A Christmas Carol

"Two Christmases ... " mumbled Torquil Stubbs, waving his cigarette with a haughty, aristocratic flourish. "One is bad enough. But two -- that's a particularly cruel form of festive torture ..."

He fortified himself with a long gulp from his gin and tonic. "And on top of that," he continued, "you've got New Year and old New Year and very old New Year and any other, lame excuse to inflict merriment on decent, clean-living people ..." His voice died away into a gruff, cantankerous murmur as he seemed to sink deeper into a murky crack in the sofa.

His wife, Tanya, had spent most of the afternoon preparing for the imminent party, flitting in and out with neat little bowls of crisps and peanuts. Now she was pinning a giant red Yuletide streamer across one wall: "Stop moaning and get ready, dear," she said with forbearance. "The guests will be arriving soon."

Torquil Stubbs shuddered. He hated parties and he hated Christmas. And he particularly loathed the fact that in Russia, the whole sorry process happened twice. It was nothing less than perverse.

However, he wasn't giving in without a fight. He still steadfastly refused, despite much pleading, to take any part in the celebration of Russian Orthodox Christmas with his wife's family. And only weeks of Tanya's wily coercion had finally forced him to agree to host this modest Christmas Eve gathering for the employees of LinguaCentre, the St. Petersburg language school he ran and partly owned.

Over the seven years he had spent in Russia -- teaching English and, previously, translating for Progress Publishers -- Torquil's misanthropic streak intensified with every double dose of Christmas cheer he was forced to endure. Still only in his early thirties, his long, thin face had grown wizened while the shimmering, hazel eyes were now sunken and hooded. And his voice now seemed to miraculously issue forth from taut inexpressive lips, rather in the manner of a poor ventriloquist. This impression of premature age he accentuated with cravats and tiny wire-framed glasses.

Even the flat, decorated in the classic Soviet style, seemed replete with his ill will. The color scheme was a kind of uniform dun, with occasional sun-bursts of grubby mauve along the skirting boards. Everywhere, cluttering every corner there was huge chunky furniture, pod-like lighting arrangements and lumbering cavernous wall units. But Torquil's favorite spot was in the corner of their massive box sofa and it was here he now sat, rousing himself for a new wave of diatribe.

"When I first came here," he said, bursting sluggishly to life, "Christmas was so wonderfully, monumentally gray. Back then, they didn't tolerate any of this malarkey. There were none of the cheap baubles, tacky trinkets, all this commercial Western Christmas nonsense you see cluttering up the shops here these days ..."

Only when he noticed that he was talking to an empty room did Torquil's voice die away. His wife had gone to fetch more decorations. But the monologue continued to swirl around his mind: "Bah, Humbug," he said to himself, "Christmas is a bore."

After a few moments, the doorbell rang. Stirring from the comfort of his dark corner, Torquil made his way down the corridor and peered through the peephole: "My God, they're here already," he groaned.

Stretched and bloated by the perspective of the lens, his entire staff stood loitering in the stairwell. Torquil had never before come across such an assorted rag-bag of decrepit lost causes and often wondered whether he was really running a language school and not a repository for the world's most pathetic, helpless scraps of humanity. He shunted back the twin bolts of the lock.

First to enter was the American "Photographing Poet Errant," Chris Columbus, an unreconstructed flower child who had spent most of his fifty-two years "spreading the poetry of life" across the globe. With a halo of frizzy gray hair and giant, thick-lensed glasses he might have been mistaken for a down-at-heel librarian were it not for the two teenage Russian girls he had in tow. Torquil recognized both as students from the academy. "This is Kitten," said Chris, nudging forward the skinny blonde, before turning to the more ample, but younger brunette. "And this is Calypso. Say Hi, Calypso." The girls giggled.

The rest of the company of misfit teachers slunk in. Each presented a bottle-shaped object wrapped in shiny paper to Tanya, who returned their greetings with a graceful ease. Chris Columbus had invested in some exploding miniature streamers and, with the help of Kitten and Calypso, sprayed every newcomer with slivers of red and yellow crepe. A few strands showered down on Torquil's hunched shoulders where they looked uncannily like multicolored dandruff. "Merry Christmas, Torquil," beamed Chris in response, "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

"Yeah, yeah," mumbled Torquil under his breath. He brushed the colored paper from his shoulders and shuffled away.

Thanks primarily to Tanya, who skillfully ushered the proceedings along, this inauspicious gathering began to take off. Torquil sat gloomily in the corner, sucking out of a mug of gin, watching her move gracefully through the company.

