The haunting always began with a dry rustling sound. I thought it came from the dead flowers; sepia coloured blooms with shrivelled petals and scratchy looking stalks, clutched in the small girl’s hands. I imagined what was needed were brighter blooms. I don’t know much about flowers. Time proved me wrong on both matters regarding them.
Hurrying once again along darkening streets of curtained windows, a thin covering of late snow slowed my progress.
The florists is the last shop on the corner. My throat burns from gasping lungfuls of freezing air. The front shop, spot-lit but unheated, smells of damp leaves and moss. The florist wears a thick knitted scarf and fingerless gloves. Pine-green bricks labelled oasis stacked on the counter shed fibres onto my small purchase of a ‘mixed posy’.
As usual, I return home by the circuitous route through the churchyard. A yellow glow from the vestry light casts deep shadows which crouch on the powdery snow. Taking a quick glance around me, I place my offering in front of the small grey headstone, leave quickly by the postern gate and cross Vicarage Walk to reach my back door set in the high brick wall.
I am followed only by my own footprints. Tonight at least, I will not hear the rustling. Tonight the small girl will not come.
Nevertheless, at around midnight, unable to resist temptation, I part the velvet curtains in my study and look out across the silent churchyard. More snow has fallen, icing the tree branches and adorning the heads and wing-tips of cold, grey angels.
The little grave in the foreground is as usual, illuminated by the street light on the nearside of the old railings. Tendrils of ivy trail from old woody stock to drape clinging roots and heart-shaped, glossy leaves across the headstone; their usual sombre green now sparkling white. Nearby, in shadow, the compost heap wears an undulating white mantle like an ermine cape, trailing off into banks of laurel and rhododendrons. Further back, cinder pathways are pristine ribbons snaking away to the newer plots.
I watch until well past midnight but all around remains deserted; the waif-like child does not appear. I experience an absurd feeling of relief she will not suffer the cold or wet, barefoot in the snow.
I bought this house, the middle one of three backing onto the cemetery, loving everything about its quaint character; stone steps up to the porticoed front door, preserved casement windows and real oak beams. The back bedroom, locked and used for storage by the previous owners, was perfect for a study. After dispatching a cumbersome Victorian wardrobe to the local auction house I gained access to the room’s large window and folded back the dusty shutters, allowing pale northern light to filter in. Then I set about arranging my new workspace.
This was to be where I would write my next novel; the last one having been rejected and the one before it, abandoned half way through. I was desperate to build a road back to sales figures and success.
Awake late at night, stacking books on shelves, I was distracted by the rustling noise which seemed to come from neither the outside nor the inside of the room but rather somewhere in-between. Puzzled, I glanced through the un-curtained window to see by moonlight a small girl dressed in what appeared to be an old fashioned nightgown. Fair haired and barefooted, she advanced from a backdrop of giant yews and holly towards the little grave beside the cemetery railings. Her slightly unsteady progress appeared to cause the dead flowers in her grasp to rustle inside my head. She carefully placed her offering within the small, overgrown rectangle before lifting her face to stare directly at my window. After a few moments both child and flowers melted away like a trick of the light.
Unnerved, I wondered if hallucinations could be the result of too much time spent in one’s own company following an acrimonious divorce from an avaricious and litigious wife; a failing career and possibly, too great a reliance on alcohol. However, on the following Friday night, with my new study operational but still un-curtained, at around midnight the girl appeared again. On this occasion, November rain was falling hard from a black starless sky but its pattering against the window panes failed to disguise the insidious rustling sound. The wraith-like visitor approached, oblivious of the weather, to repeat her ritual and as her eyes turned once again to my window I believed, with a dry mouth and prickling scalp, that I must be seeing a ghost.
The following day, as one neither accustomed to, nor desirous of, encounters with apparitions, I purchased a heavy pair of wine-coloured velvet curtains. After hanging them on their mahogany pole I went for a walk and, as I had known all along I would, I returned through the graveyard to inspect the small grave. Beneath whorls of mustard coloured lichen, one word, ‘Tess’, could be discerned, with dates indicating a four-year lifespan, forty years before I was born. Who or what was in the ground there? A child, a family pet? Who would know?
