I sat backstage, ready to talk to the dead. I think that’s the best place to begin my story because that’s where each show would begin. My routine was always the same, every city, every filming, every audience. Sitting with headphones over my ears, I would mutter in scratchy tones beneath my breath, repeating the mantras that would help me become James Erik, the name by which the world knew me. This particular show was February 16th, 2003 and it was the last time The Otherside with James Erik would be filmed in the United States, though of course I didn’t know that at the time.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Tony, the warm-up guy, could be heard from the stage, “Welcome to The Otherside with James Erik!”
The crowd cheered, not the rambunctious roar of a sporting crowd or rock concert, but an excitement restrained by nerves. The audience for The Otherside desperately wanted to be touched by my gift but this desperation was always balanced by the fear of what my gift may bring.
It wasn’t music I listened to through my headphones, it was conversation. Five microphones were positioned in different locations beneath the audience’s tiered seating, picking up their chatter as they entered, sat, and waited for the show to begin. In front of me was a small monitor. I flicked through the channels, each showed the image of a different section of the audience. Camera A always aligned with Microphone 1 and was trained on rows A to G seat numbers 1 through 5, Camera B covered the area picked up by Microphone 2, rows A to G, seats 6 through 10, and so on it went. At that time I was looking at Camera C, listening to Microphone 3, and a woman named Margaret Doyle had caught my attention. She sat towards the back of the crowd, seat F12 to be precise, and clapped reactively, joining in only after the hundred or so people around her began to applaud, as if her mind had been elsewhere.
Margaret Doyle looked down on the semi-circular, two-level stage used for my show. At the back of the top level was a sky blue wall housing a four by four metre projection screen displaying the slowly rotating logo for The Otherside with James Erik. Bordering the stage on either side were a pair of cheap, mock-gold pillars. Two sets of stairs, symmetrical about the centre-line of the stage, led down to the bottom level, a wood panel floating floor furnished with a deep, ocean blue rug. That stage was a place I knew as well as my own home, probably better.
On stage Tony rehashed tired sounding jokes as he explained the proceedings of the day. He reminded the audience about the no camera rule and the Non-Disclosure Agreement they had signed. Margaret twisted the bottom of her blouse in her hands, wrapping it around her finger before she noticed what she was doing and smoothed it back down. The woman seated next to her smiled.
“Hello,” the woman’s voice was southern and sweet, “I’m Sue.”
“Margaret,” Margaret said, a hint of an accent on her words too, Irish, “or Marge, you can call me Marge if you’d like…”
She resumed twisting her blouse. She was nervous.
“Are you here alone?” Sue asked.
“Oh that must be awful hard, coming alone to something like this.”
Margaret attempted a smile.
“This is my daughter,” Sue continued, “Olivia-Jean.”
“Hello,” Olivia-Jean said, leaning forward past her mother. She was pretty in a plain sort of way and looked to be in her late teens, though her blonde hair was platted in a style that made her look ten years younger. Her lips were rose red and her skin porcelain white so that much like her mother she looked many years too late for a childhood beauty pageant. This type of person was a large percentage of my audience. They’d come up from somewhere in the south. Down there they thought I was either a one hundred percent god-given gift, or the devil himself.
“I’m hoping Mr Erik reads us,” Sue said, and then laughing added, “though I suppose everyone here is hoping that aren’t they?”
Margaret smiled half-heartedly again. She was more nervous than most people and that usually meant a juicy reason for her visit, something that could make for a powerful hit on the show.
“We’re hoping to hear from my mother,” Sue said, “that’s Olivia-Jean’s grandmother of course, she only recently passed and I’d like to know that she made it safely to the other side. I had a friend whose mother passed, oh maybe two years ago now, she went to see a medium, no one as impressive as James Erik of course, we are certainly lucky in that respect, but she swore the medium knew things that only her mother could know. It was a great relief for her to hear that her Mama was safe. I’m certain Mr Erik will be even more amazing.”
