A fictional story by Ben Emlyn-Jones
Colbert ran his fingers over the Ouija board. It was smooth, unblemished, reflective like a mirror, solid silk. “Just for old times’ sake.” he muttered to himself. Will they even remember? The board was an oblong about eighteen inches across with fluted corners. The twenty six letters of the English alphabet were arranged in two arcs across the centre of the upper surface. They were all capitals in an archaic bookish typeface. There were a few punctuation marks beside them. Along the bottom was a straight row of numbers- one to nine and then a zero. At the top left was the word YES, at the top right was NO and in the middle- HELLO and GOODBYE. Colbert picked up the pointer- known as a “planchette”; it was a heart-shaped rosewood pebble. The top side was slightly roughened to provide a hand grip; the underside had three little blocks with steel ball bearings mounted at the ends. He placed the planchette on the board and gave it a little shove; it glided across the glassy surface and came to rest halfway between YES and GOODBYE. He watched it for a few moments, as if expecting it to move by itself.Colbert heard a key in the front door and Davvy’s familiar footsteps tramping in through the porch. “Aright?” Davvy growled as he entered the lounge and dropped a pile of shopping bags on the floor without looking at him. They clanged voluptuously, clearly full of bottles.
“Good day at the office?” asked Colbert.
“Is that for tonight?” Colbert pointed at the bags.
“Nah, it’s a few extras for next week’s Sit-Pee… By the way, I’ve got the rent.” He reached into the pocket of his jeans and passed Colbert a roll of banknotes.
“Thanks, Davs. You’re the most reliable lodger I’ve ever had.”
Davvy didn’t respond. He was gaping at the Ouija board on Colbert’s lap. “Oh my Nothing!” He broke into a grin. “You didn’t!”
Davvy’s face took on a half-amused-half-exasperated grimace. “I thought you were kidding. I never imagined you would take that whole fiasco seriously enough… Was it expensive?”
“Ninety quid. I picked it up at Honest Fred’s.”
Davvy inflated his cheeks. “A virtual bargain!” He leaned forward and picked up the board. He flipped it over and read the brass plate on the underside. “Hmm. It looks like you got yourself a Fuld original. Must be old; early 1900’s at the latest. It’s in excellent condition… Waddingtons!? I thought Hasbro owned the copyright.”
“What? You think this is a game?”
“It is a game. In the 19th century when Ouija was first introduced to the West it was a novelty; it was marketed as a board game. Its use as a tool for Spiritualist divination was not originally taken seriously.”
“Really; it’s from the same people who brought you the likes of Monopoly and Risk.”
“How do you know all this stuff, Davs?”
Davvy ran his hand through his greying black hair. “Sit-Pee. I’ve a feeling I’m going to have a good story to tell at the next meeting.”
“How many of these ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ groups are there?”
“Over fifty nationwide now, hundreds across the world in over twenty countries. It’s pretty much the same format from pole to pole. Get together. Eat, drink and make rationalist merry.”
Colbert paused. “On the subject of good stories, you will be… nice this evening, won’t you?”
“Do you mean, will I not be a complete tosser and gleefully shoot down their sky-high dreams in a flaming blaze of horrific glory?”
Colbert chuckled. “Erm, yeah, kind of.”
Davvy raised an eyebrow. “Col, I promise you, unlike Tim Minchin my diplomacy dyke will suffer no cracks.”
“To be honest I don’t even know if they still believe in it? It was twenty years ago. I’ve only really brought along this board for a laugh. It meant so much at the time. I believed it myself for a while; well, sort of.”
“Do you still?”
Colbert hesitated; he wondered why afterwards. “No, not really.”
“I’m glad to hear it. It’s not as if the Ouija hasn’t been comprehensively discredited by serious skeptic researchers many times over. The messages that appear to come from it are caused by the ideomotor effect; the person or people holding the planchette are moving it themselves; there’s no spirit ‘guiding their hands’. They do it subconsciously but they think it’s movement being produced from outside them. You ever driven down a bumpy road?”
“You know when the wheel is jerking around in your hands because of the uneven surface, it can sometimes feel like you’re making those jerks happen? That’s another example.”
Colbert laughed. “The girl in the dorm next door didn’t half kick up about it. She was very religious; bibles all over her shelves kind of thing. She said we might raise the Devil!”
“Ho ho; I can just imagine her! There are dangers from using the Ouija, but I don’t think that’s one of them. The real risk comes if you believe too much in the veracity of what information you’re getting and take action on it. I mean, suppose I used one of those things when I was a kid and it told me to sneak some whisky into the house on my bar mitzvah?”
“That could be awkward.”
“Ooh it was!” Davvy winked.
“You mean… that’s what you did?”
“Yes… but I didn’t get the idea from a Ouija board.”
Colbert drove down to the supermarket. The sky was bloated and purple and specks of rain exploded on the windscreen. He picked up two cases of wine, red and white. He chose a bottle of vodka and three different mixers, some beer six-packs and then steak, potatoes, greens, salad, olives, crisps, and as many tubs of ice cream he could fit into the car. He also picked up some vegetarian food on request of one of his visitors. He returned home and stowed the produce away. “It’s a college reunion, not a triple wedding.” chuckled Davvy. He was lounging on the settee, his skinny body stretched out, smoking with his feet up on the pouffe. He was still dressed in his jeans and the dirty leather jacket he wore at work.
“Davs, will you please get scrubbed up, they’ll be here in half an hour.” Colbert ran upstairs and leapt into the shower. After washing and shaving he examined himself in the mirror. Having memorized his appearance in the photographs taken at university, the last time he’d met his old friends, he was pleased to see how little he’d changed; twenty years had not aged him as much as it seemed to most people. No doubt they would recognize him instantly; would he they? He had never found either of them attractive, even though he knew they had both been very pretty young women by anybody’s standards. He had never even considered attempting any sexual advances of either of them. Female friends are such a wonderful thing; he mused. The Platonic company of a woman, free from the pressures of lust, is an incredibly underrated experience. He realized at that moment that he’d missed Gail and Chippy badly over the last two decades and couldn’t believe he’d failed to stay in touch with them.
He then dressed, went to the kitchen and put the steak in the grill. The white wine in the fridge was chilling down well, but he decided to give it ten minutes in the ice box to speed it along. Davvy walked in wearing a suit and spectacles; Colbert almost dropped his wooden spoon in shock. “Well well well. Who’d have thought it?”
“Do you like it?”
“I had no idea you even possessed any clothes like that… I didn’t know you wore glasses.”
“Only for reading… reading billboards and road signs that is. I just thought from what you said, this Chippy is rather hot. I want to be able to see her clearly.”
“She was, back then.”
“How about Gail?”
“Will her husband be here?”
Colbert sighed with a half-grin and replied in a monotone. “Yes.”
Davvy facepalmed. “Damn!”
“You can try to score with Chippy, but she was a bit of a challenge in her time. Very picky.”
“Don’t you have any idea what these two shiksas look like? I mean, what about their Facebook photos?”
“They haven’t posted any. Gail has sunsets and mountains on her page, with Chippy it’s mostly cats.”
Davvy walked over to the fridge. “Any chance of an aperitif before they arrive?”
He whipped out a can of beer and took it through to the lounge. Colbert followed him with a glass of wine. The Ouija board was still lying on the coffee table. Its planchette in the neutral position, right in the centre. Both men stared at it; a sudden chill seemed to come over the room. Colbert looked up at Davvy and noticed he felt it too, even a skeptic was not immune. “So,” began the latter. “What’s the story behind this pile of crap?” He gestured at the board.
“Whew, a very long story! It all began in my second year at Southampton. I got fed up with the people I was bedded with and moved off campus; got a room in this townhouse a few streets away. Anyway, that’s where I met them. Chippy, real name Christine; this very flighty, happy-go-lucky girl, a term into her course on some god-knows-what obscure expressionist humanities thing. Anyway she was also very into the supernatural; had her shelves crammed with books on witchcraft, ghosts, the occult, paranormal, psychic stuff. And she also had a Ouija board, very similar to this one.” He pointed at the table. “She never used it though, I think she was scared to. They have a reputation in the sphere of people who believe in that kind of thing; that they’re dangerous. They can conjure up evil spirits and demons and anything else nasty you can think off.”
Davvy nodded. “Yes, they’ve been the basis of many horror movie plots.”
