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We seem to have reached a point where James will accept nothing for our website but ghost stories, and I find myself in a similar position to a mother who is trying to talk her child into eating something more substantial than sweets alone. To my admittedly severe way of seeing things, it is immature or unmanly to take pleasure in ghost stories, and even though circumstances compel me to write such narratives, I do not seriously expect grown adults to read them. One’s heart is only light enough to be picked up and swung around by such silly terrors during a brief period in early adolescence. One thereafter becomes too much of a lump to be thus transported, and any fondness for ghost stories becomes forlorn and nostalgic. When turning the leaves of M.R. James, one knows that there is no way back to a time when the blood truly ran cold at such terrors, just as you will no longer experience a giddy virgin excitement as a girl undresses and you will no longer lose your head on half a glass of cider.

But there is also a more practical reason why I cannot write ghost stories. For every séance which I attend seems to somehow end in a punch up, and my reputation in psychic circles is now so tarnished that I am seldom welcome at such events. Yet I recently attended a modest séance in Tori’s apartment and this occasion forms the basis of the present story.

I should explain that Tori had her eye on a parliamentary seat in the North of Scotland which had been held by several generations of her family during the late nineteenth century; and that she had resolved to make a good impression upon June Hurdies, the chairwoman of the Edinburgh South Conservative association, whom she had identified as a prospective ally. The unsuspecting Mrs Hurdies had been cunningly invited to dinner. James and I found that something about the way in which Tori alluded to the forthcoming dinner party meant that we were both obliged to attend.

“Mrs. Hurdies is a professional spiritualist…” Tori briefed me over coffee, on the morning before the dinner party.

“You mean that she is a witch?”

“Let’s not get hung up on the terminology. But whenever she acquires new friends, she makes a great point of delivering any tidings for them from the spirit world. She believes that she has a responsibility to… oh Biggy, I can tell what you’re thinking! Please do be agreeable! Just this once!”

“Very well. But it would be altogether less tiresome if James was not there. He is probably just as passionate about spiritualism as this woman, and they will only encourage each other.”

“I’ve asked James to help with the cooking.”

“Really?”

“Really Biggy. I need James to be there – he always has this odd knack of charming old women.”

“I find that rather creepy. But as long as you prepare something beforehand and then just get him to heat it up…”

“That’s enough fussing for now Biggy. Incidentally, your girlfriend Renata will also be there.”

I am not sure if Renata should be described as my girlfriend, but that is beside the point.

Tori called me an hour or so after I had left her apartment.

“Your joke about her being a witch – I’m afraid that I must insist upon a little delicacy here.”

“No demanding that she is ducked in the pond after dinner?”

Tori grunted, commanding seriousness.“I’ve learned that she has gone to great lengths to sanitise her image. When she first started practising, she was distressed to find that all of her customers wanted to be frightened rather than enlightened, and she recruited a public relations agency to establish the right tone. Looking at her website, it’s like a shampoo advert – there’s angelic light, shining water, airy platitudes about peace and fulfilment – and you have to hunt high and low to find even the barest mention of the dead.”

“I’m disappointed. I was rather hoping to have a detailed chat with Vlad the Impaler.”

“Biggy, this is important. Please don’t mess this one up.”

Mrs Hurdies would dock for dinner at seven. I arrived at Tori’s apartment ten minutes beforehand, on the chance that she needed somebody handy with a knife to carve the meat. Yet I was greeted by a scene of complete mayhem. Tori, James, and Renata were marooned up on the dining room table, tottering and clinging to each other, and with their eyes racing feverishly around the ostensibly innocuous carpet far beneath their feet. “Biggy!” Tori hissed. “Do something!”

I had soon gathered together the bones of the story. James had intended lobster for the main course, he had purchased five of these beasts from Marchmont’s fishmongers, and he had transported them to Tori’s apartment in a cool box. But as he was preparing to introduce the lobsters to the bubbling pots of water, it became apparent that reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated. There was no tape binding the lobsters’ claws, they awoke in a particularly snappy mood, and they were not inclined to negotiate. The lobsters had soon captured the kitchen and James and his reinforcements were beating an undignified retreat.

