School was over, not just for the day, or the week, but the term. It was officially the Christmas holidays. Clyde Langer stepped out through the school gate and very theatrically and deliberately took a deep breath of the cold air as if it tasted different on that side of the gate. Luke missed the point, as usual. School, for him, was less of a chore to be endured and more of an exciting educational challenge to be savoured. Luke wasn’t a normal boy in so many ways!
Rani understood, though. For her, school was doubly binding, with her father, the headmaster, always present,
“The assembly was good, though,” she admitted. “Dad in a Santa hat! I never thought I’d see THAT! It won’t last. He’ll be back to old misery guts next term.”
“I... really don’t think I’ll mind,” Clyde admitted. “Mr Chandra... in all his grumpy moods... I think... you know...”
He stopped talking and gathered his thoughts. He was glad nobody else was listening except his two closest friends and confidants. Anyone else would think he’d gone soft.
“We’re sixteen. It’s all coming to an end. This... this was our last school Christmas assembly. This Christmas is our last Christmas as kids. This time next year, we’ll have done our O’levels, you and me, Rani, we’ll be at sixth form college. You’ll be fast tracked to university, Luke. It’ll all be different. This Christmas... it’s special because we won’t have another one like it, ever...”
Luke didn’t completely understand that, either. This was only the third Christmas of his life, anyway, since he was born aged thirteen. Again, it was Rani who really got it.
“We might have better Christmases in the future,” she suggested.
“Even if we do, they won’t be this Christmas,” Clyde pointed out. “So... let’s just... make the most of every minute of it. We take NOTHING for granted from this moment on. Agreed?”
“Totally agreed,” the other two said in unison. Then they spotted Sarah Jane’s lime-green Figaro pulling up at the kerb. That could only mean one thing. Something was happening that couldn’t wait until they reached Bannerman road. They ran to the car, the two boys climbing into the back, taking care not to kick K9 who was hunkered in the narrow footspace. Rani gracefully fastened her seatbelt in the front passenger seat.
“What’s going down, mum?” Luke asked. Clyde nodded in satisfaction. The boy wonder was finally starting to talk like a normal teenager.
“Increased energy readings at Willow Chase,” Sarah Jane answered. “Mr Smith has been monitoring it ever since Halloween, and over the past week there have been erratic spikes. Now it’s going off the scale again. Rani, are you all right to come with us?”
“The ban was specifically about Halloween,” she replied. “Dad hasn’t said I can’t go there any other time. Should be ok. Do you think it will be dangerous?”
“I’m not sure what it is,” Sarah Jane admitted. “Mr Smith can only do so much remotely. The rest is old-fashioned investigation.”
“You mean you want a nosy around, mum,” Luke pointed out.
“Thing to remember in your future career, Rani,” Sarah Jane said with a smile. “There is a fine distinction between being nosy and chasing a story. Knowing when to cross that line is what sorts the tabloid hacks from the award winning investigative journalist. The same rule applies to checking out odd goings on in old houses with a history of odd goings on in them.”
Rani laughed and mentally filed Sarah Jane’s words under useful career advice.
“Mr Smith reports energy readings at Willow Chase are levelling off. Meisson levels are constant at two hundred per cent above normal. Gamma radiation is one hundred and twenty per cent above average background level...”
K9 reeled off a half a dozen more readings that even Luke, science genius, didn’t fully understand the significance of, except that something unusual was happening at Willow Chase.
The big wrought iron gate was locked, of course. A representative from Waring and Kemp, the estate agent whose sign was fixed beside the gate, had secured the property after a group of school children had invaded it on Halloween night.
Sarah Jane sent Rani with the slimline sonic screwdriver that had replaced her old sonic lipstick to deal with the padlock. She slipped back into the car and they carried on down the tree-lined driveway that hid the house from view until they were almost upon it. Rani commented that it was common for eighteenth century gardens to be planned that way, keeping the house as a kind of hidden secret to be revealed at the end of the journey.
“Saturday afternoons with mum, visiting historical gardens and looking at two hundred year old flower beds,” she added wryly. Then she looked up at the house. She hadn’t seen it properly before. She noted that it was a sprawling grey-stone mansion with lots of windows, all shuttered and blank. The gabled roof was crowned with a huge chimney breast with at least a dozen pots.
It looked a little foreboding in the failing light of a December afternoon with no lights anywhere. Rani wondered what it must have been like when people lived there and all the windows were warmly lit with welcoming yellow-orange light. It would have been nice, then.
