It was the first Christmas of the millennium, and the older officer sighed as he explained it would be his last in the police. The younger man whined, “So why are we here?”
“Just wait. Open your window. It won’t be long now.” The older policeman turned the key. The engine spluttered with a final cough and died. “Hear the singing? That must be the last hymn. It won’t be long now.”
Despite the freezing temperature and the drizzle which had persisted throughout that damp and dreary day, he wound down the window and listened. His colleague, working Christmas Eve for the first time in his fledgling career copied the motion and the icy chill of winter crept between them.
Marion Chester hated Limeys. Well, some Limeys at least. He’d married Joan and wasn’t she a Limey? Brits teased him, claiming that he had a girly name. It was his father’s name, and his grandfather bore it before him. Even so, after losing a fight or two in the odd pub brawl, he had dropped the Marion from his name. He was just Chester nowadays. It was quieter that way. “Joan,” he thought. It was the same every Christmas Eve. He’d pass the church where they had wed, and remember Joan. She was pregnant so the wedding was rushed. Hardly anyone came along to their special day. Every Christmas Eve was the same. Would his pain ever go?
As he passed the church that year, Chester saw the police car. There was something familiar about the driver. He had seen him there before. Chester could hear the singing. “Of course,” he whispered glancing at his watch. “It will be the carol service.” As usual, there was no companion to answer, but just recently, Chester had taken to giving a voice to his thoughts. It was a habit that annoyed some and amused others, but for Chester, his own was the only voice he had heard for almost a year. He had heard it somewhere that the British bobby was always friendly, but he had no desire to put that to the test. He’d had dealings with the police back in Baltimore, so he avoided looking directly at the younger policeman, whose elbow rested on the car door. But that older officer, he looked so familiar that Chester was tempted to speak, but the guy hadn’t turned his way, so he passed the police car by.
For a moment, Chester wondered whether she might be in the church. It amused him to picture Joan on her knees, begging forgiveness from a God that neither had faith in. He dismissed the idea as quickly as it came. Joan had never been one for religion. And besides, Joan would never admit to being wrong!
Their last Christmas had been a simple affair. It was her way. “If you turn up,” she’d say, “There’ll be no presents, no party, no welcome.” Joan wanted it that way. They didn’t swap presents, or cook anything out of the ordinary for dinner. Joan had said there was nothing special about Christmas, not for them. Not anymore. She didn’t want to remember Christmas. Not after what he had done. But he would turn up. That was all he did these days. From one year to the next, he’d just turn up. He never said he would come. He would just appear, and she would be there waiting. “Oh, Joan” he sighed.
He turned the corner into their road. He could see the house which stood conspicuously as an oasis of despair amidst the Christmas cheer. “Nothing changes,” he mused. Some houses seem to have excelled in the recent craze for adorning their gardens and gutters with lights and figures. One even had a full crib with a plastic Holy Mother tending a plastic Holy Child in a plastic manger, but the others seemed to have intentionally omitted any reference to religion in their eagerness to illuminate their prolific fairy lights, Santa, reindeers and the like.
A group of teenage louts hammered repeatedly on a nearby door. As soon as it was opened, they squawked in unison, “We wish you a merry Christmas, an’ a happy new year. Now give us a quid.”
They were too boisterous to hear Chester say, “Tykes, love to see you try that one on Joan.”
Chester smiled as he touched the white painted gate. Even after all this time, it still hung from one rusted hinge. “We wish you a merry Christmas.” The boys had reached the house next door and sung with added gusto, determined to wrest another pound from this hapless neighbour, but the shriek of rusted metal silenced them. Chester slammed the gate behind him and the startled youths dispersed, yelling and whooping into the darkness. They were laughing now, teasing each other over the fright he had given them. “I’ll never fix that gate,” Chester surmised. “It’ll keep them out of the way.”
He still had his key, but paused on the doorstep as uncertainty shrouded his thoughts. The key never reached the lock. Instead, he used it to tap sharply on the glass. For a moment, nothing stirred. He waited with unaccustomed patience before tapping the glass again. “Who is it?”
He recognised her voice. It still held that magical tone of softness combined with inquisitiveness that, once, all those years before, he had fallen in love with. “If truth is known,” Chester began, “I have always loved, and would love again if she’ll let me.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, love. It’s Chester.” Then, after what seemed an eternity of silence, he added, “Are you going to let me in?”
Then the door swung open. For a moment, he stared into the darkness. Then he saw her. “Joan,” he sighed. Paler perhaps than he remembered, but as radiantly beautiful as ever. The woman gracefully glided towards him.
“Chester, I wasn’t expecting you,” she smiled, but he saw through the smile. Without realising it, she had betrayed herself with a glance over her shoulder. And there he was. A British Tommy rising from his place at the kitchen table. A Limey British Tommy slipping his suspender, or as those damn Limeys insisted on calling them, his braces over his shoulder. “Is everything alright, Joan chuck,” the Limey said.
Chester pushed her aside with a sweeping arm. He screamed, “Whore! No, it’s not alright, you filthy…”
Just as the church bells began their peel of Christmas joy at the end of that millennium year, the ear piercing scream of terror had escaped from Joan’s throat. Before the scream was over, a hound had taken up the howling. Within a minute, every dog for a mile around echoed the mournful wail.
“My God,” the younger policeman turned to his colleague. “It sounded like a scream.”
Still looking at his watch, the older policeman waited. When silence resumed and agitated dogs settled on hearth rugs, he said, “They say that happens every year. Every Christmas Eve, as soon as the bells start ringing, there’s that scream, and every dog howls.”
“But what is it?” The younger man implored. “What was the scream?”
“Well, there’s some that will tell you that it was a woman called Joan. On Christmas Eve at the end of the war, her brother stabbed her Yankee husband. He hanged for it, but they didn’t hang Joan. She was pregnant you see. But then she died in a prison hospital not long after the birth.”
“Wow, I thought it was just the drains.”
Chester smiled as he went to pass the police car again, but paused as he heard the police radio crackle into life. The older PC laughed and started the engine. The radio splurted out their call sign. “PC Chester, we’re getting a few complaints about some yobs doin’ a bit of carol singing. Sort ‘em out will you? They’re setting all the dogs off.”
And Chester smiled. No wonder the policeman seemed familiar. He looked a little like his dad. As the police car rolled away into the darkness, unseen in the living world, Chester raised his arm and waved, “Merry Christmas my son. They let you keep my name, but I hope they didn’t call you Marion,” and a tear left his ghostly eye.