tagErotic HorrorMidnight Mince Pies

Midnight Mince Pies

byoggbashan©

Midnight Mince Pies

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Copyright Oggbashan November 2017

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.


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In my hotel room I heard the phone slammed down at the other end. Did that mean I was no longer engaged to Sophie?

It was Christmas Eve. I had been sent to South Devon by my employers to assess the possibilities of a holiday development they might finance. My work should have been finished two days ago. I was staying in a seaside hotel just called The Manor House. I should have been back in Birmingham for Christmas with Sophie and her parents.

She had plans for the Christmas break. We were going to the Midnight service at the village church with her parents, staying with them on Christmas Day, and going to Sophie's apartment on Boxing Day for a few days alone together. But it wasn't going to happen.

The first delay had been caused by the developer's chairman. I needed to discuss with him exactly what they proposed, what finance they would need, and how long the scheme would take from now to completion. But he had been in Malaga when I arrived in South Devon. He had intended to fly into Exeter airport four days ago. An air traffic controllers' strike in Europe had grounded his flight so he changed to come back by ferry and train, arriving yesterday. But storms in The Channel had cancelled all ferry crossings. Trains through Eurotunnel were fully booked until after Christmas. He was stranded in Lille, and would be until several days after Boxing Day.

If I had known earlier that he was stranded I could have gone to Birmingham for Christmas, returning when he arrived here. But his secretary didn't tell me that he wouldn't get back until yesterday evening. That would still have left me just enough time to drive to Birmingham today. I hadn't spoken to Sophie as often as I wanted to. My mobile phone didn't have a reliable signal. I had been using the hotel's landline and every call would be added to my account.

This morning, after breakfast in the hotel, I packed my holdall and went to reception to check out. The receptionist looked embarrassed.

"Mr Andrews?"

I nodded.

"There's been an accident to your car..."

It took a few minutes to get the details because she had been only told the bare fact that there had been an accident. A hotel vehicle had reversed into my parked car. The front was pushed in and the coolant was spread all over the ground. My car was immobilised. The receptionist had been told to arrange a hire car for me. She had been trying for two hours and couldn't find any hire cars available within a twenty mile radius until after Christmas.

The hotel manager apologised profusely. The hotel would arrange for the repair of my car at their cost, and I could stay free of charge including all meals until the car was repaired. I suspected that something wasn't quite right about the explanation. I probed until he admitted that the driver had left his four-year-old son alone in the cab for a couple of minutes. The four-year-old had apparently released the handbrake and the vehicle had rolled back into my car. They weren't sure whether their insurance company would cover the damage. But there would be no cost to me.

I went out to look at the damage to my car. It would need a new radiator and front panel. That wouldn't be difficult except that it was Christmas. As I went back inside I could see another dark band of cloud approaching from the South West.

It was a nuisance. I was stuck in a remote seaside part of South Devon over Christmas. But when I telephoned Sophie to tell her what had happened she was very angry. She said things that she shouldn't and made it clear that everything was my fault. If I couldn't get to my girlfriend for Christmas, I didn't deserve to have a girlfriend. She slammed the phone down.

I hadn't been able to explain that the weather in South Devon was atrocious. The storm that had stopped ferries across the Channel had also stopped trains from here to Exeter because the line had been breached near Dawlish. I had no car, no train service, and no way of getting to Birmingham today. I took my holdall back upstairs before coming back downstairs to have a strong black coffee in the bar.

Through the windows I could see the angry sea covered in white horses. The tide was still fairly low but when it would be high around lunchtime and again close to midnight. The midnight tide would be one of the highest this month. As I watched the first rain squall came rushing across the sea before turning the windows into streaming waterfalls. Although I was upset that Sophie had been so unreasonable I was almost pleased that I wouldn't be driving in the appalling weather.

One of the factors I had to consider about the holiday development was road access. I had taken the opportunity given me by the Chairman's delayed return from Spain to drive around the local roads near the site. They were narrow and lined by stone walls. I had timed the trip from the site to the nearest major road. It had taken twenty minutes of careful driving -- in December. In peak holiday season those roads would be jammed with traffic. Unless the local roads were to be improved I could see how people could get to the site.

