Cold Reading in June – Part 3 (Perth)

PERTH (FRIDAY 7th OF JUNE)

My next night of mediumship on Saturday night in Stirling had been cancelled at short notice so I had to scramble for another within the next week. Luckily, there was small show at the Salutation Hotel in Perth which is only half an hour down the road from my hometown. I called up the Hotel and found that you could pay at the door so drove down after work.

Tonight’s medium is called Andrew Lindsay. I recognise him from his website when I enter the small events room. He looks about 30-35 and is small, thin and wiry with a curly mop of ginger hair. He’s wearing a smart suit and polished shoes and cheerily welcomes everybody into the room, calling the majority by their first name. There is another raffle tonight but at a pound for five tickets it’s not as shameless a ruse as Docherty’s draw in Dundee. The prizes: a bottle of pink gin, a bottle of wine, a bag of chocolates and an envelope marked ‘from Andrew’ are displayed on a table that doubles as a reception desk. I buy 10 tickets, pay admittance and take a seat in an empty row at the back of the room. There would be better view of the medium and audience interaction at the front but as I’m a 6’4’ lump, I’m always paranoid about obscuring people’s view.

The small events room is clean, tidy and mundane with around 30 chairs lined in several rows. Again, the audience mostly consists of middle-aged housewives, some with their daughters. Everyone is relaxed and chatty with around half slurping long vodkas or gin and tonics.  There’s a few splendid hairstyles on show, the best of which is a distinctive mullet style like an 80’s Austrian footballer: curly on top but straight down the back and sides, a bit like Elvira’s but blonde. I also recognise a couple of other psychic/mediums as they walk into the room, they embrace and chat with each other before taking their seat. There seems to be a lot of cross pollination between different mediums and their audiences. I remove my jacket and settle into my chair instantly feeling like an outsider in this small but dedicated gathering.

The woman who was selling raffle tickets doubles as compere and steps up to address the audience, there’s no need for a microphone in such a small space. She gives the normal warnings about mobile phones, asks permission to take some photos then welcomes the medium to the front. Lindsay reintroduces himself then asks the audience of this is anybody’s first time at this type of event. A middle aged, bald man two rows directly in front of me tentatively raises his hand. Lindsay jokes at the newcomer’s expense then with the audience, easing them into his performance. He stresses the importance of the people responding with a clear and loud voice and not mumbling or simply nodding affirmation then adds that he is conscious of his rapid talking style explaining that he has just returned from a tour of America and had to slow his speech down as a result.

Unlike Docherty or Francis, this medium first picks a member of the audience, then designates a waiting spirit to them. It’s a daring approach with a greater chance of failing however I soon get the impression that the first woman chosen is well known to Lindsay and his unusual method. She is middle-aged, tubby and has long white hair and cheerily welcomes Lindsay’s invitation like a Granny cooperating with a child’s magic trick. He explains that he is in contact with a father figure then immediately changes this to a grandfather named John to which the woman replies with a single yes. He then describes John as a private man who loved his large family and lived in a small tenement building, to which the woman also replies yes. Lindsay then jumps spirits to the woman’s sister who he feels is very concerned about her, he then claims to be seeing a birthday in November, to which the woman also replies yes. Lindsay informs the woman that both her sister and grandfather like to visit her house regularly then says that her sister was alone when she died, and that her family was not around at the point she crossed unto the spirit world. The woman recoils at this statement replying ‘not really’ while shaking her head, clearly upset. I’m confused why he would risk offending an eager audience member with such a loaded comment, condemning his opening connection to a premature and awkward conclusion.

Lindsay then moves around the room, picking several more eager participants and questioning them in his strong Perthshire brogue. Each time he follows his method and uses the same awkward technique: assign a spirit to a person, bombard them with questions or general statements, demand immediate answers, then question again. There’s guesses of months, dates and Birthdays, some statements about photographs, ornaments on a mantlepiece, a motorbike accident and a vision of a ‘medic or nurse’. Nearly all these speculations fail to hit a direct bullseye of recognition but are vague enough to have some resonance to the chosen person. Any complete misses are quickly ignored by the pace of interrogation and whenever he appears to be faltering, Lindsay interjects a little joke or daft comment to recoup the rapport and trigger uproarious laughter from the audience. At times I feel like I’m lugging into private conversation between people waiting at a bus stop or to a blathering hairdresser entertaining a customer. There’s no substance in his statements, holding no more resonance than idle chit chat. He reminds me of a gobshite school friend you knew talked absolute nonsense, but you tolerated him because of his entertaining, storytelling style.

Then Lindsay suddenly points to a woman in the row in front of me and tells her ‘I know you are here to get in touch with your son who’s passed to the other side, but he is here beside me tonight’. The woman nods her head but doesn’t answer. She is part of a trio of women who have been giggling with each other laughing along with all tonight’s proceedings. Lindsay tells her that her son was with them during their journey to tonight’s event and had been listening to them ‘carrying on’ in the car. He communicates that her son is ‘’always watching over her and she should not stress and worry about things so much’. On the face of it’s an impressive hit but her quiet response makes me feel that this isn’t the first time both have conversed on this subject, as if she has been preheated or prepared.

His method of interrogation starts to bother me, and I begin to feel uncomfortable, dreading the possibility that he may choose me next. There have been some wild opportunist casts of which the majority caught nothing. Each miss contributes to an awkward aura in the room which is only punctured with a whimsical joke or remark. His devotees however are quick to pick up on these remarks and respond with roaring laughter and overenthusiastic applause like parents watching their kids in a school play. Inevitably, Lindsay gets around to the bald man in front of me who is attending his first event. The man answers quietly in an English accent and appears confused and uneasy at being put on the spot. He half acknowledges some of the guesses and accepts the diagnosis of a gum ailment but is generally manoeuvred around the conversation by Lindsay. The medium ends the connection by assuring the man that he will be going on a journey ‘down south’ very soon which given the man’s obvious accent it’s not as much of marvel of prognostication as others in the room believe. Half time comes as a relief and I’ve had enough. Tired and unimpressed I decide to leave before I am picked out, interrogated then manipulated into Lindsay’s act. On the way out I give my raffle tickets to the trio of women who were sitting in front of me then exit the hotel into a bright, summer evening.

Overall, I found Andrew Lindsay’s performance to be underwhelming and amateurish, closer in style to David Francis’s unrefined and scattergun approach. Both chuck out random but commonly shared information into the audience, receive an enthusiastic response then run with it until they hit a brick wall and destroy the connection. There’s been no convincing evidence of spirits and even less proof that the mediums can contact these spirits. I can remember being similarly disappointed when I first watched a full baseball match as a kid. Before live TV coverage I’d only seen baseball during its greatest moments via highlights and the movies, and each time those clips made you feel that home runs were a regular occurrence. However, in general you’d be lucky to see one homerun per match as they are all short taps and runs between bases with lots of swings and misses in between.  Similarly, the two medium shows have been the same: lots of swings and misses and precious few homeruns.

FOLKLORE

I work with my brother which can range from hilarious to dreadful on any single day. On the Wednesday afternoon following the Perth event, as we drove to a customer’s garden, a black crow clipped the top of our works van. We stopped the van to see if the bird was okay but there was no sign of it anywhere. It must have flown on, bruised no doubt, but uninjured. It was strange as neither of us had ever hit a crow before them being smart and agile birds. Pheasants are usually hit as they seem to be heavier and unable to dodge in time. The next morning while in a different garden a large black raven suddenly fell from the sky and crashed into a wall beside me. The poor beast seemed stunned and crawled under a parked car to recover. After finishing my job, I looked under the car then searched the garden, but the bird had disappeared. Again, hopefully it gathered its senses and flew away unharmed. When I told my younger brother about the second crow, he was shocked.

‘What does it all mean?’ he asked.

He then explained the importance of crows in Norse mythology and Celtic folklore. For him these events had to have some sort of mystical resonance, perhaps a forewarning or even a portent of doom. I put it down to coincidence. Some people who look for connections will eventually find them or invent something to that ends. The sceptics however look at the supernatural from a less imaginative an unromantic viewpoint, preferring to use cold logic, evidence and facts to find an explanation. I’m not sure if I’m convinced by either side.

HOT READING

Hot Reading is simply prior research by the psychic or medium, but it can take many forms and is evolving with new technology. Previously Hot Reading could be attained by mediums scouring local newspapers in the Library, by covertly listening into pre-show conversations or by the audience filling in pre-show Spirit cards which indicated who you were trying to connect with and why (what other information does a medium need?). In the most callous of example several mediums were caught writing down local gravestone details especially those of young children, expectant of grieving mothers to be attending their events. Nowadays, the internet has rendered these archaic methods as pointless, superseded by tools such as google search and social media archaeology. The internet-especially Facebook- provides all the details needed to provide a convincing report of every aspect of an audience member’s life. Your past trauma and existing grief lie open for everyone to peruse. Everything is widely accessible and thus susceptible to opportunists, lying exposed like an open wound.  A psychic or medium need only your name and address, both of which you usually provide when buying tickets over the net. The creation of false social media accounts called sock puppet accounts by sceptics regularly entrap mediums as fictional information is repeated verbatim during their shows. Added to this, it would be fair to assume that many of the event audience also elect for private readings from mediums. Private readings are a ‘one on one’ form of mediumship like a psychiatrist’s treatment of patient, with the same exposure of personal information. So, when a medium faces his or her quarry they will be loaded with a wealth of previous information on a healthy percentage of their audience.

Cold Reading in June – Part 2 (Dundee)

DUNDEE (FRIDAY 31ST of MAY 2019)

I arrive at the Queens Hotel around 6.30 pm with an hour to spare so I park up around the back. It’s a balmy night and the concrete buildings and tar of the road are drying in the evening sun. Pedestrians and commuters file up down the streets making their way home or into the few bars.  I leave my car and check its locked three times then I turn to recognise tonight’s main medium, Karen Docherty, step out of the back of a five-year-old Toyota Yaris (a small, boxy run-around favoured by old people and city dwellers). I’m surprised by the unostentatious choice of transport, I expected her to be transported in a new, BMW or top of the range 4×4. Her basic website and social media channels detail frequent tours of the United States and UK while fans leave gushing testimonials giving the impression of accomplishment in her trade.

The hotel lobby is clean and spacious with an art deco design. A plaque on the wall tells you that ‘Winston S Churchill stayed in this hotel on many occasions between 1908- 1922’, an historical piece of trivia which probably means nothing to most of its clientele. I order a pint of coke, take a seat in the bar and scan the room for an indication on possible show attendees. Strangely, there’s no music playing and the TV’S are off so I can easily lug into the surrounding conversations. A pair of Irish women are cheerily discussing their coming travel plans in the corner and there’s groups of office workers gossiping over their drinks near the bar. A couple of single men stare into their phones and sip at pints while an older couple pick at their fish teas. I try to interpret if the bar patrons are attending tonight’s show but every time I decide they are, they rise, leave the bar and pour into the street. At 7.15 I decide to go up to the events room upstairs. I stop in the toilet and click on my audio recorder and slot it into my chest pocket of my jacket. On every step up the wide, carpeted stairway the nerves jangle in my stomach, I’m not sure what to expect, or if I’ll be welcome as an outsider. I’d heard that some mediums and their devotees can be overly protective of their faith in Spiritualism. There’s a long queue for the foyer bar so I walk straight into an adjacent room that’s buzzing with chatting people. I realise that by switching my phone off I’ve hidden my e-ticket from use so have to hang around the reception table until a seated man ushers me into ‘any seat’ which means any seat up at the back, as the room is already three quarters full. The room’s walls are covered by plain, cream wallpaper and a trio of large chandeliers hang from the white ceiling. On two sides of the room are large Victorian windows which invite the evening sun into the room. It’s a big room, elegant and well-maintained, perfect for a large meeting but not grand enough for a wedding. There are six rows of around twenty comfortable chairs which are facing two further chairs and a table that form a makeshift stage. The first five rows are already crammed full of middle aged, round women who natter like birds and sip on their drinks. I feel like I’ve walked into an aviary. The remaining chairs are quickly filled so extra chairs are pulled from next door and positioned in any available space. I count around 200 people sitting with me tonight, of around ten are men and half of them seem to have been brought against their will.

