Tuesday, 22nd October 2019 – Trick or Treat
When this time of year comes around, there are a few certainties that are absolutely inevitable. The old folk will say that they never went trick or treating in their day, and mumble darkly something about ‘Americans’, and the youth of today being awful. They will then cheerfully tell you some horrendous ghost story they’d heard in their youth, or tell you about the war, which was more horrific because it was true. The shops fill with the paraphernalia of Halloween to sell you the sweets and fakery, as if it is all absolutely normal and expected for everyone to dress up as a sexy hamburger or whatever, and beg neighbours for sweets or go to each other’s houses to get drunk and pretend to be scared of other people in equally ridiculous costumes.
Way back in the before times, All Hallow’s Eve never had anything to do with anything sweet or fun. It was very much a different thing altogether. But then, so was I, back then.
Let me tell you a tale I heard only a few years ago from a man shaped thing I knew called Barnstaple (or was it Barnable? or Barnaby? I forget; but that, like him, is immaterial) on a cold, autumn night.
There was once a little boy, and he lived with his mother, in a little house, on the edge of a little town, in the middle of a big state, right in the middle of America. Yes, That America. I don’t know where exactly, and neither did Barnstaple Barnable, but it is probably best that we don’t, as we might be too tempted to go there, and who knows what trouble that may lead to?
The boy was called Sam and he had blue, blue eyes, the colour of a summer sky and golden hair, the colour of a summer sun. I’d like to tell you that this little boy was a good little boy, and always made good choices, like helping his mother and carrying in firewood, or cleaning his room when she asked him. Sadly, I cannot tell you that. He chased the neighbourhood cats with a slingshot, he left his toys outside (even when it rained), he was cheeky to his teachers at school and took money from his mother’s purse when she wasn’t looking so he could buy penny sweets for himself, and only himself.
Then came the day when the Old Lady fell ill. She’d helped his mother, Lorenna, when he was born and life had been difficult for them both. Ever since, Lorenna had felt indebted to the Old Lady, so she asked him to take her a basket for food and drink to cheer her up, he ate the cake and drank the fresh lemonade himself and threw the basket over a hedge. Later on, when he got home, he told his mother that a wolf had tried to eat him, so he gave him the basket instead, to save his life. Maybe she believed him, maybe not, I just don’t know, so don’t ask me. Lorenna decided to make up another basket and take it round herself the next day, but by then it was too late, and the Old Lady had gone, gone, gone, to the place neither Sam or Lorenna could follow, or at least, not yet.
Time went by and autumn came. A handsome man moved into the Old Lady’s house. Lorenna had gone over to the house and made his acquaintance and had stayed for tea, and had then made several more visits, sometimes with Sam and sometimes not. One thing that was always true was that Sam was not keen on this Mr Shepherd. His mother didn’t spend so much time looking after him, so when he left his toys in the rain, they got ruined and he’d forgotten what the floor in his bedroom looked like.
When All Hallow’s Eve approached, the children at school were excited and talking about going to collect candy from the neighbours. Sam thought this was a brilliant idea and went home and told his mother about it straightaway. He begged her for a costume and though she was busy, she couldn’t refuse him anything. She stayed up all night making him a ghost costume out of an old sheet, one she had taken from the Old Lady’s house, and gave him the matching pillowcase to collect the candy in. When he saw what she had prepared for him, Sam seemed really, actually, properly happy. At that moment, she saw the look in his eyes that had made her fall in love with his father all those years ago. That man had made her happy and they’d been happy together, but only for a season. The Depression had made life difficult. People came to one place, did what they could, moved on, left all manner of trouble behind them. When that man left, he took every bit of their happiness with them and left her with Sam, although he didn’t know it then, or now. If collecting candy made Sam happy, even for a moment, it was worth staying up all night, it was worth cutting up her best sheet. She prayed the happiness would last this time; that the sadness would finally depart.
