Death was feeling depressed. His scythe was leaning unloved in one corner of the room. There were no Christmas cards, tree or decorations in the drab little office that was completely devoid of personality. He looked at the computer screen without really looking. His gaze was somewhere in the middle distance. As he was thinking to himself that he had had enough, that it was time finally to hang up the scythe and do something else. Sure, he regenerated every so often, but nothing changed for all the memories remained, just the bones got renewed. Same thing day in, day out and he was tired. Tired of it all. There comes a time when doing the same job seems like forever, which in Death’s case, it was. The sameness and also the differentness irked, the new ways of doing things, the new management structures, the no smoking no drinking policies. They sucked the joy out of everything and the universe was in danger of becoming a very grey place indeed, he thought morosely. And he was tired. So very tired.
The door opened and he looked up.
War poked her head into the room. Dark hair flowed around her pale face and her combination of black lipstick and heavy eye-liner gave her an appearance somewhere between ancient Egyptian Pharaoh and Goth. Her slender fingers ended with long nails painted a dark purple-black he noticed as she clutched the edge of the door. Death frowned and looked a little closer as the rest of her came into the room, dressed in a black leather halter top and leather jeans laced at the sides, finished off with over the knee cavalry boots, she was, he thought, easy on the eye even if she was a constant source of conflict, chaos and disruption. Fights spontaneously erupted wherever she went. Which was the point.
She smiled as if reading his mind. This one was a dragon that worked its way up her right arm with the neck and head wrapping itself around her shoulder. “Good, isn’t it?” she said, following his gaze.
“The rest of us are off to the pub for a few drinks. I wondered if you wanted to come along.” She looked about the room. “Not even a card?”
Death shook his head. “I am working.” He picked up his phone from the desk. “I have an appointment.”
“Okay,” she said cheerily. “Well, if you can make it later, you know where we are.”
With that, she was gone taking with her the transient spark of life that filled the room for a few moments then went.
The phone buzzed.
Fifteen minutes. Ah well, better get going.
As he stepped outside, it was starting to snow. Almost Dickensian, he thought as he sat in the saddle and motioned to the raven, who flew down from the roof and settled on his shoulder with a comforting caw.
Gillian Armitage was eighty two years old. She had lived a good life and was still enjoying it to the full. Her son had invited her to stay for Christmas and the family was sitting around the television watching treacly Christmas films while tucking into mince pies. As Gillian swallowed, a piece missed her oesophagus and went into her trachea. She coughed, wheezed and struggled for breath as she choked. Her face started to go purple and as she looked up she saw…
Death materialised just as Gillian was reaching the end. Her son, Daniel was panicking as were his wife and daughter. “I know,” he said, reaching behind his mother and gripping his hands tight around her waist just under the rib cage. Gillian looked up at Death, knowing that this was her time. Then Death did something that he shouldn’t have.
“Oh, sod this for a game of soldiers, I’m done with it.” He turned and walked away.
As Daniel heaved on his mother’s midriff, the piece of pie dislodged and she coughed it up and it shot across the room and she could breathe again, much to her surprise.
“That was close,” he said.
“You have no idea,” Gillian replied. “I saw Death.”
“You saw Death?”
“Yes, clear as I see you.”
“What happened?” Daniel asked.
“He just turned around and walked away. Just like that. Looks like I have a little longer yet.”
The landscape was a contradiction of black and white. The land was gleaming white with snow bathed in the shimmering light from a full moon, the fir trees shadows against the black sky studded with stars. Silence enveloped it like a blanket that was broken only occasionally by the call of an owl hunting somewhere. Death’s horse trod carefully in the deep snow, scrunching softly as if not to break the silence of the night, leaving a trail of hoof prints visible in the whiteness. Eventually he came upon a settlement. A huddle of small buildings surrounding a larger one. There were lights inside, their joy flooding out onto the snow casting a golden glow wherever they touched.
