The sharp pitch of the kettle boiling interrupts my perusal of the kitchen, and I watch the steam spiralling out of the old whistle at the end of the short metal spout. Just like the tin kettle with its charcoal bottom, the kitchen hasn’t changed since my last visit fifteen years ago. My gaze flickers over the yellowing wallpaper, and at a guess, I would say the house hasn’t changed in fifty years. Not since Aunt Hannah first moved in.
‘You didn’t cancel any plans did you.’
With a slight tilt to my lips, I accept the tea in the yellow rose motif cup. The fine bone china, alien in my fingers, after the large, clunky pot mugs I normally use.
‘I didn’t have any to break.’
Aunt Hannah’s green eyes bore into me. They may not be as clear as they were in her youth, yet her gaze holds mine as she probes my mind.
‘Not even with your family.’
‘Mum and Dad have gone to Malta.’
‘What about Carl and his family?’
‘It was easier to stay at home.’
‘You mean. They didn’t invite you.’
‘I’m here.’ I shrug as I take a sip of the hot strong tea.
The cackle of the log splitting in the old open stove draws my attention. I’ve already stripped off my sweater, and as I watch the golden stars dance in the glow of the warm flames, I push up the sleeves of my top.
‘Why did you invite me?’
‘I gave up waiting for you to come visit on your own accord.’
The apology tingles on my tongue. I’m here now because when the invite arrived, I’d called Mum, and she’d told me to accept. ‘She must be worth a penny or two, Leah, and maybe she’s thinking of leaving it to you.’
As I look at Aunt Hannah, and the peach, hand-knit jumper she’s wearing, Mum’s words linger in my mind. I doubt if Aunt Hannah has any money.
‘You can come visit me in the summer.’ I smile, hoping it’ll take the sting out of my offer.
‘I might not be around then.’
‘You’re not that old.’
‘You tell my bones that. Some morning they don’t want to take me out of bed.’ Aunt Hannah chuckles, and I frown.
‘But you manage.’
‘Yes, I manage…’ Her gaze turns to the window, and in the silence, we watch the white flakes gently flutter by
‘I might take you up on your offer.’
‘Maybe you should have come to mine for Christmas.’
‘They didn’t predict snow.’
‘If we’re lucky. It’ll not last.’ As I watch the fields turn white, I know I am not convinced by my own words and neither is Aunt Hannah, I decide as she smiles at me whilst collecting the cups and teapot.
My gaze returns to the window and I watch the snow. Snow that has gradually grown heavier during the day. The world in front of me is white. The sky is white. The land is white. The air in front of me is white, and there isn’t a footprint to be seen and we are surrounded by an eerie silence. Aunt Hannah’s house is the last one out of the village, and since the snow started early this morning, no traffic has passed in either direction. As my gaze lingers on the empty road, and although the room is hot from the burning fire, a shiver runs through my body.
‘Good thing, I came early this morning.’
When I don’t get an answer, I turn to Aunt Hannah. In front of her, is an old tapestry frame. Bright, rich coloured threads are woven through the cloth. At the back of the cloth is a mass of jumbled colours with no distinguishable pattern. Her glasses have slipped to the edge of her nose. Her mouth is slightly open, and her eyes are hidden behind pale eyelids. My stomach sinks as the air leaves my body. I’ve promised her, I’ll stay until the day after boxing day. Four days of emptiness faces me. To break the silence, I switch the television on. My fingers cross in the hope it still works. It’s probably the only modern item in the house and calling it modern is using the term broadly. Thankfully, there’s a remote, and I settle back in the old chair, surprised at how comfortable the threadbare cushions are, and curl my legs underneath me. There’s none of the multi channels I’m used to, and I settle back to watch an old Christmas movie.
In the distance, I hear a banging, and my eyes refuse to open as I ignore it. The banging grows louder, and I blink several times before I am able to open my eyes fully. When they do finally open, I am surrounded in darkness. Thankfully, the room is still warm from the flames lapping at the log on the fire. The repetitive banging has me shuffling in my chair. Causing me to wince as I stretch my leg. The banging comes again. As I stand, my leg wobbles, giving way as I stumble to the floor. My gaze shifts to Aunt Hannah, she hasn’t moved. With a grunt, I rub my leg, forcing life back into the blood running through me like a wildfire. The knock comes again. Only this time it’s clearer, and I glance at the window. There’s a shadow. In the dusk, it’s hard to make out if it’s a man or a woman.
