Kennedy's The Blue Book, Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and 'Madame Moon'
  • Lily Greenall

A.L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book is a fictional exploration of the lives and work of two professional psychics. Using a range of experimental narrative techniques, Kennedy is able to evoke the sense that a psychic’s job is to build a story from the minimal amount of information offered. Whether working with individuals or in front of a crowd, a psychic must draw information out of their audience using guesswork, invention and intuition. In The Blue Book, Kennedy makes a pervasive connection between this process and the acts of reading and writing a work of fiction. Working recently as an usher at a psychic show, I was struck by the connection between the role of the psychic and the role of the author. In order to perform, a psychic needs both their audience’s participation and their willingness to suspend disbelief, in much the same way as a novelist requires this from a reader. Psychics also use suggestion, throwing out an idea and allowing the audience to build upon it from their own experience, just as a writer can guide a reader through narrative strategies of implication and suggestion. Taking inspiration from The Blue Book and the American writer Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a powerful non-fiction account of loss and grieving, I developed my short story ‘Madame Moon’. In it I seek to explore, through fiction, the themes of loss, grief and the performative ritual aspects of these processes, which are seldom discussed in mainstream culture. This paper intends to demonstrate the relationship between my own experience and the process of writing this short story, and to examine some of the ways in which the practice of fiction, like the performance of a psychic, can give us permission to deal with traumatic emotions in a fictive but often emotionally enabling setting. 

Key Words: Psychic — Novels — A.L. Kennedy — Grief — Scottish — Writer

 

After working behind the bar at a charity psychic show in 2016, I was inspired to turn my experience into a short story. ‘Madame Moon’ seeks to interrogate attitudes towards the supernatural and belief in the afterlife in the context of the power of narrative strategies to supplement (or offer an emotionally useful alternative to) modern rational responses to loss and grief. I have tried to locate the story firmly in its setting, referring explicitly to the Aberdonian accents of the audience members and highlighting Aberdeen’s position as a university town. In writing ‘Madame Moon’, I also wanted to explore my conviction that the technique of the psychic was essentially paradigmatic to that of a (fiction or non-fiction) storyteller or novelist. My research on the subject has also led me to examine A. L. Kennedy’s novel The Blue Book as an example of another text that deliberately conflates and compares the role of the psychic with the role of the novelist, and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as a memoir that brings a distinctive and unmistakeably writerly perspective to the experience of grief. Throughout this paper I want to examine the techniques used by Kennedy and Didion in more detail, and explore parallels with ‘Madame Moon’ that have arisen during the writing process.

The central trope of A.L. Kennedy's The Blue Book is the blending of the role of the narrator with the role of psychic or medium. Opening as though in the midst of a psychic reading, the narrator begins with the metafictional fact: ‘But here this is, the book you’re reading.’ From this, the narrator concludes several things about the reader:

Quite naturally, you face it. Your eyes, your lips are turned towards it … if it were a person you might kiss … You can remember times when kissing has been unavoidable. You are not, after all, unattractive … And you’re a reader—clearly. (2012: 1)

The narrator makes several leaps of the imagination here and yet comes up with an image of a reader that most people could recognise in themselves. The materiality of the characteristics that the narrator describes—the way you must hold a book in order to see and read it—are difficult to contest, and beyond that, they are inoffensive and even flattering to the reader. They are also carefully vague so that almost all readers can feel that they are being personally described. In this way, the introductory paragraph mimics a horoscope or a palm reading. I noticed at the psychic show that the medium there also used this technique. Rather than moving straight into the reading, the psychic needed first to win over her audience and to gain their trust. She attempted to build an ‘authorial’ rapport with them by making herself seem relatable, describing herself getting ready for the show in a way that made her seem unthreatening and slightly comical, but also, crucially, a teller of stories.

