The Sign

Chapter One.

It was much more than a lovers’ tiff.  From the almost-supersonic pitch of her voice and the delirious sparkle in her eyes, he could tell the end was nigh.

‘You lying b****rd!  Five weeks you’ve been hiding it from me?  And all that time you’ve been using our savings?’

Her hand reached for the nearest weapon – a mug of cold tea – which came sailing across the room at him.  He ducked.

‘F**ker!’ she screamed, her raging face an unflattering puce.

She glared at the dark splatters dripping down the pale wall.  ‘I suppose I’ll have to clean up after you as usual!’

It was highly unfair of her, he thought, given that he did most of the housework.  But she didn’t seem to care.

Her hand reached again.

‘Not that, Eva, please!’ he begged.

‘What?’ Her eyes narrowed and her mouth twisted into a smirk. ‘You mean this?’

He should have known not to say anything.

The beautiful black Jesus statue from their trip to Guatemala came sailing towards him.  With unusual grace, he lifted his hand and caught it.  It was his turn to smirk.

A sound somewhere between a gargle and a grunt escaped her and she turned on her heels, yanking the living room door behind her as she left.  It caught on the carpet and Simon’s smirk broadened into a grin.  A victory!

But the grin disappeared as he remembered the reality.  He was unemployed.  Unemployed and a failure, it seemed, at the one thing he really loved.

He walked to the window and gazed out.  The sign, with its missing ‘a’, swung by a single hook.  It was facing away from him, intended to lure passersby, but he still knew what it said.

At one time it had been shiny and new – just like his assumed name and his dream of being a Tarot reader.  Now it creaked in the wind, refusing to blow away for once and for all, just hangin’ on in there by one rusty piece of metal.  And to make matters worse, some delinquent had recently added an ’s’ to the end so that it now read ‘Terence’s Trots’.  Yes, perhaps that was eloquently fitting, given the verbal diarrhoea that had emerged from his mouth during the few Tarot readings he had done, on the sidelines of his real job in software support.  He didn’t stop to wonder why he considered the latter his ‘real’ job, given that it had been of even shorter duration than his struggling career as a psychic.

He shrugged, dismissing the sign once more, and wandered into the kitchen, opening the fridge in the hope of distraction. Ah, string cheese – that would do.  There was much comfort to be had, at times like these, from the simplest of things.

He opened the packet and with slow, careful, movements, teased the tiniest strip off the side of the cheese, peeling it all the way to the bottom and lowering it into his mouth, before starting the process all over again.  There was something addictive about string cheese.  It wasn’t the flavour.  He wasn’t sure that it even had a flavour. And it wasn’t the texture either.  It was more the search for the perfect peel – the one that was neither too thick nor too thin, the one with no dangling scraggly bits.

Fifteen peels later, he’d almost forgotten his predicament when she appeared at the kitchen door, and stood in the threshold, arms folded, two cases by her side.  How had she packed so quickly?

‘I’m leaving.’  

Well, that much was obvious.

She glared at him, irritated by his silence.

‘Go on then – say something!’ 

Say what, he wondered.  He’d never been able to find words to counter her clever comments and loaded questions, and certainly none were occurring to him now that he was under pressure.  She always had such a way with words, while he always struggled for them, especially under the harsh scrutiny of those pale blue eyes.

‘Well?!’ She demanded, her irritation increasing.

‘I don’t know what to say, Evangeline.’  

He didn’t often use her full name.  It seemed a bit of a mouthful, to be honest.  But right then he was glad of the mouthful.  It made him sound at least moderately in control.

‘I mean, what is there to say, Evangeline?’ he added, hanging onto this meagre toehold on the slippery slope of self-respect.

Then, ’Maybe you’re going too far?’ he tentatively suggested.

‘How about sorry?’ she flung back at him, ignoring his suggestion that she might be over-reacting.  ‘Or, how about, ‘I wish I hadn’t kept it secret from you’?

Like a deer caught in headlights, he remained stunned by her fury.

‘All these years, all those times I stood by you and you can’t find a single word to say?  I’ve just had it with you!’

How had unemployment suddenly turned into the end of a relationship?  No wonder he’d delayed telling her.  Not that she’d consider looking for work herself at any stage.  She had been going back to college since her acting career had failed to take off, with no sign of anything more than a few application forms that always ended up in the magazine stack.

A horn bipped outside.  As usual, Evangeline was moving fast – as she always did when her mind was set on something.  He could still remember the speed with which she’d originally invited herself into his house.  It had left his head spinning.  And it hadn’t stopped spinning since.

‘Would it be too much for you to help me with these?’ she asked, indicating the cases, sarcasm and exasperation vying for supremacy in her voice.

‘Mmm?  Oh, yeah, sure honey…’

The term of endearment rolled unconsciously off his tongue.  Oops.

Pathetic. She didn’t have to say it.  It was written all over her face as she shook her head one last time at him, then turned her back and started lugging the two cases down the porch steps on her own.

