It wasn’t the first time she’d been here. Mum had taken her to see the psychic Sandra Piercy shortly after cousin Daniel had taken his own life. She thought it might be comforting to learn how he was getting on in the afterlife. The whole experience had been terrifying for a fourteen-year-old. Everything from the heavy curtains with their garish orange swirls, the antimacassars on the back of the armchairs, the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the hall, the taxidermied fox and ferret chasing each other across the tiled hearth. The house was a museum piece.
The smell too had lived on in the memory. Mothballs and dust and boiled vegetables. It was hard to fathom what a woman who looked so young and relatively fashionable was doing living in such a place. It was the house of an old recluse, not someone in her late twenties.
“It’s a family gift,” said her mum while Sandra had been making the tea.
“Yes, her grandma left it to her in the will. But I wasn’t talking about that. I mean the psychic ability. The Piercys have always been gifted.”
Despite her youth, Sandra didn’t do much to put Laura at her ease. Her mum had asked how Sandra’s parents were getting on in the new bungalow and if Sandra intended to make any changes to the house.
“I can’t,” said Sandra emphatically. “Nanna wouldn’t let me.”
Laura said nothing but felt even more watched than usual. The eyes of the living were bad enough, never mind the dead. She’d been desperate to use the toilet but hadn’t dared to move from her seat, sipping on the tea that had been placed before her.
Daniel came to them that day. He said he was sorry he had to go. He said it wasn’t intended, that he’d only been messing about, wondering what it was like to feel something tight around his neck. He couldn’t remember why he’d attached the other end of the dressing gown cord to the banister, or why he’d sat on top of it with his legs dangling off. He’d just slipped, that was all and he died instantaneously.
“See. I told you the coroner was wrong,” said Mum as they left. “When they said it looked like he struggled before dying.” Mum seemed to think that was a comfort but Laura wasn’t sure. Maybe it was better to think he did fight death when he realised he’d made a mistake.
Laura often thought about that encounter. The voice Sandra relayed had never sounded like Daniel to her. Later she’d learn that most psychics told people that suicides made a mistake, that they were just messing about or trying to get attention and then something went wrong. It seemed unlikely somehow. She imagined most knew exactly what they were doing.
“Do you ever think why he did it?” Pete had asked not long after they’d first met and she’d felt the courage to tell him a little of her tragedies.
“Sometimes. He was bullied a bit at school. I wondered if he was gay maybe. Who knows.”
At least with Pete’s death there was some certainty to it. He’d not intended to die. He was thirty four and full of life with no intention of letting go of it for decades. It had been a notorious bend in a local road that had taken countless people before. He’d been travelling at a regular speed but there’d been a patch of black ice and the car had spun out of control into the trunk of an ancient oak. People said the tree should be felled but a local campaign fought for its protection. It’s not the tree’s fault that people are poor drivers, they said.
Now she was here again. Sandra was two decades older but the house had changed little. There’d been a few touches added here and there. The carpet replaced by laminate, new squishy non patterned sofas. But the internal wood was still painted in that strange dirty buttermilk, the inherited china still gathered dust, more antique claustrophobia than shabby chic.
“You must be feeling your loss a great deal,” said Sandra, leaning forward from her armchair to place a consoling hand on Laura’s knee. “I really want to help you.”
“I hope you can,” said Laura. She wouldn’t start crying. Not again. It was nearly six months now and she couldn’t keep publicly crying. People let you get away with things initially but after a while it started to look needy. We’ve all lost people we love. You shouldn’t think yourself special, she thought.
“Let’s join hands, shall we?” Sandra held out both hands and Laura grasped them. “I’m just going to ask you to close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing, in and out, nice and calm.”
Laura breathed in. Sandra made mannered breathing noises, sucking up air through her nose and breathing it out through her mouth. “Breath control is at the heart of lots of spiritual practices from right across the world, you know.”
Laura did know.
“Now I’d like you to blank your mind. Blank it completely. Tell any intrusive thoughts to go away.”
Laura had been trying to deal with intrusive thoughts for the past six months, and even prior to Pete’s accident she’d hardly had the most untroubled of inner lives.
“Good, now I think we’re both ready,” said Sandra. “You can open your eyes now briefly.”
Laura opened her eyes. Sandra was staring at her intently and smiling beatifically.
“Now I think we’re ready to try and talk to your Pete.”
Her Pete. Her man. Her husband to be. The Boy. The P-Diddy. The Petester. Tricky Petey P. Peter The Compulsive Eater (even though he was stick thin and a gym freak) Pete’s Feet. Pete’s Meat. Pete. Her Pete.
“Ok, love. He’s coming to me now. That’s it, that’s it. Shhhhh.”
