December 21st, 2011 (1:08 PM).
Good evening, or morning or whatever it happens to be where you are. My name is Robin J. Goodfellow, but most people – and by that I mean literally everyone – calls me Puck, for reasons that are rooted wholly in a silly reference to an outdated superstition that most people don't remember any more.
Er, where was I? Oh yeah, I'm doing a preface for this story that I'm directing. See, the Cutlerine said, you know, it's Christmas, and he's going to do a Christmas story, and then I said could I direct it, since I don't have much of a part in the story he's doing right now, and he said all right, did I have any ideas about what to do, and then I said we should do a story where I use the power of Christmas to take over the world.
And then the slimy traitor said that was stupid and we should do A Christmas Carol. So yeah, he's off my Christmas card list. Not that I send Christmas cards, but still. Actually, I don't send presents, either. I like getting them, though. There's a thing – if any of you adoring fans feel up to it, I wouldn't mind a few extra gifts this Christmas. I mean, I'm set to receive a knighthood, but y'know, I'd prefer a helicopter, or a battle droid, or Parmigianino's Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome. Mm, Mannerist altarpieces. That's the good stuff, that is.
Or I suppose I could steal all the gifts I want. It's just, I'm slightly concerned about how that would turn out. I mean, I knew this guy, I forget his name, but he tried to steal Christmas from the Whos – and he ended up getting infected with Christmas spirit. I know, it's a scary thought, right? I don't want to end up with a feeling of common brotherhood and shared humanity, God damn it! I just want the presents!
Oh yeah, I'm meant to be introducing the story. Er, what else was I meant to say? Let me just check the list... OK, so this story's tentatively rated 15 for dark stuff, swearing and spectral violence – hey, that's a really cool phrase, isn't it? 'Spectral violence' – and... yeah, that's it. Enjoy, peeps.
All the workers, that is, save for those in the employ of one Coriolanus Scrooge, who even now on Christmas Eve were doing something that may well have been the accounts in a cold, miserable office space on the fourth floor of Selgrove House.
“So, you say I have to play myself?” asked Coriolanus. “What are you implying—?”
“The plot's here!” hissed Puck, diving under a desk to hide. “Just go with the script!”
Coriolanus looked up, blinked, coughed and started writing in a large book at a calm, measured pace wholly at odds with the extreme cold in the room; equally strange was the fact that he used a book, when a desktop computer stood just in front of him. Perhaps he was so miserly that he refused to pay for electricity; he certainly refused to pay for heating, despite the fact that two employees had died of hypothermia the day before. In the real world, he would doubtless have been brought before the courts on criminal charges; here, where the plot was dictated by a Rotom of dubious moral rectitude, he had been allowed to go on quite readily.
Outside his office, in the cubicles, his three remaining workers shivered on through the company accounts (it seems I was right in my guess after all); they too had computers, but Coriolanus had forbidden their use to them, and they were using a combination of pocket calculators and abacuses. Two of these were irrelevant; their names were utterly unknown to anyone, and they were having trouble working their abacuses. For one, their fingers were frozen almost completely stiff with the cold, and for another, they didn't really know what an abacus was, and were having trouble identifying theirs among the other items on the desktop.
The third, however, was a stout and upright man – in spirit at least, for he was on the thin side, partly because he was still in the grip of a late teenage growth spurt, and partly because the pay he received from Coriolanus was so horrendously little that he and his family were condemned to rot in the blackest depths of poverty. This was the much-abused Kester Cratchit, and now, as his rigid fingers managed to poke a bead clean off the abacus in their frozen clumsiness, he sat back at his desk and decided that he really couldn't put up with it any more.
Kester took a deep breath, got up and went over to Scrooge's office; he knocked on the frosted-glass door, and received a curt 'Enter!' in return. He opened the door and crept in cautiously; the old man was sitting upright at his desk, still writing in the ledger.
“Sir?” asked Kester.
“What?” snapped Coriolanus. “I'm busy, Cratchit.”
“Uh, yeah, and I appreciate that, sir,” said Kester nervously, “but... I was just wondering if...”
“Spit it out, boy,” said Coriolanus. “I want to finish another chapter of this guidebook by tonight, and every moment of my time you occupy is a moment wasted!”
“Right,” replied Kester. “Uh, it's just that I – well, I'd like to clarify, since you haven't said anything – do we get tomorrow off?”
Coriolanus looked at him, puzzled.
“Why,” he enquired, “would you get tomorrow off?”
“Well, it's Christmas Day, Mr. Scrooge,” said Kester. “To be honest, most people have the whole week off.” He scratched his head. “In this country, anyway. Where I come from, they don't actually have Christmas, but this story requires me to be in London for some reason.”
“Christmas? Bah, humbug!” cried Coriolanus, thumping his fist against the table.
“You're overacting,” whispered Puck from beneath the desk.
“Bah, humbug,” repeated Coriolanus, less violently and more venomously.
“Mr. Scrooge, sir!” cried Kester. “It's Christmas Day!”
“Not in this office, Cratchit!” snapped Coriolanus. “Within these walls, there is no Christmas!”
“Oh, that's good,” whispered Puck. “Arceus' extraneous ornamentation, I am a fine director.”
Kester looked like he might argue for a moment – but in the end, fear won out over festive spirit, and he went silently away, back to his sums and the bitter cold that Coriolanus was, apparently, immune to. However, a few minutes later, he was back again.
Coriolanus slammed his pen down on the table and looked up sharply.
“What is it now, Cratchit?”
Kester shrank back a little, but still said:
“Uh – there's – there's a visitor to see you, Mr. Scrooge.”
“Who is it?”
“Your nephew, Mr. Scrooge.”
Coriolanus considered for a long moment, and then sighed bitterly.
“Fine, send him in.”
Kester withdrew, and in stepped a young man with dark green hair and a pale blue suit; he radiated good will and holiday cheer, although this could simply have been a larger-than-average quantity of infrared radiation.
“Uncle Scrooge!” cried this man, whose name you may already have guessed. “Uncle Scrooge, Merry Christmas!”
Coriolanus regarded him with more sourness than a bucket of vinegar.
“What do you want, Usher?”
“Do I need an excuse to offer the season's greetings at Christmas-time, Uncle Scrooge?” asked Usher House, for it was he.
“You do during business hours,” retorted Coriolanus. “I have accounts to do and a guidebook to write.”
“It's Christmas Eve,” said Usher. “Aren't you going to give that a rest?”
“But it's Christmas!”
“Humbug to Christmas!”
“Christmas, a humbug? Come on, Uncle, you don't mean that!” persisted Usher. “In fact, I'll be holding a little Christmas party tomorrow – nothing too special, you understand – but I was wondering if you wanted to come along?”
“I should rather bathe in acid,” he said at last.
“Oh, don't be that way,” Usher said. “You are my uncle, and it's not as if I have any other relatives to invite—”
“Or swallow a pipe bomb,” continued Coriolanus.
“Or plunge into the gaping mouth of a volcano.”
“Well, then,” said Usher quietly. “Merry Christmas, Uncle, and a happy New Year.”
“Or commit myself to the tender care of an angry dragon.”
Usher sighed tremendously, as if afflicted by some mighty woe too large for his human frame, and took his leave.
Coriolanus watched him go in silence, and returned to his work a moment later.
That evening, night fell early; it was the middle of winter now, and by five o'clock the world outside the office was a single large block of black. The working day drew to its inevitable close, and, as the time came for Kester and the unnamed clerks to be dismissed, the former once again came to his door.
“Is this about Christmas?” asked Coriolanus warily. He had had enough of Christmas today; it seemed to be all that anyone wanted to talk about it.
“Yeah, that's it,” nodded Kester. “Look, can we please have Christmas Day off? I know you said we couldn't, but... I probably just won't turn up tomorrow whether you give it me off or not.”
“Then you'll be out of a job,” replied Coriolanus.
“Yeah, but within the context of this story, you have to eventually give me the day off anyway, so you might as well do it now rather than after a long argument,” pointed out Kester. “It'll be boring for the readers, because basically they want to see which familiar character is playing which part – especially the ghosts. That bit'll be fun.”
“Oh, fine,” said Coriolanus. “You may have tomorrow off – with pay.”
“Thank you, sir!” replied Kester with feeling, and hurried off to tell the other clerks the good news. There came small sounds of rejoicing from outside; a firework was let off, and then the three men went on their way.
