362 – The Banana Boat

The banana boat. The scariest moment of my mum’s young life.

We all have these moments as we grow up, marry and have families of our own. The boys from down the street–the ones with the gargantuan train set that spanned two rooms–their dad was involved in serious motorcycle accident. Something hit him and he went spinning off at an odd angle. That night Mum babysat the boys while their mother went to hospital to stay at her husband’s side waiting for him to wake up. The next day my dad drove us past the scene of the accident on our way to somewhere else. I saw a smear of something dark on the tarmac, something we drove over on our way to wherever we were going.

The story of the Barrad Crest was one I heard many times growing up. My dad was a fireman–he still is, at heart–and though he worked in situations many of us only experience in nightmares he seldom talked about his job beyond abstracts. “We’re professional heroes,” he said, but he never told stories of the people he’d saved, the buildings he’d hosed. He talked about the fireman’s lift, the camaraderie at the station and–no matter what the police told you–how important it was to keep windows unbarred and unlocked. It was better to risk being burgled than to lock off exits in the event of a fire, he said.

As I grew older the few tales he told became darker. He and his colleagues had a gallows humour forged through necessity. He said it was hard peeling a charred corpse from a chair or retrieving a head half reduced to ash to be buried with its body without laughter to fall back upon. You can imagine him scooping bodies from smouldering rubble–small bodies, old bodies, bodies that had walked and talked and laughed and played not an hour before–and having to laugh at the unfairness of it all.

If you didn’t laugh what dark sorrows might take laughter’s place?

The banana boat was the one story he did tell, though there was little humour in it even for man so predisposed. It was, in all ways, a baptism by fire, and the one story he told when driving us to school, into town or on the dreary motorway slog to our holidays. The name, memorable as it is, was always good enough for me, but in writing this blog I was determined to talk with him and get the full story.

It was October 1973 and Big Jim was stationed at Plymstock fire station. He was still a probationer, having completed training only four or five months before.

“When you join the fire brigade–or when you joined in those days–you do thirteen weeks’ hard training and you live on it,” he told me. “It’s no doddle; it’s physically very tough. Mentally you spend a lot of time in lecture rooms going through manuals and instructions and it’s so drummed in that when there’s a job to be done, you get in and do it. That’s one thing with the fire service: when you train it’s done by numbers, but you know every job each number has so if something happens you can fill straight in. You don’t have to ask anybody; you can see what they’re up to and you know what that job should be. It’s as simple as that.”

A probationer’s life can be a difficult one. Having no experience and having yet to prove yourself, as probationer you’re looked down upon by those higher up–perhaps even distrusted. “I hadn’t seen much in the way of fire,” he said, as if fire were an inscrutable, barely seen tutor with much to teach.

There are strict time limits regarding attending a call. During daylight hours firemen have thirty seconds from the time the alarm sounds in which to get dressed; at night they have twenty. They prepare their uniforms boots-up, ready to pull them on in a single fluid motion. They rarely have notice of where they’re about to go or what they’re about to do. In this pre-GPS era, with an expected four minutes from the call coming in to the crew reaching the fire the drivers didn’t have the luxury of looking at a map: they were expected to know the area like the singed hair on the backs of their hands.

But this day in October was different. Everyone in the station knew something had happened; they just weren’t sure what.

“We heard there was a boat on fire the day before, and when we got into work everybody was excited trying to find out what was going on. A little later we heard from the Navy that the fire was out.”

The boat was the Barrad Crest, a Lebanese ship of convenience transporting bananas from overseas. Still two years before the Lebanese civil war, the country was regarded with suspicion. “The boat wasn’t properly controlled or insured as would a British or American or a French ship,” said my father, with the mild post-war xenophobia typical of his generation. “Being Lebanese they didn’t necessarily obey all the rules.”

The boat had caught fire off the Cornish coast and was being tugged to Plymouth docks, the largest in the region. Having been told the fire was out, my dad and his colleagues thought the call was a training exercise. Another vessel, the Elizabeth Beau had sunk in Sutton harbour only days before and the fire service had been called to pump water from its hull. This would be the perfect opportunity for his crew to learn the ins and outs of firefighting at sea.

“On land it’s different. If something goes wrong on land you’ve got somewhere to run. If something goes wrong on a boat, you’ve got nowhere.”

Control had already dispatched a crew from Greenbank station to investigate the Crest. Those on shift at Plymstock were now told to take with them as much breathing apparatus equipment as possible to the fire boat at Royal William yard.

“En route we were told we could use the blue lights and sirens and we thought then, ‘There’s something drastically wrong.’ When I was dropped at Millbay Docks I’d never seen so many blue lights in my life. The ambulance was there and obviously the police; so was every fire appliance in Devon and half of Cornwall. Our procedure used to be, you shut down all the blue lights except for those on the Control vehicle, but all these had the lot going. It was quite a weird sight.”

Contrary to what they’d been told the fire was still alight. It was early evening, time for the shift to change, and as the watch awaited the arrival of a chief officer from Exeter some of the crew clocked off and went home for the night. My father was not among them.

Once the officer had arrived they set sail into the Plymouth Sound aboard the Sissy Brock.

(“When you think of all the firefighting ships with manly names!” said my dad, laughing.)

The sea was calm and the sky clear–just as well, considering the Brock was little more than a barge. A quarter of a mile out from the Crest it was shaken by an explosion that was felt, rather than heard; the fire crew were so close the sound seemed to pass them over. All around the Brock insulation and metalwork rained from the sky, splashing into the waves.

I asked my dad if it was like approaching a war zone.

“It probably was,” he said. “But you never really had time to think about it. The objective was to get on the boat and see what had happened to your colleagues.”

What had happened was this: the fire had died down to embers, having been dealt with earlier that day. But this was a boat transporting bananas, which are customarily exposed to ethylene gas just prior to delivery in order to aid ripening. The ethylene, stored aboard the Crest in high pressure cylinders, was as flammable as natural gas. The Greenbank crew had opened the storage hold and the escaping ethylene had caused a flashover.

The Barrad Crest’s crew had left the boat and were now on the tug pulling it into harbour. Firefighters aboard the Crest threw rope ladders down for my father and his colleagues. They had to cross the tug to reach them; along the way the Lebanese sailors tried to stop them, probably believing the situation too dangerous for anyone to tackle.

The deck of the Crest was, in my father’s words, “Pretty warm to say the least.” Aboard it were people looking after injured members of the Greenbank crew sent earlier who’d been injured in the blast. One was trapped beneath a felled cargo crane which one of the officers alone managed to lift from off him. Days later, under less pressing circumstances it took three men to move the same crane.

“I helped carry one of our colleagues who didn’t appear to be with us,” said my dad. ‘Didn’t appear to be with us’ was his way of saying he believed the man to be dead. “Because the deck was slippery I went flying. We dropped the stretcher onto the ground and after that, the man started breathing. He later made a full recovery.

“Whether he was actually breathing before or not we don’t really know. Whether it was the fall that shocked him back into life we’ll never find out.

“But I’m happy to say he survived. Everybody who was on that ship survived, though some couldn’t carry out their job again. One of the men I joined with, who’d only been there four or five months eventually ended up in a control room: he was never fit enough to be a fireman again.”

After evacuating those who were injured their next job was to tackle the fire. Streaming seawater through hoses, they sprayed the outside of the ship to take away heat from inside–a suppression technique known as ‘boundary cooling’.

But hoses under pressure can be just as dangerous as fire itself.

“Somebody on board the fire boat had charged one of the hoses full of water. If left unattended the snaking action can break you in two. This thing started to rise in the air, I was stood with one leg either side of it and as it went up, it took me with it. Luckily enough I fell on top of it and was able to control it.

