The ladies had retired some time ago; the night outside was cold and the wind, or conceivably a trapped sweep, was moaning down the chimney. Fortifying ourselves with our host's excellent brandy and cigars, we had gathered round the hearth with an agreeable sense of cosiness in the contrast between our comfortable surroundings and the howl of the elements without, and, as men will at this time of year, fallen to the exchanging of ghost stories.
This had gone on for quite a while now and we were growing jaded and drowsy. Arthur Wykeforth was just finishing a rather humdrum anecdote of the haunting of his Aunt Matilda.
"All that was ever found of her were her still-warm intestines, stretched out between the chandeliers in the main ballroom, and a single eyeball that was discovered down the back of a sofa," he concluded. "Her soul, however, is now trapped in the mirror in the guest bedroom, screaming eternally in unending agony and blighting the lives of all who gaze upon it. Funny old stick, Aunt M."
We stifled yawns and politely agreed that this was most rum. We were staring into the coals in reverie and starting to think about bed when a man named Figgis, who had hitherto not given tongue, suddenly cleared his throat and said:
"I have a tale that may divert you, gentlemen. Though it is a commonplace enough thing in its way, it is not without points of interest, and quite apposite to the season. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only case recorded of a man being haunted by his own Christmas shopping."
I can still remember the premonitory shiver that ran down my spine at his words, and something about the way he said them served to perk up the company. The fire was stoked, the brandy replenished, and we sat forward eagerly as Figgis began his awful story.
Eustace Fairbrother [said Figgis] was, in many respects, an ordinary sort of young man such as one might encounter anywhere. A credit to his family, his club, and his employers; a blameless and even praiseworthy citizen such as form the solid and uncomplaining backbone of our nation. Yet there was that about Figgis that - to his mind at least - set him tragically apart from his fellow man. Indeed he had come to regard himself rather in the aspect of a sorry freak of nature. Now there are men who, although otherwise splendid specimens of humanity, are rendered odious to themselves by a single flaw. Some men are tormented by ineptitude at sports; others by an inability to dance gracefully or to make conversation with the fair sex. Some poor souls find themselves unable to grow splendid manly side-whiskers and are thus shunned and distrusted by all right-thinking people and eventually take their own lives, and the race is much strengthened by their suicide.
Eustace's defect was none such as these. No, Eustace's affliction, as he saw it, was that he had been born without any talent for Christmas shopping. He supposed he might not be alone in this, but was certain that no-one had ever been born with less aptitude in this field and a more lively aversion to it, and the yearly prelude to the festive season had come to be a detestable trial to him.
It is not to be supposed that Eustace was some Scrooge or cynic. He approved with all his heart of Yuletide. He believed in the proper observances of ritual and festivity, without which our lives would be routine and untranscendent from the cradle to the grave. He knew that Christmas is a nice thing, and that nice things require effort.
He knew furthermore that the paralysing embarrassment of choice that made gift-buying so worrisome was a consequence of a personal and societal prosperity for which he should give thanks, and that poor people had to give each other dreadful home-made presents carved out of bits of wood.
Or at least, he knew these things in theory. In practice, when it came time to shop, he quickly became a hate-filled and self-pitying wretch fit only to rave and blubber on the couch of some quack Viennese alienist. Bold and decisive in his daily life, forthright and purposeful in his pursuits, when faced with the necessity of purchasing seasonal tokens of esteem for his loved ones he became prey to the qualms and brain-fevers of some sickly French aesthete. He would tear at his hair, startle shopkeepers by pacing round their premises looking more like Frankenstein's creature or a cabbalist's golem than a human being; everywhere he wore the haunted look of a man with a doom upon him. It was as if he feared that at some slight misjudgement, one miscalculated purchase, one of his loved ones would fling the present back in his face with a cry of disappointed rage and Christmas be spoiled for everyone. In fact this was, if he had formulated it consciously, exactly what he feared.
He became irritable, short-tempered, lacking in the Christmas spirit to an appalling degree. When, in some panic-stricken forced-march between one shop and the next, he found himself impeded by slow-milling, window-shopping crowds, or slowed to a crawl by frail old women waddling or hobbling ahead of him, he would grind his teeth in impatience and rage. It seemed obvious to him that, in the interests of maintaining the flow of commerce and festive cheer, sharpshooters should be stationed at intervals along the rooftops of every main shopping strand, with instructions to pick off anyone who failed to perambulate at a certain speed, or who came to a sudden halt in front of overwrought young men laden with shopping, and he had twice started to draft a letter to the Lord Mayor upon this theme.
He would yell at his family, 'Tell me what you want! Tell me what you want! I will have a nervous collapse if you do not tell me what the hell you want for Christmas!'
And his family would reply, 'No, surprise me, you always get good presents,' or 'I cannot think of anything I want' or 'There is no virtue in it if I make the choice for you' and he would have to fight the urge to throttle them.
He had reveries in which he would grow rich by starting a secret criminal society, catering to hopeless shoppers like himself, who for a handsome fee would provide the services of
1. Kidnapping all a man's friends and relatives, keeping them imprisoned in a seedy den in Limehouse and beating them violently until they provided detailed lists of specific things they wanted for Christmas,
2. Kidnapping the client himself and keeping him imprisoned in a Limehouse cellar over the Christmas period, safe and sound from all worry and sorrow.
While tramping round the shops whimpering and muttering to himself he would come to believe he had been unfairly lumbered with a family who were particularly difficult to buy for, by turns either lamentably deficient in hobbies and interests or unhealthily monomanic and unreasonably narrow in their pursuit of them. They came to seem to him fickle and demanding tyrants, impossible to satisfy and whose displeasure it would be fatal to incur.
In truth I think he had it easier than some in many respects. The main people he had to find presents for at the period of which I speak were as follows:
His fiancee. Her gifts actually worried him least, even while they put him to the most expense, for he would follow the practise of buying her everything he saw, confident that with so many arrows one must hit the target.
His mother, who could be swiftly dealt with in a bookshop with a nice book about murders, the only problem being to keep track of which grisly outrages she had already read about.
