It wasn't my idea, in fact I was dead set against it, I don't even believe in that stuff – or I didn't. It was Bel who got me there by pleading, arguing, bribing and sheer manipulation. She can be like that, when that lady wants something she'll do anything to make it happen. Determination should be her middle name, maybe it is.
As we approached the modest semi on a quiet side street it was Bel who seized the five sided door knocker and rapped hard six times. Throwing me a look that said you aren't backing out now she crossed her arms and tilted that small but impressive chin of hers.
Of course I knew why she was here why we were both here, we needed closure but I wasn't convinced that coming to see some freaky woman was the answer; her website had hardly filled me with confidence. I mean you make any kind of claim online can't you.
When the door opened a plain looking woman stood there. She could have been pretty with some makeup, a fashionable hairdo and some more modern clothing but she'd gone for dowdy and it was working. Hair combed back into an austere bun, ankle length black skirt, flat shoes, a dark granny shawl and grey throat scarf.
"Mrs Dunleavy," Bel thrust out her hand always keen to make friends and build bridges. She worked in marketing and it showed, me I'm an accountant.
"It's Miss actually," the voice was without an accent, "But please call me Florence."
Bel introduced us and before I knew it we were entering a poky but clean house with rugs not carpet and some odd carvings of birds, vultures I think and rooks. Leading us into a modest lounge Florence asked us if we wanted anything to drink.
The word 'no' was on my tongue when Bel asked for tea of all things; she never drank tea being a coffee kind of girl, skinny latte if you don't mind.
"Of course," said our hostess, "I'll just be a minute, please make yourselves comfortable," then pausing she gave me an odd distant look that made my spine tingle before saying very matter-of-factly, "Your knee pain will go in a minute."
How the hell did she know about that, I wasn't limping and hadn't referred to my old injury, the result of a vicious tackle during a college soccer game that had left me with a weak median ligament ever since that ached like hell when it rained and it was drizzling that night.
I gawped at Bel in amazement, 'how' said my features but she just shrugged and began studying the large framed portrait of an angel over the hearth that I had to admit was impressive.
I was more taken by the book collection lots of spiritual stuff, memoirs by mediums and healers, a couple of UFO titles and interestingly a hardback copy of a book by a known paranormal sceptic who'd been on morning TV recently debunking the whole thing.
"It's so lovely in here," Bel was saying, "The vibe is incredible."
I picked up the sceptic's book, "Susan Ryan," I let her see it, Ryan was an Oxford academic who had devoted herself to rubbishing any spiritual or occult.
"Bitch," was Bel's view.
"Odd to find her here if this lady is," I didn't get to finish as Florence returned and caught me with the Ryan book; she seemed amused rather than offended that I'd been trawling through her stuff.
"Like you she lost a baby," said the medium and I almost dropped the book, had Bel told her about our child; she had said she wouldn't so we could test this woman. Only Florence seemed to be ahead of us, had she done a background check?
"Abigail," she said, the name we were going to give our baby and I felt creeped out that she should know.
"Who did you ask," the question was out of my mouth before I could stop it and Bel threw me a look.
"We lost her at 3 weeks," she said.
"Yes I can feel it," said Dunleavy one hand moving to her chest then up to her neck and finally the left side of her head, "Pain here," she said.
"Aneurysm," said Bel with a slight sob and I went to her, sure now this was a total waste of time and money. Why put ourselves through this, what was to be gained? The loss of our baby was too recent and too raw; at least it was for me.
"We should go," I said but Bel squeezed my arm.
"I want to stay," she wiped her cheek.
"Why dredge all this up Bel, it's so hurtful," I was trying to protect her, protect both of us.
"You know why," she said then easing back from me to face Dunleavy she cleared her throat, "I need to know why it happened why Abigail died, we would have been such good parents we really wanted her and have good jobs."
"Bel don't," I urged but Dunleavy spoke over me.
"I'll do the best I can. I can't promise anything; no medium can but I'll open up and we'll see what comes through."
Bullshit I was thinking we'll just get the run-around by this clever con artist; all mediums were fakes, Ryan believed it and so did I. Mine was a rational world a sane world; I believed in numbers and facts not all this superstitious claptrap. I was only here to humour Bel because she did believe or she said she did.
