by Adam Macqueen
Alice was always so pleased to see her great-aunt, which just served to make Carol feel even guiltier about her own lack of enthusiasm for their visits. She still went though. That was the main thing.
“Hello Auntie Claire!” her daughter trilled as soon as the front door cracked open, and Carol felt her heart breaking a little bit when the pair of eyes that were peering suspiciously out through the few inches the security chain would allow failed to register any emotion at all at her presence.
“They’ve been back again,” was the first thing the old woman said when they had managed to negotiate the routine of door-shut-chain-off-curtain-back-door-open-and-mind-the-clutter-in-the-hallway. Carol fixed her features into a smile and decided to ignore this until she felt a bit stronger with a cup of tea inside her. “We’ve bought you a treat,” she said, raising the Tupperware box and tapping it with a gloved finger. “Christmas biscuits. Alice made them at school.”
“We’ve broken up now,” Alice announced as she led the way into the stuffy sitting room. “So I’ll be able to come to see you every day with mummy.”
Won’t that be nice, Carol glared fiercely at the old woman’s retreating back, but she failed to respond, as usual. Alice didn’t seem to mind. She thought her great-aunt was deaf, for the very good reason that Carol had told her she was. It had been a quick-thinking excuse to explain why she so often found herself raising her voice when she was talking to her, but it had turned out to be a multi-purpose white lie in the long run.
Carol went straight on through to the kitchen to make tea. She had long given up asking, given her aunt’s tendency to regard the most basic level of hospitality as a nefarious attempt to do her out of teabags. She’d brought a pint of milk with her in her bag – not that she’d get any thanks for it – and she popped it into the fridge and took the opportunity to check the dates on the plastic containers left there by meals on wheels while the kettle was boiling. Only one was ready for the bin this time, which was a good sign.
When she brought the tray through to the sitting room, Alice was clucking over the meagre collection of Christmas cards arranged above the gas fire. Carol could see most of them had printed greetings – she recognised the one from the local church and the Indian takeaway – and she felt a pang of mingled pity and guilt and resolved to make an extra effort, a resolution her aunt put to the test straight away.
“They were back. Last night. In the garden,” she announced, her eyes wide and challenging.
“Who were?” asked Alice.
“Never mind–” her mother began, but Aunt Claire was already off. “The hoodies. They come in my garden.”
Now you’ll talk to her, thought Carol.
“Really?” asked Alice, fascinated. She moved to the window and bunched up her sleeve to wipe away the condensation that coated the panes.
“Every night,” affirmed the old woman. “They wait till it’s dark, and then they’re there. Stood in the shadows, looking in at the window.”
“Come away love,” said Carol weakly. “Do you want to pass your auntie one of your lovely biscuits?”
“Every night,” Aunt Claire said, settling back in her chair with some satisfaction. “The police won’t do anything. I’ve called them.”
“Did you?” Her heart sinking, Carol added something else to the long list of things she had to sort out before Christmas.
The old woman nodded. “They gave me this.” She sifted through the oddments that she kept on the high table by the side of her chair and extracted a leaflet from the pile of dog-eared Readers Digests.
Anti-Social Behaviour Incident Diary, Carol read. Do not complete this Incident Diary for Noise Nuisance complaints. For such incidents please phone Enviromental Protection. Oh god. She was going to have to spend forever on the phone. On the front page, beneath “Details of incident, including who did it, if known, and where it happened,” there was tiny spidery handwriting: the same ones as before. Just stood there. Looking into the house. They come closer every night.
Carol took a deep breath and gathered her strength. Rob was going to kill her. “Why don’t you come and stay with us for Christmas?” she heard herself say. “It would do you good to get away for a few days.”
“Oh, yes, do!” trilled Alice, coming away from the window at last.
“Oh, yes,” said Aunt Claire with a sort of scornful glee. “I know what you’re up to. They’ll not get me out of this house, and neither will you. I’m stopping here. Are you just going to leave that tea to mash and go to waste?”
“The bloody cheek of the woman!” said Rob later that night, thumping down onto his side of the bed with The World According to Clarkson in his hand.
