The Listener

He never meant to throw her from the bal­cony. In a panic he looked round. There was no one else in the dimly lit theatre other than him­self and the girl who had con­fron­ted him.

Duncan Smith was used to meet­ing young women after shows. Women were the bulk of the audi­ence for his “Crossing the Divide” shows. Many did noth­ing for him, but he was often happy to offer com­fort to his younger female fans if they had someone. If they were will­ing enough, he’d sched­ule private time after a show to attempt a per­sonal séance with the depar­ted, and maybe some more intim­ate sup­port afterwards.

He’d thought the young woman hanging around on the bal­cony after the show was one of these. Lighting was handled from the pro­jec­tion box on the upper level, so often someone would be wait­ing for a per­sonal moment. What he hadn’t expec­ted was a young woman by the pro­jec­tion box with a micro­phone. She claimed she had a record­ing she claimed revealed all his tricks. Unlikely, he cheated in so many ways, but no one needed the illu­sion shattered.

He’d never meant to push her. He simply wanted the record­ing. She’d struggled but she didn’t have to. If she had given him the record­ing none of this need have happened. She retreated to the bal­cony edge, and after a tussle for the record­ing she was over the bar­rier. It was almost like she wanted to jump.

He stared down at the fig­ure below, broken across the seats in the stalls, look­ing back up at him. She’d won. She’d jumped out of spite to end his career, and show she looked back up, gloat­ing in death. She’d won. She had the recording.

He looked by the seats and found her bag. Sure enough there was a small micro­phone, plugged into a phone. He tried unlock­ing the phone to delete the record­ing, but he didn’t have to the code. Damn.

He looked up from the phone, guilt driv­ing him to check if she had seen him tamper with the phone. He looked down to the stalls below and saw only her dead blue eyes. This could look bad. He needed to show he’d done noth­ing wrong. He’d tried to stop her from jump­ing, and now… He took out his own phone and called the emer­gency ser­vices. “I need an ambu­lance at the Meridian Theatre. There’s been a ter­rible acci­dent.”

He walked out of the theatre, to the upper lobby out­side. There was a cof­fee machine. He could see along the street out­side and see when the ambu­lance arrived. He saw the blue lights of the ambu­lance reflect in the shop win­dows across the street. With the shock he dropped his cof­fee, and felt a pound­ing in his chest. He dropped to his knees. What had he done?

The pound­ing stopped. He breathed deeply… Again, his heart beat frantic­ally and again it stopped. The third time he felt it in his chest he remembered the girl’s phone was in his pocket. She must have set it to vibrate. He saw the ambu­lance crew enter the lobby. He shouted for them to go down­stairs to the stalls.

God, he had her phone! How could he explain that to the police? He kept his fin­ger on the power but­ton and thank­fully it shut off, but he needed to dump it.

What happened?” A voice called from below.

She fell. She jumped. I tried to stop her, oh god. Is she alright?”

Wait there, Sue will be up to see to you.” He heard the ambu­lance man call for the police. The girl’s phone was burn­ing him, and there was no time to dump it. In a panic, he stashed it and the micro­phone at the bot­tom of one of the con­tain­ers for the light­ing rig. He’d know where to look later.

He didn’t know if Sue was treat­ing him for shock, or dis­creetly mak­ing sure he didn’t run. He didn’t have to, he had noth­ing to hide. By the time the police had turned up he knew what had happened.

I saw she was hanging around after the show. She’d seemed dis­tressed. I asked her what the prob­lem was, and she broke down. She’d been a scep­tic. I get those at the show, people who don’t believe in the gift. But she’d real­ised that someone had touched her, and…”

Get it right. Get it right.

She said she couldn’t live with the guilt. She felt like she’d been keep­ing loved ones apart. I told her not to be so silly, but she said she was going to join him. I asked her who, and she didn’t say — just ‘He loves me.’ Then she straddled the bal­cony and I real­ised she was going to jump. I tried to stop her. I tried to stop her, but I couldn’t hold her. She struggled and jumped. I… I called the ambu­lance. How is she?”

She’d wanted to stop him and in a way she’d won. The shows had been can­celled. The sui­cide had made sure of that. Becky Pershore, he found out her name from the papers, had hoped to expose him as a fraud. She’d been egged on by smug trolls on the inter­net. Most of the scep­tic mes­sage boards were keep­ing quiet for now. He was due to resume his tour at another pro­vin­cial theatre next week, but with her death at the show would he even to break even?