His father. For many years Eustace had, after much fretting and indecision, ended up buying spirits for his father at Christmas. As drink was undoubtedly his father's favourite thing in life these had always gone down well, and quickly. But every year there came to him the worry that this practise made him look unimaginative and his father an alcoholic. However just lately a series of books, Jeremiah Clarkson's Guides to the Most Velocitous Horse-Drawn Carriages, and Pungently Expressed Opinions On Urgent Matters of the Day, had come to his rescue. His father was a fan of Jeremiah Clarkson and purchasing his latest tome solved this problem nicely. This, too, Eustace feared was now becoming repetitive, but there was no help for it.
His sister. He invariably ended up buying his sister a jigsaw puzzle, of which she was unusually fond. That is, fairly fond. That is, she had been at one point and he was fairly certain she still was. If truth be told, he sometimes had an uneasy feeling that he had arbitrarily assigned her this hobby for his own convenience, and the fact was he couldn't remember the last time he had seen her doing a jigsaw. But it had become the custom for him to buy her one at Christmas, and she might have been disappointed had the tradition been broken. The point was she was damn well stuck with it until she had the courtesy to develop some more definite hobby or pastime he could build his shopping around.
Then there came a pair of maiden Great-Aunts, Aunt Bedelia and Aunt Clytemnestra, who had each in their own way renounced materialism and both lately announced that they no longer wished to receive traditional Christmas presents, Eustace suspected partly because they could no longer be bothered buying them in their turn. Aunt Bedelia now requested that he make a charitable donation to the poor on her behalf, which was fairly easily accomplished. Aunt Clytemnestra, who disdained the material world altogether, asked that he should not bestow on her any physical object, but should rather make her the gift of a Thought. While obviating the need to visit shops, this actually demanded some care and attention, as Eustace was at pains to make sure the Thought he whispered into her ear on Christmas morning would be a novel, piquant, and if possible uplifting one.
His Uncle Percy was somewhat more difficult. Uncle Percy had no interest in the world beyond flagellation, and Eustace would spend endless hours in seedy shops trying to find him a whip he did not already possess.
Then there was the problem of Miss Plym. Miss Plym was a friend of his sister's who always spent Christmas with them, a young woman without family of her own, engaged to a clerk in the service of the East India Company who could not afford to send for her. An inoffensive and even charming creature, but at the Yuletide season Eustace cordially wished her at the devil. For he could never for the life of him think of a suitable present for her.
'Smellies!' the conventional wisdom cries. 'Women love smellies! Bath salts, and body lotions, and scented candles, and the like, are to the feminine gender as honey to the bears. Why, within five minutes in Messers Boots the veriest idiot could accumulate enough gifts to make Hippolyta and all her Amazons melt!'
To which Eustace would have replied that conventional wisdom, too, could take itself to the deuce. For while such things might answer for his female relatives, he could not bring himself to think them appropriate for a nubile and personable young woman to whom he was not connected. Perhaps he was an unusually delicate creature; or perhaps an unusually lascivious one. For when he would take himself to Boots, or similar emporiums, in quest of a gift for Miss Plym, a blush would mount his cheek as though he had wandered into some den of debauchery.
Bath salts? Bath salts? Impossible! For that, to his mind, would call up in that of the fair recipient the inescapable conclusion that he had envisaged her in the bath.
Body lotions? Body lotions? The idea! Eustace failed to see how any man could make a present of body lotion to a woman before their banns of marriage had been read. It would be the act of a cad and a masher. For body lotion implied that she would at some point anoint her smooth lithe flesh with it, massage it over her nude graceful contours, probably standing poised with one foot on a stool in some sun-shafted boudoir, smiling to herself enigmatically as the unguent glistened on the arresting curve of calves and haunches and the urgent ripe parabolas of breast. He would as soon have given her a book of erotic lithographs as a bottle of body lotion.
A scented candle summoned up the image of a silken bower in a Moorish seraglio, Miss Plym reclining on a divan clad only in a diaphanous gown, bosom heaving in anticipation as some silk-robed pasha twiddled his sideburns at her. Talcum powder evoked the pleasure palace of Versailles, Miss Plym a courtesan standing nude before a mirror, regarding herself with arrogant approval as a dwarf servitor powdered her all over and then primed her nipples with a feather in anticipation of an appointment with the king. By this point even the thought of giving her a bowl of pot pourri got him all worked up somehow. The problem was probably his.
When in the past he had out of sheer desperation resorted to something from Messers Boots, he had always handed the present over with a flustered embarrassment that could not but communicate itself to her. The pair of them would blush in confusion even over such relatively innocent items as face-flannels or throat-pastilles.
What irritated him most of all, however, was the case of his cousin Roderick. They had grown up together and at any other time of the year Eustace was fond of him. Though they shared few interests beyond their ties of blood and common memory, Eustace was quick to extol in his cousin many virtues and rarely regretted time spent in his company. He was a lively and charming companion, and had performed for Eustace and others signal services in a graceful and easy way. But at Christmas time Eustace detested him like a snotty Belgian stepchild.
Roderick was difficult to buy for, not for any lack of specific interests but for the narrowness of those interests and the zeal with which he pursued them. He had various hobbies and well-defined fields of study, in each of which he was tolerably accomplished and with none of which did Eustace himself have more than a passing familiarity. The procuring of a suitable gift was therefore a matter of some care and attention, and necessitated time spent in specialist shops off the beaten track, closely quizzing the proprietors, each of whom would bombard him with baffling abracadabra and quiz him futilely in their turn, in an attempt to pinpoint some book, curio or piece of equipment which might be of value to Roderick and yet which he was unlikely already to own. It was like Uncle Percy and his whips only worse.
Eustace's diligence in this matter was generally rewarded, and more often than not his gift to Roderick, anxiously presented with many an apology in advance, would cause the latter's face to light up with delight; he would seem both genuinely touched by Eustace's thoughtfulness and awed by his perspicuity in divining the one thing he lacked and could not have lived without.
