Chapter 23 – Crystal Balls
He snatched up Emma’s hand and led her across the road to the village green, which had changed considerably since he’d left only a couple of hours before. While the various stalls were still lined up around the edge of the green, they were no longer home to the tombola, second-hand book sales and the like, but had been replaced by sellers of hot drinks, henna body artists and what looked like an elderly fortune teller.
‘It’s Madame Petrovia,’ said Emma, sounding excited as a young girl spotting a pony. ‘Let’s go and have our fortune’s told.’ She dragged on Sebastian’s hand, pulling him into the path of a broad, surly-looking man in a dirty wax jacket.
‘Sorry,’ said Sebastian, almost tripping over his own feet. The man drawled out a few surly-sounding words, but his West Country accent was so thick that Sebastian couldn’t make out any of them. ‘What did he say?’ he asked Emma.
‘He sort of told you to watch where you were going.’
She shrugged. ‘Yeah. Sort of. Would you like to know exactly what he said?’
‘Give me two pounds.’
‘Two pounds?’ he said, sounding slightly indignant. ‘I don’t want to know that badly.’
Emma stopped and held out her hand, palm upwards. ‘Two pounds so Madame Petrovia can tell our fortune.’
‘Madame Pet-’ Sebastian began, but stopped as he looked at the fortune teller, seated across the trestle table from where they now stood. It was not her vast quantity of jewellery, fingers filled with rings, chest adorned with coils of necklaces, or her faux-gypsy clothing, swirly patterned dress, twinkly shawl and turban-like hat, that had stunned him. It wasn’t even the curls of red hair the spilled from beneath the headwear and across her shoulders. It was the fact that she was a he. And had a big, bushy beard to prove it. Sebastian opened his mouth to point this out, but closed it again as he noticed Madame Petrovia’s arms. Not only were they covered in thick, black hair much like the bristles on Major Tom’s back, but they were also massive, with forearms like an oak coffee table and biceps that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a bull. He shifted his gaze to Madame Petrovia’s face to find her – or should he say his? – eyes narrowed back at him, as though daring Sebastian to say something he’d regret. ‘Hello,’ said Sebastian, his voice reduced to a mere squeak of its usual self.
‘Going to stand there staring,’ said Madame Petrovia, in a voice that couldn’t have been further from a squeak, and held out a huge, leathery hand, ‘or are you going to cross my palm with silver?’
Sebastian frowned, thrown by this request. ‘Silver?’
‘Well, a bit of of copper, zinc and nickel, then? It’s two quid for a reading.’ At a nudge from Emma, Sebastian fumbled in his pocket and managed to produce two pound coins, which he dropped into the slab-like palm. The coins vanished somewhere about the fortune teller’s person and he gestured to the seats across the table. ‘Sit down, then,’ said the gravely voice, ‘and give us your mitts. You first, young lady.’
With a sideways grin at Sebastian, Emma held out her hand, which, once cupped in Madame Petrovia’s palm, looked even more slender and dainty than ever and Sebastian was surprised to notice they were slightly freckled. The fortune teller ran a finger, that wouldn’t have looked out of place inside a bun with a coating of fried onions, across the lines of Emma’s hand, then grunted and scratched her beard. ‘And yours, hunky boy?’ Sebastian held out his hand without comment, though he noticed Emma’s grin widening. Madame Petrovia’s finger caressed the lines of Sebastian’s hands, which did not look quite as soft and clean as usual. There was the start of a callus where his third finger met his palm, no doubt caused by shovelling straw and dung around. He looked up at another grunt from the fortune teller and his hand was returned to him, callus and all.
‘Well?’ said Emma, as Madame Petrovia sat back and stroked away at her beard. ‘Let’s hear it then.’
‘Both your lifelines are good and strong,’ said the fortune teller, ‘so nothing to worry much about there. But it looks like there are long journeys ahead for you.’
‘Long journeys?’ said Sebastian, finding himself drawn in despite the fact he thought it was all nonsense. ‘Where to?’
