Fabian Black: A Christmas Caper - Original M/M Fiction

A Christmas Caper

By Fabian Black

A Farce in VII Staves
Two Brats
Two Tops
A Cat
An Aunt
A Dreadful Poem
Plus supporting cast


The plot is thinner than ice on a salt-water lake.


To the turkey that gave up its life to appear on my festive table, also to the Australian vineyards that worked overtime to make sure there was enough wine in the shops for me to buy to cover the Xmas period.


To Dickens for having the cheek to nick aspects of his great work and also for the length of this rambling tale, the bloody thing developed a momentum of its own. Forgive all inaccuracies…after all it is the season of goodwill.



I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little tale to raise the Ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it (unless of course there’s a mutual attraction and you use sensible precautions)


 Stan was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that...Old Stan was as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate (and rest assured, nothing WILL come of it, so don’t hang your festive footwear on that particular hook)

Stave I: Christmas Eve 4pm

Stevie, still slightly out of breath, extracted a key and a small roll of parchment from the tin in his hands. Unrolling the paper he read aloud under the gaunt glow of the security light in the safety of Nial’s garden:

‘Tombstones, no names, long gone
rain washed, mud splashed,    
tinkered with by the elements.
Frost snapped, wind worn, slowly dissolving
along with the matter they commemorated.
Land sold.
A house now stands on the sacred plot
who it contained doesn’t matter a jot.
Find the door that fits this key,
and then a secret you will see.’

“Well?” He turned wide-eyed to Nial, “what do you think it means?”

“How the flaming Hades should I know,” snapped Nial, “do I look like Sylvia Plath? I didn’t write the bloody thing.”

“Keep your hair on,” Stevie scowled at his disgruntled friend. “I was being rhetorical, I wasn’t asking you to produce a literary dissertation on it for The Big Read. There’s no need to rip my balls off, you grumpy sod!”

“Keep your rhetoric and your daft ideas internalised in future. It might save me some grief.” Nial scowled back, considering his grumpiness to be justified, having just been pursued by a Jack Russell terrier that had been intent on wresting the contents of a shoebox from his arms. The tear in the seat of his jeans told of the narrowness of his escape.

“Well there’s gratitude,” Stevie sounded wounded. “It was you who gate crashed my house this morning demanding I help you, so stop whining. Anyone would think you’d been pursued and mauled by a humungous, slavering werewolf, instead of chased and nipped by a harmless little terrier.”

“I must need my head examining asking you for help,” Nial clutched his shoebox more tightly while rubbing a tentative hand over the seat of his jeans.  “It nearly cost me a visit to casualty to have that so-called harmless little terrier removed from my arse. I thought the little bastard was never going to let go, it was hanging on like a piranha to a meaty snack.”

Stevie took a deep breath, determined to keep his features composed.

“I bloody hate you,” spat Nial, as Stevie’s features composed themselves into signs of callous mirth and joyous merriment.
“Jeez, oh God,” spluttered Stevie, his eyes oozing tears of laughter.  “I wish I’d had a video cam following you as you galloped through that garden with a crazed pooch hanging from your backside, waving from side to side as if you’d sprouted a tail.”

“You’ll see what it’s like to sprout a tail in a minute, because I’ll ram the contents of this box right up your...”

The safety of Nial’s garden became suddenly suspect and they both started as the back door was dramatically flung open, emitting a pool of white light that spilled out of the kitchen to supplement the security light. They adopted an air of casual innocence.

The figure that had flung the door open, fixed each of them in turn with a fierce stare, like a hawk deliberating over a choice of mouse or vole. “Well, well,” said the hawk. “If it isn’t Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Judging from the disgraceful amount of cussing and quarrelling I heard somebody’s rattle must have been thoroughly spoilt.”

“Hi, Em.” Stevie hastily slipped the sheet of paper with its verse back into the tin, “sorry, we didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“What have you got there?” Emlyn turned his sharp gaze on the tin.

Nial took the opportunity to shove his shoebox behind his back before the hawk decided to investigate it.

Stevie began to edge away, “I’d love to chat, Em, but I’d better be getting back. You know how Frank worries.”

“With good cause most of the time, and yes, you’re quite right, you’d better be getting home. You should be helping him prepare for tomorrow and its Nial’s turn to make dinner.” Emlyn’s gaze suddenly snapped back onto Nial, “what are you trying to conceal by the way?”

“Nothing.” Nial’s heart danced a jig in his chest.

“My new trainers, that’s what,” Stevie swiftly plucked the box from Nial’s hands. “He’s trying to nick them. I wouldn’t mind, but he’d never get his big feet into them.” He headed off down the path taking his box collection with him. “See you later, guys.”

 “Come inside, Nial, it’s freezing out here,” Emlyn held the door open. “I take it that you saw no sign of him then?”

“Afraid not, Em. I’ll step out again a bit later, have another mooch about.”

Emlyn smiled. “You’re being very good about this, darling. I really appreciate it and I’m sure aunt M does too.”

Nial experienced a flush of mortification as a kiss graced his cheek. He busied himself making dinner while thinking about the key and verse, and the events of the day that had led him and Stevie to dig up the tin that contained them.

Ironically, the key and verse might have stayed buried if Nial hadn’t been intent on burying something else that afternoon: a large moggy by the name of Stan.  The cat in question belonged to Mrs Munchausen, Emlyn’s houseguest. She was some elderly aunt twice removed who’d come for a quick visit in the spring and had never left. At breakfast that very morning, after listing her day’s medical complaints in horrifying detail, including a description of her bowel movements, she’d asked Nial if he’d seen Stanley. Apparently, he’d gone out for his usual stroll the night before and had not yet returned. Keeping private the hope that Stan, who smelled like a ferret with a gland problem, had moved out permanently, Nial had kindly reassured her that the cat was probably wending his way home even as they spoke.  Promising to keep an eye out for the puss he had then made his biggest mistake of the day. He picked up a set of car keys and sallied forth on the shopping trip postponed from the day before. That’s when it all started to go arse over tit, or pear shaped, as Emlyn, who was Chapel, preferred him to say.

