From The New Yorker, perhaps a writing prompt:
For many years, Kathleen Lorna Middleton lived at 69 Carlton Terrace, in the North London suburb of Edmonton. The house, which faced one of the main roads leading out of the city, had a small plaque to the left of the front door: “Miss Lorna Middleton, Teacher of Pianoforte and Ballet.” Middleton was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1914. She was a talented dancer as a child and had friends who went to Hollywood, but, during the Depression, Middleton’s parents, who were English, lost everything and moved back to London. Middleton, who had small hands, buck teeth, and a pronounced New England accent, opened a school for dance and music in the front room of No. 69 and called her students the Merrie Carltons.
Middleton played the piano, swivelling on her stool, while six girls at a time practiced port de bras using the bookcases for balance. The next class waited on the stairs. The house was crowded with dark furniture and programs from Middleton’s childhood performances with the dates erased. “There was always something—not exactly exotic, but she was totally different,” Christine Williams, who started taking classes with Middleton when she was four, told me recently. “Whatever she did, she posed. She never just stood.”
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“I cannot say what I really felt or indeed what I feel now,” Middleton wrote. She experienced premonitions, in one form or another, throughout her life. A headache would precede an earthquake. Names and numbers would appear to her. “I am drawn to these events by what appears to be a blaze of light,” she wrote. “An electric light bulb.” Middleton never worked as a psychic or seemed unduly bothered by her sensations. Williams took lessons with Middleton into adulthood, and the piano teacher would bring out sketches of recent visions and occasionally complain about all the information reaching her. “She would say sometimes, ‘I just turn it off. I am too busy. I am too busy,’ ” Williams recalled. “And she would wave her hand.”
At around 4 a.m. on October 21, 1966, when Middleton was fifty-two, she had a powerful feeling of foreboding. “I awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in,” she wrote soon afterward. She told Alexander Bacciarelli, her lodger, about the ominous feeling when he came home from a night shift. At 8 a.m., Middleton accepted a cup of tea from Bacciarelli, although she didn’t usually drink tea in the morning.
A little more than an hour later, a group of laborers, who were working on an enormous heap of coal waste in South Wales, also paused to make a cup of tea. The pile stood on a steep hillside, and had shifted because of weeks of heavy rain. As the water boiled over a small fire, the waste began to move. Tall black waves crawled up the slope before a hundred and fifty thousand tons of slurry rushed into the valley below, overwhelming Pantglas Junior School, in the village of Aberfan. Children and staff heard what sounded like a jet plane, and then were buried.
A hundred and forty-four people—including a hundred and sixteen children—were killed in Aberfan. Eighteen houses were destroyed. In places, the slurry lay thirty feet deep. Within hours, the village, an isolated place off the road to Merthyr Tydfil, was clogged with press trucks, ambulances, and earthmoving machinery. Miners, volunteers, and sightseers descended on Aberfan. Phone lines were jammed with offers of help. When a call went out for rubber gloves, six thousand pairs were sent. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, arrived at nightfall, as children’s bodies were being laid out for identification by their parents. The Duke of Edinburgh came the next morning. “There was a greyness everywhere,” the Merthyr Express reported. “Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips.”
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John Barker was among those who reached Aberfan that day. Large and somewhat brusque, Barker was a forty-two-year-old psychiatrist with a keen interest in esoteric mental conditions. “A lot of his thinking was a bit futuristic,” Harry Sheehan, a former nurse at Shelton Hospital, near Shrewsbury, where Barker worked, told me. At the time, Barker was researching a book about what he called psychic death—what happens when people come to believe that they are about to die. In the early reports from Aberfan, he had heard that a boy had escaped from the school unharmed but had died of fright. When Barker arrived at the scene, victims were still being dug out. “The experience sickened me,” he wrote. The devastation reminded him of the Blitz, in London, where he had grown up. “Parents who had lost their children were standing in the street, looking stunned and hopeless and many were still weeping.”
