The first time the children came to Ethel’s door, she was confused. Then she was irritated, partly at having to haul her aching bones out of her comfortable chair, and partly because she suspected the children had seen her confusion and misinterpreted it.
“Harvest festival!” they chimed.
“I’m sorry? What is this? Did you want something?
What they wanted, it turned out, was to give the bag to Ethel. She took it, more confused than ever, and they walked off with a cheery wave.
The second year, she opened the door, saw the children, and they got as far as “fest-” before she started to shout: “Why have you come here? I don’t want your stupid fifteen year old tinned rhubarb, or any other food nobody wants to eat. You know Waitrose delivers? I have a very good pension and I can buy my own damn groceries.”
She slammed the door.
They left three bags of unappetising food in her porch.
The third year, Ethel thought ahead. She learned the date of the harvest festival in advance, and when it came around she turned off all the lights, locked the porch, and sat in the back garden, reading by torchlight. Close to midnight, she crept back into the house with her heart rattling against her ribs. The moment had come to discover what was at stake. She looked through her window and found her answer.
A gothic tower, three feet in diameter and twelve in height, faced her impassively in the darkness. The walls were cans of pease pudding and jars of meat paste, sitting on a hill of packets of dried kidney beans. At the top, mock battlements were formed from chocolate fingers, each with a waxy white sheen. Her eyes slowly sank to the ground, where a wide moat of blood and corpses encircled this haunting edifice. On further inspection, it was actually mini sausages in tomato sauce, but the message was clear.
War was on.
The fourth year, Ethel was ready with a potato gun: a more powerful weapon than the peashooters the children had brought, but she was outnumbered. The children built a fort from tinned mackerel in curry sauce. Later, when each footstep in the garden brought the sickening crunch of uncooked ramen to the chilly autumn air, the children retreated. A ceasefire was agreed, but by that time every surface was red with spilled passata.
When the fifth year came around, Ethel ordered her supplies early. She found she was quite looking forward to it.