Cost of Living Crisis, Decapitation, Dogs, Dream, Dreaming, Edinburgh, Food Bank, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Halloween, Halloween special, Headless Horseman, Horror, Humor, Jack O'Lantern, Kissing, Party, Pumpkins, Satire, Short Story, Social Worker
On the morning before Halloween, the food bank had taken delivery of over forty pumpkins. The supermarket around the corner was not going to shift them in time; the manager had been growing increasingly frantic about what looked like a terracotta army of ageing pumpkins amassed across his shop floor. There were pumpkins for as far as the eye could see, and this was not merely an aesthetic crisis – if only! The manager was worried that the recycling lorry would have to call twice to collect so many pumpkins. In such circumstances, the supermarket would have to pay twice.
So the pumpkins were promptly donated to the food bank and the pumpkins were now the food bank’s problem. The food bank’s solution was to hold a pumpkin carving competition. After their initial gormlessness in agreeing to accept the pumpkins, this was a stroke of inspiration. The volunteers would carve wacky faces into these grotesquely shiny orange tubes and, thus adorned, the pumpkins could be handed out to the service users as gifts. Recycling them would then be their problem.
Pumpkins! Their symbolism cannot be faulted. They only acquire their happy faces once you have sliced off their crowns and scooped out their brains. At the food bank, they deployed the old ruse of stationing a volunteer beside the toilet who flushed down the seeds and pith, in flushable-sized portions, throughout the morning. This reduced the recycling costs even further.
Tori had been referred to the food bank by a social worker who was both real and entirely fictional. She was real in the sense that she was a real social worker called Miriam, with a real position at the Outreach Centre. She was fictional in the sense that Tori had noted that the googlemail address for Miriam’s name was unclaimed and duly registered it herself. Tori had then used it to send a referral request to the food bank in Miriam’s name.
Tori had befriended Miriam when smoking at the kitchen window of a party several weeks ago. It was one of those parties in which everybody can only talk about their work, because everybody is a young professional who does nothing other than chase pieces of paper around the office of a charity or local government department, morning, noon and night. Pouring half a dozen bottles of vodka into this party, along with a plump bag of MDMA, had done nothing to diminish the monotonous chorus of workplace complaints. Indeed, the moaning appeared to counteract the alcohol et al, preserving the moaners behind an inviolable shield of sobriety.
At the kitchen window, Tori was forced to listen to a long, predictable drone about squeezed services and demoralised support staff. It was so stiffly anguished that if Tori had shut her ears, Miriam could have been reciting the final act of Othello in front of her. At various intervals, Tori had considered the wisdom of pointing out that these services were always squeezed and that the staff were always demoralised. Yet she wanted to remain on the right side of Miriam’s rather frightening outrage.
Still at the window, once Miriam had marched off to the toilet, Tori found herself thinking about how useful a food bank could be to her. She was currently working as a receptionist in a lonely art gallery on Dundas Street. The money was just a sprinkling. She had the rent on a New Town flat to pay and she had three Great Danes to feed. They were not in fact her Great Danes, though she was not quite sure that they were not. A strangely smiling friend had turned up for tea with them, disappeared to answer her phone, and never returned.
There was usually a week at the end of the month when Tori had nothing left in her bank account and she was too embarrassed to ask her boyfriend for money. She was always too haughty with officials and bureaucrats to ever appear before a social worker, begging for access to a food bank. But she would check whether all of the available googlemail or yahoo mail accounts for Miriam’s name had been taken. She had used the same tactic to masquerade as former employers and author extravagant references for her job at the art gallery.
Over the meandering course of the email which the fictional Miriam sent to the Edinburgh North East Foodbank, Tori had acquired six children under ten, all of them with various horrific disabilities. Indeed, I won’t go into detail but they sounded like a right bunch of mutants. The one who had gotten off most lightly had autism and no arms.
The food bank wrote back immediately, pledging the banquet of all banquets. This sounded promising, but Tori was uncertain whether the guaranteed food parcels would between them contain enough meat to fill up her Great Danes. She made a sheepish appearance at the food bank the following morning, where a crowd of shiny-eyed volunteers, as efficient and impersonal as angels, encouraged her inside and waved her down the proper corridors. Her journey ended at the cubbyhole of a very sprightly, queenly old lady with blue-silver hair, who was waiting with her bejewelled hands gently stroking Tori’s many food parcels. Taking Tori to one side, she gazed her full in the face with eyes that were huge and hysterical with compassion. “Oh you poor, poor thing,” she mouthed. “You are an everyday hero.”
