Five Shillings and Sixpence

This was written for the Renaissance Press Holiday Blog Roll 2017!

knocker-434294_1280

Knocker from Pixabay.

Five Shillings and Sixpence

None of this is right, thought Peter, when the turkey was delivered.

It wasn’t the bird itself, though to be sure there was no way his father could have afforded such a large turkey. It was… everything.

Peter tugged at the collar of his father’s old shirt, standing back while his mother and father and even Tiny Tim exclaimed over the turkey. The address was right on the label. It was for them.

“But who?” asked his mother.

“I think…” Tim said, then paused as though he was reconsidering his words. But he smiled. “I think it was Mr. Scrooge.”

As his parents exclaimed over that particular unlikelihood, Peter eyed his brother and noticed the shadow around Tim had grown thinner.

“Well,” his mother said. “I’d should expect to start now, though I’ll confess I’m unsure I’ve a pot large enough.”

His whole family laughed. An unexpected joy, and on Christmas Day no less?

Peter put a well-practiced smile on his face, and as Tim passed, he rested a hand on his brother’s thin shoulder for a brief second. Tim smiled up at him. Peter, after all, rarely touched anyone.

The shadow was lighter still.

None of this is right, Peter thought again. He bit his lip.

*

“Five shillings and sixpence,” his father said, finishing his announcement.

Peter lowered his head, feeling a swell of pride as his family cheered for his good fortune. It wasn’t much, but the first time his father had told him of the position, Peter had felt the shadows move around him. Most especially? The darkness looming around a lone crutch by the fireplace shifted. Moving further away. Not gone—Peter wasn’t sure he believed there was a way to send a darkness so inevitable away—but further. And further he’d take.

The difference of five shillings and sixpence.

Their meal, later than usual thanks to the morning’s turkey, held a similar sense to Peter. The shadows were drifting away, and they were shifting so quickly Peter had stumbled a few times through the meal, answering the wrong questions and only realizing after that he was having conversations others weren’t. He caught Tim staring at him, and had to stop himself from returning the gaze in kind.

The shadows around Tim were nearly gone.

How?

Surely it wasn’t the five shillings and sixpence. He’d already known…

He remembered Tim’s voice: “I think it was Mr. Scrooge.”

When his father led a toast, and included the man in question, the cries of outrage from his family rang hollow. Peter couldn’t quite join in. He glanced at Tim again, and found Tim looking at him, a small frown on his face.

“Peter?” he said. It was a quiet aside, the sort Tim spoke best. His voice had always been soft and gentle.

“It’s nothing,” Peter said kindly, and Tim turned back to the passing of the cup. But by the time the cup had passed around the table, Peter could barely keep up the pretense. Everything was changing.

And it hadn’t been him.

After the meal, Peter excused himself, wrapped his neck with his muffler, and went out into the snow.

*

It wasn’t just his home, though his home was considerably more affected than many of those around. Peter closed his eyes, recalling how the street had appeared only the day before, and when he reopened his eyes, it was all the more obvious. It was like someone had washed some stones clean from the dark layer of coal smoke that coated them.

And his family’s home was the cleanest.

It wasn’t a real stain, and the real stains were still there, of course, but to Peter’s other eyes, the sight that had opened over the last couple of years, there were shadows he’d gotten used to seeing everywhere.

He’d also gotten used to noticing how he could shift them, ever so slightly. A kind word. A connection. Doing unto others…

He pushed his hands into his pockets, took a moment to consider, and followed the shifting pattern of darkness. The path was hard to follow—as a rook might cross the sky, not how a young clerk-to-be might walk—but he found his way through alleys and crossed narrow streets as he needed until he was facing a graveyard.

Peter had learned to avoid graveyards. Here, often the shadows he could see were thickest yet. Losses, inevitable losses, those not even delayed by the power of five shillings and sixpence, tangled and twisted themselves thickly in places like this.

But this one? To Peter’s gaze, it was almost light. And a single space where there was no gravestone yet placed was brightest of all.

Peter’s breath hitched, a cloud of white tugged away on the cold city wind.

If this much could change, what about him?

He was almost unsurprised by the time he reached Ebenezer Scrooge’s home. It was not a beautiful place, and he’d never have known it in passing, but it all came from here. Every fray in the twisting ropes of shadow, every weakness to the weave of potentials that Peter had been fighting and struggling for the better part of two years began here.

I think it was Mister Scrooge.”

Tim’s voice echoed again. Peter breathed on his hands, unsure what to do now. He couldn’t as well as use the knocker, not if he wanted his father to know nothing of his evening walk.

The knocker.

It, too, was clear of shadow; it fair glowed.

The door opened. Peter started, as did the woman stepping out of the building. She wore a heavy shawl and had her hair tied up and appeared to be a servant. A charwoman, perhaps.

“You gave me a fright,” she said, not unkindly. She laughed. “Merry Christmas, in keeping with the situation.”

“A Merry Christmas,” Peter managed to reply.

The woman, too, was positively alight.

She stepped past him, and Peter nearly let her go, but the words were out before he could stop himself. “May I ask..?”

She turned, waiting.

“Are things…well…here?”

