Dad and his three kids, the youngest holding a very sad-looking and forgotten brown fluffy teddy bear by one of its stuffed legs, stand in front of a sideshow fairground tent. The date is 30 September 1973 and they are at the Bridgewater Country Fair. Bridgewater is an old but unremarkable town in the middle of Somerset in the South West of England. However, it does have the distinction of hosting the largest annual country fair in the South West and every Autumn the crowds descend on Bridgewater from as far afield as Bristol and Exeter.
Dad, Ken, is an athletic looking 40-year-old. He needs to be because he is a lead farm hand and farming is all he has ever known since leaving school at 16. Dan and his family have lived in a Tied Cottage, owned by Ted his employer, for the last 16 years. It’s just outside Highbridge which is about eight miles up the A38 from Bridgewater.
From the distant dodgem car Tannoy the bass-free song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree” is echoing down the rows of attractions and they are standing ankle deep in wet sloshy mud The rain has stopped today, but it has rained hard every day for the last week. It’s the wettest fair in its 40-year history. They have been there all day looking at the farm animals and judging competitions and ever since tea, comprising boiled hamburger and soggy chips, they have been doing the rounds of all the fairground rides and attractions. They have been on nearly every ride including the big dipper and dodgems. They have tried many of the sideshow games even though they are all fixed for you to win nothing, except for the bear. As is often the case at fairs the sideshow attractions like the one they are looking at now are older, moldier, and emptier of patrons than the main attractions. The faded, poorly tie and lopsided sign on the tent at this one reads “Madame Nefertiti. Fortune Teller Extraordinaire”, but spelled Extrordinair, and underneath in smaller letters “Tarot, Palm and Crystal Ball Readings 40p”
Dad says “Forty P? That’s more than two pints of beer.”
Stella replies. “Yea. But you get two for the price of one. Me and Meg will go in together while you and Jimmy are off doin’ somethin else. And anyway. Meg's been on about it all day while you traipsed us round the farm animals.” Stella is thirteen with blue eyes and dark hair in a ponytail, thinks she’s grown up and likes to mother Meg who is eleven. Meg doesn’t always appreciate her sister’s caring attention, which she’s done since she was four. About the time Stella started to understand the significance of a family without a mother. Their mother had died during Meg’s birth. The family had rallied around with loving support for Ken and the kids and Ken, with a steady, if low-paid job, and a rent-free cottage thrown in had done a very passable job as a single parent. They were a tight family unit.
“Okay”. Dad handed Stella a one-pound coin. “But I want the change back mind. Last time I went to see a fortune teller the sign outside said ‘Closed due to unforeseen circumstances.” Ken loved his Dad jokes. The kids not so much. “Come on Jimmy. Jimmy always stays close to his Dad when they are out together. Let’s see if the queue has shortened on the Giant Swing Boat ride. Wait here when you’ve finished. We'll come back for you. And don’t let Meg go wandering off”
As Dad and Jimmy left The Osmond’s “Crazy Horses” started up on the Tannoy. Meg took a breath, hitched up the bear under her arm and grasped Stella’s hand as they walk timidly towards the tent’s door flap. Stella bent down slightly to enter holding the flap open with her free hand for Meg. Inside the light was gloomy and there was a damp musty smell of old straw and fetid mud. There was the smell of something else too but the girls didn’t know that it was juniper. The distinct aroma of gin.
As their eyes adjusted the shadowy figure sitting at a square card table across the tent took shape. An old woman. But old to the girls was anybody over thirty. She had a wrinkled face with watery large eyes. She smiled at them through yellowed teeth, some missing, and smudged red lipstick.
“Come in my dears.” she said with an affected Mediterranean accent. “Don’t be shy. Come sit”
The sisters shuffled forward, past faded Bedouin-style tent decorations, leaving solitary muddy footprints on the canvas-covered floor,. Meg hangs back slightly behind Stella but they both sit on the two rickety folding chairs opposite Madame Nefertiti.
“You’ve come to have your fortunes told?” Nefertiti is dressed in a worn, frayed red and gold larmei dress and shawl. On her head, slightly askew is an equally worn out matching turban with a large ruby red gem in the middle.