I have mirrored this process (essentially a narrative strategy) in the opening passage of ‘Madame Moon’. Much of the dialogue in the story comes directly from notes taken on the night. However, it was still an editorial challenge to render the balance between the psychic’s performative persona and the dialogue she used to ingratiate herself with the audience. It took several rewrites to address this balance; Madame Moon’s dialogue alternated between seeming too performative and breaking the realism of the story, and too blandly conversational, leading to a lack of tension, verbal economy and atmosphere. This balancing was not only important in terms of making ‘Madame Moon’ a convincing short story but also for examining performative techniques. As demonstrated by the opening of Kennedy’s novel, the successful psychic must navigate a fine line between making suggestions and stating facts. This is particularly important once the readings get started, since during readings the psychic must constantly probe forwards, pushing the client to reveal more information while at the same time avoiding being obviously vague. For this process to take place, an element of trust must exist between the psychic and the audience, and, of course, this is analogous, in a number of important ways, to the relationship between novelist (or story-writer) and reader, since both the psychic and the writer rely on having their audience’s willing participation. A novelist cannot guarantee that their words are going to be interesting to a reader, just as a psychic cannot guarantee that they will get a hit when they throw a name out into the audience. However, the chances of this happening are greatly increased by having an audience that is willing to participate and who are open-minded about the process.

This element of confidence in the writer is particularly important in a novel like The Blue Book, which uses many unconventional and metafictional narrative techniques. All fictional texts however—even texts that have a strictly mimetic style and carefully detail the world in which they take place—require suspension of disbelief and a pleasurable awareness of fictionality (an implicit acknowledgement that the fiction taking place has a special ‘truth value’ of its own) on the part of the reader. As I will go on to examine in the remainder of this paper, the reasons that audiences are willing to enter these states of disbelief appear to be highly varied and, in the context of this research, draw attention to aspects of modern belief, or rather modern suspension of disbelief, in the supernatural and the afterlife.

In some ways, Kennedy’s novel is a novel about the act of storytelling as a mode of deceit. The psychics, Arthur and Elizabeth, around whom the story revolves, are not truly psychic but practise a system of tricks and devices that allow the audience to believe that they are. However, the reasons why they perform do have an emotional legitimacy when the needs of the audience are considered. In a scene which describes Arthur and Elizabeth performing together in a town hall, Kennedy describes the way that the pair read the room:

… lockets and bracelets and necklaces with names on and even more so for the men - they get the heavy gold, thick links, substantial watches, the sovereign rings and Mason’s symbols, Pioneer symbols, Union symbols, AA symbols, lettered fingers and swallows inked on the webs of thumbs and solo earrings—whole libraries of themselves set out on offer. (66)

The dynamic between the psychics and the audience is framed in the same language as the interaction between author, reader, and text. The psychics partake in an act of reading but also an act of invention as they spontaneously relay scenarios for the audience to pick up on and relate to their own circumstances. There is also an element of the audience members self-consciously employing narrative strategies in their own individual stories, through which they present themselves and their emotional needs. The suggestion here is that the people in the audience, and people more broadly, want to be known (or recognised as it were) and that they put themselves on display to a certain extent because they want to be understood.

Although this is an unconscious emotion and the parts that they do choose to display—for example, the jewellery Kennedy describes—are cryptic and usually have purely personal significance, it is an explanation in part as to why people willingly expose themselves to the scrutiny of psychics. It is the hope that something true about themselves will be relayed back to them, and to the strangers around them. Many aspects of human ritual and expression—for example, expressions of the self through fashion—demonstrate a desire to be easily categorised and transparently understood while at the same time expressing a desire to be individual. These are the personal ‘libraries’ that people wish that the psychics could read and strip away. As much as the psychics are practising a deceit, the audience members, too, have their own layers of disguise that they wish the psychics to interpret. This is true not only in The Blue Book but, I feel, in the real experience of visiting psychics. I have tried to make this impression evident in ‘Madame Moon’. Elizabeth, Kennedy’s self-conscious narrator, also displays an awareness that, despite the fraudulent nature of their careers, she and Arthur are providing a service that the audience both needs and desires. She states that:

We’ll work in you until we’ve split you, fathomed who you are, until your everything is different, absolutely—which is what you want, what everyone always wants—to be naked and opened and seen and touched, but still loved—to be absolutely known and proved absolutely lovable. Not in spite of ourselves, but because of ourselves, our whole terrible selves. (67. Italics in original)

It is a feeling similar to the one that often drives the production of works of expression, such as a painting or a novel. A desire to be seen, heard, recognised, to lay claim to, or be given, a voice. This argument becomes even more pertinent when we take in to account the psychology of grief and the fact that, both in Kennedy’s novel and in ‘Madame Moon’, most of the people seeking out the psychics are doing so as a response to losing someone they love.

