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Spring Tidings – a Christmas Story

I

must run now, I can’t be late or everything will be late.

“Take out the trash,” mum calls, as I run downstairs – two steps at a time – and jump for the back door.

“Damn it!”

“Just get it done,” shouts dad.

Great. I haul the trash out into the snow, startling a few birds pecking at the fat on the bird feeder.

The neighbour’s cat swings by, peculiarly fluffy and black against the snow. “Leave those birds alone,” I growl. The cat is in a mad, springy mood, though, and hops off, appearing and vanishing, in drifts up to its ears.

Trash stored, I get the key for grandma’s house. The slender iron is freezing cold, where it hangs on the hook by the stairs. For its wards, a heart is cut through the bit.

I get my bag of cereal and cans from the washroom and then head down the wynd.

Why is it that wellies are so crap on snow? Dad’s car has carved the lane into awkward tracks and humps. I think I’ve jolted everything by the time I get to that tree-lined, ivy-shrouded, tunnel that leads up to grandma’s house.

My carrier bag hangs low, clunking against every stick, branch and mound of snow. My nose is running. Grandma would have something to say about that. Grandma was never late, never untidy, always had a good word to say about everybody; liked to keep me sorted, though. I think half the village was at her funeral – mums, dads, small kids; some of the farmers from one parish over. I found it really sad, but mum said, don’t worry: everything comes around.

“What do you want for Christmas?” was the next thing she said, staring at the rectangle of fresh sod, in the copse, where we’d planted grandma. We had to break the ground with a pickaxe.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe, maybe I don’t know.”

“That’s fine. You’ll think of something,” and she squeezed my arm.

The cottage is low and white and sits back in the trees, against an immaculate lawn, now sleeping beneath a deep, duvet of snow. A trellis, border plants, the old garage, stand darkly.

There has been so much snow, I’m dragging a furrow up to the front door.

Nobody else has been here. Once, I’d meet all sorts up here, asking grandma – old Mrs. Salter – for one of her ‘ha’penny cures’ as she put it, or a little, ‘silvery curse,’ that wasn’t so bad. Grandma didn’t do the bad stuff – she liked everyone too much.

The ice is riming everything, getting in under the eaves and the guttering. The outer surface of the snow is crunchy; the inner, soft and yielding, like marshmallow.

I practically have to break into grandma’s garage, even though I have the key – the snow is so insistent. Old tools, the smell of damp. A drip from my nose lands on the saw, creating a darker spot of rust.  I dab it with my gloved hand, without thinking, and end up with a rusty glove. Bright, Suzy, bright.

More wading in my rubbish boots – toes cold as elbows – and some sawing at an evergreen in grandma’s garden. I don’t know if it has to come from here, but I think it probably does.

What is it? I hear grandma ask.

I dunno… birch?

Gods. No. Got your head on back to front? That’s holly, child.

They all used to look the same to me. I have the twig – dark, succulent, still with some green growth in it – and jumpity-runny-hop-drag myself to the front door.

Head down, watch the lintel. Grandma was tiny. Watch the little hawthorn men; the scratchy pictograms in charcoal, crumbly on the flaking white paint; the horseshoe nailed firmly upright, in a two-pronged salute to luck. To the left of the portico is the name of the cottage – ‘Dun Roamin’; grandma’s little joke.

Bang the door shut – sticking now. Flick the calendar to the 23rd, one page over: an awesome winter scene of muntjac deer grazing by Woburn Abbey.

I love the smell in here: wood smoke and age. I feel the damp coldness of an abandoned house. Grandma’s things are still here, though. I don’t feel sad, really.

I fire up the wood-burning stove, remind myself to pick up more logs, pull open the curtains – feel that wall of cold, from behind the window glass – and get to hanging that sprig over the fireplace.

I tie on the bells, salute the cardinal points, say the rhyme – I even rap a bit of it, ala Jay-Z (my own invention; it seems to work. Just don’t tell grandma) – and finally tack the thing above the hearth with a silver nail. There are plenty of holes here already.

Silver nails… tricky to get hold of now grandma’s not around. This is mum’s – a bit rough, a bit bendy. “I’m definitely not my mother,” she said, shaking her head. “I think you got the craft. It jumped over me like a forest jack.”

Mum says that quite often.

Buckled, or no, the nail holds.

Just to see what I’ve got, I drop a few crumbs of chocolate on the mantel and go crouch behind the sofa. The material is an old patchwork, re-sewn, and carefully re-mended. Feels like luxurious sail cloth.

Grandma is a shadow in a hospital bed. She has a two-pronged tube up her nose. She says, “You got to stay with them over Christmas, Suzie. And let them out on the twelfth day after.”

“Of course,” I say, crying even though I don’t want to – Salter women don’t cry. “What happens if you forget?”

“Nothing. Winter lasts forever.”

“Oh.” Are you joking? I wondered. But no, there was only a fierce grandma Salter staring back at me with that level expression of hers. Some kind of bellows was hissing up and down, keeping her breathing.

