The Psychic on the Hill

(1700 words)

“What does he do all day, d’you think?” Alison said, standing at our bedroom window, looking out across the valley and up at the dilapidated farmhouse on the hill on the far side.
I swivelled my chair around at my writing desk. “Didn’t you hear? Jenny says he’s a clairvoyant, he does readings over the phone for people.”
Alison looked in the mirror, restlessly brushing her long chestnut-brown hair. “What? How does that work, then?”
“I don’t know how he does it, but they do tarot readings and stuff over the phone, don’t they?”
“Hmm. That’s interesting. What, you mean people pay for it, without him seeing them?”
“That’s what Jenny says. She cleans for him on Fridays, didn’t you know? Says he seems a nice bloke, keeps himself to himself. ‘Very spiritual,’ that’s what she says. D’you think he’d give me a message from Mum?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe. Why don’t you give him a call?”
In slow motion, her long, slim fingers replaced her hairbrush on the dressing table. “OK, perhaps I will.”
So that’s how it started. Seems Roger, as he was called, didn’t want to do face-to-face stuff, he would only work over the phone. That seemed odd to me. But I’d asked around and he was by no means alone. The internet was full of people claiming to contact the dead over the phone for you, and it wasn’t cheap either.
But now Alison would phone him at least once a week, for advice from her mother, grandmother and other deceased relatives and friends.
She seemed to be shelling out money left, right and centre on her credit cards but I had to admit she seemed much happier nowadays, so in that respect, it was worth every penny. She hadn’t been the easiest woman to live with this past year, since her mother passed away.
“It’s all a big fraud,” laughed Jonathan, one of my drinking buddies at the pub, as he returned to our table with a tray of pints of beer. He clumsily handed them around, spilling beer to form a growing puddle.
“When you die, you die, that’s the end!” said Frank, my next-door-but-one neighbour. He took a large gulp of beer, leaving a moustache of froth on his upper lip. He wiped it off with the back of his hand, then wiped his hand on his trousers.
“What about God, Jesus, er, all that Bible stuff?” asked Richard, an accountant and captain of the pool team.
“Invented by man,” said Frank, letting out a large cheese-and-onion belch that I could smell from the other side of the table. “Look, it’s like ancient man couldn’t explain stuff – thunder, lightning, eclipses, that kinda thing, so they had to invent a supernatural reason.”
Paul, a postman and general know-it-all, chimed in. “Every country’s got a religion and all those religions say you live on. In Heaven or whatever. Stands to reason they can’t all be wrong!”
Frank laughed. “Every country’s got tales of ‘little people’ – goblins, elves, dragons, mermaids – you name it. ‘Stands to reason they can’t all be wrong,’” he said in an affected voice, mimicking Paul.
“Who can’t be wrong?” asked Edna, the landlady, reaching across to pick up some empty glasses and exposing two huge pink orbs struggling to remain in her low-cut T-shirt.
“Oh, never mind,” said Frank. He guffawed. “You don’t get many of those to the pound,” nodding his head in the direction of Edna’s breasts.
“Oh, I do like a man with originality,” laughed Edna, good-humouredly.
When she’d gone, Paul said, “Well, there’s one way to find out whether Roger’s genuine or not isn’t there?”
“What’s that?” I asked. “Phone him for a reading, you mean?”
“No, I mean, one of us can go up and see him in person!”
I rang the bell apprehensively, glancing around at the stained, curtained windows, and then down at the lush green fields in the valley. Well, I could understand why Roger wouldn’t want people coming around to such a dump!
There was no sound from within. I felt the urge to flee but I’d drawn the short straw. I couldn’t show my face again without getting some kind of result, so I rang again. Nothing. All was silent, save for a chill breeze rattling around the ramshackle wooden porch. I rang a third time then took several paces back and looked at the curtained windows. Nothing moved.
I walked around the extensive buildings, tracing my fingers over the ivy-covered brickwork, noticing the occasional conspicuously-clean window, the handiwork of Jenny, no doubt. I came to a rough driveway, all broken tarmac and potholes. But no sign of a car. There was a lean-to garage with filthy cream panelling but it was locked and there were no windows. A little further on was a green wooden door. It looked serviceable. I went to knock but instead, on impulse, turned the handle and it opened! Inside, there was a curious smell, perhaps resembling the odour of an Egyptian tomb opened for the first time in a thousand years. “Hello,” I called. “Hello!” The only response came from a grandfather clock, ticking at the foot of a staircase in a wood-panelled hallway. All quiet, no one at home.