“I wonder which one Father Christmas thought he should go down,” she said with a giggle.
“Tough call. But plenty of roof space to park the sleigh,” Clyde said, joining in the joke before getting serious. “It looks normal,” he added. “Last time there was all that weird light.”
“Mr Smith confirms,” K9 said. “Energy levels still high but stable.”
“Well... we have two choices,” Sarah Jane said. “We either go in and have a closer look, even though it might be a bit dangerous, or we drive away right now and leave it alone.”
“What, chicken out before we’ve even had a look?” Clyde exclaimed. “No way!”
“I’d be a terrible investigative journalist if I didn’t investigate,” Rani pointed out.
“Then we’re going in,” Sarah Jane decided, handing out strong torches to everyone. “Luke, Clyde, help K9 out of the car.
The two boys did so. They had to lift him again at the steps leading up to the front door.
“Next time The Doctor drops round, get him to give K9 a hover conversion,” Clyde suggested. Sarah Jane laughed softly at the idea as she unlocked the door with the same sonic screwdriver mode as before. They stepped over the threshold into Willow Chase’s dark, shadowy hallway. Sarah Jane turned on a torch and shone it around the room, highlighting a grandfather clock that hadn’t been wound for decades and a big mirror covered in grime with a tarnished silver frame that once must have sparkled as it reflected back the light from an equally grime-covered chandelier. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the room so much warmer and brighter and the house full of life.
“K9, how are those energy levels?” Luke asked.
“They are still high but appear to be stable,” K9 replied. “Mr Smith does not detect any spikes or troughs.”
“Well,” Sarah Jane said. “None of those traces are harmful in themselves. But I don’t think we should stay long. Perhaps we should split up and search for anything unusual. Luke, you stay with K9 on the ground floor. Rani, Clyde, you go to the kitchen and the servants quarters down the back stairs. I’ll check out the cellar and then the upstairs rooms.”
The torchlight made the shadows deep. Splitting up was not a particularly tempting idea. But nobody wanted to be the first one to admit that they were scared. They checked that their own torches were working and then went their separate ways.
Clyde and Rani went down the passage at the side of the wide staircase. Through a door there was no more faded carpet, but a stone-flagged passageway. There were four steps down then another piece of corridor with doors leading off from it. Most were small with only a tiny shuttered window. They looked like they might be storerooms for food. One was a walk in cupboard that still contained whole sets of china. Not the sort of set they had at home. These were settings for at least twenty people, with different sized plates and bowls, cups and saucers, gravy boats, tureens, massive serving plates for a joint of meat and dishes for vegetables.
“Wow,” Rani commented. “How come all this stuff got left behind when the people moved out?”
“Dunno,” Clyde replied. “Must be worth a fortune. It’s proper expensive china, not the stuff you can get for twenty quid at Argos.”
They closed the door again and opened another one. This time there were shelves full of what must once have been beautifully laundered linen tableware. Rani picked up a lace cloth and it disintegrated in her hands. She was sorry for that, and when they found another cupboard with glassware in it she left well alone.
“The butler’s room,” Clyde said of a much bigger room with a large fireplace. “His own drawing room with a bedroom leading off it.” Rani looked at him quizzically. “My mum has the DVD box set of Upstairs Downstairs.” Rani still looked blank. “It was a programme made in the 1970s, all about people who lived in a big house at the start of the twentieth century – the nobs upstairs and the servants downstairs. Not that I watched, but the radiator was busted in my room and I had to do my homework in the living room, and I guess some of it sank in. The butler was like, the boss downstairs and had his own private rooms.”
They continued down the passage and down three more short flights of steps until they reached the kitchen. It was a huge room, bigger than any kitchen they had ever seen in a private house. There were cupboards fixed to one wall, much like in a modern fitted kitchen, but these were heavy, solid wood, not laminated fibreboard. All along one side was a huge kitchen range, rusty with age now, and probably useless. But it was easy to see how it would have served both as cooker and heater when it worked.
“I don’t see anything that shouldn’t be here,” Clyde said. “Do you think…”
Sarah Jane walked in and out of long deserted bedrooms that still gave clues about who had slept in them. The master bedroom was much bigger than all the others and the wood-worm infested remnants of a wooden bedstead was left in it. The other rooms were even emptier. One had nothing in it except a porcelain washbowl and jug.
