Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This time, David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
The Ghost of Christmas Replete
London. Filthy December evening.
The bottle Leon chugs from says Highland Dew Olde Scotch Whisky, bought from an all night off-licence on the Commercial Road. It cost him the last of his cash, the cards he had attempted to pay with — all declined — stuffed back into pockets as he trudged back west. The cardboard box with his desk belongings discarded by a bin at St Paul’s. The Sorry to See You Go and Best of Luck cards from erstwhile colleagues torn and scattered as he wanders up Fleet Street. The only thing that passes through Leon’s mind, like whispers in another room, are the possible methods. Plenty of traffic — but most of it shuffling along like an ill-tempered conga. The cheap whisky has done the job, and even through the haze something appears with absolute clarity — there, above and behind the dome of the National Gallery.
Now, here he is, up on the parapet of the building, the last of the whisky drunk, shuffling forward. Only then does the figure next to him speak.
“Get a move on, mate," he says. “I’ve got another one at half past.”
Leon looks at him dimly, takes in the rotund, balding figure, the flashing reindeer antlers, the Santa jumper, the incredibly long multicoloured tinsel scarf, Bensons in one hand, Carling in the other.
“What..?” Leon mutters.
“Busiest day of the fackin’ season, I get ones what can’t make up their mind.”
The fat man leans towards him, beery breath making Leon gag in spite of himself.
“Can’t do it for you, can I? ‘gainst the rules,” he belches. “More’s the pity.”
The fat man reaches behind and comes up with a half eaten turkey leg, which he chews, glancing disinterestedly at Leon.
“Who — who are you?” Leon asks.
“Ghost of Christmas Replete,” the fat man says, tossing the turkey leg over the edge, following it with the empty beer can. “Watch out below!” He shifts his buttocks, farts, and cracks open another can from thin air.
Leon runs a hand through his hair, wipes the sleet from his face.
“A ghost.” He laughs, pulling up the lapels of his jacket against the biting wind.
Despite the same wind fluttering the ends of his tinsel scarf around him, the fat man barely seems to acknowledge the cold.
“Yep. Time was, situations like this you’d have the others — Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, Yet to Come — but, thing is, way things are going there’s no demarcation any more. One Christmas like all the rest, so I got roped in, like. Ghost of Christmas Replete.”
“Replete?” asks Leon, in spite of himself.
The fat man nods, taking a mince pie from his pocket. “Replete. Means full, stuffed, complete, chock-full, brimming, awash, rife.”
From under his jumper he takes a tub of brandy butter and upends it over the mince pie.
“Time was, I never got a look in. These days, what with Christmas starting end of September, the old guard weren’t up to it no more. Needed someone who’s used to the queues, the debt, the desperation, the greed. Me.”
He smiles, and stuffs the pie into his mouth, swallowing in one go. “Lahvly!”
Leon stares at him. “That’s disgusting.”
The fat man shrugs, drawing on his cigarette. “Wouldn’t know, mate. All I am is all I know. All I know is what made me what I am.”
He reaches under his Santa jumper and takes out crumpled ads for payday loans, catalogues for the latest toys and tech on Easy Terms, for cases of booze for £4.99 — yes, only £4.99 — and scatters them out along the parapet, where the wind carries them off, down onto the crowds in the square below.
“If — if you are a… what you say you are — why are you here now? Why me?” asks Leon.
“Funny thing,” says the Ghost, finishing his fag. “Even now. Even with everything being so easy, like, you still gets the choice.”
Leon looked at him blankly.
“Hard to believe, I know, what with you losin’ your job, spendin’ all your dosh on your nippers, them your ex only lets you see of a Boxin’ night, buyin’ their love with stuff they don’t need and’ll get bored with in a fortnight — like that Blackberry you bought your D’enelcia last Christmas, hopin’ she’d used it to keep in touch with her old man.”
Leon’s face becomes drawn, set, and looks down over the edge.
“Yeah. You got that,” says the Ghost.
From his jumper he takes a scrap of paper, examining it as he lights up again. As he draws on his cigarette he holds the lighter close to the paper. The flame, pale, guttering, flickers this way and that, towards the paper, towards the Ghost’s face.
Leon, recognising the paper, rifles through his pockets for where it had been, amongst the useless credit cards. In the delicate flame, the paper, a serviette, ghost of a different kind, of a night with Lucy, of drinks and laughter and talking long into the night, seems to glow in the darkness.
“Lucy. Lucid. Lux. Light,” says the Ghost.
Leon stares past the paper, past the flame, past the sleet and the darkness.
“She lives in Bermondsey. That night we talked; she said how much she wanted to see me again. How good I’d made her feel.”
The Ghost shrugs. “Bermondsey. Wouldn’t catch me going south of the river, not this time of night. Right trek from here. Still…”
The Ghost pauses, and in that pause Leon reaches out for the paper, wraps his hands around it. In the same moment the cigarette lighter blows out, and they are in darkness.
When Leon opens his eyes, wiping the tears away with the back of his hand, he is alone on the parapet, alone but for the discarded lighter, a mobile phone and a single mince pie.
After the call he lingers awhile longer, eating the still warm mince pie and looking down over London, down, through the sleet, past the tinsel and the illuminations to the distant lights beyond, so pale in the great darkness around them.
Copyright, David Croser, 2014. Image by catya_maria007 , via the Londonist Flickr pool.
We’re still after your stories based on Christmas in London, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.