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Cranky Christmasses

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[Warnings: some bad language and slight cruelty to interns.]


Sam squares her shoulders, breathing in and out deeply. Right. One more hour in the chair. A generous two hours at the party. Three hours to go, and then she can go home and spend the rest of the day with the cat, who doesn't care about any history except the last time it was fed. The latest New Scientist is arriving tomorrow with its annual future speculation edition. In three hours she won't have to think about any sort of history at all. For a whole day. She feels weak at the knees just thinking about it.


'In five,' says the producer, 'Four, three...' Two, one, he counts silently. Sam straightens up, just managing to hide a wince as the chair pokes into her back. She's going to end up spending her whole day off with a heat pack and the Intermediate Yoga DVD at this rate. Damn field reporters wasting the whole budget, they could have left enough for a decent chair...


'Hello,' she says calmly, trying to stretch her back out without actually moving, 'And welcome to the News at When. When? The twenty-fifth of December in the year 1100, where Baldwin of Bolougne is being crowned King of Jerusalem after the knights of the First Crusade took the city from its Arab rulers. Let's go over live to Mike Peabody, who is outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the coronation is taking place. Mike?'


She sighs in relief as they cut away, and wonders if anyone will notice if she tries to do the sudoku behind her notes.




'Thanks, Sam,' Mike says, trying not to step in any puddles (he'd like to think they're from the rain, but there are rather too many donkeys in Jerusalem to rely on it). 'I'm here outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Baldwin, formerly of Bolougne, is being crowned Baldwin I of the newly-created Kingdom of Jerusalem after the death of his brother Godfrey. The man doing the crowning is the new Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Dagobert of Pisa, who originally was dead against it. Must be an awkward situation all around.' He turns around to see people beginning to stream out of the church. 'Let's see what the two leading men themselves have to say on the matter.'


The view bobs around as the cameraman tries to avoid the puddles of what will optimistically be called water, and there's a squelch as Mike misses his footing and steps in one of them. Well, damn. If the head office hadn't spent so much of their budget on making the news set look pretty he might have got a pair of gumboots. How can they expect field journalists to make quality reports if they're being treated like this? And a bird has already left a deposit on his PRESS vest, half-covering the sticker.


He sighs, squelches onto drier ground and reminds himself that professional journalists adapt to every situation no matter how distasteful. 'Your Holiness, can you describe the atmosphere in the church during the service?' he asks politely, aiming for a dawdling priest.


The man gives him a sidelong look, taking into account his now-soaking shoe, but word has gone out about HHTV. 'It was very peaceful,' he says. 'Very holy and reverential, as is appropriate.'


'Appropriate, yes, but hardly expected, is it?' Mike presses him.


The priest blinks at him. 'How could it not be expected, on this day?'


'Look, I know a coronation is meant to go off without a hitch,' Mike concedes, 'But you've got the two most powerful men in Jerusalem in that church, who were at loggerheads just a few months ago, and now one is crowning the other. I'd expect a few dark looks at least.'


The priest draws himself up. 'I am speaking of the celebration of the birth of Our Lord, which has just taken place in this church,' he says haughtily. Then he leans forward a little. 'This isn't where the king's being crowned,' he says in a friendlier voice.


Now it's Mike's turn to look confused. 'What?'


'You want the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,' the priest says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. 'Common mistake, mate, I've been sending people over all day...'


Mike ignores the rest, his hand clamped to his earpiece. 'You've sent us to the wrong church,' he hisses. The priest continues to give directions, speaking to the camera with helpful hand gestures. Mike turns away from the camera. 'Where am I meant to get a GPS around here? ... Well you'd think the bloody king of Jerusalem would be crowned in a bloody Jerusalem church...'


'Turn right, go up the street and you can't miss it,' the priest says, smiling at the camera and apparently paying no attention to Mike fuming beside him.


'Wrap it up,' the cameraman mutters.


'Can I say hi to my Mum?' the priest says hopefully.


'Yeah, go on then,' Mike says, defeated, as the cameraman starts counting down.


Right. Professional historical field reporter. 'This is Mike Peabody for HHTV news, ' he says, trying to look as dignified as possible while the priest waves at the camera, 'Standing--' --with a sock full of donkey piss-- '--in front of the wrong church.'




If there's a three there, the one next to it has to be a six-- Sam's pencil clatters to the floor as she snatches her notes up again. 'Thanks, Mike,' she says, wondering which historical bigwig he got to interview this time, ‘and here's Bob Hale with a special report on Christmas in England.' She retrieves her pencil and tries to remember her train of thought.


