Just a Moment Away
“And even when they leave this earthly realm, our loved ones are just a moment, a heartbeat away.”
Jennifer Bayel (Medium, 1875-?)
He was here again; taking my husband away from his godly pursuits. I can never hear his name without shuddering, that man Signor Antonio Bazzini; mountebank, con artist, and purveyor of the dark arts; he purveys wickedness like a grocer selling rotten fruit, and has poisoned my husband and destroyed our family with his wares.
And to my shame I introduced them. As we so often did, Rachel and I went to Leeds’s newest park at Roundhay; it is so peaceful there and it got us out of the vicarage, with its gloom and darkness. Rachel loved the park, running about amidst the trees and then going to walk by the lake, calling to the ducks and splashing her tiny hands in the water. That Spring afternoon, it was cold and clear and we were sitting together on the bench, watching the people of Leeds getting their exercise, Rachel next to me, sitting quietly seemingly as absorbed with her surroundings as I was. There was a tall man close to us, he was immaculately dressed and coiffured with a bushy beard and moustaches, there was an air about him of someone who was foreign, and I surreptitiously watched him as he strode about looking alien and lost.
And then suddenly my daughter was gone. She is two and moves at such speed and I am so slow in comparison. At first I did not panic although I felt my fears rise up inside, threatening to overwhelm me.
“Rachel” I called, and again more loudly. But there was no reply, and all around me were so many people so that I could not see clearly, there were children darting about, any one of whom could have been Rachel. Some passers-by looked at me curiously; a respectable looking woman obviously deeply distressed, but even so they hurried past, not wishing to be involved. I had heard my husband only last week preach on the Good Samaritan and these were the Levites and priests who passed by on the other side.
There were so many trees which a child could hide behind, and there is the lake so vast and inviting, my heart went cold. And then my unlikely Samaritan appeared, the tall man who I had been observing, was at my side, speaking with a strong accent.
“Ah Signora, you have lost something?” His eyes were concerned and full of pity.
“My daughter, she has run off. The park is so big.” I waved my hands helplessly. He took charge and spoke to other men and soon those people who had ignored my tears, were fanning outwards whilst I sat in the centre of them on the bench with my reticule besides me, waiting, for a moment I was outside my body looking downwards at the people below like an expanding wheel. And then there was a commotion and she burst through the searchers, her skin so pale and with water dripping from her locks.
“Mama,” she cried and then she fell into my arms. I must have swooned for a moment, and then the Signore was standing over me, telling me not to cry.
I invited Signore Bazzini back with me, to meet my husband. I am sure he would give him a reward. Even as we walked I wondered who this man was who had so effortlessly taken charge. Dressed smartly but with an air poverty and certainly not from Leeds or even England. I later discovered that he was from Naples and had lived in England three years, although it was my husband who found out all this and passed it on. To my surprise they got on well. Rev. Timothy Newby, scholarly, apparently beset by doubts took up this showy Italian and became his friend.
They used to talk endlessly, and when he was not there Newby would talk incessantly about this “fascinating Italian”, although why he was fascinating I could not understand, it was as if Bazzini was the only thing he could bear to talk about. I just lay upstairs thinking of Rachel and that afternoon in the park, my thoughts occasionally interrupted by the sound of voices from the study; either my husband with his dull, flat Midlands accent or more often the Italian with his seductive tones.
In the past my husband would spend much of his time writing his sermons or reading learned books whilst I did my best to run a household and entertain a daughter. We had a maid Miriam, but she was young, just a girl herself and inexperienced, and so little help. Even when we had guests Newby would often appear distracted, thinking of higher things. What these higher things were I was not told; after all I was only a woman. But now his time was spent with Bazzini and I saw him even less frequently than previously, at a time when I needed him most.
My husband still drew, something he had always loved. He had a good hand and when we first came to Leeds he would often go out and about with his sketch pad, drawing the city and its populace. But now he tended to stay indoors and it was Rachel that he drew, endlessly and obsessively, capturing her dark eyes with their hint of mischief that was never entirely absent and those dear limbs.
One evening Bazzini arrived with two other guests both dressed in black; an older man with shockingly blonde hair who smelt of scent and who was assiduously polite to me as I showed him into my husband’s study and young woman with long red hair who seemed to be muttering to herself as she walked in. Newby was clearly expecting them, and as I glimpsed into his study I could see four chairs arranged in a circle, with a small table he had taken from the sitting room, in the middle of them.
All that evening there was muttering and then a rapid banging, and a distinct and unpleasant smell made its way through the house, a smell of damp and death. Miriam the maid came to see me.
“Mistress, what is the matter. There is a strange smell coming from the reverend’s study.”
