Whither And Why: Halloween H.H.2O
From the desk of Gerald Honk, esq.
The invitations arrived even before the leaves had turned their familiar autumnal pumpkin orange.
“Dear DOOMED SOUL,
You are horrifyingly invited to spend an evening being FRIGHTENED OUT OF YOUR MIND in the company of Sir Halloween Harrison-Scairn!
Sundown, on the 31st of October, at the GATES OF HELL!!!!”
And there followed the address of my friend, the definition of erudition and personification of irritation, Sir Hilary Harrison-Nairn.
‘You got one too?’ inquired my dear wife Lillian.
‘Yes, and you?’
Her question intimated that, indeed, she had, and I thought it most unusual. An invitation to Lil from Sir Hil was somewhat unexpected following their infamous Harvest Festival tiff the previous month.
‘Yes,’ espoused my spouse, rather unenthusiastically. ‘Must we go?’
‘I think we must, rice pudding,’ I answered. ‘You know how much effort H.H. puts into his All Hallows Extravaganzas. If we RSV, and, in fact, P’d with a refusal, it would break his spirit. And then he would break into his spirits.’
‘Best get cracking, then, eh?’ I said, as I fumbled under the chaise longue for a sewing kit.
Arriving at Nairn Marsh House at the specified time, Lillian and I, she dressed as The South Pole, complete with a Union Flag sewn to the underside of her left arm and I as Ernest Shackleton, were greeted by two other invitees. The first, seemingly wearing the contents of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, was my friend’s Uncle George, the original owner of H.H.’s inherited canine Bismarck. The second guest provoked, for me, the evening’s first great flutterency of fear… Mother Nairn, stern-lipped and stiff-necked, and attired as the best Boko the Clown I’d seen in some time!
Guarding the door, which appeared to be creaking ominously despite its being closed (we were later to find out that the noise was produced by my friend’s decorous housekeeper, Mrs Clutterbutt, who had been rocking back and forth on the squeaky floorboard in the porch to create the creak), was Bismarck. Attached to either side of his dissatisfied head was a crudely constructed papier mache approximation of how a dog’s head might look to someone walking through thick fog, so that Bismarck had three heads in all. He began to scratch his second head contentedly, and the third head promptly fell off.
‘No, you mutinous mutt, look FIERCE! Cerberus never scratched himself at the entrance to Hades!’ came a voice from the nearest bush, followed by plumes of smoke and, shortly thereafter, the head and upper body of my friend. The remainder of him was like some wardrobe nightmare from the Mikado, with flourishes of rhinestone and silk adorning every surface and enough blusher to repaint the Forth Rail Bridge. A Phantom of The Light Opera, with little of the Light and a lotof the Opera.
‘AAAAARGH! Scared you, didn’t I?’
Uncle George, always an amicable fellow, roared with appreciative laughter; slightly less in the spirit of the night, Lillian and Mother Nairn tutted in unison. (It is always dangerous to bring them together for a social occasion; why H.H. thought it a good idea I have not yet had the temerity to ask).
‘Welcome, welcome all,’ continued H.H., ‘to the realm of nightmares, castle of catastrophes, department store of doom, and all your most dreadful fears made flesh! Dare you step inside… NAIRN’S LAIR OF SCARES?’
A pause and then my dazzling chum surreptitiously kicked a nearby bush. A sudden and alarming scratch and some dramatic chords played out briefly in the time it took the Horn Gramophone to tumble and spill from its hide and come to an embarrassing crash on the gravel.
Uncle George guffawed again, and the ladies gave each other the most withering of sidelongs, that plants in the vicinityappeared to wilt instantly.
‘Away, Cerberus, and leave these poor unfortunates to their fate! … Away, Cerberus! … Get up, Bismarck, you great ninny… If you could all just…’
One by one, we stepped awkwardly over Bismarck, who was by now devouring his extra heads, and into my friend’s drawing room, for our first course of alleged terror.
The room was transformed. Gone were the chintz and bookcases; replaced by strip-lighting, a synthetic wood desk and – a first in the Harrison-Nairn homestead – a desktop computer, open on a lengthy and detailed spreadsheet. A filing cabinet stood to its left, the drawers opening and closing of their own accord. An ergonomic swivel chair squealed as it revolved, and as a tear of fear rolled down the face of my friend, a chunky black telephone began to ring.
‘You’ll never leave,’ whispered H.H., in a somewhat more sinister fashion than was strictly called for.
‘I don’t understand, H.H.,’ I said to him. ‘I thought this was a Grand Tour of Terror, a holiday to hell and back, a – ‘
‘Are you not petrified? Are you not struck with deepest unease?’ my friend replied.
‘Well… frankly, no, H.H. It’s an office.’