* Twinkly fairy dust type stuff indicating flash back scene*

Stave II: Christmas Eve Past i.e. earlier that same Christmas Eve 10am

Nial stared down at the large orange creature in deep dismay, the lump in his throat out-lumped only by the one currently residing on the side of his head.  It’s glazed and unhappy expression told a sad story. It was as a dead as a Whitby kipper and not a dissimilar colour. Auntie Munchausen was a notoriously heavy smoker and Stan had, in life, actually once been white. One thing was for sure. Stan would never wend his way anywhere again. The cat flap would never again be strained to breaking point as he squeezed his bulging girth through it.

Fighting back tears, Nial heaved Stan from the gutter, tenderly laying the mortally languid creature in the boot of the car. To be honest, animal lover though he was, he’d never really taken to Stan. Smell aside, he’d been a creature of uncertain temper and rather unpleasant habits, one of them being to use Nial’s trainers as a toilet. There was nothing nastier than starting your day by squelching cat shit through your toes. All the same, Nial couldn’t bear to leave the poor thing lying in the road.  Besides he blew his nose hard on the sleeve of his shirt, he had killed Stan. It was only right that he should dispose of his remains in a fitting and dignified manner. He’d bung him in a bin bag when he got home and bury him somewhere discreet the first chance he got, preferably before Emlyn found out.

The thought of Emlyn finding out sent little shivers of icy trepidation up and down his spine. Emlyn just wasn’t reasonable about things like this. He’d never believe that it wasn’t his fault. Nial rubbed the lump on the side of his head, why did things like this always happen to him, he was a nice boy, good to his parents, kind to children and animals, most of the time. He made a brave attempt to look on the bright side. Stan had probably died happy. He had obviously had a good night on the tiles, calling on several old girlfriends and was on his way home, no doubt looking forward to a nice long sleep.  Well, Nial tearfully chewed on his lip, poor Stan would certainly get a long sleep, eternal sleep in fact.

He played back the drama in his mind: he’d come upon Stan unexpectedly and rather suddenly. The cat was sitting in the middle of the road engaged in a bout of strenuous coughing, probably brought on because he hadn’t yet had his morning fix of nicotine, courtesy of his owner. Spotting the animal up ahead of him and recognising its bronchial activity and lack of attention to the Highway Code he had attempted to slow the car down, not easy when you were driving fast enough to make the transition into hyperspace.

Unfortunately, a carrier bag containing a selection of newly purchased groceries from Tesco had chosen to split as he turned the corner into the home stretch of road. Consequently groceries were roaming freely around the car’s interior. Emlyn, being a sensible soul, in fact almost a canonised saint, always insisted that shopping be put in the boot of the car instead of being left on the floor or seats where, in the event of emergency braking, it could fly about and become a hazard. Privately, Nial thought Emlyn was being overly cautious on this point, if not downright fussy. He wasn’t so sure now.  

However, Nial fingered a strand of fair hair, even worse than his failure to observe this etiquette of grocery carrying in cars, was one other small deed that Emlyn might possibly take a dim view of.  Nial wasn’t supposed to be driving the car, not without an experienced driver by his side, or an instructor, or something similar.  It was such a bore having to pass a driving test before you could drive independently and legally.  After all, he could drive as well as anyone, if not better. He just hadn’t managed to convince the powers that be of his ability in that respect. They kept muttering things about speed demons and recklessness.  He pulled a face as Emlyn’s voice popped into his mind, solemnly intoning: the law’s the law, and it’s there to be obeyed.

With an effort Nial jerked his mind away from the requirements of law and back to the events that had caused Stan’s demise. One of the free range groceries, ironically a tin of cat meat, had somehow jammed itself under the brake pedal thus complicating his efforts to slow down after spotting Stan. Manically honking the horn to warn the coughing cat of his approach Nial had finally managed to kick the can out of the way. His kick, powered by adrenalin-fuelled terror, had proved rather more exuberant than one would have liked in the circumstances. The can had hurtled towards the passenger side window, striking it with an almighty bang. Bouncing off the toughened glass, it then ricochet back striking Nial sharply on the side of the head and momentarily dazing him. By this time Stan had coughed up something nasty into the middle of the road and suddenly alarmed by the noise of the car horn had made a dash for the safety of the pavement. He reached it and was crouched wheezing just as the can bounced off Nial’s cranium, causing him to swerve and mount the pavement.

The rest as they say was history, or at least Stan was.

Still, once again Nial made a concerted effort to find a bright side. No persons were hurt and at least he hadn’t demolished any walls or gates this time and the car was undamaged. Em need never find out about his illegal use of it. At least Nial prayed so, because if he did he wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week. He and his partner had an agreement about the way reckless behaviours were dealt with.

Slamming the lid of the boot shut on the bygone feline and getting back in the car, Nial sadly headed for home. If only he’d walked to the bloody shop none of this would have happened, but then walking up a steep hill to the supermarket when you had a hell of a hangover was no pleasure. If only he’d done the shopping yesterday when he was supposed to, it wouldn’t have mattered about him having a hangover today because he wouldn’t have had to shop.  

