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Crisis at Christmas

(From Tales for Telling)

This idea for this story began with a vase on the mantelpiece of a friend's house.  It had something inside it.  I won't tell you what because I don't want to spoil the tale.  As with the story, no one knew to what the object belonged. 

The house is probably the one I wished I had grown up in but didn't.  It didn't take long as a young child to find out that the three-year-old house we had moved into didn't have any secret passages!  Despite that I do remember when Christmases were magical and exciting and I've tried to capture that. Although I don't remember them being as scary as this.

This tale refers to the Blitz in 1940 when London and other UK cities were being bombed.  Rationing of food and other essential supplies had begun at the beginning of the same year.  The story is told through the eyes f a nine-year old boy.  You might like to tell your listeners that before you begin.


1.     Setting.  

It was Christmas 1970.  Mum and Dad had bought a house in north London at an auction.  We moved in just a few days before Christmas.  It was a grey, cold and bleak day when we drew up outside the house in the van we had hired.  The house looked big and run down and to the young eyes of my brother and I, rather creepy.  An old man watched us as we got out of the van.  As my Dad walked to the gate the old man grabbed his arm.  'You'll regret moving here.  Old Nan went out of her mind when she lost her old man and her two sons in the war.  She lived here 'til she died this year, but she still used to talk to her boys as if they were there.  You folk will have her ghost to live with now as well as theirs.'  That was bad enough, but when we opened the door it creaked as if it were in a horror film and the dusty, musty house was full of the shapes of the old lady's old furniture.

2.  Diary

By the end of the day we had moved in to a couple of rooms, piling up some of the old lady's 1940's furniture in an upstairs bedroom.  It was like going back in time.  There was no electricity and no gas.  This was odd because the house was wired and had gas pipes, but the estate agent had told Dad the gas had been disconnected since 1940.  We ate a meal by candlelight in the dining room, which was still filled with the old lady's furniture.  We sat round a big old table with drawers underneath.  My brother was a few years older than me, but I was nine and I was scared.  I think everyone was, but was hiding it.  The candle threw big shadows flickering against the wall.  The corners of the room were dark.  I was sure I could feel the ghosts of the old lady and her soldier sons.  We tried to make conversation, but we kept falling into silence.  Dad tried to crack some jokes, but the laughter sounded false in the old room.  I played with the drawer in the table in front of me.  It squeaked open.  I looked down and saw an old notebook inside.  Dad, who'd been sitting beside me because I was frightened, took it out.  'It's the old lady's diary.'  He flicked through it.  'I tell you what, I'll read today's entry 30 years ago.  That should cheer us up.  He put on a woman's voice and we laughed and began to feel less scared:


December 23rd 1940.  Have managed to get a small chicken for Christmas.  They say if the war goes on the rationing will get worse.  The air raids continue.  I take shelter in the basement. We'll have to have Christmas dinner down there.  It's wonderful that both boys have managed to get leave.  I wish I could keep them here.  I miss their father more than I can write, his laugh, his touch, the smell of his pipe.  Will this wretched war take all the men I love?  I wish...I wish I could keep my boys here when they come, not send them off to their deaths.


This sad entry didn't exactly cheer us up.  Mum, tried to lift the mood,  'At least she had one last Christmas with her boys.' 

Dad said.  ‘I wonder what happened to the basement.  There isn't one now, at least, there isn't an entrance.'

3.  Exploring

In the morning the house seemed less foreboding in the daylight.  My brother and I played around the house, exploring the rooms and running around the garden outside.  When we were in the garden we noticed an old coalbunker attached to the house, although it had obviously been added later because the bricks were different.  It looked big enough for us to stand in, but Mum stopped us before we clambered in.  I don't want dirty clothes until I've got my twin tub1 working!  So we went inside the house and looked for secret passages because Enid Blyton2 had told us that all old houses have secret passages.  We thought when we found one it would lead to the basement we had read about the night before.  But though we knocked on panels and even walked into wardrobes full of old clothes, we couldn't find anything.

1 a 1970’s washing machine

2 famous UK children’s writer

But by evening the old heaviness descended.  We ate some food in the murky dining room.  The candlelight flickered on our silent faces.  It was freezing cold and a strong wind blew against the house, making it creak and rattle.  We didn't know it, but it had even begun to snow.  Dad lit a fire which brightened the room a bit, but it seemed to make the house creak all the more.  We half expected the ghost of the old lady, or one of her sons, to appear in the doorway.  Even Dad looked a bit strange.  As we sat round the fire he took the old diary and began to read.


