I am fairly certain no one needs any reminding that it is Halloween! Our children have been up since dawn, fine tuning their costumes and trying out face paints. We have carved pumpkins and even bought a costume for Bentley and Evie!
As it’s the weekend and hopefully everyone has a few minutes to spare, time when they can sit down with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, I thought I would share with you a short story I have written, totally fictional and of course it is set here in France. It may get a little spooky, but it is halloween! Please share with friends and family and most of all enjoy…Happy Halloween
Tim was 13, Katie 11, and little Emma only eight when la famille Cole moved to the Dordogne in 2006. After many happy years of summer holidays in the area we serendipitously found our longed-for house late one summer’s afternoon from the thwarts of a gaggle of hired canoes. As a late afternoon sun burnt our backs brick-red, we were drifting silently through a small village, under an old stone bridge and then past a bank of nettles and wild rhododendron bushes when a boathouse suddenly poked its bare bones onto a stone jetty, and a blaze of honeysuckle and bramble drifted aimlessly up a broken lawn towards an old maison de maître. Hung haphazardly on a shutter was a faded ‘à vendre’ sign, and within 30 days we had signed a piece of paper and become the proud owners of a 255 year-old piece of history. I still shudder today at the rapacious speed of our venture.
We moved in the summer of 2007, with Simon intending to churn out the last few chapters of his second book from a ground-floor study as a means of providing the financial spine to our new life. His typewriter was a promise of income, the sound of its chattering keys intended to be the hubris of an author fresh to a new full-time career. We left our west London arena with sad hearts, a clutch of friends and relatives promising to visit, and sallied across the Channel with two cars laden to the gills with incidental belongings – the furniture and family jewels went via Pickfords, of course. Unfortunately, moving is a lesson in finance and expenditure that is easily learnt and never forgotten; suffice to say we should have hired a van and done it ourselves, but by late August we were done with the basics of empty boxes, runs to the ‘déchetterie’ with packing-paper and cardboard, and I had blisters from starting the old and bad-tempered French mower which we had inherited.
The house that had once gaped at us like a friendly toothless drunkard had had its hair cut, and we’d added a lick of fresh paint throughout to mask most of the cracks and a century’s worth of rising damp. Roses from the garden punctuated perfume through the old rooms, and a hot summer and open windows had dried out a decade of lifeless winters. Our cut lawn now led down serenely to the river, and our old neighbour’s wall on one side was ablaze with the fading colours of an ancient wisteria. To the west we had an uninterrupted view to the country and its ever-changing landscape.
We made tentative footsteps into our new life and village, finding the boulangerie and the hours of the intermittent café a delight, and discovered a friendly face at the Marie with answers to most of our questions. It probably helped we all spoke decent french, made the right noises, and knew enough of Dordogne protocol to not put our great big English feet in the wrong puddles. We were also slightly off the typical beaten tourist-track and I suspected we lucky to have fallen on a village with a distinct lack of British accents. The previous Christmas and Easter holidays had also eased the way somewhat; the former had been a bitterly cold sojourn spent huddled around the fire which had generated many high jinks, fuelled with mulled wine and hot chocolate; it had been a fortnight of candle-lit games of charades; the Easter interlude had been an endless feast of treats and a week-long spell of spring sunshine that had spoilt us totally, especially with the smell of fresh apple blossom. We still had a great deal of ground to cover, including meeting many of our immediate neighbours, but we knew it was a matter best not rushed. It would all come good in time.
Simon ended his old career in London from a friend’s couch late that summer, and we started living the life we had all dreamed of, full-time, in September. Our confluence of linguistic knowledge was tested as often as possible on a small but widening group of new acquaintances. The electrician and the plumber suddenly became socialites about the outdoor fire, and the face from the Marie and her husband popped in for apéros once a week. We were glad of any friendship, to be honest, and didn’t care a jot. No one came from London to visit, of course, and due to a malevolent goblin that ate all our internet access, our social media accounts dried up and died in a blur of red wine sunsets and summer fruits. But we’d signed the lease for the life of Monsieur Riley, and we were living it. As autumn approached we quietly congratulated ourselves on our progress, and the contentment we felt at feeling a small part of a new community, even if we did really not know many people.