There is scratching on the mantelpiece – rats you might think – or noisy mice with clogs on, until you hear the tittering. You don’t see anything, but you feel it. Nom. Nom. One chocolate flake, then the next vanishes.

The sprig rustles once more with a jingle of bells and everything goes quiet. Just the pop and soft roar of the burner; a drop of snow, falling from a bush outside.

“Keep it warm, Suzy-girl. You’ll do it proud. But don’t forget – it has to sling its hook on the twelfth.”

“I got it.”

“Blessed Be.”

She is quiet for a moment. Then a hand, cold as old bone, touches my arm.

“Oh, and take chocolate. They bloody love chocolate.”

I stoke the fire some more, keeping us all warm for the winter. I can’t get what I really want for Christmas – that part has gone now – but a spring thaw will be just fine. Fine enough, I guess.

December 10, 2010   16 Comments

The Old Woman Who Eats Kids

OldWomanPicture The Old Woman Who Eats Kids

I

started a myth today. I told my friend Elwood about the old house you can find if you walk up the hill and out of our town and keep walking for a few miles, where, on the right-hand side, along a line of trees, you’ll see an old house next to an overgrown orchard. If you walk there, you find a lake amongst the trees, with a sluice that is nothing but corroded machinery, and the house itself which has empty windows, and doors, and is full of tumbled plaster; and the orchard, where damsons grow, yellow and sweet, if you care to harvest them as summer turns to autumn.

I drew the house – it was similar to one I discovered next to my own home village – and I gave Elwood the picture.

He asked, “Who is the old woman in the window?”

I pretended to be surprised, and said, “Eh? What woman?”

Of course, he pointed, and we both looked together – both, it would seem to him, for the first time.

There is a definite old woman in the far window. She is a blue smear, but she is there.

Elwood is thrilled by this ghost in the picture, and shivers. “That’s amazing! That old woman just appeared in your picture! We should give it to a museum or call Ghost Busters or something.”

I downplay this, a little, saying that there is a curse attached to the old place, and maybe that applies to the picture. “You aren’t supposed to go there, and you’re not supposed to take photographs.”

“But your picture is drawn in crayons,” points out Elwood.

“Yes, but, the old woman is there, isn’t she – in the picture.”

This circular logic is self evident and Elwood agrees to keep the mysterious apparition quiet; just between us. We don’t want to annoy the old lady; make her curse us. That would be really, really bad, we decide.

The next day, Laura asks me about the picture. Her best friend, Clara, was talking to Rachel, who got it from Neil, that Elwood said I had a haunted picture.

I sigh dramatically, and say I cannot show her the picture on account of the curse.

“Curse?” she says, eyes wide, nervously – but excitedly – turning the ball in her hands.

I tell her what I say Elwood told me. “At first, I didn’t believe it either.”

“Oh,” she says, looking around nervously, head bobbing, as if the old lady will come to school right there and then and take her away.

I am intrigued by this idea, so I tell her this happened at another school with a similar picture of the house: that a kid who looked at it – just like her – got kidnapped by the old lady.

Laura is too scared now to look at the picture. Faced with my theatrical fumbling at my satchel to find it, she screams and runs away.

She comes back five minutes later.

“Who drew it?” she asks, her head touching mine, as she examines the picture I have reluctantly produced – having had it ready all morning, waiting impatiently for someone to ask.

“I don’t know. Some boy I think; from another school.”

“The one who disappeared? The one who got taken by the old woman?”

“Maybe. That’s probably right.” I shake my head and bite my lip. “It would make sense.”

There is a picture, which, if you look at it, an old woman will come and take you away. The fruit in her garden is children’s heads – those are in the picture too.

My yellow damsons look a little like heads, I guess. Because that is what Laura tells Clara.

Some bigger boys come to ask me about the picture in the afternoon break, saying they think I made it all up; that stupid, magic pictures with ghosts in them don’t really exist. But they are furtive and keen to look.

I realize these older boys won’t believe the story if they see the picture. It is not powerful enough.

I tell them that the picture has vanished. I mean that I lost it. This is greeted with derision. One of them wants to search my bag, another to punch my face in, so I offer to tell them the story instead; of the old woman, as it was told to me by another boy. Not me.

This is met with immediate interest. I tell them they can’t tell anyone. They have to promise. They solemnly swear this, crossing hearts and hoping to die.

There is a woman who lives in an old house, on the outside of town, who has a garden of children’s heads and whenever one is ripe, she plucks it and eats it. And that same day, a boy or girl will be taken from school – kidnapped – but not one of the younger kids; one of the older ones, if they are naughty or punch faces.

“Kids just like you have already vanished,” I say. “Nobody knows where. She’s a cannibal…”

A boy one year down from me left to go to another school, but some kids think it was the old woman.

There is no picture now; she doesn’t need a picture.

Five kids came up to me today and said, they heard this story which is totally true about this old woman who comes to schools and takes children away and has a garden with kid’s heads in it, and she eats them! “We even found her house!”

When a new girl – Trinny – starts the same afternoon, she confirms this, saying that it totally happened at her old school, and two kids have already gone missing. “All they found were wet footprints – from the lake.”

December 3, 2010   20 Comments