f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: My Christmas Story - 2004

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, December 23, 2004

My Christmas Story - 2004

This stems directly from immersing myself too deeply in Dickens this Christmas. Still, I hope you enjoy. Lots more stories coming soon. Merry Christmas!

"Good Neighbors"

-- He's drunk, Agatha. Off his gourd.

-- Bide your tongue, Edwin. T'is Christmas Eve.

Edwin spoke nothing further. But neither did he move from the leaded window where he stood watch however, swabbing now and then at the gathering frost and steam with the soiled hem of his apron. The night was beastly cold and it pained him to see the old codger--all sinew and venom--bearing the chill to stare at that gargantuan door knocker as though it had spoken to him.

-- Edwin... the Rafferty top. C'mon now.

The chime at the church just around the corner chimed quarter to ten, and its mournful, frigid greeting seemed to rouse their "esteemed" neighbor. He unlocked the great door's bolts, swung the irons open, and disappeared into the dark. Edwin waited for the door to swing shut.

-- Edwin!

Clang. It did, but a second later than he'd have expected. Things round these parts worked like clockwork--Edwin counted on it--and tonight, everything, even the smallest bits were amiss. The footsteps, sure, were the same scraping up the cobbled path...but they'd come an hour later. And they'd been slow and tedious, not the precise and measured beat of heel upon stone. Then there'd been that interminable silence that had driven Edwin to the window in the first place. Why wasn't he opening the door? Sound resounded through their shared building like a rector's words through St. Paul's and Edwin had waited, waited for the sound of the keys to find the lock, but it'd only been silence. He'd had to see what was happening.

-- He's in now.

-- Well thankee for small mercies. Wouldn't want a corpse, icicles about the nose, to greet us Christmas morning. Never a way to ring the Yule. If we're not still working by the break of morning in the first place.

Edwin heard the sharpening of her tone and stepped from the window. Agatha put up with most of his "curiousities" as she called them--his counting and recounting of shillings and pence, the way he touched her cheek five times before sleeping, that he measured six times, cut once--but never would she allow it to linger too long. Especially when they had orders to fill.

Millinery is fine work. In all senses of the word, at least for Edwin Hanover. The retting and mulling and even that final leuring with a supple velvetine pad to polish the felt to a fine gloss…it all required patience, precision, and what most souls would think of only as mind-numbing repetition. Edwin Hanover found it the only place his hands seemed to do what they should instead of needing to brush that yet again or count this one more time. The living they earned rarely left them with a pudding to take out of the copper--barely a copper to put one in at all, in fact--but Agatha rarely complained and Edwin felt himself more blessed than any man he knew. He remembered what it'd been like before the work.

They had six hats to finish that evening for delivery as Christmas presents throughout the whole of London and were into their fourth--a square biretta--when Edwin's attention had been diverted the first time. Agatha's coaxing soon started him in again but only for a single toll of the clock before a bell chimed incessantly from the building's highest tower. Agatha glanced at him over the beaver pelt she was trimming with shears.

-- Steady on, Edwin.

He tried, he really did, to put his mind to the biretta--Reverend Blaxton needed it by the stroke of ten tomorrow--but his hands were already slowing at his lathe.

-- Who could be visiting? At this hour? This weather? And not sounding a single footstep up the street?

-- We'll have no Christmas, Eddie-love. At this rate, we're likely to have no New Year's either.

But the thirst--and that's what it always felt like to Edwin, a unslaked thirst--had fell on him and he paced the room to their shop door, placing an ear to the cold iron, and closing his eyes. His hands, he knew, were counting the bolts in the door, counting the bricks in the wall next to it. Next door, he swore he heard the echoing din of loud conversation.

-- I know that voice. I know that voice.

Agatha said nothing.

-- I just can't remember.

-- Love. Dearest.

-- Lands, it sounds as if all the wharfers of the Thames brought their shackles up their tonight. Do you hear that, Aggie?

-- Edwin.

He opened his eyes and looked at her.

-- Edwin, I don't hear a thing.

For a long moment they looked at each other. He knew she wanted him from the door. His hands kept searching it though. He couldn't step from it.

-- Just a minute more.

Agatha finished her trimming and set about lining the inside of a top-hat.

The voices, the rattling, it all continued--until it didn't. There was nothing but the hiss of damp wood in the stove behind them and the rasp of Agatha's breathing.

-- He's gone.

Edwin stepped from the door to his work again. His wife did not look up, but from the angle of her shoulders he knew she was glad it was over.

-- Did you ever place him?

-- Yes. But...

-- What?

-- Well, it couldn't be who I thought. He's gone seven years now.

Again they shared a look. And then to the hats.

The night, if possible, grew darker and colder. Fog seemed to fill the street like ash, not cloud, and all Edwin could see in the window now was his own poor reflection. His hair slicked in the middle, like his father's always was. Pins stuck about his collar for easy purchase. Razor scar above his chin. Nothing in the image stayed with him in the least, nothing brought the thirst, and so he returned to his work, his fingers finding extravagant exercise in its dance towards completion and soon the biretta was off his block and on to Agatha to finish. He tackled a homburg next. Their rolled brims always made him merry somehow.

And so it was with this hat, too, until the tolling of one.

-- Hear that?

Agatha said nothing. Only scuttled a chip or three of coal into the fire. The night was bound to get them yet.

Edwin, meanwhile, found the door again. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks. This time though as he closed his eyes and strained himself toward the voices sifting down from above, he felt not thirst but aching longing.

