"She's a fortune teller, you know, though you'd never know it. Look at her, wobbling along on her bicycle.
"If she could really read the future or anything, she'd do something useful wouldn't she? Win the lottery or something."
"She must know nobody likes her."
The woman doesn't have to be a mystic to know what they think of her. Even if they troubled themselves to keep their voices down, it is stamped all over their faces.
"Madam Sybille" cuts an unpopular figure, I'm afraid. Not only is she a woman, she is also aging, which is barely allowed. Worse, her waist is not that of a teenager. It has thickened with age and children and food that tastes good. Or at least, food that's convenient enough that it barely matters what it tastes like. Her fat be-legginged bottom eats the saddle. A Safeway bag of ready-meals-for-one dangles off one handlebar. Her hair is a thick, dirty-blonde cloud of waves, split ends, and stale smoke. She has a cigarette sticking out of her mouth, which is set in a defiant line. She knows what they think of her.
The kids whisper behind their hands, following her with their spiteful little eyes.
There's one, there, look, right on the edge of the group. Do you see her? Pale and thoughtful looking. Short. A little sprite of a thing. All skin and bone. She's eleven, but she doesn't look it. Her clothes are not in fashion. Brown hair in a bob, and a sad, frightened air. She has the distinct look of a kid from a troubled home. She watches the woman long after the other kids have lost interest. They pay no attention when she makes her excuses and hurries in the direction the bike went.
When she reaches the high rise block, she doesn't have to be buzzed in - the door sticks in the damp, and it's been raining. She pauses to look at the names, though. There isn't one for "Madam Sybille". She has no idea which flat to go to. She doesn't even know what floor.
Once inside, she's catches sight of the unlikely fortune teller. She's in the elevator with her bicycle. Lighting another cigarette next to the sign that says, "WE THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING". Her face is lit up cherry red, and then she disappears behind the sliding doors.
Anna takes the stairs two at a time. Cheap, worn sneakers pound the cat-piss flavoured carpet into submission with unusual energy. Her fine hair whips from side to side when she pauses at the top, looking for Madam Sybille. Has she left the elevator yet? She could be making her way to her flat, or at her front door already. She runs again, stick-like arms pumping hard. She's scrawny, almost not there at all. Each time she pauses, looking for her target, she looks like a stiff breeze would knock her down the stairs. She is panting a little from exertion. Pelting so hard up the steps she's tilted forward, almost running on all fours like an animal. Her hands do make contact with the disgusting carpet, but not for long. She brushes them off against her her jeans and keeps going.
Nondescript. If you had to describe Anna in one word, that would be it. One of those kids that blends in to the crowd. If you don't concentrate, you wouldn't see her at all. She is a background sort of person.
Aha! There she is!
Right at the top of the building, Anna spots her. Madame Sybille is juggling keys, her bike, her plastic bag of ready meals, and her cigarette. She shoves the latter between her lips, which should have made her task a bit easier. It would have, if she weren't balancing on one foot. She's using the other to shoo the white and calico cat away from her door. She's cursing at it. It looks emaciated. Anna feels a pang. She likes animals. She likes them more than people. Animals notice her. People tended to talk over her and around her, as if she weren't there.
Anna takes a steadying breath and wipes sweaty palms on her jeans. Then she steps forward to accost the woman before she disappears into her flat.
"Is it true?"
Sybille peers at her through a haze of smoke and yesterday's mascara.
"Oh, gawd," she says around the cigarette, "Not you an' all."
"Is it true?" Anna says again. "Can you really read minds? Tell the future? And..." she hesitates for a moment, on a crest of hope. "Speak to the dead?"
Sybille's features soften with pity. She's a jaded woman, but she isn't heartless. She takes the cig out of her mouth and her voice gentles. "Come on, kid. You'd better come in. Garrr, get out of it you wretched - sorry, not you - blasted cat - go on, - shoo!"
The cat scurries away, tail bottle-brushing and ears flattened. Anna watches it go and decides to look for it afterwards. For now she has other business to attend to.
She follows Sybille into the flat. Sybille doesn't ask her to help carry anything, and Anna doesn't offer. She is dawdling in the doorway, hoping the cat comes back.
