In a small corner of the universe, a young woman’s life would be forever altered by prophesied events.
And she couldn’t have predicted any of them…
An unbound emotion burst through my chest as I stared at the little photograph in my hand. Like a spinning compass, I couldn’t quite figure out where the feeling wanted to take me. For a moment, I laughed, remembering the time that it was taken and how I never was a fan of impromptu selfies. And then my smile fell into something more sombre, as I remembered everything that lead up to that night and everything that happened thereafter. My heart suddenly yearned to recapture that moment – a simpler time before anything else unfolded – but it was impossible.
Though, the longer I sat there with the little picture rested between my finger and thumb, gently being brushed by the whistling autumn breeze, I felt gratitude. Despite all that had happened, I was lucky to have those memories. Even the ones that seemed small or the ones that pained me to recollect, they all helped craft the binding to the pages of a very special life story. And just like a row of dominoes, or a ripple from a butterfly’s wings, what started out as a sequence of understated moments, eventually became a memory so powerful that it changed everything…
The Family Portrait
‘Hey Mum,’ I groaned, knowing the conversation I was about to invite was one I really didn’t want to have, ‘you okay?’
For a brief moment before this, I’d wrestled with my thoughts. “To answer, or not to answer? That is the question.” But the incessant buzz of my phone on my work desk successfully guilt-tripped me into the former. 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.’ There was a brief pause before she revealed her most prolific action yet.
‘I even took him off my Facebook,’ She confessed, with great liberation, ‘as if I want to see that little green circle every day telling me he’s online. The cheating swine!’
After twenty-five 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, erasing those memories would be near impossible, especially with two children serving as permanent reminders. Nevertheless, hearing her theatrical tenor reiterate 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.’
From the corner of my apartment’s kitchen, I could hear the chorus of a song playing on the afternoon radio. The infectiously catchy riff began to trickle its way into my ears and saturate my mum’s 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,’ she said with derisive inflection, ‘stupid dirtbag. Well, good riddance to you, Ian Hartley. Good riddance to you and your stupid classic car toys, to your tidal wave splashes that ruined my bathroom walls and to your stupid inability to keep your stupid penis in your stupid trousers!’
It may make me sound like a bad daughter, but 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 replied 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!’ I said effusively; the light bulb in my head suddenly shining brighter than ever. ‘You should go on a holiday. I bet that’ll cheer you up.’
By this point, I was desperate for my mum to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As much as I empathised and agreed with what she was saying, I really wanted to talk about something else – anything else. Plus, I knew this story of old.
Dad’s infidelities began over three years ago. It was only with one person – his secretary; cliché much? Nevertheless, this news was hardly a surprise. He’d told Mum not long after it happened, as she’d become increasingly 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.
‘Hmm, I don’t know,’ she whined, dejectedly. ‘I’ve never been anywhere alone before.’
Back when I lived at home, my little brother Seb and I listened to both sides of this story multiple times. To be honest, it didn’t matter whose side we were on, it was simply time to accept that their marriage was dead in the water. It still makes me shudder to recall those times. The tension in our household was pretty hard to bear. We both had problems we needed to keep a secret, because neither of our parents could cope with any more stress. So, we reluctantly plodded on, piling secrets on our backs like mules up a mountain. That seemed to be the definition of “adulting”- maintaining an outside face that didn’t expose any inner-emotions. On the plus side, all of my parents’ craziness made the previous focus on my introverted disposition seem pretty small fry. Unlike my parents, 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”.
‘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 dirtbag.” called Jake. He was also a complete nightmare (sorry, Dad) and reminiscing about him 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. Simply put, I had no other choice but to end things. Jake’s fluctuating behaviour and compulsive lying drove me crackers. One minute, he’d be buying me flowers and would check up on me night and day (which was cute, yet simultaneously irksome). The next, he’d disappear for days on end and would tell me to “eff off” if I even did as much as send him a text message (which wasn’t either cute or irksome; just downright bizarre). In the end, I couldn’t hack it. He had to go. He’d stolen nearly two years of my life already and God forbid I was going to let him steal anymore.
