My mum and sister are sitting at the kitchen table, knives in hand, frantically carving when I arrive.
‘What’s happening?’ I ask.
‘I’m working from home,’ my sister, Sarah, says.
‘Pumpkins,’ Mum says, not looking up.
I stand in the doorway, staring at the mess. There are pumpkins everywhere — pumpkins with their heads cut off, pumpkins with their fronts carved off, imploded pumpkins. I wonder if I should turn round and go home before I’m sucked into the pumpkin chaos.
‘It’s hard work,’ Sarah says, pausing briefly to wipe her forehead. She looks up at me. There’s a strange look on her face — determination combined with desperation — possibly erring more towards the latter. She picks up a bigger knife, stabs it into the pumpkin and resumes her carving.
I step into the house and head for the kettle, trying not to slip on any seeds or stringy bits.
‘I’ve got a Skype call in ten minutes,’ she says, panic in her voice. ‘And I have to finish this for Olivia.’
‘Right.’ I avoid making eye contact. I do not want a carving task. Absolutely no way do I want to be spending my afternoon scooping out pumpkin innards. I need to write my book. I’d only popped round for a cuppa before I got started on an afternoon of typing. ‘Brew anyone?’ I busy myself making a cup of tea.
‘Coffee, please,’ Mum says. ‘She’s carving a haunted house.’
I nod. On the front of the pumpkin is a stencil of a haunted house with windows, doors and even curtains and a doorknob. It looks complicated.
‘I can’t do it!’ she says, downing tools once again.
‘You can,’ I say in my big-sister positive voice.
She resumes carving, moving her arm backwards and forwards, her eyebrows knitted together in concentration.
I have no prior experience of pumpkin carving, but it’s obvious that she’s not particularly light of hand. The intricate shape of the windows looks like it needs a more delicate touch. She’s attacking it like she’s sawing a tree trunk.
‘Careful,’ Mum says. And just as the words are out, the house caves in, leaving nothing but a gaping hole.
‘I’ve ruined it!’ Sarah drops her knife into the mess of pumpkin. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. Olivia could have done a better job.’
I look at the smashed pumpkin. I look at my sister. ‘Don’t put yourself down,’ is what I want to say. But I can’t lie. ‘Mmm,’ I say instead. ‘She’s good at her crafts.’
‘Maybe she could do it tonight?’ Mum suggests. ‘With me?’
‘There’s no time,’ Sarah snaps. ‘They need it tonight.’
‘It’s not Halloween for another week,’ I say.
‘It is in Holmfirth.’
‘It’s for school. For a competition,’ Mum explains. ‘We forgot.’
‘Competition,’ I say, suddenly interested. ‘Why didn’t you say? She needs to win!’
I put down my tea, pick up one of the many spare pumpkins, and browse the variety of carving tools on the table. There’s quite a range.
‘It can’t be too good, it needs to look like she’s done it herself,’ Sarah says.
She is clearly overestimating my skills. I’ve got to forty without having ever carved a pumpkin. I’m a beginner. No previous experience. But I fancy having a go. And winning. I want Olivia to win. ‘It needs to be good.’
‘I’ll take that call and leave you to it,’ she says, looking relieved as she walks out of the kitchen into the house.
I settle down at the table amongst all the mess. I select a small to medium-sized pumpkin. I don’t want to be taking on one of the huge ones. That could get messy. And I’m a novice.
‘Thank you,’ Mum says. ‘What are you putting on the front?’
I look through the many stencils — pictures of haunted houses and ghosts and witches and witches on broomsticks and cats and cauldrons.
‘There’s so much stuff.’ I shake my head.
‘She raided Morrisons this morning. Halloween’s a big thing these days.’
‘It wasn’t like this when you were young. We didn’t bother then.’ She takes a sip of her coffee.
‘I remember trick or treating,’ I say.
‘Yes, but not like this. A bin liner and a witch’s hat were enough.’ Another sip of her coffee. ‘This needs more milk.’ She gets up and opens the fridge, stepping around the pumpkin mess. ‘Do you remember you put lard on the neighbour’s front door because she pretended she wasn’t in?’
I smile at the memory. ‘I remember being dragged round to apologise and wash it off. And then grounded until I was twenty.’
‘Well, we had to do something.’ She leans back against the kitchen worktops. ‘She was a misery though… But out of all the other kids, it was you who smeared it on her doorknob.’
It’s like we’ve regressed thirty years and I’m being told off — made to feel like the disappointing daughter. ‘It wasn’t my idea,’ is my only defence. ‘All the others spent all night talking about which one of them should do it and I was getting bored with it all, so took the lard into my own hands.’
