Once the Fairy of Consequences starts plotting to redeem you, you really don't have a chance.
This is Cobweb's Christmas present. Enjoy, my dear. PtW
Marley was dead, to begin with: of that there could be no doubt.
Oh yes, when I get my hands on him, thought Ben Scrooge, Marley is SO dead.
He stuck his head into the main kitchen out of the tiny cubbyhole that served him as an office, and buttonholed Mina, one of the sous-chefs.
“Mina, have you seen Jay about?”
“Jay Marley? No, chef. I think I saw him talking to Robbie Craczitowicz earlier, but I haven’t seen him since. Why?”
“Because. . .” he’s fucked up the arrangements with the fish suppliers again, and I am going to tear him into little pieces and dance on them “I wanted a word with him, that’s all. He should be preparing those fig-stuffed quail for tonight, it’s nearly 4:30 already. Anyway, what was he doing fraternising with the wait staff? You all know I don’t like it.”
“But Robbie’s the head waiter, and we do have to communicate with them.” Mina was the best patissière this side of Paris, an artist in chocolate, cream, and sugar, and well aware of her worth. Like every artist, she was allowed certain liberties, one of which was answering him back when no-one else dared.
“Robbie’s a lazy bastard, he’s never around when I want him, he’s always on his mobile and he keeps taking time off. I’m none too happy about him wangling tomorrow off when most of the rest of you are coming in. I think I may rethink his contract in the New Year.”
“That’s a bit unfair, chef.”
“Life isn’t bloody fair, life’s a bitch, Mina, you should know that by now.”
She shrugged. Everyone else in the kitchen carefully kept their heads down. It was obvious that their brilliant but temperamental boss was on the warpath and no-one wanted to get in the way.
At that moment the unfortunate Marley came through the back door.
“Marley, you useless piece of shit! Come here!”
The lanky young man paled and scurried over to the boss.
“Don’t ‘chef’ me, you stupid fucker! What the fuck did you think you were playing at, telling Levison’s that we didn’t want the wild salmon fillets and sending back the dover sole?”
“But chef, he said. . .”
“Did I tell you to change my order?”
“I. . .”
“No, chef. But. . .”
“Don’t give me fucking excuses!” Ben reached for a rubber spatula that they used to clean the big mixer bowl. It was about 10 cm by 4 of heavy rubber, angled at the edges, on the end of a long plastic handle. “Bend over that fucking counter.”
Blushing hotly scarlet the unfortunate Marley bent over the stainless-steel top. One arm pinned him to the surface as the chef brought the spatula down on his backside, full force. One or two of the other members of the brigade winced with him as the spatula descended again, and again, and again and again and again.
“That’s just a taste of what you can expect if you fuck up in my kitchen again, Marley,” barked Ben. “Got it? Next time I’ll have your fucking pants down and take a hot palette knife to your arse.”
“Yes, chef,” whispered Marley.
“Good, now go and get those sodding quails prepared. We open in an hour and half.”
It had been a frenetic evening. Not that there were many evenings that weren’t frenetic, not since the third Michelin star, but in the week before Christmas things were always particularly hectic. By the end of it, Ben was sweat-soaked, hoarse from shouting, and dead on his sore, size-11 feet.
Once he had ensured that the last of the pots and pans were in the big dishwashers, those things that could be prepared in advance for tomorrow were safely in the chillers, and every surface was wiped down and gleaming, he ran a hand through his shock of black hair and yawned. Time to get out of these whites and into his car.
A few of the other members of the brigade materialised, hovering uncertainly in front of him.
“Um – chef, some of us were going to go for a Christmas drink, that late-night place in Colston Street. Would you like to – er – join us?”
Ben considered it. Not so long ago he would have been the one leading the wind-down parade through the bars and clubs, sometimes until it was so late that there wasn’t much point in doing anything other than go back to the kitchen and start preparing the stuff for lunch. Big-it-up Ben, always good for a drink and a laugh. But since he had had his own kitchen, it seemed that there wasn’t any time at all for that sort of thing.
“Uh – no, thanks guys.” He noticed with a pang that one or two of them couldn’t disguise a look of relief as he said it. “I’d better go home. Enjoy yourselves, but don’t forget I’ll expect you at 10 sharp tomorrow for the Christmas day lunches. And if anyone doesn’t turn up because they’ve got a hangover, I’ll stuff them instead of the goose, right?”
“Yes chef.” They made a rapid escape, and turning out the lights he made his way to the back door, set the alarm and locked up, and stumbled to his car. He felt absolutely knackered. Luckily it wasn’t a long drive to his lodgings.
