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Sunhill Asylum, November 14, 1963

Maria looks up from her desk as the secretary enters her office:

‘There’s an old lady to see you. She’s asking after Jack Vallis.’

‘A relation?’

‘No.’

‘Does she have an appointment?’

‘No. Shall I send her away?’

‘What does she want exactly?’

‘To see the body.’

‘Body? We don’t know that Vallis is dead. Not for sure.’

‘Well doctor Hulme says he’s dead.’

‘Doctor Hulme is misinformed. Or he’s suffering from a severe case of wishful thinking. Vallis is missing, that’s all. He’ll turn up in the end. I’m sure of it. You’d better send her in. I’ll speak with her in person. What’s her name?’

‘It’s a Mrs. Tate.’

Just then an eccentric old lady enters the room. She wears a moth-eaten coat and a straw boater with dried flowers pinned about the brim: a riot of red gerberas and chrysanthemums.

‘Is it true doctor?’ she asks. ‘Is she dead? The Parisian Lady? How did she die? Did she go in peace? Please tell me that she did. I couldn’t bare to think of her suffering. Oh! To think she came to such a ghastly end!’

Maria waves the secretary away:

‘Come in Mrs. Tate. Please sit down.’

The old lady begins to sob:

‘Am I too late? Oh how terribly sad! But I must see her. Dead or alive. It’s most important. Can you show me to the morgue?’

‘I’m afraid that’s impossible.’

‘Impossible? Oh dear, oh dear! How shall I ever rest in peace?’

‘Calm yourself. Take a seat. Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘No thank you dear. Do you have a brandy?’

‘I’m afraid not. What about a coffee?’

‘I can’t drink coffee – it passes straight through me. I don’t want to get caught out on the bus.’

She sits and exhales, her lips flapping like an old nag:

‘I’m in a terrible fix. I must see The Parisian Lady. I simply must.’

‘Why? Has something happened?’

‘If I can’t see her, I will die an unhappy woman.’

She pulls a hanky from her cuff and blows her nose, honking like an elephant. She has the demeanour of a young girl in a very old body; her oversized coat and hat look like they’ve been sourced from a jumble sale, but her blue eyes are fiercely sagacious, and her accent distinctly upper class. Maria ponders the woman for a moment, rapping her nails on the desk. She’s a strange one to be sure. She might have walked straight out of Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics. Everything about her has the semblance of a clown. Her stubby legs hang mid-air off the chair, like two lollipop sticks wrapped in a pair of blue and white striped stockings. But most ludicrous of all are her enormous boots which are clubbed at the toe; and judging by the metal fixings on the heels, they look like ice skates with the blades removed. A lady of breeding who’s taken to the bottle? Much of the aristocracy had fallen by hard times after the war, their estates seized by ever increasing death-duties.

‘Why are you staring at my feet?’ scowls the woman.

‘Forgive me. I don’t mean to be rude. But your boots are most unusual.’

‘You think I look like a clown?’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘But you were thinking it, weren’t you? Well I’m not a clown. I have bunions. And these old ice stakes are the most comfortable shoes I could find. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, of course.’

There follows an awkward silence.

‘Do you know Jack Vallis personally?’ asks Maria.

‘Most personally indeed.’

‘You are close friends?’

‘No, not friends. Not exactly.’

‘Then in what capacity do you know him?’

‘I met him at a spiritualist church many years ago. I didn’t believe him at first. No one did. We thought he was mad. He insisted on being called The Parisian Lady. You can imagine how that went down. But there were many irrefutable manifestations. A white rose; a girl from the fourteenth century; and several orbs that darted round the room. Then there were his miracles.’

Miracles?

‘Why yes. Don’t you know? The Parisian Lady was the greatest magnetic healer of our age! Not to mention her other gifts. How typical of a doctor to deny the realm of spirit!’ She wags her finger and scorns: ‘You destroyed The Parisian Lady!

‘Mrs. Tate, I can assure you, I did no such thing. In point of fact, I’m trying to save her.’

‘Save her? So she’s alive! Thank Jove! Is she in danger? Tell me!

‘If I am to tell you anything at all, perhaps you should start at the beginning.’

‘Please forgive me. I’m upset. Your secretary said I was too late.’

‘Jack Vallis is missing. That’s all.’

‘Has he escaped?’

‘No. I doubt that very much.’

‘Pity. Well is he in trouble?’

‘You could say that.’

‘I knew it! I couldn’t sleep last night. I had terrible visions. I saw him burning at the stake. You ask: how can I know such things? I cannot say. But I know them with utter certainty. Do you think me mad?’