With this thought in mind, I searched for a teacup and also responded to her previous rhetorical question, without thinking of the consequences.
‘Because, some men are dicks?’
‘Oh,’ she scoffed, suddenly fuelled and ready for round two of “Let’s Slag off Your Father”, ‘you’re not wrong.’
While 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 laid out a selection of teacups whilst recollecting how my own affectional pandemonium had made me see the world.
Back when my romantic life went pear-shaped, 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 twenty, I moved out of my childhood home in scenic Nott’s (Or, Nottingham, as you may know it) and made a fresh start in the capital. 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?
Back in the room, I tried my best to interject the conversation about holidays again with Mum. It proved useless. Her jabbering was on full-throttle. I had no hope of kyboshing that blame-train. So, I continued to stare at London’s city skyline, which, in the midst of her chatter, made me realise something.
There I was, practically coercing my mum into travelling, profusely explaining how it’d be good for her, and yet, I still hadn’t ticked off one of the biggest places on my own 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.
I’d succumbed to temptation a few times and googled capsules to stay in, watched programmes scanning the city views from above, and looked at stunning pictures of Sakura season in full-bloom. I’d 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 a 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 the 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 ten minutes of her conversation to reverie. Until, I burned myself.
‘Shit…!’ I silently expelled, 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 mousetrap, ‘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 monologue instead, ‘well, as I was saying…’
Towel now wrapped around my throbbing hand, I walked back over to my open laptop which screened the unfinished manuscript I’d been thoroughly enjoying typing before she’d called. Trying to complete it had been pretty hard of late. Especially with this divorce business and both Mum and Dad calling me every five 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 ever book.
You’d think I’d have told mum about this little achievement, just to redirect the redundant chatter. But instead, for the sake of sanity, I said nothing. My friends and family would’ve had a field day, dissecting my twist on a romantic fiction. This was one of my closely-guarded secrets. If anyone had ever found my many notebook scribblings or flipped open my laptop, the interrogation would most certainly have been relentless. I’d spent so much time rejecting love in order to get over the past hurt; the last thing I wanted was for anybody to know there was even a tiny part of me that cared about it. However, coming from a girl who’d not been in, or surrounded by good, honest love, it seemed fairly ironic to write about it. But this was how I wanted to fill my spare time. It was quite therapeutic in a way – my means of believing that true love still existed, even if it was only vicariously through fiction. With hopeful ideals serving as my inspiration, I’d spent evening after evening, noting and 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, it just helps when someone else shows you the right places to look.
Suddenly, as if by remarkable coincidence, a word I’d written earlier jumped out at me from the radiating computer screen. It was as if that word acted as a door, finally opening up to a world of stories that I simply had to explore right there and then. Why that always happens after an endless bout of writer’s block, I am yet to understand. But with my attention now caught, my creative juices were sent into frenzy once again. An excitable rush of adrenaline coursed 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. Oh, the humiliation!’
Finally, she paused for breath. My chance was nigh.
‘I know, Mum, those socks were terrible. Look, I’m sorry but 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 soon, 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 later.
‘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 yet another guitar-filled track the radio waves nearly got me distracted. I was determined though. Nothing was getting in the way of me and my manuscript again. Not this time.
…Well, after that song, anyway.
The Pushy Posse
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 told myself to apply lipstick after I’d got to work, I’d always manage 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.
My iPod wires weren’t disturbed by the unforgiving wind, thankfully, and remained firmly in place behind my windswept black hair, still playing the 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. 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 who, thankfully, still shared the same love of rock music as me. Friends like him were few and far between these days. Since everyone “grew up” they also grew out of enjoying metal. Harry, however, remained ever passionate about it, which was why – on this very bright morning – he’d sent me a screenshot of a VIP package available for Joker’s Ashes. He was seeing them at Rock City in Nottingham next week, and was 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 two 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. And then someone grabbed me.
‘Boo!’ The unannounced voice boomed.
I jolted, pulling the iPod wire free from my ears, ‘Katrina!’ I shrieked, relieved at the sight of her and not some stranger trying to rob me. ‘You scared the shit out of me.’
