SBR EAK: ‘The Everyday Exorcist’

The following is an excerpt from a piece of writing done during the early planning stages of Spirit Box Radio. There is no transcript yet for the 3 minute intro and 2 minute outro of the audio version in which this excerpt appears, but you can read the excerpt itself here!

The everyday exorcist – Case 1: Eileen and Rebecca Rose Lightfoot

The woman in the pink raincoat sat down at the Enfields’ kitchen table. The raincoat creaked as she lifted a hessian shopping bag up from the old tiled floor to hold instead in her lap. Inside it was basil, sprouting from a small, hand-painted pot; a necklace with a thin gold chain, from which hung a tiny, heart-shaped locket; and a rolling pin, old, well-used and well loved, made from polished pine with red plastic handles. Kitty had seen the objects over the woman’s shoulder as she’d let her into the house.

As with all her brother’s clients she didn’t let her in through the front door but through the gate on the side, down the little alley between their house and the one next door. Past the bins, under the slowly keeling trellis archway into the garden, held up only by the thick, dark ivy that bound it to the fence and the house. This way, she could come directly into the kitchen, instead of walking through the living room, seeing the pile of blankets on the sofa where Sam often slept, the laundry drying on the clothes horse in the corner.

The kitchen was cramped, lived-in. The counters were lined with jars and mugs which didn’t fit into the cupboards. Sam had a little planter on the windowsill, and a few seedlings were emerging from the dark soil, their edges beginning to curl and dry. The woman – Eileen Lightfoot – was sitting at the table, which was slightly too big for the room. It was usually pushed up against the floral wallpaper, used mostly for chopping vegetables for dinner than anything else, but when Sam had clients Kitty would pull it out, cover the old wood with a tablecloth. It was navy cotton, worn soft with age, embroidered with stars in constellations whose stitched-in names were mostly illegible. Some of Sam’s clients would trace them anxiously whilst they waited, but Eileen lightfoot simply sat, holding her bag with both hands and staring down into it.

‘I’m sorry to come so early. My train got in before I expected. Running on schedule, can you imagine.’ Eileen’s voice was straining to sound upbeat but didn’t quite manage it. She looked washed out, the roots of her peroxide hair showing brunette shot through with soft grey. The creased blouse under her pink raincoat looked expensive, but she had done one of the buttons up incorrectly so it sat awkwardly over the turquoise top she had on underneath. Her boots looked expensive, too, and shone with careful polish everywhere except the toes.

Kitty took a sip of her beer. ‘He’ll be down in a minute,’ she said, distinctly hoping that this was true. She glanced at the kettle. ‘Do you, ah, want a cup of tea or something?’

‘No, thank you.’ Eileen straightened and her coat creaked again. ‘A glass of water, perhaps?’

Kitty grabbed a glass from the shelf above the collection of plastic bottles of squash crammed into the corner and filled it with water from the tap. A little sloshed over the lip and soaked into the tablecloth, turning the dark blue into black.

Eileen stared at it. ‘Thank you,’ she said, her voice quiet and thin.

Kitty shrugged and sipped her beer. Kitty usually avoided Sam’s clients entirely, insisting Sam wait downstairs for them to turn up, but Eileen was almost a full hour earlier than she’d said she’d be, and Sam was still in the shower when she knocked on the door.

‘This isn’t what I was expecting,’ said Eileen.

‘You can leave if you like,’ said Kitty.

Eileen pursed her lips. ‘I’ll stay.’

Kitty shrugged again, and went to swig some more of her beer but found the bottle was empty. She chucked it into the recycling bin where it clinked loudly against the others.

The kitchen door creaked.

Sam’s hair was damp from the shower, towelled messy and left uncombed. His cable-knit jumper was too big for him, hanging past is wrists so that only the very tips of his fingers showed. ‘Eileen?’ he said. He sounded, and looked, exhausted. Kitty bit back a suggestion that he just tell Eileen to leave.

Eileen, on the other hand, had stood up the moment Sam walked in and was eying him suspiciously. If their little house was not what she was expecting, Kitty couldn’t imagine what her appraisal of Sam would be. He looked like he might crumble in a strong wind, and from experience, likely would.

‘I’m so glad you’ve come,’ said Sam.

Eileen shifted awkwardly on the spot as Sam stared at her, dropping her gaze to the floor and then sitting back down. Kitty swigged her beer and stopped leaning on the counter.

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she said, forcing Sam to meet her gaze. He nodded once, jaw tight. Kitty slipped past him into the hall and kicked the doorstop aside so it fell almost closed. She hovered a moment, listening to the scrape of chair legs and the gentle sigh Sam made as he sat down. She nodded her head, and put her beer down so she could fold up the laundry.

It was the first part she hated the worst, the stumbling over words as the clients tried to lay their story out to her younger brother. It wasn’t the content that bothered her; she’d heard enough tales of woe and misery and experienced well enough of it herself that whatever yarn the clients spun, it couldn’t shock her. It was the manner of the telling. Always stuttered, truncated, fragmented. Memories eked out piece by jagged edged piece. Sometimes they would cry. She couldn’t stand it when they cried.

When Sam was bad but she couldn’t talk him out of seeing them, she’d lean against the counter with her back to the conversation, staring out of the window over the sink at the dense leaves on the hedge outside, swaying in the constant breeze. He would sit in almost utter silence, leading them only when he had to. Whenever Kitty peered around to look at him, his face was set. He wasn’t emotionless, but he was a blank canvas of sympathy. When the clients finished talking he would take a breath and the story he had been told would colour him, change him, and the words he spoke barely seemed to belong to him at all.

More than the readings themselves, it was Sam’s propensity to listen and become the voice the clients needed in that moment that seemed the most like magic to Kitty. Even when they were children, Sam could manage to see the softness in anyone, no matter how reprehensible or selfish they were. She had told this to Sam before, and he laughed. He said that empathy was learned, not a gift, like the rest of it. Still, it fascinated Kitty in a peculiar way that meant she could barely stand to witness it. Sometimes he would gently take a client’s hand and speak quietly, leaning close and talking in barely more than a whisper. Sometimes he would smile and bloom and laugh. Sometimes he was indignant; never at them, but with them, for them, in ways they could not allow for themselves.

Kitty was halfway through balling up the socks when she heard a chair scrape again. She paused, listening; if he was standing up she’d march right in and shove him back into the chair herself.

‘I shouldn’t be here,’ said Eileen. Her voice had moved. She was the one on her feet, not Sam.

‘It’s alright,’ he said, gently but firmly. ‘The rolling pin was her grandmother’s; there is too much history there. The plant pot, she painted it for you, and the necklace was a birthday gift you gave her. They are all relational. They are all about how she was with others. It’s too muddy. But there is a pin, on your lapel.’

Kitty heard a sharp intake of breath.

Eileen’s voice was wavering when she spoke again. ‘She bought it for me when she was in Brussels, with school. They went to see the headquarters for the EU, I forget what it’s called.’

‘She thought it was beautiful and she wanted it for herself, but she felt guilty; you’d given her so much pocket money and she’d spent it all on herself. So she gave it to you when she came home.’

A tiny, broken sob. ‘I didn’t know that.’

‘Please sit down. That will be enough for me to work with,’ said Sam.