In my twenties I lived in Hackney, London, in a fantastic kind of lesbian soup. Six, maybe seven of us shared a huge house, for free (thanks, literally, to God – it was a vicarage) and our days and nights were filled with laughter, scams, sex, music, theatre, politics and that bonkers energy only idealist 20-somethings can have. It was brilliant.
It was during that time that I acquired my beloved cat, Sweetpea. She arrived one Sunday morning, out of the blue. A little boy, as urchin-like as anything from Oliver Twist, turned up for Sunday School and in his grubby hands sat a tiny bundle of fleas and fur. ‘I found him on the street,’ he said, ‘d’ya know anyone who can look after him?’
So Sweetpea, female, became mine, and was nurtured into a healthy, vibrant, adorable kitten.
We had sparrows nesting in our rafters (not a euphemism), and one morning there was a suitably dramatic cry of distress from one of my actory friends. Sweetpea had got into a nest and the fallout, literally, had landed on my friend’s head and was flapping panic-stricken amongst her flowing tresses. We extracted a half-chewed little sparrow fledgling, and, nurturer that I am, I called him Fletch. He was clearly the worse for his experience, so I made him a mini-nest of lav paper and socks, placed him in my hand made North American Indian basket, tried to feed him some mushy bread and placed a beautiful rose quartz crystal at his side. My friend was fine after a restorative Earl Grey. Or possibly gin.
The crystal, was, of course, the essential ingredient to Fletch’s recovery. I said loving words over his wounds, stroked his tiny beak and cold, rubbery stomach and asked the crystal to bestow its healing magic upon him. During the night I dreamed he ran into an eternal inferno and his eyes turned ashy and black. When the sarcastic dawn chorus awoke me, I turned immediately to check him, and he was as dead as his proverbial long lost cousin.
Fledglings just don’t survive maulings by bouncy kittens, obviously, and I am sure poor Fletch’s fate was sealed the minute Sweetpea sank her pointy little kitten fangs into him. Perhaps it would have been kinder to put him out of his misery there and then, but who in all honesty has ever wrung a baby sparrow’s neck? Or would know how to? I certainly couldn’t have, and nor could any of my friends.
So Fletch was consigned to the back garden of eternal rest, Sweetpea learned the error of her ways and never again attacked a bird (though in time she upgraded to de-legging frogs), and I looked at the smug, useless rose quartz crystal and told it to go stuff itself.
How could I have been so hideously dim as to even have slightly believed that this lump of rock – albeit a very pretty lump of rock – had any sort of mystical healing power? How could I have been such a half-wit? Because someone, somewhere had once said crystals were, like, totally amazing? Because someone once had said they had, like, this amazing energy, right? Cosmic energy? Because crystals sounded magical, and life, and death, and the universe are, like, totally magical? Well, whatever. I believed it simply because I wanted to.
And there’s the nub of it. In the muddled logic, or actually in the total absence of logic, there faith lies. Faith, by its very nature, must defy logic. Faith is, by definition, stupid. It’s a brilliant placebo. But it’s stupid. And crystal ‘healers’ – deluded morons with questionable mental health who purport that these pretty, benign lumps of rock can somehow affect the cell chemistry of a living mammal – crystal healers, along with all their snake-oil salesmen relations, those arrogant twisters of truth, those peddlers of utter pants – they exploit the naïve, the gullible and the hopeful and laugh all the way to the eminently unspiritual high street bank.
I daren’t call them fraudsters. Homeopaths sue you if you call them fraudsters. Many of these practitioners are charming, sincere, earnest, and some might say harmless. People feel better after visiting a crystal healer, or a homeopath, or a prostitute, don’t they? Isn’t that enough? Job done? Oh sorry, prostitutes don’t belong here. They offer something actual and real.
But if there’s a hierarchy of spiritual succour, then who are the grand daddies of all the side-show charlatans, the witch doctors, the tarot card spinners, the astrologers, the dowsers, the astral plane travellers and the aura-readers – the great-grand daddies and mammies of them all, the biggest fairies at the top of the Christmas tree of bollocks? Well hello, psychics.
It’s a tough call, yes, but psychics just about clinch it because, you know, they say they can hear dead people talking. For real. They’re not just talking to the dead, any fool can do that, but they can hear the dead talking back. And they take your money to do so for you. Think about it, really. I have, and it stinks like a corpse in a heat wave.
