Story number Five in the collection is one I’m particularly fond of. The Little Christmas Tree by Paul Skelton has a whimsical charm and straight fowardness to it that makes it quite an easy read, while at the same time it has hidden depths. It is in fact, both a story that could be enjoyed by children for it’s adorable characters (the Nordic pine trees and Mickey the Magpie) and also by adults for its deeper layers and environmental message.
I have often thought that the Little Christmas Tree would do well as a Pixar style animation and I’m happy to say that the last time I saw Paul, he was musing on the possibility of a sequel!
Paul ‘Skelly’ Skelton himself, is someone that has become a good friend and enthusiastic supporter of the OMP. I first met him through his son Daniel – also a good friend of mine and obviously creative talent runs in the family as Daniel has also written some stories and worked up some imaginative concepts, including helping me develop MEET THE ASBOES, an OMP comedy that you’ll hear about in a future blog.
But back to the Little Christmas Tree.
CHAPTER ONE: THIS WHOLE WORLD
‘Ey up Jack lad, yer Uncle Jim’s nodded off, he he he,’ laughed Dick
‘He has, he he, he has Granddad!’ Jack replied, ‘Granddad? Do you ever nod off?’
‘Nay lad, I have to keep alert, being the biggest and oldest tree in this whole world.’
‘Keep alert Granddad? What do you have to keep alert for?’
“Well…er… just to look out for us all, ahem…yes, that’s it. You know Jack lad, I make
sure we’re all happy, and safe. Mm yes.’ Dick smiled benignly at his Grandson.
‘I always feel happy and safe with you Grandad, and Uncle Jim, but, well, how big
is this whole world Granddad?’ asked Jack earnestly.
‘Ah, yes, well you see them common trees, them shabby ones way over theer?’
(Jack was too small to see them), ‘Well, they’s near the end of this world and, furthermore ..,’Dick continued importantly, ‘…it’s about the same distance whichever direction you look.’
‘WOW!’ exclaimed Jack excitedly ‘How do you know that Granddad … coz we’re,
we’re rooted aren’t we? So, as we don’t move, how can we know over theer is the
end of this whole world? Is it just coz we’re intelligent?’
‘Oh yes we’re Nordic pines, we ARE intelligent, as are the birds, to some extent.
They fly about in all directions and bring us information… Plus I was here at the
beginning of time, just after this world was formed and there were no other trees back
then and I could see in all directions Jack lad.’
‘Granddad, if you were the first tree, where did you come from?’
‘The first seed, Jack lad.’
‘And where did the first seed come from Granddad?’
‘Well, that came from the first pine-cone, which fell from the sky.’
‘Gosh you must be very clever Granddad.’
‘Ho ho ho,’ laughed Dick ‘Yer Uncle Jim doesn’t always think so.’
As if he could sense he was being spoken of, Jim chose that moment to wake up with a massive tree creaking yawn.
‘Ey up Jim, had a good nap?’ called Dick.
‘What? Oh it was only a few minutes…wasn’t it?’ asked Jim sleepily
‘A few minutes?’ Dick scoffed
‘A few minutes?’ Jack mimicked his Granddad
‘A good hour I’d say,’ mused Dick
‘An hour? A whole hour? Piffle, it were just a few minutes.’
Dick and Jack laughed heartily, so much so that Jim started to laugh with them.
‘A whole hour. Really? Haven’t missed much have I?’ Jim chortled.
‘Granddad was telling me how big this world is..,’ said Jack ‘…and all about the
beginning of time Uncle Jim.’
‘Really? Well your Granddad should know, he’s nearly four thousand years old. Ah,
but do you know what’s at the end of this world, eh?’
Jack and Dick looked at Jim.
Dick was poised to say something, but Jim continued, ‘Well, I’ll tell thee, it’s water,
masses of it that goes on forever and ever.’
‘Is that so Jim?’ Dick looked bemused
‘What…like…like… puddles Uncle Jim?’
