Lorraine set me up with an easel in the backroom by the window, with an old blanket down to protect the carpet. She brought it back from one of her long shopping expeditions, along with a load of acrylic paints and a selection of brushes.
I felt a bit awkward about it at first, but before long I was painting away. Lorraine would bring in cups of tea between clients, or come and fetch me to the kitchen when it was time for a bite to eat.
“What’s this one?” she’d ask, peering at the latest work.
“I think it’s about the rise of an ancient deity …” I said vaguely.
“Very nice,” Lorraine asserted. “I like the colours.”
I’d forgotten how much I loved to paint. I’d forgotten that peculiar feeling it brought that was somehow simultaneously utter concentration and total absence. I’d forgotten how the hours would pass so easily.
“Time to stop,” Lorraine would say gently, “the light’s almost gone. You’ll damage your eyes.”
Back at sixth form, I’d mostly painted portraits. My art teacher had been a big fan of Lucien Freud, so that naturalistic approach had been an obvious influence. Now I found that my style was looser and less figurative, my palette brighter, almost garish.
When I was younger I’d drawn wilder, stranger things. I’d filled pages with monsters and magical scenes and dreamscapes. Mum and Dad had frequently been discouraging about my subject choice.
“It doesn’t look very much like a tree, does it?”
“It’s a tree-person,” I’d try to explain. “She knows things. She has adventures.”
“Why is it pink?”
Pink had been my favourite colour at the time.
Lorraine was blissfully uncritical. She was blandly encouraging in a noncommittal, detached sort of way. She liked that I was industriously busy. I’d been getting oddly restless before the painting – plagued by a feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing.
“Now, Mrs Harris has an appointment this evening and has requested that you sit in with us. Would you mind, love?”
I couldn’t really refuse, but I was far from eager. Mrs Harris made me uncomfortable. I stalled for time by taking a big mouthful of shepherd’s pie while I tried to think of an excuse. It was too hot, making my eyes water. What could I possibly say? That I had to go out somewhere?
But I never go out.
Come to think of it, when did I last leave the house?
“I don’t ask much of you,” Lorraine reminded me, her tone rather tart.
“Of course,” I said quickly, swallowing down the pie, “happy to.”
Lorraine was right. She did so much and asked for so little in return.
An hour later, Mrs Harris arrived in a black cab. She was a ‘larger than life’ sort of person in every respect, from her elaborately coiffed hair to her shiny, dangerously high-heeled shoes, via an expanse of velvet-encased pink flesh. She was all rounds and folds, glitter and polish.
She often brought a bottle of white wine with her, which she would insist on sharing. Although expensive and pre-chilled, it would be too sweet for my liking, but Lorraine would signal silently that I was expected to drink what I was given.
Mrs Harris punctuated every sentence with burbling laughter. She spoke constantly. From the moment she entered a room, everything became very loud.
She was a front parlour client. She sat in the middle of Lorraine’s chintzy, tassled settee. I was dispatched to get glasses (“three!” Mrs Harris instructed; “the crystal!” Lorraine mouthed) and a bottle opener.
“What an obliging young man,” Mrs Harris cooed as I poured out wine.
Lorraine kept a fixed, neutral smile on her face. Around Mrs Harris, Lorraine was muted – she dressed down, deliberately I assumed, as though to let Mrs Harris take full possession of the stage. They knew each other from long ago, and the first parts of her visits were given to Mrs Harris relaying gossip about people they’d once had in common. Lorraine responded with all the right noises to keep Mrs Harris going, but didn’t volunteer any information herself.
“Don’t stand on ceremony,” Mrs Harris boomed, patting a patch of settee next to her. Lorraine nodded. I sat gingerly. Mrs Harris did not move over to create more space, meaning that we were uncomfortably close – or, at least, I found it uncomfortable.
“Right, down to business,” Mrs Harris would say eventually. Lorraine would spring to attention and Mrs Harris would drop the laughter-track, fetching a pink pad from her designer handbag. She tested her pink gel-ink pen with a quick scribble; it released a plastic-strawberry aroma.
“Now – let’s start with the shares,” Mrs Harris said plainly. Lorraine nodded stiffly – concentrating hard, ready for Mrs Harris to start listing companies. At each name, Lorraine would nod, shake her head, or hold out an open palm if she was uncertain.
Lorraine had confessed to me that she hated giving financial advice – it was tricky and draining – and would only do so on the strict understanding by the client that the financial climate was volatile and unpredictable, even for a skilled diviner. Lorraine only gave regular financial readings to Mrs Harris. They had a long-standing agreement.
The listing went on for a boringly long, tense time. I had nothing to do except take sips of too-sweet wine and wait for it to be over.
It was a relief when Mrs Harris finally put away her pad, but the ordeal of her presence was not yet over. More wine would be poured, the laugh returned, and Mrs Harris would reveal her latest novel request.
Mrs Harris didn’t have a habitual late friend or relation to contact, though she had tried a few acquaintances out for size. Occasionally she had asked Lorraine to channel famous dead people, as she generally found them more interesting. Sometimes she wanted her own horoscope read. Sometimes she wanted someone else’s. Today she wanted to talk to the goddess Sund.