There’s been much derision and exposure of psychics as fraudsters in recent years, not least by the brilliant Derren Brown, Simon Singh and Tim Minchin. Yet still the industry thrives, still the grief-stricken and bewildered look beyond the temple or mosque or synagogue or church, beyond family, friends, bereavement counsellors, beyond whatever form of therapeutic offerings we can provide each other through this dreadful experience. We want more. What we want is the dead person not to be really, properly, utterly dead. We want a vestige of their essence, their spirit, their personality, their ‘self’ still to be around, to be close to us, simply not to be gone forever. We want them back, and if we can’t have them in person, then in ghostly form will have to do.
The power of human grief is astonishing. I’ve been there, we all have, or will have. It’s part of the deal of being alive. The rage, the literal howling of pain, the despair, the horror – it’s the most dreadful experience. It changes our lives, our worlds, we are kicked blindly into space eventually to return changed; darker, heavier, meaner.
Eventually, though, the pain does lessen, and laughter returns, imbued with an extraordinary power. I didn’t laugh for two years after my cousin Suzy died, not properly. It took a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean suddenly to shake a guffaw from my guts. A dwarf was fired from a canon, and it was indeed very, very funny. I’m chuckling now, remembering it.
Both my parents are dead, along with all my grandparents. Uncles, aunts, beloved friends – everyone dies. Gone. Forever. Young, middling and old: cancer, heart attacks, alcoholism, diabetes, more cancer, even more cancer, car accidents, stroke. A lucky few have slipped away in deep, elderly sleep. I miss them all, fiercely.
I dream of them, too, vividly. My mum is always young, beautiful, laughing and moving house. I am trying and failing to get her to take it all more seriously than she is. The most recent dream was gorgeous – my mum led me silently by the hand away from the ruined cottage she lived in, and for the first time in living memory I felt safe with her. I let her guide me. I trusted her. Everything, said my dream, is just fine. I fairly skipped my way to work the next day, my rage and despair about the alcoholism which killed her hugely altered. Not gone, I doubt it will ever be, but altered.
Is a dream relationship any more real and useful and healing than a psychic claiming to purvey a message from a dead person? Yes, it is. And here’s why.
I have been to four so-called psychics. One was a fortune-teller, (ok, not your actual talker-to-the dead) years and years ago, when I was a teenager, living alone and trying out all sorts of things. She had a stall at our annual funfair, known as the Mop. The sign outside the tiny tent promised, in red curly swirly handwriting, that the person inside was definitely a genuine descendant of some genuine ancient psychic gypsy lineage. I was enthralled and dared myself to enter. She swiftly relieved me of my week’s dole money and told me her credentials. She was very, very scary. She had a woodbine dangling from her lips and a cough that could have woken the dead. ‘There’s no cancer in your family,’ she wheezed, ‘and you will live across the water and have two children, a boy and a girl, both blond. And you’ll come into a lot of money.’ And that was it. The emphysemic old troll then dismissed me and I stood amongst the crowds bewildered, cheated and furious that I had no money left for the Waltzers. The years have passed, and of course she was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Still a teenager, I went to another psychic I’d seen advertised in the newspaper. A ‘flower festival’ meeting I think it was called, in a chilly town hall. I was the youngest person there by about 50 years. There was hymn singing and a prayer before the evening’s activities. This was way better than the phlegmy gypsy experience. Everyone had brought along a flower which had some significance to them and the person they were trying to contact. I didn’t realise this though, and had grabbed a random bloom from a Jew’s Mallow bush before zooming there on a motor bike. The psychic sat at the top of the hall and took people’s flowers in turn. She closed her eyes and asked the spirits to come through. I don’t remember any of what she said to anyone else, but it was all very solemn and sincere and quite thrilling.
Then came my turn. She took my battered bloom and concentrated hard. She said she could see a piano, and large French windows leading out to a beautiful garden. She said that I should pay attention to the piano as that’s where my future lay. She said that there was someone called Edie trying to get through to me. So, wow! I had a piano, and a house with large windows leading onto a garden. So did most of my family. And friends. I didn’t know of any dead relation called Edie, but I was sure I could find one, somewhere. And weeks, maybe months later, when a sweet, nerdy guy stopped me in the street and asked me to play keyboards in his band, and we had an amazing year of gigging and recording, well then I knew that the psychic had seen my future. What other explanation could there be?
More recently, I went to see that bloke off of the telly, Colin Fry. He was doing his show in London, and the temptation to witness the psychic maestro in the flesh was too great. I’ve seen his programme. He’s hugely popular, as camp as Christmas, endearing, respectful and funny. He starts and ends his show with the hope that he can ‘draw the two worlds just a little closer together’.
What can I say about him that won’t land me with a solicitor’s letter? I chatted to a few people before the show – 99% of them women. There was a fair bit of merchandising on offer – some angel jewellery, cds, DVDs, that sort of thing. The atmosphere was one of revered expectation. Solidarity. A kind of special club of believers. It was nice.