In the hours that he spent in Aberfan, Barker was struck by “several strange and pathetic incidents” connected with the coal slip. Bereaved families spoke of dreams and portents. On the eve of the disaster, an eight-year-old boy named Paul Davies had drawn massed figures digging in the hillside under the words “the end.” Davies died in the school. Barker heard the story of Eryl Mai Jones, a ten-year-old girl, “not given to imagination,” who had told her mother two weeks before the collapse that she was not afraid to die. Then, according to an account written by Glannant Jones, a local minister, signed by Eryl Mai’s parents and later published by Barker:
The day before the disaster she said to her mother, “Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.” Her mother answered gently, “Darling, I’ve no time. Tell me again later.” The child replied, “No Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!”
Barker was a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 to investigate the paranormal. In a paper for the S.P.R.’s journal, he wrote that, even if people had experienced a plausible prophecy of what happened in Aberfan, there had been no way to report a warning, let alone for it to be believed: “Firstly because their premonitions would probably have been insufficiently clear, and secondly because no means existed for them to communicate them to the proper authorities.”
Given the singular nature of the disaster, Barker decided to collect premonitions of Aberfan from across the country. He asked Peter Fairley, the science correspondent of London’s Evening Standard, to publicize the experiment.
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On October 28th, a week after the disaster, Fairley carried Barker’s appeal in his “World of Science” column. “Did anyone have a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan? That is what a senior British psychiatrist would like to know,” Fairley wrote. The Evening Standard had a circulation of almost six hundred thousand; Middleton would read it in bed in the afternoon. She mailed an account of her premonition on November 1st.
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Barker received seventy-six replies to his Aberfan appeal. Two nights before the disaster, a sixty-three-year-old man from Bacup, in Lancashire, had dreamed that he was trying to buy a book. He faced a large machine with buttons, which he thought might be a computer. White letters spelled “aberfan” on the screen, a word he had not heard before. In Plymouth, the evening before the coal slide, a woman had a vision at a Spiritualist meeting. She told six witnesses that she saw a schoolhouse, a Welsh miner, and “an avalanche of coal hurtling down a mountainside” toward a boy with long bangs. Within minutes of the disaster, a thirty-year-old film technician from Middlesex jumped up from her chair complaining of an earthy, decaying smell, which she recognized as that of death.
Barker was particularly drawn to a group of seven correspondents, including Kathleen Middleton, whose premonitions were accompanied by physical as well as mental symptoms. In the manner of Enoch’s uncommon syndromes, Barker posited the existence of a “pre-disaster syndrome” experienced by a small subset of the population. These “human seismographs” have bodily sensations ahead of important or emotional events, not unlike twins who say that they feel each other’s pain even when they are hundreds of miles apart.
In the weeks after the Aberfan disaster, Barker replied to sixty “percipients,” as he called them, and travelled to meet several. The material he gathered convinced him that precognition was not unusual—he speculated that it might be as common as left-handedness—and he wondered how to broaden the experiment.
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In the weeks that followed, Fairley and Barker persuaded Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard, to open a premonitions bureau. For a year, readers would be invited to send in their dreams and forebodings, which would be compared with actual events. Fairley had a date stamp made. The experiment began on January 4, 1967. Fairley devised an eleven-point scoring system for the predictions: five points for unusualness, five points for accuracy, and one point for timing.
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The bureau got its first major hit in the spring of 1967. Alan Hencher, one of the Aberfan seers, telephoned Barker to predict a plane crash “over mountains.” “There are one hundred and twenty-three people, possibly one hundred and twenty-four,” he told Barker, who made notes during the call, which was at 6 a.m. on March 21st.
Thirty days later, a turboprop Britannia passenger aircraft, carrying a hundred and thirty people, attempted to land in Nicosia, Cyprus, during bad weather. The plane, which was on its way from Bangkok to Basel, made a low circuit of the airport, its lights visible through the clouds, before crashing into a hill, breaking into pieces, and catching fire. “124 die in airliner,” the Evening Standard reported on its front page. (Two more people later died.)
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Middleton had been worried about Senator Robert Kennedy for months. She had sent her first warning on March 11th. Four days later, she wrote to Barker again: “The word assassination continues. I cannot disconnect it from Robert Kennedy.” In early June, Middleton became frantic. She called the Premonitions Bureau three times on June 4th; Kennedy was killed shortly after midnight.
Link to the rest at The New Yorker