Effrosyni Moschoudi Interviews Peter John,
Author Of Dead Medium: Not Your Average Ghost Story
The Spirits Of Christmas
A Dead Medium
Featuring Barbara Smith
Madam Smith Of The Circle Of Sacred Seers
Barbara Smith dropped the four shopping bags onto the kitchen table and watched as the colour slowly returned to her fingers. Christmas was fast approaching and she had many more shopping trips to get through before she would have everything that she needed for that one solitary day of the year. It’s only one day, she thought. One day but it took half a year to prepare for it. There were lists to write, presents to buy, cards to post and sugary or fattening food to stock up with. It had always puzzled Barbara why people, and she included herself in this, spent the whole year checking how many calories are in this and how much saturated whatever is in that, but come Christmas they’re all out there buying goose fat by the jar full. The obvious reason was for the sake of tradition but Barbara thought it a rather poor excuse for watching your weight for twelve months only to put on two stone in two days. Every year she seriously considered serving up fresh salad and a low calorie pasta dish on the big day but every year she still ended up buying the same traditional fare, a turkey the size of a highland terrier, which just barely fitted into her oven, and a waist-high sack of potatoes. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a fat golden bird and all the trimmings. It was the same every year but this year something was fundamentally different; this was the first Christmas Barbara would be spending in the company of the dead.
It must have been about three months ago now, Barbara mused, it’s gone rather quickly in fact. Three months had passed since she had inherited the gift of sight from a woman who, in the space of one week, she had grown to respect after spending two decades thinking of her as a miserable, old crone. May Elizabeth Trump was the last person she would have ever thought she would miss but each time she thought of her she felt her eyes begin to well up. I had always ridiculed Margaret for being May’s one and only friend, Barbara thought. She had been right all along, Margaret saw May’s hidden capacity for compassion from day one, where all I saw was a grumpy old woman who would shout the odds at you should you ever step an inch out of line. That was all before she died of course. May’s death had been the making of her, it had shown her all the things she had been searching for her whole life. It was only after May’s spirit had announced itself to them that she’d realised just how wasted her life had been. All those dark creepy nights spent poking about in old houses or playing around with macabre picture cards, all in the belief that she had some kind of psychic power which would allow her to see past the grave. All those years of treating a draughty window as a cold spot or the sound of a scurrying mouse as the whispers of earth-bound souls. May was her first real spectral encounter and, after 68 years of envisioning the moment, it hadn’t been quite how she had imagined. Not that it really mattered in the end. Something had rubbed off on her and, whether it was a gift from May or just her own psychic ability finally kicking into gear, Barbara had started to see ghosts on a regular basis not long after. In fact, nowadays she saw more of the dead than she did of the living, especially as they had the knack of appearing at the most inconvenient moments. Once the word had got out that Barbara could see them, all the local spirits had descended on her with one hundred and one different requests. A lot of it was about contacting their surviving relatives or even ancestors, some of the dead folk had been around quite a while, but there were a few who just seemed to like the company of the living. There were three such spirits huddled by Barbara’s kitchen sink as she walked over to her kettle.
“What’s in the bags, Madam Smith?” Gerald asked as he pointed a bony finger towards the kitchen table. His voice was nasal and had a hollow, whistle-like quality that made him sound as if he were speaking through panpipes. Gerald had started to hang around Barbara about two months ago. He was 6 foot tall and painfully slim, by Barbara’s reckoning, and he wore in a two-piece black suit that draped off him as if he were no more than a coat hanger. Barbara had the suspicion that he had lost a lot of weight just before he’d died but he refused to confirm it. Gerald didn’t like talking about his death, something Barbara had very quickly discovered. He had a habit of suddenly walking off through the nearest wall whenever Barbara had broached the subject, which she found to be a very effective conversation stopper. Yes it was pretty rude behaviour, even for a dead man, but Barbara often used it to her own advantage. Gerald always spoke in short blunt sentences and his tone was generally sober even with the whistle. He tended to question everything but he never seemed to actually listen to the answers people gave him. Barbara could very quickly lose her patience with him, which was usually when she would start asking him about his death knowing that it would compel him to leave.
“What business is it of yours?” Barbara replied with a sharp tone, as she shook the kettle to check if it contained enough water and then switched it on.
“There’s no need to get defensive, Madam Smith,” Brian said through his semi-permanent smile, “he was just asking.” Brian had started to darken her door a couple of weeks before Gerald had appeared. The two ghosts were like chalk and cheese in both appearance and personality. Brian was no more than 5 foot tall and had a wide, circular stomach. His multi-coloured sweater with its thick vertical stripes made him look like an over-inflated beach ball with legs. Barbara quite liked his company, on most days he was usually rather chipper and he had an infectious smile.
