The haunting melody of ‘Silent Night’ echoed throughout the house; and the three spectating faces, illuminated by the candlelight, were bubbling with congratulations as the hymn drew to a close. Satisfied by their reaction, the Musician’s fingers hovered over the ivory, prolonging the final note: enjoying the words of praise and enthusiastic applause.
As the front door was shoved open, a piercing eruption of dozens of mingled voices could be heard, and the lull of Christmas Carols took hold of the house, cut off by the slamming of the door. Four faces looked and up and saw the entrance of Mr Roger Diamond. His coat was sprinkled with feathery snow and his face pink, after being out in the cold.
“Hello, Roger! How was your day?” Mrs Diamond embraced him, cautiously. Her husband grunted and she took his coat, scarf and hat.
“I’ve got a carriage coming to pick us up soon,” he said, shortly. The children looked up in surprise.
“Whatever for? It’s Christmas Eve, Roger, dear.”
“Precisely, Louisa. Now get your things together. Children: go and get your things. We’re going away for a few days.”
“But where?” Mrs Diamond demanded. “Roger! You’re being hysterical. Come and sit doen beside the fire and I’ll get you some nice warm mulled wine…”
“No!” he retorted. “I will not stand for these ridiculous, commercialized festivities, any longer. Let’s escape it. Let us go and live in the country for a few days, lest we get caught up in it, too. Now go and pack your things. The carriage will be arriving in half an hour.”
* * *
The carriage ride was rough, uneven and cramped. The Diamond children were crying, Mrs Diamond was upset, and her husband was grim and frowning. A lantern swung above their heads on a rattling chain and the windows were being attacked by thousands of tiny snowflakes. The outlook was complicated. Nobody attempted to speak, and it wasn’t until the carriage came to a halt that anybody looked up. The bags were retrieved from under the leather seats, and the carriage was evacuated.
Mr Diamond threw a coin to the driver, and then everyone became concious of their surroundings. Darkness had descended and snatched clear vision, and snow swirled in one terrific spiral around the company. Penetrating through the smog in an almighty and dominant form, loomed an old, derelict mansion. It was in darkness. Utter and bitter darkness. A shiver crawled down each and every spine, and with a distracting whiny, the carriage was away at once, jumping over mounds of snow, and skidding on black ice, uncontrollably.
“Amelia, Anna and George: get your cases,” Mr Diamond ordered.
Louisa tuned to her husband, desperately: “Roger, we cannot stay here!”
“Well we cannot turn back, either!” her husband replied, triumphantly. “Look at the place – not a sign of Christmas anywhere.”
“Roger, how selfish you sound! Look at the children: they have been so looking forward to Christmas!”
But in her heart, she knew it was useless. There was no turning back, now.
“The carriage will be back in three days. Now lets go and settle in.”
It was cold in the house. Cold, damp and daunting. There was furniture in the place; despite it being derelict. There was even some wood in the wood locker. The fire roared and everyone gathered around it, thankfully. The wind howled outside, shattering the silence from inside the old mansion.
“Time for bed, children,” Mrs Diamond decided, tiredly.
Amelia, Anna and George kissed their parents goodnight and glanced reluctantly along the cold, stone wall. Their mother nodded, encouragingly. George led the way.
They each held a candle, which pierced only slightly through the darkness. Anna clutched her elder sister’s hand. A moth fluttered in a shadowy corner, and a cobweb brushed past Amelia’s face and she shrieked.
* * *
“Amelia!” Anna whispered, when they had washed, “Can I hang my stocking at the end of my bed? Will Father Christmas know I’m here, tonight and not at home? Do say he will!”
“Of course he will; he is magical. Look hang your sock up here.”
The children were all sharing a room. Despite there being such a number of rooms at the old house, only a restricted amount had furniture left in it. Amelia and Anna cuddled together in their four-poster bed and the candle flickered out. Darkness.
Anna hugged her only comfort: would Father Christmas come?
She dived into a deep sleep, a draft swirling around them, maliciously. It was a few hours later that she awoke and sat up, staring into the darkness. She crawled under her blankets to the bottom of her bed and felt for her sock which she had hung there. Had it stuffed with goodies and gifts, as she had so deeply anticipated? It was full! She shook Amelia awake, excitedly. “Amelia! Amelia! Father Christmas has come! He has filled my sock! He hasn’t forgotten me!”
Amelia sat up and lit a candle. George stirred and joined the girls, curiously. “Go open. Open it now!”
Anna’s face was aglow as she tipped out the contents of her sock.
She stared. She gasped. She inhaled the icy air around her, and the warmth; the hope and the excitement of the moment was gone in an instant. Her throat was dry, and the poor, young girl was unaware that she was screaming, in horror and fear.
The company stared and stared at the shower of pearly white bones before them, aghast at such a horrific ordeal.
“Who did this?” Amelia whispered, hoarsely. “Who did this?”
A piercing scream suddenly erupted throughout the house, crawling through the walls, and creeping under the floorboards. The children listened, unable to move. George stood up bravely, holding a candle and illuminating the room. “It sounded like Mother. I’m going to see.”
“George!” screamed the girls, in horror. “Don’t leave us!”
“Come with me, then.”
Draped in dressing gowns and warm clothes, the children ventured, uncertainly out onto the landing. A frosty silence had descended on the house. George, Amelia and Anna, hand in hand, stumbled into their parent’s room, and discovered their mother crouching, distraught, in a dark corner.
“Mother! – where’s Father?” Amelia cried, dropping down beside her mother, and hugging her, warmly.
Her Mother sniffed, and lifted a trembling hand, pointing weakly towards the bed. Every face jerked sharply towards the bed, where the covers were thrown off, wildly. A shower of bones littered the sheets, just as it had been in the children’s room. “But where is he?” asked George, a note of urgency, ringing in his voice.
“Look closer,” whispered Mrs Diamond.
Round one of the larger bones, a glittering object was present and the children peered at it, closely. It was a silver watch. Their father’s watch. A tight, icy fist seemed to clutch at each child’s throat, otherwise, they would have most definitely have screamed!
George gathered together his emotions, uneasily. He took his mother’s arm, softly. “Come on, Mother. We’ll go downstairs where it is warm. The fire will still be burning.”
George led the way and as they approached the sitting room, the children became concious of a glow, creeping beneath the sitting room door. Anna pushed open the door and stared open-mouthed at the room. In the centre of the room, a large and mighty Christmas Tree stood, embellished with ornaments and candles, and cluttered, beneath, with gifts, wrapped in colourful paper and tied with thick ribbon.
– Jeanette Winterson