Anne had come up to Halifax to spend a few days with her family. She would have to be back in London for the New Year’s celebrations but there was no way she would miss Christmas lunch with her family. Filling themselves with the feast that Cordingley will have prepared and left detailed instructions on how to cook that even Marian could follow. She’d also picked up a large hamper from Betty’s in York, full of festive treats that she was looking forward to.
It was good to be home, to hear the creaks in Shibden’s ancient floorboards, to feel the strength of the banisters beneath her hands as she climbed the steps. She immediately felt her shoulders drop the weight they had been carrying whilst she was in London.
Working on Sam Washington’s Mayoral election campaign was thrilling and she finished each day feeling equally challenged and accomplished, but Shibden allowed her to breathe again. With the final push to the election, the next few months would be even more manic and this trip was as much for her as her family.
She had decided to take a walk after lunch, get some Shibden muds on her boots again. It had felt good to just walk again, she walked in London of course, but it was different up here. She was grateful that her years spent in the city had not affected her ability to climb Shibden’s many hills.
The day had gotten away from her a little as it often did when she was out walking. It was darker than she had wanted it to be but the sun hadn’t quite started to set. Still she was glad she brought her black greatcoat with her from London, as the cold started to set in in the waning light.
She had been out for a few hours and was now walking briskly through the gate into the churchyard of St Matthew’s. She knew this path well, she had walked it so many times. She could hear the church choir practising the carols for the Christmas services that would be held that week. She continued through the rows of century old gravestones and much newer ones. Her sure steps made easy work of the cobbles all the way to her destination in the furthest corner of the church.
She slowed her pace as she neared the border wall, she could see on the other side the beautiful rolling hills that stretched for miles. This was why she had chosen this spot, it was one of the most breathtaking views in Halifax. No matter the season there was no sight like it. She wished that it had snowed, but at the same time was thankful that it was not too cold. She had checked the thermometer as she left the house, four degrees celsius. Perfectly acceptable. She took it all in as she filled her lungs with the cold Yorkshire air before stepping towards one of the graves. She looked down and smiled, “Hi Sam.”
She noticed the candle that sat at the foot of her brother’s gravestone and knelt to take a closer look. The candle stood proud in a glass jar, it was etched with beautiful intricate fir trees and deer. It reminded her of Shibden in the winter. The shadows cast by the candle created flickering trees against the dark granite.
Marian had not mentioned that she had been to tend to Sam’s grave so she can’t have been the one to leave it. It must be something that the people who tended the church had done, she had always made sure to make an ample donation at Christmas and perhaps someone had remembered. Whatever the reason she was grateful for the gesture.
She stood silently for a few moments, her hand resting on the top of the stone just breathing. She had asked for it to be made this way, cut at a slant as though the top had been purposely severed. Her brother’s life cut far too short.
After a while she reached into the inside pocket of her coat and pulled out a red envelope. She shook her head gently and smiled to herself. On the envelope written in her own distinct cursive, ‘Santa Claus, North Pole.’ Anne reluctantly opened the envelope and pulled the letter out. “I can’t believe you made me promise to keep doing this Sam. Christmas was your thing.”
Anne held the letter up and began to read to her audience, “Dear Santa, it’s me again. Your favourite Lister.” She quirked her right eyebrow thinking he would have liked that introduction. “Another year without my Sam, but as you know, I promised. So I’m writing to you again to ask if you could possibly please get him the Transformer Optimus Prime toy that transforms from a car carrier into a robot.”
She sighed as she continued to read, “I’ve asked our father on Sam’s behalf.” She bent the page over and talked directly to the gravestone, “I did ask him. He still says no.” She turned her attention back to the page, “But he said no, Sam’s too old for toys now.” Anne paused, this was always the hardest part. “But he really does deserve it. He’s the best brother.” She could feel herself choking on her words, “He is always kind, even to people he doesn’t know. Sometimes it gets him into trouble, but it never stops him helping people.” She had to stop.
Closing her eyes, she swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. She tilted her head back and looked up into the evening sky hoping the cool air would stop the tears from falling. She took a few deep breaths and then held up the letter again, she muttered under her breath, “You’re the worst Sam.” He knew how much she always hid her feelings and how any show of emotion made her uncomfortable, but he would have insisted she carry on.