‘YES! Shield me, Honk, shield me…’
He was interrupted by a loud tut from Lillian. Uncle George had taken it upon himself to sit on the swivel chair, and was having a great time spinning in circles. Mother Nairn strode up to her son as well as her Clown shoes would allow, and I cowered as she looked H.H. in the eye (his other one being covered by the Phantom mask fashioned out of steadily melting Camembert) and spoke a single word.
Now we saw the face of true fear, as my friend struggled to describe his motives to Mother Nairn.
‘Well, it… gosh, well, I… you see…’
‘You are afraid of work.’ It was not a question. H.H. could think of no riposte, no reply.
‘Shall we move on to the next room?’ I offered quickly asBismarck, who had come in from the cold, vomited papier mache violently over the photocopier.
‘Wheeeeee!’ said Uncle George, insistent on bringing the swivel chair with him.
As our party moved through the candlelit corridors of chezNairn, H.H. recovered himself, and re-adopted his haunted Nanki-Poo persona.
‘The next chamber is not for those prone to swooning, for it is’, and here he took a dramatic pause to ingest half a packet of Skittles, ‘truly, truly,’ and here he finished the rest of the packet, ‘horrifying.’
He picked up a lantern that was hanging conveniently on a nearby coat rack and, with a swish of his o’er developed top knot, led us into a room as black as my smoking jacket.
As H.H. snuffed out the lantern, we could see nothing, and hear only the dying squeaks of Uncle George’s office chair, which was beginning to feel strained under his girth. My hands, outstretched to attempt to locate the location of the room’s perimeter, found a familiar face, and grasped it joyfully.
‘Lillian, thank goodness, I can’t see a blasted – ‘
‘Your hands will be removed.’
I swiftly returned my hands to their proper place by my side, and a childlike voice began to sing, sending chills of theunheimlich from vertebra to vertebra.
“And did those feet”, it commenced, “in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountain’s green…”
It paused to take in the sobs of Uncle George, who, in retrospect, may have been weeping more for the loss of the chair (which had, a few seconds prior, submitted to gravity and collapsed in, I presume, a spectacular fashion) than in horror at the eerie chorus our ears were subject to.
“And was the holy,” the voice continued, “oh, blast, how does the rest of it go… Blimey… Jerusalem, Jerusalem, land of crusades and temples and shrines…oh, oh and SAND!…”
The light returned to the room, and we shielded our collective eyes. When my sight returned, Lillian was standing by the light switch – she has a knack, my Lillian, for locating light switches, fuse boxes and associated assortables, and is known throughout our village as an extremely handy woman to have around in a powercut – with her hands, fingers flexing, upon her hips. I backed away.
“Why?” she asked, in a tone not unlike Mother Nairn, who had located a drinks cabinet in the new electric light and waspresently, helping herself, presumably to steady her shattered nerves.
“Lil, Lil, Lillibet, Lilliput, Lilliphus,” began H.H. conciliatorily, “this room represents the greatest fear for communities such as ours, do you not see?”
“I saw,” she replied, “nothing, and all I heard was your feeble falsetto failing to recollect the lyrics to ‘Jerusalem’ – ”
“Yes! Yes, Lil, ‘Jerusalem’! The anthem for that most fear-inducing of local institutions… the W.I.!”
There was a silence. I knew well of my friend’s aversion to the Women’s Institute, dating back to the ill-remembered year he had requested to join and been promptly turned away. Ever since, he has claimed them to be the embodiment of injustice, conspiracy and all ill will towards him in the village, and that his evening gown was not so short it could cause offence to anyone, of any age or religious persuasion. My wife, however, was not privy to this helpful exposition.
“I,” she said, towering over the grovelling H.H., “am amember of the Women’s Institute.”
“As,” added Mother Nairn between sips, “am I.”
The atmosphere was as cold as my friend must have been in his costume. Luckily, Uncle George had been able to find the funny side of the swivel chair’s demise, and began giggling uncontrollably.
“Right!” said H.H., clapping his hands together like a magician, “on to our final, terrifying, room of fear! If you dare…”
‘How do you think the tour is progressing, Honk, old chap?’ my friend asked as he sidled up to me on the great landing of Casa Nairn. “The first room was perhaps a bit of a damp squib, but if I say so myself, the W.I. room would put the heebie jeebies up a sergeant major!’
‘I confess, H.H., to a touch of the jitters,’ I answered, under my breath so as not to be heard by either of the still less than impressed female members of our gathering, ‘but do you not think that perhaps these horrors are… how do I put it… rather specific to your particular set of fears and phobias?’
