by Jennifer Ball
This article was originally published in the December 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
It was Christmas Eve in Harrow and everywhere else too for that matter. The small house was full to overflowing with light laughter and assorted relations. My cousin and I left it with mixed feelings about the friend of my aunt's who, going away for the festivities herself, had handed over her front door key with the invitation to make use of the empty beds.
The stars seem to have an extra brilliance on Christmas Eve and 1950 was no exception. We walked the mile and a half through frosty streets clutching our nightdresses and toothbrushes in paper bags. The pavements sparkled beneath our feet. I was surprised to find that this other house was detached, standing well back from its neighbours and in its own grounds. We went down the drive, past the pine trees and the shrubbery and Coral opened the front door. Inside was utter blackness until she moved forward, flicked a switch, and I found that I was standing on the threshold of an enormous hall. Doors leading from this hall stood ajar. On the far side, what looked like a passageway was in shadow and on the left, stairs wound up into the darkness. We crept into the sitting room. From tall french windows the night peered in at us. I thought it was colder in this house than it had been outside. In unspoken consent we made for the stairs.
The childrenís bedroom was small and ordinary. Shutting the door on the rest of the house I found I could breathe more evenly. The twin beds were within touching distance and as I pulled the covers up over my head I felt the familiar comfort.
I woke to daylight and Christmas morning. No Santa Claus but other anticipatory delights. How silly to have felt so afraid last night. I lifted my head to smile at Coral but her bed was empty. I told myself that she must be in the bathroom but even as I held my breath to listen, I knew that I was alone in the house. I closed my eyes tightly. I did not know the way back to her home. Why had Coral left me? I could think of no reasonable explanation and suddenly felt frightened for Coral as well as myself.
There was no point in sitting in bed. I pulled back the covers, picked up my clothes and made for the bathroom. It was empty and the water cold. Going downstairs I noticed the telephone on the table in the hall below. My Aunt and Uncle were not on the phone and I knew no one else to ring. I badly wanted to hear a human voice so I leant against the wall and listened to the cool precise tones of the speaking clock until my legs felt stronger and I had become accustomed to the still silence surrounding me. Placing the telephone back on its receiver I walked firmly along the passage that led to the kitchen.
The kitchen was a big old fashioned one. It had a stone flagged floor and a scrubbed deal table. Pale rays of sunshine flooded through the window. I looked out of the back door onto a hoary garden and encroaching shrubs. I filled the kettle and placed it on the gas stove. Washing at a kitchen sink was no novelty. Listening to the noisy silence of the house while doing the usual morning things I began to relax. This was Coral's idea of a joke. I had placed the bowl on the floor and was standing in it when I heard the noise. I held my breath in order to hear better and the first sound was followed by another and another and another. I strained my ears to listen and identify. Footsteps surely? Big, slow, shuffling footsteps coming nearer and nearer. The unhurried pace petrified and terrified. My mind alone moved. I knew I had a choice. I could either run naked into the lanes of Harrow or go to find the source of the noise before it found me. There was no choice. I picked up the towel, soundlessly stepped from the water and tiptoed to the door that led to the passage. I turned the handle and peered round the corner. Nothing moved but the noise continued its unhurried pace. It was louder now. I crept to the end of the passage.
Tears rolled down my face onto the clenched knuckles that held the towel. A pile of Christmas cards lay on the doormat and, even as I looked, through the letters box came yet another and another and another. I went back to the kitchen and was washed and dressed by the time Coral and her elder brother knocked at the back door.
"Where have you been?" I asked her. "Itís Christmas morning or have you forgotten?" she said. No I had not forgotten. They were my first cousins, children of my mother's brother Bill Sole. What I had forgotten was that unlike me, they were Catholics. Coral had simply gone to Mass!
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