CHRISTMAS GHOST STORY: Late for Dinner by Katie Lawrence

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Late for Dinner by Katie Lawrence - Over 16s runner-up

Read by Hannah Lowther, who is starring in the Kings Theatre panto as Snow White - the panto runs until January 1.

Katie, 31, lives in Cosham and loves to write. Katie has ME and has written for medical journals and charity support publications but this was her first short story competition entry. Katie says spending Christmas day with her family, whose home acts as the ‘hub’ for Christmas, inspired her to write this story. It was also inspired by her aunt’s love for Last Christmas by Wham!

The Christmas Ghost Story is sponsored by the Hayling Island Bookshop. The award-winning bookshop is one of the last remaining independent bookshops in the area and has a year-round programme of author events for children and adult audiences. The bookshop runs Portsmouth BookFest each February in with Portsmouth City Library Service and provides ‘pop up’ bookshops to schools throughout the region.

Christmas day at the Jacksons’ was legendary. The decorations were always the loudest, the turkey the plumpest, the music the cheeriest, and the copious amounts of alcohol the most potent.

So where was Uncle Ralph?

So where was Uncle Ralph?

Throughout the day friends and family would bustle in-and-out, exchanging gifts and best wishes whilst demolishing enough mince pies to keep the corner shop trading for another year. Nobody embodied this Christmas exuberance like Uncle Ralph, who despite having no children of his own was the firm favourite of everyone else’s; not least because he could fart Silent Night in its entirety, complete with accurate changes in key. This year something was missing.

This year, Uncle Ralph was late.

The phone rang in the hall, and as Graham Jackson scrambled to find it beneath the tinsel he shouted for whoever was nearest to turn the music down.

‘Santa’s Grotto, what can we do for you?’ The line crackled and popped, interference buzzing through the handset.

Katie Lawrence, the 16 and over runner-up

Katie Lawrence, the 16 and over runner-up

‘…(Merry Christmas!) I wrapped it up and sent it…’

Graham was just about to call out again to get the blasted music switched off when he realised it was coming from the phone.

‘…With a note saying, “I love you”, I meant it…’

Peering at the Caller ID through one too many buck’s fizzes, Graham watched as ‘Ralph – Home’ scrolled across the display. ‘Uncle Ralph, is that you? Ralph? Can you hear me?!’

The music had faded, but the hissing continued.

‘What’s the matter, love?’ asked his wife, Anna, as she rounded the corner with a fresh, steaming jug of mulled wine.

‘That was Ralph – at least it said it was – all I could hear was George Michael but I doubt he’s coming for dinner as well. Though we do seem to be feeding everyone else!’

Graham replaced the receiver.

‘Daft sod must have sat on the phone. I keep telling him not to leave it on the arm of the chair, it only ends up squashed down the side. The doctors’ surgery had to listen to him shouting out answers to Countdown last month, he only realised what he’d done when they cheered him getting the conundrum.’

‘Should we start without him?’ Anna queried, shifting the heavy jug to better support it as a cinnamon stick threatened to float over the side.

Graham frowned. He couldn’t recollect the last time Uncle Ralph hadn’t been there to carve the turkey; he always compared it to whichever politician he currently disfavoured. Graham recalled Margaret Thatcher always being a bit dry, and his stomach churned as he remembered the year they’d left the giblets inside Tony Blair.

‘No, we can’t do that, he’d never forgive us if we cheated him out of the chance to stick a fork in Boris Johnson. I’ll nip over there, it won’t take me 10 minutes. If people start getting hungry then crack open the spare tin of chocolates.’

Pulling his coat on as he left, and wishing he’d thought to grab a scarf, Graham walked briskly, if unsteadily, towards Cosham high street and continued over the unusually-quiet railway crossing. Seeing the shops all shut up at this hour reminded him of Sundays as a child, or most weekdays on the Isle of Wight.

By the time Graham reached Uncle Ralph’s terrace his fingers were numb, and he regretted letting Anna persuade him to shave off the beard that had once protected his now decidedly-chilly chin. Startling a small, bobbing wagtail as he slipped on the icy path to Ralph’s front gate, Graham knocked on the door and listened for sounds from inside the house. He could see the TV flickering through the window, and recognised the warm glow of the big brass lamp which had always stood in the corner. Graham’s breath fogged up the glass as he tried to get a closer look, and the combination of the biting cold out here and the rapidly overheating dinner at home convinced him to use his emergency key. His stiff, frozen hands fumbled through the jangling assortment on his Pompey keyring as he tried to remember which one was Ralph’s, so long had it been since he’d last had to let himself in.

‘Only me!’ he called, as he pushed the door open, ploughing through a drift of Christmas cards which had banked up against the inside. ‘You’re late for dinner! Thought you might need a hand carting the kids’ presents round. I told you it’d be more trouble than it was worth to try and put a bow on Karen’s hamster.’

As he stepped into the living room Graham saw a pile of neatly-wrapped gifts, all bagged up and waiting by the tree. Beside a small cage on the coffee table lay a tangle of ribbon, the main ball of which had rolled onto the floor and across the carpet towards Uncle Ralph’s favourite chair. Graham’s eyes followed it as he advanced into the room, finding the familiar slippers and travelling up the worn, brown corduroy trousers that had become something of a trademark for Uncle Ralph.

Graham could see that there was no point in calling out again. Nobody that grey, or that still, ever answers. Something in the cage rustled as Graham knelt beside the chair, picking up the phone which had, as expected, fallen down the side of the overstuffed recliner. Graham noted the flat battery as he replaced it on the cradle.

How long had Ralph been here? Graham glanced at the crossword in his uncle’s lap, the pen still poised in a cold hand that no longer gripped it with any purpose.

Unfolding it, he saw that the date at the top of the newspaper was nearly a week ago.

It was almost complete – as Ralph had tried to do each day – with just one clue remaining unsolved.

‘Five across, “George Michael’s seasonal hit, (4,9)”,’ Graham whispered to himself.

‘Last Christmas.’