Christmas Lights – a fantasy short story

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nigel hated being lumbered with the Christmas shift. Sure, there was extra pay, but it meant missing out on a trip to his parents’ place, to get stuffed full of turkey, spuds, and sprouts. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was a doctor or a copper, someone who really mattered. But no one was going to break into an office block on Christmas day, regardless of the lone security guard. The whole business was a waste.

He sighed and contemplated the limp, prepackaged turkey sandwich sitting next to the surveillance monitors. As attempts at festive spirit went, all it was doing was to remind him of what he was missing. Not that he could have escaped that feeling, with the Christmas tree across the lobby lit up like the headlights of a hundred cars. Nigel would have switched it off, but he had special instructions to keep it on. Seasonal spirit was apparently part of the building’s brand.

A flash of green made him look up from his monitors. The lights on the tree turned to red, then back to green, before settling on white again. Nigel blinked. Those lights had been white for the past four weeks. He hadn’t even known that they could change colour.

The lights flickered. Nigel sighed, took a box of fuses and spare bulbs out of his desk, and got up from his seat. He might not like the tree, but he’d get in trouble if it went out. His footsteps echoed around the empty lobby as he approached the problem.

The flashing stopped as he got close. Probably one of the bulbs was loose, but which one? It would take forever to go through them all. He peered at the nearest one, which was stark white. He fiddled with it, testing in case anything was loose, but it seemed perfectly secure. The next one, also white, was the same, and the one after that. None of the bulbs near him showed any colour. How had they managed to change before?

The light started flickering again. The effect was erratic, a mix of long and short flashes. Staring at them close up made him feel dizzy. Maybe he could get away with unplugging the lights for a bit, as long as it was to fix the problem.

Nigel pulled the plug out of the wall. The lights kept flashing. For a moment they turned red, then green, then back to white again. Nigel stared in confusion at the plug in his hand. Was there a battery pack he was missing? No, it couldn’t have fitted in the plug, and there was nowhere else for it to go.

Intrigued, Nigel put the plug down and took a few steps back. Watching the lights of the tree blink on and off reminded him of happy days when he was in the Scouts, decoding Morse code messages sent by flashing torches. He’d loved the neat little puzzle of it, noting down the dots and dashes, then translating them into letters. In fact, now that he paid attention, the flickering looked more and more like Morse. There were four dots for an “H”, a dot and a dash for “A”, dot-dash-dash-dot for “P”…

He hurried back to his desk, grabbed a notebook and pencil, and watched the tree. There was a brief blaze of green and red, then the flashes started again. Nigel noted them down, delighted to find that he still remembered all the codes:

“HAPPY CHRISTMAS FROM SANTA AND THE FESTIVE ELVES.”

Nigel laughed. He had no idea who had done it, or how, but that was a lovely little thing to hide away in the wiring of the lights.

“Happy Christmas to you too,” he called out, but it didn’t seem quite enough, so he took a deep breath and started into a chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. His voice echoed around the lobby until it sounded like a whole choir was singing, like Christmas eve in church, a time full of joy and anticipation.

The lights stopped flashing. Nigel plugged them back in, just to be on the safe side, and enjoyed the warming glow.

Back at his desk, he unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. Turkey and stuffing, just like Christmas was meant to be. He smiled. His parents would be sitting down to Christmas dinner right now, and it was nice to think that, in a way, he was eating with them.

Meanwhile, amid the snows of the North Pole, a little man with pointy ears switched off the security monitor he’d used to watch Nigel, smiling as he did so at the thought of a job well done.

***

Merry Christmas eveybody!

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of this year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. The e-book comes out on 1 January, and you can pre-order it now.

It’s Muppet Time!

Christmas is nearly here, and that means it’s time for one of the important rituals of the year – the annual viewing of Muppets Christmas Carol.

It’s one of the funniest Muppet films.

It’s one of the best Dickens adaptations.

It’s the single best Christmas movie, and I will fling mince pies at anyone who says otherwise.

Sure, everyone has their own rituals, but for me, this is what Christmas is all about.

Happy holidays, everyone – I’ll see you on the other side.