"How is your knee," the question startled me and for a moment I was thrown until I realised that my old injury, which had been throbbing before no longer was, I was free of pain for the first time in ages.
The pills I'd taken earlier, it had to be but Dunleavy's uncanny insight still startled me.
"I'd get that tooth seen to," she added and now my jaw really did go slack. I'd been having this nagging pain in one of my pre-molars for a couple of weeks. Not even Bel knew about so how could this woman...?
"Florence can scan the human aura," Bel began to explain but with a look I silenced her not in the mood for paranormal double talk.
"I don't buy any of this," I said flatly decided that honesty was the best policy, "People can't read minds or talk to the dead; it's nonsense, the dead are dead. I'm sorry Bel I know you want to believe but I can't."
I hadn't meant to be so blunt but this woman was pressing all my buttons and yes I'll admit I was scared, I couldn't explain the knee-thing or the tooth-thing and this bothered me.
There was a logical explanation for everything, or at least that's what I told myself.
Seeing the moistness in Bel's eyes I could have kicked myself, she didn't want to listen to me ranting and mansplaining; she needed comfort she'd lost a baby for god sake our baby.
"Why don't we all sit down," Dunleavy remained calm and unfussed and as we sat down (me reluctantly) she poured tea into three cups adding sugar only to mine and lemon only to Bel's.
I took my tea with a grunted thanks and took a long sip, Bel just nodded her thanks.
"Okay," Florence didn't touch hers, "let me explain how this works – no holding hands, no dimmed lights and no crystal ball I just relax and tune into sprit then we'll see what comes through. I won't ask any questions, this isn't some fake cold-reading," was that for my benefit, I'd read up on cold-reading just that morning.
"What if nothing happens," Bel asked, "The spirits don't want to talk to us."
Oh please I was thinking, we were supposed to be two hard-nosed professionals. Bel was high up in marketing so she knew all about spin and hype, how could she fall for this?
"No medium can guarantee contact," Dunleavy began but I couldn't stop my snort of disdain. Letting it pass without comment the woman continued, "Mediums don't summon spirits, they are in control of all communication, I'm just a channel a conduit."
How much were we paying for this, I wanted to walk out right then and there but I could tell Bel was hooked by the way she gazed at Dunleavy with such need in her eyes.
It had taken two rounds of IVF for Bel to conceive and she'd been very ill both times, after the second time we vowed not to try again then came the great news an egg was fertilized, our little miracle had happened. Some miracle, it didn't take long for it all to turn sour. Do I sound bitter? Well I am who wouldn't be? "Abigail was just a baby, how can she communicate," I demanded tersely knowing I was acting like a jerk but unable to tame my temper.
"Mike, stop it," now Bel's tone was sharp, "Just kick back and keep quiet."
It was rare for my girlfriend to lose her temper but when she did look out, I gestured a 'sorry' and made my shoulders relax.
Taking a mouthful of tea Dunleavy sat back and rested both hands in her lap, her breathing now quite deep and eyes half-closed, it was a good act very polished she'd no doubt had a lot of experience.
Why wasn't she married, I wondered or was she divorced? No ring, no photos of her with a guy, she played the role of the spinster very well. What was she 38, 39 even 40; she had good bones and with a little makeup could have been far more glamorous.
"I sense something," she finally said as the silent grew oppressive and I peered down at my watch wondering how long this was going to take. Just wait until I told the guys at work or my squash opponent; we'd have a really good...
Clutching her stomach Florence suddenly doubled over and I thought she was going to retch for one awful moment, having gone very pale her eyelids flickering she gave a low drawn out moan then fought for self-control, "strong," I think she said then louder, "Too strong," she sat back swallowing hard.
I must admit my heart was racing at this point so good was the performance, and I was sure she was acting. That said the room had gone oddly cold, not just cold but chilly I could see Bel's breath misting around her face my own to. It was weird because it wasn't freezing outside yet in here it felt sub-zero.
Drawing in a long rasping breath, her eyes now wide open Dunleavy said, "Who are you," she shuddered, "Reveal yourself," who was she talking to then, "no," a croak and louder, "NO," a shout that made us both jump.
