A Christmas Ghost Story

By: ailsaandlisa

Dec 04 2011

Category: short story

1 Comment

I should have just married him. We might have had nothing in common, but I could have been happy, in a house like that one, or that one.

She shook her head to shake the thought out. She was annoyed with herself, yearning back to Simon. She had made the right decision. But now, having turned down a proposal from a millionaire’s (or was it billionaire’s?) son, she was probably always going to have to make her own money, and so here she was, on Christmas Eve, walking up a dark lane with tall, perfect hedges on either side – yew, box, beech or (ugh) conifer – to a party at the house of one of her latest clients, Mrs Lucretia Downes-Tarkington, who was actually a rather nice woman, friendlier and about 20 years younger than her name made her sound, who had invited Noel to her “little do”, a festive housewarming, with the prospect of finding more work from her circle of wealthy friends.

Other people, Noel mused, were spending this evening quietly with loved ones, or partying in some over-tinselled pub, but since her mum and dad had moved to be nearer her reproductively more successful sister, and her brother was heading some sort of Greenpeace/Free Palestine/Feed The World convoy in far-off places, this seemed as good a way as any to spend the evening.

And really, so far, she wasn’t regretting it. There had been a fall of new snow a few days before, not much, but just enough to make smaller English roads impassable, so she had parked her car on the main road and set out to walk the last half mile. The freezing air wrapped itself around her, as intimate and chill as a ghost’s embrace. Above her was a clear black sky in which the stars and full moon tried to outshine each other. There was not another human soul to be seen and Noel felt like the celestial show was being put on for her sole benefit.

When she lowered her eyes, closer to the earth the scene was almost equally awe-inspiring. The night had leached the colour out of the world but the moon lit up the snowy outlines of the giant black trees that edged the gardens creating a magical 3-D image of ‘a country lane on Christmas Eve’ that seemed much too spectacular to be real.

Noel reached the drive of The Beeches and smiled as she walked towards the house and the herd of Land Rover Discoverys clustered outside it, like animals at a water hole: a car for rich people too lazy to warm their own arses, as her brother would have said. She was pleased with the effect of the huge Christmas tree near the front door, whose delivery and decoration she’d managed to arrange for Mrs D-T at the last minute. Its lights glistened like icicles or diamonds, transforming the handsome but sensible Georgian house into a scene from a fairy tale, where witchery, where anything, could happen.

Halfway up the drive her eye was drawn suddenly to the right. In the dead centre of the large front garden stood a holly tree. Most of the lawn was in shade because of the huge beech trees that enclosed the property but the tree was illuminated by the moon as though picked out by a soft white spotlight. Noel gasped as she saw it. It was an image as exquisite as an old daguerreotype. The heavy frost’s brushwork had edged each leaf with a silvery stroke, making the delicate details of the tree’s proud spikiness stand out against the gloom. Its berries were the black-red of old forgotten blood and around its knobbly trunk wound a smooth ivy with small pale berries on stalks.

Noel couldn’t believe she’d never noticed the tree before – but then, she’d always driven right up to the house, her mind fixed on getting inside, on the job ahead. But now she stood and stared and let the image fix itself onto her mind, a perfect picture of the spirit of Christmas, always old yet again and again young.

When she noticed that one of her hands, which held a festive bouquet, was becoming numb with cold, she slowly turned away from the holly tree and began to walk towards the house. After she’d rung the bell she spun around one more time but couldn’t see the holly for the cars and the gaudy, extravagant Christmas tree.

❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧

She turned back to face the door just as it was opened by Mrs Downes-Tarkington in a sparkly royal blue dress that might have looked better a size bigger, in a different colour. Loud voices and impressive laughter came from rooms to left and right; in the corridor an elderly man wearing a purple cravat stood very close indeed to a young woman in a little black dress.

“Noel, wonderful! Do come in, my dear. So glad you could make it. Oh what lovely greenery…” Mrs D-T began, then they both heard a “Mummy?!” and there on the stairs stood a blond boy of about five years old in dark blue snowman pyjamas.

“Oh, back to bed, Theodore,” said Mrs Downes-Tarkington. To Noel she said, “Heaven knows why I gave Nanny the evening off when I’ve got a party to host. Would you mind terribly” – she handed back the bouquet to Noel –  “putting these in water while I try and settle him? You know where the kitchen is… probably better than I do!”

