So, I'd had a few. But the Guinness in Dublin is beyond compare, and I have as much willpower as I have savings. Yes, Mastercard was sponsoring this trip to the Emerald Isle as it had so many excursions before, my one and only constant travelling companion.
How long had I spent on O'Connell Bridge mesmerised by the yellow October sun twinkling off the Liffey as it bid adieu to another day? Too long, it seemed. A chill ensorceled me, breaking the spell as the sun sucked the last of its warmth beneath the horizon with it en route to New York, et al, on America's East Coast.
A stark choice imposed itself on my mind: find a pub and perpetuate the alcohol high before, like the sun, becoming oblivious of another night. Or head back to my digs, grab an hour's kip and, y'know, maybe remember a night in Dublin before I headed back to Blighty tomorrow.
The 'cash advance' receipt in my pocket made up my mind for me. I turned away from O'Connell Street and back towards Christchurch and the Jury's I'd chosen as basecamp for this weekend. Who knew: I may even break tradition and line my stomach with something other than stout.
It was as I was hurrying past the convolution of disbanding market vendors that I felt a curious draw on my psyche. It began as a mere whisper, but soon became an almost physical tug on my body, dragging me between the stalls and jostling me through the upturned tables and empty boxes, as if the market itself had spat me out.
For a good thirty seconds, I was truly discombobulated. Then, everything changed.
Some titanic invisible force seemed to drag the claustrophobic skyline of Dublin's towering historic buildings back to the distant horizons. The mercurial yellow sunset sky morphed into pink, purple and blue bloated heavens. The very tarmac beneath my feet gave way to a compact, pebble-strewn, sun-bleached desert.
My body felt harried, my mind violated and, upon trying to parse my new surroundings, utter confusion stirred my consciousness into a turgid puddle.
Then, I saw it: the gypsy tent, its flap protesting against a breeze that, though blowing with unquestionable force against the ageing canvas, didn't ruffle so much as a feather on me despite my close proximity.
How could I have missed the tatty little structure? Some instinct told me the gypsy tent was an anchor between this new world in which I found myself and the one that had just ejected me from it. It was as real back there as it was here, yet I'd never seen it before. Its claret and indigo broad stripes dominated my vision, its tiny indigo flag flapping like a wind sock in the bustling breeze, affecting the tent flaps in exactly the same manner as if desperate to attract my attention.
Then, I'll be blown, but I saw the body of wind take shape and begin to move towards me. The flag drooped, a flap wrapped around one side of the tent rendering the doorway half open, and the mini-hurricane wrapped itself around me instead. It carried me at impossible speed - as if the distance between the tent and I simply disappeared - before plopping me just inside the open flap.
Every instinct screamed turn and flee, but my feet were rooted in the tent's Stygian darkness. Not a glimmer of the kaleidoscopic sky's pinks and blues found egress beyond the doorway, any shadow I cast swallowed by the blackness that swarmed around me like a living entity.
I'd stood there a while - not the foggiest how long, nor what shape any thoughts of escape may have taken - when my subconscious clocked the room getting progressively lighter. I'd been staring at the brightening crystal ball for several minutes before I realised I had begun to see quite clearly.
As the brightness grew and the inner sanctum of the fortune teller's station revealed itself, so grew the temerity and detail of strange, disturbing thoughts threatening my consciousness. There was no one definite image; rather, a collage of colours that spelled out disaster swirled before my mind's eye. Soon, a lurking fear began to spread throughout my body, starting at my coccyx before working its way to my body's extremities (yes, all of them).
It was then that she appeared, literally out of nowhere, sitting on one side of her gypsy table, the selenite whiteness of the crystal ball casting a thousand shadows across her countenance. She stretched her hand towards me (at first I thought beckoning me); all the colours of the disaster whirl spiralled together and flowed into her palm as if disappearing down a plughole.
Before I could take in the wonder of the spectacle, I was sitting in the chair opposite her, again the space between us disappearing rather than me traversing the short distance.