“And then Gail moves in. Gail was this quieter, calmer girl, a bit shy. She was more scientifically-minded than Chippy; reading physics. She went on to do electrical engineering in the end.”
“My kind of girl.” chuckled Davvy, sipping his beer from a can.
“Well, you’d have thought so. However, a couple of weeks later Gail is in Chippy’s room for some reason and she spots the Ouija board which was tucked under Chippy’s bed or something; and she starts talking about it. She wants to know all about it. This was really weird because we never imagined Gail could possibly have an interest in that sort of thing. Her own room was the mirror opposite of Chippy’s: academic textbooks, science journals lying about, posters on her wall of Newton and Einstein, diagrams of atoms, that kind of thing. But Gail is insistent. So Chippy very reluctantly pulls out the Ouija board and dusts it off. And then… this is the really weird bit, Gail says: ‘let’s try it!’ and we were all gobsmacked.”
“Blimey! I bet you were. Odd behaviour for a physitrix.”
“So we take the board down to the den and put it on the table. Gail sits at the head of the table and picks up the planchette. And then it’s just like Stephen King, she puts both hands on the planchette and rolls the thing in circles on the board with her eyes closed chanting: ‘is there anybody there?... Is there anybody there?’ and then, sure enough, Zip! The planchette points towards YES.”
Davvy laughed and hummed the theme tune to The Twilight Zone.
“You know, it was creepy. It didn’t look like she pushed it. It was as if it moved under its own steam and dragged Gail’s hands along.”
“That’s not a difficult illusion to do if you practice. It's a mime. You’ve seen that YouTube video of the bloke being pushed along by a balloon?”
“Maybe, but we all gasp! Then I pick up a pen and paper and start writing as the planchette points to the various letters and numbers. We start asking questions and it answers. Gail is like in some kind of trance; nothing’s moving except her hands on the planchette. Really fast! Almost too quick for me to write down the letters. It was zip-zip-zip, back and forth! At the end of the session some of the varnish had been worn off the board top. Chippy is flabbergasted! Her jaw is on the floor and her eyes are popping out of her head. Her face is as white as a sheet!... You know, I have a feeling that Chippy never really believed in all that stuff until then.”
“Yeah. She told us she did and she had lots of books on it all, like I said; but I think deep down she never actually took it seriously… not until that evening.”
“Did she change after that?”
“Yes, very much so. But I’ll come to that in a minute. The messages and answers to our questions are dropping in thick and fast. To cut a long story short, the spirit that is coming through via the Ouija board is called “Reardon”. It lives in the Spiritworld. It used to be incarnate in the body of a Catholic priest from France in the 18th century. This man died during a riot stirred up by a local Jacobin leader; his church was burnt down and he was stabbed to death by the mob. His soul went up to the Spiritworld and he was surprised to find it was not like the Heaven he was taught about by the church. There was no judgement or hellfire. It was a beautiful place where we all go to after we die. He described it in great detail. Magnificent cities of gold, glorious countryside, blue skies, sweet air, flowers, butterflies…”
“You didn’t believe it yourself, did you, Col?” Davvy leaned forward with a genuinely concerned expression.
Colbert paused. “No… no, not especially.”
“You don’t sound too sure.” He raised an eyebrow.
“Well… it did make me… think… a little bit.”
Davvy sighed. “It’s a ruse, Col. Complete bullshit. Gail was acting, she was having you on.”
“Steady on, Davs, you’ll be meeting her tonight.”
“Sorry… I’ll be nice, don’t worry. It’s just that I’ve studied this kind of vacuous shite. It’s been around for many many years and I know that it’s been made up by some very skilled individuals who are good at putting on a charade.”
“I know, Davs, but it wasn’t just all that flannel about the afterlife that made me uncertain. There’s more. We tested it.”
“What do you mean you ‘tested it’?”
“I let Chippy take over the pen and paper while I ran upstairs to my bedroom. I plucked a book off my shelf and shouted down the stairs: ‘What book am I holding?’ The message was: PORTERHOUSE BLUE BY TOM SHARPE.”
“And was it?”
There was a long silence. Davvy shrugged. “Interesting coincidence.”
“Davs, there were over a hundred books on my shelf. It was more than just interesting.”
“Did you like that book?”
“Yes, it was great.”
“Well maybe Gail knew you liked it and guessed that you’d gravitate towards that book then.”
“A bit of a long shot that.”
“Sometimes a good illusionist has to take risks; and sometimes those risks pay off.”
“But that wasn’t the only test. I then went over to my TV and grabbed a VHS tape off the top and yelled: ‘I’m holding a video cassette. What is the film on it?’.”
“What film was it?”
“Forrest Gump. And, yes, the board got it right again.”
Davvy once again sighed in his characteristic way and scratched his wrist. A sardonic expression came over his face. Colbert had privately begun to call this his "skeptic face". “What year was this?”
“The year Forrest Gump was released. It was the second highest grossing film of the year after Disney’s The Lion King, winner of six Academy awards and three Golden Globes. It also topped the VHS sales charts. At the time it was by far the most likely video anybody would have owned, if I had been forced into a position where I had to guess.”
Colbert laughed. “Skeptic and movie buff? Davvy, I had no idea!”
“Skeptics are movie buffs!” he replied. “And sports buffs, trainspotters, and any other kind of unusual field of information gathering imaginable.”
Colbert paused. “You checked it on your phone, be honest! When I wasn’t looking.”
“Why do you think I always win the Sit-Pee quiz?” Davvy raised his arm and rolled back his shirt cuff. Secreted inside was his iPhone. “Perhaps Gail did something similar?”
“This was the early 90’s! Are you saying she had all the year’s film stats installed on her GameBoy?”
“She might have rigged up your bedroom with CCTV. You really underestimate the determination and intelligence of a good stage magician. Who knows how long she’d been plotting this farce, what contingencies she’d thought of.”
Colbert blushed. “Oh dear. I hope she didn’t also see…”
“See what, you naughty boy?” They both laughed.
“Seriously though,” said Colbert. “That’s pushing it a bit. Hidden cameras in my bedroom, unbelievable guesswork. Come on, Davs! You must admit I was correct to pause for thought.”
Davvy stood up and went to the kitchen to get another beer. When he came back he asked: “Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor?”
“No, I use Gillette.”
“Very original, Col. Occam’s Razor is the principle of parsimony, economy of logic, succinctness of thought…”
“Speak English, Davs.”
“Sorry. It is a reasoning system that states if you need to solve a problem or clear up a mystery, always choose the most likely explanation first. For example, if your radio stops working, try changing the batteries before opening it up and sticking in a screwdriver; because flat batteries is by far the most likely explanation for the malfunction of the radio.”
“What’s that got to do with Ouija boards?”
“Everything. Which is more likely? That a young woman in the 1990’s, sitting in a house in Southampton, managed to channel some long dead French clergyman using a wooden board? Or… that she actually played some kind of elaborate trick on you all using very down-to-earth, well-tested methods of illusion?”
There was the crunch of gravel in the driveway. They looked out of the window to see a large saloon car parking. “They’re here! Davvy, please…”
“Col, it’s alright. I’ll be gentle with them.”
Colbert hid the Ouija board under the settee and then headed for the front door. He reached it at the very moment the bell rang. He opened it up. “Gail?”
“Hello, Colly.” She smiled. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Neither have you.” And she hadn’t. She was a petite woman, slim and straight. Her hair was still thin and shoulder-length. There were a few lines of grey in it, along with a few creases on her face. Apart from that she was exactly as she’d looked when he’d last seen her almost twenty years ago, lining up in the great hall with her gown and mortar board to collect her degree. She held out her hand formally. He reached out and shook it. Her grip was limp and cold. “Come in, Gail. Where’s Chippy?”
“Picking Jonno up from the airport.”
“Yes.” Her voice was deadpan and dispassionate.
“Good afternoon!” Davvy cantered forward with a charming smile. “You must be Gail. I’m David. Can I get you a drink?” As he led her to the kitchen he looked back at Colbert and mouthed what looked like: her husband’s not here yet!
