First published in the 2013 Spooky Tales anthology of competition winners from What The Dickens magazine.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Fiona packed her things and left me. She’d done it before and come back, but with fewer things each time. Given the date and her awareness of train times from Beverley to Hull and on to Leeds, some advance planning had been done. So I didn’t plead with her like all the other times, just watched her fill two bags and a case, and then gave her a lift to the station. There are only so many times someone can leave before you lose interest in whether they’re coming back. I’d done that last time, in late summer, when she walked out for a fortnight. She returned almost before I could feel the change, but it was done. Fiona could feel it too, although she’s more bloody-minded than me and stayed on for four more months. She couldn’t hurt me now, and that really got on her nerves. We used to have grand pot-smashing rows, so now she had them on her own. I couldn’t even be bothered to argue. Perhaps she was frightened, because I was starting to hurt her with my indifference. There was no option but for her to leave, and as I drove back alone I was happier than any time since the summer. It was almost Christmas, I wasn’t back at work until the second of January, and there was snow on the ground.
Not much snow, just the weekend’s smattering, but late December had been cold and dry so the frosty fields around the town were white as I set out to buy myself a Christmas present. I knew what I wanted, and how things were going to change. One pair of Hunters later I walked home with a big cardboard box gift-wrapped in a bag under my arm. The dog could wait until January. I wouldn’t have trusted anyone who might sell me one on Christmas Eve.
Back at home I planned my Christmas. No visits to Fiona’s shallow friends, none of whom she was going to miss back at her parents’ house. No waiting up for her to return from an ostensibly work-related evening at three or four o’clock in the morning, and no rows. I’d play music, drink wine, ring the friends I’d neglected for her, and maybe drive down to see my own family, between Christmas and New Year, having pretended all was as normal until then. No point upsetting my mother, even though like most people she didn’t exactly get on with Fiona. There was too much food for me to eat tomorrow, so I thought about cooking the lot and taking the excess to Brian and Cynthia across the road. They struggled, but kept struggling, and reminded me of my grandparents. Of course Fiona thought they were imbeciles and resented my helping them out, but – you know what? – I’d spent enough time thinking about that selfish young lady and right now, right now I fancied a beer. It was six o’clock. Dark, but still early. I had a shower, took a second shave like I used to years ago, chose a shirt and some decent jeans.
I walked out onto Norwood and made my way into town. Before leaving I had called Jamie to ask if everyone was going for the customary Christmas Eve drink. I’d not been to the last three of these, and this year he hadn’t bothered inviting me. Sounded a bit awkward at first, but said he’d be in Nellie’s with Phil and Steve at about half seven. That gave me half an hour for a pint in the Durham Ox after which I’d meet them. There were some regulars in the Ox and I ended up staying for another half, but if Jamie was running to form they’d be late anyhow and either way I’d catch them at Nellie’s. Lots of people were out, dressed bright and colourful, tinsel in hair and laughter cracking across from the bus station as I crossed to Ladygate and entered the gaslit pub. Should have mentioned that. Everyone calls it Nellie’s although it’s really called the White Horse, which is another story.
Back in this one Nellie’s was jammed. I wriggled through the rooms upstairs and down, in the back, out in the yard, by the real fires and under the gas mantles. No sign of them. I looked at my phone: ten to eight. Maybe I’d missed them. The battery was also under half way. Too late now, should have charged that. Stood outside in the crisp air and called Jamie. He answered, distorted through pubchatter, saying full, gone to King’s Head, see you in the – I think he said the Angel, before it cut out.
No point buying a drink at Nellie’s, so I walked through the illuminated town to the Angel. Rather less rooms here, but again no sign of the lads. Never mind, I was having a drink. They’d get here. The guest ales were nothing special, but I was determined to have a decent time even alone, and ordered a pint of the Elven Ale.
