Wednesday 24 December 2014

The Twelve Days of Christmas

I chose this story, even though it is longer than we generally accept, because it has a remarkable thing, so often lacking in short stories – humour. And I think it captures something of Christmas, in a traditional, yet far from, conventional way! So very well done to Jo for being our grand finale in the CafeLit Advent Calendar of Stories! And thanks to everyone for their wonderful contributions.

The café will be closed now until January 5th. So please start sending in your wintery stories for January, something to brighten the dark days as we wait for Spring!

Happy Christmas from us all at CafeLit!

An Advent Calendar of Stories

December 24
Part 2 2014

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Jo Fino

Large glass of red (vegan)

On the first day of Christmas:
My true love sent to me: A Partridge in a Pear Tree

What? What on earth am I going to do with a partridge? I’m a vegan for chrissakes. A vegan with three cats. As for the pear tree: well I don’t think it’s really going to fit in my window box.

On the second day of Christmas:
My true love sent to me: Two Turtle Doves

Where’s the number for Yodel? That partridge has got to go; it’s crapped all over my parquet flooring and now it’s perched on top of my black artificial tree, shaking , and the cats have settled in to siege mode at the bottom, well except for Charlie. I found him clinging to the middle of the tree with my best purple tinsel wrapped round his neck and it was only when I got him down that I  realised  he’d swallowed one of my LED candle  lights with multiple settings. Now he’s sitting on the window sill glaring at the partridge and every time he hiccups he glows.

So I got through to Yodel finally after half an hour of back to back Sir Cliff’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine’… Come on guys, even Costa Coffee have banned it in all their branches on account of adverse customer reaction to Christmas tunes. But then as my old Auntie Edna used to say there’s no smoke without Punch…Whatever that means… I think she was a bit ‘confused’… so am I … it’s no wonder she got fifteen years for burning down the convent.

The guy from Yodel turns up and says he can’t take the pear tree back because he’s got an allergy and I should have filled out an allergen awareness form before I asked for a pick up. Then, after forty-five minutes of trying to catch the partridge and a lot of bad language (honestly, being a vegan I’ve done a lot of swearing, mainly in restaurants and outside cosmetics companies but the Yodel man was a revelation) he departed with the best combination of expletives ever when the partridge crapped in his eye; it was like listening to every banned rap song I secretly hid under my bed on account of my mum being a rampant Catholic. Well she can’t have been that rampant: I’m an only child.
I settled down with a nice glass of wine (vegan) and I heard this noise, like a sort of cooing and I realised the Yodel man has left another box… I knock back the wine for a bit of Dutch (why are people from Holland so hard-core?) and I open the box.
So now the two turtle doves are on top of the black Christmas tree with the partridge, Charlie’s emitting alarming flashes in the window every five minutes like a fur covered lighthouse and Bonnie and Clyde are yowling as they continuously circle the tree.

On the third day of Christmas:
My true love… you get the picture now… it’s more birds…

The partridge and the turtle doves have joined forces and are taking it in turns to bait Bonnie and Clyde with kamikaze swoops across the living room. It would be quite beautiful to watch if Bonnie and Clyde would stop the yowling soundtrack for five seconds and Charlie wasn’t on distracting chaser flash mode. I spent  an hour on Google trying to find out if it was possible for doves and partridges to interbreed , and two hours on the phone to ‘you’re through to Darren, at Yodel how may I help you?’ who clearly had a limited grasp of the English language and kept calling me mam (not sure if he was  a Geordie and hoping I would adopt him or he was sat in an office in Mumbai being extra polite but I elected not to confuse him further by trying to explain that I’m a Ms). When ‘you’re through to Darren’ finally got his head round the fact that I was trying to arrange a pick up for three birds and a pear tree and not a plastic ninja turtle, a packet of Dove soap, and a Partridge family CD he advised me that the only driver in the area that morning had put my name on his blacklist for not filling out an allergen awareness form (cheek of it) so he would have to send someone from the southern district. So I said fine, as long as they don’t have an MA in Expletive Deletives (which went way over ‘you’re through to Darren’s head’), slammed the phone down, forgot the pear tree was still in the hall, walked into a branch and ended up in casualty for three hours.
When I got back it was quite heart-warming to see the welcoming glow of Charlie, peering at me through the window; he was on the purple light cycle – my favourite – I wonder how long the battery in that LED light lasts? The southern district Yodeller had pushed a note through the door advising me that ‘your parcel is round the back’. At least he didn’t pin it to the front door like my next door neighbour did once, screaming out to all the local ne’er do wells ‘empty house up for robbing’. He had called round to request that I keep the noise down in the bedroom after 10pm on account of his wife’s nerves… I expect he’ll be round again soon; I could hear Bonnie and Clyde yowling at full pitch before I even opened the front door. I edged my way past the pear tree, patting the surgical eye-patch for reassurance, reached my  bijou kitchen and went to open the back door to retrieve the parcel, desperately hoping it was the boxed set of Mad Men I’d put on the top of my list to Santa; I may be vegan but I still believe. I heard the squawking  before I even got the door halfway open and before I knew what was happening Bonnie and Clyde shot past me and  my ergonomically minimal patio was transformed into Fight Club as the cats went into battle with three ugly looking hens clucking, ‘Mais Oui, Ah Non, Mais Oui, Ah Non.…’
 My they were big mothers…

On the fourth day of Christmas:
Four more birds and I’m beginning to feel like Tippi Hedren (Google it…)

