He really tried his best, but it was impossible. He just could not get interested in the talks and lectures at the ‘Agricultural Innovations For Sustainable Economic Landscapes’ conference, but afterwards, there was drinks and a buffet, deep in Mexico City in one of its most upmarket hotels which was attached to the centre, so that was okay, but his wife loved it. She lapped the whole event up, and he was secretly glad that in a few hours' time, he would board a plane back to England.
The conference was over, people gave their speeches, their presentations, and it was the first time Sheila Gretchen had been asked to give a talk. In the brochure her speech was titled: ‘Improved control-release pesticide formulations on Napier grass’, and it seemed to have gone well. A good turnout of 200-plus delegates, committee members and fellow professionals all seemed to lap it up. Some even stood and clapped at the end.
She could have talked for a lot longer than the alotted one hour, her husband in the front row trying his best to look interested in pesticides, organophosphates and iprodione.
They both worked at Basefield University, Sheila in Environmental Sciences and Mike, 41 in Accounting. He looked like an accountant or a history teacher. Short, squat, wore black mostly with a black moustache. So their paths barely crossed during work hours, and after 11 years of marriage, they would soon welcome the patter of tiny feet, as Sheila, at 37, stocky build, taller than Mike with long wispy hair that no hairdresser could do much with, had found herself pregnant.
Her thoughts had instantly gone to abortion and panic, but soon the idea took hold, and they decided to keep it, warming to the idea.
So after five months, her pregnant belly could not be hidden. There were plenty of times she was congratulated, but she became rather paranoid about what she could and could not eat. What she could and could not do, but everything seemed fine. Next week there was an antenatal appointment, and all such appointments so far had been good.
She and her husband had three hours before they would get a taxi to head for the airport, and would say their goodbyes to some of the other conference attendees, put their luggage in the vehicle and head back to London.
Until then, they were tourists, not travelling too far from the hotel. They found themselves in the main square, Zocalo, which was a hub of activity, bordered by government buildings draped with the Mexican flag, a place where events and festivities were commonplace. Today seemed normal though, but there was still plenty going on. The air was punctuated by talking, the sound of shell-horns, and drumming.
“Three hours”, said Sheila, looking at her watch, “before we head to the airport.”
“Yes,” said Mike, “I’ve enjoyed it.” Except for the conference, he thought.
So they wandered around a while and saw many shamans spiritually cleansing tourists. They were dressed for the occasion, with elaborate headdresses, jewellery and decorative garments.
They would blow incense, rub them with rosemary leaves, and blow shell-horns as part of the cleansing. Then would be paid by donation. Pay nothing, or pay something.
There was one beneath the shade of a tree with a queue of people ready to step forward to have their souls cleaned. A cardboard sign propped up next to a little wicker bowl read in English: ‘Cleanse your soul’.
Sheila shook her head at the queue.
“Look at them,” she said. “Gullible fools ready to part with their money.”
“Maybe they’re just doing the tourist thing,” said Mike. “They might not actually believe in it.”
“I wouldn’t give my money to a shark,” she said, “these are con men, nothing more. Fleecing tourists.”
“Why don’t you have a go,” Mike said, smiling, but Sheila looked genuinely insulted.
“Clean your soul,” she said, sarcastically. “We don’t have souls or spirits, and these con artists are robbing people.”
It was safe to say Sheila didn’t believe in anything outside of science. If she couldn’t see it, taste it, touch it, then it pretty much wasn’t real. She was a kind of hard-line atheist. There was ‘nothing’ outside of reality. Didn’t even believe that there could be life on other planets. Life was an accidental ‘side-effect’ of a universe that itself tripped and fell into existence.
No God. No life after death. No reincarnation. Nothing.
Many atheists called themselves ‘spiritual’, so they were not atheistic to 100%, but Sheila, would probably be looked at by other atheists who could think, ‘Well, she’s rather closed-minded’.
Twice she had been called that in her life, and twice she had berated the person who had called her that. Sheila was the type you did not argue with. If she said one plus one equals three, then she was absolutely right. Other opinions were of no concern to her. Even Mikes. He had learned his place in their relationship because Sheila had put him there.
Fervent religious believers and hard-line atheists like Sheila, they both had one thing in common. They ‘knew’ the truth. Their belief was correct, and that was that. It made Sheila look at the soul-cleansing shamans with her skeptical eye because she ‘knew’ they weren’t cleaning anything. Yet the shaman ‘knew’ they were cleaning souls. They came together in belief.
