On the Cards

‘You’re going to die within the next twenty-four hours!’ the old woman said with about as much emotion as a corpse.

     Without blinking, Jenna stared thoughtfully at her. Apart for the soft drumming of a long red fingernail as the garishly-dressed woman tapped the card in question – that of Death; a stylised skeleton carrying a bloodied scythe on a black background – the inside of the small circular tent was silent. The atmosphere was close and could be cut with a knife. Jenna thought it very appropriate, considering the subject in question.               

     ‘What do you mean?’ she asked finally, a cheerless frown knitting her eyebrows. Looking impatiently through the contents of her handbag she searched frantically for her purse. She’d had enough of the woman’s enigmatic ways. Everything about this strange affair was starting to unnerve her. Jenna couldn’t wait to get out of there. And fast! Why had she decided to visit the yellow, water-stained tent in the first place? What had she been thinking?

     She’d stepped inside the dingy shelter on a stupid whim, to fill in time during her protracted lunch break. Earlier, she had left her desk at Brown, Smythe and Smythe where she worked as a legal secretary. She’d decided to get out of the office instead of sitting quietly, reading, while she ate her yoghurt or whatever else she had grabbed hurriedly from her refrigerator as she’d rushed out of her apartment door that morning. But this day she was in no mood for browsing the pages of some fashion magazine.

     Feeling tired and heavy and in desperate need of some fresh air she’d ventured out, determined to look for a pair of shoes for a friend’s up-coming nuptials - an event not so far into the future. But when nothing had taken her fancy she’d gone to the park, just to sit and enjoy a moment’s peace. That’s when she had seen the small, shabby pavilion, made bright with coloured bunting. That’s when she had taken a turn … for the worse.

     Jenna wriggled in her seat anxiously. She took a quick look around the interior of the tent noting its tacky resemblance to an imagined Arabian boudoir, with its abundance of gauzy scarves and oriental lamps lit by flickering scented candles. She glanced at the woman sitting in the shadows of these archaic lights, attempting to memorise her features - her long dark curling hair, her middle-age folds and wrinkles, her large circular earrings and the fact that her nose was pierced. Maybe she was the front for some organised crime gang, Jenna thought as she took in the scene. This gypsy collected details as she did her so-called reading; got some mates to follow you about for a while after, maybe. Later, as you reflected on the things that she’d said you wouldn’t want to be home alone because she’s scared the crap out of you with her stories of death and misfortune. You’d want to get the hell out of the place because the thought of staying with family or friends gave you a sense of safety. Then the boys would move in and strip your home of all its valuables, with a clean getaway to follow. Who would connect a fortune teller with a band of thieves? Jenna nodded her head. Yeah … that was it.

     Before she could move or say another word the woman whispered, ‘It’s the Chariot’s doing, my love.’ She’d surreptitiously slipped out another card from the large deck in her hand while Jenna had been away in her world of worries and had laid it reverently beside that of Death. The new card had a more promising look about it, with its two prancing horses, one red and one blue that pulled a smart little cart, driven by a dapper man wearing a crown and carrying a staff. The colourful nature of it seemed to belie the other card, but the woman’s expression did not. Her sombre eyes flickered to Jenna’s face then fixed on her clear blue ones.

     ‘I’ve had enough of this nonsense,’ Jenna spoke her former mental theories out loud, tossing a twenty dollar note onto the shabby table. She stood up so suddenly that the chair she had been sitting on fell backwards. It was only the soft surface of the grass that stopped the wooden seat from landing with a clatter.

     For a long moment both women held their ground, eyes locked. The silence stiffened around them again; that was until the gypsy spoke once more.

     ‘I mean you no harm, missy … but the cards say what they do. I’m only the messenger.’

     ‘I don’t care,’ Jenna objected angrily. ‘It’s all rubbish … utter rubbish! I don’t even know why I came in. I don’t even believe in this superstitious claptrap.’

     ‘The universe works in mysterious ways, my dear,’ the woman stated softly. ‘And everything is for a reason.’

     ‘Well I can see no reasoning behind what you have to say … universe or not. You … you, people … just ramble on about what you think we want to hear, though I must admit nobody wants to know about their own death.’

     ‘Hmmm … you are free to believe … or not!’ The gypsy shrugged, scooping up the two cards and shuffling them back into the deck. She then set them aside and folded her hands together on the table.

