A Christmas Ghost story of approximately 4,600 words, written for a friendly wager.
I considered the body with a mixture of confusion and interest. It was a little shorter than I remembered it being, and substantially plumper. There was less hair, less muscle and more wrinkles. Oh, and it was dead. Don’t forget dead. Definitely alive the last time I’d seen it in the mirror. The mirror, I hear you ask? Well yes, that was the reason for my confusion. It’s not every day that you wake up looking at your body from the outside after all.
It was a far more objective experience than the mirror had been and I can’t say I was enjoying it much. I had been a starving artist as far as sales went, but what can I say, my income seemed to go a lot further with frozen pizza than steak and eggs. The upshot of it all was that while there was a lack of pounds in my wallet, I couldn’t say the same for my frame. No wonder I’d upped and died at the tender age of thirty-seven. I’d never married, never had kids, at least there was that. My poor mum was in for a shock though. Suddenly, I wished I’d taken better care of myself. It’s a hard thing to bury a child, or so I’d been told.
Anyway, that was my Monday morning. Can’t say I was thrilled with how it was going. If I’m honest, I’d had worse Mondays, but not many. I sat on the bed. Don’t ask me how, metaphysics was never my strong point. What happened next?
I rubbed my ghostly chin as I tried to remember those Sunday School lessons from thirty-some years ago. I knew I didn’t need an old Ford Car or an airplane. A Limousine? No, that was out too, something about the gasoline. Somehow, I didn’t think the songs were going to help me much. A light caught my attention out the corner of my eye. It was growing out of what had been my favourite painting, the sepia-toned face of the Greek god Dionysius warping as the light spiralled out of the fabric, circling out. Darkness opened up in the middle as the void widened. Was this my ride?
A man walked out. Middle-aged, by which I mean about five years older than I was. He was clean-shaven and made my surplus poundage look positively trim by way of comparison. The pinstripe suit certainly wasn’t having a slimming effect, and the bowler hat just seemed anachronistic. It was 2024, for goodness’ sake. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. He was nothing like the pictures, but I put a brave face on it and stuck out my hand.
“God, I presume.”
The man gave me a puzzled look.
“What? God? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’re not... The other one, are you?”
“What are you blathering on about? Who are you? I’ve come to possess my property. Oh. Oh! You must be the previous occupant.”
“Sorry? Previous occupant? Wait, your property?”
The man gestured at me. And by me, I mean my body, unceremoniously sprawled where I’d left it the night before, after over-indulging in a gin and tonic or two. Okay, twelve. Sue me, I’m a writer. We have an image to maintain.
“It’s not in the best condition,” he continued, leaning over and putting an honest to goodness monocle on his eye. This man was a walking stereotype of a banker. If I’d known the afterlife was full of bankers, I wouldn’t have been so careless about joining it, but here we were. “Nothing to be done about that. It’s not like we can levy any fees at this point, but really, I am a bit disappointed. Still, better than nothing. You’re the first one to lapse.”
“Sorry, I’m, well, I’m still confused. Lapse? Fees? Possession? Who are you exactly?”
“Mr Herbert Toppington, the third, at your service. I’m your mortgage lender, of course.”
Well, that cleared up nothing. My head was starting to hurt, which was ridiculous because I didn’t even have one any more.
“Why is my mortgage lender’s ghost standing in my bedroom? Why am I dead? CAN YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT IS HAPPENING?”
Mr Toppington III frowned. “My dear fellow, you did read the terms and conditions of your mortgage, paragraph seven and subsection c.iv?”
He enunciated it with the precision of the robot reading directions on Google maps, ‘see-dot-aye-vee’, but the precision didn’t help my headache.
“No, not really.”
“Here,” he said, pulling a pile of papers out of... somewhere? I don’t know. Metaphysics. “Paragraph seven, subsection see-dot-aye-vee. Your body may be repossessed if you do not keep up payments on your mortgage. It’s right there after the section on the one-hundred-and-twelve prohibited activities while the mortgage is in place. No skydiving, no loud parties, no sleeping past noon and indolent living etcetera.”
“Wait, back up. My body may be repossessed?”
“So I didn’t die?”
“No, your body is being repossessed. By me. My own is currently in a vegetative state after I crashed my car under the influence of cocaine. Long story. But I had the foresight to include clauses like this one in all the mortgages held by my firm and it has finally paid off.”