“At that time I was on the third or fourth telling off from one of the senior officers, who apparently didn’t like probationers. Going forward a few days, the officer came around to our station and said: ‘That was you with that hose, wasn’t it?’ I said: “Yeah”. He took me by the hand, gave it a good shaking, I never had a problem with him after that. The rest of the watch stood open-mouthed saying, ‘Look at him talking to a probationer nicely.’”

By this point my dad had become detached from his crew and was working with strangers. Those who hadn’t left at the shift’s end were now fighting the fire quite a distance from him. Their officer had gone back to the tug with the injured, though Dad didn’t realise this at the time.

“There were no orders, no instructions,” he said. “We just joined in.”

Finally a voice came over the tug’s tannoy instructing the firemen to evacuate the ship–an instruction none of them obeyed. It took the chief officer pulling rank in order to move the crews from the boat. They slashed the hoses to ensure no straggling fireman would be caught in them and left the Barrad Crest to eventually be beached less than a hundred metres off Jennycliff.

I asked my dad what the boat had looked like as they were leaving.

“Because the flame was contained in the hull it was mostly smoke you could see coming off it,” he said. “It wasn’t particularly black; it was more of a white-yellow coloured smoke.”

“A banana-coloured smoke?” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah, heading that way. A light banana at that.”

At that time every Friday evening my parents went to my grandparents’ house in Dundonald Street for tea. This Friday, my mum went alone as Dad hadn’t returned home from work. Once they heard about the ship ablaze off the coast on the news, they knew what had happened to him.

“I remember feeling absolutely dreadful, petrified we were going to hear that something had happened to him,” she said. “We were worried until he came back.”

He came back at two or three in the morning, had a quick wash and still smudged with soot, smelling of smoke and with his hair drenched with seawater, went to sleep.

I asked my parents if that night had changed how they thought about the fire brigade.

“It was dad’s new career,” said my mum. “It was something he wanted to do and I don’t think we thought about it after that. It’s just the nature of the job, that you get involved in this sort of thing.”

All the same, how can anyone take such events in their stride?

“It’s a fantastic job,” said dad. “It can be hard work; it can be easy work. You don’t know until the day’s over what sort of day it’s been.”

He sat forward, faintly smiling.

“I mean, how many people go to work and say, ‘I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing today.’ Most people say, ‘I have to sit behind this deck and write on this piece of paper, or work this computer, or serve this customer.’ We never had that.”

It’s been a long interview. Not a particularly long one to record, you understand, but one that’s been a long time in coming. I wrote the first few words of this post back in February, always knowing I’d come back to it, always knowing I’d interview my father and for the first time hear the story told start to finish without interruption. I put it off until the end of the year because I feared it wouldn’t hold up to the snippets I’d heard, the image I’d carried with me all this time: the banana boat, a story of heroism against frightening odds.

I was wrong.

My dad sees things differently. “There’s no such thing as heroism,” he said. “It’s not like what you see in the films and all the rest of it. You go to do a job. I know I’ve said we’re professional heroes but if you listen to most people who get a medal for being a hero, what they’ve done at the time is what they had to do. They probably didn’t think about what they were doing. Going into the middle of a field with all this firing going on to rescue a colleague: they do it because they see their colleague there. They don’t think about the firing.”

Big Jim Ness joined the fire service in 1973 and retired in 1999. For the last ten years of his career with the brigade he worked as a fire prevention officer clearing emergency exits at night clubs and ensuring tanks were properly stored at petrol stations. In 1994 he was given a silver medal as reward for twenty years of exemplary service.

In all those years it’s impossible to estimate how many lives he and others like him have saved. However, one thing’s for certain: whatever they say, however much they protest, they are all very much professional heroes.

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361 – The End of It

Dark the world was and strangely at peace, and then with a jerk Burning opened his eyes,

“The rope!” he spluttered, hands flapping about his shoulders like bats. “The rope!”

His outstretched flexing fingers found it still twined about his neck, but where it had been harsh and frayed it was now cool and silken. Clawing frantically he unwound it and held it at arm’s length before him. Thin blue light illuminated the rope: rope no longer, Burning found he was holding a bed sheet.

“But the tree!” he said, and his voice was hoarse, the memory of the spirit’s final words constricting him still. “Where have you taken me now?”

A noise broke the peace: Burning’s wife stirring in her sleep. She lay beside him, arms and legs spread, hair splayed across her face and the pillow beneath. Burning was back in bed, where the three spirits had found him each in turn.

“I’m alive,” said Burning, looking from the ‘rope’ to where his wife still slumbered. Then, ebullient: “I’m alive!”

He leapt from the mattress and danced barefoot, whirling the twisted sheet around him like a boa then throwing it to the floor in jubilation.

“But wait,” he said, stopping suddenly. “Is it no longer midnight?” For light streamed through a crack in the shutters, just enough to see by.

He ran to the window and threw it and the shutters open. Dawn had broken and the blue-lit morning was filled with the honking of geese in formation.

“Good morning!” Burning roared as they passed overhead. “Best morning! A morning upon which it’s good to be alive!” And then, remembering the date: “Dear lord, it’s Christmas morning! A merry Christmas to you, geese! May you return to warmer climes safely, as I have been returned to my room.”

“So noisy,” said Burning’s wife into her pillow. “More quiet, please.”

“Quiet?” said Burning. “Quiet?” He leapt onto the bed with his feet either side of her form and resumed dancing. “But I’m alive, dear woman: I’m alive and so are you!”

“Wish I wasn’t,” said Burning’s wife.

“Nonsense!” said Burning. He knelt over her and pulled at the blankets wrapped about her, trying to coax her out of bed. She, shrugging off his attentions, attempted to wrap them tighter about her shoulders, but Burning’s new-found exuberance was difficult to ignore and she soon found herself lying only in her nightdress, shivering as the madman capered over her.

“I thought you hated Christmas,” she said, pawing sleep from her eyes. “I thought you believed Christmas a humbug.”

Christmas a humbug?” said Burning. “Never! The ravings of a misery–a misery now dead, mind you. Dead and hanged.” And with that he tittered and grabbed at his mouth as if to force the giggle back down his gullet. He plopped himself down beside his wife and hugged her tight enough to squeeze her breath from her.

“Christmas is merry, jolly, a joy to behold. A day for miracles! A day for good cheer!

“Have you been drinking?” said Burning’s wife.

“Yes! I’ve drank from the cup of life and bloated myself silly. I care not; it’s Christmas!”

An errant thought fluttered through Burning’s mind. “Wife,” he said, calming himself somewhat. “What are your memories of last night?”

“I remember you acting quite the Scrooge,” she said. “And that you were wrong, as you often are.”

“And then what?”

“And then I went to bed and left you to stew in your misery. Which has done you gone if your behaviour this morning’s anything to go by–a little too much good, if you ask me.”

“Do you remember anyone ringing at the door?”

She thought this over, still somewhat muzzy-headed from sleep. “No,” she said at last. “Why, was there someone there? Carolers?”

“No,” said Burning, hugging her tightly again. “And yes. I’ll tell you about it some day, perhaps. For the moment, let’s eat, drink and be merry. It’s Christmas day and we haven’t a minute to spare!”

And so Campfire Burning–who’d once been so cold but was now as warm-hearted as a man could be–set about assembling the grandest Christmas feast he could muster. He cooked and baked tirelessly, set places for his extended family and invited everyone he knew to sit at the table.

Guests came in their droves and sat, drank and were merry, and when Burning set a flaming Christmas pudding upon the table at the meal’s end those assembled cheered, as much for the man serving as for the pudding itself.

For who had ever seen such a turnaround in demeanour? They whirled and danced and pulled crackers arm-in-arm, and the house contained so much good cheer it spilled onto the street where even the smallest of them–Burning’s nieces and nephew–played and jigged until they fell happy yet exhausted.

