The dark novelty tie, the one with haphazard dancing skeletons was dusted down for its annual wearing today. I have forgotten how many Halloweens it has seen but I faithfully wear it to work once a year, and once only. At lunchtime today, countless children ran up to see the tie and run away with faux fear. Just like children had done in 2010. And in 2002. And in 1993.
Halloween is the traditional time when the departed walk the earth. Certainly the dancing skeleton tie walks the earth on this day only. The rest of the year it hangs from my tie rail, eventually getting buried by ties that get an annual airing and mark other minor holidays like Valentine’s Day or Ash Wednesday.
But today was the dancing skeletons’ day to undertake their Danse Macabre. Although faded and frayed on the black tie fabric, they managed once more to be a small, personal celebration of Halloween: a day which has deep memories for me.
October 31, 1970. My mother has arranged for me to be a hobo this year. The costume is elaborate and professional-looking; a gift from my paternal grandfather. A full plastic-moulded body is attached to my chest and ties at the back. It gives the illusion of a 50 year old man’s pot belly. The detail on the rubber mask confirms the quality of the costume. Thick bushy eyebrows cover holes cut for the eyes. I especially like the fake cigar butt dangling from the long rubber mouth. It glows red against the mask’s sullen skin and grey stubble.
The outfit is good enough to have won a prize at our school’s Halloween parade. It is the first time I can remember winning anything. I am presented with a new sled, reminding us all that summer was gone and autumn was waning. Winter was closing in.
The quality of the costume is a consolation. The sled is a consolation. I wanted a scary cosume: a zombie or a corpse.
Our Sunday School asked us to forego Trick or Treating for ourselves and instead collect money for those less fortunate. We had been issued with black and orange UNICEF boxes for this purpose. I feel guilty. I have no intention of surrendering the annual Trick or Treat fest in order to help children somewhere else in the world. I wonder if God is angry about it. I fill the box up with pennies from my own piggy bank. The weight of the orange and black boxes betrays the value of the coins within.
Pillow case in hand, I walk the streets of our neighbourhood with my sisters. We stop at every house and soon have a sack full of sweets. My mother drives us to my grandmother’s house and we repeat the process up and down her street.
By 10pm the houses darken and doorbells are no longer answered. My sisters and me empty our pillowcases on the living room floor; grouping the sweets into categories. We swap and trade for our favourites; mine the black and orange wrapper of Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups.
October 31, 1994. The radio alarm clicks and the song just starting is Talking Head’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’; “You may find yourself on the other side of the world…” It is Monday, I have to be at work. I am the Deputy Headteacher at a large school in North West London.
I roll over to see my wife is wide awake. “It has started,” she grins. We have both been waiting weeks, months for her notification. Her pregnant and swollen belly is tight and shifting. “…with a beautiful house with a beautiful wife…”
Dressing quickly I ring the school to say I won’t be in. My wife collects her things and I run into the street to hail a taxi. The cabbie listens intently as I inform him that my wife is in labour and I need him to wait as I get her downstairs from our flat, into the cab and onto the hospital. He tells me to take my time and relax, he will get us there.
The cabbie leaps from the driver’s seat as he sees us exiting the gate. He helps my wife into the cab and drives along the side streets of Fitzrovia. He keeps saying that all will be well. We arrive at the hospital within minutes. I reach for my wallet but the cabbie won’t take the fare. He tells me it was a privilege to be able to help us. I shake his hand and he tells me one last time, “All will be well”. For a brief moment I consider he might be mystical.
All day we wait in the hospital delivery suite. The contractions come and go as I undertake the inadequate ritual of brow mopping and hand holding an expectant father carries out for his wife. In the suites around us we hear screaming, followed by fast panting.
By 4pm my wife wants to walk. We go up and down the stairs of the hospital. “This baby is going to come,” she insists; directing nature as her own.
Back in the delivery suite I hang up a replica West Ham kit on the wall. It is the size for a new born baby but takes the edge off the medicinal surroundings by making it look more like a locker room. I want it to be the first sight my son has of the world.
One last push at 6pm and he is born. Bloodied and chubby-cheeked, the nurse wraps him in a blanket and hands him to me. I sing to him and swear that he looked straight at me listening to the words, “I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air…”
He is a big baby. My wife is beaten and drained and wants a bath. The nurse takes the baby off me to clean him. I am alone in the suite. For the first time I notice the blood on the floor. Instinctively I bend down and begin to clean it with the sheets. Ten minutes later the nurse re-enters and tells me to stop.
My wife wants a sandwich. I go downstairs and into the London streets to find her a cheese roll. Ghost and witches, vampires and zombies cross my path. I am euphoric from the birth. The juxtaposition of the invigorative and the macabre is surreal.
October 31. 1999. Family and friends are gathered in our kitchen. My son is dressed like a baboon. I wanted him to be a zombie but my mother has sent a quality costume in the post. The baboon is a consolation. I got a costume as well. I am dressed (perhaps too realistically) like a werewolf and am hiding outside the kitchen window on the fire escape.
The children are eating ice cream cones and singing happy birthday. I leap through the window with a starling growl. One of my son’s friends is frozen with fear and crushes his ice cream in his hand.
October 31, 2011. My wife puts seventeen candles on a cake. We are having the cake early because my son has to be at work by 10pm. He will work through the night, as he does six days a week and will return at dawn. I finger the present we got him: driving lessons. He wants to be a taxi driver. I think that driver back in 1994 might have been mystical after all. I imagine my son thrashing to exit the womb and listening to the muffled voices as I shake the Fitzrovia-driving cabbie’s hand. It has imbedded in his sub consciousness.
My son knows all the words to Bubbles. He has sung it along side me a thousand times as we stood at football matches watching West Ham play. Two weeks ago he bought me a ticket for an away match being played next month. It will be the first time he has ever taken me to a match, instead of the other way around.
I light a cigarette. It hangs from my bottom lip and over the stubble on my chin as I scratch my great pot-belly. I have morphed into the hobo character that once won a sled.
I loosened the dancing skeletons from around my neck. The tired fabric will soon be stored until a year has passed. The skulls look at me, laughing, warning; “Time is fleeting. Time is fleeting.”
But the taxi driver is on my side. My orange and black charity box is heavy with the coins I have collected helping those less fortunate these past 17 years. It is so heavy it makes my back and neck ache perpetually.
Certainly, I want more- the better costume, the peanut butter cups from my sister’s pillowcase, the bigger house, the better car- but what I have is the most loving of homes. That is not consolation, that, dear readers is quality. Quality.
I threaten my son’s friend with the appearance of a werewolf at the kitchen window. We all laugh. I whisper to the dancing skeletons, “All will be well. All will be well.”
Keep the Faith,