Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

The TARDIS materialised in the main foyer of the sprawling London railway terminus that would come to be known as Waterloo Station but at this time was commonly called Central. Although the station was busy, nobody noticed the unusual arrival. Nobody thought it a conspicuous object that had no business being there. It looked, on the outside, like a police public call box from rural England in the 1950s, and this was London in 1868, but nobody was worried.

Nobody paid any attention when the door opened and four people – two adults and two children – stepped out.

“Wow!” Jackie de Lœngbærrow exclaimed as she looked around at the busy station and noticed the many ways the Victorian building was just the same in her own time and the very many ways it was different. There were no electronic departure and arrival boards, no cash machines and photo-booths. There were a lot of porters in neat uniforms ready to help passengers with their luggage. There were people of different classes, identifiable by their clothes and their manners. Those in the better clothes, accustomed to giving orders, summoned the porters with a wave of the hand. The lower classes in cheap clothes with less colour in them carried their own bags.

Christopher summoned a porter for the carpet bag that he brought out of the TARDIS containing a change of clothes for each of them. Then he took hold of his son’s hand. Jackie reached for her grandson, Peter. At five going on six, he was a year and a half older than her little boy, even though they were soul mates in the nursery. He was playing the role of young gentleman of quality and for a moment didn’t want to hold his grandmother’s hand. Then he remembered that he WAS only five going on six and he clung to her gladly as they followed the porter out into the crisp, cold December afternoon that was rapidly turning to evening.

“There’s no snow,” Jackie said as she looked around at the street outside. “I thought there would be snow at Christmas in this time. I always thought... when you see films...”

“When you see films they were made much later than this and the snow is fake along with everything else,” Christopher pointed out. “Besides, it’s cold enough. It might snow, yet.”

He looked up at the pearl grey clouds that covered the sky. On the southern plains of Gallifrey he would have been able to smell the tang of snow in the air. But in London at the height of the coal burning industrial era his nostrils were assailed by too many other smells.

“I hope it does,” Jackie said. “I really wanted it to snow for Christmas. It hardly ever did when I was a kid in the twenty-first century. It was always drizzle or sleet. And we’ve only had one proper snowy Christmas in the twenty-third century, the Christmas Garrick was born. Before then, there wasn’t one for decades. Not since before the Dalek invasion. Somebody said so on the TV the other day.”

“It’s a good job I’m running an aural perception filter,” Christopher said. “Daleks, television....” He lifted the two boys into the waiting horse drawn cab and then helped Jackie climb up in the long skirt she was unaccustomed to wearing. She winced as she sat down.

“Rose was right about wearing modern corsetry with a dress like this,” she said. “Much less painful than the contemporary stuff. But it’s still hard work.”

Christopher smiled and slipped his arm around her waist as he sat beside her in the cab. The tight corset gave her the figure she used to have when she was twenty years younger and the early Victorian velvet brocade dress suited her very well in his opinion.

“You look like a lady of Gallifrey in that outfit,” he told her. “Fit for a reception in the Panopticon itself.”

“Good enough for Christmas Eve with Lady Whatsername, then?”

“Absolutely,” Christopher replied. “Though when we get there, try to remember her name. Lady Charlotte Longmount of Longmount House, Richmond upon Thames.”

Garrick and Peter both laughed. Right here and now, in 1868, it was Longmount House. But three hundred years in the future its name was changed to Mount Lœng House. Both boys were both born there. It was their home.

They were actually going to spend Christmas as guests in their own home!

Christopher had brought Jackie to this era several times before. Victorian society with its complicated hierarchy and manners reminded him of how he lived on Gallifrey as a member of the aristocracy of the Southern Continent. He borrowed his father’s TARDIS and travelled back to Victorian London to attend dinner parties and go to the theatre and become known by people of quality who readily extended invitations to him and his wife. With a little Power of Suggestion Christopher had made them think that he and Jackie had a country home in Kent and they were accepted as equals by the society ladies and gentlemen of Victorian Edwardian London.