“Christmas!” sniffed Coriolanus. “Humbug!”
“All right, don't overdo it,” whispered Puck.
Coriolanus worked for another full hour before heading home; when he did so, it was only because he didn't want to spend any more on the electric lights. He walked alone through the building and down the stairs – no other companies kept their workers here on Christmas Eve – and out onto the cold, crisp evening air, where he was immediately accosted by a two men who looked suspiciously like idiots.
“Merry Christmas, sir!” cried one of them. “Now, you look like an intelligent sort of man—”
“Yes, very much unlike yourself,” replied Coriolanus dryly, but the man was undaunted.
“You're a wit,” he observed. “That's the sort of fellow we need, Blake! This is a man of intellect!”
“Like you,” said Blake, who was tall and broad and somewhat bald, much like a tombstone. “Wha' was tha' you said before, Fabien? Somethin' abou' a man bein' worth only as much as 'is brains?”
“Ah, the well-known expression,” Fabien said, beaming.
“There's no such phrase,” said Coriolanus cuttingly. “What do you two” – he looked them up and down – “gentlemen want?”
“Did you 'ear tha'? 'E called us gen'lemen!”
“Indeed he did, Blake, indeed he did. Now, sir, we represent a charitable cause, collecting money for the poor.”
Blake leaned forwards and said with a grin:
“We're makin' amends, you see. For a life o' crime.”
“So, in conclusion,” said Fabien, “we would like to request that you donate what you can, for the benefit of the poor and needy this Christmas Eve.”
“No,” replied Coriolanus straight away. “I've earned my money – and I shall keep it!”
Fabien and Blake looked at each other. They seemed astounded, or perhaps it was merely their slack-jawed idiocy.
“B-but sir,” said Fabien, spreading his arms wide in an optimistic attempt to broadcast some Christmas spirit over to Coriolanus, “the poor could well die in this cold weather!”
“Then they'd better do it now and decrease the surplus population!” retorted Coriolanus. “Good night, sirs!”
And with that, he stalked off through the quiet streets towards his home.
Fabien stared after him.
“There goes a fine man, Blake,” he said. “A fine, evil man.”
“I'm making the most of the part I've been given,” he explained. “Ad-libbing, you know.”
“Oh.” Blake raised his eyebrows; he didn't understand it, but doubtless Fabien knew what he was doing. “'Ere, look over there! That bloke looks rich, don' 'e?”
And the two charitable men rushed off to inveigle this personage into their scheme.
Coriolanus moved through the streets like a particularly angry and rather old Scyther; he stumped through the snow on aged legs and swept aside those in his path with his ivory-topped cane.
“What is it with Christmas that brings out all the urchins?” he grumbled to himself. “Damnable children!”
So saying, he smote a particularly cheerful child about the head and pressed past through the crowded streets.
“Out of my way!” he spat, smiting more people and spearing a snowman through the heart. “Out of my way!”
Puck watched, and pretended to chew his lip; he could not actually do so, for he possessed none to chew.
“I think he might be overdoing the 'evil old man' thing,” he muttered. “Then again, he actually is like that, so...” He attempted a shrug, found he had no shoulders, and retreated out of range of the narrative.
Coriolanus, having managed to beat a path through the Christmas revellers and dispatch a group of carol singers on the way, reached his home, which was one of those tall, thin houses that are far larger than they appear from without, and that achieve this by extending an extraordinary distance away from the street. Here on his doorstep, he paused to get out his keys – and froze on the spot.
Usually, the knocker on the door was a peculiarly ugly lion, clutching a ring in its jaws; tonight, however, there was a different face there, a round, shiny black sphere, utterly featureless and with a curious aura of menace about it.
There was no doubt that he was dead – of course he was dead. Coriolanus had no doubt of that; the doctor, the coroner and the clergyman had all been quite in agreement on that point, and he himself had been called in to identify the body. It had been a sudden death, but there was nothing suspicious about it; it was but an accident, a slip on the icy path and a broken neck. Coriolanus had been his partner for a long time, a very long time, and he knew well enough that he was dead, or else he'd have burst into the office and demanded his share of the quarter's profits.
But when Coriolanus looked upon that door knocker, there was no doubt that it bore the masked face of Zero Marley.
A sudden burst of heat flared on his brow, despite the freezing cold; he felt weak at the knees, and clutched his cane for support; he looked away in fear, and looked back to find—
—nothing. There was the brass lion and the brass ring in its mouth; there was no sign at all of any other face. Coriolanus stared at it for a moment, trembling slightly, and then uttered a somewhat subdued:
With that, he unlocked the door and hurried inside. He had had enough of winter nights for now.
Within, the house was calm and dark, which suited Coriolanus fine: darkness meant no money was going towards the electricity, and therefore that his coffers remained comfortably full. He walked carefully through into the drawing-room, where his meagre dinner awaited; he would have taken it in the dining-room, but he was eating little enough, and it took such a short period of time that it wouldn't be worth the setting and clearing away of the place at table. Some lingering fear made him, as he entered, look behind the curtain – but nothing hid there, and he took his seat in the knowledge that there was no unseen creature waiting for him to drop his guard.
It was at that moment that he heard the cellar door open.
Coriolanus started, and listened hard; he could hear something on the stairs now, a footstep and a dragging, clanking sound, the footfall of a man in chains.
“Humbug!” he exclaimed, but he was not nearly so sure of himself now.
Another door flew open with a bang, and now the footsteps were in the hall; the grinding sound of metal on the tiles, the ringing click of boot-heels on parquet, the swish and flap of hanging fabric—
“Humbug,” said Coriolanus weakly, and the door to the hall burst open just as a clap of thunder rolled out overhead, a second before the lightning—
And there in the doorway, silhouetted by the guttering light of the cheap candle Coriolanus ate by, was the unmistakeable form of Zero Marley.
“How mighty that padlock looks!” murmured Coriolanus; intellect warred with fear in his mind, and, for the time being, won out. “I see you're back. What do you want with me?”
“Apparently I'm dead,” replied Zero, removing his mask and revealing that he looked very much like a certain former Champion of Hoenn. “If I'm brutally honest, the Ghost of Marley is not really the role I had hoped to have in this story. I thought I would make an admirable Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”
Puck coughed pointedly from behind the wainscot.
“Zero! Do your bloody job, or I give the role to Birch!”
The apparition sighed, and nodded resignedly.
“Coriolanus, you are a sinner,” said Zero, taking a heavy step forwards under the weight of the chain. “Know ye who I am?”
“You didn't die that long ago,” hissed Puck. “Ten years tops! And no one in the Noughties said 'ye'!”
“Fine. Do you know me?” rephrased Zero.
“I know you,” replied Coriolanus. “You're Zero, Zero Marley – my partner, when you lived.”
“Hmph. I see from your reaction that you don't believe in me, my fellow.” Zero sat down with a clank on the chair opposite Coriolanus'. “Am I correct?”
“You are indeed.” Coriolanus was back in control now; it could not be possible that Zero sat here before him as in life. It was no more than a fantasy, a delusion springing from an undigested piece of cheese. For if this was not so, if Zero truly did walk among the living, then something horrific was happening, something unacceptable, and the consequences were unthinkable. “What do you want?”
“Much with you,” Zero replied. “These chains around me are the chains I forged for myself in life, Coriolanus – the very chains that you are in the process of forging for yourself!” At this, he leaped to his feet again, pointing one ivory-coloured finger squarely at Coriolanus' forehead.
Coriolanus shook, and glanced around feverishly, as if in the hope of being able to spy the chains hiding somewhere in the room; Zero, however, gripped his face with icy fingers, and turned it to face his.
“Your chains were as broad and long as mine when I died,” he said, in a cold, dark voice. “How many more feet have you wrought since then? How heavy the burden?”
There could no longer be any doubt in Coriolanus' mind that Zero was real; he could not tell himself that this was all a dream now, not with those fingers on his face like frosted iron. He tried to speak but could not; fear had stolen his tongue from him while intellect floundered for explanations, and his throat was closed so that he could barely breathe.
“I see now you have come to your senses,” said Zero, a chilling smile playing around his dead lips. “I have only one thing left to say to you, Coriolanus. Listen closely.” He relinquished his grip and took a few paces back before turning around to face him once more. “I always did like to give a man one last chance, one little shot at victory. So it is with you: tonight, at Christmas, you shall be visited by the first of three ghosts.”
