I have fallen behind badly on the write-a-short-story-a-week-52-short-stories-can’t-be-all-bad project. More tenant trouble. But there is light at the end of that particular tunnel and I am again struggling with fiercer and more important battles. I am hoping to go back to the 52 story project with a Sunday/Monday deadline. We shall see.
This week’s story is based on an event following the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, noted at the time of his death as much for his Spiritualist beliefs as he was for Sherlock Holmes. Five days after he died a memorial was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London in which believers expected Conan Doyle to appear. At least six thousand people attended and many accounts exist of the proceedings. It took a long time for the medium to say the words “He is here…” and I’ve always felt the time lag suspect and strange that the message was for his elder daughter that he had done so much to reject.
For far better descriptions of what it might be like to be a medium I recommend Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. Masterful and terrifying.
I used an Irish turn of phrase in the lead because Conan Doyle himself came from Irish Catholic stock, although he certainly was not (when I did my degree) celebrated among the Irish/ Anglo Irish writing canon.
The Empty Chair
You’d think death would put manners on them. But no. When you start it’s like a small room with everyone trying to get your attention, jumping up and down, waving their hands, shouting, calling each other names. Sometimes you can’t hear for the noise. It makes you want to cover your ears, not that it would do any good. You learn to carry on.
He’s introducing me.
A spirit sensitive, he says. That’s for certain. A street sweeper is hovering somewhere near my left eyebrow, demanding his share of the time. I try to wave him away. He comes back on the other side. See it as a gift my mother said. It’s made me a living. Hard enough, yes, but easier than scrubbing floors.
Tonight an experiment never before tried. You’d think he was serving up a sideshow at a fun fair. All my working life I’ve tried to stay away from the fakes. Keep away from the tricks, be honest, people trust you. You want that.
The last bit’s all right. Respected, Sir Arthur’s personal choice.
They sing another hymn and I move forward. In front of me rows and rows of white faces fading toward the back. Royal Albert Hall is full to the rafters, well wishers and scoffers alike. It is an opportunity for those of us who believe to show the truth. An opportunity for me as well. I would not be honest if I didn’t admit that, to be the first person through whom he speaks will be an honour that will not soon be forgotten.
The family is on the stage behind me. I can catch them from the corner of my eye. The widow in dove grey. With her are the two sons and the two daughters, only one of the daughters hers. You’d know there was a difference even if you didn’t. They keep a little apart from her. She has her eyes down. She’s from the first wife, named Mary, after his mother. She wanted to be singer, but the new wife didn’t like that. He left her a pittance, the fortune went to the others.
The widow sits to the left of an empty chair. On the chair is a piece of cardboard with his name on it. I can read the Conan Doyle from the corner of my eye. Cardboard. He was a good man. He did what he thought was right. Yes, a little foolish over the fairy business, but brave and truthful as he saw it. They gave him two full minutes of silence, not a sound in the house. You’d think they’d have put his name on brass engraved in best Copperplate hand. That would be more fitting.
Maybe Lady Doyle wrote it out herself. Maybe she thought it would summon him. She was young, a beauty. She gave him her youth. He was smitten. It’s hard to see the beauty in the matron. The corners of her mouth turn down. She waited ten years for him to marry her. That’s what it took the first wife to die. What kind of woman would do that? She has a will you’d give her that; you might obey too if she summoned you.
I start with the audience, the voices in your head are quieter once you begin and I’m listening among them for a soft Scottish burr. I don’t hear it. With the audience it’s the usual: a young man in Khaki, twenty four, with a message for his Uncle Fred. He knows its difficult times; he’s doing his best to help. A daughter and her father near the front. The father and the mother are together again. There is a sister there too. The street sweeper is hoovering, demanding his time, but there is no one here for him and he’s started to bang on my head.
Lady Doyle looks at me. Her head tilts just enough for me to see it. I shake my head ‘no’. The corners of her mouth push further down, her eyes black as jet. Does she blame me?
The woman killed almost twenty years ago by King’s horse at the Epsom Derby greets her friend, but some in the audience are growing restive. There are feet scrapings in the second row, a cough in the first tier. I wish the street sweeper would shut up. I take a breath and look around. No sign of Sir Arthur.
One of the sons said his father’s death was no more than if he had gone to Australia. If he only knew. Australia or whatever you want to call it, I wonder what’s delaying him. Maybe something on the other side. That happens. The first wife it is sometimes. They can be sitting around a table hands clasped, waiting for the dear departed with the soft cooing of love and what I hear is a row, voices crowding each other out with anger. You promised. No I didn’t. How could you? How could you? And of course you can’t tell the waiting family that. You move on, leave it. Try for something better next time. But I can’t do that here. Lady Doyle’s eyes feel like knives. The daughter from the first marriage catches that look. She looks at me, gives a little smile. She runs his Psychic Bookshop, she understands these things.
There is some grumbling by the spirits who have been left out, others are thanking me for me work, but the Scottish gentleman, dear, honest Arthur Conan Doyle is not among them.
A few people in the audience are leaving. Lady Conan Doyle is tapping her foot, both the sons are scowling.
The street sweeper is a few feet a front of me like a small grey cloud. I can hear his voice. He has an Irish accent. Come on now he says. Do what she wants and get it over with. No that’s not right. The faces in front of me weave and wave. My mouth is dry. I open it. “He’s here,” I say. The fun fair sideshow after all.
The Orchestra is tuning up. Lady Jean relaxes and smiles. I move over to her. He says, I lean over her and speak into her ear, tell Mary…. Lady Doyle looks startled, ….tell Mary that he’s sorry. Very sorry.
The music starts.