A pair of excited women sit beside me and chatter like chipmunks. I overhear mentions of previous visits to Docherty’s shows. When one of the women leaves, I turn to her friend.

‘Excuse me, do you go to many of these things?’ I ask.

‘Oh aye, I’ve been to see Karen 5 or 6 times, she’s very good, has a good way with the audience,’ she answers.

‘This is my first time to any psychic event, I’m not sure what to expect’.

The woman mistakes my inquisitive question for apprehension and says ‘Ach, it’s not that bad’.

She then turns to her pal who’s returned.

‘This is this guy’s first time,’ she says with a chuckle.

Before I can ask another question, Karen Docherty rises from her chair and addresses the audience through a microphone which hushes the many nattering conversations to silence. Docherty is around 45, small and chunky. She has should length dirty blonde hair and is wearing a simple black blouse and pair of plain black trousers. She doesn’t look like a psychic, more like your typical Scottish Mum or Aunty. I immediately consider that she must be confident to stand up in front of 200 people and hold court. She welcomes everybody with a simple ‘Hello,’ pauses to let all the stragglers return from the bar then says:

‘We were supposed to be welcoming another medium from Denmark tonight but unfortunately, we just found out she has an illness which means she couldn’t fly, so instead we have David Francis, a fantastic medium from Ireland who’s based in Glasgow.’

Her local accent intrigues me as I’ve only ever heard the American or English accents of TV psychics. Foreigners would likely categorise her accent as broad while Scots would instantly recognise the Dundonian drawl. Docherty asks everybody to switch off their phones which ignites a chain reaction of rustling, murmuring and many beeps of handsets powering off. She then asks if this is anybody’s first time to a medium show. I reply by raising my hand and scan the room to see very few doing the same.

‘What you’re here for …’ she stops to acknowledge the noise of a busker well below who’s rendition of Wonderwall is seeping through the gap of an open window. She jokes that the wailing isn’t the sound of the spirits, but she would be delighted if it was. The audience laughs as she silences the intrusion by closing the window.

 ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time, doesn’t matter if you’re not sure, it doesn’t really matter if you decide this is not for you. Whatever happens, the spirits are her because they love you,’ she says.

‘Obviously, by the time you leave we have given you something to think about, if you’re on the fence about it, enjoy the experience, the spirits don’t want to come in and make us sad or upset. They don’t want to embarrass you. Don’t be sacred to talk back. Don’t be like a rabbit in the headlights. Nothing you don’t want mentioned in public will be said. As a medium I speak from the spirit world to you. They know you’re coming before you know you’re coming. It’s them that have brought you here. Keep an open mind no matter what. Some people are dragged long and get frightened, don’t be. If any chairs start floating about, if people start levitating don’t be jealous.’

I’m comforted by her local accent. It’s like listening to a local nurse or primary school teacher. She holds the microphone with her right hand but is very expressive with the left and she seems to be aware of the importance of hand and body gestures.

‘I’m going to get started now. I can feel the spirit world building up. When I come and talk to you please talk back and take the microphone. Don’t just hold the microphone like an ice cream, it’s important that you answer back in loud, clear voice. The spirits know your mind and your thoughts,’ she says.

Then she jumps right in.

‘Okay, I have an older lady and feel this lady had a bleed on the brain, or injury to the head or a brain tumour. I feel the symptoms. She was not elderly. 50, too young to pass into the spirit world, maybe a bit younger than that. Over this side, not entirely sure, I’m getting a three of a family connected to her or a three. Anyone up the back?’ she says.

An older woman sitting five seats along from me raises her hand.

‘Does that mean someone to you?’ asks Docherty.

 ‘My sister, and her mother’ answers the older woman while motioning to a younger woman sitting next to her.

‘So, brain tumour and three?’ She had symptoms, not instantaneous? Did I get the age correct?’ asks the psychic.

The woman next to me also puts her hand and identifies a brain tumour and mother but she is ignored in favour of the pair of women.

‘Okay, can we get the microphone along,’ orders Docherty to the man from reception table. The microphone is passed hand to hand like an athlete’s baton along our row.

‘Sometimes we get people with similar stories. Now, you would understand she wasn’t worrying about things, but she kept somethings to herself. Not make a big fuss or deal, does that make sense? asks Docherty.

The woman now holding the microphone nods.

‘She was quiet, private lady. With a great personality?’ asks Docherty.

‘Yes’ answers the woman.

I’m torn between watching Docherty and the reactions of the woman.

‘I feel that’s she’s very strong and she wants to boost you up. Very strong, confident. It’s okay if you disagree,’ says Docherty.

‘She was, but she was also quite shy at times,’ answers the older woman.

‘I am getting that she is confident, very strong but whether she’s giving you that to give you piece of mind. I mentioned there’s three of a family but there’s a boy she was really close to, one boy?’ asks Docherty.

‘No’ answers the woman.

‘But your saying there’s no three or there’s no boys? There are no boys, no grandchildren?’ presses the medium.

‘No. Oh yes, there’s a boy, a grandson,’ answers the woman.

‘I just feel she has to talk about a boy and there’s three of a family? She wants to be around her family, but she feels she hadn’t done everything she could of while she was alive. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, yes’ answers the woman.

Docherty then directs her attention to the nervy looking woman next to the older woman, so the microphone is passed on.  I quickly evaluate the situation: the spirit that Docherty is channelling is both the older woman’s sister and this younger woman’s mother, so these two women are aunty and niece. Before I can bathe in my outstanding method of deduction, I’m back into the spirit world.

‘Now she definitely wants to acknowledge you’re here. She didn’t say things or do things that she should’ve. I’m not saying that because she’s ashamed but feels she should say that just. Do you understand this?’ asks the medium.

‘Yes’ croaks the younger woman.

I also understand there’s alcohol connected to her. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘I can smell the alcohol now. Now she’s saying she is comfortable to talk about the alcohol now as a part of healing. She’s bringing an apology. She’s well aware that you’ve been very strong, and that you’ve been keeping the family together?’

The daughter nods her head in reply.

‘I know you have a couple bits of her jewellery. She’s also mentioning a butterfly and Christmas, or some birthday around Christmas?’

The daughter acknowledges the remarks although she is not assured.

‘She wishes things could’ve been better or she had been better. Don’t worry if I’m wrong, I’m getting a Christmas that was not good and she wishes things hadn’t gone so wrong?’

The daughter converses with her aunty then says, ‘Could’ve been just before she passed.’

‘She has really come through tonight to provide healing. She sees her child name linked. She sees that child?’

‘Yes.’

‘This isn’t about what she brought in. She is in peace where she is now. Did you miss her passing? Don’t worry about that. That last 5 minutes means nothing.’

Suddenly Docherty rises her intonation and calls out ‘I’m getting Jemma or Jenna or Jem or Jen. Does that mean anything?’

‘No, nothing’ replies the daughter.

‘Okay, let me hold it. Okay, I think the ladies gone but I leave you with her love,’ says Docherty.

The daughter squeaks ‘thank you,’ while snivelling back some tears. The audience sense an ending to the spirit connection and enthusiastic applause fills the room.

The massive ‘Jemma or Jenna or Jem or Jen’ guess has just fallen flat, like a boxer’s haymaker that misses completely and leaves the puncher clawing the air before tumbling to the ring canvas. Docherty, however, has expertly, dodged any embarrassment by ignoring the miss and continuing forward. I’m also struck by the amount of questions that come from the medium. It’s not so much inquisitorial as cross-examination by relentless bombardment of questions. After each enquiry there’s an acknowledgement of a positive or negative answer then a related question straight after. The audience member doesn’t have much time to think and must answer on the spot. This pressure must be multiplied tenfold when in front of a crowded room of 200 people that are watching intently and hanging on every word.

Docherty intimates that a new spirit is attempting to connect then crosses over to the other side of the room to involve that side of the audience.

‘I have a new man, a road traffic accident. A motorbike. And I still have John or Jem. He seems like quite a cheeky chap and impatient. He’s a younger man that has passed to the spirit world. Not a car but feels more like a bike but if you don’t recognise a John or Jem don’t worry about that part?’ asks Docherty to the room.

A woman at the at the far part of the room puts up her hand and acknowledges all the details. The microphone is passed along.

‘Has there been an anniversary or birthday recently? He feels people have been talking about him recently. He is bringing in a lady related to you. Its wasn’t a sudden passing. Somebody maternal but not necessarily your mother. Do you understand this sweetheart? The lady is well missed. She is talking about two children or two grandchildren. Problems in the abdomen? If it’s no I’m fine with that.’

‘No’ answers the new audience member.

‘I’m sensing a link down south. She is listening to this conversation. I think that there is a link to a man with body problems?’ asks Docherty.

‘No, not really,’ answers the woman.

The conversation peters out with a selection of missed queries until Docherty offers:

‘Okay, I’ll leave you with this lady’s love,’ which is the trigger for applause and the end of the connection.

I’m baffled by this last conversation and scan the room to gauge other people’s reactions. Everybody is transfixed by the medium’s display and staring at her captivated. Before I can properly process the scene Docherty quickly moves on to another spirit and possible connection with a waiting audience member. There are several of these types of conversations: questions to the room, which are answered by the flimsiest of associations. Any weak linkage is seized upon by the medium, relayed back to the audience member until the conversation pitters out to nothing.

‘I don’t know I’m getting a Grandad or Dad. I feel a strong sense of using hands. A mechanic or fixing engines or cars. John or James?’ asks Docherty to the audience.

I think to myself that my Grandad and was a mechanic, loved his cars and my Dad’s middle name is John although he is alive.

‘Anybody?’ asks Docherty to the room.

About twenty people put their hands up which brings a ripple of laughter around the audience. It’s not surprising that many recognise this plea as many people’s male relatives work with their hands and more specifically cars.  Psychologists call this ‘The Barnum effect’ which ‘is a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.’ (Wikipedia, 2019). Docherty picks a young man at the back of the room. He seems overdressed for tonight with grey suit and purple tie and is sporting a black cockatiel style quiff. There’s a tattoo crawling up his neck and many studs and rings in his facial features. He looks like a pirate going to an office job interview. Docherty waits until the microphone is passed along the room like a church collection bag.

‘You were close to you Grandad, weren’t you? He was like a father?’ she asks.

‘Yes.’ replies the man.

‘Your Grandad didn’t like being in hospital but had a great sense of humour. He says he knew what he had but it kept coming back, is that right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Who was James?’

The young man pauses to think then answers, ‘He was my Grandad’s best friend.’

‘And has he passed onto the spirit world?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Oh, okay well we won’t send him there.’ (A joke is made to cover a big miss and the audience respond with a choral chortle) ‘He says he left some sort of writing. Also, I feel like he was the man that has shown you through life?’

‘Yes.’

‘He wants you to do the all the things you want and to do the things he didn’t get to do. He was worldly wise. Are you married? Are you getting married?’

‘No.’

‘He is talking about someone getting married.’

‘My sister was going to get married.’

‘Not anymore?’

‘I hope not,’ answers the man sparking another burst of collective laughter.

‘Now, I can sense someone in the family is having a baby?’ asks Docherty.

‘I don’t think so,’ answers the man.

‘Anne?’

‘Ehhm, Oh yes. My friend’s wife.’

‘I don’t know, I think it’s somebody closer.’

‘I was trying for a baby.’

The audience let out a collective ‘Awww,’ as if a big, furry kitten has entered the room.

‘Your Grandad knows all this. He is a funny man and a good man, and he is right by your side.’ With that Docherty accepts the rooms applause and hands her microphone to the next medium.

David Francis is a small man of about 30 and is nattily dressed in three-piece suit with tweed waistcoat. He’s been sitting on a chair out front, cross legged watching the audience intently until being introduced.

‘Good evening everybody,’ says Francis in a thick Irish accent which he jokes about.

‘I’ve got a lot of images tonight. In my mind’s eye, I’m getting an older lady maybe 60 or 70?’

