One cold evening, a woman was stopped on the street by a fortune teller. The street was in an expensive London neighbourhood but the woman was poor, which the fortune teller could not have guessed as she wore a long, beautifully cut coat and had expensive honey-coloured highlights in her hair, both purchased before her money had dwindled. The woman could not have guessed the man was a fortune teller. When he approached her, she thought he was a beggar. She found it hard to tell the beggars from the merely broke so she assumed any faintly scruffy man who came up to her and started talking would want money.
The fortune teller was short with a tan face that could have come from half the countries in the world. His clothes were made of thin cotton but there appeared to be many of them, swaddled and tied round him as if he were a puppet.
‘You,’ he said, pointing at her, which made her stop. ‘You got the luck.’ His accent, too, was impossible to place.
‘Really?’ answered the woman, incredulous, both at being stopped and the promise of luck.
‘Red and pink. Lucky combination.’
The woman smiled. She was wearing a shocking pink scarf and deep red lipstick. She was an aspiring painter and she particularly liked placing red with pink. She hadn’t known these colours might be lucky together.
‘Do you need something?’ she asked.
‘I tell your fortune.’
‘I have to be somewhere.’ This was true. The woman was on her way to a friend’s art opening. She would have preferred to go home, in fact she nearly had, but weeks ago she had promised to be there.
‘It won’t take long.’
‘Is there a cost?’
The woman offered her palm but the man brushed it away. Instead he looked directly into her eyes. He was her exact height.
‘You. Next week. Big luck coming. Good karma.’
Well, who doesn’t want to hear that? the woman thought. Still, she remained listening.
‘Two men. One married, older. The other your age, unmarried. You will choose.’
‘Is that the good karma next week?’
‘No. Something else, nothing to do with men. Money. A commission. You are artist of some kind.’
She wasn’t impressed at his guess she was an artist, but at the mention of the two men, the woman felt her blood jump up like a happy dog, both because she wanted love even more than money right now and because the fortune teller was right – there were two men, one married. Robert came first to mind – now it seemed romantic that he was married, like in a song, instead of the prickle she felt from each update he gave on his slow grinding divorce. Then she thought of Jacob, like her, thirty-eight, serious and self-contained. It was tempting to think one knew Robert, an artist himself, with his great leonine warmth, his humour tailored to your thoughts even before you had them, but Jacob, unencumbered by lawyers and children, was easier to see and gave her more time. She had seen both men three times. Then she thought of the money the fortune teller had mentioned. God, just five hundred pounds. Three hundred, even. Jacob, an anaesthetist, earned good money. Robert haemorrhaged it.
‘This is fascinating, but I must go,’ the woman said.
‘You pay now.’
The woman opened her purse and emptied coins onto the man’s hand. His smile faded on seeing they were mostly brown.
‘This? This is nothing!’
‘I don’t carry cash.’
‘We go to cash point now.’
‘Oh no we don’t. I asked you how much it would be and you said ‘later’. We didn’t agree anything.’
‘This not good karma!’
‘OK, then no good luck for me next week. I can handle it.’
‘Bad karma to you for sure!’
Shocked, the woman began to walk away as the fortune teller called her a bad thing, then yelled that she do an even worse thing. Fortunately, the gallery was near. As soon as she entered, her name was ticked off a list and a glass of champagne handed to her. Everything was clean and bright and pretty and expensive.
Her friend’s work was the same as she remembered. The only difference each year was the increasing size and reputation of the successive galleries. The friend and her husband told the woman they were glad to see her and they were. After she had listened to them talk about their kids’ new schools, the woman relayed the whole fortune teller incident. Despite escaping the fortune teller and receiving an immediate slug of champagne on arrival, her shock hadn’t dissipated.
‘What?!’ Her friend was indignant. ‘He can hardly expect you to take him to the cash point!’
The husband, smiling, opened his wallet and peeled out a twenty. ‘Find him and give him this. You’ll get your good karma back. You can reimburse me when you get the art commission.’
‘Greg!’ his wife exclaimed.
The husband shrugged and put his money away. He tried to joke about it but the woman felt stupid. She thought, I should have given the fortune teller more money. He made me feel so good before he made me feel bad. Those coins were an insult.
‘Ignore my husband,’ her friend said. ‘And sod the fortune teller. Tell me all about the two men.’
The next week, the woman didn’t hear about any commissions. This was no surprise – she hadn’t shown her work anywhere or put it online. She also didn’t hear from the men. She told herself there was no reason she should – she wasn’t in any sort of clear situation with either man. Nevertheless, her movements that week took her several times to the fortune teller’s neighbourhood, even to the same street. She couldn’t help but look for a short, swaddled figure in the crowds, a ten pound note now sitting in her purse, ready to expiate her hope and dread.
Anna Maconochie is a fiction writer who has had stories published in the Erotic Review, the Dublin Review, the Wells Street Journal and the Bitter Oleander. Her debut collection, ONLY THE VISIBLE CAN VANISH came out in 2016 with Cultured Llama Publishing. She has also had a short story published in Desire: 100 of Literature’s Sexiest Stories, chosen and edited by Mariella Frostrup & the Erotic Review.