Hallowe'en used to be "Mischief Night". In my part of the world, as a child in the 1960s, it was a night for the playing of pranks. Typically, they were minor, relatively benign and only mildly irritating. October 31st was the time for tricksters to emerge from within and wreak small havoc on others, preferably anonymously.

The day would typically begin on the bus to school. Itching powder was the favourite there, using the innards of rosehips, carefully dried, then dropped surreptitiously into the clothing of some poor innocent. The more daring would have an accomplice distract the victim before carefully tying their shoelaces together, or removing them entirely. Walking to school, satchels would be hurled into hedgerow and treetop, "Kick me!" notes attached to the backs of sweaters, mud smeared on the hems of girl's dresses. It was no good crying or running to Teacher, this was the part of rough-and-tumble that was our world.

The evening though, was the best battleground. The daily skirmishes were but the training for the night. Here we came into our own, cloaked in the dark, we'd sneak up to neighbours houses and knock on the door, then run like hell before they came out. The snotty giggling from behind the hedges only served to infuriate our victims more - this was the cream on the cake.

Of course, that was just crude, but there were subtler things, more devious, and they required planning. "Spirit tapping" might be next. A pin or small nail, attached to a length of thread, that was thumb-tacked to the window frame at the top, the pin being tied a little way down. Hunkered behind a bin or fence, we'd then raise and drop the end of the thread, tapping the nail against the windowpane. Tap-tap-tap. Sometimes the householder would be able to ignore it for a while, but invariably, sooner or later, they'd have to investigate. Curtains would open, revealing pale, concerned faces. Curtains closed, we'd start again. Sometimes we could draw them out of their front doors, sometimes not. Shout all they might at the rascals disturbing their telly, it made little difference. The wiser ones simply came out and swiped the equipment, and then we'd move on. To the next house or prank, it made no never-mind to us.

Oh, the fun we had! Knocking over the milk bottles, or noisily rolling them up the path, removing gates, or wedging them tightly so when the residents chased us, they'd see more mischief. Running water hoses through letterboxes? Well yes. Once. We got a thrashing for that one. Consequences were for others; we were more cautious.

Of course, time moves on, we grow up and away from the childish pursuits, and sooner or later, we would become the victims, it would be our white faces laughed at through the opened curtains.




Oddly, this became more fun. As American-style Hallowe'en reached our sainted shores, and the shops were filled with tacky cheap costumes, the trick-or-treating began. The teenagers started it, but it was more trick than treat. Their treat was the roar of outrage, and their tricks worse. Eggs on windows, car tyres deflated. That was no fun, ran only briefly, but the game was not over.

For me, Hallowe'en got to be funny again when the younger kids started to come around. Trailed by their Mummies or Daddies, the kids would be around at dusk, with little bags for their sweeties, their ghost sheets and their piping "Trick or Treat?" I loved it.

Sometimes, I'd go to the door and ask the wee ones for a trick. No-one was ever ready for this, and I was ever disappointed. Where were the Mischief Nights of yesteryear? Gone. But still, the puzzled looks on the faces of the little children were enough. That was my trick, and I'd dispense a few goodies, just because. But there were other tricks for me to play...

My house had a little walkway at the side, that led to the back of the terrace. The "twitchel" came in very handy on this night. I'd hear the little knock at the door, and rush round the side of the house, and black-caped and masked, sneak up on the little darlings and shout "BOO!". There'd be little shrieks, occasionally one would run away, but no harm done. Of course, I'd have a few treats for them, but boy, was it fun. And mostly, they enjoyed the little scare as much as I did.

Mostly. I mentioned the Mummies? Heh. One such night, I was so effective with my wee prank that I had a crier. Well, a screamer then a crier, and possibly a knicker-wetter. I'm not sure about the piddled-in underwear, but I do remember the mother. She was a young Ruby-type working-class mother, smoking her ciggie in the background, but of course, sprang into a Mama Bear charge as soon as her darling raised her voice. The exchange went something like this:

Child's Mummy: What are you doing, scaring my darling?
Me: Well, I'm scaring them because it's Hallowe'en. It's a scary night.
Mummy: Well, you scared this one good and proper (as she coddles her baby)
Me: smiles
Mummy: You've no right to be scaring little girls! I've a good mind to call the Police...
Me: Do you know the origins of Hallowe'en?
Mummy: No.
Me: It's the night when the veil between the living and he dead is thinnest, when eldritch things leak out into our world.
Mummy: No, it's for the children! It's trick-or-treat!
Me: Well, I tricked her, there are treats. It's Hallowe'en. Then I went back in, with a swirl of the cape, a shower of sweets and minor applause from the other kids.

Of course, I doubt that I said "eldritch", but by darn, I shoulda. So back to the mulled ale and my rented video, and to await the next knock...

Old.

I feel old, especially in the mornings. I have my elderly affectations, of course - the pipe with a good Danish tobacco (though never in public), the licorice candy, and the occasional grunts of something that resembles "Get off my lawn".

But there are, too, concrete signs. Things that are supposed to make any red blooded American man want to run out and buy a fast car in flat denial of the tolls of nature, as much as the thought fills me with contempt.

Stray grey hairs, I think, would be the chief culprit here if I had a sense of vanity. The tough stuff is the hard hearing, tired bones, and a knee that still echoes fear in the cold morning air.

We used to joke about it, you know. Just like they say every cigarette costs you seven minutes off the end of your life, other things do to. There was an elaborate scoresheet, all reckoned by comparison with a constant, those theoretical seven minutes.

You have to take the theoretical damage of a single, amortized cigarette and judge (mostly subjectively, and mostly completely ignorantly of actual biology) the equivalent cost of similarly amortized physical insults inherent to doing stupid things in uniform.

How many cigarettes is jumping out of an airplane worth? Being shot in a given piece of anatomy? Being blown up in a particular way? How many fractions of a cigarette is each hour of lost sleep worth?

By the parts of the scoresheet I can remember, I'm about three hundred years old. And sometimes, I feel them all, like the wish for immortality without youth.

On my birthday earlier this year, I sat on a metal roof up in the mountains, watching early snow and throwing rocks. I made a few quick tabulations and found that I was a third of the way done with my time on the earth, and had spend over a quarter of my life so far fiddling around in Afghanistan like some kind of halfassed Connecticut Yankee.

Old, dammit. I feel old even as my parents evaporate in time lapse, growing less congruent with my memories each time I see them.

But today, despite the dicey trip down the stairs on a gimp hinge and knots in my back like golf balls, I felt buoyant. Invincible in a way that had been long lost, since at least the first time I got my ass kicked for real and had to stay home from school a few days to recuperate.

Today was Halloween, of course. My favorite day, my favorite time of year. Not yet the "holiday season" with all of the family baggage and insane consumerism that goes with it, the time of year I like to call "The Great American Mind Losing".

The weather was hideous. Grey and wet and freezing cold. The kind of day that, given the option, you would not move too far from an upholstered chair and a blanket and an oversized mug of anything steaming hot. No trick-or-treaters to laugh at our carved watermelons, so we laughed at them ourselves. And ate all the candy, too.

And as much as I would have liked to stay inside and sip tea all day in my disgusting faux-velvet robe and slippers, I got dressed up in my human outfit and drove the long gray drive down to the county courthouse. Open, of course, since Halloween is not a "real" holiday in the eyes of Authority.

We picked today to get married so that I'd never forget our anniversary. Never lose it among the dates and years and loose datum like an earring dropped in the dishwasher.

Even tonight, with the newly legal Mrs. tucked into bed for an early morning, I can't help but look back on the existential dread of life expectancy algebra and feel that the destination was worth the layovers.

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