All the more surprising, then, to Eustace's mind, was Roderick's stupendous lack of reciprocation in this field. For Roderick's Christmas presents to Eustace were things of the utmost contempt. Shoddy and vulgar pieces of tat; commonplace knick-knacks and trifling gewgaws; banal little knocked-down fripperies, mass-produced for the season and designed to appeal to everyone and no-one, shied from a barrow for a shilling.
Eustace told himself that if this had been all then, hating shopping as he did, he would not have resented, in fact would rather have admired, Roderick's serene casualness in this regard. He would not inflict the agitation he suffered on anyone, and if this rubbish had been handed over with a bashful 'I didn't know what to get you,' he would have been overcome with fellow feeling. But the most annoying thing was the way in which Roderick would present him with these cheap and entirely arbitrary gifts. He would attempt to pass them off with the most brazen display of salesmanship, endeavouring to persuade Eustace that whatever brummagem rubbish he had grabbed by chance had been chosen with loving care and tailor-made especially for him, so that bystanders would coo approvingly and Eustace find himself in politeness obliged to writhe in feigned ecstasies of gratitude.
In bitter moments in the midst of his own shopping Eustace would entertain himself by satirically impersonating Roderick's gift-giving technique in his head, viz:
'Hurry up, Eustace! I can't wait for you unwrap it! Yes, it is a turd in a box. You were complaining, I remember, of the paucity of your bowel movements. You do not remember? I remember it clearly. Now you have a stool to keep with you always. But I would not have you think I fished one out of the lavatory at random. No, I chose it especially for you from the finest Parisian turd shop. Monsieur Le Plop himself created it, feeding himself on a high-fibre diet for a week to do so - ooh, feel the texture, feel the consistency, that is a quality turd, that is.'
Such were the nature of cousin Roderick's Christmas presents and the manner of his giving.
It was not of course the disparity in the monetary value of their gifts that irked Eustace - although it could not have been any lack of wealth that motivated Roderick, for he was if anything slightly better off than Eustace himself - it was the absence of any trouble or thought. And, he told himself, he was lamentably deficient in the true Christmas spirit to even notice this, far less begrudge it. Perhaps Roderick had the right idea, in fact, and the season would be less troublesome if everyone were to adopt it. Perhaps he, Eustace, was being childishly sentimental in taking such care over his cousin's gift. Perhaps he was missing the point, and it really was just the thought that counted; although it was often hard to escape the suspicion that the thought that had occurred was, 'B____ him.'
Whatever the case, this continued to rankle; but from habit alone Eustace continued to fret and take conscientious pains over cousin Roderick's gift as he did with everyone else's.
Now in the Christmas of the year when my tale properly starts Eustace had vowed that this time things would be different. He would relax. He was, experience had shown, entirely adequate at the giving of Christmas presents. This was the season of goodwill. His loved ones, presumably, loved him in return: if some gift should chance to be not quite the thing, why, they would forgive him for it. Even if someone positively hated a present they would hardly say so; and if they did, why, he would punch them in their ungrateful mouths.
This time, then, he would enjoy the experience. And indeed at first all went smoothly this year. The usual presents for his father, his mother and his sister were secured with ease. He procured a certificate stating that he had donated to a worthy cause he was sure Aunt Bedelia would approve of; by the sheerest serendipity, as he was leaving the charity a drunken beggar who touched him for alms came out with a line of philosophical folk-wisdom he was sure he could pass on to Aunt Clytemnestra as a Thought.
He started on the most pleasurable part of the expedition, that devoted to his fiancee; and I will not detail the happy and spendthrift hours he employed on her behalf. Here he had the littlest worry: when imagination failed him there was extravagance, and when his purse gave out there was the cheap but sentimental.
Followed some small gifts for friends and colleagues in town. Then he negotiated his way through seedy back-streets where brazen young dollymops importuned him with shameless cries of, 'Nibble your sideburns for a penny, mister' to shop for Uncle Percy; but even in the dingy Flagellation Emporium he was not daunted - was even daring, imaginative; for he broke with his traditional rut so far as to buy his uncle, not a whip for once, but a luxury spanking-paddle which the proprietor assured him was positively the last word in erotic chastisement.
Then it got harder. Wretched Miss Plym! For an hour or more he trudged round in circles in agonies of indecision or blank bafflement, loitering in the precincts of smelly-shops with embarrassment and loathing. Perfumes... make-up... No, no! He might as well go the whole hog and buy her a pair of nipple-tassles, or something uncomfortable from the Uncle Percy shop. Then something practical, useful, a sewing case say? But practical presents must be so dispiriting to a young woman who had spent most of her life as an orphan and poor relation, required to make do and help out. Comestibles? Chocolates he felt more suitable to a sweetheart. A nice box of Turkish Delight? No, no, harems again!
Then all at once passing the window of an antique shop his eye alighted upon an exquisite objet d'art: a carved ivory backscratcher. A backscratcher! Surely no inappropriate connotation could attach to that! The image of a woman scratching was the most unerotic ever. For once he had found a present he could give her with a clear conscience and a carefree smile. The thing was slightly more expensive than he had counted on but he didn't care. Within the minute it was his.
It was raining hard and growing dark, and he was burdened with packages, but Eustace was happy. It looked like this year he would get his shopping done in one fell swoop, in one day alone, and with a minimum of anxiety.
Triumphantly he looked around for a hansom cab. Then a horrid remembrance transfixed him like a flung assegai. Roderick! He had completely overlooked Roderick! His shoulders slumped. Gloomily he started to trudge in the direction of one of the remote little shops that catered to one of Roderick's hobbies, knowing full well that even should he get there before they closed he was unlikely to discover a suitable purchase in the time remaining. The rain was a fusillade of icy bullets now. Meanwhile Roderick, he reflected unkindly, would stagger out of some festive luncheon with his cronies, lit with a warm glow of benevolence and brandy, and conclude his shopping within minutes with a sequence of arbitrary snatches at street-barrows, like the grab of some mechanical game at a fairground.
