Stuck in the Chimney

STUCK IN THE CHIMNEY

Santa swooped low towards Bristol, his flurry of visits to Bath and its environs complete. The recent snow had abated and Donner and Blitzen could stop showing off their advanced navigational skills, though to be fair, it had come in handy around south-east England.

“Airliners,” Santa would harumph. “So slow and dirty and noisy – and they do make life tricky for really important flights like ours, especially in bad weather.”

Goldilocks and Jenna agreed with the Boss but, as the newbies on the team, kept quiet. This despite their mentor Vixen telling them to stand up for female rights and to aspire to become leaders over time. They’d remembered Vixen’s partner, Comet, nodding sagely in a corner of the room and yawning. The two young’uns weren’t sure if Comet was tired or had simply heard it all before and was getting bored.

“Now,” the Chief Elf called out. “Special delivery to the big house on the right with the garden. He’s got a birthday coming up. We had a very well-written letter from his family saying that their grandfather was going to be eighty-seven and that over the last year or two, he’d begun to believe once again in the magic of Santa Claus. He even believes Bristol City football club are going back to the Premiership but I don’t think that’s got anything to do with us – we only deal in reality. We were asked to do this specially. Plus he’s got all his family with him, so we’re going to make all the adults wake up and take notice of Santa Claus.”

“We’re not going to break the golden rule are we?” Santa looked anxious. “Not landing on the lawn in full view.”

“No, no,” came the reply. “Roof landing as per normal procedure. No emergencies here. But we’ve got some extra presents for him and his family.”

“But looks like a big home anyway. Why’s he need these socking great parcels?” called out a junior elf from the top of the cargo bay.

“It’s a retirement home. But a home for retired writers of stories where the residents can all share ideas and stories and gain inspiration. Sounds like a jolly interesting place. Fifth chimney stack on the left. Number four chimney,” called out the navigator elf. “ Visibility good. Crosswind 20 mph; roof conditions NFTY.”

The sled landed smoothly on the snow covered roof. Santa and an elf jumped down and the presents were fed down the chimney – children’s first, then their parents’ and then two parcels marked “For Bleda”, the first a normal sized parcel and the second a big spongy parcel.

“Hope the big parcel doesn’t get stuck,” the elf sounded concerned.
“It’ll be fine,” Santa responded. “Now let’s get cracking. Lots more to do. Best get off to Somerset and Devon.”

In the morning, the grandchildren were up early. Bursting into the sitting room, the squeals of delight betrayed the discovery of presents in the hearth. Paper was torn off and thrown aside eagerly in the urge to get at the presents – battery operated cars, dolls, make-up packages, models….. All there. And the adults…. Scent, after-shave, jumpers.

“Wow,” exclaimed one of the children, “Santa has been generous this year. And look, presents for Grandpa too. And I thought Grandpa didn’t believe in Santa cos he’d got too old to believe.”

He picked up the parcel and ran over to Grandad who examined it carefully as if it were a suspect package before gingerly cutting the scarlet ribbon and unwrapping the paper decorated with happy Santas. He did a brief double take when he thought that one of the Santas was actually waving to him. Inside were a thermal vest and leggings plus a thick woolly jumper decorated with a picture of Rudolf. As Grandpa held it up, he could have sworn Rudolph winked.

‘Can’t be time for a drink already,’ he thought. His hands seemed steady enough; vision OK. He looked again at the presents and muttered to himself, ‘But I’m not going out in the cold.’ Then he looked at the fire and realised it had gone out overnight.

“Hey, girls,” he called out, “the fire needs relighting. It’s all very well relying on the central heating but Christmas demands a good log fire. Fetch me some wood and newspaper. “And who drank the port and ate the mince pies by the fireplace?”

Nobody heard him so Grandpa went off in search of some wood for the fire, wondering which of his family had consumed the drink and pies that had been left by the hearth last night, secretly wishing the port had lingered longer. At the time, he’d thought it a waste but he began to wonder who’d snaffled them.

“And the blasted fire won’t light,” Grandpa was grumping as the smoke billowed round the sitting room. “Looks like the chimney’s blocked. We’ll have to get a sweep in as soon as we can.”

“Don’t fuss, Dad,” the children answered. ”It’s quite warm with the central heating. The chimney can be swept after the holidays.” Grandpa muttered something about Christmas just not being the same without a roaring log fire.

The next two days passed happily enough with family games, brisk walks and grandchildren trying out new toys. It dawned bright and crisply cold on the 27th December. The grandchildren were up early. Grandpa stayed in bed dozing until about eight o’clock when his grandchildren banged at the door, shouting,

“Happy Birthday, Gandpa. Time to get up and open your presents.”

