Grandma Dixon arrived by train. It was her first journey by railway, and she arrived looking sooty and shaken. ‘It’s not natural to go that fast!’ she moaned faintly. ‘I’m too old for these new-fangled ideas.’
She pressed a package of her famous sausages into Mama’s hands and went up to her room. As hot water and bags were brought in, Tom hopped up and down in excitement.
‘I can’t wait for Christmas Day!’ ‘In my young days, it wasn’t so important,’ Grandma replied. ‘We celebrated Twelfth Night. Oh, I remember the dancing, the games, the food – and the story-telling!’ ‘Christmas has all those things!’ cried Tom. ‘It’s not the same,’ said Grandma. ‘Everything’s new, now!’ Holly, the old tortoise-shell cat, mewed loudly. Grandma laughed: ‘Yes, you agree, don’t you? We are two old ladies together!’
Early on Christmas morning, Tom and his family went to church, dressed in their finest clothes. He could hardly sit still through the scripture readings and carols: his mind was full of the exciting preparations at home.
They walked back, greeting everyone they met in the street with a ‘Merry Christmas!’, and an hour or two later, their guests arrived: Tom’s older sister, Margaret, with her husband and baby; Aunt Alice and Aunt Louisa; and Great Uncle Samuel, who had a habit of bursting into sudden, loud laughter, which made Tom jump.
Once all the kissing under the mistletoe and shedding of coats and wraps had been accomplished, dinner was ready. The first course took Grandma by surprise:
‘Turkey!’ she exclaimed.
Mama went pink. ‘Turkey is much cheaper now, and we are such a large family. I thought it would make a change from beef, and your sausages are the perfect accompaniment.’ It was delicious: succulent and moist with a fragrant herb stuffing.
After the plates were cleared, the smell of steam and damp muslin filtered through from the kitchen. ‘That will be the plum pudding!’ said Grandma: and sure enough, the pudding was brought in, garnished with holly. ‘The best pudding yet!’ said Margaret, smiling at her younger sisters and brothers. ‘I helped to stir it!’ piped up Betsey. ‘Me too!’ cried Albert. Tom had stirred it too, but his mouth was full. His teeth clamped on something hard. ‘I’ve found the sixpence!’ he shouted, and held it up to general applause. ‘When I was a girl, it was a bean,’ said Grandma. ‘It doesn’t sound like much, but if you found it, you were king or queen for the night!’
When the meal was over, Papa led the way to the parlour, and opened the door with a flourish. ‘Oh my!’ gasped Aunt Louisa. It was a Christmas tree, just like the Royal Family’s! Its branches were decorated with pine cones, paper chains, colourful cornucopias full of sweets, sugar plums, brightly wrapped presents and red, white and blue candles, each one lit and gently shining.
The children started singing and shouting and dancing all at once, and Great Uncle Samuel let rip with one of his startling guffaws.
‘Well,’ said Grandma. ‘I have never seen anything like that before!’ ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Grandma, isn’t it fine?’ cried Tom. ‘I will have to get used to it,’ said Grandma, primly: ‘but yes – it is lovely.’
The next hour or so passed in a happy whirl. They began by distributing the presents. Papa loved the bookmark that Tom had made for him! They sang glees and catches, and Great Uncle Sam sang them an exciting ballad about a young lady who dressed up as a highway man. Then they had a cheerful game of blindman’s buff, followed by forfeits and the Yes and No game. Finally, tired and happy they all flopped down comfortably, in chairs or on the hearth rug. The lights were extinguished, and the room was lit only by the glow of the fire. It was time for story-telling.
This was Grandma’s moment: her ghost stories were even more famous than her sausages!
‘This is the story of poor Lady Warburton,’ she began, ‘and every word of it is true. She lived at Hulme Walfield House, not far from my home in Congleton. She was young and carefree and beautiful as the day. She met a handsome lover, who promised to marry her, and she thought her happiness was complete: but he betrayed her. In her despair, she refused food, let her hair grow tangled and untidy, and tore at her clothes. Finally, she could bear her fate no longer and threw herself from her window onto the cobbles below.’
‘Oh, frightful!’ gasped Aunt Alice, and all the children huddled closer together. ‘Not as frightful as what happened next!’ said Grandma, with grim satisfaction. ‘Not long afterwards, a white figure was seen on the footpath between Rood Hill and her family home. This figure was always seen at night, and seemed very tall – for indeed, although she walked, her feet were six inches above the ground!’
A shiver ran down Tom’s spine. He wanted to put his fingers in his ears but he also wanted to hear the rest of the story!
‘One dark night,’ continued Grandma, a young courting couple were walking down that footpath when, all of a sudden…’Thump! The whole family started up, alarmed. ‘What was that?’ Albert asked in a shaky voice.
‘Owwwwwwww!’ A horrible cry, like an unearthly spirit in pain, echoed round the room. Betsey and Albert screamed and the baby woke up and burst into tears. Even Grandma looked worried! ‘It’s coming from my bedroom!’ she said. ‘Whatever can it be?’
The ghastly groans continued. Papa grabbed a candle and ran out of the room. They heard his footsteps mount the stairs: ‘I hope the ghost won’t hurt Papa!’ Albert wept. ‘There’s no such thing as ghosts!’ scoffed Tom – but his heart was beating like a drum.
They heard Papa’s voice, loud and strong: was he sobbing?
‘He’s laughing!’ said Mama, relieved.
A few seconds later, Papa was back in the room, holding a disgruntled tortoiseshell cat in his arms.
‘She must have gone to sleep in Grandma’s bag,’ he said, still laughing. ‘The bag was fastened shut and placed on a chair. When she woke up, she tried to escape, and the bag fell off the chair.’ ‘That was the thump we heard!’ said Tom. ‘And then poor Holly started caterwauling.’
Grandma took the cat on to her lap and stroked her: ‘You youngsters have been amazing us all day with your new-fangled Christmas notions,’ she said, with a mischievous smile. ‘It’s only fair that we two old ladies should come up with a few surprises of our own!’
Copyright Frances Ridley, 2017.