Haruspex

Jessica was a fortune-teller. She did not have a gaudy striped tent in a travelling circus. She did not wear a turban or favour large hooped earrings. She did not read palms and no-one crossed her palms with silver. 

Rather she dressed immaculately in smart business suits and rented a suite of offices in a new block in King’s Cross, where she provided services to a range of clients from industry and retail who wanted to know, in short, what was likely to happen next. The metal plate on her door said Jessica Palmer: Business Forecaster.

This information she conjured up would be handed over in expensive reports, handled with the utmost secrecy, either on crisp thick paper or in passworded PDFs. 

It was assembled from careful reading of the world’s specialist publications, from talking to influential people and opinion formers, and from guess-work. Jessica was particularly good at examining the entrails of a failed enterprise to see where it might have gone wrong and what decisions it might have made to have a greater chance of success. In a typical week, she and her team of similarly beautiful, blonde sooth-sayers might be asked for their opinion on the name for a new car, a corporate logo or a sandwich filling. 

She liked her work. The problem was, she could not help bringing it home. 

There were medical problems, for instance. “My father is quite unwell,” said her friend Emma, looking stricken. “Prostate cancer. But the prospects are good. He has had initial surgery and they think they’ve caught it all.”

Jessica feared the worst. Something told her that Emma’s optimism was misplaced. She had no expertise in this matter, no reason for doubting the doctors’ prognosis, and yet she did. She could not help it.

One night after work, she was in the wine bar with her friend Olivia. Olivia, a dumpy accountant with untidy hair, with whom Jessica only associated out of a kind of pity, looked particularly happy. She was not eager to talk, but Jessica winkled the news out of her other friends. “She isn’t saying anything, but she’s met someone,” said Charlotte, whispering. “It’s obvious that she thinks he’s very special. It could be the start of something great for her.”

Jessica sipped her pinot grigio and silently wished her friend well. And yet she was convinced in her heart that this new relationship would be a failure and in a few weeks she would be helping poor Olivia pick up the pieces. So sure was she of her predictions, that she was not always able to keep them to herself. In this way, she lost friends.

 She made guesses about her nephews and nieces’ progress in exams. She joined in when her husband Liam and his friends were making judgements about the prospects for this or that football team on Saturday. She would have bought lottery tickets, but she felt that doing that would in some way have been abusing her gifts. 

In time, though, things began to go badly for her little business. Her clients were struggling and fortune-telling no longer seemed a priority for them. She had to let some of her staff go. Sophie and Florence, despite their divining skills, did not expect that. And when Jessica could no longer pay her rent and the bailiffs were taking away her lovely Danish furniture, she had not predicted that either. 

“If only I had had some warning,” she said to Liam one night, as they contemplated the loss of their flat. “But at least we have each other.”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” said Liam, as he stood at the sink, looking out over the Thames. “It’s not working, is it?” 

“What do you mean?” said Jessica, feeling sudden panic. 

“I’m leaving you.” 

“Why? Is there somebody else?” 

“I won’t lie. There is.” 

“Is it someone I know?” 

Liam looked away. “It’s Olivia.”

Jessica had not seen that coming.

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