I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could, despite being as fearful as Miriam, “he has some friends over. Perhaps they are doing some scientific experiments. Please do not worry, your master’s interests are varied.”
Miriam hurried downstairs looking worried; I wondered what she would say to her family and friends about the strange vicar and his experiments.
After his guest had gone I went to speak to my husband. I found him in his study, sitting at his desk, head in his hands. He looked up wearily when I walked in. The shelves were full of books, new ones brought in almost daily, something of a source of conflict between my husband and I as we were hardly rich. He was only in his mid-thirties, but he looked older. When I first met him, he was a curate for my father over in Leicester, and I had liked the fact that he seemed more mature than the other people who tried to court me, but now he looked like an old man, weary and grey.
“What is wrong Timothy?” I asked him.
“Oh Edith. Don’t you see. I just cannot cope.” He opened his hands in helplessness.
“But you have your church and the poor. And you have your daughter and me.”
He said nothing, just looked at me with the deepest misery in his eyes. Were we not enough for him?
“I have got a few things to see to. I will see you upstairs,” he said after a few moments.
But he did not come back up, well not until I was asleep.
Every Monday and Thursday evening the same guests arrived; Bazzini, the blonde man and the young woman who I heard referred to as Jenny. Then there would be the slow muttering, sometimes getting louder and then banging, hand upon wood and the smell which would slowly take over the house, and would not fade away for a couple of days no matter how much cleaning Miriam and I did afterwards.
In church; preaching from the pulpit of St. Brigid’s Newby would look almost contemptuously down upon his congregants, as if he would rather be elsewhere, whilst at other times he seemed lost, and intensely unhappy. I heard a lady behind me ask her husband why the vicar did not go away for a few days, which showed that even the congregation were noticing his discomfort. It became so that I could not bear to see him like that and made an excuse not to attend church. Perhaps too my faith was fading, something that I had had since I was a little girl was slowly disappearing.
And now he is gone and I do not know where he is. I had almost become used to the meetings, they were part of our daily life now, and even the strangest things can become normal after awhile. This evening Miriam had answered the door to the three visitors and seen them into my husband’s study, and then there were the usual noises and that same smell. Two hours later I heard them go, quietly and respectfully, a faint smell of tobacco drifted up from outside, and the murmur of voices sounding sad and respectful going down the street.
Often my husband stayed in his study after these meetings so I was not particularly surprised that I did not see him for the rest of the evening, but around midnight I went to see how he was. The study seemed dark, and at first I thought I could see him in one corner looking at a book, but it must have been a shadow. The chairs were still in a circle around that table which had been overturned and one of whose legs was broken. The smell was overwhelming here, and I put a handkerchief to my mouth. But although I was observing all this the most overwhelming impression was that the study was empty and my husband no longer there.
I doubt you can imagine my anguish over the next few days, when my husband the Rev. Timothy Newby failed to return. At first I did not tell anybody hoping that he would come back and that our life would resume to how it had been before I met Bazzini. But I could not keep up the pretence for long and so I sent a telegram to my brother who is also a clergyman, with a church over in Bradford and he came over to stay and try to put things in order. Paul, my young brother who I was so used to patronising and telling what to do, looked after me and sorted out everything. He also started the search; a first discretely and then when that failed to yield results he put notices in the newspapers and telegraphed various people that he knew.
“We have found Bazzini” he told me about a month after my husband’s disappearance. I was still in the vicarage, but knew that I would not be for much longer.
“Take me to him.” I told Paul, and we took a hansom cab to Cookridge, an affluent part of Leeds, which surprised me as I expected Bazzini to live somewhere poverty stricken. We pulled up outside a pleasant looking house and were welcomed in by a maid and led to a small room, almost a vestibule from where we could hear the sound of a piano playing. Eventually it stopped and Mr Bazzini walked in, saw me and bowed.
To my astonishment Paul addressed him in fluent Italian, my brother never fails to surprise me with his versatility and talents. Bazzini was clearly a genuine Italian, as he responded to my brother in the same language and spoke for quite a while before Bazzini turning to me and speaking in his usual accented English.
“I am shocked that your husband has gone” he told me. “He was interested in our little experiments, excited by them.”
“But that last evening. Did he leave with you?”
“No. He seemed rather restless I remember, and we finished rather earlier than usual. But we left him as usual”. He looked at me apologetically and with sympathy, an overwhelming sympathy that I did not want to understand.
“And Jenny, was she his mistress?” I had worried over this; my husband did not seem the type to have a woman tucked away somewhere, but it would be an explanation.
“No Jenny is a medium; a channel for spirits. We sat in a circle and talked to the dead. There was nothing untoward between your husband and Jenny.”
“Have you no idea where the Reverend Newby is?” asked my brother angrily.