One thing that had changed beyond all recognition was Gail’s choice of clothes. At university she was almost always seen in a scraggy blouse and long moth-eaten skirt, today she wore a smart blue suit and cravat with ladypants and black platforms. Expensive looking jewellery peeked out from her cuffs, neckline and earlobes, very different to the crepe bands that used to decorate her body; though strangely she wore no wedding ring on her finger. She chose the white wine and they sat and talked. Davvy characteristically flirted in his benign way, but she didn’t seem to notice let alone object. She and Colbert had a long conversation about the intervening twenty years. After they had parted Gail had kept in touch with Chippy and the two of them lived in the same town and were very close friends. Gail had graduated in electrical engineering and enjoyed a long and lucrative career working in industry. She was currently a project manager at a contractor in aviation. She’d married her husband Jonathan twelve years earlier; he was an executive at Boeing and they’d met while she was on a stint there. She spoke calmly, quietly and very modestly as she gave Colbert and Davvy the verbal curriculum vitae of her highly successful life. It was now that Colbert did detect a difference between the Gail he saw before him and the Gail he’d known in Southampton; this poised and self-possessed young woman was today even more subdued. She had not smiled once since greeting Colbert; she became particularly taciturn when the subject of her husband came up. She declined to give any details of him or their life together. He and Chippy were running very late. It was now six PM and starting to get dark. The three of them had had a few drinks and the dinner was cooked. There was no choice but to serve it so they sat round the dining room table while Colbert pulled the steak out of the grill and drained the vegetables. Suddenly Gail raised her head. “Chippy and Jonno are here.” she said.
Colbert looked out of the window. The drive was empty. “Where? I can’t see them.”
“They’re here.” she asserted.
Davvy caught Colbert’s eye furtively in a nonchalant statement.
A minute later they heard the sound of a car’s engine revving loudly and headlights burned the driveway. An old and decrepit Volkswagen Beetle screeched onto the gravel and stopped next to Gail’s much larger saloon. Two figures decamped and ran over to the doorway. The bell rang.
“Colbo!” The moment Colbert opened the door a large woman hurled her arms round him squeezing him painfully tight. Silk flowers rubbed against his face and he was almost choked by her perfume. “Colbo! Colbo! Colbo! How are you!? It’s utterly cosmic to see you again, my darling! So sorry we’re late, but you wouldn’t believe the traffic! The entire M40 shut down, we had to sneak back along the hard shoulder to the last junction, miracle we never got stopped by the police. Still the universe was on our side. These things are either meant to be or meant not to be…” Chippy continued her detailed narrative of their perilous journey from the airport. Conversely from Gail, she had changed beyond all recognition. She had put on a considerable amount of weight and even joked about it. “I always say: can you pinch more than an inch?- do you give a shit?... Ha ha ha ha!” She used to have sandy blonde hair, now it was woven into henna-coloured dreadlocks punctuated by ribbons. She wore a tie-dyed dress with designer tatters. Her chest was decorated by bangles, pendants, crystals and amulets of various kinds in turquoise, jade and burnished copper, a stark contrast to Gail’s more conventional jewellery. As with Gail, her personality traits at university had become exaggerated with time. She had always been the most outgoing member of the household; today she could hardly stop talking. The entire atmosphere of the room transformed when she entered; it was like stepping from a wine bar into a rock pub. She was accompanied by Jonno, Gail’s husband. He was a tall and well-built man wearing an expensive looking suit. He had small rheumy eyes, an acne-scarred face and his lips were thin. He had a gold tooth. His greasy black hair was pulled into a tight pony tail. He introduced himself and Colbert didn’t remember him uttering a word after that. With another of their silent eye-to-eye dialogues, Davvy and Colbert remarked at how he had not attempted to greet his own wife. Gail barely looked at him. She concentrated on dissecting her flat mushroom as the two newcomers settled down at the table, Jonno chose a seat beside Chippy opposite Gail.
“Hello, Gail, dear.” Chippy waved across the table to her old friend, as if they were hundreds of yards apart. Gail grinned for the second time that evening. “Hi, Chippy. Good to see you again.”
Chippy filled in the last two decades with a boisterous monologue. She and Gail had bought a flat together in Wiltshire and while Gail was away working Chippy had set up a shop in Glastonbury. It purveyed all kinds of esoteric merchandise, from crystals to cauldrons to books on flying saucers and the paranormal to psychic powers to Stonehenge. “A very different lifestyle to your flatmate,” noted Davvy. “You two are an unusual partnership.” Colbert was amused to see that Davvy displayed none of the ardour towards Chippy that he had anticipated earlier in the evening.
“Well you know what they say,” put in Gail. “Opposites attract.” She glanced at Jonno.
“It’s interesting,” continued Davvy, taking a sip from his wine glass. “On the one hand we have Gail, scientifically trained, a professional engineer, rooted in logic, experiment and reason. On the other, we have you, Chippy, who is, would it be fair to say, more mystically inclined?”
“Definitely, David dear.” Chippy swallowed a large hunk of her vegetarian patty. “I never used to be in my youth, but I had a spiritual awakening. I know that’s a bit of a silly cliché, like I’m a hippy of some kind, but it’s the best description. It’s not religious, you understand. It’s not like being a born-again Christian or anything like that. I suddenly realized that I was one with everything and that nature, the landscape, the planet Earth, were all things to be worshipped and adored. We are all a part of that, down to our very souls.”
“Chippy, I’ve never understood the concept of the soul. What is meant by it?”
Chippy frowned at him. “Have you really not, David?”
“No. I’m aware that I have a brain, a mind, a personality, but I don’t see how any additional concept is needed to explain those things.”
“Heavens to Krishna! David, do you honestly think that all you are is electrical signals in your brain?”
“It makes sense to me.”
“But your brain is just meat, like your arm or your liver.”
“Yes, but it’s a very sophisticated and complex piece of meat.”
“But surely you can’t believe that your brain is all there is to you. You, your sense of ‘I’ and ‘me’? Do you not accept that there must be more to us than that?”
“No, I don’t. I’m quite satisfied that my consciousness is a by-product of electrical currents and chemical reactions deep inside here.” He pointed at his head.
Chippy was speechless, which was such an unusual situation that everybody stopped eating and stared at her. “David! You can’t be serious. If what you’re saying is true then what about when you… die?”
Davvy shrugged. “What about it?”
“What do you think will happen to you?”
“The same as what happens to everybody; I shall be buried in the ground and my body will be consumed by microbes and earthworms until I am just bones. Those bones might survive a few hundred thousand years, unless on the off chance they become fossilized. My body will return to nature.”
“But your body is not you... You”!
“I think it is. I know what you mean in the sense there’s a ‘me’ beyond my body, but that will purely be in terms of memories of my life stored in other people’s brains, hopefully they will be fond ones. However in essence I am my body and nothing else.”
“But… that means when you die your self will… cease to exist! You will become nothing… forever! How… how can you live like that!?”
Davvy tittered. “Now I know how David Hume felt.”
“Doesn’t matter." He sighed. "Chippy, I can live perfectly happily like that because I believe I have no other choice. I believe that is the nature of the universe and if that is the case then we just have to accept it. Life is a precious opportunity that we are incredibly lucky to have gained. It has been denied to countless other potential individuals. Life is short, painful and very finite; but it’s also a wonderful gift. Let’s make the most of it.”
Chippy continued to gape at him for a few moments then seemed to relax. “I see. Of course, David, you’re entitled to your opinions. However, are you absolutely certain you’re correct? Have you examined the issue in its fullest detail?”
“Yes I have. I’m very interested in psychical research, just like you are. The difference is I conclude that it’s a total non-issue, it doesn’t exist.”
“One has to accept the null-hypothesis. There is simply no evidence for any other conclusion.”
Chippy paused and then suddenly her eyes widened and she smirked triumphantly. “Yes there is!” She shot a finger at Gail. “Gail, tell him!”
Gail looked up at her. “Tell him what?” Colbert leaned back in his chair. He knew what was coming.
Chippy continued. “It was you who persuaded me! I never believed in it until then. That night with the Ouija board.”
“Oh that,” said Gail.
“Yes that! David dear, Gail here has psychic powers, she’s extremely spiritually sensitive. One evening while we at uni she proved it to us…”
Chippy enthusiastically related the tale of the Ouija board to Davvy while Colbert slid away from the table. He had been waiting for an appropriate moment for his big surprise, and now that the subject had been tabled the hour had struck. He lifted his Ouija board carefully out from its hiding place and returned to the dining room. He hadn’t wrapped it in any way so he just had to hide it behind his back.
