You know that feeling that you’ve forgotten to do something? It followed me around the house all day, and it wasn’t until half past five that I realised what it was.
I’d forgotten to go to work.
I rushed to the kitchen frantically. Lorraine was boiling something up in a pot. It didn’t smell like an edible something. She noted my distress and turned the heat down to a simmer so she could attend fully to the situation. “What’s got your knickers in a twist?”
“I didn’t go to work today!” I shrilled. “I just totally forgot to go to work!”
“Don’t panic, love, we’ll sort it,” she said firmly. “Sit yourself down. I’ll get a brew on.”
I sat down, twiddling my fingers anxiously, watching her as she filled the kettle.
“Why didn’t I go to work?” I asked aloud. “It’s my first week! What can I say to them?”
“We’ll think it through,” Lorraine said calmly. “Hercules will know what to do.”
A rumpled black shadow had entered the room. He stalked my legs in a proprietorial figure-eight circuit before leaping into my lap. I stroked him distractedly and he made a very un-cat-like noise, taking me to task for my sub-standard efforts.
“Sorry mate,” I said, paying him proper attention.
When you looked too hard at Hercules, he began to seem less and less convincing as a domestic cat, and more like a vaguely cat-shaped creature from some mysterious other dimension. He opened his eyes, today a stormy-grey, to admonish me for such a ridiculous thought. I grinned down at him.
“A nice cup of cha,” Lorraine proclaimed, placing a mug in front of me. She brought over the pot and a cup for herself, sitting opposite, smiling at me and Hercules. “He’s really taken to you.”
“He’s my greatest critic,” I joked.
The tea was perfect. It must be the way Lorraine made it – I’d never really liked tea much before, I was starting to see. I’d drunk it out of convention. How many other things might that apply to in my life? How scarily easy it was to get swept along in other people’s agendas and orthodoxies.
“Let’s have a gander,” Lorraine held out her hand for my cup once I’d drained it down to the dregs.
I passed it over. At first I’d found it awkward the way she insisted on reading my leaves, but I’d come to accept it as one of the eccentricities of living with a woman who claimed to be a witch. Like Lorraine, it was harmless, and meaningless.
“Watch out for painted ladies,” Lorraine advised with a wink.
“Will do,” I promised, as she poured me a refill.
“How are you feeling now, love?” she asked gently.
“I feel fine,” I said happily. It was very nice sitting drinking tea in the kitchen with Lorraine and Hercules. “Why do you ask?”
“Mrs Heed has booked an appointment for tonight,” Lorraine said proudly, pouring sultanas into her dough.
“I thought she had a regular slot on Wednesdays?”
“She does. She was so impressed last time that she’s decided to come twice-weekly!”
Lorraine was clearly very pleased with herself.
“That’s good,” I said.
I was rather relieved. Mrs Heed was one of her regulars (“she likes a little chat with her late husband. Luckily, he was besotted with her, so he doesn’t mind hanging around in limbo until she’s had her fill of breathing.”), very much of the kitchen variety, no airs and graces. She’d once made the mistake of praising Lorraine’s scones, and so was often greeted with a batch freshly made in her honour. Despite this, she continued to return for Lorraine’s services as a medium. However, on Wednesday there had been an incident that Lorraine seemed to think was my fault, which had put her future patronage in question.
I had let Mrs Heed into the house – as Lorraine had been in the middle of turning out heavy, browned lumps onto a wire cooling rack – introduced myself as Lorraine’s new lodger, taken her through to the kitchen, and then, as Lorraine had requested before her arrival, made myself scarce. I couldn’t help overhearing Mrs Heed say “what a handsome young man!” as I padded up the stairs, which had made me feel oddly embarrassed.
I lay down on my bed thinking glumly about what was happening in the room below me. It was an aspect of Lorraine’s work which I was still struggling to feel comfortable with. Despite all that Lorraine said about the comfort which it brought to people, I couldn’t help feeling that it was taking advantage to take money from mourners desperate to believe they could contact lost loved-ones.