My black Christmas tree is gradually turning white on account of the accumulation of bird crap, Charlie’s on the flash/fade cycle and Bonnie and Clyde are staying at the vets overnight for observation as their yowling was beginning to scarily resemble an X Factor Live Audition Show. I rang the RSPB about the three hens but apparently they don’t ‘do farm birds’, not even ones that can cluck in French. Being a vegan I really couldn’t in all conscience ring Farmer Bryn Jones to collect them, not least as last time I saw him I was leading a picket line outside his farm, protesting about his farming methods and he got arrested for threatening me with a shot gun. I chucked some toast crumbs to Coco, Chanel and Piaf – the hens – and spent an hour scrubbing the bird crap off the parquet in the living room, ignoring my neighbour hammering on the front door. I think he must be related to the Yodel man with the pear allergy, I’ve never heard him swear so much before.
After another half an hour on the phone to ‘you’re through to Marcia, your Yodel  Call Centre Operative of the Week’, who could at least form a sentence made up of words containing more than one syllable, she put me on hold and I endured twenty minutes of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. So they bumped Sir Cliff in favour of Boney M ; come on guys, the clue is in the name and the dude in the white spray on trousers and fake fur shrug, writhing, is well, so not festive in the true spirit of the word if you ask me. Marcia finally came back to me as I was beginning to slip into a coma and informed me that she was able to lodge a formal complaint on my behalf about the unsigned for dumping of livestock by Yodel drivers but the investigation would take six working weeks, during which time I would be removed from their delivery and collection schedules… what! What about the birds, the pear tree and my boxed set of Mad Men? Marcia advised me that a driver was due in the area that afternoon and she would see what she could do, if I just wouldn’t mind completing a quick customer satisfaction survey. An hour later I put down the phone with a numb ear, having given Marcia ten out of ten on everything from her impressive explanation of the theory of relativity to her ability to say ‘hello, how may I help you’ in fifteen different languages… she really can… I went to make a cup of tea, briefly flirting with the notion of a well-deserved glass of vegan red,  and when I edged back past the pear tree (I swear it’s sprouted another branch overnight) I saw the Yodel delivery note on the door mat. I mustn’t have heard the doorbell on account of my one numb ear and the bandage from the eye patch muffling my other ear. Cursing like only Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre know how I read the note and opened the door a fraction, hoping my next door neighbour wasn’t lying in wait.
I should have known when I saw the air holes on the box…Why oh why did I open it in the hall? It was like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; two of them flew straight at my face, a third one lodged in my hair (I’ve been so distracted I can’t remember when I last de-tangled and I’ve run out of ethically produced tea tree conditioner) and the fourth one swooped up the stairs where it sought sanctuary on top of the toilet cistern.

On the fifth day of Christmas:
Five gold rings: it’s the deal breaker…

I was so hung over after downing two bottles of vegan red with my next door neighbour’s wife (turns out he’s the nervy one) after I called round to apologise for the noise (well really to escape The Birds and Charlie’s flicker cycle which seemed to  rather over excite the turtle doves and the partridge) that I totally forgot about the  fourth calling bird on the Victorian style toilet cistern, until I went for a wee and it crapped on my head whilst tweeting what sounded like the chorus to the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby.’

I stumbled downstairs to a dawn chorus from the other three calling birds now resident in the pear tree: ‘Happy Christmas, War is Over’ hey? Nice try chicks but you really are going to have to go; I may be vegan but I’m no pushover. My eye is still half closed from the pear tree encounter, my ear’s bright red from all the Yodel calls and my head hurts. I slumped down at the kitchen table just as Coco jumped on to the window sill and starting pecking at the glass. Shit I forgot to feed the hens. Two paracetamol, a gallon of tea and a vegan bacon buttie later – yes there is such a thing and no, it is no substitute I admit – I heard the door bell and peered past Charlie (green glow mode) to see a Yodel van parked outside and I haven’t even called them this morning. It must be my lucky day, although I doubt one driver will be able to round up ten birds by himself without David Attenborough on hand. I open the door and it’s Mr Expletive Deletive; his face is covered in angry looking hives and he glares past me at the pear tree as he thrusts a small package in my hand and legs it.
Yes! Finally it’s the Mad Men box set… I am saved… he does truly love me. Ten seconds later the four calling birds strike up a chorus of ‘All I want for Christmas is You’ as I try to work out why anyone who has shared a bed with me would send me a packet of  five tacky looking gold napkin rings.

On the sixth day of Christmas:
Goosey, goosey gander… it sounds cute but I hear they have violent tendencies

Thank God I decided to keep the Jacuzzi bath instead of installing a double walk in rain shower with massage jets like they have in the ten best bathroom love scenes on DVD. It was just big enough to fit the six geese into, but it was a tussle of Herculean proportions to get them up the stairs I tell you. I peeked into the lounge and my black Christmas tree is almost completely white now, the partridge was perched on Charlie’s head (he’s on alternate red and green mode) and the turtle doves have built a nest out of my purple tinsel which can only mean one thing… more goddamn birds.

I rang the vets and asked them to keep Bonnie and Clyde for another night, Googled chicken feed suppliers, and emailed a dude in Tal- y -Bont who’s free-cycling a chicken coop, then I picked up the phone and speed dialled Yodel, as the four calling birds struck up a chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’

On the seventh day of Christmas:

When I read Seven Swans on the delivery note I desperately hoped it was a voucher for that new retro pub on the High St; then I saw the size of the box on the hydraulic platform…

It was a challenge but fortunately two of the swans are not yet fully grown so I managed to squeeze five of them into the bath with the indignant geese and the other two into my reclaimed Victorian sink. I thought I’d mislaid the fourth calling bird that was living on the toilet cistern; either that or the geese had got peckish overnight. Turns out it must have sneaked in to my room in the middle of the night and taken refuge in my hair; well it is beginning to resemble an Amy Winehouse convention. It’s no wonder I was confused when I woke up and heard ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ from somewhere, as I thought, deep inside my head…
Charlie (fade in fade out mode: that must be the best LED battery ever) and the partridge seem to have reached a form of entente cordiale – Obama, Putin take note – and the turtle doves are well loved up. So all is well in the living room and I’ve given up on scrubbing the parquet. I have no idea what I did with the cheap gold napkin rings, which I now realise may come in handy on Christmas Day as a welcome distraction from the lack of a turkey centrepiece. I can hear my mother now: ‘Well, napkin rings, you, with napkin rings, who would have thought it. Sister Mary Claire would be so proud, dear.’
The pears are starting to ripen nicely and I’m suddenly thinking Mmmm pear cider, I sense a cottage industry (okay a boxy two up two down industry) developing. The calling birds are working their way through  the full Three Degrees back catalogue – they did a particularly good version of ‘Dirty Ol’ Man’ – and the  free-cycler finally got back to me and has offered to drop off the chicken coop. Result.

