In this excerpt from my novel Dover Beach, the bookish would-be private eye Walter Sands spends Christmas Eve alone in a grim London hotel room, where he is haunted by memories of Christmases past. Things have not always gone well for him in the bleak post-apocalyptic world he inhabits.
The e-book of Dover Beach is still free on Amazon, for some reason. Which is a pretty good deal, when you come to think of it. It is ranked #21 among technothrillers, for some reason. It is not a technothriller; technothrillers don’t quote Dickens, at least not this liberally:
I took a bath. I reread the newspaper. I reread the Gideon Bible. I stared out the frosted window of my dreary room and gazed at the ruddy faces passing by in the dark, alien world. And I waited for a visitor.
It was the Ghost of Christmas Past. I knew he would come. He always came, so why should he make an exception now that I was in London, in his hometown?
“Rise, and walk with me!”
There was no refusing him, of course. Some nights, perhaps, but not on Christmas Eve.
Through the window, across the frigid London sky, over the fierce, churning ocean—to the awful abode of memories, still alive, still waiting to claim me…
“Why, it’s old Fezziwig!”
Not likely. It was a solemn, gaunt man—too gaunt, far too solemn—his bony hand resting on my shoulder, light as a leaf. I was warm—the wood stove was kept well filled. But I was hungry. Always hungry. The man’s eyes glittered, reflecting the oil lamp’s flickering flame. “Tomorrow is Christmas,” the man said. “Least, Mrs. Simpkins says so. I’ve kinda lost track myself. Thing is, well, there’s nuthin’ to give you. I’ve tried—you’ve seen how I’ve tried, haven’t you? But everything’s gone. The entire world is gone. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
The man’s glittering eyes turned liquid and overflowed, wetting his leathery skin, his gray beard. His hand moved down onto my back and pulled me toward him. He held me against his chest, and I heard the ka-thump ka-thump of his heart beneath the frayed flannel shirt. The intensity of the sound scared me. The sudden strength of the hand scared me. I stayed there, listening, and eventually the hand loosened its grip, and I stepped back. The man looked at me—looking (I know now) for forgiveness, and if not forgiveness, at least some sort of understanding. But he was looking for something I was far too young to offer.
“Daddy,” I said, “what’s Christmas?”
“These are but shadows of things that have been,” said the Ghost.
“That’s swell,” I said. “That’s really swell.”
The Spirit pulled me along.
And I was chopping wood outside a familiar, broken-down barn. I was sweating, despite the cold, and my arms ached. A woman came out of the barn, carrying a scrawny chicken she had just killed. Her face was lined and wind-burned, her body shapeless under a heavy coat. She stopped and looked at me, and I kept on chopping. “Walter,” she said, “things is tough.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I kept on chopping.
“Mr. Simpkins says we’ll have to leave here pretty soon if things don’t get better. I don’t know what we’ll do if we leave, where we’ll go, but there’s got to be someplace better.”
“I expect,” I said. I put another log on the block.
“But we’ll take care of you, Walter. We made a promise, and no matter how hard things get, we keep our promises. You understand?”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
The woman nodded, satisfied. “Christmas is coming, but I’m afraid there won’t be any gifts. We can have a tree, though. You like them old ornaments, right? We can make the place real festive. Won’t that be nice?”
I split the log neatly. “Very nice,” I said. “Much obliged.”
The woman nodded some more. Chicken blood dripped onto the snow. “It’s the spirit that counts, that’s what I always say. We don’t have much in the way of things anymore, but we still have the spirit, don’t we, Walter?”
“Yes, ma’am. We still have the spirit.”
The woman smiled and went inside. I picked up another log and put it on the block.
“Spirit,” I said, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” I cried. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned me in both his arms, and forced me to observe what happened next.
The three of us were sitting in the parlor that first year together, and Stretch was expounding. “If we’re going to preserve our civilization, we have to preserve its rituals. Rituals are what bind us together. They shelter us from the terror of loneliness and death. They give life meaning and shape.”
“Christmas sucks,” I said.
“It isn’t Christmas that sucks,” Stretch explained earnestly, “it’s your experience of Christmas. That’s why it’s so important to create our own experiences—to overcome those other experiences, to connect with the best of the old civilization, to keep us alive. Don’t you see?”
Yeah, I saw.
And then it was Christmas Eve. The pine boughs had been strewn, the popcorn strung, the fire roared wastefully; and at midnight we all kissed and exchanged presents that we couldn’t afford.
I gave Gwen a typewriter I had bought at the Salvage Market.
Gwen gave me a book from Art’s special stock. It was called The Maltese Falcon.
“See?” Stretch said. “Isn’t this good? Isn’t this the way life should be lived?”
And then later, lying upstairs in each other’s arms. “What do you think of Christmas?” I asked Gwen. “Is Stretch right?”
“I think,” she said, “that I have never been happier in my life.”
“Spirit,” I said, in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
“Remove me!” I exclaimed. “I cannot bear it!”
He let me go finally—back to my bleak hotel room, back to my guilt, back to this present that I had so longed for all my life—while he went off, presumably, to torture some other undeserving soul. No other ghosts came to call—I didn’t expect any—and eventually I drifted off to a tense and restless sleep.
When I awoke it was Christmas Day.