An Unexpected Party
An Unexpected Party
Mummy had gone out. Past experience told Barry she wouldn’t be back until breakfast time, so it looked like a lonely night in with baked-beans for dinner, and only then if his mother hadn’t hidden the can-opener. She was naughty sometimes - especially when she drank the enchanted water she kept in a locked cupboard under the sink. Once, after she was the most enchanted that Barry had ever seen her, she made his Daddy disappear. Barry came downstairs the next morning to find his mother planting a long bed of flowers beside the tall fence in the back garden, and she told him that Daddy had vanished without trace, and that if he ever told his friends or teachers what had happened, he would vanish too. After that, the rough boys at school started to call him ‘Barry the Bastard’, but he still never told anyone about his mother’s magical abilities. It was their special secret...
Clasping the crumpled tin of beans his mother had thrown at him as she left for the night, Barry craned his head to see the can-opener was Sellotaped to the kitchen ceiling, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to reach it, even if he stood on a chair. His tummy was gurgling with hunger pangs as he opened up the fridge, but there was nothing in there except a sweaty plastic bag with three slices of green bread inside, and a curled up spider in the salad crisper.
There was only one thing for it: he pulled his school trousers up around his waist, opened the door under the stairs, and crept slowly down the steps to the cellar. He hated it there, but if he wanted those beans, he’d have to get Mummy’s big axe from the workbench and chop the tin open.
The axe was hidden under the bench in a special compartment that his mother had made. Barry knelt down in the dust, unclasped the catches and the axe, wrapped in a thick plastic sheet, tumbled to the floor with a loud thud, which made Barry flinch. He picked up the bundle and scuttled back up the steps, slamming the door behind him - in case a Maeglem was chasing him - then ran back through to the kitchen.
An old man with a wild, white beard and silver hair stood by the door. His shabby, long trench coat swayed as he turned to the arrival of the boy, and his eyes opened wide, as did his mouth, with mortificiation.
With an involuntary hoot of surprise, Barry fumbled his burden and it fell to the floor with a resounding clang, spilling open to reveal the razor-honed edge of the axe head. It glinted, relatively, under the twenty-watt bulb of the kitchen light.
Both Barry and the stranger regarded each other in a tense moment of vigilant silence, aware of the weapon lying on the floor between them, but hesitant to make the first move towards it.
“Watch out!” called the stranger, raising his hand and pointing a long, bony finger over Barry’s shoulder.
Barry turned his head in terror, expecting the fanged Maeglem his mother had warned of to be looming up from behind. He ran forwards, his craned neck looking back into the darkness of the hallway, and then - thump - he hit his head against something soft.
“Ooof!” said the stranger, falling to the floor with his hands apparently searching for stray pocket change.
Barry leapt over the old man and made a grab for the back door handle, rattling it desperately with both hands, but the door wouldn’t budge. (Even after he’d asked what to do if there was a fire, his Mother had insisted that the door stay locked when she wasn’t there. As an afterthought, she had put the child-benefit book into an envelope and pinned it to the notice board, telling Barry that, if there was a fire, he should post it through the letterbox and help would be on its way. That was no good now though - not when the thing he was trying to escape from was blocking his escape route.) Resigned to his fate, he let loose of the door handle and turned, timidly, to face the salivating jaws of death...
There was nothing there except the old man, curled up and writhing in a heap on the kitchen floor, but no Maeglem anywhere to be seen. Barry puzzled, staring into space like a child who was due substantial damages from the local maternity hospital, before the penny finally dropped.
Stepping around the stranger as if he was something a dog dropped, Barry retrieved the heavy axe and brandished it with as much menace as he could muster.
“You tried to trick me!”
The stranger looked up; his bloodshot eyes catching sight of the axe before wandering on to meet with Barry’s stern glare. “No, no...” he croaked.
“Yes you did! You tried to make me think there was a Maeglem after me when there wasn’t one at all. I’m not stupid, you know!”
The stranger suspected otherwise. His pain abating, he lifted himself slowly onto one elbow. “But there was one there... I saw it - just behind you - and I pointed to it because I didn’t want to see a fine boy like you get eaten all up.”
“Oh yeah?” said Barry, fidgeting with the axe, “Well I bet you don’t even know what a Maeglem looks like, do you? And I do, ‘cos I saw one once. So, if you did see one, you can tell me what it looks like, can’t you?” Barry hadn’t actually seen one, but with his Mother describing them to him so often - if he’d dropped biscuit crumbs; made the stairs creak when he came down them; or spoke during Ricki Lake - he had a very good idea of what they did look like. “Go on then... tell me what a Maeglem looks like, or I’ll... I’ll chop off your head!”
Far from a full recovery, the old man whimpered. Someone had been putting a lot of hours into sharpening that axe, and even with the minimal strength of the boy he was sure it would cut through him like a laser.
