Today we will make contact with Flo and I am giddy with excitement. I did not sleep in the night. My mind fussed over details of the day ahead: the food preparation, Gustav’s mocha birthday cake that must be collected in the morning from the baker’s. But mostly, I could not stop thinking of Flo. What will I say to my dear friend after these eighteen months of separation? How is the afterlife treating you? What’s it like to be without a body? Met anyone nice?
There is much to discuss and yet nothing new to report on my end, except for the empty feeling that has been growing in me like a great chasm since the day she was taken.
In the kitchen, we prepare for the barbecue-séance. I toss a potato salad together, and wonder if she is still the same Flo, full of talk and quick laughter. I would hate for this experience of death with its stiff formality to have carved a hard shape into her soul, making her stilted and serious in conversation so that she is only able to communicate through grand, prophetic statements, devoid of any real meaning. ‘Be patient. Find joy in small pleasures,’ that sort of talk. The Flo I knew for over twenty years spoke in specifics. She once pointed to a man who jumped ahead of her in a queue at a supermarket and said in a booming voice, so that he was sure to hear, ‘That cunt thinks he’s special. Doesn’t he look like a fat Elvis Stojko?’ Mostly, Flo was soft. Towards the end of her life, she could not see a baby totting along without getting misty-eyed. It was a great personal tragedy that she was never able to conceive, having suffered multiple miscarriages. After her fifth, she had put away her ovulation calendar and had said, with great sadness washing over her, ‘I’m done now.’
My husband Tariq is marinating the large rack of pork ribs for tonight. ‘I got a message from Gustav,’ he says to me now, washing his hands in the kitchen sink.
They are the well-cared for hands of a colorectal surgeon. Tender and discrete – hands that are skilled in the important ways. ‘He messaged me when you were hoovering.’
‘Oh? What did he say?’
‘He asked if it would be OK to bring a friend tonight.’
Tariq nods, dries his hands.
‘I hope that you told him, no.’
‘Well, it’s his birthday, Ziba. He should be able to make a last minute addition to the guest list if he wants to.’
‘Yes, but the surprise… A stranger at his deceased wife’s séance…it feels awkward. You must think so?’
Tariq shrugs. ‘Maybe there’s still time to cancel the séance.’
I look at my husband with astonishment. His own gaze is fixed on the large rack of ribs which he has finished preparing. He believes this whole thing is absurd – the séance, the notion that a medium can channel Flo, that Flo is anything more than the ashes which her husband Gustav scattered along the coral reefs of the Caspian Sea.
He does not believe in anything that he cannot touch, my husband. His spiritual practice is the scientific method. Case studies involving his patients with their various colorectal afflictions. I was once like him, too. When I looked at patient x-rays, I would see only the hazy outline of bones and organs, and this to me was the whole person. But my outlook changed that October when Flo complained of pain in her chest. I took her x-ray myself, and with great horror, I saw there in variations of black and white the enlarged size of my dear friend’s heart, the fluid build-up in her lungs. When I later showed her the x-ray, with clumsy tears falling dreadfully, she smiled and said to me, ‘Ziba, that’s not who I am.’
There was a certainty in her tone, a deep resolve in her grey eyes. Her sureness converted me into a believer of the fluid unknowable. Spirit, soul, inner being – the thing that could not be captured in tests.
I look now at Tariq, and soften my approach. I cut into an avocado, and say to him casually, ‘Who is this friend Gustav is so keen on bringing tonight?’
Tariq shrugs. ‘He didn’t give me details. Only he asked if it was OK to bring her along.’
‘Her? He’s not told me anything about a woman friend. Maybe Francis knows more.’
Indeed, Francis knows all the details. The friend Gustav is bringing to the barbecue is Marion Fuller, a PhD student at the university where he lectures. Gustav has apparently been out with her twice for coffee, a long midweek lunch of dumplings, and most recently, a trip to the cinema to watch a documentary film about coffee beans growing in conflict zones. Her field of research is Monster Studies.
