The parlour was crammed with party-frocked children, all eager to be let loose upon the games they thought in store for them. One boy (I think it must have been me) wondered if games could exist without children to play them. He imagined hide-and-seek with mere wisps of shadow darting in and out of the corners; musical chairs with a feast of empty seats; hunt the invisible thimble; sardines with only loneliness to come between; Nobody’s Knock…
Forgetting his thoughts, he surveyed the remains of food upon the excited faces, almost more to eat than they had in the first place. The dining-room had been a wondrous place that afternoon. With an early dusk outside, the candles had shone out a treat, casting golden tea-leaves of dream upon all the faces. The red jelly had wobbled deliciously. The cakes had dribbled fresh clotted cream even before they saw the tiny white teeth. Steaming samovars of infusions. Neatly manicured cucumber sandwiches. Drinks with more bubbles than liquid. The birthday cake decorated with a mysterious number none of the children could possibly count towards.
He had seen the girl for the first time around that table. Initially attracted by the pinafore frock, the face was very much second best. But the more he became accustomed to its frequently dimplish smile over the trifle, the more he fell in love with the rest of the girl he couldn’t see.
The parlour was lit by a log fire. The faces were keen to get the planning phase over and the campaign of games under way. He spotted the girl again — she was towards the back, the furthest from the fire that one could possibly be. She was no longer smiling but, even at his tender age, he knew that angels did not smile all of the time. There was at least one grown-up ranging about between the tangled limbs, so tall it was difficult to see the lines of the face. It was issuing instructions, however, which, for the boy’s part, were pretty pointless. He thought the best present he’d receive today was being the seeker and the pinafored girl the hider whom he’d find in some solitary part of the house. Apparently, though, he was not chosen to be seeker, despite the party being in his honour. Indeed, the sole grown-up was intent on the role of seeker.
Suddenly the children rose in uproar, the girl included, and scuttled off in all possible directions. Only the boy and the grown-up were left staring at each other across the shadows of the flames.
The deep mumbling had no meaning. But the boy understood only too well. He followed the tail-end of the children into the dark hallway outside the parlour. The landing at the top of the steep stairs looked forbidding — although, of course, he realised that nowhere was out of bounds today of all days. Even the servants’ quarters were eligible hiding-space, the occupants having been given the night off with a few halfpennies to spend at the Christmas fair. The night off? He wished he could have had the night off. He tore at his face as if trying to scrape the shadows of night from it.
The girl in the pinafore frock was disappearing up the very stairs he found so forbidding. Distantly, he followed the heels of her sandals — catching glimpses of thin calves in light seeped from some undarkened rooms elsewhere in the house.