Of course Nial knew that he had only himself to blame for the incident, but it didn’t stop him looking for someone else to at least carry some of the weight of responsibility.  Stevie!  It was his fault. He’d insisted on them going to The Mucky Duck the night before just for a pint or two. Nial never managed to leave that place sober and he never managed to stay out of trouble when he was with Stevie. If it wasn’t for him he’d have done the shopping last night, sensibly walking to the shop and back and he’d have woken up refreshed this morning, instead of feeling like death warmed over. Nial swallowed, he knew something else that would get warmed over if Emlyn ever got wind of these current events. Parking the car without mishap he headed purposefully across the street, noting with some disquiet that there was an icy nip in the wind.

Stevie, pale faced and tousled haired, leaned heavily against the front door gazing blearily at his visitor through half closed eyes. “Nial, is that you?”

“Who do you think it is,” snapped Nial, barging past him, “the laughing policeman.”

Stevie groaned and gently closed the front door, “don’t mention the police. Frank is going to kill me when he finds out about last night.”

“Good, let me know when he’s ready to start. I’d like to watch!”

Stevie managed to force his eyelids up another millimetre or two, gazing sourly at Nial, “you’re a regular fucking sunbeam this morning only I bet Jesus doesn’t want you, not in this mood. You’ll scare the cherubs! What’s up?”

Nial enlightened him.

“My fault?” Stevie’s eyes opened wide. Such an outrageous accusation bore repeating, “my fault?”  In fact he went for the hat trick and repeated it again. “My fault?”

“I’m glad that you accept your part in this tragedy,” Nial pulled out a kitchen chair and slumped down on it. “However, confessing your guilt won’t bring Stan back.”

Stevie sat down, grumbling, “I wish Frank and I had never moved into the street. You’re always getting me into trouble. I preferred living at a distance and seeing you only on high days and holidays.  My arse doesn’t know the meaning of sitting comfortably anymore.”

“You never take responsibility for your actions do you? Whose idea was it to try and get that Police No Waiting sign on top of the prison gates last night?”

“Pete’s actually. So don’t blame me for that.”

“You should have stopped him, and yourself, and me. Haven’t you got any common sense?”

“Not after five pints of snakebite and a vodka slammer, which incidentally you bought me.” Stevie moaned slightly as both his head and his stomach spitefully reminded him of his overindulgence.

Nial rested an elbow against the tabletop and leaned his own aching head against his hand. “Georgie didn’t look too chuffed when he came to bail us out. Poor Pete, did you see his face when he clocked Georgie?”

Stevie grinned, his brown eyes sparkling, “I’m still seeing that arresting copper’s face when Pete puked into his helmet. I wish I’d had a camera handy.”

Nial’s sense of humour made a brief reappearance, and he joined in with a grin of his own. “It wouldn’t have been so bad if Pete hadn’t handed it back to him while wishing him a happy Christmas and asking for a kiss.”

They both dissolved into laughter.

Nial wiped water from her eyes, then sighed, “we won’t be laughing when Georgie tells Em and Frank about it. He’s bound to tell them all about it, Top’s honour and all that.”

Stevie pulled a face. “He was pretty angry. I bet Pete’s head isn’t the only thing aching today. Luckily it probably won’t be tonight when Georgie tells all.  Pete said that they’re going to some Christmas function that the new boss from Georgie’s department is throwing.”

Nial groaned, “it only puts off the inevitable though. Emlyn will discipline me for sure. I was supposed to be doing a final edit of my dissertation this weekend, not getting drunk and scaling prison walls. It wouldn’t be so bad if we’d been trying to break out, but breaking in! Come to think of it, I might try and break in again, a prison cell might be the safest place for me after he finds out about last night.”

Stevie’s headache lightened slightly as he cheerfully observed, “he’ll paddle your backside twice over and probably cane you when he finds out that you’ve done in your lodger’s cat while hung over and driving his car without his permission, never mind a licence. You won’t be able to sit down this side of New Year.”

“Perhaps I should tell your dear dominant cousin Emlyn who it was that tied that dried up dead hedgehog to his rear windscreen wiper last week?”

Stevie’s grin quickly disappeared. His cousin already had his suspicions about that incident, but no proof. He’d meant it as a daft joke, a bit of horseplay, but it turned out not to be at all funny. It wasn’t his fault that Em had been so mesmerised by the sight of a flat hedgehog cleaning the rear window of his BMW, that he’d mounted the pavement and demolished their neighbour’s front fence. He swallowed, “you wouldn’t really tell on me, would you? He’ll bloody skin me.”

Nial grinned, “my lips shall remain sealed...as long as you help me dispose of Stan’s body somewhere it will never be found and find a replacement cat for Mrs Munchausen.” He paused, and added, “and yes please I will have a cup of coffee. I’m sure you meant to ask when I came in.”

Stevie struggled to his feet. “You’re not asking for much are you, and I don’t mean the coffee. Do I look like a frigging undertaker, who do you think I am, the feline branch of the Co-operative funeral service and where do you think we’re going to dredge up a nicotine stained replacement?”

“Two sugars in my coffee please. I think I might be in shock.”

“Not so you’d notice,” muttered Stevie, filling the kettle. “Why can’t you just bury Stan in your garden?”

“Oh come on, have a word with yourself here,” Nial shot him a withering glance.  “Emlyn’s got eyes like a hawk. He can spot if a blade of grass is longer than it’s neighbouring blades of grass. He notices changes in the soil that herald the eruption of a daffodil weeks before the bloody thing actually surfaces. So he’s certainly going to notice if a grave suddenly appears in the garden.”

Stevie was suitably withered, “yeah, I know what you mean. Frank’s a bit like that. He can spot a worm cast from miles away, so we can’t bury him in our garden either, Stan that is, not Frank.” He paused for a moment before adding gloomily, “come to think of it, there probably will be a burial in our garden before long...mine, when Frank gets wind of last night’s debacle. I was supposed to be grounded to start with, and,” his face clouded further. “I got carried away with festive generosity and spent the twenty five quid that he gave me to buy a Christmas tree on that chicken curry I bought for everyone last night. I wouldn’t mind so much, but I can’t even remember what it tasted like and Pete didn’t even digest his.”