But this was the first time they had been guests of Lord and Lady Longmount. It was a startling but rather exciting idea. One that was worth being dressed in very uncomfortable trousers and waistcoats and tight shoes for the evening. They didn’t talk much out loud, but they were having a non-stop conversation telepathically as they travelled through London, picking out those landmarks they recognised and those they didn’t because time – or Daleks - had erased them completely.

Jackie enjoyed riding in a horse drawn cab, wrapped in a warm blanket. Even without snow Victorian London with ladies in wide dresses and gentlemen in frock coats and top hats looked like an old fashioned Christmas card to her. The gas lamps that were lit as the sun went down and darkness fell added to the feeling of Christmas Eve drawing in.

It didn’t escape her notice that not everyone WAS in top hats and frock coats. There were plenty of lower class people in the streets. Some of them were doing all right. The man selling hot chestnuts had a good thick coat on him and most of his customers were wrapped up well. So were the barrow boys and barrow men who sold fruit and vegetables in the street and the boy with a huge basket of deliveries.

But from time to time she spotted a ragged figure in the shadows, somebody whose clothes couldn’t possibly keep them warm in the cold December day, let alone now it was getting darker and colder. Her romantic wish for a white Christmas seemed rather selfish when she saw people like the girl selling matches on the corner of Westminster Bridge. She looked absolutely perishing in a thin dress and a bit of a shawl and a pair of wooden clogs over thin and hole-ridden stockings.

And though Jackie was no historian of working class life, she knew the match seller was not the worst off. She had a job, she could buy food and would have somewhere to sleep. This was a time when people with none of those things lived in workhouses like in Oliver Twist or died huddled in closed doorways in unforgiving streets.

“Jackie, my love,” Christopher whispered to her. “Your sympathy for the destitute of old London town does you credit. But there is precious little you can do about it. Don’t let it spoil your enjoyment of the abundant warmth and food we will be enjoying with our hosts, tonight.”

“I won’t,” she replied. “But... you know, I come from the working class. I was never homeless and I was never as cold as that girl is, but there were times... when Rose was little and I was on my own in that flat, and money was short... and I don’t forget those times, even though I’m well off, now.”

“That’s why I love you, Jackie,” her Time Lord husband told her and leaned close to kiss her on the cheek. She smiled back at him and then turned her attention to her son as he asked to sit on her knee. Peter, her grandson, was pretending to be manly in his smart suit and sitting on her knee was too childish for him. Usually Garrick would do his best to match Peter in everything he did, but he wasn’t going to let the opportunity for a cuddle escape him.

Garrick drifted off to sleep in her arms before the cab journey was over. Peter stayed awake and alert, watching the view out of the cab window. When they turned through the gates into the tree-lined driveway to Longmount House he laughed gleefully.

“The grounds are much bigger, now, of course,” Christopher commented. “There were houses built on eighteen acres on the east side during the early twenty-first century. The owner at the time needed to free up some cash so he sold the plot for development.”

“Chris has his Sanctuary on a chunk of it, and there’s still plenty of garden for us,” Jackie added. “Come on, Garrick, lovey, wakey wakey. We’re there.”

Garrick woke as she climbed out of the cab with him in her arms. The cold air bit his face and he complained about it. But they weren’t outside for long. By the time they reached the door, it had been opened by a liveried butler who bowed as he ushered them in.

The front door led into a familiar hallway with unfamiliar furnishings and décor. The twenty-third century version had light coloured walls and lots of mirrors that brightened it. The nineteenth century hallway had wallpaper of a dark green pattern and lots of dark brown wood. It had been decorated for Christmas with boughs of holly and ivy which, being shades of green and brown, made the hallway look like a bower in the middle of a dark forest.

It was warm, though, and so was the welcome they received from Lady Charlotte and Sir Henry Longmount, who were delighted to meet their friends from numerous social occasions as well as their two sons. A boy of Peter’s age shyly stepped from behind his father and was introduced as the Honourable Henry Longmount Junior. He took two hesitant steps more and reached out his hand to shake with Peter and Garrick. Peter was every bit the young diplomat, following in his older brother’s footsteps, but Garrick was having an attack of shyness himself and only remembered what he had to do after Peter prompted him telepathically.

“I’ve got a rocking horse,” the Honourable Henry Junior announced. “Would you like to see?”

