Marty was dead: to begin with.
And that, when it came right down to it, was the problem, the phantom pain in the incorporeal backside. He was dead. In the mortal realm - listen to him, all the lingo was water off a duck's back now, Wyvern would be proud - he'd been dead for more than a year and a half. The world had gone nineteen months without Marty Hopkirk in it and not even sneezed at the loss.
It didn't bear thinking about, so Marty didn't think about it. He made a drinks now, please wave at Gomez, propped himself up against the bar, and tried to look intellectual, as he assumed you were meant to do at book readings.
"It's a cracking good story, though, isn't it?" he whispered loudly when Gomez shimmered over. "I mean, it's not a patch on the film. The one the Muppets did. But it's still pretty good."
Up on the stage, Charles Dickens gave him a stern look over the top of his pages and started into the bit where Scrooge went to the Cratchits' house.
"It's a tremendous story, ducky," Gomez whispered back, handing him a pint that he already knew would be as tasteless as liquid air, "but after the hundredth time or so you start to guess what's going to happen next." He nodded at the couple of sentimental old ghosts who already had the tissues out in anticipation of a good cry when Tiny Tim snuffed it.
A hundred years in Limbo. A hundred years of the same ghosts ordering the same drinks and listening to the same story because it was a particular time of year Downstairs and they were feeling a bit sentimental for when they'd been alive.
Marty hung around another few minutes, long enough to finish his beer - insubstantial as it was, a pint was a pint - and then made his escape while Tiny Tim was dying. Bleeding depressing as Jeff was being these days, he wasn't as bad as this lot. At least he was alive.
"I wish I was dead."
Once upon a time Marty might have had a shred of sympathy for this sort of announcement. Now it just made him long for the days when he could have dealt Jeff a clip round the ear for being a first-class twat. "D'you know what, so do I. I wish you were dead and I was alive. Then you could be the restless wanderer in the hereafter and I could be the one acting like a big girl over Jeannie and we'd all be happy as... very happy things."
Jeff slouched further down in his armchair, but he did manage to look a bit ashamed of himself. "I'm sorry, Marty. That was a stupid thing to say."
"Yes, it was. Stupid and crass. And hurtful. And..." It didn't count as racist if it was against a ghost, did it? "Living-ist."
"All right, I said I was sorry."
"So you should be."
"You're determined to have the last word here, aren't you?"
He let the question dangle for just long enough to make it seem like he'd dropped it before he said, "Yes, I am."
Jeff let it go, turning back to digging through the Quality Street tin in the vain hope that he'd missed one of the green triangles. There were a lot of sweet wrappers on his living room floor, Marty noticed. And empty beer bottles, enough of them to make it look like his best mate had moved into a bottle bank and not told him. Lots of foil cartons from the Chinese down the road, too.
"They've given you a calendar," he said. "That's nice."
"A panda in a canoe, that's good, that is. Very traditional."
"I suppose," Jeff said, "if you hadn't died you and Jeannie would be married by now."
"Suppose we would," he said, and he did try his best not to sound smug. Oh yes. She'd be a happy Mrs Hopkirk. She wouldn't have given him a speech about how they'd be better as friends and how Charley Marshall from the office downstairs was a lovely bloke, really, and she hadn't meant for anything to happen but it had sort of crept up on her and she knew he'd understand...
Jeff had given Marty the gist of this, mostly in short depressed sentences punctuated by moments of embarrassed awareness that Jeannie's dead fiancé wasn't likely to shower him with sympathy on this one. In fact, he hadn't needed to tell him anything. Marty had heard the whole thing, eavesdropping from a light bulb after a lesson from Wyvern on manifesting himself as small household objects. Fair do's to his mentor, nobody had foreseen that talent coming in handy quite so quickly. It had cheered him up no end. He'd had to pretend to be an electrical fault so Jeff wouldn't hear him sniggering.
Days of this moping had got him down again, though. It was Christmas Eve, for God's sake! Somewhere out there were parties and beautiful women and drinks that actually tasted of drink, and Jeff was sat here guzzling sweets and staring at Year's Best You've Been Framed. Didn't he have something, anything, else he could be doing? He had to have some friends, surely, though now that he came to think of it Marty couldn't remember ever meeting them. Jeff had just always hung around with him and Jeannie, and from time to time one of them would say "this'll be a bit weird when we're/you're married, won't it?" and the three of them would have a laugh about it and carry on as if it was never going to happen.
And, of course, it never had.