“Who?” Lorraine asked blankly.
“She’s in this book I’ve been reading, Children of the Sea. They’re not too keen on her really, but she sounds fabulous to me.”
“I’m not sure it’s the best idea,” Lorraine said uncertainly; but Mrs Harris was certain it was a brilliant idea, asserting the strange hold she seemed to have over Lorraine.
Candles were lit and the lights dimmed. Lorraine added some pungent incense to the mix, filling the room with trails of fragrant smoke. Mrs Harris sat back in the sofa expectantly, waiting to be entertained.
I shared Lorraine’s sense of deep unease. I tried to catch her eye, to implore her silently to put a stop to it, but she was purposefully not looking directly at me.
Lorraine did her deep, dramatic breathing, closing her eyes and beginning to sway in small circles. She as putting on a show for Mrs Harris, making a meal of it. She hummed theatrically in a shamanic manner.
“Sund!” she proclaimed. “Oh goddess, we beg an audience with you! Come to us!”
I could feel that despite her extravagant display, Lorraine was holding back. To my relief, nothing was happening. Mrs Harris seemed amused, as though smugly pleased to have presented Lorraine with a challenge that she wasn’t up to.
Perhaps that riled Lorraine. Despite herself, she started to push – and before she could notice what she was doing and pull back, a feeling like a great void opened invisibly before us, pulling Lorraine’s push into a vortex that was opening rapidly, taking more and more from Lorraine, until she let out a genuine grunt of effort as she fought off the sudden force dragging at her.
The smile on Mrs Harris’s face faded. She didn’t seem aware of the invisible chasm in the parlour, but was perturbed by the break in Lorraine’s performance – she was sweating and shaking now, far from her usually controlled contortions. Then Mrs Harris noticed the smoking trails from the incense, streaming diagonally and disappearing into nothing at the centre of the room and her mouth fell open.
Lorraine was being physically drawn to the hole, lurching forward towards it. I skirted around the edge of the room, and took hold of her shoulders, anchoring her down with my full weight.
“Thanks, love,” she gasped, regaining some composure. She took a big breath to steady herself, and then with one big effort, she closed the opening.
We were all aware, then, of how quiet everything was. Lorraine was a state, bedraggled, with her hair all over the shop. Mrs Harris eyed her silently, poured the last of the wine into Lorraine’s glass and handed it to her. Lorraine took several large gulps.
Eventually, Mrs Harris began to talk, covering the awkwardness, filling the room with inane conversation about nothing.
Just as it began to feel that things were returning to normal, the candles sputtered and extinguished, plunging us into darkness.
We all fell into a silent expectation.
Her eyes came first, two burning red embers hanging in the air. The rest of her appeared by degrees, her body forming around her in a churning mass of dark flames.
Mrs Harris made a small, scared squeak. Lorraine seemed unable to speak at all.
“My lady, we apologise most sincerely for calling you here,” I found myself saying.
She looked directly at me. It was like being in the presence of a queen – no, more than that. I was aware of the power she had. It radiated from her, painful to behold. We were nothing to her – a mere irritation – and yet, if she so chose, she could extinguish us as easily as the flames of the candles.
“You three called me here?” She seemed astounded.
“Yes, lady,” I agreed. “It was a mistake. We beg your forgiveness.”
“You are very stupid people,” she said imperiously.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have called you here. Please accept my humble apologies.”
“I could burn you,” she said thoughtfully.
“Yes, lady,” I said. “But please don’t.”
“It is draining to burn things,” she noted. “I am newly awoken and not yet up to my full strength.”
“We would not like to be an imposition,” I said.
A strange curving red flame – a smile?
“Perhaps I will burn you another time,” she said.
And she was gone.
The room was suddenly empty and dull.
I got up, noting the shakiness in my legs, and turned on the lights. Mrs Harris was staring at the blank space where Sund had been. Her mouth hung open a little. It would have been funny if I hadn’t felt so awestruck myself.
Lorraine couldn’t say anything for a while, though she gave me an urgent pat, which I took as congratulations for bargaining for our lives while she has been muted.
“Brandy,” was the first word she managed, in a croaky voice.
I fetched the fateful bottle and the three of us drank long draughts of it from our empty wine glasses.
When Mrs Harris had gone and the room been tidied, Lorraine began casting charms all over the house. They were warding spells, she said, to keep us safe.
I had a feeling that anything Lorraine could do would be futile against Sund should she deign to pay us a visit. There didn’t seem much point telling Lorraine that magic wasn’t real after meeting Sund. Instead I gave Lorraine’s workings an extra push. “Thanks, love,” she said.
Finally, Lorraine made me drink cocoa with her in the Kitchen.
“Mrs Harris is no longer welcome here,” Lorraine said.
I felt too numb to make conversation and only nodded.
That night, as I tried to sleep, in the darkness I kept seeing two burning eyes watching me. However much I tried to blink them away, to tell myself that it was my imagination, I couldn’t shake the horrifying feeling of being watched by the dazzling impression those eyes had scored into me.