Death stopped outside the larger house and dismounted, lifting the raven from his shoulder and perching it on the pommel of the saddle.
He walked into the house and was almost thrown back by a combination of the warmth and the aroma of wood smoke. In a chair, smoking a pipe was an old man with a shock of white hair and bushy beard, his stockinged feet resting on the hearth and his shirt unbuttoned with braces gainfully struggling to hold his bright red trousers somewhere within the vicinity of his generous girth.
“Hello, Nicholas,” Death said.
“Good Lord! What brings you here?” Nicholas sat up sharply and gestured to the empty chair on the other side of the fireplace. “Help yourself to a dram of the good stuff.”
Death sat and reached for a bottle and poured a stiff one. “They haven’t banned you from drinking here, then?”
“Let ’em try! This is such a remote outpost, management drones never get up this way, so I do as I please.” He took a deep puff on the pipe and exhaled a plume of sweet smelling smoke that added to the already dense odour of the burning logs.
Death thought that he could get to like this place. Away from the madding crowd and, importantly, only one schedule to work to.
“So what brings you here?” Nicholas asked.
“I’ve had enough,” Death said. “Same old stuff every day, running here and there at the beck and call of the phone. And that’s another thing, they put me in a broom cupboard when I used to have so much space for storing all the hour glasses. Work has become a drudge. I am a slave to this thing,” he gestured irritably with the phone.
“Can’t argue with you there. Although I’m more of my own boss being out of sight and out of mind as it were. If I screw up on Christmas Eve, folk would notice, but otherwise, I’m left alone to do my own thing. I’m content enough, I reckon.”
“Can I have a go?” Death asked.
“What? Do the delivery?”
“Why not? It can’t be that difficult can it? I just fancy doing something out of the ordinary. Just for once.”
Nicholas laughed. “If you think you can do it, feel free. I’ll put my feet up and take the night off. Go on. The sleigh is outside. Be my guest.”
He stood, pulled his boots and coat on and Death followed him outside. Nicolas led him to where the sleigh was parked having been loaded with gifts earlier in the day.
“Know how to drive one of these things?”
Death frowned. “It can’t be that difficult.”
Nicholas laughed and slapped him on the back. “Just watch out for that lead reindeer, he has a mind of his own. Now, I think I’ll get back to my pipe and whisky if it’s all the same to you. Have fun.”
With that, he was gone back indoors.
Death walked around the sleigh and checked the tack and the loading. Everything seemed to be in order. He exchanged a glance at the lead reindeer and it gave him a blank stare. He clambered aboard and gripped the reins as the raven settled on his shoulder. He clicked at the reindeer and snapped the reins and the sleigh moved forwards gathering speed steadily until it lifted into the night sky.
“There, nothing to it.”
As the vehicle flew through the sky, Death got a feel for how it steered and how to coax the reindeer, enjoying the feel of the cool wind in his face and the sharpness of the air as he breathed. Much like riding a horse, he thought to himself. Although it was somewhat more cumbersome and slow to respond to commands.
Eventually, he saw the rooftop he was looking for and eased the craft down, bringing it neatly to a stand on the ridge.
“There, that was easy.”
He stepped out of the sleigh forgetting that this was a pitched roof covered in snow. A pitched roof is awkward in normal circumstances. One covered in snow is another matter. Death didn’t give the matter a second thought as he stepped out of the sleigh. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true. His second thought came as he lost his footing, slid down to the gutter, tripped and fell face first into a snow drift leaving two skid marks down the roof.
The lead reindeer and the raven exchanged glances and looked down at the Death shaped hole in the snow.
Eventually, Death pulled himself up to a sitting position, shook the snow loose and fished around for his scythe. Finding it, he used it as a prop to haul himself upright. Staggering in the deep snow, he got back to the house. Looking up he saw that it was several feet up to the roof. He lifted the scythe, hooking it over the gutter, tugged it to make sure that he had a decent grip and hauled himself up, and walking vertically on the brickwork he moved one hand over the other along the long handle of the scythe to reach the gutter and haul himself onto the roof.
