SUR

The party piece

A meeting between old university friends always sounds great in theory, so what could possibly go wrong?

Peter Edgerton
PETER EDGERTON

A gathering of twelve old university friends in a Scottish Highland castle had sounded great in theory but the reality was, by the third day, things were getting a bit fraught and, although there was plenty of food and wine to go round in the evenings, some bright idea or other was desperately needed to distract from the emerging tensions.

"I know! Why don't we do party pieces?" Noemi did a little jig on the spot. "Come on, everyone. Party Pieces! It'll be fun!"

A murmur of suppressed approval spread across the room and, after something of a hesitant start, everyone gradually got into the swing. Someone recited the entire alphabet backwards and somebody else did something rather grotesque with their double-jointed elbow which left quite a few of the group feeling vaguely queasy, including the man whose elbow it was. A hilarious Paul McCartney impression, a forty-two-year-old mother-of-three doing the splits and a headstand that lasted twenty-three minutes and eight seconds were some of the other highlights.

"Jenny! Your turn!" Jenny shook her head.

"I can't do anything like that, honestly. Sorry, no." Some playful booing ensued while her friend Frances whispered into her ear. Jenny sat back, looking shocked.

"No, No! I'm not doing that!"

But it was too late. Frances, as drunk as she was insistent, rallied the troops to her cause until they were all clapping their hands and chanting Jenny's name until she was left with no alternative but to acquiesce.

"Alright, alright. But it doesn't always work, you know. I'll look pretty stupid if it doesn't." She laughed nervously and cleared her throat.

"Turn the lights down, please. And I need silence, total silence."

Someone offered a passable drum roll with two spoons and a deathly hush fell over the room, only the crackling of the hearth making any sound at all.

Jenny lay her hands face down on the table before her, closed her eyes and began to breathe in and out, deeply and slowly, her long, dark hair falling forwards over her face as she did so.

After what seemed like an age, somebody whispered "This is taking longer than the head stand", which caused a ripple of subdued giggles but they subsided as rapidly as they had risen. Suddenly, Jenny opened her eyes wide and covered her mouth.

"No! No! It's not working! No, sorry, no." She leapt up and sprinted through the old stone archway towards the stairs that led to her room. Frances followed her up immediately but it took some time before her friend would even try to speak. Eventually, she began to mumble something not altogether coherent.

"It.. it wasn't clear. It was...it must be wrong. No, it wasn't, you know, right. Not like the other times."

"What happened Jenny?" Jenny's voice was barely audible.

"It was a..a..man. It was always a woman before, but now....well, it was a man. He said.... he said..no...no..he said one of you will be involved in a fatal accident returning home. He was laughing, Frances. Laughing. It was horrible."

Frances felt an icy fear bite into her bones but hid her disquiet.

"No, Jenny, it can't be anything. It was always that friendly woman before."

"Not this time, Frances."

They resolved not to say anything to the others and explained it all away the next day as a failed attempt at amateur clairvoyance, joking leadenly about tea leaves and crystal balls and the like.

Thankfully though, nobody seemed to give the incident much further thought after that and soon enough it was time for them all to leave. Frances insisted everyone to message her to say they'd arrived home safely because, well, you know she was a worry wart and a mother hen and all that. By twelve noon the following day they had all done as they were asked. As soon as the last of the messages had been received, Frances picked up her phone to call Jenny as arranged. She couldn't wait to give her the good news. It had all been in her imagination. The phone rang five times. Then on the sixth, a click:

"Hi, this is Jenny. I'm not here. Please leave a message. Byeeee!"