The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
When Christ And His Saints Slept
10.45 am, Wednesday 26th August 1998
Vera breathes deeply and thanks everyone for their life stories. 'Well, as one of the few people attending as a paying participant, I expect I will be approached by somebody trying to con me out of more money. I'll try and attend every session unless someone from the conference approaches me with a reason to leave,' she says, and leaves the gathering for her own room to prepare for the rigours of the day ahead. 'I'm going to rent a bicycle,' she calls over her shoulder.
'I don't think that would suit me,' chuckles Eric.
'May I use your telephone, please, Eric?' asks T.R., and the elderly doctor smiles and nods.
T.R. readies his reporter's notebook and taps out the number the team have been given for Mike Burgin. There is a considerable delay before it is answered, and Burgin sounds flustered. 'What is it?' The sounds of traffic can be heard over the phone.
'Oh, hi there, Mr Burgin - T.R. Warren here. In Oxford.'
'Oh right, hold on a sec - got to pull over.' There is a clatter as Burgin presumably drops the phone, than an interlude of muffled swearing, during which T.R. raises his eyebrows occasionally. Finally: 'Right, sorry about that. Bloody M25! Right, how's it all looking? - you've met up with the others? Read your briefings?'
'We certainly have, and that's what I wanted to speak with you about - apparently you can provide us with journalistic credentials, is that right? Can you get me ID for the Phoenix Sun?'
'The Phoenix Sun? What's that, some sort of New Age mag?' Burgin sounds puzzled.
'Phoenix, Arizona. It's the main newspaper there,' T.R. replies patiently.
'Oh! Right, yes, of course. Erm, right, OK, I think that should be OK. It'll take a... hmm, well, we'll see what we can do, eh? I think Harris was thinking of something more local... well, tell you what, Mr Warren, we'll do what we can, eh? You turn up to the registration at the congress at two and ask for your package, and we'll try and get this Phoenix Sun card there for you. If not, it'll be something just as good, OK?'
The inner sun, T.R. grins to himself as he hands the phone over to Steven.
While Steven is asking Burgin to arrange a University computer account for him, there is a knock on the door. Eric quietly asks Ned if he would mind answering it.
In comes a trolley covered with food: salads, filled baguettes and a heap of fresh fruit. Eric signs for it and indicates that everyone should help themselves. 'I thought that it might be a good idea to turn this into a luncheon gathering,' he explains.
Ned, taking one look at the healthy array of provisions, excuses himself to head into town. Taylor seizes up a couple of apples and also departs.
Belle-Marie, who has been waiting eagerly for Steven to come off the phone, rather nervously asks him if he would mind showing her how to send an email on his new system. 'It's for my... a friend of mine,' she says. 'He's got all manner of connections with the occult and that sort of thing. I was hoping to get him busy on some research for us.'
'Earlier, I asked the hotel if they cold provide us with an Internet connection in this room,' confides Eric, 'but they were unable to help. They are hiring me a computer, though: it should be arriving this afternoon, apparently.'
Steven smiles quickly at Belle-Marie. 'No problem. SITU're setting me up an account at Oxford University Computing Services: I should be able to use it from anywhere on the university network. They've got a nice little fast Ethernet going here.'
'I'll need a bit of help, y'see,' says Belle-Marie. 'Daniel's teaching me about computers, but...' she shrugs.
'When we get up to the Zoology Department, we should be able to log on from there,' says Steven confidently. He pats his trusty portable PC.
In her room, Vera takes out a small black object from a suitcase and places it in her purse. It is a thick plastic bag, which from the way it moves appears to be almost full of sand. A rubber band keeps the sand on one half and the rest of the bag serves as a flexible handle. She tuts to herself, remembering how awkward the laws are in the UK, and checks, under the carpet near the head of the bed, that the commando knife she purchased with great difficulty in London is still there. She reconsiders changing. She has a few skirts that would instantly attract attention, but she does plan to ride a bike into Oxford, after all.
There is a cycle hire shop in Iffley village, called Reg Taylor & Son. Neither Reg nor his son are in evidence this morning, though, just a middle-aged woman reading a copy of the Oxford Mail. She smiles kindly as Vera explains her needs.