The last few days before the children began life at new schools passed in a blur of stationery-shopping in the nearest big town, 20 minutes away, and a sense of routine started to make its presence felt, even though the list of things that needed doing at home never seemed to get any shorter. Once school started, I fell into a routine that anyone who has lived in France will be used to. There were early starts for the 30 minute school-bus ride to the town for Tim and Katie, and a mad dash on foot to the small village-school with Emma after breakfast; but it all became the habit we had always dreamt of. No heavy traffic save for the odd tractor, no panic-stricken searching for a parking-space before the school-gates closed; just a quiet huddle of parents around a school gate with traditional morning greetings all round, and then a quiet wander back home via a stop in the warmth of the boulangerie to exchange greetings with Robert and his freckle-faced wife from Marseilles – a young woman called Nadia who was almost as far from her original home as we were from ours.
Clutching a warm baguette I would go through the picket-gate at the end of the lane, past the well and onto the terrace and through the door into the kitchen, normally to find a warm small of coffee and the sound of a type-writer clacking away in the depths of house. I could stand and ponder the tasks ahead for the day, coffee in hand, while gazing down the lawn to the green water and the rise of the oak-studded hills beyond it. We were blessed with an Indian summer that autumn, and the golden weather continued through October. We were still eating figs from our tree tucked away behind the boathouse as the children’s thoughts turned to Halloween.
It was Tim who voiced his opinion first, in a slightly worried fashion.
“Mum,” he started, “no one here knows what Halloween is. What do you think we should do ?”
I eyed him across the kitchen table, a late Saturday breakfast scattered haphazardly across the warm wooden surface. “Hmmm, no one ??” I arched an eyebrow quizzically.
“No one – no one at all. Katie says the same thing about the people in her class too.” and with that he turned to his sister, whose fingers were busy picking the pith out of a naked mandarin.
“He’s right,” she added brightly, “they haven’t a clue what it means here at all.” Katie’s long chestnut hair quivered in her annoyance with the situation.
I turned to Emma, who whilst only eight had the head of a 21 year-old on her shoulders, and she nodded in agreement too, her fine auburn curls twitching in sympathy. In six weeks of school her french had progressed beyond all recognition and she was becoming adept at understanding the gist of all the nuances she was subjected to daily.
She signed and put into words what all three children were thinking. “No treats for us this year, mummy….” and her little face crumpled in sadness at the thought of a London tradition that seemed to be but a bleak memory. My thoughts drifted to the box of costumes in the storage room, found but not opened, containing a treasury of memories and scar-faced delights. Halloween was a strong tradition on Simon’s side of the family, fuelled by a spur of cousins from across the pond in New York.
“Oh dear,” I murmured. “I’m popping down to the Marie this morning to check what the regs are for the new wood-stove,” I added, “so I’ll ask Janine what happens…”
This seemed to slate the immediate thirst for answers, and breakfast ended in a somewhat dull mood, despite the westerly glint of sunshine and the promise of another fine day.
Rushing to the Marie before noon and its weekend closure, I found the office full of weekend queries – tree-felling, boundary-fences, a disputed shooting-right, a sub-committee of old women discussing a Christmas marché, and a lone child pinning a ‘lost cat’ photo to the notice-board. Janine seemed flustered but happy to see me; we pecked each other on each cheek and then I asked what the village did for Halloween.
She looked a little blankly at me for ten seconds, and I explained.
“OH,” she muttered, and then grimaced, “I’m not sure that anyone in the village really does that, I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone giving out treats. I know in town there are people who might be in the mood for it, but I fear there is no one here who knows anything about it. Les Vacances de la Toussaint this year is at the same time, no?” and I nodded, realising that the ancient Festival of the Dead was indeed a coincidence.
“Yes, it is”, I added, in case Janine had not seen the nod. “I’d forgotten that they are all linked.”
This started a query to the meaning of ‘linked’ for Janine and the moment of query passed. I got home to find the children waiting with some interest and my answers to their questions brought a fresh round of dismay.
“Well,’ said Tim, “we’ll just have to do things our way and be inventive!”
“Oh, yes,” piped in Emma, jumping up and down in gathering excitement, “we can dress up anyway and just go round the houses we know and ask anyway – how about we give things to THEM as a treat ??? That way we can explain what we’re doing it for?” and the idea immediately struck us all as a very good one – and a wonderful way to meet some new people.
Katie proposed we took fruit round, Tim suggested sweets, and then Emma chimed in with some home-made biscuits. A typical family parliamentary session then took place, at the end of which Katie and I took down a cookbook each and started looking for something easy to make. Tim sat smouldering at the thought of lost chocolate, but then trumped all of us with a suggestion that made total sense.