Chippy was concluding the story “… and Colbert was there too! He’ll back me up, won’t you, Colly?” She turned and looked at him.
Colbert grinned slyly. “Oh yes. I was there and I saw everything. It was an unforgettable incident; so unforgettable in fact, that I’ve brought you all a little souvenir of it... Ta-da!” He placed the Ouija board on the table between the Cabernet Sauvignon bottle and the salt cellar.
“Oh my!” bubbled Chippy. “A Ouija board! Is it the same one?”
“No, no. I never found out what became of that one; it may still be in that old house in Southampton. I bought this from an antiques shop.”
Chippy picked up the planchette. “It’s beautiful! It brings back such happy times. Thank you, Colly! Thank you.” A wistful expression came over her face.
Davvy picked up his wine glass again. “Chippy, would you say that the Ouija board session all that time ago in university has been very influential in your life?”
“Oh you can say that again, David! It was the most magnificent and joyful experience that has ever happened to me. It changed my life forever. On that night I finally understood that beyond us lies the World of Soul. We are not just flesh and blood, meaningless mechanical automata waiting for the grave. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. We are eternal, all-knowing and all-powerful; we are one with the universe and God. Colly and I had the good fortune to become undeniably aware of this. On that night, thanks to my darling friend Gail, it was proved to us. Once and for all!”
“Is this true, Gail?”
Gail had remained silent during this discourse, politely following the conversation between Davvy and Chippy. Now she instantly replied to Davvy’s question. “Oh yeah.”
“So you concur with Chippy? You agree that you are in fact psychic?”
“I suppose so,” she shrugged.
Davvy frowned at her. Then he looked away for a minute contemplating hard. He spoke immediately as he raised his head. “I have a proposition for you, for all of you.”
“What’s that, dear?” asked Chippy.
Davvy took a long gulp of wine. “I have been absolutely enthralled by this subject, the story you have all just told me. I know some people who would also be very keen to hear what happened to you all on that evening twenty years ago. I help run a meet-up group in London that regularly gets together to discuss the very kinds of phenomena that we’re talking about this evening and I’d love you all to be our guests one night.”
Colbert caught Davvy’s eye and gave him a warning glare, but Davvy ignored him.
“We’ll pay all your travelling expenses and provide accommodation if you need to stay overnight.”
“That sounds lovely, doesn’t it, Gail dear,” said Chippy. “Shall we do it? What’s your group called, David?”
Davvy gave an apprehensive pause. “Bloomsbury Skeptics in the Pub.”
Chippy gasped. “What!?”
“It’s a small friendly bunch who are always very respectful…”
“You mean you’re a… skeptic!?” She recoiled from Davvy physically, as if he had an infectious disease.
“Yes, I thought you’d have guessed that from what we were talking about earlier.”
“But why on earth would a pack of skeptics want to hear about us? You said your group had an interest in these phenomena, but you don’t! If you’re skeptics then you don’t believe in any of it.”
“Not so, Chippy, not so. A skeptic is not somebody who just ‘disbelieves in things’. We are people who apportion all claims according to valid logic. We rigorously and openly apply the methods of science and rationality to all information. We study the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or ourselves; and we hold all acceptance provisionally until an empirical study of the available evidence has been carried out.”
There was a long silence after this, then Chippy said: “No thank you, David. I’m sure Gail does not wish to subject herself to the negative energies of a bunch of people who just want to…”
“Yes I do,” piped up Gail. She smiled once again.
Chippy scowled at her. “Gail, I…”
“Come on, Chippy; it sounds like fun.”
“Gail, you really do not want your aura poisoned by the pollution of doubters and debunkers. Do you know what these people are and what they’re like?”
“Yes, sure I do. As David said, they just want evidence before they accept something to be true. So let’s give them the evidence. You were there that night, Chippy; so were you, Colbo. You know that what I did was real, you remember it don’t you?”
Colbert and Chippy nodded in unison.
“So then what is there to be afraid of? The Skeptics want evidence; well we have evidence. Let’s go along there and prove it to them.”
This notion seemed to appeal to Chippy. “Well, yes, I see what you mean now, Gail. You’re right. We have proof that psychic powers are real! Because your psychic powers are real! Let’s go along to this Skeppers in the Boozer powwow and rub their smug little noses in the truth!”
Davvy had been watching this exchange with amused interest. “So it’s agreed then. Fantastic!” He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “We have an available date in October.”
“Don’t worry,” said Davvy. “I was nice at the dinner wasn’t I? I’ll continue to be nice this evening. You know what I think about this Ouija bollocks, Col; but I also know how to handle people. The kind of skeptic who wades in slashing and burning, heedless of people’s feelings, achieves nothing. Their convert just feels intimidated and insulted and they’ll naturally back off and ignore you. One of the world’s most famous skeptics was Carl Sagan and he himself once said: ‘People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.’ Very true. My family are orthodox as hell. My mother never skips the Shabbat, my brother is a rabbi; how the hell could I have even held my family together if I wasn’t willing to show respect for non-skeptics. The basis of my strategy is to gently and subtly persuade, guiding the person I’m talking to into discovering the truth for themselves.”
“That’s good to know, Davvy; thanks. Chippy is not going to enjoy this evening.”
“I don’t know,” smiled Davvy. “She has the Psychic Engineer to back her up. That’s way more than most of her ilk enjoy.”
The Underground train glided to halt in the station and they stepped off amidst the moderate weekday evening crowds.
“It’s odd you know, Col,” continued Davvy. “Gail fascinates me. It’s so utterly unusual that somebody with her background comes forward and professes psi. If Chippy had done so I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but Gail… a woman with a scientific education, who uses science professionally every day. It baffles me.”
They stepped out of the Underground station onto a busy London street. Traffic noise assailed their ears and the bright lights of shop fronts reflected off the rain-washed pavements. There was a rumble of thunder overhead and the rainfall suddenly increased as if on cue. “How far is this place?” yelled Colbert above the noise.
“Just past this next crossroads.”
The Honeyman’s Arms sat on the corner of two main roads; it was a modern, clean urban watering hole with smooth carpets, red wallpaper and a bar of polished timber lined by brass handrails. The Skeptics in the Pub event was held every week in the basement function room. The signboard outside announced it. Colbert took out his phone and looked at the page on the Bloomsbury Skeptics in the Pub website: Wednesday the 8th of October- Gail Pevril, Christine Charnwood and Colbert Norton. Twenty years ago, as students at the University of Southampton, they claim to have experienced extrasensory and clairvoyant phenomena while using a Ouija board. The event starts at 7.30 PM. Just £2 entry… The basement was as comfortable as the public bar above them. A number of the Skeptics in the Pub’s patrons were buying drinks and taking their seats as Colbert walked in. A few of them gave him a brief look, but generally ignored him. They greeted Davvy warmly and Davvy stopped to talk to a few of them. The attendees were mostly middle aged. They looked very academic, the men dressed in grey suits of corduroys. Their hair tended to be slightly unkempt and many wore glasses. A large proportion were bearded. The women were all slim and had on mostly long dresses. Their conversation was low, private and controlled. Different kinds of people sat together in separate groups. Younger men and women who looked like students clustered round the bar talking more loudly. There was even the odd leather jacket just like Davvy’s.
At one end of the room was a small podium with a table and a row of chairs behind it; Colbert’s Ouija board lay on the surface between them. Gail and Chippy had already taken their place. Chippy had a large glass of wine at her elbow and was chatting in her usual obtrusive manner. “Colly, David! Lovely to see you again!” She sounded drunk and smelled strongly of Merlot. Gail was next to her with her chin on her hand looking bored. As Colbert took his seat Davvy stepped up to the front of the stage. “Good evening, everybody. I hope you can all hear me. We have no microphone tonight, sorry. Clive has borrowed our PA system for a wedding reception. Unfortunately he forgot to tell us!” The audience laughed at Davvy’s mock indignation. “Great to see you all here again. I notice a few new faces as well, all the better. Welcome all of you to Bloomsbury Skeptics in the Pub. My name is David Birtsch and I’m the chairman of this group. Tonight we have three guests… three for the price of one!” More laughter. “They have an extremely interesting experience to tell us about this evening. I suggest we take each of the speakers in turn. Shall we begin with… erm… Christine. Christine Charnwood everyone.” The audience applauded.
