I am so excited today to bring you the start of a very special Christmas series – The 12 Days of Christmas. On each of the next 12 days I will be sharing a short piece of fiction from 12 different authors all with a Christmas theme.
Kicking us off today is Shelley Day, author of the fantastic The Confession of Stella Moon which was published by Contraband last year. You can read my review of it here. It is available to buy in good bookshops or order a copy online here. If you have read Stella Moon you will know that it is quite a dark read and the story Shelley has shared below, Last Christmas, is also rather mysterious!
We should not have gone to the Fergusons’ that night. It’s not as though they were close friends or anything. I did try – a bit half-heartedly, I admit – to put Angus off.
‘They only asked us to make up the numbers,’ I said.
Angus was straining to fasten a button; he’d put on a bit of weight since last Christmas. He pulled out the blue silk tie, held it up and considered it. He turned his shirt collar up. ‘Ah, Christmas,’ he said, looking into the mirror. He tied the knot and edged it up. ‘You like Christmas.’
‘There’ll be nobody there. All this snow …’ I didn’t want to meet new people. I wanted Angus and me to stay exactly as we were. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘where did I put that jacket?’ Angus sorted through the line of suits and jackets that hung limply in his side of the wardrobe.
‘There it is, on the bed,’ I said. I’d watched him laying out the jacket ready earlier. He was fixing the tie-pin.
‘That straight?’ he said. He squinted in the mirror, turned slightly sideways, made a minor adjustment, smoothed his hair down. It was starting to go thin. He picked up the jacket, shook it, and put it on. He tugged the shirt cuffs down to just below the sleeves. ‘Mustn’t be late,’ he said, as he picked up his Rolex, looked at it, and went out of the room, stretching the strap over his left hand as he went.
It took an hour and a half to get there, the roads were so bad. Normally it would have taken thirty minutes at most. The snow-ploughs had been out and there were great heaps of snow on either side. More thick flakes were falling. Angus was perched over the steering wheel, frowning into the falling snow. The wipers swoosh swoosh swooshed it away.
‘What if we meet something, I mean coming the other way … ?’ I started to say.
‘Thank God for 4×4,’ Angus said, checking the gear.
‘But if something comes … you won’t be able to back up, not in the dark … there’s only room for …’
‘Must concentrate,’ he said, gripping the wheel more tightly.
The Fergusons were new to the area. They’d bought the big house at Callaly, the one that used to be Grandpa Kennedy’s. They’d got a bargain. People said the house was haunted, that no-one would buy it. But that was pure prejudice and the fact that Grandpa Kennedy had kept himself to himself, didn’t like nosey parkers. When Grandpa Kennedy died, it turned out there was nothing left but debt, and Mr Ferguson had moved quickly. It was said he’d had his eye on it, that he’d been hovering like the proverbial vulture, waiting to get his claws in. The deal was done before anyone realized what was happening.
It wasn’t long, though, before the Fergusons – for all they’d got the house, and for all their wealth and everything – weren’t getting along, or so it was said. The wife – Camilla – apparently she detested the North East, couldn’t stand the people, couldn’t bear the weather, was bored half to death out in the sticks. And him, he was always away off somewhere, with ‘business.’ I could see Camilla was trying hard to keep up appearances – hence the party, a tradition even Grandpa Kennedy had been obliged to respect, despite his inclinations for privacy and quiet. But the folk round here weren’t that easily fooled. They don’t belong, people said, and it’ll serve them right when it all goes belly up, just you watch. ‘So what, what if he is self-made?’ Angus had dared to say in the pub one night. ‘What of it? You’ve got to have some respect for the man!’ His contribution to the conversation that night met with a stony silence. People were starting to think Angus himself had too much ‘respect’ for money. I’d seen Camilla, out and about in Alnwick. She was tall and slim, always well made up, nicely dressed, Barbour jacket, kept horses, drove a Saab convertible. When they first came, Angus said I should make friends with her. You like horses, he’d said, why not invite her round. I didn’t think she looked nice at all. Not be-friends-with nice. I could see why men would like her though. When men looked at her, you could see their wives shrinking.
The invite to the party had been specially printed. To Mr and Mrs Angus Armstrong, and the address, on the envelope, in a fancy font. Inside, a plain cream coloured card said simply: Mr and Mrs Marcus Ferguson, At Home, CALLALY HALL, 24th December 2010, 8pm. When Angus got in from work that day the invitation was the first thing he noticed. He picked up the envelope, looked at it and shook his head. He was opening it as he walked into the kitchen. He poured himself two fingers of the Famous Grouse and dribbled a bit of water in from the cold tap. He was drinking more than he used to. Then he propped the card against the sugar bowl that was still on the table from breakfast. He took a slug of the whisky, turned the little TV on with the remote, went over and fiddled a bit with the intenral aerial, then pulled up a chair and sat down like he’d had a very long day.
