‘I was happy to burn.’
Andrea frowned, ‘Really… that’s what she said?’
‘That’s what she said.’
Andrea leaned back in her chair and pulled her cardigan tighter around her body extending the action until she was protectively hugging herself.
‘I can’t think of a worse way to die than being set alight. I once burnt myself ironing one of Darren’s shirts; caught my forearm on the tip of the blasted iron.’ She paused reliving the moment, ‘It bloody hurt.’
Sandrine sat straight backed and regal in the chair across from Andrea, a small kitchen table divided Medium from Seeker. Sandrine absently turned Andrea’s locket in her hand.
‘I think it’s a question of faith actually,’ said Sandrine with just a wisp of an accent, one she’d cultivated over many years. It made her, she thought, more mysterious than the others.
‘Faith? What do you mean? Like a religious fanatic? Was it an act of martyrdom? Did she think she would have a guaranteed place in Paradise… with virgins?’
Sandrine paused for an effectual moment, surveying her client. The Medium’s dark chestnut eyes had seen many realms beyond this one, spoken with kings and paupers and wrestled numerous demons, or at least that’s the expression she was trying to convey.
‘What?’ demanded Andrea a little unnerved by the medium’s gaze.
Sandrine, the Seer of Things, the Clairvoyant, the Raconteuse, leaned in towards her client in a conspiring manner.
‘With the help of your grandmothers locket’ She placed the locket between them, ‘I have shared communion with your guardian Angel. She has enlightened me to her past, her time on this earth. Your guardian angel, Agnes, was a Cathar Priestess. She was born in Occitan, now Southern France, in the early thirteenth century.’
Andrea unfolded herself and leaned into the conspiracy, the two of them now only inches apart. Andrea picked up the silver locket with exaggerated reverence and clutched it to her chest.
‘Really? Makes sense. I was always very good at French at school you know? And I’m a glutton for Camembert.’
‘Well then, there you have it.’
‘The link, the err French Connection.’
‘Wow. What else can you see, what do you know about Agnes? Apart from the burning bit.’
Sandrine closed her eyes momentarily, reached out across the formica table top and took Andrea’s hands in her own. The locket was sandwiched like a pearl in an oyster. Then with an jubilant expression she announced, ‘Mais oui! Bien sur! I have it now.’
‘Have what? What do you have?’
Sandrine opened her eyes and said, almost it seemed to herself, ‘I thought as much but now I’m sure.’
A dog barked from behind the kitchen door.
‘Oh that’s Arthur, he wants to come in.’ Andrea said standing, draining all of the drama out of the scene. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?’
Sandrine still held hands that were no longer there and said in a voice that wasn’t her own, ‘You need to hear this.’
Andrea, startled, sat back down abruptly. Arthur, sensing strange things were afoot, whimpered and then slunk away.
‘So, Agnes was a Cathar Priestess or Perfect. The beliefs of the Cathars went against Catholic doctrine and threatened the stability of the church. You must remember that back in those days the Catholic Church and its Pope were all-powerful. The Cathars believed, unlike the Catholics, that this world we inhabit…’ Sandrine made a sweeping movement with her hand encompassing the whole of the kitchen in which they sat. Andrea beheld her kitchen with a look of awe and anticipation. Sandrine continued,
‘…is imperfect. Too many bad things happen to good people and therefore this world…’ again the hand movement, ‘…could not have been engineered by a perfect God. It stood to reason that this world was built by an imperfect god or demigod like Satan. They believed that this world, the same one we now inhabit, and everything in it, that is to say all material things, including our own bodies, were all corrupt, were all made by the devil himself. That is the basis for their heresy.’
Sandrine paused. It was a good pause; the best pause she’d achieved all day.
Andrea let out a long breath she’d been keeping, ‘A heretic! So that’s why they burned her? You know I’ve always had an acute sense of smell, I can smell smoke before anyone else. I’d douse you in water before you knew you were alight. The fire brigade have nothing on me! Look for smoke alarms in this house if you want but you won’t find any: no need, not with my nose.’
‘What about when you are out?’ Sandrine couldn’t help but ask.