On my feet I went over to Bel who was ashen and shaking, this was all wrong and I didn't like it, "We should go," I whispered but felt her resist and cling to me enraptured by the act, "Bel come on," I urged but the look she threw me made it plain she wasn't going anywhere.
The scream chilled my blood and on her feet now Dunleavy spread her arms wide crucifixion style, head thrown back and neck corded her muscles trembling with the effort.
"Stop it," I shouted at her fear giving way to anger as I hated frauds, "Just stop this," pulling free of my girlfriend I approached the medium ready to grab and shake her but at the last moment the arms came down, so did the head and on the face was one of the scariest smiles I've ever seen, a cruel mocking sneer arrogant and defiant and yes a touch malignant.
The eyes glared at me darker now almost black, twin pools of evil that made me take a step back. This woman no longer looked like a tame spinster she seemed taller, stronger even younger and I feared for Bel's safety at that moment. Melodramatics I hadn't expected, this wasn't the theatre or some tacky talk-show.
"Let's go," I said but Bel hung back tugging on my hand.
"Oh my god Mike, look at her face don't you recognise it?"
No I didn't, not at first; it seemed to be the face of a younger woman in her twenties with high cheekbones, full lips and wisps of reddish hair.
Bel gasped, "its Nancy Keegan."
I blinked at the name not recalling it at first then shock smashed through my solar plexus, dear god Nancy Keegan. Less than a year ago her trial had been all over the media, her face on the front of every tabloid.
She was the nurse who had murdered all those premature babies in the neo-natal unit of the Royal Alex, putting poison into IV drips and killing them. She'd gone on trial for the killing of 11 babies both boys and girls, but it was suspected that she had murdered many more.
Every day she sat in court cool and elegant, pretty and uncaring, a monster in female form whilst outside mothers picketed demanding she be executed by the same lethal injection. The Psycho Nurse she'd been called by the tabloids as they compared her to Beverly Allit, Harold Shipman and even Myra Hindley.
Nancy had never once said sorry or apologized for what she'd done nor had she tried to explain it, her demeanour was aloof and arrogant. Nobody could believe that a nurse could be so wicked as the grisly details were played out in the newspapers and TV all last summer.
Then just as the jury were retiring Nancy was found hanging in her cell; she had cheated justice. That she would be found guilty was beyond doubt but rather than face a lifetime in prison she had acted with typical ruthlessness.
But the woman before us now couldn't be here, the dead were dead nobody ever came back not even monsters like Keegan.
Yet those eyes, those lips and that crooked smile with only the right side of the mouth curled, even the haughty posture was typical Nancy.
"It's her," Bel insisted.
"How can it be," I tried to scoff but my resolve was slipping?
"She's come through Florence."
"But Florence was trying to find our," I swallowed hard our child, our baby our precious little angel.
Then Keegan's spirit spoke using Dunleavy's vocal cords and her sharp Devon accent was plain to hear, "Hello mummy," she said with dry mockery, "Hello Daddy," and the smirk deepened.
Shut up I wanted to shout; shut the hell up.
"Poor baby," Keegan sighed, "Poor baby Abigail."
My heart almost froze, Abigail had been premature too and she'd been in the Royal Alex in the same unit as...but no it wasn't possible.
"It only took 2cc's," the woman before me declared, "Barely a thimble full of barbiturate and there was no more baby."
You bitch I thought as my blood began to boil, "SHUT UP," I couldn't stop the words exploding from my mouth.
"She had green eyes and little tufts of fair hair here and here," Keegan touched the point above her own ears, "Oh and a mole right here," the left side of the neck.
I heard Bel sob, her knees giving out, supporting her I threw Keegan a venomous look, "You're dead," I breathed, "You hung yourself."
"So many babies," she kept going pressing my buttons, "So many cute little cherubs like Abigail."
I lost it and lunged at her, only Bel held me back, "No don't hurt Florence," and the words acted like a splash of cold water, yes Dunleavy I could only hurt her not Keegan, you can't hit a spirit. What was I thinking had I bought into this delusion?
It was Bel who turned to the painting of the angel with its vast wings spread wide, its glowing halo and that beatific smile, "Help us," she cried as though the angel were real and not just oil and canvas, "Please help us."
