Agency Workers, Bourgeoisie, Children, Country House, Death, Dinner party, Employment Agency, Family, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Halloween, Halloween special, Hide and Seek, Horror, Moon, Murder, Nightmare, Relationships, Taxidermy, The Moon
The bedroom that they gave me at Joppa Grange was small, bare and draughty, and once the door had shut behind me I might have been closeted in a single room at a youth hostel. After dressing for dinner, I wandered around shabby corridors, almost expecting to surprise the half-empty communal kitchen and the Dutch backpacker waiting glumly for his pasta to boil. Yet the final corridor emerged on to a Stuart staircase and its sudden fanfare of magnificence: a ceiling high enough to lose a little bird in; the stairs encircling a deep well of silence which would snuffle up the doughtiest footstep; and the banisters and balustrades gliding down as pure and smooth as a whale’s jawbone.
At the bottom, I met a little boy. He was Cordelia’s sister and I recalled that his name was Augustus. He sat at the foot of the stairs, squinting into the optic mount of a tiny but impressively realistic assault rifle. I followed the projected line of fire until I found myself facing Augustus’ target: the tawny, bristly head of a wild boar, mounted over the entrance to the dining hall. This creature wore a strange and no doubt accidental look of merriment on its face, as if its death had been too abrupt for it to assume a more suitable expression. The boar’s eyes twinkled and I wondered whether there has ever been a wild boar whose eyes have not twinkled.
The rifle made a spitting sound and flakes of paint fluttered down from the wall over the boar’s head. The boar looked briefly like some hideous bride chortling within a cloud of confetti.
I was put on the spot and it was necessary to say something. I knew that whatever I came out with would sound wrong – either too pompous or too weak. In the end, it was too weak. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I remarked with a strained cheerfulness. “Somebody’s gone to a great deal of trouble to put that thing up there. Perhaps you could shoot at a tin can instead?”
Augustus lowered his rifle and studied the magazine without giving any indication of having heard me. At that moment Cordelia appeared under the boar’s head to collect us.
Cordelia had become remote over the past afternoon, and I would later realise that she had done everything except actually prohibit me from accompanying her to Joppa Grange. We had been together for a year and she had charmed my parents when we had holidayed with them at Easter. I had naturally expected to be presented to her own family, but she would never freely speak about them. Finally, when pressed, she had vaguely agreed in principle to a meeting. When she had mentioned that she would be dining at her family home on Halloween, I had surprised her by announcing that I would come as well.
The adults were already seated when Cordelia ushered me into their presence. They did not get to their feet, offer me their hands, or in fact extend any greeting whatsoever. Four pairs of eyes watched me with a sort of blandly malicious curiosity. Nobody indicated where I should sit or what, if anything, I was permitted to eat.
I had apparently disturbed the family’s privacy and they seemed to regard this as being in comical bad taste. Augustus waddled to his chair at the head of the table. Cordelia led me in silence to one beside a wiry man with a salt-and-pepper beard who I gathered was the patriarch, before indicating to the butler that he could serve me. The butler approached to ask whether I wanted red or white meat. I found that my voice was like a crumb stuck in my throat, but I somehow hemmed out a noise and several slices of beef were transferred to my plate. Potatoes were applied in dabs and there was a faint patter of claret into my wine glass.
We began to eat. I could sense Cordelia’s father smirking beside me and the family exchanging amused looks.
“Mummy!” Augustus had a voice of such unnatural volume and choirboy purity that I found myself cowering. “Who is he?”
“That is Cordelia’s boyfriend,” the mother replied evenly. I was evidently like the man who cleaned the drains and my name was an unnecessary detail.
I looked up at the mother and saw a strikingly handsome woman with a prominent black eye. She sneered at me, baring her teeth, and I recoiled, my gaze fleeing back to the safety of my plate.
“I don’t like him,” Augustus announced to the room. “He’s common.”
In any other household, the child would have been admonished; the apologies would have been fulsome. Here there was a helpless tittering and only Cordelia did not join in.
“Why is he common?” the father inquired jocularly. He half glanced over his shoulder, “Why are you common?”
“He wanted me to shoot a tin can.”
There were open guffaws. Some of the family put down their knives and forks.
This family were so ghastly that they seemed to be inhuman or even petrified, like a brood of slaughtered foxes which has been stuffed and dressed in little jackets and contrived into the tableau of a merry feast.
Beside Cordelia sat a pair of ladies who I had supposed were her aunts. One of them looked at me directly – the second of this family to do so, after the mother – and her resin eyes gleamed. “What is it you do?”
Please let my voice be audible, I implored. She would take a pronounced pleasure in having to repeat the question. “I’m a blogger,” I admitted in a dazed, rather faraway voice.
