Jolene raced up the steps of the Mountain View Evangelical Baptist church and into the entrance area, dodging a few of the latecomers. She approached Eion, the head of the British Columbia Spiritualists’ Society, sitting at a trestle table with the collection box. He looked like he was on safari in a white linen suit. His gray cravat matched his steely hair.
He shot Jolene a pointed stare. “You’re nearly late.”
“I’m sorry. It’s the buses,” she panted. “How is it in there tonight?” She jerked her head toward the hall.
“We’ve got a full house as always,” Eion said. “I thought the heat would deter them, but it hasn’t.” He rattled the collection tin at an approaching couple then switched his attention back to Jolene.
“Go wait in the wings,” he said to her.
She hurried past him along the corridor into the room at the back, where she took off her purse then wound the strap around a metal hanger on the coat rail. She ducked into the tiny washroom. At once, Iris, Jolene’s spirit guide, started up in Jolene’s head. “Where’s your comb, lovie? Please tell me that you brought your comb. A pretty girl like you can’t be seen like this.”
Jolene rolled her eyes at Iris then checked her reflection in the mirror. It was true. People had often said that she was pretty with her big mouth, streaky blonde hair and slanting eyes. But Iris was right. At the moment, she did look a mess. Her hair hung in sweaty strands around her face.
She combed it with her fingers then hurried to the side of the stage and peered out from the wings. Her throat tightened. The hall was full like Eion had said. All the two hundred and fifty folding metal seats were occupied, and some people stood around the sides.
She and Eion had been running this meeting every Wednesday for the past two years. It had taken them a while to find a venue. All the nearby community centers had been booked and most of the churches that they’d approached hadn’t wanted to host her show. Some people viewed what she did as close to witchcraft. But then Eion had discovered this place and so every Wednesday, once Jolene had finished her shift at the hospital, she would change out of her scrubs and jump onto the bus. At first, the meetings had been small, but word had spread and, week by week, the numbers had grown.
A ripple of applause rang out from the crowd. Jolene realized that Eion had stepped onto the stage from the other side of the wings. He stopped in the center by a table and chair that had been set up for her. A microphone rested on a stand, set to chair height.
“Welcome, everyone,” he began.
There was a squeal of feedback, and Jolene flinched.
“My name is Eion Hughes”—Eion soldiered on—“and I run the Spiritualists’ Society of British Columbia. Now, I’m sure you don’t need me to introduce our guest. The waiting is over, ladies and gentlemen. Here’s the lady who’s brought so much comfort to many people…Jolene.”
The clapping grew louder. Jolene’s heart quickened.
Eion climbed down the steps to the front of the hall and fetched the roving mic. Drawing a breath, Jolene walked onto the stage. She stopped in the middle and stared out at the sea of faces. As she sat down on the chair, a hush fell over the audience. Jolene felt their anticipation in her chest. She knew that some people had traveled for hours to see her and that some showed up week after week, desperate for a message that never came. What if there aren’t any voices?
“It’s okay, lovie,” Iris said. “Calm yourself. The spirit world will look after you.”
Jolene licked her dry lips then spoke into the mic.
“Hello.” Her voice was shaky. “First, I need you to know that this doesn’t always work. Sometimes those in the spirit world don’t want to talk, and I can’t make them. You have to encourage them. This will only happen if you join in. And it’s done through love. You’ve got to open your hearts and let the love flow. Okay, so let’s see what I have here.”
A clamor of spirit voices sprang up in her head. Jolene smiled. Everyone spirit-side wanted to have their say. There was going to be no problem tonight. But they were all speaking at once in an unintelligible jumble. Male and female voices overlapped and undercut each other.
“Relax,” Iris piped up. “Tell them you’ll get to all of them. Focus on the quiet man.”
Jolene slowed her breath and tried to shift through the din. A man was speaking. His voice was softer than the rest and she sensed that he’d just passed.
“It’s Todd.” His voice was faint. “I’ve got a message for Judith.”
“Is there a Judith in the audience?” she called.
She looked around the hall. No one acknowledged her, and she felt a lurch of fear. People were going to start calling her a fake at any second. Then, two rows from the back, a hand went up.
“I’m Judith.” A woman in a headscarf got to her feet.
Eion walked to Judith’s row. He reached past several people and handed her the mic. She was in her forties and had a tight, pinched face.
“Wood. I’m getting something about wood,” Jolene continued. “Do you live in Woodland Road?”
“Woodland Way,” Judith said.
“That’s right.” Jolene nodded. “I’m not getting that,” she said to Todd. “Sorry, come closer to me, not to your mom. Todd wants you to know, Judith, that you mustn’t worry about the insurance money.”
A moan fell from Judith’s lips. “Then it’s all right?” she asked.
“It’ll be paid by the end of July,” Todd said.
Jolene relayed the message to Judith who sat, smiling.
