Fiction: Ethel — A Christmas Ghost Story

I wrote a little Christmas ghost story, which may amuse some of my friends. It’s a story I have been trying to write on and off since the Most Haunted days, when it came to me one Christmas Eve in a dream. It’s a little unfair, because to really understand it relies on you getting the joke, and spotting the references — which I suspect very few of you are likely to know. Still if you do it may amuse, and even if not I hope it is mildly spooky. This is in lieu of a Christmas card or Christmas message, and yes I know it’s not very good, but some stories just demand to be written…

Ethel – A Christmas Ghost Story

There has been much speculation in the press over the disappearance of my dear friend, while in the act of “ghost hunting”.

While sceptics groups have taken the tragedy as a warning to the curious of the hazards of engaging in the infantile pursuit of the impossible, and believers have made many strange and curious speculations about spontaneous combustion, the police have taken the line that he left, perhaps deranged by his recent illness, of his own accord, and will turn up somewhere.

It seems quite probable he did meet a young woman holidaymaker, and has set off to make a new life for himself. Those of us who knew him knew he was at the time of his disappearance both financially burdened and saddened by the end of his media career, but do find it out of character he has not been in touch with anyone.

Temporary amnesia, a romance, or perhaps sadly severe illness seem more likely explanations than the foul play suggested by sceptics or the paranormal end suggested by the woo crowd.

Whatever the truth, his possessions were found by myself when I arrived, two days after his last email and concerned by the rambling bizarre nature of his last message to me.

All of his possessions barring his wallet, clothing he was wearing, laptop satchel and mobile phone were found, as his email suggests, neatly placed in the pantry.

Enough time has now passed for me to share with the interested public his last emails, in the hope they may shed light upon the curious case,and help bring him back to his friends and family. Do contact me or the police if you have any idea of his current whereabouts – young and romantic, he showed great promise in the field of psychical research, and was a good friend to me for many years.

Here are his emails, in order.

***********************************************

Dear CJ.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. I stepped off the train in to a scene from a Christmas card; snow had fallen, snow on snow, and while miraculously it was exactly the right kind of snow, everyone had made tracks for home. I walked down a few steps to view the tawdry holiday lights of Marley High Street. An American might have been taken by the quaint charm, but I just felt light headed – my recent flu has not quite left, and the wooziness flushed from my floaty brow to my tingling toes. I felt like I was walking in the Christmas of my childhood, in a magical world, where the ghosts of Christmas Past were near.

A few folk wrapped staggered by, hard wrapped against the winter cold; even The White Horse pub appeared to be a derelict floating on a sea of ice, despite the chalkboard promise of big prizes for the pub quiz tonight. Yes, Marley really was dead tonight.

Still, I’m not here for the holiday spirit; I’m here to work, and the very fact that the place seems to be little more than a dormitory town with all the charm of off-season Great Yarmouth makes it all the more appealing. The icy wind actually seemed to clear my head, and the walk through the centre (a rather wonderful art deco cinema – you really should check it out!) and then out along Compton Lane to the house did much to improve my spirits.

It’s about three miles from Marley town centre to the house. Seems that until the ribbon development of the thirties led to houses growing out along the roads, it was a separate village, and the district still holds its old name of Compton. Not a taxi to be had in this Christmas Card scene, so I trudged the whole way, rucksack on my back passed shiny new build estates filled with delightful children and advert-ready families. Or so I imagine: I did not stop to peek through whatever-has-replaced Laura Ashley curtains.

By the edges of Compton I was dizzy and tired, and despite the cold had broken a most unseasonal sweat. I think I told you in my last email; the Letting Agent had three tenants leave, citing “ghosts”, and the landlord who lives abroad finally agreed to my visit, on the understanding there is no publicity. I expect damp or noisy neighbours are the real issue, but a week over Christmas to get over the flu and think about where my career would take me next. Downhill fast probably, without brakes – is that not the definition of “career”? Still my reputation as a “ghost expert” has finally got me something worthwhile, a little holiday not far from town.

When I saw the house I was a little taken a back – on the train my feverish fantasies had been of a little thatched cottage, roof pristine with glistening snow awaiting only the soft thud of Santa’s sleigh, or a crumbling gothic manor set back from the road. In fact there is such a place – Bott Hall, once the home to a man who made his fortune manufacturing some condiment considered quite delicious in the inter-war period – big enough to get a mention in the guidebook, devoid of any charm, it now serves as a conference centre or some such.

Anyway the house I had come to evict the spooks from is quite ordinary; Edwardian middle class home, according to my notes once home to a successful stockbroker, since the early seventies owned by the current landlord (who now lives in France), and let to a succession of tenants, none of whom complained until he had some much needed renovations done a couple of years back. Since that time no one had stayed long, and some had fled well within the six months they were required to pay for. The stories seemed hazy, contradictory – voices, the roar of a motorbike when none could be seen, a black almost shapeless “thing” that scurried around the kitchen, and much more besides.

