May 1990. On holiday in Greece, I met Nicolas, 25, handsome, air steward. (Is there such a thing as a straight air steward?) We fancied each other immediately and had a night of erotic fireworks. We arranged to meet again, both of us hoping that this might be the Start of Something. On the night of our second meeting, as we were driving back to Nick’s miniscule flat in an Athenian suburb, some idiot drove out of a side road and ignoring the stop light, smashed into our car and killed him.
Shock and grief feel like fear, and you need a sense of purpose to counteract them. As I left the ramshackle hospital where they’d kept me for the night, a purpose – batty, but comforting - formulated in my mind. If Nicolas still existed anywhere, I would find him. I had a friend back in England who, ten years earlier, had lost both her parents in separate incidents within three days of each other. She had been going to a Spiritualist group convened by Mona, a medium well known in the area for her accuracy: even the police used her when they were looking for leads. What the hell – I decided to give her a try as soon as I got back home.
Christine told me what to expect. There would be a few prayers, a hymn or two, a demo of clairvoyance by a guest medium, a break for tea and bickies, and then an ‘open circle’, in which Mona would strut her stuff. We set off one warm Sunday evening. I felt a bit of a pillock, to be honest, but despite temptation I did not wear a paper bag over my head, or even dark glasses.
There were two mediums for the first half of the evening’s proceedings, one a large lady with a pudding basin haircut, flat sensible shoes and a thick brown cardie, the other in a scarlet two-piece, black-seam stockings and her hair in a brioche, decorated with artificial roses. They took turns in playing the audience. A general question to start with: ‘I feel I’m in this half of the room… can anyone place me a George in spirit?’ There were sixty odd people there, most of them aged sixty odd. Inevitably, someone could place a George.
‘I think it’s me, love.’
‘Well, he’s sending you a rainbow.’
‘And he says you’ll be feeling better by the April, May month.’
‘So can I say God bless?’
‘Oh, alright, thank you.’
Both women followed a procedure that I was to observe dozens of times in the coming months. The medium gives a name, or a date, or a place name and asks if anyone can connect with it. Usually more than one person can. By adding a few details (gall bladder? Stroke? August?) the medium eliminates all but one contender for recipient of the message, which is usually an affirmation of the deceased’s affection for the sitter, and assurance of his continued interest and involvement in the sitter’s life.
Well, after about half an hour of this sort of thing, Mona announced a tea break, and said that after we’d have ‘a lovely open circle’. I felt bleak, cheated and stupid: an intelligent man sitting among a load of daft old bats and codgers while these two deluded bints had indulged their fantasies in front of us.
'What did you make of them?' I asked Christine, hoping we had not just seen the pinacle of mediumship.
'Beginners' she shrugged.
We queued for tea from an urn, had a couple of bourbon biscuits apiece, a blind man played an electric organ and people broke off their conversations now and then to sing along quietly to ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Imagine’. Then the open circle began.
It was not how you, or at least I at the time, might imagine an open circle at a spiritualist gathering. No dimming of the lights, no holding hands, no sitting in silence waiting for the departed to rap on the walls. (A bit disappointing, really.) People turned their chairs to face the centre of the room, and settled down with an air of pleasant anticipation. Mona came in from washing up in the kitchen, an elderly, motherly lady with a husky smoker's voice. She looked as though she might have come to offer round a tray of buns. Eyes shut, she negotiated the chairs and sitters, moving round the room relaying messages from spirit to the earth-bound as if she were on the phone. Occasionally the line was bad; ‘no, say that again, love’ or ‘no, tell me properly’. Occasionally the communicator was indiscreet: ‘I can’t say that in church, love!’
The difference between Mona and the pair of dotty old trouts that had preceded her could not have been greater. Where they had been fey and vague, Mona was matter-of-fact and precise. Where they had groped and fished for leads, Mona knew exactly whom she was addressing and why, whether present in the flesh or (apparently) hovering just behind her right shoulder. There were no rainbows, waterfalls and bouquets from spirit, but names, dates, recognisable people. 'Are you Lisa's sister? It were 'er oo give you them earrings, love, want it?'
She came to me (‘right, now where’s that lad?’) and rattled off a list of messages from the beyond, many of which I have forgotten and some I could not make sense of, but some of which floored me. She commented that I had not known Nicolas well, but had hoped to. She described his clothes on the night we met, (crew-neck jumper and denim jacket) and the scene of the accident. She mentioned that he had a sister, something I didn’t know at the time but which proved to be the case. She also knew that the accident had happened in a foreign country. None of this information came to her from me. As usual the communicator, supposedly Nicolas himself, seemed to be standing just behind her and to the right. This information, of mind-numbing banality to anyone else, was exactly what I wanted and needed to hear. Questions about where he was, how he got there and what his post mortem activities might be did not occur to me at the time.
After, I felt elated; maybe he still existed somewhere, somehow. I was moved to rush to the off-shop before closing time to buy a celebratory bottle of Gordon’s. This is not as flippant as it sounds, as I was gasping for dizziness and fireworks after a week of hideous, mummified gloom.
That was 18 years ago, and I am no longer as convinced of the existence of an anthropomorphic afterlife as I was to become in the five years following my first evening among spiritualists. But the horrible image that had kept me awake, the image of that beautiful, handsome, virile young man of twenty five now blown and stinking and desiccating under the hot earth in Greece, was fading. It was at least possible that something conscious, individual and intelligent survived.
But if something survives, what is it? If the dead simply continue to live in another dimension, what do they do there? Spiritualists burble about ‘learning’ and ‘progression’ and ‘unfolding’ but are short on specifics. What are they learning over there, and where are they progressing to? I wanted to get a medium on her own and see what, if anything, she could tell me.
And I did, here and here.