‘Just a minute.’ I stagger up right, wincing when I put my full weight on my leg. When I take a step, I press a little harder.
I run my hand through my hair and stare at the stranger. Now that we are close, I see it’s a man.
‘Thank God. I’ve been walking for miles. Do you have a phone? Bloody mobiles. There’s no signal.’ The stranger waves his mobile under my nose. ‘It’s bloody useless.’
‘Sure – Come in.’ As I step away from the door, I fumble for the light switch and flick it a couple of times. Nothing happens, and I try it again. ‘Electric’s out.’
‘I figured that when the street lights weren’t on.’
As I push the door to, I peer into the street. It’s still deserted, and the snow is falling harder and although there are no lights or moon, the sky is a rich indigo and violet.
‘What happened to your car?’
‘Snow. It became impossible to drive in it.’
‘Wouldn’t you have been better waiting in your car?’
‘What. And froze to death. The phone.’
His voice is closer than I realised, and I step back.
‘Yeah. The phone. It’s here.’
I point to the old telephone table with its padded seat. It may be dark, but I hear the stranger’s eyebrow rise as he stares at the old phone. With each number he dials, the swirl of the plastic cover, echoes in the hallway.
‘Who are you calling?’
‘No one – The phone’s dead.’
Suddenly the air is bright as light from the living room floods the hall.
‘Just me Aunt Hannah. Dip the torch. You’re blinding me.’
‘You’re not on your own. Who’s that man.’ The light flashes over the stranger.
‘Hello, Aunt Hannah. I’m Kit. A friend of your niece’s.’
‘I’ve never met him until now. His car’s stranded, and he needs to use the phone.’
‘Is it working?’
‘Well then you’d best come in, and I’ll make tea.’
I watch the stranger follow Aunt Hannah, into the living room. After removing his coat, he throws a log onto the fire.
‘There’s a pub in the village. I’m sure they’ll have a room for you.’
The stranger’s chuckle flickers over my spine.
‘I’m here now. And you really wouldn’t want me to go back out there.’ His gaze shifts to the heavy snow, and I shake my head.
Sleep eludes me. It’s just after one-thirty, and with a deep sigh, I roll over to watch the snow as it continues to fall. As I lie here, there’s a creak on the stairs, and I clutch the sheet. The stair creaks again, and I fumble with the lamp switch. Nothing happens. The electric is still off, and my hand scrambles under the pillow. In triumph, I pull out the torch Aunt Hannah gave me. The stairs creak once more and along with it, I hear child’s laughter. My heart races as I crawl out of the bed and my body shivers as I tiptoe across the carpet covered floor. The child’s laughter is louder, and as I open the bedroom door. I press my hand against the spine in my attempt to open it as quietly as possible. The landing is dark, and I flash the torch. It’s empty and silent. With the pulse in my neck echoing in my ear, I shuffle onto the landing, and make my way to the top of the stairs. I flash the torch towards the bottom. It’s empty. As I turn, I shudder. The snow is falling faster, and the house has chilled. As I flash the torch across the landing it catches on a shadow. I wait to see if the shadow moves, and when nothing happens, I make my way to the door of the room where the shadow flickers. The handle turns easily, and I give a gentle push.
The room is used for nothing more than storage and with a shake of my head; I go to close the door. As I pull it too, the laughter returns, floating through the air and tingles down my spine. My heart pounds and echoes against my eardrum. Again, I gaze into the room, but there is nothing there. Instead of closing the door as planned, I move further into the room. Behind each box I flash the torch. My lips are dry, and when I go to open my mouth, nothing happens. No sound comes out and I lick my lips as I search the room. Then there’s a creak and I go still. I wait. When nothing happens, I flash the torch again, and push a couple of boxes to the side. When I find nothing, and now convinced the room is empty, I slowly make my way back to the landing where I flash the torch towards Aunt’s Hannah room. The door is firmly shut, and after a slight hesitation, I give it a push. It opens easily, and when I look inside, I find Aunt Hannah huddled under her blankets. She doesn’t move as the light of my torch flashes over her. Her small snores the only signs of life. Back on the landing, I shake my head. The house is silent, and I go back to my room. As I push the door, feet run across the floorboards on the landing above and child’s laughter drifts down to me. Although the house is chilly, and I should be cold, heat runs through my body, keeping me warm.
