For Christmas 2002 some friends and I decided to each write a Christmas ghost story and read them out to each other on Christmas Eve. This is the one that I wrote ...
by Garen Ewing
5392 words © 2002
Acting on the spur of the moment was not usually the way Giles Gerrard liked to do things. He liked to plan, weigh up possibilities, discuss the options - and then, if fully satisfied with the details, go ahead. It was Martha, his wife, who'd broken the habit of a lifetime.
'Let's go to France for Christmas. With the children away it'll be nice for us.' Giles, unlike his wife - who had a rather withered look about her - was evidence of a life of being well fed. He had a slightly comical bright pink face, which belied his usual sour temperament - spending at least fifteen minutes every morning washing it fanatically until it squeaked. He spent about the same amount of time on his shoes which always shone, whether he was going out or not. Usually not.
'But it's only five weeks until Christmas!' he protested. 'We'll not be sorted in time.'
It only took Martha the next three days to change his mind ('Now only leaving four weeks and four days' muttered Giles, 'but let's see what we can muster'). He must be getting soft in his old age, thought Martha to herself. There was a little cottage a few miles north of Reims that would be just perfect.
The weather in England was just beginning to get very grey after a few weeks of clear blue skies and frosty cold mornings. While they were packing, Martha turned on the radio.
'Ooh, I like this one. I'll turn it up and we can pack to the rhythm!' She turned the dial and started dancing around with her long coat.
'For crying out loud, Martha, stop being so childish. And turn that racket down! I can't stand that... drumming music!'
'Drumming music!' laughed Martha, folding her coat into the suit case. 'It's called rock and roll, and that man's The King of it, according to Michael!'
Giles went over to the radio and switched it off. 'The King died nine years ago. And besides, you can't have an American King.' The two of them carried on packing in silence.
'Don't forget to pack your tablets' Martha said solemnly, after a while.
'Do I ever forget anything?' replied her husband, tutting.
The evening before they left, Martha was talking to Michael, their eldest son, on the phone.
'Well, anyway, don't let little Julia stay in the sun too long, she's very fair... Yes... Oh, we will. Do you want to talk to Dad? ... Alright. Giles dear, talk to Michael.' Giles got up with a sigh of protest from his big chair in the corner, thinking to himself that he must remember to move the phone onto the little tea table so he didn't have to move when required to talk to offspring.
'Michael. How's Australia then?'
'Great, Dad. Julia's learnt to swim and Anne's bought every navy blue dress she can find in Melbourne. So, off to France tomorrow?'
'Yes, didn't have much choice in the matter. Still, haven't been on holiday since Blackpool three years ago - duty to mother, you know.' He glanced at Martha who just smirked back at him while she cleared up from tea.
'Weren't you near Reims in the first war, Dad?' asked Michael.
'Not that close, I was up further, a little town called, oh, what was it... Oublier.'
'But it's your first time back, isn't it?' said Michael. Giles knew what his son was up to. He was trying to write a book in his spare time - this holiday in Australia being a prime opportunity - set during the Great War. Some romance or other. He was convinced he'd be a proper author one day. Giles didn't like to say much on it, and liked helping his son with this ridiculous ambition even less. He'd won the Military Cross. It was mounted in a little frame in the hallway and he believed that said everything he wanted, and it certainly wasn't fodder for a cheap paperback.
'Actually, Michael, I went to Boulogne when I was teaching. You can interview me about that trip if you like. Fascinating castle there you know. Terrific setting for a bit of pulp fiction.'
'Oh, Dad, don't be silly...'
'Well, better go. Expensive call! Have a good holiday, son.' and he hung up. 'What?' said Giles defensively, looking up at Martha and seeing the scowl on her face.
'He was calling us, Giles! You're so mean to him!'
And now they were in France. The nearest town was Laon - a good forty minutes away in their car. The area was nice, even Giles relented on this point, and was surrounded by farmland as far as you could see. After a cup of tea and Giles' inspection of the premises ('You can tell this was built by French farmers', he'd said disapprovingly) they set out to explore the local roads and hills.
There was quite a chill in the air as they strode up a small hill towards a little copse of trees. Even though he was sixty-eight years old, Giles could still step out with the best of them. Martha, six years younger, had always had dodgy hips since the birth of their second child, but did her best to keep up. Giles reached the trees first and turned round to wait for his wife.