‘Nonsense! Who, I ask you, who would not be afraid of a hard day’s work or the local Women’s Institute?’ Before I had a moment to reply, my friend continued, ‘but I see your point. You were expecting, I suspect, ghosties and ghoulies and vampiries and werewolfies and that manner of thing, weren’t you? Well,’ and here he raised his voice to address the group, ‘you shall not be disappointed in the final room of the tour! Are you ready to face the UTTER TERROR OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB?’
An excitable chattering met his question; at least, it did fromUncle George, who was the proud owner of south-west England’s fourth largest collection of Boris Karloff memorabilia. Lillian and Mother Nairn, who had clearly been practicing, each rolled their eyes with perfect synchronicity.
My seal-oil treated wax survival suit seemed strangely inappropriate as we entered; my Howard Carter outfit, always the stand-by in case of fancy dress emergencies, was still hanging in the armoire at home.
The room contained no hieroglyphs, however; nor was a sarcophagus immediately visible. Instead, a lone rocking chair, perched upon which was an elaborately dressed Mrs Clutterbutt, but she was not wrapped in bandages, or indeed any of the outward signs of mummification or embalmment. Her clothing, in actuality, resembled rather strikingly the usual fashions of one Mother Nairn, whose face had, by this point, been frozen in a grimace of wintery disappointment for several minutes.
‘Go on, Mrs C,’ prompted H.H. ‘Your Halloween speech, come on, we’ve rehearsed it enough times -’
‘Must I, sir?’
‘Yes, this is our fear de resistance; we must give our guests an All Hallows scare they will never forget!’
‘Must we? Oh, very well…’
Mrs Clutterbutt leaned forward in the rocking chair, made direct eye contact with each of us in turn – blanching when she met the imperturbable gaze of the original Mother Nairn – and, channelling her best Lady Macbeth, said:
‘I disapprove of your life and the choices you make, Hilary.’
‘Nooooooooo!’ came the cry of my friend. ‘Why, Mummy, why must you treat me so unkindly?’ And he began to wail, beating his hands on the Persian rug. ‘Mother, please!’
‘Oh, sir, please, I was only… your script…’ pleaded Mrs Clutterbutt from the rocking chair. She made as if to clamber off it, but her small stature, coupled with the proportionately enormous size of the chair, made this practically impossible.
‘I never shot Mr. Pimpkins dog, why do you still accuse me so? Oh dread Harridan, give me the succour of a ten pence mix up…so what if I like wearing your silk stockings to bed at night, they’re so warm….’, continued H.H.
‘Hilary! Pull yourself together!’ said the level voice of Mother Nairn.
‘Yes, Mother,’ said H.H. immediately, and he climbed off the floor, brushing himself off.
‘So!’ he said to the group at large. ‘Thus concludes the tour. Bismarck will be waiting at the door with your goody bags. Don’t have nightmares!’ And he flung himself onto a chair, covering himself with a black sheet.
‘Oh no. No, no, no,’ said Lillian, approaching the H.H.-shaped lump under the sheet, ‘don’t think you can just hide. I want a word with… oh.’ At this last word, she had thrown the sheet off the chair, and found… nobody there. My friend had, it seemed, vanished from the room, as if by some form of dark magic.
We made our way down the staircase, leaving Uncle George and Mother Nairn to their discussion of Karloff’s hairline and how it affected his performance as Frankenstein’s Monster through the 1930s. True to H.H.’s word, at the door was Bismarck, waiting with the, slightly vomit stained, goody bags between his jaws. After a slight tussle with the hound, Lillian’s formidable side headlock convinced him to release our leaving gifts, and we stopped momentarily to peruse the contents.
‘Oat cakes,’ said Lillian.
‘Now, now, there’s no need for language,’ I rebuked.
‘No, Gerald. Oat cakes. He has given us bags of oat cakes.This seems ill-fitting for the occasion.’
‘I don’t know about that, Lil, there’s a packet of Skittles in mine – ’
‘My mistake!’ came the voice of H.H. There was a puff of smoke, and when I looked again at my bag, the Skittles were gone.
Our walk home was, admittedly, and despite the inexplicable events of the evening, slightly unnerving, and we were glad to reach our living room again, where, digging out the pair of Family Size treat packs from the pantry (“for the village children on Halloween,” she justified, when she brought them home the week before) and settling ourselves by the fire, we scoffed sweets to our hearts’ content.
And is not that the true spirit of Halloween?
H.H. and Honk wish to point out that it is not, in fact, the true spirit of Halloween, and it’s much better to do something scary on the 31st of October than to overindulge in confectionery.
H.H. and Honk also wish you a happy Halloween, whether you are pagan or not, and hope it is full of apple-bobbing, outlandish costumes and Alan Robson’s latest haunted radio scare-fest.