“Oh, she’s so cute!” exclaimed Mrs Benson, who lived next door, and whom Margot’s mother called Belinda, and whom Margot was supposed to call Auntie Belinda. “Positively scrumptious! I could just eat her up!”
Mrs Benson actually had quite nice teeth, a bit crooked, but nothing really wrong with them. But when she bared them as she said positively scrumptious, something made Margot feel the same way she did as when she was forced – or, as her mother would have said, persuaded, to eat what folk called healthy cereal, or avocados or raw carrot sticks.
It was, as Margot’s mother Dilly was at pains to point out, her first real Trick or Treat. Margot was seven, but last year it would have been frowned on, for all they lived in a low risk area when it came to the pandemic – and Dilly made a point of the fact that it was low and not medium. Before that she would have been too young to really appreciate what was going on. Now, or so Dilly hoped, she was still within the sweet spot.
Dilly was so determined to be a good mother. After all, for all people were supposed to be more tolerant of such things nowadays, there were still prejudices against single Mums. It was important to get things right. To achieve the happy medium. Margot had once overheard Mrs Thompson from up the road say, “Delicia,” (which she knew was her mother’s full name, but she hated, just as Margot pretended to hate really being called Margaret) “Is actually older than Belinda, but you’d never think so!” It might not have been meant as a compliment, but Margot decided that, if only to spite Mrs Thompson, she would take it as one on her mother’s behalf. She had realised that she truly didn’t like Mrs Benson, but knew better than to say so, or she’d have got the earnest little lecture about getting on with people and not saying nasty things about them.
She didn’t much like her outfit, either, and not just because Mrs Benson did. That pointy hat was ridiculous, and as to it being turquoise, well, that just made matters worse. She had heard Dilly’s reasoning on the matter. She may not have approved of the word medium in one specific context, but in others, she was an ardent believer in the matter of the happy medium. Though she wasn’t one of those very religious people (though of course we must respect their beliefs) who thought there was something sinister about Halloween, she didn’t really feel happy about costumes glamorising violence and ghoulishness and all that. But she also made a point of not dressing her daughter in pink, though she had, finally, given in on those Wellington boots. “They do have a sturdy sole,” she had said, as if that cinched it for them. For a few minutes afterwards, until it dawned on Margot that she didn’t mean a sturdy soul, that had been decidedly confusing.
As for that dress with the ragged and uneven hem – well, Margot supposed that was okay for Cinderella, but doubted that anyone who had a choice would wear such a thing. She’d always had a secret soft spot for the Ugly Sisters, anyway!
Margot loathed the word cute. It was bad enough when you applied it to a doll, or to an animal but when you applied it to a person, it was just going too far.
In fact, she wasn’t that keen on this trick or treat business altogether, but had learnt at quite an early age to pick her battles, and supposed that some extra sweets would be no bad thing, though she knew in advance she wouldn’t be allowed to gobble them up all at once. Dilly liked to think she had got the happy medium on the matter of sweets, too. Mind you, in advance Margot suspected that a great many of the sweets were likely to be those that were shaped like fangs and spiders and whatever, but tasted of very little except sweet sludge. She was far more partial to some decent chocolate or some spicy ginger biscuits.
The quiet little street on the new(ish) estate on the edge of town was gradually filling up with children, some with their parents, some not. Fluorescent skeletons glowed greenish in the dark (though with the street lights glaring down, it wasn’t properly dark at all) and ghosts clad in mutilated bedsheets or discount store plastic flapped about and made spooky noises. Quite a few people had put Jack O’Lanterns on their window sills or on their fence. Margot had made one, too, and put a great deal of effort in it, though its grin still came out lopsided. “And when Halloween is over, we can make some nice pumpkin soup out of it,” she promised. “A shame to just let it go to waste!”
Margot struggled to build up much enthusiasm. She had managed to find out that the pumpkin was in the same family of vegetables as the marrow, and her grandfather was a great grower of enormous marrows that he periodically delivered to their door with an air of pride. Dilly gave him a big hug and said, “Oh, dad, you shouldn’t have!” Too right he shouldn’t have, thought Margot. If there was anything worse than cold and crunchy vegetables, it was warm and mushy ones. Mrs Benson had spoken, she remembered, of a recipe for stuffed marrow, but if it was anything like the stuffing that came with chicken, that sounded even more disgusting.