‘You sure?’ asked the barman. ‘Not selling much of this. They say it’s fairy’s beer.’ Told him I’d have a pint anyhow. Nearly five per cent, half an hour since my last drink. Two blokes left and I took one of their stools, my coat on the other, telling the askers the truth: I was waiting for my mates. Who didn’t turn up. I was getting the message, but it was Christmas Eve and I knew plenty more people in Beverley, even if I hadn’t seen anyone familiar since the Durham Ox. I nursed the drink, very nice for ‘fairy’s beer’ – tarry and warming. I hoped I’d find something similar in the next pub, wherever my feet took me.
They took me to Wednesday Market, but a DJ yelled over the music in the Queen’s Head. I stood at the roadside: Highgate and the Monks Walk, or Eastgate and the Oddfellows Arms? Well, there was a name for me tonight. The Oddfellows was half-full, and I was delighted to find the Elven Ale on offer again. As I ordered a man standing nearby tapped my shoulder.
‘Good choice!’ he boomed, bearded and stout. ‘It’s on capital form!’ Pleased to find I wasn’t the only fan, I paid and turned but he was gone. Moved faster than he looked, I chuckled to myself, settling into an easy conversation about overspending, waste, debt and the rest. Of course we all knew better, us strangers talking in a pub on Christmas Eve. I left when they suggested a game of pool. The beer was nice, but I wanted to try the Sun Inn, which was my local when I first moved to Beverley. Since then I’d been promoted, bought a house, done everything except settle down properly. But now I would settle down into myself, and if the lady came along so be it. If not, just me and the dog. I held open the door of the Sun for two leavers and worked my way inside. Waited at the bar long enough for one of the barrels to be changed. Folk musicians played and people were singing along. Served at last, I asked what they had that was dark and strong.
‘Hang on,’ said the barman, labelling the new pump with Elven Ale.
‘Pint of that please,’ I said, and watched him pull it. Beside the window I spotted the large bluff chap from the Oddfellows, waving from his table. He pointed to the seat opposite and I joined him, buying him a pint of the Elven on the way.
‘Very kind,’ he said. ‘An acquired taste perhaps, but once you’ve had two or three of these nothing else measures up.’
‘Where’s it from?’ I asked, not having noticed the name of the brewery.
‘Not sure,’ he admitted, ‘but they have it all the time out at the Stoat. I’d never heard of a pub called the Stoat at all, let alone in Beverley. ‘It’s on Long Lane,’ he said, pointing past the Minster. I thought my way along the country road and shook my head. ‘It’s easily missed,’ he confided, ‘like a lot of sweet things. But away from the town there’s still a warm welcome, for those who enjoy one.’ He described the place in such detail that I was resolved to go there even before he stood to take his leave at the end of the pint.
‘Bound for the Stoat?’ I asked.
‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘but in case I don’t see you I’ll leave you the price of another drink. Don’t want to be in your debt.’ I protested, he insisted, he left. I finished another half and set off on Long Lane, which was well-named. A few coy corners, and then one stretch of gently veering unlit narrow countryside that had me singing to myself for company as I approached the light ahead, half a mile past the last house – or what I would call half a mile, being a country lad. More like a mile to a townsman. This must be the Stoat. The cold bit my face, numbed within from the Elven Ale, and I hoped there’d be a seat close to the open fire my new friend had described. I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but jumped as the white shree of a barn owl sounded nearby. I looked but couldn’t see the bird. What I could see ahead was the Stoat, clearly visible now as I came the last two hundred yards. Outside and in, it was more like a farmhouse than a pub, but as described: a great log fire with benches around it, figures seated and standing, and warmth in the flagstones underfoot. Voices welcomed as I stamped my feet inside the door, and a rich, familiar speaker sounded from the fireside.