The torch trembles as I turn to the stairs. My foot hovers over the second step as the first creaks. The groan it gives, fills the air. The laughter continues, and I take the next step, and the next. My breathing, painful and shallow when I reach the top. On this floor, I find myself facing three more doors. A draught wafts over me as I wait at the top of the stairs and flash the light. The landing is clear, and the doors are shut. The laughter comes again, and I make my way to the first door. It opens easily, and I flash the light. Apart from the curtains at the window, and the carpet on the floor, the room is empty. The laughter comes again, and I close the door. When I flash the torch in the next room, the light lands on an empty bed. This room is tidy, and I step inside. The laughter comes again. Closer this time, and I move further into the room. As white as it is outside, there is little visibility in the room, and the light of the torch goes to the wardrobe. The laughter is closer and louder, and I step towards the wardrobe. My breath sticks in my throat, and the pulse in my wrist beats wildly. As I reach for the door handle, my hand trembles, and my fingers fumble with the latch in my hesitation. My eyes close as I breathe in deep and open the door. The first thing I notice is the smell. It’s old, damp, and musty. Clothes fill the wardrobe. As I ruffle amongst the shirts and dresses, the light of my torch flickers over the material. When I find nothing, I close the door, rest my head against the hard wood, and wait. I’m listening for the laughter, but the room remains silent. With a deep breath, the air leaves my mouth, leaving a misty trail, and on this sigh, I turn and leave the empty room.
Once I’m back on the landing, I lean against the closed door. My breathing is still erratic, and I wait for it to settle. As my gaze flickers over the landing, it comes to a small window. The snow has stopped, and the laughter has ceased.
Bright sunlight pushes against my eyelids, and it takes some force to open them. Through heavy sleep crusted eyes, I notice the snow hasn’t returned, and after a quick wash, I go downstairs. Quiet chatter draws my attention to the kitchen, and I join Aunt Hannah, and the stranger. Kit watches me as I enter the room, and I offer him a weak smile as I turn to the kitchen sink and look outside.
‘The snow has stopped.’
‘Yes, dear. But until they plough the lane, we’re not going anywhere.’
Aunt Hannah sounds breezy this morning and I smile as I turn towards her.
‘Is there any tea?’
‘I’ve just made a fresh pot.’
I return to the table where the tea is waiting for me.
‘Did you managed to contact your family?’
Kit places his cup on the table. When he smiles, my body gives a slight shake, and my fingers clutch the cup tight.
‘My wife knows I’m safe.’
He glances over to Aunt Hannah, who returns his smile.
‘You got a signal.’
‘Just long enough for me to tell her I was okay.’
‘Good. She’ll be happy to know you’re safe.’ My tea is cool, and I place the cup on the table then turn to Aunt Hannah. ‘I’m going to check upstairs. I think a window was left open last night.’
Aunt Hannah doesn’t answer and as I leave the kitchen, I sense Kit’s gaze following me.
When I reach the top of the stairs of the second floor, I notice all the doors are shut, and unlike the stair carpet I’ve just walked on. The carpet here looks new. The colours and pattern are still vibrant. As quiet as the landing is, it’s with tentative steps, I go to the bedroom where the laughter came from the night before. The room smells of lavender, and in the pale beam of the morning sun, dust sails through the air, and I reach out to grab it. When I open my hand, there’s nothing there. At the window I look over the street. It’s deserted, and the blanket of snow remains untouched. I give the window a shake. It’s stuck fast. As I continue to look outside, I hear the child’s laughter again, and spin towards the room. The door is just as I left it, and the beam of light flitters over the old patchwork quilt. The room has fallen silent and is empty. It’s only as my gaze sweeps the room, I discover the wardrobe door is open. I’m sure I closed it the night before. Instead of closing the door, I pull it open further and reach inside to push the clothes aside. From left to right my hand swishes. There’s nothing there and the child’s laughter comes again. I spin around to face the room. A movement at the door catches my attention and she stands there. Tiny and thin, the skirt she wears, reminds me of a fashion long gone as does the jumper with its argyle yoke.
As I step towards her, she turns, and I chase after her. When I reach the landing, it’s empty, and all the other doors remain shut. I take the stairs. My hands on the bannister as I swing over the steps two at a time. The next floor is deserted, and I race down the last set of stairs. The door to the kitchen is closed, and I turn to the sitting room where I hear the gentle hum of a conversation.