I passed the village school, now yuppie apartments, the Norman Church and the bookies – which still preserved the antique sign in glistening gold paint of a former occupier, “Theobald the Barbers.” Nothing about the tiny suburb of Marley suggested spooks, and as I walked up the path I was ready to put on a lemsip and settle down for an uneventful week of reading – I brought the book you bought me on Roman religion along, and Simpson & Westwood too.

Suddenly my attention was drawn to something quite ordinary, yet strangely unsettling. I can’t put my finger on why I found it worthy of attention at all, but across the snowy fields I saw an old wooden barn, broken down, indeed barely standing. Something about the silhouette of the ancient structure seemed malignant, like a hunched beast waiting to creep, as son as the curtains were shut, close to the house, and reach out for…

The milk bottles on the doorstep broke my reverie – empty of course, but as I slid on the icy step I kicked them, and cursing struggled to find the right key. And then I noticed something odd – one was not empty, but contained a murky grey liquid, not frozen despite the temperature. I fumbled with mittens, and picked it up, and the secret was revealed – someone had dropped a stick of licorice in it, and seemingly shaken it. Odd, but hardly eerie, so I left it there and went in.

OK, the layout is prosaic enough – a sitting room, dining room, what used to be called a “morning room” and a bookshelf lined study on the ground floor, the kitchen and pantry and a couple of small rooms, perhaps once servants quarter in the basement, with a coal hole and a kitchen door opening on to steps. There are four bedrooms – one was clearly the master bedroom, one had a vaguely feminine air, and their was a smaller room, probably a child’s, overlooking an ancient tree. Cosy enough, I turned on the electric, fired up the boiler – pilot lit first time, and placing a Carbon Monoxide meter in position (could the answer to the ghosts be that simple?) I set out looking for the best place to sleep. Given the fact it’s let unfurnished, I chose to place my sleeping bag in the kitchen, and thanked the landlords foresight in installing gas central heating, even if it had stirred up the ghosts. Anyway I have managed to get a wifi connection, and have fixed some food – there is both a kettle and microwave down here, together with a lot of other stuff seemingly half packed. I’m thanking the ghosts for scaring the last tenants away so well they could not be bothered to collect their possessions!

Have a good night, and if I don’t have time to write or get eaten by the beasties a great Xmas! Will email tomorrow if the Horrors have not got me… 🙂

x

**********************************************

Hullo CJ!

I sent my last about twenty minutes ago, but something quite extraordinary happened. I ate a bit – helps with the fever, and then I thought I heard the sound of a motorbike pass by. I’m not sure what it is – probably just the central heating warming up – but it sounded for all the world like a really badly tuned bike driving in, coasting on the gravel, and being lent against the wall with a clank. I was looking at the boiler when I heard what sounded like the back door opening, and someone creeping in, wearing socks and trying to be stealthy.

I have been set up on ghost hunts before, so I slipped my shoes off, and quietly keeping to the sides crept upstairs. Nothing: except an old fashioned tennis racket leaning against a wall, just inside the back door. I never saw it on my first tour, but I neglected to take photos then. Yeah, I know, some “ghost expert” I am. Obviously it was there before and I overlooked it, but it was still a bit odd. I would have paid more attention, but I got a whiff of cologne, and convinced someone was in the house hiding from me I dashed up the stairs, only to freeze in terror.

In the door of the child’s room I thought I saw the thing – perhaps a giant rat, a beady eyed thing. On reflection it perhaps looked more like a dog than a rat, but the scruffiest most outrageous jumble of breeds you can imagine, a disreputable animal. I was standing there looking at it, and it was looking at me – but neither of us moved. Then suddenly it was gone, and I advanced in to the room cautiously, still clutching that absurd old tennis bat.

Nothing – bare boards, moonlight, and the swaying of the apple tree branches, heavy laden with snow. Suddenly I realized – it was just a shadow, and the glistening reflection of ice. How stupid I am! I went round the whole house just to be certain, and apart from a faint whiff of pipe tobacco in the study, which may well have just been my imagination, nothing. In the morning I’ll make sense of this place, and lay the ghosts for good.

X

Hi CJ,

I hope you are having a wonderful Christmas Day. I have had a fairly dull time, but that is how I like it. The fever has now nearly gone, though I think last night played a strain on my nerves, and I’m still a little shaky. I’m annoyed I shall miss Dr Who, but I’ll catch it later on I-Player. I hope you enjoyed The Ladykillers, and dinner was good and DC wicked, or vice-versa.

Not much of interest occurred in the morning – I woke after a strange dream, in which a woman’s voice called repeatedly to someone called Ellen to “get the pudding on to steam”. I did not open my eyes, but lay in a reverie in which I imagined a kitchen bustling with the clank of pots and festive preparation of a century ago. I wonder if they used Bott’s sauce? I seem to recall somewhere that if you consumed too much it was so rich it made you vomit!

