Posted by: Christine | December 24, 2013

A Genealogist’s Christmas Carol

It was Christmas Eve.

All the preparations were done. Turkey collected, presents wrapped, cake iced. Just time for a little family history research before bed. I poured the remains of a bottle of wine into a glass and settled down in front of the computer.

Some time later, much later than I had intended, I gave up. I was never going to find out who his parents were. I stretched and turned off the computer. I wandered into the lounge to put away my files and turn off the Christmas Tree lights.

I stopped. There was someone sitting in the chair beside the tree, a man. How long had he been there? How had he got in? He looked like a tramp, long greasy hair tied back, dirty clothes of an indeterminate hue and a rather unpleasant smell. What if he attacked me? I looked at my only weapon, the empty wine glass in my hand. Should I smash it first or go straight for his face?

“Who are you? What do you want?”

He seemed to be as shocked as me. “What is this place? I was…. somewhere else and then I was here” He stared at me. “What are you? You seem to be a woman, but you are dressed in men’s clothing.”

I glanced down at my jeans. What was going on? Then I had a ridiculous thought. “What is the date?”

He looked at me strangely.
“Why, it is Christmas Eve. Probably Christmas Day itself by now.”

He looked even more confused when I said “Yes, but what year is it?”
“The year of our Lord, one thousand, seven hundred and four, of course” He obviously thought I was the only lunatic in the room.

I carefully put the empty wine glass down on the coffee table and collapsed onto the sofa opposite him. This must be a dream. I’ll wake up in a moment.

“I think I know who you are. You are John and you are, were, in a cell in Edinburgh” I sat back and studied him more closely. He seemed unsure as to whether he was happy with what I knew about him.

“Yes, but who are you? Are you a magician or witch who has summoned me here? Did I die in that place and this is…?” He stood up and started looking round wildly.

“Don’t worry. I am a relative of yours. Well, at least we have the same surname. I think you have travelled in time. It is Christmas, but Christmas 2013. Three hundred and…” I did a few sums “nine years in your future.”

He sat down and thought about this for a while. “Or it could just be a dream” I added.

He had come to a decision. “Whatever it is, there’s nothing I can do about it. Have you got any more wine for that empty glass?”

“Sorry” I remembered my manners. “Can I get you something to eat?”

“The journey has made me hungry, thank you”

I dashed through to the kitchen. At least there was plenty of food available. I got out a tray and loaded it with a loaf of bread and some butter, cheese and some slices of ham. I looked at the bottles of wine, standing ready for Christmas dinner the next day. No, better leave those. I grabbed a wine box, Sainsbury’s Montepulciano, probably better than he was normally used to.

“Is this OK… all right?” He wouldn’t know modern slang, I thought. After my demonstration of the wine box though, he soon got caught up with some modern technology.

As he ate, I told him about my research, how I had got interested in the family name and come across him and the records I had found about him. I was dying to ask who his parents were, but didn’t think it polite at that stage.

Once the edge had been taken off his appetite, he started asking questions, why was I interested in him? I couldn’t tell him that, it was something that hadn’t happened yet, in his time. So I just told him that I had researched a lot of people of our surname, and that I had found a lot of information about him. I picked up the file I had been working on and showed him some documents I had found.

“Where did you get these papers?”

“Oh they’re just copies from the National Archives, they let you take photographs nowadays and I printed them out”

“What are photographs?” This is going to get complicated, I thought. I rummaged in my handbag and brought out my camera. 

“This is a camera, a machine that can take a picture. Like an artist with paints, but much quicker. I pointed it towards him and pressed the button then showed him the result.

“That is a picture of me?” He thought for a moment “There cannot be many painters in this time, if everyone can do this”

“There are some, but most people just take photographs. Anyway, the picture can be moved to another machine and printed onto paper. You have printing presses don’t you?”

He nodded, I wasn’t going to get involved with explaining digital images and computers.

I flicked through the pages “Look, here’s a copy of a letter that you wrote to the ship’s owners at the start of the voyage”

He stared at it and shook his head in amazement. He leafed through the pages, looking at other letters and documents that I had collected.

“That’s the court record of that dispute you had with the owner of the Constant James in 1695”


“What happened in the end? It doesn’t say in the document”

“We got our pay, eventually”.

I sat back, sipping my wine, and watched him reading his own history. Suddenly I realised what was coming next. I tried to grab the file away from him but it was too late. We both sat there and stared at the page.

It was the copy of a page of burials from a parish register and there, at the bottom of the page, was his burial. Hanged on the eleventh day of April 1705. That was less than four months from now.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

He took a deep breath. “At least I know how much time I have.” He gave me a tight smile. “More than most people do”

“It might not happen” I started gabbling, “Now you know what the future could be, we can do something to change it.”

“I don’t think so. I’ve lived close to death, most of my life. You can’t change your fate.”

“Look, here’s more information about what happened, a transcript of the trial. There must be something to help” The discussion went on for some time.

Next morning, Christmas Day, the alarm woke me early. My head was aching and I felt terrible. What had I been doing last night? The edge of a dream drifted through my brain and disappeared into nothing, as dreams do. Time to get up and stuff the turkey.

And so Christmas continued it’s usual well oiled round: eating, drinking, washing up, sitting slumped in front of the television. It was only while watching Dr Who that something nagged at the back of my mind, but the television drove it away.

It was several days later.  Things were starting to get back to normal and I had a bit of time to myself. Time for some more family history. A new year coming up, time for a tidy up. I got out the file I had stuffed into a drawer on Christmas morning, what a mess. I started putting documents back into order. There were some missing. Where had they gone? I looked around the room and my gaze fell on the chair beside the Christmas tree. I remembered someone had been sitting there, who?

I went through my file again to see what was missing. The trial transcript, some of the letters, and the page of burials. Suddenly it all came flooding back. He had been here, I had actually spoken to him.

What now? It had happened once, could it happen again? It would be New Years Eve in a couple of days, a week after Christmas Eve and another special day. Would he come again? I had better make some preparations, write a list of questions to ask.

No, this was silly. I had probably filed the documents somewhere else or they had got muddled up with something else.

It had all been a dream. Hadn’t it?

Happy Christmas. Thank you for reading this, my first attempt at a short story. Normal blogs service will resume in 2014.

To find out about the real John Madder see my post Death on the Leith Sands


  1. Happy Blog Anniversary! Wish we could visit with our ancestors as you did!

  2. […] And if you’re wondering, I did eventually write that problematical story – it appeared on the original blog the following Christmas (2013). If you want to read it, you can find it here […]

  3. […] One is the piece of writing that started all this off. I used to be a genealogist – still am when I get the time. I thought it would be a good idea to write a genealogy story for Christmas. I tried and failed. What was different from all that factual writing I had done? A few weeks later, in January 2013, I joined a writing class. The rest is history, or rather Historical Fiction. Six months later, I wrote my Christmas story. You can read it here. […]

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