There’s little response to this initial spirit connection so he jumps ages and gender.

‘And also, I’m feeling a connection to a young man. A man overwhelmed by life. He was brought down the wrong path by others. He is fully responsibly for his actions bringing his death. He damaged his physical body but had a beautiful soul. Taking his life by his own hand. Does anybody understand this?’

A middle-aged woman with long, blonde hair woman in the front row raises her hand and claims recognition.

 ‘He was in his low 20’s when he passed, and an older woman has brought this young man tonight. A lost child?’ asks the Irishman.

‘Yes,’ replies the woman while accepting the microphone.

‘I’m getting a patchwork blanket. He is a very loving guy who is sorry for the last years of his life. He wasn’t connected to his family in these last years?’

‘Yes, yeah’ replies the woman.

‘Now, he had a temper and would lose the rag easier than others?’

‘Sometimes, but not very often,’ replies the woman.

‘I’m also a getting dark haired man, not a track suited lad but wearing jeans and t-shirt. I’m getting problems with depression and anxiety. I don’t mean to be personal but he’s showing me these memories, mirroring them. Would you understand? I see a connection to divorce. Lifestyle habits led him to be the way he was. Interaction with the Police. Do understand this?’ asks the medium.

The medium seems to confuse the woman with his bizarre statements and relentless questioning. The conversation stumbles into an awkward finish but before anyone in the room can digest the strangeness of this connection, he immediately jumps on to another dead person in the spirit world. There’s no applause from audience. I trace the room and see many bemused and unimpressed faces. Francis is beginning to take the form of a man that’s walked into a swamp and while he may only be waist height in the mire, he’s sinking, fast with every awry pronouncement. He’s less skilled in judging the audience and lures audience members in before destroying the connection with needlessly, personal and negative statements. I also get the feeling that he doesn’t appreciate that many of his negative, personal assertions reflect badly not only upon the dead person but also relatives. The audience has become more hesitant and distrustful as a result.

‘Now I’ll open up the room,’ says Francis while making a screwed-up face of concentration. ‘I’m starting to see a hospital or red cross. Normally this means a nurse or carer. Also, a problem in the torso?’

 Francis seems to identify the ailments of the spirits by physically feeling them himself. This psychosomatic diagnosis is referred to as clairsentinence or clear feeling and is as scientifically verifiable as the tooth fairy. He rubs his chest and stomach in circular motion to highlight the area of pain, pinpointing every single vital human organ in the process.

‘It could be a nurse or a carer or somebody who was in hospital? I don’t want to say cancer outright. Margaret or Mary. Anybody? Asks the medium to the crowd.

There’s no response at all. It’s a big miss and quite startling considering he’s targeted a massive chunk of Scotland’s population in one singular sentence. People start exchanging bewildered looks and shakes of the head. A woman volunteers that her mother was a nurse, but the linkage soon dissolves into the wallpaper. He continues in this same way, criss-crossing the audience with general statements that everyone in the room can possibly identify with. However, there’s a no rapport, no humour and when a connection is made Francis gives little opportunity for audience members to interact properly. Unlike Docherty, he has no information to work on. He is saying too much. Sensing that he is struggling Docherty jumps in to give a half time break. She informs us that there is raffle at the desk at £5 a ticket which wins a personal reading from herself as the sole prize. It seems like an extortionate piece of business yet there is long queue to buy the tickets within seconds.

Everybody rises from their chairs and either begin to file out to the toilets, slope to the bar or crawl downstairs for a smoke.

‘What do you think, so far?’ asks the woman sitting next to me.

‘Yeah, it’s quite interesting, not as weird as I’d thought.  I think she was better than the Irish guy,’ I answer.

‘Oh, yeah, he’s terrible isn’t he. We’re not impressed by him at all.’

After twenty minutes and when everyone has settled back into their seats with fresh drinks, the second half of tonight’s show begins with Francis again who wastes no time in working the room.

‘Now, I’m drawn to a lady over here,’ says Francis while pointing towards a group of four women sitting in the middle of the second row.

‘Now, I’m getting a strong person, authoritative. In the forces, may I say the RAF?’

‘Yes, yes, that was my brother’ answers a woman in a thick, Texan accent. She is quite large, in her 60s and has a streak of dark purple running through a short, grey haircut.

 ‘I’m getting an aeroplane and maybe an ejector seat. He’s a very strong person, an energetic person but very stern. Do you understand being mean or stern?’

‘Well, not really’ answers the woman.

‘Okay, but he was in the RAF and he gives me the impression that he saw action, he wasn’t just flying over mountains?’

‘Yes, he was a rear gunner.’

‘Well, he’s very concerned about you and he knows you will be going on a long journey very soon’. (If she had turned around and asked me, I could have also predicted this and probably even the airport she was flying into).

The medium then scours the room for his next target until an older woman in front of me claims recognition of her mother.

‘I feel like this lady was lonely before she passed over. Had she recently lost someone close and felt alone, very alone?’ asks Francis.

The woman is offended by his guess and immediately cuts him off with a terse ‘No, nope, not her.’ Francis tries to rescue the faltering connection, but to her credit this woman is having none of it and waves off the conversation off with outstretched palm and shake of her head. It takes all my willpower not to roar in laughter. The Irishman has pushed his luck and annoyed someone with his brash, unrefined style and is now floundering. 

‘Now, I’m going to the back of the room and somebody in line with where I’m standing’ says Francis.

Francis stands directly in front of me only 5 rows down. I like to think as myself as unremarkable but at 6’4 and 19 stone, in this crowd I’m about as inconspicuous as Tony the Tiger at a panda party

 ‘I’m getting an old man with facial hair and I’m trying to be polite, but he has a receding hair line, not completely bald but short, short hair. I’m seeing a figure like this in my mind’s eye. A father or grandfather figure. I’m drawn to somebody that looks likes this man. A big man who’s a bit overweight?’ says the medium.

He is describing me: a big lump who’s long lost a battle to retain his once curly locks. Naturally, he’s assumed that I look like my long dead Grandad or my very much alive Father and tried his luck. I refuse to make eye contact or respond to his advances as I do not want to be badgered in front of a room full of strangers. Luckily, there’s one of the few men of the audience sitting directly in front of me and he accepts the connection as his father.

‘Now, do you recognise the description of this man?’ asks Francis.

‘Yes, although my father was always clean shaven,’ answers the man.

‘Ok, now did he have heart problems near the end?’

‘Well, not really. He died of an aneurism.’

‘Well, maybe I’m getting mixed messages from the spirits.’

The swamp water is now up to the medium’s nostrils, so he grasps for help and returns to the quartet of eager participants in the second row, he’s on safe ground with one of this crew.

‘Now, I’m getting drawn back to this part of the room and I’m getting an older woman coming through,’ says the medium while motioning to the four women in the second row. Every time either of tonight’s mediums have linked with a spirit at least one of this quartet has shot up their hand like a teacher’s pet. The woman who accepts the microphone is smaller than her chunkier pals, with greying black hair and appears timid and mousey. She squeaks an affirmative answer back to the Irish medium’s relentless questioning. The audience watch with a mix of deep, fascination and creeping, embarrassment as the medium goes about emotionally, dismantling the woman.

‘Yes’, replies the woman whimpering.

‘She is trying to highlight the things that are bothering you. Your mind is at a million miles per hour and you have hundreds of thoughts. Take a step back and stop worrying about others. You have no idea how you are affecting others. The lady is reiterating that. Be selfish,’ says the Irishman.

‘I cannot be selfish,’ squeals the woman.

‘Take time for you’

Her final humiliation is complete with the wail, ‘Why didn’t she tell me that she loved me when she was alive?’

‘That’s unfortunately something I can’t answer’ replies Francis.  ‘However, I do believe this lady has seen the ripple effect of her actions. I assure you of that. We have a beautiful journey to take in crossing over, but she realises how she acted. She has a hell of a lot of love in her heart’ continues the Irishman.

The wailing woman appears broken and is weeping into her hands. The audience however bursts into a round of applause in joyful appreciation of the medium’s public evisceration of the woman. This is what they’ve come to see. Francis has just dragged himself out of the quagmire at the very point of drowning and now takes his leave amid rapturous applause. I half expect him to take a bow before he takes his seat. Karen Docherty meanwhile has been sitting stony faced throughout Francis’s performance, and probably feeling upstaged by his finale, decides to jump back in and round up the night.

‘Now, I’m still getting the names or Jem, Jen or Jemma coming through but also Ellen or Helen, I’d like to offer this up to the whole room?’ says Docherty.

Another middle-aged woman at the far end of the room raises her hand and the microphone is passed along again.

‘Do these names mean anything to you?’ asks Docherty.

‘My best friend’s Aunty was called Helen, but she was like a grandmother to me,’ replies the woman with yet another tenuous link.

Probably sensing that she cannot top Francis’s performance ending she rounds up the night with advice on how to book her personal readings then thanks everybody for attending.

As I get up to the leave the room, the woman beside me asks me, ‘Well, what did you think?’

‘Aye, it was quite good, and he pulled it out of the bag in the end,’ I answer while trying to hide my disappointment.

It always takes me a day or two to process an event and I’m never able to properly evaluate something as it happens. Fortunately, as a gardener I’m afforded the opportunity of deep reflection especially during June when I’m trawling up and down lush lawns every day. Overall, I was underwhelmed by my first medium show. The mediums appear little more than comperes who coax and cajole their audience into believing that their general suppositions have more profound meaning. I was prepared to be astounded and expected much more than the disappointing exhibition of fluky conjecture combined with an audiences’ eager desire to link details and please the medium. I hoped to witness some sort of compelling evidence for spiritualism or mediumship but saw nothing. Despite this, apart from Francis’s cruel exposure of the emotionally vulnerable woman the event is also not as malign or malevolent as I’d previously assumed. By and large, the audience are enthusiastic participants and willing to be used as part of the performance. Also given they are only spending £20 on each ticket there doesn’t seem to be much greedy deception on display (apart from the raffle).  I hoped to witness some devious examples of underhand tactics or audience subterfuge, but the reality is far more banal and unsupernatural. However, with a bit of research I was able to untangle some of the methods and sly tricks used by mediums to deceive the impressionable.

COLD READING

Cold Reading is the ability to gather information from an audience member without that individual realizing that they are providing the information themselves. It is referred to as ‘cold’ as the medium needs no previous knowledge of the audience member. By carefully observing an audience member’s characteristics and behaviour through a series of deductive or general guesses together with the general ‘Barnum statements’ a medium can give the impression of having supernatural abilities. Everybody uses cold reading in their daily life, sometimes to build understanding, often to create prejudice. We judge people by their choice of clothing, the newspapers they read, cars they drive and even their race, sex or age. Mediums finetune this ability to a science, enabling them to identify characteristics and psychological hang ups from a few choice questions and reactions.

James Underdown from Centre for Inquiry and Independent Investigations Group says, ‘In the context of a studio audience full of people, cold reading is not very impressive.’ and explains cold reading from a mathematical perspective. ‘A typical audience (alike the Docherty event) consists of about 200 people and a conservative estimate assumes each attendee knows around 150 people’ (Wikipedia,2019). So, when Karen Docherty suddenly asks, ‘Who’s Jenna or Jemma?’ she is hoping there is a Jenna or Jemma related to the chosen audience member. However, when she reoffers this to the room the chances are multiplied by the 200 people in the audience and the 150 people known to them, creating a pool of 30,000. Would it be surprising for there to be a dozen Jenna’s or Jemma’s in such a large sample, especially both being a common name? The only surprise to me was, nobody took the bait.

One of the most crucial elements of a convincing cold reading is a subject eager to make connections or reinterpret vague statements in any way that will help the reader appear to make specific predictions or intuitions. While the reader will do most of the talking, it is the subject who provides the meaning.

