Helen Patrice, "Four of Swords"
I am a chronic early-arriver. Can’t help myself, even though it means sitting around outside locked community theatres, empty ballrooms, and even being asked to help set up a hall or lounge.
I am an hour early to the talk. I have time to order a veggie burger, with fries, and an excuse for a side salad. The usual cos lettuce, sliced tomato, a piece of cucumber, a few shavings of raw carrot, and it came drenched in vinaigrette. I drink peppermint tea, because I’m a tea totaller. Afterwards, I crunch a series of mints because it won’t do to have food of my breath.
I go over my notes, carefully curated according to ToastMasters’ guidelines. I have no problem speaking in front of people. After all, I am, in 2009, still teaching dance, palmistry, meditation, and a bit of basic astrology. I can rattle on forever. My notes are neatly typed up on white photocopy paper, in large black print. I go through them. It’s the first time I’ve given a talk on tarot, despite it being my go-to method for understanding the world for over twenty years.
I long to be one of those women who open a beautiful notebook, toss back their wavy, faded blonde hair while their wrist bangles clank, and begin an inspired talk, based on years of spiritual experience, and careful guidance from etheric beings.
I am not that woman. I have a plain Timex watch on my left wrist. Its black faux leather strap itches me. I don’t often wear a watch, because they stop working, or run backwards if on me for than a couple of hours. They take a licking, but often don’t keep on ticking.
In a cane basket at my feet are my small collection of tarot decks. Tarot of the Cat People, Rider Waite Smith, Robin Wood, Merlin, Motherpeace. I know there are other decks out there. More are starting to come out, at an ever-increasing pace, and I want them all. I can’t afford them. I look upper middle class, white, well put together, and I live with my children in a middle class suburb of Melbourne. I believe we have what we need, and some of what we want.
I work three jobs, and grab at opportunities to work more. We still don’t have enough money to not be answerable to Social Security. I don’t have enough money to afford all the supportive technologies and experts that would assist both my disabled children to have more wonderful lives.
Tonight’s gig is paid, but only just. I’m hoping to get more speaking gigs from this, and to get my business card into a few hands: tarot consultant; palmist; Reiki Master; dance tutor; writer. Just a bit more money, a bit more, and then a bit more. I could pay off my daughter’s cochlear implant.
It’s the first time I’ve attended this group. I joined Meet Up a year ago, when my partner of ten years dumped me, and my mother died, and I had The Great Big Breakdown. I’m now a year into anti-depressants, and being a singleton. I’m attempting to find ‘my tribe’, and make new friends.
I joined The Tarot Enthusiasts Meet Up Group, and got talking toI got talking with the facilitator when I asked: “Is this group for newbies, or professionals, or everyone on planet Earth who loves tarot?”
When she realised that I had experience reading tarot, and had worked, in the past in various shops, and at expos, she got excited and invited me to give a talk.
‘You want a different life, Helen? Do different stuff.’
I said yes, because giving a talk on tarot was different.
“I’m off to talk new age wanker stuff tonight,” I told my daughter, who rolled her eyes, and kept on texting her boyfriend. “No visitors, eat dinner, do your homework.”
I knew full well that as soon as I’m out of the house, her friends would pile in to eat my food, watch tv, and not do homework. My daughter will pretend that she ate four bags of popcorn on her own. She never seems to connect ‘Mum reads tarot, palms, and knows a bit of astrology’ to ‘Mum will vibe that I have people over’.
I sit in my pub chair at my singleton’s table, and watch the Meet Up group founder arrive, and get the keys to the side room from the pub owner. She opens the doors, turns on lights, and begins placing tea light candles in small glass holders on each table. She hauls out a shopping bag of tarot decks, and arranges them on a display table. They are for sale.
I cannot stand it any longer. I feel stupid just sitting there. I take four deep breaths, and they don’t calm my nerves at all. I’m sure my face is both flushed and pale, and I’m stinky-sweaty under my arms. I go to the toilet and after my piss, I stick my tongue out at myself in the mirror over the sink. I was told years ago that doing that relaxes the face muscles and thus helps the appearance of being in control. A woman entering the bathroom catches me. Of course. She says nothing. I say nothing. There’s ridiculous silence as she enters a cubicle, and she begins peeing.
I’ve not even begun my talk, and already I feel stupid.
The side room fills up, as Meet Up people trickle in and take seats. They all know each other. I am seated to one side, behind a small table. I deliberately lean back to disappear into the shadows of the poor lighting. The crowd chat, talking traffic, last weekend, and all the usual things people talk about.
‘Just people,’ I tell myself.