‘Aye lad. That is so Dick, surely you remember – massive never ending puddle of
water, and the birds told how it moves this way and that?’ said Jim
‘Ah ha…yes, yes, it’s coming back to me now, ahem, of course, yes, it moves with
the wind and heaves and swells,’ said Dick
‘Crumbs, you and Uncle Jim know everything!’
‘Just about.’ said Jim proudly
‘Aye, Jack lad, we know all that’s ever needed to be known,’ said his Grandfather solemnly.
And they fell into a contented silence, suddenly punctuated by a loud SCREECH…
CHAPTER TWO: PLOPPED ON
‘Screeech! Ello geezer” Mickey the Magpie landed on one of Dicks lower branches.
‘Woss occurring then?’
Dick replied ‘Hello Mickey; You tell US what’s occurring, it’s you that flies about!’
‘Would yer believe it? The Mrs only wants a new build nest this year. I mean I asks
yer. Wot am I, eh? A boggin’ builder?’
‘But other birds build new nests every Spring Mickey,’ said Jim reasonably.
Mickey just got even more agitated ‘Ha! Bloomin’ Spring,’ and then just realising his own wit ‘Bloomin’ Spring….Ha ha ha…gettit? Spring?, flowers?, bloomin’? Aah, forget it. Me mates, they get away with re-using their old nests but my Mrs. won’t ‘ave it, she sez, “no nookie ‘til I’m nested an’ rested in a brand new build nest! She is so demanding!’
‘High maintenance eh?’ Dick murmured, ‘I see your dilemma Mickey. What if you
cleaned up your old nest for her?’
‘She won’t ‘ave that. I mean she’d suss, wouldn’t she? She’d remember the location.’
‘You’d better get busy then Mickey,’ said Jim, sniggering.
‘Bah! I get ‘er luvverly shiny fings, lotsa bling y’know? Out every day duckin’ an’
divin’ to get ‘er stuff an’ now she wants me to be a builder as well. When I told ‘er
enough’s enough, she only flits off in a huff. Then, would yer credit it, she starts givin’ this young Magpie the c’mon, yeh? An’ ‘e’s givin’ er the glad eye. So I sees im orf, an I sez to er, I sez, listen love, I’ll see wot I can do, but there won’t be any more bling for a while if I’m off building.’
‘Mickey, other birds do it, you’re not the only one,’ chipped in Dick.
‘Uvver birds? I am not uvver birds mate. I’m a geezer, I got me reputation to fink about, know wot I mean? I tell ya don’t ever get wed.’
‘We don’t,’ muttered Jim
‘She sez, ‘I want it built proper Mickey, not shoddy Mickey, plenty of room Mickey,
nag-nag nag-nag,’ she never lets up. Not forra……”’
Suddenly Jack piped up ‘Couldn’t you find an old nest in another tree and make it look like it’s brand new?’
‘AHA! There you go Mickey, that’s Nordic pine wisdom. In fact I was waiting to see
who’d spot that solution first.’ Added Dick pompously.
‘Cor blimey. Yeh. Nick an old nest, yeh? Me cunning an’ macho reputation intact,
me air-credibility maintained. Yeh, I could do a refurbishment. Line it up wiv fresh mud mix, a few fevvers, bit of bling. Move her in an’ it’s WAY-HEY-HEY for Mickey boy. So you’re young Jack eh? I tell you son, you’re a bright one an’ no mistake.’
‘I’m going to be big tall and clever like Granddad and Uncle Jim,’ Jack announced
with the conviction of blind faith in his own kind ‘Aren’t I Granddad?’
‘OH YES, Jack lad. OH YES,’ said Dick proudly.
‘Yer clever already,’ Mickey told him ‘Well gotta fly boys. Mickey’s nest hunting! In a bit lads.’ and off he flew.
‘He he he he hee.’ Jack started giggling, and then Jim started to chortle
‘Ho ho ho ho, oh no, he he he.’
‘What? What’s the joke?’ Dick wanted to know.