“He’s always asking something or other. That’s the whole problem, you know that!” Barbara heaped a spoonful of coffee granules into her favourite mug and then turned towards the fridge.
“Have you got an issue with that?” Gerald said.
“On most days, yes I have, Gerald.” Barbara pulled open the fridge door and took out a half full bottle of milk. She raised the bottle up to her nose and took a deep sniff before bringing it to her coffee mug.
“What is in those bags then, Madam Smith?” The voice was as quiet as the squeak of a less than boisterous mouse. It had a timid, shaky quality, as if the issuer suffered from perpetual anxiety.
“It’s just some Christmas shopping Martha, that’s all,” Barbara replied. She couldn’t see the nervous ghost. She’s probably hiding behind Brian, she thought.
“Christmas! Christmas shopping you say,” Brian was still smiling but there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “I didn’t think you were into that old rubbish, Madam Smith.”
“Is it that time again? God help us!” Gerald announced, his whistle seemed to hit a slightly higher pitch than usual.
“I don’t like Christmas,” Martha squeaked, “all that noise makes me nervous.”
“Everything makes you nervous Martha,” Brian pointed out.
“I know,” Martha sighed, “but at Christmas time I get even worse. It’s all the noise and hullabaloo that goes with it. The shrill cries of excited children, all that doorstep singing business and those bangers always give me an awful fright.”
“Bangers, Martha? Don’t you mean Christmas crackers?” Barbara asked as she poured hot water into her coffee mug.
“Do they go bang, Madam Smith?”
“Yes, I guess they do.”
“Then they’re bangers in my book and they’d make me jump clean out of my skin if I still had any.”
“What’s the point of Christmas anyway?” Gerald whistled.
“Beats me,” Brain shrugged. “I remember celebrating it back when I was alive and it all seemed like too much hard work for very little gain, even back then. All that messing about and wasted money just for one day. You get up too early in the morning, still half cut from the few celebration tipples you drank the night before, and then spend the day feeling like death warmed up. You open a few presents, which are usually nothing more than a few pairs of socks and a satsuma, and then you have to stick your arm up a turkey’s backside and drag out its innards.”
“It can be hard work, I grant you that,” Barbara said, as she leant against the kitchen side and sipped her coffee.
“I can handle hard work,” Brian said. “Christmas isn’t hard work, Madam Smith, it’s tiresome is what it is. In my experience, hard work usually leaves you in profit at the end of the day. A day’s pay for a day’s work and all that; I don’t see any profit in Christmas!”
“What about spending time with your family, you must have enjoyed that?”
“What, that bunch of free-loaders?” Gerald said.
“Too right Gerry,” Brian agreed. “Like vultures around a carcass they were, if memory serves.”
“I was always nervous around large groups of people,” Martha added.
“What, even your family?” Barbara asked.
“I think so. To tell the truth, I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t nervous.”
“You’re better off not remembering if you ask me,” Brain said, managing to sound grumpy and regretful even though his smile refused to break. “Whenever I think back, all I can remember is hardship and disappointment.”
“I can’t think of anything good about Christmas,” Gerald said and Barbara suddenly realised that is was the first time she had heard him say anything that wasn’t in the form of a question.
“Can you?” Gerald suddenly added and then Barbara sighed.
“I can’t believe that none of you have any happy memories of Christmas,” she said. “I have nothing but fond memories of this time of year. Yes it can be tough and yes sometimes we all don’t get on as well as we should but that all pales into insignificance when you look into the children’s eyes as they find out that Santa Claus has been and filled their stockings. Christmas is a wonderful time and, even though I dread all the preparation, every year it always seems worthwhile on the day. It fills my heart and it always gives me a positive start to the new year.”
“What absolute rubbish, Madam Smith, I had always thought of you as a woman of stability not a gooey eyed school girl.” Brian’s smile drooped for a fraction of a second but sprang straight back into its usual upward curl.
“Don’t you remember when you were a child and excitedly waiting to hear the sound of sleigh bells?” Barbara asked.
“Nope,” Brian replied.
“No, not really,” Martha squeaked.
“Should I?” Gerald whistled. Barbara sighed again and then took a long, slow slurp of coffee. This wouldn’t do, she thought, as she put her empty mug onto the kitchen side. She looked over at the sink and saw the plug hanging by its little silvery chain.