“Well,” began the stranger, looking to read the boy’s face. “It had great big, sharp teeth, like the biggest rat you ever saw...”
Barry shook visibly.
“... and instead of fingernails, it had talons, and they was dripping with blood. And its eyes were, oh, like glowing coals they were... red as the setting sun.”
An icy wave washed down Barry’s spine, and he backed away and to the side so he could keep an eye on the hallway door. There had been a Maeglem there after all. His bottom lip began to tremble as his grip on the axe loosened slightly.
“The skin on his face was white as a skeleton’s bones,” continued the man, confident he had the boy in retreat. “... and he was creeping up on you with his hands all ready to grab you, and that’s when I went and warned you. That’s what I did.”
After a deep gulp, Barry asked, solemnly, “Where did it go, then?”
“I went and killed it, didn’t I... sent it back to its maker.” The stranger motioned towards the bowels of the Earth with a down turned thumb. “I saved your life, that’s what I did. And now you’re wanting to chop me up with that axe? I ask you!”
Barry softened, but didn’t completely relinquish his stance. “But where’s its body gone then?”
The stranger laughed, nervously. “Everyone knows that Maeglems disappear when they’ve been killed. But you know that already, don’t you? After all, you’re not stupid!”
Barry cocked his head. “Well, of course, I know that,” he said, and tutted, relieved that the threat had been dealt with. “I was just testing to see if you knew.”
“Ahh,” said the stranger with a wry smile. “That’s what you done, you smart lad. So can I get up off this cold floor now?”
“Not so fast!” snapped Barry with renewed bravado. “You still haven’t explained what you’re doing here. How did you get in? Are you a burglar?” The axe began to look menacing again.
“Whoa there,” said the old man, waving his hand, stalling for thought. “Do I looks like a burglar?”
“Well, I think so,” scoffed Barry. “And Mother always locks the doors when she goes out, and only a burglar can open locked doors, so you must be one.” He advanced half a pace on the man, but stayed safely out of reach.
“Aaah,” said the stranger, raising a finger to tap the side of his nose. “But you yourself couldn’t even open that door. And what kind of burglar would lock a door after he’d gone and opened it, when he still had to get out?”
Barry’s eye twitched.
“You see,” followed the stranger, “it’s not just burglar’s who can get through them doors. Wizards can too... with magic!”
Barry’s jaw dropped, as nearly did the axe. “A wizard?” he said, aghast.
“Of course,” whooped the old man as he twisted to sit. “Just look at my whiskers,” he said, running his fingers through his white beard. “Who ever heard of a burglar with whiskers like these?”
“And who ever heard of a wizard without whiskers like these?” said the old man with growing confidence, twisting the end of his moustache to a sharp point.
Barry was stumped. “But why are you here?”
“Well,” began the man, “I was just sitting there at home, and I went and did my washing up and turned on the taps and then I said, ‘Hello, what’s this then?’ because I could see a picture in the water in the sink. That’s where us wizards see stuff, isn’t it? And I saw this picture, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh dear!’ because I could see a little boy in some trouble. I could see he was going to get eaten by a terrible monster, and I thought, ‘I can’t have that happen now, can I? I’ll have to get round there to help that poor boy before something awful occurs.’ And that’s just what I did!”
Barry lowered his eyebrows and frowned. It all made sense. He laid the axe on the table and helped the friendly old wizard to his feet. “I’m ever so sorry for being rude,” he said, “but the last thing I expected was to find someone in the house with me. And I certainly didn’t expect a wizard. I hope you can forgive me?”
The old man rubbed the base of his spine and adjusted his pocket change. Now that the axe was out of harm’s way he had half a mind to give the boy a slap but, as he looked down into those inquisitive blue eyes, half hidden under a scruffy bowl of brown hair, all he could see was dumb admiration. “Aye, you’re forgiven.”
Barry smiled. “My name’s Barry Wise. What’s yours?”
“Er, Chris... the... um... White Wizard. Put it there, sonny...” he said, offering an open palm.
Normally, an outstretched hand was a precursor to a scuff on the head from his Mother, or a punch in the stomach from the rough boys at school, so Barry was delighted to shake the wizard’s hand, especially as it was his very first grown-up handshake ever. He positively bristled with pride.
“What’s a young laddie doing with a thing like this?” frowned the old man, his fingers brushing the shaft of the resting axe.
“Oh,” said Barry, “I needed to open my tin of beans with it.”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “You open tins with an axe in this house?”
“Of course not,” giggled Barry. “Not normally, anyway, but Mother played a trick on me again,” he said, pointing to the ceiling. “She says it keeps me on my toes.”
“I’d say so...” mused the old man, looking up at the can-opener. “She must be a barrel of laughs must your Mum. How about I get it down for you and stop you from slicing your foot off?”
