Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 6: The Ghost of Christmas Present

Scrooge winked at Oliver. “Yes, Simpson’s Tavern. Established in 1757 by Thomas Simpson.” The door opened as Scrooge was saying this, and he took the opportunity to go inside. Oliver followed close behind.

The tavern was busier than Oliver expected. Many of the booths were occupied, families gathered in small groups to enjoy a Christmas dinner without having to prepare it themselves, their chatter and laughter creating a low din against the backdrop of occasional moans from a sporadic winter wind. Scrooge found an empty booth and slid straight into it. Oliver was certain the last time he’d been in here the hanging lights over the booths had been sporting 150 watt bulbs, but this evening they were pleasantly subdued, their warmth contributing to the cozy atmosphere the tavern emitted.

“I used to be a regular here, you know,” Scrooge said to Oliver as he glanced around the tavern. “It hasn’t changed much from my time. It even smells the same.” The scents of roasted meat and boiled root vegetables mixed with the pungent odors of dark beers and Earl Grey tea. “Dickens wrote that it was melancholy, but that was a slight application of creative license on his part. This tavern has always been, if not festive, at least pleasant.”

Scrooge was obviously caught up in his own past, so Oliver indulged him for a moment. When nothing else was forthcoming, he forced the issue. “Alright Scrooge, I’ll agree that this is a nice enough place at which to enjoy a Christmas dinner, but why are we here?”

Scrooge came out of his slight reverie, glanced over his shoulder and around the end of the booth, then looked back at Oliver. “Maybe you should have a look for yourself.”

Oliver leaned over so that he could see around the edge of booth. The view revealed a slightly secluded booth that Oliver hadn’t seen when they first came in. Unlike most of the others this one only had a single occupant: Dottie.

She was sitting alone, her face staring down at the unlit screen of her cell phone. She activated the device, looked at it for a second, then dimmed it again. She repeated this process three more times over the next fifteen seconds. The cycle was interrupted by the waiter coming over to her table.

“And a very Merry Christmas to you, ma’am, a very Merry Christmas!” The waiter was a large man in every sense of the word. He had to have been almost seven feet tall, with a massive set of shoulders and a barrel chest that supported a large head with long salt and pepper hair pulled back in a festive ponytail. His beard sported the black and gray coloring as well, but his ear-to-ear grin lit his face as if he were holding a spotlight to it. He wore a white shirt trimmed in red with a forest green half-apron, from which he pulled a small, white pad and pen. “What can I get for you?”

Dottie hesitated, distractedly picking up the menu as she glanced at her phone yet again.

“Perhaps I could get you a cup of Christmas Cheer… while you wait?”

“Um… yeah, I think I’d like to wait at least for a few more minutes. What’s in a cup of Christmas Cheer?”

The waiter laughed, and it was by far the heartiest laugh heard in the tavern, although it didn’t seem out of place in the slightest. “Don’t worry ma’am, it’s naught but a mulled red wine with traces of cinnamon, citrus, cloves, honey, and a dash of nutmeg. Perfect for warming the spirit on a brisk Christmas Day!”

“That sounds really nice, thanks. I’ll have a cup, please.”

“Right away, ma’am, right away!” The waiter ambled away from her table toward the kitchen, emerging a moment later with a clear cup of something dark red and very slightly steaming. After delivering it to her table, the giant made his way to Scrooge’s and Oliver’s booth.

“Good evening, gentlemen! Good evening! May I—”

The waiter’s greeting abruptly cut off as he got a good look at the booth’s occupants.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My mistake. I… uh… My shift is just ending. I’ll send someone else over to take your order. My sincerest apologies,” he said, backing away from the table as quickly as possible, bumping into the edges of several booths along the way. At the earliest opportunity, he turned and dashed for the kitchen with an astounding fleetness of foot.

Oliver stared after him for a moment, confused. Scrooge cleared his throat in that significant way, and Oliver turned his attention to him. Scrooge was staring at Oliver expectantly, then glanced at the still swinging door to the kitchen. He inclined his head toward it. Oliver finally took the hint and slid out of the booth, walking toward the kitchen. He took another glance in Dottie’s direction as he made his way across the dining room. There she sat, still alone, nursing her cup of Christmas Cheer, glancing hopefully at her cell phone between sips.

