‘But we must have a witch’s cat. Susie really wants one. She’s got everything else ready.’ A petulant Pete glared at his mum, willing her to say yes. To no avail.
‘Well she’s not having Cinders. She can use the toy one she had two Christmases ago.’ And then an aside to Pete’s dad. ‘And you just standing there, taking no notice. I bet you put him up to it. What were you thinking?’
Dad just shrugged. Pete wandered sulkily away and just for a short while the house was quiet.
Susie was upstairs parading her eight-year-old self in front of her mum’s long mirror. She was encased in black from her pointed witch’s hat to her scuffed school shoes. Her face was deathly white with scary eyes encircled in green and black, from the set of face paints out of the toy box and she’d smudged bright ruby lipstick over her little girl lips. Her mum wasn’t going to be too pleased when she found out Susie had raided her dressing table. There were things in there a little girl shouldn’t see. All Susie needed now was the witch’s broomstick – an old besom brought out of her dad’s shed, every year – and a black cat. And if she couldn’t have Cinders, she was going to tempt Olly, the neighbour’s cat, if she could, and tie a black sock around his one white paw.
Now it was her turn to get caught. Dad this time, as she crept out the kitchen with a handful of cat treats, a small black sock and a black shoelace from one of her dad’s shoes.
‘Nice try, Susie, but whatever mischief you intend, you’ve been told which cat you can have. And no arguments. Or there will be no trick-or-treating for either of you.’
Stifling her annoyance with some difficulty, because she felt ready for one of her infamous tantrums, she ran back upstairs, throwing the shoelace and cat treats into the waste bin (which was going to annoy her dad no end when he came to put on his black lace ups) and ferreted around for one stuffed toy black kitten, eventually found under Pete’s bed, amid assorted plastic spacemen and half the contents that should be in the toy box.
The evening began to draw in and it was time for Pete, who was eleven, in his black and white skeleton outfit, and scary witch Susie to be let out. Strict instructions were that they could only go to the neighbours that they know – all of whom had been forewarned – and under no circumstances go out of their own street. If they saw Billy or Joe, who lived only five doors down, they could team up with them, because they often played together, anyway. And, most importantly, they must be back by eight o’clock.
Reaching the end of their front path, the pair of trick-and-treaters gave a little wave to their parents, waited for them to shut the front door and, before their mum could get around to the front window, ran to start at the far end of the street. Passing Billy and Joe’s house, they saw the two boys peering out and waved for the two to come out and join them. Within just a couple of minutes, they were arguing on which side of the road they should start first, but quickly gave into Susie, as she was the youngest, and crossed over to a neighbour who both families knew well. Mr Parker.
Mr Parker was an elderly man with a young heart. He loved to see the children having fun. His own upbringing had been under a severe regime of parents who had climbed the social ladder, insisted on very correct behaviour, loads of home study, little time for physical play and kept from socialising with anyone other than the three picked special friends from likeminded families. Education, education, education, first, then a military or city banking career preferred and definitely no girls in tow, before twenty-one. Sports? If he must. Cricket, rowing, rugby or polo, but definitely not that dreadful soccer game. Aimlessly kicking a ball about for an hour-and-a-half. No. Way.
But Mr Parker turned out such a disappointment. All that knowledge and comportment thrown to waste on children. He became a teacher. Not even a headmaster, just head of department in a comprehensive. Mind you, his pupils were some of the highest achievers in the land. Now retired, many of them kept in touch and, though he lived a somewhat solitary existence, his door was always open to those who visited him, coffee and biscuit tin at the ready, and to the children of the street, who were allowed to play hide and seek in his tree heavy, overgrown garden, beyond the small lawns and formal borders he kept neat and tidy close to the house, at front and back.
The four children knew they would get a good treat to set them off on their round of door knocking. But, when Mr Parker opened the door with nothing in his hands and nothing to be seen in his hallway, like most years, there were subdued sighs of disappointment. Until they found out why.
‘You’re all a little older now and should be ready for a bit of an adventure. Yes, even you, Susie.’ Susie beamed at being singled out. ‘So, this year you’ve got to find your treats. I’ve hidden them in the garden, right amongst the trees and there’s a little trail to follow.’ Mr Parker fished in his trouser pocket and produced the first clue. A small square of paper, with a picture of a toadstool. Follow each sign and take just one item from each box beside it. Now off you go, before I decide to change your treats into tricks.’
The children scampered down the side path, following the first clue to the stone toadstool on the edge of the manicured lawn, where the rough garden began. Beside it was a small hoard of chocolate coins in yellow string packets. And another clue. A picture of a maple leaf. There were three maple trees in the garden and nothing at the first one, but when they went to the second, they found a pot of fifty-pence pieces on which was written “Only one each please. There’ll be others coming, too.” The clue this time was flames licking around logs. ‘The log pile, they all shouted in unison and ran to the stack of logs by the wall at the end of the garden, where they were sheltered under a corrugated tin roof on poles, to keep them dry.
The wall was thick and solid and marked the boundary of the cemetery beyond. The thought made Susie shiver. ‘Do you think we should turn back, now. It’s Hallowe’en. I don’t like being by the cem’try.’
‘Don’t be silly, Sis,’ said Pete. ‘I’ve been here in the dark before, with Billy, and peered over the wall. There ain’t no ghosts or we would’ve seen ’em.’ But he didn’t waste time in finding the cache of Haribo Scaremix hidden in the logs, pocketing his bag and making his way off, with the other three racing close behind, to where the last clue led them. An ancient elm tree; one of the few that had escaped elm disease, though no one understood quite why. And there stood the witch. The children pulled up sharp as soon as they saw her, eyes wide and ready to scream. Even though it was not a real one, of course. Just a glowing eyed, pumpkin head on a long pole, draped with a black cloak and topped with a wide brimmed, conical, black hat. Branches sloped down from the shoulders, with twiggy ends for hands. And on the ground around her were cardboard cut-out black cats. Mr Parker had been busy all the previous week planning tonight’s adventures.