The rooms that had been occupied by children were obvious. The former nursery had faded wallpaper like every other room, but it was still possible to recognise the Rupert Bear pattern. She guessed just how old the paper was. Rupert Bear was more than ninety years old as a character in strip cartoons in the Daily Express. But Rupert wallpaper probably didn’t go quite that far back. It might have been a little before or a little after World War II. Either way, the parents of the children who slept here had spent a lot of money on what would have been expensive wallpaper for the nursery.
“This must have been a happy home, once,” she thought to herself. She wondered why the family had left it. A house like this ought to have been passed down through the generations. Somebody ought to be living in it, still.
There didn’t seem to be anything else unusual about it, though. The strange energy readings that were registering on the LCD screen under the clock face of her extraterrestrial made wristwatch didn’t seem to be doing anything to the house.
Luke’s feet and K9’s wheels echoed strangely in the quiet, empty rooms on the ground floor. There was nothing in any of them but dust. If K9 didn’t have the blueprint of the house in his databank Luke wouldn’t have known that he had looked into the drawing room, the smoking room, the music room and the grand dining room.
The last room almost certainly lived up to its name once. It was a large oblong room with tall mirrors lining one long wall, all tarnished with age, now. Opposite were floor length windows that would have cast sunlight onto the mirrors making it a bright, cheerful room. The windows were shuttered, of course. Some of the panes were cracked.
There was a floor of once polished wood and a ceiling from which no less than four chandeliers hung, all dulled by dust and grime that had accumulated.
Luke was a super-intelligent boy. But if he lacked anything it was creative imagination. He couldn’t picture the room in his mind as it used to be when people lived here. He couldn’t imagine gay parties with women in elegant dresses and men in fine clothes to match. He couldn’t visualise those chandeliers shining like diamonds above the party. He saw it as it was now, decayed and forgotten, and that was all.
“It’s cold,” he observed. “I don’t see anything unusual here, though. Maybe the energy is benign. It could just be venting into the atmosphere.”
“Negative, master Luke,” K9 replied. “The energy is concentrated on this property. The house is the epicentre of the flux in temporal energy.”
“Even I don’t completely know what that means,” Luke told the robot dog.
“It means…” K9 began. Then his robot voice took on a new urgency. “Master Luke, danger. The energy levels are spiking again. Master Luke… we must escape from this house.”
“Not without mum and the others,” Luke argued. “K9… wait…”
“What....” Rani looked around at the kitchen and turned off her suddenly useless torch. “Clyde... I think we...”
“We’ve gone back in time!” Clyde said. “Look at this place!”
The kitchen wasn’t empty any more. In fact it was busier than any kitchen they had ever seen outside of their school kitchen. There were people preparing food all around two big wooden tables that took up all of the floor space in the middle. There was a whole pig and four huge birds roasting in the fireplace and pies being pulled from the oven. Food was being piled onto the huge serving dishes they had seen gathering dust in the cupboards.
“Excuse me,” Clyde said to a man in butler’s livery who passed them by. “I’m sorry to butt in like this. Only we’re...”
He stopped talking. The man walked straight past him. Rani stepped close to the table and tried to take a long handled spoon from a girl who was beating something in a large bowl. Her hand went straight through and the girl carried on as if she wasn’t even there.
“We’re not really here,” she said to Clyde. “We’re ghosts.”
“We can’t be. They must be the ghosts.”
“They look more real than us,” Rani pointed out. “They look like they belong here. We don’t.”
“It’s a sort of echo in time,” Clyde suggested. “We’re seeing how it must have looked years and years ago.”
“Centuries,” Rani decied. “I think, maybe, the 1800s. They look like the servant’s clothes in Jane Austen. This house was built in 1785. So that would be about right.”
As each dish was finished with careful garnishing, a footman or serving maid was ready to carry it out of the kitchen. A whole line of them went up the corridor with platters full of meat and steaming tureens of vegetables, a whole baked salmon and all sorts of delicious food. Clyde and Rani looked at each other and then followed them up through the stone flagged corridor to a grand room where a party was in full swing. The food was placed on a long table that already looked as if it was approaching maximum load. The party guests ate as they pleased. Some stood or sat around the edge of the room. Others danced on the wide polished wood floor to music played by a string quartet. The women were in pretty dresses straight out of the illustrations in the copy of Pride and Prejudice that Rani had been reading for English Literature. The men wore tight breeches and highly embroidered waistcoats and jackets. The dancing was very formal and polite.
“It’s a Christmas party,” Rani said. “Look at the decorations all around the room.” She pointed to the boughs of holly and vines of ivy around the mirrors that lined one wall opposite the curtained windows. There was more greenery all around the room. Here and there were splashes of colour where red apples or holly berries, or silk ribbons had been woven into the vines. It was pretty in an understated way, not like the glittery plastic streamers and decorations that everyone had in their own time.