In fact, once he could return to his sched­uled shows Duncan was sur­prised by the response from the pub­lic. Sales went through the roof. Maybe it was fame, maybe it was notori­ety. He had on the bot­tom of all the posters: The show is for enter­tain­ment only. What could be more enter­tain­ing than a haunted medium?

There was cer­tainly a spirit in the air the first night of the resumed tour.

Normally the first half would be low-key. The aim wasn’t to impress straight away with mes­sages from other side. Instead Duncan would cas­u­ally throw out mes­sages and see who respon­ded. He looked for what every­one on the cir­cuit called the Weepers. The people who were des­per­ate for a mes­sage from the other side. You didn’t pounce on these people, you put them to one side. Duncan liked to use one before the inter­val, one straight after and keep the most respons­ive weeper for the big finale. This is what the scep­tics never under­stood. It wasn’t about get­ting ‘hits’, it was about put­ting on a show.

This time the show was going too well. It was as if every believer, spurred on by the pub­li­city and a persecution-complex-by-proxy, had come to show their sup­port. It meant he couldn’t help scor­ing hits. It would look impress­ive to a stat­ist­i­cian, but it was hardly a show.

He came off at the inter­val exhausted. He’d used up most of his routine responses. He had some tech­niques for impro­vising when things were going bad, but noth­ing for when the audi­ence were in the palm of his hand.

He stuck to routine for the next half of the show. The light was reduced and tin­ted slightly blue. Usually he’d steer the mood towards pro­found and talk about how souls needed to jour­ney to heaven. He wanted to spend less time inter­act­ing with the audi­ence, so he expan­ded on this. The pace was slower, and he could feel the show build­ing to an anti-climax.

He picked up the pace, and delivered a routine where he reduced a middle-aged woman to tears, when he reas­sured her “Daddy still loves you, even though he can’t cuddle you like he used to.” Normally that would be a high­light to fin­ish a show, but he’d already done some­thing like this before the break.

He looked out at the crowd of spell­bound faces and real­ised he had nowhere left to go. He would be left with noth­ing under the harsh blue light. Despite it being the most accur­ate show of his career, with no big fin­ish it could only be dis­ap­point­ing. All the pub­li­city of the girl’s death would be undone by Word-Of-Mouth as hun­dred of people would tell their friends the next day “He was alright. The first half was good but after a while…”

He looked into the blue lights and remembered there was one hit he hadn’t used yet.

We come together tonight in love. We want to share the love we have for our rel­at­ives, whether here with us tonight, or on the other side. But not all spir­its under­stand the love they have. Tonight there has been an unhappy spirit among us. But you are wel­come. Please speak to us!”

Duncan closed his eyes, he had to pitch this right, and he didn’t know if he could look at his audi­ence. “So much pain. So much regret. She’s so sorry for the trouble she’s caused. She feels like a rest­less soul. So much regret. I didn’t mean to do it.”

Duncan dra­mat­ic­ally shivered. Keep it on the right side of drama. “She’s a spirit in a lot of pain. She thinks she’s caused a lot of pain with her cyn­icism. Hush! It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault… Becky.”

The response was bet­ter than he hoped. The intake of breath was accom­pan­ied by a stifled squeal from the back of audi­ence some­where. He opened his eyes, to look at the audi­ence under the blue light. What was he doing? He could see her fall­ing again, her blue eyes look­ing back up at him. He stared at his hands, his guilty hands that had pushed her — of their own accord — and sank to his knees.

No more. I can’t do this.”

He wasn’t sure how he got off stage. He knew someone had helped him. He just knew he needed a drink. Sure, the girl had jumped and deserved what she got, but there was a line and he’d crossed it.

He helped with pack­ing after the show, to thank the crew for stick­ing with him. He could feel some­thing in the light, accus­ing him, some­thing he’d man­aged to push out of his mind. Once it was quiet he sure he retrieved the phone and micro­phone from the junk among the light­ing rig­ging. The phone was easy enough to slip in his jacket. The slightly more bulky micro­phone his stowed in his bag.

He resolved to keep the girl out of his future shows and made it clear to every reporter at every local paper when his show vis­ited town, that he had no interest in exploit­ing her death for pub­li­city. If they didn’t men­tion the death at all dur­ing the inter­view, then he’d make a point of remind­ing them not to men­tion it as the reporter left. It never worked. They were vultures.

Even though he’d tried to shut her out, he could feel Becky’s pres­ence in the theatres where he per­formed. She was fol­low­ing him, blam­ing him for what happened.

