Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 5: The Ghost of Christmas Past

Scrooge clapped his hands. “Excellent!” He pulled the repeater from his waistcoat pocket, checked the time, then grabbed his hat. “We should depart! Our first stop awaits! Follow me!”

“Our first stop? Where are we going?” Oliver asked, then immediately followed up with, “I’m not dressed for going out.”

“As during my own adventure, you will be subject to neither wind nor snow,” Scrooge replied, walking toward the stairs. “Unlike my own adventure, however, you do not have to cling to me while we travel. You need but keep up with me to remain in my sphere of influence. Come!”

Oliver followed him, and they started down the first flight of stairs. He couldn’t help but step softly, worried that he would awaken the twins on his way out. Scrooge chuckled again, and Oliver was impressed by how easily amused the ghost was. “No one will see or hear you until we part way, save the spirits we seek. If it be your wish to tread lightly, please do so. But know that it is not necessary.” As if to prove the point, Scrooge climbed on the bannister and rode it down to the first floor, a raucous “WHEEEE!” springing forth from his mouth as he did so. Oliver cringed at the racket, but no creature stirred as Scrooge disembarked from the railing. “As you see, unseen and unheard!” he cried up to Oliver from the foyer. “Hurry now!”

Oliver made his way quickly down the stairs using the conventional stepping method. He caught up with Scrooge just as Scrooge opened the front door…

…onto a brisk, clear mid-afternoon. The air was obviously chilly as the few people that were out and about were bundled quite warmly. Oliver, feeling not in the least bit cold, followed Scrooge to the end of the walk, then up the sidewalk where it turned out of the neighborhood. Everything looked essentially as it always had, although Oliver did notice some subtle differences — the fashion sense was late 80’s-style, as were the makes and models of cars he saw driving or parked along the streets.

“Alright, we’re in the past somewhere, but I’ll ask again — where are we going?” Oliver said as he took in the strangeness of being surrounded by London that was almost but not quite familiar to him.

“Don’t you know? Think about your past.”

“My past?”

“Yes, Oliver. As I said,” Scrooge replied, crossing his arms behind him as he strolled, “I need your help. The purview of Christmas Past is always the traveller’s past, in this case, yours.”

“So we’re in… on…?” Oliver looked questioningly at Scrooge, who shrugged in reply. “We’re… at… a Christmas day from my early childhood. Let’s see… it would have been one where we were staying at the Torrington house… Hmm…” He was struggling to remember. 

Scrooge’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled broadly. “I’ll give you a hint. We appear to be heading toward a garden.”

“That’s not much of a hint. There are lots of gardens around this part of London.”

“Yes, but this garden is still green, even on Christmas Day!”

That hint was enough to help Oliver recall a vague memory. As they turned one more corner, his recollection and vision coalesced at the same time. He saw himself, aged about five or so, playing in a large, unseasonably green garden behind the house of some friends of his parents. The garden was shared with several other houses, surrounded on all sides save the street side from which Scrooge and he had approached it. He watched himself climbing a tree and remembered what was going to happen next. He rushed to the edge of the garden just in time to see himself lose his small-handed grip on the limb to which he clung. He fell, landing flat on his back, knocking the wind out of his small frame. As his former self’s chest struggled to heave with the effort of silent cries, a lady rushed to his side from the house opposite his parent’s friend’s. 

Oliver had a very clear recollection of her being young and quite tall; as such, he was surprised to see that she was old and short. Her hair, though, was consistent: long and so light that he thought it glowed. She was dressed only in a drab cottony nightgown and an oversized coppery-colored beanie, but she made them both seem majestic as she tenderly ministered to young Oliver, rubbing his back and helping him to his feet as he caught his breath and began to calm down.

“Thank you,” young Oliver said to the nice lady.

“You’re quite welcome, Oliver. Try to be careful when climbing strange trees.” She gave him a playful tousle on the head then made her way slowly back to her house. Young Oliver couldn’t have seen her face after she’d turned away from him, but older Oliver did, and he was surprised to see how forlorn she looked as she re-entered her house. He stared after her for a few moments, noticing her cross to a room with a bay window overlooking the garden. She sat on what must’ve been a window bench there, staring after young Oliver as he went back inside. When he had disappeared behind the back door, the old woman’s gaze wandered around the garden, until it came to rest on older Oliver. She stared at him, obviously confused, then surprised. She rose quickly from the window seat and disappeared from view, but didn’t reemerge. Oliver waited, staring at the back door and window for a full minute before Scrooge politely cleared his throat.

“Did you learn anything?” Scrooge inquired.

“Maybe, I’m not sure. That old woman… who was she?’

Scrooge shrugged again, then said, “Have another look for her.”

Oliver turned back to the garden and noticed the sky had become darker, cloudier. The ground was suddenly covered in a rare, thin layer of snow. Without preamble, Scrooge said “Perhaps on another Christmas of significance?” He pointed toward the back window. Oliver walked timidly into the garden, which, while still green, looked far closer to succumbing to the turning of the seasons than it had a moment ago. 

He peered into the bay window overlooking the garden and caught a glimpse of the old woman. She was holding something in her hands, staring down at it intently. It must have been a picture of some sort, because a moment later she turned and secured it to the wall. Oliver noticed that the entire wall was covered with pictures of various sizes and shapes. Oliver walked up the three steps that led to her back door and hesitated, unsure of whether or not he would be able to interact with the past at all. Finally, he gently rapped his knuckles on the door.

