It was Sarah's first day back at work after the birth of Katie. Leaving the baby with John had been tough, but if she had put it off any longer she knew that she'd never go back to work. Sarah had struggled long and hard for her pitch on the promenade, a prime site like hers didn't come up every day and there would always be a string of people waiting to take it over if she ever let it become available. And anyway she loved her job; a break from Katie would do them all good, she was sure.
It had taken Sarah longer than anticipated to get back to work. She had been hit right between the eyes with the two-ton sledgehammer that comes in the guise of post-natal depression. She was better now and it felt so good to be able to appreciate the spring morning sunshine again and hear bird song instead of the incessant high-pitched cries of a frustrated baby. She loved Katie with a fierceness that terrified her; she would do anything for her child, but today it was good to be a working girl with carefree footsteps rather than a mother pushing a pram.
Sarah, or the 'Mystic Madam Sambuka' as she was professionally known, was a seaside fortune-teller. She read the cards, and gazed into her crystal ball. If the punters fancied a cup of tea, she read the leaves, and she studied astrological charts with furrowed brow, even though they meant absolutely nothing to her. Madam Sambuka had the gift 'The gift of the gab' that is. She told a convincing enough tale and made a convincing enough living doing so. Nobody took what she did seriously, least of all Sarah herself. She was vague enough and astute enough to get a small percentage of details right. This kept her head above water and the rest, well she just blagged her way through. It was just a bit of harmless fun. The fake seafront fortune-teller is as much a part of British heritage as donkey rides on the Golden Mile, and candy floss in the Tunnel of Love. Sarah was always extremely careful not to say anything hurtful or alarming. However, as part of her 'act,' Madam Sambuka had the reputation of being as blunt as her tongue was sharp, and the teller's tongue was sharp enough to slice through the voicing of the roughest sceptic. But her clients knew it was all bluff and usually went away with a smile on their face and a determined gait as they strode off to find the foretold tall dark cliché.
Sarah loved Morecambe, it was still very early in the season and the sea was frisky. The waves seemed to be crashing in welcome to her as they hit the sea wall. The inward tide brought a smell of the ocean into her hair and as she strode against the fresh, spring breeze a light spritzer of sea-spray freshened her face and made her lips tingle. Several people spoke to Sarah as she made her way to the kiosk and she joked with them and felt better than ever for it.
As she unlocked the metal shutters from the kiosk walls for the first time in seven months, she felt a great happiness. It felt symbolically as though she was taking huge shutters down from her spirit. This made her feel guilty. After all Katie was the greatest joy ever to come into her life. Wasn't she? Okay she and John hadn't been getting along too well lately, Sarah knew that she had been irritable and snappy, but that was only to be expected with the upheaval of a new baby in the house. All families went through a period of adjustment, it would be silly and immature to expect it to be all roses round the door and honey in the pot she told herself as the kiosk door finally creaked open. As long as Katie was healthy and happy everything would be just fine. She couldn't bear the thought of Katie suffering pain or sadness.
Sarah coughed as she inhaled the stale musty air that had been confined in the little two room hut over the winter. "Hmmm this place needs a good airing out" she told herself aloud, "And so do I." For the next hour she set about the place with duster and polish. She opened the window and hummed along as she worked. One wall was covered with glossy photographs of herself in full Madam Sambuka get-up alongside smiling celebrities. It was sort of a first night tradition amongst the grease paint set that before the opening performance at the Winter Gardens the celebrities would pop along to Madam Sabbie for a reading. She was pictured beside comedians and pop stars, actors of both stage and screen, and even very 'grey suit' stern faced newsreaders. The photos were good for pulling in the punters, after all if Eric Morecambe had been to Madam Sambuka for a reading, well she MUST be good eh?
After turning the gas fire on to full power, Sarah stepped into the back room of the kiosk. "Time to bring the old witch back to life," she said fondly. She dressed in a long purple velvet dress and tied a black lace scarf around her waist gypsy style, and a bright, colourful one around her shoulders. She applied heavy make-up, accentuating her eyes and pandering to a bit of artistic licence with black eyeliner to draw her eyes into a positively inhuman shape. Bright, bright lips and blue, blue eyes over a thick layer of dark brown foundation gave her an exaggerated Romany look, but only one thing could truly bring Sambuka to life. Sarah lifted the wig off the white polystyrene head. Her own short mousy hair was soon covered with a mane of jet black curls that cascaded down her back in a splendour of gypsy brilliance. Sambuka was BACK!
