There used to be a shop down our town when I was young. It was a crystal shop. As you walked in, a bell tinkled and various dreamcatchers and hanging chimes hit the glass door. It smelt of Sandalwood incense and I always wrinkled my nose up in surprise; but loved it. Big glass windows allowed sunlight to stream in, catching hundreds of different kinds of crystals and dispersing the light to cast beautiful rainbows all across the walls. Well, I thought this shop to be the most marvellous thing my little self had ever seen. Whenever washing the kitchen floor for my Mum gained me a 50p or two, I used to race down the hill from my house and press my nose up against the glass of the crystal shop. I only had 50p, but I must have spent about two hours in that shop deciding what to spend it on. I loved the names of the crystals: Lab-rad-or-ite, Ob-sid-ian, Amy-thyst. I used to pronounce the names slowly, curling my tongue around the longer ones, before asking the shop assistant exactly where they came from, how rare they were, and what healing properties they were supposed to have.
"Dreams rather a lot in class" was always written on my school report, but as I got older I seemed to look more for the magic in life, not less. I have always been a big thinker, asking never ending questions like, Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What happens when we die? But neither my parents, my teachers, nor the Anglican church had any answers.
By the time I was sixteen, I was offered a part-time Saturday job in my crystal shop. I had become such a part of the furniture, I think they must have thought I deserved to get paid for it.
Every Saturday, I met weird and wonderful people.
A large blond lady called Chrissie was in every three weeks, with booked appointments jammed one after the other. Chrissie was a palm reader, and apparently a psychic. I was scared of her. She wore black T-Shirts with grey wolves etched on the front, had large silver rings on her fingers and dark eye make-up. She had a strong presence when she walked in the room, and spoke rarely and to the point - always.
Then there was David; the most incredible artist who sketched local landmarks with precise detail. His skin was grey and he smelt of gin. He would often come into the shop mid-morning half-drunk, and not leave until two O'clock - pleased to have people to talk to. I often worried about David.
Angela was the shop manager. She was obsessed with angels, crystals and energies. Her hair was mousy coloured with wild curls, and whenever she laughed, she threw her head back and popped her gold rimmed glasses back to the top of her nose.
But my favourite was Lesley. She was from Hull, called everyone a "Staaaar" (having never met a real Northerner - being from the most sheltered town in Britain - I thought her accent was something to behold). Aside from being one of the best psychic mediums in our area, Les smoked Richmond Menthol cigarettes, which sometimes made her hands shake. She always wore low-cut tops and used those big eyes to stare pointedly at you with openness when she spoke.
"You've got a back problem." She said casually, on one of my first Saturdays at the shop.
"Oh?" I replied. My eyebrow raised half a millimetre.
"Yes. I feel it's your lower back, and you'll have an operation - but don't worry - you'll be fine."
I stared at her, and exhaled (I hadn't realised I'd been holding my breath). That week, unbeknownst to anyone but my Mum, I had been given a date for spinal surgery. I was diagnosed with Scoliosis at thirteen, and had been waiting three years for my curved spine to be straightened out with a metal rod and pins in surgery. It was a serious procedure involving possibly paralysis, and I was very nervous, so had told not a soul. How could this woman know about it? No one except my Mum knew I was to have the operation, and she'd never met my Mum, so how did she know?
I was completely and utterly stumped. Needing to know more, I tucked myself away in my favourite corner of the public library and read as much as I could find amongst the shelves. There seemed to me to be a magic about what Lesley had said to me, something seemingly impossible. I needed to work it out, and I wanted to believe it could be real.
When the words Psychic, Medium, Spiritualist pop up occasionally in everyday life, I bet you think of TV's 'Psychic Sally' Morgan, or Derek Acorah (formally seen on ITV3's Most Haunted). You'll possibly be imagining gypsies with purple painted nails, sitting tight in tiny box rooms. Their walls filled with signed pictures of B-list celebrities vouching for their talents all along Blackpool promenade. You've probably seen the adverts filling the back pages of magazines; those poised, black-haired women with enhanced green eyes, smouldering in front of a moonlit backdrop alluring you to 'find the answers to all your questions!!' for £3.50 per minute, this fact which is written in tiny font at the bottom.
Not my scene, you're probably thinking.
Really, that's not my scene either.
I would call myself an open-minded skeptic. One of the biggest critics of this kind of 'psychic' you'll ever meet. But skepticism aside, I am mediumistic too.
This came as a shock at first. Believe you, me.
I was on one of my missions to find out more about this psychic phenomena, and so I'd taken two buses and walked ten minutes through the dodgiest looking streets I'd ever seen, arriving at a Spiritualist centre in Manchester to attend what they'd described as an 'Awareness Group' on the website. I peeked in, thinking if it was full of complete weirdos, I could still turn around and run away.
But I was spotted, and before I could run, I was offered a cup of tea. Well, it couldn't be all bad if there's tea.
I was paired up with with a local taxi-driver called John. He was normal looking (much to my relief), had friendly, twinkly eyes and a rather dirty laugh which couldn't help but make you smile.
The teacher said softly to the group: "I want you to clear your mind and focus on your partner. When you feel ready, I want you to tell them anything which might pop into your mind."
"Don't worry, love, just do your best." John winked at me.
Great. And I actually chose to come here and do this?
I squeezed my eyes closed, and took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. All I could think of, was what I was cooking for tea when I got home after this horrifying ordeal. An image of a steaming dish of pasta bake flew into my head.
"Pasta bake?" I asked, hopefully.
Then as my half hearted attempt fizzled out and faded, I suddenly saw very strong image of a fire-engine. The red was vivid, and unlike my pasta bake, the image shot across my mind barely quick enough to keep it there.
" - Fire-engine." I piped up.
John leaned forward.
"Yes." He said slowly. "Keep going."
I saw a blue front door - this too flashed across my mind, and almost went again before I really saw it. I saw clearly the number 63 in bronze numbering boldly between my imaginary blue door's panels.
No way. That's too specific. If this means something to John, I might actually wet my pants.
But it did mean something to John. (No, I didn't wet my pants, but very nearly...) John's grandfather had lived in a house which had a blue front door. Yep, you guessed it - it was number 63. But the icing on the cake (not, perhaps, for his grandfather) was that he had been killed by a speeding fire engine.
Completely creeped out, I left the Spiritualist centre that night vowing to myself that I would never, ever go back.
But of course, I did.
I went every week for five years to that Spiritualist centre, looking for the confirmation and proof that mediumship - the ability to prove that the spirit of someone lives on after their body has died - is real. And whilst I have practised and demonstrated my own natural abilities, getting more and more accurate with the pictures I see and the evidence I can give, I still find it incredibly hard to understand where the information comes from, and how I receive it.
The showmanship and fakery of many psychics and mediums is all too easy to see. The dreadful stereotype is stuck fast, and in some cases, is still true. In writing my most personal post yet, I'm hoping you will not write me off as a crackpot - or imagine me sitting here with long, painted purple nails - but realise that I'm really quite a normal twenty-five year old. I'm just looking for answers with an open-minded skepticism.