Love is the last thing on cynical rocker, Simone Hartley’s, mind. She’s too busy ticking off her bucket list to care about finding a “nice guy”. Frustrated by her chaotic family placing her in the middle of their dramas and constantly reminding her to settle down, Simone digs her heels in – point-blank refusing to look for love until she’s done with her list.
In the beginning, this was easy. Nobody who approached her was even remotely tempting, and she was happy enough to daydream about perfect Mr X instead; silently exploring snippets of those fantasies within the unfinished manuscript that sat on her desk.
All of that would be challenged though, when a psychic reading foretells of fateful cruxes in her destiny; predicting a fortuitous meeting with a handsome musician from across the waters, and of an inescapable tragedy that will change her world forever.
Life isn’t random. Her future is set. But with this knowledge now in Simone’s hands, will she be able to realign what fate has seemingly written in her stars? Only time will tell…
“Magic is the art of fate – creating visions of kaleidoscopic colour from life’s hidden truths. Nothing you see makes sense. Until finally, it all comes together.”
CHAPTER 1 – The Beginning
Expect the unexpected. That’s what they say, isn’t it? Hope for the best but expect the worst. Something along those lines, anyway. But not always do you see it coming. In fact, sometimes, everything seems to be going in one direction only for it to be steered off course into a complete other. That’s life, though. We are but blind drivers, whizzing down the road of our unmapped lives. Mind you, there’s usually a reason for it. That’s another little mantra for you: There’s a reason for everything. Cliché – but oh, so true. And in my life, I’d very much learned that – despite being so obviously worldly wise – not everything goes according to plan…
It all began so perfectly on that bright Sunday afternoon. There I was, creative juices flowing, merrily typing away on my laptop; my fingers buzzing with excitement as the perfect words flew into my head and out of my hands. Behind me, the radio on the kitchen counter was playing my favourite Aerosmith song (triggering a rather zealous bopping of the head) I was all but a broomstick away from re-enacting the famous scene from Mrs Doubtfire, and then my Mum called me in tears.
For a brief moment, I wrestled with my thoughts on whether to call back after I’d listened to the song. After all, it only had 2 more minutes left…But the incessant buzz of my phone on the desk guilt-tripped me into answering. No doubt I already knew what she was going to say though, and the sniffle-ridden greeting she gave me only confirmed my suspicions.
“I just thought I’d let you know that I’ve done it, Simone,’ she gibbered, a lump well-lodged in her throat, “I’ve signed everything. All the documents are with the court office now, ready to be finalised. It’s officially over. I even took him off my Facebook. As if I want to be reminded of his stupid smiling face every day!”
After 25 years of marriage, I could only imagine the pain Mum felt signing the divorce papers from Dad. They’d been in each other’s lives for so long now that erasing those memories would be near impossible, especially with two children serving as permanent reminders. Nevertheless, hearing her histrionic tenor regurgitate the same story from its new stage of development on what felt like an hourly basis was becoming rather exasperating. To be honest, working for the MI5 is probably a less intense job than this was.
“You’ve done the right thing, Mum,’ I softly reassured her, trying to speak with conviction on a subject I’d already heard a million times, “Now you can finally begin to move on.”
In the background, I could hear the chorus of the track. The infectiously catchy tune began to eek its way into my ears and drowned her words…Air guitaring would be so much fun right about now…Shaking my head, as if to rid the song from clutching my attention, I drew my focus back onto what she was saying.
“Isn’t it ironic that the last time you’ll ever see our names together will be on the Decree Absolute? No more, Mr Ian and Mrs Fiona Hartley. Stupid bastard. Good riddance to you, Ian Hartley. Good riddance to you and your stupid classic car toys, your tidal wave splashes that ruined my bathroom walls and to your stupid inability to keep your stupid penis in your stupid trousers!”
Ahh! Ahh! Du…Oops. I’m pretty sure that was where I lost focus. Mum’s conversation usually followed the same pattern, anyway. Stage 1: Self-pity, Stage 2: Reflective Sorrow and Stage 3: Anger. This was Stage 3, and it could go on for a while.
“Mhmm, you’re better off without him,” I interjected whilst turning down the radio and discreetly tearing open a tea bag, ready to make myself a cup after she’d gone, “Oh, I know!’ the light bulb in my head suddenly shining brighter than ever, “You should go on a holiday! I bet that’ll cheer you up.”
Call me heartless, but as much as I empathised and agreed with what Mum was saying, I really wanted to talk about something else. Plus, I knew this story of old.
Dad’s infidelities began over 3 years ago. It was only with one person – his secretary. How cliché! But this news was hardly a surprise. He’d told her not long after it happened, as she’d become suspicious of the sneaky late-night texts and the unusual grin permanently stitched on his face. Oh, and the fact that they didn’t seem to have sex anymore was a pretty big giveaway.
“Hmm, I don’t know,’ she replied, “I’ve never been anywhere alone before.”
