by Shirley Muir
Peeking from under her sleeve she tutted at the sight of her digital watch and pushed it back under the gold damask fabric. As she swished across the wet grass Lilian neatly hoisted the hem of the elaborate gown, and its train, above her cream-stockinged ankles. Over breakfast she had debated with herself whether to stay at home on this rainy day and catch up on domestic chores. But Tom’s shirts could be ironed later. He’d make himself a ham sandwich for lunch. She’d enjoy herself far more reading tarot at the summer re-enactment in the grounds of the local medieval castle.
‘I don’t know why you bother,’ Tom had whinged as he reversed the car out of the garage. Lilian knew why she bothered. She’d earned a reputation for accurate tarot card readings at the castle and at Ladies’ Evenings in the town. Amongst the aromatherapists, cosmetic demonstrations and the gel manicure experts creating rainbowed nails, the tarot table in a quiet and confidential corner was always busy.
‘I promised them, and I won’t let them down. This is a big event for the castle. It’s only once a year. Their programme for the day says tarot reader, eleven till four, and people will come specially. The tarot reader will be in demand.’
Tom had muttered something incomprehensible and drove out of the driveway at breakneck speed.
‘You’re lucky I’m able to drive you. You couldn’t manage in that voluminous gown, you know. The rosary beads would get tangled around the gear stick and your pointy hat would crush up against the roof of car.’
‘I know,’ she had said. ‘I am grateful.’
It’s the fine muslin veil streaming from the burgundy silk hennin headdress that she loves best. It floats down over her shoulders, the little glass beads that she stitched along the edges glinting in sunlight. She’s pleased that the rain has stopped. She feels pious. Alongside the amber rosary beads a miniature prayer book and pewter talisman of St George swings from a jewel-encrusted waist belt. And her favourite red velvet pouch that she sewed with red and gold jewels was slotted onto the belt. She’d slip her day’s takings safely in there as she read from customer to customer. Or querent, as they were correctly called.
She enjoyed her chosen role as Lady Isabella, devout Christian lady – and tarot reader. Historically such a lady would have been imprisoned for heresy had she possessed a deck of tarot cards in the fifteenth century. Lilian thrilled at the idea that tarot had been feared and banned by the Catholic Church in England. Punishment would almost certainly have been death by burning for the witchcraft and sorcery.
Now that the clouds were scudding away, birds-of-prey handlers, medieval jewellery makers and musical players with lutes and flutes were setting up their tents and stalls across the lawns of the castle. Lilian waved at the birds-of-prey man as he talked to his eagle owl, perched on the man’s gloved left hand.
Lilian unfolded her wooden choir seat in the blue canvas tent, a St George’s pennant flapping at the tent’s white pinnacle. She lit a scented Gothic candle. Its flame flickered in the Egyptian candleholder, casting shadows of the holder’s three bronze cats, icons of the warrior goddess Bastet, onto the blue walls.
‘Let’s see what today has in store for me,’ she said to her tarot deck, sliding the large and colourfully illustrated cards out of their purple silk pouch and gliding them over one another to shuffle them.
‘Three cards,’ she said out loud, ‘so be specific, please, tarot.’
She selected her cards.
‘This one is the Past, this one is Me Now and this one is the Future.’
Her three chosen cards lay face down in a line on the purple silk cloth that she always draped over a reading table. With a deep breath she turned them over one by one.
The Lovers. This was more information than she had expected about the Past. Maybe today was the day.
The Hanged Man. Yes, that one didn’t surprise her. Now she was certainly waiting for something to happen.
Ten of Pentacles. So she would make some money later today from appreciative customers.
‘Are you the tarot lady?’ A faltering voice was followed by a head peering through the canvas doorway into the tent.
‘Yes. Would you like a reading?’
“This one is the Past, this one is Me Now and this one is the Future.”
Lilian focused on ensuring her clients felt comfortable and relaxed, and she dealt sensitively with their queries and questions, however personal. Some expressed initial fear, some were familiar with having their fortune told. She wondered if any ladies who had visited the blue tent last year might return.
Just as she was about to slip away for a coffee break a blonde woman stepped into the tent. Her makeup was perfect – her face glowed but the glossed pink lips smiled unconvincingly. An expensive handbag hung over her wrist. Lilian wondered if she found the Louboutin stiletto heels awkward when trudging across wet grass.
The woman slipped money across the table and then stowed her handbag beneath the table. Classy scent drifted in the atmosphere with the patchouli and sandlewood of the candles. Taking the cards from their purple silk wrapping Lilian handed the deck to her querent.
‘Take your time. Shuffle them and hand the pack to me. I will fan out the cards on the table face down so you can select seven.’
She looked up at the woman shuffling the deck. Dancing candlelight in the fragranced tent evoked hints of magic and dark spiritual ceremonies. Lilian waited.
