The sun had come out to play this morning, a rare occurrence for London in December. I took it as a farewell gesture from my adopted home. It was early but Oxford Street was coming to life as I ambled along. People were spilling out of tube stations and spreading like ants across the concrete. Despite my deadline I took my time, savouring the rush. The smell of the city waking up, the noise of traffic simmering, minutes from boil, the glaring decorations dripping from the buildings. I imprinted them all in my memory; I was going to miss this city.
I wrote my first horoscope at Phase Magazine. I’d been there three days, in London two weeks. The regular writer had disappeared, with a box of pens and a half-dozen reams of coloured paper. My editor thrust a book of star signs at me.
‘Please, Stella,’ she said.
I could never say no to good manners.
Turning into Regent Street, I ducked into a cafe brimming with people. The owner exclaimed when he saw me.
Clive was from Turkey, or so he told me. I have no idea if Clive is his real name. But I know he’s a Virgo. I wait in front of his wall of cakes, pondering what to take with me. Sugar is good for horoscopes.
‘One large peppermint green tea, no sugar.’
‘Thanks Clive. And a cake.’ I stare at the wall.
He bustled over, squeezing his ample belly behind the counter and selected a square of cake covered in fluffy white icing and bright green pistachio nuts. My favourite.
‘Writer, you are so indecisive today.’ he said.
‘Deadline day, Clive.’ I scoop up my tea and cake.
I nearly made it to the door before he called out, ‘What today, Writer?’
I paused, cocking my head to the side. It gave me a little mysteriousness; undeserved, but still.
‘You have Venus today, Clive, and so the ability charm anyone. Use it wisely, my friend.’
He laughed, the sound swirling around the tiny shop. I was going to miss Clive.
At the start I tried to write funny horoscopes. ‘Leo, watch out for green cars filled with men in navy tweed suits. They bring bad news, and stinky French cheese.’
They didn’t go over well. One man, in particular, seemed especially disturbed. His letter ran for eight pages and dissected every horoscope I’d written. ‘I’m assuming that you’ve fobbed this important task onto some upstart punk kid who has no idea how important words are,’ he wrote.
I was twenty nine, and I hated punk. But I knew how important words were.
My mother used to tell me that you should have your shit sorted by thirty. By thirty you should have figured it out. At twenty nine I’d cashed in my life in Australia and jumped a plane for London. I didn’t even know what it was. But I knew that I wasn’t one of those people that would ever figure it out. And I knew I was a Gemini.
The next month, I tried something a little more traditional. ‘The new moon brings with it a need to renew Sagittarius. Don’t be tempted by the obvious answer, look beyond.’
The letter writer returned. Six pages this time. ‘Are you rotating rosters? What happened to the punk kid? I much prefer that rubbish to this crap.’
I felt defeated – until my editor told me the two letters were the longest the magazine had received in its forty year history. A feeling of accomplishment gained off the back of someone’s distaste for your work is nothing to be sniffed at. My letter-writing friend’s earnest words propelled me to try harder. I left Phase Magazine twelve months later, with fourteen letters. The last one was half a page.
I told my mother I was writing horoscopes. She hung up on me. Her letter turned up a day later. Express from Australia. It was three pages of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou and Joan Didion. Subtlety was never her strong point. I got her message. In return, I sent her my published horoscopes. She’d send them back scribbled with red ink.
My office was on the sixth floor and looked out over Hanover Street. If I pushed my face right up against the glass I could make out a corner of Hanover Square. I didn’t do that today, maybe tomorrow.
Today was deadline day. Today was my last deadline day. The last time I’d string together bits of prose that helped to soothe the bruising nature of life. Words that switched on metaphorical lights. Words that gave people an excuse for every poor decision they made. Just words.
I called my mother to tell her I was quitting horoscopes. I didn’t tell her about the lights. She asked me if it had been worth it. If a decade of writing rubbish had fed my soul like her career had fed hers. If my words had been as important as hers. I told her I didn’t know, that I had nothing to compare it to. She hung up on me.
I sat at my desk, Clive’s cake half-eaten in front of me. The sun’s warm rays were streaming into my tiny office. I was thinking about my letter-writing friend; something I’d done a lot as today had drawn closer. I hadn’t heard from him since I’d left Phase. I pulled out his letters and spread them across my desk. I’d tracked down his address a few weeks before. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, write back maybe. Turn up on his door maybe. ‘Horoscopes aren’t rubbish,’ I’d say. But then, I think he knew that.