“Let’s make some madeleines !” he announced, “at least we know that they know what they are !”, and a plan was hatched.
Halloween fell on a Wednesday that year, towards the end of the Toussaint school break, and all three children definitively reported that Halloween was going to be a non-event for sure. We were too far into the country, away from the mass hysteria of commercialism that the occasion really needed. There were some children from the school in town who did things themselves, but the village seemed a lost island of sanity. We were on our own, and so we started baking. Orange icing, black chocolate chips for eyes, and some other sundries all combined to make a tray or two of quite startling creations, and Emma found some biscuit moulds in her boxes of goodies that turned excess sponge-mix into bats, ghouls and pumpkins.
On Tuesday night the box of Halloween costumes was opened and we all sat by the fire, trying things on, seeing what fitted whom after a year of growth. Even Simon left his den and started to stoke up the ghostly atmosphere. But sometime after 8.20pm, just as the night drew in properly, Emma walked in from the kitchen and announced, “There’s a light out there, in the garden.”
Simon was first to react and he slipped through to the french windows overlooking the lawn. We still hadn’t put the curtains up, so it was easy to see outside into the garden and down to the dark river bank. Sure enough, high on the wall on the east side of the garden was a light. We wondered what on earth it was, and Simon opened a door and went outside for a look. He disappeared into the evening and came back within seconds.
“It’s our neighbours,” he announced. “There’s a tiny window in the top on the wall – it must be a barn next door or something, and they’re just piddling around in there. It is NOT a ghost !” and the rest of us visibly relaxed. I wondered why we had never seen the window before, and even as I thought that, Simon added,”The leaves are falling off the creeper – it must have covered up the window all summer. It is very small….”
I was slightly intrigued, as we had passed a few months in the village without seeing too many signs of life from next door, and even the few people who we did know seemed at a loss to tell us who lived there or owned the house. We knew that at some time the two properties must have been one, because the wall had a bricked up archway in it. I wondered who would know more, now we had some sign of life..
It was quite by chance the next day that Robert was serving behind the counter in the boulangerie when I went in, and on an off-chance I asked him if he knew anything about our neighbours. Robert was part of an old village family, and it soon seemed I’d asked the right person.
“Ah,” he signed, “it belongs to old man Benoît. He does’t live there anymore, he’s out at the ‘L’Ombrerie’….” and he tailed off, but I knew what he meant – the old people’s home half-way along the road. We passed it every time we went into town, a smart modern building with parts of an ancient facade, landscaped into a hillside and seemingly very pleasant.
“Does he have someone else who comes to stay, then ? Is there a Madam Benoît ?” I asked, thinking about the light in the wall.
“Non, he never married,” replied Robert, with a soft smile,”but when they let him out for special occasions he goes home and his niece comes to stay and look after him. He catches a taxi home three or four times a year for a visit. His niece stays with him for a couple of days, and then he goes back to the luxury of his hotel ! He always comes back for Toussaint. Sometimes Christmas, too. It depends what his niece is doing, she works in Bordeaux.” He turned to serve a customer with his floured hands and I watched a late butterfly crawl up and down inside his window – a peacock, I thought. I wondered how long it would last pining away inside the shop.
Robert finished with a cheery à bientôt to his customer, and continued as though we had not paused. “They’ve been there for years, the Benoîts – if you see him make sure you say hello, he’s a nice old man.” A frown seemed to cross his face, as though a memory had played and passed on, but he wiped it away with a smile and insisted I tried his pizza dough. It was a speciality and I had never had the courage to buy any before, despite talking about it. It seemed a good idea to buy some and also a chance to make some scary pizzas for the evening’s Halloween festivities – an opportunity too good to pass up.
Laden with a large sticky doughy ball I hurried home with my news to find two freshly carved pumpkins outside our gate, and a fuzzy bat creature hanging defiantly in a front window. They seemed slightly out of place in a lane where time had stood still for so long. There was no sign of any festivities outside any of the other buildings I had passed on the way home. In the kitchen three very scary things waited patiently for the evening’s entertainment. Well, four scary things – as Simon had found a long black gown and a clown’s mask that covered up most of his four-day-old stubble and greying hair.
Before darkness fell totally, Simon took the rubbish bin and stood it outside on the road; it was the night when our madly-lit rubbish lorry would appear about midnight and wake everyone as it crawled hungrily along the kerb, noisily devouring the offerings laid before it. He came back in with a stark announcement, “The street lights have gone off!”.
