A Christmas ghost story by Julian Cole
IT HAD all started with a piece of paper under her windscreen wipers. “Don’t buy this house,” the note said. “Evil is planted here.”
There was an address scrawled at the bottom. Martha walked there and knocked on the front door of the small cottage.
The man who answered wore round wire spectacles perched on a thin face. He sported a waistcoat and beneath that a shirt with a high collar, once white but now grubby. His trousers were stained with dirt and there was mud on his boots. From the waistcoat there hung a watch displaying the wrong time.
“You left a note on my car,” Martha said.
She showed him the note and he directed his steady gaze at her. His voice when he spoke was deep and seemed to rise from the ground beneath his feet.
“There is evil planted in that garden and you would be well advised to buy another house in a different street. And should you be foolish enough to ignore this advice, then you will have only yourself to blame.”
“What sort of evil?”
“The sort that has deep roots, the sort that does not let go, the sort you do not wish to become entangled with. The sort that dates back to the darkest of deeds.”
“It’s a nice garden and I love the house.”
“Then you will have to carry that burden.”
As the man prepared to shut the door, she saw that the watch was showing a different but still wrong time.
Back home, she told John about the note. He went over to put his oar in and returned later to say there was no strange old man, merely a young mother with a baby.
“She said they’d moved in a year ago and no man fitting your description had even stepped into the house in that time.”
It was typical of John to go to the wrong bloody address, but Martha forgot about the strange man. She loved her new home from the start, especially the long and beautiful garden. The only part she disliked was a dark corner at the far end. Martha never felt at ease beneath a tall tree that cast a deep pool of shade, but one summer afternoon she retreated there to escape the oppressive heat. A tree surgeon was due any day and the bark was already scored with a cross. She might as well use the shade while it was still there.
It was too hot for comfort, too hot for her body with its busted thermometer. She pulled her deckchair beneath the condemned tree, but sweltered even in the shade. Pen slippery in her hand, she started to write her Christmas list.
“A Christmas list – in August!” John said, off to free another lager from the cold innards of the spare fridge in the garage.
Men didn’t understand these things. Sighing, Martha marked out three columns in her notebook: one for people, one for presents and one for Christmas dinner. She filled in the ten names, made note of a present or two, and started to jot down a menu: ham cooked on Christmas Eve and then cooled (“Easier to cut that way,” she reminded herself) and turkey roasted on the day.
Her pen stopped half an inch from the paper. She shivered at the touch of ice on her back. She stood up. A branch from the untrimmed tree was swaying. Perhaps that’s the culprit, she thought.
Martha moved the deckchair to another spot of shade. The sun beat relentlessly from a cruel blue sky. She closed her eyes and must have drifted into a bad dream. The finger was long and fleshless and yet somehow still owned a nail, made not of keratin but something darker and harder, a curved shaving of marble perhaps. It appeared from a black mist and pointed at her, then disappeared to leave an icy scratch down her spine.
When she woke, Martha felt a cold scar on her back. Yet in the bathroom mirror later everything seemed normal enough, down to the bra mark in her flesh. Not even a scratch. She told herself to stop being so foolish. Such gothic fantasies didn’t belong in the back garden of her slightly scruffy semi. That was the stuff of castles and black towers, not neatly lined houses with too many cars parked out front.
THE heatwave lasted another day. After that two men with chainsaws and ladders arrived. One held the ladder and the other looped himself to the tree and climbed to the top, where he fired up his saw and began to lop off the branches. As he dismembered the tree, he abseiled down its trunk, severed limb by severed limb. An hour later and the tree was gone. The men were meant to tidy up, and mostly they did, but after they’d gone Martha found a discarded branch. Where the chainsaw had done its surgery the exposed wood oozed a sticky black substance. She made sure not to touch whatever it was as she walked to the green bin.
THE chill on her back lingered through autumn and into winter. It was there on Christmas Day, even with the house so warm, what with roasting meat, a fire that didn’t need to have been lit and people crowded everywhere.
Outside snow lay on the ground, proper snow, thick and even, apart from where him-next-door had cleared his drive, on Christmas Day too, out there with his shovel and his frown.
“Daft bugger,” John said. “Making an ice rink for people to slip on. He’s a menace that man.”
Martha smiled but said nothing. Sometimes a vague smile was enough to deflect further conversation. Anyway, they were all here now, her and John, Mark and Jane and their three, plus Alice and Emma and little Toby. John had never got used to the notion of Alice and Emma. Alice had been such a daddy’s girl when she was little, before she’d told them. John was pleased when the baby turned out to be a boy. Never mind all that artificial whatever it was they’d gone through – they couldn’t arrange the sex of the child, and a boy redressed the balance, if you asked John.
Ten people for Christmas, ten at table. The presents had been opened and were spread across the lounge floor. Martha retreated to the kitchen to check on the roast potatoes. The cooked turkey rested on the side in its shiny blanket. Martha could hear everyone in the lounge, chatting and laughing. Alice and Jane had offered to help but she was better by herself.
Even in the hot kitchen she shivered. She’d thought of seeing the doctor a few times, but she wasn’t sure what the GP could prescribe for the phantom touch of an icy finger.