Who was she shushing ? Surely she wanted Pete to talk and Laura wasn’t saying anything.
“Ok love, it’s ok.”
Laura stared hard at Sandra who had now closed her eyes.
“Right. He’s a bit distressed, love. Sorry to have to tell you this but he’s a bit distressed.”
“Distressed ? What do you mean?”
“He’s saying it’s not right, it’s not right. It’s ok love, it’s ok.”
“What’s not right?”
“Death, love. Death it’s not right. He shouldn’t be dead.”
Laura wanted to scream that she fucking knew he shouldn’t be dead. She’d been shouting it at the four walls of her flat for the past six months. He was only thirty-four. He was driving home from work, he wasn’t over the limit, he wasn’t a hell raiser, he didn’t have a death wish, he was researching mortgages and talking about children, no part of him wanted to die, not this year, probably not ever. But she stayed silent.
“He really didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to leave you.”
“I didn’t want him to leave.” Laura sniffed.
“Oh, that’s lovely. That’s really lovely.” Sandra opened her eyes and was smiling at Laura. “He’s holding out a bunch of flowers. He says they’re your favourites. He’s smiling and holding out a bunch of flowers.”
“What sort of flowers ? What are they?”
“Let me see. Well he’s saying that you were looking for a house with a garden and he promised he’d grow them for you.”
“But what are they? What type of flowers?” Laura was growing impatient.
“Sweet peas. He’s says they’re sweet peas. The old fashioned sort with the scent. Not the modern ones that smell of nothing.”
Laura froze. They’d had this conversation. Her granddad used to grow wigwams full of them of them on his allotment. He’d cut them into bunches then cycle past their house on the way home and drop them off. Nearly every room in their house at the edge of the Downs had been full of their scent during her childhood summers. Laura looked at the smiling Sandra. She didn’t want her to be able to speak to her dead partner like this.
“I feel uncomfortable with this,” she said, moving along the sofa further away from the psychic. “I’m not sure I want to continue.”
“Pete says he’d like you to continue. He says he understands you’re nervous but there’s so many things for you to think about.”
“Don’t talk about him anymore please.” Laura got to her feet. “Please don’t talk about him anymore. This is wrong.”
“It’s ok love, it’s natural to feel….”
“No, it’s not OK.”
Laura threw her bag over her shoulder and headed for the hall, the psychic rising to her feet quickly behind her. As Laura was about to place a hand on the front door, Sandra placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Love, it’s important. He wants you to check something. He says that you need to check your breasts for lumps. He says there might be something there now, love. He says it might be no bigger than a frozen pea but you need to check. You need to get it checked.”
Laura gave the woman a look of disgust. “Oh just fuck off, you silly cow.” She opened the door and stepped out onto the street slamming the door behind her.
The tube ride home had been the strangest ever. She was aware of being watched, not just by the seasoned averted eyes opposite her in the carriage, but by unseen eyes that were everywhere. The hundreds who had died building the system, the people who had dropped dead or been stabbed on this route, the people who were here before they built the thing, millennia of Londoners, shouting, staring, passing on advice. Telling her to check for lumps, offering her sweat peas.
Arriving back at her flat she was pleased not to bump into anyone on the shared staircase taking herself into the bathroom and immediately pulling off her t-shirt and unfastening her bra. She stood in front of the mirror and took the weight of one breast in her hand, systematically feeling it all over. There was nothing. She did the same with the other and again found nothing. She sat down on the toilet seat and began to cry. All out of appetite and suddenly exhausted she went to bed and found sleep easier than usual to come by. She dreamt of the old family house, the one her parents had bought when they married and in which they’d all grown up. Before the split. Before the angry words and the stories about her father. Before her mother moved to London to take up a new job and begin a new life.
If she worked in an office with set times then maybe it would be easier to regain some discipline and self-composure. Another day found her still in her nightie at midday tapping away at her laptop trying to tie up some copy about heart valves. It was late by twenty four hours. It looked like it was going to be late by forty eight. The commissioning editor had been fine about it. Everyone was still being fine about everything and it was starting to rankle. What she craved was someone tearing her down a strip or two, telling her to stop wallowing and to start living. You couldn’t sit in grief for the rest of your life. It wasn’t about Pete anymore, it was about her. It was about her feeling sorry for herself and the stinking hand of shit that life had just shoved in her face. It wasn’t even as if she were a proper widow. Just a girlfriend. A fiancée. She probably didn’t even have as much right to grief as his family.
They were in Edinburgh, she in London. They all tight and supportive and loving and sharing memories, she four or so hours away on the train, the newcomer into the family, part of his other life, his London life that they didn’t really know about. They’d taken his body to Scotland. Of course they had. She’d been in no fit state to argue with them and they were all so certain that was what he wanted. She’d never spoken to Pete about death, they’d only been an item for eleven months when it happened, why on earth would they talk about dying?
