You have to be in a very dark place before you decide that talking to dead people is your only way out.
It’s a place I find myself in. And it’s a course I’ve recently been plotting.
It’s easy to be cynical in a rational world. The laws of physics bounce and scatter light around you: mass, acceleration and motion beautifully choreographed in a ballet of equal and opposite reactions. You remain, steadfastly, at the core of your very own cosmos.
But when an unexpected force corrodes your hardwired belief system – such as the death of a loved one – all bets (and Newtonian laws) are off.
For the first time since childhood, I was consumed with the need to be unsure of everything. My subscription to the James Randi podcast hovered in suspended animation in my iTunes inbox, the Skeptical Enquirer back issues remained unenquired. For now, the faint possibility of improbable physics and para-science became the only things worth pursuing.
And so I found myself shopping for psychics.
Death’s arrival is nothing at all. It’s a breath and a silence. But it’s as profound as the falling of autumn apples, and so numbingly unfathomable you can feel the cogs in your head whirring and clicking, as if a damaged DVD has been rammed home.
Can. Not. Read.
And, as you try to make sense of the nothingness, it renders every rule you’d thoughtlessly obeyed into a sudden and grinding confusion. A doubt that takes you right back to first principles. How can something becoming nothing? And, er, while we’re at it, what is nothing anyway? Haven’t we just built a circular tube underneath Austria to look for the nothing that holds us together?
The doubt is the crack into which the psychics crawl.
Merseyside’s not short of psychic fixes. Leasowe has a Sixth Sense Academy, where you can train to become a psychic detective in your spare time. There’s a Psychic College near Sefton Park, psychic fairs every other week in a community hall near you, and palm readings and a pint offers at pubs from Crosby to Calderstones.
In short, in this town, you’re never more than six feet away from someone who sees dead people.
But how do you choose a psychic? There’s no Trip Advisor to the other world, no Rough Guide, no fingering the goods at John Lewis and keeping the receipt in case, when you get home, you realise it’s just not you.
For a psychic shopping trip, I had to follow my hunches. I had to cold read the google ads, the purple and black websites complete with flashing GIFs and comic sans, and count the exclamation marks and smileys in the testimonials. My metaphysical leniency did not – and could never – allow for para-normal punctuation.
The world of psychic self promotion is as ethereal as ectoplasm. Trying to trace a good one as slippery as catching spirits in a dream catcher. Like all good urban myths, there’s always a friend of a friend who saw some old woman in a caravan who was amazing. She told them everything. And there was no way she could have known…
Fortunately, the virtual realm of the internet is the perfect hunting ground for spooks. And it’s here I track down Purplemoon Jo – to a leafy avenue in Prenton, of all places.
On her website, Jo describes herself as a professional psychic (so no Watchdog Rogues’ Gallery for her. She’s fully accredited). For £25 she promises to assist people from ‘all walks of life, with all kinds of problems.’
“Many people feel lost and in need of guidance at some time in their life,” she says. “We have lost the understanding of the meaning of life and we have forgotten the secrets of the universe and how we all have unlimited potential to be and do whatever we desire.”
Who wouldn’t pay £25 for the secrets of the universe? I’d pay twice that for the secrets of Penn and Teller.
There was only one secret I wanted to unlock, though. And I’d pay everything I had for that.
There’s nothing big or clever about grief. It’s a longing that rips at the fabric of your sanity. But it’s also, obscenely, a companion you’re reluctant to shake off. For, while it stalks you, it’s also the most reliable conduit to the person you’ve lost. Seeing a medium is, I figured, as comforting as scratching a deep and nagging itch. If the drugs don’t numb the pain, maybe a psychic can.
Jo welcomed me into a handsome, large family home – trickling water sculptures, pewter dragons and polished quartz scattering the surfaces.
“I’m not a fortune teller as such,” she says, “I believe we have the power to create our own future and would never take away another person’s power in the way I have seen many so called psychics do. This doesn’t mean I don’t make predictions, I’ve predicted countless situations that prove to be correct time and time again…”
Talk about keeping your options open. Is she or isn’t she? My allotted hour would tell.
The session begins with a clumsy shuffle of the tarot deck: if my fortune depended on not dropping these cards I’ve had it at first base.
Jo talks of issues surrounding the ownership of a house, of communication problems with a loved one, of misunderstandings and a young man with devilish intent. So far so Waterloo Road, I think. Yes, they could relate to me. But, then, they could relate to the fact that I’m crap at shuffling oversized cards with saucy pictures of heaving sorcoresses straight out of Skyrim on them.
It’s after the card session that things start to unravel. The cards are the warm up act, helping Jo to zero in on my spiritual cross-hairs.
“Would you like me to go into spirit?” Jo asks. “I’ve been developing my ability to communicate with our loved ones in spirit and I’ll pass on any messages I receive.”
Well, in for a penny…
“This person, I can see him now, he had terrible headaches…” Jo clutches her head, “and nerve damage all down one side…”
Suddenly I am untethered. Jo is seeing Mark. And Mark is dead. The laws of physics have been upturned. Scattered about as carelessly as a tarot deck on an onyx coffee table.
“Go on,” I say, trying my best to stick to the skeptic line – Don’t Give Them Anything.
“He’s laughing, he’s saying you gave him red wine when you shouldn’t have…”
I fumble at a quick calculation. How many people enjoy red wine? Plenty. How many people who have died would, possibly, have been on medication strong enough to warrant abstinence? A fair few.