It had started to rain. That drizzly, tired, persistent rain that seems to fall more out of spite than anger. “It’s a good job we put your mac on,” said Dilly. Margot said nothing. If there was anything more ridiculous than a turquoise pointed hat and a dress that looked as if the rats had been at it, it was topping them with what the people in the shop had called a sunshiny yellow raincoat. At least she didn’t have her pink Wellington boots on. For the first time, Margot began to understand her mother’s objections to pink. There was a certain inevitability about running into Mickey, the biggest boy in her class, who was in a vampire outfit and, Margot had to admit (though only to herself, of course) looked quite impressive. He had been let out without parental control, and taking advantage of the fact that Dilly was exchanging a few words with a friend, thinking Margot was safely knocking at the doors of people she knew and trusted and who had promised there would be a nice treat. “You look ridiculous, you know!” he said, “Whoever heard of a witch with a blue hat and a yellow mac! And out with your Mummy!” Needless to say, he never called his own mother mummy, or hadn’t since he was about two, but he gave it a sarcastic twist.
“It’s turquoise, stupid,” she informed him, and aimed a surprisingly sharp kick at his ankles, doubly glad that she wasn’t wearing her softer wellingtons. He yelped, but Margot knew that she was safe from any rebukes. If Mickey told his mother that he had been kicked by one of the smallest children in the class, and that it had been in retribution for being nasty on his part, then he needn’t expect more sympathy.
“There’s something not normal about you,” he muttered, surreptitiously rubbing his ankle. Margot didn’t react to that. So far as she was concerned, it was not particularly insulting, and she had made her point. There was still a certain satisfaction in Brian, who was one of Mickey’s gang, clad, somewhat incongruously, as a cowboy, muttering in her ear, in what he was probably sure was an authentic accent, and as Margot’s mother said, it was making the effort that counted, “Good on you, kid. He had it coming! Want to carry my gun for a bit?” Reluctantly, Margot shook her head. Dilly had quite firm views on toy guns, and the happy medium principle didn’t seem to apply there.
“You decided right, child,” a woman she didn’t know, and yet seemed to, said, “I don’t blame you for giving that nasty little boy a kick, but your strength doesn’t lie in brute force, or in the instruments of it.” Several things went through Margot’s mind. She wasn’t really supposed to talk to strangers unless Dilly was there, but Dilly was there, even if she wasn’t paying much heed to her at the moment, and so were scores of other people she knew. And at first she wondered what on earth she meant by instruments. Instruments were things like pianos and violins and recorders. But all at once, without needing to be told, she did know what it meant in that context. “And your mother made a very good choice with the turquoise,” the stranger who wasn’t quite a stranger went on. “Oh, I agree with you that the shape isn’t that wonderful, but shapes can soon be shifted. Turquoise is a – powerful colour. And you have power, too, my dear, you are one of us, though you still have a lot to learn and a childhood to enjoy. We will meet again many times.” Without being rude and staring, which was a matter on which Dilly had firm opinions, Margot was weighing the woman up. The adults present weren’t in costume, or not really. A couple of them had swirling capes on, but that was as far as it went. This woman wasn’t in costume either, but there was something odd about the way she was dressed. Yet Margot would have been hard pushed to say why. She had on a regular sort of coat, falling to just above her ankles, and dark in colour, and at her neck (for the top buttons of the coat were undone) she could see a flash of a shade she knew was called lilac, like the flower. Though it was raining, she was bare-headed, and was wearing her hair in braids, but somehow it didn’t look silly, the way some adults did when they wore their hair in braids. Her hair was grey, and she had made no attempt to dye or colour it, but it wasn’t a dark grey like her Granny Doris’s hair, and not a snowy white grey like her Grandma Irene’s hair. It was silvery, and Margot suddenly had a notion that she had been born with silver hair, because she didn’t look that old. Or did she? Margot had always thought her mother was just being polite when she said she couldn’t tell people’s age – it wasn’t really that hard! – but now she was in the same predicament herself, or would have been, if it had seemed to matter, which it didn’t. She saw that her mother had finished her chat, and knew that the right thing to do was to introduce her to the lady she’d been talking to, but when she looked around again, she couldn’t see her. She didn’t mention the conversation, and wondered if she should have done. But if her mother had asked her if she’d been talking to anyone, then of course she would have told her.