Peter and Garrick both had rocking horses among their many toys, but they were curious to see what sort of toys a Victorian boy had. They let themselves be shown the way upstairs. A nursemaid in a neat uniform followed them while the adults went to the drawing room. Christopher smiled as he felt a telepathic flash of excitement. Henry Junior’s playroom was the very same room as their own.

“Enjoy yourselves, boys,” Christopher told his brother and son and then left them to their play. Telepathic conversation always left his eyes a little glazed and he didn’t want to look as if he wasn’t paying attention to his hosts and the other guests at this elegant Christmas Eve dinner party.

Jackie thought again of those ragged people in the shadows when she sat at the dinner table and looked at the rich food it was laden with. There were roast birds, of course, not just a huge goose, but pheasant and partridge, a huge joint of beef and a whole suckling pig, complete with an apple in its mouth. There were dishes of vegetables and sauces, salmon mousse and some foods Jackie didn’t even know the name for, and all of it delicious.

The guests ate their fill and talked merrily as they did so. The men were full of politics, of which Christopher proved perfectly capable of holding his own, having studied the issues of the time and the names of the political figures of note. Jackie talked with the ladies at the table about clothes and children among other things. Lady Longmount talked at length about Henry Junior’s accomplishments. Jackie noted that her ladyship was about her age – mid 40s. Henry was obviously her last chance to have a child. She was proud and protective of him. Jackie thought she could understand that. Garrick was not her only child, but he was her second chance at parenthood and she loved him dearly. It was a bit of a surprise to her to find that she and the Lady of the House in this time had so much in common. Lady Longmount was born an aristocrat, of course. Jackie became one by marriage. She always felt slightly inferior even when she was dressed in velvet and wearing pearls as she was today.

But when she realised that much about her hostess, she realised that she had no need to feel inferior or to be intimidated by the titles of people around her. She was as good as any of them.

After the dinner they returned to the drawing room for an evening entertaining each other. Lady Longmount was an accomplished pianist, and played for her guests. Her friend, Lady Ascot, was a fine singer and accompanied her in several sets. Jackie was proud when Christopher sang in his turn. He had a soft baritone voice that suited the love ballad that he sang. The fact that it was written in the 1930s by Cole Porter didn’t seem to matter. The audience appreciated his efforts.

Sir Henry didn’t sing. He read a portion of the Bible that described the birth about which they were celebrating this night. Jackie was a little surprised. She had never really heard people read the Bible aloud outside of a church. But everyone else seemed satisfied by it.

Another guest sang and then Jackie found herself in the spotlight. She had no idea what she ought to do. She certainly wasn’t going to try to sing. She had a bit of a voice, but not one she wanted to share with anyone else. Then Sir Henry asked her if she knew A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and handed her a copy. She looked at it doubtfully at first. She knew the story, but mostly from the film version with Michael Caine and the Muppets. She had never read the book in her life. But she looked through it and found a piece that looked familiar and began to read. She thought as she read about the similarities and the obvious differences between the original text and the Muppet version and forgot to be nervous. She was almost sorry when she came to the end of the passage and received the gentle applause of the other guests.

Somebody else sang as she sat down again with Christopher. Then a young woman who was introduced to her as The Honourable Penelope Howard read from another book.

This was a story Jackie knew from television rather than reading the book, too. The Little Match Girl by Hans Anderson. She recalled the animated version of it that was almost always on TV at Christmas when she was young. It was a magical story with visions of Christmas seen in the glow of the matches. It had seemed a perfect Christmas story to her.

But was the version she saw on TV changed, sanitised, for the sensitive modern viewer? As Honourable Penelope came to the part where the dead grandmother came to take the Match Girl to heaven and the passers by found her frozen body, Jackie thought about it again. She was almost certain the version she saw had a happy ending. It must have been rewritten.

What a horrible story it was, after all. And the company she was with thought it suitable for Christmas Eve.

Her thoughts went to the match seller on Westminster Bridge, and the other waifs and strays she had seen with her own eyes. It wasn’t a story for them. It was a reality. That girl she saw could be dead of the cold by morning and she, along with everyone else, had passed her by.