SHOTGUNNING

Shotgunning is one of most used cold reading techniques and is named after the way a shotgun fires a wide spread of small missiles so that there is a better chance of finding a target. Docherty and Francis both depended on this ploy in choosing the general subject of health. Health can be expanded to mean hospitals or pharmacies and all the professions therein (the NHS for example is Scotland’s and the UK’s biggest workforce at over 1,500,000 people). Everybody has either worked for the NHS or is related or knows someone who is or has worked in the NHS or health industry. Also, this subject could also be expanded to a hospital or doctor visit, treatment received in a hospital or even an illness someone has suffered or even perished as a result of. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody that does not connect in some way to the universal subject of health. It’s neither supernatural nor scientific more common sense and simple maths.

PIGGYBACKING

When a psychic makes a pronouncement to an audience member and it’s a miss, they will sometimes claim the information was meant for someone else in the crowd and that the spirit messages are being muddled. This technique allows the medium/ psychic to fish the rest of the audience for a match. So, when Docherty insisted that she was still receiving messages from or about a ‘Jenna or Jemma’ near the end of show she is not only saving face from the previous miss but reinstating her apparent psychic abilities to the audience. You could say that she is feeling her way to the truth, even hedging her bets but in truth it’s straightforward cheating and about as supernatural as predicting the football pools two hours after the games have finished.

Cold Reading in June (Part 1)

 ‘The lady spent a lot of time alone before passing?’ asks the Irishman.

‘Yes’ squeaks the woman.

‘Can I reiterate that she wore pink, I know I’m right. And there’s a gentleman beside her who was in the spirit world prior to her passing. Do you understand me?’ he asks.

The woman squeals a little then says, ‘Yes, my father, he died in 1961’.

The woman’s mental collapse is swelling to an inevitable explosion of emotion. Like observing an unopened tin of beans boil in a campfire, you know what’s going to happen, but you can’t stop watching. The hushed audience share my captivation, nobody dares squeak nor sniffle.

‘Ok, I get a feeling that the lady is trying to connect with me. She’s not trying to upset you. I’m not trying to upset you but she’s trying to convey the love that she had for this man,’ says the Irishman.

‘Uh, huh,’ squeaks the woman in reply.

‘And she seems to have a lot of girls or female relations?’

‘Yes, she had a sister.’

‘I’m also getting some military connection. Also, with the gentleman. Was he in the Navy? I’m getting a regimental, proud man? The woman says you have a very, busy mind just now?’

‘Yes’, replies the woman whimpering.

‘She is trying to highlight the things that are bothering you. Your mind is at a million miles per hour and you have hundreds of thoughts. Take a step back and stop worrying about others. You have no idea how you are affecting others. The lady is reiterating that. Be selfish.’

‘I cannot be selfish’ squeals the woman.

‘Take time for you.’

‘Why didn’t she tell me she loved me when she was alive?’ bawls the woman.

I lean back in my chair and scan the audience for some sort of reaction, but everybody is staring with intense concentration upon the medium and his targeted prey.

 ‘That’s unfortunately something I can’t answer but I do believe this lady has seen the ripple effect of her actions. I assure you of that. We have a beautiful journey to take in crossing over, but she realises how she acted. She has a hell of a lot of love in her heart,’ continues the Irishman.

I feel mortified for the woman. I’ve never seen somebody so completely fall apart in front of an audience of strangers. In a few short minutes the she disintegrated from an enthusiastic devotee into a trembling wreck. And all because she had just apparently conversed with a long dead Aunty. She’s too upset to answer the medium properly instead managing an affirmative, long snort into the microphone. I can’t help raising a smile at the piggy reply, which doesn’t go down well with the surrounding audience who glower at me during their bout of wild applause.

The woman believes she has just conversed with her long dead Aunty. This supposed supernatural feat can only be achieved via mediumship which is the psychic channelling of the spirits of the dead through mediums such as the Irishman. If this miraculous phenomenon is genuine then I’ve finally witnessed the conclusive evidence of not only spirits but also the afterlife, the supernatural and even ghosts, subjects that have fascinated me for most of my life. A fascination that I can pinpoint to a specific time, place and story.

GLASGOW, 1980s

Although I am a country boy my mother is Glaswegian so my small family and I would regularly troop down from Highland Perthshire to visit my Granny in her high rise flat in the Gorbals (an inner-city district lying on the south side of the Clyde). After initial warm greetings, and while the adults were talking, my wee brother would sprawl on the carpet to draw pictures while I would either gaze out at the magnificent view of the city or read football books and magazines. Aunties and Uncles would gradually gather to trade gossip and share stories with our parents, all laughing hard into the wee small hours. As the night wore on our Aunties would always set about terrifying my brother and I with dreadful tales about ghostly visitations from long dead relatives or horrid experiences with clairvoyants and local weirdos. One night after we had both been sent to bed with a headful of these dreadful tales, my Uncle Alec popped his head into our room and handed me a paperback book with the advice ‘If you like ghosts, get a load of this lot’. The book was already beat up and the pages yellowing but on the cover was an eerie, old castle with the title ‘Scottish Ghost Stories’. Inside the stories were arranged alphabetically from Aberdeen to Whitburn with each tale no more than three pages long. There were grey and green ethereal ladies, headless monks, howling banshees, spectral hounds and wailing widows, the full gamut of Scottish, supernatural tales. I devoured half the stories that night and read the remainder the next day.  Of all the stories, one dubious tale ensnared my attention and buried deep into my blossoming imagination.

The story took place in 1930’s Glasgow and more specifically an elaborate lecture hall of Glasgow University. Every month the Society of Parapsychology would meet to discuss and debate all things paranormal, and at one of these meetings they decided to hold a séance and attempt to summon some spirits from the other side. They gathered in a darkened room, sat around a table, held hands then invited any spirit to give them a sign. Expecting the usual table knocks and flickering lights they were instead horrified to witness one of the attendees start to shake, tremble, then growl in a strange, disembodied voice. The growling voice identified herself as a Spanish woman who after years of abuse by her husband had been deliberately buried alive in the local necropolis. The woman begged the group to investigate her claims and bring her awful husband to account for her murder. Such was the detail of the description the society immediately set about researching the spirit’s claims eventually finding her death certificate then burial plot in the massive Victorian necropolis in the east of the city. A decree of exhumation was obtained, and her coffin unearthed and removed to the University. When the coffin lid was removed on the underside there were scratch marks and tears at the inner fabric. The woman was lying on her side with her knees pressed hard against the coffin walls and her fingers were pushed deep into her mouth as if she was trying to expand her throat to the disappearing oxygen. The husband was duly arrested, convicted then hung from his neck providing the woman with righteous retribution. The vengeful spirit is a well-used trope in ghost stories, but more interesting to me was that this tale provided irrefutable proof of the ability of the living to speak to spirits of the dead as in this case only the dead woman could provide the vital evidence that delivered her husband to the gallows.

Thirty years later and I still have this story is still tattooed on my mind. Unfortunately, the book has long since collapsed into ruin and another copy has never been found despite a huge amount of searching. So, I decided to try to witness the conversing with spirits of the dead first-hand. Previously, I’d found Halloween séances to be farcical shows of amateur dramatics more suited to the superstitious Victorian age or bad horror movies. Similarly, Ouija board demonstrations were open to the manipulation and control of the performance creators. My only alternative was to attend a medium show where supposed psychic mediums communicate with spirits then relay their message to relatives or loved ones in a gathered audience. Luckily for me there seemed to be renaissance for this type of entertainment and a renewed popularity in Spiritualism that hasn’t been seen since the post-World War One years. Through a bit of careful planning and with little good fortune I managed to book four separate medium events, all in Scotland and all around the month of June.

Sales Pitch

Hurghada lies on the east coast of Egypt, across from the more popular resort of Sharm El Sheikh just where the Gulf of Suez is absorbed by the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia lies further east glowering over disapprovingly at its more liberal neighbour.

The city’s promenade is a long thoroughfare of empty shops, battered restaurants and tired looking supermarkets. The walls of every house have been bleached white and beat into brittle blocks of crumbling shortbread by the punishing daytime sun. Piles of dirt and rubbish waiting to be lifted sit in every corner and weeds poke through the cracks in the uneven concrete slabs of the pavements. It’s far from the stereotypical image of Egypt: of ancient pyramids and bustling bazaars. The only sounds this early evening are from cars and motorbikes buzzing up and down a far-off motorway. This once bustling resort town favoured by rich Europeans and Americans is now flat on its backside and struggling to recover after a slew of terrorist attacks ranging from stabbings on the beach to the downing of a passenger airplane.

My brother and I are making a preliminary recce of our destination after landing in Egypt an hour previously. We walk on the edge of the main road not venturing too close to the many shop assistants that are trying to summon us into their establishments.

‘Where are you from?’ roars a young man from across the street.

‘Scotland’ I call back.

‘Ahhhhh, (obviously stumped), how you doing mate?’ comes a question in a comedic cockney accent.

‘Come inside, just looking, we have much things for wife, for girlfriend or mother’

‘No thanks man, maybe tomorrow’ I reply.

We move 10 metres down the road and are hailed by another man outside a shop.

‘Hello, hello, how are you?’ calls a man in an old Liverpool shirt.

‘Good thanks’ replies my brother.

‘Come and visit my shop friend, we have many things for you. Very cheap’

‘No thanks, not tonight, maybe tomorrow’ replies my brother.

Each shop sells the same tired fare; tourist tat with images of Cleopatra; small golden pyramids; busts of bygone rulers and crudely moulded ornaments of ancient gods and deities. I doubt much of it is made in Egypt but shipped in by the container load from China.

After six or seven salesmen using the same pitch the novelty wears as thin as the cheap clothing they are hawking inside. These are the guys that imbittered tourists whine about after returning home. By the time we reach our hotel we have been beckoned by of at least twenty of them and we are not even replying. We raise our hands to wave with a dismissive ‘yeah, yeah’. It’s bothersome but bearable. Only doing their job I suppose.

Over the next week we travel a little but mainly laze around the hotel reading books, watching Arabic subtitled TV and feasting on the all-inclusive meals and booze. Whenever we venture out, we are met with a smile, humour and hospitality. On our penultimate day, we go on a sightseeing tour. I am ripped off by the Bedouins that guard the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, bartered down into buying small alabaster busts of Nefertiti, procure marble scarab beetles and obtain an ‘ancient’ papyrus script which lights up luminous in the dark. We visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, wonder at King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and cross the river Nile to the grand pillars and statues at Luxor. Our only regret is that we decided not to take an extra plane to the Pyramids and back. When we climb up the stairs into our airplane to return home our bags are crammed with Egyptian gifts and stereotypical tourist jumble.

Our plane is (an Airbus A321- 32b) a short-to medium range, narrow body, commercial passenger twin-engine jet airliner.  A bit like the cabin crew this plane looks older than usual and a bit worn. The upholstery is tatty, and the plastic frames scratched and marked through years of passenger abuse. There are no personal tv screens but a shared screen that bends down from the roof to be shared by nine passengers: this mainly presents the plane’s flight path, speed and ETA. A fold down table – which is very practical if you have arms like a tyrannosaurus rex – holds all available food and drink which can be bought in due course.

There are 36 rows of: 3 seats, the aisle, then another row of seats, that line up to 220 passengers the length of the body. Each passenger has 28 inches of body and leg room with 17 inches available width. As a big lad I have no room for manoeuvre and my knees knock against the back of the seat in front, neither can I recline the seat its 3-inch capability, but this doesn’t stop the passenger in front trying to unsuccessfully recline hers several times. Because of these constraints I must sit upright with perfect posture and not my natural slouch. My head sticks out high above everyone else. This is our sarcophagus for 6 hours and we are positioned rigid and stationary as an embalmed mummy inside.

There is one toilet at the pilots end of the plane (remember this is important) and a further two toilets at the rear. The American Airline airbuses are outfitted with a business class area however in this plane everyone is squeezed tight together like packet of polo mints. I take my seat by the aisle while my brother, who immediately sets about sleeping despite being of similar height and girth, is sitting across the aisle in the other trio of seats. In my row there is an old couple: the wife is fidgeting in corner by the window while her husband is agitated and suffering from air anxiety or a brutal hangover. They are bickering and swearing at other under their breath. In front is a large Indian family of three generations, the kids clamber over their smiling parents while the grandparents look on. I smile back signifying that the kids don’t bother me. I buckle my seat belt and begin to watch the attendants stony faced demonstration of the flight emergency protocols.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the nonstop service from Hurghada to Glasgow International. On behalf of your Captain and the entire crew, welcome aboard Thomas Cook Airlines flight MT711B. Our flight time will be of six hours and fifteen minutes. We will be flying at an altitude of …”

The announcement is unnecessarily loud making the plastic speakers vibrate under the pressure. The message is bawled at the passengers most of whom ignore any information and place their headphones over their ears. The engines growl and we race down the runway and gradually rise above the airport, city then into the clouds.

