The preparations for Halloween start the daytime before. My little brother Joe can barely lift the turnip he’s chosen onto the bench in our tiny galley kitchen. The swede’s underside is roughly chopped away from its root so it sits on the bench at a crooked angle that we don’t think to correct.
Part of the charm, Mum says.
Dad wanders in from the garden while mum’s folding the washing. The chill breeze that follows him brings in the smell of horse manure and woodsmoke from the fields nearby, mingling with the smell of cherry pipe tobacco clinging to his clothes. He spends most of his time out there, like the walls close in on him.
He cuts off the top with a sharp knife, grunts with the effort of slicing into the tough vegetable, then walks away without another word. Mum looks in to see if he has finished.
She marks out the rim of where I should cut, pulling out a small knife and the large metal serving spoon from the drawer under the sink.
Don’t let your brother do it, she tells me, looks out into the garden to where Dad stands, retreats back to her living room.
I cut and scoop, cut and scoop, dropping the pieces into a colander so Mum can add them to dinner. It feels like it takes me hours; my brother wanders away when boredom settles in. Alone, I cut the triangle eyes and nose, the jagged shape of the mouth.
You’ve done a grand job there, Dad says, watching me from the door, taking the stub of a candle from the emergency drawer and cutting a hole for it to sit. He lights the blackened wick and in the growing gloom, the eerie face leers at me. I want to hug him in thanks, but he’s already walked away.
Dinner is in silence again.
Afterwards, Mum helps my brother become a ghost, while I press on the crumbling Frankenstein paper mache mask that I had made at school, try to make it sit on my rough and tumble home-made haircut. One of the fake bolts has fallen off already, but it doesn’t really matter.
Mum takes some of her precious makeup and gives me shadows around my eyes and makes my skin deathly pale with red lipstick scars on my cheeks. It makes me think of that time when Dad came home very late, drunk and shouting loud enough to wake me. He called her a witch. She used the same powder to cover up the bruises.
Dad asks if he can see us, while Mum’s putting on her coat. He tells us we look really scary, and Joe goes woo, raising his arms above his head, the sheet lifting up to reveal his skinned, bare knees and shabby trainers.
Dad tells me to look after Mum. He doesn’t look me in the eye.
We make our way down the darkened streets, over cracked pavements that run alongside the broken fence and the brook that smells of mildew and stale piss.
Wave hello to friends in their costumes.
Stop at our neighbours for a ten bob piece pressed to our palms.
The turnip starts to smell like dinner.
We marvel at the kids who have a real-life pumpkin.
We laugh with glee at the plastic skeleton someone’s attached to their go-kart, barrelling down the street for it to tumble on its side.
The hustle of parents trying to stay warm, one eye on the kids. Never, well, rarely a harsh word. Someone has a bucket with apples bobbing. I leave my facepaint behind.
It’s getting late, so we turn for home, holding toffee apples and pockets full of change. The candle has long gone out, and the turnip smells burnt.
And when we reach home, the spell is broken. He’s gone.
Steven Patchett is an Engineer, Father and Writer in the North East of England. His Flash Fictions have been published in Ellipsis Zine, The Cabinet of Heed and Lunate Fiction. He can be found on Twitter, being encouraging. @StevenPatchett7