“Tell you what,” Nial picked up the mug of sweet coffee that had been placed in front of him, “if you help me out I’ll tell Frank it was my fault you got drunk, and that you only tagged along to try and keep an eye on me.”

Stevie’s face lit up, “he just might believe it. He thinks you’re a bad influence.”

“Touché. Em thinks the same about you. Got any chocolate biscuits to accompany this coffee? You can’t have coffee without a biscuit, it’s unnatural.”

“I do believe,” Stevie thoughtfully pointed a finger of KitKat across the kitchen table,” that I know where we can safely bury Stan and solve my Christmas tree problem at the same time.”
“Great, where?” Nial’s eager smile disappeared, as Steve revealed the potential location for Stan’s funeral. “Monksrest? It’s been empty for years, no one ever goes there.”

“Give the boy genius a prize.” Stevie rolled his eyes heavenward, “where better to bury Stan. No one will ever discover him there. And it’s got some rather nice fir trees. I’m sure we can utilise one for our own use. Give me a few minutes to get dressed and we’ll...” he broke off, tipping his dark head quizzically to one side as he viewed his silent and, it had to be said, unenthusiastic companion. A grin crept across his freckled face. Reaching out he pinched Nial’s cheeks teasingly between thumbs and forefingers, “is poor lickle Nial frightened of the rumoured ghosties at Monksrest?”

Nial slapped the hands away. “I’m not scared, it’s just I’ve heard loads of reports about strange happenings up there. It’s all church land around here and apparently that particular house was built on the site of a thirteenth century monastery, complete with its own cemetery for the brothers that died.” He lowered his voice, glancing over his shoulder, as if he expected something to materialise in a corner of the kitchen. “They say no one has ever managed to live in the house for more than a few months at a time. They say the monks are angry that their resting place was defiled.”

“Look, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” Steve perched his backside on the edge of the table, “it’s just an old empty house with a huge neglected garden, which makes it an ideal place to stash a dead moggy and nick a Chrimbo tree. Plus, it’s not as if we’re going to be creeping around there in the dead of night are we? Nothing can get us in daytime. It’s a well known fact that spooks only come out after midnight.”

Nial looked doubtful, but before he could argue further there came the sound of a key being inserted in a lock. “I thought Frank and Em weren’t due back from Birmingham until teatime at the earliest?”

“They weren’t,” Stevie’s startled gaze swept to the kitchen sink, which was piled high with unwashed pots, “what’s the current world record for washing up the most pots in the least time?”

“Way past your abilities to surpass, Stevie my boy, I’ll call for you later.” Nial gave his shoulder a light slap and with a grin slipped out of the back door before Frank could materialise in the kitchen.

Muttering feverishly about rats and sinking ships, Stevie headed for the hall intent on keeping his beloved’s eyes from starting from their head should they lay eyes on the disaster his pristine kitchen had turned into over the space of a weekend. If he could get him into the bedroom and exhaust him chances were he could slip down and put things to rights while he slept.

Frank, wrestling to get an arm out of his overcoat, rocked slightly on his heels as an exuberant figure rocketed from the kitchen and leapt on him.

“Frank! You’re home already. I’ve missed you.”

“We finished the meeting early, it being the eve of Christmas and all that.” Frank laughingly kissed him, “I’ve missed you too, but at least let me get my coat off properly and perhaps even grab a nice cup of tea. It was a long drive.”

“You don’t need tea when you’ve got me,” grasping Frank’s hand, Stevie began dragging him towards the stairs, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may. You’ve got all your old age to be drinking tea.”

“Fair point,” Frank allowed himself to be dragged. Besides, he thought privately, whatever Stevie was trying to distract him from, several tons of undone dishes if he knew Stevie, which he did, all too well, would still be there afterwards. On the march upstairs he managed to gather enough breath to ask, “did you get the Christmas tree?”

“It’s at a friend’s house. I’ll collect it later,” Stevie pulled Frank into the bedroom and briskly closed the door before he had time to ask why he’d taken a Christmas tree to visit a friend.

* * *

Stave III: Christmas Eve future i.e. not as future as to begin with, but earlier than formerly and still that same Christmas Eve 3.30pm

“What did Frank say about the washing up you’d accumulated?” Nial tucked Stan’s makeshift coffin, a Nike shoebox, more securely under his arm as they headed in the direction of Monksrest.

“Nothing,” Stevie sighed, “he just adopted a grim expression, swatted a hand at my bum and then pointed at the sink. I got the message.”

“How come he let you out so easily, I thought you were still grounded?”

I told him I was nipping out to collect the Christmas tree and also to help you look for Madam M’s lost moggy. He was pleased with me for making the effort and lifted the grounding.”

“I just hope we can find a reasonable replacement for Stan,” Nial’s voice was heavy with guilt.  “I feel really bad about it. Poor Madam M is really upset.”

They stood outside the wrought iron gates of Monksrest for some time before Stevie, with a deep breath, pushed them cautiously open.

“It’s spooky,” whispered Nial as he pushed his way carefully through the overgrown garden, trying hard to avoid being lashed across the face by trailers of spiked briar and bramble, not easy with the winter afternoon already lapsing into darkness and a sluggish moon playing shy behind heavy cloud, refusing even to cast a modicum of light. He paused, expecting Stevie to make a comfortingly rude remark about him being scared of ghosts. There was only silence and stillness. Stevie had been close on his heels, but now there was no sound or movement. Something suddenly shot out of the darkness, painfully gripping his upper arm jerking him backwards into the middle of a monster hydrangea shrub. A rough hand clapped itself over his mouth before he had time to scream for help.

“Shush, it’s me.”

