In the run-up to Christmas, we’re featuring the best entries in our festive ghost story competition.
Today it’s the turn of Gosport writer Norman Kitching, runner-up in the 16-and-over category, with his story A Handkerchief for Christmas.
A Handkerchief for Christmas
Do a favour for an old sailor, will you son?’
Billy looked at the man standing in the doorway of the neglected house.
He was about to tell him to get lost, but something stopped him.
Maybe it was because it was Christmas and he was in a good mood.
He’d done well down the market that day.
There was always a decent profit from pirate DVDs and knocked-off toys this time of year.
‘Sure. What you want?’
‘Nip down the pub and get me a bottle of rum.
‘This should be enough.’
Billy stared at the crumpled piece of brown paper the man gave him.
‘This ain’t no good. What is it?’
‘It’s a 10-bob note. Ain’t that enough? Tell you what, take this instead.’
The man put his hand in his pocket and produced a coin which Billy recognised as a gold sovereign.
This bloke’s away with the fairies, he thought. Billy knew that if the coin was genuine it could be worth a couple of hundred quid. Maybe there were more where it came from.
It would be worth the cost of a cheap bottle of rum to find out.
When Billy returned with the rum the man invited him in.
The light in the sparsely furnished room was dim and the air was cold.
There was a fire in the grate, but only just.
‘You’ll join me in a tot, won’t you son?’
The man filled two large glasses and handed one to Billy.
‘Thanks,’ said Billy. ‘Merry Christmas.’
‘Merry Christmas? What’s to be merry about?’
Billy looked round the room.
There were no photographs anywhere and the only picture was above the fireplace.
He went over to examine it.
Behind the rather dusty glass was what appeared to be a piece of white material.
There were dark brown stains dotted all over it and a coat of arms embroidered in the corner.
‘Piece of history that is, son. When Nelson was shot at Trafalgar they carried him down to the orlop deck.
‘But he insisted they cover his face with his handkerchief.
‘He didn’t want the crew to know he’d been wounded. ‘And that’s the very handkerchief and those stains are Nelson’s blood.’
‘Come off it,’ laughed Billy. ‘It’s just a mucky hankie.’
‘No. That’s the coat of arms of the Duke of Bronte. The King of Naples gave Nelson that title.’
‘So how come you’ve got this thing?’
‘Believe in ghosts, do you?’ asked the man.
‘Neither did I ’til that night. Christmas Eve, just after the war.
‘I went into this pub near the dockyard. There was an old chap sat by himself in the corner.
‘I felt sorry for him so I went and sat with him.
‘I bought him a drink and we had a few games of cards.’
‘Yeah, but where does that hankie come into it?’
‘The old boy showed it me. He reckoned one of his ancestors nicked it off Nelson’s body thinking it might be worth a bit of money later on.
‘But nobody would buy it. So it was passed down through the family and seemed to bring them nothing but bad luck.
‘For instance, the chap who stole it in the first place was badly wounded on his ship.
‘He died a very painful death one Christmas Eve.’
‘I still don’t see why they blamed the hankie.’
‘He told me one of the family took it to an old crone who lived in Portsea.
‘People reckoned she was a witch. She said it was cursed because it had been stolen from the body of a hero in order to make money.
The family would always have enough money but no happiness.’
‘And they believed her?’
‘Not at first, but she turned out to be right.
‘They suffered disaster after disaster, always on Christmas Eve, just as they were getting ready to enjoy themselves.
‘Accidents, horrible illnesses, fires, one thing after another.
‘But they always had money. Not lots of it, but enough.’
‘But why didn’t they just get rid of the hankie?’
‘Apparently they tried, lots of times, but it always reappeared in the drawer where it was normally kept.’
Billy laughed out loud.
‘What a load of rubbish. Anyway, how come you ended up with it?’
‘That’s the strange thing. Like I said, I was playing cards with the man and won a bit of money off him.
‘Mind you, I’ll admit I was cheating. He paid me with some gold coins which I guessed were worth a bob or two.
‘After we’d finished playing I went to the heads to let out some of the beer. When I got back the old man had vanished.
‘I asked the barman where he’d gone and he gave me a funny look.
‘He said he hadn’t seen an old man.
‘I remember I slipped my hand in the pocket where I’d put the gold coins. They weren’t there, but the hankie was.’
The old man downed the rest of his rum.
‘On the way home I bought the Evening News.
‘In it was a report about the body of an old man being fished out of the harbour earlier that day.
‘His pockets were filled with gold coins.’
The man handed Billy another gold sovereign.
‘Here you are, son. Have a drink on me this Christmas.’
Billy made his way home, convinced that the man was definitely barmy.
Next day, Christmas Eve, he decided to take him another bottle of rum in the hope of getting his hands on more gold.
To his surprise he found the house boarded up.
It looked as if it had been empty for months.
‘What happened to the bloke who lives here?’ he asked the lady next door.
‘I was talking to him only yesterday, in the house.’
She said: ‘I don’t think so. He’s dead.
‘Died last Christmas Eve.’
Billy felt in his pocket where the two sovereigns had been but instead he found only a handkerchief.
NELSON’S HANKY GAVE NORMAN HIS STORY IDEA
It was a fascination with the final days of England’s most famous admiral, Horatio Nelson, that led Norman Kitching, 70, of Gosport to pen his ghost story.
Norman said: ‘He insisted that his face be covered with a handkerchief so that his crew wouldn’t recognise that it was him and he was injured.
‘I thought there would be an interesting ghost story to go with the handkerchief so it really went from there.’
Norman wins a £75 gift card to spend at Waterstones.
Norman is semi-retired and works part-time at Crew Saver in Gosport.
He said he started writing stories as a hobby about 10 years ago and regularly attended a writers’ workshop.