Yet Burning danced on, bringing gifts to the poorhouse and toys to the orphanage, inviting homeless souls in from the gutters to spend the one night of the year on which no man should be alone warm and with exemplary company.

Every man whether or not they’d known him before see Burning was a changed man.

From that year on, every Christmas for the rest of his days Burning gathered his family close and they ate, laughed and danced together. “There goes Uncle Campfire,” the youngsters would say as the man who hated fun danced harder and sang louder than anyone else. “God bless us, every one.”

And so our Christmas Carol closes on the sweetest note possible.

* * *

Humbug, thought Marley, still stood outside Campfire Burning’s home. It was Christmas Eve and through the window he spied a man typing alone, desperately seeking Christmas cheer but finding only words.

Beside Marley stood the fourth spirit, The Ghost of Christmas Alternate, who had shown him all that could have been but was not. Was it worth interceding in this wretched man’s life, he wondered? Would there ever be an ending so buoyant it made all that went before worthwhile?

Even for a phantom performing Christmas miracles as penance for a life ill-lived it seemed unlikely. This man Burning simply wasn’t worth the effort.

“Then away with us, spirits,” said Marley, stepping through the veil to search for a troubled soul more deserving of his time. “We’ll leave him with his words, and all he truly loves.”

The clock struck the hour and briefly disturbed from his writing, Burning glanced up. “Is someone there?” he said.

But the spirits had departed, and so there was no one on the doorstep to hear him. Cold and alone, Burning returned to his writing and typed the very last words of his story:

God bless us, every one.

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360 – The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

The spirit chased him close as a shadow, never more than a step behind, clutching, grasping, tearing at his neck with fingers sharp as needle-points, injecting chill poison into his veins.

Fearing what might befall should the phantasm ever capture him Burning ran for his very life. Out through the front door and onto the street, past Christmas lights and mailboxes bedecked in gaudy wrappings, the pavement glittering with night-frost as if reflecting the stars hanging above.

Measure for measure, step by step the two of them–hunter and hunted–fled across town. What remained of Burning’s stony old heart hammered in his chest; his breath hung about him in gaseous clouds, a fog through which the world rushing by became difficult to see. He blinked–once, twice–and the houses twisted, as did the pavement below his feet.

Still he ran, and every time he tripped or stumbled the spirit hung back, allowing its prey to find his feet and run on, toying with him.

Eventually Burning came upon a clinic woven in a mesh of half-broken fairy lights, and collapsed wheezing upon the glass. The spirit stood closer still but said not a word; instead it tilted his head so that his gaze might penetrate the foggy, frosted window.

Inside sat a girl in her mid-teens. Her wan face was framed by lank hair that might have been blonde in another age but was presently the colour of straw trampled in mud. She cradled her belly with thin arms and whenever a doctor or patient walked past she averted her eyes as if ashamed to look upon them.

“Spirit!” Burning gasped, still panting for breath. “I know this woman. I know her face, but . . .”

Like a rotting tooth the memory was difficult to draw, but he drew it forth all the same. Red pin-points had formed on his cheeks from his exertions; this colour now drained as he realised at whom he was looking.

“My God,” he said, fingers seeking solace upon his lower lip. “This is my niece. Aged somewhat–a young woman, not a young girl–but still, this is how she might be if . . .

“Spirit, do you show me the future? Her future?”

The spirit said nothing. Burning continued to watch.

After a time a doctor approached rhe girl and sat next to her. They talked, and though Burning heard nothing of their words when the girl wept openly he surmised the story unfurling before his very eyes.

“The poor dear,” he muttered into his knuckles. “She’s with child. And at such a young age–far too young! ‘Tis no wonder she came here to have it taken from her before it grows a conscience.

“But it’s too late, isn’t it? The foetus is too large, the baby’s too old and the girl too late. How has this happened? Where was her mother in all of this? I know she could be neglectful but my wife and I always offered up our help.

“Tell me spirit: has this happened because we withdrew our help? Because we continued with it? Or is there another factor at play, one yet to be revealed?”

But the spirit maintained its silence and dug its claws so deeply Burning was forced away from the window and back onto the road.

In time he came to another resting place, this one an old house not dissimilar to the mansion in which his wife’s family had jubilated during the prior phantom’s visit.

“A house,” he said, struggling for breath once more. “And a grand one at that. The kind of home we’d always dreamed of.”

He staggered up the path to the house and pressed his nose against one of its windows. It was dark inside, but not fully so. There were candles lit and people sitting before them. One, though wrinkled and grey-haired, he recognised quite well; the other sat in a high-backed chair facing away from the window. He could only discern its occupant from one hand holding a high-ball glass on the rest, and from the way the woman opposite spoke to it.

“My wife,” said Burning. “My dearest, old now but gilded with age. She’s never looked more lovely.

“And he, the fellow whose face is hidden–this must be our future home and he my future self. Has age been kind to these features, spirit? I must know!”

Burning left the window and quickly found the door. Opening it–neither wife nor hidden figure seemed to notice–he slipped over the threshold and into the candle-lit room.

Through a door on its other side came three children, hair of burnish copper, impossibly handsome, each with eyes so intelligent they seemed to pick Burning out then disregard him as being beneath their intellect.

“Mother! Father!” cried the children, and jumped between the two figures like newborn pups.

“Our children, spirit,” said Burning. “You can see in their faces their mother’s pale eyes, her chin and yes, even something in the hair.” He bent to look closer at the cherubs dancing hither and thither by candle light. “I see little of myself in them, I must admit,” he said. “But it is of no matter. Such wonderful things you show me this night, spirit. Surely all the night’s frights are behind us now. Thank you for showing to me my children.”

His eyes brimming–this time with tears of happiness–he watched the so far unseen figure settle his glass on a small table then stand.

“Come on, little ones,” he said, herding them toward the door from which they’d emerged. “If you don’t sleep now Santa will never come.”

In a moving, shifting pile of giggles, all of them moved to the door, leave Burning’s wife alone amid the candles with only he spirit and Burning himself for company. She fondly watched them go, then turned her attention the the nearest candle-flame.

“Spirit,” said Burning slowly. “I saw him, that man, I watched his face and watched him recede; I watched him take the children to their beds but that man, he wasn’t me.

“And those weren’t my children, were they? And this isn’t my home?”

He studied his wife’s face as light and darkness waged savage war in the flickering of the flame, and fancied he saw a tear–just one–swelling in the corner of her pale, beautiful eye.

“Merry Christmas, Campfire,” she said, the first words he’d heard her say since arriving at this house. “I wish you were here.”

“But I am!” said Burning, waving his hands before her face. He reached out to take her shoulders and shake her but the spirit restrained him now, holding his shoulders and holding them tight. “I’m right here! Did you leave me? Did I leave you? What came between us? Spirit, tell me, so I might right this wrong while there’s still time.”

The spirit continued to say nothing. Taking a snuffer from beneath her chair, Burning’s wife moved it toward the flame with inexorable slowness.

“No!” cried Burning. “I mustn’t let her! I need to see her face, I have to, spirit. Let me be with her, and let us work this out.”

But the spirit held him tighter still, and as the clock in the home that wasn’t his struck the hour so Burning’s wife snuffed the candle, plunging the room into darkness.

The hour tolled, each bell-note strung far out and steady: the rusty dripping of blood. Too tired to run, the spirit nevertheless pressed Burning forward through the dark. Soon he felt the ground change underfoot. He and the spirit no longer stood on a polished floor but on turf that slipped beneath as he walked. The clouds stirred in the heavens allowing a wicked yellow moon to poke through and bathe the field in its glare.

Burning found himself walking through a cemetery while the spirit still clung to his back.