Bazzini shrugged with a helpless charm. “I have no idea, truly my lady. If I knew I would lead you to him.”
And that was it. My brother spoke to Jenny, and her guardian, a Mr Smythe that same day, but there was nothing more to be discovered, and nobody knew where my husband had gone. He has disappeared and left me bereft.
There was a spirit that called to him. That first time I was in his study with that Italian fraudster and my guardian on either side and I felt this being tear itself out of me. A young girl I think it was, but when the spirit takes over I lose consciousness and afterwards I only have a feeling of what has taken place, an overwhelming emotion; with Newby and his daemon it was longing. When the spirit had gone and I came to myself I just saw their solemn faces; Newby, my guardian and even the Italian Signore all looking serious, and there was tears in Newby’s eyes, although I do not think that he even realised that they were there.
I have had the gift since a young girl of six. One night I was lying under my blankets almost asleep and then I saw a young boy crying on the end of my bed.
“I am so hungry” he wailed. I was not scared, but I did feel sorry for him and so hurriedly got up and went downstairs to get some bread, being quiet so that my parents would not hear me, but when I got back to my room he had gone, there was just a smell which had disappeared by the morning. I did not know what the smell was then but now I know that it was the smell of poverty which I have often come across when walking through the poorest streets of Leeds and hearing the cry of children begging for food.
I asked my mother where the little boy had come from.
“What little boy?”
I told her about him and how I brought him food but that he was gone. She slapped my face hard.
“How dare you lie?” she asked me, and then pulled my hair and slapped me again. “Don’t ever speak of this again.”
But then a few months later she took me to a spiritualist meeting and whilst we held hands in the silence I could see spirits flying about; some ephemeral and others solid as if they were living, breathing beings, and ever afterwards I could not always tell the dead from the living.
My mother died, I do not think that she was ever very happy and my father, owner of Bayel’s Butcher’s, swiftly married a more suitable wife and I left home to escape my loathsome stepmother. I worked in a milliner shop for awhile but I became in demand as a medium and at a seance I met Mr Smythe, he looked unworldly like an angel with his blonde hair and his pale skin and there were spirits around him, beautiful and sparkling. He took me under his wing and looked after me; he has given me rooms near to where he and his almost-wife live and he looks after me and yet does not take liberties with my person. Perhaps he exploits me, but far less than the rich Leeds businessmen and mill owners do to their workers, and I am never hungry and rarely cold.
I met Bazzini through music; he taught me the piano once a week in the rooms he rents in nearby Cookridge. Once I had money coming in I could afford to learn the instrument, music being my one true love. Bazzini always had this air of sophistication with his smart clothes and that lovely scent, although I am sure he was not rich, and he was always friendly although a little too free with his hands. He knew of what I did and being a questing sort of person asked me about it, mentally jotting down notes in case one day it would be useful for him, information to sell. And so it proved, one afternoon after our lesson he spoke to me about a vicar who wanted a medium. I had sat with all sorts; scientists, writers, housewives and men of the cloth, so it was not unusual. So long as they believe, or want to believe, that is what matters.
The house was dark and everything in it draped in black. I saw his wife pale and tired looking down on us from the staircase, and I could not talk to her as her sorrow was so strong. Reverend Newby also looked careworn but he was gentle with me. Moths seemed to be flying down from the books as I sat down with my guardian on one side and Bazzini on the other, whilst Newby sat opposite me, looking directly into my eyes as if desperately seeking for something. And then the spirit tore itself from me and I knew no more.
Each time was the same, and I would always come to myself exhausted and feel as if I had been violently shaken. I have known powerful spirits before, ones that had left me bruised and aching for days afterwards, whose voices echoed in my head. But this girl was more determined than them all; at times when sitting in my rooms alone, lying on the divan wearing a robe I would start to drift off and in this semi-conscious state would feel her trying to breakthrough, as if she were barely dead, or could not countenance where she was, was demanding to be released.
And one afternoon Newby came to my home. I had just got back from a séance with the Doyles and was exhausted. I let him in without thinking and he sat opposite me. He looked tired and ill.
“You need food” I told him, and we ate some chicken I had in my pantry. He talked as we ate, mostly about his daughter.
“Do you not feel her spirit?” he asked.
“I have many clients” I temporized and gnawed on a chicken leg.
“But she is there all the time.”
I felt sorry for him, and after we had eaten and I had put the plates away I darkened the room and we sat opposite each other holding hands. In the vicarage it was always my guardian’s and Bazzini’s whose hands I held; the latter’s always surprisingly cold. Newby’s felt dry; the hands of a scholar as if there were no blood and living flesh under his skin.