He felt a familiar mix of emotions on seeing her again. He was excited and scared at the same time. He was beginning to realize that he often felt this way when challenging situations arose. He certainly felt it earlier in this adventure, when Scrooge asked him for help. He realized that he’d felt it on deciding which college to attend. He suspect that he’d been feeling it when he and Dottie broke up during the Christmas season he’d most recently visited.

Setting his feelings aside, he resolutely marched into the tavern’s kitchen. The kitchen was a bustle of activity and people, most of whom bore at least some resemblance to the waiter — including the women. They were all tall, although not uniformly so, and all seemed to exhibit a cheer in doing whatever job they were at. All, that is, except for the waiter, who Oliver could see disappearing through the back door to the alley behind the pub. Several of the other workers in the kitchen shook their heads as he scuttled past them, one of them rolling his eyes. 

On seeing the waiter exiting, one of the chef’s helpers immediately pulled off his chef’s hat and flipped his apron around. Doing so, his stature seemed to increase a bit. He immediately looked like a waiter that Oliver had had before, a friendly and attentive fellow, although not nearly as bombastic as the waiter who’d just fled out back. The chef-turned-waiter grabbed a tray from the front of the kitchen and began pulling ready plates from the end of the prep area. He hoisted the laden tray above his shoulder and headed through the kitchen door to the restaurant without paying any attention to Oliver.

Oliver followed the path through the kitchen, avoiding the people as they went about their business, and slowly opened the door to the alleyway. He found the large waiter there, squatting against the wall, smoking a cigarette.

“Fancy seeing you here,” the waiter said, exhaling a toxic plume of smoke in Oliver’s direction. Oliver stepped back just in time to avoid inhaling the worst of it. “What do you want?”

Oliver was taken aback at the abrupt change in the waiter’s demeanor. In the restaurant, he had been all graciousness and joviality. Here, he was a disagreeably unpleasant.

“I’m here with Scrooge—” Oliver began.

“Scroggie. I thought that’s who that was,” interrupted the waiter. “That old bastard dragged you into this, did he?”

“He asked for my help, and I agreed to try. I presume you are the former Ghost of Christmas Present?”

“Yeah, me and my brothers and sisters,” he replied, waving vaguely in the direction of the restaurant. 

“What are you all doing here?” Oliver asked, genuinely intrigued.

“Oh, we bought the place after Scroggie died. We’ve owned and been working it ever since.”

Oliver snorted. “No one noticed that the staff never seems to change or age?”

The waiter snorted back at him. “When you’ve got over two thousand siblings, it’s not hard to keep the faces fresh, even if we all resemble each other.”

“Hang about,” Oliver remembered something from A Christmas Carol. “Aren’t you born and, well, die, with each Christmas Day?”

“Nah, that was just Dickens filling in some gaps. A new Christmas spirit is created on December 26th, full grown. The one from the prior year, who does age rapidly as their day progresses,” the waiter said, pointing to his own hair, which seemed more salty than peppery at this point, “goes back to a state that represents the underlying current or feeling of their year. Lately, my brothers and sisters have been more and more lazy, selfish, and ridiculous. Practically none of them for the past twenty or thirty years are fit to work in the restaurant, and they also don’t want to. I think some of the older sibs are getting pretty fed up with the trend.”

“What about you?” Oliver asked. “What do you want to do after this Christmas Day is done?”

“I dunno,” replied the waiter. “Truth be told, I don’t feel lazy, but really don’t like the restaurant business very much either.”

“Well, in that case, maybe you’d consider being the rightful Christmas Spirit again? Scrooge told me that he felt like he wasn’t doing a very good job of it, after all.” Oliver looked at him hopefully.

The waiter stood up, stretched, and shrugged. “I can’t make the decision on my own, Oliver. I’ll have to talk it over with the family. Give me a minute, will you?”

Oliver nodded, and they headed back into the tavern. The waiter got the attention of the head chef and dishwasher, and they disappeared into an office tucked away at the back of the kitchen. Oliver re-entered the dining room and was on his way back to Scrooge’s booth when he caught a high-pitched, discordant, yet endearing voice coming from one of the other booths. Taking a detour through the maze of half-walls, he found Victoria, Daphne, and his mother and father having Christmas dinner.

