My grandmother taught me to read the cards when my mother left us.
She left us in the middle of summer. It was just after lunch one day, when the sun was at its highest and brightest. By the time the ambulance had reached the end of the road and turned out of sight, the house had fallen under a dark shadow, despite the sun still burning outside. My grandmother sank into the threadbare armchair in the sitting room, her hand across her eyes and her lips moving noiselessly as she recited some silent prayer, while I curled up on the sofa, arms tight around my drawn-up knees, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Upstairs, my mother’s room lay in shattered pieces. She had ripped the curtains from the rails and torn the paper from the walls, smashed the mirror and slashed her clothes. Her blood made a trail of red breadcrumbs across the room where it had dripped, firstly from her cut fingertips and then from her opened wrists. She had been ill for as long as I could remember, but just recently things had become so much worse. We did our best, the doctors did theirs, but we simply couldn’t help her any more.
We stayed in the sitting room for what seemed like hours until, with a sudden movement, my grandmother rose from the chair and took something from a drawer in the sideboard. I watched as she sat down at the table, unwrapped a cloth package and took out a tarot deck, her trembling fingers tracing the worn edges and rounded corners of the cards. As she started to shuffle them, I crept quietly over and slipped into the place opposite her, my eyes darting back and forth between the cards and her face as she laid them out and turned them over, intently considering their meaning.
Looking up briefly, she saw me watching. I met her gaze with wide eyes and it felt as though she looked right into my soul as she answered the question I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
‘It’s going to be alright, Birdy. It says so in the cards.’
In the following weeks, while we adjusted to life without my mother, my grandmother consulted the cards every night and I always sat watching her. One evening, she held the deck out to me, motioning for me to deal them instead. I took the cards and laid them out in a simple, slightly clumsy formation, and together we turned them over one by one. And with that, my education started.
At first, the nuances of meaning slipped out of my grasp as I tried to read them myself — but it wasn’t long before the subtleties of the tarot and their placements began to flow, and I was soon reading as though I’d been born with the deck in my hand. A natural, my grandmother said.
Some months later, one wet Tuesday evening, my grandmother told me to hurry up and put on my hat and coat. I did as I was told and together, we headed out into the twilight. It was raining hard and we splashed quickly up the high street, our feet wet through from passing cars, the relentless downpour seeping into our coats. Eventually, we turned into an unremarkable doorway, climbed a steep staircase and found ourselves in a dimly lit foyer. A few people were milling around but most of the bustle seemed to be coming from a brightly lit room off to the side. My grandmother took my hand and led me into the main hall. People were taking their places on rows of wooden chairs set out in front of a raised platform and my grandmother and I found two spaces at the back, shrugging out of our wet things as we sat down. I opened my mouth to ask her what was going on but she shushed me before I could get any words out.
‘Be quiet now, it’s starting.’
As she finished speaking, and a woman took the stage, my grandmother took my hand in hers and pressed it tight.
The woman on the stage was a medium and the audience watched, rapt, while she delivered messages to them from their loved ones. When the service was over we stood to put our coats on. My grandmother was hurrying, clearly hoping to slip out as unnoticed as we had slipped in, but as she was doing up the last of her buttons, a voice rang out nearby.
‘Sylvie? Good lord, is that you?’
A shadow flickered over my grandmother’s face but she quickly fixed a smile and turned to face the person who had called out.
‘Ruth! How lovely to see you.’
I could tell by her tone that it wasn’t particularly lovely, but my grandmother kept the smile on her face regardless. The woman turned to look at me.
‘And this must be…’
‘Birdy,’ my grandmother said.
‘Isobel,’ I added.
‘Isobel,’ my grandmother murmured.
They talked for a few minutes, awkwardly at first although I could sense my grandmother relaxing as the conversation went on. As they talked I looked around the hall, watching people gathered together in small groups, dunking biscuits into cups of tea as they chatted. I came back to the conversation as my grandmother brushed my hand with hers and said, ‘Well, we really must be going now. Birdy has homework to do.’
