I followed Tanya across the crowded cafe to the table she’d spotted. A plastic pot of chicken salad and a bottle of sparkling water rolled around on my fake wooden tray. It wasn't so much about being healthy as it was about wanting an empty stomach later.
“So, what’s the plan for tonight?” I said as I eased into the chair wedged between the table and the wall.
“Troy and Daniel are coming at about eight, although knowing them they’ll be late. I have a couple of decorations still to put up.”
She paused to take a big bite of her sandwich, chewing thoroughly. I pushed around some limp lettuce and fished out a tiny piece of chicken.
“Then we have a traditional Halloween activity.”
“Like bobbing for apples?”
“A bit like that.” Tanya smiled mysteriously and changed the subject.
We finished work at five thirty. Tanya was ready to go at twenty five past and came to hover by my desk. I felt a wave of irritation start to surge and ruthlessly repressed it. This job was new and although everyone was welcoming, Tanya was the only one who’d been friendly. I wasn't sure I liked her but it’s not like I have so many friends that I can afford to be picky.
Her car was a flash little two-seater in British Racing Green, low and uncomfortable in the rush hour traffic. Still, it was better this way. I could get settled in and have a glass of wine before her friends arrived. Not for the first time that day I wished I’d said no and was going home to my comfortable Friday night routine of pizza and movies.
Tanya's house was bigger than I expected and full of little Gothic touches, a bat mirror in the hallway, a skull candleholder in the downstairs loo. You’d never tell from the way she dressed at work.
“What do we need to do in the way of decorating?” I said.
“It’s mostly done really. I want to change out of my work clothes. What about you?”
“I brought a change of clothes.”
“Great. Come upstairs and I’ll show you the spare room.”
Tanya pointed me into a box room with a single bed and then disappeared into the bathroom. It was dingy. A dark purple shade prevented the lightbulb from doing its job. I put my overnight bag on the bed and sat down beside it. This room was obviously for junk. The rest of the house felt cared for.
I really wished I’d stayed home. I drank half a glass of wine without tasting it. When I put the glass down my hand shook and nearly knocked it off the bedside table. I stripped down to my underwear and got clean clothes out of my bag. As I was freshening up with a cleansing wipe, I felt a chill. The hairs on the back of my neck, my shoulders and arms stood up and I couldn’t control a convulsive shudder. Quick, shallow breaths of cold air rasped in my ears and I knew there was someone standing behind me. I tensed in anticipation of his touch.
When it didn’t come, I picked up my top and pulled it over my head. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around although I knew I would have to, eventually. I wriggled into my jeans. Material between my skin and questing fingers made me feel safe enough to half turn and reach for the wine. Once the glass was empty I turned again, warmed from the inside.
BANG, BANG, BANG. The door shook and I yelped and jumped as the knock was followed immediately by the door opening.
“Did I scare you?” Tanya laughed. “I was coming to see if you needed a top up. Looks like you do.”
“I got really creeped out a minute ago.” I held my wine glass out.
“Mmmm, this room has a draught and I can’t figure out where it’s coming from.”
She left again and I brushed out my hair and made up my face. Then I went downstairs with my wine. Despite having been in a bathrobe when she’d come into my room Tanya was already in the hall, hanging plastic bats from the ceiling.
“You didn’t say we were dressing up.” Looking at Tanya’s black lace gown I felt underdressed.
“Would you light the candles in the pumpkins please? There should be a lighter on the windowsill.”
There was a pumpkin on the kitchen windowsill where anyone coming to the front door would see it. Another, more grotesquely carved, was in the living room. There was a stick of incense in holder on the mantle so I lit that too. A jumble of crystals and halloween knick-knacks were littered amongst the candles on the black marble hearth. Then the overhead light went out. I jumped and dropped the lighter. There was a throaty laugh from the doorway.
Tanya was silhouetted in the light from the hallway. “Wow, you’re really jumpy. I thought it would be more atmospheric in here with just the candles.”
“It’s certainly that. I didn’t hear you moving.” I started to rearrange the folds on my top. I loved it. The red was the perfect shade for me and it had a low scooped neckline with loose drapy folds of material. The long, bell sleeves hung loosely from my shoulders. It looked amazing until I moved and then everything needed adjusting.
Tanya disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of funsize chocolate bars which she placed on a small table by the door.
“The guys will be here any minute,” she said.
She bought the bottle of wine through and filled our glasses again. It was working its magic and I was more relaxed. I wondered if I should slow down. There wasn't much in my stomach and I didn't want to be drunk too early, but then the doorbell rang and my nerves took over. Tanya shoved a CD into my hand as she went to answer the door. I put it in her player; the doomy notes of Paradise Lost were at odds with the noisy, excited greetings in the hallway.
Daniel and Troy were nice. For a while I forgot why social situations fill me with dread. Daniel was in love with Tanya, hanging on her every word, gazing longingly at her with big, brown eyes. He sat cross-legged on the sofa watching her. I'd expected that someone called Troy would be rather fey. He wasn’t. He was blond and tall, understatedly pretty.
“Ok, let’s do this,” said Tanya.
“Do what?” I said.
She just smiled at me. “You’ll see.”
Troy moved furniture, taking little tables to the side of the room and pushing the sofa and chairs back to make a big clearing in front of the fireplace. Daniel gathered up all the dead beer bottles and nibbles. I grabbed my wine bottle before he could remove that as well. Tanya killed the music. The sudden emptiness of the air was strange and threatening. She turned into the room and stood by the fireplace.
“Amy," she looked at me. "As it’s Samhain we’re going to contact the dead.”