Inside, Aunt Hannah is sitting in her chair. Her tapestry in front of her. Her fingers deft as the needle flicks back and forth with each pull of the crimson thread she makes. Kit sits in the other chair. His hair smartly combed. The two top buttons of his shirt lie open. He’s reading yesterday’s paper and doesn’t grace me with a look.
‘There’s a girl here. Who is she?’
‘What was that, Leah?’
I turn my gaze to Aunt Hannah, who is peering at me.
‘I thought you were on your own. But there’s child staying here.’
‘No, Leah. There’s just the three of us.’
‘I saw her upstairs.’
‘It’s just the light. It’s an old house. You know the shadows play tricks on us.’ Aunt Hannah, shrugs, then she’s running her fingers over the tapestry. Her gaze on the growing pattern.
‘I heard her. I saw her.’
Aunt Hannah shakes her head as she picks up her needle and pushes it through the tapestry cloth. I turn to Kit, who’s watching me over the edge of the newspaper. His brown eyes dig, into me and I step back as I watch him fold the paper.
‘Want me to check the house for you.’ The snigger in his voice grates along my spine and I pull away from the door.
‘No. As Aunt Hannah says. It’s an old house, with old furniture. It’s probably the light playing tricks on me.’
‘Still. There’s no harm in looking - Is there.’ After laying the paper on the table, Kit rises from the chair and steps towards me. I step into the hallway and watch as he goes into the kitchen. When he returns, he shakes his head. Then he opens the door to the dining room, peeps in and steps back. His lips quiver as he holds back his smile back, and I pull myself straighter.
‘Like I said. It must have been the light.’
‘We still need to be sure.’ Kit takes a step forward, then he’s up the stairs. All the doors are shut, and it’s silent. He checks each room and I follow him as he goes to the next floor. Each time he comes out of a room, he shakes his head and I nip my bottom lip. When his foot lands on the bottom step to the attic, I no longer keep quiet.
‘Look, I’ve already admitted it was the play of the light.’
Kit comes close to me. He’s much taller than I am, and I tilt my head back to look up at him.
‘You’re invading my personal space.’
‘Sorry.’ He raises his hands as he gives them a slight wave. His smile, or the droll tone of his voice, does nothing to ease my agitation. ‘Look, maybe you did see something. It is an old house.’
I run my fingers through my short hair and shake my head.
‘I think it’s just the lingering effects of my dream from last night.’
‘Were you dreaming of little girls?’
‘No, it was just the wind playing with me. Strange house. Strange bed.’
‘You don’t live here?’
I shake my head. ‘I’m visiting Aunt Hannah for Christmas.’
‘Now we know the house is empty. Let’s go back downstairs.’
‘It’s a shame we’ll not make this year’s Christmas service.’
Aunt Hannah found some candles and the flames flicker and dance, casting shadows on the wall. Shadows I watch as I listened to her talk to Kit. I’d abandon reading my book when it dusk had set in, and for the last couple of hours we’ve played cards. I watch the shadows as they bob and dip. Sometime during the day, the snow returned, and the roads are still blocked.
‘We can listen to it on the radio.’
I nod at the old transistor radio as it crackles in the background. Frank Sinatra is singing something about the olden days. Hell, we’ve only had no electric for twenty-four hours and I want to get away. To find a Wi-Fi hotspot so I can check my social pages. How did people manage before electricity?
‘I guess. But it’s not the same as listening in person.’
As Aunt Hannah chatters, she fiddles with the radio. The high beep of static vibrates in my ear. Then the room fills with the dull tones of some Bishop or other as he delivers this year’s Christmas Service. About to excuse myself, another flicker of the shadows has me glancing over at the unlit tree. Kneeling beside the tree, is the little girl from upstairs. She’s just sat there, staring at the radio as her fingers stroke one of the glass baubles. She doesn’t appear to have seen me, and I turn my gaze to Aunt Hannah, and Kit. Aunt Hannah’s eyes are closed, and Kit has his head in his hands. Neither appear to be bothered about the child. I turn my gaze back to her. Her eyes are on me and she smiles as her fingers remove the bauble from the tree and rolls it along the floor to me. A look at Aunt Hannah, and Kit, show they’re still not interested in the new visitor, and I slip from my chair to kneel on the floor and roll the bauble back. The little girl laughs and I smile. She rolls the bauble again. It’s a game we play as the Christmas service drones on in the background. Still the others ignore what is happening between the uninvited guest and me. Each time I roll the ball, I shuffle a little closer to the tree. Soon we are knee to knee. Not only can I see the child, I can smell her. She smells of lavender. Now we are close, the girl throws the bauble at me, and I catch it and throw it back.
