Chloe snapped the thin elastic of the witch’s hat against her chin. She screwed up her face.
-If the wind changes, you’ll stay like that, said Yvonne, her mother, pulling into shape the collar of her daughter’s gown.
-Like this. Yvonne made a face and tickled her under the arms. Chloe squirmed.
-It’s not true, she giggled.
-There’s only one way to find out.
Chloe glanced out of the window for signs of the changing wind but it was dark, of course. It was almost November.
-Okay Griselda, said Yvonne, switching the hallway light on as they left the flat, let’s go and visit the little devil.
Yvonne didn’t like Millie. She suspected the child would grow up to be trouble. But the two girls were inseparable and Yvonne couldn’t, if asked, define what it was about the girl that unsettled her. She didn’t distrust Millie, or disapprove of her behaviour, or fear for Chloe’s morals, yet the feeling she cultivated contained a nugget of all these. But she had uncovered nothing in what Chloe said, or what she could sift from the talk of other parents, to justify her suspicion. She thought back to the troublesome kids she had known at school. With some children, you could tell early on that it wouldn’t take much of a change in the wind for them to turn out bad. She tried to project Millie some years – ten, maybe – into the future. The images her unconscious mind constructed were not healthy. But there was nothing except her own imaginings to stop her daughter associating with the girl. And she said nothing to Chloe.
They climbed the endless stairs to the tenement flat where Millie’s parents lived. Yvonne had never met either of them and was eager for an idea of the girl’s background. After a long wait the door opened, revealing Millie, also dressed as a witch but wearing a mask. The hallway wasn’t much warmer than the stairwell, and a lone bulb emitted a sickly yellow light. Chloe and Millie immediately fell to in girlish gossip. Yvonne followed her daughter across the threshold.
The grim reaper, dressed all in black and with a grimacing skull under a heavy-looking hood, closed the door behind them. Yvonne jumped.
-Hello Chloe. It spoke with a woman’s voice. Chloe spun round to see where the voice came from.
-Chloe’s very welcome: she’s a little angel. You must be very proud of her.
-Thank you. I’m Yvonne. Are you Millie’s mother?
Laughter behind the mask, though the grimace remained. I am Death, the final reckoner.
-Mum! Millie giggled.
Yvonne forced a smile.
The reaper showed them into a large living room, from which burst the noise of children at play. Mille gave Chloe a spare mask. Everyone was wearing a mask; everyone but Yvonne.
-You’re welcome to stay, said the reaper, in a voice which Yvonne suspected meant the opposite. You aren’t wearing a mask?
-No, said Yvonne. I don’t like – it’s the proximity thing. Like being stuck in a lift.
Death merely nodded, and left the room. The reaper, Yvonne and a tall, very thin man dressed as a black cat appeared to be the only adults in attendance. Yvonne wondered if this was within Safety guidelines for a party of its size. Weren’t there rules?
When Death reappeared, she was offering a bottle of red wine and a glass.
A hand – reassuringly fleshy and pink – poured until the glass was full. The bottle, Yvonne noticed, was dusty, and the wine strong. She made a polite cough; a low chuckle replied from behind the mask.
-A good vintage, said the skull.
Yvonne looked around the room. There must have been at least twenty children, among them several witches and two, Yvonne couldn’t help but feel, shoddy ghosts, who had evidently had an old bed-spread thrown over them by way of fancy dress. They darted about the room and chased each other in twos and threes. The windows of the room were blacked out with crepe paper. At the back was what seemed to be a wardrobe, shrouded by a dustsheet. From the ceiling spiders and bats hung, on long pieces of thread, and cardboard silhouettes of evilly grinning pumpkins and skulls. These swung as the children brushed them. The motion made Yvonne feel giddy. She clutched her glass.
She continued to sip while the black cat nudged the door open. His movements effortless despite the evident weight, he presented a large plastic basin which swam with a dark liquid and in which long-stemmed apples bobbed. Yvonne grinned, delighted that such games still took place at children’s parties. He set it down and the children dropped to their knees; Chloe and Millie rubbed shoulders.
Child after child, after first removing their mask, dipped their face into the water. Most, though not all, managed to snag an apple stalk between their teeth. Chloe, Yvonne was pleased to note, was successful.
-Would you like to try? the cat asked, his voice as soft as the velvet bodysuit he wore. Yvonne hadn’t noticed him slinking alongside her.
-Me? The children had all finished. One or two, Yvonne noticed, regarded the apples with suspicion and distaste. Some – Chloe among them – munched on theirs, a few of which still hung in the water of the basin.