Funny how things turned out.
Marty gathered up his power into a gust of wind, sending a sweet paper blizzard swirling around the room. "You could at least have the decency to be working, if you're so set on doing this moaning minny act all Christmas. We've got bills to pay."
"There's no work on."
"There's divorce work. There's always divorce work at Christmas."
"Freezing my arse off for hours to take pictures of some bloke with his trousers down, no thanks."
Marty had quite enjoyed that. They'd used to bring a takeaway and pretend they were cops on stakeout in an American film. Jeannie had once told him, when he'd woken her up at four in the morning with a slightly exaggerated tale of derring-do against the evil adulterer, that she wanted a prenuptial agreement stipulating he had to spend as much time a week with her as he did with Jeff. "You could come along and be our sidekick," he'd suggested, "like the fit one in Scooby Doo," and got a pillow in the face.
Jeff rattled the sweet tin mournfully. "I've run out of triangles," he said. "I'm going to the shops. Do you want anyth... course you don't. Be back soon."
"'Course you don't want anything, Marty'," he sneered to himself in Jeff's voice, once the flat door had banged shut and his connection to the living world started to weaken with Jeff's distance. "'You're dead and you can't eat anything anyway and isn't it a crying shame your fiancé won't shag me?'" He took himself back to the other side, leaving behind a faint echo of an imitated voice: "'Oh, woe is meee...'"
Jeff must have other friends. It stood to reason. Even Wyvern had friends. Right now the house was full of them; the floating walls had been shoved back to make space and there was some complicated gavotte going on in the centre of the room with ghosts exchanging places and, more often than not, heads. More cheerful than Jeff's place, but they could do with a bit of Slade to liven things up.
"Wyvern," Marty shouted over the music, "is there some reason you're dressed as a giant chess piece?"
Wyvern spread his arms, his white robes making him look twice as big as usual, the enormous crown on his head tipping forward at a dangerous angle. "It's winter, Marty, in the mortal realm! The solstice, when the walls between the living and the dead are thin, when the sun dies and is reborn. Mere mortals of our worlds take heed/and celebrate their new yuleteed."
"Yulete... yuletide. Right. But..." Marty frowned, long-buried memories of Miss Armstrong's fifth form class bobbing to the surface. "Isn't it only winter in one half of the world at a time? It is, isn't it? I very nearly passed O-Level Geography, you know, you won't get anything past me."
He let himself be led off to a quiet corner where two armchairs and a teapot waited for them. Wyvern sat down and poured the tea without splashing a drop over his King of Winter get-up.
"It's just an excuse for a piss-up, all this yuletide solstice-y bollocks, isn't it? Just like everything from down there that gets celebrated up here. Christmas, Eid, Diwali, Elvis's deathday..."
Wyvern gave him an indulgent smile. "Would you like to try on the crown, Marty?"
He perked up. "Can I?"
It looked dead impressive on him. Heavy, though, and it reminded him uncomfortably of his brief stint as future king of the whole world. "Wouldn't like to be wearing this all the time," he said, handing it back. Wyvern put it to the side of his chair.
"How is Mr Randall getting on?"
"Oh, him." Marty kicked at his chair, glad to be back somewhere where he could kick things. "Jeannie's finally given him the push so he's in a sulk. It was quite funny for a bit, now I just want him to cheer up and watch Bond films with me."
"It's a tradition," he said. "If we don't watch Moonraker on Christmas Day the sun might not be reborn for another year. It could happen."
"It isn't easy, Marty. Being alone." Wyvern looked a bit wistful all of a sudden, so Marty leaned forward and patted him on the arm. His sleeve was real fur, thick and white like a polar bear's, and when Marty took his hand away there were snowflakes on his fingertips.
"You're not on your own, Wyvern. Look how many people've come to your party, even with rubbish music on."
"Ah, but that's here, Marty. Sometimes the living can be even more alone than those of us who have passed."
He scowled. "Oh, you meant Jeff. The backstabbing would-be fiancée thief."
Wyvern inclined his head with a benevolent smile.
"He's only got himself to blame, you know."
The old ghost examined his fingers, all of them plus the thumbs weighed down with rings befitting his fake kingly status, and said nothing. He said nothing for so long that Marty finally fidgeted, unable to take it any more.
"Fine," he huffed, "I'll go and have a word. But if the party's still on when I get back I want another go with the crown."
