It was a fair-sized gathering. A few friends and neighbours, some aunts and uncles, a couple of cousins. His parents liked to throw a party now and again, and their Hallowe’en night had become a fixture, so by tradition some of the guests had come in costume. Stephen, aged nine, was draped in a sheet with a pair of peep-holes, and Mike, aged thirty-seven, was wearing a vampire mask. As usual, there was a good spread on the table. His mum had made sandwiches and sausage rolls, and Emmy from next door had come with a cake she had made. It was wrapped in a band of silver foil and decorated with cobwebs in piped icing.
Beryl was there, of course. He had met her before; she was becoming a regular. But he was never quite sure who she was, where she had sprung from. He had an idea that Gran had met her at a séance, but this was difficult to ascertain since the family seemed reluctant to admit that Gran attended séances. Gran was a gadabout and belonged to all sorts of clubs, so it was less embarrassing to suggest that she had met Beryl at a whist drive or a tea dance.
He disliked Beryl, though he would have found it hard to say why. He just felt uncomfortable with her. Was it that she blew smoke everywhere and smelt of ash? Was it her voice, deep and husky like a man’s? Was it her jewellery, which seemed only to highlight her wrinkled skin? Perhaps it was her beady green eyes, or the flash from her gold teeth. Anyway, he always kept his distance when she was around and had never really spoken to her beyond a few brief exchanges.
His mum laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘Paul,’ she said, ‘why don’t you give us a tinkle? I’m sure Beryl would love to hear you play.’
‘Oh no, please,’ he groaned. ‘I don’t know any party pieces, do I?’
‘I wouldn’t let that bother you,’ said Beryl. ‘Play whatever you like. We’ll lap it up.’
She nudged him towards the piano, and reluctantly he sat himself down at the keyboard. He knew that she played the piano herself. In fact, someone had told him that she had once been part of a dance band, and his mum described her as having a nice touch. But he was convinced she had no wish to hear him play, that she was simply going along with his mum’s idea. His mum was always showing him off, seeking praise from people she looked up to. But why she should look up to Beryl was a mystery.
He glanced over The Ritual Fire Dance, the piece displayed on the music stand that he had been practising for the past week. He took a deep breath, slammed into the opening trill and then stormed all the way through to the end. In his haste, though, he became a bit unstuck in the final bars. He shook his head, feeling annoyed with himself. He could play the piece well enough when no one was listening. If only he were more confident. If only he could learn to slow down and not take everything at a rush.
The listeners, however, broke into wild applause.
‘Splendid,’ declared Beryl.
His mum laughed nervously.
‘Oh now,’ she said, ‘be honest.’
‘No no, I mean it.’ Beryl smiled wryly and her mouth flashed. ‘That’s coming along nicely. Some parts need a little more work, but he knows that.’
‘Well, thank you,’ said his mum, appropriating the compliment as if Paul were an exhibit – a musical toy or trinket box. Then she and Beryl, chatting confidentially, wandered off for a word with Gran. The others, however, were standing around as if for an encore. Well, to hell with that! He jumped up smartly and slunk off to the kitchen, where he helped himself to a ham sandwich. There was no one there, thank God – or at least until his cousin Rosemary turned up.
‘Hello, Paul,’ she said with her sheep’s eyes. ‘That was nice.’
‘That thing you played.’
‘I flunked it … or didn’t you notice?’
She giggled. ‘Oh, you are funny, Paul.’
She was always mooning around him. He wished she would shove off.
‘D’you know Bertolini’s, Paul? The coffee bar on the Parade? Me and Sandra often go there.’
‘Well, you won’t want me barging in then, will you?’
He hastily finished his sandwich and sloped off into the garden. Unfortunately Brian was out there, the idiot from up the road who spent every hour polishing his two-seater convertible. He was wearing a skeleton outfit and snogging Marcia, Mrs Pascoe’s niece. They broke apart when they saw him and she adjusted her dress.
‘Well, well, here he is, the ivory tickler … So now then, Paul,’ Brian swung his hips and snapped his fingers, ‘how about some boogie-woogie?’
Paul frowned. ‘Sorry … I don’t do boogie-woogie.’
