5 Weeks to Christmas
Rufus strolled through St James’ Park, tucking his assignment carefully into his jacket pocket. An old man dressed in an old suit and a bowler hat stood nearby, waving at him. ‘You’ll be Clarence, then?’ he asked, and the man gave an enthusiastic nod.
‘Clarence Oddbody, Angel First Class,’ he said happily, extending a hand.
‘Lovely,’ said Rufus, and he shook it. ‘Any sign of our contact?’
‘That looks like him over there,’ said Clarence, gesturing ahead of them, ‘but can that really be who he’s with?’
Rufus looked to where Clarence was pointing. There stood two men, or men-shaped beings, one of them in a tartan jumper that stood out rather horribly against the other’s immaculately cut suit. The second man-shaped being wore sunglasses despite the grey day, which did seem to confirm their suspicions. They were talking in hushed voices, and Rufus edged closer to hear, beckoning Clarence to follow.
‘Really, my dear, fourteen years of no communication and then they spring this on us? It must have something to do with your recent actions!’
‘But I’m telling you, I’ve done nothing that would get their attention! Unless you really think they’re interested in whether a bit of solid gold shit makes it to the Christmas number one—’
‘But the election, Crowley, you must have had a hand in that—’
‘What, because he’s more pretty than brainy?’ Crowley smirked. ‘I did nothing, angel. That’s humans for you. That’s what they want.’
‘Ahem,’ said Rufus, and the odd pair turned, startled. ‘You must be Aziraphale. I’m Rufus, and this is Clarence Oddbody. We’ll be your temporary help this holiday season. Pleased to meet you. I take it you’ve been informed of our imminent arrival.’ Rufus fished his assignment out of his pocket and handed it to Aziraphale. After a moment’s confusion of pockets, Clarence did the same. The man-shaped being who could only be the demon Crowley looked impossibly smug.
‘Er,’ said Aziraphale. ‘Right. Excellent.’ He shook their hands in turn, then looked down at their papers, then did a double take. ‘This does say three new associates, doesn’t it? I can’t help noticing you’re only two.’
‘Look to the skies,’ said Clarence, pointing, and they looked up. There, floating downwards, was a woman clutching an umbrella, dressed in the unmistakeable attire of a British nanny. Crowley’s smirk vanished, his mouth instead hanging open in amazement.
‘You’re real?’ he managed to ask, when she had touched the ground and begun to walk with purpose towards them. The woman shook her head with a high and mighty air.
‘Of course I’m real,’ she said primly. ‘I did have to go into early retirement when I found myself famous, but when one must, one must. Now close your mouth, Crowley; you’re a snake, not a codfish. And I’d run along if I were you; I daresay your new colleagues will be along shortly.’
Crowley turned, then bolted. Rufus, Aziraphale, and Clarence gazed after him. In the distance hovered two dark, vaguely humanesque shapes, lurking with practised skill. Between them stood a young woman, who even from a distance looked very bored indeed. The umbrella traveller cleared her throat impatiently, and they turned back to her.
Rufus grinned with delight. ‘Mary Poppins. It’s lovely to see you again.’
‘And it’s lovely to see you too, Rufus, I’m sure. Don’t slouch, Aziraphale, we are not an Antichrist. And you must be Clarence. Do put on something sensible; you’ll get nothing done looking like that.’
‘And just what are we meant to be doing?’ asked Aziraphale coldly, looking more than a little affronted.
‘Do you mean to say they’ve not explained it to you?’ asked Rufus, surprised. ‘We’re meant to exert a bit of Heavenly influence over the new Prime Minister. More to the point, we’re to lend him a bit of divine strength for the President’s upcoming visit.’
‘He’s one of theirs,’ said Clarence sadly. ‘And what a shame it is, too. He could have been a great man, but he’s never hesitated to forsake a friend. As you’re our regular man on Earth, you’ll be taking the lead on this one, and I’ll be replacing you as a general force for good in the world while you’re busy at Downing Street. Rufus here will be assisting you.’
‘And you, er…dear lady?’ asked Aziraphale. ‘Why has Up There sent you?’
Mary Poppins folded her arms. ‘I should have thought that was obvious. The departing Prime Minister left Britain hurting for a leader and one little boy hurting for some attention from a father in residential absentia. That indirectly supports your mission and fits perfectly into what I do, and so I’ll be off then.’ And with that, she began to float upwards.