The little studio flat smelled cold and empty, largely because it was cold and empty. It was too small to take much furniture, which was just as well because he couldn’t afford any. Every penny he had, and quite a few he didn’t, was ploughed into the restaurant. He looked around at the pokey room with its cheap MFI bookcase and portable TV.
“Welcome to the glamorous life of an up-and coming chef,” he said aloud, bitterly. Still, there were compensations. Picking up a glass and opening the fridge he retrieved a half-bottle of champagne that a supplier had left with him to try, and expertly and silently eased the cork from it. “Hmm, not bad. Not as good as that Pol Roger the other week.” He took another sip, kicked his trainers off, and laid back on the sofa-bed. . .
Somewhere along the line, someone had filled his mouth full of cat litter, and he was rather afraid that it had been used. And his neck had a crick in it, and he had dribbled all over his own shoulder. And what was that fucking light?
“Shit, the place is on fire!”
“No, Ben. It isn’t on fire.” The voice was cool and androgynous. “It’s just me, silly. Do you like the outfit?”
Ben knew that he ought to be worried by the prospect of an intruder – a luminous intruder – in the flat. But really, the apparition was so peculiar that he realised at once that he must be dreaming.
It was a strange figure – some sort of dwarf, with its hair dyed platinum blonde, and its face unnaturally tight and smooth. Ben had seen enough Society ladies to recognise a bad facelift when he saw one. It was wearing a crop top and white Calvin Klein jeans and on its head was a red Santa cap with felt reindeer horns and flashing red and white lights that shone brightly enough to light up the entire room.
“Who the fuck are you?” mumbled Ben.
“You mean you don’t know? Didn’t that boy tell you we were coming?”
“Huh? What boy?”
“Marvin, Marshey, something like that. I specifically told him to tell you to expect to be haunted by three spirits. For the God’s sake, what sort of penny-ante operation are they running here? I don’t have to do this, you know, I’m only standing in as a favour for a friend.”
Ben considered this.
“Then why don’t you just fuck off to wherever drink and exhaustion-induced hallucinations go when they disappear?”
“Hallucination? Bloody cheek. For what it’s worth, and for one night only, I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“What? What past?”
“Your past, and judging by this list, a pretty naughty past it has been, too. I would never have been allowed to get away with half of this – Cobs and Huw would have seen to that. Come along, we’ve a lot to get through, and you wouldn’t believe the paperwork if I don’t complete on time.”
It offered him a manicured hand. It had nail extensions, he noticed, with diamante reindeer on them. Still in that strange dreamlike trance he took the hand.
With a yank it pulled him up from the bed, and jumped through the window. Ben went from dreamlike uncaring to shrieking terror in about ten microseconds flat, as the cold night air whipped past them and the pavement zoomed abruptly into view, but somehow, before they hit, the pavement dissolved into branches, the branches of a gnarled old apple tree with a treehouse in it, beneath which they were standing in the low sunlight of a December afternoon.
“Wait,” said Ben. “I know this place. This is home. My parents’ home. But that tree has been chopped down, this can’t be right.”
“I told you,” sniffed the ghost. “Christmas Past. And I think if we look in at the french windows we’ll see a particularly edifying scene.”
It led him across the lawn to the house. Through the windows they could see the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, the glitter of tinsel, the warm red glow of the upturned bottom of a teenage lad, across the knee of a somewhat older man.
“And if I catch you doing that again,” - SMACK! – the latter was saying, punctuating his conversation with fairly hefty blows to the bare and scarlet buttocks jiggling in his lap – “this is the least of what you’ll get, you little perve.”
Ben rubbed his own backside with unconscious rue. “That’s me,” he remarked.
“Yes darling. A Christmas spanking that you have cause to remember, obviously. And who is that divine young man administering your just chastisement?”
“Rod. My step-brother. He caught me watching him undress.”
“I’m sure it was worth it – hmm, he has muscles on his muscles.”
“He worked out a lot,” said Ben abstractedly. His younger self bucked and howled over Rod’s lap as the aforementioned muscles did their work. “The bastard,” he added with a scowl, as a particularly firm flurry of whacks descended. “I’m sure he enjoyed it, he was always finding reasons to put me across his knee.”
“As you were always finding reasons to be put there,” added the spirit tartly. “One way to get close, wasn’t it? The only way, in fact. The only time that anyone ever gave young Ben any personal attention.”
Ben flushed. “It wasn’t like that,” he said weakly.
