We’ll take a wee break from the house saga this week and instead have a story for Halloween…
Isabella filled the kettle and started putting her messages away while she waited for it to boil. She wasn’t sure about the oranges and peanuts she’d bought for the guisers, remembering the way the kids had looked down their noses at her basket of fruit and nuts last year. Those modern kids expected big bags of sweets. And pound coins – some even them even expected pound coins! She was getting a bit sick of it if she was honest. Maybe tomorrow she’d turn out the lights and just not answer the door if anyone came calling. Yes, that’s what she’d do.
She’d no sooner poured her tea than the doorbell rang and she called out “Coming!” as she hobbled down the hall to answer the door. She hated it when visitors rang again and again when she took too long to answer. People were so impatient.
It was that Mrs McCusker from the flat in the close next door. “Oh Mrs Steele, I’m so sorry to bother you, but you did say if I was ever stuck…?”
“Yes?” It came out rather more sharply than she intended.
Mrs McCusker stepped aside, revealing the skinny, wretched-looking child who was standing behind her. “It’s Beccy here, she’s sick and she’s been sent home from school. I really shouldn’t have taken her in this morning, but I thought she’d be okay once she got there – you know how they exaggerate sometimes – and I simply have to get back to work, we’re so short staffed at the moment. I’m sorry to ask but my mum’s got a hospital appointment today and I have no-one else. You couldn’t…? I mean would you mind…? She won’t be any trouble and I’ll come and get her just as soon as I’ve picked up the boys from after-school club at five o’clock.”
Isabella felt her heart melting as she looked at the two anxious faces. “Well of course she can stop with me, Mrs McCusker, what are neighbours for? Come away in Beccy, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine while your mum goes to work won’t we? Have you time for a cuppa, Mrs McCusker, before you go?
There was no time for a cuppa. She gave Beccy a peck on the cheek. “You be a good girl now Rebecca.” Her words trailed after her as she hurried down the street.
Beccy watched her mother disappear round the corner then stepped nervously into the hallway. Isabella realised that although the family had come to live next door three, no four, years ago, this was the first time any of them had ever stepped over her threshold. Isabella took pride in keeping herself to herself, but now it struck her that it seemed plain unfriendly never to have invited her neighbour in for a cup of tea even though they often passed the time of day when they encountered each other on the way in or out.
She could feel the child shaking as she directed her into the lounge, so she spoke gently, “Why don’t you just settle yourself here on the settee, Beccy, I can see you’re feeling quite poorly, you look so pale and miserable. I’ve got this nice fluffy blanket so let’s tuck you in nice and cosy. I’m just going to fetch my cup of tea from the kitchen and then I usually watch Homes Under the Hammer round about now, is that alright with you?” Beccy smiled and nodded, “My Nan watches Homes Under the Hammer”… and she has a blanket just like this one, she thought sleepily.
Beccy was fast asleep by the time Isabella returned and she found herself just sitting watching the sleeping child; the programme and the now cold tea forgotten. It had been quite a while since a child had slept in the house, and the memories of her own young ones and her dear Jimmy came flooding back to her as she too nodded off.
She woke with a start. Why do the adverts always play so much louder than the programme, she thought crossly as she quickly turned off the trailer for Strictly Come Dancing. Good, the child was still sleeping, she’d just let her be and go and listen to the news in the kitchen. “Sleep is the best medicine” was what she always used to say whenever any of her girls fell ill. And she had heard them say that to their own children, just as her mother had said it to her…
I’m in a funny mood, she thought, and I feel like baking a cake! She hummed as she bustled about, just as she did in the days when often as not she’d be taking a cake or some scones out of the oven just as the girls got home from school. They’d crash in the front door and head straight for the delicious smell coming from the kitchen, leaving a trail of bags and coats and musical instruments in their wake. She wished now she’d spent less time telling them off and wanting them to be quieter, tidier, more helpful, less … what? How could she have known how much she’d come to miss the noisy chaos, the sheer life of them around the place. Oh, they brought the grandchildren to visit occasionally, but it wasn’t the same, was it?