Sybille leans the bike against the wall. She doesn't remove her flip-flops, which stick in places to the grubby tiles. She doesn't take off her cardigan either, but pulls it around her and shivers. It's colder in here than it was outside. Sybille reaches out to close the door, muttering about the draught. Safeway bag swinging from one hand, she gestures Anna to follow her down the hallway into the kitchen.
"I have a guest!" she calls out, as if to as unseen room mate. "I don't want to be disturbed!" Then, in a more normal voice, "I'm going to have a brew. I reckon you're too young for caffeine, and I'm afraid I don't have squash."
Anna shrugs. The movement seems huge in the tiny kitchen.
"It's OK," she says, "I'm not thirsty."
"So," Sybille eyeballs the level on the kettle and flips the switch. "What can I do for you, kid?"
"I'm looking for someone."
"Ah. I see. A living someone?"
Anna's eyes well with tears and her voice cracks. "I'm not sure."
A gentle silence swells between them. It is a listening sort of silence, like the most delicate cobweb. The medium is careful not to break it.
"Please," she waves a hand, "my friends call me Cassie. Or Cass. I don't know. I don't seem to have the knack for friends." She pulls a face and waggles her hands, twirling a finger by her temple. Anna laughs, a light sparkling sound, and some of the thickness leaves the air.
"What does it cost?"
"Depends, luv. What's being asked. Who's asking. I doubt you've got any money on you. And some don't even pay me in money. To be honest, I don't think you can afford me. But it doesn't matter. Why don't you talk to me about what you need and I'll see if there's anything I can do. You're a kid. I'm hardly going to turn you away, am I?"
Her tone is much gentler than usual. Maybe she likes children. Maybe Anna reminds her of one of her own kids. Maybe she can tell Anna is in some kind of trouble.
"I'm looking for my mum."
That cobweb again. Lengthening and thickening. Unbroken by the homely sounds of the boiling kettle, and the clink of a teaspoon. These sounds only serve to tame the silence. Make it friendly, less imposing.
"How the f- how did you get in here?" Cass scowls at the cat, but Anna beams and scoops the fleabitten creature into her arms. Cass sips from her mug and watches them thoughtfully.
She points to a beaded curtain with her two cigarette fingers. "We'll sit through there. Hold on to her. I don't want the stink of cat pi- cat widdle in my flat."
There are two tiny sofas in the cramped sitting room. It's very obvious where Cass sits. There is a divot in the sofa, and she has further marked her territory with magazines, an ashtray, and various snack wrappers. The other is heaped with old envelopes, an overflowing laundry basket, a jigsaw puzzle, and more Safeway bags. Unembarrassed, Cass dumps the hamper on the floor, taking the opportunity to shove her underwear out of sight. This makes enough room for a child's bottom, especially one as rake-thin as Anna. The kid still hovers, uncertain.
"It might help," Cass prompts her, "if, to start with, you just tell me a little bit about yourself."
Anna hugs the cat tight, and thinks for a moment, where to begin.
"Ummm. Well, my name is Anna. My dad changed after the accident. The car accident, you know. It was pretty bad. The firemen had to cut us all out. Anyway. After that, he drank a lot. Shouted all the time." Her lip is trembling. Cass interrupts, more to give Anna a few moments where she isn't expected to speak than anything else.
"That sounds hard. I've been in an accident like that, too. It changes you. I took a right crack on the head. Nothing's been the same since."
The cobweb snakes between them again, knitting a dark, quiet hole for Anna to drop her words into.
"After mum got pregnant, he got worse. Started pushing her around. One night, he almost pushed her down the stairs. I begged him to stop, but he wouldn't listen... I could never make him stop. Then one day, mum hit him back. Picked up the base of the old blender and really dinged him with it. Knocked him out. There was blood everywhere. She grabbed her stuff and ran out of the house. I haven't seen her since."
Her face looks pinched and tight. Cass prods her cigarette out in the ashtray and asks,
"And your dad?"