“Okay.” Jolene cleared her throat. “Now I’ve got a man coming in. I think he said his name was Craig. Does anyone recognize someone called Craig? Wait a minute. It’s Shirley he’s looking for. Shirley Black.”
A woman near the front row raised her hand.
“Can you stand up, please?” Jolene said.
The woman stood up. “My name’s Shirley, but it’s not Black.”
“And do you have a son called Craig?” Jolene asked. “He’s sixteen, right?”
Shirley’s eyes filled with tears and she nodded.
“He said he saw John recently and that you were talking about him.”
“Sorry,” Jolene said. “I can’t hear him anymore.” The jangle of other voices had become too loud.
“Tell her to wait,” Iris said. “I’ll get him back.” Jolene imagined Iris elbowing her way through the rabble, maybe jabbing people with her knitting needles, then dragging Craig to the front. Suddenly, Craig was talking again.
“How did you pass, Craig?” Jolene asked Craig aloud.
Shirley gave a shuddering sigh into the mic.
“You’ve got some of his hair in a locket, haven’t you?” Jolene said to Shirley, who nodded.
“And how did you pass, Craig?” Jolene repeated. “He said he had cancer.”
Shirley gave a tiny nod. Jolene sensed that it was taking all her self-control to not break down.
“He says you’re going on a holiday, aren’t you?” Jolene said.
“I don’t know,” Shirley replied.
“He says ‘Wherever you go, I’ll go with you’,” Jolene said.
Shirley started to cry and laugh at the same time.
The session continued with Jolene and Iris working as a team. Iris cajoled the quieter spirits and reprimanded the bossy ones, and Jolene passed on the messages to the audience.
An hour later, Jolene left the stage to a rousing storm of applause. She headed to the room at the back and collapsed onto the bench. She felt drained and her stomach hurt. When she channeled the spirits, they used up the energy from her solar plexus. Iris, who Jolene guessed was exhausted too, stayed silent.
Eion appeared with two mugs of tea, one of which he pressed into Jolene’s hands. She took a sip and made a face. It was so sweet. She could have stood a spoon up in all the sugar.
“Did you hear about April?” Eion asked, sitting.
Jolene shook her head. April was also a medium at the Spiritualists’ Society.
“Last Tuesday, she was sent to a house,” Eion said. “The owner was having incredible trouble with a spirit. So April went to calm the spirit and do you know what happened?”
“The spirit followed her home. I mean, honestly. She should have known what to do.”
“What’s that?” Jolene asked. Her mind was still on the meeting, and she was only half interested.
Eion blew on the steam from his mug. “If you look around a spirit’s place, they sometimes feel that they have the right to visit your place too. Before she left, she should have said to the spirit, ‘Go away. Don’t follow me.’”
“And that would have been enough?”
“It works like a charm. Did you see we were past capacity tonight?”
“Wasn’t it great?”
“We were over the fire regulation limit,” Eion said. “If it gets like that again, I’ll have to close the doors early.”
“What?” Jolene stared at him in horror. “But you can’t turn people away. You just can’t. Did you see how happy that woman was when she heard from her son? We’ll have to find a bigger hall.”
“I’ve tried and there aren’t any. I spoke to the priest here, and he said that this church is also free on Monday nights. Maybe you could run two meetings a week.”
“I can’t cut another shift. I have to make the rent.”
“You should never worry about money,” Eion said briskly. “The spirit world will always provide.”
It was easy for him to say, Jolene thought, with his waterfront house in West Vancouver and his comfortable cushion of retirement savings.
They drank their tea. Sometime later, when Jolene’s strength had returned, she said goodbye to Eion and left the church. As she walked down the steps, the sun was sinking low in the rose-colored sky. It was a gorgeous summer evening and the whole of Vancouver seemed to be on heat. She passed a couple who were making out at a bus stop. The man’s hand was high up inside the woman’s top. They seemed so in love—or was it lust?—that Jolene’s heart twisted. She wished that she had someone to share her life with, but it was tricky when she had Iris.
Iris had appeared on Jolene’s eleventh birthday and had announced that she would be Jolene’s spirit guide. Even after all these years, Jolene still knew little about her, which was surprising considering that she never shut up. Jolene had learned that Iris came from a fishing village in the West Country of England and that she’d lived in the Victorian era and had passed from tuberculosis when she was eighty-two. She’d spent her time baking scones and knitting while her husband Fred had been catching cod at sea.
Jolene imagined Iris to be stout from all the baking and with well-defined jaw muscles from talking too much. She pictured her in an ankle-length dress and an apron with her gray hair pinned, primly, on top of her head.
All of Jolene’s medium friends had spirit guides too, but theirs were a lot cooler and considerably more chilled. Juanita had Romanov, a Russian dissident. Sophia had a philosopher. Although Jolene loved Iris, she wished that she wouldn’t interfere quite so much. It was hard to get anything done—let alone have a romance—with a chatterbox grandmother living inside her head.