Nial glared through the darkness at his assailant. “If you want my attention, just say so, there’s no need to tear my arm out of its socket.”

“Shut up,” Stevie raised a shaking finger. “Look, over there.”

“Ha-ha you can’t scare...” Nial’s voice trailed off as the moon deigned to make a brief appearance, illuminating the cause of Stevie’s shaking finger. His bowels turned to water at the sight of a long robed figure digging at something below a rose bush, its robes seeming to give off a sickly greenish glow. “What is it,” hissed Nial, “why is it here, and what’s it doing?”

“What is this, a paranormal survey? How should I know what it is, why it’s here, or what it’s doing.  I know one thing, it isn’t Alan bloody Titchmarsh, not unless Gardner’s World has gone nocturnal and he’s planting some kind of illegal daffodil bulbs under cover of darkness.”

“There’s no need for sarcasm.” Nial’s huffiness was tangible, even in the dark. “I knew it wasn’t Alan Titchmarsh, too tall for one thing, he’s…”

“Sshh! Look,” the shaking finger made another appearance,  “there’s another one.”

Nial clutched his shoebox more tightly, moaning softly as another robed and hooded figure appeared. “I told you it was a bad idea to go roaming around old graveyards after dark, it’s the sort of thing that terminally stupid characters do in horror films. Five seconds on the big screen and then they’re gone, victims of some hellish fiend, and no one ever remembers who they were.”

They both held their breath, as the gardening ghost glided off towards its fellow ghost, leaving the spade by the rose bush.

“Where are they going,” whispered Nial, as the two fingers vanished into the mist that was beginning to swell in the garden.

“You seem to think I’m some kind of spectral behaviourist,” growled Steve. “They’ve probably been called to ghostly evensong or something, come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“I swear to God that if you ask me one more question, there’ll be yet another ghost around here, because I’ll be forced to kill you!”

“I only asked.”

“Well don’t,” Steve’s voice hung irritably on the damp air. “We’re going to see what that monk was burying.”

“Barr Humbugs?” Nial stared in bafflement at the tin that Steve had uninterred from the earth. “I didn’t realise that Barr’s produced mint humbugs as early as the thirteenth century.” Forgetting Steve’s threat to despatch him to the spirit world if he asked one more question he opened his mouth, only Stevie opened his faster.

“I wonder why a monk would want to bury a tin of humbugs, unless they were considered sinful in the thirteenth century, either that or he was trying to stop the Abbot getting his greedy mitts on them.” Stevie shook the tin and then froze with horror as a metallic clang rent the air.

“Wake up the dead why don’t you.” Nial, his heart pounding with fright, gazed anxiously around the dark garden, expecting to see an army of humbug seeking ghostly monks materialising. His heartbeat accelerated further as he suddenly detected something charging through the undergrowth towards them. It rocketed from the long grass, baying in Steve’s terrified face, and then to Nial’s horror it got a scent of the contents of his shoebox and with an unearthly snarling whine leapt for it. With a howl of fear Nial took to his heels and ran with the devil dog in close pursuit, very close pursuit as it attached itself firmly to the seat of his jeans. Stevie didn’t linger, clutching the monk’s sweet tin he legged after his canine beleaguered friend.

* * *
* Twinkly, twinkly, more fairy dust type stuff, back to present time. *

Stave IV: A bit later than very earlier, but still that same Christmas Eve
4.30 pm

“Where is it then, hun?” Frank laid aside his newspaper and gazed enquiringly at his partner.

“Where’s what?” Stevie flopped down into a chair still clutching Stan’s makeshift coffin, as well as the ghost Monk’s confectionary tin.

Frank sighed, “the Christmas tree, the one you left at Danny’s house, though quite why you took it there in the first place is still beyond me.”

“Danny was out, at choir practice with Jack, and God knows if anyone needs practice it’s Jack. I’ll get it later, I promise.”

“I hope so, I want it in place and dressed preferably BEFORE Christmas Day...what’s in those boxes you’re hugging so lovingly?”

“Chrissy pressies.” Stevie hugged them tighter still, “they’re secret.”

“Might be a good idea to wrap them up then, and while you’re at it, do your share of the others, they’re on the bed, just in case we ever do get a Christmas tree to stick them under.” Frank gazed thoughtfully at his partner. He was beginning to scent a rat, he sniffed slightly, and actually he really could smell something. “No sign of poor Madam M’s cat then?”

“No, sadly,” Steve fought off a blush. “I said I’d pop out again after tea, and help Nial have another hunt about. If that’s alright with you, Frank?”

“That’s fine, honey, though personally I think that something has happened to the old boy. He’s never gone missing before.” Frank went back to his newspaper, “don’t come home without the tree, Steven, or there will be trouble. I don’t want to have to pile presents under a cheese plant tonight.  It doesn’t have the same festive appeal.”

* * *

Stave V: Later still that same Christmas Eve 6pm.

“Who’s the pressie for?” Nial viewed the beautifully wrapped box with interest.

“No one,” Stevie grimaced, “it’s poor Stan. I had to wrap the box up in case Frank got suspicious about why I was lugging a shoebox about. It looks nice doesn’t it, not many dead cats get to be gift wrapped before they’re buried. Come on. Let’s get back to Monksrest. We’ll bury Stan and then have a poke about to see if we can find out anything else about that tin we found, and then we’ll grab a tree.”

“Ah-ah,” Nial shook his head vehemently, “there’s no way that I’m going back to that place. I don’t give a bugger about some poxy poem and a key. Whatever mystery it represents can stay a mystery. I don’t care.”

“What about Stan, what about my Christmas tree?”

“I’ll stick Stan in someone’s wheelie bin, they’ll never notice, and we can get a tree from somewhere else.”