“I know! As if we wanted her grotty little house,” protested Carol. “It’s not even like it would be in our interests if she did have to go into a home.” As far as Alice’s school were concerned, she lived at Great Aunt Claire’s address, which was considerably closer to the centre of the catchment area than their own. Carol tended to think of that as a white lie too. After all, they quite often did pop in there on the way back from school, and not just to check if any letters had come from the headteacher.
“I am worried about her, though” she said when her husband had got comfortable. “She’s completely convinced about it.”
He thumbed his bookmark. “Have you called her social worker?”
“I tried. They’re on reduced hours over Christmas. I’m going to try to get hold of her in the morning.”
He nodded. “Well, see what they say. It sounds like living on her own might be getting too much for her.”
“She’s always lived on her own though.” Carol thought back to her own childhood, and the younger Aunt Claire – though she seemed old even then – coming for lunch every Sunday and, as her father used to joke, doing her best to spoil the Sabbath for everyone. She had been fairly batty even then.
“Then you’d think she’d be glad to have some visitors,” Rob grinned.
“Oh, don’t laugh.” Carol rapped him on his bare arm. “And what if it’s real? There’s always kids hanging around in the car park by Lidl, that’s why I park up the road when I go and see her. What if it’s them coming into her garden to scare her?”
Her husband plopped Clarkson down on the duvet, admitting defeat. “Look. It’s just something she’s got in her head from too much reading the Daily Express. She’s imagining things in the shadows. Did you have a look in the garden?”
“Yeah.” Carol and Alice had had a quick scout round the shaggy lawn and bare borders on their way out.
“And was there any sign anyone had been there?”
“No. But I wasn’t sure exactly what we were looking for.”
“Fag butts? Empty cans of booze? Crisp packets? The teenagers round here don’t seem to be able to go three feet without dropping some litter.”
“No, none of that.”
“And do you really think the local kids have got nothing better to do than hang around in gardens frightening old ladies at this time of year? It’s supposed to be minus two tonight.”
“She said they had their hoods up,” she said weakly.
“Well there you are then. It’s probably monks,” he said witheringly. “The old bag’s probably having a religious vision. Next time, tell her not to bother ringing the police and just get straight on to the Vatican instead.”
“You’re horrible,” she scolded him with a smile as she settled back into the pillows. But in her heart she knew he was probably right. Her own mother, Aunt Claire’s sister, had started seeing Tony Blair at the post office not long before she died. Which, frankly, sounded a far worse prospect than any number of hoodies in the garden.
Well, that was just the limit. Here was a woman who insisted she wasn’t capable of leaving the house to do her own shopping, and she’d somehow managed to shift her chair right across the room all by herself. “Why d’you want it right over there?” Carol demanded. “It’s miles away from the fire. And you’ll get a terrible draught from the window.”
“I’ve got to keep an eye on them,” her aunt replied stubbornly.
She sighed. “Keep an eye on who?”
“The hoodies,” the old woman exclaimed in exasperation. “There was one of them standing in the middle of the lawn last night, bold as brass. Well, I won’t be intimidated. Here I sit and here I stay.”
Carol peered out of the window at the ragged patch of lawn, which appeared unchanged. “Claire, do you really think –”
“Don’t you take that tone with me!” her aunt snapped back. “I know what you think. You go back to your big house with that husband of yours and you think I’m just making this all up, but I’m telling you they come, every night, as soon as it gets dark they’re there creeping about and trying to find a way in, and I’m not going to let them.”
Carol was alarmed to see tears welling in the corners of the old woman’s eyes. Whatever it was, it was real to her, that much was clear.
“Look.” She glanced at her watch. Alice’s party was due to finish in half an hour. If she was quick, she could make it to the garden centre and back, and then… “We’ll come back. This evening. I’ll bring Rob, and he can go out there and have a good look around and make sure there’s nothing for you to worry about. How’s that? And I’ll bring something else too. I’ve had an idea.”