     The atmosphere in the tent had now thickened to the consistency of glue and Jenna could stand it no longer. She turned without another word and pushed through the flap of the tent. Stopping outside she wiped her hand down the side of her fitted grey skirt as if the fabric of the small marquee had dirtied it, but she did not set off straight away. A wave of dizziness washed over her and for a split second she felt nauseous.

     All in all, she was sure that the amount of time she had spent with the obnoxious woman had only been minutes, but it had felt like so much longer. Taking a deep breath, she decided to head back to the offices where she was employed.

     Looking at her watch Jenna was surprised to see that it was only 1-30pm. She still had thirty minutes to kill before she was due back at her desk. A cold shiver ran down her spine. Not a good choice of words, she thought as she walked to the intersection of the street.

     The city’s clock chimed once, verifying the half hour of one that Jenna had registered on her time piece. Both Smythes and Brown were in court for the rest of the day and with most of her paperwork up to scratch Jenna had very little to do in her tiny workspace. She wondered if she should go and have coffee instead - maybe window shop - or do something else of mind-numbing qualities to direct her consciousness away from the gypsy’s dire words. They seemed reluctant to leave her alone, even away from the restrictions of the Tarot reader’s domain.

     Jenna sighed deeply. Who would have thought that a plain working day could have morphed into the beginnings of a major headache?

     For the rest of the afternoon she fidgeted around the office, tidying documents and making more than enough copies of papers and memos than what would be needed in a lifetime. She couldn’t settle with the gypsy’s prediction playing havoc on her psyche, no matter how little credence she put into it. When the hour of four finally rolled round she was out of the door like a shot, forgetting to say goodbye to Tracy and Sheilah, her workmates and sometime social friends. Jenna had made a snap decision to catch up with her fiancé, Ben, at his parents’ house and she need to get herself organised.

     They hadn’t arranged to meet up for this weekend, but they were flexible with their promises, allowing a modicum of leeway that suited them both when their schedules would allow it. Both Jenna and Ben were career people yet they didn’t want the constrictions of working commitments to get in the way of their relationship and the social criteria that went with it. Jenna was sure that this was one of the binding reasons behind the success of their connection and she loved the freedom of it. Their visits were still made regularly; mostly as a couple, but on the odd occasion alone, and it was supposed to be an ‘alone’ weekend for Ben this weekend. Jenna had mentioned a file she’d wanted to complete for a murder trial that was set for the following week. Ben had kissed her on her cheek and agreed to meet her for dinner on the following Tuesday night and Jenna had been satisfied. But now … she wanted nothing more than to curl up in his warm embrace and feel safe, to allow the nonsense of the afternoon to be stroked away from her forehead with his strong hands and forgotten forever.

     With knock-off traffic still at a minimum Jenna arrived home in no time at all. She let herself into her neat one-bedroom studio, locking the door securely behind her. Ben hadn’t put forth the idea of living together yet and for that she was very grateful. Even after two and a half years of bliss Jenna wasn’t ready for that type of closeness, and if she was honest with herself, she believed that neither was Ben. Sometimes the thought unnerved her, but she could always calm herself quickly with intimate thoughts of his caring and sharing attitude towards their mutual love. It was enough for the moment.

     With a surge of joy, she laughed aloud and quickly packed an overnight bag. Thoughts of her beloved could always put a smile on her face, though today they weren’t quite enough to totally erase the obscure remarks of earlier completely from her mind. Images of devils and prancing ponies flitted through her brain once more, quickly washing away the smile. She wished the wintery evenings weren’t so short and dark otherwise she would hit the highway now. For the most part the thoroughfare was well-lit but she didn’t enjoy the last few miles, those that had her navigating along the narrow winding laneway that lead to Milton Manor, home to Ben’s family. Traversing this road was a nightmare at the best of times. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was the exclusive right of way for the manor but there were several other homes further along as well. While traffic was usually not worth worrying over, lately, with one of the other estates being up for sale there was a sight more to deal with. She decided to head off first thing tomorrow.

     Jenna zipped up her bag and grabbed another change of clothes. She needed to shower; to wash away the remnants of her strange encounter. She’d also decided that she would catch up with Tracy and some of her friends at the local tavern for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. To get their weekends off to a good start the girls would get together for the cook’s night out; a ritual that had been in place for several years. They’d eat, they’d drink, they’d chat; and after, heaven knows where they’d end up? Over time some of the regulars had been replaced by new girls, but it was always a friendly group and it was just what Jenna needed to help her get through the next few hours.

