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Ami Starsong. Oh, yes. That Ami Starsong, she of the knicker fetish. She won’t admit how many pairs she owns, but she will admit that she loves to shop for them. Last year, amidst much hilarity, she offered to donate a pair of knickers as an Advent Calendar prize. (Oh, all right. I suggested it.) After discussing possible titles, she came up with the idea of St. Knickerless day as a pun on St. Nicholas Day (which is today, December 6). You can read all about the hilarity here.
Remember, everything is Ami’s fault and she deserves what she gets. 😀
ST KNICKERLESS DAY!
I’m very pleased to be asked to join in with the fun of Ana’s Advent Calendar again this year. A great deal of planning, preparation and hard work go into this event, and with the huge variety of different contributions there is plenty to interest everyone.
All this and mega prizes too!
So I put on my ‘Elf hat’ and my woolly socks, together with the little red shoes with jingly bells on the toes, and went shopping for my St Knickerless Day Prize. The people on the bus cast me sideways glances, but I didn’t care. I was intently perusing what type of knickers to purchase for this year’s lucky winner.
I had flagged my intention with Dan. “Oh, not again!” was his reply. Luckily he knows by now that once I have my mind set on something there is very little that will deter me.
You would suppose that an Elf on an English High Street would cause at least a few titters, but the English are so stolid and stalwart. I stood in the Knicker Shop for ages, rifling amongst the high-legs, thongs, shorts and tangas without raising a single eyebrow.
All I can tell you is that the lucky winner is in for a treat this year! And I’m not even telling Ana what the prize will be!
This Advent I am not asking quiz questions. I don’t think I could better last year – both the participation and comments were brilliant!
So in order to contribute to the atmosphere leading up to Christmas, I hope you will enjoy to reading a short excerpt from my book in progress – raw first draft. The title is Walking with Shadows.
People mostly like a good ghost story – some of the ghosts in this story are real!
He stood watching down the lane, the night had no hint of rain or dreariness. The air was frosty; the heavens clear and spangled with stars.
The diamond glittered on the first finger of his right hand.
He had waited such a very long time.
She was coming. He knew it. He could feel her nearby.
The Landrover hit a patch of ice, spun round facing the way we had come, hit the opposite verge, bounced in a water runnel and wedged itself between a large oak tree and a fence post.
“Fuck!” Hal slammed both fists down on the steering wheel.
I tried to extricate myself from my seat belt which had pulled tight on impact and now threatened to cut off circulation to my right boob.
“Fucking black ice!”
“That’s country life for you.”
“Give it a rest.” Hal was wearing his mulish look. He opened the door and gingerly climbed out, managed to avoid the ditch but snagged his coat on an enterprising bramble.
I heard him stumbling around the back of the car, then felt the entire vehicle shudder as he gave one of the back tyres an almighty kick.
He wrenched my door open.
“Back nearside’s flat as a pancake. I’ll have to phone David to come with the tractor and pull me out before I can change it.”
His festive bow tie with the holly design was up round his left ear, his shoes looked squelchy and there was mud on his evening trousers.
“Are you okay, Issy?”
“Bit late to ask me that.” I hitched up my long skirt, grabbed my clutch bag from the foot well where it had fallen, and scrambled down into the long wet grass.
My strappy shoes were about the most unsuitable I could have worn for such circumstances, but then, I hadn’t known the quick detour to the candlelit midnight service would take such an unfortunate turn.
I stood on the roadside looking first at the stuck Landie, and then at my brother. He was busy on his mobile phone, fingers raking nervously through his hair, his clipped sentences cutting through the icy air.
I pulled my wrap more closely around my shoulders and shivered. I couldn’t see what time it was; the dial of my watch was far too small. I had so wanted to attend the midnight service. I had dragged Hal away from the Holton-Smythes’ party, much to the annoyance of Felicity Holton-Smythe who was draped all over him at the time.
My first Christmas in the depths of the English countryside was set on reinforcing the sagacity of the Chaos Theory.
Hal had warned me about the dangers of hiding myself away in such a rural area, but the first time I had seen ‘Bays’ I was lost. Within two months I had sold my flat in Islington, and relocated to the old timber-framed farmhouse nestled amongst the green swathes of meadowland rimmed in oak and field maple.
Bays had sat there for centuries, roots firmly entrenched in the clay soil of an England that the centuries had left undisturbed. Even though the chimney smoked when the wind was in the north, bindweed grew in the downstairs shower room, and the draughts whistled through the old mullions requiring extra thick curtains, I loved it.