This paradigmatic relation between story-telling and psychic performance is not restricted to fictional practice, of course. In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an autobiographical account of her year following the death of her husband, she describes the way in which grief changes perceptions of reality. The term ‘magical thinking’ refers to the pathological experience of grief. ‘Magical’ also gives the impression of an altered state that allows for belief in the supernatural to some extent. Although I aim to strike a sceptical tone in ‘Madame Moon’, I also want to give the impression that the hall becomes an altered space for a time and that an emotional magic, the act of sharing and potentially beginning to heal from loss, is able to take place. Didion notes that ‘the power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted. The act of grieving, Freud told us in his 1917 ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, “involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life”’ (2005: 34).

This does not only describe feelings of depression and disordered states of emotion but departs from the usual way of thinking about the rational and the impossible. Didion uses several examples from her own grief to demonstrate this sensation. She describes being unable to give away her husband’s clothes and shoes, thinking to herself, ‘How could he come back if he had no shoes?’ (42). In another example, Didion describes an encounter with a theologian who ‘spoke of ritual itself being a form of faith’ (43). Her reaction ‘was unexpressed but negative, vehement, excessive even to me. Later [she] realised that [her] immediate thought had been: But I did the ritual. I did it all… And it still didn’t bring him back’ (43. Italics in original). This is not however, simply an inability to accept the reality of the situation. The ‘magical’ aspect of this type of thinking involves a semi-conscious effort to affect the reality of the situation and to try to undo it with patterns of thought that mimic charms or magical ritual.

The same charmed or illusory thinking that we see detailed here by Didion is present throughout the authorial and reading process, since writers, like psychics, are attempting to temporarily give the illusion of altering the reader’s reality. Although reading does not literally transport the reader, it does so mentally and on a cognitive and emotional level, and this necessarily opens up a similar ‘magical’ space in which circumstances can be changed and in which the borders of reality become more permeable. While reading can be an enjoyable and cathartic process, ‘magical thinking’ on the part of the bereaved acts as a coping mechanism, allowing them to temporarily deny the reality of their situation so that they might process their emotions gradually, and in ‘waves’, without becoming overwhelmed. With this in mind, I wanted to convey the sense of altered space in ‘Madame Moon’ by emphasizing the image of the hall as an enchanted space for the evening, sealed off from the world. The only interaction that takes place outside of the building is Laura’s conversation with Simon. Straying out into the darkness beyond the edge of the streetlamp, Simon begins to take on qualities of the dead brother that an audience member has described. This gives an impression of the limits of life and of borders which we cannot usually cross being temporarily within reach.

Throughout her memoir, Didion often meditates upon the idea of control, and specifically control through rational knowledge or through finding the appropriate literature. Didion is perhaps unusually fastidious in her desire for control: hunting out books about grief, acquainting herself with the medical literature surrounding the cause of her husband’s death, and rigorously analysing her own mental processes through writing. She approaches the mythic literature surrounding the dead as a series of metaphors that represent emotional states. She describes at one point the sensation of becoming invisible, of having ‘crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, [and] entered a place where [she] could only be seen by those who were themselves recently bereaved’ (75), and gives no indication that grief has led her to any religious or spiritual belief.

Interestingly, we receive a similar impression from Kennedy’s fictional characters. Arthur is exceptionally controlled, even to the point where he can pause his own heartbeat, and Elizabeth, despite her unravelling mental state, can maintain the equivalent of a double life. Kennedy’s use of narrative control throughout the novel is extremely self-conscious. She metes out information carefully, always maintaining a tight grip on what the reader knows and at what point the reader discovers pieces of information. The narrator mimics the technique of a psychic performing a reading in the introduction of her first character, the boy. In the style of a medium witnessing a vision, the narrator begins to see the outline of the boy forming and relays this information to the reader. The vision is not always immediately accurate. While setting the scene around the boy, the narrative voice corrects itself: ‘next he is over and onto the meadow, his purpose already set. No, not a meadow: only scrub grass and some nettles’. (Kennedy 2012: 2) We get a sense from this that the narrator is not entirely in control of what they are seeing, that the image shifts and fades before them and that new details become evident the more they look.