“So this is it,” he said. Cold winds stole the words from his chapped lips and threw them back in his face as snowflakes. He shivered but plodded on. With every step he felt colder, more sodden and more wretched than he had the last. “You show me a future in which I have no place and yet you expect me to grieve for it? You know me not, spirit. If you did you would know these skewed lives aren’t determined by my actions but by my continued existence. No amount of festive cheer will salvage them; without me they might stand a chance in this cruel, hard world.

Still the spirit pressed him onward.

“I’ve heard you and you’ve heard me,” said Burning, tucking his hands under his arms for warmth. The snow fell harder, bringing with it a wind that howled and nipped at Burning’s extremities. The graveyard sloped upward and Burning trudged dutifully forward. “You push me toward a change in my persona, I know, so show me my grave and be done with it. I say it again: Life is a humbug. I’ll not change until worms burrow through my eyes. Only then will the world rejoice.”

At the top of the hill overlooking the headstones was a tree like a witch’s claw. Leafless, a shadow against the driving snow, it was little more than an ebony etching, a featureless silhouette spearing the skyline. Nevertheless, approaching it Burning felt more than a modicum of dread. For the first time he tried to turn about and run through the snow-softened graveyard but the spirit held him fast and kept him marching.

“What is this?” said Burning, fighting the impulse propelling him onward. “A tree? But spirit, you are to show me my grave! That’s the denouement of this Christmas Carol; it always has been and it always will be!”

And now, his terror mounting, Burning saw that this tree wasn’t without features as he’d first thought. Hanging from it like the ghastliest of Christmas garlands was a rope tied into a noose. It was old and frayed and looked as if it had hung there for many seasons, but he had no doubt it would hold true, should something be hanged from it.

Behind him, the spirit lifted Burning toward the noose.

Burning struggled. “No!” he shrieked, suddenly afraid. “You can’t! It’s murder! A grave I’ll accept but spirit, don’t make me dig my own!”

He twisted like a caught viper, determined to see what manner of creature bore him aloft, but no matter how he craned his neck he couldn’t see the arms that lifted him nor the face that surely glared and smiled and laughed.

The rope’s loop bobbed about his head. “No!” Burning called again, “No, no!” but his protestations came too late. The spirit forced his head through it, then tightened the noose about his neck. The only thing coming between Burning and death by hanging was the spirit itself, which held him up if only for the moment.

“At least,” said Burning, the rope constricting about his neck, choking his words from him. “At least show yourself to me, coward! Before you kill me, before I die, present yourself! I’d sooner see my murder than let myself fall into ignominious death!”

“Not death.” Burning froze, for where he’d expected to see or hear something of the spirit–or perhaps see nothing, a fitting end for a coward that had hidden behind his back for so much of the night–he had not expected to hear words prying themselves from his own lips like nails deserting a coffin. “Suicide.”

With a sudden lurch the spirit released Burning. The noose contracted, Burning’s body fell, his eyes bulged and the bones in his neck were torn from one another.

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359 – The Ghost of Christmas Present

With the spectre’s arrival the room was transfigured into a playroom, only one so filled with rocking horses and tin soldiers it resembled a toy shop fully stocked for the season. Where the wardrobe had been was now a fireplace mantel, a roaring fire beneath and stockings with unfamiliar names stitched into them hanging from it, each also stuffed with toys. Balloons bobbed against the ceiling and their strings played like broken cobwebs about a small boy knelt in the midst of the toys, so many the drift they lay in passed his knees. He was bent to the rug, unwrapping those gifts that were were wrapped and discarding the paper carelessly, deepening the drift. Soon it had deepened so far the boy’s head was scarcely visible above the toys and wrapping paper, elements of which were starting to spill onto Burning’s bed.

He rose cautiously, his legs brushing through the crackling papers as he stood. He could still see the spirit–just–for a golden light poured from the top of his head as if the child was wearing a burning crown.

“Spirit?” he asked. For a moment the boy turned, the light from his crown throwing the shadows of the room in odd directions. Then he resumed his quest, shaking gifts and tearing the paper. The drift had passed Burning’s waist.

“You look like my nephew, spirit,” said Burning, and he laughed a laugh with little humour in it.

“Have you seen my games?” said the spirit, his voice ringing clear as a bell. “I lost them and don’t know where to look.”

“Your games?” said Burning. Paper was now rustling about his chest, the drift deepening faster than the boy could tear wrappings to add to it.

Burning looked about the room. Some of the toys had been caught up on the paper waves where they bobbed like becalmed sail boats. Among them was a Snakes & Ladders box, which Burning waded toward and retrieved. The paper was above his shoulder and starting to wrap itself about his neck.

“Here, spirit,” he said, holding the game out to the lad. “I found a game for you. Now will you let me be?”

But the boy who by rights should have been invisible beneath the rising tide searched on. “My games,” he said, his voice wheedling. “I want to find more games.”

Burning tried to say something in response but by this point the drift had risen above his mouth; when he opened it to speak it filled with gift wrap, which he tried to spit out.

Still it rose higher, past his nose, past his eyes, past his head until he could see nothing but gold, silver, red and green glitter, and hear nothing but the roar of a thousand papers crackling. He struggled to breath; he was smothered-or perhaps drowned–by the papers. He choked and felt his gorge rise to spill his supper into the playroom. Instead, out came more paper, welling deep within him.

“Spirit!” he called through a mouthful of disgorged papers. “Spirit, help me!”

Suddenly all was dark.

* * *

In the darkness sped a set of flashing lights.

Christmas was as it always has been, immutable, unchanged by the interceding years. But I’d left it all behind in search of a new life overseas, and with it came a new family and new customs.

On Christmas Eve we travelled south to Virginia. It’s something we do every year. My uncle- and aunt-in-law open their home to all and sundry and every two years the schedules of all those invited coincide and we visit en masse from every corner of the country.

This was a busy Christmas. Even a house bordering on palatial can only accommodate so many souls and with eighteen of us visiting it was stretched to breaking point.

Also stretched were the nerves of my wife’s relatives, who by the time we arrived had already had quite enough of our nieces and nephew. Cousin Casey, slyly good-natured and perpetually out of breath, cornered us soon after we arrived. “He keeps asking me if he can play games,” he said, eyes haunted and darting about the room in fear the object of his discontent–our nephew–might at any moment wander in and cajole him. “He wants to play Mario. I keep telling him I ‘lost’ Mario but he doesn’t believe me.”

(“Hey,” said the spirit, scrunching his face up beneath his glowing crown. “I did not think he really lost the game. I wish I could play it.”)

Growing ever out of control, this year their mother didn’t make even a token effort to reign them in. It was a topic of conversation discussed late into the night as the drinking adults became tisy to the point of slurring. I put it to them that if it was difficult to deal with for three days of the year, imagine how it must be to live in a house with the four of them.

But this is Christmas now: gossip and backstabbing; opinions and drinks; ungrateful, tow-headed rapscallions charging underfoot and very little room to breathe. Overwhelmed on more than one occasion I retreated to the basement for solitude, only to find other people hiding there. Cousin Sean’s girlfriend attended her first family Christmas and while she proved outgoing and stoic in the face of unceasing demand from our nieces, even she needed space to decompress and reorganise herself.

Her birthday had fallen on Christmas Eve and so the family had organised a surprise party for her while she and Sean were out walking. They filled the dining room with dozens of balloons and baked two cakes–pumpkin roulade and spice–which they anointed with copious amounts of cream cheese frosting. After the party was sprung and before the cakes were eaten we had our now-traditional Christmas Eve feast of seafood and pasta alfredo. The salmon seemed to be a touch underdone but we ate it regardless. For the rest of the night both my wife and myself suffered from upset stomachs. I spent half the night yakking in to the toilet and much of Christmas day unable to eat. It was sad but as I insisted the whole time we were there, it wasn’t my Christmas. At home missing dinner on Christmas day would have been unthinkable, sickness or otherwise.