They buried him on the Black Isle. It wasn’t an island. Not a true one, there was a land bridge on one side. His granddad told her that he’d grown up there and on the way to the little kirkyard in the small coastal town where Pete was to rest alongside his distant ancestors, he pointed out the family farm in the distance over the brow of the gently rolling hills.
“My father had to sell it to pay off debts. We never found out how he’d incurred them. Dirty secret.”
What was it with fathers and secret debts? She’d heard about so many now that she presumed it must be normal behaviour. It hadn’t felt like that when she’d been forced to leave her school at fourteen because the family couldn’t afford the fees.
They’d passed a little wood with trees that had been tied with rags and t-shirts, teddy bears, dolls, tokens of affection.
“Clootie Well. There’s a natural spring in there people think is lucky. Folks leave stuff to bring them good luck. Lot of superstitious rot. I’ve got no time for it. Just halfwits littering the countryside.”
After the funeral where she’d sat towards the back and looked at her feet feeling lost among strangers, not recognising the portrait of her boyfriend that was being painted by the people speaking. But she was here and that was all that mattered. After the small reception they’d been driven back to Inverness, she staying in a different hotel to Pete’s family, no one thinking to invite her to the evening meal that was planned. It felt like a snub. It felt like a second bereavement.
They could take his body. She had his memories. She also had his laptop. She wanted to sort through his photos to see what was worth keeping. She’d been reluctant to pry up until now. Her best friend Annie had warned her to stay clear.
“What if you find a nasty surprise?” she’d said. “I mean, blokes have secrets. It doesn’t make him a bad man. But you know, porn and stuff.
Laura had joked that she didn’t care about porn and remembered the evenings they’d watched it together, both of them craning to see what was going where ending up in fits of embarrassed giggles rather than a state of heightened excitement.
“Other things. I don’t know.”
“If you can’t be more specific I’m not sure what your point is.”
Annie had bristled and changed the subject. Despite what his family might think, Laura definitely knew Pete. She opened his laptop.
There was folder after folder of photographs. All of them already organised into years and months, everything titled and dated. As neat as he was in the rest of his life. She looked through photos of their daytrips, the holiday to Turkey, photographs she hadn’t actually seen before. There were so many of her. She looked half-decent in her bikini. She looked downright foxy in her dress. She looked sun kissed and happy lounging on the beach. She looked in love as she nestled her head into his shoulder on the selfies they’d taken. It was hard to resist taking a look at the shots he’d taken in the years before he’d met her. She knew something of his history. There’d been a few girlfriends, one or two broke his heart, one he’d been with for a number of years before they drifted into friendship and she took a job in New York. Some of them would be on there. Sure enough they were. They were satisfyingly plain for the most part, the one who appeared most (surely the long term woman?) was comfortably overweight. Pete always joked that he was punching above his weight when he took up with Laura. Perhaps he wasn’t joking after all.
There was a folder marked ‘Black Isle Pilgrimage’ which was dated the year before they met. She opened it and began flicking through shots of the beaches, distant black marks in the sea which he’d titled ‘Dolphins!’, others of the squat little towns she’d driven through on the way to his funeral. One of the house of some local autodidact from the past who meant nothing to Laura. Some of the farm where his family had worked for centuries. There was some of that well thing. In fact there was masses of that well thing. Or more precisely, of the trees that bounded it. It was strange. Otherworldly. The branches of every tree were tied with t-shirts, cardigans, damp mouldering teddy bears hung by string from the neck like gruesome offerings to some angry god. There were flags, lots of Saltires, Australian flags, American flags, Jamaican flags superimposed with the face of Bob Marley. There was Pete’s hand placing down a snow globe that contained the Eiffel Tower, more grubby kitsch to add to the rest of the collection. There was a photo of a young woman. She was wearing an open red duffel coat over a floral tea dress, thick grey tights and Wellington boots. She was staring at the camera unsmiling. Hanging from her neck there seemed to be a dressing gown cord as if she was about to be strung up as an offering. Laura continued flicking through the photographs, more of the items left at the well, some of the landscape, some of low cottages, some of signposts. Then came a photo of a slender hairless arm showing a long scar, another showing a bruised shoulder, another of a gently raised pot belly across which was written the word ‘slut’ in what looked like lipstick. Another click took her back round to the first photo.
Laura slammed shut the laptop and took a deep breath.
Sandra Piercy had been pleased to hear from her, fitting her into a cancelled slot.
“So glad you’re back, love. I know how difficult these things can be at times” she said as she brought a tea tray into the front room. “Pete’s here. He’s been here all morning. He’s looking forward to speaking to you.”