The floorboards settled overhead, and I imagined a family sitting for lunch – a stern father, his head in The Times, a tired looking mother dealing with a tousled haired lad, forcing him to go wash his horribly stained hands, and an older boy and his sister filled with excitement about their holiday plans. After an hour or more of vivid dreams and fitful sleep, I forced myself up, had a quick wash, and emerged blinking in to the brilliant sunshine reflecting off the snowy garden.

I had intended to explore the village, but instead I slipped through a gap in the fence, and went off to have a look a look at that run down old barn, determined to exorcise the vague unease it had conjured up in me last night. As I approached I saw that the door had long since fallen, but someone had tacked a notice to the framework: I expected a notice advising demolition and an application for planning permission – it’s right on the edge of town, in unspoilt countryside, you know what barn conversions go for!

Instead I found the most remarkable document, a ink stained piece of paper apparently torn from an exercise book, and scrawled in the most awful hand. It read

Chrismuss Paygent here today 10am.

Admisshun tuppence.

No Hubert Lainites.

By kind permisshun The Outlaws.

Orl Welcum.”

Stopping only to think what text talk and the X box have done to the new generation, I slipped in. Whatever had occurred, I had missed it – I realized it was nearly noon anyway. A smoky fire of wet twigs still burned, and a semi circle of ancient packing crates showed where the “audience” had sat, but of them and the performers there was no trace. Just a single discarded bottle, with a trace of grey disgusting water and a tiny piece of partially dissolved licorice. Something about the scene seemed wrong – I can’t put my finger on it – but for some reason I turned and hurried away, towards the village. I had the strongest impression I was being watched, and jeered at, by some local kids. For a moment I thought I saw them, four tousle haired youths crouched in a ditch across on the field boundary, with a small yapping dog, but when I looked again they were not there. Bloody fever.

I spent the whole afternoon in the house, and nothing untoward happened. I’m heading down the pub now – will email tomorrow.

X

*****************************************************

I thought I saw those bloody kids again. They were following me, but all dressed up in suits, scrubbed pink and shiny, in best shoes. Was down by the church. The dog was skulking nearby, and it looked like the shadow I saw last night. If they are hoaxing me I’ll tell their parents. Getting to me, and my head is swimming. Pub lunch here. Merry Christmas.

Sent by Android

***********************************************

Hey CJ,

Of all the things I thought of when I cam here I never expected this. I have met a girl, and she is adorable. Not in the pub, as you might expect – as I was walking home. She is slender, adorable, has red hair, in a very stylish bob, and was dressed in old fashioned clothes. When I commented on her 1920’s outfit and how well she pulled it off she laughed and asked if I had been at the Christmas Pageant too, and then I understood! Fancy dress!

We met just outside the pub in the street, and she joked when I made a passing comment about how good she looked and she said I looked quite remarkable as well. She really is very attractive, and Ethel – that’s her name, rather sweet hey – Ethel Brown, well we stood and talked for ages, and eventually wandered down to the Churchyard, and sat and talked in the church porch. I mentioned what I had seen at the barn, and she said it was just a copy of the adult pageant put on by her dreadful little brother William and his awful friends. Apparently he is quite the little savage, and eleven years old. I thought by eleven nowadays kids were all about playing Skyrim, GTA or whatever else is fashionable on the consoles. I swiftly changed the subject, that boy gives me the creeps.

And then another mystery was solved – we heard the roar of a motorbike, and Ethel said it must be her brother Robert, on his way home, and she must go. We have agreed to meet again tomorrow, at sunset, in the churchyard. I hope to be invited to dinner by Mr and Mrs Brown, they obviously live nearby. I walked home light headed, and I’m not convinced it was the fever. Did I mention Ethel is adorable? I should have told her where I was staying… 😦

x

*********************************************

CJ

Dreadful night. Voices kept whispering, and people creeping about. Ellen the maid nearly fell over me with a plate of pies, and leftover cabbage smells vile, I have moved in to the pantry so as not to get in the way. But Ethel is here, I heard her at breakfast above, talking to her parents and Robert. Oh and William, her little brother, and his gang. I was nice to him, gave him a fiver, but he just said it was funny “furrin” money. They took me to the barn, and I had to drink some of that licorice water and pretend it was the best thing ever. I keep promising William stuff, and I heard him tell Ginger, Henry and Douglas I’m “soft” on his sister. Jumble tore my trousers while trying to worry my sneakers laces. Awful mutt!

Still soon will be sunset, and I am meeting Ethel at the churchyard, and plan to be introduced to the family. I went in to Theobalds and got my hair cut, and boy I look like a freak, but judging by Robert and his mate Hector the ridiculous hairstyle is fashionable round here.

The sun is setting, and I’m sitting shivering, teeth chattering, whether with cold or fever I know not. Laptop is working again, was unable to get a signal most of the day. I’m sitting on the garden wall now and hope this gets through. Oh, one thing. As the sun sets, the chinks in the old burn make it glow red, as it slips below the horizon behind it. Did you not once tell me that the Red Barn at Polstead got it’s name that way, and in Suffolk such places are associated with the supernatural?

Anyway must go, signal getting intermittent, and soon will be with Ethel. She really is adorable you know…

x

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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