When I lived at home, my little brother Seb and I listened to both sides of the story multiple times, and to be honest, it didn’t matter whose side we were on, it was time to just accept that their marriage was dead in the water. And as if things weren’t already tense enough in the Hartley household, Seb revealing that he was gay during this time didn’t exactly help. No one should have to hide who they are from their own family, I get that. But, waiting to make said revelation on his 16th birthday in front of the entire family was just awkward as hell. Everyone was already on tenterhooks with daily life, trying to make chit-chat about light-hearted matters and asking questions that cleverly evaded anything emotional. Nevertheless, there gets a point where words bubble up inside you so hard that they just boil over in the worst of moments. Seb’s moment began when the chorus of Happy Birthday kicked in. We all sang, smiles fixed to our faces and eyes hiding unspoken pressure, trying our best to sing with sincerity. Then, just after the candles had been blown out and the cake was being dished up, Mum and Dad began to bicker as to whose responsibility it was to catch the moment on film – of which, both of them had conflicting ideas on the matter, as always – and we all pretended not to listen. We just looked down and forked small pieces of the caramel cake on our plates, placing dreg amounts into downturned mouths. That was when Seb blew. Giving them a speech so memorable, they’d be glad the camera wasn’t rolling.
“I’M GAY! Gay as a goose on a sunny day! You hear me? Okay. Now shut up arguing about a frickin’ camera and focus on what really matters.”
I’ll always remember Granny Dawn wiping down Granddad Jack’s lap after he’d spilt birthday cake from his dropped jaw. It was evident from that how – despite age getting the better of our family’s mental faculties – their below-the-belt functioning’s were anything but infirm. It still makes me shudder to recall that image. In fact, the only evident dysfunction was us as a family in general. Which, on the plus side, made my introverted attitude, love of rock music and otometic manga, seem pretty small fry. At least I was independent.
“Well, now’s the time!’ I reassured, pacing my apartment and looking out the window for some kind of view that’d inspire a new topic of conversation, “Going abroad will make you feel confident again, Mum.”
Unlike my family, I could keep my privates under control. I didn’t need anyone else to define my existence or choices and furthermore, I didn’t care about being single. Not that anyone ever commended me for that, mind you. To be honest, I often thought my parents would be happier if I put less effort into my winged eyeliner and more into finding a “nice boy”. Yet, in the not-so-distant past when I did have someone, they made it abundantly clear to me that they thought he wasn’t good enough, and the day that I finally got shot of him couldn’t come sooner. Sometimes, when it comes to families, you just can’t win.
“I’m not sure, Simone,’ Mum uttered, whimsically. Her little sniff disrupting my brief reminiscence, “I don’t think I’m ready yet. Oh, why did that wretched man have to knock so much stuffing out of me?!”
As Mum then began to reverse the conversational cycle back to Stage 2, it reminded me of my own reflective sorrow. It wasn’t that long ago that I’d dated my very own brand of “stupid bastard.” Jake, my ex of 1 year 8 months and counting, was also a complete nightmare. (Sorry, Dad) Reminiscing about it isn’t something I like to do, so I’ll keep it short. Our relationship was about as calm as the Great Storm of 1987. I had no other choice but to end things. Jake’s fluctuating behaviour and compulsive lying drove me absolutely barmy. One minute, he’d be buying me flowers and would check up on me night and day (which was cute, yet simultaneously irksome), and the next, he’d disappear for days on end and would tell me to “eff off” if I even did as much as send a text message (which was neither cute nor irksome, but just plain bizarre). In the end, I couldn’t hack it. He had to go. He’d stolen nearly 2 years of my life already and God forbid I was going to let him steal anymore. Thinking about it, it wasn’t really a surprise why my family wanted me to bin him off. He really was about as useful as a hole in the head.
With this thought in mind, I responded to her can-of-worm-opening rhetorical question without thinking of the consequences, “Because, some men are dicks?”
“Oh,’ she scoffed, fuelled and ready for round 2 of ‘Let’s slag off your father!’, “You’re not wrong!”
Reeling off her never-ending list of why my Dad was utterly useless and that his penis was about the only thing of value, I recollected how my own affectional pandemonium made me see the world.
Back when my romantic life went tits-up, I decided that, as much as I enjoyed throwing darts at a paper cut-out of Jake’s face, I needed to make more positive changes in my life. So at the ripe age of 20, I decided to move out of my childhood home in Notts (Or, Nottingham, as you may know it) and make a fresh start in the city. London was on all the fancy calendars, so I figured that there must be something intrinsically life-changing about it. Thus, maybe it would be a good place to start anew.
Jobless but hopeful, I was surprised to discover that my healthy obsession with Ayurveda and my religious trips to the local store would one day pay off. As luck would have it, within weeks I somehow landed myself a position as a ‘Holistic Product Expert’. It was mad! Though, getting to know Katrina – a pretty kooky but amazingly sweet employee of the store – probably acted in my favour. She was the one who convinced me to apply for the job in the first place. If it weren’t for her sanguine nature and total enthusiasm that I simply, ‘had to go on a night out with her and the girls!’ and added me on that fabulous social networking tool, ‘Facebook’ to discuss such an occasion, I would never have even considered going for it. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? And so, from what began as a customer strolling in to ogle peppermint toners and foot creams, turned into something far more solid (not just with work, but with friendships, too) and the rest, as they say, is history.