Jeff was on the phone in the kitchen when Marty pulled himself back into the land of the living. Well, Marty reasoned, no sense in disturbing him when he could do the decent thing and just listen in on the conversation until he'd finished.
"Of course I'm thinking about you," Jeff was placating someone. "No, I am. It's just I can't get away. Yeah. Yeah, of course. Love you too."
The jammy little weasel!
Marty dived through the wall socket and into the telephone wires, zipping past a thousand cheesy Christmas-themed answering machine messages and getting momentarily distracted by a filthy conversation between Jeff's Norwegian neighbour and her girlfriend, before he found the right number and latched on. "My God, you don't give up, do you? You're obsessed, you are! Let it go, Jeff, she's got a boyfriend!"
"I'm sorry, pet," a woman said, "I think there's something wrong with this phone..."
"Never mind, Mum. Must have been crossed wires."
"Sorry, Mrs Randall," Marty muttered, and slunk back to the kitchen. Jeff glared at him, repeated to his mother that yes, he'd come up and see her in the new year, he promised, and hung up.
"Oh, cheers, Marty. My mum's got a heart condition, the last thing she needs is hearing my dead mate bellowing down the line at her."
"Said I was sorry. Anyway, she couldn't have heard me." The time when the walls between the living and the dead are thin, Wyvern had said, or something very like it. "Probably couldn't have heard me. How is she otherwise?"
Jeff's answer was a bit muffled, seeing as his head was mostly in the freezer as he tried to chisel out a turkey joint. "The usual. You know what she's like at this time of year, goes a bit maudlin over my dad being dead - and you, for some reason - so she's throwing herself into the WI. They're doing some calendar for charity."
"Was she really upset? Over me being dead?" Annoyance with Jeff all forgotten, Marty beamed. "Your mum's great, isn't she? Catch my mum even noticing I'm not around."
"Come on, that's not fair." Jeff emerged long enough to shake the ice out of his hair. "Your mum's nice. When I rang her earlier she said she's having a really hard time."
"Did she ask if you could pop round some time with a bottle of wine to cheer her up?"
Jeff cleared his throat and returned to his chiselling with all the enthusiasm of Michelangelo a week past a deadline. "I don't know how this turkey's stuck so fast, it's only been in here a week."
"It's one of life's great mysteries. Like the pyramids, or how all the women in my life inexplicably fancy you." Jeannie was one thing - you could see how she might go for Jeff. He was, if you were going to put a gun to Marty's head, not bad looking and might be considered quite fanciable in certain lights, but clearly the Jeannie thing was because he reminded her of her late and much-missed fiancé. Freud was with him on this one, or he had been once Marty had plied him with drink. You couldn't apply the same logic to his mother. That was getting into weird ancient Greek territory. Anyway, she'd been trying it on with Jeff back when he was just a spotty, pissed 18-year-old kid Marty had accidentally brought home from a party. What a night that had been. Pauline Winters' 20th. He'd landed home with a love bite off her sister, someone else's coat, and Jeff. Two of those things he'd eventually got shot of.
The turkey joint yielded so suddenly it bounced off the oven and skidded away. "Speaking of Jeannie," Jeff said, retrieving his poultry, "she's coming over in a bit, so could you make yourself scarce?"
So that was why he was looking a bit less like he might chuck himself off the building at any moment. Marty took a very deep (and very unnecessary) breath, all set to say that he would not bloody make himself bloody scarce in order for Jeff to make a bloody fool of himself again, then had a better idea. "Fine," he said. "Back to Wyvern's party, then. I'll be back later when you and Jeannie've sorted it all out. See you."
Jeff blinked around at the suddenly empty room. "...thanks?"
For such a small, hot space, the inside of the light fitting really was surprisingly comfortable. It gave him a bird's eye view of the room, assuming that bird was six inches from Jeff's ceiling and covered with a lampshade, and was the perfect place to watch Jeff's hopeless attempts at tidying the place up. Not that it mattered what state the place was in: "It's okay, I won't come in," Jeannie said, after an awkward peck on the cheek hello. "Charley's in the car, he's driving me to my sister's. I just wanted to give you this."
Marty squinted through the curve of the bulb, trying to make out what the present was. Something practical and dripping with purely sisterly affection, he hoped.
"A turkey," Jeff said. "It's just what I wanted, Jeannie, thank you."
"I know it's... did your light just get brighter?" They both stared up at it. Marty kept very small and still. "I know it's not very exciting but I had visions of you starving to death while I was at Wendy's. Or coming back to work and finding you dead of an overdose of Black Magic."
