DOING AN EXTRAORDINARY THING
We met at the Spiritualist Association of Great (SAGB) during the previous decade.
By the time we’d made it to Sharry’s ‘Advanced Class' we’d embarrassed ourselves through years of Beginners and Intermediary training. There isn’t a set curriculum for mediumship unlike say, Reiki, which requires just a few weekend workshops to bag yourself certification as a Reiki Master. Mediumship training goes at its own sweet pace for as many years as it takes to master it. That was obviously going to be forever in my case.
The SAGB was born in 1872. Over a hundred years later, it operated from a building in fancy Belgrave Square, a stone’s throw from Harrods, one of the most expensive shops in the world. Walking to my class, I passed imposing white Georgian terraced buildings, with wide front steps, Corinthian columns, and black wrought iron railings. Luxury cars hummed past me. Parking places were hogged by Rolls Royces. The centre of the square was a tree-filled garden that looked so inviting for a sit-down but the sign looked down its nose at us mere mortals, “Residents Only”. Some of the buildings were Embassies whilst others were homes for the very wealthy.
The lease on the entire six floors at Number 33, Belgrave Square had been bequeathed to the SAGB by a Member, who clearly wasn’t short of cash when they unzipped their mortal bag and headed off to the after-life. Did the locals with their hard-sprayed Joan-Rivers lookalike hair-dos, walking past with their equally coiffeured spaniel pedigrees, ever wonder what was going on at Number 33? Surely the ressies complained about the riff-raff coming and going at that building on the South Side of the square.
I turned to my right, off the pavement and up on to the steps. “Hi Alan, how are you?” Alan was a pro-medium, who liked to top up with nicotine before his next client sitting. If you had to guess his job you’d probably say he was a civil servant or drove a bus. Cheerful face, reddish hair, wire specs. Nothing out of the ordinary. Excellent medium. Didn’t mince his words. In one sitting he shot at me, “Your nan wants to know why you keep laughing, stop it.” I stopped immediately. It was nerves.
Not long after my dad died, he said, “Your dad can really talk, can’t he? Slow down. Slow down. You’re going too fast. I can’t hear you.” My dad did indeed like to talk and Alan was getting the full tilt of it. I imagined my father was desperate to get across all he wanted to say before the session closed.
I pushed on the wooden revolving door. It weighed a tonne, that thing. If you were a bit anxious about going to the SAGB, that door alone could put you off as it might as well have had a sign on it, ‘Not Welcome Here.’ Let’s face it, that entrance was either trying to stop you getting in or was going to trap you inside what could only be a witches’ coven once you were in.
The trick – or do we say ‘lifehack’ these days - was propping all your body weight against it and voila, the door’s heft dragged me round into the reception. A choir of angels? Kindly spirits shimmering several feet above the floor? Perhaps a harp tinkling somewhere in the distance? No. Bit dark. Bit musty. Very brown front desk. Very matter of fact receptionists doing their job. Less exciting than buying a train ticket at Paddington Station.
But I loved that transition, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
On class nights it was a hubbub of mediums, teachers, students and the public.
Teachers picked up papers from the desk accompanied by mundane greetings,
“Hi Geoffrey, how’s the garden going? How’s Sue?”
“All good thanks, I got the dahlias in at last.”
Students gathered before making their way to their classes.
“Hi, love your new coat”,
“Ooh, nice hair”,
“Hey, you’re here already, see you upstairs."
Professionals lurked between readings for clients, or in Alan’s case had a smoke before his next client.
Curious public passed through on their way to the big posh room on the right for evening demonstrations.
I attended a few Dems to learn from the pros, although there is no chance I’ll ever go on the ‘platform’. Imagine standing on a podium in front of fifty faces, without a clue what you were going to say. Imagine doing that with a good chance someone in the audience was there to write an article claiming you were a trickster.
On top of that, the front row was nearly always comprised of desperate looking women, heads turned up, eager for the medium to turn to them and say, “Your father is here and he says you’ll find love in the next three months”. Some of them were regulars. Why didn’t they sign up for classes if they were that interested?
For all the grandness outside, the interior was something else. Tired bookshelves. Tired leaflets. Drooping notices tacked onto pinboards. The oil portraits of past mediums, the threadbare carpets, ancient vases containing crumbling dried flowers and curving bannisters, could have done with a good dusting. But what the place lacked in cleanliness was made up for by pure love coming from spirit. Love from them and enthusiasm from us.
Before class, there was always a rush for the loos. Loo doors slamming, splashy taps for hand washing, unfeasibly loud hand dryers that continued to scream long after lessons had started. Thump-thumping as students legged it up the wide staircase to their rooms. Chairs jostled into position. A few more greetings. Then the doors snapped shut as classes got underway.
Every so often all of us had to be reminded to keep the volume down as private sittings were taking place in the building.
A little-known gem was the tearoom in the basement of the building. It was a shoe-box with six Formica tables and chairs. What had been a kitchen complete with serving hatch took up 10% of the room. I never saw the hatch in use although I'm told you could once get a decent omelette and chips there. Instead, all that was on offer was a truly disgusting cup of insta-coffee that didn’t meet the promise of the machine’s digital photograph. But that was the best coffee to me. I felt safe from the world outside in that caff.
When professional mediums popped down for a brew, it was thrilling to be in the same room as them. They were ordinary people having an ordinary tea-break between doing amazing things for people. Whilst snapping chocolate fingers of KitKat, their latest client may have been sitting in their car outside sobbing with happiness that their father, brother, husband, daughter, wife, mother, grandparent had come through for them.
