From the late 1990s up to 2005, a spectacular but modest middle-aged man known only as O’Neil was a fairly regular visitor to The Swan Inn on Liverpool's Wood Street. Without a doubt, he practised magic. Not the mechanical sleight-of-hand street-magic variety, but the type we associate with the great Merlin in that lost Arthurian age, though of a far lesser magnitude. He was conversant with spirits and was very scathing of showbiz mediums and charlatans, and he would only enlist the help of the dead when it was an absolute necessity, because he had learned at an early age that the true medium risks his sanity by knowing too much about his and everyone else’s future. He didn’t take drugs but O’Neil was fond of his drink; perhaps it dulled his keen but ultimately troublesome psychic senses. If you visited the Swan Inn during the time period I’m referring to, you probably saw O’Neil but didn’t give him a second glance. You would have seen a man with straggly mousy-grey hair in a scuffed leather biker’s jacket with worn jeans, Doc Martens and a world-worn face, smoking a roll-up of Golden Virginia. He was a very inoffensive man, but because he chose never to lie in life, he upset many people when he gave straight answers, and this happened one December night at the Swan in 2005. Liverpool, being a maritime city, is prone to heavy fogs, and in November 2005 the mother of all fogs enshrouded the north west. Flights in and out of John Lennon Airport were cancelled because of it. It spread as far as Manchester and Blackpool and caused transport chaos and fatalities on the roads, and unlike the usual fog, this one stuck around for days. When O’Neil came into the Swan Inn that night for his usual Guinness, and perhaps a short or two, wisps of the fog snaked in behind him. He sat in his usual corner seat with his drink, and in came his young friend, Harlan, talking about astrology and palm-reading. O’Neil said that around thirty million people in Britain followed the advice of ‘newspaper horoscope prophets’ and that there must be some turmoil going on in the heavens when two football teams meet on the pitch because we’d have twenty-two star-signs in conflict, plus the referee and linesman’s star-signs battling it out.
‘Then what about palms?’ Harlan asked O’Neil, studying his own young soft work-shy hands.
‘Now there’s an interesting subject –‘ O’Neil was saying, when there came sniggers from a neighbouring table.
Two huge bikers sat there, clad in black motorcycle leather jackets, black tee shirts, Kevlar-panelled jeans, Harley Davidson Interstate zip boots, and Nazi tattoos. There were both smirking at O’Neil.
O’Neil did his best to ignore them, and he began to study Harlan’s palm, but then the bikers came over to the table and sat down by the mystic and his young friend.
‘Read our future,’ ordered the tallest and broadest of the two trouble-causers, and he thrust out a rough-palmed hand and added, ‘if we have any future that is.’
O’Neil looked at the hand for a few moments, then said, ‘Are you sure you want to know?’
‘Don’t give me that crap,’ said the biker nervously, ‘you can see nothing – no one can – and your filling this boy’s head here with rubbish. You’re just a flaky old man.’
The biker’s associate giggled.
‘Very well, I’ll start with your past,’ O’Neil said. He looked quite ruffled.
‘Sure, go ahead!’ the outspoken biker pushed his palm right under O’Neil’s nose. The Liverpool shaman took hold of that palm, placed it on the table, and said, ‘You’ve lost so many women over the years because you’re a violent man. You hit women.’
The biker blinked rapidly and said nothing but it was obvious to the two onlookers that O’Neil had touched a nerve.
‘Oh come on, who hasn’t struck a woman?’ said the biker, he tried to smile but his eyes looked distressed.
‘And you stole from your mother on her deathbed.’ O’Neil looked from the palm to the biker’s face with uncharacteristic contempt. Harlan had never seen such disgust in his friend’s face before.
The biker withdrew his palm and felt for a hunting knife in the sheath sewed into the inside of his jacket. He let loose a string of shocking, obscene expletives, and a gothic-looking woman entering the Swan Inn shouted over, ‘Hey, there’s no need for that language!’
The other biker stopped his friend from pulling out the knife destined for O’Neil’s heart. ‘Don’t man!’
The once-sceptical hard-knock who’d had his past revealed by O’Neil’s cheiromancy stood up and screamed ‘I’ll be waiting out there for you!’ He then threw the glass of Guinness in the mystic’s face and left, repeating his threats.
Later that night, Harlan ventured out into the fog – and saw that the biker was waiting in a dark warehouse doorway, but there was no sign of his friend. Harlan rushed back to the pub and told O’Neil to go to his home – wherever that was – via Hanover Street, but O’Neil said the biker’s friend would be waiting there. He could sense them waiting. ‘The other one has a machete, and he’s used it before,’ was O’Neil’s chilling remark.
‘Then call the police,’ Harlan urged his old friend.