Brian and Marcia brayed loudly. There was an awkward pause, and then Paul, turning smartly, re-entered the house, where his mum was inviting everyone to eat. A slow drift towards the food began and he joined the queue.
After tea, noticing that Beryl had disappeared, he feared another ritual was about to begin. And sure enough, some time later his mum clapped her hands.
‘Listen, everyone,’ she said. ‘The moment has arrived. The moment you’ve all been waiting for. Yes, I’ve again persuaded Beryl to do some fortune-telling.’
‘Oooh.’ A ripple passed through the room, as the guests turned to each other with little gasps of excitement.
‘So now, who’s it to be? Who’s the first victim?’ His mum glanced around roguishly and winked at Gran. ‘Or should that be volunteer?’
There were some moments of hesitation, but then Meg waggled her fingers in the air and gave a little shriek of laughter.
‘Attagirl, Meg.’ His mum slapped her on the shoulder. ‘So off you go. Beryl’s waiting for you in the kitchen.’
Meg rose, looked around giddily and scuttled off with a rich cackle, pulling the door behind her. Loud chattering broke out instantly among the guests, who were soon so engrossed that he seized the chance to slip away unnoticed. He bounded upstairs to his room. Fortune-telling! What idiocy! As in previous years, he would not be drawn in. Besides, he had no wish to be locked up in a room with Beryl. And on Hallowe’en! He sat on the bed, his back to the headboard, his legs extended, and mused for a while before snatching up his book from the bedside table. He would read another chapter and then go back, by which time the excitement might have faded.
But when he re-entered the sitting room, his mum spotted him instantly. ‘Good timing,’ she called out. ‘Now come along, Paul. Your turn next.’
‘Look, I don’t think so. It’s not my thing, is it?’
‘Ah, go on, lad,’ his dad shouted. ‘Don’t be stuck up. Don’t be a spoilsport. Don’t be a wimp.’
Wimp! He hated that word. It was a shaming, bullying word. A word that was always on his dad’s lips. But he glanced around the room and every face said the same. Ah, go on, lad. Don’t be a wimp. So clearly there was no ducking out.
He shrugged. ‘Okay,’ he said after a pause. ‘I mean … what the hell.’
‘Attaboy,’ Gran whooped, and everyone laughed and applauded.
In the kitchen he found Beryl seated at the table. She glanced up with a tight smile.
‘Come in, Paul,’ she said. ‘I won’t eat you.’
He sat down opposite her. She gazed at him for a few moments.
‘Tell me if I’m wrong, Paul,’ she said, ‘but I get the impression that you’re a wee bit sniffy about this kind of thing.’
He shrugged. ‘Oh, I dunno … I guess it’s just a bit of fun.’
She gave him a long straight look. ‘It’s whatever you want to make of it,’ she said.
He studied her intently, never having done so before. Her face was sallow and heavily lined. She had a touch of bright red lipstick and kept drawing deeply on a cigarette. Her hair was wiry and rust-coloured with patches of grey. He assumed it was dyed. He noticed again that flash whenever she opened her mouth. She shuffled the pack of cards and then spread them face-down on the table.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘choose.’
He picked one up. Three of diamonds. She stretched out a hand and he gave it to her.
‘Again’, she said.
Queen of hearts.
Ace of clubs.
She placed the cards face-up in front of her and studied them intently, all the while blowing jets of smoke out of the side of her mouth.
‘So tell me about yourself,’ she said.
‘Like what you hope for … what you want to be.’
He shrugged. ‘Oh, I dunno … I’m not too sure, am I?’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘So what do you like doing?’
‘I like reading … playing the piano.’
‘Ah, yes.’ She smiled indulgently. ‘That sultry Fire Dance thing.’ Plenty of crackle at the start, her smile said, but not enough blaze in the finale. ‘So who’s your favourite composer?’
‘Liszt?’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘And you’d like to make a career in music?’
He shrugged again and hesitated. ‘Yes … I’d like to compose.’
‘Compose?’ She leaned back, fixed him with an arch look and then took another pull at her cigarette. ‘Anyway,’ she said after a while, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling, ‘let me see your palm.’
