Into the Darkness
When I found out that Julia had tricked me there was a moment when I seriously believed that she was the devil.
“Let us go away for the weekend,” she had said.
I was flattered. Our relationship was very new. “I would love to.”
“I have a friend in the West Country. He’s arranging a get-together for Halloween. Shall I say we’ll come?”
“That would be great.”
It was only when we were almost there that she began to tell me the truth about what it was she was taking me to.
She looked a little nervous. “I hope you are feeling adventurous,” she had begun. “You might find some of the people a little strange.”
“In what way?”
“In a weird way.”
“They’re your friends, aren’t they?”
“Kind of.” She was driving, so she had an excellent excuse for avoiding my eyes. She was driving but it was my car. I was careful not to distract her in case she crashed it but at that point I started to have a cold feeling in my blood and I felt like shaking her.
“Why are we going if they’re not your friends?”
“David, have you ever come across any Pagans?”
“You mean people who don’t believe in God?”
“No, I mean people who have their own gods, from long before the time of Jesus and any post-Christian concept of the devil.”
“Are your friends Pagans?”
“Shit. You mean they take their clothes off and worship the moon?”
“So what is it we’re going to? I thought it was just a Halloween party. Are there going to be real witches there?”
“Yes, in fact.”
“Shit. Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You would never have come if I had told you the truth,” she said.
“What makes you think I am going to stay?”
“Because I love you and I need you.”
How intoxicating those words were! But I was still wondering what sort of grotesque, macabre event I was being taken to and Julia could see the repugnance in my features.
“Have I put you off me forever?” she asked
She slowed the car to a crawl and the headlights flickered over the tangled hedgerow in the lane. She was looking at me with her head turned so much towards mine that the car swerved towards a ditch.
“Julia! Keep your eyes on the road,” I commanded. “Brake!”
“It’s quite safe.”
The headlights picked out a gap in the hedge and she changed down to first gear and turned in.
“Is this it?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
She stopped the car. We were on a track. The ground was pitted and soft. We couldn’t see where it led.
“It’s the middle of bloody nowhere. Are you going to drive up it?”
“Was there a sign?” she asked.
“No. Should there be a sign?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Look, maybe I shouldn’t have invited you.”
The tone of her voice was like damp air on my skin. I felt angry. I was ready to throw her out of the car and drive back to London on my own. But at the same time I felt a deep sense of shame. I had let her bring me here without knowing enough about her. Now I must take the consequences.
“Why couldn’t you have told me the truth?” I asked. “You said it would just be a few friends.”
“It will be,” she said.
“Now you tell me they’re witches.”
“They’re not all witches.”
“What is it going to be, some bizarre Halloween ritual?”
“It’s not bizarre.” Her voice was so soft and caressing as she said it that I could feel my body stir as if at her touch. “There may be a magical rite. But it’s all very natural.”
“I’m not taking my clothes off in a freezing cold wood.”
“You won’t have to.”
“What do you mean by a magical rite?”
“I mean a celebration of nature.”
“I don’t like the idea of it. What sort of magic is it?”
“The sort that happens when you let your imagination loose. Oh, David, let go of your prejudices, and simply see what happens!” She knew my weaknesses. She could play on them with such uncanny accuracy even in the heat of passion that I had felt more than once that I was in the power of something supernatural. I knew I was being manipulated. I mistrusted her for it. But I also believed she loved me and was trying to help me to love her.
“Is this it?” I asked. “Do you recognise it?”
She blinked and peered out into the darkness. “No.” She was wearing a big black coat made of artificial fur. She had the collar up and all I could see of her was the tip of her nose and the tumbling waves of her thick chestnut hair.
“You don’t even know where it is!” I complained.
“I’ve only been here once before.”
She drove on uncertainly. The tyres bounced over the uneven ground and we bumped along for fifty or sixty yards. She had the beam on full but the darkness engulfed us completely. The lane twisted and turned so that it was impossible to see anything but hedges and trees. It was so narrow that the car scraped along the hedges on one side. Then we came to a passing place. She pulled into it and put the hand-brake on.
I looked at her perplexed. “What are you doing?”
She turned off the fan heater and the lights. She killed the engine.