‘You read my cards last year,’ the woman whispered, pushing back her hair and looking up into Lilian’s face. Turquoise tints bathed the faces of the two women as if they sat beneath the surface of a cold sea, only faint sunlight filtering through.
‘Well, thank you for consulting a second time,’ she said quietly.
Lilian fanned the cards deftly across the silk cloth.
‘I will read the seven cards in the order you have chosen them. So choose carefully.’
The woman’s hands moved over the deck as she concentrated on picking out seven. A burgundy lacquered nail nudged each card out of line before she lifted it free.
‘And what would you like to ask the tarot today?’ Lilian said.
The woman radiated calm, her hands now resting in her lap.
‘I want to ask how it will be if I leave my husband.’
Lilian laid the chosen cards face down in a horseshoe shape and turned each one in turn face upwards. She would begin the reading only when all cards were visible and she could review the totality of the spread.
‘This card represents the past,’ Lilian said, turning the first card to face upwards.
She sucked in her breath once or twice as the combination of cards was revealed. The order in which they had been selected was important to dictate the interpretation.
‘And this card is the You Now,’ she said, turning another and placing it in the centre of the horseshoe. As the seven cards were gradually exposed Lilian watched the woman’s eyes darting back and forth from the cards on the table to Lilian’s face.
Lilian emitted a little gasp as she turned over the final card, the future.
The well-painted features tightened. The gloss was being licked from the woman’s lips. The manicured hands clasped and unclasped, the gold wedding band was twisted to and fro on the fourth finger.
With the spread revealed, Lilian breathed evenly and moved her fingers away from the cards. Her mind formulated the implications of the reading for her querent, bearing in mind the context that had been selected – that of leaving her husband.
Lilian began to explain the reading. She worked her way from the past to the present to the future, indicating what the pictures and complex symbols on the cards suggested. For the You Now card Lilian had turned over The Tower, a dramatic image with a lightning strike on a tall edifice. Two people plunged headlong to the earth below, arms flailing, eyes bulging in terror, their gaping mouths crying out.
‘I know what that means,’ the woman cried. ‘It’s going to be a disaster!’
Lilian read on.
‘This knight in armour on horseback is a man in your life,’ she said, tapping another card. ‘He is loving and trusting. But you must decide for yourself who it represents.’
The woman groaned. Lilian lifted the next card. She pointed to the image.
‘There is another man here, but he tends towards violence and power-seeking. He can be a bully if he is crossed.’
Lilian replaced the card and scrutinised the final card. The Future.
‘Trump number twenty,’ she said, caressing the glossy picture. ‘Judgement.’
Judgement painted the dead rising from their graves in response to an angel calling with a heavenly trumpet. Toppled gravestones littered the landscape and rows of deep graves were empty of their occupants.
The woman shifted in her seat and uncrossed her Louboutined legs.
‘Judgement is the card of redemption, resurrection, and forgiveness,’ Lilian said.
Lilian looked into her querent’s blue eyes, the icy colour accentuated by the hues in the tent. The manicured hands trembled and one lacquered nail was jagged from being bitten at the tip.
‘What can I do?’ she breathed. ‘Should I stay with my husband?’
Lilian picked up the card with the knight and said, ‘This man is waiting for you.’
Replacing the card in the horseshoe shape Lilian sat back. The reading was complete. The woman leapt from the chair and it crashed to the ground. She grabbed her designer handbag and fled.
At four, Lilian blew out the aromatic candle, sheathed her cards and folded the purple silk tablecloth. In the car park Tom was fidgeting.
‘Hurry up and get in, Lilian, I have to go out. I’ll be late, so don’t wait up.’
‘Sorry,’ she said as she gathered up the folds of her gown and squeezed herself into the passenger seat. She removed the tall, restrictive hat and folded its demure veil into a plastic carrier bag along with the rosary beads and the St George talisman. As she shook out her hair she glimpsed a suitcase behind the driver’s seat.
‘Good event, was it? Make somebody’s day with a scary reading, did you?’
Lilian looked straight ahead and suppressed a smile. ‘Yes, I did.’
On her knee she clasped the silk pouch that held her tarot deck and the ninety-six pounds in cash from her day’s efforts. The Hanged Man sat on the top of the pack inside the pouch. Lilian had waited patiently for something to happen and now The Hanged Man had come up trumps.
Tom sped through the town and Lilian grasped the door handle to keep from sliding off the seat. She turned her head towards Tom as he braked with a groan at a red traffic light.
‘Oh, and you can forget that tramp, Melanie. She won’t be leaving her husband for you.’
Shirley Muir spends her time between Scotland and Turkey. Shirley listens to New Age and classical music, dresses up at the Venice Carnival, reads tarot, hosts medieval banquets, sews and writes. She walks along the beach at sunset for inspiration.