     Feeling refreshed and slightly less stressed Jenna buckled herself into her Hyundai sedan and set off. Five minutes later she was sitting with Tracy, Linda and Becca and a glass of white, with an evening full of laughter ahead of her. Thoughts of gypsies and bleak omens were all but forgotten and Jenna settled in for a night of frivolity.    

     The next morning, with a twinge of a hangover apparent, Jenna pried opened her eyes. She’d ended up cadging a bed at Tracy’s place, which was only a short stagger away from the Tavern. What Jenna needed now though, were several cups of strong black coffee, a couple of Aspirin and a quick shower. She could then get her wits together for her drive to the manor. It was ten thirty, later than she would have liked, but given some luck and a fair wind she should be with Ben in a couple of hours.

     Just after eleven fifteen Jenna finally hit the highway; she would be on the road for just over an hour. As always, she was well-prepared with a fully stacked CD player bursting with her favourite music. And she’d vowed and declared to think on positive things. As if to prove a point her thoughts drifted back to her friend’s wedding. It was the next weekend coming and she mentally berated herself for not buying shoes yesterday. She’d seen one pair that was suitable but had hummed and hawed about wearing them for most of the day. She was sure she’d be crippled for a week after tottering about in strappy stilettos for several hours, wishing desperately for her lambs’ wool slippers instead of enjoying the festivities. Not very elegant she chuckled, but Jenna was one for sensible shoes rather than fabulous fancies that were liable to cause an injury if one was not careful. Ben was always trying to talk her around to something a little more glamorous, but he eventually gave in to Jenna’s no-nonsense style with a shrug.

     About half hour into her journey Jenna noticed that vehicles all around were starting to slow down. She could see red and blue lights flashing up ahead. She rolled her eyes impatiently. To top it off it had started to rain; she cursed the impending holdup. Judging by the way that everything was coming to a standstill she could be stuck for some time.

     Dropping back several gears Jenna groaned with frustration.

     It was ten minutes into her enforced delay when she noticed a cop motoring towards her between the rows of banked up cars and trucks. He seemed to be advising drivers about something. Quickly Jenna wound down her window and flagged him down. ‘What’s the problem, officer?’

     ‘Bad prang up ahead I’m afraid, it could be some time before the road is clear. We’re suggesting drivers take the next turn off and either go home or take an alternative route to their destination.’ He moved to the next vehicle.

     ‘Thanks for nothing,’ Jenna mumbled, thumping the steering wheel with her balled-up fists. Taking the old road meant she’d be lucky to reach the manor before two o’clock, especially in the rain that was now bucketing down with a vengeance. She was one unimpressed girl but there was nothing she could do about the situation. When her turn came, she manoeuvred her car around, driving none too carefully over the meridian strip and merged into on-coming traffic. She was furious and stamped on the accelerator to try and make up for lost time. She’d probably earn a speeding ticket or two, but if she was any later she may as well go home and forget about going anywhere. And that was the last thing she wanted to do. Cranking the car’s stereo up she attempted to relax into her seat, resigning herself to the long drive.

     After what seemed like an eternity the turn off to Milton Manor finally made itself known. Jenna geared back quickly causing the backend of her car to fishtail slightly as she swung around the corner. The rutted surface of the gravel road was slippery with the inches of rain that had fallen over the last hour and a half and it didn’t help that Jenna’s mood had not improved. Water dripped from overhanging trees and visibility was getting worse by the minute as wispy drifts of mist rising from the cold ground now added to the overall picture.

     Suddenly a motor bike shot out of nowhere, splashing through a puddle that sent a wave of muddy water up over the bonnet. Jenna cursed as she flicked her wipers up a notch to clear the vehicle’s dirty windscreen. She would have to have a word with Jake, the bike’s owner later. If he didn’t kill himself, he would collect somebody else at the rate he drove that machine of his.

     No sooner had she got herself together when a silver Porsche came towards her, taking up more than its fair share of the road. Jenna frowned curiously. It was Ben’s car, of that she was sure, and he wasn’t alone. Jenna lifted her hand to wave, but she stopped half-way when she saw him lean over and quickly drop a kiss on the elegant blonde-haired woman sitting in the passenger’s seat. A smile swept over her face as she caressed his face in return. But a look of horror swept over Jenna’s and time seemed to slow down as the car swept past and kept on going. Her eyes flicked up to her rear-view mirror in disbelief. She turned to watch the car disappear into the veil of rain.