“Five of them, you say?” I peered around the living room.

“They may be in the hallway!” James suggested. “Or in the bedrooms.”

“Or down the toilet? Has our dinner swam away to the sea?”

“Just find them Biggy,” Tori snapped impatiently.

“Maybe Mrs Hurdies can use her psychic powers to establish their whereabouts… They’ll be somewhere dark and warm – most likely under that sofa. But I can hear Mrs Hurdies at the door, so you’d better come down off that table and make yourselves presentable.”

Mrs Hurdies was a beady-eyed, spiteful-looking woman who had dressed in that mixture of piercing colours and neat churchgoing formality which old ladies seem to have decided amongst themselves is fashionable. Reality seemed to droop before the blazing orange of her hat and trouser suit, the same deranged orange of poisonous beetles and hallucinogenic toads. She removed her hat and gloves, and found herself at the head of the dinner table without anybody seeming to have helped her there. Tori was transfixed before this woman’s searching alien intelligence, and she was struck by an awful sense that her soul was being consumed in steady sips like a mint julep.

“Of course, I am aware of your family, but your father was some sort of fraudster…”

“I’m afraid that he’s still alive,” Tori stammered.

Mrs Hurdies tittered, quite unexpectedly, and for a brief moment her whole body seemed to roll drunkenly, in a great wave. “Poor lamb. You are definitely the sort of girl whom the party wants these days. Our parliamentary representatives are now rather like those blond automatic women who read out the news on the BBC. They are all alike, like ants.”

And anything which Mrs Hurdies had to say on the question of Tori’s candidacy was limited to these few, obscure remarks.

James and Renata arrived with five plates which were set with boiled potatoes, boiled vegetables, and a rather conspicuous gap where the meat conventionally resides. Mrs Hurdies’ eyes flashed with surprise and amusement. I coughed loudly as something scuttled, with odd bobs and squelches, from under the dinner table and towards the darkness behind the sofa. I imagined scooping it up by the tail, bashing out what passed for its brains on the dinner table, and then tossing its broken body into Mrs Hurdies’ lap. But I was unnerved by the thought of her tearing apart its exoskeleton with her teeth, whilst its legs kicked feebly.

We munched away dutifully on our boiled potatoes. After a while, Mrs Hurdies began to look intrigued by the absence of a main, as if she had been possibly expecting the room to be plunged into darkness, before the lights were flipped back on and there were lamb chops on our plates. It had soon dawned on her that this was unlikely to happen.

Dabbing at her lips with a napkin, Mrs Hurdies settled back and regarded us serenely. “You know, I have a special gift…” she confided, as if beginning a bedtime story.

I could hear peculiar bumps and scuffs from behind the sofa, which possibly indicated that the lobsters were starting to tear chunks out of it with their pincers. I raised my voice. “You are a spiritualist?”

Mrs Hurdies nodded modestly. “Whenever I make new friends, it provides a good opportunity to deliver any news for them from the next world…”

And so the séance began. We turned down the lights and linked hands over the dinner table. But then – to Tori’s annoyance – James was suddenly voicing an objection.

“I think we need to establish that we are actually communing with spirits…”

Mrs Hurdies blinked. Tori hastened to confirm that of course Mrs Hurdies would be communing with spirits.

But James remained oblivious to this hint. “I read somewhere that mediums merely plunder the subconsciousnesses of their fellow sitters using telepathy.”

Mrs Hurdies rather sharply pointed out that if she could do this, then she would have by now extracted our PIN numbers and plundered our bank accounts rather than merely our subconsciousnesses. I have to confess that I believed her.

James continued. “But there’s a simple procedure by which we can ensure that anything Mrs Hurdies reveals is not obtained telepathically…”

Aware that her credibility was vaguely at stake, Mrs Hurdies irritably submitted to James’ procedure, which turned out to involve wrapping her entire head in tin foil. By the time that James was finished, Tori was incandescent. Mrs Hurdies did not sound too pleased either.

