Arnold's world

It was a grizzly evening, early in October when I answered the door to three 10-year-old girls.

One seemed to be dressed in her mother's petticoat; another was wrapped in a brushed-nylon sheet; the third, rheumy-eyed and sniffing, looked as if she should be curled up with a hot-water bottle and a week's supply of Junior Disprin. Their one concession to the blustering winds had been to slap on enough make-up to stock a small branch of Boots.

I assumed for a moment that this trio of unlikely spectres had simply decided to celebrate Hallowe'en a few weeks early but then I saw their Tesco's trolley. It bore a hastily scribbled placard which read "PENNY for the GAY" - a spelling mistake, I should think, rather than an ugly symptom of pre-teen homo-phobia.

The trolley did contain a Guy of sorts - the sort that a spaced-out Blue Peter presenter might have managed on a bad day. It was convincing proof that there is a desperate need to make design and technology an integral part of the junior school curriculum. It didn't amount to much more than a bundle of jumble, hastily stuffed with newspapers, takeaway cartons and a mail order catalogue. One of its legs terminated in a knotted sock; the other in a new and expensive trainer, the loss of which must have left its previous owner hopping mad.

If the trio were hoping for verisimilitude, the painted head let them down badly. The palest ragamuffin had to hold it in place. Whenever she relaxed her grip - which she did every time she coughed - it rolled off. Very odd to look down at the autumn leaves swirling round your doorstep to see a plastic football in a Tina Turner wig smiling up at you. But there was something even odder: the trio were singing "Once in Royal David's City". Swaying rhythmically, in the way that little girls feel compelled to do, they crooned (and coughed) through three verses - the first verse, actually, three times.

I couldn't bring myself to ask the obvious question: it would have made good copy but I didn't really want to hear them tell me that it was Guy Fawkes who had been born in a lowly cattle stall.

Instead I asked: "Do your parents know that you are out so late?" One giggled. One sniffed. One sneered "Yeah," with all the indignation that it's possible to muster when you are wearing bed linen, and the mascara you applied rather too lavishly is making your eyes itch.

I suppose the correct thing to do under these circumstances is deliver a kindly word of warning on the potential dangers of tramping the streets at night. I'm sure that I shouldn't really have given them anything - it only encourages them, you know - but, of course, I did. Because I ooze with the milk of human kindness and because I wanted my hub caps to still be there in the morning.

The other mistake I made was to ask them what they intended to do with the money. I assumed that they would, at least, have the grace to lie. "Buy Benson Hedges!" their spokesperson yelped triumphantly, as they giggled off into the night.

I could hear them at my neighbour's - "Away in a Manger," to the accompaniment of an occasional thud from a bouncing head. I hope the trio are right: that there is Someone who looks down from the sky and will stay by their bedside 'til morning is nigh. Even if it is only Guy Fawkes.

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