“Of course not,” agreed the other insincerely. “Well, let’s be getting on.” It took Ben’s hand again. “Let’s see – as you didn’t like the zoom, we’ll try a slow dissolve. . .” The scene faded around them, to be replaced by a smallish room in a suburban house. The curtains were drawn, against the evening and prying eyes, and an interestingly comprehensive array of canes, paddles, straps, tawses, belts, martinets, slippers, clamps, restraints, and items of uncertain but vaguely threatening import hung from fastenings on one wall. Facing the opposite wall stood two young men, totally naked, with paper hats and very, very red and welted bottoms. A much older man, with grey hair and a neat beard, sat smiling in an armchair and contemplated their rear view with the air of one who has done a good job and is pleased with his workmanship.
“Well, well, it seems that you got into trouble again,” noted the Ghost of Christmas Past unsympathetically. “But at least you had company this time.”
“This is Fuzzy Pig’s,” said Ben wonderingly. “Master Fuzzy Pig. God, I haven’t thought of the old bastard in years. And that’s. . .”
“Evan. Evan Barkiss, your first true love.”
Ben went pink. “It wasn’t – he and I were just – it was good, but it wasn’t love or anything.”
“No?” The older man had risen and gone to the desk that was the only other item of furniture in the room, and opened a drawer. Both the younger men stiffened, wondering what new implement was being prepared. However, what came out of the drawer proved to be a tray laden with bottles and three glasses.
“Turn around lads, and join me in a drink. No more spankings tonight – it is Christmas, after all.” Evan and the young Ben exchanged slightly teary eyed smiles, and then kisses, with both one another and Fuzzy Pig. It was noticeable, however, that the kiss between the two of them was rather more than the gentle peck on the cheek that the older man got. Indeed, it provoked rather a reaction down below, something the Ghost nudgingly drew to Ben’s attention.
“Well, the little mate was always quick to stand to attention,” he shrugged. “And Evan was cute.”
“Yes,” agreed the spirit. “Doesn’t he look rather like Jay Marley, the same colouring, the same build?”
“Not a bit,” snapped Ben. “They’re nothing alike, nothing alike at all.” But he looked rather wistfully at the two young men, snuggled either side of the older, laughing and joking and working their way through drinks and a big bowl of crisps that had arrived from somewhere. “Old Fuzzy Pig. He was a good Top, I learned a lot from him. He knew how not to go too far.”
“But it’s a pretty cheap trick, after all. He gets to whack seven bells out of your butt, then a few crisps and a half of lager and you’re fawning on him.”
“No, you have it all wrong, he was good to us. Gave us a lot of good advice, help, it wasn’t just about the spanking. Gave us support. . .” he broke off abruptly.
“Nothing, I just thought of something I wish I’d said this morning. Nothing, all right?”
“Suuuuure,” drawled the ghost. “Nothing at all.”
“Can we get out of here?”
“Nothing easier.” And abruptly they were somewhere else, another Christmas. Ben sat with a bottle in his hand, in an apartment. A door opened.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Packing? What do you mean, packing? Evan. . .”
“I’m leaving you, Ben.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Come here this minute, and get those trousers down. You are going to be very sorry when I’ve finished with you, young man.”
“No, Ben. You aren’t going to touch me any more. I’ve had it. We’re through.”
“But we can’t be.”
“But we are. I’m sick and tired of playing the golf widow to your damned cooking. I’ve tried talking to you, but you don’t listen, and if I object to coming a poor second to a frying pan you spank me. We don’t talk anymore, we don’t go out any more, we don’t laugh any more. We hardly even fuck anymore. It’s over, Ben.”
“Evan. . .”
“You had a choice to make, about the way you pursued your career, and you’ve made it. You just won’t admit it. Goodbye, Ben.” He leaned over, squeezed the other man’s shoulder, and turned on his heel. After a moment there came the slam of the front door.
The older, watching Ben groaned. “Shit, why did you drag all this up? Why are you making me watch this, do you get some sort of sick thrill out of hurting people?”
“That’s a good question, coming from you,” sneered the spirit. “One last visit, then.”
It was a big fireplace, and it held a comfortably glowing fire to match, crackling and popping quietly to itself. The mantelpiece above it was garlanded with a rather tasteful arrangement of holly and a lot of Christmas cards, to which the man with his back to them was adding another. A second man, handsome in an unshowy way, entered the room and put his arms around the first from behind.
“Mm, hallo gorgeous. Back already?” said the first, leaning back into the embrace. “I was just putting up a card from the Stimsons. We’ve completely run out of room everywhere else.”