Rob grumbled all the way over about how he’d been looking forward to a nice glass of wine all day and that he was going to miss the Christmas Q.I. until she finally snapped as they turned into Aunt Claire’s street that his liver would thank him for the night off and it wasn’t as if it wouldn’t be on Dave again and again and again anyway. She noticed as they went past that the Lidl car park was empty, but she didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
They could see her in her chair at the window as soon as they opened the gate – she hadn’t even closed the curtains, she must be freezing – and Carol made a point of shining the torch all round the garden, right into the hedge and the corner where the fence was sagging with the weight of next-door’s compost heap, to prove as much to herself as to her aunt that there was nothing and nobody there.
“I’ll just stop out here then, shall I?” said Rob grumpily on the front doorstep, and she handed him the bag with her sweetest smile and the promise of a hot cup of coffee as soon as he was done.
She’d planned to distract her aunt by telling her Alice needed to do her reading, and since they had abandoned The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe at a particularly crucial point the night before – Lucy had just proposed going back to visit Mr Tumnus only to get to his cave and find the White Witch had got there before them – her daughter was only too happy to go along with the plan. Between them she and Rob managed to trail the long lead in through the little window in the downstairs loo and loop it out of the way behind the safety handrail. He found enough strong branches in the hedge after only a few minutes of muffled swearing, and when she flicked the switch the whole garden flashed into life and she was pleased to see Aunt Claire jumped about a mile.
“How about that then?” she asked, beaming.
“Brilliant!” shrieked Alice, slipping off her great-aunt’s lap and pressing her face up against the chilly glass.
“That should be enough to make anyone think twice about coming in,” said Rob in that weirdly hearty tone he adopted with the elderly, babies, and anyone else he was a bit scared of. Carol shot him a look.
“It’s a bit more cheery, isn’t it?” she asked her aunt, who was scanning every inch of the newly-revealed garden with anxious eyes.
“Aren’t they pretty, Aunt Claire?” said Alice breathlessly. “Yours is the most christmassiest garden in the street now!”
The old woman waited a long while before speaking. “And that’s all coming off my electricity, is it?”
They had been gone about an hour, and the old woman still sat at the window, staring out at the pools of light that danced around the garden as the winter wind shifted the branches of the hedge. A cup of stone-cold coffee sat untouched on the table beside her.
After a while the faint throb of next door’s television ceased, and the thumping of stairs and cascade of water through pipes that heralded their going to bed gave way to silence. Still Aunt Claire sat staring out into the garden, as fingers of ice began to form in the corner of the window panes and feel their way out along the glass.
The furthest lightbulb went out first. One moment it was glinting away, illuminating the panels of the bowing fence and the frost that was beginning to set upon the scrubby grass, and the next it had winked away into nothingness. The second one puttered out of life a moment later, bringing the shadows creeping a few inches closer to the house. Then the third was extinguished, then the fourth, and before long only the closest lamps on the string which ran along the edge of the path were illuminated, and twilight had taken over the rest of the garden. The old lady still sat there, gazing out into the night, her thin hands gripping the arms of the chair and her breath rising up as vapour in front of her face until the darkness came all the way up to the windowpane and an even darker shadow loomed in front of her.
She screwed her eyes tightly shut as something began to tap on the glass.
“I appreciate your concern, Ms Langtree, I really do. I’m going to make a note on your mother’s file that we should –”
“She’s not my mother!” Carol said, and regretted her sharpness straight away. “She’s an aunt. My parents are both dead.” Then she regretted that as well, because it sounded like she was trying to pass the buck, and she wasn’t totally sure that she wasn’t.
“But you are the contact relative?” She could hear the tapping of a keyboard at the other end.
“Yes.” Carol swapped the phone to her other hand and attempted to manoeuvre the glove she had had to take off to dial the number back on using her teeth. It was bitter out on the front step, but she didn’t want either her aunt or Alice overhearing the call.
“Well, as I say, I’m making a note on the file that we need to convene for a reassessment at the earliest opportunity after the holiday period. That will give us a chance to get a proper medical assessment as well.”
“But isn’t there anything we can do now?” Her ears were nearly as cold as her fingers. She pulled her scarf up and wrapped it over her head, Baboushka-style.
“Ms Langtree, it is Christmas Eve.”