Putting on the costume, Sam proudly stepped out into the street. Nobody knew it was him in there. In his mind, thoughts were forming. The whole point of this was to say “trick or treat?” and either get candy or do something ghastly. What was to stop him doing both if nobody knew who he was? He chose to focus on the candy first, then take that home and then cause choas. To get as much candy as possible, he followed some of the other kids from school, the ones that people talked to and didn’t look at funny, to see what they did. They just walked up to people’s houses and asked in a nice way and that was that. Stinky Pete went up to a few houses and said something mean and the people were mean back and he got nothing, but that could have been because of the smell. You can cover up your face, yet you can’t cover up your stink.
Eventually, Sam started collecting. He was good and polite to everyone. Everyone was kind to him and he got lots of candy. Something strange started happening, a nice feeling in his tummy. A happy feeling. But then something else happened that stopped it.
At the side of the road, Sam saw a little girl. She was dressed as a fairy. Her wings were crooked on her bank and her wand was broken. There were two big holes in her stockings and bits of blood were trickling down from her knees. Her face, which he sort of recognised though he couldn’t remember how, was a mess of snot and tears.”What’s wrong?” he asked.
“That’s a dumb question,” replied the fairy.
“I know, but I didn’t know what else to say.”
“Oh,” the girl sniffed. It wasn’t a fairy like sound.
“What happened to you anyways?” Sam asked, genuinely concerned. He took out his handkerchief from his pocket , carefully washed and pressed by his mother, and dabbed at her knees.
“I falled,” the little girl said, “and my big sister isn’t here ‘cos she went somewheres with that boy with the red bike and that boy with the smelly smell took my pillowcase with all my candy when I was crying so I cried even more.”
Sam looked at the fairy girl and marvelled that she was able to say all that and still breathe. “Look,” he said, “we’re right outside Mr Shepherd’s house. He’s kinda alright. He has water inside his house and he’ll make ya better.”
Helping the little fairy girl to her feet and holding her by the hand, they went up to Mr Shepherd’s front door and knocked with a gentle rat-a-tat. The door opened a little bit later and there stood Mr Shepherd grinning and flashing a toothy grin at the pair on his doorstep. “So, trick or treat?” he bellowed at them.
“We’re meant to say that to you!” the girl said almost confidentially, before Sam could even open his mouth.
“Well, aren’t you just a gorgeous little thing? Why I could eat you up! And Sam! I guess that’s you under there. Your mother showed me that costume earlier today,” Mr Shepherd continued to holler out. “So do you want candy or a trick, you two?”
“Mr Shepherd? Umm…” Sam was a bit confused, but pushed ahead, “we don’t really want either at the moment. This little girl has hurt her knees and we wondered if you could help us.”
Eventually, Sam, Mr Shepherd, and the little fairy girl (Barnstaple Barnable never told me her name I think, or I’ve forgotten, I forget things, you know), sorted everything out. Sam left with the little girl and he helped her get home, as she lived two doors down from him (that’s where he’d seen her before), and Mr Shepherd gave them extra candy, and even though they didn’t eat it, they didn’t tell him, because he was kind to them.
That night was a special night. Sam went back to see the girl the next day, and the next, and the next. Sam went trick or treating with that girl from two doors down until he posted overseas in 1943. That Halloween, he sent her postcard with a question on it from somewhere in Wales she couldn’t pronounce, and she sent one back with a one word answer that made him very happy. They were happy together and always asked the children that came to their door if they wanted a ‘trick or treat?’ at Halloween, even their own children.
After Sam had gone out trick or treating that first time, Lorenna took herself out for a walk and sat on a bench by the river. A man walked past her. She found herself following him and tapping him on the shoulder. She’d never done that before. He turned and smiled at her. The ghost of her past had finally gone. This man wasn’t The One, but he was proof enough that she shouldn’t stop looking. In 1953, Lorenna married a butcher called Larry and the whole town came out to celebrate with them.
But what of Mr Shepherd? Well, when the two little children left his house, he went back into his dining room and finished the steak he’d been eating, then threw a ragged and stinky costume on the fire, and watched it burn away with some remnants of bone as he tucked into a pile of candy. The next day, he was gone and the house went up to let again. He left no forwarding address, and nobody really missed him. It was almost as if he’d not really existed.
Barnstaple, or Barnable, or Barnaby, or whatever his name was, told that tale much better than me. Wish I could remember his name.