I just wasn’t at home anymore.

This reluctance to join in spilled into the rest of my time there. Still sick, on Christmas evening I braved a little roast beef and risotto–another Christmas culinary tradition–and retired to bed while everyone else was infected by the Christmas spirit. Two years ago the house had been so full neither Lindsay nor myself had a room; this year we had a pull-out bed in the living room, but the living room was connected to the kitchen where the festivities were being held. Everyone young and old twisted the night away to Motown classics while I, living next door to the world’s noisiest neighbours, cocooned myself in misery and begged for sleep.

(“Look,” said the spirit. “Look how happy everyone is. Everyone except you, you poopyhead.”)

And I was unhappy. This wasn’t my Christmas. I rarely understood what was going on, and everyone who was gathered was reluctant to inform me. The family moves like a herd of sheep, bumbling into one another until they reach consensus and slowly move in a uniform direction. If you’re not in the know, you don’t stand a chance. This was made clear on Boxing Day when the majority of the party departed as one, heading out for lunch and leaving us behind. Annoyed at not being invited Lindsay decided we should go out and spend the afternoon alone together. We went to a nearby town which was clean and gloriously festive in the crisp winter air. Skaters queued on rubber mats to use the outdoor rink; a tree large as a house was wrapped in ribbons and dwarfed by the imperious buildings that stood all around it. We ate Thai food in a restaurant where drunken businessmen huddled in the corners and fresh-faced young women sat on stools so tall their feet didn’t touch the ground, and were served water by a wizened old men whose body shook while his pouring hand stayed calm.

It was a good afternoon in the middle of a hectic family Christmas. Sometimes it’s nice to get away.

Though there were times at which I enjoyed myself, mostly I felt alone. These were the traditions of a family of which I’m only ostensibly a member. “I can’t join in their reindeer games,” I told my wife, sadly but bullishly, angrily regretful. I spent so much time trying to hide away because I was worried if I tried, I wouldn’t find a way in. Even the simplest conversational exchanges were beyond my limited social skills. Sometimes I waited for minutes trying to find an opening in the conversation in which I could ask someone to please step aside, I have rubbish to throw out.

We drove home late on the twenty-seventh under driving rain and darkening light, in silence for the most part, angry at each other for unspoken reasons. The Christmas I loved is gone now, deceased. Being and adult I shouldn’t be surprised by this.

What I am surprised by is that the person I was, that I tried for so long to smother, still lives on in my unwanted, fearful, misanthropic ways.

* * *

His eyes brimming, his voice catching, Burning spoke softly to the spirit. “I tried,” he said. “I made an effort, damn you. I participated, I conversed, I played games and enjoyed myself. But only to a point! A man cannot be coerced into having fun. Would I be a monster if I said I don’t like fun? It’s an acquired taste, a hellish one, often more trouble than it’s worth, mind you. Why, if I pooh-poohed opium, nobody would think any the worse., yet those addled souls haunting alleys in the China district claim it’s an unusual high, better than any brand of ‘fun’ you might list.

“So don’t judge me and find me lacking, spirit. How dare you! You, with your addiction to games and other trifles.”

At this Burning scooped from the floor a children’s toy, a helmet with the face of an automaton. “Ghost of Christmas Present!” he screeched, a man beyond wits’ end. “Have at thee!” And grabbing the small squirming spirit up with one hand he forced the helmet over his glowing crown, pushing it further until the light was snuffed, the spirit’s cries silences and the room darkened.

“There!” he said. “Christmas no more!”

But all this Burning now spoke to his bedpost, for his hands were wrapped about it and not the small boy.

Forcing his fingers to relax one by one he prised them from the post and sat, quivering while the clock ticked off seconds. It took was a while before Burning regained his composure, and when he had he found his gaze inextricably drawn to the display. 11:59, it read, and then, as he watched, it changed.

12:00. Midnight.

The final ghost! Burning’s eyes widened with fear. Hands he’d fought to still now shook again, as did his whole body. Goose-flesh spread like plague marks across his skin and he realised there was no other sound in the house but that of his breathing . . .

. . . and perhaps not even that.

“Never!” he cried, leaping to his feet. “You’ll not have me, spirit!” With that he tore open the door and charged down the stairs, fleeing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come which followed insistent and without remorse.

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358 – The Ghost of Christmas Past

The spirit was Burning’s grandfather in all his terrible splendour. As if resurrected, his eyes chips of flint, his clothes loose around arms the colour of melted tallow, he stood tall and proud as ever he had done in life. Shirt and trouser sleeves and pullover as well all flapped slowly; like his errant white hair they moved as if underwater and shaken by currents Campfire Burning could not feel.

“But Granddad!” Burning cried, and then fell silent, not knowing to where he wished to escort the conversation.

Toothless in death as he had been in life, the spirit looked down his nose athis grandfather and bared his gums.

“The sleeve!” he said, shaking his arm to reveal traceries of veins lit early-dawn blue with dreadful magic. “Grab hold, boy, and I’ll transport thee to an age when even you were happy.”

Closing his eyes tightly shut Burning reached through a field of static electricity that provoke the hairs to stand on the back of his hand and grabbed the spirit’s robes. With a sickening lurch the ground fell away from his feet and he felt the sudden cold sting of winter weather slapping his cheeks.

He opened his eyes.

“Spirit!” he gasped, his words swept away on the wind. “We’re flying!”

The spirit barked laughter.

Over the deserted cityscape they fled, two stars in the night sky. The lit windows and street lamps swept dizzyingly beneath in a zoetrope flicker and the sun and moon fought for control of the sky: as soon as one had dipped beneath the horizon, the other chased after it. All the world was a-flicker with Burning and his grandfather the fulcrum about which all turned.

Finally they landed in a leafy suburb. A small boy was wending his way down the icy hill, near skidding on the slope but always finding his balance at the last second.

“I know this place,” said Burning, finding his feet. “I was raised here. And that small boy, whistling to himself–.” Burning gulped and wiped a feverish hand across his mouth. “That’s me.”

“Indeed it is.” said the spirit. “Now watch.

* * *

Arriving home to find the tree assembled, the house lit; opening advent calendars, trying hard not to peek; Christmas parties at school, kissing a girl you don’t like–or worse, one you do; late night shopping to scratched out carols.

Christmas arrived in a creeping, relentless step.

When the night filled with music, Christmas was near. We turned away carolers (“Are there no X-Factor auditions?” said Burning. “No barber shop quartets? No underpasses which might mute their damnable busking?” The spirit threw him a dirty look and with sleeves billowing, cuffed him about the ear.) who arrived as young men alone or in pairs, not a note between them–let alone a tune–who’d sing four bars and demand payment.

But soon after came a car from St. Luke’s with a decrepit sound system lashed to its roof, and the estate resounded with blown-out carols which sounded as if every church and cathedral across the land had found a voice and sang to outmatch the souls singing within them.

Collectors came door to door with buckets and the family at forty-six, who were usually so reluctant to deliver hand-outs to anyone who came knocking, emptied their pockets while night came alive with song.

And then came the big day, begged for, pleaded for on bended knee. The children ran early to their beds and woke at day’s break to hop foot-to-foot while mother and father slept on, then tarried in bed, prolonging their children’s misery. The first tea of the morning led to another cup coffee, led to toast and jam for breakfast, and all the while the tree downstairs and the heaping presents beneath burned like a firework, surely coming soon to the end of its blaze.