These kinds of narrative strategies and effects mirror such key performative strategies as the psychic beginning to throw information out into an audience. Psychics will typically correct themselves once or twice at first, leading to a better chance that they will hit an accurate target. I noticed, when watching the psychic show myself, that while the psychic must hold the room, it is also important for them to disown control over what they see and hear to a certain extent. I try to convey this in ‘Madame Moon’ by having her give a short disclaimer. This technique, although it seems to absent the psychic from responsibility, is actually an effective illusion for holding an even greater sway over the audience. It gives the impression of some greater power using the psychic as a vessel. This creates a sense of mystery and allows the psychic permission to push boundaries with the audience, often pursuing leads into territory which is very emotionally uncomfortable. The observation of this technique put me in mind of the invisible influence of the author over a text. While Kennedy’s narration is very self-aware, many texts—‘Madame Moon’ included—require the reader to ‘forget’ that the author is present and that they are manipulating their response to the story via the various techniques that encourage reader immersion. The Blue Book shifts fluidly back and forth through time and takes place on board a ship, giving a sense of a pocket of consciousness which exists surrounded by places unknown and uninhabitable, and although Didion’s text is a memoir, she still uses similar destabilising narrative techniques to reflect one of the mental effects of grief. Didion describes literally feeling out of sync with time and wishing to avoid remembering so as not to get caught in a ‘vortex’ (32); a term she uses to describe a type of post-traumatic stress response in which the subject experiences flashbacks and disorientation.

Due to the constraints of the short story form, as opposed to long-form works like a memoir or a novel, I used a strict linear structure for the progression of my narrative. This presented me with the challenge of connecting several chronological events into a central idea in order to give the short story a feeling of coherence that is so important to the form. By linking the character of Simon to the brother of the audience member, and by connecting Laura’s grief over the loss of her friend and the departure from one stage of her life to the next, I hoped to connect the employees to the audience members. Although Laura’s grief is of a far more minor type, it still reflects, for her, the beginning of her transition to adulthood, a place from which she can never return. Simon’s connection with the dead brother was also meant to put the reader in mind of memento mori engravings from medieval tombs, which served as reminders that life was a temporary state and that those who were young and healthy would also grow old and die. This type of pattern making is also reflected in the key words—‘Love, Revenge, Money’—that Laura picks out from Madame Moon’s performance. Laura, from her position of observer, is both at a distance from these patterns and self-consciously partaking in them. She moves through the stages of her life with a sense of self-awareness at their passing. The story concludes with her taking Madame Moon’s prompt and following Simon, with whom it is implied she will have a relationship, despite the fact that she is aware that superficial, opportunistic matchmaking is a part of Madame Moon’s job. This similarly relates to the role of authors, who necessarily make use of ‘opportunistic’ narrative patterns and genre expectations in order to explore more serious preoccupations (the deeper ramifications of the endless flirtations and match-makings in Jane Austen’s novels might spring to mind).

Despite Didion’s hunt for knowledge, she is ultimately unable to gain complete control of the situation. Instead, she acknowledges that she must surrender to the experience; ‘to feel the swell change… [and] to go with the change.’ (227) Elizabeth too, struggles to get to the heart of her experience and to absorb the reality of it. The fact that her attempts have failed is signified by the novel’s ending. Describing the death of her son she says; ‘It is impossible to ask the boy how everything was lost. It will always be impossible to ask him.’ (Kennedy 2012: 367) There will never be any answers for Elizabeth. She cannot explain the loss to Arthur in words but instead expresses it using the code with which she and Arthur communicated during their shows. This code, which during their performances provided them with answers, serves finally to illuminate the unanswerable and almost incommunicable extent of Elizabeth’s grief over the death of her child. It is this rift in experience, this comfortless quality, that psychics seek to address and exploit. It is a vulnerable spot in the lifespan of almost all people. Even during more secular historical periods, for example in the early twentieth century in Britain when the influence of the Church had waned significantly from the previous century, elements of supernatural belief still flourished. Carl Watkins, in The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead, describes the ‘spiritual renaissance’ that took place in the aftermath of the First World War as:

