Eight years old. Basically old enough to be given a handful of coins and free reign at a fete, if it’s in the grounds of your school and your parents are within shouting distance wherever you are. At eight years old, this is enough to feel an almost infinite sense of freedom and possibility which is only reinforced when you win a coconut on only your fifth throw. You deposit this with your distractedly proud mum, and go on to win a goldfish (an actual goldfish) and an inflatable dinosaur by hooking ducks out of a pond. Not actual ducks, of course. That would be cruel. But you still smile a bit and remember to draw a picture of an actual duck but with a hooky head in your book when you get home.
When you take the dinosaur and the goldfish back to your mum, she’s a bit aghast (Aunty Sue got you a word-a-day calendar for Christmas. You were very polite at the time but actually it’s been quite a bit brilliant and you are pleased to recognise ‘aghast’ on your mum’s face). She actually makes you choose between the dinosaur and Professor Scales McTavish and ultimately the dinosaur has to win, to your mother’s evident relief. Prof. Scales disappears into the recesses of the tea tent, there to be bestowed on some other, less lucky child. That makes you feel a bit virtuous (thanks Aunty Sue) and that, you believe is as good excuse for candy floss as any.
Five sticky minutes later, you have one fifty pence left, and a difficult choice to make. It all feels a bit urgent now and a bit more special. All the tents and stalls have taken on a magical aura. It doesn’t feel like a school fete anymore, it feels like a circus that’s come to town for one day only, and absolutely anything might be around the next corner. Nothing would surprise you: halls of mirrors that show you what most want in life, an actually magic wizard (not your maths teacher in a hat), a fortune teller. Oh. There is actually a fortune teller.
You don’t think twice. Or really even once.
Your remaining fifty pee is shining in your tight fist like a silver sun. You go in.
It’s supposed to be Mrs Oswald, and you know because you heard her talking about it, even though you weren’t to. You didn’t tell anyone though, you just happily knew. But you knew wrong, but this woman is a stranger. She’s young and sort of fierce looking, and not how you imagine a fortune teller but she smiles and invites you to sit.
“You’re Bethan, aren’t you?”, she asks, and her voice is kind.
“How did you know?”
“Did you not see the sign? I’m a psychic. They don’t let you in the tent without the powers. Now Bethan, are you going to cross my palm with silver?”
You hold up your fifty pence, and as she smiles encouragement, you drop it into her hand. She smiles.
The tent feels quite small, suddenly. Just you and her. And there’s a smell: some candles are burning and they’re making the air sweet and sort of challenging. Like trying to breathe entire branch of Lush at once. She’s talking.
“These are my cards. They’re called the cards of Marseilles, and they’re a bit like my gran: they’re very old and they only tell the truth. That’s not always comfortable but then, uncomfortable isn’t always bad.”
She spreads them across the table so you can see all the images: kings and wizards and beasts and ships and on and on until it’s nearly too much. Then she gathers them up, flips the over and hands them to you.
“Shuffle them around, till you feel happy with them. Then turn over the top card, and we’ll see”
She doesn’t say what you’ll see, but you do what she says. It feels strange in the tent with the candles lit and you sort of want this to be over now.
The card shows a colourfully dressed figure at a table of dice and cups and ribbons. He looks a bit like the jack from normal cards.
“This is La Bataleur” the Fortune Teller explains. “It’s a good card. He’s a magician and a showman. Look on the table: he’s got all the tools he needs to do his tricks. He’s in control, but he’s in control because he’s prepared, and creative and very clever. If you stick close to La Bataleur, and be inspired by him, you’ll do great things.”
You smile. You sort of hoped you’d do great things, but your mum and dad only seem worried about why you hand your homework in late. They’re never interested in the stories or drawings in your book. Then again the Magician is clever and prepared so maybe…maybe…you think. You’re a bit startled when the Fortune Teller leans forward and says “Next card?”
You turn it over.
It’s La Bataleur.
You’re glad to see him again but the Fortune Teller’s not.
“That’s…there’s only meant to be…that’s not possible”. She doesn’t seem very mysterious now. It’s like she’s tripped over without leaving her chair. “Draw another”
It’s La Bataleur.
“What did you do to my cards?” she asks, like she’s trying not to shout. She doesn’t want to be scary but she is, because she’s scared. It’s scary when grown ups are scared.
“I didn’t touch them it’s not my fault! It just happened, look!”
You draw more cards, one after another.
The Fortune Teller’s sitting back in her chair, now, in shock. “You might be a bit…this is…OK, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a fortune teller, I’m Miss Oswald’s niece. She’s done her back so I said I take over. I’m a drama student.”
You’re still drawing cards. They’re all La Bataleur. You just keep doing it, looking the magician in the eye each time.
“I’m not special. The cards aren’t special. They’re just cards, but you – you might be special. You could do great things. Maybe. Just…I don’t know. Be careful, eh? Don’t tell anyone”
You’re done. 72 cards, all La Bataleur. You feel unusual. “Yes. I mean, no I won’t. It’s not like they’d believe me. Will I be OK?”
You look at the Fortune Teller, looking at the spread of cards. La Bataleur covers the table. “I think so” she says. “I do probably think so.”
You walk out of the tent, because there’s not much else to say to that. And you don’t tell anyone. And because you don’t tell anyone you sort of forget about it. It becomes a weird story from your childhood that you must have seen on TV and misremembered, or something that happened in an book that got lost or given away (because you did check, actually, just in case). But you do feel, even as you grow up, a little bit of confidence. La Bataleur’s watching out for you, so maybe you’re a bit more clever and a bit more prepared than you would have been.
That’s how you grow up.
The Time Traveller watches the sticky little eight year old back out of the tent, then she stands up. She pulls off the flouncy costume dress she’s been wearing, dislodging the deck of Tarot cards she dropped into her lap, before she passed the Magician deck to Bethany.
Conjuring tricks? She’d been pulled out of the army and made to learn conjuring tricks like the worst kind of teenage boy, then dressed up like an idiot and sent two hundred years back in time to play a prank on a child. This was not why people joined the army. People join armies to defend their homes, stand side by side with comrades and get shot at in interesting countries you don’t normally get to visit.
“I hope that was worth it, Greyhound” she mutters into her watch “Because, assuming permission to speak freely, I felt like a proper berk. That’s got to be the most expensive lie anyone has ever told a child”
“Well, TimeFly” The reply came as the world went all woozy, prior to a Jump “You’ve just given a sense of destiny to a clever, inventive little girl who’s going to make a much better Prime Minister than Lewis Beckham”
“Remember when your grandad died in World War Three?”
“Not anymore you don’t”