Walking across the yard, October left Joe in no doubt of its intentions. The sky was slowly releasing its night shades to admit shards of peach and the crisp air enlivened his face. What little early morning sun there was shed a brittle light on the grey stone buildings and a puddle crunched underfoot. It was a gentle sound, but thin ice nevertheless.
Hunched into his jacket, he picked up the empty feed buckets and headed for the barn. In need of repair, the timbered door no longer shut properly creaking complaint at the slightest touch. As soon as its edge scraped the earth and flint the yard came alive with animal noises. Calves, pigs and the chickens clamoured, their empty bellies adding urgency to their voices.
In the barn the gloom was sudden. Wearing cobwebs for curtains, the high narrow window slits filtered light and he didn’t see the wayward chicken until shrieking in feather-fluffed outrage it dashed at his legs. Too late to join its own the night before in the henhouse it raced away it’s rolling gait carrying it at speed across the yard.
“Stay,” he warned, as his sheepdog wormed its way on it stomach across the floor ready to pursue.
Inhaling deeply, Joe savoured the smell of grain, warmth and peace. The harvest gathered safely for another year the dryer was silent and the feed bins full. It was a source of satisfaction that it should be so, yet there was still work to be done. Mice had scattered wheat off the towering shape of the grain heap still to be bagged, his ageing tractor waiting to be serviced stood hunched in a corner and if he was not much mistaken dark pools on the stone floor told him the rotting thatch needed patching in places.
Fluttering paper hanging from a nail reminded him a page of the calendar would soon need turning, but not before Halloween was over and done with. Dates, there were always dates to be remembered. Farming and those days, the right days for planting winter wheat, hoeing beet, weaning piglets, spraying vegetables, loading beasts for market and picking the pumpkins. Every year he must be in the field picking pumpkins to send into the town, as long as the weather complied with the dates, that is.
He unhitched his hook from its peg in the wall, running his finger down the blade. Old and well used, the wooden handle resting in his palm was worn smooth. Its tactile response felt reassuring like a worn pair of shoes whose leather moulded to every bump and turn of the foot it rested on.
Leaving the tool by the door, he filled the buckets with pellets and went to feed the stock.
He grew over an acre of pumpkins. This year they’d grown well and most were cut, a source of relief as he trudged toward the field. He could see them in the distance lolling amongst their dark foliage, the orange orbs in neat rows one a clone for another. As far as he looked they presented calm and ordered perfection.
Almost at the gate the noise he suddenly heard was alien to his ears. It was an odd sound and he paused to listen. Used to the sound of a winnowing wind in a cornfield, the restless rustle of poplar leaves in a breeze and the plaintive sighing of a gale as it sought out crannies in the yard, this was different. It sounded like voices, not one or two, but a hundred or more, pitched low, muted, whispers even.
Shaking his head, Joe scrubbed roughly at his ears. Was he losing his hearing so it turned his ears into receptacles of flannel? When the dog’s whimper distracted him, he ran his hand over its coarse-coated back surprised to feel it trembling.
“Daft dog, what’s up with you, eh?” he said affectionately, grateful he’d heard it.
The whimper was louder this time, almost tempered by aggression, he thought and the animal’s eyes rolled into their whites. Then backing away, it retreated some yards.
“Murphy, for Christ’s sake what’s got into you? Imagining things are you? Well you and me both, old fellow. Come on, there’s only a day to finish this field.”
The last of the pumpkins to be cut from their vines were over on the far side. Picking his way between the rows, Joe glanced over his shoulder. Murphy trailed behind him reluctantly slouching low. Whatever it was had gone now. The field was quiet almost eerily so and when a pheasant suddenly flew up with its clattering cry it startled Joe. He noticed the dog ignored it. Strange, since his chasing skills were more advanced than his staying ones, but there was little time to dwell on anything apart from cutting and picking the ripe pumpkins.
With the last load of pumpkins deposited gently off the trailer and into a towering stack ready for the lorry, time and light ran out. Easing his stiff shoulders with a calloused hand, Joe teased himself with images of an indolent wallow in a steaming bath. It would be some while off still. Another round of feeding, a sick cow to tend to and mucking out were only a few of the chores left before he could discard his boots in the porch.
Looking across the yard, he could see it would be a cold night. There was a steely-grey sharpness on the horizon and not a breath of wind either so the smoke from the house fire drew ruler straight from the pot. His final task of the day was to choose two of the best pumpkins. One for each of the children carefully hollowed out with eyeholes and a smiley face. That after all was what Halloween was all about...
In the town the hands on the church clock were inching their way through the night. Half a moon surrounded by ebony blackness managed to shed a lemony glow on the rooftops and pavements, but where it failed only shadows dwelt in the doorways. Apart from the small concrete building on a corner signed in blue with the word Police, life seemed to have vanished completely.
Cluttered with a fresh mug of tea and several empty china cups, a heap of paperwork and loads of heavy files, the front desk propped up the Duty Sergeant. Scratching his head, he stared thoughtfully at the pen in his hand then reached for his tea instead.
“Time you were on the road, young man,” he called into the dim recesses behind him.
“Just getting my helmet,” the police constable replied from somewhere.
In the patrol car, the constable threw the helmet in question onto the back seat and started the ignition. Sighing loudly, he grated the gears and finding the one he wanted steered the car out of the parking lot. It wasn’t he really minded night duty, but driving about was the bore. It was a small place where most were in bed by eleven and crime was about minor misdemeanours. He dreamt of a wild car chase, a mugging maybe or a raid on the jewellers shop in the High Street. One day...
Leaving the built up area, he exited town by the only main road there was. Long and straight, few lived beside it apart from an old recluse in a rickety shack and some distance farther on, Joe and Patches Farm. The long miles to nowhere, that’s how he thought of it, at least until you arrived at a crossroads and the wider world.
He should be used to it, but his eyes still needed to strain through the inky black. Once he thought he saw a pair of eyes, deer height he reckoned, but by the time he reached the place it was gone. Seeing the outline of the farm buildings he slowed the car. Sometimes Joe was up late with calving or some such and a chat broke up the tedium.
Frowning, he peered through the windscreen. He could have sworn it was a clear night, yet ahead of him, swirling like wisps of chiffon, what he thought must be a thin fog rolled along the road towards him.
“What the heck is that?” he muttered, calm turning to fear.
Unnerved, he stopped the car and seemingly frozen in his seat stared at the undulating shapes approaching fast. Never had he seen orange mist and closer to him now it didn’t drift, but bounced on the road surface.
“Christ almighty, pumpkins, they’re bloody pumpkins.”
When the first hit his windscreen, hairs stood up on his arms. He fumbled for his phone and dropped it. The car lurched under the impact of them as they kept on coming, hundreds of them crushing one another so their flesh was jamming up the windows, blocking the radiator, obliterating the air, suffocating him with their weight. Sinuous green tentacles found the smallest gaps, reaching for his throat...