Churches… struggled to make sense of the violence… It was hard to construe the horror and chance of the battlefield in terms of divine providence… [Many] looked to the spirits for intelligence of missing men, to find where the dead lay or discover if they were still alive in another world. (2013: 247)

As Didion observes, even in the absence of theological belief, the physical and psychological experience of grief gives the sensation of transporting the bereaved into an altered state and separating them from the ordinary course of events. Although, like my narrator, I was sceptical and questioned the moral responsibility of the psychic to the audience, as the evening wore on I began to question this view. The evening seemed to open up a space for a type of grief that could not be supported in everyday life and would not be supported in modern western society where death and grief are kept relatively separate from mainstream discourse.

Just as A.L. Kennedy paints a complex portrait of her characters as morally ambiguous beings, I did not wish to leave a one-dimensional impression of the issues at work within ‘Madame Moon.’ Although Laura warms to the psychic throughout the performance, this is undercut at the end by the fact that Madame Moon is scrolling through her phone, checking the social media profiles of the audience members—something she has obviously done prior to the show as well. Although this is evidence of the dubious nature of Madame Moon’s practice, there is some relevance in Kennedy’s point that people willingly put their lives on display. This is evidenced through participation in social media in which many people now partake, in one form or other. While this display is not necessarily an invitation to interpretation or financial exploitation, it does suggest a widespread desire to be seen and understood, as well a conscious desire to present an image of themselves to the world. Although the image that people present may appear complete, it is full of gaps and vulnerabilities that the psychic can exploit. In my experience as a writer, I have observed that it is often these gaps and vulnerabilities that also provide inspiration for storytelling. Although this practice in itself—like that of the psychics—could be termed exploitative or morally dubious, I believe it is valuable in promoting empathy with others and exploring the borders of experience.

 

Excerpts from ‘Madame Moon’:

1.

‘Welcome!’ Madame Moon said, ‘Thank you for joining me as I attempt to contact the beyond. Tonight, in this room, we will venture to other worlds, and speak with those who have passed over.’ She dropped her hands to her hips. ‘I appreciate you all for coming out tonight —not exactly the nicest weather for it!’

Behind the blinds, which had been pulled down, the rain was hammering against the glass.

‘I had a nightmare getting down here,’ Madame Moon continued, glancing from face to face, ‘I’d got all my make-up on, which takes a while at my age!’—she broke into a warm, bubbling laugh—‘And, just going out to the car, it all washed off! So, I’m there trying to do it, in the dark, in the little overhead mirror above the windscreen.’

This earned a nervous giggle from the crowd.  

It wasn’t the way Laura had thought she would introduce herself. She had imagined more of a spectacle. Laura peered through the gloom into the audience. People who had been sitting rigid, arms folded, were leaning back in their chairs, smiling now. Laura moved to the end of the bar and quietly poured herself a glass of water. From here she had a side view of the audience and a clear view of the stage.

‘So, to clarify what I’m going to be doing tonight,’ Madame Moon continued, ‘I’m not going to be interpreting messages from loved ones. I always say to people, I’m not a therapist. I receive messages from the other side and my job is to pass them on. I won’t edit them, and I won’t hold anything back. My job is not to tell you what you want to hear. I’m more like a TV channel or an antenna for the departed. I pick up their vibrations once I’m on a certain frequency.’

Laura began picturing Madame Moon as a wireless radio.  

‘The things I hear, in this room tonight,’ Madame Moon went on solemnly, ‘Are not up to me and it is my job to pass them on to you as faithfully as I can - alright?’

There was a murmur of assent from the crowd.

‘Ok.’ She clasped her hands over her stomach. ‘Let’s begin.’

 

2.