And she didn't have long to wait for her first customer. The sign at the front of the kiosk read "Appointments may not always be necessary, please knock and enter." A timid almost reluctant knock preceded a tousled head and an even more timid smile. "Er Hello. Are you open? Do I need an appointment?"
The voice that came from the Mediterranean Gypsy was a full two octaves lower than the true owner of the vocal chords and the practised Spanish accent flowed with a full resonance that dominated the small room.
"Si I open, wha? You think I seet `ere only to drink the nasty Eenglish tea and die from cold? Si Of course you need appointment. Wha you theenk I not busy? Madam Sambuka ees always busy."
"Oh I'm so sorry," said the other woman swatting at a loose strand of hair distractedly "I'll ring to make an appointment"
With that she turned on her heel and virtually launched herself at the two steps down to terra firma and escape. If it had occurred to her that the kiosk had no phone line then she wasn't saying anything about it.
"Eh? You? Why you let that man treat you like da donkey doo?" Madam Sambuka shot at the woman's retreating back
The velocity of the verbal bullets hit their target. The thirty something lady in the nondescript coat stopped in her tracks and clutched her chest as though a bullet had indeed come through her back.
"Excuse me?" She asked turning towards the fierce lady sitting at the table in front of her.
"Why wha' you done? I need air freshener?" before the lady could leave in affronted disgust Madam Sambuka threw in a little sweetener. She knew just how far she could push and had become adept at playing her customers, gauging how much she could get away with and playing the line out enough to hook her victim.
"Si I know why you come. You very troubled. You think the great and famous Madam Sambuka has all the answers. Si? Well you right. I do. Why you need to lie to your man about money?"
The woman's eyes opened just a little wider. Sarah knew she had her right where she wanted her. The old "Why you lie to your man about money?" line got `em every time. Sarah now knew that at some point and to some degree every woman in the country lied to her man about money. Or if not then she had yet to 'read' one who didn't.
"I-I-I didn't mean to lie to him." The woman lowered her head in shame and stammered out her pitiful defence. She cuddled into her low self esteem as though it were a warm sweater. "He gets so upset if I over spend on the weekly budget, so I thought that if I made do with cheaper cuts of meat and own brands then he wouldn't miss a few pounds. Jack needed things for school and Well it's not as though he'd ever notice them, He doesn't see much " she tailed off lamely.
"Aaahh ee might not but Madam Sambuka sees all." Sarah was ready to throw in another wild card, she felt as though she almost knew this man, or several like him. "Why ee not like you to wear make-up?"
The lady blushed furiously and put a hand up to her make-up free face. Sarah felt a pang of pity for the woman who would have been very pretty if she didn't look so downtrodden. "Oh he thinks make-up is cheap and that only " at this point she reddened a further two shades, " er women of a certain nature wear it."
Sarah almost burst out laughing at her client's discomfort, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. Apart from which she had to do something to try and put the other woman at her ease. With a theatrical flourish Madam Sambuka picked up her crystal ball from the table in front of her and held it in front of her face. She tilted it this way and that whilst turning her head at various angles. She furrowed her brow, pursed her lips, furrowed her brow some more and then began a conversation with her imaginary reflection. "Ee think you cheap tart Sambuka. Wha you say to that?" Madam Sambuka turned to the bemused lady and winked. "Madam Sambuka say ee need reading. Madam Sambuka sees all. Madam Sambuka see dinky dick." With that she crooked her little finger and waggled it towards the lady who was now smiling timidly.
"Ok back to biseenezz," Madam Sambuka replaced the crystal ball and began rubbing her hands lightly over its surface. She peered intently and frowned in concentration. "Hhhm it very hazy, but things are come clearer. You will be very happy. One day you look back and feel sad over wasted time but good time comes to you soon. Your childrens will be very successful and give you many grandbabies. And you live long and suffer good health. That be Seven pounds fifty please"
The other woman sat up straight in her chair. Her eyes hardened and the mousy handrag expression was replaced by one of affronted outrage, albeit very mild affronted outrage, but there was no mistaking that the affront and outright rage was there. Somewhere.
"I'm sorry, but is that it?"