“Young master.” The woman’s smile only grew. “Things have never been so well as they are here. It’s changed, I must say myself. It’s, well, it’s Christmas.” Then, with another “Merry Christmas” from her lips, she was off. Peter eyed the closed door.

Changed, indeed.

Peter went home, wondering if there was change enough for him.

*

By the day after Christmas, it was confirmed. Tiny Tim had been right about the turkey, and more than that, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge had not only seen fit to give his father more time to be with his family, but a raise as well. Peter stood quietly back as his father exclaimed the virtues of this new Mr. Scrooge, and watched the shadows fairly flee from around their home.

It should have filled him, Peter thought. It should have left him overflowing. But instead, Peter felt a weakness in the place behind his heart, a duller ache than he remembered. There were no shadows in his home to worry about.

Indeed, the world around Peter Cratchit was lightening day by day. The darknesses were retreating. So now there only remained those within his own heart.

For his family, though, Peter smiled and laughed, skills he’d been honing since the first braids of sorrow had started to appear throughout the world.

Those same laughs and smiles he prepared to carry to his first day. Where before he’d felt a sense of pride and minor triumph of delay against a future so determined to take his brother Tim from him, now he knew only uncertainty. It was not five shillings and sixpence shifting the world everywhere he looked. It was Ebenezer Scrooge. He had joined the Cratchit family for a dinner—Peter’s mind still spun at how much brighter the man seemed from all previous glances—and by the end of it, Peter had been hard pressed to find even a shred of ill fortune. He’d even touched Tim’s crutch, a thing he’d long ago learned never to do.

There had been nothing.

And so, as he stood outside where he was to work, he wondered what he could possibly do, who he could possibly be, now the only thing to give him direction had shifted so suddenly and without his being of any usefulness at all.

When a darkness gathered at the corner, Peter turned. A woman was crossing the street, and beside her, a cart was waiting to be unloaded at the warehouse, which blocked her from view. A horse and carriage was coming.

Peter Cratchit cried out as he moved, caught the woman by the arm, and both half-swung and half-pulled her. They fell together, backwards into the dirty snow, but the horse and carriage passed them with room for but a barest breath between.

“I’m so sorry,” Peter said.

“No, no,” the woman said, her voice shaking. “That was nearly my life.”

They rose. The woman eyed him. “I’ve seen you before, I believe.”

Peter didn’t recognize her, but he offered his hand. “Peter Cratchit, at your service.”

“Indeed you were,” she said. She was older than he’d first thought, and only now was it obvious. Still, she was beautiful in that her eyes were kind and her smile was easy. “And that settles where I’ve seen you. You’re the new clerk.”

Peter gestured to the building where he was to work.

She nodded. “My husband’s company. Come. I’ll come in with you, and explain why we’re both so wet. I’d only meant to stop by to see my husband and son.” She winked. “Now, I have a tale to tell.”

Peter gestured for her to go first. Ropes of darkness scattered away from them.

The woman’s husband—Peter’s employer—embraced her despite the wet snow drenching her dress, and kissed her forehead. “My Belle,” he said, his heart obviously full of a deep love. “Never.” He said it again, like it was a vow. “Never.”

“I’m unharmed and well,” she said, though she did not let go of his hand. “Thanks to young Peter.”

“I knew I’d made a good choice,” the man said, and Peter blushed.

He was shown to his desk, and introduced to the man’s eldest son, who would be his companion in the small office they would share. It was cozy, and warmed by a fire. Peter thought of his father’s office, and a small shiver ran through him.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I am,” Peter said. Shadows were fleeing all around him. And these, he knew, had nothing to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. A future that had almost been, thanks to a horse and carriage, was instead never to be. And he’d done that. Peter himself. “Thank you. I was just thinking of…something else.”

“Oh?” His companion asked it with genuine interest.

“I’m afraid I can be overconcerned with the future,” Peter said.

“That seems wise to me.”

“Does it?”

“The grasshopper and the ant,” his companion said.

Peter nodded. “Yes. In a way.”

“Join me for dinner.”

Peter blinked, surprised. “I…” He wasn’t sure what to say.

“By every account, you saved my mother’s life today. It seems only fair I treat you to a dinner. You’re a working man now, Peter Cratchit, and we working men might as well be friends.”

Peter looked at him. Really looked. Despite the man’s smile, and the brightness of his voice, something familiar lay between them. It took a moment to find the twisting dark behind his heart. Worry. Fear. A hopelessness. A future alone, because…

Because.

But no. Even as he watched, a tiny piece frayed and drifted away.

Something familiar indeed.

“I would like that very much,” Peter said. Another fray.

For just a moment, Peter Cratchit thought of Old Mr. Marley. He wasn’t sure why, but the thought of the man, who’d been so close to Mr. Scrooge even before his father had worked for him, was as clear as day. He’d met the man only once.

He shook his head. Overconcerned with the future. But it occurred to him to wonder what Mr. Scrooge might have been like had Mr. Marley been alive longer. Had Mr. Marley perhaps had the chance to see the shadows Scrooge could have undone, and what that might have meant.

Peter dipped his pen into the inkwell.

There was no way to know, of course. And it was a strange and random thought. Mind, graveyards, door knockers, charwomen… It had been a strange and random week, all told.

“I do look forward to being friends,” Peter said.

His companion smiled.

They got to work.

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