December 24th 1940, Christmas Eve.

They are here!  My dear boys.  They look so smart in their uniforms.  We sat round the fire in the dining room.  I wish I could keep them here, but they talked so excitedly about the war.  I could only think of my dear Jack, dead.  Don't they realise they too will soon be lying dead in some French field.  I must try and stop them going back, my boys, my boys, my own dear boys!


Dad's voice was getting higher.  'Stop Brian, you're frightening the children!' But Dad continued.


The boys carried the table into the basement this afternoon.  Kenneth looked so like my Jack.  That's when I realised he is going to die and his brother too.  I wish I could keep them here.  I would rather they died here than in some foreign field.

          I wish I could keep them here

          I wish I could keep them here

          I must keep them here

          I must!  I will!  I will!

          I will!


It was as if Dad had been taken over by the old lady's spirit as his voice got higher and higher.

'Stop Brian!' cried Mum and she snatched the book from his hands.

Mum was good at cheering us up.  We were all very frightened, especially at Dad's strange behaviour.  But after we had played some games, we started to behave as children usually do on Christmas Eve, jumping around excitedly.  'Come on boys, you can send your letters to Father Christmas now.  She was talking about the tradition of telling Santa what you wanted by putting a letter in the fire and the flames wafting the message up to him.  At our last house we had only had a gas fire so it was with great excitement that we watched our lists burn and waft up in the flames. 

'Can't see how he' s going to read that now,' said my older brother. 

But as I waved my arms excitedly, I knocked an old vase from the mantelpiece and it smashed on to the hearth.  There in the middle of the broken glass was a large key.

4.  Christmas Day

None of us felt brave enough to try and find the lock the key fitted while it was still dark.  We all hardly slept, not because of excitement, but because we lay all night in our beds, sure we could hear doors opening and ghostly footsteps.  But in the morning for once opening our presents was not the first thing we wanted to do.  We didn't even want to play in the snow which had fallen.  We wanted to find the door that the key fitted.  We looked for an hour and a half, but found nothing, looking in the same places over and over again.  Eventually we opened our presents, and then we had pork chops cooked over a camping gas for Christmas lunch.  After lunch Dad got out the old lady's diary and despite Mum's protestations, began to read.


December 25th, 1940, Christmas Day.

We had a wonderful Christmas lunch in the basement, and now I have my boys with me forever.

Dad stopped.  'That's it.'

‘Isn't there anything else?’

‘Nothing else on this day or on any others, except a few diary entries’

‘What do they say?’


December 27th, 'Gas disconnected'

January 3rd, 'Coal Bunker built'

‘Then the rest is blank.’


After a while we gave up trying to work out the mystery of the old lady's diary.  My brother and I went outside to play in the snow.  After a vigorous snowball fight we built a wonderful snowman, and when we'd finished we had the idea of using coal for the eyes and buttons.  We ran to the bunker and clambered in, collecting the few bits of coal left inside.  Suddenly in the darkness of the bunker we saw the faint outline of a door in the wall of the house.

'The key!  The key!   Let's get the key!'

We ran to the house and grabbed the key, and a torch I had been given for Christmas, and hurried back to the bunker.

We had to push the key in hard...but it fitted, and with enormous effort we managed to turn it.  Then we heaved and heaved at the door and finally it began to open.

The first thing we noticed was a faint smell of gas.

'That's weird.  There is no gas in the house.'

Our hearts were pounding against our chests as we went through the door, and our torch lit up the steps to the missing basement.  Slowly we crept down the steps.  The first thing I saw was an empty chair.  Then something twinkled in the torchlight.  It looked like a wine glass.  It was half filled with wine.  There was something white clasping the glass.  It was the hand of a skeleton!  Suddenly we realised that either side of a table were two skeletons dressed in dusty army uniforms...the gassed sons of the lady who lost her mind!


© Ged Duncan 2003.  All rights reserved*

 Storytellers are authorised to tell or perform this tale in private or at not-for-profit groups.  If you wish to tell this as part of a public performance please contact me.  There will not necessarily be a charge for community-based artists, but I would like to be credited and to know when the story is being used.

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