She took one more big breath to compose herself. “I’ve made sure to stay on the Nice List too. My brother always told me that there was no point in writing if the person who wrote the letter is on the Naughty List.” She paused again and looked up from the letter. This bit she knew by heart, it was the part that had taken the longest to write.
She placed her hand on top of Sam’s gravestone, running her fingers lightly along the top as though she were about to confess a secret. In a way, she was. “You see I’ve decided to give her up, Mary. I know I’ve said that before, but this time it really is different.” Anne smiled sheepishly, “And yes, I know I’ve said that before too.”
Anne paused, the brevity of what she was about to say next weighing heavy. This was the first time she was going to say these words out loud, and she knew she would never be able to take them back. “Sam always said I deserved more, without even knowing what we would eventually become. I finally decided to listen to him.” A hint of a smile flickered on her lips. “I want to be happy. I want someone to spend my evening hour with, to share my life.” Her heart ached, “I’m worth that.”
She took a step back and turned her attention back to the letter in her hand. Her tone even, no hint of the gravity of the words she’d just spoken. “So you see Santa, this year he really does deserve to get what he wants. As I said, he’s the best brother. Thank you in advance, yours sincerely. Anne Lister.” She nodded. That should do it. Oh she nearly forgot, “PS, Marian’s been okay too so can you also please get whatever is on her list.”
There was a thoughtful pause before she carefully folded the letter back up and placed it back in the envelope. She knelt down and placed it next to the candle that was still burning. She traced Sam’s name with her fingers, “It’s going to be different this time Sam. I promise.” She made a little ‘x’ on her chest, “Cross my heart.”
Earlier that day…
Ann made her way through the churchyard enjoying the peace and quiet it always provided. It was mid-afternoon but she expected it would start to get dark in the next couple of hours. It wasn't too cold considering it was a week or so before Christmas, still she wore her long red winter coat. The cold wind always managed to cut right through her and this coat had the double purpose of making her feel festive. She had wanted to come and visit her brother and parents’ graves before tonight’s Christmas party. She knew that she would be exhausted tomorrow from having to be the picture of festive merriment that the family expected of her.
She walked the well-worn cobbled path that wound itself around the side of the church. There towards the back beneath the branches of the sprawling willow tree was the small wooden bench she had placed next to her brother John’s grave. She had insisted he be buried in this spot rather than the family mausoleum. She knew how much he would have hated thinking his final resting place was a cold concrete building rather than in the rich ground of the land that he loved so much.
She cleared a few leaves from the top of the gravestone before kneeling down in front of it. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and heard a little jingle. She’d almost forgotten she was wearing these, “What do you think John?” She turned her head side to side, showing the gaudy gold jingle bell earrings she was wearing. She laughed brightly, “I’m wearing them to the Rawson’s later, everyone’s going to hate them but they’re festive so they can’t say anything!”
Ann reached into the bag that hung from her shoulder and pulled out a small box. Inside were two jars, both beautifully etched with the fir trees and deer that roamed their land. A simple white candle in each of them. She took one out and placed it next to the gravestone. She noticed some leftover candle wax from the last candle she had lit there, she tried to shift it with her finger and huffed lightly when it wouldn’t budge. She made a mental note to bring something to remove it next time. She lit the candle and took the box then went to sit on the bench.
The light from the candle flickered reflecting the fir trees etched in the glass. She smiled remembering how much John loved Christmas. She reached into her bag again and pulled out a flask. She poured herself a drink and wrapped her hands around the cup and breathed in the deep chocolatey smell. She was about to take a sip when she suddenly remembered something. Rooting around in her bag she took out a small paper bag and emptied the contents into her cup. She turned to the gravestone, “I almost forgot! You’d have never forgiven me.” The pink and white mini marshmallows bobbled up and down in the rich hot chocolate.
In the background she heard the church organ start to play, followed shortly by the sound of the choir singing. She thought they must be practising for the Christmas services. She sank back into the bench, pulling her coat tightly around her as she continued to sip her drink, “Merry Christmas John.”
Anne spent a few more moments with Sam before she realised time was getting away from her again. In London her time was scheduled to the minute, but here she allowed herself the luxury of allowing things to run on their own clock. The Rawson’s Christmas party was tonight but she’d already had her argument with Marian about why she would not be in attendance. She would go visit Old Mrs Rawson separately before she went back down to London to make her apologies.
