by C H Clepitt & Claire Buss
“Oh, go on then!” Fiona reached into the bag, unfolded a piece of paper and laughed. “Oh, Bill. Showing your academic roots with this one. Everyone ready?” They all muttered agreement and she began. “The fellow made his living by the pen.”
“Boom!” Bill grinned. “Nicely done.”
“Why thank you,” she continued. “And published serials in magazines. It’s particularly appropriate that we should be discussing him today, as his most famous work was about today…”
“Shakespeare?” Someone guessed.
“No!” Fiona laughed.
“Clearly not Shakespeare!” McAllister said to the man, who couldn’t hear him.
“He used to read his work in libraries, I think. People used to attend his readings.”
“Dickens!” McAllister blurted out, followed by the woman who had handed Fiona the bag.
“Yes! Dickens!” Fiona laughed. “Your turn, Georgie!”
“Okay,’ the woman gleefully put her hand into the bag and pulled out a name. She laughed. ‘It’s someone we all know, one way or another.”
“Father Christmas!” someone shouted out.
“Hardly. This person probably never gave a Christmas present in their life. He’s mean hearted, mean spirited and mean looking.”
People were frowning now, trying to think but then a man slapped a hand on his thigh.”I’ve got it – it’s your Uncle, Fi. Mean Old McAllister.”
“I’m not old,” McAllister said in a small voice as he listened to the delighted hoots of laughter. They were interrupted by the doorbell.
“Hang on,” said Fiona as she went to open it letting Roberts and the sickly cub in. The two of them went through to the surgery and Fiona began to gently examine the tiny badger.
“Why is she wasting her Christmas Eve on that runt?’ wondered McAllister.
The ghost badger shook his head and bit the farmer again, this time on the hand.
“Argh!” shouted McAllister but as he turned to shake the damn creature off, he realised he was back in his cold, dark bedroom. All alone once more.
It was harder to go back to sleep this time. McAllister started at every small noise, every move the curtain made, every shadow that danced across the wall. Eventually sleep took him and just as he was drifting off he heard his name whispered.
“Michael McAllister.” It was just enough to rouse him from sleep. He peered bleary eyed around the room but could see nothing except dark shadows. They were gathering darker and darker in the far left corner, building into some sort of shape that loomed, taller and taller. McAllister shook his head, it was just his imagination but the more he looked at the corner, the clearer the shape became until he realised it was a giant badger, standing on its hind legs, draped in a black cowl so only snout and claws were really visible.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” McAllister’s voice quivered in fear.
The badger nodded slowly and held out a claw.
“No! I don’t want to see anymore.” McAllister closed his eyes and pulled the sheet up over his head. Nothing happened. He waited. It was so quiet he could hear his own heartbeat thumping in his ears. He had to see if the apparition had gone. Opening one eye cautiously, McAllister breath caught in his throat. The claw was now in front of his face. The badger’s face was wreathed in shadow, it did not speak and yet McAllister knew what was required. Resigning himself to his fate, he gingerly reached out his hand and clutched the claws.
Suddenly, he was in the living room of his niece’s home again. She was there, dressed in black, as was Roberts, and a priest. There were trays of sandwiches laid out on the table, and drinks.
“Not much of a turnout,” Roberts observed, trying to take a sandwich, his hand passing right through it.
“I suppose it’s a busy time of year,” Fiona sighed. “Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Connor made it…” She indicated two plump older women, sitting on the sofa, paper plates filled with sandwiches and mini quiche.
McAllister wandered over to the two women so he could hear their conversation.
“Did you know him?” Mrs. Pearce asked through a mouthful of cheese and pickle.
“Of him,” Mrs. Connor observed, shoving in a mini quiche whole. “Heard he was a right miserable git! No-one liked him. But I’m never one to turn down a buffet lunch!”
“Yeah, she had to advertise his funeral in the paper to try and get people to come, poor girl. Fancy being related to him. The kids always called him Mean Old McAllister.”
“Tight fisted old beggar,” Mrs. Connor continued through a mouth full of potato salad. “I heard he was rolling in it, but not even the charity shops would take his stuff it was so tatty. I don’t envy that girl cleaning out that rat’s nest.”
“You gunna help?”
“Who are these women?” McAllister demanded of the badger, he could feel his blood boil with indignation for the poor soul that they were discussing. “And who are they talking about?”
The badger pointed again, and suddenly they were in a graveyard. Next to a headstone that read Here lies Catherine McAllister, beloved wife, sister and aunt. April 1951 – October 1998. Rest in Peace was some freshly dug soil.
“No! Not me!” McAllister cried out in panic. The badger did not respond, just pointed to the wooden plaque.
“I dare not! Don’t make me look!” McAllister turned away from the plaque, as if not looking would make it disappear. Instead he turned his attention to the badger, his eyes widening in surprise. “You’ve changed.”