I even loved the ghosts.
Yes, even the distant sound of music when you were very quiet and stood listening at the bottom of the old oak staircase that curved round the inglenook. Even when you went to pick up a book you had dropped on the floor at the bedside before dropping off to sleep, and found it across the room placed carefully on top of the chest of drawers. Even when you were making the bed and heard someone in the room along the landing, yet you knew you were the only one in the house.
“Look, Hal. I’ll walk. It’s not far. I’ve got an old pair of flatties in the back I keep for driving in.” I tugged open the back door of the Landrover and leaning against the bumper undid the clasps on my sandals and pushed my feet into the comfortable old shoes that had been hurled up against the back seats when we slithered off the road.
It was a beautiful night, the sky full of stars; the sliver of a new moon had just climbed above the horizon, and a severe hoar frost had decorated everything in glistening, frilly white.
Hal knew better than to argue. Sometimes being the elder sister has its positives. At least I would feel warmer walking than standing still, and heaven only knew how long David would take to arrive with his tractor on a Christmas Eve.
“You’ve got your mobile?”
“Yes.” I checked it was switched on and popped it back in my bag.
“You be careful. I hope this service will be worth it.” Hal plainly wasn’t convinced. “Ring me when you get there.”
“It’s only half a mile along the lane. Give me some credit.”
“Ring me. Okay?”
“As soon as I get towed out and we’ve changed the tyre I will join you. Stay in the church and wait for me if the service finishes and I have not arrived. I don’t know what kind of signal you will get there, but give me a ring if you get any bars.”
I huffed, turned on my heel and marched off into the relative darkness of the tree-lined lane.
In flat shoes the going wasn’t too bad, but I did have to hold up my skirt and it kept getting clogged round my ankles. I slipped once or twice, but managed to keep my feet. My breath came out in fluffy clouds, and once or twice I heard owls calling in the trees ahead.
The air smelt so crisp and clean I felt quite enervated as I approached the small dark outline of the medieval church. Stepped back off the lane it was reached by a small wooden bridge that led over a drainage ditch.
There were, however, no cars outside. Everywhere was in complete darkness; just the flickering of candlelight through one or two of the south-facing windows. I just hoped the door had been left unlocked so that I could wait in relative warmth instead of having to sit and wait in the porch. If that were the case then I would have to retrace my steps – that or freeze.
I padded quietly over the little wooden bridge and slipped through the lychgate. The night was silent, even the owls had disappeared. I turned the large iron ring in the ancient oak door and felt relief as it swung inwards. I glanced back and the shadows seemed to gather behind me causing me to catch my breath. I moved forwards.
The church was warm from the candles and smelled redolently of beeswax, winter jasmine, arum lilies and incense. I closed the door behind me to keep the warmth in and the shadows out.
Fat, creamy white, church candles sat in their sconces to hold back the darkness and the shadows. More were perched along the deep stone windowsills and there were two in large brass candleholders on the altar itself. But only three were still alight, and they were considerably burned down.
The church was ancient and very small. Simple wooden pews extended towards the altar rail on both sides, a curved wooden door led to a small vestry tall men would have had difficulty with. Immediately in front of the main door, across the chancel, an intricately carved oak chest stood. On top hymn books and service sheets had been piled neatly together with some printed booklets detailing the history of the church, and a small empty box with a slit in the lid for payment or donations.
I wandered over to the booklets and browsed through one. They not only detailed the church history, but also the history of the family who had lived for generations in the great house next to the church. However, the house had burned down in the fifteen century under suspicious circumstances. It appeared that the Master of Horse to his Majesty King Richard III had once lived there.
The hairs stood up along the back of my neck. Richard III? Didn’t he kill the princes in the Tower? I put my head on one side, deep in thought. Didn’t Richard get his Master of Horse to do the deed for him?
I went and sat quietly in one of the pews in the second row from the front of the altar. I checked my watch. This time I could see the hands. 12.45. Christmas morning. I looked up quickly. The shadows danced around the walls, the stained glass dark, the air stuffy and oppressive.
Goosepimples had risen along my arms and my wrap had come loose. I snatched it around me once again and stood up, making my way to the altar, the candles flickering, the shadows alive, following me.
I put my hand out stroking the stone, touching the lace of the altar cloth. The air full of static. The shadows waiting.
The door to the church creaked.