Jeff nudged a box of chocolates under the sofa. "No, honestly, thanks. I did have one, but it got a bit filthy when it slid behind the TV."
King of the chat-up lines, Marty thought.
"Don't tell me you've been organised enough to buy your mum's present before New Year's Eve," she teased, looking behind him at the kitchen counter. Marty swivelled inside his bulb to get a look at the wrapped, rectangular parcel. Clever Jeannie, angling to see if it was for her; exactly what he would have done.
"This might sound a bit weird," Jeff said, "but it's actually for Marty."
"Oh, Jeff." Jeannie stepped forward and hugged him, and Marty was too touched and taken aback to bother with being jealous. "I'm missing him too. Especially with... you know."
"Charley's a good bloke. Marty liked him. I think... I know he'd be pleased."
Jeff was a rubbish actor, always had been, but it sounded as if he meant it. A little bit, at least. Jeannie wiped at her eyes and let him go.
"Have a good Christmas, okay? I'll call you when I get back from Wendy's."
Near the ceiling, Marty rotated slowly, lost in thought.
His connection to Jeff meant he couldn't get far from him without fading, but he followed Jeannie down the stairs, slipping through the wires at the speed of light until he was outside and back in his favourite shape. "Jeannie," he shouted after her, "Jeannie, I know you can't hear me but Jeff was right, I'm pleased, I'm happy for you, and you're going to have a good life, all right? You're going to have such a brilliant life."
Just for a second she paused and looked back, half-smiling, and then she was into Charley Marshall's car and gone. Out of his life, if he was going to be dramatic about it, except she'd be back at work with Jeff after Christmas and it wasn't as if he had a life and... oh, sod it, things were going to be different and he could be melodramatic if he wanted to.
This sorted in his head, he melodramatically vanished back to Jeff's flat.
"What a party!" he announced to the world at large. "That Wyvern, he knows a thing or two about fancy dress, I can tell you. And carousing. Oh, you're tidying up. About time too, it looks like a skip in here."
Jeff stuffed an empty pizza box into a bin bag. "Give us a hand. Levitate things into the bin or something."
"That would be a misuse of my mind-boggling supernatural powers," Marty said, settling grandly onto the sofa. "Wyvern wouldn't be best pleased."
"So did he teach you any new powers, or was it all fancy dress and carousing?"
"I learned lots of things, I learned about... being a ghost of Christmas past. And present. And Christmas future. I foresee," he put his hands against his temples, "Jeannie spending this Christmas at her sister's."
"That's really impressive."
"It's not like you could have just guessed or anything since that's where Jeannie always goes for Christmas. Go on, be the Ghost of Christmas Future, then."
"You're going to meet a tall dark stranger and travel overseas."
Jeff laughed. Marty watched him closely. He looked better - not as annoying and miserable as he had all week - but sometimes things needed saying, regardless.
"Don't go thinking you're on your own, Jeff," he said, the words coming out in a rush because at least when he was alive he'd have been able to get a few beers in before saying anything like this. "I mean, even if she ends up Mrs Charley Marshall with ten Marshall babies Jeannie'll still be your mate, which is all you should ever have thought of being out of respect for the beloved departed, i.e. me, and..." He shifted in his chair. "And there's me, and, well. I'd do anything for you. And all that."
Jeff was quiet for a long moment, during which Marty worried that he was about to be reminded about that unfortunate time when he'd almost let his best friend get burned at the stake by a bunch of Satan worshippers. This time last year, Jeff hadn't remembered he'd ever come back. Maybe he was thinking he would've been happier staying that way.
Then he said, very fondly: "God, you don't half go on, Marty."
Yeah, Marty thought, relaxing back against the cushions, they were going to be fine.
"What's that present on the counter? Is it for your mum?"
"I don't know, do you think my mum would fancy Buckaroo and a Moonraker video?"
"She might," he mused, "I know I would."
"You'd better have it, then. My mum'd rather have perfume or something."
"Can I? Will you unwrap it for me? Can we watch it now?"
"You know," Jeff looked up at the door frame, "I'm sure there was mistletoe up here. And then just before Jeannie arrived it blew away in a mysterious gust of wind. But I'm sure you wouldn't know anything about that."
Marty stretched comfortably along the sofa, already planning his crushing Buckaroo victory. "You're so coy, you. If you want a snog just say, I'm a bit insubstantial but I'll do my best."
And it was Christmas, so Jeff put the film on and let him have the last word.