What... that? That's my crystal ball.
Like it? Nice looking thing, isn't it. Got it three years ago, off Amazon. I keep it on the window sill there so it catches the light in the afternoons. As you're not from round here, I can let you in on a little secret. Promise not to tell?
Crystal, my arse! It's plastic resin, that. Convincing, eh? You'd never know—well, unless you touched it with your fingers of course—and I make sure the punters never do, so that's the illusion intact.
I do the fortune telling tent, you see. Church fête, every summer. Been at it for four years now. Took over from Mrs Horniman when she passed. Not that I was particularly gasping for the job, but that's the thing with village life: you get volunteered for stuff. Everyone's expected to muck in; get involved; do their bit—and it's always for a good cause, so... let's just say refusal isn't really an option.
I put my foot down on one thing, though. Mrs H—lovely old dear, bless 'er—she did it as "Gypsy Rose". Dressed the part, y'know: all bells and charms. Really hammed it up. Cod Mittel-european accent, the works. It's pretty dingy in that little tent, but y'know, I swear she even darkened her skin with something too. God, when I think about it now...
Anyway, I was having none of that. I'll be as mysterious as you like, I said—wear a black veil and all sorts—but you're not calling me "Gypsy" anything. I don’t have a drop of Roma blood in me, and I don’t feel comfortable trading in racial stereotypes, no matter how good
They didn't like it, of course. "Not a proper fête without the Gypsy" they said. "What would Mrs Horniman say? No Gypsy, indeed! It's not traditional." Cardinal sin round here, that is: not sticking to tradition. You could slaughter babies in the street here and nobody would bat an eyelid so long as there was a tradition of baby-slaughtering. I know... that's daft. But you get my gist.
I stood my ground, though. I'm an incomer, see—only been here 20 years—and I've got a bit of a reputation. The village snowflake. Too metropolitan for this lot, anyway. Mind you, it's not hard to get a reputation round here. Pop into the shop, ask Maureen if she could order you in some Fair Trade Tea, and that's you: marked for life. Dangerously woke!
So anyway... I took on the fortune telling. Mrs H used to read palms, so that's what I did to begin with, just that first year. Just the once. I switched things up after that: got the fake crystal and haven't looked back since. Well... tried not to.
You can't see my face at all behind the veil, but it's not like anybody's fooled. It's only locals come to the fête, anyway. They all know it's me and they all know it's bollocks—just a bit of nonsense. "Cross my palm with silver" (actually we've got a card reader now—there's progress!) and I give 'em the flim-flam. You know the kind of thing: big on mystery, low on detail, preferably with a whiff of a positive outcome. Keep it coming and keep it vague, that's my style. Even my tall dark strangers are conveniently gender non-specific nowadays.
That's the reason I changed to the crystal ball. To make all of that easier. That first year, after Mrs H went, when I was doing the palms... well, it was difficult. Saying the right things. Keeping it vague, like I said. It was a struggle. I struggled. I hadn't been expecting it, you see. That's why I had the seizure. I told everyone it was the heat in the tent—hadn't drunk enough water, silly me!—but it wasn't.
I thought changing over to the crystal ball would solve it, but it didn't. Nothing could. By then it was too late. I'd handled them, you see—their hands. Everybody's hands. The whole bloody parish. That's why I'm selling up. I can't take it any more. I just can't. Can you imagine, even for one minute, what it's like, being me? To have to live here, knowing what I know? Having to smile at your neighbours, make small-talk with them in the shop, the street, the pub, all the time knowing exactly when every single one of them is going to die?
...and how that death will happen. In detail. The whole thing, running like a projector inside your skull. 3D. Hi-definition. Maureen behind the counter, so looking forward to grand-children: she'll never see fifty. That new young couple who've renovated Lower Farm Cottage: he doesn't know half as much about electrics as he makes out. And little Gemma.
Oh sweet Jesus Christ, little Gemma...
Sorry. Sorry! Dear me—what am I doing? You'll have to forgive me. I have these moments now and then. Where were we? Oh yes: been viewing the house, haven't you? What do you think, then? Ooh, I'm not supposed to ask that, am I? Bad form. Not supposed to put potential buyers on the spot. Make you feel awkward.
Seen everything you want to, though, have you? Right you are. Thank you so much for coming. You'll leave some feedback through the agent, won't you? Good.
Yes, it's been lovely to meet you, too. Erm... sorry—I'm not being rude, but... would you mind awfully if we didn't shake hands?
Retired actor Ken Cumberlidge was born in Birkenhead, UK and cut his performance teeth on the Liverpool pub poetry scene of the 1970s. These days Ken is based in Norwich, but can be lured out of cover by the promise of good company and an open mic. This has led him to become an habitué of the slam/spoken word scene. He has twice won a place as finalist at the Hammer+Tongue Cambridge regional slam championships, 2018 and 2019.
Ken writes about love, sex, nature, loss, personal identity and queerness, with an occasional foray into the eerie and macabre. Poke him with a sharp enough stick and he may even wake up long enough to get shouty about politics.
Ken's work can be found variously in print and online (Algebra of Owls / Allegro / As Above So Below / The Fiction Pool / Fragmented Voices / Impspired / Ink Sweat & Tears / Message In A Bottle / The Open Mouse / Picaroon / Pulsar / Rat's Ass Review / Runcible Spoon / Songs of Eretz / Spilling Cocoa over Martin Amis / Strange Poetry / Snakeskin / Talking Soup ...and now Timber Ghost Press) and performances of his material can be found on YouTube and Soundcloud, via his linktree: https://linktr.ee/kencumberlidge