The decision was made in an instant. Anything would do for Roderick. He chanced to be shouldering his way through a bustling market-place. A hosiery stall was next to him. He picked up the nearest pair of socks, tossed a penny at the proprietor, and fled. He climbed onto a passing omnibus before he had the chance to repent and half an hour later was celebrating his release in front of a snug fire in his lodgings.
The following day he was stricken with uneasy feelings. A single pair of socks? Was that not a derisory offering for the friend of his childhood? Queasily he looked at them. They were hideous things, in a sort of pale piss-yellow colour, and seemed rather thin and frayed already. They might even be second-hand. Roderick himself would have, and in the past had, got away with bestowing such a token gift upon Eustace. He would spin some glib yarn about how the socks had once belonged to Marie Antionette or had been specially engineered on Royal Ordinance factory lathes to fit the contours of Eustace's foot to the milli-inch. But it was in the nature of things that he, Eustace, would be punished by the gods for such a contemptible gift.
But it was another beastly day outside; and his hearth was very warm. Firmly he wrapped and labelled his presents so that there was no going back.
The day after that he went down to his family home for the holidays. That day and the next he ruminated on the socks from time to time and gazed thoughtfully out of the windows at dreary skies and sodden tracks. He still had time to find Eustace a better present, but the weather was not such as to incline him to venture up to town needlessly, and so he did not. It was foolish to fret about it anyway. He should take his ease and be of good cheer. It was Christmas!
Came Christmas morning: a bright and sunny one, lacking only snow, although the windows and the garden were rimed with a delicate frost. Here was everyone in their finery, faces beatific and shining, bestowing hugs and kisses and wishing each other the best of the day. Here was the Christmas spirit, intangible but undeniable. They went to church early, and in Eustace's case for the first time in many months, and emerged feeling moved and uplifted, and having really belted the hell out of the hymns and carols. They exchanged greetings, gossip, good tidings with their neighbours. They walked home arm in arm in the crisp winter air. Back home to the tree, the wonderful, bountiful tree! Here came the time to exchange presents. He distributed gifts with his usual apologetic mumbles - Couldn't think what else; will exchange if you don't like it - and received them in his turn. Miss Plym appeared to blink in surprise at the ivory backscratcher, but he supposed it was a more expensive gift than he usually gave her, and quite an unusual one after all, and she thanked him for it nicely. His mother, father and sister cooed and beamed over their books and jigsaw. He gave Aunt Bedelia the certificate of charitable donation, and Aunt Clytemnestra her Thought, and Uncle Percy his spanking-paddle, and they all seemed very pleased.
Now the first thing that put Eustace out of countenance was when cousin Roderick unexpectedly turned up soon after. In the first part of Christmas Day Roderick usually danced attendance on a wealthy uncle of whom he had expectations, only joining Eustace's family in the evening. Although Eustace had by this time grown almost completely relaxed in his mind about the socks, he could not help reflecting that they would have been easier to pass at night, in cosy shadows, when everyone was already festive, convivial, and inebriated, with a sprinkling of neighbours and clergymen about and songs and laughter for distraction, than here in broad daylight with the whole family gathered keen and attentive near the tree.
As his sister eagerly steered Roderick towards the mound of gifts, Eustace suddenly thought the best course might be to make himself scarce; but Roderick took him by the arm and pulled him near.
'I will open Eustace's present first,' said Roderick, grabbing the parcel excitedly. 'He always gives the best presents.'
'Er - no, no, open someone else's,' said Eustace nervously.
Roderick's face fell as he opened the parcel. 'Oh. Socks.'
'Yes,' said Eustace with a fixed grin, assaying some of Roderick's own patent Christmas-present-salesmanship technique. 'A man can never have too many socks, eh?'
'Can you have forgotten that following my uncle's death I have inherited, among other things, the largest sock factory in England?'
'Ah - I may have done. However this pair - '
'Is a rather inferior brand I would not give to my servants. Furthermore they are, in colouring, what we refer to in the trade as piss-yellow.'
'Oh well, better luck next time,' said Eustace with a failed attempt at cheerful insouciance. 'Thought that counts, and all that. Wait until you see what Gwendoline's got you.'
But to his horror Roderick seemed not to be disposed to let the matter drop.
'Have I offended you in some way?' he asked.
'Not at all!' cried Eustace. 'I thought they were lovely socks, and, and, the last time we met I happened to notice that - look here, I am quite offended that you do not appreciate my well-intentioned gift.'
The entire family had gathered to look. Eustace's heart pounded and his cheeks burned. This was some scene straight from his festive shopping terrors. Roderick looked pallid, stricken, and continued to dangle the socks limply from his hand and stare at them in disbelief.
'Well,' said Eustace brightly, 'time for some party games?'
'What is the matter?' someone asked.
'Eustace has only bought Roderick a pair of socks for Christmas.'
'How he could!'
'Cheap and hideous ones too.'
'That's a very poor do.'
Eustace was suddenly angry.
'Oh, oh, that's really rich!' he cried. 'What's he got me then, eh? Come on, Lord Bountiful, what pitiful piece of shit have you got me?'
'Eustace!' cried his mother.
'No, no, come on, let's see it.' Eustace started to rummage around for Roderick's present, hurling other people's gifts about in his rage, heedless of the appalled looks of his family. 'What is it this year? Some cheapo novelty cravat with a picture of some music-hall character I've never even sodding heard of on it? A miniature bar of soap you stole from a hotel and carved my initials on? A box of toothpicks, perhaps, that you bought specially for me because you happened to remember that in July two years ago I complained I'd got a piece of cress stuck in my teeth?'
'My present to you is too big to fit under the tree,' said Roderick quietly. 'You can see it if you look out of the window.'
'Oh, oh, too big to fit in the house, is it?' Eustace went to the window and saw nothing. 'What is it, an invisible horse? No - grass! You bought me some grass? No - don't tell me, air! Oh, Roderick, air, just what I always wanted!'
'No, no,' Roderick pointed, 'there, across the fields, you can just see it from here.'
