Christmas ain’t Christmas without a bit of a spooky tale, so here’s mine …
‘A dinner party? Can I bring a plus one?’ A frisson of something trembled in my soul.
‘Of course – do we know them?’ He just laughed. We were on the phone so I couldn’t see his expression.
‘See you later then.’ He sounded happy – certainly not how I’d expected him to be after Clem, but he’d gone and I was left wondering.
‘Was that who I thought it was?’ The voice was muffled from under the table. The owner’s prone legs were splayed across the floor, extending oddly from under the table cloth, as if a murder victim had just been hastily stuffed out of sight.
‘Yes, and he’s coming tonight.’
‘That’ll be interesting after all this time.’ The tone was sarcastic.
‘Oh.’ Silence, then more curiously, ‘who?’
‘He didn’t say.’
‘In that case it’s going to be really interesting.’ The table shook as if the murder victim’s spirit was attacking it and then both table and legs settled into stillness. I waited for the body to rise from its last resting place, but table and legs remained motionless. It made me feel queasy but I didn’t know why.
‘Are you ok under there Alex?’ I asked, suddenly worried.
‘Yeah, just thinking.’
‘About Jay and Clem and the way they just went – you know.’ Alex didn’t need to say any more. I did know. More than Alex did, in fact; but I was keeping that to myself.
‘Yes, well if you’re done under there, we should lay up now.’
‘Yep, all done, I’ve tightened up all the screws so it shouldn’t collapse under the weight of the food – or the conversation.’ The comment ended in muffled laughter and the table shook again. The legs wriggled out from underneath it, bringing the rest of the body with them.
‘Haha! Very funny.’ I turned away and went back to the kitchen to find the wine. Tuneless whistling floated in from the dining room and I guessed the table top was being transformed for the dinner party now it was safe to sit at again. I ignored the annoying whistling and turned my attention to the wine rack. I usually relished choosing exactly the right wine but my head wasn’t on it tonight. All I could think about was the plus one Jay was bringing – and what about Clem? I checked the clock. It was already seven-thirty. They were all due at eight. I called to the table and its legs.
‘If you’re done there, can you check the oven? I’m sorting the wine.’
‘OK.’ It was louder than expected and I turned in surprise as Alex appeared in the kitchen doorway, flushed and dishevelled from the table wrestling.
‘Maybe have a bit of a tidy up too?’ I added pointedly. Good humoured laughter bubbled around the hallway.
‘Um, I see what you mean.’ The reappearing vision was sleek and immaculate. I felt imperfect and uneasy. I pushed past into the cool of the hallway, assessing which me I saw in the mirror. I wondered what Jay would make of me, five years on. Five years – had it really been so long; since Clem had happened? I was startled out of my reverie by the doorbell jangling insistently.
‘It’s for you-oo,’ came light-heartedly from the kitchen, along with the smell of perfectly cooked Beef Wellington.
‘I’ve got it,’ I called back impatiently. I opened the door, the angry angst-ridden me well hidden under the hosts charming bonhomie. ‘Ange, Mike – how are you? Ange enveloped me in a cloud of too-strong perfume and billowing chiffon.
‘Darrrling, how are you – it’s been ages.’ She was right – for all the overdone lovey-ness, it had been the same five years of ages as since I’d seen Jay or Clem.
‘We’re good, thanks Ange.’ I disentangled myself and Mike’s less flowery and more business-like hug was a relief. ‘Come on in.’ I turned to call out to the kitchen, but Alex arrived with drinks right on cue. Eventually the storm of hello’s, hugs and darrrrlings dissipated and we moved into the warmth of the lounge, warily convivial. The bell went again and I rushed to answer it, trying to quell the jitters that it would be Jay this time. It wasn’t. Agitation overcame courtesy with the Betterware woman collecting the catalogue she’d left earlier. I flung the unwanted package at her and slammed the door in her face. Belatedly a wave of shame made me redden. I re-joined the forced conversation in the lounge, knowing the only conversationalist I wanted to bandy words with was yet to arrive, but God knew who with. Unbidden, the old jealousy consumed me. I wondered if I could even be civil to Jay’s plus one. Trying too hard to concentrate on Ange’s gushing, I almost missed the third ring, but in the visceral depths of my gut, I heard it instinctively. I was beaten to the door. Momentarily I hated Alex with a hatred I’d felt only once before but I didn’t have time to dwell on when. The lounge door burst open and before I could prepare myself, Jay was standing in front of me.