-Yes. When was the last time you dunked for apples?
-Twenty years ago, at least.
As the wine made itself at home, the idea seemed appealing.
-OK. She got down on her knees.
-Hands behind your back now, cautioned the cat. The children, Chloe among them, watched eagerly. There was no malice in their faces but each, Yvonne was certain, willed her – an adult – to fail.
The water was icy cold. The apples moved away as she angled her face towards them. The hard spheres of the fruit knocked against nose and brow and cheekbone. She opened her mouth, teeth slightly apart to clamp a passing apple-stalk. If she could just grip the sides of the basin…
No sooner was the thought formed than her hands moved. Instantly, she felt them grabbed and held tight together behind her back. The shock made her bite and she caught the inside of her cheek. With a cry she pulled her face from the water. Her captor relinquished his grip.
-You cheated, said the cat.
Yvonne cupped her mouth, her face dripping red to the carpet.
-It’s a game, for f- she stopped, seeing the little masked faces all around her. For crying out loud. I’m bleeding.
-It’s just coloured water, said the cat, picking up the basin.
-I said I’m bleeding. Where’s the bathroom?
The reaper announced the next entertainment as Yvonne was led from the room.
-Who wants to see a vanishing trick?
The closing door muffled the children’s affirmations. The cat stood in the kitchen doorway, blocking Yvonne’s view.
-Bathroom is round the corner, at the end of the hall.
-Thank you, Yvonne muttered, poking at the wound with her tongue.
The bathroom door was locked, and she waited her turn. She could hear what sounded like chanting from the children, followed by a cheer; time and again it came, as if at some recurring event, its spectacle undimmed by repetition. Finally the bathroom door opened and one of the children emerged. He ran past Yvonne and through to join his companions.
Yvonne locked the door behind her. Again, a bare bulb cast an unflattering glow on a grimy, dust-covered room. There was a smell of damp. She was going to have to say something to Chloe.
She examined the inside of her cheek as best she could in the mirror. She dabbed at it, testing for blood. She could have sworn she’d tasted its bitterness. Whatever, there was none now.
She left the bathroom to hear another crescendo of cheering from the party. Curious, she hurried along the corridor and slipped back inside the door. She retrieved her wine and stood next to the watching cat.
The lights were down low, yet the room seemed somehow larger. The cupboard at the back of the room had been unveiled. Death stood by it, holding open the door. Standing inside was one of the bedsheet-covered ghosts. The door was closed and the reaper turned to the watching crowd.
-What are the magic words? Death asked.
A chorus rang out from the assembled children.
-Torith! Torith! Tasna! Clova!
Death turned the handle of the cupboard door and with a flourish pulled it open. The cupboard was empty. A delighted shriek from the children. Yvonne couldn’t help but join in with the applause.
-Very impressive, she said to the cat. Where do they come out?
The cat stared straight ahead, its attention not leaving the performance at the far end of the room.
-They don’t, he said.
Very funny, thought Yvonne, as she watched the next child step into the wardrobe. Once again, the rhythmic chant.
-Torith! Torith! Tasna! Clova!
Again, the reaper opened the door to the bare wood of an empty cupboard.
Her glass empty, Yvonne set it down on the floor and realised she could see underneath the wardrobe to the back wall. She watched until the next time the incantation was chanted, but no feet emerged from the back of the wardrobe. As she stood up, it took her a few moments to realise her earlier error. The room wasn’t larger; it was emptier.
-Is there a door behind the cupboard?
But the cat was ignoring her.
She went back into the hall, past the kitchen and round the corner. She stood at the spot on the wall where, she guessed, the wardrobe must be. She pressed her ear to the wall and listened. She heard the next volunteer step into the wardrobe, heard the chanting, the creak as the door was opened, and the subsequent applause. No footsteps had left the cupboard. She hurried back to the room. The cat stood in the hallway, one paw on a hip, a glass of blood-red wine sloshing in the other.
-Is something the matter?
-What’s going on? Where have those kids gone?
-Away, he said simply. He raised the glass to his lips. Yvonne pushed past him. The wine spilled, wetting her and splashing the wall. He let out a yelp, for all the world like a miaow.
She burst into the room, looking around for Chloe. A movement at the other end of the room caught her eye. Someone stepping into the cupboard, their witch’s hat askew.
-Bye, Mummy! Chloe waved frantically, an eager grin on her face. The door closed on her. All around Yvonne rose the enthusiastic chanting of a spellbound crowd.
-Torith! Torith! Tasna! Clova!