Illustrations by Hannah Peck

On a recent ear-achingly cold Friday I took the 10:50am train to Exmouth, which, apart from being above water, is rather unremarkable. Opposite me, a boy sat with his nose gummed to the window, wide eyes furiously tracking the green and yellow blurs outside. On any other journey I would have joined him, rarely passing up the chance to stare pensively towards the horizon to reflect on the past, present and future. But instead of indulging in this moment of self-contemplation, I was about to pay someone to do it for me.

I had booked a tarot reading with a local medium, and though I tend towards knee-jerk cynicism about the sorts of charlatans Derren Brown so often warns us about, it was the first time I was to actually experience, first-hand, anything of this kind.
Exmouth, a perfectly charming yet wholly innocuous seaside resort (bar the near-epileptic amusement arcade), hardly offered an appropriately Gothic scene for having my spirit read and future predicted. That said, nor did the address I was told to show up at. The terraced suburban house showed no indication of the psychic service provided within. I was greeted at the door, not by a hunched and disfigured butler, but by a scrappy barking terrier and Lesley, the medium, who ushered me into a room that resembled a chic modern office space more than a bohemian grotto. There were no jars of suspect animal limbs, no crystal balls, and not a whiff of incense.

Lesley seemed like a kind-hearted, genuinely earnest individual, and reminded me more of a genial suburban house wife than an enigmatic practiser of the dark arts. Indeed, she tells me she moved to Exmouth to provide a safe place for raising her three children, now all in their mid-to-late-twenties. She’d previously taught as a lecturer in Business, IT and Marketing, until a car accident left her unable to work for six months. Confined to the home, Lesley took up reading as a temporary pursuit. That was twelve years ago.

After some small talk about the weather (including a regrettable flat joke about whether watching the forecast was considered cheating in her field), Lesley offered me a seat. Two recliner chairs sat facing each other next to a table, on which an A4 template waited for the tarot cards to be placed upon. “Watch out for the bounce on the chairs, darling,” she warned.

After we’d bobbed to a halt, Lesley activated a Saw-esque LED timer and I was told to shuffle the deck of cards, split them into three piles – “anywhere you like, love” – and reshuffle them once more; a familiar task that only added to my sense that what I was about to witness was not a channelling of prophetic spirits, but a well-rehearsed magic trick.

I was then instructed to place five cards, face down, on each section of the template, all corresponding to a different point in time: past, present, one month, three months and six months.

Tarot originated in Europe in the 15th century and was primarily used to play a number of recreational card games. During the late 18th century new and modified decks began to emerge and were employed by occultists and mystics to assist in efforts at divination.

The tarot1 cards we were using belong to the OSHO2 Zen Tarot Deck, comprised of 79 unique cards that can be purchased on Amazon for about £15. OSHO’s website claims that their cards focus “on gaining an understanding of the here and now. It is a system based on the wisdom of Zen – a wisdom that says events in the outer world simply reflect our own thoughts and feelings, even though we ourselves might be unclear about what those thoughts and feelings are.”

The rhetoric employed by both Lesley and OSHO’s promotional material is careful to avoid supernatural claims, and advises that reading should be used to assist in personal development, rather than for contacting some omniscient authority in search of concrete answers or explicit instruction. It is perhaps telling that the cards’ box refers to the product as a “game.”

Like most decks, each card represents a particular concept, with its name and corresponding pictogram printed on its face. Lesley informed me that revealing an upside down card essentially voids whatever appears on it. As it turns out, I had unknowingly placed all five cards upside down, and quickly concluded that nothing but emptiness lay in my future. Ready to cough up my £20 and leave right then, I half expected to be smashed into oblivion by a speeding car with a cackling Uri Geller at the wheel. “Don’t worry,” Lesley reassured me. “Let’s just turn them all around, shall we.”

Cards righted, we were off. ‘Morality’ was presented as the card of my past, interpreted by Lesley as indicating I had made some “difficult decisions,” but had stuck to my “inner compass.” So far, so ambiguous.

The next card, symbolising the present, was ‘Transformation.’ By this point she had deduced I was in my final year of university (with little input from myself, to be fair) and interpreted this card as a sign that I was heading towards a major period of change in my life, i.e. the transformation from a happy, care-free student to an unemployed, broke and despondent young man (my words, not hers).

Signalling what was to come one month down the line, ‘Inner Voice’ was revealed next. This was read as a continuation of my ‘Morality’ card, and it was advised that I should keep following my own intuition and “natural sense of what is right” as I proceeded into the future.

‘Completion’ was due to face me in three months’ time, which, impressively enough, coincides almost exactly with the end of my degree. This is what I can only imagine psychics technically refer to as ‘a freebie.’
Finally, ‘Adventure’ was to be found in six months. Uncertainty lay in this future, Lesley told me, and I couldn’t have agreed more. But I wanted to find out, specifically, what she thought I would end up doing after I graduated, partly because any trip to the Career Zone is always a true wrist-slitter, but mainly because I felt she’d been a little too vague up until this point; a concern Lesley must have read from the cards, as it was immediately addressed.

What preceded this point had clearly been a mere warm up, some flirtatious psychic preamble before the truly revealing main event. Lesley instantly determined that I studied English Literature (true), that I had aspirations to write for a living (also true), that I planned to move to London after university (true, though perhaps not all that impressive), but that I would rather live abroad, somewhere like New York (spot on). I must admit, I found myself tentatively impressed, either by her psychic prowess or my startling transparency. Some parts of her reading were admittedly rather nebulous, the sort of statements that one could quite easily adapt to fit their own situation. However, picking up on my literary inclinations and aspirations to write seemed much less ‘catch-all.’

I left the house slightly in awe, pondering her words and picturing myself in a loft apartment on the Lower East Side, guzzling gallons of black Americano and writing my magnum opus on a dusty Remington Portable. That was before, walking back to the station, I looked down at my jumper and noticed the cover art for Huxley’s Brave New World printed across my torso. Oh, well played, Les. Well played.

Though I came away just as sceptical of psychics’ professed powers of insight, I didn’t look back on it as a necessarily negative experience. I had begun to notice a trend in Lesley’s reading of me. Rather than focusing on divinatory predictions, the session seemed to be more a form of ego nurturing from a mother-come-life-coach – no bad thing in itself. She spent her time reassuring me of my positive qualities and exploring where they might lead me. She asserted her belief in me as an individual and assured me of success in my future career. Although I’m unlikely to be adding Lesley’s unequivocal support to my CV any time soon, I was no less appreciative of it. And at £30-odd an hour, it’s certainly cheaper than a therapist.

Of course, you could make the case that these sorts of services can be misleading, but it’s easy to see how they provide a comforting solution to some. Even if I don’t believe in it, I can admit that tarot reading could be used to positive ends. Many people elect to use spiritual belief systems to answer their questions, and although I tend to use Yahoo Answers instead, their way seems no less valid.

As Lesley told me, “If we all just took some time to really listen, I believe we can all learn to read people.” I find it hard to disagree.