Rufus extended a hand to Aziraphale, who now looked simply bewildered. ‘Well, off we go, then. Let me just check the time…ah, yes, the Prime Minister should be arriving within the hour.’
‘Hello, Crowley,’ said Hastur unpleasantly. Next to him, Ligur glared, plainly not having forgotten the Holy Water incident, even though it hadn’t happened. ‘This is Mia. She’ll be supporting you in this mission.’
‘We can’t risk any more cockups, like the last time,’ said Ligur meaningfully. Crowley seemed to shrink in front of him.
‘What am I—are we, I mean—to do, then?’ he asked meekly.
‘The US President,’ said Hastur. ‘Me and Ligur here have been working on him for years.’
‘A big get,’ said Crowley, trying to sound helpful.
‘Yes,’ said Ligur. ‘And you’re to make sure the new Prime Minister doesn’t get in his way. And if you don’t, Crowley, there will be consequences. Eternally.’
‘Eternally. Yeah,’ said Crowley, and Mia smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, which, unlike Crowley’s, did not look particularly demonic. Her aspect, however, fit the part.
‘It shouldn’t be too difficult,’ she said casually. ‘I’ve already begun working on a personal project in my spare time. I’m tempting a family man.’
She looked as though she were waiting for his approval. ‘Nice one,’ said Crowley, without feeling.
‘We’ll be overseeing your progress,’ said Hastur, his eyes full of gleeful malevolence. ‘Remember, Crowley: eternal consequences.’
Rufus and Aziraphale took their places at the Prime Minister’s first Cabinet meeting. Across from them sat Crowley, accompanied by the woman Rufus had seen earlier. No one seemed to question why it was necessary for four people to be taking minutes, and in any case all of their credentials were in good order, even if no one could recall exactly what said credentials were. And no one objected when, in the middle of a discussion about the budget deficit, one of them whispered conspiratorially to another, who wore a deeply pained expression and looked as though he’d like to be anywhere else, ‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your arch nemesis?’
Crowley sighed. ‘Mia, this is Aziraphale and...er…’
‘Rufus,’ Rufus said helpfully.
‘Right. Rufus. Aziraphale, Rufus, meet Mia.’
‘Charmed,’ said Rufus genially. She was charming for a demon, after all.
Aziraphale nodded. ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance,’ he said stiffly, in the manner of someone who has spent so much time cavorting with a known enemy that he does not quite know how to react when presented with a new one.
‘This is boring,’ said Mia. ‘They’re not going to talk about the President’s visit today. We don’t need to be here.’
‘We’re supposed to be getting to know him,’ said Crowley dully. ‘Not that there seems to be much to know. He’s not taking in a word anyone’s saying.’
‘Yes, and that is rather odd, don’t you think?’ said Rufus, addressing Aziraphale.
‘He does seem terribly preoccupied by something,’ Aziraphale agreed. ‘Oh, I do hope it isn’t anything dreadful.’
Rufus pursed his lips in thought. He stared at the Prime Minister, wishing he could see into the man’s mind. Something was clearly weighing on it, and the supernatural contingent weren’t the only ones who had noticed. The Deputy Prime Minister was clearly growing impatient. Not wanting to engage the two demons, Rufus carefully removed a notepad from his front pocket, scrawled this observation onto one page, and passed it to Aziraphale, who read it and nodded wearily. He and Crowley exchanged a glance.
‘Well then, I think we could all use a short break,’ said the Prime Minister, and the four recording secretaries rose in unison with the Cabinet and filed out of the room.
‘I thought we might go exploring,’ said Rufus to Aziraphale, who nodded curtly. The two angels made their way out into the hall, where Aziraphale’s attention was immediately grabbed by a woman who stood at the end of it. Her clothes marked her as a member of the Prime Minister’s household staff, and she seemed to be more than a little upset. She was pacing around a catering cart, as though she could not quite get up the nerve to wheel it into the room.
‘Oh dear,’ said Aziraphale. ‘She looks terribly distressed, poor thing.’
‘Crying out for a helping hand,’ Rufus agreed, and he followed Aziraphale towards her.
‘Hello, Miss, er—’
‘Natalie,’ she managed to say. ‘I mean, Miss Wilson. Oh, shit, I’ve just done it again, haven’t I? Oh, fuck it. I might as well just hand in my fucking resignation right now.’
