Originally published in The Sunday Times.
The instructions were quite clear. They were to be back by half-past eight. They were to stay together at all times. They could accept sweets and chocolates – after all, that was the whole point – but they were not to eat anything until they got home. Under no circumstances were they to enter anybody’s house, not even the front hall. And they were to go nowhere near Mr Asnyk at No. 29. That was the most important rule of all.
And yet, still she was worried. Watching her two children – Simon, 12, and Jemima, 9 – walking away from the front door, on their own, Sarah knew that it went against all her instincts. At the same time, she had to admit they were adorable. Simon was small for his age, with reddish hair cut short and freckles. He had done himself up as a ghost with a strip of white muslin that had once been meant for curtains. Jemima, with curly hair, turned-up nose and that cheeky, little-girl smile was almost half his size. Cardboard, a plastic bin liner and a little green make-up had turned her into a witch.
For a moment they had stood in the front garden of their modern, brightly lit house with the drive sweeping down to Stratfield Lane. The house was one of six, similar but not quite identical with picture windows, double garages and faux-Victorian conservatories, an estate built in the 1980s. Sarah had taken a picture of them on her mobile phone standing there. But even then she had thought it was wrong. Children didn’t roam the streets on their own any more, evening in a quiet place like Woodbridge, and certainly not on a dark, wintry night like this.
She knew what Mike would say when he got home. He had an irrational dislike of almost anything American and this new tradition, tricking-or-treating, was just another unwelcome import following all those homogenous street cafes, the television programmes, no-win-no-fee lawyers, doggy bags in restaurants and a whole lexicon of new phrases – “have a nice day” – designed almost purposefully to make the teeth grate. Each one of them, according to Mike was an erosion of the British way of life, as unnoticeable and yet as obvious as the disappearance of the Suffolk cost itself. But then, of course, the property crash had also come over from America. The so-called toxic assets that had almost destroyed the housing market… and with it Mike’s once-successful property business.
He hadn’t wanted the children to go out but she had persuaded him. “They’ll be all right. All the other kids are out there. And I’ll talk to them before they go.”
“What makes you think they’ll listen?”
“They’re normally sensible.”
“Well I don’t want them out too late. And they’re not going anywhere near No. 29!”
It was almost a quarter past seven. The children had been gone for 15 minutes. Sarah Lucas went in to the kitchen and poured herself a gin and tonic, her second of the evening. She used the left over tonic water from the first. She sat at the kitchen table, the glass cradled between her hands, her long blonde hair curving down to frame it on either side. There was a pile of ledgers beside her. During the summer she had taken on a part time job, doing the books for a local garden centre. She had been an accountant when she and Mike met. She didn’t mind the work and they needed the money.
She had to admit that he was right. This creeping Americanisation. She had noticed the shops full of masks and wands and witches’ hats and even greeting cards. There had been chocolate skulls and severed fingers at the checkout at Marks and Spencer. None of these things had been there a few years ago. It was just an opportunity for the sweet manufacturers to make more money. And there were the jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkins hollowed out with candles burning inside. Since when had pumpkins ever been part of the English diet? Good old pumpkin pie, anyone? It was ridiculous, and a waste of food, really. She was sure that people would just scoop out the contents and throw them away.
And finally this trick-or-treating. It might seem innocent enough in the face of it but last year a bunch of little hooligans had turned up on their doorstep, and when Mike had told them where to get off, they’d pelted the door with raw eggs and that was a trick and a half when it came to having the whole thing repainted. This year she had a tin of Roses out in the hall. Mike had objected but she wasn’t going to have the house ruined for the sake of a few pence-worth of sweets.
