, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[Halloween is, of course, tomorrow, but the parties are tonight. Ed.]

Renata had been accorded the most difficult resident, Josef, for the day and she had spent the afternoon leading him around the shops. She had tried to cultivate an appreciation in Josef for the hats and shoes – “That’s a colourful one! Isn’t it shiny?” – but he had responded with a sullen disinterest, and at one point he had exploded into a furious tantrum at the sight of a display of dressing gowns, hissing at them like a cat and brandishing his fists at their injustice. The dressing gowns had faced down Josef – the bigger cat – and Renata had predicted that he would hurt himself if he carried on like this. Renata always found Josef’s company to be wearisome and with her head heavy from being on her feet for the whole afternoon, she had finally succumbed to weakness and put him on the next bus. They would sit down for a few minutes, and although she was uncertain of the Number 13’s precise route, it appeared to be heading back towards the home.

The bus turned out to be a mistake, however, as once Josef was sitting down, he refused to get up again.

He was quite obstinate on this point. They had long passed the lane that would take them down to the home and when – at every subsequent stop – Renata suggested that it was time to get off, Josef shook his head and vowed “no! no!” And then another passenger – an old woman with her hair and face and coat all the same dirty grey – started to heckle Josef because of the noise that he was making. Renata had to defend him, denouncing the woman’s irresponsible behaviour for the whole bus to hear. The old woman would not be deterred, however, particularly from some newfound outrage about the extraordinary impertinence of the Polish. Finally satisfied that she had won the moral high ground and the sympathy of the bus, she sat back with a merry eye:

“You have no control over him. Look, you can’t make him do anything!”

Josef cowered slightly, now staring fixedly ahead with anxiety. Renata’s face was a pool of crimson and she fought to clear her head of this discomfort. She suddenly wanted to phone somebody – just to hear a familiar voice – but her frantic fingers could not seem to turn on her phone.

They had missed five stops and they were now deep into the suburbs. The old woman was surveying Renata and Josef with triumph, and emitting odd clucks and chuckles, and Renata was too embarrassed to reveal any more of her helplessness.

The old woman had finally reached her stop and she marched off into the night, her head wagging with satisfaction. The bus was now almost empty. Renata had no idea where they were and Josef was watching her with huge, doleful eyes.

“This is the final stop!” the bus driver shouted. The poor sods who called this place home were now shuffling vacantly off the bus. Renata stood up and walked to the doors, with Josef promptly at her heels. Outside, the sky was fading away and everything in the shadow of the houses was dark.

Where were they? Renata’s days in pastoral Silesia had lead her to subconsciously regard Edinburgh as a nest of villages – Leith, Costorphine, Morningside were essentially, to her eye, parishes – but this part of the city was so quiet that they really could have been in a village. There were cottages and lengthy dry-stone walls and the occasional elm tree with a huge, settled stillness in its shade. And then Renata registered dully, with a complete absence of panic, that there were no bus stops on this road. It should have been as easy as getting on the next bus back to Edinburgh, but this old road looked as if the idea of city traffic had never occurred to it.

And then – when things could surely not get any worse – Josef had acquired a nosebleed.

“Back! Hold your head back!”Renata insisted. Josef was moaning in an odd, bored-sounding voice. He was uncomfortable with holding back his head, but when it nodded forward, blood ebbed down the front of his shirt. This did not look like the sort of nosebleed that was in any hurry to stop.

Renata tried to call the home, but she could not turn on her phone. However firmly she pressed down on the button, it remained unresponsive. It was as if every component of reality was conspiring darkly to bring her to the point of tears, but she was determined not to let these forces win. In a hour or so, this would be an amusing anecdote – something novel with which to entertain the common room. But how to get there? – how to get back?

The road was wide and dusty and Renata was suddenly tricked into thinking that something eerie was skating in rapid circuits on its surface. But it was only the shadow of a clump on the end of one of the branches overhead that was caught dancing in the wind. They had stopped before a grand stone house – of the wholesome, Edwardian sort that today’s builders now cannot imagine, let alone build. Renata decided that whoever was at home could hardly object to surrendering a phone call. She approached the front door – this was now a little adventure and Renata felt refreshed by the prospect of talking to somebody who was not Josef – and she tried to asphyxiate everything Polish in her voice and appearance. Imagine that you’re a pleasant Scottish lass!

There was no doorbell – only a knocker which produced a sharp rattle. Renata waited with a mounting sense of keenness – there were definite noises within the grand house – and then the door was opened with a swift little gulp – by Count Dracula!