Of course, she said, Tori would know that nappies were the most expensive thing. Luckily Tori’s food parcels were generously kitted out with nappies. Later, at a loss to know what to do with these things, Tori had burned them all on a pyre in the back garden.
Over the subsequent weeks, Tori had been inundated with emails from the food bank, insisting that she come at once and collect her latest consignments. If they were that insistent, Tori wondered, she didn’t see why they couldn’t deliver them to her home. It was so boring trooping back and forth, with bags full of tinned soup which would be stacked up under the sink to never see light again. On each visit to the food bank, Tori was itching to book a taxi to carry her away with the bags, but she was worried that this would be out of character for an old woman who supposedly lived in a shoe.
Tori had endured several overtures of spiritless friendship from the staff at the food bank. Only one of these workers will really detain us, though he had never actually spoken with Tori. Despite this, she suspected that he might be on to her. His name was Guy Scazzafava.
He was obviously a superbly educated man, in his mid-forties, and to Tori it seemed improbable that he would have worked at the food bank. He was one of those men who somehow look slim even though they are enormously pink and fat. He was very tall, with a slippery kind of gracefulness and he was nimble and noiseless on his feet. You were always conscious of the tips of his ears, which stuck out like pink, dainty flourishes. Tori was certain that he would be a perfect dancer, although with the ease with which one might faultlessly steer a tank around an obstacle course. At first glance, Guy might have been a figure of boyish happiness; the smile never dropped from his slippery face as if it was held up by pins. Yet this smile was perfectly controlled and the happiness immaculately alert. Tori sensed that this alertness became something like a predatory instinct whenever she appeared.
Tori felt that he had seen through her immediately, but that her deception did not greatly interest him. On the other hand, he appeared to luxuriate in his power over her. She was floating within his hands and they could idly turn and crush her at any time.
Today, Tori was once again at the food bank and she was told that, in having so many disabled children, she had priority over the pumpkins. She managed to reply to this with a smile of strained delight. She duly went to circulate within an anteroom which had been designated as the day’s pumpkin cavern. There was a pumpkin on every surface and the designs were, Tori conceded, surprisingly brilliant. It was as if each volunteer had seized the chance to be liberated from their chores for an hour to expend years of unused creativity. Some of the designs were simple and executed in a dash, like latte art, whilst other pumpkins had been laboriously whittled from every angle.
Each pumpkin was enjoyable to look at for a few seconds, but it would be arduous to carry back to the flat and an unpleasant, sticky thing to live with. As Tori was turning to go, however, her eye was immediately snagged upon a specimen which was peeping out from between two larger and more showy pumpkins. “Come on,” her own voice seemed to call from the doorway. “Wait,” she murmured out loud.
It was an apparently innocuous pumpkin with a friendly, impish face. The eyes were big and doleful and it had an expressive little snub nose and devious elfin lips. For all of the menace which was meant to be printed on this face, it looked affectionate, even yearning.
Tori bundled the pumpkin against her chest before she could think again. Moments later, she was ploughing through the streets, more useless bags dangling from her arms, and gripping the pumpkin in a firm hug.
It should have a name, she thought once she was back in the flat. She had dropped a tea light inside its head, so that tender unearthly light now seeped out of its doleful eyes and crooked mouth. Nonetheless Tori had the feeling that it would be impertinent to give this pumpkin a name of her own. It somehow possessed a kind of autonomy: it would already have a name and she could never know it.
She took the dogs for a final run. She had work tomorrow and so they would be in the garden all day. After that she settled down in the flat, checking up on her emails and social media with the forlorn hopelessness of a gambler who is frittering away at scratchcards. Nothing of any value turned up. She drank half a bottle of white wine that was left in the fridge. And returning to the sink with the glass, she hovered before this pumpkin again, as she had done periodically throughout the evening.
That night she took the pumpkin to bed with her. She lay on her back, under the sheets, and hugged it against her chest. Wandering over the smooth but creased texture of its surface with her fingertips allowed her to picture that strange yearning face against the blackness of her eyelids.