“Ah,” the father addressed the room generally. “I know a chap who runs a website in the city – gives people smart tips for shares. He gets about fifty thousand readers every lunchtime.”
They all waited for my reply. “Oh, well I get… maybe twenty….”
The father said something that I did not catch and there was further laughter.
I glimpsed Cordelia’s father for a second time: a spare, almost boyish man, with fine silver hair and that glow of health which you sometimes see on men with energetic roles in corporate life. The sort of man who is always pleasantly bored whenever he is not at work, so that he resembles a pirate on a visit to the shore.
Then this happened: a man in chefs whites entered the room and slapped down a greasy sheet of paper in front of the father. “Sign this please.”
Within an instant, the father’s whole head had flushed a deep, incredible crimson. “What is this? The service is not finished!”
The chef was now remonstrating in a sing-song Polish voice. “You sign my pay-slip, mister. I paid until nine only.” The rest of the family busied themselves in eating, whilst the father erupted to his feet. Butler, waiters and a kitchen porter came running.
The butler stepped completely out of character, into that of a spokesman for the other workers. “Our agency is hours-to-be-notified – not hours made up on the spot. You have to sign our timesheets before we leave.”
The father held the chef’s stare for a second, before turning to bestow a single, insolent scribble on the sheet. Then the chef had walked briskly out of the dining hall and as if by magic the entire room had resumed the appearance of a wealthy household at dinner. The butler was collecting plates and compliments about the food; a waiter ventured forward with portions of dessert.
I was considerably surprised when the aunt who had previously addressed me now did so again, this time in a not unkindly tone. Something in her voice warned me that circumstances were only temporarily compelling her to assume this friendliness.
“Every Halloween we play a party game called “Hide-and-Seek-in-the-Dark.”” The second aunt watched her and it became clear that they were a partnership, with the first doing all of the talking. “Me and Dore have played it since we were little girls, always in this house.”
The mother with the black eye sniggered. “And who is going to count this year?”
“I believe that Augustus will be responsible for choosing.”
All eyes turned to the little boy, who calmly took up the thread. “From my cache of weapons I got a car bomb…”
“A car bomb?” I heard myself exclaim.
The mother sniggered again. “They’re just toys. Harmless, but so realistic. You should see his rocket-propelled launcher…”
“I taped my bomb under one of our chairs and then I got the waiters to swap them all about and it will detonate when we press this button.”
There was no opportunity to think or react. I was scared by my own yell, which shot wildly up to the ceiling like a tennis ball, before the force of the blast slammed me across the table. I scampered down quickly, my plate carried under my knee to clatter off along the floor. Still conscious of the plate rolling away in an unbroken arc, I picked at a long strip of skin which was hanging from my thigh and tried to patch it back over the mark that it had left. It struck me that my leg was naked and then I had swiftly clapped my hands over my burnt and exposed buttocks.
The ladies flocked around me with business-like concern. “He must be decent. Get one of the waiters to lend him a pair of trousers.”
Augustus was hurrying to inspect a tangle of wires which had landed intact in his aunt’s pudding. I accepted some trousers which were put into my hand and hoisted myself into them, grimacing at the tightness. The burn across my backside smarted as large as Asia on a classroom’s globe.
“Extinguish the lights,” the father told the butler.
Lights were going out across Joppa Grange. Servants went from floor to floor, from room to room, slapping switches, putting computers to sleep, and blowing out candles. The family were already dispersing to their hiding places, each with a stealthy delight. Cordelia and the talking aunt led me to a designated spot under the boar’s head.
“Count slowly and loudly to one hundred,” the aunt instructed. “Like this: one aaaand two aaaand three aaaand four.”
Cordelia patted my arm with an absent-minded tenderness but she was as cold and distant as the North Star. I suddenly wanted to be alone with her, sobbing into her lap.
I began to count aloud, like a man hobbling steadily up a hundred stairs to the waiting exit. Even though nothing was visible I shut my eyes tightly. Inaudible sounds prickled and flourished in the darkened rooms behind me.
How old was I when I had last played this game? I had an ancient memory of being a small child in a huge mysterious house, where half of the rooms and cupboards had been out of bounds.
I almost jumped at the swooping realisation of how stupid I must have looked. These insulting people were doubtlessly playing some sort of trick on me, just as they had coordinated that firecracker under my chair. They were probably already toasting their own brilliance in the village pub, whilst I was left to crawl around their empty house on my hands and knees.
I stopped at eighty three, mildly aghast at my own defiance. I would march about and survey the house, but if I could not find anybody then I would go immediately to bed.