“Of course,” Stevie scowled into the winter air, “we’ll just go marauding through people’s gardens looking for an appropriate wheelie bin in which to stash a smelly dead cat, and then we’ll nip down to the twenty-four hour, ‘Trees Are Us,’ store and pick up a free Christmas tree.”

Nial gave in, gloomily trekking in Stevie’s footsteps like the Page from the famous carol. Only Stevie was no saint!

The spade and the rose bush were still there, as was the hole they had left under it when they had dug up the tin earlier. However, to Nial’s relief, there was no sign of the demonic terrier. It seemed a shame to waste the hole, so after burying Stan’s festively boxed remains in it, they stood quietly for a few moments paying respect.

“Look on the bright side,” Stevie patted Nial’s shoulder, as he gave a small sniff of guilty remorse, “at least you won’t have to clop around in shit filled footwear anymore. C’mon, let’s find a tree.”

They moved cautiously through the grounds hoping that a suitable Christmas tree would uproot and present itself.

“They all look much bigger close up.” Stevie craned his head back to examine the tall dark silhouette of the smallest pine tree they could detect in the dark grounds. “I suppose we could just lop a bit off the top, that would do.”

“Well don’t look at me,” said Nial. “I’m not a lumberjack. There’s no way I’m scaling fir trees in the dark. Maybe we could dig one up?”

“It would take until Easter to dig one up by the roots, you moron, I bet they stretch underground for miles, and you’d need a team of dray horses to drag it home. They’re all huge. It’s a bit off the top or nothing.”

“Fine.” Nial folded his arms, “you lop a bit off the top, Sweeny Todd. I’ll stay down here and keep watch. Incidentally,” a note of sarcasm crept into his voice, “what do you plan on lopping it with? A pocket knife, a nail file, your teeth, the power of thought, though in your case that wouldn’t be enough to break a square from a bar of chocolate, never mind rend the top from a mighty fir?”

“Buggeration!” Stevie sounded sheepish, “I never though about bringing something to cut it down with.”


“Cat killer.”

“Fu...” Nial’s would be rejoinder perished on his lips as hushed murmurings indicated the presence of creatures other than themselves. Judging from the way Steve’s hands were squeezing the blood from his upper arm he’d also heard them. Returning the favour, he silently squeezed Steve’s arm. Mutually squeezing, they shrank back against the trunk of the tree, as a ghostly procession of monks materialised in the damp misty air.

Snaking through the garden the spiritual brothers followed a tall monk who was lighting the way with a candle lamp. He was using it to read a manuscript held in his ghostly hand. He glided to a halt and silently pointed the manuscript towards the rose bush where Stan’s mortal remains lay.

“Oh God,” whispered Nial softly, “there’s more spooks here than in a Dicken’s novel. They’ve come to take Stan to the spirit world.”

“Barr Humbugs!” Hissed Stevie.

Neil was insulted, “don’t take that Scrooge attitude with me, so why else is Brother Cadfael pointing at Stan’s grave?”

“He doesn’t know it is Stan’s grave. They must have come for the Barr’s Humbug tin.”

“Shit, and it isn’t there.”

“Thank you for that stunning insight, Mr-stating-the-flaming-obvious.”

“How do you feel about being buried with a stake of holly through your heart, or maybe even up your...?”

“Sshh,” Steve dug Nial in the ribs, “they’re digging.”

“That rose won’t bloom this summer,” whispered Nial, “not after having its roots buggered about like that.”

They watched with bated breath as the earth around the rose bush was disturbed for the third time that night and the box containing the cat was lifted out.

Steve gently nudged Nial, as the monk straightened up with the gift-wrapped box in his hands, whispering, “look, it’s the ghost of the Christmas present. I just hope he isn’t expecting Frankincense and Myrrh when he opens it, because seeing as it’s Stan, he’s only going to find stinking-scent and no purr.”

Nial didn’t mean to giggle out loud, but his nerves were shredded with the day’s events and a manic cackle at Steve’s quip forced it’s way out of his mouth.  A host of cowled heads immediately swivelled in their direction.

Steve’s flight through the garden towards the gates was hampered only by the fact that he was virtually carrying Nial who had a death grip on the back of his coat and was screaming like a banshee.

“Let go,” Steve jiggled frantically, trying to dislodge his burden. “Let go, will you get the hell off my back, Nial, you’re safely home now.”

Emlyn flung the back door open for the second time that Christmas Eve, impaling them both on a frosty glare. “What’s all the noise about for heaven’s sake, you’ll have the neighbours complaining?”

His sharp voice sliced effectively through Nial’s hysteria. Relinquishing his grip on Steve he said shakily, “nothing, Em. I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I was just being daft and messing about, wishing Stevie a merry Christmas.”

“That’s right, Em, he was.”

“No Stan then?”

“No, sorry, we looked but found no trace of him anywhere, and no monks either.”

“Monks! Have you been drinking?”

“Not yet, Em, not yet,” Nial lurched into the kitchen after making sure no ghostly apparitions stood waiting for him, “but point me at a bottle of wine and I’ll get stuck straight in.”

“Well,” Emlyn surveyed his cousin. “What are you standing waiting for, the spirit of Christmas, a bus a train? You only live over the road I suggest you make it on foot.”

Shoving his hands in his pocket Steve headed for the gate, where he hesitated for a moment, turning to ask, “Em...have you got a Christmas tree I could borrow, a real one?”


“Never mind. I’ll see you at our house tomorrow for Christmas lunch.” Digging his hands deeper in his pockets Steve headed for home, wistfully singing: “oh I’m the happiest Christmas tree, ho, ho, ho, he, he, he, someone came and they found me and took me home with them. Yeah right, like you just find a singing Christmas tree.”

