Four old ladies walk into a pub – Part Three

4 empty chairs with a table by a roaring fire in a quaint pub, lots of Halloween decorations

“That was easier than I thought,” said Babs.

“Too easy,” said Sheila.

“He won’t be a happy chappie,” said Constance.

“I don’t think he really does happy,” said Gwen.

The Graveyard Tap sat, unsurprisingly, on the border of a graveyard. From there the main road in town led up to the shops or down to a grid of residential streets. With the shops all closed for the evening, the four friends headed down the hill.

Gwen and Constance walked arm in arm, mainly because Constance wanted to enjoy the solid state that Halloween always loaned to her for twenty-four hours. She’d return to passing through walls and spying on the pub’s locals tomorrow.

Besides the Graveyard Tap being Constance’s haunt, it was used for the HAGS yearly get-together because of the delight that the locals took in celebrating Halloween. External Christmas lights were switched on, but Santa and his reindeers were replaced by ghouls, ghosts, and grinning devils. Pumpkins, carved into cute or demonic designs, guarded every doorstep. The pavements were filled with an onslaught of trick-or-treating children and their teen or parental guardians. For one day of the year, all things scary were celebrated.

“So cute,” said Gwen as they walked past a trio of children who were all dressed as fairies.

“I prefer them,” said Sheila as a teenage zombie fought to separate two warring demon toddlers.

“Oh, how pretty.” Constance pointed to a boy and girl who held a plastic bucket of sweets between them. Their faces were painted like colourful skulls, adorned with flowers. The girl had marigolds in her hair. “I do prefer the Mexican approach to Halloween costumes.”

“Dia de los Muertos,” said Gwen. “That’s what they call Halloween over there.”

“I still prefer Samhain,” said Sheila, grinning as another fight broke out, this time between two teens. “Reminds me of the old days. Good and bad.”

“Do you smell that?” Babs took in a deep, shoulder-raising breath. “Someone’s lit a bonfire.” She pulled her coat closer. “Is it just me or has it suddenly gone cold?”

“Good evening, ladies, again.” Mr Mortimer appeared to have recovered from the incident with the chicken leg. If you looked very closely, there was a broken blood vessel in one eye, but the blood was deep purple instead of red. “Shall we get on with this?”

“But we were having such good fun,” said Gwen. “Babs, can’t you do anything?”

Babs turned to Sheila. Sheila sighed and rolled her eyes. She looked around at the trick-or-treaters, weighing up her options.

“Please don’t hurt us,” she cried out, pressing her hands together and raising them in a feigned expression of appeal. “We’re just four old ladies. We can’t defend ourselves against a brute like you.”

A couple of the parents turned around to watch, gave Mr Mortimer the once over, and then returned their attention to their sweet-hunting children

With a tut, Sheila tried again. “No, no, you shan’t take my friends.” She flung herself across Babs, shielding her friend with her arms. “Ravish me if you must. But leave them alone.”

A group of teens edged closer, rather confused by the sight of a sweet-looking old lady thrusting her chest out at a strange man in a top hat. A couple more parents turned to watch.

“Ravish you?” said Mr Mortimer. “I don’t-”

“These are innocent women,” Sheila cried, looking at the passersby. “They don’t deserve to be manhandled.”

“I don’t think it’s working,” said Gwen as the passersby continued to pass on by. “Sheila’s knack at inciting a crowd isn’t what it was.”

“Maybe this will help,” said Constance.

Hunching down in the shadow between Gwen and Babs, Constance wrapped her arms around her head. When she looked up again, her elderly countenance had been replaced by that of a five-year-old girl dressed in a blue gingham dress.

“He’s hurting my grandma,” she wailed as she rushed to Sheila’s side. “Don’t let him hurt my grandma.”

“What are you doing to her?” One of the parents, a woman in her thirties trailing a little boy dressed as a werewolf with her, stepped in between Sheila and Mr Mortimer.

“Don’t you worry, sweetie.” A teenage girl bent down to reassure Constance. “We won’t let him hurt her.”

“I think you’d better go.” One of the dads got involved, prodding Mr Mortimer in the chest. “We don’t like perverts round here.”

“Pervert?” said Mr Mortimer. “I’m not a pervert. I was just-”

“We know what you were doing.” Another dad joined the first. “It’s not right.”

“And we’re backing away, backing away.” Sheila took Constance’s hand as the two of them retreated from the growing, cat-calling mob.  

“Everyone together,” said Gwen, reaching out to them all. “Quick, while nobody’s looking and Mr M is busy.”

“What do you have in mind?” said Babs as the four of them formed a ring.