Lorraine would have made one of her enormous pots of tea. Poor Mrs Heed would be presented with a plate full of hot scones. If she was wise, she’d be liberal in her use of butter and jam. Lorraine would set the tone by lighting several tea-light candles in coloured glass holders scattered over the surfaces and on top of the fridge, with one long-stemmed candle placed in the centre of the table, then turn off the main electric light.
Physical contact is essential, she’d told me. She’s take hold of Mrs Heed’s plump hand and begin to ‘channel’ Mr Heed.
I’d listened behind the door for another customer – curiosity had got the better of me – and learned that channelling the dead involves making dramatic low humming sounds and using a sonorous voice to say things like “come to us!”, “closer!”, “hear my call!” and “are you here with us?”.
Eventually, Lorraine would decide that Mr Heed had joined them at the table and would prompt Mrs Heed to start the conversation.
“Well, didn’t I always say that Mark Flowers was a dodgy fuck?” Mrs Heed would assert gleefully, launching into the latest tale of woe from her various daughters’ love-lives.
Mr Heed would nod, conceding, a wry smile on his face. He was as thin and pale as his wife was round and colourful.
“You certainly did. Poor lad never stood a chance,” Mr Heed said quietly.
“He’s says you always did and the poor lad never stood a chance,” Lorraine reported with surprising accuracy.
Mrs Heed laughed. Her eyes were fixed on the candle flame, not on her husband sitting beside her. He was staring adoringly at her.
It seemed such a shame that she couldn’t sense his presence when she so strongly desired his company.
The candlelight was passing straight through him. I imagined him more solid. The light would illuminate him. I brought him into focus, playing around with him like an image on the computer, raising the levels of brightness and contrast, making him rounded and real…
There had been screaming from downstairs, a smashing sound, bringing me out of my reverie in a rush…
Mrs Heed had thrown her tea cup at her late husband, Lorraine told me later.
I ran downstairs to find the kitchen in chaos, with Mrs Heed hyper-ventilating, Hercules cowing in the corner, Lorraine putting on the main light. “Get the brandy from the parlour,” she hissed at me, clasping Mrs Heed to her bony bosom.
Mrs Heed has been in a sputtering state of shock for some minutes, with Lorraine ministering brandy and me standing uselessly in the way until Lorraine told me fiercely to get out of it.
I’d gone back to my room, feeling awful, though I didn’t really know why I should. I hadn’t done anything – it was Lorraine who played with people’s heads, pretending to talk with the dead, not me.
I knew I’d have to leave, find somewhere else to live. I thought about packing my meagre possessions, but I felt oddly desolate at the prospect. As if he sensed my despondency, Hercules appeared and lay on me in a comfortingly shaggy heap.
Lorraine knocked on the door half an hour or so later. She’d brought up a cup of tea and a scone, compounding my misery.
“I’m sorry I snapped, love,” she said sincerely. “I know you didn’t mean any harm.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I protested, sounding like a pathetic child.
“It gave Mrs Heed quite a surprise, seeing her old man like that,” Lorraine said. “I knew as soon as I laid eyes on you that you had power, but I never guessed how much.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Hush, now. Drink your tea. You’ve had a shock, too. I put a nip of brandy in it.”
I took a gulp of tea and felt almost immediately better.
“Do you want me to leave?” I asked.
“No, love!” she laughed. “We’ve settled in nicely these last few days, you, me and Hercules, haven’t we?”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“We’re going to get on like a house on fire. We could do great things, the three of us. Now, I think that when Mrs Shroder comes for her visits I might have to ask you to go out to pick up some bits from the shops. Her late husband tends to make hand gestures which I think she’s best off not seeing for herself…”
“Word gets round,” Lorraine said, smiling, noting down a new appointment in her diary. “Business is booming.”