He seemed genuinely gleeful at the prospect of knocking on stranger’s doors in the pitch black, and he continued to mutter evil thoughts out aloud as we laid our madeleines out in two straw baskets, and found some torches and other sundry items necessary for an excursion into Halloween territory. Tim had managed yet again to fit into a magician’s outfit that he’d worn now for three years. Katie was a fetching elf, complete in greenery and jingly hat (I had no idea where that costume had come from) and Emma was a wonderful tiny witch, a simple outfit enhanced by a combination of add-ons that we had collected over the years – a tall hat, a broom, a Harry Potter wand stuck in a belt and a cat on wheels with a lead.
Being somewhat outside the teenage bracket, I had wisely chosen not to dress up and instead was going to ride shotgun, with a torch and a third basket for any trophies of war should the need arise. All I needed was a decent set of shoes and a jacket. As the dark grew longer we fell into line, made a plan of what we were going to do, and set off down the lane to the main part of the village. As we passed our neighbour’s house, a dim light flickered and wavered behind some very closed shutters – we’d come back to Monsieur Benoît last, we’d decided, and down the lane we went, talking loudly to put off the ghouls and trolls hiding in the hedges.
Within an hour, Simon and I were ready to admit defeat. The three children had been troupers and gone from door to door, avoiding large dogs and other sundry creatures, and been thwarted, not unpleasantly, at almost very step. Their explanation of what Halloween was had been refined to a wonderful 30-second speech, complete with offerings of madeleines, and they had become adept at deciding how to approach each door. However, apart from two oranges and a packet of salted peanuts – both offerings from people who had taken it upon themselves to play an unknown game, their only real returns has been a large tub of plastic fruity-type things at the plumber’s house, and a huge bag of chocolate goodies at Janine’s, a gesture so appreciated I could have kissed her and her husband a thousand times.
As we hung back in the shadows on our way down the lane back home, Simon drew me to one side and muttered a plan into my ear. He suggested he went on ahead, opened up the boathouse in the garden, and lit a fire in the bread-oven. He’d add some candles, and then carefully arrange our feast of scary pizzas and other goodies on a table, with a bunch of added items he’s surreptitiously bought that day – sweets, biscuits and an apple-tart. I whispered at him to add a couple of glasses and a bottle of red wine to the table and he slinked off into the dark like a black cat, hidden from view in his black cloak.
I told the children Dad had gone on home for an obscure reason, and we neared the end of our journey. Two houses left, and Tim and Katie said they would do the one opposite our house, and Emma and I decided to knock on the door of our neighbour, Monsieur Benoît.
There was nothing untoward about the Benoît house. It stood, two-storey, almost right on the road with a shuttered window on each side of an old, weather-beaten door. There was an old-fashioned ring-knocker set deep into the door, and I watched as Emma stood up and gave it a timorous tap or two. Our picket gate was just ten yards away and I carefully noted where it was. I heard a door open across the road behind me and listened as Tim and Katie explained to two people who we DID know, what Halloween was all about. There was a peal of laughter and I turned to watch what was going on.
In so doing, I missed the front door of the Benoît house opening, and the first I became aware that I needed to turn back was when Emma’s voice piped up with a greeting and an old, warm voice replied in a thick accent. I whirled around to see a frail ancient man standing in the doorway, lit softly by a light from deep within the house. I could tell instantly that this was an octogenarian or better, a man on the last rung of the ladder of a long life, but still capable and totally at ease with life. Emma’s small voice launched into her tale of Halloween and the old man leant down a little with a smile on his face to listen. I was still back in the shadows a little, as I had been all night, and I could not hear his voice clearly when he spoke, but I heard Emma’s reply,”Oh, anything would be wonderful, but you don’t have to, really….. we actually have something to give you.” and she reached up with her basket of madeleines, of which there were a good few left. Mr Benoît slipped a hand into the basket and came out with one, which he raised to his mouth and nibbled at. I had a sudden premonition that perhaps he had need of false teeth which were elsewhere, but after a few seconds he turned into the house and voiced a message into the depths.
There were footsteps and a tall young woman appeared over his shoulder, smiling as well, her features unclear in the dim light, but she nodded and asked Emma a question to which Emma replied softly in halting french, seemingly lost for words. This was obviously the niece, and I watched as the old man muttered something in her ear and she went back into the house on a mission. There were some more exchanges of words between Emma and Mr Benoît before the niece came back with a brown paper bag which she handed to Emma with another soft smile. Emma glowed in triumph, thrust more madeleines upon them and then thanked them both profusely, but there was a moment or two of Anglo-French confusion as to how the exchange should be truly ended before the door closed behind Mr Benoît and his niece, and Emma came up onto the road to me clutching her loot in one hand and an almost empty basket in the other.
