Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

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Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

Pah!

This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

Ho Ho Ho

So, here is the final instalment of my merry Christmas tale. Everything will be resolved satisfactorily, and we’ll all live happily ever after. As if.

Merry Christmas!

Henderson stood there staring at the spot in the middle of the field where the sleigh was no longer standing, but the peasant with the pitchfork was; he was looking up into the sky, as motionless as he had been before, so that Henderson thought at first he must somehow still be frozen in time. He had not noticed the woman following him across the yard, but now she called out ‘Moses!’ and the man turned, saw him, and swung the pitchfork around so that it pointed towards him. Involuntarily, he gave a little yelp, put his hands up and took a few steps backwards as the man stepped towards him, his face expressionless.

Then he turned and ran.

Behind him, he heard the man also begin to run and ahead of him the woman stood grinning at him. He swerved as well as he could, considering his age, his fitness, and the mud, and ran through the gateway.

He stopped for a second to catch his breath, and then began to run again towards the buildings. He had only taken a couple of steps this time, however, when he suddenly saw the cat in front of him. It hissed and took a couple of paces towards him, and then fixed its eyes upon him, crouched lower to the ground and began to run towards him, before launching itself up towards his throat. He backed away, suddenly terrified, and watched the creature sail towards him. He seemed to have plenty of time to take in its evil, soulless eyes; he saw its mouth full of razor-sharp teeth like tiny little yellow daggers, little droplets of saliva clinging to their tips; he even had time to see how its whiskers curved ever so gently backwards in flight, although they had spread out wide as they bristled stiffly.

He had plenty of time. As much as he wanted, it seemed, for the cat had stopped in mid-air, about a foot in front of him. Very slowly, his eyes on the cat, he stepped sideways. Then he reached out and touched it. Its fur still felt soft, but its body, like that of the horse earlier, felt cold, but the weirdest thing of all was that no matter how much he pushed it, he could not get it to move at all. He passed his hands all around it, but it hung there, in the air, in front of his face.

Slowly he turned around, and walked back towards the gateway. He paused and listened, but the world had gone silent again. Entering the field, he saw that the sleigh had returned. It sat on the opposite side of the field, now, where the farmland seemed to turn to woodland. The peasant and the witch had become frozen statues and stood close to the gateway. He scratched his head in bewilderment, and then walked quickly across the grass.

As he reached the sleigh, he noticed some small, fresh, muddy footprints on the running board. At that moment, there was a kind of double thud, and the elves landed beside him.

‘Jeez!’ he gasped, and they burst into spiteful laughter.

‘Boo!’ said one of them.

‘Well, look who it isn’t.’ said the other. ‘You’ve got mud all over your clothes, Fat Boy.’

‘They’ll bill you for that. Dock it out of your wages.’

They seemed none the worse for their experience, he thought bitterly, as he stepped into the sleigh, and sat down.

‘Come on, then.’ he sighed. ‘Let’s go.’ They grinned.

‘Maybe we don’t want to get in.’

‘Oh, stop buggering about! I’ve no intention of sitting here all day.’

‘Well, I don’t suppose you can go back without us.’

‘And we just came back for you! Aren’t we good! I reckon you owe us, Fat Boy.’

‘Actually,’ he said, exasperated, ‘I came to get you before you got involved in a witchcraft trial.’

‘Oh, aren’t you the noble one, then! What brought that on?’

‘Nicol looked up this year and this place on the internet. Seems a bit of a coincidence your arriving here and then the witchcraft trials taking place.’

‘Well, there’s no accounting for the stupidity and ignorance of humans. Anyway, it doesn’t matter what you actually do, because you can’t alter history, Fat Boy.’

‘Oh, really.’ He grinned, after a moment’s thought. The elves glanced at each other, the implication apparently also striking them, and for the first time they looked worried.

‘Wait!’ Quickly, they hopped into the sleigh and took up their positions at the back, where they put their feet up and made themselves comfortable. One of them took a clay pipe out of his pocket, whilst the other grinned at Henderson.

‘Okay, Fat Boy, you can go now.’ He stared at them for a second or two, and then turned around to start up the reindeer. He’d have loved, at that moment, to have just booted them out and taken off, and hang the consequences, but he was, he had to admit, afraid of them. He didn’t have any idea of what they were actually capable of.

He pressed the big green button, and the reindeer exploded into life (once witnessed, never forgotten!). In what felt like no more than five seconds, they were high in the clouds and cruising smoothly.

