Looking back, my memory of that evening is of a cave of shifting light: flickering flames from candles placed in rose bowls, a cluster of glittering black tealights arranged on a mirrored tray, light spilling from holes cut in the eyes of a pot cat.
That’s how I remember us, on that last night we were all together, gathered round the dining table, illuminated like a chiaroscuro painting by an Old Master: witch-hatted Joanna downing a glass of red; Jess - done up like Morticia Addams - picking at a plate of meringue; Kev looking sullen in his Frankenstein onesy; Pete in a Dracula cape with a set of plastic fangs; Will and I, a strange marriage of zombie and ghost. And baby Luke, having been passed round from person to person for half an hour so he could be dandled and cooed at, now asleep in his carry-cot.
The room looked suitably macabre. Will had gone to town, hanging ‘spider webs’ in every corner, scattering tiny plastic spiders across the table, draping a glowing ‘ghost’ throw over the sofa. And between us we’d cooked up a storm – pumpkin soup, bread in a skull-shaped basket, black pavlova (well, grey at any rate) drizzled with raspberry-syrup ‘blood’. We’d made Halloween cocktails and played Halloween games between each course. The party had been one of our more successful ones. No quarrels, no bickering, no sulking. For once, everyone joined in with cheerful, slightly drunken, good humour, and we’d been a truly happy family.
It had reached that time in the evening when, full and merry, we’d all settled down for some ghost stories, so we were already a little jumpy when Jess suddenly asked ‘What’s that?’, pointing at the new night-light Will had bought that afternoon from the Halloween Farmers’ Market. It was still inside its box on the dresser – we’d forgotten it in all the rush.
As Pete tipped the contents of the box onto the table, Will told them how the stallholder had been really nice at first, but when the edge of his rucksack had caught one of her displays, as we moved away, knocking things onto the floor, she’d become a real harridan.
‘We helped put everything back where it came from,’ he explained.
‘Nothing was broken and we apologised,’ I added. ‘But she just kept shouting and swearing at us!’
‘We felt like giving the thing back and getting a refund, but we thought that might make her worse, so we just left in the end.’
Everyone peered at the pieces on the table. Made of some sort of burnished metal, the night-light consisted of a base into which you fixed a candle, and a delicate arrangement of intersecting struts, each with a fragile-looking silhouette, stamped out of the same metal, attached to its end. Before she lost her temper, the stallholder had told us that heat from the candle flame moved the figures round, casting shadows onto the walls. Inevitably, Pete and Kev started to fix the thing together, fumbling around in the half-light and alcohol fumes. They stood it in the centre of the table for everyone to admire.
‘What are these?’ asked Kev, holding one of the flat metal figures between two fingers and turning it to see it properly. It was vaguely human shaped, a dancing figure in a pointy hat. The stallholder had said they were meant to be witches and their familiars, at a witches’ sabbat, dancing round a fire. As we examined them, we saw that three of them were indeed the silhouettes of witches – one tall and thin, one short and fat, one medium-sized, all caught in actions of wild, uninhibited dancing – and between each witch was an animal, stamped out from the flimsy metal with incredible detail: a cat about to pounce, a fox in mid-jump, and a crow, wings half-open. I felt the shadows in the corners of the room draw closer.
‘Oh, come on, who’s got some matches? Let’s get it going!’ urged Joanna, nudging her husband. Pete rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a lighter. As he brought the flame close to the candle’s wick, I felt an unexpected urge to stop him, but I knew I’d look silly if I did. What reason could I give? It was Halloween – you’re supposed to get a bit spooked!
A strange silence descended as Pete lit the candle and we all peered at the night-light. It slowly began to turn, casting flickering shadows onto the already darkened walls of our living room. Above our heads, on the white Artexed ceiling, multiple small flames began to shimmer, like a bonfire projected onto a screen. I thought I could even hear a steady, quiet background crackle and roar. The shadows that danced around the walls grew and subsided continually, one moment swelling to greater than life-sized and the next shrinking to tiny mannequins prancing round the dado rail. The movements followed a rigid, stereotyped pattern: the cat pounced, then paused, then stretched, then pounced again; the fox’s legs moved in a frenzied gallop, steady and desperate; the crow’s wings opened and shut with a steady beat as it rose upwards, only to vanish and reappear at ground level, ready to rise again. And the three witches pirouetted and waved their arms and jumped and spun in a series of repeated motions. We watched for a while, fascinated, but eventually everyone began to yawn and fidget.
‘Well, best put it away before the candle burns out,’ said Will, at last. Pete was stretching, and there was a general feeling that the evening was over and it was time for bed. Jess cupped her hand round the flame and tried to blow it out, but it immediately sprang back to life.
‘Oh, God, it’s not one of those joke candles, is it?’ asked Kev, laughing nervously. Jess and Joanna both blew frantically at the flame, but it wouldn’t extinguish. They looked at each other in frustration, with the first hint of real fear in their faces. The flame, if anything, grew slightly larger and the carousel moved round slightly more quickly, in a jerky fashion, which lent the shadows on the wall a more sinister air. The dancers seemed to wobble and the repeated patterns began to muddle and change. As we watched, it even seemed as if their repertoire of movements was increasing. The tallest of the three witches seemed to be waving her pointy hat around now – it was off her head, in her hand! The short, fat one began to bow towards the ceiling where the ‘fire’ still burned energetically. The fox and the cat began chasing each other round the witches’ feet while the crow flapped frantically above their heads. And suddenly I could hear the throaty ‘Caw! Caw!’ of the bird.
Looking round, I could tell the others had heard it too. Jess and Joanna moved closer together. Pete was gripping the table edge. I felt Will’s hand slip into mine. The three witches were now standing side by side, stretched from skirting board to coving, and swaying in a ponderous rhythm, quite different from their earlier wild cavorting. Pete and
Kev shuffled round the table to stand next to their wives, with the table between them and the witches, and Jess pulled Luke’s carry cot closer to them, pushing it out of sight under the table with her foot.
The tallest witch raised her bony hands up high and we all heard the eldritch voice, like fingernails scratching at a window:
‘Whoever disturbs the witches at their play must pay the witch’s price!’
Jess screamed and her mother clutched her arm. Kev muttered a swear word. I heard Will gasp, but there was no time for more reaction as every candle flame in the room suddenly went out, plunging us into a thick terrifying blackness.
‘What’s happening?’ I heard Jess squeal.
‘Someone, put the light on!’ shouted Joanna.
I felt Will move away from me, stumbling towards the door where the light-switch was located, and a second later the electric light blazed out, breaking the spell. The room suddenly looked mundane, the table covered in dirty plates and crumbs scattered among the plastic spiders. Tendrils of smoke rose gingerly into the air from the extinguished candle flames. The flames on the ceiling had gone; the shadows had vanished; the night-light was still and looked like an ordinary Halloween trinket.
‘Thank God!’ said Kev. He sounded both anxious and relieved.
Pete looked pale, ‘What the hell just happened?’ he asked, pushing the hair off his forehead with his hand.
‘Is Luke okay?’ asked Joanna. Jess was already stooping, pulling the carry cot towards her from its haven under the table.
Suddenly, her shoulders stiffened, and we all knew something was wrong. Her expression was one I’ll never forget - it haunts my nightmares still.
Her throat was so tight, we could barely make out her words: ‘He’s gone!’