Sarah finished her drink. She flicked on the TV and watched half of Eastenders, barely concentrating on the plot. No sign of Mike. Nothing from the children. Simon had a mobile with him and would call her if there was any problem but the silence was still worrying. It was so dark outside. The council had cut back on street lighting – she was sure of it – and as you went down the hill towards the river it sometimes felt that you were leaving civilisation behind you. Suppose the children went down that way? No. There were too few houses to make it worthwhile. They would be somewhere nearby. They would have started with the five neighbouring houses and then moved on to one of the other estates. For a moment she was tempted to ring them but decided against it. It would spoil their fun. Worse still, they might not answer and what would she do then?
A pair of headlights swung across the room and at the same time she heard a car pull up in the drive. She went over to the kitchen window and pulled back the net curtains. It was Mike. He had finally arrived. She watched him climb out of the car, then reach back in and take out his attaché case. She could tell from his movements that it had been another bad day. Of course October was always a quiet month when you’ve had a quiet year. He’d let Janice go. He’d closed down half the office. And he’d sold the expensive car which he should never have bought in the first place but which he’d said would impress the clients. It still wasn’t enough. She sometimes wondered if anything would ever be enough.
He came in. He looked tired with his dark hair now thinning, pale-blue eyes, downturned face. He had pulled down his tie and opened his collar. He was putting on weight. She wondered when he had begun to look as defeated as this – but then who was she to talk? She had seen the crow lines forming around her own eyes, the looseness around her lips and cheeks.
“Hi,” she said.
“You want a drink?”
They didn’t kiss. They opened bottles. Whiskey for him. A third gin and tonic for her. He came in to the kitchen and slumped at the table.
“Where are the kids?”
“Trick-or-treating.” He looked up sharply and she continued in the same breath. “You said you didn’t mind.”
“I know but I thought they’d be back.”
“They’re only round the corner.” He said nothing so she went on. “It’s all right, isn’t it?”
“I said it was all right if you went with them.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“So where are they?” He lifted a hand, palm up, gesturing at the wall, at the outside. “I thought you were going to be with them. I can’t believe you just let them wander off on their own.”
“I never said I was going with them.” That was so unfair. Mike knew exactly what they’d agreed. “All the children are out,” she added. “It’s Halloween.”
“And what are you going to say if something happens to them?”
“I hope they are staying away from No 29.”
“I told them not to go there.”
“They’d bloody better not go near.”
But of course the children did go to No 29, to the house at the very end of Stratfield Lane. It had been rented, the year before, by a single man who had come out of nowhere but who had soon made himself not just know but instantly recognisable. “Have you seen him?” people would ask. “Loosham Asnyk.” The name had been supplied by the postman who’d read it on his mail. He hadn’t of course introduced himself. He never spoke to anyone. He just walked in that odd way of his, wearing those odd clothes, always carrying a supermarket bag even if there wasn’t anything in it, usually stopping off at the café at the station.
Lucjan Asnyk was possibly Polish, possibly Lithuanian. He was in his fifties, plump, almost completely bald. What hair remained was wispy and of no particular colour, clinging to a speckled head. He wore baggy jerseys, jeans that didn’t fit and sandals over soaks. Those who had stood next to him confirmed that he didn’t wash. What was he doing in Woodbridge, without a wife, without a job, without any background at all? He was the sort of man who by his very nature attracted suspicion. He didn’t actually need to do anything to deserve it.
But in fact Mr Asnyk was quickly spotted hanging about the playground on the Kingston Road and that was what had started it. A single man, sitting by himself, on a bench with a view of the swings and seesaws. The rest very quickly fell into place. No 29 had been used in the past as a halfway house, a transitional facility for prisoners preparing for release. It had been empty for a long time and then suddenly it had been redecorated and Mr Asnyk had arrived – not with a removals van but with a few suitcases. Didn’t that tell you something? His English was apparently good but he seldom used it. He was antisocial. But he smiled at children.
Why did Simon take his sister there? It might have been for a dare. It might have been because they hadn’t got very much yet from the houses they’d visited… just a couple of mandarins and some miniature KitKats. Maybe they rang the doorbell without even realising they’d strayed into forbidden territory. Children don’t need any reason to do exactly the opposite of what they should. But they stood there and the door opened. “Trick or treat!” they called.
