When my grandma and great aunt were little girls around the end of the First World War, the family was briefly in the chips. The girls were always well turned-out and had equally well turned-out dolls and a big handsome toy car, among other small luxuries not common in their milieu at the time. All this was funded by their grandmother, who was a star turn as a platform medium at Spiritualist churches in the north of England. She only accepted money for private sittings and donations were voluntary, but, as evidenced by the clothes and toys, frequent and generous. When it came great-great-grandma’s turn to Pass Over to the Other Side, it was back to living on a tight budget, like everybody else.
I have no idea if my great-great-grandmother was a gifted psychic, a hard nosed manipulator, or one of the many mediums who subconsciously absorb the technique of cold reading and imagine themselves instruments of a Higher Power. Certainly on my mother’s side of the family there was never much doubt that the dead are always around us, and my great aunt was often told she ought to develop her psychic gift, but she was too scared of ‘spooks’ ever to try. When I was a kid we used to play Ouija with a wineglass and a circle of Lexicon cards, and if Auntie’s finger were on the glass it would skitter so fast from letter to letter you could hardly keep up with it. I don’t suppose anybody enjoys funerals, but Auntie especially disliked them because if she wandered round the grounds of the crematorium, voices of the long-since burnt would call out to her, and this gave her the creeps. Grandma on the other hand greatly enjoyed being given the creeps, and liked to scare herself witless with gruesome Dennis Wheatley novels. No logician, she contrived to believe in revenants whilst simultaneously dismissing them as nonsense.
My own spook story goes like this. When I was about three, our house had a cellar where the washing machine was kept. Next to the cellar was a tiny L-shaped space for storing coal. One day while my mother was doing the washing I asked to look inside the ‘coal hole’, so she opened the door and I went inside. I said there was an old lady standing in there, and described her grey hair and coloured apron. I was not scared, or even surprised, to see a complete stranger apparently banged up in the coal hole, and it was my composure as much as anything else that freaked my mother out. We went back upstairs and she wouldn’t go down there again for some time. Eventually we did go back down, probably because we needed clean clothes, and again I looked in the coal hole and again there she stood in the dark in her coloured pinny.
I have trotted out this story for every class I have ever taught, and once recorded it for a now out-of-print EFL coursebook. I leave the last part of the story for the students to complete. ‘Later, my mum related the incident to the neighbour, who said…’
Only one student ever said ‘they should take you to a psychiatrist’ - thank you, Panagioti. Everyone else gets it bang on. The neighbour said that the previous tenant of the house had been a rather strange old lady, who always wore a coloured apron, and who had been found dead in the cellar.
My father’s mother was as down to earth and stolid as my mother’s mother was fey and scatty. Most works of the imagination in books or on TV struck her as ‘proper daft’ and once, when some medium was doing his thing on the telly, dad’s mother was utterly mystified as to what was supposed to be happening. If it had been explained to her, she would have dismissed it as ‘codswallop’. Yet in the last month of her life she told my mother that at night, she heard voices calling her name: ‘Kathleen? Kathleen? It’s me, Nellie.’ They were voices of friends who had gone on ahead. ‘I know who it is, and I don’t like it’ she said. I found it strange that a woman so very grounded in this world with her Liberal club treasurer’s accounts, mail order catalogues, housework and total lack of interest in the imaginary, should even discuss this.
A few weeks ago I went with a friend to see a famous medium work a crowd. I had not been to such an event for nearly sixteen years. He had a stock of patter and little jokes, and the air of a stage-struck little boy accustomed to performing to indulgent aunts and grannies. (Takes one to know one.) It made me want to rip his head off. He did what every medium does, which is first to fish for leads;
'Anyone recently lost a mother?’
and then eliminate contenders for the message from the beyond;
‘Cancer? No, heart attack is what I’m getting. Round about April, May, June, July…?’
When the recipient is finally located, the message will be mind-bendingly banal;
‘She tells me you’re thinking of getting some new kitchen units, she says she loves you very much; I feel he was quite a character, wouldn’t suffer fools, always very outspoken, wasn’t he?’
Then, just as you feel justified in writing the whole thing off as horse-feathers, some small piece of information from the beyond will have the ring of truth, something hard, clear and individual will shine out among the soapsuds, and you wonder how he could possibly have known that.
Doesn’t prove the survival of death, of course. Still, I can’t bring myself entirely to believe or disbelieve. If we do go on, I hope to meet the old lady from the coal-hole, because after so many years of using the story in my lessons, I owe her a glass or two of whatever she’s having.