Cressida Bonas

The strange allure of talking to the dead

The strange allure of talking to the dead
Blithe Spirit starring Jennifer Saunders (Image: Shutterstock)
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My aunt, Charlotte, had a profound influence on my life. A second mother, a friend and someone who was always there. The thief that took her was the rare disease PSP. It slipped into our lives with no warning and ripped her away from us. The house she lived in was a home to our family. Somewhere we could always go. An anchor in my childhood. Recently her son (my cousin) and my four siblings spent a weekend there. We lit the fire and chatted about the goings on in our lives. Pictures of our aunt and her beautiful treasures which remain in the same place as well as the familiar smell when I walked through the front door. We looked at the space on the sofa where she always sat with her two dogs. It was as if she was there, listening to us, but of course she wasn’t. The question on all of our minds was how this could be so. 

That night I shared a bed with one of my sisters. We made a prayer that if she was there, please could she knock. Before I fall asleep, I often quietly ask my Aunt to appear in my dreams. She never does. We waited, but there was only silence and we started to drift off. Then came an extremely loud banging noise. We squeezed each other’s hands and didn’t dare move in case we scared it away. There was nothing for a while until we heard a scratching sound above our heads. We laughed. The glis glis were back, rodents which resemble squirrels. They invade in the Autumn, take up residence in the loft, destroy everything and breed like rabbits. Aunty Charlotte considered them her pets. I like to think she was communicating to us through her furry friends.

I have sometimes visited psychics. I usually leave feeling conned. However, something invariably pulls me back. My Dad says it’s ‘absolute rubbish’ and my Mum, secretly intrigued, says she’d find the whole process irritating. Yet I have questions about the future. I want reassurance. And most of all I want to know where my Aunt has gone. I’ve just finished Justine Picardie’s book, If The Spirit Moves You. Justine writes about how she coped in the year after her sister died of breast cancer, how she yearned to hear her voice, and how she searched for afterlife through mediums. Justine’s story has funny moments within the pain. 

There is something comical about trying to contact the dead, at times, ridiculous. Once a clairvoyant told me that my dead grandmother was whispering in her ear. Why doesn’t she just whisper in my ear I thought. Noel Coward highlights this humour in his play Blithe Spirit, currently being shown at the Harold Pinter theatre. Directed by Richard Eyre, Jennifer Saunders is hysterical as the spiritualist, Madame Arcati. She jigs around the stage, performing a séance which brings the ghost of Charles Condomine’s deceased wife, Elvira, into the room. She causes chaos in the house and refuses to leave. Perhaps there is a danger in hunting too hard for the afterlife. You never know what you’ll find.

Recently I have decided to stop visiting people who speak to the dead. I always leave disappointed and I realised I don’t need to go. My Aunt’s presence fills my life. I just can’t see her. My sister recently got married and my mum gave a wonderful speech at the lunch. Meanwhile, I watched a robin hopping behind my sister’s chair. I’m not suggesting my Aunt has been reincarnated as a robin, but it gave me a sense that she was present on that special day. Simply, the very act of believing keeps her alive. This is what I felt after reading Justine’s book. After years of searching, she recognised that her sister was always ‘written in my heart.’ There will always be a relationship between the living and the dead. Through the love you have for that person who left, through the memories that flash up or seeing them in daily things, in something they would have loved, a family member’s face or hearing a song that conjures them up from the grave. They are there in those strange coincidences in life that we can’t explain, in the sensing rather than the seeing. Or in my Aunt’s case, the haunting of the glis glis.