. She slid into the seat opposite. ‘When it does, you could use some of it to buy me out of the flat.’ ‘If you think I’m giving up the chance of a decent car, then no way,’ said Gavin. ‘If I don’t get the Porsche this is what I’m getting, I’m getting this Lancia.’ He flopped the magazine down on the table. ‘There’s one here.’ He turned the picture round obligingly so it was the right way up for her. ‘Recarro seats. Full spec. Seriously speedy.’ ‘Put it on the market then. The flat. If you can’t buy me out.’ ‘You said that. You said it before. I said, yes. I agree. So don’t go on about it. OK?’ There was a silence. Colette looked around. ‘Quite nice here. Quiet.’ ‘Bit girly.’ ‘That’s probably why I like it. Being a girl.’ Her knees touched his, under the table. She tried to pull her chair away, but it was bolted to the floor. Gavin said, ‘I want fifty per cent of the bills till the flat’s sold.’ ‘I’ll pay half the monthly service charge.’ Colette pushed his magazine back across the table. ‘I won’t pay half the utilities.’ ‘What’s that, utilities?’ ‘Gas and electric. Why should I pay to keep you warm?’ ‘I’ll tell you what, you stuffed me with a huge sodding phone bill. You can pay that.’ ‘It’s your phone too.’ ‘Yeah, but I’m not on it all night, blah-bloody-blah to some bint I’ve sat next to all day and I’ll be seeing again the next morning. And it’s not me phoning premium rate lines to what’s it called, bloody predictionists, bloody psychic lines at a quid a minute.’ ‘Actually, sex lines are premium rate too.’ ‘Oh well, you would know about that, wouldn’t you?’ Gavin gathered up his car magazine, as if to shield it from her. ‘You’re not normal.’ She sighed. She couldn’t summon up the energy to say, ‘I beg your pardon, not normal, what do you mean?’ Any abstraction, indirection and allusion was wasted on Gavin, and in fact even the most straightforward form of communication – other than a poke in the eye – was a challenge to his attention span. There hadn’t, so far as she’d understood, been any dispute between them about what they did in the bedroom – it had seemed fairly straightforward stuff, though she was fairly ignorant and limited, she supposed, and Gavin, certainly, he was fairly ignorant and limited. But after the marriage is over, maybe that’s what men do, they decide it was the sex that was wrong, because it’s something they can communicate over a drink, something they can turn into a story, snigger over; it’s an explanation they can give themselves, for what would otherwise remain the complete mystery of human relationships. There were other mysteries, which loomed large to her and hardly loomed at all for Gavin: what are we here for, what will happen next? It was no use trying to explain to him that without the fortune tellers she had become afraid to act at all; that she liked to know that things were her fate, that she didn’t like life to be arbitrary. It was no use telling him either that she thought she might be psychic herself. The incident of the posthumous phone call, if it had ever sunk into his mind, had been chemically erased, because of the vodka he had drunk the night she moved out; this was lucky for her, because when next day he found his computer trashed he thought he had only himself to blame. ‘Don’t you want to ask anything?’ she asked. ‘Like where I’m living?’ ‘So where are you living, Colette?’ he said sarcastically. ‘With a friend.’ ‘Jesus, you’ve got a friend?’ ‘But from next week I’ve arranged a house-share in Twickenham. I’ll have to start paying rent, so I need the flat to be sold.’ ‘All we need is a buyer.’ ‘No, all we need is a seller.’ ‘What?’ ‘Put it on the market.’ ‘I have. Last week. ’ ‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ She slammed her glass down. ‘Why didn’t you just come out and say that?’ ‘I would if I could get a word in edgewise. Besides, I thought you’d get a tip-off from the spirits. I thought they’d say, a strange man is walking around your bedroom with a steel measure.’ Colette threw herself back in her seat: but it was strangely curved, and pushed her forward again, so her diaphragm was against the table’s edge. ‘So how much did they suggest?’ He told her. ‘That’s far too low. They must think you’re an idiot. And they could be right. Leave it, Gavin, leave it. I’ll get on to it tomorrow. I’ll phone them myself.’ ‘They said, realistic price for a quick sale.’ ‘More likely they’ve got a mate lined up, who they’re selling it on to.’ ‘That’s your trouble.’ Gavin scratched his armpit. ‘You’re paranoid.’ ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You use words without any idea what they mean. All you know is stupid jargon out of car mags. Recarro seats. Spicy lesbo chicks. That’s all you know.’ Gavin turned down his mouth and shrugged. ‘So. You want anything?’ ‘Yes, I want my life back.’ ‘From the flat.’ ‘I’ll make a list.’ ‘Anything you want now?’ ‘The kitchen knives.’ ‘Why?’ ‘They’re good ones. Japanese. You don’t want them. You won’t cook.’ ‘I might want to cut something.’ ‘Use your teeth.’ He took a pull on his lager. She finished her spritzer. ‘If that’s all?’ she said. She gathered her bag and her jacket. ‘I want everything in writing, about the flat. Tell the agents, that all the paperwork must be copied to me. I want full consultation at every point.’ She stood up. ‘I’ll be ringing every two days to check on progress.’ ‘I’ll look forward to that.’ ‘Not you. The agent. Have you got their card?’ ‘No. Not on me. Come back and get it.’ Alarm flared inside her. Was he intending to mug her, or rape her? ‘Send it to me,’ she said. ‘I don’t have your address.’ ‘Send it to the office.’ When she got to the door it occurred to her that it might have been his single, clumsy effort at reconciliation. She glanced back. His head was down, and he was leafing through his magazine again. No chance, anyway. She would rather take out her appendix with nail scissors than go back to Gavin. The encounter, though, had bruised her. Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen. She’d opened her heart to him, such as it was. And for what? Probably, when she opened her heart, he hadn’t even been listening. The night of Renee’s death she had seen him as he truly was: callow and ignorant and not even ashamed of it, not even asking her why she was so panicked, not even appreciating that his mother’s death wouldn’t, by itself, have affected her like that: but shouldn’t it have affected him? Had he even bothered to go to the crematorium, or had he left it all to Carole? When she thought back to that night, which (she now knew) was the last night of her marriage, a peculiar disjointed, unstrung sensation occurred in her head, as if her thoughts and her feelings had been joined together by a zip, and the zip had broken. She had not told Gavin that in the days after she walked out, she had twice dialled Renee’s home number, just to see what would happen. What happened was nothing, of course. The phone rang in the empty house: bungalow: whatever. It put a dent in her belief in her psychic powers. She knew, of course – her recollection was sharp if Gavin’s wasn’t – that the woman on the phone had at no point actually identified herself. She hadn’t said she wasn’t Renee, but she hadn’t agreed that she was, either. It was just possible that she had misdialled, and that she had been talking to some irate stranger. If pushed, she would have said it was her main-law, but it was true that she didn’t know her voice all that well, and the woman had lacked the trademark lisp that was caused by Renee’s slipping teeth. Was that significant? It could be. Nothing else of a psychic nature seemed to manifest. She moved into the Twickenham house-share, and discovered that it made her unhappy to live with women younger than herself. She’d never thought of herself as a romantic, God knows, but the way they talked about men was near pornographic, and the way they belched and put their feet on the furniture was like Gavin over again. She didn’t have to sleep with them, but that was the only difference. Every morning the kitchen was strewn with Hägen-Dazs tubs, and lager cans, and polystyrene trays from low-fat microwave dinners, with a scraping of something beige and jellified left in the bottom. So where was she going in life? What was she for? No man with the initial M had come into her life. She was stagnating, and struck by how quickly a temporary situation can become desolating and permanent. Soon she needed her fortune told more than ever. But her regular clairvoyant, the one she trusted most, lived in Brondesbury, which was a long way for her to travel, and kept cats, to which she developed an allergy. She got herself a train timetable, and began to work her way out, each weekend, from the London suburbs to the dormitory towns and verdant conurbations of Berkshire and Surrey. So it came about that one Saturday afternoon in spring, she saw Alison perform in Windsor, at the Victoria Room in the Harte & Garter. It was a two-day Psychic Extravaganza. She had not prebooked, but because of her general beigeness and her inoffensive manner, she was good at queue-jumping. She had sat modestly in the third row, her whippy body crouching inside her blouson jacket, her khaki-coloured hair pushed behind her ears. Alison had fingered her right away. The lucky opals flashed fire in her direction. ‘I’m getting a broken wedding ring. It’s this lady here in beige. Is it you, darling?’ Mutely, Colette held up her hand, the tight gold band intact. She had started wearing it again, she hardly knew why; maybe just to spite Natasha in Hove, to show that a man had warmed to her, at least once. Impatience crossed Alison’s face: then her smile wiped the expression away. ‘Yes, I know you still wear his ring. Maybe he thinks of you; maybe you think of him?’ ‘Only with hatred,’ Colette said, and Al said, ‘Whatever. But you’re on your own for now, darling.’ Al had held out her arms to the audience. ‘I see images, I can’t help it. For a marriage, I see a ring. For a separation, a divorce, I see a ring that’s broken. The line of the break is the line of the crack in this young girl’s heart.’ There was a murmur of sympathy from the audience. Colette nodded soberly, acknowledging what was said. Natasha had said much the same, when she held the wedding ring, as if in tweezers, between those dodgy false nails of hers. But Natasha had been a spiteful little slag, and the woman on the platform seemed to have no spite in her; Natasha had implied she was too old for new experiences, but Alison spoke as if she had her life before her. She spoke as if her feelings and thoughts could be mended; she imagined popping into the dry-cleaner’s, and getting the broken zip replaced, the zip that joined her thoughts to her feelings and joined her up inside. This was Colette’s introduction to the metaphorical side of life. She realised that she hadn’t comprehended half that the fortune tellers had said to her. She might as well have stood in the street in Brondesbury ripping up tenners. When they told you something, you were supposed to look at it all ways up; you were supposed to hear it, understand it, feel all around its psychological dimensions. You weren’t supposed to fight it, but let the words sink into you. You shouldn’t query and quibble and try and beat the psychic out of her convictions; you should listen with your inner ear, and you should accept it, exactly what she said, if the feeling it gave you checked in with your feeling inside. Alison was offering hope and hope was the feeling she wanted to have; hope of redemption from the bathroom bickering of the house-share, and from finding other women’s bras stuffed under a sofa cushion when she flopped down after work with the Evening Standard: and from the sound of her housemates rutting at dawn. ‘Listen,’ Alison said. ‘What I want to say to you is, don’t shed tears. The fact is, you barely started with this man. He didn’t know what marriage was. He didn’t know how to make an equal relationship. He liked – gadgets, am I right, hi-fi, cars, that stuff, that was what he related to.’ ‘Oh yes,’ Colette chirped up. ‘But then wouldn’t it be true of most men?’ She stopped herself. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘True of most men?’ Al queried gently. ‘I’ll give you that. The point is, though, was it true of him? Was it true that at the great highlights of your life, he was thinking about sports seats and sound systems? But look, darling, there is a man for you. A man who will be in your life for years and years to come.’ She frowned. ‘I want to say…oh, you know…“for better or worse” – but you’ve been married, chuck, so you know all that.’ Colette took a deep breath. ‘Does he have the initial M?’ ‘Don’t prompt me, dear,’ Al said. ‘He’s not in your life yet, but he’s coming into it.’ ‘So I don’t know him now?’ ‘Not yet.’ Oh good, Colette thought – because she had just done a quick mind-scan of the men she already knew. ‘Will I meet him at work?’ Alison closed her eyes. ‘Sort of,’ she offered. She frowned. ‘More through work, than at work. Through work, is how I’d put it. First you’ll be sort of colleagues, then it’ll get closer. You’ll have a, what’s the word, a long association. It may take a bit of time to get close. He has to warm to you.’ She chuckled. ‘His dress sense is a bit lacking, but I expect you’ll soon fix that, darling.’ Alison smiled around at the audience. ‘She’ll just have to wait and see. Exciting, isn’t it?’ ‘It is.’ Colette nodded. She kept up an inner monologue. It is, it is. I have hope, I have hope. I will get a salary rise – no, not that. I will get a place of my own – no, not that. I must, I had better, I ought to look around for a new job, I ought to shake my life up and open myself to opportunities. But whatever I do, something will happen. I am tired, I am tired of taking care of myself. Something will happen that is out of my hands. Alison did a few other things that night at the Harte & Garter. She told a depressed-looking woman that she’d be going on a cruise. The woman at once straightened her collapsed spine and revealed in an awestruck voice that she had received a cruise brochure by the morning post, which she had sent for because her silver wedding was coming up shortly, and she thought it was time they exported their happiness somewhere other than the Isle of Wight. ‘Well, I want to say to you,’ Alison had told her, ‘that you will be going on that cruise, yes you will.’ Colette marvelled at the way Alison could spend the woman’s money. ‘And I’ll tell you something else; you’re going to have a lovely time. You’re going to have the time of your life.’ The woman sat up even straighter. ‘Oh, thank you, thank you,’ she said. She seemed to take on a sort of glow. Colette could see it even though she was four rows away. It encouraged her to think that somebody could hand over a tenner at the door and get so much hope in return. It was cheap, compared to what she was paying in Brondesbury and elsewhere. After the event, Colette walked to the Riverside Station in the chilly evening air. The sun made a red channel down the centre of the Thames. Swans were bobbing in the milky water near the banks. Over towards Datchet, outside the pub called the Donkey House, some French exchange students were dipping one of their number in the water. She could hear their excited cries; they warmed her heart. She stood on the bridge, and waved to them with a big sweep of her arm, as if she were bringing a light aircraft in to land. I won’t come back tomorrow, she thought. I will, I won’t, I will. The next morning, Sunday, her journey was interrupted by engineering works. She had hoped to be first in the queue but that was not to be. As she stepped out of the station, there was a burst of sunshine. The high street was crammed with coaches. She walked uphill towards the castle and the Harte & Garter. The great Round Tower brooded over the street, and at its feet, like a munching worm, wound a stream of trippers gnawing at burgers. It was eleven o’clock and the Extravaganza was in full spate. The tables and stands were set up in the hall where the medium had done the demonstration the night before. Spiritual healing was going on in one corner, Kirlian photography in another, and each individual psychic’s table, swathed in chenille or fringed silk, bore her stock-in-trade of tarot pack, crystal ball, charms, incense, pendulums and bells: plus a small tape machine so the client could have a record of her consultation. Almost all the psychics were women. There were just two men, lugubrious and neglected; Merlin and Merlyn, according to their name cards. One had on his table a bronze wizard waving a staff, and the other had what appeared to be a shrunken head on a stand. There was no queue at his table. She wandered up. ‘What’s that?’ she mouthed, pointing. It was difficult to make yourself heard; the roar of prediction rose into the air and bounced around in the rafters. ‘My spirit guide,’ the man said. ‘Well, a model of him.’ ‘Can I touch it?’ ‘If you must, dear.’ She ran her fingers over the thing. It wasn’t skin, but leather, a sort of leather mask bound to a wooden skull. Its brow was encircled by a cord into which were stuck the stumps of quills. ‘Oh, I get it,’ she said. ‘He’s a Red Indian.’ ‘Native American,’ the man corrected. ‘The actual model is a hundred years old. It was passed on to me by my teacher, who got it from his teacher. Blue Eagle has guided three generations of psychics and healers.’ ‘It must be hard if you’re a bloke. To know what to put on your table. That doesn’t look too poncey.’ ‘Look, do you want a reading, or not?’ ‘I don’t think so,’ Colette said. To hear a psychic at all, you would almost have to be cheek to cheek, and she didn’t fancy such intimacy with Blue Eagle’s mate. ‘It’s a bit sordid,’ she said. ‘This head. Off-putting. Why don’t you chuck it and get a new model?’ She straightened up. She looked around the room. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, shouting over a client’s head to a wizened old bat in a shawl, ‘excuse me, but where’s the one who did the dem last night? Alison?’ The old woman jerked her thumb. ‘Three down. In the corner there. Mind, she knows how to charge. If you hang on till I’m finished here, I can do you psychometry, cards and palms, thirty quid all in.’ ‘How very unprofessional,’ Colette said coldly. Then she spotted her. A client, beaming, rose from the red leatherette chair, and the queue parted to let her through. Colette saw Alison, very briefly, put her face in her hands: before raising it, smiling, to the next applicant for her services. Even Sundays bring their ebb and flow – periods of quiet and almost peace, when sleep threatens in the overheated rooms – and then times of such confusion – the sunlight strikes in, sudden and scouring, lighting up the gewgaws on the velvet cloth – and within the space of two heartbeats, the anxiety is palpable, a baby crying, the incense choking, the music whining, more fortune seekers pressing in at the door and backing up those inside against the tables. There is a clatter as a few Egyptian perfume bottles go flying; Mrs Etchells, three tables down, is jawing on about the joys of motherhood; Irina is calming a sobbing adolescent with a broken engagement; the baby, wound up with colic, twisting in the arms of an unseen mother, is preying on her attention as if he were entangled in her gut. She looked up and saw a woman of her own age, meagrely built, with thin fair hair which lay flat against her skull. Her features were minimal, her figure that of an orphan in a storm. A question jumped into Al’s head: how would this play if you were a Victorian, if you were one of those Victorian cheats? She knew all about it; after all, Mrs Etchells, who had trained her, almost went back to those days. In those days the dead manifested in the form of muslin, stained and smelly from the psychic’s body cavities. The dead were packed within you, so you coughed or vomited them, or drew them out of your generative organs. They blew trumpets and played portable organs; they moved the furniture; they rapped on the wall, they sang hymns. They offered bouquets to the living, spirit roses bound by scented hands. Sometimes they proffered inconveniently large objects, like a horse. Sometimes they stood at your shoulder, a glowing column made flesh by the eyes of faith. She could see it easily, a picture from the past: herself in a darkened parlour, her superb shoulders rising white out of crimson velvet, and this straight flat creature at her elbow, standing in the halflight: her eyes empty as water, impersonating a spirit form. ‘Would you like to come and sit?’ Not fair! the queue said. Not her turn! ‘Please be patient,’ Alison said sweetly. ‘I think someone’s trying to come through for this lady, and I daren’t keep spirit world waiting.’ The queue fell back, murmuring. She sat down before her, the pallid meek being, like a sacrifice drained of blood. Al searched her for clues. Probably never known the joys of motherhood? Fair bet, with those tits. Oh, wait, didn’t I see her last night? Near the front, third row, left of centre, no? Broken wedding ring. Man with the gadgets. Career girl, of sorts. Not much of a career, though. Drifting. Anxious. Pains in her gut. Tension at the back of her neck; a big dead hand squeezing her spine. On her left, Mrs Etchells was saying, ‘Going on hols, are we? I see an aeroplane.’ Irina was saying, yes, yes, yes, you are very sad now, but by October zey are coming, four men in a truck, and building your home extension. Alison held out her hand to Colette. Colette put her hand in it, turned up. The narrow palm was drained of energy, almost corpse-like. I would have liked that, Al thought, all that Victorian fuss and frippery, the frocks, the spirit pianos, the men with big beards. Was she seeing herself, in a former life, in an earlier and possibly more lucrative career? Had she been famous, perhaps, a household name? Possibly; or possibly it was wish-fulfilment. She supposed she had lived before but she suspected there wasn’t much glamour attached to whatever life she’d led. Sometimes when her mind was vacant she had a fleeting vision, low-lit, monochrome, of a line of women hoeing, bending their backs under a mud-coloured sky. Well now…she scrutinised Colette’s palm, picking up her magnifying glass. The whole hand was bespattered with crosses, on the major lines and between them. She could see no arches, stars or tridents. There were several worrying islands in the heart line, little vacant plots. Perhaps, she thought, she sleeps with men whose names she doesn’t know. The pale client’s voice cut through. She sounded common and sharp. ‘You said somebody was coming through for me.’ ‘Your father. He recently passed into spirit.’ ‘No.’ ‘But there’s been a passing. I’m getting, six. The number six. About six months back?’ The client looked blank. ‘Let me jog your memory,’ Alison said. ‘I would be talking about Guy Fawkes Night, or maybe the run-up to Christmas. Where they say, only forty shopping days left, that sort of thing.’ Her tone was easy; she was used to people not remembering the deaths in their family. ‘My uncle died last November. If that’s what you mean.’ ‘Your uncle, not your father?’ ‘Yes, my uncle. For Christ’s sake, I should know.’ ‘Bear with me,’ Alison said easily. ‘You don’t by any chance have something with you? Something that belonged to your dad?’ ‘Yes.’ She had brought the same props she had given to the psychic in Hove. ‘These were his.’ She handed over the cuff-links. Alison cupped them in her left palm, rolled them around with her right forefinger. ‘Golf balls. Though he didn’t play golf. Still, people don’t know what to buy for men, do they?’ She tossed them up and caught them again. ‘No way,’ she said. ‘Look, can you accept this? The bloke who owned these was not your dad. He was your uncle.’ ‘No, it was my uncle that died.’ The client paused. ‘He died in November. My dad died about, I don’t know, ages ago – ’ She put her hand to her mouth. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Run it past me again, will you?’ Grant her this: she wasn’t slow on the uptake. ‘Let’s just see if we can unknot this,’ Al said. ‘You say these are your father’s cuff-links. I say, no, though they may have belonged to the man you called your father. You say your uncle passed last November, and your father passed years ago. But I say, your uncle has been a long time in spirit, but your dad passed in the autumn. Now, are you with me?’ The client nodded. ‘You’re sure you’re with me? I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m slandering your mum. But these things happen, in families. Now your uncle’s name is —?’ ‘Mike.’ ‘Mike, and your dad’s – Terry, right? So you think. But the way I see it, Terry’s your uncle and Uncle Mike’s your dad.’ Silence. The woman shifted in her chair. ‘He was always hanging about, Mike, when I was little. Always round at ours.’ ‘Chez vous,’ Al said. ‘Well, he would be.’ ‘It explains a lot. My flat hair, for one thing.’ ‘Yes, doesn’t it?’ Alison said. ‘When you finally get it sorted out, who’s who in your family, it does explain a lot.’ She sighed. ‘It’s a shame your mum’s passed, so you can’t ask her what was what. Or why. Or anything like that.’ ‘She wouldn’t have told me. Can’t you tell me?’ ‘My guess is, Terry was a quiet type, whereas Uncle Mike, he was a bit of a boyo. Which was what your mum liked. Impulsive, that’s how I’d describe her, if I was pushed. You too, maybe. But only in – not in your general affairs – but only in what we call – er – matters of partnership.