The presents from family and friends were unwrapped, Grandpa taking care – as usual – to open presents so as to preserve the wrapping paper for future use. Meanwhile the cards, socks, jumpers and books piled up. Then just as the ceremony of the unwrapping was about to end, a strange rumble was heard from the chimney and a large bulky package fell into the grate, the golden wrapping paper betraying a few smoke stains from the abortive attempt to light the fire two days earlier.

“What on earth?” Grandpa exclaimed….

The family looked dumbfounded and two of the grandchildren approached it gingerly, inspecting it as if it were a mystery visitor from another world and then poking it.

“It feels like there’s a box inside,” one of them pronounced.

“A box. It might be game of some sort.” the other speculated. “And look, it has an envelope attached.”

The grandchildren bore the parcel to their grandfather, now sitting in the main armchair looking quite goggle-eyed.

“Open the box!” alternated with “Open the envelope!” reminding Grandpa of a TV quiz show he used to watch. He opted for the envelope and gingerly loosened the flap to withdraw a large birthday card decorated on the outside with pictures of holly, snow and reindeers.

“Who’s it from?” the children and grandchildren. Grandpa open it and stared, utterly speechless, at the copperplate handwriting.

“It’s from Santa Claus,” he croaked in disbelief and then, after more encouragement from the others, continued.

“Dear Bleda (Francis), Your friends from the CTWG sent me a special message by chimney post telling me you had a birthday over the Christmas period and they know it’s hard when your birthday is so close to Christmas so they wanted you to feel special.

Please will you and your family be at the top of the fire escape at eight o’clock tonight. You may need to open the box beforehand. Make sure you’re all wrapped up warm.

Happy Birthday,

Santa, the Reindeer and the Elves.

PS You’re going out for supper.”

Grandpa stared at the card in disbelief then turned to the box and loosened the tape. Taking the top off, he was first met by the sight of a hologram of the reindeers – plus Vixen as choir mistress – singing “Happy Birthday”. Then delving into the box he retrieved a thick red coat and trousers and furry boots together with a cap with a bell on top. Then more clothing all matching and fitting his family beautifully.

Ten to eight and the sky over Bristol is clear, a sharp frost hardening the snow round about. Bleda and the family wait expectantly dressed in their presents from Santa and feeling self-conscious. What if the staff catch them up here? How do they explain? They chatter nervously. They didn’t dream it did they?

Then from the north comes a clear jingle and the sounds of guffawing laughter. A speck appears in the sky growing brighter and a team of reindeer appears with a large sled in tow.

“Happy birthday, Bleda, please hop on board all of you,” chorus the reindeer and Santa, two of his elves and an extra reindeer sitting in the back drawing up to fire escape and hovering. Bewildered at the sight and the spectacle of talking reindeer, Bleda and the family follow their instructions, the grandchildren gasping at the sight.

“Now,” the reindeer sitting next to them, who smiles and introduces herself as Vixen, (Head of Communications and PR at The Big Hut) announces, “you’re all off for a birthday treat and meal in Finland at the real Big Hut. Sit back and enjoy.”

“Hold tight,” Santa bellows. “We’re off.”

“Oh, Bleda, we understand you write stories – I’ve read them on the web,” Vixen sounds almost seductive as she whispers in his ear and lays her hoof on his wrist. “ Perhaps you can tell us a story or two over dinner.”

[ (c) Colmore December 2018]

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Alicjia: Short Story for September/October 18

I never liked staying at Grandpa’s house. For one thing it was old and pokey and the spare bed was uncomfortable; for another, it was damp and the bedclothes and blankets were musty as the house overlooked the harbour at Newlyn; and, third, since Gran died there was always Alicjia hovering round. But I will return to Alijcia a bit later.

Stefan – Grandpa – Tadeusz Jezciewicz (now you know why we called him simply “Grandpa”) was born of an old seafaring family in Danzig, a location famed for its mariners, and like his father and grandfather, he had gone to sea as soon as he turned fifteen, sometime back around the turn of the last century, and risen quickly to become a merchant navy captain commanding vessels for a well-known freight company. His prejudices, as well as his tempers, were legendary – he distrusted anybody who wasn’t from England, Scandinavia, Holland or Portugal (“after all, they are England’s oldest ally; and they know the oceans,” he would say when asked about the Portuguese). He quite liked Germans, especially those from Hamburg, but hated Prussians (“my beloved homeland has had enough of their type. Why do you think my family are sailors? We go overseas.”).

Continue reading Alicjia: Short Story for September/October 18

The Abandoned Farmhouse

The CCF platoon was nearing the end of a stifling summer’s day, sweating uncomfortably in uniform with packs on their backs when they discovered the old farmhouse by the river, partly hidden under bushes and creepers growing over the building.

With the freshening wind and dark clouds piling up to the west they were glad to find shelter – if you could call it that – the roof and most windows broken and now roughly boarded up. But it would afford basic protection from the worst of the storm that was coming.