“Yes,” Margaret said, “I’m sure he will be.”
“And you?” Sue said. Then more quietly asked, “Who are you hoping to hear from?”
“My mother as well,” Margaret said, and then after a moment of quiet, “and my husband.”
Sue’s makeup laden face fell from smiling expectation to what must have been exaggerated despair. “Oh my dear, I’m so sorry to hear your husband has passed.”
“Thank you,” Margaret said, smiling sadly, “it was nearly five years ago now, but,” she paused, “there’s something, a question I’m hoping to have answered.”
Sue smiled. “I’m certain this is the place to find some closure,” she said as she patted Margaret on the leg.
“It’s more that I don’t…” Margaret stopped herself. “I’m just not sure whether he’s real.”
Sue began to speak again but stopped as the lights dimmed over the audience. A spotlight appeared on the blue wall at the back of the stage, it illuminated a doorway to the right of the screen, encircling it like a halo. Haunting string music began to emanate from roof mounted speakers. I switched off the monitor. Anna Darden, the new Assistant Floor Manager approached me as I removed my headphones.
“Ten seconds Mr Erik,” she said.
I nodded and stood, buttoning the blue suit jacket I wore over a white t-shirt and tan chino pants. What I was doing is called ‘hot reading’. It’s the industry term for when a psychic prepares themselves with as much covertly attained information about the audience as possible. It’s almost too easy really. What else would the audience attending the show of a psychic medium be talking about but the dead people they are hoping to hear from? Don’t get me wrong, I was plenty capable of doing a ‘cold reading’ and I would always need to draw out more information through other techniques, but ‘hot’ information allowed for some seemingly impossible hits, the type of hits that turn skeptics into believers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” a baritone voice declared, “Please welcome, James Erik!”
The door at the rear of the stage opened and I walked out into the spotlight. The familiar white glare in my eyes, the heat, the applause, this was what I lived for. I was James Erik, fully in character, waving enthusiastically as the crowd applauded. I skipped down the stairs and then stood, hands together, nodding as I thanked the audience. I smiled broadly as the applause continued. I looked off stage for a moment, towards the Stage Manager. At the beginning of every show my wife, Fiona, who also happened to be my personal Manager and the shows Executive Producer, would stand next to the Stage Manager, kiss her hand and wave at me, wishing me luck for my performance. She wasn’t there this time, just as she hadn’t been for the last two shows.
“Thank you…please…thank you so much,” I said, always trying to seem genuinely grateful for such a kind welcome to the stage.
The audience’s clapping soon died away.
“Thank you so much,” I said, beaming. “It’s wonderful to be here and I’m so happy you’ve chosen to join me for what I hope will be both an enjoyable and touching experience. Over the next few hours I will attempt to reach those who have passed. Sometimes, in the course of reaching into the spirit world, I see images that are confused or muddled. These images will often mean more to you than they do to me and so together we can usually determine what message is trying to be sent.
“I’d also like to say that I do not claim psychic readings will release you from your grief. Losing a loved one is difficult, the most difficult thing most of us face in our lifetime but understand that your grief is important, it is part of the natural way you deal with your loss. I can’t take your pain away, but I hope I can ease your minds in someway and help you realise that your loved ones are alright.”
I lowered my head, resting my mouth on the back of my fingers. I stayed there for a long moment, building the suspense, before lifting my head to the audience.
“Ok,” I said, “It’s time to talk to the other side.”
There was the usual music sting and the lights danced across the audience briefly before rising again. It was like a goddamn game-show. I turned and walked towards the opposite side of the crowd.
“Ok, there’s an energy coming from over here,” I said, indicating a section of the audience, “it’s someone with an R name, I think it’s Robert.”
My shot-gunning of information was successful and a dark haired lady in the front row, maybe in her mid-thirties, tentatively raised her hand. I focused in on her.
“You know a Robert who has passed?” I asked.
“Yes,” the lady answered.