The evening has been advertised as A Talk On Three Card Spreads by A Tarot Professional. My name was not used. I’m a little pleased. If the talk goes badly, and I burst into flames, or talk nonsense that is immediately disputed by a tarot scholar, then they don’t know who I am, and I can skulk home to the eastern suburbs and never be seen again.
I have not quite told the truth to the Meet Up facilitator. I am no longer a tarot professional. I used to be. I once had a thriving tarot sideline, doing readings from home, working in various shops, doing a few expos. But, as I got older, and my parenting was more fraught, I no longer had the focus to concentrate wholly on what was in front of me, and not bring myself into the reading. I grew impatient with the endless questions that boiled down to: ‘Should I get with/leave him?’
I got out of professional reading before I reached across the table and smacked someone.
In 2009, I’m clinging to the labels Tarot Consultant, Palmist, and Reiki Master as things that define me, make me exotic, make me unusual. I have a horror of being dull.
My ex-partner, Peter, thought me exotic. I was the one who turned him on to tarot, palmistry, and astrology, and ten years later, he declared that now he knew how I did what I did, I wasn’t so special after all.
I jump when the facilitator, who’s real name I still don’t know (it can’t be Taromance in real life, surely), shouts: “Okay, spiritual people, settle down, we have a talk to hear, so grab your drinks and your seats.”
That bellow causes stragglers to quickly decide which beer or wine they want, pay up, and enter the room. People are perched on chairs, arms of chairs, and it’s a very full room indeed.
There, in the very front row, is Peter. Well hello, won’t you get a surprise in a minute? He has a notepad and pen at the ready, and a familiar look on his face: ‘I’m going to Hoover up information, and keep it stashed in the secret room in my mind, until I can figure out how to use it to get inside people’.
Peter had the unfortunate tendency to find out his work colleagues’ birth dates, do up their astrology birth charts, and figure out what made them tick. He didn’t share this information. He kept it cuddled to himself, and used it to best advantage in meetings, knowing what their weaknesses were, what they loved, and how they communicated.
Me being troubled by this was one of the many reasons we broke up.
“Information wants to be used,” Peter used to say.
“Not like that, for spying,” I replied.
The room is still gloomy with overhead lights doing little, and the tea light candles not up to illuminating a whole room. Taromance moves a small round side table in front of her. It’s covered with a shiny red cloth. I hate shiny cloths. They make tarot cards slide around like they’re greased. She arranges a gooseneck lamp to shine on the table. Lovely. My hands and my well-worn Robin Wood cards will be in harsh lighting. I have a lot of small scars on the backs of my hands. Years of living with cats and kittens, bringing up children, and being a redhead with thin skin. I look like I’ve lived in a bramble bush.
Recovering from Peter made me feel like I lived in a bramble bush.
“For those who don’t know, I’m Lorraine, and this is the Tarot Enthusiasts’ Meet Up group. If you’re in the wrong place, now’s the time to get that sorted.”
No one gets up and leaves, but there’s a ripple of laughter.
“We have a new member, and I was pleased to discover she’s an old hand at tarot, and a professional. She’s come along tonight to give a talk on three card spreads. Helen, come and meet everyone.”
I stand up, come forward. My basket of spare decks isn’t needed. Everyone whips out their own deck, and they all lean forward with an ocean of ‘hi’, ‘hello’, and hello-type mutterings.
Peter looks stunned, then furious. The room is full. If he moved, it would be obvious, so there he is, stuck in the very front, right near my little table. He turns side on in his chair, and crosses his legs away from me. He folds his arms across his chest and looks pointedly at a wall. He might be stuck listening to me, but he can actively refuse to acknowledge me. He can let his body language and facial expression (he’s done courses in reading body language and faces, too) do the talking.
I take a breath, another. I make myself look at everyone in the room. I know how to put on a show. I’ve belly danced in restaurants, on stages, and have stood in front of dance classes for eleven years. I’ve had a lifetime of trying to fit into the many square boxes presented to me, when I’m a fuzzy, amorphous puffball. I look past Peter and begin talking, and my nervous self drops away as showwoman comes forth. I don’t need my notes. It turns out I have lot to say about three card spreads, and how to use them.
My cards are wayward on the slippery cloth, but I don’t care. 4 of Swords, Hanged Man, Hermit. The same story the cards have been telling me for a long time – rest. I need deep, sustained rest on all levels, Past, Present, and Future. I need to stop my carousel life and get off. I tell my audience that I need rest, as this demonstration spread indicates. The next card I could have drawn is the Tower – the bolt from the blue that upsets the apple cart, the unexpected disaster, the lightning strike.
