Hallowe’en was not Louise’s favourite time of the year . . .
YOU got the short straw, too, then?” Louise asked. Her route along Forfar Avenue passed the entrance to an alley, and a fire fighter in full gear had just walked out of it.
“It’s Alan, isn’t it?” She’d probably met him, Louise thought, at some local event that she’d attended as a Community Support Officer.
“Yes, and you’re Louise Willis. Short straw?”
“Hallowe’en. I wanted the night off; I mean, who wants to be around when some idiot pours fake blood into the bins outside the minimart, or scares a toddler half to death?”
“Ah.” Alan shrugged. “I’m fine about working Hallowe’en.”
“Each to their own. Is there a fire, then?”
“No. One of us goes on a walking tour on Hallowe’en and then Bonfire Night – a new initiative as of last year.
“The idea is to spot hazards, or any fun that’s going a bit too far, and nip it in the bud before anyone has to call out our engine. Are you going towards town?”
“’Fraid so,” Louise said. He hesitated, and Louise saw his face turn pink.
“Mind if I tag along? It’s always good to hear what the other services are up to.”
“Sure. I’m on a similar walk myself – letting anyone with ill intent know that I’m on their case.”
Louise looked up at him as they set off. He had brown eyes. She remembered his surname now – Mcdonald.
“But we don’t get much trouble, do we, round here?”
Louise shrugged. “You never know. Frankly, I lack a sense of humour when it comes to Hallowe’en. I wanted to take my kids out guising, though, but as I said, I couldn’t get the night off. My sister’s taking them.”
“A boy and a girl?” Alan said.
“You’ve got a good memory.” “Sometimes. Divorced?” “That’s right.”
She seemed to remember that Alan was single, but she stopped short of asking the question.
It might sound as though she was keen to know, which she wasn’t, because there was no reason to want to know, none at all.
“Are you worried about your children tonight?”
“Not worried exactly. I just don’t think Hallowe’en is the hilarious festival that everyone else seems to.
“But it’s all pretty regimented and safe these days.
“Some houses put a sign in their windows if they want guisers, you know.”
“I do know. Last year we dealt with two curtains on fire because some sparks put candles in pumpkins in their windows as the sign.” “People are useless.” He laughed.
“They want to have fun.” “As I said, a sense of humour failure on my part. One of my kids will be sick from the sugar, and they’ll fight.”
“You don’t buy into Hallowe’en, do you?”
“l don’t see the point. Nobody really believes that lost souls walk the earth tonight.”
They had reached the end of Montrose Avenue.
“l ought to go and check the playground,” Louise said, “show them my uniform. You never know who’s making trouble in there.”
“After that I’ll wander up and down those terraces by the railway line. They have a thriving bonfire tradition there.
“Last year I got two baked potatoes and a marshmallow on a stick.”
“Yes, you’ll need to check that some fool hasn’t built a fire under a tree. So you did this last October, voluntarily?”
“l kind of like this time of year.”
“We don’t have that in common, then.”
There was a silence between them until they reached the playground.
“It’s always the older kids in here,” Louise said. “We got the council to lower these hedges so we can see what they’re up to.”
“Right now what they’re up to seems to be pushing primary-school children on the swings.”
Louise peered over the hedge. A few boys of fifteen or sixteen were making little ones laugh.
There were a few scary masks and Dracula teeth among the youth, while the little kids sported a range of fancy dress, from ghost to Spiderman.
Mums stood nearby, chatting.
“So that’s OK,” Alan said. “l suppose so.” Louise sensed he was smiling at her. Or laughing. “Look, I know you think I’m a miserable so-and-so, but Hallowe’en’s been nothing but a pain for me.
“Last year my youngest, Ryan, had his face painted by my idiot brother to look as though it was wounded.” “Wounded?”
“Will painted a gash right down the middle of Ryan’s little face so that it looked like the skin was being torn off.
“It makes me feel ill just thinking about it.”
“So your Ryan was a monster. That’s not so bad. I bet he loved
every minute of it.”
Louise turned towards Alan. He was very tall, so she had to tilt up her head.
“Have you ever tried washing face paint an inch thick off a tired nine-yearold?”
He pretended to think hard.
“Not in a very real sense.” She laughed but went on. “And what if it was partly genuine face paint, and partly some old stuff your idiot brother found in his art supplies box that doesn’t come off skin?”
Alan nodded slowly.
“That sounds like a challenge.” He tucked his helmet under his arm. “Shall we leave the delinquent teens to their dubious pastimes?”
