The front door opens easily and I step into the large, square hallway. It’s warm and welcoming inside and I quickly shut out the cool, damp air. It was much colder the last time I was here, I remember. An icy wind, slippery underfoot, black ice on the roads.
The house is just as I recall it, the high ceiling and the wide sweeping staircase with its dark, oak banister, which my brother and I used to slide down when we were kids.
There’s a chandelier now in the centre of the hall, crystal and sparkly; very imposing. That’s new since my last visit and not at all what our mother would have chosen.
A bright winter sun shines through the glass of the fanlight above the door, casting a galaxy of crazy, coloured patterns on the tiled floor. This is my childhood home you see, the place where I grew up and it’s five years since I was here at Christmas time. I’ve wanted to come, longed to, but it was difficult from where I’ve been.
It’s my elder brother’s house now. Martin lives here with his wife, Lydia. He inherited it when our mother died and dad went to live in America.
Looking around, I notice child size, muddy footprints decorating the black and white tiles. And two, tiny yellow wellingtons lie discarded at the foot of the staircase. There’s been an addition to the family while I’ve been gone.
The enormous Christmas tree, decked out in all its finery, stands in the corner by the sitting room door, just as it always did.
Moving further inside, into the huge, draughty kitchen, I see it’s been modernised. Sleek and shiny now; all white cupboards and marble work tops. Our mother would hate it, but it’s Lydia’s taste I suppose.
I check out the pantry door frame and note with surprise and pleasure that the marks are all still there. The lines where mum would measure Martin and I each Christmas Eve, to see how much we’d grown. Beside one is written ‘Rosie 1997’. That’s me and I would have been seven years old.
It’s wonderful to be home, a dream come true. But I wonder where everyone is?
Wandering back into the hallway, I almost bump into a small person with shiny golden curls and huge, navy blue eyes. Eyes just like mine. The little girl of around four years old, obviously the owner of the yellow wellingtons, looks up at me curiously with a shy smile.
‘You’re my Aunty Rose,’ she states positively. ‘I’ve seen your picture on daddy’s desk. But mummy and daddy said you were never coming back.’ The child looks puzzled and two tiny creases furrow her baby smooth brow.
‘My name is Rose too,’ she informs me. ‘But mostly I’m called Rosie.’
‘I was Rosie, too,’ I tell her, ‘when I was a little girl like you. Rose is such a grown up name, isn’t it?’
My new friend nods in agreement and chews her thumb. ‘Why did they say you weren’t ever coming back?’ she wants to know. Then, struck by a new thought, ‘Would you like to see my doll’s house that Father Christmas brought? It’s upstairs in my bedroom.’
‘I’d love to,’ I say and follow behind my adorable little niece. I can’t describe how happy I feel to be home at last, after all I’ve been through. It feels like some kind of time warp. The child could almost be me.
As we start up the stairs, I hear voices from above on the landing.
‘Rosie, who on earth are you talking to?’ It’s my brother’s voice and I am overwhelmed with joy. I had thought I would never hear it again.
‘It’s probably just that imaginary friend of hers,’ I hear Lydia tell him.
The two of them are coming down the stairs towards us and Martin picks up Rosie and heaves her in the air. He looks straight through me. As does Lydia.
‘Chatting to your little friend again, are you, sweetie pie? ‘ Rosie giggles, looking down on me from the lofty heights of Martin’s shoulders.
‘I’m talking to Aunty Rose, silly,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you say hello?’
Martin and Lydia exchange troubled looks. ‘Don’t worry. It’s just imagination,’ Lydia tells my brother. ‘You know what’s she’s like.’
‘It’s five years tomorrow, isn’t it?’ he says, putting his daughter firmly down on to the landing floor. ‘Five years since the crash. Since she died.’
‘We’ll take flowers tomorrow, to the cemetery,’ Lydia suggests gently and Martin nods agreement.
Rosie looks up at me, bewildered, ‘Why don’t ….. ?’ She begins, so I smile and press my finger to my lips.
‘Sh,’ I say. ‘Let this be our little secret. OK?’
Her huge, dark eyes ignite with pleasure and mischief and she mimics my gesture. ‘Oh, yes, Aunty Rose,’ she whispers. ‘I love secrets.’
© Sue Hassett