Peter dumping me was that, even though I knew our relationship was a bomb site. I refused to let go.
I don’t mention it in the talk, but I take note of cards that fall out of decks, cards that leap out, and the next card that could be drawn.
The Tower – disaster.
But it hasn’t been disaster, not all of it. I’m finally diagnosed properly, medicated, have a new brain, and am exploring who I am at age 45. I have freedom. I no longer have to take the emotional temperature of a partner every five minutes, watching for dark silences, a clenched jaw, silent disapproval if I talk to another human being.
People lean over my table, looking at my cards, watching my short fingers point out details on the cards. They refer back to their own decks, and the same cards, seeing new things. I can’t teach them to be intuitive readers, but I can teach them to see, teach them to take notice of what’s grabbing their attention, and ask them to trust their feelings.
My talk lasts half an hour, and in that time, I’ve gone through three different three card spreads, and pointed out that all of them were advising me, in some form or another, to rest.
But I haven’t finished yet. No going home to bed. The room breaks into small groups, and they all practice their three card spreads. I am highly sought as a reader, being the official Expert of the evening.
Peter is in a far corner. He has monopolised a tall woman who is much nearer his own height than short-ass me. I can’t hear them, but someone tells me that Peter has an expensive astrology app on his phone, and often offers to conjure up the birth chart of women he chats to. Only women, though.
The Meet Up is scheduled to finish at 10pm. I’m an hour past my wind-down-for-the-evening time. It’s 9.30pm when the woman approaches me. She glances back at Peter, who is watching her out of the corner of his eyes while he still determinedly turns his body away from me. It must be quite the eye strain.
The woman sits down at my little table and waits until I’ve had a swig of water.
“Can I ask you for a reading, please? I’m happy to pay for it.”
I shake my head. “There’s a donation box over where Lorraine is sitting. I think it’s $4 to cover the rent of the room, and any extra is my fee for the evening, so you pay what you think the night is worth. The deal is that I don’t take payment directly.”
“I want a bit more than a three card spread.”
I know what she wants.
“There’s this guy I’ve been talking to, and-“
“Honey, I am that man’s ex. He will have nothing good to say about me, and I have very little good to say about him. If we were talking woman to woman, I’d say run, don’t walk. As a professional tarot reader, I can say that my biases are showing, and I have no business doing a reading for you that involves any questions about my ex, because I can’t be neutral. It’s all too fresh. I think there’s a guy over there called Ted who does pretty good readings. That’s what I’ve heard tonight. If you really want to know something, why not ask him.”
But I’m tonight’s Special Expert. She wants me. I don’t shuffle my cards.
“What do your instincts say?” I ask her.
She shrugs. “He seems nice.” She has doubt written all over her. They’ve just spent an hour talking about her astrology chart. He knows a lot about her.
“I can’t read for you, sweetheart. You wouldn’t get a good reading from me. Look, Ted’s free. Go see him.”
She sees I won’t budge. She heads off towards Ted, and her predictable ‘is he the one for me’ query sits on her like a buzzard.
I’m tired. Past tired. I’m shaking from too many people, being up late, too many readings. Once again I’ve overextended myself for the sake of business, money, keeping food on the table, and popcorn in the cupboard.
I look over at Peter. He’s coming my way. Joy.
“Still fooling people that you know what you’re doing,” he says out of the side of his mouth, as he passes.
I have an old, crappy tarot deck at the bottom of my basket. I picked it up at a thrift store. It had cards missing, no box, no little white instruction book. I kept it only because I thought the poor tired thing deserved a home. I fished it out now, and shuffled through the cards. 4 of Swords was shown as a man lying on a bed, four swords pointing down towards him. The man looks dead. 4 of Swords – the rest card.
I give the card to Peter.
“Give it a rest, Peter,” I say.
I pack up my belongings and down the rest of my water. I’ll need another litre before I get home, and have two bottles in the car.
The donation box is full of coins and Lorraine pays me in them. Lucky I have a wicker basket in which to carry them. The $86 slides around the tarot decks as I walk to my car. I make a mental note to put all my decks in the sunshine tomorrow to cleanse them of pub money.
I drive home.
I pull a last tarot card before falling into bed. The World. Freedom.
Helen Patrice is an Australian writer living in Melbourne. She is the sole author of two books of poetry: A Woman of Mars (Stanza Press), and Palaeontology for Beginners (Finnlady Press), and one of four poets in collaboration in She, Too.
Helen's short work has appeared in numerous literary and genre journals in Australia and the USA, and is currently a columnist for the TravelnRavel website. She is working on a memoir called How The Light Gets In.