There were several other people in the bar but most were off-duty hotel staff. I had spoken to several of them during my stay so far. They all knew about the proposed development. The most consistent view had been the same as mine. Road access was critical.

The hotel manager came into the bar. He clapped his hands for attention.

"I'm sorry," he said loudly. "Anne has just come back. There's been a landslide across Chapel Lane. It's completely blocked with tons of earth, stone and fallen trees. We're stuck here, all of us, until the road can be cleared. I've reported to the Highway Authority. They will come when they can but we're not high priority because several more major roads are blocked too. The only other way in or out might have been the seaside footpath. The coastguard closed that after damage during the last high tide. They're expecting cliff falls."

He answered some of the staff's questions but it was obvious he had told us all he knew. Most of the staff got out their mobile phones to ring friends and family. I went back to the bar for another coffee.

"What's the seaside footpath like?" I asked Mary, the woman serving coffee.

"I wouldn't recommend it in summer, James," she replied. "Some parts have been washed away and you have to walk on the narrow beach. Now? It would be suicidal. It's underwater in a normal high tide and the cliffs behind it are unstable. With the rain we've been having, cliff falls have probably blocked it, or if they haven't -- they will. Except for the few villagers like me, you're all stuck here. Your Christmas is ruined. So is ours. Our friends and relations can't get to us."

I remained standing at the bar watching the rest of the staff. For almost all of them whoever they were talking to seemed incredulous. The conversations were animated. Mary said something. I turned back to face her.

"What was that?" I asked.

"James, I said 'we should have been prepared'. We knew that Chapel Lane was vulnerable. Some of the trees had started leaning weeks ago. Unfortunately this part of Devon has had problems before with cliff falls, landslips and coastal erosion."

"How bad?" I asked.

"This hotel is all that is left of our original village. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, it is one hundred years to the day that the old village was overwhelmed by the sea. The high tide was in the early hours, sometime after midnight. The existing village was built after 1917. Most of the villagers had evacuated but the church collapsed. The Vicar and the small congregation of four people died. Since then we have seen the cliffs retreat another fifty yards. In another hundred years? This hotel will go too."

"Have you got any idea how long it might take to clear Chapel Lane, Mary?"

"Not yet. As in I don't know yet. Adam, one of the junior managers, has gone out on his motorcycle to have a look. When he gets back we'll know how bad the blockage is. Last time Chapel Lane was blocked was this February. Once the highways people arrived it was cleared in an hour. But now there are more important roads blocked and it's Christmas? Unless the village can clear it ourselves? Two days, three? We'll know more when Adam returns."

+++

I had ordered lunch before Adam returned. His leathers were covered in mud. He stood at the bar, dripping from the incessant rain.

"It's bad," he said bluntly. "Chapel Lane is blocked for thirty yards with tons of rock, earth and trees. The rainwater is running across like several streams bringing more down. Until it stops raining it would be a waste of time trying to start clearing. Two farmers were this side with their tractors fitted with buckets. They removed a few bucketfuls but the space they had made filled again in seconds. They've stopped trying."

"How about on foot?" someone asked.

"I tried. The whole hillside below Chapel Lane is impossible. It's moving. Above it? That's slipping downwards. As we know there is no way around except by climbing the cliffs. You know how unstable those are in this weather. I'm sorry. We're stuck until it stops raining and the clearance can start."

I ate my lunch looking out of the windows at the rain and the rough sea. The tide was high, not as high as it would be around midnight, but as I watched a large section of cliff rumbled downwards. My view was blurred because of the rain but the noise was unmistakable.

Mary came to peer out the window.

"That's it." She said. "The seaside path has gone. It's buried under hundreds of tons of mud. Even at low tide we wouldn't be able to get round that fall. I'm sorry, James. You're stuck here with us. You're the only guest in the hotel. We had three couples booked to arrive this afternoon for a quiet Christmas. They've been contacted and have accepted stays at another hotel in the chain. But I'll make sure you're looked after."