“What’s in there Em ?” I asked, just as there was a similar thud of a closing door behind me from the other house and Katie and Tim skipped back into the road to join us, complete with a box of biscuits !
Emma opened the bag under Tim’s torch and we looked inside to see three gorgeous old-fashioned toffee-apples glistening at us.
“OH WOW !” said Tim, and the two girls echoed his approval and they fled for the picket gate and home, leaving me alone in the dark with the image of a tall dark woman dressed in fine clothing, gently smiling at Emma, what a wonderful Halloween offering, I thought.
Back in the kitchen, the children were surprised not to see their father. The house was dark and empty save for a single lamp. There was a note, propped on the table, that simply said, “COME INTO THE GARDEN IF YE DARE !”, accompanied by a scary spider dropping off the page. Emma giggled and the other two raised their eyes at me quizzically, their fingers twitching to get at their stash of loot in the basket.
“One thing only,” I said, and pushed it towards them. “I suggest a biscuit, there may be something else to eat, you know that.” and they all tore into the packet of Janine’s assorted chocolates instead! “Bring the rest with you, and let’s go and find Dad, “ I added, and went through the french doors into the garden. The children followed, intrigued, and torchlight darted around the garden and across the lawn down to the river, and Emma moved a little closer to me in the darkness.
“Why isn’t there any moonlight, mummy ?” she asked, as we slowly moved across the lawn.
“I think it’s rising later each night at the moment darling,” I replied. “I know last night it came up a long time after supper.” We stopped and watched Tim and Katie’s progress down the garden.
“Where’s daddy?” Emma queried, slowly drawing closer to me for comfort. It really was quite dark, I decided, and instinctively thought about bats for some bizarre reason.
“He’s in the boathouse,” I told her quietly. “Let the others find him, it’s supposed to be a surprise.” and at that exact moment there was a shout from Tim as he saw the smoke rising from the little chimney in the closest end of the boathouse to us.
“Dad’s in the boathouse, MUM!” he and Katie cried in unison and they set off at a gallop to the small building, Emma and I following more sedately, hand in hand for comfort. As we passed the small window high in the wall I became aware that yet again there was a dull flickering glow behind the glass, as though someone next door had lit a candle. I wondered what old Benoît was up to at that time of night.
Turning into the doorway of the boathouse, I saw that Simon had achieved a small miracle in the 20 minutes or so he had had alone. There was a roaring fire in the small bread oven, and by its flickering light I could see he’d dragged an old workbench out into the middle of the small room, thrown a tablecloth over it and laid out a real Halloween feast. There was a bottle of wine, too, glowing ruby-red in the flame-light and candles flickered here and there; from somewhere he has found some old tobacco tins to put them in. Cobwebs dripped from the ceiling in every corner and he’d thrown open the boat-doors to the jetty as well, so what ambient light there was crept in to illuminate the whole scene softly.
The three children were crowing with delight at this unexpected turn of events, and as Tim asked if we could reheat our small scary pizzas in the oven a voice answered out of the darkness and I realised that Simon was standing quietly in a corner of the room, hidden in his dark cloak.
“Sure you can, Timmy, just wait for the flames to die down, I brought down the spade to use just for that purpose,” Dad said and he came over to me softly. “Have something else to eat first,” he said to the children, and I knew instinctively something was wrong; this was a deflection of interest he’d suggested – sweets before pizza ?
“What’s the matter ?” I whispered as he got close.
“What ?” he replied, his face turning towards me. “What makes you think something’s wrong ?”, and I knew then that there was something wrong, and I felt the whole tone of the evening change.
“I know you far too well, Mr Cole, tell me what’s up.” I insisted.
He bent his head towards me and whispered, “Someone’s been in the boathouse today. The door was open and I swear some things have been moved about.” He watched me closely for a reaction.
“Maybe the kids were in here,” I said. “Or maybe the wind blew the door open ? We’d have seen anyone from the house, surely ??”
“No, things have really been moved about, and I discovered something when I dragged the workbench away from the wall.” He pointed with his head across the room towards the wall. “Look at that patch of wall. There were some planks there which I put on the workbench to make it bigger – you tell me what that’s all about.” and I looked to see exactly where he was referring to as he went to join the children.