‘Ho ho, I can’t tell him, ho ho ho you tell him Jack, he he.’ Jim was spluttering with
‘Tell me what?’ demanded Dick.
‘Well, he he heee, Granddad, he he he…”’but Jack couldn’t finish for laughing.
‘Mickey’s only gone and plopped on you Dick! Ho ho.’ Jim was now getting control of himself.
‘Oh crap.’ said Dick with feeling, which set Jim and Jack off again into hysterical laughter.
‘It’ll wash off in the rain.’ said Dick irritably.
‘Ho ho, if and when it rains Dick, and only if it isn’t baked on by the sun. Ho ho.’ chortled Jim.
‘BAH.’ snorted Dick, and the sun shone, and shone, the stuff was still there when
Story Six is TONTINE or to give it, it’s full title. ‘The Catman in the Case of the Unofficial Tontine.
Firstly … for those of you who haven’t heard the term, a Tontine is a pact between a group of people, usually revolving around treasure or some sort of prize. A tontine is simple – imagine a gang of 6 bank robbers have hidden millions in stolen jewels. They agree to let years or even decades pass before retrieving the fortune. In a tontine, the last surviving jewel thief would be the one to return and claim the jewels.
Actually this might not work amongst thieves but in Victorian literature it was often a device where gentlemen of honour were concerned and talking of Victorian literature, I absolutely love the style and this is one of two OMP stories written in the late Victorian Detective mode.
Actually the genesis of Tontine came about some dozen or more years ago. I had just had my first story published – a three part prose piece in AC comics’ Femforce. This led me to have contact with Paul Monsky, who ran the Femfans site and later contributed to the comic as a writer. Paul invited me to join a competition wherein I had to write a story using one of the public domain ‘golden age’ comic superheroes that AC had revived. I chose The Catman – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat-Man_and_Kitten
However, rather than just writing yet another modern superhero tale, I decided to reinvent the character as a Victorian detective, while keeping all of the core elements from the original superhero. My version owes more to Sherlock Holmes and pulp noir heroes like The Shadow, than he does to brightly coloured heroics of the 1940’s onwards. In fact Captain David Merryweather is mostly plain clothes and only dons his fearsome nocturnal identity when absolutely needed. He even has has own Watson figure, the Deacon.
THE CASE OF THE UNOFFICIAL TONTINE
From the Journals of The Deacon.
It was late in the summer of 1885 when I returned at last to the sedate confines of Holyoke City, that bastion of refined eastern seaboard civility, not thirty miles from the centre of Boston. After eight months abroad on the lecture circuit of Oxford University, taking in the great medical city of Edinburgh, the delights of London and of course within my own field –the cathedral cities of Coventry and Salisbury; I thrilled and exulted at the hustle and bustle of Americans out and about conducting their everyday business in an American City.
Of course there were vast similarities between Eastern Ivy League cities such as Holyoke and the cities and large towns of the United Kingdom, but back home there was a sense of barely repressed buoyancy beneath even the most dignified pillar of the Holyoke community that threatened to burst free at any moment, as opposed to the dry, calm, sometimes plodding pace to be found in English cities such as Oxford.
This air of excitement gripped me from the moment I stepped off of the gangplank onto American soil. I was seized with such an urge to be out “doing” that I had to mightily resist the temptation to unpack my long compiled ecclesiastical notes on the spot and dash off a chapter or two of my planned “Journal of the Modern Church: Its Differences Between Continents and Modern Practices Thereof,” which I’ll admit is a mouthful to say and I’d confess a recipe for curing the insomnia of the common man should he be put upon to crack open the first volume.
Nether-the-less, as a churchman interested in the arts of writing, philosophy, medicine, politics and the workings of the human mind, I fancied myself able to tell a fascinating factual tale which would both be useful and enjoyable to those in literati of like mind.
I digress, however. Let us skip forward to the second evening of my return to the United States and the point wherein the pertinent events of this narrative commence. Having suffered one uncomfortable night at my not yet prepared home, I left the business of dusting, warming and generally making my property liveable again to my valet Stuart and presented my credentials at my club; for it was there that I intended to spend a comfortable few days until my house was once again ready for occupancy.