'Oh, a scarecrow? No, that would be too useful. A sheep? Too nice. It's probably one of the little bits of clag clinging to the sheep's arse, which you have picked out specially and which will be mounted on a commemorative bit of cardboard. A thistle? A thistle of my very own? Oh, Roderick, you shouldn't have.'
'No - see there! That puff of smoke.'
'The train? What of it?'
'I have bought you the Great Western Railway,' said Roderick.
There was a silence. Roderick pulled some share certificates out of his pocket that showed to one and all that Eustace was indeed now the owner of the Great Western Railway.
'Oh, for Christ's sake,' muttered Eustace under his breath.
'I remembered you had always been fond of trains from boyhood,' said Roderick, 'and that the Great Western was your favourite line. And now that I have come into my inheritance, I thought there could be no better way to thank you for all the kindness you have showed me over the years than to purchase it for you.'
There was a further silence. Eustace became aware that everyone was staring at him expectantly.
'As it happens, it is the South Devon Railway that is my favourite, if you had been paying attention,' he said stiffly. 'But thank you, Roderick, it was a touching thought.'
'Of course, it cannot compare to socks,' said Roderick bitterly.
'I have to say, Eustace,' said his mother, 'that that is a shamefully poor present for your cousin.'
'While we are on this painful subject,' said Miss Plym, hesitantly and with eyes lowered, 'I do not think that your present to me is at all appropriate, Eustace. In fact, I am mortally offended, and must refuse to accept it.'
'Buying me a backscratcher unforgivably draws attention to the fact that I have a back, smooth, supple and upright, tapering to a span that might be encompassed by a single pair of caressing hands, the shoulderblades like furled petals, lonely and unseen by me, poignant in their implication of all the things I can never know about myself but must depend on a lover to reveal to me, the flawless groove of my spine a channel down which tiny droplets of golden sweat might course on a warm summer night so that a man's cupped tongue stationed at the coccyx would sup gratefully of them.'
'That was not my intent at all!'
'As if that was not bad enough, your implied awareness of the fact I sometimes feel the urge to scratch it proves that you have been dwelling on how the laces of my corsets must chafe at my resilient creamy skin, even as they mould and thrust my bosoms so that they overbrim their cups like twin promises of paradise.'
'I hasten to assure you - '
'Moreover taken as a metaphor, the gift's meaning is clearly that I feel an itch for which you can provide the cure; one does not need to be a Viennese alienist to suspect an immoral implication.'
'Really, I just thought you could lay the damn thing on a table and look at it!'
'I think there is someone else you would like to lay on a table, while I moan in abandon and scratch your back.'
'But - '
'Ivory calls to mind elephant tusks, implying that you wish to impale me on your own shameful love-tusk as I writhe and gasp and grab onto your jutting manly sideburns.'
'Jesus,' said Eustace.
'For shame, sir, for shame!'
'Eustace, how could you?' cried his sister.
'While we are all turning on Eustace in a piranha-like swarm, I grow tired of being given Jeremiah Clarkson books every year,' said his father. 'Why can't I have booze like in the old days?'
'Actually, Eustace, this murder book you bought me is not nearly gruesome enough,' said his mother.
'And I have not been interested in jigsaws since I was 12!' said his sister.
'The thought you gave me was trite,' said Aunt Clytemnestra.
'This charitable donation is to the undeserving poor,' said Aunt Bedelia reprovingly. 'I mean, Hashish For Harlots, what were you thinking?'
'Looks like you muffed it this year, Eustace,' said Uncle Percy jovially. 'Spoiled Christmas for everyone, I shouldn't wonder. Still, this is a damn fine spanking-paddle. I'm off to try it out on the servant girls.'
After that the festivities were not a success. They tried to patch up the row with party games but relations were muted and strained. Roderick, even more than Eustace, seemed plunged in gloom; Eustace would catch him staring at the offending socks in a brooding reverie. Eustace felt like a pariah. Listlessly he played with the Great Western Railway but his heart was not in it.
It was his worst nightmare come true. But worse was to follow.
For the next morning cousin Roderick was discovered hanged in his bedroom; he had fashioned the socks into a noose.
On his bed was a note. It read:
'Eustace's thoughtless present has plunged me into despair. I had always believed he was the one person upon whose affection I could count. I see now that behind the polite social facade we are nothing but a bunch of selfish snarling savages with no real care for anything beyond our own ease and comfort, hollow clockwork creatures with the same blind insentient drives as the merest sea-polyp, and I no longer wish to live in such a world.'
'Well,' said Eustace, 'I don't suppose we will ever know why he did it.'
After that Eustace was truly a pariah and outcast, one who walked with the mark of shame upon his brow. He was blackballed by his club and shunned by polite society. Everywhere he went he was followed by murmurs: 'That's the fellow... only bought socks... damned bad business.'
His fiancee, who had not been present at the debacle but had naturally come to hear of it, broke off with him. 'Though your form and bearing are manly and your sideburns exemplary,' she wrote, 'I cannot bestow my heart on one whose finer feelings are so far lacking as to make a Christmas present of a pair of piss-yellow socks.'
Did he but know it, his ordeal was only beginning.
A week after Roderick was buried Eustace was lying abed with candle and book, denied sleep and trying to bury his sorrows in literature. The clock had not long chimed twelve when he became aware of a small noise disturbing the stillness - the softest possible tapping at his door, as with the pad of an animal's paw. After an interval it was repeated. Then there seemed to come a scraping sound; this too was repeated.
After that there was silence for a moment. There then commenced a sequence of small but disquieting slithering sounds, one after the other. They seemed to come from low down, as though something were being drawn - or drawing itself - across the carpet. Eustace was quite spellbound by the phenomenon now; and it could not be dismissed as the product of overwrought nerves. Nor did it sound like mice. The room was filled with flickering shadows thrown by his candle and the fire; from where he lay Eustace could see nothing to definitely account for the noises but much to agitate his imagination. Of one thing he grew certain: there was more than one of whatever was rustling across the floor. There was a slithering to his left now, and one to his right, both nearing the foot of the bed. They were growing closer; and there was something stealthy about their approach.
For a time he could make out no further sounds; and then he saw them.