‘Her face when she found out!’ Mum laughs.
I laugh too, although at the time, it was not funny in the slightest. ‘I need to concentrate.’ I want to end the chat about Halloweens past and focus on the present. I hold the pumpkin and set to work, carefully carving a cat with its back arched.
Sarah comes into the kitchen just as I’m nearing completion.
‘Look at this.’ I hold it up. ‘It’s a cat.’
‘Does it have a bad leg?’
‘No, it doesn’t! I just don’t have a knife small enough, and I don’t want to chop it off.’
‘We’ll have to accept that it’s got a fat leg,’ Mum says.
‘Its eyes look dodgy, too.’ My sister stares at it.
‘You try carving out an eye. It’s not easy!’
While Mum and I get to work cleaning up the mess, my sister packs up her work bag, tucks the pumpkin under her arm and sets off to pick up Olivia from school. ‘We’ll have something to eat, then head back for the festival and competition.’
She FaceTimes when Olivia and the pumpkin are home. She shows me the pumpkin, taking pride of place on the table, and now lit up with a candle inside it.
‘Thank you for my pumpkin,’ Olivia says.
‘You’re welcome.’ My wasted afternoon doesn’t feel so wasted anymore. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Yes, but auntie Liz, children need to do it. Not grown-ups.’
‘Pretend Olivia,’ I say. ‘All the other parents will have done them, trust me.’
She shakes her head.
‘It’s important you pretend you did it,’ I say. ‘Otherwise they’ll not let you win.’ The problem is that she is too honest and can’t keep a secret if her life depended on it.
‘Put your mum on.’
She passes the phone to my sister.
‘Make sure she keeps quiet,’ I tell her. ‘She’ll not win if they think she hasn’t done it. Are you listening? This is important.’ I do not want my niece to feel let down that her pumpkin hasn’t made the grade. I want her to win. And I want to win.
Later that afternoon when darkness has fallen, my sister texts a photo of the pumpkin entries. Immediately, I call her back.
‘Did she win?’
‘They’re judging it later. I’ve got to go. They’re doing some events and things.’
‘Text me as soon as you know.’
I get off the phone and study the photograph.
The pumpkins are lined up in a square around the playground — they’re in size order, from the very smallest to the largest pumpkins I have ever seen. Ours errs more to the left, towards the smaller ones. But size is not everything.
A few of the designs look like a child has done them. Monster faces, jagged carving — they don’t stand a chance. Others are so intricately carved that they should be on display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
‘Obviously some pushy parents get carried away,’ I say to Mum. ‘The trick is to make it look like a child might have done it.’
‘Yours definitely had that look about it,’ she says.
I stare at my cat pumpkin, shining brightly alongside the others, then move my gaze along the line of contenders, eyeing up the competition. There are some superb ones. Massive things. Some of them absolutely terrifying. I return my focus to my cat. It looks like a friendly cat, there’s nothing particularly spooky about it. ‘We should have made it more frightening.’
‘You did your best.’
I shake my head. ‘I can only work with the Morrison’s stencil range. Some of these are their own designs. I didn’t think about doing that.’
‘We’ve had enough on with the carve by numbers! Look at the mess.’ Mum raises her arms and drops them.
‘Surely, they’ll award marks for intricacy of carving, not horror effects…’
‘Will you stop worrying and get back to clearing up this mess?’
An hour later, my sister is still at the pumpkin event and we’re still in the kitchen, scooping up the pumpkin innards. By the time the kitchen is pristine, the judging has taken place. My sister calls.
‘She didn’t win.’
‘Why not?!’ My heart rate quickens. I feel it thudding in my chest. ‘She should have won! Is she disappointed?’ My body is heavy with disappointment. I don’t want her to feel the same.
‘No. She’s happy with her pumpkin.’
‘Yes. We had a nice — ’
‘She should have won! It’s an outrage.’
‘We have to go.’ My sister hangs up.
I turn to Mum. ‘How could she not win? I’m that angry I want to smear lard all over the judge’s door handles.’
‘Elizabeth,’ Mum says, in a stern voice. She only calls me by my full name when I’m in trouble. ‘You’re forty. It’s a child’s competition.’
‘I’m not bothered. That pumpkin should have won. I don’t care what anyone says.’
I look back to the photograph. Our pumpkin cat is glowing, the light flickering behind its slit of an eye, making it look sinister and strange.
This week’s Slice of Life blog post is from last Halloween. It’s only a year but seems such a long time ago, back in the days when families were still allowed to visit each other.
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