“Th-three of you!” spluttered Coriolanus, finding his voice. “More like you?”
“I'm afraid I can't divulge their appearances,” replied Zero, smiling. “That would ruin the surprise. Expect the first spectre when the bell tolls one.”
“They come at intervals? Couldn't – couldn't I take them all at once?” pleaded Coriolanus. What a night of terror this would be; he was right to remove himself from Christmas-time, if this was what awaited him!
“The next will come the next night at one, and the final one at midnight on the next day,” continued the apparition, as if he hadn't spoken. “However, thanks to some tedious supernatural explanation, it should all seem to you like one long unalloyed night of terror. Good luck, Coriolanus. You'll need it.”
And a cluster of black flames appeared at Zero's feet, rushing over his body like hungry fish; where they passed, his body melted away, until a second later he was gone, and the room was dark and silent once again.
“Bit of a freaky Marley, wasn't he?” muttered Puck to himself. “Never seen such a... well, such a demonic portrayal before.”
“Oh yeah, we're still recording,” said Puck, and shut up.
Coriolanus sat for a long time in his chair, not moving from the position in which Zero had left him.
“Humbug,” he said at length, very softly, and got up to go to bed. It was now quite late, his trance state having lasted a good hour, and no sooner had his head touched the pillow than he was asleep.
Whether Zero had left in his head some supernatural alarm, or his nervous mind had woken him without him knowing, or he slept lightly enough that the bell disturbed him, Coriolanus would never know; all that he did know is that when he did awake, the bell had just begun to toll, and he knew the hour before it was done: one in the morning.
“There,” he whispered to himself, more out of a desire to break the silent night than out of belief in the truth of the sentiment, “the bell's rung, and no ghost! It was nothing at all, just a—”
“A dream?” finished an unfamiliar voice. “No such luck, I'm afraid.”
And a hand drew aside the curtains of his bed, and the hand took up his wrist and yanked him upright, and Coriolanus, eyes wide with shock and fright, beheld such a ghost as put that of Zero Marley to shame.
It came in a shape like that of a teenage girl, and it was robed in a tunic of such pure white that it hurt his eyes to look at it directly; in one hand it held a fresh green holly branch, and under that arm it carried a great snuffer. But none of this was so extraordinary as what it bore upon its head: a great white flame, shining like a fragment of summer held captive on its brow, and doubtless the reason for the aforementioned snuffer.
“What's this 'it' business?” asked the ghost crossly. “I'm a she, you moron.”
“Who – are you the Spirit whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Coriolanus fearfully.
“Yes, that's me,” replied the ghost. “You may call me—” She broke off and took a deep breath. “You may call me—” She stopped short of the line again, and drew together further dregs of courage. “I can't believe I agreed to this,” she muttered, and said at last in ringing tones: “You may call me the Ghost of Christmas Past!”
“Past?” Coriolanus' mind was whirring with possibilities. “The long past?” He was thinking of the Nativity.
“No, yours,” replied the Ghost of Christmas Past. She held out a hand. “Right! Come with me.”
“This is rather abrupt, Spirit—!”
“First off,” interrupted the Ghost, “just do what I tell you, OK? And secondly, I don't care what the script calls for, my name is Sapphire. All right? Sapphire.”
“Sapphire, I'm not really dressed for nocturnal ambulations—”
“For God's sake, how stupid can you get?” Sapphire snapped. “I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past, you moron. Where do you think we're going?”
And with that, she snatched up his hand; a great white flash spread across his vision, and Coriolanus cried out and covered his eyes.
When he had adjusted, he realised that it had not been a flash he saw, but the sudden replacement of the city with a large field of snow, above which he and Sapphire now floated. It was the day now, and for a long moment Coriolanus was so overcome with surprise that he couldn't think of anything to say at all.
“I – I know this place!” he stammered at last. “I lived here when I was young!”
“You still are young,” said Sapphire. “Let's take a look.”
“No!” cried Coriolanus in disbelief, but before he could say any more, Sapphire had dragged him down to the snowy streets of a little town amid the fields, and set him down on the cobblestones.
“Don't worry about those guys,” she said, pointing at the people who walked past. “This is a memory; they can't see us.”
Coriolanus stared, open-mouthed, at the buildings – so familiar to him, though he had seen them last so many years ago! – and the people, greeting each other in the street with a 'Merry Christmas' and a happy cheer; the wet, clean smell of country snow filled his nostrils, and the unmistakeable scent of Madam Gummidge's pie shop; he was bathing in the collected fragrance of his childhood, and though he didn't understand why, he felt a tear pricking in his eye.
“Well, that's a good start,” observed Sapphire. “It's Christmas Day, Coriolanus. You know where to go, don't you?”
Perhaps he dithered a touch too long, for Sapphire then cried:
“Oh, come on! It's your memory and you forget what happens? Come with me, then!”
Once again, she grabbed his hand and suddenly they were flying over the cobbles without ever quite touching them; they left the town, wound along a trail, and came in a moment to an ancient wooden house, standing grimly under its coat of snow like an old soldier that refused to die.
“Remember now?” asked Sapphire, but she didn't need to; Coriolanus had slipped in through the door without opening it, and was hurrying down the hall to the chamber at the end. All around him, the house was silent; there was only one person here today, and he knew exactly who it was.
There! Young Coriolanus, in the house of his two uncaring aunts but bereft of even a peach to call his own; he lay on the floor of his room, left looking emptier for the tidiness, and reading a great brown book with pages that curled at the corners.
“Oh!” cried Coriolanus, seeing again what he had seen that day. “That's it! The Legendary Pokémon, Arcanine!”
And it was, just as it had appeared in his mind's eye all those years ago; it burst in through the window, a great bundle of flame and energy, and let loose a mighty roar that was curiously devoid of sound.
“And the birds!” cried Coriolanus. “Of the storm, of the fires, of winter! And the legendary forgers of time and space! And the three beasts!”
For the first time since he was a boy, a childish delight in stories of monsters whirled about his head; he saw all the creatures of myth and reality that had danced in his mind that day actualised on the floor – and he very nearly expressed his sympathy for the boy curled on the floor, the one who sought solace in books from the reality that had turned its back on him.
He stumbled back a step and gasped; something pricked at his eyes, and there was a juddering in his chest, as if of something long dead coming back to life.
“What is it?” he whispered, not knowing what he was talking about; Sapphire rolled her eyes, muttered something about clichés, and said:
“All right, enough of this one. Let's see another Christmas!”
Another touch on his arm, another whirl through time and space; now they alighted in an office space very similar to Coriolanus' own, only without the computers and with a noticeable quantity of tinsel strung up around the ceiling. Sapphire pulled Coriolanus over and through a door, and in the office beyond they saw a man tapping heartily away at a typewriter, his green overcoat slung over a hook on the wall.
“It's Fezziwig!” cried Coriolanus. “As I'm alive, it's old Fezziwig!” He turned to Sapphire. “I was an intern here, you know, I was—”
“I really don't care,” replied Sapphire bluntly. “You're the one being haunted here, not me.”
Darren Fezziwig looked up abruptly, and for a moment Coriolanus thought he'd heard them – but he hadn't; he was merely checking the time on the clock that hung on the wall behind them.
“Time to stop, I think,” he muttered. “Coriolanus! Barry!”
“Barry?” exclaimed Coriolanus. “He interned here at the same time as me, Spirit—”
“It's Sapphire – and shut up and watch.”
A very large young man squeezed through the doorway, closely followed by a younger version of Coriolanus himself; at their entrance, Darren got to his feet and shrugged on his overcoat.
“It's Christmas-time,” he said, as if they didn't already know. “The office party will start soon; clear everything up and come with me.”
Coriolanus now would never have displayed the speed his younger self did in tidying the office, not unless money were involved; it was curious, he thought, that the mention of Christmas could once have affected him such!
“I can't be bothered to follow those three all the way across London,” Sapphire said. “We'll jump there.”
She touched his arm again, and now they were in the middle of a crowd, enthusiastically talking and dancing; music drifted by overhead; Christmas lights flashed, and all those employed in the business made merry around them.
“Who the hell says 'made merry'?” complained Puck, but then, since no one but the Cutlerine could answer this, was forced to be silent.
At Darren's command, the food and drink appeared; there was cake and a cold roast, and negus, though none knew what that might be, and mince pies, and plenty of beer. It was all very Dickensian. Coriolanus looked on his young self, whirling in the happy crowd, and felt something strange rise in his chest.