‘What’s your name.’
‘Hello Maia. I’m Leah.’
The girl’s soft laughter fills the room, and I glance over at Aunt Hannah and Kit, and still they are lost in their own worlds.
‘I know. We’ve met before.’
‘You kept running away from me. Why.’
Maia rolls her shoulder.
‘I’m not supposed to play with the adults. But it’s so boring.’ Her eyes roll, and I smile.
‘I’m bored too.’
‘Because I’m not with my friends.’
Maia rolls the bauble between her hands; her head dips forward, hiding her face from me.
‘I’ve no friends and I get lonely.’
‘I’ll be your friend.’
‘No, you won’t. In a couple of days we’ll leave.’ Maia looks up at me. Her green eyes sparkle as the flame of the candle jumps. ‘I hate it.’
‘Hate what?’ My voice is a whisper as I lean in closer to the little girl.
‘The travelling. We never stay. No matter how nice the house is, or the people are.’
At the sound of the new voice, I turn my head and watch as a woman walks into the room. Her smile twists at my heart and I go to rise. When I look back at Maia. She is gone.
‘Maia enjoys music.’
My heart races and blood thunders in my head. When I go to speak, there is no sound. My voice is trapped in my throat. I turn my gaze to Aunt Hannah, and in the dim glow of the candlelight I see she has fallen asleep. When I turn to look at Kit, he’s no longer in the room. On the old oak coffee table, my half-drunk beer sits, waiting for me to finish it, and I lick my lips. I’ve just spent the last hour playing catch with a ghost, and now I’m standing in Aunt Hannah’s living room staring at another ghost.
‘Is there just you and Maia?’
The ghost moves to the tree, and she flicks one of the bells, making it tinkle.
‘It’s a pretty tree.’
My gaze goes to the tree. The first time I’d seen it, I’d been surprised by its size. Fresh pine fills the room, and the lights flicker. I blink as the room becomes brighter. The church service no longer plays on the transistor radio and the snow has stopped falling and a fire roars. In the light, the wallpaper looks fresh and the yellow sofa is brighter. The arms are no longer frayed. The door opens, and Maia comes bouncing into the room, and a dog races in after her. The visitor turns from the tree and her flesh has a rosy glow to it.
‘Tea. Would you like some tea?’
I blink. ‘No. I’ve a beer.’
My hand waves to the old coffee table, only to discover it’s no longer there, and neither is my beer. My gaze shifts around the room, and instead of the Christmas service, a Christmas album is playing. I glance at the clock. It’s only six-thirty. As I circle the room. I notice photographs that hadn’t been there earlier. Pictures of Maia at different stages of her life, sit on the teak sideboard. On the mantelpiece is a photograph of the woman. She is younger. Not much, maybe several years, and beside her, in another frame is a picture of a man I don’t recognise. The blood roars in my ears, and I try to shake myself awake but nothing happens. When I reach the window, the street lights are working, and I see lights on at the other houses. A man is out walking his dog, and I watch him as he strolls down the street. Maia’s cold hand slips into mine, and I look down at her. Her smile is bright, and her cheeks are flushed. She’s still wearing the same clothes from our first meeting.
‘Father Christmas is coming tonight, and he’s bringing me a doll that eats and wees.’
My heart may be racing, but I still bob down to face the little girl.
‘You must be excited for Father Christmas.’
‘I am. He’s brought me the best gift ever.’ She turns to the other ghost. Her smile welcoming as she holds her hand out. ‘I’ve waited a long time for Ma. And now she’s here.’ Her green gaze turns to me, and the breath catches in my throat. ‘We had to wait a long time for her.’
‘Da and me.’
My gaze shifts to the chair Kit had been sitting in. Expecting him, I’m surprised to find another man. A younger man. His hair quiffed back. He’s wearing a polo-shirt and reading a paper. Beside him, a cigarette smoulders in a glass ashtray. I break away from Maia’s gasp. The woman is at the tree. Her dark hair coiffured back. A pale blue bow sits in the middle of the beehive. As though she senses my gaze on her, she turns.
