I start thinking of Christmas stories, perverse as I am. This year I’m not sure I’ll be able to do one, so instead I’ve had another idea. I’m going to paste in the start of a story and ask you – the reader – to complete it. I’ll post the best versions here, and yes, I reserve the right to decide! Perhaps I’ll create another blog for all submissions – let me know what you think.
This is an idea filched from Write Away’s story starters, and consequently, I’d especially like to encourage young writers to try their hand. (Write Away is an excellent resource for children’s and YA literature, by the way.)
And now here the beginning of the Christmas story. The title is only provisional, so please feel free to provide your own.
Jasper hung upside down by his feet, the feathers of his overlarge wings muddy and bedraggled. It’s always this way, he thought crossly. Somebody’s muddled up the consignments again. I wish they’d sort out their staffing problems.
Jasper was a new angel. He’d been allotted his very first task only a few days ago – but heavenly days, not quite like those on earth – and had been attempting to make heads or tails of the assignment ever since. It was not easy.
Aside from the shortage of the right gear (or did you think wings just grew in place like magic?), Jasper had missed his project briefing. And it was not his fault, despite the scolding his supervisor had given him. He’d received the h-mail after the meeting (not via hotmail, which was used by the other service provider). Someone had forgotten to approve his account and assign him an address, not to mention registering his password. Well, perhaps the choice of Mephistopheles had been rather tasteless, but at least he wouldn’t forget it. Paper and pen were only allowed after attaining the Fifth Circle. At this rate he’d be stuck performing miracles for little kids until the Last Judgement.
And that was the real problem. Here he was back down on earth, with no earthly clue how to go about it. The girl was nice enough, no complaints there, but she was one sorry little noodle: an inoperable brain tumour that was about to nova. And no mother. Jasper wondered if they always assigned the toughest cases to the new recruits.
It was raining. Raining just before Christmas. Jasper was cold and wet and thoroughly disgruntled. You would think they’d have at least given him a special dispensation to adjust the weather. All little kids looked forward to a white Christmas. Everybody knew that. And not just kids, either. But no, that snotty old fart in the Weather Department had just about laughed in his face.
‘Nobody below Grade Seven, Second Degree touches the weather,’ she’d said in her best public school accent. ‘Can you imagine what would happen if everybody were allowed to fiddle with the atmosphere? Rain on one field, sunshine on the next, a tornado on the third. They’ve made enough mess of the climate down there as it is. Oh no, my lad. You’re going to have to make do until you move up in the ranks.’ She had sniffed. ‘If you move up. And even then all changes have to be approved by the Highest Authority. It’s in the Rules.’
She had turned back to her monitor with a self-satisfied smirk. And that was that.
Jasper let himself down from the horse-chestnut tree with a thump and a curse. He flexed his stiff limbs, then looked about him curiously. It had been a long time since he’d been in an earthly garden – not that this one had much to recommend it. It was a big garden, but it looked as if no one had bothered to do a spot of work here in years. The hedges were dark and overgrown; the border which ran along the stone wall was full of thistles and nettles and broken bricks and lots of horrid bits of rubbish that Jasper had no intention of trying to identify; two old scraggly rosebushes which hadn’t seen a pair of secateurs since the Fall hunched on either side of the front door like harpies; and the lawn – if you could call it that – was clotted with damp decaying leaves. To Jasper’s distaste they were mushy underfoot as he crossed the grounds towards the house. It felt as if he were treading on rotting guts. He shuddered. As soon as he had a chance, the first thing would be a nice hot bath. With bath oil.
The house was not much better. Jasper made his way towards the rear, trying to find a clean windowpane. He wanted to have a look round before deciding on his next move. He could see already that his job was practically hopeless. Why didn’t that father of hers get somebody in to tidy up things a bit if he couldn’t manage on his own? Being a widower was no excuse. Just the opposite. After some arguing Jasper had finally got to see the case file: Anne’s dad was not bad-looking, in a rundown sort of way. (He quite matched his house.) But there must be plenty of women who would take pity on him and his little girl. Jasper knew from personal experience that an air of neglect brought out the maternal instincts faster than a divorce decree; a spare tire and greying hair didn’t matter by that age. And there were always the housekeeping agencies.