“Well…,” announced Jake, the leader, contemplating the building, “not ideal but it’ll give us some shelter if the weather turns shit. Bit early to stop but I suggest we get settled, have a dip in the river to cool off then think about firewood and cooking.”

“This place seems dead creepy,” observed David, one of the younger members, shivering despite the heat. “Those black marks on the wall and the charred roof timbers look odd – like there’s been a bloody big fire. There’s a decent farmhouse over the other side. Couldn’t we cross over and see if we could sleep in a nice dry barn? Maybe cadge some food?”

“Orders are to stay on this side of the river until we meet up with the other platoon. Plus I don’t see a crossing place,” Jake retorted, “now let’s get set up before the weather turns.”

The platoon settled down, had a swim and wash and got a fire going when a voice hailed them from over the river.

“Halloo,” shouted a farmer, “You OK there? I just noticed you and could offer you better shelter at my farm over here; there’s a crossing point at the stones 100 yards down river. It might be more comfortable. I don’t recommend the old farmhouse…. Not a good place….”

“Very kind,” Jake yelled back, “but my orders were to stay this side of the river. And I think we’re
OK.”
“Well, if you’re sure. The offer’s there,” replied the farmer, “You might find it more comfortable
and, dare I say, safer over here. It’s not always so pleasant over your side,” he added darkly.

“Though I can’t see that a small deviation would do any harm……,” David cut in.

“Look we’re here now so shut up,” Jake snapped.

The farmer gave a wave and walked off, though Jake couldn’t help noticing that he turned to look back at them shaking his head.

The boys ate their rations in near silence as the sky got darker, storm clouds rolling in with the distant rumble of thunder and flickers of lightning. The air got increasingly hot and stuffy and for no apparent reason, the boys began to feel jittery.

“Going to be stormy,” remarked one of the company nervously, “let’s hope we don’t get totally pissed on….. Wonder where the other lot are.”

“Let’s not worry about them,” Jake replied, suddenly feeling chilly and apprehensive for no apparent reason, “just hunker down.”

Just after the boys had finished supper, the storm broke. After some banter, which faltered nervously, the boys eventually fell asleep after the day’s walk despite the hammering rain and wind, drips through the roof and the thunder and lightning. All except for David who felt unaccountably edgy and dozed fitfully with strange dreams of dark figures. Eventually he looked at his watch – just after midnight; the storm had petered out and was away off east. He heard some owls hooting mournfully to each other in the distance. Otherwise all was deathly – almost unnaturally – quiet except for splatters of rain dripping from the trees.

Then an odd feeling prompted him to get up and look out of the windows. Through the gloom, now partly lit both by sporadic flashes from the receding thunderstorm and by moonlight breaking through the clouds, he saw a number of dark figures prowling around outside the farmhouse. David watched with a sense of growing menace gnawing at his heart as he observed how noiselessly the figures seem to glide purposefully across the ground, as if floating on air, picking up what looked like pieces of wood from underneath the trees and heading towards the farmhouse.

He shook Jake awake.

“What’s up?” Jake enquired sleepily.

“Some strange people out there. They look weird, like ghosts almost,” whispered David struggling to force the words out of his throat.

Sure enough Jake could see them, mysterious black figures coming ever closer carrying large dark bundles. The two boys watched as the figures approached.

Then Jake hissed,“Wake the others quickly and quietly. Something’s not right. I don’t like this.”

David shook the others whilst Jake continued to watch. The figures seemed to be laying their bundles around the building. Then he saw a flare appear in the hands of one of the figures and realised that they were going to set fire to the house.

“Everyone! Awake now – out! Fire!”

But as the boys found the door blocked by planks of wood and they saw haggard but ghostly figures with matted grey hair, eyes as black as coals contrasting with their deathly white palor and with thin colourless lips laughing obscenely through stained teeth. The house began to fill with smoke flames licking at the roof lighting the surviving timbers. Jake and the boys began to try and force the barricade but could not move the planks whilst the shadowy figures poked at the boys through gaps in the planks with sharpened sticks.

“Let us out…, please,” David cried in terror.

“Burn, like those bastards what possessed our property,” came a deathly rattling response, “and what lived on what was rightfully our land and suffer the pains we suffered.”

The house filled with smoke and the heat was becoming unbearable as. The boys were terrified with thoughts of being burnt alive or suffocated. Several began to scream. Jake thought quickly,

“Let’s try and break one of the side walls. Stonework’s crumbling over there. Come on, quick,everybody….”

They began to tear furiously at the wall with their bare hands desperately pulling away the loose stones in a last attempt to escape dripping with sweat from naked fear and heat.

Then shouts outside, the sound of a gun being fired and the splintering of the planks over the doorway.

“Quick.” a voice shouted urgently. “This way – now.”

A figure frantically gestured through the smoke and flames. Jake was last one out as the farmhouse crumbled, the roof timbers crashing down in a shower of sparks. Some of the boys began to shake and weep.