'You'd never make a soldier, Martha. When I was twenty we marched from the Bull Ring at Etaples pretty much all the way to the front line! That'd soon put meat on your legs!'
'Oh don't be so uncouth, Giles. That's a horrible expression' said Martha, her heavy breathing visible in the cold as she reached the summit.
They sat down on an old tree that looked like it had been felled by lightning some time ago, and Martha pulled out her handkerchief to dab at her nose.
'Freezing cold, isn't it. Do you think we'll have snow while we're here?' she said.
'Doubt it. Only two days until Christmas. Probably just end up with a frost.'
'Be nice though, wouldn't it? A white Christmas. Did you pack the Kodak?'
'Do I ever forget anything? It's in my pack' Giles said, admiring the acres of fields and little bunches of trees that punctuated the horizon.
'Look at all the bodies lying out there in the mud.'
Giles looked at his wife suddenly. Did she just say that? He looked around. Nothing. He looked back at Martha who was folding her hanky back into her pocket.
'What did you just say?' he asked slowly.
'I said why don't you take a picture? It'll be nice with these trees.'
Slightly unsure of himself, Giles shook his head and stood, taking the camera out of his pack as he did so.
'I wish you'd speak more clearly sometimes. Always mumbling!' He walked a few steps away and turned to assess the scene. It would make a nice picture, Martha sat on the twisted old tree with the valley receding into the distance behind her. He put the Kodak up to his eye and froze. Standing a few feet behind his wife was a man. He was plastered in dry mud, his hair matted, his clothes a dull brown, tattered - his eyes, unblinking, stared straight at Giles through the lens - hollow piercing eyes, focused directly on him. Giles dropped the camera to shout to his wife, but when he did the figure had completely vanished. He stood there scanning the few trees, desperately trying to see where the man had gone.
'Giles... what on earth's the matter with you?'
'There was.. a ... there was a man... a tramp... didn't you see?'
Martha turned round. 'Where? Up here? I can't see anyone.' She turned back to him. 'Giles, are you alright? There's no one here. Come on, take the picture and stop having me on. I don't like it.'
Giles bent down to pick up the camera and looked at it for a moment. He didn't want to look through that lens again.
'Let's go. I'm not taking a picture here.' Martha stared at him in disbelief. 'Come on Martha! Move out!' he barked, and he marched off down the hill, briefly glancing back to make sure his wife was following.
By the time they reached their cottage, tiny snowflakes had started fluttering down on the light breeze. The freshness of the winter morning had quickly given way to dark gathering clouds, the once deep shadows now blending into the solemn landscape.
They were staying four days here - until Boxing Day, and had brought all the food they needed. For dinner that night Martha cooked up some soup which they ate with half a French loaf bought at Le Havre that morning. Giles lit the fire, and while she read, he stared into space, deep in thought. There was something about the eyes of that man he'd seen up at the copse that morning. He wasn't sure if they were familiar in some way, or if it was just the way they seemed to stare straight into him, almost into his soul. Catching himself thinking what he usually called 'religious twaddle', Giles tutted out loud.
Martha looked up from her book. 'You're not still mooching about that man on the hill are you? It was probably just a local farmer!' Giles got up and went to the window, pulling back the yellow flowered curtains and noticing that mould from the dampness had become part of the rather unattractive pattern. He looked out into the darkness. The light from the room lit up the snow immediately outside, falling heavily now and promising a landscape of white in the morning. He was just about to turn back when he saw a dim point of light wavering about in the distance, as if a lantern was being carried through one of the fields about a mile away. Giles stared at it for a few seconds before it disappeared into the dark. Just before he went to bed, Giles double-checked the front and back door were bolted and locked.
His eyes snapped open. He was in bed. The wind, as it had been all night, was whistling around the cottage. He turned to his wife and recoiled with a jump. Her eyes were open, staring at him, but she didn't seem to see him. She was still asleep. Then he noticed something else. There was someone else in the room. He tried to lift his head to see, but couldn't - he was completely paralysed. Suddenly a vague figure wandered past the bed and out of his sight. Giles tried to cry out, but his mouth was dry and he emitted no sound. Then another figure lumbered up to his side and a face, pale, unshaven and rough came out of the darkness and stared at him.