“As long as it doesn’t fall in the fire and burn the place down. Oh, by the way, your brother and his wife rang, they’re at the motorway services and should be here in about an hour. Your nephews are dying to see what Uncle Evan and Uncle Tony have bought them this year, after last year’s succès d’éstime.”
“They’ll have to wait, the little wretches. No presents before lunch. Did Julia ring?”
“Not yet, but you know my sister, she always leaves everything to the last minute. Don’t worry. She and Steven will be here. Eventually.”
“Hah. As long as they get here before the turkey is done, or there’ll be trouble.”
“Oh, talking of cooking, I heard something about an old friend of yours.”
Evan frowned. “I’m not sure that friend is exactly. . .”
“Whatever. You know Mick Beaston was handling sales for that grotty block of flats in Dunmow Gardens? Apparently Ben’s bought one and moved in. Mick said he dropped over to let him in and hand over the keys and he was amazed that one person’s whole life could fit into so few boxes and a couple of carrier bags. Left him sitting there, alone. Quite alone in the world. He thought it was a bit sad really.”
“It is. It is sad. But that’s what he wanted.”
“Mad. He must have been mad to choose that over you.” They kissed, long and hard.
There was a choked sound from beside the spirit. Looking over he saw that Ben had his head in his hands.
“Please,” said the chef. “Take me home.”
“Your wish,” said the curious elemental, “is, if not my command, at least convenient.” He beamed –quite literally –on the miserable surroundings of Ben’s flat. “He was quite right, you know. It is grotty.”
“Fuck off, just fuck off and leave me in peace,” snapped an unhappy Ben. He reached out, and pulled the ghost’s Santa hat savagely down on its head.
Curiously, the ghost seemed to shrink, or the hat to grow, as he did this, until the apparition vanished quite away. He found himself clutching a piece of cloth that proved on inspection to be only an old, and rather rank, sock. Yet somewhere, on the edge of hearing, he seemed almost to detect the voice of the spirit saying: well, I’ve done my bit, not that I think he’ll be grateful for it. It’s up to you two now to complete the plot for your little cabal. Let me just Shift out of this ridiculous outfit and then, Barnabas, old chum, take me home will you?
“Fuck me, that was the oddest dream ever. What was in that bottle?” he muttered to himself. “Too weird. But I’d really better try to get some shut-eye before the morning.” Ben turned over and sank into stupor.
It was the light again that woke him up. Not the pale artificial illumination of the previous apparition, but a warm, dancing light, the kind that you got from a friendly and well-maintained hearth or a really good electric imitation.
“Fuck, this time the place really is on fire!”
“No,” said a strange voice. Ben looked around in amazement. The flat had undergone a transformation. Boughs of resinous evergreens, garlands of ivy and thickly berried holly hung about the walls, glistening with a tasteful application of frosty glitter. And every surface of his kitchenette was laden with food. Suffolk hams, game pie, a roast goose with glistening skin, surrounded by crisply roasted potatoes, great mounds of fruit and vegetables, all as glossy and improbably perfect as for some Sunday supplement photoshoot. Chocolates, canapés in great variety, Christmas cake as dark and fragrant as a forest floor, a pudding from which the blast of brandy hit his nostrils right across the room, sides of smoked salmon, whole salamis, nuts both salted and fresh, bowls of butter-yellow clotted cream, samosas and spring rolls, a bowl of punch, a cauldron of soup, fudge, tablet, caramels, cheeses in wonderful profusion. . .
“Jeesus fucking Christ! What did you do, raid the whole of Harrods’ Food Hall?” he asked the figure that sat enthroned among this plenty. It had shoulders that would have done credit to a rugby prop, but was wearing an off-the shoulder ballgown in slubbed emerald-green silk, with a matching handbag, and a diamond tiara in its soft chestnut curls that he rather suspected from its fire was real, not paste. The face however, was friendly and open in the warm light streaming from the large rubber-cased electric torch that it held in its hand.
“I’m supposed to say something like ‘come hither man and know me better’” it announced calmly, “but if we start on that sort of innuendo we’ll never get anywhere.”
“And we have a lot to get through?” guessed Ben. “Improving moral scenes for my benefit?”
“Got it one. You are this year’s lucky beneficiary of our Redemption Scheme. I hope you aren’t going to be difficult.”
“Because then you’ll get to meet Christmas Present unwrapped, as it were, and I promise you won’t like my other incarnation.”
“No. Does the concept of ‘a world of pain’ suggest anything to you? Or: The Godmother?”
“Horse’s head in the bed?”
“Unicorn. And those horns are sharp. So let’s just take it that the macho posturing is all over and done with, and get on with it, shall we?”
