When Chris woke up, he found his blue jeans replaced with trousers, and his boots replaced with shoes he had to tie. In place of his pea coat, he found a thick winter vest, and a Victorian double-breasted frock coat that he buttoned up because it felt cold enough, even in his room. He figured they had not finished going back in time, and he wondered again how far back he would have to go to find Lilly. He had a cane, and a top hat, probably made of silk, which he carried. He was not a hat person.
Merry waited for Chris in the hall outside his room. She paced in her rich green Victorian dress which poked out below her long red woolen coat. Fortunately, the bustle kept the back of the dress off the ground, so at least she would not step on it. Even so, she paced because she had to get used to walking in that bustle, hidden though it was beneath her coat. She stepped to the mirror in the hall and felt glad she did not have to wear crinoline hoops. She dressed in traveling clothes. Hoops would not have been good for sitting all day on the train.
Merry checked the pins in her hat when Chris came out carrying his top hat and cane. She immediately took the hat and placed it correctly on his head. “Don’t play with it,” she said, as she put the cane in his right hand so she could take his left arm. She decided she could use the help walking because the millions of undergarments and attachments, especially the bustle, threw off her whole center of gravity. They walked to the elevator side by side, and waited quietly until Merry thought to say something.
“I ditched the corset.”
“I don’t blame you,” Chris said, though his eyes stayed on the elevator button and he never looked at her. “I see you are dressed in green and red. A bit overboard on the Christmas theme, wouldn’t you say?”
“I didn’t pick out the clothes.”
“Who did?” Chris asked, as the elevator door opened and they got on.
Merry pushed the button for the ground floor.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You don’t seem to know much, for a Christmas elf, I mean.”
“I find that hard to believe.” He faced her, took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “So, where is Lilly?”
Merry looked up into his eyes and yelled, even as the elevator door opened. “I… DON’T… KNOW.”
Chris looked at the startled elderly couple ready to step on to the elevator, and he spoke in a calm and steady voice. “Well, I’m glad that is cleared up.” He offered his arm, and she took it. They got breakfast and walked to the train without another word.
They arrived at Victoria Station by four in the afternoon. “Thursday evening,” Chris said, out loud, just to keep his mind straight. Then he added, “Dickens.”
“The Dickens, you say?” Merry teased.
“Yes,” Chris sounded certain. “I just figured it out. My grandmother collected Christmas villages before she passed away. I have no idea what happened to them. I was only six or so when she died. I remember the one from the sixties, Middletown, including the Yuletide Diner. I guess that was nostalgic for her.”
“Oh?” Merry sounded curious, but maybe like she knew something. Chris looked at her, but continued.
“Yea. I remember she had a whole Dickens village—a kind of London Town. It included the Victoria Station, several churches, toy shops, candy shops, plenty of Ye Olde Shoppes. Open stalls on the green where people sold all kinds of sweet meats, chestnuts, and apples in the snow. Of course, Grandma’s set did not have so many people. It is crowded in this square. I can hear the Christmas carolers, but I can’t see them.”
“What are you suggesting?” Merry asked.
“I’m not sure,” Chris admitted. “I don’t understand 1914 in the trenches. But, this place and Middleton are right off my Grandma’s shelf. Maybe we are not actually traveling through time like I keep thinking.”
“What? Like we are getting smaller?”
“No,” Chris said, quickly. “Something…”
“I’ve thought about that,” Merry said, and looked up at Chris as they stopped walking. “I’ve been to the City of London, and know this place a bit, but not in this time. We are back before my time.”
“1863,” Chris guessed. “We seem to be moving in fifty-one or fifty-two year jumps.”
Merry nodded slowly, like she would think about that. “The thing is,” she began again. “Back home, there are Santas everywhere. They are in the malls, department stores, and every Christmas parade in every town in America. They make movies, and write books, and everything. But all they can do is imitate, like model bits and pieces of the real Santa.” It became Chris’ turn to nod slowly as she continued. “I feel like this is the real Christmas town that your Grandmother’s models were based on. I don’t know. It seems Christmas gets in the head and heart—the Spirit of Christmas, and people model the reality of it all. Like all those fake Santas in the world. Maybe they are not entirely fake, but vaguely similar to the real thing, and maybe that is why people recognize them, like they are glimpsing the reality behind the model.”
Chris nodded more firmly, and thought to say something, but he did not get the chance.
Something slammed, a loud Bang!sounding almost like a gunshot. The apple stand collapsed. A ragged boy ran, holding tight to a prize apple. He bumped right into Chris, and Chris grabbed the boy by the arm. The boy tried to wriggle out of his jacket, to escape, but Chris clamped down on the boy’s wrist and spoke.
“Hold on there, Oliver,” he said. “Christmas is a time for giving, not stealing.”
“Let me go,” the boy protested, though it was too late. The round, older woman from the apple stall arrived, staring daggers at the boy as she pulled her shawl up around her shoulders. A crowd began to gather. The boy looked at Chris’ smiling face for the first time and asked, “How’d you know my name?”
Chris knelt to face the boy and reached into his jacket pocket where he kept his wallet. He found three one pound notes which he figured he would never need as long as Plum and Roy covered everything. He jumbled with the wallet while he held the boy, but Merry knelt and held the wallet for him. He smiled for her and pulled the notes one at a time.
“Give this to your master, Fagin,” he said. The boy held the apple with his free hand, so Chris put it in the hand where he held the boy’s wrist. The boy stopped struggling as he clamped his fingers around the pound note like it meant the difference between life and death. “Tell him…the Christmas Shepherd said don’t be greedy, and Merry Christmas.” He pulled out a second note and handed it to the woman. “One for Dame Apple,” he said. “To cover the cost of the apple and any damage the boy may have caused. Merry Christmas.”
The woman’s eyes got big, like she did not see many such notes in her line of work. “Very kind, Mister Shepherd,” she said, and thought to add a little curtsey while she said, “Happy Christmas to you.”
Chris pulled out one more note and found a pocket in Oliver’s coat. He slipped it in and said, “One for the little boy who lives down the lane. So you and Nancy can have a special Christmas treat.” Chris saw a policeman push through the crowd. He recognized the big brass badge, red and white checkered cuffs on the uniform, and the club the man held. “No trouble. All taken care of,” Chris said, as he let go of Oliver so the boy could run off.
“Happy Christmas everyone,” Merry shouted, as the apple lady went back to her stall and the crowd began to disperse. Many people responded with the same.
“Merry Christmas, officer,” Chris said, as he and Merry stood, and she took his arm.
The police officer almost grinned. He used his club to salute and returned, “Happy Christmas.”
Cue: Traditional 19thCentury Christmas Hymns (background).
Merry pulled Chris toward the hotel, pointing out a few things along the way. “London Bridge is behind us. That is the Tower Bridge. The Tower of London is there, where the hardened criminals get locked up.
“That castle?” Chris asked, and Merry nodded but turned serious as she noticed Chris’ furrowed brow. “I wonder if they have anyone to share come Christmas cheer with them.”
“What?” Merry asked, and Chris answered.
“Why can’t people just love one another? Why can’t we be good and kind to each other—just for one day a year, at least. Is that too much to ask?”
Merry could not answer that, but fortunately, Plum stood on the hotel steps. “Maybe we will find Lilly in the morning,” he said. “I feel we are getting close.” He smiled for the couple, but they appeared occupied. Chris and Merry spent supper as quiet as they spent the whole day on the train.
A Holiday Journey: From the trenches in France to Victorian London, and Lilly is still ahead of them.
Until Monday, Happy Reading