He was a handsome, immaculate Dracula – tall, slender and white – with a purple cloak, fangs and bloody lips – and an immediate impression of perfect manners.

“Welcome to Castle Dracula,” he drawled.

Renata blinked.

“If you have any tricks up your sleeves, then I will have no option but to drink your blood,” the Count warned, his eyes droll. “But I am more than accommodating when it comes to treats.”

Renata was presented with a plastic bucket full of confectionary. She stared helplessly.

“Your friend is a… Quasimodo? But what is your costume?”

There was a silent little click and Josef erupted into awful tears. Dracula looked bewildered. The peculiarity of the situation was dissipating. “I’m sorry, but I am a psychiatric nurse and my patient is in trouble,” Renata explained. “I was wondering if I could use your phone?”

“Ah… Of course…” Dracula stepped back. “I’m sorry, but, you see, being the night that it is…”

“Yes?” Renata looked up at him.

“It’s Halloween!”

Josef’s bellow seemed to tear open the world like paper. Little spots of blood appeared on the doorstep.

“My patient should stay outside,” Renata admitted. “He is bleeding heavily.” She was now following the Count into his Castle. There was a beautiful, spacious interior, with a huge television mounted in the living-room.

“You see…” Dracula was relating eagerly, “the local children do like to come around with their “trick and treating” and I and my wife – my old wife, I should say – always dressed up as part of the fun, you see…”

He handed Renata a phone and she called back to base. The voice at the other end sounded distant and unfamiliar, but they promised to dispatch a taxi. Dracula had threatened to make Renata a cup of tea and he was now pottering about in his kitchen.

Josef stood in the middle of the garden, blotched with blood, watching Renata through the window. He was completely still.

The doorbell rang. Renata remembered that there had been no doorbell and she wondered where it was hidden. Dracula was on his way to answer the door, breathless with anticipation, but then he was running back to fetch his bucket of sweets.

Renata approached the living-room window, so that she could survey the trick-and-treaters outside. There were three little monsters on the doorstep, in green plastic masks.

Two were holding boxes of eggs, which were opened to reveal the rows of shells, but the monster in the middle was brandishing what looked like – but what surely could not have been – a sort of gun.

It was a preposterously big and cumbersome weapon, although very dusty. It could not have been anything other than a toy.

The door was opened to yells and a bombardment of eggs.“Hey you fucking poof,” the monster in the middle proclaimed in a shrill, piercing voice, “Fucking wanker!”

Dracula pounced on the monsters with a plop, his cloak tumbling after him. Incredibly, he had pulled out what looked like a meat cleaver and, Renata’s jaw fell open as, with a vicious swipe, he chopped away the side of a boy’s head. Renata took a step back. The boy’s mask was askew and he staggered, a lump of his head at his feet like a dropped cake. The monster with the gun was trying to shoot Dracula, but the gun jumped in his hands and Renata darted back as the glass from the window cascaded all around her.

Renata fled to where she sensed that the back door would be, her heart bounding ahead of her like a hare. Behind her, she could hear cries and the dull beating of gunfire.

It was dark outside in the garden and Josef was nowhere to be seen. A gale was caught in the trees and they were hearty with song. Running around the side of the house, Renata realised that she would have to pass the scene on the doorstep. She ducked down her head as she sensed the atrocity glowing several feet away. She could hear awful, animal noises, and she could not help but glance over quickly to where there was an incredible eruption of blood and two figures struggling blindly, as if locked in each others jaws. Renata’s feet carried her off the property and down the road until she arrived at a bus stop where – wondrously! – a bus was just pulling up.

Back at the home, the supervisor was not wholly inspired by Renata’s story, not least because he had sent a taxi to the address which she had cited and the driver had found nothing there. Suddenly embarrassed by the wildness of her tale, Renata delivered a more moderate rendition, though this might have not done it sufficient justice. For when the police were summoned to retrieve Josef, Renata’s description of the house and its location proved so useless that it would take them two days to find him.

Several reported sightings of Josef finally led the police to a ruined house in the shadow of Blackford Hill. They found two shrivelled skeletons in the hallway – one in a cloak and the other in a dress – and a small heap of skulls and bones upstairs in an airing cupboard. Although the fridge was rotten and desolate, Josef had found several bottles of vintage wine, and he was in good spirits when the police recovered him. Although never particularly articulate at the best of times, Josef responded to their questions with a lopsided grin and some words about having a happy Halloween.