“Fair enough.” He took the spectre’s outstretched hand meekly enough. It was warm and firm, calloused even.
And abruptly they were in the streets, and it was Christmas morning. The weather, as it so often is at Christmas in London, was damp and rather mild, but there was a certain cheer and sparkle in the air that would have done credit to the most picturesque of snow scenes. People actually said good morning to the neighbours that they ignored the rest of the year, as they swept up the debris of many a Christmas party, or polished out the dents in their cars. Children screamed with simple joy as they variously exterminated, zapped, killed, or terminated with extreme prejudice their siblings with the latest must-have ray gun or light sabre. Canny newsagents, red cheeked and jolly, opened especially to sell batteries at three times their face value to harried parents.
And everywhere the beam of the spirit’s torch shone it seemed to add a new lustre and warmth to houses, faces, arguments – all those things we hold dear at this most precious time of year.
Holding the apparition’s hand Ben felt oddly – safe. Mothered, almost. They strode through the grey streets invisible to the throngs that swirled about them. Abruptly, they entered a flat nearly as small and pokey as Ben’s own, but one which unlike his was crammed with all the impedimenta of a full life, topped with some delightfully kitsch Christmas decorations.
“Where is this?”
“My Robby? The waiter?”
“Your Robby?” enquired the spirit. “No, not yours, I think. His.”
A very tall but very thin bald man, with pale skin and deep shadows under his eyes, was busy putting presents under the threadbare tinsel Christmas tree. It didn’t take him long, there weren’t, despite his best efforts to disguise the fact with a cunning arrangement, that many of them.
“Geez, what’s wrong with him?” asked Ben. “He looks like death warmed up. Who is he, anyway?”
“That’s Tim, Robby’s partner. Known for obvious reasons as Tiny Tim. And he looks like he does because he has lymphoma, and is on chemotherapy.”
“Oh.” There was a pause. “I didn’t know.”
“No,” said the ghost, brutally and accurately. “Because you’ve never even taken the trouble to find out that Robby has a partner, never mind that he’s very ill.”
“I – I don’t interfere in the private lives of my staff.”
“You hardly allow them to have one. Ah, Robby is coming.” The sound of a key in the lock was followed by the familiar face of Ben’s head waiter.
“Hi babes, Mr Patel was open after all, so I’ve got the extra milk, and a box of eggs; we can have smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast on Boxing Day if you like.”
“I’d eat grass in a field as long as it was with you,” said Tim simply.
“Oh, I think we can do a bit better than that, even on my wages. The guys in the kitchen have seen us right.”
“It’s so kind of all of them. Make sure you tell them that I really appreciate the attempts to stimulate my appetite.”
“You’ll be able to tell them yourself when you’re better.” said Robby. “Come on, how about a glass of sherry, and I’ll see how that turkey crown is doing.”
“I finished peeling the carrots.” It was evident from the pride with which he said it that this had been a considerable effort.
Robby hugged him. “Well done, babe. And the roast potatoes are on, and the cauliflower and peas are ready to go. This is going to be the best Christmas dinner ever.” They smooched, enthusiastically, as Ben looked rather wistfully on.
“They’re obviously very happy,” he said. “I suppose it’s all wonderful when you’re first together.”
“First together? They’ve been partners for 8 years. Through thick and thin, and still madly in love with each other,” said the Ghost of Christmas Present fondly. “And Christmas is a special time for them. They met at a Christmas party. It’s partly why Robby wanted to make a special effort.”
“It’s – they’re going to be all right, aren’t they?” asked Ben, slowly and rather unwillingly.
The spirit looked portentously into the middle distance. “ ‘Unless the course of things should change’,” it said, and paused, then – “yes, come on, come on, damned autocue – ah, there we go, ‘unless the course of things should change, no others of my race will witness such a scene. I see Tim’s clothes boxed for the charity shop, and a bed grown too big for one, and a room filled with the sound of weeping.’”
“No, that’s. . . it isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t bloody fair. That’s your philosophy, isn’t it?”
Ben flushed, and bit back a retort. Robbie came back in with two large glasses of dark, raisiny Oloroso.
“A very merry Christmas to us and all our friends,” he said, handing his partner a glass.
“I shall be if I drink all that before lunch” said Tim, with a skeletal grin.
“And bless all at the restaurant,” added Robbie, “who’ll be slaving away.”
“Except that bastard Ben Scrooge,” said his partner, coolly.
“Oh, he’s not that bad. A bit driven. . .”
“Driven? I know where I’d like to drive him. The way he treats you – the way he pays you! It’s a scandal.”