A soft knock on the kitchen door interrupted her reverie and she turned to find Beccy peeping shyly into the room. “I hope you don’t mind, I woke up and …” “Of course not, dear, come and sit by me. Look I’ve made a cake! Do you think you could manage a slice, you’re looking so much better than you did earlier, your cheeks are quite pink now.”
“I’m starving, I puked up all my breakfast!”
Isabella laughed and cut into the cake. “I should really let it cool for longer, but if you’re starving…”
Beccy seemed like a different child as she tucked in to the cake and looked curiously around the room. She spotted the fruit which Isabella had emptied into her Halloween basket. “Mrs Steele? Your basket’s got spiders on it, is that for Halloween? For trick or treat?”
“Hmm, well maybe . And we never used to call it trick or treat when I was a girl”
“Did they not have Halloween in the olden days then?”
“Oh bless you, yes of course we did! It’s just we used to call it guising and we had turnips for lanterns, not pumpkins, and the wee boys used to say ‘Gonnie gie’s ma Halloween!'”
As the afternoon wore on, the old lady and the little girl sat at the kitchen table and chatted away like old friends. Isabella learned all about Beccy and her two little brothers, James and Ronnie, and how the three of them were all excited about getting dressed up in their skeleton costumes and going out trick or treating with their Mum the following evening.
Isabella found herself telling Beccy what Halloween used to be like ‘in the olden days’ when the shops weren’t full of pumpkins and bags of Halloween sweets and ready-made costumes. She unearthed her old photograph album and found the picture of Lizzie, Kate and Maisie all dressed up in old clothes and home made masks. “All the children in the street used to go up and down the closes together, and be made to sing a song or say a poem to get a sweetie or an orange, or even sometimes a sixpence.”
And Jimmy, she remembered, would shadow the band of excited children like an unseen guardian angel making sure that nothing untoward happened to his girls until they fetched up safely home again with their Halloween bags full to the brim. The family always had bangers and mash for their special Halloween tea, and Jimmy would scare the girls witless with his tales of witches and spirits and how the ancient Celts believed that on the night of the 31st of October the ghosts of the dead would walk again amongst them, and large bonfires were lit in each village in order to ward off the evil spirits. She could hear his voice now, “And that” he’d declare “was how Halloween began.”
“Mrs Steele? Are you alright Mrs Steele? Did I upset you?” Beccy’s face was full of concern and Isabella patted her hand as she wiped away a tear. “Oh no dear, not at all, I’m just remembering how things were… how I was…
“Oh, there’s the bell, that’ll be your mum and your brothers, let’s go and let them in, maybe they’d like a piece of cake.”
Beccy’s brothers didn’t need to be asked twice and their mother followed them into the kitchen for the long-overdue cup of tea, just a quick one! The two little boys were beside themselves with excitement – mum had bought a pumpkin and they were going home now to carve their very own lantern. Mrs McCusker – “call me Sophie” – gave a tired smile. Isabella thought how very weary she looked and on impulse said “Why don’t you all come back here for your tea once the pumpkin carving is done? I make a mean macaroni cheese!”
“Oh no, we couldn’t, we’ve imposed upon you enough already today…”
“Nonsense, I’ve had a lovely day, having Beccy here has made the house come to life again, you’d be doing me a favour. And anyway, when are you going to find time to cook if you’re busy carving a pumpkin?”
The children looked hopefully at their mother; they all loved macaroni cheese. Sophie knew when she was beaten and smiled gratefully at Isabella.
As she grated the cheese, Isabella’s brain was busy. I wonder if I could persuade them to come for bangers and mash tomorrow? I can go to the supermarket in the morning and get potatoes and sausages, and some of those bags of gruesome sweets the children love so much. And maybe a small pumpkin to make a lantern for the window, I’m sure it must be a lot easier to hollow out a pumpkin than a turnip….