My protest was cut short by a thunderclap that shook the entire building. A rolling pillar of fire stood in front of the bedroom door. Both of us staggered back as the pillar of fire unfolded six huge serpentine wings, three on each side, that stretched beyond the room, along some plane of existence that even my newly spiritual form could not fully follow. Both of us fell to the ground.
BE NOT AFRAID.
The voice was like a sonic boom. Covering my ears did nothing at all. It was directly inside my head and sounded like James Earl Jones was voicing Death from those trashy Pratchett novels while shouting through a megaphone. In German. During a thunderstorm. It was like, okay, I don’t have a comparison. Sorry. I just don’t have the words. I know, I’m a writer. Was a writer. But I wasn’t that kind of writer. I wrote literary realism for goodness’ sake. I wasn’t prepared for any of this.
I AM SUPPOSED TO SAY THAT. NOT SURE WH... OH, sorry.
The voice dwindled to manageable proportions, allowing us to stagger to our feet again, but it still seemed to originate directly in my head rather than travelling down the ear canal like a normal sound. The fiery winged pillar reformed itself into a man in a smart suit with a jaw that Henry Cavill would kill for. He was big, like seven feet big, and built like he’d spent the last thousand years swinging a heavy sword and tossing boulders into the sky for fun. There was still something draconian about him, the faint suggestion of glowing wings brightening the room behind him. He was too big for the room, somehow. But I got the sense we could be standing in the Royal Albert hall and he’d still look too big. I got the feeling that the only reason I wasn’t back on my knees was that compared to the dragon, he was almost reassuring. Like drinking a gentle G&T after shotting straight tequila.
I always forget to tone it down for humans. There are some things you are not supposed to see, this side of the veil.
Mr Toppington III recovered first.
“Who are you?” he said. “What are you doing here?”
One large hand gestured in my direction and it was like a small wave of air hit me.
I am Mr Charles’ lawyer.
“His what? His lawyer? Hold up, Mr Charles here entered into a legally binding agreement. He is emphatically not getting out of this. I had my lawyers check every detail.”
Mr Charles... Oh, that was me. William Charles. Bill Charlie on the book covers, of course, touch of the common man and all that. Wait, I had a lawyer? I couldn’t afford lawyers. Maybe if I could afford lawyers, I wouldn’t be in this mess.
Not that law. The Law. I dispute you have the right to separate soul and body. What God has joined together, let no man rent asunder, etcetera. No contract of man can change that which has been decreed. Mr Charles is not yet one of ours, but it is the principle of the thing.
“Where is my representative? If there is to be a case, I demand representation.”
That is not how this works. The judge decides and while the Accuser will have his chance to state his claim, justice will be done.
The banker grew more and more irate. I must admit I was enjoying it more than a little. It seemed like he deserved it. He drew himself up to the fullest of his limited height and proclaimed, “Then I will represent myself.”
The lawyer bent his head sideways, a look of complete bafflement on his face.
You? Before The Judge? You would melt, little man. No. You have approximately forty-three hours. Judgement will be rendered at dawn on the third day. It is the way these things are done. For now, your contract will stand. Perhaps you can come to your own resolutions. If I had my way, you would both see the pit. Humans...
With that, he was gone, and the room seemed dimmer and smaller somehow. I looked to the right and there I was, getting up out of bed and stretching.
* * *
Mr Herbert Toppington III got out of bed and stretched his new body. A little slimmer than he was used to. That could be fixed. A little taller, too. That was a bonus. He had a large sum of money in various forms which he could access without identification, and of course, the care package.
That had been quite the experience. Quite unpleasant. Quite unexpected. Of course, in Mr Herbert Toppington the Third’s world, those two were synonyms. He was a man who liked to have everything under control. The appearance of a lawyer that looked like he could chew up Mr Toppington’s entire legal team, literally, had rather thrown the poor man. A little something to steady the nerves, perhaps? Mr Toppington looked around the poky little house. What are you sneering at, you little banker? Technically, everything here belonged to him. The contract had been most specific that all worldly possessions would also be repossessed in the event of a default. Though looking around, he wasn’t sure that he should have bothered.
