This short story was the result of a challenge – written in an hour, for a short story competition. Not expecting to win, but a good experience. It concerns a Victorian seance, as you might have guessed. and there’s a dodgy medium and a few twists and turns, plus a London pea souper. Enjoy.
When seances go bad
I watch between the net curtains as the showy town coach rumbles to a stop below. It has a feathered crest painted on the door in gold. The six black horses steaming and pawing sparks in the foggy night could be Grand National winners. They wear gold crests too. Fancy that – horses wiv bleedin crests, my old mum would have said. I hear their harnesses jingle. The coachman glances up at me and pulls a face as he shivers in the dank night air. The footman jumps down from the back and swings out the steps before opening the door and standing to attention. I shiver too – that always happens before a reading. Or a séance, as the posh ones say. Believer or cynic, it pays the rent and makes people happy, so what’s the harm?
This night feels different. Sort of electric – like before a thunderstorm, when my scalp prickles and the air sits heavy. My head thumps as if something wants to break out. I want to scream out the window, telling them to eff off back to Kensington or wherever, but I don’t. I wait in silence until two indignant raps sound on my door. I smooth down my wine-coloured dress, checking the stains have gone, check my hair too, piled up nice and glossy. Then I open the door to my guests – three men, three women, all decked up with evening wear. I hardly notice them as the gent with the Malacca cane and the Gladstone bag doffs his top-hat and smiles, and I feel the ancient hunger stir.
My old mum said there’s kind smiles and selfish smiles, and wolfish ones that tell you to beware – I never heeded my old mum, sadly. But this smile warms my heart, the way his eyes crinkle, and the inner light that seems to reach out and touch me. I didn’t catch his name or what his elegant companion is called as she extends a gloved arm in my direction, as if waving me back inside. Only that she has a secret, and she’s sad. I remember that one man is fat and jolly and looks like he will drop dead any moment. The second is dark and sallow, and carries an air of resentment. And this man, the chosen one, watching me with his smiling, seductive eyes. I don’t even glance at the other two women. Their braying voices intrude as they enter, discussing the Razor Man and what he does with sexual organs. The bloodier it gets, the more they love it.
I show my guests where to sit around my magical table, with the freshly oiled séance machinery ready below. The seducer sits beside me with his thigh pressing mine. I dim the gas as the women whisper and giggle, glancing in my direction. They’re envious, obviously. Men always watch me with their covetous eyes as I walk by, shoulders back, striding out, making the most of it – thanks, mum. They whisper how my hair is like spun gold and my blind cupid – well, you can guess the rest.
“It’s chilly out there. Poor driver,” the sad woman says to ease the tension.
The smiling man touches her arm. His voice is soft and rich. “That’s what he’s paid for. And Miss Candy Soulful here is being paid to talk to the spirits. I doubt that’s her real name. Although her fairest flower probably tastes sweet enough.”
The fat man with the apoplectic face shakes his jowls. “Really, Doctor. You should not address a lady with such words.”
The doctor smiles – cat-like more than wolfish. His thigh feels firm. “I’m sure a lady of Miss Soulful’s calibre will forgive me.”
I do, but It’s time to start. “Be silent, all of you. Hold hands to form a circle.”
The men like it when I’m dominant. The sad woman glowers. I operate the silent controls with my feet, and none of my clients wants to know the truth. They’ve paid their money and I don’t come cheap. I breathe deep, heaving my bosom as the Penny Dreadfuls put it. I throw my head back and flutter my eyelashes and gasp like a flood of bliss, and one of the women whispers something inappropriate to her friend. This is where I feel the trance coming on and my imaginary guide begins to speak. At present, he’s a Pawnee called Speckled Horse. But this time is different because there’s a real voice in my head, and my hiss of surprise and fear is genuine.
“What d’you want?”
“To help you. Someone here’s in danger.”
It’s a child. A little girl. She’s from Essex, judging by the accent. She wears a simple white dress with black smudges and the hem is tattered and torn. Her hair is black and matted, held back by a dirty red ribbon. The doctor’s eyes are no longer smiling but thoughtful, as if he can see her too. The apparition is nodding at me in a serious way, as if I should recall some bad memory or deed.
The girl whispers, “My name’s Elspeth and I’m nine. I lost my arm in a silk mill.”
My mouth’s so dry I can barely speak. “Hello, Elspeth.”
I tell my clients about her. They look impressed. Elspeth glides around the table. As she touches my guests, they shiver and their expressions are fearful, but they’re getting their money’s worth. Elspeth takes the silver horn from the table and sounds it. The musical notes come from far away, the place only dead people go.
“Ask them what they want to know,” Elspeth says in my head. Her voice is the sound of wind across heather or waves dying on a pebbled beach. Her dress is bloodied down one side.
I tell them. “She says, what do you want to know?”
My guests grip hands as if drowning. The sad woman nods and speaks. She wants to know about some brat, of course. They always do.
“Is my little boy safe? Is he in heaven?”
Elspeth turns her empty, dark eyes on the woman, and then she is by her side and kisses her cheek. “Tommy’s at peace now. Remember him with fondness, and be grateful for your time together.”
I tell the woman this and she cries out in grief, but there’s relief too as she weeps. I wonder what I shall eat later. A nice rare steak, perhaps.
“Thank you, Miss Soulful. Thank you so much. Does she have any other messages?”
Elspeth looks at me reproachfully. “Death walks behind you,” she says.
“She has no more messages, I’m sorry.”
“Can she do ectoplasm?” the fat man interrupts.
Elspeth has gone. The doctor with the not-so-nice eyes has had enough and I see cruelty in him. He wants to get the sad woman home because her grief and suffering excite him. He stands and the others stand with him as he lays silver coins on the dark velvet cloth. His gaze lingers a little too long and I feel the urge I can never resist.
“Thank you for a fascinating evening, Miss Soulful. Sadly, I have a patient nearby I must attend. I hope we shall meet again.”
I say goodnight, and the gentlemen help the ladies with their cloaks before they troop downstairs into the filthy night. I watch as they clamber into the coach with its golden crest and impatient horses. The doctor pauses and looks up at me longingly before he walks briskly away.
I lock up the rooms I rent for my little shows. I live in the slums of course, because there’s good money to be made from West End property. The fog presses down, catching my throat as I set off. I walk fast because I’m tall and darkness frightens me these days. I hear footsteps following. My latest place is at the end of a deserted alley with no street lamps, just how I like them. I reach my door, turn quick, and relax. The doctor’s there as I knew he would be, smiling at his dolly-mop, confident now. I ask him inside, only polite in such weather. He shuts the door as I light the gas. His hands are on my neck as I turn quickly. The cut-throat razor feels cold in my swift hands as I show him his future. It doesn’t take long, but it gets very messy.