Emma couldn’t understand how her mother had put on the bells and whistles for so long without jumping up after a reading and yelling “You’re so gullible”. Emma wanted to do it every single time.
“It’s necessary, little one,” Estella said. “And it makes them happy.”
Emma wasn’t so sure about that.
“But yes, it does. Sometimes it even helps them to find their way,” Estella mused and she’d winked at her daughter.
“Besides, the only part of it that’s really a sham is the glam.”
Gently, Emma held out her hand towards the hopeful woman to take the crisp five dollar notes.
“Please sit comfortably,” she crooned, slipping the notes discretely under the brocade tablecloth.
In the ballet of pretence she wrapped her slender fingers around the Tarot deck and slid a purple talon a third of the way through it to split them apart.
She raised her eyes, heavy with mascara, to her new client and without even a telltale flicker, assessed how far through middle age she was.
She held the woman in a mesmerising gaze. Emma could see she was of modest means, yet her clothes were clean and pressed. Perhaps her attire was even a little over the top in formality for a country fair, sitting in a hot marquee in the middle of a cow paddock.
The ferris wheel was grinding around painfully only five metres away. A merry-go-round with shabby horses, the paint peeling from their fibreglass bodies, was playing Greensleeves ad nauseum, and a sickly sweet smell of toffee apples, buttered popcorn and fairy floss made Em’s teeth ache.
“I need to know if he’s cheating on me,” the woman said.
Not one to cast stones, Emma believed everyone cheated at some time in one way or another. In her heart, the woman had cheated; but Emma could see she needed comfort, not vindication.
She re-stacked the Tarot cards and reached across the table.
“The cards are silent for you today. Let us see if we can work out why the spirits are blocked from showing us the way.”
On a stool in the corner of the tent, Shaz burst out laughing.
“Oh I am so sorry, Emma. That is such a lovely way to divert from the sham.”
Emma held the woman’s left hand firmly between her own. She peered at the woman’s hand a few seconds, traced the lines delicately with the very tip of her purple fingernail, then sat up straight, her eyes wandering around the tent and resting on Shaz with a pointed glare. Then she turned her face to the woman again and let go of her hand.
“I detect scepticism.”
“Oh! No, no, no…,” the woman protested.
“It’s alright,” Emma cut in soothingly. “I understand.”
She waved her hands gently and turned her head to one side and closed her eyes.
“Scepticism is healthy in one so trusting,” Emma declared. “I need to dispel that scepticism first. Please indulge me. Nod your head down to your chest and close your eyes.”
The woman obeyed, and Emma carefully opened hers.
She waved her arms around theatrically just in case the woman watched, then very slowly and with great flourish, asked Shaz with Auslan for some personal details about the woman.
“It’s Ruby Teasedale. She’s fifty-three, never worked outside the home, has five grown kids, two grandchildren, and she’s married to Eddie Teasedale, a very seedy bastard indeed,” Shaz signed back expertly.
Emma stared at Shaz incredulously.
“What the hell are you doing?” Emma signed.
“They can’t hear you!”
Shaz shrieked loudly (to Emma).
“I wondered how long it would take you to work that out,” she laughed.
Shaz giggled almost uncontrollably.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” she choked out. “I might have an accident,” and she wiped ectoplasm from her eyes.
Emma shrugged and turned back to the task at hand.
“Your name is a colour, I see a colour,” Emma said to her client.
“It’s a precious colour, a hint of temptation … temptation? No, no! Teasing!”
The woman’s face lit up but she kept her eyes closed faithfully.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m Ruby Tease …”.
Emma held out her be ringed hands.
“Oh no, no. Don’t tell me. I don’t need to know I’m right. That’s not important. You need to know it though.”
She hummed tunelessly and Shaz giggled in the corner, finally sitting down on the three-legged milking stool, her bony heals on the edge of the seat and her knees up around her chin.
The first time Emma and Shaz met, Emma thought her heart would leap up through her throat and high tail down to shitsville. Rarely faint hearted about such things (after all, she had been stalked by a psychopath only six months earlier and he had died in the blazing fire that was her newly adopted home) Emma really was caught unawares.
