If you haven’t seen Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord posts of Christmas short stories (shame on you!) you may have missed my little contribution.
The Fourth Plinth
The world tumbled and tossed as Barry opened his eyes. It’s what booze does, he thought: beer and it’s a slow churning; vodka takes you on a merry go round; and gin pummels you with the full spin cycle. He tried to identify where he was. Outside, for sure. Somewhere public. Paved if his arse told the truth. Where was Dan? He’d been with Dan, he was sure.
A faint smear of memory made him narrow his eyes: Dan getting in a cab. Why wasn’t he in the cab too? Dan pushing him away; Dan calling him something? Bully? Yeah that’s it. Even mulish Dan had seen his true colours. Well, sod you Dan Parsons and Merry Christmas.
Barry looked up. Trafalgar bloody Square. Of course, that stupid tree. How’d he get here? They’d been in Camden.
Barry used the wall behind him to stand. Odd how dark it was. Apart from the tree all the street lights were out. Maybe that’s what happens on Christmas night. All the revellers run home on last minute Tube trains and they switch off the lights. God, he felt sick, like the ground was rocking. It was rocking!! The wall behind him slid back and the foulest stench imaginable blew in Barry’s face.
Barry spewed and spat the bitter remnants of his evening’s indulgence onto the ground. Looking up he realised it was one of the plinths that had moved, the empty one. From beneath it a woman all in silver was climbing some stairs, the smell came from her.
‘You need a bath, sister,’ he said stepping back.
‘You need me more, Barry Francis.’
Barry rubbed his eyes. ‘You know me?’
‘Oh yes, we all do. Down there.’
Barry followed where she pointed. A sea of the ugliest most disgusting faces writhed at the bottom of a pit bubbling and boiling with some sort of steaming gunk. ‘They ain’t real. Are they? I mean,’ he shook his head, ‘this is a dream, ain’t it? Either that or there’s a boiling pit of mud under central London.’
‘Liquid putrefaction, the residue of destroyed souls. Once the person has been rendered liquid it goes to the next stage.’
Barry peeped again and had a second smaller but even more bitter chunder. ‘Next stage?
He goggled at the woman and then burst out laughing. ‘Oh come on. And what does that make you?’
The woman appeared to consider before clicking her fingers. Her head burst into flames, before a second then a third head appeared and did the same. Meanwhile her stomach ripped open and clawing hands and twisting writhing arms shot at Barry grabbing him and hoisting him onto the empty plinth. Barry screamed as every orifice emptied. The woman’s face reappeared, many times the normal size; her voice coated Barry in an intense thunder breaking windows, all round the Square. As the glass rained down she shattered his eardrums with a ‘Your worst nightmare’.
As quickly as she transformed she reverted to her previous form, standing next to a petrified Barry on the windswept plinth.
Barry stared at her calm brown eyes. ‘What do you want?’
By way of a response she swept an arm around the Square. As her pointing finger passed the statues on the other plinths the riders and soldiers came alive and headed towards Barry.
The four lions stood and stretched and made their way to Barry’s new perch. ‘You know ‘A Christmas Carol’?’
‘That Dickens mush? So?’
‘Well you’re getting CC 5.0’
‘The Ghosts of Christmas for the 21st century. You can’t do a book anymore and we’ve too many sinners to get round anyway, so this is the short intense version.’
‘Ok. So no three ghosts?’
‘No visiting the past, present and future?’
‘A survey monkey, multiple choice.’
Barry nodded. ‘How’d you decide on me?’
‘Public vote. So you want to try the poll or step on down?’
He straightened his shoulders. ‘First question.’
‘Are you (a) a fair and considerate husband, father and employer (b) sometimes a bit offish after a couple of bevvies or (c) a right bastard to your fellow man?’
‘I want to say b but after Dan’s comments tonight, c.’
‘Very perceptive. Who do you care about most (a) yourself (b) your money or…’
‘Hey that’s unfair. How can I choose…?’
‘(c) your children?’
‘No, I don’t want to answer that. Because it’s c but you won’t believe me.’
She lowered her clipboard. ‘What would they say? Or your wife? If they knew you were here, now?’
‘Sod this. I’m going home.’ He sat on the edge of the plinth and looked down. The fiery pit of hell stared back at him. Tears the like of which he’d not shed in decades sizzled as they hit the scalding pools. ‘I love them. I’m doing my best for them. They know that.’
A silky voice filled the Square. It was his daughter. ‘Daddy, I want you not a dress. I don’t care about any stupid dress.’
‘She loved it.’
Another voice joined in. His son. ‘But daddy said he’d be home for my party.’
Barry covered his face. ‘I tried to get back. I really did…’
Barry’s own voice took over, echoing off the National Gallery and startling the animated horse statue to rear up. ‘Yeah come on it’s only a stupid kids’ party. One more for the road. He’ll not notice I’m not there, not once he sees the present. Ungrateful little sod.’
Any last resistance collapsed. Barry wailed, ‘They hate me, there’s nothing left.’
A hand gripped his shoulder. ‘Don’t be a prannock. You know what to do.’
‘Give up the booze.’
‘It’ll be a start.’
He shook his head. ‘You told me they don’t want stuff. And they’ll be in bed anyway.’
The woman pointed at the General on his horse, the four lions, the empty plinth. ‘Remind you of anything?’
‘Sort of Post Santa for the internet age, if you like. They’ll take you home, you kids will see you coming, no one will believe you but they’ll love you for it. But if you slip, if you don’t become the husband, father and boss you could be,’ she waved at the pit. The degraded creatures, flesh dripping from their skeletons waved back. It was almost homely in a John Carpenter kind of way.
Barry nodded. ‘I know. I won’t. Thanks erm, what do I call you? Spirit?’
‘Not a clever name for an alcoholic, don’t you think? How about Sharon? I always fancied Sharon. Now I must get on.’
As Sharon stepped off the plinth and hovered over the pit, Barry felt it mould to his back, while the soldiers from the other plinths harnessed the lions and encouraged them forward. He looked up at the sky as the clouds parted and a full moon shone down over London.
And he’d always thought it was just a story.