To my utter surprise, she was nothing like as old as the original impression of her I'd got from against the crystal ball's blinding beams. Yes, she was older than me, but only slightly; thirty tops, by my reckoning. Yet her eyes contained the mysteries of decades, centuries even. If they didn't unnerve me so, I'd have no doubt found her rather attractive, in a handsome sort of way.
Those eyes locked onto mine and, for the second time since appearing in this adjacent pocket of reality, my mind felt violated. There was not a secret I could keep from her, even if I wanted to.
But even in this stupor, I could tell how persuasive she could be. I truly believe if she'd have asked me anything, I'd have answered her truthfully on the spot, even those things you know you've done throughout your life and hope to god no one ever finds about them (other than, say, the respective other parties involved in those memories).
"Jacky," she muttered to me over the crystal ball, her eyes staring deeply into the swirling clouds therein, her palms either side seemingly manipulating the tufts, clearing spaces then fogging them over again.
I wasn't the least surprised she knew my name. "Mmm?" I answered, the tumbling clouds (and the several Guinness sloshing about my stomach) lulling me into a semi-doze.
"Your future's here," she said, at last looking up at me again. "Would you like to know it?"
The synapses were at last snapping back together, my mind beginning to clear at the same rate as the clouds were dispersing in the crystal ball. A soft, warm yellow light now filled the tent, but I had no idea whence it came.
"If I was to say 'No'," I answered, "what would happen?"
"That depends on you, Jacky," she said. "I can see a path awaiting you should nothing change, and you choose to proceed on your return to Birmingham tomorrow. But you are your own agent of change. All you need is a trigger, and the disaster can be averted."
I wasn't comfortable with the word 'disaster' in there. Not one bit. I began, "I thought you were going to say something like, 'If you carry on drinking you'll be dead by the time you're thirty.'
"But 'disaster', you say? That sounds like something far more explicit, even imminent, right? How'm I doing so far?" I asked.
"You're a natural," she answered, smiling (rather too much to herself, I thought). "Should we see what the cards have to say?"
I looked down onto the table and the crystal ball had simply vanished, a set of Tarot sat unevenly stacked on the claret velvet in its place.
"Up until about fifteen minutes ago," I answered, "I wouldn't have given you a Euro for a reading…
"...ooh, this isn't going to cost me anything, is it?" I asked, panicking.
"I never charge for a reading," she said "not in the way you mean. I won't take a penny from you. But that doesn't mean there isn't a cost.
"So," she said, "can I take it you believe?"
I nodded and reached forward to straighten the pack - I'm a bit of an obsessive like that, straightening piles of beer mats a speciality - when a shock of lightning self-generated from the air and struck the back of my hand, pinning it to the table long before it could interfere with the cards.
Not being the toughest guy you'll ever meet, I yelped like a schoolgirl, again eliciting a smirk from…
…from whom? I realised I didn't know my gypsy's name.
Before I could say as much, she placed her hands on the pack. "Maarah," she said. "My name," she added, as I looked blank at her.
Before I could acknowledge Maarah, I felt the weight leave my scorched hand; I hastily (grumpily) withdrew it, urgently needing to check it for any lasting damage.
"You are keen, aren't you?" she asked. "Good for you."
I knew absolutely nothing about Tarot, but my trust in her was total. I didn't decide that I trusted her; I just did. Despite the weirdness I'd experienced since arriving, her demeanour put me at ease. I'd been told I had a similar calming effect on people, too. Great for winning friends, especially of the female variety. But making strangers feel safe, by its nature, has only momentary appeal. Great in a bar scenario, but not conducive to relationships.
I picked up something of the same about her, too. Her isolation here, surrounded by a city, but passed by or ostracised by its occupants, just because of her nature. I knew that feeling; no one gets close to a borderline alcoholic who always has too much month left at the end of his money. If she'd had pale skin, ginger hair and blue eyes (rather than her long, dark curly hair, olive skin and chocolate eyes), it would have been like looking in a mirror.
I should have realised then what was happening. Divining so much about a person without the aid of several pints and two hours talking shite was so out of character for me.
Instead, we got on with the Tarot reading. We used the Celtic Cross layout, as you'd expect in (sort of) Dublin. There was a lifeline and a storyline (as I understood them in my ignorance). And when I didn't see Death or the Hanged Man, I thought everything was cool.