“What a man old Fezziwig was!” he said aloud, drifting with Sapphire to the rafters to watch from above. “He paid for it all himself, you know—”
“I know,” cut in Sapphire. “But what of it? It's just a few dollars. I mean, pounds. A few pounds.”
“No, but that's not the thing,” protested Coriolanus, in his haste speaking more like the version of him that danced below than the one that floated at the ceiling. “It's the happiness, Spirit—”
“Call me that again and I'll punch you.”
“The happiness, Sapphire, that's the thing,” continued Coriolanus. “Does it matter how much it cost, when we were made so happy?”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow so high it vanished into the flame on her head.
The party wound down below them, and Sapphire suddenly wavered, as if she were a picture on a faulty television screen.
“I don't have much longer,” she said. “Thank God. Anyway, let's see more.”
She took hold of his hand again, and now all at once they were underground, in a darkened cellar. Coriolanus knew where they were at once, and turned to Sapphire sharply.
“What is this? Why have you brought me here?”
“Watch,” she replied, and, having no other option, he did.
There he was, in his twenties; avarice was just beginning to draw the first few lines across his forehead, and to pinch his cheeks a little. Standing on the other side of the terrarium was a young woman with curly black hair, and she looked like she was currently in the grip of a fury as strong as that attained by the proverbial woman scorned.
“For God's sake, Coriolanus, it's always about the ****ing money with you, isn't it?”
Coriolanus blanched; he knew this argument well, and the series of attempts on his life that it had precipitated.
“I just don't want us to be poor—” his younger self began, attempting to stay calm, but the woman's anger swiftly reduced his reason to rubble.
“Who gives a ****?” she asked. “Who really gives a ****? We were just going to write a guidebook, Lan – out of love!”
“And look how much we're making out of it so far!” snapped Coriolanus back. “Nothing, that's how much – nothing at all! I'm just trying to make sure we don't starve; is that so much to ask?”
“It is when the money becomes more important than me,” replied his wife, her voice suddenly becoming very low and very dangerous, like a crouching tiger or hidden dragon. “I can't stand this any more, Lan. I think about when we used to dissect live Lillipup or make our own Slowbro, and...” She shook her head, and held up her left hand for him to see. “It's over,” she said, pulling off the ring, and walked out.
“It's not quite as good as the original, is it?” muttered Sapphire. “I don't think Victorian wives ever swore at their husbands.”
“Spir – Sapphire...”
Coriolanus grabbed her suddenly by the sleeves of her tunic.
“Why? Why do you delight in torturing me so?”
Sapphire regarded him with equanimity, and then spoke again:
“One more Christmas.”
“No!” cried Coriolanus, eyes widening. “No, no more, I—”
A comfortable sitting room, a fire roaring on the hearth, a cluster of children playing on the rug; an ex-wife, now somewhat older, sitting in an armchair by the fire, and a man coming in through the door, stamping snow from his shoes and bearing a large quantity of wrapped gifts in his arms.
“Sophia!” he called. “Kids! I'm back!”
There followed a heartwarming greeting of the sort that would have caused Puck physical pain to include, and the man began to lay the gifts beneath the tree.
“Sophia, you'll never guess who I saw today,” he said, as he worked. “No, Dylan, not now – you have to wait 'til tomorrow!” This last was directed at a small child, whom he deftly drove away from the presents with a touch of his finger.
“Who was it?” asked Sophia. “Who?”
“Hang on.” The man straightened up and regarded the mass of children that had glued itself to his legs. “I'll put the kids to bed first.”
He stumbled out of the room on legs covered in what appeared to be a beast made of child's limbs, and returned a while later, worn out from filial affection, to fall heavily into the chair opposite Sophia.
“Who did you see?” asked Sophia, and the man's face lit up with remembrance.
“Ah,” he said. “You have to guess. It's someone you used to know.”
“How am I meant to – oh.” Sophia's face hardened. “Coriolanus, right?”
“Right. Coriolanus Scrooge.” The man grinned. “I went by his office. Christmas Eve and he's working by candlelight, all alone. You know his partner's about to die?”
Sophia's mouth jerked upwards at one corner into a vicious little smirk.
“What's new?” she asked cynically. “He's always worked, and always alone. They'll probably stuff him when he's dead, so he can stay at his desk and imagine he's still working.”
At this, Coriolanus, who had been leaning forwards and gaping like the engrossed spectator he was, slumped back against the wall as if someone had cut his strings.
“Sapphire,” he whispered hoarsely. “Don't show me any more! I – just leave me be! Take me home, and leave me alone!”
“What's the matter,” began Sapphire snidely, but Coriolanus, seized by a sudden burst of anxious strength, grabbed the candle-snuffer from under her arm, and by some unknown instinct knew precisely what to do with it: he thrust it over her head and pressed his weight down upon it. But it was not enough; her light still burned brightly, shining out from under the cone and slicing through the dark like a knife.
“Out, out, brief candle!” hissed Coriolanus, which was probably an addition by Puck for the sake of a reference, and slammed the snuffer all the way down to the floor. The light vanished entirely, and he staggered back, suddenly exhausted; behind him, he felt the curtains of his bed, and fell through them to land on the covers, where he slipped into sleep almost instantly.
When he jerked awake on the very chime of the hour, Coriolanus' first thought was that he had somehow managed to sleep in until one o'clock, for such the bell was tolling; however, on rushing to the window, he found it as dark as midnight outside.
“What is this?” he muttered – and an instant later recalled Zero's prognostication that the duration of the three spirits' visitation would be compressed into one night for him. After his meeting with Sapphire, he had no doubt about the veracity of this claim, and concluded that it was the arrival of the second ghost that had brought him so abruptly into consciousness; he had had some experience now of the spirits' power, and he steeled himself for whatever it might be that would assail him next.
The wait was intolerable; nerves bit into him with iron teeth, and every moment of silence was an agony of tension. Coriolanus tossed and turned, and at length could stand no more; he flung the curtains of his bed aside, and demanded that the ghost appear.
At that moment, he suddenly perceived a light coming from outside the door, and so, taking up a stout cane in case this was a burglar rather than a ghost, he crept outside. The light was coming from beneath the door of the next room, and he laid his head against the door, trying to hear what was going on in there – but no sooner had he done so than a voice commanded him to enter. With some trepidation, Coriolanus turned the handle and stepped in, to behold a sight never before seen in the house of Scrooge.
It seemed that a fairy-tale feast had been emptied out into the room, and then another, and three more for good measure, until the food was piled up to the rafters: there was turkey, and goose, and even a swan; there were meaty things in aspic, and sweet things in jelly; there were puddings and cheeses and a vast twelfth-cake, which wasn't a lie; there was a sucking-pig and a string of sausages, three barrels of oysters and a heap of mighty lobsters; there were chestnuts glowing from the fire, and haunches of so many kinds of meat that one could have put them together to form a whole new animal. Behind them all, the biggest fire Coriolanus had ever seen blazed with preternatural light and warmth in the grate, and before them all, on a couch on the floor, sat a large apparition whose wide head flowed seamlessly into his body without the aid of a neck. His eyes were huge, his mouth was over-broad, and he wore a flowing mantle of green, edged with white fur. In one hand he bore a glowing torch carved of horn, and the fingers of the other he continually tapped against his knee.
“A Ludicolo in a robe?” queried Coriolanus, puzzled. Then he realised that this was, in fact, a man, albeit an exceptionally ugly and large one, and that he was beckoning him in.
“Come in!” cried the Ghost. “Come on into the warmth!”
Coriolanus stepped warily over the threshold, and asked:
“If – if you please, Spirit – who are you?”
His present politeness stemmed from his treatment by the last spirit; he was no longer quite the rude man he had been, at least to ghosts, and he wanted to be sure to make a good impression on this one.
“I am President Stone,” proclaimed the Ghost, which was somewhat confusing. Puck flitted out from behind a ham, whispered something in his ear and retreated again; nodding genially, Stone amended his previous statement: “But to you I am the Ghost of Christmas Present!”
Coriolanus looked upon Stone and wondered; he was so very ugly, and so very tall and broad, that he was quite as marvellous as if he'd possessed the beauty of the angels. Despite his hideousness, however, he had a warm (if creepy) smile and kind eyes; Coriolanus was sure that he could trust this ghost to treat him better than the first had done.