When everyone tumbled downstairs in their dressing gowns, the wrapping paper so carefully stitched together earlier that week (“They turned us out, always,” mumbled Burning, watching, nose pressed to the window, phantom breath leaving no mist. “We knew when they were wrapping presents and hoped to catch them in the act, but even though we came downstairs feigning sleeplessness or sickness they never allowed more than a crack’s view into the room, through which we saw nothing.” He laughed, voice chilled to brittleness. “And that after we’d sent the preceding week peeking into wardrobes and into lofts in search of gifts stashed beyond sight. I once played a game start to finish before it had even been wrapped. Such ungrateful mites we were.” “Were?” intoned the spirit. Burning shut his mouth) was rent into with force. The girl, cheeks smeared with play make-up she’d already opened, tore so vigorously the contents of each parcel were nearly destroyed in the process; no sooner had she broken into one gift than she’d moved onto the next.

The boy, young Burning-that-was, was more cautious, carefully stripping paper from his prizes to give each toy, book and game careful consideration. Sometimes his playing held up the Christmas process and the doting parents watching at the sideline needed to spur him on, to pay attention to his presents still wrapped.

The television played unwatched in the background and the house filled with steam heavenly scented with forthcoming lunch. Food was eaten, condiments piled like rare unguents on the table, each roast potato and sliver of turkey anointed with gravy, bread or cranberry sauce, and when all were fat and full father wheeled in the Christmas pudding, dousing each darkened wedge with cream before setting bowls full on every dinner mat.

The next day–Boxing Day–the family visited the grandparents at their home in Dundonald Street and those tall, dark hallways were filled with the sound of merry-making as Christmas began anew. Granny’s potatoes were seldom crisp and her turkey came frozen and ready stuffed but the meal was tradition and as often with tradition it would have hurt for any of the precedings to be any different.

Every toy unwrapped and Christmas now over, the children retired to the front room to play where, radiator turned high for perhaps the first time that year, both parents and grandparents watched television and chatted, and watched the children, making sure they never played too loudly but doting on them all the same. All were assembled before a false tinsel Christmas tree upon which lights sparkled and danced.

* * *

“Spirit!” said Burning, and his lips trembled and his voice quavered and his eyes shone damply with sorrow. He pointed and had to use a second hand to steady his first. Watching television, chewing a Newbury Fruit, Burning’s grandfather sat imperiously upright while the spirit that had borrowed his face still stood to the side and behind Burning himself, his corporeal being swept by ethereal waves.

“Aye lad, that was me,” said the spirit. “A version of me at any rate. But see how happy you were?”

“I see only empty place settings,” said Burning. “I see deaths still to come. I see a sister–”and at this he pointed to where a small blond cherub played with a Care Bear. “A sister who wants nothing to do with her big brother!”

“Can you blame her?” asked the spirit. “For that matter, can you blame the passing of time for wrenching away loved ones? For it happens to us all, you know. I once lost loves, as has everyone who’s ever lived. Death is a part of life; you know this. It might steal friends and family from us, but it will never steal our memories.”

“I can blame it, and I will!” Burning exclaimed, and shook himself of his weepiness, straightening up and sneering at the scene. “You’re forgetting, spirit, that I saw you–that is, my grandfather–addled at life’s end with not a memory in his head, of me or of this or of anything. Why, he’d forgotten even his name when the dark curtain fell. If death steals loved ones then life steals those memories you’re so cursed proud of.”

“Enough!” yelled the spirit, and at this even the figures rejoicing before Burning seemed to quail, drawing closer, shivering in a sudden draught. “You will be visited by another ghost at eleven, Burning, and another at twelve midnight, and as God is my witness, you will change your ways!”

“God!” said Burning, now fully obstinate. “Don’t get me started on God!

But the spirit he addressed had vanished like a dream, as had the Dundonald Street Christmas and Burning’s former family contained within. He was alone now, in his bed, his wife fast asleep beside him, her gentle snoring scoring the scene.

“Humbug, spirit!” said Burning, looking about the room. Then, a little more quietly: “Humbug.”

He lay back in bed and drew the bedsheets about him. His wife, grunting, drew them back to her. “Damned woman,” Burning muttered. “If it’s not spirits from the netherworld traipsing across my past, it’s . . .”

But whatever he might have said next was lost in the peals of the clock striking the hour. It was eleven, and the Ghost of Christmas Present had arrived.

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357 -The Doorbell

And so came Marley to the residence of one Campfire J. Burning Esquire. Riddled with miseries and other chill affectations of the season this man above–or perhaps below–all others demanded the attentions of famed spirits who once haunted Ebeneezer Scrooge to a long and happy life.

“Happiness!” exclaimed the rascal Burning. “Humbug!”

Beset by loneliness, homesickness and general unfeeling he’d become withdrawn and furious, and now sat alone in the draughty hallways of his New Jersey home.

Not that there weren’t signs of festive cheer daubed about the front room for there were. A tree blazed a[plenty, bedecked with ornaments from ages past, echoes of happier days to which Mr. Burning was sadly not party to. Also in evidence were bows, wreathes and ribbons, trinkets of the season which sat about the place like toads on a log. Curling shards of wrapping paper lay in drifts on the rug, and toys, gifts already opened by children who had since departed lay scattered. There were so many small happinesses in the nooks of the front room it would surely take a beast of a scowl to dampen their spirit; sure enough, Burning’s grimace could cut a man to the bone. His was a countenance that only grew uglier as the minutes ticked on, his back more hunched, his fingers more gnarled, his teeth more uneven and his brow more furrowed, ‘til he looked like some creature stepped forth from a penny dreadful, spreading dourness across the land.

But such was his way, and so he had always been. This, thought Marley, would be a tricky haunting if ever there was one.

Glancing up from his writing, every finger-stroke the banging of a coffin lid, Burning looked about the room. If his eyes took in any of the Christmas glory surrounding him, his look betrayed not a trace of feeling.

Still there was something in the air that night; a shivering stiletto that pierced even the coldness exuded by the misery himself.

Burning looked about the room a second longer as if searching for the source of this sudden chill, then muttered something beneath his breath, pulled his shawl tighter and resumed writing.

It was nine of the clock and the road upon which he lived was otherwise still. Two nights before Christmas, the streets revelers had taken to their automobiles, visiting clubs, friends and loved ones, life’s sundry bounties of which they were only a small cog in a large machine.

Pitifully, Burning span alone except for the dog at his feet, who gazed mournfully at his master as if expecting the crack of a cane across its ribs or back.

Now the dog stirred, sniffing the air as some unearthly scent teased across its nostrils. The clock on the mantel toned the hour sonorously, shaking spiders from their webs and dust from the eves.

While the house trembled still a waterfall of chimes cascaded throughout: the doorbell, ringing.

The dog howled. Burning, grumbling, stood.

“Who?” he spat, shuffling, slipper-clad toward the door. The bell rang apace. “Rousing me from my words–taking me from them! Who, at this hour?”

He fumbled with the lock and then, with one abrupt motion, threw the door open to reveal . . .

Only the night and nothing more.

“Children!” he snarled, casting his gaze to where the toys were piled haphazard, but he knew it couldn’t be these children at horseplay as their aunt had taken them hundreds of miles distant to the annual Christmas family gathering, a party Burning was loathe to attend.

But there are other children, he reasoned, filling the world with their inimitable stink. Sticky fingers on thieving hands; the world would be better off without ‘em.

So he shut the door did Campfire Burning, his putrid mind already returning to the words he’d abandoned like flies to a corpse. But as he turned away, his hand letting go of the doorknob, the doorbell pealed again.

The dog, keening, loped off down the hall to bury its head beneath its paws.

“What goes on?” cried Burning, twisting the knob savagely. “Were you hiding only to return once my back was turned? I’ll cane you–I’ll cane all of you!”

He opened the door again and again there was nothing but the empty street and the distant, joyful sound of a Christmas party in full swing.

