Thursday, 28 October 2010

Pumpkins Are Never Scary

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Ever since their mother and I had split up, I'd understood the necessity to play as big a part as possible in my kids' lives. Yes, I had them on alternate weekends, and I'd often take them out in the evening during the week in the school holidays, but the only contact I normally had with them on 'school nights' was at school organised events.

So it had seemed a good idea to get involved in the PTA, and I made an effort to attend all of the meetings and to play a part in all the events that they, or should I say ‘we’ organized.

Unfortunately, due to pressures of work, I’d been away from home for the last two meetings, so I’d missed most of the arrangements for the Halloween party. I knew it was happening, but hadn’t been involved in the planning, so when I turned up for the PTA meeting two days before the event, I was determined to do what I could to contribute.

As it turned out, just about everything had been organized, except for a few finer points concerning the decorations for the school hall. Someone suggested carving traditional Halloween lanterns from pumpkins, to hang around the hall. The health and safety aspect of having naked flames in the same room as hordes of screaming children, almost put an end to it, until one of the mums volunteered that her husband’s business could donate a large number of fluorescent battery operated night lights, that would fit inside a pumpkin lantern perfectly.

I think it was my urge to contribute something that made me speak up: “Surely we can do better than pumpkin lanterns,” I said, “Couldn’t we produce some other kind of decoration that the kids would actually find scary?”

“What do you suggest then?” asked the deputy head teacher, who was chairing the meeting.

“I’m sure we could produce something scary and realistic, using materials like plaster, styrene foam, all kinds of things,” I said, “Careful application of paint could make that kind of thing look realistically gory.”

“John does wood carving in his spare time,” proffered the mother of my son’s best friend as she nodded toward me, “Some of the stuff he does is incredibly realistic; he’s very talented.”

“That sounds most promising,” said the chairman, “Can you carve us something to use at the party?”

She'd put me on the spot. There was only two days before the event, for goodness sake. I had visions of turning up with something I’d rushed, something that wasn’t up to scratch, something the parents, the teachers, even the kids wouldn’t be impressed by. My wood carving was pretty much a private hobby, my pieces were seen by very few people, mostly close friends, and they were usually shared only with family and very good friends.

“I don’t think I have time in two days to produce anything of merit,” I said, “not of the quality I’d like to, at least.”

“So what about the other stuff you suggested then?” someone else piped up, “How many of those things could you do before the day after tomorrow?”

“Well,” I said, “I was hoping that everyone else would pitch in too. I can point you toward some books that’ll show you all how to do it. If most of us could produce one or two pieces each, we’d have plenty to decorate the hall with.”

“But would they be lit up?” Someone else asked, “I like the idea of Halloween lanterns.”

There were various mutterings from people who had set their hearts on pumpkin lanterns, and grumblings from others who didn’t want to get involved at all. In the end the deputy head held up his hand and said “I sense that a lot of you don’t feel too confident about creating something from scratch,” (nods from various areas of the room,) “and we have already bought some of the pumpkins. Perhaps we should stick with our original idea, of carving pumpkin lanterns. Let's put it to the vote.”

So it was that I left the meeting that night, clutching a Tesco carrier bag weighed down by a bright orange pumpkin. Once the vote had gone the way of the pumpkin fans, I knew that I couldn’t get out of it, not with everyone knowing about my carving hobby. I made certain to get one of the pumpkins that were already available. I could have popped around the day after to collect one when they’d bought some more, but I decided that if I was going to make something of this project, I’d rather have two evenings to do it, rather than only one.

I got home and tipped the pumpkin out onto the kitchen worktop. How the hell could a big round orange vegetable ever be frightening? I just couldn’t see it, even carving the most frightening face into it, it was still a pumpkin lantern. I took a vegetable knife from the cutlery drawer, then wondered if I should use my carving tools from the garage instead. It then occurred to me that rather than just carve a face into it, I could carve a scary scene into the pumpkin itself; I’d seen stuff like that on the internet, and even if it wasn’t much scarier than a face, it was certainly more impressive.

I started to walk toward the garage door and something stopped me in my tracks. I could have sworn I heard a muffled grumbling. It was definitely human in origin, though suppressed as though made by someone wearing a gag, or with something else stuffed in their mouth. I turned. It seemed to be coming from the worktop. I walked back toward the pumpkin, but by the time I got there, the sound had stopped.

It crossed my mind that I’d probably make a better job of this if I worked in my garage, my makeshift studio, rather than in the kitchen, and since I had to go there for my tools, I may as well take the pumpkin with me. I picked it up from the worktop and was surprised by the texture and temperature of the skin. I don’t think I’d ever touched a pumpkin before, but I certainly didn’t expect it to feel warm and clammy. I’d never known a fruit or vegetable to feel that way. I picked it up and thought I felt a slight vibration, coming from it.

The vibration became more noticeable by the time I’d entered the garage. I put the pumpkin down on my workbench, then reached up to switch on the spotlight installed above it. As I did, the muffled grumbling started again. This time, there was no doubt that it came from the pumpkin. Under the illumination of the spotlight, with the relative darkness of the garage around it, the pumpkin seemed to glow orange. The vibration coming from it was visible now. It shook and almost shuffled around on the worktop, and all the time there was that muffled sound struggling against something, as if trying to find its voice and be heard. The mumbling sounded almost like someone pleading for help, like someone struggling to escape from somewhere.