Half past eight. Sarah Lucas was imagining the streets of Woodbridge, seeing the glistening sheen of water on the surface, the empty doorways, the shapes forming in the shadows. The children still weren’t home and she was already blaming herself... for what? For whatever was skulking there in the back of her mind. She refused to give it a name. Mike was sitting opposite her in cold silence, smoking a cigarette. They had shouted at each other. It was inevitable. Had he really told her not to let them go out on their own? It didn’t matter any more. If they weren’t home in five minutes, she would jump in the car and search for them.
And then the doorbell rang and she heard the excited laughter. It was Jemima. Sarah opened the door and the two children tumbled in, through the hall and into the kitchen, two balls of excitement, eager to show how much they had got. Mike was suddenly there with them and at once they sensed his mood.
“You’re late,” he said.
“They’re only five minutes late,” Sarah said.
“They were meant to be back by 8.30.”
Simon was too excited to care. “We got three KitKats, two oranges, a Twix, Roses and loads of chocolate bars,” he said tipping them out on the kitchen table.
“Mrs Dow didn’t give us anything,” Jemima intoned. She was completely serious about everything. “So we poured rice through her letterbox.”
“And what’s this?” Mike Lucas had picked up a chocolate bar in an unfamiliar, foreign wrapper. Written on the cover in old-fashioned letters were the two words: Czekolada mleczna.
“Where did you get this?” he demanded.
“Mr Asnyk gave it to us,” Jemima had said it deliberately. She clapped her hands over her mouth and widened her eyes. A pantomime gesture.
“You went to No 29?”
Simon looked at his little sister accusingly. “No.”
“Don’t lie to me, Simon.”
“We didn’t mean to…”
“But you went there. You were expressly told you weren’t to go to that house but you did anyway.”
“Mike…” Sarah began.
“Forget it, Sarah.” Mike Lucas walked over to his son. He was a big man. He towered over him.
“Did you go in?” he demanded.
“No…” There was a quaver in Simon’s voice.
“So what happened?”
“Nothing. We just knocked and we said ‘Trick or Treat’ and he gave us some chocolate.”
“He was nice,” Jemima said.
It was as if she had thrown a switch. Mike grabbed hold of Simon with both hands, pulling him towards him. He was livid. He was tearing at Simon’s shirt, half dragging him off his feet, his fingertips digging into the boy’s flesh. Their faces were very close and Simon smelt the whisky and the cigarette smoke and, perhaps the pent up anger and fear. He saw the shaving rash on his father’s cheek, the tiny razor cut above his lip. He saw the hair in his father’s nostrils. He knew what to expect. “Why don’t you do what you’re told? Why do you never list to a thing we say? We told you not to go to that house and you went in.”
“We didn’t mean to…” The tears were already pouring out of Simon’s eyes. They were streaming down his cheeks and under his chin.
“You could have been hurt. You could have been killed. Anything could have happened to you.”
“He just gave us chocolate. He didn’t do anything.”
Mike’s grip tightened. He was pulling the shirt up and towards him so that it cut into his son’s armpits. Simon was arched backwards. “You’re a disobedient little shit.” And then he hit Simon, the side of his hand slamming into his head, into the curve above his ear, a deliberately calibrated blow that hurt but would leave no bruise. Jemima just sat there with rabbit-like eyes.
“Mike…” Sarah mutter the word but didn’t move.
“Get out of here. Go to bed. And you’re not having the chocolate. You’re not having any of it. You were told what to do. You were told to be back here by 8.30. Now go to bed, both of you. Go on!”
He released Simon. The side of Simon’s head was stinging but he wasn’t badly hurt. The tears were still flowing. He ran out of the room.
A few minutes later, curled beneath an Arsenal duvet, he fell asleep. And dreamt of monsters.