“The Strange Art of Reading and Writing” by Jacey Bedford
We’d like to present a new Feature Story here at Metro Fiction. Please check the Welcome page for more information about us. Is the stranger at the door in this week’s story more than she seems to be?
We present our Feature Story: “The Strange Art of Reading and Writing” by Jacey Bedford.
The doorbell interrupts my furious letter to the tax-office. I leave the keyboard and open the front door. A squarish, blonde, worn and ordinary, fixes me with a gimlet stare.
“Hello, Lady. Buy something from a real Romany?” She has a smoker’s voice. “Have a look, Lady. It costs nothing to look.”
I hesitate, not much, but enough. She pulls lace out of a plastic shopping bag. I am constrained by politeness to look. Crochet work in fine cotton, just like my Aunt ‘Lizabeth used to make. She starts high – a table cloth. Forty five pounds. Ouch! I don’t have that kind of money; that’s why I’m writing to the tax-man.
I grimace and shake my head.
“Aye, well, Lady. It’s hard these days. I blame the government.”
Everyone blames the government. She’s on a winner with that. Guaranteed empathy.
“I used to be able to get twenty pound for these.” She waves a white doily. “Now I’m lucky if I can sell them at all. You could have one for fifteen.”
I shake my head. She’s negotiating on the basis that I want one in the first place.
“It’s a nice old house this, Lady.” Her nose tests the air. She smiles. “It’s got good spirit, this house has. My lace would go well here.”
” I’m sorry. It’s very nice but….”
She’s a pro at this. I’m hooked. It’s not the lace, it’s her. She’s not quite real. Then I blink and she’s ordinary again.
I pull a creased blue five pound note from my pocket, then two little yellow coins and some fluff. How did she know my limit? Is she psychic?
“It’s meant to be, Lady.” The money and the lace change hands. “You’ve got a kind face – kind enough to make an old Romany a cup of tea.”
Why not? I’ve done everything else out of character so far. I nod and step back from the door.
“Oh, thank you, Lady. My legs are aching, and to tell the truth everyone else has had such a straight face today that you’re the first one I’ve asked.”
I wondered how many times she’s had a door slam in her face.
“Do you like it strong?” I ask, flicking the switch on the kettle.
“Is it leaves?”
“Tea bags I’m afraid.” Was she going to offer to read my fortune?
“Strong, three sugars please. There’s hardly anyone these days has real tea.” There’s regret in her voice. Is she a tea connoisseur or is she mourning a lucrative lost income?
I make two mugs, hers brown and sweet, mine pale, and open my last packet of biscuits.
“Are you in business, Lady?”
Another clever guess or is there some give-away in the kitchen clutter?
“Yes, but… the recession…”
“It’ll get better, Lady, you’ll see, kindness is never wasted.” She overdoes ‘Lady’ all the time, as if it’s expected of her.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
Is that her real name? I give her mine in return, hoping she’ll use it, but no, it’s still “Lady” in every sentence – her way of keeping us non-Romany folk at a distance, I suspect.
She looks at me with her head slightly to one side. “You’ll have a happy life, Lady, ‘cos you’ve got a nice face.”
“Where have you come from?” I try to avert the overblown bounty of her words.
“York today. Durham before that.”
“Have you always been on the road?”
“All my life. I’ve never known anything else.”
It can’t be easy these days, moving around, shoved from pillar to post by the council, and all the old ways of making a living vanishing fast.
She pushes a coarse strand of fading fair hair out of her eyes and points to the washing powder on the shelf. “That’s Persil isn’t it, Lady?” The non-sequitur startles me. I nod and she continues, “That’s a ‘P’ it starts with. I can tell some letters.”
“Can’t you read or write?” Tactless, but it’s out before I can swallow it. It doesn’t seem to offend her.
“I never went to school. There’s other things to read beside books. Other things to write on besides paper. Give me your hand, Lady.”
I don’t believe in palmists. Con artists. But Samantha knows my pockets are empty.
She’s already got my money.
I hold out my hand. The left one. She reaches and takes my right too. Her hands are rough and callused. They hold both mine firmly in a no-nonsense grip.
“I told you I was a real Romany.”
She stares for some time, then shakes her head. I wait for the phoney predictions. The tall dark handsome stranger, maybe.
She says nothing.
Then she runs her thumbs over my palms, squeezing, tracing, erasing lines, rewriting my life. Her thumbnails score across the middle and down the centre. She says nothing, then – after the longest time – just nods.
“It’ll do, Lady, it’ll do.” I think I catch the words, “Sometimes reading’s not enough.”
She tells me nothing, just eats another biscuit and drinks her tea. I suddenly want to hear what she has to say… or do I?
She stands up to leave. “By the time I’m round this way again you’ll be doing better, Lady. You’ll see.”
If she’s right I’ll have one of those forty-five pound tablecloths.
I watch her stumpy figure disappear down the path. My left hand begins to itch. I turn it up and stare. It’s my hand, but different. Something prickles up and down my spine.
The lines on my palm have been rewritten, deeper, stronger.
The phone rings. It’s an offer of work, then another. It seems as though my luck has changed. Maybe Samantha is better at reading and writing than she admitted. Who knows?
Jacey Bedford is an English writer living in rural Yorkshire with her songwriter husband and a boisterous German Shepherd puppy. She’s been a children’s librarian, a postmistress and an internationally touring folk singer, and she now drives a desk for a living.
She has a compulsive writing habit. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. She is one of the organisers of the intensive UK-based Milford SF writers’ workshop weeks.
She’s recently signed with literary agent Beth Fleisher of Clear Sailing Creatives and has one novel in circulation. Read more about Jacey at her website.
Tags: jacey bedford, metro fiction, short stories