On the eighth day of Christmas:
The arrival of eight statuesque blondes in a Yodel-badged minibus sets the voiles all of a flutter next door…

‘I’m sorry I have no idea what you’re on about… I do not have any cows… I don’t even have any grass for chrissakes… oh just hang on… no just stay there … there’s no room… the pear tree seems to have developed beanstalk tendencies ‘
I left the group of blonde Amazonians, clad in aprons and not much else, babbling in some strange language on my front path, speed dialled Yodel and begged to speak to Marcia. Turns out they’re Dutch, one of Marcia’s fifteen languages – thank God (no wonder they weren’t freezing their bits off in those skimpy outfits then… hard-core the Dutch…) and they seem to be labouring under the delusion that I have a field full of cows. I dialled directory enquiries, and after several false starts with numerous Bryn Jones’s who would no doubt have been delighted to entertain eight six foot blondes, I finally got through to Farmer Bryn Jones, and informed him in my best dodgy Eastern European accent that I could supply him with a group of hard working wenches with a penchant for milking for a very good price.
The calling birds launched into a chorus of ‘Old MacDonald’ as soon as he arrived in the wagon he uses to take the lambs to market (classy) and I desperately hoped no one from the Bangor Vegan Activists happened to be passing by my house. I took a risk but old Jonesy didn’t recognise me on account of the eye patch and overgrown bee hive, not to mention the Eastern European accent… I may keep it up… apply for a job at Yodel even.
‘Nice cat, who’s your taxidermist?’ leered Jonesy, indicating Charlie who was sleeping in the window emitting a fetching shade of blue. I shut the door on Farmer Bryn Jones’s foot, £150 richer and just in time; sensing the presence of a battery farmer the hens had gone into a major ‘Zut alors’ frenzy and the geese and swans appeared to have found out how to work the Jacuzzi jets in the bath. The squawking was positively orgasmic and I had a feeling another note from my neighbour would be winging its way through my letterbox… ‘winging’…geddit… I checked the living room and was treated to a fly past by the partridge and one of the turtle doves. The other, nesting complacently made me feel rather envious… and a little broody…

On the twelfth day of Christmas:

Over the last three days I have had to work out ways of dealing with twenty extra people of various occupational leanings, or in some cases ‘leapings’ in my impossibly small two up down box, while the pear tree just keeps on growing… Just when I thought I had got them all safely despatched, I heard the sound of distant drums… and yes, there were twelve more of them…

So when the nine spray tanned  women with suspiciously set faces and eyelashes you could launch Eddie the Eagle off  turned up on the ninth day, wearing a selection of fringed, slashed to the thigh and sequinned dresses (she sewed all 9,000 of them on herself) I let them stay on two conditions:

Number One: No one was to strike a match within a mile of their hair – I shuddered to think how many bunnies suffered to produce that amount of industrial strength hair spray.

Number Two: I’ve always wanted to learn the Argentine Tango.

Anyway they were so thin I had no concern about their ability to fit on the roll away in the spare bedroom, and they were a welcome diversion from ‘The Birds’, the fact that the pear tree had now burst through the ceiling into my bedroom, and the leaking chicken coop, not to mention the phone calls from the vet informing me that my bill of £400 for b and b for Bonnie and Clyde needed paying and until then they were holding them to ransom. I think they need to reconsider this strategy but I decided to look for the gold napkin rings just in case: they could turn out to be the real deal.

On the tenth day I tangoed down the stairs, beside myself in a daringly slashed spangled concoction, sporting a new set of lashes – well one new lash on account of the renewed need to don the eye-patch after an unfortunate lapse of concentration with the eyelash glue. When the doorbell rang I wasn’t even fazed by the sight of ten Anton du Beke look-alikes performing a complicated salsa routine on the pavement outside my house. Charlie the cat had gone into disco ball mode and the partridge and turtle doves rocked a newly-hatched chick each as the calling birds belted out ‘Everybody Salsa’. I phoned the local old people’s centre, or rather Seniors Select, as it had been recently renamed after a members' secret ballot, and the minibus was despatched to take the dancers (all 19 of them) to the annual Christmas Party, before you could say Equity Release Plan. The minibus  arrived at the same time as the lorry load of chicken feed, which caused a degree of confusion, when three of the Antons mistook the driver for ‘It’s A Ten from Len’ off the Strictly Come Dancing panel, threw themselves at his feet and begged him for a job. I can still see the poor driver now, sack of chicken feed over his shoulder, muttering about his delivery time slots, dragging the three Antons up the path as they clung to his leg.

On the eleventh day I spent twenty minutes on the phone reassuring the plumber that he won’t catch avian bird flu when he comes to repair the Jacuzzi bath. I had felt it only fair to warn him that my bathroom had turned into a lurid pastiche of Swan Lake and Mother Goose  especially after the ‘allergen awareness’ incident with Mr Expletive Deletive from Yodel. I eventually managed to persuade him with the offer of a month’s free trial of the eleven pipers who had just piled off a Yodel transporter and onto my path, when he mentioned how overworked he was on account of the lack of skilled tradesmen in the area. Well I didn’t know they were musicians… Did I?