‘Yes, I was getting a real sense of someone who was taken too soon. Was your brother’s death sudden?’

‘Cancer.’ For the first time the blonde woman faltered slightly.

Behind her teary eyes, a kind of scrabbling seemed to take place. For a second, she looked like someone listening to a confusing argument, then her gaze trained back in on Madame Moon, open and wide and willing to believe. Laura sucked her teeth, feeling irritated, and looked back towards the stage.

Madame Moon was nodding sagely. ‘Was it in his head?’

The woman nodded. ‘But he died of a heart attack. Mid-way through his treatment.’

Madame Moon tapped the left side of her chest. ‘That’ll be why I was feeling both.’

The blonde woman let out a sob and hawked it back with a sniff, her wrist coming to her mouth.

‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’

‘Rita,’ followed by another hard sniff.

‘Yes, I’m catching it now. Your brother’s trying to tell me. Did you come along on your own tonight?’

‘No. I’m here with my sister.’

Laura glanced at the woman beside Rita. She sat rigid in her chair. Her eyes bore into Madame Moon as if she was trying to see through her. She had a hard, serious face; one that would suffer no fools.

Madame Moon was sizing her up too and she walked in a little circle on the stage, as though to evade the burning spotlight of the woman’s gaze.

‘Well, girls,’ she said finally, settling herself on the edge of the table, ‘He was a great lad, your brother. Always up for a laugh. I can tell just from a few minutes listening to him that he was full of the banter, always great on a night out.’

The sisters were both sitting down now. Rita held a tissue over her mouth and was nodding. The other woman’s face had softened slightly. They held hands.

‘Are you married Rita?’      

Rita nodded.

‘And you…’

‘Sandra.’ The woman’s voice was hoarse. ‘No.’

‘Ok.’ Madame Moon rose. ‘Well, first off, your brother wants you to know that he’s happy and that he didn’t suffer—because I know you were worried.’

A flicker of pain crossed Sandra’s face.

‘He’d fallen out of bed,’ she said, struggling to get the words out. ‘We were worried that he’d been lying there for a while.’

‘I was downstairs,’ Rita said.

‘I was out,’ Sandra finished. ‘And our mum was in the next room, but she doesn’t hear so well. We were worried he might have been lying there, calling for help.’

‘Mum’s not with us tonight?’

Sandra shook her head. ‘She can’t get about much these days.’

‘Well, your brother’s got a message for your mum. I’m not getting what he’s referring to, but he wants me to tell her all is forgiven, and that he’s safe now. He’s watching over her.’

A pair of neat, straight tears ran down Sandra’s cheeks. ‘Mum felt very bad about the way he went. She’ll be glad to hear he’s ok.’

He’s not ok though, Laura thought, He’s dead. She felt a slight chill at the finality of the thought and her throat burned a little as the sisters clasped one another’s arms, holding each other up in their seats.

‘And he says…’ a moment where she tuned out, appearing to listen. ‘He’s says he’s sorry. He knows it must have been very hard on you all. Especially with his being the man about the house. He knows it must have been hard to see someone who used to be so strong. You used to warn him to stay out of trouble, didn’t you Sandra?’ —Sandra shut her heavily mascaraed eyes and a pair of fresh black tears spilled down her cheeks, chasing the first two away. ‘Yes, he was a good brother. He would always look out for you with boyfriends.’

Despite her reservations, Laura could almost see him now, as though she’d met him herself, and she watched this shadow man strut among audience, bathed in the golden light of the past.

‘Rita,’ Madame Moon said, firmly into her stride by now, ‘He says he doesn’t want you to let your husband boss you about. He says it’s your house too and you do plenty of the work and that he needs to appreciate you. But he won’t do this on his own—I’m in agreement with your brother here, actually—you’ve got to stand up to him a bit. Get your independence back, go out with your friends, buy a new dress, do things that make you feel good.’

Sandra had turned to her sister now and was nodding.

‘Does that make sense to you girls?’

‘I’ve been saying that to her for years,’ Sandra said, and her face was soft and smiling now.

‘Good. And Sandra, you’ve been single for a while and your brother’s saying that’s great. You’re very happy on your own.’