‘You’d never speak up, even if your life depended on it!’  He could hear her unspoken words in his head more clearly than any of his own.

‘How the hell did I end up here, in this godforsaken part of town with a man who manages to lose the only real job he’s ever had – and during a boom time, too.’

She was right, of course.  He was no good for her.  She deserved better.  What had he ever done for her?

Well, there was the bed.  The bed was one thing he had managed to get for her  – a big sleigh bed, just as she’d wanted.  And now she was leaving it – and him – behind.

He stepped out onto the porch.  Carol was parked at the kerb looking up at him, her cold face clearly saying, ‘you dipstick’.  As Eva bumped her luggage down the last step, she got out and between them they heaved the cases into the boot, then drove off without a backward glance.

And that, it seemed, was that.

Simon turned back indoors, knowing that Eva was unlikely to return now that she had gone.  A latent rebellious streak encouraged him to grab a second string cheese and a bottle of beer from the fridge, before flicking the television on – daytime surfing being the ultimate indication of a wasted life.  He flicked through the channels.  The Shopping Channel, of course, and plenty of wildlife documentaries.  Something on car mechanics, too, that looked vaguely intriguing though entirely alien.  Then there was the Reverend Balls with his daily dose of ‘God’s Wisdom’.

‘Of the blessings set before you make your choice and be content.’

Hmm.  Not much in the way of blessings from where Simon was sitting, never mind choices.  And he had never been able to figure out the attraction of television evangelists.  All the same, the Reverend St.John-Balls had been recently attaining such minor superstar status that even Simon found himself watching for a few minutes, vaguely fascinated by the performance.  Sure, the Rev was a confident, striking, man, fully committed to his showmanship.  And a man of God too, apparently. A powerfully intoxicating mix, no doubt, to a susceptible mind.

Simon shrugged and continued with his channel-hopping, eventually opting for the light porn channel in order to maximise the meagre power that came from his solitary rebellion. Then he noticed that he needed a pee.

As he relieved himself at the toilet, a pair of lace panties caught his attention, staring provocatively at him from where they’d been abandoned on the radiator.  He shook off the last drops of urine and tucked himself away, struggling between the two equally strong desires of setting light to the panties and burying his face in their femininity.  Impatiently he grabbed their delicate laciness, dumping them in the metal pedal bin.  Then he changed his mind and plucked them out again, shoving them into his pocket.  They might be useful later, he decided, as he wandered back into the living room to the soulless entanglements on the television screen and the rapidly warming beer.

By early evening, and after countless beers, his view of the world had improved radically.  Maybe it wasn’t the worst situation in the world after all, he thought, sprawling out on the sofa, wet beer bottle in hand and tasty company on the screen. There was a lot to be said for the single life.  And he was starting to warm up a little in the nether regions too.  Georgina sprang to mind.  Pretty, flirty, eyelash-extension-and-sculpted-eyebrow-wearing Georgina.

Awkwardly, he twisted round, fumbling under the sofa for his phone, his uncoordinated drunken fingers scrolling through the list of contacts for her number.  She had always been sweet to him.  Of course she’d be happy to hear from him.  And why shouldn’t he ring her, now that he was free again?  The fact that she bored the pants off him didn’t really enter into it right now.  All he wanted was a stab at rebuilding his confidence.

He dialled, and waited.  The phone rang.  And kept ringing.

‘Hi, this is Georgina.  I’m so sorry I can’t speak to you in person right now…’

Simon hung up and chucked the phone at the armchair, his mood plummeting once more, the descent fuelled by alcohol.  With a vicious jab, he turned the television off and reality intruded on him again.  Disgusted at himself, he stared out the dark window in silence.

And who could Simon blame for his misery?  When he’d first lost his job and his few Tarot clients had all but dried up, he’d tried blaming God, but that had come to nothing.  Then he’d tried blaming his family, who had doubted his sanity after his announcement that he was doing psychic readings and now wanted nothing more to do with him.  Finally, he’d blamed Eva, which obviously hadn’t worked either.  He only had himself left.  Simon from Pee Pee, Ohio, was finally on his own.

But then two things happened.

The phone rang and, simultaneously, Simon, rebounding from misery to hope and lunging for the phone, fell over his feet as a voice echoed in his head.  It was a faint but distinctive voice – lisping, latino, male.

‘’ello, ‘ello?  Ith thith Thimon?’ the voice said.

The phone continued to ring, confusingly, on the armchair.

‘ello, can you hear me?  Thimon?’  the voice asked.

‘What?’ Simon shouted, grabbing the phone.  Had he already, in his drunkeness, answered it but failed to register as much?

‘Thith ith Maureeth.  I’ve been trying to reach you for weekth!’ 

The phone clicked through to voicemail as Simon finally raised it to his ear, forgetting to press the reply button.

‘What?’ he repeated, sinking back on the armchair and holding the small lump of technology out in front of him.  Clearly, the voice hadn’t come from there.

‘ello?  ‘ello?’