Looking across the room I became aware that there was a part of the wall that was smooth and bright in colour, as though it had been patched. As I moved nearer for a close look I heard Simon getting the children organised behind me and flames flickered brightly as coals were rearranged in the bread oven.
“Do we need to heat the spade first, Dad ?” asked Tim, and I realised the pizzas were about to take centre-stage. I reached the wall and put a hand out to touch the strange patch. It was smooth, smoother than a concrete wall should be; it had a patina on it as if it had been polished. My mind began to play tricks on me and I swore I felt a sparkle of feeling under my fingertips. I jerked my hand away in surprise, wondering what on earth was going on. I glanced around the boathouse and confirmed my thoughts – every other surface was used, touched by the grime of decades of use and age; and yet here in front of me was a six-foot high patch of a gleaming clean surface, almost like marble. The chattering of the children and the low tone of Simon’s voice receded into a different place and I felt strangely drawn like a moth towards the light. I couldn’t tear myself away from the anomaly in front of me. Had the planks been placed here deliberately to hide the patch ?
“Mum !” called out Emma, and I awoke from the spell cast by the pale patch; stepping back a pace I turned to her. “Look,” she said, “we’ve put a couple of pizzas on the the fire !” and beyond her I could see the flames had died down and the spade was indeed sitting proudly on the coals; a slight smell of melting cheese spread throughout the room suddenly and my tastebuds moaned softly. I realised we must all have been starving.
Still wondering about the patch on the wall I walked over to the bread-oven and stood with everyone else in the warmth, and Simon pressed a glass of wine into my hand, looking at me with a query on his face. I looked at him and gave a slight shrug of the shoulders, as if it say, yes – it’s strange, but let’s not worry too much about it. We both smiled at each other wryly, and at that moment there was a sudden gust of wind through the room and all the candles blew out in a rush of cold air.
There was a stunned second of silence and a squeal of alarm from the two girls; my heart thumped in my chest but Tim and Simon were far more matter-of-fact and I heard them immediately rummage for matches about the bread-oven. It had suddenly become very black in the boathouse, and it seemed as though the coals had suddenly become dim too. A small hand clutched mine as Emma came closer for comfort, and I heard the matches strike on a box by Simon.
“Blast,” he muttered, “the bloody things won’t light – they can’t have got damp, surely ?” Tim pored over the coals and blew onto them to find some flame again, the spade of pizza lifted off and put to one side on a pile of wood. He huffed and puffed as Katie watched open-eyed, and then Tim said very softly, “The torch won’t work, Dad, ” and I reached out for the other standing on the table. It too would not work.
“I’ll go back to the house and get some other matches,” Simon announced bravely and he went towards the doorway as we all moved closer to the feeble fire. He reached the doorway and as he passed though it the left side of his face and body suddenly glowed with reflected light. He stopped, stock still, half in and half out of the boathouse, his mouth dropping in shock and I went to him and looked left too, down the garden towards the house. Halfway along the wall, under the small window, a great glowing mass of soft light simply stood like a column against the blocked archway, almost impossible to look at and yet crazily compelling. I grabbed Simon’s shoulder in shock as our evening began a new phase of absolute weirdness. “What on earth,” I started, and Simon went “SSSHH!” in a tone that brooked no reply. We felt jostling behind us as the three children moved into the doorway, and there was a shriek of terror from Katie. Tim moaned softly and I felt a great deal of sympathy for his feelings, and then, even as we watched the light pulse and glow softly, like a living thing, there was a bump under my arm and before I could stop her, Emma pushed through and started to walk towards the apparition as if in a trance.
“EMMA !” said Simon, and he reached out for her, too late. She was halfway down the path towards the light and I felt spellbound, unable to move, Simon too was unable to move, stuck hard with his feet to the ground like glue. We watched openmouthed, my mind screaming with terror, and I was aware of a bubbling sound of dread from behind me from the other two children. Simon was making a strange noise and we all watched, brains shrieking with fright as Emma reached the light, stopped and softly reached out her hand to it. There was a loud snapping sound and the tall glowing column vanished instantly, leaving Emma standing there spellbound. The candles burst into life in the depths of the boathouse and the two torches suddenly glowed too; one in Tim’s hand and the other lying on its side on the table. Simon was running down the path towards Emma, and my heart felt like a lump of lead in my chest, my face aflame with a cold fire of fear for her and all of us.
