Home > The Death of Mrs. Westaway(4)

The Death of Mrs. Westaway(4)
Author: Ruth Ware

At last, when the rumors had reached the ears of the teachers, someone had had a quiet word and Hal’s mother had taken her aside and gently told her the truth.

Hal’s father had been a one-night stand—a student her mother had met in a nightclub in Brighton and had slept with for the first and last time on the night they met. He had a Spanish accent, and that was all Hal’s mother knew.

“You didn’t even find out his name?” Hal had asked incredulously, and her mother had bitten her lip and shaken her head. Her cheeks were scarlet, and she looked more uncomfortable than Hal could ever remember.

She was very sorry, she said. She hadn’t wanted Hal to find out this way, but Hal had to stop spinning these . . . Her mother had stopped there, too kind to say the word she had been thinking; but even at seven, Hal was good at reading people, and perceptive enough to understand what it was her mother hadn’t said.

These lies.

The truth was, her father was no one special. Who he was, where he lived now, she had no idea, and would probably never know. He had likely gone back to Spain or Mexico or wherever he had come from in the first place. But one thing she did know for sure—he was most certainly not a Westaway.

Wherever the mistake had come from, it wasn’t there. But a mistake it was. Somewhere, wires had been crossed. Maybe there was some other Harriet Westaway in another city, rightfully entitled to this money. Or maybe it was like one of those heir-hunter programs, where someone had died without legitimate heirs, and the money would go to waste if the executors didn’t track down some relative, however distant, to scoop the pot.

Whatever the truth was, the money wasn’t hers, and she couldn’t claim it. And the voice inside her head had no answer to that.

Hurrying now, Hal shoved the papers back underneath the bed and dressed. Her hairbrush seemed to have gone missing, but she combed her hair as well as she could with her fingers, and checked herself in the mirror by the front door. Her face looked even paler and more pinched than usual, the forlorn wet spikes of black hair making her look like an extra from Oliver Twist. Makeup would have helped, but it wasn’t really Hal’s style.

But as she pulled on her coat, still damp from the night before, the voice piped up with one last remark. You could claim this money, you know. Not many people could, but if anyone can pull this off, it’s you.

Shut up, Hal said inwardly, gritting her teeth. Shut. Up.

But she didn’t say it because she didn’t believe it.

She said it because it was true.

1st December, 1994

Today is the first day of Advent and the air should have been full of new beginnings and the countdown to a momentous event, but instead I woke up heavy with a kind of nameless dread.

I have not read the cards for over a week. I haven’t felt the need, but today, as I sat at the desk at the window, the eiderdown around my shoulders, I felt my fingers itch, and I thought that perhaps it would comfort me to shuffle them. But it was only when I had spent some time sorting and shuffling and dealing different spreads, none feeling right, that I realised what I needed to do.

There were no candles in my room, so I took one from the big brass candlesticks on the mantelpiece in the dining room, and a box of matches from the fireplace. I slipped the matches into my pocket, but the candle was too long to fit, so I slid it inside the sleeve of my cardigan in case someone met me on the stairs, and asked what I was doing.

Up in my room I set everything out on the table—cards, candle, matches, and an empty teacup. I melted the candle a little at the wrong end and stuck it into the cup to make a firm base, and then I lit it, and I passed the tarot cards through the flame three times.

When I had finished, I blew out the flame and then simply sat, looking out of the window at the snowy lawn, weighing the cards in my hand. They felt . . . different. Lighter. As if all the doubts and bad feelings had burned away. And I knew what to do.

Spreading the major arcana facedown on the desk, I picked three cards and then placed them in front of me in a spread. Past. Present. Future. The questions crowded in my mind, but I tried to clear my head—to focus on just one thing, not a question, but the answer unfurling inside my body.

Then I turned the cards.

The first card, the one that represented the past, was the Lovers upright—which made me smile. It’s often a mistake in tarot to take the most obvious reading of a card, but somehow here it felt right. In my deck, the card shows a naked man and woman entwined, surrounded by flowers, his hand on her breast, and a glowing light from above bathing them both. It’s a card I love—both to look at, and to draw—but the words that come with it aren’t always positive: lust, temptation, vulnerability. Here, though, cleansed by fire, I saw only the simplest meaning—a man and a woman in love.

The next card I turned over was the Fool—but upside down. It was not what I was expecting. New beginnings, new life, change—all that, yes. But reversed? Naïveté. Folly. Lack of forethought. I felt the smile fade on my lips and I pushed the card away, and hurried on to the third and most important—the future.

It was another card reversed, and I felt my stomach drop away a little, for the first time almost wishing that I had not begun this reading, or at least not done it now, today. I know my deck too well to need to turn the picture upright, but even so I studied it with fresh eyes, seeing the picture as if anew, from upside down. Justice. The woman on her throne was grave-faced, as if conscious of her responsibilities, and the impossibility of finding truth in a world like ours. In her left hand she held the scales, and in the other a sword, ready to mete out punishment or mercy.

I spent a long time looking at the woman on her throne, trying to understand what she was telling me, and still, as I’m writing this, I don’t know. I hoped that writing in my diary would clarify what the cards were trying to say, but instead all I feel is confusion. Dishonesty? Can that really be true? Or am I reading it wrong? As I sit here I am sifting back through all the other, deeper, subtler meanings, the willingness to be deceived, the traps of black-and-white thinking, the mistaken assumptions—and none of them reassure.

I have been thinking all day about that last card—about the future. And still I do not understand. I wish there were someone I could talk to, discuss it with. But I already know what Maud thinks of tarot. “Load of wafty BS,” was what she said when I offered to do her reading. And when she succumbed, finally, it was with a snort and a cynical look. I could see her thoughts running across her face as I turned over the cards she had chosen and asked her what question she was seeking answers to.

“If you’re so bloody psychic, shouldn’t you be telling me?” she said, flicking the card with her fingertip, and I shook my head, trying to hide my annoyance, and told her that tarot isn’t a party trick, the kind of mentalism that cheap magicians practise on Saturday night TV—telling people their middle names or the inscription on their pocket watch. It’s something bigger, deeper, more real than that.

I cleansed the deck after that reading, upset not just because she touched the cards, but because she touched them with contempt in her soul. But now, thinking back to that day, I realise something. When Maud turned over the future card, I told her something else, something that I should have reminded myself today, and something that gives me comfort. And it’s this: the cards do not predict the future. All they can do is show us how a given situation may turn out, based on the energies we bring to the reading. Another day, another mood, a different set of energies, and the same question could have a completely different answer.

We have free will. The answer the cards give can turn us in our path. All I have to do is understand what they are saying.


* * *

It was almost midday as Hal hurried along the seafront, clutching her jacket against the biting wind. It cut like a knife, chapping at her face and fingers and nipping at the skin of her knees, where her jeans had ripped through.

As she pressed the button for the pedestrian crossing she felt that flutter again, in the pit of her stomach. Excitement. Trepidation. Hope. . . .

No. Not hope. There was no point in hoping. The papers in her mother’s box had put an end to that. There was no way this could possibly be true. For her to claim that money would be . . . well, there was no point in trying to evade the reality of what she was considering. It would be fraud. Plain and simple. A criminal offense.

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