Emlyn shook his head, closed the door and went to detach Nial from the wine bottle he was lovingly cradling. “Don't fret, my lovely, you’ve done all you can to find Stan. I’m proud of your kind commitment. I know he wasn’t your favourite animal. Go and have a nice hot bath. I'll bring you a glass of wine up.”

Nial headed upstairs feeling meaner than Scrooge and more dishonest than Marley.

* * *

Stave VI: Christmas Day

“Beautiful Christmas tree,” Emlyn gazed at it admiringly as he entered the dining room. “It looks like a Norwegian Blue Spruce, most unusual and expensive.”

“It really is nice isn’t it,” Frank smiled proudly. “Steve chose very well this year. He got it for a song apparently, half the price they were selling them for at your sister’s garden centre. Clever boy that he is.”

Nial yanked Steve aside, “where did you get it?”

“I found it,” Steve pasted an innocent smile on his face as Frank turned to see what they were whispering about. Fortunately the telephone chose that moment to ring and he went off to answer it. Emlyn took a glass and a bottle of sherry into the sitting room to offer cheer and solace to his aunt, who was sitting by the fire still fretting about Stan.

“Found it,” Nial’s brows shot up into his hairline, “what, just lying on the pavement or something, wow, how lucky is that?”  

Steve’s face turned a shade of holly berry.

“Jeez,” Nial stared at him. “You nicked it, didn’t you? You pinched it from somewhere?”

“Keep your voice down, or Frank will hear you!”  Steve pushed Nial into a convenient corner. “I was desperate. I didn’t want to eat Christmas dinner standing up.”

“Where did you pinch it from?”

Steve’s colour deepened, “well, after leaving you I headed for the park thinking I might find a smaller tree in there. I was walking up the avenue when I saw this car parked by the road. The boot was open and there were a couple of trees in it and not a soul in sight. I just reacted and next thing I know I’m flying back down the avenue like one of Santa’s reindeers, only dragging a tree instead of a sleigh. Besides,” his voice edged into a tone of self-justification, “why would anyone need two trees. I mean one’s enough for anyone and I left what money I had on me by way of recompense.”

“Which was?”

“Three pounds seventy five pence.”

“Man,” Nial grimaced.  “If Frank finds out he’s got a hot Christmas tree in the dining room your backside will be giving off enough heat to roast chestnuts on.”

Steve scowled, “and a merry Christmas to you too. By the way, how IS Madam M, the catless, this morning?”

It was Nial’s turn to blush, “miserable. She didn’t want to come over for dinner, Emlyn had to coax her.”

Frank reappeared. “That was Georgie wishing us all a Happy Christmas. He and Pete will be round later. Are you two going to stand there whispering like schoolgirls all day, or are you going to come and help get this festive shindig on the road?”

“When can we open presents, Frank?”

Frank smiled, “all in good time, you big kid.” He placed an affectionate kiss on Steve’s cheek, “after Christmas dinner, that’s if you pull your finger out and come and help me serve it.”


“More wine, aunt M?” Emlyn held out the bottle.

“Yes please, dear,” aunt M tremblingly held out her glass. “After all, it’s all I’ve got to comfort me now Stan has gone away.” She sniffed sadly, downed her wine in one and held out her glass again, “I really loved him. He replaced my husband you know. I keep thinking I can smell him, Stan that is, not my husband, though God knows he could smell when he put his mind to it. He was a martyr to pungent expulsions was my Fred.”

“I wish aunt M would stop going on about Stan,” whispered Nial, nudging Steve, who was glancing at the tree with a puzzled frown on his face. “Why do you keep eyeballing the presents, you know Frank and Em won’t allow us to start the opening ceremony until after dinner?”

“I keep hearing rustling noises. I hope the bloody tree doesn’t have some weird infestation. It would be just my luck to nick a festering fir tree.”

“Its just your guilty conscience,” Nial reached for the wine bottle. “You’ll be seeing ghostly faces in the baubles next and hearing rattling chains.”

“You’re the one that should be seeing ghostly apparitions, after what you did.”

Right on cue aunt M warbled. “Stan was like family, the son I never had. He understood every word I said and he was a grand listener.”

Nial sighed, “I wish she’d...” he paused, cocking an ear in the direction of the tree.

“You do have a son, aunt M. You just won’t speak to him because he stood on Stan’s tail and refused to kiss it better, though really it’s because you don’t like his wife.” Emlyn replenished her glass again, then turned his attention to Frank, “did Georgie and Pete enjoy their Christmas party last night?”

“No, apparently it was a complete disaster and got cancelled in the end.”

“That’s a shame, it was supposed to be a big fancy dress do up at Monksrest wasn’t it?”

The mention of Monksrest dragged Steve and Nial’s attention away from the rustling tree. They pulled a face at each other, both experiencing an increase in heart activity.

“Yes,” Frank nodded. “Georgie’s new boss bought the place a while back and has been gradually doing it up. He discovered something during the renovations that excited him and the party was supposed to be based around this discovery. Guests had to dress up as monks, in keeping with the history of the place, and follow a set of clues to another clue that would then lead them to the ‘house secret.’

“You steaming idiot,” whispered Nial to Stevie, “I told you there was no such thing as ghosts.”

Stevie ignored him, reaching casually for his glass of wine, “so what happened, Frank?”

“Well, the final clue was in a tin buried in the grounds, under a rose bush or something, only,” Frank took a sip of wine, “some joker got there before the party guests and stole the tin and buried a gift-wrapped box in its place.”

STEVE!” Frank gave a horrified cry as wine suddenly sprayed across the table, “what the heck are you playing at?”

“Sorry,” spluttered Steve. “It went down the wrong way.”

Nial felt compelled to ask even though he knew the answer, “what exactly was in the tin that was stolen?”