‘Monster Studies?’ Every new detail Francis imparts about Marion Fuller makes me weary with unease.
We are sitting at the patio table in the interlocked section of the garden which overlooks a small, unremarkable lawn. The grass is patchy and yellow from the sun’s sharp reach and neither myself nor Tariq put in the effort to revive it.
Francis swallows orange rinds that float in her glass of Pimms. The sun shines marvellously against her brown arm. ‘It’s exactly like it sounds,’ she tells me, batting a fly away. ‘The study of monsters and the stories we build around them.’
I produce a short sound with my throat like trapped laughter. ‘Apparently you can turn anything into a PhD. How old is she?’
Francis shrugs. ‘I imagine she’s in her late twenties. I met her once on campus between classes. She was having coffee with Gustav. Her eyes are set quite far apart. They make her look like someone who holds a broader perspective on things. She’s a very attractive person.’
‘Why didn’t he tell her about me?’
Francis tilts her head. ‘Maybe he was afraid of your reaction. Because you were so close to Flo.’
‘Well, I am surprised that he’s moved on so soon.’
Francis with her small puppet’s chin smiles at me. ‘Eighteen months is not so soon.’
‘Good for him,’ I say, fingering a hole in the tablecloth. ‘If he’s happy, then of course, I support him. It’s only that I hired a medium as a surprise for Gustav. Judith Summers. She’s going to channel Flo.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Judith Summers. She’s written a few books on channelling spirits. She’s a clairvoyant. I’ve hired her so that we can have a visit with Flo tonight.’
Francis squints. ‘Do you mean that middle-aged woman in her pastel jumpers and botox lips? The one I’ve seen on book covers in Self-Help?’
‘Well, I don’t know about the size of her lips. Anyway, what she chooses to do with them doesn’t change her gift of communication.’
Francis leans into the table. Her hair which has always been worn short, falls forward, dreadfully. ‘Can you cancel the séance? I don’t see this boding very well with Gustav when he’s bringing Marion…’
‘Do you think I should? How do we know what Gustav is feeling? I think he’ll be happy to be reunited with Flo. They were a wonderful pair. Twelve years of marriage. You saw how wretched he was through her illness. And to tell you the truth, this isn’t just for him. It might be his birthday. But Flo was our dear friend. I’ve already paid the deposit.’
Francis opens her mouth to protest, but stops herself, sits back in her chair. She shuts her small, coin-shaped eyes against the sun.
I glance over at Tariq who is busy scrubbing the grill with a wire brush, blissfully humming a tune to himself.
At last, Gustav arrives with Marion. Tariq offers them cold glasses of Pimms, and I say to Gustav, ‘Happy birthday old boy,’ and then I shake Marion’s small hand.
Her eyes are indeed as Francis described them, set far apart. She is in a summer dress, yellow and frivolous, with flat beige ballet slippers which blend perfectly into the pale complexion of her shins so that she appears bare-footed, ethereal.
Gustav by comparison looks solid, healthy and ruddy, his face red with boyish energy. The top three buttons of his shirt are undone.
‘We just came from a walk in the park,’ Gustav says. ‘We saw deer.’
Marion nods her head. ‘Lots of deer.’
We are standing next to the barbecue to keep Tariq company while he turns the rack of ribs, but it is terribly hot with the flames kicking up and the sun beaming down. My face is a slippery mess as I make an effort to smile at the happy couple.
‘Any big celebration plans?’ Tariq says.
‘As a matter of fact, I’m taking a trip to Provence next weekend,’ Gustav says. ‘Marion’s coming with me.’
Francis says, ‘Oh, it’ll be very hot at this time of the year. Wouldn’t it be better to wait until October?’
‘I like it hot.’ Gustav glances over at Marion who grins at him approvingly. ‘The heat gives me energy. I’ve been enjoying the summer.’
‘You look good for forty-six,’ Francis admits. ‘Healthy.’