The dream, when it came, came many years into the night. Tori sensed that decades might have passed and that the country was now much poorer and meaner. She was crashing along a muddy country lane on the back of a horse, with a rattling storm keeping apace, lashing her with a stinging cold wind and a tangle of rain. She did not seem to have any connection with her horse, as if she was just a decoration which was glued on its back, and she had no consciousness of where it was going and where they had been.
The sound of the horse’s hooves was gradually permeated by a distant, disjointed rhythm, the clatter of a second horse. Unsteady in her saddle, she glanced back over her shoulder at the approaching rider. She had to look three more times at this wobbly, windswept figure before she had secured the impression of a tall man, dressed all in black, with his face concealed in the shadow of a ten-gallon hat.
Tori concentrated on the road ahead, and she hence grew ever more conscious of the rider drawing nearer behind her. It was as oppressive as if his horse was breathing down the back of her neck. Should she try to speed up or should she veer to the side and let him overtake? All a-dither, she was horror-struck as the rider materialised beside her, giving the odd impression that he had paused in motion. They were now sitting alongside one another and the rider was turning to show his face…
The blank shell of a pumpkin flashed beneath the brim of his hat. With a nervous giggle, Tori leant over and her outstretched hand made contact with the smooth ribs. The pumpkin jumped back and landed on the rolling road, skidding for a moment before it splattered all into pulp and pieces.
The horseman was now totally headless, with his hands still patiently holding the reins. Tori gazed with disbelief into the singing air where his head should be. Yet the horseman’s right hand had next snaked around to his saddlebag and he patted it rapidly in indication. Tori studied the bag, seeing more bulge than bag. Now the rider had urged his horse slightly forward, so that the bag was within Tori’s reach.
The bag opened to reveal a mass of curly brown hair. Tori pulled at the hair and with it out slithered a human head, ending in a sleeve of bright gore. She held it up clear of the shadows, marvelling at its weightlessness. It was the head of a young man and it was as fresh as if it had been severed only a second ago. The head was handsome in an impish sort of way and then Tori had, in an instant of self-congratulation, recognised the face as being the same one that was carved into her pumpkin. Perhaps, the thought shot into her mind, her pumpkin was even a portrait of this young man.
Suddenly, the face blinked at her.
With astonishment, Tori heard herself ask the head what its name was. The lips moved but without any vocal cords connected, it was all shapes in the air.
Impulsively, Tori raised the head to her own face as though it was a flask of wine. At the touch of her lips, the head began to immediately kiss her back. Next, Tori had both hands in its hair and her tongue was deep inside its mouth, twisting and straining. The tongues were now the only two things left in the world, immersed in their flickering courtship dance.
Some remote part of her mind which was still maintaining a vigil called from afar that there were dogs baying. This was surely an error because the rider had not been originally accompanied by any hounds. Then, Tori knew that she was awake and that the Great Danes were somehow tearing through her apartment, baying in anguish. How had they got in from the garden?
But she must have been pulled back into her dream again, for the kiss from the dream was continuing ever more strenuously. She could still feel her tongue groping inside the boy’s mouth. She opened her eyes and tore herself away with a breathless shriek as Guy Scazzafava plunged back.
He was vastly naked and voluptuous, with his familiar, happy face now hanging within a gleaming, lurid shrine of flesh. Although his happy smile did not fade, he looked down at her on the bed with stern eyes. His penis, half-erect, dipped and then rose with a bounce.
Tori could still taste him in her mouth and she bared her teeth. “GET OUT!”
“Go back to sleep,” he suggested calmly.
Tori had grabbed the nearest thing to throw but, it being a bedside lamp, it was plugged into the wall. She put the lamp down and her hand brushed across something weirdly smooth and then it had found an empty beer glass. Partly because of this and partly because of the dogs baying outside the bedroom door, Guy waddled quickly over to the window and pulled it up. Still stark naked, he climbed out without looking back at Tori, dropping into the garden outside.
“Prick,” Tori muttered.
Once she had soothed the dogs and let them back out into the garden, Tori found herself pausing in the kitchen. The pumpkin had vanished. There was merely a tea light on a plate.
Tychy wishes all readers a happy Halloween.