First published in the Sunday Independent on March 29th 2020, The Psychic’s Daughter is a domestic ghost story set in the 1990s…. Enjoy!
My mother was a tarot card reader, and the smell of nag champa incense got into all of my stuff. When I opened my maths book in school, the sickly sweet stench would exude from quadratic equations.
I always remember the sound of her tarot readings. The conversation between her and a client was only just inaudible, in the room beneath my bedroom. I used to listen out for the high-pitched trills of happiness or the slow, low sad comments – anything that would give me a clue what sort of predictions they were hearing. She could be down there portending a death in the family or prophesying a surprise holiday to Majorca. I could always hear if they were laughing or crying and some days there would be both.
It was nearly always women who called upon my mother to consult the tarot. She listened to them air grievances about husbands and washing machines, mothers-in-law and school teachers.
They would stay longer than their allotted time so my brother and I had to creep around like Anne Frank upstairs. We weren’t allowed down for dinner until the roar of a Volkswagen engine told us the final lady of the day was finished. We gleefully peeked out the upstairs curtains as the modern-day Macbeth pulling off from outside the house, with a Lady Di blouse and greying permed hair.
After all that being quiet, we exploded into boisterous noise-makers. Once summoned to the kitchen, we carelessly slammed condiments onto the terracotta tablecloth. We exaggeratedly dragged out the kitchen chairs, screeching across the oak floors. We chewed our chicken nuggets and chips loudly, vociferously masticating with open mouths, as the radio blared the Spice Girls.
My mother sat regally in front of us like the queen in the counting house, cashing up her money. The heavy punt banknotes slid against each other and my little brother scraping tomato ketchup from the bottle. The laminate kitchen countertops vibrated with the noise, so loud we wouldn’t hear the phone ring.
At night, the phone often rang when a prophecy came through or some other life-changing moment transpired. My mother would sit in the cold hall in her peach satin dressing gown, twirling a slender finger around the tightly-curled phone wire. Numb toes bent under her bum for warmth, she commiserated and congratulated, as we tossed and turned counting sheep.
But it was in the middle of Coronation Street when the landline rang, and I answered.
‘Is your mammy there?’ the lady on the line asked quietly, almost whispering.
‘Yes, have you a booking?’ I said smartly, my ten-year-old self confident from reading at Mass. She didn’t take bookings for phone calls, but I had heard the receptionist in the hairdresser say it and I wanted to trial it out.
‘Um, no, no,’ she hesitated. ‘Sure I’ll leave it, I’ll get her again, ’ and she surprised me by hanging up.
Scared to have lost her the business, I reported the call was for me. A friend had forgotten her history homework. She accepted my dispatch as truth, her attention returned to an overwrought Deirdre Barlow, as the soap star pushed her plastic frames off a face contorted in anguish.
These sorts of nights are nearly always stormy, and later I woke up as a loose peg on the rotary washing line smacked into my window. We hadn’t double-glazed the windows yet so I rubbed the black grit from the pane edge like sleep from my eye, looking out into the wild weather.
The trees behind our house were tall evergreens and swayed and smashed through the tempestuous rain. I looked at my brother in the glow of the soft night light, one little toe dangling from under his Postman Pat duvet. If he woke up, he would be scared. He was a baby for a seven-year-old.
I could just about make out the text in the thin storybook I kept under my pillow, as I read to send myself to sleep. It half worked as I fitfully napped, the wind picking up to a howl and the empty plastic sandpit blew into the back door.
After the loudest crash, my little brother stirred awake. Next door’s bin had blown over, empty milk cartons and pizza boxes spilling down the soaked tarmacadam drive.
He clung to me as we ventured across the landing to her room, but her bed was empty. The duvet of her double bed was pulled back, a paperback Bill Bryson face down on the fleece sheets. Hysterically hopping around, his agitation contaminated my calm, and I joined him howling in hysteria, as we proceeded to the dark stairwell. The lightswitch was downstairs, and I dipped my toe cautiously into the coal-black dark. After mincing down one step, we lost all sense and ran screaming down the stairs. My sweaty little hand grappled desperately along the woodchip wallpaper until it found the switch and slapped the light on.
‘Mammy!! Where are you?’ I cried and howled for her, seconds feeling like forever.
The front door was open, and the fat angry raindrops splattered the bottom of my furry slippers as I peered out past the doorstep.
She was alone on the driveway. She turned in shock to me and ran back to us shouting to get in out of the rain.
‘What are ye doing,’ she said, her dressing gown falling open to reveal an ancient beige nightie. ‘Get back in now!’ she shouted, as she ushered us into an embrace, lifting us both inside and slamming the door.
She knelt there on the hall floor and shushed us. We bent over her shoulder sobbing, as she soothed us, stroking my hair. In ten times as long as it took to wind up, our tearful howls eventually whinnied down into a tight cuddle.
‘You are two silly billies! I was just going to check the bins,’ she was still rubbing my shoulder as we sat on the kitchen table. A special dispensation had been granted after the Big Fright, and she boiled up steaming hot chocolate. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning. She brought us back up to bed and sat on the wicker chair between us, holding our podgy little hands as we drifted off to sleep together.
In the morning, I smelt toast. It was grey and still stormy. She had called the school to say we were sick and couldn’t come in. We stayed in our jammies and luxuriated by the fire, roasting marshmallows during breakfast TV.
As my little brother slept on her lap, the host spoke to a stylist as middle-aged women modeled wide-brimmed sinamay hats for the races.
Double-checking that he was asleep, she muted the show and asked: ‘Did you hear the doorbell ring last night?’
‘No, but I heard all the clothes peg hit the widow,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’ she stroked my brother’s bright white hair as he snoozed. Her gaze remained fixed to the television fashion show.
‘Is that why you went outside?’ I deduced proudly.
She turned up the sound, ‘I thought I heard something, I must have been imagining it.’
It sometimes happens in life that directly after discussing something, the item referred to makes an appearance. Like on the first day of summer when you say, ‘I would love an orange ice-lolly’, and your uncle appears with a box of them. For most people, these sorts of conversational serendipities were astounding, magical moments. If your mother is a tarot card reader, they come much more frequently, and as the TV presenter introduced a magnanimous chef, our doorbell rang loudly.
We were somewhat surprised, but more intrigued by the length of the ring. Whoever it was held down the buzzer for far longer than was needed. My little brother jolted blearily from his slumber, in time for her to shimmy him off her lap. She flicked the breadcrumbs from her dressing gown. Looking out the window, we saw the garda car. Two uniformed officers were surveying the driveway.
‘Stay in here,’ she warned me, closing the sitting-room door.
I couldn’t hear what they were mumbling. I detected the surprise in her voice. She led them into the kitchen as I shifted eavesdropping locations, removing the key from the lock to improve the acoustics. My little brother sprang to life, with unfettered access to the television he clunked in his favourite VHS and rewound it.
The chairs screeched as the men’s heavy footsteps moved into position, a final creak as the four legs of the chair took the weight. The kettle’s usual loud growl halted as they declined tea.
They made small talk for a few minutes as she escorted them out the door. She clattered around in the kitchen and pronounced lunch was ready. I sat quietly and watched cartoons that afternoon. She wasn’t herself, I wasn’t myself.
The next week, we watched cartoons every day after school. We didn’t need to be quiet, she stopped reading the tarot cards.