‘Hey,’ he was embracing me and I was drowning in his sharp-spiced smell, his proximity, his warmth and the desperate yearning I still felt for him. My head spun and I held onto him tightly. ‘Such a long time.’ He breathed the words into my ear and they spiralled round my head like a tornado funnelling into oblivion. In the eye of the storm, was his plus one. As my head cleared and my vision settled, she stood quietly and ominously behind him in the dark hallway. I pulled away sharply, waves of fear travelling up and down my body like electricity, sparking, shorting, sparking; killing.
‘Clem!’ My exclamation killed all talk in the lounge. I sensed something behind me and found the lounge conversationalists had clustered there, mixing their sweat and perfume with my dismay. Jay smiled at Clem and beckoned her in. The clamouring bodies behind me parted like the red sea for the unexpected, and mysteriously, very alive, plus one.
She passed through us, as if we didn’t exist; or maybe she didn’t exist? I was starting to doubt my own senses and sanity now. Jay just smiled enigmatically, and followed her. From my vantage point obliquely opposite I observed her apprehensively. Exactly the same as the last time I’d seen that elongated bony face, with its too large eyes, black, black hair and white skin. Now if possible, the pale complexion had become almost translucent; unhealthily waxen, as if she really wasn’t there at all – the way I’d thought it was.
‘Who’s hungry? Shall we sit for dinner?’ The jovial enquiry broke the tense silence, and the buzz of who was sitting where eased us round the table. Legs sticking angularly out from a lifeless body as it sprawled out from under the table. I found myself directly opposite Clem and Jay; the last place I wanted to be.
‘Clemmie, darrrling; where have you been hiding yourself?’ Ange didn’t wait for a reply. She rounded straight on Jay. ‘We thought it must have been a crime passionelle when she just disappeared and then you went persona non grata too.’ I watched Ange preen herself for what she considered wit. Mike wriggled further back in his seat beside her, face closed, but body expressing his discomfort. I knew what was going on behind those blank grey eyes. I’d heard him explode at her once after she’d been particularly pretentious at one of our dinner parties long ago – Christ why were we having this one?
‘Crime passionelle and Jay? Oh, Jay would never hurt a fly. He wouldn’t be the one to be involved in a crime passionelle.’ Clem smiled icily and everyone froze a degree colder. Her eyes slid back to me. Jay interjected quickly.
‘We’ve been on a bit of a tour.’ Four pairs of eyes trained on Jay and waited for more. Clem remained supremely aloof, face shadowed, tensed, dangerous; in control. ‘Clem was a little unwell so we went some places to make her better.’ He flashed a brilliant smile at her and then at me, as if including me in the secret of the places they’d been to make Clem better. That last time, I’d left her, the skin had been pale as death, the face a mask, blood pooling stickily under her head.
‘You’re looking well now.’ Mike offered it up dubiously, and Clem nodded graciously at him. Ange looked at him as if he was mad – a green-eyed stare like a cat would give its enemy. Clem looked quiet and serious. A far cry from the lascivious woman who’d tried to steal greedy kisses from me just before I’d left her broken and lifeless.
‘The starter’s mushroom pate. I hope you all like mushrooms?’ Alex was valiantly trying to break the ice patina rapidly spreading over us.
‘Magic mushrooms, darrrling?’ Ange’s trill made the rest of us cringe.
‘Oh Ange, really …’ Jay patted her arm as if she was a naughty but delightful child. She tittered and combed her hair flirtatiously at him. Clem’s eyes swivelled back to her and the dark lights in their depths terrified me. Where had they been to make her better? How could you make a dead body better?
‘How’s things in the psycho industry then Maz?’ He was talking directly to me. I pulled myself together enough to reply.