“A key and the final clue, a verse of some kind. Apparently during renovations a secret room was found beneath the cellar. It turned out to be the burial place of several of the most important monks from the monastery that once stood on the land. Whoever built the house was nervous about disturbing a shrine and just built over it leaving it intact, tombstones standing and everything. Local historians are very excited by the find and want to start excavations in the New Year. Georgie’s boss wanted to make the most of the room as it was, coming up with the idea of a fancy dress party to be held in there. After setting everything out he locked the room and put the only key in the tin and buried it. The idea being a kind of macabre treasure hunt, with the guests searching the house to find the door that the key fitted, and consequently discovering the secret that had been hidden for centuries.”

“All seems very complex,” Emlyn shook his head. “What was actually in the box they did dig up?

Stevie and Nial braced themselves.

“This is the really weird thing,” Frank smiled around the table. “The box contained a pair of novelty cat slippers, brand new by the look of them according to Georgie. Anyway, the party had to be cancelled because they couldn’t open the room and Georgie’s boss refused to let the door be forced.”

Stevie tried to catch Nial’s eye, but Nial has lapsed into a trance and was staring at the heap of boxes under the Christmas tree with a look that could only be described as rank terror adorning his face.

“Cat slippers,” he finally spoke in a strangled whisper, “didn’t you buy lady M cat slippers for Christmas?”

“Yes.” Steve nodded affirmation.

“All your gifts have the same wrapping paper on them.”


“Easy to get them mixed up then?”

“Yes.” Steve’s head slowly moved back and forth.

“Especially if you’re an idiot.”

“Yes...hey! You were the one that done the deed so don’t start on me.”

“Only you could stick a gift wrapped corpse under a stolen Christmas tree. What are we going to do?”

“I wish you’d both desist from whispering, it's rude.” Emlyn’s exasperation was cut short by the ringing of his cell phone. He rose from the table, going into the hall to answer it.

Frank suddenly glanced towards the tree, “what’s that noise, can you hear it, like scratching?”

Before he could investigate further, Emlyn re-entered the room. “That was your cousin, Jane,” he gazed steadily at Stevie. “She said to wish everyone a happy Christmas, though she’s not feeling overly festive herself. As you know she works for the garden centre. She was delivering her last orders yesterday evening, and someone stole an expensive tree from the back of her car while she was delivering a wreath. They cheekily left a handful of loose change in its stead, which apparently wouldn’t cover the cost of a small branch let alone an entire Norwegian Blue Spruce. A passer-by said he saw a young man making a very rapid journey down the street dragging a Christmas tree behind him. Oddly enough, I suddenly recalled that shortly before departing for home last evening you made enquiry of me about the possibility of borrowing a Christmas tree.”

“Well,” Frank’s voice sounded colder than a Victorian winter, “that’s most peculiar isn’t it. Have you got something you’d like to discuss with me, Steven?”

Before Stevie could utter a single word, an unearthly screech tore through the room.

“What the hell was that?” Emlyn, taking a shaky breath, glanced around, jumping again as a scream from Madam M followed close on the heels of the screech.

“You didn’t tell me this house was haunted.” She shrieked again, as the unearthly screech began repeating itself, rising higher and higher in pitch. “I thought I sensed a presence when I came in.”

Frank pointed towards the tree, “there’s something moving under the tree. Look. One of the presents is moving. It’s moving!”

The present wasn’t just moving it was positively bouncing. Everyone in the room watched mesmerised and then simultaneously screamed, as with a shredding noise, the ribbon fell away, the paper split and a spitting, screeching fury exploded from the shoebox. It rocketed up into the branches of the Christmas tree sending tinsel and baubles spraying everywhere. It wasn’t the only thing spraying. The next moment there was an almighty flash, as an enraged Stan, for that’s who it was, released the long held contents of his bladder, thus fusing the fairy lights. It was more than the tree could stand and in fact it ceased to do just that. With a shuddering groan it came crashing down onto the dining room floor.

“You fucking great idiot,” yelled Stevie as the cat launched itself from the stricken tree straight into the arms of its shocked, but delighted owner. “He wasn’t dead at all. You must have just stunned him!”

“He looked dead,” Nial ran shaking hands through his hair, “how was I to know the evil thing was only pretending.”

“My baby,” cooed Madam M. “You’ve come back to mummy, you’re the best Christmas present I’ve ever had.”

“We can explain everything, can’t we, Stevie?”

“Can we...oh yeah, yes, we can explain everything.”

“We certainly do hope so” said Emlyn in a bleak midwinter voice, “don’t we, Frank?”

“Oh yes, we really do hope so,” Frank’s frosty voice made known his agreement.


Stave VII: The end of it

Nial and Stevie were as good as their word, they explained everything, but Emlyn and Frank still managed to find out the real truth of the situation, helped along by Georgie’s explanation of certain events when he called around for a Christmas drink. It might have been the season of Goodwill towards all men, but not all brats.

Nial and Stevie were sternly disciplined by their respective Tops for their respective and collective sins. Each found themselves turned over a non-festive knee for a good long spanking followed by a brisk dose of the Yule paddle. In Nial’s case, as predicted, the paddle was followed by a caning that left him unwilling to sit down for several days so sore was his bottom. From that day on they promised to be as good a brats as any Top had ever seen. Emlyn and Frank wisely decided not to hold their breath.

As for Stan, who as you’ve seen, did NOT die, he got his revenge by toileting in both Nial and Stevie’s brand new designer trainers.

The tree was properly paid for and the key returned to its rightful owner, a Mr Fizziwig, who upon opening the door of the secret cellar was astounded and mystified to discover that all the party food and drink had been consumed and a monk’s hair shirt was draped over one of the tombstones. He sold up and moved out shortly afterwards vowing never again to pen terrible poems and bury them.


 God bless us every one....

Copyright Fabian Black 2012