Christmas ghost story: The New Café
By Jan Ellis
HANNAH liked to sit in the alcove between the big old fireplace and the window that gave onto a chilly courtyard. She stayed aloof from the hustle and bustle of the café in what had once been the sitting room of a handsome house. As she sat there, looking out, her fingers idly knotted and unknotted the fringes of a shawl on her lap.
As customers entered and chose their spots at the oak tables, some shivered and pulled their coats closer, rubbing their hands together and remarking on how cold the room was, despite the festive decorations and the stove in the inglenook. There must have been a draught, but Hannah seemed not to notice it as it grew dark outside and a thin sleet began to cover the pavement, making it slippery.
There was a melancholy pleasure to be had, silently watching the customers, especially when they had children or babies with them. Sometimes she would stretch out a hand towards a small child who had wandered over and smiled at her, but inevitably the parents would pick up the child and place it back on its seat.
A grey dog came in, shook gritty rain from its fur then started and pulled back towards the door as its owners wrestled the lead in between ordering tea and toasted teacakes from the young waitress.
Most of the time Hannah ignored the café’s customers, gazing instead at the courtyard, where the well used to be. She would never forget the well. As the eldest daughter, it was her chore to fetch water and carry it back to the house they shared with two other families. That day her mother was busy at home preparing Christmas puddings with an invalid husband and seven little ones under her feet. “Take Alfie,” she had said, handing over a reluctant toddler and a stoneware jug, “and don’t be long.”
Hannah struggled with the heavy jug and the wriggling child as they slithered across the icy ground from the house to the yard, so she lifted up the boy and wrapped her shawl tightly around them both, crossing it over her chest and knotting it at the waist as best she could.
At the well, she quickly finished her task and was ready to leave when Alfie’s podgy arm swung out, catching their mother’s jug and sending it tumbling. She’d been warned a hundred times of the dangers, but she was more afraid of the beating she’d get if she went home without the jug, so she tied up her skirts, stepped over the edge and used the rough indentations cut into the side to make her way down towards the water. But, inevitably perhaps, she lost her footing on the dank, mossy brick and slithered down, her hands grasping hopelessly at thin air as she plunged towards the inky water, where her heavy skirts soon pulled her under.
Some children heard her shriek as she fell and ran to fetch help. It was teatime so it took a while for men to come, and it was the farrier – the strongest of them – who was lowered down on the rope to bring her back up. At a signal the waiting men hauled on the rope.
Lanterns were dangled over the edge, but they only reached so far and it seemed an eternity before the bystanders who had crowded around could see the top of the farrier’s dark head and make out the sodden bundle clasped tightly beneath one sturdy arm.
Hannah was carried, dazed and barely breathing, to her home where she was put to bed as her mother ran back to the well, screaming. After a few days, the girl developed a fever then fell into a stupor and died. The physician said it was the shock of the fall that had killed her, but the neighbours whispered that it was grief and guilt that had caused her heart to cease its beating. Falling through the darkness, Hannah had felt the shawl come loose from her waist as her brother tumbled past her and was lost.
In the café, Imogen began gathering up her shopping bags, scarf and woolly hat, getting ready to leave. “And where do you think you’re going?” she asked her little boy, as she wrestled the pushchair between crowded tables.
“I want to talk to the lady.”
“Which lady?” she asked, looking around the busy room.
The child pointed towards the alcove by the window. “The sad lady in the corner.”
“But there is no lady, Ben.”
“Okay, let’s check, shall we?” said his mother, hoping to avoid a tantrum on Christmas Eve. “You see – there’s nobody here. Oh, I think you have a leak,” she said, smiling at the owner as she pointed at a puddle of water shining blackly on the flagstone floor.
“Not again.” The owner scratched his head and looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve had plumbers in but none of them can tell me where the water’s coming from. There’s nothing but a store cupboard upstairs and the floor’s as solid as they come, so I’m stumped.”
“It’s just one of the joys of older properties, I suppose.” The woman shivered. “It’s cold in this part of the room, too. Anyway, we’d best be off.”
And, as his mother led him reluctantly away, Ben turned and waved goodbye to the girl who sat weeping silently in the corner.
© Jan Ellis
• Jan Ellis writes feel-good fiction and mystery from a 16th-century cottage behind Wells Cathedral. Her books are available via ‘Click and Collect’ from Waterstones on Wells High Street and from libraries across Somerset. Visit www.janelliswriter.com to read more about the books or to contact Jan.