Jackie stood up from the comfortable chair near to a roaring fire where she was sitting. She told Christopher she was going to look in on the children. He smiled warmly and held her hand for a few seconds before letting her go. She was sure he understood her feelings. He had probably seen the thoughts in her mind. He knew she needed to get out of that room full of comfortable, well fed people for a little while.

She crept up the stairs and found the nursery exactly where she expected it to be. There were two such rooms in Mount Lœng House, of course, the one that the two boys shared and the one where Rose’s little ones slept. They were rarely left in their nursery to their own devices. During the day they played in the garden if it was fine or in the drawing room if it wasn’t. Young Carya with her baby and Brenda with the smile of an expectant young mother were usually around and Susan was often there, too. There was always somebody keeping an eye on them. But Peter and Garrick liked the privacy of their own room where they played their own games and were more like brothers than uncle and nephew or whatever their actual relationship was.

She opened the door to their room and saw them playing with Honourable Henry Junior, who had a toy train that they were pushing around the room. The nursemaid was sitting in the corner sewing something. She looked up from her work and told the boys that they had to get into their nightclothes in ten more minutes then carried on sewing.

Jackie came into the room and sat watching them play until the ten minutes were up. She helped Garrick into the flannelette nightshirt that was the usual nightwear for children of this time. Peter undressed himself, determined to prove himself a grown up boy, but he didn’t mind when Jackie tucked him up in a big bed that he was sharing with Garrick for this night. Honourable Henry was put to bed by his nursemaid who bent and kissed his forehead. Jackie kissed her son and grandson and told them goodnight.

“It’ll be Christmas Day when you wake up,” she told them.

“Not really, grandma Jackie,” Peter whispered back. “This is only a pretend Christmas. Our real one will be when we get home to our own time.”

“Well, it’ll be A Christmas Day,” she assured them. “Christmas 1868. You get to see what that Christmas Day was like.”

“Why are you sad, mummy?” Garrick asked her, reaching out and touching her face.

“I’m not,” she answered. “I heard a sad story before. But I’m all right. You go to sleep, now, my pets.”

“Goodnight,” Peter said. “Merry Christmas, even if it isn’t the real one.”

She left the room and went downstairs. She was going to return to the party, but something kept her from stepping into the drawing room again. Instead, she went down the passage beside the stairs and then down a short flight of steps that brought her to the kitchen.

It was a big room, well scrubbed and full of good smells of food. There were three young women in maids uniforms around the big table and a young footman. A plump cook was packing a basket with food. Jackie listened to what she had to say as she did so.

“You take this to your mum, Mary-Anne. Five young mouths to feed on the shilling you take home... and it’s Christmas... These morsels will brighten the day up for them.”

“Thank you, Mrs Brady,” said the youngest of the maids. “It’s kind of you.”

“It’s the least a Christian body can do,” Mrs Brady replied. “I just wish we could feed a few more hungry mouths with what’s here. Them upstairs have feasted. Those of us down here in the kitchen have had our fill, and there’s still a mountain of it. Here, take some more, Mary-Anne. Do you think your brothers and sisters would like what’s left of the salmon mousse? I’ll have to throw it away otherwise. It’ll go off. Let me put it in an old pudding basin. You won’t want to be carrying that crystal bowl around the street.”

Mary-Anne looked dubious about the salmon mousse. She said it might be a bit rich for her family.

“Happen it will,” the cook admitted. “I must say it’s not to my taste, either. A pair of kippers or a smoked herring is my idea of a bit of fish. But a little treat won’t hurt them. Go on, now, girl. You slip off before the snow starts to come down. You’ll be home in half an hour with your family, where a body ought to be on this night.”

The maid ran to fetch her coat and hat and a warm woollen scarf and wrapped herself up before she went out into the cold night.

As she did so, a man came into the kitchen. He was wearing a thick overcoat and hat and carrying what looked like a bundle of rags until he put the slightly built girl onto a chair by the kitchen fire.

“Saints alive, Mr Baker,” cried the cook. “Where did you find her?”

“By the front gate,” replied Mr Baker, the butler who had opened the door to them earlier and had been present during the dinner pouring wine and instructing the maids to remove the plates between courses. “I don’t know where she was trying to go, but she would never have got there. She’s half frozen and it hasn’t even started snowing, yet.”