“You seem surprised,” observed Stone. “Haven't you seen anyone like me before?”
“No,” replied Coriolanus honestly. “Never.”
“None of my brothers?” Stone seemed, if anything, even more surprised than before. “Not a one of them?”
“No. Should I have? Have you many, Spirit?”
“None,” replied Stone.
Puck appeared to whisper in his ear again, and exited once more.
“What I mean by that,” Stone continued without pausing to draw breath, “is that I have a great many brothers. Over two thousand, in fact.”
“A large family indeed!” said Coriolanus. “Many mouths to feed there, I'll wager,” he added to himself, thinking of the finances.
Stone picked up a few kiwi fruits from a nearby heap, and a gleam came into his eye – but another prompt from Puck made him put them down, and rise to his feet.
“Come, then!” he said. “Touch my robe!”
Coriolanus did so, and in a trice the room vanished about them, leaving them standing outside in the snowy street on Christmas morning. There was no one about, and he stared around for a moment in some confusion.
“Ah,” said Puck, appearing beside them. “Er, this bit doesn't work so well if you set it in 2011, really; the whole 'buying goods and food on Christmas Day' thing is pretty 19th Century. Skip ahead to the Cratchits' house, would you?”
With that, he vanished back to his hiding place, and Stone shrugged, turned to Coriolanus and commanded once again:
“Touch my robe!”
This he did, and suddenly they stood in the hallway of an apartment building, outside flat number 117; Coriolanus recognised this at once as the registered abode of Kester Cratchit, and watched in amazement as Stone tipped his torch to the door, and poured a curious powder over it.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Exactly what it seems to be,” Stone replied.
“Is there some significance in it?”
“There is indeed, in that it comes from me, and you know who I am.” Stone paused to think about that. “Although I must confess that I've forgotten that already.”
“You're the Ghost of Christmas Present,” Coriolanus reminded him in a whisper.
“Ah yes, of course.” Stone beamed. “Let us see how their Christmas is, shall we?”
Somehow they ended up on the other side of the door without either of them moving, and Coriolanus noted that Stone, despite his prodigious size, somehow contrived to fit between floor and ceiling without bowing his head – something he had to put down to his spectral nature.
There was Mrs. Felicity Cratchit, in a ragged blue dress done up to look as good as was possible given its condition, laying the table, in which endeavour she was assisted by the second-eldest of her daughters, Natalie, who had not known she was fictional before this story began construction, and consequently looked somewhat bewildered.
And there was the eldest son of the family, tending to the saucepan of potatoes; owing to Puck having forgotten that this part existed and so having cast every other character before coming to it, Master Rono Cratchit was a Lairon, and he was therefore having a little difficulty with the spoon. He wore a neat shirt loaned to him by his father in honour of the occasion, and had already burst four buttons from the front of it with the movement of his massive chest.
All at once, the two youngest Cratchits, a boy and a girl who were both, for reasons of economy, superfluous background Sableye, burst into the room from outside, shouting about how they had seen their goose on its way. They circled around Rono Cratchit, and commended him in childish ways about the smell of his potatoes; he gave them a terrifying iron-toothed smile, and dropped the spoon again.
“OK, that bit needs work,” murmured Puck from within the cupboard. “That doesn't really scream 'Christmas spirit' at me so much as 'I eat children'.”
“Where's Kester, I wonder?” worried Felicity. “And your sister, for that matter – and your brother!”
This last was directed at Natalie, who had no ready answer and so merely smiled awkwardly.
Just then, there came a knock at the door, and the two small Cratchits ran off through Coriolanus' legs to answer it; they brought with them a slender young woman with black hair in a shabby dress.
“Mum! Sebastian's here!” cried one of them, and the other immediately repeated it in reverse order:
“Sebastian's here, Mum!”
“Oh, Sebastian!” cried Felicity, hugging her eldest daughter before she had so much as removed her coat. “We've been expecting you for two hours now!”
Sebastian glowered sullenly, and wrenched open the cupboard door to speak to Puck.
“Why am I a woman?” she asked angrily. “This is not what I—”
“I ran out of female characters and you look like a girl,” replied the Rotom. “If you don't like it, you can quit, of course – but I can pretty much guarantee you won't work for the Cutlerine again if you do.”
Sebastian glared at him for a moment, then slammed the door shut and turned back to Felicity.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “I was working late all night – I only got away just now.”
“Well, you're here now, and I suppose that's all that matters,” replied Felicity, taking her coat from her and handing it to Natalie to hang up. “Get over by the fire, it's freezing out there!”
At this moment, the door opened again, and Coriolanus saw the familiar figure of Kester Cratchit appear in the doorway, dressed in threadbare finery and with a ragged old scarf wound about his neck; on his shoulder he bore his youngest son, Tiny Malvolio, whose leg had been left in a metal brace by polio, and who bore a little crutch in his spiny arms.
“I'm home!” he called, setting Malvolio down on the floor, where he was immediately hurried over to the fire by the two other Sableye children; everyone in the family knew of his frailty. “Hey, Sebastian's here!”
“I wish I wasn't,” muttered Sebastian.
“Hug your daughter, Kester!” hissed Puck from the cupboard; Kester looked like he would really rather not, and hesitated – but at length he did so, swiftly and somewhat gingerly, before going over to his wife and hugging her instead, with much more gusto.
“How was little Malvolio?” asked Felicity.
“All right,” replied Kester. “He was, uh, pensive, I guess you could say. He said that he hoped seeing a cripple in the church would remind people of Jesus healing the lame at Christmas-time.” He smiled to himself. “Oh, he's growing up strong, Lizzie, very strong.”
Felicity smiled back, and he hugged her again. Then, he moved over to the kitchen area, and began to compound some mixture in a jug with gin and lemon, which he laid on the hob to simmer. While he was doing this, his son Rono and the two tiny Cratchits left to pick up the goose, and when they returned with it, such a commotion went up as would have convinced the most sceptical observer that no such bird had ever been sighted in this household before.
“Oh,” said Kester, staring at it. “So that's what a goose is.”
Chairs were pulled up and the family rushed to the dining-room; the gravy was heated, and Rono mashed the potatoes with every ounce of power in his stony limbs, inadvertently destroying part of the kitchen in the process. The family gathered around the table, took their seats, and waited with bated breath for that first cut – and when Felicity stabbed the carving-knife deep into the fowl's breast, the whole lot of them, from Kester to Tiny Malvolio, let out a cry of exultation, as if the goose were full of Christmas spirit, and it had spilled out with the slice in a rushing wave to fill the room.
The whole Cratchit family ate, and were of one opinion: this had been the finest goose ever cooked by the hand of man, not only in terms of size and flavour, but in terms of cheapness; that such an astounding goose could be had by even such people as them was one of the great mysteries of life, Kester avowed.
Despite the large size of the family, the goose fed them all well enough, and once it had done so, Natalie changed the plates for clean ones while Felicity went to the kitchen to fetch the pudding – and this went down as well, if not better, than the goose, for it cunningly contrived to improve its entrance by allowing a massive burst of steam to escape the saucepan with it, which made the proceedings far more impressive.
The pudding was excellent; no one said anything against it, especially not that it was a rather small meal for such a large family – to say that would be nothing less than treason. Sebastian did sulk a little, but this must be put down to his current sex, rather than any flaw in the pudding.
At last, the meal was done, and the table cleared away to provide space for the chairs to be drawn close to the fire; now, the compound from the jug was tried and pronounced good, and then the family each took some of it from their extensive collection of glassware – that is to say, two old cups and one old jug without a handle, which was partly derived from the original story and partly a reference that Puck had inserted on the sly.
However, they drank from these chipped vessels as if they were crystal decanters, and Kester raised his glass to the family.
“Merry Christmas, and God bless!” he said, and Tiny Malvolio echoed him in a rather frightening little voice that sounded like a baby industrial excavator.
“Merry Christmas,” he rasped, and he sounded on the verge of death. “God bless us, every one.” He sat close to Kester, and his small talon enclosed Kester's fingers in a tight grip.
“Spirit,” said Coriolanus, breath catching, “tell me – does Malvolio live?”
“Eh?” Stone appeared to have forgotten where he was. “Oh? What's going on?”
“You're the Ghost of Christmas Present,” Coriolanus reminded him patiently. “Tell me if Tiny Malvolio will live.”
