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– and by that I mean literally everyone – calls me Puck, for reasons that are rooted wholly in a silly reference to an outdated superstition that most people don't remember any more.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.
Robin Goodfellow's Christmas Carol
Outside, the snow came down in sheets and blocks; the streets were still and silent, the cars having been bested once again by Nature; the office towers stood dark and quiet, their workers gone, fled to warm homes and Christmas television.
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?”
Coriolanus thought about it for a very long time; almost a whole second, in fact.
“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.
He was tall and cadaverous, and wrapped in a great black cloak that fluttered on the back of some spectral wind; his head was enclosed entirely by a spherical mask of jet, and wound about his limbs was a great heavy chain of cash-boxes and ledgers, abacuses and pocket calculators, keys and deeds of ownership, all wrought in steel and locked tightly in place with a mighty-looking padlock.
“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.
“Well,” she said. “Perhaps you should think about that.”
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.