The group of children crept quietly down the stairs, careful to avoid each squeaky floorboard that had been pointed out to them in their `briefing'.
Confident that everyone was accounted for after the descent, the team leader an eight-year old blonde girl, by the name of Ella waved for them to stay against the wall, while she slid silently across the hall. Cringing as each number beeped, she quickly entered the code to deactivate the house alarm, praying that the sound would not wake the adults who were sleeping upstairs.
They all froze, listening intently for any indication that the grown- ups may have been disturbed. When the only sounds were of their own breathing, and the ticking of a nearby clock, Ella smiled to her assembled friends, and returned to her position at the front of the line.
Slowly they followed her along the hall, and into the kitchen, where they all raised onto their tip-toes to reduce the amount of noise their shoes could make against the wooden floor.
Reaching the door that led out into the garden, Ella produced a key from her jacket pocket and slipped it into the lock, turning until it clicked. The group shuffled backwards to allow the opening of the door, and then stepped into the night air one by one, staying close to the external wall of the house to avoid activating the security light positioned above the door.
Ella softly closed the door behind her, and slid past the row of friends to return to the front of the group. Glancing back to ensure they would follow her, she led the way down the path that ran along one side of the garden, to a wooden swing situated at the far end.
As chattering began within the group, Ella raised one finger to her lips to instigate a hush, and everyone took a seat on the ground in front of the swing.
"We have about ten minutes until it starts," she whispered, shifting so she was sitting more comfortably.
"Tell us the story," a little boy named Dominic prompted.
Ella smiled she loved telling this story. It was a tale her grandmother had told her when she was younger, and she had learned to recount it herself, the romance and happiness pleasing her young heart.
"Are you sitting comfortably?" she asked, continuing when her friends nodded, "Then I'll begin," mimicking what her grandmother had said to her that first time she'd told her this story. "Once upon a time there were two people who were the best of friends. They had known each other for more than twenty years, and in that time had seen each other through many things "
"Like what?" Jacob interrupted.
Ella frowned at him, having not expected to be asked such a question. "Like… getting married, and having a baby, and getting divorced, and getting attacked or nearly attacked, and having an operation so you won't go deaf, and finding out your dad isn't really your dad, and causing an explosion, and losing your daughter's father, and… stuff like that," she replied.
Jacob's eyes were wide, as were many of the others. "Cool," he said.
"It's good that they were there for each other," Madeline commented.
"Yes it is," Ella smiled proudly. "Now, where was I?… Oh yes, so they had seen each other through many things, a bond above and beyond friendship developing between them "
"How did they meet?" Claire asked in a loud whisper.
Ella didn't appreciate this new interruption, but she smiled anyway and answered the question. "He was a CSI and "
"What's a CSI?" Polly asked, a frown creasing her delicate face.
"A Crime Scene Investigator," Ella clarified. "They were known as CSIs for short."
"Ah so, like a police officer?" Jacob said with a huge grin. "My granddad was a police officer."
"Sort of like a police officer," Ella explained, "They worked with the police, helping them solve crimes by analysing the evidence."
Everyone looked very impressed, so Ella smiled with pride once more and resumed her tale. "She was learning to be a CSI… And he suggested she apply for a job that was becoming available at the crime lab where he worked, so she did. And she got it, and they started working together… And, so over the time, this bond developed between them," she said, trying to get her story back on track, "And they were really close "
"Aw! Were they in love?" Madeline asked with a hopeful smile.
"They were," Ella grinned. "But they didn't realise it… Everyone around them could see it, but they do say love is blind, and they apparently were blind to it."
Madeline's hopeful expression fell, replaced by one of disappointment.
Ella leaned towards her, conspiratorially, "But, one day on her birthday their friends set them up on a date… Because they were fed up of watching them smiling and flirting, and never telling each other how they felt. So they told her that they were all going to come round to her house before they started work that evening because they worked the night shift and they would eat and chat and celebrate with her. She told them that sounded great, and that night she was waiting for them to arrive but only he turned up. Then one of the others called Warrick rang to say they couldn't make it. She knew that it was a set up immediately she wasn't daft! Then the next minute, the doorbell rang and there were these men dressed in dinner jackets and bowties outside, and they had brought a really posh four course dinner for two."