'Thanks, Sam!’ Bob booms. ‘We start here, in pre-Christian England, where the winter solstice is celebrated by pagans... but not for long! The Romans conquer bits of England and bring the Christian faith with them, and that's the end of it! Until the Romans leave, and the Christians leave, and the Anglo-Saxons come over and polytheism wins the day, wa-hey! Until missionaries from Scotland and Europe re-introduce Christianity via Saint Augustine and his fellow saints, or Augustines, can't remember which, but the point is Christianity comes back with the Saints and the Augustines and the invasion of the Normans, and that's Christmas as we know it!'


Seven, Sam thinks, writing it in. No, damn, that can't be seven, seven's already in that line. She wishes she had an eraser.


'Just kidding!’ Bob continues. ‘The Christians adopt the winter solstice celebrations and turn them into a party for the Baby Jesus, happy birthday, Baby Jesus! The priests like it because they get to make a sermon, the pagans like it because it's still in winter, and Baby Jesus likes it because he gets a present every year! Well, not really, but it'd be nice, just a little paperweight or something-- but that's beside the point! Christmas is celebrated until the sixteenth century with a nice big feast and a bit of carolling and who could say no to that? ...The Puritans, that's who! After the first English Civil War Oliver Cromwell bans Christmas because he's a spoilsport, no really, he banned sports too. Charles the Second brings back Christmas with the Reformation and the Baby Jesus gets seven years' worth of presents! ...Well not really, but it'd be nice-- but anyway! Christmas goes back to being about feasts and carols and praying until the 19th century, when everyone gathers around the newly-invented Christmas tree, brought over by Queen Victoria's husband Albert! Well not everyone of course, it'd be very squishy, but for the first time a family can decorate their Christmas tree! And soon after there’s the first record of a fight about where the decorations go and how much tinsel is too much! Never too much tinsel I say, never too much! And we finally have a Christmas tree to put Christmas presents under, and that's Christmas as we know it!'


Sam sighs and tries to rub out the nine she's just written with her finger.


'Except who brings the presents?’ Bob’s outflung arm nearly topples the bluescreen behind him. ‘Santa Claus, that's who! Saint Nicholas of Myra retires, lets himself go and spends a while hanging around with figures from German and Scandinavian folklore and gets a few ideas! So he puts on his finest green suit and trots over to England in the 1700s! Then after a couple of hundred years he decides it's time for a change and puts on a red suit! Why? Because he wanted to, that's why, not because a certain cola company whose name I'm not allowed to mention in this report told him so! Santa Claus brings the presents down the chimney in fire-proof wrapping paper and leaves them under the tree for the children, and there's even one for the Baby Jesus too. Well not really, but it'd be nice after all this time, come on Santa, you can leave a toy for every other kid with a Christmas tree but not the son of God? Don't they have Christmas trees in heaven? Maybe they don't, I haven't been there. Tell you what Santa, if you leave a present for the Baby Jesus under my tree I'll have it buried with me and take it to him when I die, can't say fairer than that, eh? Not that I'm going to die soon! I'll take it to him when I've had a nice long life! Don't kill me Santa! What are you doing with that toy gun? You're making me nervous Santa--'


Sam looks up from her hopelessly-mangled sudoku to see the producer making frantic cutting motions. 'Thanks, Bob,' she says smoothly as he tries to hide behind the bluescreen. 'That's all from the News at When on the 25th of December, and from all of us at HHTV we'd like to wish you a very horrible holidays and a noxious new year.'


The camera cuts away. One of the interns is sent to take Bob into the kitchen for a nice calming cup of tea. Sam gets to her feet, wincing as her back creaks. Well, that's one hour down, two to go. She sighs inwardly and makes for the lunchroom, where hopefully the interns have been putting up holiday decorations and not photocopying ancient books to sell on the black market like last year's lot.




An hour and a half later Sam is back in the abandoned newsroom, sitting on her desk and swilling a fairly mediocre 15th-century riesling around her glass. Bob is next to her with his tranquiliser-spiked tea, and is talking at almost a normal human rate. He looks up as Mike wanders onto the set, 18th-century beer stein in hand.


'Oh, hi,' he says. 'Mind if I join you?' Sam waves at the desk. There's an awkward pause as they try to work out if they can avoid small talk.


'Nice decorations,' Mike says.


Apparently not. 'Very nice,' Sam agrees.


'Let's just hope the interns put them back in the right times this year,' Mike says. Sam laughs dutifully.


'I like the sabretooth,' Bob says cheerfully.


Sam turns to him in alarm. 'What sabretooth?'


A scream comes from the lunchroom, followed by the sound of running and a growl. 'That one,' Bob says happily, swigging his tea.


'Do you think we should...?' Sam looks at the door reluctantly.


'They'll sort it out,' Mike says, drinking his beer. 'Or it'll sort them out. You can't be a historical journalist if you're not good at running.'


Sam shrugs and tries another mouthful of riesling. An extra five minutes of ageing hasn't improved it much. 'How was Jerusalem?' she says to break the silence.


Bob looks at Mike's feet. 'Why are you wearing thongs?'


