The theme was moving away or moving on. I thought about it for a while and eventually came up with this. Once I had the plot sorted out, the whole thing wrote itself. All the words came quickly and easily, falling out of the tips of my fingers as fast as I could type them. Isn't it strange how sometimes the act of writing is slow and painful like last session's piece was, and sometimes it just flows easily? And yet I don't detect any real difference in what, for want of a better word, I suppose I can call the quality of the work. Whatever that might mean...
Originally I called my protagonists Alice and Agatha but when I presented the story to the class, everyone said that the names were too similar and they got confused. So I changed Alice to Betty.
Betty Cartwright and Agatha Small were having a cup of tea before they started their working days. They were best friends and business rivals, and they had been for more than forty years, ever since their schooldays. That was when they had first started holding séances, each trying to outdo the other with the quality and quantity of their ghosts. Betty was a cuddly lady of traditionally comfortable build, and Agatha, who was quite petite as befitted her surname, had always teased her about her size.
"Betty," she would say, "you aren't a medium, you're a large!"
"Ha, ha," Betty would always reply. "And you aren't a medium, you're a small! And that must mean I'm better than you!"
The old, familiar jokes never failed to make them laugh.
"Have you got much on today?" Agatha asked Betty.
"Just one session after lunch," said Betty. "But it should be a good one. The clients are all filthy rich and very keen to get in contact with their father who passed away six months ago. I expect to make quite a profit on this one. What about you?
Agatha sipped her tea. "I've got one this afternoon as well," she said. "But it's just routine. Some lady who can't bear to let go of her husband even though he's been dead for a decade. I think she wants to tell him about the new wallpaper she's chosen for the dining room."
Betty dunked a chocolate biscuit in her tea and then took a big bite. "Have fun," she said through a gooey mouthful of soggy crumbs.
Once Agatha had gone, Betty double checked that everything was ready for the séance. The gossamer thin, but immensely strong nylon cables were firmly attached to the bells that hung hidden behind the curtains. The cables were impossible to see in the dim light of the room, but they all passed within easy reach of her mouth as she sat at the head of the table so even when her hands were holding the hands of the people sitting next to her, she would still be able to make the bells ring whenever the spirits of the departed required it.
She checked the sliders beneath the table. By moving them judiciously with her knees she could easily make the table tilt this way and that under the influence of occult forces. She sat in her chair and made sure that the camouflaged cable that ran down the back of it and off into the shadows would make the gong sound when she pulled it. Once she had shown everybody into the room she would sit in her own chair and attach the cable to the back of her dress before the séance started. Then, whenever she was ready, a slight adjustment of her sitting position would make the gong announce the arrival of a new spirit.
Finally she checked the cheesecloth that filled her bra to overflowing. At suitably dramatic intervals she would make it manifest as ectoplasm. That always impressed the punters, particularly since she'd started touching it up with luminous paint.
Everything seemed to be in order. She decided to have a meat pie for lunch. With chips. And then it would be time go get the show on the road...
Betty showed her clients in and sat them all down around the table. She took her own seat and surreptitiously attached the gong cable to her dress. "Now," she instructed, "everyone hold hands with the person next to you." She waited for a moment, grasping the clammy hands of the people on each side of her. A spirit bell rang. "Are you there?" asked Betty in a sonorously dramatic voice. She felt a touch of indigestion, but she ignored it. Perhaps the second lunchtime meat pie had been a mistake. The table rocked back and forth to the touch of ghostly fingers and Betty felt the indigestion suddenly flare up into a gigantic throbbing agony in her chest. There were shooting pains stabbing down her left arm, and she let out an involuntary grunt as she jerked forwards. She was vaguely aware of the distant sound of a gong as her body fell. Then her forehead hit the table and she wasn't feeling or hearing anything at all any more...
Betty found herself looking down from somewhere near the ceiling. Clearly not much time had passed. Her body was still slumped over the table and her rapidly cooling hands were still being firmly grasped by the people sitting beside her. "Is everything all right?" one of them asked. He sounded worried.
"It's all part of the show," said the other one confidently. "She'll start using the voice of her spirit guide any minute now, you mark my words."
Nobody noticed Betty floating up near the ceiling. She wondered what they would do when they finally realised that they were holding hands with a corpse. But she didn't really think it was her concern any more. She'd left all that mundane stuff behind. Gosh, she thought, Agatha would love to know about this.
No sooner had she thought about Agatha than she found herself floating down the road to Agatha's house. She drifted down through the roof and into Agatha's séance session. A multitude of ghosts manifested themselves here and there around the room. Every so often one would ring a bell or bang a tambourine in a fit of enthusiasm. Betty was jealous she'd never been able to make tambourines work properly.
A dowdy middle-aged lady sat at the table talking to a crumpled, miserable looking ghost. "...and the red roses in the wallpaper really go well with the french polishing on the sideboard..." the woman was saying.
"Yes dear," said the ghost, looking as if he wanted to kill himself and clearly feeling somewhat annoyed at the ironic impossibility of doing it. "No, dear," he mumbled. He listened to the lady rabbit on a bit more then he said, "Whatever the right answer is dear." That was when Betty realised that the woman couldn't actually see him. She was just taking his presence on trust because she believed in Agatha's spiritual powers.
Agatha looked up as Betty floated down through the ceiling. "Hello Betty," she said. "Looks like the pies and chocolate have finally caught up with you. I did warn you, you know."
Betty looked around the room at all the hurrying, scurrying ghosts. "Goodness me, Agatha," she said in surprise. "You aren't actually a small are you? You really are a proper medium!" A ghost banged a triumphant gong in agreement.
"That's right," said Agatha smugly. "And I always have been. I really admire your mechanical tricks and sleight of hand, but truly, nothing beats the real thing!"