Sandra sniffed, nodded.

A wry smile lifted Madame Moon’s second chin.

‘Your brother’s saying not to get too comfortable because you just might meet somebody soon. He says look out for someone at or around work because there might be somebody there who would be good for you. Someone you never give the time of day to.’

Rita laughed now and jabbed her sister playfully on the arm. Sandra shook her head and gave a small, self-deprecating shrug.

Madame Moon let her eyes fall closed and a dreamy look came over her face. When she spoke her voice was soft, ‘The connection’s fading out now. I’m going to listen out for any other voices. Do we have any other presences that wish to make themselves known? Alright… moving over here now.’

 

3.

Outside the rain had stopped but the tarmac was wet and black beyond the glow from the security light. Laura leaned against the wall and sucked half-heartedly on a cigarette. She’d quit several months ago, changing over to a vaporizer and then, realising she was more addicted to the strawberry capsules than to nicotine itself, she had given up entirely. Now she only smoked on nights out or when she was stressed. She stared at the cigarette in her hand and thought that it could kill her and how little she’d cared or even thought about it before.

‘I wish I could be in there,’ Simon laughed.

He was full of energy, leaning against the wall one minute then pushing himself up and pacing back and forth the next. His biceps strained the hems of his sleeves. Underneath all that muscle he’s just a pile of bones, Laura thought melodramatically, looking at Simon’s broad, happy face.

‘Actually, I’m glad I’m not.’ He plucked his cigarette from his lips and threw the butt to the ground with unnecessary force. ‘I’d be pissing myself laughing.’

Simon’s lungs were apparently made of smoke retardant rubber. He was training to be in the Marines and could smoke and drink and stay out all night with no ill effects. He often turned up to work after a five-mile run and then bounced off to the gym on the way home. Laura realised, as she looked at him, the light above the door making him stand out against the dark, that he was overlapping in her mind with the tragic brother she had heard about back in the room.

‘I’m not being funny though,’ he said. ‘I’m right; it is always women who fall for this stuff. I’ve never been out with a woman who wasn’t always checking her horoscope. Some of them used to check mine for me! I’d be like, it’s fine, I’ll find out tomorrow!’ He laughed and lolled back against the wall, smiling at the memory.

‘Maybe they knew something you didn’t,’ Laura suggested.

Usually flirting with Simon on their smoke break was the highlight of her shift but tonight his presence irritated her. He was full of himself, bursting with life. She wanted to think about serious things; ideas that she hadn’t uncovered yet which were dragging at the edges of her mind, like a secret tide from which dark shapes might emerge.

 

4.

Laura was sensing a theme. The next two women that Madame Moon addressed were unlucky in love but, miraculously, sure to meet a tall, handsome stranger at work in the coming months. When it turned out that the women worked in the same company—one of them forlornly announcing that she had already dated all the single men there—Madame Moon turned wistful and claimed that she saw a very lucrative career change looming on the horizon. The women seemed utterly mollified. Laura scribbled the words ‘Love’ and ‘Money’ on a piece of till paper and drew a pattern of moons and stars all around them.

‘You,’ Madame Moon said, pointing at the very back.

The young woman she was speaking to looked around. Beside her sat an older woman with a heavy fake tan and quick, dark eyes.

Madame Moon chuckled, ‘There’s someone standing behind you, dear. Don’t worry. It’s a man and, again, I’m getting a name beginning with ‘M’.’

The young woman looked relieved and shook her head.

Madame Moon screwed up her eyes, ‘Or ‘P’? That end of the alphabet anyway.’

‘R?’ the young woman supplied, ‘My grandfather was called Robert.’

Madame Moon seized upon this with a wolfish grin.

‘Robert, yes.’ She settled back on the edge of the table while the assistant thrust the mic under the woman’s nose. ‘It’s coming through now, all right. Loud and clear.’

 

 

Works cited: 

 

Didion, J 2005 The Year of Magical Thinking, London: Harper Perennial

Kennedy, A L 2012 The Blue Book, London: Vintage

Watkins, C 2013 The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead, London: Random House