You’ll be the last to arrive. Of course you will. On principle. You might sometimes put on this act of being scatty and forgetful, or even come up with some story (which may be true once in a hundred times) about some unexpected delay. But when you do self-effacing it’s less than convincing. The truth is, it’s a mixture between a self cultivated “endearing quirk” and the certainty that your company, your conversation, and your very self are so fascinating that nobody will mind waiting.
But I can hear what people are saying and you can’t, not until you get here. Oh, you have your little fan club and your defenders, but there are also mutters about sheer bad manners and getting sick of your little ways. Even of starting without you. They won’t, of course.
They have all been fawning over Madame Arcadia, whom I suspect they probably know isn’t really called Madame Arcadia. But Edwina said that if they were having a séance they were going to have a proper séance, with a proper medium, not just one of those meetings they had upstairs on Tuesday evenings in the information hub with proceeds to the Donkey Sanctuary.
Though she is very friendly and has no “side” to her, there is still a pleasing air of mystery and something ever so slightly sinister about Madame Arcadia, even if she has overdone the eye shadow and I could tell them that she has thermal underwear beneath her red silky dress that she calls a robe but was in the Sale Event on the Shopping 2 U channel.
But I’ll admit I can’t quite make my mind up about Madame Arcadia. She’s not quite a charlatan. There’s something about her that has distinct possibilities if she admitted it herself.
You, of course, have played the cynic. Said that it’s all hokum. But you still didn’t refuse the invitation. You were more thrilled than you cared to let on. You see, I know your vices, Rosalie, and though you can be massively irritating, most of them are minor enough, on the grand scale. I know more than I wish I did about the grand scale. And I know that you are very keen on TV shows like Paranormal Probe and A Spectre Calls.
You were quite surprised when Edwina, when nice but dull Edwina and her equally nice but even duller husband David proposed this. David is far from easy in his mind about it. He has taken to saying “I’m not over-religious but” quite frequently.
Still, he went along with it. I like David. I suspect he has, to use that tedious but useful phrase, hidden depths.
Oh, here you are! Only fifteen minutes late this time. By your standards that’s positively punctual. You had been watching the same programme on Shopping 2 U and toyed with the same frock. That could have been interesting, though no doubt you would have claimed some psychic kinship, but in the end you plumped for a midnight blue maxi dress. It suits you well enough, but you really should have listened to the presenter when she said it was best to size up one. Still, credit where it’s due, the way you draped that shimmery silver shawl was rather clever when it came to disguising the bulging zip! And you’d even fastened it with a scarab brooch to signify you’d no intention of taking it off.
One of your more tedious acolytes, a woman called Brenda, expressed some disappointment that there was no Ouija board. You gave the poor woman (and she’s not a bad sort, though fair enough, I don’t have to put up with her very often!) a withering look and said that she was sure Madame Arcadia had no need for theatrical trappings and trimmings like that. But the truth was, you were a bit disappointed yourself. You have no problems with theatrical trappings and trimmings.
Unlike the “Christian Spiritualist” pastor at the Donkey Sanctuary Seances, Madame Arcadia didn’t say some kind of alibi prayer but did intone something about the spirits coming in peace. The kind of thing you might see on the front of an Athena greetings card. She didn’t dispose with all the sort of thing folk expect – the dimmed lights, the flickering candle, the hand holding were all still there.
I settled down to watch. And to listen. To be frank, for several minutes it was quite tedious. But probably Madame Arcadia was wise in not providing instant gratification. Maybe she was taking time to steady her head a bit. She had partaken rather too generously of Edwina and David’s excellent cognac. Wrong kind of spirits, Madame Arcadia, I thought.
Now normally, I’ve always been able to read you like a book, Rosalie. Which isn’t to say that some books can’t be pretty hard to understand. But at the moment I can’t quite fathom you out. And that bothers me. I can’t work out if you’re not taking this seriously at all or taking it far too seriously. Probably a mixture of the two, and you’re not even sure yourself.
Anyone who says this kind of thing is the path to hell is wholly mistaken. Spirits are around all the time. Martin Luther said that – no, not Martin Luther King, the civil rights activist, but the German Protestant reformer, back in the 15th century. But if memory serves he also said they were both good and bad.
I’ll never agree with Nigel and even David, but their misgivings aren’t entirely unjustified. And now I can see the point of them even more. That expression on your face is starting to worry me, Rosalie. Though you can be a drama queen, you’re not that fantastic an actress, and it’s making my blood run cold (okay, it isn’t, but old habits die hard). Madame Arcadia still looks as if she’s concentrating intently. Round the table some faces are expectant, others are stifling yawns. Neither of those applies to you. I don’t like this one little bit. If there was any way I could get a message to Madame Arcadia, and Lord knows I’m trying hard enough (even if she’s not a charlatan, she’s pretty useless!) then she would call this off immediately, no matter how many sighs and protests there were. This is one of the few occasions when it’s starting to get seriously nasty.
