Saturday, 21 September 2013

Clouds in the coffee

Major Cadwaller had drawn the short-straw again and been despatched to visit Madame Sosotris.  There had been an usually wide-spread outbreak of illness in the barracks, and he’d been the only person, his Commanding Officer told him, who was considered healthy enough to risk sending near someone as often ill as Madame Sosotris.  Major Cadwaller was extremely suspicious about this outbreak, especially as he’d seen several of the supposedly afflicted men drinking in the Officer’s Mess a couple of nights ago, and they’d seem hale and hearty enough then.  He suspected that there was an office network he was missing out on, and that was the one that let people know when Madame Sosotris duty was coming up again.
Madame Sosotris made it part of the conditions of the reading that the army buy her dinner, and the last time the Major had sat through a bizarre three-course meal where Madame Sosotris had coughed into her soup and then read the future from it; then taken her dentures out to more thoroughly enjoy her boiled beef, and finally slurped a Bakewell tart that the Major hadn’t considered slurpable.  At the end of the meal the Maître d’ had politely requested that he never return, and he’s quite liked the restaurant as well.  So this time he’d picked a place that had a fairly filthy reputation around the barracks and was stood outside, waiting for Madame Sosotris, wondering if he’d made quite the right choice.
She arrived wearing a dress that went out of fashion twenty-years ago and would have been twenty years too young for her then.  The ensemble, together with the inartfully applied makeup and forgotten hairdo, said more harlot than houri, and suggested that she would be cheap only because she’d forget that you hadn’t already paid when you came to leave.  Major Cadwaller wondered how badly you’d hate yourself after that experience, and didn’t feel even remotely guilty for having these thoughts.
“I’d not have had you pegged as knowing about the sign of the tongue,” said Madame Sosotris, her voice still screechy and creaky.  She sniffed; her perennial nasal drip was present.  “My word, no-one’s taken me here for years!”
“People used to take you here?” asked Major Cadwaller, more than a little shocked.  The bar’s reputation had shocked him when the other men at the barracks had told him about it, laughing a lot as they did so.  The idea that a woman might come here on a date was slightly appalling.
“I used to insist,” said Madame Sosotris smugly.  “It was the most jumping joint in the whole of the Unreal City.  I met the most amazing people here, and we made art together.  We drank the ridiculous things that we found in the bottles, and we chased each other around the tables and under the chairs.  They were the best nights I’ve ever had.”  She shifted her weight slightly and assumed the most blatantly sexual stance that Major Cadwaller had ever seen and her eyes unfocused slightly as she dwelled on her memories.
“Uh, I think they might be full,” he said, his courage deserting him.
“Nonsense!” said Madame Sosotris returning to the present.  She grinned, showing too few teeth for the Major’s comfort, and leaned in the doorway.  “Room for a little one?” she yelled.
“Is that all he’s got?” came back the response from a voice that might have been a woman with a thyroid problem or a man with no balls.  “Bring him on it then and we’ll see if can’t fix that!”  Laughter rolled around the bar, and Madame Sosotris grabbed Major Cadwaller’s hand and dragged him in.
The general ribbing died down after twenty minutes, and Major Cadwaller sat down at the table he’d reserved while Madame Sosotris continued to hob-nob at the bar.  He was relieved to be sitting down, as the huge bartender behind the bar had pulled his pants down around his ankles twice while he was trying to explain that he had a dinner reservation, and each time the room had burst into laughter.  He hoped it was because his boxers had yellow smiley faces on them (he thought they looked happy) and not because of Madame Sosotris’s earlier unfortunate comment.  He picked up the menu, which was so wet it fell apart in his hands and landed on the table in a pile of soggy, illegible cardboard.
Madame Sosotris sat down suddenly next to him, with a cup of coffee in her hands.  “Don’t worry about the food, lad,” she said.  “Bringing me in here again after all these years is more than enough for your reading.  I’ve missed these people, you know.  They told me that three of my paintings from years ago still exist, you know?  How exciting is that?”
“I do know,” said Major Cadwaller, briskly.  “We have them.”
“Do you now?  Well, all I’m going to say is that you better not be keeping them in the same room if they’re not covered up, Mr. General.  And that my price next time might be seeing them again myself.”
“That could be arranged,” said Major Cadwaller, leaping at the chance to avoid having to take Madame Sosotris out to dinner.  “Hang on, what do you mean–“
“Look dearie,” said Madame Sosotris, punching his shoulder and pointing in the coffee cup.  Major Cadwaller peered at it.
“What am I looking at?”
Madame Sosotris’s voice suddenly took on a crisp, clear quality and cut through the noise in the room like a newly sharpened knife.
“Two thrones will incarnate in one man, and the City’s foundations will tremble.  The Drowned Sailor will walk into conflict with his eyes averted and will bring with him a child of nine.  There shall be a re-sorting in Heaven and the Earth will reflect its glory.  The last man standing will choose their new home.”
Major Cadwaller looked around.  The bar was silent, and everyone was listening to Madame Sosotris’s prophecy, which was definitely a breach of the rules for these matters.
“Are you sure?” he asked, lamely, hoping to sow doubt in the minds of the other listeners, but the chorus of snorts and vocal shrugs assured him that he’d failed.  Of course she was sure.  She was the best Clairvoyant in the City.

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