The Reading

By Rebecca Ring 

The streets of London had seen a tumult of activity tonight, particularly, Meredith noticed, in the corsetry on Maiden Lane, where women caressed the silks and laces with unrestrained delight. Fiddle music played in the distance, and carolers strolled past bundled in cloaks and fur muffs. From across the alley, Meredith watched through the corsetry’s back window with one eye and placed her last tarot card on the tiny table between her and her fifteenth customer. “Oyyy, Missus!” Meredith’s eyebrows went up. “’Tis the moon! ’Ave ya been playin’ lady love?”

The woman—about forty, not much older than Meredith herself—mimed a shocked expression and then dissolved into giggles. An overhead lantern draped in a fringed, purple shawl cast a dim light over the small room and sent shadows across the gilded green wallpaper.

Meredith put on her most mysterious grin. “No ’asty moves, mind ya, Mum! Not all is what it seems.” Her gaze drifted to the street again, where she could swear a light snow had begun to fall. “The moon is fickle,” she said in a soft voice. “And ya must trust yer in-tu-ition.” She looked back at her customer and saw her stroke the moon card with one finger, then pull away as if burned. Not the first tonight who dithered between doubt and hope. Meredith liked to watch for the moment when hope would prevail, when she could say she’d done her job well.

“Does it mean I’ll find love?” the woman asked. Wisps of mousy-brown hair escaped from beneath her mobcap, a charwoman by the looks of her. Meredith had never seen her before, but she felt a wave of familiar melancholy coming off her like a bad smell and saw the flicker of something unloved and hungry in her face.

Meredith drew in a sharp, exaggerated breath. “There’re two sides to the moon, Missus, and ya must know on which side ya be.”

Expectancy kindled at the edges of the woman’s mouth.

“See ’ere?” Meredith whispered, pointing. “The wolf and the dog—one wild, one tame. Which’ll it be? There’s the question!”

 

At the end of the night, Meredith Whitby packed up her tarot cards, slung her leather bag over one shoulder, locked up the shop, and headed back toward the docks and Grenadier’s Gate. The air, which had lost its clamor of holiday jubilance, smelled of sugar and burnt chestnuts. She looked up, where a couple of electrified stars glimmered through the London fog, then continued on through the grimy streets. Only once tonight had she caught sight of the dark-haired Jack, busking around the corner from the alehouse, when she’d gone for a quick bite. He’d winked in her direction but had kept right on playing his concertina, singing his sea chanteys, and finally she’d had to go back to the line of women who, in the short time she was gone, had begun to line up outside the tarot shop. Now all she wanted was to get home and put her feet up.

 

Meredith entered the house, dropped her leather bag onto the sofa, and picked up the TV remote lying next to it. She lowered the volume and pressed the channel selector several times.

“Don’t touch!” a voice called from the kitchen. “I’m watching that!”

“C’mon, Mom,” Meredith yelled back. “Watching what? It was an infomercial.”

Mrs. Whitby came into the living room wearing a red robe with feathery white trim and carrying a plate of Girl Scout cookies—Samoas—which Meredith had bought from one of the neighbor kids and hidden in the back of the pantry last spring.

“Yeah? Well I happen to like infomercials.” Mrs. Whitby bit into a cookie and gestured at the television with it. “I was thinking of buying that slicer-dicer thing.” She chewed and strands of coconut fell from her mouth. “For you.” She smiled. “For Christmas.”

Meredith shook her head, flipped back to the infomercial, and tossed the remote onto the sofa. It was a good thing she’d confiscated all of her mother’s credit cards. She pulled the black shawl from around her shoulders and unlaced the bodice of her costume. She looked over at the Christmas tree in front of the window. “Have you noticed there’s a string of lights that isn’t working?”

Her mother’s eyes darted to the tree, half of it in darkness. “Oh, I thought you did that on purpose.”

Meredith grabbed her bag and walked toward the stairs. “I have to be back at the Faire at eight in the morning. I’m going to bed.”

“How long have you been working there now? Fifteen years? Twenty?”

Meredith stopped, turned around. “Ten,” she said. A decade ago, on the brink of turning thirty, Meredith had begun transporting herself—every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas—to nineteenth century London via the local Dickens Faire. The ad in the paper had said: “Seasonal work. Some acting experience required,” and at the time, it had sounded like a pleasant diversion. Now she looked forward to it all year.