I picked my way through the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust and listening intently for tell-tale sounds of restlessness, a knee unbending furtively under a table or perhaps a heartbeat in the shadow of a door. The players were a stolid, unadventurous bunch; they would be standing behind curtains, that aunt would be curled up in an armchair with a cushion over her face. I wondered where Cordelia would hide, but found that I could not imagine her playing this game at all.
Pausing at a bay window, I beheld the startling majesty of a full moon. The surrounding sky was a bright quilt of wild, mysterious blues, whilst moonlight lay in shining pools across the gardens. Usually the moon lurks in the background, like a mother keeping an eye upon playing children, peeping around buildings and over treetops every now and then. This moon was shrill and histrionic, bursting out on to the world and refusing to be ignored.
I do not know what made me turn at that moment, to see two figures frozen in the centre of the room. They stood so utterly still that I assumed that they were inanimate, like those jolly, hollow statues of cartoon characters that are put outside stores for the shoppers to drop pennies into. These figures looked strangely familiar – perhaps they were waxworks of members of the household. I pawed at the nearest figure and registered jeans, thin knitwear, a lean chest rising to a definite beard. I traced the lips with my fingers and they felt horribly moist.
They construct these things from latex. My sister had once found a hand on the moors and she had not been able to tell whether it was real. The police, on seeing it, had been equally mystified.
With a succession of little prods, I followed the length of the figure’s far arm, which was extended rather like the branch of a tree. When I reached the hand, it clasped an object which I tapped firstly with puzzlement and secondly with great care. It was a knife and this was not made of latex.
Proceeding to the second figure, I was unnerved to encounter a ready representation of Cordelia. Catching the perfume of her hair, I was almost convinced that it was the real thing. I froze with the suspicion that this infernal family were now up to some new mischief. I pinched the flesh of Cordelia’s arm and observed that although it submitted to pressure, it was definitely made from some lifeless material.
Wondering at this phenomenon, I stepped around the statue and slipped immediately, skidding on my back and with my legs shooting into the air. The statue was evidently leaking. It took me considerable trouble to get to my feet again, all the while lamenting my still-tender backside. Yet I ducked down beside the statue and listened. Yes, the dripping was faint but unmistakable.
The statue was dripping from its midriff. I reached to where it should have possessed a stomach and to my horror found myself groping about in a sort of purse, which was filled with slimy tubes.
Suddenly the horror was dazzling and it had picked me out of the darkness like a great beam. I was running for my life but I ran straight into a chair and there was a distinct yelp. A figure popped up from behind the chair.
It was the talking aunt. “You’ve found me,” she announced. “Am I the first?”
I was taking my time, she remarked. Soon she was the commander of our expedition and I was reduced to her assistant. We must look for Doreen next – she was always the easiest to find, and she could be usually discovered squatting behind the television. Augustus would take us half the night – one year he had actually managed to stuff himself up a chimney.
I was transported on a laborious tour of the house as, one by one, the aunt fished various members of her family out of their hidey-holes. The family began to weary of the game and the lights were put on in the rooms where they had assembled to wait for its conclusion. Cordelia’s father eventually detected a draft and followed it to where Augustus was found hanging from a window ledge by his fingertips, unconcerned by the twelve foot drop beneath him. Everybody was obliged to admire his ingenuity.
We were reunited only for there to be a rapid spate of bedtimes. It was time for the aunts to turn in and, contrary to his own outraged opinion, it was getting late for Augustus too. Cordelia’s parents both gave me a look which seemed to indicate that they could not be expected to offer any further hospitality. To everybody’s relief, I agreed and bade the household goodnight.
I came downstairs the next morning as everybody else was leaving the breakfast table. Nobody said anything to me. Whereas in previous centuries such a family would have spent their Sunday mornings in pursuit of foxes, this lot were due to have a Botox session. The therapist was unveiling her syringes in the drawing room and the help were arranging a spread of tuna-croissants and cream-canapés. Before my taxi arrived, I made a brief and rather half-hearted search of the lower rooms for the extraordinary statues which I had encountered the previous evening. I was still reluctant to mention these obscene, preposterous figures to Cordelia or her talking aunt.
I broke up with Cordelia a year later, after she and I had returned from a holiday to Talinn in separate aeroplanes. It was basically the sex.
I had not spoken to Cordelia for several months when she died and, if truth be told, I was grateful to have extracted myself in time from such a complicated business. My friends found that in the end they were able to question me about my take on the scandal, but I could not tell them anything more than they already knew.
All of the facts came out during the old man’s trial. He had started to molest Cordelia when she was a little girl and he had continued to do so until long after she had left university. One winter’s night she had surprised him with some wild, reckless talk of exposure, and in the subsequent row he had caught at a knife and stabbed her repeatedly in the belly which had contained, it was duly learned, his own child. The crime had occurred in the blue room at Joppa Grange, beside one of the bay windows.