‘Evenella! Drink for our young friend.’ There sat the bearded man last seen in the Sun, beaming in the firelight. I sat opposite him and Evenella brought me beer in a straight-sided glass. I tasted and stared. She was a strange, regally beautiful woman. Hard to guess her age, but not more than thirty and probably younger. White blonde to the eyebrows and lashes, face narrowing under her mouth. Lips a little thin perhaps, but –
Oh yes, I was still staring. She smiled, eyes and teeth bright in the flamelight, and took my coat.
‘She’s a special lady,’ said my stout companion, ‘and I see you’re quite taken.’ Before I could deny it he called out ‘A toast to the Stoat! The one becomes the other!’
‘The Stoat!’ answered the others, and we drank.
We drank. Soon I could take no more beer, although I felt anything but drunk.
‘Is there anything else?’ I asked. ‘Spirits maybe, or something to eat?’ There was laughter in the room and Evenella touched my shoulder at the neck, fingers gently squeezing.
‘Would you like something warmer?’ she asked, and I rose to follow her through the door at the back of the room. The men cheered behind us.
I woke, painfully cold and on hard ground in the coming light. There was sky above me, clouded slate-grey, and damp brickwork at my side. Stiff to the joints, I tried to stand, and hessian sacking fell away. I was fully dressed, coat, boots, hat and gloves. Surely now the hangover would stoop from above and finish me, but nothing came. Only cold, crystal cold in my face, feet and hands and a damper cold beyond shuddering deeper inside. I stood swaying in what must have been a stable or something. Ahead the main building was a ruin, with Dangerous Structure – Keep Out signs and corrugated iron to discourage the unwary. I walked around the house, surely never a pub, and got out through a gap in the fencing, snagging my jeans. On Long Lane I could see the Minster rise from the mist and started my aching way for home, looking back only once at the Stoat. Clear head notwithstanding, I must have drunk far more than I remembered, given all the other things I thought had happened. Was I still drunk, or was there something in the Elven Ale?
The town was deserted, curtains still closed and only a few lights showing. At the end of Walkergate I passed a rough sleeper in his waking stupor on the bench. Feeling his pain, I reached for my wallet to give him something. I had spent nothing at the Stoat, but the memories ran over me. I handed him a tenner, then another. He stared at the notes, smelled them and I walked away, sensing now, and more strongly back at home, that I stank. An animal scent, pungent as fox or cat, but neither. Everything I wore ended up in the bin.
The bath was very hot, but I needed it and lay remembering. The fireside, the nuttysweet beer and the bed in the back room with Evenella. Her voice, high and cool as we undressed, and I noticed she was not entirely blonde. Quite black, that little tuft. I lay in the steaming water, exhausted, bewildered and grateful. The bells of St. Mary’s were ringing and in the bedroom I could hear my charging mobile pulling down missed messages as I fought the urge to sink through my dreams into sleep.
I haven’t seen the bearded man since then, or been offered Elven Ale, but I walk past the house on Long Lane with Ellie, my spaniel. Someone bought the house and started doing it up, yet until recently I never saw anyone as we passed. Then one clear October morning there was a woman with short red hair and a baby girl at her shoulder in the doorway. I looked where she stood, and there were the old worn flagstones.
‘It’s a lot of work,’ she said, smiling as the infant settled, ‘but it’ll be worth it.’
‘Yes,’ I nodded, wondering if she meant the house or the baby, probably both. ‘Are you by yourselves?’ I asked. She was.
‘My father helps when he can, but he’s very busy,’ she told me. ‘We’ll get there.’
‘Well,’ I found myself saying, ‘if you need any help just ask. I walk past here often.’
‘I know,’ she said, and we left it at that, although since then I’ve looked for her each time and seen her often, speaking sometimes. The work is almost finished, but thus far she has resisted my invitations to visit my home, much as I have resisted asking more about her situation.
This morning, a year after the story started, there was a card through the door, handwritten and unstamped, with no postcode. A woman’s hand, wilful and spirited. Inside a winter landscape blank of festive message, but with an invitation.
See you again this year?