‘Oh, mad as ever.’ The laughter was appreciative and I breathed out, avoiding Clem’s black-eyed stare, wishing I’d never visited their house that day. ‘I dream about you day and night, Maz. I want you. I know why you are always round here, always offering to help, always checking in on Jay … ’ Her hands were clawing at me, grasping, squeezing, her mouth almost on mine, her heavy breath hot on my face, stealing my own away from me… ‘You know what they say about psychiatrists don’t you?’ I might as well play my audience for all I could if it would deflect that hateful stare from me. ‘You can’t tell them from the patients …’ Raucous laughter showed it had been well received and the wine choice I’d made had been a good one – one of the highest alcohol volumes I had, and chosen specifically for that reason, but not to promote gaiety, to promote softening. Jay’s softening, Jay staying, Jay, Jay, Jay. I tried to shut down the insistent voice in my head, but it was replaced instead by Clem’s,‘Maz, Maz, Maz.’ …
The memory of that last time I’d seen her couldn’t be ejected from my thoughts now. It had taken me over body and soul. She wouldn’t leave me alone; I couldn’t wipe the slimy disgust of her saliva from my lips or escape from her burning eyes, or the threat she posed … ‘Maz, Maz, Maz.’ … ‘Get off me you stupid bitch. It’s not you I come here for, but Jay.’ I flung her forcefully away from me and her head cracked against the table edge…
‘Do psychiatrists live in the real world, or their imagination, do you think, Maz?’ Clem was coolly vicious. The conversation around us flowed on, witticism, quip, joke, flirt, ‘more wine?’ No-one else heard her low-voiced question. They weren’t meant to. Only she and I were in this discussion.
‘This is real, so of course the real world.’
‘Is it what?’
‘Is it real?’
‘Of course it is.’ I looked at the exaggerated expressions on the other dinner party guests; wide-eyed, laughing, bored, polite, exasperated. I realised they weren’t talking to us and we weren’t talking to them. There was an invisible barrier between us – like we were in another world, alongside but not touching. Clem smiled mysteriously. ‘Are you dead, or alive?’ She tilted her head quizzically and my mind rushed back to that day again. Her face collapsed in on itself as if life had imploded as her head struck the table; first the surprised look, then the blankness of death. She tumbled awkwardly to the floor and lay there. The table wobbled and then was still. Her legs stuck out angularly from the lifeless body as it sprawled half under the table. Shock turned to nausea as I turned to see Jay coming through the door to the room. Could he forgive me?
‘What do you want me to be?’ I considered the question. The real answer was neither. Alive meant either I was going insane or she was some awful thing from beyond the grave. Dead meant she was some awful thing from beyond the grave or I was already insane. ‘Or more to the point, why am I here with you, and they can’t see me?’ I looked around at the four other faces. They seemed even more distant than before.
‘What is going on?’ I hated her. Now I remembered that hatred in fine detail where I’d only remembered it dimly earlier. I wanted to address Jay, but he was across the divide with the other dinner guests. It was only Clem and me here.
‘It’s confession time, my dear. Just tell them what really happened and we’ll leave you in peace.’ I didn’t want Jay to go, but I wanted Clem to. Greedy, demanding, disgusting, hateful Clem, who’d taken my Jay and made him infatuated with her. Greedy, demanding, disgusting, hateful Clem, who’d tried to kiss and paw me when the only one I wanted to do that was Jay. Greedy, demanding, disgusting, hateful Clem, who had Jay, and didn’t even want him. ‘I won’t go away until you admit you killed me.’
‘Fell?’ Clem’s voice was sinuous like a python coiling round me.
‘Why did I fall?’
‘You just fell.’
‘I didn’t just fall. Tell them, tell them!’ Her voice rose from its soft sibilance to a harpies’ shriek. I covered my ears in agony as her banshee wail made my head split apart and the blood pooled stickily under it.
‘I pushed you, OK? I pushed you off of me, you slut, and you hit your head on the table.’ My voice reverberated around the room as the dinner party froze, forks in mid-air, glasses poised to clink, heads’ thrown back in surprise. I catapulted back through the eerie barrier from Clem’s world to my own.
‘We said to absent friends, Maz.’ Alex touched me lightly on the arm, ‘and how sad it is Clem isn’t here anymore, but we’ll toast her anyway – across the ether.’ She turned to the rest of faces round the table, all looking oddly at me, and added, ‘to Clem – RIP.’ I breathed in the smell of fruity red wine and Beef Wellington, over-perfumed women and after-shaved men.
I looked gratefully at my wife Alex. Jay and his new girlfriend looked back.
To me she still looked exactly like Clem.
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If you fancy longer reading in 2013, my new novel ‘Chained Melody is out on 18th January and will be available then on Amazon.