Jeremy Clarke

Collective scepticism

The theatre was a converted Anglican church. Was there perhaps a lingering, antagonistic Christian spirit at work here tonight?

Collective scepticism
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The theatre was a converted Anglican church. Was there perhaps a lingering, antagonistic Christian spirit at work here tonight? Or was there perhaps a rival medium in the audience, blocking the channels? These were very real possibilities, said Paul, barely suppressing his anger. But he rather thought that the root cause was the collective scepticism of the audience. He had to say that we were one of the most difficult audiences he and wife Tracy had ever had to work with. It was almost unbelievable, he said, but he’d heard titters and even ‘comments’.

Tracy was close to tears. She began to pace the stage. ‘I’m getting a Daniel,’ she said. ‘I can see a motorcycle helmet. There’s been an accident. Does anyone know a Daniel killed in a motorbike accident?’ So far there’d been no takers for a passed-on poodle, a little boy with fair hair possibly drowned, a stillborn baby, and a man called Colin or Collins. There were no takers for Daniel, either. I looked along row B of the Little Theatre, Torquay. Women over 50, mainly. Cast-iron suntans. Masses of cleavage. Gold. Rings like knuckledusters. (On the English Riviera any excuse to put on the finery and go out is sufficient, even a ten-quid-a-head clairvoyant show on a wet Wednesday night.) I was the sole male in a row of Roman empresses — enough to put even the living dead off their stroke.

We stared impassively back at Tracy. Her mounting panic was turning out to be a more absorbing spectacle by far than the exercise of her or her husband’s peculiar gift. She scanned the audience desperately for a sign. Eventually a quiet, well-spoken, female voice from near the back said, ‘My nephew. He was killed on a motorbike. He wasn’t a Daniel, though.’ Paul and Tracy exchanged exasperated sighs; then Tracy patiently reminded us of the ground rules. If we thought the message was for us, she said, we must respond with either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. There must be no explanations, caveats or riders to inhibit the flow.

She started pacing the stage again. ‘I’m also getting a Steven, a David or a Dave.’ ‘No,’ said the voice at the back decisively. ‘He’s connecting to me about his work,’ said Tracy. ‘Was he on his way to work?’ ‘No.’ ‘I’m getting a hill, an incline, a bend in the road. Was he killed on a bend?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is there a Judy involved somewhere as well?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is Mum in the spirit world?’ ‘No.’ ‘Grandma, then?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did she die from cancer?’ ‘No.’

That last ‘no’ finished her. She sagged with despair. The microphone fell to her side. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s just not working for me tonight. People just aren’t putting up their hands for me.’ Stifling a sob, she handed the microphone to her husband and stiffly left the stage.

Outwardly we the audience remained impassive at this dramatic turn of events. Inwardly we were slightly apprehensive. Now that his wife had stalked off, what was her husband going to accuse us of now? Witchcraft? Communism? Anti-northern sentiment?

‘I’m slightly disappointed,’ said the livid stage medium, his eyes glassy with emotion, ‘that one or two people here tonight haven’t more understanding of the kind of work Tracy and I do. I can see people smiling. I don’t know whether they are smiles of encouragement or of cynicism. Unless you show some respect I’m going to have to stop, ladies and gentlemen. I’m sorry.’

But then Ted came through and he gave us one last chance. ‘I’m getting the name Ted,’ he said. ‘Does anyone know a Ted?’ No answer. We sat and looked at him. A long silence. It was a battle of wills, a stand-off. Finally he said, openly sneering at us now, ‘So. Out of over a hundred people here tonight, no one has a relative in the spirit world called Ted. Is that right? How extraordinary!’

He was about to follow his wife off, when a male voice quavering with extreme age, again somewhere near the back said, ‘I had a great-Uncle Ted once, I believe.’ The medium squared his shoulders. ‘I’m getting the word Kent. Have you any connection with Kent?’ ‘I can’t say that I have, I’m afraid,’ came the quavering voice. ‘Anyone else with a connection with Kent?’ ‘My neighbour’s got a brother-in-law living in Kent,’ offered a woman halfway down. ‘Is he called Ted?’ ‘No.’ ‘I’m getting the name Rochester. Does he live in Rochester?’ ‘No. He lives in Canterbury.’ ‘So you’ve got a brother-in-law living in Kent, but not in Rochester, and he’s not called Ted.’ ‘Yes.’

‘Well, I think I’m going to stop now,’ he said. ‘The evening for me has been very interesting. I want to thank those of you who’ve shown an interest for coming. And I hope you all have a safe journey home and never lose faith with your loved ones in the spirit world. Goodnight!’ A few desultory handclaps and we filed out in guilty silence, saving our laughter until we were well clear of the building.