HOW THE INTEREST STARTED
“I believe in life after death,” I announced to my parents on a Saturday morning. I was twelve years old on the day of my grandiose declaration.
Half an hour earlier I’d woken up in my flowery Laura Ashley single bed with its annoying squeaky leg convinced that we carried on after dying. It just came into my head and I pulled myself up onto one elbow to sit up straight as it did. I had no idea where that big notion came from. I hadn’t been reading about it. I knew my grandparents had frequented mediums in keeping with the war generations who’d lost so many in the two World Wars.
My parents had also visited mediums a few times but we hadn’t been talking about it recently.
I understood that we died. I’d even seen my granny dead on the bed, or rather I’d seen a sheet over my granny dead on the bed. Maybe somewhere between going to sleep the night before and waking up that morning, I’d computed that we DIED and that meant, “I’m going to die. I AM GOING TO DIE.” Perhaps the thought of being dead was so whoah-floaty frightening that I latched on to an alternative future. A future where we survived. But the weird thing is that belief never left me.
“Of course you do,” my mother dismissed my announcement, without looking up from mashing her breakfast banana. The lime-green jumper atop clashing fire-engine red corduroys was my father. His back was turned but I knew he was making his ‘mud’ otherwise known as Nescafe Gold Blend with milk. I think ‘mud’ was a term he picked up in the army. That and his penchant for colour discord favoured by regimental types living in the countryside shires.
“That’s wonderful,” came his reply, my father’s polite way of saying, “I’m busy, not now.” Whilst both of them were trim, breakfast always came first.
Nothing happened for the rest of that day. No one said, “OK, let’s sit down and talk.” My mother went off to do something probably involving flowers in the church. My father retreated to the tired yellow sofa in the sitting room where he sat for two hours reading The Telegraph newspaper. That was his weekend thing. I went over the road to see Katie who lived on a farm with ponies.
A whole week later I was sitting in the kitchen trying to chew down a gum-lacerating muesli breakfast. My mother was into that kind of thing. For years we had to gag down apple cider vinegar with honey before eating the first meal of the day. That was until the epic morning when my father said, “Enough is enough, I won’t do this anymore,” to which my mother just said, “OK,” and cleared away the toxic amber glasses. The entire hideous vinegary era ended just like that.
So there I was chumping and chomping when, whoosh, the back door opened and my mother heaved and lugged in a large, dusty cardboard box. “This was in the garage,” she exhaled.
She dumped it onto the oval kitchen table with dust ploofing off it and walked out of the room. God knows what this was. My mother had a habit of producing things that didn’t interest me like books titled, “Jesus, the Man”, “The Gnostic Gospels,” and the “Royal Society Protection of Birds, PocketBook Guide to British Birds.” I wasn’t averse to Jesus or birds but they were her thing, not mine. That box could well contain an hour of me having to feign interest. I braced for boredom.
I gagged my way through mildew stinks to find the box brim high with crumbly papered tomes about life after death. There was also an A4 taupe envelope containing an inch thick sheaf of faded papers held together with a rusting paper clip. I put the envelope to one side as the books looked more intriguing. My arms eventually weakened with the heavy bookery so I opened up the envelope and looked at the papers.
“His face was damaged with two horizontal cuts from the left side of the face to the right. One cut went right across his forehead. The other went across the face below the mouth.” Underneath the words, there was a pencilled outline of a face with two repeatedly and heavily pressed pencil lines across the forehead and below the mouth. “He is working on railway safety now. He is very busy. It’s very important to him. He’s very happy and has a great deal of work to do.”
Oh god. These were transcripts of my grandparents’ visiting mediums at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain (SAGB). There were about twelve, maybe fifteen, separate accounts. Each one was typed with the date and the name of the medium, who was mostly someone called Jordan.
My father’s only sibling, Rosslyn, was killed by a train when he was just twenty-nine. The train hit him whilst he was working as a railway engineer on a stretch of track in England one ordinary day. The irony is that he loved trains. They were his passion. He’d fallen in love with them when he was a small boy in India, having been born in the foothills of the Himalayas, a child of the British Raj. Over the years, my father had frequently told me about Rosslyn’s love for the machines made of steel and steam, hauling and hulking across India’s deserts. It’s a love that I seem to have inherited.
But his love for trains didn’t save him that day in 1960. He failed to hear the workmen’s shouted warnings that a train was approaching. The velocity struck with such force it pushed him down and pulled him back to the train only to be pushed back to the tracks again and again. He was repeatedly battered until the train passed.
My father had to identify his only and older brother in the morgue. Newspaper packed Rosslyn’s face and body as the shattered structure could no longer hold a human shape.