“Thank you,” Jake shakily addressed the group of men standing around with lanterns and staves. By the light of the flames he recognised the leader, cradling his shotgun, as the farmer from across the river. “We probably wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t arrived. But who were
those people? They looked like ghosts.”

“Let’s get you to the farm. I’ll explain then.” the farmer replied quietly.

Back at the farm the boys were ushered into the large kitchen where the farmer’s wife bustled around rustling up hot chocolate snacks and discreet whiskies for the boys as the men downed large tots.

“So what was that?” Jake asked, embarrassed to notice his hand was shaking.

“Lammas Farm always had a reputation,” the farmer explained. “So story goes, it were tenanted for many years until Lord Howthwaite, who used to own estate on the other side of river, evicted the tenants and abandoned them to the road to provide somewhere for a member of his family to live. Ever since then the ghosts of the tenants have haunted anyone living there – and I mean truly haunted. Howthwaite’s family had several fatal accidents there and legion are tales of later tenants meeting death or injury. Then the house mysteriously caught fire in a storm and wife of tenant was burned to death. I remember the accidents, if you call them that, as I were a young lad here in my mid-twenties; and I can still remember the wife screaming for help as the flames consumed her – utterly hideous it were. Since then farmhouse has gone to ruin. Nobody round these parts goes near it.”

“That’s why I were concerned about you,” he continued, “but seeing as you were just camping for the night I thought you might be OK. But I had bad feelings on account of the likely thunderstorm. There was a storm when the last tenant’s wife died in the fire. Many said lightning struck the farmhouse but I myself never believed that and nor did my late father.”

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, although what happened was really terrifying,” Jake answered
somewhat shakily.

“Well, you might do now when you think on it.” the farmer replied. “Never underestimate evil. I know, I’ve seen it first hand and now you lads have. You cannot be rid of it – it lurks in this world.”

