I have some advice for all you struggling parents out there, and even those who aren’t struggling. No matter what, love your kids, even if they’re ungrateful little monsters. Yeah, yeah, I know. It goes without saying. Well, sometimes you don’t wise up till it’s too late. Anyhow, let me explain. Let me go back to the day my eyes were opened. Let me go back to last Halloween.
“Mum! Can we twick-or-tweat old Mrs Owen at two-oh-nine?” asks Karen, fluttering her eyelashes in an effort to bend me to her will.
I give an involuntary shiver at the suggestion. “Mrs Owen’s a very private person,” I tell my daughter. “I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate strangers turning up on her doorstep at Halloween.”
“Then why’s she put a pumpkin sticker on her door?” asks my son, Ricky, a pumpkin sticker indicating participation in the apartment block’s All Hallow’s Eve celebrations.
“We’ve been in this flat for three years,” I say. “Mrs Owen has never involved herself with Halloween before. You must be mistaken.”
Ricky rolls his eyes. “The sticker’s on her door for anyone to see.”
“Why not give her flat a miss?” I say, feeling unaccountably uneasy at the prospect of trick-or-treating the mysterious Mrs Owen.
“Is it because she’s a witch that you don’t want us to go by her flat?” says Karen. “I’ve heard you calling her ‘the Witch’ to your friends.”
I feel myself blushing.
“Maybe she’s just lonely,” Ricky admonishes, causing me even more self-loathing.
“Okay, okay!” I say, caving in. “We’ll knock on Mrs Owen’s door,” then add in an inaudible aside, “for eye-of-newt sweets and spider’s-web candy floss.”
While Karen’s putting on her Cutie-Pie Princess getup, and Ricky’s donning his equally ironic Prince Charming outfit, I’m drawn to the front door peephole. As I put my eye to the lens, a dark figure passes by, eclipsing the corridor light and jump-scaring me.
To prove to myself how fearless I am, I open the door and put my head around the jamb. It’s only a grocery delivery guy, though. He stops at two-oh-nine, and struggling, one-handed, to keep hold of the two shopping bags he’s carrying, rings the bell with his free hand.
Shame at being the archetypical nosy neighbour seizes me, especially since, when Mrs Owen answers the delivery guy’s ring, she gazes down the corridor and notices me.
I withdraw and slam the door shut, more in annoyance at myself than the wrinkled old face with the black-toothed grin aimed in my direction.
“Why don’t we start on the fifth floor and work down?” I suggest to the kids, putting off the inevitable, hoping perhaps that by the time we get to Mrs Owen’s flat the kids will be pooped and just want to get home and to bed.
Cutie-Pie Princess and Prince Charming are in a greedy, gluttonous humour, eating their candy on the go and leaving their faces smeared with the evidence of their excessiveness. There are no signs of my little darlings slowing down, either. Their appetite for candy is voracious, insatiable.
Eventually, we reach Mrs Owen’s apartment. Sure enough, the reclusive old lady has a bright orange pumpkin sticker displayed, and I’m made to wonder at her sudden urge towards neighbourliness. And my kids? They’re keener than ever to get acquainted with Mrs Owen, especially since all the kids we’ve met on our meanderings through the apartment block have waxed lyrical about the old lady’s tasty, homemade treats.
I press the doorbell and Chopin’s Funeral March sounds. I’m put out and take a step back, but Karen and Ricky think the music’s an awesome touch. They grin at my disconcertedness and jostle for pole position at the apartment threshold.
The door handle moves downwards and the door creaks open, revealing a grey-haired, warty-nosed hag in urgent need of dental work, no costume or makeup required. Behind her, her cavernous, unlit apartment is a dark, secretive maw.
“For you,” Mrs Owen cackles, handing Karen and Ricky a bat-shaped purple sweet each.
The two cheeky beggars pout and they get a second treat.
“And for you, dear,” says Mrs Owen, handing me a sealed cauldron confection, the body of the cooking vessel being made of dark chocolate. She winks at me and confides: “There’s alcohol inside. A liqueur the likes of which you’ve never tasted before.”
On the short distance back to our flat, the kids stuff the bat-shaped sweets into their mouths, chew a couple of times and swallow them down. “Yumm-eeee,” they concur, and giggle at the disgusted expression on my face.
If you can’t beat them, join them, I decide, and on impulse I bite into the cauldron candy. There’s an initial taste of chocolate, setting my senses up for the viscous liqueur that flows into my mouth and seemingly forces its way, hot and tickly, down my gullet.
The fluid inside the cauldron candy tastes like vomit, though. I grimace and spit it out.
Ricky sniggers, and says something beyond his years about karma.
“You got the twick,” Karen laughs, “and we got the tweats.”
I resist knocking my darling angels’ heads together and shove them through the front door of our apartment.
My head’s feeling fuzzy, cotton-woolly, and shortly afterwards I go to bed, leaving the brats to fend for themselves.
I’m awoken next morning by the ringing of a phone. I’m lying in a musty old bed, not my bed, and the telephone’s an old-fashioned one, with a dial. I pick up the receiver and the voice I hear is my own. “You don’t value your kids,” the voice says. “You don’t deserve them, so I have them now.”
I attempt to spring out of the bed, but move like I’m arthritic. Eventually I get into a sitting position, perching on the side of the bed. Opposite me, staring back from an oval, dressing-table mirror, is a grey-haired, warty-nosed hag in urgent need of dental work.
Paul A. Freeman lives and works in Mauritania.