“I just wish that he’d stayed, you know?” Victoria was saying. “Was he really that upset?”

“I’m not sure, dear,” his mother replied. “I know she meant a lot to him, and that their split just before uni hit him really hard.”

“The problem with him,” chimed in Daphne, “is that he’s a flighter. His fight or flight reaction is always flight. Literally, in this case. What time is he supposed to land in New York?”

His father checked his watch. “Not for another four hours or so. So what actually happened?”

It was his mother that replied. “I get the feeling he didn’t sleep very well for some reason, because he certainly looked haggard this morning. Then Dottie sent him a text message this morning, wishing him a happy Christmas and asking if he wanted to get together this afternoon.” Everyone nodded agreement. “I think he was pretty overwhelmed by… something… but ultimately, that he simply didn’t want to be here this year.”

The twins nodded and, much to Oliver’s surprise, looked genuinely sad. “It was nice to see him, even if it was a short visit,” Victoria said.

“I wonder if he’s ever going to invite us to visit him?” mused Daphne.

His mother shrugged. “I’m sure he will, when the timing’s right for him. In the meantime, I would like to continue our Christmas tradition of offering him a toast.” She raised her cup of Christmas Cheer in the air, saying, “To Oliver. May he have a happy Christmas, and come home again soon!”

“To Oliver,” they all said together, and sipped from their cups. 

About this time, Scrooge tapped Oliver on the shoulder. Oliver turned to him, not sure what to say. “Apparently they like having your around, my boy! Speaking of being around, did you have any luck with the waiter?”

“You know, I think I did. He seems more discontent with the way Christmas is than you are. He’s talking with some of the other Christmas Presents right now.”

“Did… did you just say he’s talking with Christmas presents?” Scrooge asked, trying hard not to giggle.

Oliver rolled his eyes. “Other Ghosts of Christmas Present. Good grief.”

Scrooge went back to his booth. Oliver followed, and as he sat, glanced toward Dottie’s booth. Her cup was nearly empty, and she continued to constantly check her phone. Her face looked despondent. By this time, Oliver realized who she was waiting for, and that that person was definitely going to disappoint her.

Scrooge looked over his shoulder to where she sat. “She looks lonely,” Scrooge noted. Before Oliver could reply, the waiter strolled up to their table. Scrooge scooted out of the booth so that he could stand before the waiter. The waiter’s posture seemed… different to Oliver. Straighter, less slumped somehow.

“I come to you today, hat in hand, realizing that—”

“Yes, yes,” the waiter interrupted Scrooge. “Christmas has… changed… under your watch. We’re aware of the fact. We have further determined that, while Simpson’s Tavern has been a fine establishment under our care, it, and our family, would benefit from some variance in approach and staffing. And,” he paused, glancing around, seeming to take in more than just the restaurant, “there’s still time to do more good this year.”

Oliver saw Scrooge unfasten his ascot and unbutton the topmost buttons on his shirt. A moment later, he withdrew a silver chain, attached to which was an amulet adorned with emeralds and rubies. They flashed and sparkled, but Oliver recognized that they were in the shape of a holly wreath. Scrooge slipped the chain over his head, extending it toward the waiter.

“I ask that you reclaim this token, so that each and every Christmas may be blessed by your wisdom.”

The waiter bowed low enough to allow Scrooge to slip the necklace over his head. When he straightened, his appearance had changed again. The apron had been replaced by a fur-lined green robe, the pad and pen by an empty scabbard. The amulet shone where it hung in the center of his chest, and a warmth and joy radiated from it. Oliver couldn’t help but smile at the site.

Thank you,” boomed the Spirit’s voice. “And Oliver, I hope that you will know me better very soon!” He laughed merrily, and Oliver and Scrooge laughed along with him, until they realized that they were no longer in Simpson’s Tavern. They were, instead, in front of an ominous looking brown brick building, and the evening was darker than before. Oliver didn’t immediately recognize where they were, and with the light haze obscuring his vision, couldn’t make out any street signs from where he stood. Scrooge walked away from the street a few steps until the front of the building came clearly into view. The sign above the large entrance read: “Angel Gate.”

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