Chippy jumped to her feet courtseying flamboyantly. She spoke for about half an hour. Despite her previous misgivings she was manifestly enjoying the attention she was getting and the audience warmed to her, chuckling appreciatively at her jokes. She told the familiar story of the Ouija board in Southampton and how it had affected her life, given her hope and made her pursue a spiritual pathway. She got another round of applause as she sat down.
“And now,” said Davvy. “Colbert, would you like to tell us about what you experienced.” Clearly Davvy was saving the best for last. Colbert related the story from his own perspective, but he didn’t wish to repeat Chippy’s testimony and she had covered so much of the evening that there was little else he could add. He finished after five minutes. A man in the audience raised his hand. “Are you OK to take questions now, Colbert?” Davvy asked.
“Sure,” said Colbert.
“Thanks for that interesting introduction, both of you,” began the man. “But, Colbert, you said you chose a book and a DVD…”
“VHS,” corrected Colbert. “This was a long time ago before such advanced technology was available.”
The audience laughed, but the man seemed satisfied, as if he’d feigned the error as some kind of test. “Yes, it was a long time ago,” he repeated emphatically. “And maybe your memory of the incident has faded a bit, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. You say that the girl using the Ouija knew what the book and the movie were via her psychic powers?”
Gail remained completely silent and still. She was staring down at her hand on the table top.
“No,” responded Colbert, “I’m not saying that’s what it was for definite. I just can’t think of any other way she could have gained that information right now.”
The man smirked in appreciation of his caution. “Is it not more likely that she simply guessed right by coincidence?”
Colbert felt his face burn. This was similar to what Davvy had suggested to him a few months ago at the dinner. However Colbert had been reading up on the subject since that evening and had developed some of his own ideas. “Are you talking about Occam’s Razor?”
“Yes. It states that we should always accept the most likely explanation first. Isn’t it more likely that Ms Pevril here was simply lucky? You put her on the spot and she guessed right.”
Colbert looked over at Gail, but she remained unresponsive. “Well…”
“Take your time.” The questioner had a snide expression on his face; he was clearly playing for the rest of the audience. It made Colbert angry at him. “Firstly, Occam's Razor assumes we've all agreed on what is more or less likely than another thing for a given circumstance. But leaving that aside, why don’t you give me another example of a coincidence like this?”
The man, to his credit, never broke his stride. “By all means. You make a piece of toast, when it pops out you’re about to spread jam all over it when you realize that it has an image on the Virgin Mary on it, you call the local vicar, thousands of people queue up to see it and you sell it on Ebay for fifty grand… this kind of thing has actually happened, by the way.” The audience nodded and there were mutters of agreement. “Yet it never was an image of the Virgin Mary at all, it’s just that the burn marks on the toast happened to resemble the Virgin Mary, by pure coincidence, and because our brains are designed to spot recognizable patterns in random noise, they just thought it was the Virgin Mary. This kind of thing is called pareidolia; it’s why we see faces in clouds too, and other things like that.”
“You think that applies to my experience?”
“Yes, it’s related. Pareidolia is a combination of coincidence and confirmation bias.” He gave Colbert an arrogant one-nil-to-me look. “Sorry, Colbert, but I’m calling coincidence on this one. It was a co-inky-dink… a co-inky-dink!” He repeated the colloquialism as if proud of knowing it.
The questioner’s antipathy cut Colbert like a blade, but he kept his emotions under control. He also took heart from the fact that he had an excellent come-back in his arsenal. “So,” he paused for effect with a grin. “What about the Sistine Chapel?”
“Yes, with all the beautiful murals. You know who painted it?”
“Of course. Michelangelo.” The man looked uncomfortable. Where’s he going with this?
“Did he? How do you know?”
“How do you know that Michelangelo didn’t just leave a few paint pots standing in the doorway and a sudden gust of wind blew them into the chapel and spread the paint everywhere, and when Mike came back he saw the random splatters that had been made by the wind and thought: ‘Wow! That looks good.”
The man tittered nervously “Come on! Of course it wasn’t random. Everybody knows Michelangelo did it, it’s historically recorded.”
“OK, now just suppose that you didn’t know that. Just suppose that nobody knew who really painted the Sistine Chapel. Would you still say that it was a real painting and not just pareidolia?”
“Yes of course.”
“Why? How would you know?”
There was a long pause. The questioner’s former vainglory had completely fallen from his countenance. He looked extremely uneasy. The audience murmured again. “Well… but…”
“Take your time.” Colbert couldn’t resist a sneer.
Davvy was looking at Colbert quizzically. Colbert mouthed to him: I’ve been reading and winked.
Now it was the questioner’s turn to get angry. He ran his hand over his face. “For goodness sake, it’s a painting! It’s very obvious that it’s a painting!”
“But our brains are designed to spot recognizable patterns in random noise remember?”
“But… look…” He calmed himself down. “Pareidolia always consists of vague blobs that might resemble something, not distinct and obviously artificial images that do mean something.”
“So where’s the cut-off point?”
“Where’s the cut-off point between intention and coincidence?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me give you a fictional example,” said Colbert. “Imagine a bloke who wins the National Lottery, he goes out and buys another ticket. The following week he wins again, then he wins again the third week; and the fourth and the fifth. By now the police are getting suspicious so they arrest him. They assume that he must be sneaking in at night and weighting the balls or fiddling with Lancelot and Guinevere’s workings or something. But they can find no direct evidence that he’s doing so. Nevertheless they put him on trial. The man goes to court willingly… because of course he can afford the best lawyer in town now!”
Laughter from the audience.
“The prosecution spend all day putting their side across, how this man has won the Lottery five weeks running against almost incalculable odds. Would you agree with their testimony?”
“Of course,” said the questioner. “Winning the Lottery five times in a row? The odds against that are so huge that it can’t be coincidence.”
“Yet when it’s the turn of the defendant to speak, he stands up and says to the judge: ‘Your Honour, I’m just a very lucky guy!’ and then he sits down again. And the court has to acquit him. There’s no direct evidence he did anything wrong so it has no other choice.”
“What?... But… of course it does!”
“No it doesn’t. The line of defence ‘I’m just a very lucky guy’ in those circumstances is a legally watertight case.”
“No it’s not! Winning the Lottery five weeks in a row!? That’s not coincidence. It can’t be!”
“Ah!” Colbert didn’t waste a moment going for the chink in his armour. “Then in that case, as I said, you need to define the cut-off point, the statistical ceiling below which you would feel able to dismiss something as coincidence and above which you would not. You must draw that line! What’s more the line has be drawn at a level everybody agrees on. If you don’t draw a line then what’s to stop you unfalsifiably yelling ‘co-inky-dink!’ at any inconvenient anomaly you don’t like in order to falsely discredit it?”
The man’s face flushed crimson. He bared his teeth. “What the fuck has this got to do with psychically predicting books and VHS tapes!?”
“No swearing please, Derek!” chided Davvy.
“You tell me!” answered Colbert with raised eyebrows. “You said that it was far more likely to be a coincidence that Gail guessed correctly than for her to have perceived which books I chose via psychic means, but then you have provided no statistical ceiling on that explanation even though you went on to say: ‘Winning the Lottery five weeks in a row!? That’s not coincidence. It can’t be!’. You therefore claim to understand the concept of an upper limit to coincidence qualitatively, but you refuse to define it precisely.”
There was a long silence. Everybody in the room looked nervous as the deflated questioner sat back down, his body shaking, staring at his feet.
Davvy also sounded slightly breathless and he asked: “Any more questions?”
“Yes.” A woman raised her hand. “I have a question for Christine.”
Chippy had been enjoying Colbert’s victory over the first Skeptic questioner, although she didn’t look as if she completely understood the exchange. Now she looked over at the second questioner. “Sure. What is it?”
“Christine, I found your description very interesting and I appreciate your honestly, but you came across as extraordinarily passionate on an emotional level. No offence, but I’d like you to consider this question. How much is your enthusiasm might be motivated by… wishful thinking?”
“Wishful thinking?” Chippy frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, one thing that is clearly very important to you that you gained from your experience is that you now have the belief in the afterlife, is that right?”