Mariana had arrived in Halifax that morning under the guise of having to catch up with a few family friends whilst Charles was in York taking care of some business. Really she had gone to Halifax because it was harder for Anne to avoid her here, which she had successfully been doing in London. She had decided that tonight she would tell Mariana that she was done living this part of her life in secret. She deserved more than stolen weekends when her irritable husband permitted it.
Anne had always denied that her travels were a way of escaping her life, but she could no longer deny that was a large part of the reason. If the Mayoral campaign were successful it would be even harder to travel anywhere. There would be no more running. It was more than time to make this life the one she wanted. Besides, she had promised Sam now - and Santa, there was no going back on her word.
She placed her hand on the top of his gravestone one more time, running her hand across the rough edge of the top. She looked down again at the candle still flickering. It really was beautiful. “I’ll see you soon Sam, Merry Christmas.” She bowed her head and gently placed a kiss on the top.
As she walked back through the churchyard a flicker of light caught her eye. Underneath the willow tree she saw a grave with a candle that looked like the one that had been placed at Sam’s gravestone. She went over to go and look at it. She read the name on the stone, John Walker.
She realised whose grave this was. There were many Walkers in the area, but this Walker belonged to the family that owned Lightcliffe, the sprawling neighbouring estate to Shibden. Even the churchyard was on their land, that’s probably why a candle had also been placed here.
John had been a good friend of Sam Washington’s when they were younger, he still spoke of him often. She had been to his wake years ago, but the family had kept the burial private. He was only a few years older than her Sam when he had died. The inscription read simply, ‘Beloved son, beloved brother.’
Anne knelt down to take a closer look at the candle. It was exactly the same as the one at Sam’s grave. She noticed a small pile of candle wax next to it. She tried to shift it with her fingers but it wouldn’t move so she reached into her pocket and pulled out her keys. She had a small pocket knife attached to them and used it to scrape off the wax. After it was loosened she wiped it away making sure it was completely clean. She offered a satisfactory nod to the gravestone, turning back to see the candle again at Sam’s grave. “We look after each other.” She stood up and gave another quick nod, “Merry Christmas.”
“Miss Walker, it’s good to see you.” Ann returned the warm smile that greeted her. “I like your earrings, very festive.” She laughed at the knowing grin before giving them a little tap to make them jingle. Returning the formal greeting she replied, “It’s good to see you again too Miss Marian.” They clinked the champagne flutes they were both holding together.
They always enjoyed creating the illusion of being prim and proper young ladies of Halifax when they met. She always liked to see Marian, not just because it meant she might also see her sister, but because she was good fun. She didn’t seem to care about the latest gossip or who was wearing what. Conversations with her always felt like light relief from the boring chit-chat these events normally meant.
“I take it you weren’t in charge of this year’s decorations.” They both surveyed the large drawing room, very tastefully decorated in traditional reds and greens, beautiful garlands with a few white twinkling lights running along the mantlepiece of the fireplace that dominated the room. Through the arched doorway they could see the centrepiece of the festivities, the 8ft Christmas tree with red and gold baubles methodical in their placement topped by a bright gold star.
Ann took a sip of her champagne, “It’s all perfectly…” She looked for the right word, “Boring.” Marian nearly spit out the sip of champagne she had taken as she tried not to laugh. Ann took on a very serious tone as she pointed at the mantel, “That would look much more festive with a few of those Christmas gnomes I’ve seen in the shops.” Marian nodded in agreement.
Mimicking her tone, Marian added, “I always thought the drive up to the house could do with a few snowmen, or even a dancing Santa.”
“Or a couple of reindeer to flank the doorway!” Ann chortled. All pretence of seriousness lost between them.
“If Anne ever let me decorate the Hall I would cover it in lights.” Marian waved her hand around the room, “Not like these pretty white twinkly lights. I’d have them in all the colours!” Feeling emboldened Marian continued, “And a lifesize illuminated Santa with all the reindeer!”
“With the brightest red nose! You’d be able to see them all the way from Crow Nest.” Marian said triumphantly. Marian was certainly glad she’d found Ann. Old Mrs Rawson was fun, especially after a few drinks, if not intimidating. The other members of her family, Christopher and Jeremiah were not her cup of tea, they were more Anne’s peers. Whilst she enjoyed watching her sister best them at every turn, since they were all younger, there was only so much of a victorious Anne she could take.
