Big Man (Part 1)
There was the low murmur of a hundred conversations as we entered the half-lit theatre.
For a while we stumbled about like blind people, long enough for me to hope that we would never find our seats – long enough to hope that this was all a mistake, that Angela had never actually booked the seats in the first place, and we could just go home.
'Ah,' she said. 'Row H.'
A middle-aged couple, perhaps a few years older than us, stood up and straightened themselves so that we could squeeze past.
Angela frowned. 'This is definitely them, right?'
'H-11 and H-12,' I said. 'Yep.'
As we sat down, I eyed up the couple and wondered if the man was in the same boat as me:
He looked reasonably normal - slightly rough, slightly earthy, a plumber or a builder perhaps, definitely some sort of trade - he certainly didn't look the sort to believe in any of this nonsense.
As he bent down to pull a drink out of his bag, we exchanged the briefest of glances.
But it was enough.
I sat back, a little more relaxed.
I wasn't alone here.
I looked into the dark and saw the crowns of other men's heads dotted around the theatre.
How many of them were like me: Dragged along. Embarrassed. Dutiful.
Angela looked into the dark too.
‘Douglas?’ she said, pointing. 'That's Janet, isn't it.'
'She said she was coming.'
'Well you can debrief afterwards then, or whatever it is you do at these things.'
'I better say hi.'
She stood up.
'Angela, don't,' I tugged at her sleeve, 'it'll start in a second.'
'Janet,' she called out.
And then they were both standing.
I squirmed a little as they had a loud conversation over the heads of several rows' worth of people. And then before long they were pointing out other friends of theirs around the theatre and trying to catch their eye - all in an attempt, as I saw it, not to actually have a meaningful conversation, but to just draw attention to themselves.
Look at us, they seemed to be articulating with their every word and gesture, we exist.
'You're just a sceptic,' Angela had told me many times.
'You're saying it like it's some sort of disease. Like I'm a lepor or something. Being sceptical is a good thing. It means you're using your brain.'
'I don't see how being closed-minded is using your brain.'
The first time she had gone to one of these things, she had kept it a secret.
I'd only found out because at her aunt’s 80th, beneath an expensive marquet and amidst a rolling cast of in-laws, her mother had told me how great it was that Angela had contacted her father in the spirit world.
Angela had been standing next to me at the time. Her face had gone red. Her mother had frowned in confusion as to why the conversation had stopped.
On the journey home, I went for her. I said the words 'spirit world' a lot. Angela cried. I thought about this a bit and concluded that although it was nonsense, it was nonsense about her father, and so I ought to lay off.
She gave me silence for a few days after that, and when she did finally speak to me again, she told me that she had kept schtum because she was worried I would judge her. That she knew what I was like.
I was nice about it then, I showed I understood – even if I didn’t – and that was all it took: I gave her an inch, she took a mile.
Before long, she and her friends were going to see various psychics at least twice a week.
For a while they saw a transsexual called Bex who charged them a tenner each to contact the dead in her living room.
They fell out with Bex - some comment taken the wrong way - so they tried other psychics. Some were decent, some not so decent, some embarrassing. None as good as Bex.
Then came the rumours of a man who did readings in the local church.
He was precise, apparently. Very precise.
He gave names. Ages. Dates. Postcodes. Spot-on details, time and time again.
Angela would come home telling me what this man knew about her father. Things that no one could have known.
Then it was her grandparents, her aunt, her childhood friend who had died of a drug overdose, her colleague whose jaw had been eaten away by cancer before it took the rest of her (she barely knew the woman as far as I knew).
She encouraged me to come, of course. I could reach my own people in the spirit world, she said. It might help.
It was around about that time that she started to become cocky. She would talk about these things like she was an expert. She would use empty words - energy, stillness, transference, vessel - like they had weight. And everything that happened - every bump and creak in the house, every rustle in the wind, every dapple of light, every smudge on the mirror, every bit of even slightly fortuitous timing - was a sign. Signs which only she had the ability to interpret and to which I was impotently, miserably blind.
Somehow, things got even worse.
One evening I came back from work to find her sitting hunched in the old armchair in the living room, all the lights off, just staring into space.
I stopped. Said, 'Honey?'
She said nothing.
I flicked a light switch.
She didn't like that.
She explained later that she was trying to attune herself to the house, to feel its memories. A middle-aged quantity surveyor flicking a light on and off only interfered with the process, apparently.
Another time, I was out in the back garden on my hands and knees, wrenching weeds from the soil, when I heard a scream. Afterwards, she told me that she'd been in the kitchen and had seen, through the window, at the far end of the garden, a little boy, dressed in a tweed jacket and shorts, just standing there. Had I seen him, she wanted to know.
She didn't believe me when I said I hadn't.
When autumn rolled around and the trees shed their leaves - that all meant something as well of course - she decided to stage a party at our house. She had booked the man from the church. Twenty or so of her friends were coming. There would be a big spread: quiches, crisps, sausage rolls, pizza, salad. There would be Prosecco. And the man would stand in the middle of our living room, contacting the dead.
I left the house for the evening.
On the way out, I was asked by one of Angela's friends if I thought they were witches. I didn't laugh.
When I slunk back in in the early hours, the house was at peace again.
I climbed the stairs and found Angela asleep in bed.
I slipped in beside her and watched her silent body.
In the morning she screamed at me. How could I have abandoned her? How could I have missed it? How could I keep knocking it when I wasn't even willing to try it? How could I be so closed-minded?
Still, even then, I resisted.
The man from the church moved on from our neck of the woods, and Angela was on the lookout again for the next good thing.
She didn't have to wait long.
'Stand up,' she was saying.
I pretended I couldn't hear her.
'Douglas, stand up.'
I looked up slowly and gave her my unimpressed face.