The Tem Street Gentleman’s Club, so named for its founder, a Mr August Tem, dated to Revolutionary times and traced its origin to the Republican movement in Holyoke of the 1770s. These days it was a fine traditional establishment catering mainly to gentlemen of high professional standing and the occasional gentleman of means but no regular occupation. It was one of the latter types I chanced upon in the billiards room … an old friend in fact. Captain David Merryweather and I had shared lodgings for a four-year period until I had purchased my property a year ago.
Spying me, a look of delight crossed his usually stoic darkly handsome features.
“Deacon!” he cried, “My lord, it’s good to see you again!”
At this point an aside to note that although my name IS Nathaniel Deacon, it is much of a standing joke that due to my past, firmer affiliation with the Church and the coincidence of my name; among friends and professional colleagues I am often referred to as “The Deacon.”
Now, a word about my good friend Captain Merryweather. As previously noted I had first made his acquaintance in the year 1880 shortly after his retirement from the service, although he was still only in his late twenties. Merryweather and I had both applied for the same set of rooms and on meeting had taken an instant liking for each other and thus decided to share for companionship and to defray expenses.
He presented a fine figure of a man, standing well over six-foot in height, his build an impressive reminder of his service days that he had kept up. In looks he possessed the dark wavy hair and Byronic features that would set many a society lady to blush in his presence, yet he remained distant and aloof to the charms of the cream of Holyoke society.
It was several months into our acquaintance, when our friendship had begun to grow, that Merryweather first began to mention the dark days he had spent in Burma and even longer before he imparted the full tragic tale of his lost love the Princess Afzula.
Altogether the Captain was a fascinating man. He had been born in Europe of mixed parentage – his mother a quarter Hungarian-American gypsy and his father an English soldier who had died during his childhood in Burma. Merryweather, possessed of dual nationality, had returned at the age of seven to America with his mother to rejoin his maternal grandfather’s travelling circus. His mother had learned the arts of animal training from adepts in Burma and young David had spent his early years surrounded by magnificent great cats with whom he had developed a surprising affinity. Then a few years later his mother had died under circumstances Merryweather has never disclosed to me and he withdrew even further from the company of men, preferring to associate mainly with the favoured tiger of his mother called Roxanne.
At the age of 18 his life took another drastic turn when, on the urging of his grandfather, young David enlisted in the United States Cavalry and rose to the rank of Captain over the following eight years. During that time he travelled the length and breadth of the country, fought in the Indian wars, joined army intelligence and discovered his fascination with the art of detection. Finally, he could stand no more of the white man’s treatment towards the Indians and, refusing to condone what he termed “the inhuman persecution” of that race of native Americans he had come to admire so much, he resigned his commission.
Seeking adventure and his past, Merryweather, now a man of means through judicious investment of his salary began to travel the world ending up in Burma. His exploits with the race of Burmese mystics known as the Cat People, his discoveries of his past and the tragic end of the Princess that he loved, I shall not impart in this narrative. All the years I have chronicled his exploits, Merryweather has been glad to add detail and give his blessing to my humble efforts but of those days, his reply is always the same. “Not yet Deacon, the pain is still too fresh in my memory. Some day the story will be told … but not this day!”
Now, I mention Merryweather’s exploits matter of factly. To my old readers who pick up my published accounts after a near year long absence (and I apologise for same), please bear with me as I explain to newer readers that which is known to you already. Namely that shortly after I met Captain David Merryweather, we became embroiled in the affair I then documented as “The Curious Account of the Yellow Hilted Dagger,” for Merryweather, my friends, although retired, was still a man of action and on settling in Holyoke City he soon established a reputation as an adventurer stroke consulting detective. It has been my privilege to chronicle the many adventures we have found ourselves involved in and by this account I resume my duties once more … but with a difference.
