by Christopher Stanley
He’s there for the young man who immolates himself on the steps of the Cenotaph. He’s there for the hundreds of terrified refugees whose dinghies capsize in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean. He waits behind the curtain of every flu and cancer victim. For the falls and suicides, the road traffic accidents and state-sanctioned murders, he lingers in the shadows with his hessian sack held ready. His sack has never felt so heavy.
In southern Nevada he attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. No one asks for his name and he doesn’t wear a badge, choosing instead to sit alone at the back of the room and sip sherry from a flask. After the meeting, when everyone else has left, he steps up to the podium, sweeps his beard to one side and leans toward the microphone. “I have a problem,” he says in a solemn baritone. “I like to gamble. Card games mostly. Tarock, Tarocco; anything with Tarot cards.” His voice catching, he says “I gambled everything I had. My passion, my purpose, everything. I lost.”
In his shades-of-black suit, he’s there when the plane crashes in the Indian Ocean, for the gun massacre in Ohio and the starving children in the Sudan. His sack, which was once filled with the promise of joy, now bulges and throbs like a diseased heart.
He finds Jenny sitting on a bench in Castle Park, staring up through the freezing mist to the ruins of St Peter’s Church. She wears the mismatched threads of the homeless and cradles a can of super-strength lager in the crook of her arm. He sits next to her and sips his sherry.
“Stuff’ll kill you,” she says.
He spits the sherry back into the flask. It’s been fifty years since someone acknowledged his presence. He tucks the flask away in the folds of his suit and leans closer to her. Like so many bench-dwellers, she wears a heady perfume of sweat and piss and tobacco. And even when she speaks, she hardly moves at all.
“If you were hoping for a kiss,” she says, “you’re shit outta luck.”
He can’t help but laugh. She reminds him of the little girl who spoke to him fifty years ago, the one whose eyes shone like baubles on a tree. She demanded to see inside his sack in case there was something she wanted more than the presents he’d already left at the foot of her bed. When he refused, she folded her arms and scowled.
On the bench, Jenny says, “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Her eyes sparkle when they catch the moonlight. Then she coughs and it’s a violent reflex that tears deep into her chest. A thin line of spittle and blood connects her bottom lip to the frost-speckled concrete below. Carefully, he touches his hand to her shoulder.
“Last time I saw you,” she croaks, “you were wearing red. You were happier then.”
He helps her to lie down on the bench, her frail body seeming to collapse inside her sleeping bag. There are other places he’s supposed to be but they can wait. Boats will sink and schools will burn, but how long will it be before he meets another Jenny?
“I lost everything, too,” she says.
“One thing I’ve learned,” he replies, “you can’t cheat Death.” He kisses her on the forehead and whispers, “You can see inside my sack now.”
As Jenny’s spirit leaves her body, a sleigh passes overhead, pulled by a dozen hooved and snarling animals. It’s filled with presents wrapped in every colour of the season, anchored in place by the blade of a scythe. The sleigh’s rider holds onto the reins with long, bony fingers; a pack of Tarot cards tucked up one sleeve and a smile permanently carved into his face.
For any children who are still awake tonight, Christmas will never be the same again.