By Vivienne Tuffnell
There was thunder in the air and a scent of coming rain, and as he went down the steps into the cool of the cellar bar, he had an odd sense of expectation, though he couldn’t have said why. It was just the usual post-work drink on a Friday, a couple of glasses of something cold before going home to shower and change ready for the night ahead, a demarcation point between the world of work and the real one. So he didn’t know quite why he had the feeling he might have had if he had been expecting to meet someone, when the chances were at this time, the bar would be deserted.
It wasn’t quite deserted. In the corner to one side of the door two women lurked, chatting in bored tones over white wine. He knew one of them slightly. They had history, but not the earth-shattering or even earth-moving sort, so he nodded to her curtly so she didn’t think he was ignoring her.
He was about to order a drink from the languid and damp-looking barman when the door swung open again and in a sweep of rain-scented air a woman walked in. A girl really, though as he glanced at her he realised he really couldn’t guess her age. She had the freshness of skin only the under twenties usually have but her eyes had a kind of self-aware intelligence he’d rarely seen in anyone under fifty. She was oddly dressed, and as she entered the bar, the woman in the corner said in a deliberately audible stage whisper,
“God, I hardly think wearing a sack is exactly the height of fashion.”
The girl paused, her arm nearly touching the bar. The dress was a bit odd, true enough; the fabric did indeed have the open irregular texture of hessian but as he looked at it he saw that the cloth had a shimmer and a gleam and a softness that could never come from sackcloth. Raw silk, or linen and silk mix maybe, cinched in with a wide, worn leather belt of burnished brown with a plain buckle of some dull metal.
He saw her brow contract and the girl bite her lip with hurt and on impulse he leaned over and said in an equally loud stage whisper,
“Ignore her, it’s a lovely dress.”
She gave him an uncertain smile.
“Do you think so?” she said, her voice soft and musical. “I made it myself. Excuse me, I should have a word with her.”
She turned away from him and went unhurriedly to where the other woman had now turned her back on her.
“A word?” said the girl, touching the woman’s shoulder gently.
“Well?” she demanded, staring up at her with undisguised contempt.
There was a definite pause and even the barman stopped polishing glasses to see if a fight was about to erupt. Then the girl leaned down and spoke directly into the woman’s ear. The woman’s face froze as she listened, and then went very red and finally so pale her blusher stood out on her face like the imprints of a slap. She seemed to gasp and then got unsteadily to her feet and rushed out. Her friend stayed still for a second or two and then rushed after her, shouting,
“What did she say? What did she say?”
The girl gave a small secret smile and walked back to the bar.
“What did you say to her?” he asked, impressed.
She smiled again, a pleased smile.
“I only tell people their own secrets,” she said and ordered a drink.
His curiosity was piqued.
“OK,” he said. “Tell me one of my secrets then.”
She sipped at her wine and shook her head.
“You won’t like it,” she said.
“You don’t know any,” he said, disappointed.
“Oh, I do,” she said. “But as you saw from the lady over there, usually people don’t like what I tell them.”
He was a little stung.
“How do you know these things anyway?” he asked. “Are you some sort of private detective or something?”
She shook her head.
“I just have a gift for it,” she said. “An instinct for knowing things if you like.”
“Bet you don’t know anything about me,” he said, a little galled.
“I know you’re getting married in a month,” she said.
“Anyone here might have told you that,” he said unconvinced. “She could have told you that.”
“I’ve never been here before,” she said. “And I don’t even know your name.”
If it was a pick-up line, he wasn’t going to fall for it by telling her.
“But I do know you’re having serious doubts about it,” she went on and his certainty began to waver.
“Oh yeah, why is that then?” he asked, a touch aggressively now.
“That’s for you to know, not me,” she said.
“Lots of people have doubts. You’re not much cop as a psychic, you know. Bit of guesswork, that’s all that was, and maybe some local knowledge,” he said.
She shrugged unconcernedly and took another sip of her drink.
“As you say,” she agreed and it annoyed him that she wasn’t arguing. Then she raised her eyes to his and he saw for the first time that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. He’d so seldom seen a woman without makeup that her face seemed indecently naked and he found himself blushing at that thought. Her eyes were fringed with long thick fairish lashes and he found himself thinking how much nicer it looked than being caked with so much mascara raising the lids must be aerobic exercise. Despite virtually living with his fiancée he was certain he’d never seen her without makeup.
“You keep a photo of your dog from when you were a child in your wallet, under the one of your fiancée,” she said, her eyes looking deeply into his. “She hates dogs, most animals in fact. That’s one of the reasons you’re having second thoughts. You know the others.”
He was shaken, badly shaken but he tried to hide it.
“I take it back,” he said. “You are pretty good as a psychic. Nice trick. How’d you do it?”
“As I said,” she said. “I have a gift.”
There was an awkward silence.
“What did you tell her?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“That’s not for you to know,” she said. “I was going to remind her to get her Lottery ticket tomorrow, because her numbers will probably come up, but when she was so nasty, I thought, no. It’s not her time.”
“So you reckon her numbers will come up?”
Again she shrugged.
“Nothing is certain you know,” she said. “But when I came in here and saw her, the chances were those numbers would be coming up.”