“Oh,” Stone said amiably. “All right, then. Um, I see a vacant seat, and a crutch leaned against the chimney-breast, carefully preserved.”
“Oh, God!” cried Coriolanus. “You mean—?”
“Yes, the kid dies,” replied Stone merrily. “Poor people are funny like that, aren't they?”
“No, Spirit, tell me that he lives!”
“If he is to die,” said Stone mildly, “then he'd better do it now and decrease the surplus population!”
Coriolanus' voice dried up in his throat, and he leaned against the wall; to have his own words turned against him was the bitterest blow thus far, and he could speak no more, only listen to the Cratchits in their merriment as Kester proposed a toast.
“To Coriolanus Scrooge,” he said. “Whose money's paying for this Christmas!”
“To Scrooge?” asked Felicity incredulously.
“Yeah, actually, you're right,” agreed Kester. “He's a terrible person, isn't he? But... it's Christmas Day, and he's made it happen, so... to Scrooge!”
The toast was drunk without cheer, and the family moved swiftly onwards: whether Coriolanus had financed their festivities or not, none of them liked him.
Then they set to talking; they spoke of Sebastian's apprenticeship at the milliner's, which was an ancient business that looked set to give her precisely zero prospects in life; they spoke of a situation Kester had in mind for young Rono, which might see him earning at least the minimum wage, and they wondered what Rono would do when he came into possession of this fabulous sum; they spoke of the preparation of the food for today, and how Felicity had worked for hours beforehand on improving the pudding. After that, they sung Christmas carols, and Tiny Malvolio, whose hoarse voice continually sounded as if it were about to give out in a puff of ash, seemed to sing the hardest, so that the song fairly burst out of him like a foetal alien.
“I wasn't sure about that line,” Puck whispered confidingly to you, “but I think it's actually turned out really well. I mean, you can't go wrong with an Alien reference, can you?”
And Coriolanus watched and listened, and all the while his mouth hung open; the Cratchits weren't an attractive family, and the plaster on their walls was cracking, and the electricity only worked on occasion, and their clothes were little more than rags and patches – and yet still the Christmas cheer pervaded them, as if they were kings and queens in a golden palace!
“It's getting dark,” coughed Stone. “And we're apparently not done yet. Touch my robe!”
Coriolanus did, his eyes fixed on Tiny Malvolio to the last, and all at once they were in the corner of another room, this one large and well-appointed – and belonging to his nephew, in whose company were a considerable number of merry (and somewhat drunken) guests.
“... and he said that Christmas was a humbug!” finished Usher, to uproarious laughter among the guests. “No, don't laugh!” he protested indignantly. “It's downright sad, that's what it is!”
“He's a nasty old man,” said someone else. “I wouldn't worry yourself about him, Usher.”
“He's quite funny, actually, though he doesn't mean to be.” Usher paused to sip at his wine. “No, I have no quarrel with him; the only one he really hurts is himself, you know.”
“Oh, that can't be right,” said his wife – so Coriolanus presumed, although he had never met her, and had no idea what her name might be. “He's ever so rich, isn't he?”
“It doesn't do him any good,” replied Usher. “He must have millions in the bank, and he refuses to turn the radiators on because he doesn't want to pay for the hot water!”
Another peal of laughter went around the room, and Coriolanus turned away, cheeks smarting; he touched them, and realised that for the first time in years he was flushed with emotion.
“Merry Christmas to the old man, wherever he is,” Usher said, raising a glass. “If he knew I said it, he'd throw it right back at me – but he can have it anyway. To Uncle Scrooge!”
Stone coughed hard, and bent double with the effort; as his head tipped into the light, Coriolanus noticed that his hair had turned grey, and his skin had loosened on his bones.
“I told you before, I have had many brothers,” he said, clearing his throat and straightening up with difficulty. “Our lives must each end with midnight on Christmas.” He coughed again, and all at once they were standing on a frosted moor, far from anywhere Coriolanus recognised. Here, Stone set his torch in the ground and leaned heavily on it, his breathing laboured, just as a distant clock chimed a quarter to midnight.
Now, Coriolanus noticed something strange happening about Stone's nether regions. This was not nearly as lewd as it sounds; it was merely a strange shivering and quivering about the bottom of his robe, as if some imp had scuttled in under the mantle and was busying himself with making some demonic mischief.
“Spirit, there appears to be some... commotion under your robe.”
“Eh?” Stone looked down, and started in surprise. “Good grief! What on earth is that? Oh. Yes, I remember; that nice Rotom said something about this. Come on, look upon them!”
“What are they?” asked Coriolanus fearfully. “Is – is that a claw protruding from your robe?”
“I honestly have no idea,” said Stone, furrowing his now-ancient brow. “I remember they are something to spur your moral senses, but I don't know anything else, I'm afraid.”
He reached down and tugged two small figures out from under his mantle, and Coriolanus shrank back in fear: in shape, they were something like humans, but something had twisted them almost beyond all recognition; they were thin and ragged and hideous, their features twisted and monstrously distorted, and their lower legs bloated with the pus of a thousand infected wounds.
“Good God!” cried Coriolanus. “Why have you brought a pair of Medicham before me like this?”
“Actually, I think they're human children,” Stone said helpfully. “Just rather poor and ill ones.” He pondered for a moment. “Ah yes, that's it! They're a boy and a girl, Ignorance and Want. They're the children of Man!”
“What?” Coriolanus stared at them and at Stone in abject horror. “Is there nowhere for them to go?”
Stone began to cough violently, and fell to his knees, the flesh withering on his bones.
“By your rules,” he spluttered, as the demonic children squealed and leaped away from him in fear, “there would be none!”
Each cough brought forth blood now, and a quantity of sawdust; the resultant paste spattered over the frozen grass in ragged chunks as the bell began to toll.
“No!” cried Coriolanus. “This – it was not me who did this!”
Stone, supporting himself with his hands now, raised his head with one mighty effort, and rasped out:
“Not you? Then who, man?” Ignorance and Want pawed at his face in agitation, mewling piteously; Stone looked from one to the other, and raised a shaking finger to point at Coriolanus. “Children! You seek a father; this man is the one who made you!”
The bell tolled twelve, and Stone blew out a great plume of blood, collapsing to the ground as his skin turned to something resembling paper and his bones to glass. At the same moment, Ignorance and Want turned their twisted faces to Coriolanus' own, and he backed away in fear and loathing at the sight—
“Whoa,” said Puck. “I never thought the old boy had it in him. Good one, President Stone.”
Coriolanus stood alone on the moor now, his scream dying on his lips. He had no idea where Ignorance and Want had gone, and he didn't care either; as long as they were gone, he could cope.
Suddenly, he perceived a distant figure, approaching silently across the moor; he remembered the words of Zero Marley, and eagerly strode towards it.
“I've had the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present,” he said, “I presume I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?”
The Ghost did not answer, but drifted closer; now he could make out the shape of a long black robe and hood, covering a body that seemed to bring with it a soul-harrowing chill. All he could make out of it was a single hand, protruding from one sleeve; it was far too large to be a human hand, and, moreover, was both as white and as flat as a sheet of fresh new paper.
It still made no reply, and Coriolanus could say no more; he felt a sense of horror and dread come over him, and he observed with a certain detached terror that the sleeves of the Ghost's robe were rooted in its hood. Whatever lay beneath, it was most certainly not human.
He scrabbled mentally, and found a voice; it was not his own, however, but altogether more tremulous. Since it was all he had, though, he stuck with it and asked:
“Am I right in thinking that you are here to show me shadows of things yet to pass?”
The Ghost inclined its head in a slight nod, and turned to point away. Coriolanus took a step forward, but his legs betrayed him and he had to stop. His spectral guide paused, as if to let him recover; Coriolanus, however, did not want to wait – he would rather have this vision over with than linger with this monstrosity.
“Lead on!” he cried hoarsely. “Lead on!”
The Ghost moved away, and the folds of its cloak blew up around Coriolanus, wrapping him for an instant in an embrace of unimaginable cold; the next thing he knew, the city had appeared around them, and they stood in a snowy street at midday. Coriolanus might have thought that the phantom would be less terrifying by day – but if anything it was more so; in the night, a ghost was almost to be expected, and a man could imagine one even if it weren't there. By day, however, a ghost was so out of place, so very wrong, that it made him sick to the kernel of his soul.