Madam Sambuka wrung her hands "Why you sorry? You no like Sambuka's readings? Si? Wha you think you paying for Mystic Meg? She no do excellent reading for seven leettle pounds and fifty pince. She no throw in good luck talisman for good luck." Madam Sambuka reached into a woven basket to the right hand side of the table and plucked 'as if by magic' a small plastic pin in the vague shape of an eye. "Is all seeing eye, keep you safe and well. Si?" She smiled proudly as she passed over the tacky trinket to the less than visibly impressed lady.
"Well wh-what I mean is," the lady hardened her resolve. "What I mean is," she said in a firm voice, "that it wasn't very specific was it? That could apply to anyone"
"No you wrong," Madam Sambuka interrupted her "It not apply to little old lady with no childrens. Si? It not apply to man in leather hat with limp wrist. Si? It not apply to catholic priest. He ave childrens an the bishop whoop his ass." Sambuka solemnly made a sign of the cross "It apply to you."
Sarah never heard the lady's next words. Something was wrong. She didn't feel at all normal. Her eyes closed and she became unable to resist them. The next moment images and thoughts were coming into her mind with her having no idea where they came from or what they were. As she spoke her voice seemed to come to her from a long way distant. Her eyes opened and she gazed at the lady seeing her in a totally new light. Really seeing her for the first time since she stumbled through the kiosk door. She felt rather than heard herself speak in her own voice.
"Ok love, you want details and specifics? Then try these for size. Your name is Mary Stephanie Walker. You are thirty-six years old and have three children Jason, Amanda and Jack. Jason has a pile of soft porn magazines hidden in the second draw down of his tall boy with the Black Sabbath stickers all over it. This morning you faked three orgasms and had a bowl of Museli with chopped bananas for breakfast. You don't take sugar in you coffee. Your husband had an affair last year and you have been trying to re-kindle some love in your failing marriage since then."
Sarah tried to stop talking but couldn't. She watched the pain and horror vying for position on the woman's face. Both were replaced with something else Fear. She shrank away from the fortune teller. Sarah willed her mouth to close but continued talking despite all her efforts to shut up.
"Amanda is seeing a boy three years older than herself behind your back. You need to talk to her about it or she will lose her virginity to him next Saturday night. In eight weeks time she will take her own life when she is dumped by him and finds herself alone and pregnant."
The woman ran from the kiosk clattering the chair onto the floor in her wake. Sarah finally stopped talking and sat listening to her customer's footsteps pounding down the pavement. They became more and more faint until she couldn't hear them any more. Sarah flung off the wig and threw it across the room, she buried her hands in her own damp hair to try and stem the shaking. Trying desperately to make some sort of sense of what had just happened, she failed miserably.
Sarah 'saw' things on the way home, things that she didn't want to see, intrusive personal things that she had no business seeing. Some good, some bad but all of them from some unknown place in the labyrinth of her subconscious. She saw the sex of Jenny Parker's almost due baby. The infant's name slithered into her mind and spoke itself aloud. She saw Betty Harrison's boy fifteen years from now all grown up, happy and comfortable with his homosexuality. Sarah moved away quickly as the three-year-old grinned at her from his pushchair. She didn't want to have to stop and talk to Mrs. Harrison.
Sally Peters had breast cancer, Jimmy Smith had pubic lice and Bill Holmes had sexual relations with his Chiropodist three hours earlier. Sarah avoided eye contact with all of these people. She didn't want to know their lives, their ailments or their sordid secrets.
A dog moved cautiously towards her up the street, any passer by might have guessed that it was lost and scared. The animal slinked along holding himself close to the wall and eyeing his surroundings suspiciously. Anyone might have guessed but Sarah didn't need to, she knew that his bored owner had thrown him from the car and driven away. Sarah even in her confused state would have stopped to help the poor tormented beast but she didn't need to do that either. She saw that in a couple of minutes Helen Jacob who lived near the park was going to take pity on the dog. Helen had lost her mother the previous year and this little unwanted soul was just the kick up the bum Helen needed to re-start her life. Had someone forgotten to remind the powers that be that Sarah was a fake psychic for Christ sake?
She let herself into the house and was greeted by the welcoming smell of home cooking and her husband's tuneless but cheerful whistling. He walked through from the kitchen in a frilly apron, lips pursed in readiness for a kiss and arm extended proffering a glass of chilled Lambrusco. She had to laugh at his mock simulation of 'the perfect wife.'
Sarah's laugh was hacked from her mouth mid chortle. She clearly saw John being passed over for the staff nurse promotion that he was so sure was in the bag. He had worked so hard for that promotion, had done so many extra shifts and deserved the position far more than the little trollop three years his junior in both age and experience whom Sarah saw would take the position. Her face clouded with the burden of responsibility that this new found gift had lumbered her with.
