We’ve been inundated with entries for our Christmas ghost story competition. In the run-up to Christmas Day we’re publishing the winners and runners-up in both age categories. Today we feature the 16-and-above runner-up – His Last Christmas by Rob Inkpen, 50, a physical geography lecturer from Hayling Island.
I was only seven and I am still not sure if what I saw was real, but I still believe that it was true.
The day before they had said he would survive; March at worst, June at best. My mother had even had enough hope that day, after all those months of worry, to buy him a Christmas present.
It was a dressing gown, nothing fancy, just plain dark blue with light blue lapels and short as was the fashion back then. She hung it on the back of the living room door with the promise that I could give it to Daddy in hospital tomorrow. That was to be my special Christmas treat... and her worst fear, for me to finally see Daddy after all those weeks.
Three am is the dying time – at least that is what I have learned as an adult. The previous day has faded and the new day is not yet really born. Death seems to suck the dying through the gap in-between.
My mother got the phone call at 3.30am. She left once I had been ferried across the street to expectant neighbours swaddled in blankets.
No-one spoke. I was curled up in an armchair reading a book – I don’t remember what about – when she finally returned at midday.
She never knew that I could see her through the doorway as she collapsed sobbing into the sturdy arms of Mrs Hall.
She composed herself and stood in their living room doorway for a few seconds as I pretended not to hear her come in.
When she finally spoke the sweetness of her voice could not hide her trembling grief.
‘Darling, Daddy has gone to sleep ....’
‘Forever?’ my question saved her the pain of having to finish that sentence.
‘Yes, darling, forever’.
No more was said.
Memories of the rest of the day are blurred, but I do know that it was dark when we took the few steps back to our house. We could have stayed but my mother was firm; Christmas would go ahead as planned, as he had wanted. I went to sleep to the smell of cooking ham.
A doorstep sandwich of boiled ham and English mustard greeted me on Christmas morning, as it had for as long as I could remember. The Christmas tree stood resplendent in tinsel, fairy lights, baubles and topped with the Christmas star that my father had made with me when I was four.
I knew my mother could not have slept preparing our normal family Christmas.
I opened a present that took my mother by surprise; it was the Master Mind game, a game I had only discovered the week before. I suddenly smelt tobacco, tea and Old Spice. I glanced, as did my mother, to the dressing gown on the door which seemed more worn than we remembered with the right hand sleeve browned by nicotine.
Together, we opened the final present that had lain unnoticed under the tree. It had to be a record; its shape and flimsiness made that much clear.
We laughed at the sight of Abba’s Waterloo, a song my father loathed but tolerated. We played the titular track again and again as we danced around the room.
I still remember my mother’s hesitation at her bedroom door that night as she saw the present on her pillow: a small bottle of her favourite perfume exquisitely wrapped. We hugged but did not cry as we had no more tears to give.
I slept dreamlessly until about half-past three. There was a faint drum of footsteps on the stairs.
I crept to the door of my bedroom. My breathing slowed as I silently pushed the door open. I waited.
Slowly a shadow formed on the landing. I could hear breathing and it wasn’t mine. The shadow’s outline became more distinct as the unseen figure stopped at the top of the stairs. I held my breath. I waited, anticipating, wanting the impossible.
My mother moved into the moonlight.
I breathed again, disappointed. She had been crying but her face beamed as she disappeared into her room.
Nimbly and silently I descended the stairs into the dark hallway.
My nostrils were alive with the scent of Old Spice, ham and mustard. I pushed open the living room door a crack. The aroma increased in potency.
All I could see in the moonlight was the dishevelled dressing gown hanging on the back of the door. I still do not know what compelled me to grab it, but as I did I shut my eyes and felt the arms of the dressing gown cradle me.
I felt no fear, just a longing for the hug to continue as I felt the strength of my father’s arms once more holding me in a loving embrace that he had so rarely given. Solidity formed beneath the flimsy material and warmth emanated from the cold cloth. I hugged tighter. I never wanted to let go.
‘Goodbye little ’un...’
It was over. I crept back to bed.
The next day, neither of us were surprised to find that the remains of the ham had gone. The dressing gown still hung on the door, but now in a perfect condition. Well, perfect apart from a faint mustard stain on the right lapel.
The dressing gown, like the rest of my father’s clothes, was destined to disappear to charity shops as my mother cleared the memories from the wardrobe over the following weeks.
That was 40 Christmases ago. It is Christmas Eve as I numbly drive back to my family through the clearing rain.
My mother died less than an hour ago, her face creaseless as death took the etchings of cancer with it.
I cried of course, but a part of me was happy for her.
She died hugging a forgotten faded blue dressing gown that seemed, for all who cared to look, to be hugging back.