"Going souling", they used to call it. I can remember m'grandad telling me he used to do it, when he were little, going round the houses and offering to say prayers for the dead, in exchange for these little cakes, soul cakes they called 'em. Sort of spicey, bit like hot cross buns but at the opposite end of the year. Then it came back, when I were a lad, not so much for religious reasons, more because people couldn't go to funerals, couldn't have wakes or get togethers. Couldn't really mark the occasion. Because of the social distancing. So they'd leave these little plates of cakes outside, on a box or just on the step, with a note saying 'Please pray for my mum or dad or aunty Beth ..' or just 'In memory of my gran …' And sometimes the cakes were just store-bought but often, people would bake their own. Like, there was this whole thing at one point about baking your own bread, and the shops even ran out of flour for a bit. Then it were baking soul cakes. Which I guess showed you just how many were dying.
So me and Jack and a bunch of others, girls too, not just lads, would go out souling. First, we did it around Halloween. We used to have Mischief Night but that didn't seem right anymore. And trick or treating was for the little kids. I don't know who had the idea but a bunch of us got together to do it. And to start we were a bit silly, like the first house we came to, just down the street from us, Jack grabbed a handful of the cakes, laughing like he were a kid taking as many sweets as he could. And one of the girls, Mary it was, she told him off, good and proper, and Jack, for all he liked to think of himself as a bit hard, a bit of a lad y'know, he went sort of red in the face and put most of the cakes back. And Mary, she told us we had to do this right, do it proper like.
And there was a song we'd sing if you could call it that. It went like this:
'A soul, a soul, a soul-cake,
Please good Missus, a soul-cake,
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for the One who made us all'
Funny isn't, how you can forget so much but stuff like that comes back to you like it were yesterday, And I know it sounds daft, but after we'd sung it the first time, we sort of got into it and really started belting it out after that. I don't know who came up with the words, maybe Mary again but they were easy enough to remember as we went round, at least the chorus anyway.
Anyway, after we'd gone round most of the estate, we all sort of split up, and people drifted off. So Jack and I ended up walking back together. We weren't that good a'friends, to be honest, but we lived on the same street and he had stood up for me when I were being picked on by some kids at school. It was getting late so we decided to take a short cut through the field where there's like a path, a 'hollow way' they call it, running across the grass. Folk used to say you could sometimes see lights over there and one time, I had a job helping an old friend of my dad deliver the milk, which was really just him doing us a favour for my dad's sake but early one morning when it was still dark, we were driving past the field and I looked up and honest to god I almost shat m'self 'cos I could see those lights, right there by the hollow way. And my dad's friend jumped when I jumped and made the truck swerve and he swore and then laughed and said it was only some people with their dog which had one of those collars with lights on, chasing a ball that was all lit up. But still, m'gran told me once that when there was a Manor House where the estate is now, they used the hollow way to carry their dead down to the church to be buried and how at certain times, especially when it was a bit misty and gloomy, you could still see the old ghosts pass by, carrying a coffin.
Anyway, Jack and I were talking the usual rubbish, about the footie or something and just as we crossed the hollow way, this figure appeared, right out of the dark it seemed, and asked us, 'can I have one of those cakes?' Well, Jack let out this yell, or a scream really if truth be told, and just legged it. Leaving me standing there, gobsmacked, more at his running off like that than anything. But it was just a girl, around our age I think, in one of those black hoodies that metal fans wear, you know - in fact, you could almost see the outlines of the name of the band left on it. I still had a couple of soul cakes on me, which I figured I'd share back home so I held out one to her and she said 'let's go sit up there', looking up across the field to where there was a bit of a rise with what was left of a tree that had been blow down in one of the great storms years ago. Folk used to talk about sitting up there for the view which was really just of the main road and more houses, but it was mostly used by kids to smoke dope of an evening and hang out.
So, we sat down on the trunk, all smooth and polished by everyone's backsides and she took the cake with these long, white fingers and just nibbled it, all delicate like. She didn't say much, so we just sat there, quiet mostly, but I remember how peaceful it were, looking out over the field across the hollow way, down to the road. I were never good around girls then, always a bit awkward but with her, it were really easy, like I didn't need to say anything or do anything, we could just sit together like we'd known each other for years.
Then after a bit, she got up and brushed the crumbs off and said 'I have to go'. I was trying to think of something to say, probably something daft like 'Can I see you tomorrow?' But she was already gone, off down the hollow way after Jack. I met other girls after, of course, but it were like she were always there, between us. Even with Mary, who held me tighter than all the rest, if you know what I mean. It wasn't til we had our daughter that I was so full of love for this little bit of a thing that it seemed to spill over to Mary as well and just sort of washed away what I felt for her from the hollow way.
Of course, I never saw Jack again, at least not face to face. He ended up coming down w' it and died a couple of weeks later. I thought his mum might put out some cakes or we'd get together to sing and pray for him like we did for the others but for some reason, it never happened. The crematorium streamed the service so we could watch that at least. His family were there, all huddled up at the front with a few other folk scattered about the benches. I thought I saw someone in a black hoody, right at the back, almost off-screen but those days I were seeing her all over the place. Or at least I thought I was.
Those fingers though, I shan't ever forget them, so long and white."