It wouldn’t take long to get back. He sat musing over how he would be spending Christmas, but at some point, he realised that he had been looking at a vapour trail in the sky above him for a little while, but the implication of that only struck him when the radio on the dashboard, which he hadn’t even noticed before, crackled into life.

‘Attention, unidentified military aircraft: You are violating North Korean airspace. Turn around immediately or you will be shot down. I repeat, turn around immediately, or you will be shot down.’ The elves burst into laughter again.

‘Now you’ve done it, Fat Boy!’

‘Oh, it gets better and better!’

You can’t alter history, but now they were back in 2015, which was the present day. Glancing over his shoulder at the elves, who were looking at each other and giggling, he reached for the satnav over-ride button.

If Nicol wanted to try and get them back this time, he was welcome to try.

 

Where are those damned elves?

Episode three of my jolly Christmas tale now, and I’m really getting into the swing of it. We’ve had evil elves, a swearing Santa and a peasant with a pitchfork. Now it’s time for a witch.

cat

 

He held his breath, waiting for the peasant to threaten him with the pitchfork, but then he remembered that he was effectively cocooned within a nanosecond, and that no one could see him. He could sit there for as long as he liked, and nothing outside of the sleigh would change.

Except that he couldn’t. Time was passing within that nanosecond, and he was aging in time with everything back in 2015. He had better get on with it, and look for the elves. Nicol had seemed fairly confident that he had programmed the sleigh to arrive at exactly the same time as the elves would have done, but there was no sign of them from where he was sitting. He got to his feet, intending to step out of the sleigh, but froze as the thought suddenly hit him; ‘If I start walking around this world, won’t time then act on me, and the sleigh simply disappear?

If he stepped out of his cocoon, he was then in a fully functional 1682, wasn’t he? He shivered. ‘Jeez, that was close!’ Or was it? Isn’t that what would have happened each time they got out of the sleigh to deliver the presents? Whatever it was that acted upon the sleigh, it obviously acted upon the occupants, too.

He took a deep breath, and stepped down into the field, although for the moment he kept one hand on the guard rail, as if just having some physical contact with the sleigh would guarantee its protection. Nothing happened. He counted silently to ten, and then let go of the rail. Nothing continued to happen in a comforting way, so he took a few steps forward and then, after a glance back at the sleigh, walked over to where the horse and the bearded man stood like statues in the gloom.

They had passed a few people frozen in time when they had delivered the presents, of course, but he had never had time to look at them closely. Jeez, it was bizarre! It was like looking at statues that had been made to perfectly resemble their subjects in every way. He knew that they were living and breathing, yet there was not a flicker of movement and when, on impulse, he touched the horse’s flank, he immediately drew his hand away with a little involuntary cry; he had expected the warmth of living flesh, but it felt as cold and as solid as marble, as though it really was a statue.

With a last glance at the sleigh, he shivered again, and then walked forward towards a gap he could see in the hedgerow a little way away.

There was a gate, and on the other side was what appeared to be a semi-derelict cottage, with a few small outbuildings that seemed to be in no better state of repair. He stopped to open the gate, and then it struck him how quiet it was. He put his head slightly to one side to listen (people do that, for some reason), and now realised that it was the first time in his life that he had heard total silence. All he could hear was the sound of his own breathing; not because it was loud, but because there was no other sound happening in the whole world. Wow!

He slogged through the mud towards the nearest outbuilding, and looked in through the window. It was too dark to make out anything inside, so he moved towards the doorway. As he went to step inside, there was a sudden hiss, and a black cat shot out of the building, almost cannoning off of his shins. His heart leapt, and then he let out his breath and began to smile, but then he caught his breath again.

He turned around swiftly, but there was no sign of the cat. Suddenly, various odd little gobbets of information in his head began to circle around each other, jumping up and down and waving their arms and trying to get his attention. There were lots of them, but he realised that the ones he particularly noticed were the ones labelled ‘black cats’ and ‘witchcraft’.

‘Load of rubbish!’ He growled to himself, getting in quickly before his conscious mind could speak. ‘Don’t be a pillock!’ But he was spooked, now, and it didn’t reassure him. He told himself firmly that he wasn’t spooked, however, and stepped boldly through the doorway. Immediately, there was a shriek of ‘Lucifer!’ and something tried to squash itself into the darkest corner of the building. He stood rooted to the spot, and, as his eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, he realised that it was a woman.