‘Oh, he’s very fit. A much faster runner than I am,’ Marion says. ‘We went on a 5K run yesterday, and I couldn’t keep up.’
Marion takes small sips from her glass. She holds it between her hands in the way that a child might hold a teacup at a party with her teddy bears. Flo would never go running with her husband. She believed in separate interests to keep a relationship happy. She had many hobbies herself. A long-time member of the historical society, she attended meetings every first Tuesday of the month, travelling across the river to Greenwich. And she loved jamming things that she grew in her garden. Strawberries, blackberries and her signature blackcurrent jam were a delight. She had a slight paunch and it suited her well. Marion, frail-boned and pale is the complete opposite.
‘Francis was telling me that you study monsters?’ I say.
Marion nods. ‘My research looks at how we associate the sick body with the monstrous.’
I pass around a plate of mini tartlets. ‘I see a lot of sick bodies in my line of work. I can assure you that my patients are not zombies or vampires. Only once has a patient tried to bite my neck.’
The group laughs, a polite modest laugh.
I shrug. ‘Forgive me, but I don’t see the connection between monsters and illness.’
Marion, rather than looking shy for all the attention, perks up. ‘Oh, well, coming face-to-face with the monster makes us feel our own vulnerability. We realise that we’re fragile. It’s the same when we’re confronted with sick people. We become acutely aware of our mortality. I’m interviewing cancer patients right now who’ve told me that friends and family have been avoiding them for some time.’
‘There can be a number of reasons for that…’
Marion nods. ‘I agree, and I look at everything in my research. But it’s the idea of projection that I’m most interested in. The recognition of one’s own vulnerability when faced with the other.’
I glance over at Francis and Gustav who nod, both academics, familiar with this process of narrowing in on a thing, building up a case for it until it becomes a truth.
Francis says, ‘The monster that I find frightening is not the one I’m confronted with, but the one I can’t see. The monster hiding under my bed. In my closet.’
Marion nods, ‘The one that’s growing in your body without your knowledge.’
‘Do you mean like a tumour?’ Tariq says, wiping sweat from his brow.
Smoke billows around him. ‘Precisely.’
‘This conversation is a bit bleak, isn’t it? Why don’t we get out of the sun?’ I say, feeling suddenly dizzy. ‘It’s too hot to be standing next to an open flame.’
Tariq directs conversation around the patio table as we eat the pork ribs and potato salad. There is also a rotisserie chicken on the table which Francis has brought along. Tariq speaks with easy pleasure about a new show we are watching on the subject of dentists.
‘Nothing much happens except the everyday things,’ he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘I like those kind of stories.’
‘I prefer action,’ I say. ‘Thrillers that distract me from the hum-drum.
Is there anything more trivial than the story of a dental practice?’ Marion shrugs. ‘I think there’s beauty in small things.’
I want to say, Of course you would think this, but I bite into my chicken breast and feel mildly ashamed for this condescension towards Marion who has been polite and thoughtful.
We get on the subject of Francis’s son.
Francis waves her hand above her head. ‘I thought I’d never hear from him again when he moved out, but he calls all the time. He asks to pop by.
He asks how I’m doing. Who I’m dating. I don’t have a moment’s peace. It’s all very intrusive and lovely.’
Tariq nods a knowing nod at the blunders and mysteries of parenthood, though we never had children ourselves, never felt the inclination. ‘He misses you,’ he says.
‘I don’t know about that, but he is certainly more appreciative. There’s that old saying, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and all that jazz.’
I glance over at Gustav, who does not seem to have loss on his mind, sitting back comfortably in his chair with a plate of bones in front of him. They have been stripped of their flesh and marrow. He looks satisfied, happy with his hands resting comfortably on the swell of his stomach.
‘That was delicious, Tariq. It’s short notice, but you lot should join us on our little trip to Provence. Last minute tickets can be found pretty cheap. We could use someone with your skills on the grill.’
‘We’re both working. Well, Tariq’s on call,’ I say.
