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Feather's Miscellany: A Christmas Ghost Story

...As Ernest entered, his dad waved cheerily and beckoned him over. “Come on, lad, an’ make thisen at home. ‘Ave some mulled wine. It’ll warm thee up.” More bewildered than ever, Ernest went over. His dad had been dead these thirty years, so had all his friends and they were chatting...

John Waddington-Feather tells a ghostly tale.

Ernest Dodds, Lord Dodds of Utworth as he became, was born and raised down Garlic Lane. His dad, Fred, had a small grocer’s shop in Keighworth Market, which Ernest went into straight from school at the age fourteen in 1947. The only education he had was at Westwood School, yet it was sound. He could add up well – no one better – and he was a great reader, albeit of popular fiction, all his life. He also loved the theatre and attended the theatre in Keighworth regularly before it was demolished in the 1960s. Then he had to go to Bradford or Leeds till he became too busy; and there was a competent amateur Little Theatre in Keighworth which he’d patronised in the past.

He’d no other hobbies and no close friends, for work was his life. He was generally busy in the shop all day Saturday, so he never took part in or watched sport, except on the telly at night. Every year he went with his parents while they were alive on holiday to Morecambe, staying at the same small hotel, and that was the extent of his travelling till he went into the forces to do his National Service at the age of eighteen in 1951.

He did his two years in the Royal Army Service Corps ending up as a corporal in the brigade stores after his basic training; buying in large amounts of food and other goods at the most advantageous prices, just as he’d done in civilian life; only in the army he didn’t have to sell them. No heroics abroad in the front line for Ernest. He was too competent at his job and they kept him at base. He never got further than Aldershot, but the army did widen his social horizons; especially during the first few weeks of training.

The raw recruits he shared his billet with came from the slums of the Gorbals in Glasgow, a far cry from the sheltered backwater of Garlic Lane where he’d lived all his life. He learned more about the seamy side of life in those early weeks in the army than he’d done in his previous eighteen years. Later, there were others straight from public schools, classy upper-crustians, he met as officers. All in all, in the army he learned much about the strengths and weaknesses of the British class system and its rich provincial mix, which was to serve him well in the future in business.

His father was well known in Keighworth for Fred Dodds was a sociable sort, who liked good company and the ale which went with it. He was a member of that oddly named Keighworth Cycling Club, a ‘gentlemen’s drinking club’, and the Conservative Club; visiting the one after work most evenings and the other on Saturday mornings when he left his shop in charge of his assistant. Ernest joined his father at both establishments when he came home on leave from the army. He was a man then and could drink with men, sometimes drinking with his dad till the early hours of the morning at the Cycling Club. On their return home both had their ears bent by Elsie Dodds.

They were happy days and as his dad approached old age, Ernest took over the shop, living with and looking after his parents till they died; then he’d moved to his new house in Utworth, the posh end of Keighworth. He was made a lord soon afterwards.

He never married. He was much too pre-occupied with his work to begin courting, and after his dad died he opened another larger shop in Bradford – and then another, and when supermarkets came into being he was right in there. Dodds’ Super Stores appeared all over Britain, even on mainland Europe in Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, and as they grew, so Ernest moved up the social ladder. He’d always been a staunch Conservative like his dad, and his loyalty – together with one or two large donations to the Party – paid off. In his late fifties he was made Lord Dodds of Utworth, where he’d bought his new home after leaving Garlic Lane. Once a keen chorister at Trinity Church, by the time he’d moved to Utworth he’d stopped attending church. He’d other things to do on Sundays and in any case as he grew older, religion seemed a world away from reality, especially the world of finance and business.

His home at Utworth was a superb place built by the Illingworths, a rich nineteenth century manufacturing family, and stood in its own grounds of six acres. When the last of the Illingworths died, the mansion went on the market and Ernest bought it, looked after by a middle-aged couple, Jack and Carol Jones, who acted as gardener and housekeeper for him. They lived on the premises in an apartment in what had been the old servants’ quarters upstairs.

Once he’d moved he settled down as a confirmed bachelor. Though he lived in luxury and was held in great esteem in the town, he missed Garlic Lane and the happy times he’d lived down there, yet as Lord Dodds of Utworth he knew he could never return. He’d well and truly burnt his boats and become an upper-crustian. His old church down Garlic Lane, Trinity Church had been demolished in the 1960s. Had it remained open he might have kept his links with the lane, but they were severed for ever once the church had gone and the congregation dispersed. A factory was built over the site and the church might never have been. Moreover, a new Asian community now lived down Garlic Lane which had its own mosque and lifestyle. Like himself his old haunts had changed for ever.

It was Christmas Eve and he hadn’t been feeling well at the office all day. In fact, he hadn’t been well for some time and his doctor had prescribed some pills which made him feel distinctly odd for a while after he’d taken them. This last bout of pain in his chest had made him decide to retire. He was into his seventies yet still putting in a full day at work. Yes, he’d retire in the New Year and go on one of those luxury cruises he’d been promising himself for years. See the Orient and all stops en route. Take things easy.

He came home early that Christmas Eve having taken his pills and feeling odd, and by the time he’d garaged his car he felt worse. He decided a short walk might clear his head and buck him up. It often did after he’d been sitting in the office all day. Yes, he’d stretch his legs a bit before going in.

When he got out of his car he immediately felt much better and began his stroll. The air was crisp and he felt good as he walked down Green Lane towards the town. The pain had left his chest and he had a decided spring in his legs: almost as if he was in the army again marching rather than walking, and before long he found himself striding briskly along Skipworth Road towards the centre of town.

