Time Out by Sue Barnard

I

Monday 23rd June

Where to begin? What did the King of Hearts say? “Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.” The trouble is, I don’t really know where (or when) the beginning was. And I won’t get to the end until the day somebody follows my coffin. And maybe the story won’t stop even then.

If anyone at breakfast on Saturday had predicted what was going to happen that morning, I would probably have laughed out loud. But I’m not laughing now. In fact, I’m still trying to convince myself that it was all a ghastly nightmare, and I somehow imagined the whole thing.

I haven’t dared tell Martin about it – though I’m not sure how long I can go on keeping it secret from him. But even if I don’t tell him, he’ll still know, instinctively, that there’s something wrong. And this is the first time, in all the years I’ve known him, when I have absolutely no idea how he’d react...


II

Helen eased her eyes open and squinted at the unfamiliar surroundings – the crisp linen sheets lightly scented with lavender, the soft lace-edged pillows, and the elegant carved four-poster bed – as the morning sunlight forced its way through the chintz curtains. Wafting up the stairs was the tantalising smell of bacon frying. She lay back and smiled.

She’d had no idea that Martin had been planning this. If she’d known, she would probably have tried to talk him out of it. Not because she didn’t want to go away for a romantic weekend to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, but rather because she felt they could hardly justify the expense. Having two sons at university was a costly business. But now, with their first “quality time” as a couple in what felt like half a lifetime, she was forced to admit that he’d been right. They needed time out. Sandwiched between supporting Jamie and Luke on one side, and meeting the increasing demands of two ageing widowed mothers and a doolally maiden aunt on the other, they had been neglecting their own needs for far too long.

Next to her, Martin stirred. “Happy Anniversary,” he murmured.

“Thank you.” She kissed him lightly. “Ready for breakfast?”

“Hmm... Not just yet...”

Half-an-hour later they finally hauled themselves out of bed and made their way down to the dining-room. They chose a table next to an elderly, miserable-looking couple, then winked at each other and set up their favourite hotel breakfast-time charade. They had been playing this game ever since their honeymoon, but the reactions of their fellow-diners still never failed to amuse them. In fact, the older they grew, the funnier it became. Martin made a great show of settling Helen into her chair, carefully poured her tea, then asked slightly too loudly, “Do you take sugar?”

The old woman choked on her toast and her knife clattered to the floor. As she bent down to retrieve it, her long suffering husband shot them a glance which bore more than just a hint of envy.

Yes, Helen thought. We’ve been very lucky....



The picturesque seaside town was in Midsummer Festival frenzy. The pier was a blaze of colourful stalls and sideshows, and a rousing Sousa march could be heard from the brass band playing nearby. As they wandered hand-in-hand, soaking up the carnival atmosphere, Martin spotted a tent displaying a barber’s pole.

“Hey, look! Haircuts £5 – no appointment necessary. I wonder if they could fit me in?”

“Why not ask? At least they won’t charge a search fee!” Grinning, she ruffled his thinning battleship-grey locks.

“OK. I’ll come and find you afterwards.” He disappeared into the tent.

Helen ambled contentedly along the pier, eventually pausing outside a

brightly-coloured booth.

MYSTIC MERELINA

Summer Solstice Special

Five-Minute Fortune-Telling £5

Intrigued, she peered inside.

Merelina didn’t correspond at all to Helen’s imagined picture of a “mystic”. She looked about thirty, with short fair hair, and casually dressed in jeans and top.

She smiled welcomingly. “Come in....” Her voice was West-Country soft.

The booth smelled faintly of rose oil and patchouli, and gentle music was playing quietly in the background.

“Now, sit down and relax. I’m going to do the basic three-card Tarot spread. As I shuffle the cards, I want you to concentrate on whatever question you want to ask them. Once that question is fixed in your mind, tell me to stop shuffling.”

Helen settled into the chair. Lulled by the calming music and the slightly hypnotic ambience, her subconscious mind had taken over. Her biggest fear – the one she had never discussed with anyone, not even Martin – was now banishing all other conscious thought.

“Stop.”

Merelina turned over the top card onto the table. The Lovers.

“This is where you are now.”

Helen couldn’t help smiling. How appropriate, she thought, after last night and this morning...

The second card showed The Tower. Looming, Rapunzelesque, prison-like.

“This is your recent past.”

Captive. Yes, that was how she had been feeling – always at someone else’s beck and call...

What had started out as a little harmless time-filling diversion was now becoming

uncomfortably accurate. Helen was now feeling distinctly uneasy. But Merelina was already turning over the third card. The Wheel of Fortune.

“And this is the future. Now, ask your question. But be careful what you wish for, because The Wheel of Fortune might just give it to you.”

Helen took a deep breath. Whatever her misgivings, she couldn’t wriggle out of it now.

“I’m worried about old age. I don’t want to end up totally decrepit, or gaga, with no dignity, and being a burden on my family. I’ve seen too many lives blighted by that, and I wouldn’t want to put anyone else through it.”

Merelina was silent. Eventually she said slowly, “That will not happen. You will see...”


Emerging from the semi-darkness of the booth, and still feeling slightly disconcerted, Helen was dazzled by the bright sunshine. Once her eyes had readjusted to the daylight, her attention was caught by the incongruous behaviour of three men standing at the far end of the pier. The oldest of them was holding what appeared to be an oversized coffee jar. Helen thought, idly, that in profile he looked like a younger version of Martin’s late father. As she watched, he unscrewed the lid of the jar, and, supported by his two younger companions, leaned over the pier railing. The jar’s contents, a copious quantity of coarse pale grey powder, billowed on the breeze and swirled into the sea.

When the jar was finally empty, the three men straightened up and turned to walk back along the pier. It was then that Helen had her first full sight of their stricken faces. She froze.

“Martin? Jamie? Luke?”

For a split second, the youngest man’s gaze appeared to pause as he glanced in the direction of where she was standing. She gasped, and her eyes involuntarily closed as she tried to catch her breath. When she opened them, the trio of mourners had vanished. And Helen was left to contemplate the full meaning of what Merelina had said:

She would see that she would not be a burden on her family in old age...

“Darling – what’s wrong?”

Helen jumped. Still reeling from what she had just witnessed, she had totally failed to notice the newly-coiffed Martin approaching.

Whatever could she tell him?

“I... saw a man. I think he was scattering his wife’s ashes.” She managed a wan smile. “He – reminded me of your dad.”

Martin put a comforting arm around her, giving her the opportunity to hide against his shoulder. At least now he couldn’t see if her face was betraying her. She was vaguely aware of him saying something about a pub lunch.

Oh Lord, she wondered, how long have I got? A few more years, or just a few more days? Shit. If I hadn’t encouraged him to have that bloody haircut, I wouldn’t have seen Merelina and I wouldn’t have seen this. But would that change anything? Would it still be going to happen anyway, even if I hadn’t seen it?

And had Luke, in that brief scene out of its own time, also been able to see her?

She would probably never know. Not this side of the grave, anyway...


III

Helen would be the first to admit that she’d never been the world’s greatest housekeeper, but she was always meticulous about vital paperwork. Passports, driving licences, medical cards, and certificates of birth, marriage and death were filed away carefully in the same drawer, and everyone knew exactly where to look for them.

It is inside this drawer that Martin will find the letter. It is addressed to Helen, in her own handwriting, unopened, and postmarked two days after they returned from their anniversary weekend.

Mystified, he will open it, and read:

Monday 23rd June


Where to begin? What did the King of Hearts say? “Begin at the beginning...”


Published in Issue #16

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