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"There are patterns in everything," the woman said, her eyes still focussing somewhere far beyond the table. "In the cards of the Tarot, the flickers of light in a crystal ball, the leaves twisting and turning in a pot of tea." Tiny pockets of air bubbled to the surface of her cup as an iceberg of cream broke off and sank into the abyss. "And so there are patterns in this."
"But why not tea leaves, anyway?" I said. "I mean, this is a cafe. They sell tea."
"I don't like tea."
I paused, waiting for the cunning response that never came. "Fair enough," is all my brain could manage.
"Ah!" the woman almost shouted, and I looked around guiltily. If anyone else had been startled as much as me, they weren't showing it.
"Mmm," she said, waving her hands over her cup, wafting the vapours toward her face.
"What is it?" I asked, "What can you see?"
"Mmm, yes, yes... Yep, this is definitely good coffee."
"Good coffee. Thank you."
"Are you taking this seriously?"
"Oh, yeah, yeah, right," she said. I shot her a withering look, but I don't think she noticed.
"Mmm," she said again, as the cream slowly spread white ripples over the surface of the coffee. "You will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger."
"Oh, come on."
"Well, you will! I mean, how many tall, dark-haired men are there in this country? A million, ten million? Chances are you'll find one of them attractive."
"Probably. But that's not exactly helpful, is it?"
Another dollop of cream dipped below the surface.
"Wait!" she said. "You'll marry this one."
"Really? How handsome, exactly?"
"Oh, very, very."
She wafted the smell of coffee towards her again.
"Definitely. You will meet him not far from here, in a shop, maybe a clothes shop. Yes. Not long after your divorce, maybe only a week."
"I'm afraid so. But things aren't exactly going well at home, are they? It'll be worth it in the end."
"How do you--"
"You're intrigued enough about tall, dark and handsome strangers that you're willing to pay a crazy lady to stare at coffee, for a start."
"Nice ring, too."
I covered my left hand with my right, hiding the ring, though for the life of me I couldn't figure out why.
"Platinum, lotta' diamonds. Couldn't have come cheap. Must be a big earner, this man of yours, money's important to him; too important. But it's not to you."
"Whatever makes you--"
"Paying, crazy lady, coffee?"
"It'll hurt at first, but it'll be for the best in the end, trust me. It'll be better for him, too, if that's any consolation. And for your daughter."
"Oh come on, how do you know about Isobel?"
The fortune-teller peered closer into her cup.
"See this little blob of cream here, the way it's spiralling slowly out towards the edge of the cup?"
"Really? That represents my daughter?"
"Nah, there's a picture of her in your purse. Saw it when you were buying the coffee."
I finished the last of my coffee, picked up my bag, and stood.
"Look," I said, "no offence or anything, and I admire your detective work, it's just... I was expecting something a bit more, you know, mystical."
She was engrossed in her cup again, staring down something invisible deep inside it.
"Huh," I said, not really knowing what else would be appropriate, and turned to leave.
"The twelfth of November, twenty-thirteen," the fortune-teller said to my receding back. I stopped.
"Twelfth of November, year of our Lord, twenty-thirteen. Write it down. Thanks for the coffee."
I started walking again, not sure what to make of our encounter. Clearly, the woman was a quack. She'd not gleaned a single mystical bit of information out of that cup. And what was with the date?
Some time later, the date thing was still bugging me, so I wrote it down just to get it out of my head.
Time passed, and that scrap of paper got buried in my handbag, then found and played with by Isobel, and ended up who knows where. By the time winter came around, the divorce had gone through, and my daughter and I were alone in the house. But by that time, I'd forgotten all about the strange woman who told people she could see the future in the melting cream of a macchiato.
Year upon year fell behind us, until the day we were redecorating the kitchen, and my then-husband pulled a tiny scrap of a notebook page from underneath the fridge.
"Honey," he asked, "why's there a piece of paper with our wedding date on it down here?"
I took the note from him, stared at it, my eyes widening by the second. I looked up at my husband, his handsome face under a mop of dark hair. I didn't say a word, just sprinted for the car, drove across town as fast as I could to the old cafe where the woman had sat, asked everyone, breathlessly, if they could remember her, if they knew where she was, where she lived.
"But one of them gypsy folk, she was," the owner said. "They never hang around, and just as well, for everyone reckons they cause no end of trouble."
"Though they do say," he continued in a whisper, "that some of their women have a gift, and can tell your future from the twisting, twirling patterns of the leaves in a pot of tea."