“You’ll see.” Stepping on tiptoes, Gwen closed her eyes, hummed a couple of notes, and said, “Fairy dust and moonbeams bright, cloak us now in veil of night.” She clashed her walking stick on the tarmac. A sprinkle of sparkles scattered up into the air before floating down to cover them all.

“That’s a bit twee,” said Sheila.

“Well, I am a fairy godmother, dear.”

The sound of the crowd who surrounded Mr Mortimer dropped and muffled as if the four ladies had stuffed cotton wool in their ears.

“Has it worked?” asked Constance, now back in her elderly form. “Can they see us?”

“I’d say not,” said Babs as a child crunching on a lollipop walked between their legs without a glance at any of them. “But just to be safe.”

She picked up her walking stick and pointed the tip into the night sky. A cool breeze circled the four of them, riffling their hair and making them shiver.

“Over rooftops, chimneys high, on the wind now let us fly.”

Constance and Gwen both let out a little ‘oh’ and a giggle as the four friends lifted off the ground. It wasn’t until they had reached the rooftop of the Graveyard Tap that Babs lowered her cane.

“Nicely done, Babs,” said Gwen.

“Not so bad yourself,” said Babs.

“I suppose we’d best not hang around,” said Sheila. “Just in case he comes back.”

“I don’t think the townsfolk will let him,” said Constance. “But you’re right. Better safe than non-existent.”

“Same time, same place next year?” said Babs.

“Of course,” said Constance.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Gwen.

“I suppose so,” said Sheila.

Four old ladies walked into a pub on Halloween, but it was a witch, a ghost, a demon, and a fairy godmother who left that night. And Death, of course.


Happy Halloween.

Four old ladies walk into a pub – Part Two

4 empty chairs with a table by a roaring fire in a quaint pub, lots of Halloween decorations

“Expecting someone?” Sally handed out plates of food from the trolley. “Chicken drumsticks?”

“That’s for me, dear,” said Babs. “We’re not expecting anyone, no.”

“Meat pie?”

“Me please,” said Constance.

“Here you are. That gentleman by the bar’s been watching you all. Don’t you think he looks dapper? Or maybe it’s his Halloween get-up. Fiery wings?”

“Me.” Sheila held out her hands. “I’ve been looking forward to this all year.”

“That leaves the sugar-plum pudding for you.” Sally left the custard-swathed dessert in front of Gwen. She handed them their cutlery, carefully reversed her trolley out of the tight space, and nodded to a figure by the bar.

“Blimey,” said Babs. “I didn’t expect to see him tonight.”

“Really?” said Sheila with a chicken wing in her hand. “Seems like the perfect night for him to be out and about.”

The man at the bar smoothed down his thinning white hair as he laid his black top hat on the bar. He was parchment pale and smartly dressed in an old-fashioned suit that was so dark it almost seemed to be a hole, or an absence, or at the very least, disconcerting. He wore a ruby red waistcoat and matching cravat that only accentuated how pale he was. Small-framed, round, silver spectacles perfectly perched on his nose with no arms to support them. His eyes were an icy blue, his face gaunt and angular, and his nose long and hooked. His lips were thin and grey.

He bowed his head to them, picking up his hat and pressing it to his chest as he walked across the pub in a stiff, unnatural fashion.

“Ladies,” he said as he drew up a chair and sat. “This is a pleasure.” As he spoke, a goblet of deep red wine appeared in front of him on the table. His voice was dry and raspy, as if he couldn’t quite catch his breath. “I’ve been looking for you. All of you,” he said.

“How lovely,” said Gwen as she plunged a spoon into her pudding.

“You’ve given me quite the chase,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips for the smallest of sips. “I do hope you won’t give me any trouble,” he finished as he returned the glass to the table.

“Trouble? Us?” said Constance. “We are nothing if not ladies.”

“Debatable,” he said. “No offence intended.”

“Tough. I’m offended,” said Sheila. Hot sauce coated her chin, giving the impression of congealing blood.

“Now, now,” said Babs. “Mr Mortimer is only doing his job.”

“I’m so glad that you understand. Shall we?” He looked towards the door leading to the street.

“You know, Mr Mortimer. I appreciate you’re busy, but could we finish our food first? It is the last meal that we’ll ever eat after all.”

“Except for me,” said Constance. “I haven’t eaten in centuries, but I do enjoy the smell and look of a decent meat pie.”

“And this is very good pudding,” said Gwen. “Dreamy, in fact.” She smiled the sweetest of smiles.

“Well.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a fob watch, which he considered with a raised, pale eyebrow. “I suppose there’s no rush. My next appointment isn’t for a while.”