At that point, I tried my best to interject the conversation about holidays again with Mum, but it proved useless. Her jabbering was on full-throttle. I had no hope of kyboshing that blame-train. So, I continued to stare at the city skyline and return to my reminiscence.
As well as fund my living situation, ultimately, having the extra cash in my pocket from my new job enabled me to travel more too. In the space of just two years, I’d managed to tick off a fair few places from my bucket list: including Pompeii, Amsterdam, Reykjavík and even the Caribbean island of St Lucia. Trying to put into words what it was like to snorkel in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean is nearly impossible. All I can say is, imagine that beginning scene in Finding Nemo with the school of fish, witnessing the flurry of life swimming metres below your feet in serene cobalt waters, and then add a squelchy black plastic breathing apparatus to your face that makes you realise you have no idea how to breathe without the use of your nose. Yes, it is that weird. There was only place I still hadn’t ticked off my bucket list yet: Japan. If there was anywhere in the world I needed to visit next, it had to be the Land of the Rising Sun.
A few times, I’d succumbed to temptation and googled capsules to stay in, watched programmes scanning the city views from above, looked at stunning pictures of Sakura season in full-bloom, and envisaged myself staring up at the Sumidagawa fireworks from a boat, slowly sailing across the Sumida River and watching the psychedelic display of colours above me reflect in the surrounding waters. To me, that was the perfect dream. And so far, that’s how it remained.
Alerting my already withered attention, the distant click of the kettle sounded from the corner of my apartment kitchen. Mum was still talking about Dad’s embarrassing miniature car collection as I quietly wandered towards it. It seemed rude to interrupt her monologue, so I took it upon myself to pour myself a drink.
Embracing my inner-Pink-Panther, I inconspicuously placed my mobile on the counter and popped Mum on speakerphone, freeing myself to pour out the boiled contents of the kettle onto my teabag. At that point, my discretion was going well. She most certainly had no clue that I’d missed at least 10 minutes of her conversation to reverie. And then, I burned myself.
“Shit…!” I silently exclaimed, trying to ignore the stinging pain in my hand as Mum rambled on. Everything was against me that day, I swear. Productivity; meet annoying distraction. Annoying distraction, meet A&E.
“Did you say something, sweetheart?” I heard her say, all sweetness and light. You’d never think this was the same woman that once tore up Dad’s posh shirts and then threw them out of the window in black bin bags, yelling, “OUT GOES THE RUBBISH!” Oh, how the neighbours must have loved us that day…
“Nope!’ I lied, running my hand under cold water and skewing my face like I’d just trodden on a mouse-trap, “Just listening to you.”
“Okay,’ she briefly paused, as if she knew something wasn’t right, but chose to ignore it in place of continuing her one-sided chat instead, “Well, as I was saying…”
Towel now wrapped around my throbbing hand, I walked over to my open laptop screening the unfinished manuscript I was oh so thoroughly enjoying writing before she called. Trying to complete it had been pretty hard of late. Especially with this divorce business and both Mum and Dad calling me every 5 minutes to sound off about it. Sometimes, I wondered if my role as a daughter was a charade. They blatantly treated me as if I was their own personal agony aunt. However, even with their frequent distractions, I was pleased to say that I’d nearly finished writing my first story.
It was only a simple love story. Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl fall for one another. Boy and Girl go through hurdles but inevitably get through them together and live happily ever after etc. You know the drill. However, coming from a girl who’d not been in or surrounded by true love, it seemed pretty ironic to write about it. But this was what I wanted to do in my spare time. Plus, I had to believe that true love still existed – even if it was only vicariously through fiction – and especially after being constantly proven otherwise by my parents and that self-entitled heart-stabber, Jake. Despite the odds, I would and could not believe that all men were like him, or my Dad for that matter (Sorry again, Dad). So, with hopeful ideals serving as my inspiration, I spent evening after evening typing into the night hoping that, one day, maybe my efforts would come to some kind of emotional osmosis. If not for me, then for others who needed hope where there was none. After all, there’s still so much beauty to see in the world – you just need to know the right places to look.
Suddenly, a word I’d written earlier jumped out at me from the radiating computer screen. Attention now caught, it spurred my creative juices into a frenzy once again and sent an excitable rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins. I had to get Mum off the phone before this new flow drifted away.
“Do you remember those odd socks he’d wear?’ She eagerly babbled, just as I’d readied my inhalation for a well-timed exit dialogue, “Oh, and the embarrassment he brought on me that night at Aunty Brenda’s charity ball! As if I had to introduce him to the Mayor wearing socks that informed others about returning him to a pub if found! The humiliation!”
Finally, she paused for breath. I took my chance.
“I know, Mum, those socks were terrible. Look, someone’s at the door, I’ve got to dash,” The laptop screen began to dim, so I quickly chucked off the towel nursing my free hand and shook the mouse, bringing it back to life, “We’ll catch up later, okay?”