One of her friends had spotted me, and of course a quick-glimpsed sighting wasn't enough. No. I had to get up, present myself, acknowledge my presence at this bloody thing and in so doing admit defeat not just to my wife but to all of her friends as well: I was now a believer, of course. I had been wrong all along. Now I saw the light.
I knew exactly what she was going to say next, but that didn't mean the words lost their effectiveness. ‘Never mind, girlies,’ she announced, ‘he's being shy. Wants to keep a low profile.'
I heard their collective Aww of disappointment.
'I know,' Angela said. 'Not very sociable. Is it.'
When she finally sat down, she pressed her mouth to my ear: 'Now that was rude, wasn't it. If he picks you, you're going to have to speak up, you realise. No use trying to hide.'
I didn't bother uttering my reply into her ear. I just said it to myself: 'I came, didn't I. Surely that's enough.'
But I was about to see that it wasn't enough.
Not even close.
A confession: as I sat there squirming beside my wife, wondering what I was doing there, feeling the gaze of the man – the plumber or whatever he was – a few seats down, it was not without a certain secret excitement.
For wasn't it just a tiny bit thrilling, after all, to see this thing in the flesh? To be able to poo-poo it not just from the detached safety of my armchair, but to go, stare it in the face, allow it to expose itself before me, and thus poo-poo it with a whole new confidence and relish. Finally Angela would be made to cease with 'how can you knock it if you haven't even tried it?' and ‘If you could only see what this man can do.’ And wouldn't watching the thing at least hold some sociological or even artistic interest? I could study the technique of it, study how the man worked the room, how he ran his twisted game, and I could see - with the x-ray vision that my wife and her friends so sorely lacked - through the artifice of it all, see through to the cold, shameful heart of it.
What I was most curious about, though, as the half-light dimmed to a quarter light and the theatre hushed and the curtains rose and Angela squeezed my arm, was the man himself.
What, after all, did a self-proclaimed psychic look like?
If you claimed to be able to break through the barriers of metaphysics, you had to look the part, surely.
My brain's first thought, at its lazy, stereotyping best, was that he'd look like a magician. Tall and rangy, with big hands, big old-fashioned collar, a little goatee; a faint air of Butlins tackiness.
If not that, then at least surely he’d have to be past a certain age, for to pass off the claim that you could contact the dead required an air of wisdom, of worldliness, did it not?
Perhaps he would have a wizard’s long, white beard, or he’d have the look of a salesman about him – pinstripe suit, cocky walk, slicked-back hair – or he’d be the picture of a pastor, avuncular, big jowls, booming voice.
But when the man strolled onto the stage, he was none of those things.
He looked shabby, like he smoked roll-ups and sat on bar stools all day. He was remarkably thin - Jesus in-his-last-hours thin - and he slipped like a coat hanger into a grubby Lacoste polo shirt, frayed jeans, and trainers that looked like they had been nibbled at by dogs. His hair and beard were fox-red. Tattoos snaked up one arm. A black bud of a microphone hovered around his cheek. I guessed he was in his late twenties.
All in all, he looked like a man who had definitely taken Class A drugs and who – if I was a betting man – I would say had probably been to prison.
There was something compellingly unconventional about it, I supposed.
He put his hands in his pockets. Strolled to the front of the stage, where there stood a stool with a pint glass filled with water on it.
‘Hi,’ he said.
There were a few laughs at the low-key greeting.
He bent to take a swig from his water.
A few more laughs.
It was hard to tell if he was a master of the suspenseful pause, or just a bit awkward.
‘So how many of you have been to this sort of thing before then?' Most hands went up. 'Well that's good. Won't have to explain what dead people are. Always helps.'
Was that a - a kind of joke?
'Right,' Charlie took another swig of water, ‘a few bits of housekeeping.’
This time when he took a swig of water, he acknowledged it. 'Word of advice: if you want to contact the spirit world, always helps to be hydrated.'
I felt like I was taking this more seriously than he was.
'Nicotine helps too.' He fingered a vape out of his pocket and sucked on it. Ribbons of vapour curled round his head. ‘Hope you don’t mind about the vaping. Well, I say ‘hope’. You ain’t really got a choice.’
He pulled a faux-embarrassed face, appealing to some imaginary crony in the audience – a stand-up comedy technique that I had seen many times before. This and that were not so dissimilar, I supposed, and given that the spirits of the dead were bound to be left very much undisturbed tonight, his ability to win the crowd over and put on a show had to be central to the illusion.
'So yeah, housekeeping,’ Charlie went on. ‘First thing I’ll say is this. If a spirit communicates something to me, and I tell you what they’ve said … and you then turn round and say, ‘Nah, Charlie, you’ve got that wrong there mate,’ then well … I’m kicking you out.’ He looked at his imaginary crony again. Waited a beat. ‘Nah, I’m joking with ya, I’m joking. I’m joking because I won’t get anything wrong tonight.’ This time his face went still, deadpan. The audience laughed, and Angela, after a moment’s lag, laughed with them.
‘Anyway, the way I work is direct. I go straight to the energy in the room. No messing about. Because you see, you lot, each of you …’ He broke himself off. Yawned. Whether it was a theatrical yawn or a genuine one, I couldn’t tell. ‘You know what,’ he spoke sleepily, ‘I can’t even be bothered to explain my methods this time. You know what the deal is, don’t you. Shall we just get down to it?’
There was a faintly miserable call of ‘Yes’ from the audience.
Charlie grimaced. ‘Cor, you lot would be shite in a battle, wouldn’t you. Need a bit of fire in you. Come on, let’s try again. Shall we get down to it?’
This time – and I couldn’t know it for sure – but it felt like I was the only person in the whole theatre who didn’t join in with the chorus of ‘Yes’.