The date crept up on Harold Wallis. The trouble was, they advertised the whole charade up to a month in advance. It was as bad as Christmas. So, he saw the plastic masks, spiked gloves, glow-in-the-dark skulls and witches’ hats, lined up in racks in the corner shop, without registering the date. And he was forever aware of the turning of the leaves, the darkening skies and the added bite in the air. It was only on the day itself, when he saw a young man in a snarling wolf mask, that he realised Halloween was here, again.
“You’ll be out and about tonight, Mr Wallis?” asked Debbie at the post office as she counted out his money in tens and twenties.
“I’ll only be out to throw a pail of water,” he said, evenly.
Debbie merely smiled in response.
Mr Wallis had once been tall, but the stoop of age had long set in. He still had his hair, which he kept side-parted and greased, and he was clean-shaven in a stain-free jersey over the top of a clean yellow shirt, his slacks belted high. He might have been a military man, and stood up straight and proud whenever people asked him if he was. Occasionally, he would not be minded to correct them. In fact he had worked in an office all his life, flicking cheques, afloat in a surging sea of figures. The clock they had given him on his last day marked time on the wall as he got home to the cold house, completely cleared of any photographs or art. No ring had graced Mr Wallis’ hands, nor had lipstick stained his collars.
The digital radio, an extravagance he had bought himself for Christmas the year before, soothed him in the gloom, its steady blue light a counterpoint to the classical music he favoured. Mr Wallis sat down at the solid oak kitchen table he had inherited from his mother and blew on his tea. This was when the door went.
Mr Wallis’ first instinct was to ignore it, as he did every Halloween. A quick glance out towards the lobby revealed a tall figure silhouetted against the window pane in the streetlight. But something gnawed at Mr Wallis, and he slammed down the tea cup and heaved himself out of the seat.
It was Mrs Rumsby from number 32, with her brood in tow. A boy and a girl, the girl dressed as a fairy princess with a tiara and doily wings, the boy in full pirate garb with a cutlass and an eyepatch, a stripy cloth knotted over his head.
Mrs Rumsby had long, dark red hair, evidently dyed every other week, and a spider’s web tasselled across her immense bosom. A plastic spider perched on the end of the web, lurid green stripes slashed across its black legs.
“Hi!” she said, beaming. “Trick or treat, Mr Wallis?”
“Uh… I don’t know if I’ve got anything… hang on a second.” Mr Wallis closed over the door and stormed back into the kitchen. He could hear them whispering to one another on the steps. Ignorant woman. Every day was Halloween for her, with her slattern’s hair and her black clothes. No Mr Rumsby to be seen anywhere, unless he was the sullen, bullet-headed man who drove over every second Saturday in a shiny black Golf. Her grasping, demanding children were often to be heard whingeing on their way past his door, noisy in the front garden whenever the sun shone. Expecting things of you, that was the key. He had enough manners not to close the door on their faces, but he grimaced as he opened a tin at the back of his kitchen cupboard and fished out two packets of mint imperials.
He dropped these into a plastic cauldron, borne by Mrs Rumsby. “Oh, terrific!” she said. “That’s wonderful. Say thank you to Mr Wallis.”
“Thank you,” said the girl. The boy simply leaned on his cutlass, which sank a couple of inches into Mr Wallis’ immaculate, but spongy lawn.
“Don’t mention it,” Mr Wallis mumbled, before closing the door. He stood for a minute in the silence of the lobby, listening to the little girl squeal with laughter, his hands bunched into fists.
He had barely sat down when the door went again. This time it was children, unsupervised – all aged less than ten, mainly boys, but cheeky with it. The costumes were bloody and ragged, with one boy’s bluish make-up and black-rimmed eyes so ghastly that Mr Wallis started when he said, “Trick or treat.”
“What are you supposed to be?”
The boy blinked. “A zombie. Obviously.” The others tittered. The zombie held his hand out. Behind his back stood a wolfman, one boy wrapped tight in bandages with blood smearing his mouth, and a pale-faced vampire with his hair greased back tight against his scalp.
“Well, I’ve no more sweets, I’m afraid. Try next door.” He closed the door firmly, put out the hall light… and then paused.
The silhouettes were still gathered on his doorstep. He could hear them whispering, their excited giggles. Bristling, he gripped the door handle – but then the shadows flitted away like startled birds.
He was seated before the radio when the first detonation occurred. He was bustling down the hallway and gripping his walking stick when the second, third and fourth struck. Snatching open the front door, he strode out into the night air just as the troupe of demons sprinted down the street into the main thoroughfare, shrieking with laughter.
Egg yolk dripped from his front window, and two other gelid starbursts spread their dripping fingers across the white cladding of his front wall.
“Bastards!” he cried, shaking his fist into a quivering palsy. “If you come back here, you’ll get it!”
As he scrubbed the worst of it off the window, Mr Brownlee from two doors down stuck his head out of the door. He was young, prematurely bald, with something of an offensive leer. This time he looked sober. “Bloody liberty that is, George.”
Mr Wallis scrubbed the soap into a fine-grained foam. “If I catch ‘em, I swear to god…”
“I think one of them was Mrs Finch’s boy. Top of the street.”
“They were in disguise. I didn’t recognise any of them.”
Here Mr Brownlee sniggered. “Disguise? It’s a costume. It’s Halloween, George. They were out for the guising.”
