I was not surprised at the shuffling of feet beyond the high wooden fence. It was Halloween night and I was working my first shift as night watchman in the old lumber company where my grandfather had worked for thirty years. They say, at the end, the owner would send a car for old Tom to take him, in comfort, the two miles each way he had walked for so long.
There were children and parents walking the streets outside the yard, sometimes explosions of firecrackers in the distance.
It was an old lumber yard, a throwback to the glory days of Bytown when timber was king. I walked around the perimeter wooden fence, checked that the big doors to the yard and garage were locked, wandered into the little kitchen for a cup of tea. I knew that drinking too much caffeine on graveyard shifts could have disastrous consequences when the lack of sleep eventually caught up to you, but this was my first shift, Halloween night and tea didn’t seem as dangerous as coffee.
I wasn’t one to be superstitious and all the leprechauns and little people and faeries of Irish folklore weren’t foremost in my thoughts except when I remembered my mother who was born in Galway and believed in it all. I had bad dreams about the freezecat but that’s another story.
There were three mugs set out in the kitchen at the back of the office. I dropped a teabag into one, plugged in the kettle and checked that day’s Sun girl.
The knocking at the office door sounded normal. Maybe some of the trick or treaters outside had seen the kitchen light. I walked through the dark office.
As I reached for the doorknob I heard the words
“No need for that”
I couldn’t believe my eyes when a man walked right through the door and shook my outstretched hand.
“Tom, Tom Wheeler, your grandfather, and you’ll know Murphy”
To my astonishment another figure stepped through the closed door and shook the hand which my grandfather had just squeezed. I felt it. I know they both squeezed my hand.
I recognized my grandfather by pictures I’d seen. He had a large head, a bald pate and a perpetual smile. My irreverent friends would have called him “wingnut” because of his large ears, but not to his face.
Murphy’s theory was the reason I was here in the first place. His theory of gambling on sporting events hit a few rough spots when I tried it after his death. Or maybe I didn’t get the full gist of it. Whatever happened, I lost my shirt over those bets and was forced to take this job. The last time I’d seen Murphy he was sitting up in his casket with my coffee cup in his hands and a brawl going on all around him.
They made their way through the office to the kitchen where my grandfather refilled the kettle and washed out an old teapot. He made tea while Murphy and I sat down at the table.
I wasn’t sure what to do about it and the manners of these two ghosts, for that is what they must be, were impeccable.
“I thought we came here to decide” said Murphy, filling his pipe.
“Yes, we can decide tonight, all right. Tonight’ll be the night we’ll decide” Tom said as he set the pot down on the table to steep and pulled up a chair. He too filled his pipe.
“You didn’t follow through on the system I told you about just before I died” Murphy said to me.
“What do you mean?” I piped up.
“A team usually loses at home the first game after a road trip. That’s part of it. There were a few more tricks of the trade which you failed to employ when you made those bets. You would have bet the opposite and cleaned up if you had” Murphy lined up the sugar and milk near his cup just behind the spoon.
“Hm” I grunted.
Tom poured tea into our cups and spoke to Murphy as he added his sugar.
“I think three”
Murphy took his time, measured his sugar carefully with his spoon, added milk and stirred the combination vigorously.
“After a lot of thought, I have to conclude that the answer is two”
A long silence broken only by the sounds of tea drinking and the unwrapping of a package of biscuits Tom had produced. Peak Freans.
“Maybe, if they were doing a proper Irish jig. But even then, with the footwork, you’d have to hope they were once Irish in order not to step on each other’s toes.”
“See, three is the superior number” Tom answered,” being half again what your number two is It could be easily done by three angels dancing a Highland fling on the head of a pin”
My grandfather’s father was a stonemason from Putney but his wife was a Ross from the Highlands and he defended the northern clan at every opportunity.
“We’re not talking about a needle here” Murphy proclaimed.
“The thick end with the eye in it. Only Irish angels could dance on the head of a pin and there’d only be room for two of them”
Tom disappeared for a moment behind a cloud of grey smoke from his pipe. Anger showed on his countenance when he reappeared.
“Three Scottish angels could do it”
Before I knew what was happening they had jumped up and were circling the table, Murphy with a large shillelagh, Tom with a battle axe.
I sat still and watched.
Murphy swung a vicious two hander which caught Tom in the neck. His head was clearly separated from his shoulders but just popped up and landed back in its spot. It was facing the wrong way, but Tom adjusted it and caught Murphy on the side at hip level thereby cutting him in two with the axe.
