Pru sniffed disapprovingly, and immediately wished she hadn't. Nostrils such as hers expected the familiar and cloying scent of incense at times like these. They were disappointed here.
“Here” was a grimy flat at the top of a cramped concrete apartment building. The air stank of stale cigarette smoke and old food. Mind, it'd been more than a tad whiffy in the gloomy hallway. That was the stench of cats that wafted in from the stairwell. Strays liked to toilet there, out of the weather.
When there was no answer to her timid tap on the front door, she’d tried the handle. This was a bold move on her part, and she was not, by nature, a very forward person. To her surprise, it opened. The light was so poor she'd almost broken her neck tripping over a tangle of cheap sandals and sneakers. The first door on the left was ajar, and she could see beyond it to an ordinary loo. What a let down, that these were the first things she should see. Not mystical at all.
The next doorway looked more promising. Pru was sure there'd be a cosy cave beyond that beaded curtain. A haven smelling of patchouli and hung with colourful scarves.
But no. Not a bit of it.
It looked like a tiny living room, if a little cluttered and dusty. A lot cluttered and dusty, let's be honest.
This was her parlour was it?
Madam Sybille, a solid looking woman in her forties, was draped over a threadbare sofa. She was wrapped in a shapeless and faded green cardigan. Her long fake nails (how tacky, thought Pru) sported chipped orange polish. Her black leggings were stretched thin over her thick legs. She tucked one of her flip-flopped feet under her bottom without taking her eyes off the tiny TV. Her ash-blonde hair looked like it hadn't seen a hairbrush since the carpet saw a vacuum cleaner. She'd made a half hearted attempt to apply some make up, though. Unless that was yesterday's powder clogging her crow’s feet. Her eyes had the look of a crazed racoon that had been cursed by a Smurf.
Goodness, didn't the woman own a mirror?
A hasty glance around the room suggested that no, she didn't. Odd, she had every other sort of knick-knack.
Pru coughed politely to announce her presence. Sybille didn't move. Without looking away from her day-time soap, she said, "You're early."
Pru sniffed again (drat!) and said primly, "Better early than late."
"Hmph. Wouldn't be so sure about that." Sybille took a long drag on her cigarette, adding to the fug in the room that was making Pru's eyes water.
Pru squinted through it at the lifeless lump of a woman she'd come to see. Her sister-in-law Shirl had said this woman was the best. Really, honestly - the best she'd ever been to... But Pru was unimpressed. She'd been to plenty of mediums and fortune tellers and the like. Especially in the last few months. This one was complete rubbish. In every sense of the word. A slattern with no idea how to invoke the proper ambience. No incense. No shiny ball under a velvet cover on the little round table (which was cheap and had not been polished to a shine). Just an overflowing ashtray and several coffee rings. No crystals or candles. No music playing. No mystic shawls and bangles, enormous hooped earrings or beaded hair. No hooded cape, no runes, no tarot cards.
"Dead husband, right?"
Pru coughed into her hanky (that smoke was itching her throat) and nodded.
"Yes," she croaked.
"He doesn't want to talk to you. You should leave. Straight away."
For a moment, Pru was caught between agonising grief and indignation. How dare she! How dare this woman insult her, and insult her dear beloved George (God rest his soul) by speaking this way! Her widened eyes behind her large glasses gave her the look of a small grey owl. Her wispy hair, sticking out at the sides, and the coat that was a bit too big for her thin frame helped to complete the look.
“Well! I- I- Well, I find that very inappropriate!”
Madam Sybille looked unconcerned.
Pru lifted her chin and gathered her dignity. "Madam Sybille, I-"
"Oh, knock it off, luv. I'm not Madam Sybille until half past."
Pru floundered. Sybille, or whatever her name wasn’t, spoke again.
"Screw it. I suck at talking to the living. And the dead… well, they suck the life out of you. Look, lady, I bet I'm the first to be honest with you, more's the pity. Plus, I'm off the clock, so you're getting this for free. He doesn't want to talk to you. Go ho- wait." Her eyes glazed over, and she shook her head, looking irritated. "Fine. Whatever. Don't go. Have a cup of tea first."
Pru cast her eyes about, looking for an empty seat. Even better, one next to a surface she could rest a cup on. She saw neither. An awkward silence stretched between them like a rubber band, threatening to twang. Pru felt uncomfortable. At this moment she was perched right on the edge of turning around and leaving.
"Alright, no need to nag, look, see, I'm getting up, I'm going...." Not-Sybille stabbed her cigarette out in the overfull ashtray as if she had a grudge against it, and heaved herself up off the cushions.
Pru was offended all over again. She hadn't “nagged”. She hadn’t said a word! In her humble opinion, this woman was a terrible fraud. And worse, rude. She gripped her little handbag as if it were her only weapon against charlatans and indecency. Sybille's beady little eyes locked with hers at last.
"Tea, was it? Come on, you might as well come through."