“Pour a cup of tea, Sarah,” said the cook to one of the maids. “Sweeten it with a spoon of honey and put in some milk. Maggie, where’s that plate of quails eggs that was left over from the dinner party. They’ll be easy for her to swallow to start with, then we can get some proper food into her.”

Nobody in the kitchen had noticed Jackie, yet. She watched quietly as the cook wrapped a blanket around the girl and helped her drink some hot, sweet tea before inviting her to try eating some of the small hard-boiled eggs that the guests at dinner had not finished. She ate a few and drank more tea before a plate containing cuts of meat from all of the joints and a slice of veal pie was placed in front of her. She looked at the food dubiously at first, then slowly took the fork offered to her and began to eat.

She almost dropped the plate in shock when she looked up and saw Jackie at the door. The butler turned and crossed the floor in an instant. Of course, he recognised her at once as one of the guests of his employers.

“Madam,” he said. “This isn’t...”

“I can see what it is,” Jackie replied, stepping into the kitchen properly. “It’s all right. I’m not here to make trouble. It’s nice of you to look after that girl. And the maid, before, Mary-Anne. Does Sir Henry know you let the staff take food home?”

“What Sir Henry doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” the cook said. “Even if Mary-Anne’s little brothers and sisters came around this table and ate till they were sick there’d still be enough left for the cold collation for supper, later.”

“What? Sir Henry expects us to be hungry again tonight? After all we had to eat already? I don’t think I could fit another morsel into this corset.”

Sarah the maid laughed at that comment, then looked scandalised at herself for daring to laugh in front of one of her betters.

“Is there any more tea where that cup there came from?” Jackie asked, pulling out a chair and sitting at the table. “All that wine and sherry is fine and all, but I prefer a nice cup of tea any day.”

“Let me get it, madam,” Sarah said, as if to redeem her manners.

“None of that ‘madam’ nonsense, either,” Jackie insisted. “Just so you know, I wasn’t born a ‘Ladyship’. My Christopher’s a real gentleman, and he gave me a life I never could have dreamt of. But I’ve done cleaning in kitchens like this to make ends meet. I’m more one of you down here than one of them up there, really.”

“I thought as much from your way of talking, madam,” Mrs Brady said. “If you’ll pardon me saying so.” She was putting a plateful of sweet treats into the hands of the waif by the fire, now, candied fruits and a portion of a huge whipped cream dessert that had been on the laden table earlier. “Your Lordship sounds like a good man. Not that Sir Henry isn’t generous in his own way. He’s a decent Christian gentleman and good enough to us below stairs. And Lady Charlotte is a kind soul. We’ve no complaints, madam.”

“Call me Jackie,” she insisted. “No more of this ‘madam’ business.” She took the cup of tea offered to her by Sarah and drank it gratefully. As she did, she glanced up at the window. “Oh, it’s snowing,” she said. “Quite hard, too. I hope Mary-Anne is nearly home by now.” She glanced at the girl by the fire. “It’s lucky for her Mr Baker found her. She’d be dead by now. And on Christmas Eve of all days.”

“Any day is a bad day to freeze to death,” Mrs Brady said. “Sometimes it seems like there’s too many without a bite to eat.” Again her eyes turned towards the table full of food.

“I know we shouldn’t question the plan the Lord God made for any of us,” she added. “And I’ve no cause to complain, myself. I’ve got a good position here in Sir Henry’s household and I don’t want for nothing, and its true that some of those who go hungry do so because they’re too lazy to work and some fall on hard times through sin...” She looked at the girl by the fire. “But I don’t know what sin she could have done, and I don’t blame her for not wanting to go to the workhouse. But what will come of her, I don’t know.”

“She hasn’t said anything,” Jackie noted. “Poor thing. She must be scared out of her wits.” She moved closer to the girl and reached out a hand to her. She shrank back at first, but then let Jackie hold her hand. It was warm, now. But so small. Jackie tried to guess how old she was. She might have been anywhere from eleven to eighteen. Her thin body and wasted face with shadows under her eyes was impossible to judge any closer. Her dress and shawl were thin with use and her feet were wrapped in rags in a poor attempt to protect them from the elements. She looked tired beyond all reason and even the meal she had just eaten was not enough to fill out her flesh.