'Looked after?' What did Mary mean? My puzzlement must have been obvious.

"I'm not just the barmaid," Mary said. "I'm Mary Tiverton, part owner of this hotel. It was the family home until it became a hotel. The extended family still own it but we are associated with a chain for marketing. You are invited to the staff and family Christmas tomorrow. You'll accept?"

"I would be delighted, Mary," I said.

We talked about the local terrain and the loss of the village. We eventually started talking about ourselves. I told Mary about the phone call to Sophie. She told me she had recently dumped her boyfriend because he drank too much and would insist on driving after drinking. She'd given him an ultimatum in October -- stop drinking and driving or lose a girlfriend. He had promised to change but early in November he had been stopped by the Police, breathalysed and had been well over the limit. He would be in court in January and would probably lose his driving licence. But he had already lost Mary as a girlfriend.

+++

I spent the afternoon and early evening at a large table in the bar with copies of current and historic large scale Ordnance survey maps of the area. They attracted some interest from the stranded staff. They weren't a distraction. They gave me far more information about the locality than I could have obtained from the maps alone. Before 1917 Chapel Lane had been an unmade byway. The main access to the destroyed village had run between the hotel and the sea. That road had collapsed into the sea when the village went. Chapel Lane had been widened and surfaced after the First World War but it was still narrow.

After the evening meal the rain had stopped. I stayed too long in the bar, drinking more than I should. Shortly after half-past eleven I walked outside the hotel to watch the rough sea nearly at high tide. I had put a waterproof anorak over my suit. It was spectacular, illuminated by the hotel car park's lights. I watched for about twenty minutes. I was about to go back inside when I heard a church bell. It must be summoning the congregation for the Christmas Eve midnight service. I was curious but sad. I should be in Birmingham at the midnight service with Sophie and her family. Idly I walked towards the sound of the bell.

About a hundred yards from the hotel I could see a faint light. As I got closer I could see it was a hurricane lantern hanging in the church porch. There were several people in the porch. Why not? I thought to myself. Why shouldn't I attend the midnight service here? I walked forward to join them.

An elderly vicar in full robes was standing beside the church door. At first I thought the other people must be the choir in long robes. As I got closer I wondered whether they were re-enacting the service of a hundred years ago. There were four women in long black skirts with short black capes on their upper bodies. All were wearing black hats held on their piled long hair with hat pins. As I walked into the porch I shed my anorak.

"Welcome, stranger," the vicar said. "Have you come to join us tonight?"

I nodded.

"Then we'll all go inside. The weather might not hold."

The four women were the whole congregation. The church was lit with a couple of dozen candles that flickered as the door was closed. The candles settled down. The nave of the church was still dimly lit. The Vicar went to the altar to light two large candles, then more candles on the pulpit and beside the lectern.

As he was lighting the candles the four women had bowed to the altar, crossed themselves, and sat down two on each side of the aisle in the front pews. I matched their actions before sitting two rows back. I put my anorak beside me.

The vicar came towards me.

"Stranger? We are so few tonight. Would you be willing to read one of the lessons? I'll mark it for you. It is Luke 2, verses 8 to 20."

"Yes, Vicar," I said. "If that's what you want."

"Thank you."

Perhaps it was because I had drunk too much but I sang the hymns and carols loudly. I know I have a reasonable baritone voice but I was much louder than the four women's voices. We were all singing a capella with no accompaniment.

The vicar beckoned me forward to read. Three of the women had already read passages about the nativity in gentle voices with a hint of Devon burr. I read as if I was addressing a full church instead of just five people. I emphasised verses 10 to 14:

"10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."

I could hear my voice thundering and echoing around the church as I read verse 14:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

I saw one of the women start to cry as I said the word 'peace'. The woman sitting beside her put out a hand to comfort her. I went on at a reduced volume to read the other verses. I stepped away from the lectern, turned towards the altar, bowed, and resumed my seat.

