“Long before you joined us, Featherstone, something very odd happened to me.” Old McMoneagle shifted in the heavy red leather armchair, his face flushed with the heat of the open fire before us. “Now I need to get it off my chest, d’you understand?”
He coughed a long, rattling cough. “Carstairs! Two more whisky and sodas please.” He continued, “I was a young man, twenty two years of age and fresh out of Oxford. I started in agricultural research with Tom Duckingham, you must remember him? Anyway, it was my first Christmas at the station and on Christmas Eve we’d called in at the Pig and Whistle for a couple of pints before heading on to St. Mary’s. The temperature had dropped that day and I remember huge flakes of snow filling the sky, like one of those toys you used to shake. It snowed for hours.”
The eyes in his old, lined face looked inward briefly. “You remember Mary Skellern? Yes, well she was a ‘looker’ in those days, you can see it in her cheeks even now. Anyway, I’d been courting her, as we’d say then, for some time.” He smiled wistfully. “Then she passed me over for Duckingham’s son, Jack, and if I’m honest Phthonus had raised his ugly head. I remember that was the main reason I went to the service, knowing she’d be there and Jack was away somewhere.”
“Come Featherstone, didn’t you learn anything at Cambridge? The Greek god of jealously and envy!”
“Oh, yes, of course.” I mumbled, embarrassed.
McMoneagle carried on. “Well it was a cheery affair, most of the chaps were there, belting out carols with gusto! Mary was wearing a tight red skirt, and a white blouse, even tighter! She looked, and sang like an angel.”
I smiled. I could well imagine the scene in that remote country church, surrounded by virgin snow.
“Anyway, due to the beer, I soon felt the need to answer the call of nature, so I excused myself in the middle of Silent Night. I can still remember that after all these years! Outside it was frightfully cold and in gaps between the singing coming from the church it was perfectly silent. I remember feeling a great sense of peace.
“I went round the side, the snow was very deep there, and relieved myself. It was on the way back when it happened.”
“Someone grabbed me from behind. Someone very strong gripped my arms. I couldn’t move! Then the earth shook and I realised it was an earthquake, the kind of tremor we’d get in those parts.”
I’d experienced one myself – pans falling off shelves, windows cracking, that kind of thing.
“Well, half a dozen huge tiles came down just in front of me. If that fellow hadn’t held me I’d probably’ve been killed.”
“Who was it?” I asked, intrigued.
“There was no-one there!”
“There must’ve been!”
“That’s just it Featherstone, the snow behind me was pristine, no footprints anywhere…”