So it’s day twelve, and the birds , all twenty-six of them including the three adorable new additions passed a relatively peaceful night, after the chicken feed man very kindly fixed the leaking roof on the chicken coop (he was so grateful to me for shouting to the three Antons that I had just heard  Bruno and Craig were doing a guest appearance American Smooth at the Senior  Select Christmas Party), the plumber restored full power and ‘then some’ to the Jacuzzi bath (I’ve never seen such ecstasy on a swan’s face) and the calling birds sang them all to sleep with ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ – the  Johnny Mathis version, not a writhing white trouser in sight.

I salsa’d my way out in to the back yard (I’d paid close attention to the Antons’ display), shouted ‘Bonjour mes petites jolies, ca va bien?’ to Coco, Chanel and Piaf, receiving a clucking chorus of ‘Mais oui, eh bien sur’ in return and fetched the step ladders, ready to start harvesting the pears (I found a fab home brew cider recipe on Google).
Then I heard it: the rumble. I lifted the bandage securing the eye patch off my ear and it was even louder; it was getting closer, and closer. Surely not? Armageddon? It’s nearly Christmas, and after everything I’ve just been through? Plus I still didn’t have my Mad Men box set.

I threw down the step ladders, rushed through the house, avoiding the pear tree with the practised ease of a highly trained commando and flung the front door open. I may as well face it head on. The noise was deafening. My street was a blur of colour, people out of their houses in various states of undress, swayed on the pavement: people I had never seen before in my life, and I’ve lived here five years. My next door neighbour and his wife appeared, together for the first time in public since their wedding day, and as I stared at them twitching in their postage stamp patch of a front garden I realised that what I had taken for a panic stricken frenzy was actually interpretative dance movement. I ripped off my eye-patch, the false eyelash hanging on to it by the last shred of glue like a dismembered spider and focussed, and as I did so I felt my newly Latin Americanised body begin to jerk. This wasn’t Armageddon, it was ‘Batucada Brasileira’ and there was a full blown Brazilian Samba Drumming Troupe holding up the traffic in my street. Behind me the calling birds were shrieking ‘Samba, samba, samba de janeiro’ and when I glanced at my front window Charlie was flashing green and yellow in time to the beat.

The party went on all day and I learnt several useful Brazilian Portuguese phrases, exchanged email addresses with a particularly well-muscled drummer called Joao who offered to send me a meat free feijoada recipe and  got invited to dinner by a couple of the neighbours. Turns out I ain’t the only vegan in the village. I had such a great time that  I did toy with the idea of letting the twelve drummers stay, but as the pear tree had now taken over the spare bedroom, my living room had turned into an avian breeding sanctuary and my bathroom was overflowing with swooning swans and over ecstatic geese, I didn’t really see where they were going to go, short of a sixty minute makeover team appearing in a puff of diesel smoke and performing  a loft conversion; except I don’t have a loft and if I did the pear tree would have already made itself at home there. When I came across the leaflet advertising for the local heat of Britain’s Got Talent on the 13th December (that’s tomorrow!) while I was searching for a Mexican take away menu (it was the closest South American cuisine I could think of) it seemed so much like karma that I just had to let the boys know and they set off down to the local theatre to camp out overnight in the queue before I could say ‘Boa noite.’

The gold napkin rings were a diverting surprise result of the take away menu hunt; I think I will get them valued, just in case the email recipe exchange with Joao develops and I get invited to Rio for the carnival, plus I really am starting to miss Bonnie and Clyde. But first I need to get back on the phone to Yodel and lodge another complaint about Mr Expletive Deletive with the pear tree allergy and angry hives. In between the ‘Batucada’ and an impromptu acapella rendition of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ by my next door neighbour (who knew he could sing?) I spotted Mr Ex. D , complete with bird poop spattered Yodel cap  lurking in the bushes with a long lens camera trained on the upstairs window at number 33; that’s where Lola practises her pole dance routines, in between training to be a dental technician. I’ll get him this time, for sure. Oh yes and then I’m phoning my boyfriend and dumping him. Twelve days he’s had and he still totally forgot to get me the Mad Men Box set. True Love – who needs it?

As I walk up the garden path after waving farewell to the retreating samba beat, I see Charlie, sleeping peacefully in the window; the partridge snuggled next to him. He really is a rather gorgeous shade of grey: his natural colour. I wander into the house, past the pear tree, inhaling the scent of the heavy fruit and as the four calling birds settle on my shoulder and my head and launch into a chorus of ‘So Here It Is Merry Christmas’ I pour myself a large glass of red and listen to Coco, Chanel and Piaf clucking amicably in the yard, ‘Ah oui, mais non, zut alors… tais toi… espece d ‘imbecile…’

Only twelve more days to go…

About the Author

Jo Fino says she is a dreamer, an optimist, a worrier too. She started writing again to deal with a stressful situation and gradually rediscovered her passion. She now chairs a successful North Wales Writing Group. She has been published on the CafeLit site and in The Best of CafeLit 3. She was also shortlisted by Honno in their call for ghost stories and her short story Cruel Summer won the Writers’ Forum monthly competition and was published in issue 146.


A Christmas Without Ghosts

An Advent Calendar of Stories

December 24
Part 1 2014

A Christmas Without Ghosts

James Leeder

Finest Sherry

The Constable solemnly reported finding the old man in the street, wearing nothing but his nightclothes. He was in a confused state of mind, and had given a passing child money to go shopping.
Next two gentlemen, both of good standing in the community, testified that he had unexpectedly offered them a huge amount of money completely out of the blue.
His company Clerk, a poor but honest man, told of his strange behaviour. After years of punctuality, order, his boss had lost all head for business.
The Magistrate, Doctor and Nephew agreed. Ebenezer Scrooge was committed to Bedlam.