'Just visiting for a few days, are you, my love? You'll be with one of the conferences, then, would you? I was reading there's one all to do with astrology and fortune-telling starting today, is that it, love?'
'That's right,' says Vera, as she signs for the sturdy 10-speed machine.
'Only I'm a bit psychic myself, they do say, that's how I knew!' The woman titters.
Vera wheels the bike outside and swings her leg across it. As she is starting to pull away she frowns slightly. Her sharp ears have caught the woman in the shop speaking into the phone. 'Hello? Janice Taylor here. It's about the psychics' congress...'
'Psychic Times? How do you do. T.R. Warren here - Phoenix Sun. I'm here in Oxford doing a story on the ICIP.'
The voice on the end of the phone becomes notably frosty. 'We're no longer involved with the organization of that, Mr Warren.'
'I know that,' says T.R. calmly. He is unconsciously lounging across Eric's chair, one leg hooked over the arm. Eric, who is now the only one left in the room, regards him patiently. 'I heard that you'd withdrawn your funding, and I wondered if you'd care to talk about why.'
A brief pause, during which the mouthpiece at the other end of the phone is covered up. 'I'm afraid that's not something I'm at liberty to speak about, Mr Warren.'
'Can you put me through to someone who is, perhaps, then?' persists T.R. 'Or will any of your people be here at the Congress, and perhaps be prepared to give me an interview?'
'I don't think that will be possible. No-one from here will be attending.'
'OK then... fair enough...' T.R. makes swift notes. 'Can you tell me anything about Jackley, then, or any of the other people involved with the congress?'
'Mr Warren, if you want to find out more about Jackley, I suggest you speak to him personally. As far as the Psychic Times is concerned, we're not interested in what's going on there - that's the beginning and end of it. Thank you for calling.'
T.R. raises his eyebrows again as the phone goes dead. Strange... the man's voice had definitely been tense, and getting tenser as the conversation went on.
Taylor and Belle-Marie arrive at the Department of Zoology at about the same time, one carrying a small purple paper bag from Accessorize, the other a large carrier bag of books from Blackwell's.
Although it is early, there is already a queue building up at the registration desk. Taylor stands back for a moment, inspecting the eager psychics, then launches herself into the crowd.
'Hi!' she says to one bespectacled young man in a shiny grey suit. 'I'm Taylor Anne Parker-Davis, from South Carolina - pleased to make your acquaintance.'
'Oh! How do you do?' He offers his slightly damp hand. 'Martin Keyes. I'm from Southampton.' His voice is rather high-pitched and flat. 'Are you here for the Congress?'
'That's right,' says Taylor agreeably. 'I'm just on a visit to England and I heard about this conference; it sounded fascinating!'
'More than fascinating, dear' puts in a middle-aged woman with permed brown hair and a floral print dress. Her eyes are heavily made up with blue-purple eyeshadow and her voice is deep. 'I'm Isobelle Kingston - very pleased to meet you - may I call you Taylor?' Her hand is much firmer than it looks. 'I hope that we'll all learn a great deal. There are stranger things in the world of the mind, dear, than any of us suspect - don't you agree?'
'Are you... gifted... yourself?' hazards Taylor.
Isobelle nods heavily. 'I have that privilege - a blessing and a curse, to be honest, my dear. Yes, I work as a medium.'
'Really? I've never met a medium before!' Taylor exclaims enthusiastically. 'How does it work?'
Martin Keyes, feeling rather shut out, has turned to look for another victim and his eyes fall on Belle-Marie, who has just received her badge and information pack. 'Hello there - I'm Martin Keyes. Are you psychic?'
Belle-Marie pales slightly, and perhaps unconsciously twists her engagement ring around her finger. 'No, I'm... well, I don't know. That's just a word, isn't it? I've seen things that I couldn't explain, how's that?'
'It's on South Parks Road, opposite where the cycle path from Marston Road comes out - you know, by the School of Pathology!' explains the young student, before whizzing off into the traffic once more.