She was certainly beautiful, tonight particularly so in a long and flowing silvery satin dress she had made herself. Her hair, unusual for a Russian, was auburn and curly, her face perfectly oval.

Torquil had met Tanya Novikova at one of the very few times he had been to the theater in Russia, when he went to see a production of Hamlet. She had designed the costumes. Right from the beginning -- when she had dragged the sullen Englishman backstage to meet the cast -- everyone had warned her against the match, particularly her family. They said that she was too vivacious, too bright, too beautiful to commit herself to such a dreary old curmudgeon.

Torquil didn't help the situation on the first occasion he met Tanya's father, who immediately began to show off his prized collection of rare first editions of Rudyard Kipling. For a half an hour Torquil held forth about how much he despised Kipling, about what a "colonial fascist" he was and how no one in England ever bothered to read him any more. He had also fought furiously with the layabout younger brother.

Torquil watched now as Tanya progressed through the company. First she listened intently to Orlando Graeme, a logorrheic hairdresser from England on a language-teaching sabbatical. Then on to Anton Dibrov, the only Russian-language teacher at the academy and a former rock critic, fired because he refused to review rock concerts unless they featured cellos. Finally, Tanya alighted on to Chris Columbus and his young charges.

"Yes, it is my real name," Torquil heard him say in his curious New York drawl. "My parents knew I would become an explorer. We're all explorers, my dear, traveling through the uncharted universe on Spaceship Earth. But it's my mission, to spread love and joy and happiness among those around me." Calypso and Kitten nestled into an armpit each, "Yes," he said, feigning a laugh, "and to write some mediocre poetry along the way."

Obviously, Tanya thought that Chris might be able to do something for Torquil, because soon afterwards, he trotted up to the murky corner where Torquil was skulking contentedly like a crab. Sprightly enquiries on the part of the wandering poet were met by curt monosyllables. "I don't normally tend to have a 'good time,'" Torquil slurred.

Chris looked shocked: "You should take my advice," he said, "You should learn to happify."

This, naturally, did not go down well with Torquil. He simply became much ruder and was contemplating flight when the exasperated poet exclaimed: "Hey, lighten up here guy. It's Christmas."

Nothing Chris might have said could have had the same instantaneous, cataclysmic effect. Torquil repeated everything he had said earlier in the evening, but with more alacrity and volume. Soon, he had captured the attention of practically everyone in the room except Kitten and Calypso, who were engaged in some sort of argument. "I loathe Christmas like a vile contagion," he growled. "The very mention of it makes my bowels creep. If you want my opinion, that is about the only thing the communists managed to get right. Christmas should be abolished."

Silence descended on the room. "Hey, man," said Chris, dropping his flower-power bit for an unguarded moment, "you're a total damn Scrooge."

The door bell rang again. Torquil scuttled out of the room and down the corridor, glad of the chance to escape. His face was flushed and his mood now had sunk to an unprecedented low. He squinted out through the peep-hole. There was nothing to be seen but the pitchy outline of the dank stairwell.

"Who's there?" he called out. He received no answer.

He looked again through the peephole. In the glass disc, a face suddenly materialized and then faded away. He jumped back in amazement. But after rubbing his eyes thoroughly, he decided that it must have been some kind of mirage.

Waiting another uneasy minute, he shot back the bolts and swung open the door. His glance followed the shaft of light which spilled out into the stairwell.

What Torquil Stubbs saw at that moment has since seared deep into his memory. In front of him was a tall figure wearing a shimmering hooded robe. Around its forehead and right hand, it was wearing bloodied, filthy bandages. The face was gaunt and severe, with the cheekbones almost breaking through parchment-like skin. But what was most disturbing was that, in the dark stairwell, the figure was emanating a strange dull, dusty light.

While Torquil dumbly gazed on, the curious visitor advanced into the apartment. With it came a sweet, scorched scent, like burnt caramel. In the full glare of the electric lamp, Torquil could make out, more clearly, its eyes under the hood: darting, nervous and smoldering gently like embers.

Slowly, the figure advanced into the kitchen and sat down. It beckoned Torquil to do the same. They sat for a moment in silence. Torquil could hear his heart beating fiercely and could feel the dull thud of too much blood in his temples.

"Do I know you?" Torquil asked.

The visitor stared at him intently: "I have some advice for you."

Torquil shuffled anxiously.

"I have come to recommend you to make some ..." The figure seemed to be searching for a word. "Reconsiderations. Because if you do not, you will risk being lanced from the face of the earth like a carbuncle, crushed like an insect or burst like an excrescence. And all, just for the sake of heavenly peace of mind. Because you, Torquil Stubbs, have grown into a thoroughly reprehensible character, worthy only of contempt and abomination."