“I was hoping you might have a real job by Christmas,” her mother said. “Wouldn’t it be nice, when Benny comes, if you could tell him you’d found a real job?”

Meredith sighed. “I do have a real job. In Dr. Edmonds’ office.” She caught herself before adding: Remember? “And Benny isn’t coming for Christmas. Benny isn’t coming back anymore, Mom.”

Her mother had put a second cookie in her mouth but stopped chewing to puzzle this out. Finally, she shrugged, sat down on the sofa, and aimed the remote at the television. The volume rose to an ear-splitting level. She was only seventy-four, but in addition to her bad hip and her creeping dementia, she was growing deafer all the time.

Things are so much simpler in Victorian England, Meredith thought as she trudged up the stairs to her bedroom. After her father had given in to lung cancer and her brother, Ben, had died in a motorcycle accident, she’d moved her mother into her own 900 square foot house, converted the dining room into a bedroom so Mom wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs. It was just easier to keep an eye on her this way.

Now Meredith shrugged off the rest of her costume—the ruffled white blouse and red skirt—and they fell in a pool at her feet. Over the years, Meredith had refined Tilly, her saucy barmaid character, while serving up foaming tankards at the alehouse. But this year, the fair directors had replaced her with someone younger—saucier. “After all,” they’d said, “men don’t just go into the bar for beer. They want to lose themselves in fantasy.” Meredith knew all about losing herself. Why else would she keep going back year after year to dress up, torture a Cockney accent, and work her ass off? She didn’t really need the money. But for a little while, she got to be someone else.

She tugged off the control top underwear that held her thickening waistline in check. Maybe the tarot reader gig did suit her better. As it turned out, she had a certain knack for it. She got to let down her long, dark hair and tell people stories—stories some of them believed. Most people didn’t know tarot from a Ouija board, but as Madam Rosa, she gave a good reading and sometimes sent people away feeling better than when they came in.

“Meredith!” The call came, shrill and urgent, from downstairs.

She picked up her pink satin robe from the bed where she’d thrown it that morning and twisted her hair up into a messy bun. “Be right there, Mom.”

 

Christmas Eve morning dawned bright and sunny, but as soon as Meredith entered the Faire, it was night. It was perpetually Christmas Eve here. As she left the outside world and made her way one last time through the streets and alleys of London, she inhaled deeply, as if she could absorb it all through her lungs—the chatter of vendors sweeping the doorways of their shops, the bustle of actors slipping into character and making last minute adjustments to their costumes, the cacophony of Fezziwig’s fiddlers tuning up at the other end of the warehouse—as if she could capture and store enough of it to sustain her for a while.

A few minutes later, inside the tarot shop, the quivering sprig of mistletoe above the door caught Meredith’s eye. She saw a nose pressed against the glass and two eyes peering in on either side of the “r” in the word Tarot. Jack squinted through the warped window, his fist raised about to knock, and their eyes met. “Eh! Madam Rosa!” His voice passed easily through the paper-thin pane. “Care to join me for a spot ’a tea?”

Meredith had just lit the candles and put her cards out on the table, but it was still early. No customers yet.

“Blimey, if ya did’n take me breaff away!” she said and came around the small table. Jack’s grime-smudged face beamed below a shock of black hair and a crumpled top hat. He was probably ten years younger than Meredith, but something caught in her throat every time she saw him.

“Or maybe read me cards?” he said with a lilt when she opened the door. He never seemed able to settle on an accent.

“Not when me shop’s open, luv,” she said. She batted her eyes and nudged his chest with the flat of her palm as if trying to push him back out onto the street, but he just laughed. He looked over his shoulder and then moved in and planted a big kiss on her mouth. She’d already decided Jack was just another missed opportunity, so his kiss caught her by surprise. She gave in to it anyway. His hair smelled warm, like cinnamon and tobacco, and she tried not to think about tomorrow, when Rosa the tarot reader would cease to exist. For at least another year.

Then, from within the folds of her skirt, came the incongruous buzz of her cell phone.

Jack pulled back. His voice came out high-pitched and adolescent. “Alert! There’s been a breach in the force!”

Meredith wondered if this was his real voice.