Availing himself of a walking stick lodged into the hatstand by the door, Burning thrust it like a rapier into the darkness. “Show yourself!” he said, probing the shadows and finding them bare. “Cowards in hiding–show yourself, lest I beat you to within a hair’s breadth of–”

But to what he might beat them to a hair’s breadth of, he did not say, for neither his eyes nor his cane found any children, hidden or otherwise. He stopped swishing the stick and listened for small footsteps departing his property, but above the wheezy susurrus of his breathing and his deep, laboured heartbeat (for even a man such as he had a heart, albeit a particularly cold and stony one) he heard nothing but those aforementioned sounds: night breezes and faraway parties.

“Pah!” said Burning, his pulse beginning to quicken, for this was not a usual occurrence in his life: not a usual occurrence at all.

Almost as soon as he’d swung the door fully closed the ringing came again, louder and more sonorous than ever.

“Who’s there?” cried Burning, now in the grip of some shuddering, waking nightmare. Opening the door, dreading what might be there, he again saw nothing but the bell’s tolling continued regardless.

He let go of the door and staggered back into the room. Those festive lights wrapped about the tree flickered, then danced in off patterns. The toys sprang to life and danced a jig upon the table. Caught in an unfelt gust, the wrapping papers moved in fits and starts, spinning about the room, catching about Burning’s trembling person. The door to the hall slammed; the dog behind barked, growled, howled and fled upstairs, and all the time the doorbell, the infernal doorbell clapped and rang, rang and clapped until its peals became a voice and the voice spoke to Campfire Burning.

“Beware!” wailed the doorbell. “Beware, Campfire Burning!”

“Wh-who is that?” said Burning, his voice jittering with nerves. “Show yourself, creature! Speak to me, man to–”

“To ghoul?” said the bell in a mocking tone. “To phantom, to spook? To bad casserole not baked far enough? I am not a product of your unsettled stomach, Campfire.”

“Then who?” sobbed Burning, collapsing on his knees amid the skittering paper. “Show yourself to me so I might put a face to this voice, for it’s a voice I recognise!”

“I should hope so,” said the doorbell, its note ringing in clear indignation. “For I am a spirit who once trod the same paths as yourself, who has since moved on to another realm.”

“The afterlife?” asked Burning. clutching one hand to his mouth and crossing himself with the other.

“No!” roared the bell. “To the first floor, up the stairs!”

“You mean . . . “ said Burning.

“Yes!” said the bell. “I am your wife, and I’m not happy with you at all.”

All at once the clock sounded, as did every clock in the house, their ringing echoing in the hallways in contretemps to the sound of every shutter, window and door opening and banging shut.

“But why,” sobbed burning, tears running down his shaking jowls. “What have I done to offend thee oh spirit of the boudoir?”

“Repent!” said the spirit. “Repent your way! You have become miserable, and in your misery you have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.”

“Which is?” asked Burning.”

“It’s not mine to tell,” said the spirit. “But know this. Before this night is out you will be visited by three more spirits.

“Three?” said Burning to himself.

“Three,” confirmed the spirit. “Each of whom will have a message for you that you will learn lest you end up like me.”

“Like you?” said Burning.

“Neglected! Alone! Abandoned upstairs in a room without socks! Evaded by a cruel, uncaring spouse who speaks only in snappish tones and never lets love into his heart.”

“I . . .” said Burning, and swallowed, his eyes shining with tears still unshed. “I apologise. I didn’t mean to cause you such distress, my love. I can change.”

“You will change,” said the spirit. “Or you will know suffering as you never have before.

“Now abide by me, and listen close:

“The first spirit will come as the clock strikes ten. The second, when the clock strikes eleven, and the third at the stroke of midnight.

“Listen for them, Campfire Burning, or listen not. They will find you all the same.”

“But how will I recognise these spirits?” said Burning. The pealing was subsiding now, falling into echoes, and Burning shuffled on his knees as if toward the unseen source of the sound.

“You will know them,” said the voice as it faded. “And they will know you. Farewell, Campfire, my beloved. May we meet again on happier times.”

“Wait!” cried Burning, standing now. “Come back to me!”

But the doorbell had stilled, the ringing had stopped, and the spirit had returned to whatever fell realm from which it had come.

Once again, the house was very still.

“Heavens,” whispered Burning, his timorous voice suddenly loud in the stillness. There were so many questions he’d wanted to ask the spirit, that bounced among his thoughts like moths.

He noticed he was still wielding the cane and now set it back in the hatstand before making his way uneasily up the stairs. Each creaked as he stepped on it, and each step seemed to speak to him harshly.

Finally he breached the first floor and knocked on his bedroom door. From his wife inside there came no reply.

“I’m sorry,” he called through the keyhole. When this, too, was met with no response he straightened up and dusted himself off.

“Pah!” he said. Hearing the word said aloud made him feel confident, and so “Pah!” he said again–louder this time–and opened the door.

The bedroom was bathed largely in shadow, with only a crack of moonlight visible where the shutters–now stilled–allowed it entrance. Whether or not Burning’s wife had been the voice of the spirit she lay still now, and quiet. A bundle of blankets betrayed her form. Burning regarded it and scowled before heading to the dresser to change into his nightclothes.

Finally, still bothered by the events of the evening but willing to pass them off as–as the ‘spirit’ had suggested–a spate of indigestion, he stole into bed.

“While you were up here dozing I believe I myself fell asleep downstairs,” said Burning, stifling a yawn. “You wouldn’t believe the dream I–”

From the night cabinet on the opposite side of the room came a sound. Burning craned his neck in the darkness to see the source: a digital alarm clock, shining in the gloam.

The clock read:

22:00

Ten o’clock! thought Burning, and as swiftly as it had passed, the chill returned. But that meant . . .

The bundle of blankets next to him writhed and sank, whatever form hidden beneath them now vanished. The shadows–myriad though they were–lengthened even further, curling into claws that pulled back the shutters and threw up the window. From without came a voice that send the marrow crawling in Burning’s bones, a voice he knew well, but that he hadn’t heard for a goodly long time.

“Hello,” said the voice, rich and baritone, scratched at the edges and turning with a West Country burr. “How’re you?”

Like soldiers standing to attention, gooseflesh rose from Burning’s skin. “No!” he murmured, burrowing his head beneath the bedsheets. “Not you! It can’t be!”

“It can be,” said the voice. “And it is.”

An icy breeze pierced the sanctum of the room and tore away the blankets, leaving Burning shaking on the sheets beneath, his eyes screwed shut.

“Come on, lad,” said the voice. “Hop to it. We don’t have all night.” and it laughed, a short, gruff bark that was somehow terrible.

Slowly, unwillingly, Burning opened his eyes and crept along the bed toward the window. “Why?” he moaned, over and over. “Why?”

“You know darned well why, me ‘andsome,” said the voice. Burning could see him now: a proud elderly man with a fine white moustache and bold blue eyes, hovering just beyond the window. He looked slightly amused to see Burning gawping back at him but most of all he looked angry with an anger barely restrained, as if he might fly into a temper at any moment. “Now take my sleeve and come with me.” The spirit held out his arm.

“But what if I don’t want to?” whispered Burning, a frightened longing causing his voice to waver.

“You don’t get a say,” said the spirit of Burning’s dead grandfather. “Because you see, Daniel: I’m the ghost of Christmas past.

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356 – The Chocolate Fix

After reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory umpteen times as a child actually visiting a chocolate factory was bound to be a disappointment. There were no green sugar pastures, no nut-testings squirrels and no pygmy tribesmen singing cautionary songs. In their place was a factory floor that could have been used to make, well, anything. Only the fact that our glimpse into the world of chocolate making came as part of the Cadbury World tour gave any clue that the the dour workers in coveralls and hairnets were making sweets and not industrial fencing.

Our view into the factor was thankfully short. Due to unknown circumstances we were barred entry onto the gantry in the factory rafter and instead viewed the production line through a window before being plied with a large bar of chocolate each to forget that a good part of the tour we’d paid for was for the moment offline.

