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It was All Hallows Eve as the old ones called it, but to us it was simply Halloween. A time for darkened skies, for fallen leaves golden and brown and the feet of children kicking with verve through them; for sweets and treats, for frightening films and spooky tales, for friendship, for the fear and love of the unknown, and for wide grinning turnip heads glowing in the clouded night. And costumes, yes costumes! Some dressed as comical characters, super heroes, and popular toys, others following the traditions of old, dressed as the dead and embracing the macabre delight of it all. Most kids had Christmas, which I loved too, but for us Halloween was the most important night of the year. That one time where we could truly be what we dreamed, falling into characters, creatures, and people far removed from the fragility of our childhood selves.
Stewart was an undead pirate who had risen up from his watery grave, and if we didn’t take part in some lootin’ and pillagin’ we’d surely of found ourselves walking the plank. Andy was a Terminator, complete with leather jacket, a metallic cheek created with tinfoil, slicked back hair and sunglasses which hid a glowing red left eye behind. I was Van Helsing, armed to the teeth with wooden stakes, crosses, garlic and a vial of water I assumed was holy because I had filled it from a tap in the local church’s bathroom; even back then my mind was permanently stuck in the hokey sets and thick smoke of the old Hammer horror Dracula films. Mac, he was dressed as an injured football hooligan complete with torn football strip, blooded and bandaged head, and his arm in a sling – all the more ironic as he would in fact grow up to be a footballer. The other Andy, who we affectionately called squire, was decked in luminous skeleton bones, and with his wiry frame, and hooded skull mask, put the fear of God into quite a few of the younger kids in the neighbourhood.
We were twelve years old at the time, and while none of us had openly spoke of it, we seemed to sense that it would be our last year ‘guising’ – a word which in itself would soon be replaced by the now deep rooted ‘Trick Or Treat’. I remember feeling a sadness in the pit of my stomach as my parents helped me prepare my costume. The others seemed a little more reluctant to go out that Halloween, and by the following year their delight for the entire celebration would be diminished for many subsequent years – and who could blame them? I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to those fun-filled happy nights, wandering the leaf covered streets of my local neighbourhood laughing with my friends, carrying bags of sweets and chocolate and toffee apples accumulated from our Halloween rounds. It’s rare that you recognise something is coming to its end, mourning for it before it has slipped away.
It was 7 o’clock in the evening when we first stepped out into the street, and the winter sky blackened everything from above, the stars snuffed out by a thick shroud of cloud. My house was always the meeting point on those glorious nights, as my parents loved to decorate the house with spider webs, hanging skeletons, and mean looking banners depicting vampires, ghouls, and witches fermenting a strange brew: Not to mention all of the food! They both seemed to revel in the entire ceremony of the night, more so than anyone else I knew, and they had done since whenever I could remember for both me and my older brother, who now helped out rather than went out. Such wonderful nights as my friends arrived and we all bobbed for apples, or dropped forks from between our teeth into a bucket of water filled with fruit, hoping to skewer one to win a prize.
There we were on the street kerb, looking up the hill towards King’s Drift and the web of streets we were going to explore in search of treats – in some cases we’d even be given money if the home owners didn’t have any food, or had ran out. In more recent times the Jack O’ Lantern has become popular, with myself always carving a few pumpkins with ghoulish faces for the local kids, and their parents, who always frequent our ‘haunted’ house with its smoke machines, screaming skulls, and mountains of sweets. That night, however, I carried a tumshie-heid, to light the way. Essentially a carved out turnip with a candle inside and a horrible face glowing outward, lighting the way – a far greater and malignant sight than any pumpkin!
Holding the lantern by a thick piece of string, which my dad had attached to the side of its face with two nails, we headed out to enjoy our last night of guising. The streets were a buzz with kids, most of them a bit younger than ourselves, accompanied by their parents or older siblings, which only made me realise how close to the end of our Halloween nights we really were. I believe it was the first time that I ever felt old, no matter how preposterous such a thought appears at only twelve years of age.
Most houses opened their doors gladly; occasionally you would see a light going off as we approached signalling that the people inside didn’t want to be disturbed, but dammit we knocked and banged their doors anyway. This was our night, and the grown-ups who were too stingy to take part should have known better. After an hour we had covered three streets, each time the same social pleasantries taking place; we’d enter the house, slightly cautious at first of being in a stranger’s darkened home – but the thought of five of us being together banished those worries soon enough – each of us would then be asked to tell a joke or a riddle, and in return for the entertainment we would be rewarded with sweets and chocolate. Of course Andy would try to push the envelope a little more than the rest of us and on a few occasions delved into what could only be described as adult humour. The grimaces on the faces of those listening were plain to see.