Laura scowled. “Ask him about the woman at the well.”
“Pardon? What woman? What well?”
“At the Clootie Well. I’ve seen the photos.”
Sandra took a sip from her tea and grasped hold of Laura’s hands. “Let’s not rush things. There’s lots of things he’d like to talk to you about, he says.”
“I don’t care. I need to know about the woman at the well.”
“Please love. Don’t get angry again.”
“I’m not angry,” spat Laura, before withdrawing her hands from the psychic’s, momentarily closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I’m really not angry,” she said, calmer this time. “I’d just like to know something and I don’t want to get distracted by other things.”
“Let’s see what we can do shall we. Would you like to address him?”
“Me?” said Laura, taken aback.
“Yes. Ask him. Talk to him. He’s here now. He’s sat down next you on the sofa. Haven’t you, love?” Sandra smiled into thin air. “He’s nodding his head.”
Laura looked to her side. She wasn’t sure if it had just got colder.
“Pete. It’s me,” she said, suddenly feeling preposterous. “I looked through your photos on the laptop. I want to know who the woman is at the Clootie Well. When you went to the Black Isle the year before you met me. There’s one photo of this troubled looking woman and she’s standing with a noose around her neck and it’s fucking freaking me out.” Laura drew breath. Sandra looked awkward. “And the other photos. Of her scars and why is she a slut? Was it some kind of power thing? Was it a kink you didn’t tell me about? Who the fuck is she, Pete?”
“Try not to swear love. You’re distressing him.”
“Tell him to fuck off then if he’s so fucking distressed. I’m the one he was keeping stuff from.”
“It doesn’t do to pry, love.”
“Says the woman who gossips with the dead.”
Sandra sat back in her chair and looked thoughtful. “He’s gone, I’m afraid.”
“He’s gone. I think you’ve scared him off. He’s still in a highly vulnerable state.”
“And what kind of state does he think I’m in?” she shouted.
“I don’t think you’re quite ready for this. Either of you.”
“Get him back. Get the fucker back.”
“He’s not coming back, and now if you don’t mind,” Sandra stood up and gestured towards the door. Laura stayed silent and gathered herself.
“Come back in a month or two. When you’re a bit more together,” said Sandra as she was showing Laura the door. Silently Laura began her journey home. Now on the tube train every young woman she saw was hiding scars. All over their bodies were written the words ‘slut’ and ‘slag’ and ‘bitch’ and words she couldn’t bring herself to face. All of them covered in scrawled letters of ownership by some man with secrets. At home she undressed to take a bath and wrote the words ‘fool’ and ‘easy’ on her inner thighs in what was left of her one red lipstick, holding a pair of nail scissors over her bare arm she wondered how it would feel to scratch her thin skin until she drew blood. Bringing the point down to her arm she paused before throwing the scissors across the bathroom and collapsing onto the toilet, her head in her hands.
She never made the bath. Even the effort of running the water felt too much. Instead she dragged herself to her bed where she slept naked. She never slept naked. She was awake again with the first slivers of light through the blind as the digital clock moved towards 5.30. Her head ached. There were still smudged lipstick traces across her thigh. Her hands were dirty. Pete’s laptop was on the desk in the corner by the flower vase that was filled with late summer flowers – echinacea and rudbeckia cut from Annie’s little allotment flower patch. She pulled on clothes, roughly tied her hair back and unplugged the laptop. Carrying it downstairs she stepped out into the morning light and headed down the broad tree lined street to where it met the shops, and a narrow passage led down to the old canal. There were half a dozen houseboats moored, one with smoke rising from a little chimney, one with a scraggy grey terrier curled up on an old duvet on the prow. It opened an eye as she hit the towpath, the laptop under her arm. Walking down the towpath away from the boats, beneath a low bridge, a sharp eyed urban fox shot out from the brambles and carried on at pace before disappearing through a gap in a fence, following a well trod route at the end of a busy night. The houseboats were now out of sight as Laura stood and stared at the murky water. She lifted the laptop above her head and threw it at force into the water where it landed with a loud splash before being swallowed by the gloom. Back at the flat she sat at the small table by the narrow kitchen window. Picking up her phone from the table where she’d left it she deleted the name Sandra Piercy from her contacts.
“I don’t need her, Pete. I’ll stop prying but you need to start talking. Tell me what it’s all about. What’s it all about, Pete?”
There were footsteps on the shared landing and the slamming of a door. Then there was a tap, and a cough. The echo of something falling in a bathroom. Then the world was silent apart from the sound of a bus changing gear at the junction at the end of the road. Laura put her head in her hands and started to cry.
Martyn Clayton asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work