No sooner has the belt buckle light dimmed then the old woman in the corner of our row needs to go to the toilet. This produces a furious response from her a narky little husband.

‘For fucks sake, we’ve only just took off’ he spits at her before turning his head to me.

 ‘Excuse me sir could you let my wife out to go the toilet, sorry’

I’m disarmed by his politeness and rise out of our row to let them both pass into the jostling queue of passengers for the toilet. An attendant is quick to scold me for taking the empty seat in the front row, but I explain that the old couple will be returning soon, and I’ll only get in the way until then. She accepts my excuse with a disdainful sneer then busies herself organising her food trolley.

An older woman is squirming at the tail of the queue eager to get into the single toilet. She is thin with a gaunt face and is wearing an old blue tracksuit and worn trainers: the old tatty type of gear that your gym teacher used to wear. I decide that she is Canadian merely because she doesn’t look Scottish but more French with a hint of American. She is clutching a grey, metal walking stick and crouches down and steadies her forehead upon her knuckles. It’s not a good look and I immediately appreciate that unless she gets into that toilet soon things will go awry very, very soon. The old couple and the others however are oblivious to her state and use the toilet with the speed of pregnant hippos.

It’s at this point, the sales spiels start roaring through the speakers: loud, obtrusive and about as welcome as a camel sneeze in the ear.

 ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, in a moment your cabin crew will be moving through the plane and you will be able to purchase everything from the catalogues situated in front of your seats’

I turn around to catch the response of the other passengers, many of whom are contorting their faces in discomfort. The luckiest put on their noise cancelling headphones but the majority must endure the racket from above.

 ‘For this journey only, we will be offering special prices on select perfume and aftershave, perfect gifts for Christma …’

Even with my iPhone feeding loud house music into my skull I can still hear the din.

The old couple complete their affairs letting the Canadian crawl into the toilet behind them. I’m ordered back into my seat and sit back and close my eyes and try to fool myself into believing that I may drop off into uninterrupted a six-hour slumber.

 ‘You will notice that today we have a special offer of any two bottles of spirits for eighteen …’

Unlike the shop tenders in Hurghada the flight attendants already have their customers in their premises, yet their sales technique is more impolite tenfold. In the process of selling their merchandise they have destroyed their passenger’s comfort and discarded their customer service. As they busy themselves at the rear of the plane, I notice the door of the toilet flap open and shut a few times followed by a hand poking through the gap to attract some attention. I turn to see if I can hail an attendant, but they are too busy preparing themselves to sell, sell, sell, so I press the help button above my head.  Thankfully the attendant rushes past me and straight to the aid of the floundering Canadian. Upon reaching the toilet she hesitantly edges open the door but is repulsed by the sight inside. She turns from the door with her eyes bulging and cheeks puffed out like an asthmatic hamster. Another attendant joins her and they exchange some disbelieving stares. Something has gone seriously wrong within that toilet and the curtain separating the bottom area is immediately drawn.  Minutes later the Canadian’s husband (a small bearded man), is hailed from the belly of the plane and he rushes forward complete with toilet bag and a change of clothes. I’m struck by his preparedness and relative joviality surmising that isn’t his first rescue.

Then in act of unnecessary callousness the attendants loudly address the passengers through the speakers:

 ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, for the rest of tonight’s journey the toilet at the front of the plane shall be out of order, please use the toilets at the back’

Everybody is now concentrating upon the toilet at the front of the plane. Only doing their job I suppose.

After five minutes of hidden theatrics the curtain is finally pulled back to reveal the Canadian who must now endure a needless walk of shame down the aisle of the plane. She tries to steel her way past the condemnatory eyes of her fellow passengers with a taut, forced smile cum grimace. I stare forward not wanting to catch her gaze (my earphones are in, but my music has long been stopped) and I feign casual disinterest. I notice that she has returned minus her tracksuit bottoms and instead some dog-eared blue shorts. She passes my field of vision and takes her seat somewhere behind me.

The attendants immediately start accepting orders in the Canadian’s wake and start to distribute food and drinks while receiving credit cards and cash in return. The old woman in my row orders a small bottle of champagne while her husband crumples himself into temporary hibernation. After a while I turn around to see the Canadian several rows back: she is fast asleep, her head tilted back and snoring loudly, nobody bothers her for the rest of the journey. I try to get comfortable and start to leaf through the airlines catalogue and prepare to spend, spend, spend.

Where are all the Bees?

Where are all the Bees?

 

 

Monday

Monday morning in Highland Perthshire is as quiet as quiet can possibly be. The locals are still rising, no cars are on the streets, even the birds are still yawning. The rays of the morning sun begin to bank over the hills of the surrounding valley and creep along the green, undulating lumps of the putting green lawn which I must mow. It’s not a bad start to the working week as far as working weeks normally go.

I always stop the mower for Bumblebees or dodge them as they lie on the lawn. The slight change in direction ruins my tidy straight lines so I must go back and retrace my path. The fat, little insects are usually crawling along like drunks. Using every blade of grass to clamber and stagger to safety. Slowly staggering until the sun’s rays reach their shivering torsos. The late evening cold snap stuns the bumblers mid-air sending them tumbling from the skies like stricken Lancaster Bombers. This climatic difference is called the Chill Coma Temperature or the critical thermal minimum temperature (7 °C) that bumblebees need to avoid entering a reversible state where neuromuscular transmission and movement stop. Meaning their flight muscles are unable to be warmed up enough for them to flutter and fly. As a result, until the morning temperature increases, they are stranded, frozen and drowsy. Lying prone like old planes in a Mojave boneyard.

I read that you should feed them a sugar to replenish their energy. It isn’t practical to carry around vials of sugary water at work so I won’t continually interrupt my early morning mow with acts of kindness, but I will spare the majority the death of a thousand cuts, the equivalent of you being torn in the blades of a combine harvester. Inevitably, some of them will be sacrificed and their broken torsos thrown into the mowers grass box then dumped in grassy heaps. Because of the pace of the mower we can’t work in our clump, steel-toed boots but change into trainers. My Dad often chooses to do his mowing in bare feet which warms my heart to see. His big, paws thumping behind the mower, the only time his toes see the sun. It’s a commonly held belief that you can pick up a bumblebee without fear of being stung but this is only half true as only the females sting.

 

Tuesday

Ladybirds used to be a common sighting in the garden when I was a child. I can remember David Bellamy telling us that if a Ladybird was fifty times its size it would eat you. That goes for most insects. Of all the flying insects Ladybirds are probably the most impressive especially in the way their dotted red shells half into wings when they take off. Like a Transformer changing from a tank to helicopter in milliseconds. These days I hardly ever come across a Ladybird in the garden but if I do, I never flick them off my arm like an aphid, but gently push them on to a leaf or ease them back into the air.

 

Wednesday

Like Japanese Knotweed and the Himalayan Balsam weed the Buddleia is deemed to be an invasive species, (a difficult term which always sounds racist to me i.e. a foreign blight, coming over here strangling our plants). It particularly thrives in arid conditions and as a result commonly found beside railway tracks and around disused buildings. Despite being deemed invasive the Buddleia could merit the award of Britain’s most loved plant such has its popularity been with garden owners in recent decades. In late autumn the Buddleia can be hacked back to its woody spine and still return in spring with a full purple bloom of nectar rich flowers. Most of our customers will leave the bush unattended in their gardens until the weight of the petals pulls down the stalks which splits the roots down to the soil. Still even then the Buddleia will sprout new shoots and return in spring rejuvenated.

Insects flock to the bush’s bounty of nectar especially butterflies hence its common name: The Butterfly Bush. Their bountiful flowers hang over like grapes enticing flying insects to feast, load and return like greedy narcotrafficantes. Unlike other pollinators, Butterflies consume plants nectar primarily as a fuel for flight however during this process the butterflies also pollinate the Buddleia and many other plants.  Although their method of pollination is less efficient than Bumblebees or Honeybees, they still play an important part in the natural process of airborne insect pollination. Shake the bush or edge near it and a cloud of butterflies explode into the sky providing you with one of the most colourful and pleasant sights within a garden. Initially spooked and probably mistaking you for a predator they linger in the air until the danger has passed then are drawn back to their quarry to feast. In the recent years these throngs of butterflies have become increasingly rare in our customer’s garden.  If we are lucky, we will get one or two rogue Red Admirals or the odd moth. It’s generally believed that their numbers are rising across Scotland, but I haven’t noticed this at all.

 

 

Thursday

I’ve sacrificed a few days’ work because of clouds of midge swamping my eyes and ears. They particularly go for the bony areas of the skull and around the wrists and ankles. I’ve used all sorts of repellent, head nets and old traditional techniques but ultimately I ’ve always had to surrender and abandon work defeated. Legend has it that upon capturing Government Redcoat soldiers, Highland clansmen would stake their prisoners naked amongst the heathered glens, those being a rich breeding ground for midges. The midges would attack and feast sending the redcoat insane with the torture. I can appreciate how brutal the torture must have been.

 

 

 

 

Friday

Wasp stings are an acceptable hazard when you share gardens with these insects during the day. Gardens are their natural habitat and you are the interloping nuisance. They tolerate your presence but in the event of a slightest infraction they are quick to remind you of your place in the horticultural pecking order. Several years back I mistakenly buzzed strimmer into an underground wasp bike despite plenty of warnings from my co-workers. You tend to switch off when completing your daily tasks and slip into an almost meditative dream like state, able to complete the day to day while listening to podcasts and idly letting your imagination fly. But a seething cloud of truculent bastards soon snaps you out of this torpor. A strimmer makes a deep, growl from its two-stroke engine and a furious fizz from its spinning head. On first appearance a squadron of wasps could easily mistake you for a massive, more furious wasp or some type of predator. Not that they need much provocation. In my case the wasps scrambled in a furious storm, rallying in defence with a pre-emptive attack. I abandoned my strimmer and escaped to the other side of the garden, but they pursued me with dogged ferocity for many metres until I was stung three times on the stomach. The wasps then returned to base, no doubt ecstatic in victory while I searched for anti-histamines and balm in the work van, anything to sooth the pain and counter the swelling and inevitable itching.

Not long after this harsh attack, I edged open a customer’s garden shed door to satisfy my nosiness and was met by another cloud of nasties, this time bees defending their football sized hive. Like a homing missile, Red Leader flew into attack, targeted my top lip and drilled deep before falling away stricken. The initial confusion soon gave way to intense pain and unbelievable swelling. My top lip ballooned to around eight times its normal size giving me the look of one of those poor Z list celebrities who experiment with collagen. The injury, for such a small assailant, was baffling and when I shared my discomfort with my co-workers I mas met with extreme concern (Father) and hysterical laughter (Brother). It took a full afternoon for the inflated lip to deflate and a further two days for it to return to normal size.

Unlike bees, wasps can sting multiple times but alike bumblebees only the females can sting. Only honeybees sacrifice themselves in attack as their stinger remains in their victim and the resultant damage to their abdomen is too traumatic to survive. Most impressively, upon stinging all Bees and Wasps release pheromones which carry back to the nest warning their comrades of impending danger. This amazing combination of emergency flare and natural Bluetooth then inspires the attack scouts to scramble into action in the form of swarm. This pheromonal communication also maintains the normal social structure of the wasp/bee colony but in late summer this cohesion begins to break down as queen cells have been laid and the hormone is no longer produced. As a result, the workers become confused, go looking for sweet foods which puts them in conflict with humans. Fortunately, I’m not stung as frequently as in past years, this could be due to my growing wisdom, but I doubt this as this is not reflected in my general life. A common question from fellow gardeners and customers is increasingly: “Where are all the bees?”.

