THE VICAR’S WARNING
Stephanie Mc Kay didn’t scare easily, and her main objection to horror films was that they were silly, though she had to admit there was something unsettling about The Wicker Man that gave her odd dreams about haystacks for a while afterwards. But this was more daunting than she cared to admit, and she still wasn’t quite sure how she had been talked into escorting a troupe of screeching , ghosts, and (for some strange reason she hadn’t fathomed) ice lollies as they paraded round the streets in pursuit of confectionery. Somehow the ice lollies were the most unnerving of the lot. It almost made them seem like cannibals, ravenous for a feast of their near relations. Now get a grip on yourself, she thought. They’re the local Brownie Guide troop, they’re nice little girls who raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind and bake cup cakes that they take round to the care home. And if there is any sign of it getting out of hand, Donna won’t stand for it. Donna was her friend, and was the Brownie Guider. She was the kind of woman about whom people, with almost tedious predictability, used words like “Salt of the earth” and “heart of gold”. There was no doubting that the Brownies adored her. And there was also no doubt she could have masterminded this exercise perfectly well herself, but Health and Safety dictated that with that number of small girls they needed two adults. Steph, as most people called her, and Donna, were wearing high-viz jackets and carrying pumpkin lanterns. Donna, surprisingly, quite approved of the jackets. Not that they were really necessary as most of the streets were perfectly well lit – needless to say, the local authority had no intention of switching off the street lamps to add to the Halloween atmosphere.
“Just a word before we start, ladies!” Donna said. She always called her Brownies “ladies” and they seemed to like it. Donna had one of those voices that didn’t exactly boom, but in most cases a megaphone would have been entirely superfluous. “We stick together, and no stragglers and no running ahead. If anyone has a sign saying they don’t want trick or treaters, we go past their house quietly – understood? If anyone doesn’t have any treats we say that’s absolutely fine and wish them a Happy Halloween anyway. And if anyone only gives you a packet or chewing gum or a digestive biscuit, you’re still suitably grateful.”
“They’re still ruddy mean, though,” one of the Ice Lollies muttered.
“And we don’t use any bad language, either!” But Steph could sense that she didn’t disagree with the sentiment.
“Oh – and don’t forget – we don’t go to the vicarage! Even if there isn’t a sign there.”
In common with many people, Steph and Donna had been decidedly puzzled by the Reverend Christopher Maynard’s hardline stance on Halloween. Reverend Chris, as he was usually called, had taken over the living of St John the Evangelist, one of the few urban churches to still have its own vicarage, in April. Though his predecessor Reverend Jack was much-loved, he had undeniably begun to repeat himself in his sermons, and wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren. Reaction to Reverend Chris had been largely positive. He had a pleasant, self-effacing way, a knack with words, and was adept at walking the middle path of market town Christianity, not too high church, not too low, speaking up about injustice but not getting too political about matters. He would do very nicely, was the general opinion. He certainly gave no impression of being a fundamentalist. He had no objection at all to the church hall being used for Yoga, or to the Harry Potter books, and was a keen, if not stridently virtue-signalling supporter of interdenominational ventures.
But Reverend Chris, to put it mildly, did not like Halloween. His sermons didn’t go as far as fire and brimstone, but they weren’t that far off. His normal conversational style became louder, more vehement, and he warned of dark forces and dangerous over-trivialising.
“And to my mind, that’s where he misses the point, with no disrespect to him!” Donna said, as she and Steph ministered their little charges towards their first sortie. Donna was not a specially religious woman, but thought it only decent to acknowledge one’s respect for the clergy. “The way I see it, it’s the very trivialising – the costumes, the sweets, all that – that keeps it safe. Still, he has a right to his viewpoint. Even if it does seem a bit intolerant.”
A little pitcher with big ears – in her case, cats’ ears, with rather cute whiskers to match – asked, “What does intolerant mean? Is it like ranting?”
Even Donna, who could have taken “The Ways of Small Girls” as her specialist subject on Mastermind was not always quite sure if a question were genuine or mischievous. “Look it up in a dictionary when you get home, Rowena,” she said, firmly, “You’ve been pestering about the trick or treating for months, so get on with it while you have a chance.”
“And that was wrong on two counts,” she said, this time sotto voce to Steph. “In the first place I always hated being told that, and in the second place she’s the kind of kid who probably will and my opinion of Reverend Chris will do the rounds!”