I smiled at Ruth then turned to follow my grandmother as she headed down the stairs and into the cool night.
We walked home in silence. I wanted to ask why we had gone out that evening but knew that I shouldn’t and my grandmother never explained. A couple of evenings later, there was a knock at the front door. I answered it and found Ruth and a gentleman that I vaguely recognised from the meeting standing on our step. I took them into the back room, where my grandmother was doing her daily crossword. She peered over her glasses as we entered and I gestured to the sofa, then she sent me off to make some tea.
A few minutes later, I carefully carried the loaded tray back to the room, stopping outside the door as I heard a snippet of the conversation.
‘I knew you were there before I saw you,’ Ruth was saying. ‘It was lovely to see you again.’
‘It’s been a long time,’ the man added. ‘We’ve missed you, Sylvie.’ When my grandmother didn’t answer, he continued. ‘Your granddaughter has something, you know. I could sense it as soon as she opened the door.’
‘She doesn’t have anything,’ my grandmother sighed. ‘She’s just a girl. A girl who’s been through a lot in the past few years.’
‘A girl whose grandmother and mother were both gifted,’ the man said gently. ‘A girl who could, if she wanted to, train her gift and learn how to use it properly.’
I pressed closer to the door.
‘Does she read the cards, Sylvie?’ Ruth asked. My grandmother didn’t answer but I guessed that she nodded, as Ruth carried on, ‘And she’s good, isn’t she? Intuitive? Deep?’
‘Look,’ my grandmother said firmly. ‘I stopped coming to the meetings because of what happened with my daughter. I don’t want the same to happen to my granddaughter.’
‘Then why did you come on Tuesday?’ the man asked. ‘And why did you bring her?’
My grandmother didn’t answer at first. ‘I don’t know,’ she said eventually, her voice small. ‘Because I miss him. I miss him so very much and I just wanted…’
Her voice trailed off.
‘You wanted some comfort,’ the man said. ‘That’s what we all want, Sylvie. Look, your daughter…things went wrong for her but the things she heard — they were nothing to do with her gift. Those voices were part of her illness.’
‘But how do you know?’ my grandmother asked. ‘How does anyone actually know that? All I do know is that she opened herself to something, she let it in, and then all that happened. I also know that it was my fault, because I encouraged her to do it.’
The tray was becoming heavy and I could feel the muscles in my arms starting to shake, so I pushed the door open, trying to look as though I hadn’t heard anything. My grandmother raised her hand to her face and I noticed the light glinting off tears still wet on her cheeks. I was shocked. I’d never seen my grandmother cry, not even at my mother’s funeral as she’d stood at the edge of the grave, her head bowed. No one was saying anything now and the atmosphere in the room felt charged. I sat down on the floor with my knees tucked underneath me, blowing on my hot drink and contemplating what I’d just heard.
Eventually, our guests finished their tea and stood to leave. My grandmother showed them to the door, exchanging hushed words of goodbye. By the time she came back, I was standing in the middle of the room, the tarot cards in my hand.
Ruth and Richard came round again the following night, and twice the following week. We went back to the meeting hall a fortnight later. This time, they were waiting for us at the door and walked us in, taking us to seats nearer the front. Ruth sat down on one side of us, Richard on the other. My grandmother had seemed very tired since their visits had started and I could hear her at night, restless in her bed and padding around the house. I knew now that we were there to hear from my grandfather, that my grandmother desperately wanted a message, a few words of hope. But they didn’t come. The medium didn’t pick her out and I could see her deflate as the rest of the crowd got up and left their seats at the end.
We stayed for refreshments this time, and Ruth kept patting my grandmother’s arm as we sat together at the back of the hall.
‘Maybe next time,’ Richard said, brightly. ‘Don’t give up hope, Sylvie.’
‘I used to be able to feel him,’ she said quietly, ‘but I haven’t felt him for ages. Not since…’ Her voice trailed off and I knew she was talking about my mother again.