'Er hatte vergessen.' The face spoke slowly, almost with a hiss. A voice from the other side of the bed replied. 'Zu den graben.' To his horror, a chorus of voices from all round the room took up this nonsensical phrase... 'Zu den graben... zu den graben'. Rough and heavy hands coiled themselves around his body, lifting him out of the safety of his bed. Giles tried to struggle, but not a single muscle would move. As he was carried up, he caught sight of Martha. Her eyes were still wide open and she seemed to be screaming, but he couldn't hear anything except the whistling of the driving winds outside and the eerie chanting of the hunched shapes that swirled about him.
They were taking Giles towards the front door of the cottage, and sudden panic set in. He didn't know why, but he must not go outside. Something had to be done. Again he tried to speak, but nothing came of it. Struggling was useless as he still couldn't move. He started breathing in huge gulps of air as absolute terror washed through his every nerve, and the figures, lumbering, silent now, carried him towards the door and whatever it was that awaited him out in the cold pitch blackness of night. He felt a pair of hands leave him, a bolt was drawn back and the door creaked, a sudden gust of freezing air whipped into the room, and now he was being taken outside. Tears were welling up in his eyes from the fear and helplessness that he felt. Above him now he could see the giant flakes of snow falling towards his face out of the black sky. He was carried for what seemed quite a while before the tempo changed, and he felt himself being handed down. His head was dragged into the cold wet of the ground and then with a lurch he was turned round and downwards. He saw the ground for a minute and then beyond it, as if he'd been roughly passed down into some kind of ditch. Briefly he saw the gaunt face of one of the figures, its mouth stretched into a morbid grimace against the cold, its dead eyes deep set and grim. Giles was utterly helpless. At last he was laid down with a splash into freezing cold wet mud. Still he could not move. The heaving shapes above him stood for a while, clouds of vapour rising from their invisible mouths, then, at last, they moved out of his frame of view.
Giles lay there, the heavy snow falling, his night clothes soaking from the pool he lay in. Feeling was returning to his legs. They felt heavy, and he soon realised that something was lying on top of them, preventing movement. He stretched out his fingers. They touched something cold and he found he could turn his head to look. His eyes met with a nightmare face - hollow cheeks, mouth twisted into an empty scream, caked in dried blood. A dead face. He turned away, breathing rapidly now, and found himself staring straight into the tortured expression of another corpse, its features a mask set in stone at the time of an horrific death - the top of its head was missing, and congealed blood caked the face, obscuring the eyes as if locking in whatever terror it had last encountered. Giles tried desperately to haul himself up, he was surrounded by the dead everywhere. 'No... god, no...no...' he half whispered to himself, his heart pounding. He thrashed about in a blind panic, but was completely pinned down by the countless occupants of this mass grave, of which he seemed to be the latest addition. He stopped moving, listening. Heavy footsteps were squelching in the wet mud, coming closer. He screamed.
Giles awoke to find himself sticky with sweat. He sat up and looked around, breathing hard from the dream he'd just had - it had seemed so real. He looked to Martha who seemed to be sleeping soundly, her breathing deep and even. Even though he knew it was just a dream, the first thing Giles did that morning was to go down to the front door and check the bolt. It was locked. He forced out a little laugh at his own foolishness. But it had seemed so real.
A few minutes later he was back in the bedroom with a cup of tea for his wife. She was just stirring as he laid it on the table next to the bed.
'Oh, Giles, I feel awful. My head's pounding... ' she croaked. Looking at Martha he could see that she was very pale, and obviously not well. It didn't take them long to agree that she should stay in bed with her book for the day. Giles wanted to explore some of the fields to the east of the house.
Dressed in his big coat and boots, the haunting dream he'd had that night had all but faded with the bright crisp daylight that now filled the little cottage. But at the back of his mind he still felt uneasy. Something was nagging, lurking at the edge of his thoughts. He stared at the door, and actually found himself working up the courage to unbolt it and step outside.
'Oh, stop being stupid, Giles', he said aloud to himself, and stepping forward he unbolted the door and pulled it open. His eyes were immediately drawn to the snowy ground. There they were, what he'd half expected to see, but desperately hoped he wouldn't - a mass of heavy footprints crushed into the snow, leading away into the fields.