“No tree,” Clyde noted. “Is it too early for that sort of thing in Britain? I think I read somewhere that Prince Albert started it up in Victorian times.”
“Actually, he just made Christmas Trees fashionable. They were around about fifty years before,” Rani answered. “Which must be about this time, but the people here haven’t gone for it. They do have a kissing ball, though.”
Rani pointed to an elaborate arrangement of greenery that hung in the middle of the ceiling. It was like a chandelier made of holly, ivy and mistletoe. Its purpose was plainly obvious. Every couple that danced under it kissed, from fresh-faced young lovers to an elderly pair who both wore white foundation to give the impression of a youthful complexion.
“Rani...” Clyde said, catching her hand. “Come and dance.”
“What?” She was surprised. Clyde didn’t even dance at school discos. He thought it was the height of uncool. Even so, he drew her onto the floor and held her at the waist. Neither of them were quite as precise or graceful as the dancers around them, but they tried to match them. Rani glanced at one of the mirrors as they passed and was a little disappointed to find that they didn’t have any reflection at all. She was managing to imagine herself in one of those fine dresses and Clyde looking like a black Colin Firth in breeches and waistcoat.
She looked away from the mirror and realised they were under the kissing ball. She caught her breath as Clyde adjusted his hold on her slightly and drew his face closer to hers.
Sarah Jane saw the fluctuation in the energy readings on her watch screen. A moment later she turned around and saw the room with the Rupert Bear wallpaper in a very different way.
The wallpaper was fresh and new. The clean, bright paper was softly lit by an electric nightlight on a cabinet between two beds. The light was inside a shade decorated with silhouette pictures of the Rupert Bear characters so that the shapes were cast around the room.
Rupert wasn’t the only decoration around the room. There were paper chains around the ceiling and a tiny Christmas tree on top of the dresser. At the bottom of the beds were two large knitted stockings - large enough to fit an elephant’s feet - in multi-coloured stripes. Beside them were two ordinary sized children’s socks.
There were two children, a boy and a girl, in the beds. They looked as if they were asleep.
The door opened softly. Sarah Jane was horrified for a long moment until she realised that the man who crept into the room couldn’t see her. She wasn’t really there. It was a kind of temporal echo.
The man had a sack with him. He quietly opened the sack and took out carefully wrapped gifts that he put into the large knitted stockings at the bottom of the two beds. Very soon the stockings were soon bulging. He put an apple, orange and a handful of nuts into the two socks next to the stockings as a final touch and then bent to kiss the faces of the children. Then he stepped out of the room as quietly as he had come in.
Sarah Jane watched as the children waited a few minutes before sitting up in their beds. They looked at the bulging stockings but the little girl told her brother they had to wait until morning for those. They looked in the socks and took the apples. They put on slippers and dressing gowns and munched their apples as they slipped out of the bedroom.
Sarah Jane followed them as they crept down the dimly lit stairs. They went to the door of the grand dining room where the man who had delivered the presents was host at an elegant dinner party for more than twenty guests. The room was decorated beautifully with paper chains and fresh greenery. A huge Christmas tree was at one end of the room, lit with fairy lights.
The children watched their father and mother at their dinner party for a long time. Sarah Jane watched with them. It was obviously a happy party with friends chatting among themselves. Then the man of the house stood and raised his glass to his guests.
“I want to thank you all for coming on this day. This Christmas, 1965, is a very special one because… it is the last we will be celebrating in this house. In the New Year we are moving to Australia. The business has not been doing as well as it should in the past few years. We have all had to tighten our belts. And this old house is too big for us to keep up. Over there, I’ve secured a good position in an established firm of accountants. There’s a lovely house on the outskirts of Sydney. It even has a swimming pool. The children will love it. So… my friends… I hope you will wish us well in the future as I wish you all a Merry Christmas.”
The children drew away from the door as the toast was echoed by the friends around the table. They crept back upstairs. Sarah Jane thought they looked surprised by the news, but excited, too. She heard them repeating the word ‘Australia’ as if it was one they were not yet familiar with. She heard the girl say ‘swimming pool’ and the boy observe that they would need to learn to swim. Then their bedroom door opened and closed and she could only presume that they were back in bed, now.
Luke gasped as he saw the dining room in a very different way. The room was decorated for Christmas, with streamers on the ceiling and a Christmas tree covered in baubles and tinsel and a star on top.