Stella, sarcastically. “Wow, that’s right. You are good”
Nefertiti, unmoved and looking directly at Meg said “40p”
Stella handed over the coin and the fortune teller opened an old tin. On the lid was the faded picture of a bear wearing a red waste coat riding a bike. She dropped the coin in and retrieved three 20p coins handing them to Stella.
“Tarot, palm or crystal ball?
Stella said.” What? We only get one for 40p? That’s more than two beers you know”
Meg spoke. ‘Crytal Ball please” Meg was a few inches shorter than Stella and she had blond curly hair. Just like her Mum’s. Ken could see his long-gone beautiful wife’s face every time he looked at Meg and it always made his heart surge.
Of the few things on the table, the crystal ball loomed large and Meg staired at it in fascination longing to see if, or even how, it worked. She could see both her own and Stella’s distorted reflections in it. Stella was more skeptical but said. “Yes. The Crystal Ball”
Madame Nefertiti leaned forward placing the palms of both hands around the ball. Her hands are dirty. Her nails painted red, matching her lipstick, are flaking cracked, and broken. The girls catch a stronger whiff of that unknown scent mixed with a generous helping of bad breath. They lean back.
The ball arch’s up with a mild pearl-coloured light and seems to have smoke swirling around inside it. It projects an eerie glow on the faces of all three. The red gem on Nefertiti’s turban glimmers in the strange light. Outside of the table, the rest of the room appears to darken. Stella thinks “Must have a switch or something under the table.” But Meg, mouth open now, was transfixed. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel cranked up, muffled now, on the Tannoy.
The fortune teller incanted. “What is gone is gone and what will be will be. What is written shall not be unwritten. In the name of Anubis tell us what lies ahead?”
Meg stifled a giggle at Anubis and Stella was reminded of Que Sera, Sera by Doris Day. However, the mistiness in the ball clears and the glow intensifies.
“I see a family of five. A family wealthy with love but not the wealth of money.”
Stella jumped on this. “Wrong. We are four….”
But before she could say more Nefertiti said. “Yes. That’s right. The mother is gone. Your father misses her every day.”
Meg now. “How can you know that?”
Stella whispers to Meg. “It's what they do. A lucky guess maybe. She could have been watching us with Dad and Jimmy when we were just outside.”
Not looking up from the ball Nefertiti carries on “Jimmy. Your older brother. He is damaged. Scarred. Oh, I see him now. With boys he doesn’t know. They have short, short hair and too short trousers. They are attacking him. Kicking him with their big boots. He will never forget.”
Meg now in awe says. “He was attacked last year by Skinheads, Bovver Boys, from Bristol. They didn’t hurt him too much but he’s always nervous going out now.”
Stella, uncertainly. “How could you know that?” That’s bonkers. That’s what that is.”
The Fortune Teller simply recites. “What is written shall not be unwritten.”
Meg, excited now says. That’s the past. We already knows that. What about the future. What’s goin’ to happen?”
Meg and Stella can see nothing in the ball but Nefertiti is looking in even more intently. Her eyes moving all around the ball as if searching for something hidden. Suddenly she catches her breath. Let’s out a gasp and quickly takes her hands off the ball as if it’s suddenly become hot. The pearlescent glow dims.
Meg is speechless but Stella says. What? What’d you, see? Tell us. We paid you 40p we want our money’s worth. That’s two pints of beer that is. We need to know”
“I cannot. It’s bad. Very bad. You are too young and you have already suffered so much loss?
Stella, now shouting while Meg is holding back sobs says. Oh, now you have to tell us. You can’t leave it like that. If you don’t, I’m straight out of here and complaining to the fairground owner.” That’s a bluff. She wouldn’t know where to begin.
“Alright, alright. I can only tell you what I see. May the gods help me” She pauses. “I have seen death. The death of two. An accident. Looks like a fall. But death it is. And soon. Very soon”.
Meg is now beside herself crying and Stella’s face is ashen. She is close to tears herself but won’t let her sister see she isn’t in control. Through shaking sobs Meg says. “Is it Dad? Is it Jimmy? No, we can’t lose them. We can’t. We just can’t. But if… If we know what’s going to happen, we can stop it can’t we? We can warn them to be careful.
Stella looks down at her younger sister and holds her. “I don’t think that they would ever believe us Meg. How could we possibly convince them. We’re just kids. Grown-ups don’t listen to us?”