Madam Petrovia slipped a purple silk covering from what was obviously supposed to be a crystal ball. The effect was slightly spoiled by the fact the ball was balanced on an old coffee mug with the faded words “World’s Okayest Dad” printed on it. She ran her hairy hands around it and affected a mystical air. ‘The destination is of little importance. It is how the journey shapes you.’
‘Uh huh?’ Sebastian rolled his eyes at what he considered to be airy-fairy-ness. ‘So are looking at car or train journeys? Or maybe an ocean voyage? Or a rocket to the moon.’
The fortune teller peered at him over the crystal ball. ‘Some journeys take us no further than our own homes, and yet at all the same, we may leave ourselves far behind.’
‘You mean, like the journey of life?’ said Emma, who was gazing wide-eyed at the crystal ball, like a child seeing a television for the first time.
‘Brilliant,’ said Sebastian, his tone as ironic as he could manage. ‘Well worth two pounds.’
‘Do not be too hasty to dismiss what I have told you,’ said Madam Petrovia, still stroking the crystal ball. ‘As the first of your journeys draws to an end, young Sebastian, the foundations are already laid for the next.’
‘I’ve not-’ He stopped, frowning at the fortune teller. ‘How do you know my name? Is that some sort of psychic trick or something?’
‘Neil told me,’ said the fortune teller, with a wave of her hand, which clipped the crystal ball, knocking it off its coffee mug plinth. ‘Damn it!’ she said, ducking down as the ball rolled off the end of the trestle table.
At that moment the vicar’s feedback-laced voice echoed across the green, announcing the start of the evening’s entertainment, and Sebastian took the opportunity to grab Emma’s hand and leave while the fortune teller was distracted.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Emma, struggling to keep up and Sebastian hurried towards the stage at the rear of the green, where the action was focused. ‘Didn’t you think what she said was interesting?’
‘She? You know that was a man, right? Madame Petrovia?’
Emma laughed. ‘Course I do! His real name is Peter Babbage. He lives somewhere near Barnstaple. But that doesn’t mean she, he whatever, can’t read fortunes.’
Sebastian turned to see if she was joking, and almost tripped over his own feet. ‘Actually, I think that’s exactly what it means. Did you see that “World’s Okayest Dad” mug?’
‘Maybe he’s better as a mum?’ They pulled up on the edge of the crowd, which had gathered in front of the stage to see the first act of the evening, a troop of singing children from one of the nearby secondary schools. There were around thirty children in all, singing a medley of show tunes from musicals Sebastian had seen, but was struggling to recognise, and on the grass directly in front of the stage stood a short, bald man conducting their performance with far more enthusiasm that was really necessary.
‘He’s going to have his eye out, if he carries on like that,’ said Sebastian.
Emma sniggered, but managed to cover it up as a cough. ‘That’s my old music teacher, Mr Paul. He accompanied us on a school outings to Glastonbury once and broke his arm falling down a hole. He ended up having to conduct the school orchestra with his arm in a cast and I swear he kept punching himself in the face with it.’ They listened for a while, catching snatches of what Sebastian identified as “Memory”, “Supertrooper”, and something which sounded suspiciously like “The Time Warp”. He leant towards Emma, speaking quietly.
‘What other spectacles have they got lined up for tonight?’
She shrugged, brushing a distracting shoulder up his arm. ‘Not sure,’ she said, ‘but I have no doubt the Steepleford Band will be playing their usual mess of folksongs.’
‘I’m imagining accordions, fiddles and maybe a big box as a drum.’
‘Throw in a guitar and that’s pretty much it. I suspect we’ll have a school band first, though.’
Sebastian nodded slowly, processing this information. ‘Want to grab something to eat?’
‘And how’re you two lovebirds doing?’
Sebastian twisted round to find Neil’s moustache smiling down at them. And winking.
‘We’re not…’ he began, then caught Emma looking at him, her eyebrows arched in a meaningful way. He cleared his throat. ‘We’re not too bad, thanks. Are you enjoying yourself?’
