Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Finger Nails

So, have you pondered the question? Remember?

Magicians, clairvoyants, hypnotists, palm readers, tea-leaf readers, astrologists, taro-card readers, Nostradamuses extraordinaires. Who are these people?

As I told you, I have, at various times, been all of these people. I have portrayed them all on the boards, and on television and movie screens. These purveyors of the paranormal have always held a deep fascination for me, and this can be traced back to Gypsy Rose-Lee Thora Higginbottom.

I was well into my second summer season with her when she finally wheedled out of me the secret of the deckchair scam and how I always managed to buy her lunch.

Toddie, my affectionately named hip flask, was the first thing to be drawn into the light of day. On one particular morning she caught me at lunchtime across the road at Yates Wine Bar restocking Toddie.

I was marched with my ear firmly gripped in her sinewy right hand back to the booth. I was then securely tied to a chair and Toddie was placed on the table between us and served as her crystal ball. A thirty-minute lecture on the dangers of alcohol followed. At that tender stage in my life I had never heard of the Spanish Inquisition, but by two o’clock that afternoon I was sure I’d met its mother.

Rose-Lee delivered her final gut-wrenching blow well below the belt (she definitely had no knowledge of the Queensberry Rules for a fair fight). It came swiftly. Throughout the interrogation she gently stroked Toddie, now acting as her crystal ball. I tried every devious ploy I could muster to evade and circumnavigate her prying questions, and was amazed at her inexplicable knack of conjuring up the correct answers without my ever opening my mouth. Yes, from that moment I was a firm believer in both the Spanish Inquisition and the power of clairvoyants. Her final blow came as she untied my hands from behind the chair, lightly patted me on the head, and swallowed the last contents of Toddie.

“Now, ya goin’ to be a good lad from now on, aren’t ya?” she whispered into my ear as the smell of alcohol wafted up my nose. She belched loudly and handed empty Toddie back to me. Savouring the taste, she said, “Not bad for thruppence ha’penny.”

“Thruppence three farthing! I said. “I have to slip Big George, the barman, an extra farthing ’cause he knows I’m under age.”

“Does he now? Cheeky sod! I’ll give ’im a mouthful for ya when I’m over there later, Cess!”

I thought about asking her if I could come with her but I held my tongue; I was still holding back the tears that were about to start tickling down my sallow cheeks. I had grassed on my mates and “The W.S.D.C. Incorporated” was no longer a going concern.

“Right! Let’s get down to work. Whatcha know about palms, lad?”

“Nowt,” I replied.

“Right, then. Give us ya hands, lad. Both of ’em.”

And so began my learning curve.

“There’s nowt to it, Cess. It’s not palm reading and crystal-ball gazing I do, lad. It’s people reading. I sniff ’em out from t’ first moment I see a mark on t’ pier!”

“A mark?” I asked.

“Ay, that’s anyone I spot who I knows is goin’ to be a punter or a sucker. What are they wearing? What do their hands look like? How’s they walking? If it’s a couple, are they holding ’ands? Are they wearing wedding rings? ’As she got a black eye? Do t’ kids look ’appy? Them’s all t’ type of questions I be asking myself, even before they put one foot in here. And I’ve told you before, stop biting y’ ruddy nails! Y’ll be needing ‘em! Go on! Sit on y’ h’ands!”

Still in a state of shock, I quickly complied and pretended to listen, and offered what I thought was the right response, “And what answers do you get?”

“All sorts, lad. It depends on what ya see. Ya see, ’ands can tell you a lot just by looking at ‘em from a distance. If they’re big and lumpy and the man’s got big broad shoulders and ya know it’s an Oldham holiday, ya can bet y’ bottom dollar he’s a miner. Get ’im in here and y’ can see all the coal soot still packed under ’is nails. Ya got to keep y’ eyes, y’ ears and y’ nose open all the time. It’s all common sense, lad. Use ya nouse! And I’m not going to tell ya again! Get them ‘ands under y’ bum!”

Now totally confused, I put my left hand, that had found its way to my mouth, back under my backside.

“Right, she said, “Is ya listening?”

“To what?” I asked.

“To t’ noise I’m making!” she said sitting perfectly still and not moving a muscle.

“What noise? I can’t hear a thing.”

