PAUL BIRCHLAST CHRISTMAS
Christmas comes every day on MacRobert's World.
Callum… that's Callum MacRobert, but even the lesser MacRoberts of MacRobert omit the clan name. As with royalty it is assumed to be understood. Callum is a Christmas Specialist.
He tapped the malfunctioning videophone irritably. 'Your festivities shall be without peer, Lady Janetta.'
So long as he could work out who the stupid woman was. Did they expect him to recognise the Ladies of all nine hundred and seventy two keeps on this planet, through a screen that would have made Helen of Troy look like a broken gargoyle?
Lady Janetta giggled. For a ghastly moment he thought he'd spoken out loud. But no, he'd placed her now. Brynmor Keep. Second wife of the fifteenth Llewellyn ap Griffiths, which he'd always thought was too Welsh to be true and probably started off as something unpronounceably Polish. Thirty years his junior and captured in the Brynmor raid against Verona. The marriage seemed to have been a success: two daughters, one married back to the present Duke of Verona, the other coming on fifteen.
'Now when exactly … ? Christmas Day, of course. The twenty-fifth of December? … Yes … Er, could you give me a hint as to which particular twenty fifth of December that would be?'
Was he expected to remember their petty calendars too? Never mind, he could look it up. He usually did. So why was be so bad-tempered today?
'After all,' he told himself when the Lady of Brynmor had rung off, 'it's Christmas!'
MacRobert's World, which sometimes enchanted Callum and sometimes infuriated him, is a world of city states and autonomous keeps, each of which celebrates Christmas on a different day — though most of them are the twenty-fifth of December.
Had he lived, the first MacRobert would have been pleased. An individualist and anti-federalist, he built his world nineteen point two light years from Earth's domination in the solar system of Eta Cassiopeia.
Since then, batches of colonists from Earth, whose calendars relativity had spread over at least a month, had been supplemented by migrants doglegging through other systems — who rarely even agreed on the year. Not to mention the Russian Orthodox settlers.
Elsewhere in the Galaxy newcomers adjust their calendars to match local historical time. Not on MacRobert's World. Here, if you can build yourself a keep, you keep your own calendar.
For unlike the bureaucrats of more decadent worlds, MacRobert's Habitat Authority satisfies itself with ensuring that the constant brush wars are fought only with fairly small arms and don't blast holes through the geosphere.
Wars are the main pastime on MacRobert's World. On the whole they don't kill many people — it's usually safe enough in the heart of a keep. But they make for a lively time and provide some spectacular entertainment.
A favourite tactic is to attack the enemy on Christmas Day, somewhere after the Christmas pudding and in the middle of the mince pies. That's his Christmas Day, of course, not your own. There was once a keep that carried out an attack on Christmas morning. Its own Christmas morning. The spot where it stood is now a sea.
But there are other entertainers. Callum MacRobert (in direct lineal descent from The Founder if you don't count a few digressions) is one of them. He likes to think of himself as the successor to the roving medieval minstrels, though his organisation is altogether more sophisticated. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Callum — or so the clamour for his services among the wealthier keeps would lead one to believe.
Brynmor Keep was one of the wealthiest and consequently made much of its disdain for frippery. Ornament was sparse, apartments furnished with spartan simplicity. Only at Christmas did the tinsel blossom and bright colours bloom, and the people doff their formal clothes in favour of cotton frocks and silly hats. Perhaps that was why they delighted so much in them then. For all his grumpiness, Callum always enjoyed 'doing' for Brynmor.
This year, uncharacteristically, Lady Janetta was at pains to introduce him to her daughter — the young Lady Evangeline. 'She's dying to meet you,' she had gushed, then stopped abruptly, pressing her hands to her mouth as if to stifle yet another giggle.
Callum grunted. Couldn't she leave her theatricals for the party? He wondered at the sudden matchmaking onslaught — had she at last remembered that he was, after all, a MacRobert? The kid was far too young anyhow and he had work to do.
They found the Lady Evangeline in a heated orangery on the south side, sitting in her upright chair, motionless amid strong orchids and exotic flowers. The young girl's hands lay folded in her lap and her eyes gazed quietly out over the grey landscape. She wore a white dress, almost plain, buttoned high around the neck. Her face and hands were pale.
