It was during that afternoon of October 31st in the Year of our Lord when evenings drew in with a particular vengeance.
"Let's play hopscotch."
"No, hide-and-seek's will be better, especially today."
If Sam allowed them to do so, Idle White and Pauline would argue for the rest of the afternoon into the evening, ending up with them not playing any games whatsoever. So, it was usually up to Sam to mediate.
Today was a case in point.
But first Sam needed to write a letter:
Dear Auntie Beryl,
I'm writing a thank you letter to thank you very much for the Hallo Ween mask. I really injoy playing with it. I keep it in the toy cubbird at night. Hope you are well. Love, Sam xxx
Sam's mother had checked the spelling.
"How about playing Dares, eh? That’ll be better, won’t it? I dare either of you to make faces at big fat Billy Belly." This was Sam's suggestion, today.
"You're always saying that and I'm fed up with Dares." The little boy who responded to Sam's suggestion was indeed Idle White who wore a duffle coat despite the unseasonable balm. Idle White knew their Mums wouldn't call them in until after dusk had started the process of blackening the sky.
The city wasteground was lit by one tall light - and by a couple of not-too-distant Belisha beacons whose orange pulses disguised the children's blushes during a rude game which they often played last thing ... just before they sensed the onset of their respective Mums' cooing roundelay of Come Home. Hide-and-Seek had taught them such tricks of the trade, what to hide, and what to seek, and what to find, and where to do it.
"I'm fed up with Dares, too," announced the piping tones of Pauline in a yellow pinafore dress. "And, Sam, I'm really more fed up with you inventing big fat Billy Belly - he never comes - and so why ever do we do Dares, if there's no-one to be scared of?"
Sam winced: he hated having his Billy Belly bluff called.
“He’ll bound to come today!” Sam said with some false earnestness.
Eventually, however, hopscotch was decided upon. Sam agreed to chalk out the grid, for the other two. He couldn't actually play since he had to have an early tea, because his Auntie Beryl was coming to visit. But first Sam needed a pee. He disappeared into one of those dark spots on the wasteground which served so well amid bouts of Hide-and-Seek - and during his own soporific gushing, he heard underlaid the lonely droning of a distant aeroplane circling the city before landing at the new aerodrome across the other side of the city. Billy Belly. Billy Belly. I like jam and jelly. He hummed absentmindedly. He often concocted such rhymes that made far more sense than those nonsensical nursery ones his mother used to tell him on her knee, before the blazing log fire amid the sacrosanct evenings of his infancy. Billy Belly had become mixed up with Jack Horner and Jack Sprat and Lucy Locket - and Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of...
A pail of what?
The voice was silent, yet it didn't require actual saying to show it was being said rather than imagined. Ghosts spoke like that, since they didn't exist. And English only existed as long as those using it also existed. Ghosts could not exist. But, of course, monsters did. Especially today. And Monsters were topped up and down with blood, bones, bellies, balls...
Sam chose to ignore his fears and clambered from the oily oubliette, half done, still buttoning his flies. He could not endure things bluffing him.
By the time he returned, Idle White and Pauline had already started chalking the grid on a large oblong piece of concrete that once must have been a runway when this area was an aerodrome. The widening of the sun upon its dying dip was rhythmically accentuated by the belisha beacons - making their orange faces like monsters in real life rather than like those black and white ones they saw in the local Picture House.
Idle White and Pauline blared looks at Sam, flushed with a substance not dissimilar to the results of Sam's recent kidney tap. It was as if the pair of them accused Sam of treachery. Almost as if they'd already seen Billy Belly and he wasn't at all frightening.
A little later, when dusk was almost over and the hopscotch grid still incomplete, Sam drifted off behind the derelict shape of the Control Tower. The wind forked his hair, since nights were often stormy. He found the mask that he had hidden under a nettle bush for safe-keeping. He gathered stings like other children did stamps. He sucked the fleshy part between his finger and thumb, preparing to mount it with a sticky hinge.
Made easier by Aunt Beryl’s gift, this procedure was part and parcel of a transmutation that Sam himself failed to understand, stemming, no doubt, from an erstwhile game of Dares that had gone horribly wrong in the 1940’s before Idle White and Pauline had been old enough to play out so late. That was when Sam played with other kids. With other boys walking on earth-shadowed shins. With other girls of white-thighed abandon. And with some of indeterminate sex who could never stop playing the last game first.
