Jake knew it must have been one helluva of a binge; he remembered starting out with a group of his work mates, all cheery and joshing, before the verbal sparring turned nasty, then the evening became blurrier. He’d ended up on his own, after ‘last orders’ in a chair-throwing brawl, before being turfed out onto Filey’s shadowy streets. Even the seagulls were asleep by then.
His ribs throbbed and blood dripped from his nose. He vaguely recalled stumbling around the town centre, kicking over a few bins, before lying down on a park bench and being moved on by a copper just ‘doing me job, mate’.
He’d made his painful hobbling way to the beach, stumbling down the steps near the closed-up ice cream kiosk. He didn’t remember crawling under the pier. When he awoke hours later he was planted face down in the gritty sand and his mouth tasted like the inside of a toaster, Jake blinked, above him hovered the ribcage of the pier, hung with dried and stinking seaweed strands. He crawled out on his hands and knees. The beach was deserted; a sprinkling of stray plastic buckets and spades showing its previous occupation. But of the occupants there was no sign. His watch read 8:00p.m. He’d slept the day away. Again.
“You know what you need, Jake?” his ex had hissed at him. “AA. And I don’t mean the break down car repair people.” He’d laughed in her silly made-up face with those pencilled- on eyebrows he’d always hated. Made her look like a clown. Told her so and other stuff too.
He could hear voices shouting and electronic music blaring. He opened one eye and stared blurredly at the dazzling lights of the funfair, shining at the end of the pier like a hectic Christmas tree forest. All the lights and noise made him feel sick.
“ Jeez, I need an aspirin,” he muttered, dry spitting to get rid of the last of the sand. And a drink. The same thought went round and round his head on its own carousel. God yes. Just one beer then maybe a short or two.
“You all right, mister?”
Startled Jake looked up at the voice. The beach was no longer deserted. A girl, holding a bright red balloon, was staring big-eyed at him. She was about six years old, he guessed; blonde hair, blue eyes. He looked around. Where were her parents?
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Jake lied. “Er, so kid, where’s your . . . mummy?”
That word tasted strange on his tongue.
The girl shrugged. “Over there. I’m waiting for her.” She pointed at a tent hitched, almost as an afterthought, to the last of the caravans near the funfair. “She’s in there.”
Jake’s head pounded. Maybe, he could find a late night pharmacy and get a drink at the same time and take this kid home.
“OK, kid. I think we should go find her. Don’t you? You shouldn’t be out here on your own?”
“Why not, mister? You’re here.”
He blinked at her words. She was calm and seemed more grown-up than her years. And she had a point. Jake wobbled to his feet, head on fire, but feeling a nascent glimmer of responsibility towards this girl. She took his hand, much to his surprise and skipped beside him over the compacted sand to the edge of the pier and the outpost tent, where a lantern lit up a sign, ‘Madame Borinksi, Tarot Reader.’
“C’mon,” the girl tugged his hand. “My mummy wants to see you.”
Jake resisted her tugging. He hesitated, torn by his overriding need for alcohol and by a feeling of unease. However the girl was insistent and she didn’t let go of his hand. She pulled him inside the tent, it seemed bigger on the inside and smelt of incense. Jake’s head swam and he bent down, fighting nausea. When he straightened up the little girl had disappeared leaving her red balloon behind, floating. A voice from behind the purple velvet curtain called out.
“Enter please.” The voice was heavily accented. Not really believing he was doing this crap, Jake did as he was bid. He faced a woman, sitting behind a card table, bedecked with bright scarlet hair, nose piercings and Mehendi painted on her hands. She certainly looked the part.
“You want a reading?” Her ‘w’ sounded like a ‘v’. God, her Russian accent was straight from some old movie. Jake nodded, then regretted the movement.
“How much, luv?”
The woman eyed him and uncomfortable Jake shuffled on the plastic bucket chair.
“For those that hear the truth from the cards there is no charge.”