Carol gritted her teeth. As if she didn’t know that. They’d still got most of Alice’s presents to wrap, the turkey should have come out of the freezer an hour ago and Rob hadn’t replied to her text saying so, and a hundred other things besides. And she’d spent the best part of forty minutes playing phone chase around the various answerphones of the local social services department before tracing the one emergency out-of-hours number that actually had a human being at the end of it. “I know. I’m sorry, I really am. It’s just that I’m really quite worried about her. She didn’t make it to bed last night, and I’m not sure she’s slept much at all. She’s not really looking after herself.”
She could feel the disapproval emanating from the other end of the line. “A lot of our older clients stay with family at this time of year.”
“I have asked,” Carol snapped, feeling herself flush in spite of the cold. “She won’t come.”
“You don’t think you could persuade her?”
“You obviously haven’t met my aunt,” said Carol with a sigh. She stepped down off the doorstep, one gloved hand against the pebbledash to guard against slipping, and skirted the bare flowerbed to check on how things were going in the sitting room.
“What’s wrong, Auntie?” The old woman’s scream had made Alice jump. She followed the direction of her gaze and saw her mother peering in through the front window. She returned her wave.
Her great-aunt hadn’t made a start on her letter to Santa at all. “Come on Auntie,” she said cheerily. “I’ve done lots of mine. What are you going to ask for?”
“Horns,” whispered the old woman, still staring at the window.
“Really?” asked Alice, intrigued. She was thinking about an old-fashioned squeezy brass-and-rubber affair and what fun it would be to creep up on people and parp it when they were least expecting it. “I might ask for one of those too. Lets both write it down.”
“That’s why they wear their hoods up,” the old woman hissed, turning her steely blue eyes towards the girl.
Alice shivered. She couldn’t see her mother through the window any more. “I think we should just write our letters,” she said, trying to adopt a grown-up sort of tone.
“Come here.” Her aunt beckoned her over to her chair. Alice didn’t want to go over, but she didn’t feel she had a choice. “Closer.” A bony hand fastened around the arm of her reindeer jumper. The grip was surprisingly tight.
“I’ll tell you something else, too.” The old woman put her mouth so close to the girl’s ear that it felt like the wind was blowing in her hair. “I know what they’re hiding under those big baggy trousers, too.”
This, Alice decided, was quite enough. She pulled away – it actually hurt – and copied something Miss Lemon said which always seemed to work when the boys in her class were playing up: “Stop this nonsense!”
And then she felt terrible because she could see her great-aunt was starting to cry. “Now, look, Auntie Claire,” she said, panicking and trying to change the subject before her mother came back in. “I’ll help you with your letter and then you can help me put it up the chimney. Come on, it’ll be fun. And if we get it done that means Santa will definitely be coming for you tonight.”
Christmas morning was the usual chaos, and they were late getting away to collect Auntie Claire, who had been persuaded – well, given no choice, really – about coming over to theirs for her dinner at least. Carol had told Alice about a dozen times she didn’t have to come – she kept casting longing looks back at the pile of brightly-coloured boxes she had got as far as unwrapping but not yet managed to open – but her daughter insisted. (She was still feeling guilty about making her great-aunt cry the day before, not that she was going to tell her mother that.)
Then there was the palaver of getting the car de-iced – it had been the coldest night of the year so far, according to the news. And they’d no sooner got going than Rob rang on the mobile with a question about the lunch and she had to pull over and spent five minutes telling him she couldn’t see how anyone could get to 38 and eat that many roast potatoes without knowing you had to par-boil them first.
The radio kept saying there was snow in Derbyshire but this didn’t officially mean it was a white Christmas for some reason or other, but Alice wasn’t bothered about that because there was frost sparkling everywhere and that was good enough for her. So they switched it off and sang While Shepherds Washed Their Socks By Night and One On A Scooter Beeping His Hooter at the tops of their voices all the way there and it felt to Carol like one of the best Christmases ever until they got there and the front door was wide open.
She had her mobile out in her hand like a talisman and was nervously peering into the dark hallway – she’d already clocked the empty chair in the window – when she became aware that Alice was tugging urgently at her sleeve and trying to draw her attention to something else. “Look mummy – he did come! He did!”
All across the garden, in the thick frost that covered the lawn and the border and the path up to the open front door, there were dozens and dozens of hoof prints.