Two socks slithered up on to his bed: yellow socks, the ones he had bought for Roderick.
Eustace was too terrified even to scream.
Having attained the bed they paused for a second. The tail of one of them - that is the top of the sock, for the toe-ends were pointed towards him - flicked slightly.
And then they began to wriggle towards him.
Gibbering sounds came from Eustace. His hair was standing on end.
When the socks reached the middle of the bed, they reared up and stood balanced upright on their tails; the toe-ends faced him, drooping over somewhat so that they looked like the hoods of cobras.
They appeared to be staring at him. Then, even more horribly, mouth-like wrinkles appeared at their very ends; and the socks spoke his name.
'Eusssssstacccce,' - hissed the left-hand sock.
'Euuuuustaaace,' - crooned the right-hand sock.
'Euuuusssstaaace,' - they warbled together.
Now Eustace did scream, at the very top of his lungs, and vaulted from the bed in terror. His object was the door; and the socks chased after him - no longer moving by stealthy slithering inches, but shooting across the floor at eye-dazzling speed. One wrapped itself taut about his ankles and brought him crashing down heavily. The other shot up the door and twisted itself around the key, turned it, removed it, and flicked it into a dark corner of the room. Then the pair of them scuttled to where he lay winded and started to whip themselves across his face.
Yelling his fear, Eustace leapt to his feet, seized the poker from the fire and beat at the fiendish socks frenziedly with it. They dodged and darted, weaved and writhed, scuttling over the furniture and under it, and he demolished much of his room in flailing at them. He caught one a powerful blow, causing it to squeal in pain, and sobbing with terror bashed at it again and again as it lay there. The other flung itself on him and wrapped itself around his throat, starting to squeeze the life out of him. He dropped the poker and grasped at it with both hands; it took every ounce of his strength to prise it free. In rage he shook the sock and commenced to throttle it in his turn, vicing his fingers somewhere near the ankle where he presumed its throat to be, and was rewarded by tiny choking noises from it; then he bashed it against the wall a couple of times and hurled it upon the fire. Smouldering and shrieking, it scuttled across the room and wriggled out under the door.
Panting, Eustace turned to look for its fellow - and found it standing on his bedside table, coiled to spring at him and with his newly-sharpened paper-knife knotted within its grasp. Time seemed to freeze as it launched itself through the air on a trajectory for his jugular vein.
Eustace went into a bullet-time back-flip, corkscrewing in mid-air so that the sock and knife arced past him with barely an inch to spare. He landed on the bed, wrenched the crucifix from the wall above it, and whirled back to face the sock just as it was crouching to make another leap. It recoiled somewhat as he thrust the holy symbol at it, then waved the knife at him menacingly. The two of them circled each other warily; the sock made darting, probing jabs with the knife, and once managed to draw blood from his ankle with a slash that narrowly missed his hamstring, but at last Eustace succeeded in hitting it with the crucifix. The sock hissed, shuddered, smoke rose from it as if it burned, and it dropped the knife and shot out the same route its mate had done.
Eustace collapsed to the floor, shaking in every limb. His feelings may be imagined. He got down on his knees and gave thanks for his deliverance.
But the next night the socks returned exactly as before, and he was only rid of them after a similar struggle; and again the night after that.
The night after that he slept in a hotel; and still they found him.
He took to sleeping with a loaded revolver by his bed. The first night he emptied it at the first hint of a slither he heard, and was rewarded by a squeal and a glimpse of his antagonists slipping hastily under the door. But the night after that, having spent hours in an uneasy vigil and finally slipped into a fitful sleep, he was awoken by a click to find the socks on his pillow, one pointing the gun at his head and the other coiling itself around the trigger. He wrestled with them and the shot shattered the window, through which the socks nimbly fled. Shortly after this he was asked to quit his lodgings.
He was at his wits' end. Outcast as he was he had no-one to turn to; nor would anyone have believed his plight.
He was, however, a wealthy man following Roderick's unexpectedly generous Christmas present. He bought an isolated manor-house in the country surrounded by its own moat and drawbridge, and set about fortifying it further. He sealed off the letterbox and chimneys and installed traps in the drains. He plastered the dwelling inside and out with crucifixes, church candles and Romish icons. He scattered mousetraps and even mantraps about, and, cackling to himself at his cunning, placed in front of all the internal doors long strips of wood affixed to which were jagged fragments of overgrown toenail, purchased from down-and-outs, which he had observed had the property of instantly tearing to shreds even the sturdiest of socks.
He had trouble attracting servants to such an eccentric residence, but at length secured a manservant who had been dismissed without references from his last position and made no objection even to Eustace's stipulation that he must go about everywhere completely barefoot; for it had occurred to him that the socks might try to use the fellow as a Trojan horse somehow.
At last the fortress was ready to move into. No sooner had he put down his suitcases and closed the door than the door-bell jangled. He opened the door again to find the socks standing on the step, cleverly disguised in tinted spectacles, bowing and looking affable and obviously hoping to be invited in. He shrieked and discharged a blunderbuss at them and they fled down the lane. He had the drawbridge raised and nailed the front door shut from within.
That night there was no visitation; and at length he slept, deeply and soundly for the first time in weeks.
He awoke refreshed and with a newly keen appetite. Sighing happily, he yanked the bell-pull to summon his man to bring breakfast in bed. But he heard no answering jangle, and after a second pull he saw why; the pull-rope had disappeared and in its place were the phantom socks, knotted together and dangling by his head.
There was no escape from them. By now they no longer confined their visits to the night-time and they might appear anywhere. Sometimes they would attack him, sometimes merely taunt him. He would find them lying impudently in his own sock drawer, or snuggled down in the bed next to him when he woke; once he awoke choking to find them balled up in his mouth; they would steal his toast at breakfast and try to read the Times over his shoulder. Though they could be driven off for a time, they would always return, and not a day went by but they appeared to him in all their unholy piss-yellow vileness.
