Whoever heard of a garden party being held at night, thought Rosie, or at any rate whoever had heard of it being CALLED a garden party? And it was dark, too. It was late September now, and they had waited until nearly nine o’clock for it to start. Well, come to think of it, she knew who would think of such a thing, knew perfectly well. Edwina and Henry, for their engagement party.
Rosie could still remember a teacher she’d once had, who had a way of letting pupils down gently when he was sure they’d done their best, but a piece of work or a comment really wasn’t up to scratch. “There’s almost always a good idea somewhere inside a bad one,” Mr Field had said, “It’s just a question of finding it.” She wasn’t sure she entirely shared his optimistic view, but in this instance, it would have been justified. After all, it wasn’t as if it was midwinter, and an outside gathering had its charm, or at least one with the possibility of going outside. But there was something just vaguely silly about triangular dainty sandwiches served under strings of lights that had been prematurely brought out from the Christmas store of the Three Crowns inn and trailed round what they grandiosely termed the beer garden. And it had those wooden combinations of chairs and tables that were quite impossible to sit on in a normal manner unless you were a midget or a supermodel or both – no normal sized person could get their legs underneath. The nights might be drawing in but the midges (as opposed to the midgets!) had evidently decided that it was not too late for one last feasting on humans and triangular sandwiches and cup cakes that might be different colours (though it wasn’t always easy to tell, particularly if you were under one of the strands of lights with several faulty bulbs) but weren’t necessarily different flavours.
At least, though Rosie, wryly, they hadn’t carried the garden party analogy through to the extent of only serving tea and squash. Alcohol was available, though only in the form of what was termed a “summer punch” that was possibly enough to make you consider turning teetotal.
Oh, this is bloody tedious, thought Rosie. What were they thinking of? But she supposed it was typical for Edwina and Henry. The thing was, she liked them! And she had been as delighted as anyone when they announced their engagement. It wasn’t exactly love’s young dream – both were well into their thirties, Edwina had a divorce behind her, though as she said with engaging frankness, a youthful folly and they were still friends, and though Henry hadn’t been married before, he’d certainly had significant others. They were open about that both to each other and their friends. But if anyone was going to have the idea about a night-time garden party being the best way to celebrate an engagement, it would have been Edwina and Henry. Rosie was a long-standing work colleague of Edwina and she was the one who had proposed Job Swop Thursday which – well, hadn’t worked out and wasn’t repeated. She had a friend who worked at the same bank as Henry and he had confided in her that Henry had been an enthusiastic fan of the Paint Balling Weekend. That hadn’t ended too well either, though you could barely see the scar on his colleague George’s head that had once been delineated with powder blue emulsion. Every so often they seemed to feel the need to prove that though perfectly amiable, reliable, decent people, they were quirky. But the trouble was, that they often ended up just being tacky.
I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies, thought Rose. At least they hadn’t decided to put up a temporary outside toilet block to complete the effect. Such thoughts often have the power of suggestion, and she went into the bar-room to use the Ladies. The pub hadn’t been closed, but there were only a couple of customers sitting at the bar or on one of the tables. She told herself no, nobody had really given her a funny look as one of the idiots at the night-time garden party. At least the bar-tender, Clive, whom she knew a little, was perfectly amiable, but he called, “Sorry about this, Rosie, we have a plumbing issue – you’ll have to use the one on the first store landing, where the guest rooms are.” As people do, without thinking, he pointed towards the staircase, though it was obvious where and what it was.
“No problem,” Rosie said, making her way upstairs and unable to decide if the smell of furniture polish lingering on the wooden banister rail was pleasant or a bit sickly. I didn’t know they let out rooms, she thought, but why not? It made sense. Though not exactly a tourist trap, the town had some nice old buildings, and so far as she knew there was only one B & B and a chain hotel on the outskirts that (so a friend of hers who worked there confirmed) was nearly always pre-booked with business people unless it was the weekend. As is often the case, the urge went off her by the time she got upstairs, but she went to the loo anyway, and decided to have a quick look round. Oh, of course she wouldn’t dream of peeking into a room, even if the door were open, but there is something appealing about the unfamiliar parts of a familiar building. Anyway, it would get her out of the garden party for a while! Her first thought was that it was all rather grand and impressive. There were blue and white tiles on the floor, and deep red rugs at intervals along the passageway. But when she looked more closely she saw that many of the tiles were cracked, and the rugs were threadbare and faded. It wasn’t shabby chic. It was just shabby. Still, she was very far from being a domestic goddess herself, and if they were still in the process of converting the upstairs, then it was entirely understandable. There was a large window, though it was dusty and there were hairline cracks in some of the panes and accumulations of grime on the sills. Evidently whoever was wielding the furniture polish had decided so far and no further. She decided to look down on the garden party. But she didn’t. She looked down onto an empty and overgrown space, the contours of bushes and shrubs and neglect only half-visible just in the scudding moonlight, not in the glow of twinkling out of season Christmas lights.