‘No no no no no no…’ she whimpered. He took a couple of steps forward and she gave a little scream, but then she caught her breath and said, accusingly, ‘You’re not Lucifer.’ As his eyes slowly adjusted to the semi darkness, he saw that she was painfully thin, dressed in black, with a pale scarf tied around her head, and was wearing a pair of boots that appeared to be far too large for her.

He glanced down at the Santa suit covering his own rather ample girth and agreed with her. ‘No, I’m not Lucifer. Er, why did you think I might be?’

‘Because I just invoked him, of course.’ She sounded disappointed, now.

‘Why did you do that?’ He asked, immediately deciding that it was a pretty stupid question.

She seemed to think so, too. ‘Why does anyone invoke Lucifer, eh? Why do you think?’

‘I…’

‘Goody Smallbrook!’ She hissed. ‘That’s why!’

‘Eh?’

‘Thieving cow! Had half of my turnips this year! She thinks I don’t know that she sneaks into my garden at dead of night, but I does know! And she put a curse on Bob!’

‘Bob?’

‘My goat! Dried up Bob’s milk, she did! She got an evil eye!’

‘Bob… I mean, Bob gives milk?’

‘Not now, she doesn’t! She put the eye on her!’

‘You call her Bob?’

‘I don’t, Moses does.’

Oh, er, right.’

‘Who might you be, anyhow?’ She took a step towards him. ‘Ain’t never seen no one dressed like you.’

‘Well, I…’

‘An’ what you doing here? What do you want?’

‘I’m looking for…er…some elves…’

‘Elves? The fairy people don’t come out in daylight.’ She seemed to be suddenly on the verge of laughter. ‘You need to wait ‘till nightfall. You go away, now.’ He turned, happy to get out of her presence, but immediately she said ‘No, wait. You can stop here with me.’ She smiled, showing one or two discoloured and randomly placed teeth. ‘Moses needn’t know.’

‘Uh, it’s okay.’ He said quickly, stepping outside again. He looked around, but saw no one else, and set off back towards the field where he had landed.

Behind him, the woman came out, and began to follow him.

And now he realised that he could hear birdsong. What was happening? Uneasily, he broke into what could almost have been described as a jog, although it would be more accurate to simply call it a rather fast walk, opened the gate, and stepped into the field.

The sleigh had gone.

 

Photo credit: ozz13x via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

What Elves?

I may live to regret this, but, here is the sequel to my Christmas short story.

When you get to the end, you might realise that that is not the end, either…

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Henderson who wasn’t really a Santa was having a hard time trying to explain the lack of elves.

‘They fell out of the back?’

‘Yes.’

‘Both of them?’

‘Yes.’

‘Both of them at once?’

He nodded.

‘They both fell out the back, both at once?’

‘Mmm.’

‘That is unusually careless of them.’

‘Is it?’

‘Is it?’ Nicol suddenly shouted. ‘Is it? They’ve been doing this job for almost two hundred years, and I can’t imagine how one of them would come to fall out, never mind both of them! What the hell were you doing whilst this happened? And how come you managed to stay aboard?’

‘I was up the front. They were sitting at the back. Behind me. I didn’t really see what happened.’

‘Alright. Run me through it one more time.’ Henderson shrugged.

‘It’s quite straightforward; we’d done the last drop, we were on our way back and the sleigh did a sharp turn, and, er, they fell out. That’s it, really.’

It really was difficult suppressing a grin.

‘And they fell out.’ Nicol stared at him. ‘They…just…fell…out.’ They looked at each other for a while without speaking. ‘This sharp turn that the sleigh did…’ Nicol looked out of the window for a moment, and then back at Henderson. ‘No one loses both elves! In fact, only once before has anyone even lost one!’

‘How did that happen then?’ he asked, hoping to change the subject, but Nicol was having none of that.

‘So you suddenly cut in the satnav.’ It was impossible to read anything in his face. ‘That’s never a good idea.’ He seemed to be waiting for an answer.

‘What makes you think I did that?’ But he knew that his expression had given him away. He shrugged. ‘It’s possible I did.’ He conceded.

‘It’s possible that you’ll have to go back and find them, then.’

‘Go back?’

‘Yup, go back.’

*

Nicol opened up the laptop that was the only item on the dusty table.

‘I can check the tacho. That should tell us where you were, and also when you were.’

‘I was on the way back, so I presume I was on ‘today’ time.’