She crossed the room and pushed through a second beaded curtain into a tiny kitchen. The grieving little old woman, with few other options, trailed behind her.
The fortune teller manoeuvred the greasy kettle around the dirty crockery. She raised her voice over the groaning and gushing of the tap.
"Funny looking little fella, yes? Name of George. Sticky-out ears and a scar on his chin. Watery eyes. Hayfever, I think. Milkman. Died four months ago. Cancer. Bowel. That him? Bites his nails all the time."
“Only when he was nervous.” Her heart beat faster. Maybe she does know her stuff after all.
"Mhm. All the time." The medium switched on the kettle and put teabags into chipped mugs. While she waited for the water to boil, she leaned her bottom on the edge of the sticky counter. Stretched out her legs and crossed one dirty foot over the other. It didn't seem to cross her mind that she'd only just extinguished a cigarette a moment ago. She palmed the pack from her sleeve and lit another. Carton and lighter disappeared again into the folds of her cardigan. She tucked one hand into her armpit, drew deeply, and pointed her two cigarette fingers at Pru.
"You need to be more careful. Most mediums are frauds. I got all that off your Facebook page."
Pru looked a little bit dejected.
Definitely-not-Sybil puffed a long plume of smoke towards the yellowing ceiling. "I don't know how you think all this works. But it takes effort for the dead to be here. Where do you think they get the energy from? Muggins, that's who."
She turned to pour the boiling water, waving a hand as if swatting a fly. “Yes, yes, ok, ok.” The cigarette wobbled in her mouth with every word. "Look, I know you come in here, judging me and all that, but the truth is They only come to me because you lot do. Every hour of the day and night I've got the living leaving messages for the dead, and vice versa. I can't keep it all straight. I can't get any kip. I’m so… so empty all the time… stretched thin… all the life sucked out of me. I’m knackered. I'm thinking of packing it in to be honest. Hardly anyone even believes me, anyway."
She gripped the rim of the mug in her stubby fingers, and handed it to Pru handle-first. A long stem of ash threatened to plop into it. She tapped it absent-mindedly over the sink and settled back against the counter.
"Thing is, good fortunes are rare. People don't like the true ones. They don't want to believe them. And where do you think I get them from? From Them. That's the payment. For what they take. For what they suck out of me."
Pru wondered how much ash and smoke had gone into her tea, and steeled herself to take one small courtesy sip. Truth be told, she'd often wondered how the spirits knew the future. It looked like this woman might be about to share some secrets of her trade. If I can believe her one jot, which I doubt.
"Death disconnects you from - listen, do you know anything about... oh I don't know. Quantum physics?"
Pru gripped the hot mug and shook her head.
"So if I said space-time continuum, would that mean anything at all to you?"
She shook her head again, taking another sip. It wasn't bad, actually. Exactly how she liked it.
"Pity. Anyway. Death snips you off from it. Some are better at it than others. Your George is a standard talent. He can see a little way into your future. That's why you're still here, and me yapping at you. If we don't time your exit right... Well. To be frank with you, he says you're going to get hit by a bus when you walk out of here."
Pru snorted her tea back into the mug in shock.
"I beg your pardon?" She took her balled up hanky from her pocket and dabbed flecks of tea from her face and glasses.
"You heard. So at first he was hopping up and down to get me to make you leave. But you didn't go fast enough, and now he's yelling at me to get you to stay. I thought it might be easier to just tell you."
Pru felt quite disturbed. She put her half full mug of cooling tea down on the rickety little table, and tucked the money under it.
"I think I've heard quite enough," she wavered. Then she turned her back on the woman and stalked out.
The fraud was still speaking. Saying sorry. Asking her to stay a little longer. To finish her tea at least. Please. She’d even light some candles or something. Might be some joss sticks in the drawer…
Despite her scepticism, Pru was shaken. Her heart was pounding fit to rattle her ribs. Even so, she took great care to check both ways before stepping off the kerb.
Just a second.
I don't even have a Facebook.
Inside the flat, Cassie was rinsing the tea and ash down the drain when she heard the crash.
"Sorry," she said sadly to the empty air. "I tried. I really did."
The air really was empty. He'd gone. For once, her flat was completely still. Silent. At peace.
Outside, a couple bickered lovingly on the pavement. The man comforted his wife and berated her by turns. He put his arm around her and told her off for dawdling in the street. He kissed her hair and told her she shouldn't have left so soon.
Pru interrupted his gentle chiding to ask, “Why didn’t you want to talk to me?”
His eyes held the ghost of tears, and he answered her in a soft voice, “I was hoping not to for another twenty years or so.” He pushed the memory of his spectacles back up his thin pink nose, and added, "I wanted you to leave quick and miss that bus."
No one paid them the slightest bit of attention. Everyone else was clustered around the accident and the sorry remains at its hub. Pru nudged him in the ribs. “I’m here now,” she said. “Is it so bad?” She sighed and leaned against him, his tender scolding washing over her. She smiled into his pigeon chest. Unseen, the pair faded gently from view.