‘I’m free,’ Francis chimes in. ‘But as I said before, Provence is too hot for me at this time of the year. Also, I’m not interested in being a third wheel.’ She pauses a moment. ‘Do you hear something?’
‘It’s the door,’ Tariq says.
‘Excuse me.’ I rush through the cool, silent house with childlike eagerness, anxious to meet Judith Summers at last.
There were moments through dinner when I considered calling off the séance. I thought of Flo being confronted with Marion who is intelligent and beautiful, friendly in conversation, but not simple. And worst of all, is the way Gustav keeps glancing over at her, besotted. What could Flo say to us, with this stranger sitting in her chair? But Flo was always self-assured, not easily scared off. She might knock some sense into them all with her big presence: She is still around; she would not so easily disappear.
On the other side of the door Judith Summers is smiling gently. ‘Alright?’ she says.
Her lips do indeed have an artificially swollen quality to them. She is dressed in a pale, salmon blouse with billowy arms and loose white slacks. ‘We’re all just in the garden.’ I lead the way through the darkened house. ‘How are you?’
‘Oh, fine,’ she says.
‘Can I get you anything, while we’re in the kitchen?’ ‘No, thank you.’
‘I’m a great admirer of your work.’
She simply nods. Her silence does not unsettle me. In fact, it puts me at ease. I prefer that she remains a mystery, the details of her missing while the outline of her is solid as she moves through my house.
In the weeks following Flo’s funeral, when I was dreadfully sad and thinking incessantly of death, I read two books by Judith Summers. The first covered metaphysical aspects of her teachings. Much of it focused on her theory that there are in fact two realities – the one that we experience through our senses, and the other which is vibrational. The vibrational reality is where our eternal self resides, where Flo is currently floating. At first, the concept of multiple realities and two selves felt like science- fiction and new age spirituality mixed into a strange, sour cocktail. But after helping Gustav clear out some of Flo’s things from the house, touching her old clothes and hairbrushes and makeup, something clicked into place, and I felt the clarity of Judith’s words. Flo was not gone. She was everywhere.
Before stepping out into the garden, Judith Summers says, ‘I’ll need a bit of time to acclimatise to your energies before we get started.’
‘Of course. Take however long you need.’
Outside, the sun has faded, and the sky has broken into strips of red and violet. They are all laughing at something, but stop when they see us. ‘This is Judith Summers,’ I announce, rather formally. ‘She is a medium who channels spirits from the beyond. I hired her as a surprise for Gustav.
Flo will be joining our little gathering this evening.’
Gustav tilts his head. His big face is damp with perspiration. ‘What do you mean by this?’
‘A séance,’ I tell him. ‘To make contact with Flo.’
Judith Summers remains silent with that gentle smile across her bloated lips.
‘This is a surprise…’ Gustav says. He turns to Marion with a look of apology, though she seems relaxed.
‘I’ve always wanted to be part of a séance,’ she says, bright-eyed, cheerful.
Tariq brings out a chair from the kitchen for Judith Summers. She sits at the table with us and simply observes, though occasionally, she shuts her eyes and draws in long deep breaths, exhaling slowly.
The conversation at the table takes on a formal, stilted quality. Francis discusses upcoming conferences. Gustav brings up the property market and says that he is thinking of selling his house.
‘But it’s a lovely place,’ I say. ‘So close to the tube station. And you have that Waitrose right around the corner.’
‘It is convenient. But… Ziba, it’s been hard for me to stay in that house. You understand? I need a change of scenery.’
A familiar look of sadness spreads across his face then, a look he wore through much of Flo’s illness. I remember the desperation in his eyes as we were clearing Flo’s things. He was drying his tears with one of her old university jumpers. ‘How will I go on without her?’ he said, his voice muffled by the jumper.
A mild regret swells in my throat for putting Gustav through this discomfort, when I had only imagined elation, hiring Judith Summers. But it was a great vanity – I saw that now – to assume that grief touched him in the same way; that he would respond with delight to this resurrection of her.