Despite her influ­ence, the audi­ences kept com­ing. In the end it had been his most suc­cess­ful tour, but Duncan Smith hadn’t real­ised how suc­cess­ful it had been until his first day at home after the tour when the phone rang.

Dunc, amaz­ing news!” his agent said. “They want you on the sofa for Coffee Chat.”

What?” Duncan avoided day­time tele­vi­sion after an unfor­tu­nate morn­ing when he dis­covered what the Jeremy Kyle Show was.

Coffee Chat with Cliff and Pat, it’s the big morn­ing show after Jeremy Kyle. They want you on sofa on Wednesday, talk­ing about con­tact­ing the other side.”

A smile star­ted to cross Duncan’s face. He’d been after a break for a while. He knew he could outdo other TV medi­ums like Derek and Colin. A reg­u­lar spot might be too much to hope for, but a role on a life­style chan­nel show would be feas­ible, and then books become an option…

…and they were look­ing for this miss­ing girl, so I said you could help.”

Reality snapped back. “What the hell?” asked Duncan.

Sarah Bloom, she’s been miss­ing for a week now. Do you read the papers, Dunc? Pat will give you her scarf and you’ll tell us what you sense.”

Christ, Steve, why did you say I’d do that?”

It’s news, and it was their idea. A researcher saw how you spoke to that girl who died and she was sold. They think you’ve got the gift. It’s no big deal, just read round the clips, say she loves her mother very much and you’ll be fine. No one’s going to remem­ber what you said, just that you were sym­path­etic when you said it.”

There wasn’t much time to dwell on the mess his agent had dumped on him. Duncan booked a train ticket to London and a hotel to stop overnight before show. He also remembered to set it to record, so he could watch it when he got home.

He was awake early on the Wednesday morn­ing. He’d slept badly the pre­vi­ous night and decided to walk in the cold morn­ing air to the stu­dios. His breathe col­lapsed into vapour in front of him. Above the night sky faded from mid­night to azure.

Just short of the stu­dio he paused by a canal bank and watched the ripples on the water. The pro­gramme didn’t air till after ten, but it was still an early start to pre­pare. Hah! He was pre­pared and no one would stop him. That girl had tried, but he’d shown her. He watched the last of the street lights wink out against the clear sky. It would look bet­ter with a cof­fee. He pat­ted his pock­ets to loc­ate some change.

What the hell was that?

In a pocket he rarely used he felt an unfa­mil­iar lump, a phone. How long had that been there? How had it got that? Had she planted it on him as a last petty act before killing herself?

Duncan bought a cof­fee to go from a local shop and returned to the canal bank. Carefully he poured cof­fee over the phone, then rubbed at it with a nap­kin to remove his fin­ger­prints. He checked no one was watch­ing, then he dropped the phone into the canal. The last con­nec­tion between him and the girl was gone. He was ready.

He was charm itself in the stu­dio. He didn’t ima­gine that the make-up team or the run­ners would have any say in who got booked for a show, but they might sup­ply the gos­sip columns with stor­ies. Best to be on their good side. Besides, it always helped to cre­ate a pos­it­ive buzz.

He was only briefly intro­duced to Cliff and Pat before the show. Most of the work around the stu­dio seemed geared to mak­ing sure every­one was in the right spot at the right time. Duncan had been fore­warned that he wouldn’t be on air till twelve past eleven. It meant watch­ing for almost three-quarters of an hour, but the behind-the-scenes view of the show made it more inter­est­ing than watch­ing it from home.

When time came, he was politely her­ded onto the sofa next to a concerned-looking Pat. She briefly intro­duced him as someone who spoke to the other side. He almost tuned out before he real­ised she had asked a ques­tion: “What is like to talk to the dead?”

Duncan smiled mod­estly. “It’s not really a mat­ter of talk­ing to the dead. I talk to spir­its who are very much alive, but in another form of exist­ence. They’re like you and I. They have their own per­son­al­it­ies and perspectives.”

Does this per­spect­ive mean they can see things that we can’t.”

Yes, it does, but they are like us and some­times like us they get things wrong.”

Well, I hope that’s not the case today. Duncan, could you tell us any­thing about this?” Pat handed over a blue scarf.

Duncan held the scarf. Something wasn’t quite right. He star­ted to describe a loc­a­tion, an old bis­cuit fact­ory. He had hoped that a tear­ful rel­at­ive would have been present to con­firm that there was indeed a bis­cuit fact­ory near where the scarf-owner lived. It was the kind of insight that you had to be a genu­ine medium to get. Or else pre­pare by look­ing up Sarah Bloom’s homet­own on Wikipedia. This was gold that hardly any­one would recognise.

