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Open Features: A Christmas Ghost Story

...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 early on Christmas Eve...

John Waddington-Feather tells a timely tale.

Ernest Dodds, Lord Dodds of Utworth as he became in time, was born and raised down Garlic Lane. His dad, Fred, had a grocer’s shop in Keighworth Market, which Ernest went to straight from school at the age of fourteen. The only education he really had was at Westwood School, yet it gave him a good grounding in life. He could add up well – no one better – and he was a great reader albeit of popular fiction all his life; more importantly he could read people and sum them up at once. He also attended the theatre in Keighworth regularly before it was demolished in the 1960s. Then he had to go to Bradford or Leeds to see a professional production although Keighworth Little Theatre could put on some good shows which he enjoyed.

He’d no other hobbies and no close friends. Work and making money was his life. He was generally busy in the market all day Saturday, so he never took part in or watched sport, except on the telly. 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; 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 a great deal; 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 first weeks in the army than he’d done in all his previous eighteen years. Later, there were other new types he met as officers who’d come straight from their public schools, cut-class upper-crustians.. All in all, in the army he learned much about the strengths and weaknesses of the British character and its rich mix, all of which was to serve him well in the future.

His father was well known in Keighworth for Fred Dodds liked good company and the ale which went with it. He was a member of Keighworth Cycling Club, nothing to do now with cycling but 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 an assistant.

Ernest joined his father at both clubs when he came home on leave from the army. He was a man then and could drink with men, sometimes socialising with his dad till the early hours of Sunday morning at the Cycling Club; before returning home to have his ears bent by his mother, Elsie Dodds. His dad, too, caught it when they’d gone to bed for leading his son astray.

They were happy days and as his dad grew older, 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, and after his dad died he opened another larger grocery shop in Bradford – and then another, and when supermarkets came into being he was right in there from the start. In time, 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. He had once a keen chorister at Trinity Church, but by the time he’d moved to Utworth he’d long 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, an old and very wealthy manufacturing family. Their mansion stood in its own grounds, and when the last of the Illingworths died, it went on the market. Ernest bought it and employed Jack and Carol Jones, who acted as gardener/handyman and housekeeper for him. They lived on the premises in what had been the old servants’ quarters upstairs.

Once he’d moved he settled down as a confirmed middle-aged bachelor. However, as he grew older he began to miss Garlic Lane and the happy times he’d had living down there, yet as Lord Dodds of Utworth he knew he could never return. He’d gone up in the world and Garlic Lane had stayed down.

His old church down Garlic Lane, Trinity Church, had been demolished in the 1960s and much else down the lane had gone, too. New people had moved in from Asia and elsewhere and a large trading complex had been built where the old mill, garage and enamelling plant had been. His links with the lane 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 and with them all the folk he once knew.

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. The last frightening bout of pain in his chest had made him decide to retire before it was too late. 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 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 and get some fresh air.

When he got out of his car he immediately felt much better. 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 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 as happy as a peal of bells.

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 early on Christmas Eve. A bigger shock lay in store as he neared the town for long before he reached it, the old Mechanics Institute clock tower loomed in the distance, the clock face lit up in the dusk, 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 it 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 a Technical College. A more uninspiring pile would be hard to imagine; but now it had gone and the old clock tower and building had suddenly re-appeared. 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 Institute as a youth and later: dances, civic functions, dinners. Many memories came flooding back as he neared the town centre.

The adjacent 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 accompanied by their choir and passers-by. Keighworth was lucky. In some towns - pathetic, politically correct towns - councils had done away with Christmas with its message of hope and goodwill, which tried to make sense of a cruel world, and, more importantly do something about it. Instead they’d introduced Winterfest where there was no 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. The Cycling Club was nearby where he was still a member, though he didn’t drink there as he used to. He drank by himself at home watching the telly.

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 club-room. The party was in full swing and as he pushed open the swing doors Christmas caught him full in the face. At the far end was a long table groaning with a cooked turkey, 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 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 about him had altered in one generation; how affluence had changed people and not always for the better.

Ernest had a right jolly evening at the Cycling Club, an evening 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; talking about long-dead neighbours as if they were alive It was all very weird!

His mother was waiting for them in church, which was packed. 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 for the first time in years 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 to stay the night. Ernest paused then said, “I’ve just got to check up on something.”

His parents seemed to understand. “Of course,” smiled 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 waving goodbye 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. 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 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.

As he turned into the drive, he was surprised 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 standing by his garage doors. His housekeeper looked distressed and was explaining to the ambulance driver what had happened and as she spoke, two para-medics 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 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 and friends.

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