‘My dear, such language!’ exclaimed Aziraphale.
‘Er, is there anything we might be able to do for you, Miss Wilson?’ asked Rufus.
‘Oh, no, I don’t think so, sir,’ said Natalie. ‘Well, I don’t suppose you could be so kind as not to tell anyone what I just said to you, sir.’
‘My lips are sealed, miss,’ said Rufus officiously.
‘Oh, thank you, sir,’ said Natalie, just as Aziraphale tugged at Rufus’ arm. ‘Look over there,’ he muttered, and Rufus turned. The Prime Minister was standing in the office doorframe, frankly staring at Natalie’s profile. She caught his eye and quickly turned away, blushing furiously.
‘I, er, I’d better be getting on with this,’ said Natalie, and she began pushing the cart forwards, deliberately keeping her head as far down as possible.
‘How unsurprising,’ said a voice behind them, and they turned to see Mia and a very uncomfortable-looking Crowley. ‘It’s a woman. Well, that makes everything much easier. A few quick temptations and I can get back to my personal project.’
‘Personal project?’ asked Rufus, but just then, people began filing back into the conference room, and they hastened to follow. Mia winked at the Prime Minister as she passed, and he immediately turned away, beet-red, his mind filled with Hell only knew what image, but Rufus strongly suspected it involved Miss Natalie Wilson. Rufus quickly patted him on the shoulder, attempting to pass on a bit of stability and strength. So it went throughout the meeting, and the Cabinet secretaries could hardly fail to notice that the Prime Minister seemed unable to get a sentence out properly.
‘A bad job well done,’ said Mia afterward. She grinned smugly at the angels. ‘Good luck.’ She paused a moment before adding, with satisfaction in her tone, ‘You’ll need it.’
4 Weeks to Christmas
‘OK, what’s next?’ asked the Prime Minister, after what had, so far, been a more productive meeting than most.
‘The President’s visit,’ someone supplied. Rufus and Aziraphale exchanged glances. At long last, the moment had arrived to discuss it. They had each, of course, met with him privately, but neither felt much had been accomplished. Crowley, sitting across from them, perked up.
‘Ah, yes, yes,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘I fear this is going to be a difficult one to play. Alex?’
‘There’s a very strong feeling in the party that we mustn’t allow ourselves to be bullied into submission like the last government,’ said the Deputy Prime Minister brusquely. ‘This is our first really important test. Let’s take a stand!’
There was a chorus of agreement. Rufus and Aziraphale hurriedly joined in, and Crowley glared at Mia’s empty seat.
The Prime Minister held up a hand. ‘Right, right, I understand that, but I have decided not to,’ he began, to a decidedly unenthusiastic response. Rufus’ face fell; so, he could see, did Aziraphale’s. Crowley smiled, but Rufus had the impression that this smile did not quite reach his eyes, though he did not remove his sunglasses. ‘Not this time,’ said the PM firmly. ‘We will of course try to be clever,’ he added hastily, ‘but let’s not forget that America is the most powerful country in the world. I’m not going to act like a petulant child. Right, now who do you have to screw around here to get a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit?’
Just then, the door opened, and the woman called Natalie entered, pushing the tea and biscuit cart, and the Prime Minister flushed with embarrassment. ‘Right,’ he murmured, looking away from her.
‘But sir,’ said Rufus, when Natalie had gone, ‘it wouldn’t just be a stand. It would be so much more than a stand.’
‘You would have a chance to send a message to the world!’ said Aziraphale. ‘You’d find rather more support than you imagine, I should think. This President isn’t very popular anywhere outside of America, and even there it’s not much better than 50/50.’
‘All the same, he is the Leader of the Free World,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘The Special Relationship with the United States is paramount importance. I won’t jeopardise that over a few disagreements.’
‘With due respect, sir, it’s more than a few disagreements!’ said the Deputy Prime Minister irritably. ‘He may be the Leader of the Free World, but he’s made a mockery of that position. You can’t let him make a mockery of us as well!’
‘Who said anything about letting him make a mockery of us?’ asked Crowley smoothly. ‘There’s no need to go that far. We just ought not to antagonise him. It’s like, you know, you see a sleeping dragon, you don’t poke it in the eye. That doesn’t mean you have to give it a blanket and a pillow and sing to it while it snores.’
