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The Gift

by Cornelia 

Posted: 13 September 2010
Word Count: 1969
Summary: A lght-heated ghost story with a sea-side setting

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It was not the first time Mary had fallen victim to her daughter’s bossy streak. Once Rosie had you in her sights you might as well give up.

When she’d first suggested the outing, Mary protested that coaches made her travel sick.

‘Mum, I’m talking Canterbury, not California. You’ll be there in just over an hour. It has bags of atmosphere from all that history. And French women can’t get enough of the shops –they come flocking over from Calais.’

Catching sight of her father’s scowl, Rosie added ‘The coach calls at Whitstable on your way back, so you can enjoy a seaside stroll. You know you’ll love it when you’re there.’

As far as Mary was concerned she’d like it even more if she could stay at home. It was just that time of year when the garden seemed to wait for her to turn her back to sprout some new weeds. Her husband Len was perfectly happy with his bowls fixtures and darts matches. If they felt like a change, there was always Southend

‘Rosie, it’s really nice of you, dear, but you’ve had such a lot of expenses lately, what with Tracy starting her new school and Jamie’s games kit.’

‘I told you, mum; Derek got the voucher from the paper.’

She began to read aloud: ’Bargain Break’ includes a night at a hotel and an optional tour of the city.’ We’d like you to have it as our treat – call it an early birthday present, if you like.’

Mary decided to try for a last-minute reprieve:she’d consult Madame Melinda at the next gathering.

All the bake-house friends relied on Madame Melinda in times of trouble – she undoubtedly had ‘the gift’. Even Rosie would think twice if Madame Melinda said no.

Madame Melinda wasn’t her real name, but it suited her, especially when she and her former colleagues met in her parlour on the third Thursday of every month. It was then they relived those afternoon tea-breaks in the bake-house, when shadows deepened behind the ovens.

Since retiring, Melinda indulged her taste for silk kaftans and silver bracelets. Regular bursts of jasmine from a plug-in dispenser on the skirting board added a touch of the exotic. The friends gathered round her chenille-draped table in the bay window: 'cool-hands' pastrycook Lucy, Elsie whose sponges almost floated away, Irene the expert cake-icer, and Mary. Mary had no special talent.

Slowly raising and lowering her arms, Melinda signalled the start of the session. Her voice deepened. ‘I want you all to concentrate. Now, who’s going to produce the first object?’

‘Touch and Know’ was Mary’s least favourite of all Melinda’s routines, worse even than ‘Dream-Analysis’ and ‘Contacting the Other Side’. Her slumbers were undisturbed, except for Len’s occasional snoring. As deceased relatives who’d hadn't even bothered with postcards when alive, they'd no wish to get in contact now.

As for ‘Touch and Know’, a thing was a thing, as far as Mary was concerned, whether it was an antique egg-timer or a saucer with ‘A Present from Bournemouth’ painted round the edge.

Before Melinda could get started with Irene’s cat-collar, Mary suggested a Tarot reading, to resolve an urgent problem. Rosie might relent if the cards predicted a negative outcome to the proposed trip.

Melinda took a deep breath and lifted her gaze from the red leather circle lying in the middle of the table. Irene’s cat went missing at least once a fortnight. Melinda glanced at the hotel brochure Mary pushed towards her.

But as soon as she saw the picture of the half- timbered hotel and the caption underneath, she said there was no need for Tarot cards.

‘Over six hundred years of hospitality’. Her eyes gleamed and she began feverishly turning the pages. She even told Irene to turn off the dimmer on the lamp above the table.

‘15th century coaching inn…..near the ancient Westgate tower… steeped in history…atmospheric wooden beams …secluded courtyard… old world charm.’

‘Mary, what a wonderful opportunity. Why, a place with such a long history is bound to be haunted. They can’t say outright in the brochure, of course, but it's obvious'

‘Len thought it might be a bit draughty’, mumbled Mary.

Melinda raised her head from the brochure and gave her a sharp look. Then, ear-rings clashing as she took in the details, she read on, fascinated.

‘Mary, it’s perfect. If you don’t sense a presence in a place like that, you never will. Of course you must go, and tell us all about it afterwards.'