Neil raised a hand, filled with a large roll stuffed so full with chunks of pork that the apple sauce was spilling out of the edges and dripping from his fingers, and took a massive bite, chewing on it slowly as if considering the question. This took so long that the expectant look on Sebastian’s face drained away, replaced by one that was sighing in every way except actually breathing out loudly.
At last Neil swallowed. ‘Yep!’ he said, licking apple sauce from his fingers. Sebastian sighed.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be supervising the fireworks?’ asked Emma.
Neil flapped his hand dismissively, and Sebastian felt flecks of the sauce hit his cheek. ‘All under control,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be spectacular. But the band have a couple more numbers to get through. It’s not nine-thirty yet.’
Sebastian looked at his watch. ‘How do you even know that?’ he asked. ‘You don’t have a watch or a phone or anything. Do you tell the time by some… country… folklore thing?’
‘See them stars?’ said Neil, gesturing to the sky with his roll. Sebastian looked up and, between the wisps of cloud drifting overhead, he could make out the glittering of a few, faint stars. He nodded. ‘Well, you see that bright one just above the church tower there?’ Sebastian shifted his gaze and could indeed make out a star hanging directly above the building in question. He nodded again. Neil shifted round to point over Sebastian’s shoulder, dropping a blob of sauce onto Sebastian’s knee. ‘Follow the line down with your eyes.’
Sebastian did so, wiping at his knee. ‘Onto the tower itself?’ he asked.
‘That’s right,’ said Neil. ‘And as you do you, you’ll notice there a bloody, great clock on it.’ He chuckled, clearly pleased with himself, then straightened up and bit off another huge chunk of the pork roll. ‘Saints alive!’ he said, though the mouthful. ‘What in the..?’
Sebastian looked up to see him staring off to the left and turned to look himself.
‘Wow!’ said Emma, leaning back to look past him. ‘Is that Virginia?’ It was, and even Sebastian, who had provided her with the various products and information she needed, was amazed by the transformation. Gone was the unmanageable frizz that kept falling across her eyes, to be replaced by hair that cascaded in clearly defined waved, framing a face that was, for the first time since Sebastian had met her, and maybe for the first time in years, accentuated with lipstick, mascara and rouge, all applied with what looked like a well practiced hand. Virginia’s hair sat comfortably across her shoulder, from which hung, not her usual dungarees over one of, what Sebastian suspected were, Neil’s old shirts, but a dress. An actual dress. And while it was not in the most fashionably up-to-date design, it suited her well and showed off a figure that Sebastian hadn’t even considered might be hidden beneath. But then, she was at least fifteen years older than him, so he tried not to think about them now either.
‘This is your doing!’ said Neil, jabbing a finger at Sebastian. ‘You’ve been putting all this… pretty-fying into her head.’
‘I don’t think I can really take responsibility-’ Sebastian began, but Neil cut him off.
‘Look what you’ve done!’ Neil gestured towards Virginia, who had spotted them and was heading their way. ‘You’ve turned my wife into… into a woman!’
‘I’m definitely not responsible for that!’ said Sebastian, confused by Neil’s apparently disapproving reaction.
A moustache stretching grin spread across Neil’s face. ‘Well, I won’t bother thanking you, then,’ he said and, laughing like a happy child, he hurried off to sweep Virginia off her feet. Sebastian was pleased to note they were wearing shoes, rather than wellies.
‘You’re going to miss him, aren’t you?’ said Emma, turning to smile at him.
He sighed. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘you’re probably right. Where on earth did Virginia get all those nice clothes?’
Emma tapped the side of her nose. ‘Word gets around,’ she said. ‘A few of the ladies in the village helped her out. No doubt they’ve been itching to spruce her up for years.’
‘Spruce her up?’ Sebastian chuckled, then stopped himself as it sounded just a little too much like Neil. ‘Well, looks like she “spruces up” pretty well. I feel just a little bit proud, actually.’
‘Along similar lines,’ said Emma, dropping an excited, and somewhat exciting, hand onto his knees, ‘you up for spying on my mum and Mac?’
Sebastian smiled. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’