Chris the White Wizard clambered up onto the kitchen table, reaching on tiptoe to pull away the Sellotape that secured the can-opener. It dropped to the floor, narrowly missing the boy’s head. With creaking bones, he climbed back down and pulled up a chair.
“Do you want to share my beans?” asked Barry as he retrieved the can-opener and began to open the tin.
“Oh, no, no... You’re a growing boy! You need your eats, don’t you? Besides, I went and had my tea before I came out here, didn’t I?” The old man smiled to himself. “I tell you what, you go and put this axe away, and I’ll cook your beans for you. How’s about that?”
Barry’s face fell. “I don’t want to go down there again,” he gulped.
“What?” said the wizard, turning in his chair. “You still afraid of that Maeglem?”
Barry looked ashamedly at his shoes. “A little bit.”
“I told you I went and killed it, didn’t I? And don’t you know the rules?”
“There are rules, there are, that should a little boy show kindness to a wizard - such as you did just now by being so gentlemanly as to offers me some of your food - then that little boy is protected by magic from monsters and them like. So don’t you worry about no Maeglem, and you take that axe back down to where you went and got it.” Chris stood up and took the opened tin from the boy. “Now you do as a wise old wizard tells you, see, and I’ll go and warm up these here beans.”
Barry felt better, knowing he was magically protected, and wrapped the axe back up in the plastic sheet. “Okay,” he smiled confidently; “I’ll see you in a minute.” He went into the hall and Chris heard footfalls descending the cellar steps.
Quickly, the old man went to the window and pulled it closed, securing the locking arm back into place. The dent from the screwdriver he’d used to work under the frame was barely noticeable. He grabbed a jay cloth from the sink and wiped away the footprints on the window ledge and work surface, then rinsed the cloth under the tap and put it back where he found it. Now he’d covered his tracks, he knelt down in search of a pan and tried to open the cupboard under the sink. It wouldn’t give. He checked the next one to discover a box of rat-poison amongst bottles containing bleaches and drain-cleaner, and it struck him as odd that these were exactly the things that should have been locked away from harm’s reach.
With a thunderous stampede and vicious thump as the cellar door slammed shut, the boy was back, and walked over to the old man, his chest heaving.
“Where do you keep your pans, then?” asked Chris, standing and closing the cupboard door with a flick of his knee.
Barry, pink-cheeked and breathless, skirted around the wizard and plucked a small saucepan from an opposite cupboard. “Here you go,” he said, handing it to Chris.
“See any monsters down there, then?”
“No, there was nothing there - not even a spider!”
Chris gave a friendly wink: “I’d say you know the magic’s working, boy?” He put the pan on the hob and emptied the tin of beans into it, turning the electric ring up to full.
* * * * *
“Mmmm...” declared Barry with a lick of his lips, “I would never have thought that beans could taste so much better by just making them hot.” He laid his fork on the plate and smiled across the table to the wizard.
“Ahh, boy - you just should knows you deserves them that way, whether a wizard is with you or is not. Cold beans is no good to a growing boy - no good at all to anyone, unless you be sitting in a bath of them for charity, or it be the last thing you have to eat in the North Pole. Your Mum should be ashamed...”
Barry circled his tongue, cleaning the last of the tomato-sauce from his mouth and chin, then looked up with a creased brow, “What do you mean?”
“I only mean that you should have better than this here what you’ve got,” said Chris with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “I don’t mean to say no disrespect, but your old mum sounds like a bit of a bloody witch to me, and more when she won’t give you no food over tricking you like what she went and did.” Chris rolled his eyes to the ceiling and back down to meet the boy’s innocent gaze.
Thinking carefully, Barry wiped the back of his hand slowly across his mouth. He stood up from his chair, picked up the plate and fork, and placed them in the sink. Turning back to the wizard, he said in a half-whisper, “Do you want to know a special secret?”
“What kind of secret?”
Barry cast furtive glances around the room as he sidled up to the wizard. “Do you promise you won’t tell anyone... ever?”
The wizard raised an eyebrow. “Go on...”
“No, you have to promise - cross your heart and hope to die.”
Chris made a casual cross over his chest. “I promise now, boy, on my early grave.”
“Mummy is a witch; a proper one, like you’re a proper wizard.”
“Is that so? And what makes you think that?”
Barry’s eyes gleamed. “She made my Daddy disappear...”
“Disappear, you say? And how’s that, then?”
“Well, Daddy came home very late from work one night, smelling of beer and I think he had blood on the collar of his shirt, so Mummy was very angry. She’d been drinking her enchanted water, but then she drank even more of it, and I think that’s why it happened.”
“Enchanted water?” asked Chris.