Yet all wasn’t quite as it should have been. The people he passed were dressed in the style of the 1950s and the traffic on the road was decidedly thinner. Usually at this time of day, the cars were nose to tail coming out of town as the offices closed especially on Christmas Eve. A bigger shock lay in store as he neared the town for long before he reached it, the old Mechanics Hall clock tower loomed in the distance, the clock face lit up in the dusk and shining brightly across the town just as it used to. A smaller version of Big Ben in London it had been built in the 1870s and had stood for almost a century keeping Keighworth in time; till one disastrous night the dance hall beneath caught fire and gutted the whole building including the clock tower.

In its place a drab, featureless, glass and concrete cube had been built to house the burgeoning Technical College. A more uninspiring pile would be hard to imagine; but now in its place the old clock tower and building had suddenly re-appeared and Ernest blinked. What was happening? Was he dreaming? Those pills the doctor had given him had made him hallucinate before. But no, the whole place was real enough and he approached the town centre with joy. He’d had many a jolly time in the Mechanics Hall as a youth and later: dances, civic functions, dinners. Memories came flooding back as he neared the town centre.

The Town Hall Square was lit up with fairy lights as it had always been, and in one corner by a large crib containing Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus the Salvation Army band was playing carols for charity accompanied by their choir and passers-by. Keighworth was lucky. In some towns, pathetic, politically correct town councils had done away with Christmas with its message of hope and goodwill; trying to make sense of a senseless and cruel world, and, more importantly doing something about it. Instead they’d introduced Winterfest. No longer was there any overt sign of the Christian festival. Instead of banners across the main street proclaiming, “A Happy Christmas” were banners wishing the townsfolk “A Happy Winterfest.” No longer did Salvation Army bands play or choirs sing carols in public places. Parts of England had reverted to paganism; soulless places run by soulless people.

By the time he reached the Square, Ernest was bewildered. He’d somehow wandered into the past, and decided he needed a drink – at the nearby Cycling Club where he was still a member, though he didn’t go there as he used to. As it was Christmas Eve, the Club was throwing its annual party and he could hear the jollifications as he entered and mounted the stairs to the large club-room. The party was in full swing and as he pushed opened the swing doors Christmas caught him full in the face. At the far end was a long table groaning with huge pork pies, mince pies, Christmas cake and jugs full of mulled wine which the steward was constantly replenishing. They still had their Christmas beanos, but this one was from another era, for by the bar was Ernest’s father, Fred, chatting as in the old days with his pals.

As Ernest entered, his dad waved cheerily and beckoned him over. “Come on, lad, an’ make thisen at home. ‘Ave some mulled wine. It’ll warm thee up.” More bewildered than ever, Ernest went over. His dad had been dead these thirty years, so had all his friends and they were chatting about the 1950s and how values had changed in the young. Lord Dodds was very much of that younger generation and he’d got up and gone a long way up the ladder of success – sometimes at the expense of others. And as he listened to their conversation, Ernest realised how much he and the world had changed in his generation; how affluence had changed people and not always for the better.

Ernest had a right jolly evening at the Cycling Club, one he hadn’t had in years, but as the clock neared half past eleven, he knew it was time to go. He and his dad had always attended Midnight Communion at Trinity Church; so they made their hearty goodbyes to the company and walked together down Garlic Lane full of Christmas cheer just as they’d done when his dad was alive; still talking about local characters some of whom had passed on recently. It was very weird!

His mother was waiting for them in church, which was packed with parishioners. There were all Ernest’s boyhood friends in the choir. There was the old vicar and the old churchwardens together with members of the congregation who’d passed on years before, including his Uncle Frank and Auntie Bess. All was warm and glowing in a church anticipating Christmas and the coming of the Christ – and Ernest was happy and utterly at peace.

As they left the church after the service, wishing everyone a happy Christmas, his mother asked if he were coming back home. Ernest paused then said, “I’ve just got to check up on something.”

His parents seemed to understand. “Of course,” said his mother, “but when you’ve done what you have to, your old room will be waiting and your Auntie Bess and Uncle Frank and your cousins are coming for Christmas dinner.”

At the gate of the church, Ernest left them smiling at him and made his way up Fieldhouses behind the church and across the railway bridge to Skipworth Road, where the traffic had suddenly grown denser. He’d much to think about and was still in a daze, quite unable to match the events of the evening with reality – but which reality?

By the time he reached Green Lane he was convinced he’d been hallucinating again. It was those pills he’d been given by his doctor. They’d had that effect before but not so prolonged, and he felt rather sad now he’d come back with a bump to twenty first century reality after those few happy hours in the past. He realised once he’d got back home to his great mansion, he’d face the night alone; face Christmas Day alone as he’d done for years, dining at an expensive hotel in Ilkesworth by himself before returning to an empty house.

He was surprised as he entered his drive to see a huddle of people by his garage; even more surprised to see an ambulance. He slowed down and walked unseen to the group of people standing by his garage doors. His housekeeper looked distressed and was explaining to the ambulance driver what had happened and as she spoke, two paramedics came out of the garage carrying a body tied to a stretcher. He knew at once who it was although its face was covered with a blanket.

“I’d had his meal ready and was beginning to wonder why he was so late coming in for I’d heard his car draw up,” Mrs Jones was saying, “and I says to my husband, I says ‘Harry, we’d better go and see where he is,’ for he’d a habit of going for a short walk after he’d got back from the office. His car was in the garage all right but when we opened its door, we’d a right shock. He was slumped over the wheel stone-dead, and had been for some time.”

Ernest didn’t wait to hear more, but quietly re-traced his steps down Green Lane – back to the reality he’d left a short while before; back to his old home down Garlic Lane and to Christmas the next day with all his family around him.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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