‘Right, thank you, that’s exactly the metaphor I’ve been looking for,’ said the Prime Minister, and Aziraphale looked close to losing his temper.
‘We’ll manage it somehow,’ Rufus whispered, though he didn’t know how.
3 Weeks to Christmas
Barely an hour in, the President’s visit was already going very badly. ‘No, absolutely not!’ said one of the Americans sharply. ‘We cannot and will not consult on that either!’
‘That is unexpected,’ hissed the Deputy Prime Minister, who looked ready to spontaneously combust.
‘Well, it shouldn’t be,’ said the President smarmily. ‘The last administration made it perfectly clear. We’re just being consistent with their policies.’
‘With due respect, sir, they were bad policies!’ the Deputy Prime Minister shouted.
‘Thanks, Alex,’ said the Prime Minister hurriedly. ‘I don’t think we’re making progress here. Let’s, ah, move on, shall we?’
‘But sir,’ Rufus began, turning to Aziraphale for support, but the other angel’s attention was elsewhere. He was staring at one of the younger Americans in the President’s entourage and gesturing wildly at Crowley, who stood in a corner, well away from the proceedings. He’d hardly had to do anything at all, and he clearly wanted to keep it that way.
Ignored by the Prime Minister, Rufus turned to look at the young American who had caught Aziraphale’s interest. Apart from an air of being conspicuously well-cared for, nothing about him stood out. ‘Crowley,’ said Aziraphale urgently.
‘Ngk,’ said Crowley.
‘Crowley,’ said Aziraphale again, and finally, Crowley turned around.
‘Look, angel, I don’t like it any more than you do, but what am I supposed to do, lie down and let Hastur and Ligur feed me to the—’
‘Crowley, it’s Warlock!’
‘It was supposed to be a no-score win!’ said Aziraphale furiously, once they were all safely outside. ‘After all we did, how can he possibly have chosen a side?’
‘He’s probably just inherited his father’s position,’ said Crowley impatiently. Both seemed to have forgotten all about the task at hand, and neither seemed to notice or care that Rufus hadn’t the faintest idea what they were arguing about. ‘It’s not his fault the President’s one of ours.’
‘Unless he voted for him,’ said Aziraphale. ‘But he can’t have, can he, what with the Heavenly influence in his life? We raised him to be neutral!’
Crowley shrugged. ‘I’ve told you before, angel. They’re cunning buggers, humans. You can’t trust them an inch. And it’s not like we’ve been the most attentive of godfathers for, oh, the last thirteen years or so.’
‘I suppose you’re right on that point,’ said Aziraphale reluctantly. ‘But I did think Francis and Cortese would make deeper impressions. All their lessons about practising respect and love to all living things, and how evil contains the seeds of its own destruction—’
‘Ashtoreth and Harrison were very good too,’ said Crowley defensively, but Rufus barely heard him. The wheels in his head had begun, at long last, to turn.
‘Evil contains the seeds of its own destruction,’ he repeated slowly. ‘Wait a minute, that’s the answer. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Aziraphale, but Rufus was scanning the crowd, looking for two vaguely humanoid, highly unpleasant lurking things.
‘There’s no time to explain,’ said Rufus. ‘We’ve got to be quick. We’ve got to pull this off in the jiffiest of jiffs.’ And he began walking with purpose towards Hastur and Ligur. Aziraphale followed, and Crowley gaped after them.
‘Angels,’ sniffed Hastur. ‘What do you want?’
‘Merely to congratulate you on a bad job well done,’ said Rufus pleasantly. ‘What an excellent find that Mia is, and so efficient too. She cracked it in just under an hour. We tried, of course, but what chance did we have? I must respectfully concede this round, and look forward to our next contest.’
‘What do you mean, Mia cracked it?’ said Hastur sharply. ‘She was just about to be collected. She should be here right now.’
‘Manipulating the Prime Minister’s attraction to his tea servant…Natalie, I believe her name is? It really was a magnificent job. He seldom thinks of anything else. I don’t suppose he’ll last long in his job now, but perhaps they’ll at least be able to find happiness together. I can only hope so. Anyway, do be so kind as to pass on my compliments to your new recruit. It is my time to, as they say, face the music.’
With that, Rufus turned on his heel, followed by Aziraphale. Once they were a safe distance away, he dared to look back. Ligur was eyeing Natalie, smiling grotesquely.
‘A clever gambit,’ said Aziraphale quietly, ‘but do you really think it will work?’