‘Leah. You said something about a beer. I’ll go get you one.’
‘No. That’s okay.’
‘Do you want one, Kit?’
‘It’s Christmas, Hannah. I think I will.’
‘Can I have a beer, Mummy?’
My head is buzzing, and I look at the woman. Hannah is old. She doesn’t have any family. She never married. I step away from Maia. Her green eyes are on me. They are the same green as Aunt Hannah’s, only brighter.
‘Don’t be silly, Maia. I’ll make you a hot chocolate. Then you need to get ready for church.’
‘I don’t want to go to church.’
‘If you don’t go to church. Father Christmas won’t visit.’
Maia glares at her mother. I wait, but nothing happens until Maia gives a slight stamp of her foot, then returns to sit by the tree. The tree is the same tree from Aunt Hannah’s living room. Only before, when there had only been a couple of gifts. This one is bulging with presents. Maia turns to me, and I smile.
‘This is my stocking for Father Christmas. Do you have one?’ As I go to sit beside her, I shake my head. The white sock is a far cry from the red felted stocking children use today. ‘How can Father Christmas leave you nuts and orange if you don’t have a stocking?’ The small girl jumps from the ground. Her giggle fills the room as she runs to the door ‘I’ll go fetch you one.’
As I turn to the man, Kit. His dark eyes peer over the newspaper as he watches me. He neither rises nor puts his paper down as I come closer.
‘Why are you here?’
He folds the paper and drops it onto his lap. With a deep breath, he draws deeply on the cigarette. His eyes squinting as he watches me through the swirl of blue and grey mist.
‘For Hannah. I’ve waited a long time, and now we can be a family.’
‘Because it’s time.’
As I sit on the sofa, the cushions give a little bounce, and I’m surprised at how solid it is, and that I don’t fall straight to the ground.
‘Why Hannah? Who are you to her?’
Kit’s revelation keeps me awake, and my restlessness has me staring out of the window. The house is silent, causing me more unease than the night before when Maia ran across the landing. As the clock ticks. Each tock echoes in the dark, and in time with each wave of the branch of the tree outside my bedroom window, I concede defeat to sleep, and sit on the edge of the bed. My ears strain as I try to figure out what is going on outside my room. A quick glance at the clock tells me Christmas Day has arrived. Sometime during the night, the snow returned, and the streets were plunged in darkness. The trees are still as heavy snow holds them in place. No longer are shadows dancing on my wall. As I turn from the window, the silence is broken by the call of an owl greeting the early morning. With a shrug, I pull on my dressing gown and leave the bedroom. The hallway is bright and as I stand at the top of the stairs, I hear the hushed tones of adults talking and follow the sounds to the living room. The lights on the tree, dance as they chase each other round the decorated branches, and the fire is blazing. Unnoticed by the occupants, I stay by the door. Several times I blink. Mother is there, and so is Carl, my brother. Only he’s seven. He’s sat by the tree, rummaging through several gifts. Now and again, he’ll pass one to Mum or to Aunt Hannah. An aunt who is younger but looks old as she sits on the mustard yellow sofa with a multi-coloured crochet blanket wrapped around her legs. Mother smiles at her, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. From the old record player, the strains of Dean Martin fills the room. I look for me, but I’m missing. My gaze takes in more of the room. I see the man from last night, and Maia. The man is standing by the sofa. His gaze, loving as he stares at Aunt Hannah. Maia stands next to him. Then he looks at me, and smiles. With a tilt of his head, he invites me further into the room. Aunt Hannah smiles, then she is choking and her body rocks as her face turns mottle red. Her eyes water and a stray tear escapes, sliding down her cheek. Mother hugs her as she passes her a glass of water. Carl comes to stand beside her. His green eyes have lost their sparkle as he forgets about the battery powered car he was spinning round the room.
I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror, I’m still the same woman I was when I arrived the day the snow came. Kit and Maia don’t move as they watch Aunt Hannah, and when she finishes coughing, Mum settles her down and Carl returns to playing with his car.
She ignores me as she turns to Carl. Her smile is back.
Her head lifts briefly, and she blinks as she gazes towards the doorway. I step closer and kneel beside her. I go to hold her hand, only to discover I have no grip, and it doesn’t move from her lap.
