Bruce Anderson – property surveyor, former boyfriend of the Australian extreme sports enthusiast, Clare, graduate in land management and surveying (with a lower second), and echt narcissist – did not normally read horoscopes.
Few people, of course, openly admit to reading what the stars have in store for them, and yet even serious newspapers, seemingly unabashed, continue to publish these vague prognostications. This is because in spite of the absurdity of the basic premise – that the influence of distant planets somehow affects human affairs – we still feel tempted to flirt with the soothsayer, whatever guise such a person takes.
And this is nothing new: the Oracle at Delphi was never short of supplicants, and obliged those seeking her advice by doling it out in dactylic hexameters. The fact that this advice might be hard to interpret was perhaps no accident: Nostradamus, the Brahan Seer, and the casters of contemporary newspaper horoscopes all observe the same precaution: never give details, dates, nor indeed anything specific. In this way, vague statements capable of interpretation in any number of ways will, by the sheer law of chance, occasionally be right. So to say You are in for a surprise today is going to be proved accurate more often than not, for what day involves nothing unexpected? Similarly, the prediction Romance is in the air is at least sometimes going to be true – because that is the way things tend to be.
Bruce was the exception to the rule that most people will sneak a look at their horoscope in spite of their disbelief in astrology. He thought horoscopes silly, and not the sort of thing that a man would read. In fact, Bruce had recently said to somebody in the pub, when the subject of horoscopes happened to come up, “That’s girly rubbish.” Girly rubbish was a vague concept in Bruce’s mind, embracing romantic films and novels, sentimentalism of any sort, birthday cards, mindfulness, and any talk about relationships. On the latter, he had brisk views: “Look,” he was in the habit of saying, “boy meets girl. They click or they don’t – where’s the story?”
On that evening, though, Bruce found himself with a few minutes to kill before going out, and happened to pick up a free magazine that had been stuffed through his letterbox. There was a short article on skin care for men, which he skimmed through – a complimentary magazine would have nothing to teach him about that – and he then found himself faced with a monthly horoscope. Your stars reveal the weeks ahead for you, ran the column’s headline. Immediately underneath this ran the boastful observation, You read it here first!
Alongside the predictions there was a box in which the main characteristics of the signs of the Zodiac were set out. Bruce had been born under Taurus, and was pleased to read that his sign was governed by Venus. That meant that he was attractive to the opposite sex and passionate by nature. He was also likely to be solid and dependable, even if given to enjoy being pampered. All of that, he thought, sounded accurate, even if the whole thing was weak-minded nonsense.
He scanned the page to see what the month had in store for Taureans. “You are at a crossroads,” the Oracle pronounced. “One way will lead to disappointment, possibly failure; the other will lead to achievement and success. You are not alone at these crossroads; there is a friend there who will show you the way.” In smaller text, a subsidiary prediction advised that romance was in the air, but that one should always be careful. “Your passionate nature mans that the heart can sometimes rule the head. Be wary!”
Bruce smiled. That could mean anything. Romance was in the air? Of course it was – there were any number of women in Edinburgh who had their sights set on me, he told himself. They wish! After that business with Clare he was determined to take a bit of a holiday in that department. The women could wait, hard though that might be for them. Tough. He was going to concentrate on himself for a month or two before dating anybody again.
He tossed the magazine aside and prepared to take a shower. It had been an unusually warm day. It was early summer, when temperatures might be expected to creep up, even in Scotland, but there was still a freshness to the days that was more spring-like than summery. Today, though, a blast of warm air from the south had changed things, and Bruce had found his shirt clinging to him. Standing under the blast of his shower, Bruce applied liberal quantities of shower gel. This was followed by His Secret shampoo, Hello Good-Looking conditioner and split-end therapy, and, once the shower was over, Afterwards post-shower skin balm. Bruce then dried his hair under his Mancare hairdryer, applied his clove-scented hair gel, and was ready to take a look at himself in the mirror.
He liked what he saw. Bruce was at an age – very late twenties – when the first signs of gravity’s effect might be detected. As he looked in the full-length mirror on his bedroom wall, he was reassured. There was not an ounce of spare flesh in sight. And this was not just a subjective assessment – Bruce kept accurate scales in the bedroom and made careful calculations of his BMI. That was perfect – as was everything else.
He briefly flexed his muscles, adopting for a few moments the classic pose of body-builders – hands clasped together, pulling against one another, elbows raised. He smiled. Most body-builders looked ridiculous, with their oiled, over-developed muscles rippling impossibly. Women did not like that; Bruce knew what they wanted, and that was not it. Beefcake was the right word for it. Disgusting. He, by contrast, was lither, more slender, like Adonis or … He tried to remember the other one – the one who carried messages and had those useful winged sandals. Hermes. That was him. He was a bit like Hermes.
He dressed with care, as he always did: crushed strawberry chinos, the creases impressed by his electric trouser press, an Oxford blue-stripe shirt, opened to the third button, and a light blue linen jacket he had found in Stuart, Christie on Queen Street. Loafers slipped on – no socks – he gave himself another quick glance in the mirror. He studied the face that looked back at him. I am very, very lucky, he thought. I could have looked like anybody else, but I got this. I suppose I have my dad to thank. He was the best-looking man in Crieff by far, people said; maybe even the best-looking in all Perthshire. Pity that he sagged.