Unfortunately, the bolts securing the gutter to the roof and the wall were insufficiently strong to take his weight and it came away with a loud crack whereupon he fell back into the snow. Again, the raven and the reindeer looked down at the Death shaped hole in the snow, but only briefly, as the snow on the roof, disturbed by the commotion slipped loose from the tiles and avalanched down onto Death’s snowdrift completely covering him.
Death popped his head up from the drift and swore to himself. Using the scythe to get his balance, he discovered that the extra snow now made a convenient ramp back up to the roof. Scrabbling on the slippery tiles, he made it back to the sleigh. He glared at the raven and the reindeer, daring them to laugh, but was probably too late for that.
Working from a pre-prepared list, he selected a number of packages and cradling them in his arms walked awkwardly along the ridge to the chimney as he was now so laden with packages, he could no longer see where he was walking. He stepped up onto the edge, putting a foot carefully out before him but finding only space, at which moment he disappeared with a whoosh, followed by a whump as he landed inside.
There was a small cloud of soot thrown up into the air in his wake.
The raven and the reindeer exchanged glances again as Death’s voice came up from the depths of the chimney.
“Fuck! Fucking fuckitty, fucking Fuck!”
The raven flew over to the edge and cocked its head peering into the darkness.
“A bloody gas fire! Fer cryin’ out loud!”
The raven cawed.
“I heard that!”
Eventually Death appeared at the top of the chimney somewhat dishevelled and covered in soot. The packages were likewise crumpled and soot stained. He hauled himself onto the roof and lay there for a while catching his breath and swearing softly. The raven cocked its head.
“Don’t even think about it.” Death said flatly. He thought about his predicament for a moment before deciding that the conventional method of entry would be the best way forward. That is, conventional for Death. Simply materialising inside the house. Except that it didn’t work. Try as he might, nothing happened and he remained stubbornly on the wrong side of the walls. He slid down the snow slope with the gifts in his arms and tried to walk through the walls as he would usually when collecting the deceased, but simply bumped up against it. He thought about this for a moment. Then the penny dropped. While he was an ethereal being, the packages were of this world, not his, so he could not move through matter while he carried them.
An open window. There has to be an open window.
There wasn’t an open window. They were all locked shut. He sighed. Walking up to one of the windows he placed the crumpled heap of packages in the snow and ran a finger around the window frame. He fished about in his cape and pulled out a small pen knife and tried to work the lock. The blade snapped along with his temper.
Looking about, he saw a shed at the bottom of the garden. Trudging through the snow, he made his way to the shed. Unlike the windows, it wasn’t locked, so he went inside and rummaged around, emerging with a crowbar in one hand and a sense of determination on the other. Returning to the window, he worked at it with the crowbar until the frame gave way with a loud crack and splintering of wood followed by the crack of the pane as it gave way under the strain. He paused in case anyone had heard the commotion, but everything was silent. He pulled open the window and clambered inside with the presents under his arms.
In the corner of the room was a tall Christmas tree with blinking coloured lights casting an eerie glow across the room. He crept up to the tree and started to distribute his collection of packages. At that moment the light came on and he looked up to see a small boy standing in the doorway holding a tray with a glass of milk and some biscuits. By his side was a nondescript dog eyeing up the biscuits.
At this moment, several things happened at once. The boy yelped in alarm and dropped the tray, whereupon the glass shattered, spilling milk all over the floor and the biscuits were hoovered up by the dog. The boy then ran towards Death and delivered a sharp kick to his shin before retreating out of the room, running loudly up the stairs. Death grunted in pain, clutching his shin and falling back towards the tree. The tree teetered and Death twisted round to stop it teetering, but ended up teetering with it, the more that the tree teetered and the more that Death tried to stop it teetering, the worse the teetering got. Eventually, gravity decided that enough was enough and called a halt to matters. Death landed on his back with the tree on top of him as baubles scattered across the floor. The lights blinked one more time and went out with a pop.