In one corner of the square was a large fruit market, with healers spiritually cleansing people. They were mostly elderly women, dressed similarly, rubbing them with eggs and herbs. Close by there was a man who was clearly a shaman, not as elaborately dressed as some of the others. He wore a bandana with a white jacket, bracelets and necklaces, but was not cleaning anybody. He was sitting scrolling through a mobile phone. There was a young girl near him, and she seemed to be looking out for potential customers.
She caught Sheila’s eye.
“Clean…your…soul,” the girl said in broken English. The shaman put down his phone, stood up and grabbed a handful of herbs.
“Erm…no,” but the shaman, the girl, and Mike said nothing but simply looked at her. Sheila made eye-contact with them all, then sighed, giving in to the invisible pressure.
“Alright then, go on. Clean my soul,” she said sarcastically, looking at Mike and rolling her eyes.
The shaman gestured to a small stool where Sheila sat, then began his ritual by rubbing her with the herbs.
It took almost all her willpower to not get up and say: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ and storm away, even when he prodded and spat water spray at her, but she went with it, her face betraying her real thoughts though. Throughout, she had a smirk on her face, and even issued a laugh a few times, certainly when he brought out an egg and began rubbing her with it.
After a few moments, he cracked the egg into a half-pint glass and showed her it and began talking in Spanish.
The little girl interpreted:
“You are a…naturally…determined person…firm in your beliefs…now is a good time…to feel empowered…express yourself freely…you can be…trusted, ambitious, committed…you are always…well-meaning, enthusiastic…moving forward with…opportunities you are…motivated and…well-connected, supported…but your knowledge…may not be…directed in ways…that are more open…people today…enjoyed your lecture…but not your husband.”
She looked slightly confused for a second, but then gave another burst of laughter. ‘Anyone’s horoscope,’ she muttered.
The shaman just ignored her, continuing with the cleansing by gesturing for her to stand and hold out her arms. He rubbed her again with herbs and blew smoke around, then pointed to her stomach, talking in Spanish to the girl.
“Clean…your baby’s…soul.” The smirk on her face grew more intense and she looked at Mike who was standing passive nearby.
“Wants to clean my baby’s soul.”
“Well,” said Mike, “you might as well.”
She looked back at the shaman and nodded. “My baby will have a nice clean soul,” she said, sarcastically.
The shaman lit a cigar and drew heavily on it, knelt down and placed both his hands on her stomach and blew smoke. He took another drag and did the same, this time muttering words that even the little girl found hard to make out.
After a few moments, he stood up and nodded. It was clear he had finished.
She had to admit, although not to the shaman, that she did feel better, but she put it down to her mind telling her that, and not that her spirit was cleansed.
Nodding a thanks to the shaman she reluctantly handed him some small change, then spoke to the girl who just looked up at her, squinting against the sun which had emerged from behind clouds.
“Get yourself a good education, and don’t get led astray believing in spiritual nonsense like this.” Then she turned and walked away with Mike.
The shaman and the girl watched them walk amongst the crowds. He looked genuinely annoyed.
In Spanish, she asked, “What did you do?”
The shaman genuinely couldn’t understand or speak a word of English, so his reply translated: “I don’t mind non-believers. They come, they go. I heal their soul and that’s it, but some are just so arrogant. Think they have all the answers, and laughing because she’s so convinced we are wrong. I hate that.”
“You didn’t clean her soul?” the girl asked.
The man smiled slightly and shook his head.
“Very soon she will feel how powerful shaman magic can be.”
Sheila and Mike continued on around the square and found a café to sip on cappuccinos. They had bought tourist-trap goods. Ornaments, sandals, bracelets.
“Strange isn’t it,” said Mike, “how when a stranger touches us or invades our personal space, we clam up and freeze or just feel very uncomfortable, but when these healers do it, they prod, grab, spit water in the face, and people are like, okay, do what you like. Grab and poke me all you want, and then I will pay money and thank you.”
Sheila smiled and nodded, sipping her drink.
After a while, they slowly wound their way back to the hotel, where in the foyer Sheila said her goodbyes to many of those from the conference.
‘…amazing…’ ‘loved your talk…’ ‘…you must come again’, then found themselves in the back of the taxi on the way to the airport.