The room we used for 'Advanced Class' was at the top of the stairs next to the chapel. Red carpet, red flock wallpaper, conference chairs with red velveteen seats and even a red light bulb. In reality, I don’t think it was all red but it seemed that way. Nor was red a psychic-medium thing. The room next to ours was pale greeny and another room was yellow. But there we sat, bathed in red. Cosy, not scary. Except in the summer when it was smelly. Taking off shoes to improve 'grounding' didn’t mix well with a small, hot room stuffed with people.
Unfortunately, the SAGB ceased running classes for some reason none of us could fathom. You’d think we could work it out if we were psychic. Then shortly after that news, the SAGB had to move from the lovely building. We gossiped that skullduggery was at play but in fact, the lease was up.
So, we formed our own little circle, thanks to Sharry making the suggestion. I’ve never understood why she did this as she charged us little more than her bus fare. In return, she got us lot moaning that we couldn’t do whatever she was asking us to do. Sharry also found us a venue at her friend’s casting studio in Soho. We took over the place after auditioning actors had left for the day. I seem to remember passing Rupert Everett on the stairs as he left after an audition.
We were a right old ragbag of characters.
Surveying the room, sitting to my right, there was Izzy the ex-copper, who had walked the beat in dodgy East London. She once successfully identified a murderer, leading to him being arrested and sent down. She claims she didn’t suss him by using psychic powers but rather instinct and a good dose of common sense. She’d left the force to become a teacher in a school for children with special needs. She was also a single mum. Hats off to Izzy. She had a lot on her plate.
There was sixty-plus Rupert, Roo to us, the retired Chief Financial Officer of a FTSE 100 company. He was the only one of us who was no longer beholden to working hours, yet Roo was always twenty minutes late. He’d creak open the door and without fail make an, “Oh” sound as though he was surprised we’d already started. He’d then tiptoe to his seat but his sailing jacket always rustled through the hush, breaking the reverential ambience. As his name suggests and as my mother would say, he was from “a good background.” But you couldn’t meet a man with so few airs and graces so we forgave him rustling in after we’d all started.
Raven haired Claire was a TV producer and single mum to two young children, having lost her husband to cancer. She was very resilient and despite it all, wasn’t self-pitying; more likely to ask how you were than dwell on herself. She’d arrive rocking trendy coats and cowboy boots, still glued to her enormous Samsung Galaxy, tidying up the day’s affairs. Claire was the only one organized enough to sort out our post-class suppers. She’d order for all of us a balanced fayre including meat, veg and carbs. If she couldn’t make the evening, the rest of us panic-ordered chips and Nachos with cheese.
Next to Claire sat Maggie. She was once front-of-desk for a North London bookies but it got busted for tax evasion so she moved to reading Tarot on a TV channel phone line. This was to bring in a bit of money while she concentrated on pushing herself to be a professional medium. Of all of us, she was the only one with the discipline to do it. Not only did she practice mediumship every day but she didn’t drink. The two of us once went to a luxe cocktail bar where I knocked back industrial strength caipirinha and she had a pot of tea. Her drive to professional level propelled her to do medium demonstrations on the platforms at spiritualist churches around the country just to gain practice. But my god, she and I could laugh at the stupidest of things. Her impersonation of when she’d been prescribed way too strong anti-depressants by a way too zealous psychiatrist, making her fall asleep in the carpark of a hotel, as guests swished past, never failed to make us howl.
Tim the Taxi Driver was the geezer of the group, always with a wisecrack or two. He parked his iconic Black London Taxi right up outside. As an Eastender he had the straight talk that helped with mediumship. Say it how it is. Don’t get airy-fairy. He was the only other one in the group who earned a decent wage. Cabbies are loaded.
Ted and Anthea were writers. In the summer they lived abroad in a remote island cottage. They returned to the UK for the winter as their island retreat didn’t have heating. They’d only been learning mediumship for a couple of years so it’s embarrassing to report they were as good as, if not better than, most of us who’d been at it far longer.
Scottish Mary had taken a break from class because her marketing job leached her every waking hour. But now she was back. She was a professional medium so didn’t need to be taught but I think she enjoyed spending an evening with old friends and faces.
Others came and went or dropped in from time to time.
Rachel was brilliant when she did turn up. It didn’t matter how long she’d left it between classes, she could just stand up and get reams of correct info from the other side. She always promised she’d return to class full time but her hands were full with her job looking after financially strapped residents in her local area.
Michelle was near-professional level but got married, had a baby, moved away and set up a cake business.
Andy was a Shakespearean stage actor whose time was eaten up with rehearsals and touring.
To my left, there was Sharry, our teacher, a six-foot-tall ex-showgirl with the Bluebells. She used to work the cruise ships and theatres around Europe in a sequined bikini and towering feathered headdress. When it came time to hang up her spangled dance shoes, she became an actor’s agent, working with famous names in TV and film. She was now close to retirement age. She was also an accredited healer with the British Healing Trust and a yoga teacher. Where some of us erred on the scruffy side, Sharry was always immaculately dressed with sassy matching accent colours, jewellery and make-up. I particularly liked a pair of wide-leg trousers with a vertical stripe and her silver sneakers topped off with a nifty leather biker jacket.
Then there was me. A strategist working for an ad agency.
Together, we were a funny bunch of ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.