It is said that those who listen at keyholes rarely hear good of themselves, and some such sensation contributed to the obvious embarrassment and discomfort written upon Ben’s features.
“Well, the wages could be a bit more. . . but it’s hard, setting up in this business. And the man can certainly cook.”
Tim sniffed, but the sniff became a paroxysm of coughing as a little sherry went down the wrong way.
“Come,” said the spirit. “Let’s leave them too it. There are others we must visit, and my time grows short.”
“Why, are you ill too?” asked Ben with unwonted solicitousness.
“Good grief, no. But I am due to go on holiday. I used to last only a single night, but these days I get several months thanks to the power of modern advertising. Still, no-one wants me hanging around after tonight. The Ghost of New Year Sales takes over for a few weeks, while I go off and sun myself on a beach somewhere. Take hold of my dress.”
And as easily as that they were in a bar somewhere, and Ben recognised the stalwarts of his kitchen brigade – Jay, Mina, Anne, Catalina, Matt, François, Roger, Sven, Vittorio.
Jay Marley was just bringing a round of drinks back to the table. He winced as he sat down, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed.
“You should stand up to the bastard more, Jay,” opined Matt, another of the sous-chefs.
“Yeah, like you did the time he booted your arse from one side of the kitchen to another for letting those asparagus soufflés sink.,” jeered Sven.
“It – it isn’t that bad,” said Jay. “But he wouldn’t let me explain that it wasn’t the usual guy with the fish and he didn’t have any sole, and the salmon was the wrong size. And then the delivery guy gave me some weird message for him, and I never got to give him that, either, and I suppose I’ll catch hell for it when he finds out.”
“Oh, a spanking for you, definitely. I’m sure he’s kinky for it, you know.”
“Well, a spanking from Ben might not be so bad,” said a drink-emboldened Jay without thinking, then looked down and blushed deep scarlet at the realisation of what he had said.
“Oh-ho, another one who likes a bit of hanky-spanky. And he fancies the boss man,” joshed Matt. The invisible Ben stared open mouthed at his sous-chef as if seeing him for the first time.
“Well, he is quite – buff,” said someone.
“Buff? I’d rather go to bed with a snake,” said Catalina. “The man’s a psycho. You should sue him, Jay. That sort of behaviour ought to land him in jail.”
“The thing is, it’s himself he hurts most in the end,” said Mina. “I mean, he has no friends, no life. Look at the way he wouldn’t come out for a drink with us, even when we asked him.”
“Against my better judgement,” added Matt. She grinned and shook her head at him. “No, seriously. He’s excluded from all the things that make working under the sort of pressure we work under tolerable – all the jokes, the support, the care. I mean who would give a damn if he was replaced tomorrow by another chef?”
Jay Marley opened his mouth, as if to say something, then thought better of it and applied a vodka and tonic to it instead.
“Fuck,” said Ben.
“Whom?” asked the spirit with interest.
“Me, I guess. She’s right, isn’t she?”
The ghost shrugged. “There seems to be some truth in what she’s saying, yes. Your choice, though.”
“I know. But I wish. . .”
“That I’d managed things a bit differently. But it’s so hard.”
“Life’s a bitch.”
“Do you know what?”
“Hearing your own words come back at you gets old awfully fast? Yes, I know. And when life’s a bitch it’s usually because she’s full of Rottweilers like you.”
“Thanks,” said Ben gloomily.
“A pleasure. And now time to get you home and tucked up in bed before your final visitor. I wouldn’t upset him, if I were you, he can be a bit – difficult – if you upset him.”
“This is all real, isn’t it? It isn’t just a dream.”
“Reality is a more flexible concept than most of your kind imagine,” said the other. “As far as you’re concerned this is all quite real enough.”
They stepped – somewhere – and were abruptly back in Ben’s dingy flat. All the ghost’s props had vanished and the miasma of cheerlessness seemed all the deeper by contrast with the scenes they had witnessed.
“Don’t leave me,” said Ben, suddenly desperate for company, even of a supernatural sort.
“Sorry, I’ve a magic carpet to catch,” said the ghost, beginning to fade. “I don’t think we’ll be meeting again. I hope not, for your sake. And remember, be polite to your next visitor, if you know what’s good for you.”
The apparition abruptly became solid again. “Ben, when you were a bottom, did you ever experience a thing called a dragon cane?”
“Er – yes. And it bloody hurt, I can tell you.”
“Well, unless you’ve an interest in experiencing a paddle surfaced with hide from a real dragon, which hurts a lot more, I can tell you, don’t piss B- this guy off, all right?”
