From the late 1990s up to 2005, a larger than life, yet modest, middle-aged man known only as O'Neil, was a fairly regular visitor to The Swan Inn on 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 show business 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.
O'Neil did not take drugs, but he was fond of his drink; perhaps it served to dull his keen but ultimately troublesome psychic senses. If you visited the Swan Inn during the time period to which I am referring, you would probably have seen O'Neil but wouldn't have given him a second glance. You would have seen a man with straggly mousy-grey hair in a scuffed leather biker's jacket and faded jeans, Doc Martens and a world-worn face, pulling on a roll-up of Golden Virginia tobacco. At heart, he was a very inoffensive man, but because he chose never to lie in life, he upset many people when he gave them 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 whole of 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 fogs, 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 took his place in his usual corner seat with his drink, and then in came his young friend, Harlan, talking about astrology and palm-reading. O'Neil laughed and remarked 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 would 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 very 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 had just taken Harlan's palm in order to study it, when the bikers came over to the table and sat themselves down by the mystic and his young friend.
"Read our future, mate," ordered the tallest and broadest of the two trouble-causers, and he thrust out a rough-palmed hand and laughed, "if we have any future that is."
O'Neil looked at the biker's hand for a few moments, then with a serious voice asked, "Are you sure you want to know?"
"Don't give me that crap," said the biker, using his aggression to try and cover up his nervousness. "You can see nothing ... no one can ... and you're filling this lad's head here with rubbish. You're just an old charlatan. Admit it!"
The biker's associate giggled, and under his breath he muttered, 'He's an old dickbrain.'.
"Very well, I'll start with your past," said O'Neil, looking quite ruffled by the uncalled-for insults.
"Sure, go ahead!"
The outspoken biker shoved his palm right under O'Neil's nose. The Liverpool shaman took hold of that palm, placed it on the table, and bluntly 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 delicate nerve.
"Oh, come on, who hasn't struck a woman?" said the biker, but behind the bravado and the smile his eyes looked distressed.
"And you stole from your mother on her deathbed."
After dropping this bombshell, O'Neil looked up from the palm to the biker's face with uncharacteristic contempt. Harlan had never seen such a look of disgust in his friend's face before.
The biker withdrew his palm and felt for the hunting knife which he kept in a sheath sewn into the inside of his jacket. He let loose a string of shockingly obscene expletives, at which a gothic-looking woman entering the Swan Inn shouted over, "Hey, there's no need for that language!"
The other biker grabbed hold of his friend's hand and stopped him from pulling out the knife destined for O'Neil's heart. "Don't man!" he pleaded.
The once-sceptical hard-knock who had had his shameful past so publicly revealed by O'Neil's chiromancy, stood up and shrieked, "I'll be waiting out there for you!" He then threw the glass of Guinness in the mystic's face and swaggered out of the pub, repeating his threats.
Later that night, Harlan cagily ventured out into the fog - and soon spotted the burly biker waiting in a dark warehouse doorway, but there was no sign of his friend. Harlan rushed back into the pub and warned O'Neil to go to his home - wherever that was - via Hanover Street, but O'Neil somehow knew that the biker's friend would be waiting there; he could sense them both waiting.
"The other one has a machete, and he's used it before," was O'Neil's chilling remark.
"Then call the police. What are you waiting for?" 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 mysterious response.
"What do you mean?" asked Harlan, intrigued but still worried.
"I need your help, Harlan," said O'Neil, rolling yet another cigarette. "We need to call him ..." he added.
"Call who for heaven's sake?" said Harlan, getting frustrated. "Stop talking in riddles. Can't you see this is really serious?"
"I need to call my guardian ... a berserker," said O'Neil, whilst calmly licking the Rizla paper and sealing his cigarette. Then he chillingly revealed how this guardian had, many years ago, knocked at his door in order 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 had told him, for it was a fact that O'Neil never lied - but surely he didn't have the power to conjure up one of the most feared warriors of history?
"Norse Occultism," said O'Neil, and went over to the female goth who had scolded the foul-mouthed biker, and asked to borrow her makeup mirror. At first she thought he was joking, but he pleaded for it and promised to return it very shortly. 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 trusty Swiss Army knife. "I need blood," he quipped.
"Last orders," shouted the barman.
O'Neil inflicted a small wound on his thumb, and then squeezed a few droplets on to the mirror.
"Vali, God of revenge," he intoned. "By my own blood I beseech thee to dispatch my guardian in the reign of Nott, Goddess of this night ..."
"Hey, mate, what're you doing to my mirror?" the gothic lady shouted over, drawing people's attention to the weird ritual. "That's not blood, is it?" she asked, wide-eyed, with a look of disgust. She'd seen some sights in the Swan over the years, but nothing as bizarre as this.
O'Neil ignored the goth's questions. His eyes bulged and his muscles tensed as he proceeded to speak in an unknown language, and he frothed slightly at the mouth. Harlan was visibly trembling, because he could literally feel the buzz of electrical tension in the air. Silence descended on the Swan Inn - all eyes were on O'Neil. Suddenly, he fainted and slumped forwards on to the table, scattering ashtrays and spilling drinks, which made people assume that he was drunk. The clientele supped the last of their drinks and started to leave, and as they did so O'Neil regained consciousness. The first thing he did was to look into Harlan's eyes and with great solemnity declare, "He's here. I saw him."
O'Neil and Harlan were the last customers 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 appeared as insubstantial as the faint shadows of ghosts and spectres.
All of a sudden, the muffled silence of the fog was pierced by echoing screams. Not just the screams of women, but of men too, and not the usual screams of high-jinks fuelled by drink and drugs, but screams 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 striding by, and Harlan glimpsed a tall stocky phantasm walking along. It was as pale as a watermark in the fog, yet he could clearly make out a pair of horns on the stranger's head! He also 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 advised his friend to go straight home, and Harlan reluctantly obeyed. He walked for miles through that unending fog until he finally reached his home on Hawarden Avenue, off Smithdown Road, where he told his older brother all about the night's strange events. His brother looked at him condescendingly and said it was time he grew up.
Out of curiosity, on the following morning, Harlan rode the Number 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 that "a drugged-up psycho", dressed like a Viking, had almost slaughtered two bikers, but the victims had run for their lives and escaped. The accounts varied slightly, but Harlan knew the truth of the matter and kept quiet.
At around this time, I also heard about a severed index finger being found on Wood Street, but whether there was a connection with this story, I am not sure. As far as I know, the violent bikers never returned to the Swan Inn, and O'Neil is now believed to be living quietly in Wales.
A genuine practitioner of magic has a great knowledge of grimoires - a comprehensive collections of spells and invocations which can be used for enlisting the help of demons. The demon Agares, for example, is conjured up to cause earthquakes, amongst 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 many people who mock magical rites, yet will mutter "Bless you" when someone sneezes. The celebration of a twenty-first birthday, the blessing of the Christian Eucharist, or even the rite of passage known as barmitzvah - are all ceremonial observances - the performance of rites. Magical rituals are indistinguishable from 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 good luck, cross our fingers in hope, avoid walking under ladders and so on. Call such things superstition, if you like, or are they a subconscious harking back to the days when the practice of magic was widespread?