I never did have much of a sense of direction, thought Rosie. I’ll be looking out on the back of the pub. But perhaps I had better show willing and join in the “fun” again!
She turned back, and braced herself for the enforced jollity and the flavourless fairy cakes. But she must have taken a wrong turning. There was no staircase going down back into the bar room – only one going up to the next storey. And there was no lingering smell of furniture polish on these stairs. That punch must have been stronger than it tasted, Rosie told herself. I wonder if someone laced it! But she didn’t feel in any way inebriated. Her head was not light, nor her footsteps clumsy. Well, if this is some kind of elaborate practical joke and Clive is in on it too, it’s not very funny. Yet she knew it was not. That was no reason not to carry on acting as if it were, and thinking surface thoughts like, okay, I’m a good sport, I’ll play along. Or will I? Or will I act ignorant and bemused when I get back to the garden party, as if I don’t see what’s supposed to have happened?
As she thought these futile thoughts, she walked up the staircase, and though the banister was dirty, she had to hang onto it, because the stairs were uneven and steep.
This isn’t very nice she finally admitted to herself. I wish I were back at the garden party. If I think too much about this I might just scream. Well, at least then, someone will come to my assistance. But they probably wouldn’t.
The storey she reached made the one below, for all the cracked tiles and threadbare carpets look positively pristine and luxurious. Here there were bare boards and a sense of utter desolation and emptiness. It was like the feeling you had after receiving terrible news and yet there was nobody there to comfort you. She was almost prepared for the sound of a gnawing, scuttling rat. She didn’t like rats, but wasn’t exactly scared of them, and there would have been something comprehensible and prosaic about one. Though she wasn’t so sure about its eyes glowing in the dark. That was the strange thing. It both was and wasn’t dark. There was a harsh lemon light from a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling on a cord encrusted with cobwebs. It gave enough light for her not to have to grope and risk stumbling, and yet there was a darkness up here that the most glittering chandelier or most lambent flickering fire could never have penetrated.
When she heard something, it was not a rodent who would probably have welcomed her company just as little as she welcomed its. It was a human being. Well that was the only way to describe it. It was human laughter, and yet it was not. It was a laugh that held no humour and no delight and no pleasure.
One of the doors creaked open. The creaking seemed to last a very long time and yet Rosie wanted it to go on because she did not know what would happen afterwards. The creaking stopped and she saw a woman. At least she saw someone who was wearing women’s clothes, and, somewhere beneath them, had the suggestion of a woman’s form. The clothes were ragged and threadbare, but it was not the romantic raggedness of a Cinderella in a pantomime. This was a torn and tainted raiment, heavy with its own grime and history. “So you have found us,” she said. The voice, of itself, was almost – well, pleasant! It was not a cackle or a rasp. It was pitched low and did not grate. But there was an utter flatness to it. And Rosie realised she had said “us” and not “me”. She could see nobody else, not yet, but was aware in the depths of her soul of a host of people just like this woman, all around her in the emptiness.
“You weren’t enjoying the party,” she said, and though her voice remained flat, there was still an inflexion on the word party – somewhere between hateful scorn and utter despair.
The Party – it suddenly seemed surreal, a very long time ago and a very long way away. But Rosie said, and was frightened of the sound of her own voice, of it being just as flat. “I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t need to. You wanted to escape. You were tired of the light and the laughter, and the food and the happiness.”
“But I’m glad that Edwina and Henry are happy!” Rosie protested.
“Yet you think yourself above them. It is fine. You don’t have to defend yourself. Not to me. Not to us. We understand. You have found the right place. You have come to live with us now. With the ones who shun the light and the laughter. You will be at home with us, Rosie. Don’t worry.”
“Has anyone seen Rosie?” Edwina asked. “I think she only went to the loo, and she seems to have been gone forever! Perhaps we ought to send out a search party!”
“Oh, she’ll be fine,” Henry said, an arm round her shoulders, the other batting at one of the balloons they had hung up. “Let’s be honest, she had a face on her like a wet weekend, as my Mum says.”
“You’re right,” she agreed, but suddenly shivered.
“It is chilly, now,” he agreed. “But this was a good idea – wasn’t it?”
“Of course it was,” she reassured him. “I’m okay. It was just – what’s the saying – a ghost walked over my grave.”