‘Hmm? Cuppa tea? Or something a little stronger?’
Sandrine sighed inwardly, ever since she entered into the clairvoyant business it had been this way. If only someone had warned her? While she tried her best to convey the supernatural, bringing spirits and people together in the most respectful and serene manner, everyone else just pissed about and ate bourbons. No-one took her too seriously, she was an aside, a freak show, an excuse to drink sherry in the middle of the day, a slice of naughty before returning to the mundane life of choice. Today being a case in point.
Time for a little positive mental attitude, It was her ‘calling’. After all, she didn’t chose it, it chose her.
‘Tea will be fine thank you. Alcohol messes with the wavelength.’
‘What, like a radio?’
‘Yes, very much so. Everything travels in waves. Light, sound, water of course, even those quantum particles, so why not consciousness or voices from a different place?’
‘Builders or herbal?’
‘Sorry all out.’
‘Builders then, no sugar and a hint of milk.’
Sandrine munched on custard cream and thought about faith. The spectrum of incredulity, what people were prepared to believe in and not believe in. Where they chose to put their faith. In Gods? Spiritual after worlds? Realms of the dead? In conspiracies? Politics? Each other or, rarely, in nothing at all. No faith, not even in oneself must be, she thought reaching for another biscuit, very bleak. There was a word for that. For believing that life was pointless, that it meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. What was it?
‘What about X-rays?’
‘Sorry,’ said Sandrine through a mouthful of biscuit.
‘Well they travel in waves too don’t they?’
‘Yes I believe so.’
Andrea stirred tea and thought about telling Darren she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She wondered how he would react. He was never very good at receiving bad news; he tended to make it all about Darren. She would have to nurse him through her cancer treatment. In a way, that notion made her feel more empowered. Despite all his machismo, paint-balling on weekends like a proper solider and having read ‘Bravo Two Zero’ front to back, he was not as strong as she was.
The two women settled anew, this time with tea.
‘I’m all ears,’ said Andrea smiling broadly.
‘’Well,’ said Sandrine, taking a sip of tea, ‘From what I understand Agnes became a Cathar Perfect later in life, during The Crusades against her people. She was married to a poor nobleman from the fiefdom of Foix whose mother and sister had both taken the Consolamentum. For him she bore two sons before she too took the oath, which involved celibacy, and her husband took a lover!’
‘Typical bloke then?’
‘Once someone took the oath, ‘The Consolamentum’, their only sacrament, he or she had to live the perfect life. You see for Cathars, the soul was the only thing worth saving because it was the only thing not of this imperfect world. They believed that the soul was in fact an angel trapped on earth which might take several incarnations to reach perfection and only then could it finally return to the ‘goodness’ or the good God. Once the oath was taken you must live an ascetic and chaste life, avoiding meat, helping others and denouncing the material world.’
‘I have been thinking about going vegan, I mean lots of people are these days, but Darren could never give up bacon… or sausages… or sex for that matter.’
Sandrine needed to pee.
‘I don’t think you have to give up sex to be a vegan,’ offered Sandrine, helpfully.
‘No, but you wouldn’t have the energy would you?’
Sandrine pressed on.
‘Anyway Perfects like Agnes were humble, not bedecked in gold and silk but in simple cloth. No churches were built to preach or pray in. Rather, they toiled in the fields or sat alongside followers at the loom. Despite their passive outlook, not believing in any form of violence, they were persecuted.
‘What a terrible time to live in,’ offered Andrea whilst simultaneously thinking about her mammogram and the malign lump persecuting her!’
‘In the spring of 1243 Agnus’s home, Montsegur, fell to the King of France.’
‘Wow, that is a long way back isn’t it?’
Sandrine found the word she’d been searching for, ‘Nihilism’.
‘They were given just two weeks to think about their fate.’ Sandrine tried leaning over the table to close the gap and add a sense of intensity but her bladder protested so she slumped back in her chair hoping the sudden shift in her position would create a more dramatic effect.
Andrea thought Sandrine needed to pee.
Arthur whimpered. He’d left his ball in the kitchen and wanted to rescue it.