I suspected that someone was having a joke with me, that someone had placed something inside the pumpkin to make this noise and these vibrations. I hadn’t noticed any holes in it, but I hadn’t properly examined it yet.

Suddenly the sound coming from the pumpkin stopped, as did the vibrations; this seemed to coincide with my phone ringing, but probably just meant the battery in the device that had been inserted into it had run down. I switched off my work light and left the garage to answer the phone.

It was my wife. I’d expected her to call. She asked me about the PTA meeting, and I told her how I’d been pressed into carving a pumpkin lantern. She was concerned about the prospect of using candles, so I told her about the offer of the night lights.

“That’s a good idea,” she said, “Who’s providing those?”

I described the lady to her.

“Oh, Kirsty’s mum,” she said, “Her husband runs a mail-order novelty warehouse. We went to Kirsty’s birthday party, and the whole family are practical jokers.”

I told her what had happened with the pumpkin, about the vibration and the mumbling.

“That sounds like Mike and Olivia’s type of humour,” she said. “She probably stuffed one of those laughing bags in there somewhere. Serves you right for telling everyone that pumpkins don’t scare you.

She asked me what I was thinking of doing with the pumpkin, and I told her that I’d considered a special carving, but under the circumstances, I’d probably just carve the standard scary face into it instead.

She mentioned that it was well past the kids’ bedtime; they came on the phone for a moment to say goodnight to me, then my wife said goodbye. I returned to my workshop, and as soon as I’d switched the worklight on, the mumbling started again.

This time it was louder and more intense, like someone straining against something. I opened my tool drawer and took out my carving tools. The mumbling got louder. The pumpkin began to seriously vibrate on the worktop, so much so, that I had to hold it still with one hand. This was getting beyond a joke.

The mumbling was even louder now, more urgent, as I placed the blade of my best cutting knife on the warm clammy skin of the pumpkin. As the blade touched the skin, the vibration became almost violent. I pressed the edge of the knife against the pumpkin skin, and as it broke, the mumbling suddenly stopped. After a fraction of a second, the skin seemed to split: the incision I’d made spread, not just in the direction of the cut, but outward from it too. As it did, the vibration became so violent that I couldn’t hold onto the pumpkin; it was almost jumping off the bench.

Then, as the pumpkin skin split further, there came a sound like someone gasping for breath, as if they’d just come up from being underwater, and then a blood curdling scream issued from the hole that spread in the pumpkin’s skin.

I’m not ashamed to say that I was frightened. Whatever those idiots had set up here, had been a really professional job. They seemed to have achieved something that I hadn’t thought possible: they’d managed to scare me with a bloody pumpkin.

As I heard the scream, I stood without thinking, and then jumped backward, knocking over my stool. I looked at the pumpkin under the spotlight. The skin continued to split, the vibration causing it to jump around on my workbench now. It was almost as if something was trying to escape from within.

I’d been certain that this was a practical joke, but I now had doubts enough to prevent me going back to the pumpkin, to deter me from the idea of taking hold of it again.

Suddenly there was another scream, but this one was more a scream of relief, but still tinged with terror. As I heard it, the entire skin on the side of the pumpkin nearest me, seemed to erupt, pieces of skin and of pumpkin flesh exploded everywhere, as something emerged from within.

What burst forth convinced me that this was no practical joke. For what I saw was a face; not an inanimate face, but a real human face, with real features that moved as it screamed. Its entire visage was contorted into the most terrifying expression. The face itself seemed to toss from side to side for a while, as though free at last from his imprisonment. It didn’t look at all relieved though: it seemed to look angry at whoever it thought had imprisoned it there, and it was looking directly at me!

Without warning, the screaming stopped, and a cruel smile appeared on the face; its mouth curled into a wicked grin as its eyes bore into my soul. Even though it was only a face, and had no way of attacking me, I knew that it would destroy me if I did nothing about it. I looked around. At the other end of the workbench was a hammer. I jumped sideways and reached out to grab it. The pumpkin spun as the face actually turned toward where I now was, and moved along the workbench, as though trying to get to the hammer before I did.

I was too quick for it. I lifted the hammer high above my head; the eyes on the face looked upward toward it, and then the expression changed to one of fear, coupled with intense hatred. I brought the hammer down and the screaming began again. This time though the screaming was that of someone being beaten, someone who had no defence against his assailant except to call out. The last I heard from the pumpkin was a single pathetic cry of “Help Me!”

I’ve no idea how many times I brought that hammer down; I know I’d broken into a sweat by the time I stopped. I looked at the workbench: There was a lot of pulp there that was clearly of vegetable origin, but absolutely nothing that resembled a pumpkin or even part of one. I cleaned it all up and made sure that every part of it was out of the house and in the dustbin. I didn’t go to bed that night. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t dare to.

I told friends about what had happened, but none of them believed me. They thought it was just my attempts to frighten them, and told me that they were disappointed at how feeble those attempts were: after all, pumpkins are never scary.