Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! I hope everyone has had a wonderful run-up to the Big Day and my most sincere and wonderful wishes to you for Christmas Day tomorrow. May your day be Merry, however you choose to spend it.
To mark the occasion, please find the last instalment of my Christmas ghost story, The Highwayman, below. I really enjoyed pulling together this little spooky tale and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and that it’s helped create some seasonal atmosphere.
Have a wonderful Christmas, all, and a fun-filled New Year! See you on the other side.
Eleanor sat in the back of the ambulance wrapped in a foil blanket while a paramedic checked her blood pressure. She felt calmer, but her flesh still twitched, her vision was blurred, her heart still raced. She watched Abbie, white-faced and staring, being marched over to a police car in handcuffs with an almost crushing sadness.
“I don’t think you’re in any danger,” the paramedic said softly as she removed the blood pressure cuff. “We’ll get you to the hospital and get a blood sample, try and figure out exactly what she’d given you. But I’d say it’s already leaving your system.”
Eleanor didn’t answer. She was watching Abbie being bundled into the back of a police car, its blue lights flashing off the white walls of the Annex.
They let her out of hospital the following morning, satisfied that whilst Abbie had drugged her with potent stuff, she hadn’t administered strong enough doses to induce anything more than some temporary physical and mental side effects. It was small comfort. She sat in the empty lobby in the early morning light for a long time, not even trying to process it all, just feeling empty.
The engineers arriving to start setting up for the carol service jerked her out of her trance. She hesitated a long moment before letting them in.
She moved through the motions of preparing for the evening, still fuzzed by the drug withdrawal and the after-effects of everything that had happened. She found herself stood in the recording studio, unable to remember why she’d come in, staring around and wondering at the empty silence. The Annex was a hive of activity; the stables were being set up with sound and video recording equipment, the choir members were arriving for rehearsal, the engineers needed retrieving from the Highwayman after more than one lunchtime pint. The atmosphere was busy, loud and excitable, but somehow, it felt more hollow than before. Quieter.
The drugs were leaving her system and taking the ghosts with them. The stairs now only creaked when people were on them. There was nothing stood behind her in the mirror in the hall. All the door handles were still.
But Abbie had heard that scream. John had heard it, too. And when Abbie had looked at John, she’d seen something Eleanor hadn’t.
She shook it all away. There would be a time for hurting. She sensed it, lurking just around the corner. When this was over and reality came knocking, Eleanor knew it was going to be with a battering ram. But she was determined to stave it off, for at least one night.
She owed it to Abbie. After everything she’d done and said to make this Carol Service happen, she had to make sure it happened now. Had to show everyone it had been worth it.
The stables started to fill. Soft acoustic Christmas tunes drifted through the air from the speakers. People queued at the bar. Eleanor stood at the back, still feeling twitchy but unable to deny the spark of something lighting up deep within her. Three local homeless people were shown to seats at the front by Andrew who then supplied them with mugs of steaming hot chocolate. They grinned gap-toothed smiles as they accepted the mugs.
She watched, almost unbelieving, as the entire space filled up. She was aware of the occasional lingering glance and more than one stranger sought her out to ask her if she was ok, but otherwise the events of the last few days might never had happened.
Eleanor wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
When DC Evans arrived, found her in the crowd and approached with a rather shy smile to ask her how she was doing, Eleanor could do little but blush and blink.
“I’m so sorry,” Evans said softly, taking a small step closer so she could lower her voice. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”
“No. I’m fine,” Eleanor lied, though the concern in Evans’s ocean-grey eyes went further than it should to making her feel better. She hesitated a long moment before asking. “How’s Abbie doing?”
Evans’s lips flattened. “I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry.”
Eleanor nodded, looking at the floor. “I don’t blame her, you know. Not entirely. People do crazy things when they’re desperate.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Evans murmured then looked around the room. “You’re doing a good thing here. I wish you the best of luck with it. And…well, maybe, once everything’s settled down…maybe I could buy you a drink sometime?”
Eleanor’s eyebrows rose. She felt a flush in her belly. “Really?”
Evans laughed. “Yes, really.”
“Well…ok then. Yes. I’d like that.”
Evans beamed, nodded as if pleased and wove her way back into the crowd to take a seat. The place was full, standing room only, when the choir took their places on stage to thunderous applause.
It went even better than she’d hoped. There’d still been the niggling doubt that it had just been a burning need for comfort that had put a filter on her experience from last Christmas. But as the choir started the first bars of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing she felt her heart lift and blood thrum. The choir master kept them in perfect time and the harmonies soared and filled the room. She watched the audience’s faces warm and breathed deep the scents of the wood burners and the spiced candles and fir trees and knew, then, that she really had made the right decision.
