The knock on my door comes as something of a surprise. I’m in the habit of rising early, and since December 23rd is already generally regarded as a holiday, I don’t expect to have to deal with visitors at 7:00am.
He’s a man of some maturity and very little stature, though he has plenty of self-assurance as compensation for his lack of height.
“You haven’t left your shoe out.” He says.
It’s an odd way to start a conversation. I decide to ignore it.
“What do you want?” I try to sound a little bit hospitable. “It’s sort of early, isn’t it? To come calling, I mean,”
“The sun’s up.” He has a point.
“Only just.” So have I.
“Well since you ask, young man, I have encountered a problem with my horse. Not to put too fine a point upon it, he’s run off. He tried to take me with him, but I fell out of my cart in time.”
Horse and cart? “Have you hurt yourself?”
“No, not really. The problem is I’m rather behind schedule. I do have an assistant but he won’t arrive until later, you see. And it’s my busiest time of the year. Very vexing.”
I invite him in. It seems the least I can do. The door leads into my kitchen which I make warm as early as possible for one of our late breakfasts. His hands are blue with cold, so I suggest he put them on the radiator to warm up, at which he looks at me rather oddly, but complies. He stares about him. “What’s that?”
“That’s the dishwasher.”
“You keep her in there?”
Now I don’t know why, but up until now I haven’t actually noticed how he’s dressed: the weather’s cold, I suppose, so I would expect him to be wearing a cloak, and brown leather doesn’t seem too inappropriate because whatever else he is, he isn’t poor. There’s an impressive lump of gold on his finger. “That’s a nice ring.”
“Do you want to kiss it?”
“Well no, not specially. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be – few people do these days. Sign of the times, I suppose.” He sinks wearily onto one of the hard kitchen chairs. “Fortunately the cart was almost empty because we’d finished the deliveries. I was on my way back to the depot.” He shakes his head. “Truly annoying.”
A peculiar little knot is forming in a corner of my brain. “I suppose you have a lot of deliveries – around now, I mean?”
“Well yes. Things used to be quite quiet and manageable, until poor old Ludwic passed on. A great friend of mine, you see, Ludwic, but oh, the gambling! The profligacy! The waste! Nothing left when he died; not a penny!”
“And this is why things got busy?”
“Sort of. His three girls, you see: he left them without anything; just no money at all. Without a bit behind them, I’m sure you can imagine, life would be impossible. They’d have ended up on the streets, I’m sure they would. Anyway, I had this idea…” He leans forward, confidentially, so I can see the enthusiastic sparkle in his eye. “I wanted to provide for them, didn’t I? I’ve got a few bob, it isn’t important to me; but the problem was I knew they wouldn’t take anything from me. Proud, you see? So I made up these three bags of cash, one for each of them, and what did I do, my dear? I got up on their roof and I dropped the bags down their chimney. Complete anonymity, you see?”
“How about that!”
“Ah, but that isn’t all. Wait until you hear this bit! These comely – oh, yes, they were very comely – where was I? Ah! Girls! Stockings! Yes, they had each washed their stockings, you know, and hung them up over their warm hearth to dry. Overnight, sort of thing. And what happened?”
I shake my head. “I’ve no idea.”
“The bags of money fell into the stockings!” The old man slaps his scrawny thighs. “What do you think of that, eh?”
“Amazing!” I am able to say with honesty. “That could definitely go viral!”
“Exactly! It did.” He spreads his hands. “And now – busy!”
Suppressing an inward groan, because the poor old chap is obviously as mad as a box of frogs, I offer coffee which he refuses, with elaborate decorum, saying he must find the local town because his assistant is sure to want to meet him there. I explain the town is six miles away, but that doesn’t seem to daunt him so I watch (not without some sense of guilt, after all it is the season of goodwill) as he labors out into the cold once more.
“Wait!” I call impulsively. “I’ll take you in the car!”
He is clearly nervous of cars: in fact, his first reaction to seeing mine emerge from the garage is a rapid step backwards; but he calms down fairly quickly and plants himself stiffly in the passenger seat. I keep the driving extravagances to a minimum in deference to his obvious nervousness.
“You haven’t asked me my name.” He says through gritted teeth.
“I think I know.” I decide to humor him. “Can I call you Nick?”
“Must you? My name is Nicholas.”
“They made you a saint, you know.”
“Did they? The darlings! I met a few of the Papal States crowd at some conference thing a few years ago. Nice people, mostly.”
We enter the town. I am seriously troubled, because this old man is clearly deluded and quite possibly ill and I am unsure whether my destination should be the town centre, as he asks, or Finchfield Psychiatric Hospital on the hill beyond. But Nick is suddenly invigorated, sitting forward in his seat as his eyes, ignited by that manic spark I have seen before, dart about him, watching the crowds of shoppers converging upon the Market Place.
“Today is a farmers’ market.” I explain. “We always hold one at this time of year.”
“Really? How delightful! Look at all the blessed little children, see how happy they are?”
A screaming brat is hauled past the car window as I park, its impatient mother castigating it in choice terms that should make any saint blush. Once again my misgivings come to the fore. “I would be careful of becoming too familiar with the kids, Nick, if I were you. Old men ogling children tend to get into trouble, these days.”
We walk through the market together, drawing odd looks occasionally, but Nick is far too entranced by the merriment and color to notice. Instead, he picks out several of the stall holders. “Why are they wearing red and white? What is the reason for the false beards? Have they some reason for disguising themselves?”
“They are all imitating you, Nick.”
“Me? Merciful Heaven, why? I never wear red and white, or fur. It’s far too hot, where I come from.”
I tell him about Washington Irving’s avuncular version of him which took New York by storm in the nineteenth century, and about Coca Cola, and all the time my own eyes are following the squawking brat with its poor frustrated mother, as they make their way through the throng.
“Coca Cola. African fellow, was he? Speaking of which, here’s my chap! He comes from the Africas too.” Nick waves enthusiastically to a man at the far end of the square whose skin betrays his African origin. “Peter, dear boy; over here!”
Peter sees us, responding with a cheery wave and a white smile that has some sort of evil mischief behind it; then, with one swift movement of the same hand, reaches down to snatch the brat from its mother, throwing the child into a sack which he has been carrying over one shoulder.
Our bustle of Christmas commerce is stilled as the market place plunges into stunned silence. The mother starts to protest; murmurs of riot gather volume threateningly. From somewhere a neighing and a clatter of hooves and the crowd scatters as a sleigh, drawn by a white horse, rushes towards us….
My alarm bell blares, jarring me into wakefulness with the unwelcome news that it is, in fact, morning. For a few minutes I lie still, to let early light seep into my brain and memories of my dream fade. Everything is as it always is; I can be sure I will not really witness a child’s abduction from the Christmas Market, or hear an early knock upon my front door. It was just a dream.
Yet as I dress, listening to the morning chorus of birds, from the road outside I think I might just be able to hear the approaching rhythm of horseshoes…