I bring out Gustav’s mocha birthday cake as a peace offering and light the candles. We sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Judith Summers does not join in the singing though she continues to smile cheerfully.
Gustav shuts his eyes for a moment before blowing out the candles. We clap and cheer. Tariq cuts the cake and when we have finished with dessert, Judith Summers speaks at last.
‘It’s time,’ she says.
From her big tote bag, she retrieves some ordinary tealight candles, places them at the centre of the table and lights them with a long matchstick.
‘We hold hands,’ she says, extending her thick ringed hand to me on the left, and to Francis on the right. The bones from the pork ribs and the chicken carcass are still on the table which feels perverse when we are about to meet Flo. I want to get rid of them, but already Judith is giving instructions.
‘If you could shut your eyes, and breathe with me… inhaling, exhaling…’
We continue this methodical breathing for some time, until a hazy, dim quality takes over. It is darkening all around us, but still very hot.
‘I would like each of you to hold Flo in your mind’s eye. A time when she was happy.’
This is easy enough. I think of us in her sprawling garden, laughing and sharing stories. It could be any day. A beam of light glows against her thick shoulders. She is reporting some gossip about a member of the historical society. We are eating blackberries from a colander.
‘Flo?’ Judith Summer says, as if calling someone in from a distant fog. And then a steadiness asserts itself into her voice. Judith says, ‘Flo Nilsson is here.’
I am tempted to open my eyes from the excitement, but keep them shut for fear that the magic will be lost. I listen and wait patiently.
Judith says, ‘Tariq, it’s nice to see you. I think you need a shave.’
My husband says, ‘You think so? You never voiced your disapproval of my stubble before.’
‘Well, I can tell you now that it’s never suited you. Clean-shaven or else a big bushy beard would be much better. Not this in-between business. You must commit, Tariq.’
Tariq laughs. ‘The afterlife has made you a little mean, Flo.’
‘I think you mean honest.’ We laugh softly, and then there is silence, except for the deep, long breaths of Judith Summers.
‘Francis,’ Judith – or rather Flo says. ‘You need to get to bed earlier. Nothing good happens after ten o’clock.’
‘I disagree,’ Francis says, playful. ‘You know better than I do that the best things in life happen after midnight.’
‘Not for you, my friend.’
We all laugh again, and it is clear by this point that they are humouring Judith Summers, that they are humouring me.
‘Flo,’ I say, speaking out of turn. ‘Flo, it’s me. I’ve missed you. How have you been, Flo? Are you alright? Are there clean towels where you are?’
Silence. I feel a mosquito land on my arm and bite my flesh.
‘I’m happy,’ she says. ‘My friend, you need to clear out your closet. It’s time.’
‘Yes, clear it out.’ A pause. ‘Gustav… happy birthday. It’s good to see you well, with a healthy appetite.’
Gustav laughs nervously, but says nothing, and for the rest of the séance, Flo speaks to Marion. They talk about the weather, Marion’s daily commute into the university from Walthamstow into Russell Square, what books Flo wishes she had read before dying, and Marion takes a pen and paper from her bag and diligently jots down these titles so that she can add them to her reading list. Marion is calm and sincere in her attentions, not a hint of irony in her voice.
Time passes like this – I am not sure how much time, though it is completely dark now and the neighbour’s dog is barking.
Judith Summers says suddenly, ‘Flo is gone.’
I walk her through the house to the front entrance where I hand her a cheque for the rest of the fee. ‘Thank you,’ Judith says, before getting into her electric car and driving off.
The others are ready to leave too. Gustav says something about an early morning run and Marion thanks me for the evening.
‘It was nice to meet you,’ Marion says, and she waits outside.
‘I hope this wasn’t too uncomfortable for you,’ I tell Gustav quietly. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t think…’
He shakes his head, though his eyes tell me that he is being polite. ‘It was… a lovely surprise.’
