On the Third Day of Christmas by Sue Cornell
16 and over winner
Sue says: ‘I have loved literature all my life and always hoped to be a writer myself. Last summer I retired from a long and happy career (31 years) in education, the last 17 at The Cowplain School in
Waterlooville; although I miss the classroom, it is marvellous to have time to write. I joined Lovedean Writers in July and the group has really encouraged me and given me confidence. I am thrilled to have won this competition.
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.
Late afternoon of the best kind of cold, bright December day. A splendid sunset glowed behind shadowy rooftops and the looming silhouettes of trees.
Pear Tree Lane on the edge of town was usually quiet, the busy traffic on the High Street a distant murmur; on this day, however, a loud, steady hammering intruded on the peace of the neighbourhood which was sleepily digesting its day after Boxing Day turkey leftovers, mince pies and selection boxes.
When he was sure the ‘For Sale’ sign was securely in place, the man from GoMove jumped into his van and drove away. He was unaware that his excavations had disturbed the thorny sticks that had once been a floribunda rose bush called ‘Together Forever’, a wedding gift.
Martin, watching from the bay window, did not notice the last withered leaves tremble and fall onto the frozen soil.
The sun sank lower behind the bulky blackness of the church and disappeared. As the last rays faded, shadows deepened under the brooding yew trees and a harsher chill gathered in the darkening streets. A sudden icy wind sent dead leaves skittering, rattled fairy lights and ruffled the feathers of pigeons roosting miserably in the naked branches of plane trees.
Full dark now. The wind’s freezing fingers did not disturb Rosemarie as she made her way home. A fox, emerging cautiously from a garden onto the opposite pavement, froze as if sensing some unseen danger, then bolted back to safety.
Rosemarie, on silent feet, turned into Willow Road – not far now. There was the pillar box on the corner, a familiar landmark. Ahead, a man spoke reassuringly to his dog as it whimpered and tugged on its lead.
Martin was alone in the front room slumped in an armchair. His feet were resting on a coffee table amongst empty cans and a half-eaten slice of Christmas cake. He struggled upright to add another log to the fire then sat back to watch as the flames danced and the sparks flew up the chimney.
On the unoccupied armchair on the other side of the fireplace was a plush pink cushion, heart-shaped, ‘R4M’ picked out in sequins. Martin sighed as he pulled the ring on another can of lager.
Rosemarie stopped at the ‘For Sale’ sign. Next door’s cat, interrupted in his nocturnal patrol, swelled to twice his normal size, bared his fangs and spat like a pressure cooker, before making off across the gardens yowling in fear.
The disturbance drew Martin to the window. He peered out into the darkness. The meagre light from a street lamp several houses down reassured him that the dustbin lid was securely in place. He did not see the intricate pattern of ice crystals on the window pane made by a long exhalation of frozen breath.
Ruth was in the kitchen. Earlier that day she and Martin had completed a clear out of all the junk in the spare room and the loft. She had been amazed at the amount of clutter they had unearthed and felt very pleased with herself. The rubbish bags piled in the garden would need two journeys to the tip when it reopened. She opened the kitchen door and gazed with satisfaction at the row of bulging carriers lining the hallway ready for donation to local charity shops.
Ruth had rewarded herself with a relaxing bath and was wearing the very nice red velour dressing gown she had found neatly folded in the back of the airing cupboard, one of the very few items she considered worth keeping.
The hall light flickered and grew dim and a sudden draught rattled the letterbox. Ruth shivered as she opened the sitting room door.
‘I can’t wait to get into our new place. These old houses are so chilly.’
Martin took a swig of lager, but did not answer. Ruth perched on the arm of his chair and nibbled absentmindedly on the discarded cake.
‘Is there any of that coffee liqueur left? Why is the telly off? You said you wanted to watch a film.’
Ruth poured a generous measure of the creamy liquid, took a large swig and licked her lips.
She turned back to Martin who was staring in confusion at the red dressing gown.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Where did you find..?’
At that moment the belt slipped undone and the dressing gown opened, revealing an expanse of plump pink thigh and more besides. The question remained unanswered.
After midnight and it seemed that all the world, apart from one restless soul, was sleeping.
Martin, snug against Ruth’s warm back, was snoring gently. In the sitting room a sudden icy blast burst from the chimney scattering glowing embers across the hearthrug and beyond. A half-burned log teetered on the edge of the grate then rolled across the floor and came to rest under the parched Christmas tree. Hungry flames were soon licking the brittle boughs. The nylon carpet, chosen all those years before by newly-wedded Rosemarie and Martin, began to smoulder. Swept by an invisible hand, the Christmas cards were tossed from the mantelpiece to be devoured alongside the heart-shaped cushion which shrivelled and melted into nothing.
Suffocating black smoke crept through the ground floor rooms and tiptoed up the staircase.
The fourth day of Christmas dawned bright. The church was bathed in morning sunshine; pigeons pecked and preened on the path leading to the lychgate. Over in Pear Tree Lane the emergency services had finally departed; a huddle of neighbours whispered in shock behind police tape.