She didn’t even sound disappointed, “Okay, sweetheart,’ she replied, “Off you go. I’ll call you later.”
Ah, that’s why. Because she was going to call me again.
“Love you.” She ended.
And as if on autopilot, I answered with, “Love you, too, Mum.”
Still staring at the screen, I placed my mobile back onto the desk, face down this time. Now the flow was back, I couldn’t afford to lose it again. However, hearing a track by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus hit the radio waves in the background nearly got me distracted. I was determined though. Nothing was getting in the way of me and my manuscript again. Not this time.
About 2 seconds later, I went to find that broomstick.
CHAPTER 2 – The Life
Within a few seconds of venturing my way out of the underground, I was greeted by the familiar tunnel breeze that blew my hair onto my lips. No matter how many times I’d told myself to apply lipstick after I’d got to work, I always managed to somehow forget. So now, thanks to the pesky wind and my own absent-mindedness, I had no choice but to wipe off the remnant red streaks that marked my face with my fingers, hoping that no tube germs were being carried on the tips of them.
Thankfully, my iPod wires weren’t disturbed by the unforgiving wind and remained firmly in place behind my windswept black hair, still playing Joker’s Ashes new album into my ears as I ventured up the flight of steps towards Oxford Street; piercing vocals and speedy guitar solos accompanying me as I walked.
It was busy that day. The last traces of summer calmly floated in the September sky above. And with such inviting weather sweeping the city, many excitable party guests would soon follow. Thus, amongst the rush-hour crowds was also a horde of eager tourists, each armed with a selfie stick as long as a cane, ready to take a picture of London’s best attractions at any given moment. This was the first time I realised that the blue “Oxford Circus Station” sign I saw nearly every day was considered an “attraction”. Quickly but carefully, I tried to weave my way through the flurry of matching people wearing sunglasses on sunburned faces, and just like a swimmer coming up for air, as soon as my feet hit the pavement and I was out of the sticky masses, I released a triumphant breath of freedom.
I checked my phone briefly. 8.46 am – I was still early. But before I could return my phone safely back into my pocket, it let out its familiar recurring buzz. Rolling my eyes, I looked at it again and saw a few notifications pop up, each one demanding my attention right this second. I squinted as I tried to make out what they all said, but the morning sun shone on the screen too brightly for me to see, so I tottered towards the towering buildings on the roadside and used their height for shade. Obviously, most of the notifications were crap and got swiped away; like Twitter or Pinterest telling me not to miss out on so and so’s tweet or to show me a pin of someone’s interior decor I may like, as if it was Breaking News. However, one message did catch my eye.
It was Harry, an old college friend of mine. He’d sent me a screenshot of a VIP package available for Joker’s Ashes who he was seeing at Rock City in Nottingham next week, raving about how cheap the meet and greet with the band was. To be fair, he had a point. Even with the free poster, signed CD and photo, it still cost less than 2 days of travelling on the pesky underground. Temptation had taken hold of me. I was already seeing them at the Koko this weekend (hence, binge-listening to their new album en-route to work) but did I really need to meet them too? I quietly pondered this thought until someone grabbed me.
“BOO!” The unannounced voice boomed.
I jolted, pulling the iPod wire free from my ears, “Katrina!’ I yelped, “You scared the shit out of me!”
“Sorry, hun,’ she said, keeping one arm around my shoulder and the other free to sip her on-the-go cappuccino, “I couldn’t help myself. You should stop being so fun to sneak up on!” She cheekily winked at me before animatedly taking a glug of her coffee, and for the second time that morning, I rolled my eyes.
As we walked along, I took the opportunity to fiddle with my tangled wires and put my phone away, eyeing up my best friend’s excitable grin as she strode beside me, arm still over my shoulder, face like a Cheshire Cat.
“So,’ I began, “Do I even need to guess why you didn’t make it back to the apartment last night, or is the oddly giddy smile affixed to your face already telling me the answer?”
Smile even bigger now, she peered over to me and cheerily uttered, “Maybe.”
I raised my eyebrows at her, voicelessly asking for her to dish the dirt on her date with Julian last night, the bartender from our favourite nightclub in Camden.
“Let’s just say,’ she began, “we got to know each other pretty well.” The second wink confirmed my suspicions.
“Eww!’ I mockingly shrieked, scrunching up my face as hideous images infiltrated my mind, “You filthy wench!”
“Ah! You’re just jealous because you’re not getting any.’ She teased, before bending down slightly and placing her hands straight beside her mouth, “Isn’t that right, mini Simone? You need some TLC from a sexy man to dust off them cobwebs, don’t you?”
“Lordy Kats!’ I squawked, pulling her up to eye-level once again, “You’re shameless!”
“And that’s why you love me!’ she smirked, before tossing her now empty polystyrene cup into a nearby bin, “Now c’mon! Hop to it before Miss Trunchbull gets her baggy pants in a twist over us being late for work.”
I rolled my eyes at the prospect of moving any faster so early in the morning, “Alexandra’s not that bad…” was all I replied, hoping it would get me off the hook.
