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Queen's row

Editor's note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: The ghost of Marley follows Baxter, a tenant who faces eviction by Scrooge, into the slums where Marley himself lived as a young man.

A child’s sneezes and coughs crack from Baxter's ramshackle home. Then there is a new sound, one just to my left, seeming to come from the brick wall opposite this row of shacks. A man. Sea green and swathed in chains, a royal crest barely visible through the mess. A prince? A lord? Regret plagues his voice as he stifles tearless sobs.

I walk over and crouch next to him, ever mindful of my slow descent into the ground. I say nothing.

“I was thinking,” he says. “Not so very long ago I could have played St. Nicholas with all of them, left notes and coins and cords of dry wood outside.”

He looks at me. “I would've never told a soul. I would've just vanished.”

“I know.”

I reach to pat him on the shoulder and watch it go through. The pond-like ripples break across his body, go still. Damnable habit. I suspect it’s as hard for him as it is for me to not feel that reassuring touch.

“It doesn’t get easier,” I say. “You need to know that. But it doesn’t get harder, either. You’ll find ways to cope. You’ll learn scenes like this were not entirely your fault. Some days you even believe it.”

The man continues weeping. I stand and slink off, back down the row. In my mind, pillars of coins and bundles of notes are stacked neatly. There are full Christmas feasts with turkey, mounds of buttery potatoes, beans, bread, goblets of French wine, puddings with sprig leaf hats. Full fires burn in cheery stoves, all of the people huddled around them, warm and feeling safe for perhaps the first time in their lives.

I wander to nearby Queen’s Row as the shadows begin to creep out from their daytime hiding spots and stretch across the snowy streets. Residents hunch over just-lit fires or press against each other, shivering and searching desperately for warmth.

It hides well here, warmth, practically a ghost among so much ice and fog.

I stop at a familiar spot — a tunnel beneath a small decaying bridge — and take in the scene as one would gaze at a painting in a gallery. Night smothers the city. More fires blossom, either in small piles along the streets, in buckets or in waste bins. Residents drift toward the glows. It makes me think of moths and their tight orbits about gas lamps uptown during dusty summer nights.

I’m home. The prodigal dead son has returned.

I think of the old man, of Ebenezer, of Laurence Baxter and the countless other poor brutes who have given up trying to crawl out of the very dark place they fell into. Of Edward and Daniel and rules, that I am cursed, to never be at rest, to merely observe the broken and never react with results.

I think of the fact that I still have not given up hope that this all can change, how daft and naïve that sounds.

“To be at the crossroads of Right and Easy and choose Easy is to stray,” the old man said to me once. “To choose Right is to walk through fire and cold but to come out unscathed in the end. To not have to look back and wonder what the other route looked like.”

*

I’d been hungry when he said that.

It was summer, the streets of London trading frost and icicle for silver skies and arteries of sunlight that wound through the cloud cover in jagged cracks. Heat smothered the streets.

We splashed filthy water from the river on our faces to keep cool, took cover under bridges and in shadow-filled doorways.

The heat’s fingers reached everywhere. It affected harvests out in the country most of all. Whole fields of wheat and oats drooped and died from lack of rain. Once-full apple carts emptied by high margins, the fruit spoiled and pregnant with maggots. The city suffered. Prices rose. Less bread, vegetables, beer.

Government intervened. Emergency shelters opened, providing aid with long-held rations. Both the haves and have-nots flocked to the spots. Peaceful individuals became part of a cross-eyed mob. Rows were common. Arrests were made. The rat-infested jail cells bulged at near capacity.

Weeks passed this way until the invisible fire finally began to cool. Newspapers reported a slow gain in the market, of larger yields from the countryside as rain started to fall. Chaos calmed. Even Queen’s Row seemed to go quieter.

It didn’t last long. War has a way of stoking dying flames.

Our quarrel was with the American colonists, a second go-around since their first tantrum and subsequent victory. Stories of the conflict came to us in fragments, discarded newspapers and pamphlets we scrounged in the streets. Headlines of American expansion and what that meant for the already-weakened Empire stared back. The old man, one of the few in Queen’s Row who could read, frequently did so out loud to me. I listened intently, mesmerized and horrified at the battlefront descriptions he offered.

We began to see results of the written carnage firsthand, bloodied, broken soldiers that limped into Queen’s Row.

Read part 6 here.

Queen's row