“What would you have me do?” he managed, and the Ghost pointed toward a group of merchants passing by. Glad to have an excuse to get away from it, Coriolanus hurried over to them, and heard them speak:
“... can't think who'll actually attend,” one was saying.
“I know,” agreed his companion. “It's not likely to be worth it, anyway. It'll probably be a miserable affair.”
“You can say that again,” put in a third. “You know, I do believe he brought it all upon himself. I've heard it said he still refused to heat the place, even on his deathbed!”
“What delicious irony,” observed the first, somewhat sinisterly. “He wounded himself by his own selfishness!”
The merchants burst out laughing, and the first and third bumped fists in a very un-Victorian manner.
At this, the Ghost cut across Coriolanus' vision once more, and it glided down the street; it led him through the streets of the city, into a mean and disreputable district, until they came upon a dingy funerary parlour. They entered this place, and Coriolanus beheld a small and dirty counter, behind which a woman of middle age and an ancient-looking gentleman were deep in conversation.
“Well, there's nothing wrong with looking after yourself,” the woman said. “I mean, by all accounts he always did.”
“No denying that,” agreed the man. “In fact, I'm pretty certain no one else even comes close to him in that respect.”
“And it's not like anyone will notice...”
“No indeed.” The old man grinned; his teeth were yellow and brown, and piled up in his mouth like mouldering logs. “I don't know why you need to justify yourself. If anything, he deserves it. His cleaner found him, didn't she? And I've heard it told that she helped herself pretty freely to the silver.”
The woman hesitated, and then nodded.
“All right,” she said, and the two of them went through a door at the back; Coriolanus glanced at the Ghost, and, since it pointed after them, he followed.
Beyond was a darkened room and a long steel table; on this table, in the light of a flickering lamp, Coriolanus could just make out the sheet-covered shape of a corpse.
“He came here in a fine suit,” said the old man, holding a shirt up for the woman to see.
“Oh yeah,” nodded the woman. “It'd – it'd be a waste to bury someone in that, wouldn't it?”
“Right,” agreed the old man, picking up a pair of pliers. “I'll get his fillings out, you grab the watch.”
The cloth was pulled back, and Coriolanus turned away in disgust and horror as the old man moved in for the wrenching.
“I understand,” he said. “This poor wretch could be me, if I continue in my present ways – I get it!” He hadn't seen it enter, but the phantom was at his side now, and the unseen eyes within its hood were definitely firmly locked on his own. From behind him, Coriolanus heard the sound of breaking enamel, and winced. “Take me away from here!” he implored the Ghost. “Can there be no tenderness in death?”
The Ghost rose up into the air, its cloak spreading out around it; once again, black fabric snaked across Coriolanus' vision and an icy wind shot clean through his heart – and then they were once again inside the Cratchit apartment. The young Cratchits were in the corner, listening to Rono reading to them in a voice like landslides; Felicity and her two older daughters were by the fire, sewing. A ghastly chill lay over the whole apartment; doubtless some of it was due to the frightful presence of the Ghost, but there could be no doubt that at least an equal part was due to the fact that the fire was down to the last log, and there seemed to be no more to replace it.
That was not all that was wrong with the room: the whole place was horribly, deathly quiet, and as Rono stopped reading, it intensified a thousandfold. Coriolanus looked around, gripped by a sudden sense of unease, but could not yet work out what it was that disturbed him so; he asked the spirit, but it remained impassive as ever, and his only recourse was to listen to the Cratchits.
“Is this really what English entertainment is?” asked Sebastian. “I thought they had TV here.”
“Your face has TV here,” replied Puck. “Just do as you're told!”
He shot up the chimney to hide, and Felicity laid her work aside, blinking hard.
“It's a strain by candlelight,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “But I can't let Kester see...”
Rono shut the book.
“He is slowing,” he said, in that strange and awesome voice. “He limps now, Mother.”
“Ssh,” replied Felicity. “I hear him coming now...”
She took up her sewing again, just as the door opened and Kester walked in.
“Limp! Limp!” hissed Puck, and Kester did so; he limped through the front room and the doorway, and all the way across the room to the fireside, and finally, in a limping sort of way, he sat down heavily on his chair. “Might be too much limping there,” remarked Puck thoughtfully, “but never mind – on we go!”
The two youngest Cratchits pressed their clawed hands against Kester's face, as if to try and warm him up; he suppressed the urge to flinch, and spoke with only mildly forced cheer to them.
“You're doing well, girls,” he said, looking at Felicity, Natalie and Sebastian. “Looks like you'll be done before Sunday.”
Sebastian gave him the finger, and Puck gave her a mild electric shock, that she might better remain in character.
“Sunday?” queried Felicity. “It's – it's ready, then?”
Kester nodded, and gave a sad smile.
“It's done, yes,” he said. “At his head a green-grass turf, at his heels a stone. It's a good place, Lizzie – you must visit sometime, it'll do you good to – to see...”
He trailed off, head bowed, and a dark thought crept unbidden into Coriolanus' head; his eyes moved, as if under a compulsion from some higher power, over to the chimney-breast – and yes! There it was, just as Stone had said: that tiny crutch, propped up as if its owner had left it there for a mere moment; in an instant, Coriolanus knew with an awful certainty that the clothes the girls were sewing up were Malvolio's best, and that they were being repaired for him to be buried in.
“Spirit!” he cried. “I see it now, I see it all! Take me away!”
But the Ghost pointed on, and Coriolanus could do nothing but watch.
“I met Mr. Scrooge's nephew today,” Kester said. “Mr. House, his name is. He was so kind, Lizzie – a very nice man. He saw as I passed that I looked a – a little out of sorts, and he asked what was the matter.” He paused, and stared at the single flame in the fireplace. “He asked so nicely, I told him, and he said – he wished us well, and he gave me his card, in case, he said, there was anything he could do to help us.”
“He could get Rono a good job, I bet!” said Natalie, who still looked faintly surprised (perhaps at discovering that hers was a speaking part).
“I think so,” replied Kester. He smiled sadly. “Even now, Malvolio's still helping as best he can,” he said. “Oh, God forbid we should ever forget him!”
“Spirit,” said Coriolanus quietly, falling to his knees. “I don't know how, but I sense that our time together is ending. Tell me who the man is that died, who the merchants mocked and the undertakers robbed! If I can learn of him, then I can avoid his fate, or warn him now before these shadows come to pass; I beseech you, tell me!”
“Oh, he's really got into the character, hasn't he?” whispered Puck to Kester. “He's even speaking all Scroogeian now.”
Now the Ghost's cloak wrapped itself around him once more, and Coriolanus found himself transported to a small and dirty churchyard, where the ground was three feet higher than the street with all the corpses it had swallowed; between him and the wall of the church was a lonesome tombstone, chipped and worn with years of neglect, and struggling to remain upright under a thick coat of moss and lichen. He took a step towards it, and then paused to turn back to the Ghost.
“Before I do this,” he said nervously, “are these shadows of things that will pass, or things that may?”
The Ghost merely pointed.
“Can I change this?” Coriolanus demanded to know. “Please tell me that I can!”
Still the phantom pointed, and Coriolanus turned, shivering with cold and fear, to the grave; he knelt, and pulled aside the weeds that choked the stone – and fell back upon the dank earth in a heap.
“No!” he cried. “It – Spirit, was I the man on that table?”
The Ghost simply pointed at the name once more, engraved in letters austere and tall upon the stone:
“No!” cried Coriolanus again. “I – I'm not that man any more!” He scrabbled in the dirt, frantically turning back to the spirit. “What is this torture? If I cannot be saved, why show this to me?”
The Ghost rose up, suddenly becoming at least eight feet tall, and its cowl moved from side to side as if the head within shook.
“Oh, thank you!” said Coriolanus, tears of relief coursing down his weathered cheeks. “There's still time, then? Time to change?”
In his desperation, he clutched at the ghost's robe, and suddenly the whole thing seemed to spread out in all directions, and a moment later, he discovered he was holding two fistfuls of the curtains of his bed, and that the bright light of morning was streaming in through the window.
For one long moment, Coriolanus remained there, sobbing with a depth of emotion never before wrought from his shrivelled heart – and then he leaped to his feet, and began to dress with all the speed of a summer storm.
“Let's see,” he said, fingers stumbling feverishly over buttons. “There's so many amends to make, and—” he broke off, realising he had no idea what day it was, for his sense of time had been slain, stripped of edible meat and mounted on the wall as a trophy by the visitations of the three Ghosts. “Good God!” he exclaimed. “When am I?”