I was fine with this. Chocolate seemed like a good swap for not having to watch machines wrapping the foil onto Creme Eggs. It’s not as if the rest of the tour was worth taking. Aside from a trip ‘back in time’ through tableaux of important scenes in the history of chocolate, at one of which we tasted a highly spiced and terribly moreish version of Aztec xocolatl the tour was a series of instructional videos about how to pump air into Wispa bars or endless museums of wrapper designs. There wasn’t nearly enough tasting for me and I returned home from Cadbury disappointed.

I am–I was–a chocolate freak. This was a serious problem for a boy growing up without pocket money and without Charlie Bucket’s propensity for happening upon pennies in the snow. Every couple of weeks my grandparents would give my sister and I a bag of sweeties but with chocolate so expensive the best I could hope for cocoa-wise was a Curly Wurley or Finger of Fudge. Even Cadbury’s Buttons, long since dismissed by my parents as a sweet for babies would have been gratefully received.

In true Willy Wonka tradition, there were only two days of the year upon which chocolate was guaranteed: Easter and Christmas. Easter was a given: what was Easter Sunday for if not chocolate? Each given Easter Eggs according to his or her tastes, my sister and I soon scoffed our way through the eggs themselves and whatever goodies lay hidden in the middles. As far as we were concerned the bigger the egg, the better, and when we tumbled downstairs following clues set in a treasure hunt to where the Easter bunny had stashed this year’s load we headed straight for the larges, most impressive egg, to smash the box apart and drink greedily from its contents.

Christmas was a different matter altogether. In my household Christmas was an excuse to eat until you were sick. Christmas day was home to the biggest meal of the year, but the days satelliting it on either side were just as loaded with good-for-nothing treats. For weeks ahead of the big day my parents stockpiled sweets and snacks in every form they could find and they’d stay tantelisingly out of reach, forbidden to our young stomachs, which would have sucked in everything in one great glut if given half a chance.

I’m not kidding, One year when I was very young I ate the chocolate decorations from the tree, snaffling them down without even bothering to unwrap them. There’s probably a piece of tinfoil still floating about my lower intestine.

When Christmas Eve arrived–and with it our customary pre-Christmas meal of Chinese food or a bucket of chicken–my parents broke into the first of the season’s chocolate boxes, and from then on not a night would pass without all four of us gorging ourselves aching on the contents of it or its descendants.

There’s a strict protocol to be followed when rooting through a box of Roses or Quality Street: a pecking order at the bottom of which lies the terminally unwanted cremes.

Ostensibly orange, coffee and strawberry, all three were overly sweet even for a small boy and tasted only mildly of the flavours they purported as if left under a hot fairy light for too long.

The money chocolates–and the ones I always went for first–were the caramel cups and kegs, followed by chocolate toffees. When most of the chocolates had been eaten sitting in the carton beside the cremes were the toffee pennies, the only sweets in these so-called chocolate boxes that hadn’t been dipped in the brown stuff. If they’d been chocolate-coated I probably would have fought over them with my sister instead of stealing away the caramels before she knew how many the box contained.

Most of these year-in year-out chocolates were Quality Street or Roses, but we had other boxes of chocolates over the years, dependant on sales and special offers. We ate Sparta, All-Gold, Milk Tray and Black Magic, and on the individually packaged side we had Walnut Whips and hung Pyramints on the tree as decorations, so pretty were their pyramidal boxes.

Pyramints were a personal favourite, with dark chocolate and nose-cleansing peppermint being one of my most-adored flavour combinations. Over the Christmas period we ate mint Matchmakers, and on Christmas Day poking from the top of my stocking I’d often find a box of After Eight Mints. Mint fondant, mint creme, mint crisps–chocolate and mint was one of the many flavours of Christmas, and rarely tasted for the rest of the year.

But then something happened, something I maintain to be the worst thing to happen to boxed chocolates since the invention of the chocolate Brazil. As much of a chocolate fan as I was, I never really cared for the Neapolitans found in Cadbury’s Roses. These were tiny bite-sized chocolates ingots wrapped to ape the larger Dairy Milk and Bournville bars I was often given come Christmas morning. Neapolitans were joke chocolates, tiny chocolate bars that seemed at odds in a box where everything else had a crunchy, crispy, chewy or soft centre. They weren’t chocolates: they were chocolate.

Somebody somewhere must have enjoyed them, because one year miniature versions of established chocolate bars were all the range, and nothing’s been the same sense.

Cadbury’s Miniature Heroes, Mars Celebrations–even Bendicks, one-time maker of premium after dinner mints resorted to making cheap and cheerful mint selection Mingles in an attempt to fit in.

Instead of eating special chocolates on special occasions, these chocolate collections propose, why not eat the same chocolates you’d eat the rest of the year round?

I can’t deny there’s something oddly appealing about small, cute portions of Mars, Milky Way, Maltesers and Bounty bars. Seeing a Cadbury’s Creme Egg the size of a finger joint is at first delightful.

But compared to the chocolate boxes they ousted, they’re positively mundane. Who knows what Terry’s Sparta contained? I remember being particularly fond of a dark chocolate with a fiery ginger centre but for the life of me I can’t remember which collection it belonged to, only that it sure as hell wasn’t one of those Celebration abominations.

As Cadbury and Mars flooded the market with inferior collections so some of my best-loved Christmas brands stretched to encompass a year-round market. Pyramints and Chocolate Oranges were sold in vastly inferior bar form while Mintolas were re-branded as bite-size After Eights. All at once, everything seemed to go wrong.

Another mainstay of our Christmas celebrations disappeared altogether. For as far back as I can remember we always had chocolate liqueurs, those little boozy treats encased in chocolate enrobed sugar shells. In a move as heinous as pork pies being made without jelly, liqueur makers started skipping the sugar shell and pouring the booze straight into the chocolate. In retrospect this was probably down to new sweet-making technology making the traditional shells obsolete, but knowing that didn’t make biting down into a soft, cardboardy liqueur any less disappointing.

There was some light at the end of the tunnel. After years of begrudgingly chowing down on inferior chocolates I discovered the good stuff courtesy of Hotel Chocolat. Finding one of their fliers in an Amazon order, one advertising–gasp!–free chocolate, how could I refuse? I tried their introductory selection and never looked back.

These days Hotel Chocolat is well known as the hottest name in high street chocolatiers. Their stores are the only ones I can bear to shop in, being light, airy and clean with friendly, knowledgeable staff who aren’t too pushy and–most importantly–offer free samples to their customers. Their chocolate doesn’t come cheap but it would be ridiculous to compare their range (which features single estate cocoa truffles, ganache woven with fine alcohol, real fruits, spices and vanilla) with a teeny tiny Mars Bar. If I were buying Christmas chocolates in the UK I’d only shop for supermarket crap in an attempt to rekindle lost nostalgia, which is exactly why I’ve bought a box of minty Matchmakers and some sacks of chocolate coins with me to the US. Believe me, if I could afford to ship Hotel Chocolat stuff over here (or buy from their US store, which manages to be even more expensive than it is back home), I would.

Alas, despite the best intentions of die hard cocoa fiends, America’s chocolate still leaves plenty to be desired. The most popular brands are inedible, and though not everything American and chocolatey is dire (Late July’s dark chocolate cookies are a welcome addition to my pantry) I wouldn’t touch most so-called chocolate products over here with another man’s tongue.

But who am I to be fussy? Was I any less happy then, when I was feasting on a massive slab of Dairy Milk and saving the cardboard casings as drawer liners? If anything I was happier not knowing the subtle differences in European chocolate-making methods as I do now, as I’m sure are all those gladly scoffing chocolates modern day me regards as swill.

And now, older, wiser and more jaded, not even a four kilogram block of Dairy Milk would pump my Christmas full of cheer. Willy Wonka would be disgusted,

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