Let’s take a break from haunted buildings and ghosts with axes to grind. I’ve spoken about Sandra Oakes, one of the first mediums we recruited to the study, so let me tell you about the first psychic I met.
He was also one of the most famous names involved in the study. I’m sure his name has faded with time, but back in the day he claimed to be behind solving many of the country’s missing person’s cases. That man’s name is Joseph Macdonald, or Joe as he insisted everyone call him.
My thoughts on psychics are, perhaps, counterintuitive. You’d think because I can communicate with the dead that I’d believe in other people who claim the same. I suppose communicate might be the wrong word. Not all ghosts are chatty. I have a hard time believing psychics – still do – and back then, when I was in isolation from others like me, I presumed psychics were fake. Ghosts had never told me useful things, about the future, about an unsolved crime, about where I’d put my keys. So why did some people claim that they did?
I suppose it’s connected with Sandra Oakes and the question meeting her brought up. Is there only one way to see the dead, or are there more? In my opinion, just because people are dead, doesn’t mean they know everything.
Strother was quite eager to meet Joe MacDonald. I think he was giddy about having the opportunity to disprove one of the most famous psychics in the country at the time. Joe was working with the police on a missing person’s case. A young boy had gone missing on his way home from school just outside of Edinburgh, and according to the psychic, the police wasted no time in calling him.
Obviously, as outsiders, we didn’t know details of the case, but Joe was visibly proud of his involvement. He’d done multiple interviews over the years on numerous television programmes and magazines. He’d even gone on tour with his psychic show. I had a bad impression of him, mostly because I didn’t believe he was genuine. The more involved with the study I became, the more knowledge I picked up about the science behind the paranormal, the more sceptic I became. Don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me.
Maybe I was just jealous there might be someone who ghosts actually spoke to. Whatever the truth, he was doing very well for himself. I also thought him quite cocky. He’d volunteered to do the study, which either meant he believed what he was selling, or that he was so confident in his abilities that he thought he could fool the tests. Obviously, the third option is that he was genuine, and like me, could commune with the dead.
There are a few categories of psychics, but all of them claim to be able to know things that they can’t possibly know. Be that the future, where a missing person is, or the ring you haven’t seen in weeks. Since the birth of science there have been a few experiments conducted to investigate the phenomena. The most common way to investigate a psychic detective, like Joe, is to give them crimes to solve.
Psychics are given objects that are connected with crimes that have been solved by the police. It could be the murder weapon, it could be a shoelace, a scarf belonging to the victim. It was an important point that all the crimes had been solved, so we could test the veracity of the psychic’s statements.
It was a double-blind study, which meant that the researchers who tested Joe didn’t know anything about the crimes connected to the items he was given. Ken had volunteered to be the facilitator, in that he knew the details of the crimes. Which meant he was deprived of the opportunity to meet a celebrity psychic -not that I think he was that bothered.
Joe Macdonald took time from his busy schedule to visit us. He was in his late thirties, perhaps early forties; bald, but with striking green eyes that seemed to look straight through you. He was amiable, friendly, and patient as Strother took him through all the procedures and rules we had to follow.
There were 3 items each for 3 different crimes and Joe was given each one in turn and his statements were recorded. The theory, like with mediums, is that if you say enough vague things then one of them is bound to be true. More importantly with psychics, people tend to give their statements validation only after the fact. I couldn’t get through this statement without mentioning Nostradamus, arguably one of the most famous psychics in history. If you don’t know, Michel de Nostradame was a 16th century astrologer who wrote down hundreds of statements which are now viewed as prophecies. A lot of people claim that he has predicted every disaster and war from when the was alive to the present.
I’ll give you an example. People claim Nostradamus predicted the development of fighter aircraft and the atomic bomb due to the following passage:
They think they will have seen the sun at night
When they will see the pig half-man;
Noise, song, battle, fighting in the sky perceived;
And one will hear brute beasts talking.
It has some details, such as fighting in the sky, obviously the fighter aircraft, and seeing the sun at night, an atomic bomb detonating. It’s quite convincing, but what happens when I give you one of his prophecies without telling you what people claim it predicts?
An Emperor will be born near Italy
One who will cost his empire a high price
They will say that from the sort of people who surround him
He is to be found less prince than butcher.
Any ideas? Did you think Hitler? It fits nicely, but according to popular theory this actually predicts the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. But is so general that it could also apply to Hitler. His prophesies only make sense after the fact, when people assign meaning to general statements because they’re close enough to specific facts. This tends to be what happens when psychics start helping the police. The things they say, the vague words they string together, tend to be given more meaning after the crime is solved.
I’d only briefly caught glimpses of Joe when he’d arrived, and when he’d been in the testing room with Strother. I was never meant to be that involved with his session. The only reason I did was because Steph’s fiancé had called the office asking for her, so I’d gone into the observation room just as his final reading was about to start. Steph left, and Strother told me to stay.
Psychics claim to communicate with the ambiguous “spirit world”, whatever that is. They claim multiple spirits whisper in their ear, sometimes in conveniently vague statements, giving them information they couldn’t know otherwise. All I could see in that room with Joe MacDonald, was the ghost of a young woman.
She was so clear, almost opaque, that I, for a small moment, thought she was alive. There’s something about ghosts like that that frightens me more than the ones who’ve forgotten who they are. These ghosts look human, there’s no doubting that they were once alive. The distance that I liked to keep with the dead was made almost impossible.