John drifted in about half way through. Eleanor was so engaged she didn’t notice him until he was stood at her shoulder.
“John,” she murmured and he smiled.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m a lot better,” she said. “What about you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m a resilient sort.”
“What exactly did you do?” Eleanor hadn’t wanted to ask, not now the same space was filled with music and warmth. Remembering Abbie’s stricken face, the dark shadows and the struggle on the mezzanine over her head sent a wave of cold through her.
“I didn’t need to do anything,” John replied softly. “She had a guilty heart. Me being there just helped her see it. People often don’t like being confronted with the truth of themselves.”
Eleanor narrowed her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
He smiled warmly. “You don’t have to.”
“How did you know?” she breathed. “How did you know what Abbie was planning?”
John’s oak-brown eyes flickered over her face a moment. “I can read people. And situations. Quite well.”
“Well thank you. I owe you a lot.”
“You don’t owe me anything. It’s what I’m still here for.”
Eleanor frowned at the odd phrasing. The carol came to an end and the audience cheered. When Eleanor had turned back after it had died down, working up the courage to ask John about the scream, he’d gone. She looked around but couldn’t spot him anywhere.
The service ended to raucous applause. She, the choir and the choir master were heaped with congratulations and good wishes. Pre-orders for the CD went through the roof. Finally, drinks were finished and people slowly drifted out. Eleanor hunted out the sound engineer and he confirmed that the recording had gone well and he would get the files to her for editing right after Christmas. The homeless trio shook both her hands and thanked her for helping raise enough from the service alone to fund the sleeping shelter in Crossways for the whole of the winter.
Elation almost powerful enough to wipe out the lingering gloom was pulsing through her as she showed the last few people out.
“Congratulations,” Andrew boomed as he came out from behind the bar, wiping his hands on his apron. “I’d call that a success wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. Yes I would. Andrew, have you seen John? There’s something I need to ask him.”
“John?” The man’s heavy brow creased.
“Yes, the young one. He was here earlier, but I didn’t see him leave.”
Andrew’s wife had come up by his side and they exchanged looks.
“You’ve met John, then?”
“Yes,” Eleanor said, frowning. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Andrew said, smiling through his beard, though his and Lorna’s faces had both lost a little colour. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“John helps, he does,” Lorna put in. “Remember that. He’s a force for good. You shouldn’t be afraid.”
“Afraid?” Eleanor was really baffled now.
Andrew and his wife exchanged looks again, glanced about to check they were alone then Andrew stepped closer and lowered his voice. “We’ve never met John ourselves, though many guests have, over the years.”
“Usually guests in trouble of some kind,” Lorna went on. “Or ones that need warning of something.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Did he help you last night?” Andrew asked.
“Well, yes, he did. He distracted Abbie long enough for me to get away. Why?”
“He’s a force for good,” Andrew’s wife repeated softly. “But we don’t talk about him.”
“Because he’s real,” Andrew replied, eyes deep and dark.
“What do you mean, ‘real’?”
“The other stories are just that. Stories,” Andrew went on. “John…he exists.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’ve read the Highwayman?” Andrew said softly.
“Young Bess shot herself to warn her lover of the ambush of the king’s men,” Lorna went on softly. “He escaped. But when he heard what had really happened he galloped back to the inn in a rage. This inn. And, of course, the king’s men were waiting for him.”
“I know the story,” Eleanor snapped impatiently, skin tingling with what she suspected was nothing to do with the drugs. “What’s it got to do with John?”
“The Highwayman was called John Draper,” Andrew said, face grave. “He’s buried outside the boundary of the graveyard at All Saints. He died hundreds of years ago. But when there’s danger, Bess still warns him and he still comes running.”
“He couldn’t save her,” Eleanor murmured.
“But he did save you.”
Eleanor blinked at the older couple, looking slightly eerie with their matched disquieted expressions in the flickering candlelight.
The Annex was silent when she climbed into bed that night. The normal creaks of settling timbers but no footsteps, no shapes out the corner of her eye, no barely-heard humming, no turning handles or screams shredding the air. A curious peace hung about the building. She found herself swinging between wishing John would appear and fervently wishing to never see him again. She wasn’t sure she believed what Andrew and his wife had told her, wasn’t sure she could believe it. But she felt, somewhere deep inside her, that she was finally safe and it wasn’t all down the new locks on all the doors.
She was going to spend Christmas day at the Highwayman with Andrew and Lorna. Andrew was going to cook. She found she was really looking forward to it. She found she was looking forward again, in general, rather than back, and finally liked what she saw.