‘I have no doubt of it,’ said Rufus proudly. ‘The President is already so inclined; it’s part of what’s put him so firmly into their camp. He might not even need persuasion, but it never hurts to add insurance.’
‘I love that word, relationship,’ the Prime Minister said the next day at his and the President’s joint press conference. ‘Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, uh, Britain. We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot…David Beckham’s left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. As bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.’
Watching from a nearby pub, Rufus and Aziraphale cheered in celebration along with a crowd of humans. Next to them, Crowley proceeded to get very drunk. A short while later, Clarence Oddbody sat down next to them, cheering along with the rest.
‘That was some idea!’ he told Rufus, clapping him on the back, slightly tipsy from his first drink in some 300 years. ‘You’ll get your wings for that one, I’m sure of it!’
‘I suppose we’re no longer needed at number 10,’ said Aziraphale, once the patriotic roar had died down some. ‘Will you be heading back Up There, then?’
Rufus couldn’t help noticing that he almost sounded hopeful, but he smiled and shook his head. So, on his other side, did Clarence. ‘Oh, I shouldn’t think so,’ said Rufus. ‘Not yet.’
‘We told you, Aziraphale, we’re your holiday help,’ said Clarence patiently. ‘We’ve got to stay at least until Christmas.’
‘But what will you do?’
‘I was thinking about a position at Harrod’s,’ said Rufus, as his wine glass refilled. ‘Those busy shoppers with their fraying nerves could certainly do with a bit of a Heavenly assist.’
2 Weeks to Christmas
‘How’s the Harrod’s work going?’ asked Aziraphale, having evidently noticed Rufus’ discomfited expression. ‘You might consider sobering up, my dear,’ he said in an undertone to Crowley.
‘I had the oddest customer today,’ said Rufus. ‘I found him leaning over the jewellery counter, and so I went to assist him. He asked about the price of a gold necklace and decided he would have it. I offered to gift-wrap it, and he accepted my offer, but he proceeded to protest every step of the way and became very impatient, even though I was wrapping the necklace at a perfectly efficient speed. Then his wife arrived, and he left without paying for it, only to return afterwards to claim it, alone, angrily refusing any sort of gift-wrap.’
‘Perhaps it was a gift for his wife,’ suggested Aziraphale.
‘Or perhaps it wasn’t for his wife,’ said Crowley, wincing as the alcohol left his bloodstream, then continuing to wince as he looked towards the door. Rufus and Aziraphale followed his gaze, and there was Mia, strolling towards them, holding a martini with an olive in it.
‘What was he like?’ she asked, taking a seat at their table. ‘Tall, distinguished, glasses, voice like black velvet?’
Rufus stared at her. ‘How did you know?’
Mia smiled, more sincerely than they had ever seen her do at Downing Street. ‘I didn’t,’ she said, and for a moment she almost seemed human. But then she continued, with a glint in her eye, ‘Funny if you both got it wrong. Funny if Ligur did the good thing and you did the bad one, no?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Rufus asked, bewildered.
‘My personal project,’ said Mia. She took a sip of her drink, then sucked the olive off its stick with calculated precision. Around their table, male heads turned. ‘What kind of necklace was it? Was it pretty?’
‘Oh, no,’ said Rufus, as realisation dawned. ‘Oh, no, what have I done?’
Rufus went to work the next day with a vow to redeem himself, but he found that he was having some trouble convincing his heart to be in it. His triumph at 10 Downing Street seemed a distant memory. It was one thing to deal with politicians; one could only expect such things from them. The nastiness and cruelty of ordinary people was far more demoralising.
In vain he attempted to recapture the spring in his step with which he’d left Number 10. His eye was drawn to a woman who looked as miserable as he felt, and so he walked over to her. ‘Looking for anything in particular, miss?’
She started at his approach, but quickly composed herself. ‘Oh, I’m just looking for a scarf. It’s for my brother; he’s not well. I don’t really know what to get him, but I thought it would be Christmassy, and that might be good, and if the hospital was cold, then it would keep him warm, and…I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m telling you this.’
‘Not at all,’ said Rufus. ‘A Christmassy scarf sounds like a most excellent gift. Let me show you some of our finest accessories.’