Simon reached Emma and stopped short, she was smiling softly, and turned to him, “Did you see her, Dad? Did you see her? She was so beautiful, and so kind, did you see her?” and we all simply stopped and stared at her smiling face, her eyes reflecting the light from the boathouse where the flames had started to roar again in the bread-oven.
“Did we see who, Emma?” I asked first, and she turned to me with a translucent beauty on her face. “Mr Benoît’s niece, Mum, she was here watching us with a smile on her face, she was so beautiful.”
She looked at us in wonder, a look which turned swiftly to dismay as she realised we had not seen the same vision as she had. Tim was consoling Katie who had begun to cry, and Simon was having trouble understanding the whole scene, but as a mother, I suddenly realised that Emma was telling the absolute truth, she had genuinely seen someone or something instead of the glowing column of soft light we had all seen. What on earth had just happened, here in the garden of our dream-house, tucked away in the middle of a very normal part of France ?
It was some days before normality returned to our household, the night of Halloween having ended in supernatural disaster and our very crowded bedroom. The two girls and I had shared the bed while Tim and Simon had slept on the floor, awash with cushions and sleeping bags. None of us had slept well, except for Emma, who remained completely unfazed by the whole affair, insisting for days that what she had seen was just a beautiful friendly woman – a very benign apparition, if that was what it had been. Emma lived with a permanent smile on her face for a week, revelling both in the ‘delight’ of her experience and her new-found standing in the family as the Princess of Awesomeness, as Katie and Tim called her. It was several nights before anyone left our bedroom though.
The morning after Halloween I had been awake with a cup of much needed coffee at just after 8.00 o’clock when I saw Mr Benoît go down the road in a local taxi, back to his other home. I never saw or noticed his niece leave the house that day, or the next, despite keeping an eye out for her. I had genuinely wanted to see her and get to the bottom of the mystery. The window in the garden-wall never glowed with light again that week, nor that winter and nor in all the years afterwards. As time passed, the whole affair slowly lost its edge of terror and we talked about it in a more matter of fact tone, though I found it hard to discuss without feeling a slight lump of terror in my chest and my face turning red with a tinge of dread. It was a strange feeling, but I grew used to the sudden jolt of adrenaline that the affair brought on when mentioned. Simon would simply shake his head in wonder, and mutter how he’d write about the experience one day, perhaps interweave it into a plot of his. Neither of us had any idea of what Emma had seen – do ghosts even exist, we would question each other. It seemed impossible to believe, as we’d seen his niece earlier that night and she had been flesh and blood then. The whole affair was so bizarre that I simply refused to find out more.
Christmas approached and three days before Christmas Eve, huddled inside a warm coat and gloves, I stomped off a dusting of snow and went into the boulangerie in the village to collect our Bûche de Nöel. There was a woman in the shop, chatting with Robert and Nadia, and when I stepped in, everyone turned to me with a friendly bonjour as I stood there with two bottles of very good wine tucked into my shopping bag – a Christmas treasure for us all that I had found in the back of a small shop in town. I noticed Robert had flour on his hands as always, it made me grin with familiarity for some absurd reason.
Robert looked at me with interest and then back at the woman, a 60-something year-old lady with grey hair and a sturdy figure in a long wool coat. I looked at her face, to find a pair of gentle, friendly eyes watching me back. I smiled, and she smiled too. I felt as though I knew her instantly, her face was terribly familiar. Robert was watching the exchange with an interested gaze, and then interjected, “Of course, you know each other, ladies, no ?”
The woman opposite me, smiled, and answered for both of us in good, but accented English. “I don’t think so, Robert. Who is this ?” and she turned to him with a questioning look.
“This is your neighbour, Annie, the English lady who lives next door to you with her three lovely enfants.”
I was instantly confused, and it must have showed. The lady called Annie turned to me and watched as I struggled for sense.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out eventually, “I don’t understand, where do you live ?
She tinkled with laughter, and replied, “Well, I don’t live there full-time, but I stay occasionally with my uncle. You must have met him?”.
The room swayed giddily about me, as one part of my brain fought for sense against another part of my brain which was starting to shriek again; I felt the familiar hard lump of terror rise up in my chest.
“You’ve met my uncle, surely, Mr Benoît ? I’m his niece from Bordeaux ?” and even as she continued I heard a great crash of broken glass as the bag slipped from my hands and there was a great sighing of emptiness in the top of my head and everything went black.