‘That’ll be nice,’ he said, looking at the card. ‘A Christmas party. Up at the Fergusons’.’
He lit a cigarette, drained the whisky glass and got up to pour another.
The snow got worse as we left Alnwick and began the long climb up onto the moor. A few cars had been abandoned in the verges and were already up to the tops of their wheels in snow.
‘What if we can’t get home?’ I said. Up on the top, a blizzard was blowing. There were big drifts on either side of the road. Angus was taking it slowly, but even so, the Discovery was having trouble gripping.
‘It’s a White Christmas!’ said Angus. ‘Eskimos have a hundred and one different words for snow.’ He changed down a gear and put the hot fan on louder to clear the windscreen which was steaming up.
‘Inuit,’ I said.
When we reached the Hall there were lots of cars, mostly 4x4s, parked at all angles along the road. Angus pulled up beside the big iron gates. The drive was thick with snow; lots of footprints, but no tyre marks. Angus yanked on the handbrake and got out.
‘It’ll be alright here’, he said. The locks clicked shut and the lights flashed twice.
‘My shoes,’ I said. We walked up the long, curving driveway, lit all along with strings of little dancing lanterns.
‘Ah, lovely. Christmas Eve,’ Angus said.
I could hear the sigh in his voice. I think we were both trying to forget what had happened last Christmas, and all the hard times there had been in between. Angus’s shoes crunched into the snow. At the turn in the drive, the big house loomed out of the darkness, a mass of sparkling lights.
‘Bit different from when old man Kennedy …’ Angus said.
I hadn’t wanted to come here, but now I was beginning to feel the old draw of the place and it wasn’t unpleasant. I kept on telling myself it was alright, alright to move on, to put the past behind you and to leave it there. Angus pulled the bell at the big studded front door which had a wreath of holly with some red satin ribbons in the middle. The bell clanked inside, its familiar clank. Nobody came.
‘It can’t be that late.’ Angus checked his watch. He stamped his feet to get the snow off then pulled the bell again, harder. This time a woman dressed as a maid opened the door.
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘Mr ….?’
‘Armstrong,’ Angus interrupted, ‘Angus Armstrong.’
We followed the maid into the wide hallway, passed a huge Christmas tree decorated with glass balls and tiny sparkling white lights. Garlands of holly were roped around the edge of the gilded mirror above the inglenook where big logs hissed in the flames. I could smell wood-smoke, mulled wine and cigars, hear the hum of voices coming from open doors on every side. Someone was playing the piano, Debussy’s Snowflakes. The door of Grandpa Kennedy’s study was the only door that was shut. In the vast hall, the crystal pendants of the Venetian chandelier swayed gently, catching the light, making little rainbow patterns on the walls.
‘What a place!’ Angus said, as though he’d never set foot in here before, or perhaps he was just reminding himself. The maid ushered us to the cloakroom.
‘Coats are in here,’ she said, addressing Angus but ignoring me, acting like I didn’t matter.
There was another sign pointing up the stairs to the Ladies’ Cloakroom. I left Angus hanging up his coat and went up the wide carpeted staircase that branched into two galleried landings at the top. It was just like I remembered; the bust of old Josiah Kennedy on a marble plinth, the portraits of the ancestors in their thick gilt frames, the faded tapestry depicting the Exodus. All still there, even though none of them had anything to do with the Fergusons. I wondered what Angus would have to say about that.
At the top of the staircase the door into my old room swung open before I reached it. Nothing had changed. The four-poster bed and the matching dark wood furniture, the little desk, the curtains of heavy gold brocade, the tassels along the pelmet. I hung my coat up in the big oak wardrobe and the familiar smell of lavender and old wood hit me. I pulled back the curtains and secured them with their stays of twisted braid. I heaved open the oak shutters and folded them back and looked out across the garden; the cedar tree, its great limbs stretching out black across the snow covered lawn. In the moonlight I watched a little girl, swinging to and fro, to and fro, her hands gripping tightly onto the ropes that hung from the tree, her ankles crossed, her hair flying out behind her. The swing creaked rhythmically. I tore myself away and went downstairs.
