Tuesday 18 November 2014

The Sage of Bogborough Green

The Sage of Bogborough Green

Ross Clandon

Tea Leaves

‘Why did I ever agree to this?’ Rachel asked herself as she waited for the fête to begin. ‘This isn’t me at all. Besides, I’m sure there’s a law against this kind of thing.’     
Her mother’s power of persuasion had held sway against Rachel’s better judgement and here she was, seated at a little round table that was covered in Grandma’s red velveteen for-company-only tablecloth and, on it, an upturned goldfish bowl.
She had hoped for a quiet few days in her home town of Bogborough. Instead, her break from the stresses and demands of an executive life was to be punctuated by this nonsense. It was her fault, her mother had said, for showing some psychic ability from time to time. This would be brought into play at St Mark’s summer fête on The Green. The renovation of the church’s roof demanded that every effort must be exerted if future congregations were not to be rendered unconscious by falling debris – or worse.
Rachel had refused absolutely to take on an authentic gypsy appearance. Her mother had, however, insisted on a suggestion of it to avoid disappointing customers who would surely expect it, and so ‘Madam Ramona’ was sitting in her little cubicle, created by partitioning,  with a tartan car rug around her shoulders, a red scarf masking the lower half of her face, and a floor-length black evening skirt. Maternal concessions were: no dangly earrings, no chunky jewellery, and no spotted hanky over her head.
Never normally stuck for words, Rachel did wonder how she would keep going verbally if customers were numerous. It was probably a matter of making a quick assessment of each person, before providing them with generalisms and telling them only the good predictions that came into her head. Yes, that was it, she decided. Tell them what they wanted to hear? H’m.
She could hear Reverend West, beyond the partition, beginning his speech to open proceedings. She rose to be a member of his audience just before her mother poked her head around the edge of the booth. ‘What are you doing, Rachel?’
‘I should be around there to appear interested.’
‘What? No – I was coming to tell you. Stay there until everything starts. Appearing now would destroy your mystique.’
The forbidding expression on her face stopped Rachel in her tracks. A grown woman she may be but her mother’s face still had the power to do that.
‘What mystique? For heaven’s sake, Mum, it’s only pretend!’
‘Can’t you go with me for once? I want people to be surprised to see you.’
‘They’ll be that all right.’

Within seconds of the minister’s closing words, Rachel’s first customer appeared. A grinning middle-aged man was allowed in by her mother, who then stood guard outside the partitioning, ensuring that entry was controlled.
‘Good afternoon, Sir. Please cross my palm with a pound coin, then be seated.’
‘Ah – straight down to business, eh?’ said the man. ‘Here you are, Madam Ramona,’ he added, handing her the payment. ‘Aren’t you Megan from the newsagents?’ 
Rachel couldn’t bear the idiotic grin on his face as he assumed he had scored a direct hit. ‘No, I’m Madam Ramona from a mysterious world beyond time.’
‘Really? Well, if you’re not Megan, you’re from the Council site at Gulpington – but you are Megan, aren’t you?’
‘Please sit down,’ said Rachel, refusing to be drawn.
‘I can see you’re a no-nonsense type of person,’ he said, obeying then holding out his palm.
This was unnecessary, since Rachel was already gazing into the goldfish bowl. It took her hardly any time at all to decide what to say.
‘I see you’re a man of many abilities, one of them being an uncanny tendency to absolute conviction. You have the ability to see into the truth of everything and stick to your ideas come what may, whatever evidence you may be given to the contrary.’
‘Er – is that a compliment?’
‘You are the star of the pub on Friday nights, as you attempt to retain the attention of those around you.’
‘And I usually succeed – but how did you know?’
‘Madam Ramona knows all.’
‘What’s going to happen, though? That’s what I came to hear. Please – no could or might.
‘Certainly. As you leave this fête, you will encounter a tall woman with long blonde hair. You will be attracted to her and, naturally, she will fall for you. How could she not? She will be a divorcée and, therefore, desperate for a man in her life. Naturally, you will be that man. She will be a woman of the utmost discretion, so your wife will never know but, when she leaves you, your wallet will be empty. Let that be a lesson to you.’
‘What? What sort of prediction is that?’
‘The sort you des—’ began Rachel, stopping herself just in time. Realising that she might have gone too far, she sought to repair the damage, whilst not abandoning her urge to ridicule. At the same time she would protect her charitable position for that day. If word circulated that her predictions weren’t the pleasing kind that people wanted to hear, prospective lucre would fail to materialise and her mother would want to know why. The forthright mood would have to be curbed. ‘In the aftermath of this episode, you will, however, see better fortune. You are sometimes too generous for your own good, I think?’
‘Oh, definitely,’ answered the man, somewhat mollified.
‘Well, you will reap the reward. After checking your lottery ticket next week, you will find that you will win as much as you deserve. This will take you to Bouche de Bourne for the weekend.’
‘Oh, is that in the south of France?’
‘It’s in the south, yes.’
For a few minutes, Rachel continued in this fashion, until her fertile brain became suddenly barren. Declaring that the future in the crystal had become clouded over, she closed the consultation and the man left, with a satisfied grin.