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means that when you see a bloke you like you go straight after him.’ Like a whippet after a hare, she thought. ‘You say to yourself, no, I must do strategy, play it cool, but you don’t heed your own advice – you’re very much, how shall I say it, bed on the first date. Well, why not? I mean, life’s too short.’ ‘I can’t do this, I’m sorry.’ The client half rose. Alison put her hand out. ‘It’s the shock. About your dad. It takes a bit of getting used to. I wouldn’t have broken it to you like that if I didn’t think you could take it. And straight talking – I think you can take that too.’ ‘I can take it,’ Colette said. She sat down again. ‘You’re proud,’ Al said softly. ‘You won’t be bested.’ ‘That describes me.’ ‘If Jack and Jill can do it, you can do it.’ ‘That’s true.’ ‘You don’t suffer fools gladly.’ ‘I don’t.’ It was an old Mrs Etchells line; she was probably using it right now, three tables down: ‘You don’t suffer fools gladly, dear!’ As if the client was going to come back at you, ‘Fools! I love ’em! Can’t get enough! I go out round the streets, me, looking for fools to ask them home to dinner!’ Alison sat back in her chair. ‘The way I see you now, you’re dissatisfied, restless.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve reached a place in your life where you don’t much want to be.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’re ready and willing to move on.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So do you want to come and work for me?’ ‘What?’ ‘Can you type, drive, anything like that? I need a sort of, what do they call it, Girl Friday.’ ‘This is a bit sudden.’ ‘Not really. I felt I knew you, when I saw you from the platform last night.’ ‘The platform?’ ‘The platform is what we call any kind of stage.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s historical, I suppose.’ Colette leaned forward. She locked her fists together between her knees. Alison said, ‘If you come into the front bar in about an hour, we can get a coffee.’ Colette cast a glance at the long queue behind her. ‘OK, say an hour and a quarter?’ ‘What do you do, put up a “closed” sign?’ ‘No, I just put them on divert. I say, go see Mrs Etchells three tables down.’ ‘Why? Is she good?’ ‘Mrs Etchells? Entre nous, she’s rubbish. But she taught me. I owe her.’ ‘You’re loyal?’ ‘I hope so.’ ‘Is that her? Wrinkly old bag with a charm bracelet on? Now I’ll tell you something. She’s not loyal to you.’ She spelled it out: she tried to poach me, tried to catch me as I was looking about for you: cards, crystal and psychometry thrown in, thirty quid. Alison blushed, a deep crimson blush. ‘She said that? Thirty quid?’ ‘Fancy you not knowing.’ ‘My mind was somewhere else.’ She laughed shakily. ‘Voilà. You’ve already earned your money, Colette.’ ‘You know my name?’ ‘It’s that certain something French about you. Je ne sais quoi.’ ‘You speak French?’ ‘Never till today.’ ‘You mustn’t mind-read me.’ ‘I would try not to.’ ‘An hour and a quarter?’ ‘You could get some fresh air.’ On Windsor Bridge, a young boy was sitting on a bench with his Rottweiler at his feet. He was eating an ice-cream cone and holding another out to the dog. Passers-by, smiling, were collecting to watch. The dog ate with civil, swirling motions of his tongue. Then he crunched the last of his cornet, swarmed up on to the bench and laid his head lovingly on the boy’s shoulder. The boy fed him the last of his own ice cream, and the crowd laughed. The dog, encouraged, licked and nibbled the boy’s ears, and the crowd went ohh, feech, yuk, how sweet. The dog jumped down from the bench. Its eyes were steady and its paws huge. For two pins, or the dog equivalent, it would set itself to eat the crowd, worrying each nape and tossing the children like pancakes. Colette stood and watched until all the crowd had dispersed and she was alone. She crossed the bridge and edged down Eton High Street, impeded by tourists. I am like the dog, she thought. I have an appetite. Is that wrong? My mum had an appetite. I realise it now, how she talked in code all those years. No wonder I never knew what was what and who was who. Not surprising her aunts were always exchanging glances, and saying things like, I wonder where Colette gets her hair from, I wonder where she gets her brains? The man she’d called her father was distinguished by the sort of stupidity that made him squalid. She had a mental picture of him, sprawled before the television scratching his belly: perhaps, when she’d bought him the cuff-links, she’d been hoping to improve him. Her uncle Mike, on the other hand – who was really her father – he was a man whose wallet was always stuffed, hadn’t he been round every week, flashing his fivers and saying, here, Angie, get something nice for little Colette? He’d paid, but he hadn’t paid enough; he’d paid as an uncle, but not as a dad. I’ll sue the bastard, she thought. Then she remembered he was dead. She went into the Crown & Cushion and got a pineapple juice, which she took into a corner. Every few minutes she checked her watch. Too early, she started back across the bridge. Alison was sitting in the front room of the Harte & Garter with a cafetière and two cups. She had her back to the door, and Colette paused for a moment, getting a view of her: she’s huge, she thought, how can she go around like that? As she watched, Alison’s plump smooth arm reached for the coffee and poured it into the second cup. Colette sat down. She crossed her legs. She fixed Alison with a cool stare. ‘You don’t mind what you say, do you? You could have really upset me, back there.’ ‘There was a risk.’ Alison smiled. ‘You think you’re a good judge of character.’ ‘More often than not.’ ‘And my mum. I mean, for all you know, I could have burst into tears, I could have collapsed.’ Not a real risk, Al thought. At some level, in some recess of themselves, people know what they know. But the client was determined to have her moment. ‘Because what you were saying, really, is that she was having an affair with my uncle under my dad’s nose. Which isn’t nice, is it? And she let my dad think I was his.’ ‘I wouldn’t call it an affair. It was more of a fling.’ ‘So what does that make her? A slag.’ Alison put down her coffee cup. ‘They say don’t speak ill of the dead.’ She laughed. ‘But why not? They speak ill of you.’ ‘Do they?’ Colette thought of Renee. ‘What are they saying?’ ‘A joke. I was making a joke. I see you think I shouldn’t.’ She took from Colette the thimble-sized carton of milk she was fumbling with, flicked up the foil with her nail, tipped the milk into Colette’s coffee. ‘Black. I take it black.’ ‘Sorry.’ ‘Another thing you didn’t know.’ ‘Another.’ ‘This job you were talking about – ’ Colette broke off. She narrowed her eyes, and looked speculatively at Al, as if she were a long way off. Al said, ‘Don’t frown. You’ll stay like that one day. Just ask me what you need to ask.’ ‘Don’t you know?’ ‘You asked me not to read your mind.’ ‘You’re right. I did. Fair’s fair. But can you shut it off like that? Shut it off and then just turn it on when you want it?’ ‘It’s not like that. I don’t know how I can explain. It’s not like a tap.’ ‘Is it like a switch?’ ‘Not like a switch.’ ‘It’s like – I suppose – is it like somebody whispering to you?’ ‘Yes. More like that. But not exactly whispering. I mean, not in your ear.’ ‘Not in your ear.’ Colette stirred her coffee. Al picked up a paper straw of brown sugar, pinched off the end and dropped it into Colette’s cup. ‘You need the energy,’ she explained. Colette, frowning, continued to stir. ‘I have to get back soon,’ Al said. ‘They’re building up in there.’ ‘So if it’s not a switch – ’ ‘About the job – you could sleep on it.’ ‘And it’s not a tap – ’ ‘You could ring me tomorrow.’ ‘And it’s not somebody whispering in your ear – ’ ‘My number’s on the leaflet. Have you got my leaflet?’ ‘Does your spirit guide tell you things?’ ‘Don’t leave it too long.’ ‘You said he was called Morris. A little bouncing circus clown.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Sounds a pain.’ ‘He can be. ’ ‘Does he live with you? In your house? I mean, if you call it “live”?’ ‘You might as well,’ Al said. She sounded tired. ‘You might as well call it “live”, as call it anything.’ She pushed herself to her feet. ‘It’s going to be a long afternoon.’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Wexham.’ ‘Is that far?’ ‘Just up into Bucks.’ ‘How do you get home, do you drive?’ ‘Train and then a taxi.’ ‘By the way, I think you must be right. About my family.’ Al looked down at her. ‘I sense you’re wavering. I mean, about my offer. It’s not like you to be indecisive. More like you to take the plunge.’ ‘I’m not quite sure what you’d want me to do. I’m used to a job description.’ ‘We could work one up. If that’s what’s worrying you. Write your own, why not? You’ll soon see what needs to be done.’ Alison was rummaging for something in her bag. ‘I may not be able to pay as much as your last job. But then, when you’ve looked at my books, you’ll be able to tell me what I can afford. And also, it’s a quality of life thing, isn’t it? I should think the schedule will be more relaxed than in your last job. You’d have more leisure.’ Then she said, as if she were embarrassed, ‘You wouldn’t get rich out of me. I’m no good for lottery numbers, or anything like that.’ ‘Can you hang on for a minute?’ Colette said. ‘I need to know more.’ ‘They’ll be waiting.’ ‘Make them wait.’ ‘Yes, but not too long. Or Mrs Etchells will catch them.’ Al had found a tube of mints in her bag. She proffered it to Colette. ‘Keeps the mind alert,’ she said. ‘What I need, you see, is someone to keep the diary straight and make sure I don’t double-book. Liaise with the management, wherever I’m on the platform. Book hotels. Do the accounts. It would be good to have someone to answer the phone. If I’m with a client, I can’t always break off.’ ‘You don’t have an answering machine?’ ‘Yes, but the clients would rather hear a human voice. Anyway, I’m not very good with electrical things.’ ‘So how do you do your washing? In a tub?’ ‘No, the fact is…’ Alison looked down. She looked harried. ‘I can see there’s a lot I’m going to have to explain to you,’ she said. The truth was, it emerged, that whatever message Alison left on her machine was liable to become corrupted. Other messages, quite different ones, would overlay it. Where did they come from? ‘There’s no simple answer to that,’ Alison said. She checked her watch. ‘I meant to eat but I’ve been talking.’ ‘I’ll bring you a sandwich in, shall I?’ ‘I never eat when I’m reading. It’s not professional. Oh well. Do me no harm to be hungry, will it? I’ll hardly waste away.’ She patted her tummy, smiled miserably. ‘Look, about the travelling, I do travel a lot, and I used to drive, but I don’t any more. I think if I had a friend with me, I could manage, so we could split it, you see.’ ‘You need a navigator?’ ‘It’s not so much that.’ What Alison needed, she explained – picking again at the sugar straws, opening them and putting them down – was a warm living body beside her, as she drove from town to town, fayre to fayre, and from one Psychic Extravaganza to another. Otherwise, a spirit would come and sit in the passenger seat, and natter on while she tried to negotiate an unfamiliar one-way system. ‘Do you know Bracknell? Bracknell’s hell. All those roundabouts.’ ‘What’s to stop the spirits from climbing in the back seat instead? Or have you got a two-door?’ Alison looked at her for a long moment. Colette thought she was actually going to answer the question. ‘Look, Colette,’ she said softly. She had got four straws lined up now, and she moved them about, delicately, with one finger: changing the pattern, shuffling and reshuffling. ‘Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit sceptical. I understand. I’d be sceptical myself. All you need to realise is that it doesn’t matter what you think, it doesn’t matter what I think – what happens, happens all the same. The only thing is, I don’t do tests, I don’t do tricks for people to try to prove myself, because I don’t need to prove anything. Do you see?’ Colette nodded. Alison raised a finger to a girl who was serving, and pointed to the pot. ‘A refill for you,’ she explained. ‘I can see you’re bitter. Why shouldn’t you be? Life hasn’t treated you well. You’ve worked hard and had no reward. You’ve lost your home. And you’ve lost a lot of your money, haven’t you?’ Colette’s eyes followed the trail of brown sugar curling across the table; like an initial, trying to form itself. ‘You seem to know a lot about me.’ ‘I laid out a spread for you. After you’d gone.’ ‘A spread?’ ‘The tarot cards.’ ‘I know. Which spread?’ ‘Basic Romany.’ ‘Why that?’ ‘I was in a hurry.’ ‘And what did you see?’ ‘I saw myself.’ Al got up and headed back towards the main hall, handing a ten-pound note to a girl as she passed, pointing to the table she had just left. That’s far too much, Colette thought, two cafetières, ten pounds, what is she thinking? She felt a flare of indignation, as if it were her own cash that had been spent. She drank all the coffee, so as not to be wasteful, tipping the pot so its muddy grounds shifted. She went to the Ladies, and as she washed her hands she watched herself in the mirror. Maybe no mind-reading in it, she thought. No psychic tricks needed, or information from spirit guides. She did look like a woman who had lost her money: lost her lottery ticket in life, lost her dad and lost her home. That summer they laughed a lot. They acted as if they were in love, planning for each other treats and nice things to eat, and surprising each other with thoughtful gifts. Alison gave Colette a voucher for a day spa in Windsor; I won’t come, she said cheerfully, I don’t want some foul-breathed anorexic lecturing me about my cellulite, but you enjoy yourself, Colette. Colette dropped into Caleys and bought a warm throw, soft mohair and the colour of crushed raspberries; lovely, Al said that evening, just what I need, something to cover me up. Colette took over most of the driving, finding that she didn’t mind it at all. ‘Change the car,’ she said to Alison, and they went out to a showroom that very afternoon. They picked one because they liked the colour and the upholstery; she imagined herself putting two fingers up to Gavin, and when the salesman tried to talk car-sense they just giggled at each other. ‘The truth is, they’re all the same these days,’ she said loudly. ‘I don’t know much, but I do know that.’ Al wasn’t interested, she just wanted it done with; but when the salesman tried to trap her into a finance deal, she slapped him down smartly. She agreed a delivery date, wrote a cheque; Colette was impressed by her style. When they got home she rummaged through Al’s wardrobe and threw out the worst bits of lurex. She tried to smuggle the ‘silk’ out, in a black bin liner, but Al went after the bag and retrieved it, drawing it out and looping it around her arm. ‘Nice try,’ she said to Colette. ‘But I’m sticking with it, please.’ Colette’s education in the psychic trade was brisk and nononsense. Al’s absurd generosity to the waitress in the coffee shop might represent one side of her nature, but she was businesslike in her own way. She wouldn’t be taken for a ride, she knew how to charge out every minute of her time, though her accounts, kept on paper, were a mess. Having been a credulous person so recently, Colette was now cynical and sneery. She wondered how long it would be before Al initiated her into some fraud. She waited and waited. By mid-August she thought, what fraud could there be? Al doesn’t have secret wires tapping into people’s thoughts. There’s no technology in her act. All she does is stand up on stage and make weak jokes. You may say Al’s a fake because she has to be, because nobody can do what she claims to do. But there it is; she doesn’t make claims, she demonstrates. And when you come down to it she can deliver the goods. If there is a fraud, it’s a transparent one; so clear that no one can see it. Al hadn’t even been registered for VAT, when Colette had come on board as her business brain. As for income tax, her allowances were all over the place. Colette had been to the tax office in person. The official she saw admitted to a complete ignorance of a medium’s ™ she was poised to take advantage of it. ‘What about her clothes,’ she said, ‘her stage outfits? Her outfits for meeting her clients. She has to look good, it’s a professional obligation.’ ‘Not one we recognise, I’m afraid,’ the young woman said. ‘Well, you should! As you ought to know, being the size you are yourself, decent clothes in large sizes don’t come cheap. She can’t get away with the tat you find on the high street. It’s got to be specialist shops. Even her bras, well, I don’t need to spell it out.’ ‘I’m afraid it’s all dual purpose,’ the woman said. ‘Underwear, outerwear, whatever, you see it’s not just specific to her trade, is it?’ ‘What? You mean, she could pop to the postbox in it? Do the dusting? In one of her stage outfits?’ ‘If she liked. I’m trying to envisage – you didn’t bring pictures, did you?’ ‘I’ll drop some in.’ ‘That might be a help. So we could work out what sort of class of item we’re dealing with – you see, if it were, well, a barrister’s wig, say, or protective clothing, say, boots with steel toecaps, for example…’ ‘So are you telling me they’ve made special rules about it? For mediums?’ ‘Well, no, not specifically for – what you say your partner does. I’m just going by the nearest cases I can envisage.’ The woman looked restless. ‘I suppose you might classify it as show business. Look, I’ll pass it up for consideration. Take it under advisement.’ Colette wished – wished very strongly, most sincerely – that she had Al’s powers, just for sixty seconds. So that a whisper, a hiss, a flash, so that something would overtake her, some knowledge, insight, some piece of special information, so that she could lean across the desk and tell the woman at the tax office something about her private life, something embarrassing: or something that would make the hair stand up on the back of her neck. For the moment, they agreed to differ. Colette undertook to keep a complete record of Al’s expenditure on stage outfits. She lost no time, of course, in computerising their accounts. But the thought nagged at her that a record kept in figures was not quite enough. Hence her good idea, about writing a book. How hard could it be? Al made tape recordings for her clients, so wasn’t it logical, in the larger world, to tape-record Al? Then all she would need to do would be transcribe, edit, tighten up here and there, make some chapter headings…her mind moved ahead, to costings, to a layout, a photographer…Fleetingly, she thought of the boy in the bookshop, who’d sold her the tarot pack. If I’d been self-employed then, she thought, I could have set those cards against tax. Those days seemed distant now: leaving the boy’s bedsit, at 5 a.m. in the rain. Her life with Gavin had receded; she remembered things he had, like his calculator, and his diver’s watch, but not necessarily the evil things he had done. She remembered her kitchen, the scales, the knives; but not anything she cooked there. She remembered her bed, and her bed linen; but not sex. I can’t keep on losing it, she thought, losing chunks of my life, years at a time. Or who will I be, when I’m old? I should write a book for me, too. I need a proof of some sort, a record of what goes down. The tape recorder worked well on the whole, though sometimes it sounded as if Alison had a bag over her head; Colette’s questions, always, were piercingly clear. But when they played the tapes back, they found that, just as Al had foreseen, other items had intruded. Someone speaking, fast and urgent, in what might be Polish. A twittering, like small birds in a wood. Nightingales, Alison said unexpectedly. Once, a woman’s irate voice cut through Alison’s mutter: ‘Well, you’re in for it now. You’ve started so you may as well finish. It’s no use asking for your money back, sunshine. The trade doesn’t work that way.’ COLETTE: When you were a child, did you ever suffer a severe blow to the skull? ALISON: Several…Why, didn’t you? Chapter Four Click. COLETTE: It’s Tuesday and I’m just – it’s ten thirty in the evening and – Al, can you come a bit closer to the mike? I’m just resuming where we left off last night – now, Alison, we’ve sort of addressed the point about the trivia, haven’t we? Still, you might like to put your answer on the tape. ALISON: I have already explained to you that the reason we get such trivial information from spirit is – COLETTE: All right, there’s no need to sound like a metronome. Monotone. Can’t you sound a bit more natural? ALISON: If the people who’ve passed – is that OK now? COLETTE: Go on. ALISON: – if the people who’ve passed were to give you messages about angels and, you know, spiritual matters, you’d think it was a bit vague. You wouldn’t have any way of checking on them. But if they give you messages about your kitchen units, you can say if they’re right or wrong. COLETTE: So what you’re mainly worried about is convincing people? ALISON: No. COLETTE: What then? ALISON: I don’t feel I have to convince anybody, personally. It’s up to them whether they come to see me. Their choice. There’s no compulsion to believe anything they don’t want. Oh, Colette, what’s that? Can you hear it? COLETTE: Just carry on. ALISON: It’s snarling. Somebody’s let the dogs out? COLETTE: What? ALISON: I can’t carry on over this racket. Click. Click. COLETTE: OK, trying again. It’s eleven o’clock and we’ve had a cup of tea – ALISON: – and a chocolate-chip cookie – COLETTE: – and we’re resuming. We were talking about the whole issue of proof, and I want to ask you, Alison, have you ever been scientifically tested? ALISON: I’ve always kept away from that. You see, if you were in a laboratory wired up, it’s as good as saying, we think you’re some sort of confidence trick. Why should people come through from spirit for other people who don’t believe in them? You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy. They’re not interested in helping me out with proof. COLETTE: On the platform you always say, you’ve had your gift since you were very small. ALISON: Yes. COLETTE (whispering): Al, don’t do that to me – I need a proper answer on the tape. Yes, you say it, or yes, it’s true? ALISON: I don’t generally lie on the platform. Well, only to spare people. COLETTE: Spare them what? Pause. Al? ALISON: Can you move on? COLETTE: OK, so you’ve had this gift – ALISON: If you call it that. COLETTE: You’ve had this ability since you were small. Can you tell us about your childhood? ALISON: I could. When you were little, did you have a front garden? COLETTE: Yes. ALISON: What did you have in it? COLETTE: Hydrangeas, I think. ALISON: We had a bath in ours. When Alison was young she might as well have been a beast in the jungle as a girl growing up outside Aldershot. She and her mum lived in an old terraced house with a lot of banging doors. It faced a busy road, but there was open land at the back. Downstairs there were two rooms, and a lean-to with a flat roof, which was the kitchen. Upstairs were two bedrooms, and a bathroom, which had a bath in it so there was no actual need for the one in the garden. Opposite the bathroom was the steep short staircase that led up to the attic. Downstairs, the front room was the place where men had a party. They came and went with bags inside which bottles rattled and chinked. Sometimes her mum would say, better watch ourselves tonight, Gloria, they’re bringing spirits in. In the back room, her mum sat smoking and muttering. In the lean-to, she sometimes absently opened cans of carrots or butter beans, or stood staring at the grill pan while something burned on it. The roof leaked, and black mould drew a drippy, wavering line down one corner. The house was a mess. Bits were continually falling off it. You’d get left with the door handle in your hand, and when somebody put his fist through a window one night it got mended with cardboard and stayed like that. The men were never willing to do hammering or operate with a screwdriver. ‘Never do a hand’s turn, Gloria!’ her mother complained. As she lay in her little bed at night the doors banged, and sometimes the windows smashed. People came in and out. Sometimes she heard laughing, sometimes scuffling, sometimes raised voices and a steady rhythmic pounding. Sometimes she stayed in her bed till daylight came, sometimes she was called to get up for one reason and another. Some nights she dreamed she could fly; she passed over the ridge tiles, and looked down on the men about their business, skimming over the waste ground, where vans stood with their back doors open, and torchlight snaked through the smoky dark. Sometimes the men were there in a crowd, sometimes they swarmed off and vanished for days. Sometimes at night just one or two men stayed and went upstairs with her mum. Then next day the bunch of them were back again, tee-heeing beyond the wall at men’s private jokes. Behind the house was a scrubby field, with a broken-down caravan on blocks; sometimes there was a light in it. ‘Who lives in there?’ she asked her mum, and her mum replied, ‘What you don’t know won’t hurt you,’ which even at an early age Alison knew was untrue. Beyond the caravan was a huddle of leaning corrugated sheds, and a line of lock-up garages to which the men had the keys. Two white ponies used to graze in the field, then they didn’t. Where have the ponies gone? she asked her mum. Her mum replied, to the knackers, I suppose. She said, who’s Gloria? You keep talking to her. Her mum said, never you mind. ‘Where is she?’ she said. ‘I can’t see her. You say, yes, Gloria, no, Gloria, want a cuppa, Gloria? Where is she?’ Her mum said, ‘Never mind Gloria, you’ll be in kingdom come. Because that’s where I’m going to knock you if you keep this up.’ Her mum would never stay in the house if she could help it: pacing, smoking, smoking, pacing. Desperate for a breath of air, she would say, ‘Come on, Gloria,’ shrug on her coat and flee down the road to the minimart; and because she did not want the trouble of washing or dressing Alison, or having her under her feet whining for sweeties, she would take her up to the top of the house and lock her in the attic. ‘She can’t come to any harm up there,’ she would reason, out loud to Gloria. ‘No matches so can’t set the house on fire. Too small to climb out the skylight. Nothing sharp up there the like of which she is drawn to, such as knives or pins. There’s really no damage she could come to.’ She put an old rug up there for Alison to sit on, when she played with her bricks and animals. ‘Quite a little palace,’ she said. There was no heating, which again was a safety factor, there being no power points for Alison to put her fingers into. She could have an extra cardy instead. In summer the attic was hot. Midday rays streamed fiercely down, straight from the sky to the dusty rug. They lit up the corner where the little lady used to fade up, all dressed in pink, and call out to Alison in a timid Irish voice. Alison was perhaps five years old when the little lady first appeared, and in this way she learned how the dead could be helpful and sweet. She had no doubt that the little lady was dead, in every meaningful sense. Her clothes were felt-like and soft to the touch, and her pink cardigan was buttoned right up to the first fold of her chin. ‘My name is Mrs McGibbet, darlin’,’ she said. ‘Would you like to have me round and about? I thought you might like to have me with you, round and about.’ Mrs McGibbet’s eyes were blue and round and startled. In her cooing voice, she talked about her son, who had passed over before her, met with an accident. They’d never been able to find each other, she said, I never could meet up with Brendan. But sometimes she showed Alison his toys, little miniature cars and tractors, neatly boxed. Once or twice she faded away and left the toys behind. Mum just stubbed her toe on them. It was as if she didn’t see them at all. Mrs McGibbet was always saying, ‘I wouldn’t want, my darlin’, to come between a little girl and her mother. If that were her mother coming up the stairs now, coming up with a heavy tread, no, I wouldn’t want to put myself forward at all.’ When the door opened she faded away: leaving, sometimes, an old doll collapsed in the corner where she had sat. She chuckled as she fell backwards, into the invisible place behind the wall. Al’s mum forgot to send her to school. ‘Good grief,’ she said, when the man came round to prosecute her, ‘you mean to say she’s that age already?’ Even after that, Al was never where she should be. She never had a swimsuit so when it was swimming she was sent home. One of the teachers threatened she’d be made to swim in her knickers next week, but she went home and mentioned it, and one of the men offered to go down there and sort it out. When Al went to school next day she told the teacher, Donnie’s coming down; he says he’ll push a bottle up your bleeding whatnot, and – I don’t think it’s very nice, Miss – ram it in till your guts come out your mouf. After that, on swimming afternoon, she was just sent home again. She never had her rubber-soled shoes for skipping and hopping or her eggs and basin for mixing a cake, her times tables or her poem or her model mosque made out of milk-bottle tops. Sometimes when she came home from school one of the men would stop her in the hall and give her fifty pence. She would run up to the attic and put it away in a secret box she had up there. Her mother would take it off her if she could, so she had to be quick. One day the men came with a big van. She heard yapping and ran to the window. Three blunt-nosed brindle dogs were being led towards the garages. ‘Oh, what are their names?’ she cried. Her mother said, ‘Don’t you go calling their names. Dogs like that, they’ll chew your face off. Isn’t that right, Gloria?’ She gave them names anyway: Blighto, Harry and Serene. One day Blighto came to the house and bumped against the back door. ‘Oh, he’s knocking,’ Al said. She opened the door though she knew she shouldn’t, and tried to give him half her wafer biscuit. A man came shooting out of nowhere and hauled the dog off her. He kicked it into the yard while he got Alison up off the floor. ‘Emmie, sort it!’ he yelled, then wrapped his hands in an old jersey of her mum’s and went out and pummelled the dog’s face, dragging it back to the sheds and twisting its neck as he dragged. He came back in shouting, ‘I’ll shoot the fucker, I’ll strangle that bastard dog.’ The man, whose name was Keith, wept when he saw how the dog had ripped at her hairline. He said, Emmie, she ought to go to casualty, that needs stitching. Her mum said she couldn’t be sitting in a queue all afternoon. The man washed her head at the kitchen sink. There wasn’t a cloth or a sponge so he put his hand on the back of her neck, pressed her down over the plastic bowl, and slapped the water up at her. It went in her eyes, so the bowl blurred. Her blood went in the bowl but that was all right; it was all right because the bowl itself was red. ‘Stay there, darling,’ he said, ‘just keep still,’ and his hand lifted from her nape as he bent to rummage in the cupboard at his feet. Obedient, she bent there; blood came down her nose too and she wondered why that was. She heard the chinking noise as Keith tossed the empties out from under the sink. Em, he said, you not got any disinfectant in here? Give us a rag for Chrissakes, tear up a sheet, I don’t know, and her mother said, use your hankie or ain’t you got none? In the end her mother came up behind her with the used tea towel and Keith ripped it out of her hand. ‘There you go, there you go, there you go,’ he kept saying, dabbing away, sighing the words between his teeth. She felt faint with pain. She said, ‘Keef, are you my dad?’ He wrung the cloth between his hands. ‘What you been telling her, Emmie?’ Her mother said, ‘I’ve not been telling her nothing, you ought to know by now she’s a bloody little liar. She says she can hear voices in the wall. She says there are people up in the attic. She’s got a screw loose, Gloria says.’ Keith moved: she felt a sudden sick cold at her back, as he pulled away, as his body warmth left her. She reared up, dripping water and dilute pink blood. Keith had crossed the room and pinned her mother up against the wall. ‘I told you, Emmie, if I told you once I told you a dozen times, I do not want to hear that name spoken.’ And the dozen times, Keith reinforced, by the way he gave her mum a little bounce, raising her by her hair near the scalp and bobbing her down again. ‘Gloria’s buggered off back to Paddyland,’ he said (bounce), that’s all (bounce), you bloody (bounce) know about it, do you (bounce) understand (bounce) that, do I bloody (bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce) make myself crystal (bounce) clear? You just (bounce) forget you ever (bounce) set eyes.’ ‘She’s all right, is Gloria,’ said her mum, ‘she can be a good laugh,’ and the man said, ‘Do you want me to give you a slap? Do you want me to give you a slap and knock your teeth out?’ Alison was interested to see this happen. She had had many kinds of slap, but not that kind. She wiped the water from her eyes, the water and blood, till her vision cleared. But Keith seemed to get tired of it. He let her mother go and her legs went from under her; her body folded and slid down the wall, like the lady in the attic who could fold herself out of sight. ‘You look like Mrs McGibbet,’ Al said. Her mother twitched, as if her wires had been pulled; she squeaked up from the floor. ‘Who’s speaking names now?’ she said. ‘You wallop her, Keith, if you don’t want names spoken. She’s always speaking names.’ Then she screamed a new insult that Al had never heard before. ‘You poxy little poxer, you got blood on your chin. Where’ve you got that from? You poxy little poxer.’ Al said, ‘Keef, does she mean me?’ Keith wiped his sweating forehead. It made you sweat, bouncing a woman a dozen times by the short hair of her head. ‘Yes. No,’ he said. ‘She means to say poxy little boxer. She can’t talk, sweetheart, she don’t know who she’s talking to, her brain’s gone, what she ever had of it.’ ‘Who’s Gloria?’ she asked. Keith made a hissing through his teeth. He tapped one fist into his opposite palm. For a moment she thought he was going to come after her, so she backed up against the sink. The cold edge of it dug into her back; her hair dripped, blood and water, down her T-shirt. Later she would tell Colette, I was never so frightened as then; that was my worst moment, one of the worse ones anyway, that moment when I thought Keef would knock me to kingdom come. But Keith stepped back. ‘Here,’ he said. He thrust the tea towel into her hand. ‘Keep at it,’ he said. ‘Keep it clean.’ ‘Can I stay off school?’ she said, and Keith said, yes, she’d better. He gave her a pound note and told her to yell out if she saw a dog loose again. ‘And will you come and save me?’ ‘Somebody’ll be about.’ ‘But I don’t want you to strangle it,’ she said, with tears in her eyes. ‘It’s Blighto.’ The next time she recalled seeing Keith was a few months later. It was night, and she should have been in bed as nobody had called her out. But when she heard Keith’s name she reached under her mattress for her scissors, which she always kept there in case they should be needed. She clutched them in one hand; with the other she held up the hem of the big nightie that was lent her as a special favour from her mum. When she came scrambling down the stairs, Keith was standing just inside the front door; or at least some legs were, wearing Keith’s trousers. He had a blanket over his head. Two men were supporting him. When they took off the blanket she saw that every part of his face looked like fatty mince, oozing blood. (‘Oh, this mince is fatty, Gloria!’ her mother would say.) She called out to him, ‘Keef, that needs stitching!’ and one of the men swooped down on her and wrenched the scissors out of her hand. She heard them strike the wall, as the man flung them; looming above her, he pushed her into the back room and slammed the door. Next day a voice beyond the wall said, ‘Hear Keef got mashed up last night. Tee-hee. As if he ain’t got troubles enough.’ She believed she never saw Keith again, but she might have seen him and just not recognised him; it didn’t seem as if he’d have much left, by way of original features. She remembered how, the evening of the dog bite, once her head had stopped bleeding, she had gone out to the garden. She followed the furrows dug by the dog’s strong hind legs, as Keith dragged him away from the house, and Blighto twisted to look back. Not until it rained hard did the ruts disappear. At that time Alison was saving up for a pony. One day she went up to the attic to count her money. ‘Ah dear,’ said Mrs McGibbet, ‘the lady your mother has been up here, darlin’, raiding your box that was your own peculiar property. The coins she’s tipped into her open purse, and the one single poor note she has tucked away in her brassiere. And not a thing I could do to stop her, my rheumatics being aggravated by the cold and damp, for by the time I was up and out of my corner, she had outstripped me.’ Alison sat down on the floor. ‘Mrs McGibbet,’ she said, ‘can I ask you a question?’ ‘You surely can. And why should you have to ask if you can ask, I ask myself?’ ‘Do you know Gloria?’ ‘Do I know Gloria?’ Mrs McGibbet’s eyelids fell over her bright blue eyes. ‘Ah, you’ve no business asking.’ ‘I think I saw her. I think I can see her these days.’ ‘Gloria is a cheap hoor, what else should she be? I never should have given her the name, for it put ideas in her head that was above her station. Go on the boat then, heedless and headstrong she would go on the boat. Get off at Liverpool with all its attendant vices and then where will she go but via a meat lorry to the dreadful metropolis with its many occasions of sin. End up dead, dead and haunting about in a British army town, in a dirty house with a bath in the front garden, and her own mother a living witness to every hoor’s trick that she can contrive.’ After that, when she got fifty pence from the men, she took it straight down the minimart and bought chocolate, which she ate on the way home. When Alison was eight years old, or maybe nine or ten, she was playing outside one day, a greyish, sticky day in late summer. She was alone, of course: playing horses, neighing occasionally, and progressing at a canter. The rough grass of their back plot was worn in patches, like the pile on the rug that made the attic into a little palace. Something drew her attention, and she stopped in her paces, and glanced up. She could see men going to and fro from the garages, carrying boxes. ‘Hiya!’ she said. She waved to them. She was sure they were men she knew. But then a minute later she thought they were men she didn’t know. It was hard to tell. They kept their faces turned away. A sick feeling crept over her. Silent, faces downcast, the men moved over the tussocky grass. Silent, faces downcast, they passed the boxes. She couldn’t judge the distance from herself to them; it was as if the light had grown more thick and dense. She took a step forward, but she knew she should not. Her dirty nails dug into the palms of her hands. Sick came up into her throat. She swallowed it and it burned. Very slowly, she turned her head away. She took one plodding step towards the house. Then another. Air thick as mud clotted around her ankles. She had some idea of what was in the boxes, but as she stepped inside the house it slipped clear from her mind, like a drug slipping from a syringe and deep into a vein. Her mother was in the lean-to, nattering away to Gloria. ‘Excuse me, will you,’ she said affably, ‘while I just see if this child wants a clip round the ear?’ She turned round and glared at her daughter. ‘Look at you,’ she said. ‘Wash your face, you’re all running in sweat, you bloody turn me up. I was never like that at your age, I was a neat little thing, I had to be, I wouldn’t have made a living if I’d gone about like that. What’s the matter with you, you’re green, girl, look at yourself in the mirror, have you been stuffing yourself with them Rolos again? If you’re going to chuck up, go outside and do it.’ Alison did as she was told and looked at herself in the mirror. She didn’t recognise the person she saw there. It was a man, with a check jacket on and a tie skew-whiff; a frowning man with a low hairline and a yellowish face. Then she realised that the door was open, and that the men were piling in behind her. ‘Fuck, Emmie, got to wash me hands!’ one of them shouted. She ran. For always, more or less, she was afraid of the men. On the stairs to the attic she doubled up and let brown liquid run out of her mouth. She hoped her mother would think it was the cat, Judy, who was responsible. She toiled on upwards and swung open the door. Mrs McGibbet was sitting, already formed, in her corner. Her stumpy legs in their thick stockings stuck out in front of her, wide apart, as if she had been punched and knocked down. Her eyes were no longer startled, but blank as if their blinds had been drawn. She did not greet Alison: no ‘How’s my darlin’ girl today?’ She just said, in a distracted mutter, ‘There’s an evil thing you wouldn’t want to see at all. There’s an evil thing you wouldn’t want to see…’ She faded with rapidity: there was a scrabbling noise beneath the floorboards, and then she was gone. Mrs McGibbet never came back after that day. She missed her, but she realised that the old lady was too frightened toreturn. Al was a child and hadn’t got the option of leaving.Now there was no appeal or relief from Gloria and her mum,and the men in the front room. She went out to play at theback as seldom as possible; even the thought of it made thickspit come up into her mouth. Her mother berated her forgetting no fresh air. If she was forced to play out – whichhappened sometimes, with the door locked after her – shemade it a rule never to raise her eyes as far as the sheds andthe lock-up garages, or the belt of woodland beyond them.She could not shake off the atmosphere of that afternoon,a peculiar suspension, like a breath held: the men’s avertedfaces, the thunderous air, the dying grass, her mother’soutgust of tobacco smoke, the yellow face in the mirror whereshe expected to see her own: the man’s need to wash hishands. As for what was in the cardboard boxes, she hopednot to think about it; but sometimes the answer turned up,in dreams. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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