Daniel and Troy sat on the floor to either side of her. In her black lace gown she looked like a priestess with her neophytes. I didn’t want to do it but I didn't believe in ghosts. The spirits of the dead don't talk.
I joined them on the carpet. Tanya asked us to close our eyes. The sweet, cloying incense tickled my nose. I had a sense that I was the only one who didn’t know what we were doing.
“Breathe deeply in through your nose. Hold it for a count of three. Now breathe out through your mouths. Hold for three.”
Tanya's voice was warmer and deeper than usual. We breathed like that for a while. I began to feel spaced out and I had a weird sense of stillness. The first stirrings of a screaming panic rose in the back of my brain followed by an angry, judgemental voice that told me to get it together, reminded me not to embarrass myself.
“Now, there is a ball of white light in the centre of your body. Feel it there, get an idea of its size and weight, see how it glows, this pure light energy.”
I struggled to hold the image in my mind. My ball of light wanted to change shape and colour. It was flickering and disappearing, red one second, blue the next.
“The ball of light grows bigger.”
When I had wanted it to stay one size it had been happy to grow and shrink. Now I needed to enlarge it, my multicoloured ball of light stayed resolutely the same size.
“It’s surrounding your whole body.”
My ball was nowhere near that big. I opened one eye. The three of them sat still, eyes closed. I tried again. This time I started with the light surrounding my whole body. I still couldn’t get the colour right.
“Your ball of light grows bigger and merges with the people either side of you.”
I fastforwarded my light expansion. Once again I wondered whether I really liked Tanya. But if I was arrogant enough to reject her friendship I’d never have any friends and the thought of the rest of my weekends alone was too much. I hadn't been paying attention. Our collective ball of light was supposed to be encompassing the whole house.
“When you’re ready, come back to the room and open your eyes.”
I wasn’t the only who was spaced out. The room felt warm and there was a tingle in the air. Tanya hadn't said who we were trying to contact. Even if I'd believed in ghosts I wasn't so close to my family that I wanted to talk to the dead ones. At the thought of my family I felt a surge of anger and disappointment. I reached for my glass to quell it then panicked that I was getting too drunk to control my emotions. The others shuffled round so we were now in a half circle and the hearth was visible.
“This is Samhain, the night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. The night that we can converse with those that have moved on,” said Tanya.
“I call on Anubis, Lord of the Dead, to open the gates of the underworld.” Troy reached to the side of the fireplace for a small statuette of a dogheaded man and placed it on the hearth.
What I had thought was a random collection of vaguely Halloween related objects amongst the candles on the hearth was actually an altar. This had been planned in detail and Tanya hadn’t told me anything.
“Hecate, Crone Goddess, give us your blessing tonight. Allow those who wish to speak to the living to pass.”
They began to chant. Daniel and Troy set up a deep, droning wordless sound. Tanya began to weave a haunting dirge over the top. I thought I should try to join in but I’m no singer. My wine glass was empty so I reached for the bottle beside the sofa and filled it up.
I shuffled backward to lean on the sofa watching them chant. Tanya smiled at me and I began to suspect a cruel trick. That somehow the whole evening had been orchestrated to achieve my humiliation. I felt sick and tearful. My heart pounded in time with the chant, speeding up as they got faster. Soon my heart was racing so fast I thought I would collapse.
And then they stopped, clean, like they’d rehearsed. My heart banged in my chest and I was breathing as hard as if I’d been running for my life. It wasn’t warm anymore. The room was cold, a taste of ice on the air. I looked up. Our little circle was surrounded by fog, glowing whitely around the candles.
"I think someone's here," whispered Troy.
We all looked around. I couldn't see anything or make out how the fog and the cold had been achieved. Tanya's face was flushed and she smiled widely.
“Someone is with us,” intoned Tanya. “Step forth and speak with the living if that is your will.”
Daniel’s eyes went wide. Whatever he was seeing now was a surprise. I turned my head to look.
I didn’t know that he was dead. No-one told me. A cocktail of hurt and disappointment and shame filled me. I should know better after all this time, but every time they let me down it hurts more than I can bear. And like salt on the rim of a marguerita glass is the loneliness of knowing there’s no-one in the world that’s on your side. They should have told me that he’d died.
Through the white fog drifted the translucent figure of my father’s brother. He was dressed as he used to when he babysat me, in a black silk kimono, loosely fastened so he flashed his skinny thighs as he walked.
“Step forward, spirit,” said Tanya. “Tell us what your message for the living is.”
I was six years old again, watching my parents leave. I couldn’t understand then that they didn’t know how scared I was. Later, when I discovered that they’d known all along and hadn’t done anything, I didn’t understand what was so wrong with me that it didn’t matter.
“Tanya, please,” I croak, but it’s not enough.
She waved her hand to shut me up. There was a slight smile on her face and she leant forward toward the spectre. The words stuck in my throat and all I could say was “Make it stop.” She didn’t see my distress. I knew the only way to make her hear me was to scream and shout, but I had no voice. It was taken years ago and so I suffered quietly.
He smiled and it frightened me just as much as it always used to.
“I’ve missed our special times, Jenny.”
Tanya looked at me, her brow screwed up. Amy is my middle name. I can’t stand to hear anyone say Jennifer or Jenny. I wanted to ask her to stop but my vocal cords failed. There was a part of me that believed I’d been betrayed and it wouldn’t let me beg. I bowed my head to hide my eyes.
An icy draught on my cheek made me look up again, eyes tearing. The spectre was crouched in front of me. I tried not to look at the open front of his kimono but I didn’t want to look at his face either.
“I’ll be waiting,” he said. “Just like this. When you die, it’ll be just like it used to be.”