She glanced up as they entered. 'So glad to meet you.'
She was beautiful, but he didn't think matchmaking was the object. He smiled back carefully. 'The pleasure is all mine, Lady Evangeline.' She seemed much older than her fourteen years.
'I'll bet it's not.' For an instant the child peeked out of bright eyes, then it was as if a shadow had passed over them and once more they mirrored the bleak country below.
'I'm sorry Mr … Callum, I'm a little tired,' she said. 'Would you excuse me?'
She turned away and seemed to have forgotten them.
'She looks a little peaky,' said Callum, as if the girl herself were no longer there.
The Lady Janetta drew him aside. 'It's leukaemia' she said soberly. 'She's dying.'
Lady Janetta shook her head. 'An obscure form. The doctors are stumped. This will be her last Christmas.'
Callum watched the girl without speaking. It wrenched his heart. So young so pale, so fair. Such a waste. He wished it had only been a boy. Or an old woman.
He bent down to kiss the powdery cheek. 'You shall have the merriest Christmas a girl ever had,' he promised, and brushed away a tear that threatened to drown a scarlet saprophyte.
Sentimental fool! he muttered to himself, and threw himself fiercely into the preparations.
By Christmas Eve, the invalid was cheerful and excited. There was colour in her cheeks and her eyes shone. She could have been any teenage girl making ready for a party. 'You must be my partner, Callum. This is going to be the best ever, and it's all down to you.'
He shook his head 'It's not my place, Evangeline dear. I'm only the hired help. Ultra-expensive help, to be sure, but still not a guest.'
'Nonsense .You're my guest.' She put her head on one side. 'You will be my partner, won't you, dear Callum?'
Callum didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Instead he tousled her straight-combed hair. 'Of course I will, child.' It was safer to think like an uncle, though in any other circumstance be might have been putting out feelers to the fifteenth Llewellyn.
Christmas Day dawned, and the merry folk of Brynmor squabbled happily over their Christmas stockings and ham and eggs in Commons. But Evangeline was not among them. 'She'll be having breakfast in bed,' Callum was told. 'We'll see her in chapel soon enough.'
But Evangeline was not in chapel and the communion bread stuck in his throat. 'Don't worry, she'll be down for dinner.'
But already in his mind's eye he could see the grave face of the doctor, bending over a still form, and the Lady Janetta wringing her hands by the side of the bed.
The Christmas dinner was splendid, turkeys and pork and cranberry sauce and all the trimmings, then a single enormous plum pudding with mint-flavoured white sauce (but not drop of brandy) and all the mince pies anyone could possibly eat. But no Lady Evangeline; and Callum cursed them all for enjoying themselves when she wasn't there.
And after dinner everyone opened their presents and settled back to hear the Llewellyn speak. But he was distracted and forgot to wish them a Merry Christmas and only told them that the Lady Evangeline was ill and couldn't come down.
Callum MacRobert pushed out of the hall and bulled his way past stricken guards to the girl's room. There he found the Lady Janetta and the doctor and the still form he had feared to see. 'Is she …?'
The doctor looked round sightlessly. 'Coma,' he said shortly.
Callum surprised himself by bursting into tears and burying his face in the bedclothes. Evangeline did not stir. 'It's not bloody fair!' he said. But the girl's white face did not change and Sleeping Beauty did not rise.
All afternoon and evening he kept vigil at her bedside, and the merrymaking he had planned went on below without her. And all through the following day, as he master-minded the Boxing Day revels, one tragic image was before his eyes.
For three days, the Lady Evangeline slept, and when she woke, the festivities were over. Christmas was gone and she would not live to see another.
But Callum went and spoke to the Llewellyn and the Lady Janetta, and the Lord of the neighbouring Keep of Eldon, with whom they were oft times at war. And when a week was gone, and the twenty fifth of December rose on Eldon, they brought her to him there, and he awakened her.
'Merry Christmas, dear Evangeline!' he said.
© Paul Birch, 18th Dec. 1992.