And Mrs Brady thought this was part of God’s plan?

Did people really believe that in this time? That God decided to make Sir Henry Longmount rich and make Mrs Brady and Mr Baker, and Mary-Anne, Sarah and Maggie his servants, and this little waif homeless and cold? Did they really believe that there was a plan in all that, and that they should just accept it?

It made even less sense to her than the people in the early twenty-first century who assumed everyone on her council estate was a workshy scrounger living off the hard-working taxpayers.

“Jackie?” She looked up at the sound of her own name spoken softly by her own husband. Mrs Brady was almost having palpitations, now. Giving Jackie a cup of tea at the table was one thing. But now a born gentleman was standing there in the kitchen. It was unthinkable. “Sir Henry and his guests are singing Christmas hymns around the piano. They didn’t notice you were gone. But I did. Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she answered. “More worried about this one.”

Christopher looked surprised, as if the waif by the fire had escaped his notice until Jackie drew his attention to her. He looked at her and then knelt by her side and took her tiny hand in his. He closed his eyes as if in concentration. Sarah, the maid looked at him and murmured something about him having second sight. Mrs Brady crossed herself and told Sarah not to speak of Ungodly things, but Jackie knew that was exactly what he was doing. He was reading her mind, finding out who she was and where she came from, and, quite possibly, where she was destined to go.

When he was done, his expression was one of surprise. He reached and kissed the girl on the cheek, then stood up and looked around the room.

“Mrs Brady, your piety does you credit, and you are, truly, a Christian woman in the true sense of that word. Your kindness to this little one proves that. But would you be willing to accept that there are more things between Heaven and Earth than are in your understanding?”

“I... wouldn’t presume to know more than my betters, sir,” Mrs Brady replied.

“Mr Baker, you too are a good man. You could have walked on by and left her to die.”

“Not upon my soul, I couldn’t,” the butler replied. “Sir...”

“Sarah, open the back door there, will you,” Christopher said. “And wait a minute or two. You’ll see something that will surprise you all.”

Mr Baker looked at Christopher and wondered how a gentleman from upstairs knew all their names then he nodded to the girl. Downstairs, he was the boss, and she waited for his approval before obeying his Lordship’s instruction. She opened the door wide. A blast of air with the tang of falling snow fought with the heat of the kitchen fire. Jackie in her velvet gown and Sarah, in her maid’s uniform, stood by the door and looked out. They were the first to see something unusual.

“A star,” Sarah said, pointing to the bright light above the kitchen garden. “But it can’t be.”

It couldn’t be a star. She was right about that. The cloud cover was complete. But the light grew brighter and it seemed to be coming closer.

“An angel?” the girl added, her voice dropping to an awestruck whisper. Jackie had some other ideas about it. After all, she had travelled in time and space. She knew there were all sorts of things out there. It would have worried her if Christopher wasn’t standing there in the kitchen smiling softly as if he knew exactly what was going on.

And the three creatures whose feet eventually touched the snow-covered ground certainly looked like angels except that they didn’t have any wings. They were one male and two females, all beautiful, dressed in white robes. They glowed as if they had a source of light within them and smiled serenely as they walked towards the door.

Jackie turned at the sound of Mrs Brady’s voice. She had exclaimed and begun reciting a prayer. Sarah and Maggie did, too. Jackie was almost tempted to join them. The waif sitting by the fire was glowing with the same internal light as the ‘angels’ as they stepped into the kitchen and came close to her. She stood up, throwing off the blanket that had kept her warm. Beneath, she was wearing white robes.

“She is one of us,” said the male ‘angel’ in a soft voice that silenced the prayers. The servants of Sir Henry Longmount watched and listened in awestruck wonder. “We are the Dulciem,” he added. “Our sister came among you to find out what manner of people you are... whether kind and generous of spirit and worthy of our friendship, or cold and cruel as so many races can be.”