“A week in the nut-house,” had been John’s answer to that question.
Martha propped herself against the kitchen cupboards and drank some of her wine. A bit early for her but it was Christmas. She looked along the winter barren garden. Snow covered the threadbare lawn and hung from the fir trees, slipping like cake icing that hadn’t set properly. Pristine white it was, untouched, then footprints or drag marks began to dent the crisp cold surface. Something was crossing the snow and coming towards the house, yet she couldn’t see what it was.
Martha rubbed her eyes but it made no difference. Not understanding, she shivered once more, turned away from the garden and drained her wine.
THE table was long and made of honey-coloured light oak. Martha liked to think generations of her family had eaten here, but they’d only bought it two years ago from a place on the ring-road. It had arrived flat and in bits, and a great deal of swearing had been expended on its assembly.
The table was filled with plates, glasses, decorations and candles, four bottles of wine, two red and two white – at least one of which would end up disappearing down John’s eager gullet.
A fire roared in the grate, the tip of the flames licking the sooty curve of the chimney. Snow fell again outside. This set Mark and Jane’s three off again, whooping and running.
“We can have a snow fight…”
“…and build a no man…”
“…you mean snow, you idiot…”
John set about carving first the meat with long and confident strokes of the knife. Martha shivered. Everybody else looked too warm. Jumpers off, sleeves rolled up. Faces redder than usual. Yet she still felt cold.
Carving done, John started playing with the smartphone Martha had given him, and one of the children, Simon, had just noticed.
“Hey grandad – you said we weren’t allowed our phones…”
Martha raised her eyebrows as she glanced across the table. The gesture was enough.
“Okay, okay,” John said. “I’ll just do a picture of us all round the table, then put the phone away.”
Everyone crowded round the side of the table away from the fire.
“It’s a very clever camera on this phone,” John said. “Takes pictures all by itself.”
He placed the phone on the mantelpiece and hurried back to stand in the middle with his arms around as many shoulders as possible.
The camera fired off a series of shots. After that chairs were dragged back across the floor. Martha walked round to the fireside. John retrieved his phone, scanned through the photographs and smiled.
“Good shots,” he said.
Martha reached out for the phone.
“If you need me to show you…”
“I think I can work it out, John.”
The phone was comfortable to hold, flat and black and with a curved edge. Martha was thinking she should get one for herself when she saw the first photograph. Her heart began to beat like an overworked drum. The long months since that summer afternoon disappeared into a dark tunnel. Martha was back in the garden, freezing half to death on the hottest day of the year, the hottest day in years, some said. The day when the chill first settled on her.
There were ten of them for Christmas that year, so why had she just counted eleven in the photograph? Standing next to her was the figure she’d been trying to keep out of her mind for all these long cold months. A ghoulish skeleton half-dressed in blackened skin. A figure both solid and yet shot through with light. A dead woman who had not yet died. A living woman who was no longer alive. Or any sort of gothic paradox you might wish to conjure in that overheated room filled with the good smells of a Christmas dinner waiting to be eaten.
Martha flicked through the pictures and the woman began to raise her finger, until she was pointing at the lens, beckoning with a blackened curl of fingernail.
Going back to the first photograph, Martha held up the camera.
“So how many of us are in this picture, John?”
“How many? Ten – ten people in the room and ten people in the picture.”
Martha looked down again. Eleven. The dark figure was still there, her finger still pointing out from the shiny screen. Just then the phone went cold in her hand, so cold it burned her skin. She cried out and the phone fell from her grasp and bounced into the flames.
John swore loudly and profanely. The grandchildren tittered. “Grandad said a bad word and it began with ‘F’.”
“Sorry dear,” Martha said. “It slipped. I’ll get you another one in the sales.”
Martha’s mood lifted. As the snow scurried and swirled outside, she felt warmer than in months. She wasn’t a religious woman, but on that day she felt resurrected, born again, whole again. It turned into the best Christmas Day they’d ever had.
SOME weeks later Martha started to study the history of her house. Gathering together the deeds and other legal documents, she sifted through the dusty documents. Nothing jumped out at her, so she tracked down a local historian. She told him about the house, and said a little about what had happened to her, only a little as she didn’t wish to alarm the poor man. He sat back and the colour drained from his face.
They were in his study in a street a mile or so from home.
“There was a murder, you see,” the historian, who was called Matthew Groves, said.
“It was quite the local scandal in late Victorian times, 1890-something-or-other. A man was charged with killing his wife, although they never found the body. He escaped prosecution in the end, even though circumstantial evidence pointed to his being the murderer. He only lived for another year or so and he was shunned by the local community during his final months.
“The man lived near you, in a small cottage. He was a gardener and local tongues suggested that he’d put the body in a garden somewhere and planted a tree on top.
“Here, I have a photograph of the supposed killer somewhere.”
The historian stood and looked through a filing cabinet. It took him a while but then he found what he sought.
“There, here it is…”
Martha looked and her heart thumped. The man in the photograph had a thin face and wore round wire glasses. It was a full-length portrait and his trousers were muddy. As were his boots.