She shot me an opposing glance as if to say, “yeah right” before swiftly leaping in front of me and running down the pavement. She was always running. I never could understand where she got all her energy from, especially when the majority of the time she was too busy out partying to get much sleep. All I could think was that those cappuccinos she drank on a daily basis must have been laced with Red Bull or something. Nothing else could explain where her endless buzz came from.
She stopped a few yards ahead, quickly turning back around again to holler at me.
“Come on, Sims! Shake a tail feather!’ She called out, all smiles as she continued to sprint down the asphalt path, “Cobwebs aren’t that heavy!”
Sweeping rebellious strands of hair off my face and hauling my handbag back over my shoulder, I feebly attempted to run after her.
“Damn it, Kats.’ I grumbled, “Don’t you ever just walk?”
Katrina strode ahead of me into the open shop and smiled boldly at Alexandra, our now very chagrined manager, who stood at the front of the tills with her arms folded and right foot tetchily tapping away.
“Sorry, Alex,’ she apologised, still baring her perfect pearly whites, “The underground this morning was choc-a-bloc with tourists. I nearly had my eye taken out by one of those selfie sticks!”
“She’s not wrong there,’ I agreed, following closely behind, still trying to catch my breath after the run to work, “Must be some special event going on we don’t know about.”
“Hmm,” she groaned, unconvinced.
We stumbled into the back room and hurriedly placed our belongings in a locker, swiftly re-emerging in a tangle of our aprons and lanyards. Katrina flicked her long brown hair out from under the restrictive strings and allowed it to wave freely over her chest.
“Miss Stevenson,’ Alexandra snapped, “How many times have I told you to tie your hair back? No one wants your brown strands floating in their botanical oils.”
“I’m on it!” Katrina saluted whilst pulling an elastic band from her wrist, placing it between her teeth and smoothing her hair to shape a high ponytail, ready to be locked in place.
“Good. Now, Simone, I want you at the front on skincare, and Katrina, I have some jobs for you to do out back. Our audit is coming up soon and I need this place looking spick and span, so there’ll be no more messing about today. I want you both on your best behaviour.”
“When are we ever anything but angels, Alex?” Katrina declared, her green eyes glistening with innocence.
Alexandra’s unimpressed expression remained as she made her way to the other side of the tills.
“That remains to be seen, Miss Stevenson. Now come along. Chop-chop!’ she clapped insistently, “Let’s get to work!”
With our orders given, Katrina outstretched her hand dramatically and mouthed, ‘I miss you already!’ before wandering out back. Laughing to myself, I sauntered to the front of the shop, show-face smile fixed firmly in place, ready to greet anyone who’d walk in at 9am. Mind you, no one usually came in first thing with such urgency for Ayurvedic skincare. So you can imagine my surprise when not just one person, but two, came in.
First was an elderly lady. I greeted her kindly, but I don’t think she even knew where she was. And second was the quick-paced entrance of winklepicker-clad feet, running with jitter through the doors and clip-clopping their way straight into the elderly lady.
“I am so sorry, lovely!” He professed, taking hold of her purple anorak with apologetic grip, “Are you okay?”
She nodded silently, realising him for the excitable teenager that he was. Typical Seb.
I walked over to him, cocking my head as I did so. Seeing him come rushing into my place of work first thing in the morning wasn’t the most standard move for my brother. It must have been important. Either that or he was going to show me another hilarious photo of a man he’d seen on Grindr. They did take some terrible shots, sometimes.
“Shouldn’t you be studying?” I queried, staring at him, observing his clothing choice of tight white skinny jeans and electric blue shirt with the top few buttons undone. His highlighted hair was sprayed within an inch of its life and his skin was unnaturally bronzed. There was obviously a reason he’d made such an effort to look like a modern-day George Michael so early in the morning.
After hearing my question, he screwed his face up at me, as if the mere word “studying” made him want to heave.
“Urgh, you sound just like Mum. No, it’s freshers week – no one has studying to do in freshers’ week, you daft mare.”
“Charming!’ I retorted, waiting for a further explanation that clearly my silly 18-year-old brother wasn’t going to provide without further questioning, “So…what are you doing here then?”
He went towards the shop window and began to peek out inconspicuously from behind our Indian herbal display at the passers-by on the street.
Growing impatient and concerned that Alexandra would come out and see him, I gestured a guttural cough to gauge his attention again, to which he merely flapped his hand at me.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Seb, why are you here?!”
Taking a sigh of relief, he unclenched his shoulders and walked back over to me, his puppy-dog blue eyes filled with worry.
“Chick, calm down. I’m just making sure he’s not here yet.”
“Who’s not here?” I asked, even more confused than I was 10 seconds ago.
“Tariq.” He replied.
“Oh, my God! I’m going on a date with Tariq from uni and he’s meeting me for doughnuts and coffee up the road in like, 30 minutes? And I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t here yet. I needed somewhere to do my hair before he sees it looking like I fell in a bush.”