‘It doesn’t work like that. We have to stay in time shift all the time we’re away from here, otherwise Air Traffic Control at Heathrow will have kittens. So…let’s see…’ He tapped a few keys. ‘Right, then. It plonked you straight into 1682 as soon as you left your last drop, and you went…’

‘1682? Why on earth then?’ Nicol shrugged.

‘Why any particular time? It’s well over a hundred years before we started. All the run-ins and run-outs take place BS.’

‘BS?’

‘Before Santa. No chance of accidently colliding with yourself in mid-air. Or with anything else. Look at it like radio waves; a radio station gets a particular frequency so that its signal doesn’t interfere with any other radio station. In theory, that is. Every single run-in or run-out gets its own slot – year, month, day, hour, minute and second – so…’ he looked at the screen again, took a biro from one of his trouser pockets, rummaged around in his other pockets for a moment, then brought out a scrap of paper. He put it down on the table and smoothed it out, then carefully wrote down the figures from the screen.

‘Of course, it’s not really like that at all. Now, before we do anything, let me just Google that…oh, this doesn’t look terribly good. In 1682 a couple of strangely dressed creatures were found on a hillside just outside the village of Porton, which is where you were, according to the tacho, which began a frenzy of witch hunting that resulted in…blah, blah, blah…ah, here we are. Yes, two burnings and a hanging.’

‘What?’ Suddenly, he no longer felt like laughing.

‘Yes. Directly responsible for it, I expect. Apparently these creatures were examined by the village priest and someone referred to as a ‘doctor of physic’, who declared them to be ‘imps of Satan.’’

‘Does it say if they were dead?’

‘Nooo…’ he said slowly. ‘It doesn’t. But they’re tough little buggers.’ Unexpectedly, he gave a short snort of laughter. ‘Harder to kill than cockroaches, someone once said.’

‘Perhaps they’d tried.’ Henderson said, with feeling.

‘Be that as it may, we need the little buggers back.’

*

‘I don’t think we’ve ever had to do this before.’ He narrowed his eyes, staring intently at the screen.

‘I think the only way it would work is if we programmed in exactly the same deliveries as today’s. It should then come up with exactly the same route, using the same time shifts.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I’m not actually sure whether or not it’s affected by how long each stop is…I think I’ll have to over-ride the date and time thingy, as well, so it really thinks that it’s nine o’clock this morning.’

‘And then what?’

‘And then I push you out, like the elves.’

What?

‘Not really.’ He looked as though he quite fancied the idea, however. ‘Now…’ He tapped away at the keyboard again, and then leaned forward, his hands resting on the edge of the table, staring at the screen.

‘What did you do before you had computers?’

‘Eh? Oh, it took a lot longer.’ He stared at the screen some more, and then scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘I don’t understand. What…?’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s not giving me the same…hang on, other than when you lost the elves,’ he glared, ‘did you use the satnav at all?’

‘A couple of times.’

‘Oh, bugger. I don’t suppose you could remember where?’

‘No, sorry…oh, sort of. It was just once. I’m still not sure where, although it was quite early on.’

‘Once. Are you certain of that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, that might not be too bad.’ He stared at the screen a little longer, and then began tapping the keys again.

‘Can’t we just go straight to sixteen whatever you said?’

‘I don’t think so. There doesn’t seem to be an option for that. I’m afraid you’ll just have to sit in the sleigh for seven hours until you get to that point, and then land.’ Henderson stared at him.

‘I can’t help noticing that you say ‘you’ and not ‘we’.’

‘I’m not going. I can’t be gone for that long, I’ve got work to do here. The night shift will be in soon.’

‘What night shift? What about that EU working time stuff you mentioned?’

‘That only applies to the over fifty’s. Tonight’s Santa is a student making a bit of holiday money.’

‘Oh. But, anyway, we can just return to the same time that we left.’

‘Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You have to age exactly the same amount when you’re in time shift as you would here in 2015.’

‘Why?’ He shrugged.

‘You just do. Trust me.’

*

‘What the hell am I doing?’ He asked himself, as the sleigh slowly dropped through the clouds and came to rest in a small, muddy field. The gloom that covered the land reflected his mood pretty well, he thought. He sat still and stared around carefully, half expecting to see the elves lying close nearby; he imagined then stuck head down in the mud, feet kicking ineffectually in the air, and grinned. Then he reminded himself that he was supposedly in 1682, and thought again ‘What the hell am I doing?’

He could not see any elves. The only obvious sign of life was a horse that stood a little way away, apparently staring at him.

And a very large bearded man, who was brandishing a pitchfork.