“That’s ‘cause ya not concentrating! Listen!”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t hear a thing, apart from the racket going on outside.”

“Don’t get cheeky with me, lad!”

I attempted to say that I wasn’t being cheeky. I genuinely could not hear any noise she was making, but before I had the chance to be either cheeky, or try and convince her that I was telling the truth, she gave a huge gasp of exasperation, burped and continued.

“All right, let’s get back to using y’ eyes. We’ll do y’ ears later! Get ya Mam to clean ’em out!”

By the end of my third week of training I was able to spot a white-collar worker from a blue-collar worker, a typist from a telephonist, a manual labourer from a desk-bound city slicker. And I did all this by watching and concentrating on their hands, their body language and their clothes.

The fourth week I had to study dialects and accents. This I really enjoyed, and I practised on my own, switching from Lancashire to Yorkshire to Cockney, then to Irish. Then it was back to the West Country for half an hour, then back to Birmingham and the Midlands. Finally, as the end of the season was drawing to a close, it was my nose that was in training. In no time at all I was able to sniff out disinfectants. Could be a nurse, a lavatory cleaner, a mortician.

“Use y’ head, Cess! Think, think! All the places y’d smell Dettol! Come on, lad! Must be at least twenty!”

Rose-Lee trained me to notice the difference between a cheap and an expensive perfume, and my greatest discovery was that there is a difference in the smell of farts. Mushy peas washed down with a couple of pints of Boddingtons best bitter gives a totally different-flavoured methane eruption from that of cabbage and a glass of dry white wine. And Jerusalem artichokes? Well, they produce gases that any willing wind producer could sell to Adolf Eichmann, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gadaffi!

During the last week of the summer season and the four-week Blackpool Illumination season in September, Rose-Lee had me dressed up in an Indian pageboy’s outfit with matching turban, and I was allowed to sit in on the sessions. On a cue from her I would start swaying and muttering gibberish as the spirits talked to her and her entranced clientele.

Just before the start of my final week she informed me very casually, “Ya now a psychic, lad! You and me, we’re going to talk to each other on the higher planes! Are ya ready, lad?”

Of course I was. My ears were cleaned and finely tuned to the secret click of her fingernails and, my own nails were also long enough to make the noise. This trick of her trade required ears that could hear a pin drop in a hurricane and the concentration of Albert Einstein working on his formula E=mc².

The scam went as follows.

Rose-Lee would ask her client to empty his pockets and put everything on the table around her crystal ball. She would then explain that she and I possessed the ability to communicate telepathically. I was going to be blindfolded so that I could see nothing. She gave the blindfold to the customer so that he could see that it was kosher. Then she would ask the poor sod to touch any object on the table, his own or anything of Rose-Lee’s. The unsuspecting punter would select his chosen item by touching it. Then Rose-Lee, or sometimes the punter, would remove my blindfold, and I would pretend to be in a hypnotic trance and pass my open palm over the top of every item on the table very slowly.

Rose-Lee sat like a statue carved from solid sandstone and neither of us uttered a sound or spoke a word. There was complete silence in the booth while the sounds of the ice-cream trolleys, one-armed bandits and screaming children on the dodgems filled the air outside. Three, four, or sometimes ten minutes later, depending on how the scam was going, as sure as eggs are eggs, I would smile like a sedated Hindu priest and pick up the item the client had selected.

The mark was hooked.

“Y’wanta try it again, chuck?” Rose-Lee would ask the bemused punter. “Except this time y’ll have to grease me palm with a fiver. ’E gets it wrong, you win a tenner! ’E gets it right, I keep the fiver!”

What confounded the really over-eager punter who was keen to lose his well-earned cash was that I could perform the trick with the blindfold still on.

At the end of the Illumination season Gypsy Rose-Lee-Thora Higginbottom gave me four hundred pounds for being the best telepathic psychic she’d ever worked with, and I never bit my fingernails again!


Ashleigh said...

Love the dialogue. I can hear them speaking. I love that it's written in the accent.
I played a clairvoyant in Mamet's Edmond. In one of the first scenes he goes and sees her. We gave her an Eastern European accent. This story made me think of that. It was my first acting experience at Wits. I loved it.

Catharina said...

It makes it so real and including when its written in accent.

Great way to earn a big secret and stop biting your nails!