I came round in the arms of a stranger, aware of a cold floor under me and a sore spot on the back of my head. I was crumpled on the floor of the bakery, feet awash in red wine, with Nadia fanning my face with something that smelt terrible. I looked up into the smiling gentle eyes of Annie, Mr Benoît’s niece, and she murmured something in my direction, consoling me. I sat up, a dishevelled mess, and saw Robert standing a few paces away, wringing his hands in uselessness. They helped me to my feet, and I swayed momentarily. Annie clutched me tightly.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I began, and immediately there was a chorus of sympathy, and a gabble of understanding. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened.”
Annie brushed my lapels clean and swept dust off my shoulders, looking at me searchingly. Her face was close enough I could see the sudden sadness in her eyes.
“You saw her, didn’t you?” she queried in a low voice.
There was a sudden hush in the shop, time stood still and snowflakes hung questioningly in the sky outside. I felt time shudder to a stop and realised with a jolt that I was close now to an answer for the events of that awful night, for here was someone who knew what had happened.
“Who?” I replied, in a husky tone of voice, still not sure of my feet.
“My mother,” Annie replied, simply. “You saw my mother, did you not ?”
My mouth dropped open, and I realised why Annie looked so familiar – she was the spitting image of an older version of the niece we had seen in the doorway with the toffee-apples.
“Your mother ? Your mother ?” I stupidly repeated myself in confusion. “I don’t understand, I thought Mr Benoît never married…..” and my voice trailed off into silence.
“Correct,’ said Annie, and her face brightened a little at a thought. “But a long time ago, my mother was his sister. They all lived together in our house. My mother, my father and my uncle. And my grandfather.” Things immediately fell into place and my breathing returned to normal.
“I’m still not sure what you’re saying to me though,” I continued….
“It’s a long story,” Annie continued, and I saw Robert and Nadia standing behind her, their eyes sad with memory. “It was during the war, you see. My uncle was a member of the Resistance, and was hiding in La Double, the forest. My mother and father were at home one day when the Vichy police came to find him. There was a shoot-out and my mother and father took refuge in your boat-house, down by the river. The had just a shotgun, and it was not enough.” There was a moment of sadness and I felt very small and humble.
“Did they, did….” I carried on and she forestalled me.
“Yes. They both died in the boat-house. My father came out of the forest that night with some other men to bury them. The place where she died has never changed. Some say the wall stays pale as a monument to her courage,” and I immediately remembered the smooth surface under my fingers.
Annie was still speaking, “People say my mother appears in the garden to special people. I have never seen her myself. Is this what you saw ?”
I was stunned, struggling for breath, but managed to explain what we had seen that fateful Halloween night.
Annie nodded in understanding, “And your daughter saw my mother herself ?”
“I did too,” I answered. “She came to the door with your uncle, and Emma saw her again in the garden when no one else could.”
“Ah,” muttered Annie. “My uncle has always told me she comes to visit often. I wish one day i could see her too, she is said to love children.“ and her eyes welled with tears.
I finally grew a little braver, fortified by new-found knowledge and an empathy with a strange woman. Stepping forward I clasped her by the arm, and said softly, “Come home with me now, and meet Emma. She will tell you all she saw that night; she’d love to tell you the story and I know you’ll like each other.”
Annie’s face brightened considerably, and we gathered our bags and said our goodbyes to Robert and Nadia. They pushed away our offers of help with the mess on the tiled floor and ushered us out of the door into the falling snow. Clutching each other familiarly, we walked home slowly as Annie and I both composed ourselves. It was going to be a long evening, but at least we now knew the whole story.
After Annie’s visit none of us ever felt afraid again in our garden – it resumed its tranquility and composure and felt like a loved place throughout all the years we knew it. The pale patch on the wall stayed forever pale, and although four of us never saw Annie’s mother again in the garden, Emma says she felt her gentle soft presence on several occasions until she was about 15 or so. Eighteen months after we had met, Annie came one bright summer’s day to fix a small plaque alongside the pale patch in the boathouse and we all felt as though an ending to a sad story had finally occurred.
The final word goes to Simon though, as on Boxing day after that fateful Halloween, he sat himself down with a thud by the fire with a whisky in one hand and announced to all and sundry, “They’re gone. I never found them. Did anyone else ?”
We looked up from a game of Monopoly in surprise.
“Found what, Dad,” asked Tim.
“The toffee-apples.” he replied. “I can’t even find the bag they were in. They’ve disappeared into thin air.”
And with that there was a thud of a falling log from the fire and a crackle of sparks. We all jumped in fright and then giggled in delicious terror.