"It's me he shouts at now." She looks glum, one of her feet scuffing a miserable tattoo on the rug. And yet... maybe it is the effect of just being listened to for once. It seems to be doing her good. She looks less washed out. She is in the foreground for a change.
"I miss my mum. I've run away before, but I have no idea how to find her. How to start looking. No one will help me. No one listens to me. I don't know what to do. I can't stay with him anymore. But..." Tears threaten, and she rubs them away with the heel of her hand. "Why did she leave me behind? Why didn't she want me?" Cass already has another cigarette lit, and she is sucking on it ponderously. She doesn't take her eyes off Anna.
"Do you know," she says, "how this works?"
Anna shakes her head.
"When a person dies, they don't have to obey the same rules as the rest of us anymore. Time and space, that sort of thing. Most of them can see at least a little of the future. At least, as it matters to them and the people they are close to. Does this make sense so far?"
"I guess so. But how does that help me find my mum?"
"I'm getting to that. Some of them like familiarity. They like to go over the same little loop of time over and over again. It means they know what is coming, right to the end of their little loop, even if it's quite a way in the future."
"So..." Anna is looking thoughtful. "All we have to do is find a ghost who knows..." she trails off, frowning.
"Tricky, isn't it? Don't worry, there's more. Ghosts can't usually just hang around with the living. It takes a lot of effort for them to be here. I mean, they can sort of hang around, a suggestion of themselves... But if they want to really communicate. If they want to be seen or heard... that takes more energy. Which they take from people. People like me. Sometimes, if they don't know what's happened to them... If they don't understand or accept it... and if they are an especially strong personality... Well, then they just suck the energy right out of people without even knowing about it, and try to carry on like normal."
"I still don't get how that will help me find my mum," Anna is a little confused, and is starting to appear sulky.
"Honey," Cass leans forward, capturing her with her eyes, "I don't think we have to. I think, if we are patient, your mum might find us."
For a moment, Anna's face lights up at the prospect of seeing her mother again, and then sinks as realisation dawns.
"But... does that mean she's dead?"
"She might be, honey. She might be. But if she is... maybe she can still help you come up with a way to get away from your dad."
Cass is still watching her intently. Choosing her words carefully and watching how they land.
This time, the cobweb is broken by knocking. Cass doesn't move, or take her eyes off Anna.
"Come in!" she calls out.
A moment later, a smiling woman steps into the room, bringing the smell of summer strawberries with her. Half a beat later, Anna is already crossing the room at a run, aiming right for the woman's middle. She throws herself at her so fiercely, it's like she is trying to power right through her, and the beaded curtains behind her.
The woman looks up and locks eyes with Cass over Anna's head.
Thank you, she mouths.
"Anna here was just telling me about what life's been like with her dad since the accident."
The woman's smile falters.
"I imagine you two have a lot to talk about. I haven't spoken out of turn. Anna's had a rough time and... Well, there are some things a girl should hear from her mother. It wasn't really my place, if you get my drift. Whatever it is you need to say... Well, go easy. Gently does it. Don't you think?"
The woman nods her understanding.
Anna isn't listening. "Mum! Oh, Mum, I - I thought you were dead!"
The woman swallows whatever truths were on her tongue and her voice is soft against Anna's hair.
"Oh, sweetheart," she says, "So did I."
Cass finishes her cigarette and speaks to the dust motes in the air.
"Right. The rest of you, push off. Whatever it is can wait. I need a nap."
She doesn't walk through the spot where the woman and her daughter were standing just moments before. It doesn't feel right, somehow. Instead, she goes through to her little kitchen and from there, crosses the hallway to her bedroom.
"You know the rules!" she calls out, "No bugging me in my bedroom! Let me kip!" She bangs the door for emphasis, and collapses fully clothed on the bed.
Sustaining two at once is even more exhausting. She is asleep before her head hits the pillow.
A minute later, the cat hops up on to the end of the bed and makes herself comfortable. She curls into the spot where the sunshine lands, purring up a storm and trying to knead the bed sheets. Perhaps it is a trick of the light, but she looks a little healthier. Less fuzzy round the edges. Oblivious, Cass is already snoring.
In the kitchen, the ready meals are defrosting on the countertop.