At this point, Torquil, almost as a reflex action, sent forth a snort of disbelief.

The figure was incensed. "But do you believe in me?" it howled.

When no reply was forthcoming, the stranger unfurled the bandage that was wrapped around its head. To his horror, Torquil could see that one side of the figure's forehead had been completely torn off, and that beneath the bone there was a small hole, reaching deep into the center of the skull. The visitor immediately began to wrap the bandage around itself again. Torquil couldn't suppress a horrified retch.

"Do you believe in me?" said the stranger again. The voice was so loud that the crockery on the shelves rattled.

"Yes, yes, okay, I believe in you ... "

"Good. Then there is some hope."

And with that, the apparition evaporated, leaving Torquil alone in the kitchen. Hanging in the air was a slight hazy mist and the smell of sweet cinders.

For the rest of the evening, Torquil didn't feel at all well. A number of people approached him and enquired after his health. But most attributed Torquil's dyspepsia to the gin or the foul humors that characteristically swept through his body. They did their best to stay away.

In any case, a far more interesting spectacle had developed in the kitchen. Kitten and Calypso were violently lunging at each other, hissing, spitting and gouging each other's flesh away with perfectly manicured claws. Some territorial claim over Chris had flared up into full-scale warfare. As Tanya tried to pull them apart, Torquil couldn't help feeling that Chris had been mistaken when he christened Kitten and that she would have to be renamed.

The next morning, after a night of cold sweat and restless dreams, Torquil woke in the same exhausted state he had gone to bed. Tanya brought him a breakfast of kasha and eggs. She remarked that he had looked a little off-color at the party and asked him anything was wrong.

"I received a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past," he said, munching on toast.

"Really," she laughed.

Once breakfast was over, Torquil dressed quickly in his overcoat and boots. On the way out, he was apprehended by Tanya, who had a curious, soliciting look in her eye. "One Christmas down," she said, "Only one to go."

Torquil knew what this meant: "No, I am not going with you to visit your family."

"Why not?"

He made a dash for the door. "I simply couldn't cope if your babushka tried to take her clothes off in front of me again. Or if your spoiled brat of a brother whines about Jews getting all the jobs. And what about your father ... and the Kipling incident ... I thought he said he would never let me back into the house."

"Alright. Alright, whatever you want." She kissed him and led him to the door.

Outside, snow was falling. It made the blazing white thoroughfares of St. Petersburg look sparklingly new, pasting over the cracks and welding together the unseemly breaches in the facades. The falling snow brought with it a certain chilly solitude. Head stooped, his glasses swept up the falling flakes. Little drifts gathered in the insides of the lenses.

By the time he reached Nevsky Prospekt, Torquil noticed someone behind him, limping markedly and swaying painfully from side to side. Torquil automatically stepped up his pace. But the crippled figure still had no trouble keeping up. Out of the corner of his eye Torquil could make out what the figure was wearing -- the scraggy tattered cloak and hood of the ghost.

He turned his head as imperceptibly as possible. He saw clearly now that it was the ghost.

This time, there was nothing holding Torquil back. He fled through the snow, down Sadovaya Ulitsa, ducking under the arches of Gostiny Dvor. He ran along the squelching grimy foot path, parting the shoppers. He sprinted through the maze of stalled, jammed traffic. But every time he glanced over his shoulder, the limping specter was still only a little distance behind him.

Finally Torquil collapsed exhausted, into a snowdrift on a tiny deserted street behind the Aproxin Dvor market. He began to whimper involuntarily as the ghost shuffled up. "What a futile exercise," it chuckled, stretching out its unbandaged hand toward him.

The raw, pallid fingers clasped Torquil's arm like a vice. He tried to scream in pain but instead heard himself utter a tiny squawk. The ghost lifted him up into the air at breakneck speed. The gravitational force flattened out his features and pinned his arms to the side of his body.

Soon, Torquil could see the whole city stretched out below him. Nevsky Prospekt ran through the center of his vision like a great vein. The snow-capped Peter and Paul fortress could just be made out in the distance, its hunched fortifications shivering in the sub-zero temperatures. Its spire pierced through the blizzard that raged above it and cut a gold sliver out of the densely falling snow. "Enjoying yourself?" cackled the ghost. "You can't fault the view, eh?"

Torquil didn't have any opportunity to make a reply as the panorama of St. Petersburg disappeared into a headlong blur. He felt his