Around back Jasper was able to see into the kitchen. The sink was filled with dirty dishes. On the worktop, a half-eaten and very stale-looking sandwich lay on a plate, with a chipped brown teapot next to it. One of the light bulbs in the overhead fixture had burned out. To his dismay Jasper also spied a cat bowl filled with dry food and a water dish in a dingy corner. Typical. The case file was supposed to list any pets. He had nothing against animals as such, but a jealous cat might complicate things. At the very least it would mean having to take extra care. Cats sensed a Presence.
Anne’s dad sat at the unscrubbed oak table with his back to the window. Not that it would make a difference. Mortals couldn’t see Jasper unless he chose to reveal himself. It was one of the few things not restricted to angels above his rank. Thank God for small favours.
The man had been drinking. Jasper would have been able to smell it right through the glass, but the half-empty bottle of spirits and the sagging shoulders told the story on their own.
‘Jesus,’ said Jasper aloud. ‘What next?’ It was an old habit of his, talking to himself. Left over from his student days.
There was no way he’d be able to perform a miracle in the three days remaining before Christmas. He might as well quit now and take whatever hellish punishment they’d dole out. He wondered if his mother – that old hag – would be glad to see him.
Jasper nearly fainted when a voice spoke up from right behind him. Not that he could faint, of course; just a figure of speech.
‘If they hear you using that kind of language, they’ll have your wings faster than you can say heavenly host.’ A nasty laugh. ‘Not that those moth-eaten appendages are worth much.’
Jasper spun round, aghast. A tall, haughty angel was standing right behind him, regarding him with disdain. Her skin was as black as his own was pale, and her glossy plaits hung to her shoulders. Worst of all, her wings fit. They were perfect: silky and gossamer, iridescent as a soap bubble in the sunlight, delicate as the finest crystal, as fragile and exquisite as a dragonfly’s. No tatty, cheap feathers for her. Jasper swallowed hard. Envy and fright fought hard for supremacy, neither feeling very admirable for a so-called miracle worker. As an angel he had a lot to learn, he was discovering.
‘Who are you?’ he finally squawked.
‘I could ask you the same, I should imagine,’ she replied coolly.
‘I’m the angel assigned to this case,’ he said. ‘Jasper.’
She frowned. ‘That can’t be right.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘This is my case.’ She drew herself up. ‘They’ve given me an especially challenging problem. Almost insoluble, they said. Only for a very gifted apprentice.’ Her eyes swept over his form, coming to rest on his wings. Her smile was mocking. ‘You have obviously got it wrong.’
Stung by her contempt, he squared his shoulders. ‘I have not got it wrong.’ He reeled off his authorisation code.
This time her tone was less assured. ‘That’s my code,’ she said.
They stared at each other.
‘Somebody’s head will roll,’ she finally said. ‘My daddy has influence.’
Jasper swallowed. This was not at all what he’d expected. He was beginning to wonder whether he’d made a serious mistake to trust those spiritual advisers. It would have taken a lot less effort to select the other option.
‘Your daddy?’ he asked nervously.
She reeled off a name. Jasper was impressed, but he knew better than to let her see it. A movement caught the corner of his eye, and he turned back to the window. It was Anne. She had entered the kitchen and stood looking despondently at her father. She was thin and pale, with long black hair. Her feet were bare beneath her nightie, which didn’t look all too clean. For that matter, neither did her feet. Jasper supposed he could manage to operate the washing machine. There must be an instruction booklet somewhere. And it didn’t take an angel to run the bath.
‘You had better let me get started,’ said the other angel, crowding in to have a good look. ‘This is going to take some doing.’
‘And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Rake the leaves?’
Her eyes swept the rain-soaked garden. ‘Not a bad idea.’
‘I was joking,’ he said sourly.
I wasn’t,’ she said.
And with a toss of her head she disappeared from sight.