One bedroom (small). One kitchen (smaller). One bathroom (smallest yet). A living room, with an empty glass and an empty bottle. Plenty of books, no TV. How dull. And that… was it. He poked around in the kitchen and found a loaf of bread and a few slices of ham. Wafer thin. Ugh. There was a phone on the counter and Mr Herbert Toppington made a sandwich on the counter, and a call on the phone. Hey that’s mine, what are…
“Francis? Yes, it’s Mr Herbert Toppington the third. Yes. Yes it did. Yes, quite. Could you send the care package please? Yes, to… to…” He cast eyes around until he saw a stack of bills. Unpaid, dear goodness. No wonder the man lost his house and body. Quite irresponsible. He read the address, hung up, and bit down on the sandwich. You son of a…
He had a slight headache and a weird tinnitus. A bowl fell off a nearby shelf. One hour and twenty-seven minutes later, the doorbell rang. The care package had arrived.
* * *
Oh, you have got to be kidding me. Cocaine and hookers? You utter banker. I screamed bloody murder at them for a solid twenty minutes and then I had to get out of there. Watching my own body… It was too much. It was all too much. I shut myself on the balcony and retched. Oh mercy, as my old mum would say. Was I going to get my body back and find I was a coke addict? Or riddled with disease?
Was I going to get it back at all?
I tried to step out of the moment. Clinical detachment, writer hat on.
Dramatis personae. One wa- banker. One author, down on his luck and apparently behind on his mortgage. One Angelic Lawyer who wasn’t anything like the ones on TV. The angels, that was. Or the lawyers, actually. And a deadline, always a ticking clock. Judgement to be rendered and from the sound of my ‘lawyer’, I didn’t want to wait and find out what that was. God knew I hadn’t been up to scratch. Forty-one hours now, dawn on the third day. Christmas morning.
I slumped against the balcony door, feeling fresh out of cheer.
* * *
Mr Herbert Toppington III woke up feeling much better. The small flat was empty again, the paraphernalia of his vices strewing the floor. The sun was bright outside. It had been dark when he fell asleep. Day two of his new life, Christmas Eve. Time to give his family the good news. But first, money. He picked up the phone.
“Ah, Francis. It’s Mr Toppington III again. Yes, thank you. Listen, I’ll be needing to access some funds. Send five hundred thousand here in cash. I’ll leave the door ajar and the man can close it after himself. There’s nothing here worth stealing, anyway.”
Nothing worth stealing, you little jerk, don’t… a valuable book when you see… edition… rare…
Mr Toppington winced. Damned tinnitus was back. He took a couple of paracetamol and a quick sniff of the good stuff and headed out the door. He whistled a merry tune as he sauntered down the street. It was a long walk to the leafier, gentler, more expensive part of town, but he wanted to take this new body for a stretch. What with his late lie and his long walk, it was around mid-afternoon by the time he reached his house. The light was dimming, and a gentle snow was falling. He looked in the window and saw a candle flickering on the sill. His wife Louise was setting the table, while his young son Rob sat and looked out at the falling snow. Mr Toppington waved. Rob frowned and said something to his mother, who pulled him away from the window.
Mr Toppington made his way up the steps. He sniffed slightly, rubbed his nose, and rang the doorbell. Louise answered.
“It’s me Louise, I’m home.”
“Who are you?”
“It’s Herbert, it’s me, I got another body and…”
“Get lost, you creep! I’m calling the police.”
The door slammed in his face. He rang again, but there were in fact two policemen at the end of the street and they’d taken an interest. Given his recent activities, maybe he should move on before they asked any awkward questions. Nowhere better to go, he headed back to the writer’s flat.
* * *
I almost felt sorry for the banker. Almost. His family seemed nice. And it was almost Christmas. Christmas eve was no time to be alone. I refocused my efforts to materialise. I’d almost got through earlier, and I wanted to at least talk to the man. Preferably, before he started snorting again and lost it. Maybe we could work something out. There were only fifteen hours left before dawn after all.
He took his sweet time wandering home in the darkening sky and we were down to thirteen hours before he finally hung up his, my, coat. There was a large briefcase in the lounge. He opened it listlessly. I could see more money than I’d ever seen in my life. Mind, that would be true of anything over two hundred quid or so. This must be the cool half mil he’d ordered from his butler or whoever he was on the phone to.
Speaking of which, there he went, picking up the phone again. I swiped at it. My hand went right through. No! No more “care packages” of cocaine and hookers. No. Come on, man. Pull yourself together.
He put the phone back down. Poured himself a large glass of my best Scotch and sat in my favourite chair. That I could work with.