After a few minutes, she had found a scarf with which she seemed reasonably pleased, and she thanked him profusely for his help, but there was still a certain sadness in her eyes as she walked away. Rufus turned his attention to another customer, whom he was able to delight with a watch that, the man gushed, was exactly what his partner wanted, and he hadn’t been able to find it anywhere, and really, Rufus had just saved Christmas for him, he had no idea. Next he sold a necklace to an elderly woman who had already done her shopping and didn’t see why she shouldn’t have something nice for herself, for once, and she knew her family would insist on giving her the same hideous grandmotherly Christmas sweaters and pale pink pantsuits that they always did. Rufus assured her in dulcet tones that the blue stone brought out her eyes, and although she laughed off the comment, it was plain that no one had said anything like that to her in years, and it had made her day…
Some of them left ecstatic; some, like the first woman, seemed happy enough with their purchases but were clearly carrying heavier burdens than their bulging shopping bags. Some became impatient with Rufus’ obsequiousness, but showed no signs that they were buying expensive presents for their mistresses right under the noses of their wives…
None of it made him feel better, and he proceeded to spend the next week drinking with Aziraphale and Crowley. Much to the latter’s irritation, the drunker he became the more he insisted on rehashing his actions at Number 10, and wondering if they hadn’t been a mistake as well, if the Prime Minister and Natalie weren’t miserable now too, and it was all his fault. After a day or so, Clarence began to join them, turning down the wine and beseeching Rufus to get himself back on track.
His pleas went unheeded, but at the end of the week, backup finally arrived. Standing atop their usual table was Mary Poppins, and the look in her eyes inspired the sort of pure terror of which Satan himself could only dare to dream.
‘Really, you three are quite as bad as the child presently in my charge. Rufus, we expected better of you.’
‘What d’you mean, you three?’ Crowley slurred in her general direction. ‘’M’a demon.’
‘At this point, Crowley, you are a demon only in name. According to grapevine, the only reason you are even still corporated at the moment is that is that a mysterious force emanating from a place called Tadfield is preventing Hastur and Ligur from coming within twenty feet of you. But this is all quite beside the point. From what Clarence has told me, you, Rufus, are in need of a—’
‘You told her?’ asked Rufus, drunkenly. ‘You?’
Clarence shook his head. ‘Rufus, I’m sorry, but you left me no choice.’
‘As I was saying,’ said Mary Poppins impatiently, ‘You, Rufus, are in need of a spoonful of sugar to help a bitter pill go down, and here it is. Not being a practically perfect person, you will make mistakes and that’s all right. You did well at Downing Street, and you’ve done well since. Up There have high hopes that you’ll be able to save many people. Remember that, and get to work.’
With that, she opened her umbrella and made to float out of the pub, but Clarence stood on a chair and placed a hand on her arm. ‘Oh, Mary Poppins, please don’t go,’ he said. ‘We’d like to hear about your adventures with the former Prime Minister’s boy, wouldn’t we? Please, Mary Poppins!’
Mary Poppins looked down at him, pursed her lip in thought, and came down again. ‘Very well,’ she said, picking up a bottle. ‘I shall stay until the rum is gone.’
1 Week to Christmas
The next morning Rufus peeled himself off the table, winced himself sober, and headed back to Harrod’s. He did his best to focus, and to find each shopper just what he or she needed and soothe his or her worries with few but effective words, and he tried, as hard as he could, to take pride in his work.
It did work, somewhat. A spoonful of sugar did help the medicine go down, but it was a balm, not a cure. It got him through his day, and his next day, and his next, but he still thought of the man whose adultery he had helped to enable, and one day, he saw the same man passing in the street.
Perhaps he could still fix things. Although he had very little idea what he hoped to achieve, he followed the man home. He stood outside, thinking just to observe, thinking that if he were to learn a bit more about what the man’s relationship with his wife was like, he might find the answer, just as he had done at Downing Street.
The man’s wife seemed to be in high spirits, from what he could tell. She stood with her back to the kitchen window, guiding her children in what seemed to be a rehearsal for a play, one of them wearing a bright orange costume that appeared to represent some form of crustacean. The man who had bought the necklace watched them and applauded, and Rufus wondered what could possibly have gone wrong.
Then his attention was diverted. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two other silhouettes in another window. One of them was a man, who in his very stature seemed to emanate pain and loss, but also an odd sort of hope. The other was a boy with the energy of a child his age, but an older soul, gesturing wildly one minute and shrinking sadly the next, as his father smiled and tried to keep up.