"Wow!" Madeline's eyes were bright again. "That's so romantic!"
The rest of the group nodded their agreements towards each other, and then turned back to Ella to be told what happened next.
"Well, when he realised what was going on, he was a little shy, and an awkward silence descended on them while the men were setting up the dinner. So they stepped into the garden out of the way, where they could talk privately "
"Ooooh! What did they say?" Dominic asked, excitedly.
"Well, she said: `Oh, they are in so much trouble!' but she was laughing when she said it, and then she looked at him more seriously and told him that he didn't have to stay if he didn't want to…"
There was a chorus of "aw!" from the group.
"… And he said: `We don't want all that food to go to waste.'"
An excited squeal escaped from Madeline, and from Polly, and Dominic clapped his hands with glee.
"So they went back inside, and she shouted to her daughter to come downstairs and join them… So, they ate the gorgeous food," she continued, dragging out the word gorgeous, as her grandmother had done when she told the tale, "… And then her daughter excused herself to give them some `alone time'. About ten minutes later, they stepped out into the garden again, walking down to the far end where there was a wooden swing. They sat down and talked for hours, laughing and giggling and he sang `Happy Birthday' to her… And then she shivered as a cool breeze blew across the garden, and he put his arm around her to offer her some warmth. Startled by his action though not surprised, as he was a perfect gentleman she looked at the hand that rested on her shoulder, and after a few seconds, wrapped her own hand around it, and shuffled along the swing so she was closer to him, and laid her head on his shoulder…"
The entire group was enthralled in the story, all leaning forwards eagerly.
"Then he turned his head slightly, and gently kissed the top of her head, and whispered `I love you'… I think he hadn't meant for her to hear him, but she did, and she sat up, looking at him with wide, shocked eyes "
"Carry on! Carry on!" Jacob encouraged, even though Ella had paused only for a breath.
"And he was scared then, worried that she didn't feel the same, so he stood up, and muttered an apology, and said he would leave…"
Dominic gasped with shock.
"It's okay," Ella assured him, "She too stood up, and she stopped him by lightly taking hold of his arm, and she offered him a huge, radiant smile, and said: `I love you too'. Then she stepped forwards and kissed him."
Another chorus of `aw!' was offered, as the children wiped tears from their cheeks.
"A few months later they got married, and they lived happily together for over forty years! But, sadly, when they were old, he got sick, and she took care of him, and he died in her arms…"
"Oh no," Polly whispered.
"Then a few years later, she died simply of old age, she'd had a good, long life And now, they're back together again."
Despite the sadness of the later part of the story, the children still managed to smile, pleased by the idea that these two people were now reunited.
At this point, Ella moved from her seat in front of them all, and sat down beside Dominic, so that each member of the group was now facing the swing.
"And the story goes that every year," she whispered, "on her birthday, just before one o'clock in the morning, the swing starts to move, and you can hear them laughing… and he sings `Happy Birthday' to her."
The children sat in silence, eager anticipation, and also apprehension, making their little hearts beat faster. Every now and again one of them would giggle excitedly, or shuffle a little as a chill ran down their spine. They were, simultaneously, intrigued and frightened; both wanting to witness the event Ella had just described, and unsure as to whether they actually wanted to observe a ghostly incident.
Minutes passed and the shuffling grew out of impatience.
"How much longer?" Jacob whinged.
"It's almost time," Ella replied. "Just be patient."
As it happened, they only had to wait a couple more minutes.
As Ella had said, just before one o'clock, the swing began to sway gently, and the light breeze sweeping through the trees carried with it sounds of laughter.
"Wow!" Madeline whispered, while Jacob looked around the garden for any sign of trickery.
Ella just closed her eyes and rested her head back waiting, listening. Moments later, she smiled and sighed happily as the soft sound of a male voice was carried to their ears. As the others whispered among themselves about their awe and amazement, the little blonde girl simply listened. Then when the song was over she looked toward the swing and whispered, "Happy birthday, Great-Grandma."