‘Really, Gustav, I should’ve checked with you, I see that now…’
‘It was a nice gesture, Ziba.’
Francis looks at me with sympathy. ‘I’ll call you soon,’ and then it is just me and Tariq in the house.
We throw the rib bones and chicken carcass into the trash compactor, and stack the plates and cutlery into the dishwasher. Tariq washes the big serving bowls, and I put the rest of the cake in the fridge.
The chasm is widening – I can feel it in my chest – so that a fall seems imminent. I turn to my husband, desperate. ‘What do you think she meant about clearing my closet?’
Tariq shrugs. ‘Maybe to donate some of the clothes you don’t wear anymore. There are a few trousers that you haven’t worn in years. Those baggy cargos are well out of fashion.’
‘I suppose they are. But it can’t be that.’ I scratch my head. ‘Why would Flo spend all of her time speaking with Marion who is a complete stranger?’
Tariq has a look of exhaustion across his face. He has been good and patient with me. ‘Maybe she wanted to see if Marion was an appropriate match for Gustav.’
‘It could be that. But still it’s odd…’
‘Ziba, I’m very tired.’
‘Maybe we can put the séance behind us now?’
‘Sure. I understand… You don’t believe it was really Flo.’
He sighs. ‘No, I don’t, darling, if you want to know the truth. I think Judith Summers is a charlatan. She’s making money off of vulnerable people. It’s terrible.’
‘You’re just upset that Flo doesn’t like your stubble.’
He grins at my little joke. In a sixteen-year marriage, you learn such diffusion tactics. He looks at me with pity.
‘Ziba, Flo is gone. We should be happy that Gustav is taking steps now to move on with his life. Marion seems like a lovely person.’
‘She does. It’s true.’ I look at my husband. ‘It’s not Marion that’s bothering me. It’s that you don’t believe in anything that you can’t touch. None of you do. I think it’s a bit sad.’
‘Ziba, what happened to Flo was a big shock to all of us. I know it triggered your fear of death – ’
‘I am not afraid of dying. There is no death. You saw that tonight with Flo.’
He looks at me. ‘It was hard for you to watch your friend die. It made you feel vulnerable, as Marion pointed out with her work on the monster and projection – ’
‘I’m not interested in discussing Marion’s thesis, dear.’
He nods. ‘Do you mind if I stay down here and watch the next episode of The Dentists?’
‘No, of course not. In fact, you can watch the whole series without me.
I’m going to bed. I really do appreciate all your help today.’
Upstairs in the bedroom, I open the closet door, and briefly, I stare at the clothes which are neatly hanging. Tariq’s shirts and ties on the left, my blouses and slacks on the right. There is the black dress at the very back which I wore to Flo’s funeral. Most of my clothes are beige and white and grey. They are the ordinary, functional clothes of an ordinary, functional life, stifling in their complacency. The clothes of someone who collects groceries, commutes into work. Someone who watches The Dentists, shops for toothpaste and sanitary pads – bleeding until one day it all stops.
Even what I have on now – green chinos, a white t-shirt – it is as if I am reaching for an ideal picture of muteness.
I undress completely and move towards the window. The moon is crooked, shining there between the branches of the neighbour’s oak tree. The smell of the barbecue still lingers – that familiar summer smell. Fragments of a childhood re-assemble: lazy bike rides. Eyes stinging from chlorinated pool water. The maddening itch of a scabbed knee. They are happy memories.
A light breeze moves the sheer curtains and touches my breastbone. There is a kind of bliss in this temporary shedding. As if the exposure makes it possible to inhabit at last a new, imperfect skin.
Haleh Agar is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her debut novel Out of Touch is published by W&N, Hachette. Her short story ‘Not Contagious’ was Highly Commended by the 2020 Costa Short Story Award. She won the Brighton Prize for a piece of flash fiction, and her narrative essay ‘On Writing Ethnic Stories’ won The London Magazine’s inaugural essay competition.
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