Vera, hot and sweaty, doesn't even have time to curse him. 'No, you bloody twit, I DON'T KNOW!' she mutters to herself. She is sure that she has now approached this set of traffic lights from all three directions. Pushing her hair back from her face, she sets off once more, her throat already tickling from the smog.
Ned, wiping his mouth, strolls out of Fatty Arbuckle's and starts to amble northwards towards the Science Area, by way of Millie's Cookies. It is a hot day, and he too is perspiring somewhat by the time he reaches the Department of Zoology.
He walks in through the double doors, seeing that the ICIP delegates are queued up against one wall while people who are presumably zoologists come and go alongside them. The Department's receptionist is amusedly watching the harassed Congress registration team.
'I was kind of surprised to see this sort of event here,' says Ned chattily to the receptionist. 'Psychism and other fringe fare doesn't seem the norm, where 'genomes and germs' seem to be the rule, I mean.'
She smiles thinly at him. 'Outside term we have these lecture theatres sitting empty, sir: these days, any sort of income is good income.'
T.R. has lunched in the Eastgate Tavern, on the High Street, and is now also walking northwards towards Zoology. On his way he has to edge past a throng of hearty, red-faced men filling the pavement outside the Examination Schools: it seems there is some sort of farming conference on there this week.
He has arranged a brief interview with Sarah Wilson, the Department's Conferences Scheduler, who was responsible for booking the ICIP into the facility: she is an employee of the Department of Zoology, and hence of the University. She has a small office near the building's back entrance, which is full of flustered juniors running in and out carrying whiteboard marker pens and overhead projection equipment. Sarah herself is a calm woman of around thirty with long, straight brown hair, who smokes constantly. 'Forgive the chaos, Mr Warren. Always like this when a conference kicks off.' Her voice is drawling.
She explains that the ICIP has no connection at all with the University or its curriculum (she is amused at this idea). It is simply hiring rooms and catering facilities.
'Is there no academic involvement at all, then?' asks T.R.
'Not a bit of it. They contacted me, and the Externals woman at Beaufort College - they're providing accommodation for the speakers, and so on, and I think the Master of Beaufort's going to be speaking to them. But none of the departments are involved, and none of the speakers are academics I don't think. Not here, anyway.' Her tone makes it clear that she does not consider Duke, or the Université de Lille, for example, to be serious academic institutions.
'Who's paying for the whole affair, if you don't mind me asking?'
'Jackley himself, as far as I know,' says Wilson, puffing a cloud of smoke across the desk. 'You'd have to ask him, really, though. The cheques came throuhg and they were good, that's all I know.'
'Is he an academic himself - any connection with the university?'
'Oh dear, no. He's a stage magician, basically. Very good at what he does, mind you, but you can hardly see him lecturing on one of the degree courses! Making your essay disappear... that sort of thing. No, not at all.'
T.R. changes tack, trying to regain some ground. 'He's staying at Beaufort College, did you say? Might I be able to take a room there, do you think?'
'You'll have to speak with their Externals woman - Marje Criss, her name is. 278655.'
T.R. makes a note. 'Okay, thanks for your help, I'll do that. Just one other thing - has Mr Jackley made any unusual requests, special preparations or anything? Any special events planned?'
'All pretty standard, really, apart from Friday morning - we've to set up a video link then, between Lecture Theatre B and Lecture Theatre C. So people in each of the two rooms can see what's happening in the other. Some sort of experiment, he said. I think it's all a load of nonsense myself, quite frankly.' She looks T.R. coolly in the eye as though daring him to disagree.
Eric and Steven, who have opted to drive, are last on the scene, thanks to roadworks on Longwall Street. Eric swings the big Rover into the car park underneath the Zoology building.
By the time they have registered, the bulk of the delegates have already gathered in Lecture Theatre B, a big, squarish auditorium. Steven estimates that there must be around four hundred people there: a real assortment, of all ages, genders and apparent walks of life. The excitement and happiness is almost tangible: it is as though this event is giving a certain authenticity to what each participant had perhaps hitherto regarded as a rather solitary vice.
Steven takes an inconspicuous seat on the top row - the two entrances to the room are at either end of the back of the hall, at the level of the top row - and opens his computer.
