“What do you think?” Lucy said expectantly.
I resettled the glasses on the bridge of my nose. “Well... I love the dress, and ... and the wings are great.”
She pouted, as only a seven year old can pout. “But?”
“But ... I’m not sure about the tail.”
She gave a quick glance behind her at the fluffy cat’s tail velcro’d to her tutu, and then crossed her arms. “What’s wrong with the tail?”
I trod carefully. I’d been warned to do so. “I don’t think fairies have tails.”
She looked at me surprised. “They fly, don’t they?”
“Well, yes...” I admitted.
“Like a bird?”
“Or an airplane?”
“Which have tails?”
I laughed. “Not everything that flies has a tail!”
The arms tightened across the ruffled pink top. “Name one.”
She had me for a moment, and she knew it. “See?” She declared, victorious.
“A bumblebee...” I said, slowly, uncertainly.
She shifted from side to side, presumably working through what little she knew about bumblebees. Which can’t have been any less than I did.
“Where do they keep their stings?” She asked.
“Fairies don’t have stings.” I said, backpedalling somewhat.
“Mine do.” She said.
I was so busy preparing my next reply, that it took a moment for the strangeness of what she’d said to sink in. “What do you mean, ‘Mine’?” I asked.
“The ones in the garden. The ones that took Fatima.”
I’d heard all about Fatima, of course, from Lucy’s bookish parents. She was strictly never to be mentioned, for fear it would bring on another episode. Though they hadn’t told me what to do if Lucy mentioned her first. It can’t be easy, when you’re a kid, to have your au pair go missing like that, and for the media circus to descend upon the house. The way the parents described it, it had been a difficult six months, and this was the first time they’d trusted anyone to look after Lucy since the disappearance.
I decided it would be best if I focused on the tricky question of the fancy dress costume. I was fairly certain that if I didn’t manage to convince her to ditch the tail, she’d be a laughing stock at her new school’s Christmas Disco. This was one argument I did not want to lose – for her sake.
“Lucy, what do the fairies’ tails look like?” I asked, slyly.
“Oh, all sorts!” she said, reaching behind to grab hold. “Some are long, and scaly. Some are short, and curly...”
“Like a pigs tail?” I interrupted, amazed once more by her imagination.
She nodded solemnly. “Some are spiky, and some are fluffy...”
“With pom-poms?” I sprung the trap.
She considered this in all seriousness. “No... I can’t remember any pom-poms.” She looked closely at the end of her cat’s tail. “Do you think I should cut them off?”
“If you do that,” I said, “you won’t be able to use it as a cat’s tail anymore.”
She contemplated my sage advice, before suddenly brightening. “Do you want to see them?”
“The costumes?” I asked, suspiciously.
“No, silly! The fairies. Come on!” And with that she grabbed my hand and began tugging me towards the kitchen door.
I wondered what they would be. Garden ornaments, perhaps? Or invisible friends, created to make sense of what had happened to her au pair? I peered into the evening’s thickening gloom.
She laughed. “I haven’t called them yet.” She began to chant, a strange, guttural made-up language, deeper than I would have credited a seven year could manage. Gave me the creeps.
She drew to a halt, the final thrice repeated stanza lingering in the air, and then we waited. I began to feel cold, and stupid, and was about to drag her back into the warm, brightly lit house when something flitted before our eyes, and Lucy’s hand tightened its grip on mine.
It must have been a bat, I thought – the way it swooped. And there it went again – or was that another one? And another ... as my eyes began to adjust to the dark, I picked out legs, and arms, and grinning faces, and they began to look less and less like bats, after all.
For a moment, just a moment, the world was suddenly a magical place, full of wonder, a place where seven year olds could call fairies to them from their back gardens. Even if they were darker than I’d expected. Weren’t they supposed to glow, or something? I heard laughter, and chattering voices, as they circled closer and closer.
“They like you!” Lucy squealed “I knew they would!”
They liked me a little too damned much, I felt something brush the back of my neck, and a loose hair was suddenly and painfully plucked free. I raised my free hand to fend them off and immediately felt a sharp sting.
“Oww!” I looked down at three little jewels of blood rising on the back of my hand. As I stared, one of them landed on my wrist and stood proudly there, a nightmare image unlike that in any kids’ book. I saw wings - less like a butterfly and more like torn parchment - and I saw a body that was a deep, glistening red. No wonder they had been so hard to see. A small, leering head, complete with a pair of miniature horns, and a wiry tail busy wrapping itself round my thumb, as it lent forward with a three pronged spear – a trident – and delicately dipped it in the three wells of blood, as if trying it for size, as if saying, Yes! I did that! – before suddenly springing back into the air with a nasty little laugh.
“They like you a lot!” Lucy exclaimed, letting go of my hand and stepping back until I could hardly see her anymore through the dark cloud of flapping wings. “I think they want to play with you.” And then she giggled. “Just like Fatima!”