Photo credit: Travis McBride
He was standing behind me, apparently, the dead man. A tall fella with a seafaring background. Merchant Navy. In life, he enjoyed gardening and had a love of roast lamb. Baxter: his name. Or Baker. Or Biggs.
Can anyone understand this?
I waited for the woman to the right of me to snap him up, like she’d claimed all the dead that evening. She sitting forward in her chair, coiled like a track-suited snake. I could see she was ready to throw her hand up in the air. She had a set to her jaw and a mean, resolute mouth.
This gentleman hailed from the south and was good with mechanical things.
Can anyone understand this?
The psychic was looking straight at me. She had the air of an auctioneer, she stood with her hand raised above her lectern, her hand almost grasping an imaginary gavel. A good few spirits were coming through and she wasn’t hanging about.
Last chance. Mr. Baxter Baker Biggs going once, going twice.
I shook my head, apologetically. The spirit-hogging snake to the side of me smirked.
The psychic moved deftly on to the next lot and I felt oddly relieved.
I had taken my seat at the spiritualist meeting earlier that evening believing that I’d be delighted to hear from any one of the rake of dead people I knew — a best friend, minor and major relatives, including a recently deceased father, casual acquaintances. Then there were all the dead friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances of all the people I knew. My dead list could run into thousands.
I wasn’t fussy; I just wanted a message, preferably profound and life-changing.
But when the spotlight of the psychic’s gaze fell on me, I wasn’t so sure.
As I drove home I wracked my brains. Was it possible I knew Mr. Baxter Baker Biggs after all? I had more faith in the psychic’s ability to converse with the legions of the dead than in my own notoriously bad memory.
I imagined Mr. Baxter Baker Biggs standing, desolate and unclaimed, alone in the dark, amongst stacked chairs, a cooling tea urn, and neat piles of leaflets. I wondered if he was thinking of the sea, or of gardening, or of roast lamb. I resolved to go back the following week. Maybe I didn’t know him, but he had a message from someone else, one of my feckless dead who couldn’t be bothered to talk to me directly. Or still had the hump with me in the afterlife. That would be feasible. Besides, next week was open mic at the Spiritualist meeting. The showman in me reared up. I imagined myself working the room, delivering messages of comfort, astoundingly accurate dates, incontrovertible evidence of the existence of the afterlife. There would be magazine interviews, television appearances, celebrity readings, merchandise... Perhaps in a week I would be gifted with psychic insight? Apparently, all I had to do was open my mind. Hadn’t I been raised in a family where the dead were never far away?
Besides, next week was open mic at the Spiritualist meeting.
My mother regularly saw a benign white-haired lady ghost leaning over my pram in the hallway. Neighbors confirmed she was the previous occupant coming back to make sure all was in order. I would grow up and leave the house one day, but White-Haired Lady Ghost would stay forever. I imagined her: hazy, wavering, in soft-focus, as if through cataracts. Standing in the same place. After years of living with our family her expression now showed a mild air of concern, like she’d mislaid her handbag or lost a train ticket. White-Haired Lady Ghost could be roused by wild play, or bare-faced lies, or savage arguments. She probably would have preferred another nice spinster like herself living in the house rather than all of us. But she never complained, for White-Haired Lady Ghost was at the drifting, reticent, self-effacing end of the haunting spectrum. Presumably because she was English. She was the type of spirit who could dwindle to no more than a patch of cool air, or a creak on the stairs, or the slight whiff of lavender. As a child, I understood the Irish dead to be different. They were garrulous and didn’t hold back on coming forward. They heckled the living, to designate ownership of their good coat, shoes, trousers, or to complain about the rats in the barn (as big as fecking sheep). They enjoyed tricking the living. You’d meet them when you were out and about and talk to them, not knowing they were dead until you got home and someone set you right. They loved sticking their oar in and admonishing the lazy, the careless, and the greedy. But they would never tell you where the treasure was hidden, who did the deed, or what it’s really like to cross over.
As a child, I would look for the dead everywhere, especially in the places they were known to hang out, at the tops of stairwells and beside casement windows, empty chairs and quiet lawns. But I never once saw one. Otherwise I was taken to any number of burials, and watched people and pets die with a kind of workaday horror. For several weeks during one school holiday my mother took me to visit her terminally ill friend. To my mother’s credit she didn’t shield me from this reality because she didn’t deem it disturbing, only a sad fact of life. The focus was on the dying woman, an individual with a good, productive life behind her, who should, by rights, have had many more years before her. My mother answered all my questions. Many years later, as my own father died, I knew what to expect: the process, the steps involved. But I still found myself asking questions, even if I already knew the answers.
My childhood experiences brought me into contact with a practical, clear-eyed attitude toward the process of physical death, offset by the existence of an imaginative, chaotic, free-range afterlife. I should have been a serene expert in all things death, but by the age of eight, my own mortality was crushing me. Like all small children, I had that realization — I would be dying too
. One day, some day, in a way that would probably not be of my own choosing. I might be unable to predict it, reroute it, postpone it. The Grim Reaper would be there at my side, tapping his foot bones, pointing at his fob watch, rolling up the sleeves of his robe. I appealed at length to any celestial being that would listen. Not, oddly, to stop me from dying, but to answer one little question.
What comes next?
Hearing no reply, I cobbled together my own theory. I wasn’t scared about where I was before I was born, so why be scared about where I’m going after I die? It struck me then as it strikes me now. It’s most likely all about trust. Letting the universe get on with the whole natural order of things. Not dabbling.
Even so, as I grew, I dabbled. With Ouija boards and clairvoyants, wanting and dreading something happening
in equal measure. I studied psychics from history; they glared, gazed or squinted out from paintings, photographs and newspaper cuttings. They struck poses and occasionally favored unusual outfits. They were gifted, charismatic, revolutionary, or misunderstood. They were fakes and charlatans and mad people. They had theatrical props — ectoplasm, tapping tables, a command of previously unlearnt languages. They were capable of lifting the veil between worlds and restoring the dead to the living — mediating between those who have gone before and those yet to go.
Take a wander back in time; we have always been fascinated by our dead and where they go. We hardly give them a chance to rest in peace before we are poking and summoning, nosing and searching. What’s it like over there? Do they miss us? What are the winning numbers? The ghost business is still big business and someone somewhere will make money from it. Some of their clients are convinced, some skeptical, some are just reeling from loss. My experience of this world ranges from twisted theatrical entertainment to a quiet conversation about what it means to love and lose someone. I’ve met practitioners who believe in what they do and are motivated by a sense of purpose and kindness. There are others who’ll read you as guardedly as a sticky doctor’s surgery magazine.
For me, at the root of all this dead-bothering, lies one thing. Not the seething fear of the unknown or a bitter existential dread, but the mundane human need to belong. I think about Mr. Baxter Baker Biggs standing in an empty hall, watching the punters file in and out, searching for a face he recognizes. We’re made to want to belong, to a person, a place, a group, a time. Embrace it or fight against it— it’s still there. The drive, the ache for familiarity and connection.
And death doesn’t change this. Living or dead, the unclaimed seem as forlorn as the contents of a lost property box. Perhaps it’s this feeling that makes me want to go back. To take a seat next to the track-suited snake, wait for the psychic to raise her imaginary gavel, and then fling my hand into the air. If Mr. Baxter Baker Biggs is still at large in the great forever, I have a corner, a lawn, and an empty chair.
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is an award-winning author with a PhD in creative writing from St. Mary’s University in London. She grew up as part of a large family from Ireland’s County Mayo and now lives in London with her daughter. Her first book, Himself
, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards. Mr. Flood's Last Resort
is her most recent book.