Eustace crossed the Channel, and for a day or two seemed to give his enemies the slip; but in a bistro in Montmartre he was served an omelette that, when he cut into it, proved to contain a palpitating mound of urine-coloured cotton; and standing on the top of the Eiffel Tower, he turned to discover one of the socks leaning on the railing next to him, inhaling the air and gazing out across the panorama for all the world like any other tourist.
He caused a scene at the Casino at Baden when he looked up from the roulette table to find the croupier had apparently turned into a giant yellow sock.
He caused a scandal in Vienna by biting the feet of a dowager whose misfortune it was to be wearing stockings of a shade similar to his tormentors; they proved, after he had chewed, ripped, stabbed and burned them, to be quite normal. But the ones that came to him that night were not.
On the Lido in Venice, and in the Duomo in Florence, they pursued him; and so Eustace retraced his steps and then took ship to India.
As soon as he was out on the ocean proper a feeling of vast relief overcame him. The sea air served to soothe his shattered nerves; and he was troubled by no unearthly visitations. It seemed that here, finally, he had escaped his terrible gift. He played shuffleboard and quoits, dined at the captain's table, even embarked upon a discreet shipboard flirtation.
The end of their voyage was marred by unseasonal storms; and once a strange rumour ran through the ship that a junior look-out had espied a pair of eerie creatures frolicking through the waves, of a description to call to mind the old tales of sea-serpents, save that they were of a hideous yellowish colour. But Eustace paid scant notice.
Now a new arrival in India, especially one who, as he had let slip at the captain's table in the course of his flirtation, happened to own the Great Western Railway, could not ordinarily have avoided a great deal of attention, scrutiny and speculation, and a deluge of invitations from expatriate society. But an earthquake had struck a remote province, and a famine was upon the land, the effects of which the colonial administrators were working night and day to assuage; so that there was little time for the social round, and Eustace was allowed to discreetly take a house and servants and slip into a life of quiet seclusion, which suited him admirably. True, on his second day there Miss Plym's fiancee called on him and thrashed him with a horse-whip for his lascivious present to her, but apart from that he was unmolested.
Weeks passed quietly, and with no spectral disturbances, and Eustace started to regain his peace of mind, and even to plan cautiously for the future.
Then one day as he wandered through the bazaar marvelling at the myriad sights, sounds and smells, he chanced to be watching a snake-charmer at work; and to his indescribable horror, as the seductive music played, a piss-yellow sock emerged from the basket, swaying lithely in time to the rhythm and turning to face Eustace with an unmistakable menace.
Eustace turned pale and backed away, heedlessly banging into people and knocking over the basket of a fruit-vendor behind him.
Suddenly a nearby fakir arose from his bed of nails with a startled gasp, and pointed at Eustace with an accusing finger. The man was venerable, white-bearded, semi-naked, in appearance little different from the many other gurus or performing charlatans in the marketplace, yet a terrible authority emanated from him and his voice was loud and penetrating.
'It is him!' he cried. 'That is the man! That is the man who gave socks in return for a railway!'
Natives and memsahibs alike turned to see. Appalled, Eustace fled, barging blindly through the crowd in a panic.
'Stop him!' came the fakir's cries from behind him. 'He is the one! That is the man who has doomed us all!'
Eustace gained the safety of his house and tremblingly poured a drink. That night his punka-wallah saw the house mongoose torn apart by two strange snakes the colour of urine.
The next morning the fakir was found at the door demanding audience. The servants refused all commands to send him away, saying this was a very holy man who must not be gainsaid.
Eustace received him in the study. 'What is it that you want of me?'
'Woe unto you!' cried the holy man. 'You have brought great tribulation both upon yourself and upon the earth by your selfishness. Unless you atone worse will follow.'
'What do you know of it? And what do you mean, upon the earth?'
'By your paltry gift you have upset the cosmic balance. If this is not remedied it will cause a spiral of disaster and destruction that will engulf the whole world. Already the effects can be felt. You have doubtless heard of the eruption at Krakatoa that laid waste to half the islands of the Pacific? That was your fault.'
'But that happened seven years before I bought the bloody socks!' Eustace protested.
The fakir clouted him round the ear. 'An upset cosmic balance knows no space and time! I think you caused the Great Fire of London too. And about 120 years from now a terrible financial collapse will devour all the money in the world. That will be your fault as well.'
Eustace glowered. 'Then what is to be done?'
'You must make amends. You must bestow on your cousin a gift more worthy of your friendship.'
'How? I cannot dig the b_____ up.'
'That is precisely what you must do.'
And so Eustace returned to England, bringing the holy man with him. At every port they stopped at the fakir would eagerly scan newspapers and, even more annoyingly, history books, in search of more disorders of the cosmos which Eustace had caused. It had rained frogs in Paraguay; a pair of giant yellow monsters of curious shape had devastated Tokyo; he held Eustace responsible for the outbreak of Black Death in the 14th Century.
They disembarked just in time for the festive season. Via a medical student friend Eustace procured the services of a resurrectionist, and on a chill and moonlit night a week before Christmas, armed with spades and crowbars, they took themselves to the unhallowed plot outside a churchyard wall where Roderick had been buried almost twelve months previously.
The hired graverobber was brisk about his gruesome business and before too long had uncovered Roderick's coffin and prised it ajar, received his payment and fled. At the stroke of midnight the guru danced about before the open grave, chanting and ululating and waving a wand-like staff, and taking a certain powder from a pouch and scattering it over the casket.
There was a pause. Night birds hooted mournfully and icy drifts of fog shifted like veils.
There came a creaking sound. A terrible figure stood upright in the grave, staring at Eustace in mute reproach. Roderick was appallingly not-quite-skeletal. A shrivelled and tattered covering of decayed flesh still clung to his bones, sloughing off in little gobbets here and there even as they watched. Where his eyes had once been were flickers of pale flame.
'O offended shade,' intoned the holy man, 'we seek to appease thee, that the sacred balance might be restored and the world may be spared.'
He nudged Eustace, who tremblingly stepped forward and nodded. 'H-hello, Roderick,' he said nervously.