I slowly eased myself into the chair beside Strother, keeping my eyes on the young woman. She looked to be a few years older than me at the time, mid-twenties at the latest, with auburn hair tied in a bun, and sharp brown eyes that were trained on Joe MacDonald. He began to talk about the objects that were in front of him and in his hands, pausing every so often as if he was talking to someone. Let me tell you, he wasn’t talking to her.
I could feel her anger through the two-way mirror. The way she glared murder at Joe as he was reeling off his vague statements, the way her fists were clenched so tightly they were shaking with the effort. If she could’ve harmed him, she would’ve. With her presence, it was hard to concentrate on what Joe was saying about the objects, but he talked a lot. It was kind of like watching an actor rehearse lines on their own. He would speak, pause as if rehearsing the other actor’s line in his head, then carry on.
I wondered if it looked as strange to everyone else as it did to me. To believers he was speaking with a world they couldn’t see, and to sceptics he was talking to himself. I know which one I was. No one claiming to have the ability to commune with the dead could be oblivious to the presence at his side. I stared, practically without blinking, trying to find some evidence he knew she was there. A twitch, a nod of the head, a glance at the reflection in the mirror, but he did nothing. He was enraptured by the objects on the table and the sound of his own voice.
When he was finished, Strother went in to see him whilst I waited in the corridor outside. I think my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to look this man in the eye, to try to find any sign he was genuine. And also to see the woman at his side. When the door opened and they both came out of the room, I was surprised to find he was ghost-less. When you see things others can’t, your grasp of what’s real and what’s not becomes shaky. Had I imagined the woman? Was her anger at Joe just an amplified reflection of my own? I’d never imagined a ghost before, but in my world very few things were beyond the realms of possibility.
Strother introduced us and when Joe took my hand to shake, he paused in that really irritating way people do when they’re about to say something strange. He had the same look on his face as he had done when communicating with the spirit world. I almost thought he was going to start talking to himself. After the longest silence you can imagine, he looked straight into my eyes with a very serious expression and said:
“You have a great burden on your shoulders, Sarah.”
I presumed he didn’t mean having to put up with Strother. That left the question of what he was referring to. Had I misjudged him? Was he referring to my ability to see ghosts, or to something else? How many great burdens did I really have in my life? You see what I mean by assigning meaning to vague statements. It could be argued that everyone has something on their mind that they think is a burden. He could’ve said that to anyone and it would’ve been true. Perhaps my encounter with Sandra Oakes had taught me something after all. I also had the awful feeling that Strother’s view of the world was slowing creeping in and altering my own. I wasn’t as taken in by Joe’s show as I had been with Sandra’s.
To diffuse the situation Strother interjected that he wouldn’t call my PhD thesis a great burden. I laughed politely, but Joe smiled, as if he was unsure whether to pretend it was that, or to fish for something else. Thankfully, or not so much, someone interrupted him.
At the end of the corridor, where the door to our offices were, a man shouted Joe’s name at the top of his voice. Everything after that happened so quickly it was hard to see what anyone could’ve done to stop it. One moment the stranger was at the end of the corridor, and the next he was beside us punching Joe so hard in the face I thought some of his teeth had been knocked out. The psychic crumpled to the floor like a discarded ragdoll, whilst Strother tried to restrain the attacker.
Amidst the confusion and violence, I caught something in the corner of my eye. Looking down the corridor, from where the man had come from, I once again saw the ghost of the woman who’d been in Joe’s session. Her wrathful expression had vanished, and in its place was one of pure sorrow. Of regret, and pain, and yearning. It transformed her from vengeful spirit to innocent victim.
A lot of people suddenly started to appear, trying to separate the strange man from Joe, hauling him from the building. He screamed and spat curses all the way to the door. How he’d got in, how he knew Joe would be at the university, and why he’d attacked him, were all mysteries.
Steph sat with Joe, checking if his injuries were bad enough to go to the hospital, whilst Strother disappeared. Steph asked me to get him some water, which I did, knowing it wouldn’t help the swelling bruise on his lip. When I returned, Joe was in the midst of communicating with the spirit world. Both Steph and I froze, unsure whether to rush for the cameras or commit everything to memory instead.
“Have you lost something, Steph?” Joe asked.
Probably without realising Steph’s eyes glanced down to her hands. If I saw it, then so did Joe.
“A ring, perhaps?” he continued.
Steph realised what she’d done, and placed her hands, clasped, on the table. Everything about her was still, there wasn’t even a twitch of her eyebrow as she continued to listen to Joe. He paused again, as if listening to someone speak to him. He then told Steph that she would find the ring in the dishwasher, as it had fallen off when she’d been stacking it.
I’ll admit I’d never noticed Steph wear a ring, other than her engagement one, which was still there. Joe told her all of this with such confidence even I admitted I was tempted to believe him. Especially since what he was saying now was so specific, when he’d been so vague with me before.
Nothing more was said about the ring, or about my great burden, and Joe was escorted to his car by security in case the strange man returned. I didn’t see the ghost of the woman again.
The next day, during a meeting, I noticed something catching the light on the middle finger of Steph’s right hand.
It was a ring.
Our eyes met across the meeting room, and I noticed the small flicker of doubt in her gaze. She couldn’t explain it, and I certainly couldn’t. Was I wrong about Joe? Was I wrong about everything regarding mediums and psychics? Was my theory that there was different levels of communication with the dead right? It’s funny how all it took was one wee ring to make me start questioning everything I knew.