Uncle Jack was doing his Christmas turn. He had put on the red fez, grinned madly at his temporary audience, and said,
“Jus’ like that! Ha ha ha!”
Fat Sally from up the road clutched herself, wobbling and wheezing in merriment. Off came the fez, on went the big glasses, the children’s father was yanked from his chair, face clapped, hair tugged -
“You can’t see the join!”
A ripple of polite laughter.
Off with the specs; on with the tissue crown swiped from Auntie Joan, and the hastily-cleared table-cloth round his shoulders.
“My Husband and I ...”
“What is Uncle Jack doing ?” This was the first Christmas that Edward had been allowed to stay up. His chin and fingers were sticky with mince pies.
“He’s pretending to be other people,” said his sister through a large mouthful of Christmas cake.
“I don’t think he’s funny.”
“You’re not grown-up.”
“That lady with the black frock doesn’t think he’s funny.”
“She’s sad. She didn’t even pull a cracker,” said Eleanor. “Don’t stare, it’s rude!”
The woman by the wall noticed the two children looking at her from behind the tree and turned her head away. Their mother said something to her so quietly that no-one could hear and, with a brief nod, she slipped out of the door. They heard the rustle of a raincoat, then the front door shutting.
Next morning Uncle Jack slept in and came down too late for breakfast, holding his head.
“Uncle! Uncle! Uncle!” Jack winced under the enthusiastic onslaught, and Edward retired to his chair, puzzled, as his normally friendly uncle blundered unhappily over to the medicine cupboard and swigged back a handful of pills.
“You might as well go back to bed,” said his wife, helping her sister Margaret stack the dishwasher. “There are people coming at eleven for at least an hour. Unless you’d like to take Edward and Eleanor down to the park until lunchtime?”
“Not in this weather with my head! Going back to bed. Sorry kids. See you later, Joanie. My love to the ladies.”
At eleven o’clock a small group gathered on the front step and were ushered in by Margaret wearing her grey cardigan, which was very un-Christmassy, Edward thought. “Where’s Richard?” asked Mrs. Whatmough from next door.
“Gone down to the King’s Arms.”
“Bed, wouldn’t you know! We shouldn’t be disturbed. Do come in. I’ve put enough chairs around, and the kettle’s ready to go on for coffee when we’ve finished. Children! Off you go upstairs now and play with your presents. I need you to be very quiet, and there will be treats for you later on.”
Edward and Eleanor watched the women disappear into the living room. Among them was the sad lady in black, and another woman they hadn’t seen before, wearing a mauve scarf. What were they all doing here?
Obediently the children scuttled up the stairs and closed the bedroom door. Eleanor looked at Edward, shushed him, and opened the door again ever so, ever so quietly. When they were sure no-one was left in the hall they tiptoed down again, carefully skirting the squeaky treads, and Eleanor pressed her right eye to the living-room keyhole.
“What are they doing?” whispered Edward.
“The mauve lady ‘s talking to Mum and the others and they’re all holding hands round a candle with the curtains drawn.”
“Grown-ups don’t hold hands!”
“Ssshh! Sometimes they do. On marches. Don’t fidget. I’m trying to listen.”
“Thank you so much for coming, Mrs. Kerridge. We haven’t had a Circle here before, so we feel very honoured.” This was Mum speaking. “Do you want to begin?”
“Please. Make sure you are all comfortable, close your eyes, and I would like you each to visualise the most beautiful light you have ever seen, or could possibly imagine. If a prayer helps you, say your prayer in your mind as you sit silently in that glorious light.”
The room was completely quiet for so long that the children crouching by the door-jamb nearly gave up.
“I’m getting stiff,” said Edward - but very, very quietly.
“Oh! The mauve lady’s saying something!” Eleanor listened intently.
“Good morning, my friends.”
That wasn’t the mauve lady’s voice - but it seemed to be coming from her.
“Thank you for making me welcome. My name is Running Deer ... though I have had many lives and many names. I am Martha Kerridge’s Spirit Guide. You may ask me anything you wish, and I will do my best to enlighten you.”
“That’s not her voice!” said Eleanor under her breath. “It’s all deep and slow!”
“Is she pretending to be someone else like Uncle Jack?”
“I think so ... I don’t know. Nobody’s laughing. I don’t think it’s meant to be funny.”
Mum again - “Please can you tell us if anyone else has come to speak to us this morning?”
A pause, then, “Yes; I have someone with me. A man. He has recently passed over.”
There was a ripple of caught breath around the room.
“Do we have anyone here with the initials A. J.?”
Eleanor saw the sad lady’s eyes widen in the candle-light. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Do you know someone called Robert or Bob who used to be close to you? There’s a birthday - near the end of the year - October? November?”
“My husband. He was born on Fireworks Night.” Her voice trembled. “He was Bob to his friends but always Robert to me.”
“He is here to speak to you, Anna.”
“You know my name?”
“He has just told me. And he is holding out his hand to show you a ring you gave him. Not gold ... silver. With his initials on it. RWJ.”
The sad lady gasped.
“Hallo Anna! Yes, I’m really here.” The mauve lady’s voice had changed again to a rich, well-educated tenor.
“I’m absolutely fine. No more pain, no more disease. Death has been a release, and now I live in the Light with our parents and the many friends and relatives who have also passed from the world.”
“She’s being someone else again,” whispered Eleanor. “She’s not putting different things on; just talking differently. And the sad lady’s smiling now.”
“When will I join you, my darling?”
“When God decides it’s the right time. I know you have thought of hastening your end, but many people still need you here. Please be patient, dearest Anna. We will be together again one day, because love lasts forever.”
The sad lady was sobbing and smiling all at the same time. Eleanor couldn’t work this out at all. She certainly couldn’t explain it to Edward.
“I have to go now ...”
“Be patient. Talk to me whenever you want. I shall always be near you, listening. I love to hear your voice. And you may hear mine sometimes, just before you fall asleep, or just before you wake. Don’t be afraid; don’t feel lonely. We have always loved each other, you and I, and even death can’t keep us apart.”
“I love you!”
“I love you!”
Anna’s tears were shining in the candle-light. She raised a hand in farewell to the man she had shared her whole life with, and nursed through his lymphoma.
“It has been a privilege to bring you the knowledge and comfort you so sorely needed.”
This was the other voice, the Spirit Guide.
“I also have to go now. Martha will come back into her body after her peaceful sleep, I hope to speak with you all again.” The mauve lady smiled and nodded, then dropped her head a little before suddenly sitting up straight and exclaiming “Ah! Running Deer has been with you! Was his visit helpful?”
“Oh, Mrs. Kerridge!” said the children’s mother,”It was more wonderful than we ever expected! Thank you so much for coming today. Anna here has had a message that will stay with her forever.”
“Really? I am so glad.” Martha Kerridge took the slender hand Anna Jenkins held out to her and looked into her eyes. “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” she said, observing the tiny silver cross around her neck. “This may all be very strange to you, and you may wonder in the days to come whether you can trust what you heard this morning. All I can say is that I also love Jesus, and use this gift He has given me to bring what joy I can. Yes, there are charlatans; I am not one of them.”
“God bless you. Martha Kerridge,” said Anna.
The children never told their mother what they overheard that morning before scuttling back upstairs. They invented a game of Sad Ladies and took turns at speaking in strange voices to small friends holding hands. Anyone who giggled wasn’t allowed back. Edward got confused and insisted on wearing odd hats and spectacles. Once a week their mother would disappear to meet her friends.
Then there was the crash.
Old Mrs Whatmough invited Eleanor and Edward round for coffee.