‘No, not at all Mrs. Tate.’

‘As a psychologist, you have to ask yourself: does time really exist? Can human consciousness be destroyed? Or do we pass through a variety of materializations and disembodiments? A pity Sigmund Freud never asked these questions. Time and Death are just illusions my dear. I wonder how many inmates in this asylum are actually mad? The Parisian Lady was never certifiable; she was just a little eccentric, you understand?’

‘Yes of course. I said the same to the board only yesterday.’

‘You did?’

‘Yes. But you must understand, Jack Vallis is also very sick.’

‘In what way is he sick?’

‘He hears voices. Angelic voices.’

‘There are many madmen who claim to receive messages from angels, and other superhuman entities. But what if the source of these messages is not a deranged mind, but an alien intelligence that has been communing with mankind for millennia?’

‘That’s quite a fantastic theory, Mrs. Tate. And one I did not expect to hear from you.’

‘I might look like a mad old lady in a flowery hat, but I also have degree in higher mathematics.’

You do?

‘I was amongst the first women students to matriculate and gain a degree from Oxford University. You’re a woman in a man’s world. Surely my degree must count for something…’

‘Of course. I think that’s wonderful.’

‘—Then believe me when I tell you, it’s not a theory. This world is a subset of something else. Something bigger. Much bigger. Sensitives can access these higher realms. They become channels. Take the prophets Ezekiel and Moses. Were they mad, or inspired by divine intelligences?’

‘I’m on your side, Mrs. Tate, really I am. But I must tread carefully. This asylum is a church of atheists.’

‘In the Old World these things were accepted without question.’

‘As psychiatrists, it’s our job to question. The Christian Church has absorbed many mental phenomena into theology; and has long thought madness a possession of one kind or another. I do not doubt the existence of higher realms – nor angelic intelligences; nor the supernatural influence of the spiritual on this material world. But I’m up against many secular forces – clinicians who are intent on ascribing an organic cause. You must realise, the Jack Vallis you remember is very a different person now. They’ve done something to him.’

‘The Freudian Inquisition. It’s no better than the middle ages. Interrogation, torture and coercion. Anyone who deviates from the norm is suspect. Psychiatrists will testify to the most absurd things! In my experience, psychiatric evidence is at best flimsy, at worst dangerous – a tapestry of clinical conjecture, professional prejudice and downright lies.’

‘Not always.’

‘Do you know what mental illness is?’

‘Mrs. Tate, I did not invite you here to be questioned in this manner. In point of fact, I did not invite you at all. You barged into my office.’

‘But do you know?’

‘Of course I know. It’s my job to know.’

‘Psychiatry in the hands of Inquisitors is very perilous indeed. As far as I can see, the only reason for sectioning an individual is when they become a danger to themselves or others.’

‘I agree entirely.’

‘Need I remind you that detaining The Parisian Lady is a violation of her human rights? Article number nine: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

‘It’s a little more complicated than that Mrs. Tate.’

‘Is it? Why? Does she pose a threat to others?’

‘No. I don’t believe so. Not at all. During my training in London, I had a patient who suffered from periodic bouts of morbid insanity; his psychic personality during the attack was so different from the interval, that a layman might think him possessed. Indeed, his dairy was full of eulogies to Satan, and violent fantasies on the destruction of women. At night he would sing to Jack The Ripper. He was also a chronic dipsomaniac. His morbid attacks became so strong, and were felt with such impelling force, that they completely consumed his moral and intellectual powers. He became a savage animal. He was criminally insane and a danger to society. The Parisian Lady is mentally ill, but I do not regard her as a psychopath.’

‘Is she a danger to herself?’

‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, she is.’

‘But is the threat she poses to herself any worse than the treatment she receives from the doctors?’

‘Mrs. Tate, you are obviously not aware that The Parisian Lady – I mean Jack Vallis – tried to commit suicide by jumping from a train.’

‘Did she? Oh dear. Well that’s hardly surprising, is it?’

‘What do you know about it, exactly?’

‘When Freud claimed that Man was nothing but a collection of electrical impulses, he doomed us all.’

‘Quite.’

‘So what are you going to do about it doctor Torris?’

‘Whatever I can.’

‘Shall you save The Parisian Lady from the pyre?’

‘You speak of the Old World as if you were there. Were you?’

‘She was quite infamous in her day.’

‘Infamous?’

‘There were complaints from the hospital, you see.’