The stream of clients seemed never-ending that afternoon. Only once did Rachel have the opportunity to see that her booth was the star attraction and that was when a brief tea break caused a discreet departure and she saw the queue, which her mother was keeping valiantly in order. Not even the cake stall was as popular.
Warming to her role, she continued with her original aim. All types of people, from an annoying schoolboy to the Vicar’s wife came in, making persistent demands on her powers of diplomacy and invention.  Most seemed to take things in a light-hearted vein but there were a few who were obviously looking for something more serious, even after setting eyes on ‘Madam Ramona’.
One such client was a man in his late fifties, who entered the makeshift booth toward the end of the afternoon. He seemed hauntingly familiar to Rachel as he seated himself slowly and with a downcast expression opposite her. Slightly overweight and balding, he seemed a little hesitant.
‘Good afternoon, Sir. Please cross my palm with a pound coin and I shall look into your future.’
He produced the coin and said, ‘Do you know, you’re the first person I’ve spoken to all week.’
‘Really? I’ll try to make it worth your while.’
‘I came out for some fresh air and wandered into the church hall for want of something better to do. I didn’t know there’d be a fortune teller.’
With her face half hidden under the scarf, Rachel involuntarily opened her eyes a little wider as realisation dawned. This was Mr Greenwood, her old English teacher, who obviously had no idea who she was.
She remembered him well from fifteen years before – and with affection. He was that kind of teacher who has probably existed since education began: he had all the qualifications and intelligence for his demanding work, but without the strength to back up his authority. She had sat in on many a lesson where unruliness had taken hold, due to his inability to threaten punishment and actually deliver it. She couldn’t remember a single occasion when his threat to send a pupil to the Head had been carried out. The result had been many chaotic classes. Having taken part in one or two episodes of the unruliness herself, she felt a pang of guilt as he sat in front of her, in clear dejection. It was obvious that life had not been kind to him.
‘You may have come in here on a by-chance basis but my abilities are better than you might expect from a church fête. I might surprise you.’
‘You can’t be less reliable than the Head who told me my job was safe one week and gave me a redundancy notice the next.’
Ah – so that was the root of it.
‘I’m sorry to hear that Mr – Sir.’
‘How could I be redundant when he’s replaced me? Oh, but that isn’t your problem. Please do start.’
‘Well, now, I’d like to begin by giving you a bit of advice, if you don’t mind. It’s for you to decide if it’s worth taking notice of.
‘You can cope with the effects of misfortune in two ways: you can wait for your fairy godmother to wave her magic wand, or you can work out a mechanism for dealing with it yourself. It’s the only way you’ll feel better. The most important thing to take care of in any situation is the state of your mind so, in milder cases of dejection or anxiety, you can do that old thing of asking yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ In almost every case, you’ll find the worst isn’t that bad. Another way to get through a crisis or an impending unwelcome event is to give yourself a reward. Say to yourself: “right, when I’ve come through this, or when I’ve done that, I’ll reward myself for enduring it” – any small thing from a bar of chocolate, a meal out, a short holiday; anything that you can then focus on instead of the unpleasant thing. It’ll help you to get through it.
‘In really trying times keep your sanity by doing what I call worry rationing. If you really can’t get something off your mind, tell yourself; “I can’t help worrying about this but I won’t do it now. I’ll do it at, say, three o’clock this afternoon.” In the meantime, when you find yourself thinking about whatever the problem is, just tell yourself, “No, not now; three o’clock this afternoon.” When that time comes, worry as much as you like – for fifteen minutes, then stop and make the next time seven o’clock. Keep on like that for two days then widen the length of time between worrying. You’ll reach a point where you forget to worry.  You’ll no longer be at the mercy of the problem. You’re back in control.’
Rachel watched Mr Greenwood’s features as she came to a verbal halt. His gaze was direct and his mouth was half open in surprise.
‘Well,’ he responded after a moment, ‘that all sounds very sage advice and it probably isn’t something that I would have thought of myself. Do you know, I think you might have something.’
‘I’ve found those ways work for me – but you probably expected predictions.’
‘Well, yes.’ He almost sounded reluctant for her to carry on with them but carry on she did.
The rest of her session with her former teacher was spent in a résumé of his forthcoming fortunes, about which she felt an honest optimism. He would fill the gap in his life with new social and creative activities and greater contentment would follow.
After a longer session than most of Madam Ramona’s clients, he rose with a smile and gave her a hearty handshake.
‘Thank you so much. I’ll bear in mind what you’ve said. You’re more sensible than you look.’
‘I can guarantee that.’
He left a brighter man. Rachel would have liked to end her stint as a fortune teller on this uplifting note but had to go through two more clients before the booth was closed as the fête wound down.
‘Well, we made a handy little profit for the church fund,’ said Rachel’s mother as they walked home. ‘Perhaps we can resurrect Madam Ramona next year. Did you enjoy it?’
‘I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed your spag. bol. Last night.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’

About the Author

Ross Clandon is Lancashire-born and now lives in Middlesex. His earlier fiction is very different and this is the only short story. Life in general, including admin work in numerous companies, has widened his understanding of human nature, inspiring work that is character-driven.

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