‘Mum told me I could make a lantern, a Halloween lantern, Alice,’ Thomas said, his big, brown, sparrow-eyes full of fun. Then he pulled away from me, his socks around his ankles, and hopped along a chalk line on the playground, wobbling a bit. When he said the word mum, I felt the misery flaring up inside me again. My mum wasn’t going to help me make a lantern. Mum wasn’t there anymore. ‘We’ll go when I’m ready,’ I said.
But why should I go home? Even if my stepmother hadn’t found out what I’d done she’d be fussing over Thomas and his lantern, and Dad would be too tired after work to bother with me. I blinked away angry tears and kicked more stones across the playground. That morning, my stepmother told me I couldn’t go trick or treating. That I shouldn’t knock on strangers’ doors and give them a fright. But the village was so small there weren’t any strangers, and she hadn’t lived in our village for very long, so what did she know about it? She said the neighbours had organised a Halloween Walk instead. A sort of ghost hunt. There’d be baked potatoes, hot dogs, and a bonfire with fireworks in the church field afterwards. I pretended I wasn’t listening to her, although I was secretly thinking I might go to the field for a hot dog and watch the fireworks when their silly walk finished. I wasn’t going to wander around the village with the grown-ups, looking for ghosts that weren’t there.
‘It’s cold,’ Thomas said, ‘can we go home now?’ He swung his shoe bag around and tried to jump over it. ‘You’ll be colder still if your mum takes you on that walk,’ I snapped. He was right. It was very cold, you could see your breath, but I was in no hurry to take him home. By now, my stepmother must have discovered what I’d taken.
I shivered, hitched my rucksack onto my shoulder, and heard the church clock strike four. The chimes sounded muffled through the mist. I could just make out the tower above the row of cottages at the end of the street, and that gave me an idea. I’d built a den in the woods behind thechurch. I could stay there until my stepmother calmed down a bit.
‘All right, put that piece of paper in your shoe bag, and I’ll take you to the beginning of our street,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to go the rest of the way by yourself. I’ve something I must do first.’
‘What is it? What have you done? Have you been naughty again, Alice?’
I took no notice of him. The playground was filling up with a soft, grey blanket, and soon it would be hard to find my way through the woods to my den. ‘Come on,’ I said. I grabbed his hand, hurried him down the path to the school gate, and through the drifting fog I saw two little ones with their mum.
‘Look, they’ll take you home, Thomas,’ I said. ‘They live in our street, a few doors down. Go with them, your mum will be worrying.’
He shook his head and I thought he’d say no, but he just put on what I call his smacked puppy face, and that always made me feel rotten.
‘Go on,’ I said, giving him a push.
He walked away, dragging his feet. It took him ages, and when he caught up with them, I had to wait while they did extra kerb drill, just to make sure there was no traffic coming. I was nearly frantic inside for them to hurry up, but at last they crossed to the other side of the lane and the thickening dampness swallowed them up. I sighed with relief, hurried along School Lane, and was passing the turning into the High Street with its few shops, when I thought I heard footsteps on the pavement behind me. I looked nervously over my shoulder, and fearing my stepmother was out searching for me I began to run.
I didn’t stop until I reached the church, the last building on the edge of the village, opposite the old coaching inn. I could see the blurred shape of Tong Church, sprawled on the top of the grassy bank, its narrow windows sightless black holes in the thick stone walls, and the bell tower soaring above my head. At the bottom of the steep bank was a low stone wall with a row of small, metal bollards on top of it. They were looped together with a heavy, spiked, iron chain. Beyond the gate, with its metal archway and rusty lantern that didn’t work, was the path up to the church, cut deep into the bank. On top of the bank, on the opposite side of the path from the church, were dusty yew trees, their boughs sweeping the grass.
They looked very old. Some of the branches had knitted together, making a narrow passageway underneath as they grew. If you crouched down, ducked your head, and didn’t mind the scratches, you could push through the tunnel. I called it my secret way. No one could see me from the lane, and it was a quick route to the churchyard and the back porch.
I hesitated, rubbing my hands together. The damp air was seeping into me. Although I had my school blazer under my anorak, I wished I’d put on my jumper. Then I remembered I’d climbed through a hedge, made a hole in the knitting, and hidden it under my bed. I stared nervously up at the wooden boards in the bell tower. I knew bats lived there and often swooped for insects on summer evenings. Would they dart out and stab their claws in my hair? I was being stupid. I’d been up to the church lots of times, inside it on school study visits, and the bats had never attacked me. Just because it was foggy, and nearly dark, it wouldn’t be any different. The bats were probably hibernating, anyway. I kept telling myself there was no need to be afraid. I could be over the wall, up the bank, and through the yew tree tunnel so fast nothing would catch me, but I wasn’t so keen to do it in this fog.
I started to imagine there was someone in the trees waiting to get me. If I listened, I could usually hear the cockerel on the weathervane creaking as the wind turned it around, but there was no sound from the top of the spire. Even the muffled roar from the motorway across the fields had stopped. When I’m on my own and scared, I sing a bit of my favourite school hymn about being valiant and fighting giants. The sound of my voice and the words make me feel braver. I opened my mouth, but I was so nervous no sound came out, just a squeak. Maybe it would be safer to take the path up to the church instead of the yew tree tunnel. It seemed blacker than ever inside those trees, and the church tower looked threatening and about to fall on top of me.
Just for a moment, I wanted to go home and have my tea. But the thought of what would happen to me when I got there made me shiver, and I grabbed hold of the ice-cold links of the iron chain, took a deep breath, and shouted ‘No lion can him fright He’ll with some giants fight Hobgoblin and foul fiend To be a PILGRIM!’
I was so nervous I jumbled up the words of the hymn, but it didn’t matter. With the noise I made I didn’t feel so scared, and yelling PIGRIM, I clambered onto the wall and fled up the bank into the yew trees. Then charging headfirst through the spiteful branches, as if all the evil creatures in the world were after me, I ran towards the patch of grey light at the end of the tunnel and with one bound leapt into the silent churchyard.