He seemed to think better of his joke, laughed and winked. “I might ’ave ta call the constable on yas!” Then he doffed his hat. “Madame.” He bowed. “P’raps another time. I’ll leave ya to yer work.” He spun around and out the door.

The sprig of mistletoe shivered as the door swung shut. Meredith glanced up at it and frowned. Another buzz tickled her thigh, and she grappled in the pocket of her skirt. She moved to the rear of the shop, turned her back, and mumbled into the phone, “What is it, Mom?”

“When are you coming home?”

“I’m working until five tonight. I told you that. I also told you not to call unless it was an emergency.”

“It is an emergency. I think we need to buy a bigger turkey. This puny one you have in the freezer won’t be enough for the four of us, and I want Christmas to be festive. You know your father always eats three times as much as the rest of us, and we want leftovers, don’t we?”

Meredith opened her mouth to speak and then swallowed the words that had almost risen to the surface.

“Never mind,” her mother said. “The turkey’s in the bathtub now.”

Meredith closed her eyes. “In the bathtub,” she said. Then a smile crept into her face. “Did you dim the overheads and light a few candles? Soft music? Bath salts?”

There was a momentary silence, and Meredith could picture the bewildered look on her mother’s face. Finally she heard a chuckle. “I’m just defrosting it,” her mother said. “But I bet some soft music and bath salts wouldn’t hurt. Shall I go take care of that?”

Meredith groaned.

“I’m just kidding,” her mother said. “Did you think I—”

The shop door shuddered as someone attempted to come in. “Look, I really have to—Good-bye, Mom.” She secreted the phone in her skirt pocket and turned around. “’elp ya, laidies? Come for a readin’ ’ave ya?”

The two girls in the doorway held onto each other with obvious trepidation, as if they’d dared each other to come in. If only they knew that a tarot reading was just a reflection of what was already in your own heart.

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Meredith extinguished the television’s blare, then walked over to the Christmas tree and jiggled the defective string of lights. They twinkled on and then off again. She tweaked a couple of the tiny bulbs, trying to narrow down the problem, but finally gave up. That was when she realized she had completely forgotten to buy her mother a gift.

From the living room, she could see her mother spooning leftovers into a Pyrex dish and setting out a couple of chipped plates, treating them with a delicacy more suitable to fine china. Without a dining room, they’d had to downsize to an old card table in a corner of the kitchen, one Meredith kept covered with an embroidered linen tablecloth she’d found among her mother’s things. The fizz of despair she had attempted to keep at bay since she’d turned in her Faire ID gurgled up. Maybe she should have given her mother back one of her credit cards and asked for a set of Corelleware for Christmas. But then she probably would have ended up with a pair of electric booties or a seat warmer.

She entered the kitchen, and her mother—who was about to place the Pyrex dish in the microwave—whirled around as if taken by surprise. The dish crashed upside-down to the linoleum floor.

Her mother’s voice faltered. “Where did you come from?”

“From the living room,” Meredith snapped.

Her mother looked worried. “Who are you?” She didn’t even seem to notice the mash of leftovers that lay smattered at her feet.

Then Meredith realized she was still wearing her costume, right down to the hoop earrings and shawl, and probably looked like a total stranger to her mother. She reached out a hand in reassurance, and her mother began to laugh.

“Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry,” she said. She grabbed onto Meredith’s outstretched arm. “For a minute I didn’t recognize you. Meredith said something about you coming tonight to tell my fortune, and I forgot all about it.” She stepped over the food on the floor and led Meredith to the table. “Here. Come, sit down.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Should I make us some tea?”

Meredith blinked and then smiled as she allowed herself to be pushed into the chair. Eyebrow still raised, her mother waited for an answer.

Meredith’s smile broadened. “Oy, Missus, do make us some tea,” she said. “That’d warm me cockles!” The pleasure that flooded her mother’s eyes was all the assurance Meredith needed to keep going. “’old on a minute, Missus!” she said. She stood and rushed back to the living room for her bag.

By the time she returned with the tarot deck, her mother had cleaned up the mess on the floor, started the teakettle on the stove, and taken out two mismatched teacups.

 

With one bejeweled hand, Meredith drew a finger across the top card and held it for a moment before turning it over. The candle she’d lit jumped and stuttered on the table between them. “Yer’ll ’ave three visions, ya will—jus’ like ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge. The first card is yer past.” Her mother, now seated, bent at the waist to get a better look, and her eyes widened as Meredith turned over the card and laid it down in front of her.

