The first time I paid money to see a psychic, she came round by invitation to my friend’s house, and read for each of us in turn. One at a time we went in the living-room, while the rest of us drank wine in the kitchen and laughed about what she might tell us, and drank more wine, and ate crisps, and drank even more wine, and then got a bit bored and started trying on each other’s bras. When it was my turn, I had to scramble to get my right underwear back and a properly serious expression on my face before going in to see her.
She was very nice, very pretty, quite a bit younger than I’d expected, and clearly in deadly earnest about what she did for a living. What could she help me with? she asked me. I said I didn’t really know. Was there anything troubling me that I wanted advice on? Um, I said. Not really. Did I have any questions, she asked hopefully. I had no questions, but I was feeling a bit mean by this point and thought I ought to make a bit of an effort. So I said vaguely, ‘Well, I’m sort of considering what I ought to do next with my career, so…’
And she got out this deck of Divination cards, not Tarot cards but some other sort of card, and asked me to pull one out of the deck, which I did. When I turned it over, it said, Writer. And I got chills down my spine, because I’d just had my first novel accepted for publication.
Coldly-Rational-Atheist Me knows there are plenty of explanations for this, and absolutely none of them involve spirits or divination or any sort of mystic powers. Ms Lovegood might have got our names from the organiser in advance and done a little light stalking. She might have been listening in to our kitchen shenanigans (I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn that we weren’t exactly being quiet while we drank our wine and ate our crisps and traded our underwear). She might simply have been playing the percentages; apparently about 80 per cent of adults firmly believe they’re going to write a novel one day.
Rational Me knew all this. But I still found it hugely comforting to think that somehow, somewhere, some unknown Higher Power was giving me their blessing. As soon as I saw that card with the word “Writer” on it, Rational Me checked out for the evening. Delusional-But-Happy Me was firmly in the driving seat, and on the hunt for ways to prove that the psychic lady was right. The thing about this is, I thought, with that special kind of hopeful double-think known only to drunks and little children, I don’t even, actually, believe in all of this stuff. I never go to psychics. I don’t call Tarot lines. I don’t read my horoscope. So maybe the fact that I’ve decided to go and see this one tonight…maybe that might…mean something…? Maybe this is a sign that I really am going to be a writer?
I think that moment is at the heart of it, really. A strange woman told me, with total conviction, the one thing I desperately wanted to hear. Now I was busily making it OK for me to believe her. I was incredibly, if irrationally, happy that night (and not just because of the wine, although there was a lot of wine, and we had a lot of fun drinking it, and then even more fun laughing at each other as we poured ourselves back home). The simple truth is that, even though I knew it was stupid, I also felt validated. All my dreams were going to come true, because a professional psychic – who, being honest, strongly reminded me of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter – had told me they would.
I think if we’re honest, most of us look for signs from the universe, most of the time. If that traffic light stays green, I’ll do well at the interview. If I wear my lucky dress, I’ll win the prize tonight. If I see an odd number of dogs on the way to work, we’ll get the contract. Of course we know it’s a game. But when the stakes are higher, we start to forget.
Once, a close family member of mine suffered a severe episode of mental illness and went missing for several days. We were lucky, because they came home to us safe and well. But I can still remember how frantic we all felt in that brief time when we had no news. I begged the universe for news in every way I could. I read Tarot cards, consulted an improvised Ouija board. I cried when I saw a single magpie (one for sorrow – they’re gone for ever!) and then cried more when I spotted a second one (two for joy – they’re coming back!). All I wanted was for someone to give me certainty. If anyone had come to me then and said they had a special power that would allow them to find our missing loved one, I’d have paid them in a heartbeat.
When I started writing The Winter’s Child, that was the moment I wanted to recapture for my opening scene. My heroine, Susannah Harper, is in torment. Her son Joel has been missing without trace for five years. The police have found no sign of him, and the trail has long ago gone cold. With no hope left, she finds herself drawn to the caravan of a Roma fortune-teller at Hull Fair. She knows even as she goes in that whatever the Roma woman tells her, she has no special powers. But still, she craves that certainty. She wants someone to look into her face and tell her with total confidence, this is what’s going to happen.
Actually, I’ve just remembered one more time when I paid a psychic. I once gave a pound to an old Roma lady who grabbed my arm on Scarborough pier and muttered three prophecies right into my face: that I would have a happy day, that my boyfriend would put a ring on my finger soon, and that I would live to the age of 95. I paid her a pound, which was worth slightly more 28 years ago, and three weeks later my boyfriend bought me a ring in the shape of a little gold snake with a garnet for a head. I kept the ring, although not the boyfriend. I’ve also kept the irrational conviction that I’m going to live to the age of 95. I know that no-one can tell me for sure how long I’m going to live, because life isn’t that certain. But on that day, a strange woman told me, and I’ve never been able to shake my belief that she saw something no-one else could. Because the thing is, my boyfriend did put a ring on my finger. I did become a writer. And as for the living-to-95 thing? It’s turned out true so far.
The Winter’s Child by Cassandra Parkin is out now, published by Legend Press at £8.99.