I hadn’t yet met my neighbours on either side but before the week was out I received an invitation to a pre-Christmas drinks party on my right and a New Year’s Eve cocktail party on my left. The dates fell on Fridays, the nights of the week on which I had seen the small girl. I felt that her unwavering gaze towards me saw something other than my face or the new velvet drapes at my window before she faded into darkness beyond the corona of the street light.
On the occasion of the Christmas drinks party on my right I proposed to stay as late as possible, and around midnight to try to position myself by a back window. My newly acquired neighbours proved very amiable hosts, entertaining downstairs at the front of the house.
Having determined the bathroom to be upstairs at the back of the house, I excused myself as midnight approached, entered, locked the door and opened the window. The outlook was a slightly skewed version of that from my study, with an unobstructed view of the small plot marked ‘Tess’; but my ghost didn’t come. I kept vigil until my host’s anxious voice from the landing, enquiring after my welfare, caused me to leave in embarrassment, murmuring something about light-headedness brought on by overwork.
My enquiries that evening among the small local gathering confirmed what I had learnt from Ramson & Cross, the local estate agents. The three properties had been converted from a rather grandiose vicarage about forty years ago. I had purchased mine from a couple who had lived there since the conversion. Now in their seventies, they had moved on to sheltered accommodation, sourced most helpfully by Ramson & Cross.
As I returned home, I considered whether autumn leaves trapped in corners or guttering could have been the source of the disturbing rustling noise which heralded my ghost’s appearance. However, by the light from the porch I could see the few still remaining were corrupting into a soggy morass which could probably manage a squelch but would never rustle again.
I resolved to ask more direct questions a week later, while attending the New Year’s Eve party of my neighbours to the left.
It transpired they knew little of local history but my hostess did have an elderly mother who had spent time in service in the old vicarage and was now living with them.
The old lady sat in a high-backed chair at the rear of the room, a plaid blanket across her knees. I asked if I might sit and chat and encouraged her to share her reminiscences of life as a young downstairs maid in the old house.
She recalled a small girl, the result of an ill-judged liaison, being abandoned by a woman who must have been her mother but who was about to emigrate to a new life in Australia. The lady of the house, the incumbent vicar’s wife, was the woman’s sister, the child’s aunt. Her own union not having been blessed with children she felt an unwelcome obligation to take in the unfortunate child.
The little girl was confined to a back bedroom in the big house. Servants were forbidden to acknowledge her for fear of the scandal spreading. Whenever household chores included the emptying of ashes or taking out of kitchen peelings, the child could be seen on the second floor looking out of the middle window; sometimes with one hand raised, fingers outstretched on the glass as if reaching out.
She was not starved of food as the mistress herself took plates up and brought them back down empty. The mistress also took care of the child’s other needs, even carrying up fuel to warm the room by a fire in the black leaded grate; but the mistress was an unfeeling woman and the child must have been starved of love and affection.
One winter weekend, late on Christmas Eve, the housekeeper and cook were suddenly dispatched to their homes for an unscheduled holiday. It was a Friday and arrangements and necessary transport were hastily organised by the mistress herself. Following their return they observed no more evidence of the child. The second floor room was locked.
In the village there was talk of comings and goings at the vicarage in the middle of the night. Over Christmas, workmen had been employed from some distance away, even though local men, whose families were going hungry, were willing and capable and without employment.
Sometime in the New Year it was noted that a fresh grave, that of a child, had appeared beside the railings of the churchyard. The unadorned headstone read ‘Tess’ and everyone drew their own conclusions… but those were harsh times.
After listening to this sad tale, I noticed midnight was about to strike and I had a clear view of the churchyard, this house being open-plan downstairs, the curtains undrawn and draped with fairy-lights.
As the year turned, I was not surprised to catch no sight of my little ghost. I was beginning to understand that she was only visible from within my room, looking back up through her old window, for I was sure now that she was Tess and her old room was now my study.
Later that night as I tried to sleep I reflected that this small girl, unloved in life and un-mourned in death, was visiting her own grave, located within the view from her old bedroom window. Why did she return each Friday? Her loneliness made me wish I could protect her, show her kindness.