The Christmas War – a flash steampunk story

cropped-Mud-and-Brass-blog-header.jpgThe milkmaid awoke to the scrunch of wrapping paper. Her clockwork heart ticked into movement and she felt delight as her world was revealed to her. The candles flickering on the tree. Bunting hanging around the wood-panelled walls of the parlour. A girl looking down, blonde ringlets falling around a lively face.

With a click of gears, the milkmaid raised her arms in greeting.

“Urgh,” the girl said. “A milkmaid in a frilly pink dress. Why do you always get me such girly toys?”

“Elizabeth dear, you are a girl,” a matronly voice responded from a seat near the fireplace.

“Robert isn’t a soldier but you got him soldiers,” Elizabeth said, pouting.

“Very funny, dear,” a deep, booming voice replied from another large leather chair. “Now say thank you. Many girls would love to get such a toy for Christmas.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, without the least sign of meaning it.

Confused and distressed at her new owner’s behaviour, the milkmaid looked around for some sign of the love that all toys craved. Instead, she found herself carried to a quiet corner of the room, hidden away behind an over-stuffed sofa. Elizabeth pulled a tiny screwdriver from somewhere in her skirt and turned the milkmaid over. As the girl opened up her back, the milkmaid’s world faded away.

*

The milkmaid awoke once more to find herself facing a row of tin soldiers beneath the Christmas tree. Each one was painted with a smart red jacket and had a clockwork key protruding from his back.

Looking at them stirred an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling in the milkmaid. Instinctively, she strode towards them.

“That’s it,” Elizabeth said behind her, voice quiet yet excited. “Let’s show them what girls can do.”

To her great shock, the milkmaid found herself doing just that. As the first soldier turned to salute her, she grabbed him by the arm and flung him to the ground. She hit the next one with her crook, spinning his head around so that it faced backwards and he toppled over.

The sadness of seeing him like that distracted her. She almost didn’t notice the next soldier swing his copper cutlass. It hissed past as she ducked just in time.

Everything was so bafflingly backwards that if she could have cried she would have done. Instead she lashed out at the soldier, slamming him against the base of the tree.

She stomped forwards, intent on dealing with the remaining tin men so that she could rest and be content.

There were two left.

A rifleman raised his gun and pulled the trigger, but there was nothing to fire. She swung at him with her crook, but he blocked it, then slammed the butt of his gun into her side. There was a clang and she felt something buckle. Her left arm went stiff, the joints refusing to move.

Skirts swinging, she kicked the soldier hard. He staggered back, knocked his head against a low branch, and fell to the ground in a shower of pine needles. Loose gears clicked uselessly as he lay twitching on the ground.

All that remained was the drummer boy. He was handsome and smartly dressed, but armed only with his drumsticks.

The milkmaid knocked him to the ground and dragged him across the floor. At the hearth, she lifted him up, straining her injured arm, and prepared to throw him into the flames.

A sad beauty crossed the drummer boy’s face as he gave his drum one final tap of salute.

“Hey, who broke my soldiers?” a voice cried out from near the tree.

Hesitating, the milkmaid looked at the smooth paint of the drummer boy’s face and the elegance of his uniform. He tapped another rhythm for her, slow, sweet, and mournful.

Still fighting the urge to destroy, the milkmaid put the drummer boy down away from the fire. Trembling at the conflict inside her, she reached out and, instead of attacking him, gave him a hug.

This. This was what she had wanted.

The drummer boy hugged her back.

*

Full of food and holiday spirits, Elizabeth and Robert sat by the fire amid a pile of broken toy soldiers. Each of them held a screwdriver and a tiny spanner as she showed him what to do. Not just how to fix the clockwork men, but how to change their gears to make them do new and interesting things.

“This is brilliant!” Robert exclaimed. “Thank you for teaching me.”

“Sorry for breaking your soldiers,” Elizabeth said with something approaching genuine conviction.

“That’s OK,” her brother said. “Now they look like they’ve been in a real war.”

At the edge of the firelight, their two least damaged toys, the milkmaid and the drummer boy, lay together holding hands.

* * *

 

Merry Christmas everyone! Try not break each other’s toys.

It’s the Most Muppety Time of the Year!