 

 

Saturday

One of the most laborious and soul-destroying parts of a gardener’s working week is weeding. Not only do you have to get finger deep into mud and whatever else has been discarded in a flower bed, but you also must contend with more stingers at bended down eye level. However, as there are no overheads involved with weeding or “tidying up” it is also the most time consuming and as a result most profitable.

The only other option to hand weeding is weed killer using a backpack sprayer which is cheaper for the customer but far more dangerous for all. Round Up is the most popular herbicidal weed killer in the world and for decades it has been used by gardeners to destroy bothersome weeds. Roundup is usually used with a carefree abandon being sprayed with a handheld device however its industrial use requires a strict adherence to safety precautions and mixing guidelines. The safety equipment of face mask, suit and rubber gloves makes you feel as if you are handling radioactive material rather than a popular herbicide. A cap full of Round Up is added to around 20 litres of water, mixed together then broadcast upon any visible weeds. Farmers multiply this same concoction 100-fold then spray it across fields using tractors or even planes. Millions of litres are used annually. After use all the equipment must be confined in a steel container which in turn must be locked in a secure premise and any industrial users should possess a recognised certificate for legal use. After the initial dousing a weed- or any other plant-will absorb the Glyphosate through its leaves where it attacks the enzymal structure of the plant, fatally infecting the plants life systems.

Round Up was the ’flagship’ product Monsanto until it was acquired by Bayer in 2018, in turn creating an all-encompassing super agricultural corporation. Their amalgamation is widely appreciated as an effort to avoid the growing number of multimillion negligence lawsuits that have arisen since Roundup’s main ingredient: Isopropylamine salt of Glyphosate, was recognised as the of cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in everyday users. However just as scientists are beginning to realise – or admit – how harmful this evil syrup is to humans the evidence is also building that Glyphosate is contributing to the dramatic reduction in numbers of airborne pollinators. Simply, the chemical is infecting the insects gut microbes leaving them increasingly susceptible to fatal diseases.

In effect Glyphosate together with other factors such as insecticides and destruction of habitat is decimating the insect numbers across the globe.  The insects which have taken millions of years to perfect evolutionary miracles such as pheromonal communication and pollination, are now threatened with extinction. Monsanto have managed to achieve this feat in a matter of decades.

Bayer/Monsanto cannot control natural pollinators, yet, but it increasingly looks like they are decimating their numbers to the brink of extinction or at least until consumers are completely dependent upon their products. Products which in turn are killing their customers through deadly Glyphosate contamination. These dreadful statistics tally with my own amateur observations at work. You tend to notice small things in the garden when you spend half your waking life there. And while I am no expert it doesn’t take a scientist to prognosticate how dreadful the future will be without any pollinating insects.

 

Mind of a monster

On Thursday 1st of February 1829, Andrew Longair was three days shy of his twenty second birthday and living in Scotland’s capital city. As he set about completing the last of his long list of daily duties there was little to indicate that today would prove to be the most important day of a long and interesting life. A day when he would finally conjure the courage to invite the love of his life out on their first day together; initially converse with his lifelong mentor and before sunset be invited to stare into the mind of the devil himself.

The city of Edinburgh had been described as the “Athens of the North”, a title that was as ill-deserved as it was false as the ancient capital of Greece had never been this cold nor ever smelled this abysmal. True, the Scottish city was recognised as a church of ‘Enlightenment thought’ and mecca of medical learning but for most of the cities dwellers this was only a pretentious veneer. Many of city’s inhabitants lived in desperate poverty and had to endure the type of squalid living conditions usually only suffered by livestock. The poorest of all were confined to the West Port and Cowgate areas just below castle, the bulk of those were Irish immigrants and exiled Highlanders. To further preserve the chasm between the classes the city authorities had recently implemented the construction of a New Town complete with beautiful new Georgian townhouses, ornate buildings and connecting cobbled roads. The affluent then abandoned the crammed Old Town areas, leaving the deprived to their tenement slums.

The gaze of the civilised world however was not trained upon Edinburgh for benign reasons on this winter’s day. The recent West Port murders had horrified the city’s many inhabitants and word of the heinous crimes had rapidly spread down to England then abroad. The city’s reputation was besmirched and tipped into the polluted river the city sat upon. And while the Irishmen that had slain sixteen souls then sold the bodies had been caught, the real scandal was that it was an educated man and member of the plutocracy that had rewarded the murderer’s acts.  Unbeknownst to Andrew he was just about to be pulled into the very belly of all this horror.

It taken the Andrew near to a year to adjust to living in the city. The farm boy had tired of his rural surroundings and escaped down to Edinburgh just after his twenty first birthday. At first, he had gotten lost in the warrens and burrows of the city streets and the sheer scale of the city had terrified him to the bones forcing him to scurry back into his bedroom at night. However, he had gradually built up his courage through the hard work and routine of the local brewery. All day he swept floors, cleaned equipment, fed the horses, rolled barrels around the warehouse, loaded them into the waiting carriages then delivered the beer around the hostelries and bars of the Old Town. The work was arduous but provided him with an invaluable insight into a growing industry. His employer: Mr MacLaren, was a kind old industrialist who had recognised Andrew’s spirit of curiosity and encouraged him to he read and learn about the new ideas that had recently washed across Europe. His real education however came from his older co-workers who had adopted him as kin and provided him with the more important schooling he needed to survive in the city. They had advised him where to drink, where and how to dance, how to behave with women, who to trust, who to fear and which areas of the city to avoid. Every day he ate up all their guidance and heaped the wisdom in the back of his skull.

‘Aff to join the crowds in the New Toon are you Andrew? See if you can catch a glimpse of the West Port monster?’ asked Robert (the old barrel maker) while crossing his eyes and lolling his tongue from the side of his mouth.

‘Maybe so Robert, see whit all the fuss is about’ replied Andrew.

‘Nah, it’s no monster he’s planning to see this morning Robert. He’s aff to see his wee Irish sweetheart at the Atholl Arms’ teased Patrick the cart driver.

Andrew felt his cheeks flush but did not submit to his playful tormentors. He dove his hand into an open sack of oats and held a straight handful below the nose of the cart horse. The mare snuffled up the food while spraying cold, wet air from her snout.

‘Well Andrew, don’t being taking her anywhere near here if you aim to impress’ said Robert.

‘Aye, you should take her to the Meadows’ added Patrick.

‘Wheest Patrick, they’ll be chased from the Meadows. The rich don’t the likes of us in their parks. No son you should take her up to Arthur’s seat and take in the city view’ advised Robert.

‘Aye right enough, right enough, Arthur’s seat would be better, but mind take something to eat and a bottle o’ water, no’ beer, she has enough of that in her nostrils all week’ added Patrick.

‘As always gentlemen your advice is invaluable. I think I’ll do just that’ replied Andrew.

The older men mocked Andrew’s polite tone and bade him cheery farewell. He wrapped his thick, woollen scarf around his face and neck twice before tucking it into the front of his tatty waistcoat. He had initially abandoned this scarf, being embarrassed by his mother’s knitting, but as the temperature plummeted it had become invaluable protecting him from the bracing gales and shielding his nose from the Cowgate’s dreadful smells. He pushed open the thick wooden doors of the warehouse and marched into the bracing wind of early afternoon. The frozen soil of the thorough fare crunched below his boots as he crossed the streets and weaved through the lanes of the Old Town. Horse drawn wagons trundled up through the middle of the streets  rutting the mud into lines while a constant flow of hawkers, shoppers, maids and delivery boys zipped down the frozen pavements. Everyone seemed determined to make their frostbitten commute as brief as possible.

Andrew saw Bridget on the door step of the Pub long before she recognised him. He watched her screw up her face and turn from the smell of a bucket of slops that she was emptying into the street. Even during this moment of horridness, he thought her more beautiful than Helen of Troy. The effluent from the bucket spilled onto the cobbles then oozed into the stinking mess that always collected outside the local hostelries. The brown mess seemed to creep up the walls like a gangrenous stain, living but rotting everything in its path. Bridget’s expression lightened upon recognizing Andrew slip, stumble and scramble up the rutted road.

‘Coming to see me, are ye? Asked Bridget in her mellifluous Irish brogue.

‘Just passing by’ replied Andrew with a smile.

‘Jest passing by he says, passing by to where exactly?’

‘Ahh you’ve got me Biddy. I’ve come to try and convince you to come out with me tomorrow’

Andrew adored the rhythmic poetry of Bridget’s speech, as if each word that flowed effortlessly from her rosy red lips were tied together in some sort of predetermined sonnet. She was twenty-one and like Andrew only recently moved to Edinburgh, only she had escaped from the confines of Strabane on the North West coast of Ireland. Her long black curly was collected in a bun under a white, maid’s hat but one wisp always seemed to escape down across her forehead. Andrew gazed into her blue eyes and marvelled at her little bunny teeth which crossed her bottom lip when she smiled.

‘Where would you be taking me tomorrow then Andrew?’ asked Bridget.

‘I can’t tell you, it’s a surprise’

‘A surprise he says… Well Then, I’ll make you a deal, I’ll accept your invitation but only if ye do me a little favour in return’

‘Anything for you Biddy’

Bridget slipped through the doorway of the pub and returned with a bundle of three books tied together with twine.

‘One of the doctors from up at South Bridge left these in the pub last night, in a right old state he was, I’ll agree to accompany you tomorrow if you deliver these to their owner’ said Bridget.

She held the books out towards Andrew chest. He unfastened the string’s bow and opened the first book and read out the hand written first page.

‘Doctor Lizar, Surgeon’s Hall, South Bridge, Edinburgh’

‘You never know he might know one of those Frenchmen you’re always rabbiting on about’ teased Bridget.

Andrew drew the twine from under the books and looped it around Bridget’s neck, tied it at her chest then pulled Bridget close and kissed on her on the forehead. She giggled at his little, romantic gesture and pushed the books into his chest. He put the books into the pockets of his jacket and stepped back from the doorway and back into the frozen mud of the road.

‘I’ll see you on the way back Biddy’ said Andrew before turning towards the New Town.

‘I hope so Andrew’ called Bridget before disappearing back through the door.

To reach Surgeon’s Square Andrew had to traverse some of the most treacherous parts of the city where even during daytime there were still enough shadowed closes and darkened lanes for predators to hide in. As a result, he kept to the safety of the middle of street also avoiding the frosty pavements and chamber pots that were always being tipped from above. Hunkered up in one of the doorways a Policeman was waiting for victims like a large dark jungle cat. His long black jacket was held together with a line of brass buttons reaching from neck to groin and his velvet top hat sat askew upon on his mammoth cranium. The officer spotted Andrew and crossed the road to block his path by placing his wooden baton upon Andrew’s chest.

‘Where do you think you’re going Paddy’ asked the officer in a distinctive Highland drawl.

‘My name’s not Paddy’ replied Andrew. ‘And I have an important delivery for Doctor Lizars at Surgeon’s Square’ answered Andrew while showing the Policeman the books in his pockets.

The Policeman chuckled at the young man’s quick temper also noting his shared accent.

‘An educated man, I’m guessing you’re not from Inverness then?’ asked the Policeman.

‘No, Nairn’ replied Andrew.

‘Close enough … Surgeon’s square? Off to join the crowds, are you?’ pried the Policeman.

‘No Sir, I had enough of all that on Wednesday at the hanging’

‘Aye well, I wouldn’t be lingering around the square today, there’s a fair-sized mob gathering, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be leaving until they see yon dead Irishman from the Mill Port’

‘I don’t intend to stay there any longer than necessary’ said Andrew.

The Policeman motioned to Andrew to carry on and slunk back into the cover of the doorway.