The other cousins, Catherine and Delia, were fun enough when they weren’t squabbling. Ann’s sister, Elizabeth, had always been pleasant but since she’d moved up to Scotland with her family she’d hardly seen them. No, Ann was definitely her favourite member of the family.
“You know, you could do it with Lightcliffe.” Ann wiped away a stray tear, they’d been laughing so much. She looked at Marian inquiringly. “With the lights, you could have herds of reindeer placed through the entire estate.” Marian’s eyes were bright as she described the illumination show she had planned as Ann thought to herself this was the most enjoyable conversation she’d had all evening, and it wasn’t even with the Lister she had been waiting to see. At that moment, as though reading her mind, Marian added, “Although Anne would probably march right over to Crow Nest to complain about light pollution or some other nonsense.” Now, there was an idea Ann thought.
“Is your sister here?” Marian just caught Ann’s question. There it was. As much as she knew Ann genuinely enjoyed talking to her, it was uncanny how forever long her sister had been gone for, whatever crises were happening, within minutes, Anne would manage to inveigle herself into becoming the main topic of any given conversation. She couldn’t be too aggrieved though since she had been the one to bring up Anne’s name, Ann was merely being polite enquiring about her.
Marian answered, “I’m afraid not.” She noticed a hint of disappointment cross Ann’s face. “She’s had some urgent business she’s had to deal with. Something to do with London. Work probably.” Marian hated having to make excuses about Anne’s absence, knowing full well that the “London emergency” was in fact yet another Mariana Lawton situation her sister was having to handle. If only she’d be done with that infernal woman.
Ann tried not to look too upset at hearing that Anne wouldn’t be coming to the party. She had been hoping that they would bump into each other in town so she could try to invite her to tea, if her words didn’t fail her like they often seemed to in her presence. She suddenly thought she could just invite Marian and tell her to bring Anne too, if she wasn’t too busy. Perhaps with Marian there she might be able to form coherent sentences. She was about to suggest it when they were interrupted. “What’s this about London?”
“Merry Christmas Catherine.”
“Same to you,” Catherine clinked her champagne flute against Marian’s with some force as she returned the greeting. Ann and Marian both silently noting with a knowing glance that meant she was probably feeling some alcohol induced festive cheer.
“Did Ann tell you she’s moving to London yet?” Ann tried to subtly nudge Catherine but her reaction erased any hopes of that. “What?” she exclaimed.
Ann looked at Marian, “I haven’t decided anything yet. It’s something I’m thinking about.”
“The only thing she’s thinking about is how to break the news to the Tribe. If it was up to me I’d just yell it from the top of the staircase!” Ann shook her head, she’d have to keep her eye on Catherine for the rest of the evening. “Me and my bestie in London, it’ll be amazing!” Oh yes Ann thought, she’ll definitely have to watch her.
“I’ll have to warn Anne.” That caught Ann’s attention.
“Why so?” she asked, trying to mask her interest.
“I’m sure she’d love the chance to peacock in front of a few old friends from Halifax. You know she’s in charge of Sam Washington’s Mayoral campaign?” Ann nodded. She’d been following the entire campaign online, she knew more about what was happening in London than she did in Halifax at this point. “She’ll be running the entire city if she has her way. She loves to be in charge.”
Catherine guffawed nudging Ann, “You’d like that!” The blush immediately coloured Ann’s face. She took Catherine gently by the arm, “It was good to see you Marian.” She started to lead her away before she embarrassed her further, “Wish your sister a Merry Christmas for me.”
“I will Ann, I’m sure she’d return the Christmas wishes too.” Ann smiled back.
“Thank you Marian, enjoy the rest of the party.” She added before turning to leave, “Make sure you try the mini crumpet canapes. They’re smothered in Marmite and melted cheese, they’re amazing!”
Marian nodded politely as she watched Ann pull Catherine away. Yuck, Marmite. She couldn’t believe that Ann was a fan of that viscous tar like substance. Anne loved the stuff too, she’d happily eat it by the spoonful. She must remember to tell Anne about arranging to see Ann if she did choose to move down to London, they could eat Marmite sandwiches together. The thought sent a shiver down her spine just thinking about it.
Ann handed Catherine a large glass of water and watched to make sure she drank it all. She couldn’t help smiling. She wished she’d seen Anne that night, but the prospect of seeing her in London filled her with excitement. The idea of moving down to London felt more and more appealing.