“…and dark coffee. He loved strong coffee…”
Damn. That’s cranked my calculations towards the spot on the dial marked ‘freaky co-incidence at best’.
For an hour, Jo talks of Mark’s gratitude for the way I cared for him: “he’s telling me you were brilliant. You were his angel.”
He did use the word brilliant. That’s exactly how he described me, I think.
I fight back the tears, I pinch my thighs. What’s happening here?
“I can see you splashing water on his face…” she says.
Well, yes, when he was in the hospice I used to shave him. Pamper him. It was a private thing. I’d spend ridiculous amounts on face creams. When you’ve lost feeling all over your body and you’re trapped like a lab rat in a roll-bar fenced bed, a facial, a Tupperware of Rioja and a flask of Bold Street Coffee are the only comforts that remain. But these were private comforts. Secret rituals we shared. Alone.
Now, as a DHL van rumbles past outside and a low winter sun fleetingly stings my eyes, they’re being relayed to me as clearly as if Jo had been lurking in the shadows of Mark’s room. Watching us, while we stumbled hopelessly through the final act. The stage directions we’d had six years to prepare for. All the time in the world. But we weren’t ready.
How does that make me feel? Am I comforted? Is this the counselling my confusion seeks, the extra time I’d been praying for? I’m not so sure. I’m reminded of a family friend who lost two sons at Hillsborough and, to this day, sees psychics: unwilling, and unable to hang up the phone. There is a process to grief, as there is to life. And that process must end. But what if your dearly departed has a talk time with unlimited minutes? What if. What if…
But I warm to Jo. Despite my lack of sleep and hunger for answers, my barometer is still, I think, accurate. She’s warm, caring, and has a steely determination to grope her way to an understanding when my puzzled responses indicate a ‘miss’. “It must mean something, they’re telling me it’s relevant…” she says, when I admit to not knowing a Barbara. “This is important, the cards say so…” when I’m hesitant over a quarrel with a female friend.
As the reading ends, Jo looks obviously moved. Are those tears in her eyes real, or is it all part of the service? Does spiritual stroking come with a side order of faking it? She asks me whether I have any questions. Anything I want to ask?
“Does he know I’m here?” I ask.
“Of course. And he’s giving you a hug. He says he gave you a hug recently, and you felt it, didn’t you?”
That’s the money shot.
He did. I did. It was last night, about three in the morning. But surely I was only dreaming? I remember it vividly, as I do the ‘common side effects’ clause on my antidepressants: bizarre, lucid, and vivid dreams. And I remember a passing spike of excitement. Lucid dreams. How very exciting.
How obscene a gift of empathy is, too late. Why was I willingly subjecting myself to the waking terror of Mark’s tumour? Why was I so pliantly allowing these border skirmishes between my states of consciousness?
“This is a really weird dream, Dave, isn’t it? I wish the chaos would stop,” was, give or take a half-audible murmur, the last sentence Mark said to me. He was pleading to me, searching for clarity. And I was diving into that selfsame pool for, what, entertainment value? Anecdotes around the pub? Selfish reassurance that I was an angel? Suddenly, the session felt more like a spiritual pamper party than anything approaching genuine investigation.
Sooner or later, my friends used to tease, it’ll all be about you…
I remember all this, and I hastily grab my man bag. I have to leave.
The next day, I meet Michael Marshall, co-founder of the Merseyside Skeptics. I tell him about my experience, of the impressive hits, and the blurring of the boundaries between what I know, and what I feel. But I’m too ashamed to tell him the truth: that, on some level, I witnessed Jo bring the dead to life. In her sunny sitting room. In Prenton.
“Did you get it recorded?” he asks, eagerly.
“Well, no, she said she could, but she wasn’t sure if she had any batteries…”
“Did she give you his name?”
“What do you remember, exactly, from the session?”
I remember the facts I’ve just recounted. Maybe a couple more.
Michael doesn’t need to say anything. It’s to his ultimate credit that he doesn’t, then and there in Starbucks, call me an idiot.
“So, from an hour’s conversation, you’ve given me, what, six facts?”
But there was more to it, I say. I’m sure there was more. More than mere mathematics.
“You have to remember,” Michael says, fixing me with his gaze, “if a psychic tells you something purporting to come from a loved one, what they’re really doing is altering the memories you have of them. And memories are precious. They’re the only things we can rely on. They’re the proof that remains.”
I want to talk about zero point energy, of the quantum soup of subatomic particles that bind us inexorably together. But the angry intersections of the cafe, the harsh cold surfaces and the shrill beeping of smartphones ricocheting around like charged atoms in a Collider make me realise: a chain store is no place to look for the God particle.
“Look, we’d love for there to be something in this,” he says, “but it comes down to one thing. Evidence. Show us the evidence, and we’d be the first to hold our hands up.”
Would they really? I find it as easy to imagine evangelistic skeptic Richard Dawkins fessing up and admitting he was wrong as it would be for Sally Morgan to admit she wore an earpiece. And there’s the problem. Grief plants you into that hinterland of doubt: wanting, needing answers to the Big Questions, too terrified to take a stand in any direction. It’s Pascal’s Wager writ large. Yeah, it’s all nonsense, you tell your pre-grief self. But what if it’s not? Wouldn’t it be churlish to stick a big ‘Return to Sender’ on any future communication?
Later, at home that evening, I’m still trying to process the doubt and disquiet – and then I remember a simple truth.
In life, Mark would never chat to anyone who collected pewter dragons, so there’s no way he’d do it in the afterlife. This much I do know.
And, as the Cosmos continues to turn, I return to the silence in the house.