Once upon a time in a land long ago, Christmas came slowly to a small village in Wiltshire, where a small boy looked excitedly for the presents he hoped would come.
Dear reader, I was that small boy. And I found them. Under the stairs, in the dark, brand new in boxes but not yet wrapped, was what looked like a huge collection of model soldiers. They weren’t Airfix, so points and some excitement lost there, but there were loads of them and I hadn’t seen them before.
The family, so fas I knew, was Mum and Dad, my two sisters and me. In those days my younger but oldest sister got literally hysterical about Christmas, as about much else. The year before, or before that, she woke me up around 3am insisting she’d seen Father Christmas. We had a tradition that a mince pie and a glass of whisky or sherry was left out on top of the piano for him and in the morning it was always gone; proof, if proof were needed. But this was different. She’d actually SEEN him. She was adamant.
My village friend Andrew had a weird uncle who’d told us about the Red Ghost of the Barn. It frightened me so much one night that I woke up screaming, even though I knew as soon as I was awake that what had been described as a Victorian ghost was pretty unlikely to spend the rest of eternity tramping up and down the landing of a 1960s estate house. Now, I think the mad uncle had been trying to tell us about the Red Barn Murder* despite that it had happened 200 miles away and adding a ghost into it to scare us. It was a thing some adults did in those days.
All of that made for a creepy atmosphere with a hysterical small girl claiming to have actually seen Father Christmas, who next said she could hear bumps on the roof and soon after, the sound of sleigh bells. Which I then heard myself, but that’s not really part of this story and in any event hysteria is remarkably infectious. But none of that was under the stairs one quiet afternoon when I found the stash of model soldiers Father Christmas had forgotten to hide.
I don’t know if children do this now, or if other children did this then, but I found it easy to believe two contradictory things at once, that there really was a Father Christmas and that it was really my father and/or mother, depending whose turn it was, which perhaps isn’t actually contradictory really, at all.
Beleiving both things at once, I told my father I’d found my presents, or at least the model soldier part of my presents.
No, said my father. You haven’t. I have though. They’re model soldiers. Under the stairs. They weren’t wrapped up. No, my father told me again. Those are for another little boy.
And they were.
I never saw them again. I certainly didn’t see them on Christmas morning, nor at any other time. I don’t think shops took things back in those days, and I’d think certainly not just on the basis that a little boy had found them before he should have done. Which brought me to the conclusion that yes, my father wasn’t lying, although we later found out he had about much else. They were for another little boy.
It turned out, a decade later, he was a bigamist. I found out that a lot of what he said was a lie. He wasn’t born in Australia, but instead in Kent. His entire family weren’t dead, in the war or otherwise; I found out last year there were at least four of them, including his mother, alive at the time he married my mother, by which time he was also supposed to be married. If he was however, it was under another name as I can’t find any record of that event, although his name appears with a woman’s name I don’t recognise in exactly the right village at exactly the time he was ‘away on business’ a lot. I don’t know.
I also don’t know how much of this was known and colluded with, in my own family, in my own household, or as much of it as a disappointed model soldier-less six year old can claim. How do you explain to your wife that yes, ok, you know those model soldiers, the ones I thought he’d like, well, maybe he wouldn’t, so I’m going to er…chuck them in the bin. No, not here, obviously. Somewhere else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? None of it does.
I do know one thing about all of it though, something that’s been confirmed again and again, the more I dig, finding relatives in Valparaiso, not finding anyone in the Royal Air Force, a body which had been an obsession of my father’s for as long as I can remember. I’ve never got on with families. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t trust them, or their motives. It’s taken much too long to acknowledge this out loud.
- The Case of the Red Barn was a very, very famous Victorian murder indeed, so famous that they even made pottery Red Barns to put on your mantelpiece next to the Staffordshire dogs and the match holder and mantle clock. A girl called Mariah (who I inevitably think of as Mariah Carey, who it definitely wasn’t) got herself killed while having an argument with her farmer boyfriend, who she was probably pregnant by. He denied all knowledge of her visit and took himself off to London. A year or so later, letters started to appear at her parents’ house, purporting to be from Mariah, who according to the letters, was doing fine but really, really busy so can’t visit, must dash, stuff to do and so on.
The boyfriend, definitely ex by this time, got to feeling a bit lonely and stuck adverts in the local newspaper looking for a wife. Mariah’s mother, who’d predictably never liked him, began to have dreams that Mariah wasn’t just dead but was buried underneath the Red Barn. She sent her husband with what we used to call a dibber, what they called a mole spud, but whatever it was called a long stick with a pointy end that he jabbed into the floor of the barn, looking for soft patches. He found some. He also found his daughter, very dead indeed and stabbed multiple times. It didn’t occur to anybody back then that maybe, just maybe, the multiple stab wounds had happened a very long time after the poor girl was dead, nor that the gunshot wound to her skull would have done the job on its own, nor that it was at an unusual angle for someone else to have shot from, but a quite explicable one if there had been a struggle, that Mariah had grabbed her boyfriend’s gun (at a time when anyone with some substance would have thought taking a small gun with them out at night was a sensible and normal thing to do) and threatened to blow her brains out if he didn’t marry her before he grabbed the gun to stop her and it went off, as he alleged at his trial.
He was easy to find, from the Victorian lonely farmer ads he’d paid for. The jury was having none of it. He danced the Newgate jig. To make his life not entirely pointless his skeleton was used as a training aid and as a joke date by nurses in Bury St Edmunds for another hundred and twenty years. Some of the skin off his back was used to bind a book you can see for yourself in the town’s museum. An everyday if horrific story of country folk. But not the story Andrew’s mad uncle told us, entirely. And certainly not the fictions my father told me.