Ghost story: Winner in 16 and over category - St Alodia

Stuart Piper with his wife Debbie and children Megan, 10, and 12-year-old Abigail  Picture: Sarah Standing (170385-8300)

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Nick Fletcher is the winner in the 16 and over category of our Christmas ghost story competition.

Nick’s biggest problem wasn’t coming up with a storyline for his ghost story - it was making sure it didn’t exceed the 1,000-word maximum length.

SPOOKY Where was Ellen?

SPOOKY Where was Ellen?

But he managed it and the 27-year-old from Victoria Road South, Southsea has now been judged as the winner of the 16-and-over category in our Christmas ghost story competition.

Nick, who works in administration for Affinion in Portsmouth and lives with girlfriend Rebecca Kelsey, said: ‘The idea for the story came off the top of my head really. I’d been trying to think of something and this came to me.

‘The trickiest part was the word count. I went over the limit and had to cut out some superfluous information.’

Nick added: ‘I like writing in my spare time as I find it very relaxing. Maybe this will spur me on to try to get some more stories published.

WINNER Nick Fletcher

WINNER Nick Fletcher

‘Rebecca is always encouraging me to write more and to send stories off.’

ST ALODIA’S BY NICK FLETCHER

Santa Six to reception.’

I pulled my snow-sodden boots back on with difficulty. The heel of the right one tore away from the sole and I cursed. They’d dock my pay for that. Opposite me, on the far side of the frozen cabin where we were cooped up like convicts, one of the other Santas chuckled. I gave him a look empty of Christmas cheer.

On my way to the reception desk I passed a couple more Santas playing gin rummy at a table under the cabin’s one swamp-yellow light bulb.

On the desk was a sack with a note tacked to it that said St Alodia’s Orphanage x 7. Underneath that was an address smeared with yellow burger mustard. I took the sack and on my way out stopped out of sight of the CCTV for a nip from my flask.

It took me a few tries to get the car started. With the toy sack slumped in the passenger seat like a shrouded corpse, I set off across town. Coloured lights strung up from street lamps showed as eerie orbs in the falling snow. One more delivery and I’d be done for the night and back at the cabin I’d trade in my fraying suit and itchy beard for a few notes.

The address was a way across town and it was nearly 11 before I found St Alodia’s amongst endless crumbling tenements. It squatted beside a park so overgrown that by night the trees and undergrowth seemed like one solid, pulsing mass. Coarse laughter and the flicker of cigarette lighters seeped through cracks in the trees.

A feeble streetlight lit the sign in front of the orphanage. Black paint peeled in strips from the door and when I pressed the bell button it growled and wheezed before the staccato ringing started.

An intercom crackled.

‘You’re from Festive Cheer?’

The voice was so distorted I couldn’t tell the gender.

‘Ho, ho! And a merry Christmas to you!’ I said. I tried to sound enthusiastic, but I was shivering with cold and it sounded in my voice. They could cut my pay for that too. I pulled up my fake beard.

A latch clicked and the warped door fell open a crack. I shouldered my way into a hall as chill as the outside. A couple of lamps shed some light on faded wallpaper, threadbare carpet and, beyond that, a stairway arching upwards.

To the left, a brighter light oozed through the rectangular seam of a doorway and I followed that to a reception decorated in reds as faded as my suit.

A matron stood beside the desk, stern and stick-thin. Behind it was a plump woman whose face shared a severity with the other that made me certain they were sisters.

‘You’re late’, the thin one said.

I shifted uncomfortably. The place stank of mothballs and something nastier underneath. I had trouble with the road ice. Sorry. Already I could tell Christmas cheer would be wasted on them.

‘Are the kids still up?’

The children should be awake. The matron glowered. Most hardly sleep at all.

‘Too much TV’? I asked with a forced smile.

The plump little woman stubbed out a cigarette.

‘How many gifts have you brought?’

I thought back to the list. Seven. Strange. Always one too many. Well, up you go.

They were still scowling when I left. Atop the groaning stairs the first room I came to was black as pitch inside. After a few moments fumbling I found a pull cord. Yellow light spat across a tiny bed and a child’s blinking face.

‘Ellen?’ the boy said sleepily.

‘No son, it’s Santa Claus.’

‘Oh, I wasn’t asleep. I just dreamed it was Ellen again.’

‘It’s almost Christmas, son, and I’ve brought you something for being so well-behaved. Now remind me, what was it you really, really wanted this year?’

The boy thought about that a moment.

‘A hot water bottle.’

My heart sank. I put a blue package by his bedside and ruffled the kid’s hair.

‘Santa, what have you brought for Ellen? he said.

‘What do you think she’d want, son?’

He yawned.

‘Some blankets? She’s like ice.’

The next kid wanted toy cars. He got a blue parcel. When he asked after Ellen, I said: ‘What do you think she’d want, son?’

‘Don’t know, I can’t ever hear her,’ he said.

The next kid wanted a pony. I gave her a pink parcel.

‘Ellen wants bandages for her broken parts,’ the kid said.

‘Please give Ellen a new smile for Christmas’, said the next, barely more than a toddler.

I began to shiver again. The orphanage was wrapped in damp and draughty as my boots. I had two presents left, and two rooms. I tried the door on the nearest. It was locked. A spike of cold from the handle went straight through my glove and I jumped back, yelping. Rotten place, I muttered.

A lamp was on in the next room, though it was coming up to midnight. A boy sat on the floor beneath it, reading.

‘Merry Christmas son,’ I said, rustling up some enthusiasm. The boy didn’t look up.

‘It’s me, Santa!’

He twitched at that and turned a pale face up at me.

‘That’s a good lad. What’s your name?’

‘Michael,’ he said.

‘And what do you want for Christmas, Michael?’

He was a long time answering.

‘I want you to put something over Ellen’s eyes.’

I handed him a blue package.

‘I have something very special for your friend Ellen this Christmas. But the matrons have locked her room for now. Do you know why, Michael?’

The surprise on his face seemed genuine.

‘Ellen doesn’t have a room here, Santa.’

‘Then where will I find her?’

His two little eyes glittered in the lamp light. All at once the single parcel left in my toy sack weighed heavy as a stone.

‘Didn’t the matron tell you, Santa? Ellen lives inside the walls.’

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