Trawling though the archives on an old removable hard drive, I came across this short story, penned by a friend of mine, Rosie Kemp, and it seemed suitable for this season. It was written in 1999, and while most of it is fictional, I can attest that the ghostly element was based on her personal experience at Hurel Farm in Jersey as a young girl.
The Christmas Visit
by Rosie Kemp
Stonylane Farm had been Lucy Hillwing's home for almost thirteen years now. She would walk home from school, making her way past brick cottages, and there would be the old farmhouse, nestling between the sycamore tree on one side and the old wash-house on the other. It's thick strong walls had withstood many storms, had kept the family warm through many a cold winter, while the tiny windows had seen many Spring days, when the apple trees were full of blossom and the surrounding fields ploughed and planted with early potatoes.
The adjacent outhouses were home to potato barrels, tomato crates, bales of straw along with the two farm cats, Brownie and Mischief. Three large greenhouses on the other side of the yard housed in turn, geraniums of every hue, sweet scented carnations and tomatoes. The old pig sties were home to some ageing pigs, since Lucy's father had been too soft hearted to send them to market.
The old house itself, though, had always held her in it's magic spell, and today was no exception.
Lucy made her way along the lane, the holly bush was heavy with berries, that could mean a cold winter ahead.
"Mum,.Dad!", she called, her voice echoing through the scullery, "I'm back!" The ensuing silence meant that they were still out in the fields, probably picking Brussels sprouts, ready for the Christmas rush. Her parents worked hard on the farm, it wasn't always an easy life , but they were happy. Lucy lit the gas for her cup of tea and went up the three small stairs and along the passage to the front room, where Toby their labrador was lying in front of the fire. "Hello old fellow, Fifi is coming around later, isn't she?" The old dog sighed and lowered his head deeper into his paws.
"Yes, I'd tried to forget", she thought, sadly. Fifi and her owners, Philip and Celia Rockway were coming to see her parents tonight.
Mary Hillwing came indoors. She looked tired from her long day. "Do you want me to get the tea ready?", Lucy asked her. She knew that her mother would be as miserable and worried about tonight as she was, but unlike her rather feisty ( and somewhat stubborn!) daughter she was more accepting of what life threw at her, and seemed to have resigned herself to what she felt was the inevitable.
One thing was for certain, if they didn't get help soon, what was now a strong possibility would become the inevitable. She would talk to her old friend who always had a way of easing any of Lucy's worries and cheering her up. Old Millie had been intimidating initially but once you got to know her she really was very sweet.
"That was it, she must talk to Millie as soon as possible". Meanwhile it was time to prepare tea for them all.
Roy Hillwing, Lucy's father, came in from the yard and washed his face and hands at the stone kitchen sink. "There'll be a good lot of sprouts to take to the market stall tomorrow", he said ,but Lucy knew that his mind was on other matters, just as hers and her mother's .
The clock struck eight all too soon and there was a knock at the door. The Rockways had arrived, they gushed their way into the house, you could almost feel the door cringe as they went through it. Philip Rockway was a man who was used to getting his own way, he had made up his mind about this house and was ready and able to pay a high price for it. His manicured wife simpered next to him, no doubt imagining herself idling the time away in one of the luxury flats which her husband planned to build on the site. Roy Hillwing was beginning to waver. Some fast thinking was called for.
"It's far too late to decide anything tonight," Lucy heard herself saying, " Why don't you come for Christmas lunch next week, you can sleep over in the guest room on Christmas Eve. We can give you our decision after the Christmas pudding !" Her parents looked at her in amazement, they knew how she felt about the Rockways. " Now, if you'll excuse us, my parents are both very tired.."
The week up to Christmas passed all too quickly. There were so many preparations to make, as well as all the usual work on the farm. Even the impending visit of the Rockways couldn't dampen the Christmas spirit for the Hillwing family though. Cards thudded onto the doormat, the smell of mince pies wafted from the kitchen and Great-Uncle Ernie turned up with an enormous Christmas tree which reached the ceiling. However, in all of the excitement, Lucy was thinking about Millie.
On the morning of Christmas Eve Lucy still hadn't managed to contact her friend. Perhaps she had upset her in some way, if only she knew.. She came out of her bedroom and went into the guest room; it was all prepared for tonight, fresh bedclothes, winter flower arrangement, guest soaps and towels.. " Oh Millie, I need your help!" she exclaimed, looking out of the large window to the lane below.
Millie was in her own bedroom, thinking things out. She felt so old and tired. Many changes had occurred over the years, people had come and gone from the area. Some folk had taken an instant dislike to her , they didn't take time to get to know her, not like dear Lucy had. She sensed that her young friend needed her now.
The Rockways had arrived, in spite of Lucy's desperate wish for a snow storm, punctured tyre, their precious Fifi to go into quarantine - anything, in fact to put off the dreaded decision time. But there they were, ensconced in the front room, sitting on the sofa, doing their best to exude goodwill to all men. She almost felt sorry for them, they were like fish out of water.
At 10 o'clock they had both yawned loudly and decided to go up to their room. It was a relief to Lucy and her parents to have some time to themselves.. Lucy helped her mother to prepare the vegetables for the next day and made some apple and chestnut stuffing for the turkey. At 11 o'clock, it was time for the candle-lit carol service on BBC 2.
Celia Rockway was snuggled under her duvet, she had been trying to go to sleep for the last two hours although her husband had no problems and was snoring soundly next to her. It was a lovely guest bedroom, she was impressed by Mrs Hillwing's homely touches, but thought that she might have put a heater on in the room as it was so awfully cold.. At least the duvet was warm. Then, Celia felt the end of the bed sink down , " There's a good girl Fifi, come and snuggle on the bed with Mummykins" She put her hand out to stroke the pampered pooch, but no warm , furry dog responded, she moved her hand over the bed, there was nothing there. Celia sat up and put on the bedside light. Fifi was nowhere to be seen. The wooden floorboards creaked and the bedroom door slowly opened...
Celia sat bolt upright in bed, she tried to speak, but no words came out, just a frightened squeak.
The bedroom door continued to open until she could see out onto the landing. There was nobody there.
When Mary Hillwing knocked on the guest room door she was met by an exhausted and pale faced Celia, who was already dressed.
Philip Rockway was throwing clothes into a case. "I'm sorry" he said, "we've had a change of plan. We really ought to be heading back". The couple looked unusually flustered.
Roy and Mary Hillwing had never wanted to leave the farm, not for all the money in the world, but they hadn't been able to stand up to the Rockways, not without some help.
The large car roared away up the lane. Neither Celia, Philip or even Fifi gave a backward glance. If they had looked up at the guest room window they would have seen the figure of an old lady smiling down triumphantly at them. Millie turned back into her room, which was the Hillwing's guest room. "I think that my job here is completed now.." she whispered softly to herself, and gradually faded away.
At Christmas lunch, the Hillwings sat around the dining table. It was a grand spread, turkey with all the trimmings, crispy roast potatoes and of course, home-grown Brussels sprouts. The pudding was lit , the family raised their glasses in a toast. "Merry Christmas !"
"Thank you, Millie, you gave us the best Christmas we ever had", whispered Lucy. Her parents looked puzzled. "What's that dear?" they said. " Happy Christmas, here's to the new Millennium, Mum and Dad"
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