It's pleasant here in Karen's kitchen, talking about our children, sipping chardonnay, with before us on the wide oak table the wreck of the children's tea. I glance around the circle. You can tell that everyone's dressed up in honor of the party—Fiona has glittery earrings, Michaela is wearing a clingy wrap top that frames her lavish cleavage. But only Karen has a proper costume: she always feels that as hostess she has license, and today she's a rather glamorous witch, in a black chiffon frock with a raggedy hem and with lots of Rouge Noir on her nails. Behind her on the windowsill there are lighted pumpkin faces, and the candle flames shiver and falter in the draft that sneaks in around the frame.

The children yell. We turn toward the open door of the living room, watching as the magician pulls some spiders out of his sleeve. Leo, Karen's husband, who's in there keeping order, applauds with great enthusiasm. The magician is exceptional, everyone keeps saying so—Karen was brilliant to find him. He looked quite ordinary, arriving in his grimy van, prosaically dressed in jeans and a Coldplay T-shirt. But now, in his cloak of indigo silk with a silver pattern of planets, he has a presence, a mystery.

"I do like clever hands," says Michaela. "Can I take him home with me?"

He flings two scarves up into the air that come down tied together. The children watch wide-eyed. All their own outfits look a little random now—masks hanging off, cloaks slipping from shoulders. Josh, Karen's son, is at the front, with stick-on scars from Sainsbury's on his arms, and Lennie, her little girl, is sitting next to Sylvie, dressed as a witch's black cat. Sylvie has bunched up the skirts of her snowflake dress and is absently sucking the white ribbon hem. She really wanted to be a cat like Lennie, but the black cat costume in Clinton Cards was one of the most expensive, and I took the cheaper snowflake outfit from its peg and held it against her, hoping to persuade her without her getting upset. She looked at herself in the mirror. The dress was white and frothy, of some muslinlike material, with trailing ribbons. She has hair like lint, no color, the slightest smudge of freckles on her nose. Pale things suit her. For myself, I like color, I'd love to dress her in the rainbow, but too much brightness seems to overwhelm her. She smiled at her reflection. She was pale and perfect against the whiteness of the dress, and to my relief she was easily persuaded. Though I hate these moments, always—the everyday abrasions, the things I so long to buy for her that I'm sure would make her happy, at least for a little while. None of the other mothers around the table, I suspect, would understand this; nor would they know the panic I feel when Sylvie grows out of her shoes, or at the arrival of a birthday invitation requiring a present I haven't budgeted for.


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