Noticing our decadent mirror hanging above a tower of spearmint body lotions, he went over to it and began to preen individual strands of blonde hair into place.
“Are you serious?’ I remarked, “Your hair’s got so much spray on it that I’m surprised the sunshine alone hasn’t set it alight yet.”
If only the expression he cast me then could be put into words that weren’t profane.
Not long after the glowering daggers were thrown, Katrina popped through the door with a roll of bin bags in her hand, ready to deep-clean the till area. But as soon as she saw Seb, she instantly dropped them on the floor and ran straight over to give him a hug. Despite our derisive comments, we were all actually pretty close. It was just the way we were. Life had thrown so many spanners in the works that sometimes, the best thing to do was to simply take it on the chin and ridicule the bump it left behind.
“Baby Seb – what are you doing here?’ she asked excitedly before admiring his vibrant get-up, “Oh, my God, I love this look! …Who is he?”
After 2 years of knowing my brother was gay, you’d think I’d be more used to him going on dates with guys. But he was still my little brother. The one I used to cook chocolate cornflake smarties cakes with and plaster up his knees after he’d fallen over from running around outside. Maybe, I was like Mum, in some ways. I just missed the innocence of childhood – the naivety of enjoying the simpler pleasures. Plus, from my experience, men were certainly not the be all and end all in life. And besides, we were all still young. Love could wait.
“His name’s Tariq, apparently,” I answered obtusely.
“Ignore her, Kats.’ Seb flatly stated, “She’s playing at being Mum today. Talking of which, have you heard from her, Sims? She sent me a right cryptic text last night and I didn’t know how to respond.”
I furrowed my brow at him, “What did she say?”
Seb shrugged his shoulders, “I can’t remember exactly. It was at like, 11 pm last night. All I remember was thinking that she sounded proper sad.”
A pang of guilt surged through me. It was probably my fault for cutting her off the night before. Sometimes it evaded my thoughts that she was all alone now. Although I was aware she was going through the divorce, I forgot that she had no one to really talk to. What with me in London, Seb recently following suit to study at UCL nearby, and Dad obviously booted out, there was no one else at home, bar the company of our 7-year-old cocker-spaniel, Lizzie. Saying that, she had Andrew; her squeamishly servile colleague at the bank. He always seemed willing to keep her company. But then again, I’m not sure that his company didn’t come without an ulterior motive.
Whilst I stood there in deep thought, both Seb and Katrina had returned the conversation to Tariq. Seb had whipped out his phone and started showing her pictures of him. From a distance, he looked quite lanky, but handsome, in a Bollywood type of way. It was just a shame that he’d dotted so much of his face with unsightly piercings. Not that I’m against piercings by any means, but his were just so tackily done – the symmetrical ones on each nostril being most distracting. Apparently, Tariq and Seb had first met during freshers’ week and happened to be living in the same halls of residence. This, and the fact that Tariq was an Aries, according to my brother, meant that they were fated.
“Oh, yes,’ I jeered, “The cosmos know all about the needs of your D, bro.”
Hand on hip, Seb looked over at me with immovable conviction, “Look, Sims, just because you don’t believe in the stars doesn’t mean that it’s not true. Maybe you could do with looking into it. Even we mere mortals here can see that you have needs for the D, too.”
I tutted, “Rubbish! I have no needs for the D.”
Realising our bickering was nearing a crescendo, Katrina stood in-between us both, separating the tension with her well-manicured nails.
“Alright, break it up, you two.’ She ordered, “You’re ruining the Zen of the store. Plus, we don’t want you know who to come out of the office and call time on this little get together, do you?’
We both shook our heads like naughty schoolchildren.
“Good. Now, Sebastian. Go and have a brilliant date with Tariq. Eat lots of doughnuts and don’t forget to lick the sugar off his lips! As for you, my darling Simone – chin up! We’re going out tonight so we can find you some overdue D then.”
I sighed – D (the polite abbreviation for the male appendage) was definitely not on my agenda. It irked me how everyone scrutinised my love life – or lack thereof. No one seemed to care about the things I actually did love, like music or travel, or the book I was writing, which I agonised over pretty much all of the time. But then again, I had been single since Jake, and even though I’d been approached by quite a few guys, I’d turned them all down. Most of them were pricks, ironically. But still. There was a small part of me that thought they had a point. Having someone to share these things with would be nice. Even so, I didn’t feel ready. The guys that liked me didn’t have ‘it’ – that spark, the je ne sais quoi you look for when it comes to finding romance. And in my eyes, there’s no point settling for anything less.
A flurry of customers suddenly rushed in, and judging by their enthusiastic faces, they were most undeniably tourists.
Regaining my professional stance, I adjusted my apron and lanyard, ready to assist them, but not before wishing my brother luck on his date – Simone style.
“Enjoy your date, Seb.’ I said, patting him on the shoulder, “Just make sure you keep away from any shop doorways, eh? You don’t want Tariq’s face setting off the alarms.”
Unamused by my joke, he tilted his head and glared at me.