‘What’s behind the cats?’ It was Billy, wound with bandages and covered with fake blood, who had spied the boxes that held each cut-out upright. They all went up to look and found each cat had a name written on the back. Not just for the four of them, but for several other children who lived nearby and were expected to knock on Mr Parker’s door, that night. And in each box was a whole chocolate orange. Just then, another voice spoke from behind them. ‘Can we join in?’
A young girl and a younger boy came out of the gloom, both painfully thin and pale, with raggedy clothes that looked as if they had come from the waste bin of an antique shop. They wore no socks and their shoes were worn through, the girl’s not even having laces.
‘Great get-ups,’ said Joe, standing in his red Devil’s outfit. ‘Are you new around here?’
‘Not really. We’ve just been away awhile,’ the new girl replied. ‘I’m Beth and this is Aaron.’
Pete, who always liked to think he was in charge of everything, looked the two newcomers up and down. ‘OK. If Mr Parker’s let you into his garden, you must be gen, so you might as well. As long as it’s only you two. We can’t have too many going up to people’s doors, each time. We’ll have to take it in turns to knock. Now, let’s see if your names are behind these cats.’
They weren’t. Beth said it didn’t matter, they couldn’t eat them, anyway. They weren’t allowed. Now six in number the, the troupe set off to trick-or-treat the rest of the neighbours, but only after Susie had been sent to knock on Mr Parker’s door, again, and thank him. They took it in turns and knocked on doors, to be given different treats, which they shared amongst each other, Beth and Aaron refused most of theirs saying they weren’t what they wanted, which the others thought a bit rude. Neither did the newcomers want to knock on any doors. They must be really shy, thought Susie.
They reached the other end of the street, which was quite long, where it joined the main road. ‘Let’s go over there,’ said Beth. ‘That’s where we want to go, isn’t it, Aaron?’
‘We’re not allowed: we have to stay in our street,’ said Susie in her prim, righteous voice she used to insist on what was right and wrong.
But Beth had big, pleading eyes and, even at only eleven, Pete felt their pulling power melting his resolve. ‘It’s only a little way. We’ve been before.’ Beth tilted her head a little, beseechingly.
‘Well, just as far as the park gate,’ he said. ‘We’re not crossing over and going in.’
With that, little Aaron grabbed Susie’s broomstick, which she had been clutching tight ever since she set out and ran straight out into the main road, over to the park and threw it over the railings. ‘We’ll have to go in now, to fetch it,’ he shouted as he raced on and in through the park gateway, a big grin on his face. ‘Last one in’s a scaredy cat.’
Luckily the road was clear, with most folk home at Hallowe’en parties or celebrating in the pubs and other hostelries. Calling for Aaron to wait for them, the others crossed the road more cautiously and saw him apparently riding the broomstick in mid-air, until Billy pointed out ‘It’s on a tree.’ In the fading light the small tree on which Aaron and the broomstick were perched was barely visible against the shrubby background of park bushes.
‘Come down, Aaron. No silly tricks, remember. The Master said you’re too young, yet.’ Beth looked slightly flustered, as if it were she who had been caught out. ‘We’ve got to save our mischief ’til next year, remember.’
‘OK. Just practising. And I did hover for a few moments.’
The other four exchanged worried glances. Who were these two tag-alongs?
‘Give Susie her broom. We’re going back,’ Pete shouted as Aaron slipped down from the tree and then ran off deeper into the park with the broomstick.
The others gave chase and had nearly caught him, when he suddenly turned and ran back the other way, throwing the broomstick high in the air as he reached the gate and shouting ‘There y’are. Catch it!’ But the broomstick seemed to be hovering in the air before Beth, who despite her unlaced shoes had run much the fastest, jumped and took hold of the handle.
‘Can’t catch me though,’ Aaron shouted, as he raced out into the street, with Beth flying close behind, reaching to pull him back and shouting ‘STOP!’, just as a number seven bus roared past.
Four shocked faces stared as the two newcomers froze right in the path of the bus, which didn’t stop. But once the bus had passed there was no sign of them. Not anywhere. And the bus had reached its next stop, only fifty yards up the road. The four ran at full tilt and just got there, before the driver had closed the doors. Pete explained what he had just seen, but the bus driver thought it was just some silly trick by this motley attired troupe of youngsters. Even so, knowing the day, he let them look all around and underneath the bus and even the only two passengers on it stepped down and joined in, before the driver said he must be on his way or he’d be late at the terminus. ‘But if they do hop on later, they’d better have the correct fare ready,’ he quipped as he shut the folding doors and set off, smiling to himself.
It was gone eight o’clock when Pete and Susie sheepishly knocked on their own front door. They were met with a steely stare from their dad, who without saying a word, pointed to the clock in the hallway. They didn’t dare say ‘trick or treat?’ Pete told him about meeting two new friends, Beth and Aaron and said that Aaron had run off with the broomstick and they’d had to chase him. That’s why they were late. But they didn’t say anything about crossing over to the park or what happened next.
After hot chocolate and party ring biscuits, the two children were told it was bedtime and they had better be good or there’d be no fireworks on the fifth of November.
Once all was quiet, their dad asked their mum if she knew who Beth and Aaron could be. She shook her head. ‘Not from around here, that I know of and I know most of the names from the school run.’ The only time I’ve heard those two names linked was when we looked up the local history, down at the library, just after we moved in. There was a newspaper cutting about two destitute kids who ran away from the workhouse and got run over on the main street, by a coach and horses.’