In common, she supposed, with most of the other trick-or-treaters, Margot had realised that when it came to her loot, quantity rather exceeded quality. They all had their collection bags. Some just had plastic carrier bags, some of them had store-bought bags specially meant for the occasion, and some were using their parents’ shopping bags. On this matter, Margot had to admit, her mother had done her proud. For all her rather clumsy efforts with the pumpkin, she was good at sewing and making things, and she had a special bag that had a pattern of autumn leaves on it, though you couldn’t really appreciate the golds and browns and crimsons in the combination of a dark, drizzly night, and the artificial light of the street lamps. Pamela Patterson had a bag that had flashing lights on it, and Margot couldn’t quite make up her mind if she envied her for it or thought it was – quite literally – to use one of her mother’s favourite terms, a bit flashy. But if anyone was going to have a bag with flashing lights on it, it would be Pamela Patterson. And it wouldn’t mean that she got any richer pickings.
At a certain point, it was plain that the trick-or-treating was petering out and it was time to go home. Margot wasn’t sorry. It hadn’t been as tiresome as she’d half-expected, though, and she had certainly enjoyed her conversation with the lady who told her that turquoise was a powerful colour, and that she had power herself. All the same, she wondered if she really would meet her again, or if even she was just saying the kind of things that grown-ups said. She’d also quite enjoyed giving Mickey a kick on the ankle, though she knew what her mother would have to say on the subject.
Dilly, rather surprisingly, didn’t claim all of Margot’s treats that night to be dealt out as she saw fit. Whether it was forgetfulness, or whether she was proving she trusted her, Margot didn’t know. But Dilly generally was quite easy-going on the matter of bed-time. Oh, there was a time when she said Margot had to be in her bedroom, and she was left in no doubt that unlike Pamela and Mickey, she wasn’t going to have a TV in there until she was – well, probably at least really old, thirteen or something like that. But if she felt like reading one of her storybooks after “official lights out” then Dilly generally didn’t make an issue of it, and Margot was already quite an expert in the art of yawn stifling. She had changed out of her costume straight into her pyjamas, which she agreed was a perfectly sensible thing to do. Her yellow raincoat was on its peg, and her ragged-hemmed dress hanging over a radiator to dry, though she couldn’t see the hurry, as she certainly didn’t plan wearing it again any time soon. But her turquoise pointed hat was in her bedroom with her. She emptied out the contents of the bag her mother had made in the colour of autumn leaves onto her bedspread, and it confirmed what she suspected already. There were a variety of what people often called chews, not chewing gum but chews, in various flavours, some that were supposed to taste like fruit – raspberries, bananas, apples – and some that were minty but with the kind of minty taste that reminded Margot as tooth paste. Spheres of pallid or vivid candy on sticks were there, too. They were known as lollipops, but to Margot’s mind, lollipops were icy-cold and a different thing altogether. At least there was nothing shaped like fangs or spiders. There were a couple of Cadbury mini-rolls and Mr Kipling Angel Slices, which was nice, and a couple of miniature boxes of dried raisins, which no doubt her mother would approve of, but Margot could take or leave. She put the mini-rolls and Angel Slices on her window sill and, almost before she realised she had done it, tipped the rest of the loot out of the bag in the shades of autumn leaves, and into her turquoise pointy hat. By now she really was getting a bit tired, and she curled up in bed and fell asleep without even reading a story book for a bit.
It was still dark when she woke up, though the display on the little digital clock her Auntie Polly (a real Auntie this time!) had given her for her last birthday told her it was 6.30, which was most definitely “proper” morning. She’d heard Mrs Benson say that was a funny kind of present to give a child, but she was very taken with it. Still, she padded across the room and put the light on. The pointy turquoise hat was on the chair where she had left it. Once more, Margot tipped out contents onto her bed. But what she saw, when she emptied the turquoise pointy had, was not chews and so-called lollipops and little boxes of raisins. There were some big, beautiful bars of proper chocolate and two packets of that make of ginger biscuits that really were better than the cheaper ones.
Still, she couldn’t help wondering quite how she was going to explain it to her mother!
Author's Note. The title is by way of a tribute to one of my favourite TV shows - I hope it doesn't come over as pretentious!