‘Sorry, sweets,’ 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 reluctantly 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 mocked, 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 free hand 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 eco cup into a nearby bin, ‘now c’mon, hop to it before Miss Trunchball 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 that it would get me off the hook.
She shot me an opposing glance as if to say, “now that’s a load of BS” 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 something illegal. Or, knowing Katrina, blended with some weirdly named superfood no one had ever heard of. 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,’ I agreed, following closely behind, still trying to catch my breath after the run to work. ‘There must be some special event going on.’
‘Hmm,’ Alexandra 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 that it’s Botanique’s policy to tie your hair back? No one wants your brown strands floating in their essential 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.
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 some dodgy dating app. 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 glow stick 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,’ he grumbled. ‘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 eighteen-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 ten 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 at double B’s in like, thirty minutes? And I just needed somewhere to do my hair before he sees it looking like I’ve fallen 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, ogling his rock-solid strands, ‘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’d cast me then could be put into words that weren’t profane.
Soon 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 two years of knowing my brother was gay, you’d think that I’d be more used to him going on dates with guys. But to me, 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, staring straight ahead.
‘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, 11pm 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 day 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 seven-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 wasn’t sure that his company came 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 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, ‘I’m sure that 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. You certainly live up to your stubborn Capricorn name and 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.’
Aware 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, in case you hadn’t quite figured it out) 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, not that anybody knew about that particular passion. But then again, I had been single since Jake, and even though I’d had some offers, I’d turned them all down.
There was a small part of me that thought my friends and family had a point. Having someone to share these things with would be nice. But 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. Well, you 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 watching, I flicked up my middle finger at him.
The Unexpected 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 the last thing I wanted to do that night.
Selfishly, maybe, I grabbed my nearby notepad and began to jot down more ideas for my book, using the fantasy of Mr X as the object of the protagonist’s affections. He was a perfect figment of my imagination, created as a means to not only escape the doldrums of my reality, but, by which, it could also be somewhat re-created.
I began to daydream about a scene at a coffee house, where both characters would rebelliously order a matcha latte instead of the conventional cappuccino, and they’d sit in awe at the revelation of their shared dreams and passions – wholly fascinated by the endless journey their conversations could take.
Upon this fantasy’s dissolution, I realised that 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 envisioning 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.
Perhaps it was silly of me, but 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 harp 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. Plus, what would be the point in being with someone when I still had so much to see and do? They’d only get upset that I wasn’t there to eat pizza and watch Netflix with them every Friday night. With so many things on my list to complete, there’d be no time for such trifling distraction. And besides, 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 responded, 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, folding my notepad shut 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, let’s just say that 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 so weird. If this had happened when I was six, 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 that he was the best. This adult version, however, didn’t sit with me quite as well 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. As tempted as I was, the only thing that stopped me was working out 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. Just the mere thought of being squashed between lots of sweaty people was a put-off. But still, it was nothing a bit of prep, body spray and breath-holding couldn’t solve.
I bit my bottom lip as I thought about what Harry had said to me when he’d sent over the screenshot.
“Chance of a lifetime…”
My finger hovered over the ‘Buy Now’ button. The decision was just a press away. And with the devil on my shoulder repeating those words over and over into my ear, resisting temptation was no longer an option.
‘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 donning a pair of skinny jeans and a rather cosy 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”, and tugged at my sleeves, telling me that 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, ‘you know how sensitive I am to the cold.’
Tracey’s rogue eyebrow pinched into the air, most blatantly unconvinced. But, to my pleasure, it seemed to grind the unwanted conversation to a halt.
According to my phone, it was already 19.09pm. Nine 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 five 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 is 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 seven – only fifteen 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 sixties) 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 deeper 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. 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.
‘What?’ I uttered whilst straightening up and pulling my chair in. ‘Oh, hi. Yeah, I’m okay. You..?’
My response was a mix of 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 of 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 other sounds in the room fell into muffle. There was only one thing I could hear clearly – her words repeating over and over in my head.
“There’s something important you need to know.”
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