You are speaking, Rosalie. Or something, or someone, is speaking through you. At first it only manifests itself as a spasm of the throat and some incomprehensible noises, but it is metamorphosing into words and phrases. Madame Arcadia has an expression that seems to say she has suddenly realised the meaning of the expression beware of what you wish for.
“Who is here with us? What do you have to say to us?” She has suddenly remembered the script.
“You are in the presence of Gwynneth Godwinsdottir.” That is what you have just said, Rosalie, and yet it is not what you have just said. It has what has been said through you. You sit there like an empty husk who has put on a grotesque Halloween mask, all the more grotesque because it is your own face.
Gwynneth Godwinsdottir is not good news. That is a massive understatement. She is the daughter of a Viking captain and a Welsh sorceress, and has a thousand times the power of either. She is, of course, a witch.
Now I know that witches have gone through a transformation over the years, and on the whole, a thoroughly good thing. First of all they ceased being persecuted, then they became sanitised into dolls or cartoons, and now they are positively glorified. I almost said canonised but that would have been a tad ironic. From the child who is entranced by the world of Hogwarts to the feminist who sees them as a role model, witches are now fine. Witches have, unless you count the Nigels of this world (and rumour has it even he has let his children see the Harry Potter films!) been more than rehabilitated.
That is absolutely fine and dandy. But the thing is this: though the vast majority of witches were always either healers who did a darned good job or harmless old cranks, there were always a few who weren’t. And I don’t just mean putting little hexes on people now and then. Let’s be frank, most folk would do that if they knew how!
Gwynneth can shape-shift and does so to amuse herself. She can be a Valkyrie one minute, an (apparent) chaste young maiden the next, and then, just because she can, a tiger, a toad, and a thundercloud. Impressive.
But she is also deeply, utterly, malevolent. She has sunk ships not because they posed any danger to herself or her father, but because it amused her, especially the cries of the doomed and desperate bobbing on the water. She has made the milk of herds of cows into deadly, gut-eating poison because she was bored. She made her own half-sister’s hands rot and wither and fall off just because she wondered what it would look like.
Even other so-called “bad witches” go in fear and trembling of Gwynneth and cross their fingers behind their back when they speak her name in a vain hope of warding off her wrath. There’s a rumour that the Devil himself is nervous of her even though she’s his creature.
Acrid smelling smoke has now started coming through your mouth. Edwina has just asked if it is ectoplasm. No, it bloody well isn’t! Madame Arcadia seems to have finally realised she has to try to do something, or at least to try. She looks absolutely terrified and has every reason to be. She is entirely ineffectually telling the spirit to “go in peace” and “proceed on the journey to the light.”
The voice that is speaking through you repeats the word “peace” and “light” as if they are the most obscene swearwords that have ever existed. The smoke seems to have disappeared, but the room is filled with something far worse, just because it can’t be seen.
“Do you think we need a priest?” Brenda asked. I could have told her that I doubted that the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury between them could have done any good, let alone the likes of Nigel, or Conrad from the Donkey Sanctuary lot.
Rosalie, you have got up and started pacing round the room. I know that you would think nothing of taking a knife to every person in it. A voice inside me screams but it is not you, Rosalie, it is not you, it is that vile creature that is speaking through you!
This much I do know. Gwynneth cannot be let loose in the world, in any guise or disguise. Even if she has your face and form, Rosalie. My heart is being torn apart and my spirit that I thought has found some modicum of peace is tormented.
Oh, Rosalie, I suddenly see you as a little girl, spoilt rotten, demanding, but with a smile that could suddenly be so sweet, and robust in your defence of your friends. Why did she have to pick YOU? You were still, in some ways – and like all of them round this table – a child playing with things you didn’t really understand.
Someone, I’m not sure who, has blown out the candle and switched on the light, as if that would do any good. The circle of hands has been broken despite Madame Arcadia muttering desperately, “Don’t break the circle!”
I gather all my strength. It seems so little, and yet who knows what love is capable of? In the end it is always stronger than hate ….. isn’t it?
“Rosalie, listen! Rosalie, hear me! Grandma is here. Come to Grandma. You will be safe then. You now you always came to me if you were in trouble.”
Time seems to stand still. Even when time has supposedly lost its meaning, it can still seem to stand still. The evil presence fills the room and almost appears to fill the world with its malign miasma. The voice becomes a screech like all the hounds of hell. And then – silence. But only briefly.
Edwina has knelt beside you on the floor. Your face is not contorted any longer. She takes your hand. She does not know I am holding your other one. Her own face is pale. “Call an ambulance, someone! For God’s sake, call an ambulance!”
But you don’t need an ambulance, Rosalie. You’re safe with Grandma. Only this time, love, you won’t be too late. You’ll be too early.