He held out his upturned hand and she pulled it towards her, studying it closely and sometimes running a finger along the creases.
‘So tell me, Paul … are you happy?’
He snorted and shifted. ‘Am I happy? … Yeah, sometimes.’
‘What about friends? … You do have friends?’
He frowned and stared hard at her. ‘Of course … What d’you mean?’
‘Okay.’ She smiled sweetly. ‘So tell me about school.’
‘You’re not popular, are you?’
He flinched. ‘I don’t think I’m unpopular.’
‘I didn’t say you were.’
She released his hand and turned back to the cards.
‘Well, then, let’s move on.’ She took another draw of her cigarette. ‘So tell me, Paul … d’you have a girlfriend?’
‘Have you ever had a girlfriend?’
He squirmed and huffed. ‘Hey look … excuse me, but where’s all this leading?’
Glancing up, she met his gaze head-on. Her mouth had a little twist at the corner. ‘Nowhere … it seems.’
‘Anyway,’ she said, pulling the cards towards her, ‘here’s my advice. I see a future in music. So stick with it. You’ve got talent. But get out more and try to make friends. Go to the park, join a club, kick a ball around sometimes. And don’t always listen to your mum. Do a bit of thinking for yourself.’
He stared at her fiercely, then gave a curt nod. She gathered up the cards and threw him a tough professional smile. He got up and went into the sitting room, closing the door behind him.
All heads turned as he entered. He hated it. Being looked at. It was mortifying. He coloured up, felt his face burning. He looked around for somewhere to sit. His mum slapped the arm of her chair, but he shook his head. He slunk to a corner of the room and flopped on the floor.
‘Well?’ said his mum.
Everyone was grinning at him, teetering on the verge of laughter.
‘Well what?’ he said.
‘Well what have you learned?’
‘Oooh.’ The room erupted with disappointment.
‘Ah, go on,’ his mum said. ‘Give us a hint.’
He crooked his legs, clasped his knees. ‘She didn’t say a lot. She told me to stick with the music.’
‘I bet she said a lot more than that,’ someone quipped, and the room erupted again.
‘You go next, Emmy,’ said his mum, nodding at her. ‘And I hope we learn a bit more from you.’ She gazed around, looking pleased with herself.
Emmy, a bit on the stout side, rose slowly, brushed her skirt down and glanced at the others with amused apprehension.
‘Ah well, here goes’ she said. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound. And I don’t want any of you listening with a wineglass pressed to the wall.’
Gales of laughter followed her into the kitchen. She closed the door firmly behind her.
Chattering immediately broke out in the living room. He stared at the floor for a while and then glanced up, relieved to be no longer the centre of attention. Rosemary, however, was still gazing at him with that moony smile of hers. He looked away quickly. As for the others, they were talking in groups or pairs and he had no wish to join in. He watched the scene for several minutes, feeling quite detached, as if the people in the room were actors on a stage. With no need to interact, he could observe them closely and yet distantly, so to speak. And from this point of view, how small, vain and silly they all looked.
He got up, wandered to the piano and thumbed through his copy of Carnaval. He stared fiercely at the passages that had so far defeated him. Tomorrow evening, after school, he would attack them with determination. At the same time he would try to finish that rhapsody he was composing. Polish it up till it gleamed like diamond. He would astonish his mum, astound his teachers and take everyone by storm.
He moved to the window. Across the street, two little witches were standing at the door of Number Eleven. One of them stood on tiptoe and rapped on the knocker. They waited for a while and then passed on. He continued to gaze, and from many windows fat pumpkin heads gazed back at him with blazing mouths and eyes. Some had bared teeth and some were simply smiling, but to him they all looked malevolent. He thought of Beryl – her rusty hair and fags, the flash of gold in her mouth, her knowing look. He thought of his family – their grins, their smirks, their eager nosiness. He clasped his hands together tightly. So tightly his knuckles began to crack. He filled his chest with air and then expelled it with a loud snort.
His mum glanced across at him: ‘Are you all right?’
But before he could reply Emmy came crashing through the door. Flushed in the face, hand clapped to her mouth, she was convulsed with giggles.