Cold Reading

Seán Padraic Birnie

Illustration by Dante Luiz

At the deli counter they were still handing out tickets, printed by the little machine – the relief almost floored me. The queue, starting at one side of the counter, wound through the store and out onto the street, where it extended beyond the warm glow thrown by the shop lights; the lucky ones who already had their little tickets had formed a crowd at the front, where they awaited the calling of their number.

I joined the back of that queue in the early December gloom and, catching my breath, smiled at the small elderly lady in front of me. Relief made me giddy. ‘Ham is out,’ she told me, unprompted, and her eyes were not smiling, she had a face that appeared never to have been troubled by a smile. I worried for a moment that in smiling at her I had committed some unconscionable faux pas. Here I was, scrambling clumsily to join the solemn queue for a ticket, smiling inanely at the first person unlucky enough to glance in my direction. ‘All gone,’ said the woman. ‘Sausages too, gammon too – there’s no pig.’ I nodded solemnly as she peered at me. I wondered if I had offended her again: did my solemn nodding seem too solemn – a crass performance of solemnity, mocking her own solemnity, which was the precise measure of solemnity appropriate to this dreadful situation? Everyone knew that the shelves were empty, that meat was scarce – and now, at Christmas. Already this was the saddest Christmas I could recall. With considerable effort I pretended that I was not inspecting the woman for her feelings on the matter of whether I had offended her again – I studied the toes of my shoes, as if their dampness might tell me something. In fresh relief I concluded I had not offended the old woman – perhaps my damp shoes had said as much. The thought brought a smile I had to work to suppress.

The queue shuffled forward – one step, perhaps one and a half. The woman looked back at me, and in the blankness of her expression I perceived an invitation. ‘My mother is sick,’ I told her, and at once I was both unutterably relieved to say this, to disclose the awful fact that had lodged like a small rock in my throat, which I could neither swallow nor spit out, and appalled at myself for the gauche overfamiliarity of the saying: after all, it cannot reasonably be said that a blank expression from a pitiless stranger invites such disclosure. But the giddiness had not left me, it was getting worse. The queue shuffled forward half a step. ‘This will be her last Christmas, we think.’ The old woman nodded – at least, I think she nodded; perhaps she was only moving to keep warm. ‘I have come to get something for her last Christmas dinner.’ I smiled, to show that I was a good son. The woman sniffed. ‘No pig,’ she said. ‘No sausages – nothing.’ She appeared to turn away for a moment, but then swung suddenly back. She tilted her head, inviting me in. ‘Or so I’ve heard. Word travels.’ My eyes widened. ‘Is that so?’ I said. ‘Do you know, is there any beef left, or lamb? We wanted turkey, of course, because it’s Christmas, but they’re clean out. This place was my last hope. Perhaps some cold meat and cheese.’ I tried to smile. I realised I didn’t know if you could get turkey at the deli counter. ‘Turkey,’ the woman said, and sniffed again. She sniffed a lot. ‘Too late for that. Maybe there’s lamb.’ She turned away again with an air of finality: the last word on the matter had been pronounced.

We shuffled forward half a step – less: less a shuffle forward than a lateral movement, to keep warm in the cold. It was very cold. It was only three o’clock but all day it had been overcast, all day it had felt like early evening, and now, in the middle of the afternoon, it was almost nightfall. I have one of those SAD lamps at home, but what good does it do? All it does is remind me of the sadness its light is supposed to dispel. We shuffled forward – three-quarters of a step this time. Then back, half a step. It’s like a dance, I thought, though I can’t dance for the life of me – I have two left feet. I saw people emerge from the shop, from the glowing warmth of its interior, bearing things in bags, so they couldn’t be completely out. It struck me that these individuals seemed to be emerging much quicker than the queue was advancing, but then I remembered that there was still the rest of the shop – at least, what little hadn’t already been plucked from the shelves. We shuffled forward again and I was so distracted by these thoughts of the queue and the people emerging back out into the cold that I bumped into the back of the small woman. She gave me an indecipherable look. Then she sniffed. Something appeared to shift in her expression, to give.

‘So,’ she said. ‘What do you do?’ This effort at conversation quite entirely wrong-footed me. ‘For work?’ she explained. I nodded. ‘I am – between things,’ I said. The old woman laughed, but without unkindness. I couldn’t tell you what it was she did laugh with. Then she nodded solemnly, with the solemnity appropriate to the situation. Of course lots of people are between things; these days it seems everyone is between things. ‘You know what I used to do, back when I had to do?’ she said, and for the first time she smiled. It was a half smile, and mischievous, if I was reading it right. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I was a psychic,’ she told me. ‘Good money, if you know what to do. Cold readings. You get good at it. Sometimes I worked with the police, you know.’ ‘Oh?’ I didn’t know what to say to this information. With her newfound garrulity she had wrong-footed me again. ‘Cold cases, missing children, that sort of thing. All of it bullshit. Though the funny thing – you know the funny thing?’ For a moment I thought this was a rhetorical question, before realising she was expecting me to supply a response. ‘No?’ I said. I was wishing I hadn’t started speaking to her now. That’s the peril of talking to strangers – you never know what they’re going to say, or when they will stop. Then I remembered that she had spoken first, unprompted; I had only smiled at her. Smiles can also be perilous. The queue wasn’t moving.

‘The funny thing was that at some point it started to work. What starts out as bullshit becomes real.’ At this the old woman barked with laughter, and the laugh was radiant and awful; others turned to look. It occurred to me that I must, to these others, appear as if I was with her – perhaps I looked like her son.

I stepped back a little, to re-establish a measure of distance. The old woman sniffed. ‘No pig,’ she said. It took a moment for me to realise she had reverted to the previous topic of conversation. ‘My husband wanted a nice ham – it’s all he’ll eat. Well, he’ll have to make do.’ I nodded. I felt as though I must have imagined the previous topic of conversation, about her psychical powers, which was just as well, because I don’t believe in such things: I know nonsense when I hear it. It would become quite an awkward conversation if we had to discuss that sort of thing. The queue shuffled forward. Three people exited the shop, clutching bags to their chests like trophies they feared those of us still waiting in the queue might snatch from their hands. We shuffled forward another step and, with unexpected delight, I realised we were no longer very far from the door. Under the dark green of the shop’s awning we might get a little shelter from the wind. My shoes squelched with each shuffle. When I get a job, I told myself, the first thing I’ll do is buy myself some better shoes. Then it occurred to me that in order to get a job, I needed some better shoes. Another shuffle. It was no warmer under the awning but the warm light of the shop seemed comforting – it was good to be closer. I looked at my watch and was shocked to see the time – how long had I been queuing? My mother was waiting. Suddenly, the old woman turned back with a speed and sharpness of movement of which you would not think the very elderly capable. For the third time her behaviour had wrong-footed me. ‘What time is it?’ she asked me, with an awful new impatience in her voice. I told her the time.

‘Then it’s too late,’ she said. She looked at me and her expression was indecipherable, neither kind nor unkind. Her eyes appeared to dilate. ‘Your mother is dead; she’s been dead a long time. I know these things, you know – I’m very sensitive, even now. A dog can smell cancer. I can smell death and I smell it on you – it clings to your clothes like cigarette smoke, it blackens your aura. How much time have you wasted in this queue – this queue you joined just to get away from her bedside?’

Then she sniffed, and the queue shuffled forward, three-fifths of a step. ∎

Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer from Brighton. His debut collection of short stories, I Would Haunt You If I Could, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021. His work has appeared in venues such as Black Static, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Best British Short Stories, The Dark, and ergot. He is on Twitter and on Mastodon at For more info, see:

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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