Chapter 1 – Surprise!
Thursdays had always been my favourite day of the week, until that one.
“I need to tell you something,” Polly whispered in her bedroom. “I’m leaving you.” She cleared her throat. “There’s someone else.”
The penny dropped, down to the pit of my stomach. My mind raced back – wisdom in hindsight. Polly, smoking again; Polly, listening to new music; Polly, needing space.
The sun streamed in, framing her plaits and silhouetting her legs through an Indian cotton dress. I stopped breathing. She'd never looked lovelier. Goodbyes are often like that.
I gulped a breath and she blurred before me like a rainy view. We’d always said that if we ever broke up we wouldn't shout and throw things, like Paul and Stacey. No, we'd be adult and spiritual about it. Now though, my conscience whispered, ‘Sod that for a game of soldiers.’
I nodded slowly to myself, while Polly looked on in mute embarrassment. I was twenty, with all the emotional maturity of a troubled eight year-old, and my little world had ended.
When she spoke again, I wished she hadn’t.
“It’s Jimmy – in case you’re wondering – and it’s been going on for about a month. It’s time we were honest about everything; you deserve that. And then we can all move forward.”
I rolled my eyes. What a bloody cliché. Jimmy, her ‘musician friend’, the one I’d been so suspicious about when he re-entered her life. The one whose gigs I didn’t go to because, as we’d agreed, live music and crowds weren’t really my thing.
The next moments were a blank. All I can say for certain is:
1. All my high ideals went out the window.
2. On the balance of probabilities, I was a complete dick about everything,
I pleaded my case in predictable fashion: shouting, swearing and recriminations – all the greats. Polly bore it all stoically until I’d run out of steam.
“So, erm, look,” she chewed her lip, “I’m gonna take off for a few days. Let the dust settle. Mum says to come back at the weekend for your stuff.”
I couldn’t look her in the face. “Where will you be?”
“Folkestone," her voice dipped again. "My brother’s invited me and Jimmy over for the weekend.”
I'd never liked her brother, so I wasn't entirely surprised. After that sucker punch, Polly led me out of the ring and down to the front door.
"I’m really sorry." She closed the door, as if I’d just failed an interview.
I stood on the step, facing traffic. I could hear Polly’s mother through the glass behind me.
“About time – I thought he was never going to leave.”
She may as well have popped the champagne.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and Friday was worse, tortured by the thought – well, let's face it, the reality – of Polly and Jimmy in Folkestone. On Saturday, I went shopping. I wanted to make a gesture, no hard feelings, to show that I was bigger than this, and if that gesture brought Polly back to me, so much the better. To cheer myself up a little, I also bought myself some smoked tofu – as a treat.
First thing Sunday morning, I went over to collect my things. Her mother pointed me towards Polly's bedroom, where my belongings had been thoughtfully left outside – crammed into two Tesco’s bags.
"You can let yourself out."
Stepping over my stuff, I slipped inside for the last time and breathed in the heady scent of patchouli oil. I left a brown paper bag on her pillow, containing two gifts: The Egyptian Book of the Dead– a planned now early Christmas present, and a Madonna single – Crazy for You. I was halfway home, with my repatriated possessions, when I realised I'd left the receipts in the bag.
Although all break-ups are difficult, this one had an added dimension because we both worked in the same Civil Service building. Polly had encouraged me to apply for a desk job and that's where I’d been randomly assigned. We used to call it fate, but karma – I now decided – could be a cruel bastard.
I’d catch glimpses of her in the foyer, in the early days after the split, wearing the pained expression people show a pet in its dotage. After a two-week cooling off period, Polly decided we could put our principles above any petty emotions. Week three onwards, we shared scheduled lunches at a café near St Paul’s. We'd travel separately – so I didn't get any ideas – and there we'd sit, awaiting our vegetarian cuisine; me, torturing us both with the same old questions, while she tried to convert my feelings to friendship. I longed to see Polly, but every time I did I felt as if I were making payments on a car I was never going to drive again.
Over one of those lunches, we divided up our friends.
“Best to keep it simple,” she insisted. “Mine are mine and yours are yours. We can share people we met together, as long as we agree not to badmouth one another.”
I nodded, wearing the stony façade I adopted for those non-date dates. I had a secret though, a powder keg that made me smile on the inside. Six months before the split, Paul – one of my originals– had dated an American student for a few months. After he cheated on Stacey, she returned to the US. Polly and I had stayed in touch with her by letters and postcards, and the occasional phone call. The day after Polly set off to Folkestone with Jimmy, I'd rung up Stacey to wallow in my misfortune.
She'd been her usual sanguine self. “I guess it had to happen – how else could you grow? Hey, we should meet up sometime and talk.”
“Yeah,” I sniped, “I’ll just get the bus.”