I focused. I was hoping my complete lack of metaphysics would be a help here. No preconceptions and all that. Free rein of the imagination. Author stuff. My head ached. I closed my eyes and strained so hard I’d have popped a blood vessel in my temple. If I had any blood vessels. Or a temple. Nothing happened.
I tried again, and again, while the banker drank his way through several glasses. He sighed and glanced at the corner I was attempting to manifest in.
“Oh splendid, it’s the ghost who doesn’t pay his bills.”
* * *
Mr Toppington III considered the ghost. It was a little fuzzy and somewhat see-through. Like the ones in that film Rob had begged him to watch. He’d never seen it. Never would. Rob thought he was missing out but… Oh, maybe he was.
Mr Herbert Toppington III had missed out on a lot of things.
“What do you want?” he asked querulously.
“I was going to ask you the same question. Other than my body, my house, my scotch…”
“Well, what I want, I can’t have.”
“Which is? Maybe we can figure something out. I don’t much fancy waiting on the judgement of someone who sends a six-winged fire dragon as a messenger. Something tells me it wouldn’t go well.”
Mr Toppington took a long drink of Scotch. This was good stuff. He’d need to get a bottle.
“I want my life back. The one I had before I messed it all up.” he said.
The ghost arched an eyebrow. “Before you blew it on cocaine and hookers, you mean?”
“No. That came after. I thought my life was pretty great. Work was busy, but I was giving my family a good life. We had a nice house, funds for whatever they wanted, healthy retirement accounts. I was up for a promotion and then suddenly my wife left me to ‘move on with her life’. Said I could see Rob at Christmas and on his birthday, which ‘would be more than before, anyway’.”
“Indeed. The drugs and the… rest of it. That was a reaction. Taking the edge off the disaster I unleashed on myself. She said I needed to learn to live a little, and that was the only thing left to make me feel alive, you know?”
“Not really. My vices tend to be of the cheaper kind.”
“Well, I’m not short of resources. But learn to live? That seems to be beyond what money can buy, and I didn’t even know where to start. To be honest, when I crashed the car, I’m not even sure it was an accident.”
“Did you never consider that she meant learn to live the life you had? You know, beautiful wife, nice kid, maybe have another couple. Barbeque on the weekend. What do you even do with your time?” said the ghostly writer. He gestured at the case of money sitting on the countertop, “You’re obviously minted.”
“Well, I run the mortgage department of a bank. I used to do it from London until Louise, that’s my wife, until she moved up here to be nearer her parents.”
The ghost put his head in his hands. It didn’t have the usual muffling effect on his voice. Curious.
“Wait, so you run part of Goldman bloody Sachs? You’ve been making money hand over fist and you clearly have more than you know what to do with. Why didn’t you just walk away? Surely your wife gave you some signals.”
“Well, my boss Mr Ciphar, you’d like him. Full of sweetness and light, very charming. Not like the stereotypes at all. Anyway, my boss Lou, he likes me to call him Lou, very informal. He was grooming me for the top job. His job. He was the one who came up with the new mortgage contracts, a very nice man. Let me take all the credit for the expansion of the terms.”
“Well if he came up with all this, then he’s an ass.” replied the ghost.
“A month ago I’d have been offended by that, but now…”
“It sounds like you spent all your time chasing more until you left everything you actually wanted behind.”
“You’re rather sage for a man who lives in a one-bedroom apartment and has a stack of bills you can’t pay for that would make a government minister blush.”
“Yes, well, I’m a writer. We live a lot of lives and the least sensible one is normally the one we can’t edit.”
“What do you write, anyway? Can’t be very good if you’re living here.”
The ghost looked like it would have stabbed him, if it could have.
“I’ll have you know I have won seven prestigious awards.”
Mr Toppington III raised one eyebrow, his right.
“Pay much, these awards?”
“The committees are comprised of people you care about, then?”
“Well, if it’s what you like to read and write…”
He could have sworn the ghost blushed.
“It isn’t, is it?”
“Well then, maybe you should write something else. Something like this stuff.” He picked up a book and glanced at it. “Something about time thieves or whatever. At least then you’ll be proud of it.”
They lapsed into a less than companionable silence at that. Mr Toppington III poured himself another drink, and the ghost looked like he wanted to do the same.
* * *
I wanted a drink. Watching the man drink my Scotch and being unable to do the same was killing me. Metaphorically speaking. And time was running out. Dawn was close, and that would kill me, metaphysically speaking.