His heart all but stopped as he tried to get a grip on his reason. His first notion was to go back inside the cottage, pack the bags and leave. He looked at the car, totally covered in thick snow. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Something was stirring in his mind, something unfinished. He had to follow the prints.
Walking along through what he presumed was a field, hands thrust deeply into his pockets, Giles tried to keep his balance as he drove on through the snow. In some places the prints seemed to disappear totally, obscured by snow that had fallen early that morning. With the white sky and the sound of birds in the distant trees that lined the field's edge, he didn't feel afraid now. Last night was a dream, perhaps induced by a visitor knocking at the cottage door late last night. Whatever - there'd be some logical explanation.
Giles stopped. The footprints had stopped suddenly. They were clear here, then they seemed to circle somewhat, but there were no prints leading away. They had just stopped. He kicked away some of the snow, revealing the icy furrowed earth beneath - nothing unusual. He looked around. Just beyond a low hedgerow at the field's perimeter there was a broken wall, a ruin. He started towards it, some of the snow coming up almost to his knees as he ploughed on through.
Finding a narrow gap in the twiggy hedge, Giles squeezed through and looked around. He could see now that there was more than just a wall here. Half ruined buildings covered most of the next field, some overgrown with ivy and even sprouting small trees. He took out the Ordnance Survey from his inside pocket and let the map drop open. There was nothing here indicating a ruin. It was deathly quiet. Now Giles was starting to feel anxious. The light breeze died away and everything was perfectly still. He thought he saw something flash behind one of the walls. His breathing was getting harder, his mouth was clenched tightly as he tried to see all around him at once. Then a sound. It sounded like a woman crying. He took a few steps in the direction of the sobs and tried to peer round the wall of a large brick structure that had most of its roof missing. Nothing. The sound died away, almost as if he'd imagined it.
'What is going on?' he said aloud, as if to ground himself back to reality. He carried on walking round, at one point picking up a large stick that poked up out of the snow. More buildings, crumbling, fallen, some just piles of bricks. He seemed now to be at the old village centre. A dilapidated well stood in the centre of a cobbled square, an old wooden cart abandoned next to it. A sound, very faint, was coming from somewhere. The well. Giles walked up to it and all but jumped out his skin when a voice echoed out of it.
'Sir? That you, sir?' Giles stared in disbelief. A voice, an English voice, was coming from the well.
'Sir! I hid down here, after. Have they gone? I want to get out now, sir!'
'What.. what are you doing down there? Who is it?' said Giles shakily, still not peering over the edge.
'It's Keller, sir. 1-4-8-9. Hid down here after they attacked... Sir, is my leg up there sir? They dropped a grenade down. Can't climb out.'
Something was stirring in the depths of Giles' mind. Keller. Something about that name. He moved closer to the well and leant carefully over the edge, peering down. Nothing but complete blackness greeted him.
'Keller?' His voice echoed back. 'Hello?' Nothing. He picked up a stone from the ground and dropped it down. There was a deep splosh, but no other sound.
'Oh, Jesus Christ.' Giles looked around him, his whole upper body rising and falling with each breath that seemed to fight its way out of him.
'This is Oublier', he whispered. It was almost as if a seal had popped in his memory, floods of images poured into his mind. He heard screams and shouting, smoke, flashes of thunder and mud. There was the constant image of an explosion of blood. Names roared out at him from decades ago... Keller... Rice... Mooney.... Haslett... names he'd forgotten. Names he'd wiped away a long long time ago. He looked down at the ground by the well. The snow was turning red, seeping out from the circular stone wall, infecting the pure white with the deep crimson of human blood.