“Oh, ha-ha. Very funny. Have fun on your outing tonight too.’ He replied, adjusting his hair one more time before making his way to the entrance door, “And um, do send my regards to the poor fellas who end up contracting frostbite from the ice queen. Ciao!”
Katrina laughed as he spat out his tongue at me from the other side of the glass, and whilst no one else was looking, I flicked up my middle finger at him.
CHAPTER 3 – The Message
For all the feminine parts of me, I loved hanging with the girls. For the way they could listen to a problem and find the answer in a bar of chocolate and a chick flick, and the fact that they were always there no matter what. You’d call them, they’d answer; armed with clever conversation and an ear to bend. However, in spite of this, the thought of meeting up with everyone at our apartment in order to attend some gimmicky psychic event made me realise that hanging with the girls was actually the last thing I wanted to do that night.
Selfishly, maybe, I fantasised about what it would be like to do something else with somebody else. Mr X: a perfect figment of my imagination. I began to daydream about a scenario where we were at a coffee house. Both of us would rebelliously drink matcha tea instead of the conventional coffee, and we’d sit in awe at the revelation of our shared dreams and love of outdoor adventures and music, wholly fascinated by the endless journey our conversations could take. No part of me wanted to sit in a room with some charlatan in a headdress reading prettified cards to me. It seemed stupid. But then again, sitting there dreaming about a person who didn’t exist was probably no less ironic. Plus, it’s not like I wanted a boyfriend. Not really. I just wanted someone I could connect with differently; someone who shared and valued the same things that I did and could teach me something new about the world. Unbeknown to those around me, though, I kept this dream to myself. I didn’t want anyone else to know that there was a measure of me that cared about finding love. All they’d do is go on about it, anyway. No, I’d made a silent pact: to abstain from such trivial nonsense. I was far too young to settle down. Anyway, what would be the point in being with someone when I still had so much to do and see? They’d only get upset that I wasn’t there to eat pizza and watch Netflix with them every Friday night. Plus, with so many things on my list to complete, there’d be no time for such trifling distraction. Besides, single life is good. And I already had plenty of people in my life who provided me with an ample amount of conversational enthral.
“Skirt or dress?”
I stand corrected.
Turning out of my trance-like state, I looked at Katrina in the doorway of her bedroom as she held up two hangers against her.
“What?” I asked, barely listening.
She rolled her eyes and bobbed her head between each hanging option.
“Skirt or dress?” she repeated.
“Does it really matter?’ I replied, turning my head back and picking up my buzzing mobile from the arm of the sofa, “It’s only some local psychic event.”
It was Dad, doing his usual competitive parenting thing and dropping me messages about having a great time tonight and how much he was looking forward to meeting up with me tomorrow. Ever since he and Mum officially split he’d been like this. When they were together he barely took notice of my interests. But now, well, if being an awesome parent was a marathon, then he was sprinting for his life to win first place at the finishing line. It was weird. If this had happened when I was 6, then it would have been in the form of weekends filled with days out at a theme-park, eating ice cream and going to bed ridiculously late – just to prove he was the best. This adult version didn’t sit as well with me as a Flake 99 would.
Katrina made a huffing sound by the door and started muttering something about wearing a dress whilst the weather was still good. I didn’t reply. My attention was distracted by the tab I’d left open on my phone about the VIP meet and greet tickets for Joker’s Ashes. I scrolled the page up and down a few times, reading and re-reading what it involved – free poster, autographs, selfies with the band, the usual. The only thing that stopped me was working out in my head whether I’d make it on time after my shift on Saturday. In order to meet and greet you had to arrive an hour early, and that meant facing London’s tubes during rush hour. Being squashed between lots of sweaty people all trying to get home was a bit of a put-off. But still, it was nothing a bit of prep and body spray couldn’t sort out.
I bit my bottom lip and thought about what Harry had said when he’d sent me the screenshot.
‘Chance of a lifetime!!’
My finger hovered over the ‘Buy Now’ button. The decision was just a press away.
“Screw it. It’s only £20”
And just as the doorbell rang, my confirmation email came through.
Katrina was evidently right to be concerned between the importance of a dress or a skirt. Aside from everyone in our group wearing a mixture of floral patterns and flowy dresses, the other attendees weren’t too dissimilar. No inch I scanned of the small room was free of chiffon or rainbow colours – except me, who sat at our table in jeans and a black and white baseball top.
“Aren’t you hot?” Tracey, who sat opposite me, commented.
I was boiling, but I didn’t want to admit it. After the girls had arrived at our apartment, they’d tried to convince me to get changed into something “sunnier”, tugging at my sleeves and telling me I was going to be too warm in what I was wearing. But I was defiant. To me, the night was nothing to get particularly glammed up for. It was a psychic switch for goodness sake, not London Fashion Week. Plus, it wasn’t that hot.
“Not really.” I lied, wiping away a giveaway sweat bead from underneath my fringe before it slipped its way down my face.