It was opened a moment later by the same lady he’d seen a minute and twenty-five years ago. This time, she appeared to be middle aged, as if time couldn’t make up its mind on how it should be affecting her. She still wore the simple cotton nightgown and strange beanie, and smiled sadly at Oliver.

“Come in, Oliver. I’ve been expecting you all day.”

He made his way past her and into the house. “Is it Christmas day, still?” Oliver asked.

“It’s always Christmas Day… isn’t it Eleazar?” She wasn’t facing Oliver as she replied, but was instead staring down the steps to where Scrooge stood. Oliver glanced back to Scrooge, who had taken his hat off and held it in his hands before him. The woman finally stepped back, gesturing Scrooge inside as well. Scrooge came tentatively up the steps, bowing formally to the woman as he came into the house. She walked past both of them and back into what must have been the room with the bay window. Oliver and Scrooge followed her.

Oliver knew from his look through the window that there were pictures covering the wall, but he wasn’t prepared for what actually greeted him. Every space on every wall was covered with a picture of some kind. Many were photographs, but just as many were painting or sketches. They were all of people, almost all of which were in fellowship of some kind. As he looked over them, they seemed to change aspect, as if they had lenticular surfaces. The overall effect was that the walls all seemed to be constantly shifting on the edges of his vision.

Oliver noticed Scrooge admire one picture in particular. Scrooge reached out slowly, allowing his fingers to glide along the edge of the frame, and smiled. “Fran… the day she came and picked me up from school.”

The woman touched Scrooge lightly on the shoulder. “It was a good Christmas.”

“It was,” Scrooge replied, passing his hand over his eyes, and smiling. 

The woman took the opportunity to turn to Oliver. “Have you found yours yet?”

Oliver looked to where the woman had placed the picture he’d seen her staring at earlier. He didn’t recognize any of the people in any of the pictures in that general area, so finally responded, “No, I haven’t. Where is it?”

“It’s here,” she said, pointing off to the right of where Oliver was originally looking. The picture that he found there was of his family in front of the Christmas tree, the twins excited about opening their presents, but Oliver sitting by himself, holding one small, unopened box.

“That was not a good Christmas for me. That gift,” he said, pointing to where he sat slightly away from everyone else, “was from Dottie. It was a small, framed picture of us. On the back of the picture was a poem she had written to me.”

“Though we are apart
I will always be with you
As you are with me”

“She was already gone by then, and I didn’t see her again… until… ” he trailed off, recalling the surreal encounter with Dottie in the middle of what had already been a momentous day.

“And do you know what she went through that Christmas, Oliver?” the lady asked him, heading toward where she had hung the earlier picture. She pointed to the picture, and Oliver looked.

He saw a picture of Dottie just as he remembered her. She, too, looked sad, but far braver than he did. She and her father were standing next to a bed. In the bed was a woman he only barely recognized as Dottie’s mother. Her skin was pale to the point of translucence, except for her eyes, which were dark and sunken into her face. Despite their obvious pain, they were all smiling, as if they realized that these were some of the last moments they would enjoy together on this side of the veil. As he looked, he saw an animated tear trickle from the corner of Dottie’s eye, down her cheek, to disappear somewhere under her chin.

“That tear was for you, Oliver,” the woman told him.

“As sad as she was, no grief at that moment was greater than her separation from you,” chimed in Scrooge.

Oliver turned back to stare at both of them. They stood, side by side, looking expectantly at him.

“I… had no idea… of what a self-centered jerk I was during that time. I could have been a better person.”

“That is a lesson most of us must continually learn, my boy,” said Scrooge in reply. He turned then to the woman, and in a contrite voice, said, “By that token, I must apologize for the way our original meeting ended. You taught me truths that I had forgotten, and, as painful as some of them were, I did not repay your kindness in like. As hard as I have tried to fulfill the sanction of the Spirits of Christmas, I find that I am not fit to have capped your light, and humbly request that you allow me to let it shine forth once again so that others may benefit from your tutelage.”

“Besides,” Oliver added, “you don’t seem like yourself. Both times I’ve seen you, you’ve looked… sad. Do you… maybe… miss being the Spirit of Christmas Past?”

She smiled at Oliver, then, and turning to Scrooge, nodded slightly. Scrooge slowly removed her beanie. As he did, a light began to arise from the crown of her head. It became so intense that Oliver had to shield his eyes, throwing his arm across them and squeezing them tightly shut. When he was finally able to open them again, he could see that the woman’s static form had been replaced by one continually shifting. As Dicken’s wrote:

“…being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body…”

Except for the illumination where the cap had been, shining like a flame with the light of truth. A voice came from the light, saying:

Thank you, Eleazar, for your stewardship of my mantle. I take it up again freely, and bid you farewell.”

With that, another sudden flash of light filled the room, this one so abrupt that Oliver couldn’t help but be dazzled. When his vision cleared, he realized that they had moved in both time and space. It was evening, and snow was gently falling, although none was sticking to the ground this time. He and Scrooge were both standing in the corner of a busy foot-traffic thoroughfare that he recognized. Spinning around and looking up to verify, he turned slowly back to Scrooge for additional confirmation.

“Our next stop… is Simpson’s Tavern?!”

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