About the Author
James Leeder is from the NE of England. After many years working in London he is now concentrating on writing fiction and learning to play the piano.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Gift

An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 23 2014

The Gift

Susan Eames

A goblet of Mulled Mead

Julia shivered as if someone had just walked over her grave. She faltered and glanced around.
A good-looking middle-aged man was lounging in one of the hotel lobby armchairs beside the Christmas tree. He was staring at her legs. Julia was a sucker for mature men. Unease forgotten she walked over and sat on the sofa opposite him.
'Are you a participant in the Ghost Hunting Weekend?' she said.
He looked over his shoulder. This action was rather foolish since he was sitting with his back to a wall. He collected himself. 'Do I look like a fruitcake then?'
Julia winced.
'Sorry,’ he said. 'I suppose you're here to look for ghouls and ghosts...'
'And things that go bump in the night,' Julia finished with a smile. 'Actually I'm the Tour Guide.'   
He looked quizzical. 'Do you do this sort of thing regularly?'
'What, accost strangers?'
'I meant, do you do regular Ghost Hunts?'
'Actually, no. I usually do Stately Homes.' She leaned forwards slightly. 'Can you keep a secret?'
He nodded. She glanced around before replying. 'I know it’s probably nuts, but this castle has a solid reputation for sightings.' She sat back and crossed her long legs. 'I'd love you to join us.'
'Sorry, not a chance.'
A voice called out, 'Miss Beresford?'
'Oops, they're looking for me.' She rose, then hesitated. 'I'm Julia Beresford.'
'Pleased to meet you, Julia. I'm Jack.'
She paused but he offered no more. 'Well Jack; let me know if you change your mind.'

Julia entered the library to meet her Ghost-hunters. She saw Jack sidle in behind a large potted fig. She hid a grin.
'Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Castle Willoughby's Christmas Ghost Hunt.' She consulted her notes. 'The castle was built in the fourteenth century. In nineteen twenty-three it was converted into a hotel. Due to a long and chequered history there are several ghosts here and sightings are regularly reported.' She smiled winningly. 'However, the ghosts are benign, so you won't be strangled in your beds.'
There was a nervous group chuckle.
'For example, the local village was almost wiped out by the great plague in 1665. It is understood that John Fenton, the head gardener, brought the plague from London. Every Christmas, Fenton walks the grounds in an agony of guilt.'
The Ghost-hunters cooed softly like a flock of pigeons. Julia held up a booklet. 'Your complimentary Ghost-hunters Guide will give you more details.' She glanced at her watch. 'We will meet at midnight for your first tour.' She raised her hand to forestall the guests' chatter. 'May I ask you to move about the castle quietly at night in deference to other guests?' Julia chuckled, 'and we don't want to startle the ghosts either.'

At midnight Julia gathered the Ghost-hunters in the hotel lobby. She noticed Jack in his armchair, watching. The guests were wittering softly and some of the women were giggling.
'I'm going to split you into three groups with different routes because the castle corridors are rather narrow,' said Julia. 'Each group will have a walkie-talkie to communicate with me. In any event, I will circulate between the groups.' She deftly organised them and they obediently filed off.
Julia clipped her walkie-talkie onto her jacket lapel.
'You really think you're going to need that?' said Jack with a glint in his eye.
'No, but I have an open mind.'
'Yes I think you do.' He tipped an imaginary cap at her, grinning. 'Good luck, milady.'
Julia grinned back. Her walkie-talkie suddenly crackled to life and they both jumped.  
'Blimey, someone's seen a ghost already,' said Julia with a snort of laughter.
She hurried up the central stone staircase while Jack ambled behind her. Group Blue was huddled around a large American woman. She had a strong southern accent. 'Oh my lordy, oh my lordy,' she kept repeating.
Julia swiftly established that Amy-Sue had seen a white figure dangling from a noose.
'But there haven't been any hangings at Castle Willoughby,' said Julia.
Amy-Sue's husband, Ulis, spoke up, 'You saying my Amy-Sue imagined it? This a haunted castle or not?'
Julia hid her scepticism. 'Well of course she didn't imagine it.' She gave the group a bright smile. 'Isn't this marvellous? Ten minutes into your first tour and a ghost has already materialised.' She patted Amy-Sue's plump shoulder. 'Marvellous. You obviously have The Gift.'
'Aaahh do?'
'Oh certainly you do.' Julia caught Jack's amused eye. Her lips twitched. She led them away along the corridor.
The guests jockeyed for position. No one wanted to be last in the line.

The next day Julia went for a stroll to familiarise herself with the castle grounds. She discovered Jack in the Walled Garden. 'Good morning, Jack. How beautiful this place is, even in winter.'
Jack looked at her appreciatively. 'Beautiful. See any ghosts last night?'
'Not personally, but Amy-Sue did her best.'
'Let me guess. Only she saw ghosts when no one else was looking.'
Julia chuckled, 'but it's amazing how everyone believed her.'
'They believe what they want to believe. You're touring the grounds tonight?'
'How did you know?'
'I visit every year. Willoughby is a regular haunt of mine.' He raised a roguish eyebrow.
'Very funny.' She wagged a finger. 'So you know it's all flummery. You've seen it all before.'
'I thought I had till you arrived. I don't see many like you.'
'That's not what I meant.'
'I know.'
'Are you flirting with me?'
His smile was pure mischief. 'Wrap up warmly tonight milady. It gets chilly when the ghoulies and ghosties come out to play. Especially at Christmas.'