As we passed the other children in their costumes – some great, some thrown together at the last moment – we joked and laughed and celebrated at the growing collection of food and money in our bags. Yes, even if it was going to be the last year, it was surely to be the best of hauls. As we ran through the darkened streets, lit only by the occasional spot and splash of orange hue from the lights above, it seemed as though the unspoken finality of it, the end of those nights, those years of being what we wanted to be, of being kids, of not caring about how we were seen; that it all added to the potency of the experience. We ran faster, we giggled and laughed and took shortcuts through gardens and places we were never supposed to tread. We lived and felt alive on that night of the dead.
Squire’s watch went off at 10 PM and we knew it was time to call it a night. We walked back towards my house where each year we would sit with my parents and some of my neighbours, drinking fizzy juice and stuffing our faces with the chocolate and sweets which we had been given by the bucket load. But our steps were slower than usual on the journey home, our jokes less loud, our grins less wide, and as the lantern gasped its last as we reached the gate to my garden, it was as if we sighed together, knowing that something precious was soon to be lost forever.
As we piled into my house and were greeted by the happy smiles of my parents, they too appeared to sense that things were changing, as if part of their lives would never quite be the same. I think it is hardest for parents when their youngest child reaches those thresholds, those closed chapters of their childhood, never to be opened again, knowing that they too cannot live those wonderful nights in quite the same way either.
Me, Andy, Stewart, Mac, and Squire, sat in a circle on the living room floor as an old horror film played in the background. We each in turn emptied our bags assessing the loot. It was indeed a good year, and the sheer mass of sweets was sure to last us all for one stomach turning, sugar overdosing week. Chocolate bars, crisps, boiled sweets, jelly babies, strawberry laces, toffee apples, and all manner of other treats were quickly separated from the useless bulk fillings of monkey nuts and other fruit. Only the good stuff, only the good.
We joked and laughed once more, and in that cosy house we played the parts of kids again, dressed up in costumes, telling spooky stories, and for a moment it felt as though nothing would ever change, that it would always be like that, together as friends, young, hopeful, and courageous – until I asked, almost automatically, what we would all be dressing up as the following year. The question was never answered, and it didn’t need to be.
It was then that I noticed Andy had stopped talking and hadn’t interjected with his usual jokes for at least two minutes – surely a record. No, he was staring at something. We asked if he was okay, but he wouldn’t respond, his gaze fixed, glazed over as if he were still wearing his costume sunglasses.
We followed the route of that stare, and our eyes and our heads dropped almost in unison, falling upon the source of our friend’s peculiar silence. Andy was looking at my pile of sweets which sat in front of me. My heart began to thud helplessly as I finally realised what had left the most talkative of my friends speechless. Poking out from that pile of chocolates, crisps, and lollipops was a bloodied and severed finger.
I can’t remember who screamed first, it was probably me as my cool and calm Van Helsing soon melted away revealing the shocked and fragile twelve year old boy at his core. All I know is that my parents called the police and within half an hour each of us – the undead pirate, the vampire hunter, the luminous skeleton, the football hooligan, and the killer robot from the future – were being questioned about the strange finger sitting amongst my sweets. We were asked to try and remember which houses we had visited, but we had been to so many, had been so fervent in our need to make the most of that last Halloween night, that we simply could not remember all of them.
Soon, several police cars showed up with red and blue and white lighting up the now lifeless, costume-less street outside, and without wasting a moment they began walking the neighbourhood with us and our parents, that place now torn from its disguise, moving swiftly from door to door, trying to find out where the finger had come from. Which one of those welcoming, friendly houses with smiling owners, warm fires, carved grinning turnips and buckets of sweets, had taken us into their dimly lit home and given to a child the most horrific of gifts. But it was all in vain. No one claimed ownership. There was no record of anyone at the local hospital losing a finger that night, not one shred of evidence. Just normal people concerned about the strange discovery we had made and what it might mean.
Perhaps it had been an accident, perhaps it had been cut off in some sort of bizarre mishap, as I had heard of people storing a severed finger in the freezer so that it might be reattached. Maybe it got mixed up with the food somehow, but even at that age I realised how unlikely and ridiculous such a proposal would be.
That was indeed the last night we went guising, and, in more ways than one, my friends simply did not have the stomach for the childhood charade of let’s pretend any longer. Even I did not wish to go out the following year, but for me it wasn’t about being too old for it all, I still loved Halloween and do to this day; it wasn’t about outgrowing it, and it wasn’t even about that horrible finger which had been placed silently into my treat bag. No, it wasn’t that either, what really stopped me from knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for some treats, was the bloodied thumb and three fingers carefully placed in the other boys’ bags.
Credit To – Michael Whitehouse