It has, in recent years, become traditional for a few of the residents of Hopeless to come together in order to arrange some manner of Christmas entertainment, basking in the vague hope of igniting a small spark of festive joy in the hearts of their fellow islanders. The crucial words here are, of course, ‘to arrange’; on Hopeless it is seldom that an arrangement of any description pans out as planned. This said, however, the dubiously named ‘Christmas Extravaganza Committee’ gathered in a small back-room of The Squid and Teapot and allowed hope to prevail over experience.
“We could do a Nativity play”, suggested Philomena Bucket.
Doc Willoughby, who was only there on sufferance and the off-chance that there might be a free drink or three coming his way, raised an eyebrow.
“Not on Hopeless,” he said. “You’d be lucky to find three wise men and a virgin around here.”
This was the Doc’s annual joke – possibly the only one he knew – which he trotted out every Christmas with regularity. The others around the table laughed dutifully, probably in relief that the old chestnut had been aired and safely put to bed again until next year.
Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, looked thoughtful.
“Do you remember the actor guy who lived here, the one that some folks reckon was eaten by that sea-serpent, Aboo-dom-k’n?
“Fromebridge somebody-or-other,” offered Norbert Gannicox, the local distiller.
“That’s the one,” said Bartholomew. “Well, he left behind a few bits and pieces, including a book on the history of acting. There was something in there about some ancient Christmas entertainment called… mummifying, I think.”
“Now that does sound entertaining,” observed the Doc, brightening visibly. “I can’t say that is something I’ve ever witnessed.”
“Well, as I recall, these various characters come on stage, they say who they are, then a couple of them have fight and one of them dies…”
“Ah…and then he gets mummified?” asked the Doc.
“Could be,” said Bartholomew. “But somewhere along the line the doctor brings him back to life.”
Doc Willoughby rolled his eyes.
“I think you’d better bring us the book,” he said, uneasily.
After the initial disappointment of discovering that, when mummers go out to mum, they rarely, if ever, have mummification on their minds, Doc Willoughby reluctantly agreed to take part in the entertainment, after making a mental note that the promised drinks tally had just doubled.
“Okay – so who are the characters, the dramatis personae?” he asked, always happy to drop in the odd Latin phrase, in hopes to impress.
“In this version there is Father Christmas, somebody called Room, Robin Hood, Beelzebub, Saint George, Bold Slasher, Mince Pie, a doctor and a Turkish Knight. That’s a lot of people!” replied Norbert, scratching his head.
“We’re going to have to cut a few parts out, as there are only four of us,” he added.
It was decided that Father Christmas, Saint George, the Turkish Knight and the doctor would have to do. Doc Willoughby was adamant that he was the only person qualified to play the doctor. After a certain amount of bickering the other parts were agreed; Bartholomew was to be Father Christmas, Philomena would be St. George and Norbert took on the role of the Turkish Knight.
Over the next week the troupe learned their not-too-demanding lines and Philomena, who doubled up as wardrobe mistress, trawled through the dusty attics of The Squid and Teapot in the hope of finding some vaguely credible costumes. By Christmas Eve the little band of thespians deemed themselves ready to meet their public.
Ariadne Middlestreet, wife of Bartholomew, was run off her feet behind the bar of The Squid and Teapot. The inn was full to bursting with the curious inhabitants of Hopeless (and some were certainly more curious than others). Beyond all hope, it seemed, they had gathered together on this cold Christmas Eve to witness the cultural highlight of the season. That, at least, is what the four actors told themselves. The truth was that most of the island was dying to see Doc Willoughby make a fool of himself.
Bartholomew, resplendent in a cherry-red dressing gown, matching woolly hat and cotton-wool beard, began the proceedings.
“In comes I, old Father Christmas.
Welcome in or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.. “
As the play unfolded the characters introduced themselves. Saint George appeared in a helmet made from a saucepan with a broken handle and grey knitted woollen ‘chain mail’, eliciting cheers and whoops from the audience. As to be expected, the emergence of the Turkish knight, whose turban looked suspiciously as though it was made of pink chiffon, was met with boos and catcalls. These reactions, however, were as nothing compared to the negative reception given to the doctor, an innocuous member of the cast who is usually received on stage with a chorus of polite cheers. It is fair to assume that this display of general antipathy was not so much directed towards the character as at the actor, who had made no effort whatsoever to don any form of fancy dress, loudly opining that he knew better than most what sort of clothes a doctor should wear.
There are many who will tell you that Christmas is a time of miracles and this little entertainment, put on for the people of Hopeless, Maine, is proof positive that this is, indeed, the case, for, miraculously, nothing went wrong. The Turkish knight slew St. George, the doctor brought him back to life again with his bottle of elecampane and, to huge cheers, St George gave the Turkish knight his comeuppance. Nobody fluffed their lines, there were no embarrassing costume catastrophes and, unusually on Hopeless, no one was abducted, eaten, or even seriously injured. The general concensus was that the night had gone swimmingly well.
By the time that midnight struck most folks were home and safely in bed. Christmas Eve is, however, the most haunted of nights and the ghosts of the island were wide awake and honouring tradition by manifesting for the occasion.
Down in Creepy Hollow old Lars Pedersen, whom time had rendered so faint as to be almost invisible, tramped through the night, seeking in vain for his precious missing eggs.
In the privy of the Squid and Teapot, Lady Margaret D’Avening, the Headless White Lady, had perched herself daintily on the lavatory seat, while her head, floating next to her, sang Christmas carols.
Some distance away, on the other side of the island, her nemesis, Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, was busily venting his joyless and protoplasmic spleen against the iniquities of Papists, adulterers and anyone guilty of enjoying a spot of Christmas debauchery, or indeed, anything at all.
Up on the headland the Little Drummer Boy marched proudly along, leading a rag-tag procession of shipwrecked wraiths inland. As it was Christmas Eve he had abandoned his usual ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ drumbeat for the more seasonal ‘pa rum pum pum-pum’
Meanwhile, high overhead, the phantom maiden-ladies of The Mild Hunt, mounted on flatulent mules, with their highly-strung spaniels forever yapping and getting in the way, had come to grief when they had become entangled with some flying reindeer. The somewhat overweight, white-bearded gentleman who seemed to be in charge, was desperately trying to turn his sleigh the right way up, while at the same time fiercely berating them. His face had become as red as the clothes he wore and, with no little venom, he concluded angrily (and quite correctly, as it happens) that they must be English, driving like that on the wrong side of the sky.
The only islander abroad that night was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. Ghosts were familiar to Rhys and little surprised him anymore – but even he couldn’t believe his eyes as a not-particularly gentle rain of candy canes, sugar-mice and assorted toys fell noisily to earth.
Author’s note: The ghosts mentioned in ‘Another Hopeless Christmas’ can be encountered in several other tales, including:
‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’; ‘The Headless Lady’; ‘Chapel Rock’; ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’.