At that moment Giles turned and ran, the air seemed to be thick now with smoke, he wasn't sure if the sounds he heard were in his mind or were real around him. Shells seemed to whistle overhead and explode, there was the never-ending screaming, gunfire, rifles and the deadly chatter of a machine gun. He looked up as he ran. At the far end of the field heading towards the cottage was a lone figure, shambling through the thick snow. Pushing himself harder, Giles ran on. Suddenly the ground gave way, he hit his head on the cold hard ground, but immediately got to his feet again. He was in a trench. Duck boards covered the floor and he thought he heard the sound of feet running along them from around the corner towards him. Voices, racing closer, snapped out, 'Beenden sie das Engländer!' He scrambled to get out, his mind was in chaos. Somehow he managed to pull himself up and over the edge of the trench and immediately carried on running. A sharp pain stabbed at his left side. Up ahead he saw the figure pull open the cottage door and enter inside. 'Martha!' he screamed. Then a black fog descended over his vision, and his last sensation was his body falling, falling ...
A hazy light and a cold sensation under his legs, and Giles came to. He felt arms wrapped tightly around him, and he panicked, struggling to free himself.
'Giles! Giles, it's me, Martha...' Giles looked up into Martha's pale face, she was cradling him as he lay in the snow.
'Let's get you up and back to the cottage. Come on.' Struggling, feeling rather dizzy, Giles wobbled to his feet, his wife supporting him, and they made their way across the short remainder of the field back to the cottage.
'A man... did you see? Someone going to the cottage!' he suddenly remembered.
'It's alright Giles, that was me. I came looking, you shouted just as I was going back in. Then you just collapsed. Gave me such a fright! What have you been up to?'
Giles remained silent as Martha helped him back in and into a chair, then she went to make some tea. 'Giles, I can't find your tablets anywhere. You forgot to pack them, didn't you? No wonder you fainted!'
'Forgot?' Giles half said to himself. 'I never...'. he didn't finish the sentence, but just stared into the fire that crackled in front of him.
That afternoon Giles went out again only once - to try and start the car, but without any success. Martha tried asking him why they should leave and that they may as well see out Christmas day as planned. Before bed time, he bolted the doors, he even locked the door to their bedroom. He was in such a black mood that Martha had stopped trying to ask what was wrong, turned over on her side and quickly fell asleep. Giles did not sleep. He sat up in bed staring at the door, names and images, memories swirling in his mind. It had all come back so suddenly. He couldn't put any of it in order, but it was all there. The hours fell away, one by one, and Giles struggled to keep his heavy eyes open. His head kept nodding forward, then he'd snap it back up. He mustn't sleep.
Something was tapping. Giles suddenly realised he'd fallen asleep, but now he was awake. Tap... tap... tap tap. It was coming from the window next to the bed. Slowly, not wanting to, but having to, he turned his head toward the moonlit pane.
A face stared back. Giles took a sharp intake of breath. It was one of the bodies from the trench the previous night - but this time Giles knew who it was. The man's head was half missing, his eyes drenched in congealed black blood. The eyes, at first closed, slowly lifted open, the mouth yawned open and a muffled voice creaked from behind the glass, 'It's Christmas Day. Any orders for the first watch?' Giles tightened his eyes closed and screamed and screamed and screamed.
The light flashed on and hands gripped Giles' arms, shaking him. 'Giles! Giles!' He opened his eyes and saw Martha's face, desperate with tears rolling down her face. 'Giles, what's wrong... oh please..'
He breathed in deeply and put his head into his hands. For a long time he remained there, Martha too, holding on to him. He looked up at the window, there was nothing there.
'I was here in the war.' he said eventually.
'What?' Martha said, confused.
'This place. It's Oublier.' He took another deep breath.
'Oublier? The village you got the Military Cross at...'
'What did I do?' he said to himself, rubbing his eyes.
'Giles... you remember... your platoon were killed.. you took out a German post on your own! Was it really here?', she said in disbelief.