I couldn’t turn round. Daren’t. I stood still as a statue, trying to breath, trying to inhale and exhale. Heart hammering.
“Hal?” My voice came out as a squeak. “Hal? Is that you?”
Silence greeted me as I had known it would.
Compelled to turn round, I hesitated.
The shadows drew back.
The voice did not belong to my brother.
It was a voice I knew. A voice I loved.
At least so it seemed to me. I couldn’t recall where from, but icy tremors ran up my spine.
The man was tall. His eyes dark. His nose long. His cheekbones high. Glossy dark chestnut hair. Arched brows.
“Isabel? Is it really you?” His voice cracked with emotion.
The shadows hummed around us. I put out my right hand and clasped the velvet of his shoulder. My eyes met with his. He took my left hand and held it to his heart, pulling me close so his chin rested gently upon my hair. I could see him, touch him, feel him. The pain was exquisite.
“Oh, Isabel.” His arms were tight around me. “You’ve made me wait so long.”
I bit my lip and leaned into his chest. The shadows pushed forward again, crowding, pressing. It was difficult to breathe. I raised my head and gazed into the face of the man I loved.
The man I love.
“Richard,” I said.
Hal’s voice came from a distance.
“Issy, Issy?” Then to someone else, “I think she’s coming round.”
My eyelids were lead weights. I forced them up and stared blearily at the sea of faces looking down at me where I lay slumped on the cold stone floor. With Hal’s help I struggled into a sitting position. My head hurt where I had bumped it on my way down.
“Hal? I thought…”
“Come on, let’s get you to your feet. What the hell happened? I was only about ten minutes behind you. David decided we should abandon the Landrover till after Christmas. It’s his hedge it’s in after all. He dropped me off at the church. Everyone else followed hot on my heels. We haven’t missed the service after all. Did you feel faint? Did you trip on your bloody skirt?”
My head felt full of cotton wool or sawdust, or both, but I could focus better now.
I frowned. As soon as they had seen I was still in the land of the living, and totally uninjured, the people who had turned up for the midnight service had begun to fill the pews. Hymn books and service sheets had been handed out, and a subtle smell of mulled wine and mince pies had invaded the atmosphere.
“I’m fine, Hal. Really I am.” I studied my watch. 11.25. Christmas Eve.
“Funny. I thought…” My voice trailed away. “I thought I had arrived after the service had finished. The pews were empty. There was no-one here.”
“Were the candles lit?” Hal looked resigned to having an idiot for a sister.
“Yes, but only three, the rest were burned down. The church was empty, Hal. It was nearly one in the morning.”
He dragged me to the back pew and thrust me in ahead of him, fencing me in at the end. He checked his watch again.
“Issy, you must’ve hurt your head more than I thought. I’ll take a look at it when we get home. The Tates said they would give us a lift on their way past, so if you can manage to cope with the service?”
His voice trailed off. He looked anxious, but I had recovered sufficiently to stand and join in with the first hymn, which was the carol “Once in Royal.” By the end of the service I had improved sufficiently not to need the help of his hand on my elbow, though I didn’t shake it off.
We stayed for a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine (transported in thermos flasks) before following the Tates out into the frozen air, Christmas greetings and good wishes pressed upon us.
At the lychgate I paused. The church was quiet once again, nestled in the shadows of the trees. Someone inside was extinguishing the candles.
I turned slightly to the left, my eyes going to the north door. A shadow had detached itself from the rest. I caught the flash of a diamond and my heart jumped.
“For goodness sake, come on, Issy!” Hal was getting impatient. He held the gate open for me.
I started to follow him through, then stopped. The flash came again as if a hand was lifted in farewell.
All went quiet.
The shadows had gone.
I smiled into the darkness and lifted my own hand.
‘Not farewell’, I thought.
I do hope you enjoyed this. I was inspired to write this story not only due to certain ‘factual evidence’ where I live, but because in our ancient, simple, stone church, there is a small but elaborate tomb with the words “To the woman I love, until we meet again” inscribed on it. No-one knows who is buried there, but underneath the words is the Rose of York.
All who read the story and comment will have their names written down in a piece of paper and put in a large pudding basin. Dan will draw the winning name.
If the winner is willing to let me have their initials and address, I will post the St Knickerless prize to them as soon as they let me know their size.
I can be contacted at email@example.com
Many thanks to Ana for all her hard work and for making our lead up to Christmas so enjoyable.