The scarf itself was a royal blue, not unlike Pat’s eyes. And her dress. And some of the set. All of it blue like the girl’s eyes as she fell. Duncan attemp­ted to pull him­self together. Put her out your mind, man. She’s try­ing to find a way in…

Well, that’s not what we were expect­ing, but it’s impress­ive all the same. Let’s hope the leads are use­ful for the Police.” Pat was wrap­ping up the seg­ment. What had happened?

He was ushered from sofa again, and clearly he’d made a good impres­sion, but he had no idea why. He remembered hold­ing the scarf, look­ing into Pat’s eyes and then… and then? He left for home, puzzled and uneasy.

It was late after­noon when he finally got home. He nod­ded at the neigh­bours as he entered his house and made his way to the tele­vi­sion. The pro­gramme had recor­ded. At a rough guess he was forty minutes in, so he skimmed until he saw Kelly in the Kitchen doing some­thing improb­able with cit­rus fruit. Then he was on.

He needed to lose weight, but he wasn’t bad. He wasn’t as relaxed as Russell Grant, but he was pass­able. He poured him­self a scotch, and admired his work. He was bet­ter than pass­able. He looked like he belonged there.

Then on the tele­vi­sion he stumbled over his words. This must have been when he’d done some­thing. He watched him­self as on the tele­vi­sion he brushed the scarf against his face. Sarah Bloom was a school­girl, this could be creepy. Then it wasn’t about Sarah.

There’s another voice,” he heard him­self say. “Another girl. She’s lost. She’s been lost a while. You’ll find her phone in the canal lock out­side. She says… she says… help me find my way home.”

Duncan became aware of the spir­its. The smell of whisky filled the room. He real­ised he’d dropped his glass and the drink had spilled across the car­pet. Damn! Why did she have to be there? She’d gone. He’d thrown away her phone, her micro­phone… No he hadn’t. She was still here.

A quick search revealed he still had her micro­phone. It wasn’t import­ant, one looked like another. It couldn’t tie her to him, but maybe she was using it as an anchor? He dropped it in the bin out­side, and wheeled the bin out for col­lec­tion tomor­row morn­ing. She’d be gone by lunchtime.

That done, he poured another drink to calm his nerves. A few minutes later he had another to cel­eb­rate keep­ing on top of the situ­ation without going to pieces. He ordered a take-away and set down to watch the tele­vi­sion for the even­ing. He’d be on there soon enough.

The girl wasn’t giv­ing up without a fight. He saw her flash­ing blue across the wall of the room. It took a while to real­ise what it was, and Duncan turned to look out the front win­dow to see if one of the neigh­bours had called an ambu­lance.
There was a knock at the door. The police.

Duncan Smith did not like Detective Inspector Evans. He was too much like the cyn­ical scep­tics. Why couldn’t he just believe?

Could you tell me again sir, how you knew where the phone was?”

I told you, a spirit told me.”

Is there no other way you might have known the loc­a­tion of the phone?”

How could there be? It might not fit your sci­ent­istic view of the world, Inspector, but the spirit world doesn’t care about what you or I believe.”

The phone belonged to Rebecca Pershore, the young lady who died at one of your per­form­ances. Have you any idea how her phone ended up in London?”

Maybe it was stolen?”

It wasn’t switched on at any time after being stolen. Could you have car­ried it accidentally?”

Officer, I have been through this before with your col­leagues. There is no con­nec­tion between myself and Miss Pershore, other than her visit to my show. I didn’t kill her. I tried to stop her from killing her­self. You found me innocent.”

I’ve read the file, Mister Smith, and I am keenly aware we didn’t have the evid­ence to press charges,” said DI Evans. “You do know we have been try­ing to loc­ate miss­ing arte­facts belong­ing to Miss Pershore?”

Maybe that’s how I found the phone. Maybe I was psych­ic­ally tuned in, and it was being so close to it that helped.”

Another police­man, one of many around the house now, entered and passed DI Evans some­thing in a plastic bag. “The micro­phone, sir. We got prints.”

Oh for good­ness sake!” Duncan had had enough. “Of course you got prints. It’s my micro­phone. I used it with the com­puter at home, but it’s not work­ing so I’ve thrown it out.”

Evans looked over the micro­phone and nod­ded. “Mister Smith, we believe Miss Pershore was in the habit of using a micro­phone like this to record things. Are you sure this micro­phone is yours?”

Of course,” snapped Duncan. “I threw it out this afternoon!”

In that case sir, could you explain the other set of prints on it?”


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.