December is here. Advent is upon us. The shops are already selling out of  wrapping paper and pointless tat. So it’s time for your annual reminder of what’s really important at Christmas.

Muppet Christmas Carol.

Need I remind you that it’s the best Muppet film ever? Of course not. You’ve seen Gonzo’s Charles Dickens impression. You know.

Have you forgotten that it’s the best version of Dickens’s classic Christmas story? Of course not. You remember the heartbreak of losing a green felt Tiny Tim.

Must I point out again that it’s one of the greatest fantasy films of all time? Just in case, let me remind you that there are ghosts, visions, time travel, and talking animals. We’re not in our London any more with this movie. It’s a whole other world.

If you don’t own it already, do yourself a favour and get a copy. Then settle down with friends, family, pets, or just a nice hot cup of cocoa and enjoy a true Christmas classic.

Muppets bless us, one and all.

And we’re back…

Happy New Year everyone!

I can’t say the last few weeks have been as quiet as the blog. Laura and I have had three Christmas celebrations, two stays with my brother and his family, and one gaming convention, all in the space of a fortnight. I’ve eaten and drunk more than is healthy, exercised less than I should, and generally enjoyed letting it all go for a couple of weeks.

Festive highlights have included:

  • watching my dad laugh hysterically while my nieces rolled him around in a half-inflated air mattress and shouted ‘sausage roll!’
  • lots of playing with Lego – I got two new sets, then immediately took them apart to build an airship
  • listening to the finale of Radio 4’s hilarious Cabin Pressure
  • this lovely pair of notebooks from my brother and his family:

IMG_0751[1]

Hopefully by tomorrow I’ll have something more coherent to say than ‘look, I’m still here!’, but I’m still fighting through the junk food fatigue, so for now that’ll do.

Hope you all had a great holiday. What were your highlights?

 

Festive fantasy movie time? Bring on the Muppets!

With Christmas coming, it’s time to watch my all time favourite fantasy film. More dramatic than Conan the Barbarian. As heart-wrenching as Pan’s Labyrinth. Only a fraction of the length of Lord of the Rings. I refer of course to Muppet Christmas Carol.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBthi_An5qQ?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I’ve made my case before for Muppet Christmas Carol being a fantasy film, but to recap, there are ghosts, talking animals and whatever Gonzo is. There’s magic, prophecy and travel through time. There are alternating potential realities. Sure, it’s also a kids’ film, a comedy film and a musical. But this is quite clearly fantasy, and proof of how misguided people are when they try to treat fantasy as some nerdy, shameful thing to brush away into the corner. Fantasy happens any time we break the rules of reality and let our imaginations run riot, and just because something doesn’t feature swords and sorcery doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of the label.

It helps that Dickens’s Christmas Carol is a beautiful yet creepy story with a classic redemptive character arc. It helps that the Muppets are timeless characters of whimsy and wonderful design. It helps that the tunes are delightfully catchy. But it’s when you bring all of that together that the magic really happens.

If I only watch one festive film, it will be this. If you aren’t already, you really should make time in your Christmas schedule to watch it too.

What festive classics will the rest of you be watching? I bet most of them are fantasy.

Christmas as fantasy

A lot about Christmas looks like a fantasy story. Whether it’s the magic guy who comes down the chimney with presents, the otherworldly snow scenes in greetings cards, or the shared wish that just for one day we could make the ordinary world vanish. The original Christmas story has a lot to inspire fantasy authors too, whether it’s signs in the sky, the epic journey of the wise men, the chosen one born in the stable, the prophecies, the angels, or the villainous Herod.

My favourite Christmas fantasy story is a more modern one, at least by biblical standards. Narrated by a hook-nosed goblin-like creature of uncertain origin, featuring travel back through time, glimpses into the future, ghostly apparitions and talking animals, I watch it every year. It is of course the Muppets Christmas Carol.

Last year I was too ill to eat Christmas dinner, but I still managed to watch this fabulous tale. And in case you were considering not watching it this year, here’s a reminder of why you should:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBthi_An5qQ&w=560&h=315]

 

Because however hard they commercialise this time of year there’s still some fantasy in it that can lift us up. And after all it’s only five more sleeps ’til Christmas.