“An older man?”
“No,” the lady said shaking her head slightly.
“It’s definitely a father figure,” I said, “an uncle?”
“Yes, it’s my uncle.”
And just like that I turned a miss into a hit.
“You were close to this uncle though,” I said. “I feel like he’s standing over you, he has his hand on your shoulder. Did he look out for you a lot when you were younger?”
The lady nodded. “He used to babysit me everyday after school, we were close.”
I turned my head as if listening for a sound no one else could hear.
“He’s showing me a box of unsorted photographs,” I said. “Do you have a box of unsorted photographs in your house?”
“He’s showing me this because I think he’s annoyed he isn’t on the wall, is there a photograph of him in there?”
“Yes,” the lady said, laughing slightly.
“It used to be up somewhere didn’t it, on the wall or the mantle?”
I smiled. “Well he’s asking you to put him back up, does that sound like him?”
The lady laughed as she nodded.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m finding it difficult to focus on your uncle because there’s a very strong resonance coming from elsewhere, but know that your uncle is happy and safe.”
The lady smiled, thanked me and the crowd applauded. I turned to face Margaret’s section of the audience. Margaret had joined the applause, but it was cursory at best. I moved to that side of the stage.
“I’m being pulled over here very strongly,” I said. “It’s from this area,” I added, vaguely waving my hand in Margaret’s direction. Margaret grabbed at the bottom of her blouse and began twisting. I looked directly at her. Her face grew flushed as the cameras and the eyes of the audience fell on her.
“You have a strong spirit presence around you,” I said. “Someone is reaching out. I’m getting an M name. Is it your name, or someone who has passed that has an M name?”
“Surely everyone knows someone who’s name begins with M,” Margaret said, smiling.
“No,” I said more forcefully, “it’s you, your name is an M name.”
“Yes,” Margaret said, “Sorry, it’s Margaret.”
I smiled at her. “There’s some skepticism in you,” I said, chuckling, “that’s ok, it’s healthy.”
Margaret smiled. I could see her relax.
“I’m getting an older woman coming through,” I said, “recently passed, a mother figure.”
“My mother,” Margaret said, “she passed this year.”
“Your mother was a happy person wasn’t she?”
“Yes, she was.”
“I feel as though your mother is almost jumping for joy that she has been able to reach you, she is extremely happy. She is indicating her abdomen though, did she have cancer? Something to do with her abdomen, like bowel cancer?”
“She had cancer,” Margaret answered, “but it wasn’t in her abdomen.”
I looked at her for a moment. “It could be her torso, she is indicating that area, her chest maybe, lung cancer?”
“But she didn’t smoke?”
“That’s right,” Margaret said, “I don’t think she had one cigarette in her life.”
“Why is she showing me a donkey cart?”
Margaret clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Back in Ireland,” she eventually said, “before we moved to America we used to ride around my Grandfather’s farm on a donkey cart.”
“Was his name an M name too? Because I’m getting another M name, a male this time.”
Margaret didn’t reply and I could see that she was shutting down.
“Margaret?” I said. “Are you alright?”
“I’m not sure…” Margaret started, “I’m not sure if I want to keep going.”
I was quiet for a long, measured moment before I spoke again.
“Is this your husband? Has your husband passed?”
Margaret nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” she said, “my husband’s name was Michael.”
“They want you to know they are coming through together,” I said, “and Michael is saying that it’s ok to do what you’re afraid of. Does that make sense to you?”
Margaret nodded, she tried to speak but couldn’t, tears began to come in gentle sobs.
“Michael says that he’s been gone long enough, you still have lessons to learn and you need to live your life. There is one thing he’s asking though, something with rosemary. I think he’s asking that when you marry this new man you should wear rosemary in your hair, do you understand this?”
Margaret smiled between her sobs. She pulled a tissue from her handbag and wiped her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, “thank you so much. You’re a miracle.”
And the crowd erupted with applause.