She was doing a spot of renovation in the kitchen and was pulling cracked plaster sheeting down, wrenching it off the wall slowly and carefully with a claw hammer. It was a game, like peeling paint or sunburn, in one long piece. So far, Emma had found a veritable trove of treasures; 1960s magazines, a love letter although she doubted its veracity, and a few trinkets she thought may have fallen within the wall cavity from the ceiling, perhaps dropped there by a nesting magpie. However, unlike the other pieces of wall, there was no river of silverfish flooding out from behind as she levered it off, which warned Emma in advance that someone was waiting.
In a way, she later pondered, the game was spoiled by the explosion of plaster shards as the spectral adolescent burst out through the plaster, plaster dust filling the room and following the path of the screaming ghost.
Emma fell flat on her back, the hammer landing squarely on her knee and causing her to yelp in pain. Almost instantly, a black bruise emerged but Emma’s immediate concern was that the noise would waken Estella Rose, her baby sleeping in the next room.
By this time the spectre had flown to the centre of the room, almost level with the ceiling rose, her emaciated features fearsome and threatening.
“Oh for crying out loud,” Emma admonished. “You’ll wake the baby. Cut your bitching and settle!”
Clearly this was not the reaction the ghost was aiming for and she froze, trying to decide whether to disappear or to satisfy her curiosity about the strange new tenant in her home.
Emma had to wait for a week before Shaz reappeared.
“You hurt my pride,” Shaz whispered one Sunday morning as Emma made pancakes for breakfast.
Emma ignored her. Vinny and Charlie were coming around for food and tales of Vinny’s latest case. It was a tad old fashioned, but Emma loved having it all laid out on the table before the boys arrived, complete with chequered table cloth and a Maxwell and Williams maple syrup jug.
Estella Rose sat in her high chair, happily plastering custard across the plastic table top, over her face and in teddy’s hair while Emma flipped the giant chocolate and sultana pikelets.
“You hurt my pride,” the ghost repeated, this time a little more forcefully.
“I’m busy,” Emma answered. “If I don’t watch these, they burn easily. Especially on a wood fired stove.”
“I want to talk.”
“Well, let me do that for you and talk to me!” the ghost answered.
Emma shrugged. She sat next to Estella Rose and proceeded to wipe the baby’s face. Essie looked right at the ghost and gurgled happily.
The pancakes flipped, Emma sipped her coffee and watched discretely.
“I wouldn’t do this for just anyone, but you hurt my pride and I want to know why,” the ghost said.
Impatiently, Emma put her mug down on the table.
“How did I hurt your pride? Hmmm? Because I didn’t run out of here screaming in terror and return the next day to pack my things and go? Get over yourself.”
It wasn’t that Emma was being unkind. She just sensed that indulging this departed young woman was not the way to go. Apart from that one, very bad decision to marry Richard, Emma was a particularly good judge of character.
“Well … yes, I suppose you’re right.”
Emma watched the girl working expertly at the hot plate.
“You’ve flipped a few pancakes in your time!”
The ghost began to lose some of her bones and gristle appearance, filling out a little into something more human in appearance.
“I’ve made millions. Eaten none of them,” she answered.
“So, what’s your name?”
The simple question created a dam burst of animated conversation. Emma suspected this lonely soul was as starved in death for company as she most probably was for food in life.
Her name in very ‘Strine’ tradition, was Shaz, and she was a child of the 1970s. Emma could see vestiges of tie dye, perhaps even a bit of the hairstyle in what was left of her thin hair. But even though Shaz had dropped most of the phantom persona, she was still skeletal.
“Couldn’t help it,” Shaz explained. “I had to be thin no matter what. But the doctor said afterwards to my mum that I had lost the ability to see what was fat and what was thin. My heart just couldn’t take it any more and it stopped, and they couldn’t start it again. They bloody tried and tried and there was mum over in the corner sobbing. We’d been fighting. She yelled and yelled at me to eat and I couldn’t make myself. Then all I wanted to do was give her cuddles but when I tried my arms went right through her.”