Julia addressed the Ghost-hunters. 'We're going to walk the grounds tonight. Past tours have seen the gardener, John Fenton, on the shores of Willoughby Lake and in the Walled Garden. We'll stay in one group because it's best not to use lights.'
'No lights?' twittered a bird-like lady.
'She wants to scare us real good,' said one of the Americans.
'Oh, heaven forbid,' said Julia with a smile. 'Your eyes will quickly adjust, have no fear.'
Julia led them down to Willoughby Lake. In the sepulchral light, the moon cast a lambent glow across the water like spilled mercury.  
There was a sudden splash and plop out in the middle of the lake. They stared in round-eyed silence as silver ripples lapped the shore.
'Was it a fish? It must have been a fish,' they mumbled softly to each other.
Eerie soughing whispered across the water. As one, the group shifted back from the water's edge. Someone whimpered.
Then Amy-Sue spoke, 'Oh lordy.' Her back was to the lake. 'Aahh see'd him.'
The group turned around. 'Who?' they said.
Amy-Sue faced them, chins trembling. 'John Fenton.'
'How does she know it was him?' they asked each other. 'How do you know it was him?' they asked Amy-Sue.
They fell silent, all eyes focussed on her.
'He was pulling a… a plough.' She gave a solemn nod.
The mood broke. Julia converted her grunt of laughter into a cough.
'Must be a big strong feller if he don't need a horse to pull his plough,' someone quipped.
'Do gardeners use ploughs?' asked the bird-like lady.
'You folks doubting my Amy-Sue?' said Ulis. 'She's got The Gift. Julia said so.'
All eyes swivelled to Julia. 'I daresay they used all kinds of implements in those days,' Julia improvised. 'Well spotted, Amy-Sue. Marvellous. Shall we move on to the Walled Garden?'
Julia split the group up to fan out around the garden. They had barely started their explorations when three of them collided in the dark and tipped straight into the azaleas. Julia heard an enraged oath behind her and spun around. Jack was striding towards the hapless guests as they struggled to extricate themselves.
'Jack? What are you doing out here?' Julia blocked his path.
'I'm putting a stop to this nonsense before they wreck my garden.' Jack lifted his arms and began to levitate. He rose several feet and floated towards the ruckus. Julia was rooted to the spot, her mouth agape. She was dimly aware of startled screams.

The following morning Jack was seated in his usual place beside the Christmas tree when Julia stormed up. She plonked down on the sofa and glared at him. 'All right clever clogs. How did you do it?'
'Look I had to get those fruitcakes out of my garden.'
'Oh it’s your garden now, is it?'  
Jack bowed his head. 'John Fenton at your service, milady.'
'Really? I thought your name was Jack.'
'Jack has been a nickname for John for hundreds of years you know. And by the way, I didn't bring the plague to the castle and I don't wander around in an agony of guilt.'  
Julia wasn't listening. 'I can't believe I've been flirting with you all weekend!'
'The attraction was mutual, Julia.'  
'Hah! You don't even talk like someone from the Middle Ages.'
'Why would I after all these years?'
'You're nothing but a fake.'
'I'm not, you know.'
'Really?' She leaned forwards to prod his hand. Her finger passed straight through him and connected with the armchair. For a split second she froze. Then she pulled back slowly, holding her finger in front of her as if it didn't belong.
'You've gone white as a ghost,' said Jack.
'Very funny, Mr Fenton.'
'I do my best, milady.' He tipped an imaginary cap at her, and then cocked his head. 'You're the one with The Gift, Julia, not your silly Amy-Sue.' Jack turned translucent.
Julia could see the Christmas tree straight through him.
'You’ve been a surprise and a pleasure, Julia. Happy Christmas. '  
He gradually faded out until, like the Cheshire Cat, all that was left was his roguish smile. Then that too vanished.
Julia leaned back in the sofa staring at the vacant armchair. 'Well, aahh'll be,' she said.

About the Author
Susan Eames left England twenty-five years ago to explore the world and dive its oceans. She has had travel articles and short fiction published on three continents including several stories in The Best of CaféLit 3 Anthology.

After seven fascinating years in Fiji, Susan is moving to the Republic of Ireland.

Monday 22 December 2014


An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 22 2014


Roger Noons

There’s one bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau left

I knew she’d come as soon as she read the message on the card. ‘Seasons’ Greetings from Rob.’ The absence of ‘and Jan’ would motivate her to pack a bag and rush to the station.
    It was just after seven fifteen, the tail end of 'Barwick Green' was playing, when there was a single ring on the bell. I opened the door and stood aside. She marched in, turned and grinned at me.
    ‘Welcome back.’
    ‘I said I’d come as soon as you got rid of that bitch.’
    ‘Yes my dear, but how long will you stay this time?’

About the Author

Roger Noons is a regular contributor to the CafeLit site and we are delighted to have a few of his on this year’s Advent Calendar of stories and in the Best of CafeLit series. We like humour!

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Seminar

An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 20/21 2014

The Seminar

Sue Cross

Mulled wine

Maria’s heart was warmed as she entered the conference suite. How things had changed over the last couple of decades. The room was packed and ninety per cent of the delegates were men. When she first started presenting her seminars, her audience consisted of ninety five per cent women but these New Men were to be admired. She noted that all were smartly dressed in suits but was a little surprised at how eager to learn they looked with notepads and pens poised in anticipation.
As usual, Maria came well prepared, laptop in hand and wearing a navy dress, polished shoes and immaculate make-up. Taking her place at the rostrum, she smiled, took a deep relaxing breath and greeted her audience. She relished this moment, as it was to be her last presentation for at least six months. Her third pregnancy was well advanced.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I must say how pleased I am to see so many gentlemen here today. Welcome. I hope that you will find my presentation both informative and inspiring.’ A ripple of applause caused her to stop for a moment before continuing.
  ‘The most important thing to remember is how to breathe, so before we commence, we’ll practise our breathing techniques. I suggest we move our chairs to the side of the room, maybe take off our jackets and shoes and lie on the floor. We’ll bread in an hour for a mince pie and some mulled wine.’ Maria was in full flow.
As if in a trance, all those gathered did as they were instructed, lying down on the red carpet. Maria thought that they looked tired and seemed to be enjoying the rest.
‘Hands on abdomens and breathe, making sure that we don’t breathe from the chest. I’ll come round and check that you’re all doing this properly. Your partners will be so thrilled that you can help them with this important technique. And breathe in – one, two, three and out one, two three four. As you breathe in note how your abdomen rises and as you breathe out it should go down.’