“Chicken drumstick?” said Babs, holding one up.

“I don’t usually…” He stared at the chicken piece as if it was something both alarming and alluring. “I don’t have the constitution, you see.”

“Oh, go on,” said Gwen. “Our treat.”

“Well, if you insist.” He took the chicken drumstick between thumb and forefinger. “Bones, meat, and bread crumbs.” He gave it a sniff. “Can I eat it all?”

“Absolutely,” said Babs. “The bones are the best bit.”

“But-” Constance began, halting only when Gwen kicked her under the table.

“Thank you.” He bit into the chicken drumstick, teeth passing through flesh and bones alike. “I didn’t expect it to be crunchy,” he said, raising a hand to his mouth. “Is this normal?”

Most people who are choking on a chicken bone go red in the face to begin with, but Mr Mortimer wasn’t most people. Instead, his face changed from white to grey to a rather attractive shade of lilac. His eyes flicked from side to side as his hands wavered in the air.

“Not to your taste, Mr Mortimer?” said Babs. “Have a sip of your drink.”

Mr Mortimer shook his head and pointed to his throat. He weakly slapped his other hand on the tabletop as his eyes began to bulge.

“Don’t worry, ladies. I’ve got this.” One bright spark who had dropped into the Graveyard Tap for a swift pint on the way to a Halloween party hauled Mr Mortimer to his feet. “We’ll have you sorted in no time,” he reassured as he wrapped his arms around the choking man’s torso.

By now, every head in the pub was turned towards the incident. The bright spark’s friends had crowded round for support, cheering each attempted Heimlich thrust. No one noticed the four old ladies as they sidled around the edge of the bar, coats in hand, and left the Graveyard Tap.

To be continued…

Four old ladies walk into a pub – Part One

4 empty chairs with a table by a roaring fire in a quaint pub, lots of Halloween decorations

“Here they come. Seven pm on the dot.” Harold, landlord of the Graveyard Tap public house, nodded to the four elderly women as they sauntered in.

“They’re not regulars.” Sally finished pulling a pint of ale.

“They’re here every Halloween,” he said. “We always reserve the table by the fire for HAGS.”

“That’s a bit mean.” She handed the pint over to the waiting customer. “I know they’re old, but you don’t have to call them names.”

“No, HAGS,” he said. “H. A. G. S. It’s an acronym for their club.”

“What’s it stand for?”

“No idea.”

The four old ladies shrugged off their coats, strangely dry for such a rainy night, and settled at the fireside table. One picked up the handwritten reserved card, squinting at it through her thickly lensed glasses.

“First question,” she said. “What do we think HAGS stands for, if Harold asks?”

“He never asks, Babs,” said another of the ladies as she peeled off her dainty white gloves.

“But if he does, Constance,” said Babs. “I’ll go first. Halloween Assembly of Geriatric Spirits.”

“I’m not geriatric, thank you very much,” said the third. “I’m mature.”

“Like cheese?” said Babs. “Go on, Sheila. Play the game.”

“Cheese.” Sheila rolled her eyes. “Fine. How about Horror Association of Grimm Spellcasters?”

“That’s a bit on the nose, don’t you think?” said Constance.

“What’s your idea then?” said Sheila.

“I think it should be the Happy Ancient Grandmas’ Society. I have grandchildren, you know.”

“You had grandchildren, dear,” said the fourth lady, patting Constance on the hand.

“I’m not a grandma,” said Sheila. “Can’t stand kids.”

“What would you suggest, Gwen?” said Constance.

“Let’s see.” Gwen fiddled with one of her sparkly clip-on earrings as she thought. “HAGS stands for Hideaway for Ancient Goddesses Sisterhood.”

“Goddess,” said Constance. “I like that.”

“Agreed,” said Babs. “That’s what we’ll tell him.”

“If he asks,” said Constance.

“Which he never does,” said Sheila.


Harold knew exactly what drinks to serve the HAGS gathering. It had been the same every Halloween for as long as he’d worked at the Graveyard Tap. He’d started out as junior barman over fifty years ago before eventually taking over the place. The ladies’ drink order was always this: a murky absinthe cocktail with a sprig of rosemary for Babs, a lavender gin fizz for Gwen, a white whisky sour with a maraschino cherry for Constance, and a flaming whisky with an orange slice for Sheila. The drinks hadn’t changed and, strangely, neither had the ladies. They were old when he first met them, and they looked exactly as old on this Halloween.