Bel, I wanted to say, for heaven sake pull yourself together but then Florence gagged, doubled over, clutched her throat and fought for breath like someone emerging from the ocean after being under for too long.
When she glanced up her face was normal, her hair dull brown not red, her lips thin and nose beaky she was once more the plain spinster, "Oh god," she gasped as she sank to her knees, "She's too strong."
Turning from the angel (coincidence surely) Bel went to the medium clutching her arms asking if she was all right and if we could help, if Nancy had gone?
No ghosts I told myself, there are no ghosts there must be a rational explanation. Maybe Dunleavy was ill, she'd had some kind of seizure or maybe she was just a good actress playing us along, but then what would be the point why invoke someone like Nancy?
Coughing spluttering Florence tried to answer but there was this liquid or oil pouring from her lips, nose and eyes just oozing out of her. It was sort of milky and viscous and it appeared to be floating in the air defying gravity just hanging there not liquid yet not solid either.
Having no idea what it could be I reached out to touch it but Dunleavy caught by wrist with surprising strength, "Don't," she croaked then hawked up another puddle of the stuff.
"What is it," I demanded still thinking Bel and I should leave; this was getting too freaky?
Sat down Florence vomited another huge bubble of the murky oil into the air then sucked in some much needed oxygen, "I can't stop her," she said, "She's trying to manifest."
The ugly rippling oil now filled a third of the lounge and it was changing in both shape and texture, parts of it thickening and darkening, some of it extruding downwards or sideways, ripples of it congealing together to form fine strands like hair, red hair, a woman's hair.
"You mean Keegan," I gasped, "But she's dead."
"Death," Dunleavy gulped, "Isn't what you think," accepting a clutch of tissues she began to wipe her mouth and nose cleaning the gunk away so she could breathe and speak.
"So what is it," I challenged?
"Change," said Bel hotly, "Isn't that right," she asked the medium?
"You should go," Florence coughed and met my gaze, "Mike is right, it isn't safe, leave me to deal with this spirit."
"We can't just leave you like this," Bel had dug her heels in and threw me a look to say we're not abandoning this woman to her fate.
But what could we do, I for one was out of my depth. As I watched the oil it narrowed, stretched and acquired quite distinct limbs, a figure, a neck and a face. Somehow colour was added to these features, and detail too like an artist with high speed brushes painting eyes, a nose, lips and a chin.
Nancy Keegan stood in the room with us wearing the same clothes as she had in court during her trial, a long coat, knee length skirt and long dangling earrings. It was her; I couldn't deny it now the similarity was uncanny. The dead nurse glared at us with eyes that blazed both boiling hot and icy cold.
Just how she'd recreated herself through Dunleavy I had no idea, it was as though she'd extracted some vital substance from the psychic some living matter.
"This can't be happening," I said but I knew it was.
"You have no right to do this Nancy," Florence declared but the ghost grinned back at her like she didn't need anyone's permission, "You must move on," Flo announced.
Move on where I was wondering, purgatory, hell; some other ethereal place? Where did the dead really go especially if they had committed such evil?
Bel was again looking at the painted angel, "Help us," she echoed but Keegan's mocking laugh cut through the air gurgling and watery like she was laughing under water.
"Your physical life ended," Florence persisted, "This is not your reality anymore."
Ignoring her Nancy regarded me, the only man in the room. Hadn't she taken several lovers during her life, it had come out at the trial. She'd been sleeping with a junior doctor, a consultant and some advertising guy keeping them all on the go.
A hand rose and beckoned at me, I remained frozen in place wanting nothing to do with her but she continued to beckon and oddly I turned and began to step towards her, my legs defying me as this was the last thing I wanted to do.
Keegan had this power this allure, even dead she was compelling and magnetic. Seeing what was happening Bel wrenched the painting off the wall and came over holding it up, "In the name of light," she pronounced, "I banish you," and she swung the heavy framed portrait at Keegan.
It went straight through barely disturbing her oily frame, although I noticed that some of the oil was smeared on the canvas dampening it. Losing her grin Keegan glared at Bel then a hand shot out to slap my girlfriend in the face knocking her back on her heels.