Perhaps they had all been right. Perhaps he really should forget the man who had purchased the necklace. Perhaps some things were just not meant to be understood, owing to a darker sort of ineffability that could only be described as humanity. Perhaps there really was nothing he could do.
But there was something he could do for this man and this boy, and he was determined to find out what.
‘I still can’t believe I let you talk me into this,’ said Crowley to Aziraphale, as they walked up to the school, flanked by Rufus and Clarence. Aziraphale, Rufus could tell, was thinking the same thing at him, and had clearly only talked Crowley into joining them because misery loves company.
‘I think it sounds like a charming little show,’ said Clarence, to groans from the others.
Rufus ignored them. He was looking for one child in particular, and they seemed to be in a sea of them. Then he stopped dead in front of him. Running across the grounds, hand in hand, were the Prime Minister and Natalie. So they had found each other, after all. Rufus smiled. So, he realised a little late, did Crowley, in a decidedly snakelike manner.
‘Oh, please don’t give them too much trouble,’ said Aziraphale. ‘They really have been messed about quite enough, I should think…Crowley?’
But Crowley had disappeared.
‘Oh, dear,’ said Aziraphale. ‘Perhaps it was a mistake to bring him here.’
‘Never mind that now,’ said Rufus. ‘Let’s just find ourselves some seats.’
They did so, and Rufus watched the necklace buyer’s daughter in her lobster costume, inexplicably present at the birth of Jesus. After the Nativity play, there was to be a concert, and Rufus guessed that this was where the boy he wanted to help would be. And so he was, playing the drums with power and passion while a young girl, glowing under the lights in the center of the stage, belted out one of the more modern Christmas carols.
‘All I want for Christmas…i-i-i-is…you!’ the girl sang, and she turned around, her back to the audience, pointing at the boy. Then she turned away. ‘And you! And you! A-and you!’
In one tiny nanosecond, Rufus saw the boy’s heart leap with hope, and then promptly sink. So this was, as they say, it.
Then the curtain went up, and there were the Prime Minister and Natalie, kissing. Behind them, concealed behind decorations, invisible to all who did not know where to look, was Crowley.
Unfortunately for the demon, it seemed that two dark, vaguely humanoid shapes did know where to look, and they were not pleased.
As the embarrassed pair left the stage, many things happened at once. People ran in all directions, as parents ran to collect their children and spectators tried to get a glimpse of their leader and his new love. Rufus looked around for the father of the boy he had come to help, and finding him, followed. Clarence followed Rufus, while Aziraphale ran towards Crowley, who was simply running away.
‘Classic drumming!’ the father was saying enthusiastically to the boy as Rufus and Clarence caught up to them.
‘Thanks,’ said the boy. ‘Plan didn’t work, though.’ Rufus leaned in to listen more closely, but at that moment, Aziraphale and Crowley arrived, panting.
‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ said Crowley urgently. ‘Hastur and Ligur—they’ve gone nuclear.’
‘Which might have been avoided if you hadn’t had to go and expose the poor things,’ said Aziraphale crossly.
‘So evil contains the seeds of its own destruction,’ said Crowley grumpily. ‘I didn’t know they were here, did I? Now can we get out?’
‘Now then,’ said Clarence, ‘I’m sure we can sort all of this out—’
The boy’s father—or stepfather, evidently—had been momentarily distracted by a woman, but now they were moving again, hurrying for the doors. ‘We’ll follow them,’ said Rufus, and he turned on his heel without bothering to check whether the others were following. The boy and his stepfather stopped on the pavement, and the boy pointed straight ahead, where the girl who had sung onstage was just climbing into a car.
Rufus raised his hand, intending to miracle a quick distraction, to allow the boy to reach her, but then an older, more powerful force cut across him, and the car door closed. The boy and his stepfather hurried into theirs, and they drove off. By the sound of it, they were heading to the airport. Rufus began looking around for a car, only to find that Crowley had already jumped into one.
‘Crawlee,’ growled a very angry voice. They turned around, and there was Hastur.
‘Uh, hi, guys,’ said Crowley.
‘Just where do you think you’re going?’ asked Ligur, coming up next to him.
‘To the airport,’ said Crowley, ‘I think. Isn’t that right, Rufus?’
‘Perfectly correct,’ said Rufus.
‘Indubitably,’ said Aziraphale.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Clarence.
