Last night I stopped by at Tori and Ricardo’s flat for a nightcap, only to find myself gatecrashing the mother of all parties. Perhaps I should have felt hurt that nobody had invited me to this party – but Tori has a messy sprawling life, full of shadowy areas into which I have never ventured and whole rabbity tribes of friends into which I have never been inducted – and it conceivably seemed natural or proper to her that I should not be included in this evening. It would have looked odd to have left this party as soon as I had arrived, however, and so Tori forgave me my trespasses and very graciously told me to help myself to a whisky. I did not know anybody in the kitchen, but I found Ricardo slumped gloomily in front of the living-room television.
“Is James here?” I asked hopelessly.
Ricardo pulled a face, and returned to watching the television. It could not be heard over the din of the party, but there was something calming to its soundless sequence of pictures.
All of the windows in the flat were flung wide open, and forlorn red faces grimaced and smirked unhappily at the soaking midsummer heat, bobbing abstractedly to the music and nosing in aimless circles like fish packed into too small a tank, but suddenly a plug seemed to have been yanked out and the partygoers were flowing towards the hallway. I followed, but then something checked the current and some of the partygoers were turning back, repulsed. Others were speeding up and slipping, as if naughtily, into the box room.
Was it an orgy?, I wondered grimly. I imagined Tori and Ricardo’s box room full of writhing bodies all bubbling in their own juices and gelling together in the heat. For a moment I hesitated, before feeling suddenly exasperated. Nobody in their right mind would make love in this heat – except possibly Ricardo, and he looked thoroughly bored with the party. I ducked into the box room.
The first thing that I saw was Tori, who frowned at me. This pleased me for some reason – I think that I was relieved to have made an impact. There were little candles dotted about the room, and the partygoers were arranging themselves in a circle on the floor. A lady in a trouser-suit was perched cross-legged on the floor, looking up expectantly at those seating themselves.
One may have assumed that a séance would be unfashionable amongst the present generation of students. We are all, I am sure, familiar with those goody-two-shoes, smarty-pants atheists who now patrol every campus, eager to settle every debt to faith and iron out every crinkle in the rational universe. Perhaps there was a squadron of sceptics here this evening, on a mission to extinguish this latest flare-up of irrationality. I personally dislike mediums, and I think that they do not serve the supernatural very well. I have never been able to tolerate the feeling that somebody is lying to me, and mediums will always look and sound dishonest. They babble away rapidly and smoothly, their cold-reading like a child’s clumsy hands pawing together hopeless houses of cards which tumble repeatedly back down. Audiences will often react with an uncomfortable, impeccable politeness, at heart as unmoved as the glass pane assailed by a bluebottle.
The room was settling. “Let’s put out the lights,” the lady suggested. Her self-assurance irritated me. I licked my thumb and blotted out a candle at my ankle. We sank quickly into darkness, and I was now a little annoyed to learn that I could no longer recall the details of the room and the people around me. Whilst waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I concentrated on the voice of the lady, who was telling the séance that they were just going to have a bit of fun, and that nobody needed to be afraid. I tried to imagine the dead spirits bearing down upon the circle, like a flock of seagulls alighting upon an overturned rubbish bin.
We were told to link hands, I reached gingerly out, and found two hot palms. I shuddered at this unpleasant bonding, and tried to pretend that my hands were numb and unfeeling. I could not remember who was sitting next to me, and I did not even know whether the hands which I were holding were male or female. The medium was preparing to solicit raps from the hereafter, and a tambourine was placed in the middle of the circle, in case any of the dead were feeling particularly articulate.
For a while the medium demanded whether anybody was present, with the patient persistence of somebody calling in a cat before going to bed. Before too long, there was a muffled little knock and a subsequent chorus of amazed, uncertain gasps. I rocked with silent derision, happily superior to this charlatan and the idiots who were falling for her.
It was one rap for yes and two for no. The spirit confirmed that yes it knew somebody who was present and no it had not lived in this apartment and then, a little oddly, no it had not even been born in this country. The spirit seemed to be getting impatient with these questions and it was soon thumping away lustily and even giving little flourishes on the tambourine. The room was growing incredulous and a few partygoers were openly snorting with laughter. The séance was becoming a bit of a circus. The medium seemed to be losing control, like a unassertive teacher with a disorderly classroom.
Was it a boy? Yes. Was he American? No. French? No. “Vegetable?” somebody shouted out. The spirit was unamused and he did not condescend to answer this. We wandered around the world for a bit, the spirit bashing out furious nos on the tambourine.
Was he Polish?
There was an almighty crash.
The medium began to reel off names. Stay totally still, totally silent, I raged to myself. I then remembered that Tori was also in the room. I waited for her to blurt out the identity of our lost friend, for the entertainment of everybody, but she must have sensed my discomfort and remained silent.
It was a coincidence, it had to be a coincidence. My whole body seemed to shine like the blade of a sword. “So you were a Marcin?” the medium was concluding triumphantly. The room was unbearably hot, my shirt was drenched and plastered to my back, and I wanted to be out in the cool night air. Yet I could not leave without breaking the circle. “We’re now going to go around the room – each person is going to say their name – and I want you to rattle the tambourine when we get to your friend.”
I had to get out of here.
Cookie. John. Alan. Rachel. We were slowly counting down to myself. Sandra. Ana…
“I feel sick. Really sick,” somebody interrupted.
“I don’t feel good,” somebody else agreed blandly. “I think I’m going to faint.”
The medium persisted. “You seem to be very agitated Marcin. Very upset.”
“Confused Marcin? Are you confused?”
When Tori’s voice came, it was so shaky that I scarcely recognised it. “Do you know that you’re dead Marcin?”
The following crash could not possibly have been made by a tambourine. At that moment, I felt a hand dart out and touch me lightly on the neck. With a great bellow, I tore myself from the circle, punching blindly. I hit something hard and there was a crack. There were screams. People were scrabbling with matches, before somebody managed to reach the light switch.
As the room flickered into being, Tori shrieked.
“He was there.”
“Where?” I growled.
“I saw him!” she was sobbing at me, her fists clenched into tight little balls. “In the circle! I saw him!”
“Oh my god! A real ghost!” Amazingly, the medium was now hyperventilating, taking desperate gulps of air. As she blacked out, the tambourine jumped slightly across the floor, pulled by a wire attached to her wrist.
“He’s here? At this party,” I demanded furiously.
“I swear to you! He can’t be here!”
“Why can’t he be here? Half of fucking Edinburgh is here? Either you or him are making me look like an idiot…”
I wanted to investigate further, but the room was suddenly ganging up on me. A pretty young student who, it transpired, was the medium’s daughter, was lying on the floor cradling her jaw, which it seemed I had broken. A consensus was emerging that we would need an ambulance and the police, but some of the bolder partygoers wanted to teach me a lesson on the spot. Two were trying to flap my hands down, whilst another was punching at my head. With a lurch, I swung myself and everybody around me against the wall and then broke away, punching and kicking. The room was now backing off. Somebody threw a tumbler, which broke with a little crash against my thigh.
“Calm down everybody,” Tori said wearily. “I want some decorum. Where is my husband?”
Ricardo flopped an arm around my shoulder and veered me towards the kitchen for more drinks. Yet everybody was scowling at me, and so I plucked at my coat and made for the door. It seemed impossible that Marcin could be at this party.