The Reunion

Paul gazed across the room recognizing many faces he hadn’t seen for years, well in fact most of them, as he’d been living and working abroad for the last twenty years. He looked around to see who else was there, especially certain old members whom he’d hoped very much to meet up with again. Something had suddenly spurred him a few months ago into accepting the invite to attend and booking his flight from Toulouse.
He greeted them and chatted, some he remembered he’d liked and been friendly with – Phil, now a classics teacher at a private school in Dorset (unmarried, but in a “committed relationship” he’d admittedly slightly nervously); Johnnie, the Jewish sportsman who’d strayed so often from the path of righteousness it used to be a standing joke – along with the fact he used (not so) secretly to eat pork sausages with relish – but who was now married with four children and MD of the family business; Sean, the Essex lad who’d gone to school with a former West Ham and England footballer, a decent footballer himself but now a consulting engineer in South East Africa Africa; Tim, a quietly spoken maths student, now a respectable and prosperous accountant in Birmingham.
Then the women. The college had been one of the earliest to admit women – Geraldine the philosopher and currently a newly minted Professor at King’s London, Jenny the earnest and starchy lawyer and now a Q.C., Harriet, the medic, now a GP in prosperous Stratford-on-Avon.
Yes, Paul had read all the brief biographical summaries the College had circulated.
And then those he’d rather disliked, James the still utterly self-assured lawyer who now “managed funds” in the City and oozed wealth from every pore – as he had as an undergraduate; Martin, the brash Birmingham boy who still had the short bandy legs and the beard – greying now – still talked the loudest, clearly still thought he was the most important person in the room and was “something in the City” and Chris, one of the smoothest people to glide across this earth, still smooth and obviously so wealthy from being in banking – wealthier, that is, than when he was an undergraduate. They wouldn’t be out of place in a Parisian salon or a Geneva soiree Paul thought.
There was a loud bang of a gong and Sir Thomas Ewen, the College Master, stood a on a chair at the back of the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, can I formally welcome you all back to St. Matthew’s College for this gaudy. I will say a few more words later at the end of dinner but in the meantime renew old friendships and enjoy the meal. Oh, and Ted assures me the bar in Deep Hall will be open for a good few hours after dinner.”
Gosh, Paul thought, Ted was still going strong though he must be in his late sixties. He was glad, he reflected, as the College servants had mostly been very kind to the students and Ted had been – still was presumably – one of the best.
The old members filed into the Hall, with Paul still looking around to see if certain old friends were present. So far, no luck. They finished the traditional college grace (read in impeccable Latin) by Phil and sat down to dinner.
He seated himself next to several old friends with whom he chatted politely and, in some cases, quite animatedly. A number of them were interested, even slightly puzzled, by his permanent move to teach in France.
“Well, as you know, I read Modern Languages, qualified as a teacher, then after a year or so at a public school in Dorset, saw an interesting job for a teacher at a private school in Tours and I went for it – yes, they do have private schools over there. Having been in France twenty or so years, I now have a really good job as deputy head teacher at an international school in Auch down in the south-west. I’m accepted by the locals so really pretty content. Never got on with my family, as some of you might remember – well, except for my sister – but she lives in Switzerland so I see her quite often.”
“But who are your pupils?” Sean enquired. “An international school in the south-west of France?”
“Oh, we take boarders so we get pupils from all over, Airbus people and other employees from the Toulouse send their children to us…. And some French people want their children to have a broader education. We teach the International Baccalaureat mainly. I like it as it’s better than teaching GCSE and A level stuff. And the lifestyle is better.”
“I have to say, you sound a bit French,” Phil joked. “Your dress sense is a bit more sophisticated than the rest of us.”
“Really,” Paul raised an eyebrow. “I had a devil of a job to hire the dinner jacket in Toulouse – couldn’t get one in Auch- as we don’t tend to wear them in France, at least not in the country – not worn one in twenty years. It took me a while to hunt one down.”
The dinner finished with a few speeches, mercifully fairly short, though Sir Thomas made his usual appeal for funds before the guests filed down to the cellar bar to continue the convivial conversations, fuelled by Ted’s seemingly inexhaustible memories of individual students.
It was then he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a soft quiet voice behind him,
“Hello, Paul, how are you after all these years?”
He spun round recognising the voice immediately.
“Jeanette…. I’m fine, thanks, and enjoying life and it’s really lovely to see you again. But more importantly how are you?”
Paul beamed at the woman in front of him, somewhat shorter than him with a broad smile, short but curly dark hair, greying a bit in parts, piercing blue eyes, a slim face and a reasonably trim body suitably attired in a blue evening dress. He gulped then politely asked her how she was as they moved away from the crowded bar area.
“I’m well too, given life’s little bumps. But what are you doing with yourself? I keep reading in the College Record you’re living in France and are a deputy head teacher. I guess you seem to have done well. You live in Toulouse now, don’t you? Isn’t that in south-west France?”
“In Auch actually but it’s quite near Toulouse. I’m a deputy head at a private international school.” Paul laughed. “But what about you? I gather you’re one of the editors of “Europe” magazine – yes, I read the Record too, you know.”
“Oh, I live in London….. Have done since I left the College. I went into journalism as you’ve probably guessed – started as a junior reporter with the Evening Standard then worked my way up steadily with a slight hiatus after a couple of years….”
Paul raised his eyebrows questioningly, though half guessing what was coming. He had already glanced at her left hand and observed the absence of a wedding ring.
“You know,” Jeanette continued, “I was with that wretched man from Balliol when I left, when you were on your year out in France and Germany….. Of course, you do….. Well we married although I’m not sure why…. Seemed to be a natural progression. Anyway after three years I got pregnant but miscarried and lost the baby at six months. I got a bad infection and I was in and out of hospital for some more months.”
“I didn’t know, I am so sorry,”
“Well, it left me incapable of having children. And then Robert, the bastard, walked out. So, I thought bloody great and devoted myself to my career with the odd “dalliance” along the way. And I climbed the ladder pretty successfully. What about you?”
“Finals – I managed a First….. but I suppose that was because the best distraction was gone and the rugby only took up the Michaelmas term.” Paul smiled at Jeanette knowingly, “Then I thought to myself, I fancy teaching as I’d done that whilst abroad on my year out. I did my CertEd and went off to teach at a good private school in Dorset for three years but got bored. One evening, I saw an advert for a modern languages teacher based at a private international school in Tours – so I thought, what the hell, I’ve no real ties here as my sister had gone to Switzerland and I couldn’t get on with my parents – and I applied. I got the job and off I went…..”