“The thing is, science tells us that there is no such thing as an afterlife, of any kind. When you die that’s it, end of story, eternal oblivion. You’re dead forever, you no longer exist and never will again. That’s a very unwelcome prospect for many people, including yourself perhaps. Is it not possible that you have a bias towards accepting this experience with the Ouija as ‘proof’ of the afterlife, and you did use the word ‘proof’ at least a dozen times during your speech, as a psychological safety net; a comfort blanket, if you wish. It protects you from having to face the terrible finality of your own demise.”
“No!” retorted Chippy emphatically. “No way, not a chance! I tell you this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes; I’ve actually witnessed it. It’s not ‘wishful thinking’ because it’s not something I ever wished for or thought of. It’s experience; it actually happened to me.”
The audience smiled and buzzed in a mildly amused tone, as if watching a child at play.
Colbert raised his hand. All through the woman’s speech he’d been ready for the off as soon as Chippy finished. He once again had a primed response that he’d gathered from his studies over the last few weeks. “Davvy, can I reply to that lady’s point as well?”
Davvy half-grinned at him, as if he sensed what was coming. “Of course, Col.” He gave a mock bow.
Colbert addressed the woman. “A good point you raised there. Perhaps I can reply by asking you, what do you believe?”
“I believe what science says. There is no life after this life we have now. No Heaven, no hell, no Spiritworld. When I die I will become nothing. The same nothing I was before I was conceived and born.”
“So why do you think so many people would disagree with you? Why do so many people believe in the afterlife?”
“Because they’re not able to come to terms with that scientific fact; they lack the mental resources. They’ve collectively conjured up the myth of an afterlife to act as a buffer. It shelters them from the terrible truth of finality, a truth they can’t handle.”
“But you can handle that truth, can you?”
The woman frowned in the same way the first questioner had. She knew trouble was coming, but didn’t know what it was or how to avoid it. “Yes, I can.”
“Well, that makes you a very superior person doesn’t it?”
She chuckled. “What? No, not at all. Of course it doesn’t.”
“Doesn’t it? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds to me like you’re saying: ‘I can face it! You quivering, pathetic, inferior low-lifes need this comfort-blanket myth of an Afterlife, but I have the strength, the courage, the fortitude and general superiority to get through my day without that crutch! I know I’m going to cease to exist when I die but I can face up to it!’.”
The woman flushed angrily. “No, that is not what I think. You are wrong and I do correct you. I would never try to lord it over somebody else because of my views; I try to respect all people and don’t judge those who disagree.”
“Not judge perhaps, but be honest. You distinctly portrayed people who believe in an afterlife as ‘not able to come to terms with fact’, they ‘lack the mental resources’; they’re people in need of a ‘comfort blanket’, like a child! How can you now claim not to feel any sense of superiority over those kinds of people?”
Chippy clapped him on the shoulder. “Yeah right, Colly!”
The woman sighed, clearly perturbed by Colbert’s reply. “I really don’t know what to say to you. If what I said came across like that to you, then it is not for me to comment on how you comprehend my words. All I can tell you is that I am a respectful and diplomatic person who feels nothing for others but respect, so long as they respect me.”
“Tell you what,” continued Colbert. “I’m guessing most of the people in this room agree with this lady, right?”
There was a reluctant and concerned collective nod.
“I can’t help wondering if your own beliefs are wishful thinking too, maybe even more so than Chippy’s. Suppose some scientist came up with what you would consider evidence for the existence of the afterlife. What would you do? Would you be pleased?... Some of you might be, but others might feel a bit disappointed. If there was ever proof that the afterlife was real then you guys would no longer be special. You would no longer be able to enjoy that sense of triumphalism that I detected in that lady’s words, no matter what she said; even if she was being sincere.” He glanced at the woman, the briefest of apologies. “Perhaps,” Colbert spoke slowly for emphasis, “there are those among you who would deny the fact that the afterlife is real, despite scientific proof… out of wishful-thinking… In fact maybe we should devise some kind of bravery award for you all!”
There was a stunned silence from the audience. The watery clang of a full beer glass being tipped over echoed stridently.
Davvy composed himself first. “Right then… thank you for that interesting response, Colbert.” He gave his friend the briefest of sideways looks. “I suggest we move on.”
The audience shuffled their feet, visibly relieved at his words.
“I think we should bring in the key figure of this case, the alleged psychic herself. Gail Pevril is not your usual class of individual who makes these kinds of claims. She studied physics at university, while she was involved in this phenomenon. She also trained as an electrical engineer and has worked for Boeing, British Aerospace, Lockheed and many other institutions in top level jobs. Her reputation is one of the best in the country. Yet she also claims to have channelled spirits of the dead using the Ouija. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you; Gail Pevril!”
The audience applauded.
Gail looked up. She didn’t speak.
The audience gibbered.
Gail still did not speak. She simply stared ahead of her, gazing at the far wall.
“Gail!” hissed Chippy. “It’s your turn to say something.”
Davvy looked nervous. “Gail?... Are you OK?”
“Fine,” she replied.
“Well, would you like to tell us about what you did twenty years ago in Southampton?”
“Why would I want to do that?” she looked at him with raised eyebrows, in a slightly playful way.
Davvy breathed awkwardly. “But… Gail, you are the one who operated the Ouija; Colbert and Christine just watched. You’re the one with the psychic powers, are you not?
The collective gasp was deafening.
“Wh… what?” said Davvy.
“I said no. I’m not.”
Chippy let out a whimper. “Gail?”
Gail got to her feet and addressed the whole room. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry if I brought you here tonight under false pretenses. I lied to you. I lied to you all,” she glanced briefly at Chippy and Colbert, deadpan as always, without remorse. “I have no psychic powers. I made it up.”
Chippy leaned back to look into her face. “Gail… what are you talking about? You did it. You…”
“Chippy, I made it up. It was all an act. I’m sorry.”
“It can’t be, Gail.” Chippy was on the brink of tears.
Gail sighed. “I thought it would just be a good wheeze. Like showing people a card trick. I assumed we’d all just have an evening’s entertainment and then go back to our normal lives. But that’s not what happened. It stayed with you guys; with you especially, Chippy. By the time I realized that it was too late. I thought that if I came clean I’d break your heart, Chippy. You were into this so much that I didn’t know what else to do except keep up the pretense; I’ve been doing that ever since. I can’t tell you how difficult it’s been for me all these years, watching you build your life around the silly little delusion I’d poisoned you with.”
Chippy was trembling, as if her body had been hit by an earthquake. Tears flowed down her face.
Colbert was numb; he didn’t know what to think. Perhaps it was because of this that his rational mind remembered an obvious issue. “But, Gail. If you faked the whole thing, how did you do it? Remember I went up to my room? I asked you to identify the book and the video I was holding. You got both right immediately even though you couldn’t see me.”
“I could, Colbo,” she answered straight away. "There was a gap between the inside edge of your door and the frame. I could glance up the stairs and see the interior of your room from below.”
“But you were facing the wrong way. You had your back to the staircase.”
“There was a mirror on the opposite wall. I saw you though that.”
“Was there? I don’t remember any mirror hanging there”
“I do, it was there.”
The silence from the audience was different this time. It was not uncomfortable at all; it was the sense of drama, history was being made. Some of them were photographing the scene and uploading it to social media via their phones, desperate to be the first in the Skeptics in the Pub community to break the news.
Chippy slowly got to her feet and backed away from the podium, sobbing copiously. “You bitch, Gail!... You complete and total slag!”
Gail had an inexplicable smile on her face. She shrugged at Chippy almost happily. “Sorry, Chippy; but you had a right to know.”
Chippy strutted away and out of the bar. She was pulling out her phone as she reached the door and as she climbed the stairs to the public bar Colbert heard her voice talking into it: “Jonno, it’s finished. I’m coming over now.”
“Well well well, a confession!” Davvy chuckled to himself. “A true blue, bone fide, positive and unfettered confession. A public confession too, in front of all those people, and her fellow believers! This is the best thing since Banachek and Project Alpha… And it was at my Sit-Pee! Hee hee hee!” He leaned back on the settee and had another sip of brandy.
“Poor Chippy,” said Colbert.
It was the evening after the Skeptics in the Pub event; Davvy and Colbert were back at home in the lounge. They were enjoying a drink to celebrate, or drown their sorrows, depending on how they looked at it.