He ignores me as he drops his car to select another gift and tears into the paper. No thought given to the meticulous care given into wrapping the gift in its red and green paper. Torn up Father Christmas, and trees, lay scattered on the floor.
After failing to get Mum or Carl’s attention, I turn to Aunt Hannah. Her glazed green eyes are on my brother, and when I move closer to her. Her gaze shifts to me.
‘Leah – Where have you been, child. We’ve almost all the presents open.’
‘Did you say something, Hannah?’
Aunt Hannah turns to mum and shakes her head
‘I was drifting - They’re here.’
‘Kit and Maia.’
At her name, Maia runs around the sofa. She sits by Aunt Hannah’s feet, and her tiny hands stroke the soft wool of the blanket.
‘I’m here, Mam.’ But Aunt Hannah ignores her as she leans back and closes her eyes. Maia’s smile disappears as she turns to look at me. ‘She doesn’t hear me.’
‘I think she senses you, Maia. Just like she senses me.’
‘I miss her. I don’t like her like this. When she doesn’t talk to me.’ Maia’s bright green eyes lift to mine. They shimmer with unshed tears. ‘She talks to my pictures all the time. But she never talks to me. She talks to daddy’s picture too. It’s Christmas, and I don’t have any gifts - I peeked under the tree.’ Maia walks to the tree, and she drops to her knees. Her hands skim over the unopened presents. ‘None of them have my name on them.’
Kit opens his arms, and Maia runs into them. Her silent sobs wrack her body.
‘I remember this Christmas. This is the year we visited when my folks temporarily separated.’ I move towards Aunt Hannah. Her eyes are closed, and the room fills with the gentle rattle of her heaving chest. ‘She was ill then.’
‘Yes.’ Kit is beside me. His shoulders slumped as he watches his wife.
‘Were you expecting her to die?’
‘It was you and Carl, who saved her. For the short time you were here. The house was filled with laughter for the first time in a long time.’ Now Kit turns to me. His eyes cold and I step back. My own breath catches in my throat. ‘You all gave her hope. Then you abandoned her. She never gave up. She waited and waited.’
The words stumble. They rip at my throat as they climb out of me.
‘Maia waited too. She waited for you to return. She wanted someone to play with when your family kept her Mam from her.’
My gaze turns to Maia. Her head is tilted back, and there is a dark glint in her eyes as her lips press together.
‘You never came back.’
‘I forgot. I forgot about you, Maia.’
Maia is off the sofa. Her small body in front of me and her fists curl tight as she pummels them into my thigh. Her cheeks wet as she looks at me. A dew drop lingers on her dark lashes as she blinks. Her smile is more of a sneer as her lips pull back.
‘She’s mine now. And she’s not coming back to you. She won’t be fooled again.’ Maia turns to her father. Her cheeks are flushed. ‘Will she Da? She’s ours now. To keep forever.’
Kit drops to his knees as he hugs his daughter and smiles.
‘She’s ours now, Maia, For all the todays and tomorrows. She’s ours.’
The door squeaks and I watch Aunt Hannah walk into the living room. She’s old again, and Kit follows her. The room grows dark, and the lights on the tree are no longer bright. I glance to the window. The snow has stopped, and morning has broken. The first rays of light filters into the room, and my body shivers. The fire is out. Neither Kit nor Aunt Hannah attempt to light it. I watch as Kit takes his seat in the armchair by the window, and Aunt Hannah takes her usual seat on the sofa. I go to shout out. To wish them Merry Christmas. No sound comes from my throat. The blood in my head pounds. My voice is loud and vibrates inside me. And still they continue to ignore me.
Kit is watching the tree and I shout at him. The sound echoes, and he looks towards me. His gaze blinks, then he turns to watch Aunt Hannah. As he watches her, he rises, and goes over to her. The old crochet blanket, faded. Is lying on the back of the sofa, and he pulls it over her, wrapping it around her lower body.
‘Don’t worry about me, Leah,’
The voice is a breeze in my ear, and I turn to the young Hannah. Maia’s hand is wrapped in hers, and Kit is standing beside her. His arm around her waist as his fingers linger on her hips.
‘It’s sad. I never got to know you.’
‘Don’t become me, Leah.’
I’m standing by the sofa. Aunt Hannah is pale, and I fall to my knees. Her hand is in mine, and the cold flesh leaves my body trembling. I taste salt as my tears gather in my throat. I’m mourning a woman I never knew. A woman who was only part of my life briefly. The window shudders, and I look at the outside world. The snow is back.