“Wasn’t it – or isn’t it – odd living full-time in France?” Jeanette asked. “After all, I’ve travelled – still do – a huge amount mainly in Europe, but I’ve never thought I’d feel really settled except in England. That said, I’ve never had a reason to consider it.”
“No, not really,” Paul answered smiling. “I knew the culture fairly well, I spoke the language and I was pretty rootless. Besides teaching in France is different to an English boarding school. One has a bit more time to make friends, be social. I had time to play rugby again so I had a good social life that way too.”
“Then, since you’re bound to wonder,” he paused, his voice starting to crack, “I too got married – another teacher called Nadine. She taught at a school across the city in Tours. I met her at a quatorze juillet dance and we married eighteen months later. I think her parents were a little worried about her marrying a Brit but in the end I won them over. My parents, well they said nothing about me marrying a French girl whatever they thought, but at least they came to the wedding and managed to stop themselves being an embarrassment to Nadine’s parents.”
“So you’re married then?”
“No, Nadine was killed in a hit and run on her way home from work two years after we got married. ” Paul went silent for a minute, gazing at the floor, his eyes watering. “It’s a painful memory, the policeman coming to the door…..”
“She was pregnant with twins….. I found out it was twins after the accident…..”
Jeanette put her hand on his arm.
“I’m so sorry,” she answered gently as a tear rolled down his cheek. “Shall we go and sit in the garden as it’s pretty warm this evening. Then you can tell me as much or as little as you like and I can do the same.”
She picked up a wrap and grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses. Paul followed her up the stairs admiring her still trim outline under her dress. They sat in a quiet corner of the garden, gently bathed in warm moonlight, sipped the wine and talked about their lives and experiences since leaving.
“Are you happy in France?” Jeanette asked after a while. “You sound fairly settled. But the loss of your wife must have hurt.”
“Oh yes. I’m settled. Of course, I miss Nadine – and the twins – and sometimes think of what could have been but the pain has got less with the years. But it was really to get away from Tours and the memories that drove me to look for a job away from the capital. So the job in Auch came up and I love it. I live in a small hamlet on the edge of the city. A really nice house with views over the countryside and a swimming pool. I had this small barn in the garden done up to make a two bed apartment which my sister and her husband and their children can use in the summer and I occasionally let it out to people I know. I’ve made lots of friends and these days I help with rugby coaching – Auch is a big rugby town – but I’m a bit too old to play and veterans rugby in France can be – well – let’s say, rough and tough! It’s a really civilised lifestyle and I enjoy it – and not far from Toulouse. But what about you? I couldn’t imagine living in a large city anymore.”
Jeanette sipped her wine and thought hard. She was quiet for a while.
“Do you know, I don’t know….. I’ve never ever really stopped to think and answer that really. I live in Fulham, have a nice flat in a reasonably quiet road, have a really interesting but busy job, I have a good circle of friends, the odd boyfriend – but nothing too serious – I’m well paid, I travel a lot. I’m just busy busy and I mostly enjoy it.”
“Yes,” Paul gently interrupted her, “But are you settled….? Do you really enjoy it? What do you do for time off, to relax, at Christmas or Easter holidays, in the summer. You must take holidays. Or does the work enjoy you rather than you enjoy the work?”
He sensed Jeanette’s discomfort at his questions.
“Oh, I go to visit my relatives or friends. Summer holidays, I normally go with friends for a week or two……But now you ask, I suppose I’m on a treadmill of my own making.”
She stopped and Paul realised that her shoulders were shaking gently in the moonlight. He took her wrap, placed it round her shoulders and have her a gentle hug. Jeanette leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Paul, do you ever think of me these days?”
“Yes, quite frequently actually…..” He squeezed her shoulder gently. “But can I ask you the same in reverse.”
“Yes, often. Can I ask a personal question?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“Do you have a girlfriend hidden away out in France?”
Paul burst into a loud chuckle. “No, I don’t. Not currently…. I had a girlfriend but that finished over a year ago.”
Jeanette gave him a peck on the cheek then snuggled into his shoulder. Paul kissed the top of her head gently and then squeezed her thinking how much he’d really liked Jeanette when they’d been together and how he’d missed her over the years even if only at times subconsciously.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Jeanette asked after a while
“Getting the train to Heathrow for a flight back to Toulouse as I have school on Monday,” Paul answered. “Would have flown to Bristol or Stansted but I needed a Sunday flight back.”
“Have you time for breakfast in the Market? Just like old times…..” Jeanette turned her face to him with a beseeching smile.
Paul looked at her face then answered, “Of course. And, of course, if you ever fancy trying a holiday in the south west of France or just popping in for a short stay……”
“I think that’s a lovely idea. But where would I stay?”
“Oh, I recommend Auch as a good centre – a private house preferably somewhere with a private swimming pool.”
“Is that an invitation?” Jeanette asked very quietly.
“Anytime you like,” Paul replied softly then kissed her for the first time in years, savouring her response, gentle at first then more passionate.
“Time for bed.” Paul said very quietly after ten minutes or so. “What time shall I see you tomorrow? I need to get the train at half eleven.”
“Half eight?”
“Suits me…. Let’s meet in the Lodge,” Paul whispered.
****************************
The 4th July, at L’Abris, and Paul poured two glasses of the lovely local chilled Cotes de Gascogne for himself and his guest before taking them out on a tray with some tapenade and rillettes de porc on bread he’d bought from the boulangerie on way back from the airport. Jeanette was standing out on the patio by the pool in her enticing sun dress and straw hat enjoying the quiet of the garden and the evening sunshine and surveying the surrounding farmland.
“Salut” Paul toasted her, “it’s so lovely to see you here.”
“Well, I think it’s just idyllic,” Jeanette replied smiling at him, ”so peaceful and beautiful. I can quite see why you love it here. I didn’t know this existed – so different to Paris or one of the big cities.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, then Paul said,
“I’m cooking supper which we can eat out here. Then tomorrow I thought we’d go into Auch and have dinner at a really nice restaurant I know. Perhaps in a few days we could drive over to Tarbes and the Pyrenees. Otherwise, there’s the pool here…..”
“Don’t worry, Paul,” Jeanette replied, “this is so relaxing. I’m quite happy just doing very little for a few days. I think I could just truly relax here.”
She turned her face to Paul and they just smiled broadly at each other, exchanged a kiss and gingerly held hands.