I have mentioned Merryweather’s wish that the story of Princess Afzula and those dark days in Burma be kept secret until the time arises when they may of a readiness be told. In the past I have been obliged to alter or omit certain details from my narrative – the names of the foreign diplomats in “The Case of the International Incident,” for example or the identity of the poor demented girl in “The Madhouse of Infamy.” It was also necessary to alter the identity of the relatives of the “Deranged Boston Poisoner,” lest those innocents suffer unjust retribution. Nor would the gentlemen of the board of a certain reputable bank be appreciative should they be made to look foolish by revealing them as victims of “The Swindling Ghoul.”
However as my older readers know, I have always plainly stated that certain names and events have been altered to protect the innocent and those who would not allow permission to have their part in certain adventures known in print. In all these narratives a glaring fact has been omitted. Although, to be fair, my writings are made up of my own firsthand experience and notes of the accounts of others, including Merryweather, and it was he who kept one major fact even from myself, his best friend until a year ago. Yes, I have known of this fact during the two narratives prior to this one, but have not been at liberty to reveal my knowledge until now.
In the past I have referred to an urban legend … a legend that kept cropping up through half gabbled confessions of an underworld informer, tavern gossip … the whisper on the air itself when facts are revealed as half truth, rumour, gossip and innuendo, but no man seems to know from whence these whispers originate.
This urban legend I speak of is in fact solid truth. The legend I speak of is the tale of the fearsome nocturnal avenger known as the Catman and at last I can reveal he exists … for when Captain David Merryweather and the Deacon have exhausted all possible avenues in our explorations of the lower reaches of the criminal underworld, even after we have been forced to resort to physical means and failed … hours later Merryweather would return as the Catman and as the Catman he WOULD get the answers he sought. For all Holyoke’s criminal fraternity has one thing in common … They all fear the Catman!
So there we sat, two old friends catching up on old times. Once settled in the smoking room in two comfortable armchairs, brandy glasses within easy reach, Merryweather lit up one of his favoured cheroots while I puffed contentedly on my old Meerschaum; he turned to me and said “Your timing is quite fortuitous Deacon, for I am about to embark upon what I fancy will be an interesting diversion and your assistance would be most welcome.”
I leaned forward. “I should be delighted old man. What may I ask is the nature of the case?”
Merryweather snapped open his pocket watch and glanced at the face “In precisely 60 seconds I am to meet with Colonel Preston Danforth in this very room. The Colonel knew my father in his army days and contacted me recently to implore my aid in a matter he claimed related to an incident occurring during their service days in India. It’s my hope that I will learn more about my father as a result and so I have agreed to hear the gentleman out.”
The Colonel Imparts a Strange Tale.
Three minor events occurred simultaneously. The old grandfather clock struck the hour; Merryweather snapped his watch fob shut and the door opened to reveal a distinguished grey haired man in his early sixties. It was obvious at a glance, despite the gentleman’s civilian dress, that he had until recently been an active military man – his stance and bearing displayed such as did his no nonsense stare and analytical eyes. My own eyes were drawn to his impressive handlebar moustache, thicker and greyer than my own … a strange thing to observe at such a time, but such is the way of the human mind on occasion.
Merryweather rose to greet our visitor and once introductions were exchanged and Colonel Danforth was seated, my friend bade him begin his tale and we listened without interruption as the story unfolded.
“Gentlemen, I am not a man given to idle fancy. No, indeed I am too pragmatic in my dealings to give much credence to myth, legend and old wives tales. I am a down to earth type who prefers to deal in reality and cold, hard scientific fact. Yet with my own eyes I have witnessed … I can only describe them as unexplainable incidents. In the years since I have endeavoured to either find rational explanations for my experiences or to put them from my mind. I had been rather successful, for the most part, at the latter for some years … until recently.”
If you would like to read the rest of Tontine or The Little Christmas Tree, simply head over to your local Amazon and type in ONE MILLION PROJECT. All proceeds to CANCER RESEARCH UK and the homeless charity EMMAUS.