Babs always looked slightly dishevelled, with flyaway grey hairs attempting to escape from under her knitted beret. She wore large circular glasses that gave her the look of a startled owl, and a long, heavy sweater over a floral print dress. A chain of silver charms hung around her neck. Her flesh-shaded support stockings wrinkled around her skinny ankles and above a pair of sensible leather brogues. She walked with the help of a scratched, old, wooden cane, which bore the remains of what must have once been carved symbols.

With her shock of curly grey hair and cherubic face, Sheila appeared the picture of a sweet grandmotherly type. She wore a frilly pink cardigan dotted with cats over a polka dot dress, tights, and soft white sneakers. A large cross hung on a chain around her neck, sitting on the fabric of her dress. Harold had rarely seen her smile but when she did, her teeth always looked just a little too sharp. Unlike Babs, Sheila walked with a youthful bounce in her step rather than an old woman’s shuffle.

Constance was a petite, rail-thin woman with wispy white long hair tied into a loose bun. She wore a pristinely pressed, white lace blouse over an ankle-hiding burgundy skirt. A string of pearls adorned her neck and her white gloves lay smoothed out on the table in front of her. She always moved slowly and with impeccable posture.

Of the four old ladies, Gwen was the most likely to smile and laugh.  She was a cheerful, plump woman with rosy cheeks and curly silver hair. She wore a lacy pink dress with a blue cardigan, chunky pastel bead necklaces, and soft ballet flats. Her sparkling clip-on earrings would catch the light when she moved, creating a fairy-like twinkle. In one hand she gripped a tall wooden cane decorated with flowers and vines. Whenever Harold met her, he always noticed the scent of fresh flowers and baking bread.

“Thank you, Harold,” she said as he served their drinks. “How’s life treating you? Is it all you wished for?”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he admitted. “But not bad. Could be worse.”

“So much worse,” said Sheila. She took a sip from her flaming drink. “Perfect.”

“Sally will be over with your food in a minute. In the meantime, Happy Halloween to you all, ladies.”

“And to you, Harold,” said Constance with a ripple of agreement from the others.

“He’s not getting any younger,” said Babs as Harold dodged in between costumed partygoers and grumbling regulars.

“Neither are we,” said Sheila.

“Yes, but we’re not getting any older either,” said Constance. “Well, I’m not.”

“How long have you been body-liberated now?” asked Gwen. “Three hundred years?”

“No, over four hundred,” said Constance. She took a lady-like sip from her drink. “Of course, it feels nearer to three hundred because I went rather mad for the first eighty or so years. That slice of my afterlife is a feverish blur. So how are you all? Good year, bad year?”

“Slow year,” said Gwen. “People just don’t crave things the way they used to. They actually like to put in the effort these days. Be seen to achieve. And I just can’t get my head around Insta-telegram and Tock Tock.”

“Well, I’ve had a hell of a year,” said Sheila. Her glass was empty, and she was licking the singed slice of orange.

“Is that good?” said Constance.

“Not really,” said Sheila. “Babs, how about you? Cheer us up with tales of magical success, why don’t you?”

“I wish I could,” said Babs. “But spell-craft ain’t what it used to be. Everyone seems to be doing it these days, writing books about it, blogs, podcasts. The mystery has gone.”

The four looked down at the table-top, nursing their drinks – or empty glass in the case of Sheila – as their thoughts returned to the good/bad old days.

To be continued...

5 books to hide away with this Halloween

woman reading amongst candles and pumpkins

The last time I blogged about scary reads was back in 2020 so I thought it was time to do it again. I’ve found five more books whose frights have stayed with me long after I’ve reached the end of the novel. Whether you want scares for youngsters, full-on horror, dark fantasy, or something old, there’s bound to be a book in this list that’ll grab you by the throat.

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

I came across the Skulduggery Pleasant novels through my children. I can remember reading the first novel to my son and thinking, ‘this is a bit scary for kids’. Derek Landy initially decided to finish the series at ten (I think), but then couldn’t leave the characters alone and has written several more since.

Here’s the blurb:

Meet Skulduggery Pleasant: detective, sorcerer, warrior.

Oh yeah. And dead.

Stephanie’s uncle Gordon is a writer of horror fiction. But when he dies and leaves her his estate, Stephanie learns that while he may have written horror, it certainly wasn’t fiction.

Pursued by evil forces intent on recovering a mysterious key, Stephanie finds help from an unusual source – the wisecracking skeleton of a dead wizard.

When all hell breaks loose, it’s lucky for Skulduggery that he’s already dead. Though he’s about to discover that being a skeleton doesn’t stop you from being tortured, if the torturer is determined enough. And if there’s anything Skulduggery hates, it’s torture.

