The sky was a blanket of grey and snow flakes drifted down to scatter upon the ground. Soon everything would be covered in a carpet of white. As daylight faded, gas lamps were lit and their light spread across the cobbled streets.
The coals burned brightly in the chestnut seller’s burner.
“Chestnuts, get your hot chestnuts. Only a ha’penny a bag.”
“I’ll ‘ave a bag dear,” said Enid as she pulled her shawl tighter against the cold.
“Those ‘ll warm ye up.” He held out a paper bag.
She opened the small pouch she held and hesitated before pulling out her last ha’penny. “Thank ye and a Merry Christmas to ye.”
Enid clutched the bag of warm chestnuts to her and hurried onwards.The chestnuts were her only treat this Christmas Eve. The snowflakes landed on her cheeks and nose, little needles pricking her skin and turning her flesh red.
The cottage felt different every time she entered. She didn’t remember moving the table and chairs over to that corner. She grabbed a chair, pulled it to the fireplace and sat down, preferring a wooden seat to those soft armchairs. Where did she get those from? Her memory seemed to be failing her more and more. Logs crackled in the hearth, but she was sure she hadn’t lit the fire before she left. “That would be a waste of fuel,” she muttered.
In her hand she held the bag of chestnuts, but they were no longer warm. When had she bought them? Times had been hard since the sickness had taken her husband and young daughter. When was that? It only seemed like yesterday to her and yet it also seemed like a lifetime ago. Life was a struggle. Everyday she went looking for work, not that she ever found any. How she survived was a mystery to her. She stared at the chestnuts. Where had she got the ha’penny from?
It was a miracle that the master of the big house hadn’t turned her out of the cottage. They were for the men that worked his land and their families. Lost in thought, she sat by the fire feeling neither warm nor cold. Somewhere a door banged and startled her out of her reverie.
“Is there someone there?”
Her fingers clutched the paper bag tighter as she walked in the direction of the noise. She peered through to the kitchen and saw that the back door was wide open swinging back and forth in the cold night air.
“Hello, is anyone there?”
She waited for a reply but when none came, she walked towards the door, snatched hold of its handle and pushed it shut, sliding the bolt closed with a thud.
“Tis strange that should be open.”
The thought of intruders made her shiver. Her eyes darted around the small room. Satisfied it was empty she returned to the fire only to find her chair was back with the others again.
Enid froze. “Whoever you are, come out now. Do ye hear?” Her eyes told her that she was alone, but her senses told her something else. “I’ve nuthin’ worth a stealin’ so ye best be about your business else where.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, the curtains to the small window had been drawn on the dark evening sky.
Her heart beat fast and for a second she felt dizzy. She was just about to call out again when a tapping on the window made her jump. Her grip on the chestnut bag loosened and chestnuts scattered in all directions across the floor. She turned towards the window and grasping the drape pulled it back. A shadow of a face made her catch her breath. The figure beckoned to her and stepped away into the night.
Enid flung open the door and ran out. The snow lay in thick drifts. Behind her the door slammed shut and the curtain once more pulled closed across the window. She swung around to stare at the cottage. A frown creased her forehead and she felt as though she was losing her mind. The air all around her was more than chilly, it was freezing and as she turned back, in the distance she saw two figures holding hands, one taller than the other. The taller of the two gestured her to follow and walked on.
“Wait!” Enid yelled as she ran to catch up, her feet sinking into the deep snow with every step. The figures came to a halt at an old oak tree and pointed towards something that lay at the base of its trunk.
Enid stayed behind them. “What is it you want?”
The taller figure motioned her forward and as she came they turned to face her. Enid looked into the faces of her husband and daughter and then towards the bundle that lay beside the tree trunk. She moved in to wipe the snow from it. It was her face that stared back at her.
“No! I’m not dead. I’m not dead!”
* * *
“She lived in this cottage?” asked Sammy. “How long ago?”
“It’s an old story,” replied his grandfather. “They said she never made it home that night. Her body, still clutching the bag of chestnuts, was found on Christmas Eve 1886 by the tree. They said because she didn’t believe she’d died that she relives that day and haunts this cottage every Christmas Eve. I’ve heard tell you can hear her.”
“Stop it dad,” said Sammy’s mother. “You’ll frighten him. Remember this is our first Christmas Eve here. Time for bed Sammy. No more ghost stories or Santa will never come.”
“Granddad, will you come and tuck me in?”
“Of course. Shall we?”
His grandfather held out his hand. Sammy jumped up from his spot in front of the fire and as the two of them walked across the room, Sammy slipped and fell.
“Are you OK?” His grandfather helped him to his feet.
Sammy held out his hand. In his palm sat a single chestnut.
His grandfather stared at the chestnut. “Doris did you buy any chestnuts?” he called to his daughter.
She looked up from the book she was reading. “No, why?”