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  • Liza Stirlinglass

Diversion - A Christmas Story Part Nine

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

As the train picked up speed towards Birmingham Elaine listened to the other passenger tell her the story about the destruction of the Abbey of The Sisters of Mercy and Martha, a local healer and midwife who, along with seventeen of the sisters was burned at the stake outside the abbey, before the building was torn down. According to legend Martha’s body was seen to rise from the fire intact. Later a figure wearing a cloak was seen walking away from the village, disappearing into the woods. The men who were dispatched to find her all disappeared, their horses returned riderless to the village. The men were never seen again. Since then there have been numerous reports and legends about a cloaked woman with a silver plait who appears to travellers in need of help in the vicinity of Ashcroft. Reported sightings of the sisters and the sound of their singing happen about four times a year, around the solstice, before or afterwards. but Martha appears throughout the year, without the sisters.

“But the drink, it was hot, that really happened.”

“You and I know that dear, we two saw her, and some others may have done, but most everybody else will think you made it up, that it was a dream, or worse, that you’re crazy. But remember how cold we all were until she came? It made a difference didn’t it, what she gave us?”

“Well, yes now you come to say that, I hadn’t connected it before. Just like…” Elaine’s voice trailed off.

“Just like what? Have you seen them before, the spirit people?”

Elaine nodded, “Well I think maybe, I was young, about eight I think. My mother had fallen downstairs, there had been a power outage and I had the torch. I stupidly moved the light from the steps before she was down and she stumbled, twisting her ankle as she fell, she was carrying my baby brother. I was terrified that I had hurt her and the baby.”

“What did you see?”

“I don’t know, my mum told me I had made it up. I thought I saw a woman in a grey dress, she had long hair and she was carrying roses. I almost thought I smelled them. She just stood there over my mum and then she was gone. But almost immediately after she disappeared mum got up and the baby was fine. I haven’t thought about that memory until now.” Elaine shuddered. “It makes me feel weird.”

“Yes, but perhaps you have a gift. I will give you my card, and if you like, after Christmas we talk again.”

Elaine hesitated, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to find out anymore, or start seeing spirit people as the other passenger had called them. But she returned with her card, Elaine accepted it partly out of politeness and partly because she was curious. She didn’t have to decide now after all.

“Thanks. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you too. I hope your mother is alright when you get home.”

Elaine felt startled and turned away. The passenger returned to her seat. How did she know about her mother? Elaine hadn’t said anything about where she was going, or who she was seeing. She closed her eyes, willing the train to arrive at Birmingham in time for a connection to Newcastle.

When the train finally pulled into the station Elaine and the other passengers helped Khadir and Amira with all the parcels. Their aunt was waiting on the platform. She looked overjoyed as she ran towards them. Throwing covid caution to the wind she swept them up in her arms, and the three of them, with the tiny newborn in the middle stood embracing each other. Elaine caught Khadir’s eye as she moved away from the spectacle of love and reunion.

“Thank you” he called over to her.

“Good luck” she shouted back.

She made her connection with seconds to spare, it was a later train than the one she had booked but the guard let her on. “Last one tonight” he said, “Later one is cancelled. No staff.”

Elaine nodded. “They’re sick?” she asked.

“So they say,” he grinned.

Elaine checked her watch, it would be after midnight before she arrived. She would get a taxi, it was too late to ask Barbara to pick her up. By the time the train arrived in Newcastle Elaine felt worn out, she was starving too. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, except for the mince pie and a packet of crisps someone had shared with her. The taxi stance was empty, there was already a queue and the snow was falling again. The sky was thick with it. White Christmas she thought. Could this journey get any longer she wondered, regretting refusing her sister’s offer to pick her up, despite the lateness of the hour. As she stood at the back of the queue her phone rang, it was Mark.

“Hi Elaine, are you in Newcastle yet, sorry I just realised the time, is it too late?”

“No, it’s fine. I have just arrived, I’m waiting for a taxi.What’s up, is it your mum.?”

“Yeah, she’s definitely missing.”

“What!”

“Well, the police went to the house, and they talked to Lee. He is okay by the way, still on the meds they were giving him at the prison. Apparently when my aunt died it was my mum who took over the weekly visits. She was a nurse and realised how wrong everyone had been about Lee once the prison started treating him. They've clearly become very close. But when Lee was released last month he realised it was now my mum who needed his help. Mum has dementia, I didn’t know. It’s early days, but Lee said she was getting confused about Christmas, kept saying they needed to get ready to visit his mother, her sister, who is dead.”

“But if she lives in her sisters house, where else could she have gone?”

“Well that’s just it. Apparently mum was there in the house when your sister went there. Lee said he didn't know who she was, in case your sister was a social worker. He said he was scared they would think he couldn't look after her. But later on, Mum went out without Lee realising. He hasn’t seen her since.”

“Okay Mark. The police are looking for her though, right?”

“Yeah, I gave them all the information I could think of.”

“Look, text me the information about who you were speaking to. I’ll see if there’s anything I can do to help. Is Lee OK?”

“Well the police say he was fine, but he was obviously upset when I spoke with him, he blames himself.”

“I’ll go and see him in the morning if you think that’s a good idea.”

“Thanks Elaine, I would really appreciate that. And, sorry, you must be exhausted.”

“Yes, and hungry too. But I’m almost home, one more person ahead of me and then I’ll be in a cab. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

“Night Elaine. Sweet dreams.”

Elaine climbed into the back of the taxi, sweet dreams, yes that would be nice she thought, but her head was spinning. So much had happened since she left Cardiff, she wasn’t sure she would be able to really sleep at all. And what about her mum, She would be sleeping now, but how would she be in the morning, when Elaine saw her for the first time since last Christmas.


Join us on Monday 8pm on Zoom for the final part plus readings of the whole story by the community who helped create the narrative.

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