On the first Friday in January I awaited midnight in my usual nervous anticipation, watching from my window as a chill mist enveloped everything around the church. First I was rewarded by the rustling sound, followed by the child’s appearance; the cold, clear light of a full moon making her seem even more ethereal. She placed her flowers and once again turned unseeing eyes to what had been her casement window. What did she see?
I raised my hand and pressed my palm against the cold glass, fingers outstretched, mimicking the child’s gesture of long ago. The cold penetrated my skin, freezing my flesh. I felt immobilised, gripped in a freeze-frame of time. My vision turned an inner eye inwards to face the room and I knew I was seeing what Tess saw.
No longer the homely disorder of my study; my first impression was of drabness, of neatness and tidiness, of things put away. An iron bed frame. On the single plain bedspread, a limp stuffed bear with a torn ear and a loose eye stared in an unfocused way at the ceiling. Beneath the bed a porcelain chamber-pot could be seen. In a corner, a matching ewer held dried flowers; brittle, brown and nondescript. Where these the same ones brought each week by the little ghost? I don’t know much about flowers.
In another corner an old easel with broken chalk sticks leant against assorted children’s books. The small, black lead fireplace contained traces of ash. A number of boxes and a trunk stacked against a wall gave an impersonal feel to the room. All seemed closed to inquisitive eyes, revealing no clues as to the rooms absent occupant, but in my mind’s eye I saw a small, subdued and lonely girl.
Animated by pain radiating from my freezing fingers, I stepped back. Tess was gone and I don’t know how long I sat there before an idea came to me. I would take her flowers. Not much of a gesture, but perhaps it would comfort her.
So began my Friday routine of visiting the high street florist or some other shop if I was out of town. It became my crusade as time proved that on the weeks I laid my small tribute, Tess did not appear. On the one occasion I arrived home late, to see her threading her faltering path between the gravestones, clutching her perished bouquet, I felt overwhelmed with guilt. Now my goodwill gesture had become an obligation which resolved the ghostly manifestation but was beginning to dominate my life.
Then, as the days grew longer and the nights lighter, I failed once more to visit the florist but Tess did not appear. I laid no flowers week after week but she was gone. Had she gone for good? What doors, I wondered, exist between the worlds of the living and the dead? Who can open or close them? I wandered lost in thought beside swaged urns, stone angels and ancient headstones, all warmed by the sun.
Gradually summer passed again into winter. In the graveyard, holly, yew and ash became brightly dotted with red berries while other trees shed an autumnal palette of leaves to become stark and skeletal as the air grew damp and cold.
As the festive season approached I was spending more and more time working in my study and must have been dozing late one Friday evening just before Christmas when the brass knocker struck the front door smartly. It was one of my neighbours.
‘Hope you weren’t asleep! Just popped round with a last minute invite for Boxing Day drinks’.
‘No, no. Come in and have a glass of something.’
‘Oh… it’s a little late.’
‘Please come in and have a drink,’ I said. ‘Come up to the study, the heating’s on.’
As I poured generous measures of scotch, my neighbour, who had not been upstairs before, appraised his surroundings. The chimney breast wall displayed a collection of framed photographs and the alcoves on either side now boasted stocked-to-overflowing bookshelves. I was conscious of the smell of potpourri, enigmatically labelled ‘Christmas Scented’, which I had discovered packaged at the back of a drawer and tipped into a bowl.
‘Like what you’ve done with the room,’ my visitor said, adding, ‘it’s hard to imagine what happened in here.’
My expression must have betrayed my ignorance.
‘Sorry, didn’t you know about the little girl? Heard it in the pub, don’t really know if it’s true.’
‘What?’ I asked with a dry mouth.
‘Burned to death in here; it was a very long time ago. Sorry . . .’ he ended lamely as our gazes travelled simultaneously to the bricked-up chimney breast wall.
Much later that night, unable to settle, I must have dozed again in the chair. I experienced an uneasy sense of something far away coming closer. A rushing in my ears, then a voice from somewhere, clear and plaintive: ‘Are you Father Christmas? I can’t go to sleep.’
I opened my eyes. Tess was sitting on the window seat where I had neglected to draw the curtains. She was looking down at a scrap of paper in her hands. Her image waxed and waned and I was aware of the rustling sound which always accompanied her visitations. I could not have been more unnerved if confronted by all of Marley’s ghosts at once.