Roderick seemed to regard him with amusement and a wry smile, although that could have been an effect of the flesh around his jaw falling away. When he spoke it was in his own voice, albeit with the slightest hint of unnatural reverberation. 'Hello, Eustace.'
'I - I have come to ask what you would like for Christmas this year.'
'Oh, anything,' said Roderick pettishly, 'don't put yourself out for me.'
This would be difficult if Roderick was going to do a martyr routine.
'I - I thought perhaps some sort of expensive new microscope,' said Eustace humbly. 'For your scientific studies.'
'Mmmm.' Roderick made a pursed mouth and waggled his hand from side to side to indicate dubiety and lack of enthusiasm, dislodging a couple of worms in the process.
'Oh! Perhaps a nice silk cravat?' suggested Eustace. 'I saw a very good one, with matching top-hat.'
Roderick studied the overgrown nails on the end of his half-fleshed fingers. 'I think diamond cuff-links are always in good taste,' he murmured.
'What the hell use do you have for diamond cuff-links?' Eustace cried irritably.
'About the same use I have for a bloody microscope, dipshit,' Roderick shot back.
The fakir clouted Eustace round the ear with his stick and bowed to Roderick. 'It shall be as you ask, O shade.'
They started to retreat.
'Wait!' cried Roderick. 'There is more. Better get a pencil, I'll give you a list. I would like... a Little Tich annual... ooh, and a Marie Lloyd calendar, the really raunchy one where you can see her ankles... and I will have a cravat, actually... and one of those games with marbles and cocktail sticks... a cuddly toy... a diamonds and gold sandwich... the Queen's knickers, I don't care how you get hold of them... your sideburns, for I have always envied them... and the sideburns of the three strongest men in Britain, you must go up to them in the street and steal their side-whiskers in broad daylight... and an aardvark, with a miniature gold palanquin on top, encrusted in diamonds, and a little white mouse sitting in the palanquin riding on the aardvark. But please,' he said sweetly with a withering look at Eustace, 'don't go to too much trouble.'
'God I hate you,' said Eustace.
So on Christmas Eve they returned to the graveside laden with presents, and on the stroke of midnight dumped them into the coffin while Roderick looked on complacently. Eustace had had to dispose of his Great Western Railway shares to pay for it all, he had been bruised all over by the three strongest men in Britain whom he had robbed of their sideburns, his own face was horribly denuded and emasculated - he stifled a sob as he dropped his own whiskers into the grave - and they had had the hell of a struggle to get hold of the sovereign's knickers.
'Oh, you shouldn't have,' said Roderick regarding the hoard gloatingly. 'For little me, how sweet.'
'Then you are appeased?' asked the holy man.
'There is one thing more.' Roderick drew himself up to his full height and his voice was suddenly booming and stern. The flames in his eyes crackled startlingly as he swivelled the orbits to fix on Eustace and pointed a bony finger. 'You must take to yourself the shit-awful present you palmed off on me.'
There was a slithering sound and the two malevolent socks peeked over the lip of the grave.
'No!' begged Eustace on his knees. 'Not that!'
'Yes,' commanded Roderick. 'You must put them on and wear them always.'
'It must be so,' urged the holy man in a whisper full of awe and compassion.
And so Eustace bared his feet and shuddered in revulsion as the socks wriggled over and unrolled themselves over them in all their loathsome yellow glory. He sucked his breath in with pain, for they seemed to burn into his skin, fuse with his very flesh.
'I am satisfied.' A drift of fog obscured the grave and then Roderick was gone.
The holy man peered up keenly at the frost-clear stars, seeking the constellation of Libra. 'You have done well,' he sighed, 'the balance is restored.'
If at a horrible price. Eustace hid himself in cheap lodgings, a whiskerless freak in nasty and florid socks, and spent the holidays in lonely gloom.
However there came an unexpected bright note. Miss Plym somehow got wind of his return, arrived at his dwelling and threw herself into his arms with shameless abandon, saying his suggestive present had inflamed her passions so far as to overthrow her reason and begging him to tickle her with the backscratcher and take her roughly on the mantelpiece. After a whirlwind fornication they were quickly married; so she at least would be much easier to buy Christmas presents for in the future.
But the socks - he was never afterwards able to take off the terrible socks. They stay with him always as a mark of his shame; and wherever he walks he endures a pain as of inflamed bunions, and remarks on their garish colouring.
The fire had cooled to ticking embers. We stirred and shifted in our chairs, and a couple of us shivered, as Figgis finished speaking.
'A diverting story indeed,' said our host with a smile as he stretched voluptuously, 'and one calculated, at this time of year, to play on a man's darkest fears. Yet you will admit it is such as to strain credulity; and I doubt you intend us to take you at your oath on all points.'
'If you say so,' said Figgis with frigid politeness.
'Come now! Concede that you at least embellished, and filled in gaps with educated surmises, as storytellers are wont - and licensed - to do. Why, supposing the tale were true, you could not have known all that passed down to such minute particulars, even had the fellow been a friend of yours. There is no means, for example, by which you could know what passed in Eustace's own mind as described.'
'I am not so sure,' said Devereux, a barrister, shooting Figgis a look of thoughtful speculation. 'A man in Eustace's position - he would, of course, have had to change his name, and begin life anew.'
'Undoubtedly,' said Figgis.
'Forgive me - what line of business did you say you were in?
'I did not,' smiled Figgis. 'Perhaps I will give you my card before I leave. I... provide certain personal services for overburdened men... information gathering; rest-cures. My organisation is situated down Limehouse way... We do a very good business at this time of year... And now, gentlemen,' Figgis hauled himself upright, 'if you will excuse me, I must retire.'
He bowed and left us - seeming to hobble somewhat, as if in some discomfort from his feet.
We exchanged disconcerted glances.
'Surely...' I began, and then broke off. My vis-a-vis Atkins was sheet-white and wide-eyed.
'His socks!' he croaked, pointing after the departed Figgis with a trembling finger. 'Did you see his socks? His socks were piss-yellow.'
We all screamed and wept and shat ourselves, and had to be tucked into bed and crooned to sleep by the butler.