A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary culture
By Tony Carden
Episode Thirty Four – Halloween Special
Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is when the spirit world comes close to, and touches, the material world. On this one night of the year, ghosts are about, and strange sounds are heard. Many people barricade their doors and retire to bed early. Around midnight, at the witches sabbath, loud wailing and gnashing can be heard from desolate places. It is not a night to go out…and if you must, don’t go alone.
It was a dark, foggy night in London town. A thick, pea soup fog had come down. The murk deadened all sounds. Somewhere in the distance a bell rang. Its mournful tolling sent shivers up Mary’s spine. Nevertheless, she continued onward. The only light she had was a hollowed-out pumpkin with a candle inside. Its grinning face seemed to mock her. Somehow, she was alone. Where the others of her Cabinet had gone, she had no idea. Without her realising it, they must have parted in the fog.
In front of her, loomed the huge, dark mass of the Houses of Parliament. Was that a bat that flapped away from where Big Ben should be? Mary shook her head.
Then she heard the moaning. It was as if the spirits were calling to her. She stumbled towards the sound. Then she realised she was getting near to the back entrance that led to the basement and the cellars. The sound was coming from inside.
As if in a trance, she descended the stairs and found the way in. The door creaked ominously when she opened it. Inside, the Stygian gloom was impenetrable. She raised her lamp. Its pale light showed a little of the corridor ahead.
She stepped in.
The door banged shut behind her.
The voices were now louder. Mary strained to hear what they were saying. But either the speakers were too far away, or several were talking at the same time.
A gust made her light waver. She nearly turned back but like her Brexit proposal, she was not for turning. She walked forward slowly, the lamp held up to show her the way.
Then she heard the footsteps coming towards her. They sounded like the tread of the grim reaper. She shivered.
A dark shadow came into view.
‘Hello.’ The spectre seemed to be laughing back at her.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m just out enjoying this All Saints’ Eve.’ The shade seemed to size her up and down. It cocked its head to one side. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m not sure, really.’ Mary held up the lantern in the hope it might shine some light on the apparition’s face. ‘Have we met before?’
‘That we have.’
‘I know you, then.’
‘We have more than a passing acquaintance.’
‘Were you looking for me?’
‘I was hoping to find you.’
‘It seems you have.’
‘It does indeed.’
Mary took a step forward, her lantern in front of her. She was determined to find out who she was talking to. The face came into view. ‘Gladstone?’
‘At your service, Ma’am.’
‘But you’re dead.’
‘Indeed I am. But as one of the greatest prime ministers in this illustrious country of ours, my soul lives on.’
‘So that’s what happens.’
‘For the good ones. The bad ones go to the other place.’
‘If you consider your constituency party meetings Hell, then yes.’
‘I thought I heard several voices.’
Gladstone turned away and shouted back down the corridor. ‘It’s alright. You may show yourselves.’
Shadows resolved themselves from the murk. They drifted towards Mary.
‘I had no idea you were here.’
‘Let me introduce you to my friends.’ The nearest one was wearing a top hat. He doffed it politely. ‘Mr Disraeli.’ Another seemed to waddle up, he held a cigar that puffed out smoke of its own accord. ‘You cannot mistake Churchill.’
‘Hello Mary. I am glad to see you are adopting my Dunkirk spirit.’
‘Sorry, Sir Winston, I’m not sure I understand.’
‘You must put your head into the lion’s mouth if the performance is to be a success.’
Mary blinked. ‘You think what Britain is going through with Brexit is that bad?’
‘I must tell you, Mary, it is no use saying, ‘we are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.’
‘I am trying to…I certainly am.’
Gladstone flapped a hand in front of her. ‘You should also meet Mr Peel.’
Mary looked at the thin man dressed in a long black frock coat and sporting a wig. He pulled out a snuff box, took a pinch and sniffed it. He gave Mary a haughty gaze. ‘You’re in trouble you know.’