“I know it’s unfair of me,” she said. “I haven’t told you enough about myself, about what I believe, who I am. But you know I’m not exactly conventional. And please believe I love you and would never wish any harm to come to you. There’s nothing to be scared of here. It’s one weekend and nothing bad will happen but even if you don’t like it, please share it with me and try not to despise me for what I’ve done.”
Looking back on things now, it’s her innocence I remember and her sense of fun. She had been playing with me, playing not in a malign way but in a spirit of childlike anticipation. She was excited about the possibilities of what might happen. She was trying to open me out, to dispel my inhibitions. It was an adventure and I was her leading man. When I think of her now it is with feelings of pity, of loss and grief. She loved me and I loved the way that made me feel.
Julia sighed. The sound reminded me of leaves rustling on cold pavements. “I do want you to stay but you don’t have to,” she said.
“You could drive up to the house and leave me with the car to go home again,” I suggested.
“Do you want to?”
Suddenly it was silent in the car, so silent that I could hear my heart. Julia’s coat whispered against her skin as she twisted her face towards me, a grey shadow in the darkness.
“Say you forgive me,” she said.
“First tell me whose house we are going to.”
“His name is Ospak.”
“He’s from Iceland.”
“He lives in London but he inherited this house from his grandmother.”
“Is he a witch?”
“No. Actually, he is weird but he is very nice.”
“And he likes to celebrate Halloween?”
“Yes. Every year.” Her hands dropped into her lap and she studied my face in the darkness. For the first time in the conversation her body stopped moving and she was absolutely still. The stillness was so untypical of Julia that the intensity of it alarmed me. Normally her body was always moving, subtly, slowly, sinuously. “But we don’t call it Halloween. I call it Samhain and Ospak calls it Winternights.”
“Samhain. Winternights,” I repeated. “What is it?”
“It’s a celebration of death. It’s the dark time of year. It’s chaotic. Spectral hounds lead the spirits of the dead across stormy skies, scavenging for souls. It is about death. It’s about putting aside a store of food for winter. It’s about bringing home the harvest. It’s reaping what you’ve sown. It’s all those things. That’s what it’s about.”
“I can relate to the metaphor,” I said.
She reached across and touched my arm. Her perfume was sweet and sultry. The moist glimmer of her eyes aroused me. “I live the metaphor,” she whispered.
I pulled away from her.
“I don’t like being manipulated,” I said.
“I don’t want to manipulate you. I am excited about this weekend. I simply wanted to share it with you,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. Does that scare you?”
“You’re as white as a sheet.” She looked genuinely concerned.
I leaned over and kissed her. “I forgive you,” I said.
Her lips brushed mine. She closed her eyes and we kissed again in the darkness. “Isn’t there also something about it that excites you?” she asked.
“You excite me.”
“I mean Winternights.”
“I don’t believe in spectres,” I said.
“What about ghosts?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts either.”
“After this weekend you might.”
“Are you trying to scare me?”
“No. But I’m afraid you’ll mock. You won’t mock, will you?”
“No, I won’t mock.”
“Not even Ospak and his friends?”
“What are they like?”
“I’m not sure if I’ve met them all.”
“What’s Ospak like?”
“No-one on earth is like Ospak. He knows things no-one else can know. Things he has learnt from spirits. He is very special.”
I laughed. I suppose it was a mocking laugh. It must have made me sound cynical.
“You’re jealous and you haven’t even met him,” she said.
“You make him sound like some sort of shaman.”
“Learning things from spirits.”
Julia rocked back in her seat. Her fingers rubbed the amber necklace at her throat, my present to her. The beads chinked mutely. “Perhaps he is some sort of shaman.”
“Tell me about the others.”
“You will have to see about the others.” She turned the key in the ignition and pumped the accelerator. The car eased out of the damp mud on the verge of the road.
“Put your lights on,” I said.
She flicked the headlights on and we drove another hundred yards. There were orange glimmers ahead, flickering like will o’ the wisps between the black lines of trees. There were two cottages at the end of the track. One was lit with candles, the other was completely dark. She stopped the car on the gravel forecourt next to a dirty Volkswagen and led me to the cottage where the lights were.