“I know!” Mr Wallis hurled his dishrag into the bucket, then yanked it off the windowsill. Soapy water slopped over the bottom of Mr Wallis’ jersey and he tore open the front door, slammed it shut, and double-locked it behind him.
When a calmer wind prevailed in the kitchen, the solution came to Mr Wallis. He wondered why he hadn’t done it before.
Out went all the lights; down went the radio; every window was closed and curtained off. Other than a single blue pulse on the front of his digital radio, the house might well have been empty. The door knocker was rattled several times, but Mr Wallis relaxed more each and every time, his ear bent low to the soft strings on the radio. He could still make out the silhouettes in the lobby, and hear the frustrated chitterings of the children. It grew cold in the darkness, but Mr Wallis simply put on his overcoat and a pair of gloves, safe and secure in the faint light.
Mr Wallis’ mind drifted away in the shadows, fascinated with the unfamiliar shadows of a space he knew well. Razor-edged light along the contours of the hob, the stolid squares of his dark-stained wooden cupboards, the periodic wheeze and rattle of the fridge. How strange it all was, down here in the dark; and yet how perfectly well this suited him. Remnants of some old chemical memory, no doubt. When we were mammals, hiding down in tunnels while the great reptiles thundered and belched their last above. Rats and moles, that’s all we were.
Just when he was considering a little rum and pep, the door went again. Once, twice, more insistent. “He’s in!” cried some small, twisted-faced creature. “I saw him! He was out cleaning his windows.”
“Somebody’s egged him,” simpered a little girl.
“Anyone got any eggs?” No-one had, it seemed. They trooped off, giggling.
“It’s working,” Mr Wallis whispered to himself. “They think no-one’s home.”
He thought of the history of Halloween, its pagan roots. The death of the year. The superstition that dressing as a ghoul scared off evil spirits. The notion that witches flew at this time of year. “It’s the busiest day of the year for some harridans,” he sneered, a little too loudly.
Not long after, the choir began outside his house. There had been a lot of preamble, some skittering around the front step, shadows dancing through the frosted glass like flickered candlelight. Mr Wallis got out of his seat warily, fearing some new act of vandalism. Instead, several voices piped up, to the tune of Frere Jacque.
Mister Wallis, Mister Wallis
He’s no fun, he’s no fun,
He’ll chase you with a big stick, chase you with a big stick
Smack yer bum, smack yer bum!
The laughter was raucous, long-lasting, and not restricted to the high-pitched sneer of children. The song began again, as this new collection of ingrates shuffled off down the road.
In the middle of the kitchen, Mr Wallis was frozen almost stock-still. A cruelty, inflicted on a good man who had only even paid his taxes and worked hard, and was trying to enjoy his retirement. “A damned liberty!” he muttered.
Then came the thump from upstairs.
Mr Wallis’ mouth hung open for a while, perhaps the better to catch moths. His ears strained. Had it been another fusillade from outdoors, against the walls? No – this thump had come from within the house. Thirty-two years in the same building had inured him to every sound, every creak, every loose floorboard and grumbly pipe. Something had fallen upstairs. Well, what of that? It happened. Subsidence, a gust of wind – the simple act of bricks, mortar, lintel and wood contracting in the sudden cold of evening.
Then came another thump, followed by a crash. Mr Wallis knew this second sound well; he’d upended the glass bedside lamp enough times in his sleep. An awkward thing, made of mirrored glass, bought for him by his niece. He’d often worried that he might stumble onto its thin crystal panes and take his own bloody head off one night.
“Who’s there?” His voice could not have carried far; it seemed to trip up before it left his throat. There was a slight shift upstairs, and then absolute quiet.
Mr Wallis’ heart flailed in his chest, but he took up the walking stick and crept up the stairs. The third step creaked loudly, and he avoided it in any case; he also kept his hand off the bannister, knowing that the screws were loose near the top. Nothing was disordered at the head of the stairs, but the door to the spare room was ajar, and the air was frigid.
Mr Wallis darted his head inside, stick braced.
The window was open, certainly wide enough to admit a body. Mr Wallis had left it unlocked in order to spin it around its hinges an wash it down two days ago; he must have forgotten to lock it.
Or… Could one of the little bastards have broken in? Was this how far the prank would go?
Glancing down at the beige carpet, even in the moonlight, he saw the footprints. An adult’s, leading all the way past him towards the door –
He sensed the movement rather than heard it. Some sensory hangover from the time when humans were prototype rats or rabbits, scurrying through the forest. Mr Wallis drew breath to call out, but his cry was cut off by the kitchen knife tearing through his throat. He saw the face of the snarling wolf, and snatched at it instinctively; it came off in his hands, and the face of the young man underneath was revealed, squeezed clear of all flesh, eyes bulging, teeth rotten. This was the same man in the wolf mask who had watched the houses for the past couple of hours to see if anyone had gone out. Mr Wallis’ house had been silent, of course, silent and dark and deserted. Altogether too tempting.
Mr Wallis fell onto his back, warmth spreading across his arms and shoulders and spurting out in a shimmering arc as the boy with the knife leapt over him, snatched the wolf mask out of the old man’s hands and sprinted towards the open window.
He was long gone by the time Mr Wallis made it to his feet, hands enclosed firmly around his own throat, his pulse oozing out through his fingers, slower and slower still.
Mr Wallis tripped down the stairs – creaking the third step and pulling free some of those troublesome bannister screws on his way – and lay face-down near the very bottom. He lay there until a temporary postman arrived in the first week of December, bringing a parcel from his niece that was a little too big for the letterbox.