Anyway, Rowena and the others needed no second telling to get on with it. It seemed as if there were fairly rich pickings to be had, and the special decorated bags they had made at their meetings were filling up nicely. It was all going well. Though the volume level did rise rather on occasion, the girls were behaving well enough, and most folk seemed more than happy to give them a treat. It was true that when they passed a house with a sign informing them their presence would not be welcomed, Rowena (thus revealing she did have a pretty good idea what the word meant!) stage-whispered “Intolerant!” but Donna, although she could hear the proverbial grass growing, deemed it best to turn a deaf ear. Whilst they were on the brightly lit street, Steph and Donna kept an eye on their charges, but didn’t hover. After about half an hour, they seemed to have garnered all they were going to, and the little parade, now bearing goodies (and already having some not so surreptitious nibbles) moved along the route they had planned and off Timperley Avenue onto Brightwell Street. This was a slightly older, and in Steph’s opinion, more interesting part of town. The houses were less symmetrical, and the windows quirkier. Someone had hung strings of old 45 rpm records as a curtain, and someone else had a neat row of Kilner jars. One had a large Shrek toy downstairs, in all his appealing green glory, and a transfer of the rose window at York Minster upstairs. Gardens were not all as neat as on the Avenue (as its residents sometimes called it, as if there were no other avenue in the world) and yet she could not quite join Donna’s tut-tuts at the car parts or bramble tangles. It was clear the girls, even though some of them lived on both The Avenue and Brightwell Street, found it more interesting too. It was ever so slightly – well, not sinister, but not quite as safe and sanitised. There was a local legend that it had originally been Bridewell Street, from the old word for prison, but reassuringly (or frankly, more often disappointingly) no real evidence had been found for existence of a prison there.
Like many streets in many towns, Brightwell Street had its tatty end and its posh end. “And I know we shouldn’t use terms like that, but let’s be honest, we all think them,” Donna had said, while they were route-planning. But there was no denying the generosity of the folk at the so-called “tatty end” – a lady in a leopard skin dressing gown emerged from one house that (although not the one with the records in the window!) was blaring Rolling Stones music and produced a whole box of chocolates. Steph half-suspected that Donna had been tempted, as the parade wended its way onwards, to mutter “More Money than Sense!” but had learnt her lesson from the “Intolerant” episode and held her tongue on the matter for the time being.
Steph and Donna (and a fair number of the girls) knew that the Vicarage was at the top end of the posh bit of Brightwell avenue, next door to the church. They could already see its rather squat grey stone tower silhouetted against the autumn sky, illuminated by a bright half moon that was intermittently blocked by rather desultory drifting clouds. The Vicarage itself appeared to be in darkness. Maybe Reverend Chris had retreated somewhere else to avoid even having to see and hear evidence of his views being ignored. Well, better that than standing outside and continuing to air them.
Some buildings look more evocative and interesting in the dark or half-light than they do by day, but the vicarage wasn’t one of them. It seemed to shrink in on itself when daylight wasn’t shining on its warm red bricks and the late blooming roses in the front garden were leached of their colour. A dull shadow house. Something about that even seemed to affect the girls, and they passed by quietly enough, though Rowena couldn’t help making a remark about not going where they weren’t welcome. Donna merely gave her “the look”!
Brightwell Street wasn’t a cul-de-sac, but somehow it always seemed like one, and especially in the half-light it was easy to forget that the street carried on, petering out into the outskirts and onto the industrial estate, the other side of the church. The church was an entirely natural place for the trick or treaters to turn round and return on the opposite side of the street. The sonorous church clock was striking eight as they did, confirming that Donna and Steph would be able to keep the promise of them being back at the Guide and Scout hut to be picked up by nine. It would just give them nice time to do the “reverse leg” of Brightwell Street with a little detour into Shannon Close (which was a cul-de-sac).
They were a little surprised, but not unduly so, that the church was lit up, although quite dimly. And the door was open. They could hear Reverend Chris’s voice!
“Looks like he’s decided to pray for us poor sinners,” Donna said, “Bit theatrical leaving the door open, but there you go.”
“Wonder if he’s preaching to the converted or all by himself,” Steph agreed. But despite their jokes there was something that was making them uneasy. “Get a wiggle on, and behave!” Donna admonished the Brownies, whilst the two adults paused by the church. Reverend Chris wasn’t preaching. He was praying.
“Oh, dear Lord, in Your mercy save me! In Your compassion, help me! Let me breathe in Your sweet air in the sanctuary of Your blessed building on this night of all nights, and keep Your children safe! Have pity on them, Lord, and have pity on me! On this night of all nights, until the morning comes, and Your saints gather to protect us, but this night is long, and danger and temptation are all around.” He sobbed then, howling sobs.
Until the sobbing stopped, and the howling continued, and a mighty creature on four paws padded restively around the church, that Halloween night.