“You mean you would judge all humans based on how one of you was treated by them?” Jackie asked. “So... if people were kind to her... we’d all be ok. But if they were mean...”

“Many of the humans were cruel to me,” the former waif said. “I was spoken to harshly and some men were... frightening. And I could find no food or shelter among them until that man there brought me here.” She pointed to Mr Baker, and he gasped as the Dulciem turned to look at him. For a brief moment, he glowed as if he had received a special blessing from them. Mrs Brady received the same blessing, and the two maids who had brought her food.

“Humans are neither wholly good or wholly bad,” Christopher said. “They cannot be judged on the actions of one, or even a few. Some of those who didn’t help your sister were not bad people. They were simply too busy or pre-occupied to take notice of her. Others... yes, she encountered some dark souls, and I am sorry for that. But she also found these good people, here, who, in some part, mitigate the others, I hope.”

The Dulciem nodded as if acknowledging Christopher’s words of wisdom.

“We understand that the Human race is not to be judged as other races might be judged. But the presence of so much darkness here disturbs us. We fear for the good souls. We would take them away from this place to where they can live in tranquillity away from that darkness.”

“Eh?” Mrs Brady stopped being in awe of the Dulciem and instead became questioning. “Do you mean me and Mr Baker and the girls, here? You want to take us away?”

“You have proved yourself worthy. You will come to live among us in grace.”

“You mean... like heaven?” Jackie asked. “You’re going to take them to heaven?”

“That is a Human word,” the male Dulciem answered. “But it describes our world well enough.”

Sarah and Maggie burst into tears. Mrs Brady stood her ground. So did Mr Baker.

“I’ve hopes to get to paradise when I’m ready,” the cook said. “I’ve led a god-fearing life, and I have every expectation. But I’m not about to make that journey right now, if it’s all the same to you.”

Mr Baker expressed the view that he was happy with his life on planet Earth, too. The two maids were far too scared to say anything.

“You can’t do that, either,” Jackie told the Dulciem. “This world... it has good people and bad people and lots of people inbetween. If you took all the good ones away, what would happen?”

“The people inbetween would have no good examples and would fall prey to the base elements,” Christopher said in reply. The Dulciem accepted that, too. The idea that there was nobody on Earth they could reward with a life of bliss on their paradise world seemed to upset them, though. Then Jackie spoke again.

“That blasted story,” she said. “It’s been in my head all evening, one way or another. That girl on the bridge, then Lady whatsit reading the bloody thing. And Mary-Anne with her basket of food to feed her family. Then this one by the fire. Look, if you want to take anyone to your planet from this one... it’s snowing, it’s freezing outside and there are people out there who will die if somebody doesn’t help them. Go... and... and... give the Little Match Girl a happy ending after all. Get there BEFORE she dies and sort it out. Her... and any others you find who won’t make it through the night. And... look, don’t be too judgemental. If you find a cold, huddled soul who might have stolen a loaf of bread to feed himself, don’t ignore that one. Things are not always black and white on this planet.”

Even Christopher couldn’t add anything to what she had said. He took her hand and held it as the four Dulciem bowed to them.

“It shall be so,” said the elder Dulciem before they turned and walked away. The two maids remembered how to use their legs in time to reach the door and see them rise up into the sky, glowing like a Christmas star for a brief moment.

“Shut the door, Sarah,” Mrs Brady said. “Come and sit down at the table. I think we all need a cup of tea after all of that. I don’t know, I really don’t know what to make of it all. What were they? Angels or what?”

“Mrs Brady, if you want to believe they were angels, then that’s what they are,” Christopher told her. “My wife would like to have a cup of tea, too, I think. But I’m going to have to deny her that treat. We must go back upstairs before we’re missed and she’ll have to make do with a glass of sherry. Merry Christmas to you all and peace be with you.”

Jackie was reluctant to leave the kitchen, but he insisted. Before they returned to the drawing room full of music and laughter they paused in the quiet hallway. Christopher drew his wife into his arms and kissed her.

“That story really bothered you, didn’t it?” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it did.”

“I like your version of it. Well done. Come on, now and have that glass of sherry and join in the carols.”

“Ok,” she answered. “But I really would prefer a cup of tea, you know.”