We had to go up to the old Heasman place. No choice. It was one of those inevitabilities of life. Of our lives. Me, Dave, Tim, and Kevin. We were old enough, almost drunk enough. Scared? Not really. Not at first.
Back in August we’d camped out in the grounds of the abandoned manor, told and retold ghost stories, and made-up new ones. We broke in and poked around through dusty halls and empty rooms. We left footprints and took away small souvenirs.
Tim found a dead bumble bee at rest in an old matchbox. Kevin discovered a faded postage stamp, second class. Dave pretended to eat spider’s webs. He didn’t want anything from the old house.
‘It’s all dead people’s stuff,’ he said, ‘got enough of that at home.’
I coveted Tim’s bee in its tiny coffin.
He took it with him to his first term at university. We’d all gone our separate ways that Autumn. Kevin was doing engineering at Uni, I was at catering college and Dave wouldn’t say what he was up to, not ever.
But we were all back together again in time for Christmas. Tonight, was the Winter Solstice. It should have been the deepest darkest night of the year, but the full moon and clear sky were making a mockery of that. Beside the lane that led from the village to the old Heasman place were field upon field of sparkling frosted grass, glistening like a million knives.
Above our heads the firmament shone down upon our adventure. Our mood was hot. The air was thawing about us. Bottles of strong farm cider clinked together in our carrier bags. I felt very festive. Tim was trying to sing us a new rugby song he had learned, but it was too rude, and he could hardly speak for laughing. He had too much cider in him already but sobered up when we reached the rusted iron gates.
We fell silent for a long, pregnant moment.
‘What’s up?’ said Kevin.
‘New lock and chain,’ said Dave.
‘I suppose that’s it then?’ said Tim.
‘You know what I think?’ I said, ‘I’d say that’s an invitation.’
‘No way,’ said Tim.
Kevin the engineering undergraduate rattled the shiny new chain. It was loose and he was able to ease the gates apart enough to squeeze through. He stood and looked back at the three of us.
‘Coming or not?’ he said.
Dave wasted no time in following. I went next, me, the fat kid, destined only to get bigger over the years. I squeezed through, pushing the breath out of my lungs. Tim hesitated.
‘Come on Tim,’ said Dave, ‘don’t be a Christmas baby.’
‘Shut up Dave,’ Tim had lost his good humour.
And then all four of us had passed through the portal. We had arrived, here, in our own private Kingdom of the Dead. There weren’t any Heasmans left. They were all long gone. Moved on, moved away, or buried next to the parish church.
Many years ago, when we were all at the village school we’d done a history project, a churchyard survey. Some of us had ancestors buried there. Well Dave and me. We were from a long line of the local peasantry. Tim and Kevin were incomers.
The Heasmans might have vanished, but they left a quarter of the cemetery full of expensive memorials. The weak local sandstone was already rotting, making most of them difficult to read. There was one small grave, well tended, that caught our attention, made us ask questions. It was one of the reasons we were here tonight.
We walked four abreast up the driveway, the full moon behind us to light our path. To our right was a burned-out stable block, to the left the gardens, drowned in a sea of bramble and willow. The thorns wrapped themselves around the trees, hanging like claws in the frozen air.
‘Our manor,’ said Dave, ‘we can do what we like here.’
‘I want to save up and buy it one day,’ said Kevin.
‘What for? To live in?’ said Tim.
‘No. I’d knock it down and build something new.’
‘Why wait?’ said Dave, ‘Bit of a push and it might drop tonight.’
We reached the front door. It hung open on exhausted hinges. A sign on the step said, ‘Private Property.’ We trampled it underfoot. Torches were required once inside. The full moon’s power did not extend far into the dark interior of the old house. It was damp with drifts of dust and rubbish in every corner.
There was a pile of rotten wood where the roof had fallen into the kitchen at the back of the house. We pulled out some dry pieces and built up a fire in the grand drawing room. Flickering oranges and yellows played along the walls, the windows silver blue in the moonlight.
We pulled two old chairs and a rat eaten sofa up close to the flames to feel the benefit, then opened our bottles and toasted our adventure.
‘To new beginnings,’ said Dave, ‘welcome to the world.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ said Tim, ‘What’s wrong with Happy Christmas?’
‘Nothing,’ said Dave, ‘Merry Christmas, Christmas baby.’
‘Right,’ Tim stood up, ‘I’m not having it.’
‘Leave if you want to, big man.’ Dave grinned up at him.
‘Cake? I’ve made us all some cake,’ I said. Fat-boy to the rescue. It had an effect. Tim sat back down. Kevin looked relieved and reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle of whiskey.
‘Who wants a draw on a man’s drink?’ he said.
‘Well now,’ said Dave, ‘this is much more like it.’
‘Mmpff, ‘I agreed through a mouthful of Victoria sponge.
Kevin undid the bottle, and we passed it around. It burned as it went down, warming my insides.
I thought about how nice the manor must have been once upon a time, before the old family’s gravestones began piling up in the village. Before that last, tiny memorial with the single date marking the Winter Solstice was set amongst the crumbling stones.