‘What complaints? You’re not making any sense. To which world are you referring?’

‘Do you know anything about your patient?’

‘Precious little, I’m afraid. His records have been tampered with. Falsified. And certain things about his life have been deliberately concealed. A fact of which I have only just become aware.’

‘Ah! Well, like I said, that’s not surprising, is it? Not surprising at all. The doctors were out to ruin The Parisian Lady from the start.’

‘Ruin her? Why?’

‘They called her a quack. A miserable quack. Nobody took any notice at first. But she proved them all wrong. People came from far and wide to see The Parisian Lady. Even from America. Did you know that?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘One touch from The Parisian Lady, and you were cured for life. Whatever your condition, you could wave goodbye to prescriptions and pills. Needless to say, the doctors weren’t happy about it. Not one bit. People queued night and day to see The Parisian Lady. Her house became a shrine. The Lourdes of Liverpool, they called it. The final straw came with an optician who had a patient suffering from chronic macular degeneration – an incurable condition. The patient in question was in the final stages of the disease, and had lost vision in both eyes. But Jack Vallis – I mean, The Parisian Lady – effected a total cure by the laying on of hands. Well, the optician refused to accept the miracle, and claimed to be the victim of some elaborate practical joke. A furore ensued when the patient demanded his medical records as proof of his previous condition. The optician refused and made a formal complaint to the police. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Vallis on the charge of medical fraud. Vallis got wind of the conspiracy and went on the run. The fact of the matter is, the establishment was out to destroy Vallis from the start. Because in accepting his cures, they were obliged to deal with forces they could not understand. His powers went far beyond the parochial nucleus of medical materialism. I still have his advert from the local paper. Would you like to see?’

‘Yes please.’

Mrs. Tate rummages through her handbag and produces a tattered square of newsprint. Maria takes the cutting and reads:

PSYCHOPATHIC INSTITUTION
FOR THE CURE OF DISEASE.

19, Selborne Street,
Toxteth, L8.

The Parisian Lady

TRANCE MEDIUM; MEDICAL MESMERIST;
MAGNETIC HEALING AND CLAIRVOYANCE;
SEALED LETTERS ANSWERED; SONAMBULIST.
AT HOME DAILY TO GIVE PRIVATE SEANCES.
11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Fee 3s.6d.;
(Sundays and Wednesdays free).

‘May I keep this?’ asks Maria.

‘If you must dear. You can imagine what those sessions looked like: Vallis done up in drag, swanning around like Widow Twanky in a frilly gown. A stage charlatan, the police said. A madman said the doctors. But I ask you, where does eccentricity end and madness begin? The proof is always in the pudding. And those cured by Vallis swore he was the genuine article. Needless to say, the doctors wanted Vallis committed. He had many other confounding powers of mind; he could give instantaneous answers to complex mathematical problems. He could compose like Mozart and Liszt. He could read books that were hidden in other rooms; he could start fires and move objects with the power of his mind. I once heard that he even resurrected a child who had drowned in a pond. He also had a most prodigious memory. He could recite verbatim the complete works of Shakespeare. Of course, few listened long enough to find out. But I have no reason to doubt it. There are many people in history with prodigious memories. At one period of his life Seneca could repeat 2,000 words precisely as they had been pronounced.(i) Gassendi had acquired by heart 6,000 Latin verses, and the whole of Lucretius’s poem, De Rerum Natura. (ii) In order to give his memory sufficient exercise, he was in the habit of reciting 600 verses from different languages. Sanderson, another mathematician, was able to repeat all of Horace’s odes, and much of other Latin authors.(iii) La Crose, after listening to twelve verses, in as many languages, could not only repeat them in the order in which he had heard them, but could also translate them.(iv) So you see, in the light of all this, the claim to know the complete works of Shakespeare is not so extraordinary.’

‘Fascinating. Tell me, did Vallis ever mention a Cyclops?’

‘Like Polyphemus? No dear, he never mentioned that. Why? Has he seen one? The astral realms are full of many such creatures. I can avouch for that.’

‘When was all this? When was the warrant for his arrest?’

