This morning my mother-in-law took a little trip into Centro - the old heart of Santiago - for a little Halloween shopping.
Our first stop was a little arcade just outside the Plaza de Armas- the arcade was mostly hairdressers and cell-phone-cover stores, but I remembered a little toy store in there that had a wall of boxes full of rubber animals. You know the sort of thing - rubber snakes and technicolor stegosaurus and wolf-spiders with fangs the size of hubcaps. I wanted to see if they had any plastic rats.
Did they have plastic rats? Does New York have a Big Apple in it? Did Gustave Eiffel design some rather nice train stations in South America? Did they have rats?! -
We left the shop with a bag full of big black red-eyed rodents, a handful of little black mice and a clutch of nasty rubber spiders. My mother-in-law insisted on carrying the bag.
On the back side of the Plaza de Armas is a street called Calle Rosas. Down the west end of the street there are shops selling fabric and sewing machines and fabrics and parts for sewing machines, but what Calle Rosas really does is parties.
Chileans take parties seriously. For a start, you need a pinata. And hats, lots of hats. Not the good old Australian party standby - the paper cone with an elastic band to go under the chin and maybe a streamer at the top, but crowns with jewels on, and policeman's helmets, and dragons to roost on your head and coil down around your ears, and Egyptian cobras done in gold lame, and pirate's tricorns, and veddy English top hats, and feather bonnets, and green fedoras and flapper cloches -
Hatted out, you need your streamers and balloons. And banners, done up in glitter with the name of the guest of honor written three feet high, and horns and hooters and poppers and silly string -
Imagine all that and then, add Halloween. Calle Rosas had gone bananas. There was no other word for it - the stores that normally can't breath for confetti and paper streamers were tricked out (see what i did there?!) in balloons and paper bats - there was so much Halloween dangling from the ceilings of the stores that you had to enter in a sort of semi-crouch and sidle around barrels full of rubber masks and plastic pitchforks with plastic blood on to even get inside.
We started in the smaller stores that exist wistfully on the fringes of things where Calle Rosas bumps into Veintiuno de Mayo (21 May 1879, the Battle of Iquique. Chileans like to name streets after significant dates) and, creeping bent between racks of vampire capes (basic black, sex-bomb red, virginal white, or cotton-candy pink) we came away with bunting and streamers and bags and bags of little black plastic spiders.
And we bought Mr Tabubil a hat - a black bowler with cobwebs and big round eyeballs on it, and dangling wads of grey cheesecloth from around its ears. It is glorious.
Our purchases were bagged by fellow in a cowl and a hockey mask, who gurgled liquidly when we said Gracias. He had coughed at us when we entered, liquid and hacking, and when we flinched, he had reeled sideways into the arms of a dancing skeleton and clutched at a plastic pike with plastic blood on the handle - he was having a wonderful day.
After that we braved the bigger party stores. Who knew what we'd see?
If we could get through the doors. It wasn't the flying bats or the whispering ghosts or the jiggling hanged men with battery-operated jiggles - it was the flying bats and the whispering ghosts and the jiggling hanged men. But mostly it was the people. I don't know if any stores made any money anywhere else in Santiago today, because the entire city was out shopping in Calle Rosas. The only thing that made the experience bearable was the army of pumpkin-shirted men and women that patrolled the crowd, looking to latch onto anyone sufficiently wide-eyed and desperate, and took you and your shopping list in hand and dragged you bodily through the scrum.
They did abandon us, sporadically, so that we could be menaced by men in hockey masks (clearly the spook-face of the year) and army jackets that looked as if they'd been shredded by claws and buried for a month. A monster would come close - and closer, and we'd notice that behind the hockey mask was another mask - this one with scars and maggots and a reek of fresh rubber. Bending down, he'd shrug, slightly, and we'd notice that the clinking sound we were hearing was the chains that he wore draped across his shoulders and over his chest, and we'd see that his leather motorcycle gauntlets were shredded by the same steel claws that had done for his coat, and once he'd seen that we'd seen, he settled down to make us feel really uncomfortable.
Above us, the ceiling howled and cackled and laughed manically, mechanically, because every single square foot of it was occupied by those whispering ghosts and jiggling hanged men, and a little girl, screaming with laughter, was jumping up and down and setting them all off.
We laughed too, and our hockey-mask maniac winked at us and shuffled off to menace someone else.
Outside the store, we walked to the end of the street and there was no more Halloween, anywhere at all. It was a whole festival confined to that one street, and nowhere else in the city. We caught a taxi and drove home and unpacked our loot on the kitchen ledge.
It's all about context, I think. Take our Ghastly Severed Hand, for instance. At a Halloween store, no-one would look at it twice, but at mid-afternoon outside the Calle Rosas, when Mr Tabubil came around the corner from the laundry and saw it lying on the kitchen ledge, he hit the ceiling.
Quite literally. He screamed and then he jumped.
It is a rather good severed hand.
Also, there is a small black rat sitting on Mr Tabubil's nightstand. My mother-in-law and I are trying a small psychological experiment.