‘He’s at home, Gran,’ I said suddenly.
I didn’t know where the words came from, I hadn’t planned to say anything but I couldn’t stop them from coming out. The three of them looked at me, slightly stunned.
‘He’s always at home. Don’t you feel him?’
She shook her head sadly.
‘I haven’t for a long time,’ she whispered, her voice thick with sadness. ‘Where… is he?’
‘He’s all over,’ I said. ‘He’s usually where you are, he likes to be with you. But sometimes he’s in the kitchen. I think he’s watching for the neighbour’s damn cat to make sure it doesn’t do its bloody business in the flowerbeds.’
I frowned in surprise as I said the last few words and my grandmother’s eyes widened. Ruth looked at my grandmother, then exchanged a knowing glance with Richard.
‘Birdy, what did you just say?’
‘I… I’m not sure.’
‘I remember Jim saying those words, Sylvie, more than once,’ Ruth said. ‘Those exact words. Would she have heard him, do you think?’
My grandmother shook her head.
‘He died when she was just a baby. I don’t think she would have picked it up. And, well, she’s never said it before.’
For the second time, we walked home from the meeting in silence.
I didn’t go to school the next day; I had a migraine and I felt oddly detached from myself. My grandmother was subdued all day too. She seemed lost in thought and I kept catching her watching me.
‘I’m okay,’ I lied. ‘I feel fine. It just came into my head.’
Ruth and Richard came to visit that evening. Richard perched on the edge of the sofa where I was lying.
‘Is he here now?’ he asked.
I nodded and pointed to the corner of the room. ‘He’s over there, I think.’
‘I can feel him too,’ he replied. ‘You’re right, he’s over there.’ He continued, ‘If you can feel your grandfather then you can probably feel other people too. Like the mediums you’ve seen. Would you like that? Would you like to learn more about this gift that you have?’
My grandmother stepped forward. ‘No, Richard, I don’t think that she –’
I cut her off. ‘It’s alright Gran. I do, I want to learn more. And I want to talk to Grandpa, properly.’
I saw my grandmother’s face fall slightly and I could tell she was uneasy, but I knew, suddenly, that I needed to do this.
‘And,’ I whispered, ‘I want to talk to Mum.’
Richard took a small booklet out of his inside jacket pocket and handed it to me.
‘Read this,’ he said. ‘It will get you started, explain how you can relax your mind and open it up to whoever’s out there. We have a group you can also come to, where you’ll be able to learn more.’
He got up to leave and turned to my grandmother, ‘Don’t worry Sylvie, it will be fine. Isobel has a special gift. Just like yours was, before you let it go.’
I took the booklet to bed that night and read it twice. When I turned out the light I lay in the dark practising how to relax my mind as I drifted off to sleep. As I slipped into unconsciousness, I heard my grandfather saying my name from somewhere close by.
I woke the next morning to a clamour of voices. I got slowly out of bed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
‘Gran,’ I shouted as I went downstairs, ‘what’s going on?’ She didn’t reply so I opened the sitting room door to see who was in there. The room was empty.
‘Gran!’ I shouted again.
The voices seemed to be getting louder but I couldn’t work out where they were coming from. As they started to close in on me, it seemed as though they were splitting my head open.
My grandmother found me hunched in the corner of the kitchen, rocking back and forth with my head in my hands. As she knelt down beside me, I grabbed her arms and looked wildly through my tears, clinging to her and digging my nails into the soft flesh of her arms.
‘Please make them go away,’ I cried. ‘Please. I wanted to hear them, but I don’t any more, it hurts too much. Please Gran, make them stop talking. I can’t think straight.’
‘Oh, Birdy,’ she whispered as her own tears began to fall. She put her arms around me and held me tight as I sobbed into her neck. ‘My poor, dear, sweet Birdy.’
'Dark Voices' was published in our 14th issue, The Curious Issue, which is available to buy here.