“It’s what give witches their power,” explained Barry quickly, before continuing: “And after Mummy sent me to bed, she cast a spell on Daddy, and she was so cross and so enchanted that, I think, she accidentally disappeared him forever.”
Chris was troubled. “And you haven’t seen him since?”
“Not except in dreams,” Barry replied glossy-eyed. “I think that’s where people go when they disappear.”
“You miss him?”
Barry blinked, skimming a single tear that ran down his cheek. “Sometimes. But when I do, I go out in the garden and sit by the flowers and talk to him. Mummy planted them for me. She said that I’d always be close to him in the garden.”
Chris ruffled the boy’s hair and Barry looked up with a brave smile.
“Where’s your Mum now, then?” asked Chris.
Barry wiped the sleeve of his jumper across his face. “She’s out with Uncle Peter.”
“And left you all on your lonesome?”
“Oh, I’m okay by myself. I am nearly twelve after all. How old are you?”
Chris laughed. “Old as the hills...” he said. “Hey, Barry, what you be saying about this enchanted water, anyhow? Can I have a look at it? See if it’s the same enchanted water us wizards drink?”
Barry pulled his bottom lip. “Well, I don’t know. Mummy says it’s very special and nobody should touch it except her.”
“Surely she be meaning ‘normal’ people, not the likes of those in witchcraft and wizardry? What harm is there, now? I’ve probably gone and drank the same thing a thousand times before I had the pleasure of meeting you.”
Barry nodded. He knelt below the sink and opened the cupboard, then began to remove an assortment of chemicals and poisons from the shelf inside, lining them up neatly and in order of removal on the kitchen tiles. “Mother would be furious if she knew I was doing this. She’d probably disappear me too.”
The wizard watched curiously.
Barry tugged at the cleared shelf and it came free in his hands. He twisted and leant it against a leg of the kitchen table, then reached back, far inside the cupboard, and clawed his little fingers around the back of the wooden panel that separated that compartment from the locked one. It gave with an easy creak, creating a narrow gap which Barry slid his hand through to retrieve an unlabelled glass bottle of clear liquid.
Laying the bottle to one side, he reversed his actions; replaced the shelf; arranged the chemicals to their original lineup; then closed the door. Grasping the neck of the bottle in one hand, he stood and placed it on the table in front of the wizard. “There you go.”
“Top Hat!” congratulated Chris with a pat on the young boy’s back. He twisted the cap off the bottle and took a sniff... Vodka.
“Is this what you have?” said Barry.
“Most certainly. This is definitely the genuine article.”
“Would you like a cup?” asked Barry, already moving towards the cupboard, “Or do you drink it straight from the bottle, like witches do?”
“A cup is good.”
Barry passed the cup to the wizard, then took a seat at the table.
Chris filled the cup and lifted it to his lips, taking two deep gulps. “So, this Uncle Peter? He’s your Mum’s man friend, is he?”
Barry frowned. “Well, he’s one of them.”
“She has a lot of men friends, does she?” asked Chris, with a raised eyebrow.
“Lots... and lots. I don’t approve.”
“No. Some of my uncles aren’t very nice people.”
“Why?” asked Chris, taking another gulp of vodka, before topping up the cup.
“I just don’t like them. They shout at Mummy.”
Chris emptied the cup, a warm feeling building in the pit of his stomach. “That’s no way to treat a lady now, is it boy?” He refilled the cup.
“No. One time, when Mummy stopped seeing Uncle Tom, he came around to the house and knocked and knocked on the door, so hard that he broke some glass. Mummy wasn’t in and I was frightened. He shouted that Mummy had a wizard’s sleeve, and that I should tell her. Then he went away.”
Chris nearly choked on his vodka.
“When I gave her the message, she hit me and locked me in the cellar.” Barry looked at Chris. “Do you have a wizard’s sleeve?”
“Certainly not!” laughed Chris, slurping back the last of the vodka. “Well, Barry, my little friend. I’ve done my work for this night and day, so I be on my way now.”
Chris rose from his chair and pushed it neatly back under the table.
Barry looked sullen and lifted from his chair like a sodden rag caught on a fishing line. Turning, he contorted the lower part of his face into something that resembled a smile, and said, hopefully, “Will I see you again?”
Chris considered the question, then the boy. “Aye, maybe so, young Barry.”
Barry’s smile spread into his eyes. “Thank you, er... sir.” Then, suddenly, the smile went into overload. “Oh, oh, oh... are you going to do magic now?”
“Are you going to magic through the door again?”
Barry’s eyes were dancing.
“No... I don’t think that be a good idea. What with all that enchanted water, I’d be blowing the door to pieces if I went and tried that now.”
Barry tightened his mouth and raised his eyebrows. “But how will you get out? Only Mummy has the key?”
“Well,” said Chris, “Why don’t I try and see if I can fit through that window.”