Things ran fairly smoothly. The plane to London was on time, and everything was present and correct, Sheila satisfied, even not regretful about the shaman. They’re just trying to earn money, she thought. Nothing wrong with that.
By fleecing gullible tourists, she added. Still, though, the aeroplane settled into its flight, and after about half an hour she remembered something the shaman had said, about Mike not enjoying her talk.
“Mike,” she asked casually. He was fixated on an article in an old magazine he had brought about horse racing, reading about a famous jockey from the 1930s and his odd training methods.
“Mike you remember when that shaman spoke a load of nonsense, he mentioned that you didn’t enjoy my talk. I mean I don’t know how he knew. Might have seen a brochure with my picture on or on the net. Was he right?” Mike’s silence for a few moments told her what she wanted to know.
“Of course, I loved it…everyone loved it,” but by then it was too late. It seemed like Sheila could read his mind.
“Mike you’re a terrible liar. You didn’t enjoy it did you?”
“It’s not that, it’s just…” It didn’t matter what Mike said then. He was frozen out. Sheila folded her arms and looked away from him, and refused to speak for the rest of the flight.
It had happened plenty of times before in their marriage. It was always her falling out with him, followed by the silent treatment, and that was when it seemed like her very aura was icy. It could last hours or days, but she always began speaking to him again at some point.
She only began to talk to him again when they landed and were heading through customs at the London airport. Night had fallen and all lights were on.
“Get the passports.” So they eventually headed through and out to the taxi stands.
An elderly flat-capped driver, who looked like he did taxi driving for a hobby, helped them get their luggage in the boot, and when they got in the back, Sheila said, “Take me to the nearest park.”
“What?” said Mike, with a little courage that rarely surfaced. “We’re going home. I’m tired I need rest. We’ve just had a long flight. What do you want to go to a park for? Could you take us to Buxton Heath please?”
The taxi didn’t move, the driver was unsure, but Sheila repeated what she wanted, a little louder, a little more firm. “Take me to the nearest park.”
The driver relented, and the taxi moved away.
“Are you okay Sheila? Is it something to do with the baby?” He looked concerned, but she was silent, placed one hand on her distended stomach, and glared at Mike which made him sit back in his seat. It didn’t stop him asking questions.
He even tried asking the taxi driver again to take them home, but even he was subordinate to Sheila, and he’d only been in her company five minutes.
“Sheila what’s wrong?” but he wasn’t answered. She closed her eyes and rested back.
After ten minutes they pulled up outside the entrance to a park, two street lights bathing them in white light.
“Here we are,” said the driver.
Sheila looked at Mike again and simply said, “Pay him,” then she opened the door, got out and headed for the park entrance.
Mike paid up, simply handing him a note, telling him to keep the change, and then left the vehicle.
“Will you stay?” he asked the driver who had the window halfway down, “I’ll just go and see what she wants and we’ll be back. Drive us home.”
The man just shook his head. “Sorry, I’m not getting involved,” and drove away.
He saw Sheila just beyond the entrance in the middle of the gravel path, facing him. The black-painted iron gates were imposing, one of them permanently closed, the other permanently open, which they had been for years.
“Sheila, come on what are you doing? I’m shattered and I want to go to bed.”
He cautiously approached. As he did, she dropped to her knees. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes.
“Mike…help me.” He could see she was herself again, her hand on her stomach, but as he was about to dash forward, he stopped as he saw her stomach undulate.
She clasped both hands over her thin T-shirt under her open jacket.
“The baby!” she cried, and Mike could only watch as the undulations grew more intense.
“Mike, the baby’s coming…up.” Then she screamed. The foetus made its way through her innards, grasping its way towards her throat, her eyes wide, but then her shrieking stopped as the baby tore away her lungs and ripped through her heart. Sheila’s eyes glazed over as she fell back. Mike panicked and dashed forward, only to stop, as her neck bulged and her jaw moved unnaturally.
It had ripped its way through her neck and into her mouth.
Little hands appeared and grasped her lips.
They were not human hands.
Mike stared as a snout appeared, followed by a rodent’s head, then body. Sheila was dead. The red-sleeked rat sat there looking at Mike. The blood-matted fur glistening in the streetlight. It then leapt onto the ground, its long tail leaving her mouth. Then ran away into the darkness of the park.