Gad’s Hill, Christmas Eve, 1869
It is mid-afternoon and the light, meagre at best, is fading fast from the day. Charles is restless at his desk. The writing is progressing slowly, much more slowly than he should like. He cannot settle – the dreadful pain that has tormented him for months on end will not allow it. To remedy this he drinks a brandy, makes excuses to his family, much occupied with the decorating of the Christmas tree, and strolls down the hill towards the town. He strides as best he can – his left foot dragging slightly – across the Rochester Bridge, flourishing his cane before him and greeting the occasional well-wisher with a nod and smile. He is accustomed to this recognition, for Mr Dickens is known far and wide across Britain, France and the United States of America, let alone the Kentish Medway.
At the other end of the bridge a woman stops him. She takes a sprig of holly from her threadbare shawl and shakily places it in his buttonhole whilst wishing him all the compliments of the season. She seeks to peck him on the cheek, and her face, cracked and weathered with work and time, looms close. Gin sits heavy on her breath. He flinches as her greasy red lips touch his flesh, then he hurries away towards the town.
“Too old for you am I?” she calls after him.
From the steps of The Bull Inn – crowded with revellers – a cove shouts,
This delights the tipsy, jostling drinkers and another fellow thus encouraged calls out,
“God bless us all everyone…”
More raucous laughter erupts as a third offers to share a bowl of Smoking Bishop with the great Mr Dickens. He takes it all in good jest, raising a hand by way of acknowledgement, but he is tired, no, worse, fatigued to the point of ill health from the farewell tour of public readings – and still the stubborn words will not come to order on the page and the fearful ache will not relinquish its tormenting grip.
He pauses for a moment at Rochester Cathedral, drawn by the tolling of the bell for Christmas Vespers. He pulls his coat about him against the creeping chill of evening and with a shiver he turns on his heel to go back home.
Charles makes his way back as darkness falls, limping from one street lamp to the next. Up ahead a woman stands in the pool of light afforded by the next lamp. She looks down towards him. The face, a younger version of an old familiar one pulls him up short. How can that be? Puzzled, he calls out into the gathering gloom.
The figure slowly shakes her head and turns to walk away. Although he hastens after her, she disappears into the shadows and does not surface at the next lamp, or the next, perhaps nothing more than a trick of the flickering gaslight. What business might his wife have with him tonight? Eleven years since he left her, after all. And yet his heart beats fast with worry. A surge of heavy pain takes him by surprise and he grips hard on his cane to steady himself, a gift from his darling Nelly, his newer, better love.
A fog is gathering, bringing with it frost, which settles fast on the roofs and windows, but his house is warm and light, allowing him to shake off his momentary fright at the apparition on the hill. He dines with his children and Georgina his sister- in- law, making no mention of his spectral encounter. It is a happy band assembled at table, full of excitement at the festivities to come. He resolves to send the servants home early and retire to his study to claw back a few sentences on the day, for he shall not write tomorrow, Christmas Day.
The heavy velvet drapes in the study are already drawn, and a fire burns heartily in the grate. He settles once again to write. The family says goodnight and the clock diligently chimes through an hour, maybe more. He coaxes out words. After a time two new paragraphs sit before him on the page, and he is embarking upon another when the servant bell rings sharp and shrill, startling him from his work. He has not rung it for himself and stands up to see which of his children has crept back down to play a trick.
A quick investigation reveals the house to be as still as the night before Christmas should be, nothing out of place, no child making mischief. He does not notice the woman standing in his study until he is fully back inside the room with the door firmly closed and a large glass of brandy poured. She has her back to him, hands on her hips, surveying the shelves of books that line the walls.
“Who are you?” he says with some alarm. “How did you get in?”
He reaches for the poker on the hearth and as he does she turns and laughs.
“Who were you expecting Mr Dickens? Abel Magwitch off the marshes? Jacob Marley shackled in chains? Or your wife perhaps?”
She is small woman, plain and red faced, her crinoline is stained, her hair scraped back. She is shabby but respectable.
“Fezziwig, Scrooge and Tiny Tim – even my husband is given good part in your redemptive tale, but I am doomed. Fated to make the gravy sizzling hot and worry after the Christmas pudding for an eternity. I am trapped between the washhouse and the stove and not so much as an inner thought to my name. I am nothing but a shadow in your blessed carol.”
“Mrs Cratchit,” he whispers, aware now of rustling and disturbance from the far corner of the room and realizing to his alarm that there are others present. “What do you want with me?”
“Something that you have not provided. Emancipation. A life beyond domestic drudgery and despair.”
A haughtier voice speaks from the corner –
“Suffrage and agency.”
The spinster hobbles out from the gloom to join Mrs Cratchit. She is clad in the yellowing tatters of a bridal gown, a half-shod jumble of disappointed satins, silk and lace. She trails a bouquet of dried flowers in her hand. Her gleaming eyes fix hard upon him, this creature, part wax-work, part skeleton.
“For we are all nothing but shadows,” Miss Havisham whispers into the musty air.
A third speaks now, sweet and eager as a child, for Nancy aims to please.
“Shall I be your little periwinkle sir, or perhaps the gentleman has other plans?”
The three now introduced, all talk at once. Their stories conjure others down from books, Mrs Gamp, Betsy Trotwood, Little Nell, Mrs Micawber and Rosa Bud. Their shrill chatter fills the room.
Intent on silencing them one by one, Charles lifts the poker, striking out hard at Nancy’s head, then again and again, reigning down the strongest blows he can muster, until her fragile skull yields and she falls down, bloodied and groaning.
His torment returns in kind. A crushing pain in his chest causes him to fight for breath. Still the air is full of their monstrous and incessant babble.
“Why Mr Dickens, I declare we’ll be the finishing of you!” Mrs Cratchit says and a hundred shadows laugh and dissipate into the dead of night.