What the hell did that mean? OK, just go with it Jake. Get it done and get outta here and go get a drink. The woman spread out the tarot cards face down, her black-painted fingernails hovering over them. Jake watched her talon like nails ripple and leak black ink onto the table. She’s bleeding black blood. He shook his head. Damn, his hangovers were getting worse. He blinked and the illusion disappeared.
“Do you wish to see what the cards will show you?”
Jake paused. Did he? What the hell, “Yeah, OK. Whatever.”
She turned over the first card.
“Here is you, the Page of Cups. You drink a great deal is that right?”
Jake shook his head. “No more than the average fella out for a good time. So no, that’s crap.”
His reply didn’t faze the tarot reader, she smiled and turned over the second card. “Judgement.” The card showed a blonde curly haired angel, looking rather like the little girl with the balloon, blowing a trumpet.
“But whose judgement, we ask? Your own? Your girlfriend’s? Your Mother’s?”
Jake recalled the last row he’d had with his despairing mother. ‘You are turning into a carbon copy of your father and it’s breaking my heart. You know what happened to him.’
Yeah, dead by fifty-five with his liver blown to hell. So what? I’m not like him. I can hold my booze.
“Do you wish to see the third and final card?”
Jake hesitated. Did he? There was something suffocating about the tent and this fake Russian redhead.
“Yeah, of course. It’s all rubbish anyway.”
The woman smiled and was not put out by his manner. She silently turned over the third card. Jake had been expecting the Death card. He knew these con artists always brought out Death to frighten the punters into giving them cash. Madame Borinski said nothing. The card was not the one Jake had been anticipating. Their eyes met over, The Fool. Madam Borinski merely tapped the card with her nail and nodded. Her eyes sad. Jake pushed back the chair, stood up and shoved the cards away.
His eyes filled with tears. He fumbled his way out of the tent. The pier was in darkness and silent. The funfair had closed up for the night; extinguished the fairy lights, and rolled up the shutters. How long have I been in there with that witch? He glanced at his watch, it said midnight. Exactly 00:00. He’d lost four hours of his life in that tent. That couldn’t be right. Had he blacked out again? He turned back, fury fuelling him, but the tent entrance was zipped up and there was no sign of habitation. Jake punched the canvas a few times and circled it shouting, but no one answered. He was once again the only person about.
Confused and desperate for a drink, Jake wandered back to the beach. He stood staring at the sea, watching the waves rush in and out. There was blackness before him and behind him. He felt scared.
He didn’t hear her approach, he guessed the sand had muffled her footsteps. He jumped when she spoke to him.
“Did you like my mummy?” The little girl asked hopscotching on the smooth wet sand.
“No, I bloo….’ Jake stopped himself. ‘Hey kid, where did you go to before? Shouldn’t you be back with your mum in the van? Not out here talking to strange men?”
The air fluttered, the red balloon lurched nearer to his face. He thought he glimpsed faces inside it, trapped faces, mouths open. Another hallucination. He shivered, as the goosebumps popped up over his bare arms. The little girl smiled beatifically up at him.
“I know you, mister. I always know your type. You’re The Fool.”
Jake stared at her. He couldn’t believe he’d heard her right.
“Look kid, I’ve just about had enough.”
The girl pulled the red balloon in front of her face and when she re-emerged, Jake was facing Madame Borinski. She tossed her red hair and strolled towards the pier into the murky shadows. Jake waited. She didn’t reappear. After his initial shock, Jake searched under the pier, scuttling in and out of its girders, even running into the sea calling her name. Exhausted, he lay down on the sand, shoulders shaking with sobs. He pulled out his iPhone and fast-dialled his mother. He knew she would always accept his call.
“Mum, I need to come home. I need to stop drinking.”
He listened to the ebb and flow of her gentle words, echoed by those of the waves. He got to his feet and walked back towards Filey and the train station. He had a place to go to now.
Behind him from the pier’s guts the little girl, still holding her red balloon, stepped out. Her shape shimmered and shifted, sometimes growing to the height of a woman, with red hair and then shrinking back to a child with blonde hair. In the sheen of the balloon’s surface faces looked out. The girl skipped towards the funfair, chatting as though to friends.