We looked at each other and spoke simultaneously.
“You should have it.” “You should have it.”
Despite myself, I laughed. Herbert, I figured I could call him Herbert given he was in my body and all, smiled.
“No, I was being foolish. Even if I kept the body… What’s the point? My family is gone to me. They’ll never believe it’s me and I’m not sure they’d even want me back if they did. And if you can’t be with your family at Christmas, what’s the point?”
“I was going to say that I’ve not exactly covered myself in glory. I mean, I don’t even have a family. Except Mum and Dad. I’m broke, even if I don’t lose the house to the bank, and I don’t even have a body of work to show for it.”
“You could keep the money.”
“Keep the money?”
“Yes, the funds on the table. My family is cared for, I don’t need it if I’m going to be in a coma anyway and it’s the least I can do after the inconvenience I’ve caused. Call it a Christmas present.”
“Wow.” I reached for a drink, then remembered I couldn’t. “That would solve a lot of problems.”
“Just promise me you’ll write something good. Something with dragons.”
“Alright. But you should have one last chance with your family. You could write something, put it through the door. You must have something you can talk about to persuade them it’s you. Something nobody else would know?”
“Well, Louise has a birth mark, just here.” Herbert gestured at his thigh.
“Maybe something a stalker wouldn’t know, either?”
“Oh, I see your point. A memory? I never made enough of those, too busy working, but there was that summer… Yes, that would do.”
“Right. Right. So write a letter. We’ll tell my lawyer, the dragon-angel thing. Tell him that we’ve agreed to a compromise. You’ll keep the body until the end of the holidays. Spend it with your family. Then we’ll swap back. Everyone wins.”
“You’d do that? For me?”
“Well, for you and five-hundred large ones. A man’s gotta eat after all.”
“That seems fair. It’s agreed then?”
The sun broke in through the windowpane. We both stood to watch the dawn.
Then the dragon came. Thankfully, he remembered to veil himself this time. My knees were still weak though, and I could see Mr Toppington trembling too.
Judgement has been rendered.
It took me a moment to recover from the voice and raise my reply.
“Yes, well, about that. We’ve actually come to a solution. You see, we…”
This is known. This has always been known.
Did you think that the judge of all the earth who knows each sparrow as it falls needed three days to decide? The time given was for you, little men. Not enough time to change, perhaps. But time enough to set your path. Besides, your solution was terrible. This is much neater. And better than you deserve.
He snapped his fingers, and I felt an awful sucking feeling. An unseen force violently jerked me across the room towards my body. The sudden motion would have made me empty my stomach, if I had a stomach. And then all of a sudden I did. And I emptied it.
Then I passed out.
* * *
Humans. I will never understand what HE sees in them.
Mr Toppington’s knees gave out at last, as the angel turned his full attention on him.
Now. The man who thought he could pierce where body and soul join with his own little words. Arrogant fool who thought he could take the place of God. You listened to the wrong serpent and you know what you deserve.
The huge man seemed to burst apart in a flood of fire and light as the dragon grew out of him again. Flames filled his eyes as those terrible wings extended out beyond existence and into the unknown. He opened an awful mouth and roared.
Mr Herbert Toppington III felt himself being torn away with the fury of that roar, tumbling, spinning, falling into darkness.
* * *
I woke to a thumping headache. I had passed out into my vomit. It wasn’t the first time. Maybe it could be the last though. It was about time I changed a few things. First, I would let my Mum drag me along to church for the first Christmas in twenty-two years. Then I was going to write a new book. One that was less realism and a bit more real. Then…
Wait, that thumping wasn’t in my head.
“William? William!” My mum’s voice came through the door.
“Jus’ a minute Mum.” I looked at the room. Empty bottles. Vomit. Traces of white powder on the table. Large briefcase of money. Was that? Yep, there was a bra under the coffee table. I picked it up, where was I going to put it?
“It’s okay, don’t get up.”
Oh no, she brought her key.
Mum opened the door.
“I can explain.”
* * *
Louise sat next to Mr Toppington’s bed. Rob perched on the arm of the chair. They’d had to ask for a new one, the hospital had moved the chairs out when no one visited.
“Oh Herb,” She said. “I had the strangest experience yesterday and, oh I don’t know. Something told me we should be here, today of all days.”
The room grew warmer.
Mr Herbert Toppington III gave a small gasp.
And opened his eyes.
He thought he heard a faint roar fading as he did.