Vera is in the third row, among the keenest delegates, still sweaty, her T-shirt sticking to her. She opens up her bag, and her neighbours are surprised to see that among the pens and pencils is a small pair of velvet-lined handcuffs.
There is a ripple of applause as the door at the back of the stage opens, and two men come through. One, young, with blond hair, moves straight to the lectern and turns on the overhead projector, arranging coloured pens neatly by it. The other, a middle-aged man who is completely bald, wearing a velvet smoking-jacket and a spotted bow tie, stands next to the podium, hands clasped in front of him, smiling, milking the applause. When his assistant has finished he steps up to the lectern, and seizes it in both hands, leaning forward. 'Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Bernard Jackley.' His voice is extremely smooth and soothing, but with deep tones in it, and it easily fills the auditorium. Its accent is cultured. 'How pleased I am to see so many of you here today, as we embark upon our journey together into the world of the Strange. How glad I am to have such an admirable troupe of fellow-passengers.'
Jackley glances round the auditorium, at the sea of self-satisfied faces. 'You have come here to learn, as have I - to learn from the greatest minds of the age. To sup at the fount of wisdom, here in this great University city. Come - let us sup together. But this should be no mere passive experience. You are here to contribute as well as to receive. We do not want this to be a sterile series of talking heads.'
Steven, who is already looking bored, quietly makes his excuses and edges out of the door. He heads up to the computer room he has already been shown, and taking his seat at a terminal, start to log on to the University system. The two zoologists in the room regard him incuriously.
Jackley continues in this vein for the next half-hour, the audience in the palm of his hand. He is an impressively skilled speaker and showman: he intersperses the talk with slides of Strange activity, such as a crop circle, the scene of a spontaneous human combustion, and an engraving of the Marie Celeste.
'Isn't he wonderful?' enthuses Martin Keyes to Taylor: he has somehow managed to sit next to her. 'Do you get him in America?'
'Get him?' Taylor asks politely.
'On the TV - do you get his show? It's every week here. He's brilliant! He explains it all so clearly...'
To Taylor it seems that Jackley is saying very little that needs explanation, merely outlining the thesis that there are strange things in the world that are not adequately understood by science.
Eric finds himself joined by Isobelle Kingston, the medium who spoke to Taylor earlier. She looks keenly at him and whispers 'Are you a Scorpio?'
'Why, yes, ma'am, I am, as a matter of fact,' says Eric with some surprise.
'I thought so! You have a look about you. Scorpio is the house of those gifted who can call powers into them, who can achieve superhuman feats.'
'Is that so?' Eric nods politely.
Belle-Marie has open on her lap under the desk a copy of Jackley's book 'Stranger than Fiction'. Much to her disappointment, his speech seems to be taken almost verbatim from the opening chapter. The close atmosphere is not doing her headache any good at all.
Steven is browsing the Psychic Times website (http://www.psychic-times.co.uk), which is an attractive resource, carefully designed and assembled. Apart from lengthy excerpts from articles in the current and past issues (it is a monthly magazine, which has been in existence since 1926) it sells a good deal of merchandise and has links to other Strange sites on the Web. He gets the impression that the magazine is a pretty slick operation, which has prospered in recent years with the pre-millennial growth in interest in the Strange.
Bernard Jackley has no site himself, but there are a number of fan sites on Geocities and the like. It seems as though his TV programme, which is in its third series on the commercial network ITV, is cult viewing among students. Each episode looks at a different Strange phenomenon, and Steven gets the impression that the attitude taken tends more to the side of credulity than scepticism.
Steven then moves onto the alt.psychism.uk newsgroup, to see if there is any gossip on the ICIP. It seems that the general mod among the community is that it's a good thing, and Jackley has done well to get it up and running. No-one has any idea why Psychic News dropped their sponsorship, although a few conspiracy theories are in evidence.
Lastly he looks for information on the Alexandria Trust. This body has no Net presence of its own, but it is referred to by several other sites. The impression he gets is that it is a charitable body which funds research into a variety of scientific and philosophical avenues, and also purchases things like libraries. There are no clues as to where its money comes from.
