You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

It’s 6:30 on a sharp January morning and I have a murder scene to visit.

I shower and drive to the station.  Joni Mitchell is playing in the car; Big Yellow Taxi. All those years ago she knew that when we put trees in a tree museum and charge the kids a dollar and a half just to see ‘em, it’s only a matter of time before a big yellow taxi takes away your old man.

There are police with sub-machine guns on the station platform.

On the seat of the train is a free daily paper. The front page is about the NRA. A spokesman is saying that the 2nd Amendment which preserves the right to bear arms, is necessary because governments can’t be trusted. His basic point is that if the bad guys have guns, the good guys had better have them also.

“But you can’t shoot without a gun,” I say under my breath and the woman next to me shifts away. She’s reading a tabloid, looking at a photograph of a shadowy figure; “Haunted Hampton”, the headline reads.

“You have so much more to fear from the living than the dead,” my Dad used to say. He believed there was an explanation for everything; interesting background for a feng shui man.

And then I’m walking gingerly along a dark corridor. My feet scrunch broken glass. I’m in an abandoned school building in Wimbledon. My actual brief is to advise whether the feng shui is any good. What complicates the issue is that someone was murdered here last week. The place is damp, there’s moss on the staircases and curled-up exercise books in the classrooms. I shiver and not just with the cold.

There are three of us in the halflight; me and Sandra and Graham who run nurseries for pre-school kids. I hold my luo p’an in front of me. It’s already told me the building is oriented North West–South East, hoi-jee, that is Pig-Snake. At the entrance there’s a single-storey extension, its sharp gable pointed at a too-close neighbour. If there’s a feng shui indication of a murder, it’s that: the aggressive extension. On a Pig-Snake orientation, the saying goes however, that what you see is not what you get. My compass judders every now and then but I can’t see it clearly.

Sandra and Graham are bright enlightened people and their nurseries are cutting edge; computer skills, vegan food and a facility for parents to watch their offspring on-line. Sandra is wonderful with small kids. She knows all their names and is always up for a (parent-supervised) cuddle. Her staff clearly revere her and the nurseries’ retention both of children and employees is supernatural. Graham, her husband is an ex-policeman with a good mind, a ready smile and the sense to let Sandra get on with it. They’re good clients; I’ve surveyed successive homes and premises for them as they’ve prospered. Since I started working with them business has rocketed and their Department of Education reports have been exemplary. This might have something to do with the fact that they are very good at what they do. The fact remains that Sandra is on board with feng shui but Graham’s not so sure.

“I don’t believe in anything I can’t explain,” is what he has to say about it.

So the thing is that although on the face of it I’m assessing a building, I’m being tested. Although neither says anything about it, I’m pretty sure they want me to pinpoint the murder scene in the dark over several thousand square feet spread among four floors. That’ll vindicate Sandra and give Graham something to latch onto. Quite an ask. Pig-Snake: what you see is not what you get.

It’s perhaps two or three degrees above zero, the sky when I catch sight of it through a high broken window is as blue as a blackbird’s egg. I feel tense and a little excited. I can feel tiny flutters of energy floating like feathers around me but nothing has yet cried out “Murder”.

“Watch your step,” says Graham and takes my arm as I nearly fall among a pile of mildewy flipcharts. Everything’s so damp.

There’s a window over the playground. I look out and the shadows move. Just for an instant I see someone pushing a supermarket trolley, it’s a youngish man playing chariots. He’s pipe-cleaner thin and I can see dark teeth as he draws on the cigarette clapsed between his lips. He rolls the trolley back and forth, thumping into the high partition wall in the playground. And then he kicks it peevishly away. One blink, a flick and there’s nothing there. I feel a sudden dullness. This is weird stuff, retained energy, woo-woo™. A possibility crosses my mind.

“No one’s squatting here, are they?” I ask.

“Uh..not anymore,” says Graham.

I’m a little spooked. Although I usually feel – people’s feelings, atmospheres, whatever it is that lingers – I rarely see anything weird. I’m not very visual actually and my eyesight is poor. This is not an obvious asset for a feng shui man. Nor by the way is my variable sense of direction.

Several things can alert me to woo-woo™. One is a sudden change of mood. If I’m in touch with my own feelings, a new one has to have come from somewhere. When I know I’m anxious or sad, a sharp new fear must be from outside me. That’s why I often find walking city streets uncomfortable, I’m picking up feelings all the time. Everyone I pass is nursing something, mostly pain: grief, fear, upset, anger. These come at me like whispers. And then they’re mine unless I’m very alert.  As soon as we have a feeling we have a story about it. And here in this mossy place there is quite a story and many whispers.

I feel a sudden fear on the deserted staircase. Sometimes woo-woo™ feels as if a wave is passing through me like a ripple. But this I feel in my gut, my tan tien. Is this the spot? No, doesn’t feel quite right.

Now we have covered the second floor and start slowly to climb the 3rd staircase. There’s more litter on the steps. It’s bulky and wet but it’s too dark to see what it is. At the top we turn into a landing. This time I feel a sudden buzzing, a juddering something like vertigo, shocking but not painful.

“Very disturbed right here,” I say. In the moment I’m not frightened. I have not looked at my luo p’an since the ground floor. So it’s not that. The fact is that I know something. I don’t know how. But I know something.

“Here,” I say. I stop and become still. My head is light and my stomach queasy. There is a flicker of images running through my head.

Graham gently pushes past and shines his torch on the wall. There are browny red splashes on the plaster. I’m both relieved and horrified. Sandra touches my shoulder.