‘It seems like centuries ago. Another lifetime. I was just a miserable cripple back then. Had been for twenty years – until Vallis put his hands on me, that is. I suffered with rheumatoid arthritis; my spine was bent double, and my joints swollen like cankers. In 1955 I had a severe attack of rheumatic fever, which left me paralysed and confined to bed for more than six months. My doctor could do nothing as I’m allergic to penicillin. I was slowly regaining use of my legs when the pain settled in my face, mouth and gums. I endured this state of suffering for nine weeks, until I became unable to eat or sleep. During the last week, I was in such agony that meals were a torment. The nights were little better than death, for they passed without sleep, and I was constantly rising to gargle my mouth with rum, which gave no relief. At last, in sheer desperation, I gave up hope and longed for the grave. It was then that Providence brought me news of The Parisian Lady, by the way of the Liverpool Echo. It was a bitter November when I first went to Selborne Street. I remember the lamplight haloed in the darkness, with snow falling from the skies like Mana. I fully expected to queue in the cold with everyone else, but when my husband carried me from the car, we were quickly ushered to the front door. There was a heavenly perfume in the air, like cedar and geraniums. The windows blazed with candles and statues of the Virgin. When we entered, the hall was plastered with prayers and pictures of the sick; callipers and crutches were stacked in the parlour like broken shackles. And there was The Parisian Lady, dressed in white, sitting by the fire. “Come in Daisy,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.” Daisy is my middle name, you see. Only my mother called me Daisy. Believe me when I tell you, I was a bed-ridden invalid. I could walk no more than five paces before the pain struck me down. Look at me now: I’m supple as a cat.’

She flexes her knees and raises her hands above her head.

‘I’m completely restored. And I’ve got the X-Rays to prove it. The doctors called it “spontaneous remission”. But they could not explain the regeneration of bone, cartilage and synovial tissue. Especially as this occurred in a period of less than twenty-four hours. Before the miracle, my knuckles were the size of golf balls. On seeing the cure, my G.P. refused, point blank, to believe it was me. He thought I was someone else – a sister or cousin. When I mentioned The Parisian Lady, he got very angry indeed. I was promptly assigned a new doctor, who conveniently lost all my records. I haven’t seen him since. I’ll be seventy next month, and I’m fit as a fiddle.’

‘That’s wonderful Mrs. Tate.’

‘It’s more than wonderful, it’s a miracle, that’s what it is.’

‘Tell me, what did Vallis do to you, exactly?’

‘Not him dear. The Light Stream. Vallis never took the credit. That belongs to god alone.’

The Light Stream? What is it like? Do you mind me asking?’

‘Not at all. But words are quite useless really. The Light Stream penetrates your very soul. It’s such a warm and peaceful feeling. A peace beyond all understanding. I can only describe it as Love. Pure, unadulterated Love. Compassion. Forgiveness. Understanding. That’s what The Light Stream is. It absolves everything unto itself. All disease; all negation; all darkness. Nothing can stand against it. Nothing. No evil can corrupt it. No darkness consume it. The Light Stream is eternal and indestructible. A radiant perfection, above all materiality. Spiritualists believe there is a Light in the spirit of Man that illuminates everything, and by which He may perceive supernatural things. Those who seek knowledge by reason of Nature glean only material things; but those who seek knowledge in the light of Man glean the things above Nature, which belong to the kingdom of God. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, I believe so.’

‘Edward the Confessor had the healing gift, and cured disease by laying hands upon the sick. History is full of such persons. There was the astonishing curative power of Valentine Greatrakes, who lived towards the end of the seventeenth century. There was also De Loutherbourg, the well-known painter; Gassner, a Roman Catholic priest in Swabia; and an English gardener, named Levret, who used to say that so much virtue went out of him, that he was more exhausted by touching thirty or forty people than by digging eight roods of ground.(v) I’m ashamed to say, that when The Parisian Lady touched me, I was so overcome by the Light, that I never thanked her. I simply got up and left in tears of joy. That’s why I came here today. To thank The Parisian Lady. And give her an important message.’

‘Message? What message?’

‘A message from Spirit.’

‘Tell me. I’ll pass it on.’

‘Well, I’m not sure I should tell you.’

‘Why? Don’t you trust me?’

‘It’s not that dear. I was given strict instructions to speak with The Parisian Lady alone.’

‘But she’s not here. And I don’t know when she’ll return.’

‘Is that a euphemism?’

‘Euphemism?’

‘A doctor once said that of my mother: I don’t know when she’ll return. She’d fallen into a coma. Needles to say, she never did return.’

‘I can assure you, The Parisian Lady is not in a coma.’

‘But you have absolutely no idea where she is?’

‘She’s safe. That’s all I can say.’

‘I see. Well please give her the following message. It’s in Latin. You do speak the Latin tongue?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Oh dear, the youth of today. I fear society is doomed. Wherever will it end?’

Maria grabs a notepad and pen:

‘And the message is?’