Will evil win the day? Will Stephanie and Skulduggery stop bickering long enough to stop it? One thing’s for sure: evil won’t know what’s hit it.

Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Black House is the second book in a duo by Stephen King and the late Peter Straub. The first book is The Talisman. I read these books several years apart, but as soon as I dipped into Black House I was taken back to The Talisman and young Jack’s adventure. There are definite tie-ins to other novels by King, especially the Dark Tower series.

Here’s the blurb for Black House:

A comfortable, solid, middle-American town – inhabited by a serial killer…

Children are disappearing, lost to the world, horrifically murdered.

The best clue the detectives have – a serial killer from a century ago.

Jack Sawyer, retired from the LAPD at 35, plagued by visions of another world.

As a child, Jack visited the Territories, a menacing place of violence and madness, to save his dying mother. Now, if the latest child victim is to be saved, Jack must retrieve his lost childhood memories, and revisit the one place he hoped never to see again.

Cabal by Clive Barker

I went through a phase of binge-reading Clive Barker novels and Cabal is one of the shortest but it gives a wonderful flip-side to other Barker novels like Weaveworld. It was even made into a film called Nightbreed.

Here’s the blurb:

Cabal is the story of Boone, a tortured soul haunted by the conviction that he has committed atrocious crimes. In a necropolis in the wilds of Canada, he seeks refuge and finds the last great creatures of the world – the shape-shifters known as the Nightbreed. They are possessed of unearthly powers – and so is Boone. In the hunt for Boone, they too will be hunted. Now only the courage of this strange human can save them from extinction. And only the undying passion of a woman can save Boone from his own corrupting hell…

Moon by James Herbert

Okay, maybe I have a book problem because I also went through a reading binge of James Herbert novels. Moon is probably the scariest novel I’ve read by him and it’s one of the few books that I’ve re-read (hence the battered copy on my bookshelf).

Here’s the blurb:

The nightmare begins before you sleep .

By the Master of Horror, James Herbert’s Moon follows Jonathan, who fled from the terrors of his past, finding refuge in the quietness of the island. And for a time he lived in peace. Until the ‘sightings’ began, visions of horror seeping into his mind like poisonous tendrils, violent acts that were hideously macabre, the thoughts becoming intense.

He witnessed the grotesque acts of another thing, a thing that glorified in murder and mutilation, a monster that soon became aware of the observer within its own mind. And relished contact. A creature that would eventually come to the island to seek him out . . .

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I found The Woman in White in an old book I inherited from my parents, entitled ‘Novels of Mystery’, that also includes the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s a battered old hardback book with a plain cover that was published in 1945. So the blurb below is from the Amazon entry (sorry):

In love with the beautiful heiress Laura Fairlie, the impoverished art teacher Walter Hartright finds his romantic desires thwarted by her previous engagement to Sir Percival Glyde.

But all is not as it seems with Sir Percival, as becomes clear when he arrives with his eccentric friend Count Fosco. The mystery and intrigue are further deepened by the ghostly appearances of a woman in white, apparently harbouring a secret that concerns Sir Percival’s past.

A tale of love, madness, deceit and redemption, boasting sublime Gothic settings and pulse-quickening suspense.


Now I just have to decide which book I’ll read this Halloween.

How this Author celebrates Halloween

antique books

Books may well be the only true magic – Alice Hoffman

In the Phillips household, Halloween preparations are underway. We have a bowl of sweets ready for the estate kids when they come trick or treating and plans for a family night on the couch with my husband and teens watching a horror flick with a takeaway.

I’ve spent the month spreading the Halloween mood online with scary books to read and films to watch. I love the costumes and scary celebrations of the season as much as anyone but if I’m honest, that isn’t what Halloween is about for me.

As someone who lives for magic and storytelling, Halloween marks a sentimental opportunity to think about loved ones who have passed and find a way to connect with them. It won’t surprise you that my way to connect is through the books they loved.

I have a shelf of old, mainly leather-bound books that belonged to my parents. Some were passed down to them from their parents. There’s a stout copy of Robinson Crusoe, a slim copy of the Elusive Pimpernel, and two hefty tomes of Shakespearean plays, to name but a few. My mother loved to read drama and adventure. My father was a theatre fan, hence the immense number of play-scripts he accumulated.

Each Halloween I’ll read a couple of chapters from a novel, a number of poems, or a few scenes from a play from my ancestral collection. While I do, besides enjoying the story itself, I’ll remember that my parents touched these pages and experienced these words just as I am now.

However you spend the day, I wish you all the best for a mellow, heart-felt Halloween.