So, three weeks later, Mary and Len were strolling happily by the sea at Whitstable.

They’d had a lovely time in Canterbury the day before. Rosie was right about the shops, and they’d enjoyed listening to stories while looking at life-sized medieval figures in an old church.

All the same, Mary felt a twinge of guilt. Instead of a haunted room in the ancient inn, she and Len had been housed in a modern annexe, smelling of pinewood and new carpets. It wasn’t even slightly spooky. They’d enjoyed a good night’s sleep and a huge breakfast. What would she say at Madame Melinda's next session?

Whitstable, at least, had kept the feel of a Victorian resort. It had tall black fish-smoking sheds and little boats in rows along the shingle. Wooden sea-breaks sheltered families eating sandwiches and children stepped across the pebbles to the gentle waves.

Most of the coach party had gone to lunch at a restaurant overlooking the tiny harbour, but Len and Mary opted for a walk. Seagulls swooped overhead and youngsters jumped into the path of the advancing waves, screaming as the icy water washed over their toes.

Mary suddenly noticed a young girl, taller than the rest, looking for something among the stones by one of the wooden sea-breaks. Her cries of anguish could be heard from the path.

‘Wait here a moment, Len’, she said, and before he could stop her she set off across the shingle towards the girl.

As she came nearer Mary saw the girl was hampered by a long skirt which blew against her legs and an odd-shaped sunhat she held onto with one hand.

‘Have you lost something, dear?’ Mary asked, steadying herself with a hand on the timbers. She planted her feet firmly in the stones. The girl looked up at her

‘It’s the precious brooch’, she said, tears spilling down her cheeks. There was panic in her voice. ‘I must have dropped it. If her ladyship thinks I've stolen it, I'll be dismissed without a character, and then what will happen to me?’

The girl's whole manner suggested desperation. No doubt she was employed at one of the local B&B’s, although it was strange way to to talk of her boss. She seemed altogether a bit odd.

‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ll help you look’, said Mary. From the way the girl darted about it was clear she would never find it by herself. It must have slipped somehow between the pebbles.

Just then a clear patch of water with a foamy edge washed over an object a few feet away. It looked like a stone encrusted with barnacles, except that it glinted in the sunlight. Mary stumbled forward before the next ripple could dislodge it and carry it away.

‘Look!’ She took a few steps and picked up a heavy marcasite brooch studded with dull red and green stones. Taking a tissue from her bag, she wiped it dry. It was truly magnificent, shining green and red in her hand.

Holding the brooch, Mary turned round, but was surprised to see the beach behind her was quite deserted. Len was waving from the concrete path at the top of the beach. Mary placed the brooch in her bag and made her way back to him.

‘Did you see a girl in a long dress?’ There was no way, surely, that the girl could have slipped accidentally into the shallow waves. She'd have been easily visible above the seabreaks if she were still on the beach. She couldn’t have moved so quickly, in any case, on the pebbles.

Len hadn’t seen any girl, but was feeling peckish. He wanted to sample the seafood at a van parked on the path near to the row of houses. ‘Careful you don’t slip on the seaweed’, he said as helped Mary up the shallow steps beside the breakwater.

'What do you fancy, love?’ a man in a striped apron asked, pointing to rows of tiny saucers on a shelf. The cockles, with their delicate orange edges, had a sharp, vinegary smell. She selected one and took up the tiny plastic fork. Len boldly slid a pair of oysters down his throat one after the other, smacking his lips and winking at the stall-holder.

‘Did you see a girl in fancy dress go by?’ Mary asked the rosy-cheeked man , as he re-arranged his dishes.

The stall holder leaned forward. ‘No, my dear, and that weren’t no fancy dress, neither. Looked like a kind of old-fashioned chamber-maid, did she?’

‘Well, yes, I suppose you could say that,’ said Mary. Come to think of it, what she took for a sun bonnet did look something like a maid’s cap.

‘That’ll be Little Nell.’ The van-man chuckled. ‘Does no end of good for my trade, she does. People come down specially to try to spot her But don’t you let her trick you into looking for her brooch. She never finds it’

‘Brooch? ‘Mary slid her hand into her pocket and curled her fingers round the object there, feeling its coldness in her palm.