Nefertiti looks at them both. “What is written shall not be unwritten. What will be done, will be done and you cannot change that”
Meg. Anger now rising. “You saw it. You said it. You make it change. You ask your Anus to change it. Make it right” She quickly holds her hand to her mouth realising what she may have just said.”
Mott the Hoople’s hit “Roll Away the Stone” percolates through the canvas.
The Fortune Teller. Her voice, softer now says. “It may be re-written but there’s a price to pay. And it’s always a high price”
Stella still holding the 20p coins in her now sweaty hand slams them onto the table. “Here. Here’s your payment. Plus 20p more to make it change. Save our Dad and our brother.”
“It’s more than money girls.” As she places the three coins back into the tin. “The price must still be paid. And the price is death.”
Meg shivers but she’s still angry says. “We don’t care. You’ve got your money now save them re-write it or whatever it is you do.”
Madame Nefertiti leans forward and places her hands on the ball once more. It the renewed glow she seems older. Older than anyone the sisters have ever seen. She begins her chant, but different this time. “Oh, great Anubis. I, your servant beseech you. Re-write what has been written. Hear my plea. The price will be paid. The price will be paid.” Motionless, she continues to gaze into the ball for some time. Seconds. But to Meg and Stella, it seems like an eternity.
Meg eventually breaks. “What’d you see? Tell us?”
Nefertiti sits back. She looks tired beyond tired. “I still see death. I see the death of three now and I see fur and blood and pain. Nothing more”.
They all sit in silence. Even the music from the Tannoy has stopped. The sisters have no idea how long they have been sitting there when they are jolted back to life by their father. One hand on each of their shoulders.
Dad says. “Come on. We’ve got to go” They look up at him. Jimmy is standing next to him. In the dim light, they don’t see how Ashen white they are or Meg’s tear-streamed face. He continues. “The fair has closed. There’s been a terrible accident.”
Jimmy excitedly and rushing to get it all out before his Dad could. “We was standing in the queue to go on the Giant Swinging Boat. We was looking up watching the go before us. I saw them skinheads that had a go at me before. Two of ‘em stood up just at the top of the swing and they fell straight out. Must have fallen 30 feet hitting a support beam on their way before splatting onto the mud.”
Dad now. “Yeah. Stupid dumb kids. They must’ve wriggled out from under the safety bar and fell straight to their deaths. There’s two mums and dads won’t see their boys tonight or ever again. It’s a real tragedy. Anyway. We’ve all got to go. They’ve shut the fair. I expect there’ll be an inquiry and all but you can’t figure stupidity.”
Jimmy, looking round said “What a dump. Where’s that Madame Nefertiti then? Was she any good?”
“Rubbish.” Stella lied.
“She must have gone out the back when you came in” Meg’s voice was a whisper. She said nothing else.
On their way out of the gate, a fairground worker was thanking people for coming and apologizing for the early closure.
Dad always up for a chat said. “That’s okay. We had a great time anyway. That fortune teller must’ve been good. These girls haven’t said a word since we left her.”
Stella said again. “She was rubbish” Meg was quiet.
The gate man, puzzled said. fortune teller? What fortune teller?
Dad replied. “Just down the sideshow row. Next to the ping pong ball clown heads”
“No, we haven’t had a Fortune Teller here since well before my time. Maybe 30 years now. I heard there was one once though. Loved her gin I'm told. She was here every year until....” The man hesitated and then more slowly. “Until the accident on the Giant Swing Boat. Two kids died just like tonight. Except that night the performing bear escaped its tether in the commotion it ran straight into her tent and mauled her to death. Nasty. She never stood a chance. No. We haven’t had a fortune teller or a bear since that day.”
As they walk away from the gate, with “Live and Let Die” audible very faintly from the distant Tannoy, Dad notices that he has one daughter on either side of him. They are both gripping his hands a little too tightly. He says. “Where’s my change Stella? You owe me 60p”
Just as the rain starts to fall Stella unclenches the palm of her hand for the first time since leaving Madame Nefertiti’s tent. She looks down to see the Queen's head on the one-pound coin her Dad had given her earlier. And the teddy bear? That was remembered later but was never seen again.