‘Their choice was to either denounce their faith and embrace Catholicism or to be put to death. There were just two hundred of them left by then. Not one of them wavered: all two hundred chose death.
Day by day the pile of kindling grew greater; soldiers could be seen dragging huge branches onto the heap. Stakes were hammered into the ground within the mountain of dry wood ready for the heretics to be tied to.
Before the deadline, the pile of wood seemed sufficient to the Cathars and so, without wanting to stay in this imperfect world another moment they, all of them, walked freely towards their fate. To the obvious surprise of the soldiers they climbed onto the pyre.’
‘She was so brave. I hope I can be that brave?’
Feeling like she needed to wrap it up Sandrine barely stopped for breath. She needed to pee and then get to her 4.30 appointment with Running Horse and Mildred Thornton on Cranberry road, two bus rides away. Running horse, other than a dutiful guardian was a stickler for time keeping. Wheres Mildred lived on a completely different planet with its own unique space time matrix.
‘Her last moments on earth were the most serene, as if her soul knew that its freedom was imminent, that after thousands of incarnations in this world as man, women, child, master or slave it was finally free to go. Her mind strayed for a moment, a moment of vanity perhaps, as she thought about her children, her two sons who, if they were alive, would be young men by now. She hoped that they remembered her and that, if they did think of her, it was with kindness and understanding.
Then closing her eyes for the last time in this world, Agnes listened to some of her friends muttering the Consolamentum in defiance of the Bishop reading out his denouncement and she heard the solider’s laughing as they put touches to the pyre.’
‘She felt the heat of the flames as they licked her robes and then felt nothing but joy as her soul made ready to leave, to make its way towards goodness and finally return to the flock of the True God. It is there that they find grace and good favour, it is there that they live harmoniously. What that place was like she had no idea. She speculated that it would be a most beautiful place, a city made purely of light, where angels sang only of joy. Now she’s there, she has been reborn, like the Phoenix from the ashes, a True Angel.’
‘That is so touching! And you got all that from holding my hands?’
‘And the locket, mainly the locket actually, waves pass freely though these personal objects it seems.’
Arthur announces his inpatients with a cowardly bark.
Sorry can I let Arthur in now?’
‘By all means. I must get ready to leave.’
‘I have a question before you go,’ said Andrea opening the kitchen door to a relieved black Labrador.
‘Why me? Why did Agnes chose me – I mean apart from the French connection?’
‘She sees something in you. Goodness perhaps. Something worth saving. Something worth protecting.’
‘You think she is protecting me?’
‘Of course. She is looking out for you.’
‘Did she say anything else that you can remember?’
Needing the toilet Sandrine stood up and brushed down her skirt. Arthur took it as an invitation and came toward her wagging his tail. He’d already forgotten that from behind the closed door he’d regarded this interloper as the route of all evil.
‘Um… yes but I don’t know what it means really. Agnes said, “There will be no more sickness or pain when we reach the city.”
‘Oh I see.’
‘About the cancer?’
‘My God you ARE good; I haven’t even told Darren yet!’
‘I saw the results of your mammogram on the table, there, next to the napkin holder.’
‘I need to pee.’ Sandrine made her way along the hall to the bathroom with as much haste as her dignity would allow.
Andrea patted Arthur and then gazed out of her kitchen window at the dry spot on the drive where Darren’s car had been parked this morning and where he would park it tonight when he came home from work.
She needed faith now. She needed to be brave and to fight for her slice of life.
The toilet flushed.
There was comfort to be had from the thought that Agnes would watch over her and would, when the end came, which it would eventually, meet her on the other side. Andrea found it consoling to believe that the end of this life, is not the end. That this place was imperfect and shot full of holes. Somewhere that we needed to pass through before entering the city of light.
‘Buy for now’ Sandrine the astral traveler, the reader of crystals, the self proclaimed conduit of the dead called from the front door.
‘See you on the other side’ joked Andrea, the good wife, neighbour, daughter, sister, friend and Cancer patient.
Andrea sighed, but fought off the encroaching melancholy, grabbed Arthur’s lead and repeated the phrase that was to become her mantra..
‘There will be no more sickness or pain when we reach the city.’