One of the older boys in the playground had started to sing “The Wheels On The Bus”.
“What? Oh, yes, OK.” They walked.
“So the paint stayed on poor Ryan’s face once Hallowe’en was over?” Alan asked.
“‘Poor Ryan’ nothing. He loved it. He thinks the world of his uncle. But it gets better, Alan.
“Ryan had failed to hand me a note from his book bag saying that official school photos were going to be taken the next day!”
Alan was laughing hard now.
“Priceless. Have you got a picture on you?”
“It’s not funny,” Louise protested.
“Every single member of my extended family wanted a copy of Ryan with horrific paint smeared all over his face, with his innocent smile and wearing his new school shirt.
“It cost me a fortune! So you see why I don’t have a Hallowe’en sense of humour.
She fished a small photograph from her wallet.
“Brilliant!” Alan said. “He looks as though he’s been in a fight.”
“l know, it’s mortifying.” They walked on, past a row of shops and a group of youngsters counting their booty and squabbling about how many bonbons could be swapped for a whole chocolate bar.
Then they stopped to chat to a clutch of dads who were guiding six Elsas and two Annas around a crescent of houses, knocking politely on doors.
A radio crackled somewhere inside his fireman’s jacket.
Louise heard a voice say something about attending at Caledonia Mews.
“We’re only two minutes from that estate,” she remarked.
“Come with me?”
His tone was casual, but Louise sensed that he’d like to continue their joint tour.
The evening would definitely be more bearable, she conceded, with a good-looking bloke to patrol with.
She made a note not to get distracted: she must stay alert for vandals, time-wasters and thieves.
“So, what’s afoot in Caledonia Mews?”
“A bonfire.” He smiled. “It seems the youth of today don’t know their Frankenstein’s monster from their Guy Fawkes.”
“I’m glad you find it amusing,” Louise said. “I’d ban the whole thing.” “No, you wouldn’t.” “I would.”
“I’ll make you laugh over Hallowe’en yet,” Alan said. “What kind of key does a ghost use to unlock a door?”
“I have no idea.” “A spoo-key.” “Brilliant. Not.”
“‘All right. What do they teach at witch school?” “Broomstick flying?” “Yes, but that wouldn’t make it a joke, would it? They teach spelling!” Louise walked on. “You’re a tough nut to crack,” he said. ‘“Here’s Caledonia Mews.”
Alan stopped and put his yellow helmet back on.
“Anticipating trouble?” Louise asked.
“I’m anticipating a light sprinkling of ash,” he said. “l washed my hair before I came out. Also, the public does like to see a fire fighter in full regalia.”
Louise admitted to herself that the public was not alone as she watched him walk up to a slat fence behind which rose a plume of smoke.
“Bonfires aren’t permitted, right?”
“True. But we go easy between now and the fifth. We try to let folk have a good time unless there’s a safety breach.”
He stood on tiptoe and looked over the fence.
“It looks fine,” he said. “A few beers, the possibility of a sausage. I do like a sausage.”
He bent and peered through an open knot in the fence.
“Posh ketchup, too. No rubbish.
He really was, she observed, determined to enjoy the night.
“I’m going to call in next door,” he said, “and ask if I can view what I can’t see here. I want to rule out the fire being close to any flammable garden equipment, though I reckon it’s fine.
“Well, I can reassure the elderly lady next door – I just saw her peering out from behind a net curtain.”
Louise walked up the path of the next-door house in front of Alan.
Not wishing to be outdone in looking well turned out for the public, she took off her hat and brushed the brim with her hand.
The door opened and a tiny, wrinkly lady in a housecoat stepped out. In her hand she held a mixing bowl full of brightly coloured sweets.
She looked down at Louise’s hat, and then up at Louise, and then at Alan, and she frowned.
“You two are a bit old for this, aren’t you?” she said.
She turned and placed the bowl firmly on a hall table behind her.
“Quite good costumes – you put in some effort there, I can see – but I’m keeping my treats for the children, if you don’t mind.”
She stepped back inside and closed the door.
Alan burst out laughing first, then Louise joined in a second later.
It took Louise a good two minutes to calm down, and she had to wrap her arms around herself to dampen the giggles.
“l thought you said Hallowe’en wasn’t funny,” Alan challenged. Louise wiped her eyes. “All right,” she said. “You got me.”
“Not yet,” he said. “But we’ll see. What are you doing on Saturday night?” ■
“I don’t have a Hallowe’en sense of humour”