Finally Jackley winds up, and departs the platform to another rapturous round of applause, although to before introducing the next speaker. 'I'd like you to welcome a very eminent scholar, holder of the Jacques Barré Prize for Secular Thought, the one and only Dr Arnaud Chevrotain!'
Dr Chevrotain is a thin, intense Frenchman with wiry grey hair and green-framed spectacles: he looks more like a modern philosopher, or an art critic, than a psychic. He mops his brow with a large white handkerchief. 'I must apologise for this dreadful heat. Apparently the air-conditioning, it is not working today.' His accent is noticeable but not strong.
Vera, who is hot and irritated, edging uncomfortably in her seat, catches Dr Chevrotain's eye and smiles sweetly at him, which throws him briefly off his stride.
'Now, as I am saying today, Whither Psychism? That is to say, what is the role of psychism in a post-modern culture, such as we find ourselves in? For us to answer this question, we must firstly deconstruct our terms. What do we mean by 'psychism'? What do we mean by 'whither'? Can these terms be discussed in isolation from their cultural context - deculturized? Of course they cannot. In the words of Lacan, the key to structure lies in the absence of signs. So we must first undertake our semiotic analysis.'
He springs to the whiteboard, and scribbles down an equation [which I won't attempt to reproduce - ed.] 'This you are all familiar with, the set of Herbrand sentences, so here we are talking about unquantified statements.' He whirls back to gaze expectantly out at the audience, but is met with a sea of blank looks.
By the end of Dr Chevrotain's lecture, everyone is more than a little dazed. The combination of stuffy heat, pressed bodies and stultifying academicism has been an overpowering one.
As the relieved delegates surge back out through the twin doors, Ned makes his way over to his niece. 'You OK down there at the front, Vera?'
'Not too bad, thanks,' she says tightly, shaking her hair out.
Ned looks around to make sure they are not being overheard. 'Pretty odd bunch, huh? I was talking to one guy who reckons he can charm fish out of the water.' He stuffs a cookie into his mouth, dropping crumbs on the floor.
'What have you been telling them about yourself? Are you here as a journalist?'
'That's right, I'm with the, er, the Modern Anomalist.' Ned looks slightly shamefaced.
'The what?' Vera laughs sharply. 'That's just about your level, isn't it?'
By 5.30 everyone has gathered back at Eric's room once more, and cool drinks and showers have provided some relief.
'I had a look around the department, as far as I was able,' says T.R. 'Most of the upstairs areas are closed to non-staff, although it would probably be easy enough to bluff my way up there if I needed to. It's a pretty big place - five floors, about three hundred staff apparently, plus the students - although the undergraduates are off at this time of year. The other half of the building's the Department of Experimental Psychology, which has its own entrance and so on - there are a few places you can get from one to the other, though. I even took a look at the sports field out the back.' He smiles. 'No-one was playing cricket, though.'
'Thanks for helping me with that email,' Belle-Marie smiles quickly at Steven. 'With any luck, Daniel'll get back to us tomorrow with some news about Mr Jackley. I might be trying to talk with him later.'
'Mm, I tried to get an interview with Jackley,' says T.R. 'But I guess he was pretty busy this afternoon. His assistant - that's a guy named Richard Chambers, blond-haired, you probably saw him around - said he might be able to speak with me after the reception this evening.'
'We'd better prepare for that,' says Eric. 'Although it's not crucial that we arrive on time. And probably not in a bunch.'
'Beaufort College,' nods Ned. 'I took a look at it on the way up this afternoon. Nice place, if you like crumbling old buildings.'
Vera reappears, having changed into a cocktail dress. It is a remarkable creation, being not only backless but also pretty much frontless. 'Shall we take a taxi?'
Belle-Marie, looking glumly down at her own well-worn clothes, wonders whether SITU's expenses budget will run to a new wardrobe.
Ned's eyes have lit up at the prospect of a free meal ahead. 'Come on, then, guys! Here's a little limerick I heard today, to get you in the party mood: A beauty, a perfect divinity / Till twenty retained her virginity. / The boys up at Magdalen / Must have been dawdlin'; / It couldn't have happened at Trinity!'