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The Other Side
Gladys was late. But not too late.
Issue #20, 29 January 2023
The Other Side
Gladys was almost too late for the séance. Well, no, not ‘almost’. She was late. It had already begun when she arrived. The room was darkened, lit only by the small candles in the centre of the table. Gladys moved quietly into the shadows at the back so as not to disturb matters.
The medium, Mrs Horatio Bottomley, was a stocky woman in her fifties, clothed in a voluminous flowery dress covered with lace and postively dripping with beads. She sat at the head of the table, clasping hands with those on either side of her. Her eyes were closed, and she was calling on the spirit world in a tremulous voice.
The woman was a fraud, of course. Gladys knew that. They were all frauds. She ought to know, she had visited enough of them, always hoping to find someone with a true talent, the talent it took to really communicate with the spirit world, to speak to those long dead and bring back their thoughts to those still living. If only it were possible to talk again to her beloved father, to say how sorry she was for what had happened. That was what drove Gladys to keep coming to these events.
“Oh hear me, White Feather of the Blackfoot tribe!” called Mrs Bottomley.
Gladys had to supress a laugh. Spiritualists like this one always seemed to have a ‘spirit guide’ who was either a native American or from the Far East somewhere. Chinese guides with ludicrous names like ‘How Long Chee’ were becoming popular.
The table shook and a loud ‘crack’ sounded. Gladys was prepared to bet that beneath her arms in those loose sleeves Mrs Bottomley had hooks extending under the table. And between her knees, a metal tin or some such arrangement which let out an alarming noise when squeezed. Some of these people were more convincing than others, though. Mrs Bottomley wasn’t the worst that Gladys had encountered.
The medium’s voice shifted down a register. “Me here. Who want pow-wow with White Feather?” Gladys did laugh out loud then, and only barely managed to turn it into something like a cough at the last minute.
Mrs Bottomley’s eyes fluttered open and she turned toward the sound with an annoyed expression. “Silence, please,” she said crossly in her normal voice. Gladys stepped a little further back into the shadows.
The medium closed her eyes again and went on to speak to her guide. “It is I, Matilda Bottomley, White Feather. We have spoken before.”
“Hum. Speak on,” she answered herself in a deep voice.
“We have those present here who wish to speak with their loved ones on the Other Side. Can you help us, White Feather?”
“Yes. Who seeks?” Really, Gladys thought, this woman was quite good as frauds went. Entertaining, at least, which was more than you could say for some of them.
“Mr Frank Jenkins is here and seeks to speak to his beloved wife Dora. Is she there?”
“Yes, she here.”
Mrs Bottomley’s voice shifted again, now to a high and reedy register, as she impersonated ‘Dora’, apparently to Frank’s complete and tear-filled satisfaction. Gladys didn’t pay much attention to the words spoken, but looked hard at the medium’s face as she spoke in the character of the dead woman. Either she was a great actress or there was a sense of some real empathy there. While the words she spoke were invented, perhaps she was channelling some real emotion from the spirit she impersonated? Gladys felt a flicker of hope.
There was something different about this woman, Gladys thought. It was barely there, mostly covered up by flim-flam and misdirection, but it was there nonetheless. Just the faintest hint of a real talent.
Can that be how it works? Gladys wondered. You start with a faint but genuine sense of someone being present alongside you when you are alone. A tentative feeling that someone dead has returned to give you reassurance. But then, sparked by the huge popular enthusiasm for spirituality and the prospect of making money, you spin up that genuine feeling into something more than it is. You bolster it with all sorts of tricks. You magnify that ‘still small voice’ into a crude bellow as though using a megaphone. Perhaps you manage to convince yourself that you have contacted ‘White Feather’ or someone like him in order to protect yourself from the awful fear of actually being in contact with the ghostly multitudes — with the ‘numberless infinities of dead’, as Donne had put it.
Dora had left now and Mrs Bottomley was moving on. She was going through a routine of having lost contact with her spirit guide and having to seek him again. It all spun out the length of the séance and gave extra value for money, Gladys supposed.
‘White Feather’ returned at last, however, to the relief of those around the table though not to Gladys.
A weeping elderly woman called Mrs Keithley asked, between sobs, to speak to her son, who had died in the recent conflict in the Crimea. In a gruff, soldierly voice, Mrs Bottomley passed on some anodyne expressions of love.
One of the other guests at the table was an elderly man with a full head of silver hair. He looked up hopefully as Mrs Bottomley opened her eyes again and scanned the table. The medium caught his gaze and nodded slightly.
Now, then, Gladys thought. She could at least try. Silently, she moved around the table, keeping to the shadows, until she stood behind the medium.
Mrs Bottomley was speaking once more. “Oh White Feather, hear me! Colonel Masterton is here. He wishes fervently to speak with his only child, who died in a sad accident a few years ago. I… oh!”
Gladys had stepped forward and placed her hands on the medium’s shoulders from behind. A sudden violent shiver ran through the woman, and her voice ceased abruptly.
Gazing across the table into the old man’s sad eyes, Gladys spoke for the first time that night, and to her joy, the medium’s mouth now repeated her words.
“Yes, father,” Gladys said. “I am here.”
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About This Story
This was written in 2013 based on a flash-fiction prompt I’ve now completely forgotten. I don’t think it was ever accepted for publication anywhere. There’s not much else to say about it, it speaks for itself, really.
See you next month!