Mike sighs and tells them about the mix-up. 'It's all right for you two,' he says grumpily as they snigger. 'You're not out in all weather trying to interview people who don't always understand the idea of freedom of the press.'


Yes, she heard about the incident at the Bastille. 'At least you get to go out and actually see history happening,' Sam says wistfully. 'You're not stuck in the damn chair saying the same thing five times in an hour.'


'I'll swap you,' Mike mutters.




Mike blinks at her. 'What, really?'


'Sit in the chair and see how you like it.' Sam gestures. Mike walks around the desk and sits down very hesitantly. He grimaces. 'That's a bloody horrible chair.'


'Do you still want my job?' Sam asks.


'Not really,' Mike sighs, getting up again with relief. 'And you probably wouldn't want mine if you knew what my shoes are covered in.'


'I like my job,' Bob says. He looks at his cup unhappily. 'I've run out of tea.'


'We'll get you some more,' Mike says. They wince as something breaks in the lunch room. 'After they've dealt with the sabretooth,' he adds.


'They're going to be busy with that for hours,' Sam says as another scream cuts through the air. 'Come on, we might as well do it now.'


'Right,' Bob says. He fishes a lump of wrapping paper out of his pocket and hands it to her. 'This is from Mike and I.'


Sam pulls the paper open. Inside there's some sort of sleek black electronic thing, with a little stylus to go with it. 'It's for playing sudoku,' Bob says as she pushes a button and the screen lights up. 'And you can rub out the numbers.'


'Oh,' Sam says. 'Thank-you.'


'Or we could swap it for a proper chair,' Mike says.


'No, it's fine,' Sam says. She smiles at them, a proper smile, not her fixed tv smile. 'Really, it's great.' There’s even a fancy little way you can put possible numbers in the corners of the boxes-- she puts the sudoku player down reluctantly and pulls Mike's present out from under her desk, offering it to him.


'Thanks,' Mike says. He opens the package and smiles at the contents.


'Put in on, put it on,' Bob says impatiently. Mike pulls off his usual vest and replaces it with the new one.


'The PRESS written on the back glows in the dark,' Sam explains, 'And there's a little chip in the front that can say "don't hurt us, we're reporters" in two hundred languages and historical eras.'


'It’s great,' Mike says, looking pleased. 'There isn't a GPS in here, is there?'


'No, we'll get you one next year,' Sam promises, and he laughs.


'Right,' Mike says, turning to Bob. 'It took us a while to find yours, but I think you'll like it.'


'Oh, no, you didn't have to,' Bob protests as Sam pulls another package out from under her desk. 'Blimey, it's heavy!' he mutters as she hands it to him. 'What've you got in this, a cannonball?' He finishes tearing the paper off and falls silent as he gets a look at the box.


'It took us ages to think of a present,' Sam says, 'and then we realised it was staring us right in the face.' Bob is transfixed. She's never seen him speechless before.


'It's got fresh batteries,' Mike says helpfully. Bob puts the box on the desk and opens it very carefully. He pulls out the contents and turns the controls over in his hands, looking like... well, a kid on Christmas morning. Sam and Mike back away from the desk a few feet.


Bob pushes one of the buttons, and the engine starts. He presses another and the little rotors begin to whirl. 'It's beautiful,' he says, eyes shining. 'Thank-you. Really. Thank-you to both of you.'


'Go on, give it a spin,' Mike says, gesturing with his beer stein. Bob lifts one of the levers on the remote, and the little helicopter rises off the desk. Mike and Sam perch on the desk again, laughing as Bob chases his present around and around the news set, with the sounds of a sabretooth in a relatively small lunch room lingering in the background.




'And what about me?' a rat says forlornly from his perch outside one of the windows. 'He thinks it's unfair that the Baby Jesus doesn't get any presents, but nobody speaks up for the rats! Doesn’t seem very fair at all--'


He flings himself into the snow as a large, dark, snarling shape bursts through the kitchen window. It sniffs the air and lopes off down the road.


'Oh, shit,' a voice says. 'We'll be on tea duty forever unless we get it back!' A crowd of interns barges out the door, cursing at the cold weather, and takes off after the departed sabretooth.


The rat raises his head cautiously and sees they’ve left the door open. He crawls through the snow until he can poke his head around the wall. The kitchen has been left empty. A half-eaten donut lies just inside, and beyond it there's a tray of sandwiches, and cake, and shortbread, and a spreading pool of sparkling wine, and cocktail sausages, and little spring rolls, and an open box of chocolates...


'I take it back!' the rat says, looking at the ceiling. 'Thanks, Santa!' He streaks inside the door and makes himself at home.


'Merry Christmas to all,' he says indistinctly, 'And to all a good night.' He swallows. 'No, that doesn't sound right. Cranky Christmas to all, and to all a nasty night. Yeah, that's better.'


And apart from several unfortunate interns, he's right.