“You could always fly – they have planes these days…”
The idea hung in the air like a lifeline. I’d never been anywhere before, unless you counted the week Polly and I spent on a campsite near Avebury stone circle.
“Well?” Stacey’s impatience punctured the silence.
“Alright then, I’ll do it,” I spluttered. “I'll come out and visit you. Remind me, where is Wisconsin exactly?”
I felt a tremendous sense of power for those few short weeks I managed to keep my mouth shut. I'd never realised that wilful deceit could be such a source of strength. In the end though, I grew weary of hearing about Jimmy’s amazing car, his artistic depths and how he was just soright for Polly.
“I can’t make it next Tuesday lunchtime,” I tossed into the conversation, with all the subtlety of a lump hammer. “I have an interview at the American Embassy.”
Jimmy instantly disappeared off the menu.
“You never said you’d applied for a new job,” her voice dropped.
“No, it’s for my visa.” I looked beyond her, smiling at my reflection.
“Oh?” she lowered her hummus sandwich.
“Yeah, I need to get it taken care of ASAP,” I paused over-dramatically, like a child in a junior school play, “because I’m off to America.”
Polly froze mid-bite and I sat back to drink in the moment. I felt a mixture of emotions – vindicated, empowered… Mostly though, I felt smug.
Reality set in once I’d acquired my visa. Stacey and I settled on a December visit, almost three months away. Meantime, I was still trapped in Polly’s gravitational pull – bumping into her at the wholefood shop, or the new age bookshop, or when visiting our shared friends. As Polly put it: the three corners of my world.
I saw Jimmy for the first time at the wholefood shop. It was a last minute thing, when I’d run out of puy lentils; you know how it is. I think he was there buying something to impress Polly. I'd only seen a photo of him before, but the way he looked at me left me in no doubt. He sneered, almost on the verge of words, and then collected a bag of liquorice sticks – Polly's favourite.
I grabbed my lentils defensively and kept my distance. I'd wanted to say something, to let him know how much pain he'd caused me, but I knew it was pointless. And besides, he was miles taller than me with arms like trees. Instead, we just nodded at one another curtly – the dual recognition that we each wished the other under a bus, and the only thing we had in common was that we'd both slept with the same woman. And for all I knew, not necessarily on different days.
My emotional support network, and yes I really used that term, consisted of Nathan and Kate, and Linda. I’d known Linda for years. She would sympathise with me, quote Marx, talk about animal rights and make delicious vegetarian curries. I didn't see her very often.
Nathan and Kate had only known Polly and me a few months before the split. Kate believed in plain speaking. "You need to make a new life and get on with it."
Chapter 2 – Pick a card
Weekends were now a gaping void, so I developed a routine. I’d take the Tube to Holborn, traipse across to the British Museum to wander around the Egyptian exhibits like a wraith, and then mosey down to Covent Garden. I loved the mix of boutiques, ad agencies and designer shops there that rubbed shoulders with new age emporia and veggie restaurants.
Another new age shop there, where I’d bought TheEgyptian Book of the Dead, had been a firm favourite since before meeting Polly. Who doesn’t enjoy esoteric books, incense sticks, crystals and relaxation tapes? They had psychic readers too, but up until my personal life had run aground I'd never felt the need to seek professional help. Still, needs must…
The kindly looking man at the desk sported a bushy beard and glasses – like a cross between a Maharishi and an accountant. He peered down a list. “I can do you a tarot in half an hour or it's a palm reading after four.”
I checked the angel clock on the wall. It was around one-thirty, so I opted for the tarot reading, left my name and upfront payment, and went in search of lunch.
“Don’t be late,” he cautioned. “The cards don’t like to be kept waiting.”
When I returned, after a hurried beetroot salad pot and a packet of plain crisps, I was shown through to the back of the shop.
“Number four,” the manager murmured cryptically, pointing down some steps.
As I walked past doors one to three, I could hear the low mutterings of psychics and seers plying their trade. Polly and I both had our own tarot decks, although it was hard to read your own destiny in the cards. During our time together, we went through a deeply mystical phase, just after a political phase and before an alternative psychology phase. We retained the philosophies, books, and language, like a build up of old wallpaper.
I picked at the crumbs on my nylon jumper, coughed politely and knocked at number four. The door eased in. A woman looked up from a table, a turquoise chiffon scarf around her shoulders almost touching her large Egyptian earrings. She had one hand clenched around a can of coca cola while the other rested by a spread of cards, as if she expected one or the other to make a sudden break for it. A half-smoked cigarette burned lazily on the edge of a saucer. Four spent companions lay close by in a family grave.
I glanced at the cigarette and coughed again. She took the hint and stubbed it out. Or else she really was psychic.
She proffered her hand across the table. “Hi, I’m Maggie – grab a seat.”
