Bidisha is a writer, critic and broadcaster. Her most recent book is the memoir Venetian Masters (Summersdale). Her next will be a return to fiction.

Harlot moths and boiling oil

The adults were all downstairs. It was too hot to go out, too humid to stay inside and do anything other than eat and gossip. The conservatory doors were open, as were the kitchen shutters and the little leaded window in the study. Last week a wild red butterfly had flown in and gone from room to room throbbing its wings hard against the windows in panic. It was a disturbing sight – the fear of a tiny creature. The locals called it the Harlot Moth. Lore had it that if a Harlot Moth rested on the shoulder of a young man, it meant his true love was near. Six weeks after that, however, he could expect to die. The legend was repeated to demonstrate the value of weighing up the pros and cons of every new enterprise.

Amber and her cousin Kavita were sitting on the four poster bed in Amber's room. She'd always wanted a four poster, complete with carvings, and after a night of online bidding, her mother had found a beautiful antique one for her most recent birthday. A crown was engraved on the headboard. Plaited ribbons were engraved around the posts. Thorny vines curled in cracked lines along the sides. It was uncomfortable as hell.

Amber was writing out letters and numbers on a jumbo piece of cartridge paper from school. She was supposed to be using it to sketch the view from her room for homework during the long holidays.

"Didn't you get the Ouija board?" asked Kavita.

"The toy shop wouldn't sell it to me. They said I was too young to be messing with things like that. The lady gave me One Thousand Fortune-Telling Facts instead." Amber gave Kavita the book. "Look in the Sealed Section of Forbidden Practices in the back – which is the best bit, anyway, and they know it – it shows you how to make your own."

"'A proportion of all proceeds will be donated to the Whitcross Weir Cat Sanctuary'?" Kavita read out.

"Cats need their rest too," shrugged Amber. "Whitcross is up the road from us. Did you see the crosses when you drove up? They're all over the walks. Every time you see a cross, you know someone died there. There's a big metal one in the middle of the village, and there are these homemade ones on the lanes. They're really creepy. There's a stone one at the crossing. The more recent ones have names and dates on them – from the kids who were killed on the weir."

"By animals?"

"No, by Noel Warner. In the Eighties. Can you shut the blinds? The sun's too bright."

Noel Warner had been killed at Gifford Ham prison five years ago. Three inmates who worked in the kitchens threw boiling oil into his face. He died of shock.

"You know this isn't going to work," said Kavita, putting a pile of books against the bottom of the window blind to stop it flapping.

"Oh, Kavita, you always pour cold water on everything. Every time I have an idea, splish splish, there you go, kill the enthusiasm. Honestly. Nothing's going to happen, anyway. It's an experiment..."

Continues in the print edition. Order now.



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