After ten minutes of this everyone was suitably relaxed, if reluctant get up from the floor to continue with the seminar.
Using her laptop, Maria projected many graphic shots of her subject onto the screen provided and noticed that one or two of the delegates looked uncomfortable and confused. Indeed some appeared decidedly queasy. Poor dears, it’s probably their first she thought.
‘No need to worry. Now, the first sign that…’ She was cut off by the entry of a portly gentleman who ran into the room, red faced and out of breath.
‘I’m so sorry. Got stuck in traffic.’ He stopped in his tracks. ‘I’m not sure that we’ve met.’ He viewed Maria with curiosity.
‘I’m Maria Jackson, taking the natural childbirth and breast feeding seminar.’ She held out a manicured hand in greeting. ‘Is your name down?’
‘My name down? Oh, I see. No, no. I’m Jonathan Fairbrother – booked in to take the seminar on…’ but before he could finish, Maria doubled up in agony and gave a loud screech before falling to the floor. Unfortunately the tastefully decorated Christmas tree fell with her, leaving a scattering of white and silver baubles in its wake.
She viewed the puddle of water at her feet in dismay, dropped on all fours and began to grunt loudly as if in imitation of a distressed pig.
Roused from their stupor, the delegates jumped up and viewed the scene with horror. Some left the room in haste, while others gathered round.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ A fair-haired young man asked, looking terrified.
‘She’s gone into labour, stupid,’ one of the few females present remarked with irony. ‘Phone for an ambulance.’
The fair-haired young man whipped out his mobile. Soon the room was cleared as if by a bomb scare. The only ones remaining were the helpful female and Jonathan Fairbrother.
The female introduced herself. ‘I’m Gabby. Now, Maria – I want you to breathe. Take a deep breath from your abdomen. One, two three. That’s right – breathe and relax. You’re doing fine. The ambulance will be here soon.’
Maria continued to grunt and groan, breathe and pant. She gripped Gabby’s hand like a vice, her face contorted.
Jonathan paced.
Meanwhile several staff members had arrived on the scene looking alarmed.
‘What shall we do?’ asked the receptionist.
‘Blimey this is like a soap opera,’ remarked the cleaner.
‘Keep calm.’ Gabby spoke with authority. ‘The ambulance is on its way, although it may take a little longer than usual, with Christmas and everything. Now please leave us in peace. Oh, get me some hot water and towels.’

Everyone left the scene except for Gabby and Jonathan, who continued to pace.
Twenty minutes later two ambulance men arrived to find Maria cradling a baby boy and looking flushed with pride. The air was filled with the aroma of spices as the mulled wine being served in the hotel lobby was eagerly consumed by the delegates, who directed the ambulance men to the conference suite.
‘Thank you, Gabby. You’re an angel. I don’t know how I’d have managed without you.” Maria spoke with gratitude as she gazed at her latest offspring.
‘That’s all right. Just as well I’d been at your seminar and not his.’ Gabby waved a hand towards Jonathan who was being attended to by one of the ambulance men.
‘This is the Windy Ridge Hotel isn’t it?’ Maria asked, still feeling confused.
            ‘No, it’s the Ridgeway Inn. I suppose there’ll be a group of pregnant women waiting with bated breath at the other hotel. Excuse the pun.’ Gabby suppressed a giggle before continuing. ‘Your seminar has been life changing.’
Maria looked pleased. ‘Yes. I’ve always thought of myself as a career girl. You know, married to the job. And I never thought I’d have kids. No, I thought I’d be perfectly happy to stick to cats. But after today I’ve decided to marry my boyfriend and have a family. I feel as if I’ve just witnesses a miracle. Your seminar was very useful to me. And to think – I’d signed up to learn about stress in the workplace!’

About the Author

Sue Cross is the author of Tea at Sam’s and the sequel, Making Scents. You can visit her on her website

Friday 19 December 2014

Tread Gently

An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 19 2014

Tread Gently

Dawn Knox

Unsweetened grapefruit juice – bitter and harsh

She wiped her face with her sleeve. Beads of sweat studded her brow, coalescing to trickle into her eyes.
“Here, squeeze this,” he said offering her his hand. “Shall we stop?”
“No!” she gasped, “We must keep going. I need…” the pain strangled the words in her throat.
He silently cursed the government for enforcing this journey. She needed rest and a bed for the night. Instead, they were miles from home and still hours from the relatives they must reach before the baby came.
“Faster!” he whispered in the donkey's ear, “But tread gently, you're carrying a precious load.”

About the Author

Dawn Knox is married with one son and has been writing for several years. She has just had a YA eBook published, entitled Daffodil and the Thin Place and has written a script for a play to commemorate World War One, which has been performed in her town this year. Dawn enjoys a writing challenge and has had stories published in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, as well as romances in several women's magazines. One of her 100 Worders is included in The Best of CafeLit 2014.