‘Nobody’s going anywhere,’ said Hastur. ‘This ends now.’
‘Actually,’ said Crowley, ‘I don’t think it does. So it comes down to this, does it? Who do you want more, Hastur? The angels, or me?’ He put the key in the ignition. It shouldn’t have fit, being designed for an entirely different car from an entirely different century, but it did.
‘My dear,’ said Aziraphale, stepping forwards, but Crowley shook his head.
‘I got lucky once,’ he said heavily. ‘I might get lucky again.’ And he sped off in a direction that certainly wasn’t towards Heathrow.
Rufus had no time to wonder what this was all about. Hastur and Ligur wouldn’t deliberate for longer than a few seconds. He found a car, and he hurried into it. Aziraphale and Clarence followed.
‘Look,’ said the boy’s stepfather. ‘We’re not actually flying—’
‘You can’t come through without a boarding pass,’ said the Heathrow security agent.
‘Not even to let the boy say goodbye to the love of his life?’
‘No,’ said the agent firmly, and Rufus hurried forwards. ‘Boarding pass, sir?’ he asked.
‘Ah, just a moment, I’ve got it here somewhere,’ said Rufus, making a show of checking his pockets. ‘Would you mind hanging onto that?’ He handed the agent a bag and took off his overcoat. ‘If you could hold onto that as well, I’d be very grateful,’ he went on, handing it to the agent.
‘Yes,’ he heard the stepfather murmur.
‘No, I must have left them where I was having a cup of coffee. So sorry,’ said Rufus quickly. He turned to the man and smiled. Ten minutes later, the security had recovered the boy, but he was grinning, as he ought, like a kid on Christmas. Rufus grinned too, and he exchanged high-fives with Clarence and Aziraphale.
Forty miles away from London, Crowley, ashen-faced but still conveniently corporated, was sitting in a kitchen, having cocoa with a 24-year-old Antichrist.
‘Seems to me,’ said the Antichrist, ‘seems to me, there’s been too much messin’ about going on lately.’
‘Yeah. I sort of wondered why we hadn’t, um, heard from you about it yet.’
Adam Young smiled. ‘Well, I voted for him, didn’ I? I wanted to see how he’d stack up.’
It was a beautiful Christmas Day in St James’ Park, but for celestial purposes, it marked the end of the holiday season. Hastur and Ligur returned to Hell without so much as a goodbye. Clarence shook hands with Rufus, Mary Poppins and Aziraphale and even tipped his hat to Crowley and Mia before vanishing back to Heaven. Rufus couldn’t help but notice that Mia seemed to be decidedly less cheerful than she had been before.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked her, with genuine kindness. It was Christmas, after all.
‘Plan didn’t work,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘I’m staying on Earth, to gain more experience, but I really thought I had him.’
Mary Poppins folded her arms. ‘It’s not very surprising,’ she said, kindly for her, but with a slight edge to her voice. ‘You chose an old, highly unoriginal narrative, and not a very nice one, nor a very true one.’
‘This coming from a magical nanny,’ said Mia, but she smiled in spite of herself.
‘That’s different,’ said Mary Poppins sharply. ‘Try to learn a bit more about human nature, will you? People are more complex than that. You should be, too. Right then,’ she said, turning to her fellow angels. ‘Best of luck to you, chaps.’
‘Thank you, Mary Poppins,’ said Rufus, and Aziraphale nodded and bowed. Even Crowley managed a nod, and Mary Poppins waved and floated up, up, and away.
‘What about you, Rufus?’ Aziraphale asked, when she had gone.
‘I rather think I’ll be staying down here, too,’ said Rufus. ‘Not in London, though. I’d like to see a bit more of planet Earth. I was thinking maybe Paris.’
Aziraphale extended a hand. ‘Good luck, then, old boy.’
Rufus shook it. ‘Thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you.’
‘There’s an idea,’ said Mia thoughtfully. ‘Maybe New York would be more my speed. But before I go, I just want to say that I’m glad he found her. I never meant to keep them apart.’
‘I’m sorry?’ said Aziraphale.
‘The Prime Minister and Natalie,’ said Mia. ‘I set up house next to her, so I could keep an eye on things. He knocked on my door first, looking for her.’
‘You’re getting more complex already,’ said Rufus, and Mia smiled at him. For once, her smile did reach her eyes, devilish glint and all.