The soft vegetable stink of leaves reached him before his eyes opened. He was in a wood, the back of his head resting uncomfortably against the exposed root system of a fallen tree. Movement brought the unpleasant sensation of pins and needles in his head. That didn’t seem possible, but here he was.
London, potbound, winds its roots deeper into the clay soil of its basin and pushes upwards, questing for sunlight above its flyblown glass canopy. Fox Tower was one of three (Winslow and Pastor were its siblings), as rooted in the ground as it was possible to be with 22 floors sprouting from its grim, piss-soaked core. The stench of everything clung to it, a feast of human waste fertilising its foundations as, inside, people lived through a thousand lives every minute.
It was not the sort of place Michael would choose to live in. His life had been lived in nicer parts of London, save for his time at university in Staffordshire. He would not even visit somewhere like Fox Tower, given the option, but the option was not there. Pettigrew, his dog, had slipped the leash and made a run for the front entrance, flying past the barely there front door into the slate grey darkness inside.
Fox House reared into the flat sky above him, encircled by a sparse vortex of dry, joyless snowflakes. Every floor was wrapped in balconies, and every balcony was a riot of bric-a-brac; broken bicycles, hard plastic rocking horses, laundry airers, half-inflated plastic footballs. They were not used to admire the view, even if there was anything worth seeing. Michael wondered if Pettigrew was even now sniffing at the doors to those flats, and how far up she might have got. ‘Petty?’ he called, tentatively. ‘Petty! Here girl, back here!’ It was pointless – he was going to have to go in.
In the early hours of the morning, or the late hours of the night (depending on how you look at time), the towpath was quiet, still and very dark. No light from the surrounding houses, roads and ill-fated gastropubs filtered through the dense cover of willow. It was a perfect place for a quiet run, or for an accident, a murder.
It had been a good Hallowe’en, and a long one. I had carved a pumpkin – classical style, a grinning mouth and a triangular nose – and set it out on the front step to indicate to the neighbourhood kids that, yes, trick or treating was welcome here. And had they ever taken up that invitation! I had bought a half-dozen bags of assorted sweets and still I was looking in danger of running out before the end of the rush. In theory I could raid the fruit bowl, but who wants to be the one handing out apples? Not I. No, it’s tooth-rotting crap or nothing, I am a man of principle.
I was just pondering a run to the corner shop for a bag of whatever they had in – ooh, barley sugars – when the torrent just stopped. A lone boy in his early teens wearing a Scream mask and a blue tracksuit was to be my final visitor. He was unmoved by my offering of a couple of Black Jacks, a mini Mars bar and a lolly, taking the chocolate without comment and disappearing into the night before I could wish him a happy Hallowe’en.
“That’s it,” I thought as he left. “No more. Late now. Kids all in bed. Time to relax.” I blew out the candle in my pumpkin, dimmed the lights of my living room and switched on the TV, hoping for something relatively spooky to keep the mood of Hallowe’en going. Stalwart copyright-free zombie flick Night of the Living Dead was tempting me on one of the cheaper satellite channels, but I instead ended up watching a biography of Aleister Crowley.
Exhausted, I dozed sporadically before succumbing to sleep before the programme had finished. In this state, I had an extraordinarily vivid dream.
I was walking along a country lane at night, the trees forming a canopy above my head allowing brief glimpses of the moon. It was a thin, sharp crescent but its light was strong, cold and silver on the road ahead of me. Glancing up to see if there were any stars visible, I was surprised to hear footsteps on the road ahead of me. There had been no-one there a moment before. There was a hollowness to the footsteps and a clicking which put me in mind of horses. I peered down the tunnel of trees and saw a figure walking toward me. It was tall, and moved with an easy grace.
I could not see the figure’s face, even though the moonlight shone directly on it. Despite it being, at first glance, some distance away, the figure loomed over me. I swayed backwards, alarmed, as it reached out a pale hand and went to take my shoulder. I still could not make out a face. I pulled away from it, and it reached out again. The hand looked waxen, unmoving, and I did not want it to touch me. It was as if it was a false hand, thrust from the folds of the figure’s voluminous sleeve in an attempt to appear more human.
