This story placed third in our 2020 Christmas Ghost Story competition
The Christmas tree blocks my mother’s critical view of the outside world. Her frustrated annoyance meets my forced smile as I enter the room.
‘Who were you talking to?’ she asks.
‘Emily next door. She says Happy Christmas.’
‘You’ve been ages.’
‘We were just chatting.’
‘Well I suppose you’ve got nobody else to talk to.’ She looks at me with contempt.
I turn away. ‘Cup of tea?’
This is going to be a long Christmas Day with the two of us alone in the house, and the promise of nobody coming round to bring us joy and good cheer.
There’s a parcel on the kitchen table, badly wrapped in Christmas paper. Could this be a present from my mother? I rip off the elves and reindeer and uncover an old-fashioned doll with short black hair and long black eyelashes. It’s the complete opposite of my white blonde hair and blue eyes and suggests a hint of mockery at my lack of children.
But whoever it’s from, it’s not meant for me. The label says ‘To my darling Frankie. Happy Christmas. Love Pete. xx’
I wonder who these loving people might be and why the doll is in my house. I put the kettle on.
Glancing back at the horrible plastic thing on the table, I notice the hair looks more realistic than I’d first thought. And as I pick it up out of the paper the skin feels soft and warm. It’s disturbing how lifelike it is. But the addition of a tiny plastic penis between its legs seems unnecessary. I don’t remember dolls like that when I was a girl.
Returning to the living room, I find my mother snoring loudly. I place the cup of tea on the table, careful not to intrude on her packets of pills and bottles of medicines. She doesn’t react when I nudge her. After a few minutes I stop trying to wake her and watch as the red marks on her arms fade away.
A sound from the kitchen brings me back from my dreaming and I race along the hall to find the black-haired doll screaming and flailing on the table. It’s like a living baby. What would anybody want with such a life like figure?
Water seeps through the wrapping paper onto the kitchen table. It has the bitter smell of urine and I feel disgusted and unnerved. As I lift the doll, I feel the shiver of a naked body and the eyes of a baby staring deep into mine.
It opens its mouth and screams. I manage to stop myself throwing it onto the floor and hold it at arm’s length. This is not a doll. It’s a real baby boy. But whose is it?
With a previously unused natural instinct, I place the clothes basket onto the table, find a packet of my mother’s incontinence pads and a tea towel, and wrap them round the baby’s wet bottom. One of my t-shirts swamps the tiny child as I stand back staring at the strange little boy lying on a pile of dirty washing.
He’s beautiful. Feelings of longing and regret well up inside me. But he’s not mine.
I dial 999 on my mobile and ask for the police.
‘A baby has just been delivered to my house in a parcel and I don’t know what to do with it.’
‘What’s your name?’
I give my address and phone number when asked.
‘Is that the number you’re calling from?’
‘Well it’s not the one that’s come up on the screen.’
‘Well, it’s definitely my number. It must be a problem at your end.’
‘And what exactly happened?’
I explain about the package and how the doll has now changed into a baby.
‘Please end the call before we charge you with wasting police time.’
‘What do you mean. It’s all true.’
‘You’re phoning from somebody called Frances Turner’s phone and your story makes no sense.’
I take a large intake of breath.
‘Please come round and see for yourself.’
But the call handler hangs up.
I stare at my phone. Have I managed to pick up somebody else’s by mistake? It looks like mine and I used it to message my sister earlier. She didn’t reply, because she never does, even on Christmas Day. There’s no record of any recent calls or messages and I check the contact list but don’t recognise anybody’s name.
Facebook shows pictures of people I’ve never seen before, doing things I would never do, in places I’ve never been to. Somebody called Peter is in many of the posts. I check the profile and discover Frances Turner’s details. Peter is her husband and they have two children, Alice and Charlie. But I’m not Frances Turner, I’m Sarah Jones. I don’t have a husband. And I don’t have any children.
I hear a child’s scream from the living room.
My stomach lurches as I carry the baby who must be Charlie through to the front room, where I presume three-year-old Alice will be playing.
Another baby is lying naked in a pile of Christmas wrapping paper on the floor, with her arms and legs flailing. She looks the same age as Charlie with the same dark hair, so this can’t be Alice. She crawls towards me and I step back away from her.
Her hair begins to grow down to her shoulders in dark waves. She stops crawling, stands up and walks to the settee where she puts on a large cardigan. Stretching her neck and shaking her head she grows in front of me, until she’s three years old and the cardigan fits her.
She begins to play with toys on the floor which I’ve never seen before. Dolls and teddy bears are having a picnic on the rug around a tiny Christmas tree.
In panic I turn to my mother who is once again asleep in the chair. But this time I can’t hear her breathing. I shake her shoulder and notice blood streaming from a wound on her head.
Panic pours through me, as a blank faced Alice offers me a blood-red cup of tea, and Charlie stares at me from the t-shirt clutched in my arms.
I hear feet clumping down the stairs.
Staring at the open door with my heart racing and my breathing exploding, I scream as a man walks in. But it’s not just any man. This is the man from the photos on Facebook. This is Peter Turner.
‘What’s wrong. Are you OK?’
I shriek through my gasps for air and push Charlie into his arms. With my hands over my mouth and my chest heaving I stare at him in horror.
‘Who are you?’
‘It’s me, Pete. What’s wrong Frankie?’
‘I’m not Frankie. Look.’
I turn to the mirror to show him the white blonde hair of Sarah Jones, but scream as I see the dark rich colouring of Frances Turner.
Pushing past Peter I race out of the house, my breathing erratic and out of control. I knock on my neighbour’s door and a man I’ve never seen before answers with a smile.
‘Frankie. Happy Christmas.’ His smile becomes a look of concern. ‘Are you OK?’
‘Who? Oh you mean the woman who used to live here? She moved out earlier this year.’
Peter leads me back to the house. My breathing begins to slow as his strong body forces me to relax.
In the front room Alice and Charlie are playing together on the floor. I turn to my mother, but she isn’t there. Her old armchair has gone. There’s no table overflowing with her pills, and no feeling of disappointment. Instead there’s a modern bright comfortable sofa facing the television.
‘Where’s my mother? And who are these children?’
Peter steps back and stares at me. ‘Frankie what are you talking about?’
‘I’m Sarah, not Frankie,’ I whisper with a lack of conviction.
He helps me onto the sofa and sits down opposite.
‘I’m not sure what’s happening here Frankie, but you know who Sarah was. She lived here before us. She killed her mother in this room on Christmas Day. One year ago today. And then she took an overdose. The next door neighbour, Emily, found them two days later and was so traumatised she moved away soon after. You know all this. We went through the details before we bought the house. I thought you were OK with it.’
I take a deep breath as reality reaches through. ‘I am OK with it.’
Alice holds up a doll in front of me.
‘But I don’t think Sarah Jones is.’
I stare at the figure, with its white blonde hair and blue eyes, and watch in horror as its mouth opens wide and emits a scream of haunting despair.