     Bringing her attention back to the road she noticed that her vehicle had drifted over to the wrong side of the restricting lane. She righted the car with a wrench as she hit a sharp left-hand corner. Tears blurred her sight as she understood now the real reason why Ben had been so easy going within their relationship. He was seeing somebody else. She closed her eyes and wondered at how long this had been going on. The Hyundai shimmied as it hit a particularly soggy piece of road. Her eyes popped open and she tried to straighten up the aquaplaning car, causing the backend to flip out as she rounded the next bend. Seeing a large truck coming right at her she panicked. The driver of the vehicle flashed its hazard lights in warning, but it was too late. The truck hit Jenna’s car with such force that it slewed sideways, hitting a large rock before flipping over into the paddock on the right-hand side of the roadway. It rolled several times then came to a sudden halt on its roof as it hit a large blue gum. The abrupt stop snapped Jenna’s neck like a twig.

     On hearing the crunch of folding metal, the lorry driver ground his vehicle to a stop. He and his offsider clambered quickly out of the cab, hunching against the onslaught of the weather. Walking to the back of the truck they both peered through the rain at the scene that was splayed across the wet grass before them; the crumpled mess of coloured steel, rubber and alloy, bits and pieces of mirror and windscreen, the steaming motor thrown half way across the paddock, a large splash of diluted red that dribbled down the tree trunk, and the pale hand that seemed to reach out for help from behind the debris. All was still except the creaking of the wreckage as it settled into the landscape.

     The driver, realising there was nothing he could do, pulled out his mobile phone from his trouser pocket and flipped the lid. He noticed the time sitting at 1-25pm then dialled 000 and at the sound of the connection he said, ‘Hello. My name’s Ed Fisher. I work for Chariot Removalists. There’s been a terrible accident!’ 

 

A Dog's Life ...

A Dog’s Life

‘Hey, Charlie, you old bastard, how are you? Haven’t seen you in an age.’

     ‘Good, mate, good … and you?’

     ‘Not bad, cobber, didn’t expect to see you here though.’

     ‘Under normal circumstances I couldn’t have made it. I was in town, so I had to pay my respects.’

     ‘Yeah … I know what you mean … sad state of affairs.’

     ‘Funerals usually are.’

     The men nodded silently, each within their own thoughts.

     ‘So … how’s the missus?’

     ‘Oh … didn’t you hear, Fred, she passed on … hmmm … about four months back now, I reckon.’

     ‘Oh … sorry, mate –’

     ‘That’s okay, these things happen. We’re not spring chickens anymore.’ He looked around the room as if to emphasise the point.

     Fred finally ventured forth with, ‘Yeah … that’s for sure.’ He grinned and patted his rather rotund waistline.

     Both men slipped into silence again. The steady drone of the surrounding conversation wrapped round them as the moments ticked on. Fellow mourners drifted by with cups of tea gripped tightly in one hand, plates of small nibbly bits in the other; the general feeling was hot and oppressive.

     Fred ran a finger around the inside of his collar then loosened his tie before slipping off his jacket. ‘I guess all the formalities are over now.’ He scanned the room as he draped his coat over the back of a chair. ‘Want a beer … or some other coldie, mate?’

     ‘Beer’ll do, thanks Fred. Might be more comfortable in the garden too, eh?’

     Fred nodded in agreement as he sauntered off to fetch the promised drinks. ‘So, Charles, me old mate …’ he said, swallowing a long draught not two minutes later, ‘how’s retirement treating ya?’

     ‘Yeah … good … took a while to get used to not getting up at the crack of dawn Mondays to Fridays. And Ethel helped … showed me there was more to life than being a postie. I took an interest in the garden - got into growing prize dahlias - that’s why I was in town today … had to set up for the yearly dahlia show.’ Charles went quiet for a moment while he put together his next words. ‘And … you’ll never guess what …I finally got that small yacht I wanted,’ he said finally.

     ‘Good on yer,’ Fred said with a nod of appreciation.

     ‘Even Eth got into that once she’d mastered her seasickness … got her sea legs so to speak.’

     ‘Done well for yerself then, Charlie … can’t say I was as adventurous as you. Molly and me, well … we kept doing the same thing with the dogs … always off to some show or another, gallivanting all over the countryside … remember?’