Instead of a badger snout, it was now a badger skull that protruded from the black cowl, canine teeth wickedly visible. The sharp claws now belonged to a skeletal hand which swept past McAllister eyeline and pointed again at the grave. “I cannot.” McAllister protested weakly but he knew it was pointless. The silent badger was emphatic in his bearing.
Michael McAllister, June 1947 – December 2021
That was all it said. No inscription, no words of comfort, not even a RIP. It felt like a blow to his soul.
“No-one cares about me.” McAllister murmured. He turned to the spirit besides him and spoke in a low voice. “Please, take me away from here. Show me compassion. Show me that people care.”
The skeletal badger nodded and his robes grew longer, entwining themselves around McAllister’s legs, tightening their grip. “Wha… What’s happening?” McAllister began to panic as the thick black strips of material wound their way up his legs, across his stomach, higher and higher until they covered his mouth, muffling any screams and then blackening his sight. There was no light, no noise. McAllister gasped for breath and just as he thought he might pass out the robes dissolved around him. He blinked rapidly, trying to place his bearings.
It was a dark hole again. There was a thin, sickly looking badger, lying on some straw, its eyes shut. From outside the sett there was a coughing. A deep cough from the chest. A torch light flashed into the sett, and Roberts’ tired voice, croaky and exhausted, sounded.
“Are you alright in there, Tiny?”
An angry voice came from behind him.
“Oi! What are you doing here? This is the bank’s land, we’ve already told you to get off! I’m within my rights to use force!”
“It’s a public footpath,” Roberts objected, but was seized by another coughing fit.
“Footpaths are for walking, so get walking!” The voice snapped.
“Excuse me,” the voice of Fiona sounded now. “I think you’ll find that until the auction, I am still the legal owner of this land. Do you need proof?” There was some rustling of paper.
“Sorry, Miss,” the voice seemed sufficiently cowed. “The bank don’t want no-one sabotaging their property, you understands.”
“This hardly qualifies,” Fiona snapped. “Please go back to your patrol and stop harassing my friends.”
There was a stomping of footsteps before the voices began again.
“Good for you, girl,” McAllister muttered. “She’s got more spunk than I gave her credit for. Maybe I do need a vet after all.”
“Joe,” Fiona’s voice sounded again. “You look terrible! Where have you been?”
“Oh, you know, here and there,” Roberts coughed again. “Once Mr. M died, they kicked me out the shed, and, well, I don’t have any family…”
“You should have come to me!”
“That’s very kind of you, love,” he coughed again. “But I don’t need your charity. It’s Tiny I’m worried about, it’s why I called.”
His hands reached into the set and pulled out the badger. “Oh… he’s cold…”
“Oh, Joe, I am sorry. I know how much you cared about him. Look, why don’t we go and get a coffee or something…”
Her voice trailed off as Roberts’ voice sounded a mixture of coughing and tears.
“I should’ve done more, I should’ve…” The sett dissolved around McAllister and he found himself stood next to a distraught Roberts. Tears were flowing down the man’s face as he gently brought the dead badger out of the sett. He buried his face into the stiff fur. “Tiny, I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”
Fiona looked on in mute sympathy as the former groundskeeper wept for the death of the sickly badger he’d help raise. McAllister looked on ashamed, if he hadn’t been so driven to wipe the wildlife from his land, the badgers may have stood a chance.
“Come on Joe, bring Tiny to the Surgery. We’ll make sure he has a decent burial. It’s Christmas Eve. You can’t stay here.” She pulled at his jacket and saw how thin he had become. “You need to start looking after yourself.”
McAllister sniffed loudly causing the badger of death to swing his cowl in the miser’s direction. It seemed to look upon the farmer in satisfaction.
“Got something in my eye is all.” And he harrumphed loudly.
The badger extended his claw once more and McAllister took it silently. Almost immediately he was returned to his bedroom where the clock struck six. It was morning, Christmas morning. McAllister looked around his room in wonder. There was no broken glass, no messed up bed sheets, no badger claw marks. All was as it should be.
McAllister fumbled for his dressing gown and ran down stairs. He shoved his feet into a pair of wellies stood by the door and clapped his dead wife’s pink, sparkly bobble hat onto his head. Then he went scampering as fast as he could across the field to where the badger sett could be found.
It was exactly where it had been in his visions. There was the mother and the two cubs but where was Tiny? McAllister looked around desperately and noticed a small shape to one side of the sett. It was Tiny. McAllister put out a tentative hand. The tiny badger was cold yet his chest was moving. Still alive. Keeping a wary eye on the mother, McAllister scooped the small creature out of the sett and nestled him into the crook of his arm, snuggled by his dressing gown. Then he went looking for Roberts.
He found him in his small hut sleeping, fire grate cold and three blankets wrapped around him to keep him warm.
“Roberts! Wake up this instant!” yelled McAllister. “What is the meaning of this?”
Roberts shot up in bed. “Yes, Sir. Right away, Sir. Sorry, Sir?”