‘It seems we are up against intransigent foreigners.’
‘I sympathise. But we won you know. We beat Bony; and we beat him square.’ He suddenly grinned from ear to ear. ‘PM. Its Halloween. Trick or Treat?’
‘Trick, I think.’
‘Try this one for size. Twenty-seven countries have it in for you.’
‘It’s the French though who are the worst.’ Gladstone beamed at her.
‘Aren’t they always.’ Peel waved at the great nineteenth century leader.
‘Do you have any advice for me?’
‘Indeed. Let me just say that theoretical principals must sometimes give way for the sake of practical advantages.’
‘PM, sorry to interrupt your little discussion but it will be very remiss of me if I don’t introduce you to the others who are here tonight.’ He pointed at a man in a tweed suite. ‘Harold Macmillan has some good advice for you.’ Before Mary could open her mouth, he went on. ‘As do Lloyd George and the Iron Lady.’
‘Mrs. Thatcher. You cannot believe…’
Thatcher tusk-tusked. ‘I know you look up to me but, please, no flattery.’
‘I will try to stay on topic. Brexit is proving a battle of epic proportions. Every time I think we’re getting somewhere, we seem to get stuck. We’re not winning this! If only I could get your advice.’
Thatcher nodded sagely. ‘You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.’
‘So, it’ll be down to another Chequers, then?’
‘Let me give you this simple piece of advice. If you lead a country like Britain, a strong country, a country which has taken a lead in world affairs in good times and in bad, a country that is always reliable, then you have to have a touch of iron about you.’ She grinned. ‘Have faith.’
‘It’s all events dear girl, events.’
‘Now Harold, Mary and I were just talking about how to run the country. We know how well you did.’ She turned back to Mary. ‘Now, being prime minister is a lonely job, which I am sure you now know. In doing what you need to do, you cannot lead from the crowd.’ She turned back to MacMillan. ‘Do you have anything to add?’
‘Of course. Let me just give you this piece of advice. I learned it the hard way. Hopefully, then, you won’t have to. It is a trite observation to say that we live “in a period of transition.” Many people have said this at many times. Adam may well have made the remark to Eve on leaving the Garden of Eden. Just remember that.’
Margaret giggled. ‘So very you, Harold.’ She waved at Lloyd George. ‘Anything from you? You led the country at a time of crisis.’’
‘As you too did, Margaret.’ He faced Mary. ‘Ah, Mary, we have been watching and listening to the goings on in the chamber upstairs. What an ill-disciplined lot, they are. In my day…’
‘In your day, Lloyd, they were far, far worse.’
‘Not so, Winston.’
‘Yes so. Remember, I was there.’
‘Please, please, prime ministers, we don’t have much time.’ Gladstone waved his hand to Lloyd George to encourage him to address Mary.
‘Well, Mary, you know I took the helm in difficult times. We faced a huge challenge in Europe. When it comes down to it, the thing I would tell you to do is: don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.’
‘Sage advice from a sage prime minister.’
‘Thank you, Gladstone. Those were difficult times.’
‘And these are also difficult times?’
‘Present times are always difficult times. But that is no excuse for people not doing what is right in their mind.’
Gladstone shook his head. ‘I don’t agree. People are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.’
‘Do you know that one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.’
‘Now, now, gentlemen. We have been over this many times. Can we not, before the clock strikes midnight, provide Mary with all the advice we can?’
‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.’
‘England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.’
‘The finest eloquence is that which gets things done; the worst is that which delays them.’
‘If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.’
The chimes of Big Ben sounded. One, two, three…all the way up to twelve.
The pumpkin light flickered.
Mary looked around. The shades had vanished. There were no more voices.
Mary shrugged, turned and headed back out. As she walked, her footsteps echoed down the corridor.
When she got close to the door she could hear the cries of the political witches and warlocks. Their hour had come.
To be continued…
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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