So saying, he rushed downstairs and burst out of the front door without even stopping to put on his hat; he grabbed hold of the first person he saw, a moon-faced youth with a lazy eye, and asked him:
“What day is it?”
The boy was understandably taken aback at this, and replied with only incomprehensible gibberish; Coriolanus repeated the question, and the boy said:
“You thick or summin'? It's Christmas Day, you daft codger!”
“Yes! That's me, all right – a daft codger!” Coriolanus released the boy to do a joyous pirouette, and then grabbed him again before he could escape. The whole thing was impressively quick. “Look here,” he said, suddenly business-like. “Do you know the butcher's around the corner?”
“Are you a paedophile?” asked the boy, wide-eyed.
“Oh, come on, boy!” cried Coriolanus. “Show some Christmas spirit! Do you know the butcher's or not?”
“Yeah, I do!”
“Is that prize turkey still there? The one that's so fabulously large it was mistaken for a boiled hippopotamus when it first arrived?”
“Yeah, they can't get it out the door—”
“Then go and buy it for me!” said Coriolanus, pulling out his wallet, which he kept ever close to his heart in his breast pocket, and thrusting a large number of banknotes into the boy's hands. “Go and buy it, and have the man come here, so that I can tell him where to take it!”
The boy looked at him, weighed up the odds of him being able to steal the cash, decided he didn't want to get on the wrong side of the lunatic who currently held him captive and ran off to do his bidding.
“Ah!” said Coriolanus, watching him go. “Yes, this will be a merry Christmas indeed for the Cratchits; they shan't know who sent it, and have leftovers enough to last 'til Easter!”
A moment later, the butcher returned, looking somewhat dazed by the amount of money he held in his hand; Coriolanus, with all haste, scribbled out the address for him and beheld the turkey in all its glory. It was unnaturally, monstrously large: it resembled nothing so much as a beached whale, and it must surely have died of suffocation as its lungs collapsed under their own weight; this met with the utmost approval from Coriolanus, and he immediately called a cab to have the turkey and its bearers transported to Camden Town. He sent it off with a laugh, and to look at him you would never have guessed that he had just spent over a hundred pounds.
Immediately – for Christmas Day is only so long, and there was no time to waste – Coriolanus rushed back inside, and finished dressing and shaving; he set his hat upon his head and took his cane in hand, and was back in the street before a quarter-hour had passed. So merry did he look that more than one person was emboldened to wish him the season's greetings, and he replied in kind with a broader smile than any had ever seen upon his face before.
A few minutes later, he came across the two gentleman idiots he had met the day before; today, they had a Crobat following them, looking depressed and with tinsel hanging from its wings.
“Eeek,” it said despondently, alerting its masters to Coriolanus' approach.
“It's the evil old gentleman!” cried Fabien, leaning back and pointing a quivering finger squarely at Coriolanus. “Blake, run! Save yourself!”
“No, no!” replied Coriolanus. “Stay a moment. How much did you raise last night? I hope it was enough. Here,” he went on, without pausing for breath, “I see by your reaction that my fears are well-founded, and that you are full of loathing for me now. But here, let me give you a late donation.”
He whipped his cheque-book from his pocket and, tearing out a leaf, handed it to Fabien, who read it, started to put it away and then, realising quite how many zeroes there were on it, read it again and managed to choke on his own tongue. He looked from the cheque to Coriolanus, and then at Blake, and then back at Coriolanus; seeing this, Coriolanus let out a rather jolly laugh.
“It's fine,” he said. “Think nothing of it. After all, it's Christmas Day!”
“Can you be serious?” asked Fabien, recovering his senses. “Do you realise how much this is?”
“I'm quite serious,” replied Coriolanus. “It covers this year's donation, plus about forty years of missed payments.” He tipped his hat to the pair of charitable fools, wished them a merry Christmas and went on his way.
“The Devil bless you, sir!” cried Fabien after him; his grasp of Christianity was somewhat tenuous, though he liked to pretend otherwise, and Puck gave him a sound electrocution for his mistake.
“That's two settled,” muttered Coriolanus, continuing down the street at a rapid pace. “Now I've just a couple more, and I can settle down to enjoying Christmas!”
He went to church, and sang the loudest of anyone; he wandered through the streets, watching the people come and go, and peering in at windows to see the Christmases of others; he was caught in a flurry of falling snow, and laughed as it settled on his shoulders and his hat. Never had he dreamed that anything could have afforded him such delight as that walk – but it was to be topped that afternoon, when he turned his wandering feet towards his nephew's house.
The surprise on Usher's face when Coriolanus rang the bell had to be seen to be believed; though he asked politely to be let in, knowing how he had treated Usher in the past, his nephew enfolded him in such a hug as almost crushed the life from the old man, and within five minutes Coriolanus was as much at home as if he had lived here all his life. One by one, the guests arrived, and each and every one was as surprised to see Coriolanus there as Usher himself – more so, for Usher's tales had built up an image of a demonic ogre in their head, a veritable dragon who would sooner have burnt Christmas to ashes than partaken of the merest mince pie.
Such was Coriolanus' Christmas Day, and with such festivities it was a miracle that he managed to be early to work the next day – but he was, and lay in ambush for Kester Cratchit by the elevators from the lobby.
“You're late, Cratchit!” he snapped as the doors opened; Kester started, and almost fell out of the lift.
“Er, I'm sorry, Mr. Scrooge,” said Kester, stepping out and fidgeting anxiously with the buttons of his coat. “I was quite drunk last night, and—”
“I won't stand for it,” growled Coriolanus, turning his back on him and stalking away, as had been his custom before the spirits had come. “And consequently, I've come to a decision.”
Kester's blood froze, and he reached for the gun—
“I'm going to raise your salary!” cried Coriolanus, spinning on the spot to face him. “Merry Christmas, Kester!”
“Huh?” Hurriedly, Kester thrust the gun behind his back and smiled. “Yes! Oh, I thought you were going to—”
“Fire you? Hah! A Christmas joke, Kester, a Christmas joke.” Coriolanus laid his hand upon his shoulder and led him in. “No, I shall raise your salary, and see what I can do to help your family. In fact, let's discuss it right now – I've prepared a good warm bowl of smoking bishop...”
And as Coriolanus led him in, Kester noticed that the lights were on and the radiators all aglow with warmth; the computers had all been switched on, and sat humming to themselves on the desks next to the rubbish bins full of abacuses.
So it was with him ever after that: no more spirits visited Coriolanus but that of good cheer, but he was a changed man from that day forth. Some, of course, were cynical about it all, and maintained it was an attempt to secure himself a place in Heaven before he finally died; others said it was genuine, that a Christmas miracle had occurred and turned London's greatest miser into its greatest philanthropist. Coriolanus, of course, let them think what they would: he was wiser now, and cared nothing for the opinion of others, only for the warm glow of human kindness and generosity.
“All right,” said Puck through gritted teeth. “That's more than enough of that. It's bad enough that we had to do a tale about humanity and compassion – you don't need to rub it in my face. Come on – let's finish this with an aerial shot of snowy London, then have the camera rise to look at the sky and—”
Fade to black.
Oh my Arceus, that was awful. I mean, honestly! There were three good performances there – Coriolanus, Stone and Skuld. Everyone else was just horrendous. Sheesh. Why the hell does the Cutlerine do this? His characters hate doing their job...
Oh yeah, and Dickens wasn't any help, either. I mean, what the hell is twelfth-cake? Or smoking bishop, for that matter? Although, that does remind me of this time when I got a bishop very drunk, and— actually, I don't think I can tell that story without the rating of this fanfiction going up so high that it excludes virtually everyone on the planet.
What was I saying? Er... No, I don't remember. Huh. Well, I guess it just remains for me to tell you how much work went into that, and how little I got out of it.
If nothing else, though, I suppose I've learned a valuable lesson: I'm leaving this directing lark well enough alone. Let the Cutlerine handle it from now on; I'm going home and getting drunk on a bucket of battery acid. Later, meatfaces.
The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World * The Rocket Case * The Rocket Revival
Neither Here Nor There * The Beastman * Coriolanus Rowland's Guide to Pokémon Husbandry
Robin Goodfellow's Christmas Carol * Snow * Stranger Than Fiction
My Trip to the End of Time, by Pearl Gideon * A Smell of Petroleum Pervades Throughout
For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.