Sarah printed a plastic smile on her face and followed through with the awaited kiss. "Oh nothing pet just one of those busy days at the office. How's Mafia kid, has she driven daddy insane yet?"
"Oh she knows exactly which buttons to push to have daddy run ragged, and you think you've had a tough day. Jeez this parenting lark isn't like it said in the brochure. She's fast asleep and honey I'd be really grateful if you'd leave her that way, even if only for ten minutes or so, our daughters lungs need a break before the next symphony." John grinned "So ze great Madam is feeling ze psychic pressure eh? I have a bath run and ready for you, all you have to do is get your kit off and hop in"
Sarah clutched at the chance of escape greedily. She needed some time to think. A bath would be a good idea. "I do hope there is no ulterior motive in being so attentive Mr, coz if there is you'll find me fast asleep in ten seconds flat. I'm pooped. I'll have my bath and then look in on Katie but I warn you if you've swapped her for a brochure kid who never cries I might just want to start work on another one right away." She gave John a squeeze and moved towards the stairs.
"I might just hold you to that promise lady, so don't you go falling asleep in that bath. No rush love, take your time. Dinners on hold until you yell in that sweet seductive bellow of yours that you are ready for me to dish up." Sarah remembered why she loved that man so much. God he was good.
At the top of the stairs she was about to turn right for the bathroom when she stopped. She had a rush of maternal yearning that almost knocked her down the stairs. She was drawn towards her daughter's nursery. One little peep wouldn't hurt surely.
Sarah crept into Katie's room and smiled as she heard the baby's soft snoring. It never failed to amaze her that something so small and delicate could snore, but she reasoned after hearing the kid yell that little snore was easy peasy. She moved to the side of her daughters cot. Katie lay on her back, the pillow ensuring she stayed on her side had dislodged from her back. At just three months old the little madam was getting some of her mother's spirit and her daddy's footballers legs. Sarah felt a moment of deep gnawing worry. What if she'd been at work and Katie had suffocated on the pillow, or choked on her vomit or been bitten by a funnel web spider. Okay so funnel web spiders were less than prolific in Morecambe, in fact the closest Morecambe had ever come to a funnel web spider was a rubber Incey on elastic from the joke shop, but you never know anything could happen to a vulnerable baby. Sarah couldn't bear the thought of anything bad happening to Katie.
The baby's hair was damp and stuck to her forehead with perspiration. Every so often she made a little sucking noise in her sleep and when she pursed her lips the little sucking blister on her top lip showed itself like a fresh rose bud. Sarah felt her breasts begin to leak as if on cue. Surely no body had ever felt such intense love as this before. Katie was perfect and John and Sarah worked hard to provide the best life they could for her.
Sarah leaned over the cot and stroked her little girls' hand. Katie didn't wake up but instinctively grabbed hold of her mother's finger and held it in her tiny fist. This seemed to jolt Sarah into another vision phase.
Katies life began to roll like Cine film. When she was three she would have German measles. At seven years old, Blue the family dog would die. Katie would be devastated and cry for a week. Sarah ached for the death of her dog who had seven good years left and for the sorrow of her child. At nine she would fall off her new bike and chip her front tooth. Nine years old was far too young to have a tooth capped. When Katie was fourteen she would suffer her first three broken hearts. Sarah was dismayed to learn that Katie would fail one of her GCSE exams. She saw fights over the breakfast table when Katie became hormonal and tears over a measly few gained pounds. She saw laughter and tears over many trivialities but only the tears made an impact on Sarah.
How could she allow her child to suffer the hurt of growing up? So many tears in those first eighteen years. Until now she had never once thought of her daughter feeling unhappiness. Her daydreams had only been filled with joyous laughter. How could any mother bring a child into the world knowing that it was going to suffer capped teeth and broken dates? Sarah tried to sort her feelings logically, but couldn't. All she could focus on was the image of Katie crying into her 'boy band' decorated pillow.
Three fat tears dropped from her face onto Katie's head. The baby stirred in her sleep but didn't wake. Sarah carefully pulled her finger from Katie's grip and reached for the pillow that was used for holding Katie firmly on her side and not allowing her to roll backwards.
"I love you Sweet Katie and couldn't bear you to have unhappiness."
Slowly she lowered the pillow.