“She’ll get over it,” reassured Davvy. “She might even find a new lease of life. You know Susan Blackmore was once a heavyweight woo-woo? Oh yes, she was just like Chippy. She had a very similar wake-up call and it was quite a shock to her system. But look at her now, one of the world’s top skeptics… Reminds me, I must invite her to be a speaker one day.”
“It didn’t really bother me either way,” said Colbert. “I'm not a 'believer'. I was always agnostic about the whole thing from day one. I never doubted the possibility that Gail might have pulled a fast one on us. Chippy though, she was obsessed with it. It’s really been a blow to her. Maybe I should find out if she’s OK.”
Davvy ignored him. “Ho ho ho! A public, stage confession! I can’t believe it. It’s all over Facebook you know. They’ll be talking about this for years to come. I’ve been invited talk about it on SGU.”
“Skeptics Guide to the Universe. A radio show.”
Colbert felt a pang of irritation for his friend. “I’m touched by your concern!”
Davvy looked over at him. “Come on, Col. Don’t be like that. What do you want me to say? Chippy is gutted, sure she is, but it’s all part of a learning process. Many of us have been through it.”
“Does that make it hurt any less for her now? She was humiliated in front of a hundred people, and millions more on the net!”
“It was a hole she dug for herself. Her happiness was based on a falsehood and I don’t believe in the Platonic noble myth. Her entire sense of her life’s mission was constructed on a bubble. It needed bursting. If we hadn’t done it last night somebody else would have eventually, possibly somebody less sensitive and tactful.”
Colbert huffed noncommittally and took another sip of brandy.
The landline rang, Colbert picked it up. “Hello?”
The voice at the other end of the line made his blood chill. “Gail?”
Davvy sat up with a jerk and stared at him.
“Yes.” Gail replied.
“What do you want, Gail?”
“I need to see you, Colbo.”
“See me? Why?”
“Can you come over to my place? I’ve just texted you my address and postcode for your sat-nav.”
“Why, Gail? Why do you need to see me?”
“Please, Colbo, just come over.”
Colbert looked at the address and groaned. “Gail, that’s over a hundred miles away. Does it have to be now?”
He sighed. “Alright.”
Colbert looked at the clock on the dashboard. Eleven-ten PM. “I hope she gives me a bloody bed for the night!” he hissed. It was raining hard outside and a thunderstorm was brewing again. The sat-nav instructed him to take one more turn then announced that he had reached his destination. Gail’s house was large and angular; it sat on the edge of a village in Devon and had a long driveway running down the middle of a well-kept lawn. Her house was modern and the windows were large; there was a spacious conservatory on the side of the building. Gail was silhouetted in the open doorway. Her small shadow cast forwards onto the lawn from interior lights. She must have heard his car coming. She waved to him as he parked and decamped. He ran up the stone slab path to the door. As Gail shut it behind him he wiped the raindrops out of his hair. She was dressed casually, in tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt with no jewellery. “Bah! Lousy weather.”
“Thanks for coming over, Colbo. Sorry to drag you all this way so late at night at such short notice, but this is urgent.”
He shrugged semi-mockingly. “What are friends for?”
“Would you like a drink?” She led him into a broad, clean lounge packed with oak furniture. She opened a drinks cabinet. “Sherry OK?”
He nodded as she poured out two glasses and handed him one. “Where’s Jonno tonight?” he asked.
“Out.” Gail’s expressionless voice and blank gaze spoke volumes, as was her style. “Come with me.”
Gail led Colbert to a small dining room at the rear of the house. It was furnished by a broad oak table and a dozen chairs spaced around it. Thunder roared and the chandelier hanging overhead jingled. Gail pointed at the table. There lay the Ouija board. “You forgot to take it home last night,” she said.
“Yeah I did. Must have slipped my mind with all the fuss and bother. Thanks for picking it up.”
She didn’t reply. She sat down at the table in front of the Ouija board and grasped the planchette. “Fancy another session?” she smiled at him,
Colbert felt irritated. “Don’t you think that’s a bit facetious? After your bombshell last night!”
“You feel sorry for Chippy, do you?” she used a teasing tone of mock sorrow.
“Yes, Gail; I do. She was absolutely mortified by what you did. I mean, OK, you felt she should know the truth. Couldn’t you have told her privately?”
“Sit down.” Her command was spoken in her usual mild voice, but to Colbert it felt like a shouted order.
He hesitated, then took a seat opposite her.
Gail placed the planchette on the Ouija board and closed her eyes. She began rolling the planchette in a circle. “Is there anybody there?” she moaned.
“Shut up, Gail! That’s not funny! Pack it in now!”
“Is there anybody there?” she repeated.
“I’ve had enough of this! I’ve spent all evening driving here. I’m going home; hope I get there before morning.” Colbert got up from the table but then stopped as the planchette immediately shot over to the word YES. With a shudder he noticed how similar the action had been to the first time he’d seen it, twenty years ago in their student dorm in Southampton. The planchette seemed to be alive and mobile, dragging Gail’s limp arms along. “I don’t like this. What are you doing, Gail?”
The planchette moved again.
Colbert slowly returned to his seat and followed the arrow: I AM NOT GAIL.
Colbert scoffed. “Oh please! This is not appropriate, Gail. I want you to stop this right now.”
A lightning flash illuminated the room through the patio doors to his right. Thunder crunched a few seconds later.
The planchette was moving again: GAIL IS MY CHANNEL. PLEASE BE CAREFUL WITH HER.
“Who are you?” The words were out of his mouth before he had time to wonder why he’d spoken them, and how ridiculous he should have felt.
Colbert’s heart missed a beat. “What do you want?”
I NEED TO SPEAK WITH YOU. I HAVE ASKED GAIL TO BRING YOU TO ME.
“What do you want to speak about?”
THERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW.
He paused, his rational mind kicking back in. If this was another of Gail’s tricks he decided to play along. “OK,” he sighed. “First of all I’ll need to know you exist. Gail has told us that she was just fooling with us last time, how do I know she’s not just fooling with me again?”
THAT IS UNDERSTANDABLE. IT IS IMPORTANT THAT YOU BELIEVE THAT I AM REAL. WILL YOU DO SOMETHING FOR ME NOW? DO IT EXACTLY ACCORDING TO MY INSTRUCTIONS.
“OK. I’ll do that.”
MOVE THE TABLE AWAY TO THE CORNER OF THE ROOM. LEAVE AT LEAST 6 FEET OF OPEN FLOOR IN FRONT OF MY CHANNEL. THEN DIM THE LIGHTS TO 25 PERCENT AT MOST. THEN SIT IN A CHAIR AT LEAST 12 FEET AWAY FACING MY CHANNEL. WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT TOUCH MY CHANNEL. IT IS IMPORTANT THAT YOU OBEY THESE INSTRUCTIONS EXACTLY. DO YOU NEED ME TO REPEAT THEM?
“No. I’ll do that now.” Thunder and lightning struck again as Colbert dragged the heavy oak table to one side and turned the dimmer switch on the lights down. He then took a seat where the Ouija board had instructed. He wondered how Gail… or the spirit… could communicate now that there was no table for her to put the Ouija board on.
Gail had already started rocking backwards and forwards and moaning quietly before Colbert had got to his seat. She continued to writhe and moan for several minutes. She looked as if she were in pain, but Colbert did not dare touch her because of what the board had warned him. “Good grief!” he scolded himself aloud. “Am I really taking this seriously?”
Gail’s body jerked as if she were retching and then suddenly she vomited. However, the moment after she did so Colbert realized that something wasn’t right. What came out of Gail’s mouth was a stream of thick, white viscous substance like cream, but it didn’t fall under the force of gravity; it floated in the air as if it had been poured into water. Colbert yelped in shock before he could stop himself. He decided he was having a dream. He hadn’t driven to Gail’s house at all. He was at home in bed and soon he would wake up and have a have a good laugh at his nightmare. “I’m imagining this! I’m imagining it! It can’t be real!”