“Good. Oh, and Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas. Um – thanks.” Even as he said it he wasn’t quite sure what he was thanking the spirit for, but somehow it seemed to be the right thing to do. Polite, huh? He was a bit out of practice with polite, he realised.
A clock somewhere struck. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. . . Thirteen? That belonged in a quite different story, and a bright spring day in April, surely. Maybe he had miscounted – oughtn’t it to be much later in the night by now, anyway, and come to that, what day was it now? All these comings and goings had totally confused him.
He realised that the patch of shadow in the corner had thickened and darkened. It became a tall column of utter blackness. An immensely tall figure, clad in an inky robe, hooded so that its face was invisible. A bitterly cold air seemed to seep from it and chill all the room. One pale hand rose, pointed at him.
“Er – Mr Christmas Future, I take it. Christmas Yet to Come?”
The figure was silent. All the hair rose on the back of his neck as it came closer, beckoned.
“OK, yes, er, sure. I come along with you, right?” Was that a nod? He decided to take it as a nod.
“Right, show me what’s to come, then. I suppose we won’t be passing any newsagents with the lottery numbers up – no, sorry, silly joke, I’m babbling aren’t I, I know I’m babbling, just a bit – er – nervous you understand.” Shut UP, Ben. He managed to bite his tongue, followed the dismal phantom through the dark, into what he vaguely recognised as a rather low pub where some of the chefs hung out from time to time. He saw two or three faces he knew – not friends, definitely. Well, Mina had put her finger on that one, hadn’t she? But these were business rivals. They seemed to be gossiping. . .
“. . .made such a pigs ear of it in the end the customers asked for their money back. I mean, the entire brigade walking out in disgust, on one of their busiest nights! And the boy is going to sue, apparently. I never heard of anything like it. How he thought he could carry on on his own when that happened God only knows. And the funniest thing is. . .”
”Apparently the Michelin inspector was there the night they all walked out on him. Complete and utter disaster. Another pint?” They all laughed heartily.
“Sounds like somebody’s career is down the pan, eh, Mr Christmas?” said Ben. The fall of a rival didn’t seem as pleasing as it would once have done. The silent spirit swung its gloomy head towards him. Were those two dim reddish glows in the darkness of the hood there, like fiery eyes? He swallowed, lowered his gaze. Somehow he really didn’t want to know what that hood concealed.
“Can we go? Please?” he begged. As if in answer the spectre turned and glided away. They came into a fairly downmarket area, where many of the shop fronts were boarded up. Ben stumbled after the phantom into a rather dubious second-hand equipment supplier. He knew it, had even found a few items for the restaurant there, stuff bought up cheap from failed restaurants and sold on at cut price to others.
“Got some stuff for you. That place that closed down,” a woman was saying. She was middle-aged, hard faced. He’d seen her around the area before, he suddenly realised. A bailiff. Her companions were carting in a load of kitchen equipment – much the same sort of stuff that his own kitchen contained.
“Two grand for the lot, then, as we agreed.”
“I must be mad,” said the proprietor, running dirty fingernails through his greasy grey hair.
“Mad like a fox,” sneered the woman. “Two grand for this lot? You’ll sell it on at four or five times that. Still, we might as well make a bit out of it, eh. He won’t be needing it.” They laughed. “Bastard that he was. Tried to tell me we were doing him – I told him he should be grateful to have his debts reduced, the stinking bankrupt.”
A deep anxiety was growing in Ben.
“Spirit – Mr Christmas, sir. What poor bast- person is being done here? I hate this, the way these people drag down hard-working cooks. Christ, this sort of thing could happen to any of us. It could happen to me.”
The apparition turned and looked at him. He couldn’t see its face still, but he knew it was looking. Then it turned away, beckoning.
They drifted through the darkened streets like a black mist, and where they passed people shivered and drew up their collars against the chill night air.
“Wait, I know these streets. This is round the corner from my place.”
The spirit led him on, his heart sinking with every pace.
“Please, I have a bad feeling about this. Let’s go back. I’ll change, I promise.”
Relentless, the psychopomp proceded. They drew near to the façade of Ben’s restaurant.
“No, please. Say it ain’t so,” he whispered.
The ghastly figure indicated the lightless windows, that should have been full of light and cheer. One skeletal hand pointed to the words of doom on the façade:
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
“No!” cried Ben. “I’ll change, I really will, I’ll be a better employer. I’ll give them time off, decent wages. I’ll make it a co-operative. Anything! Just say it doesn’t have to happen this way.” He clasped at the black robe, felt it swirl about him, wrapping him, strangling him, suffocating him as he span down, down, down, into its pitchy embrace. . .