The women I spoke longest to – a mum and her adult daughter – were hoping that the daughter’s recently still-born baby was going to ‘come through’. I could feel my friendly smile solidify into a cringe. A still-born baby, who wouldn’t have had the power of language even if it had lived, was somehow going to contact its mother and reassure her that it was fine over there on the other side with all the kittens and puppies and grannies? (Because dead babies always do that, don’t they? They don’t ever say I’m glad I’m dead, you would have been a monstrous parent and this world is a miserable shithole). The bereft woman’s grief was tangible, her hope was bordering on desperate, and I felt terrible for her.
Colin’s show was really very, very good. He is very impressive. He ‘connected’ again and again and each and every one of the people he spoke to was convinced they had heard from a dead person (they all chose themselves, joining the random dots, from the fishing and generalist half-questions he threw around; he didn’t actually point to someone directly and say Granddad’s here for you). The messages were clear, the details impressively random and accurate. People laughed and cried, cheered and applauded. My new friends didn’t get the message they wanted, but a young couple in front of me did. They had been sniffing throughout the show, holding hands and dabbing away tears. Eventually Colin waved a vague finger in their direction, and said that there was a young energy coming through, very young. At which point the woman started crying properly. Is it you, my love? Colin asked, all frowns and soft voice. Oh, I wondered, who could possibly have died to make this young couple so distraught? I wonder…could it be their baby? Any possible chance of that? Lo and behold, Colin rightly identified their loss as having been of the new born baby kind, and proceeded to tell them all sorts of excellent, comforting stuff. But the baby’s little finger, curled around the dad’s, as it passed over to the other side? That was the clincher. Brilliant drama. Everyone was in tears, me included.
After Colin I went to see a local psychic. She was lovely. I climbed the stairs to her attic flat and was impressed by the litter, the full ashtrays, the faint smell of damp and cheese. She said she would read my tarot cards first, and then move onto contacting my spirits. Great, let’s do it, I enthused, bring it on. We recorded it all, which was brave of her.
First of all, the tarot showed that I had a dark, heavy energy around me. Then the cards revealed my partner and all that was going on for him. He has had a loss, she told me, a deep loss, he is tired, he is quiet and shy, but he is a king inside. I shuffled and smiled but had to put her right. My partner is a she, I said. A she, not a he. Ah! came the reply, quick as a flash, then her energy is very male! I had to laugh. Brilliant.
Then the bit I was waiting for – talking to dead people. My psychic was sincere and sweet. There was a man in a suit, a dark suit, who was there for me. Could have been my dad. He was there with a woman he didn’t get on with. Could have been my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother was holding a fish, this was very important to her, did it mean anything to me? No. My dad felt quite ill before he died, my psychic said. Yes he did, I replied, he really did. Really pretty bloody awful, in fact. The vibrations, the energy, the spirit – she explained all this and more, and did so for a full hour. Until she really lost the plot. Had I ever lived in a house with lots of rugby players? Hahaha, no. Was I sure? Yes. Because there’s someone, a redheaded anorexic friend, trying to get through to me, who died of a crack overdose in the 70s (I’ve since used that line in many puerile jokes).
What a shame. I wanted to believe her, I really did. I would have loved to have said hello to my dad, my grandmother, my friend who did die (male, brown-haired, not anorexic, after a car accident). I would love to hear from all the dead people who have gone before me. How about Jesus? How about Mary? Mohammed? Buddha? The Aztecs? Wouldn’t that kind of clear up a few on-going questions?
No. The dead can’t speak to us. It’s a crying shame, but that’s the essence of what being dead is. We are gone. Cremated, buried, eaten by vultures, whatever – our bodies are done with and will never, ever take that same human form again. But here’s the incredible thing. We still carry on. We do. In cellular form, in genes, in chromosomes, in the eyes and smiles of our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren, in the atoms of the earth, the air, the water, in insects, animals, plants; we are dissolved, absorbed, recycled, transformed. We do continue. It’s impossible not to. And it’s incredible.
I see my cousin’s smile bursting through her children. They are not her, and she is not them, but she is there. It’s enough. I see my great-grandmother’s eyes twinkling in my aunt’s laughter. It’s enough. I see the tiny part of my mum’s body that I have kept, ash and dust, held in glass on my shelf. I will never speak to her again, but she is out there in the world and in here in my dreams. It’s enough.
We do not need psychics insulting our grief. We do not need faith, miracles or angels or voices from beyond to know that this life is astonishing. The relationship we have with those who have died is our own rare treasure. It’s real, passionate and ever changing. This life is incredible. It’s enough.