“I don’t know if this will actually work on a ghost but I would like to try,” she said as she picked up the black, plastic sink plug and unhooked the other end of the chain.
“Try what?” Gerald asked.
“I want to see if I can regress you through hypnosis and see if I can bring back those festive, childhood memories.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Madam Smith,” Brain said.
“What if they’re bad memories?” Gerald said, or asked, Barbara wasn’t certain which.
“We will find that out, won’t we,” Barbara said in a commanding voice. She took a couple of steps into the middle of the kitchen and dangled the sink plug in front of the three ghosts.
“I take it that you’ve done this before Madam Smith,” Brian said.
“Of course I have!”
“And it works does it?”
“Most of the time yes, well quite often at any rate.”
“Is it dangerous?” Gerald asked and Barbara was sure it was a proper question this time.
“I doubt it.”
“So you’re not actually sure,” Brian pointed out.
“You’re dead already, what harm can it do to you now?”
“She’s got a point,“ Martha piped up and Barbara could sense a little more confidence in her voice than she was used to.
“Can you see the plug, Martha?” Barbara asked, she tried to peer around Brian’s large frame but still couldn’t catch a glimpse of the anxious spirit.
“Yes I can, madam Smith,” Martha replied. Her voice had regained its trademark squeak.
“OK, are you all ready?”
“Ready for what?” Gerald said and Barbara took it as a yes. She started to swing the sink plug gently to and fro.
“Keep your eyes on the plug,” she said in low whisper. The two ghosts that she could see followed the sink plug as it swung from side to side, Barbara hoped Martha was doing the same.
“You are feeling sleepy.”
“No I’m not!”
“Please take this seriously Brian!”
“But I’m dead, I can’t sleep. If I do I just transcend dimensions, I thought you knew that about us.” Brian replied and Barbara had to admit he had a point.
“OK, just shut up and concentrate on the plug then!” Barbara continued to swing the sink plug.
“Are you concentrating, Martha?”
“Yes Mummy,” her voice was still squeaky but there was no fear or anxiety in it.
“Where are you, Martha?” Barbara said.
“I’m tucked up in bed, I’m waiting for Santa Claus,” Martha said in an excited voice.
“I think it’s worked on Martha, don’t you Brian?”
“Be quiet, stop talking. If Santa knows we’re awake he won’t leave any presents!” Brian whispered in the high-pitched , clucky tone of a young boy. “He’s bringing me a bike this year for sure. It’s going to be a bright red one, just like the one in the toy shop window, now be quiet or he’ll never come.” This is working better than I thought it would, Barbara surmised. It’s usually pretty hit and miss when I try this on living folk.
“Are you alright there, Gerald?”
“Oh I will be soon enough,” Gerald’s voice sounded lighter, less of a drone, and his whistle wasn’t as prominent. “One hour to go before my shift ends and I rush off home and climb into my Santa suit. The kids will be so excited, it’s been a good year and we’ve managed to get some cracking presents for them. I can’t wait to see little Billy’s face when he unwraps that train set, he’s been ogling it through the toy shop window for months. This is going to be the best Christmas ever!” Gerald was smiling. Barbara couldn’t believe it, an actual smile. She had always thought that his face would crumble like a rock-slide if he were ever to curl his mouth in such a way.
“Right then, the night has passed and it’s now early on Christmas morning,” Barbara said. All three ghosts let out wide yawns and stretched their arms.
“Where are you, Martha?”
“He’s been,” Martha cried out. “Santa’s been and look at how full my stocking is, it’s fit to burst!”
“Oh no!” Brian said, “I must have dosed off and missed him again.” “What have you got there Billy? Wow, that’s a mighty fine train set,” Gerald’s eyes glistened brightly as he spoke. He stretched out his thin, bony arms as if expecting an embrace.
“A bicycle,” Brian cried, “I’ve got a bicycle. It’s red and it’s bright and it’s so shiny, I bet it’s as fast as a rocket ship as well. This is just the best Christmas ever!”
“Mummy, Mummy, Mummy. Santa has been and look, he’s even eaten one of those mince pies we made.” Barbara still couldn’t see Martha but there seemed to be a faint glow coming from behind Brian. Gerald closed his arms around something unseen and a single tear escaped his eye. Barbara decided that enough was enough and clicked her fingers.
“Awake!” She commanded.