Murphy separated in the middle but his upper body, after popping up, returned to the bottom half at the waist.
I could hear laboured breathing as they sparred and clashed but no more than the sounds of two old men exerting themselves.
Finally, they put aside their weapons, drank tea, smoked their pipes and resumed the debate.
“Two is a balanced number, equal on both sides of its duality” Murphy declared out loud.
“Well, we could add them together to equal five or put them side by side and come up with thirty two” offered agreeable Tom. One of his brothers had been an accountant.
“Ihirty two would be a little crowded on the head of a pin” Murphy observed.
Both disappeared behind clouds of grey smoke as they contemplated the problem with newly fired pipes.
“The angels would have to step lively all right” Tom observed.
“Thirty two Scottish angels could do a Highland Reel on the head of a pin” he declared.
“Mind you, they’d need eight circles for the teams of four”
“Hm” responded Murphy.
“I could see putting them side by side and coming up with twenty three”
I was wondering if they would again arise to resume hostilities but all they did was wash and dry the cups together like an old married couple. I could hear them mumbling to each other as they stood at the sink with their backs to me.
My disbelief was in a suspended state. Except that it wasn’t a trick in my head.
They sat down at the table again and looked across the office to the front door.
The knock on the front door came after a long minute of waiting.
I made to rise but Tom put up his hand to stop me and Murphy said
The door never opened but four little men carried a log fire with a bubbling pot slung above it through the office to where we were sitting in the kitchen. Behind them a mad cackle blended with the whooshing sound of a wild wind and a dark figure flew through the wall, did two circuits of the office and landed deftly behind the pot.
My mouth was hanging open when I looked at my grandfather and Murphy.
Both nodded and smiled at the woman in front of us.
“Hello, Zelda” they said.
“Boys” the woman spoke while her appearance changed like fluid before my eyes. First she was an old hag, then a beautiful maiden, then an ancient crone with a wart on her nose and finally she settled on a plump milkmaid who peered curiously into the pot.
“This is Steve, Tom’s grandson and an old friend of mine” Murphy spoke up.
“He’s on the other side, is he?” she stirred the bubbling broth with great concentration.
“Yes, he’s still there” Murphy nodded agreeably
“But not for much longer”
This conversation troubled me.
“And how’s tricks and treats tonight then, Zelda?” Tom inquired.
Zelda turned into a smartly dressed businesswoman while she surveyed the pot and the four little men. Were they elves or goblins or gnomes? I didn’t know and no one was telling.
“It used to be better in the old days” she said
“You can’t scare anybody any more. Then there’s all the white witches. Dogooders I call them. I mean you can be spooky without being evil”
She joined Murphy and Tom in puffing on a pipe. With all four of the little men smoking their pipes as well, we disappeared for a moment until the cloud moved on. There was no smoke from the fire under the pot though, I will say that.
As if on a prearranged signal, the little men picked up the fire and pot, waited till Zelda stepped out of the way, carried it through the office and the closed front door.
Zelda watched them go, an ever changing expression on her ever changing face.
“Goodbye, boys. I sensed you were in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by to say hello. See you round”
She did a high speed circuit of the darkened office, one second mounting her broom, the next a black blur, the next gone through the wall.
After this display my grandfather produced a pint of single malt Highland whiskey and Murphy found a pint of Black Bush in his pocket.
The tea mugs were used to share the shots.
“Tell you what” said Murphy “We’ll meet next Halloween night here and decide for good”
“Agreed” said Tom “Next Halloween night. That long enough for you?”
“Oh yes. By that time there won’t be any doubt. I’ll know by then”
“Same here” said Tom.
They stood and proferred their hands.
Each squeezed my outstretched one.
As I followed them across the office, Tom said
“Halloween night is over here now. But it’s just starting west of here”
They waved goodbye and walked through the door.
I opened it and watched them walk to the outer fence. They turned to me.
“I’ll say hello to your Dad” Tom spoke in a loud voice.
“And don’t bet on anything more than five to one” Murphy shouted
They turned west and walked through the fence.
Up in the sky, silhouetted against the full moon, Zelda flew by on her broomstick.
I walked back to the kitchen to turn out the lights.
I felt that glorious buzz which just the right amount of good whiskey produces.
It was time to do my rounds and make sure nothing strange was happening in the yard that Halloween night.