I couldn’t find Angus anywhere. I looked in all four of the large rooms that were open. I went into the kitchen. Into the conservatory. I went from one to the other a second time, a third time. Angus was nowhere. In each of the rooms people were standing around in small groups, talking, smiling, laughing, champagne glasses or little pewter mugs in their hands. Some of the men were smoking cigars and throwing their heads back, exhaling clouds of smoke. In the drawing room, a black Labrador and a border terrier were sprawled in front of the fire. When it saw me, the Labrador pricked up its ears and slapped its tail lazily a few times; it half got up, but then lay back down and rested its head on its paws and watched me. No-one else seemed interested in me and I recognised no-one. This wasn’t my crowd. Where was Angus? I thought of asking someone, but chances were no-one would know who Angus was. Someone said what a pity it was that Marcus had had to miss his own party, and wasn’t Camilla a brick. In the kitchen, there was the old oak table, spread with festive food – a big turkey, two hams, a side of salmon. People were piling up their plates and eating with silver forks that had our family crest on. They were talking and laughing and mopping at their mouths between sentences with pure white damask napkins that matched the tablecloth. There was a smell of cloves and oranges. On the far wall, the big black Aga. People were ladling steaming mulled wine from a stock-pot into pewter cups. The muted sounds of the piano came from the music room, the opening bars of Once in Royal David’s City. The clock on the wall said almost midnight. As the hour struck, people put down their plates, topped up their glasses and pushed their way to the music room.
Just as everyone was heading for the music room, I caught sight of Angus. I saw him leaving the kitchen by the other door. His tie was loose and his shirt was half out of his trousers. Camilla was hanging onto the tail of it, champagne slopping in a tall glass in her other hand. I followed the crowd out just in time to see Angus and Camilla crossing the hall at the far side, she still hanging onto his shirt-tail. They went into the study and the door closed loudly behind them. Camilla was giggling, but she stopped abruptly and for a moment there was quiet. Then, the clock finished striking and, from the music room, the house was filled with singing.
I knew that the moment I lost Angus, I would lose myself.
Somehow I made it to the dining room. The fire was dying, the last embers smouldering in the grate. The grandfather clock watched me from its moon face, its pendulum glinting in the candlelight. Through the French windows, the black of night, the white of snow, and the creak creak creak of the swing in the cedar tree.
The singing stopped and people were saying their goodbyes. I stood watching them through the French doors hugging, wishing each other a Happy Christmas, wandering off down the drive in twos and threes, waving and blowing kisses as they parted company and went their separate ways. I heard car engines starting, wheels moving, muffled by the snow. I waited for Angus just across from the front door. He came out in his shirt-sleeves, holding up his jacket, he was patting the pockets, feeling for the car keys. He seemed to have left his overcoat in the house. Camilla was standing on the top step, her hair adrift now from its pins.
“Ring me tomorrow,” she was saying, “first thing, you won’t forget, promise?”
“Promise,” he said. Now he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “I promise,” he said again.
Then I was running across the lawn, running through the snow, stumbling towards the gates. I saw Angus walking briskly down the driveway. He was carrying his jacket and swinging the car keys and whistling as he walked, Hark the Herald Angels Sing … Angus never whistled. His hair was all messed up. When he reached the corner and looked back and waved at Camilla. She was still at the door, waving back at him in the flickering lights. She kept on waving until he turned the corner. Angus passed me at the gate, still whistling as he got into the car. I looked back at the empty expanse of snowy lawn I had run across only minutes before.
Even before I looked, I knew there would be no footprints, that my feet had left no mark. The snow was as smooth as if it had only just fallen. I went over to the cedar tree and sat down on the swing. I held onto the ropes and I crossed my ankles and I swung and swung as high as I could make it go. The lights went off in the house, one by one, and all the twinkling lanterns in the garden, and the moon and all the stars.
Well wasn’t that just a brilliant start to my Twelve Days of Christmas? Thank you so much to Shelley Day for sharing that story. Tomorrow I will be joined by Vivien Brown who will be sharing a story about Santa’s Cat – don’t miss it!
More about The Confession of Stella Moon
1977: A killer is released from prison and returns ‘home’ – a decaying, deserted boarding house choked with weeds and foreboding. Memories of strange rituals, gruesome secrets and shame hang heavy in the air, exerting a brooding power over young Stella Moon. She is eager to restart her life, but first she must confront the ghosts of her macabre family history and her own shocking crime. Guilt, paranoia and manipulation have woven a tangled web. All is ambiguous. What truth and what lies are behind the chilling confession of Stella Moon?