Editor's note: We celebrate the holiday season with a serial for our readers: "Marley," written by Mail Tribune Web Editor Ryan Pfeil. Pfeil delves into the days before that fateful night of ghostly visits in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." In Dickensian fashion, we're publishing this story as a serial through Christmas Day. Enjoy.
The cold is an unwelcome kiss that awakens me from dreams of warmth.
It bites me with icy teeth, makes the thin layer of expired clothing seem almost futile, the years-old fabrics only absorbing the chilly nip. I cup my ears for warmth, instinctively.
What is that chattering sound? The come-and-go pressure in my mouth answers my question. It’s my teeth, ghastly yellow and painful to the touch. Eating hurts. Laughing hurts more.
I push through the shivers and sit up and see the old man hunkered over a meager sway of flames, tentacles of red and orange and yellow pushing through precisely stacked sticks and wadded up newspapers inside a bucket that’s more rust than steel. He looks over his shoulder and nods.
“Good morning,” he says.
I nod and walk over to him, hunker over the pail. The old man drops another log in. I hold my hands over the flames. The melting sensation is immediate. Warmth sets in slowly. So many blue fingers start to go a pale pink. Then my arms.
“Touch your face,” he says, showing me.
I do. Warmth washes through me, a transfer of invisible fire from fingers to face. My shoulders relax. Tension eases slightly.
“Right proper fire, eh?” the old man says.
I nod. He drops another log in the pail to keep it going.
The streets of Queen’s Row are quiet and smothered in ashen fog that swells and meanders and obfuscates the gas lamps’ light. It covers a wasteland: hollowed-out, abandoned buildings with no doors or windows, clotheslines that don second-rate trousers and shirts. Even ghosts wouldn’t see fit to haunt this forgotten corner.
All’s quiet and cold here in our wasteland, our corner of hell. The coppers never come by. Queen’s Row is dangerous, “beyond help,” the newspapermen say. Gentlemen get their throats cut or disappear. Those who survive come out with bruises, or with madness from one of the hundreds of skirts that bait the lonely with winks and perfume.
In the summer, coal dust hangs hot and awful in the air like flies, refracting the merciless sun. Winter is worse. The air crackles. Your skin goes blue and gray. The frost bores deep and gnaws on your bones. I fear one day it will freeze every inch of us and turn us to statues.
“You slept hard,” the old man says.
“I feel exhausted,” I say, heavy coughs barking up from my chest.
“Quite a scene you left last night. Had a couple thieves follow you back here. A fat one and another one thin as a reed. Kind of fellow who disappears when he turns sideways. I tailed them, of course,” the old man says. “After your coins, they was. ‘You’ll not touch him,’ says I. ‘Or what?’ ‘Or you’ll have me to deal with,’ says I. Blackened the fat one’s eyes and pulped the thin one’s nose. Buggered off shrieking like pups. You snored through the whole thing.”
He laughs, clutches his sides. I try to laugh with him. The cold won’t let me, just keeps biting.
“Shivering like you’ve got the plague, you are,” the old man says. “Here.”
He crouches next to me and wraps his arms around my chest, clutches my hands in his own and rubs. It helps a little.
“Hold out your paw, lad,” he says.
I do. The old man rummages in his pocket and comes up with something in his fist.
“What is it?” I ask.
He only grins, decaying teeth popping in the white morning. He places the mystery object in my cupped hand and closes my fingers. I open them. King George stares from my upturned palm. A shilling. An old one. The most push I’ve ever held. I twist it in my fingers, watch the firelight glimmer on the metal.
“Do you like it?” he asks.
I nod and ask him where he got it. He only grins and ruffles my hair.
“I didn’t get you anything,” I say.
He only shrugs, tells me, you're just a lad. You can when you're older. Don’t lose it, now. Put it in your pocket.
I do. I hug the old man. He chuckles and hugs me back. For a moment I’m as warm as I’ve ever been.
A noise echoes through the fog. It sounds so close. The truth is it’s miles away: midnight bells, deep moans that roll through Queen’s Row and are swallowed up by the mist and cobblestone and abandoned buildings. Scattered yells answer, the area’s forgotten residents coming away from dreams into a world of drink-induced headaches and cold.
The old man kisses the top of my head.
“Merry Christmas, Jacob.”
“Merry Christmas,” I whisper back.
Tomorrow: Jacob Marley, now a ghost and fettered in chains, follows an unsuspecting Ebenezer Scrooge.