At first I could feel nothing, we sat in silence, just faint cries from one of my neighbours, and breathing from Newby getting slowly faster. And then the cries got louder and louder, and I realised that they were coming from inside of me, and then something burst out of my body, and I was cast aside just a human shell too weak to hold the spirit within me.
He was holding me and there was moisture on my face. He sprinkled water on my forehead and said my name “Jenny, Jenny,” as if he were my lover.
“I am well” Mr Newby I told him, forgetting his title, “please leave me and let me rest.” After much persuasion he departed and I lay on my divan feeling as if I was not completely back together, still torn apart. And I could still hear the spirit’s voice; “father, father I love you, don’t let me die.”
I only came back to the vicarage one more time and after that final session Newby disappeared and I have not seen him since. His brother-in-law, a fine looking young man came to me and asked me questions but I do not betray my clients nor the spirits that seek to reach out to them. But she is still out there, crying in the dark and wet, begging for release.
Every day I sit by the seafront and paint. I don’t know why I headed straight to Scarborough that evening when I left the vicarage, it is true that I have always felt attracted to the sea; the endlessness of it, the feeling of no borders or fences, and perhaps that is what drew me away from Leeds to this rather lovely seaside town. In church I always felt contained, by the building, by the congregation with their Victorian morality, as doomed and bleak as our aged queen.
I mostly paint the sea or the castle, but sometimes I paint portraits of the holidaymakers or the inhabitants of this town as they go about their daily business. I have begun to make friends, and my day is pleasurably interrupted by various local people talking to me and admiring my work. And when I want a change I travel round to neighbouring villages and towns, painting inn signs and doing any other jobs that I can find.
I love Yorkshire; its wildness, the strength of its people. I have never been happier than when walking the country lanes and talking with the locals; eating bread and cheese and supping on strong ale. Sometimes I feel Rachel by my side, not as she was when Bazzini brought her home to me, drowned and lifeless, but when she was lively and came into my study and pestered me to stop working and talk with her, never stopping until I put down by pen and gave her my full attention.
I walked out that night. I needed to escape from everything; if Edith had admitted that our daughter was dead it might have helped, but she could not say it, if she had she would have had to blame herself. My God had also deserted me; I prayed but there was nothing, just emptiness in the heavens; I opened up my heart to God, the one time that I had really needed a message, some hope, I was given nothing. Only Jenny that spiritualist could help, but what could I do for my dead daughter? I could not bring her back to life, and that is all she wanted, or for me to join her. She cried out to me through Jenny’s body; crying, scared just wanting me, not understanding why I could not come to her.
It is October now and the days are getting colder, I will move inland soon where the air is warmer and find something else to do. I have been here for six months, perhaps more, but I cannot tear myself away from Scarborough and its people where I have found sanctuary. When I die I want my body to be buried high up on the hills that look out to sea, that dark grey sea which drifts out to who knows where.
And then this morning Edith appears, alone. She looks smaller than I remember her, and she is in black.
“I have been looking for you” she tells me, “for months and months. How could you leave me solitary?”
“I am sorry, my love.”
“You must have known that I needed you, that I could not cope on my own. I am your wife.”
She sits with me as I sketch the seafront, occasionally looking at what I am creating. We sit in silence for possibly hours, she occasionally shivers as the cold wind blows in from the sea; it is strange to be so close to her again, after becoming so separate. I had been a coward; unable to face the immensity of this woman’s grief and my own as well.
“I knew she was dead” she tells me, “really, but it was my fault and I could not bear it. I was talking to that Italian, flirting with him, just harmless, nothing serious, too busy to notice that she was gone. He had such charm, you felt it as well, it was not his fault and he did try and save her. And then when he pulled her out of the reeds, wet and still looking as if she was alive, I am sure she called for me.”
“I know, I know.”
“She come to me at night; does not say anything. But her eyes, they are so dark. I don’t remember her eyes being so dark. That was my daughter and I thought I would do anything for her, but I let her die because I was so careless, and for a moment I was fascinated by a handsome stranger.”
I squeeze her hand tight, and feel that flesh that for so long had been almost as familiar as my own, but now seemed alien and cold.
I carry on with painting knowing that we will live together again and try to rebuild our lives. We are flawed human beings who have hurt each other, but what of that? This onward march of progress will drag us all along and help create wonders but it cannot bring back the dead or change the past. In the end we are left to deal with sorrow ourselves, making best use of what we can find and what we have learned, so that we can persevere and live.
I see my parents walking away together, arm in arm, leaving me here. I lie upon the cliffs watching them go, and slowly I start to fade; dispersing into the air and then blown by a strong wind from the sea I am blown inland like fine ash, and am dispersed on hill and moor until all consciousness is gone.