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Dark Christmas by Jeanette Winterson
A group of friends has rented a house for Christmas that is far out of town and overlooking the sea. Highfallen House is old and the garden has been locked since 1914 when the gardeners left for war. Only one of them came back. The first friend arrives with a Christmas tree and food and wine and festive decorations and begins to get things settled and ready before they are to pick up their friends from the train station the next day. ((This character has no name and the story is from their perspective, so I'm going to call them Aye as if it is their name and use they/them pronouns, just for ease of sharing the summary.)) There's no phone signal, but Aye knows the train schedule, so it'll be fine. The housekeeper has left wood for the fireplace and things are nice and cheerful once the fire and radio are going. Aye goes upstairs to pick a bedroom and chooses the one closest to the front of the house, farthest away from another set of stairs leading up to the attic that just feels off-putting, like even the light is afraid of it. After taking their things to their chosen bedroom, the doorbell rings. Gasp! Ehh, it's probably just the housekeeper.
Nope! It's... No one? Aye goes out in the chilly night to look around. No car... no footprints... No one. Oh! But there are 40 some odd bats dangling on the bell wire, then they swoop up and around into a dark mass. Excellent! Bats are fine and not at all terrifying so Aye goes back inside and up to bed. But then they're awoken in the middle of the night when they hear something like a marble rolling around in the attic. It's probably just more bats! Aye didn't sleep after that. The next day, before going to the train station to pick up their friends, Aye braves the attic. But immediately they can't breathe well up there. They find an old nativity scene in the corner of the room directly above theirs, so they plan to bring it down later when Stephen and Susie are there, so they shove some animals in their pockets, run downstairs (leaving the door open) and head for the station.
The train arrives but no one is on it. Aye has no signal on their phone, so they ask the guard if he's seen anyone and when the next train will arrive. No and Tomorrow. Aye needs to get in touch with Stephen and Susie, so they drive up the hill in search of signal. Still none! And it's snowing now, so that probably won't help. Looking down from the hilltop, Aye can see Highfallen House. Aye also sees two people walking toward the house from the seashore. Maybe it's Stephen and Susie! Nope, that can't be. One is much too small. The couple must have been the housekeeper and her daughter. Aye would call to check, but you know, no phone signal, so they go back to the house and have a whisky and begin to set up the nativity scene. But... they have to go upstairs to get the rest of the pieces. Aye gets anxious about going up there again but finally does, only to find the door shut. Didn't Aye leave it open earlier?
In the room, there's the Nativity scene and a clothes rail. On the rail is a child's dress... and it's wet. Aye picks up the nativity stable and when they turn around, the light on the landing goes out. Aye can hear someone struggling to breathe right behind them so they decide not to turn around, but to head for the door. When they make it to the door, they hear a footstep behind them. Nope! No thank you! Aye goes downstairs for some dinner and then examines the wet dress. It's an old woolen children's dress that must have been up there getting dripped on by leaky roof water. Aye washes the dress then begins arranging the nativity scene. All the animals and Joseph are there, but no Jesus and no Mary. Aye notices that Joseph is dressed as a World War 1 soldier and has been stabbed in the back.
Whilst examining the tiny stab wounds, Aye gets a text message from Susie that reads: TRYING 2 CALL U. LEAVE 2MORO. Aye tries to call but there's no signal again, but still, that message makes things better, at least the friends have just been delayed but are on their way now. Aye gets back to work on the nativity and reaches inside looking for more animals but finds an old key instead. Maybe the key to the attic? Later, Aye is awakened from sleep by the sounds of pacing in the room above. Back and forth. Back and forth. Aye opens the curtains to get a little light in the room and sees outside, in the snow, hand in hand, the still figures of a mother and child.
Needless to say, Aye didn't sleep well after that, and then to make things worse, the next day, Aye notices that the little dress they found and washed is now gone. On the way to the train station, Aye sees no one, no footprints, no cars, no nothing and wonders if there's anyone left alive. At the station, the train comes, but there's no Susie and no Stephen and the guard said there won't be any more trains for several days. Aye decides to leave because they won't stay another night in that house alone (or not alone!) so they ask the guard to call Susie and Stephen to tell them they're leaving. Back at the house, the lights in the attic are on and so Aye packs up and gets back in the car to go home. But the car won't start. Stay in the car overnight and freeze to death or go back in the house? Aye doesn't want to die, so back in the house they go. But what are they going to do all night because they're definitely not sleeping.
Aye finds a photo album from the 1910s, so begins to look through it. There are pictures of Joseph and Mary Lock, the gardener and the maid, and several others. Aye puts the album by the little stabbed wooden soldier and then dozes by the fire in the kitchen. At two in the morning, Aye hears a child crying in the attic. Wailing. Aye gets up to go up there but decides not to. The crying stops abruptly. Then there are footsteps. Step and drag footsteps. Coming down the stairs. Coming toward the kitchen. Then the door flies open. Snow blows in because the front door is also open, creating a wind tunnel. The wind makes the ceiling pendant light swing so wildly that it crashes through the window.
Aye goes outside and sees the mother and child standing in the snow. The child reaches up to be held and Aye grabs for her, but there is no child and Aye falls into the snow, hearing someone say help me. The mother has moved now, beckoning Aye to follow her into the locked garden and disappearing through the wall. Aye kicks the door down and follows her inside. There are footprints in the snow leading to a shed. Inside, there is a locked door, but luckily, Aye has the key, the one found in the nativity, and opens the door. Inside this room there is a small fireplace with a small fire. The mother and child are in the room. The child has gone blue and is playing with a marble. The mother gazes at a cupboard in the corner. Aye opens the cupboard and a dusty corpse falls out wearing a soldier's uniform with slashes across the back.
Aye is woken up by the housekeeper and the train guard after having fallen asleep in the car. Aye tells the housekeeper about the body in the garden. At Christmas in 1914, Joseph made the nativity scene for his daughter, then got called to war. He was gassed before returning in 1916, which made him terribly sick and unable to breathe properly. He also lost his mind. He stood in the attic room he shared with his wife and daughter, rolling the girl's marbles across the floor. Then he strangled his wife and daughter and left. But his wife did not die. She followed him. She was found the next day, covered in blood, sitting by the nativity, stabbing the tiny Joseph in the back... Before leaving in the car that works perfectly now, Aye sees the nativity just where it was left. But now, it's all set up, complete with Joseph, Mary and the baby in the manger.