Looking back, I shudder at my own naivete. Not just in the drawing and reading of the cards, but the whole episode. And in all honesty, I can't remember what cards I drew. I just remember Maarah spelling out the consequences.
What was her prophecy? Simply this: if I got on the plane back to Birmingham tomorrow, I wouldn't get off.
Of course I scoffed at such a suggestion. In the time it took to throw my head back and ask 'Really?', the cards had gone and in their place a Ouija board had appeared. We got straight into it, invited the spirit in, and asked it questions. Her answers, the spirit's, confirmed Maarah's prediction.
We thanked the spirit, let her out and, before my very eyes, Maarah folded the Ouija board in half, then let it drop open, whereupon it changed into the crystal ball. She invited me closer and I watched the events transpiring amongst the clouds in there like watching a movie.
It was a plane, the airline I was booked on to get back to Blighty. I could even see myself in the window seat. I couldn't be sure of the exact seat I was sitting at in the crystal ball's playback, but it looked close enough to 16A, the extra legroom seat I'd pre-booked for the flight home.
All of a sudden, an explosion ripped one of the engines apart. I couldn't bring myself to watch the last few hundred feet of the plane's descent. But before I turned away from the crystal ball, I saw 'me' look out the window directly at the me sat at the gypsy table imploring me to take action. My only choice now, sat here with Maarah, was to at least see what my options were.
Needless to say, my scoffing was done. But I did get another one of those unusual moments of clarity.
"You knew this, didn't you?" I stated, not asked. "In fact, the reason I'm here - the whole disappearing buildings, mini hurricanes and invasions of my mind - it's because I can change my path, right?"
"I knew you were the right person for the job," she said, "But, yes. I have a proposal for you. It's the same one that I was offered over a century ago. I urge you to take it."
"Go on," I said.
"110 years ago, I was supposed to get on a boat at Queenstown. That would have been April 11th.
"Lucky for me, I'd been invited to spend Easter with my cousin in Donaghmede the week before. Sadly, my hat had been sullied in the Easter parade and my cousin had pointed me towards a trusted milliner. On the day in question, the Wednesday, I'd come to fetch it ahead of the trip to America. It was the day before we were due to head down to Queenstown.
"Having been what you've just been through," she said, "you might guess the rest. En route to the milliner, I was drawn to this tent as you were today. The then occupier offered me a similar choice to the one I'm going to offer you."
Maarah sighed, then continued, "I had no choice, and never did see my hat again. There was an upside, though; my cousin was so distraught at my disappearance that she never boarded The Titanic, but stayed in Dublin and lived a wonderful life.
"So, Jacky, here's the offer. Do you want to board a doomed plane tomorrow, or will you relieve me of my duty here?" she asked, that smile touching a dimple, touching her eyes.
I had it in mind to leave her hanging for a while, until I remembered she could see into my mind. "That's a rhetorical question, right?" I said. She nodded.
"What will happen to you?" I asked.
"I will pick up my life as best as I can. I've not aged a day in over a century. My predecessor hadn't aged, either, and I watched him live out a very full life with the help of the gadgets about the tent," she said, casting a hand about her, satisfaction settling over her like a chanile shawl.
"You're free to watch me, too, Jacky, if you have nothing better to do. I rather hope you will; just knowing that I know someone in this day and age will be a comfort, even if we never see each other again," she said.
I nodded, sighed. I closed my eyes just to gather my thoughts, only for a second. "Okay," I said, looking to where she'd been seated, "When do I star…?"
Of course, she was gone. I looked into the crystal ball. It looked oh, so different. Whatever powers Maarah possessed were now finding their ways though my body. But she was there, in the ball. She turned, looked right at me from wherever she now was outside the tent and waved a gloved hand at me; that smile…
I got up and looked out of the tent flap. The market vendors were there, just as they'd been as I passed them earlier, putting away their wares, their stalls. I was just wondering when my first client would turn up when a breeze flapped the flag into life.
That would be the signal, I realised, until one day a storm would whip itself around the tent and I'd be free again. It was likely to be a long time before I had my next pint of Guinness…
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