Creativity

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'Twas the night before New Year's Eve and an unaccustomed smell of boot polish and decay chilled the air of Castle Grobelaar. It was 10years to the day since the apparition had appeared and uttered its terrifying prediction. I shall never forget t he icyblast that hit my face as its foul mouth opened and spoke the threat that would change the lives of us all, when it said ... but no, I still cannot bring myself to repeat those terrible and ominous words.

The Great Hall of Grobelaar was decked with Christmas finery and I tried to raise my spirits in anticipation of the many guests who would gather here on Boxing Day. Should I have cancelled the traditional celebrations? I had decided against this. That would have been surrendering. But surrendering to what? Was I battling against foolish superstition or trying to cheat fate?

I could have shrugged it all off as a particularly bad nightmare had it not been for old Poppy, last of the Grobelaar line. She had seen it first. Indeed it was her piercing scream that had brought me running to the long gallery. I shall never forget thesight that met me.

Poor Poppy was crumpled on the floor in a dead faint, and the apparition was calmly perusing the portraits on the wall. With prickles emerging from its skin, it seemed scarcely human. "What man or creature are you?" I challenged it."What is your businesshere?"

It turned slowly to face me, then portentously removed its hat, in mockery of a greeting. It was then that I saw a curious horn-like growth protruding from its head. Pointing at the horn, it fixed its gaze on me and made its blood-chilling statement. Next, from its hat, it took a small bottle of what appeared to be Tippex and added a few fluent strokes to one of the paintings, in a form of oriental calligraphy I took to be old Japanese. It was a portrait of a distant ancestor whose features I faintly be ar, though I am but a distant cousin living at the hall only through the generosity of the late 17th Earl of Grobelaar.

Then, although there was no way out of the gallery save past where I was standing, the creature vanished. I helped Poppy down to her rocking-chair, but since that day no sound has emerged from her lips. With a frightened look on her wrinkled face, she just sits and stares, a constant reminder that what I saw was no dream. We examined the portrait, of course, but not even the faintest Tippexed impression was discernible on the white canvas.

As I remembered that fateful day, I was startled by a gentle coughing sound and suddenly noticed the butler standing by my chair. "It is time, Sir", he said.

I sighed deeply. "I know, Lamont. I know." Lamont, faithful retainer to our family for as long as anyone could remember, was the only man to whom I had entrusted an account of the strange apparition. He alone knew the importance of today's date.

As I prepared to follow Lamont out of the room, I noticed the mud on his boots which struck me as odd, since the ground outside was completely frozen. I had recently seen him, on more than one occasion, disappearing through the french windows into the grounds with a spade. Was there a connection, I wondered? And, was it my imagination, or had Lamont been growing taller?

A strange noise, as of the frantic ringing of distant bicycle bells, wafted into the room as the butler left. It rose in a deafening crescendo, then suddenly stopped. Behind me, the french windows, which I was certain had been securely locked, burst ope n . "It's the Green Knight", shouted Poppy Grobelaar, and fainted into the punch bowl.

What is the curse of the Grobelaars? Did the butler do it, and if so, what was it that he did? And why did he do it in Japanese? Who is the mysterious figure, and why does he ride on a fleet of bicycles? Is Poppy unhinged? Three prizes of "The Larousse Dictionary of Literary Characters" will be awarded to the most creative conclusions or explanations of the strange happenings at Castle Grobelaar. Entries to: Creativity, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL to reach us by 11 January.

Normal Creativity will resume next week with things to do with Christmas crackers.

William Hartston (with creative help from Caroline Hull)

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