‘Oh, yes. Reckons some lady employer gave it to her to hold when they were down here on a visit. Used to have those bathing machines. It's a sad story, really. She was so distressed at losing it she threw herself into the sea and drowned. Often comes back, looking for the brooch. Never finds it, though.’

He shook his head, and Len and Mary hurried off to join the coach back to London.

On the following Thursday Madame Melinda shrugged when Mary told her about the hotel. In a voice full of disappointment she said, ‘I sometimes wonder, Mary, if Fate just doesn’t just set its face against certain individuals. ’

The others murmured in sympathy, and Elsie patted Mary’s arm. Mary said nothing, but took the brooch and placed it on the chenille, where it gleamed quietly in the lamp-light

‘What’s that, dear, a souvenir?’ laughed Melinda, reaching her plump fingers. Her rings clinked as they made contact with the brooch and she lifted it for a closer examination.

Suddenly, with a sharp intake of breath, Melinda raised a hand to her bosom and shuddered like someone who’d swallowed a bitter potion. She flung the brooch back onto the table as if it were a hot coal.

When she turned to Mary, a new respect shone in her eyes. It was clear, she said, this jewel had a story behind it, and that some dreadful tragedy had befallen its owner. Did Mary know anything of the brooch’s history?

‘Well, yes, just I do’, admitted Mary, ‘as well as what the jeweller in Hatton Garden told me about me about its value’.

She slipped the gem-encrusted object back into her bag. ‘The rubies and emeralds are real. He advised me to offer it for auction at Sotheby’s. I think I’ll keep it for a while, though. In a way, it’s a kind of present….’

As Melinda sipped a glass of water Irene had brought from the kitchen, Mary’s friends leaned towards her. Their faces took on expressions of awe as she began to relate the full story. Soon, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mary herself had acquired ‘the gift’.

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Comments by other Members

Katerina at 12:27 on 14 September 2010  Report this post
I remember this, you uploaded it in another group ages ago - was it when I hosted Women's Fiction?

A great story Sheila, just a couple of typos I found.

Melinda took a deep breath and lifted her gaze from the red leather circle lying in the middle of the tale
should be table

From the was the girl darted about in distress
should be way not was.

What is it about the girl that makes Mary walk down to her? It's not something one would ordinarily do, so I think you need a reason why Mary goes down to her - maybe Nell's obvious distress or a compelling feeling?

‘It’s my lady’s brooch’, she said, fresh tears filling her eyes

I would remove the word 'fresh' as there's no previous mention of her crying, so as far as Mary's concerned these are the first, so 'tears filling her eyes' would be better.

I'd have liked a bit more interaction with Nell - maybe Mary can have more of a conversation with her so that we get to know a bit more about her?

I'm not sure losing a brooch is enough to make someone throw themself in the sea - you'd have to be seriously depressed to do that.

Losing a brooch her lover had given her would be more apt for instance - especially if her lover has died and that's all she had left to remember him, or maybe it belonged to the wife of the master of the house. He could have been paying Nell nightly visits - a lot of that went on - and gave her the brooch, but now his wife's looking for it, so Nell has to find it or the whole sordid affair will come to light - that would be enough to make her really panic and think of ending it all.

There's a couple of ideas, but I'm sure you can equally come up with something too

I just feel it needs to have more importance to make her kill herself.

Kat x

Cornelia at 13:55 on 14 September 2010  Report this post
Thanks, Kat for spotting the typos and for your suggestions about improving the motivation. I did some research about mistress/servant relationships. If the girl was suspected of theft she would be sacked without a 'character' and could very well starve. However, not many people would know that so it does need to be spelled out. I like the idea of the mistress's husband having given the girl the brooch, too.

I also need to make it clear that the girl was in obvious distress when Mary first spotted her and it's Mary's soft heartedness that encourages her to go forward. Maybe I'll make Len say it's just like her or something.

The original (2008)was called 'Madame Zaza says Yes' and was a lot more exotic, with a 'Floury Maid' haunting the bakehouse. There was also a lot more about the stay in CanterburyI've toned it down quite a bit but it's still a bit too fancy, I think, for most women's magazines. Maybe I'll try it for a competition a suitable one comes up



if a suitable one comes up

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