Laura was pleased with her work. Neatly piled beside her on a low, dark, wooden table were ten bags of bones.
Popping one of the leftovers into her mouth, she ponderously levered herself upright and waited a minute or two for the intense tingling in her legs to subside. She rolled the white jelly sweet around her tongue and savoured its comforting softness.
A box, neatly labelled in red pen, lay on its side with its contents disgorged. Plastic bats, luminous dancing skeletons, red-eyed rats and spiders littered the deep pile carpet.
It had been quite an effort to retrieve it from the loft, hidden amongst all the Christmas boxes. Laura wouldn’t normally have dreamt of going up there but Gary had refused to get it for her the night before. He’d been very angry when she asked him.
“You can’t possibly be doing it again this year!”
“And why not? You can’t deny me this little pleasure surely.”
“But it’s not always a pleasure is it. You go to all that trouble and you’re devastated when they pass us by. You don‘t need that. We don‘t need that,” Gary had reasoned. But Laura loved Halloween, always stocking up on sweets and sitting excitedly by the window eagerly awaiting the knock on the door. She was thrilled when the kids came calling, bitterly disappointed if they walked past. Now that she saw nothing of her niece and nephews it was the only contact she could have with children without arousing suspicions.
“You swore last time you wouldn’t bother again,” he added.
“Well I’ve changed my mind. I can, can’t I?”
“Please yourself but don’t expect any help from me!”
“When do I ever get that?” she shot back, immediately regretting her words.
She knew she was being unfair but he stormed out before she could apologise. They never used to be like that with each other. Events had changed them.
They hadn’t spoken in the morning. She was still off work and instead of joining her husband for breakfast she had lain in bed listening to the sounds that marked the progress of his familiar routine. She sensed him hovering at the door before he left but screwed her eyes tight shut and turned away from him.
Laura decided that the rest of her preparations could be left for later, now she needed to go shopping. She was glad of the cold weather, it gave her the excuse to swaddle her body in one of her big coats. It had been several years since she’d had any desire to draw attention to her figure.
She drove to a supermarket some distance away unwilling to risk encountering anybody she knew. She would save her sparkle for the children later. Laura took her time browsing the aisle that had been dedicated to all things Halloween. Into her trolley went special cup cake mixes complete with luminous green decorations, cobwebs in spray cans, family bags of chocolates and chews and an extra large pumpkin. It was normally Gary’s job to scoop out the flesh, carve the scary face and place the lighted candle inside. She would let him do it again if he was sufficiently contrite when he got home.
“Need any help with your packing love?” asked the heavily made up woman at the checkout.
Laura sighed inwardly at the stock phrase and the presumed familiarity. The woman’s badge said her name was Yvonne and that she was Happy to Help.
“I think I can cope,” Laura replied.
“You’ve got enough to feed an army there. Having a big party are you?” enquired Yvonne as she lethargically wafted each item over the scanner.
“No, but you’ve got to make the effort for the kiddies haven’t you. All got a bit out of hand if you ask me. I blame the Americans.”
Mercifully the last ploop sounded and Laura was able to escape. She managed to make it back to the car before she burst into tears.
The estate was dead in the afternoons. It was never normally a time she experienced unless she was ill and then she was in no fit state to enjoy the peacefulness. But sometimes, when she had been on a very early shift at the hospital, she would drive back at about 3 o’clock when the local school was finishing for the day. She would park amidst the parent’s cars and watch the stream of children walking home. Their mothers, pushing buggies, would look in at her quizzically and wonder briefly if they recognised her.
She and Gary hadn’t really made any friends in the five years they had lived there. Plenty of acquaintances that they nodded to or chatted about the weather and double glazing with, but no real friends. Their combined wages had allowed them to upgrade their area and accommodation and their exhausting working lives left them both with little energy to engage with the community. But Halloween was different and there was still had much to be done.
Back home she put her bags in the kitchen and reached inside a cupboard for the bottle of wine she had stored there. A South African white, 13% but easy drinking. She had a lot of making up to do, Gary couldn’t deny her that.
She didn’t eat lunch but set about her preparations with the same intensity she gave to her work. She had written a list of tasks to be completed and ticked them off with a pink pencil that had a fairy on a spring attached to its end. The fairy quivered furiously in Laura’s meaty grasp. Cauldron filled with sweets. Tick. Doorway sprayed with cobwebs. Tick. Bats and skeletons hung. Tick. And with each tick she rewarded herself with a glass.
She finished her jobs as the last of the light leaked from the day and the streetlights glowed pink, echoing the colour of her cheeks. But the pumpkin remained uncarved! She had forgotten the pumpkin! It wasn’t her job. How would the children know that this was a friendly house and there were welcome to call? Gary must come. She picked up the kitchen phone and punched the numbers violently, urgently.