Noel nodded agreement and set off down the hall, glad to have something practical to do rather than have to make conversation with a throng of already merry over-confident people in designer outfits. This was a vital part of her working life but she wasn’t really in the mood for it – not on her day off, not on Christmas Eve.

❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧

And anyway, this was her favourite part of the house – the former, and to a lesser degree, present, servants’ quarters. She had been allowed free rein here, liberated from making the slightly vulgar nods to modernity insisted upon for the house’s more public rooms. So the walls and paintwork alike were elegant and calming in Garrow and Hall greys, like the set of a Jane Austen adaptation, only requiring the addition of a dashing gentleman in a long coat to make the illusion complete.

She swung round the open door into the kitchen. “Oh, sorry.” There he stood, behind the long scrubbed wood table. No top hat and long coat, but a flat cap, fraying tweed jacket and well-worn moleskin trousers tucked into old brown lace up boots. Not a gentleman, then, by the looks of things. But dashing, certainly. Hot, she almost thought to herself, but he was too old-fashioned-looking for the word to fit. Dashing was better. But could unshaven be dashing? Handsome then. Green eyes.

Oh no, she thought, he hasn’t said anything yet. How long have I been staring at him? 

“Sorry, I didn’t know there was anyone here… hope I’m not… I just came to put this, these, in water.”

He nodded, without smiling, and looked at the greenery. “Beautiful. Don’t let me stop you.”

Where would a large vase be? She started on one side of the room, opening the numerous cupboards (all original) systematically, left to right. After the fourth she heard him join in, without comment, until she heard, “Here you go.” She turned around. Under the sink. Of course. She walked over to him – it was a big kitchen – and smiled. “Thanks.” They looked down into the cupboard and then both reached at the same time for the same vase – or more a pot, really, with a brown salt glaze. Their hands touched briefly before she pulled hers back. His fingers were rough and cold. He lifted the pot out with no sign of embarrassment and put it in the sink, then drew back. She heard a chair scrape on the floor and knew he’d sat down at the table, behind her. She began to undo the raffia from the bouquet’s brown paper wrapping, feeling self-conscious and clumsy.

“That’s a home-made bouquet.”

“Yes, from my garden.”

“Friends of the Downes-Tarkingtons don’t usually do home-made.”

She smiled to herself as she arranged the fir, ivy and holly but didn’t turn round. “Well, I’m not a friend, really, I’m their interior designer – I’ve helped them choose their colours, fabrics and stuff for the whole house.”

She thought she might get a compliment on her work but none came. That’s a bit rude, she thought, and I’m not the one who looks totally out of place here anyway.

She spun round rather too fast to be polite. “How about you? How do you know them?”

He smiled for the first time. “Funny story actually.” But it was a melancholy smile. “I used to live here.”

She said the first thing that came into her head. “How could you bear to leave a house with such a magnificent holly tree?”

He was visibly startled. “What on earth makes you say that?”

“Sorry, I’ve no idea… I just saw it on the way in tonight and holly is such a favourite of mine – green and red – the powerful leaves, all glossy and dangerous, and the defiant berries, refusing to let the winter greyness win – but tonight it was as I’ve never seen it before – just magical in black and white – no, black and silver, really, in the moonlight, like a dream of itself. Like a ghost.”

What on earth possessed you, she thought to herself, and felt her cheeks redden.

He looked uncomfortable.

“Sorry – you must think – I’m not superstitious or anything – it just really struck me, so bewitching…” And there you go again. Just stop now, Noel, for goodness sake.

He was looking at her intently but didn’t look freaked out any more. “You’re a very visual person. It’s easy to see why you would love it. It’s just odd because… it is one of the things I miss most about living here – my bedroom faced the front of the house and I used to look out on the garden first thing every morning, as soon as I got up. And the holly was always there. It seemed unchanging. I miss waking up… to that. But nothing lasts forever, does it?”

This was a long speech. Don’t stop talking. “So why did you – your family? – leave this wonderful house?”

“It’s a long story… sad… sorry –”  His face had closed up again. Dammit Noel, you always say the wrong thing.

“Noel! Are you all right, dear?”