Damn. The Five of Cups. She should have stacked the deck. Meredith took a deep breath. “There’s been some disappointment in yer life. Am I right?”

“Oh my! How did you know that?” Her mother’s eyes, like mirrors, reflected the candle flame.

Meredith smiled. “’Tis the myst’ry of the cards, Mum. Three of the cups ’as been spilt, showin’ sadness, regret. But don’t let it distress, Mum. Y’see the other two cups as is still full, meanin’ there’s ’ope! But like the man on the card, ya’ve got to look at what’s left. Ya’ve a lot ta be grateful for, and ya can still change yer direction.”

Her mother stared at the card and twisted a piece of the tablecloth between her fingers. “Thank goodness for that!” she said.

“The next card will show yer present situation.” Meredith turned it over. The Page of Swords. The Child. She pretended to study the card. “The Page,” she finally said, “’as got a childlike aspect.”

“What does that mean?” Her mother’s expression was so trusting.

“Maybe you’ve a childlike mind.” Meredith smiled as if to make it sound upbeat.

Her mother hung her head. “I try so hard not to be a burden. My daughter, Meredith, thinks I’m incapable of taking care of myself, but really, I—”

“The childlike mind ain’t a bad fing, m’lady. ’E’s got insight. The Page ’a Swords don’t always realize ’is full power. Ya got ta stop fightin’ it, this card says. Enjoy it.”

Her mother chuckled. “Well maybe this card should have a few words with my daughter.”

If nothing else, Meredith thought, she was at least entertaining her. “Now ’ow about the future, Missus? Are ya ready ta ’ear about yer future?”

“You’re the fortuneteller. Or do you think I should quit while I’m ahead?” She laughed, and Meredith, who couldn’t help but laugh too, drew another card.

“Well now . . . The Queen of Pentacles.”

“Of what?”

“Pentacles. And she’s upside down.”

“No she’s not.”

“I’m the one readin’ the cards, Mum, and from where I’m lookin’, she’s upside down. Now the Queen is a true woman, generous, nurturin’. She’s a bridge, she is, between the everyday and the magical. But reversed, she’s thwarted, not yet fulfilled. She’s a woman ’oo ’ungers for ’er own life, to become the Queen she was meant to be.”

“Why, that sounds just like my daughter.” Her mother had lifted her eyes to Meredith’s but now looked back down at the cards and frowned. “Maybe you’ve got this mixed up. Meredith is the one who needs to find fulfillment.” She shook her head. “Lately it seems like she’s in another world.” She looked up again, and her eyes flickered. Meredith struggled against sudden tears.

“What if we just turn this card around?” her mother said. She swept her hand over the Queen as if performing a magic trick and rotated it to face Meredith.

“Wot you on about, Mum?” Meredith said.

“I told you.” She tapped the card. “Meredith. She’s a kind and generous daughter, like this Queen here, always taking care of me. I appreciate what she does for me, more than I could ever tell her, but she’s the one who needs to get her own life. I’ve had mine. What do you think, Mrs.—What d’you say your name was again?”

Meredith closed her eyes and batted away the tears that threatened to slide out, hoping her mother wouldn’t see. “Rosa. Madam Rosa.”

“Well, now, Madam Rosa, don’t you worry. Things aren’t always what they seem, are they? In fact,” her mother said, “my insight tells me that Meredith deserves this one, too.” She pushed the Page card across the table. “Young gentleman like that, if you know what I mean.” She scrunched up an eye and clucked her tongue a couple of times. “Just don’t tell her I said so.”

The candle sputtered and almost went out. A smile eased into her mother’s face. Meredith looked over her shoulder to where her mother was pointing. In the other room, the lights—all of them—glittered from the tree. Mrs. Whitby blew out the candle, and for a moment the two of them sat silently in the glow from the living room. “I think what we need is some more tea,” she finally said. “Shall I put the kettle on again, honey?”

 

Rebecca Ring was born in Colorado, came of age in Northern California, married and had children in Quebec, and now writes and teaches in Utah. She has degrees in film and education and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is at work on a novel and, in the meantime, experiences the joy of completion by writing short stories. Her first short story publication took Second Honorable Mention for The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award in the summer of 2015.

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