At the top of the steep hill that plateaued onto the South Bridge Andrew climbed upon a wall to get a better view of the mass of people that had gathered. He had never seen so many souls gather in one place. The horde was massed around the newly built Surgeon’s Hall; a massive building that dominated the line of newly erected libraries, University buildings and legal offices of Edinburgh’s New Town. Several sets of large stone stairs led to the Grecian pillars at the entrance, its ostentatious design designed to reflect the institutions stature and self-reverence. A phalanx of uniformed Policemen stood between the throng of protestors and the dark suited students and doctors, sporadically the uniformed men beat the throng back, cracking skulls and whacking limbs with swings of their heavy batons. Andrew stepped down from the wall, eased into the crowd and sidled into earshot of the nattering demonstrators. Each man- and the occasional woman- were trading gossip and rumour like currency and there were various thoughtless ideas being passed around. Many thought the body had disappeared or risen from the grave. Some that the private dissection had revealed some hideous fact; that the murderer had the innards of a demon, dragon or worse. A few that the corpse had turned to stone after being pulled down from the gallows. Regardless, everyone was demanding for some sort of viewing of the murderer’s corpse to prove otherwise.

A couple of zealots were standing upon wooden boxes each espousing their beliefs and damning all with contrary opinions, a small group of sycophants surrounded each nodding and parroting their guru’s bile. Andrew crept up to beside one gang that encircled a dog collared minister whose fat seemed to squeeze out of every vent of his ill-fitting tunic. Andrew inhaled deeply in full expectation of the religious nonsense that would follow.

‘And what are we to expect of the increasing hordes of Hibernians that have washed upon our shores. These heathens have no respect for humankind and answer only to their Pope in Rome’ bellowed the bloated holy man.

The gang murmured their approval and encouraged the minister further.

‘And it was written that it is sacrilege to deface a human body. We demand to see the body of the heathen resurrectionist and that his humanly remains be interred on holy ground’. cried the minister while holding a small bible high above his head.

The hypocrisy burned within Andrew like the core of a bonfire. How could these religious fools have so much sway with the masses?

Before realising, he blurted out the words of Voltaire, a philosopher his employer instructed him to read.

‘Are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same god?’ cried Andrew.

Andrew’s voice cut through the religious fervour like soldier’s bugle horn.  The minister’s bootlickers immediately about turned to face him and the minister ceased his sermon to scowl down at Andrew from his makeshift pulpit.

‘And Lo, we have a non-believer in our midst, come to tell us how to behave’ said the minister.

The preacher’s sycophants began to circle Andrew like jackals stalking an antelope. The swollen hypocrite seized his chance to exact divine retribution directing his flock to attack.

‘Smite the heathen with all the fury of the lord’ cried the preacher.

The mob responded and began to jostle and hassle Andrew. Before he could muster any type of response he was rabbit punched in the back of the head sending him sprawling to the ground. A torrent of catcalls and abuse poured upon him together with a hail of kicks and punches. He tried to cover himself from the assaults but felt himself slide into unconsciousness. Above all the din a clipped tone ordered ‘Grab him, grab him, before they do him a serious injury’. Then he felt himself being lifted high into the air and planted on his backside onto the cold, sandstone stairway.

‘I’m not sure if your mad or stupid but that was no place to advocate your enlightened beliefs young Sir’ said a voice.

A young man barely older than himself was studying Andrew’s injuries from above. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and held it to Andrew’s bleeding nose. One of the Policemen dropped his cap on his knee.

‘Come with me’ ordered the young man.

Andrew rose from his seated position feeling the effects of the many strikes on his body. The young man pulled Andrew’s arm around his neck and lifted him through the main doors of the hall and onto a chair in the building’s hallway.

‘Thank you, Sir, I thought I was a goner’ squeaked Andrew.

‘I noticed your books and together with your opinions I thought you a fellow student, but you hardly seemed dressed as such’ replied the student.

‘No Sir, I’m not a student, I’ve only come to deliver these books to a Dr Lizars’

‘Lizars eh? Left them in the Pub again did he?’ asked the young man with a chuckle.

The young student checked over his new patient before delivering a consultation: ‘No broken bones but you’ll have a few minor war wounds and bruises to impress the ladies with tonight. Now then, let’s see if we can find you Old Lizars’

Andrew was led down a long, carpeted hallway past sniggering students and curious Doctors. All the students sported the same uniform of black tunic and white shirt with collars that reached up to the lobes of their ears while the doctors wore tight fitting suits with black stockings. The student knocked three times on a large, wooden door prompting an officious ‘Enter’ from beyond. He pushed open the door and stepped into a brightly lit study.

‘Well Robertson, as if I don’t have to tolerate your appearance all morning, why are you bothering me this afternoon?’ spat an older man from behind a heavy, wooden desk.

‘Sir, I have a young man with a delivery for you’ piped the student.

‘It’d better not be another corpse Robertson’ replied the older man.

The young man smirked at the dry wit of the older man before beckoning Andrew forward.

The doctor was an older gentleman of around sixty and had a worn, crumpled face with large front teeth giving him the uncanniness of an old mountain hare. His white mane was slicked back like a horse and his piercing blue eyes sat behind a pair of bone, rimmed spectacles. He was on sitting a wooden throne like chair in front of a wide wooden desk that had open books, diagrams of animals and what looked like ledgers of names scattered upon it.

‘Well, what is it laddie?’ asked the older man.

‘I brought you your books Sir, they were found in a carriage at the bottom of South Bridge’ replied Andrew.

‘Fine, Robertson, you can leave us now’, ordered the old man to his student.

Andrew shook the student by the hand and thanked him for his help. The student then slipped through the door and pulled it shut with a clack.

‘Carriage you say? That’s queer, I can’t remember leaving these books in a carriage. I’d swear blind I left them in the Atholl Arms near Cowgate’ said the doctor.

Andrew squirmed under the glare of the older man but did not respond.

‘Well, how should I address you? What’s your name laddie?’ ask the doctor before rising from the desk and stepping forward towards Andrew.

‘My name’s Andrew Longair Sir, once of Nairn but now a trainee at MacLaren’s Brewery on Candlemakers Row’.

‘Pleasure to meet you’ said the Doctor while exchanging a handshake. ‘My name is Doctor John Lizars, Professor of Surgery and Senior Operating Surgeon of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’.

‘Pleasure to meet you Sir’ replied Andrew.

‘Well, young Longair it seems we share a taste for fine ale and a raucous atmosphere, and there’s little wrong with that, but I appreciate your discretion in front of my students. It would not do for a Doctor to be rumoured to frequent the hostelries of the Cowgate’.

‘Your secret’s safe with me Sir’

‘Glad to hear it’, said the Doctor with a smile.

The Doctor studied Andrew like he was some sort of strange animal in a zoo.

‘Now… let me see if I can repay your favour and in a small way apologise for your troubles outside… Follow me’.

The Doctor took his books, opened the door and led Andrew into a long, carpeted hallway that’s walls were covered with large portraits of Lairds and Dukes with ornate furniture and glass cabinets containing skulls and bones lying beneath. The Doctor paused at a door signed ‘Operating Theatre’ then turned to address Andrew.

‘As you would have noticed outside, we are very popular these days what with our important guest. We’ve just finished with him. Unfortunately, most of the medical students demanded an audience and now half of the damned city are demanding a viewing too’

The Doctor then pushed open the door and ushered Andrew into a huge round room of wood which on first impression looked like a courtroom. There were around one hundred stalls banked in circled levels like inside a small coliseum. At the bottom a table was covered by a white blanket until the doctor pulled the blanket away to reveal a dead male body below.

The cadaver lay back at an angle and was naked save a cloth to hide preserve the man’s decency. The skin was the pallor of grim grey and appeared to Andrew like the meat of some great fish. His eyes were closed as if in deep prayer and without prior knowledge you would have thought he was dozing or drunk. The skull was shaved bald and there was a deep red cut that ringed the forehead like he had just removed an extremely tight top hat. It looked like the cadaver had begun to harden as the skin was pulled taught over the bones and face.  Most unsettling to Andrew was the man’s lips that had begun to curl creating a hideous grimace.

‘Is this I the West Port murderer Sir?’ asked Andrew.

‘No Andrew, this is Rob Roy’ answered the Doctor with a shake of his head.

Andrew edged towards the corpse feeling a rivulet of seat drip down his spine and muscles of his legs begin to twitch.

“He’ll do you no harm now young Longair’ said the Doctor.

Andrew walked forward until he saw the stubble on the corpses chin. The blood had drained from the face, but a dark blue bruised crease had collected around the neck. There was a deep, chemical smell emanating from the body both unnatural and unnerving. Without warning the Doctor laid his hand upon the corpse’s head then pulled the scalp clean away like it was the top of a turnip. Andrew’s eyes widened in fascination propelling him further forward for a better view.

‘And behold, Master Longair, look upon the mind of murderer’ exclaimed the Doctor.

Andrew inched forward and peered down into the skull. Crimson, dark blood and bone were ringed around the skull like a cross section of a tree’s trunk. In the middle was the veiny sliced cauliflower of the brain.

‘So Longair, on first impressions what can you deduce about this man?’ asked the Doctor.

Andrew took a moment to contemplate his answer.

‘Well, the marks around the neck were probably caused by the hangman’s noose’

‘Correct, well done, and what else can you tell me?’

‘Well by the calluses on his hand and the condition of his fingers he was a physical worker probably a navvy’

‘Excellent, Longair, you have an investigative eye’

The doctor replaced the top of the skull and stepped back from the corpse.

’They’ll sew the head back on for the public to view tomorrow. We are expecting thousands of the great unwashed to pass through the theatre, I suppose this is what passes for entertainment in these bleak times’ said the Doctor with a snort of laughter.

The Doctor reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced a small note which he passed to Andrew.

‘I confiscated this from a student not two hours ago’.

Andrew unfolded the note and involuntarily read out the words that were written in a dark red ink.

“This is written in the blood of William Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28 Jan 1829 for the murder of Mrs Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1 Feb 1829.”

Andrew was horrified at the callousness of the note. He turned to the Doctor and handed it back.

‘Hardly the behaviour of a civilised professional Sir’ said Andrew.

The Doctor bellowed a large laugh at Andrew’s disgust then answered: ‘No, it is not Master Longair but in these dark times blood calls for blood. And the criminal that you look upon now did not afford the same respect to his victims that you do to him’

Andrew took a second to deconstruct the full import of the Doctor’s words before finally appreciating their wisdom. The doctor re-covered the body with its sheet and turned back to Andrew.

‘Well Longair, I’m afraid I have work to do and can’t stand about all day talking to you, I trust you can see yourself out’

‘Yes Sir. Thank you for the lecture’

‘And thank you for the return of my books. In fact, take these and come back to me in a month and tell me your opinion’ said the Professor while passing the books to Andrew.

‘Thank you, Sir, although I’ll sooner read these in a week’ replied Andrew.

‘Maybe so, but you’ll not understand them in a week, so reread and reread again then report back’ said the Professor before exiting the theatre with a parting ‘Until next month’.

The abrupt exit left Andrew standing as stiff and awkward as Burke’s corpse below the sheet. He twisted around one last time to appreciate the theatre before climbing the wooden stairs, walking through the hallways and emerging back outside to where the mob was still spoiling for trouble. As he descended the sandstone steps he was spotted by the bloated minister that had directed his mob to attack fifteen minutes before.

‘Well boy, did you see the body of the Irish Devil?’ spat the fat fool.

Andrew nodded, not wanting to engage conversation with the brute.

‘And what did he look like? Did he have horns and hooves or red wings like a demon?’ asked the zealot while simultaneously addressing his congregation.

‘He looked very much the same as you.’ replied Andrew before merging back into the crowd and off to see Bridget.

The Last Fight

 

 

The man’s trainer edged his head around the shower room wall and called out:

‘Your guy’s in a bad way, he’s been put into an induced coma, doctor says there’s an eighty percent chance he’ll come out a vegetable or worse’.

The man cursed his trainer’s matter of fact honesty and replied.

