Annie Swann had other clients. He never saw anything of them–although he once found a yellow plastic bag of CDs that she said someone must have left under a chair–except at the regular mass seance, which took place in the evening on the second Tuesday of every month. For this event, most of the furniture would be relegated to the kitchen. The curtains were drawn and the sofa dragged in front of the empty fireplace.
“Mass” was perhaps too ambitious a word for what happened. It was formal in an amateur way, as if the participants weren’t really used to being with other people. The downstairs room would fill up from about seven o’ clock with a dozen men wearing business suits or Australian oiled cotton jackets. Collar-length white hair, mustard-yellow corduroy trousers and navy blue Guernsey pullover indicated a retiree. Each of them seemed to have a single prominent defect–a thickened jaw, one eye too large for the other–and while they presented as well-off, they lacked the healthy patina and slightly overfed look you would expect of West London. There were rarely any women. Packed into the tiny front room, forced to regroup every time the door opened to admit a late arrival, they shouted cheerfully enough at each another but lacked confidence. He recognised one or two of them, but he couldn’t think from where.
After perhaps half an hour, during which Annie asked her favourite of the week to hand round glasses of medium dry sherry and Waitrose nibbles, she would take her place on the sofa, smile vaguely around for a minute or two, then slip stage by difficult stage into the mediumistic coma. The men gazed uncomfortably past her at the wall above the fireplace. None of them spoke or moved, although sometimes a quick sideways glance might be exchanged. It was less pleasant, more of an effort, for her to produce anything in these circumstances. She was tired afterwards. There was a prolonged period of disconnection, a shallow delirium in which her legs twitched and shook.
The men, released slowly, as if from a similar psychic bondage, coughed and shifted their feet. They regarded one another as blankly as animals of different species finding themselves in the same field; then, after staring at Annie for a while–in the hope, perhaps, of something more–left the house one by one, letting in the cold evening air. Shaw, who often stayed behind to make her a cup of tea and help drag the sofa back into its usual position, watched them drift away across the graveyard. When they had quite gone, Annie would smile tiredly, pat his forearm, touch his shoulder. If there was a kind of tired flirtatiousness to these gestures, she was, he thought, only trying unconsciously to make a bond with him. It wasn’t something she could see she was doing.
One evening before the mass seance he saw that the map from her brother’s office, or one exactly like it, had appeared on the front room wall.
From “The 4th Domain”, out as Kindle Single in the next couple of weeks.