Thursday 18 December 2014

A Modern Christmas Tale

An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 18 2014

A Modern Christmas Tale

Alison Peden

Mulled Wine

No one was more surprised than me to discover I was pregnant; I honestly don’t know how it happened.
The night in question remains a bit hazy and surreal, probably due in part to the bottle of red wine and vodka shots consumed by me and my best mate Gabby. Once I realised, it was a swift visit to the local registry office and Joe and I became a respectable married couple with a baby on the way.

My pregnancy was uneventful and we were both looking forward to our new arrival in the next couple of weeks. However, on Christmas Eve we needed to make a quick dash to the bank to deposit some money to cover bills over the holiday season; on the way home I started to have contractions. Joe phoned the maternity unit but there were no beds available so, they suggested that I return home and they would send a midwife.
We got caught in traffic and by the time we reached home my contractions were coming thick and fast. Joe helped me into the house but I couldn’t make it up the stairs. I staggered into the back room and Joe ran upstairs and brought down bedding and pillows to make lying on the floor as comfortable as it could be. Strangely our dog and two cats settled themselves down at the far end of the room seemingly unperturbed by the goings on around them.
There was no sign of the midwife and the urge to push was getting stronger and stronger. Joe was hiding his anxiety well, but I knew he was panicking inside. I suggested he phoned for an ambulance and relieved, he grabbed his phone. Conversely I felt calm, peaceful even, as I felt certain that all would be well.
As I gave my final push I heard the doorbell ring and in came a flustered midwife closely followed by two paramedics. Apparently they had got lost on the estate but had been directed by a neighbour to look for the house with the star on the roof which Joe had placed there, at my insistence, along with our other festive outdoor decorations.
The baby was delivered safely wrapped in a warm towel and placed in my arms. There was a quiet knock at the door and three of my friends came in bearing gifts for me and the baby; news travels fast in our neighbourhood. The room was surprisingly peaceful given that it was full of people and animals.
“Merry Christmas,” said one of the paramedics
“Yes, what a wonderful surprise,” said Joe smiling down at me and the child in my arms, “Say hello to our baby girl, Christina, truly a perfect Christmas gift.”

About the Author

Alison Peden is a writer of short stories. She lives in Manchester with her husband, her teenage daughter, and one of her two adult daughters.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Football Results

An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 17 2014

Football Results

Roger Noons

A cup of Camp coffee made with powdered milk

My mother was a trained dressmaker and tailoress. In December 1947, when either she, or one of our neighbours, could acquire a remnant of material, she would run up a blouse, sometimes a skirt. She would also create the pattern using newspaper. I would sit in the corner of our living room playing with whatever toy was my current favourite. On a Sunday afternoon, after my father had come home from work, he would sneak a look at Nellie Cotton’s bosom and smirk, as he read, Arsenal 2 Portsmouth 3, on the front page of the Sports Argus.

About the Author

Roger Noons is perhaps one of our most prolific contributors and while not overtly festive I liked the nostalgia in this piece. You can read many of his stories here as well as in The Best of CafeLit series.

Tuesday 16 December 2014


An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 16 2014


Jonathan Ash

A Russian Coffee

Carl dragged his foot across the floor. Obviously broken it sat at a right angle to his leg –useless, now just an inconvenience slowing him down.
            He smiled–'she would live a little longer.'
            Carl lifted his head and sniffed, her perfume lingered pointing him to the wardrobe. Tightening his grip on the knife he'd taken from the kitchen where the smell of baking bread had made his mouth water. He lurched toward her doom and his desire.
            Tearing the door open Carl desperately sought his prize, but was denied.
            The open window and perfume bottle laughed, taunting his failure.

About the Author

Jonathan has been writing short stories for five years to keep sane, as yet unpublished he still holds out a hope that his wife and two dogs will one day reap the rewards of coffee and cake from the royalties.

Monday 15 December 2014


An Advent Calendar of Stories
December 15 2014


Bec Lewis

Hot Chocolate

 ‘Blue, orange, black, green, green, red,’ Anya answered, full of hope. This one seemed the caring sort; he’d been chatting to her for a good ten minutes without once ogling the prettier girls in the bar. And he was gorgeous. She smiled, waiting for the questions, the laughs, the spark in his eyes that showed he thought her the most interesting person ever.
            But Jamie simply stared at her. He gulped down the rest of his brandy, said, ‘Whatever. Thought you liked me,’ and ambled off, presumably in search of an easier conquest.
            Anya sniffed. Men didn’t care how she saw the world. It was too much trouble for them to work her out. None had passed her test. After her divorce she'd decided to check for compatibility instead of rushing into a new relationship based on attraction, although good looks still mattered, of course. Compatibility didn't necessarily mean a man with the same quirks as her. Just an interest in her quirks would do; she craved the undivided attention of one good man. So many were wrapped up in themselves. Her little test would save heartache and wasted time. It was fool proof.
            ‘Cheer up.’ A kind voice. ‘I’m Dave.’
            Wary smiles were followed by chatting and laughter and then Dave gently touched her arm. She liked it. He wasn’t exactly handsome, and his hair was streaked blond and ginger. Three and two together. Not her usual type. Still, she’d test him. ‘My number’s blue, orange, black, green, green, red.’
            She thought he muttered ‘Finicky mare,’ but his words were swallowed up by raucous laughter nearby. Then he leaned closer and said, ‘Your dress is a lovely shade of…’ He paused, grinning. ‘Seven.’
            She gasped. ‘To me it’s four. You have synaesthesia too?’ Here was Mr Perfect! ‘Let’s compare notes.’
            ‘Love to.’ He checked his watch. ‘Must dash. Call me. Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, custard, brandy, coconut…’
            She cried, ‘I don’t know those. Wait!’ But he’d blended back into the crowd.

 About the Author

Read more about the author on the her website: Link