The un-muted tones of Mrs Downes-Tarkington came ringing along the stone-flagged corridor.

“Blimey. Mrs D-T.” Noel picked up the pot of greenery. “Coming?”

He smiled as though at a secret joke. “No, not just yet. I’ll hang out here a bit longer. You have fun.”

She grimaced at him and got to the doorway just as Mrs D-T arrived.

❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧

“Oh, that’s simply divine, Noel dear, you’re so clever, but what took you so long?”

“Sorry, I just got chatting to – oh, I didn’t ask his name – sorry…” and she turned round and gestured into an empty room that  was icy cold.

“What? Come on, let’s get you into the party – there’s no one here! Who would be here? Lots of people I want you to meet – all so impressed with the house – but you must promise not to make their houses quite as beautiful as mine, ha ha!”

Her hostess set off at speed back to the noise. Noel just about kept up but had to ask, “The people who used to live here – are they at the party?”

“No, dear, of course not, why should they be? They fell on hard times, I understand, some sort of tragedy, death in the family, their son I believe… they lost a lot of money, had to downsize rather dramatically – the house was empty for a good while – well, you know the state it was in. Still, good for us, you know, got it for a song… Look, Cynthia, here she is, my little miracle-worker – carrying the perfect finishing touch for the hall table – isn’t she just a genius? Come along, my dear…”

And so Noel was ushered into the party and her head spun round as she tried to field questions and compliments and asides of thinly veiled envy while pushing an image of a flat cap above dark green eyes to the back of her mind.

❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧

It was 10.30 before she could politely get away. For over an hour she had only had one aim: to escape from showy jewellery and whiffy aftershave, disappear into the darkness and walk back through the tingling silence to think about what had happened.

Noel wound her way quickly through the cars, then looked towards the holly tree. But she couldn’t see it. Of course, the moonlight has shifted, she thought, it must be in shadow now. Shame.  But she decided to stop and look again, anyway. This might be the last time she would come here, after all. Peering into the darkness she could just make out a shape. When the shape moved and turned to reveal a face, she screamed.

In the centre of the lawn stood – him. She was frozen with fright. And then she saw that he was smiling and waving and without thinking she waved back and started to walk towards him.

“Sorry I startled you. I went home but then I had to come back. To stand here. Hope you might come out. Wasn’t sure if you would. When you talked about the holly tree I wondered if you might be a ghost.”

That’s rich. “Me? What about you? Aren’t you the ghost?”

“Not last time I looked.”

“But I asked Mrs D-T. She said the people who lived here – she said their son died.”

His face tightened. “Yes, my brother. He was a lot older than me. War photographer. Sniper.”

“Oh – I’m so sorry –” Don’t ask any questions. Be respectful. “So what are you doing here?” Just couldn’t stop yourself, could you?

He laughed. “I’m Mrs D-T’s gardener. I came back this evening to wrap some plants in fleece. I needed some twine from the kitchen. She doesn’t know I used to live here. I just applied for the job to be close to the garden. But I don’t know how long I’ll stay. She had the holly tree cut down yesterday, on my day off, when I’d refused to do it. She said it was diseased – because of the ivy.”

She realised that his foot was resting on a small tree stump.

“It wasn’t diseased… But she wants to put some hideous statue or other here. Consulted you about that?”

“No… What a crime. But…” Now she was spooked again. “So… this evening… I didn’t see…”

“No. But then, you did. It makes me very happy to think it’s still here somewhere. Maybe it’s only visible in the moonlight. Perhaps we could sneak in next full moon and surprise it.”

She realised he had taken her hand. His was still rough, still icy, but warm and welcome for all that.

“Fancy a drink? Good pub in the village. Adam, by the way.”

“Yes please. Adam. Noel.”

He grinned. “I knew you were a Christmas spirit.”

They ran down the lane to get warm. In the over-tinselled pub logs were burning cheerfully in the grate. Noel and Adam drank cold cider from pint pots with handles and took a turn at the golden-oldie karaoke. By midnight they were dancing on the tables.

❧ ❧ ❧ ❧ ❧


One comment on “A Christmas Ghost Story”

  1. Very enjoyable twist to a seasonal tale. I was even beginning to wonder if there was any significance behind Mrs. D-T’s initials.

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