‘They say we know when we’re going to die.’
I turn to Aunt Hannah’s still body on the sofa and stroke the hair across her forehead. Her lips are ruby red, and there’s a slight curve to her lips. Her flesh is smooth, and as cold as the weather and the house are, she wears a summer dress of daisies, and cornflowers. Her toes are painted crimson, and she’s wearing white dancing shoes.
‘Did you know, Aunt Hannah? Did you know you were going to die? Is this why you invited me. So that you weren’t on your own when it happened.’
A hand brushes my hair, and I turn to the younger Hannah. This Hannah has colour in her cheeks, and although I know she’s not real, her heat warms me.
‘You saved me last time, Leah. I wanted to die. But it wasn’t time.’
‘So, you brought me here now. To make sure I never forget. Forget you.’ I rise. My fingers curl, pressing into the palm of my flesh. ‘What did you want from me?’
‘Not to die alone.’
I look over her shoulder. Maia and Kit are watching us.
‘But you weren’t alone. Were you? You knew they were here.’
‘They don’t always visit.’
‘But you knew they would come this time.’
‘Are you mad with Mam.’ Maia has her hands in Aunt Hannah’s. Her green gaze on me. Her lips are straight, and I shake my head.
‘No, I’m upset.’
‘Because…’ I walk to the window. The snow is still falling, and it’s hard to see where the path begins or ends. There’s no road and there’s no sound.
‘Why are you upset, Leah?’
‘Because I’m trapped.’
‘Trapped and alone.’
Maia’s hand slips into mine. Her flesh cold.
‘But you’re not alone. We’re here. And it’s Christmas day.’ Maia’s hand slips from mine. She’s at the tree, kneeling. She searches through the presents and holds a small gaily wrapped box up towards me. ‘We have presents to open. And a turkey to eat. Can you smell it? It smells delicious.’
I close my eyes. All I can smell, is musk. Old musk of an old house. When I open my eyes, Maia has the gifts from under the tree spread out, and Aunt Hannah, is sat beside her. Their heads touch as they giggle. Kit is sat in his chair. He’s watching them, and when Maia passes him a present wrapped in paper covered in snowmen, he smiles at her. She climbs onto his lap and kisses his cheek and with small hands, she helps him rip the paper away. At the handkerchief, with its monogram K.P., he hugs her, and she giggles. A clock chimes and the radio flickers to life. Bing Crosby’s voice fills the room. I want to step out of the room, but when I take the step back, I find the door is closed. As I tug at the handle, it refuses to move. As sure as I am that the family has forgotten about me. They won’t let me leave. Time sweeps by as I stand and watch them open their presents. Gift paper strewn across the floor. Their laughter fills the room, but it leaves me cold. Again, I try the door. Aunt Hannah turns to me. Her smile inviting as she holds a gold wrapped gift box out to me. My knees, and the first few steps I take, are shaky. My hand trembles as I accept the gift. Three sets of eyes watch as I pull the ribbon apart. It floats to the floor. My forefinger slips under the tape and the paper gives way. As I free it from the box, the paper drifts to the floor. The lid slips from the box, and I stare at the onyx cat.
‘Don’t become me, Leah.’ Aunt Hannah stands in front of me. Her fingers brush against my cheek. The ice of her touch stabs at my heart. The penetration of her green eyes has me stumbling and I find myself falling onto the sofa. When I look up. I’m surrounded. Aunt Hannah, Maia, and Kit have me captured. The beat of my heart, echoes in my ears. Aunt Hannah’s lips are moving. ‘You have to go. Leah. Don’t become me. Go – Go now.’
As I push at their leering bodies, I drop the small box Aunt Hannah gave me, and push at their pressing bodies. Maia’s hand grabs mine.
‘Don’t go, Leah. Stay, and you’ll never be lonely.’
Aunt Hannah grabs my arm; she pushes me towards the door
‘Go. Leah – Run.’
The door opens. The street is deserted, and snow is falling. There’s no path. My car is nothing more than a white bump on the landscape. How can I run when each step I take, takes me further down into the snow. Thick clumps of ice pull at my legs, my thighs, my waist. I fall, and a thousand pinpricks hit my face. I look back to the house. Aunt Hannah yells at me to run whilst Maia reaches out. She grabs my hand as she begs me to stay.