'No. That's not what happened.' Giles looked at his wife. 'It was Christmas day, Martha, just as it is now.' Martha sat back, she hadn't known he'd earned his medal on Christmas day. 'Dawn was breaking. We were in the trench, Piccadilly Circus we called it, when Haslett saw them coming over no-man's-land. German soldiers. I was in command. I told Rice to turn the Vickers on them. He refused, said they had a white flag. It was Christmas day. I thought it must be a trick, they had cans, I thought they were grenades. Turned out later they were plum puddings and apricots. Rice and I started shouting. Something snapped. I was in command. I took out my pistol and threatened him. It was ludicrous - the Germans were singing in their trenches... Silent Night. Rice still refused. I ordered the men to execute Rice for refusing an officer's order. They said they wouldn't. I pointed my gun at him and fired... his head... exploded... covered me in blood. It was in the code. I was an officer. I took the Vickers and trained it on the Germans. They fell like flies. Next thing we knew it was a full-scale battle. Most of the Germans were dead, they didn't stand a chance, I gave the order to attack. There were only six of us in Piccadilly. The few Germans left retreated into Oublier where Keller, Jacobs and I followed them. Jacobs got a shot to his kidney. I lost Keller in the confusion, but before I knew it, I was the only one left. When reserves finally arrived because of the sound of fighting, they found me - covered in blood, my men - dead, and thirty two dead Germans. I told them we'd taken Oublier, that they attacked us. They gave me the MC and sent me home. They never found Keller. I told the lie so many times... I ... I forgot the truth...'
'Oh my god' whispered Martha. 'Giles... I think we had better return home tomorrow.'
Giles lay back, closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.
Christmas day found Giles and Martha packing their bags in silence. Giles had managed to start the car eventually, and they were just about to ready to go. He picked up the bags and carried them outside, Martha climbed into the passenger seat.
Giles slammed down the boot and looked out across the field. In the distance he could just make out a solitary figure staring at him from one of the fields. Giles stared back. 'Martha, wait here... I won't be long...'
'Giles! Where are you going?' she started to get out of the car.
'Stay there Martha! I won't be long!' And with that he strode off in the direction of the distant figure.
He wasn't sure he knew what he was doing, but it felt right that he should confront this in some way. Banish the ghosts.
'Religious twaddle!' he said to himself as he marched on.
The figure was Rice. His head half shattered, his entire body covered in a white frost, the dead eyes staring.
Giles screwed up his eyes, searching for some evidence of a mirage or something. Perhaps this was still all a dream. 'You're Rice...' he said to the silent figure. The figure slowly raised an arm, indicating that they should walk to the next field. Giles looked back to the cottage, then nodded and walked on. Whatever it was this crazy apparition wanted him to see, he would see it, accept his lesson, then, at last, go home - purged.
Out of the swirling mist that had formed quite suddenly the broken walls of Oublier came into view. But now there was thick black smoke coming from some of the buildings. Giles looked around. There were bodies lying everywhere, most of them in German uniform. A fire raged over what was once a wooden hut. A kneeling woman was wailing over another body, one in civilian clothing.
Rice was lumbering a few steps behind. They turned a corner and Giles stopped suddenly. A group of German foot soldiers stood about the square, rifles pointed straight at him, their uniforms ripped, bloody notches covering their bodies. Others were joining them, dragging their wounded limbs from concealed doorways or out of shallow trenches. A couple wore British uniforms. The soldiers bolted their rifles. A grim chorus, a haunting cold drawl, issued from the dead voices all around him ... 'Silent night... holy night... Ah-leys schläft... einsam vacht...' Giles Gerrard never spoke the final words he tried to form into the sharp, cold air.
Martha took the medal out of the frame and wrapped it in an old cloth she'd found in a drawer whilst sorting the kitchen. She passed it to Michael.
'Put that in the envelope with the letter, will you Michael?' Her son, silent, took the medal and examined it. He put it in the envelope that was addressed to the War Office, along with the three page letter that was already enclosed. Next to the envelope was the local paper. He picked it up and read the article for the fourth time that morning.
'Local War Hero Found Dead in France. Double body find for French Police.'
A local man, a First World War hero awarded the Military Cross, was found dead of a heart attack in an empty field near Reims in France on Christmas Day. Mr Giles Gerrard, who was in his late sixties, left his wife for a final walk on their Yuletide holiday and never returned. Local Gendarmes who searched the scene found nothing to point to anything suspicious, but coincidentally did find the remains of an English soldier, dating from the Great War, in an old concealed water ditch, just a few yards away. The body has since been identified as that of Arthur Keller, a sapper in the 8th Lancashire Fusiliers, reported missing in action in December of 1916. His sister, who still lives in the family home in Longton, Staffordshire, has requested he be buried where he was found, to which local farmer Monsieur Gilleur has agreed. Mr Gerrard's body was brought back to England. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.'
This story is © 2002 Garen Ewing and must not be reproduced without express permission.