“We can now begin,” James announced happily.

With her head looking as if it was ready for the oven, and in a voice as terse as gravel, Mrs Hurdie began to demand from the air whether anybody was present. I noticed the feathery shape of a lobster paddling about amongst the legs of a nearby armchair, but I did not think that this qualified. There was immediately a thick crash, which sounded oddly as if the table before us had emitted a cough. Mrs Hurdie explained that this was a spirit, and she began to ask it questions, with one cough for yes and two for no. She would carefully list names, and the table would cough when she reached the right one.

You can surely imagine what happened at this point, for it was what always seems to happen whenever I attend a séance. Yes it was a man, yes he was Polish, yes he knew somebody present, and he began to spell out his name M – A – R – C…

“Marcin!” Renata blurted out in amazement.

We all looked at her. Tori and James then looked quickly at me. Surprisingly, from behind all that tin foil, Mrs Hurdies seemed to be also looking at me.

I was completely stunned. As “Marcin” had spelled out his name, I was certain that the world was again conspiring to bring me to a moment of overflowing personal significance. But I now felt a startled embarrassment, as when one realises that the person with whom they were talking was actually addressing somebody standing behind them. I tried to convince myself that Renata must be mistaken.

“I think that the spirit is communing with me,” I suggested with a firm sort of gentleness.

Renata stared at me. “It’s Marcin,” she uttered helplessly. “It‘s my… friend.”

Tori looked at me with interest. “You’ve never told her about Marcin, have you?”

“How could I possibly explain?”

Renata began to talk quickly, with irritation, as if we had all come in half way through the film and missed several important details. “When I was seventeen, I was dating… I was in love with… this guy called Marcin. He was several years older than me. And then one day he just vanished. The police found out that before his disappearance he had accidentally deleted his entire postgraduate thesis… these were the days when everything was kept on floppy disks… and he had no backup. And we all thought that he had killed himself. I mean, his whole apartment was left exactly as it was… without anything missing…”

“But you never established that he was actually dead?” I broke in angrily.

“Biggy!” Tori was aghast. “Our Marcin is not dead!”

“He’s fucking communing with us!”

“This is the most morbid delusion!”

“He’s communing with me!” Renata insisted.

I kicked a lobster from under my feet, and cursed to myself. We were suddenly all afraid that the spirit had slipped away whilst we were bickering, like an unattended helium balloon, and Mrs Hurdies, if a little subdued within the foil, hastened to resume the séance.

“Are you still there? I am going to list all of those who are present and I want you to identify your loved one.

Victoria.

Zbigniew.

Renata.”

“Oh I don’t know a Marcin!” James laughed.

“Hush!” the tin foil head barked.

There was an eerie silence.

“Perhaps in your present condition, you no longer possess any memory of earthly names?”

THUMP!

“Oh how convenient!” I snarled. “How diplomatic!”

The faceless mound of tin foil turned to point in my direction. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you’re a cynical old witch!”

In an instant, Mrs Hurdies had erupted out of her tin foil wrapping and to my amusement, her face had been boiled to a perfect pink. But she regarded me coolly. “I think that it is time to be leaving!”

Renata was weeping like a child lost in the woods. “Are you flying away on your broomstick?” I inquired.

Tori glared daggers.

“You young people may think that you have made me look foolish,” Mrs Hurdies proclaimed in the shrill, stentorian tones of an Edwardian orator. “But I’ll tell you this. With your ignorance, with the unmistakable lack of manners which you have displayed this evening, you are the ones who look pretty foolish!”

And with that, Mrs Hurdies swept up her hat and sailed out into the night.

Apart from Renata, the others had fallen into a gloomy silence. James was gazing up at me. “Why are you laughing?”

Because as she returned to the civilisation of some Conservative party cocktail lounge, to relate to her cronies what a frightful evening she had passed in the company of the most conceited young whippersnappers, perched up on the top of Mrs Hurdies’ hat, the king of the castle, was a prancing and snapping lobster.


[There are more accounts of seances on Tychy here, here and here. Ed.]

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