The unnatural substance that had issued from Gail’s mouth began to expand like a white balloon. Its surface was smooth and shiny like milk and it reflected the dim light of the room. It rippled slightly like thin silk. A wide strand of the main structure remained attached to Gail’s mouth like a comic strip speech bubble. Gail herself was now still and silent, as if she had fallen unconscious, sitting completely motionless with her lips apart. The expansion stopped when the mass was about three feet across and it began to change shape and consistency. It started elongating vertically and fluoresced eerily with an internal light-source. Colbert then saw that it was assuming the rough shape of a human torso and head. A face appeared on the front of the head that morphed rapidly; it started as a crude shape, but more and more detailed features appeared. The texture changed, colours burst out and within seconds Colbert was staring at the head of a man, as perfect as a waxwork. The rest of his body was forming too, but lagged behind in details and remained basic in figure. The face was of a young man with fair hair and pale skin. He was swarthy and unshaven, but his blue eyes were bright and intelligent. Colbert’s chair was just a few feet away and he could see every hair on the man’s eyebrows and chin, and the lines in the skin of his forehead. His eyes were clear and alert and glinted with the light coming from both the room and from the phosphorescent glow of the strange matrix from which he’d emerged. Then he blinked his eyes and smiled. From the neck up he looked no different to any other real man Colbert might meet anywhere at any time. “Good evening, Mr Norton.” he said. His voice was gentle and soft, like a male version of Gail’s.
“G… g…” Colbert couldn’t find his voice. He just sat bolt upright, gripping the sides of his seat desperately.
“I know this is a bit of a shock for you. I am sorry if I caused you any distress.”
“I am known as Reardon, and we’ve met before, only not face to face like this... I was once a man very similar to you. I was known as Father Jean-Claude de Galderaine.” He spoke this name the way a native French speaker would; apart from that, his accent was neutral English like Gail’s. "I lived for thirty-five years.”
Colbert gasped out a pair of sentences. “What do you want with me? Are you going to kill me!?”
The apparition smiled. “No. I just wanted to tell you something you need to know about your friends.”
“My channel is under enormous emotional stress. That is why she lied at the meeting last night.”
Thoughts of the Skeptics in the Pub event the previous evening rushed back from where his alarm had banished them. “The meeting? She… she said. She said she wasn’t really psychic… but she is? She is psychic?”
“Obviously. Or else I could not appear to you.” Reardon grinned again with amusement. “My channel is very powerful. That’s why I’ve always worked with her. Nobody else knows except her mother and husband, and they never talk about it.”
“So… that night in Southampton? That was really you?”
“But then… why did Gail not say so? Why did she stand up last night and tell everybody she’d made it up?”
“As I said, my channel is suffering badly. Her husband no longer loves her, although she is still very much in love with him. For many years now he has been having a relationship with the woman you call Chippy. My channel feels a lot of hatred for Chippy because of this. My channel knows how much Chippy values our contact in Southampton, so she pretended to her that it was not real in order to hurt her.”
“My God!” hissed Colbert. “Gail lied! Gail knew the Ouija board was real and lied about it at Sit-Pee. She came out with that story that it was all a big fraud… just to piss off Chippy!”
“Precisely,” said Reardon. “Please do not think too badly of my channel. She is experiencing an enormous amount of emotional pain.” Reardon voice faded slightly during this sentence and it became a bit tinny and indistinct. His face became slightly fuzzy too. Then he solidified again.
“What are you?” Colbert found himself asking.
“I am the same thing as you.” Reardon answered. “I didn’t know it before, the same way you don’t know it now.”
“Will I one day become like you? When I die?”
“What’s it like where you are?”
“I… I am not sure… what words…” The partial fade-out of his face and voice happened again. It made Colbert think of a radio losing its signal and needing to be tuned.
“Are you alright?”
“The conduit is closing. I cannot remain. Say nothing of what we said to my channel. Be good and happy for a long time, Colbert Norton… Farewell.”
The face of Reardon vanished into the amorphous white substance from which it emerged and the substance itself seemed to be shrinking and evapourating. It broke apart and fell to the floor, withering like ice in hot water. The part which came out of Gail’s mouth thinned to nothing. After a few seconds it had all vanished leaving Colbert and Gail sitting alone in the room as if nothing untoward had happened. There was another flash of lighting and thunderclap. Gail suddenly woke up and leapt to her feet. She looked around herself as if waking from a natural sleep. Colbert jumped up to assist her. “Are you alright, Gail?”
“Yeah, fine. Did you see anything?”
“Jolly good. Do you want another sherry?”
It was three PM when Colbert arrived back home. He parked the car in his garage and entered the house through the front door. Davvy was on the phone. “Yes… yes, I’d be glad to.”
Colbert walked slowly through to the kitchen. He ran his hands along the sideboard. Feeling the cracks and knots in the wood with his fingertips.
“On the thirtieth? That soon?... Oh not a problem. I’ll just have to make sure work is OK about it.”
He opened one of the kitchen drawers and took a look inside. There was a potato peeler in there that he’d forgotten he had.
“Tell you what, to hell with ‘em. If they don’t grant me the leave I’ll tell them to stick the job. I wouldn’t miss this for anything!”
He looked out of the window at the back garden. It was a bit overgrown. The hedge badly needed clipping. The rain had stopped and blue sky poked through the clouds.
“Right you are!... Thank you very much for calling. See you in a couple of weeks.” Davvy threw down the landline and ran into the kitchen. “Col, you’re back. How did you get on with Mrs Houdini?”
Davvy noticed his tone. “Is everything alright? Was Gail OK?”
Colbert shrugged. “Oh, a bit down in the dumps.”
“Well that’s to be expected; a guilty conscience ain’t pleasant… Here, guess who that was on the phone.”
“James Randi… Yes! The James 'the Amazing' Randi!... He only wants me to fly over to Florida at the end of the month so he can interview me for his new movie! Thanks to your mate, Gail! I can’t believe it! James ‘the Amazing’ Randi! The grandfather of all skeptics! I’m also booked to speak at TAM Australia in December, that’s Randi’s conference over there. Who would have thought it? Little old humble me, doing my bit for the skeptic cause in a feet-on-the-ground way like so many others, gaining nothing and receiving nothing for my commitment to science and reason. And now my contribution has finally been recognized! I’m going to be up there on stage with all the greats, Richard Wiseman, Prof. Brian Cox, Michael Shermer, Derren Brown. Oh man!... Hey, Col, you should come with me, to Australia! What do you reckon?”
Colbert affected the best smile he could. “That would be lovely, Davs, thanks.”
Davvy took a step back and frowned. “Well don’t jump too high for joy, Col, you might dent the ceiling with your head!... What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, nothing much. Didn’t sleep too well at Gail’s; her guest bedroom is a bit chilly and there was a hell of a storm.”
Davvy frowned. “Was everything alright out there?”
“You don’t sound fine.”
Colbert paused. “I was just wondering… has anybody ever confessed before, like Gail did, publicly in front of lots of people?”
“A few have yes. Like Banachek, the Fox sisters; also Bob Gimlin who made a fake Bigfoot film.”
“Has anybody… ever… made a fake confession?”
“Fake confession? What do you mean?”
“Have you ever heard of anybody… make a confession that was a lie?”
“A confession that was a lie?" Davvy frowned quizzically, as if repeating an unfamiliar technical term or a word from a foreign language. "What on Earth do you mean?... The short answer is: no, a confession is never a lie. Claims can be either a lie or the truth; a confession is by definition a revelation of the truth.”
“But isn’t a confession a kind of claim?”
Davvy burst out laughing. “Oh, you’re making one of those postmodern and relativistic statements again aren’t you? Like the ones you all entertained Sit-Pee with the other night.”
“No.” Colbert swung round to face him. “What I’m saying is that Gail’s confession was a lie.”
Davvy’s smile broadened. “It wasn’t, Col.”
“It was! I know! I’ve seen…”
“You’ve seen nothing, the same way you saw nothing in Southampton.” His smile was so broad now that it looked like it would tear his face.
“No, Davvy. Last night I… I saw Gail…”
“You saw Gail very sad and in need of an old friend to visit because she was so depressed and lonely because her old man is shagging Chippy. She wept on your shoulder for a few hours and then you both went to bed.”
With a sudden jerk Davvy reached into the drawer that Colbert had opened a few minutes earlier and whipped out a carving knife. He jumped forward and leveled the knife at Colbert's stomach. His smile was gone.
Colbert jerked back and raised his arms to defend himself. “What the fuck!? Davvy, what’s wrong with you!?”
“Now, think over what you just said.” Davvy’s voice was still scientific, rational, empirical and very logical. “You saw nothing unusual last night, nothing at all. Remember that and you’ll stay healthy… Understood?”