Emma knew the rest. Mrs Mack told her when she first bought the place. The bereft mother couldn’t stand the sight of the house where her beautiful eighteen year old daughter starved herself to death. Shaz’s mother sold up and moved to Mermaid Beach where, by last accounts, she hooked up with a tanned and buff fifty-year-old beach bum to live out her days.
“Not everything has to end sadly or badly,” Emma told Mrs Mack at the time and the old lady agreed heartily.
It somehow seemed cruel though that Emma was watching the bulimic teenager cooking breakfast for her and her guests.
“Oh I love to cook and I loved to eat. I just had trouble making it stay in my stomach,” Shaz said, reading Emma’s expression accurately. And Emma saw her smile for the first time.
Emma learnt very quickly that Shaz, despite her insistence at being called ‘Shaz’ and not Sharon, was a clever and intelligent young woman. Finding out she had learnt to communicate with the deaf had come in extremely useful for the carnival gigs that Emma found to be necessary to her finances.
“It’s a bit weird. I don’t need them for the deaf dead! They can understand fine without, so until I met you, I had no use for Auslan,” she told Emma after a long session in the tent. “I’m just glad to be signing again”.
Emma placed her hands over Ruby Teasedale’s calloused paws.
“You can open your eyes now, Mrs Teasedale,” she said soothingly. “I need to see your eyes now so I can answer some of your questions.”
The older woman looked at Emma hopefully.
“He’s been acting so very strangely lately. He won’t talk to me about it. I need to know what’s going on,” she begged.
Emma’s mind reached out to the woman. She literally felt her pain. Although Emma was born with the gift, it had returned with a vengeance; magnified by post traumatic stress, Dr Koenigg told her.
She winced and pulled her hands away as though they burnt.
“What, what was that? Is it awful?” poor Mrs Teasedale begged, almost on the verge of tears.
“Oh no, no. Please don’t worry yourself,” Emma said. “It’s just that beneath your placid skin you are in so much pain. I feel it,” she added truthfully.
Inwardly Emma chided herself. Her mother warned her against giving too much of the reality away.
“I’m sorry, let’s try again,” she said and reached for the woman’s hands.
“I see he has been secretive and you are feeling alone and a little bit lost. Your children are a long way from home and they just don’t understand. He has been meeting someone. Do you suspect a lover? No, I don’t think it’s a lover. But he is holding those cards to his chest so tightly. I think perhaps you need more than a psychic in a fairground tent,” Emma said and released the woman’s hands again.
She couldn’t go through with the theatrics.
“Oh Em. C’mon. She’s got the money and you need it. You can only help her,” Shaz said, unfolding herself from a wilted lotus position on her stool.
“Stop it Shaz, I’m talking to Mrs Teasedale. This is serious.”
“Who are you talking to?” Ruby Teasedale asked, alarm and suspicion returning to her eyes.
Emma reached into her handbag and pulled out a card for the local community centre.
“Go here. Talk to them. They’re lovely people and they do not judge. You need to talk to someone for comfort. I can’t give you that comfort. You need a shoulder to cry on. He’s not seeing a woman behind your back, take comfort in that. But you do need to see someone. That’s all!”
Emma turned her back on Ruby Teasedale.
The woman stood from her seat, teary and confused, then annoyed.
“You can’t tell me anything then? You’re not very good at this, are you!” She left without a glance.
“Oh great,” Shaz said. “She’s a gossip, Emma. Word will get out you’re no good.”
But Emma stared into space, processing the visions she had seen.
Finally, she took in a deep breath.
“I’ve got to get in touch with Vinny. He needs to know!”
Shaz was suddenly very interested in Emma’s vision and much less in the loss of business.
“Go on then!”
“Last week when Bert Warden vomited to death …?”
“Eddy Teasedale was knocking at Warden’s front door and he had a note from Warden in his pocket. He heard the man scream and then he watched from the bushes when Vinny and the police turned up. And then …”
“Yes? Go on Em. Pausing for effect or something?”
“And then he dropped an artist’s paint brush in Bert’s letterbox and ran like he’d seen … well, like he’d seen a ghost!”