“What numbers were they?”
She laughed out loud.
“Come on now!” she said. “I’m not telling you that. It’s not for you. You aren’t the one who dreams about leaving her highflying, highly paid and hardworking career to live a life of decadent luxury where she need never wear the same pair of knickers twice.”
This time he was shocked.
“How do you know about that?” he demanded. “There was no one else there.”
“I told you,” she said. “I have a gift.”
He was beginning to feel very unnerved now. He had had a fling with the woman who had left. It had been some years ago and it had ended almost as soon as it began. The evening had begun with a lot of drinks then back to her place for more drinks, leading to various confessions of their dreams and ambitions and finally to bed. Languishing in post coital bliss he had made the mistake of asking her how it had been for her.
“Not too bad,” she’d said. “But maybe next time I’ll draw you a map and a set of instructions.”
Understandably from his point of view, there had been no next time. But he had always thought bitterly of her every time he saw the Lottery draw on television. He’d never so much as bought a ticket himself. He’d almost decided to stop coming here on a Friday until he told himself sternly that he would not let her ruin something that he enjoyed. He enjoyed the few quiet drinks here in the dull quiet hiatus between Friday afternoon and the start of the weekend. He enjoyed them so much it was a real effort to go out again properly later in the evening.
“So what are my dreams then if you know hers?” he asked, feigning indifference by finishing his beer and signalling for another.
“You want to make a difference but you don’t know how,” she said and he found himself blushing again as if she had revealed his intimate dimensions to the world. “You worry that if you marry your fiancée you never will get the chance to make a difference anywhere, anytime, except maybe to the prosperity of the shoe and dress industry.”
He was speechless with shock. These were not things she could have found out from anywhere; these were thoughts he had never so much as given voice to. Even in that drunken game of truth or dare he had not revealed his true dreams and ambitions and he had never so much a breathed a whisper of concern about his intended’s taste for expensive shoes and designer clothes.
She finished her drink and set the glass down.
“I must be off,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting my sisters. We work together.”
“What do you do then?” he asked and she frowned slightly.
“It’s a bit difficult to explain,” she said. “You might call it human resources, I suppose. We have our own company.”
“Are you any good then?” he said. “I could put some work your way if you like.”
“We are good,” she said without any false modesty. “The best. We have sufficient business currently though, thank you. It was kind of you to offer though.”
She started to move away from the bar. The sleeve of the dress caught on something, a nail or a splinter and a tiny shred of fabric ripped away and hung on the edge of the bar. She grinned at his distraught face ruefully. He was clearly expecting the kind of tantrum most women were likely to throw at ripping their dress.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m pretty good with threads. And you’ll be all right too. Just listen to what your heart is really telling you and you can’t go far wrong. You’re a kind man, you know. Go make a difference.”
She walked away from the bar, her worn Greek sandals slapping softly on the smooth floor and her strange dress shimmering around her as she walked. He unfastened the shred of fabric from the nail it had caught on and held it up to the light. It felt like silk, so soft he could almost not feel it at all and through the oatmeal coloured fabric he could see finer threads of what looked like gold woven into the material. A faint and agreeable herbal scent seemed to cling to the scrap, a fragrance of bay and thyme so very unlike any of the power perfumes popular with city women but which really gave him a headache. He tucked the shred into his wallet with the picture of his dog and went home.
A week later he found himself in the bar again, listening to the music of rain and traffic outside and contemplating his coffee. He’d half hoped the girl would be there again, but inside he knew she wouldn’t be. Even so, when the door opened, his heart lifted. It was the woman he’d had the fling with years back. He got up and went over to join her, motivated by some curiosity he’d not have given in to before. Her face looked jaded and sour and her perfume had gone sour too with too hot a day and too little fresh air.
“Bad week?” he asked lightly.
She looked at him with the amused half contempt a woman reserves for an inadequate lover who still tries to be friends in the hope of a second try.
“Yes, actually,” she said acerbically. “First of all, I split up from Paul. He expected me to forgive him his little slip but when I told him about mine he blew up and dumped me. Then I was so upset I forgot to buy my Lottery ticket. And of course, guess what?”
“Your numbers came up,” he said quietly.
“Four and a half million quid lost just because that little bitch last week told me that if I didn’t tell Paul someone else would,” she said bitterly. “And you? Bad week?”
“No, actually,” he said. “I split up with Michelle.”
She looked at him with some interest.
“So that makes it a good week then does it?” she said sarcastically.
“Better that now than later,” he said.
“Why did you split up?”
“We want different things from life,” he said simply.
She gazed at her wine for a minute.
“Well, an ill wind and all that,” she said. “How about coming back to mine then and consoling each other? I bet after two years with her you won’t need a map any more, not with her experience after all.”
It might have stung once but not now.
“No thanks,” he said. “I’m going out shortly.”
“You don’t hang around,” she said sharply. “Plenty more fish in the sea after all.”
“Not exactly,” he said, finishing his coffee. “I’ve got my first shift as a volunteer at the Night Shelter.”
He went out into the evening, sunshine showing through the grey clouds like gold thread through raw silk, and smiled at his second chance.