According to my phone, it was already 19.09 – 9 minutes in and the psychics still hadn’t arrived. Another ironic matter – if they were psychic, surely they would have seen that one coming? Katrina, Tracey and Cherise passed the time by taking selfies altogether, trying to choose the right picture to upload to Facebook. I, however, used the opportunity to check my confirmation email from earlier. My heart raced looking at it. It was done. I’d bought it. I was going to meet the Joker’s Ashes – on my own. Maybe I should’ve thought that part through?
Suddenly, distracting me from my phone yet again, I felt Katrina put her arm around me, encouraging me to join in with the selfies. Despite how it seemed, I seldom used my phone. It just seemed that whenever I did, Katrina was always there trying to tear me away from it.
“Come on, Sims. Smile! Can’t not have your pretty face in the photo, can we?” she said, grinning at me hopefully.
“Sure,” I replied, placing my phone back in my jeans pocket and tilting my head towards hers, ready for the mandatory event tagging photo shot, hoping I wouldn’t look too sweaty.
“Say, PSYCHIC SWITCH, ladies!” commanded Cherise, who held the phone that floated above our table.
We held our smiles for 5 seconds; using the camera’s timer to its fullest worth to ensure that perfect snapshot was taken. After all, it was going to be uploaded to every social media platform the online universe could offer. Life in the modern era’s odd like that. I don’t know when it started, but it seems that we’re now in an age where we have to document everything. I’m all about photographs and capturing special memories, but I don’t understand why anyone else would care about what so-and-so ate for lunch or what TV programme they were watching that evening. Apparently though, I’m in the minority on that one.
Minutes later, the door to the room opened and four people made their way inside. According to the lady at the greeting desk, they were our psychics for the evening. Quarter past 7 – only 15 minutes late. Everyone else applauded and the girls all jittered excitedly, optimistic smiles pinned to their faces. However, my scepticism was on high alert. Despite the rave reviews of others who’d been there before, I wasn’t going to hold my breath.
Each one made their way to a table. Apparently, they were drawn by unique energies that pulled them towards each space. There was no such thing as coincidence; of course, it was all to do with the unseen forces of the sixth sense. Again, I wasn’t convinced.
It was almost as if we were on a competitive speed date, whereby a group of women all hoped the psychic’s attention would hone in on them, and as if by magic, those who wore the most hopeful appearances were usually the first to be spoken to. Notably, the same few women kept getting “chosen” and were offered morsels of whimsical information about potential grandparents who’d passed over (which seemed a given since these women must have been in their 60’s) and what basic hobbies they enjoyed doing (usually what the majority of people did within the selected era – baking or sewing). And after an hour of sitting through the regurgitated tripe, my patience fell short.
“This is stupid,” I whispered to Katrina, whose captivated expression only seemed to become more and more rooted.
“Shh, ’ she hushed, “You’ve just got to be patient. Someone will come through for you.”
But, who? My grandparents were still very much alive and kicking (thankfully.) My great-grandparents weren’t (God, bless their souls) but, they didn’t know me. Not personally. Maybe as a baby, they did, but that hardly counts. So, who on earth would come through for me? And if they did, what would they have to say, anyway?
“Hello, my dear. How are you?” Our psychic asked soothingly. Her silvery Czech accent glided in our space so euphonically that I didn’t even realise she was talking to me at the time. I was too busy staring into space to notice, using her tuneful voice like a backing track to other thoughts that floated in my mind, until Katrina’s abrupt nudge brought my attention back to the table.
“Hmm – what?’ I uttered whilst straightening up and pulling my chair in, “Oh, hi. Yeah, I’m okay. You?” My response was a mix between embarrassed and confused. Usually, it was me who asked how people were. That was my day job. It was weird to be on the flip side of the coin for a change.
“The spirits have told me to speak with you.’ She calmly said, pausing as if she was listening to an invisible entity standing to her right, “Come to my table afterwards, my dear. There’s something important you need to know.”
Within seconds, her face shifted from calm to grave. There was something in her eyes that emanated with worry. Then, and only then, was when I started to feel somewhat scared. What could the underworld want with me? This must have been part of a standard act, I assured myself. The usual way they lure the sceptic into belief; softening them up with warm words. No, it was rubbish – wasn’t it?
All the girls were staring at me, their eyes piercing my skin with wonder and awe. Attempting to remain as nonchalant as I did before, I tried not to show that any of this was affecting me by smiling back at them, subtly removing the nervous sweat bead that lurked beneath my fringe again. You couldn’t get anything past them, though. They knew the attention of the psychic had caught me hook, line and sinker.
“Whoa,” Tracey mouthed. The others nodded in agreeable astonishment.
Our side of the table fell silent. The other half remained focused on the psychic, listening intently as she directed the flow of conversation to a middle-aged lady in a floral skater dress. All the other sounds in the room fell into muffle. The only things I could hear clearly were her words repeating over and over in my head.
“There’s something important you need to know.”
⇒ Let me know your thoughts so far! I’m over halfway into writing this book (this is a mere apperitif in its 1st draft roots) and am hoping to have it fully finished by next year. I hope you like the new direction and if you have any suggestions or questions about the story then please drop a comment – all critique welcome. Thanks for reading!