Brian was the first to react. He took an involuntary step backwards, his wide, unblinking eyes darted around the room. His infectious grin flat lined across his face and he looked like he’d just been abruptly awoken from a sleep that he hadn’t realised he was having, which wasn’t so far from the truth. Gerald casually wiped the tear from his eye and then started to clap his hands together. He was still smiling.
“Was that an enlightening experience?” Gerald said as he tapered off his applause. A small glowing form floated out from behind Brian. About four foot tall and hovering a foot above the floor, Martha shone like a florescent bulb. Her young, innocent face wore a dazzling, confident smile. She moved like a drifting feather and her eyes spoke of a new-born wisdom.
“How did I lose such golden memories?” Martha said in a silky smooth voice. Her usual air of anxiety had gone, along with her nervous squeak.
I don’t rightly know,” Brian said as his twitching eyes finally settled, “but I don’t plan on letting it happen again.” Gerald pointed a bony finger in Brian’s direction.
“How do we do that?” He asked as he tapped the air.
“We just have to keep reminding ourselves somehow,” Brian replied.
“That’s not what worries me the most,” Martha said as she floated around to face the other two ghosts. Barbara was beginning to feel unnoticed.
“No?” Gerald said as he lowered his finger.
“What worries me is that there might be others who are suffering ignorance as we did, both alive and dead. People who have forgotten the joy they experienced during the Christmases of their past.”
“Not only that,” Brian added, “there’s bound to be a lot of poor souls out there who are failing to truly appreciate the present festivities.”
“Are we forgetting the Christmases yet to come?” Gerald pointed out.
“We need to get out there and remind these people of the true meaning of Christmas,” Martha suggested.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Brian said.
“Neither could I,” Gerald nodded in agreement.
“That wasn’t a question Gerald!” Brian observed. “You just spoke and it wasn’t in the form of a question.”
“Wasn’t it?” Gerald asked.
“Well that didn’t last long then, did it,” Martha said. Barbara was getting a little tired of being ignored.
“I’m still here you know!”
“Sorry Madam Smith,” Martha said as she pirouetted in mid-air to face her.
“Yes of course, sorry, Madam Smith.” Brian’s smile drew back across his face. It was as infectious as ever, Barbara had to fight against her own facial muscles as they attempted to return the expression.
“I take it that my plan worked.”
“It did?” Gerald offered and Barbara heard it as a statement more than a question.
“Thank you Madam Smith,” Brian said as he clasped his hands in front of him in a big fist which he gently shook. “You have really opened my eyes to all the joy that this festive time of year can bring to the world. I can’t thank you enough, in fact, you have given my death more meaning. No longer will I mope around feeling regretful at what little my life really amounted to. I will now devote my ghostly existence to bringing enlightenment and joy to any who may fail in achieving this for themselves.”
“Will I follow in your footsteps and tell those who prioritise all other things above spreading goodwill through the many years to come?”
“I’m sure that you will, Gerald,” Barbara replied, even though she knew there was no question of it.
“I too will join in your crusade to rid the world of bad memories by washing them away with the good,” Martha said as her glow reached an intensity that Barbara had never before seen. What kind of monster have I just created, Barbara thought as a new voice entered the room.
“What’s going on here then?” All eyes turned to look at the new arrival who had just stepped through the wall. He wore a pinstriped three-piece suit and stood tall and proud, while swinging a pocket watch on a long silver chain in tight circles with his right hand.
“Hello Jacob,” Brian said. “Madam Smith has just reminded us of the meaning of Christmas and now we’re going to share the festive spirit with the world.”
“Is that so?” Jacob said, still swinging his watch. “How do you plan on doing that then?”
“I think we are going to find miserable, lonely people and teach them to how to celebrate the festive season properly.”
“That’s right Brian,” Martha agreed.
“Really, do you know who you are going to start with?”
“No we don’t, do we?” Gerald said.
“No we don’t,” Brain added, “not yet.”
“Then in that case, I know just the person,” Jacob announced.
“Who?” Martha asked.
“My old business partner,” Jacob replied, “that’s who.”
“Lead the way, my good man,” Brian said as he headed towards Jacob and the kitchen wall.
“Wait for me,” Gerald said, “are we all going in together or one at a time?”
“One at a time would be best, I think,” Brian replied as he and Jacob stepped through the wall.
“I’ll go first,” Martha cried out as she swooped past Gerald.
“Do you want me to be last?” Gerald asked as he lumbered through the wall and disappeared from sight.
Barbara sighed and picked up her coffee. Cradling the warm mug in her hands, she thought about what the three ghosts had said. There’s something familiar about all this, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.