“Nooooooooo!” With a struggle he threw himself out of the strangling coils of the duvet that had somehow become wrapped around him in some complicated attempt at Japanese rope bondage.
As his heart rate subsided he realised that a pale grey light was seeping in through the curtains, and from somewhere he could hear a peal of bells being rung.
“Fuck. What day is it?” he asked. He turned the television on, to be greeted by a Z-list celebrity visiting children in hospital on one channel, and a poor animation of Dickens on another. Yes, no doubt about it. It was Christmas Day.
“Amazing. All that in one night. It’s Christmas Day. Christmas bloody Day. There’s still a chance.”
He opened his laptop. He was sure he’d seen – yes. For a suitably huge fee, this site would deliver a hamper within the M25 on Christmas morning. He looked at the range, hesitated over the £200 one, clicked on the £150 version instead. No point in going too mad on this rehabilitation lark. After all, you had to build up slowly.
Recipient address. Fuck, what was Robbie’s address? Luckily, his paperwork box eventually yielded that, along with a great deal else that either needed shredding or filing. Tomorrow, perhaps. Christmas Day wasn’t a day for filing. He filled in his credit card details, then clicked on ‘send’, thinking of Robbie and Tim’s faces as he did so. And you know what, he said to himself. It feels good.
He was humming Christmas carols as he showered and shaved. There was a lot to do, he needed to get into the restaurant pronto.
Jay Marley had a sore head, and an uncertain stomach. He had obviously had a great night last night. He looked at his watch. Fuck, was that the time? He needed to be the first into work. After yesterday, the boss was going to be so not impressed if he was late.
He skipped breakfast, and ran all the way.
Scrooge was waiting.
“What time do you call this, Marley?”
“Um, sorry chef, we were a bit – last night went on a bit.”
“And what did I tell you all about that? About not letting the celebrations get in the way of work?”
Jay shrivelled under the gimlet eyes.
“Yes, chef,” he whispered.
“And do you know what? I’m not going to put up with it any more. Come here.”
Jay swallowed. He walked slowly over to where the formidable bulk of the chef was standing, holding something behind his back. Please don’t let it be the hot palette knife.
Ben drew out – a sprig of mistletoe, and held it over the other man’s head.
He leaned forward, and kissed Jay on the cheek.
“Merry Christmas, Jay.”
“Chef?” Sheer, complete confusion.
“I know I’ve been a complete bastard to you – to everyone. I’ll try to improve that, honestly.”
“I- oh. Thank you. Thank you.”
“It’s all right, Jay. It’s going to be all right, I promise. Here, I’ve made breakfast for us all.” There was champagne, and amuses-gueules, and warm brioche and croissants, white peaches, and steaming pots of coffee. A warmer plate held kedgeree and bacon and good sausages. Eggs stood by ready to be poached.
“Oh, chef. You must have spent hours.”
“You all give so many hours to me, I figured you’d all earned some in return. Here, try the pistachio brioche.”
“Ben. Call me Ben, Jay.”
“Where’s that damned mistletoe?” And the sous-chef planted his mouth on Ben's and ravaged it.
“Er – am I interrupting something?” The two separated reluctantly.
“Sorry, Mina. We were just. . .”
“Yes, I could see. What’s all this?”
“Breakfast. Breakfast for all of us. Hi Matt, Vittorio. Sven, come in and join us. Merry Christmas, everybody. . .”
“Wow. Er, merry Christmas, chef. Merry Christmas, everybody.”
You’ll know them, of course, Scrooge and Marley. The television series, the books, the range of kitchenware. And everyone in the business says that of all the TV chefs, Ben Scrooge is the most unaffected, pleasant, and considerate to work with. And then there’s the restaurant chain. Of course, they had to install managers, but Robbie Craczitowicz, and his now full-recovered partner Tim Reynolds do a splendid job in that regard, as everyone agrees.
And if Jay Marley still sits a little cautiously some mornings, it’s with a fond and foolish gleam in his eye as he regards his partner. Especially at Christmas, when gifts of, shall we say, a rather specialised nature, are often to be found under their Christmas tree. This year it was a paddle with the words ‘Merry Christmas’ embossed on it in mirror writing, so that they appeared in a properly seasonal red when the implement was applied to the recipient’s backside. I do not think, though, that it will be reserved for that time of year alone: no, I think it will be said of them that they keep ‘Christmas’ on their arse all year round.
Click on Idris the Dragon for more stories
© , 2005