I already knew about the death and the newspaper packing but I didn’t know about the visits to mediums to find Rosslyn. Nor did I know about the facial details. I took the drawing into the sitting room and handed it to my father.
“Yes, those were the injuries to his face,” he stared at the image without looking up at me. Behind him, there was a portrait of Rosslyn on the pale green sitting room wall. I’d always been told it was painted posthumously, “that means after death,” based on photographs. He had certainly been a beautiful man, with his side-parted deep brown hair and sea blue eyes. Within the ornate gold frame, he was whole and well again in a pale blue shirt, with a green-blue striped tie and a brown tweed jacket. The portrait now hangs on my own sitting room wall.
My father went to his mahogany desk and pulled out the heavy lower drawer. He retrieved and handed me a faded copy of a single newspaper article. The headline read, “WOLVERHAMPTON MAN DIDN’T HEAR DIESEL - NOISE DROWNED BY EXPRESS.”
It turned out there’d been two trains. An express train had ripped past the workmen, drowning out the noise of an oncoming diesel train.
“The jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ on Rosslyn Nial Evelegh (29), a civil engineer employed by British Railways.” An inspector who was with my uncle reported, "I shouted, 'Look out, Mr. Evelegh,' and leapt backwards but the diesel train, which we had not seen coming, hit him.”
The diesel driver said he was rounding a curve when the express train passed, reporting that, “Steam obscured his visibility and he did not see the men until he was on top of them. He sounded his hooter but could not stop in the distance.”
The consultant pathologist concluded, “The death was caused by multiple injuries and must have been instantaneous.”
With my father now back in his sofa, I implored, “But how did this medium, Jordan, know what had happened to his face? How did the medium know about him and trains?”
“That’s what mediums do. A medium is a bridge between us and the person who has died. They get information and messages from a dead person that only the dead person knows or their family or friends know. The medium tells the family or friends the information they are getting. That can be a great comfort to the family. It was certainly a great comfort to my parents, your grandparents, to know that Rosslyn was all right and wasn’t in pain, but quite the opposite, happy and busy.”
He then said matter of factly, “We say they’re dead and yes, they are in a physical sense, but they’re still alive.” He looked back to his Telegraph and carried on reading the day’s news. All I could see was the top of his head. I got the distinct feeling that he didn’t want to talk about that stuff anymore. That, or it was so obvious to him that he didn’t feel the need to expand on it.
Instead, I begged my mother to let me see a medium.
“Perhaps I can get in touch with Rosslyn too?” He died before I was born but I’d always felt an affinity with him. Besides he looked really nice in his picture. I would have liked an uncle to, you know, just chat to.
“You’re too young. It’s not appropriate. You can go when you’re eighteen,” she flatlined. With the advantage of years, she was right. This stuff is profound and you have to be ready for it.
So it was that an entire six years later, at the adult-deemed-appropriate age of eighteen I took a rattly train from my village to London. I dressed up for the city but as a country bumpkin my version of style was a clean, pink and ironed cotton shirt, a Fair Isle jumper I’d knitted myself and a homemade blue ‘Navajo’ skirt with three tiers of cotton chambray gathered one on top of the other ending below my knees. My hair was short, cut in the style of, well nothing, as my mother cut my hair. Short except for a rather nasty 6” thin plait extending from the base of my head and away from my crew cut, tied up with a green tartan bow on the end. I thought it was cool, but it looked like a rat’s tail. I thought I was so punk, so Malcolm McClaren, so Buffalo Girls. I just looked clueless.
That day I stepped from a warm sunshiny London pavement into the gloaming of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. I’d had in mind people wafting around wearing tie-dye kaftans with chiffony headbands. But no, the reception hall was dark, empty, quiet and had a worn out 1970’s old-fashioned swirly carpet.
I groped my way to the eye height heavy brown reception desk. A tall lady with metal grey hair swept into a severe pony-tail peered down at me. She was brusque. She wasn’t interested in me coming all the way from Oxfordshire and how I’d been hoping to see a medium for six years and well, I got the hint.
She passed a pale green docket into my shaking hand onto which was scrawled 4 o’clock and a room number. She then handed me a cassette tape still new in its cellophane wrapper. Her fleshless palm waved me towards a corridor and her voice said something about a waiting room. I shuffled off towards the back of the building, along narrow corridors with numbered doors, turned right then left and came upon a bright cubby with four seats and nothing else. I guessed this was the waiting room.
I sat on the blue cushioned chair. Low murmurs drifted along the corridors. Quiet conversations. Different voices. Someone sobbing. “Oh god, someone’s crying,” I thought.