“This is where the first blows landed,”  Graham says with institutional precision. “And that’s where he fell. Blows to the head.”

I am still reeling. In the corner of my eye I seem to see someone climbing the drainpipe outside. Bizarrely he is wearing a blue-and white striped tee shirt. An odd detail. I recoil.

I think I can see what happened. The flickering images in my mind are of one gaunt figure trying artlessly to garrotte another with chicken wire. They are both shambling messes who have not known true wakefulness for years; stained teeshirts, loose sweats, charity shop trainers. These people live in a walking dream not I imagine, unlike death itself. There is no shape to their lives, no idea of one moment succeeding another, just haze punctuated by a need to prolong the numbness: cider, lager, turps, aerosol, it doesn’t matter. And there’s that lost hopelessness, so deep they can’t even feel it. But I can.

The attacker probably copied the garrotting from some tacky horror video. The assault proves too ambitious. He is not strong enough and his victim lumbers up in anger. The images are like a silent movie, all jerky movement and no sound, but more Buster Keaton than Nosferatu. They’re both drunk, both self-righteous; that’s about the only emotion either can manage. It may be that if there is a hell, it’s made up of self-righteousness.

The victim clubs the would-be assassin with something – a plank? A brick? – and follows down the landing. There is a pathetic meanness here. I shudder. My eyes prick with tears as in this place of education I consider the child this man must once have been. How does that become this? I see flashes of him growing up, a harsh childhood, innocence turning nasty. Some say that children are resilient. I think it’s just that children don’t complain. To a child everything is normal, however hideous.

Some yards away out in the corridor, there is a skylight. Shakily I walk to it. There is blue January sky in my eyes once more; South Eastern light so beautiful on a mid-Winter morning.

We are all still for a long moment. Everybody feels this stuff but most people don’t notice. We pick up feelings and we’re often so quick to make it about ourselves that we can miss the whole process.

I have brought a wooden t’ang lung jiu shape with me, which is like a miniature Cleopatra’s needle. We all know these jiu shapes from towers, spires and minarets the world over. In the ba zhai (or “Eight House”) system t’ang lung is the antidote to wu gwai: ghosts, stagnant energy. Woo-woo™.

We place the t’ang lung at the spot the first blows fell. This was a lost soul, half-alive, now half-dead. Who knows the stories of such people? Listless, lacking standards or boundaries, entirely lost. All they want, dead or alive, is love and understanding. In that sense, ghosts, ghouls, restless energies and the rootless are just like you and me.

“Everyone was someone’s baby once,” Sandra says and shifts awkwardly. She takes Graham’s sleeve.

We dedicate a few minutes of silence to the dead though I don’t sense that the dead are actually taking this all that seriously. These were not apt pupils; very short attention span. We walk rather faster along the corridors as we leave. The sunlight is a relief.

Once outside I sit on a low wall and collect myself.

“Well, can we open a nursery here?” Graham asks. It’s not a brutal question, just realistic. He’s got a job to do and I don’t come cheap.

“Heavy-duty space-clearing required but the building wants to be useful.”

“Can you do that?”

“Of course. We’ll have to be extra-careful with timing and where we dig and there’s some serious energy-shifting to do but yes, we can heal it, I think. It’s been waiting long enough.”

I close my eyes and breathe deeply to bring myself back into the present. Feng shui is a dance between myself, the Tao and a body of principles; I’m not sure I’ve actually proved anything but I’m done for today except that this evening I am to pick my daughter Jessie up from her acting class.

As I get off the train I notice that the station is free of gunmen. I walk from the station to the car park, the free paper for some reason under my arm. I’m now up to date on which celebrities are too fat. Or is it too thin? I only picked it up for the cricket score, honest.

I get in the car and move off. I’m listening to Big Yellow Taxi. Again. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

As I change gear, all of a sudden I feel something behind me on the rear passenger seat. A disturbance; weak, mean, pathetic and familiar. I feel fear and that familiar dizziness.

I look in the mirror; there’s nothing there to see. I address whatever it is gently: “You don’t know you’re dead, do you?”

There’s a whistling in my ears. I look again in the mirror, still nothing there.

“Think about it. You wouldn’t be here if you were alive would you?”

Once again, I feel that spinning in my head. He – she, it, whatever it is – has not been happy for such a long time. And doesn’t even know it. I don’t think he knows he’s dead. Alive and sozzled, dead, what’s the odds?

In life things take measurable time. We can’t get from one place to another without covering the ground between. This man, this child, this energy, was violent, drunk and bitter in life and so he is in death. He has no idea where he is or how it happened. Carefully, slowly, I wish him well. Each of us was somebody’s baby once. I feel into his pain and I offer him love as if he were one of my own. This pointlessly rebellious soul would die in a school corridor, wouldn’t he?

But my blessing is not enough. All at once there’s a sting at my windpipe as if someone with the strength of a new-born is pulling cotton tight around my throat. I cough. I pull away. I turn into a bus stop. No danger of a bus in rural Surrey after 8pm. I put on the hand brake and undo my seat belt.

“Out,” I say firmly. I walk round and open the passenger door. A beat. I wait. The oppressive energy lifts. I return to the driver’s seat. On the passenger seat the paper is open to a picture of a gurning George W Bush in his woolly bomber jacket. “Mission accomplished” is the caption. I don’t read the article so I don’t know why he’s so happy.

As I drive on to pick up Jessie, I’m thinking about what my Dad used to say: we have so much more to fear from the living than the dead. And I’m wondering who it was that he was reassuring.

Richard Ashworth©2020

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