My god this ghost was solid she was firm, Bel's lip was cut and she had dropped the painting at my feet.
Gazing from her to it I wondered what to do, Nancy had once more fixed me with her gaze and now she spoke again it was like she speaking underwater her voice gurgling and throaty, "Come here Michael," she said, "Touch me."
I didn't want to yet at the same time I was fascinated by her oily semi-solid form, it defied every physical law I knew and was still rippling still bubbling constantly in motion. So I found my hand extended towards her and as I reached out to her she reached out to me. Our hands touched, flesh meeting oil. I expected her to be cold but she wasn't, her oily fingers were warm almost living. Then she clenched her fingers so she was gripping me, her strength extraordinary.
She actually pulled me off balance towards her and her other arm went around me wrapping itself around my neck and drawing me towards those thick luscious lips.
As they pressed into mine they felt like lips warm and soft and slightly scented with rosemary, but then something entered my life. At first I thought it was her tongue but it was too soft, so oily and too long. Something poured over my teeth and across my gums invading my mouth oozing into me.
It was the oil the ectoplasm Nancy was made off it was spreading, contaminating me. When I tried to pull free I found I couldn't, she was too strong.
I saw Dunleavy rise and take something from a drawer, bringing it over she began to read from it and I realised she was holding a newspaper.
"Yesterday killer nurse Nancy Keegan was found dead in her cell at Holloway Women's Prison, she was found suspended from a self-made ligature and attempts to revive her prison staff failed," Florence looked up, "You're dead Nancy you committed suicide, you no longer belong in this world."
Thrusting the newspaper up so Keegan could see it the medium added, "Your life on earth is over Nancy."
The oil withdrew from me and I was realised, Keegan turning to the psychic with a look of pure hatred flashing in her eyes, seeming to snarl like a beast she smashed the newspaper aside but Dunleavy was a game bird and held her ground.
"You're dead," she repeated, "Dead and gone."
Lashing out Keegan landed a hard slap that sent Florence collapsing back into her seat, then lunging forward the spirit wrapped tight fingers around the narrow throat and began to squeeze.
I couldn't believe it, how could a ghost touch living people, hit them and choke them? I swapped a look with Bel wondering if there was anything we could do? Then it happened...Keegan became thinner, paler, I could see through her now, parts of her oily body had fallen away to pool on the rug.
The hands choking Florence turned to mush and ran down the medium's chest; the arms became bendy and insubstantial. The harder Nancy tried the less power she had, the less substance.
She was melting, losing cohesion; the binding force of her ectoblastic body was leeching away.
"You took energy from me," Dunleavy sounded hoarse, "Now I'm taking it back."
"No," Nancy roared, "This is my world."
"Not anymore, you sacrificed your place in this world when you hung yourself, the coward's way out because you knew you were guilty of killing those babies."
Swinging this way and that Keegan tried hard to maintain her form but it was a losing battle, she was dissolving before our eyes, bubbling and running like a painting left out in the rain. Her beautiful face now a rippling mess a wax effigy caught in a candle flame.
"She's going," running to me for a hug Bel was trembling with shock.
Yes I thought and thank god, "Back to hell I hope," I said. Florence stood up shaky and weak but still game.
"We have to go," I told her brooking no argument this time, Bel and I needed to get home and recover from this, I for one had some serious thinking to do about life and death and what came after.
"Abigail," stopping me with this word Dunleavy was panting for breath and pale she looked rung out, "She is coming back to you," pointing Bel's belly the medium added, "Her's is the soul of your new child."
I blinked in astonishment, Bel was pregnant, she hadn't said a thing to me.
"What new child," I asked but my girlfriend looked as gobsmacked as I felt. We clung to each other tear sin our eyes, running down my cheeks. A new baby; it was more than I could have hoped for.
"Love never dies," said the medium as we made our way to the door, "But hatred does," she panted holding onto the door frame for support.
"Is Keegan gone," I asked, "For good I mean?"
"She won't trouble you again," Flo assured.
"Did she kill our baby," Bel had to ask she had to know and so did I?
"No," Dunleavy dredged up a smile, "She was lying about that."
Was it the truth or was she trying to spare our feelings? I didn't know then and still don't but appreciated her saying it.