A few more minutes and it occurred to me, “How do I know when it’s my turn? Do I knock on the door with my number when it’s time? Should I wait? Oh god, what am I doing? How are they going to know I’m for them?” By then I couldn’t stop my hands or legs from shaking with nerves, not anticipation. I had no clue what was going to happen or what I was meant to do.
At exactly 4 pm, a middle-aged woman took up the doorway and said, “Hello, I’m Terri, you’re for me.” Her dyed brunette hair was tightly curled and cut close to her head. Her five-foot 4-inch frame wore a pale blue blouse and a pair of black slacks that had an air of high street shop, Marks & Spencer’s. I followed her Hush-Puppies up the pale yellow corridor and then left into another small room, this one with a window. A brown table and two chairs were placed in the middle of a pale blue carpet.
Terri was matter-of-fact, first taking the green slip and then taking and opening and inserting the new cassette into an ancient tape player on the equally ancient table. Admin over, she turned to me.
“Please take that seat. I’ll sit here. Have you been to a medium before?”
“No,” I croaked.
“Oh, you’ll enjoy it,” she smiled the softest and most beautiful smile, with pure, almost translucent skin.
“My name’s Terri and I’ve been working here for about twenty years. We’ll just see what comes, won’t we? Who’s there, we’ll find out soon enough. Oh, there’s already two people here for you. But first is it all right if I just hold your hands in mine for a second. Just to make contact?”
Her small, smooth hands took mine and she closed her eyes. Tears collected in the bottom of my eyes. I forced them to stay there. She said a prayer. I had no idea what it was but something about, “Be with us for protection,” and, “For the greater good.” She took her hands back to her lap and opened her eyes.
“Both your grandmothers are here. They didn’t get on when they were alive but they are here together now. One is small and slim and the other is tall and slim.”
Holy freak out, Terri was right. They didn’t like each other and the physical descriptions were right.
“They are pointing to jewellery. The smaller one is pointing to a gold ring on your left hand and says it wasn’t hers but she wore it. She is also pointing to the silver bracelet you’re wearing on your right wrist. It was hers.” I was wearing my uncle Rosslyn’s gold signet ring on my left-hand little finger. My grandmother had resized it when he died and wore it until she passed. I now had it and never took it off. I looked down to my right wrist and saw the Indian hewed silver bracelet which had also been hers.
Before I could say anything, Terri rattled straight on, “The other grandmother, the tall, thin one, is saying, 'Don’t forget me. She has my diamond necklace.’” Terri described a diamond crucifix on a long silver chain. It was in the top drawer in my bedroom and had belonged to my tall grandmother.
I’d thought this mediumship thing would be a slow, faltering affair but Terri said one thing after another, only pausing once in a while for a few seconds or so. When she did, it was like she was listening to someone.
“The tall one lived near mountains and the sea. South America. Irish connections too. She is your mother’s mother.” Yes, she lived in Santiago, Chile but had been brought up in Ireland.
“Her husband, your mother’s father, died before you knew him. He loved dogs.” Yes, both were true and the few photographs I’d seen of him were photobombed by various mutts. I could see in my mind a photo of him on a horse in Chile with three dogs sitting in the foreground staring intently at the camera. It was obvious they were being bribed with meat morsels to stay in the photo frame.
Terri went on with more and more information that was impossible for her to know. She knew what I’d been thinking the day before. She said things that I didn’t know about and said I needed to ask my mother about them when I went home. My mother later said, “Yes, that’s right, I suppose,” about this and that nugget, disappearing to consult the family tree, a long forgotten file or photo album.
Terri mentioned a young boy called Johnnie who died aged nine and said he was following me. I knew nothing about that but later it became clear what she meant.
As Terri bridged the living with the dead, the room seemed to fill up with pale light that reached into each corner, from the blue carpet to the ceiling and across from each yellow wall. It wasn’t sunshine or electric lighting. But with it, I felt something I’d never felt before and it can only be described as goodness. I felt no maybes or should haves. There were no regrets or worries. No fears, no futures, and no pasts. I felt safe. Everything was all right. I’d never felt pure love before but in that little room, with just a table and two chairs, I did.
Terri asked if I had any questions but I sat slack-jawed. With the time up I thanked her, got my jacket and pretty much floated out of the door and down the grand steps into Belgrave Square. I was high. Tears of elation streamed down my face. I made my way along the road feeling surrounded by people who were dead but who loved me. I pushed the glass revolving door into a shop, Harvey Nichols and fretted that I couldn’t get all of my family in. It was one thing to believe in life after death but quite another to fit everyone watching over you through a department store door.
Rosslyn hadn’t turned up but he did eighteen years later. I was woken in the night by a voice calling, "Polly, Polly, Polly.” I knew it was his voice calling me. But for the time being, that first visit to a medium was enough for me.