Adhuc sub judice list est.

‘Which means?’

The case is still before the court. But you must say it in Latin. It’s very important.’

‘Why?’

‘How should I know? I’m only doing as instructed.’

‘Very well Mrs. Tate. I’ll pass it on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m very busy.’

‘Yes, I’m sure. Well it’s been a pleasure meeting you.’

‘And you too.’

They shake hands across the desk.

‘Goodbye Mrs. Tate. Thank you for coming. I’ve found it most informative. You’ve explained a great deal. Er, before you go, do you have a number I can contact you on?’

‘No dear. I only use the spirit-line. It’s Hobson’s choice, I’m afraid. I can’t use the telephone or electrical equipment of any kind. I’m electro-sensitive, you see. Electromagnetic machines interfere with my aura. Or rather, I interfere with them. Oh! Charles Laughton was such a fine actor, don’t you think?’

‘Pardon?’

Hobson’s Choice. Sadly, they don’t make Talkies any more, they only make Movies. I blame Hollywood. It’s a conspiracy to reduce our attention span. The nuances and subtleties of language are lost on the youth of today. Screenwriters have a golden rule: never say what you can show. What utter rot! I can see the day coming when cinematic art will be reduced to nothing but a comic strip. Bish! Bash! Bosh! The end! Now where was I? Oh yes. I’ve got something important to tell you.’

‘You’ve already told me, Mrs. Tate: Adhuc sub judice list est.

‘No, not that. Something else. Now what was it? I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on. Ah yes! Now listen to me very carefully. I know it’s not really my place, but the sooner you leave Sunhill the better.’

‘But why?’

‘It’s not safe for you here. The wards are swarming with dark entities. I passed one on the stairs: a black thing with eyes like orbs of fire. Don’t look at me like that.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like I’ve got bats in my belfry. I might look like a clown, but I can assure you, I’m quite compos mentis. Believe me my girl, you’re in great danger. This place is fast going to hell. So I wouldn’t hang around here too long if I were you. If you want my advice, get out. Get out whilst you still can.’

Mrs. Tate steps toward the door, taps her hat and chirps:

‘Toodle-Pip!’

*      *      *      *

Maria sat at her desk, pondering the cutting in silence. What intrigued her most were the words: SEALED LETTERS ANSWERED. How was it that some people possessed supernormal powers of vision? To read sealed letters, and describe events at a distance? To locate lost and hidden artefacts? How puerile were the doctors to deny these things! To debunk spiritualism in the face of common knowledge! How contrary to the evidence! How unhistorical and unscriptural! Materialism gave men the husks of things: it did not given them virtue or wisdom. Maria knew the world of spirit was real. She had spoken to Hardy on the telephone. A dead man. Was it mediumship? Or was that just a freak of self-suggestion? She had come to Sunhill to refine her clinical methods. But after meeting Vallis, she had entered a society of ghosts, demons and poltergeists. Ever since he touched her, she felt the scales had been lifted from her eyes. She was standing on the threshold of some vast new world. There were rifts in the veil. Lights in the depths. The world of Spirit was beckoning. But without a guide into this strange new realm, she felt frightened and alone. The secret to Vallis lay hidden in the basement. That’s where Hardy wanted her to go.

She peered out the window into the misty precinct where ravens lopped about the parapets. The asylum, with its dark hewn facade, seemed to brood with menace; it looked so stubborn and absolute, like the very embodiment of atheist dissent. But even amid these secular stones, she was surrounded by phantasms. A discarnate horde of personalities babbled in her ears. She felt her subliminal self being pushed to the very limits of sanity: a spectrum of conscious faculty that went beyond all familiar things. In following this, how would she maintain her grip on reality? The darkness made her shudder. Black things with eyes like orbs of fire.

Where was The Light Stream in all this desolate gloom? Where was that radiant perfection that exceeds all materiality? She fondled the small crucifix about her neck, muttering Ave after Ave. But despite her faith, she did not know from whence she came or wither she would go! At every ticking of the clock some sixty souls had given up the ghost, yet not a whisper stirred that curtain of impenetrable blackness which hung between her and the grave. Oh to be more than what she seemed to be! What she wished to be! To shake off her dull, gross, and sensual self! To pass into that higher realm of Light!

The asylum clock struck ten, its sullen chime pealing round the precinct, where the anonymous mad mouldered beneath the turfs.

And the bell tolled:

Go home… Go home… Go home…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2018

Image credit: Candles Group by ‘Arunravi.signs’ (Wikimedia Commons).