I sat opposite, admiring her rings – one turquoise that matched her scarf, another in the form of an Egyptian ankh and a third that looked like an engagement ring only it was on the wrong hand. My eyes drifted up the line of her arm where I met an almond-shaped face framed with curly brown hair. She scraped the cards together and passed them over, accompanied by a waft of perfume. I knew the drill and shuffled them quietly, wondering about her accent. She sounded American, only not like Stacey.
She laid the cards face down in rapid succession, pausing only to take a slug of cola. Once ten cards were on the baize, in the Celtic Cross spread, she began the reading. The first card she turned over was an upside down Two of Cups. She looked up and smiled, as if she'd just solved a cryptic crossword in record time.
“So, your relationship has just ended...”
That was how I met Maggie, although I didn’t realise until later how important that chance encounter would become. It was less of a psychic reading, after those first few words, and more like a meeting of old friends. We worked through the cards together, discussing the symbolism and archetypes. Towards the end, she scrawled on a piece of paper.
“Listen, I teach at Old Street – you should come along. It’d be good for you.”
I waggled my head noncommittally; I’d had enough spontaneity for one day. Even so, I picked up the note on my way out. She’d lit up another cigarette before I’d closed the door behind me.
Outside, the sun was still shining and a breeze scattered debris from overfilled litterbins. It felt like the winds of change as I walked to Covent Garden tube station with Maggie's note still in my hand. A harlequin mime artist worked his pitch nearby, trying to overcome an invisible barrier. I put 50p in his hat as a show of solidarity.
On the Tuesday night, I fought my way through rush hour traffic to Old Street. The venue was an impressive, red-bricked building, reminiscent of a formidable Victorian school. A health food shop next door was still open after 6pm.A good omen, I felt.
In my experience, all health food shops – and I'd been to several – shared a certain ambience: a combination of subdued lighting, emaciated staff and the lingering aroma of couscous. This one was no different. The shaven-headed truth-seeker at the counter barely noticed me, still chanting quietly as he took my money.
Apple juice in hand, I climbed the stairs to the second floor and peered through the glass-fronted door. Maggie looked up and waved me in. I’d made a point of being early, hoping for another chance to talk in private.
She passed me a sheet. "Here's the syllabus."
I glanced down the list, trying to see past the spelling mistakes. Tonight we would cover the symbolism of dreams. I’d already missed three classes, and Maggie promised to bring me some notes the following week.
Over the next two hours I meditated, I learned what my dreams were telling me and I communed with unseen forces. I met some interesting people too, all seeking a greater understanding of the Universe, or themselves, plus the one guy who wanted to become the next Merlin. By the time the class ended, I felt as though my dark cloud had lifted a little.
I stayed behind afterwards to help tidy the furniture away; it wasn’t as if I had anywhere else to be.
“Maggie, do you, er, need a lift anywhere?” I gripped my car keys like an amulet, even though we weren't doing amulets for another five weeks.
“That’d be great,” she said, blowing out the white candle on the desk.
One thing I’d learned from Stacey was that Americans tended to see the world in bright colours. Things were great and awesome or crap and bullshit – there were no pastels in their paint box.
I soon realised why it would be so great for Maggie, as we crossed the Thames into the labyrinth of south London. She may have operated on a higher plane of consciousness, but she had absolutely no sense of direction. As we meandered back and forth between Deptford and New Cross, I mentioned my upcoming trip to the US and she offered some sage advice.
“The Mid-West, in December? Take a tip from an East Coast gal – pack a serious sweater because winter up there is a bitch.”
By the time I'd navigated my way home in north London, it was close to eleven-thirty. I was tired, but happy-tired. There was a newfound joy in being around strangers; I could have been anyone – and for a while I was.
As I crept inside, the phone started ringing.
“Where have you been?” Polly’s voice conjured a mixture of anxiety and irritation. “This is the third time that I’ve rung tonight.”
I didn’t say much beyond ‘hello’, having learned from the American visa episode that telling Polly what I was up to felt like giving away little pieces of myself – and I was still trying to collect a new set.
“So,” she sniffed, as the silence extended, “where were you?”
“Just out.” I stared at the wallpaper and wondered whether my aura was properly closed down.
“We went over to Nathan and Kate’s – they haven’t seen you in a week…”
We? I was silent again, wondering whether her interest meant anything.
“Anyway, I felt like a chat and I wanted to make sure you were okay and everything,” her voice cracked.
What I should have said was, “I’m fine,” and then gently put the phone down. Unfortunately, what I actually said ran along the lines of, “I wish you'd make your bloody mind up. First you dump me and then you want to check up on me.”
For a few seconds it felt good to speak my mind. Then Polly was crying and I opened the floodgates with the fatal words, "Are you okay?" And before I could stem the tide, I learned more about her relationship with Jimmy than could ever have been good for me.