To thee dear readers
(yes, to both of you)
This apology is sent,
For despite the haste in writing
This tale is carefully meant.
It must be done by Christmas
So was written at some speed
And so please forgive the edits
It desperately will need.
The Masked Badger aka Bernard Dweeb
Nick sat on the edge of the bed, in the semi-darkness of his own special room. The cushioning movement of the mattress was inviting but the creaking and sagging under his considerable weight was alarming, so he sat very still for a moment and just sighed. This time of year he slept alone, and in all honesty on this particular night he was quite relieved at not having to talk. He just wanted sleep, now and badly, and he could only afford a few hours before starting work again.
It was tricky pushing off first one boot and then the other using only his feet, but there was no way he was going to risk bending down, for both his sake and the bed’s. He had hung his coat on the bedpost, but was there any point in taking anything else off? Not really: he would hardly be asleep long enough, and he’d be wearing these trousers for the next forty eight hours anyway, so a few hours in bed would make little difference. They’d be fine, he thought, as he pivoted round, raised his legs onto the bed and flopped backwards. The bed made a sound suggesting that, although it had been holding its breath at the sight of the approaching mass, it was now wheezing its last, accompanied by a sound similar to someone cutting a taut piano wire. Nick lay still for a moment, but the bed, the floor, gravity and Newton, all seemed to be holding a truce, and he relaxed, staring dreamily at the shifting shadows on the ceiling. Outside, the moonlight was sparkling on the ice, and inside the ceiling looked like a monochrome reflection of a babbling stream. He watched the shimmering light, moving his eyes across the ceiling and down the wall, until the strobing disappeared behind the dark hillock of his own belly. He gave it a quick jiggle, just to make sure he could, and shut his eyes. A thrity-six hour shift in the workshop had taken its toll and although his eyes ached with the strain, and the noise of the nightshift just reached the edges of his perception, he was soon asleep.
And then he was awake. Suddenly, and he didn’t know why. A noise, somewhere, or a song or maybe a word. Something...
There it was again! But no song; instead a shuffling, a dragging, and with it a tinkling, a clanking. It was drawing closer, along the corridor towards his door. No one should be out there at this time of night, not on this night! Nick’s sleepy mind was suddenly back online. The proximity of the bizarre sounds suggested that whatever was making it was now merely a few steps from his room. Where was security? The Gate-Elves knew no one was allowed anywhere near this corridor, let alone his door. But it transpired that the door was irrelevant, as first a hand, followed by its arm, a torso, and then the whole figure of a man passed through as though nothing physical stood in its way. Given the relative transparency of the man stood before him, eyes shining in the night, it was the man and not the door that had loosened its relationship with physicality. Nick’s hand, which had been on its way towards the panic-button under his pillow (there had been time when ‘fans’ had come a little too close for comfort with regards to infiltrating the secret base) slipped away as, at a subconscious level, he realised two things:
First, it was probably pointless in dealing with a man that can walk through walls.
Second, he recognised the figure before him.
By now, Nick was upright on the edge of the bed staring at the unnerving form before him – through whom he could still just make out the panelling of the door. Although the details were necessarily hazy, he registered the long brown, worn, robe; the sandals protruding from its ragged hem; the balding dome, with incongruously well-kempt hair over the ears, flowing seamlessly into a long, grey, beard. Well, incongruous for a ghost, but to be fair he had always looked smart in his actual allotted lifetime. Hanging low on his chest was a simple cross of grey metal, and in his left hand a small, bulging hessian sack, the source of the tinkling and clanking.
“Oh, really?”, said Nick, fear momentarily suppressed by recognition and the long-entrenched need to keep the upper hand when dealing with trouble. “The bag and everything?”
The spectre remained impassive, but his mouth opened and instead of the dry, dusty and distant voice Nick had been expecting (he’d read plenty of books, he knew how this ought to go) came the same deep voice, which had always seemed so comforting. Tonight, not so much.
“Are you really in any position to criticise the exploitation of the symbolism of legend?”
Uh oh, he could see which way this was going.
“Don’t start on me. We went through this over 1500 years ago. It’s not going to change anything tonight.”
“It doesn’t trouble you, that I have returned from Beyond to visit you tonight, of all nights?”
“I live at the North Pole without freezing, in a citadel shrouded by invisibility, surrounded by magical elves and singing penguins. Exactly how disoriented were you expecting me to be?” This was all true, but was also masking a deep inner sense of unease that threatened to spill over into an anxiety that something fundamental to his life was coming under threat. “And it’s hardly original, is it Nicholas? And where’s your bit of cloth to keep your jaw shut? You missed it.”
“The trappings of death are unnecessary where I have come from.” For a moment the gauzy shape took on a rich glow, which then faded. All of this troubled Nick more than the previous few minutes.
Nicholas continued, “I know that the way things have developed were often beyond your control. But you have such resources, such power – and what do you do with it? You’ve lost your way. You have forgotten...”
“Oh I see, we’re going to have some lessons in the TMOC, like I haven’t heard them a thousand times before.”
“I’m not sure you would recognise the TMOC anymore, not if it bit you. You will be visited tonight by three Guides...”
“You have got to be joking – “
“Three visitors, and they will deal with you. Watch for the first at midnight.”
Nick opened his eyes. He was lying in bed. The ceiling was flickering as usual. He looked at the door – no one there. He realised he’d been holding his breath for some time, exhaled quietly, and started breathing regularly. Why tonight of all nights, on Eve’s Eve, would he dream of someone he hadn’t seen in centuries, dead and buried a hundred generations ago? He was part of the past, not the present, in more ways than one. He had no right turning up in his dreams that way, not tonight. Him, with his dogmatic commitment to ethereal hopes, to living forever, now fifteen hundred years six-feet in the ground, dead, dead as a doorna- no, don’t say that. And the bag of gold, what was that about? No one believed the chucking coins in chimneys stuff.
Overwork and too much adrenalin. Penguin coffee. That was the problem.
A bell began to strike midnight. Nick went rigid, eyes staring at the ceiling. It wasn’t just the dream that gave the bell an ominous sound - he didn’t own a clock. Clocks were a pretty vague concept in a place where the only regular event was annual; the nearest was a quarter of a mile away, and it didn’t have a bell. It had a big flower in the centre of the dial, which unfolded, and a clockwork fairy popped out and said “PoopPoop!” There was no clock.
But the bell of the clock that wasn’t there continued to toll. Nine...ten...eleven...twelve...
Copyright The Masked Badger 2010