Thinking on his back, he pushed the tree aside just as he could hear a commotion upstairs as the boy’s parents came to investigate. Leaping to his feet, he brushed away the pine needles, threw himself through the open window, landing in the snow outside, before slipping and sliding up the snow drift to the roof and jumping into the sleigh. He snapped the reins and the sleigh moved briskly forwards. Too briskly.
Unfortunately, he pulled so hard on the reins that the sleigh ascended at too steep an angle and the sack of presents started to come adrift, scattering parcels on the ground below. Death tried to twist his body round to stabilise the sack, but the whole plot shifted to the left as he dragged on the reins and the sleigh did a somersault, at which point gravity decided once again that enough was enough and both the sack and Death were jettisoned from the sleigh, landing in the soft snow. The raven flew up into the air and watched as the reindeer, now without the encumbrance of a novice driver took control and brought the sleigh down to earth. The raven looked down at the Death shaped hole in the snow and cawed.
“Okay, I’m done with this,” Death said as his head popped out of the snow.
Having collected the packages, some of which were making suspicious rattling noises, and putting them back in the sack, a thoroughly demoralised Death set off again, arriving at Nicholas’ house. He brought the sleigh to a stop and slumped his head in his hands.
Nicholas took one look at the mess and sighed. He went inside and came out wearing his red coat and hat.
“You had one job to do,” he chided. “Come on, get out of the way and let me do the job properly.”
With that the sleigh was once again airborne and Death was left with the raven and his horse in the empty landscape and the cloying silence. Despair sunk over him like a cloud of smog.
“Come on,” he said, settling into the saddle. He rode back the way he had come earlier in the evening, working out how best to spin this little disaster into something a mite less of a disaster, but was struggling when he saw a cloaked horse rider approaching. As she drew closer, he recognised War’s black charger.
She drew alongside him and lifted her slender hands to the hood of her cape and threw it back exposing her pale face. “I heard you were here,” she said. “I thought I’d come looking for you.”
Death said nothing, for what was there to say?
“We all get fed up from time to time. It’s understandable.”
Still Death said nothing.
“There’s something I need to tell you. Well, a couple of things really.”
Death looked at her and waited.
“Without you our team wouldn’t function. I create war, Pestilence fills the land with disease and Famine causes the crops to dry up, but none of us could do our jobs without you. You are the lynchpin of our team—even if we don’t always say it.”
“Thank you. If that is all, I must be on my way.”
She placed a hand on his arm. “Wait.” She leaned forward and placed a light kiss on the place where he would have had a cheek had his face had flesh.
“What was that for?”
“That was the other thing I wanted to say.”
He said nothing at first. Then, eventually, “I had no idea.”
“No. You may be intuitive when it comes to the affairs of man, but when it comes to what is under your nose, you can be remarkably obtuse. Frustratingly so. I’ve been giving out signals for millennia and you missed them all.”
“Since the beginning. The very beginning.”
He placed a hand on hers and she wrapped her fingers around his.
“I really had no idea.”
“Do you want to know why?”
“I’m hardly the most attractive being in the universe…”
“You have a heart. Not a physical one, maybe, but a heart nonetheless. You care and that matters. It matters to me and I care about you, you buffoon. Now, this retirement nonsense…”
“I know. I’ve tried an alternative and it wasn’t exactly a success.”
She smiled. “It will take some explaining.”
“Yes.” Death’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out and looked at the screen. “An appointment…”
“Go. Do your thing. I’ll be here when you get back. We can go to mine. I’ll fix us some dinner.”
“I’d like that.”
She watched as he rode away before calling out to him. He stopped and looked back. She lifted a hand to him. “Merry Christmas.”