McAllister glared at Roberts with his meanest glare making the man gulp in fright.
“What is the meaning of this cold hearth?” McAllister then smiled widely and it lit up his entire face. “You must move into the big house immediately. It’s far too big for just me. We’ll get a fire going in the kitchen and find somewhere to put this little fella.” He turned his body so that Roberts could see Tiny nestled within his arm.
“Um, yes, Sir! Right away, Sir!” Roberts scrambled to his feet and pulled on his jacket. He’d been sleeping fully dressed against the cold. With McAllister in the lead, the two men tramped back to the farmhouse.
“Of course, I don’t have any food in,” McAllister mused, as they entered the kitchen. “I have tins of soup, but it’s Christmas! We should have a feast! I know!”
Leaving Roberts in the kitchen trying to light a fire and keep the badger warm, McAllister grabbed his wallet and hurried down the lane to the pub that was situated on the corner of the village. He banged furiously on the door until the landlady, looking rather dishevelled in a dressing gown and slippers stumbled to the door.
“Don’t you know it’s Christmas Day?” She demanded.
“Yes!” McAllister enthused. “It’s Christmas! All day! And I wasn’t a bit prepared, you see? So, I would like to buy all of your scraps, all of them! There’s hungry animals trying to feed themselves in the snow. And three of your most expensive bottles of Champagne. Just tell me how much, money’s no object.”
“Right you are…” the woman seemed confused, but opened the door to let him in. “What kind of scraps are you looking for?”
“What do badgers eat?” asked McAllister joyfully.
“Erm… worms I think. Let me get you that champagne.” Seeing how crestfallen the farmer looked, the landlady took pity on him. “Look, why don’t I add you into the Christmas dinner? We can squeeze you in. I don’t know about your animals, mind – you’d probably ought to check the vets.’
“The vets! Of course! Thank you my good woman.” And he kissed her soundly on the cheek whilst slapping fifty pound notes into her hand. He was half way out the door when he remembered Roberts and popped his head back in. “A table for two – I’ve a hungry worker who needs some festive cheer.”
“Yes, Sir.” The landlady frowned as the man left. Had that been Mean Old McAllister?
The farmer whistled as he walked briskly down the road to the vets. There were lights on in the window so he rapped smartly on the door.
“Uncle? What are you doing here? Is everything alright?” asked Fiona in surprise.
“My dearest, darling niece – everything is wonderful!” he exclaimed, producing a bottle of the champagne from behind him and handing it to her. “Merry Christmas!”
“Oh! Um, Merry Christmas to you too, Uncle…” she blinked at him. “Your present is at the flat, I was going to drop it round tomorrow, I have friends coming this afternoon. Why don’t you come?”
“That would be lovely!” McAllister was grinning like a maniac. “I’m having lunch in the pub with Roberts, would fourish be alright?”
“Fine…” Fiona blinked numbly at him. “Fourish would be fine…”
“Lovely! We have a badger,” he continued.
“A badger…” she repeated.
“Yes, poor little mite isn’t at all well. Could you come and take a look? Of course I’ll pay whatever call out charge you require. Double, in fact, because it’s Christmas!”
Fiona looked at her uncle. He was glowing. And smiling. It was infectious, she couldn’t help it. She grinned back at him.
“And we need some more feed for the rest of the wildlife out there. Have you got anything?” McAllister held his breath in hope.
“Yes, we’ve got some fodder I can spare…”
McAllister cut her off. “No need to spare it my dear, I’ll pay for it. Double if you like! It’s Christmas Day and we must spread joy far and wide.”
The two of them filled Fiona’s car with the necessary supplies and drove back to the farm. Arms laden they entered the farmhouse kitchen. Roberts had managed to get a fire started and Tiny was beginning to come round. Fiona smiled at him as she put a large box of supplies on the table and pulled out an animal feeding bottle, already made up with some formula.
“I was planning to come over tomorrow, see how the little guy was doing,” she explained. Roberts nodded and the two of them bent over the little badger and coaxed him into eating as Mean Old McAllister sang carols out of tune and pranced around his kitchen, full to bursting with Christmas spirit.
McAllister spent every Christmas thereafter in the pub. He grew to know the landlady’s family, all of the regulars and their pets. He would come with beautifully wrapped gifts and everyone was always pleased to see him. Indeed, it was said that he knew how to keep Christmas as well as any man breathing.
As for the tiny badger, he is not so tiny any more, and comes to the back door of the farm house every night with his family, where Roberts and McAllister provide a handsome feast for badgers and foxes and any other wildlife that would care to join.
Copyright C H Clepitt & Claire Buss 2019
He peered bleary eyed around the room but could see nothing except dark shadows. They were gathering darker and darker in the far left corner, building into some sort of shape that loomed, taller and taller. McAllister shook his head, it was just his imagination but the more he looked at the corner, the clearer the shape became until he realised it was a giant badger...