‘I’ll call on a much higher authority to protect me, but It’ll probably cause even more bloodshed,’ was O’Neil’s enigmatic reply. ‘What do you mean?’ Harlan was intrigued but still worried.
‘I need your help, Harlan,’ said O’Neil, rolling a cigarette. ‘We need to call him –‘ he added, and seemed so incoherent.
‘Call who for heaven’s sake?’ Harlan wondered.
‘My guardian – a berserker,’ O’Neil told him. He licked the Rizla paper and sealed his cigarette, then chillingly revealed how this guardian had, many years ago, knocked at his door to show him the severed head of a man who had raped the girl he loved.
Harlan went cold. He was speechless. He had never once had reason to doubt the incredible things his friend told him, for O’Neil never lied – but how was it possible to conjure up one of the most feared warriors of history?
‘Norse Occultism,’ said O’Neil, and he went over to the female goth who had scolded the foul-mouthed biker, and asked to borrow her make-up mirror. At first she thought he was joking, but he pleaded for it and promised to return it soon. She delved into her handbag and located it, then handed it to him with a sarcastic lop-sided smile.
O’Neil took it back to the table and then rooted through his own pockets for his trust Swiss Army knife. ‘I need blood,’ he quipped.
‘Last orders,’ shouted the barman.
O’Neil inflicted a small wound to his thumb, and then squeezed a few droplets of blood onto the mirror. ‘Váli, God of revenge,’ he intoned, ‘by my own blood I beseech thee to dispatch my guardian in the reign of Nótt, Goddess of this night –‘
‘Hey, what’re you doing to my mirror?’ the gothic lady shouted over, drawing people’s attention to the weird ritual.
O’Neil’s eyes bulged as he proceeded to speak in an unknown language, and he frothed slightly at the mouth. Harlan was trembling, because he could literally feel electrical tension in the air. Silence descended on the Swan Inn. O’Neil fainted and slumped forward on the table, but people assumed he was drunk. The clientele started to leave, and as soon as O’Neil regained consciousness he looked into Harlan’s eyes and with great solemnity he said, ‘He’s here. I saw him.’
O’Neil and Harlan were the last to leave the pub. They stepped out into a literal void of ghostly all enveloping fog. The lamps of Wood Street were greatly diffused like distant nebulae, and passers-by seemed as insubstantial as the faint shadows of spectres. Screams echoed in the fog. Not just the screams of women, but men too, and not the usual screams of high-jinks fuelled by drink and drugs, but shrieks from witnesses to some shocking horror. O’Neil froze in his tracks, and Harlan halted too and looked back at him. The disturbance was coming from the Slater Street intersection. O’Neil beckoned Harlan to follow him down Colquitt Street, but as they sneaked along the street, close to a wall, they heard the thundering steps of something stride by, and Harlan glimpsed a tall stocky phantasm walking along. It was pale as a watermark in the fog, yet he could make out horns on the stranger’s head! He carried a sword and circular shield. That was enough, Harlan dashed after O’Neil, and they walked and walked until they reached Chinatown. O’Neil told his friend to go straight home immediately, and Harlan reluctantly did that. He walked miles through that unending fog until he reached his home on Hawarden Avenue, off Smithdown Road. He told his older brother what had happened and was sneered at.
Out of curiosity, on the following morning, Harlan rode the 86 bus into town and inspected Wood Street, looking for evidence of the berserker. He found splashes of clotted blood near Concert Street, and streaks of blood on the kerb near Hanover Street. He also heard strange stories about the berserker from his friends in the Krazyhouse club. Moshers, skater-punks, metalheads and Goths told him ‘a drugged-up psycho’ dressed as a Viking had almost slaughtered two bikers, but the victims had run for their lives. The stories varied slightly, but Harlan knew the truth of the matter: Woden’s Warrior on Wood Street.
Around this time, I also heard about a severed index finger being found on Wood Street. As far as I know, the violent bikers never returned to the Swan Inn, and O’Neil is believed to be living in Wales nowadays.
A genuine practitioner of magic has a great knowledge of grimoires – comprehensive collections of spells and invocations for enlisting the help of demons. The demon Agares, for example, is conjured up to cause earthquakes among other things, and the demon Behemoth (mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Job) is concerned with food, drink and feasting, while Astaroth, the Prince-demon of Hell, will truthfully answer any questions about people or events, past present or future. I know people who mock magical rites, yet mutter ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezes. The celebration of a 21st birthday, the blessing of the Christian Eucharist , or even the rite of passage known as barmitzvah – are ceremonial observances – the performing of rites. Magical rituals are indistinguishable to many of the everyday things we do that seem, on the face of it, irrational. We throw a pinch of salt over our shoulder for luck, cross fingers in hope, avoid walking under ladders and so on. Call it superstition, or is it a subconscious harking back to the days when the practise of magic was widespread?