A single shimmering memory came to him, as though raised from silver and acetone, and he saw himself, a boy of twelve, staring up at his mother and the local vicar as they said prayers over him. His wrists were bound and tied to the ends of a pallet and each hand was raw, oozing, and scalded nearly beyond repair. Back then nothing but burning took the thirst away no matter how many incantations were spoken over him, how many commands were given for demons he couldn't loose to spring from his body. They never did and the thirst seemed insatiable.

In the night, the sound of shutters being flung open roused Edwin, and within the passing of a second he was back.

-- Love?

Edwin found he had no breath. He coughed. Coughed again and finally took in air.

-- You're giving me a start, Edwin. It's like you heard a ghost.

-- Just a memory. Though they're a ghost of a kind, I suppose. I hadn't thought of it in years.

-- Take your dinner, dearest. It'll warm you and I know the cold is never good for your hands.

Edwin ate, but quick. Two eggs, hard-boiled. Cold ham. Two drafts of tea. The homburg waited and when he finally returned to it, it took him nearly the rest of the hour to finish. Ms. Graveston's toque was next.

This time, though, he never even started it

A chill swept at his stockinged ankles. His hands throbbed once more, as though remembering, and then went still and numb. Edwin looked at his wife. She was sewing a hood of quarter-wool to sell at the market on Tuesday to the grocer's wives and baker's daughters who wanted the look of a lady but had not the shillings to offer for it. From deep on the other side of the door, filtered the sound of a new voice. He whistled for his wife.

-- Aggie?

The look she returned him reminded him of a childhood's worth of glances from his mother. The worry and fear and anger and desperation all mingled about the brow, flickering like starlight on water.

-- You really don't hear it at all, then?

-- Edwin Hanover, you've always had an ear and eye for things the rest of us can't be bothered with. It's just that we're so very busy this evening and, if you could work on the toque.

He glanced at the door.

-- But, no. Go have a listen. I know ye won't be any good without it. I hope it's quick as last time.

And it was. Again. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks.

This time when his fingers stilled he heard and saw not his childhood but himself as he lived and breathed that very day. Or it seemed to be that very day. He was in front of a baker's apparently waiting for Agatha to drop off their goose for that evening's dinner. One hand was jammed in his pocket sorting coins but the other was out, twirling and fingering a chain of gleaming platinum with a locket on it. Edwin had never seen the locket before but when Agatha came from the baker, he watched himself slip it into his vest pocket in a blink and catch his wife's fingers with his newly freed hand.

One-hundred-seventy-five-links on the chain, he said to himself.

-- What chain, love?

And again, his eyes were open, his hands on the door, and his wife looking at him with peculiar distrust. This time though he had no need for air.

-- Just thinking of a bit of jewelry, a shiny bauble I thought you might like, Aggie.

She snorted. Without contempt, but making her point as clear as though she said, And will we be starving to be buy me finery, then?

Edwin put his head down, thought no more of the chain and worked on the toque. It went quickly, as any brimless hat will for a skilled milliner, and soon Edwin finished and set to work on the last, a codwool smoking cap Lady Marlsbury ordered for her husband so that, as the tart-tongued woman put it, "the old goat would stop coming home smelling of colony smoke and weed." He was making fine progress, too, until, at the stroke of three, Edwin felt the nape of his neck go cold and heard the snap of a gas lamp going off down the street. All the air seemed infected with dread and even Agatha shivered.

-- Even I don't hear a thing this time.

But still he moved to the great door. His fingers stayed by his side, leaving the bolts and the bricks to worry themselves.

He could hardly bear to see what might come...but come it did.

And it was sad and wonderful and terrifying and gorgeous all at once. In a flash he saw himself, hands stilled like they'd never been before and the black lace of a veil his wife would soon be putting on. He saw the others coming into the room, others he did not know yet. Two men and a woman who looked both like him and yet not. And children who were the only ones that dared to approach the bed, to touch his still hands. He saw a neat hole in warm grass and thought, despite how much he hated dirt, that it might not be a bad place after all. And then, only for an instant, he saw light, light, light, LIGHT, and a steady, sure hand that took his own and, somehow, without words, said that here, there would be no unslaked thirst.

It disappeared in the gonging of a bell and when he next knew the world the hand that held his own was Agatha's.

-- I finished the smoking hat in time. Lady Marlsbury, I'm sure will never see one finer.

-- What's the hour?

-- On seven now.

-- I saw...

-- You slept. Poor thing. But never so well, I wonder. And on a stone floor. Perhaps that's the answer. If this be the case, I'll take the bedtick to myself and leave you the hearth.

-- Aggie.

-- Love. Christmas, Love. Merry Christmas.

From above, scuffling and shouting and windows thrown open. Even Agatha looked.

-- That, I hear. It's the old man. Is he calling out 'Merry Christmas' and not 'Humbug'? Perhaps he still is drunk?

-- Not a lick, I doubt.

-- Do you want to go see what the fuss is about?

-- Aye. And I think the old man may very well even have something for us this morning.

-- For us?

-- For being good tenants. Quiet tenants who mind our own business and let others get on with their own lives and stories.

-- Not bloody likely.

-- Then perhaps to just say 'Merry Christmas.'

Agatha squinted. Hard.

-- Edwin Hanover. Are you priming me for a surprise?

-- Very likely, Aggie. Quite likely indeed.

The end.