As I jerked upright, Tess held her scrap of paper towards me. I saw, drawn in a childish hand, a misshapen ball covered in dots.
‘I waited, I’m good. I tried and tried but I can’t sleep.’
Her gathering sob twanged my heartstrings painfully.
‘What do you want?’ I heard myself ask.
Tess merely slid forward off the seat. The small face puckered, her mouth turned down; her little fists were clenched.
I rose to my feet, filled with alarm and fear, adrenalin pumping through me. As I stood, the rustling, crackling sound grew louder and through a pale, wispy haze, I saw again the easel in the corner, now inscribed, Friday Dec.24th Christmas Eve. A child’s empty woollen stocking was suspended from the mantel shelf.
Now there were two Tesses. The first still stood by the window seat, staring intently at the other, who was poised to release the scrap of paper bearing her Christmas wish into the narrow chimney’s up-draught; to be received by Father Christmas. The live fire, its guard removed, glowed brightly as the front of the child’s flannel nightgown began to singe. A terrible acrid smell pinched my nostrils. The scrap of paper curled, scorched with the heat.
‘No!’ I cried, turning my back on the scene before me.
I faced the first Tess as particles of ash began to dance in the air between us. Desperate to escape this scenario before I was forced to witness the death of an innocent child, I tried to remember what she had asked me?
‘Yes, I am Father Christmas and I have your present. I have it. Come tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve. I have it here!’ My voice sounded unfamiliar and strangely high-pitched.
The haze retreated into the walls. It took the terrifying image with it, along with the crackling noise, which I finally understood to come not from desiccated foliage but from fire taking hold.
As Tess slowly disappeared from in front of the window, a detail caught my eye. The nightgown on the Tess before the hearth had grazed her toes; the nightgown on the Tess before the window didn’t even reach her ankles; Tess was growing. What happened to the spirits of dead children? I had absolutely no idea but I felt very afraid to look into her eyes.
In the High Street next day I searched despairingly. What had been drawn on Tess’s scrap of paper? Most of today’s toys employed technology, or required inexhaustible supplies of batteries. Yet today was Christmas Eve and I didn’t dare dwell on the possible consequences of failure; I had recklessly given Tess my word.
In the town’s only department store I left the crowded toy department in search of coffee and was passing through Fancy Goods and Stationery when I saw it: a snow globe. The child’s irregularly drawn shape; a dome, flat at the base and covered in dots, a four year olds interpretation of snow. Inside was a tiny gabled house, from the roof of which imitation snow crystals glittered and slid, twinkling down when the globe was shaken. I have never in my life felt so elated with such a simple purchase. Did I want it wrapped? No, I needed it to be seen and recognised.
Later, as the daylight faded, I placed the snow globe on the window seat in my study. I left the curtains open, closed the door firmly and went to bed early with a bottle of good malt whiskey and a new James Patterson which I hoped to find absorbing.
I was awakened by the pealing of church bells. It was Christmas morning and although not a keen churchgoer I found the sound joyous. I hesitantly entered my study. With the curtains open the room was filled with light. The bells sounded louder and there was nothing on the window seat.
The years have come and gone since then and I have watched the seasons through my study window. The graveyard is undisturbed, no longer visited at the dead of night. I no longer visit the florists on the corner.
The fly-leaf of the novel I completed that summer long ago bears a brief dedication to Tess, but any query as to her identity I always deflect with an enigmatic smile and a slight shake of the head. During my years living in this house I have become a very successful writer, working from my desk in this room.
My view is peaceful and my neighbours friendly. I have even been adopted by a small tortoiseshell cat, who purrs in the sunshine on my window seat. I have called my little muse Tess.
I have noticed blue flowers growing over the grave of her name-sake; forget-me-nots I think; I don’t know much about flowers.
Short Story Sunday Festive Special
This story is part of Short Story Sunday’s ‘5 Days of Christmas’ Festive Special which features an original festive tale each day in the four days before Christmas leading up to the grand finale with a very special fifth and final story on Christmas Day.
Don’t Miss Day 2: Tune in tomorrow for Day 2 of our Festive Special which features a darkly festive Victorian tale for those feeling a little macabre.
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