Tonight, though, Idle White sighed with relief on completion of the hopscotch grid. Numbered 1 to 10, box, double-box, box, double-box, box, double-box, box. The belisha beacons lit the litter-strewn arena with shifting desolation and despair, in-built emotions that children rarely noticed. They failed to imagine the thriving concourse, as it had once been. Ever since the new aerodrome had been built, this previous one had been allowed to go to rack and ruin.
Pauline laughed hollowly, as Idle White threw the puck towards the head of the grid. She prepared to hop. Dangled her left leg as if it didn't belong to her...
Then came the cooing of their mothers.
Time had caught up with the children, and they had not even begun the hopscotch, let alone the more dubious games. It was strange, however: home was in the opposite direction to the cooing. How could that be? Pauline shrugged. Where was Sam? The city became a weird place once the sun had set. Especially tonight.
It was as if the world were wheeling faster - or slower. Or, at least, differently, disorientatedly. Such words were not in her vocabulary, but the thoughts were in her mind, nevertheless. She felt Idle White take her hand as they left the hopscotch grid behind.
Meanwhile, there was a single coffin behind the disused tower. Nailed down. A double-coffin, next to it, gaping open. Two shapes of darkness got out together. Despite their age, they maintained a vestige of their erstwhile marriage. A pair of ancient schoolkid sweethearts (precursors of children such as Sam, Pauline and Idle White) ever sought at least a smidgen of their first explorations and the first uncoverings of the means of love.
Special Hallowe’en monsters, too, waddled free. Despite having stayed hidden for the rest of the year, they retained forbidden memories of interlocking crosses, some like metal aircraft floating in the sky, others embedded in limechalk. Yes, they waddled free...
But Sam, Idle White and Pauline eventually reached their respective homes and their mothers used speech with which to converse...
"Why home so early, Sam - did you have a quarrel?" asked Sam's mother, upon his arrival.
"No, it was cold when the wind came."
Sam smiled at his mother, then at Aunt Beryl. He'd really wanted a scarier mask. Perhaps he'd ask for a chain-saw next Hallowe’en, instead. Better than pumpkin pie. Aunt Beryl smiled back obliviously. "Oh, thank you for your nice letter, Sam," she said, "I've put it in my tresshore cubbid for when I'm old."
"You're nice and early," said Pauline's mother in another house.
"Yes, the wind got up," said Pauline, meaningfully.
"Well, as tea's not ready yet, why don't you go and play upstairs?"
"Yes, I'll tidy up my album." Pauline felt something turn over in her stomach as she rushed for the lavatory.
"Goodness, you're back soon," said Mrs White to the idol of her eyes, in yet another house.
"Billy Belly came."
"Idle! Didn't I tell you you're not to have such fanciful notions - it's bad for you. There's nobody called Billy Belly. Sam made him up. That Sam's a queer boy, at the best of times. He puts these silly ideas in your head. I don't think you should be playing with someone so much older than you."
He nodded, without answering, other than in thought.
But, Mama, your rong, Billy Belly duss live.
Billy Belly. Billy Belly. I love jam and jelly.
Belly Billy. Belly Billy. I love Jack and Jilly.
Billy could've gulped a whole pail of blood for tea, given half the chance. A lonely plane droned far-off, as the idol of Mrs White’s eyes later climbed the little wooden hills to Bedfordshire. He vowed to punish that Sam for failing to scare Pauline - but what could you expect with Sam merely wearing nothing more frightening than a silly trick ‘n treat mask, sticky-plastered hands and a stuffed anorak?
Yep, I cun't wate t' go get that dammed Sam - soon's his backs bent chorking new hotchpotch lines for me and sweet Porleen.
But that would have to wait till next Hallowe’en. Not so big and fat, Billy Belly held out his arms-within-arms and made roaring noises as he continued to fly up the stairs tread by tread towards his glove-puppet’s truckle bed. Tomorrow, Idle White would be back on his own strings. And in his own bed.
(published ‘Bats & Red Velvet’ 1995
This was a prequel to Ertz