The Snowglobe

When Laura and Pete were taken up to the room on the second floor of the hotel, they noticed how light and airy it was with a grand view over the village and the resort and the snow-covered mountains close behind with the ski runs leading down almost into the local streets. It felt lovely and warm.

“Here you can actually anticipate the ski-ing from your view when you wake up.” the manager announced before he left them, “The room faces east so you will get the morning light.”

They were putting clothes away in drawers when Laura discovered the snowglobe in a bottom draw within the wardrobe along with the spare pillows. She took it gleefully,

“Look at this….. I wonder why it was stuffed away in the drawer. It’s so pretty…….”

And, Pete had to agree, although it was larger than most examples they’d seen, and required two hands to shake it, which Laura did stirring up a whirl of snowflakes which settled to reveal a mountain, a tiny village at its foot and some miniature people bustling around. Laura blew the dust off it and set it on what was obviously a former mantelpiece opposite the foot of the bed.

“It’s lovely,” she commented. “I wonder why it was hidden away.”

She looked curiously at it and then they left to go for a walk and drinks and dinner downstairs.

They spent the next two days ski-ing and enjoying themselves and paid little attention to the new addition to the mantelpiece. Then, coming back on the second day, the snowglobe was missing only for Laura to re-discover it in its original hiding place and restore it to the mantelpiece. This rigmarole was repeated over the next two days after which Laura declared,

“The chambermaids must be moving it, but I don’t understand why they can’t leave it alone. It’s so lovely and it looks just like the village here. I think I’ll ask the manager.”

And so she did when they went down for dinner. Herr Altmeier looked at Laura with what Pete thought was an evasive look before he answered, rather abruptly, Pete thought,

“Do you mean one of those models of a winter scene in a plastic covering? The toys that you shake and they create fake snow that settles? Ja, we had one but I do not know where it went – perhaps it was put in the drawers in your room. We are a modern progressive hotel and we don’t want old-fashioned children’s toys on display. I will speak to the room staff about it.”

Later, over a drink in the bar, Pete commented to Laura,
“If Herr Altmeier is so dead against “children’s toys” as he puts it, why is the globe being put away so regularly in the same old place? Why not just sell it off or give it to a children’s home.…”

On the Friday, the weather turned grey and overcast with flurries of snow and the couple decided not to go ski-ing but to explore the village and its shops. Before they went out, Laura realised she’d forgotten her sunglasses and went back to fetch them from the room where she encountered the maid.

“Gruss Gott,” the maid nodded and Laura went to fetch her sunglasses then realised the snowdome had been moved again.

“Excuse me, but where is the snowglobe?” Laura enquired.

“Entschuldigung?” the maid enquired.

“The model of the village, with the artificial snow…. Sorry, I don’t speak German,” Laura replied rather embarrassed.

“Ah, the model….” the maid answered in passable English looking rather embarrassed. “We are ordered to remove it from sight as it does not fit with image of hotel. Herr Altmeier’s orders….. He would get rid of it but it has been here for many, many years so I and the other staff keep it hidden as we do not think it proper to remove it. It belonged to the family that owned the original inn here back in the olden times.”

And with that she scurried off into the bathroom and Laura retreated to the lobby to rejoin Pete from whence they essayed forth for a day’s shopping and a nice lunch. All the while the sky turned darker and the snow continued to fall, although mainly over the higher peaks of the mountain.

“The weather isn’t so good?” Pete had questioned the waiter at lunch.

“Nein….. Is abnormal….. very abnormal….. Snow on the mountain tops but not here in village.” He seemed to shiver and moved on.

Later that afternoon, when the couple came back to the hotel, Laura took the snowglobe out of the drawer in the wardrobe and noticed a change in the globe itself. It had become very dark and when Laura shook it, the snow hardly stirred settling to one side of the globe on what appeared to be the representation of the mountain overlooking the village. The whole scene had become foreboding as, indeed, had the weather in the locality which seemed eerily to be be following the changes in the globe. By the time the couple went down to dinner the night outside seemed inky black and less activity than usual to be seen through the windows.The main street, usually thronged with locals and holiday makers was virtually deserted

“It seems very quiet in the village out there tonight,” Pete observed to the maitre d’hote.

“Ja. Unfortunately, the weather is not so good tonight. I think we may have a very heavy snowfall and people are a bit nervous.”

“Nervous of what?” Pete replied. “You need snow, after all, for the ski-ing.”

“Ja, but could be a little bit too heavy, perhaps.” The maitre d’h looked nervous. “Would you like your table? We have fewer than expected guests tonight and it would be good to close the kitchen a bit early. A reward for our loyal staff…..”