‘Thanks for the great news Terry, now fuck off and leave me alone’

He laid his palms flat upon the tiled wall and let the warm water beat upon his scalp. The red water ran rivulets past the welts and bruises on his chest and down around his legs before spiralling into the drain. He lifted his head to let the spray attack his face, felt the shower stream sting the cuts upon his face then opened his mouth to let it fill with water. The salty combination mixed in his mouth making his inner cheeks sting and teeth throb, so he spat the dark red mixture down into the drain. A crimson pool collected at his feet. Shocked he stepped back and pondered if all the blood was his or the man he had just incapacitated. He twisted the temperature control to increase the heat to how far his injuries would tolerate. Induced coma? That can’t be good. Barely an hour had passed since he left this room where once he was stricken with doubt and anxiety. But now, after being beaten to a bloody mess and punching a man into a coma, all he felt was a dark feeling of shame.

 

An hour previously, the fighter was waiting in the changing room with only his trainer, brother and corner team for company. Selected well-wishers and local business men would dart in and out to offer encouragement, each blandishment incrementally increasing the pressure upon the boxer until the burden of occasion was near overwhelming. He barely recognized the visitors, merely nodding to acknowledge their admiration. Now was not the time for conversation. He briefly shadow boxed for the camera crew and his trainer assented by shooting orders and drilling and reminding the fighter of his requirements. When all his obligations had been fulfilled he sat on the wooden bench and laid back against the changing room wall, closed his eyes and feigned a state of mediation. He was scared to death of failing. Petrified of being humiliated in front of everyone he knew and respected. Of being knocked out cold like a novice and carried from the ring. This mental torture was far worse than any punch, the self-doubt degrading his core like a dentist’s drill and the anxiety welling up to his limits of submission. He briefly thought about chucking it in, of slipping out the window and returning home to his new wife and mother, neither of which ever attended any of his fights. He opened his eyes and scanned the room of solemn faces, immediately catching his little brother’s admiring gaze. His sibling exchanged a smirk and clapped his hands together:

‘Once you flatten this donkey, we’ll shoot up to the pub, have a few pints then bring home mum a curry’ ordered his brother.

‘Your shout kid?’ responded the fighter.

‘No way mate, you’re the champion with the big bucks now’

His brother stood up and crossed the changing room towards him. They embraced and exchanged the types of stare only family understand.

‘He’s an old fucker mate, he’ll be done by the middle rounds’, said his brother. ‘listen to Tel and keep to the plan’

His brother exited the changing room leaving only the barebones of the corner team. A young man with a headset around his ears peeked his head through the door before it closed.

‘Ok guys, you’re up. Soon as the bass kicks in you start your walk down to ring ok’

 

The fighter and his corner team walk to the edges of the crowd till the fighter feels the spotlight beam upon his face. The crowd roars their approval to his entrance. On cue, the bass kicks in and fighter starts jogging down to the ring with a camera crew a few metres in advance. He reaches up to touch the outstretched palms of the adoring audience, accepting their adulation while hundreds of camera phones flash into his face. Upon reaching the ring he climbs up onto the blue canvas and bends under the thick, braided red ropes that surrounds the squared ring.

There’s a hotchpotch of faces surrounding the ring: camera men lean their elbows on the ring apron ready to shoot, managers and promoters scheme and calculate while bloated journalists scribble on notepads. In the first rows suited flyboys, soap opera actors, gangsters and glamour models all wait to be entertained. There’s a selection of old pugs sitting more rows back, their blunted faces twitching from years of abuse. Their trophy wives sit next to them each with bouffant hair dos and deep orange tans. A beery smell of revelry fills the arena, the booze fuelling the crowds’ determination to support their man and create an upset.

The fighter’s Mexican opponent is like an old dangerous dog tied up in a back garden. He’s growling and glaring from across the ring desperate to attack. His ripped muscles are stretched taught over his small frame and his bulging veins wrap like ivy around his arms. His overblown physique reeks of steroids, far more chiselled and defined for a man in his late 30s. And yet there is a paunchiness to his mid riff, a clear indication of misbehaviour. Hubris. The rumours of too much partying; not enough fights and too many late nights begin to look true. The fighter glowers back at the angry face of his opponent with customary flat nose and thick battered lips. He has impressive dark Aztecan Tattoos inked across his chest and many Spanish slogans down the arms. The green, red and white of the Mexican flag colour his long, tasseled shorts to complete his battle dress. He is a walking stereotype, fiercely proud of his country and eager to show loyalty.

The referee invites the men into the centre of the ring and explains their duties. The boxers stare, each man trying to extort a measure of fear from each other. The first round begins with the boxers tentatively circling the ring as feuding tomcats. The fighter jumps on his tip toes, bouncing, feinting and throwing out probing headshots. He jockeys from side to side not wanting to provide a stationary target and goads his opponent like a playful puppy. The Mexican grows impatient and attacks. The fighter tries to ward him off, but his jabs are eaten like popcorn, so he covers up and accepts the inevitable early onslaught. The fighter notices the face of an ex-champ and boxing legend sitting ringside. He’s humbled to see such a legend attending his fight. The moment of reverie is all the opportunity the Mexican needs. The next second the fighter is on his back, lying flat as if he’s basking in a field looking up at a blinding, bright sun.

The referee starts counting “ONE… TWO …”

His trainer slaps the canvas of the ring and screams “Get up! Get fucking up’

“THREE”.

The stunned fighter feels the shuddering of the canvas and wakes from his slumber.

“FOUR”

‘UP, UP’ screams the crowd.

The fighter rises without thinking, plants the soles of his feet upon the canvas and tries to uncloud his confusion. He bangs his gloves together in frustration. Stupid. The referee stops at the count of eight and takes the fighter by his gloves. The fighter looks deep into the eyes of the referee, eager to prove his capability to continue.

“You ok kid? ready to continue?” asks the referee in dirty, New York accent.

‘Ahhm ok ref, let’s go, let’s go’ he responds.

The referee steps backwards to reveal the opponent who’s waiting in a bundle of murderous intent, eager to inflict a final blow. The fighter pulls his arms tight to face, summoning punishment and expecting an onslaught. Punches reign down upon his skull, chest and arms, thundering shots that shudder the him to his core. He reacts, counters then cowers like a hedgehog. The bell rings to end the round and the referee separates both fighters to their corners. The crowd roars their support relieved to see their favourite survive.

The fighter slumps back into the waiting stool and a sponge is squeezed above his head, emptying water on his scalp and cleaning the bullets of sweat from his forehead. His trainer wipes his face like a mother and inspects his cheeks and eyelids for cuts. Exhausted and confused the fighter is relieved to be in the sanctuary of his corner. He drops his gumshield into a cornerman’s waiting hand and water is scooshed into his gaping mouth.

‘What the fuck are you playing at?’ scolds his trainer ‘You fuck about and this guy’ll take you apart, you can’t afford another mistake like that son, keep your fucking guard up, always’

‘Ah know Tel, ah know’ responds the fighter.

‘You’ve got to be smart son, don’t stand there and trade punches, punch and move, cover up then escape, you know the fucking drill’

‘Ah know, ah know, punch and move’

‘Stick to the plan son, he’ll be fucked in 3 rounds but remember to hit back, rile him up, get him mad’

‘Ah know Tel but his punches are hard’

‘They’re supposed to be mate, it’s boxing not a tickling contest …. you’re tougher than him, stronger and smarter, remember your training’

The Mexican has already risen and is prowling the ring ready to herd his prey like a sheepdog manoeuvring lambs. The fighter again bounces on his tip toes until the bell tolls and the referee directs them both back into conflict.  He sways and shimmies, but his opponent incrementally steers the fighter back into the neutral corner. The Mexican is an expert body puncher and relentlessly chops at the trunk of the fighter, whacking at his ribs and sides. Each punch powerful and pin point accurate. The fighter clinches, smothers and spoils the onslaught, soaking up the violence. Before the punches become too unbearable the fighter offers a straight right hander then twists out of the corner like a trapped rabbit. Hit and move, hit and move. His coach screams directions from below, manic like a panicked parent and the crowd bellow their support, thousands of them all desperate to see their champion ride out the whirlwind of punishment. The fighter slides along the thick blue ropes then lies back pulling his arms in close and gloves up to his face. The Mexican pursues relentlessly, dictating the pace with all the subtlety of a wolverine. At the bell the fighter tumbles into the corner and collapses onto the waiting stool.

‘You alright kid?’ asks his trainer ‘He’s not got much left now mate, he’s blown himself out, ah told ye he would’

‘Ah fucking hope so Tel, ah can’t take much more of those body shots mate’ responds the fighter.

‘C’mon mate, be strong’ pleas his trainer.

The next two rounds pass with the same violent intensity. The fighter dances around the ring until he is trapped in the corner and cramped in a coffin. He covers up and adopts a peek a boo style: hiding behind his gloves then offering a sly stinging strike to enrage the Mexican and rile him into a mistake. The fighter has been drilled to encourage his opponent’s rage. Fuel the fury. He swallows the impact of the punches with his body and absorbs the punishment.

Mid way through the 5th round the fighter finally notices the Mexican’s sure footing falter. The signal that his opponent is starting to tire. Like a leopard after his chase the Mexican has exhausted himself, expended all his energy and is now at his most vulnerable. The fighter moves in the centre of the ring and begins to intimidate the bully. His solitary punches expand into combinations then unanswered flurries. The crowd screams their approval, revelling in the brutality of the retribution. Every one of his punches is landing while nothing is coming back. So sharp, so fast. It’s as if he has an extra second to think and act. The Mexican feels the power and falls back on his heels, shot worn, the juddering punches wear him down him until his hands drop with exhaustion. He stumbles like a drunk, wounded and defenceless but the fighter is unmerciful. He twists his torso and steps into his final strike feeling the jaw bone crack through his glove. The stricken Mexican slumps unconscious to the canvas. The referee pushes the fighter to his corner and immediately waves off the contest from above the opponent who lies as dead as a deer in a roadside ditch. The referee hooks the Mexicans gumshield from his mouth with his finger and summons a doctor from the corner. The only proof of life is the Mexican’s stomach which is inhaling and exhaling violently, desperately overworking the oxygen around the boxer’s body. The fighter’s glove is raised in victory and a jubilant mob envelop the ring.

 

After all the celebrations and coronation, the man stood with the gold covered belt around his waist as a congregation of strangers and friends alike sidled up to take photos and offer congratulations. His hands pulsed and his face stung with salty sweat, but the adrenaline was still masking any major pain. His corner team were ebullient, revelling in the frenzy of the triumph. It pleased the fighter to see his pals reap such joy from his exertions.

Then his coach whispered it into his ear: ‘The Mexican’s in a coma, they’ve taken him to the General Hospital, doesn’t look good mate’

The fighter slumped back onto the wooden bench of the changing room and dropped his head into the palms of his hands. His coach draped one of the red stained towels over him and began to knead his back. Half an hour earlier he had been anointed, his arm held aloft victorious; a champion who had knocked out the best in the world in the very city he had grown up. But his triumph was ephemeral and had evaporated. The new information spread around the room like a virus it’s import contorting the many smiles into grimaces. The congregation that had gathered to share the post-fight bliss were no longer able to buzz on the vapour of victory. The congratulations morphed into condolences, praise into pity and the once swollen entourage sat down their plastic cups of champagne and slowly drained out of view.

‘He was a fighter just like you son, he knew the risks, we all do’ cajoled his coach. ‘You’re still the champion of the world kid, nothing can take that away’.

The fighter nodded in affirmation. Tell that to his family. You still expect to go home after a fight, no matter how hard. The fighter threw the towel onto the ground and sat back against the cool, brick wall of the room. His arms panged with pain and his chest wheezed with the efforts of the night. The soothing adrenaline had begun to thaw leaving a throbbing ache in its wake. He picked at the bandages swathed around his knuckles and began to unwrap his hands. There was nothing to say. Nothing that could bring that man back to his family in the way he entered the ring. His coach ushered the remaining hanger-on’s out into the corridor and left the boxer to stew in his misery.

‘Get yourself cleaned up and I’ll be back in 10 mins son’ said his coach.

His bare knuckles were swollen and bruised, creaking as he straightened them for the first time. He turned to the wall mirror to inspect the cuts and grazes upon his bloated face but was shocked by his reflection. The laces on his boots were painfully loosened before being placed beside his world championship belt. He dropped his shorts and groin protector to the ground and waddled naked into the shower room, every step agonizing, every slight movement of his body met with excruciating pain.