The vicar seemed stunned by my delivery. He stood at the altar steps as if frozen there. It was at least a minute before he announced the next hymn.

After the end of the service I turned to leave. One of the women gently put a hand on my arm.

"We have sherry and mince pies in the church room, stranger. Would you like to join us?"

"I would be delighted," I said. "thank you."

The church room was in an annexe of the church. It, unlike the church, was heated by a charcoal stove. There was a wooden table with six chairs in the middle of the room. The other furniture was several pews with their seats facing each other and piled with embroidered kneelers.

"Shall I introduce you?" The Vicar asked. "You are?"

"Mr Andrews. James Andrews," I said.

"I am Joshua Brent, Rector of this parish. Mrs Tremaine? This is James Andrews..."

He went through the formalities. The four women were Mrs Tremaine, Mrs Penworthy, Mrs Scales and Mrs Dart. All four women were young, probably mid 20s. Mrs Dart poured six small glasses of sweet sherry. Mrs Scales put a single mince pie on six plates. The sherry was awful. I had never tasted such a poor example. But the mince pie? That was a miracle. I had never had one with such a rich mix of flavours. I was worried that I would never enjoy a shop-bought mince pie again. They just couldn't match this one -- ever.

After eating his mince pie the Vicar made his excuses and left. I declined some more sherry but accepted a second mince pie.

"James? We've been formally introduced." Mrs Scales said. "But all four of us are called Susan."

"I'm delighted to meet four Susans," I replied.

"Where are you staying?" Susan Tremaine asked.

"At The Manor House," I said.

"Oh. With the Tivertons." Susan Tremaine seemed disappointed.

I had nodded, my mouth full of mince pie. The next question was a shock.

"What are you doing in the war?" Susan Dart asked.

"The War?" I said.

"Yes. The War." Susan Dart repeated. "All four of us are war widows. Our husbands died on the Western Front. That's why your reading of 'on earth, peace' made me cry. We long for peace but it will come too late for us. We've lost our men already. Having a young man like you here reminds us of the sacrifices we have made to this war."

"What is the date?" I asked. They looked at me as if I was mad.

"It's Christmas Eve, December 24th -- or rather it isn't. It's now Christmas Day, December 25th," Susan Tremaine said.

"And the year is 1917?" I said.

"Of course it is." Susan Dart said.

I sat down before my legs collapsed.

"What's wrong? Have you got a war wound?" Susan Scales asked.

I stared at them. They were dressed as they should be for 1917. Nothing in the candlelit church had given any hint that it wasn't 1917. Somehow I was in 1917, a hundred years from the hotel I had left an hour earlier.

Suddenly I remembered. I jumped to my feet.

"Out! We must get out!" I shouted.

"What's wrong?" one of them asked.

"If this is Christmas Day 1917 this church is about to fall into the sea -- now! Taking all of us with it. We must get out, up the hill, away from the village."

"How do you know, James?" Susan Tremaine asked.

"I'm not from 1917. I'm from a hundred years in the future, 2017. The village and this church were destroyed shortly after midnight. Only four people died -- you four."

Susan Scales laughed.

"If we are dead, a hundred years dead, how can we touch you? We can. I did -- in the church. Feel."

She pulled off her black glove and put her bare hand on mine. Her hand felt warm. The other three Susans matched her action. My two hands were held by four warm ones.

"I don't know how I can feel you, or how you can touch me. All I do know is that if this is 1917 it's too late..."

"Too late?" Susan Dart queried.

"Yes. When the church collapsed into the sea the records show that the Vicar and the congregation of four died in the church. The Vicar has gone. You are here. NOT in the church. Somehow you have all come back tonight, in 2017, as very solid people one hundred years after you died."

"So. We are ghosts. Or you are a man from the future. Either way it is impossible that we should be together. But we are. We are here." Susan Tremaine paused.

"We aren't solid 'people'. We are young women who have lost their men. And now, how we know not, we have a young gentleman with us. When you joined us in the church porch my thoughts weren't about religion or celebrating Christmas."

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