     ‘Crikey, how could I forget? She had those ribbons and bows of hers everywhere. Still has the dogs, has she?’

     ‘Nah! Once the old arthurititis set into her hands she couldn’t do the grooming anymore and stubborn old cow that she is, said nobody could look after her babies like she could.’

     ‘Yeah.’ Charlie smiled fondly.

     ‘And talking of dogs – the old posties’ peril – Johnno could tell a tale or two, eh?’

     ‘That’s for sure. I reckon he was the only bloke who got bitten just the once in thirty-seven years of service.’

     ‘And that was by old Black Jack, that cantankerous mutt in Frazier Street. Remember how he used to sit behind that bush at the gate and just wait for Johnno to come along, rain, hail or shine?’

     ‘Then frighten the buggery out of Johnno every time. He swore the dog laughed at him as he picked up the letters off the street. Jack only bit him the once though.’

     ‘Yeah … but that’s all it took … eh?’

     Charlie and Fred chuckled as they finished off their beers.

     ‘I think that calls for another one, Johnno’s shout, wadda yer reckon, mate?’

     Charlie handed over his empty as Fred got to his feet. He soon returned with fresh drinks, one of which he handed over with a salute.

     ‘To Johnno.’

     ‘To Johnno.’

     Charlie wiped a tear away with the back of his hand. Fred patted him awkwardly on the shoulder.

     ‘Don’t let it get to you, mate.’

     ‘No … no … tears of mirth, cobber. I’ve been chuckling to myself over Johnno’s escapades. He was a right card that one … think about it … he gave the saying of ‘man-eating dog’ a whole new meaning.’

     Fred’s face split with a grin as he recalled the incident that Charlie was referring to. Fred took a swig of his beer. ‘And that should have been in The Posties’ Training Manual.’

     ‘Oh … bloody oath, Fred,’ Charlie broke out into new chuckles, ‘I can hear him now … “Listen up, boys. Don’t let them furry four-legged mongrels sneak up on you and get the upper hand … or in this case … paw.”’

     With this, both Fred and Charlie doubled up with laughter, their faces turning beet-red as they gasped for breath.

     Charlie couldn’t help but go on with, ‘” Do you want to spend most of yer day sorting yer mail a second, a third and maybe even a fourth time? If the answer is no, then it’s about time yer enrolled in Johnno’s Postie Defence Course. You will not only save time, but those bothersome bite marks will fade away to nothing in an instant.’”

     ‘Oh, Charlie, you were always a comedian.’ Fred sat back crossing his legs and shaking his head.

     ‘Nah … not me, it was Johnno who took the cake there. I reckon I laughed for a month when he told me about the day him and Black Jack finally had a showdown … and he was so calm and matter-of-fact about it … like it’s something you do every day. “Bastard … bloody mutt … scared the stuffing out of me, muddled up me mail and tore the arse out of me good trousers. It was the last flaming straw, so I bit him back, bit his bloody ear orf, didn’t I?”’ Charlie had tears streaming down his face as he worked on getting a really good giggle up.        

     Then Fred picks up the story, ‘Then as droll as they come, he says, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears … bugger orf,” Johnno says. “… I got Black Jack’s for keeps. Won’t hassle me again … won’t be able to hear me now.”’

     Again, the men doubled up with a fresh bout of laughter.

     ‘But that’s not the best part…’ Charlie gasped. ‘Johnno calmly pulls out a bit of Jack’s ear from his pocket and threw it on the sorting bench and Mrs Burke fainted … remember? Hit the floor like a ton of bricks.’

     The men roared once more. In between breaths Fred says, ‘Oh, yeah … what a character, eh?’

     ‘Yeah,’ Charlie agrees, dragging a striped handkerchief from his own pocket and mopping his face.

     Settling back again Charlie and Fred sipped quietly on their drinks as they enjoy their shared memory. Then Fred looked at his watch.

     ‘Got to get going, me old mate. It’s been good catching up.’

     ‘It sure has.’

     They shook hands then drained their beers.

     ‘So … here’s to old Johnno, then … he finally got his dog,’ Fred said, flourishing his empty bottle.

     ‘Yeah,’ Charlie agreed, climbing stiffly to his feet. ‘And may he rest in peace.’

     ‘Amen to that,’ Fred finishes with a Catholic flourish. With another chuckle the men parted. THE END