I headed up the stairs, noticing the remnants of a paisley pattern on the ancient worn carpet, itself of an indeterminate pinky-grey colour. I peered into the bedrooms. There were six, five of them shrouded with white cloths. The sixth was obviously the one Roger used, and quite neat and clean too, surprisingly. Obviously, the money spent on Jenny’s elbow grease was paying off. Then through a side door in the bedroom, I spotted some office equipment. I stood and listened. All was deathly quiet. I walked through to find a small switchboard with a computer connected to it, sitting on the green leather of a large mahogany desk. By a phone was a pack of cards, face down. A single card, likewise face down, sat alone, right in the centre of the desk. Beyond was a bay window, gazing out over the valley, and our house clearly visible in the mid-distance. I noticed Allie’s knickers and bras visible on a washing line at the back.
The phone rang, making me jump. An answerphone kicked in and I heard a woman speaking with a Welsh accent, asking if Roger would be available at ten o’clock the following night to give a reading. Suddenly, the connected computer sprang into life and I stood there with my jaw heading progressively towards the floor. A map of Britain appeared, then it zoomed in on a county, then a town, then a street, and finally a house. A column on the right gave data about the house price, its occupants, their ages, occupations, income, and photographs of them too. There were Facebook and DVLA sub-screens giving information about Facebook friends, groups and interests, the date of manufacture of their car, the tax status and renewal date and the date the next MOT was due. And that was for starters! I didn’t know what program he was running but I guessed it didn’t come cheap or whether it was even legal for the public to see. I half-expected it to say what they’d eaten for breakfast that morning!
The call ended and the screen went blank. Wow, well would I have a story to tell my friends!
I picked up the cards and flicked through them. It was a tarot deck, I recognised the suits – cups, rods, swords and pentacles – and some of the trumps – The Devil, The Hanged Man, and Death. I wondered why he bothered. I tapped them back into a neat deck and put them to one side. And what of the single card? I flipped it over. Hah! What else could it have been but the only unnumbered card – a man resplendent in a black tunic with a bold floral design, carrying a stave with a tied kerchief at one end, accompanied by a small white dog, and about to step off a cliff whilst gazing skywards in innocence – The Fool.
My heart missed a beat and I whirled around, startled.
Roger gave a disarming smile and sat down in an armchair. “Take a seat.” He gestured towards a burgundy leather sofa. “I was in MI6. Old habits die hard. I don’t need any of it, really, but … sometimes the er, connection is weak and a few salient facts can help reassure the client.”
“It’s hardly ethical though, is it?”
“Ethical, what’s that? One person’s view versus another’s. Look, there’s cold reading, hot reading and mediumship … I use ‘em all to give accurate readings. Whether the info comes from Spirit or MI6, what does it matter? Anyway, MI6’s data stops with the living! Look, I’ll do a reading for you, right now. He got up and sat at the desk shuffling the tarot pack. Just you, me, the cards and any spirit friends who care to pop in. If you’ve got time of course?”
Well, I’d learned something very interesting from Roger. The DVLA information was in the public domain. Just punch in a registration number on their website and get a big list of data about any car! I pushed my way through the crowded bar and the curtain of beer aroma towards my buddies.
“Here he comes, the man with all the answers!” laughed Frank.
I sat down and reached out for a pint of beer waiting for me.
“What did you get?” asked Paul. “Did you see Roger?”
“Yes, I saw Roger. Well, my mum visits me and makes the lights flicker, my grandfather thinks Allie and I should be starting a family and my granny says I should ask my sister-in-law for her ring back, she wants Allie to have it.”
“Hardly proof of life after death! Didn’t you get any hard evidence?” asked Frank.
“Yes, your MOT was due a fortnight ago and your car tax is six weeks overdue!”
He almost choked on his beer.

Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories

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