One Sunday when I was seventeen, I went with some friends to a local psychic fair. I’m not entirely sure why we went. We were mildly curious, but it was more to do with having nowhere else to go, or anything else to do that night. Oh, and we had a gram of speed between us, and didn’t want to spend the evening whizzing our tits off to Songs of Praise.
The fair (or, possibly, ‘fayre’) was at a hotel about 30 minutes’ walk across some fields. We ambled along, rubbing powder on our gums and regurgitating the usual paranormal snippets teenagers pick up about Aldous Huxley, Aleister Crowley, fractals, urban legends, alternative universes, a bit of quantum mechanics, and Our Friend Helen Who Says She’s a Witch and Has a Pack of Tarot Cards. By the time we arrived, we were rushy, twitchy-eyed, and ready to believe anything.
I don’t know what it is about speed that makes you so gullible. Enough cocaine turns you into the world’s funniest and most interesting person (at least, to yourself). Speed, whereas, convinces you that something amazing is about to happen. The person you’re talking to is about to say something that will blow your mind. Or the next bar you’ll visit on a pub crawl is going to be excellent. Speed promises and never delivers, but you never learn. Unless you’re me, and you get to 19, and you think “Fuck it, I’ll just drink coffee.”
Anyway, so we wandered in, chemically naïve, and the sequinned vultures descended. One friend disappeared immediately behind a sparkly veil with a frumpy, tasselled woman called Doris. The other was spirited away to have his aura photographed.
I made a couple of rounds of the stalls, willing the uncanny to reveal itself to me. My family’s religious views are conflicted – equal parts Catholic guilt, dodgy eastern mysticism; and the dichotomy of an attraction to the romance of demons and ghosties versus a very real need for genuine scientific evidence. I leafed through books and weighed up crystals in my palm, wanting to feel something. But I felt nothing.
Nothing except a mild pang of misplaced lust (you know, the kind you get towards someone on Neighbours when you’ve been incarcerated with a cold for several days) towards a kind-faced young Richard Madeley lookalike, who offered to tell my fortune. Possibly distracted by his hair, which was all flicked over, and his shirt, which was unbuttoned to the nipples, I accepted.
“I sense a… conflict, and a clash of philosophies between you and your family…”
What was it that tipped him off? The nose ring? The pillarbox-red dreadlocks, perhaps?
“You have a questioning mind, particularly around politics…”
The anarchy badge on my lapel? (I never said I was particularly subtle or inventive teen)
“You come across as someone with a good education…” My multiple syllables, possibly. “…And an aptitude for music…” The GUITAR I had to carry around all day?
Richard Madeley’s diatribe got boring after that; something about seeking harmony with my family, and learning from, not disregarding, its wisdom. Blah, blah, blah. I was starting to come down; this was rubbish speed. I threw some coinage his way and went to loiter by the crystal and incense stall. Friend Number One found me soon enough.
“I’ve just had my tarot done!” He blibbered, launching spittle everywhere. “It was amazing, you should do it!” And also: “Do you have any chewing gum on you?”
And suddenly I was in a sort of tie-dye shower enclosure, picking eight tarot cards for Doris, the hack-faced West Country woman with man hands and a gravely, professional smoker’s voice. I eyed her suspiciously as she turned the cards face-up; I forget what they were. The something of cups. The fool. The something of knives. The lovers. Death (which is, apparently, not death, but life. Or something. Anyway, the tower is supposed to be worse than death. I didn’t get the tower).
“Now, this is very interesting,” she rumbled, like a station wagon pulling into a suburban driveway, and made vague noises about seeing me in a big room with other people, writing, and there being a clock on the wall, and a choice to be made – because it’s unusual for seventeen year olds to make choices, or sit en masse in big rooms, feverishly writing while a clock ticks significantly away. Plus there was the inevitable clash with my family, and an urging to carry on with my studies despite perhaps not wanting to.
I rubbed my temples, unimpressed. The crappy speed was fast wearing off, and with it my sense of fun and exploration. All I had now was a foul mood and the urge to grind, grind, grind my teeth until they wore to a fine powder that I could sell back to the swindler who dealt us the speed.
Still, I thought, she may be an old fraud, but she has principles. She could have told me the gods wanted me to go into prostitution, or catering.
“Now, darling, I’m getting a lady with you,” she suddenly pronounced, as though that kind of sentence made all the sense in the world. “It’s your… grandmother?” I shook my head; both sets of grandparents were alive at this point. “Maybe it’s Great-grandma then, and ooh, she looks lovely, with a lovely shawl on her head and some beautiful… coin things hanging down.”
Wuh? I stared at her blankly.
“And here’s a man, yes, he’s your Great-grandpa, maybe, with a sort of… it looks like a hat, or maybe, you know when you wash your hair and you put it in a towel…?”
I should point out here that I am a person of initially ambiguous ethnicity. I could be Mediterranean. I could be Asian. I could be Middle Eastern. Doris was hedging her bets. To save us both from further clumsy ethnic stereotypes, I told her where my family was from originally. I left out the bit about exactly none of my ancestors wearing coins or towels.
“Right,” She continued, unabashed. “And they say that they love you, and are very proud of you, and that you should continue with your studies and they know that you’ve considered another path, and I’m here to tell you no, that path isn’t for you.”
Well, bugger this, I thought. What seventeen year old student hasn’t considered a different path?
I stood up. “Thank you very much, that was interesting. I’ll just cross your palm with, er, fifteen quid then, and –“
“Your father’s here, dear.”
I sat back down. I think it was the quietness of her voice that swayed me. That and the fact that my father had died when I was 10. How could she know that?
“Oh really?” I asked, trying to inject a casual curiosity into my voice.
“Yes dear,” She reached out and held my hand. I didn’t pull it away. “He’s smiling at you, just over your right shoulder there. He wants to tell you he’s happy, and it didn’t hurt, and it was quick. He saw you all crying. He says he wished he had been able to hold you at the funeral and tell you he was all right.”
By now the tears were flowing freely down my face and I was powerless to stop them. I was so busy trying to staunch the flow with my left sleeve that I didn’t realise Doris had attached my right hand to a bonsai tree on the table.
“Er?” I enquired.
“You’re getting very weak and the signal is sort of fading,” explained Doris. “Just draw the strength from this little tree. Go on, draw up the goodness into your fingers and up through your arm into your heart.”
I was suddenly struck with the thought that, had my father really been here, he’d be sniggering into his hand by now. And while he would have thought the bonsai thing pretty funny, he wouldn’t actually want to see me reduced to tears by this ridiculous woman.
“Could you just tell me,” I asked, pulling my hand away from the tree, “What my father looks like?”
“Ooh, it’s hard, the ether is blurry,” she told me, then went on to describe a short, swarthy man of possibly Asian origin. Thankfully she didn’t add any bizarre headgear.
Sadly for her, my father was a tall blond man (and no, we didn’t have a short, swarthy milkman – I resemble my father in other non-tall, non-blond ways). I wiped away the tears, paid up and hauled my friends away from their various potentially bad purchases (friendship bracelets, mood rings and one breathtakingly hideous unicorn poster). We meandered home via the kebab shop.
“Well, that was shit,” concluded Friend Number Two. I told him about my tarot reading, and wondered aloud how Doris could have known about my father.
“This is a small town,” he reminded me, “and your family has an unusual ethnicity. Perhaps she’s met your mother?”
“Of course!” I realised. “What a gullible dickhead I am.”
Friend Number One was still in the grip of the largest share of the speed, and extremely happy with the incense sticks he’d bought.
“I’m a Libra!” he exclaimed.
“I’m an atheist,” I decided, and we all lived rationally ever after.