Dinner was served much quicker than usual with the staff scurrying around seemingly anxious to finish the dinner service and to tidy up the restaurant and lay up for breakfast as quickly as possible. By ten o’clock everything was quiet. Laura and Pete looked out of the front of the hotel and everything seemed so deathly quiet in the village which was unusual, so they retired for an early night.

On getting back to their room, Laura looked at the snowdome and realised it had changed again with the whole village scene in darkness but with the “snow” roiling away up on the mountain.

“You know, I think the village is frightened of something,” Laura said nervously. “The scenes in the dome have been getting more and more unusual today, just as the village has gone unusually quiet.”

Pete peered at the dome curiously and, after thinking, he said quietly,

“Just a rather spooky thought….. Is the dome is predicting something and the villagers know it. I think this snowdome is more than just a toy….. And maybe Herr Altmeier knows that and that’s why he tries to hide it.”

“What do you mean, more than just a toy?” Laura looked concerned.

“Maybe, it’s predictive….. Magical somehow. Let’s face it, pretty though it is, it’s very old and it’s a bit bigger than most snowdomes. And it seems to represent the village pretty accurately in a funny sort of way.”

Pete strode to the back window and looked up towards the mountain top – but nothing. Just inky blackness. He went back to the snowglobe and picked it up, looking curiously at it. He turned it over revealing a brass plate with indecipherable writing on it which he showed to Laura. When he turned it back over, nothing had changed.

“You know, Pete,” I’m scared she said. “Something’s going to happen.”

“Let’s go to bed,” Pete said, “we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

About four o’clock in the morning, they were aroused from their fitful sleep by a huge roaring sound and the building shaking as if an earthquake were in progress. After a few minutes the roaring and shaking stopped, to be replaced by icy stillness punctuated by the sounds of odd crying or wailing outside. Pete leapt out of bed and peered into the darkness as there were no lights to be seen anywhere. He felt his way back to their bedside table and located his torch before going to look out of the window.

“OMG,” he exclaimed, ”I think there’s been an avalanche. Can’t see much except masses of snow up to the first floor, I think….. Some people emerging but really too dark…. But I think best to get dressed perhaps in ski gear as I think it could get cold. Let’s see if we can help……”

They quickly discovered there was no electricity so they dressed as best they could and then made their way gingerly down the stairs in – along with other guests – to the lower floors to find the hotel mostly safe – although the force of the avalanche had stoved in some windows and doors to let icy snow in. Herr Altmeier was surveying the scene using a lantern with some live-in staff, including the maid Laura had met.

“Can we helpl?” Pete asked.

“Nein…. Danke…. We have to wait to be dug out but it could be a while. The emergency services will be busy soon lower down the village. The smaller dwellings will suffer most. Let us have some coffee whilst we wait. I think the butane cookers still work. We cannot go out at this moment.”

After a while drinking coffee, making small talk and warming themselves round a fire they managed to light, Laura asked,

“Herr Altmeier….. Tell me honestly about the snowglobe.”

Altmeier regarded her with horror.

“Please, tell me…. Or you,” she glanced at the maid. “There’s something about it…..”

After a silence he looked at the maid and when she nodded, he began the story.

“Many years ago this hotel was an inn for the locals and the odd rare traveller. Up here I don’t suppose they got many of those before ski-ing took off. In the seventeenth century, the inn was owned by the Schwarzer family – yes the name has significance – as they all were reputed to be of the devil’s kind. They were known as sorcerers, as well as innkeepers, but one – Hugo Schwarzer – was reputed to make objects that could foretell the future, although they were almost all lost in the twentieth century.”

“Almost all…..?” Laura cut in, perhaps sensing where the conversation was going.

“Ja, there was a snowglobe that could predict the near future. It has predicted several disasters to befall the village – rock falls, harvest failures and avalanches….. But never ever good things. We have tried to put it away but somehow it could not leave the site of the inn. We have given it away several times but it has always managed to return.”

“So what is the strange writing on the brass plate on the back?” Pete asked.

“No-one knows,” Altmeier replied. “We believe it is probably some cursed magicians’ script.”

“Right, that’s it. Enough…..” Pete announced determinedly and marched upstairs taking an ice-pick from the hall with him.

Once in the room, he seized the globe, opened the window and attacked it with the pick. The glass covering was thick but as soon as he began his assault the globe started to whirl with a dark malignant presence, but Pete kept up the assault until the glass cracked and finally broke. With that a black apparition with evil yellow eyes mushroomed in front of Pete until Pete drove the icepick into the shadowy figure which gave out a bone-chilling, ear-piercing shriek then vanished into the cold crisp air of the valley.

“What was that terrible shriek? It frightened the life out of us,” Laura asked when Pete returned downstairs.

“The ghost of Hugo Schwarzer going to meet his doom,” Pete replied. “Herr Altmeier, a large brandy please.”