It was daylight. The windows were unshuttered. Outside the garden was covered in snow. There was a group of children in coats, hats and scarves building an army of snowmen out there. Inside, women were busy setting a long polished table. They were chatting happily as they worked.
“This is going to be a wonderful party for them,” said a middle-aged woman in a peach coloured dress and very carefully arranged hair and make up. “The first Christmas of peace. Some of the little ones have never known a time when there wasn’t a war on. They can’t get over the ideas that we can leave the curtains open and have light in the room after dark. It’s a pity food is still short. I wish we could put on the sort of spread we used to have before. But I’ve saved coupons and got as many treats as I can for them.”
“You’ve done wonders, Mrs Oakley,” said a younger woman who was wearing trousers and had her hair tied back in a headscarf. “The youngsters will appreciate it, I’m sure. It’s good of you to think of them.”
“There’s just me and Colonel Oakley here, now,” Mrs Oakley said with a resigned sigh. “Gina sent a Christmas card from Ohio. She’s settling down nicely there with her Joe. I never quite pictured my only daughter marrying an American soldier and going off with him. But she’s happy. And giving a party for the children… so many orphans left without family or home… it’s the least I can do for them.”
Luke watched her place paper plates with wobbling red jelly at each place while the girl in the trousers put a paper cracker beside the plates. Another woman filled paper cups with orange juice. Plates of thinly cut sandwiches and mince pies were put in the middle of the table, along with other nice things to eat. Then when all was ready, Mrs Oakley went to one of the windows and opened it wide. She called to the children and told them to come on inside, now. They left their snowman building and there was soon the sound of cheerful chatter in the hall while they took off their outdoor clothes. They trooped into the dining room, looking flushed and excited from their snow fun, only to have their eyes opened wide at the sight of the party food. They took their seats at the table and waited until Mrs Oakley told them it was all right to start eating.
It got dark outside while they were enjoying the food. But the curtains stayed open. The light from the chandeliers reflected in the mirrors on one wall and the windows on the other. The children glanced at the windows often, as if the very idea of an uncurtained window surprised and excited them.
“Eat up, children,” Mrs Oakley said. “There’s plenty for everyone. And afterwards, we’ve got games and prizes.”
Luke was curious to know what games they might play after their party tea. He hadn’t been to very many Christmas parties and he was interested. But he never found out. K9’s metallic voice warned him that the energy levels were changing again, and he found himself in darkness. He turned on his torch and it illuminated Rani and Clyde standing in the middle of the room very close to each other. They both looked around at him and then looked up at the ceiling directly above them as if something was missing.
Then another torch beam crossed his. Sarah Jane stepped into the dining room.
“Is everyone all right?” she asked. “Did you...”
For a few minutes while they were all talking at once it was impossible to understand a word. Then Sarah Jane told her story of seeing a past Christmas at Willow Chase. Rani and Clyde told theirs, and then Luke. K9 claimed that he had seen and heard nothing. Luke had been standing in an empty room.
“But THAT proves something happened,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “Because K9 didn’t see Clyde and Rani in the room until the energy dissipated. He only saw Luke.”
“So what happened?” Clyde asked. “Did we really travel in time? They couldn’t see us. We could only watch.”
“I think...” Sarah Jane began. Then she shook her head. “I really don’t know what happened or how. But I do know that it was... well... rather wonderful. We saw three different times when the former occupants of this house had a good Christmas. Neither they nor us were in the slightest danger. It was really rather pleasant.”
Everyone agreed. They had all seen a happy slice of the past.
“The energy has completely died down,” Sarah Jane added, looking at her watch. K9 confirmed it. “All normal. I think it will be all right now. We can go home.”
They walked through the quiet, echoing house and out into the cold December evening. Sarah Jane promised to stop for pizza on the way home.
“One thing I don’t understand,” Luke said as they shared their historical Christmas experiences in the car. “Clyde, what were you and Rani doing when I saw you?”
Rani shifted in her seat. Sarah Jane glanced at her and said nothing.
“Luke, for a genetically enhanced boy genius, you can be pretty thick, sometimes,” Clyde answered. “What do you think we were doing?”
Luke was puzzled for a few seconds. Then he looked at his friend and realisation dawned.
“Oh!” he said.
Sarah Jane stopped the car outside Pizza Hut. She asked them what kind of pizza they wanted. She asked Luke to come into the shop with her. It would, she thought, give Clyde and Rani time to decide how they would handle questions like that when they came up again.