“Come home and carve the pumpkin for me Gary, please.”
“Are you okay?”
“They won’t come without the pumpkin. I need you. Hurry!”
“I’ll leave now. Don’t do anything silly.”
It would be alright now. Gary would take care of things as he always did. She replaced the handset and allowed herself to slowly slide to the floor. She lay on her side and the tiles felt clean and cool on her face.
A hand was gently tapping her shoulder. She was aware of lying on a soft surface and could feel the scratchy fibres of her favourite blanket beneath her fingertips. She was in bed.
Gary’s voice whispering in her ear. Keeping her eyes closed she could remain in the blurred world of her drifting thoughts and forget that today was Halloween. Today! Tonight! Her head snapped towards the window. The curtains were open, it was black outside.
“It’s dark!” Laura said, gripping his shoulders tightly. “The pumpkin!”
“I’ve done it, it’s outside,” he reassured.
“Has anybody called yet?”
She relaxed her grip and gently, rhythmically smoothed the creases in his white, short-sleeved work shirt.
“I’m sorry Gary.”
“Come and have something to eat,” he said.
She eased herself off the bed and bent down to kiss her husband lightly on the cheek.
“I will later I promise. I’m going to look out.”
Leaving Gary she crossed the hallway to the small bedroom at the front of the house which overlooked their driveway. Without turning on the light, she padded over the smooth floorboards to the window which she opened slightly. The nearby streetlight illuminated the interior of the room. She turned away and blew gently on the mobile that hung from the ceiling. White, wooden clouds shivered and slowly rotated around a bright, arcing rainbow.
Laura dragged a heavy nursing chair over to the window, sat down out of sight of the drive and peered beneath the net curtains expectantly. Soon there was the sound of children’s voices followed by the sight of one tiny ghost floating haphazardly towards the front door. Laura smiled at the apparition with its floor length, white sheet and ragged eyeholes. She worried that the child might trip and fall. Anxious, she was about to call Gary and go downstairs when an urgent, high-pitched shout stopped the child in its tracks.
“Don’t go in there!”
The spectral figure turned towards the dark figure of a woman who was frantically beckoning it to return to the pavement. The child seemed reluctant to move, torn between the lure of the treats the lighted pumpkin promised and the insistence of the adult. The woman hesitated and then hurried up the path, glancing up at the darkened windows of the house. Reaching the child, she crouched down and whispered a few words that Laura could not hear. Then, clutching an unseen hand through the sheet, she steered the visitor away.
Laura leant back into her chair and was startled to find Gary standing behind her.
“Did you hear what the woman said?” she whispered, still staring out of the window.
“Don’t read anything into it.”
“They all blame me.”
“Nobody thinks like that,” he said, laying a hesitant hand on her neck.
She shivered and pulled away from his touch.
“Your sister does.”
“No, she just believes you’re not ready to see the kids yet. You might upset them…or upset yourself. You can’t go on punishing yourself like this Laura.”
There was silence between them. A feint breeze caused the wooden pieces of the mobile to turn and clack together. The mobile hung over an empty cot, a bed that had held their child for only two months. Still pristine, its mattress would never bear the imprint of a tiny body, the paint would never peel from its rails.
Still Laura would rush into the baby’s bedroom at night convinced that she had heard a cry. Still she looked in every time she passed the doorway hoping to see the child asleep in her cot. Still she slept with a small, pink, unwashed blanket beneath her pillow.
The quiet was shattered by another ring of the doorbell. Laura turned to Gary, a look of horror frozen upon her pale, round face.
“You go!” she implored him.
“No,” said Gary quietly. “You must.”
Neither of them moved. A tipping point had been reached, they both knew that. Another briefer ring and then a shouted, sing-song chorus of , “trick or treat.”
“What’s it to be Laura, trick or treat?”
She took a deep draught of air to still the racing of her heartbeat and exhaled slowly, dropping her shoulders as she did so. Downstairs she picked up the plastic cauldron with its sweets inside and donned a skeleton mask. Wearing the mask would make the encounter easier.
Opening the door she was met by three demons, three little devils in black cloaks with flashing red horns and plastic tridents. They cowered back in surprise, clustering around the tall man accompanying them. He spread his arms to gather them around him. Laura took off her mask and smiled reassuringly at her niece and nephews.
“You’re a long way from home,” she said to her brother-in-law.
“You don’t mind us coming round do you? Gary said…”
“Gary asked you to come.”
“The children wanted to come. They’ve missed you. We’ve all missed you.”
The devils, reassured now, were becoming restless and began brandishing their weapons as they held out their collecting bags.
“Trick or treat auntie Laura?” they asked in unison.
“Treat I think,” she said, giving away her bags of bones.