I took several paces back, keeping my gaze fixed on the figure in front of me, not wanting to give it an opportunity to gain even more ground on me. It remained motionless as I backed away. When I felt sufficiently distant, I glanced to my side to see if there was any way out of the tunnel of trees I had walked down. Without any sense of surprise, I noticed a road at right angles to the one I was on. It had not been there moments before, but in a dream nothing follows neatly and logically so it seemed quite natural that there was a new road there. What did strike me as odd was the face at the bottom of the nearest tree. A crooked smile, illuminated from within. It was the pumpkin I had carved and set out by my lawn.
I heard the hollow clatter of the creature’s footsteps, and looked back to see it almost upon me again. This time its hand was stretched out palm up, as if begging. I felt that it wanted me to give it something, anything, and maybe that would make it leave me alone. Its arm stretched towards me, the waxen hand glistening in the moonlight. Again I felt the shiver of revulsion at the pallid mockery of a limb closing in on me. I took another step back, but found I had been pushed against the trunk of one of the trees at the crossroad. The pumpkin leered up at me from the opposite corner, its cartoon of a face clearer and more lifelike than that of the figure now taking the step which would bring it into contact with me.
I awoke with a start, back on my sofa with the TV on. A loud knock at the door had brought me back from my dream. I looked at my watch – 11:50pm. Still Hallowe’en, but far too late for trick or treat. The knock came again. I made up my mind not to answer. I was nearly out of treats, and still a little shaken from the dream. I’d blown out the candle in the pumpkin, what clearer signal could I give? Was I going to have to hide behind my sofa until the trick or treaters went away?
The knock came again, more powerfully, hammering the knocker against the door and rattling the letterbox. I leapt to my feet and stood, rigid, staring through my living room doorway at front door. Through the two panes of rippled glass set either side of the central strut, I could see a tall, white figure. A costume, I didn’t doubt, but the memory of my dream chilled me at the sight of it. It raised its hand to knock again, but instead of the thunderous knocking which had brought me to my feet, this time it merely tapped the glass, gently, with its hand. There was a softness to the tap which made me shudder involuntarily.
The person at the door leaned sideways, to look into the house through the warped glass. Seeing this, I dived back down onto the sofa, hiding myself behind the cushions. I tried to convince myself that this was simply because I did not want to have to answer the door to this absurdly late trick or treater, but I knew that I was simply terrified that the faceless creature from my dream was now standing at my threshold.
To my horror, I then heard the sound of the letterbox being slowly lifted. No doubt the thing at the door was now peering directly into my house. I have never felt so vulnerable as that moment, flat on my sofa, listening to the creaking of a small panel of metal shifting on its hinges. So vulnerable, and so absurd. It was just a teenager, I knew that, a teenager in a sheet looking for chocolate. But I dared not move, I didn’t even want to breathe. It seemed that I was sitting there for hours. It could only have been a minute or so, though, and at the end of it the letterbox closed with a snap. Something in the atmosphere changed, and I felt somehow less afraid to stand and look at my door.
There was no-one there. I swallowed, and walked out from behind the sofa. Not feeling quite up to opening the door, I decided to check on the status of my front lawn from upstairs. I looked down from my bedroom window and was relieved to see that there was no-one at the door, no-one even in the vicinity. I checked down the road. Might there have been a dull shine of white at the very edge of the streetlight’s illumination? A second look dispelled the illusion. The street was empty.
At this point, I noticed something unusual. There was a light on my front lawn. A cheery orange flicker, spilling weakly from the space near my front door. The pumpkin was lit again. Why that should be I couldn’t quite think, I had definitely blown out the candle. Regardless, I was not about to go out there to extinguish it again and for some reason I felt happier that the pumpkin was lit. It was like I had a guardian. With this thought in mind, I closed the curtains and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke from a dreamless sleep – was it dreamless? I had a faint memory of a man clothed in a white robe standing in my front lawn, hand outstretched to the window – and went downstairs to clear the house up as I had left everything as it was in my haste to get upstairs and look out of the window.
Things seemed perfectly normal. I went to the front door to examine for.. what, exactly? A scrape of wax on the letterbox? Fingerprints on the glass? There was nothing to be seen. I opened the door and checked the pumpkin. Its little nightlight had burned out long since, the inside of its cut-off cap scorched with the heat. I picked it up and was taking it over to the compost recycling bin when I noticed my lawn.
It was criss-crossed with the footprints of dozens of children and their parents from the night before, but what caught my attention was the final set of tracks, the deepest set, the ones which were pressed over all the others. They were small, sharp hoof-prints, and they only went towards my door. There was no set of these prints leading away.